I often hear two things about my novel Hustle. 1) That it’d make a great movie. And of course, I blush and agree. I don’t really know if that’s true though. I suspect people say it because the exposition can be very visual, it’s in third person, and it’s dialogue heavy. All of which lend to adaptation. 2) That it could never be made into a movie. Which I think is completely wrong. Not because it’s un-filmable, but because I see much more risqué subject matter being showcased every day. When people say it’s too raw and gritty for the big screen, I take it as a backhanded compliment. No, it’s not Spiderman or Titanic. It was never intended to be.
But it always gets me thinking of books that are un-filmable. I tend to go with the classics. And they tend to fall into two categories. Those that can never be made, and those that should never have been made. I’ll give you an example of each. A book whose film options are legendary is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It’s the white whale of film, the holy grail of screenplays. People have tried and failed, directors have been bandied about and scripts have been attempted on spec, but it never comes to fruition. Why? Not because—as many have guessed—its subject matter, its ghoulish content, or its bleak storyline. Those are tough to stomach, yes, but it’s been the prose that’s stepped in the way. The word you often hear when Blood Meridian is described is biblical, and not because of the storyline. The plot, if you stand back and look at it, if quite simple. But it’s the majesty of the language that connects people with biblical prose. It has a quality so unique, there’s no way a film is ever going to do it justice. Not without narrating the whole text unedited.
A few years back when James Franco was hot off Howl and had his finger in a few esoteric film pies, he was considered for the project. He’d won the rights for a brief time and made a test reel to prove he was not only serious, but talented enough. What surfaced was a dry, wooden western that had none of the magic Blood shared from the page. If you’ve read Blood Meridian and want to take a peek, you can see the Franco fiaso here: . But if you haven’t, don’t look. I don’t want to dissuade you from reading one of the greatest books of the twentieth century.
The second book I set my sights on, the one in the “should never have been filmed” category, is On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, the literary polar opposite of McCarthy. Where McCarthy is disciplined to a fault, Jack is freewheeling and consciousness streaming as many of the beat poets he inspired. His story, too, should never have made it to film for the same reason: the prose. There is such an easy flow, a brilliant rhythm to Kerouac’s work it should never have been hacked and slashing into a screenplay. What’s the point? The film version, which took over half a century to make it onto celluloid, isn’t a bad film. They didn’t destroy it. It’s just that it should have been left alone. Like Blood, there’s no way to capture the color of the text unless you literally read the whole book as the film rolls. That may have been a way to make it. Who knows, maybe some amphetamine fueled film student is trying that right now. We’ll probably never see it, but chances are it captures the heart of the work better that the 2012 film. And if you want a taste of Hollywood’s version of the beats, here’s the trailer. .
My point is, most books will always work better than the film. Why? It’s the music of the language, the precision of the prose. There’s nothing that can replicate the connection between a skillful author and a fine tuned reader.
That being said, I’m still open for film options. Hello? Hollywood? Hello?
Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?
Really, the genre chose me. I think there’s something to the old adage ‘write what you know’, at least when you’re starting out, and for me, that’s crime fiction. I mean, I understand that you don’t have to be an astronaut to write about space, but I’ve had a rough background with a sordid history of drugs and crime and I wanted to inject some of what I learned out there on the street into what I see in fiction.
What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling/etc.?
As far as my own work is concerned, that’s a question for someone else to answer. I’m not really doing what the anthropologists say storytelling is for, the handing down of traditions or cautionary tales. I think it’s dangerous to start thinking about how your work is assimilated into the culture. If I do start musing on it, I get very existential and start wondering if any work has an impact. In the great scheme of things, I don’t know if these little universes we create have any value. The world will keep evolving—or eroding—with or without artistic contributions from man.
But on the bright side, we writers are here to entertain and hopefully enlighten, right? If you get something more from my own work, God bless you, but it’s sheer hubris for me to assume anything else.
What do you think most characterizes your writing?
I hope authenticity. I try to capture real characters. How people actually speak, how they act, and—more importantly—how they react. I like the idea of taking extraordinary events and seeing how they play out in the ordinary world.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
This was my first full-length novel. I was in completely uncharted territory. I loved the feeling of not knowing what was going to happen each day. The epiphany I had sitting down at the keyboard and realizing the characters were driving the story forward, not me.
Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
The story is about two drug-addicted gay hustlers. If that’s not an underrepresented group I don’t know what is. But the idea of the story is not to represent them, they’re just two lost souls who kickstart a series of events that allow the action to unfold.
Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
Elmore Leonard for his Spartan use of the language. Denis Johnson for his shifting voice. Richard Price for his easy dialogue. And Charles Bukowski for his honesty.
Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?
Tricky question. Writing—and its related activities—take up a huge part of my life. I’m an acquisitions editor, I edit an online magazine, I host a live podcast, there’s promotion, copy editing, the juggernaut of social media, and let’s not forget the ever-present work in progress. But I’m also a family man and all these things don’t pay the bills, so I have a job. A real job, as they say. I dispatch taxis in San Francisco—the graveyard shift. And how that gig affects my writing is I’ve had to learn to carve out time to create. With all that other stuff going on, it takes some discipline to make sure the novels get the attention they deserve.
What are some day jobs that you have held? If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.
I’ve held a lot of low-wage day jobs over the years, but the vocation that impacted my writing most was being a petty criminal while I was strung out on heroin. There’s no substitute for that kind of education.
What do you like to read in your free time?
Since I’m so immersed in the crime genre, I read mostly crime fiction. Joe Clifford, Benjamin Whitmer, Josh Stallings, the list is endless. I seem to have lost the courage to spend more time reading outside that narrow room. I think it’s probably a little unhealthy. I’m promising myself right now to rectify that.
What projects are you working on at the present?
Right now I’m writing another novel called 101. Its backdrop is the marijuana industry in Northern California.
What do your plans for future projects include?
I have an agent who’s working hard to sell my two completed novels. One is called American Static, and the other, Coldwater. I’m trying to be a good client and not harass her too often. It’s funny, you always dream about being able to leave the business to someone else and just write. Then you finally have an advocate who tells you to focus on your craft and all you want to do is meddle in the business end.
What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has? Write it out here, then answer it.
In regards to Hustle, the one that gets hinted at but no one ever comes right out and asks is: Were you a gay hustler? And the answer is No.
Do you have any strange writing habits (like standing on your head or writing in the shower)?
Silence! It’s not really an unusual habit, but I hear plenty of writers talk about what kind of music they listen to as they write. I can’t even fathom that. In San Francisco we have some noisy neighbors and I often use earplugs to deaden the sound. Stephen King was right when he said write with the door closed.
How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or the meaning? Do you have any name choosing resources you recommend?
Names are crucial. Finding the right name is like finding the right chord when you’re writing a song. You know when you’ve hit it. Names are a shortcut to describing your character. If they’re rich and educated, or rough and tumble, or vicious or kind. A name has to roll off the tongue and have a musicality to it so it clings to the reader’s conscience.
Is there one subject you would never write about as an author? What is it?
No. I think anything is fair game. It’s more of a question of does a subject interest me. A lot of subjects that are supposedly taboo don’t really interest me. So it’s not the taboo that keeps me away, it’s the lack of appeal.
What literary character is most like you?
I’d like to think I was one of those cool even-handed guys in an Elmore Leonard book, but in reality, I’m probably more like one of those terrified introspective types in a Don DeLillo novel.
What is something you want to accomplish before you die?
I’d like to complete a novel a year till I’m gone. I promised myself this three years ago. So far, I’m still on schedule.
Thank you so much, Tabatha. It’s been a fun interview.