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.
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