Editor of Brooklyn Noir (Volume 1, Akashic Books, 2004)
Author of Heart of the Old Country, made into the film “The Narrows.”
Everyone take note: There are TWO Tazza locations in Brooklyn. Tim McLoughlin was kind enough to walk over to the one on Henry street where we mangled some meat sandwiches and talked about dialogue, narrators and what it’s like to be driven to write.
On living in Brooklyn and writing with a pen.
My father would teach me drive down in DUMBO because that neighborhood looked like a post apocalyptic movie set in the late 1970’s. I was just sort of ambling around down there recently and checking out what new stores open every week and I had an idea that I wanted to jot down but I didn’t have a pen or paper on me. So I went to a little general store and bought a notebook and I bought a pen.
I went across the street and I started writing, and I only very gradually realized that I was the only person in the place with a pen and paper but that everyone was writing and everybody else had a keyboard and I said: I’ve got a 25 year old narrator in a novel and it would never in my wildest dreams occur to me to take a laptop to a public space and sit down and begin typing there.
The overwhelming majority of the time I need longhand as a jump-start. I’ll write in a notebook for three or four pages, and then when I get to type those three or four pages into the computer, I’ll keep writing. That’s enough to keep the wheels turning.
On Writing Novels and Short Stories
The most important difference is that you can hold a whole short story in your head. The short story ideas come to you all at once. The novels, you have to live with them. And they change organically over time as you write them.
I can write a short story, go back and read it, fine tune it, tweak it and I’m done. But with a novel, there’s such a space there, that by the time you’re finished, you’re always playing catch up to make it the same voice. By the end of that novel, I’m not the guy that started it.
I thought I’d be perfectly happy if I could just craft a few good short stories. I so clearly remember when I got my first short story published saying, all right I have to write a novel. It was instant.
On working in the Criminal Justice System:
You discover pretty quickly how many people are in the criminal justice system who are just very unlucky and really lost souls. People who take a bad decision one evening and it’s doomed them. Everything i choose to write about is informed in one way or the other by the work that I’ve been doing for a lot of years now.
One keeping a notebook:
It was the late 1970s, early 1980s, it was Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, it was the heart of Saturday night fever. I was driving a car service with all these characters and going to the track with them and the clubs and the bars.
These were guys that would show up with their own 15 year old car and say that’s my car outside, do you have any business and they would say, yeah go pick up this old lady at 1072 73rd street and take her over to Bingo. And in 15 minutes the guy was working and at the end of the shift he had $65 – $70 in his pocket in cash.
I just so loved that world. I wanted to record everything about it. I used to keep a spiral notebook under the seat of the car. And I would jot down conversations and observations not having any idea, certainly not thinking that I was going to write a novel, but knowing that I wanted to record it.
On Editing / Self Editing
Being an editor for a really big group of writers is a little bit like being in a really solid writing group. You start to hear people’s critiques in their head before you show them your work. You know what they would say about what you did.
I have an old friend who passed away, maybe six or seven years ago, Henry Flesh, who was a great editor who was one of the best people at critiquing my work. And when I reread what I’ve written I hear him saying, “don’t over explain.”
On Location Scouting:
I actually went to New Orleans and scouted some locations. Most of what I needed I got from talking to a retired cop, who i was put in touch with by the police union. And then I managed to reach out to an old timer. And I got him to just give me enough insight into the way the cops would be behaving after a shooting. The way they would close ranks and the specific way they would do it down there. And that was what I wanted because I didn’t want it to be a New York story, I wanted it to be authentic to New Orleans. And then after that you just inject the fear that anybody has.
On Advice to writers:
Don’t intentionally have your reader work very hard but don’t be afraid to let the reader work a little bit to access the worlds that you are writing about, whether it’s a neighborhood, social club, or a Wall Street inside trader. And in terms of dialogue, a little bit goes a long way. The reader fills in the blanks. The reader will always emphasize the jargon.
On taking a class with Kalie Jones:
Everything good that ever happened to me happened because of Kalie Jones. She was a drill sergeant of a teacher but she taught me how to write and she made me write a novel. In her class I met the student Henry Flesh who brought my manuscript to Johnny Temple at Akashic books. And I met Tatiana Blackington who then moved out to California and became a screenwriter and contacted me years later and optioned the book and wrote the screenplay and produced the film. And, in her class, I met Renette Zimmerly who was foolish enough to marry me.