Meet Theo Gangi, author of Bang, Bang and a member of ITW’s debut author class of 2008 — First Kill!
EDUCATION OF A THRILLER WRITER
I went to college at an open, lush campus in the suburbs of Baltimore. One chilly, blustery evening I was walking against light, falling hail with a group of friends. One guy, Marcus, had his hood up and walked backwards, facing the opposite direction to the rest of us.
“Why are you walking backwards?” I asked him.
He smiled, like the answer was obvious. “Beats the hell outta walking forwards.”
Like Marcus, I seem to have walked the road to my first published novel backwards.
In high school I wrote short stories, and they were good, better than anything else I was doing in high school. So when I got to my calm, suburban college campus I sought the writer-in-residence. He read my story and liked it. Sitting in his office, as he took a second read of a short I wrote called So What, based on the Miles Davis song, he recognized something in the structure and exclaimed, “(Expletive), this is better than I thought.”
My mother later exclaimed on the phone that he was Madison Smartt Bell, and he was a big deal. He was being nominated for a National Book Award.
I hadn’t heard of him.
I worked with Madison for all four years. He passed my first novella on to his agent and encouraged me to pursue fiction as a career, as counterintuitive as that sounds.
My next stop was Columbia’s MFA program, where a professor of mine saw a gun in a chapter of another novel and said, “So clearly we’re dealing with noir here.”
I had never read noir.
I was writing about city kids, and I was interested in those I knew who had gotten caught up in the shadier side of things. I had no idea this meant I was writing noir. My first reaction was defensive, especially due to the disdain that professor clearly had for genre fiction. This was, after all, a man who, on the first day of class gave us three writing samples—Faulkner, Hemmingway, and himself. And no, you haven’t heard of him.
Thanks to the assistance of another Columbia Professor, David Plante, my work found its way to another agent, this one at ICM. The agent told me I was the next Richard Price.
I hadn’t heard of him either.
So I went and read Clockers and loved the heck out of it. I figured ‘the next Richard Price’ wasn’t so bad, so I took the agent’s suggestions and rewrote my novel. By then, he’d lost interest in ‘the next Richard Price’. He passed the book on to a junior agent at ICM. The junior agent wanted to represent the book. He signed me up and when I asked him how he wanted to sell me, he said as “The new Elmore Leonard.”
I hadn’t read him either. I was clearly evoking something with my writing I wasn’t quite up on. At Columbia, we read Virginia Wolf, Gertrude Stein and Eudora Welty regardless of the sort of work we were doing.
So I stumbled into the thriller genre—literally. I was playing basketball at the gym at Columbia, and as I made a move to the basket my knee popped right out of the joint.
I needed extensive surgery and it would be months before I’d be able to walk around. So I took the opportunity during recovery dive into thrillers—starting with Hammett and Chandler and working up to Connelly and Leonard. I read at least a dozen of Elmore Leonard’s books. By the time I was walking around again I had written a draft of my first published novel.
The concept for Bang Bang came from idiosyncrasies of street idiom. A ‘bang’ is slang for a con-on-con robbery, and a ‘stickup kid’ is a rogue criminal who preys on other criminals. So I began to wonder, what do you call a stickup kid who’s a grown man? That became the opening sentence of the book. Izzy’s character grew from there—a guy from the streets who’s savvy enough to know he’s a walking contradiction.
I wanted to write a book about this stickup kid because he most embodies the modern urban equivalent of the cowboy: a lone gunman obeying a private moral code within a system of justice beyond the law. Elmore Leonard showed how the urban crime thriller was really a relocated western. When he couldn’t sell his westerns anymore, he reapplied his conceptions to a modern city and remained relevant for the rest of his career.
Like the classic story of the mysterious cowboy with a past, Izzy has done some bad things. I don’t excuse him, but I offer an opportunity for redemption. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where various races and classes are stacked on top of one another in a constantly evolving property market. You learn that identity is never fixed and set, but is perpetually being reinvented.
My father runs a prisoners advocacy organization called the Correctional Association, and I’ve visited prisons since I was young. This made me very aware of the discrepancy of quality of life in a given city. My father showed a great empathy to people who were locked up, or otherwise lost in a flawed system. So my challenge was to present Izzy’s world in an objective way—illustrating both why he’s there and why he wants out.
Bang Bang is more than a street thriller, but a slice of urban clutter where different walks of life constantly connect, challenge and bang into each other.
My education process was, to say the least, unconventional. I wouldn’t recommend walking backwards—I stepped into many potholes and could have wandered clear off course. That said, there’s no one way to do anything. Just keep your eyes open, whichever direction you face.
Congratulations, JT. You have arrived! Buy ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS here.
Derek Nikitas’ Thrilling debut is now available get it HERE or at a store near you.
This was going to be the plan:
Wait in the parking lot of the gun club until he turns from Germantown Pike onto Preble County Line Road. Pull out after him, run him into the ditch, drag him out of his truck. Put a bullet in his brain.
There were other details: how to dispose of the gun, how to trick out the scene to make it look like a robbery. But that was the essence of it: dark road, ditch, bullet. A good plan, everyone said. Simple.
I wasn’t going to argue. It was my plan.
The plan was founded on two facts and one piece of dumb luck.
The facts were: 1) he was working 12-hour shifts at a job site eighty-five miles from home and always returned well after dark on a seldom-traveled country road; and 2) he was a drunk and a speed freak. It was a good bet he’d be riding the tail end of a methamphetamine high but would have taken the edge off on the way home with three or four shots at this bar he liked on Route 35 near Eaton. Those were the facts, but by themselves wouldn’t have led to much of anything.
But lucky me, I found a half-rusted .38 on a rocky island below the railroad bridge over Twin Creek just south of Germantown. Two of the six chambers had expended shells in them, but four bullets remained. More than enough, even after I test-fired the gun into the water at the upstream end of the island. Rusty, but functional.
A couple of friends were going to help. They knew him, knew what he was capable of. But they didn’t need a reason beyond the fact they were my friends. And maybe they were excited I’d hatched a plot that would be exciting and dangerous, something they wanted to be a part of even if they didn’t really understand what they were signing up for. Dark road, ditch, bullet in the brain.
Amazing, really, the things dumbass teenaged boys will agree to.
The man’s name was Ed, and he was my step-father. His offenses were so common, so banal, as to be barely worth a mention. In the long annals of boys with step-fathers, my own experiences would barely rise to the level of the merely typical. Sure, he was violent and abusive, and sure it got worse as time passed and he worked longer hours and drank more and more. Once he started using meth he got so volatile and unpredictable I kept a baseball bat next to my bed at night. If he was in the house, I came and went through my bedroom window.
But I don’t offer these details as some kind of justification for my plan. They were just part of my decision-making process, part of how I rationalized my plan. But they didn’t make it okay.
Because here is something else about him. The summer between tenth and eleventh grade I got sick and spent most of the summer in the hospital. Some difficult to diagnose fungal infection. Ed came to see me more than anyone except my mother, and a couple times a week throughout the summer he brought me grocery bags filled with comic books and Playboy magazines. When my doctor objected to the magazines, Ed told him to mind his own business. Nothing wrong with a boy looking at some nudie pics, he said, especially one who’d been stuck in the hospital all summer long.
The night came and my friends and I got into position. I was in the back seat of the car, two friends up front. Ed appeared on Germantown Road a little before ten, a lone pickup on a dark road. He didn’t quite stop at Preble County Line Road, but he wasn’t going fast when we pulled out behind him. He weaved back and forth for a quarter mile or so, then just as we were about to run up beside him he veered into the ditch all on his own.
We stopped and I jumped out the car. I don’t remember what I felt. I know I was scared because that’s the way I’ve always remembered it, but the sensation of that fear is long lost to me. I remember hesitating out there on the empty road and my friend urging me on from inside the car. "Go on, man. Go on." I remember thinking my plan was stupid, but finally I went up to the driver’s side of the truck and pulled the door open. Ed was sitting there with his hands in his lap and he looked up when the dome light came on.
I usually avoided him when he was stoned, and never made eye contact with him, but that night I looked right at him. His pupils were black and as big as nickels. I didn’t think he recognized me. But then,
"Bill," he said. Just that.
Then he puked on himself.
He started to slide sideways out of the seat and I reached out, held him up. One of the guys in the car asked me what was happening and I told him Ed had thrown up. "You’re not going to do it?" Something like that. I just said, "Help me move him." We pushed Ed to the side and then spent twenty minutes or so getting the truck out of the ditch, rocking and revving until the tires bit. My friends took off and I drove the truck home, managed to drag Ed into the house and left him on the living room floor.
The next day I put the gun in a shoebox and took it the Germantown police station. Told them where I’d found it, but didn’t mention anything about firing it, and certainly nothing about the plan. They didn’t seem to care, but they took the box and I never heard anything else about it.
A few months later, my mother crossed that boundary in her mind or heart that had kept her there with Ed through so much. They got divorced and that was that. Ed was out of our lives. Twenty-eight years ago.
Recently I was chatting with a critique partner who’d just read a draft chapter from the novel I’m working on right now. "Where the fuck does this stuff come from anyway?" He was laughing as he asked, but I think it’s a fair question. Where does this stuff come from, whatever this stuff is for each of us? What’s our back story, and how does it influence the nature of the stories we put down on the page?
I don’t know why others write crime fiction. I only know that for me, the stories I write are, among other things—many, many other things—an attempt to answer this question: Who would I be now if I’d made a different choice that night on Preble County Line Road?
Filed under: Marc Lecard
Everyone has their own approach to the physical act of writing. Some like to write in notebooks or on legal pads, scrawling down their works in soft pencil. Moleskine notebooks are popular fetishes. Others prefer manual typewriters for that Front Page kick, or an IBM Selectric, to reproduce the thrill of writing your first novel on company time as a temp office worker back in the Eighties.
And often these methods are necessary for the writer to do his or her best work, sometimes to get anything done at all. The pencil or typewriter connects to the old habitual experience of writing, the physical fact produces the creative one.
I used to be a pencil and notebook guy. I thought I could never write any other way, that without a marbled composition book and a good supply of nicely sharpened yellow no. 2 Ticonderoga pencils I would be helpless, unable to write a word.
I got over that.
I had to. My handwriting is hard to read at best; under pressure it deteriorates into random indecipherable scribble. Even I can’t read it. How many great stories lie hidden under those meaningless scratches in old notebooks? I’ll never know.
I write on a computer now, and have for years. And like it. In fact I really think word processors helped me become a better writer.
What I deeply love about word processing programs is that when you delete something, it is gone. Not lurking under flakes of whiteout, or ghosted back by erasure and haunting every word you try to write over it, but gone.
And saving those old versions allows you to become an utterly ruthless editor. Because, hey, you can always put it back if you miss it too much. But meanwhile every word is tested, and if it doesn’t contribute, out it goes.
And the ease of moving words around encourages chance-taking, I
think, structural experiments, unusual juxtapositions.
But writers are cranky, idiosyncratic types, and not everyone writes the same way. Writing happens the way it happens, not the way anyone else thinks it should happen. With access to the whole range of modern word processing technology, some still prefer pens, pencils, crayons, lipstick, pieces of charcoal.
So does anyone depend on a particular tool, technology or method to get the writing going? Notebook fetish? Type of pencil? Color of ink? Of paper? A certain smell? Time of day? What?
Come on, you can tell me.
Filed under: Derek Nikitas, JT Ellison, Killer Year Founders, Killer Year Members, Marcus Sakey, Toni McGee Causey
If you’re anywhere near Nashville this weekend, you have a great opportunity.
The Southern Festival of Books is Friday – Sunday, October 12-14. Four Killer Year members are the guests of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime and are appearing on two separate panels.
Friday, 12-1:30 — Sex and Violence: Is Too Much Ever Enough
Moderated by Robert Hicks (WIDOW OF THE SOUTH), with Tasha Alexander, Marcus Sakey and J.T. Ellison
Saturday, 12-1:30 — Tips and Insider Secrets To Getting Published
Moderated by Tasha Alexander (A POISONED SEASON), with Marcus Sakey, J.T. Ellison, Toni McGee Causey and Derek Nikitas
Come one, come all. The Festival is free, draws a huge crowd, and is always a lot of fun!
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Sean Chercover | Tags: ala, american booksellers association, american library association, association of american publishers, banned books week, office of intellectual freedom
Ah, the familiar signs of autumn’s gentle approach . . . children playing in the schoolyard . . . the slight chill in the night air . . . the woodsy smell of burning books . . .
Leaves. I mean burning leaves, of course. After all, what kind of idiot would burn books? Probably the same kind of idiot who would try to ban books. The kind of idiot who would demand that libraries and schools and bookstores limit your reading options to only those books that do not threaten said idiot’s worldview.
Yes, it’s Banned Books Week once again, and I’m gonna jump up and down and wave my hands about it, like I do every year. The mouth-breathers haven’t stopped trying to control what we can read, so we can’t stop either. Eternal vigilance, and all that jazz…
The thing is, thousands of groups of our fellow citizens want to “protect” the rest of us from ideas that they have deemed Evil. As you might expect, these Evil Ideas are found in Very Dangerous Books. And our self-appointed moral guardians run around demanding that these Dangerous Books be banned from public libraries and school libraries. And the really frightening thing is, their efforts sometimes meet with success.
From 2000-2005, there were over 3,000 organized attempts to remove books from schools and public libraries. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Harry Potter novels topped the list of evil books. Also in the top ten were Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou.
Here are a few more titles, from the top-100 challenged books (1990-2000):
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Of Mice And Men
The Catcher In The Rye
In The Night Kitchen (I’m not kidding.)
The Color Purple
Brave New World
James And The Giant Peach
Lord of The Flies
Song Of Solomon
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, The Office for Intellectual Freedom, and a handful of other fine organizations (and endorsed by the Library of Congress), Banned Books Week attempts to draw our attention to an ongoing threat to our intellectual freedom.
So please follow the links in this post, and read Banned Books Week section of the ALA website.
And unless you have something better planned this week, (like, say, burning a witch, or using the constitution for toilet paper) please consider stopping by your local library and checking out a couple of the books on the list.
Free People Read Freely.