Christa Faust & Ray Banks
interview each other
“Christa Faust grew up in New York City, in the Bronx and Hell’s Kitchen…After High School finally had enough of her, she worked in the Times Square peep booths and later as a fetish model and professional Dominatrix. She sold her first short story when she moved to Los Angeles in the early 90s…She’s an avid reader and collector of vintage paperbacks, a Film Noir enthusiast and a Tattooed Lady. She writes primarily Hardboiled crime fiction, but also does work-for-hire media tie in novels”(http://www.christafaust.com/). Christa is the author of nine novels, including the Edgar and Anthony award nominated Money Shot, Hoodtown, and the Scribe award winning novelization of Snakes on a Plane.
“Before establishing himself as a crime writer, Ray Banks tried university then a number of different careers, including stints as a wedding singer, a double-glazing salesman, an office temp and a croupier. This particular job came to an abrupt end when the casino was ram-raided one night and Ray decided it just wasn’t worth the personal risk for the sake of other people’s money. His first novel, The Big Blind (PointBlank Press, 2004; now republished in a Kindle edition as Dead Money) draws on this croupier experience. It was originally intended to be a literary novel, but its impact on the crime-fiction world has been significant” (http://www.birlinn.co.uk/). Ray is also the author of the Cal Innes novels, Saturday’s Child, Donkey Punch, No More Heroes and Beast of Burden, as well numerous short stories. He currently lives in Edinburgh, and online at http://www.thesaturdayboy.com.
RB: Okay, let’s begin at the beginning. Yours was not the traditional way into the business, was it? I believe you once said that you “kind of fell into it backwards”, starting with short stories and ending up the First Lady of Hard Case Crime. But what got you writing in the first place?
CF: I’ve been making shit up for as long as I can remember, telling stories before I knew how to write. I have tons of “books” that I made when I was a kid. Got a typewriter when I was 14 and never looked back. Guess I was born this way. The fact that people seem willing to pay me for what I was gonna do anyway is pretty amazing.
RB: So how did you then make the jump from writing to publishing? Or were you subbing when you were still in your teens?
CF: It didn’t really occur to me to try and go pro until my early twenties. Before that I just thought of writing as my weird hobby that had nothing to do with the “real” books that I was reading. Then I fell in with a group of older horror writers who encouraged me to get serious and suggested I submit some short stories to various anthologies. I was accepted on the first try, and every time after that. I never went through the hell of struggling to get published for the first time, so I guess I just got lucky.
RB: What about books?
CF: Getting my first book published was more of a battle, partially because of the taboo subject matter (BDSM) and probably because I was still pretty green back then. But I stuck with it, made it happen eventually and never looked back. How about you? Did you scribble in notebooks as a kid?
RB: Like you, I was a typist. Had a couple of hand-me-downs, one manual and one electric. A lot of short stories, plotlines mostly filched from whatever movies I’d seen that week. That eventually gave way to what I thought were screenplays, and then plays. The problem with writing for film or the stage is that you need money and friends, so I ended up gravitating back to the books, which required nothing more than me in a room.
CF: What made you decide to go pro? Or do you even see yourself that way, as a professional, since writing isn’t your main source of income?
RB: Yeah, I think writing would have trouble classifying as a subsidiary income, let alone main source. When people ask me what I do for a living, I don’t think I’ve ever had the balls to say “writer”. In fact, it’s something I actively try to hide from people who don’t know me through those circles. As I’ve said before, I’d rather be thought of as a loser than a loser with pretensions. Perhaps if I’d written something that was utterly perfect, I’d feel different. In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away as an obsessive amateur. Talking of which, what advice would you give to someone up to their eyes in their first novel?
CF: Don’t stop. Sharks die if they stop swimming, and so do novels. You’re going to get to this halfway point where it feels like every word sucks and every other idea you’ve ever had looks like a sexy, surefire best-seller. Keep going anyway. You’re better off having completed a novel that sucks than never finishing one that might have been brilliant. See, anybody can start a novel, but it takes real stones to make it through to THE END. Once you’re done, you may find it’s not nearly as bad as you thought. And whether it sucks or not, once you’ve reached THE END you have to write something else. And something else after that.
RB: That’s the professional way of looking at it, certainly. Given the way your books have been marketed, do you see yourself as breaking new ground, or as an inherently nostalgic writer?
CF: A little bit of both, maybe? Like maybe I’m trying to use old tools in new ways. I mean, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if not for all the pulp writers who did it before me. But my work is a lot more than just a Xerox or a collage of classic archetypes. It’s my way of taking those archetypes and turning them inside out.
RB: With reference to those archetypes, something in Lee Horsley’s Noir Thriller keeps coming to mind – that there’s something of an identity crisis particular to female hardboiled and noir characters. And certainly when I think of classic noir, in both literature and cinema, there appears to be a very definite separation of woman into either madonna or whore. Do you think that’s still the case?
CF: We don’t have the madonna/whore problem so much as we have the Angelina Jolie problem. It used to be that women were rarely center-stage. They were either the beautiful, horribly violated victim (think Black Dahlia), the saintly good girl who keeps begging the main character to “leave this case alone”, or the scheming Femme Fatale. Now, when women do take the spotlight, they mostly come off like tough guys with tits. Laughably unrealistic 98-pound superheroines who can bang with the big boys without breaking a heel. Then again, we also have equally problematic male clichés that we can’t seem to shake. The tarnished knight, the brilliant, charming serial killer or the stone-cold bad-ass. And while I do think there are way too many shallow, male-fantasy-driven Noir-Barbie protagonists in our little sub-genre, I also think there are writers who are doing it right.
RB: Who would you recommend?
CF: Megan Abbott is one who immediately comes to mind, as is Gillian Flynn. Both succeed in creating fresh identities for their protagonists. Cathi Unsworth, too. That excruciatingly realistic sex scene in The Not-Knowing is one of the best I’ve ever read. They write about women who are complicated, deeply flawed and painfully real.
RB: I don’t know Flynn, but I do know Abbott and Unsworth, and they’re both at the top of their game, I think. So what in your opinion makes them fundamentally different to other writers?
CF: I think it all comes down to that same issue of emotional honesty. You can breathe life into a cliché if you are unflinchingly honest, but you can also create a character that is interesting, complex and unique on the surface but ultimately falls flat because they don’t have that resonant, realistic inner truth.
RB: Do you ever feel the “kink” overshadowing your writing? Or the fact that you’re a woman writing in a genre that is typically male-dominated? A lot of your previous press seems to lean on the whole fetish angle, your gender and your background, rather than talk about the books.
CF: Man, ain’t that the truth? I can’t tell you how sick I am of being mistaken for my protagonist or having (mostly male) reviewers mention how sexy or “noir” they think I am before they even bother to mention the books. But hey, I’m a full-time writer trying to make a living by making shit up. Sure, it would be nice if all anyone cared about was talent, but that’s just not how it is. Especially these days, when online social networking and internet cult-of-personality dynamics can make or break a writer. If my “platform” sells more books, who am I to complain about it? Besides, gimmicks, platform or other kinds of techno-ballyhoo might get the marks into the tent, but once they’re in you’d better deliver if you want to keep them coming back for more. I like to think I deliver. That there’s real substance under the neon. Come for the kink. Stay for the storytelling.
RB: Absolutely, there’s substance, but you’re still talking about “storytelling”, which doesn’t suggest you believe in the “art” of novel writing. Is that the case?
CF: For me it’s more craft than art. I’ve always been a lowbrow girl. If people want to find art in my books, more power to them, but I certainly don’t feel some kind of “artist”. I see myself more like an architect. It’s not like there’s no beauty in what I do, but my ultimate intention is to make something practical that people can actually live in. Not only that, but I’m just as comfortable building a house according to someone else’s specifications (like a media tie-in or novelization) as I am building something of my own design.
Let me bounce this one back to you, with a twist. I’ve seen some strong opinions from you on the topic of emotional honestly. For me, emotional honesty is pretty much a given. I can’t imagine telling a story any other way. Even in my goofiest tie-in books, because that makes it more fun for me. I have no interest in playing dolls with the same old stale, soap-opera motivations. The thing I enjoy most about the tie-in and novelization work is the Frankenstein-like act of breathing life (i.e. emotional honesty) into the dead flesh of Hollywood Barbie and Ken dolls. I don’t always get to choose what the dolls do, but I can control the way they feel about it.
I guess my point is that I don’t see emotional honesty as some lofty kind of art. I see that as simply telling it like it is. What do you think? Am I misunderstanding what you really mean by emotional honesty? What’s your opinion on the whole art-vs-craft argument and how do you think that relates to emotional honesty (or lack thereof) in fiction?
RB: Emotional honesty – or “telling it like it is”, which I think is a better way of putting it – isn’t some lofty thing, but then neither is art. That kind of hierarchy from low to highbrow has more to do with the kind of critical thinking that prizes self-reflexive technique over emotional connection than it does any true and definitive value system. For me, art is the communication of experience and emotion in an honest way. It’s having something personal to say, and saying it as effectively as possible. Anything else is an exercise in craft.
I hate it that “art” has become a dirty word in our genre, too. We’ve both heard writers saying, “Oh, I just write to entertain”, which to me is one of the most regressive, patronising things a writer can say. It’s a half-arsed manifesto, and it gives writers licence to dance around in pastiche rather than say anything worthwhile whilst perpetuating this bizarre reverse intellectual snobbery. It also puts readers into the cud-chewing, dull-minded consumer category which I don’t think reflects a lot of genre readers.
Craft is not the be all and end all. Why not aim for something personally important and entertaining? I mean, given that I’m going to be reading your book for a good few hours, don’t I deserve something a bit more than a rattling good plot? And this is where you come in, because for all that your books can be marketed as kinky revenge yarns, there are more human beings in your books than many so-called literary novels, plus there’s a sense that you care a tremendous amount about creating something of lasting value, and that you’ve invested some part of yourself in doing so. In short, you’re going for the gristle that Harry Crews talks about. So call yourself a craftswoman all you want, Faust. We’ll agree to disagree.
CF: Agreed, but I do have one more thing I need to say about this before we move on. I find it interesting that you’re happy to call yourself an artist, yet you’re reluctant to tell people you’re a writer. I have no qualms whatsoever about telling people I’m a writer, because that’s what I do for a living. It’s not pretentious, it’s a fact. But I do get uncomfortable with the idea of telling people I’m an artist. That feels infinitely more pretentious than telling people how I pay my rent.
In the end, I think this is an issue of semantics, rather than substance. The weight of words and all their personal resonance and connotation. It’s obvious that we’re both doing the same thing, we just have different names for it. Different banners under which we feel most comfortable. And from the reader’s perspective, it’s probably impossible to tell the difference.
RB: No, I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I think novel-writing is an art, but I’m nowhere near that good. Nowhere near consistent enough, which is why I call myself an obsessive amateur, when I have to call myself anything. Maybe if I was paying my rent with it, I’d think differently about it. Anyway, the one thing we do agree on is that the reader doesn’t see it. So in the grand scheme of things how we see ourselves doesn’t really matter. Anyway, you mentioned the tie-ins before, and I wanted to ask you about them. Do you approach the tie-ins differently to your “personal” books? I would imagine you’re working to both a strict outline and deadline on the for-hire stuff.
CF: Yeah, the tie-ins require detailed outlines because you have several people who need to approve your idea. First it gets run past somebody who works for the franchise-owner. They go over it to make sure you don’t violate any of the set guidelines for the established characters or take the story in a direction that’s inconsistent with the overall style of the series. Then you have your own editor who looks it over and gives you their two cents. Then, once everyone is in agreement that your idea will work, you get the go-ahead to run with it. Deadlines are usually 6-8 weeks.
It’s funny, but because of all my tie-in work, I’ve become acclimated to working with outlines. I never used to outline, but now I always do. I don’t necessarily stick to the letter of the outline on my own personal stuff, but I find it useful as a kind of mental roadmap. I also find that I write much faster than I used to. It took me over a year to write my first book. I wrote Money Shot in about 8 weeks.
RB: And so how did writing the Gabriel Hunt adventure fit within your typical process. Was that more a tie-in or an original?
CF: The Gabriel Hunt book is a tie-in, no question, but it was unusual in that it felt more like a collaboration. Hunt is Ardai’s baby and he was very involved every step of the way. When I do a standard tie-in, I never get to meet the creator of the character. I just work with intermediaries and the corporations that own the franchise. This was really fun because I got to sit down with Ardai and play around with various ideas. We’re both fans of old men’s adventure pulp and so we were on the same page from day one. It was a blast. I mean, how can you go wrong with a secret hot spot in Antarctica, sexy cavegirls in fur bikinis and a lost Nazi doomsday machine?
RB: I’m sure I’d find a way to turn it into a one-room swear-fest. Anyway, moving on, you mentioned a love of the pulp there. Every writer has that one author (at least) who obsessed them. Who are yours, and how have they influenced your writing?
CF: You mean other than you?
RB: Well, that’s a given, because I’m awesome. So yes, other than awesome me.
CF: Well, Richard Prather for one. He’s my personal hero, an old-school pulp workhorse, grinding them out but clearly having a blast the whole time and never taking himself too seriously. Love Westlake too, especially his Stark/Parker novels. I can’t get enough of that terse, deceptively simple style.
But in a strange way, I find myself more strongly influenced by writers that are doing it wrong. Or doing it right, but leaving vast areas totally unexplored, particularly the experiences and private landscapes of women. I see something done wrong, it inspires me to try and do it right.
RB: So what prompted Angel Dare?
CF: Money Shot started with this idea of a female porn star left for dead in the trunk of a car. I had no idea who she was or what had happened to her and trying to figure that out was half the fun. I knew I wanted to create a character who would go against the idea that all women in the adult film industry are pathetic victims forced into shameful degradation and ultimately ruined by it. I just didn’t know exactly who she would turn out to be. In a way, she sort of created herself while I ran along behind her with a pen.
That book was initially conceived as a one-shot. I had no idea that the character of Angel Dare would become so popular. I got asked, “When’s the next Angel Dare book coming out?” so many times that I started to think why the hell not? I like a challenge. But in the end it was much harder than I imagined. I found myself second-guessing everything way too much. I didn’t want to create one of those series characters who never changes, who remains cool and detached and above it all adventure after adventure, but I also didn’t want her to lose what readers found appealing in the first place. In the end, I think I struck a pretty good balance, but I guess that remains to be seen.
RB: Do you see her as a long-running character?
CF: No. I’d like to do at least one more book, but I think that will probably bring me to the end of her arc. I can’t really see doing ten or twenty Angel Dare books. But hey, stranger things have happened.
RB: Do you ever see yourself writing a long-running series? I mean, the two authors you mentioned are primarily known as series writers.
CF: I’ve got something in the works, a fun kind of toy-truck project that could potentially turn into a long-running series, but it’s not terribly serious. More of a tongue-in-cheek (well, tongue in something …) Prather/Shell Scott kind of deal. Can’t go into detail about it yet, but all will be revealed soon enough. That being said, I don’t mind reading them, but think I have serious commitment issues when it comes to writing a long-running series character. It’s the literary equivalent of getting married. You lose your independent identity and become known only as Mrs. Jack Reacher, for example. Everyone views you and your character as one and the same and if you try to do something different, readers get all offended as if you’ve been unfaithful. Like it or not, you’re stuck with that character till death do you part. Beyond even, if some writer from a future generation decides to take on the mantle. Also, I worry a lot about how to keep a character fresh, to keep that emotional honesty we talked about, when you’re writing about the same person book after book. If your protag isn’t a cop or a crook, it’s hard to manufacture believable circumstances in which an ordinary citizen gets embroiled in violent and/or criminal situations over and over again.
What are your plans, now that you’re no longer Mrs. Cal Innes? Any thoughts of getting remarried, or would you rather play the field?
RB: I’m doing both, as it happens, so I suppose that makes me some kind of sleazy philanderer. With my new publisher I’ve been given quite a bit of leeway in what kind of books I can write, so I’m tinkering with the possibility of the guys from Wolf Tickets having their own series in the originally-planned Hap and Leonard, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones kind of way. I’ll also be doing some standalones. I very much doubt I’ll get any closer to the mainstream, though.
CF: Your reluctant dick Cal Innes has been called an “anti-hero”, a moniker that is echoed in both the title and the storyline of No More Heroes. Is Innes really an anti-hero or just a realistic protagonist?
RB: Well, he started off as an anti-hero, certainly. He was my answer to what I thought was a fundamental problem with British PI fiction in that most of it was simply American PI fiction dropped into a British setting, and I wanted to create a character that was a direct response to the usual Chandler-inspired romance of gumshoes, dames and “down these mean streets a man must go …” But then the problem with establishing a character based on a specific intellectual viewpoint is that he or she doesn’t grow much beyond that. So in the later books, and especially Beast of Burden, I’ve tried to round him out a bit more, make him more realistic.
CF: And what do you think about the concept of “heroes” in fiction?
RB: They ain’t nothing but a sandwich. Honestly, I think they’re fine to use in thriller or adventure stories, but I’m not sure how you can look at crime – the cause, the event and the aftermath – using a hero protagonist. It’s too binary to be effective. For me, all good crime fiction (as opposed to detective fiction) has its roots firmly in the social novel, and a good social novel demands a level of realism that doesn’t have room for such cartoonish notions as heroes and villains. Heroes don’t exist. Everyone has their rotten little flaws. It’s what makes us human.
What about you? Do you think of characters in terms of “hero” or “anti-hero”, or are they all just protagonists to you?
CF: I’d say most are what I would call straight up, grey-shaded protagonists. Ordinary flawed people who do bad things for good reasons and vice-versa. But Hoodtown is all about the myth of heroes, the pressure to live up to a heroic persona and what it really means to commit a heroic act. Set in the world of pro-wrestling, which is all about faces (good guys) and heels (bad guys), it deals with the ways in which the lines between the two can become blurred.
RB: You’re based in Los Angeles, but you’re originally from the East. What brought you cross-country?
CF: It’s an embarrassing and ridiculous cliché, but I was hitchhiking across the country and quit when I hit the Pacific. I liked the weather. I also like that so many people hate this town, so I was determined to make it my own. I’m contrary like that. Nearly 20 years later, I’m still here and still in love with this crazy, fucked-up city. Can’t imagine living anywhere else.
You use a lot of regional slang that’s completely alien to Americans like me. I love it and feel like it’s the backbone of your books, but it did take some getting used to at first. I’m willing to bet a lot of my fellow countrymen and women aren’t willing to make that effort. Ever been asked to tone it down to reach more American readers?
RB: Nope. I know one editor had some concerns about Mo in Saturday’s Child, and asked me to remove his POV from the book, but I don’t think it was just the slang that prompted the request. Other editors just rejected the book rather than requested changes. I’d like to think that confirms your idea that the regional stuff is the backbone of the book, but it could just be they didn’t like it. As far as I’m aware, the only change made specifically for an American audience was the title change of Donkey Punch to Sucker Punch. HMH thought the original title was inappropriate and I had to agree – a title needs to reflect the book, and Donkey Punch implied a more transgressive novel than it ended up being.
The language of the books has completely limited my audience. Not everyone wants to try and tune their mental ear to another accent, nor do they necessarily like their dialogue on the salty side, and you know what, that’s totally their prerogative. Ultimately, if you put anything between a reader and the story, you run the risk of losing that reader’s attention. But I try to write the books I’d want to read, and those books tend to feature a strong narrative voice and authentic language. If people don’t like that, fine.
CF: You’ve mentioned that you always felt like an outsider no matter where you lived. I’ve always been an outsider too, and so are a lot of other writers I know. Do you think that an almost anthropological outsider’s perspective is somehow critical to being a writer? Like maybe you don’t see the world and the people in it as clearly if you fit in?
RB: Possibly. I’d have to ask which came first, though – the need to write or the feeling of social exclusion. I don’t know that either of us would feel the need to write if we were secure enough to go with the flow. I think you do need to step back from society in order to observe it, but the best writers manage to balance that insider authenticity with an outsider’s clean pair of eyes.
Okay, well, that’s about all we have time for, I think. Anything else to add, or are you happy to call it a day?
CF: It’s a fucking day. I gotta go bang out some deep, meaningful art so I can pay my bills.
RB: Whereas I will pretend to work a day job and dream of a life of pulp.