Michael A. Gonzales ladies and gentlemen.
1. How old were you when you began interested in writing crime fiction?
MG: I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised in Harlem during the 1970s, so I saw a lot of strange things when I was a kid. Pimps, junkies, number runners and whores were the norm. The neighborhood I lived on was a family oriented, but around the corner was a different story.
Growing-up in the 1970s, most of the movies and television shows I watched were all about cops and robbers. There was a great show called NYPD starring Jack Warden and Robert Hooks, who later played the lead in the Blaxplotation flick Trouble Man, which had an early influence on me.
I was into programs like Mannix, The FBI, The Streets of San Francisco and anything else produced by Quinn Martin when I was younger; then, later in the ‘70s came shows like Baretta, The Rockford Films, SWAT, The Rookies, Starsky and Hutch and on and on. I was also into the Twilight Zone, the Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Elvis movies. Frankly, I was a TV junkie. As my mother used to say, “If you study your school books thee way you study the TV Guide, you’d be better off.”
Yet, for me, the turning point was in 1971, when a few things happened. First, that was the year Shaft was released. I didn’t see the movie for years, but the theme song (as well as commercials for the film) blew my mind.
I also remember my mom taking me to see the French Connection which was showing at the Lowes Victoria on 125th Street along with a gritty Frank Sinatra flick called The Detective; that was the best double-feature ever.
But, it wasn’t until the 1980s when the Black Lizard reprints of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, Paul Cain, Charles Williford and Barry Gifford came out that I was hooked. Goodis and Chester Himes are my noir gods.
2. Tell us how your godfather helped launch your writing career?
MG: When I was seven or eight, my mom took me to see a mafia comedy called The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, which was based on a Jimmy Breslin book starring Jerry Orbach and Robert DeNiro. Strangely, that same day I ripped-off the plot of that film for my first short story.
I had a godfather named Uncle Hans who was a writer. He was very literary and had worked with Thomas Mann on a literary magazine in Germany. His grandfather was Paul Ehrlich, whom Edward G. Robinson played in The Magic Bullet. Uncle Hans never had any kids, but he was wonderful with them.
On the day I saw The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, mom took me to visit him. He lived in the Excelsior Hotel, which was on 81 Street and Central Park West, right across the street from the Museum of Natural History. It looked like something out of the Thin Man movies and had the best floor to ceiling bookcase I’d ever seen, stacked with volumes of plays, novels and essays.
I was eight years old and for some reason he asked me if I wanted to dictate a story to him. We went into his home office and, having seen the film a few hours before, I rehashed the plot and an hour or so later, we had a story.
That experience changed my life, because it was the first time I realized that someone actually wrote books, movies, whatever. My mom was a big reader and she used to put books and magazines in my playpen when I was a baby. Anyway, afterwards Uncle Hans bought me an Olivetti typewriter for Christmas and I’ve been writing my own stories ever since.
3. Your writing is quite visual. What do you attribute that to?
MG: Again, coming of age in the 1970s was a blessing, because there were so many great movies coming out during that period. I’d go see crime, kung-fu and Blaxplotation flicks like Death Wish, The Valachi Papers, Fists of Fury, Black Caesar, The Mack, Across 110th Street, Billy Jack, Walking Tall and Enter the Dragon with my friends at the Tapia, The San Juan or the Roosevelt. Then, mom would take me to see movies like Barefoot in the Park, Chinatown, Lady Sings the Blues, Dog Day Afternoon, Annie Hall, Serpico or The Anderson Tapes.
I was also into comic book artists Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Marshall Rodgers, Howard Chaykin and others who were doing great books. Batman was always my favorite character and nobody drew a better Gotham City than Neal Adams and Marshall Rodgers.
I was also into mystery and horror comics. There was an amazing crew of comic book artists that included Beri Wrightson, Michael Kaluta (who also drew The Shadow), Jeff Jones and Alex Nino (to name a few) who just blew me away.
I was blessed to have a mom who exposed me to art and took me to museums as well. So, from a young age I was into the work of Van Gogh, Picasso and Dali. Believe me, those three painters are very much a part of my development as a writer.
4. Did you ever try to become a comic book writer?
In addition to the artists, there were also writers like Denny O’Neil, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman and Steve Englehart that inspired me.
Although I read a lot of different comics, my favorite company was DC, because they put out the mystery and science fiction anthology comics I dug so much.
When I was 14 years old and a freshman in Rice High School in Harlem, I somehow got the balls to contact DC Comics to try and write comic books. A young editor named Paul Levitz, who later became the President of the company, took my call and invited me to his office. He was very encouraging and gave me a few scripts to study. He met with me a few times after that and although I never sold a script to him, just having him guide me was an invaluable experience.
I also used to send material to a wonderful writer and editor named Nick Cuti who worked at Warren Comics. That was the company that put out Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella; Cuti used to work with the great comic book artist Wally Wood and he was one hell of a nice guy. I remember he told me if I wanted to be a good writer I had to read everything, not just comics.
I’ve only done a few minor comic scripts over the years. I was blessed a few years ago when my friend and crime writer extraordinaire Gary Phillips invited me to contribute a textual comic book story for a 2008 collection called The Darker Mask: Heroes from the Shadows (Tor Books). My story was called “The Whores of Onyx City,” which I dedicated to Paul Levitz.
5. Were there any teachers in school that helped you?
MG: Well, there were a few. In 8th grade there was Teresa Barry, who tried to accuse me of plagiarizing a poem I wrote for class. What she didn’t know was I had written poems for every guy in class for twenty-five cents each.
When I was a sophomore in high school, we moved to Baltimore. My English teacher for the next three years was a remarkable woman named Louise Sommer who taught at Northwestern High. At the time I thought Harlen Ellison and Kurt Vonnegut were the best writers on the planet. However, when Mrs. Sommer gave me a copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, I realized those guys were just the tip of a fantastic iceberg.
6. Your early published short stories were erotica. Can you talk about that?
MG: My friend Carol Taylor, who used to be an editor at Random House, edited series of erotica books beginning with Brown Sugar in 2001. There were four books altogether and I was in the first three.
Carol knew my work as a music journalist. I wrote features for many urban magazines, including The Source (when it was good and still mattered), Vibe, Ego Trip, XXL and many others.
As an aside, let me just say this was a great training ground. I was for many years, a “hip-hop” writer, writing features on people like Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Gang Starr, Cypress Hill, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and others. At The Source, the pieces could be up to 3,500 words.
My pieces were often written from a new journalism perceptive, combined with what I learned from watching films, digging art and reading great music writers like Lester Bangs, Nick Torches, Greg Tate, Barry Michael Cooper, Frank Owen, Simon Reynolds, Nelson George, Carol Cooper, Lisa Jones and others.
My friend Marc Gerald, who is currently a literary agent, but also edited the Old School book series (reprinting the forgotten works of Chester Himes, Clarence Cooper Jr, Robert Deane Parker), once said that the hip-hop writers were like the modern day pulp writers. I’m talking about folks like Bonz Malone, Dream Hampton, Kevin Powell, Ronin Ro, Kierna Mao, Sasha Jenkins, Amy Linden, Karen Goode, Miles Marshall Lewis and many others.
I also wrote a lot about other types of music and was blessed to do wonderful interviews with Portishead, Teddy Riley, Prince. Tricky, Massive Attack and Eartha Kitt.
More recently, I’ve been writing old school soul stories for a magazine called Wax Poetics. I wrote a cover story on Curtis Mayfield and the making of his seminal Superfly soundtrack.
7. Can we talk about the erotica now?
MG: Of course. When I met editor Carol Taylor I really wanted to write short fiction, but wasn’t sure to kick it off. She dug my magazine work and offered me a little something something to bang out a piece.
At the time, my girlfriend of ten years Lesley Pitts, who encouraged me very much, had recently died and I was drinking and depressed. I’d go hangout and come back home and work on my story. It was a crazy, surreal piece called “Movie Lover,” about a frustrated video director and his sexual fantasies of having a three-way with Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren while also remembering his coming of age in ‘70s New York City.
Carol taught me a lot about writing fiction. She was a tough editor, but I learned a lot from her.
8. In most of your fiction, New York City is an important character.
MG: Well, in addition to growing-up in Harlem and Washington Heights, my favorite filmmakers were always the New Yorkers like Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese. Movies like Dog Day Afternoon, The Pawnbroker, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver changed my life. A decade later, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky joined that canon as well.
My late friend Jerry Rodriguez was also a crime writer who penned The Devil’s Mambo and Revenge Tango was also a film nerd. He and I met in college and he was the one who turned me on to flicks like The Yakuza, Thief, The Godfather, the Rocky movies and stuff like that. At the time I was into filmmakers like Truffant and Wim Wenders, but Jerry got me into other kinds of stuff.
He used to say, “Michael always liked films, but I got him into movies.”
9. Recently you’ve been writing a lot more noir short stories. Can you talk about that?
MG: First of all, whether there is a crime or not, I consider most of my stories to be noir; even the erotica stories. Most of my stories all have a dark sensibility that is creepy enough without a crime happening.
That said, earlier this year I reprinted my short story “Boogie Down Inferno” on my blog Blackadelic Pop and got a great response from a few online editors. Pulp Metal editor Jason Michel reprinted the story, which got the ball rolling. Later, I wrote new stories for Crime Factory, A Twist of Pulp and Needle #3.
Through Facebook, I’ve met great folks like Keith Rawson, Paul D. Brazill, Steve Weddle, Nigel Bird, Jason Michel, Cameron Ashley and others who have either encouraged me or published my work.
10. What’s going on in 2011?
MG: I have a Harlem based crime novel called Uptown Boys I’d like to finish. I also have a new erotica piece called “Serious Moonlight” (thank you David Bowie) coming out in editor Rachel Kramer Bussell’s “Gotta Have It: 69 Stories of Sudden Sex” in the Spring. I’ve also had a story accepted for Beat to a Pulp called “Another Kind of Blue,” that was published in January.
11. What is your goal as a writer?
MG: When it comes to fiction, I like the high and the supposed low. I’m a fan of Camus and Simenon, but I also love Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. For me, there’s not much difference. In my work, I’m shooting for the mixture of Kool-Aid and champagne, caviar and chitlins. I don’t want to argue about real lit versus street lit versus pulp lit, I just want to write stories I can be proud of--‘nuff said.
Stories and Essays by Michael A. Gonzales
Bombing Babylon (Colorlines)
Nights on Broadway
Nothing Nice on Murder Avenue (Crime Factory)
Boogie Down Inferno (Pulp Metal)
Interview with Akashic Books publisher Johnny Temple (Stop Smiling)
The Birdman of Harlem (A Twist of Noir)
Chester Himes Essay (Allan Guthrie’s Noir Originals)
Blackadelic Pop (blog)