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Hard Feelingsby Jason Starr
Author Q & A
Q: Many novels by young writers are read as semi-autobiographical coming-of-age stories. Can your readers assume that Hard Feelings is the work of a very active imagination or should we all be very concerned about your mental health? What traits do you share with your protagonist?
A: Richie and I have a few things in common--we both grew up in Brooklyn, we both live in Manhattan, we both order in a lot of Vietnamese food--but the similarity ends there. I'm not an alcoholic--or even a recovering one--and I've never been a computer networking salesman (although I have worked for a few computer networking firms, as a telemarketer). His behavior in the book--the paranoia, the jealousy, etc.--is completely invented, or at least greatly exaggerated. So, yes, I am mentally stable. On the other hand, Richie thinks he's mentally stable too so maybe this doesn't mean much.
Q: There is an everyman, Death of a Salesman aspect of Hard Feelings that makes it somewhat unusual for noir. What has your own relationship to nine-to-five been?
A: I've never thought about a relationship with Death of a Salesman before, although it has always been one of my favorite plays. I don't think Richie is similar to Willy Loman, but it was definitely a goal of mine to make him as real and everyday as possible--at least on the surface. He has a good, high-paying job, he's married, but underneath he has simmering problems. I wanted there to be this constant tug-of-war in the narrative between his surface personality and what's going on underneath. I've always found that the realer the characters are the harder it is for readers to remove or separate themselves from them, which hopefully makes the story more involving and suspenseful. I think some of my favorite crime writers--Thompson, Highsmith and especially Willeford--have done this extremely well. As for my own nine-to-five experiences, I can't say I like working for other people very much. I've had dozens of jobs over the years, none lasting longer than a year or two, and I'm proud to say I've always been the lowest-level employee.
Q: Where do your ideas come from?
A: I come up with a character or a situation--usually a situation. The ideas usually come to me while I'm in the shower, at the gym, falling asleep, or just zoning out. If I can remember the idea I write it down on a piece of scrap paper or on the back of an envelope and drop it on my desk. When I get around to cleaning my desk I read the ideas again and realize that ninety-nine percent of them suck. The ones that still seem pretty good I try to develop.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: I had this idea of a guy running into somebody from his childhood, somebody he'd almost completely forgotten about, and this seemingly inconsequential event leading to the remembrance of a repressed memory. After this happened, the guy would have to decide if the memory was real or not, or if it was just a distortion. He would also have to make a choice--does he act on the memory, or does he forget about it and go on with his life? To complicate things, I wanted the guy to have all these other problems in his current life--so I'd have this guy who was screwed up to begin with having these horrible memories to deal with. The more I thought about this situation the more I was inspired to write the novel.
Q: Richard Segal is an ordinary man capable of extraordinary moments of violence. Do you think that most people are capable of such violent acts?
A: I'd hope not, although you just have to turn on the news to see that ordinary people do go over the edge sometimes, killing each other over parking spaces or whatever. I think everyone becomes obsessive or paranoid or gets upset from time to time, but some people can't handle their emotions and lose control. I don't think there is any one thing that causes violence in everyday people. Despite what some politicians want us to believe it has nothing to do with movies. If movies cause violence, why was there so much brutality in the middle ages? I'm straying from the question, I know. Let's just say I think violent acts can be committed by ordinary people who may not be as ordinary as they appear to be.
Q: In Hard Feelings, Richie Segal struggles with alcoholism. What kind of research on alcoholism did you do while writing this novel? Why is alcohol a powerful recurring motif in noir?
A: I try not to do too much research for my novels, fearing that if I do a lot of research the book will seem researched and there's nothing worse than that. I'll research things I don't know, of course, but I try to stick to writing about topics I know intimately. While, as I said, I'm not an alcoholic myself, I've certainly been around enough alcoholics to know the behavior pretty well. I've always found addictive behavior a compelling subject to write about and some characters in my other novels have been addicts of some sort. In Hard Feelings, I didn't want the alcoholism to be gratuitous, however; I was trying to actually show alcoholic behavior, instead of having a lot of technical details about it. Maybe alcoholism recurs in noir fiction because it allows characters to have double lives--they have their drunk personality and their sober one. Also, more than one classic noir novelists have been alcoholics so maybe they were just writing about what they knew.
On Crime Writing
Q: What authors have influenced your admittedly unique writing style? What contemporary authors' work do you feel is most akin to your own writing?
A: Many of the authors published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard have influenced me a great deal. Jim Thompson, of course, but also Willeford, Williams, Goodis, and Cain. Later, I read Patricia Highsmith, so I couldn't really say she was an influence, but I think she's one of the best and still underappreciated in this country. Elmore Leonard and especially George V. Higgins have also been big influences on me. Beyond crime fiction, Hemingway, Carver, Delillo, Dick and other writers who write in simple, clean prose have always appealed to me. A lot of playwrights have influenced me greatly as well--Beckett, Shepard, Fo, Durrenmatt, Pinter, Mamet, to name some of my favorites. As for contemporary writers, some critics have compared my books to Donald Westlake, Paul Auster, Hubert Selby Jr., and Bret Easton Ellis, but I think my writing style is more similar to that of a lot of dead crime writers.
Q: You had several plays produced Off-Off Broadway before you published your first novel. How did your experiences as a playwright influence your crime writing?
A: Writing plays taught me how to move a story forward with dialogue and to ensure that there is tension and conflict in every scene I write. I think this is especially important in crime fiction; a story has to constantly be moving forward. My theater experiences also taught me that working with actors can be a very big pain in the ass and that I should avoid it as much as possible.
Q: What are the challenges that a young writer faces in turning to the crime genre?
A: Getting published is the biggest challenge. It's one thing to write a book that you are personally happy with, but to convince other people of that, while watching rejection letters pile up, can seem like an insurmountable task and requires a combination of perseverance and luck. Then, if you finally do get published, the next challenge is to get your book to stand out. There are so many crime and mystery novels published each year that it's easy to be lost in the crowd.
Q: What makes for a successful contemporary thriller?
A: A seven-figure advance.
Q: For over fifty years there has been a successful marriage between crime novels and noir cinema. How has film influenced the language and style of the contemporary thriller?
A: I know I have been heavily influenced by noir cinema from the forties and fifties, especially movies such as Double Indemnity, The Killing, Pick-up on South Street, and Kiss of Death, to name several of my favorites. Crime movies inspired me to read crime fiction and then to write it. In general, I think film has influenced the crime novel a lot. It's hard to imagine that Elmore Leonard, for example, wasn't thinking about the movie adaptation when he wrote Be Cool. I also think that books have had a major effect on crime films--I'm thinking of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, in particular--so maybe films and books are influencing each other.
Q: The producer of Fight Club optioned your first novel. What has your experience with Hollywood been like?
A: It's pretty much been the stereotypical situation where I naively believed that the films would be made within the first year they were optioned. My first two novels are still under option and getting closer to being made, but I've come to realize that whether this happens or not is completely out of my control so I try not to think about it very much nowadays. The producers of Cold Caller changed the setting from New York to London and made some other major changes in the plot. If the movie gets made I won't complain; if it doesn't I'll say they should've left it alone. I was hired to adapt Nothing Personal for a U.K. company and wound up making a lot of changes in the story myself, so I guess this time I'll only have myself to blame.
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