Gary Phillips is a throwback to the glory days of the pulps when writers wrote—and published—all the time. It’s hard to keep up with his output. I can account for 16 novels, short stories in 23 anthologies, and seven comics, but I can’t say I got them all. He comes by this honestly, as he’s also a respected scholar of the pulp-era writers and their work. He was a contributor to In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero, edited by Otto Penzler, which was nominated for both an Edgar and an Anthony in 2013. I first came upon him in Long Beach, in the panel, “Beyond Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane,” where he joined forces with Peter Rozovsky, Max Allan Collins, Sarah J. Henry, Charles Kelly, and Sarah Weinman to dish on crime writers who had success in their day but whose reputations didn’t endure as did the three names on the panel title. Time and space prohibit summing up his career in an intro—it’s him you really want to hear from—so hustle on over to his web site or Amazon page when you’re done here.
Gary’s new book 3 the Hard Way from Down and Out Books. It’s a series of three novella, plus a bonus short story. It was a real treat to get him to cut time from his busy schedule to answer Twenty Questions today. I think you’ll enjoy his answers as much as I did.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about 3 the Hard Way.
Gary Phillips: Succinctly, the book is a compilation of three novellas: The Extractors, The Anti-Gravity Steal and 10 Seconds to Death, plus a bonus short story of one of the characters. Malcolm Cavanaugh Bleekston, McBleak, is a one percenter who rips off his fellow swells, kind of a cross between Raffles and Ripley. He’s setting up a big score but of course things don’t go as planned.
Ned “Noc” Brenner is a drifter with an unusual skill set -- he’s an extreme athlete good at whatever he does be it free diving to riding a motorcycle off a mountaintop. A millennial Doc Savage. After winning in an all-night poker game, this sets in motion a series of events where Noc battles the super-villain Prospero. And Luke Warfield, a philanthropist with a black ops background runs the Essex Foundation seeking to atone for his past sins. He goes on the hunt of his ex-commander who killed his foster father and uncovers a deadly scheme
OBAAT: Where did you get the ideas, and what made them worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got these ideas.)
GP: As the previous descriptions suggest, the novellas of 3 the Hard Way range from hardboiled, pulp to action-adventure. As a genre writer and reader of such, these elements are not exclusive one to the other. For McBleak in The Extractors, being a long-time fan of the Parker, the professional thief novels by Donald Westlake, I wanted to take a swing at my own take on that type of amoral character in an amoral arena. What better way to show that but set him in the world of the insanely rich as depicted in The Big Short and Billions.
Regarding Noc, he’s my nod to these iconic pulp characters of yore like Doc Savage and Jim Anthony, the Super-Detective. For Luke in 10 Seconds to Death, I wanted to create a flawed hero, an orphan, who is forever haunted by a troubled past. Warfield, also called the Essex Man, is a nod to those ‘70s spinner rack vigilantes such as the Black Samurai, the Destroyer and the Punisher’s inspiration, the Executioner. He also has an AI computer in his war room named Asimov aiding him…maybe for its own ends.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write 3 the Hard Way, start to finish?
GP: The novellas were written in different segments of time, but I’d say it took about a month and a half to write each one. With the short story featuring Warfield, the book comes in at a little more than 91,000 words so, you know, I wanted to give the reader their money’s worth.
OBAAT: McBleak, Noc Brenner, and Luke Warfield aren’t cookie-cutter protagonists. I mean that both ways: not like everyone else’s, and not even like each other. How did you come up with them and do their characteristics shape the stories, or are they more shaped by the stories?
GP: Well, I’ve touched on the inspiration for these characters and that’s a great synergistic question about who shapes what or the other way around. Sometimes an idea for a plot comes to me and sometimes it’s the character, who they are, what is it about them that makes them the way they are. I think then in the best situation as a storyteller you want both factors affecting each other. Though invariably you’ll arrive at some portion of your story where you want to do a particular scene plot-wise, but you just know in your gut that’s not true to the character and you have to roll a different way. Just ‘cause you’re writing genre doesn’t mean everything drives the plot.
OBAAT: How did 3 the Hard Way come to be published?
GP: I asked Eric Campbell, EiC of Down and Out Books, if he was interested in collecting these stories. We’ve done previous work together – I edited the original anthology Scoundrels: Tales of Greed, Murder and Financial Crimes, he put out Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of my short stories, and other stuff. Being a small but growing press, it’s easier to get a yes or no relatively quickly – at least for now.
OBAAT: All three of these stories appeared as e-books before Down and Out gathered them together in a single volume, which allows me to ask one of my favorite questions. I have long thought the greatest impact e-books will have on literature is the popularization of the novella by essentially removing any concerns for the length of the book, as production issues and price points become irrelevant. All stories can be in exactly as many words as the author needs. No padding? Am I full of shit? (On this one point, I mean.)
GP: In the words of Ed McMahon to Carnac the Magnificent, “You are right, sir!”
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
GP: I read in and out of the genre and also non-fiction. For instance, on my short stack now is the singer Neil Young’s Super Deluxe: A Memoire of Life & Cars; Pope Francis’ Encyclical (the wife and I belong to a lefty book club); and I recently read a cool novella, Champion of Hollow Earth by James R. Tuck -- ERB meets Blaxploitation. This from Pro Se Press, another outfit I work with from time to time. As to favorite authors, there are many but to name a few, Dashiell Hammett, Ralph Ellison, Ross Macdonald, Joyce Carol Oates, Elmore Leonard, Lester Dent, and so on.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
GP: I can’t draw. Every since I was a kid growing up in South Central L.A., I was a comic book fan. That was the days of fandom where geeks got together and did their own comics, running them off on a Gestetner mimeograph machine and stapling the pages together, photocopied or if you were big time, offset printed. I wrote and drew my own strips trying to get them in this or that fanzine. Reaction to my art was universal condemnation, but there were at time encouragements for my writing.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
GP: I’ve had a varied career from being a community organizer, worked for nonprofits such as an organization begun after the ’92 Rodney King civil unrest or riots if you prefer, been a union rep and what have you. Getting to travel across the various landscapes of the city and beyond and getting to interact with different types of people, all that informs my work. As an example my first published novel, Violent Spring, takes place in the aftermath of ’92 in L.A., and involves a black private eye, Ivan Monk, who must navigate the volatile socio-political terrain of the city trying to rebuild post the upheaval.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
GP: The hours and I still get a kick out of seeing my name in print
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
GP: Wow, that’s a big question. There’s the aforementioned writers I mentioned. I’d add to that comics artists/storytellers Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Wally Wood, Gil Kane, and artist-writers Joe Kubert and Jim Steranko. Filmmakers like Peckinpah, Walter Hill, Spike Lee and Michal Mann have also been influences. And what Vince Gilligan and his other writers did on Breaking Bad, the arc of Walter White, that stays with me as well.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
GP: I outline, though invariably deviate from that, tweaking the storyline as I write. I don’t write in my PJs but that’s because I sleep in my gym sweats.
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?
GP: I try to power through what it is I’m working on, get the draft down then go back into it. For novels, I usually will stop every 50 to 60 manuscript pages, edit and tweak those, then go forward again.
OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
GP: Funny enough, I listen to radio as I write, mostly the low end of the FM dial which mean NPR, Pacifica, and the like. Sometimes that means music – or I might put on the podcast of this blues show I like on a local college station, and sometimes that means talk shows. Somehow it’s just background noise to me that doesn’t seem to interrupt my thoughts as I type away.
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
GP: Page count. Have a consistent page or word count you want to hit each day and hit it.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
GP: Be the harshest critic of your own work you can be, yet also achieve that Zen state, that inner voice that tells you, let it go, this is as good as you can hone it. Stop and send it out.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
GP: This is a toughie. I’m a slave to plot, ideally that would be my first on the list. I’m not big on pages and pages of characterization without weaving components of the plot. But then I’ll read a stream of consciousness novel like the Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich and can roll with that kind of whacked-out first person narrative of someone who may or may not be a junkie vampire, so there you go What you’ve laid out are the precepts of writing shall we say a traditional novel but even with that, you need to challenge yourself on what motivates your characters and what they do so as not to be stale or just giving the reader the same old, same old.
Yet at various times when I’ll think on a kind of character, who he or she is, what’s their backstory and that gets me going. I then want to construct a story around this character. Certainly genre these days demand that even within the confines of the structure, how do you subvert some of these elements, give us a character you think is one way then make that left turn. Let’s also not slight setting, which can shape and mold your characters – do they live off the grid say like in what’s called Slab City out here in Southern California near the Salton Sea or in the swank confines of a ritzy gated community?
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
GP: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Still to this day, more than 80 years on, the twisty plot, the double crosses, the flawed hero, characters who say not what they mean, the quixotic characters… those elements influence mystery and crime novels
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
GP: Fooling around with my 13-month-old grandson, Silas. He’s a hoot.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
GP: Out now in addition to 3 is a 15,000 word short story in Bass Reeves: Frontier Marshal. A quartet of fictional exploits based on the real life lawman who was born a slave. I’m working on graphic novel script, a Vietnam-era story I think like no other. I hope too, to have a mini-series coming from one of the Big Two comics publishers, and prose-wise, there are several projects on the horizon, including a novella with my retro ‘70s kick ass private eye Nefra Adams for Pro Se.