Jonathan Woods divides his time between Key West FL and Dallas TX, traveling the world looking for story ideas when he has a little stray cash. He holds degrees from McGill University, New England School of Law, and New York University School of Law, and for many years practiced law for a multi-national high-tech company. His first stories appeared in Dogmatika, 3:AM Magazine, Plots with Guns, Thuglit, Pulp Pusher, the noir issue of Blackheart Magazine and in the anthologies Speedloader, Crime Factory: The First Shift, Noir @ the Bar Vol. 1 and Murder in Key West.
He is the author of the collection of noir crime stories, Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem, which won a 2011 Spinetingler Award for Best Crime Short Story Collection and was a featured book at the 2010 Texas Book Festival. His crime novel, A Death in Mexico was named one of the five top debut crime novels of 2012 by the indie BookPeople Bookstore in Austin, Texas. His new collection of crime stories is called Phone Call from Hell & Other Tales of the Damned.
Jonathan and I were co-panelists on Peter Rozovsky’s hard-boiled and noir fiction at last year’s Bouchercon; this interview was intended to run as part of the series that included all the panelists (Eric Beetner, Mike Dennis, and Terrence McCauley) but its publication was delayed because I got a flat tire. My suit didn’t come back from the cleaners. I ran out of gas. I was in prison. The hospital. I swear to God, it wasn’t my fault!
One Bite at a Time: Let’s set the stage a little. Tell us about Jonathan Woods, then we’ll delve into your writing.
Jonathan Woods: I have the kind of wandering history you’ll find in the background of so many American pulp crime fiction writers. Growing up, we moved ten times from Pittsburgh to the West Coast, then back East then the Midwest and finally back East again. As a result I was always the “new” kid in school, the outsider, so I found the world of books to keep me company. First adventure stories and sci-fi, then literary stuff in college, and finally crime stories. I always wanted to be a writer, but making a living got in the way. For many years I worked as a deal lawyer for a multinational high-tech company. But I read constantly. Then one day I said: “Fuck it! If I don’t start writing now, I’m going to run out of time.” So I quit my law job and started writing in 2002. Eight years later Jon Bassoff at New Pulp Press published Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem.
OBAAT: You’d established quite a reputation as a short story writer before releasing A Death in Mexico. What prompted you to shift gears and write in the longer form?
JW: I like writing both short stories and novels. But they’re totally different beasts. A good short story takes a couple of concentrated weeks to create. A novel is a long, hard slog, day in and day out. I’d written a couple of novels that have never seen the light of day and was pretty fed up with long haul writing, when I started writing the stories in Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem. Many of those stories were published in on-line literary magazines (3:A.M. Magazine, Plots with Guns, etc.), which was very encouraging. After the success of Bad Juju, I wanted to see if I could write a publishable novel. A Death in Mexico was the result. I think it turned out pretty good. I love Hector Diaz, the last uncorrupted Mexican cop. He’s kind of a Philip Marlowe on the copper side of the fence. I hope to write a couple more Diaz tales before I croak.
OBAAT: Short stories are hard for me. My nature is to spin out the ideas I like into novels, and to shorten the others into flash pieces. Shorts seem to come natural for you. What are your thoughts on the strength and weaknesses of the various forms, as regards you personally?
JW: I read short stories, novellas, novels, poetry. If it’s good, if it takes you someplace you’ve never been before, the form doesn’t matter.
OBAAT: Hector Diaz reminds me a little of the late Leighton Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilian federal police in that he’s as honest as he can afford to be while surrounded by corruption. Was that honesty in the face of corruption dynamic what led you to set the story in Mexico?
JW: I love Mexico. I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years. Travelled around on the second class buses. Went everywhere. But nowadays Mexico seems really scary. I very much wanted to write about a Mexican cop that hadn’t given in to the corruption. So that’s what I did. Hector Diaz has his flaws. But being on the take isn’t one of them. Scott Montgomery of BookPeople Bookstore in Austin, TX captured the essence of my character when he described Diaz as “a rumpled Mexican cop full of vices and all the virtues that count.”
OBAAT: Most crime stories set in Mexico tend to locate either on the border, Mexico City, or one of the affluent resorts, such as Acapulco. You chose a small town, where violent crime such as the model’s murder isn’t as common. Why take it out of town? (I like that you took it out of town; I’ve done the same recently. I’m checking your motive, not questioning your judgment.)
JW: I wanted an exotic locale for A Death in Mexico. And since I’d spent time in San Miguel de Allende, I had a real feel for it. It was vivid in my mind. It’s an arty little colonial town that attracts upscale Mexicans who want to get away from the chaos and smog of Mexico City as well as gringos looking for the picturesque side of Mexico. For me San Miguel became a character itself, kind of like Pamplona in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
By the way, when the novel was published I collaborated with a Key West-based filmmaker named Quincy Perkins to make a two minute book trailer for A Death in Mexico. People have told me it’s the best book trailer they’ve ever seen. It captures the feel of the book but is a standalone work of cinematic art. Check it out on YouTube or Vimeo.
OBAAT: When the movie is made, who would you cast as Diaz? (Old and dead actors can be used.)
JW I’m thinking either Benicio del Toro or Javier Bardem.
OBAAT: Who do you consider to be the most prominent influences on your writing?
JW: Poe, Chandler, Robert Stone, Henry Miller, Charles Portis, Patricia Highsmith, Donald Barthelme, Thom Jones, Barry Hannah, Dan Kavanagh, Beryl Bainbridge and dozens more. I read a lot.
OBAAT: What’s next?
JW: My new book of noir crime stories Phone Call from Hell & Other Tales of the Damned is just coming out from New Pulp Press in April 2014. And I’m collaborating again with Key West filmmaker Quincy Perkins to make a short noir crime film based on my story “Swingers Anonymous” which appears in Phone Call from Hell. We raised $12,000 on Kickstarter for the production and in mid-March we spent five days shooting the film in and around Homestead, Florida. Now the film needs to be edited, special effects and the soundtrack added. Then we’re sending it out to the Film Festivals. We filmed it in black & white, just like the old film noir classics from the 1930s and 1940s. If you “like” the Swingers Anonymous, the Movie, page on Facebook, there are a bunch of behind the scene photos. And we got a huge writeup in the Miami Herald about making the film. Here’s the link to the Miami Herald story: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/04/05/4042159/the-making-of-the-film-noir-swingers.html
On top of all that, I recently finished a new road-trip crime novel called Kiss the Devil Good Night. Its protagonist, Bill, ex-Special Forces and a furloughed waste management truck driver, travels from Atlanta to Orlando to Miami to Mexico City to the Yucatan. I don’t have a publication date for it yet.