March 22, 2010
JR: I met Jonathan Santlofer in the South of France, when I was a teaching assistant and he was a visiting professor at a school in Lacoste. I’d been out of art school for about a year and really thought I wanted to become a working artist, like I really had what it took. Then I met Jonathan, and his paintings really blew me away. He was working with David Storey, and Jane Kent, who were also there teaching, (a New York downtown artist cabal), they had their son with them, and Jonathan and his wife had their daughter in tow. I often babysat their kids (and tried to teach Jane how to drive stick shift), and in return one night, (I think) Jonathan gave me a copy of Ladies Man by Richard Price. I was still thinking the only thing that mattered was photography, so I wasn’t reading, at all. This book just blew me away. It was urgent and vital, New York City at it’s finest, and it’s incredibly funny. I loved Price’s dialogue, his way of making it all sound like it was happening for the first time. I swore by that book, and when I started writing screenplays while I was in working in France, I wanted to be Richard Price. I’d already fallen in love with his screenplay for The Color of Money, which is equal parts realistic and really funny. Jonathan and I didn’t talk for ten years after that, I think once or twice when I got back to New York City from France, (and Jonathan wrote me a great recommendation to grad school, thank you Jonathan). But then we lost touch, and I finally found his book, The Death Artist in a store near my home, I was married, and working a shitty retail job, and suddenly we were right back where we left off, and once again, it was a book that brought us together, this time it was his debut! Jonathan has always been a dear friend who has given me tough love on my writing, telling me to keep at it, and keep my chin up. One of the many things he’s taught me, besides keeping my nose to the grind stone, is that once you realize you’ve got talent, you have to work damn hard. Jonathan agreed to contribute to When We First Fell in Love, and it’s a great piece that tells us when he did first fall in love, and what he’s doing now.
JS: It started with comic books. I had a huge collection, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Archie and Classic Comics like Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers, which I read and reread as if they were real books. Then came the Hardy Boys. I was an addict, the adventures of Frank and Joe – I couldn’t get enough. Then someone gave me a collection of Poe’s short stories and I read The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher so many times I could practically recite them. After that, I went through a Cornell Woolrich phase, The Black Angel,The Bride Wore Black. In high school I discovered J.D. Salinger, The Catcher In the Rye, and read everything he’d written. From Salinger, I went to Vonnegut, or maybe it was simultaneous; Salinger and Vonnegut, what Toulouse-Lautrec and Egon Schiele are to art, made for the adolescent psyche, which is not an insult.
Nowadays I read so much for research when I’m writing a book there isn’t much time to read for fun, but I still do. The Invention of Everything Else, a fictionalized account of the life of Nikola Tesla, so filled with pathos and longing of what it means to create something and to fail, it practically killed me. Before that a few by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde, The Tattooed Girl, Zombie (the scariest serial killer book ever written except for Shane Stevens’s pulpy By Reason of Insanity, which sticks in the mind like vultures picking over road kill. Oates wrote a terrific Rashomon-like story for an anthology I put together with S.J. Rozan, The Dark End of the Street, which comes out in May. It mixes crime writers like Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block, and Laura Lippman with literary writers like Jonathan Lethem, Francine Prose and Amy Hempel, all writing about sex and crime. Every time a new story came in it was like someone had sent me a box of candy.
I read everything by Philip Roth, even if his obsession with young women is getting a bit shabby, and I wish he’d give us a glimmer of humor, a flicker of hope now and then but he’s already given me so much I shouldn’t complain, The Anatomy Lesson and The Professor of Desire, The Human Stain and The Dying Animal, all great, all beautiful, so I’ll keep reading him till I’m old (older) and possibly as incontinent as one of his recent characters. (Roth was once hilariously funny, and if you haven’t Portnoy’s Complaint, possibly the funniest laugh-out-loud book ever, go out and get a copy right now.) Roth always teaches me something. So does J.M. Coetzee, another humorless writer I love, his novel Disgrace, totally haunting, and I just finished the first of his autobiographical books, Boyhood, which is both dry but affecting and taught me about economy, something I’m not good at.
It took me ten years to write my first novel, The Death Artist. After that the books came faster but no easier. I always struggle to make everything work until I just stop and resign myself to the fact that nothing is perfect but there will be another chance.
I didn’t start out to be a crime fiction writer though I’d read a lot of the genre, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendall, terrific writers, who could give plenty of literary writers a run for their money. Of course mystery writers make the money and the literary ones get the respect, so no one is happy, which is why SJ Rozan and I put that anthology together.
Writing crime fiction is incredibly hard because everything has to work and the reader has to be satisfied and you can’t really go off on tangents. But once I had any kind of audience I realized I could write about things that were important to me as long as I slid them under an exciting plot and I did that it in every book after my first. Color Blind was about a culture getting the monsters it deserves, The Killing Art about unnecessary cruelty among men who should know better. In Anatomy of Fear it was hate crime, though I have yet to hear a single reader mention it because they are so into my sexy brooding sketch artist cop, Nate Rodriguez, and his relationship with homicide cop, Terri Russo, and his grandmother’s Santeria and New York’s Spanish Harlem. In The Murder Notebook I took on post-traumatic stress disorder and government experimentation on soldiers – things that are really going on – but wrapped it around a murder case Nate’s involved in, so again the reader just reads without thinking there’s a “message,” which is a good thing because everyone hates being preached to, including me.
Right now I’m working on three books, which is crazy – or I should say, making me crazy. One’s a young adult novel, my first, a boy adventure and very thrilling, something grown up men will like too. There’s a third Nate book cooking, and something else I can’t talk about because it’s too personal and scares me. All the books are illustrated, which is the fun part because I get to use my art in the books a little. So, I’m busy. I’d say busy and happy, but then everyone who knows me would think everything I’d written here was a lie, so let’s just say I’m busy.