I can't recall the first time I met Rob Hart - I'll wager it was probably at a Noir at the Bar reading in Manhattan, or an event at The Mysterious Bookshop. At first blush, he struck me as focused, whip-smart and sarcastic. I knew we'd get along. Like many people, I've had the chance to follow Rob's journey to becoming a published novelist through his social media and his regular Path to Publication column at LitReactor - from the highs of signing a book deal to the lows of losing it to the even higher high of finding a better home for said book, Rob's journey isn't as unique as you'd think. But it's all about the story, and how it's told. Rob does this well.
His first Ash McKenna novel, New Yorked, hits in June from Polis Books. (Full disclosure, Polis is the publisher of my two upcoming Pete Fernandez novels - Silent City and Down the Darkest Street.) New Yorked is a rough and tumble, dirty, raw and addictive read. Ash isn't a hero, per se - or even a detective. But mystery and crime readers will take to him immediately, and you'll be left scouring your shelves or ereader for the next book once you hit the end of New Yorked. It's that good. One of the strongest debuts I've read in a good, long while.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Rob briefly this week about the book, his career path, the music that fueled some of his writing and more. We'll continue the convo next week, too. Thanks to Rob for taking the time.
Rob, I know you're a comic book guy too - or at least aware of the tropes of superhero stuff. So, that being said, what's your origin story?
I don’t have a Crime Alley or radioactive spider. There was no defining moment. Maybe something more like the slow burn of an Irish Catholic upbringing, which instilled a strong distrust of authority. Now I make up stuff in my head and try to get people to pay me for it. Which is a little like religion. I guess I’ve come back around.
I do have one superpower, and this is something my wife will vouch for: Whenever I go to the movies, I always sit near the asshole who wants to talk through the entire thing. As superpowers go, this one sucks.
Your first novel, New Yorked, is coming out in June from Polis Books. What's the elevator pitch?
People call Ash McKenna a private eye, but he calls himself a blunt instrument. Point him to a job, he gets it done. When the woman he loves turns up dead he goes looking for the killer, with all the grace of a wrecking ball. He runs afoul of a drag queen drug lord, a hard-boiled role playing game, and a hipster turf war, all while barreling toward the consequences of his own violent tendencies.
That counts as an elevator pitch if you are in a very tall building.
I'm a sucker for process pieces and influences. What's the genetic makeup of NEW YORKED? Which writers informed your own work, and how did it come to life in terms of the actual writing? Why was this the book you had to write?
This is a tough question to answer. It’s a mix. On one hand, I was playing at some of the classic hard-boiled tropes, with some nods to the masters, like Chandler and Hammett. But there’s also an element where I’m exploring my relationship with New York City. I’ve lived here my whole life, and like most natives, love and hate it in equal measure. So there are a lot of influences that weren’t necessarily books, but had such a singular vision of the city that they inspired me: the movie Shortbus, the music video for Girl Talk’s album All Day, which is one long dance sequence stretched across the five boroughs.
And then there’s In the City of Shy Hunters by Tom Spanbauer, which ruined me--it’s the best book ever written about New York City. I’m not even going to claim I attempted to do what he did, which was write something definitive. I’m just glad to have that influence in my life.
I know there's a lot of me in Pete, and I imagine there's a bit of your misspent youth in Ash. How hard is it, as a writer, to be mindful of keeping your own wish fulfillment out of the creation of a strong, standalone character?
There wasn’t a huge problem with wish fulfillment here. Ash is my id. He’s every bad decision I never made. And I don’t think he’s strong. Physically, sure. Developmentally, he’s been held back, both by tragedy and his own stubbornness. This series, which I’m hoping will be five books, is about him growing up and finding his moral compass.
That said, I definitely feel a little bit of my voice in his. Because he’s a wiseass, and I’m a wiseass. The difference is he’s usually goading people into something stupid. And I’ve accepted that I’m full of shit and don’t understand anything about the world. He still thinks he’s got it all figured out, as most kids in their mid-20s do.
One of my favorite things about your work - in addition to enjoying the hell out of the book - is how transparent you've been about the publishing journey. Tell us a little bit about how New Yorked came to be. What were some of the challenges and lessons learned?
Put on a pot of coffee.
I wrote the book, I thought it was done, an author I respect a great deal read it, and he told me I needed a page one rewrite. It was devastating news, but it was news I needed to get. That was strike one.
That rewrite got me an agent, Bree Ogden, and she sold the book to Exhibit A. Four or five months later the imprint got shut down and I got kicked to the curb. Strike two.
Now I’m with Polis, and to cap off this cheesy baseball metaphor I’m building up to—I feel like I hit a home run. I couldn’t be happier with how things are going. Jason is brilliant, and he works his ass off, and he gets results. He’s got the reach of a major publisher with the soul of an indie house. It’s a great place to be.
It was a long and stressful process. I tried to figure it out recently. Something like five years, from first draft to pub date. I learned some important lessons.
First, patience is a virtue. Especially in publishing. Nothing happens with any sense of expediency and it’s very easy to get yourself worked up. You have to take a deep breath and channel that energy into the writing. Put your head down, do the work.
Second is, just because things suck doesn’t mean they’ll suck forever. When I lost my first deal, it was easy to feel like that was the end of the world. Then I got over it and did the work.
Third, nothing about this business makes sense, and anyone who says they understand it is a liar or naive. Best to not worry about it. Put your head down, do the work.
That’s the biggest lesson: This is work. Fun, cool, and awesome, but work nonetheless. You get out what you put in.
Best bit of advice you've ever gotten - about writing, life or anything?
Here’s one my favorites: I used to work for a politician who chaired the New York City Council Finance Committee. So he’s a powerful guy. We were at another politician’s campaign headquarters, and while all the other politicos were bullshitting at a table in the corner, he sat down with the grunts and sealed envelopes. Someone told him he didn’t need to do that. He shrugged and said, “Everybody works.”
Translation: No one is too good to do anything, especially when there’s a job that needs getting done. So don’t be the asshole who sits in the corner.
I personally don't listen to music while writing, but play a ton of music while thinking about writing. What albums remind you of New Yorked? What's on the book's soundtrack?I listened to a lot of punk in preparation for this, and during the writing process. Bands that played at CBGB, or around that era, because that was the feeling I was trying to tap into. So, the Ramones, the Dictators, Iggy Pop, Cock Sparrer, Stiff Little Fingers. Ash has a punk-rock sensibility--not overtly, but he’s got a very strong “fuck authority” mentality.
Then, too, there’s Neon Golden, an album from The Notwist, which is the exact opposite end of the spectrum. I used to listen to it at the end of the night to wind down, after doing silly things in the East Village until 4 or 5 in the morning. That’s another feeling I wanted to tap into--that transitional period from the roaring 20s to the chilled-out 30s. Neon Golden always brings me back to that period of my life in a very visceral way.
Come back next week for part II of my conversation with Rob Hart.