Showing posts with label Gary Phillips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gary Phillips. Show all posts

10 May 2019

The Gary Phillips Interview– Part 1: The Be-Bop Barbarians

by Lawrence Maddox
Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips' crime novels (or short stories, anthologies, comics, or in this case, graphic novels–he really does it all) not only deal with with laws broken, but also with a broken social order where racism and corporate greed run amok.

In Gary's Violent Spring (1994), P.I. Ivan Monk, working in post-Rodney King Los Angeles, must unravel layers of racism to solve the murder of a Korean merchant. The Warlord of Willow Ridge ( 2012) depicts a city where neighborhoods are destroyed by the greed of the housing financial crisis. The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir (2017), an Anthony Award-winning anthology that Gary edited, treats the zany right-wing conspiracy theories flung at the Obama presidency as if they were real, often with comic results. His latest graphic novel is no different. Gary (along with artist Dale Berry) goes back to 1955 to shine a light on the social ills of today in The Be-Bop Barbarians (Pegasus Books, 2019), a wildly successful mixture of jazz, comics and civil rights.
The Be-Bop Barbarians
Pegasus Books, 2019

The Be-Bop Barbarians opens on a jazz-feuled party raging deep into the Harlem night. We meet African American comic artists Ollie Jefferson, Stef Rawls and Cliff Murphy, three friends who lean on each other as they battle racism in their careers. Gary notes in his introduction that these three are inspired by real cartoonists from the same era.

When Ollie, a decorated Korean War vet, is beaten by a white police officer, Harlem's community leaders (and their Communist counterparts) use the incident to ignite a burgeoning battle for civil rights. As racial tensions escalate, our three heroes face life-altering decisions as they get swept up in Harlem's fight for justice. The Be-Bop Barbarians is an engulfing page turner, and Gary deftly brings to life the personal struggles of his comic book warriors as they navigate the rising tides of change.
Kukla, Ollie and Fran welcome you
to the 1950s.

The Be-Bop Barbarians takes place right in the middle of a decade often seen as history hitting the snooze alarm. In other words, an innocuous bore. World War II was over and the '60's Counter Culture was still in its pajamas eating Sugar Jets cereal and watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie.  In reality, much was bubbling under the surface of the Happy Days decade that would change everything.  Jazz, comics, and the fight for civil rights, all so important to The Be-Bop Barbarians, were on the cusp of major cultural eruptions that continue to ripple right down to the present day. Gary placed his tale at the point before all these elements exploded in new directions.

Bebop turned jazz on its head, making the Big Bands of the previous decades look like clumsy dinosaurs. Charlie Parker died in 1955, just as the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane would take the lessons they learned from Yardbird and eclipse him.

The Avengers, straight outta
the Silver Age. Ever hear of them?
Courtesy of The Maddox Archives.
Comic books were entering what collectors call the Silver Age. Marvel's stable of heroes, such as Spider-Man and The Avengers, created by innovators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, would soon revolutionize the medium in a big way. Comic characters would be more human, grapple with real-world problems, and be more representative of minority communities.

Rosa Parks, on the day buses in
Montgomery were integrated in 1956. 
The events in The Be-Bop Barbarians point directly at the civil rights campaign that would occur at the end of 1955 when Rosa Parks would refuse to give her bus seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery Bus Boycott would ensue, led by, among others, Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. Jim Crow Laws would be declared unconstitutional a year later. The Be-Bop Barbarians puts you right there at the beginning, when so much was at stake.

The Be-Bop Barbarians took my breath away. I was excited by it, and when I finished it I felt I'd just put down an important work. I don't feel you can read it without thinking about the tensions, racial and otherwise, that are happening in America now. I couldn't wait to talk to Gary about it.

Lawrence Maddox: Gary, what inspired you to write about Harlem in 1955?

Cartoonist Jackie Ormes, holding
a doll based on her cartoon
character Patty-Jo
Gary Phillips: I have a fascination with history and the idea that there are unsung stories that have not been chronicled. In this case, the three characters in the story are inspired by real life black cartoonists who serve as the models for them. Stef is inspired by Jackie Ormes, who was the first black woman to have her own comic strip, which ran in the Pittsburgh Courier and several other black newspapers as well. Cliff is loosely inspired by Matt Baker, who was one of the first black artists working in comic books. He died young, I think he had a heart condition. Ollie is based on the real life Ollie Harrington, who was kind of a radical cat, who officially left the United States and lived in East Germany.

Zoot Suit ('81), starring
Edward James Olmos, deals with
the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial
LM: I really like your Millie Hanks character, the African American lawyer who takes on Ollie's case and acts as a go-between for the black community leaders and the communists. Is she also based on a real person?

GP: Not particularly. She's an amalgam of different people. There's a little bit of the real life Alice McGrath, the woman who helped the defense in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case. That was a famous case here in LA in the '40s in which some young Chicano Zoot Suiters got railroaded for a murder that happened in Sleepy Lagoon,  which was in East LA.  Alice was in the Communist Party, and she was also a lawyer. Her and people like Dorothy Healey are the inspiration for Millie.

LM: You go into detail on the how the leaders of the black community use Ollie's beating to gain greater reforms. Are you pointing to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that happens at the end of the year?

Adam Clayton Powell Jr
GP: In '41 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,  who was a congressman who represented Harlem, led a week-long bus boycott that was about hiring black drivers and mechanics to work on the bus lines. I allude to this in the book. That resulted in more hiring of black folk in those jobs for the city of New York. That boycott preceded the Montgomery Bus Boycott that was about equal rights and not having to sit in the back of the bus. There had been other kinds of actions before Montgomery.

It is important that  our story takes place when the civil rights movement is starting to ramp up. It's starting to coalesce and things are starting to happen. It's not as if the folks in Harlem or elsewhere in New York had just been sitting on their thumbs. As any good community organizer knows,  you had an incident like what happened with Ollie, when he's beat by the cop, it's only natural that you'd try to use it to highlight important issues.  Ollie himself is seduced into it as well, and then tries to move forward on fairer hiring in places like department stores or police stations that were located in the black communities.

LM: Barbarians has cameos from Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Ditko cracked me up. Care to elaborate?

Ditko-drawn
The Amazing Spider-Man!
The Maddox Archives
Ditko was a big Ayn Rand fan. She's all about elevating the individual and foregoing altruism,  and apparently you see some of that in the early Spider-Man. Ditko must have had some conflicting ideas about that, though. As we know, one of the things that propels Peter Parker to become Spider-Man and use his abilities in an altruistic way, is he's driven by this fantastic guilt. In the beginning when he's trying to make money with his new powers, Parker lets this robber go by him and that robber then kills his Uncle Ben. The phrase that Stan Lee came up with was "With great power comes great responsibility."  He had shirked his responsibility and now he's responsible for the death of his beloved Uncle. This is what sends him to chase the robber down and propels him to become Spider-Man. Maybe that is akin to Ayn Ran but I'm not really a fan of her stuff so who the hell knows.
Steve Ditko's Mr. A

I guess really the more pure expression of that thought from Ditko is the character he created at Charlton Comics, The Question, who had no face. But even The Question was kind of a crime fighter so it is always interesting that Ditko tried to meld Objectivism with the notion of being a superhero. That becomes even purer when he does the Mr. A character. He did several of those strips that were more for fanzines, after he more or less left formal comics. Ditko remains a very interesting character to me, in the sense that on one hand, he was a big believer in that stuff, but then on the other hand some people say he was getting checks for Spider-Man and squirreling them away in his little rent-controlled apartment in Midtown.

In Part 2 of Gary's interview, read about JFK's push for a black astronaut, Nipsy Hussle conspiracies, and Gary's work on the FX crime drama Snowfall.  Drops Friday, May 31, only here at Sleuthsayers.





Gary has edited many anthologies, including the aforementioned Anthony-winner The Obama Inheritance. I was fortunate to have stories in Gary's anthologies Orange County Noir (Akashic), and 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback (Moonstone), which Gary edited with Robert J, Randisi. 
I'm honored my stories passed through his hands before hitting print.






06 May 2019

Serendipity

by Travis Richardson

Hello. This is my first time here. I want to thank Robert Lopresti for inviting me to be a permanent member of Sleuthsayers. I am honored to be invited to blog with so many talented and well-respected writers, many of whom are experts in short story writing—my favorite form of fiction.

It’s a pity that it is next to impossible to make a living from writing precise gems that waste none of the reader’s time with superfluous words. ;) I believe there is an untapped audience of potential readers who don’t know they are short fiction fans. How to expose folks to short stories so they’ll give them a chance and catch a short fiction addiction is a nut I haven’t cracked yet. Steve Jobs proved you could create needs that nobody knew they had with iPods and iPhones and iWhateverelses. But more on that topic in another post (assuming I’m not banned after this post).

A few quick words about myself. I’m originally from Oklahoma. I moved to Los Angeles in the late nineties, worked in television and then marketing for a few years before moving into up to Berkeley where I worked in academia. In 2008 I moved back down to LA. I’d written short stories and screenplays here and there, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that I started focusing on prose and five or so years after that, specializing in crime fiction. I had my first story published in 2012 and have since had about 40 short stories and two novellas come out. I have also worked on several unfinished manuscripts that may or may never see the light of day. 

While I've had a few weeks to prepare for this article in my debut, I never settled on a topic with my wife’s birthday festivities last week followed by my daughter's birthday this week. I feel like there are many issues I want to write about, but for some reason, I’d draw a blank when I tried to write a draft. Performance anxiety, perhaps. Not sure. But one question kept coming back, how did I get here? That is, how did Robert come to invite me after Steve Hockensmith left for greener pastures? (Talk about filling a big pair of boots.)

Today I’m going to write about serendipity. Years ago when I worked on a cable show called Home and Family, I took a pop psychologist to the airport after he appeared on the show to promote his book. I told him that I wanted to be a writer (instead of production assistant running errands for the show). He told me about his concept of serendipity. 

Apple Dictionary (the reference I use most these days) defines the word as:
The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

His pitch on serendipity was that while the core principle of the word involves luck if one prepares and positions themselves in the path of their goal, it increases the likelihood that a serendipitous moment may arise. And if that opportunity happens, that person will have the skills and ability to grab the moment and fulfill their dreams. A sports analogy might be a third-string quarterback not expecting to play the season because the two guys ahead of him are All-Stars, but an injury and scandal later, he’s taking snaps on Sunday in a sold-out stadium.  Or this guy who wound up being an NHL goalie for a night after a day of working as an accountant.
Scott Foster: accountant by day, NHL goalie at night
I often talked to the guests on the show as I shuttled them to and from the airport, or hotels, or wherever. I’ve forgotten most of them as well as what happened on that job outside of a few events (like twisting my ankle on an obstacle course during a commercial break before Bruce Jenner was about to run through it on live TV,) but that conversation stuck with me…although I forgot the psychologist’s name. Like Steve Liskow wrote last week, I think I’m a slow learning kinesthetic. It takes me a while to get something down and even longer to put it into practice, but every now and then things work out.

If you want to be a writer, you certainly need skill in the craft, a strong voice, and hopefully an interesting story to tell. A lot of this can be achieved with reading, writing, and rewriting. But there are other attributes that can help raise a writer’s serendipity percentage when it comes to getting published.

Shoptalk

An easy, cheap way is to read websites and blogs that talk about writing and those that have submissions. As the saying goes, information is knowledge. Find the genre you’re interested in and follow what folks in that world are talking about. Glean tips and tricks from those already in the game. If somebody has cut a path in a forest, it’ll be easier to follow their path than chopping down trees to go your own way. Although sometimes you need to use that ax to forge your own way, it’s just good to know that you’re a pioneer and not a wheel re-inventor.

Also, there are Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, Yahoo groups, and other places to join conversations and find out more about what is happening. (Yet, I still work best in person. Shaking hands, talking, working off of nonverbal cues, and everything else that comes with being in front of a person works best for me. While I’m half extroverted, I can't seem to function well in a digital world, especially places like Twitter.) Also, you are looking for places to submit stories, especially in the crime world, I always go here: http://sandraseamans.blogspot.com/

Events

Writer events happen all over the country. The bigger the city, the greater the opportunities. Living in Oklahoma (pre-internet days), there weren’t many events, but I would go out to see writers, poets, and people of significant cultural import when I could. Living in Los Angeles, there are so many events happening that I barely catch any of them. But to listen and support an author, and possibly meet them as well, is something that, beyond enrichment, might have benefits some day. What exactly? I don’t know. You won’t either if you don’t go.

Classes

Take writing classes. This could be a one-time weekend class, a community college program, or even an MFA. One can learn techniques to improve their skills and meet like-minded writers. The cost slide on a scale from free community and library programs to $60k masters level study/workshops. In Tulsa, I went to summer parks and recreations programs on creativity and learned about artistic expression. In Berkeley, I took a writing extension course and found out that I disliked a lot of mainstream literary writing after I had to write a paper on stories in “The Best American Short Stories.” This led me into a life of crime…fiction writing where more things happen than just wealthy characters’ overwhelming ennui.

I also meet writers who were serious about taking their writing further. From the class in Berkeley, a few of us started a writing group.

Writing Groups

Writing groups have been essential in my growth as a writer. I’ve been in several throughout the years. Some only lasted for a few meetings, while others have carried on for several years. Having a successful group has a lot to do with the chemistry of the members, the commitment to allot time to yourself and others, and the ability to listen to and use criticism to improve your work.

Not every writing group is going to work out. There are many personalities at play. Some people are too dominant and others hostile. But others can be genuine assets that provide valuable insight. It also helps to have writers in your group who understand your genre. It can get frustrating explaining to a member who is writing a memoir why a dead body is necessary for a murder mystery.

Also, writer groups have benefits in that some members share knowledge about writer’s markets and opportunities. After I wrote my detective novel, a writer in a group told me about mystery writing organizations.

Writers Organizations

There are many writing organizations that help promote their members’ works and keep their genre relevant. Many are national organizations with regional chapters. I joined Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America in the San Francisco Bay Area and found both groups to be welcoming and supportive of novice writers.

When I moved back to Los Angeles, I attended several SinC and MWA meetings which led to me volunteer at some of their events.

Volunteer

Most nonprofit literary organizations are run by volunteers. The work takes up time that can be spent writing or other pursuits. But by volunteering, you are paying forward (or back) to other writers like yourself. Sometimes you get credit, but often you don’t, working behind the scene make sure the trains move on time (or the sausage gets made). Regardless it’s doing good for the community and it could lead to unexpected…serendipity.

In my case, I ran the craft room for the California Crime Writers’ Conference in 2011. I introduced presenters, made sure they kept hydrated and watched the time. Gary Phillips taught two classes. One was on dialog, but I don’t remember the other. Between the two sessions, I was talking to Gary and mentioned that I wrote short stories. He invited me to submit a story to his next anthology, SCOUNDRELS: TALES OF GREED, MURDER, AND FINANCIAL CRIMES.
I wrote the story, “The Movement,” which was my first publication. I will always be grateful to Gary for giving me that opportunity and for everything else he’s done for me and other writers. He's truly a saint in the crime fiction world.

So several stories, board meetings, and conferences later, Robert asked me to join SleuthSayers and I jumped at the opportunity. Is this serendipity?

Thanks for reading. I promise my next submission will not be so rushed! 

PS: Happy birthday, Pauline!

02 April 2019

The Genesis of Guns + Tacos

by Michael Bracken
with Trey R. Barker and Frank Zafiro

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, but no one ever asks anthology editors where they get theirs.

In my October 16, 2018, SleuthSayers post “The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror,” I alluded to a project conceived at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida, that had me excited about writing again. Season One of that project—a novella anthology series named Guns + Tacos—premieres in July, with an episode appearing each month through December and a second season already scheduled for July–December 2020.

The story of how Trey R. Barker and I conceived of Guns + Tacos, and how it evolved from a joke to an anthology series, begins back in February 2017. That’s when I pitched The Eyes of Texas, an anthology of private eye stories set in Texas that will release in fall 2019 (near the same time as the Dallas Bouchercon) to Eric Campbell at Down & Out Books. (More about that anthology closer to the release date.)

Trey, a Texas native now living in Illinois, submitted a story, which I accepted, and in the process of working on that anthology, we swapped several emails. I don’t think we’d ever crossed paths before, but we seemed to know several of the same people. So, we—Trey and his wife Kathy, me and my wife Temple—made plans to meet for lunch at the 2018 Bouchercon in St. Petersburg.

Here, of course, is where the story gets hazy, and I suspect each of us remembers things differently. But what I remember is this: Among the many things we discussed during lunch were guns and tacos, and at some point Trey said they were his two favorite things. A little later—I think it was after lunch as we were returning to the main part of the Vinoy—the subject came up again and Temple suggested that guns and tacos sounded like a good premise for an anthology. Off and on during the next several hours, Trey and I batted the idea around.

That evening, we found ourselves on the Vinoy’s veranda, hanging out with a revolving group of editors and writers affiliated with Down & Out Books, and we pitched the idea to Eric. Several of the people present made comments and suggestions, but the most significant contribution to the conversation came from Frank Zafiro when he described what he was doing with A Grifter’s Song, a novella anthology series he created for D&O.

A novella anthology series is much like a Netflix series, with a new episode (a novella) released each month over the course of a six-month season. A Grifter’s Song was already set for a January 2019 debut, was committed to a two-season arc, and Eric was looking for a series that could run the last six months of 2019. He asked if Trey and I could turn our anthology idea into a novella anthology series.

Trey and I met several times during the balance of the convention, and we made notes and a list of writers we wanted to approach. By the time we left for home, we had a good handle on the project.

I had successfully (and unsuccessfully) pitched anthologies, so I knew the fundamentals of writing a proposal, but a novella anthology series was a new beast entirely. We asked Frank to share his proposal for A Grifter’s Song, which he did, and we later wrote a formal proposal for Guns + Tacos using Frank’s proposal as a blueprint.

And Trey and I weren’t the only people excited by the concept behind Guns + Tacos. While Temple and I were sitting at the airport awaiting our flight home, I received an email from Frank containing a scene from the story he wanted to write wherein his protagonist visits the taco truck and gets a gun.

But Trey R. Barker and Frank Zafiro may remember things differently, so I’ve asked them to join me today and share their memories of how the project came together.

TREY R. BARKER

What a load of horseshit.

Here’s what happened…as best I remember, some of it’s kinda fuzzy….

Michael Bracken, Frank Zafiro, and Trey R. Barker
at Bouchercon 2018
I was at the Titty Twister. Remember that place, yeah? In Mexico? Rodriguez made a documentary about it awhile back. Anyway, I was banging straight up bottom-shelf tequila and Kathy was dancing on a table. Hot…HAWT!

So I’m doing my thang with the tequila and part of a worm and leering at Kathy. Mostly, I’m waiting for the Federales to quit sniffing all up in my business, just chilling to get back to San Angelo (home of Los Lonely Boys, don’cha know) and thinking I’m getting hungry.

In walks Michael and his little number and they’re waffling about tacos and I’m all like, “Yeah, I dig me some tacos,” but the Twister kitchen was closed ’cause the band was about to play or some crap…that part’s kinda fuzzy.

Me and my gun sat down with them, kinda freaked them out ’cause I ain’t never met them before and they ain’t been married long so they wanted to boom boom their own thang but I was down for tacos now they’d got mentioned so it wasn’t really my fault when the bottle got smashed open and the tequila went everywhere.

Damned waste of good agava juice.

So the band—Tito and Tarantula—started playing and it’s smoking hot; greasy guitar and thumping drums and Kathy’s dancing and now this cat Michael challenges some big, hairy dude to single-bullet poker and slams a gun right down on the table…that part’s kinda fuzzy.

Kathy said, “Hey, man, vegetarian tacos and guns…that’s a good night,” while Michael licked a bullet and eye-boned the hairy guy.

Vegetarian tacos? Man, this place is a trip.

Temple is all like “What the F ever, Michael,” like she’s done this scene before and is straight up bored. Kathy’s banging back some sweet Riesling while she’s dancing and now the joint is full like a damned reunion of freak show wannabes all stank-sweaty and drinking like Sweet Baby Jesus was coming back tomorrow and bringing Prohibition with him.

The hairy guy holds his hands up, passive scared looks like to me, and leaves while Michael snorts aggressive and gives Temple some big ass Bad Daddy kiss and some new dude comes in.

Waving guns like a cheap stripper with spinning tassels. Got a gun in each hand, four or five more on his hips, strapped X across his chest with bullets like some old line Bandido, screaming he wants some damn tacos now or the Twister Armadillo gets it hard.

Scared the shit outta the armadillo. Poor damn thing running back and forth in that cage. Barkeep had to put a bowl of tequila in there to calm it down.

So Gunboy starts gassing about how he’s had tacos before, a plate of 12 or some crap, and he wants more tacos and I said “Guns and tacos…mmmmmmmm,” and Temple said something like “Guns and tacos…that’s the best you can do?” and Kathy said “Vegetarian guns and tacos,” which I took to mean vegetarian tacos, not guns, but I don’t know…that part’s kinda fuzzy.

And so that’s how Michael and me and Gunboy bought a taco truck in Sausalito.

But it’s all kinda fuzzy.

FRANK ZAFIRO

I just happened to be walking past Michael and Trey, huddled together over drinks in the lobby area, when they spotted me and called me over. They asked about a project of mine called A Grifter’s Song. Now, this was about a month away from the official announcement from Down & Out Books. Nonetheless, I swore them to secrecy, and then proceeded to lay it all out for them.

[I can keep secrets. Really.]

I explained the artistic and logistical set up for A Grifter’s Song, which features a pair of grifters who love two things: each other, and the game. The series runs twelve episodes across two six-episode seasons. I wrote the first and last episodes and ten other authors penned the rest. Each is self-contained. Subscribers to the series get a price break, automated delivery and a bonus, subscriber-only episode.

When I finished, one of them asked a little hesitantly, “Do you think we could get a copy of the treatment you sent Eric for the series?”

“Of course,” I said.

Why wouldn’t I? The dirty little not-really-a-secret was that my original plan was to write the series myself and release quarterly, but then Gary Phillips invited me to submit to a series he was working on. His format? Every episode written by a different author, and a once-a-month release schedule. It was a great idea, and I quickly realized it was the right model for A Grifter’s Song. I put together a treatment for the series and pitched it to D&O, who came up with the subscription model.

Now, while I wouldn’t call it theft, I most certainly felt a debt to Gary Phillips. So not only do I acknowledge the inspiration, I offered him a slot in season one. He graciously contributed Episode 4: The Movie Makers.

So you can see how it was my pay-it-forward duty to share a preview of this project with Michael and Trey. In this tribe, that’s how it works, at least most of the time. We take care of each other.

They seemed to dig the idea, and as you’ll surely read, things took off from there. Seeing that success is satisfying enough, but I got something else out of the deal, too—an invitation to submit.

I started my story at the airport on the way home from Bouchercon.

Fittingly, Gary Phillips is in this one, too.

THE END RESULT

Joining us on this adventure are Gary Phillips, William Dylan Powell, and James A. Hearn. Though they weren’t there at the conception, they’ve certainly helped make the first season a success, and were great to work with as Trey and I figured out how to turn Guns + Tacos into a reality.

Read the official press release announcing Guns + Tacos but note that it leaves out one important bit of news. Even before the first episode drops, Guns + Tacos has been picked up for a second season!

In other news: My story “The Maltese Terrier” appears in the latest issue of Black Mask.