Tuesday, June 22, 2010
When I attended Bouchercon in Indianapolis last year, I had about seven hours to plant my ugly mug in front of as many people as possible and too little time to spend with any of them. I've had a list of to-be-read books as long as my er hair used to be for too long, and Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya was hovering near the top of it at the time. I got to meet Dennis that night in Indy and ever since I actually read his amazing debut novel, I've been kicking myself that the only thing I had to say to him upon meeting was "Uh, I hear good things about your book."
Tafoya's second novel, The Wolves of Fairmount Park, follows up on everything Dope Thief promised. More of the dark, more of the heart, more of the grim, gutsy storytelling you thought must've just been a lucky shot from a first-timer. His books are gritty and compassionate looks at low level urban criminals and junkies, cops and victims of crime, as broad in scope, yet emotionally focused and pitch perfect in tone as the best of Richard Price or George Pelecanos.
Dennis was gracious enough to answer some questions.
I read in an interview that you weren't originally shopping Dope Thief as a crime novel, but a literary novel featuring criminals. What changed?
I thought I was writing a mainstream literary novel with criminals in it, but it was my agent Alex Glass, who told me it was a crime novel. He was right, of course, but I wasn't thinking about genre when I was writing. Once he made the distinction, the only thing I was worried about was whether it would be a satisfying read for somebody who picked it up in the "Crime" section of the bookstore. That led me to rewrite the last third of the book, but I think the rewrite made the book stronger. Interestingly, my editor at Minotaur, Kelley Ragland, was actually much less concerned with the genre conventions than I was, which is one of the reasons I love working with her.
That's interesting, because I'd say it was the last third of the book that was least standard for a crime novel. What was the heart of that story for you?
Yeah, I didn't want to write anything I'd read before, but I wanted there to be something for the main character, Ray, to push against, and I wanted the decisions he'd made to cost him something. The heart of the story is a pretty bad guy who wants to change his life, and I hope the last part of the book allows the reader to see what it means for Ray to take some responsibility for his actions and the people around him. It's a challenge to show a character maturing and trying to atone for his mistakes in a way that's still compelling to the reader.
What authors/books/influences were you pursuing when you wrote it?
In my mind, the most important thing is to try to avoid cliche and the familiar, so I hope I don't sound much like anyone else, but of course there are books and writers I love and a body of work in my head. I love books like Don Delillo's Libra, and Madison Smartt Bell's Save Me, Joe Louis, and a bunch of stuff by E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy. Stuff that has a dreamlike quality, but that has motion and purpose. I love short stories, and I've read a ton by Annie Proulx and Amy Hempel and Thom Jones. I've always read the crime greats, too, like Elmore Leonard and Scott Philips and Lawrence Block, but as much as I love their work, I don't think I'm much like them. They set this incredible standard that I'll spend my life trying to live up to. And they're funnier than I am! I always wish my stuff was a little funnier.
I was struck by the sincerity in your books, not that they're humorless, but there's not a hint of irony. I think that makes them special. They're riskier for an author, there's no room to hide behind some - "I don't take this too seriously" - posture.
I guess I feel like when I'm taking it seriously and risking more I'm doing better work. I hope that's true, anyway. I feel like I'm also still new at this, and as I get better I hope I can play with tone more. I'd like to do more in first person, which I think ironically demands a little more distance. It's one thing to describe a character as tortured, but when the character himself is speaking I think that would wear thin pretty quickly. Maybe that's why all that great tough-guy fiction from Chandler works so well in first person. You want a little smartass now and then from your protagonists, even as they're getting pummeled by cheap hoods and betrayed by faithless molls.
Exactly how new at this are you? No spring chick, but was Dope Thief the first book you actually wrote?
Dope Thief was my first completed manuscript. I had plenty of false starts before that, but I didn't have the confidence to finish anything. I was just a guy writing in his basement in the middle of the night. If somebody hadn't asked me for it, I probably never would have finished Dope Thief, either.
Who asked for it?
Cori Stern, a writer and producer from LA. I struck up an online friendship with Cori and she'd read some short stories I'd written, then asked if I had anything else. I finished the last third of Dope Thief in about two weeks, and gave it to her. She sent me to her manager, Brooke, who read it and agreed to represent me. Brooke found me an amazing literary agent and my agent sold it to St. Martin's. The whole thing was very fast, and in the process I made some excellent friends who changed my life. Cori also introduced me to Laurie Webb, an incredible developmental editor who worked with me on several drafts, getting Dope Thief into shape. Cori's a fascinating person who has done this same thing for other writers. It seems to drive her crazy when people aren't in their sort of proper places in life, and she helped me transition from a guy writing in my basement to a published author.
So what stage was Wolves of Fairmount Park in when you finished Dope Thief?
At that point, "Wolves" was just an idea. My agent had secured a two-book deal from Minotaur, which we sold basically on one sentence about the second book, that it would be about a heroin addict trying to solve a murder. I liked that idea and had been thinking about it for a while, and I wanted to do something that was a little more ambitious in terms of the voices and points of view. It took a while to sort out how it would all hang together, and which characters would carry the story.
It is ambitious. It struck me as Richard Price-esque with all the voices. Are you worried that it may be too complex structurally to be a best seller?
I hope it does well, but there's a point where you have to trust that the book will find its audience. I think "Wolves" has a sense of momentum that will carry readers through to the end, and I hope that they'll enjoy the different perspectives and characters voices. We'll see. I love Richard Price, and I think he's a writer who pushes past the genre constraints and makes it possible for the rest of us to try new things. I learn something about writing every time I read one of his books.
So why dope fiends? What's the fascination there?
I just think people who are obviously compromised are more interesting to write about and read about. I've always been much more fascinated by people who screw up than by people who succeed easily or who have a sort of bulletproof sense of right and wrong. Fiction is about conflict, and I think the ways we struggle with our own nature is probably the most interesting and realistic part of the story. Plus, if I have any talent, it's for empathy with the damaged. That, and for some reason I think I write really well about getting high.
Are your characters based on people you've lived around and worked with?
Not directly. It's rare that I base a character on a friend or acquaintance, but there are habits or expressions or physical traits I've picked up from friends and relatives. When I was a teenager I worked at a pizza place with a delivery guy who was older than I was, in his twenties, and some of my memories of him were put to use in creating Ray, the main character in "Dope Thief." He was a guy who stuck in place, not making forward progress into adult life, and that struck me even though I was probably ten years younger than he was. Reading extensively about crime also helps. In my experience, criminals are rarely masterminds who make careful plans to avoid detection. They're mostly driven by barely-controlled impulse, and they tend to be immature, self-mythologizing and unable to own up to their mistakes. They're like terrifying children.
If you didn't start out thinking of yourself as a crime writer, are there non-genre books kicking around in there?
Sure! I think the two strains I've always read were mainstream literary and true crime, though I've been reading true crime since it was just 'nonfiction.' I mentioned Don Delillo's Libra, and to that I'd add E.L. Doctorow's World's Fair, Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing. Anything by Charles Portis. Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I could go on and on. Russell Banks' Continental Drift had a huge effect on me when I read it in 1985. It was such a revelation to me, linking criminality to a kind of thwarted adulthood and desperation, and watching his main character drift into terrible acts without a specific evil intent.
I'd love to see a True Crime book from you, any events or personalities that have particularly caught your attention?
There are so many interesting crimes and criminals it's tough to narrow it down. I've always been drawn to the case of Alice Crimmins, the Medea of Kew Gardens, who was suspected in the 1965 murders of her two children, most likely because she was attractive and unrepentantly sexual. I was obsessed with Zodiac for years, but I thought David Fincher's film of Robert Graysmith's book was so brilliant I can't imagine going near that. My third novel centers on armed robbery, so I've read a ton about the North Hollywood shootout, the Norco bank robbery in Norco, California, and a famous confrontation between the FBI and two heavily-armed robbers in Miami in 1986. Recently I re-read Last Rampage, about the 1978 breakout from Arizona State Prison of Gary Tison by his sons. It has that complex familial dimension, but also a pretty interesting connection to organized crime in Arizona in that period and the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic newsman Don Bolles.
Any of those, (or other true cases), you'd like to treat fictionally?
I think the first, Alice Crimmins, and the last, Gary Tison's escape, are the most fertile for the fiction writer. They're about family and obligation and the fact that we feel bound and defined and also trapped by our family relationships. Pretty much all of my fiction is about family, even my short stories. There's a reason that when some terrible, inexplicable crime occurs, we look to the family of the perpetrator first for causes, and we're suprised when we don't find monsters.
How much of your fiction actually came out of your EMT experience?
The primary inspiration for Dope Thief, which I held on to for almost twenty years, was that a meth lab burned in a neighboring town in the middle of the night. I was working in ER as an EMT in the early 80's, and in those days biker gangs used to rent rural farmhouses and set up speed labs. Philly was the meth capitol of the country at the time. One of the farmhouses burned, and we got calls all night asking how to care for severe burns. The nurses tried to get those folks to bring the guy in to the ER, but they found his body a few days later in the woods. That really stayed with me, and I always wondered, how do you end up in a burning meth lab in the middle of the night? If I met you, who would I be meeting?
And what kind of work are you doing now?
I'm in industrial sales. It's a good job, but it doesn't provide much in the way of material for the crime writer.
Do you see yourself becoming a full time writer any time?
God, I hope so. But I think that's a harder and harder proposition for folks like me. Unless I get optioned for the movies or get a gig writing for comic books, I think it's going to take a good long while until I can make my living by being creative. There are a million outlets for fiction now, and almost none of them pay. And I've got an amazing literary agent and a bunch of great friends helping me out. It's just a tough way to make money. I'm fifty and I'm just getting started, too, and balancing a day job, the effort to market myself and the actual writing. I feel incredibly lucky to be in print with a major publisher, and grateful to all the folks who helped me make that happen, but it sure would be nice to quit the day job and just write, write, write.
Comics, really? What kind of comics would you like to write?
Well, there are some really cool things out there, like Ed Brubaker's Criminal or the Vertigo stuff from DC. I love graphic novels and would really like the chance to do some of that, but the way in seems to be working within the universe of existing characters. And it provides some of my friends with a decent living.
Have you had any film adaptation inquiries?
No. I'm actually looking at doing an independent production of Dope Thief. Some friends and I are going to do an extended trailer and see if we can raise the money to shoot it. It'll be fun, no matter how far it goes. It's a tough time to raise money, but the rest of the process should be a blast.
Are you writing that script?
Yeah, ever so slowly
I'd be curious to see that adaptation. The structure of the book seems very irregular for a film, with the sort of staggered climaxes - the action and the emotion not landing at the same time.
It'll be an interesting process, and hopefully I'll learn something about screenwriting.
Do you have any other pieces/projects out or coming soon?
I'll have a short story in Philadelphia Noir, coming from Akashic Books in November and edited by Carlin Romano. And I have some other short stories coming in Plots with Guns and CrimeFactory in the coming month, and I owe CrimeFactory another short for a print anthology they're planning.
(Crimefactory & Plots With Guns are live now. Go read Dennis's stories then you'll know why you gotta pick up Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park). More on Dennis and Wolves at Ransom Notes.