Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Aaron Philip Clark

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You want real? I’ll give you real. Come here. He’s here. Aaron Philip Clarke has written a brilliant crime novel with ‘The Science of Paul’. It is not about forensic detail it’s about the psychology of crime. While it is stylistically rooted in the Chandler and Hammett classics Paul is as Aaron says an ex-con with a conscience and the author delves into the moral complexity of what we like to dismiss too easily. He mentions Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime And Punishment’ as an influence and that is not surprising. When a man or woman gives themselves licence as Raskolnikov did they have had it.

He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about offender profiling and Ralph Ellison.

How effective do you think offender profiling is? 

Well, I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject; I will say that I’ve found criminal profiling to be effective in the apprehension of criminals who operate with a tenable pathology. Much of profiling today is based on typing but in many cases we’ve seen how that typing or generalizing can be problematic, as seen in the case of the ‘D.C./Beltway Sniper.’ The profile of the suspect that was proposed stated the ‘sniper’ would most likely be a white male in his thirties. But the true culprits, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, were both of African decent; Lee being a 17-year-old, Jamaican born immigrant. In some cases, relying on a psychological profile and various personality configurations could lead law enforcement investigators astray, but I’d venture to say, more likely than not the profiles aid investigators and provide a good point to work from.

 Tell us about ‘The Science Of Paul’. 

The Science of Paul: A Novel of Crime is my first novel. In many ways it was an experiment and became a kind of amalgamation. I wanted to combine my love of traditional crime novels, like the ones written by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Walter Mosley, with existentialism. The influence of novels like The Stranger, Crime and Punishment, The Prone Gunman, and the works of the Georges Simenon and Fred Vargas added to the melting pot as well. I suppose I wanted to write a novel that paid tribute to the classic crime novels I grew up reading, while taking some chances within the genre. I knew I didn’t want the character to be a cop or private detective, so I opted for an ex-con. But Paul really is an ex-con with a conscience, and it’s his conscience and intellect that sets him apart from some common street thug. I wanted Paul to defy stereotypes; I wanted his intelligence to be his weapon of choice, so to speak. He doesn’t carry a gun or any weapon, when things become critical he relies on his fists and wits. But first and foremost he’s human, so he does make mistakes that have dire consequences.

I set the novel in Philadelphia , PA , because Philly provided opportunities for Paul to come in contact with many different types of people in a small, intimate setting. Philly is a relatively small city compared to New York or Los Angeles, and it’s really made up of various neighborhoods that are ethnically polarized. Paul moves through the various neighborhoods while making astute assessments about the things he sees.

I see Paul in a tragic, Shakespearean way. He has so much potential to be something really great, to be a kind of hero. Although, I’m not sure I believe in heroes, as much as I believe in everyday human beings having heroic moments where they show their true characters. But Paul can be a positive force, if he can simply get out of his own way, and forgive himself for his past crimes. He’s not beyond redemption, and in this novel Paul is really just coming to grips with what ails him—his issues and the things that haunt him. He hasn’t figured out the remedy, he only knows he has to make a change.

Do you think that the best detectives have strong criminal shadows and do you think that certain sections of society are criminalised? 

I do think that detectives who can understand the criminal mindset are the most effective. Yet, it’s their ability to compartmentalize the darkness and not bring it home to their families and loved ones that makes their job even more difficult. It isn’t easy to erase the images of the dead and abused from one’s mind, which is one reason why there are high cases of alcoholism amongst police officers–the alcohol is a coping mechanism. Detectives on average are forced to contend with the ugliest aspects of human nature, they come face to face with horrific atrocities; murders, rapes, child abductions. In order to stay sane, they have to detoxify such things. Being a detective is by no means an easy job, and being a good detective means being able to dip into the psyche of the criminal. In many cases, such as detectives who work sex crimes, they are unable to work within the unit for more than a few years because of the affects the terrible crimes they encounter have on them—often crimes that are carried out against children act as a litmus test that lets a detective know whether or not they can cut it in the unit. I think the sign of a good detective is if the detective fantasizes about eliminating a criminal for good. Some may see it as controversial but I see it as healthy. It shows that the urge for justice, for retribution is so strong that a rational detective ponders enacting justice in the rawest form possible. Now the detective that actually goes beyond it being a fantasy is a whole other issue, but fantasizing about ending the life of a child rapist or serial killer seems normal. Sure it may sound a bit primal but if one were to study ancient cultures and civilizations they would find many cases where a village came together to banish or eliminate a threat to the whole; it was done for the greater good. The reality is, there are some profoundly evil people walking the streets freely and I believe they are simply beyond repair and should spend their lives locked away in prison cells, and I’d venture to say those ex-convicts who have spent time behind bars with these types of offenders would probably agree with me.

There are segments in most American cities that have been overrun with crime, and these segments are policed differently—more aggressively, simply because many murder investigations lead back to these neighborhoods. But I think the entertainment industry and Hollywood specifically has painted some of these neighborhoods as uncivilized slums. For example, some crime dramas set in Los Angeles often mention The Jungle—a cul-de-sac of housing units in South Central that are safe havens for The Bloods street gang—and they depict The Jungle as being a hopeless and helpless hell hole. But that’s not the case; there are many good people, working-class people, and retirees whose only disadvantage is that they’re poor and can’t afford to move. So it’s not accurate to portray a neighborhood monolithically, and profess that everyone living there is a drug dealer, a gang member or even related to one for that matter. It’s not so much a war on gangs or drugs; it’s really just a war on poor people. But just because people are living in these gang infested communities doesn’t mean they’re at home with the killers, gang members and drug dealers. Many people live like prisoners in their own homes—afraid to go out for fear of being the victims of  a random drive-by shooting. Everyone needs protection, even the poor. But the same crime element that exists in poverty-stricken neighborhoods exists in middle and upper-class neighborhoods. In my experience, I’ve encountered more drug dealers who have upper-class pedigrees than those who sell dime bags of marijuana on street corners. I examine this idea in the novel. Paul goes to University City , home of The University of Pennsylvania, where he’s tasked with collecting a debt from a drug dealing college student. While there the student gives Paul a lesson in racial profiling and contests the reason so many African-American men are in jail is because their crimes aren’t committed in concealment but rather they are done as brazen spectacle—this is just one of the ideas concerning race and class that Paul has to wrestle with. But crime is everywhere, it’s part of society and it transcends race and class, it has truly been democratized. Criminals come in many different packages, it’s just that the news media and stereotypes tell us a criminal must look a certain way. It’s one reason why people were so surprised by the swindler, Bernie Madoff; he didn’t fit the preconceived notion.

Ralph Ellison wrote a great novel with ‘Invisible Man’ in which he exposed the conditions of institutionalised racism inherent in the US. Do you think things have changed since he wrote it or has political correctness merely allowed the liberal middle classes to hide their prejudice beneath an acceptable veneer?

I remember listening to the radio one night back in 2008, it was one of those underground political stations common in Los Angeles, and the commentators were talking about how if then Senator Barack Obama was elected president it would be the end of political radicalism amongst African-Americans. They saw his election as the end to black revolution because with the institutionalization of a black president, racism would somehow become passé and an outdated subject—the idea being since there is a black man in the White House, the U.S. can’t possibly be racist. But the truth is in the past twenty years, black radicalism and political awareness has only existed within a certain segment of the black community, mainly older and educated. On average, the youth is no longer aware or even concerned for that matter about the issues Ralph Ellison was examining in his novel The Invisible Man. But racism hasn’t disappeared, it’s just that it no longer overtly permeates society as it once did—it’s been transfigured.

I’m a hopeful person but I don’t have any delusions about how I’m perceived at times, especially in public. I’ve walked into department stores only to be followed or questioned; it’s just how things are. I’ve always grown up with a kind of innate fear that my life could be taken away from me; that I could end up behind bars simply because I matched a description of a suspect. I used to joke that I was happy I was born short; since it’s rare a description goes out over an APB to be on the lookout for a short, black male. But when you’re black it’s a packaged deal; it makes you tough. As far as the liberal middle-class and the overwhelming pressure for people to be politically and socially correct, I find it to be somewhat problematic. I’ve witnessed people stutter and stumble over their words, trying to find the best terminology so that they don’t offend someone, and it always comes out forced and unauthentic. I’ve always said I rather people be upfront, if you don’t like me for something as trivial as my skin color then let me know and we can leave it at that. Or if you aren’t comfortable being around a person of color, why not let your being uniformed inspire a teaching moment. But in these modern times, racism has gone underground. Instead of it being overt, a person has to maneuver through passive aggressiveness and back-handed comments. I say let the rebel flags fly, don’t take Nigger out of Tom Sawyer because if we liberalize America to the point that all kids know about the Civil Rights Movement are a few of Dr. King’s speeches, they are only seeing a portion of the truth. But if they know about the gruesome murder of Emmett Till, the assassination of Medger Evers, and the four little girls murdered in a church explosion in Birmingham , Alabama , then that’s the only way to insure such atrocities won’t happen again. The only real hope of getting rid of racism is education, and not just what is taught in the public school system but I’m talking about an education that reveals the true decadence of American society—the type of education that can only come from parents and community leaders that care. As people become more educated, they will hopefully relinquish many of the ideas their parents or grandparents set forth, since racism is really learned at home and then reconstituted in society. But I choose to believe, or I have to believe that things are getting better because it’s important for me to live in a world where my future child won’t come home crying after being called a racial slur. I have to have that kind of faith, that kind of hope that people and society are changing for the better.

Do you think the police are racist and motivated to solve crimes that can win them promotion on the political bandwagon they serve?

Well, police departments are made up of people and people come equipped with all types of views and ideologies. I have law enforcement professionals in my family and I see police overall in a positive light, but I’ve spent enough time around police and in cop bars to have heard some unsavory color commentary. I think being a police officer is such a high stress job that it brings out the true nature of a person, there isn’t much room for political correctness on the streets. Although some police departments have created a culture of silence and do not address rampant cases of racism within their departments. In the case of the Los Angeles Police Department, the department has come a long way. People have to keep in mind, at its inception the LAPD was made up of discharged Rebel soldiers that came from down south and particularly the deep south after the Civil War. Most were out of work and uneducated. So when analyzing police departments and their level of cultural sensitivity, a person has to take history into account. But we are also living in modern times and police departments and their officers must evolve with a society that is forever changing and moving forward.

I’m sure some police are motivated by career advancement to go after prize collars. But the streets and the job can be unforgiving. A detective that gets tunnel vision and manipulates the evidence to work in their favor, just to make a case and end up on the front page of the newspaper normally makes enemies along the way. That type of ambition, the type that affects how well they do their job—whether they thoroughly investigate and follow procedure—has a way of coming back and burning a cop when they least expect it. No good deed goes unpunished.

Do you think it’s possible to merge existentialism with crime fiction?

Yes, most definitely it’s possible. I’d like to think I was able to successfully accomplish merging the two together with The Science of Paul. I was attracted to the characters and pacing of many existential novels I read, and I thought why not take those elements and introduce them into a noir plot. Doing so allowed me to strike a balance between Paul’s internal musings and the driving plot of the novel. In many ways it was an experiment—rather a controlled experiment and it allowed me to do something different within the genre.

Has anything ever truly terrified you?

As a kid many things terrified me. I used to have a great fear of nuclear attack, so much so I would have the most horrible nightmares. I dreamt of a horrific explosion and then the ensuing fallout, and not being able to reach safety in time—everything reduced to ash. It’s safe to say, I had a rather overactive imagination. I still have vivid dreams but they no longer involve nuclear attacks. These days I’m more afraid of time, or the lack of time. I have a lot of stories bouncing around in my head, a lot of ideas, and I’m afraid I may not be able to write them all. I often think about Georges Simenon, and how he was so prolific, and I’d love to be able to write with that kind of fervor but things always seem to get in the way. I’d also like to go back to documentary filmmaking. I found it to be very rewarding. I suppose that’s what terrifies me the most, not being able to accomplish all my goals before the end.

Tell us about your documentary film making.

I’m probably best known for co-producing the “Death of a Preacher” documentary series. The films centered on Jerry Grimes, who undergoes a religious conversion, leaving behind the fast life of the Hollywood film industry to become a preacher in rural North Carolina. The films were seen as rather controversial in the south, mainly due to their bold and unabashed approach to analyzing the relationship between the sacred and the secular. The films were used in an attempt to discredit Rev. Grimes this past year when he ran for U.S. Congress in North Carolina’s District 1. That part of the tale will be told in the third and final installment of the series.

I’ve also directed documentaries for The University of Pennsylvania and I’ve done a considerable amount of freelance work. In my opinion, documentary filmmaking is much like writing. The story is really constructed in the editing process, that’s when things really come alive.

Do you think we romanticise the past and is history a form of politicised fiction?

I think romanticizing the past is America’s favorite past time. If you tune into these political entertainers on cable news or on the radio, after hearing enough of their jargon you would think that 40 years ago the country was an idyllic paradise. I liken it to when a family member dies and all the family wants to do is talk about how great that person was, and the story they paint is of some saint-like individual void of all folly. It’s the same case with Pres. Ronald Reagan–there’s been so many myths when it comes to his beliefs and how he lead the country. But in the case of the past, as a whole, rational people, sane people know the past wasn’t a paradise. It’s just that now we know more about the condition the world is in because we’re exposed to a constant media stream—a plethora of information that streams 24/7 via cell phones and other digital devices. Just because hamburgers were 15 cents and coffee a nickel, doesn’t mean things were somehow better than they are now. In most cases, we’ve just traded in one potential crisis for another. Instead of Communism, we have terrorism and instead of the fear of nuclear attack, we have the fear of a dirty bomb—a biological or chemical attack. I think the world is just as dangerous as it was in the so-called good ole days. Only now the riffraff and predators don’t have to hide in the shadows, they have the Internet.

By all means, yes, history is a form of politicized fiction. It’s never been more apparent than in the last 20 years. According to Dr. Cornel West, “about 72% of Americans disapproved of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. right before he was assassinated, and 55% of Blacks disapproved as well.” Today, you’d be hard- pressed to find someone who is willing to say something negative about Dr. King. Overall, the fiction has been in Dr. King’s favor. In fact, his legacy has been used like a chess piece on both sides of the political firing wall. One moment he’s portrayed as a stanch conservative, the next as a revolting liberal, meanwhile his silhouette is being used to sell iPods. That’s the problem with history, only a small segment of the population is interested in getting it right, while the other segment will take the ramblings of someone on the radio as being the gospel truth—ramblings that aren’t even fact-checked.

I was told by a writing professor once, that all stories are a lie. His belief was that the moment you begin to tell a story, whether it’s considered fictional or fact, it must be considered a lie. The only way the story can be considered the truth, is if the person telling it is witnessing it at the same time, in a play-by-play fashion. The novelist, the biographer, the orator; all of them suffer from the same condition, the burden of imagination. And imagination is at the heart of story, whether it’s completely invented or based on factual information, the writer can’t help but infuse it with their own imagination, therefore rendering it a lie. But the greatest lies contain some truth and as a novelist, it’s always been my goal to make sure the truth is in the work.

Do you find distinctions between genre fiction and literary works and where do you see The Science of Paul fitting?

No, I don’t see distinctions at all. I think that has a lot to do with my writing. I think these distinctions are intended for publishing houses and booksellers, but as a writer and consumer I don’t pay much attention to what someone considers to be high literary or not. But don’t get me wrong, I think there all successful books and less successful books, in terms of what they attempt. When I wrote The Science of Paul, I wasn’t consciously concerned with what genre it would be considered. I was focused on telling the story. Now that the novel is finished and out for the public to purchase, it’s become much more apparent that readership is very segregated. Sometimes if I’m around crime fiction fans and I get to talking about how I was inspired by existential fiction or the works that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, I get these baffled looks. Or if I’m with the high lit crowd and I start going on about Dashiell Hammett, people disperse and I find myself by the wine table alone with a glass of Pinot and cookie. But if I’m the oddball, I’m okay with that. I guess that’s something Paul Little and I have in common. Some reviews have said, in not so many words, that Paul Little is too smart to be an ex-con—that essentially he’s odd or other, and unrealistic. I agree that Paul is other but he’s not too smart. I don’t even know how to qualify such a statement. Sure, Paul Little was in prison but how does that have anything to do with his intelligence? There are many people sitting in prison cells today that are bright individuals that could have been teachers, scientists, and politicians. When creating Paul, I wanted him to defy stereotypes and I wanted him to be complicated. His life is a science experiment, he makes mistakes. He’s a man who hasn’t been apart of street culture for six years and the streets have changed a lot. In Paul’s case his intellect is his greatest weapon but sometimes, like with any weapon or tool, it fails him. He’s no Sam Spade. Paul is an average man, educated behind bars, and he sets out on a journey to free himself of his emotional burdens. People can put him and the novel in whatever categories they see fit, but good fiction is free, unrestrained by what is common or stereotypical. If they’re looking for a confident, hard drinking, cigarette smoking cop or private-eye, they won’t find that in Paul Little, but perhaps they’ll find something else that’s just as satisfying.

Thank you Aaron for giving a brilliant and incisive interview.

 Everything Aaron Philip Clark—his bio, his book ‘The Science of Paul’, his jazz/spoken word band ‘Soul Phuziomati’, news & events—can be found on his website here.

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