Short Third-Degree Sessions
Conversations with Bouchercon 2002 authors
Austin Chronicle: Tell us about your new book, coming out in February, Under the Skin.
James Carlos Blake
James Carlos Blake: Under the Skin is a 1930s crime novel set chiefly in Galveston in the heyday of the notorious Maceo brothers, but venturing as well into West Texas and Mexico. It's about a violent young man named Jimmy Youngblood, bastard son of Rodolfo Fierro, the fearsome and historically real Mexican revolutionary and a mysterious and wild-hearted American mother; and it deals chiefly with his coming to terms with the truths of his own nature.
AC: Fierro, by the way, is the protagonist of your great novel, Friends of Pancho Villa. Sense of place is, putting it mildly, a very vivid aspect of all your work. You recently moved from El Paso to Tucson; how's the weather and all that?
JCB: Although I'm presently living in southern Arizona, a region amenable to my desertland soul, it's only an indefinite sojourn. I'm a Texan to the bone and fully intend to get home soon.
AC: If you were just a civilian fan as opposed to a participating author, what about Bouchercon would attract you most?
JCB: Whether you're a participating writer or just a reader who loves crime fiction, you can't do better than the Bouchercon for enjoying yourself with a horde of others of your ilk. It's a moveable feast of social and literary pleasures, and I'm delighted that the feast has come to Austin.
Austin Chronicle: Pest Control, your first novel, is one of the best comic crime novels I've ever read.
Bill Fitzhugh: My first attempt at writing a novel based on a screenplay I wrote with Matthew Scott Hansen. Bob Dillon is a decent, hard-working entomologist who is in the throes of an experiment cross-breeding assassin bugs (to create the perfect non-poisonous method of pest control). When Bob answers an ad in The New York Times (for an exterminator), he sets in motion a bizarre series of events (only one of which is a coincidence), which results in the world's best assassins descending on New York to kill him for reasons he doesn't understand. Fortunately, the world's No. 1 assassin befriends Bob and clues him in. Together, using the violence inherent in New York City's worst neighborhoods, the two men work to see the experiment through as they attempt to escape the city. Or something like that.
AC: Tell us about your newest novel, Fender Benders, bearing in mind you're in the live music capital of the world.
BF: It's A Star Is Born meets Fargo set in Nashville. It's a murder mystery and a love letter to songwriters all rolled into one.
AC: What's your next novel about?
BF: I like to describe Heart Seizure as Midnight Run with a human heart instead of Charles Grodin. Spence Tailor is a lawyer whose dear old mom, Rose Tailor, desperately needs a heart transplant, and has the rarest blood type, AB. Waiting patiently, Rose has worked her way to the top of the UNOS transplant list. Meanwhile, the presidential election is three months away and incumbent President Webster plans to run for a second term. All systems are go until his heart craps out while jogging for a photo-op. He needs a transplant if he's going to live through November 4. He too is AB-negative. When a heart becomes available, and Rose goes to the hospital to await the harvest, the White House chief of staff, unwilling to wait for nature to take its course, orders the FBI to swoop in, prompt the harvest, and steal Rose's heart in the name of democracy. When Spence learns someone is trying to steal what rightfully belongs to his mom, he steals the heart and goes on the run, inadvertently kidnapping a beautiful cardiac surgery resident along the way. The president's people -- the FBI and the Secret Service -- give chase. Complicating matters further, the president's political opponent, Senator Peggy Check, hears terrorists have stolen the heart intended for her political opponent, so she sends in the CIA to make sure the terrorists succeed.
AC: If you were just a regular guy (as opposed to a famous comic crime writer), what would you look forward to most at Bouchercon?
BF: Eating beef, drinking whiskey, smoking cigars, hearing the Derailers at the Spoke. Oh, and looking at the bats. And sleeping late.
Austin Chronicle: Tell us about your new novel, Badger Games.
Jon Jackson: Crazed onetime American-turned-Serb-paramilitary-psycho makes life difficult for Joe Service and his buddybabe Helen Sid. Where's Fang Mulheisen? On vacation. The Lucani plot twists tighter and tighter. Look for someone to put the Kibosh on things.
AC: You play baritone saxophone and you're addicted to jazz. How does that relate to your writing?
JJ: I think if I had it to do over again I'd focus much more on music. I think that's the purest art. I'm not a good player. I hack away at the bari sax to soothe my mind when I get stuck while writing.
AC: From what you know about Austin, what do you think you'd like to do here if you had time to do anything else besides your Bouchercon activities?
JJ: I'd like to play golf. Anyone got an entrée to the Austin CC? Radio me immediately.
AC: You've got a pretty good gang of series characters at the helm of your novels. What do you suppose they'd be doing if they followed you to town?
JJ: Mulheisen would probably look around at historical sites. He may have some recollection of the place from his Air Force stint -- a TDY? Joe has some money stashed in town at a bank, but he can't remember the password on the account. He'll figure it out. Helen is always interested in style. She'll go to the music venues.
AC: If you were just a civilian instead of an author attending Bouchercon, what do you suppose would hook your attention most this weekend?
JJ: It's interesting to attend the various panels and discussions. I'd probably hang out around the book room and hope to encounter Dennis McMillan, reputed to be a wild and crazy guy. Actually, if you meet Dennis you have met every significant writer in the noir biz, one degree removed.
AC: Anything else you're looking forward to in Austin?
JJ: Barbecue. One of my favorite things.
Austin Chronicle: Gary, your Ivan Monk private eye protagonist (Only the Wicked, Perdition USA, Violent Spring) is one of coolest hard-boiled heroes to come along since Marlowe and Spade. It must be a challenge to come up with a fresh take on this genre, especially with a Chandlerland setting, even if you and your creation are African-American. How did you find a balance between tradition and cutting edge?
Gary Phillips: Ivan Monk, not to be confused with that effete poseur who stole his name on USA cable, is a private eye in a long line of searchers in the tradition honed by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. His cases are merely the framework upon which the structure of the modern mystery novel is hung. Specifically, Monk is a product of big, bad Los Angeles, a city he knows intimately. Yet it's also a city that is changing, metamorphosing around him as the ethnic and economic enclaves of his youth are now somebody else's area of town. And his job is to exact a modicum of justice in the service of his clients as he must negotiate this shifting social terrain.
AC: Tell us about your new novel.
GP: The latest book, The Perpetrators, is a novella out from two cool gents here in L.A. called Ugly Town Publishing. It's a straight- up action-adventure piece involving a dude named Marley who has less than 18 hours to deliver his client, Lina Guzmán, heir to a drug lord's empire, alive from Tijuana on the border to the California state capital in Sacramento, some 600 miles north. Naturally, all sorts of quixotic villains -- from machete-wielding honeys in Aztec headdresses to a Goth hit team -- are out to prevent this from happening. I've had a little interest from a couple of producers in turning this work into a film project (which frankly, was my intention all along as the book reads very script-like; i.e., stripped down and moves fast), so we'll see. But we've all done that hustle so none of us are changing our dance plans to wait by the phone, right?
AC: I know you've got a special interest in a racial story that happened in World War II. What's up with that?
GP: I've got a historical novel about African-Americans and the World War II years, Freedom's Fight, in a limbo state right now. It's been written and I've been waiting for the editor's notes more than a year now, but am told they're coming soon. And right now I'm writing Midnight Mover, a four-part comic book that's a crime story set against our homegrown multi-million-dollar porn business in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. It's Boogie Nights meets The Fugitive. This is for Oni Comics. I also wrote one called Shot Callerz for them, another four-parter that's just wrapping up.
AC: If you were just a civilian coming to Austin, as opposed to a famous mystery writer, what do you suppose you'd do here?
GP: Drink whiskey and listen to the blues, baby. I'd also like to find the time to read the biographies of my favorite bluesmen, John Lee Hooker (Boogie Man by Charles Shaar Murray) and Muddy Waters (Can't be Satisfied by Robert Gordon), but even taking one of the books on the road with me, say to B'con, means I gotta steal the time away from whiskey drinking and listening to the blues to read. What a quandary.
AC: If one of your series characters turned up on the lam in Austin, what do suppose we'd find them doing?
GP: If Martha Chainey, my ex-showgirl turned cold cash Vegas courier (High Hand, Shooters Point) were in Austin, she'd blow into town in a restored pearl black '67 Lincoln Continental with the suicide doors along Interstate 35. She'd stop at some hole-in-the-wall club where the cigarette smoke's been circulating since the Carter Administration. The ancient blues warrior is belting out some gut-bucket tunes on the thimble of a stage as she quaffs a shot before she leaves with her pick-up -- the equipment bag -- its stylish swoosh logo filled with some poor bastard's losses, and someone else's winnings.
AC: If time allows, what do you look forward to doing here aside you're your convention duties?
GP: Whiskey drinking and listening to the blues. And playing poker. Some very fine mystery writers and other types of folk who frequent B'Con can be found talking shit and bluffing their ass off at the ad hoc poker games that oft times go on in the shank of the evening at mystery conventions.
AC: You've got some Texas roots. Ever feel any peculiar tingling sensations from them?
GP: As you know, my dad was from Seguin. And where I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, there were a lot of transplants from Texas in those days. So we came up eating a certain type of barbecue as cooked by Texas natives. Indeed, Gadberry's, which I've featured in the Ivan Monk books, is a real place in South Central that's been around since 1953, and specializes in an East Texas approach to treating its ribs, chicken, links, and beef. All that's the say then, that along with my whiskey and blues, one must have Texas barbecue, the good Lord willin' and the crick don't rise.