Life is a funny thing, even when it’s nothing to laugh at. Writers struggle with interpreting their experiences, circumstances and surroundings into fiction that is both relatable and subjective, accessible yet challenging.
Author Josh Stallings hails from a very colorful background, like a lot of us, but his skills and perspective are unique in terms of both creativity and candor. No joshing, no stalling. Just the facts, ma’am. Even if they’re artistically embellished, they’re far from “fake news.”
“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a king,” Frank Sinatra famously sang in his 1966 hit “That’s Life.” I think many writers can relate to that, even if they’re not fans of the Chairman per se, like me.
Hardboiled, soft-hearted author Josh Stallings would probably prefer to quote his musical idol, David Bowie: “I will be king, And you, you will be queen, Though nothing, will drive them away, We can beat them, just for one day, We can be heroes, just for one day…”
Josh is the hero of his own story, like we all are. He just knows how to tell his better than most. It helps that his source material is so compelling.
I know of Josh via Facebook, Bay Area LitCrawl, Noir at the Bar Seattle, and his Moses McGuire detective series, which are among the best in the genre, going all the way back to Raymond Chandler. I say that with all sincerity.
His rough-and-tumble fictional voice is matched by his tough guy visage, but trust me, this guy is a pussycat. Pussycats have claws and know how to take care of themselves, so keep that in mind.
Josh inspires a lot of us in the indie lit community with his honest approach to the world he lives in, and the one he creates so vividly. He crosses between these parallel universes with graceful ease.
Most of all, Josh is a survivor and a champion of the underdog. This is why his work resonates so deeply with readers, and friends…
Your most recently published novel, Young Americans, which is a departure in many aspects from your acclaimed Moses McGuire series of detective novels, seems to have really struck a chord in both readers and critics. What do you attribute this to, considering it’s all a crap shoot once a book is out there in the world, no matter how carefully crafted or expertly marketed?
At the time I wrote Young Americans it felt like so much I was reading and writing had gone bleak, edging into nihilism. My McGuire books were angry, dark beasts. They follow a suicidal bouncer deep into the sex trade, if they were going to be honest, they needed to be hard. After three years of writing and researching that world, I either had to lighten the fuck up or blow my brains out. A bubbly disco heist novel seemed the perfect prescription. I love Moses McGuire, but I’m not sure I’d invite him home for tea with the family. The crew in Young Americans are people I’d love to spend time with. They are not without edge, they have it a plenty, it’s that they have a more glittering world view.
1976 in the San Francisco bay area was a sexually fluid time. I knew straight boys taking hormones and growing breasts. I knew transgender women before we had a label for them, they were just Octavia and Mad Mary. The glitter rock scene popularized a sexual freedom we all were already living. I sat down to write Young Americans two years before Caitlyn Jenner came out to Diane Sawyer on 20/20. By the time we published, it was aligned with where readers and critic were at.
Also, where Moses McGuire is a caveman who would never be accused of being woke, Young Americans is very grrrl power driven. The crime crew is run by three powerhouse women. The lads are there to witness the ladies bad-assery, the boys panic, bring comedy, and romance. It tosses the male as hero trope on it’s head. For very obvious reasons this rang a bell with my female readers.
Your life – particularly as a self-described “criminal” – has been at least as interesting as your hardboiled fiction. Do the lines tend to blur when you’re in the creative process, or do you attempt to maintain a strict barrier between reality and imagination, keeping the autobiographical influences more or less subliminal?
Fiction is the lie I use to tell my truth. Everything begins with me. Young Americans started with a group of characters I knew well. Glitter Rock kids I ran with. I never robbed a disco, but I creeped my share of houses. So I’m sitting with this crew in my head and then I start typing and they quickly morph into people that have a passing resemblance to people I knew, but really aren’t them at all.
Also what is happening at the moment I’m writing effects the work. I was talking to writer/blogger/activist Elizabeth Amber Love about body image issues in crime fiction and comic books. I’m sure that led me to my view of Sam’s physicality;
She was a big girl, with the kind of curves that started wars. Zaftig. Out of fashion. The Thin White Duke, David Bowie, made looking underfed fashionable. You could count every one of supermodel Margaux Hemingway’s ribs. Sam’s body was luxurious. It said screw you, have a burger and relax awhile.
I’m not a P.C. saint. I wouldn’t have used this if it didn’t fit, but Sam is a nonconformist bad ass so it worked completely for the book.
The saying goes “Write what you know.” I think, if you don’t know what you want to write about, get off your ass and hit the street. Take an Ensenada hooker to breakfast and let her tell you her side of the tale. Hang out with the doorman of a Mexican brothel and you meet Adolpho, who became an important character in the McGuire books. His introductory dialogue was direct or close to, quotes from our conversation. But then I invented his family and home life and he became a fictional character.
Emotional memory is my greatest tool, but it only works when I don’t give a rat’s ass what readers might think of me personally. I remember the gut churning fear the first time I held a gun, intent on harming another human. I remember heart break. I remember every time I stood up and every time I wimped out. The key to good work is to be emotionally honest and not let facts get in the way of a true story.
Do your former gigs in Hollywood as a movie trailer editor/screenwriter/actor in any way inform your work as an author vis a vis story construction and content?
Yes. Story structure is in my blood, I can write without an outline because I have spent my life thinking about how stories work. As a massively dyslexic teen I chose to read Shakespeare and to do that I had to break it down, reread it, figure it out. Wild Bill knew his structure. Movie trailers demand you take hours of story and distill them into two minutes. I had to first understand how the movie works if I wanted to get my two minutes right. I also spent a lot of time thinking about pacing. In film, young editors mistake pace for fast edits. Pace is built by layers of information coming at a viewer. Story builds pace, as does sound, music, emotional content, a wide shot with lots to decode plays faster than a simple close up. Confusing or losing a viewer slows the pace. They also miss the next moment because they are stuck trying to find the thread. There isn’t time to say anything twice, so be sure it is said right the one time and move on. The other cool thing I learned cutting trailers is that humans want to make sense of the world; a soldier looks left and the next cut is a baby looking right and laughing, the viewers will assume the baby is laughing at the soldier, you don’t need to work hard for connections because viewers are working with you. Novels are the same, readers want them to work, they are rooting for them to make sense and they are very smart. My readers see things and make connections I missed. I’m always collaborating with the reader. Together we make a story sing.
What are you influences, literary or otherwise?
David Bowie, the outsider’s outsider. He brought so many of us together under one glorious rhinestone speckled freak flag. Mean Streets and Taxi Driver showed a teenaged me that street stories about folks I knew could survive in the world. Dylan Thomas showed me that hard truth and beauty could coexist. Raymond Chandler taught me that poetry could have crimes and broken heroes in it. James Crumley lit my brain on fire with his beautifully bent tore up language and characters. James Lee Burke taught me not to be afraid to slow down for a perfectly described bayou, but you better be damn good to pull it off. Hunter S. Thompson, that mad mother fucker showed us all how to write like stoned raging angels.
Tom Waits. Willy Nelson. Lou Reed. The Clash. The Pogues. Lots of music influences my work. I have always listened wide and deep. When I start a new book I build a playlist, a sound track to type to. I am currently writing almost entirely to Alt and Outlaw Country.
The thing about influences is they don’t stop once you start writing. I am and have been influenced by many great newer writers, some only through their words and others I am lucky enough to call friends. Charlie Huston, Jamie Mason, Pierce Hansen, Ian Ayris, Terry Shames, Timothy Hallinan, Catriona McPherson, Sabrina Ogden, Holly West, Thomas Pluck and so damn many others who have helped shape the ongoing crime fiction conversation.