Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. He is the author of American Static (Down & Out Books), Hustle (Down & Out Books) and the novellas Piggyback (Snubnose Press) and Knuckleball (Shotgun Honey). He sat down with us for five questions about life, work, and how idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
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Your books are like a scenic tour of the noir world, involving blackmail, drugs, politics, murder, and even baseball. Your newest, “American Static,” is no different. How do you personally define “noir”? (I feel like it’s a nebulous term in a lot of ways, but also one that people tend to abuse — “future noir!” “underwater noir!” “clown noir!” — as a shorthand for, “My book has a bit of darkness or weirdness in it.”)
It’s true. The term has been watered down. It’s also a red flag for tropes. If you’re searching around for a movie or book, the word “noir” brings no promise of quality, or at least what I look for in a crime tale. If I’m cornered, I prefer to go with “crime thriller” when describing my own stuff. Neo-noir works nicely, too. I lean on the James Ellroy’s definition of noir a lot: The lead starts out fucked and things get worse from there. And for me, there has to be a ring of truth to it, a feeling like it could really happen. That’s the feel I look for in noir, a sense that characters react the way people really would.
You’ve endured in the crime-fiction industry for quite some time. For every author, it’s often a hard road in terms of getting the word out about your latest books. What techniques have worked for you?
It’s evolved, or changed at least. It used to be Facebook, right? I’m convinced we’ll look back on the years 2012 to 2016 and see it as a golden age of social media. A time when authors—and a lot of different artists—could get the word out on their own. There was a lot of interaction and a feeling of community. For whatever reason, post-election internet has flattened out. You can blame too much politics, not enough politics, whatever, but it feels like people don’t really want that same interaction. The population of sites like Facebook is high, but participation is low. I think that’s why Instagram is so popular right now. There’s almost no interaction. I rely on publicists a lot more now, but that’s not because my star has risen, it’s because of the de-evolution of social media. I have to think about the ways that I find out about books I want to read. And it’s reviews, stumbling across websites, Amazon, and good old word-of-mouth. That’s still the best way. Word of mouth.
What kind of research do you do for your books? You obviously have your lingo down, and your knowledge of how down-and-outers tick.
That’s about it. A lifetime of research in the gutter, unfortunately. I think the trick sometimes is to shape your narrative around what knowledge you have. For instance, if you have a scene with police on their radios and you’re not certain of their numbered codes or ranks (which sometimes vary from department to department), you may have to have the radio break, or the commanding officer may have to have a nickname. Sometimes those minor alterations lead to whole new plotlines. Don’t get me wrong, accuracy is deadly important, but you can make yourself crazy researching minutia. It’s more important to keep that plot moving.
What projects are you working on now?
Nothing! Technically. I’m wrapping up edits for my novel Coldwater, I’ve completed my marijuana opus, 101, and it’s being shopped. My script for Hustle is on hold while the powers that be hash out the details. I guess I’d better start brewing up ideas for the next novel before I get myself into trouble. Idle hands and all that.
All laws in the country are rescinded for one week. What do you do?
Keep my powder dry and stay the fuck inside!