Tom Pitts is one of those writers who lingered on the periphery of my attention for quite a while before forcing his way to the head of the queue. I’d heard his name bandied about by people I trusted and heard great things about Hustle. Still, I hear good things about a lot of writers, and justifiably so, but there’s not time to keep up with all of them. Then I helped The Sole Heir move to Connecticut (did I mention she’s in medical school?) and needed something to read on the train ride home. Pitts’s Knuckleball was on my Kindle so I gave it a tumble. The book was a pleasant surprise from start to finish, my only disappointment due to its brevity. Not that anything seemed incomplete. I just wanted more. I then moved on to Hustle, which was completely different but just as good.
Tom’s new book, American Static, drops later this month. He was good enough to take time from a hectic pre-launch period to chat with me.
One Bite at a Time: First off, thank you, Tom, for stopping by. I’m a big fan of your work and very much looking forward to American Static. Tease us a little about it.
Tom Pitts: Without getting into the synopsis, American Static refers to the undercurrent of violence in America, that constant buzz resonating through our culture. It’s a book that starts of as a happenstance meeting, but it’s like meeting the devil at the crossroads. The buzz begins and builds till it deafens you, stuns you, and wrings you out. At least I hope that’s what it does.
OBAAT: A lot of people would describe their book the way you just did and I’d think, “Uh-oh. Gratuitous violence displayed as hip, cool, and groovy. Tarantino in print.” In your case, I’ve read Hustle and seen how you handled the life of street boy addicts in an unapologetic and non-sensational manner, so I’m not concerned. Unlike a lot of neo-noir writers who seem to want to revel in the story’s depravity, you always keep the characters foremost. How do you decide how much is enough, or too much, of the peripheral stuff like the drugs and violence?
TP: I wish I could decide. Each book I’ve written, I’ve thought, “I’m going to sit down and write something lighter, something more character driven,” and what comes out is a crime novel.
As far as the drug use goes, balance is not a consideration. In a world of crime, drug use is always out of balance. That’s why most crimes are being committed. It’s the drug use behind them. I have a brother-in-law that just served 18 years and 9 months for a stack of crimes, but there wasn’t a single drug charge among ‘em. However, it was the drugs that drove him to all of those offenses. That’s the great unreported statistic in prisons. They consider prisoners drug offenders when they’ve been collared for drug crimes, but most of the time guys serve is because of their addictions—one way or another.
OBAAT: That’s a great point. One of those that I knew was right as soon as you said it, but never occurred to me before, at least not in those terms. Now that you got me thinking about it, drug addiction is a terrible thing for the addicts and those close to them, but the societal effects are all due to ancillary things: robberies and burglaries to get money to buy drugs, or the seemingly motiveless violence that can come from being high on the wrong thing, or too badly strung out. Americans as a society tend to look at all problems as enforcement issues. Where do you see the optimal line between law enforcement and treatment?
TP: Truly a tough question. It’s like when mayors are asked, “How would you solve the homeless problem?” No matter what solution you suggest, it’ll have unpleasant fallout. I think the most basic thing we can do is to do our best to take the drug use out of the equation. Not through tougher borders or longer sentences, but by recognizing that it’s drugs that drive most of the petty crime. People still think greed is the most powerful defect in human nature, and I wonder if it’s not the need to be comfortable, to have those pleasure receptors ringing all day and all night. We do it with food, TV, all sorts of things, but most of all we do it with substances.
OBAAT: It didn’t take long for you to become one of my favorite writers. I read Knuckleball a couple of years ago, and Hustle last fall. What sticks out in my mind is how different the two books are. You have a wide range of stories you tell well, but the core elements of the writing are still there. How do you decide which ideas are worthy of the time and effort of making into a book?
TP: You know it’s a blessing to just get one good idea. And when you have it, you know it. When the lightning bolt hits, you gotta run with it. I still remember the exact time and place when the ideas for both Hustle and Knuckleball hit me. American Static too. Although, that one took a bit longer to gestate.
OBAAT: Like a lot of my favorite authors, you work both sides of the street in the publishing business, as you’re also acquisitions editor at Gutter Books and Out of the Gutter Online. How did you get into that?
TP: I was an editor at Flash Fiction Offensive—a job that Joe Clifford dragged me into when he scored the gig way back when—and Matt Louis, the man behind the curtain at Gutter Books, said he wanted to step up the amount of books he was releasing. Matt, Joe, and I had lofty plans at first, but we quickly learned it’s a difficult task to take on what’s needed—what’s really needed—to run a small press properly. Acquisitions editor looks nice on the bio, and I’ve put a few books out there, but I don’t really consider myself active. I think the best small presses are run by guys who are not writers.
OBAAT: Do you find you work with Out of the Gutter has any effect on your own writing, either for good or ill?
TP: I think the Flash Fiction job exposed me to a lot of writers who I otherwise wouldn’t have read. I’m a notoriously slow reader, and I tend to stick to well-known authors, playing catch-up for the many years I was too distracted by addictions to experience all the great books out there. At Gutter I came across guys like Beau Johnson, Nolan Knight, and Jon Ashley. Guys who have a great feel for the language and who are in my wheelhouse as far as genre goes. I don’t think there were any negatives. It trained me to be more disciplined with my schedule. My life is always full and crazy, so I needed to have strict times to read submissions, days to publish, times to promote. Unfortunately, I did most of that at my old job, working graveyard at a taxi company. When I switched to a day job, I couldn’t sneak my Gutter time onto the company clock anymore.
OBAAT: What do you like to read and how does it affect your writing? Or does it?
TP: Sounds trite, but I like the good stuff. Books that are so good they either inspire me to become a better writer, or make me want to give up because I know I’ll never come close. Particularly when I’m editing one of my novels, I feel like I need something that’ll elevate my own work. I want works that’ll lift me up, artistically anyway.
OBAAT: What writers or filmmakers or artists in general have influenced you the most and in whatways?
TP: It a dangerous line to toe when one talks of influences. You don’t want to give the impression that—because you say you were influenced by an author, you think you’re on the same level. For me, that’s never the case. Here’s a weird example, Don DeLillo’s Libra was a huge influence on me. The way he shifted PoVs with ease. I loved that, and I do it in my own work. It drives some of my editors nuts, but I feel like the shifting PoV, or omnipresent PoV, can make a story so much more cinematic. That’s the way film works. You don’t actually get a PoV from a film, it’s a roving eye.
OBAAT: Is there anything you wish interviewers would ask about more? Some topic you’d like to see writers discuss more in forums such as this?
TP: I know it’s boring for a lot of people, but I’m always interested in the process. It’s the discipline that intrigues me. Guys like Elmore Leonard, how the hell was he so prolific? I tend to compare it to my own habits and see if there’s something I can extract from the writer I can apply to my own life.