Career Pursuit: An Interview with Gary Phillips
Weaned on the images of Kirby and Steranko in comics and Hammett and Himes in prose, Gary Phillips was born under a bad sign—and only through writing does he hope to get out from under it.
In this interview with The Thrill Begins and shared with The Big Thrill, he gives insight into his publishing and writing career, as well as information about his newest release, MATTHEW HENSON AND THE ICE TEMPLE OF HARLEM.
How did you begin your writing career?
Coming of age in South Central, my background includes having been a community organizer around police abuse issues, a union rep, and running a nonprofit after the 1992 Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles. Concurrent to all that, I was a reader of mysteries, sci-fi, Doc Savage and Shadow pulp reprints, sprinkle in a little C. L. R. James, and way too many comic books. Those experiences and sensory input permeated my brain and initially my writing was of a practical nature—writing copy for a flyer or brochure for an upcoming community action or town hall. That eventually morphed into longer pieces, articles for, say, a newsletter, but always in the back of my mind was the notion of drawing on my real-world arena and transporting some of that into the body of a crime fiction novel.
Are you with the same agent you started out with?
I am not, though we’ve been together for some time. In typical Hollywood fashion, my original agent was someone who’d read a spec screenplay of mine and that brought us together back when. Then when I’d written Violent Spring, set in the aftermath of ’92, he’d tried to place the book with a publisher with no success. But, and this will be explained later, the book eventually did see print and through a friend of mine was brought to the attention of a producer and we pitched the book to the “suits.” This past agent rep’d me on the deal and Violent Spring was subsequently optioned by HBO, but never produced. But it became clear we had different ideas on where I should take my so-called career and parted amicably.
Other than your agent, have you put together an outside team?
I don’t have an outside team though I’m painfully aware if you want to get traction in this writing game, having someone who tweets and covers the various forms of social media on your behalf is very useful. But I think I’m too long in the tooth to get too worked up about pursuing such on my own.
What amount of time per week do you spend on social media?
Not much. I have a presence on Facebook and will post there and comment on others’ postings, but that’s about the size of it. I will, however, collect contact info to various sites, blogs, and what-have-you, and at least share that with any particular publisher I’m doing a book with at the time.
Have you written multiple series/genres? Has it been successful? Tell us anything you found beneficial in renewing your audience/reaching a new one.
I have written a few series, or at least a book or short story about a returning character, from my retro pulp hero Decimeter Smith set in 1930s L.A., cold cash courier Martha Chainey in modern-day Vegas to Tal Shanko, a former tunnel rat in ‘Nam who is now a big time pot grower looking to retire. These are stories across genres as well. And there’s been my work in comics. To some extent, the audience on the prose side for these materials overlap. On the comics end, not that much as comics people tend to read only in that medium but there is some. I suppose the benefit to me in writing in various genres is the kick I get out of it—how each foray into a parallel “universe,” be it noir, hardboiled or new pulp, informs the work overall.
Have you ever explored self-publishing?
Back in the Stone Age, before you kids had this here dang print-on-demand, end of 1992 into 1993 to be specific, I became a partner in a small press enterprise called West Coast Crime, headquartered in the Pacific Northwest. Crime fiction with a political edge was our motto. There was six of us, three of that number writers, and we learned the ins and outs of publishing, including being distributed by an outfit now long defunct but back then got us into bookstores, and even Costco. We had to print books the old-fashioned way, via offset, design the covers, edit and layout the manuscripts, do the promotion and so on. That was the first incarnation of the aforementioned Violent Spring and one of the writers we published, but who wasn’t a partner, was Ed Goldberg, whose Served Cold would go on to win a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America. That effort put us on the map and got several of us noticed by the New York houses, including John Shannon (one of the other partners), who writes the acclaimed Jack Liffey series. More recently, I’ve published with hybrid outfits such as Down & Out Books, Pro Se Productions, and Airship 27 in the new pulp arena. These houses are not distributed traditionally, yet their novels and anthologies are getting noticed.
What’s the one decision or change you’ve made that’s been most pivotal to your current career?
It was deciding back in 1992 even as the civil unrest was taking place, and I was working as the outreach director for a foundation that funded grassroots efforts in impacted areas like South Central, to use my on-the-ground knowledge to write the socio-politically charged mystery novel that would incorporate these elements. It meant writing late at night once the kids were in bed into the early morning hours, but it got done.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known starting out that you know now?
How goddamn much the internet would change the business of promoting writing.
What’s the one biggest fallacy about being a writer/the publishing industry you wish would go away?
That the words just flow. They do sometimes, but not often enough.
What’s your next book?
An illustrated thriller-type novella for TKO Studios, a comics and multi-media concern.
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