Monday, August 14, 2017

A Conversation With Austin Camacho

Austin Camacho is one of those Renaissance men you keep hearing about, except likable. Austin is the author of the Hannibal Jones detective stories as well as the Stark and O’Brien thrillers, as well as a standalone thriller, Beyond Blue. He’s also the founder of Intrigue Publishing, and, in his copious free time, founder and organizer of the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity Conference held each year in Columbia MD. Austin gave a memorable talk at this year’s Gaithersburg Book Festival that did what all good talks should do: provided me more of an impetus to think of additional questions than providing pat answers. He was kind enough to sit down with me to follow up on his lecture and talk turned naturally to this year’s C3 conference.

One Bite at a Time: I could try to describe the talk you gave at this year’s Gaithersburg Book Festival about the dearth of African-American private eyes in fiction but that would be dumb, since it’s your topic. Catch the readers up for us and we’ll go from there.
Austin Camacho: Sure. I write hard-boiled detective fiction, which I think has always been a window into American society. In my books I show how race is a part of that social structure. In the Black community, crime is organized differently, violence grows from different motivations and racial tension is the source of much real hostility. I talked about how the characters are different and offered some tips for White writers to create good Black characters. I mixed in a little history too, since there have been very very few black private eyes in fiction. 

OBAAT: That’s something I think too often gets overlooked, that there are so few black PIs. Why do you think that is?
AC: I think there are several factors at play here. First, I fear that most African American fiction writers are writing for a Black audience, and they think their community has no interest in private eye stories. 

Second, a great number of African American writers seem to feel their work needs to be morally superior or needs to teach some great lesson. That fiction should be uplifting and not just be for simple fun. Personally I think both those reasons are specious. But then, we're sailing toward a world where the term "The Black Community" is becoming obsolete.

Also, I think it's a self-fulfilling prophesy. Black writers think this is stuff Black people just don't do. You'd be just as hard-pressed to find Black cozy mysteries (like there are no old, black female busy-bodies) or books about Black scientists or pilots or medical dramas built around a Black surgeon. Writers just don't think of African Americans in certain roles. This part I think is tragic. 

OBAAT: Great point about some writers—of any background—who may feel their work needs to be “morally superior.” I’ve long believe that for any literature to be effective, it first has to be entertaining on some level, or the author is mostly writing for people who already know everything he or she has to tell them. Walter Mosely and Chester Himes come to mind for me. I enjoy reading them both, yet they got me to thinking about things—either in 50s LA or Harlem—a country white boy would never have thought of on his own, or felt as if it were being shoved down my throat if they weren’t such great stories first. You mentioned the “uplifting and not just be for simple fun” arguments are specious. I agree and feel there’s a lot of ground to be covered between “entertaining” and ”frivolous” or “exploitative.” There should be a niche there. Do you agree? (He said with a smile toward an author he sees doing an admirable job of trying to fill it.)
AC: Of course. You and I write to entertain, but for a story to hold readers of above-average intellect, they can't simply be frivolous. Our readers want heroes and villains of some depth. And crime fiction leads us, inexorably, into exploring the very nature of good and evil. Building interesting characters forces you to explore human nature. Mystery is about motive, so we end up talking about why people do the things they do. So, the space you are talking about is like an enjoyable meal. There will always be McDonald's and some will always choose the expensive French restaurant but I choose to be more the Red Lobster: fun but with some substance.

OBAAT: I have to confess that when I think of black PI writers I come up with you and Gary Phillips. (Walter Mosely doesn’t quite qualify, as Easy Rawlins isn’t really a PI.) Am I just woefully ignorant—in which case please feel free to enlighten me—or is there a disproportionate dearth of black PI writers?
AC:  We are few and far between, and those who write PIs don't get nearly as much attention as they deserve. So yes, disproportionate dearth is a good way to put it. but if you've read Gary Phillips' Monk series you know he's as good as anybody out there. Ernest. Tidyman  actually dropped seven Shaft novels in the 70s and they're all better than the movies. I can think of maybe a half dozen more if you don't count Alexander McCall-Smith (which I don't.) If I was gonna recommend one (not counting Gary of course) it would be  P.J. Parrish (actually the pen name of two sisters.) Their character Louis Kincaid is a biracial private detective like my Hannibal Jones, only set in Mississippi. 

OBAAT: There has been an active discussion in recent years among Canadian writers about the subject of cultural appropriation when white Canadians write about First Nation characters. Do you think white American PI writers have a similar situation to consider should they chose to write a black PI?
AC: Naah. White kids getting cornrows and calling each other nigga, that’s cultural appropriation. Fiction writing is a whole different thing. I write rednecks, Italian immigrants and neo-nazis from time to time. We write people who are not like us for two reasons: to help us understand them better, and to help our readers understand them better. Trying to BE something you're not, stealing our music, our slang and our dress style - that might be appropriating someone else's culture. Writing those characters is only wrong if you're inaccurate.

OBAAT: You’re the founder and organizer of the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity
Conference. One of the things that struck me the first time I went to a C3 conference is the level of diversity among the attendees. I’m sure part of that has to do with C3 being a more regional conference in the DC/Baltimore area, but that doesn’t account for all of it. C3 is a cross-genre conference. Did you deliberately set out to appeal to a more diverse audience, or was that a felicitous surprise?
AC: Oh, we definitely worked at it! Did you know there's a whole Black Science Fiction Society? When I find Black sci-fi, fantasy, or mystery writers they're usually at all-Black events. I ask them why they don't want whites to read their stories and they usually say something like, "they don't want to." Those I've convinced to attend the C3 Con have had their eyes opened. I don't think the average reader even cares what the writer looks like. And if they'll accept Lincoln Rhyme and Alex Cross, why wouldn't they accept black character written by black people? In the sci-fi arena they accept blue people, green people, people with six arms. Why would a black face bother them?

I have to bring up Eric Jerome Dickey - a New York Times best-selling author who writes, among other things, a thriller series about a hit man names Gideon. When I told him he belonged at Thrillerfest with the rest of the thriller authors of his stature his response was, "No, those aren't my people. Why do I want to hang out with them?" When I said, "To find a broader audience for your work" he waved me off. I was more angry than disappointed. 

OBAAT: Dickey’s is an attitude that’s refreshingly absent at C3. I read very little but crime and non-fiction generally and found myself having a great time talking to writers and readers of all different backgrounds and tastes. There are a couple of things I find at C3 that lend themselves to this uniquely: the communal meals and the late afternoon signing hours. Everyone sits and talks with everybody else and the whole thing just shows how much in common there is among everyone for whom books are an important element of life.
AC: I feel this is one of the most important features of the C3 Con. I find it puts the "big names" more at ease to sit at the table with the gang rather than being besieged by fans or other writers only at designated times. I remember Reed Farrel Coleman saying "This is my tribe." Ditto everyone at the book signing: first-timers, self-published, old hands, best sellers, and unknowns. All get to be just "writers." We've had a lot of positive feedback on both aspects of the Con

OBAAT: I was jazzed to learn Peter Blauner and Jonathan Maberry are this year’s keynotes, with my buddy David Swinson and Debbie Mack as the prime locals. I also see Jeffery Deaver will give a talk about writing from soup to nuts, and Michaela Hamilton, Executive Editor at Kensington, will give an “inside baseball” presentation. How are you able to so consistently pull together such high-level professionals for a conference so young?
AC: This is entirely due to networking at other Cons. I'm totally freaked out that some people who run these events don't attend anyone else's. Many of our past keynote speakers I met at Thrillerfest or Bouchercon or Love is Murder or the Philadelphia Writers Con or ... you get the idea. I chat with someone I admire and I (or my lovely wife Dee) will say, "Clearly you like attending these things. Have you heard about ours?" That's how I got Deaver, and Dee got Heather Graham.

The other trick is to treat the keynotes right: nice hotel room, pick them up from the airport, ask if they want to participate in different things, invite their spouse or partner to join us... just treat them with the respect they deserve, and make sure the other attendees do, too. While I met Maberry at the Philly Con, we have Peter Blauner because I asked Reed Farrel Coleman who'd be good. He didn't just nominate Blauner, he called his pal and said, "This is one you want to do. These guys are cool!" 

One other point - I've learned they often get bored at other Cons. Every keynote has said, "Can you keep me busy the whole weekend, please? Put me on panels, let me do presentations, I don't want to come all the way there to stare at the wall all day." So we put them to work. :-)

OBAAT: I had planned on a brief plug for this year’s Creatures, Crime, and Creativity Conference in Columbia MD September 8 – 10, but I can’t come up with anything better than Reed Farrel Coleman’s comment to Peter Blauner. Here’s the link for more information. If I don’t see you there it’s your own fault.

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