A Conversation with Charlie Huston, author of
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death
Question: The title of your new novel, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, is one of the most unusual and memorable I've seen. How did you come up with it?
Charlie Huston: I didn't. It is a line from the book, but it was my editor who suggested it as the title. My first choice was The Sharp Edge of a Flat World. Also a line from the book, but it was my wife who suggested it would make a good title. I'm moving into a long title phase.
Q: The action takes place in the messy world of crime-scene cleanup in Los Angeles: a world I never thought about too much before reading this book. Now I can't stop thinking about it. What made you realize this milieu was a rich one for a novel, and how up close and personal was your research?
CH: I don't think I realized anything so much as it hit me in the forehead with a rock. I mean, come on, if you're a crime writer placing a character in the world of professional trauma scene cleaning is the ultimate no-brainer. I stumbled into an awareness of the profession while researching something I've forgotten entirely. It hooked me and I started looking at websites for various trauma cleaners and a handful of news stories. I did no hands-on research, just had a couple conversations with some professionals in the field.
Q: Tell us about your hero–if I can use that term to describe the emotionally scarred Webster Fillmore Goodhue
CH: He's a mess. Just a fucking mess. He's also toting around a tremendous amount of attitude for a guy slacking as hard as he is. Sometimes too smart for his own good, he's mostly too self-absorbed for his own good. The kind of guy you like hanging out with most of the time, until he starts getting into his dick mood. You know that guy. Funny as hell, always has something interesting to say, and all of a sudden he gets all dicky. And he should know better. That's Web.
Q: There's a famous scene from the old TV show The Rockford Files that came to mind as I was reading this novel, in which a slap to the face is the answer to the age-old Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping. Partly that was because the title has a Zen-like sound to it, but even more I think it was from the way you fuse the tawdry backdrop of LA with the gritty nobility of characters like Po Sin, Gabe, and even Web himself. This mix of the seedy and sublime is also present in your other novels–why is this such a distinctive aspect of your work?
CH: I know that scene. I can picture it in my head. I can see the look on the face of the woman who's just been slapped, and I can hear James Garner's delivery of the line. And maybe that suggests why you thought of Rockford when you read Mystic Arts. Not only am I a huge Rockford File fan, but my original concept for Web and this book was to do something in a Rockford style. My other characters have been hard asses or deeply sad in some way, or both. Web has tragedy in his past, but it's not his defining characteristic. I wanted to write a book about a guy who would end up getting knocked around more often than not. I wanted a lighter tone, and I wanted to use the seedy Los Angeles that I've come to love very quickly. The hope is that this will be the first in a series of Web Goodhue books. I imagined him as my first real detective character, and I wanted this to be a book about how he starts to become a detective. I've always pictured the tattoo parlor he hangs out in as the equivalent of Rockford's trailer.
Q: I wondered if you spoke the dialogue in this book aloud as you were writing it. All your books have sharp, realistic dialogue, but the dialogue in Mystic Arts really crackles–and a lot of the novel is pure dialogue, snappy back and forth between characters, which must be a tough trick to pull off in itself.
CH: Generally I don't speak my dialogue aloud as I write it. When everything is working, I hear it very clearly in my head and don't feel the need to hear it in my ears or feel it in my mouth. But there are times when it seems jarring or clumsy and in need of a talking to. Then I'll play it out a little and see how it comes out on the tongue.
Q: A moment ago, you mentioned going for a lighter tone. But I've always felt that a lot of your stuff is flat-out funny.
CH: I'm always pleased when people find the books funny, but it's rarely something I'm shooting for. I think the earnestness I put into the books tilts over into an area that I don't understand very well. Which I like. I like that there are huge aspects of my own writing that I don't get. It's nice to be able to learn from yourself.
Q: You're also the author of the Joe Pitt Casebooks, a series of gritty vampire noir novels set in and around New York City. How are you able to move so easily between different genres: horror, noir, fantasy? Do you reject the idea of genre labels?
CH: I don't reject genre labels at all. I think they're very useful when I'm at the book store and looking for a particular kind of read. I do think they get paid too much attention within the reading and writing world, but that's to be expected. Classification makes it easier to talk about things. Still, I was shocked when I began making a living in this business that the biases between literary and genre fiction were so strong on both sides.
As for moving between genres, I don't know that I do. Yes, Joe Pitt is a vampire, and, yes, those books have a lot of horror effects and trappings, but the essence of the stories is old-school noir. They have far more in common with Chandler than they do with Stoker.
Q: Speaking of genre-bending, you also had a stint in comic books, writing the relaunch of Marvel's Moon Knight character. What about doing original graphic novels, or adaptations of your other work? I would think Joe Pitt, especially, could thrive as a graphic novel.
CH: I think about it more than a little bit. I'd love to see a Joe Pitt adaptation, or even some original Pitt stories told in graphic form, but I don't know when I'll ever have the time.
Q: Has there been any movie interest for Joe Pitt?
CH: The first Joe Pitt book, Already Dead, has been optioned by Phoenix Pictures. They have a script by Scott Rosenburg that I thoroughly enjoyed, but I don't know anything else about the project.
Q: What are you working on now?
CH: I just sent a stand-alone crime novel off to my editor, and while I'm waiting to hear back from him I'll be working on the fifth and final Joe Pitt novel. I also recently wrapped some scripts for a Marvel Comics miniseries that I'm not allowed to talk about as yet.