Interview by Mike MacLean
Grifters and pimps. Pushers and killers. Dirty angels and righteous whores. They all lurk in the world of Hard Case Crime, the coolest publishers ever to hit the paperback stands. So cool, they even punched out a couple titles by Murderati’s own Ken Bruen!
I say with no embarrassment, I’m a fan boy. From the moment I saw those first Hard Case covers—the smoking guns and fem fatales—I was hooked. And while the art drew me in, the words kept me in my seat, flipping pages.
Hard Case creator, editor, and author Charles Ardai was nice enough to sit down for an interview, answering questions about publishing in the world of pulp.
MM: Murderati readers may or may not know you were the founder and CEO of Juno, a popular Internet service provider. What drew you from the dotcom world to the publishing world?
CA: Actually, the right question to ask is the opposite one: What drew me from the publishing world to the dotcom world? I started out as a writer, at age 13, publishing reviews of videogames in magazines with names like ELECTRONIC FUN WITH COMPUTERS AND GAMES; I sold my first short story to ELLERY QUEEN in 1987, when I was 17; and a few years later, I started editing anthologies of short fiction for QUEEN and ALFRED HITCHCOCK and ISAAC ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE. By the time I graduated college I’d published several hundred reviews and articles and stories and edited a dozen books, and I was certain I’d always be a writer and an editor and nothing but.
So how did I wind up starting an Internet company? It’s a long story, but the short version is that back in 1992, mostly to make ends meet, I accepted a job offer from a company called D. E. Shaw & Co. (where Jeff Bezos, later the founder of Amazon.com, was also working), and around 1994 Jeff and I and a third guy who now runs a hedge fund were assigned to look at commercial opportunities on the Internet. Jeff came up with the idea for Amazon; the other guy started an online stock trading service that Merrill Lynch eventually bought; and I came up with the idea for Juno. Seven years and 10 million subscribers later, I merged it with NetZero and went back into writing, editing, and publishing, which were always my
first and greatest loves. I still spend part of my time working on business matters — most recently overseeing a couple of biotechnology companies — but publishing is where I began, and I imagine it’s where I’ll end.
MM: What’s so great about the pulp tradition? Why do you like treading on the dark side?
CA: Well, to start with, pulp is not always dark — there’s plenty of light, exciting, action-packed pulp, and it’s fun, too. But I’ve always
gravitated toward the dark side. Chalk it up to a tortured adolescence; chalk it up to growing up in cynical, grubby 1970s New York City, where everyone I knew had been mugged at least once, the lucky ones at gunpoint, and where the back pages of NEW YORK magazine and THE VILLAGE VOICE were an out-in-the-open market for sexual services of every description. Chalk it up to being reared by two Holocaust survivors who told me bedtime stories that would make Stephen King look like Dr. Pangloss and whose repeated lesson to me was that you always have to keep a suitcase packed for the day when things inevitably (but without warning) turn bad. Chalk it up to a lot of things — all I know is that when I first read writers
like Thomas Hardy and Camus, and then James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich and Lawrence Block, I knew instantly I’d found kindred souls.
And then, of course, as a writer I love dark pulp fiction for its velocity, its concision, its storytelling efficiency. Page one: a corpse. Page two: they’re running for their lives. Page three: a man with a gun. You can’t resist the pull of writing that immediate, that grab-you-by-the-throat.
MM: As an editor, what criteria do you follow when picking a vintage book to reprint?
CA: It’s simple: I have several thousand old crime paperbacks on my shelves and I’ve read most of them, and I ask myself, which ones do I remember That eliminates 90 percent. Then I ask, which of those do I remember fondly? That eliminates another 9 percent. Then I pull the rest off the shelf, reread them, and ask, "Would a reader who is not already a pulp aficionado or a collector enjoy reading this book?" Because we’re not archivists; we’re entertainers, and we want to deliver a great reading experience to a member of the general public, not just to hardcore fans. This process eliminates most of the books on my shelves. The ones that are left we reprint.
MM: What do you look for in new authors?
CA: It sounds trite and obvious, but the main thing I look for is good writing. And that’s awfully hard to find. We get about 1000 submissions per year and in a typical year 990 of them are badly written. The writers have the best intentions in the world and sometimes they even have an interesting story to tell, but their writing just isn’t of professional quality. Of the ones that are well written, some just wouldn’t be appropriate for us — they’re set in the Middle Ages or are about vampires and ghosts or they’re really horror novels or modern thrillers rather than the sort of classical hardboiled/noir crime fiction we publish. Or I just don’t like them personally, for whatever impossible-to-define reason. But once in a while I find a book that’s well written, that’s crime fiction, and that I like — and that’s what I look for.
The hardest of these elements to define is the last one: what I like. The best way I’ve found to describe it is to pose the question, "Could you imagine this having been published by Gold Medal in the 1950s?" Now, Gold Medal published a pretty wide range of books, everything from Westerns to joke books to adventure novels — but there’s a certain type of crime fiction you associate with the Gold Medal name, and generally speaking that’s the sort of story that belongs in Hard Case Crime. There are exceptions, of course — what’s a rule without exceptions? — but it’s a reasonable guideline.
MM: If you could pick any author to write a book for Hard Case, who would it be?
CA: Oh, that’s tough — there are so many. Elmore Leonard would be a natural, and we’ve exchanged letters with him over the years, but I doubt it could ever happen. Robert B. Parker is terrific when he writes lean and quick. Dean Koontz started out writing hardboiled crime novels and I bet he’d enjoy doing it one more time. Jonathan Lethem’s a fan of our books, as is George Pelecanos, and I’d love to have either of them take a crack at
writing one. My favorite fantasy is that Philip Roth would write one — I spoke to him once, when THE HUMAN STAIN came out, and he described the scene at the end on the frozen lake as his first chance to write suspense fiction. I’d be glad to give him another chance. But these are dreams. I don’t expect it to happen.
MM: Okay, Sophie’s choice time. Everyone knows how great Hard Case’s covers are. Do you have a favorite?
CA: That’s even tougher! We have some fantastic artists and choosing among them is impossible. How do you rank a McGinnis against a Manchess or an Orbik? You don’t, is the answer. You can’t. Within each artist’s work it’s easier, but only a little. Bob McGinnis’ best for us is probably either THE GIRL WITH THE LONG GREEN HEART or THE LAST QUARRY (though I think the girl on KILL NOW, PAY LATER has the most beautiful face of any he’s painted for us). Greg Manchess’ FADE TO BLONDE has become almost an iconic image for us (though his VENGEFUL VIRGIN is a popular favorite as well). Glen Orbik’s SONGS OF INNOCENCE has a special place in my heart,for obvious reasons (though his BRANDED WOMAN and BLACKMAILER give it a run for its money in terms of sheer wolf-whistle-inducing sex appeal). And then there’s Chuck Pyle, with his dead-on period stylings in LUCKY AT CARDS and A DIET OF TREACLE, and Rick Farrell who did such a gorgeous job SLIDE and LEMONS NEVER LIE, and… Okay, it’s impossible. All I’ll say is this: If you think you have a favorite now, wait till next month. And that goes no matter what month it is.
MM: In July, (or is it June?) Songs of Innocence hits the shelves, written by Richard Aleas, AKA you. I’ll skip the usual pen name questions. Songs is a follow up to your first novel, Little Girl Lost. What challenges did you face writing a sequel?
CA: It’s July, though copies probably will show up in some stores at the end of June.
The main challenge, frankly, was finding the time to write it. I wrote LITTLE GIRL LOST over the course of 60 days, while SONGS took me the better part of three years, and it wasn’t because the book was harder to write, it was just because it’s tough to find time to write when you’re publishing a book a month and doing all the copy editing and proofreading yourself (not to mention reading 1000 submissions/year, not to mention overseeing a couple of biotech companies…).
The other challenge had to do with trying to be true to the story I wanted to tell. I started by asking the question, "What would it do to a sensitive young man, in the real world, to go through the events of the first book?" And the answer was clear, it seemed to me: It would severely damage him. So as tempting as it was to just write a conventional second novel, in which the hero of the first is hale and hearty and raring to go, I decided that John Blake would start the second novel on the edge of a precipice. That’s a difficult place to start a novel, because where is there to go but down? But that’s noir. If you can’t stand the heat, etc.
MM: Both you and your partner in crime Max Phillips have published your own novels under the Hard Case banner. How did you handle the editing duties on these books? Were there fistfights involved?
CA: We agreed more than we disagreed, but sure, there were moments. I did a detailed mark-up of his manuscript and he ignored at least half of my suggested edits, and of course his book went on to win the Shamus, so I guess he was right. He did a detailed mark-up of my manuscript and though I actually did take most of his text-level edits, I ignored the main plot-level point he made, and LITTLE GIRL LOST went on to be nominated for both the Shamus and the Edgar, so I guess I was right. In the end, you have to let the author make the final decision; it’s his book.
But the simple fact is that Max is both a more seasoned and a better writer than I am, so it’s appropriate for me to follow his lead a bit more than the other way around. I was grateful to have his help.
MM: Do you feel Hard Case has made an impact on the publishing world?
CA: I’d like to think so. Sometimes I see another publisher doing a cover that looks a bit like one of ours and I think, "They clearly were inspired by us" — but of course we can hardly claim to have invented our look, so who knows. Maybe they were inspired by the same old books that inspired us. I do think more people are aware of old-fashioned pulp crime fiction now than were in 2004, when we started; I also think there are more publishers reprinting undeservedly forgotten crime fiction than there were when we started, and I know there are readers who have been turned on to the work of writers like Day Keene and Gil Brewer who might never have been if we hadn’t reprinted them. That feels good.
But how much of an impact is it really? We’ve published some good books; we’ve given a few hundred thousand people a pleasant night’s reading. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s hardly going to shake the publishing world to its foundations.
MM: What can you tell us about the movie deals? Can you drop any names? Are there any directors lined up? Any stars?
CA: Alas, it’s too early to say anything about movies. Papazian-Hirsch is very enthusiastic and so are we, but enthusiasm is just one of the ingredients you need in order to get movies made; another is money, and we’re in the process now of rounding up the necessary financing. That’s got to be done before you lock down directors or actors or, hell, even the makeup and hair people. But I’m optimistic. These books would make terrific films and enough people in Hollywood agree with us about that that I’d be surprised if we didn’t see some of them up on the silver screen in a few years.
MM: If you could pistol whip anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
CA: What, anyone? Really? Will the Secret Service come knocking on my door if I say "Dick Cheney"? (Just kidding. Don’t arrest me. My bag’s not packed.)
Oh, I don’t know. I’m not a violent sort. There are people I don’t like, but I’d sooner excoriate them verbally than slap ’em with the butt of my roscoe. ("The Butt of My Roscoe." Now there’s a great title for a book.
Although I guess maybe not the sort we publish.)
MM: What’s next for Hard Case?
CA: Another book every month, at least until either the reading public gets tired of it or I do. We’ve got some great writers coming up (Woolrich, Spillane, Robert Bloch), plus more from some of our old favorites (Lawrence Block, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, Max Allan Collins, John Lange). We have our first ever female author: Christa Faust, whose MONEY SHOT is already looking to be one of the more talked-about books of ’08. And I’ve got something fun in mind for book #50 — but I’m not quite ready to describe it yet, just in case I don’t manage to pull it off…
(Mr. Ardai and his hard-boiled pals at Book Expo America)
My thanks to Charles Ardai for taking the time to chat.
Now let me throw some questions at you, Murder fans. Who would you like to see write a Hard Case book? Are there any old noir classics you’d like to see reprinted? And while you have your thinking caps on, come up with a great two-fisted, steamy title for a pulp novel.
Coming soon: An interview with Hard Case alum and author of HARD MAN, Allan Guthrie