My first experience with Tom Pitts was “A Loaded Question” which he submitted to Shotgun Honey back in October 2011, we pretty much ate it up and published it a few weeks later. That was followed up with a longer story, “Luck,” that he submitted and we published in our first anthology BOTH BARRELS. He has publish stories with A Twist of Noir, Darkest Before the Dawn, Near to the Knuckle, Literary Orphans, All Due Respect and others, plus had the release his first novel PIGGYBACK by crime fiction publisher, Snubnose Press.
From the first story about a routine traffic stop to his novel about a drug dealers tracking down a lost delivery, Tom pulls from dark places that dwell in us all, that he has experienced first hand for the benefit of the reader and the detriment of a life delayed and dreams deferred. His words captivate me, so let’s get on with the interview and let the man speak for himself.
How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?
Way back in the nineties, when I was strung out on junk but not yet out on the street, I found myself in need of a greater escape than heroin could provide. It was then that I discovered true crime. I devoured endless Mafia books and wound up developing quite a collection. (It was later confiscated by the Feds, but that’s a whole nother story.) It was all true stuff, I had no patience for fiction. I decided that I would write my own book about San Francisco organized crime and set out to become an investigative journalist. I went so far as to call the FBI’s famous Bill Roemer and got him to give me his blessing to call his former partner still active in SF. I got shut down from there and decided to give up and try a novel. Drugs got in the way and I didn’t pick up the pen till 2010. That unfinished novel from the nineties still sits on floppy discs beside my desk.
We are the sum of our experiences, and like you life took a detour, but I found that my writing is richer for the experience. Tell us about your journey back and how it benefited or hindered Tom Pitts the writer?
It’s a double-edged sword as far as the writing goes. On one hand, I was able to experience a darker side of life not many people live to tell about. By the time I was done, I’d taken it about as far as you can go. It’s invaluable in crime-writing to experience criminal life first hand. However, had I not been wasting my life in the dregs, I may have had 20 more years of writing under my belt by now. My mind was sharp then and it has since been dulled by my excesses. The regret of a late start haunts me.
The other catch-22 is the limitation of the experience. I’ve read book by guys who know a great deal about stuff I never will. Greater minds than mine who were able to absorb all of life’s experience. Writers who expound on everything from police procedure to the coming-out parties of New York debutantes. I know nothing of cars, or sports, or foreign lands. I write what I know, and that is scumbags.
As far as the journey back goes, it was a slow one. I’d often professed to be a writer back in the old days, and perhaps because I was a songwriter in a band, people assumed it was true. But in reality, I never really did any writing. I was lost on the treadmill of addiction. When I cleaned up in 2001, I got together with my wife and took on the responsibility of fatherhood–two stepsons, 10 and 5 at the time. That put me on a whole new treadmill. I stayed focused on that until about 2010 when I started writing in earnest. (I got my liver fixed int 2009, perhaps that gave me the proverbial “new lease on life.”)
The novella PIGGYBACK came out last year from Snubnose Press. This was your first published long fiction? How did your experience in the drug world influence this story?
The impetus for the story came from a similar situation a friend of mine in “the business” had. The trunk-load of weed gone missing with the two girls, that is. The similarities end there. Where my experiences in the drug world really play in is the characters. One thing I learned committing petty crimes and running drugs is: things never end up the way you think they will. Murphy’s Law. Nobody’s on time, the money never adds up, and your co-conspirators are annoying as hell. People will let you down, there is no code. The fact is, most people in the criminal world are like the book’s character Paul, not the anti-hero, Jimmy.
Characters almost as annoying as dilettante interviewers, I imagine? Some time has passed between questions and since I’ve read an op-ed that touched upon your pet peeve of people assuming writing songs and fiction are similar. I do have to ask though, how has your past life as a musician played towards your writing career?
None really. I’m a strong believer in the rhythm of words, but I don’t think it’s tied to music. It’d be nice to tie music and writing together with a poetic connection, but I think the rhythm of words is part of natural speech. It’s a different rhythm than is required for music. I do make a lot of comparisons of writing to music, though. I don’t believe in heavy re-writes, maintaining it’s the same as thinking you can “fix it in the mix” when you’re recording, stuff like that. The experience did, however, teach me a bit about the business end of creating “art.” The band I was in was signed to an respectable independent label. (Back in the early days when there were only a few of them and they were truly independent.) I think it’s very similar to the publishing business these days. The ability to do-it-yourself has upended the industry. Ultimately, that’s probably a good thing.
For those who may be interested, what was the scene like as a musician? Tell us about the band?
It was the late ’80’s. Pre-Nirvana. Everyone was still traveling in vans, not buses. My band was called Short Dogs Grow and we did okay, considering. We toured the country a few times. I miss those days. I was a great way to see the land. From Miami to Boston, Minneapolis to El Paso, we covered a lot of ground. Shitty gigs, lots of beer. Motel 6 and pizza. It was before the drugs really began to kick my ass. We were lucky enough to play with a lot of the era’s punk rock biggies. Black Flag, Descendants, DOA, etc … We didn’t fit the mold well, though. We were a quirky outfit that were more rock than punk. We released two albums with Rough Trade records and then walked on our contract thinking we could do better. We were wrong.
Do you ever consider turning those early days into a story, either fiction or non? A memoir or a fictional shit storm?
It’s been suggested to me plenty. Truth be told, I didn’t retain a lot of memories from those days. If I ever get a memoir going, some of those days will be weaved in. The reality is: the stories from those days are rather juvenile. Getting drunk during radio interviews and abusing the callers, getting jailed for speeding in Beau Bridge, Louisiana. Scabies in El Paso, going on last at CB-GB’s and telling yourself you’re headlining. It seemed cool to be halfway-wrecking motel rooms, but when you look back, all we did is leave a big mess for the maid to clean. What jerks. (When our bass player Carmela first quit the band, she told us, “I’m tired of living in a van with three adolescent alcoholics who think they’re Led Zeppelin.” Ouch.) When you’re young and in a band, it takes a lot of energy and self-confidence to push it in everybody’s face all the time. All that time handing out flyers and trying to get people to come to shows. Bravado. Sometimes I look back and feel like, damn, I was full of shit. Perhaps it’s like Bukowski said for years before being able to write about growing up in Ham on Rye, “I just don’t have enough distance yet.”
If not memoir of those days, do you have one in the works? A collection of experience from your drug days? I’ve seen the stories you share with Lip Service West. They are humorous and horrifying all at once, you bring a genuine experience to the story with an entertaining flare.
Joe Clifford insists that I assemble a collection of my junkie tales. I counted them up the other day and I think I fall short of a book’s worth. I even added in some good shorts from my bike messenger days–being a bike messenger in San Francisco in the ’80’s, now that was a scene. If I can pen a handful more, I’ll look into putting them out. There’s a humorous quality to them that doesn’t seem to come through in my crime fiction. If you can call accidentally shooting up mouse feces humorous. Right now I’m still trying to find an agent to represent me for my “unsavory” novel, Hustle, and I’m trying to squeeze out another novel as we speak. Between writing and co-editing at the Flash Fiction Offensive, my plate is pretty full.
On the chance there’s an agent or two out there reading this, what’s the pitch for HUSTLE?
Hmmn. The ol’ one-sentence synopsis, huh? Okay, here it goes: When two young hustlers, caught in an endless cycle of addiction and prostitution, decide to blackmail an elderly client of their who happens to be a criminal defense attorney, they find that their victim has already been targeted by a much more sinister force.
Okay, let the bidding war begin.
Between writing stories, editing for The Flash Fiction Offensive, the JOB and family, how do you find balance? What method works you through the writing madness?
Easy. There is no balance. My job is from midnight to eight am. That keeps any chance of balance permanently off-kilter. It’s a constant struggle to carve time out for each and all of the above. Sometimes it seems like it was easier to only have to worry about procuring another twenty dollars for dope. I know that’s not true, but sometimes when I see a poor soul lodged in a doorway, drool running down their chin, I think, fuck, that guy has it made. No worries, no responsibilities … what a life. The grass is always greener, huh?. Of course, I know from personal experience, the poor bastard has to sweat hobbling to the soup kitchen in time on a leg swollen with abscesses, oh, and where to find enough cigarette butts to make it though the night, then there’s still that twenty bucks, and on and on and on. I consider myself lucky to be on the crazy treadmill that is my life.
Thank you for taking time with us, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?
I think that most writers become writers to expose us to their view of the world, not because they have some need to create art, to make the world a more beautiful place. Write because of the muse? The muse? You kidding? When you write you have to wake the muse up, kick the sides of her bed, check her pulse, make sure she’s not dead.
Oh, and go buy Piggyback before they run out.
Thanks for everything, Ron. It’s been a pleasure.