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 —
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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.
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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 selfish.