I’d been aware of Scott Phillips for a bit, likely due to the film version of his debut novel, The Ice Harvest, which I dug. I can’t say why I didn’t immediately read the novel, so don’t hate me—at least not for that.
It was a log roll from George Pelecanos, an author I respect and fear, that led me to Cottonwood, and that, as the cliché has it, is where my trouble began.
There are, in my experience, very few authors who, upon first reading, feel like they, their work and their sensibilities have been in your head forever.
Pelecanos is one, Alan Furst is another. There are certainly other examples of this, and Scott Phillips is a primary example of this peculiarity. Reading his prose, his characters, his situations is a perfect illustration of that time-honored contradiction, “Together again for the first time.”
As Lavern Baker sings in Lincoln Chase’s great R&B raveup, “Jim dandy to the Rescue!” “Uh, huh, that’s right, of course,” there’s an inevitability, sometimes grim, sometimes comic, frequently both simultaneously, to Phillips’ prose, in its deliberate specificity, and in its depiction of human nature at its bleakest…and just as often, credulous.
That specificity applies, if I may offer care about something which you may not give a f--k about, to his, to misuse his second language just a tad, mise en scene. I’ve been to a number of the places depicted in Phillips’ fiction, and I can recognize, via his relentless and occasionally pitiless perspective, the truth about those places, in those times.
And speaking of times, and of the aforementioned George Pelecanos, I had a lunch with the sage of criminal DC a few years back, with the intention of convincing him to collaborate with me on a comics project for whatever was DC comics alternative/edgy/adult line at that moment.
He was reticent. Pelecanos is an anomaly, a member of his generation with neither knowledge nor interest in comics—and who assumed that evil portmanteau “Graphic Novel” actually meant a novel, as opposed to nothing in particular other than an elitist defense of taste where no defense was needed.
I tried to disabuse him of this notion, and then, inspired, I mentioned Cottonwood, in belated reply to his desire to do a western.
No dice, unfortunately, and the discussion never continued outside of P.F. Changs. (It was suburban Baltimore, and yes, it was disgusting.)
That said, and now considering Scott Phillips acknowledged interest in comics…
Howard Chaykin: When and where’d you spend your childhood—and how much of that experience informs your fiction?
Scott Phillips: Born in 1961 and raised in Wichita Kansas. A great deal of local lore figures into my books, more or less exaggerated. In particular lots of the aviation stories that crop up are true. My great uncle was a pilot working for Walter Beech in the 1920s, and he almost landed a plane on the man, who was lying on a small runway one night, passed out drunk. That ended up in The Adjustment, more or less unchanged except for the names. My parents and my friends’ parents were great sources of Wichita culture, like the house on First Street we’d pass by coming home from downtown. My mom would point it out and say “that’s where my friend’s brother murdered his girlfriend and buried her under the porch.”
HC: That said, your novels indicate a deep familiarity with as disparate a set of locations as Wichita, Kansas, and Ventura, California. What’s that about?
SP: I lived in Ventura in the early to mid-90s, it was an interesting town then. Lots of details stuck and still resonate, like the topless cowgirls etched into the mirror at the Sportsman. I went back three years ago when my aunt was in hospice and found it much changed. The bar that was the basis for the Town Crier in Albuquerque, for example, is gone. But if I were still there I wouldn’t have felt as free to write about it. It’s easiest for me to write about places I’ve left.
And in that regard, can you speak to your fluency in French, and its impact, or lack thereof, on your fiction?
SP: I majored in French lit at Wichita State at a time when the French department there was very ambitious and hiring excellent teachers, so I learned a lot about how to read a novel. For nineteenth century writers and earlier I’m much better read in French than in English.
Living and working in France I met a lot of interesting or odd people and had some strange experiences, several of which made their way into one book or another. Rake is the exaggerated story of the time a friend of mine, a TV actor, suddenly became very famous there. He and I were trying to get a movie made. Everything in the book is exaggerated– there wasn’t any kidnapping or murder–but otherwise an appalling number of incidents in that book are taken from real events and made slightly more ridiculous. That Viet Nam war themed nightclub, for example, was a real place.
Mostly the influence comes from having read writers I like in French. I first read Chester Himes in French, a Rage in Harlem (la Reine des Pommes), a paperback I picked up at a bookstall for next to nothing.
Living in Paris I got to know a bit about publishing. Toward the end of my time there Jim Crumley came over for ten days (that’s a whole separate interview) and he introduced me to Patrick Raynal, editor at that time of la Série Noire at Gallimard, who later became my publisher and occasional translator.
I’m not a very good writer in French. I’ve only ever published one short story written in French, called “Nocturne le jeudi,” which I wrote for Maxim Jakubowski’s Paris Noir. It was only when translating it into English for the UK edition that I realized how stiff and dry it was. That said, my dialogue in French is excellent, which has surprised some French writers I’ve collaborated with.
HC: One of the most appealing aspects of your fiction, to me at least, is the utter lack of moral probity of your protagonists.
SP: I don’t know that it’s utter. Gunther, in the Walkaway, really only commits two big sins his whole life, taking a suitcase full of stolen money and killing someone to protect a woman and child he cares about. On the other hand in that same book, and in The Adjustment, you have Wayne Ogden, who’s completely unburdened by moral scruples. The funny thing about him is that if someone said he was immoral or amoral he’d be insulted; he always pictures what he’s doing as the right thing. In fact lots of these characters—Wayne, the unnamed actor in Rake, Rigby in That Left Turn at Albuquerque––go through life doing terrible things and lying to themselves. I think that’s what most awful people do, convince themselves that they’re doing right. It’s like that Mitchell and Webb sketch where one Nazi officer turns to the other and says “I just thought of something—what if we’re the baddies?”
HC: Is this a choice, or are you simply biologically drawn to characters who don’t need obvious wounds to justify their behavior?
SP: Everybody has wounds, but I object to the kind of characterization where a character’s behavior is boiled down to one wound, or one incident, or one twist of fate that explains all their behavior. It’s easy, as characterization goes.
HC: And speaking of obvious wounds to justify their behavior, where you/are you a fan of comics—either newspaper strips or comic books? If so, which?
SP: I love comics. The funny pages, mainstream comic books, undergrounds, whatever. I was a very wide reader in comic books, everything from Harvey and Archie to DC and Marvel superhero stuff, to war comics, to the Marvel sci-fi reprints of the old Timely Ditko and Kirby material. My brother recently got me reading romance titles from the 60s and 70s, DC and Marvel and Charlton. That was the one genre I’d never read, because of course they weren’t aimed at boy children. They’re really wacky and weird, written by middle-aged men for girl children.
In the late ‘70s I worked at a record store that also ended up being the last head shop in the state of Kansas, which was where I really got exposed to the undergrounds. That’s where I first saw Gilbert Shelton, the Young Lust group and Eisner’s non-Spirit work.
I always used to read the whole comics page, mornings in the Wichita Eagle and evenings in the Beacon, right down to the soap strips, even though I didn’t like them. OCD, I guess. It’s a shame how s----y the American newspaper comic strip has become. In the Adjustment I had Wayne Ogden lamenting the departure of “Bringing Up Father” and “Krazy Kat” from the paper, and a friend of mine suggested I’d given him too modern an aesthetic sensibilty, but my thinking was that those were the strips where someone was always getting hit in the head by something potentially lethal. (Which brings to mind the MAD comics parody of “Life with Father.”)
HC: Of pulps—either of the actual thing or the latter-day stuff—paperback originals, as an example? Again, if so, which?
SP: Willeford, obviously. I also read a great many of the Black Lizard reprints from the ‘80s, writers like Willeford and Jim Thompson but also lesser known authors like Peter Rabe, Harry Whittington and Helen Nielsen. Christa Faust is also a big fan of Nielsen’s. That’s also how I discovered my old friend Jim Nisbet’s books.
HC: What movies, music, radio and television drama informed your growing up years?
SP: I loved all the stuff a nerdy kid of my vintage would be expected to consume—the Adam West Batman, Star Trek, etc.—but at a certain age I started watching private eye show on TV, especially Mannix and Harry O, and later on the Rockford Files. Then in high school I got a job at our local repertory cinema and realized I liked that kind of movie, too. I ended up watching a whole bunch of Bogart movies seven or eight times in a row. As far as radio, the two shows that influenced me were the old National Lampoon Radio Hour and the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which I listened to faithfully every weeknight. Musically, the same top 40 stuff everybody listened to until about 1978, when I got a job in a record store and I started listening to what was coming into the store. It was a good year to be listening for new material—Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, Steve Forbert and the Roches’ debut albums, lots of punk and new wave stuff.
HC: In that time in every boy’s life between FIREMAN/POLICEMAN/COWBOY, what was an early ambition that consumed you before you became who you are?
SP: I thought I might do comics. I’m still disappointed I didn’t.
HC: What and when did you first seriously entertain the idea that you could do the job?
SP: My first book was a novel, not a good one, and I’m not kidding here, but it was about a megalomaniac television host with fascist tendencies who becomes president of the United States. The weirdest part is his name, and the title of the novel, is “Strunk.” Anyway, after I finished it I realized it wasn’t publishable but I also knew for a fact that I could write a pile of 250 or 300 pages, so that part of it—just finishing something on that scale—was no longer daunting.
HC: Was there a writer whose career you first want to supplant?
SP: To be honest, I really thought I’d be writing science fiction, so maybe Philip K. Dick. Strunk had a lot of Dickian elements; it was actually an alternative history novel. But when it came time to write another novel I’d been reading a lot of those Black Lizard books, and I thought Patrick Raynal might publish it in la Série Noire, so I started Ice Harvest.
HC: In that regard, can you point to a writer who was an early inspiration who remains of interest?
SP: PKD still interests me, though it’s been a while since I’ve read him. His later stuff particularly strikes me as worthy of attention. All those Black Lizard writers.
HC: In that same regard, can you point to a writer you once held in high regard in whom you’ve lost interest?
SP: Not really. That’s more the case with filmmakers. Certain directors and writers I used to revere and whose work I now find unwatchable. In books my tastes haven’t changed all that much.
HC: I don’t see a lot of log rolling from you. That said, who do you read in genre fiction?
SP: Lots of my friends, though some of them are so prolific I can’t keep up. Ace Atkins, Bill Boyle and Chris Offutt (though Chris is less strictly in the genre), to name three who live in Oxford, MS. Also Chris’s wife Melissa Ginsburg, who wrote a terrific noir set in Houston, and Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, who are married and sometimes write together, and Jack Pendarvis, who writes the craziest goddamn stories you’ve ever read. And that’s just Oxford.
There are also a bunch of excellent young (youngish, anyway) writers who don’t quite fit exactly into the crime mold but are close enough, and who aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Ed Kurtz (The Rib From Which I Remake the World), Max Booth III (The Nightly Disease) and Joseph Hirsch (The Dove and the Crow) are three of them off the top of my head. All of them bleed from one genre into another and another in ways I find very pleasing. My good friend and screenwriting partner Jedidiah Ayres wrote a book called Peckerwood that’s as good as or better than anything in the so-called Country Noir subgenre.
My friend Tim Lane is a cartoonist, or graphic novelist or whatever term you want to use. Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go, both published by Fantagraphics, contain some of the finest American crime writing of the last twenty years.
I’m trying to read all of Georges Simenon, which is just about impossible since he wrote more than 400 books, I think it was. When I was with Gallimard in France my publicist there was kind enough to send me all of the books he did with them.
HC: I’m a fan of your westerns, that take an unblinking look at the United States of the late 19th Century. They are tonally in sync with your contemporary crime fiction but are in no way presentist in their delivery.
SP: To get the voice for Bill Ogden (he of Cottonwood and Hop Alley) I was careful not to reread any of the revisionist Westerns that inspired me (Thomas Berger, Charles Portis, Percival Everett) for fear of imitating another author’s simulated 19th-century voice. Instead, I read a lot of memoirs and diaries, letters, etc. One obvious tonal influence is Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, which I must have read four or five ties over the years. It’s one of the best criminal memoirs I’ve ever come across. (Two others are Patrick O’Neil’s Gun, Needle, Spoon and Les Edgerton’s Adrenaline Junkie.)
I’m doing another Bill Ogden novel set in LA in 1917, which is interesting for me because it’s a very different time. There’s a bit of that in Cottonwood, when he leaves 1890s San Francisco, which feels very modern in a lot of ways, to return to Cottonwood, Kansas, which in that same period seems much more remote in time. Doing my research, mostly via newspapers, 1917 strikes me as very modern in a lot of ways and as distant as ancient Egypt in others.
HC: What inspired you to delve into this genre?
SP: When I was a small child, maybe five or six, they gave us at school a little spiral-bound book of Kansas history. One of the pages was an illustration of the Bloody Benders’ house, along with a synopsis of what they’d done: inviting travelers to spend the night, then bashing their brains in with a hammer, slitting their throats and burying them in the orchard. It made a big impression on me, and I’d forgotten about it when I found a short history of the case. It had a great deal of misinformation and a completely erroneous conclusion to the story, but it got me doing research. I spent a hell of a lot of time reading, digging and interviewing to do that book.
HC: Is there a genre that you loathe?
SP: Not that I loathe. I don’t read any fantasy, though, or romance (except for those old comics!). I try not to judge people’s tastes, because God knows mine are specific and peculiar enough.
HC: Is there a genre that your fans would be surprised you dig?
SP: I don’t think so…
HC: Is there a book you hate that everyone loves?
SP: To Kill a Mockingbird.
That you love that everyone hates?
SP: Fitzgerald’s The Pat Hobby Stories. All right, not everyone hates them, but there was a lot of academic snobbery towards them for a long time because he was supposedly writing about himself in a self-loathing way, and because they were written for money when he was desperate. But they’re hilarious, and a great reminder of how at heart nothing has changed in Hollywood.
HC: Five favorite movies since the birth of film.
SP: This would be a different list tomorrow, and another the day after, but:
The Mummy (1933)
2001: a Space Odyssey
Zatoichi (almost any of them, pick one at random)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman’s 1978 remake, though tomorrow it might be the original)
Nosferatu (Herzog’s 1979 remake, see above comment about Body Snatchers)
HC: Five favorite television series since anybody started actually caring about the medium.
SP: Assuming you mean by that the last fifteen years or so:
Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul (one series as far as I’m concerned)
HC: And, as ever, many thanks for your time and consideration.
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