Saturday, April 15, 2006

Pro-File: Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips is the co-editor of the well-received Cocaine Chronicles anthology of jaw-grinding criminal behavior and has a short story in the recent Dublin Noir collection called “The Man for the Job.”  He writes a regular column for Mystery Scene magazine, and is on the board of the Mystery Writers of America.  Visit his website at www.gdphillips.com.   Ed


1.  Tell us about your current novel, and 2.  Can you give us a sense of what you’re working on now?

I’m going to combine these as one answer thusly:

I’m currently writing an original graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics called Culprits.  Dark Horse are the fine folks from whence comics, graphic novels and filmic efforts such as Sin City, Hellboy and Aliens vs. Predator sprang.  Culprits as the name suggests is abut rough boys and girls doing some illegal things.  The twist here is it’s an illustrated crime story wherein the main character, the anti-hero, has a super power.  But unlike villains such as Dr. Doom, Magneto or Poison Ivy say, he doesn’t wear a spandex costume or leather and lycra.  Writing comics is tougher than it looks, given the burden of having to satisfy the fanboy element, but trying to make your characters and story sophisticated enough to appeal to a broader audience of the mystery and crime readership, even given you’re incorporating fantastic elements into the storyline.

Additionally I’m doing a prose short story for Moonstone Comics, an outfit that’s been doing several themed prose anthologies of pop culture characters – Kolchak, the old pulp Spider – and now as this is his 70th anniversary, the Phantom.  Plus I have a one shot comic book from them as well called The Envoy, about a hitman for heaven.  Yeah, well, you’ll just have to read it, won’t you?

And slowly but surely, I’m going to finish my next Ivan Monk novel, City of Fortune, this summer.

3.  What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?

As to greatest pleasure, I suppose that’s whether it’s a novel, short story, comics script, or what have you, it’s seeing that story in print that still gives me a kick.  Of course there’s nothing like being on a plane – I live in L.A., so you know, I drive, so it ain’t like I’m on the subway or cross town train –  and spotting somebody reading one of your books.  It hasn’t that often to me but that’s quite a thrill.  Though recently I did a review of  two books for the L. A. Times about the militant Black Panther Party, and that engendered several comments from people I ran into.  That is, these are more the political/activist side of my life as distinct from the mystery crowd – though there is some overlap.

4. The greatest DIS-pleasure?

Hmm, greatest displeasure is I suppose the necessary drudgery of dealing with the business of writing.  The time that’s consumed with figuring out the pitch, getting it to the right person, this meeting or that meeting if there’s interest in your work for film or TV.  All the smoke that gets blown up your arse as it were.  Some times it seems I spin more time doing that than just sitting and writing.   I guess there are some who still only do that, deal with the craft and not worry about all the rest.  Is that the purist or the unrealistic view?  Publishing is the goddamn pit full of hungry lions, and you better come armed both with work that can stand the clawing and psychologically prepared as well.

5.  If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?

As to my one piece of advice for the publishing world, eat nails.  That’ll toughen your gut for the body blows to come.  Gee, do I sound pessimistic?  I actually am not.  It’s just that the life of a writer is such a Hobbsian existence, you have to have your head on straight due to the amount of shots you’ll be taking on the chin – otherwise you’ll become punch drunk.

6.  Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you’d like to see in print again?

Two or three forgotten mystery writers?  Let’s see, how about Fredric Brown?  I guess he’s not really forgotten, and in some ways he’s better known for his science fiction work – I believe his short story “Arena” is the basis for an original Star Trek episode and Enemy Mine.  But his crime novel His Name Was Death is pretty damn good, along with the Fabulous Clip Joint and several others. 

Now I chanced to see a sweet little nourish direct-to-DVD flick called 3-WAY the other week, based on the novel by Gil Brewer, Wild to Possess.  I’d actually never heard of the cat but my buddy Bob Ward and publisher Dennis McMillan informed me he cranked out paperback originals during the ’50s and ’60s, and he may have had only one book in hardback.  A couple of his other books have been made as films, and I’m told Bill Pronzini wrote a nice tribute to Brewer in a book on noir.  Brewer’s most famous series character was Alexander Mundy, of the Robert Wagner ’60s show, It Takes a Thief

For the third I’d say Walter Gibson, who pounded out all those stories about the Shadow month in and month out during and after the Depression.  And somewhere in my unorganized stacks of comics, I have this prose story that Gibson wrote in a Batman annual wherein the Dark Knight and the Shadow (from whom Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger borrowed certain motifs liberally) team up to solve a case. 

And if you haven’t read the authentic The Scene by Clarence Cooper, Jr. (rediscovered by Old School Books), then you ain’t lived.

7.  Tell us about selling your first novel.  Most writers never forget that moment.

Selling my first novel was a rather circuitous route.  My then agent couldn’t sell my manuscript.  Simultaneously me and that fine mystery writer John Shannon (Streets on Fire, Terminal Island, etc.), entered into a partnership with some folks up in Portland in what became West Coast Crime, a small press publisher of mysteries with a political edge.  And so Violent Sprint, my first published Ivan Monk novel came out under that banner, along with two other books, Elvis in Aspic by the late Gordon DeMarco and Served Cold by Ed Goldberg, which went on to win a Shamus.  And VS, the book that several publishers passed on, was optioned by HBO – it’s set in the aftermath of the ’92 riots in L.A., and me, John and Ed were picked up (and eventually dropped) by Berkely Prime Crime.

                  YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME.      

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