Wednesday, May 7, 2014

About the Trouble: the Johnny Shaw Interview

Johnny Shaw writes books that I like. The new one is called Plaster City. Johnny let me talk to him. Some of what we talked about was Plaster City. This is what we said.

(You can also skip what we said and just scroll to the bottom of this post for your chance to win a copy of Plaster City)

Jedidiah Ayres: I'll have you know, Beau Geste was one of the most influential flicks on my own burgeoning dramatic sensibilities as a child. I think of it often. Only now, every time I do, I also think of Dove Season.

Johnny Shaw: I just found an old map of the imperial valley that calls out that part of the dunes as Beau Geste Valley, so my Pop wasn't lying to me when he said you used to be able to see the fort from the old road.

JA: Your books strike me as firmly holding a place in the 'fiasco' genre - somewhere between crime fiction and men's adventure - neither and both. Would you make that distinction?

JS: I originally called Dove Season a "fiasco" because the story was never about the crime. It was about the trouble. It was about how no matter how much the characters tried to do the right thing, they constantly made things worse.

In Dove Season, Jimmy and Bobby never try to solve the crime. In that book, they don't care who did it, they are only interested in finding out more about the victim. And even that gets them in trouble. The word "fiasco" was about making some distinction to dispel any expectations. If you're expecting a whodunit from my books, you are going to be disappointed. But it's still a crime novel mostly. Genre isn't limiting at all if you invent your own.

The men's adventure elements are about the fun. Sue me, but I want my books to be fun. But fun doesn't have to be frivolous. A book can be crazy and full of mayhem and still have some depth, still be about something.  The challenge to go as broad as I can before the believability snaps is the most fun part of writing. I firmly believe that if my characters are grounded in real emotions, I can get away with damn near anything.

JA: They can. Some of them do, but you're spot on about it resting on the characters and their groundedness. I remember near the end of Dove Season Jimmy was given a choice that is a no-brainer for your typical action hero (kill the guy trying to kill you) and it looked set up to be finale-by-numbers. Anyway, I remember sighing and thinking, man Johnny gave us a great book leading up to this, so I should try not to be let down by an ending that seemed out of character for Jimmy - but nope - character won out over convention and delivered real thrills - thrills that most 'thrillers' fall short of in my opinion.

'Fiasco' is of course on the book jackets for Dove Season and Plaster City, but I'm lumping Big Maria in there as well. It'd be hard to come up with a better description than that for that hapless group of heroes and their adventures - but even then - it's closer to an adventure novel than a crime tale. As you pointed out, the crime at the center of it is trespassing... Not too sexy, probably not a phrase tossed around in high-concept pitch meetings, but the craziness that evolves organically from those characters is just a wild, wild fiasco.

JS: You're absolutely right. Big Maria is an adventure novel, pure and simple. I set out to write a comedy version of Wages of Fear, which is an adventure at heart. It didn't occur to me until recently how influenced my work is by the movie Gunga Din. Tonally, it's a really hard movie to describe. And for me, when something is hard to pigeonhole, it tends to be a good thing. Gunga Din works as a comedy, as an action/adventure, and as a buddy movie. Very male, but with some interesting universal themes.

When I started Dove Season, I wasn't thinking of Jimmy as a series character. Hell, I hadn't written a short story since junior high. I was just trying to see if I could actually write a novel. But about three-quarters of the way through it, I liked where it was going and realized that there were other directions that I could take these characters. I started to look at it as three books. As of today, I'm sticking to that. I like short series. And because these guys aren't cops or detectives, but essentially just shit magnets, three books feels right. There will be one more and it will take place mostly in Mexico.

JA: Three books! Man, I love short series too. Have you any favorite short series or books or films in general that have been a direct influence on the Veeder chronicles?

JS: The short series allows everything and everyone to be in play. Both of James Crumley's series characters, C.W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch, really stuck with me. Charles Willeford's Hoke Moseley, as well. I think there's four books in that series. But I think more than any other short series, George Pelecanos's Nick Stefanos books had a direct influence on the fiascoes. Nick Stefanos is a guy who works at a store called Nutty Nathan's, a regular guy. Not a detective or cop or lawyer. And while his character gets bleaker as it goes, there was a great balance of humor and violence that never lost its humanity.

Nobody believes me, but I didn't read Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series until after I finished Dove Season. But I have to say, when I read Mucho Mojo while writing Plaster City, I felt like I better step up my game. That is a great second novel for a series. The Superman II to Savage Season's Superman.

Because of my screenwriting background, I am definitely informed by movies. Despite my current obsession with Korean crime cinema, the direct influences on the Jimmy Veeder books are the movies that stuck with me when I was younger. Movies that taught me how to be funny or what satire was or just weren't like any other movies. Movies like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Loved One are master classes in comedy. I watch The Quiet Man and The Searchers on a regular basis. But above all, Laurel and Hardy. Everyone should watch Sons of the Desert. Not only funny as hell, but two characters that no matter what happens have each other's back. Their friendship and loyalty to each other are the cornerstone of what makes the comedy work.

JA: So, maybe I'm putting words in your mouth, but it sounds to me like you just confirmed that Plaster City is your Empire Strikes Back of the first Veeder trilogy which will then be followed by prequel trilogy detailing the exploits of a younger Jack Veeder and culminating in the late mid-life birth of his son Jimmy... and his twin sister.

With a trilogy in mind and your background in screenwriting, to your mind, does Plaster City fit into a classic second act structure?

JS: Laugh it up, but Big Maria was originally conceived as a Jack Veeder story set in the 1950s. At the notes and ideas stage, I was considering pulling a move from the Stephen Hunter playbook and creating a linked, but separate group of Jack Veeder Pre-ascoes. Imperial Valley history is rich and the setting was intriguing, but at the end of the day it would have required research to do it right, and I just wasn't up for all the work.

Because I want the Fiascoes to stand on their own, as well as work as a trilogy, I don't think it can fit into any classic shape. Thematically, they're linked and characters return, but I separate the books by their geographic focus. Dove Season is about the Mexican border. Plaster City is about the desert. And the final book will be about Mexico. Of course, I haven't written a single word of the last book, so anything can happen between now and then.

I wouldn't be surprised if the characters popped up again here and there. Bobby's personality could really lend itself to a series of short stories or even a novella. Griselda is an intriguing character that's barely been realized. And the real Buck Buck and Snout definitely deserve a story in their honor for letting me use their names. I'm not closing the door on anything, especially considering how idiosyncratic I can be about picking my next project.

JA: Besides writing books, you're the publisher of Blood & Tacos, the men's-adventure-parody digital magazine which has also spawned a podcast and a print collection complete with some pretty kick-ass original pulp art, and you're active in social media as part of the online crime fiction community. You even organized a Portland Noir at the Bar live event. How important is the extra-curricular activity to your career as a novelist?

JS: Beyond the inherent luck of the journey, whatever level of success I've achieved as a writer, I've gotten because I've been true to my voice. Part of the integrity of that voice is following whatever hare-brained scheme/bone-head project that comes to my mind.  I don't let too much thinking get in my way.

I don't really care if the extra-curricular stuff helps my career. It's just not why I do it. Blood & Tacos was a fun project that allowed me to work with other writers, try to make them some money, and see if the idea could sustain. It was also a chance for me to work with Pete Allen (the publisher at Creative Guy Publishing), a guy I've known since high school. He's as integral to its success as me.

I've done Noir at the Bar events in New York and Los Angeles twice in each city, and will always regret not getting on stage in St. Louis when I had the chance.  It was eventually going to happen in Portland. I figured if I organized it, I could make sure it was at a bar walking distance from my house. So it's really about my own self-interest.

Readings and conventions were not something I considered when I started writing a novel, but they're the best perk. I don't know what it is, but sitting in a bar and shooting the shit with a bunch of crime writers is way more fun than it should be. I've been lucky enough to have met a lot of the online crime fiction community in person at Bouchercon or some other convention. But even the ones I haven't, I consider a number of them friends. Because the real test of friendship is whether or not you can quote Raising Arizona back-and-forth with me for five minutes. 

JA: You want to find an outlaw, hire an outlaw. You want to find a Dunkin' Donuts, call a cop.

JS: And when there was no meat, we ate fowl. And when there was no fowl, we ate crawdad. And when there was no crawdad to be found, we ate sand.

JA: Awful good cereal flakes, Mrs. McDunnough.

JS: This woman, who looked as fertile as the Tennessee Valley, could bear no young. Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.

JA: Wake up, son. I'll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash you got. Better hurry it up, I'm in dutch with the wife.

JS: Well, which is it, young fella?  You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? If'n I freeze, I can't rightly drop. And if'n I drop, I'm gonna be in motion.

JA: I don't know, they were jammies - they had Yodas 'n shit on 'em.

JS: Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat! (Damn, do I wish I wrote that line)

Johnny Shaw was born and raised on the Calexico/Mexicali border, the setting for his Jimmy Veeder Fiasco novels, Dove Season and Plaster City. Dove Season won the Spotted Owl Award for Debut Mystery, was nominated for the Spinetingler Award, and earned year-end “Best of” mentions from outlets including Booklist, Grift Magazine, Barnes & Noble’s Mystery Blog, LitReactor, Spinetingler Magazine, and Murder by the Book. He is also the author of the Anthony Award-winning adventure novel, Big Maria. His shorter work has appeared in Thuglit, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, Plots with Guns, and numerous anthologies. He is the creator and editor of the fiction magazine, Blood & Tacos, which recently added a phone app, a Podcast, and a book imprint to its empire.
Johnny lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, artist Roxanne Patruznick.

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Kent Gowran said...

Sometimes it's a hard world for small things.

jedidiah ayres said...

I think I got the best one

Jimmy Callaway said...

Well, that's why they call it a way-homer.

Kent Gowran said...

Mind you don't cut yourself, Mordecai.

jedidiah ayres said...

Naw, Bill Parker not that motherscratcher

jedidiah ayres said...

That Buford, he's a sly one, already knows his A-B-Cs

Kent Gowran said...

And if a frog had wings he wouldn't bump his ass a-hoppin'.

jedidiah ayres said...

Nathan Jr accepts me for what I am. And I think you better had, too. You know I'm okay, you're okay - that there's what it is

Kent Gowran said...

Name's Smalls. Leonard Smalls. My friends call me Lenny. Only I ain't got no friends.

jedidiah ayres said...

What would Ed and little angel do if a truck came along and splattered your brains all over the interstate?

Kent Gowran said...

Do they blow up in funny shapes?

jedidiah ayres said...

Me and Dot went in to adopt on account of something went wrong with my semen, and they said we had to wait five years for a healthy white baby. I said, "Healthy white baby? Five years? What else you got?" Said they got two Koreans and a negra born with his heart on the outside.

Kent Gowran said...

You got a table and chairs, you got a dinette set. You got a table and no chairs, you got dick.

jedidiah ayres said...

You're young and you got your health, what do you want with a job?