Showing posts with label Lawrence Maddox. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lawrence Maddox. Show all posts

13 September 2019

Can the Beatles Vs. Stones Debate Make Us Better Writers?

Beatles Vs. Stones
Photoshop by Grace Maddox
by Lawrence Maddox

Two recent concert experiences got me reconsidering the ultimate rock 'n' roll litmus test: The Beatles or the Stones? Sure you can like them both, even simultaneously, but which one is better?


A manual on how to skirt
death, three chords at a time.
That was a no-brainer for me when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I was a Stones fanatic. My favorite albums were Beggars Banquet and Some Girls, and I played them on an endless loop. I read everything about them, including Tony Sanchez's down and dirty Up and Down with the Rolling Stones: My Rollercoaster Ride with Keith Richards. I totally lost interest in the Beatles, who just didn't seem to rock.  The Stones were fuel to all my youthful ne'er-do-well activities in a way the Beatles could never be.

Things change.

A few weeks ago I was driving home from work and I was hit by a tidal wave of traffic. Then I remembered: The Stones are playing the Rose Bowl tonight!  I live so close to the Rose Bowl that concerts sound great from my backyard, and even better from certain points in my neighborhood. I hurried home, poured a couple Makers on the rocks, and my wife and I took a stroll and listened. I have a writing assignment I have to finish, but I put it on the back burner (again).
"It just had to be done.
So we did it."

The Stones sounded great, and even though I got the requisite nostalgic ping, my long-standing take on the Stones was affirmed. I've had a growing dissatisfaction with the Stones for years, and I can narrow it down to one main reason: It's their lyrics. In my humble opinion, they don't hold up. I've looked into this, and here's what I've come up with.

The Rolling Stones recently wound up their No Filter tour, an amazing feat for four blokes pushing 80. Even more impressive is Mick Jagger going back on tour after having a catheter inserted into his aorta last April. My dad had similar surgery at a similar age, and as tough as he was I can't imagine him going on a North American concert tour afterwards.  "It just had to be done. So we did it," Keith Richards told the Toronto Sun.

Unlike the Who, the Stones at least make the pretense of touring to promote a new record.  They are masters at wringing product out of their tours. Album. Tour. Live album. Throw in well-timed greatest hits packages (they've got 26 compilation albums total, starting with 1966's High Tide and Green Grass through 2019's Honk), and you start to see the Stones for what they are: a disciplined, calculating, business-oriented music-making machine.

Keith Richards' Life.
It could seem, though I'm loathe to knock the insane success of the Glimmer Twins, that the Stones may take a mercenary approach to their songwriting as well. In Keith Richards' 2010 memoir Life, he writes that Mick would often hurriedly write the lyrics in the studio before the band had to record the song. Keith quotes Muscle Shoals engineer Jim Dickinson, who witnessed Mick writing "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses." "I watched Mick write the lyrics [to "Brown Sugar"]," Jim Dickinson is quoted as saying. "It took him maybe forty-five minutes; it was disgusting! He wrote it down as fast as he could move his hand." Dickinson said Mick did the same for "Wild Horses," taking about an hour.

In a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger said that he also wrote a lot of songs while on the road with the band. "You get back from a show,  have something to eat, a few beers and just go to your room  and write. I used to write about twelve songs in two weeks on tour. It gives you lots of ideas. At home, it's really difficult because you don't want to do anything really but read, and things like that."

The Glimmer Twins 
Journalist Johnathan Cott asked Jagger why he mumbled some of his lyrics. "That's when bad lines come up. I mean I don't think the lyrics are that important," Jagger answered. When pressed about the "really good" lyrics to "Get Off my Cloud," Jagger's answer was refreshingly honest and unpretentious: "Oh they're not. They're crap."

There is no doubt that the Stones have written well-crafted and thoughtful lyrics.  In a '95 interview with Rolling Stone Jagger talks about writing "Sympathy for the Devil" all on his own in his house in Chester Square.  From their own words, its seems fair to say that writing lyrics has often taken a back seat to recording. Lyrics are often written on the job, with the clock ticking. Rewrites don't always happen. Playing the song, finding the song's sound, is paramount.

Months before I eavesdropped on the Stones at the Rose Bowl, I took my family to see Ringo Starr at the Greek. My two kids are pre-teen, and I've taken this window of opportunity (while they still listen to me) to force stuff I like into their unsuspecting worlds. I've made them watch all the original episodes of Jonny Quest with me. We tune into Svengoolie on Saturday nights to watch cheesy horror films. It's jazz and classical stations when we drive. I play them Beatles music and show them Beatles movies. They love the Beatles. For now, anyway.

Ringo Starr, Honorary
Santa Tracker
Ringo has a band made up of famous people from other bands. The youngest member is Colin Hay from Men At Work,  just to give you an idea of how far back these cats go.  It's a nostalgia show all the way, something the Stones, admirably, haven't done much of (a notable exception being 2016's Desert Trip, dubbed "old-chella" by the Burning Man crowd). We sang along to all the old Beatles songs with Ringo. I'd never sang along at a concert in my life, and I've seen Frank Sinatra. I'll never forget sharing that with my kids.

A must-read for Beatlemaniacs
The Beatles wrote everywhere and anywhere, and their songs were often personal in nature.  Lennon wrote "Help" at home after a night at the recording studio. "I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help," Lennon told Playboy. "In My Life" started out as a poem Lennon wrote about his childhood. McCartney wrote the music for "Yesterday" at his girlfriend Jane Asher's home. He sat on the song for weeks, calling it "Scambled Eggs" until he could compose the lyrics. "Eleanor Rigby" was another song McCartney tinkered with for awhile. It was later finished at Lennon's home, with all the Beatles contributing.  Ringo suggested "darning his socks," George "all the lonely people."  After their trip to India, the Beatles came back with a ton of songs that became The White Album and beyond. When you listen to the Beatles, you get the impression that those lyrics are vetted. There's no mumbling through half-baked writing.

So what do these masters of pop have to do with that lingering writing assignment I mentioned somewhere at the top, or your lingering writing assignment?

Akashic's Dublin Noir,
signed by Jim Fusilli and Gary Phillips.
Courtesy of the Maddox Archives
Jim Fusilli is a Wall Street Journal music critic who also writes crime fiction.  I was introduced to him by his terrific story in Akashic's Dublin Noir, "The Ghost of Rory Gallagher." It's about the price a fan pays for his obsession with a dead rock star.  As a side note, if I hadn't been so wowed by Jim's Akashic story, I may have never written "Old Cold Hand," published in Akashic's 2010 Orange County Noir. Anyway, when I heard that Jim was giving a writer's workshop, I jumped at the chance to attend. It was a good intro to creative writing, and Jim sprinkled it with rock 'n' roll anecdotes.

Jim talked about the importance of carrying a journal and being ready to write all the time. It's been roughly twelve years since Jim's workshop, and I'm not sure if he connected the Beatles to the habit of always being ready to write or if I did it on my own, but it stuck either way. John and Paul were always on. They never stopped writing. They jotted down their ideas and sweated over lyrics until they got them right. George too. He stockpiled and reworked songs that he couldn't get on Beatles albums because, well, Lennon and McCartney. When the Beatles broke up, he put these songs on All Things Must Pass, perhaps the greatest of the fab four solo albums.

My copy of Aaron's 1956
Assignment: Treason.
The second in the series.
Don't think the Stones don't have their lessons, too. In my post from April 19 ("Edward S Aarons and the Great Spy Series That Never Came in from the Cold") I write about the insanely prolific Edward S. Aarons, the creator of the Assignment series of novels, arguably the first US Cold War spy series. From 1955 until his death in 1975, Aarons wrote 42 Assignments. His output and longevity was very Stones-esque. Aarons was one of many paperback writers of the period (I wonder which one Paul had in mind on "Paperback Writer") who wrote book after book, often labeled men's action adventure. Many of these writers weren't feted at the time, though they're being rediscovered. They churned out titles, and sometimes they couldn't stop to be too precious with the words. It's like Keith said about going on tour after Mick had his surgery: "It just had to be done. So we did it."

I could use some of that Stones "get it done" mentality right now. I'm still struggling to finish that writing project I should have been done with months ago. I could blame my lagging on things like a crashed-beyond-all-repair hard drive, but that's just whining. I need Keith over my shoulder, getting cigarette ash on my computer keyboard, saying "Time is money, mate. It's NOT on my side or yours. Get with it."

I think we reach for the Beatles, for that work that will echo beyond us through generations; but we need the lessons of the Stones.  We need to push and meet our deadlines; to keep turning out product;  to not let the drug busts, Anita Pallenberg, heart surgery, or a busted hard drive defeat us. You can't alway get what you want, but if you try sometimes...

Learn more about Jim Fusilli at JimFusilli.com. Jim's latest, The Mayor of Polk Street, is available as an Audible Original.

Music is like a true friend who understands us and sticks by us no matter what unworthy slobs we secretly are. When someone knocks our favorite musicians, it can tick us off. And by "someone" I mean me, and by "us" I mean you good folks. If you need to vent, please comment here; or on twitter at Lawrence Maddox@Madxbooks; or drop me a line at Lawrencemddx@yahoo.com. Remember, it's only rock 'n' roll.

To the left is Fast Bang Booze. The sequel is the writing assignment I mentioned. To the right is Orange County Noir, 2010. I had Jim Fusilli in mind when my story got accepted.


 

23 August 2019

The Heart of Hollywood is in....Pasadena?

by Lawrence Maddox
Pasadena Playhouse alumnus Charles Bronson

I've always felt that the stars on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame are the biggest sightseer scam ever. I see the tourists get excited about finding their favorite celebrity's name on the sidewalk and all I can think is: rubes. Perhaps the best thing about the Walk of Fame is the Kinks' song Celluloid Heroes. It's a little maudlin, but Ray Davies gets to the hollowed-out heart of stardom in his infectious way.

The foot and handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater, located near Hollywood and La Brea, make more sense as a tourist draw. They're an actual artifact of the glory days of Hollywood, like those cigarette lighter ports in cars (now used as power sockets) are remnants of the glory days of smoking.   You place your hand in the cement print of Humphrey Bogart or Judy Garland, and with enough imagination and movie magic, you're shaking hands with yesterday.  It's kind of neat, but it's a half hour diversion, tops. A bigger diversion are the "actors" dressed up as action heroes or old time movie stars that hang around the Chinese, offering to pose for photos. If you snap a selfie with one in the vicinity, they will hunt you down until you fork over some cash.

Besides Grauman's, what else does Hollywood have to offer? Paramount is on Melrose, southeast of of Grauman's. If you're a tourist hoping to hang out on a movie set, good luck getting past the gate. Disney, Universal and Warners are all out in the San Fernando Valley, north of Hollywood. Fox and Sony (formerly MGM) are a traffic-jammed trip to the westside. Besides the Universal Tour, the studios are busy places of hustling crews working long hours. Editors are locked in their windowless rooms pouring over hours of dailies. Gawking tourists looking for selfies aren't welcome.

The original Brown Derby ca 1968. RIP. 
The powers that run Hollywood-land  have gleefully torn down its past in favor of strip malls and parking lots. The Hollywood Hotel, built in 1902, stood at Hollywood and Highland. It was demolished fifty years later. It's said the stars on its ballroom ceiling were the inspiration for the Walk of Fame. The Garden of Allah Hotel, party central for writers like Fitzgerald & Hemingway, and actors like Bogart & Bacall, was torn down in '59.  The iconic Brown Derby, south of Hollywood on Wilshire, was a world-famous tinsel town symbol. Lucy met William Holden there in an I Love Lucy episode. It bit the dust in 1980. Schwab's Drugstore, where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered, was leveled in the late '80s. The Cinerama Dome and the Hollywood sign have been on the chopping block, but both we're saved by massive public campaigns.

An original postcard from The Formosa Cafe.
The Maddox Archives.
Greed wins out over history in Hollywood, and it burns those of us who grew up loving not only the movies, but also the historical hang-outs that catered to show biz. I used to frequent  the Formosa Cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard in the '90s. The Formosa was a cozy asian-themed bar that officially dates back to 1939, but the owner claimed pre-dated prohibition. A bartender named Lindy Brewerton had worked there since the 1950s, and he regaled patrons with tales of the drinking habits of movie stars. He told us of John Wayne's whiskey binges, and how Dean Martin would deliver his alimony checks there. Elvis tipped a Formosa waitress with a Cadillac.  When the original owner died, the place was gutted. A tacky second story was added, along with a techno vibe.  It was a typically short-sighted Hollywood move that failed. After that it pained me just to drive by the place.

Twelve miles east of the hype is Pasadena. When Hollywood Boulevard was a dirt street and America's only movie studio was in New Jersey,  Pasadena was a vacation spot for wealthy east-coasters who wanted to soak up some rays during the winter. With them came vast vainglorious mansions and a deep turn-of-the-century thirst for culture.

The Pasadena Playhouse was built in 1925, two years before the Chinese Theater. It was such a big hit that Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw called the Playhouse the "Athens of the West."  Authors such as Eugene O'Neil and Tennessee Williams had world premieres there. When talkies became the rage in the 1920s, Hollywood needed a place where actors could learn to "speak." Twenty-four students enrolled in the first class in 1928.

The Pasadena Playhouse awaits.
The Pasadena Playhouse really hit its stride when it became a college of theatre arts. Tyrone Power took classes there in 1932.  TV Superman George Reeves was a local kid who interned at the Playhouse before his supporting role on Gone With the Wind.  Dana Andrews hitchhiked from Texas to California to become a star. He was a Playhouse darling before hitting it big in films like Laura. Carolyn Jones, another Texan, dreamed of joining the Playhouse when in high school. She made it in 1947, and went on to become a unique screen presence in films such as The Big Heat and Career. Most remember her as Morticia Addams in TV's The Addams Family.

Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman became fast friends while studying at the Playhouse in 1957. Hackman was voted least likely to succeed, and he moved to New York to prove the Playhouse wrong. Hoffman soon followed, as did Robert Duvall, who moved to New York to study with Randall Meisner after serving in the Army. The trio became the epicenter of a group of actors who were just a few years away from taking Hollywood by storm.

The Mechanic-Bronson at his detached best.
Perhaps my favorite Playhouse alum is Charles Bronson. After serving in the Air Force during World War Two (he earned a Purple Heart), Bronson moved to upstate New York. He picked onions, studied art, and even joined the local bakers union. Nothing seemed to fit, so he moved to NYC to study acting. When Roger Ebert asked Bronson why he chose acting, he said, "It seemed like an easy way to make money...I had nothing to lose."

Bronson left New York for the Pasadena Playhouse, where he took classes and acted in several plays. Steady work soon followed. In 1951 he landed a role in the Gary Cooper film You're in the Navy Now.  Two years later he joined fellow Playhouse alum Carolyn Jones in the Vincent Price horror-hit  House of Wax. Bronson starred in a slew of classic movies, including The Dirty DozenOnce Upon a Time in the West, and Hard Times. My favorite Bronson film might be The Mechanic, where he plays an expert hit man who takes on an apprentice.

Inside the Pasadena Playhouse.
If I mentioned that Eve Arden, Leonard Nimoy and Nick Nolte were also Playhouse players, I'd still be scratching the surface. Okay, William Holden was one too. Still surface scratching. The Pasadena Playhouse went bankrupt in 1975 and was shuttered. You're probably thinking, "What a bummer. I bet they tore it down to build a plush new parking lot." Dig this. The city of Pasadena bought the building and held onto it for seventeen years until in reopened in 1986. Unlike Hollywood, Pasadena takes pains to protect its history. It's not perfect, but it tries. Pasadena is a mecca for lovers of old-time LA, Greene and Greene architecture, and craftsman bungalows. The Pasadena Playhouse is a thriving part of Pasadena today.

If you find yourself standing over John Tesh's star on Hollywood Boulevard and you have that cold clammy feeling that you've been scammed, jump on the 134 East towards Pasadena and its famous Playhouse. There's plenty of street parking. Across the street from the Playhouse is Vroman's Bookstore, where I've had the good fortune to attend readings held by literary heavyweights like Frank McCourt and James Ellroy.  On the way to Pasadena is Eagle Rock, where Dragnet's Frank Gannon fictionally lived, and where some of the action of Fast Bang Booze goes down. Stop at the family-owned Casa Bianca for pizza. Steve McQueen ate there.

My latest novel is Fast Bang Booze, from Down & Out Books. The sequel is coming soon.

02 August 2019

Dark Duet, Eric Beetner's Deadly Double Feature + Interview

by Lawrence Maddox

Eric Beetner's Dark Duet (released last month by All Due Respect) is a two-novelette excursion to Bishop, a small midwestern town where the strong prey on the weak and violence erupts without warning.  It's John Mellencamp's Small Town re-imagined by GG Allin. It's Mayberry with Sam Peckinpah at the helm.

The first novelette, the previously published White Hot Pistol, veers from dark to pitch black. It's a superbly written tale of small town dystopia and family chaos, where the violence careens from gunplay to sexual mayhem.

Prodigal son Nash has come back to Bishop, "a speck on a map, a town full of dead ends," to rescue his teenaged stepsister Jacy from a horribly abusive home. Their stepfather Brian Thorpe is a sociopathic sexual predator who happens to be the town Sheriff.  On their way out of town, Nash and Jacy have a deadly encounter with a meth head that, like nuclear fallout, spreads menacingly fast. Soon the town's psycho drug lord wants them dead.  Brian will stop at nothing to keep his dirty secrets hidden, but his step children prove remarkably resilient. The body count is high, and the action sequences are dynamite. Everything builds to a bullet-riddled showdown where the outcome is always in doubt.

Author Eric Beetner
Photo by Mark Krajnak
We're back in Bishop for the suspenseful Blood on Their HandsThree high school friends, Garret, Trip and Kyle, break into the local Smart Mart to steal beer and junk food. When the owners, brothers Rafael and Troy, show up unexpectedly, juvenile hijinks turn into a deadly game of cat and mouse. Garret's dad Hank Sutherland is the new Sheriff (he was a well-meaning deputy in White Hot Pistol), but he's too preoccupied with spying on his cheating wife to be much help. Garret decides to turn the tables on his attackers, but things spin out of control for the Sutherland family.

Bishop is Beetner country. When Eric's not prowling its dangerous streets he (along with Steve Lauden) is promoting other writers via the Writer Types podcast, as well as the LA chapter of Noir at the Bar. Eric also designs book covers. Did I mention he edits TV shows too?  I felt guilty for drawing Eric away from his many endeavors to answer a few questions, but he happily obliged.

Lawrence Maddox: Your last novel All the Way Down is a tale of big city crime, while Bishop in Dark Duet is "a speck on a map." How does setting dictate what kind of story you write?

Eric Beetner: I tend to write more about fictional places than real ones. I don't like to be bogged down by getting all the specifics right or deal with the readers who will tell you when you got it wrong, even if it was in service of the story. So I make up places or set stories in totally unnamed places, like in All the Way Down.

Now rural or urban I don't differentiate much between. It does dictate the characters in the story and the characters set the tone. Different people live in a small midwestern town versus a big city. You don't need to look any further than our increasingly divided country to see the stark difference. So I think setting will set the tone for who populates the book you're willing to write and everything else flows from there.

LM: I love Bill Crider's quote about you, saying that if you were writing in the '50s you "could've had a nice career writing for Gold Medal or Dell First Editiion." I remember spotting you buying paperbacks at Glendale's Vintage Paperback Collector's Show a few years back. Are you influenced by the prolific paperback crime and adventure novelists of the '50s through the '80s?

EB: That quote from Bill is my favorite, and man, I miss him. But yes, I try to read a fair amount of classic or vintage books each year. I don't love everything, just as I don't love everything contemporary I read, but I've found some of my absolute favorite books in vintage reads. Some of those writers were so inventive. Look at a writer like Lionel White and you see such a diversity in his plot lines and every one of them works. I've never read a book of his I haven't really loved. Same with Charles Williams. If your a fan of crime fiction I think Hell Hath No Fury (later renamed Hot Spot after the movie) is a must-read. Then he wrote a bunch about his passion for boats and came out with stone classics Dead CalmAground, and Scorpion Reef.

Too many people only know the run-of-the-mill detective novels from the past and series like Perry Mason or The Saint, which aren't that inventive and not that different from contemporary mysteries. But if you think writers in the '40s and the '50s didn't do edgy hardboiled you clearly haven't read something like Fool's Gold by Delores Hutchins, or Do Evil in Return by Margaret Millar.

LM: Chris Rhatigan recently wrote a piece about your ability to create great action sequences. I find your action very cinematic. Do movies influence the way you think about writing?

I was so flattered when Chris chose one of my scenes for that piece. Movies are the basis for my writing DNA. I never set out to write novels. I wrote screenplays for years and went to film school, work in the biz, all that stuff that feeds how my brain is hardwired to a cinematic story sense. It's why I tend to write shorter novels, why I tend to read shorter novels too.

Just a sampling of Eric Beetner's original
screenplays. Are you reading this, Netflix?
We've all seen stories told in two hours or under that are fully realized and resonant stories that stuck with people for years and in many ways change their lives. Movies have shown that a story can be efficient and tight and still have a deep impact. I try to bring that to my novels. And if you're writing action your job as a novelist is to get the reader to see it in their heads. That's a movie! All you're doing is writing it with enough detail and clear, easy to follow action that the reader can play director.

And get out of here with that tired old "the book was better" crap. They're different. And frankly if you love a book I don't know why you'd go see the movie anyway. You already know the story and you know it all can't be in there. So let's let that old trope die out, can we?

Since you and I are both editors we know how important clarity and good geography are. Knowing who is where and who is talking and not interrupting the flow by writing a line or leaving out a detail that trips up the reader even for a second or the spell is broken. It's why what we do is such a valuable skill for writing. We're all about maintaining pace and knowing when to speed up or slow down, when to inject some humor to diffuse tension. We know how to work the difference between shock and suspense.

All those skills I use in my day job I find incredibly useful when I'm writing, and especially in action scenes. And with editing, I think one really valuable lesson is that sometimes the best way to fix a problem with a scene is to eliminate something. A little judicious trimming can work wonders.

LM: As a fellow TV editor I can attest to the long hours and the mental drain that can be a part of the gig. How have you made it compatible with writing?

Eric Beetner at work. Without Eric's expert editing, Fear Factor 
would've been just another show about eating bugs.
EB: People often ask me how I can be so prolific with a full-time job and two kids and the podcast, and, and...

It's true that our job uses so much of the same parts of the brain that it's not like we're on the assembly line all day and waiting to get home and use our right brain when we write.  We're draining those batteries all day long. It does impact the way I write. When I sit down I have about an hour to 90 minutes in me. I usually start around 11 at night. So there's also physical fatigue in there as well.

But you make yourself do it. It's like an athlete at that point. You gotta get in the gym, no excuses. But I've found that even when I have time off and can write during the day and get to pretend what it would be like if I were a full-time writer, I can go about 60-90 minutes and then I'm drained. I can get up, walk away for a few hours and come back and do it again and then again at night and get a ton written in a day, but I marvel at those people who say they sit for 5-6 hours at a stretch. I couldn't do that. Part of me also doubts if they're really writing that whole time.

LM: What's next for Eric Beetner?

EB: I have another novel, Two in The Head, out next January and it's a wild one. Very different. Very Hollywood ready, if anyone is out there taking pitches. I also have a novella in the Grifter's Song series that will be out next year and a novella in the Guns & Tacos also out in 2020. A few short stories in anthologies. Beyond that I might lay low for awhile. I'm on the hunt for a new agent (call me!) and looking to see what I can do to switch thing sup since I've been poised for a breakout for years now and it hasn't happened yet.

It's hard to talk about the set backs in a writing career without seeming like you're complaining, but it has been a rough few years of one step forward, two steps back. There have been incredible artistically satisfying moments for me and I've been proud of all the work I've done, but facts are facts and I just don't sell very many books. So I'm working on what that next step is because if I hear one more time I'm "on the verge" or that this "next one is the breakout" or if I end up on another list of "best writers you've never heard of" I'll drive off a cliff.

All that said, I have about a dozen ideas fleshed out and outlined that I want to write. I've written three TV pilots I'd love to get into some hands. I'll continue to do the podcast, Writer Types. I'm sure my version of slowing down will seem odd to others.

Care to catch the last Greyhound to Bishop? Book your one way ticket at www.EricBeetner.com. 



I'm Lawrence Maddox and my latest novella is Fast Bang Booze. My Name is Earl creator Greg Garcia liked Fast Bang Booze's "incredible attention to detail and humor." Our resident Sleuthsayer Paul Marks called Fast Bang Booze "a noir fever dream that shoots out of the station like a bullet."  Publishers Weekly said "Fans of offbeat noir will have fun." I'm currently working on the sequel. Available from Shogun Honey.

I thought Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was great, maybe Tarantino's best.  Care to discuss? Find me on Twitter, LawrenceMaddox@madxbooks; Facebook.com/lmaddox; or drop me a line at lawrencemddx@yahoo.com.

12 July 2019

Weed Meets Greed in Matt Phillips' Countdown + Interview

by Lawrence Maddox

Prop 64 Noir?
In 2016 many saw the passing of Proposition 64, which finally legalized the recreational use of marijuana, as the dawning of a new day in California. It seems like ancient history when Robert Mitchum saw jail time for toking a little Mary Jane in Laurel Canyon, but consider this: in 2003 Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in jail for selling bongs through his California company Nice Dreams. Prop 64 reflected how the Golden State had, at long last, mellowed out about getting high.

The full force of the new law didn't happen until last year, when legal sales for non-medical use were allowed. Licenses for dispensaries were granted. Everything was supposed to be chill for those in the bud business.

All that went up in smoke when the harsh reality of local, state and federal taxes hit legal dispensaries. According to a McClatchy article, between state and local taxes, weed could be taxed up to 45 percent. The IRS has gone after state-legal dispensaries for a tax rate of up to 70 percent.

The result hasn't been the well-regulated pot industry Californians voted for. Instead, illegal underground marijuana dispensaries are everywhere in California.  According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 200 illegal marijuana businesses operate in Los Angeles alone. Illegal dispensaries are attractive because their untaxed kush is up to 50 percent cheaper than what you'd buy from a licensed dealer. What becomes of all that untaxed ill-gotten revenue?

Matt Phillips' Countdown (All Due Respect), a timely, gritty tale of weed and greed, is the first novel (Please correct me with other titles if I'm wrong!) of what I'll call Prop 64 Noir. It takes the plight of underground dispensaries with a lot of illegal cash-on-hand and chases it to a bloody and riveting conclusion.

Donny Zeus Echo and Abbicus Glanson are two ex-soldiers, tweaked by their violent combat experience in "Eye-Rack," trying to make their way in a seedy San Diego that has literally gone to pot. Jessie Jessup is a transplanted Texan who uses aquaponics –"that's right, fucking fish"–to grow some righteous weed. LaDon Charles is her unlicensed dispensary's muscle, providing street smarts and neighborhood connections.

With dispensary robberies on the rise and forced to keep their black market money from the prying eyes of the I.R.S. Jessie and LaDon turn to Abel Sendich, another vet. Abel runs a one-man security operation that stashes illegal cash under lock-and-key, safe from the I.R.S. and armed robbers. When Sendich and Glanson bond over their military background after a chance encounter, Sendich recruits Glanson to help him in his faux Fort Knox operation. Glanson has other plans, and his former "battle buddy" Echo is only too glad to help. When LaDon suspects that Glanson and Echo are targeting Jessie's shop, a suspenseful countdown to mayhem begins.

Though Countdown marches to its inexorably violent end, Phillips takes time with his characters. Jessie pursues a crush. LaDon plays a cat-and-mouse game with a pimp. Glanson agonizes over a physical trait that dooms his chances at romance. Echo, suffering from PTSD, unravels. You get to know Phillips' characters so well, you almost feel sorry for them when the bad things start to happen.

Phillip's San Diego isn't the sunny, upscale enclave it's often portrayed as. It's not the San Diego of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It's a pit filled with mini-malls, dive bars, and shabby apartment complexes.  Iraq vets at loose ends roam strip joints, pimps run hookers. Marijuana is the drug of the moment, but heavy drinking is the order of the day. Like the weed and booze, the money is a means to one end: escape. Countdown is a sunny SoCal postcard in negative; an invitation to get out of the Golden State before the good times turn deadly.

Author Matt Phillips
Lawrence Maddox: Countdown is the first crime novel I've read that tackles the failure of Prop 64 to fully regulate California's marijuana dispensaries, which were licensed last year. I'm officially naming it Prop 64 Noir, and you may have invented it! How did you jump on this in such a timely way?

Matt Phillips: Prop 64 Noir-I freaking love it! It's about time somebody created a new genre. I agree with you that Prop 64 has failed in some ways. There's no doubt this legislation has failed when it comes to fair "regulation." Lot's of small growers are losing out to corporate folks.  And, yeah, that means growers and sellers are forced to stay in or resort to the black market. Another paradox is that now I can stroll into a dispensary and buy whatever I want.  Tell the truth: I kind of miss the mystery of texting a guy I slightly know to get in touch with a hookup he slightly knows for a dime bag of weed. I think they call that nostalgia.

Anyhow, I was interested in the money behind the herb. If these growers, sellers, etc, can't put it in a bank, what do they do with it? After speaking with some law enforcement folks I know, I had a pretty solid idea for a great story. That's how Countdown began for me.

Beyond that, right near where I live in San Diego–a pretty hip neighborhood–an illegal dispensary was raided and shuttered. That pretty much solidified the idea for me. I just ran with it.

Speaking of Prop 64 noir, check out the novel 101 by Tom Pitts. He did Prop 64 Noir before I did.

LM: I highly recommend Pitts' 101 too. 101 depicts the weed biz before Prop 64, though.  Your book deals with the aftermath of 64. Countdown is about the illegal dispensaries, the need to hide the money, the tax burden that forces the sellers underground. 







A crime novelist in the making. Matt Phillips training to be a journalist at
North Carolina Central University.
How much does your journalism background influence your crime fiction?

MP: The biggest way journalism has impacted my fiction is through dialog. There is no substitute for listening to people speak and trying to write it down as they say it. That helps a writer learn the shape of a person's speech. It means getting into rhythm and cadences and the musicality of speech. Dialog, to me, is about capturing language.

From a weed-perspective (Been waiting for that one!), I wrote a story for the food section in The Denver Post a few years back. I interviewed a chef who makes cannabis edibles. The whole idea was to treat cannabis like any other ingredient. We published a recipe and everything. Gave it the regular food writing treatment. The story got a lot of pushback from readers, but the editors defended it heartily and it got me interested in marijuana as something natural that–and I'm being blunt here–has a major impact on the power dynamics in our society.

Make no mistake, what we're seeing with marijuana now is still about power. Who will own this "thing" that everybody wants (and some people need)? Who gets the profits? Who calls the shots? And even worse:If we can't put a bunch of people in jail for using it, how the hell can we make money off it? That's pretty much the way things are, though I've purposely avoided the nuances here.

LM: San Diego used to be considered LA's sunnier, better-behaved sibling. You vividly depict it as a pit. What's going on with San Diego?
"No awesome surfing to be seen here."
San Diego's Pacific Beach

MP: Ha! Maybe I'm just trying to lower housing prices, right?  "San Diego is the absolute worst! Close your eyes if you see our tourism commercials on your TV! Stay in the midwest! DO NOT VISIT! Stand-up paddle boarding sucks. So does surfing. You do not want to catch a giant tuna! We do not have as many palm trees as you think! The beer is not great!"

Okay, fine. Truth be told, San Diego is exactly what you describe. More sun. More chill. More fun, for chrissakes. We've even got more beer. But like any American city, we've got our gutter punks and our hookers and our pimps and our drug addictions.

I'm writing noir, not a tourist commercial or a convention proposal. I need to find what's really out there...And pass it along to thee.

Important note: I love that I can "vividly depict" my home city as a pit. I'm sure those fine scholars who make selections for the National Book Awards are well-aware of my excessive accomplishments as a prose stylist.  I await their accolades!

LM: Do you think California will ever be able to regulate marijuana sales? There are around 200 illegal dispensaries in LA alone. I drive by many of them daily.
I like to take pictures of dispensaries that have the same names as
people I know. Grace got a kick out of this one.
Grace Marijuana Pharmacy, totally legit, located in
Santa Monica.

MP: Simple Answer–no. This is something I could grow in my house. And I could do it well. Marijuana is more than a product.  It's a cultural object that carries with it lore beyond what can be bottled by some shit-ass corporation. I remember a drifter I met while working at TGIFriday's. He worked with me about a week. Crappy busboy. But he had a tiny cedar box wrapped in a purple ribbon. He kept his weed inside with a small pipe. He talked about how it wasn't the high that drew him into weed, but the pleasure of its secrecy and subculture and "funny little conversations." Not exactly sure what he meant, but how do you regulate that?

Talking about those illegal dispensaries: The first thing that needs to happen is the federal government needs to remove its tweed sweater vest and put on a freaking t-shirt. Legalize it. It'll be like the craft beer industry. People flying to cities and taking weed tours.  It'll solve some money problems and it'll make life more simple. After that, I think cities and towns need to make sensical regulations about where and how a dispensary can operate.  The fees need to be akin to any other upstart business fees. Make sure every operation is up to health and quality standards and tax them based on revenue. I'm not an economist, but it seems like common sense is part of the answer here.

LM: What's next for Matt Philips?

I have a new noir novel slated with Fahrenheit 13, the rebels who published my noir novel Know Me from Smoke. The new one is called You Must Have a Death Wish and follows one of the characters I introduce in Countdown. No solid news on a publication date, but that's on the horizon. I've got a brutal PI novel written and I need to put on the finishing touches. That'll be a series (I think) and I have the second novel underway to about 20,000 words.

What else? A small town noir novella nearly finished for a super-secret project plus I'm banging away at a short story collection. And the day job, right? My production has slowed over the last year with some day job stuff, but I keep plugging away at my stories. Fingers crossed that people like them...

Matt Phillips is the author of numerous crime novels, including Accidental Outlaws and Know Me From Smoke.  I highly recommend Chris Rhatigan's interview of Matt Phillips at ADR Interview w/ Matt Phillips . For more Matt Phillips, check out MattPhillipsWriter.com.



As for me, I'm currently writing my sequel to Fast Bang Booze. On a related note, know of anyone in the LA area good at recovering lost data from busted hard drives? More to follow.

If you have any cool photos of dispensaries with funny names that you'd like to share, tweet em my way at LawrenceMaddox@Madxbooks. 










21 June 2019

Power Pop with a Bullet –S.W. Lauden's That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist

by Lawrence Maddox

That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist
Power pop is complicated. Its throbbing beats and distorted guitars will rock you, but its sweet melodies and longing lyrics will shoot an arrow straight through your heart.  When Big Star, power pop royalty, sing "I feel the pain, but I'll try again," (in Try Again), they're summing up the power pop ethos.

On the other side of the dial is punk rock, the world that author S.W. Lauden traverses in his Gary Salem punk PI trilogy of novels. Lauden switches stations and embraces the best of rock's most melancholy medium in his newly released novelette, That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist. It's a tale of rock 'n' roll redemption, a crime story that explores power pop's yearning and burning while cranking up the suspense.

Brothers (and bandmates) Jack and Jamie Sharp's heist of $100,000-worth of vintage guitars would've been a success if Jack hadn't stopped to strum a sweet '59 Les Paul Standard. Instead, Jack got busted, Jamie got the guitars, and their band is tossed in the dollar bin indefinitely. That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist opens three years later as Jack steps out of the Oklahoma State Pen on parole, looking to get his $50,000 cut of the burglary. He's packing heat in case anyone, including family, stands in his way.

Jack is too much of a badass to admit it, but he's also bugged that neither Jamie nor his little sister Jenna came to visit him while he was locked up.  This familial diss picks at a long-festering wound in Jack's soul: Jack's father abandoned the family, without explanation, when Jack was twelve.

S.W. Lauden dares you to say no to more cowbell.
Thus ensues an odyssey of crime, brotherhood, and the ultimate cache of rock 'n' roll memorabilia; a record store wet dream that blossoms into a collector's equivalent of Moby Dick.  Along the way Jack and Jamie discover that their band, and family bond, is a bigger deal than they ever imagined.

Power pop, a passion for both brothers, is a non-stop topic of conversation for the Sharps. It's a way the brothers (and the reader, if you remember the '70s) can reference their common past. It's also the novelette's perpetual, handcrafted soundtrack. Unlike the mindless hedonism of the worst of arena rock (there's more than one way to rock, Sammy-a lot more), power pop often invokes yearning, loss, and melancholy. The music plays out-loud the feelings that Jack, forced since childhood to be tough-as-nails, can never openly express. It's a brilliant device, like a Greek chorus amplified through a Fender Bassman.
20/20's debut album

Fans of power pop, reading to see to see if their fav bands are mentioned, won't be disappointed.
How about the highly underrated 20/20, who had a minor hit with "My Yellow Pills"? 
They're in.
The tragically doomed Bad Finger?
In.
Big Star, adored by critics, ruined by their record label?
In.

The Bob's Big Boy Beatle Booth plaque.
From The Maddox Archives



I feel That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist was tailor-made for me. I've been in bands, slowed down vinyl to learn guitar solos, and consider Lester Bangs a twentieth century giant. I still get a pang of excitement when I'm seated at the Beatles Booth at the Toluca Lake Bob's Big Boy, a corner section where John, Paul, George and Ringo (power-pop godfathers) sat in the summer of '65.





Raspberries give you one of rock's greatest 45s.
At one point while reading That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist I had palpitations because I hadn't seen the Raspberries mentioned. Their hit "Go All the Way" epitomizes power pop. It's a perfect single, a rocking confection that leaves you feeling somehow, well, a little sad. I saw the Raspberries on their reunion tour at West Hollywood's House of Blues (now sadly defunct) in 2005, and they sounded as good as they do on their records released 30 years earlier. In true power pop fashion, I'll always wonder why bigger success eluded them. I'm happy to report Lauden gives them, as well as every power pop practitioner you can imagine, their just due. Lauden realizes just how important his subject matter is to its fans; how brittle not only the songs are, but the power pop icons themselves, and he mines them intelligently.

I love crime fiction where bad deeds are just a shadow play of bigger issues at work; issues like personal reckoning and, as is the case here, family reconciliation (or lack thereof). Ross McDonald made a brilliant career of this, and his best work reads like mini-Greek tragedies.  Lauden offers an alternative, a song of hope for the broken and abandoned. Jack may never get the payback he wants, but you'll root for him to get the family he deserves. Easily a one-sitting read, That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist is power pop with a bullet, and will shoot to the top of your playlist.

Two of my favorite topics of conversation are rock music and crime fiction. S.W. Lauden lives and breathes both, so naturally I had a few questions.

Lawrence Maddox: Punk is key to your Greg Salem PI trilogy. Greg is a detective by day, and in a punk band by night. Was it hard going from punk to power pop?
The Greg Salem punk PI trilogy
S.W. Lauden: Not really, but mostly because That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist was the unexpected consequence of my co-editing a power pop essay collection with Paul Myers (it's called Go All the Way and will be released by Rare Bird Books this October). I mostly curated/edited other writers for that project, but also wrote an essay myself about Fountains of Wayne.

Then, in the midst of doing research on the history of power pop, I read about this super rare single by the pre-Beatles band called The Quarrymen (featuring Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon–among others–covering the Buddy Holly song). That's when my crime writer brain kicked in.

LM: Your fictional band Bad Citizens Corporation (from the Greg Salem trilogy) also began as a band of brothers. Why is brotherhood an important theme for you?

The original line-up of The Kinks in 1965.
Pete Quaife, Dave Davies, Ray Davies, Mick Avory.
SWL: I'm not sure what you charge as a therapist, but there are several reasons. First and foremost, rock and roll has a long history of brothers in bands (The Beach Boys, Devo, AC/DC, Red Kross, Nelson, etc.), but I've always been interested in the ones that brawl, like Noel and Lima Gallagher from Oasis or Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks.

Secondly, I had older brothers growing up who were musicians (a bass player and a guitarist) who started a heavy metal band when they were in high school (and I was in elementary school). The original reason I chose drums as an instrument was so I could join their band one day (never happened–single tear).

Third, the brothers in the Greg Salem punk rock PI novels and Jack and Jamie in That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist are their own characters, but they're also two extremes of my own personality–one is more self-loathing/self-destructive and the other is more of an egomaniac.

I feel emotionally drained. Happy now?

Keith Morris' autobiography My Damage.
LM: We talked about Keith Morris' riveting autobiography, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor, at last February's Noir at the Bar LA. What are some of your other favorite books about rock?

SWL: How much time do you have?

Speaking of The Kinks, I just read Ray Davies' batshit crazy autobiography from the 90s, X-Ray. I loved it. I also recently read Boys Don't Lie about the Zion, Illinois power pop band The Shoes (power pop royalty and a band featuring brothers!), and A Man Called Destruction about Alex Chilton. I loved Trouble Boys about The Replacements (the Stinson brothers!), as well as John Doe and Tom DeSavia's book about the original LA punk scene, Under the Big Black Sun. What else?

The Closer You Are, about Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices, was pretty great. So was The Beastie Boys Book, and the 33 1/3 book about Big Star's Radio City. A super weird one that I highly recommend is Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group by Ian Svenonius.  That one's in a category all its own.

S.W. Lauden recording for The Brothers Steve.
That's a Murder & Mayhem t-shirt btw.
LM What's next for S.W. Lauden?

SWL:Well, they say write what you know...

I just played drums on an album with an LA-based garage rock/power pop band called The Brothers Steve. It's the first full-length album I've played on in a few years. The self-released vinyl comes out in late July, but a few songs will pop up here and there before then. And we're playing at Molly Malone's in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 27, as part of the International Pop Overthrow festival. Good times.



That'll Be the Day: A Power Pop Heist
is available on Amazon. As mentioned earlier, S.W. Lauden is the author of the Greg Salem punk PI trilogy (Bad Citizen Corporation, Grizzly Season and Hang Time). His Tommy & Shayna novellas include Crosswise and Crossbones. S.W. Lauden is the pen name for Steve Coulter, drummer for Tsar and The Brothers Steve. Check him out at swlauden.com.



I'm the author of Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey). Publishers Weekly said "Fans of offbeat noir will have fun." I'm currently working on the sequel.

Want to discuss power pop to punk?  The secret behind Bob's Chili Spaghetti? Come hang out at the Beatles Booth or find me on Twitter, LawrenceMaddox@madxbooks.




31 May 2019

The Gary Phillips Interview– Part 2: The Be-Bop Barbarians and Beyond

by Lawrence Maddox

In Gary Phillips' graphic novel The Be-Bop Barbarians (Pegasus Books, 2019), three African American comic book artists, struggling to make it in the face of daunting racism, are caught up in 1955's burgeoning civil rights movement.  It takes place in Harlem, and happens at the moment when comics, jazz, and the civil rights movement were on the cusp of major cultural eruptions. Gary placed his tale at the point before all these elements exploded in new directions.

The Be-Bop Barbarians took my breath away. 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.

In Part 1, I got to talk with Gary about some of the historical elements that influenced The Be-Bop Barbarians. These included the civil rights campaign that was ignited by Rosa Parks at the end of 1955; the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial; and the real-life artists who were the inspiration for his three main characters. But wait, there's more!

Lawrence Maddox: Last year you won an Anthony for The Obama Inheritance, which riffs on right-wing conspiracy theories and treats them as if they were true. I feel the '50s, the era of The Be-Bop Barbarians, had its share of conspiracy theories too. Any connection between The Obama InheritanceThe Be-Bop Barbarians, and how conspiracy theories are used to manipulate public opinion?

Gary Phillips: We've always had those who have been able to pull the wool over people's eyes and play into their audience's weird fears and night sweats, whether it's Alex Jones, or The Amazing Criswell, who was in Plan 9 from Outer Space. People are entertained by them, but some can get sucked in.

Soundtrack Beat Battle Judging Panel March2011 (cropped).jpg
Nipsey Hussle in 2011
Just recently, there was this conspiracy around Nipsey Hussle and Dr. Sebi. [NOTE: Dr Sebi was a Honduran herbalist whose remedies were said to be a challenge to the medical establishment. He died in police custody.]  The rumor is that Nipsey was murdered because he was planning this documentary about Dr, Sebi, and big pharma took him out. These things always persist. Are there truths to them? I just worked on this show [Snowfall on FX] that purports that the CIA helped bring cocaine into South Central in the '80s. Do I believe it? Well actually I do believe it, but there are others that say it didn't happen.

LM: When your graphic novel Big Water (2013) came out, I reviewed it for All Due Respect Magazine.  This is my second crack at one of your graphic novels.  Any connections you'd care to draw between Big Water and The Be-Bop Barbarians?

GP: Both of them, in various ways, deal with some parts of the socio-political landscape.  Big Water is about the fight, in a fictional municipality, to keep the water a public right as opposed to allowing the water rights to be sold to a private company. It was also about community organizing; it was about people coming together to work for a common cause.  Certainly we can see some of that in The Be-Bop Barbarians. That hearkens back to my days as a community organizer. Invariably my experience as a community organizer will show up in some form in my work. Not in all my work, but time and again it's a part of what I write about. For me it's still a fascination to place that world in the context of crime fiction. It's something I always come back to. It's the stuff I dig, it's the stuff I watch, read. Not exclusively, but it's the thing I always gravitate to. I guess I try to figure out ways to overlap those two worlds as seamlessly as possible.

LM: In your work you often have heroes, or antiheroes, that are destroyed by forces that are much larger than them. I'm thinking of Zelmont Raines in The Jook (1999).

GP: (Laughs) He's also done in by his lack of impulse control.

LM: Other examples are Deke Kotto and Tim Brady from Cowboys (2011). 

GP: For sure.

LM: Sometimes you've got heroes like O'Connor from Warlord of Willow Ridge (2012) who are able to make a difference and overcome these dark and powerful forces. 

GP: There you go,  but only in incremental ways, right? Only these little tiny victories.

LM: Can one person make a difference?

GP:Yes. The true heroic answer, Larry, is yes, one person can make a difference. They have to. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks to Delores Huerta, yes.  Absolutely. But as we also know, no matter how much will and drive one has, which no doubt is important, which no doubt sets a certain standard for people to rally around, in the end it is about people working together and making these things happen.

I do believe that certain things happen because an individual steps out, or something happens to that individual, but then other things start to work together to make bigger things happen. So even if we talk about Rosa Parks that evening not going to sit in the back of the bus, she was actually not the first black woman to do that. The difference was she was a part of a bigger thing, the NAACP.  She'd already gone to non-violence training school. She was already part of something. This incident became the thing, like Ollie in the book became the thing that could advance some tougher work. It shows you have to have these mechanisms in place so that when something like that does happen, you're ready to act. You're ready to move.

LM: You've got a lot going on this year besides The Be-Bop Barbarians. Let's talk about the The Movie Makers.

GP: It's out now. Down & Out Books is reviving the old serial thing.  It was Frank Zafiro's idea to center on a grifter couple, and they asked various writers to do a kind of, I guess it's not really a novella, it's too short.  It's an extended short story, a novelette. My story is twelve or thirteen thousand words, and we're doing these episodes centering on this grifter couple. Mine takes place in the land where make-believe is the coin of the realm, Hollywood. It's Harold Robbins meets Jim Thompson.

LM: I really liked your story "Demon of the Track" from the wickedly fun anthology Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horror that came out earlier this year.  I noticed that Ollie from The Be-Bop Barbarians and Deacon Coles from "Demon of the Track"are both Korean War vets. What was your inspiration for Deacon?
I attended the Pop the Clutch signing in Burbank
 earlier this year. It was an incredible line-up of
authors, including Gary Phillips. Hoping to get
John  Floyd's signature on this baby one day!

GP: Deacon Coles in "Demon of the Track was inspired by Ed Dwight. [NOTE: Ed Dwight was a military pilot with a B.S in aeronautical engineering.] Kennedy was pushing to have a black astronaut and Ed was put into the program. He faced opposition due to racism. When Kennedy got killed Ed got squeezed out of the program. He actually became a sculptor after all that. Ed Dwight has always fascinated me. I thought it would be interesting to take this guy and make him a jet ace during the war.  Because of racism, he can't get a job as a pilot. So what does he do? He starts racing cars.

LM: You've also been writing for TV.

GP: Coming up I have a co-writing credit on an episode of Snowfall on FX.

LM: John Singleton was one of Snowfall's Creators and Executive Producers. His sudden passing must've been a shock.

John Singleton in 2013
GP: Crazy that John is gone. Fifty-one is way too young, but he got a lot done in that time. He had a drive and a love for all kinds of stories, but of course he really made his mark telling a tale of South Central,  Boyz n the Hood (1991), where he and I grew up. As a Co-Creator of Snowfall, he would often be in the writer's room with us, or on set. John would crack me up because there'd be a time when he'd insist on this or that detail, but it would be about authenticity. In the episode I co-wrote there's a scene set in the projects. When the cops arrive he had me add the "crip whistle," a distinctive call-out that trouble was coming.  A seemingly small thing that did so much to capture that time period.

LM: You've written books, short stories, graphic novels, comics, and now TV.  Is it hard to switch between these different mediums? Is there another medium that you still want to explore?

The many mediums of Gary Phillips.
From The Maddox Archives
GP: You're a storyteller, so you know that each medium defines how you tell the story. A script, as you know, is all short hand.  This is also the great thing about writing comic books and graphic novels. You have to think visually. Similarly in TV, you have to boil everything down. On Snowfall we'd spend hours of the day just talking about the motivation of the characters. Then you'd have to figure out how you'd boil all that down to this one thing. You'd have to get it right so when you're at the table-read the actors aren't saying, "What the hell are you talking about?"

I always think about a scene in Scorsese's Howard Hughes flick The Aviator (2004). It's that scene where DiCaprio can't touch the door knob because of his own weird germophobia. It's such a great scene because it boils down so much psychologically about Hughes. Here's this guy who does all this incredible stuff, but he can't touch this door knob because it's full of germs and other people have touched it.

As a writer I'm always asking, "What are those things, those images, that one thing that will symbolize and crystallize what my character is about?" So whatever medium you're writing in, be it comic books, scripts, prose, or radio plays, whatever the hell it is, you just got to figure out how to convey the complexities in a simple and straight forward way, yet keep some of that richness that you want to maintain. I think we all try to figure that out as writers and storytellers. Not that you get it right all the time. You keep trying rework it and achieve that clarity on the page, or as presented by the actor, or what have you.

I'm very happy that I've been able to work in different mediums, and I hope to keep being able to do that.  It's always the next idea that fascinates me, or the next set of complications for my characters that keeps me going. Sally Wainwright, who wrote Gentleman Jack on HBO, said she likes to write the things that she wants to see. That's true for me, too.  I write the things I want to read or that I want to see. In my work, if I'm entertained, I hope others are entertained too, as well as intrigued. I also hope I've given my audience a little something to think about.

Gary was an initial believer in my debut novel Fast Bang Booze and helped it see the light of day. 

If you have a favorite Gary Phillips work, let me know on Facebook or Twitter, LawrenceMaddox@Madxbooks.