Long time, no see.
How you been?
You look great. How’s the family? The job?
Can’t complain. Keeping my head down, working hard. Wrote a few more books. Learned a new trade, wrote a bunch of TV shows. Met some nice people. And a few who could make Mother Teresa scrawl curses in blood on a bathroom wall. Oh yeah, I also spent twenty years writing a novel.
Wha? We haven’t met?
Lemme start over and introduce myself, tell you how I wound up here.
Long story short, I took a wrong turn and like the guy in the old song I just kept going.
I was a normal kid—well, actually, not that normal—but I was interested in some of the usual kid business, to an unusually obsessive degree. Sports, rock and roll, and comic books. I had a big stack of Batmans and Fantastic Fours, like a lot of other kids growing up in that era. In other words, the foundational works for most major pop culture of the last 30 or 40 years. I could recite half the averages from the Baseball Encyclopedia and tell you the name of every minor sidekick and villain in the DC Comic archives. I was probably destined to be a video store nerd from a Spielberg or a Kevin Smith movie or Gollum with a baseball card collection. But then something happened. The real world smacked me upside the head and changed my mind.
Some of it had to do with family events and realizing there was a time to put away childish things. But at least as much of it had to do with growing up in New York City in the 60s and 70s. The reality of life on the street was at least as wild and colorful as Spiderman or Superman. This was the wide open city where anything seemed possible, good and bad. Times Square Babylon. People crossing Fifth Avenue in mink coats with no underwear. Son of Sam and CBGB’s. Earl the Pearl and Ford to City: Drop Dead. I went to a prestigious school, but there were people just out of Creedmoor screeching like crows and blue jays across the street. Who needed Hawkman when I had the Birdman of 77th Street cawing every morning? I still loved the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but at a certain point newspaper columnists like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill had a lot more to say about the world I was living in.
Of course, becoming more engaged with reality meant recognizing a few basic facts about myself: namely that I was never going to be the great ball player or the groundbreaking musician that I was in my head. My unsteady hands weren’t getting with the program. Instead, I focused more on being an observer. One day I saw a little girl pulling up the front of her dress outside Gimbel’s while her Irish nanny nudged her and said, “Stop it. You’re as bad as your mother.”
I walked away thinking, “what a world. I gotta tell somebody about this.” And from then on, I was doomed to try to be a particular kind of writer—focused on the places where the true details of urban life blend into comedy, heartbreak, and dream-like surrealism. For Chrissakes, check out the headlines of that period: “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.” “HANDLESS TERRORIST ESCAPES.” “SICK TRANSIT’S GLORIOUS MONDAY.” (About bailing out the subway system).
From Hamill and Breslin, I got onto Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with a growing awareness that the stories I was drawn to often involved crime. Infractions in the social contract often brought together the themes I was interested in. I also began to notice that the good genre writers had at least as much style as more self-consciously “literary” authors, but they had a matter of fact terseness, a glancing toughness and shrug-it-off humor that I craved as a young man (though some of that toughness starts to seem pretty self-conscious and brittle as you get to be older and realize Edith Wharton is easily as hard as any of those guys).
At the same time, I also became aware that I needed to find a way to pay the rent, and nobody was giving untried novelists with no useful life experience a stipend to learn the craft. So I started looking more closely at the biographies of writers I admired and noticed that quite a few (Hemingway, John O’Hara, and Graham Greene) had been journalists at some point. I set out to get a job as a reporter so I could earn a living wage while figuring out what it was that I wanted to say.
In a fantastic, undeserved stroke of good fortune, I got a gig working as an assistant to one of my heroes, Pete Hamill. It was only a brief period but he taught me two essential lessons. 1) If there is somewhere you’re afraid to go or a question you’re to ask, then you must force yourself to do it anyway. 2) When you have an experience, write it down as quickly and completely as possible. Because the insignificant detail today will be the most revealing one a year later.
I remembered those lessons when I became a full-fledged writer at New York magazine in the 1980s. I covered crime, politics, and other forms of anti-social behavior. I did a cover story on skinheads that got me called a “dick” on national TV (see “Hardcore Memories”), I got chased out of the police commissioner’s office for asking why he pissed out of a helicopter (a drink might have been involved), and I spent part of an afternoon with a future President of the United States, who made fun of a woman for having a crane fall on her and admitted he had no idea how the work was done on his most famous construction project (hint: I’m not talking about Jimmy Carter).
Anyway, the truth is that like a lot of other journalists I just wanted to write a novel. I’d read quote from the writer Stanley Elkin that said he always began a story by thinking about the main character’s job. And that seemed a great way to avoid writing about your miserable childhood, some banal weekend frolic, or what I liked to call then “a snow on the tennis court” novel. I wanted to write something gritty and real that would be a crime novel, a personal novel and a social novel.
I started spending my free time, walking the streets and thumbing through city directories, searching for the right subject. I hung out with Brooklyn bingo inspectors (a real thing!), played against street corner chess masters in city parks, observed token-suckers and 3-card monte dealers in action, spoke to murderous gangsters who’d become suicide prevention aides. It was all intriguing and helpful in my gaining an understanding of machinery of big city life, but nothing seemed to pull together the bigger ideas of the era.
Then one day, I wrote a small story for New York about a probation officer. And within the walls of his tiny cubicle, I thought I could feel the thrumming of a larger world. Every day, people who’d gotten probation instead of prison would walk in and perform a little aria of self-justification. “I didn’t steal that wallet; he just threw it on the ground and said ‘I don’t want it no more.'” “I didn’t stab my husband. He just fell on the steak knife while I happened to be holding it.” “I’m no drug dealer! I was just holding that crack, so no one else would use it!” “I wasn’t involved in insider trading, I just spend time with people profitably.”
The “clients,” as they were known, came from every sector of society, but the probation officer himself also embodied the tensions of the era, trying to hang on to fragments of idealism in damnable circumstances. I took a leave of absence from my job and signed on as a volunteer probation officer for six months so I could write with as much detail and authenticity as possible, following Pete Hamill’s dictum about keeping my notes together.
The result was eventually a novel called Slow Motion Riot, which William Morrow published in 1991. A few people liked it. A few hated it and said so loudly. But somehow the book managed to win an Edgar Alan Poe® award for the best first novel award from the Mystery Writers of America and after that I was pretty much done writing for magazines and newspapers.
I’ve published eight books since then: Casino Moon, The Intruder, Man of the Hour, The Last Good Day, Slipping Into Darkness, Proving Ground, Sunrise Highway, and now Picture in the Sand. Not a lot, considering how long I’ve been doing this. But I figure that if you’re asking a reader to spend a fair chunk of time and money on something you’ve written, you better make it worth their while.
I do a lot of research for the stories and then write and rewrite them until that research (hopefully) disappears and everything just sounds natural. To fill in the gaps of those in-between periods, I started working in television. I’ve learned a lot from that work and have made some enduring friendships, but it’s not the same as writing a book. Television is a collaborative medium. Whatever your vision is, it’s going to be interpreted by actors, art directors, costume designers, and others who have their own way of seeing things. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s never going to be you transmitting directly from the studio in your head to the theater in someone else’s head.
I missed that way of connecting, that forum for sharing what can literally feel like a piece of your mind with another human being. So for most of the time I’ve been writing for television, I’ve also been working on novels.
In fact, part of the reason I went into TV was specifically so I could write my new book, Picture in the Sand, which I started in April 2002. Right from the beginning, I knew it would be different from anything I’d ever written before. And the biggest risk of my career. I had to be able to pay the bills while I researched it and figured out the right way to tell a story that took place in Egypt, 1954, far from contemporary New York City. I did NOT think it would take me six trips to the Middle East and twenty years of trial and error to get where I needed to be. But someone once said a writer is his—or her—own fault, and no one asked you to volunteer anyway. I did it because there was no choice, and after a certain point, no way to go back. It wasn’t always pretty, or, I’m sure, pleasant for some of the people around me. The book was dead and buried at least a half-dozen times over the decades. But during the pandemic, I dug it up, gave it everything I had left and somehow got it sold. And I’m damn glad I did.
So that’s it. I’m back, baby. If I’d stuck with the comics, maybe I’d be on Mulholland Drive now, or living in my mother’s basement with moldering stacks. Instead, I’m lucky enough to find myself back where I can still be doing work I love after all these years and maybe finding a few people who’ll read it.
So let’s go for another round. I’m still game, if you are.
“A master of the urban dark side, his crime novels suffused with a knowing compassion for the bottom dogs who live in the Minotaur’s maze that is New York City.”
“One of the most consistently bracing and interesting voices in American crime literature.”