Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Tom Pitts to discuss his new book, 101 (Down & Out Books).
Congratulations on the publication of your new book! How would you pitch 101 to potential readers?
101 is a story rooted in California weed country on the cusp of legalization. A kid on the run from San Francisco hides out on a weed farm with his mysterious host, an old-time friend of his mother’s. His host and his mother share a dark secret and trouble soon erupts. The fuse the kid ignites burns all the way up the 101. A wild cast of characters soon collide and his mother, his host, and an unlikely crew battle bikers, gangsters, and a couple of loose cannon cops as they all race back Oakland to settle old scores.
What do you hope that readers take away from the story?
I’ve tried to push my exploration of the multi-POV to create a fast-paced page-turner with a cinematic feel. I hope readers get to see the movie I saw in my head when I wrote it. It’s brutal, funny, and I hope captures some of what I experienced while I was knee-deep in the muck of Humboldt County.
Your various books chronicle different aspects of California’s criminal underbelly – how important is it not to repeat yourself?
I’ve very conscious of it. True, they all spring from the underbelly, but they’re very different in many ways. Hustle was about junkie male prostitutes, American Static covered political corruption. Knuckleball was about a young Mexican kid in the Mission District. Coldwater (the next one) is about a couple who move to the burbs. I’ll admit though, after these four novels, what I call my California Quartet, I’m wondering if it’s all I’ve got to say. I started writing two more novels and put ‘em down because they just weren’t doing it for me. I felt like it was ground I’d already tread. So yeah, I’m very conscious of it. I wonder how some of the successful authors, like Lee Child, deal with repetition. It’s an odd thing in the literature world. People love series, there’s something about a familiar brand they love to return to. Publishers sense that and they’ll squeeze a series—and an author—dry. I think it takes a special disposition to make a series work. I don’t think I’m built that way, my books most definitely have endings, and when they’re done, I have to move on to an entirely new story.
Are there any subjects or themes that you would like to return to?
You know, I’ve been having this debate about whether gentrification in urban America has driven writers back to rural noir, and it keeps coming up because the cities seem to have lost a lot of their edge. There’s not a lot of crime and desperation left in the big burgs. That got me thinking about what real crime looks like in the big city. And that’s petty crime, that’s hobos and winos breaking into liquor stores, drug dealers getting robbed by fiends, car burglaries, shoplifting. That’s what pulled me into writing in the first place, so I’ve been writing some shorts relating to the homeless and what’s going on out there in the street. The homeless situation in San Francisco, in all of California, has never been worse and it’s an issue that’s underreported and inaccurately portrayed.
Of all your protagonists to date, do you have a favourite – and why?
It’s funny, all my protagonists seem to be vehicles for the antagonists. I mean, that’s where the show is, right? The protags often take a back seat. They drive the story forward, but aren’t usually the heroes or the villains. Quinn in American Static was fun to write. He was a charismatic but sociopathic wise-cracking psycho. Vic, the anti-hero in 101, is great fun too, but he’s got a moral compass. A cowboy complex. I think the protag’s mother really turns out to be the hero. I try to keep the reader off balance by switching up who rises to the surface as a hero or villain, protagonist or antagonist.
In your opinion, what are the quintessential California crime novels that everyone should read?
I don’t know, that’s why I’m trying to write ‘em! Seriously, Denis Johnson did a great job with Northern California in Nobody Move, but he’s not really a crime writer. Crumley he did a great job with the state, The Last Good Kiss is a must read. Shit, Johnny Shaw, he captures his corner of the state perfectly in his books. Jordan Harper’s novel and his shorts have both a literary and an authentic note. I mean, there’s lots of great California writers throughout the last century history. Steinbeck, Bukowski, Fante, Ellroy, Chandler, Hammett. But I don’t know if the best in contemporary California crime fiction has bubbled up to the surface yet.
This book was published by Down & Out Books; do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?
My tastes vary, but I do read quite a few contemporaries. I get asked to write a blurb now and again, or I’ll get excited by an internet buzz. However most of my choices still come from the age-old tried-and-true word-of-mouth.
Which contemporary writers do you consider to be your peers?
Is this for potential jury selection? I talk a lot about the ladder or the food chain. That guy’s a few rungs up the ladder from me, or that person’s way up the food chain. I’m usually looking up at others accomplishments, but if they’ll still talk to me, I consider them a peer. I mean, shit, I still talk to Joe Clifford daily, but he’s more than a peer, he dragged me into this mess. Besides, he’s a few rungs up from me too.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?
That’s a tough question. When I was young the lives of so many writers seemed oddly glamorous to me. The wild nights, the heavy drinking, the broken hearts. When you get older though, you realize these things are the fallout of awful selfish people, and I don’t want to leave a wake of wickedness (although I’ve left my share.) Then I really started to write, and I learned it was really about the discipline. That’s the trait I truly admired. The guys who were able to sit down and write. Elmore Leonard comes to mind. He’s never tried to write the great American novel, and I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite novel of his because they’re all good. He had one hell of a work ethic and didn’t let success spoil it, so I guess I’d have to go with him. He was an inspiration. Now if I could only implement a few of those lessons learned.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans?
It looks like the next one, Coldwater, is coming out in 2020. After that, maybe a short story collection. But, God willing, there’ll be more novels. I’m sketching out a period piece right now. And by period piece, I mean the 1980s.
Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. He is the author of AMERICAN STATIC, HUSTLE, and the novellas PIGGYBACK and KNUCKLEBALL. His new novel, 101, is out on November 5th.