Illustrations by Paul Pope
“By The Balls: The Complete Collection,” written by Jim Pascoe and Tom Fassbender with illustrations by Paul Pope, throws readers into the underbelly of city life, where two-bit criminals gather in a warehouse for a cock fight, where crime bosses shuttle people who know too much down to the local quarry for some one-on-one time with the butt of a gun or a bullet, and where no one trusts the cops and the cops trust no one. “By The Balls” is the collection of stories and two novels about Ben Drake, a fedora-wearing, cigar-smoking, three-fingers-of-Old Grand-Dad-drinking private detective. Featured in chronological order, the stories detail many of the dalliances that Drake gets himself into, however, they don’t fall into the mystery genre’s trap of a plot-driven narration, with so much action that character development is an afterthought—it is strong and well done. Readers will finish the collection, feeling like Drake is an old drinking buddy who loves to swap stories about his adventures with anyone who will listen.
Although the stories can easily stand on their own, each builds upon one another, creating a detailed narrative of Ben Drake’s life in Testacy City—where it all goes down—your typical shady, urban setting where the men “liked their entertainment in the form of dice, cards, ponies, liquor and loose women.” It is the perfect backdrop to the constant trouble that Drake always finds himself. Not even his apartment is safe, and characters are constantly breaking into his place, sitting in his favorite chair and drinking his favorite booze.
The definitive cream of the crop in this collection is its namesake, “By the Balls,” which centers on the death of a local bowling champ, Gentleman Joe Biggs, who was loved by everyone and no one, especially bowling aficionados, would ever speak ill of him. Drake gets thrown into the gumshoe gambit that involves more than just bowling. He is determined to crack it, even when he gets thrown off the case. The plot takes several twists up until the very end. Unlike the rest of the collection, “By the Balls” is a true novel with chapters whereas the structure in “Five Shots and a Funeral” is more like an entangled web of five short stories detailing various cases that Drake works. The structure of “By the Balls” allows for readers to get to know Drake better and reveals much more of the day-to-day inner workings of Testacy City.
The overall pacing’s in line with the genre as well, introductorily building suspense to allow enough time for our dynamic anti-hero to gather clues, developing as the story unfolds. The timing is gauged perfectly as there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the pacing and rising action, producing a dual catalytic effect especially when Drake faces the criminal and certain death. In addition, tone and narration are part of this finely tuned tale: gunfire breaks out in “By the Balls”—Drake narrates, “It sounded like there was a party, and I didn’t want to be caught without any favors.”
Their noir style narration throughout the collection pays homage to the crime fiction genre’s masters, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with crisp dialogue, a gritty tone, a story that grabs readers’ attentions, and a narrator with dry wit, which definitely comes through whenever Drake initially meets Beth Hruby, in “Five Shots and A Funeral,” who’s described like those smoky, seductive femme fatales from old black-and-white noir films. Drake narrates, “Short hair, black as wet ink, framed her porcelain face. Her straight bangs hung above her eyes like the blade of a razor. She wore her hair short in the back with the side cut at an angle to match her cheekbones.”
This collection also juxtaposes readers’ imagination with a black-and-white graphic depicting a scene from the story—“By the Balls” provides illustrations throughout. Upon Akashic’s April release, this steam trunk of titillating tales is definitely worth checking out!
The writers are equally also well known for establishing a small independent publishing company dubbed UglyTown, which focused on crime fiction. They published then newcomers Sean Doolittle, Victor Gischler, Curt Colbert, and Rodney Johnson, as well as veterans Eddie Muller, Gary Phillips, and Nathan Walpow. The collection also pays homage to this publishing company with an afterward devoted to various writers and friends reminiscing about the good old days of UglyTown.
To find the meat behind “By the Balls,” CCP contributor Julie Littman caught up with authors Jim Pascoe and Tom Fassbender:
CRIMINAL CLASS PRESS: How did you come up with the idea for the Ben Drake character and the first novel “By the Balls”? What gave you the idea to put together a collection of all the works over the last 15 years?
Jim Pascoe: Admittedly, the back story is a little convoluted. Tom and I were good friends. We had been trying our hands at writing a bunch of different things together, from screen plays to TV shows. Being ambitious young lads, we had a tendency to bite off more than we can chew. We had come up with this large-concept idea, thinking maybe we could do a TV show, movie, associate website—all these things. It involved this fictional character named Dashiell Loveless, who was a pulp fiction writer who wrote about a character named Ben Drake.
Tom Fassbender: We had this idea to write this story called “The Red Hat,” but we didn’t really know where we were going with it. Initially it had Dashiell Loveless—a fun homage name The whole idea was that he was a frustrated writer who had a good run as a short story writer. He was trying to write novel but couldn’t quite get his mind around it. Dashiell discovers that a copy cat killer was imitating the crimes he wrote about in his earlier stories. So he thought he had to solve this mystery, and that’s the story of Dashiell Loveless. What happens then? We went on to write the book that he was writing, and we came up with the Ben Drake idea.
JP: When we came up with Loveless’ first book, “By the Balls,” as we were trying to get our minds around Loveless, we felt like there was a good in road to that—understanding what kind of material he would write. So we found ourselves asking each other, ‘What would Ben Drake do in a situation like this?’ ‘What kind of things would Ben Drake get into or involve himself in?’ At that time, we realized that it was better for us to write an adventure for this character—that was kind of how that book first came out—which led to a lot of other writing that we did with that character, like “Five Shots and a Funeral,” which was the follow up and a couple short stories at a time.
TF: The whole idea was that “By the Balls” wasn’t a good book, that Loveless couldn’t make the jump from a short story writer to a novel writer. As we started going about doing it, we thought, ‘Well, it isn’t really wise to write a book that is intentionally bad.’ So we formulated, plotted and wrote the whole thing—we had a good time doing it. When it was done, it wasn’t half bad. [Why don’t we publish this?] Henry Rollins had a publishing company, so we thought we could do the same—obtaining ISBN numbers, splitting up the publishing…we had a publishing company. We made a lot of mistakes initially. When we released “By the Balls” in July and shopped it around to bookstores, they said it was already an old book. We learned a lot about the publishing business, in addition to writing and crafting.
JP: We got very busy with building up UglyTown. As that progressed, we put Ben Drake to the side, so to speak. In the subsequent years, as Ugly Town had ceased publication and as the first two books went out of print, it always felt like we would continue to do the events—book signings, festivals, etc—we realized there was this existing audience who looked back fondly of those books and another audience who didn’t remember those books at all.
TF: During our time at UglyTown, we got to know Akashic and remained friendly over the years. A climactic conversation was struck, and we speculated that this might be something of interest to them. It had been 15 years since this book came out. We pitched it to them, and they talked about it.
JP: This was the opportune time for the book to be back in the market. In typical fashion, instead of finding a publisher to reprint the first book, that wasn’t enough. Something bigger, more celebratory needed to be done—as loud and bombastic as we were 15 years ago. With that in mind, we came up with the idea to collect all of the writings of Ben Drake with the revamped design and freshly edited collection.
TF: We put together everything about Ben Drake together even wrote a new intro and conclusion story. Ben Drake’s story line was in chronological order. A few non-Ben Drake stories emerged, from the Ben Drake universe, that we wrote for other publications—it all just came together.
CCP: What drove the decision to add the epilogue and prologue of Ben Drake’s life?
JP: Again, it was ambition. Simply gathering all the writing just wasn’t enough—we wanted to create the contemporary edition and write at least one new story. In looking at the original material, the fact that the first book took place after the second book, it would be very interesting to rearrange the stories in chronological order and follow along with the life and progression of the character. With that in mind, it seemed natural that there was the opportunity to add contemporary book ends for the older works. Given the content of all of these older stories, and what transpires in the books and those short stories, it would be appropriate to do an introductory piece that clarifies some of the events mentioned in the old work—before he was a private detective. To boot, an equal opportunity appeared: to create a new story that takes place after the big blow out event, “By the Balls.”
CCP: Why detective/crime fiction? What is it about this genre that really drew you in?
JP: Both Tom and I are big readers with fairly eclectic tastes. We didn’t start out primarily as mystery buffs rather as general book lovers. Not only did we read mysteries but science fiction, fantasy and great literary works. We were not calculated people writing mysteries for the sake of popularity just two crazy kids wanting to do something that excited us. Coming up with an original mystery, we revisited a lot of our favorites. Between the two of us, we shared a lot of books neither one of us had previously owned. Our collaboration created a snowballed frenzy about the genre, which we hope will be conveyed in this book.
TF: I’ve always liked mysteries, like Hammett and Chandler. I came up, reading their books. Hammett was a master of stories—still is—and the way he plays with language is incredible! Chandler’s writing always had little comments, like ‘she had a smile you feel in your hip pocket.’ When you’re a teenage boy and you figure out what it means, you’re like, ‘Oh, ho ho, I get that…dirty.’ Those books had a certain feel—a rhythm and pacing.
Part of it was, too, when Jim and I had hooked up and started writing together, both of us had just moved to L.A., Chandler’s stomping ground. For me, that meant a lot. I revisited many of those stories—a real trip for me to read Chandler’s stories and then drive around Los Angeles. The places: oil refineries, fields and vast tracts of land that existed back then are now buildings and strip malls, residences and all sorts of urbanization. I really liked the paradox. It appealed to me.
So when we decided to strike out and were thinking about Dashiell Loveless, mystery came pretty natural. It’s a great genre to begin with. People like to know answers, to figure things out. It was just sensible to make Dashiell Loveless a mystery writer. There’s also something romantic about the mystery writer banging away on the keyboard, typewriter, what have you, trying to craft these pulp or hot-boiler stories and getting caught up with his own case. That was the appeal for me. Around the same time we started to discover the Dell Mapbacks, great little artifacts—each one was a piece of art themselves. They had these font choices and cyan end plates, maps on the back, provocative art on the front. They were just fabulous. Dashiell Loveless was a writer of these artifacts. When we initially released “By the Balls” and then later “Five shots and a Funeral,” we designed them in that format. It was a nostalgic moment, revisiting that format. Those who were privy immediately got it. I truly believe that people miss that particular format. In addition to writing it, we enjoyed designing the books and creating the complete package.
CCP: Tom, you mention that you are in Los Angeles. How much of Los Angeles influenced the setting of the book and the creation of Testacy City? How much of it came into the setting?
TF: It wasn’t much of modern Los Angeles more of the city’s echoes of how it once was. Maybe a little bit of the Hammett and Chandler days when you could get in the car and be out of the city in 10 minutes, and that kind of stark landscape was more interesting than being in L.A. and writing about it. These days, getting around in LA now is a total pain especially if you just moved out here and you didn’t know all the tricks and back roads, using the main drags, hung up in all the traffic…kind of frustrating–doesn’t lend itself to getting somewhere quick.
I think Testacy City was designed to be more of a young Las Vegas than a young L.A. We liked the fact that we had a place where anything goes. Crime was out of control—organized crime, random crime. There were a lot of crazy things that Ben Drake could do. He could get into trouble and not realize it until it was too late. A particular story that really echoed was Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” where he went to the town of Poisonville, where everyone was poisoned. That definitely influenced our vision of Testacy City.
CCP: What is it like to write in a partnership? Were there any stories or parts that either of you wrote more than the other?
TF: When you’re writing with a partner, egos have to be checked at the door. Not to say that we don’t have egos of our own, but you have to come to the table, knowing that whatever you bring needs to serve the story; if not, it’s got to go. [I might come up with an idea, and Jim will say, ‘I see what you’re doing there; that doesn’t really work for me. How about this…?’ If we couldn’t agree on a way to figure it out, we would just chuck it and move on.] Ultimately the story was more important than anyone’s particular ideas. There are passages in the book, and looking back 15 years, I can’t exactly recall what either of us wrote—it kind of blurs a little bit, but, upon its release, my wife read it and said, ‘Oh, you totally wrote this line.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m pretty sure Jim wrote this line.’
While we have similar minds, we bring different experiences to the table. The other advantage of working with somebody is that you’re not actually butting heads about whose idea is better. You’re basically working with a real-time editor. We didn’t always sit right next each other. We’d go to a coffee shop, sketch out some ideas and plot out scenes. After dividing up the work, we would retreat to our separate corners and bang out those stories then switch off. We were almost in competition. If I could make Jim laugh or say ‘Holy crap, that’s an amazing scene,’ I would feel like I had won that particular session. Sometimes he would write, and I’d say, ‘This is amazing.’ We spring board off of each other and compliment each other. I enjoyed writing with Jim because he was always able to get the best out of me. I’d like to think I was able to get the best out of him as well. Once it all comes together we would read it through. With “By the Balls” and “Five Shots,” we read it together in a room and I think that helped us smooth it out into one unified voice.
JP: It’s really amazing to me that it worked. It continues to work so well and so seamless. Our concept in the beginning stages was very organic and natural. We would get together and have a gab fest. ‘So what happens next?’ That sort of gave us an outline, but we were too unruly to be bound by outline and structure and plans. It gave us an idea of where the book was going. From there, we’d split things up. I’d say, ‘I’ll start on chapter 1 and you start on chapter 3.’ What we instinctively developed that served us well was we were writing so prickly and trying to get the material on the page that whenever we got stuck, we would just stop and throw it to the other person. Sometimes it would be the middle of a sentence or conversation, and I think we both feel like that added some real spontaneity to a lot of the scenes.
There is a hallmark to young writing, or inexperienced writing, and you have a scene that conveys the author’s progress of getting from A to B, that this scene just needs to deliver pertinent accomplishments. Within that process, certain questions arise that require special handling: What events are of retelling significance? What makes interesting stories or when things don’t happen according to plan; or you walk into a scene, conversation, or an event and you think, ‘okay I’m going to do ABC and get out.’ All of a sudden something unexpected happens—it complicates things; it changes your strategy. It makes you question yourself and our ability to do that to each other as writers. The other unique thing that we really felt—it wasn’t something planned; it was just our personalities working well together—is that early on we just knew that whenever we disagreed on a point, there was a third/better point out there. There was no defensiveness. There was never any ‘I don’t agree with that. You’re crazy. This is totally awesome.’ If one of us wasn’t totally in love with what was going on, we changed it. It’s an ego-less drive to make something better, to make it fun and exciting for both of us. It was a self-editorializing, self-revision process makes the book continue to feel fun and energetic 15 years later. It stood that test of our individual taste levels back then and that’s the real quality. These new stories we wrote for this collection were the first batch that we’ve written together in about 10 years. After all the Ben Drake stuff, we wrote a bunch of other stuff together—a number of comic books specifically “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”—and we had honed that skill. All of these years later, we came up with this idea to write new stories: there was a little bit of ‘Is this going to work? Or are we so different in terms of where we’re at individually that we’re not going to be on same page?’ But, in fact, it was the cliché of riding a bicycle. We were instantly back in the groove, completing each other’s sentences and second guessing each other. I hope the stories show that.
CCP: What was the most difficult part of creating this collection? What was your favorite part?
TF: Getting back into Ben’s skin again was a challenge. It had been a while since we had worn his hat. We both reread “By the Balls” and set up the back story. We wanted to create Drake’s origin: how he became a detective—we knew he had a wife who died in a car accident. We wrote about certain things that had happened in his past that we never explored before. Discovering those and making the timeline of the Ben Drake experience was a challenge, but it was good to get back into his frame of mind to tell his story. Even though “Five Shots and A Funeral” was the second book, it actually takes place before “By the Balls.” We had to almost rethink how we created the Ben Drake universe.
JP: I would say the most difficult part was the amount of time spent rereading the original material. However, there’s a wonderful aspect to revisiting old material—it becomes fresh again. Further, speaking for myself, there was some material that I hadn’t reread in 12 or 13 years. That first reread was like ‘Wow, this is better than I remembered it. I may have been a little bit too harsh on this work; this is really fun.’ It’s a necessary struggle of the editing process, to go through it multiple times. That’s the way Tom and I approach both our own books and the books we edited in UglyTown. Books get better the more you look at them and the more you finesse them. Reading and rereading is a requirement.
The most fun part was just putting the whole thing together. Everything about the creation of this new edition was totally awesome: designing the cover, and interiors, writing the introduction, writing the new stories, organizing the old stories into the new chronology, and then coordinating with a bunch of our friends and peers in the writing community to gather all of the extended blurbs about the history of UglyTown and the original publication of “By the Balls.” It was humbling, humorous and heartwarming all at once.
TF: For me, the last story was just a lot of fun, once we figured out what that story was. We did a short story called “Punch in the Gut and A Bag Full of Oranges,” for Skylight Books here in Los Angeles. It was a rif off of solicitation copies they had written for our appearance for an event; we turned it into a story and read it for an event. “A Punch in the Gut…” became the bridge between all the Ben Drake stories, certainly after the events of BTB and some things happen and what those were came into play in the final short story we wrote with a Punch in the Gut…as a bridge. Bringing some of those characters at the time, we had just written them and thought ‘Hey, they’re colorful folks and throw them in there.’ It was adventurous to bring those people back [in the final story] a little more menacing and a little more mean-spirited and actually having an overarching criminal plot line.
CCP: In terms of these menacing characters that you both created, what was your favorite out of those minor characters that influenced the crimes that Ben Drake was solving?
TF: Each one has a certain reason why they exist. Small Tooth Kelley is probably up there; he may be number one. There were a couple others that were mentioned but never really developed, like Herman the German. But we didn’t know quite what he does except he was a member of a crime syndicate. Duke Wellington is the other one that really took on a life of his own, a persona. Early on he’s been the young, honest cop of Testacy City. It’s really interesting to look back and see how characters develop. Once you figure out who they are, they kind of take over a little bit. He was a fun character to write. I mean, you can’t go wrong with Duke Wellington.
CCP: He really balanced out Ben Drake a lot.
TF: They were really working on the same side of the street, but they’re still antagonistic. They don’t trust each other, but they turn to each other when they need help, when it really matters.
CCP: What are you reading right now? Which authors most inspired your writing?
TF: I voraciously read anything I can get my hands on; I can’t get enough. As a kid, I read a lot of fantasies and science fiction, like H.G. Wells—some of his stuff was really fantastic. I remember reading ‘The Time Machine,’ in one sitting. Tolkien and all that stuff goes without being said. One of the authors I really like is Japanese writer Haruki Murakami—he’s a master, very lyrical and poetic. The way it comes across. I love the way he writes. The first book I read of his was ‘A Wild Sheep Chase.’ It’s a little absurdist, a little magical realism. For me, it was a delight to read and I recommend it to a lot of people. Willy Gibson—he’s somebody I’ve been reading since college. I like the world he paints. I’ve always admired him.
Right now I’m reading John D. McDonald and Ross McDonald. I hadn’t really read them before. I’m almost done with ‘The Deep Blue Goodbye.’ Those are the ones out of Florida. He wrote the Travis McGee novels. It’s one of those that I missed when I was coming up. Ross McDonald was kind of the generation after Hammett and Chandler. McDonald picked up the gauntlet that they had thrown down. Lou Archer was his character. I picked those guys out if Hammett and Chandler were the back zone of Ben Drake, and moving into new Ben Drake. I thought maybe there’s something here that was an evolution or style or some kind of different elements, different feelings these guys had that we could incorporate. I also like Phillip Pullman, just picked up his new fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm—he references all the places these stories existed, different sources and versions and why he did this particular take on it. I recently read ‘The Scarlet Plague.’ There’s a guy, Joshua Glenn, who publishes these old Radium Age science fiction stories. Pullman found and published Jack London’s ‘The Scarlet Plague,’ a post-apocalyptic rebuilding of society. The repackaging on those ended up being really nice.
JP: At the moment I just finished a book that I’d been arduously trying to track down for many years: Haruki Murakami’s very first book, ‘Hear the Wind Sing.’ It was translated into English, but it was never published in America. It was an English language edition done for the Japanese market. That book features the characters that appear in Murakami’s ‘A Wild Sheep Chase,’ and I’m rereading that since the first book is so fresh in my mind. I just read ‘Alif the Unseen,’ which is a cyber-fantasy novel set in the Middle East. I am also reading the comic book adaptation of some of the Parker books that Darwyn Cook did, published by IDW, which are also extremely awesome and super stylish adaptations.
In terms that writers who inspired me I sort of break it down into two categories: my overall life in writing. J.G. Ballard is probably my favorite author. Umberto Eco, Murakami, who I’ve mentioned, and experimental French writers, such as Raymond Queneau and George Barret. I would be remiss if didn’t mention crime writers who not only influenced me but also very specifically influenced the ‘By the Balls’ collection—all of the big guys from Chandler to Hammett to my favorite at the time, 15 years ago, Cornell Woolrich. I really fell in love with his style. There’s something about his writing that’s not nearly polished as a Hammett or Chandler. There’s a frenetic energy that’s really amazing in what he is able to achieve. What’s most amazing about it is that as often as it succeeds, it fails. There are stories ridiculous or silly or flat out don’t work. When Woolrich is on, it’s a ride like anything else. He is able to create a level of suspense and intrigue that I think is still, to this day, untold.
CCP: You also have the unique experience of being in publishing. What do you think you learned the most from your experience at UglyTown? How did that experience influence your writing?
TF: I learned a lot from that particular experience. A lot of people say to find something you love and the money will come. [I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case.] I love books. I loved publishing books. But it was a hard road for an independent publisher in the ’90s. Distribution was a challenge. We had a great distributor called Words that was part of the Book People wholesaler. They treated us well, but they ended up going out of business, but we got picked up by Publishers Group West–those guys were great too. They knew their stuff, but they had a parent company that went out of business. So we had two distributor bankruptcies back to back. It was frustrating. That’s what made us call it quits. We lost a fair chunk of change from when Words went under. It wasn’t completely devastating, since we thought we’d get it back. So when our second distributor went out of business, we were like ‘Yeah, well, what are we going to do now?’ I learned a lot about the book business in the ’90s. Now, with e-books, it’s different. The time to market is faster. It takes a matter of days instead of months. That’s a nice thing about modern-era publishing.
I am not keeping up on everything there is to know about publishing. I’m sure there’s more to it, and it’s not that simple. I’m the kind of guy who isn’t going to do anything until I have it all planned out. Before our meeting with Words, I did a lot of research about book dates and distribution and all the elements that went into getting books into the marketplace. They highly complimented us on our learning curve for distribution. We had good products and good authors that read well and were designed well, but the market place was a challenge. However, it was such a frustrating time that we had to call it quits. We were out of money, in the hole and no way out.
JP: Writing is a business. It’s very easy to think that the job of an author is to sit around and dream up magical, make-believe worlds. There’s certainly a part of the job that does that, however, we found very early on, from the other side of the table, that the job of a novelist doesn’t end when you finish the draft of the manuscript. It’s sort of the beginning of a lot of work that involves everything from working with the publishers to marketing the book to making relationships with book sellers to hand selling to promoting… We were very lucky to work with other like-minded writers, which in many ways was the entire reason we formed UglyTown, to allow other writers who were like us, to have the benefit of us having done it once or twice already. We also ran into people who wanted us to publish them, who thought we were millionaires, and the moment we would give them a contract they would be like, ‘When does the national tour begin? When do I get picked up by a limousine? Now that I signed a contract, when do I get to quit my job?’ I feel like having really understood the business of making and selling books has given me insight into the industry and how I approach it now as a writer. I say that because when I was younger, I would try and hide the fact that I have a day job. People would ask, ‘What do you do?’ And I would say, ‘I’m a writer. What do you think I do?’ I was lucky enough, and Tom as well, because of UglyTown and success of our early books, we were able to quit our day jobs and focus on publishing and writing fulltime. The truth is it was more of a hustle. Just because you don’t have a day job doesn’t mean you don’t have to make money. The greatest lesson of the whole UglyTown experience was that I would rather be in a place right where I have a day job, making salary and be happy with what I do. I get certain a level of fulfillment from that. My life today allows me to write whatever the hell I want and not in any way be concerned if my editor isn’t happy or my agent isn’t happy or this person doesn’t feel like this isn’t marketable or sellable that my family may not be able to eat. As an artist, that means a lot to me.
CCP: What’s your opinion on today’s publishing business model?
TF: As far the modern era I think it’s a great time to be a writer. You’ve got the whole notion of the long tail. I think it was the Chris Anderson idea. You only need one-thousand true fans. All you have to do is get a thousand people to buy anything. It was WIRED’s Chris Anderson who popularized that idea. If you’re a writer and you got your book, your series and a thousand people willing to invest in you on a continual basis, then you’re good. Certainly today’s publishing model helps that along. It’s relatively easy to write a story and put it out there. With that being said, I do like traditional publishing. I don’t think my kids are going to have this, but I like the feel of an actual book. There are guys out there like Hugh Howey, who wrote the Wool series, which is also something I’ve read last year. Here’s this little fantasy story about the dystopian future. It took off. People love it. It’s well written. He’s in a good place because of it. I’m glad Akashic is publishing us. We’ve been friends for a long time. It’s cool to have a book published and not have to do the legwork, bringing the book alive and doing the promotions and all the work goes with it.
JP: I’m glad I’m not in the publishing business. Certainly the industry is in a state of change as I feel like it was 15 years ago when we started UT. Back then, people were like, ‘You’re starting a publishing company? Are you guys crazy? Don’t you know what’s going on?’ You needn’t be reactionary about change or possess a sort of sky-is-falling mentality. Certainly there are some changes that are worrisome whether it be independent or large-chain bookstores closing or other kinds of shifts in purchasing and reading habits. It’s easy for me to say this because I’m not in the publishing business per se. But at the end of the day, the act of reading and providing stories is something that is not going away. It may be that it is greatly minimized over what happened five years ago or 10 years ago or 50 years ago. There are opportunities with new technologies like e-books as well as opportunities with brick-and-mortar space because of the rise of certain technology whether it’s in high-end collector editions or in the larger need for hand selling for midlist authors. I just want to have a macro view of the whole thing, which is every time a bookstore goes out of business, I am greatly saddened. In Los Angeles we’ve had amazing stores go out of business that are sorely missed. I don’t want to let that sense of sadness poison what is still a great industry and even more importantly a great art form. Part of the big message is that the industry, as well as the art form, is changing. Certainly there are people who feel like the industry is somehow going away—we can’t allow that to seep into the idea that books are going away or, more importantly, that writing going away. I just don’t believe that.
CCP: Where do you see crime fiction going in the future?
TF: There will always be mysteries. There’s a certain human desire to be inquisitive and figure things out, and the mystery genre brings that out in people. It’s a large portion of what’s on TV right now. CSI is a weekly whodunit. I must say that it’s been awhile that I’ve been an active author. I try to write every day, but I don’t always get the chance. It’s been awhile since I’ve been actively putting out things for people to consume. It’s an interesting time for media. If you have a product people want, and it happens to be a mystery, you’re in a good position. It’s a genre people really respond to.
As long as people are writing stories out there, there’re going to be mysteries. There’s a book called ‘The Last Policeman,’ a science fiction novel, by Ben Winters. It’s about a guy who is a detective who must finish solving a crime before an asteroid destroys the earth. Mystery shows up in other genres, like science fiction fantasy. People like to find things out. Presented with a problem, find a solution, and it’s riveting.
JP: I felt a little bit of a revelation several years ago. After UglyTown and after Tom and my experience on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the things I had done was a fantasy comic book series called ‘Undertown.’ That series is not a mystery, at least not per say, I would not put it in the mystery section of the book store and I would not classify it as having those tropes. It was certainly not a noir story. In writing that book, I started to realize, as I was examining that process, I was looking at some of the scenarios from a noir point of view about why I need to create a certain amount of suspense or an element of mystery to move the plot around. This seems so obvious, but it was a kind of revelation for me personally—noir and mystery is more than a genre; it’s a way of life. It’s a way of looking to the world that appeals to me both as a reader and a writer. Everything I do—even if it does not feature a private detective or involving somebody breaking the law—has a certain element of noir to it. What this means, in a larger sense, is that the mystery genre is very healthy because I don’t think the stories have all been told—I think crime fiction or noir fiction or any of that stuff will always have a place. There’s an exciting and vital way in which crime fiction captures the human condition. I’m obviously encouraged by the current trends, whether it’s the Norwegian mystery or this and that. Overall, good stories win out. There will always be a good mystery.
CCP: What is the most criminal or craziest thing you have done and gotten away with without any consequences?
TF: When I was younger, I was a great shoplifter. Like all criminals, I made some mistakes and got caught. I had pretty good run there. A group of friends and I once had a shoplifting racket, and we were pretty good at it. It was more of a rebellion that anything else. It actually came in handy later when I worked in a store, and it was really easy to spot thieves—maybe it was career training.
CCP: Was there a type of store or product that was easiest for you to shoplift?
TF: When we got into it, it was almost a what-couldn’t-we-steal situation. There were times when I thought I was totally busted and talked my way out of it, and I don’t know how that happened. We’d pocket little video games, anything we could get away with. We didn’t gravitate toward any one particular item. Electronics stores were an interesting target because they had all the cool stuff. If we could get bigger things like CDs or books, that was cool, but it was mostly small things. I also pilfered a Christmas tree one year in college.
CCP: How did you do that?
TF: We were decorating the common area of our dorm, but we needed a Christmas tree so we cut one down. We had to bring it back across the city—it was snowing out. That was just interesting.
When you do those things, you’re very aware of people in positions of authority—we had to sneak by a security guy. He totally saw us but didn’t even ask what we were doing with a Christmas tree. He just waved at us and went on. Either they’re not observant, which is a lot of people, or they just fill in the blanks. I would have totally been thinking, ‘Where did they get Chistmas tree at 3 a.m.?’ Even with the shoplifting thing, you could make up stories and people wanted to believe you. I don’t think people are that trusting anymore. I know my kids: my daughter makes up stories, but I see right through them—I know these kinds of tricks. I wonder if people were any more naïve back then. That definitely had an influence on how I would write about people. People don’t necessarily realize the reality that’s in front of them. They see what they want to see, which helps to create fiction. If you’re able to see the world through other people’s eyes, that’s important.
JP: One of my favorite dalliances, when researching ‘Five Shots and A Funeral,’ was a story that involved a cock fight. Tom and I did a bunch of research on this phenomenon, but none of it felt right—it was a little too literary and academic. We didn’t want to read books about a cock fight. We happened to know a friend of ours who was a criminal lawyer. He had represented some folks who were on the other side of the law, shall we say, and put us in contact with a member of the Mexican mafia who agreed to escort us into South Central L.A., into an illegal cock fight. It was an experience unlike any other. In the beginning it was really disarming, because when you think of going to something that’s underground or shady or illegal—in my mind at least—everyone is in hoods or sporting hats, lights are dimmed, and everybody is smoking and talking in low graveling voices. But instead it was like a family reunion in someone’s back yard, and everybody was happy. But of course, because I’m a writer and I was really trying to watch everyone, I noticed that no one looked like a criminal, except for these little flashes. They dressed like regular guys except for a few extremely expensive belts. They wore jeans with flannel button-downed shirts or had really expensive shoes or boots on. All of it seemed very natural and calm. Nobody was like, “Who are you?” A lot of the people didn’t speak English, so it was a little awkward. There was a moment at the fight where certain people started arguing in Spanish—I don’t speak Spanish. I’m a little like, okay what’s going on here? Nothing bad happened, but there was an escalating sense of something not right, and my escort said, ‘Okay, we’re leaving.’ When a member of the Mexican mafia says it’s time to leave, you leave.
CCP: What’s next for the ‘By the Balls’ writing duo? Any future plans for more Ben Drake stories?
TF: We’re not exactly sure what’s up with Ben. In writing the last story we have a couple of other ideas that were too big to put in here. There is definitely more Ben Drake to be told if people want to read it. The world of Testacy City is a strange, chaotic, lawless landscape, so we can definitely write about the plethora of bad guys who have shown up but could return. But it depends on what people want. If people want more Ben Drake, there’s definitely more Ben to be written. Ben is troubled character; we can’t make him too happy—he doesn’t work well when he’s happy. He’s got more things coming his way.
JP: I tend to be an extremely busy person in general. When Tom and I suggested putting this book together, speculating writing new and additional stories, we went into it thinking it could be a disastrous failure. 15 years later we could be at each other throats, like “How dare you?!” Or we could somehow miraculously arrive at the finish line, be sort of like, “Okay, I’ll see you 15 years from now, and I am done with this.” But instead, we both felt that this is really awesome and fun. And even though we are busy—we both have families—it just felt good and felt right. We haven’t announced anything in terms of future collaborations. But I will say that the spirit is willing. We’ve been having lots of discussions about how to keep this good vibe going. Ultimately, that’s what’s important to us; if something feels right, we want more of that.
CCP: What are you working on now?
TF: Personally, I’ve been working on some ideas. I write on a daily basis to keep things fresh, because there was a period of time I stopped writing. Over the last couple of years, I have committed myself to writing. Even if I get up, it’ll be an exercise where I pull up an image on Flicker and write a story about that random image or little section of that image that all kind of fits together. Right now I am writing a short noir piece for “Mondays are Murder,” on Akashic’s website, which comes out right before the book. It’s always interesting to write with a challenge—theirs being 750 words max. Anytime you’re given constrains in writing, it spurs creativity. It makes you work harder than a normal free-form sessions. I have two daughters so I write stories for them—they’re also my audience. My older daughter started to write stories as answers to my stories. There might be a time when what we’re doing turns into something. Other than princesses, there are not many significantly strong characters girls their age can really aspire to, so we try to write our own kick-ass princess stories, and it starts to turn into time travel. They’re open to anything. They’re the best audience. I get up at 4 a.m. and see what I can come up with. Nothing is set in stone, except the short story.
JP: Currently, I’m involved with book design and just finished a design for the illustrator for “By the Balls.” His collection of crime stories, “One Trick Rip off,” which totally coincidentally came out 15 years ago, was reissued in a deluxe collector’s format that I was very proud to be a part of. The synchronicity of it all feels very right. I am very excited for Paul, for that book. It came out last month and is on the ‘New York Times’ Bestseller List for graphic novels. Also, even though I tell people I don’t do this, I live in L.A., so I constantly get roped into somebody or another asking to write a screenplay. Finally I gave in and co-wrote a screenplay for a short film called ‘The Mule,’ which is a sci-fi/crime/thriller mash up directed by Mike George, who I feel is extremely talented and I extremely proud of the outcome. I think they still have some post-production issues to complete, but I hope to announce that release sometime soon.