Jason Starr writes some of the best and bleakest noir fiction on the market. His books make for compulsive, fast reading, filled with black humor, hellish plots and hopelessly dysfunctional characters.
The author made his crime fiction debut with COLD CALLER (1997), a “white-collar noir” about one chump’s doomed attempt to slash his way to success in a Manhattan telemarketing office. The first-person narrative gives readers a rat’s-eye view of a maniac caught in a glue trap of self-made misery.
Starr’s latest novel PANIC ATTACK shows a middle-class family crumbling as their flaws are exposed in the aftermath of a home invasion. Jerry Stahl calls it “the perfect thriller”.
In this exclusive interview, Starr discusses the genesis of his new book, his upcoming projects, and what inspired him to write noir.
HF: PANIC ATTACK is a great read! How did you approach the plotting of this book; what was the original seed of the idea, and how did the narrative evolve as you went along?
Hey, thank you! The original seed of the book was the idea of this guy waking up in his house during a robbery and going for his gun, which turns out to be a very bad decision. This is how I usually think of my ideas at the beginning: no characters, just a situation. I also wanted to put the action up front in this book, to start the tension almost immediately, rather than building toward the first act of violence. Then, when I actually started writing (really, with the first dialogue) the characters came to life, and “the guy”, Adam Bloom, started to come into focus–I knew who he was, what his attitude was–and I saw that his wife and daughter would be major players, too. Then I was able to see how the plot for the book was going to develop.
HF: Like LIGHTS OUT and THE FOLLOWER, PANIC ATTACK very effectively switches between multiple viewpoints; you also employed this technique in your early novel NOTHING PERSONAL. Did you make a conscious decision to break away from the first-person psycho mold of COLD CALLER in order to tell a different type of story?
One reason I’ve done this is to mix things up from book to book. As a writer, I don’t want to get into a rut, repeating what I’ve done previously, and I want to keep things fresh for readers, too. Changing points of view has its advantages, because it allows for different levels of suspense. First-person books are more limited and claustrophobic. Recently I’ve been excited and obsessed by the thriller form, but I don’t want to write typical thrillers. I think in my recent books, like THE FOLLOWER and PANIC ATTACK, I’ve aimed to write contemporary thrillers with a satirical noir twist. I’d love to write another first-person crime novel, but at the same time I want to keep pushing myself into new directions.
HF: You write in a very no-bullshit, New York style, often to darkly humorous effect as your characters voice their most venal, callous and delusional thoughts in a matter-of-fact way. Do you sculpt your words to achieve this quality, or does it simply flow onto the page? How much rewriting do you do?
I do rewrite a lot as I go along, sometimes spending entire days rewriting, but my style is naturally matter-of-fact. You won’t see a lot of metaphors or flowery prose in my books. I don’t want the language to take readers out of the story, and I think my writing is most effective when it’s as simple as possible. Maybe you’re right and it’s a New York attitude coming through…But I think the best compliment I can receive as a writer is a review that doesn’t mention my writing at all. I think the writing should be virtually invisible, and it should all be about characters and action, so the reader can imagine the story like a movie.
HF: Obviously, you have fun with your characters’ foibles – the character of Adam Bloom is a good example. Some reviewers have complained about lack of “sympathetic” characters in PANIC ATTACK; what’s your response to this criticism?
Most readers seem to get that PANIC ATTACK is a thriller with satire. The plot is a pure thriller, but the story at its core is about how this external event, the robbery, is the impetus that brings out other problems in the Bloom family, and the biggest threat is that the family is going to implode from within….Whether characters are sympathetic or not–in my book, or any other books–is so subjective that this criticism is pretty much arbitrary and meaningless to me. Just like I might like a person in real life that another person doesn’t like, we all have our own taste in characters. I will say, though, that I think there are more interesting ways to grip readers than by creating inarguably, universally sympathetic characters. Most readers aren’t concerned about sympathy–they just want to read a good story and to be entertained. They either like a book or they don’t…and then they move on.
HF: You also excel at getting behind the eyeballs of a compulsive, doomed character, as in COLD CALLER, FAKE I.D., and others; the reader identifies, even as the protagonist slides off the rails. How much do you empathize with your pathological narrators yourself?
I love all my characters, especially the most twisted ones–Tommy in FAKE I.D. is a perfect example. The deeper he fell, the more fun he was to write. It’s interesting to me when I occasionally hear a comment like, “Jason Starr must really hate his characters or he wouldn’t torture them so much.” I don’t see a correlation and, as you say above, I think it’s pretty obvious that I have fun with my characters. Just because a character does bad things and makes bad decisions doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoyable to write about. Does anyone assume that the writers who created Tony Soprano didn’t like Tony Soprano? It just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I never research anything to do with psychology. I’ve read that Highsmith used to read case studies of psychopaths. I think that’s an interesting approach, but I like to make it all up.
HF: You’ve said that your experience working as a telemarketer partly inspired COLD CALLER. Similar office scenarios show up in HARD FEELINGS and TWISTED CITY. What were the most frustrating real-life situations and characters you encountered at your various day jobs?
Dealing with idiot bosses. Realizing the person you work for is a total asshole, but having to suck it up day in and day out because the asshole has control over your career. I think this feeling of powerlessness at work is something that everyone can identify with…
Once, at a financial magazine I was working for, I had a query about an article I was working on. I went into the editor’s office and he screamed at me to “Get the fuck out of here!” He’d just come back from a “martini lunch,” but he was a prick on a daily basis. I tried to funnel that frustrating feeling of powerlessness into my fiction.
HF: TOUGH LUCK is a hysterical goombah tragedy about a poor kid from Flatbush who makes bad, and LIGHTS OUT is a true Brooklyn noir opus. What was your neighborhood like when you were growing up, and how has it changed?
I grew up in Flatbush, and that neighborhood really hasn’t changed all that much–at least demographically. There was a lot more crime back then, as it was the late Seventies and early Eighties. This was when the whole city was in chaos, with a huge fiscal crisis and out of control drug use. In junior high school, kids were routinely mugged and had their jackets and sneakers and bus passes stolen, and once, on the way home from school, I saw a kid get stabbed repeatedly in the face…
Now, parts of Brooklyn have changed drastically. Growing up in these neighborhoods now would be a completely different experience from what I went through.
HF: You’ve earned comparisons to Jim Thompson, and I also see a lot of Charles Willeford in your work. But as Bret Easton Ellis has noted, your take on the genre is very contemporary. What influences you aside from classic noir?
Wow, thank you for putting me in the company of three of my favorite authors. When I wrote my first novel COLD CALLER, I didn’t set out to write a noir novel. I just wanted to write a contemporary story about an angry telemarketer and express a lot of anger I had at the time about work and, I guess, life in general. It was only when I started sending the book out and got a rejection stating “we don’t publish noir at this house” that I realized I’d probably written a noir novel. Yes, Willeford and Thompson and the classic noir novelists were big influences, but it wasn’t just noir. Writers like Camus and Paul Bowles were influences. I have an M.F.A. in Playwriting and was big into theater in the ’90s, so I was influenced by the existential playwrights, like Beckett, Fo, and Ionesco. I also loved David Mamet’s plays. I was probably influenced by a lot of film noir too, which I’ve always loved, and the horror movies I was watching. Contemporary fiction, too. I’m glad you mention Bret Easton Ellis. I think, with his themes, subject matter and style, he’s had a tremendous influence, not only on my writing, but on a whole generation of writers. I think we will look back and see he influenced his generation the way Hemingway and Stein influenced theirs.
HF: I love the ghastly parting shots in your books — the “disinhibition” dialogue in TWISTED CITY, the line “See you tomorrow!” in FAKE I.D., Richie’s fate on the final page of HARD FEELINGS. I imagine you cracking an evil smile when you type that last sentence… “Gotcha!” The effect is awful yet hilarious, almost like the punchline to a sick joke. Do you have your ending in mind when you start out?
Ha, yes, I love to kick the reader when he’s down. I think this is probably when the Thompson influence comes out strongest in me. A perfect ending (in my mind) is one that is ironic, angry, bleak, exciting, sad, funny all at once. Most importantly, though, I think an ending should stick with a reader. Even if a reader gets so angry when they finish a book that they want to fling the book against the wall, I think it’s a positive sign, because it means the ending had an effect on them. For example, I’ll never forget the ending of Thompson’s THE GETAWAY, but there are so many books I’ve read that I can barely remember at all…I don’t have the exact line of the ending when I start writing, but I always know vaguely how the story is going to end. Sometimes when I’m writing an ending will come to mind and I’ll write it. Usually, though, it’s only when I get to the last chapter that it starts to come into focus.
HF: Your collaborations with Ken Bruen are raucous fun. They read like Jason Starr novels with a perverse Bruen twist – for example, the Irish hit man in BUST seems like a Ken creation. Did the two of you ever disagree on which way to go with the story? Did he take the books in unexpected directions?
These books (BUST, SLIDE, and THE MAX) have been a blast to write, and I hope it’s obvious that Ken and I love all of these characters. BUST was loosely based on a novel I’d written after NOTHING PERSONAL but kept in the drawer [originally called PETTY CASH – Ed.], and then Ken and I went in and basically rewrote it from scratch, keeping the basic plot and some of the characters. The Irish hit man, Thomas Dillon, a.k.a. Popeye, was actually originally a Puerto Rican guy named Tony Lopez. We thought if we made him into more of a Ken Bruen-type character it would take the whole plot into an exciting new direction. We kept one scene with the original Popeye. It’s a scene where Angela takes her top off at a bar and a guy named Tony tries to pick her up.
We never disagreed once on which way the plot should go; that’s what made it work so well. Once–in SLIDE–Ken came up with a new character, a cop, halfway through. It was a challenge for my plotting to fit this guy into the rest of the story, but I think it led to the best scenes in the book.
HF: I’m looking forward to THE CHILL – what can you tell us about the book, and what was it like working in the graphic novel format?
THE CHILL, from DC Comics/Vertigo Crime is my first graphic novel, on sale in January 2010, though you can pre-order the book at bookstores everywhere. The jacket copy says it a lot better than I can:
It’s summertime in New York, but a “chill” has settled over the city–a serial killer is on the loose, and the ritualized murders are becoming increasingly sadistic….The NYPD and the FBI have a suspect: a gorgeous woman named Arlana. The only problem is that every witness provides a different description of her. None of this makes any sense to anyone except Martin Cleary, a beaten-down Irish cop from Boston with a whopper of a secret in his past–a past that may go back a century or two….
I loved writing in this format, and I’m doing more, as I have a Punisher story for Marvel due out in 2010. But, yeah, writing THE CHILL opened up so many new possibilities with my fiction. I felt unrestrained, like I could take risks I’m not able to take in my crime novels. In a graphic novel, you can get as dark as you want to get, because you don’t have to worry about offending your readers. People who read graphic novels want to be offended and challenged in that way.
I think in the book industry, there is a trend where publishers think that readers want “vanilla” crime stories. I really think they’re behind the curve and misjudging their readership, as people actually love dark crime fiction (which is why cable TV is doing so well, marketing the dark and edgy stuff). I can go on about this because I know I’m right.
HF: What can you tell us about the next book?
I can’t really say anything about it, as I’m still working on it, but it’s taking me in a very, very new direction. I’m really rolling the dice with this one. I’m doing what I’ve done before, but with a whole new approach.
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Many thanks to Jason for taking the time to answer these questions.
For more info on the man and his work, visit www.jasonstarr.com.