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:
I've read this interview four times since it posted.
I've tried to select the lines that resonated or struck me, but figured there wasn't any point in copying the entire thing down here, especially with Captcha doing doubles this week.
Good questions, great answers. Good song, too.
Thanks, Sarah. And I thought we were doing away with Captcha, but apparently there's a glitch in eliminating the glitch.
Thanks for being here, John. So – I'm hooked. Read a couple of samples of the books and went straight for the full books. (Okay, so I looked at the interview before it was posted, I didn't get up THAT early.)
Really wonderful depictions of LA. I've been to that donut shop. Can't wait to have time to read more.
Dear Sarah and Alexandra, Thanks for the kind words. I've read it a couple of times, too. David is so flattering I feel like jumping out the window in my flying tights. I'm on deck here off an on if anybody has any questions.
Did you grow up in L.A., or are you writing from the perspective of an outsider who learned how to really work it (which most people don't have the patience to do!)?
Great interview, David.
John, I've yet to read your books; though I have heard of the Jack Liffey series. I enjoyed this interview and am now looking forward to reading the books.
Do you have Irish connections? Shannon – the longest river in Ireland. Liffey – the river flowing through Dublin, where it enters the sea.
Great interview, David – and John, welcome to Murderati.
Lots of food for thought here …
I'm only Irish in that good old American mongrel sense, but you caught the in-joke. If you read the first book–The Concrete River–you'll see where the inside joke comes from, but I won't spoil it here.
Zoe, Thanks for the welcome. The blog is on my RSS now.
I grew up in San Pedro, L.A.'s harbor area and I have an essay about it on a blog called FourStory if you're interested.
Though it's more about memory, loss, and the pathos of our society's attempts to manipulate and sentimentalize the past.
Actually, I still have to do a lot of research on L.A. because nobody could know all the subcommunities out there, from Koreatown to Boystown (West Hollywood). Yours, John
What a magnificent interview — responses and questions. So much to think about. I think Sarah has the right idea that I'm going to have to read it several times to digest it.
The quote that you mentioned from Camus, John, is particularly meaningful this week because the institute where I work is hosting a world expert in palliative care and "meaning-centered" psychotherapy and research. He works primarily with terminally ill cancer patients who are facing mortality in a way most of us like to avoid. So I'm thinking a lot about the meaning of life, and a meaningful life, this week.
. . . but that's only a tiny bit of what you had to say.
Thank you so much for visiting Murderati!
I adore the Pogues! My fav is Christmastime in NY with Kirsty Maccoll.
Thanks a lot for the positive response and best of luck with your conference. I can imagine some of your concerns–my mom is 92 and sliding into dementia, a once sharp mind, a depression kid who educated herself book by book and class by class until she got an MA in lit. And I've realized recently that I'm going through a bit of mortality denial and displacement myself.
I agree with Sarah, too much to take away from this with only one read. Wow! John, I wasn't familiar with your work before but certainly will be now. And, David, I love the way you make me stretch. Thanks for that.
Thanks, JJ. Definitely give John's books a whirl. He's not just smart, he's funny and interesting and his stories flat out move.
Thanks. David makes me stretch, too. If you haven't read Do They Know I'm Running? yet, you owe it to yourself. It's right up there with Robert Stone and that's saying a lot in my book. There's a scene early on of a dick-waving contest between La Migra, cops and an Iraq vet that chills right down to the bone. I'm not even sure how he did it.
He also impressed the bejeezus out of me after I said something stupid once about Greek tragedy and he gave a mini-lecture that brought me back to reality. Smart all around.
I'm all about the dick waving. Other than that, Mr. Shannon, you give me far too much credit.
Those two letters of mutual praise must have a weird look from outside, but we can both swear they were on their way, criss-crossing in cyberspace, at the same moment. Life is like that. Like what? Okay, maybe it isn't.
Wow, I concur with the other commenters. There's much to absorb here. Thank you, David, for sharing John Shannon with us. And John, thank you and welcome!
(Love The Pogues!)
Thanks a bunch and I love the Pogues, too. I don't think their name means quite the same thing in Irish slang as it does in this country, at least in prison/underclass slang.
Mr. Shannon, it's a pleasure to meet you. I'll be on the lookout for your books, now. Your comments are a banquet for thought.
David, thanks for this good work.
This post comes from Allison Davis, who is having issues with Squarespace, our curmudgeonly software:
David and John, thanks for this. Three things: Racism is the core conflict of Western Civilization (I believe that and now realize my writing reflects its), action always (no inert naval gazing) and conformity courage versus non conformity courage. All sharp points, excellent.
I have a good friend in LA who lives in Korea Town and loves the history and diversity of LA. We drive on the street and not the freeway so he can point out this or that tidbit about the history and some obscure corner somewhere. That's how I think of your books, streetview, like driving on the avenues and boulevards instead of the freeway.
And the music has cemented my belief that if I ever want another boyfriend, I'm going to Ireland
Tom and Allison,
Thanks so much for the kind words. Allison, if you're interested, there's a tremendous and powerful exposition of how racism and slavery impacted, twisted and corrupted virtually everything that happened in America back to the 1700s at least. It's a long intro to what was meant to be a two-volume biography of John Brown, but the author died before doing part two so it's hard to come by (and also, uh, he was a communist). Richard O. Boyer's The Legend of John Brown. The same guy who wrote Labor's Untold Story. Great social history.
John, awesome, I found a first edition copy on Amazon and ordered it. I have a lot of good history, but didn't have that one. My favorite recent book was Warmth of Other Suns. I have a house in New Orleans. Good place to do a lot of research. Thanks so much.
ok, bizaare. It finally works for me and no guard at the gates? (No Captcha at all)
I hope you enjoy it. Let me know. John Brown is one of my heroes. I've visited all the sites connected to him, and wept at several, and I and friends once founded a small press called John Brown Books. Yeah, it failed.
So sad that the wonderful history of freesoil Kansas is so forgotten, even in Kansas. The bravery of those unorganized farmers and others who moved there one by one to stop the spread of slavery and the thuggery and murder they had to endure from across the border in Missouri, so typical of the far right. And its memory has largely evaporated.
For a great fictional portrayal of Bleeding Kansas and the war between the Jayhawker and Bushwhacker freebooters, see Daniel Woodrell's WOE TO LIVE ON.
John, speaking of non conformist courage, eh?
David, yes, I've read it. Woodrell is amazing, though it's very odd that he chose to follow the Border Ruffian side, and have a black in his gang! Since I was a model railroader as a kid, I know we can find a prototype for anything, and even Lenin said 'Life is stranger than any theory.' I'm sure it might have happened. As I remember, Woodrell's guys even participated in the burning of Lawrence, one of the great atrocities of American history. I was cringing all the way through reading it. I'm not sure what to make of it. Nothing is tidy, but this was pretty strange. I know–the facts are there, but maybe not the context. Perhaps I should read it again.
Allison, I haven't read the Brown book for 30 years, and I donated my copy to a left library here. Let me know if I remember it wrong, please. And anyone else who wants to find me, there's a contact connection on http://www.jackliffey.com.
Wow. Some people write things that make you think and it's tedious and onerous but you do it anyway because you suspect it's good for you, somehow. And then there are things like this. And suddenly it's a privilege and even a blessing to be made to think deeply about things you'd previously barely considered. What a gift you both have. Thanks for making time to share it here.
And now I'm adding yet another writer to my "must read" list. Damnit, this blog is wreaking havoc with my book budget. Oh, who am I kidding, when it comes to books there is no budget.
If you're into being nudged out of comfortable grooves in your thinking, try John Berger's Ways Of Seeing. It's from Penguin so it should be around. It helped change my life. Seriously. (Start with chapter 3)