The Big Idea: Charlie Huston
Posted on January 16, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 15 Comments
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.
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s
Read an excerpt of Mystic Arts here. Sample other Charlie Huston books electronically here.
Hey John, about those meetings: quit complaining. This is nothing special, it’s just normal working life for a lot of us. Consider it grist for your mill.
But that’s the point! I’m not supposed to have a normal working life! Waaaah!
Hey- I just read a review of this in the LA Times, and thought ‘I should read that!’
What’s that line from The Dead Pool? “It’s not a ripoff! It’s an homage!” Anyway, I agree: the ideas behind The Rockford Files are big enough and good enough to be borrowed and reshaped. I look forward to reading the book.
Thanks for this Mr. Huston.
I’ll buy this because I think your writing style just awesome over all, and so far, there’s cool substance to go with it.
While I’m here, I have to ask though…when’s the next installment in Joe nee Simon’s life due out? After Half the Blood of Brooklyn, I’m just dying for more.
I’m assuming you’re monitoring this thread. If I’m wrong, I’m sure our host correct me.
Jamie, he already released the fourth book(Every Last Drop) and it is indeed excellent as always.
Nate: Recent release? I was in my local B&N about a week before Christmas and it wasn’t on the shelves at the time…I’m hoping they haven’t moved him from the SF&F ghetto over to Horror, Mystery, or generic Fiction/Lit on me…I rarely wander through those sections.
Ok, so normally I post on here as Rick. And I was all se to tell John that he’s not supposed to have meetings, it’s why he’s a writer. Then another Rick inverts things, John steals my line and… um… ok, I’m confused and it’s still before noon.
On topic…. this sounds fun. And I loved Rockford, so that sensibility appeals. But have your guy turn on the lights in the room. How manyt times did Rockford walk into a dark room, NOT turn the lights on and get conked over the head?? You’d have though he’d learn.
Is this really how your mind works? Crazy man, crazy… But speaking of maggots, I got a great use for them you might not suspect. Disgusting, but great. Anyway, negative twenty here in Wisconsin. Where is my Global Warming? I want it NOW!
“And you think Rockford Files is cool
But there are some things that you would change
If it were up to you
So think about your masterpiece
Watch the Rockford Files
Call to see if Paul can score some weed”
About five years ago, here in LA, I heard a story on All Things Considered about this kind of cleaning service. Something about ” . . . a strange frying sound, which in fact was hundreds of thousands of maggots hard at work.”
And I thought to myself, “Damn – this could be the framework of a really cool story.”
Really ought to trust myself more.
Best of luck with this one, Charlie. You’re a terrific writer, you deserve a huge hit with it.
Man, what a treat to see Charlie Huston on The Big Idea. I’ve read the Joe Pitt books half a dozen times each(yes, they are pretty much that awesome). I think I’ll put Mystic Arts at the top of my “to read” list right now. On a side note, Huston seems like a really cool guy. I sent him a pretty fanboyish email and he wrote back the next day, meaning that I’ll buy every book he writes for the rest of his career.
I’ve read Mystic Arts and thought it was so good, I went out and bought more of Charlie Huston’s work. If the rest of his stuff is as good as this one, I’ll be thrilled. I recommend it.
Yes he’s actually working on the last book now. Or sort of working on it…he has a lot of irons in the fire. Mostly for cauterizing wounds I think. Anyway his website is http://www.pulpnoir.com
I’ve read all of Huston’s books and I’m about halfway through this one. Too early to say whether this is his best yet, but Web Goodhue is his best protagonist yet.