Thursday, May 5, 2016

Twenty Questions With Tom Pitts

Tom Pitts received his education firsthand on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, writing, working, and trying to survive. He is the author of two novellas, Piggyback and Knuckleball. His shorts have been published in the usual spots by the usual suspects.

He lingered on the periphery of my reading attention for a while until Knuckleball’s baseball tie-in gave me a nudge his direction. I read it on the train coming back from moving The Sole Heir™ to Connecticut and I was sorry I didn’t take more time to read it. (Careful phrasing there. I wasn’t sorry the book wasn’t longer—its length is perfect for the story Tom had to tell—just that I finished before I was ready to let it go.)

Tom is also an acquisitions editor at Gutter Books and Out of the Gutter Online. Author's website: He and I find ourselves on the same team as authors, as Down and Out Books has re-released Hustle, which dropped April 21. Tom was nice enough to stop by and submit himself to a grilling in the midst of everything else he has going on.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Hustle.

Tom Pitts: Hustle is the tale of two young drug addicts who want to get off the corner. They think their best plan to escape their miserable existence is to extort an elderly client of theirs. That’s the simple overview, but it gets a lot more complex. Their victim is a criminal defense attorney with an evil ex-con living in his house who’s holding a dark secret over the attorney’s head. The attorney seeks out another old client—a likeable old biker—to rid him of his problem. The biker, the ex-con, and the two hustlers all cross paths and the adventure to simultaneously suppress and uncover that secret begins.

OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
TP:  I wanted to write a short story in third person but had the voice of first person. It was that simple. I started writing, and by the third page I realized the basic premise was good enough for a longer work. I’d just finished “Piggyback”—which was the longest thing I’d written at the time—and thought the “prostitutes ripping off their johns” idea was enough for a novella, so I pressed on. It wasn’t till halfway though I realized it was going to go the distance. As for the content, it came from the taxi business. There were several times I’d heard hookers talking about ripping off their johns while they chatted in the backseat of the cab. One memorable ride, I listened to this black hooker tell a recently immigrated Russian girl how to rob her customers. There were ones she could rob and let their pimp know, and there were ones she could rob but couldn’t tell their pimp. Not robbing the customer wasn’t even on the table. The choice to go with the homosexual prostitutes was solely to push the envelope. I hadn’t seen it done before, so I thought I’d break new ground.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Hustle, start to finish?
TP: Between four to six months. My process has slowed since then. I think the excitement of writing my first novel, my ignorance of plot holes, and not knowing how long the book was going to be may have spurred me on.

OBAAT: Where did Donny and Big Rich come from?
TP: It’s funny, I get asked a lot if those two characters are based on me and Joe Clifford. For the record, no. We weren’t part of that world. A lot of the junkie business—the terrible details of addiction—were things I experienced firsthand though: The shitty hotel rooms, the endless waiting, the awful desperation, the blackened spoons, the blood on the walls, and the constant reminder of withdrawals. Donny and Big Rich, however, were just two fictional characters. Donny was the green kid lost in the big city, and Big Rich was his mentor. I guess it was a bit stereotypical in that sense, which was one of the reasons I used the setting of the world of gay hustlers. I was never involved in the trade, and the few people I knew who were involved ended up committing suicide. We’re only talking about a handful of guys that I knew, more from bicycle messengering than drugs, but, yeah, all but one ended up taking their own lives. And that poor bastard is dying of AIDS as we speak. Which should tell you something about the fallout from the sex trade. It has the worst occupational hazards there is. Death.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Hustle set and why was this time and place chosen?
TP: The early 20-teens. The kids think they can use YouTube to extort their client. They’re still na├»ve about the internet. Smart phones and Craigslist are changing the landscape of the sex trade. I wanted something current because I was worried it wouldn’t be seen for many years.

OBAAT: How did Hustle come to be published?
TP: I scored an agent after “Piggyback” and she shopped Hustle for a short while. It didn’t take long for her to come back to me and say, “none of the big houses are ever going to take this. It’s way too dark and sleazy.” I still disagree with that assessment. I see a lot more disturbing stuff from major publishers. Cannibalism, incest, the whole nine yards. Anyway, Brian at Snubnose (who were a key small press doing crime fiction at that time) said he’d do a beta read. When he was done, he said he’d put it out whenever I liked, as is. I was impatient and discouraged by the bigs, so I went for it. Eric Campbell at Down & Out loved the book and wanted to give it a second life, and I’m grateful he did. I hope it sells as well as it did during the first pressing.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
TP: Drug addiction and my foray into the criminal underworld prepared me well for writing crime fiction. It taught me that most of the books and movies are bullshit. In reality, nothing ever goes right, nothing ever goes smoothly. Criminals are assholes, not heroes. They’re unlikable people with terrible traits. There’s an ugliness that gets missed in crime’s portrayal in popular culture. Desperate people don’t often have guns, because, if they do, they sell ‘em for drugs. There’s a reason they live on the fringes of society. It’s not because of their libertarian spirit, it’s because society wouldn’t have ‘em.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
TP: That magical time when you’re locked inside your own narrative. When you’re having as much fun writing your story as you would reading a good book or watching a great movie—except the story is yours. You’re the writer, director and star, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

OBAAT: What do you like least about being a writer? Is there any aspect you actively dislike?
TP: Crippling self-doubt is what I dislike. I think all writers face it. Some shoulder it better than others. When you hit the 50k mark in a novel and you question whether you’re even a writer or not. You wonder how the hell you’re going to write your characters out of the mess you’ve put them in. You feel like a fraud. But then, sentence by sentence, page by page, you work it out and you’re back to patting yourself on the back again. As far as specific activities? No, none of the extracurricular things that go along with writing bother me. It’s nice to have ‘em when you have to rationalize your procrastination. For example, I didn’t write today, but a least I did this interview!

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
TP: I’m that guy in the theater shouting, “That could never happen!” Whatever I see or read, I’m always thinking how’d it’d work in real life. Years ago, I was obsessed with true crime. Mostly Mafia stuff, books written by snitches bending the truth a little for their own benefit or absolution. Many of those stories still shape me today. There’s a book by T.J. English called The Westies that changed the way I viewed crime. It was the first time I saw how organized crime really worked. The book is about the history of the Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen, but more than that, it was about a group of hard-drinking fuck-ups who had more balls than brains. It was also about back-biting and betrayal. I think that book should be required reading for anyone writing about organized crime.

OBAAT: You touched a couple of times now on a favorite subject of mine: verisimilitude. I interviewed some PIs before I wrote my first Nick Forte book and asked them for pet peeves with PI stories. They all agreed it was that the detectives in books and movies never get paid. They work cases on the cuff and a real PI never does that. Now, granted, in a fictional world there are no “nevers,” but still. What kinds of things do you see that are routinely done wrong and don’t have to be that sets your teeth to grinding?
TP: There’re plenty of ‘em. With drug use especially. Many writers will set up their characters with a drug problem and then forget about it after it’s been introduced. With Hustle, I wanted to put my own stamp on that. If you’re an addict, the drug use—or obsession—never stops. With junk, it’s every four or five hours, baby, you gotta have that shit. Another one is characters who’re always drinking hard liquor, Mad Men style, but never seem to get drunk. If I’m throwing back bourbon in the middle of the day, I’m going to have a sloppy night. It’s just the way it is. It reminds me of TV shows when a character takes a beating, and in the next scene doesn’t even have a black eye. You take a few shots to the face, it hurts. There’s bruising, swelling. It affects how you act for weeks.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?       
TP: Seat of the pants. When I get to the middle of a novel and I have the ol’ crisis of faith, I often question that method, but it’s the only way I know how to do it. I try to plan a little, but every time I do, I veer off the path. It’s almost like I’m a doing automatic writing. That drunken old whore I call the Muse just won’t listen to what I say.

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 jump in and write. Somewhere along the line I lose track, lose focus, and I go back to the start and read, planting flowers and pulling weeds as I go. Sometimes I notice holes in the plot that need to be filled, or just little errors that need correcting. This happens every time I lose my daily rhythm, I need to go back and reacquaint myself with the story. Sometimes I can do this just by going back a few pages, but I often have to go back to page one.

OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
TP: I look for the opposite of what America wants. It may be the punk ethos I grew up with, but if it’s white hats the general public wants, then it’s black hats for me, baby. You want a happy ending? I’ll finish in the funeral parlor.

OBAAT: You said you “look for the opposite of what America wants” when writing endings. What do you look for in the books you choose to read, and how do you think that varies from what “America wants?”
TP: I don’t think my choices vary from the mainstream too much, but it’s how they affect me and how they frustrate me, I guess. I just know that criminal life if full of mistakes, that criminals are fuck-ups and I don’t always see that reflected. When you’re living as an outlaw, there’s still no escaping Murphy’s Law. So it’s doesn’t matter if I draw my entertainment choices from the mainstream, I still end up saying, nobody’s that cool, or things never go that smoothly. Jewel thieves and cat burglars and international spies, all of them square-jawed and hairless—what a crock! People—the book-buying, television-watching, movie-going masses—want what they want. Doesn’t make ‘em right.  

OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
TP: Honestly, anyone who’s willing to read a book. The percentage of the population that still reads gets smaller every day. I’d just like to sell enough of ‘em to stop working the goddamn graveyard shift.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
TP: Patience. There is no immediate gratification in the writing business. The longer you wait, the better off you are. Don’t jump at the first offer that comes your way. This is something I’m still learning, so the novice writer I’m giving this advice to is myself.

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?
TP: I really think this is something instinctual. It can’t be learned. Each component affects another. You start with characters, throw them in a situation/setting, and let the plot unfold. But, beyond that, you need to let the story drive the car. You can go back and shape the tone to a certain degree, but really the basics have to be there in the first draft. There’s one thing I learned making records: if you don’t get the basic tracks down, no amount of trickery in the mixing booth is going to help.

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?
TP: Wow, tough question. That sounds like a deal with the devil. There’s a lot of stuff out there I wish I had the talent to write, but ultimately it’s not me. I mean, Benjamin Whitmer is a hero of mine, literature-wise, but his voice is his. And that’s what I admire most about his books—his voice. Same with Denis Johnson, he’s got a voice that shifts with each book he writes and it’s always great, but it’s still not mine. I know it sounds like a cop-out, but at this moment, that book is my own, American Static. Would I like the accolades, fame, and juice some of the books that have influenced me? Of course. But as for the content, it wouldn’t be mine. I feel odd saying it because I whine so much about my personal struggles, but I wouldn’t swap with anyone if it meant losing part of being me.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

TP: After Hustle, I promised myself I’d write a novel a year till I was dead. I didn’t factor in the wait to get ‘em published though. I have two completed novels. I have a new agent and she’s shopping the one I wrote immediately after Hustle. It’s called American Static and I think it’s better than Hustle. It’s more complex and moves faster. When that sells, she’ll be pushing Coldwater, my take on a suburban horror story. You know, a young couple moves to the burbs and a group of terrifying drug addicts breaks into the house across the street an sets up camp. It’s the kind of real-life horror story that could actually happen and that’s what makes it scary. The novel I’m halfway through right now is called 101. It’s a crime thriller rooted in the marijuana industry up in Humboldt County in Northern California. It’s fun to write because I know a lot of people in that game. It’ll be interesting to see what they think.

1 comment:

Charlieopera said...

GREAT stuff ... and it'll have me ordering when I'm done with this. Great reference to T.J. English's book (Westies), it's a great read and sure does tell a lot about the knuckleheads in that gang and how they were used by Roy DeMeo's Canarsie crew (where I grew up). I think the did a half-assed movie based on Westies with Sean Penn(?) and Gary Oldman. Anyway, great stuff. I'll be reading Mr. Pitts shortly.