By Rick Reed
SUGAR POP MOON introduces Jersey Leo, a quintessential outsider and most unusual noir hero. He’s an albino of mixed race; he makes his living as the bartender at a speakeasy in Prohibition-era Hell’s Kitchen. Being neither black nor white, he has no group to call his own. His mother abandoned him as a baby. And his father—a former boxing champ with his own secrets—disapproves of Jersey’s work at a dive owned by one of New York’s most notorious gangsters. When Jersey inadvertently purchases counterfeit moonshine (“sugar pop moon”) with his boss’s money—a potentially fatal mistake—he goes undercover to track down the bootlegger who ripped him off. The journey leads him to some dark places—and forces him to confront his past in order to move forward.
Best-selling author Rebecca Cantrell says, “In SUGAR POP MOON, John Florio’s powerful use of historical detail slams you into the gritty world of 1930s bootleggers, where his hero, albino Jersey Leo, holds you down for the count. Harsh as a slug of 190-proof moonshine.”
BOOKLIST says, “This is a hard-boiled, Prohibition-era novel and Jersey Leo is a well-developed, engaging character. The story moves fast, the violence is appropriate to the times, and there are laugh-out-loud moments amid the mayhem. Sure to appeal to fans of Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, and, more currently, Robert Fate’s edgy Baby Shark series.”
We caught up with author John Florio to find out what he has to say about SUGAR POP MOON—and what else we can expect from him and Jersey Leo.
Tell me about Jersey Leo. What kind of person is he, and how did his character come about?
Jersey’s a decent guy forced into a noir world. I suppose you can say that about many noir heroes, but in this case, he’s in a particularly tough situation because of his albinism. Most of the forces against him are a result of how he looks, not who he is. He’s not a detective. He’s not Sam Spade. He’s a bartender, trying to bring a little comfort to his downtrodden customers.
Where did his character come from? Me, I guess. Take my experiences growing up on the streets of Queens, New York, throw in my love of black-and-white noir films, add a shot of gin, and you’ve got a good chunk of Jersey Leo.
Why an albino hero?
The Jersey Leo stories are really about all biases, not just albinism. Had Jersey been a different minority or scarred in some other way, the basic conflicts could have been the same. But there’s a strong, unaddressed bias against those with albinism and it seemed to me that this would be an interesting way to address it.
A “strong bias”?
Oh, yeah. NOAH, the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation, has documented the number of “evil albinos” that have appeared in film and literature over the past 50 years. It’s a staggering list. Meanwhile, most people can’t remember a single albino hero. I often tell the story of finishing SUGAR POP MOON and having an agent tell me—before knowing what was on the pages I was sending him—that he wasn’t interested in any stories with albinos. Huh? It turns out he was referring to an evil albino, because he was being flooded with such submissions. It’s crazy. And it’s unfair to those with albinism, because it perpetuates a bias based on fears, misinformation, and urban myths.
What did you do before you became an author?
I was a commercial writer for years. I’ve written for just about every medium you can name—quite a bit of advertising, but also some television and journalism. I guess my interests were all leading me to write feature-length books. (Is that a term or did I just make it up?) In the end, though, I don’t see “authors” and “writers” as being entirely different animals. I think it was Mickey Spillane who said, “I’m not an author, I’m a writer, that’s all I am.” I know what he meant.
Aside from writing, I’ve taken on a lot of creative projects over the years. I’ve produced a couple of television documentaries; I’ve also composed music for television and films.
How did that past experience help in writing the novel?
I think every bit of a writer’s life, every one of his experiences, somehow lands on his pages. Obviously, my past writing work contributed to the novel, because the more you write, the better you get. But I think the music scoring helped quite a bit, too. It helps with structure—creating expositions, developments, and reconciliations—but also with the point and counterpoint of dialogue. I don’t want to get too heady here, but there are a lot of commonalities between crisp dialogue and a Bach fugue.
You’ve also written ONE PUNCH FROM THE PROMISED LAND, a non-fiction sports book about boxers Leon and Michael Spinks. What do you find are the biggest differences between writing fiction and non-fiction? Which stories do you prefer?
For me, the differences are mostly in the two processes. Each requires a different flow of energy. In non-fiction, you are digging for the story—you’re out in society, meeting new people, using logic and deduction to put pieces together. In fiction, you’re creating the story—you’re locked up in a room, cutting yourself off from others, and using your imagination to create characters and storylines. One is grounded in reality; the other is anything but.
I love both. And while the two processes are inherently different, the end results can still address the same truths, the same aspects of the human condition. I mean you could put ONE PUNCH FROM THE PROMISED LAND on the bookshelf right next to SUGAR POP MOON. Boxing and noir go hand in hand. In fact, many 20th-century noir writers have been captivated by the world of boxing—not the sport itself, necessarily, but the stories that surround it. The first name that comes to mind is Budd Schulberg, but there are so many others.
What advice would you offer beginning writers?
In regard to becoming a better writer (a journey we’re all sharing), my advice is to read a lot. Stephen King says he’s constantly reading; he even takes out books while waiting on line at the delicatessen. Most writers do the same. When the time comes to seek representation, I’d suggest that unpublished writers learn about their genre. Get to know the agents and publishers who are looking for their type of work. I know it feels like an added burden on top of sitting down and completing the manuscript, but it’s a necessity. And while I’m at it, here’s a quick word on agents: they’re worth the time it takes to find them, and they’re worth way more than the commission they charge. At least that’s true in my case.
So what’s next for Jersey Leo? And what’s next for you?
Well, SUGAR POP MOON is being released now. And my publisher, Prometheus, has already signed the next Jersey Leo novel, BLIND MOON ALLEY, for release in 2014, so I’m working on that now.
I’m also developing another non-fiction book, which, like ONE PUNCH FROM THE PROMISED LAND, will be an historical sports piece co-written with Ouisie Shapiro. We’re just getting going on it, so don’t bother looking for that until 2015.
John Florio (Brooklyn, NY) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in print, on the web, and on television. He is the author of the Jersey Leo crime series (SUGAR POP MOON and the forthcoming BLIND MOON ALLEY); he is also the author of ONE PUNCH FROM THE PROMISED LAND: LEON SPINKS, MICHAEL SPINKS, AND THE MYTH OF THE HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE.