Monday, February 1, 2010

Scott Phillips Interview, Part One

By Jay Stringer

Here at DSD we don’t want you to feel safe or secure. We don’t want you relying on the same things day after day. Sometimes, we want you to come home, switch on your computer, and find that four favourite blogger has been tied up and locked in a trunk, and there’s a ransom note waiting for you. Sometimes, we like to do the same thing to authors, too.

So we’re starting this week with something different. Weddle is missing, and presumed, ummmm, missing. You’ll get the ransom note in the mail, okay? And joining me in the DSD basement is author Scott Phillips.

Scott’s work needs no introduction, but we’ll give you one anyway. His first published novel, The Ice Harvest, was adapted into a film starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. The film is a fun and well made slice of Christmas noir, but the book is amazing. Its tight and fast, and won’t let you stop reading even if you really want to go to the bathroom. He followed it up with an even better book, The Walkaway, and has written screenplays and short fiction. But you’ll get to read all about that in the interview so I’ll shut up now.

You can catch Scott over at his blog and you could also check out the shiny new issue of Crime Factory which features Scott as well as DSD luminaries Weddle and White, and some fella named Bruen. But now, onto the first half of the interview.

-What’s your favorite swear word?

Hobotaint! Or Hobo Taint, if you prefer

-Lets go back to the beginning. What started you off reading crime fiction?

I got interested in crime movies long before I started reading crime fiction. I used to work at a revival theater where we were always showing Bogart movies--"Maltese Falcon," "Sierra Madre," Big Sleep"--but for some reason I wasn't motivated to seek out the books. The first one I remember reading was Jim Crumley's "The Wrong Case," which I took with me one summer on a working trip to Europe. That's the one that got me started. I also remember reading Jim Burke's first Robicheaux novels before I was really heavily into the genre, mainly because I knew him. I had him for Freshman comp at Wichita State, and his very serious attitude toward writing made a big impression on me. Then I discovered the original Black Lizard series, back before Random House bought the name, and started on Thompson, Helen Neilsen, Harry Whittington and that group. I got to be friends with Crumley about twenty years ago and he turned me on to a lot of good writers--Kent Anderson, Jon Jackson, Rick DeMarinis Robert Sims Reid and that whole Missoula crowd. I also met Dennis McMillan and Chas Hansen around that time and they got me reading Willeford.

-Any particular favorites?

Too many to name, though Willeford was obviously major influence, as was Crumley. I just did three excellent books in a row by friends of mine: "Last Known Address," by Theresa Schwegel, a cop novelist worthy of Anderson or Price; Ken Bruen's "Once Were Cops," which is maybe the darkest thing he's written; and "Bury Me Deep," by Megan Abbot, which is the best of her four so far, and that's saying something. Lots of others, though. I'm reading a lot of short stories by writers like Jedidiah Ayres, who I'm writing screenplays with, and Frank Bill and Tom Franklin. I could go on for days in that vein.

-Interesting that you were a fan of the movies before the books. You have a very lean and economic writing style, would you say this was influenced by films at all?

I don't think so. I do tend to imagine scenes visually as I write them. I worry sometimes that screenwriting affected my style by stripping it down. Typically I write spare prose and then go back and liven it up. Cottonwood was written in a more florid, 19th-century style than the others.

-Cottonwood is the one I haven't read yet. I look forward to it. When did you start writing?

As a child. I used to write short stories and plays in school. My first real attempt at a novel came in my late twenties, an un-publishable piece of shit that nonetheless proved to me that I could write a big stack of finished pages.

-Did you go straight from that unpublished novel to THE ICE HARVEST?

No, I stopped writing fiction for a while, though I made some attempts. Wrote the beginning of a science fiction novel then abandoned it. Mostly I was writing scripts at the urging of an actor friend who was quite well known in France at the time and wanted us to make a movie together. That didn't happen, but I ended up in LA where I co-wrote a movie called Crosscut. I found the finished product dispiriting and decided to go back to fiction for a while, which is when I wrote Ice Harvest.

-What took you to France, and did it change the way you see or write about your home country?

I went over as a teenager as part of a sister cities program and ended up going back year after year working for various University exchange programs. In my twenties I moved there full time. I suppose it gave me the luxury of seeing the place I grew up from a distance, culturally, but it also instilled a sense of foreignness in me. I don't really feel completely at home in either place.

-The first Chapter of ICE HARVEST has an almost short story feel, which I think helps suck the reader into the book.

That was an incident I'd seen one afternoon, a drunk getting his hair caught on fire and the bartender taking away his cigarettes and lighter and then pouring him another drink. I wrote it and rewrote it, always intending it to b the start of a novel, but it didn't gel until I put it into the third person. In first person it sounded like a poor imitation of Crumley, which of course it was.

-The setting is interesting. Firstly it's not set in the present, but then it also doesn't go back to the 30's-50's era that period Noir so often does. And it’s also set in Wichita. What was it about the story that lead you to 1979 in Wichita, and did this make it a harder sell to publishers?

1979 was just a very vivid year for me. It was the year I turned eighteen, the first time I really fell in love, two of my grandparents died, I made my first trip to France. It was also the year I started going to strip clubs with my pals, so I had a good feel for the era. As far as it being Wichita, that was never a problem. I also wanted to have a lot of snow and ice on the ground, not for any sort of metaphoric reasons but because it presents so many interesting problems and offers up so many ways to describe the look and feel of things. It only became metaphor after my good friend Chas Hansen suggested the title. Actually, Wichita's winters tend to be mild, but in '78-'79 (rather than '79-'80, as in the novel) we had a really cold wet winter with snow constantly on the ground and ice constantly on the road.

- The book has a real lack of moralizing, there's never a moment when you as the author appear to be judging anybody. Is this in there right from the first draft, or do you remove your own voice during the editing?

That's interesting. If I write a character who's nasty I often find myself getting fond of him or her. I'm very sorry I killed off Wayne Ogden in the Walkaway, because I've now gone back and written about him three times, and each time I had to go back into his past, since he dies in 1952. I intended him to be a character Willeford might have written, but I think he's also got some kinship to Ken Bruen's Brant. That said, I'm not there to judge, just describe.

-Along the same lines, the book is very trusting of the reader. You never stop the story to explain characters motives, and you don't give an explanation of the crime that Charlie and Vic committed just before chapter one. Was this an approach you learned as you went along?

I hate obvious exposition. Drives me nuts. And sometimes I don't know the answer myself. I have to keep myself curious or I lose interest. Jim Crumley once told me that he'd written the beginnings of any number of novels that he abandoned after a hundred pages or so because he realized he knew the ending and just wasn't interested any more.

-I'd like to ask a couple of questions about the film. Did you learn anything from watching the adaptation process that you've taken with you into your own writing?

It affected my screenwriting more than my fiction writing. Just adapted William Gay's book the Long Home along with Jedidiah Ayres, and I always felt I was betraying the author when I made even the most necessary changes. That's a strictly visceral reaction, though, not a realistic one.

-Were there elements of the story that would work on paper but not on film, or vice versa?

Not necessarily. In retrospect I think we all agree that the change in the ending was a mistake, but the test audiences hated the original ending so much we all--myself included--at the time thought it was the thing to do. And of course it was shot in May, so the snowstorm was out. We settled for some fake snow on the ground in patches and a cold, nasty rain.

-I think the only choice that I had to stop and think about was Charlie himself. In the film there is more of an attempt to portray him with the dreaded word 'sympathy', and to lessen his culpability in what happens. Do you think this was necessary to make the film work as a 90-minute story?

I think it's purely and simply the fact that John Cusack is a likeable onscreen presence. I always found Charlie likeable; in fact my theory was that Charlie skated by on his charm.

-It was ICE HARVEST that secured you an agent, right?

It was indeed.

-There are people reading DoSomeDamage who are still looking for that magic person. Do you have any advice for them?

My advice right now would be to get published on one of the better-known internet sites--Plots with Guns, Thuglit, etc.--and then start approaching agents. It's a really good way to raise your profile, and before long others know your name and work, and soon enough the agents will, too.

Interview Continues Tomorrow


Donna said...

Nice interview Jay. I love Scott's writing. THE ICE HARVEST was amazing. And you should do yourself a favour and get reading COTTONWOOD right away. It's brilliant. And very funny. I always say it's like Little Whore House On The Prairie. And he's a top bloke too.


jedidiah ayres said...

Wait, The Ice Harvest was a book too?

Dana King said...

I liked the movie of THE ICE HARVEST a lot; I loved the book. Perfect tone and the ending meets the often-sought, rarely-met pinnacle of surprising, yet inevitable in retrospect. A great read.

I liked COTTONWOOD even more. The best Westerns have heavily noir elements in them, and COTTONWOOD combines the two as well as anything I've read. Completely different voice from ICE HARVEST, as was needed. Virtuoso writing without showing off.

Kieran Shea said...

Hey...I've a d'hell did Rick Russo get involved w/ the screenplay, Scott? Always wondered about that...I mean, I dug "Mohawk" and "Nobody's Fool" and even had a beer with Russo once back in Maine (cripes--gah--working at Colby in the early 90s-talk about icy, weirdness). Going back under my cinder block now.

Unknown said...

Fantastic interview guys. Looking forward to part two. I posted this over on the Pulp Tone FB page so more people who don't frequent here will read it.

Scott Phillips said...

I'm a-blushin'. Thanks all for the kind words.

Kieran, Robert Benton originally planned to direct it, so he sent Rick a copy and proposed they adapt it together.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Thanks for the interview, Jay. I hope that Steve isn't frozen in his basement as I type this.

Scott - I love your take on adaptation to the screen....and how an actor (the lovable John Cusack) can effect how that transition is made. Really interesting. I look forward to part two:)