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 Inheritance, The 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.
|Nipsey Hussle in 2011|
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.
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|
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
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.