Gary Phillips: The Hardest Working Man in Crime Fiction
Gary Phillips just might steal James Brown’s title of being the Hardest Working Man in Show Business – his output certainly shows as much. This year he’s already published 3 THE HARD WAY through Down & Out Books with three more projects to see release in October.
Philips, a long-time native of L.A. living near where he was born and raised, writes some of the most realistic crime fiction in the genre, filling his stories with characters that fit right into the context of their times. His restless devotion to bettering his craft shows, as Philips is still publishing some of his best work even after twenty-three years of being a professional author.
He took the time out of a Sunday morning for the following interview conducted over a Skype call.
Anthony Campbell (Q.) What projects do you have that are to be published soon?
Gary Phillips (A.) With Eric Campbell, we’ve got another Bouchercon anthology coming out called BLOOD ON THE BAYOU, which we are doing a joint signing for in New Orleans. I’ve also got a couple of comic book projects coming as well. One I’m doing through DC Comics is miniseries reviving an old character called the Vigilante. He’s been revived before in the 80’s when they made him a kind of Punisher character. I’m remodeling his new stories around my son, so he’s a tatted, semi-slacker young man who has to rise to the occasion when his girlfriend is murdered. From there events propel him into a different life than he thought he’d have. With my friend Christa Faust, we are working on a miniseries for Titan Comics called Peepland. It’s set in the last battle days of Times Square, in about the late 80’s. Coincidentally, one of the characters is based around Donald Trump because he was at the time one of the big real estate guys vying to clean up Times Square. Obviously we don’t call him by that name, but this character plays a role in the story. It’s a very dark noir story, featuring what they used to call the Grindhouses and Peep a Boos. They were porno theaters; now, you young people can just get on your computers and look up porn at the touch of the button, but in the old days, you had to be a dirty old man and go out to a grimy theater and pay money to see porn.
Q. So for Bouchercon, that’s a short story you’re contributing to the collection correct?
A. Yes, and I do have a couple of other short stories that are getting out, like in The Highway Kind. My friend Patrick Milligan edited that collection, and that’s coming from Mellahan Books, based around crime stories with cars. For the first time ever, I wrote a Sherlock Holmes story that is going to be coming out in a collection called ECHOES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.
Q. For the Sherlock Holmes anthology, what is the approach with the stories in it?
A. It’s taking the character and adapting him to a modern day context. My story will upset the Holmes-aphiles, but the people who are putting together the anthology, Laurie King and Les Klinger, said we could use Holmes any way we want. King writes a series of stories featuring Mary Russell, who is Holmes’ care-giver, eventually helping him solve mysteries. Klinger put out the big annotated Sherlock Holmes volumes that got him an Edgar. My Holmes story is set in the 1970’s and Watson is a black Vietnam vet and Holmes is still Holmes. It’s set in New York City and they have a falling out over Irene ? I start it off with a murder that draws them back together again.
Q. The comic you said you were doing for Titan Comics, dealing with the gentrification of New York City in a way, makes me recall the last collection of yours I read, 3 THE HARD WAY. One novella in particular, The Extractors, shared this theme of gentrification. When you write stories, do you feel like it is the duty of the author to bring these realities up?
A. In the end, I see myself as an entertainer. I write the stories I want to read, because otherwise, there’s no reason to write them. If I get bored I assume the reader will get bored. Given my background and when I grew up, I was just young enough to not get drafted, so all of that context is my DNA.
Take that collection: it’s pulp, but I want to ground the pulp to a reality, I want it to resonate in a certain way with events of the day. I’ve written political essays, but this is not my time for the soapbox. I want to give you want you came for: interesting characters, dialogue that hopefully sparks off the page – if I sprinkle these other political elements along, so be it, but not so much that it bogs the story down.
Q. I bring this up because, to me, compared to a lot of the crime fiction I am exposed to, I find that your work is entertaining but is realistic, which I thoroughly enjoy. The varieties of characters you include give depth to the work others forget, in my opinion. What about your background got you into writing?
A. I’ll give you this answer, but you may see something somewhere else and say, “Well, that son of a bitch lied to me, he said something different to someone else!” but it’s all part of the big picture.
Here’s why I became a writer: I went to school to study graphic design, because when I was a kid I wanted to write and draw my own comics, right. It turns out I can’t really draw. So I had to do the next best thing, I had to keep writing. I also kept reading.
Growing up in South Central, I’d get a little allowance from my dad, say a dollar or two a week. Comics back then were a dime or a quarter, so of course I’d get some of those. Pop was a child of the Depression, so giving me two bucks meant something to him. To make sure he wasn’t wasting his money, he’d ask me sometimes what happened in a Batman comic or in that new issue of Daredevil. I was reading the stuff, right, so I’d tell him what happened. It instilled this skill in me to tell stories and synopsize as a kid. To talk just about the major things that was happening and not every little thing. I think that gave me a sense of story and pace.
I played sports in school, but I was still a reader. My dad was a blue collar guy, a mechanic, but my mom was a librarian, so that’s the sort of house I grew up in. I had no choice but to read the books around me. My dad never made past sixth grade but he had a love of education, and with my mom, I was always encouraged to read. That’s what I’ve done with my kids, even though only one of them still reads. I was always a reader and at some point I wanted to tell my own stories.
Q. What are some of your influences?
A. It’s all over the map. For prose there’s Richard Wright… I have a first edition of NATIVE SON that mother owned lying around here somewhere… Twilight Zone reruns actually impacted me a lot, because when I was a kid they’d rerun them on network TV and my aunt gave me a book that was an adaptation of Rod Sterling’s script of teleplays made into prose. I was nine or ten, so I knew they were actors but it was trippy to me that I could read what they were saying and I could be inside their head through written word. It really impressed me. The Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee were also big. When I finally got into the mystery field, I’d say Hammett made a bigger impact more so than Chandler. Chandler wrote more evocative kinds of sentences but Hammett made better plots and was more grounded in reality. Ross Macdonald wrote about his P.I. character Lew Archer that made a big impression on me in the way he wrote. A lot of his books where about how his character would get into these cases that stretched out with a backstory on the family or victims involved that I found completely intriguing.
Q. Would you define yourself as a prolific writer, or are you more of a hard worker?
A. I like to think of myself as a hard worker. Writing is a craft, but it’s also a labor. I’ve done manual labor, so sometimes I like thinking about writing in those terms. You can build a brick wall but there’s an art to it. If you don’t get the brick and mortar where it needs to be, then the wall will fall over and you won’t get paid.
You learn as you write more. There are certain tricks that’ll come to you along the way. In my old age, I can see were one of these could go, and it doesn’t mean I’m on autopilot, but it gets old doing the same tricks as before. So I try to always challenge myself as a writer. In that regard, I strive for a certain amount of output but I want to be consistent. I teach part time now, so in this program I sit down to write in which case I have deadlines and need to be consistent. I write five or six times a week, in which I try to write twelve to sixteen hundred words in that span.
Q. When you do put down those words, and if this is an invasion privacy I understand, do they generally come together and this is a story or are they little chunks that could go to different projects?
A. I tend to write linearly, in a straight ahead fashion the first time. For instance, I’ve just wrote this short story. I’ve left it alone to gestate, and tomorrow I’ll look at it with fresher eyes as I do my edits. As you’re writing there are things you discover that invariably I found interesting. There are turns with this one I didn’t think it’d take but I’m happy with that. Each story is a new kind of discovery.
I’ve written about fifty shorts stories and about thirteen or fourteen novels, with another one I’ve got to get started in another month, but it’s always about getting something different in each story. I’m very plot orientated which is different from the mainstream stuff.
The Sympathizer is one which is sort of like that, it’s a very literate book that won a Pulitzer. Even though the author wrote it in a high literate style with a focus on an inner journey, it’s still about mystery and plot.
This is getting way the hell the way from the question you asked me, but I think it ties in to what I do differently, like thinking about how to do things differently with these stories.
Q. Are there other projects that you’re involved with outside of writing?
A. I’m working on a TV show idea with a couple of people. I’ve pursued the television industry before but this looks different, as we’re trying to get money to write the pilot. At this time in my so-called-career, I teach and write, or hustle the writing. Because half the time it’s being a salesman. You gotta go out and promote.
Q. Under these conditions then, do you feel like there are two Gary Phillips?
A. I think about that sometimes. Most of the time I’m happy to be alone and write. Now, with Bouchercon coming up, you’re part of the dog and pony show. You gotta be on, which is fine because it’s only a few days. Not that I’m antisocial, but I think about this sometimes, I think about musicians. I can’t imagine that kind of life. You know, no wonder they get into addiction; they always have to be on.
I was at a little dinner party last night, there was a guy who writes prose and does TV stuff. He was in Germany and there’s this actor there he knows that’s the David Letterman of that country. But he lives out here in Calabasis, where no one knows him in the suburb. He’s just a normal guy. If he was in Germany, he’d get mobbed. I guess he tapes his shows back to back, so he come to L.A. to be normal for a bit. Obviously I don’t have that kind of life, but when I do have to go out I do feel a little of that. Not that it’s a false front, but the two or three fans who read my stuff and get to meet me I always make sure to be nice to.
Q. Speaking of musicians, what are your favorite bands or musicians?
A. The classics and old timers are always for me… There is a new band out here, the Dengue Fever, that has a Cambodian singer, which is cool because she’ll drift in and out of that tongue sometimes. I also like a lot of blues giants like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and I’m a big jazz fan. In fact I just saw an old time jazz singer not so long ago.
Henry Rollins does a radio show out here where he plays his weird strange music and some of it I can’t stand but some is really interesting. Oddly enough, when I’m writing I’ll have the radio going, playing NPR. Sometimes I’ll stop and hear what they have to say but then I’ll go right back into writing.
Q. Who’s your favorite tenor sax player?
A. I’d have to say Sonny Rollins. I finally got to see him at this concert hall in L.A., and he comes out on stage, a little bit grey, a little bent over from arthritis or something, and he looks like he might peel over any second now. Once he picks up his sax, he’s just blowing and it’s great.
Q. Do you feel the time and place we are now at, as a country and nation, there is a duty as a citizen to get involved more with politics?
A. Sure, of course. You’re sitting there in one of the swing state where Trump and Clinton are battling it out for the soul of America.
Q. Yes, I think we all should be getting ourselves involved. But the answer is also there are times where you can hit people over the head with politics and times you can’t. I don’t know when one candidate is better than the other, but getting to the heart of that question…
For instance, some things are more socially political than other things. One of the things I’ve written is a black pulp character in the segregated L.A. 1930’s. I have to show the history when that’s the reality of the story, as it helps make the story richer and is true to what was going on.
Hopefully a year from now, I’m hoping Trump isn’t president, we can look back and have some sort of analysis of this climate. We do know, for good or for ill, Trump is touching something that is out there. Whether it’s among the disenchantment of the white working class or something else, he is nonetheless touching it. It’s a reaction to change, which for some people brings out the “Let’s go back to the old days” mentality.
I’m a guy who writes middle or low brow entertainment, but as I’ve said before most of our current reality is going to leak into my stories. I could be really comfortable writing just black characters, but I gotta write white characters, Latino characters, old characters, any walk of life really, to get a rich tapestry of reality in my stories. I want them to make them dimensional, and so even though we may be individuals, we are shaped by our environments and cultures, and that gets in the stories. So I think as much as you can, as a writer, you are an anthropologist watching life categorizing certain things making lists in your head, to get a cross pollination of characters. My teaching gig has a similar feel, because it’s a spread of people of all ages and life, and they are all trying to write their books.