Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Robert Crisman

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Robert Crisman has had more stories featured on A Twist Of Noir than anyone else.

He has written novels, ‘Red Christmas’ and ‘Queen Of Chiva’ among them, as well as film scripts, and his tales are dark and edgy and full of the noise of the street. His dialogue is cutting edge and vivid as a smack in the face and his characters jump off the page at you.

He is passionate about many things, as this interview shows.
How did Roanne come to you and what does she represent in your writing?

Roanne was a real lady I knew from downtown and from around Narcotics Anonymous. She’s been clean now for some years, but back in the day she was a real go-get-’em dopefiend who looked like she wouldn’t make it past 30. She was beautiful too, in a wild kind of a way, and her personality and physical appearance captured my imagination.

As to what she represented: Roanne is all dopefiends, and, specifically, me. What she faced is, in essence if not the fortuities, what we all have to look forward to on drugs.

I wanted to show her, first as a person in a world that doesn’t take prisoners.

Most literature, fiction and otherwise, seems to treat dopefiends as some sort of exotic species or something to be put under a microscope and studied, or as sensationalist fodder. Look underneath and all you’ll find are cartoons, nothing human. I think that’s largely because the people who write that kind of crap have never set foot in the muck.  Dopefiends are people, with hopes and dreams like yours or mine, whose fears leech those dreams to dust, and that’s what is necessary to portray. Or else, why bother?

I also wanted to show a bit of the dopers’ milieu and how, at bottom, it’s American capitalist society, with its wolves and its sheep and its businessmen, baby, as seen through sort of a funhouse mirror, but no less real for that. U.S. society gave this milieu birth, after all, and its principles are what drive the action down there. The street struts its stuff a little more nakedly perhaps, but there is essentially no difference whatever.

If I did my job, the Queen of Chiva brought that world a little closer to your doorstep than you might otherwise have imagined it to be, to the point where, hopefully, you can see that it’s seeping through your walls…

You write a lot about power structures and the way people inhabit them. Do you think that we are all politicised or that we’re simply inside power?

I’d pose the question another way, without the dichotomy. I think we’re all “inside” power, i.e., subject to it. Yet we are all very much politicized, especially those who would deny that fact.  Politics shapes everything from lifestyle to sexuality to religious belief, so how could it be otherwise? And in our society, as in all societies that have existed as yet on the face of the earth, the politicization is shaped by the fact that shit rolls downhill.

How has Jean Genet influenced you?

Genet showed me what sex roles consist of, and that they are social and historical constructs with which biology has had little to do. The guys have tried to go out and conquer the world–with tragicomic results–and women have been there to look good, have kids, work like slaves in the home, and pretty much keep their mouths shut. It hasn’t worked out that way, at least not to the guys’ satisfaction–and it’s always the guys who are the last ones to get the news. Their relative privilege in the war of the sexes acts as sort of a stupid pill I think…

Do you think you will write more film scripts?

I don’t know. I’ve got a ton of ’em I’m trying to shop now.

Who do you like reading and why?

I like Hammett, Ross Thomas, James Ellroy, Carl Hiaasen, and George V. Higgins, among others, first because they all write about crime. Seeing as this is a criminal society, reading these guys allows me to keep my fingers on the pulse, so to speak, of what’s happening in America.

Hammett was the first and most important because he laid the blueprint for hard-boiled fiction. And I’m not talking here about the decidedly soft-boiled Raymond Chandler, whose sentimental detective Marlowe–Chandler’s idea of a decent sort of a fellow, learned in the English public school system–was sort of a cross between Miss Grundy and Ward Cleaver after the divorce, and wouldn’t have lasted a day on real streets. Hammett had been there as a Pinkerton agent, had gotten down and dirty with crooks of all stripes, and knew whereof he spoke when it came time to put them down on paper. No one like him had ever existed in literature before.

Thomas wrote of crime in the suites with an accurate eye and sharp satiric wit, and was the most consistently entertaining writer I’ve ever read. Ellroy is a psycho, and his books are more a surreal nightmare than anything, with exaggerated, sometimes gratuitous violence, which, I think, hews close to the truth of American life as we live it today. I think he enjoys using the n-word way too much; regardless of the fact that it was part of the vocabulary of the “bad men” he writes about, he could throttle down just a bit and not lose a bit of verisimilitude. In this regard, he reminds me of Quentin Tarantino, whom he despises…

George V. Higgins wrote the greatest dialogue ever, and he stripped romance right out of the equation, except in his portrayals of bad-ass government agents sometimes. Higgins is the guy who influenced me the most. I learned from him that dialogue is action–action being defined as that which moves the story along. I read Cogan’s Trade, his third novel, virtually all dialogue, and felt like I’d had my ass kicked for 200-plus pages. Name me another author who could do that.

Hiaasen is funny and right on target with regard to Florida fuckwads. His use of adjectives and adverbs to comically devastating effect is by far the best in the business.

Name an experience that changed you and influenced your writing.

LSD, speed, opiates, then radical politics. I’ll save the whys and how-comes for my memoir.

While you write first rate noir, it is evident you are a political writer in many ways without foisting an agenda on your readers.

On the subject of radical politics, do you think it is possible to resolve false dilemmas and decentre the vital centre through fiction?

In terms of radical politics solving “false dilemmas,” I don’t quite get what you mean. It seems to me that radical politics attempts to deal with real ones. If you mean by decentring the vital center the shifting of the center leftward, I think fiction can contribute to the process by giving people a different set of eyes through which to see the world.

I think “vital center” is a misnomer, however. The political center is composed of both right and left elements, irreconcilables, and any attempt to reconcile them sooner or later is hoist upon the inherent contradictions found in trying to balance the “rights” of the fatcats, for example, with the democratic rights of the rest of us, when capitalist survival is predicated on ensuring that democracy for the hoi polloi is never any more than a formality.

Of course, these days, the “center” is increasingly the right dressed in drag–Obama, et al.–throwing scraps to “progressives” while extending the oil wars and allowing big business to keep right on plundering at home.

Jesus, it’s been awhile since I’ve talked this political stuff, and I feel like I’m talking with marbles in my mouth. I much prefer to stay off these issues generally unless I can find a way to work it into my stories, hopefully in comic fashion.

By false dilemmas I meant that often we are presented with two options to resolve a situation when there are more alternatives.

Let’s talk de-politicised fiction. Dashiell Hammett devoted much of his life to left-wing activism, imagine his left wing leanings removed from his prose, would you still rate him and why?

Hammett’s fiction wasn’t left wing. All that came later. What he was was a pragmatist, dealing with whatever showed up on the plate, but not in any consciously ideological sense. He was kind of like Deng Zhou Peng, the leader China after Mao, who said, famously, “White cat, black cat, what difference does it make–so long as it catches the mouse? Or something like that. Hammett wrote from a jobholder’s standpoint, the job being detection, concerned with doing whatever it took to fulfill that jobholding role.

OK, don’t move, that’s what I’m interested in Rob, what do you think it takes to catch the mouse within the mechanics of a great story?

I think catching the mouse is a matter of letting the story “tell itself” after I’ve pieced the general outline together. I approach the story in a series of calibrations, getting the lay of the land, so to speak, and locating my characters, and allowing those characters to interact plausibly with and within the milieu. The people I write about are people I knew out in the street, who talked, thought and acted in certain ways in different situations, and it’s up to me to allow the characters based on these people to act in a way that is true to them. It’s like recording the people I knew in a way, their voices and actions and whatnot.

The characters drive the story, are the story when all’s said and done, and, assuming I have the ears to hear them and the eyes to see them in action, along with the logic to get it all down on paper, I can’t help but catch all the mice that the story lets loose.

Do you feel there’s a point in the stories you’ve written that you’re the proudest of, that the characters start to live and breathe inside you?

All of them, really. And, talking about the novels, I’m proud of each in different ways. Red Christmas was my first, and it’s where I learned what works for me as narrative. Most people seem to find dialogue hardest to get “right.” I’ve been hearing voices all my life, I rehearse their lines for performances down the line, and I had the advantage of reading Higgins, who showed me what dialogue can do. My first three or so drafts of Red Christmas were narrated by someone steeped in the King’s English, and I know the rules of the language and can use it correctly—but I always felt that I’d begged, borrowed, or stolen it somehow off somebody’s back porch, and that regardless of possession being nine-tenths of the law, that language still belonged to them. Then, one day—in a flash!—it struck me that my narrator should, by logic, be a street guy—who would better know my protagonists?—and from that point my problem was solved. I’d put the narration in street language; it’s the language I think in anyway, and it provided a seamless counterpoint to the dialogue. Like I said, problem solved.

I’m proud of The Queen of Chiva because the protagonists were two women and I think I did them justice. When I first drafted the novel, I gave it to four women to read, including the woman on whom Roanne is based. All these women were recovering addicts and, who better to critique my book? They all said they loved it—God strike me dead if I’m lying!—and two of them told me the denouement had them in tears. Best of all, “Roanne” gave it her seal of approval. All of which told me I’d done what I set out to do, which was to make these two women’s story real as a dime.

I’m jazzed a little bit as well by the fact that as a man, I did justice to female characters. Most male writers I’ve read can’t write women worth a good goddamn. They’re all femme fatales or other stock figures, and not really, fully human, and kind of boring on that account. All the stock figures have been done and done. Women are people, just like men, so why not portray them that way?

I suppose this reflects my competitive side coming out…

Lastly, my comic novel, How George Bush And the Lovely Danielle Saved Planet Earth From Zork the Galactic Destroyer: this was a goof, written last year when I was in danger of going nuts for various and sundry reasons. I’d written two earlier novellas: Bone Thugs, about the Bush administration, and Two Rotten Weeks, about Joey and Danny, the world’s two dumbest crooks. I made the two one by introducing the threat of spacewar invasion by the Zorks who—Anyway, it was a goof, written for laughs, but it also gave me a vast amount of room to talk about the various crimes and follies our rulers commit, all day, every day, and how goofy the rest of us can get as well. Anyway, I had a ball writing this thing and have turned it into a screenplay because I’d love to see it onscreen.

Rob, this was a great interview, thank you for being so open.  Your passion, which is so obviously the driving force behind your fiction, and which is present in this interview, is one of the many reasons people want to read your stories.

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