Q & A
The following has been adapted from various queries and interview questions.
Q. Tell the readers a little about yourself--your family, personal interests, etc. What inspired you to become a writer?
I was born in Detroit during WW II and moved west with my family when I was 5 as my father Herb chased his post-war dream of a job in journalism. A lifelong pacifist, and a man of great integrity and quiet decency, my father had begun supporting his family at age 14 by doing photography after his father absconded during the Depression, and he later became a combat cameraman during the War and shot footage of battles across Europe. After the war he studied journalism on the G.I. bill briefly and then was fortunate enough to worm his way into the last generation of up-by-their-bootstraps journalists in San Pedro, L.A.s gritty harbor. It was there that I grew up amidst the sons of radical longshoremen and fishermen--who still called themselves Yugoslavs then, rather than Croats or Serbs. My mother Ruth also came from a Detroit family that had been devastated by the Depression and she could not afford a college education, but all through my childhood she took college courses, one after another, until she eventually piled up enough credit for a BA and then a masters in literature. I went to Pomona College and then UCLA where I received one of the first MFAs in film. I have worked on a newspaper, taught two years in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa, worked as a technical writer and video producer, lived twice in England for extended periods and spent much of the 1970s as a political activist in the anti-war movement and New Left.
I published four novels before embarking on this new Jack Liffey mystery series. The Orphan was a growing-up novel set in the hippie 1960s in Los Angeles. Courage is a novel of political revolution in Africa. Broken Codes is a spy thriller setting cynical American spy agencies against one another in the streets of London. The Taking of the Waters, from John Brown Books, a small Western radical press I helped found, is a three-generation saga of the American Left, moving from a feminist muckraker ahead of her times covering the water wars in Central California in the 1920s, to her son leading the Flint sit-down of the 1930s and then his son, leading a futile and self-destructive crusade after the bitter collapse of the New Left in the 1970s.
Q. What made you choose the mystery genre for your work?
I decided to launch a mystery series because the genre provides a perfect format for building up a social history of Los Angeles--and by extension, America--at the turn of the millennium. I hope to build up a gradual jigsaw puzzle picture of the city through sending Jack Liffey into one ethnic and social community after another. That was one genesis of the series, but that doesnt really do the Jack Liffey books justice. I wanted each book to be able to stand alone, not just as a whodunit puzzle, but also as a serious novel of character and social analysis, delving into whos ox is goring whom in America today. For example, the first book has as an underlying theme about the way developers used neighborhood organizations (not just in L.A.) to divide our cities ethnically--a theme first brought to light by the remarkable L.A. social historian Mike Davis in his much-praised City of Quartz. Mike, by the way, is a friend of mine and a continuing character in the books, under the name Mike Lewis. Yet another genesis was my wish to create a detective who was an everyman with no particular detecting skills or bravado--a decent, strong-willed, honest man, but really only a laid-off aerospace technician who is struggling to make ends meet and keep up with his child support payments by tracking down missing children. There is also an epic element to the series in that each of the books contains an ordeal or a natural disaster that makes heavy demands on Jack Liffey--in the first book he and his woman friend are tied up and hurled into L.A.s storm drains just as a flash flood bears down from a mountain storm and they must make their way through the sewer pipe with the water rising. Later books contain a large earthquake, a poison gas spill, etc. And finally, there is a running joke--if you like--of the dystopic, increasingly chaotic nature of America today. Wherever Jack Liffey goes he is beset by random and utterly gratuitous oddities--naked men bellowing and hurling iceplant into traffic, amputees dueling with their prosthetic arms, crashed poultry trucks with burning chickens fleeing in all directions.
A social history of layer on layer of greed and exploitation, ethnic groups confronting one another eye to eye, honest souls trying to make their private peace, a public sector breaking down, rising hysteria all around--thus, Jack Liffeys America at the turn of the millennium.
Q. Who are your favorite mystery authors?
I am not widely read in the mystery genre, but I suppose my favorite mystery writers are the same as most other writers--Hammet, Chandler and Ross MacDonald, though hes a trifle too Freudian for my taste. All three could write like a dream and cared about their craft as writers.
Q. What kind of books do you read besides mysteries?
I read a lot of general fiction, and my favorite corner of fiction is a ragged little outpost of literature that a find I enjoy more than most others. It seems to me to be the harsh breath of the modern world--and I apologize in advance if it also seems to be largely (though not exclusively) a male preserve. Names: Chandler, Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, Kent Anderson (especially his stunning Sympathy for the Devil), Richard Ford (especially the magnificent and overlooked The Ultimate Good Luck), Wallace Stegner, even Willa Cather. The books are morally serious, hard-edged and largely unsentimental, dealing with silences and disappointment and inner strength. And rage. Often, but not always, they are minimalist in form. This harsh outpost is full of magnificent spare dialogue out of Hemingway, usually crisp and indirect, description that is often witty and vivid, shocking with its abrupt concrete metaphors. More names: Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (if only for the wonderful world-weary True Confessions), Conrad, some Graham Greene, Nadine Gordimer (think of The Conservationist.) None of these writers live exclusively in this dangerous fortress on the edge of literature, out among the Picts and wild men who paint themselves blue, but most of the ones Ive mentioned have paid their dues out there and know that the world is not benign, not easy, not pacific and above all, not redeemable in any grand fashion. Down these mean tales men and women must go who are not themselves mean, to quote Chandlers famous dictum. Its a noble existential calling. Out on the frontier, our surrogate adventurers have to face the ugly and cruel every day, and every day they have to reinvent human decency, out of nothing. Its a bleak vision and the characters are often only too willing to settle for less rather than more. Sometimes, its enough for them simply to know that decency might have been, but wasnt. They patrol the frontiers for us, witty and vivid and frightened, and though they never find anything to plug the God-sized hole in the world, they usually offer themselves as human sacrifice.
Other favorites include Jim Harrison, especially the Dalva books, Cormac McCarthy, and a new writer I've just discovered, Stewart O'Nan.
Q. Tell me what its like to write a novel--where you get ideas from, how long it takes, what an average day is like.
In a sense, Ive covered where my ideas come from in the discussion of the genesis of the Jack Liffey series. Amongst other sources I like to read and talk to social historians. Recently, for example, I wrote about Orange County (The Orange Curtain) and my best source for the fascinating changes that have gone on in this new plum-pudding city is a book called Postsuburban California, plus discussions with two of its authors, Spencer Olin and Marty Schiesl. They have also generously given me access to their research materials. The themes include: hidden struggles within the local ruling class as the original big landowners in the county ceded power in the 1950s to the rising local manufacturers and chambers of commerce and they in turn were muscled aside in the 1970s by national and international corporations with very different needs. The transformation into a continuous but multi-centered, diverse, consumerist (malls everywhere) sprawl, driven by new information and medical technology businesses. Plum-pudding city is my formulation for this new entity--like similar areas in 20 or so places in the country near big cities--Suffolk County in New York, Oakland in Michigan, Silicon Valley, etc. And the rise of Little Saigon in the county with its own bitter ethnic tensions between Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese.
These strands of current history all breed their own conflicts and their own newer kinds of stories that hopefully will illuminate where we are going as a nation--as well as providing fascinating human stories.
Q. How do you get started on a book?
In a sense, getting started is not tough at all once you have a series with a point of view and an objective, and characters who have come alive for you. Its one difference, false modesty aside, between just wanting to be a writer, and actually wanting to say something. You just have to struggle to keep it all from becoming too schematic. You need dollops of reality and accident--trespassers from the real world leaving behind their lumps of undigested surprise. Its these intrusions on the books that keep the series from becoming stale. For example, instead of the accustomed physical ordeal, the fourth book contains a serial killer whose path crosses Jack Liffeys. What is more characteristic of our times than the random madness of the serial killer? And, I had no idea Little Saigon would play a large role in the story until I went and hung out in this huge new complex of shopping malls and began digging into its own fascinating history.
Q. What do you like most about writing?
What I like most is this coming alive that takes place as the characters begin speaking, acting and interacting. I never set out a detailed outline of what comes next, only general goals for where the whole should go, so the story ends up surprising me, too.
Q. What do you like least about writing?
What I like least about the writing is the fact I can no longer smoke while I write. Until July 1, 1984, I smoked four packs a day and always had a cigarette going as a boon companion while I wrote. Its been very hard to write since then, suddenly alone. Not a week goes by without the dream that Ive forgotten and started smoking again.
Q. How did you create your detectives character? Is Jack Liffey based on yourself? Do you find yourself thinking in character in everyday life?
It should be obvious that to some degree the character of Jack Liffey is based on me, but saying that really trivializes the writing process. Im laid off from aerospace tech writing, I live in the condo complex where I describe him living, he drives not my car but the car a woman friend owns, he has some of the same friends I do, hes a bit grumpy about the existential dilemmas of life, etc. But then I dont have a daughter, or a Viet Nam background, or even the meager detecting skills or courage that he has. All the characters in everything Ive written are based on my thoughts, my dreams, my feelings and my disappointments--but thats just the raw material of fiction. Its like saying all London houses are made of bricks so we should dig into the character of the bricks. There is nothing whatever of the wonderful architecture of those marvelously varied Victorian terrace houses that is contained in an individual brick. Its the way theyre stacked up that matters; where the clay comes from is irrelevant. Ive tried to make Jack Liffey the kind of man who, if forced to, can confront late 20th century America head on and survive, just. Some of him is me, some I wish were, and some Im glad isnt.
Q. What can readers expect from you in the near future?
Streets on Fire. Due in spring 2002. In Jack Liffey's fifth major case, he is asked by an honored civil rights campaigner of the 1960s to track down his adopted son, part of an interracial couple who have gone missing from a small suburban college after a suspicious run-in at a jazz club with a motorcycle gang. He sets out on this quest just as a new wave of unrest is brewing in the city in the aftermath of a police chokehold death of Abdullah-Ibrahim, the Dodger's new ace spitball pitcher, who is a black Muslim. In the course of his investigation, Jack runs afoul of skinheads, white supremacists, the Christian Right, Black separatists, and his own latent racism--coming face to face with just about every form and degree of racism afoot in America. In the end, his 15-year-old daughter and a gifted 11-year-old black girl she has befriended are forced to come to Jack's rescue and they have to wheelbarrow his unconscious body many miles to a hospital straight through a full-fledged civil riot.
City of Strangers. Due in spring 2003. Deals with Iranian students, Arab terrorists and Jack Liffey's own near nervous breakdown.
Q. What advice would you give to beginning writers?
Find something you really want to say, look into the subject, and then read the best fiction available and steal what looks like it works (as long as you redigest it). Shakespeare did.
Q. How much does the environment that the mystery takes place in--both physical and historical--affect your work?
If social history, the times, imponderables of human character and fin de milennial disappointments didnt affect the work, something would be badly wrong. You would probably have an empty intellectual puzzle. I wont go on a tirade about the emptiness of the manor-house mystery, Raymond Chandler already did it perfectly in his seminal essay The Simple Art of Murder.
Q. What else would you like to say to the mystery fans reading this newsletter?
When I was about 9, I went into the local supermarket with my mother and my eye caught on a new magazine with the words An important message from the publishers inside! splashed across the cover. Inside was a drawing of three or four men kneeling in supplication under the talk-balloon, Please buy this magazine! I burst out laughing in the store. It was issue number one of MAD, and I begged my mom for a quarter or whatever it cost then.
Please buy my books! Give them a chance. Its going to be a long, fun, illuminating ride ahead.