Peter Riva, Literary Agent

Peter Riva

Peter Riva

Riva’s agency, International Transactions, Inc., specializes in a holistic approach—one that both nourishes its connections to the publishing and entertainment worlds and closely shepherds its authors through the world of publishing.

Riva brought decades of experience in the publishing industry to Antioch in December with his lecture on the business of writing. Lunch Ticket Editor in Chief Lise Quintana spoke to Riva about his views on the publishing industry, where it’s heading, and how new authors can become part of it.

Lise Quintana: The writing community has been given mixed signals lately. We’ve heard both that there’s no market for short stories and that e-readers mean that short stories are selling better than ever. We’ve heard that publishers are struggling—independent publishers are going out of business, larger publishers merging—and that more books are being published than ever before. From your perspective, what’s the truth?

Peter Riva: All of the above. The truth is, there are more books being published than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that there are more books being carried by the booksellers than ever before. In fact, that number is dwindling. There is a large number of backlist titles being sold as e-books now. All the publishers are rushing to digitize and sell their backlist in electronic book formats, and bear in mind that there are at least eight formats that they have to comply with. That’s taking up the publisher’s time, and that’s why the number of books published is growing. On top of that you have the independents, writers who are publishing their own books. Those are still books with ISBN numbers, and they are still “on sale” because the larger platforms do carry those books, even if they’re independently published. Insofar as short stories are concerned, there are short stories and then there are novellas. Novellas have a window of opportunity given to them by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. They have a novella section published electronically that is doing exceptionally well and garners first-step reviews for many authors who wish to be published by a mid-stream publisher. It gives them an opportunity to air their wares and also generate revenue.

LQ: You’ve mentioned that because you work differently from other agents, you do not belong to any associations of literary agents. What experiences led you to that decision?

PR: I’ve been doing this since 1972, licensing in one form or another, and in my experience, the creative process is an involved one that requires the agents to advise, consult with, sometimes manage, but at all times act as a viable partner for the person who’s doing the creation. That includes editing, and it also includes offering advice. One of the things that the literary agents’ association does not want agents to do is manage the authors’ affairs. That’s all well and fine, but some of our authors didn’t even know what a taxpayer’s identification number was, had no idea how to structure their own affairs, let alone the editing and rearranging of text within their manuscripts. We’ve found that, in order to be a constructive partner, we’ve had to do things that were outside of the guidelines of the literary agents’ associations. Now, on the other hand, I do draw the line at some of the new conditions being laid down by the larger agencies whereby they say “If we are going to take on this book, we own a share of it, ad infinitum, forever and a day.” We don’t take that position. We are the representatives of the author until the day the author decides that they want to go elsewhere. If we’ve concluded a licensing agreement with a publisher, obviously we are the agents of record in that negotiation and that will continue, but if, for instance, the publisher releases the book after five years and we’re no longer the agent and the author takes that book to another publisher and we’re not the agent, we wouldn’t share in that.

LQ: From initial manuscript onward, how much interaction do you typically have with an author? (Daily emails? Weekly? Phone calls? In-person meetings?)

The need to see the author and press the flesh, that’s always nice but it doesn’t have to happen anymore. We live in a digital world and a telephone world, a videoconferencing world and really, you don’t have to [be there in person].

PR: It comes in spurts, and each author is different. We have an author who’s in Seattle, Washington. I’ve never met him, I’ve talked with him for quite a few hours on the phone, helped him restructure some of his proposals. The need to see the author and press the flesh, that’s always nice but it doesn’t have to happen anymore. We live in a digital world and a telephone world, a videoconferencing world and really, you don’t have to [be there in person]. There’s the old concept of the “agents’ lunch”. That really is over except for some backslapping that’s done at various conferences, either London or Frankfurt or New York or wherever. As far as we’re concerned, contact with the author is on a needs-must basis. My time’s much better spent placing the author’s work with editors and having that conversation with publishers and publicity people and so on, than hand-holding the authors. Some authors require more hand-holding, others don’t. To give you an example: John Enright, whose series has been taken up by Amazon Publishing. We handled his books and helped him reconstruct and re-edit and re-work those books over a period of five years and, as he was living in American Samoa at the time, our conversation was entirely either on the phone or by email. There were a couple of years when we only exchanged emails once a month or once every two months.

LQ: Most agents and editors, etc., still adhere to the thought that you have to live in New York if you want to be successful in publishing. How do you feel about that?

PR: I moved back from London to New York in 1981 and I was in New York from 1981 to 2007. There is an advantage to seeing people in that you can discuss their needs and desires better. Once you’ve developed a relationship with publishing houses and with editors, you don’t have to be there face to face all the time, once or twice a year is sufficient. As far as the principals are concerned, I spend a fair amount of time with them in Frankfurt, so I don’t have to go into New York. Although it’s always nice to see friends and colleagues after all these years.

Large advances are, quite often, detrimental to author’s careers. First of all, it sets them up for a bigger fall. Secondly, the advance doesn’t reflect what the publisher’s going to do with the book when they have it under contract.

In the larger literary agencies, when you work as a literary agency with a larger agency, your base salary is fairly low and you’re waiting for that bonus payment based on the revenue you’ve generated. That does cause people to hustle, to push and move and get as large an advance as possible. Large advances are, quite often, detrimental to author’s careers. First of all, it sets them up for a bigger fall. Secondly, the advance doesn’t reflect what the publisher’s going to do with the book when they have it under contract. I’ve seen many multi-hundred thousand and million-dollar advances where the book has never been promoted properly and it just languishes on the shelf and dies, and the author’s career has died with it. Let’s remember back in the 80s when publishers were writing huge checks and were dependent upon Ronald Reagan’s allowance of writing off all stock in a warehouse at the end of a year. So, there were these “accidental” warehouse fires.

The truth is that each author needs to be dealt with differently. There are authors who are entirely dependent upon any revenue that can be generated, and sometimes an advance will tide them over until the point when their book is going to sell. There are other authors who have other means of support, and in their case, handing them a hundred thousand dollar advance just means they’re giving the IRS fifty thousand dollars. It’s a whole lot better for them if, instead of giving them a hundred thousand dollar advance, we get a twenty-five thousand dollar advance and get a publicity and promotion clause that’s worth fifty thousand dollars, which actually means the book is going to sell for five or six years and spread the revenue out.

LQ: In your experience, in today’s market, what is the typical advance for a first-time author?

PR: It’s dropped. It’s plummeted. It’s in a horrible state. Anything from $5,000 to $15,000. There are exceptions you read about because somebody has a platform, and they’re doing the New York circuit and they do the sort of glitterati thing and they manage to keroger (that’s the Kenyan term for “stirring the pot”) things up to the point where they can get a really healthy advance of $65,000 or $70,000,  and that’s fine. But those are absolutely less than 1% of the debut authors sold.

Debut authors are hurting because publishers, and we’re now talking the Big Five (since it’s no longer the Big Six), are heavily engaged in profit-taking based on turning their back-end list into e-books. Their resources are being directed in that way. There’s a second thing that’s happened in publishing in the last five years that I predicted 10 years ago and was laughed at by several publishers. It is that the brand is no longer the publisher; the brand is the author. As publishers have come to realize that the way to maximize profits is to build out those brands, it has, very much like a tornado, drawn everything to it as far as resources within the company is concerned. So you’ll get Patterson, who has tremendous marketing and sales support, to the detriment of any newcomer, who obviously doesn’t have the branding profile as an author. In the old days, if you got published by Knopf or you got published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux or whoever, you were pretty much guaranteed that you had your same foot in the same pool, and that you were going to benefit because Knopf’s name was on the spine. Amazon changed that whole game plan. In today’s market the publisher’s logo on the spine may help reviewers, but it doesn’t really help the buyer.

LQ: What are the biggest mistakes a writer looking for representation can make?

PR: Writers have to realize that, with the exception of maybe ten editors, there are no editors left in publishing in the old-fashioned sense. Editors used to see the quality of the story and the ability of the writer to construct a book, and then aid and enhance that process. There’s a famous story that Maya Angelou tells about Bob Loomis in which she says that she got her first manuscript back from him with these little squiggles in the margin. She said “What does that mean?” He said “Well, in that paragraph, there’s something that broke my mental flow or there’s something that bothered me there.” She said “What?” He said “No, that’s for you to discover.” That kind of editing minutiae no longer exists. You’ll get people who will correct spelling and all the rest, but they won’t help you realize where your manuscript is less than perfect. You can talk with Martin Cruz Smith who was also first discovered by Bob Loomis—same thing. His work was impeccable while Bob Loomis was his editor, and when he moved elsewhere hasn’t been quite to the same standard.  Now that’s not to say it’s not wonderful, it is, and I’m one of his great fans, but it’s just an indication that that level of care and attention from an editor doesn’t really exist anymore, by and large.

Take it one step at a time. Be patient. I’ve had authors write to me and say “I need a response within a week.” That’s a very simple response for me.

If I was an author writing a book, I would complete it, and I would put it aside for a period of time to clear my mind. Then I would edit it again, read it again, edit it again, read it again. Then I would have people read it. Not friends and neighbors—I’d hire people who are paid to read it to rip it apart and tell me where it’s wrong. If necessary and if I had the funds, I would either hire a professional editor, one of the people who’s no longer working at a publishing house who’s set up independent shop, or I would go to a university and find an English or literature teacher who’s willing to help me rip it apart and tell me what’s wrong with it. And I’d fix it. Then I would edit it again, and then and only then, when I felt that it was presentable, would I then seek to find an agency. Now, finding the right agent is a tricky thing. My advice to authors is always the same: go to your local bookstore (by definition this means that you should actually go look at books and read them) and find the author that you most respect in the same genre that you’re working in. Then phone up the publishing house and find out who the editor of that book is. Write a respectful letter to that editor saying “Would you please put me in touch with an agent who you feel would best represent my efforts. My work is similar to [name the author that the editor worked with].” And they would probably give you the name of an agent, because publishing houses want agents to act as the gatekeepers. They’re often generous enough to supply the names of agents. Write a letter to that agent, bearing in mind that the agent has 200 emails a day coming in, and you’ve got to fit into that. Say “I am a debut author. I have written a [novel, biography, whatever it may be], and I have contacted the editor at this publishing house who published the work of So-and-so, whose work I respect and which resembles my own. They have suggested that I contact you. I would like the opportunity to submit my work to you for consideration.”  You submit it to an agent while following the guidelines of that particular agency (each agency has different guidelines). Take it one step at a time. Be patient. I’ve had authors write to me and say “I need a response within a week.” That’s a very simple response for me.

LQ: How much of a manuscript do you typically have to read before you know whether or not it’s saleable?

PR: There are two parts to that question. First of all, I need to read twenty pages and a biography of the author and a short synopsis (by “short synopsis,” I mean two or three paragraphs) in order to find out whether or not I want to read the manuscript.  Carving out that much time to read a manuscript is an investment for our company. We’ll read that twenty pages and a short synopsis and a bio—we do that 40-50 times a month. But to call for the manuscript is rare. Then we’re asking the author to bear with us and give us 6 weeks to read the manuscript to come back with our decision or suggestions, as the case may be. We do read a whole manuscript before we take on an author. It’s expensive for us to make this a guessing game. We have to be reasonably certain.

LQ: Why is the bio important?

PR: The bio shows us where the author is in their life, what their capabilities are, whether this is a one-off or whether they’ll write a few more books. It can show me why I should spend time and effort on this person. If the author is talented and they’re going to write more books, that enhances the profile of the author vis-à-vis business. There are some times we get bios where we say “Hang on a sec, an author with that level of commitment and background and education, can’t be a 16-year-old. I doubt it.”  There are things that sometimes raise red flags and we have to probe a little bit further. We don’t want to get caught in a situation where there might be plagiarism involved or a nom de plume that causes conflicts within the industry. We have to be careful, not only for ourselves, but for the industry as well.

LQ: In 2000, your company added an associate editor, JoAnn Collins, to represent women’s voices and issues. What does that mean, and why did you feel that was necessary?

PR: Given that 65% of all books are being bought by women, there were many titles I was not qualified to judge, particularly women’s issues and stories (both novels and nonfiction) that involved part of the women’s movement and sometimes abortion and other things like that. Since they were coming across the transom with fair regularity, we felt it would be wise to have someone with a degree in that subject matter. In addition, there were medical books we were being given that I was frankly not educated enough to judge. JoAnn Collins is also a registered nurse, so she was better able to evaluate these books.

LQ: With the advent of e-books and print-on-demand services that make self-publishing easier and less expensive, do you feel that the role the agent plays has changed? Do most authors still need an agent?

PR: Yes and yes. The role of the agent in the general marketplace has changed. The role of our agency hasn’t changed, since we’ve always been a hand-holding agency. Our agency works differently in that we help mold and refine the product before it’s taken to a publishing house. In fact, we’ve found that the demand for our agency has grown, since a lot of authors have published books by themselves and thought that makes them a “published author,” and therefore they can get their next book picked up automatically by a publishing house. Sometimes, having published a book by yourself, even if you’ve sold reasonable quantities (7,000-10,000 copies), red flags you at the publishing house, who think that you’re not going to play the game the way they want it played. Of course, people publish their own book and sell a hundred thousand copies suddenly become the flavor of the day in New York and they’re snapped up with big contracts and I hope that works out for them. I suspect that, given their ability in social media, and anybody who’s published themselves and been successful will know how to handle social media, they are more likely to do the job for the publisher. But they’re happy enough to have the publisher haggle the dead tree issue, which a lot of self-published authors don’t get into. They go straight for electronic. Electronic books and publishing by yourself is a viable way to make your voice heard, especially if you have your own platform. It is interesting to note that almost everybody who has a solid platform, whether it be in the religious arena or in the cooking arena or whatever else, seeks a traditional publisher rather than publishing themselves because the onslaught of work would stop them from doing their primary function. People who’ve been successful self-published authors have found that they’re running a business, and their second book gets delayed and delayed and delayed because the workload on the first book is overwhelming.

LQ: What are your thoughts about authors and social media? Some authors like Chuck Palahniuk use it to market their books and to offer advice to other authors, while others like Christopher Moore use it the way most people do—to communicate their everyday thoughts to their friends. Should authors build a platform with social media?

… readers don’t want to connect with the book, they want to connect with the author. If the author realizes that, they will build out social media to allow the reader to connect with the author always in a way that isn’t off target.

PR: Yes. Without exception. The English have an expression “horses for courses.” You have to have the right social media for the right project. The brand is now the author. The author is in charge of that brand in social media, or, if you’re with a good publisher like Open Road Media, they’ll handle the social media for you and give you a list of things that you have to comply with every week. “Don’t forget to post here, respond to that one there,” and it makes their job very simple. No one other than Open Road does that properly, by the way. If you look at the videos Open Road Media makes, they’re always about the author because readers don’t want to connect with the book, they want to connect with the author. If the author realizes that, they will build out social media to allow the reader to connect with the author always in a way that isn’t off target. If you’re writing a biography of Lincoln, you want to make sure that your comments are professorial and factual enough that the reader will have and gain confidence in your ability to be the purveyor of factual information on Lincoln or anything else. If, on the other hand, you’re the author of zany humor, you want to make sure that you constantly blog, tweet, maybe post funny photographs on Pinterest, in order to have people recognize that you’re a person with great humor. It’s all about author identification. It’s not about book identification.

LQ:  How does any agent justify the payment they receive?

PR: First of all, you should never pay an agent. An agent should only earn money if the book is successful. If the agent takes on a book, they are taking on an equal risk. As agents, we never earn a dime unless our authors are making their money. The notion that agents are “paid” also creates this falsehood that the agent is an employee of the author. That is never the case. Where author relations have soured with their agents, it’s because the authors have this misconception that they were hiring an agent. They’re not. They’re appointing an agent to act as their representative and junior partner in the business they’re working on together. The agent is an intelligent (hopefully), experienced (hopefully), honest (definitely hopefully) person, and the fact that they’re only making 15% on a book project doesn’t mean the author gets to order them around. What agents know takes too long to explain to authors. There’s got to be a level of blind trust at a certain point. You can always ask your agent questions. But there are authors who say “Before we sign up with you, we really want to have a wide-ranging conversation about publishing” and I say “Now hang on a second, if you don’t even understand what publishing is, or what the word “royalty” means, or what quarterly payments, half-yearly payments, yearly payments, advances, all that is, we’ll explain it to you, but don’t question us as to whether that is fair or not fair. That’s the way the business is run.” The difficulty for authors is that they may wish the business were run differently, but it’s not. Agents aren’t able to re-educate publishers on behalf of authors. We’ve tried that in the past and it doesn’t work.

LQ: How do you feel about publishers as the gatekeeper? There are a lot of people publishing now. Do you feel that’s making it harder for readers to find good books? Are there fundamental changes that the publishing system might make to make itself more relevant?

PR: There are models that have gone before. Take television, for example. There was a time when there were three channels in the United States. I produced a television show in 1988 that had a 14 share and 22 million viewers. If I had a show on television today that had those kind of numbers, I’d be the richest guy in Hollywood. When you have a lack of competition, you garner a greater share of people partaking in whatever you’re offering. Today, there is so much competition out there. There are great authors, great titles getting lost amongst this myriad of publications. We’ve gone from 120,000 books published a year in the mid-1990s to 500,000 or more, and that causes a great scatter on your radar and you don’t know what book to choose. That’s why people find Amazon useful, because they have a system whereby if you bought this, you’d like that.

In the 80s, I used to spend a lot of time on the train going from home to the city. In the lower level of Grand Central, there was a bookstore that was 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep, and there was one man who owned and ran the bookstore. It was only science fiction, and it was only paperbacks, and he had maybe a 1,000 or 1,500 titles. The thing was, he had either read every one of them or had read enough of each one to know what each book was about and what it was similar to and what genre it was in, whether it was fantasy or science fiction, and so on. I could go in there from each train trip and say “I finished So-and-so,” And he’d say “Oh, then you’ll like this.” And he knew immediately what book to sell me. I found about 50 authors over ten years that I otherwise wouldn’t have read, and I enjoyed all of them. This man was the gate keeper of taste and linking authors and titles.

That’s what Amazon seeks to do. By and large, Amazon allows even the self-published authors to get within that pipeline, particularly if the self-published author takes the time in a business sense to find out how to dot the I’s and cross the T’s of Amazon’s system. For example, if you write a book that has railway stories in it, you should identify on Amazon those other titles that are selling well that have railway connections. When you’re asked to put tags in about the book you’re putting up on Amazon for sale, you put tags that link you to those other books. It’s as simple as that. Somebody reads a book by a published author that’s selling well, it says “People who bought this also might be interested in that,” and there you get the independent author’s book. Goodreads, weRead, Book Glutton, Wattpad, Readernaut, and Bookish are other great platforms. Getting friends and relatives to read your book and post honest reviews, good and bad, get them to post on various websites. That’s all part of the business game that the author has to engage in.

Lise Quintana is Editor in Chief of Lunch Ticket and is currently pursuing her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in journals including The Weekenders; Children, Churches and Daddies and The Willow Review. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay area.

Kazim Ali, Poet

Kazim Ali

Photo: Brett Hall Jones

Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom and raised in Canada and the United States. He received a BA and MA in English Literature from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. He is the author of several collections of both poetry and prose, the most recent being Sky Ward, which was published by Wesleyan University Press this year.

In addition to his writing, Ali is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College in Ohio as well as a professor of the MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. He was a guest speaker at Antioch University Los Angeles in December of 2012, and he recently spoke with Kolleen Carney about his lecture, spirituality, and the writing process.

Kolleen Carney/Michael Passafiume: I wholly enjoyed your lecture at Antioch this past December, “Seminar in Sound and Silence.” One detail that stuck out to me was the idea that our voices are heard through our bones—that our body hears the words before our mouths do. Does your new book, Sky Ward, focus on this idea?

Kazim Ali: Much in Sky Ward surrenders meaning to sound. Library Journal said it was “gorgeous, if finally perplexing.” That’s high praise to me. The body has knowledges. We call it instinct sometimes. But it’s something intelligent in the tissues and muscle and bone of the body, meaning in its physical matter, rather than the normal places thoughts reside: in the chemical and electrical reactions of the brain, that is to say in the body’s “energy.”

KC/MP: You said that silences have a relationship with one another. How do you feel about the idea of silence, in a world where, due to social networking, we as a society keep nothing to ourselves?

KA: But we keep everything to ourselves. Social networking is a performance of identity, a trick. The worst part is that it is a trick we play even on ourselves. Because now we keep everything from ourselves. When told of the lunar landing Anaïs Nin reportedly commented, “But we have so much farther to go within ourselves.”

The new commercial I saw on TV (I participate as much in this electronic network of information as anyone else) was about a hand-held device that moved a person from scenario to scenario. In the beginning of the ad I thought it was for a gaming device but it was for a phone that would help you to constantly experience, constantly “Keep Moving,” as their ad slogan went.

Ultimately, the fear of death—the fear of what’s after the mortal body dissipates back into the air—is what drives us (literally, in this case) to distraction.

We’re turning into batteries for the Matrix. The film The Matrix used an ancient yogic sloka over their closing credits. It’s translation is roughly like this: “Lead us from the unreal to the real. Lead us from dimness into clear sight. Lead us from the fear of death to knowledge of immortality.” Ultimately, the fear of death—the fear of what’s after the mortal body dissipates back into the air—is what drives us (literally, in this case) to distraction.

But we need to find a place to be grounded in the moment, in the world, in our bodies. I find that poetry leads me to that practice of present, which means to actually be alive.

KC/MP: You also said that “the silence of God is God.” How do your religious beliefs influence your writing?

KA: When I said this I was quoting Lucille Clifton who was quoting Carolyn Forché who was quoting Elie Weisel. What I think about when I think about spirituality or religion is: what is this body? Who is inside it? What does it mean to be an aware person, a sensing person, a conscious person. The texts of yoga teach that the mind is a sense-making apparatus, like the eye, or the inner ear—so who is it I mean when I say “I”? It matters, of course, because you have to live in the world.

The rituals of religion were perhaps meant to help to organize the inquiry into this anarchy of matter. If there’s no inquiry (read: doubt) there’s no “religion” (which means “joining”) like “yoga.” Both “religion” and “yoga” come from the same ancient Sanskrit syllable which traveled forward also to “yoke” and “yolk.” Which do you choose, the “yolk” of essential origination or the “yoke” of subservience and surrender?

There is always some of both, I suppose. But for me, poetry and yoga become the most important form “inquiry,” one with the mind, the body and the breath and the other—look at that—with all three as well.

KC/MP: I especially was drawn to your work, Bright Felon. Do you think that a person’s geography shapes who they are? Do you think we can be different people when we move from place to place?

KA: Yes, I do think place determines personhood. Historically, people have had a connection to their place in the earth as it helps to determine the rhythm of their annual lives by its climates and ecosystem, it can determine the kinds of profession and trade and crafts they had as well as the food they would prepare. This diet and climate (sunlight, temperature, etc.) also determines the physical shape of the people who come to live in a certain place in the world.

Though in the modern world we migrate from place to place much more often, we still become attached and determined by the places we live in. It’s why, for example, the Palestinians still advocate for their right to return to their ancestral lands, why the Lakota still organize for the return of the Black Hills.

Bright Felon is primarily concerned with urban (and exurban) spaces since that is where I mostly found myself living in that time. The pieces are still essentially pastoral in nature in that they seek to explore the ways a person’s life (mine) plays out among these different spaces, layered with history.

KC/MP: From my understanding, you not only practice yoga, but you also teach it. Do you find that the practice helps connect you to your writing?

KA: I practice Jivamukti Yoga. I have taught various forms of yoga for nearly ten years. But I am still at the very beginning of a yoga practice, trying to learn to understand my body and breath, understand the nature of the self and the body. Jivamukti Yoga teaches also that sound has vibrational properties within and without the body and that these spaces in the body can be exercised and channeled in order to unlock awareness.

Jivamukti Yoga teaches also that sound has vibrational properties within and without the body and that these spaces in the body can be exercised and channeled in order to unlock awareness.

In order to do the least amount harm to the planet and its natural environments, we are also taught that a vegan diet has the maximum amount of benefit in helping us in our yoga practice. I can’t say directly how these practices have affected my writing but it is important for me to have this level of empathy for the many other living spirits in the earth and of course for the living matter of the planet itself.

KC/MP: In the spirit of “were all in this together”—it being life—what do you strive to accomplish with your writing? Do you feel any sort of responsibility to your reader beyond “entertainment”?

KA: It’s changed for me throughout the course of publishing. In my first book of poetry, The Far Mosque, I explored a lot of different wide ranging subjects and themes, including spiritual inquiry which became a main theme in my next book of poetry The Fortieth Day. Bright Felon was a turning point for me, not just because it was a cross-genre work of poetic prose, but because it was very autobiographical and engaged directly with my own life and experiences.

After that book I felt freer to go deeper both internally and into the shapes and spaces of language and breath. Recently, I encountered the work (and the persons) of two writers, Zubair Ahmed and Matthew Dickman, who feel fearless to me in both engaging their lives and utilizing all the mysteries poetry has to offer. So it makes me feel a little braver in the face of a lot of darkness.

I still feel new at poetry, like I don’t know what it is or how to write it. Or who I am. So thank God for all of that.

Kolleen Carney lives in the Boston area with her husband, son, cat, and several hundred Pez dispensers. She received a bachelor’s degree from Salem State University after twelve harrowing, non- consecutive years. She is currently working on her MFA in Poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles. In her spare time, she sleeps.

 

MANDEM (Maize Arendsee and Moco Steinman-Arendsee), Collaborative Artists

MANDEMIn its last issue, Lunch Ticket featured an image by MANDEM—a collaborative team that includes Maize Arendsee and Moco Steinman-Arendsee. Intrigued by their work and process, Visual Arts Editor Ashley Perez decided to run an interview with the pair in the current issue. MANDEM describes itself as “Mythpunk,” a moniker that combines “Steampunk” (a retro-futurist arts subculture) with “myth,” in reference to MANDEM’s unorthodox and imaginative incorporation of classical mythology into its imagery.

Our interview with MANDEM features several works from their Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal series. More MANDEM art can be viewed at www.mythpunk.com.

MANDEM won first place in the Nationwide Spooky Art Contest; “Best in Show-Expression” at the 2012 DigiTech Showcase, and won Fine Art America’s “Digital Goddess” Art Contest, among other awards. Recent exhibits include the Southern Humanities Council Conference (2013); Westcott Gallery at Florida State University (2012-13); CoCA/City Hall Art Gallery, Tallahassee, FL (2012), and the Fountain Art Fair (2012).

The two collaborators of MANDEM were interviewed by Audrey Mandelbaum and Ashley Perez via email in March, 2013.

Audrey Mandelbaum/Ashley Perez: Who and what is MANDEM?

MANDEM: MANDEM is the artist name for Maize Arendsee and Moco Steinman-Arendsee. Our working process is highly symbiotic and as the artist MANDEM, we achieve more than the sum of our parts. Our work has appeared in literary and art journals; on book, magazine, and album covers; in roleplaying and board games; and in many dozens of art galleries. MANDEM’s work is a transdigital exploration of metamorphoses, multivalency, and anachronism. We have an interest in destabilizing genre — both in terms of content and medium — drawing heavily from our personal identities as queer feminists. Our subject matter is liminal, featuring characters of uncertain biological identity, blurring the lines between genders and between humans, animals, and machines.

Of course, we would be remiss not to mention that our long-time duo is now a trio. We have a two-year-old daughter, Kitsuko, who has been dubbed “The Littlest MANDEM” by some of our Internet followers, and she’s increasingly becoming an integral part of our artist experience.

AM/AP: We love the “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal” project. What were you thinking with this work?

Neverbird. The Rhacid birds frequently follow after Neobedouin caravans, picking through the waste left behind by our intrepid heros.

Neverbird, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

M: We began the first images in this series as part of working on Abney Park’s Airship Pirates universe. (Editor’s note: Abney Park is a Steampunk band based in Seattle. Abney Park’s Airship Pirates Universe is a RPG and Board Game based on the band’s songs.) However the series itself quickly expanded beyond that. The addition of textual elements turned a collection of disparate images into a cohesive set of “notes” from an apocryphal journal. Our concept was to create fragments of a non-reconstructable narrative that invited the viewer to imagine a complete narrative and try to piece it together. But ultimately they can’t be put into a definitive narrative; each person will have their own version of the story.

This mirrors real history — we all think that we have a complete narrative of history, but the closer we look at individual experiences, the more the meta-narrative of history loses cohesion. We are all time traveling from a past that will never be the same as we left it — if we were even able to go back, we would find that it never existed as we remember it now. And we are all transgressing into a future that is not what we thought it would be. And even this present moment in time may or may not be as we perceive it.

When this series goes to art shows, we “age” the paper by hand and catch them on fire, so each one looks like it was torn out of a burning book. We mount them on archival board – ashy tatters and all – and put them into shadowbox frames, so there’s an illusion of a preserved document, barely saved from some great disaster. It’s a nod to archivists, without whom we wouldn’t even have the illusion of knowing about the past.

Cowboy. Indricotheriinae have many uses.

Cowboy, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

AM/AP: These pieces remind me of the work of Goya’s, the 18th century Spanish romantic painter and social critic—in particular, the style reminds me of his series of prints, “The Disasters of War.” What aspects of your work do you consider to be a form of social criticism?

M: Oh, wow, that’s a huge compliment.

Well… The “Time Traveler” series alternates between levity, gallows humor, and social criticism. Take “Neverbird”: On the one hand, it’s a black joke about storks delivering babies, but more seriously …taking the text into account… it’s a criticism of the horrors to which we intentionally subject our children. Parents so often terrorize or harm their children in the name of creating social compliance. On another level, though, it’s also an expression of natural parental fears about the vulnerability of one’s children to the terror of the world.

Centurion. It is a little recognized fact that a super soldier with gun arms is incapable of reloading by himself.

Centurion, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

There are a variety of ways that our wider body of work is intentionally a social criticism. We often work with imagery that would be considered fantasy/sci-fi (though we prefer “fantastic realism” as a descriptor of our work), but this genre of art has a history of being both very sexist and exclusionary of minorities. (Think of the sexual and racial dynamics of Frank Frazetta’s work, for example.) This is particularly problematic because fantasy and sci-fi, as literary genres and conceptual realms, have been very important to a number of minority groups, including the LGBT community. This makes sense because people who grow up feeling alienated in the world are often drawn to these fantastical stories of the ultimate Other, the magical Other, and to the idea of different types of worlds and societies in which they might not be so radically alone. Some of the earliest feminist writings were science fiction, ranging from Mary Shelly to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. So we’re intentionally working to create queer, feminist art in an area that’s resistant to this approach, but at the same time a very natural home for it.

AM/AP: Another piece from the “Time Traveler” series, “Beware the Innocents,” depicts a nun and a young girl in tattered clothing that dates back to the 40s and 50s. Both figures wield weapons. It is perhaps an image of the disenfranchised taking revenge. But, there is also the sense of the two figures representing religious authority, or normative ideas about charity and innocence, which is then turned on its head by the violent aspect. One is not sure whether to root for these characters! Are they good? Are they evil? Were they good once, but using violent means to defend themselves? Can you tell us more about this piece?

Beware the Innocents. One ought never make hasty conclusions regarding the difficulty of a mission based entirely on its description. Nuns and orphans are not always as harmless as one might expect.

Beware the Innocents, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2011-2012.

This was one of the first of the series, actually, so it’s the most strongly related to the Airship Pirates universe in its original inspiration. The titular song (“Airship Pirate” by Abney Park) from which the story expands outwards, tells the story of a mercenary band attacking what they believe to be a merchant ship, but when they actually take it down they are horrified to discover that the ship is in tatters and “a look below deck shows a crew of nuns and orphans!” The story functions as part of the entire larger narrative (which involves struggling to re-write history–or re-right it, I suppose) about the unintended consequences of heroism. But this piece was a slight tongue-in-cheek response, which by all reports had the original author of the song in stitches.

Done Run Out. When preparing for long journeys, be sure to bring sufficient fuel. (Credit goes to the crew of the Neverwas Haul for imagining and building the prototype of this vehicle!)

Done Run Out, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

Of course, on the one hand you’re also correct that its inception stems from a more serious concern that’s in line with our larger critical approach with feminism and also with the reliability of narrative. The song uses “nuns and orphans” as a one-liner to suggest that it turns out that the ship is peopled with helpless non-combatants… and this asked “well, does their age and gender really imply that they’re helpless? Why shouldn’t women and children be able to fight back?” I like to turn expectations on their heads, and question assumed roles. It’s all part of the way that illustration—at its best—can contribute to the complexity of a story, creating questions about the reliability of the narrative, the nature of its reality, and so forth. MANDEM shouldn’t be trusted with a straight-up illustration in most cases; we end up queering things.

AM/AP: Steampunk culture is a big influence on your work. Can you describe what it is, and what about it appeals to you? How about classical mythology?

M: Steampunk is one of the manifestations of retrofuturism in our work. More specifically, Steampunk is retrofuturism based on the steam era of technology, i.e., the Victorian era.

Lion Hunt. Local fauna may vary dramatically in size and ferocity over the millenia.

Lion Hunt, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

Retrofuturism is any vision of the past that includes futuristic elements or ideas of the future that picture it recreating the modes of the past. So, for example, if a modern person writes about Victorian space travel, they’re doing retrofuturism. We’re fans of retrofuturism because it allows people to use what they know about the past to make commentary on the future in a way that’s more accessible, and likewise to use what we know about the present to make a new kind of commentary about the past. Because retrofuturism is fantastic and “not real” it can slyly bypass some of the political defenses that people have in place when it comes to talking about issues. You can see this in action with the massive impact that a retrofuturistic movie like V for Vendetta (The 2005 film based on the 1982 graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd) had on the Occupy Wallstreet movement. People who might not have been able to notice problems in our society could recognize the parallels in a fantastical universe and became motivated to adopt the emblem of the fantastic struggle into their real struggles.

Truant. Resistance to dominant trends appears in most times and cultures.

Truant, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

Regarding mythology, that’s actually the focus of Maize’s undergraduate work—classical civilizations. Her undergraduate honors thesis was on the Minotaur myths, and she’s still engaged academically on working with comparative mythology. It is extremely common for our pieces to have subtle (or blatant) references to mythology, though not exclusively Greek mythology.  We actually characterize the majority of our work not as Steampunk but as Mythpunk. When we say mythpunk, we mean a sort of retrofuturism that, instead of drawing from a specific era (like the Victorian era), takes place in diachronic time. Diachronic time is a sort of nonlinear/cyclical, archetypal time that exists in myths and in universal stories. It can take elements from everywhere, and what’s important isn’t so much the time stamp on the elements, but the way that they all participate in the same relationships.

AM/AP: What are your other influences: from art, but also film, literature, or other genres?

Lady in the Black Hat.  Dystopia is easier to achieve than one might think, and seems to be the natural order of human affairs.

Lady in the Black Hat, from “Notes from a Time Traveler’s Journal.” Mixed media, 2012.

M: We’re very interested in the visual aesthetic of Film Noir and German Expressionist film. We enjoy magical realism (e.g., Joge Luis Borges). We’ve been influenced by continental writers of the early- to mid-20th century, like Brecht and Herman Hesse. Various subcultural musical movements are also a big influence, and anywhere we might find compelling stories about the Other.

AM/AP: Walk us through your artistic process from idea to finished product. 

M: This would be a good time to mention our overarching philosophy for art projects, which is something that we call a transdigital aesthetic. We feel that there isn’t a value differential to be placed on digital or traditional artistic techniques, so we use whichever has the effect we’re going for in a specific piece. We’re very willing to switch between physical and digital media, so for example, we’ll print something out if we want to add physical media, and then scan it back in if we want to do more digital editing. The workflow for any individual piece is going to vary depending on the end goals and how it’s going to be published. For example, the Time Traveler series is almost entirely digital in the versions that go to print in books or magazines, but when they hang in a gallery only the outlines are done digitally, then they’re hand-painted to add color, and the lines are enhanced by hand with ink, then they’re distressed and burned.

Maize from MANDEM working on "Medusa in Her Sunday Best."

Maize working on “Medusa in Her Sunday Best”

The painting we’re working on right now (“Medusa, in Her Sunday Best”) is very photorealistic in sections, so we actually started with costume design, then a photo shoot for reference photos. We then did a photo-manipulation of the source images to make a rough collage to work from, then did some digital painting, then printed that on colored paper and painted directly onto the paper with oil paints. We then scanned that back in and did digital painting for several of the sections, and did some digital editing on the parts that were physically painted, which created a complete, ready-to-publish digital version of this painting. But we still needed to create the version that could show in galleries, so we actually digitally removed large sections from the image we’d just finished, then printed out what remained on a large format canvas.

But this is just the process for one specific painting. Other pieces are entirely digital or (more rarely) entirely physical media.

AM/AP:  You describe yourself as a collaborative team to some extent, and you’re also a couple, and now parents. What in a nutshell do each of you do, and how did that collaborative relationship evolve?

M: We’ve known each other forever. We’ve been a couple for over 15 years, and neither of us can remember a time before we were artistically collaborating. We were introducing our imaginary friends to one another and writing stories together from the beginning. As we evolved into visual artists, our working method remained much the same, brainstorming and birthing ideas together, but Maize is the one who does the “brush on canvas” (or “stylus on graphics tablet”) work. Moco manages the printer and stretches canvases, and often models if we need photo references. While Maize paints, Moco will stand by to help make color, material, and composition choices (and to refill Maize’s coffee). The relationship is a little as if Botticelli’s muse Simonetta had stripped off her fancy dresses, put on a smock, and come into the workshop to mix his paints and make composition choices. As for Kitsuko, she tells us if our work is “hot!” or not. If she doesn’t call it “hot,” it’s missing something.

AM/AP: In contemporary art galleries and museums, you don’t see a lot of figurative art these days, especially work that incorporates elements of fantasy and myth. We want to know more about your take on the role of figurative and myth-based art today.

M: I think it’s making a resurgence, slowly but surely. Figurative and myth-based art has never gone away, it just went underground.

The thing is that museum art is very political. Museums are political. They reflect the interests and tastes of “the powers that be” in a way that is often not recognized by academia or the general public.

There’s a widely accepted meta-narrative of art history where abstract art rose very naturally and fluidly out of the European art scene that existed before it. You had the impressionists, and then the cubists, and then abstract art… and just one thing lead to another in the natural genealogy of art. And the implication is that these changes reflected changes in common taste, but this isn’t the entire picture. Abstractism’s total conquest of the museum system was not so much a matter of changes in public taste as it was a matter of changes in politics.

This is very well documented, by the way—I’m not speaking of a personal paranoid theory! When the Cold War began, the Soviets were championing and funding realist art; they were very strict realists. And so “our side” of the Cold War generated and publicized an idea of the free capitalist artist as a non-representational artist, and this idea of abstract art as capitalist art, essentially. They developed this alternative, and funded it heavily. You literally had money from the CIA going into funding art shows, along with the old money Americans who were funding museums to show abstract art.

But at the same time that the government was investing heavily in abstract art, the most popular artists in America—the ones that were appearing in every home—were people like Maxfield Parrish… who of course was doing figurative fantastical art. At the same time the “high art” bloc was condemning figurative artists, and especially fantastic artists like Parrish, as “just illustrators.”  So you have the Norman Rockwells and the Andrew Wyeths being hugely popular among the people of the time, and roundly dismissed by the formal art world. And it wasn’t just the realists of their own time that this new academic art rejected.

But now, at this very moment in art history, people are going back and discovering “illustrators” like Rockwell and Parrish and working to restore their legacy, reevaluating them as artists, and curating them in museums. Part of this may be a conservative backlash coming from individuals who don’t realize that abstract art was conservative in the first place, but I also think that part of this re-evaluation of figurative art and mythic art is very much a meta-modern return to complicated sincerity, narrative, and beauty. This is a return that doesn’t denounce abstractism, but just has a bigger art umbrella—takes it all in.

And of course there have been a few recent high profile shows of classical fantasy artists and of comic book artists, so I also think we’re starting to enter a time where the postmodern ideal of a collapse between high and low art is not just theoretical. We’re starting to admit that a theoretical position like that necessitates an embrace of both “high modern” painting and also the figurative art that the majority of the population has always loved.

AM/AP: Maize, you entered a Master of Fine Arts program recently, is that correct? What’s that like for you, as a working artist, to be a student again?

M: Brutal.

For many years, Maize was a self-taught artist, and it was an important part of her identity that she was a self-taught artist. She also identified as an academic. She went to graduate school for something other than art; she got her Master’s degree in interdisciplinary humanities with a focus in critical theory.

We naively expected that art school would be similar to her past studies, except with painting instead of essays, but it’s turned out to be a totally different world socially and in terms of a meeting of aesthetic minds that aren’t always in synch with one another. The good news is that going to art school is giving her the opportunity to work with some absolutely amazing professors with whom she does have a strong aesthetic connection, and she has definitely learned a lot about physical media, which she had not previously been as comfortable with as the digital media. In particular, Maize has been working with Carrie Ann Baade, who is an incredible Visionary Artist who tends to show with pop surrealist artists, and Lilian Garcia-Roig, who does very textural landscapes with such thick paint that we really don’t understand how it adheres to the canvas.

In the meantime, our actual art career is going swimmingly — we have more publication opportunities than we can keep up with. It’s an odd dichotomy to try to balance a professional career, in which self-confidence is key, and a student career in which it can be a liability.

AM/AP: Thank you for your time.

Ashley Perez lives and writes in Los Angeles, California. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. She is currently working on her first novel as well as continuing her second collection of short stories. You can see her thoughts on art and writing inspiration at http://artscollide.blogspot.com.

In addition to serving as Co-Editor of Visual Arts for Lunch Ticket, Audrey Mandelbaum is an artist whose work has been exhibited most recently at The Front Gallery in New Orleans. She coordinates the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and teaches art classes in the bachelor’s program there.

 

Lin Oliver, Children’s Book Author

Lin Oliver

Photo: Sonya Sones

Lin Oliver is a children’s book author and film producer. She currently heads her own production company, Lin Oliver Productions in Los Angeles. Her work has included the best-selling children’s series, Hank Zipzer, which she co-wrote with actor Henry Winkler from the television show Happy Days. Her television and film productions have won multiple industry awards, including the Parent’s Choice Gold Medal and the Cine Golden Eagle Award. She has written and produced children’s television shows for major networks and studios such as Showtime, PBS and Saban Entertainment/Fox Kids. She also has an academic side and has earned a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology from University of California at Los Angeles. Lin, who currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and sons, recently spoke to Lunch Ticket editor Helen Akers about what’s important to her as a writer and her journey of becoming the writer, film and television producer she is today.

Helen Akers: What or who inspired you to become a writer?

Lin Oliver: I’ve always found writing interesting. I have wanted to be a writer since I remembered. In kindergarten I wrote a poem that got some attention and was put on the bulletin board. For me it was a foregone conclusion. I’ve always loved books. I read a variety of media—magazines, novels, books for adults, intergenerational sagas. I can’t imagine my life without books, and writing became a natural cropping from that.

HA: Is YA fiction something you felt compelled to write? Why?

LO: No, when I was younger I thought I would be a journalist. In high school I was an editor. In college I thought I wanted to write deep, dark, depressing, feminist poetry. I got a comedy writing fellowship to write situational comedies and got validated as a comedy voice. I was then hired to write a series of children’s books. I developed a love and discovered it as an open channel, with an audience that is responsive and filling.

HA: What advice would you have for emerging writers?

Don’t separate your writing life from your reading life. Follow that impulse and whatever field(s) you read in, try to master those types of writing.

LO: The most important thing is to try to determine what you yourself like to read and channel your efforts into writing what you read. Judy Blume told me that “you should write the kind of book you’d like to read.” Don’t separate your writing life from your reading life. Follow that impulse and whatever field(s) you read in, try to master those types of writing. Read like a writer by taking on the role of the writer. Try to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing. Not so much in the sense that you’re analyzing it, but figuring out what did you love about the book and trying to capture that essence. Try to approach writing like its fun and not torture. One of the great fun things about writing is that you can do it anywhere—in your PJs, at Starbucks, or outside where you can entertain your own thoughts. Don’t approach writing like it’s something fearsome or aversive. Sometimes we think we have to suffer or procrastinate. Jump into it happily and focus on the parts that make you happy.

HA: You’re Executive Director of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Tell us about what the organization does for the YA writing community and your role.

LO: SCBWI is a writing community for all people who write, publish and agent children’s books or intend to devote themselves and their work to the children’s’ field. SCBWI helps maintain and promote the community’s careers. We have 22,000 members with chapters in every state and around the globe.

HA: Are you working on any new projects?

LO: I’m working on Here’s Hank—it’s an extension of the Hank Zipzer series. It starts when Hank is in the 2nd grade and explores some of his problems in schools. Here’s Hank prepares younger readers for the novels in the Hank Zipzer series because it’s written in a simple style. I’m also working on a series called Almost Identical. It’s six novels about middle school girls. They’re identical twins in the 7th grade and the series explores how they’re growing up and growing apart. They’re each seeking their own identity, even though they look alike. It’s set in Southern California near the beach. I’m enjoying it because I feel that middle school is an important and challenging time for girls since they’re searching for their identity, body image, and who they are in relation to boys, their friends, parents and other girls.

HA: In the Hank Zipzer series, you and your co-author Henry Winkler explore dyslexia and how it affects Hank’s life and his choices. In what ways do you feel Hank’s journey is inspiring to other children (who may be alike or different)?

LO: The series was developed from Henry’s experience. He didn’t know he was dyslexic until he was an adult and got diagnosed. We get a lot of heartfelt letters, over a hundred a month. The series is easy and fun to read. Someone with dyslexia or without dyslexia can read it. Many kids tell us that “this is the first book I’ve finished.” Hank is a responsible, positive kid. He’s not a victim in any shape or form. In the series, Hank faces learning challenges. We show a sense of compassion and empathy and anti-bullying. There’s a bully and nothing good happens to the bully. We hope to show that there are lots of ways to achieve your goal and everyone has different talented abilities and they’re all equally valid. He’s a role model for friends of kids who have learning challenges and kids who have challenges.

HA: What led you to choose the series slogan “The World’s Greatest Underachiever”?

LO: Because that’s what [Hank] is. He’s great at it. He’s a positive kid. He’s a great, good kid, who’s not good at school.

HA: Which one of the books in the series do you feel is most inspiring or insightful?

LO: Number One—Niagra Falls—because it lays out the problem of Hank’s dyslexia. At the end he finds out what his learning challenge is. Also, number seventeen—Brand New Me. We follow Hank’s transition from graduating elementary school and entering middle school. That’s a time where there’s a lot of pressure to find yourself and be accepted. Hank finds and goes to a performing arts school where he finds what he’s good at and he is valued for it. So, if you can figure out how to navigate the system, you’ll be okay. If you hang in there you’ll be okay. It’s a matter of finding what you’re good at.

HA: Which book in the series did you enjoy writing or creating the most?

LO: They’re all fun to write. Henry experienced it firsthand. I don’t have dyslexia so I get to walk in his shoes and experience how he never felt adequate. I get to broaden my experience. We have a lot of fun, we laugh. We both came from television backgrounds. I wrote TV for fifteen years, so it’s a collaborative experience. The process is enjoyable.

HA: After working as a Senior Vice President at MCA/Universal, what drove you to start your own production company?

I worked in television development for twelve years. I was a writer first and missed writing. Universal allowed me to switch over to the producing side, which in television is writing.

LO: I worked in television development for twelve years. I was a writer first and missed writing. Universal allowed me to switch over to the producing side, which in television is writing. When you’re a producer, you’re really the Head Writer. I wrote the pilot for Harry and the Hendersons, which sold seventy-two episodes to Fox. I slid naturally into it and I stayed with it. I wanted to be able to translate literature to film and television. I then wrote Courdory for PBS, Wayside for Nickelodeon, Trumpet based on E.B. White’s book. The BBC is also airing the Hank Zipzer series. With my own projects, I like to help popularize children’s literature.

HA: What do you think has attributed to your production company’s success?

LO: I work really hard. I don’t think you can underestimate the value of a work ethic. I love my work. I’ve set up my life so that my work and home life are weaved together. I’m married with 3 sons and it’s allowed me to still focus on my career. I feel lucky because I didn’t struggle with my career versus my home life like many women have to. Loving what I do is important to me.

HA: What do you feel was the most significant moment or project in your writing career? Why?

LO: Loving what I do. It’s work where the highest authority is myself. I’m allowed to be true to myself, true to my own voice. I’m not a great follower. I love being able to follow my natural, intuitive voice. That’s very satisfying. Most writers want to assert independence—their own voice—and I’m able to do that. Some people can be an employee and follow someone else, but I enjoy working hard. My motto is “you can’t make me.”

HA: Are there any themes that you try to consistently explore in your writing and productions?

LO: Friendship is one—being a good friend. Also, empathy, which is one of the biggest things. It’s the most important thing we can teach our kids. To assume someone else’s shoes, to know what it feels like to be someone else. It goes hand in hand with the issues of gun violence and bullying. If you know what that feels like (to be on the receiving end), you won’t do it. Another theme is rewarding kids who follow their own path—finding your own identity and claiming it. Finding your own unique expression, in whatever ways you are diverse. Whether that’s your interests, your personality, in whatever way you’re unusual, to put it out in the world and know that whoever you are is valid. Express who you are without fear, you’re entitled to be who you are. It’s about authenticity.

HA: What’s involved in starting a production company? Successes? Failures? Would you do anything differently?

LO: My situation is unique since I was an executive working for Universal and I switched over to production, so my production company was kind of already set up. Most others have a much harder road. You develop things that you want to make into media—DVD, Internet, etc. You acquire or create the intellectual property and then find the financial and creative packaging.

HA: Most people who want to do something with writing and production worry about making connections, starting? Any advice?

LO: In terms of children’s books, organizations like SCBWI and conferences are helpful.  While you’re learning, you can reach out and make connections. The children’s’ book community is unique because most everyone wants to extend a helping hand and bring up and develop the next generation. I’ve found that show business is a little different. It’s more high stakes and cut-throat competitive. It’s more difficult to get someone to read your material or return your calls. When you get into children’s’ literature, you’re a certain kind of person who wants to lend that helping hand. It’s a community of people who are kind, generous and understanding.

HA: What’s your perspective on the relationship between movies and YA books?

LO: I’m a lover and consumer of all media—stories, series, films, etc. I love the narrative process and I think books feed media and media feeds books. There’s a proliferation of storytelling in our society. I think it’s great the kids are watching YouTube. I’m not a purist in the sense that I think you have to read the book first. It’s important that kids learn literacy, but you can learn from reading, from playing games, from seeing the movie and then reading the book or reading the book and then seeing the movie. They’re all valid forms of learning. They’re all platforms for storytelling. We’re surrounded by so much of it, so much narrative. Even if it’s shooting videos with a phone. I think transmedia is great. It all contains human understanding.

Helen Akers is a recovered sales representative and former MBA, who found herself pursuing a writing career after following her heart and a little synchronicity. When she’s not writing or fixing computers, she dreams of palm trees and the ocean. She lives in Northern Colorado with her dog, Scruffy.

Susan Orlean, Author

Susan Orlean

Photo: Gaspar Tringale

Susan Orlean was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Michigan. Since then, she has lived in Portland, Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, and worked as a staff writer for the Willamette Week, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and The New Yorker, where she has been since 1992. Her articles have also appeared in Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Vogue.

Orlean is the author of the collections The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: Encounters with Extraordinary People, My Kind of Place, and Saturday Night. Her most well-known work is The Orchid Thief, published in 1998, which formed the base of the Nicholas Cage film Adaptation. Orlean was portrayed by Meryl Streep, in an Academy Award-nominated performance.

In 2003, Orlean was a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University, and in 2012, she received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater. 

Orlean spoke with Rachael Warecki.

Rachael Warecki: I’m going to begin with a question you’ve probably been asked thousands of times: How did you decide to become a writer? What series of events or realizations led you down this path?

Susan Orlean: I always wanted to be a writer, so there was never a moment when it dawned on me, as opposed to doing something else. It was almost as if from the time I was very, very, very young, I loved the magic of writing and reading, and I wanted to do it, and I never really seriously wanted to do anything else.

RW: Although you’re categorized as a nonfiction writer, the art of storytelling is clearly very important to you, and it shines through in your pieces. What essays, collections, or novels have influenced your style? What books or pieces would you recommend to aspiring writers?

The more you read, the more you learn, so to being with, I would say anything you read is great for learning. But I look at the masters of the form, and you get a free education by reading their work.

SO: To begin with, I am a big reader of fiction, and I think it has always inspired me stylistically and emotionally. I think for any nonfiction writer, reading great fiction is a very important tool. I was always a huge fan of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway—the greats of American fiction writing. They were really extremely influential as I fantasized about writing. And then I began reading great literary nonfiction—John McPhee, Joseph Mitchell, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion—and realized that you could do what I dreamed of doing, which was to bring the emotion and style of fiction writing to the telling of nonfiction stories. The more you read, the more you learn, so to being with, I would say anything you read is great for learning. But I look at the masters of the form, and you get a free education by reading their work. Just being able to look at it and think how they did it and how does it work and what is it about this piece that makes it so special. You could sit down and read the past eighty years of the New Yorker and do pretty well in terms of reading great nonfiction.

RW: Have you read any craft books that have struck a particular chord with you?

SO: I’ve read only a few. Lee Gutdkind has a book called Creative Nonfiction that just came out that’s really good. I don’t read those books a whole lot, but I think they can be really valuable. I thought Lee’s book was really interesting and very practical and helpful. Everybody should read Elements of Style at least once in their life. I think you learn a lot by just reading great work, but I think finding craft books that are really excellent, you can certainly learn a lot from those.

RW: In My Kind of Place, you profile locations in which the setting is as important as the subject itself. What effect does geography have on your writing? What effect has it had on the subjects you’ve profiled?

SO: I tend to feel that you can’t absolutely separate people from places from stories from narrative, so when I say something is a profile, I feel like that it makes it feel very singular, about one person, or you say a piece is a travel piece, that makes it sound like it’s just about a place. I think all pieces are multifaceted, or should be. I think evoking place is one of the great pleasures of writing. It’s a great challenge using nothing but words to make people feel like they’re in another place. I didn’t set out to live in a great number of places, but I have ended up living in a lot of places, and that may be helpful; I’ve learned to look at new places more than once, so I’m pretty attuned to where I am. When I write about people, their environment feels very important to me as a way of figuring out who they are. Even in a piece that’s a profile, place ends up factoring in many of those.

RW: Saturday Night, which chronicles the different ways in which different communities indulge in their weekends, is thematically different from your other books. What drew you to that topic? When you followed up with your subjects twenty years later, what was the most surprising change you discovered?

SO: Saturday Night, in one sense, is not that different from some of the things that typically attract me. I’m often really curious to see what people have in common—especially people who seem to have nothing in common. Saturday Night was that thing that occurred to me as being a common ground for a huge array of people. It is a very different book, though, because it’s kind of episodic; I took a single idea and tried to look at it in many different ways, which is a really different way of structuring a book than what I’ve done since then. I didn’t follow up on everybody because of the limited time I had to do those follow-ups. I could only do a few, and I had to do them quickly. I did wonder whether all the technology that’s entered our lives in those twenty years would have completely removed the distinction of Saturday Night, but I don’t think that’s true. I think there still remains something specific about Saturday Night, even though some of the things that used to be limited by time and calendar are no longer. It used to be you had to get to the bank before Friday afternoon because they were closed on Saturday, but now, who thinks about that? It’s also shocking to realize that the people I wrote about are twenty years older now. That’s always a surprise.

RW: Speaking of surprising changes, you did a piece on actor Mark Wahlberg, which was included in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. At the time, Wahlberg was still Marky Mark, performing with the Funky Bunch. That collection also included a piece on then-high school basketball phenom Felipe Lopez, who went on to have an NBA career. What’s it been like to watch their career trajectories? What made you choose them as subjects?

SO: In the case of Felipe Lopez, I decided I wanted to write a profile of the best high school basketball player in the country. I thought it would make an interesting subject, so that was Felipe, according to the scouts I interviewed. I loved him and I loved seeing him succeed, because when you write about sports, there’s always a chance the greatest high school athlete of a particular sport is not going to make it in a professional way. I felt a kind of ownership—ownership’s the wrong word. I felt a special connection, so when I saw that Felipe had ended up in the NBA, I felt a special pride that Felipe had made it.

With Mark Wahlberg, similarly, he was a kid, he was an underwear model. I didn’t choose to do that story; it was assigned to me. It wasn’t my idea, but at the time, my editor said, “He’s gonna be hot for like fifteen minutes, so you gotta do this story now.”

With Mark Wahlberg, similarly, he was a kid, he was an underwear model. I didn’t choose to do that story; it was assigned to me. It wasn’t my idea, but at the time, my editor said, “He’s gonna be hot for like fifteen minutes, so you gotta do this story now.” I take some satisfaction that [the editor] was selling him short, because he’s certainly gone on to much greater successes since then. You end up feeling a special connection. There’s a special pleasure you have in looking at them and feeling that, for a moment, you had a relationship with them. It’s always pleasing to see when things have gone well.

RW: When speaking about The Orchid Thief and its resulting film, Adaptation, you said, “The notion that objectivity exists is, in and of itself, a flimsy construct. The kind of reporting I do is affected by the fact that it’s being reported. And you do develop a connection with people that you write about.” Talk to me about how this observer effect has impacted your work.

SO: I think it’s impacted everybody’s work. You can strive to be fair and honest. Depending on the format, you go to great lengths to be objective, but it simply is a platonic and unattainable ideal that any observation made by a person could be anything other than subjective. I feel comfortable embracing that and acknowledging it. It doesn’t mean it’s not factually accurate, it just means that it’s being seen through my eyes. I try to be as open and nonjudgmental as I can be, but I also am very comfortable embracing the idea that I’m the storyteller; I’m shaping your experience of the story. It’s very comfortable for me to understand that rather than thinking that objectivity is the goal. Fairness is the goal, honesty is the goal, but not objectivity. People aren’t objective. It’s not human to be objective. That’s why there are twelve people on a jury and not one.

RW: There are some writers who’ve infamously decried social media, but you’re very active on Twitter. What drew you to this form of communication? Do you find that it’s a useful platform, in terms of your career, connecting with your fans, etc.? Do you think that writers in this day and age need to be active on social media platforms?

SO: I don’t think writers need to be active on social media. If you’re comfortable with it and enjoy it and see value in it, that’s great. If you’re really not comfortable with it after you’ve given it a fair shake or you understand how it works, then don’t do it. I really enjoy it. I think of it as an ongoing book tour to some degree—that is, me connecting with readers. Or some of the people following me may not be readers; they may be people who, for some reason or another, just enjoy following me on Twitter. I find it very friendly. I enjoy making observations. Somehow it just clicks: it’s fun, it’s an extension of what I do as a writer, I like to tell little stories, so now I tell them all day long. I ask questions, answer questions, interact with people—which, personally, I enjoy. It’s a very regular part of my life. It’s become a news source for me, a place to drop in and see friends and hear people chatting and learn what’s going on with the world.

RW: Writing is a notoriously solitary profession, and you travel a lot for work. How do these two things affect your relationships? How do you maintain your writing/life balance?

SO: I won’t say that I’ve attained the balance. It’s an ongoing project. It’s a solitary profession; you don’t punch in at 9 and out at 5. The demands are often very incompatible with having a family life or social life, both the reporting and the writing part of it. When you’re writing, you get sort of crabby, you need uninterrupted time; you’re stressed out and ornery and nobody can really help you. I’m making it sound monstrous, but it’s not like you go to work at 9 a.m., working as a sales person, and at the end of the day you leave and you’re done. When I’m writing, at the end of the day, the end of the day only means that I really have to stop because I need to cook dinner and interact with my family, but part of my mind is still thinking about what I need to do with that next paragraph.

The travel part is very challenging, not so much with my husband and friends, but it’s more of an issue with my son and feeling like it’s not ideal to have a job with lots of travel when you’re a parent. The only good thing is that it’s what he’s always known. While I won’t say he’s used to it, it has been true since he was conscious, so maybe he’s better equipped to manage it than a kid who rarely has his parents travel and then suddenly out of the blue they’re gone.

It’s a tricky job and it’s a very a demanding job. It demands your time and attention and emotion in a very holistic way, and you can’t just tune it out. But the rewards are enormous, and there are plenty of reasons to do it, the ease and convenience not being one of them. It’s not easy. The tradeoff is that I’m not somewhere 9 to 5, so when my son does a presentation at school, I can go. The freedom is enormous; I’ve gotten to travel to a million wonderful places. Like a lot of things in life, the negative and the positive are so perfectly co-joined, you can’t talk about one without talking about the other. The travel can be a headache if you have a family life, but the tradeoff is you get to go to a lot of interesting places. There’s always that back and forth, and I guess that’s where you find the balance: accepting it’s impossible to not experience both of those things, the negative and the positive. I have to say, it’s the only job I’ve ever had, so I don’t know what it would be like to go in in the morning and work and leave and be done. But I don’t think you have a job to write; you are a writer. That’s the kind of life it is. I’ve probably managed it fairly well, but it’s always a challenge.

Rachael Warecki’s work has appeared in The Masters Review and The Los Angeles Review, among other publications. She is an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and Teach for America, and a current MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. She loves smoothies and Cleveland Indians baseball.

Gary Phillips, Crime Fiction Author

Gary Phillips

Photo: Robin Doyno

Gary Phillips was born in Los Angeles in 1955, a month after Disneyland opened and five months after Charlie Parker died. He attended Cal State L.A. and has a B.A. in Design. Raised in South Central, Phillips grew up playing football in high school while reading comics, classic pulp and detective fiction, and the likes of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. He took inspiration from all this when he created his first, and best-known series character, Ivan Monk, in 1993.

Phillips has worked a lot of different gigs in his time: a graveyard shift security guard, a printer, a union organizer, co-director of the MultiCultural Collaborative (a nonprofit set-up to improve race relations after the ’92 L.A. riots) and as political director of a city council campaign. He has written on race, politics and pop culture for such outlets as the Los Angeles Times, Rap Pages, Black Scholar, American Prospect magazine, and zocalopublicsquare.org.

Phillips introduced his second series character, Martha Chainey, in High Hand (2000), and followed that with another book and short story. Besides writing several stand alones like The Jook, The Underbelly and Warlord of Willow Ridge, and editing anthologies such as Politics Noir, Orange County Noir and Black Pulp, his short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, The Heroin Chronicles and collected in Treacherous. Phillips has found success in the field of graphic novels, penning illustrated stories such as The Rinse and High Rollers. When not writing, he spends his time smoking the occasional cigar and pondering why his poker abilities haven’t improved. Phillips continues to live and work in Los Angeles and joined the faculty of Antioch Los Angeles in 2012.

Gary Phillips: My mom was a librarian for the city and my dad was a truck mechanic, with a 6th grade education. They both valued education and books as they were both part of that black migration to California, Los Angeles in their cases, seeking something better. So when I was in grade school, after finishing my homework, I had to read a story in a kid’s book. Pinocchio or Bre’r Rabbit, something. I hated it at first but started digging it after awhile.

RMF: You came of age in the early Seventies, just in time for underground presses like Holloway House: Iceberg Slim, Robert Beck, Donald Goines and the great Chester Himes with his “Mythical Harlem.” Did you discover those works then—or did you come back to them later?

GP: I discovered Himes’ Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson stories after seeing the two ‘70s-era movies, Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back Charleston Blue based on his books—Blue is based on The Heat’s On—with those Harlem detective characters. The movies portraying a more real Harlem than the Himes’ “Mythical Harlem,” as you noted. I did though discover Holloway House books because in my South Central neighborhood, you found Beck, Goines, Joe Nazel and others on the spinner rack at the local Thrifty’s drug store. You didn’t find a Holloway House book in a B. Dalton. Now, I was also into the Doc Savage reprints in paperback Bantam was doing then. This is a character created by pulp wordsmith Lester Dent and was the star of his own pulp in the ‘30s. The Bantam books had these great covers by James Bama and invariably I’d have one in my back pocket on the way to football practice in high school.

RMF: What were your favorite books and authors growing up?

GP: There are three books that instilled in me the wonder of words as a kid in grade school. My aunt gave me these books which she got from her Reader’s Digest book club, and I still have them today. They were From the Twilight Zone, a collection of short stories based on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone scripts. Also, the Conan Doyle stories that include the first Sherlock Holmes story, ‟A Study in Scarlet,” and a Reader’s Digest edition of the collected poems and short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, arguably the father of the modern detective story. Later, I’d  read Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, and in my teens Raymond Chandler, Joyce Carol Oates and nonfiction like Huey Newton’s (co-founder of the Black Panther Party) Revolutionary Suicide.

RMF: How influenced were you by TV and movies?

GP: Certainly TV and movies influenced me as well as comic books. Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reruns (recently watched “Demon With a Glass Hand” again by Harlan Ellison—it still holds up and, appropriate to noir, was filmed in the Bradbury building), Combat! with its realistic portrayal of the psychological effects of war, Shaft, Straw DogsThe Outcasts. This great one-season-only TV show set after the Civil War where two cowboys, black and white, ride together but aren’t that crazy about each other. There was artist and writer Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil on Batman, anything Jack Kirby drew, and Luke Cage, the Marvel Comics character tapping into the Blaxplotation era zeitgeist.

RMF: You were an all-state football player in high school and that fact informs some of your fiction. What stopped you from pursuing that professionally?

GP: Yes, well, I was only all-city. Well, there’s a whole lot of high school standouts who never make the pros. Ha.

RMF: Were there any particular teachers or classes that inspired you?

GP: I had some pretty good teachers in grade school on. At 61st Street Elementary, and I can’t remember her name now and I think this was in the 3rd grade, but what I remember is this teacher encouraging me to write more of a short story I’d done for a class assignment. I was thrilled. I was hooked.

RMF: In The Jook, Zelmont Raines plays pro football and your authentic descriptions of that world and lifestyle are some of the best things in that novel. Do you know a lot of professional athletes?

We pay serious coin to go see a pro game, be it baseball, b-ball or what have you. Never mind the cost of a ticket, but there’s parking costs, buying food at the stadium and what have you. But we pay this because we get excited when our team wins or our boxer scores a knockout. What is this thing we project on them? We excel because they do?

GP: Funny, I don’t know any pro athletes. But like many of us, I find them a fascinating lot. We pay serious coin to go see a pro game, be it baseball, b-ball or what have you. Never mind the cost of a ticket, but there’s parking costs, buying food at the stadium and what have you. But we pay this because we get excited when our team wins or our boxer scores a knockout. What is this thing we project on them? We excel because they do? Too there’s the role of the female athlete, and the athlete of color in a world dominated by rich white male owners. Mike Tyson burns through $300 million. But how could a kid from the streets, no schooling, no role model once his mentor and trainer Cus D’Amato dies, survive in an arena where they can steal more from you with a pen than a gun, to paraphrase Woody Guthrie. Sports is such a socio-political territory meshed with Shakespearean characters.

RMF: How much of an influence has your wife Gilda been? I’m thinking specifically of the Jewish mobsters speaking Yiddish in the graphic novel Cowboys.

GP: Hilarious. It’s actually a black mobster using Yiddish phrases in Cowboys ‘cause these two older Jewish couple were an influence on him growing up. Suffice it to say while I was reading Captain America comics as a kid, Gilda was reading Balzac.

RMF: There are genuinely funny moments in almost all of your books. How important is humor to your work?

GP: I like to think I have a wry sense of humor. You can’t write hardboiled stories, tales of goofballs who invariably get themselves in deep trying to pull off a caper or genuinely bad people doing bad things, and wallow in that. Cops, EMTs, nurses and such invariably develop a gallows sense of humor what with dealing with dire situations and the aftermaths of violence. It’s a coping mechanism, a way our psyches have to create a defense to all this. I think that’s where this sort of humor springs in my work.

RMF: Our mutual friend, author Robert Ward (Red Baker, Four Kinds of Rain, Total Immunity) told me ask you about the first time Gilda made chicken for your whole family.

GP: Heh. Okay, here it is. I knew intellectually that you could prepare chicken without frying it. But you know, we’re black folks from the South. Hell, us and white folks from “down home” pretty much only eat chicken one way. Though it could be grilled like at a barbeque, so okay, that’s two ways. But I have to say when Gilda and I first started living together, I was taken aback when I came into the kitchen once and she was boiling a chicken. Truly a moment of cultural disconnect. But I am happy to say that today not only do I enjoy more roasted and grilled chicken, but chicken salad as well.

RMF: Music also plays a big part in many of your stories. What kind of music do you like and do you listen to music while you write? Do you like rap music?

GP: One of my Ivan Monk books is called Only the Wicked. The story takes my private eye to the Mississippi Delta in pursuit of a fabled lost album by Charlie Patton. Patton was a small man with a lion’s growl of a voice and strummed a mean guitar. A short story of mine is called ‟Can’t be Satisfied” from the Muddy Waters song. Various characters of mine will have a particular song playing on their car stereo or playing as they enter a club. Blues, jazz, rock, R&B, even a little classical now and then, it all infuses me and my work. I might even listen to some techno when I’m writing. I’ve got a couple of Yma Sumac CDs, theremin music … I’m fairly eclectic in my tastes. As to rap, I like some of it, but mostly find the songs about blinging, getting over and how many women you’ve bedded tiresome. Old school Public Enemy, Paris, Mos Def, now they have something to say.

RMF: Do you play an instrument yourself and do you think good writing has something in common with basic rhythm and harmony?

GP: I wish I could play an instrument. I’m tone deaf. But for sure, writing is analogous to music in terms of rhythm and harmony, pacing and contrast.

RMF: Your crime novels have been praised for their literary quality—is it hard to straddle that line and weave it into genre fiction? Or do you not consider yourself a genre writer? Who’s your target audience—or does that vary from book to book?

GP: I wish I knew who my target audience was/is. It’s pretty much anybody who buys my book. I am firmly rooted in genre. Having said that, I don’t take that to mean I try to write down or try to write with my nose in the air either. For instance, it’s certainly the case that socio-political issues undergird my Ivan Monk novels. That’s intentional. His first outing, Violent Spring, was set in the aftermath of the ’92 riots or civil unrest here in L.A. Conversely, in this recent ebook novella of mine, The Essex Man: 10 Seconds to Death, it was written as a bit of a riff, a homage to ‘70s era paperback vigilante series like The Destroyer, The Baroness, et al. This ebook phenomena has ushered in, among other things, an era some are calling New Pulp.

But even in The Essex Man, while it’s more of a romp than the Monk books—and I don’t think the latter are all doom and gloom—I’m cognizant of the role of women in that type of genre writing, while also slipping in some commentary (the PR for the book says the villain is in the Ayn Rand mold) hopefully in an entertaining way.

I’m looking to start another ebook in a couple of weeks and for this one, I again circled back to this new pulp business. A good deal of characters from the 1800s into the 1920s and ‘30s are now in public domain. In some cases you have writers penning new stories of characters who emerged from the penny dreadfuls, the Depression-era pulps and defunct comics companies like Bulldog Drummond and Miss Fury.

Anyway, this character, Arthur J. Raffles in 1893 or so, was created by E.W. Hornung, the brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Raffles was of the lineage of the so-called gentlemen thieves such as Fantômas and Arsène Lupin. The idea that he was of the upper class and stole from the upper class fascinated me. I won’t be using Raffles in my story set in modern times, but will reference him as well as such matters as Wall Streeters ripping us off legally for untold sums and the Occupy Movement to tell my tale of my gentleman thief, McBleak.

RMF: What’s your family life like—is it hard to find time to write?

GP: Our kids are grown and have their own lives. Our son still lives at home but it’s not like when they were in high school and we had to coordinate getting one from her softball game and getting the other one to his basketball practice.

RMF: What’s your favorite place and time to write? Computer or typewriter?

GP: We have a converted den in our house. When we first moved there in the late ‘80s, it was my dad’s bedroom as it has its own bathroom off the area where the washer and dryer are. When my dad Dikes passed in ’93, it became the place we put most of our book cases and at some point an office Gilda and I shared. But as she mostly worked outside of the house, I boarded the space you could say. So I sit in front of my PC, a print of  Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning, 1930” on the wall above my computer. There’s a photo of my dad sitting with a contemplative look on his face in his mechanic’s overalls looking down on me from the bookcase to the left of my desk. My favorite time to write is early. It used to be at night after getting home from, say, my community activist work or when I was a running a nonprofit, but I’m not that young anymore.

RMF: When brainstorming a mystery, do you come up with an ending and engineer backwards?

GP: I rarely have an ending in mind initially. In fact, my books and short stories usually begin due to some odd or interesting occurrence I’ve read or heard on the radio or TV. Warlord of Willow Ridge, my most recent novel, came about after I read an article in the L.A. Times about a housing sub-division that had fallen on hard times.

So I’ll make a note then that rattles around in my head with some other ideas. For instance, the aforementioned McBleak idea began as a notion of making him some sort of vigilante. But having The Essex Man already on tap for an ebook potential series, I wasn’t keen on riffing on the same beat twice, to use the music bit. But in the back of my head had been an idea for some time on writing the caper story from the point of view of the criminal—a la those wonderfully bent books Donald Westlake writing at Richard Stark wrote about his professional thief character, Parker.

But I also knew I didn’t want to try and imitate Westlake per se, but come at the idea from a different angle. That led me to think about Raffles, a one-percenter who steals from other one-percenters, given the one-percenters usually rip us off, what would motivate him to do this, and so on. Once I’ve figured out the character, I can then build out to construct the story. In this case, it’s a caper story, but will have mystery elements.

RMF: How important is narrative for you vs. character?

I think for me it works best when the internal drive, the want of your various characters have them set in motion external events, then I get to figure out how the other characters react to that. The serpent eating its own tail sort of construct.

GP: I struggle to maintain the balance in any given story. I suppose I bow more to narrative and plot than character. But I don’t want the characters there to simply serve the plot. I think for me it works best when the internal drive, the want of your various characters have them set in motion external events, then I get to figure out how the other characters react to that. The serpent eating its own tail sort of construct.

RMF: What L.A. landmarks do you think people should visit at least once?

GP: Hmmmm, I would say the HMS Bounty bar and grill on Wilshire, Hank’s this dive bar on Grand Avenue, downtown L.A., the Bradbury Building also in downtown L.A. (it’s a working office building and access is restricted, but I think there are organized tours), Raymond Chandler Square in Hollywood, Yamashiro’s and the Watts Towers. I could go deeper like where the shootout was between the cops and the L.A. branch of the Black Panthers in my old neighborhood on Broadway but  there’s no plaque there commemorating the incident.

RMF: You’re a big guy and your fiction can be very violent—ever been in a fight?

GP: I have been in a few physical altercations way back, and was even shot at once – inside as house was being shot into. But I proudly keep my AARP card in my wallet and think pure thoughts these days.

RMF: This leads me to another observation: The action in your novels is non-stop; they’re never boring. Do you have any personal codes such as “never go three pages without either a sex scene or some sort of physical confrontation”?

GP: Funny you should ask me that. I like to believe I have the proper quotient of sex and/or violence appropriate to the story. In my two Martha Chainey books as an example, there’s action but no sex. She’s rather chaste. In Warlords, there are some tense situations, but they happen at different levels, more to show this aging outlaw, in his forties, is not the same man he was in his twenties and thirties. Lee Child in his Jack Reacher books has some rugged, drawn out scenes of violence, torture and what have you, but there’s never any swearing.

I was reading this review of Mad Men as the 6th season opener is tonight. The piece by Mary McNamara, the L.A. Times’ television critic, talked about the “internal metabolic rate of “Mad Men” remains doggedly slow…” You could spend five minutes of screen time watching Don Draper select a hat to wear and depending on how it’s handled, that can be interesting. In Warlord I have a scene where the antihero, O’Conner, is at the supermarket. He’s observed being somewhat perplexed by the various kinds of lettuce available to buy. Not a cat who went shopping a lot before.

Maybe that’s my new mantra, less wall-to-wall action and more contemplation and self-reflection.

RMF: You’re very politically and socially aware and it informs your fiction to some degree—that is, you’re very subtle about laying it between the lines. Is that something you’ve always done?

GP: I wasn’t always so subtle. More like in my early work the politics and social commentary was slathered in there. But I’m a genre writer, I want to entertain and have you turn the next page. My characters often have points-of-view different from mine and this should come out in what they say and do, but certainly not as polemics or long-winded boring speeches. My observations invariably make their way into my stories. But more it’s about can I do the sleight of hand, give the reader one thing to look at and layer in the other stuff. Show don’t tell, right?

RMF: What impact did growing up in South Central and working as a community organizer have on your writing?

GP: The South Central I grew up in was a working class area then, and somewhat now. Mr. Guy at the end of the block worked for the railroad, Mrs. Lewis was a public school teacher, and Mr. Caldwell next door worked for the Gas company. My dad was a Teamster and as I mentioned, my mom was a city librarian. It was the ghetto, and you had better step lightly around those cops out of the infamous 77th Division. Many a horror story was heard at my neighborhood barber shop about how brothers got jacked on the streets and in lock up by the cops. Those Boys in Blue were the boogiemen.

Matters of police abuse were my introduction to getting involved in community organizing. From that I gained experience in electoral campaigns, anti-apartheid work, Central American and Cuba solidarity efforts, renter’s rights, the gang truce post the ’92 riots, and so on. What this did was give me a variety of people I interacted with over a period of time, from the sincere to bullshit artists. This has helped greatly in drawing on those colorful folks in developing my characters … and plots.

RMF: How important is the theme of social justice to your work and how does that manifest itself in something like Citizen Kang?

GP: Interesting you should mention Citizen Kang. That was an online political thriller serial about California Congresswoman Cynthia Kang I wrote on the nation.com website leading up to the 2008 elections. The good congresswoman finds herself embroiled in a conspiracy that she seeks to unravel, providing she can stay alive. The classic thriller set-up. In the context of that, given she’s a lefty, she espouses specific beliefs about the role of the public sector. But again, I didn’t want her being preachy, though you know, with a politician, you have more license to have her pontificate on various issues than you would another type of character—thus a bit more latitude in that business about not using a story as a soap box. But really the point is social justice can only be achieved by righting wrongs. Wonder Woman does it with her fists and Lasso of Truth, Cynthia Kang has her brains and dedicated staff.

RMF: One of the best things about your writing is the street slang. How much of that do you pick up naturally, how much do research? Do you ever consult, say, The Urban Dictionary? Do you ever invent slang or colloquialisms?

Several years ago I figured out there was no way for me to keep up with the ever-changing argot of slang. I sort of pepper it in my work now, mostly keeping current by watching a few of those God-awful reality shows with self-centered twenty-somethings in it and listening to rap radio.

GP: Several years ago I figured out there was no way for me to keep up with the ever-changing argot of slang. I sort of pepper it in my work now, mostly keeping current by watching a few of those God-awful reality shows with self-centered twenty-somethings in it and listening to rap radio.  Or I actually enjoy this send-up show about all that, a sitcom on BET called The Real Husbands of Hollywood that the comedian Kevin Hart is in and created. He makes up his own slang and so do I. I think it also helps I routinely read a few comics and all things pop culture. Sites like comicbookreasources.com so keep up with my geekdom side regarding current geek and nerd terms. And no, I don’t use Urban Dictionary. I need to hear the slang coming out of somebody’s mouth.

RMF: You broke into the graphic novel realm with Angel Town, Cowboys, Pulp—among other titles. How does that collaborative process work? Do you start with just an outline or a completed novel?

GP: I actually wrote two mini-series for Oni Comics, Shot Callerz and Midnight Mover prior to Angeltown. The process is I pitch an editor, usually with a one or two page outline of what the idea is. They usually reject it, but occasionally they like it. Invariably there’s tweaking and re-writing of the idea. Then if it can move up the food chain and get approved, you and your editor discuss possible artists for the graphic novel, mini-series, or ongoing series (well, I’ve yet to get one of those). I write a full script, that is I describe the visuals for each panel on the page, the sequentials, and the words in the captions and dialogue balloons that go with each panel. The script is edited by the editor, more re-writes, then off to the artist. The artist is often the penciler and sometimes adjustments are made when the penciled pages get back. But then someone has to ink the pencils, a letterer letters the book, then someone else colors it or maybe puts in grey tones. For a semi-disposable art form, a lot of assembly-line work goes into making comics.

Which gives comics a kind of yakuza-like status. It’s low brow, guttural, yet all this attention is paid, often times quite lovingly, to make the product as dynamic as possible. The ones in “the life” take it very seriously, yet also know how it’s seen as this goofball juvenile pursuit by those outside the field of fans and creators.

RMF: Your series characters include Martha Chainey and Ivan Monk. What goes into the creation of a sustainable character of that type? Do you have a particular favorite series—either yours or someone else’s?

GP: A sustainable character, or in Hollywoodese, a franchise character, has a bit of mystery to them. There are spelled out incidents in their background, as well as to give them a touch of mythic quality, there maybe a few gaps on their biography. Times when they simply disappeared or were wandering. They also, at least in crime and mystery fiction, better be able to take a licking and keep on ticking. In the old days, private eyes like Mike Hammer could get the crap beat of out them, shot and stabbed and dropped off a building, and after a few days of bed rest and orange juice, they’d be good to go. Fortunately nowadays, once some physical or psychological trauma happens to your hero, there’s more realism. Those incidents tend to reverberate in their lives as they go forward.

Spenser and Hawk from the Robert Parker books are series characters I’ve enjoyed. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op (an unnamed private detective for the Continental Detective Agency out of San Francisco) is another. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and the aforementioned Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are characters I’ve stuck with as well. There’s also Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books. Parker, the professional thief in the Westlake books, is another character whose capers I always enjoy reading.

RMF: Please talk about Orange County Noir and how that came about. Will there be another volume?

GP: As I wrote in part in my intro to the anthology: “… beyond being a GOP stronghold, Orange County brings to mind McMansion housing tracts, massive shopping centers with their own zip codes where pilates classes are run like boot camp and real estate values are discussed at your weekly colonic, and ice cream parlors on Main Street, U.S.A. exist side-by-side with pho shops and taquerias.” How could this not be an ideal setting for noir stories of what goes on once the fireworks have died out over Disneyland and conjuring up what might wash up on one of the OC’s (and I learned that natives do not call it The OC) 42 miles of uninterrupted beaches?

I would love to do an Orange County Noir 2 but no such offer has been forthcoming from the publisher though I know the first volume did well.

RMF: Can you talk about the influence your father has had on your work, including Freedom’s Flight?

GP: Like a lot of WWII vets, my dad wasn’t all that expansive about his experiences there. But every now and then he’d tell me some story, like how when the soldiers would come out of the jungle from a patrol, they take off their shirts and stand in a circle using their lit cigarette to burn leaches and other bugs off each other’s backs. Or how this doctor on the ship going overseas noticed how he walked funny and did an operation on the water to remove the bones from his two small toes relieving the pain. These are great asides you can only get from someone who had been there. So yeah, him and his two brothers, also in the service, definitely influenced the desire to write Freedom’s Fight.

I’d also hear stories my dad and others would tell sitting around the kitchen table playing dominoes with his friends, often vets themselves, having a beer and not just talking about army experiences. But what it was like going to the nightclubs on Central Avenue, the Stem, the hub of black L.A. back in the day. Those stories came alive for me and I wove them into the Monk books.

RMF: Please talk about your latest project, Midnight Mover.

GP: Midnight Mover is a webseries project that grew out of that comics mini-series I previously mentioned. It’s about Danny Shaw, an Afghan war vet, returned home, listless, quietly suffering PTSD. He becomes a chauffeur and bodyguard for aging porn stars trading on their minor fame running an escort service. With a set-up like that, you know there’s only noir weirdness to ensue.

RMF: Are you ever tempted to genre jump and write something completely out of your wheelhouse?

GP: There’s some “genre creep” that shows up in my short stories. Those Twilight Zones have certainly affected me and there’s a few times I’ve ventured into TZ territory in some of my stories. As I mentioned, I write in the new pulp arena and invariably science fiction elements find their way into your work when you’re writing the adventures of larger-than-life heroes like the Spider (more of an antihero actually) and Richard Henry Benson, The Avenger. I would, though, like to tackle a “straight” science fiction novel one of these days.

RMF: Any books that you re-read again and again?

GP: No, I don’t re-read books. I hang onto them. I often look through a novel I’ve read and re-read specific passages, but not the whole book. Having said that, I have lately been yearning to re-read some Dickens so I might get around to that.

RMF: What’s on your nightstand queue right now? Do you read more than one book at a time?

GP: I’m a plodding reader. Long ago, I used to read more than one book at once, but I stick to one book at a time these days. I’m currently reading The Black Count by Tom Reiss. It’s an enthralling nonfiction book about the father of Alexandre Dumas, Alex Dumas. Son of a slave and a marquis, this black man goes on to become a general in Napoleon’s army. Like out of one of his son’s novels. A fascinating look at race and race relations in France at the time as well.

RMF: What are ten books Gary Phillips thinks everyone should read?

GP: In no particular order: Red Harvest and the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, Native Son by Richard Wright, The Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, Writing in an Age of Silence by Sara Paretsky, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald, Shadow and Act (collected short stories) by Ralph Ellison, and City of Quartz by Mike Davis.

RMF: What advice do you have for writers?

GP: Write … then stop and think about what you wrote … then re-write. Keep doing that over and over.

Robert Morgan Fisher is a writer/musician. His fiction has appeared in The Snake Nation Review, The Seattle Review, Spindrift, Bluerailroad.com and other publications. He’s also written for TV, radio and film. He often writes “companion songs” to his stories and has won many awards. Robert is the current Fiction Editor for Lunch Ticketwww.robertmorganfisher.com