Interrogation—Gary Phillips

Gary photoWho: Gary Phillips

What: Author of more than a dozen novels, a couple of short story collections, graphic novels, edited or co-edited several anthologies, and has various short stories in numerous anthologies. He is the former president of the So Cal chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, this year’s chair of the Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color grant awarded by Sisters in Crime, and current president of the Private Eye Writers of America.

Where: Los Angeles

Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.

Your most recent release is 3 THE HARD WAY, a collection of three novellas from Down & Out Books. What is it about novellas that you like as a writer? Do you also enjoy them as a reader?

Interesting that the famed (or is that fabled?) James Patterson is getting into the novella effort in a big way. Not sure this means all boats rise, but it is the case that various writers across various genres have been on the grind pumping out 3 the hard waynovellas – 20,000 to 40,000 words – for some time. This echoes the heyday of the original pulps in the ‘30s when you could buy for a dime then twenty-five cents a pulp magazine, so-called for the cheap paper it was printed on but now refers to a certain rat-a-tat style of writing, with superhero-type characters such as Doc Savage, the Golden Amazon, Captain Future, the Shadow and so on. Each would have a lead feature said to be a novel-length tale, usually 40,000-50,000 words, plus several short stories.

3 THE HARD WAY then is in that vein. Two of the stories are more pulpy, action-adventure oriented, and the third is crime fiction. As a reader to me a novella gives you just enough story to dig in for a while but the demands of the form mean less extraneous matter and more charging ahead. Though that is not to slight characterization. I like novellas too as that might mean for a series character you can put out three or four of them in a year. Or if the finances lined up, why not once a month like back in the day?   No one has done that quite yet, but I would think that’s coming.

Day of the DestroyersWhen writing novellas, do you set out to write a short story and keep going; start out writing a novel and stop sooner than expected; or know what the length will be from the get go?

Whatever it is I’m writing, I know beforehand what the general length will be – granted a novel can be as long as you need or sometimes a contract will specify a certain range. I don’t start a short story then it grows in the word count. That’s not to say I don’t get infatuated by the characters and may want to revisit them in some other context down the line. Part of my past was writing political and social commentaries for a syndicator on topical issues as well as writing a weekly column in a local newspaper. That was a great discipline on saying what it is I had to say, cutting and honing the piece to make a tight word count, usually 700-800 words.

You have also edited a few anthologies along the way. Do you enjoy being an editor of other people’s work?

For sure the role of editor is very different than that of writer. My job is to make observations and ask the questions that hopefully help the writer tell the story in the way they want to tell it and not impose my style? Now having stated that, The-Rinsethe last two anthologies I’ve edited, OCCUPIED EARTH (a sci-fi effort co-edited with Richard J. Brewer) and DAY OF THE DESTROYERS, required a heavier hand than usual. Both anthologies were about shared universes. Occupied was about life under the conquering Mahk-Ra aliens and Destroyers a kind of novel in 12 parts as the hero Jimmie Flint, Secret Agent X-11, battled an entity out to overthrow the United States. That meant mini-bibles went out to the contributors and notes back to them on their drafts were often about consistency of details one to the other in the stories. Naturally there was more push back in those two cases. So yeah, as an editor, much less strain to just give folks a theme and let them rip

You have also published several graphic novels and comic books. What came first for you, a love of crime fiction or a love of comic books?

Comics came first. I’ve often told the story that way back when growing up in my neighborhood in South Central, you read Marvel, not DC. Marvel had a black superhero, the Black Panther, and with angst-driven characters like Spidey, the Hulk and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, at war with the surface world, they were seen as cooler back then. Let me hasten to add DC is much different these days. Anyway, it was watching those old Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Holmes and Watson movies on Channel 9 with my dad got me hooked on mysteries, and then down the crooked path of crime fiction.


As a writer, how does your approach to graphic novels differ from your short stories, novellas and novels?

Writing a comic book script is not exactly akin to writing a teleplay or film script those some who write comics use that kind of format. In a comic book script you describe the visual in each panel on a page for the artist to draw and the wording for the dialogue, the caption if there is one, and the sound effect. Though basically like a script less is more, how can I work with the sequentials the artist is drawing to tell the story. Generally you can’t overburden any one panel with a lot of dialogue as a lot of word balloons clutters up the page and gets in the way of the art. You try to sharpen the dialogue to its bare essence while relying on the visuals to help convey what’s going on. The best advice I’ve gotten for writing a comic book is keep in mind each panel is a moment of frozen action.

You are an accomplished author who works across genres and formats. What is your secret for consistently writing and publishing quality stories?

I guess it’s always about being a storyteller. It seems our brains are hardwired for stories, I suppose we seek order in a chaotic universe. Even our disturbing stories provide some sort of order don’t they?

You are going to be the Toastmaster for Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto? How were you selected for this honor and what can we expect from you in this role?

Apparently I was selected by the Stonecutters.

You can expect cigar smoke-filled back room horse trading by me in that role. No seriously, just trying to keep up with my fellow Toastmaster, the always energetic Twist Phelan, will be enough to keep me busy.

What are your publishing plans of the rest of 2016 and beyond?

The beyond part might be somewhat murky, but for the near future. I’ve co-written with Christa Faust a gritty, noirish tale set in the last bad old days of 1980s Times Square called PEEPLAND for the upcoming Hard Case Crime Comics Hollisimprint of Titan Comics. I’m co-editing and contributing two stories (or maybe one long one) to HOLLIS FOR HIRE for Pro Se Productions. This is the second collection of short stories by me and other writers penning stories about my PI character Nate Hollis. He began years ago in comics in Angeltown, and has since crossed over to prose. Sara Paretsky and David Walker (Shaft, Cyborg, Powerman & Iron Fist comics) are on tap to contribute. And speaking of Sherlock Holmes, I’m very pleased that my first Holmes story will be in the ECHOES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES anthology edited by Laurie King and Les Klinger out this fall.

Find Gary Phillips: WebsiteFacebook, Amazon

Previous Interrogations:

CROSSWISES.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in September 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available now from Down & Out Books.





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