Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco, though not from either Karl Malden or Michael Douglas. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. His new novel, Hustle, was recently released by Snubnose Press. Tom also has a novella, Piggyback, to his credit, and more short stories than you can shake a stick at, published by such respected and varied outlets as Crime Factory, All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, Powder Burn Flash, and others my typing skills and time available do not permit me to mention; check his web site and blog for details.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Hustle.
Tom Pitts: It’s funny, I had a friend who is struggling with addiction mention he hadn’t yet read the book and I told him, “When you’re ready to relapse, buy Hustle. It’s like a passport to all your dark places.” It’s a story that beings with two drug-addicted gay hustlers trying to blackmail an elderly client of theirs. Only it’s the wrong client. Somebody else already has their hooks in this bastard for something much bigger.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
TP: It started as a short story idea. I wanted to write something in third person with the narration sounding like first person. When I hit page five I realized it was going to go much further than a few thousand words.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Hustle, start to finish?
TP: The first few pages sat for a while—they needed to gestate—but once the ball got rolling it took about four months. I was on a roll. I’d be lucky if they all came that easy.
OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
TP: I’ve already mentioned the hustlers, the man they try to extort is a powerful San Francisco attorney named Gabriel Thaxton. Problem is, Gabriel has a history of being involved with young men, and one of those young men is a psychopath named Dustin who is living in his mansion and already working his own kind of evil on the old man. The hero of the book, though, is the lonely old biker Gabriel taps to help him out of the mess. Bear is a biker who’s always been on the fringe of the big clubs. He and Gabriel have done business in the past, so he feels he owes the old guy. But, in returning the favor, he gets sucked into the cyclone of violence.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Hustle set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
TP: The time is the present. Smartphones and YouTube play a role. I wanted something current. The place? San Francisco. There are parts set in Marin County because it’s wealthy and isolated out there—good for the ol’ shootout at the OK corral thing—but most of it takes place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Why? Two reasons: The first is because I know SF the best. I’ve been here thirty years and have lived all over the city. All my jobs, from bike messenger to taxi driver to dispatcher, have all been related directly to the streets of the city. But mostly it’s in San Francisco because the theme, gay hustling and drug addiction, seemed very SF-centric to me. And in San Francisco, no neighborhood is sleazier than the Tenderloin.
OBAAT: How did Hustle come to be published?
TP: Initially, Brian [Lindenmuth] at Snubnose said he’d be interested in publishing the book. He was one of the first to read it. Then, with Hustle in tow, I landed an agent, but after the first few rejections, it became clear that a big house taking such an unsavory story would be unlikely. My agent already had my next novel in hand, ready to shop, so I decided to seek out Snubnose again and ask Brian if he was still interested. Snubnose had been very good to me with my first novella, Piggyback, and I like being with them, they’ve got a great roster and a good rep.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
TP: I like crime stories, and a sprinkling of the greats. I haven’t been reading enough out of the crime genre lately. I love Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo, James Lee Burke, Denis Johnson. The kind of guys that you read and think, fuck it, I’ll never be that good in a thousand years. I always feel under-read, I’m always up for discovering some new.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
TP: Like it or not, Elmore Leonard influences me most. I’d like to be influenced style-wise by all sorts of big shots and mega-talents, but the lean and direct Leonard is what I find myself drawn to when it comes to telling a story on my own.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
TP: Seat of my pants, baby. And, yes, it’s San Francisco, so that’d be long pants.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
TP: I push forward through a scene at a time. Even though I may only get 4 days a week in, I shoot for a thousand words a day. But it’s the scene that dictates how far I go, much more than the word count. If I’m stuck, I’ll go over the previous day’s work and revise it. That happens a lot, so I’m a bit of a revise-as-you-go kind of guy.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
TP: Clarity. It sounds simple, but the job of a writer is to get readers to see what you see in your head. Keep it simple, make it clear.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
TP: That’d be family time. Whatever we manage to do, I have fun doing it—even if they’re hating it!
OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
TP: It’d have to be the good review, ’cause there ain’t no money being earned! Not real money anyway. I don’t think I could live a week on what writing brought in last year.
OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
TP: Is someone making that offer? Do I get to squander the cash by jumping into the movie business? I’d have to read the fine print and check for loopholes.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
TP: I guess number three, but it’s a trick question. Number two often offers better royalties than anyone in the game. There is also an ability to have a say in the final product with number two that you sign away with number three. Also, number three is a gamble. Little fish/big pond syndrome. Not to mention they call them advances for a reason. I learned this in the music business. Sure, you get that first check, but for the big guys to admit turning a profit and coughing up any more dough is another matter. That’s been my experience anyway, but keep in mind that I work for Gutter Books and I’m a Snubnose Press author.
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
TP: This week? Beer.
OBAAT: Baseball or football?
TP: Baseball. I live in Giants country. I actually penned a novella that‘s centered around a three-game series between the Dodgers and Giants. It’s a crime tale, but it’s very baseball-centric. What’s that I hear you asking? What’s my favorite baseball book? Why, Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo, of course.
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
TP: Um … how does it feel to be nominated for the National Book Award?
OBAAT: What’s the answer?
TP: Sadly, I was once again overlooked. Thank you for asking, though.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
TP: My novel California Libertine is being shopped to the big boys, so while I wait for rejections I’ve started a new book—as yet untitled. It’s morphing as I go. It’s not the novel I set out to write, it’s quickly turning into something better, letting me ask my favorite question: I wonder what is going to happen today? For me, that’s still the best part about writing.