The Big Idea: Charlie Huston
Hey kids! I’m stuck in meetings all day long (seriously, from about 8:30 to 6), but that’s no reason why you shouldn’t be having fun. And to help you have fun, here’s neo-noir master Charlie Huston to entertain you with tales of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, his latest thriller, and to explain just what a certain beloved 70s television show which always started with a phone message has to do with anything. Incidentally, the critics are seriously digging on this book and on Huston; Publishers Weekly’s starred review of the book called the dude “one of his generation’s finest and hippest talents.” That’s not a bad way to start one’s day, if you’re him.
And now: Enjoy this. And think of me fondly (or with pity, either works) as I spend all day in meetings, won’t you? Thanks.
“The Rockford Files.”
Really, it’s that simple.
The big idea behind The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Hey, can I squeeze in a note to any novelists or prospective novelists out there? Sure I can. Just a thought, but if you’re ever, you know, thinking about giving your book a really long title, take into consideration that fact that you will likely have to write out the entirety of that title many, many, many fucking times. No shit, it gets annoying. Just saying.) was “The Rockford Files.”
Yes, my big idea was over thirty years old, and belongs to Stephen J. Cannell and Roy Huggins. Oops. Caught red handed, stealing other writers’ ideas.
In scholarship they call it plagiarism.
In fiction they call it genius.
Bonus points to me for realizing I am no genius and that I would need the genius of others to disguise my many shortcomings.
So, the Big Idea went something like this.
Man, these books I’m writing are both very violent and very dark. And though people often talk about how funny they are, they don’t feel at all funny to me. In fact, I’d kind of like to write something that felt a little lighter. Something where the protagonist’s life is not disemboweled, the entrails dragged over hot coals, and dined upon by feral beasts. I’d maybe like to write something about someone’s life coming together instead of coming apart. And, hey, what if I gave myself a break and didn’t kill half the cast. So I could maybe reuse them in future books or something? And, hey, what if I used past tense, so the narrator could comment on the action, you know, breathe and observe and say something? And, hey, what if the guy wasn’t tough, was wrong as often as he was right, was really funny but couldn’t keep his mouth shut, had a real low-rent lifestyle and kind of liked it that way and…You know what show was really great when you were a kid, Charlie? “The Rockford Files” was a really great show. What if…
Yes, it’s more complicated than that. You don’t just pull an old favorite out of your ass, refashion it, and presto! Big Idea for a new book! There is actual labor involved. Curses.
This vague idea I had, slacker guy hanging out in his friend’s tattoo parlor finds his way into some trouble, kind of sorts it out, and over the course of a couple books becomes a detective kind of guy, and it’s all sort of modeled around my love of “The Rockford Files,” sat in my brain for several years. Waiting.
I mentioned it a few times to both my agent and my editor and they both grunted and said something along the lines of, “It could use some filling out.” Which I get where they were coming from. I just knew the tone. The kind of guy I wanted to write about.
Things started filling in.
I moved to LA and knew it was an LA book. OK, yes, “The Rockford Files” was set in Los Angeles, so it’s not like that’s a real creative leap. But all my previous books had been set in NYC, so it was new for me.
Then, I don’t know, then I was researching something. Can’t remember what, and I stumbled over an article about crime scene and trauma cleaning. Well, that was too evocative to pass up, I needed to know more. And I very quickly knew what my guy would be doing. He’d be a trauma cleaner. He’d start the book doing nothing, get drawn into trauma cleaning, get into some trouble, get out, and go into the detective thing for future books.
Except the deeper I looked into trauma cleaning, the more it took over.
It’s a sad, rich, funny, brutal, fascinating profession. Full of opportunities for intrigue, compassion, lurid scenarios, heartbreak, and maggots.
I couldn’t pull out of it.
So that was my guy. A trauma cleaner who gets involved in other people’s troubles, and solves them. Sort of. Or not at all. As things go along people may mistake him for a detective, and he may mistake himself for a detective, and he may be hired to do detecting work, but that’s not really his thing. His thing is cleaning up messes. As the books evolve, so will he, and he’ll go from being a mess himself, to a man with a talent for cleaning them up. Except when he blows it.
Or that’s my idea. Which could change. And probably will.
I met Mr. Cannell a few months back. I didn’t have the guts to tell him I ripped him off, but I did thank him for Rockford. An idea big enough to be used many more times than once.