An Interview with Author Gary Phillips

By Jacqueline Vick
Writers in Residence
April 5, 2010 

Gary Phillips writes tales of mystery and criminal behavior in various mediums. A regular contributor to Mystery Scene magazine, he authors the private eye Ivan Monk series and turned out a slew of Ivan Monk short stories like Monkology.

Born and raised in what was then called South Central Los Angeles, he’s been a community organizer, union rep, and headed a nonprofit to better race relations begun after the ’92 riots. Besides his many mystery novels and shorts, he’s written a coming-of-age graphic novel called South Central Rhapsody as well as a graphic novel about a gangster called High Rollers, and has a prose novel about African Americans and World War II called Freedom’s Fight.

You can find out more about Gary at his web site.

Welcome Gary!
Your most recent work is a change from your usual hard-boiled mysteries and edgy crime comics. Can you tell us a bit about “Freedom’s Fight” and what brought about this particular novel?

Freedom’s Fight came about as my way to tell a slice of the bigger story about black soldiers and civilians in World War II. I think I’m accurate in stating there are less than a handful of novels about black soldiers during this period – though certainly there are several informative nonfiction books such as The Invisible Soldier by Mary Penick Molley, Lasting Valor by Vern Baker (it’s his story) and Ken Olsen, and Brothers in Arms about the 761st tank battalion by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton.

But if you watched the other Brothers in Arms or now the Pacific mini-series, you wouldn’t have any idea that there were all-black units who fought in those theaters of conflict, but there were. My late dad Dikes was in combat at Guadalcanal, his brother, Norman, was at D-Day plus One and my mother, Leonelle, had a brother named Oscar Hutton, Jr.  who was shot down and killed over Germany as a Tuskegee fighter pilot.

Because of Jim Crow policies, black troops weren’t sent into combat until end of ’43, beginning of ’44. So part of my book looks at the war on the home front through the eyes of a young woman reporter for a weekly African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. The other part follows the travails of several soldiers overseas. I do want folks to know Freedom’s Fight isn’t preachy, but, hopefully, entertaining historical fiction with hard-boiled elements (a murder mystery subplot), dimensional characters and action on the battlefield.

Ivan Monk, your most well-known series character, is part PI, part avenging angel, and part family man. What type of readers make up your target audience?

Who knows? I mean, I don’t write my stories with an idea of who the target audience is per se other than I hope they enjoy the work. Isn’t the typical mystery reader a middle-aged woman? Isn’t that the case with most fiction as well? I have observed though due to my comics work I get a sprinkling of younger readers who’ve taken an interest in my prose work having first read me in sequential form.

It’s interesting though as this question is something the writer has to wrestle with in today’s publishing environment. That is, it used to be the publisher worked with you to outreach to and develop your readership through building up your audience over time. Now as we know, and this seems to be a direct result of the internet, the publisher wants you to come prepackaged with an audience. We’ve seen writers who’ve self-published in a way, via an e-book, work the social media and what have you to publicize the book, and then make a traditional hardcopy deal because they can quantify the numbers – they’ve demonstrated they have a readership they’ve built from the ground up.

I’m not knocking this state of affairs, as this genie is out of the bottle. The fact remains more and more, the pressure is on for the writer to not only be able to ply their craft and turn out a compelling yarn, but it’s on them (or a hip, totally wired pr person you hire) to be able to create a and maintain a base of readers. Just having a website is a rudimentary these days. What good is it if no body comes to the thing? Not we have to tweet, facebook and who knows what all else as these forms plateau and people simply get inundated with too much sensory bombardment.

Martha Chainey, ex-show girl and courier for the mob, is another series character you write. Recalling your own experience, would you advise writers starting a second series to look for similarities that would appeal to current fans or offer something completely different?

I’m the last guy to be advising any other writer on their career. But hey, you’re asking so I think writers have to challenge themselves. Coming up with Martha was daunting for me as it was the first time I’d written a female lead. She was different too in that she’s more of an outlaw type and not exactly on the straight-and-narrow as Monk is. Naturally the writer wants the best of both worlds – the fans you have stick with you and you get news ones with a new character. To some extent that seemed to happen with Ms. Chainey, but I can assure you it wasn’t a calculated move on my part. In this case the gauntlet was thrown down by my editor at the time at Kensington to come up with a female character and so I did.

Aside from your series characters, you have several standalone books, including “The Jook” and “The Perpetrators”. Is it more difficult to sell a standalone book than a series? And why write these stories as standalones instead of incorporating them into your existing series?

The beauty and freedom of writing a stand alone is you can do anything you want. Blow up the world, go ahead. Have mutant alligators crawl out of the sewers…sweet. Your main character loses their mind midway in the book and runs around in his birthday suit shouting ‘I am the Master of the Universe,’ no problemo. Too, in this publishing environment as we’ve discussed, it seems it’s easier to sell a standalone. If you have a series, and that series hasn’t broken the house record in sales, then publishers are dang reluctant to take a chance on another book with those same characters. Whereas a one off is often seen as new and fresh and may get an editor excited at a house and want to champion your book.

Is it the job of the writer to leave the reader with a message? If so, what do you hope your readers take away from your books?

Well, no, I think my job as a fiction writer is to entertain the reader. Having said that, there are certain realities that ground your stories and characters like the arena where the aforementioned Freedom’s Fight is set. Still, you don’t want your characters standing on soap boxes yet conversely if they are representations of real people, and going to resonate with readers, then people have opinions. More to the point, characters don’t have to go around telling you what’s on their mind but we can get a sense of who they are by what they do in a given situation or where we locate them. You can have a character at a teabaggers rally and another at a tree hugger event, and of course we’d draw certain conclusions about them – then you can switch up those allusions the further we follow those characters. My job is to give my characters dimensionality and drive. Drama is conflict…a character wants something and invariably there are obstacles in the way as other characters want the same thing or something else.

The Underbelly

The Underbelly” is due to release in June, 2010. This book features yet a new character, Magrady, a semi-homeless Vietnam veteran. Could you tell us about the story? And will Magrady become a series character?

A couple of years ago, Underbelly originally was written an online serial for – a site I still write for, doing fiction (my webcomic Bicycle Cop Dave ) and nonfiction pieces. Fellow mystery writer Nathan Walpow is the site’s EiC. Back then he’d asked me if I’d be interested in doing something on the site – which began centered around housing and transportation issues — given my background includes community organizing and my wife is an urban planner. The idea of a sometimes homeless Vietnam vet, a man who has had his ups and downs, was a way to use the recent gentrification of downtown L.A. as a backdrop to a mystery he seeks to solve.

The story is set in motion as Magrady, who suffers from flashbacks and trying to maintain his sobriety, searches for a wheelchair bound friend who disappears from Skid Row. This after a bottom feeder called Savoirfaire, who was regulated by Magrady on behalf of this friend, is found with his head bashed in while the cop on the case has a history with the main character as they’d served uneasily together in ‘Nam. Oh, and Magrady’s grown son may be involved in something shady back east, then there’s a mummified head… but that’s enough teasing, read the novella when it’s out from PM Press .

The Underbelly is published as part of the house’s Outspoken Authors series. I’ve done some rewrites and edits to the story from when it was first done in series form, and the book will include an interview/conversation between me and the lovely and talented writer Denise Hamilton. As to Magrady returning, yes, I have some notions circulating in my head about that – only after I get the next Ivan Monk book done. Monk returned as it were last year in a short story in Phoenix Noir (“Blazin’ on Broadway”), and I need to get him back in long form.

Do you have any final words for our readers?

On bookshelves now is Orange County Noir. This is a collection of 14 original gritty and darkly funny tales I edited and I contributed a story to set behind the Orange Curtain. Edgar winner Susan Straight, Nero Wolf award winner Dick Lochte and other very talented writers have contributed to the anthology – each story set in a different city in Orange County. The collection received a starred review in Publisher Weekly and we’re doing several signings and panels about the book all over the Southland. So come check us out.

Thank you, Gary, for taking the time to be with us.  

Back to Gary Phillips’s Author Page