I first met Joe Ide in February 2017. I had gone to hear Joe read from his debut novel, IQ, at Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont. IQ had been assigned for me to read during my first semester in Antioch University’s MFA program in creative writing.
I arrived at Chevalier’s excited, but with a reasonable amount of skepticism. IQ was released in October 2016 and by February had a pile of accolades. The reviews suggested that Isaiah Quintabe (long for IQ) was the next great character in the storied history of detective fiction. I wanted to see for myself. Cut from the same urban cloth depicted in IQ, I would know if Joe were perpetrating a fraud.
During Joe’s reading of the first paragraph, it became clear why IQ had become a hit. The voice was sharp, genuine, and carried the same authority Joe admires in Elmore Leonard.
I met with Joe on July 17, 2017, near his home in Santa Monica. We sat on a park bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a cloudless day. It was two Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley fans talking story. Joe gave me an autographed copy of Righteous, his second novel in the Isaiah Quintabe series, that would be released on October 17, 2017. And, he offered to read my novel when it was complete. It was damn good day.
Andre Hardy: Welcome, Joe. Why don’t we just jump right into this thing. I want to be a writer. Give me your best advice.
Joe Ide: Well, let’s see. Aspiring writers assume that because they’ve finished the book, they know how to write a book. Which couldn’t be less true. It’s multiple skillsets that you not only have to learn, you have to master while you’re leaning. It’s a really difficult process and aspiring writers, most of the ones that I’ve read, don’t understand that. They don’t understand that it’s a profession and they have to take it as seriously as a med student takes med school. There is no established writer out there who hasn’t taken years to master their craft. So, somebody hands me a novel and says, “Well, you know I worked on the weekends.” [Laughter] Keep working.
AH: That brings up an interesting question. How did you develop your skillset?
JI: I was a screenwriter before I wrote the book, so I had some grounding in writing. And screenwriting taught me to be visual and brief, succinct and to capture a scene in very few words. But when I started to write long-form prose, I discovered that I was just terrible! It was embarrassing! I had to go back to the beginning. I was reading On Writing Well and Elements of Style just to try and learn to write good, clear, straight-up prose. And it took me a year. I’m writing the book all this time, but I’m also working on working on my prose itself. It took a full year before I was confident that I could write prose. And then another two years to finish the book. And in that process, I developed my own style. It took that long.
AH: How long did you have the concept of IQ (Isaiah Quintabe) in your in your head?
JI: I grew up loving Sherlock Holmes. I’d read all fifty-six stories and four novels multiple times before I was twelve years old. And he represented power to me. I mean, I was a small kid in a big neighborhood. And I wasn’t a badass. But language just seemed like a form of power. Intelligence seemed like a form of power. To know that Sherlock Holmes could control his world with just a brain seemed amazing to me.
…language just seemed like a form of power. Intelligence seemed like a form of power.And so, he was always my alter ego. And then I grew up where I grew up; I grew up in South Central, LA. And you know the hood is the hood. And when it came time to write the book, all those elements sort of came together by themselves. I never considered writing any other character but a Sherlock Holmes character. And then I used my own background as the setting. And you know, I didn’t actually choose to write it; it was the only thing I could write. It was the most accessible—within my wheelhouse, it felt comfortable—so that’s what I wrote.
AH: Stephen King said that his characters are always infused with some part of him, particularly his fears—he doesn’t like spiders or snakes. What part of Isaiah is you that shows up on the page?
JI: A lot of Isaiah is what I want to be, what I always wanted to be. Cool, under control, all kinds of competencies. You know to have that kind of presence where you don’t say much, but people know you’re in the room. So, it wasn’t so much about what parts of me are in him as much as he has things that I wanted to be. He does have elements that are similar to me. He is a loner; he doesn’t have any trouble being by himself, which fits me. I’m not, at this point in my life, as troubled as he is, but there are those things that are recognizable.
AH: In the epigraph to your book, it says: “Saving you is the only thing that will bring me peace for all the wrong I have done. That is my truth” [from TigerLily, by Jillian Peery]. How does that relate to Isaiah?
JI: Isaiah, as a young man, did a lot of terrible things. He’s done some terrible things. He’s hurt a lot of people. He’s hurt his community. And later on, when he becomes this sort of unlicensed private investigator, every case he takes is really penance for the things that he has done. He is always trying to make up for a debt that he can never really pay back. And so, [in] “saving you,” as it’s written in the forward, Isaiah is really him saving himself.
AH: Is his relationship with Flaco an extension of that concept? [Flaco’s character is wounded in gang crossfire. IQ, because he feels responsible, visits him in the hospital and is moved to become his benefactor.]
JI: Yes, very much so. Flaco was the kid that was hurt in the gang war that Isaiah felt partially responsible for starting. And so, a lot of his energy, a lot of his guilt, a lot of his compensation is directed towards Flaco.
AH: In the first chapter, Isaiah saves a young girl who’s been kidnapped, then disappears. The girl’s father wonders why Isaiah didn’t stick around to be a hero and to get his name in the paper. Do you consider Isaiah a hero?
JI: I do, but he doesn’t. He’s driven by his past. He’s not thinking about the heroic aspects. He feels as if he’s doing what he has to do for his community. He doesn’t want the adulation. He wants to rid himself of his burden of guilt.
AH: That leads me to the next question. Walter Mosley says, “I write about black heroes.” Why do you think it’s important that these kinds of stories get told?
JI: You know, I think it’s part of raising awareness about diversity—that people of color, black people, which are what mostly populates my book, are not a monolith. That they are a range of different kinds of people, as there are in in any ethnic group. And I wanted to write someone who was heroic but not by wielding a gun. He didn’t find his courage in violence.
He didn’t want to be a criminal. He’s not one of those [stereotypical] people, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote him the way he is. I wanted somebody thoughtful and quiet and watchful and who did things out of a sense of good, out of a sense of decency and serving his community. I think it’s important to have those kinds of characters of color. You rarely see that. Unfortunately, the character is either gun-wielding or in some way a criminal, and not especially heroic. There’s always collateral damage; I mean not just heroes of color but across the board with fictional heroes. So, I thought it was important to contribute a character who was a good, honest, decent man.
AH: Once you completed the novel and began the process of trying to get it published, because Isaiah was a different take on a black hero, how was it initially received?
JI: The first six publishers it was given to, passed. But not because of Isaiah’s ethnicity or even the setting. They passed because they didn’t know how to market it. It did not fall into a neat niche. It wasn’t entirely within the conventions. It wasn’t procedural, it wasn’t noir, it wasn’t a heist book. They simply said they didn’t know how to market it (although [they said] we think Joe is very talented). But Little Brown got it [Little, Brown and Company, New York]. They developed a marketing plan around the book instead of trying to fit the book into some pat publicity campaign. And God bless them.
AH: How did you secure your agent?
I wanted to write someone who was heroic but not by wielding a gun. He didn’t find his courage in violence.JI: Man, it was absolute luck. It’s one of those stories that never happen to anybody. I finish the manuscript, and I have no connections in publishing. None. All my screenwriting connections are over and done and I just, I’m sending it out to readers. And I have this cousin, his name is Francis Fukuyama. He’s a world-class political scientist. He’s the guy who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. He runs the Center for Democracy at Stanford. He’s on the board at Rand. The last time I talked to him, he was in Shanghai consulting with the government. [Laughter] You know he’s one of those guys where you just don’t believe you can share DNA. I asked him if he would read my manuscript. He is a very kind, generous man, and somehow he found time to read a crime novel written by his cousin. And lo and behold, he liked it. Then he asked if I had an agent. I said, “No, I’ve got to get one.” He said, “Well let me introduce you to my agent,” who turned out to be a woman named Esther Newberg. Esther has been the head of literary at ICM in New York for twenty-five years. She is arguably the top literary agent in New York. So, it’s like my entire writing life came down to what I call my Esther moment. [Laughter] It was about Esther sitting down, opening up my book, and starting to read. That was my journey to an agent. And I still don’t believe it.
AH: How long did it take you to write IQ?
JI: Three years.
AH: How many drafts?
JI: Somewhere around twenty. I knew that I would have a very narrow window with which to impress my Esther, whoever that turned out to be; I [didn’t] know at the time. These people are very busy; they have to read books for a living, and so they have no patience whatsoever. Most of the people I’ve talked to said that they will not read any more than twenty-five pages before they close the book. If they’re not happy, that’s it. I met a woman from Amazon. She is one of the people responsible for the ten best books of the month. She said she knows right away, within five, ten pages. You have to give that person reasons to keep reading. If you don’t smack them in the face right off with something, with your writing or your character or whatever: if you don’t slap them right away, they pass. It’s over that quickly. The prologue in IQ is six pages long, and I rewrote that forty times. It was all riding on that. I crafted each and every sentence. I selected each and every word. And every time I went back I asked myself, “Can this be better? Can this be more vivid? Can it be more colorful? Can it be more interesting? Is this the best anecdote I can think of?” Yeah, and over and over and over and over again. That was my window. I knew it. And looking back, I mean at the time, my wife thought I was a little insane. But yeah, it was the best decision I made.
AH: So, twenty drafts. Wow. How did the story change from draft one to draft twenty?
JI: Everything, from completely rewriting a chapter, to moving chapters around, to adding and subtracting characters, to taking out whole segments of dialogue and rewriting it, and cutting. I cut at least as much as the book itself. The book is three hundred pages; I cut three hundred pages. It was just a process of never being satisfied.
AH: What was your gauge, your beacon of what you thought would make them keep reading? How did you know?
JI: By comparing myself to the great writers. I don’t think aspiring writers do that at all. I would read Elmore Leonard side by side with my book. And when you begin that process of comparing yourself to other writers, the discrepancy is appalling. [Laughter] And I think before you consider giving a book to somebody important, you have to be at least credible. You have to be at least not embarrassed by what you’ve written—that you would be comfortable giving it to Elmore Leonard. You have to be confident enough to do that. That was always really my standard. Would I be comfortable giving my book to Elmore Leonard? You know he and Walter Mosley are my guys. And that really gives you pause. If Walter Mosley was to read your book right now, would that be okay with you?
AH: You made a craft decision to write IQ in third person. In a classic sense, these stories are often told in first person. Why the creative decision to write it in third person? What advantages do you think that gave you?
JI: Well, I took it from Elmore Leonard, one of the many things I shoplifted from the way he writes. What he says is that by taking a character’s of point of view, you not only can put the expository information out there, but in doing so, you can also reveal the character.
You’re writing from that character’s point of view, and he may have a whole different take on what’s happening emotionally with the other characters, or on the situation itself. And so, as you’re revealing the scene, you’re also revealing that character—what’s happening in his head. And from his point of view, not from the outside looking in. For me it was about texture, having different points of view looking at the same events right now.
AH: The novel switches back and forth between 2013 and 2005. Talk about that choice and why you decided to structure it that way.
JI One of my pet peeve[s] in the detective genre is that many of the characters just show up fully formed. They have all these skills, and they’re just there. And they are being incredibly smart and clever. But they never tell you—well, almost never tell you: how did the guy get that way? Where did all this stuff come from? You know, and if he’s so damn smart why is he not working for NASA? And so, I wanted to write Isaiah’s backstory. The writing problem is that if you write it chronologically, you end up with the “A story” being right in the middle of the book. And you really want to start off, especially in our genre, with that A story. So, structurally, I really didn’t have a choice except to go back and forth, so I could start that A case at the beginning of the book and then go back.
AH: As opposed to doing it in flashbacks?
JI: Yeah. The backstory is half the book. I wanted to separate it from the present story and give it its due. It is the reason why Isaiah does what he does.
AH: I just fished reading an interview with Salman Rushdie. The interviewer asked whether artists should be politically correct. What is your take?
JI: I don’t really think in those terms. I think anybody should write whatever the hell they want to write. And then we’ll all decide whether we like the book. I mean, I don’t think that there should be any restrictions on what’s written and who writes it. If David Duke wanted to write the biography of Jesse Jackson, that’s okay with me. Because it’s okay if Jesse Jackson, you know, writes the biography of David Duke. I think I have an idea which book I’d like the most. But write what you want to write. That’s how I feel about it. I just don’t put those kinds of boundaries on things. Write whatever the hell you want. I’ll read it and decide if I like it.
AH: In our world of Rachel Dolezal and political correctness, did you ever consider that IQ might be viewed as racial appropriation?
JI: [Pause] It never occurred to me. I was writing a story that had black characters. They just happened to be black. And I had to put myself in their shoes and ask myself what would they say and how would they say it? That was the only consideration. And from my own experience, I was pretty convinced that that’s how they would say it. They would use the word “nigger” in that situation, often multiple times. If anybody has actually been on the streets, and talked to some gangsters, you’ll hear that word more than pronouns. And so, it just wasn’t a restriction. I just wrote the character, and there were no other considerations.
AH: I’m with you on that. I thought it was ridiculous that people wanted to sanitize Mark Twain.
JI: I don’t think anybody owns history. It’s a real slippery slope. I mean, if I can’t write about somebody else’s ethnic group, does that mean that a black man can’t write about a Japanese man? Or a Jewish man? Does that mean Spike Lee can’t direct a movie about white people and suburbia because he’s black and he lives in Brooklyn? That logic falls apart really fast.
AH: What was the Edgar experience like? [Each spring, Mystery Writers of America presents the Edgar Awards, widely acknowledged to be the most prestigious awards in the genre. IQ was nominated in the category of Best First Novel.]
I think anybody should write whatever the hell they want to write. And then we’ll all decide whether we like the book.JI: First of all, you read about the Edgar Award. You see it on the book covers of all these really fantastic writers. Then somebody calls you up and says you’ve been nominated for an Edgar? [Laughter] I was completely and totally incredulous. I wrote that book in utter isolation. And so, to go from the mindset—where I’m just hoping I don’t have to self-publish, and sell copies in the doggie park—to go from that mindset to somebody talking to me about an Edgar Award… [Laughter] It’s like cooking dinner for your family and winning the James Beard award. It does not compute. They flew me to New York. I go to this big reception. I was, the whole time, incredulous. I kept thinking, What am I doing here? Why do these people want to talk to me?
AH: So you never expected any of your success?
JI: No. I had very low expectations. My highest hope was some quirky publisher would give the new guy a break. That was the biggest thing that I thought could happen to that book. So yeah, everything has been a damn surprise.
AH: I also heard you’ve sold the TV rights as well?
JI: Yeah. The book sold to Little Brown and then it was like, I don’t know, six weeks later, that it got optioned for TV. Again, I had worked as a screenwriter. And I worked a fair bit. I worked for the majors, I did rewrites, wrote pilots and all kinds of stuff. But I never got anything made. And that was one of the reasons that I wrote the novel. I mean, I was living a pretty good life. But to work that hard, and then have twelve people read it, some studio executive development people, and then it gets put in a vault. That just got to be too humiliating.
AH: What should readers expect in the sequel, Righteous?
JI: The plan from the outset was to have the characters grow from book to book; that is, there would always be a big story, the A story. There would always be backstories to enrich the characters. At the end of IQ, for example, Isaiah lays down most of his guilt. He unburdens himself of the guilt he’s been carrying around since he was a teenager. And so, in Righteous, he realizes that because he’s been bearing that cross, he’s lived an incredibly isolated life. He has no friends. He’s dated once in a blue moon. He realizes that he’s lonely.
Righteous is a lot about him trying to reach out, trying to come out of his shell and join the rest of the world. So that’s his journey from IQ to Righteous, personally. Dotson, at the end of IQ, says that he and his girlfriend are having a baby. Now Dotson is a combination of every hustler I ever knew or knew about. In book two [Righteous], there’s Dodson trying to deal with having a baby—being a father. Those are the kinds of things that are the most interesting. There are always big cases to write about. There always new bad guys to write about. But those are some of the things the reader can expect. They can expect the same kind of action but they can also expect growth from the characters.
AH: Will we learn more about his relationship with Marcus?
JI: We will. He restarts his investigation into Marcus’s death and learns it wasn’t an accident. Marcus was killed. That’s the “B story” through Righteous, Isaiah trying to hunt down the killer of his brother. To go back all those years and find evidence and piece together what actually happened to his brother Marcus.
AH: Last question. How long did it take you to write Righteous?
JI: Eight months. What happened after IQ was—once the book got all these positive reviews, and lots of people liked it—it gave me so much more confidence. I wasn’t sitting on my own shoulder second-guessing myself every sentence. I could just feel comfortable writing. This is how I write. I’m comfortable with it, and so are the readers. I could just write unimpeded. I could get out of my own way and write. And I also found that in the process of writing IQ, and in the process of writing Righteous, that I had more command over the tools of the trade. Things occurred to me faster; I could come up with that simile quicker, and I could see the images quicker. I was not in a hurry. I could just write faster. I also have the luxury of writing full-time, all day, seven days a week. And that’s a real luxury.
Andre Hardy is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California, and was the fourth pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1984 NFL draft. Inspired by Chester Himes, Clarence Cooper Jr., and Walter Mosley, he writes hard-boiled, gumshoe stories with an urban twist. His essays and short stories have been published in Lunch Ticket and TribeLA Magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where his day job is executive director of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.