What: Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. His novel, HUSTLE, and his novella, PIGGYBACK, are available from Snubnose Press. His new novella, KNUCKLEBALL, will be released by One Eye Press on March 24th. He is also an acquisitions editor at Gutter Books and a co-editor of the Flash Fiction Offensive.
Where: San Francisco
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
HUSTLE dealt with some pretty dark subject matter, but I found myself cheering for most of the tragic characters. Why did you decide to tackle junkies/hustlers in this novel?
I was tired of reading characters who were drug addicts whose habits didn’t ring true. You know, junkies who had a needle in their arms when it was convenient to the story, but would then forget about having to shoot up as the plot unfolded—or never experienced withdrawal symptoms. That’s just not the way it is. In reality, there aren’t too many guns out there on the street, because street people sell ‘em for drugs. Nobody has a car, they don’t even have bus fare. Street life is miserable. It’s a desperate kind of lifestyle and I see it get misrepresented all the time. I wanted to throw my two cents in and show a different side to what people think of as the underbelly.
The character that uses the bib, Gabriel Thaxton, is a fastidious old man. A pervert, yes, but very uptight. He doesn’t want physical contact with our two hustlers, but he still wants the sexual experience. I thought the lobster bib would underscore that. Like a condom for your chest. And no, it was not gleaned from some tidbit I heard out there on the street, purely a product of my twisted mind.
The plot of the novel starts out as a heist and turns in to an extended, action-packed chase scene. How did the story evolve as you wrote it?
I knew the idea of the blackmail was only going to be a starting point for the rest of the story. Once I’d decided the victim was a criminal defense attorney, I knew the boundaries on the plot were wide open.
HUSTLE made a lot of notable year end “best of” lists in 2014. Did you expect this kind of acceptance for a novel that dealt with such a dark subject matter?
You kidding? I thought there’d be more! Shit, everyone kept telling me it was too dark, too perverted, it’d never get published. To me, it was just a gritty crime fiction story. I thought about all the books out there with incest, torture, even cannibalism, and thought, gee, mine’s not too heavy.
A lot of people loved the book, but at the same time, many were turned off by some of the graphic drug use and prostitution scenes. But you don’t really hear from those people, so it was hard to suss out whether or not I still had a career. My agent, Liz Kracht, loved it, but warned me, there’s no way any of the bigs’ll ever take this.
Your new novel, “Knuckleball,” is coming out in March. What is the story behind that plot? How does it differ from HUSTLE stylistically or thematically?
I wrote KNUCKLEBALL back in 2011, right before PIGGYBACK and HUSTLE. It was my first longer work, and therefore holds a special place for me. I had to go back in last year and bang out some dents, fatten up the ending, but it’s still the book that warms my cold black heart. It’s definitely got a different feel than HUSTLE. The theme of family, no matter how discordant, is at the core of the book.
The impetus for the story came to me while I was in Golden Gate Park walking the dogs. The whole Bryan Stow thing was happening at the time. Bryan Stow was the poor bastard who was beat down at a Giants game at Dodger Stadium and to this day has never recovered. The search was on for the assailants and that afternoon a police artist’s sketch came out with an accompanying description: 5’10” Latino male. That was it. The sketch, the description, it could have been anybody. They were describing half of L.A. So I wondered … man, if you knew someone who looked even remotely like that, you could really fuck them up if you fingered them. All it would take is some hatred and a phone call.
You have also published several short stories in the last few years. How does your approach to short story writing differ from your longer works? Do you prefer one over the other?
Not really. I thought HUSTLE was going to be a short story, then a novella, then, it blossomed into a full-length novel. I start with an idea, maybe only a first line, and see where the story takes me. Sometimes it takes a thousand words and sometimes it takes seventy-five thousand.
You are also the publisher of the Flash Fiction Offensive/Gutter Books. How has that role changed your view of short fiction? What advice do you have for new writers trying to get published?
If you want to break the rules, break ‘em. It’s the writers who try to stick to a formula that get boring. I like the stuff that pushes the envelope, both in style and in theme. That said, I’ve had to reject a lot of stuff that was way too experimental. You can break the rules, just be open to criticism when someone tells you it doesn’t work. We’re all trying to find our voice out there and there’s only one way to do it: Keep writing.
What is new for FFO/Gutter Books in 2015? What publishing plans do you guys have?
We’ve got a lot in the chute ready to break out. We’re looking at some new ways to broaden our content at the Out of the Gutter website that’ll be fun and different. We’ve got a big announcement about a podcast we’re holding back. I believe Bare Knuckles Pulp is being resurrected. As for FFO? We’re going to keep putting out great flash fiction twice a week till our eyeballs pop out!
Matt, Joe, and I all have individual projects we’re working on. I hate to be vague, but I can’t announce a lot of stuff till the contracts are signed. I’m doing two authors this year, guys I know you’ve heard of and probably read. I think Joe has two in the works as well. We’re also concentrating on expanding our music anthology series. I’m working with Jay Stringer (actually, he’s doing the heavy lifting) on an anthology: Waiting to Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak inspired by The Replacements. I think Joe Clifford is putting together a Johnny Cash book, and I’ll be doing a punk anthology later in the year. But the punk book, fittingly, will not conform to the format of the other three books. It’s going to break ranks do something completely different.
We’ve got Dana C. Kabel’s Cannibal Cookbook still being brewed and there’s a little something special Joe is cooking up with some pals that’ll be both hilarious and different. More on that later, I’ve already given away too much. If I spill anymore secrets I may not be invited to the Gutter Christmas party this year.
What else, if anything, is Tom Pitts planning to publish this year?
My novel, CALIFORNIA LIBERTINE, is still sitting on the desks of some of the biggest publishers in New York—waiting for the big red rejection stamp. When that happens, I’ll probably seek out an appropriate smaller press and hopefully it’ll get to see the light of day before the sun explodes.
If you recommend one piece of your writing to somebody, what would it be?
Hmmmn. Since CALIFORNIA LIBERTINE and KNUCKLEBALL aren’t available yet, I guess I’ll go with HUSTLE. I love that book and I’m proud of it.
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Akashic Books, QuarterReads and Crimespree Magazine. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Stark Raving Press in June 2015. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You can read one of his recent short stories right HERE.