Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and the story collection Life During Wartime, both from Down & Out Books. Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”
He is also the person to follow—maybe not literally, Facebook will do—when in an unfamiliar city and you’re looking for good eating establishments. Notice I didn’t say “restaurants”; I said “good eating establishments.” I’m a writer. Word choice is everything to me. Anyone who followed his recommendation for The Priest’s Burger in Toronto knows what I mean.
The kitty man was lovely enough to sit down with us to talk about his new collection, Life During Wartime (and Other Stories).
One Bite at a Time: What are the origins of Life During Wartime (and Other Stories)? Wasthe original plan to write a collection, or did you find yourself with a bunch of stories you liked and want to gather them together?
Thomas Pluck: This is a collection of my best and fan-favorite stories from 2011 to the present. I had a few Kindle-only collections and readers kept asking for a print collection. When I joined the Down & Out Books team, we thought that would be a great follow-up to my first Jay Desmarteaux novel, Bad Boy Boogie, and the new collection includes "The Last Detail," which bridges Jay's first book with the next one, which I am writing now.
OBAAT: I’m a huge fan of Denny the Dent and I’m glad to see he’s in here. Where did you get the idea for him? Do you have continuing plans for him?
TP: Denny was inspired by a boxer I met in a cigar shop, a very intense guy. He had a little friend with him, kind of like Chester & Spike, the cartoon dogs, and the big guy said "I ain't smart but I listen good." and Denny was born. The dent comes from a shooting victim's surgery I saw online. The boy was literally walking around with half a head, until doctors built a replacement skull plate. Denny's injury isn't that extreme. We tend to think that big guys are dumb, and I wanted to give him a little something extra to make people underestimate his intelligence. Readers have asked if Denny is a special needs child. If you read his stories, he has been treated as if he's special needs his whole life. When I write Denny I go back to how I felt as a weird kid on the playground, when my best friend was a special needs child named Mindy, until the teachers dragged me away and said I should talk to "the other kids." That left a deep impression. I've volunteered with Special Young Adults, I have friends who are special needs (Hello, Dylan!) and I don't like separating us that way. We're people.
OBAAT: Jay Desmarteaux from Bad Boy Boogie also makes an appearance. I’m a big fan of cross-pollination in my writing. Not only is it a good way to bring in new readers, it’s a great way to work out story ideas for novel characters. Did you approach writing Jay differently knowing this would be a short story?
TP: I don't draw on Jay's background as much when I write short. I prefer to jump in the action and you can figure Jay's ways as we go along. A short story is like fighting in a phone booth, you have to work within the space you're given, so he gets introduced with a few lines that encapsulate what he is. He's an outlaw, the rules don't exist for him, and he looks out for number one. In "The Last Detail" he has no choice but to partner up with someone, which was interesting to me, because Jay is an outsider and a loner. I wanted to force him to work with someone as stubborn as he is, and give him zero time to adjust to it.
OBAAT: I know picking a favorite story is like picking a favorite child, but I’m going to ask you to it anyway because that’s the kind of person I am. Which of the stories in this collection means the most to you and why?
TP: I put my heart into stories, which makes them harder for me than novels. Not that I don't put my heart into a book, but a story is like a one-inch punch from Bruce Lee, and a novel is a ten or fifteen round fight, where you get breaks and some love from the cut man between rounds. They all mean something, but I'll focus on "Freedom Bird" because I just read it to an audience, and it still hits me. It's about a teenage son of a Vietnam vet dad who means well but expects a lot from his kid. There are so many "bad dad" stories--and I've got plenty of my own--that I wanted to go in a different direction. Harve Chundak is based on a vet named John Chundak who was a coin dealer I met at the VFW as a kid, at a coin show, when I was collecting wheatback pennies and silver dimes. I started working for him on Sundays, just watching the table. He was a quiet guy and serious most of the time, but had a smile as big as Christmas when you made him laugh. I wanted to pay tribute to him for giving me that job, and teaching me integrity, and that you could be a Green Beret who did six tours with hands that could crush a man's forearm like a wolf's maw, and have a good heart and nothing to prove, none of the tough-guy fronting my father had. So Harve is a tribute to him.
OBAAT: You’re as socially responsible as any writer I know, especially as regards children. It was you who turned me on to PROTECT. Tell us a little about PROTECT and why social issues are so important to you.
TP: I'm a bit like Jay, that way. The five words I hate most are "it is what it is." Because it is... because we let it. "You can't fight city hall" is another five stupid words. You can fight them if you don't play by their rules. I won't say anything further as in this climate it may be illegal soon. PROTECT's mission is to fight child abuse, and they concentrate on the most egregious, online predators who lure children. The two Protectors anthologies have raised nearly $5000 for that cause. I hate any abuse of power, but adults who abuse children especially. I wrote a bit about it in Jay's book. I give him the mythical "five minutes alone" with a truly awful human, an actual psychopath, and he realizes he is just feeding into the man's beliefs: that whoever holds the hatchet makes the rules. So he takes a different tack with him, because torture for this guy is like foreplay. I don't believe in the death penalty, because I don't believe people should give the state that power. Containment protects us and punishes the offender. And I don't mean the middle-class fantasy of "jail yard justice." If a chi-mo bodybuilder walks into gen pop, no one's gonna shank him for rep and risk getting their throat crushed. If you see Jeffrey Dahmer or some weakling rapist get murdered, it's because he was weak. Most go into protective custody, anyway.
OBAAT: And now for the classic wrap-up question: what’s next?
TP: I'm working on the second Jay Desmarteaux novel, Riff Raff, set in Louisiana. We meet Jay's "family" and some new folks who could only come from that unique state, and it takes us everywhere from the bayou to Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the rigid north of the state where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. I have a book I call "the beer bar Nazi hipster rock'n roll cozy" that's getting another round of edits, about Scotty Wierzbowski, a pogue rear-echelon shirker and his Falstaffian buddy who inherit a decrepit old man bar and try to make it trendy, only to have it infested by hipsters, who they can't get rid of, until one winds up dead. Scotty's mom tells him his father is Bon Scott, of AC/DC. It's a lot of fun, but it's weird, and weird is a hard sell. But it will find a home soon. (Editor’s Note: I have never read an author’s description of a book that made me want to read it more than this.)