by Holly West
Hiya! Holly here with another author interview. Many thanks to Angel for letting me post on his day.
This month, I tracked Josh Stallings down and asked him if he'd talk to me about his latest novel, TRICKY (Agora Books). The scope of our discussion covers many things, from writing characters outside our own experience to religion to that moment during every book's journey when you think "I'll never be able to do this." But Josh did it with TRICKY, and in my opinion, he nailed it.
But I'll let him tell you about it:
*** TRANSCRIPT BELOW ***
Holly West 0:03
Hi, my name is Holly West and I'm the author of the Mistress of Fortune historical mystery series set in 1776, London, and I'm here today with my good friend Josh Stallings. He is the author of the Moses McGuire trilogy, the Anthony Award-nominated memoir, All the Wild Children, and the lefty and Anthony Award-nominated Young Americans, a disco heist set in 1976 San Francisco. His short fiction has appeared online and in numerous anthologies, and Crime Reads named his latest novel, Tricky, one of the most anticipated crime books of 2021. And it's the book that we'll be discussing today. So Josh, first I want to say thank you so much for being here. So good to see you.
Josh Stallings 0:52
Good to see you. And thank you for asking me this is awesome.
Holly West 0:55
So let's just start tell us about Tricky.
Josh Stallings 0:59
It's the story of Cisco, gang assassin, East LA, accused of possibly murdering his best friend. And the hiccup is he got a lot of scars and got beat. And either is or isn't suffering from brain damage and intellectually disabled at this point. He doesn't remember or he says he doesn't remember what happened. But our detective is an LAPD homicide detective who rolls up on the scene, sees this apparently gang banger leaning over a dead body, and cops pointing guns at him and it goes from there. And what's fundamental about it is that it is about half the people who know him now, who knows Cisco today, don't believe he could do anything, say he couldn't have done this. There's no way, he's a gentle soul. The police and the sheriff's and the people from the prison system say look at his record. This is an evil, smart, brilliant killer. And Madsen the detective needs to sort this out. He comes in with all of the pre ideas that any cop would have and thinks this guy's probably conning him. But he also believes in justice believes he needs that his job is to get to the truth. And so it's just about trying to discover who is this person and in it, what makes a human? What is our humanity?
Holly West 2:29
Tricky ask the question, does your past define you forever? and Cisco, like you said he's a former gang member with a long and violent rap sheet. But as a result of a terrible beating, he now has the intellectual intelligence of a child. At least that's what he's portraying, and what the people around him think. But as Cisco's creator, do you think he would have transformed if he had not suffered such a devastating brain injury?
Josh Stallings 2:58
I will tell you one of the sources for this novel and it answers that question. Forever ago, my grandmother was a social worker. She's been gone forever. So we're now going back into my early days. She told me a story as a social worker, there was a young man who was in the gangs. He was a criminal and a thug. He lived with his mother in an apartment complex with a lot of old people and he would rob people. He was a bad person. He got depressed and tried to kill himself. And what he wound up doing was shooting himself in the head and knock his intelligence down to a six or eight year old, some somewhere between that and 15 year olds hard to get intelligence cuz you're also dealing with sexuality as well things. So like my you know, but it's, it's complicated. But he also turned into a great guy. He took care of the old people in the community. He got married to a girl with Down's, he lived next door to his mother and took care of her the rest of her life. And it struck me when my grandmother told me this story, I just kept thinking, are we the sum of our history? Or is there something in the hardwiring that can be that was changed? So we know that you can, you can have brain injury, and suddenly you can't see motion. So we know that the brain does things like that. But I think there is some real proof that there's part of our personality is also in that wiring. It isn't all psychology. So. So that's my answer. I don't know that he could have gotten there without fixing some of the wiring.
Holly West 4:33
You answered that question perfectly. It makes sense that there's something in that injury, that rewired his brain maybe back to when he was just a more innocent kind person before all these things happened.
Josh Stallings 4:47
Part of it. I want to be clear, and it's clear in the novel at some point. Cisco was at 14 put in mainstream adult population prison. We did that back when he would have been that age in California. So who he became was a direct result of how he was treated. Yep, put a kid into a prison with adult and it was a max prison, which we did it. We put them in Pelican Bay, one of the hardest prisons in our system. And we put 14 year old kids in there. So I don't want to say, Oh, he was a gangbanger, that means he was evil. He was a kid who got screwed. And then, so I think maybe he did by getting beaten, he was wired back to who he was before all that happened. And maybe it was in forgetting that history maybe allowed him to be someone different. I don't know enough about it. But I know it's possible.
Holly West 5:41
Knowing the basis of that character is very interesting to me having read the book, because you see how that all fell into place for you. And I knew that your this book was dedicated to your son, Dylan, who was born with an intellectual disability. So I was coming at it from that point of view, but knowing that the actual character of Cisco was based on a different situation that adds a layer to the story.
Josh Stallings 6:10
They came together like so many things in my life, the opening of the novel, policemen pointing a gun at a guy who doesn't know what they're doing, happened to my son, with me and my wife. And I knew when that happened, and that was 10 years before I wrote it. I knew that I would have to work through this in a novel. That's, and one of the things I'm most proud of is that I captured in Cisco, Dylan's humor, I captured so much of who he is as a guy. And the capture that made me really happy that was I was proud of. And so it's all these things that are from my life came together. My grandfather was a cop. And one of the best men I know, one of the most moral good men I know. Or no, I still think I know him because I hear his voice in my head still, you know, there's all these different things that come together. I wondered, why am I writing a police story? I grew up doing criminal acts and hanging out with criminals. My father was in jail for civil disobedience and armed robbery. wasn't all charming, hippie shit.
Holly West 7:12
This is your first procedural right? So did you learn anything significant or shocking about law enforcement during your research?
Josh Stallings 7:23
First off, there's a lot of I did a lot of reading and a lot of interviewing. And I actually, I met the head of the SMART team/PET team has had two different names, which is the psychological clinician combined with the police officer, to try and find out how things work. And he said something I've heard from cops that didn't hit me tell them I said, My son was almost killed by an officer, an officer was yelling and pointing at his badge. You know what this means? You know what this means? And my wife said he doesn't. And the cop pushed her back and said, Ma'am, we got this. And I said that to this guy. And he said, Yeah, we got some knuckleheads. And the term knucklehead is a police term to say for guys, for the guy who tried to who could have killed my son. That's not a knucklehead. That's a murderer. And so I had to look at some phrases and things that we use in crime fiction, like suicide by cop, that's not a thing. That's a cop killing somebody. It's their job not to do that. So I the knucklehead thing, though, really stuck with me is that is, that's a shitty thing to say to a father, who just told you that one of your officers almost killed a son. And what he also told me about LAPD that actually helped make sense. But the language is just who they are, was he said, a big police force, one of the things that we are very spet specialize. If you are good on the range, you go into SWAT, if you have empathy, you go in to the smart team. Problem is the guys most empathy won't roll up first, and you can't call them in as a parent. You don't get to call into any psychological unit. The officer who rolls up has to have enough empathy to see what's going on to call them in, but he's never going to be the guy who's most set up to deal with mental illness. And I have to say, thankfully, you know, we are in a nice street in Eagle Rock where a middle class white family, because I don't know that Dylan would have made it out. Otherwise, he presented as crazy. But if he was a man of color, he would have presented as a threat. Is that why you made Cisco a man of color? I did that, partly because I don't. I don't know how to write about LA and not write about, you know, I live in northeast LA. That's where I live. That's what I write about. And you're gonna write about your college if you write in that world, and I want to do I wanted to do it partly for that. Partly, it's a community that I love. It's so funny. I sent the book to I had a friend that I came up with in getting sober 30 some years ago, who was a shooter in a gang We're good friends. And we've been good friends all ages. You also one of the best men. I know, I sent him the book and said, Nino, tell me where I got it wrong. This is some phrasing and some language things. And he said, We don't say this. And I had said called we'd Primo and then his Cousin Cousin he goes, cuz the black thing we call our cousins, Primo. So there were some language things. But the sweetest thing he said, he said, because you're seeing that community through Mel's eyes, you're the perfect man to tell it because you've danced close enough to the fire. But you're also not of the fire and written it from Cisco's perspective, we'd have a different discussion. But he said, this is the you're the perfect guy to write it. I think that taught me a lot about the way that I think about writing other cultures and all is there's a difference between being it's, I was asked early on what I write chapters from Cisco's perspective, and I didn't and the reason why I'm not saying other writer couldn't or wouldn't. For me, Dylan doesn't have the intellect to read it. And understand if I got it right. I'm not gonna do a voice inside ahead of somebody. I can't then find out if I got it. Right. Yeah, it's unfair. So I know his behaviors. I don't know how what do you think's like most humans, but in this case, it's a group I wanted to be fair with.
Holly West 11:20
Absolutely. And I understand why. I think this is a conversation that you know, a lot of writers have. And some get kind of pissy when it's suggested that they can't write any character they down, please. Well, no one's saying that. But we are saying that there is you have responsibilities when you're portraying characters that are, especially when they're marginalized people of color, people whose experience if you if basically, if you're going to be profiting off of somebody else's life story, basically, if you don't get it smack on right, then you shouldn't be doing it shouldn't have the hubris to think you can?
Josh Stallings 12:02
I agree with you. Here's the where it gets weird. When I wrote young Americans, there's a character one of my favorite characters is Valentina. transgender woman, badass ex marine. She is a superhero in a novel, I just I love her. She's based on somebody that I knew as a teenager, I was asked by a nother writer, was I going to get a sensitivity read on that? And I said, No. I said, Here's why. I've captured Octavia, a woman I knew growing up the best. I know how. Now another transgender person might read it and go, Well, I wasn't that's not the transgender person. I know. But no group is a monolith. Did I capture this character? If I was worried about did I get the language I usually if I was particularly I was writing more modern, but I grew up in San Francisco as a teenager in sort of height of the gay wild everything world. So there's a lot of that I know, if I was writing from volunteers perspective, a spin off about her, I might need to, it might need something different. It's just it's combining for me the idea that I can't get inside somebody else's head culturally, but also, I could ask six Mexican Americans, all of my relatives, my brother's wife and kids to read tricky, and none of them would understand Li gang culture. Absolutely. So they'd be the wrong group. It's not there. It's not monolithic. They'd be the wrong person to ask that question.
Holly West 13:33
Well, I think the goal is to strike a balance. And my personal feeling is that writers should err on the side of caution. If I want to write authentically, I'm going to need some help sometimes depending on who I decide to portray. I think it will only make our work better. Yeah, and the other side of that is promoting Own Voices diverse voices. Let them tell their stories. They don't need me to tell their story.
Josh Stallings 14:02
Yeah, no, I agree. I for me, it starts also with with reading with reading books by authors that aren't you reading books from authors that are good that aren't you? Yeah, I think that helps a lot. It helps a to broaden the what we're talking about. It promotes other writers from other, but also adjust it helps me to that's how I get to know people the best is their reading. I was running into this thing where I've been thinking about magical realism. And I'm reading a book by about Paraguay, weirdly. But it's a beautiful big book and I'm a woman, Latina woman writer. And it's it's the magical realism is beautiful. I was reading a Celtic book I was thinking about goes to Belfast, and that's really Celtic magic realism. And I was thinking, what if we Protestants God, do we kill magic? See what's interesting about these interviews, he always go off on these tangents. I think are kind of really interesting. America is a weird thing. It's weird because the rest of the world forever used to look at us like we were these wild rebels. And the truth is it was founded by Puritans who left England because England wasn't uptight enough for them.
Holly West 15:14
My next question kind of goes along with what we've been talking about from the outset, Detective Mattson shows himself to be more evolved than some of his fellow officers. And yet, he has a lot to learn in his journey with Cisco. And I got the feeling, though, that his wokeness was more about pragmatic policing and his experience with how to handle suspects, etc, then it wasn't a natural part of his worldview. And so would you say that that is a fair thing to say? And were you thinking about this type of thing when you were developing his character?
Josh Stallings 15:54
Yes. And I will address that. But first, when I first wrote the book, you look for in a character, what are their flaw? What am I going to be dealing with? What are they playing with, and the first draft of it? I sent to my agent, and he was a womanizer. And she just called me up and she said, You can't do that. I said, What do you mean, I love all the people in my life have any power women, which is really helpful. She said, Well, the world we live in right now every woman will turn off from him. She said, we just in me two times. That's not a good character. It doesn't it's think again, get deeper. And I went, Okay, that's not very that's okay. I get that. That wasn't very deep. Let me go further. The next thing that came up when I first the first couple of chapters that came from her, and then from shantelle, the books editor both had me Take out levels of the R word. Because I made the mistake of thinking because I'm of the community that I am of the community. And I didn't know I'm not of the community, Dylan's and I'm an ally of that community. And that means I can't use that word. And it's used. It's used very sparingly. I was using a lot with Mads and thinking, and then there'd be the great moment where he learns not to use it. Right. And he doesn't hear but she said that it's in there 15 times in the first two chapters. If you read that, what would you feel? I said, I'd be turned off She goes, Okay. Yeah. And so that's wokeness that I filtered into him because it's mine. The other is he's not well, he is pragmatic. He is he's a good cop. He looks at things he isn't trying to prove that the Mexican gangster is is a good guy. He's trying to find out what is true. And he really is a man who believes in the truth. So yeah, he's, that's, if he's woke, it's because the truth is leading him there. And he's a different man at the end of the book. He has changed, as has Cisco, it turns out Cisco has some dark shit he's got to look at that he's not looking at. And for him to evolve, he needs to even in his own way. He needs to come to grips with it. He asked, am I a bad man? Do I have to be a bad man? is an interesting question.
Holly West 18:17
I know that the world at large gets it wrong when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities. But I wonder if one of the things they get the most wrong is their ability to grow?
Josh Stallings 18:30
My son, Dylan, he's 40. I have a 40 year old son that makes me just old as dirt. But anyway, he grows slowly, but never stops. He never stops changing. It's just slower, you have to notice it. I see him change in many ways. The way that that his community, the intellectually disabled community has been portrayed and really upset me for so long, was either they weren't at all. Or they were sometimes portrayed as villains like in the village, or often as the magical retarded person. And that was, my mother said to me, he was sent to teach us. He's an angel sent to teach us. This is after at 26 Dylan suffered from schizoaffective disorder, which often comes right around 26. And he went from being a perfect gentleman to losing his mind and wind up in a mental hospital. And my mother said that I thought, so you believe in a God that tortures my son to teach you? A that's egotistical and I hate your God. There's no good way for me to get but that's a very common view. They're here to teach us. The magical intellectually disabled man has wisdom that week. He sees that we don't
Holly West 19:53
Christianity at least doesn't want they paint suffering as always a reason for it. And if you are suffering, it's because you, God is doing this so that you will grow, you will become a better person, you might become a better person as the result of your suffering. But there's no way that I'm going to ever consider it divine. It's a coping mechanism. There's so much suffering in the world that we need some way our humaneness needs some way to think that that there is a divine purpose for it. And honestly, there's not
Josh Stallings 20:31
I try and stay out of most religion because I don't I know that it is needed. And I know there's beautiful things inside of religion. I they're each faith has beautiful things. And each one of them has a lot of bullshit. I remember in my first Moses book, he said something about if there's a God, I'm coming for you, you better vest up, because I'm coming for you. And it was the statement that it wasn't that he didn't believe in God, he just didn't trust the son of a bitch. And that was, I realized this true is how I felt at the time about faith of any kind,
Holly West 21:04
which was a more challenging personal journey, writing your memoir, all the right wild children or writing tricky,
Josh Stallings 21:11
tricky. The memoir I wrote. It was the heart of it, all the pain came after I wrote it. I used it a thing to write it where it was really written as freeform, as I could make it, it spilled out of me as free and as easy as I could. When it came out, I got a lot of heat. And that was not as much fun. Tricky was hard, because I've never written that kind of book, the thing that every book that I write is different. Every book that I write is something I one of the things I have to find in my writer self. This is there's the stoat story self, and I have to find something I care enough about to spend a year or more on. And so I have to lock into that. But then the writer self, I have to find what in it, haven't I done before? What do I need to learn? And it's why every frickin book is harder than the one before because I've suddenly set new challenges. And I work harder with every book. I am thinking I thought more with tricky than any book I've written before. I spent more time deeply thinking about the issues. And I spent a year reading about police in America getting an opinion on it. And thinking about what do I feel about policing? Like I couldn't write and none of that is in the book. I just had to I had to know a bunch of stuff before I could sit and write it. Absolutely. You know, all of those things. And then to sit and write it. It wasn't as the writing wasn't as hard. But it was it was hard getting it right. And I felt a real wait to get it right.
Holly West 22:45
It's a great book, you took us on a journey that was both entertaining, and yet enlightening. And I appreciate that in a book. I think I've read all your stuff, at least some version of it because Josh and I used to be part of the same critique group. So I've read quite a bit of yourself. And I saw a departure with tricky
Josh Stallings 23:06
it is by far the best thing I've written, I feel is excluding what I'm writing right now, which is better than that.
Holly West 23:14
And I love to hear that. I think as writers, we're constantly trying to go the next step challenge ourselves a little bit more. And it does get harder. And sometimes it feels like how can I ever accomplish what I want to accomplish, but somehow we do.
Josh Stallings 23:30
I used to think about I tried to be an actor. When I was kid I was That was my plan. I studied theater, and I thought it was gonna be an actor. I wasn't very good at it. But what I learned about it that was important was there is something added by that moment of stepping out on a stage. That moment of total, I want to throw up pillow talk about stage fright does ever go out to talk to older exigo nods. If it goes away, you should quit. And I think that's why pushing yourself do a book you don't know how to do every time it adds something to the work. That is an energy and an excitement that I wouldn't have otherwise, I have to say tip of the hat to the three women who made this book as good as it is. My wife Erica is the first editor and she beats the hell out of my work. She did this leg sizes it for one. But she also puts these notes like you can do better in circles a whole page. Like that's a compliment and a curse. And my agent Amy Moore Benson is amazing. And she had a lot to do with the book that we got to and the editor at a garage and towel is she got something to me I never understood. I hate this comment. You need to show not tell. And I'd say I'm a fucking storyteller. What do you mean?
But what I understood was the last three chapters were written like a coda music montage. In a movie, they weren't real. And what she was saying was show don't tell in some way don't understand. But what I unders finally got was what she was trying to say was we are disengaging from these because they feel like the music and credits are playing over them. And they weren't real seen. So I had to go back and rewrite the end of the book. And it was so much better. And she's I knew there was a problem and nobody could find it. And I finally just said, Okay, I guess I don't know what it is. And she nailed it. And it's a better book because of those three women. So some people don't need editors, I obviously need three. Hey, you know what, I think we can all benefit from a good editor. There is also a deep respect from all three women that I work with, who they propose they they set up on proposed problems and explain them until I understand the problem. And then they trust me enough to go away and fix it. On that note,
Holly West 25:55
I just want to say that Tricky is out from Agora books, and it's available wherever books are sold. Can you talk briefly about what you're working on? Now,
Josh Stallings 26:04
I will give you the briefest because otherwise I'll get beat up by my agent. It's set now a 1984 Olympics. And it's about it's Also that year, a whole bunch of things happened. It was also one of the early not the earliest earlier, but it was also the beginning of fentanyl. It was la dealing with homelessness. And rounding up the homeless it was there was a big robbery by the new new well, eight year old organization, the DEA, they robbed a bunch of their own places in LA. It was this, like a moment in time where all these things happened. And it was very, it's very until the book is about that is about
Holly West 26:46
I can't wait to read it. That is like you were saying earlier before we started that it had was like 280 pages or something.
Josh Stallings 26:55
It started out as 100 it would have been until I started editing it would have been six or 700 pages.
Holly West 27:02
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes you need all that clay to make the statue.
Josh Stallings 27:09
I've never done that. But I've never had written a long book before. Yeah, so I was panicked. But it's you know, now it's editing. And if there's a point because I never know I don't write with structure. So I never know what's going to happen in the book. You know that about me? There is a point where I am so terrified in the middle of a book that I wrote the wrong book, I don't know how to get out of it. So editing is actually a pleasure to me, because I have a whole book and it works. It just needs refining. But I'm not this terror everyday of Will this book work?
Holly West 27:43
Yeah, I know. I know. You're saying I think every every writer's process is different. But yeah, there is that moment of this terrifying moment where it's like I can never, this will never be something that is saleable, or that someone would want to read or, but then you always work your way out of it.
Josh Stallings 28:04
It's it but that doesn't it's Erica says I come during the middle of a book and say I'm done. I can't write this book. It's I'm gonna throw it away and start over. And she says, Okay, this is the I guess fifth or sixth time you've been through that. And you always find a way. And I go, I don't need to hear that. Because this time is different.
Holly West 28:23
Exactly. And it's not that it probably is different. But what's the same is that yes, you will get through this moment. Yeah, this too will pass.
Josh Stallings 28:33
This too shall pass. Absolutely. And if not, I'm here to help you with my suffering. Okay, exactly. God sent me to teach you Holly.
Holly West 28:44
I'm so grateful God set you to teach me because I have learned so much from you both as a person and a friend.
Josh Stallings 28:49
watching my mistakes.
Holly West 28:54
That's awesome. All right. Well, I'm going to end it here. But thank you so much for joining me today. Josh. I had so much fun. And if you like this video, tap the like button. And if you'd like to see more, be sure to subscribe to my channel. See you soon. And I'll see you around.
Josh Stallings 29:13
You will. Bye bye.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai