by Roger Hobbs, June 29, 2015 12:14 PM
My new novel, Vanishing Games
, is a heist thriller set in the gambling city of Macau, China. I lived there briefly while researching the book and was taken aback by the incredibly eclectic sounds of the city. For those of you who have never been, let me fill you in — Macau is like Las Vegas on pure Chinese meth. The casinos are constantly blasting classic Sinatra. The nightclubs host famous rappers and superstar DJs. The restaurants all play the same style of downtempo house. Macau is dark and loud and lonely and expensive. It's the perfect setting for a dark crime thriller — just walking down the street is an attack on the senses. So here is a small sample of the music I heard there. Listen to these songs while you read my book. You won't regret it.
1. "Sinnerman, Live in New York/1965" by Nina Simone
"Sinnerman" is by far the most important song in Vanishing Games. It's mentioned in the first paragraph. Believe me; if you're ever planning a massive heist on the South China Sea, you want this song playing in the background.
2. "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" by Kanye West
Shirley Bassey's 1971 James Bond song, "Diamonds Are Forever," already perfectly captures the shimmering beauty of Macau's skyline at night. Add Kanye West and you've got the perfect anthem for a jewelry store robbery.
3. "Ghostwriter" by RJD2
I heard this song everywhere in Macau. It stood out to me because it combines elements of jazz with electronica. I don't think I've heard anything so smooth and smart.
4. "Teardrop" by Massive Attack
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You might recognize this as the theme song from the show House, MD. If you've never listened to the full version before, you're in for a treat. "Teardrop" is an excellent blend of excitement and melancholy. Perfect for a hangover.
5. "Raise Your Weapon" by Deadmau5
This is the theme song. Simple as that.
6. "Between Two Points" by The Glitch Mob
Macau attracts some of the biggest DJs in the world, and the Glitch Mob puts on a hell of a show. They're not just your typical electronic act, though. Their songs are soulful, dark, and atmospheric.
7. "Bad Motherfucker (I.O.E. 2 Version)" by Biting Elbows
Want to know what a heist feels like? Throw on this Russian rock ballad. Try not to steal anything while you're listening to it. I dare you.
8. "Kansas City Shuffle 1" by Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra
This song, recorded in 1926, is named after a famous confidence game. Vanishing Games features a version of that game. What is a Kansas City Shuffle, you ask? It's best described by these words: "When they look right, you go left."
by Roger Hobbs, February 15, 2013 1:16 PM
Most days, around noon, something very strange happens to me. It starts off with a headache. My head begins to feel stuffy and there is a slight pain behind my eyes. I feel distant from my body. Then, after a few minutes, a fog of unusual thoughts settles in. I stop thinking about the thousand little practical matters that run my life and start thinking about fictional problems and fictional places. I stop being able to maintain conversations. My eyes lose focus, and I can't stop staring off into the distance. I lose interest in whatever I was doing before; it doesn't matter what. I stop being hungry, being thirsty, being tired or sick. I can't pay attention to any of my bodily needs, however basic. I fall into a sort of trance. I feel hypnotized, like I'm not really in charge of my body anymore. I drink five or six cups of coffee to help with the fogginess, take a bunch of aspirin for the headache, smoke a few dozen cigarettes, and then sit at my computer and write.
I often don't get up for 12 or 16 hours.
Every writer has a different way of doing things. Balzac would consume as many as 50 cups of coffee in a day while writing. Proust would write from bed, sleeping during the day and working at night. Stephen King bought his own radio station so he could listen to music while he worked. Hunter S. Thompson's busy schedule of cocaine, cigarettes, and Chivas Regal kept him busy, too.
But I think we'd all agree on one thing. There is a certain mental place, a zone, if you will, where a lot of the best writing gets done. The zone is different for everyone, obviously. For me, the zone is a foggy, ecstatic, energetic, empty place. It is like a steam room with no walls and no place to sit. I find myself pounding down thousands upon thousands of words with little regard to their place in the story. It doesn't matter if the chapter I'm writing won't come until the end and I've barely written the beginning. I write the story in the order it comes out of my head, fully formed. I've stopped trying to drive in my mental space, no — it drives itself.
Then, once I snap out of it after 12 or 16 hours, I go back and I take control again. I edit. I delete passages that don't add anything. I cut and paste things so they're in the right order. Sometimes I'll write whole chapters, or series of chapters, that have no context around them. They come out beautifully written, but they won't fit into the story until another 20 or 30 thousand words are written. I've never once started writing a book at the beginning. I make notes of where I need to write something different or add something or take something away. Ten thousand words of raw text become two thousand again, just like that.
If anybody could see my raw drafts, they'd think I was a madman.
No two people have the same experience with the zone. I certainly don't think most writers feel hypnotized by the act of writing the way I do. But it seems like every writer has a zone and a different technique for getting themselves there. Using drugs seems more common than not. Smoking and drinking are the favorite pastimes of most of my editors and publishers, and I'm no exception. I don't usually smoke, but when I'm writing, I can go through Marlboro reds like an old lady on a trip to Vegas. I've recently switched over to the electronic cigarettes for the sake of my upholstery, but the effect is the same. I drink coffee, too. Stimulants get me going fast enough that the momentum of the writing takes over. Soon my coffee is cold and my last cigarette has burned itself out — but the writing is there.
It isn't all chemical. A lot of writers I know like to get up extremely early and write before they do anything else in the day. I don't understand those people and can't think of anything more miserable, but God bless them. For me the afternoon and evening are the only times to write. I'll start at noon and keep going to three or six in the morning. Sometimes I'll start at nine and I'll keep going until dawn. The work happens when it happens and everything else is secondary. At night there are no distractions. There is no traffic to sit in on the way to work. There is no line at the coffee shop. There are no kids playing outside or birds humming or hot tubs bubbling to tempt me. Plus, if God had intended us to be awake before 11 a.m., he wouldn't have invented the hangover. Or brunch.
Silence and solitude are the key concepts. I can write in a public place, but I need to free myself from distractions in order to do so. I can't write with music playing or a television on in the background. I can't hold a conversation and write at the same time, and I can't get up from my computer, go eat lunch, and then come right back and work again. No, that isn't how it works. I disappear entirely into the text. I often put on sound-canceling headphones so I can't be distracted by anything short of a fire alarm. I'll sit in a coffee shop, sucking an iced Americano through a straw, not making conversation or eye contact with anyone near me. I might be in the middle of a crowded subway station, but I'm still as alone and silent as if I were at home.
None of this should be mistaken for a process, though. I didn't sit down and decide to be this way; I had to figure it out through years and years of staring into my computer screen and failing to write anything. It took ages of trying to squeeze blood from a stone before I learned that my work turns out best when I indulge that toxic mind-fog that commands me to create. I had to learn not to fight it. I had to sit down, trust myself, and let the words fall where they may.
I had to learn the process of having no
by Roger Hobbs, February 14, 2013 2:29 PM
Valentine's Day: the spirit of love is in the air. I've never been a big fan of the day myself — I can practically hear the sighs of disappointed lovers in the air, smell the copious amounts of cheap perfumes wafting down the avenue, and taste the low-quality imitation chocolate taped to the inside of the greeting cards in classrooms around the country. However, in the spirit of the day, I thought I'd share with you a few things that I love: five thriller novels so good, so spectacular, and so well-written that they changed my life. These are the books that I love more than anything. Books that, once read, shaped the way I would write, the way I'd think, and the way I'd live my life thereafter. And is there anything more lovely than a good book on a romantic day? I don't think so.
÷ ÷ ÷
5. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
I was exposed to this book long before I was old enough to understand how good it is. Not only is Patricia Highsmith one of the greatest thriller writers to have ever lived, but Tom Ripley is her finest creation. Tom Ripley is the original chameleon antihero. He effortlessly manipulates himself and the people around him so he can get what he wants. The Talented Mr. Ripley shows off this character's skill well, as Ripley takes over the life (and takes the life) of a young prodigal heir in postwar Europe. Ripley is a character worth reading again and again.
4. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Surprised to see this one on here? Me too, but I can't deny it — The Da Vinci Code was one of those books that made me want to write thrillers. This was the first book I ever encountered that was truly unputdownable. I read it back in 2003 (when I was 16) and sped through the whole thing in a single day. I had never read anything that fast. It made my head spin. The tasty blend of fast-paced action, nail-biting suspense, ancient mysteries, and fantastical science all set against a romantic background of modern-day Europe made for a truly wonderful experience. If somehow you've been living under a rock for 10 years and haven't read it, give it a chance. I highly recommend it.
3. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
My agent, my editor, and several booksellers agree: this might just be the greatest thriller novel ever written. Before Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris (who is one of those guys I could unabashedly call a genius) was thrilling the everliving shit out of readers with Red Dragon, the first and original novel to feature Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Not only is Lecter easily the baddest bad guy ever put to page, but Red Dragon demonstrates a mastery of tone and pacing that is so good, it verges on the supernatural. Did Thomas Harris make a deal with the devil to write this well? Read it and you decide.
2. Junky by William S. Burroughs
This book has the ring of truth to it. Written in the pulp style about Burroughs life as a heroin user, Junky meanders through a hidden world of 20th century disillusionment, displacement, desperation, and addiction. It is loaded with unforgettable details about the drug lifestyle and the spirit of the age, while reading with the effortless pace of a thriller. This is a book that is more noir than noir — it is dark, unrelenting, and occasionally even beautiful. In my opinion, Junky is way better than Naked Lunch.
1. L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais
Perhaps you've heard of Robert Crais. His bestselling series of books about the "World's Greatest Detective" Elvis Cole and the enigmatic tough guy Joe Pike has been rocking the mystery shelves since 1987. In my opinion, each and every book in the series is amazing, but L.A. Requiem is on a whole different level. A whole different plane of existence. It has emotional resonance that goes beyond genre and into the realm of great literature. It might just be the finest detective novel ever written in any language. Want to know what it's about? Read it. You'll thank me
by Roger Hobbs, February 13, 2013 1:26 PM
I'm sitting in a bar in North Seattle, the kind of place where you only end up well after midnight in a blacked-out stupor. The place has got a name, but if I said it here I wouldn't be allowed back. It's that sort of place. It's also the middle of January, so the heat is hiked up to the limit and I'm busting beads of sweat like a stuck perp. I'm trying to smother my sobriety with an orange juice and vodka, sitting in a stool belly-up to the bartender, way back by the bathrooms in the shadow of the jukebox. A man in a black-leather biker cut with a one-percenter patch hustles up next to me. He takes a seat and orders down a double rye, then pats a Marlboro red out of his pack and tears off the filter. Smoking inside is illegal in Seattle, but nobody here is gonna stop him. He lights up with a torch, drains the rye to the cubes, then turns to face me. He smells like motor oil and gas station aftershave, and if this guy hasn't been drinking all day, then I'm a damn fool.
He says, "What are you doin' here?"
And I tell him the truth. I don't make something up, I don't butt off the question, and I certainly don't give him the cold shoulder, because you never do that to a guy with a one-percent patch. I put down my drink, look him in the eye, and say —
÷ ÷ ÷
People often ask me, "How do you know all the things you know?"
I'm never quite sure how to answer that.
Most of the time when people ask me that, they're referring to the many facts that appear in my book. I describe, for example, three good ways to rob a casino and two good ways to take down a bank. I know how to pick a lock and how to hotwire a car. It never seemed weird to me to know stuff like that. It's not knowledge I ever intend to use, sure, but when I was growing up, I thought everybody knew how to break the law but simply chose not to. I don't know where I learned half the things I know. They're just there.
But every once in a while, the question cuts the other way. "How do you know the things you know about criminals?"
When it came time to write Ghostman, I knew that simply having a casual knowledge of the criminal underworld wasn't going to cut it. I wanted to write about a hidden underworld I had never seen and never known. I grew up with rich parents in a crime-free town in Massachusetts. I'd never known the hardship and temptation of a life of crime. Sure, I knew all these facts and figures, but I had never lived it. I didn't know what it looked like, what it sounded like, what it smelled like.
That's where the research came in. I went out and did something that would make any parent of a 22-year-old aspiring writer deeply afraid. I did something that only a few crime novelists had ever done before, something that would involve me risking my health, my life, and even my sanity in the doing.
I went out and asked working criminals how they did it.
I didn't go to prisons to ask the guys who'd been caught — no, that was for suckers. I wanted the real thing. I went to the streets to talk to the guys who were living it day in and day out, right here, right now. I wandered Burnside after dark looking for stories and chasing down leads. I chatted with the heroin pushers in Paranoid Park and got a good look at their works. I hit the bars in Belltown with nothing but a notebook and a switchblade in my pocket. Over the course of six months, I was personally present at no less than three convenience store robberies. I was offered countless types and kinds of drugs, from Portland's own chocolate chip cookie heroin to crystal meth that had been dyed blue so it looked like the primo tina from the show Breaking Bad. I ate late-night breakfast with hustlers in the Hotcake House, and I broke up fights outside The Roxy after the bars had closed. I flew as close to the flame as I could.
Imagine me, a stocky, baby-faced, 20-year-old college student sitting in the back booth of a bar, trading cigarettes for stories with anyone who'd broken the law and was there to tell the tale. That's how I know all the things I know. How did I do my research? I lived it.
÷ ÷ ÷
I've been thinking about this a lot because the president of Reed College (my alma mater) recently caused an uproar by censoring several student-led classes because they presented "dangerous knowledge." One class was about brewing, another about rolling cigarettes, and a third about drug safety. I found this censorship interesting because not only was my Reed experience defined by devotion to absolute intellectual freedom, but also my entire adult life has been spent seeking out and sharing just such dangerous knowledge. I came to Reed to get information, to find freedom, to expand the bounds of knowledge, to know that fleeting thrill and wicked happiness that comes from learning something that others do not — and then sharing it with the world. In my mind there is no such thing as dangerous knowledge. Everyone knows how to be bad because we've all been bad before. Being bad is the easiest thing in the world. What makes an action moral, what separates and differentiates it from ignorance, is that we choose to do it even when we know we don't have to. Keeping another person in ignorance isn't an act of generosity but of selfishness.
And, in my experience, knowledge is never
by Roger Hobbs, February 12, 2013 11:21 AM
So my book about a high-profile bank robbery, Ghostman
, comes out today. I have to say, the excitement here is already reaching something of a fever pitch. Yesterday I received almost a dozen requests for interviews, nearly 50 letters from eager fans (or soon-to-be fans), and literally hundreds of Twitter and Facebook mentions, most of them stemming from the mostly positive review of my book
by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times
. I know it is only the very first day of publication, but I'm already tired of talking about myself for hours and hours on end. So, instead, today I'm going to take it easy and give you a blog post doing what I do best. Here is a short list of lesser-known crime slang I picked up over the course of my research for Ghostman
10. Scatter: A scatter is a secret hiding place where an individual heister sleeps while he is gearing up for a job. The scatter is something of a sacred place — other members of the crew don't go there, and no work is ever done there. It exists so if one guy in the crew gets busted, the others aren't all there with him to take the heat.
9. Shop: The shop, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of the scatter. The shop is a temporary, out-of-the-way meeting place, like an empty warehouse or an old garage, where the heisters gather to plan the job. All the tools of the crime are kept there so they can't be tied to any one of the heisters. The shop itself has special rules. Nobody can own the shop, nobody can live in the shop, and, most importantly, once the job is over, nobody ever returns to the shop.
8. Getaway Pack: The getaway pack is a precaution. It is a pack containing only the most basic supplies a heister might need, usually only a clean phone, some money, a new ID, and a weapon. It is hidden somewhere in the city or region where the heist is going down in case the heister has to leave all of his possessions behind.
7. Go-Bag: A go-bag is similar to a getaway pack, except it isn't hidden — the heister takes it with him always. It has basic supplies (gun, money, phone, ID) but also usually contains a change of clothes, toiletries, and anything else he might need. It always remains packed, so the heister can leave at a moment's notice.
6. Paper Trip: Paper tripping is the act of creating (or stealing) a completely new identity. More than just buying and using a fake ID or passport, a paper trip involves fraudulently acquiring an entire lifetime worth of legal documentation. A successful paper trip can result in a new name, birth certificate, social security number, financial history, and employment record — all valid.
5. Portland Cookie: A blend of better-quality Asian brown-sugar heroin with poorer-quality Mexican black-tar heroin. So named because it looks like chocolate-chip cookie dough and can occasionally be found in Portland, Oregon.
4. Strawberry: A strawberry is a younger woman who hangs around a criminal because he can easily provide her with a steady supply of free drugs, money, and excitement. Oddly enough, the term usually isn't derogatory. I've heard it used affectionately.
3. Flamingo: A flamingo is a woman who is somehow unaware (or unwilling to acknowledge) that her husband or boyfriend is a criminal, so named because flamingos are beautiful birds who bury their heads in the sand. "Keeping flamingos" is considered dangerous because there is always the possibility that she might disapprove of the situation and turn the guy in.
2. Client Dealer: A high-end black marketeer. Unlike a typical dealer, however, who has a limited selection of goods and a great many customers, a client dealer has an exclusive group of customers, sometimes only one, for whom he can procure almost anything (from heroin to hockey tickets) for a price. He does the dangerous black-market shopping so the clients don't have to.
1. Doctor Goodman: A criminal doctor, especially in the drug world. A doctor goodman, or a shop doc, will write a prescription for whatever his patients ask for. Sometimes a doctor goodman is an innocent person who is merely easily fooled, but more often the doctor is corrupt and will write prescriptions in exchange for money or
by Roger Hobbs, February 11, 2013 10:54 AM
If you read Ghostman
, my debut novel that comes out tomorrow from Knopf, you'll probably notice one thing right away — I love facts. I'm a guy who digs the little things. The book is filled with crisp detail and practical minutia on a variety of criminal subjects, from the banking industry to the drug trade and everything in between. Ghostman
, someone recently told me, is like reading a how-to guide to the modern art of bank robbery.
In the first few chapters, for example, I describe how to properly slurp up a bone of crystal meth and what happens when you drink a whole bottle of cough syrup. I talk about how the government prints, protects, and distributes all the new money it prints, and I describe the security features of a casino down to the cash cages. I let you know how to get rid of a body so it is never found, and I tell you how easy it is to shoot someone under a kitchen table using a silencer made only of simple household products. I even go on about the relative demerits of eating an entire jar of nutmeg (which is an exceedingly bad idea, by the way).
As a result of these details, people often ask me, "How do you know so many scary things about the life of a criminal?"
The answer is simple.
I am a criminal.
Does that surprise you? I hope so. It's not every day a writer goes on a very public blog and confesses to breaking the law. And, while I will invoke the Fifth Amendment regarding the specific laws that I've broken, I will tell you I've broken quite a few. I also have an ulterior motive behind this confession. I want to argue that not only am I a criminal, but I'm also willing to bet that you are one too. In fact, almost everyone is.
Now, before you jump off on me for calling you a scumbag, I want you to know what I'm talking about. I'm not saying that you are a major, big-time, hardened criminal who should be locked up. No, not at all. Not everybody is a murderer, extortionist, molester, or kingpin gangster like the characters in my book. No. I'm saying something else entirely — that in this day and age, there are so many common parts of the human experience that are illegal, that virtually everyone of an adult age has broken, or routinely breaks, the law. I'm saying that, in the strict sense —
Everyone these days is a criminal.
Let's do a thought experiment. Take a minute to think about it. When was the last time you broke the law? Did you ever buy a bag of pot, even if it was just this one time during high school decades ago? If you're one of more than a 100 million Americans, you have. Ever bought, sold, consumed, or possessed any amount of any illegal drug? Have you ever taken or received somebody else's prescription medication for any reason? How about driving a car without your license and registration? Have you ever been drunk, naked, or loud in a public place? Pirated a movie or album or television show? Fibbed on your taxes? Shoplifted?
Millions of people do these things every day.
But it's easy to point to the endless, useless, expensive drug war, the expansive war-on-terror laws, the broken copyright system, or the incredibly vague public decency laws and come up with a thousand different ways they could turn a normal person doing normal things into a criminal. But perhaps you're one of the angels. Perhaps you're one of the very rare, unicorn-like people who has never broken one of the above laws. You've never bought, sold, or consumed an illicit substance; you've never illegally downloaded any art, movies, or music; you've never stumbled home from a bar (or, worse, driven); and you're always completely honest and squared away with the police and the IRS. Guess what?
You're still probably a criminal.
A lot of people break the law without even knowing it. In his book Three Felonies a Day, Harvey Silverglate describes how the criminal code has become so incredibly bloated and convoluted that a lot of people go about their days committing "crimes" without ever realizing it. And many of the statutes on the books are so vaguely worded that they could mean almost anything. You can read some really great examples on his site.
Okay, let's continue with the thought experiment. Now that you've remembered the last time you broke the law, let's think about the consequences. Odds are you weren't caught. Every day millions of Americans break the law, and only a very tiny percentage get caught. But do you know what the punishment is for that law you broke? If you possessed marijuana, for example, even a misdemeanor charge could get you a whole year in jail. Most people will never see the inside of a jail cell for such a charge, but, still, the law says you can get up to a year. Now imagine if you had done the maximum sentence for each and every crime you ever committed? How many years of your life would be gone?
This is why I say I'm a criminal — because like most people, the only thing that makes me different from the nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison is that I was lucky enough, or smart enough, or white or privileged or educated enough, to avoid getting caught. America imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. A full 7.2 million people are under criminal supervision — more than 3 percent of all adults. We've become a country where almost everyone breaks the law. And when everyone breaks the law, the law has no threat of power. It ceases to be a punishment for wrongdoing and becomes merely a hazard, a random event of bad luck — like a heart attack or a hurricane — that could happen to anyone at any time for any reason. It is this lack of fear of punishment that separates the mind set of a normal man from that of a hardened criminal.
And these days, nobody's