by J. Sam Williams
Gary Phillips was born many years ago in the middle of the prospering city of Los Angeles. Raised in South Central, Phillips attended San Francisco State and Cal State L.A., and has a B.A. in Design. He’s edited anthologies such as Orange County Noir and Black Pulp, written comics (now working on a project for one of the Big Two) and of course is best known for the character Ivan Monk who was introduced to the literary scene in the early 1990s and appears in five books. He’s been a security guard, a union organizer, a community outreach director, communication director for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, and was co-director of the MultiCultural Collaborative a nonprofit that helped to heal Los Angeles after the Rodney King Civil Unrest in ’92.
Having published his first novel, Violent Spring (the premier Ivan Monk story), Phillips has written 15 more novels, 50 plus short stories, several comics, and—according to his website—has amassed exactly 4,000 donuts. Phillips is a current affiliate faculty at Antioch University of Los Angeles, working in the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing—taking on mentees and helping to create diamonds out of the rough of his students. Phillips short stories have appeared in The Heroin Chronicles, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and collected in Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers. Currently he has 3 the Hard Wayout, a compilation of three of his novellas.
Gary Phillips was interviewed by J. Sam Williams via Skype in late April, 2016.
I first met Gary in my first residency of graduate school at Antioch University of Los Angeles (AULA). This was December of 2014 and it was my first day on campus. I ran into Gary right in the early morning. He sat at a table by himself—not a common sight, since he’s usually talking with everyone in the room—eating a donut (I kid you not). I grabbed one myself and asked if I could sit beside him. He said, “Of course!” and I nearly went deaf. If you’ve ever met Gary you know his inside voice is everyone else’s outside voice, and his outside voice—well let’s just say he doesn’t really ever need a microphone. He’s a booming presence—commonly referred to as a grizzly bear of a man—and one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. That first morning at AULA in the lounge he made me feel very at ease and calmed my nerves about starting my master’s program. How? Because he’s Gary. He’s easy to get along with. Easy to talk to, and so courteous and aware of the needs of those around him.
I worked with Gary that first semester—he was my mentor and helped me to shape the novel I’ve restarted 18 times since coming to AULA, really start to think deeply as a writer and give me the confidence that one day my book will be published. He’s exceptionally smart, has a knack for bringing realism and worldbuilding into a novel, and is a good teacher. You’d be hard pressed to find a warmer and nicer man than Gary.
We started the interview on a topic we’re both comfortable with, writing.
J. Sam Williams: What motivated you to become a writer?
Gary Phillips: I became a writer because when I was a kid—way back in the day—my dad was a product of the depression, so he gave me a little allowance—a dollar, two dollars—and back in those days you could buy several comic books—as opposed to that wouldn’t cover a comic book today. I’d buy several comic books and I’d read them and my Dad—because, as I said, he was a product of the depression, so he wasn’t about wasting two bucks or twenty bucks—so he would always ask me, but he’d always ask me in an offhand way, he’d never grill me, but he would ask me like at the end of the week or next week “How was that Superman title you read,” or “how”— well mostly I read Marvel cause I grew up in South Central—so we mostly read Marvel comic books— “How was that Hulk or Spiderman?” And I would tell him. And I guess over a period of time it taught me something—you know synopsizing and telling a story from beginning, middle, and end, but hopefully telling it in a way that was compelling. I guess sometime I figured out you can captivate people if you tell them a story—tell them something that has some kind of excitement in it or some conflict or what have you. So even then as a kid it marinated in me that I wanted to tell stories. Later, because it turned out I’m a terrible visual artist—although I took art in school—I can’t really draw worth crap, but because, like a lot of kids I wanted to make my own comic books—you wrote and drew your own comic books, and I figured out I can’t really draw, but I kept writing.
SW: What one story can you point to and say, “That’s what made me want to be a writer?”
GP: Uhmm. Hahaha. Well let me think. If I had to say one story that made me want to be a writer beyond the idea that I was reading these comics—but you're right let’s talk about books, let’s talk about prose, about text on the page... I’ll tell you what influenced me before I read Native Son or before I read Tom Sawyer—or no Huck Finn—I did like Huck Finn better than Tom Sawyer. I guess I didn’t read Huck Finn until I got to high school. But I remember I guess I was like eight or nine—and I still have them on my shelf—my father had two brothers—the younger brother, Sam, Uncle Sam—Uncle Sammy had—well it wasn’t even his wife, I guess in those days I just called her my aunt—that was the closest term to call her—my Aunt Virginia—his girlfriend, his significant other as we would say today—she gave me these, she gave me three books man... And so she gave me this collected Poe that has his poem’s and his stories including The Purloined Letter, right? Isn’t that considered the first detective story? Either that or the Murder in the Rue Morgue. Anyways, Purloined Letter. And she gave me the collected Conan Doyle which has the—is it five Holmes novels? Five Holmes novels and all the short stories. So I started to read some of the Poe, and I’d read the Purloined Letter, I read the Murder in the Rue Morgue, I read…the collection. And then I read… A Study in Scarlet. I was a kid; I was eight or nine. It just kinda blew me away, kinda like “Wow.” First of all, it was a look into a world that I had no idea about although I’d seen—I’d watched with my Dad, I would watch the Holmes the Basil Rathbone Holmes, Nigel Bruce stuff. So I had some idea with who Holmes was. But then finally reading the story about him was kinda trippy.
All this is really building toward the third book. The third book she gave me—and this is the one that really convinced me that there was something to be said for telling these stories—was a collection of Twilight Zone stories—but based on the teleplays based on the show—and these are the ones written by Rod Serling. So that was really influential because the Twilight Zone reruns were running—even then—so those shows are really clear in my mind—so you could watch these shows, but then read these stories—you could do something that you couldn’t do on TV, which was you could be inside their head—what they were thinking, what they were feeling. Though sometimes they would do that on Twilight—they’d have a voiceover—but generally speaking you didn’t. So reading these stories, and then getting some more colorful language that you didn’t really get watching the show on broadcast TV—and in black and white I might add—it just kinda like flowered in my head that “Oh my God, this is kind of amazing”—you know what I mean? That you could tell—that there’s a different way to tell a story, there’s a different way that you can approach a story... So not one story, but certainly it was reading those stories that—I don’t think even then I thought I would be a writer—like I said I wanted to write and draw my comics. I thought it taught me something about the power of stories.
SW: Has anyone ever come up to you and say “Your stories remind me of a mix between Poe, Conan Doyle and the Twilight Zone?”
GP: (Laughing) No. But I apparently pissed off crime-fiction fans cause occasionally I will do a kinda Twilight Zone story—or I’ll do a, not so much Poe, but a kind of weird tale’s story, but in the context of making it a mystery. Sometimes I’ll see reviews that say, “Well I like the other stuff but I don’t like this Twilight Zone business. But your right, certainly that influence still creeps its way in my stuff.
SW: What was the process like when you first started writing your novel to when it actually got published?
GP: We’ll skip forward some years of wanting to be a comic book writer and artist. Slowly into my teens and my twenties and thirties I was a community activist and a union organizer—I got radicalized etc. All through that, even being an activist and an organizer, I still read mysteries—I still read comic books and I still read mysteries—this is before the civil unrest—the riots if you like, of ’92. Somewhere toward the end of the ‘80s—we had kids then, they were really young then, I mean infants—and I worked at a foundation called the Liberty Hill Foundation—which then and now fund community organizing efforts. This is all in LA and I was their outreach director. That meant I traveled all over the city with different community groups about different issues, you know, police abuse issues, youth empowerment, renter’s rights—what have you.
A buddy of mine—Gar Haywood—had entered a contest at St. Martins... it was a contest for the best first private eye novel—and you didn’t have to have an agent right? You could submit a manuscript—they’d go in the slush pile and I guess they had some poor couple hapless interns weed their way through all this stuff—and they would pick a winner. This was ’88 and my buddy Gar won this contest and got his first novel published called Fear of the Dark and this was a novel he’d been writing on and off for the last several years… So I was very inspired and I said, “I’ve been messing around, thinking about this for a period of time and read all this stuff over a period of years—I’d like to take a crack at my own mystery novel” So I wrote a novel. The novel was called The Body on the Beach. In that novel I introduced my character Ivan Monk, this black LA private eye… So I came up with all these characters in this novel—and through a friend the novel actually gets to an agent, and the agent didn’t think it was ready to send out, but gave me some good feedback. I got some very good feedback from the agent.
By then it’s like ’90 or ’91. So I put that aside and I’m working at Liberty Hill and not burning to write the next novel—but its gnawing at me to take another bite at this apple. So then things happen. Rodney King gets beat by the cops—then there’s the trial then the cops are exonerated at the trial and then the riots break out. I’m working at Liberty Hill and I’m in the community—going from places in the housing projects to the edge of Orange County, so I’m all over LA. So I know the city pretty well and I know the city pretty well at that time. Uprising happens, okay, then things cool down and there’s rebuild LA and some things kinda follow after it, but I thought “Oh you know I really know some of the players, who’ve been involved in rebuild LA, also the people involved in the gang truce work. So I know a lot of folks in a more than surface level way, and more of a way than they know them through the newspaper articles or what have you. So I thought, “Well I should dust off my character and create a story that flows out of the uprising and I can talk about some of the social and political issues as the city tries to rebuild and heal itself, but also in the context of a murder mystery. So that’s really what propels and what becomes the book Violent Spring and book finally does get published.
SW: Do you feel like your work as a social justice activist give a 3D reality to the story?
GP: I hope it did Sam. Exactly. Because it was an experience I knew about and I had lived and done work like that, I hope that I could give it—even though my character isn’t an organizer, he’s a private eye—but he moves in some of those circles. But, exactly right, I wanted to give it some sort of insider feel, as opposed to someone whose kinda parachuting in, observing this stuff and then going away.
SW: Would you say that the societal context of the late ‘80’s and early ‘90s (N.W.A., Rodney King, etc.) shaped your prose?
GP: The short answer is yes. Certainly even before N.W.A. ever shows up on the scene, my baptism in fire was growing up in South Central and being active and around police abuse issues. In those days we had the notorious 77th division. So that was like the boogeyman. You heard those horror stories when you went to the neighborhood barbershop. You heard about some brotha getting’ jacked up over the weekend in the 77th, you know. So those are the stories I grew up with. Then also becoming an activist in my college days and early twenties with an organization called CAPA, Coalition Against Police Abuse, on Western Avenue. So then there was the Soon Ja Du incident where the young black girl is shot by the Korean shop keeper in the back as she walks away after they have this scuffle. So all this stuff is material of what I want to infuse—not that I’m gonna touch it all—but what helps to fuel the novel Violent Spring. I knew that I was gonna set my mystery about a year, year and half, after the uprising. That’s exactly where I start the story. I start the story [with] this body [that’s] uncovered—this body of a Korean merchant whose gone missing prior to the riots is uncovered. And for PR purposes the Korean merchants hire my character, the black private eye, to find the killer as a way to ease tensions between the two communities. I knew I wanted to call on my own experiences as well as what was happening in the larger context and kind of infuse that in the kind of subtext in the whole.
This is when we moved away from the conversation of his personal story of becoming a writer and I started to ask questions about how his skin color has affected his professional life. I’m always a little nervous discussing “race” because I’m a white guy, and I have no real experiences of prejudice, but Gary was very comfortable, and as always, very gracious.
SW: Have you faced issues from publishers and editors for being black?
GP: You know the mystery field, like any other genre or sub-genre, whatever we are of the book world, goes through ups and downs. At that time period in the late ‘80s early ‘90s there was a kind of explosion of a third wave of [black crime fiction writers] with me, and Gar, and Walter Mosley and Paula Woods and these other folks who came along—Valerie Wilson Wesley—came along, were writing these black mysteries and black crime fiction, and it was kind of a renaissance—although even then you would hear stories like how a black writer had pitched an idea or a story to an editor and the response would be, well we’ve already got one black mystery writer, why do we need two? That kind of thing. That was never told to my face—never told to me directly. But you would hear these sort of stories. But these things ebb and flow—in the end it’s all about sales.
For instance, when I was with Berkeley Prime Crime—well first two books were published with West Coast Crime, our small press outfit. They get republished and they were in trade paper, they get republished as mass market paperbacks by Berkeley and then finally I get another deal for what they call a hard/soft deal—meaning hardback and paperback, which is great. But as the third Monk book is coming out, which is the first time I’ve been in hardback, that’s Bad Night is Falling, which takes off after a Latino family is firebombed in a black housing project—which is basically a true story that really happened. Even as that book is coming out I get a call from the head editor and I know this is not a good call cause she doesn’t really talk to me—I talk to my line editor. Sure enough they’re cutting me from the line. And I say, “But the third book is just coming out”—and by the way I’d already turned in the fourth book. They’d already accepted the fourth book. But they’re cutting me because by that time the HBO [option] (on his Monk books) didn’t—well the option happened, twice actually, but the HBO movie never happened. And because Berkeley Prime Crime was experimenting with doing hard boil—cause even today their thing is really more cozy and soft boil. So they were trying to experiment with me and few other writers to do hard boil. I don’t think they knew quite how to sell us. So they cut me—though they let me keep the money—the advance on the fourth book. Eventually I sold that fourth book to a small press, which also did it in hardback. I don’t think that’s a racist decision. Is it though that Berkeley Prime Crime couldn’t figure out how to sell these books to a white audience to some extent and a black audience? Probably.
Even still today, even now a couple decades down the line publishing is still majority white—editors, you know people who make the decisions… No editor ever told me we’re not going to print this book because you’re black. Certainly it’s the case that there are going to be certain kinds of story lines or subplots that you as black writer, or a writer of color, in the mystery field that you have in the book that maybe certain white editors don’t quite figure out why that is in there, what’s that doing there. For instance, I haven’t read it—but I’m aware now I believe there is one, now maybe two, crime novels that are rising out of the Black Lives Matter movement, or the murders in Ferguson or Freddie Gray. It’s always the case that current events—especially in crime and mystery—that are going to influence that work. It’s certainly the case that writers of color who are interested in that work or that world, are going to draw on things that resonate with them and infuse that in their books.
SW: So it’s not about the overt racism, but more of the unconscious or subconscious undertones that a lot of privileged white people have—they don’t know they have because they’re uneducated in that realm of though, yeah?
GP: Yeah, or it used to be a thing where—well we still have bookstores thank God—but especially in the days of the high points of the chains with Borders and Barnes and Noble. So you’d go into a Borders and I’d always be conflicted about—because I write these mystery novels but sometimes you wouldn’t find your stuff in the mystery section, it’d be in the African-American section. So you’d think “Well, wait a minute” or “How about both sections?” It was like “Well, damn” or is it that I’m supposed to be one place but not the other place?
SW: Have you ever faced any difficulty from other writers because you’re black?
GP: Well my political friends have jammed me up because I write what I write. So listen, I write reprehensible black characters—I don’t feel the obligation that I have to uplift the race every God dang time I write something. So yes, I have been jammed up for writing horrible or despicable black characters by my political friends…I want to write the range of these characters. Hopefully I give them some life on the page and as long as I don’t play into stereotypes—as long as they exist as they exist I think it’s all fair game. Now having said that it means that if I write a female character or someone a lot younger than me, or someone who’s a different race than me—and I have done all that—I try and be—careful is not the right word for that—but as real as I can make them on the page. I’m cognizant that it’s easy for me to write a black male character even if he’s middle age to older cause I know that age—I am that age. So that’s in some ways the easy thing. That’s the easy shoe to put on. The other stuff, where you’ve got to stretch, you want to do that as a writer—you want to be able to challenge yourself.
SW: How do you feel when fans and critics use the term “Black Literature” or “Black Writers” and do you consider yourself a “Black Writer”?
GP: Back to our analogy of when you walk into [a book store] and you were in the African-American section instead of the Mystery section. On one hand your just glad to be there anyways, but it’s still “Wait a minute, dammit.” There are mystery fans who probably won’t go to the black section.
Yes. I am a black writer. I am conscious of the fact that being a black writer does mean when I approach a character—black character, or whatever the character is—I guess what I’m trying to say is, I am aware there’s going to be a certain filter, a certain lens, where people are aware of my race, [and] will look at how I’ve written that character.
Gary and I moved onto a third subject—that being politics—something Gary is very well versed in.
SW: To Gary Phillips do Black Lives Matter or do All Lives Matter?
GP: Aw man! Whew! Well of course Black Lives Matter. Because in the political context which that phrase has come to be used, the intention is not to denigrate anybody else’s life or experiences, but it is of course to put the emphasis on—as we’ve talked about man—we’ve seen this jump in police killings of unarmed—mostly unarmed—black men, although some black women, and some black women who’ve died under mysterious circumstances—so it is the appropriate response… I guess when Obama was first elected there was this notion of this post-racial society. You even had Justice Roberts when they gutted the Voting Rights Act—talked about ‘We now live in a time where'—of this post racial, he didn’t say paradise but that essentially that these old days are gone, and here we are with the new days, which turned out to be horseshit.
In the great peace and karma of all things, yes, of course all lives matter, but Black Lives Matter has a specific point of departure—has a very specific political point that it’s making that has to be addressed, and that we don’t live in a post-racial society.
SW: Here’s a question, in the white community—I think her name is Sandra Bland (an African American woman)—down in Texas, terrible story. Gets arrested—we see the video eventually of the cops literally pulling her out of her car when she threatened to call her lawyer—she’s in jail over the weekend and by the end has allegedly committed suicide. In the white community it seems that type of story comes out and the benefit of the doubt goes to the cops, even though the Sheriff was fired from a different precinct for racism complaints—and I don’t understand that—because it seems like in non-white communities the assumption is that she was murdered. Do you have any idea why the division is there?
GP: Wow. Well you know that’s a powerful question. It circles back on our discussion of the events of ’92. One of the things that sparked the trial and the reaction to that in the era before cellphone videos and cameras. George Holliday had gotten this video camera as a present—I think—and you know was fooling around with it, and learning how to shoot with it. This chase ends with Rodney King, the cops get out of their cars and [Holliday] is up in his apartment, and he goes out on his balcony and he sees this. He uses the zoom lens, the zoom feature, and zooms in and tapes that beating. And it’s not as if that beating—by cops that were not all white, by the way—and it’s not as if that beating by those cops was a new thing for a black motorist or black suspect to face—that was old news—what was new news was that it gets captured on video and the video goes viral—before we even used the term viral. The video goes all over the world and things go down the hill. Now we have this era where it’s a lot of things—whether its Eric Garner in New York getting choked out and killed for selling a loose cigarette.
Having said that, and it reminds me of the reaction to Trump—Black Lives Matter and protesters getting beat and jammed up at Trump rallies—and I think one young lady was called a ‘Nigger Lover’ by one of Trump’s supporters at one of the rallies. Here these things are captured in full live living color—and yet people will still, because of their filters and the way they interpret the world, will interpret these events in two different ways—even though here it is played out for you. Or Trump himself, calling from the stage ‘jack him up, beat him up.’ Although I guess lately he’s backed off of that, cause even he realizes ‘Oh I shouldn’t be saying this up here on the stage.’ So the question demands—certainly beyond my powers to figure out physiologically—it certainly says something about our country in the sense of, here you have these events unfold before your very eyes and yet we can still reach about two, or three, or four, or five different interpretations of those events. What does that say about how far we need to go in terms of reaching some kind of understanding about race or race relations?
I interviewed Gary before Cruz dropped out of the race, but what Gary has to say about Trump in the context of Cruz vs. Trump may still prove interesting.
SW: Who are you more scared of, Cruz or Trump?
GP: That’s funny. I was talking about that with a couple other folks. I’m actually more scared of Cruz.
SW: Yeah, me too.
GP: Cause Cruz really does believe the—the shit that Cruz says he believes that shit. Trump I’m not so sure—I don’t—you know what this person I was talking to, they were saying…He called Trump a Narcissistic Sociopath—and this guy has a medical background. He said by definition that means clinically this man does not mean a word he’s telling you. He’ll say anything, do anything, but he doesn’t believe a word he’s telling you. All he wants is the attention…but he believes none of this stuff. I think there must be some truth to that. Or I hope there’s some truth to that cause God help us if that Son of a Bitch wins. But of the two—you know the devil in the deep blue sea—I’m definitely—Cruz definitely scares me more cause Cruz is a true believer. He is an evil man.
SW: You know I’m always wondering where is the “birther” movement for Cruz. Born in Canada, right?
GP: (Laughing) That’s right.
SW: And he’s a big original-ism proponent, so he should disqualify himself if he’s reading the constitution with an original-ism lens. Because—if I’m not mistaken—an original-ism view of the constitution would state that you literally have to be born in the United States in order to run for President.
GP: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.
SW: If the Presidential race was between Clinton or Sanders who would you pick?
GP: I’ve gone back and forth. I’m in the age range that I’m the black person that’s for Hilary as opposed to the younger black folks who are for Sanders. And you know that has to do with the past, and Bill Clinton, and so on. But lately, you know, I’m still on the fence. Unlike some people, if it’s one of them in the race I’ll vote for either one of them—I’m not terrified of the alternative. I’m clear on that question. But in the past, with Obama, I’ve done some canvasing—I went to Vegas and did some voter drive stuff…Honestly, if it’s Hilary I don’t know if I’ll be motivated to do that—if it’s Sanders I’ll probably be more motivated to do that. So I’m still sitting on the fence. I used to be more in the Hilary camp, and now I’m more—I’m in between. But I’m just hoping that—and we know that Hilary has high negatives just like Trump has high negatives. His negatives are higher than hers but she still has high negatives. I’m just hoping in the end that if it is her as a Democratic nominee that people will be so terrified of Trump, or Cruz, that they’ll go out and vote. But your're right, I’m worried that she won’t have necessarily the excitement factor that Sanders seems to have. But I actually do think Hilary would do better in a debate against Trump than I think Sanders would.
J. Sam Williams is a fiction writer, a journalist, and the Editor in Chief of immix. Raised in Bow, NH, he now lives in Monterey, CA with his wife and two loving cats. Williams attends Antioch University of Los Angeles where he is working towards his MFA in Creative Writing, and is an assistant editor and social media editor at Lunch Ticket (Lunchticket.org). Feel free to contact him through immix at firstname.lastname@example.org