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Original Essays

My Black Lizard Story

by Jason Starr
  1. Tough Luck

    Tough Luck

    Jason Starr

  2. Hard Feelings
    $6.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Hard Feelings

    Jason Starr

  3. Cold Caller
    $7.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Cold Caller

    Jason Starr

  4. Nothing Personal
This happened around 1990. I was on line at a bookstore in Manhattan, preparing to pay for my purchase, when I spotted a rack of books near the checkout counter with a special sale price of two dollars each. The books had lurid, provocative covers of scantily clad women and tough-looking guys, reminiscent of 1950s pulp novels — not that I really knew what a 1950s pulp novel was. I'd read some Mickey Spillane as a teenager and I was a fan of film noir from the forties and fifties, but I hadn't read any noir-crime fiction from that era.

Figuring I couldn't go wrong for two bucks, I bought one of the books: A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson. I'm a slow reader and it usually takes me at least a week to read a book, but I finished the Thompson novel in one sitting. I'd never read anything like it before. The writing was clear and fast paced, and it didn't take itself too seriously. It was hilarious and disgusting at the same time, and it had an enjoyable, nasty edge that made you feel dirty but good. It was definitely the type of page-turner you don't forget about a day or two after you read it.

When I discovered A Swell-Looking Babe, I was in graduate school, completing my master's degree in playwriting, so I was reading a lot of plays at the time. Previously, in high school and college, I hadn't read anything other than the classics and literary fiction that were assigned to me in English classes. When I did read on my own, over summers and vacations, I usually read classics and literary fiction, mainly because I hadn't been exposed to other types of fiction. Consequently, when I began writing in college, like the typical creative writing student in the eighties, my early short stories mimicked the style of Hemingway and Carver. Nothing against these two masters, but I think it's a major fault in the curriculums of many creative writing programs that students are encouraged to write the type of stories that the New Yorker usually publishes, and that writing genre fiction is looked down upon. Even from a practical perspective, this viewpoint makes little sense since it's so difficult to make a living writing any type of fiction, yet mystery, science fiction and romance fiction are such major markets.

But getting back to my Black Lizard story...

After graduate school, when I escaped the 18-year prison of forced English education, I continued reading crime fiction, often walking around Manhattan, broke and unemployed, with a Black Lizard novel in my back pocket. During this period, I read most of Thompson, including my favorites of his, A Hell of a Woman and The Killer Inside Me, and discovered James M. Cain, David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Charles Williams, Harry Whittington and others. I found a similarity in style between the great noir writers of the fifties and sixties and the writing of many of my favorite playwrights, such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Dario Fo, and David Mamet. In addition to having a similar economy and spareness in their writing, the works of the great post-modern playwrights and the pulp masters have a shared cynical view of the world and darkly bleak humor.

I soon discovered that the Black Lizard Press books had been on sale that day because the small Berkeley-based imprint had merged with Random House's Vintage Crime (the publisher of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, etc.) to form Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. Over the next several years, VC/BL brought out their own editions of many of the the Black Lizard novels, packaging the books in a terrific literary style, while maintaining the original pulp feel. Over the next several years, I read more Thompson, Willeford and Cain, and discovered many other great writers, including Richard Neely, Andrew Vachss, Vicki Hendricks, Robert Edmond Alter and, a personal favorite, Patricia Highsmith.

Inspired by my hellish experiences working as a part-time telemarketer, I wrote my first novel, Cold Caller, which W.W. Norton published in 1998. Although the novel chronicled the disturbed life of a twenty-something wannabe ad-exec in Manhattan, it was heavily influenced by the noir writers I'd admired for years. A few years later, for my fourth novel, I had a chance to move to Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, which was a dream come true. Hard Feelings (2002), about a computer-networking salesman who is haunted by a repressed memory, was the first original novel that Vintage Crime/Black Lizard ever published. This year, to kick off the Lucky 13 promotion, VC/BL has just published my new novel Tough Luck (2003), a coming-of-age crime novel set in Brooklyn in 1984. Over the next couple of years, I'll be doing two more books for the imprint.

Currently, my reading tastes vary. I read literary fiction, non-fiction, and current crime fiction, but I also read a lot of old Gold Medal pulp novels, by such authors as Lionel White, Vin Packer, and Gil Brewer. It's hard to say precisely what book or books influenced me the most, but whenever I'm asked this question I always think about that lucky day in Manhattan when I purchased my first Black Lizard novel. spacer

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