If you haven't heard me singing Josh Stallings' praises, then clearly, you haven't been listening. He's one of my favorite people and is truly one of my greatest allies in the writing biz. His new book, YOUNG AMERICANS, is an entertaining romp through the 1970s world of glitter rock and stars a former petty thief named Sam who must return to her crime-committing roots when her new boyfriend double-crosses her boss at the strip club she's now dancing at to make ends meet. To pay him off, she plans a heist with her old crew. They're a group of engaging misfits on the verge of adulthood, looking into the abyss and not sure if they're ready to make the leap. Why not knock off a popular San Francisco disco on New Year's Eve? It beats growing up.
I always enjoy my conversations with Josh and thought you would, too. There's some wisdom here, folks. You'll want to take heed. This is my last post of 2015 and I can't think of a better person to spend it with.
HW: YOUNG AMERICANS is a departure from your Moses McGuire series and somewhat of a shift in sub-genre, but the writing is pure Josh Stallings: unflinching, unapologetic, and painfully authentic. Judging from your memoir, ALL THE WILD CHILDREN, there are also more than a few autobiographical elements. Tell us a little bit about the novel and why you chose to write it.
JS: In some ways it’s a classic heist novel, in others, a 1970’s coming of age novel. What it ain’t is hard boiled. The Moses trilogy dealt with a deepening darkness as I explored the harsh world of sex for sale, and the price we extort from women for the crime of being female. The farther my research, (interviews, first source documents, life) took me the angrier the books got. And that was right and true, rage is the correct response to that world. By the end of ONE MORE BODY, both Moses and I were beat to hell. In between books 2 and 3 I wrote a cathartic but hard memoir. So four books into my career I needed to lighten the hell up. I had no idea what that meant.
I was recouping at my brother Larkin’s home on Martha’s Vineyard. Eating fish stew, drinking coffee, chatting and laughing with our wives. I was walking in the woods, not thinking about writing when three words came to me. Disco. Heist. Novel. It made me smile, and that was good.
I was a glitter (or glam) rock teenager. So if I was going to write about a disco heist it wouldn’t be the macho world of Saturday Night Fever. My girlfriend and I used to go dancing in San Fransisco’s club City, a huge crazy circus of a gay disco. So as I played with the idea I started to see the world slipping into rough focus. I don’t plot a book out, the story comes in pieces from the world and the characters. For the FEEDING KATE anthology, I wrote a 6,600 word short story version of YOUNG AMERICANS. It was a test case, I needed to see if it would keep my interest for over a year of writing. This is the first time I’ve done this, but it was a proof of concept that convinced me to go forward.
This novel is dedicated to Tad Williams, my running mate from those days. Tad called YOUNG AMERICANS “a funny, violent cracked mirror of our past.” True. And yet it is fiction. It is a pure lie used to tell truth. But isn’t that what we do as writers?
Tad also said, “You’re like me, a fucking romantic. Half a step away from completely delusional.” And that is also true. I wanted to write a book that has unabashedly and unapologetic romantic moments, ones that didn’t end in guilt, regret or gunfire.
HW: Anyone who has read your books knows you value truth, no matter how brutal it might be. Do you ever feel tempted to pull some of those punches? What keeps you so honest?
JS: As a young man I wrote a couple of low budget screenplays and did some slightly larger script doctor work. Except for the film I directed, the others were all compromises. I wasn’t proud of the work, and I shouldn’t have been. When I started writing fiction I decided regardless of what others thought, I would not lie again. I feel less dirty that way.
I tried once to soften a scene in the final edit of ALL THE WILD CHILDREN. I had had a painful dust up with my mother over the book, and I let that conflict influence me. Erika, my wife, first reader, co-editor and partner in crime, blasted me for changing it. We both felt the book needed to be true to the me who wrote the first draft. She keeps me honest. I can’t want to make my mother, or my wife, or an agent approve of me through my writing. That will guarantee crap. My voice as an author can’t survive me trying to bullshit. The truth is all I have. I have heard from several readers that the memoir is their story, the facts are different, but the essential truths match their lives.
HW: You’re a film editor by trade—specifically, movie trailers, which require you to distill the plot of a given film to a minute or two, highlight key scenes and in general, tempt audiences to flock to see the movie. Are any of these skills useful in plotting your novels?
JS: Trailers have influenced my sense of pace and rhythm. Editing is story telling. I cut a film in Russia, at Mosfilm, the birthplace of editing theory. Vsevolod Pudovkin had revolutionary ideas about structure. While his cohorts used montage to show a bigger picture of an event, Pudovkin discovered that the order of shots changed their meaning. A shot of a kitten, cut to a man looking, and the viewer will imbue the actor with a warm feeling. Our brains search for connections. This is why we don’t need to handhold viewers or readers. Put the sequence in the right order and you don’t need to tell them how to feel about it. Fuck, this makes me sound smart and methodical. I know all this crap, but when I write I just type the damn story.
HW: Now for some questions about the publishing biz. Like the Moses McGuire novels, you chose to self-publish YOUNG AMERICANS, but this time you did a few things differently, like hiring a publicist. What have you learned from enlisting the help of professionals—particularly in the area of PR/Marketing—that you wish you’d have known when you published your earlier books?
JS: YOUNG AMERICANS is a bigger, more broadly appealing book than my earlier work. I knew I was going to need help to get it to the right reviewers and get noticed in the general mystery community. I got lucky that Erin Mitchell believed in the book enough to come on board to handle publicity and so much more. She has taught me really important lessons, like if it takes more than one click to get somewhere on a web site people leave. Attention spans are short, so before any marketing happens you need to be sure readers have a place to click. Erin set up pre-sales on Amazon. I’m sold in a couple of great bookstores, with Erin we’re trying to expand that.
The NY Times isn’t ready to start reviewing indie writers. Oprah isn’t putting us on her book list. Hell, as it stands right now I’m not eligible to join Mystery Writers of America, regardless of how many books I sell, or awards I’m nominated for. So if I want to compete, I need to get professionals to help.
HW: Having self-published several books, you likely have some tips for those of us who haven’t yet done it. Care to share a few?
JS: Readers deserve your best possible book, so hire a great editor. Elizabeth A. White gets my facts straight and the story clean. Between her and Erika, they eradicate most of my dyslexia.
Get a professional to design your print and ebooks. Yes, a lot of programs can spit out an ebook, but they are clunky and inelegant. I use Jaye Manus. She thinks about book design the way I think about prose.
People judge books by their covers. The Moses books I designed myself. I knew how I wanted them to look. They were based on the covers of poet Richard Brautigan’s books. I also wanted the covers to show a progression. BEAUTIFUL, NAKED & DEAD is a woman’s faceless, near naked body. OUT THERE BAD is a fully dressed woman with her head down, no face. ONE MORE BODY is a woman aiming a gun at the camera, staring us down, taking no shit. Eric Beetner designed the cover for ALL THE WILD CHILDREN, he’s brilliant.
For YOUNG AMERICANS I knew I needed a totally new look and feel. I used Deviant Art and a couple of other sites to look for an artist. I had to convince Chungkong to do a book cover, but damn I’m glad I did.
The last thing is the title. The first Moses book was originally titled PRICE OF LOVE, before book editor/writer Deborah Beale, said unless it is a romance novel, change the title. Now I always write up five or six titles and send them to my trusted writers and readers for feed back.
HW: What’s next for you?
JS: My next book is at least a year out. It’s a multi-generational tale about a family of East LA cops. My short story in PROTECTORS 2: HEROES anthology, "When the Hammer Comes Down," is part of the new book’s world. "As is The Ledge," a piece I wrote for Jay Stringer’s upcoming anthology of stories based on songs by the Replacements. I am as proud of those two short stories as anything I’ve ever written. Beyond that, I need to put my head down and pound those keys.
HW: One last thing. What are you reading now?
JS: I'm alternating between the fucking amazing HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN by James Lee Burke and the ridiculously wicked, Thuglit presents: CRUEL YULE.
Josh Stallings is the author of YOUNG AMERICANS, the Anthony Award nominated memoir, ALL THE WILD CHILDREN and the multiple award winning Moses McGuire crime novels. His short fiction has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Protectors Anthologies 1 & 2, Blood and Tacos, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey and more. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Erika, two dogs and a cat named Riddle.
I'll be back on January 6, 2016. Wishing all of you a happy holiday season.