We are delighted to welcome author Gary Phillips to Omnimystery News.
Gary has a new collection of three of his crime novellas titled 3 the Hard Way (Down & Out Books; February 2016 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we asked him to share his thoughts on writing. He titles his guest post for us today, "The Deep Dark Woods of Story".
— ♦ —
Photo provided courtesy of
We live now in an age when at our fingertips, on a smartsphone or iPad, a pair of wired-in eyeglasses, or soon probably some kind of wrist braclet, we can access information and more importantly to those of us looking to entertain you the reader and viewer, entertainment 24/7. Some of these you pay for and some of this, like those old episodes of T.H.E. Cat (a '60s show starring the late Robert Loggia as a cat burglar turned kung fu kicking bodyguard) I was watching the other day on YouTube, for free relatively speaking. I could segue into a rant about how Amazon has utilized its reductive strategies in book retailing so that writers are doing piece work akin to slapping together motherboards in a maquiladora, but such is not my purpose here.
Rather, I want to celebrate being a genre storyteller. When I was a kid my mechanic dad would ask me at the end of the week about the stories I'd read in those funny books I spent my allowance money on — making sure his hard-earned wages weren't going to waste. As I did this again and again, it occurred to me there was something magical in the telling. These weren't even my stories, I was merely synopsizing what I'd read and viewed in those Marvel issues of Daredevil and the Rawhide Kid — 'cause back then where I grew up in South Central, one did not read DC comics as they were considered too … white bread let's say.
Still the seed germinated; what if I made up my own stories?
UK producer-writer John Yorke (former head of Channel Four's Drama Production) in a recent piece in The Atlantic, "All Stories Are the Same," summed up his theory as, "In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs — the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within." Not for nothing was the article adapted from his book Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey into Story. Of course there is no one unifying framework encompassing all forms of story, but for those of us plying the mystery and crime fiction trade, and by extension the action-adventure and thriller pursuits, there's a gravity to Yorke's words.
We the writer ask ourselves what do our characters want? In noir, they want the forbidden, the illicit. In the mystery, they want to solve the puzzle which might have smaller or larger significance and ramifications. The thriller is more driven by its kinetic nature, but still its undergirded by grounding the principals in goals like saving a child, revenge or thwarting the bad guys. In a crime story, we root for the thief or at least are intrigued by an amoral absconder like Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, who callously manipulates matters to take a rich man's life in order to step into it.
There's a bit of Ripley and some of A.J. Raffles, the 1920s gentlemen thief-cracksman in the modern day Malcolm Cavenaugh Bleekston, more usually called McBleak, even by the woman who shares his bed. He's a one percenter who takes great glee in robbing his fellow swells. He's also planted electronic surveillance devices in the homes and offices of the upper crust to learn their secrets. And as hinted at in a couple of scenes in The Extractors, he may not have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth like the other hipster well-offs, but took that utensil from an unwilling donator.
Yet a balance must be maintained. The other two who share their adventures with McBleak in my recently released novella compilation 3 The Hard Way, are more easily cast in the role of hero, though not without their flaws. Luke Warfield was once a black ops specialist who carried out questionable acts. These things ate at him. He then made off with someone else's ill gotten gains and started his life over, becoming a philanthropist back in the 'hood where he'd come from to atone for his past. But our sins invariably catch up with us. While Ned "Noc" Brenner is a gifted slacker, an extreme athlete who drifts around making money at everything he does from hang gliding off a building, to motocross racing or wining in an underground poker game. But when he's challenged to put his skills to the test to help others, he doesn't turn away.
For it is the deep, dark woods where the heart of our character lie amid the thorny, twisted brambles. Where their story is found, the story we can't let alone until we know how it comes out. For instance, I watched on PBS a few weeks ago, Chuck Norris vs. Communism, about the time in 1985 Romania under the Ceausescu dictatorship, where an underground entrepreneur Mr. Zamfir — love that name — smuggled in western movies on VHS tapes. He then recruited a translator named Irina Nistor, who worked for the one government run television station. Not having sophisticated equipment to sync up and dub over the American actors, she merely did a running translation of their words, male and female, recorded over the tapes as they spoke. Video watching parties got to be all the rage in those years and the unseen Nistor a woman of mystery and allure to many despite having a high-pitched, scratchy voice.
Yet even as they knew the secret police were on to them, she wouldn't stop. She felt in some way the mostly genre films, from Rocky, The Cotton Club, Death Cruise, Last Tango in Paris to Norris' Missing in Action not only showed life outside dreary Romania, but served as aspirational video fables about justice, right and wrong and courage. In the doc several grown young men who were kids then recounted fondly watching the scene where Norris is hung upside down and a sack with a live rat is put over his head in MIA. Soon blood soaks the sack but when his evil captors remove the sack, ol Chuck has bitten the rat and grips it in his mouth. Tapes were supplied to the secret police and according to Mr. Zamfir, Ceausescu's son as well.
For as the Nistor of now asks us rhetorically toward the end of the film, "People need stories, no?"
Into the woods we go.
— ♦ —
Weaned on the images of Kirby and Steranko in comics and Hammet and Himes in prose, Gary Phillips was born under a bad sign with family roots in Texas near the Guadalupe River and the Mississippi Delta. Only through writing does he hope to forestall his appointment at the crossroads.
For more information about the author, please visit his website at GDPhillips.com and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook.
— ♦ —