Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Scott Phillips Interview, Part Two

by Jay Stringer

Yesterday We kicked off an interview with author Scott Phillips. I think if i hold him for any longer, qualifies as a missing person and the cops will come looking. I better get this thing wrapped up quick. So back to it, we pick up the interview with Scott's second published novel, THE WALKAWAY....

- THE WALKAWAY blew me away. Where did this story start for you, had you got a scene or a plot you'd been carrying around for awhile?

I thought I might write about Charlie Arglist's kids, ten or fifteen years on, but that didn't gel. Then I thought about writing about Dot and Gunther from the end of the Ice Harvest, which would allow me to bring back many of the characters in the first book. And then I remembered a day when I was driving up the inramp onto the 405 freeway in Los Angeles and saw a man, eighty years old or more, in a suit, hitchhiking. It struck me as odd, and then later I wondered if he hadn't just escaped from the Veteran's Hospital just up the road (where, incidentally, my grandfather used to work as a barber).

-Gunther was just a cameo character in THE ICE HARVEST and I honestly wasn't expecting to like him as much as I did. By the end of the book I just wanted to keep reading about him. He seems like a real throwback to the stoic good guy which plays off well against the charm of Wayne Ogden, did you intend for them to work that way?

I didn't expect to like him that much either. I knew from the end of the Ice Harvest that he was kind of a taciturn, grumpy guy, but as I wrote it, and as his fragmentary memories came back to him it occurred to me that he might just be one of those guys who's not very good at showing his emotions. Wayne, on the other hand, was pure id. The clash of personalities between him and Wayne wasn't thought out from the beginning, in fact Wayne was going to be an offstage presence, someone from the past whose actions would have been alluded to and remembered, but not experienced firsthand.

- I've seen you blog about a project called Smut Sarge, is this a Wayne story?

It's "Supply Sarge," actually, but I like "Smut Sarge." Yeah, I had written two short stories about Wayne as a teenager, and he really stuck with me. My agent at the time I started it was having trouble selling a novel I'd written and told me that editors kept telling her they wanted another one just like the Ice Harvest, short and pulpy. So I thought I'd write about the year Wayne came home from WWII and tried to be a civilian and failed, utterly.

-Part of the structure of THE WALKAWAY seems to play with the conventions of a mystery novel, except that instead of a detective we have an old man and the puzzle he's trying to solve is his own memory. Am I reading too much into that?

I think that's right, though again it wasn't conscious on my part. There are characters who know quite a bit--Dot, for one, and Sally. But there's no mystery in the traditional sense. My editor at the time, Dan Smetanka, called it "more of a 'novel novel.'"

-Another element that slowly reveals itself through the book is just how much this is a simple love story, and has an emotional core to it that I don’t often see in Noir or crime. Was it hard to get the balance right between the darkness and the love story?

For Gunther the love story--mostly for his wife, but also for his unacknowledged son and grandchildren--is what makes the darkness he's seen worth living through.

-Again I’m curious about the process. The story takes place over two different time periods, and they seem to be written in different voices. Did you write them separately?

I was a third or so of the way through the novel, set entirely in the late eighties, when I started worrying about all the people who were going to be buying it expecting another Ice Harvest. And around that time I realized that the 1952 story was getting short shrift, getting mentioned in that cursory "he remembered the time he...." or "she thought back to that night at the cabin" manner. It wasn't reading very well. So just for the hell of it I started writing that second chapter in Wayne's voice, starting with his arrival at the train station, and I thought, yeah, that's what this needs. So I shoehorned that in as the second chapter and set every second chapter in 1952, in the first person, and tried to get a good Fawcett Gold Medal, Lion Books feel to it. In fact you can read those even-numbered chapters separately, and they make perfect sense as a really short novel (the odd chapters, set in the eighties, require their other half to be intelligible, however.) "Supply Sarge" is very much in the vein of the Wayne chapters of the Walkaway.

-What drew you to the 1950's for THE WALKAWAY? And why does crime fiction still fit so well in that era?

That whole postwar period works well for crime fiction, whether in the US, Europe or Japan, because things had been turned on their heads for a while and suddenly there was this other upheaval of returning vets, occupation, etc. It was a great time to be crooked, I imagine.

-Lets pretend, for a second, that I was the sort of idiot who would interview you without having read COTTONWOOD. How would you describe the book to me?

It's the story of the first few violent years of a Kansas town as seen through the eyes of a randy photographer/saloonkeeper. It works in the story of the Bloody Benders, a family of killers who lived in Kansas in 1872-73 and killed upwards of fifteen travelers, drained their blood and buried them in their orchard.

-I noticed a lot of references to the town Cottonwood in THE WALKAWAY. I've also heard you mention somewhere that Wayne made passing references to classical literature because his grandfather was a scholar, but you didn’t write about his grandfather until later on. Do characters come to you fully formed, or do you go back and work in little details like that later?

They don't come fully formed, generally. Usually I'll come up with a detail like that and go back. And it's Wayne's father he's thinking of as a scholar, but it's passed on from the grandfather. It doesn't last, though--neither Wayne's daughter nor his grandson follow in the tradition.

-I'd like to take another look at your writing process. You’ve written stories set in a number of different time periods now. Do you approach the writing differently for each era?

Not really, except when I'm writing a period piece I try and immerse myself in the culture of the era as much as I can. I read a lot of old newspapers.

-What's your technique to writing and editing dialogue, do you read it aloud? Do you steal from real conversations ? I often lift whole conversations from my work commute.

I just make it up, mostly, but if I hear something that's too good not to use I'll put it in. I just heard a story from my Mom about a guy who was in trouble wit his wife for sleeping around, and he said, "Honey, if I could un-fuck her I would." You'd better believe that's going in there somewhere. And I'm a great believer in reading aloud, though I often do it sotto voce, just to see if the rhythm's right. One thing I learned early on from James Lee Burke was that it has to scan, just like a poem.

-Had any problems with writers block, or any tips for readers of our site who might have?

I've had periods where I was just writing badly. I'm a great believer in Charles Willeford's formula: Just write something down, anything, and then you have something to revise, and if you revise enough you can conquer anything.

-I think one of the things I notice most about your work is a sense of mundanity, but I mean that in a good way! It's as if you look for the normal element buried away in a lewd story, and the lewd element buried away in something normal. Do you set out to do that?

I do. It's when the everyday cracks open and a little bit of weirdness spills out that I find my stories. Or vice versa, where the mundane flows into the bizarre, like when Bill Gerard in "Ice Harvest" says he'd rather be home in Kansas City watching his grandchildren open presents instead of torturing information out of Renata the strip club owner. I really did think that that was a believable motivation for him: Goddamnit, this really fucks up my nice Christmas I had planned.

-Okay, we're into the home stretch now and then we can let you out of the DoSomeDamage basement. James Ellroy recently said that writing was going to be 'survival of the fittest' and down to 'how bad do you want it?' What are your thoughts on the state of the publishing industry?

It's a huge fucking disaster, so much worse now than when I started off. I no longer count on making a living writing books, but books have given me enough exposure that I get a little action with comic books and TV and movies. I now look at writing books the way I used to look at writing short stories: something I do for pleasure and exposure and if I make some money at the same time, great.

-If you could change one thing about the whole industry, what would it be?

Demolish the big chain bookstores and the blockbuster mentality that they bring with them.

-I've always found there's very little transparency, and a lot of people not getting credit for the work they do. Is there anyone you'd like to mention or thank from behind the scenes?

My agents, past and present, including David Hale Smith, Nicole Aragi, Sylvie Rabineau, Abner Stein, and the late Paul Marsh; my editors, especially Dan Smetanka, Maria Rejt, Dennis McMillan and Patrick Raynal; and any number of anthology and magazine editors, not to mention the people working with and for all the above. I owe each of them more than I can say.

-Who would win in a fight between Daredevil and Spiderman?

I'd have to know why they were fighting. Did Spiderman find out about Foggy Nelson fucking Aunt May?

-Well, given Matt's seeming mission to work through the whole female half of the marvel universe, maybe it was him and not Foggy? Okay, we'll let you go now. Next up for me is clearly going to be reading Cottonwood. What have you got coming up next?

The Wayne Ogden novel coming from Phoenix Books, that should be out in September. I'm also working on a novel called Nocturne le Vendredi for les Éditions la Branche in Paris, which is part of a series of thirteen books by thirteen authors, all of which will be adapted for French TV. I'm really hoping I get to adapt it myself. Also working on a comic series with artist Roger Peterson which we'll be pitching soon called The Paradise. And a couple of film projects working with Jedidiah Ayres as co-writer. So it's a busy year coming up.

-Sounds like it. I hope we haven't left you too damaged to work.

And that's all, folks. A huge thank you to Scott for taking the time to talk to us. If you're familiar with his work, i hope this expands on his stories and gives you something to think about. If you're new to Scott, what are you waiting for?

Just before I head off, you should check out Scott's reading of his short THE CUCKOLD AVENGED, over at Seth Harwood's CrimeWAV site. There's some great readings over there, and you can subscribe to it via itunes or rss.


Dana King said...

Great interview, both of you. Thanks.

Steve Weddle said...

Fantastic stuff, fellas.

Great insight into content, process, and industry.

Unknown said...

Great interview, Jay! I've been looking forward to this for awhile.


Seriously, though, when I sit down and write these days and I'm having trouble with a scene, I ask myself the question: What would Scott Philips do?

Unknown said...

Great interview. Scott is one helluva of a guy and a great writer, I agree with Keith, write faster, Scott. Loved your Crimefactory piece.