A Conversation with Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is the author of three of the most highly acclaimed crime novels of recent years. His debut novel, The Ice Harvest, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the California Book Award, a Silver Medal for Best First Fiction, and was a finalist for the Edgar Awards, the Hammett Prize and the Anthony Award. It is now a major motion picture from Focus Features. Its followup The Walkaway continued his success, with The New York Times calling it “wicked fun.” His third novel, Cottonwood, is now out in paperback.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, where much of his first two books are set, Scott lived for many years in Paris, and then in Southern California, where he worked on screenplays. Those who frequent Showtime in the middle of the night may see his name on Crosscut (1996). He now lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.

Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri. Her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel and an RT Book Award for Best First Mystery. It was also shortlisted for Edgar, Barry, Crimespree, and Macavity Awards, and it was named to lists of the year’s best mystery debuts by the Chicago Sun-Times and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Sophie lives with her husband and two teenage children near San Francisco, California.

SL: A while back we were talking about whether every writer secretly wants to be a musician. You, and a few other writers I admire, keep wandering over into other media like untethered goats. Why do you think we’re so distractible? I mean, symptom or cause?

SP: It’s that urge to use a different part of the brain, I think. And there’s also the urge to make money, and sometimes other media just beckon. I’m doing a novel in France called Nocturne le Vendredi, which is going to be a TV movie sometime in the next couple of years, so there’s an example of a project existing in two media at once. And then I’ve been playing music as long as I’ve been writing, but in my case it’s mostly been closer to performance art than real music, because I’m not very talented. I’m very envious of my friends who are real musicians, though.

I also go back and forth between genres, which is something you do as well. Do you think you’d go nuts writing the same kind of book over and over again, the way some people do quite successfully?

SL: Uh, yeah . . . and I’m amazed that not everyone feels this way. I was talking to some writing friends, and the question came up: if a publisher offered you a million dollars a book, with the stipulation that you could write only in that genre, would you take it? Truly, I don’t think I could do it.

I have attention challenges. But I have to say, some of the most fascinating people I know are unfocused. Or scattershot-focused. Or going in ten directions at once. Really, I think part of the problem is that all the language we have to describe such a state is pejorative . . . I have a friend who takes a lot of work to keep up with; he’s probably unintelligible to the casual listener. But he’s made the point that by trying to medicate kids (and adults) into a state of uniform mental processing, we bridle and quash the skills that are necessary for certain endeavors — among them writing. Which is not to say that beautiful writing only unfurls from an unquiet mind . . . but that such a state of affairs should not, for some, be discouraged or mended.

CirclesI’m kind of addicted to the thrill of the unknown. I’m also put off (okay, enraged . . .) whenever someone tells me I can’t or shouldn’t attempt something . . . that’s pretty much the checkered flag to me.

Honestly, that was one of the things I loved about your work — I was so intrigued by the way you cast off the skin and possibly the skeleton of each book before moving to the next. The progression from The Walkway to The Ice Harvest was remarkable. What were you thinking, if you don’t mind my asking? Was a tonal U-turn a goal or a byproduct? Did it feel like a bold experiment? Did people try to dissuade you?

SP: After I wrote The Ice Harvest, I had a contract for a second book, and it occurred to me that probably what people would expect and want was another short, simple noir book, which would have been fine except that it’s then next to impossible to publish anything else. So I conceived The Walkway not as a sequel in the truest sense but as a connected, related book. And it wasn’t really meant to be a crime novel at all; all the 1952 sections, the ones with the pulpy feel and the actual crimes, were added about halfway through the writing of it, when I realized The Spectre Withinthat the flashbacks, etc., weren’t working very well. Some people loved that book, and some people felt like I’d betrayed their trust by writing a long, structurally complicated, literary novel with some crime in it. And then I wrote Cottonwood, which contained elements of every genre I know of except science fiction and fantasy, and if I ever write another book with its protagonist, I’m going to have him see a flying saucer, circa 1930.

At the moment I’m working on a TV project with Jedidiah Ayres that’s based on a true story, and I’m collaborating with a historian and a documentarian filmmaker and doing tons of research and spending lots of time speculating about the unknowns and unknowables of the case, and I’m finding it as absorbing as any novel I’ve ever worked on. Roger Petersen and I are doing a crime comic called “The Paradise,” and they’re both closer to classic genre fiction than any book I’ve done. I have this idea for a low-budget film that’s very much a traditional noir story, and that might turn into a book, except that it seems to me those kinds of pure genre stories work best in film.

Any thoughts about film or television, in terms of adaptation? A Bad Day for Sorry seems like a natural for either medium.

SL: Seems to me that TV’s gotten a lot smarter in recent years — dense in a good way. And more cleverly naughty. I’d love to see Stella in a TV series — the books in the Bad Day series are about as close to the form as I can imagine writing. Having just finished the fourth, I have to say the way I keep myself engaged is by going deep with the characters and wide with the episodic storyline . . . which seems like the way the best TV is done, right?

That said, despite a fair number of inquiries, no bites yet. And as for me being a part of developing for TV, that’ll never happen. I’m increasingly aware of my limitations, and I have nothing to bring to that table.

I doubt Stella would make much of a movie, but I’m holding out hope I’ll write a cinematic book at some point. I love the movies. My expectations are low; I’m happy if there’s a decent score, a little action, cheap thrills, or even cheaper bids for the audience’s sympathies. It’s odd, because I’m a very exacting and discerning reader but I’ve got almost no taste when it comes to the movies, and I like it that way.

Speaking of movies, I wish someone would make one out of my next book, which is my first venture into urban fantasy or dystopia or whatever we’re calling it this week. So far, the postapocalyptic movies I’ve seen have me a bit sideways. It’s like they’re a little too hook-y or something; there’s no lack of suspense, but I can never quite get my emotional footing. But maybe that’s just because — well, I have this theory that each of us has a specific dystopic vision, even if we’ve never bothered to explore it consciously. It’s no doubt shaded and littered and shaped and riddled and rent and redeemed by our own histories, our own fears, our own longings, and I’d bet that as often as not, it departs from the well-trod path or the heroic path. I want to see that, the human messiness that precedes and survives the end of the world.

Like Fay Weldon’s Chalcot Crescent, my current read — Weldon’s elderly protagonist survives the crumbling of society and contemptuous squatting relatives and state-sponsored cannibalism to spend her days sitting on the chilly stairs of her noble old home, hiding from thuggish repossessors, yet almost unshakably cheery as she writes her memoirs, heavy on prurient speculation and the unrepentant revisiting of scandalous episodes from her past. I mean, isn’t that about a thousand times more interesting than much of what’s on offer?

What do you think, Scott — what makes great postapocalyptic cinema?

SP: One of my favorite movies when I was a kid was The Omega Man, and it has remained a consistent pleasure, even as I get older and see all the things that are wrong with it. It’s a million times more fun than the shitty remake, I Am Legend. Chuck Heston killing zombie mutants with a machine gun, Anthony Zerbe in milky white contacts as the lead zombie chanting “Come out, Neville,” the crucifixion at the end, the little girl asking Heston, “Mister, are you God?” . . . Man. That is an ass-kicking end of the world. I also loved the book by Richard Matheson, which I haven’t reread since the fourth grade.

But I doubt the world is going to end that way. I think it’ll be a slow erosion of the good life as we know it. I wrote Rut as satire, but in the grand science-fiction tradition of extrapolation. I don’t see much getting better in the West, at least in America, apart from a baldness cure and erectile dysfunction remedies. And there will come a time when wars will be fought over water, very likely including one between Northern and Southern California.

But no one’s going to look around and say, “Hey, it’s the apocalypse.” People will just live through it (or not), and afterward historians will look back at the early twenty-first century and think it was a golden age of solipsism and blindness.

Does that sound pessimistic? And how come you haven’t sent me that dystopian book yet?

SL: Okay, okay, I just sent it to you, overcoming my jitters about you reading it. You make such smart points above. Imagining the future through the lens of social change, of technological advance, of geopolitics — as you do in Rut, and Charlie Huston does in Sleepless — I’m fascinated, admiring, even envious, but I can’t seem to do it myself.

The SentinelThose were the most difficult passages for me to write in my Aftertime series — the specific details of how the world went nuts and what it looked like and how nations and communities would react. For my own purposes, it was sufficient to know that “a lot of bad things happened” but I was anxious to skip ahead to the part that interested me the most — which was what loss and horror would look like and feel like for a specific individual or set of individuals.

Adam, my editor, helped me through much of the detail work, and together we came up with a plausible scenario for the triggering events. I was very much aware, though, that we were just building a structure — a homely plywood-and-nails job, nothing elegant — to support the real work, which was the story of my heroine, Cass: what effect global-scale horror can have on a person who is already past the point of devastation, and whether those changes can be paradoxically redemptive.

I did love writing the grisly scenes, I’ll admit it. I have a sort of adolescent glee about it, about provoking my own “ewwww . . . awesome!” response.

But I find that I’m rigidly judgmental about how far is too far. There are books and comics I’ve read in the past year that I thought crossed the line in terms of graphic, horrifying imagery — and yet I feel like my own efforts are defensible and even, at times, lyrical. I get that this is dangerous thinking, certainly hypocritical and possibly even insulting to those readers who’ve given my own work a chance even though it’s far grittier than they prefer.

Any advice for how I can become less judgmental?

SP: No, I think judgmental is fine as long as you’re reasonably consistent. You’re talking to a writer who just blurbed Matthew Stokoe’s Cows, one of the most transgressive and disturbing books I’ve ever read, and one that I enjoyed immensely because said transgression was key to the work. When it’s just a question of a writer sticking in every last bit of outré violence he or she can think of because they want to seem edgy, that’s another thing, and of course that’s always a subjective thing. There are people who find my books horribly offensive, usually for reasons that baffle me. It’s not the guy breaking the guitar player’s fingers one by one in the parking lot that bothers people, it’s my use of the word twat. (I should say, and this is a point already made by Mark Billingham, that those offended readers are mostly female and invariably American.)

As for the end of the world, I’d be surprised if it’s an all-out nuclear exchange that leaves only cockroaches and microbes. It seems to me much more likely that things will just get shittier and shittier in all kinds of predictable ways until the world is no longer recognizable to us or hospitable to human life, at least not on a large technological scale. I’m attracted to dystopian or apocalyptic stories for the same reason I like certain types of crime or noir stories: they’re about people on the edge of normalcy, about to trip into abnormalcy and destruction. And I find all this funny, which is probably an indication that I’m not really a very nice person deep down.