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Why Crime?

The Burning of BooksWhy crime? This is the question most crime writers get asked more than any other. For a long while I couldn’t answer it. Honestly, I had no idea. To start with I didn’t read crime, which is a weird confession to make and one that could see me strung up by my thumbs above a bonfire of copies of The Wreckage, a very combustible read.

In my very first newspaper interview I was famously misquoted as having read only one crime book— which became the headline for the entire piece. The mistake has haunted me ever since with people desperate to know “which one.” Either it was the very best crime novel ever written, or the worst one—why else would I have stopped?

What I tried to tell the journalist (and obviously failed) was that I tried to read one of each because there are so many new crime writers emerging every year. We live in a golden age of mystery and crime fiction, with some truly brilliant practitioners of the craft. We all have our favorites. We all find our level.

But I go back to the original question: Why crime?

I can answer the question now. I know why I write crime novels. I can even pinpoint the day when the seed was planted (although it took more than twenty years to germinate).

On April 2, 1980, a young man called Raymond John Denning hid amid prison garbage and became the first inmate in eighty years to escape from Grafton Jail, 400 miles north of Sydney, Australia.

I was nineteen at the time, a cadet journalist on the old Sydney Sun, working the graveyard shift, midnight to eight.

Denning was serving a life sentence for the savage bashing of a prison warder during an earlier attempted escape. The warder later died. Although only in his early twenties, Ray was already a hardened criminal who had been in and out of prison since he was fifteen, and was notorious for his many escape attempts.

Denning was immediately classified as the second-most-wanted man in Australia (behind Russell “Mad Dog” Cox, who comes into the story later). He was almost caught within days in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, when police stopped a car being driven by a girlfriend. Denning fled into dense bushland and evaded police roadblocks and helicopters.

He spent the next twenty months on the run, not just avoiding the police, but taunting them. He managed to turn himself into a modern day folk hero by pulling publicity stunts designed to embarrass the police.

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Why does an Englishman write American crime?

This is a question I have been asked so many times.  Enough times for me to take a long look at it, if for no other reason than to have an answer next time I am asked.

Paul Auster said that becoming a writer was not a “career decision” like becoming a doctor or a policeman.  You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days, and I concur with his attitude.

I feel the same way about genres.  I think the genre chose me, as opposed to my choosing the genre.

The thing that has always fascinated me, and the thing that I believe is the only thing that fascinates authors really, is people.  It’s that simple.

Life is people.  People are life.  Without people there is nothing to talk about, nothing worth saying.

And why American crime?  Because such a genre presents me with a broad canvas, and upon that canvas I can write conspiracy, thriller, romance, history, politics, social commentary.  I think US crime holds a mirror up to society better than any other genre.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly for me, crime gives me an opportunity to present my “people” with situations that they would never experience in ordinary life.  This then gives me possibility of putting those people through the mill emotionally, and that is where my true interest lies.

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A Conversation with Derek Haas and Rian Johnson (Part II)

Continued from Monday, Derek Haas and Rian Johnson discuss Johnson’s forthcoming time travel epic, Looper, Haas’ next project, The Double; Dashiell Hammett, The Hardy Boys and the eternal question:  screenplays vs. novels?

Rian Johnson: Now that we’ve discussed Popcorn Fiction, we get to the real question that all of the Americas is asking: when can we expect a sequel to Catch That Kid?

Derek Haas: [Laughs] You know, we’re just waiting for Kristen Stewart’s star power to rise for her to be big enough to merit a sequel. I think that could happen and then we could get Catch That Kid 2.

RJ: Catch it this summer.

DH: Rian, what is the latest on Looper? Your science-fiction time-travel dystopian script that everyone in Hollywood is talking about? I mean, you already have Bruce Willis and Joey Gordon-Levitt attached to star. When can we expect to hear more about Looper?

RJ: Well, if all goes well and why shouldn’t it—knocking on wood here—we should be shooting it in late January. So hopefully, near the end of next year we’ll have something. Yeah, not there’s a lot to really talk about without people knowing the movie except that it’s science fiction, but it’s time-travel science fiction, it’s much more in the tradition of the first Terminator movie, where time travel is part of the setup, but the movie is much more about a small group of characters dealing with what the setup has put them into. Rather than, say, Back to the Future 2, where you’re constantly zapping back and forth between different realities. Hopefully, it’s a time-travel movie where time travel kind of gets out of the way to a certain extent and it’s more about the characters. But we’ll see.

DH: Fantastic. And where do you think you’ll be shooting?

RJ: We’re still looking around. But it probably looks like it’s going to be New Orleans.

DH: New Orleans. Great. If I may, can I ask about naming the main character Jim Looper?

RJ: You may, you may. I guess that’s why they call me Looper. That’s going to be the last line. That came to me about a third of the way in.

DH: This is why I get paid to rewrite movies. I just gave you that one for free.

RJ: That was it? Like I said, you poop these things.

Mulholland Books: Rian, were there any books you were thinking about when you sat down to write Looper?

RJ: Not in the same way as Brick; Looper was more, there were certain ideas that I had and, this stuff always sounds terrible when you talk about it divorced from the actual work itself, but there were thematic things I wanted to deal with, so that was more the starting point as opposed to specific books or a specific author.

RJ: Derek, Michael Brandt just directed a script of yours. You were just off shooting a movie that you two wrote and Michael directed.

DH: Yeah. Michael, my partner, directed his first film, which is a spy thriller called The Double starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace and Martin Sheen and Odette Yustman. So, yeah, that was this summer and so hopefully it will be out sometime spring or fall next year. We’re not sure when.

RJ: We should just call each other, you know, we’re not doing anything, and plug each other’s stuff because it feels really good. Just middle of the day I’ll call you up and just …

DH: That sounds good. You’ve written three different movies now that all feel like they came from the same person but they are also sort of hopping genres. If you were going to sit down and write a novel, what area do you think you’d shoot for, like crime or sci-fi or … ?

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Derek Haas and Rian Johnson on Popcorn Fiction

We’re thrilled to announce that PopcornFiction.com, the brilliant genre fiction short story showcase created by screenwrtiter Derek Haas, has joined forces with Mulholland Books. In the weeks and months to come, we look forward to shining a light on Popcorn Fiction, and running select Popcorn Fiction stories on MulhollandBooks.com. Follow the PopcornFiction.com link today to read a short story by Alvaro Rodriguez, writer of MACHETE. And much, much more…

To learn more about the origins of PF, check out the below conversation between Derek Haas (WANTED, 3:10 to Yuma) and writer/director Rian Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM).

Rian Johnson: Derek Haas, you and your writing partner, Michael Brandt, virtually poop little nuggets of box-office gold. At this point in your career, you could, without exaggeration, afford to just fill a claw-foot bathtub up with gold Rolexes and luxuriate nakedly for the rest of your days without lifting another finger. Why, then, I put to you, start Popcorn Fiction? Why start a site dedicated to the … I don’t want to call it the lost art, but something that definitely had its heyday back in the fifties, this kind of pulpy short-form fiction. What was the thing that kind of spurred you to start the site up?

Derek Haas: First of all, it’s an honor to get to be interviewed by one my contemporary heroes of the modern cinema whose award-winning and well-loved films …

RJ: [Laughs]

DH: Never mind. I can’t do that with a straight face. OK, now, Popcorn Fiction, the idea originated when I was just thinking that I love old genre fiction, and it seems like screenwriters every week were setting up some story, a Philip K. Dick story, to be adapted into a movie, or an Isaac Asimov story. Michael and I had adapted an Elmore Leonard short story from the fifties into the movie 3:10 to Yuma. I was just thinking to myself where has all this great genre fiction gone? I’m sure there are magazines dedicated to it, but if there are, no one in Hollywood is reading them. I just thought so many screenwriters who I know love genre movies, love the L.A. Confidentials of the world, The Bourne Identitys, but no one seems to be writing that stuff in short form anymore and in prose. I just, literally, went to ten or so of my screenwriting friends and said, “Would you guys be interested in doing this? Maybe I’ll start a magazine.” Then I realized quickly I had zero idea on how to start a magazine. So I turned to the Internet and set up the site Popcorn Fiction. I got a great response from my screenwriter friends and commissioned them to write 2,000- to 8,000-word stories and really went for genre stories, not the kind of thing that would appear in The New Yorker. Let me qualify that by saying that, obviously, The New Yorker publishes the top, top short-fiction writing in the world. Not to take anything away from The New Yorker, but it’s not the kind of thing that is usually turned into films. Anyway, so that was my goal—get screenwriters writing short fiction, get executives in Hollywood reading short fiction, and maybe we would have a new door into getting original films made because it just seems like everything these days is based on a sequel or a comic book or a graphic novel or an old TV show. I just thought, “Well, maybe here’s a new way to generate some ideas.”

RJ: That’s interesting, from the very inception, the idea of this being geared toward the transition from print into movies was something that was on your mind from the very start.

DH: Yes, I had a publicist when this first started who was going to help me get it out there. And I told her, I really don’t care about the rest of the world reading this, I’d be delighted if this reached outside of Hollywood, and we found readers and fans around the world. But my primary target is Hollywood executives, and within the first six months of publishing, really the first ten to fifteen stories I published—I have a little subscriber button on the site and the subscriber button is basically asking people to just give me their e-mails and I won’t use that e-mail for anything else, and I will notify you when the new story is up—and within the first six months, I probably had five hundred subscribers and I would bet half of those were Hollywood executives.

RJ: Oh, wow. I know a lot of the writers who have contributed to Popcorn Fiction have been screenwriters and you have some, some titans of the screenwriting initiative, you have you know, John August and Scott Frank, but then you also have lesser-known poetasters like myself, and Craig Mazin. (Kidding, Craig, kidding.) What percentage of the contributors do you think are actually screenwriters, as opposed to people who are novelists or write short stories for living?

DH: It’s got to be 80 percent. Because I have written a couple of novels, I’ve met a few more novelists but because I live in Hollywood, I know more screenwriters, and I didn’t open up the site to outside general submissions at first. It was really just who my contacts were, who I could call and say, “Do you want to do this?” and so I just don’t know as many novelists.  The ones I do meet, I immediately hit up and say “Are you interested?” and I published a Sam Reaves short story.  A few weeks ago, I ran a woman named Alicia Gifford’s short story, she’s a novelist.  So, there are a few but they would be an exception.

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Darkness in the East

Noir is a French word meaning dark. It’s used to identify a certain type of grim fiction or film. Don’t let the French name fool you. There’s plenty of noir right here in East Texas, though it’s mixed with Southern Gothic and Western and all manner of stuff; it’s a gumbo boiled in hell. I know. I’m from East Texas. I’ve seen it. I’ve written about it. Weird as some of it is, fictionalized as the work is, it comes from a wellspring of true events you just can’t make up.

Let’s clear up one thing. There are plenty of good people in East Texas (saw one yesterday), but if you’re a writer of crime fiction, which I am at least some of the time, you’re not looking for good people. steam cloud You’re looking for weirdos, criminals, malcontents and the just plain stupid. That’s your meat if you write crime.

i just dont think I will ever get over youIn spite of the word, not all of the fiction or films associated with this genre are completely dark. Noir wears many hats, some even with bright feathers in them. Sometimes noir can laugh, which is where I come in. It’s where East Texas comes in. You can’t point at noir and call it one thing, but it usually has some of these elements: existentialist attitude, cynical and desperate characters, wise-ass talk, rain and shadows, a lightning bolt and shadowed blinds, sweaty sheets and cigarette smoke, whisky breath and dark street corners where shots are fired and a body is found, and long black cars squealing tires as they race around poorly lit corners.

For me as a writer, noir takes place in the backwoods and slick, brick streets and red clay roads and sandy hills of East Texas. My noir is about Baptist preachers claiming with lilting poetry to be called by the Lord to preach The Word, but who have intentions as false as a stuffed sock in rock star’s pants; pretty soon they’re gone with the congregation’s money and three deacon’s wives are knocked up. My noir is about the deep backwoods and small-town girls with inflated dreams and big blonde hair and the kind of oozing sex appeal that would make a good family man set fire to the wife’s cat and use it as a torch to burn down his house—with his wife in it.

You got your slicked-backed-shiny-haired used car salesman with more better deals and a plan to burn his business for the insurance money. You got your muscle-armed, pot-bellied hick with a toothpick and a John Deere gimme cap, forever dressed in hunting boots, camouflage pants and a wife-beater T-shirt—even if his destination is just the barber shop or the barbecue joint. He’s the kind of guy who likes to get drunk every night and drive home weaving. He’s the kind of guy whose last words are to his best buddy in the passenger seat—“Hey, hold my beer and watch this”—and who then proceeds to unzip his pants and attempt to drive his truck with his manly appendage.

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A Conversation with Andrew Vachss

On the occasion of the publication of Andrew Vachss’s new novel The Weight, Ken Bruen and Andrew Vachss talk about the blues, justifiable rage and writing for the streets not the critics.

Ken: Would you consider Two Trains Running your seminal work?

Andrew: Retro-seminal, in that it dissects events which have already occurred. Seminal was probably A Bomb Built in Hell…after all, who was even thinking about the possibility of a disaffected, marginalized young man walking into a high school with a knapsack full of weaponry, and killing a whole lot of random targets before taking his own life in 1973? Or Chinese youth gangs taking over from the traditional tongs in Chinatown industries such as gambling, drugs, and prostitution? Or what would happen in Haiti were someone to put a round in Baby Doc’s head before he fled to that bastion of art, France? You know, the same country that is now harboring Roman Polanski?

Ken: I know I miss Burke; do you?

Andrew: I don’t. Burke—who, by the way, suffered the same fate as Bomb when it (finally) did get published—got the job done. I needed a guide to Hell, and an angel wouldn’t do. So when Burke had a conversation with a predatory pedophile who was modem-trafficking in kiddie porn, the (cloistered) reviewers fell all over themselves dismissing the book (this was the second volume, Strega) as the work of a “sick imagination.” That was 1986. Now it’s a fairly standard plot device for the “noir” crowd. Of course, that crowd doesn’t like the word “seminal,” as only the very best Jim Thompson imitators qualify as “real.”

Damn, this is a long answer. But I don’t miss Burke in the “literary” sense. For many years, his only reason to live was hate, and his only religion was revenge. He was not a “vigilante,” as some twits have decided; he was a mercenary. But hiring him for some jobs would have been a suicidal act. Then he found his “family of choice.” They chose him; he chose them. And he became blood-bonded to this true family to the point of psychosis: endanger any of them, either you die, or Burke dies trying. The goal of a true family is not that their children follow in their footsteps, but that their children surpass them in all ways. For Burke’s family, the arc was complete when their children—raised by career criminals—left the underworld and stepped out into the light.

Look, who but a terminal narcissist would set out to write an 18-book series? I expected Flood to be my one chance in the ring, which is why it is so long: I threw every punch I could in the first round. But one of the significant ways Burke differed from “private eye” crap is that he aged. As did the world around him. I love those boys who “keep it real” via a protagonist who is the same in 2010 as he was in 1950. Oh, the surroundings change, but the narrator is still the strong, handsome, White Knight of the Chandler clones. It was time for Burke to go, and I was not going to keep him on life support. That wouldn’t have been his choice, and I had to respect that.

I know—not because I’m prescient; because I can read the letters that keep coming in—that ending the series was not a popular move. But I didn’t—such accusations to the contrary—“kill off” Burke. He’s gone, not dead. For those who felt they were losing part of their own family, I apologize. But I also want you to ask yourselves: is Wesley dead?

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Insulting Your Intelligence (“Just gimme some noiriness”)

toys'r'usI sometimes wonder if the popularity of noir isn’t largely due to the fact that no one seems entirely clear on what the hell it is.

Not that a busload of perfectly smart people haven’t ventured a definition or two. A great deal of thought is expended on virtually a daily basis trying to pin this sucker down, but it’s proved too supple a creature for that. One might even say noir’s ambiguity is its genius.

Is it?

Noir’s resurgence hasn’t taken place in a vacuum. Call it noiriness. So-called reality programming has become the middlebrow darling of TV executives and viewers alike. Not only has documentary filmmaking enjoyed a renaissance as well, its techniques have infiltrated TV comedy: consider The Office, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation.

There’s a trend here: a desire for the lowdown, the real deal, the inside dope. A craving for the authentic — or at least its veneer.

Noir responds to the same impulse, though the underlying need is edgier. Trace the trend back, and you’ll find Frank Miller reinventing the Daredevil and Batman franchises in the 1980s, and Alan Moore creating Warrior and V for Vendetta. And before that, in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s — when Lennon was belting “Just gimme some truth” — the lunatics were running the Hollywood asylum, giving us such neo-noir masterpieces as Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, King of Marvin Gardens, Scarecrow, Klute, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, The Sugarland Express, Thieves Like Us, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown.

I use the term neo-noir grudgingly. It’s become a truism that these films were in the noir tradition, but in fact many were simple, honest tragedies. Just as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman falls prey to the delusion of making it in America, Jake Gittes in Chinatown is betrayed by the mistaken belief that we can figure things out (in Polanski’s reworking of Towne’s script, anyway), and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy is misled by his conviction that a perfectly devised mask can shield him from the pain of being unloved.

Nearly all these films had tough, blatantly tragic endings, and even the ones that didn’t had a sense that if the hero survived, he did so through luck or guile, not virtue. These stories appeared in the context of the Vietnam War, when America was searching for a deeper understanding of itself, something that would remain once you tore away the paranoia and the swagger and the teary, knee-jerk flag-waving. Watching wood-hut villages napalmed before our eyes on nightly TV, we were obliged to confront a much different America than we’d grown up to believe in; it showed in our art.

Here, yes, neo-noir echoed classic noir, which was rooted in the Second World War and its aftermath, when soldiers stripped of their illusions returned home to a country desperate for normalcy. Inwardly, many of these vets recoiled from their portrayals as heroes, for they knew what it took to survive combat, and often it was luck, or something much darker, not fit for a chat with the wife and kids or Reverend Tim.

And the graphic-novel noir of Miller and Moore simply continued this thematic thread, yes?

Not exactly.

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What Ya Readin’ for?

ThThe outsidere best explanation of the difference between nonfiction and fiction, I feel, is that nonfiction’s primary purpose is to convey information, whereas the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion in the reader.

I think great books work on an emotional level. Fear is an emotion, a very powerful emotion. Perhaps people read thrillers and horror novels because it is a way of experiencing emotions that you ordinarily don’t experience in life, but without putting yourself directly in harm’s way. I think, also, that it is an effort to try to better understand the aspects of the human psyche that we don’t have answers for. The more we ourselves understand about human nature, the better we will survive. I know we operate that way, so all reading—of whatever genre or subject—has to also come down to the fact that we are trying to understand more of ourselves and others to better our own comprehension of life, and thus improve the quality of our existence.

Someone once said to me that there  are two types of novels. There are those that you read simply because some mystery is created and you have to find out what happens. A puzzle or an unresolved question is presented in the opening, and from there you follow a tortuous maze of clues, misdirectors, and red herrings until the denouement. The denouement is satisfying or not, but still this is not the type of book you read for the lyrical prose, the scintillating turn of phrase, the stunningly descriptive passages. It is airport literature, and that term is not applied derogatorily. Such novels are compelling, and the urgency with which you have to reach the end is remarkable. You need to know what happened! Having read such a book, however, perhaps you would be asked some weeks later whether it was a title you had encountered. You would pause for moment. “Remind me again what it was about?” you would say, and that simple request would say all that needed to be said about the level of emotional engagement inherent in such a book. Wonderful plots, clever twists, but not a book to change your preconceptions about life.

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Why I Want to Fuck J. G. Ballard

So I can have his babies, that’s why. Though I am reliably informed that for various reasons this may no longer be possible, if indeed it ever was . . . which is a pity, because I’ve been a big fan of Ballard’s since the late  seventies, when I first came across The Atrocity Exhibition.

Your mid- to late teens are a great time for discovering new ways of seeing things, new stuff—thrilling works of transgression that make an indelible impression on your imagination. Someone hands you a copy of The Third Policeman, or you sneak in to see Taxi Driver, and somehow your world changes. I found it especially thrilling back then to come across a copy of The Atrocity Exhibition, because not only did it change my world, it cut it up and rearranged its face. I remember scanning the chapter headings in the shop, still trying to work out what the damn thing was—a novel? short stories? a catalog?—but when I got to “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” I knew it didn’t matter. Whatever this shit was, I had to read it.

So it wasn’t too long before I was devouring Crash, Concrete Island, High-Rise, and The Unlimited Dream Company. I then followed Ballard through the years, reading every new book that came out, as well as many of his always fascinating articles and interviews. And when he died last year I felt—along with so many others—a real sense of loss. Ballard inspired great loyalty in his readers. There was this idea that he had been our guide through the supermediated psychoscapes of the twentieth century, and both halves of it, too—because as centuries go, the twentieth had definitely been a game of two halves. In the first half fascism happened and was more or less quashed. In the second half certain unresolved energies left over from the thirties and forties spurted forth and flowered in a thousand weird and rarely wonderful little ways. Ballard absorbed the first half, and then—luckily for us—chronicled the second.

And that is one of the reasons, I think, for his continuing appeal—especially to young writers who may be striving to find a voice and subject matter of their own. Ballard seemed to arrive on the scene with a voice and subject matter that were ready-made and fully assembled, a set of concerns and themes that would be the envy of any writer at any time.

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The True Believer

Every writer needs a true believer on his team. I am a literary agent, and I am a true believer. I am a creative partner and a business partner to a group of talented, ambitious, and hardworking authors. I’m a good editor, I know a lot of people who can publish your book or buy your rights, and I can negotiate a sweet contract with them. But my real job is just to believe.

Publishing is a creative business. Everyone who works in this industry is semi-crazy with the belief that we are working on something that is going to make a mark, become something special, maybe even invent an entire subgenre. I believe in the endless possibility of a good creative idea. That’s why I hate rejecting submissions. I sometimes sit on them when I should just say no, because I believe they can be fixed. I am sick with this belief; I can see the potential in almost everything. Yet in my heart I know they can’t all be saved.

But here’s how it goes when it’s good: One day a writer tells me about an idea. I tell her it rocks, because it does. A few months and a few drafts later, it is an 85,000-word novel under contract with a publisher. With an on-sale date at bookstores and a very pretty cover. Soon after that, it’s a signed first edition or downloading to your iPad in fifteen seconds and your friends are talking about it. The next year, it’s winning a big award and we’re all drunk with the celebration. Then I have cool-looking copies of the book in Polish and Chinese translations sitting on my office bookshelves, and the guy I first pitched the film rights to is on the telephone with me seriously talking about Nicolas Cage playing the lead in the film adaptation. This kind of stuff happens because we all believe.

My belief disrupts my family life. Last week, Duane Swierczynski delivered the first draft of his new novel Fun and Games. It seems like we just pitched this as a story idea not fifteen minutes ago. It is so damned good that I blew off the Friday night movie my wife and I rented to watch together just so I could finish reading it. Sadly, my wife understands. She wants to read it, too.

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