Brilliant Detective Tackles Multiple Personality Disorder in New IQ Book
When Joe Ide finally got around to writing a crime novel, he had already tried on—and rejected—a number of other careers. First he earned a graduate degree in education and became a grade school teacher, only to find that he didn’t particularly like it when kids asked him questions. He tried teaching college, business consulting, and working in human resources, none of which suited him any better than corralling schoolchildren. He finally turned to screenwriting and enjoyed some success with an early spec sale and several years of studio work-for-hire, but eventually grew disillusioned with the industry when none of those projects made it into production.
Finally, for lack of a better idea, Ide (pronounced EE-day) decided to write a crime novel. For inspiration, he turned to his childhood in South Central Los Angeles, where he read and reread Arthur Conan Doyle’s entire Sherlock Holmes canon. Though Ide is of Japanese-American descent, he identifies closely with African-American culture and decided to write about a black detective whose deductive abilities match Holmes’s, and thus East Long Beach private investigator Isaiah Quintabe and his namesake IQ series were born.
Upon publication of Ide’s debut, legendary New York Times film and book critic Janet Maslin declared him “the best thing to happen to mystery writing in a long time,” and the world of crime lit seemed to agree. IQ, published in 2016 when Ide was 58 years old, won the Anthony, Macavity, and Shamus awards for best first novel and was shortlisted for Edgar, Barry, and Strand Critics awards. In May 2015—more than a year before IQ hit bookstores—Deadline announced that rights to the series had been acquired by Alcon Television Group and Atlas Entertainment in a seven-way bidding war.
The acclaim was well deserved, and Ide’s initial two-book deal stretched into a successful series. He followed IQ with Righteous in 2017 and Wrecked the year after. Each installment is markedly different in tone than the one before, but the charismatic core of each book is the same: a brilliant young detective named Isaiah Quintabe, better known by his initials, IQ (also an allusion to his extraordinary intellect). Isaiah’s compassion runs as deep as his sense of justice; he’s taken on Chinese gangsters, ruthless loan sharks, and killers for hire, but he’s just as apt to use his skills to track down a neighbor’s stolen dog as to root out a murderer.
The fourth and latest IQ novel, HI FIVE (out now from Mulholland), places the young PI on his strangest case yet: he’s hired by vicious gunrunner Angus Byrne to clear his daughter, Christiana, of murder charges after one of Angus’s henchmen is gunned down in the young woman’s shop. Isaiah wants nothing to do with Angus, but he has little choice in the matter. If he doesn’t absolve Christiana of the murder, it’s Isaiah’s new girlfriend, a talented first-chair violinist with the Long Beach Symphony, who will pay the price: Angus will send his thugs to crush the woman’s hand, ending the career she’s spent her entire life working toward.
If the case sounds straightforward, it proves to be anything but. When Isaiah meets Christiana, he finds that she’s afflicted with multiple personality disorder (MPD), and each of her five “alters” has different recollections of the murder. To further complicate matters, Isaiah quickly realizes that at least one of Christiana’s personalities is hiding something from him. As Isaiah tries to figure out what really happened in Christiana’s shop that night, he finds himself in the crossfire of a number of factions working against one another: Angus’s sociopathic right-hand man, the white supremacist gang under Angus’s command, a Cambodian street gang with a score to settle with Angus, and a pair of assassins desperate to shake Isaiah off their trail.
In this wide-ranging interview—his first with The Big Thrill—Ide pulls back the curtain on the newest IQ mystery, his transition from screenwriter to novelist, and the biggest obstacle that might be keeping aspiring writers confined to the slush pile.
Why did you decide to put Isaiah on a case involving MPD?
I was fascinated with that world of multiple personalities. It’s tragic, but it’s also fascinating. It almost always stems from child abuse, and the child can’t take it anymore, so their personality fractures into different personalities, which are called “alters.” And these alters, they split up the abuse—that is, it’s no longer one personality taking all of this horror; it’s five victims. So there’s, in a way, less abuse. Each of these personalities has a function, like Christiana is what they call the “host.” She runs things from day to day. Other personalities may be submissive or overtly sexual, and each of these functions is useful in certain situations with an abuser. But as you grow into an adult, it gets pretty complicated. Anyway, that world just intrigued me.
The tragedy of MPD really comes through in HI FIVE, whereas a lot of stories sensationalize the condition. What tropes or clichés did you consciously avoid?
I didn’t want to pick the low-hanging fruit. I really wanted to get into Christiana’s hurt, her terrible situation, and to treat her as a human as opposed to kind of a novelty. It’s a thing I go for all the time, or at least I try to—I try to tell a story with an interesting character, but I want everybody to have some element of humanity. It is the thing that I think in books we all respond to, or at least I do. I have to identify, to one degree or another, with the character. No one really cares about a car chase unless you’re invested in the people in the car. And that’s always in my head. I write whatever the character is.
Going back a bit: when you first created Isaiah, did you see an empty space in crime lit that needed to be filled? Were you that intentional about the character?
No. I was a Sherlock Holmes fanatic when I was a kid. I was a small kid in a big neighborhood, and so that idea that you could sort of make your way through the world with just your brain was a really powerful idea to me. That love of Sherlock, plus the way I grew up—when it was time to write a book, those things came together almost by themselves. “Sherlock in the ’hood” was my only idea. [Laughs] I had no other ideas. It’s not like I was choosing from a list of them.
It’s a good thing it worked out, then, right?
Now that you’re four books in, I’m curious about how Isaiah is evolving for you. Are you getting to know him more, or did he arrive fully formed?
I’ve been making him up as I go along. I don’t outline—I have a story idea, I have a few characters that I think will work, and I just start writing. And that’s the way I started the IQ book. I had some feelings, but they were vague. I don’t know if anything will work, or if I like anything, until I actually see it on the [printed] page. It’s different from seeing it on the computer screen. I have to print it out, look at it, and read it to see if it works. It’s not efficient—I throw away way more pages than I actually keep. But it’s the only way I know how to write.
And so I didn’t have a grand vision. I didn’t have this sort of forward-looking idea of how the series would go. I write in increments—I write five pages and look at them, and write another 10 pages or whatever it is. And that was the way it was when I finished the first book. I could sort of see where the second book would go, in terms of their personal stories. That was in my head, to keep the characters evolving from one book to another, and have their lives change as all our lives change. But I didn’t know the specifics until I wrote them.
With a series character like IQ, you want to keep him growing and changing, but you also want him to always be the guy that readers show up for, right? How do you maintain that balance?
I know his core. He is just, and he doesn’t find his courage at the end of a gun, and he is quiet, he is reserved, but he is intense—I sort of envisioned him as a young Denzel. He may not say anything, but you know he’s in the room. And he’s decidedly low-tech. I did want him to be that way; I can’t compete with other writers when it comes to technology, and I really didn’t want to. I wanted to separate him from the other franchise characters that are out there. It’s why he’s not flashy at all. He doesn’t appreciate flash, doesn’t listen to hip hop. He has no interest in gangster culture. In a lot of ways he’s like all of us—he’s seeking a way through the world, and he wants a relationship of substance. His problem is that he’s in this world of criminals and crime. He would have functioned well in any world, but that’s where his path led him. He ended up on his path because of what happened to him in the first book, with the death of his brother. And now that’s who he is, and he can’t get off the train.
Your secondary characters are as fully formed and three-dimensional as IQ himself. Tell me about making them stand out.
I’m paraphrasing Elmore Leonard, but he said, “Everybody’s the main character.” I treat them like that. I want every character to be vivid, or what’s the character doing there? I don’t want anybody to be just part of the machinery. It is the characters that we invest ourselves in, and so my thinking is and has always been, let’s treat everybody like the main character. And it doesn’t really matter to me whether they have five pages in the book or 55. I want them to be in some ways genuine and, again, a character we can identify with, or at least their motivations.
I’d like to talk about your career, or careers. Your degree is in education but you worked in several different fields before you turned to writing, and then you got into screenwriting. How did you find yourself in that world?
I had always wanted to write, but it was just something I whined about: “I want to be a writer.” But I never really did anything about it. I just came to a point where it was put up or shut up, right? Do it or don’t talk about it anymore. So I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter because, like many people, I thought writing a screenplay would be easy. And I got into one and I discovered it was really, really hard. To cover not only the things that you think are important, but also to anticipate what a studio is looking for in a spec screenplay—I knew nothing about that. And unlike a novel, you’re not just writing what you want to write. It’s for another medium, and it’s something that other people, like a director and actors, have to like and get into.
And so I had an acquaintance who was an agent, and I wrote exactly 12 bad screenplays. I would send them to this agent—this was before email—and he’d send me a little note back that said, “This is just terrible. Nobody’s going to want to watch this.” So, this 13th screenplay, he thought it was pretty good. And it sold to Disney, and then I started to work. I worked fairly frequently. I worked for most of the majors, but nothing got made. If you’re a screenwriter, nothing really counts unless it gets made. And [my projects] would fall off the radar for one Hollywood reason after another, and finally I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just burned out, and nobody noticed, but I quit. I moped around for a long time until I realized that writing was my only marketable skill. So I wrote IQ.
When you couldn’t stand the thought of writing another screenplay, why were you okay with writing a novel?
Again, there were no alternatives. [Laughs] I did on some level want to write again, and when I started to write the book, I found it incredibly freeing. I didn’t have producers or studio executives looking over my shoulder. I could write what I wanted to write. And that’s sort of my mantra: just write what you want to write, and don’t worry about publishing, don’t worry about agents, don’t worry about marketing and all the other things that aspiring writers worry about—just write the page. And the more I did it, the more the feeling returned to me of really loving writing. It sort of built its own momentum. These days, I can’t wait to write. I get up in the morning, have my coffee, sit down at my desk, and it’s sort of automatic. I’m really, really fortunate—I’m doing exactly what I want to do.
Going back to those 12 bad scripts: a lot of writers would have given up, but failure is a great teacher. What did those bad screenplays teach you?
They made me angry, and they made me desperate. If anything, I am determined, and I’m resolute, and I have a really good work ethic. I never thought, I’m going to give up. It was just, what am I going to write next? And I think the problem with a lot of aspiring writers is, they blame the industry instead of asking themselves, did I write a good book? And while any of these aspiring writers could write a great book review and know exactly what’s wrong with somebody else’s book, they rarely apply those standards to their own work. They never look at it critically and ask themselves, is this professionally written? Do I have enough command of my craft to write something that a general audience would want to read? That is the greatest obstacle between an aspiring writer and getting published: is the writing itself [good enough]?
When I quit screenwriting and was contemplating writing the book, I thought, I’m a professional writer. I’ve been doing this for a long time. But when I started to write this long-form narrative, it was a completely different thing. It was like switching from golf to tennis. Just because you’re a great golfer, it doesn’t mean those skills will translate. I had to learn to write clear, decent prose. I was reading Elements of Style and On Writing Well, things like that, and it was about a year before I felt like the writing was okay. And for the next two years, I sort of found my own rhythm, my own style.
How long do you see yourself writing IQ books? Do you think about doing other things, or is this where you’re happy and want to stay for a while?
I have other things I want to write, but I don’t foresee myself not writing IQ books. Because the characters evolve, and because I have the option to write about whatever I want, I can’t see them getting boring. So I’ll continue to write those, but there are other things I want to write. I’d like to write a standalone. A series has a particular dynamic, and a certain story structure where one book sets up the next book. I don’t necessarily want to do that again. And I want to write something that’s not in the genre. I write in third person [limited], where I have the point of view of the character, and the point of view switches from character to character. And because my characters are largely lowlifes, I don’t get to use the kind of language that I want to use all the time. I’d like to write something that’s more literature-oriented, or at least where I can explore that kind of writing.
Finally, is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like readers to know?
I would like to say something. There’s a comment I get fairly frequently, about readers being disappointed that a book wasn’t like the previous one, or that I’ve lost the formula from what made the books successful. My problem is, I don’t have a formula. I don’t have a template. I have characters and I write wherever they lead me, and if it’s more or less suspense, or comedy, or one character, or a combination of characters, that’s where I go. I serve the story. And so the only thing I can say for certain to those readers is, every book will be different from the last. I don’t know any other way to write, and I don’t want to know any other way to write. This is very satisfying for me, and I’d like those readers to know that.