I met John Shannon early on in my career, and he’s remained one of the most important, gratifying, inspiring connections I’ve made as a writer.
Author of the Jack Liffey PI series (and a novel based on a history of the American left, among other non-genre titles), he’s one of the smartest, most honest, most impassioned, most decent men I know, and his writing reflects all of that and more.
His prose shimmers, his stories grab you by the coat and shake you, his breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding remind you what a joy it is to have someone who knows a little about the world show you the ropes. His hero, Jack Liffey, reminds you of Marlowe, sure, but with touches of Hamlet and Jimmy Stewart and that tough, funny uncle who lived near the beach you loved so much but saw so little.
Most importantly, his Los Angeles is a city that’s more real than any other fictional representation I’ve encountered. He finds places and people—both isolated in their urban solitude and knotted to tight-knit communities—that others tend to overlook, and he embraces them with both his heart and his eyes wide open. Whether he’s taking you to the Vietnamese enclaves of Orange County, the surfer hangouts in Palos Verdes, the homeless camps in “The Nickel” (L.A.’s Skid Row), a Native American homestead in Owens Valley or the sprawling Persian community in greater L.A., segretaed by faith—with the Jews (yes, Persian Jews) taking over Beverly Hills, the Armenian Christians in Glendale, the seculars in the South Bay (with Shah Pahlevi diehards hovering near Westwood), and the Zoroastrians (yes, they still exist) in Culver City—he takes you there with crackling detail and an insider’s access to secrets.
I thought John might enjoy a spin in the Murderati Maserati, and so I invited him for a digital cruise down the interview highway. Here’s what we ended up talking about:
Mike Davis, a social historian (City of Quartz, Planet of Slums) has stated that you’re attempting an alternative history of Los Angeles from the viewpoint of the people routinely excluded from the official discourse. First, would you agree with this, and second, why choose the crime genre, and specifically the PI novel, as your vehicle?
Mike is a good friend and I was flattered and a little surprised by that description. I don’t know if I’m consciously trying to include the excluded. I’m certainly trying to include L.A.’s amazingly disparate communities. More people of Mexican heritage than any city but Mexico City, more Koreans, etc, etc. And not just ethnic communities—whole subcultures of cubicle-farm video game designers, territorial surfers, whacked-out wannabe musicians.
Really, the Jack Liffey series began with two unrelated impulses. One was my wish to create a detective who was an Everyman with no particular detecting skills or bravado—a decent, strong-willed, honest man, but really only a laid-off aerospace technician who is struggling to make ends meet and keep up with his child-support payments by tracking down missing children. (It’s better than delivering pizza, he says.) A man who believes in nothing but staying honest and pushing his rock up the hill day after day beside Sisyphus. The other impulse was to open a window into a social history of layer upon layer of racism, greed and exploitation in America. Perhaps racism most of all—I believe it’s the core conflict at the heart of Western Civilization, and has never been adequately addressed.
You’ve remarked that you don’t read much in the genre, but instead get your inspiration from a specific strand of realism that includes Hemingway, Robert Stone, Joan Didion and others. But Hammett is part of that tradition, as are some other crime writers. How do you think the crime genre fits into that lineage, and did that have anything to do with your own choice to start the Jack Liffey series?
Someone once said that some mystery readers are eager to find out whodunit and others just love to ride alongside their hero. I’m here for the ride. But let’s redefine the genre a bit. I’d like to think of the genre I love as “the hard edge,” though I really only have a few toes in it myself. I think I first started thinking about it as a separate little outpost of literature when I read Kent Anderson’s brilliant Viet Nam novel Sympathy for the Devil. The book felt like the harsh breath of the modern world itself. And then I recalled that my first writing hero was Graham Greene, and later Robert Stone. These books are morally serious, hard-edged and unsentimental, dealing with silences and disappointment and inner strength. And unsparing self-punishment for failure. This harsh outpost is full of magnificent spare dialogue, description that’s often witty and vivid, shocking with abrupt concrete metaphors. Hard Edge tales don’t always take place out among the Picts and wild men who paint themselves blue, but most of the writers have paid their dues out there and know that the world is not benign, not easy, not pacific and above all probably not redeemable in any grand fashion. But we have to try. It’s a noble existential calling. Out on the frontier, these surrogate adventurers have to face the ugly and cruel every day, and every day they have to reinvent human decency, out of nothing. How else could my Jack Liffey try to plug the God-sized hole in the world?
You had a strong education in the importance of structure from one of your teachers at UCLA, Marvin Borowsky, a former story editor in Hollywood. What was it that Borowsky said that impressed you?
If I could find a way to distill everything I learned from Marvin Borowsky, I could bottle it and sell it. It was amazing the way he could look at a script or a story and say, “It’s going bad at point B or C or D because of what happened back here at A.” There are differences between dramatic structure and novel structure, though. Dramatic structure is much more unforgiving and demanding. After all, it has to arc, it has to be dramatic. One way Borowsky helped me break down the idea of conflict into writerly terms was by re-expressing it. What does the main character want? Why can’t he or she get it? And what’s the result that comes out the collision of these forces? The result is not just the main character getting it or not getting it; something new develops. It sounds simple but it’s a very powerful tool for working on dramatic structure, and we were constantly dismantling down to the core films like L’Avventura and La Notte that can seem so mysteriously opaque to examination. Or even Lear and Eugene O’Neal.
Borowsky had a lot of other insights. That a main character could be likeable or unlikeable, fine, but he or she had to be active. (Think of Macbeth.) We love to watch characters who are active. Of course, as I say, this is all basically only true of drama, and further it only addresses structure, it says nothing about the quality of writing, characterization, etc. But the first novels I wrote (all before the Liffey books) were written initially as screenplays. So at least they weren’t inert navel-gazers. I won’t go off on a tirade, but a lot of current American writing is pretty uninteresting to me. Like most mystery or noir fans, I want things to happen in a book.
So much so that I’ve created a bit of a “formula” of my own to make things happen. Every Liffey ends with a major disaster of some kind—earthquake, firestorm, poison gas spill, landslide, torrential rain, etc. Of course, to some degree this is my playing with the dystopic side of L.A. and of the modern world, but it’s also just the fact that I love writing these catastrophes. Hey, I got to kick IKEA to the ground.
You’ve said some incredibly interesting things about the inherent political assumptions embedded in the various crime sub-genres—specifically, the difference between the police procedural and the PI novel. What did Jack Liffey’s being a PI avail you that being a cop denied Harry Bosch, for example, especially with respect to exploring Los Angeles?
I have to be a little guarded about how I say this because I have a tendency to go schematic and oversimplify. It’s a very human failing to grab an idea that seems to clarify something for you and then try to universalize it, or at least stretch it beyond it’s proper application. I thought from the first that there was a strong tendency in police procedurals to be about defending or reasserting the status quo, to have at least an undertow of social conservatism. In fact, Harry Bosch escapes this somewhat by being a bit of a renegade cop, as do many other series cops. Still, the underlying archetype for the police procedural—certainly for TV cop shows—is the Star Trek meme. A group of people working together to keep the world clean and remove any disturbances in the warp.
The private eye on the other hand, amateur or pro, tends to be about turning up big flat rocks and finding the corruption wriggling underneath. About helping the weak, and if not siding with the underclass, at least moving easily among them, and not trying to crush them for Mr. Big. Or Mr. Banker, if you like.
An L.A. policeman I know told me, “God, how tired I am of walking into parties and having everyone throw up their hands and shout ‘I didn’t do it!'” That certainly expresses one difference between the subgenres. The cop IS authority, can’t help but be. But Jack Liffey can go anywhere and eventually win the trust of just about anyone if he’s seen to be genuinely sympathetic to who they are. He’s an outsider, which is a highly honorable role in Western Civilization. Wire Palladin, San Francisco.
I sense a bit of Camus and Sisyphus in your conception of the hero—am I right? What is it about Camus’ conception of that myth that hits you (and me, to be honest) as optimistic, when so many others, especially Americans, find it shockingly grim?
Here’s a Camus quote I used as the epigraph on my second novel Courage, about revolution in Africa: “If after all, men cannot always make history have a meaning, they can always act so their own lives have one.” Oh yeah, Sisyphus sure resonates. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I read Myth of Sisyphus and Caligula in high school and was blown away. For some reason I always think of members of the French Resistance being terribly abused by the Gestapo but not giving up any comrades (they rarely did). To go on doing what you know is right but very painful when God isn’t watching, when nobody who matters is watching—wow. Who knows the depth of courage it takes? One privilege the French of that era have in history is knowing now who they are. For good or ill. When your country is occupied, you have to make up your mind who you are, and you remain what you choose for the rest of your life. Few of us today know who we are in that way. Some who went to Mississippi Summer. Some who refused the draft. All the other forms of “courage” that our society honors are basically conformity.
The number of times I’ve heard people say, “I don’t go to tragedies, they’re so sad. I want comedies.” That’s a totally sentimentalized view of art and heroism. With that view, even great art is reduced to kitsch. I find most comedies incredibly depressing, with their artificial situations and forced yuks, like drowning in hot pablum. Nothing is more heartening than a great tragedy. I won’t belabor it, but the human spirit is what it’s about.
Still, if you need any evidence that I honor Sisyphus, I keep on writing the books. There’s one about Chinese immigration and the Tea Party all finished and coming soonish (The Chinese Beverly Hills) and another underway about the Russian immigrants and the gay community in West Hollywood passing each other in the night like ships made of matter and anti-matter. A writer’s gotta write, etc.
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Jukebox Heroes of the Week: With a protagonist named Jack Liffey, methinks we need a spot of Fenian fury. Here’s the Pogues, with the tune that shook me out of my cynicals blahs and reawakened my love of music in the eighties: