By Thomas Pluck
It’s 1967 and Moe Prager’s girlfriend has been beaten into a coma and left to die on a Brooklyn street. The same day, someone tries to run down his best friend. Moe, a college student, sets out to find the people behind these attacks, but is surprised at every turn as he pieces together the connection between the local mob, a radical student group, and an undercover cop. All roads, it seems, lead to ONION STREET.
Reed Farrel Coleman has been called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the “noir poet laureate” in the HUFFINGTON POST. He is the author of sixteen novels, three time recipient of the Shamus Award and a two-time Edgar Award nominee, winner of the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards and a founding member of MWA U.
Hi, Reed. For readers who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Moe Prager, give us the lowdown on him, and what he’s up against in ONION STREET.
Moe is both what you’d expect from a hard-boiled ex-cop turned PI and nothing you would expect from one. He’s a deep thinker and has a longstanding struggle with the subjects of God and religion. He has aged through the course of the series and undergone all sorts of growth, change, and tragedy. I thought it was a good time to tell the story of how he went from being an aimless college student in the late ‘60s to a cop. And that’s where we find Moe in ONION STREET. Unlike in the earlier books, this is Moe with no law enforcement experience. We watch him come to grips with the harsh realities of crime.
With the Moe Prager novels, you dive into the past with great realism. When I read THE JAMES DEANS I thought you’d written it in the early ’80s. It really sparked my nostalgia for dirty old Times Square. For ONION STREET you go deeper into Moe’s past, into the turbulent late ’60s. What draws you back, do you see us making the same mistakes, or is it just a richer canvas?
I grew up in the ‘60s, but I wasn’t yet a man. Oddly, in recounting it, I was shocked to recall just how many earth shattering events happened in such rapid succession. In the first six months of 1968 alone there was the Tet Offensive, the Pueblo incident, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. However, what people forget or people who didn’t live through it tend not to realize is that life went on. What I wanted to do was to focus on that part, how in spite of the world going to hell around Moe, what concerned him was his own small world. I also wanted to show how his small world and the larger world bled into each other.
I’m looking forward to reading your recreation of the Lower East Side. You have a great ear for dialogue and a fierce emotional undercurrent runs through your work. What stuck out for me were the struggles and family crises Moe endures. I bet he yearns for the day a PI just got a tire iron to the back of the head. Do we see a less battle-hardened, more vulnerable Prager in ONION STREET?
Exactly. I wanted to show the readers a Moe stripped of his worldliness and experience. Moe has always been a stumbler, but I wanted readers to see his first stumble as a parent might watch a child’s first step. The funny thing is that Moe never really loses his vulnerability. No matter how many blows he takes, he is never hardened to the emotional impact of the events in which he is either a witness or a player. I think that’s one of his great appeals to me and to readers.
I like that Moe sees his wife’s Irish family dynamic as an outsider. The character of his father-in-law, the defanged power player, is intriguing. Where do you get the inspiration for the pay-to-play corruption you detail so well? Do you have a background in law enforcement or politics?
I don’t actually have any law enforcement background at all. I have many cop friends and I find them interesting characters. They live in a world apart and a part of our world. I love that tension and inherent drama in that. As far as corruption, that I know something about. I grew up in Brooklyn during the height of Mafia influence and I worked in the cargo area at Kennedy airport for five years (see GOODFELLAS). I worked with guys just like the people in the movie. No kidding. And when I was young, my dad owned a supermarket. He used to buy his meat from Paul Castellano, who later became the head of the Gambino Family and was gunned down in front of Sparks Steakhouse.
I worked at the docks in Port Newark for a time, myself. It’s an experience, isn’t it? You’ve said that you hate research and THE JAMES DEANS was written without outlining, with very few edits. I’ve “pantsed” one novel, and I’ve taken to outlining, in pencil at least. Do you write as you go, or do you work the story out in your head before you attack it?
Each book is different. Sometimes the whole plot to a novel appears in m head. Other times, I’ll read something in the newspaper and that will spark an idea and that will get me going. Sometimes I only know the ending. Sometimes I only know the title. I go with it. There have been times when I’ve just sat down, started writing, and went with it. Although my writing process is always the same, I let keep my mind be open to any good idea or any spark. Although I don’t outline, I am not an anti-outline Nazi. I just have a mind that works the way it works. I don’t enjoy writing an outline because it destroys my enjoyment and surprise.
I was out in the Rockaways a month after Sandy, helping gut people’s homes. It was as bad as everyone says, but people are standing strong. How’s Coney Island holding up? James Lee Burke’s THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN told how Katrina punched a ventricle out of the heart of New Orleans, will you be writing about Sandy or is it too close to home?
I don’t write message books. If I have an idea to write a book that involves Sandy, I’ll write it, but it would never be my starting point. I don’t live in Brooklyn any longer, haven’t for three decades, but my childhood friend’s house got flooded and he lives a mile away from the beach. Coney Island got slammed.
You have quite a few other series. Gulliver Dowd, Joe Serpe, Dylan Klein. What’s next for Moe, and the rest of your rogue’s gallery?
Alas, for Moe there is but one more book, THE HOLLOW GIRL. It will be out in 2014 and then Moe and I will part company. The first book in the Gulliver Dowd series, DIRTY WORK, came out in March. The second in the series, VALENTINO PIER, will be out in the fall and I’m in the process of re-upping to do more books. I am also writing the e-book exclusive Det. Jack Kenny series for Hyperion with retired NYPD Detective John Roe. BRONX REQUIEM, our first, came out last November and we’re working on our second, HARLEM NOCTURNE, right now. I’m afraid there won’t be anymore Dylan Klein books, but there may be a big surprise for fans of the Joe Serpe books. Tyrus Books and I are negotiating to e-publish GUN BUNNIES, an alternative second novel in the series. Gee, I wish I was busy.
And we’ll be busy reading them! Thank you for the interview, Reed.
Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the “noir poet laureate” in the HUFFINGTON POST, Reed Farrel Coleman has published sixteen novels. He is a three time recipient of the Shamus Award and a two-time Edgar Award nominee. He has also won the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards. He is an adjunct professor of English at Hofstra University and a founding member of MWA U.
To learn more about Reed, please visit his website.