Saturday, August 18, 2018

Modern Lessons From a Pulp Writer

Scott D. Parker

When I read Frank Gruber’s retelling of his days as a struggling then successful pulp fiction writer from the 1930s, I realized something important: I don’t have it so bad here in 2018.

Frank Gruber was one of the more well-known and prolific authors to emerge from the pulp fiction years from the 1920s through World War II. By his own estimates, Gruber wrote more than 300 pulp fiction yarns, 60 novels, and more than 200 screenplays and television scripts. THE PULP JUNGLE is his retelling of his time as a writer, how he started, how he persevered, the decisions he made, and how it all turned out.

It is a sobering read.

Like many of the successful pulp writers in the depth of the Great Depression, Gruber wrote everything. A ledger from the months August 1932 to June 1934 indicated he wrote 174 “pieces” which totaled 620,000 words, all on a Remington manual typewriter. He called himself a sloppy writer, so he had to retype everything after he corrected the manuscript. The fiction spanned the gamut: Sunday School stories, detective stories, love stories, spicy stories, sports stories, etc. Those words were not solely fiction. He wrote tons of articles often on topics he had to learn on the fly. In the book, Gruber lists the dollar amounts he earned for various pieces. Even in 1932 dollars, those meager sales didn’t add up to a living wage.

But he persevered. His move to New York in 1934 proved to be the kind of starving artist story that sounds good when you’ve made it but horrible at the time. He arrived in the Big Apple with the Remington, clothes that fit into a suitcase, and $40 after paying rent. And “I had something else…the will to succeed.” But those early New York years were bad. He “existed. Some days I had a single meal, some days I tasted no food at all other than the tomato soup at the Automat.” The tomato soup in question is actually warm water (which was free), catsup (also free), and crackers (free). That was the “soup.”

Gruber got two breaks that helped him on his way. One came from honesty. He had been paid twice for a single story and, reluctantly, Gruber had sent the second check back. That ended up paying dividends when the editor of Writer’s Digest came calling to see the man who had returned that check. The editor paid Gruber to be a contact in New York.

The other break—The Big Break—came in 1934 in one of those great true tales you hear. Gruber gets a call on Friday afternoon. Operator #5 was going to press the next day but was a story short. Could Gruber write a 5500-word story overnight? In his retelling, he started at 8pm and had a character. Two hours later, he had his leading lady. By 3:30am, he had his big finale…but still needed a plot thread to weave it all together. He got it, and delivered the 18 pages by 9am. He didn’t hear back for a few days. He started to worry, so he called on the editor. Oh, he was told, we pay on Friday. Pay? Yup, the story was purchased. And then he was asked for another. According to Gruber, “I was ‘in.’”

From that moment on, Gruber worked steadily and for higher paying markets. He cracked the big dog on the block—Black Mask—and kept going. The key factor here was that Gruber never stopped working. Yes he had made it, but in those days, a writer was only as good as the next sale. Just like today. So he kept working on stories, then branched out into novels, both detective stories as well as westerns. All the contacts he had made during the lean years paid dividends later on, including when he moved to Hollywood.

THE PULP JUNGLE is chock full of great little nuggets of truth. Writing to market is a growing aspect of indie writers, but Gruber and his pals did it back in the 1930s. They had to or they didn’t eat. Another modern trend is books or courses or classes on writing. Yes they serve a valuable purpose—I greatly benefited from two online courses with Dean Wesley Smith late in 2016—but constant writing means a writer is constantly improving his craft. By definition, each story or book is better than the previous. I can attest to that as well.

For any person who dreams of a full-time writing career in 2018, that dream is still attainable. But what the story of Frank Gruber’s professional life suggests is that hard work, determination, and perseverance will enable a writer to hone the skills necessary to become a full-time writer. It also demonstrates that writers must recognize and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Don’t think you could write a story overnight (insert your own personal challenge)? Perhaps Gruber didn’t think he could do it either…until he said “yes” and then he had to deliver.

You can, too.

Reading THE PULP JUNGLE is a great snapshot into the life of a real pulp fiction writer and might be essential reading for any writer who is considering the professional writing life.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Define the Crime

Having both a personal and professional interest in crime fiction and true crime can lead to some really off the wall conversations. Last week I talked about The Road To Jonestown, a book I’ve been talking about to literally anyone who will listen. If there wasn’t a line behind me when I went grocery shopping a couple days ago, I probably would have told the cashier some of the thoughts I’ve been having about Jim Jones and the members of The People’s Temple. Having a lot of smart, if sometimes pedantic friends that share the same interests also leads to conversations like “Was Cary Stayner actually a serial killer?” Or “Does a murder become a mass murder at three or four victims?”

I know it’s dark and maybe even a little gross, but it comes with the territory. This morning, after debating the differences between a spree killing and a serial killer, I decided to spend some time digging for answers.

Guess what?

There are none.

I thought I had at least found a definitive answer on Cary Stayner, a murderer from my hometown. He is routinely referred to as a serial killer but I never accepted that label. Stayner killed four people, but there were only two incidents, and two crime scenes. Psychology Today says, that makes him a serial killer in this article. But Psychology Today says it doesn’t, in this one.

All articles about mass murder agree, Stayner didn’t commit one of those - they all refer to the FBI’s definition of four or more victims at the same time and place. He killed three people the first time, and one person the second.

He definitely isn’t a spree killer, a label the FBI has decided doesn’t serve a clear purpose. The FBI believes the difference between a spree killer and a serial killer isn’t enough to change how they solve crimes - though most criminologists agree that the motivations are usually extremely different. In writing about a spree killing or a serial killer, it definitely seems different. Even more so in true crime where an effort is usually made to look at the how and why a perpetrator commits their crimes.

What’s particularly interesting is, one might say someone “went on a killing spree” but that killer may not have committed a spree killing. In 1979 when an escaped Ted Bundy broke into a sorority murdered two women and assaulted three others, it sounded like a spree of some kind. It definitely wasn’t the planned, well organized kidnapping and murder he’d repeated so many times. It was a frenzy of violence. But it wasn’t a spree. Not exactly. Referring back to the two Psychology Today articles, a spree killing has to take place at multiple locations.

I could get lost picking at these definitions and wondering at how these things can be so vaguely defined. It seems odd that crimes so serious could have such nebulous definitions - but the real question is - would knowing for certain whether Stayner was “technically” a serial killer alleviate the pain of his crimes? The FBI doesn’t see the point, from the perspective of law enforcement, of separating spree killers from serial killers, so what point does it serve among true crime fanatics or people at home watching the news? Lastly, is pedantry and debate a ruse meant to make people obsessing over the most horrible things humanity has to offer feel detached, and therefore safe?

I know the answer to at least one of those questions.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

7 minutes with: Episode 5


7 minutes with - Episode 5

Welcome to the fifth episode of “7 Minutes With,” brought to you by

As always, Jedidiah Ayres brings his movie picks, Holly West chats about the small screen, and Chris Holm talks music. Hosted by Steve Weddle.

Jedidiah Ayres’s movie picks:

Best of Blaxsploitation collection on Filmstruck

The Black Klansman on Prime

Holly’s TV picks:

Sharp Objects

Chris Holm’s music picks:


Ovlov "Tru" (Exploding in Sound, 7/20)

Emma Ivy "The Birds" (EP, self-released, January 2018)

Campdogzz “In Rounds” (15 Passenger, 8/3)


Devo “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!”

NWA's "Straight Outta Compton"
Jane's Addiction "Nothing's Shocking"

Portishead "Dummy"


Show music by Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


Listen to the episode here:

and on iTunes

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

From Jason Statham to V.S. Naipaul

When the great Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul died the other day, it reminded me of one of the oddest moments of recognition I've ever had while watching a film.  It involves the British heist film The Bank Job, from 2008, which stars Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows.  If you remember, the film's story is set in England and is based on an actual crime. Overnight on September 11, 1971, a group of robbers tunneled into a Lloyd's Bank in London and robbed the safe deposit boxes stored there in the vault.  The robbers had rented a clothing store two doors down from the bank, and over three weeks, working on weekends, they dug a tunnel from the store to the bank.  They passed directly underneath a restaurant to do this.  The money and jewelry stolen during the heist were never recovered.

In the film, a small group of men and one woman (Burrows) make up the robbers.  Jason Statham's character is their leader.  Not a member of the group but a part of the story is one Michael X, a black militant we first see in a scene where, inside a house, he is leading a white English landlord around by a slave collar.  When I saw this scene (I saw the film in a theater when it opened), I was amazed, not because of the outrageousness of the scene, but because I recognized it, and Michael X himself, from the blistering essay I'd once read about the guy.  The essay is  V.S. Naipaul's "Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad", a piece collected in his book The Return of Eva Peron with the Killings in Trinidad (1980).

The Michael X story is a long and complicated one, and it ended horribly.  Born Michael de Freitas in Trinidad and Tobago, he later became the self-named Michael X, a Black Power leader in London during the 1960s.  He worked for a time as an enforcer for a white London slumlord, started a commune in London called The Black House, and hobnobbed with the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were supporters, though not members, of his commune.

So where does he figure in a Jason Statham heist movie?  Well, as I mentioned, The Bank Job is based on a real heist, and the real Michael X had a connection to some of the figures in the story. The story kicks off with MI-5 taking an interest in a Lloyd's Bank safety deposit box that belongs to Michael X  and supposedly contains compromising photos of Princess Margaret.  Also playing a role in all this is a young British woman named Gale Benson, a British model of the time and the daughter of a Brit MP.  Benson also was real, but whether Michael X in actuality had any connection to the Lloyd's bank robbery is uncertain.  What is certain is that Michael X, in real life (and the film), had to flee Britain for various crimes such as assault and extortion. He returned to Trinidad.  There, he formed another self-styled revolutionary commune, albeit with a tiny number of followers.  A person who joined his commune there, while romantically involved with American Black Power activist Hakim Jamal, who was a cousin of Malcom X, was Gale Benson. In The Bank Job, Michael X exits the film fairly early as he flees England and the focus narrows to the heist itself, but then the film does come back to him briefly.  We see him in Trinidad. Gale Benson, in the film's plot, has done something to betray Michael X, and he murders her.  The film's epilogue states that Michael X was tried and executed in Trinidad for her murder.  

In reality, Michael X did kill Gale Benson, but the reasons had nothing to do with the Lloyd's bank heist.  On January 2, 1972, he and a few other men from the commune took her out for a walk and then dug a hole in the ground. One of the men asked her who she thought the hole was for and then pushed her in.  They wounded her with a cutlass and then wound up burying her alive, even jumping on the dirt with her beneath it till she stopped struggling.  Michael X was indeed executed in Trinidad, hung, but not for this murder.  Authorities tried and found him guilty for the murder of another commune member, a man, who was found buried in the same hole as Benson though he was killed separately.  But the reason Michael X wanted Benson killed? She was, he apparently believed, causing "mental strain" to his fellow revolutionary, Hakim Jamal.

All these details about the crime and the entire Michael X story are in Naipaul's brilliant essay.  He also based a fictional character on Michael X - Jimmy Ahmed - in his 1975 novel, Guerrillas.  I'd highly recommend both the essay and the novel.  They provide a lot of insight into the entire period and they also serve as instructive examples of how to rework non-fiction materials into the stuff of great fiction.

So it seems I've gone from the pleasure of a snappy heist film to the darkness of true life crime as described by V.S. Naipaul.  But that's, in fact, the sort of trip my mind took during that moment in The Bank Job when a Jason Statham vehicle started me thinking about things unrelated to cinema suspense mechanics.  Through no fault of the movie, I was completely taken out of the film for a couple of minutes.  Then I got back into the story, and I liked the movie. Still do. I've seen it a couple of times now. I don't get taken out of the film when I watch it now.  But that moment, in the dark, when an unexpected link to one of my all-time favorite authors happened - that was pretty strange.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Second Time Around

I had an episode of Game of Thrones on the other day and - spoiler if you haven't seen season 6 - there's this great moment that's been building, when Jon and Sansa reunite.

What I noticed? The look on Tormund's face when he saw Brienne.

That's because when you're watching something for the first time your focus is being directed by the primary plot. Once you know how some things unfold, if you go back, you'll pick up things you overlooked the first time around.

This is why the second time with a story can be sweeter.

Today, I have a new issue at Toe Six Press out early. Interviews with WIllie Davis, Tom Leins and Gray Basnight. Reviews of the latest from Willie Davis, John Connolly and Val McDermid. Paul D. Brazill has his songlist for Small Time Crimes.

There's also a write-up about the one, the only Allan Guthrie.



Today, I launch Zombie Cat. When Spinetingler abruptly shut down and was deleted, easy access to a lot of great stories and material was lost. I know there are wayback machines, but in spite of that not everything has been recovered. For the first few years of operation, Spinetingler used pdfs and I'm not sure any of them survived anywhere, other than my computer because I fortunately downloaded them... and they were filled with a lot of great stories from great writers, like James Oswald, Steve Mosby, Amra Pajalic, and more.

Zombie Cat is designed to give a second life to stories. If you have a story that came out in an anthology a few years ago and you'd like to see it accessible online, this is the place to submit. If you have a story that was published in an ezine that's no longer with us or accessible online, this site was designed for you. Zombie Cat is now open to reprint submissions.

I wish I could say that we were offering at least a token payment, but at this time the budget just isn't there for that. However, I always think it's better as an author to reference places where interviews have appeared online or sites that have featured me or my work. It's better for people to see others want to talk about you than it is for you to just talk about yourself.

I've had my own share of stories that have been lost over time and are no longer easily accessible. The least I can do is help some other authors resurrect theirs. So... Zombie Cat. Because cats have nine lives and stories deserves at least a second chance.