Gary Phillips Interviews Gary Phillips

Dancing With Myself:
Sea Minor
December 12, 2010

Over at Pulp Metal Magazine they’ve assembled a host of talent for a hell of a Birthday Party. Go along, blow out a candle and make a wish.

And Gary Phillips has just entered the building to talk to himself:

Q: Let’s start with you telling the good folks about your latest effort, shall we?

A: Most assuredly. On the surface The Underbelly from PM Press is about a sometimes homeless Vietnam vet named Magrady who looks for a disabled friend who has disappeared from downtown L.A.’s Skid Row. Of course like all mysteries matters are not what they seem to be. Magrady has psychological baggage about his past failures. He’s estranged from his grown children due to abusing booze and drugs, which have also resulted in his divorce, losing his house and blowing to hell a couple of businesses he’s had.

But as the story begins, Magrady is eight months sober, downtown is in the midst of gentrification, and Magrady assigns himself this task of looking for his friend as, he tells a friend, he needs a mission. Did I mention that the cop heading the Nickel Squad, the contingent of police offers patrolling the changing downtown was under Sgt. Magrady’s command in ‘Nam and there’s bad blood between them over an incident there?

 The Underbelly fits in with my other work, particularly in terms of my stories set in Los Angeles. I would say I try to give a flavor of a segment of the city not usually seen in other mystery novels. That there’s a certain amount of the socio-political landscape the protagonist operate in but not in a preachy way. Ultimately I want to tell you an entertaining story with characters who may not be the most sterling of individuals, but who when knocked down get back up and go to it.

Anyway, if folks are interested, they can pick up a copy at their indie bookstore or get themselves an e-book version on Kindle.

Q: Why does writing crime and mystery stories interest you?

A: Maybe because in those kind of stories the main characters are often called on to do something. I don’t necessarily mean they have to sock some brigand in the jaw or parry a knife thrust, but the nature of crime and mystery calls for your characters to not be passive, to act. Mysteries call on us to be in the main character’s head and possibly a few others as well. But not only are we privy to their thoughts, we also see what they do or do not do guided by what they’re thinking and feeling.

Too, there’s a structure to the mystery and crime novel. We as humans have a certain desire for order and setting matters to right. Now this is tempered with the knowledge of a world, post Watergate, Vietnam, 9/11, yellow cake, mythical WMDs, and so on. Which is to say you’re writing for a somewhat jaded and cynical audience so there has to be a reality of acknowledging these sensibilities in your plots and characters. The trick, I think, is to balance those notions without going too gray, too ambiguous about what motivates your main character. Nothing is pure black and white, but it does seem we want, demand, even, those who strive to right a wrong or at least settle a personal scores. Now naturally if you’re main character is a crook, a thief say, well, you have more latitude in proscribing how he operates in his or her arena.

Then too there’s the puzzle aspect. Who did it and why did they do it? It doesn’t seem the readers and the writers don’t get tired of that as long as we can keep coming up with fresh ways to pique our interests. I mean, I write the stories I want to read and hope others want to read it too.

Q: Are there other sort of stories you’d like to write?

A: When I was a kid through my teenage years, I read a good deal of science fiction. From Andre Norton and Jack Williamson to Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. H.G. Wells to Heinlein and Asimov. Fredric Brown and Asimov, to name two, wrote both sci-fi and mysteries, sometimes combining those elements. Kristine Kathryn Rusch does the same today with her Recovery Man interplanetary detective series and under a pen name, Kris Nelscott, 60’s era political mysteries with a black protagonist, Smokey Dalton – which deserve more attention than they’ve gotten.

Anyway, I’ve also stated in the past that Rod Serling was an influence on me as a writer. I’ve got a couple of anthologies of prose stories based on his Twilight Zone teleplays. Fact one of the collections are adaptations done by a good storyteller his damn self, Walter Gibson, who penned many a pulp and radio adventure of the Shadow.

In some of my short stories like “’53 Buick” (originally in Murder on Route 66) and in “Incident on Hill 19” (originally in Retro Pulp Tales), his shadow and that of those classic science fiction EC tales is pretty evident on those pages. So, yeah, I’d like to take a swing at a science fiction novel combining mystery and sci-fi elements. I’ve got a couple of ideas floating around in my head and look forward to getting them down on the page one of these days.

Q: Apparently there was a recent Harris online poll conducted among 2,775 adults in the U.S. How this sampling of adults was achieved, is not clear, but some of the results regarding who treads crime, mystery and thrillers is interesting.

A: I saw that. The big kids on the block, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Patterson and Grisham are favs but still, it’s kind of heartening, isn’t it? 48% of fiction readers say they read mysteries, thrillers and crime novels. This stat goes up to 61% among those 65 and older. 26% read sci-fi and those respondents in the age range of 18-33, 18% read graphic novels. Women not men are, it seems, more likely to read in the mystery field than men, I guess whether the protagonist is a man or woman.

This poll gave me to an idea I’d love to try; lunch trucks. That’s right, lunch trucks. Say a truck like we have roaming the streets here in Los Angeles, the Kogi Korean barbeque taco truck has several that go about the Southland. This truck, rolling kitchen really, is so popular, they post their schedules online and the hungry can follow them on twitter. See, specialty lunch trucks are all the rage these days and I figure if I can hook up with one of these services, giving out some free samples of my books — and various foods are always mentioned in my tomes — to go along with the bulgogi burrito with salsa, that’s gotta build my brand.

Q: You do some work in comics, that right?

A: I do indeed. I’ve been a comic book fan from way back. Fact I became a writer since as a kid I discovered my art wasn’t going to be the best so I couldn’t write and draw my own comics, but at least I could put down the words. Currently I’m doing some work for an outfit called Moonstone. Specifically I’m writing the further adventures of a licensed pulp character they’ve acquired, secret agent Jimmy Christopher, Operator 5. The tagline being that before Bauer and Bond, there was Jimmy Christopher. With one eye on nostalgia, and a foot planted in the revisionist history camp, my first Operator 5 story, “The Faithful,” involves a charismatic “America for Americans” preacher intent on assassinating a Marcus Garvey-type figure who leads a back-to-Africa movement for black folks in Harlem. Christopher has infiltrated the preacher’s goon squad. “The Faithful” will debut as the back-up feature in Moonstone’s new Spider comic book, premiering this coming January.

I’m also pleased to be writing another espionage character for Moonstone, the zen freelance spy, Derek Flint, based on the character popularized by the late actor James Coburn in two films from the late sixties. The That Man Flint series will drop in March and be set in the swinging sixties of mods, mini-skirts and Vietnam. Paisley shirts and satellites. Afros and lasers. The Cold War is hot and the Red Chinese aren’t the only ones doing the brainwashing. Love is in the air, but everyone isn’t groovy.

Flint is an inventor, ballet instructor, editor and contributor of the revised Kama Sutra, transcendentalist and translator of an ancient Mayan cookbook, seeker of the third eye and freelance spy, is the one M.A.C.E. (Mandated Actions for Covert Enforcement) calls on to tackle their most perilous assignments.

It’s going to be fun.

Q: Where do you get your ideas?

A: I used to clip articles out of the newspaper or magazines. Some news item, and it didn’t have to be about a robbery or a murder, though could have been. It could be about a medical oddity or a technological advancement. Now with the “internets” I still do this, only it’s mostly printing out an article I’ve read online. Take pro quarterback Brett Favre accused of sending lewd pictures and leaving voicemails to at least three female reporters. There’s also a push to have a moratorium on foreclosures. These are unrelated items but then you get to wondering, how could they be related? What could be the connective tissue between these events? When you start asking yourself that, combined with asking yourself, like, what the hell was Favre, married, a public figure, a young grandfather for goodness sakes, thinking? What’s the delusional state that sets in when a guy like that figures there’s not going to be fallout from these idiotic acts of harassment? Now we have something to hook onto for a kind of character, to be in his head.

The foreclosure debacle got me thinking about a news items I read more than a year ago where a desperate single dad chained himself to his outside water heater to prevent the gas company from disconnecting his gas due to his unpaid bill. Here’s another mindset, a man driven to do a desperate act to provide for his kids. Now what if specific events conspire to throw these two together in some sort of confrontation? Maybe too things are not always what they seem on the surface.

We’re off to the races.

Q: So how’s your poker game these days?

A: It’s never been good. It’s not as if I watch shows like the World Series of Poker and can imagine myself sitting at one of the tables stacking the chips. Naturally I’ve read various books on the game as a way to give me some insight…opening the third eye if you will.

Curiously, one of the poker books I have is this very enlightening one called The Education of a Poker Player by Herbert O. Yardley. Interesting cat. He was like something out of the pulps. As a teen, he was captain of the football team, editor of his high school paper and class president. He had a head for math and when his mom died in 1905, he inherited a modest two hundred bucks. He took to the poker tables and did quite well. By 1912 he was a code clerk in the State department. During World War I, he set up the Cipher Bureau, Military Intelligence 8 also known as the Black Chamber. You better believe I’m going to work this guy into the Operator 5 storyline.

Bouchercon, the annual mystery convention being held in San Francisco this year has a regular group of mostly writers who get together in the evening to play. I was there again, sucker that I am.

Q: You’ve edited or co-edited a few anthologies, most recently Orange County Noir from Akashic. Has this given you a different perspective as a writer?

A: It has. What I try to do as an editor is provide helpful notes or feedback to the writer to hopefully have them draw out what they’re looking to say in their story. My goal is not have them write the story like I would write it, but work with them to hone their work to be a tale that grabs the reader. The cool thing about short stories is you gotta draw ‘em in, keep them going along for a few pages, a twist or two, then resolve or at least end the story in a satisfactory fashion. I tell you, having the pleasure or reading others’ stories with both the critical view as the editor and a reader wanting to be challenged and entertained is a treat. There’s no bells and whistles, no way to dodge, to cover up parts that don’t work in a short story – it’s either humming or it’s not

Q: Speaking of ducking, is Floyd Mayweather Jr. going to keep ducking Manny Pacquiao?

A: It certainly seems so. Mayweather keeps coming up with excuses not to fight the Pacman and now he’s got legal woes though those aren’t insurmountable. Mainly he’s obviously scared to fight Pacquiao who would clean his clock. Sad really. It’s like in the comics, the Thing ultimately isn’t as strong as the Hulk, but damn that, he cowboys up and goes toe-to-toe with the jolly green giant when duty calls.

Q: With that as a metaphor, is writing, fighting as Ishmael Reed stated?

A: Heck yes. You have to know when to press your attack, when to be up on your feet bobbing and weaving, when to lay back and use rope-a-dope to let your opponent punch themselves out – but you have to be able to take the blows, the damage. You’ve got to be in shape to go the distance, baby.

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