Slowly and Inexorably

Naomi’s note: I actually met Gary Phillips’ wife, the indomitable Gilda Haas, years before I would lay eyes on Gary Phillips. And before I met Gary, I would meet his books–first VIOLENT SPRING, his first Ivan Monk mystery, published by the now defunct imprint West Coast Crime, which Gary launched with writer John Shannon and a Portland-based publisher. In Gary’s work, I discovered a verve and energy that matched the backdrop of his novels–whether it be post-riot Los Angeles or seedy Las Vegas from the eyes of his other series character, Martha Chainey, a former show girl.

Although committed to his politics, Gary is artistically a bit of a chameleon. He writes crime novels, but he has contributed much to the body of short story literature, editing COCAINE CHRONICLES for Akashic and writing short stories for a number of anthologies, including most recently DUBLIN NOIR and a YA poker-themed anthology edited by National Book award winner Pete Hautman. Gary’s written a graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics called CULPRITS and is doing another one for Oni Comics, a murder mystery called the PROMISE OF NIGHT set in post-World War II Paris in the jazz scene. An article in the July/August Black Issues Book Review–on the stands now–mentions the Angeltown miniseries that Gary did for DC Comics last year. He’s also currently co-writing a black surfer mystery screenplay.

So you get the picture? Gary cannot be easily classified. He is also hands-down one of the most professional writers you’ll ever meet. He’s also the first to meet a deadline and the first to show up to a book gig. With Gary serving as toastmaster of the 2007 Left Coast Crime in Seattle, you all will be in for a treat. To whet your appetite, here is Gary Phillips.

GARY PHILLIPS

Slowly and inexorably I’ve been finishing my next mystery novel. I’m not particularly stuck on where the book is going, what changes I want to unfurl about the characters or the resolution of the main plot points. It’s just that novels are too often exercises in delayed gratification between the time you write one and when it’s published. Then there’s the heartbreak if and when your baby sees the light of day, racks up a few decent reviews (or not), and doesn’t exactly burn the house down in terms of sales. In this case, this manuscript isn’t under contract so I’m operating on pure faith here that I can get this bok into the marketplace.

If you’re not selling Dan Brown numbers–okay, that’s setting the bar a wee high isn’t it? Let’s say you’re not selling enough to be on some paper’s or magazine’s bestseller list; the book gets optioned for film and/or some other way that the work is set apart from the rest, it’s tough slogging to sell that next one. Added to that, this one I’m writing is with one of my series characters, private eye Ivan Monk (yes, he had that name years before that chap on cable TV), and editors are loath to pick up a series in mid whatever unless said series was a smoker on the charts.

The sad fact remains that writing is something of a sucker’s bet, the big gamble. You put in all this sweat, sometime for little or no scratch, but what can you do but take your chance on one more spin, one more roll of the dice? It’s in your blood. It’s an addiction that no 12-step program can cure if it’s the thing that keeps you sane. The ideas burn inside your head and you have to do something with them–they can’t be ignored at the peril of your mental and physical well-being.

This gets me back to the "slowly and inexorably" bit. In between writing the book, as there’s no extant deadline for its delivery, I’ve recently written a few short stories and a graphic novel–which is sort of like an extended short story but sort of not.

Writing short stories keeps your writing muscles from atrophying. Sometimes you’re asked to do a short story for a themed anthology–you know, all the stories must be about one-armed dominatrixes who read Focult or set on the day Jerry Lewis was named a genius by the French. Sure you have to wait for the story’s publication like with a novel, but there is an aspect of instant gratification to finishing this little gem.

Now I’m sure some writers find it irritating to be hampered by a theme, and are more charged with their own notions. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that to paraphrase Seinfeld. But I find if I’m intrigued by the theme, that gets me wondering and if I can ask what if this, and what if that, I’m on my way. One of the shorts I’ve done is for a poker-themed anthology for young adults, 12 to 18-year-olds.This seems like a strange span (let alone we’re depicting kids around gambling, I can hear Bill Bennett sharpening his knives now) to me as my young’ins are 17 and 19 and way the heck beyond the sensibilities of a kid who’s 12 (my son is 6’4" and I have to look up at him–jeez). Another is about the Phantom, who celebrates his 70th year of, er, existence. He is the first costumed adventurer in a daily comic strip for a prose anthology from Moonstone, an indie comic book company.

Short stories have their own rhythm and feel. The elements are the same as in the novel, but the punch is delivered quicker. This was emphasized to me recently as I was one of the judges for the Private Eye Writers of America best short story contest. To my surprise, not being of the cozy or soft-boiled school, I came to appreciate more these sort of tales and the various tones set by the writers of the stories we read. Admittedly some of those stories wouldn’t be the kind I’d usually gravitate to if I was merely browsing, but I was glad I did read them all.

Maybe it’s this getting to the pay off quicker that has served short stories well in the film world. "3:10 to Yuma" by Elmore Leonard, "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin becomes BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, the "Tin Star" by John M. Cunningham becomes HIGH NOON, "The Minority Report" by Philip K. Dick (also "We Can Remember it for You Wholesale" becomes the Governator’s TOTAL RECALL and others), "Rear Window" by Cornell Woolrich and of course "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx. The Prada-Hugo Boss wearers of Hollywood aren’t known for reading so how better to tell them a story than the short form that delivers the goods in a tight package.

This could be why comic books and graphic novels are making an impact in Dreamland as well. That’s not the reason I write them, I dig this most American bastard form of words and pictures. Decades ago my hope was to write and draw my own comics, but turns out I suck as an artist. Anyway, like a short story, what with the impact of the images, comics have an immediacy that is accessible to this generation of junior execs who read fare like the seminal Watchmen comic book mini-series in college and dug it.

Well, I’ve got a re-write on this graphic novel to get back to so thanks to Naomi for letting me sub for her.

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Gary’s website is www.gdphillips.com. He’s recently written an Ivan Monk short story entitled the Socratic method available for download from amazon shorts.

1 thought on “Slowly and Inexorably

  1. Pari

    Gary,I’m so sorry I missed you yesterday. Boy, do I have a lot of excuses . . .

    But, thank you so much for this piece. Like you, I’m writing a novel without knowing if it’ll sell. It’s the third in my Sasha Solomon series and I’d like to think my publisher will pick it up — or that a bigger NYC house would. But, we’ve already run into problems with NYC publishers and the fact that I’m in the middle of the series. So . . .

    I’ve often thought about writing short stories as a way to feel a bit more of that gratification to which you refer. I think your thoughtful piece just pushed me over the hump.

    thank you.

    Reply

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