By Naomi Hirahara
Veteran Los Angeles writer Gary Phillips signed “Violent Spring,” one of his first mysteries with his black private investigator, Ivan Monk, with one of his signature lines, “Writing is fighting.” That was in 1995, when I was an aspiring novelist and editor of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper, looking for some words of wisdom from a more seasoned professional.
Since that time, Gary and I have become partners in the field of mystery writing. He asked me to contribute short stories to some of his many anthologies, including the upcoming “South Central Noir” (Akashic, September 2022). I used to collect all the books he wrote or edited, but as that number grew to over 50, I gave up that effort.
I knew a few things before this interview. I knew he was a Los Angeles native, a comic book nerd, and a former high school football player. And that his mother had been a librarian and his wife, Gilda Haas, a well-known community organizer and defender of economic justice who taught at UCLA.
Many of Gary’s touchstones in Los Angeles are gone or transformed: the hospital where he was born, Queen of Angels, in Echo Park has closed; the original location of his mother’s library, the Ascot branch (256 W. 70th Street), is now offices of the Legal Aid Foundation; and his high school, Los Angeles Lutheran High, where both James and Janice Hahn attended, is no longer in South Central.
Gary has always strived to keep the story of Los Angeles at the forefront of readers’ minds, and his most recent mystery novel, “One-Shot Harry,” featuring a black news photographer in the 1960s, perhaps most encapsulates his passion for the past.
Q: I consider “One-Shot Harry,” perhaps more than any of your other books, to be a quilt of your life. Touchstones of politics: not only the visit of Martin Luther King, Jr. to Los Angeles, but the election campaign of Mayor Tom Bradley and also the mention of Julian Dixon. Do you feel a special affinity with this character?
A: My mom, who was a librarian, had multiple sclerosis, so it was getting worse and worse with 24-hour care and here I was this kid. A lot of my life was me and my dad.
I was an only child. My father and I were very close. Some of the characteristics of the father and his impulse appear in several characters. I realize that even though Harry is a Korean War vet, he is not a WWII vet, Harry can seem so true because he reflects my pop. My father was a poor boy from Texas. During the Depression and the 1930s, he worked for bootleggers. On the other hand, he had a brother who remained in France after the war. So in the 1950s I was going to France and dragging myself, a little boy.
Friends came over, played dominoes and drank beer in the kitchen, and I invariably listened to their stories. They stayed with me. I would reform them and remake them. If I am not accurate in all respects, there is truth in emotions.
Q: Tell us about Harry’s development as a black freelance news photographer. Did you have to do a lot of research?
A: Harry is based on two real-life people. One of them is Harry Adams here in Los Angeles, who was a black freelance photographer. He took what would be called images of middle-class black society. His photos are in a collection at Cal State Northridge. I was also a part-time barber and I thought it was great.
The other influence is the legendary Arthur Fellig, aka “Weegee,” a New York City crime photographer from the 1930s through the 1950s. He had a police scanner running in his apartment and would run around the five boroughs. He took a photo of a man in a lobby with a knife to his head, men being carried away in a rice wagon, people thrown after a drunken brawl, and someone shot after a mob. He was that guy.
Q: We share the same Soho Crime editor, Juliet Grames, who was awarded the Ellery Queen Award at this year’s Edgar Awards, and I wanted to know if there was anything in Juliet’s editorial notes that significantly helped her elevate her manuscript to the level of superior next level?
A: She challenged me at the end in her first incarnation. I have a tendency to have loose strands on my end, just because it looks more natural. I’m working on the second Harry mystery and I’m back to tie up more loose ends.
I cheated with changing views in a couple of places that she felt didn’t work and I thought she was right. We come to a compromise at the end of the book; there is a scene that changes the female lead.
Q: In a way, you’re very different from Harry because I don’t think I’ve ever seen you take a photograph.
A: I’m a terrible photographer, but I have help from the built-in technology of today’s cell phones. Harry was shot while being hit or spanked, so you’re right, he’s very different from me.
Q: Have you ever taken a photo or video of the crime?
It’s funny you ask me that: Gar Anthony Haywood and I have been working on an anthology, “Witnesses for the Dead,” inspired by Darnella Frazier, the girl who captured the killing of George Floyd. The unintended consequences of putting a camera on these phones is that we can capture misdeeds on these devices we carry in our pockets.
Q: What was the last photo you took with your cell phone?
A: That’s easy. My grandson, Silas, who is seven years old.
-Each writer has his own way of participating in the literary community. I think your most visible way is to gather writers for short story anthologies. When did anthologies become “a thing”?
A: Writer Jervey Tervalon first recruited me to work with him on a collection of short stories about cocaine. That became “Cocaine Chronicles,” which Akashic published in 2005, a year after “Brooklyn Noir” launched Akashic’s Noir series. Once we did that, I got an error.
Even though I keep saying I’m going to stop now, I always seem to convince myself to do another anthology. The draw is the complexity of building a team of writers, building a book around a theme, and telling them to do it. I get a kick out of seeing what people come up with. It strengthens me as a reader and writer that there are so many ways to enter a story. There’s something about the short story form and coming to a satisfying conclusion in a short amount of time that I find appealing. I keep coming back to it.
Q: You have a lot of nostalgia for old Los Angeles. What places did we miss that you really missed?
A: One place I really miss is Teriyaki Suzuki. It used to be in Pico and Dunsmuir. It had a horseshoe counter and served ginger fried chicken with rice, spaghetti, and Mexican food. I cried so much when that place closed in the 90s. I consciously kept it alive in my fourth Monk novel.
I also miss the jazz spot, Parisian Room, which is now the Ray Charles Post Office. And also Yee Mee Loo’s bar in Chinatown at Spring and Ord.
Q: On your website, you have a tongue-in-cheek account of how many donuts he has consumed. Right now they are up to 4,000. Do you think the actual number is more or less? And where are you to go for the most delicious donuts in LA?
The actual number is too terrifying to consider. As for chains, Winchell’s. I go there once a week and have a chocolate chip and crumb frosting. As for a mom and pop operation, Magee’s Donuts, where I order a mini cinnamon roll and a cruller. I also try to go to the gym a couple of days a week.
Q: You’ve also been working on the FX TV show, “Snowfall,” thanks to an introduction by the late John Singleton and Walter Mosley, who also writes for the show. “Snowfall” will enter its final season. Has working in television affected your prose writing?
A: It helped me edit sharper. When writing a book, you have as much real estate as you need to tell your story. You can be stylish with the interior landscape you want to explore. With a script, there is brevity.
Working in the “Nevada” writers room was a positive experience. We do deep dives into the psychology of the characters. But those scenes may not be seen on screen.
I think more about what my character wants. And I always married the dialogue and the plot, but the writers’ room merged it better.
Naomi Hirahara’s award-winning historical mystery set in 1944 Chicago, Clark and Division, is now available in paperback. The second in his Hawaii-based mystery series, An Eternal Lei, also premiered this year.
Naomi Hirahara talks to LA crime writer Gary Phillips about the lost landmarks of Los Angeles – Press Telegram Source link Naomi Hirahara talks to LA crime writer Gary Phillips about the lost landmarks of Los Angeles – Press Telegram