Among his various pursuits, Gary Phillips has been one of those maligned community organizers, a security guard, a printer, taught incarcerated youth, delivered dog cages, been a labor rep, run nonprofits and worked in electoral campaigns. These and other experiences that shall remain unmentioned have supplied material for the numerous tales of the grift, the grab and the dust-off he's written in formats from short stories to screenplays. Phillips has been nominated for a Shamus, and won a Chester Himes and Brody awards. He writes a regular column for Mystery Scene magazine.
Gary will be reading from Treacherous at the next Noir at the Bar with the cool line up of Hillary Davidson, Gar Anthony Haywood, and Johnny Shaw -- Sunday, March 26, 8 PM at Mandrakes, 2692 S. La Cienega Blvd., btw Venice and Washington, in beautiful Culver City.
Gary, you are a scriptwriter, the author of graphic novels, mysteries, and historical fiction. You pen short stories. You contribute your talent to causes like “Shaken”, a short story anthology to aid the victims of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. You’re an editor, panelist and moderator. You write standalones and series, male and female protagonists. You’ve even moved into audio-visual with interviews and audio chapters posted on your website. Is there a hat left in the writing world you still want to wear?
I suppose at this stage of the game, what with the changes that are still happening in publishing and the various ways in which the potential reader of your stuff can be distracted – streaming movies and TV shows, YouTube, tweeting and Lord knows what all else, -- the writer’s job is still to tell a story. My goal then is being open to the numerous platforms, to use the techie term, in which to deliver my stories. But the elements the storyteller has to employ, from compelling characters, plot twists, narrative drive and so on, remain the same. Those parts of the story if you will have been with us since I guess we started putting pictographs on cave walls and will continue even when we can jack the medium into our cerebral cortexes to get out story fixes. From audio file to comic book panels or putting words in the mouths of actors, it’s all part of the big show.
Could you tell us about your latest, a short story collection called "Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers". (Ruffians. I love that word.)
Treacherous is a collection of 20 of my short stories that have appeared mostly in other anthologies and a few mystery magazines over the years. For instance, “The Performer” about a piano player plying his trade in a strip mall bar in Los Alamitos originally was in Orange County Noir, an anthology I edited for Akashic. Of course the great thing about being the editor of those kind of collections is you get to put you own story in the book. Ha.
The thing too about short stories is I like to fool with the crime and mystery format, stretch it some. So there’s a section in Treacherous called “Beyond Shadow and Substance” which is the line from Rod Serling’s voice over introduction to the original Twilight Zone. Those stories, like say “Can’t Be Satisfied,” is a riff on the blues number by Muddy Waters and involves restoring a 60-era car, a beautiful woman (naturally) and some backwoods hoodoo. Or in “The Thrill is Gone,” a hitman is plucked from Hell to slay evil for Heaven. A little something for everyone…fun for the whole family, dog-gone-it.
I would be remiss too if I didn’t mention that an anthology I’ve edited that we’re just putting the finishing touches on called Scoundrels: Tales of Greed, Murder and Financial Crimes. This e-book and print-on-demand collection drops later this month from downandoutbooks.com and is an all-original line-up of stories from the likes of SJ Rozan, Tyler Dilts, Reed Farrel Coleman and David Corbett The title says it all and I think mystery fans won’t be disappointed by the stories in this book revolving around money shenanigans – in the suites and down in the streets.
You are one of the few authors I know who makes his living writing. How do balance the creative and the business aspects?
It’s certainly not high living, I can assure you of that, Jackie! But yeah, it seems the writer these days not only has to pay attention to working their craft, but can’t ignore the promotion aspect of their work. That you put the material out there and pray it finds its audience is not enough given the aforementioned multi-media completion for eyes, time and as sc-fi author Robert Heinlein observed long ago, “competing for people’s beer money.”
That said, I don’t tweet, twitter or whatever the hell it’s called. I do put out announcements on Facebook, but what writer doesn’t? Like for Scoundrels, the cats at Down and Out, Eric Campbell and Bob Truluck (a writer in his own right who has a kick ass story in Scoundrels) have brought on a social media/pr person to help market the book. For me then, that seems to be where I’m at. I want to concentrate on the writing and leave it to others to help get the word out. Now that doesn’t mean I won’t do panels or stand on a freeway overpass at rush hour and read into a bullhorn…hmmmm…but there’s only so much time in the day and the writing has to take priority.
Ebooks are the latest revolution. Do you find they have impacted your sales significantly? And do th\ey impact your commitment to personal appearances?
As I mentioned, Scoundrels is ebook and POD, so there’s that. I haven’t got rich yet though certainly there are writers who do pretty dang decent on the ebook front in terms of sales/downloads. I like to think the “e” realm is simply another aspect or adjunct to my storytelling. But clearly it’s a part of the business of being a writer that can’t be ignored. On the appearance part of your question, that is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I did two in-store book signings recently for Treacherous which were, ahem, modestly attended. But that’s cool, that’s just something you have to roll with as a writer – genre or so-called mainstream.
Conversely, I dig doing panels, I’m signing at the paperback book show out in the Valley later this month, participating in a staged reading of Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. Maybe I sell a few books, but it’s also possibly connecting with an audience that doesn’t know my work, keeping my name out there, networking and what have you. For me the perfect day is writing and editing from 6 AM to about one in the afternoon, getting a bite to eat, catching up on my e-mails, hitting the gym, then going to an evening gig. As Napoleon Dynamite would say…Sweet!
Social media is a must for authors who want to get their names out...or is it? How much time do you spend on Facebook, Twitter, blogging and such? There’s a line between promotional efforts and baring it all in public. Are you selective about what information you share?
Right, I don’t be tweeting. I do post on Facebook but only if it’s a public appearance sort of thing. I mean, don’t us writers overuse these media now anyway? I do regular posts on foursytory.org – say a blog post once a week and a “feature” length non-fiction article (and occasionally a short story and also have a webcomic up there called "Bicycle Cop Dave") every other Thursday is my schedule, and once every other Saturday do my scheduled post the criminal minds blog that includes contributors Sue Ann Jaffarian, Kelli Stanley and other reprobates. Heh. But blog etiquette is such one shouldn’t flog one’s stuff too much, right? That’s why on criminal minds, we have a topic of the week to riff about and on fourstory, we’re kind of a staff, and feature length stuff is plotted out beforehand.
Definitely then I’m selective about what I share. Certainly my politics and outlook leaks through what I write but I usually don’t rant on about [the Tea Party], Fixed News, buying asparagus at the supermarket, and I love me some asparagus, etc., etc.
Self-publishing. Even writers who were opposed to it are now giving it a try. While this platform provides authors with diverse points of view and stories an outlet for their writing, there are downfalls. Where do you stand on the subject?
Essentially I broke into professional writing being self-published. As has been documented long ago and far away, I was partners in a indie publishing outfit called West Coast Crime out of the Pacific Northwest in the early ‘90s. We published my first book, Violent Spring, Served Cold by Ed Goldberg (which won the Shamus for “best first” from the Private Eye Writers of America), Elvis in Aspic by Gordon Demarco, and the Concrete River by John Shannon (that was under his John Brown Books imprint but John was also a partner in WCC). Ed, John and my book were eventually picked up by Berkley Prime Crime and the rest is history.
I told you the back story then to say I’m down with self-publishing. But I think you have to have your manuscript go through the rigors of editing, rewriting, proofing and re-editing the traditional publishers put, or at least used to put, the text through. For instance with Scoundrels once I turned in my edits version of the writers’ stories, after possibly discussing changes with them that were incorporated, the material was proofed and sent back, the galley as it were, to the writers for their edits. Sure, ebooks aren’t permanent like a hard copy of a book, but the goal should be to tell the tale the best way you can and I’m a firm believer that some other person, the editor, has to read the story and suggest where clarifications can be, where scenes don’t work, and so forth.
What advice would you give to new writers, especially young writers?
Read. Read the classics and more – Twain, Dickens, Verne, James Baldwin, Greek mythology, David Goodis, Frederick Brown, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Richard Wright, McBain, Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, Agatha Christie…there’s a reason their books haven’t gone out of print. Read them and figure out why their stories work.
M.M. Gornell credits Dorothy Sayers with leading her to mysteries. Pamela Samuels-Young credits James Patterson with helping her hone her fast-moving style. Who inspired you?
All the aforementioned plus those ‘60s and ‘70s Marvel comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – Captain America, Thor, the Black Panther, the Fantastic Four and on and on.
What’s next for you?
Gonna take an 8 count, get my wind and wits back, then get off the canvas and keep swinging.