Tuesday 21 June 2011

Christa Faust interview: Hoodtown

Hoodtown by Christa Faust
Amazon UK, Amazon US

Christa Faust is the author of ten novels including the Edgar and Anthony award nominated Money Shot, the Scribe Award winning novelization of Snakes on a Plane, and her latest, Choke Hold, forthcoming in October from Hard Case Crime. She lives in Los Angeles.

Can you sum up your book in no more than 25 words?

When I first wrote Hoodtown, I called it “Casablanca with Wrestling Masks.”

Of course, it’s not that simple. For one thing, the part of Rick is played by a 200-pound female masked wrestler. Plus it’s a lot darker, uglier. But there are shared themes. The exotic, multicultural city with its own unwritten laws. The reappearance of an old flame who gets under the protagonist’s thick skin. The reluctant heroism, the personal sacrifice.

What was your motivation for writing it?

For this one, sheer fun. I knew from the get go that it was a pretty weird concept with very little mainstream saleability. It’s hardboiled, but it’s got quirky, fantastic elements. The masks, the lack of modern technology, the unique slang language. It takes place in a timeless, alternate-universe L.A. It’s filled with insider pro-wrestling references that I knew would go over most readers’ heads.

I have no problem with the idea of writing for money or for a specific audience. After all, I write media tie-ins for a living. But I wrote this book for me.

How much difference does an editor make?

Hoodtown started life as an illustrated, limited print edition and the same editor I worked with the first time around helped me go over the eBook version. We caught some small mistakes. We also learned a lot from the reviews and comments on the print edition. For example, there were people who thought that my invented slang language was “wrong,” just bad Spanish or Japanese. So we decided to add a little note at the beginning to warn the reader about the unfamiliar words and make sure they knew about the glossary at the end.

But Hoodtown aside, I’m a big believer in the need for an editor. Not just your mom or your significant other, but a real professional editor. Too many of the eBooks I come across are in desperate need of a stiff red pen. Writers spend the majority of our time alone, and we really need that extra set of eyes to give us an objective perspective. Nobody likes to be told that something they poured their heart into is no good, but it’s better to hear that from an editor before you publish than to read it as an Amazon reader review.

How important is a book's central character?

Critical, I think. At least it always has been for me. That’s the readers way in. The perspective through which the events of the story are filtered. Not just the events, but the world in which the book takes place. My favorite kind of books take the reader into an unfamiliar world. Whether it’s police, pro-wrestling or porn, the protagonist is your native guide. This can be even more interesting when you have an unreliable narrator.

I will say, I’ve never felt that a central character must be “likeable.” Whatever that even means, since it’s intensely personal and varies from reader to reader. Me, I don’t feel any need to be best buddies with a main character in order to enjoy a book. It’s not like I’m going to marry that character or ask them to take care of my dog while I’m out of town. For me, a central character needs to be compelling and believable. Authenticity is more important to me than likeability.

As a reader, how would you describe your taste in crime fiction?

I mostly go for the darker stuff. Bleak and brutal. Emotionally unflinching and painfully honest. I have a thing for bad sex scenes. Not badly written sex scenes, as amusing as those kind of scenes may be. I mean well-written scenes featuring uncomfortable, unfulfilling, or flat-out ugly sex. I also enjoy an element of black humor.

On the other hand, I read a lot of vintage pulp too, and not just the famous, critically acclaimed writers either. I love the throwaway stuff, because it feels like a kind of time travel. A peek into the cultural id of another era, unsullied by literary pretensions.

As a writer, how would you describe your ideal reader's taste in crime fiction?

They would love every single word I’ve ever written, obviously. So much so that they’d be compelled to buy multiple copies of all my books.

What are you reading now?

Blonde Trap by Ernie Weatherall, 1954. “The story of a sultry office girl who believed in pleasure before buisness!”

Who's your favourite living writer?

Ray Banks. Read him yourself and you’ll see why. You’re welcome.

Where do you find out about new books?

For me, it’s all about word of mouth. I have certain friends, online acquaintances or bloggers who like the same kind of books as me. If they mention they're reading and loving a certain book or have just discovered a writer I’ve never heard of, I’ll check them out. When I find something I really like, I try to pass it on the same way.

And no, having a writer spam me with a million tweets/posts/emails telling me how great their book is does not count as word of mouth.

How do you feel about the ease with which anyone can publish?

Let me tell you something, kids. I’ve been writing almost every day for the majority of my adult life. That’s nearly 25 years. A quarter of a century. And in all those years, most of what I wrote was crap. Derivative, ham-handed, and just plain bad. That’s not false modestly, that’s reality. I’m glad instant ePublishing wasn’t an option when I was 18. Because when you’re 18, you think you know it all. You think you’re a misunderstood genius and that the reason the New Yorker keeps rejecting you is because they’re too stuck up to appreciate your edgy awesomeness. It’s not true. It’s because you’re bad. And I’ve got news for you, if you’re 57 and you’ve just written your first short story, you’re probably still 18 on the inside.

But there’s good news too. The good news is that understanding why you’re bad helps you get better. And that takes time. Time to polish your chops and find your voice. To make your bones. See, becoming a writer is about more than just uploading a document. It’s a journey. Kind of like literary puberty. You certainly wouldn’t want your awkward early sex life to be made public on the internet, no matter how great you thought it was at the time. Your first stabs at fiction are like that. They’re part of a learning curve, and are better undertaken in private. Preferably with someone more experienced at your side, to help you learn from your mistakes.

What I’m trying to say is this: Just because you can publish the first story and/or novel you ever wrote, doesn’t mean you should.

Do you read outside of the crime genre?

Sure. I like a lot of horror and science fiction. I also like genre-crossovers and writers that don’t really fit into any particular pigeonhole, like Michael Marshall Smith, Caitlin R. Kiernan or Steve Niles. I guess the common thread in most of the books I read is one of tone rather than genre. I like books that explore the darkness inside the human heart.

Do you enjoy writing?

Sometimes I love it and sometimes I hate it but I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think the thing that separates the pros from the wannabes is the ability to keep at it even when you hate it. To make your daily word count and still hit that deadline even when every word seems to be fighting against you.

What's the oddest question you've been asked in an interview?

A French magazine asked me if I’d “ever had a micropenis.” Um…

How do you feel about reviews?

What constitutes a “review” has really changed over the years. Reviews used to come strictly from professional critics. Critics who were assumed to be well and widely read. Whose personal taste and prejudices you knew and understood because you’d been reading them for years. There were certain critics who hated everything I liked and I knew if they panned something, that meant I was going to love it.

Now anyone with internet access can post reviews, often anonymously. This is a good thing in some ways because it gives the author direct feedback from their target audience. In other ways it’s deeply problematic.

You get people who buy a book called CHAINSAW DILDO and then complain about all the icky sex and violence. You get people who are all up in arms because a book features men kissing, or because a cat gets hurt. And because of the star rating system on Amazon, these types of reviews are given equal weight as those that thoughtfully critique the book on its own terms. I once got a one star review from someone who had a problem with shipping. That had nothing to do with me, but yet my book now has a lower overall rating because that guy’s birthday present didn’t arrive on time.

So I still use reviews to help me decide if I’ll like a book or not, but I base my decision on the content of each individual review, not the overall star rating.

Do you have any other projects on the go?

Yeah, but if I told you about them, I’d have to kill you.

Hoodtown by Christa Faust
Amazon UK, Amazon US


  1. Christa, thanks--very enjoyable! In short stories, one way to get the equivalent of editors' comments (at least to a point--a preview maybe) is by joining a writers' group, provided the others are serious about it too, not just angling for praise. Inf act my experience is you learn more from taking the others' stories apart to see what makes them tick, then learning to apply that back to your work.

    I also like your comments about Amazon reviews and agree completely. Always read the small print and find out why the reviewer liked or disliked something.

  2. Some sage advice there - great interview.

  3. A smart, funny interview, which is exactly what I expect from Christa Faust.

    And hell, better her being asked if she ever had a micropenis than one of the guys getting that one.