St. Louis Noir Interview with Scott Phillips

stlouisnoir-1-509x800St. Louis, especially in recent years, has come to reflect the struggles of many U.S. cities trying to pull out of decades-long decline. The tensions and ambitions among those endeavoring to evolve or just survive have played out in the media as a mere flashpoint; a city that’s barely a curiosity to much of the country which only knows it for its sports teams, beer, and attention grabbing headlines that have dominated the larger narrative.

Editor Scott Phillips (THE ICE HARVEST, HOP ALLEY) has assembled a wide array of writers with ties to St. Louis, who peel back the layers of the community they know.

Tim Hennessy: Akashic Books’ Noir Series is long running and has gone global. What first drew you to the series and how did you want the St. Louis Noir entry to stand out?

Scott Phillips: I had stories in Los Angeles Noir and Las Vegas Noir, and I’d read most though not all of the series. I’d also had a story in THE SPEED CHRONICLES, which Akashic published. Johnny was saying to my friend Kelly von Plonsky, owner of Subterranean Books in St. Louis, that he’d like to do a St. Louis edition but he didn’t have an editor, and she said she thought I’d want to do it. So he asked me.

TH: Your novels and short stories are very rooted in setting; how did you approach gathering writers whose stories you hoped to include?

SP: St. Louis is a town with a lot of subcultures, past and present, and I tried to get as much of it in as I could. Mostly they were writers I knew, although several approached me when they’d heard about it. The very first story I sollicited was “Fool’s Luck,” by Lavelle Wilkins-Chinn. I’d read an early version in a workshop setting and thought it would be perfect, especially since, though it’s the very essence of noir in terms of sensibility, it’s not a straightforward crime story. There were a few I’d hoped would contribute who couldn’t or wouldn’t, but on the whole I was really happy with the lineup. And I was pleased to be publishing several of these writers for the first time.

TH: Since you’re not a native were you at all concerned that you might overlook any aspects of St. Louis? Did being an outsider help in any way?

SP: I think it helped, because over the years I’d developed an appreciation for what makes the city weird. There aren’t that many people who move here from elsewhere, so if you’re not a native you have to do your homework. It’s not that they’re unfriendly to people from out of town, it’s more like they can’t quite fathom the notion of being from someplace else and therefore unfamiliar with the intricacies of local tradition and lore.

TH: The collection has a great group of contributors with diverse backgrounds. Were there any stories that surprised you or broadened your perspective to parts of St. Louis that you’re less familiar with?

SP: Not so much in terms of locale, more in the sense of the worlds they enclose. Linda Smith’s storydsc00349-version-2“Tell Them Your Name is Barbara” is an amazing story about a woman traveling back and forth between two very different worlds, a posh Central West End law office and a crack house in East St. Louis. She paints the inhabitants of the crack house with a deft sympathy that a lot of writers wouldn’t have bothered with. And Jedidiah Ayres’s “Have You Seen Me?” deals with the lives of runaways in squats, and some of the details of it come from things he witnessed working at an old job years ago.

TH: If you’re able to discuss, what new projects are you working on now?

SP: I’m bearing down on the end of a novel and adapting my St. Louis Noir story, “Just One Little Goddamned Thing,” as a screenplay.

Tim Hennessy