- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
Two of the greatest reading experiences I have had this year were both provided by the same author, Tom Pitts. Hustle tells the story of two male prostitutes who try to blackmail their high-powered attorney client, and cross a psycho speed freak with designs on the same lawyer. Their survival depends on teaming up with Bear, a biker who works for the lawyer. Knuckleball, Pitts’ recent novella, relates the murder of a police officer, played out against the backdrop of a weekend series between the Giants and the Dodgers. We caught up with Tom to discuss the books, their inspirations, and what he hopes a reader gets out of them.
MysteryPeople Scott: Hustle is drawn from your life on the streets. What did you want to get across about that experience?
Tom Pitts: The part I drew from my own life was the drug addiction. I get asked a lot if I was involved in prostitution, and the answer is no, but the sleazy hotels with the blood on the ceilings? I lived that. The relentless sickness and the insatiable need for drugs? Yeah, that was me. I was frustrated by reading novels featuring drug addicts whose addiction only played into the story when they were introduced. When the plot starts moving, a lot of writers forget their characters have habits. I wanted to be consistent with the reality of addiction. That, no matter what, after a few hours, junkies have to fix—they have no choice. The drugs are never far from their minds, no matter how much peril they’re in. They use in any situation. They find a way. That’s what it means to be a junkie.
Every job I’ve held was somehow tied directly to the streets of the city. It’s my canvas. I can visualize a block or corner with ease, if it’s a one way, or a busy street, or has a view of the bridge, that kind of thing. That being said, the current gentrification is killing SF as a backdrop for crime.
MPS: Bear is larger than life character you make quite believable. How did he come about?
TP: Bear was sort of a composite of two guys I know. One, an older biker who’s respected by the bad guys, but on the fringe of the outlaw lifestyle. And the other, a good friend who’s in the dope trade. He always struck me as a levelheaded gangster, the kind of guy who, even when things turned ugly, still had a heart underneath his tough-guy persona.
MPS:What made you use a weekend baseball series to frame Knuckleball?
TP: The impetus of Knuckleball was the real-life search for the assailants in the Bryan Stow attack. Bryan was a Giants fan at a Dodger game in LA and was beaten into a coma. Heartbreaking story. The description of the perpetrators was so vague, I though, shit, if you wanted to set someone up to take the fall, that’d be easy. I took that seed and ran with it. Also, the Giants and Dodgers have such a storied rivalry (I’d just finished reading DeLillo’s Underworld—it depicts that history brilliantly) and I wanted to show how the San Francisco really does wind up when the Dodgers come to town. Do they get as excited when the Giants show up in LA? I doubt it.
MPS: You follow several characters that influence one another, even though they may not be aware of it. How did you go about juggling all of them?
TP: I’ve always used multiple PoVs from a third person perspective. It’s what my heroes do, so that’s the way I roll. For me, first person can not only be constricting, and it often leads to too much introspection from the narrator. For my tastes, at least. I try to write scene by scene, as though I were watching my own movie, that way, you tend to be aware of the balance of plot threads.
When the plot starts moving, a lot of writers forget their characters have habits. I wanted to be consistent with the reality of addiction. That, no matter what, after a few hours, junkies have to fix—they have no choice. The drugs are never far from their minds, no matter how much peril they’re in.
MPS: San Francisco is as much a character as setting in your books. What did you want to convey about your home?
TP: I’ve lived in San Francisco since 1984, I’ve been a bike messenger, a cab driver, a dispatcher. Every job I’ve held was somehow tied directly to the streets of the city. It’s my canvas. I can visualize a block or corner with ease, if it’s a one way, or a busy street, or has a view of the bridge, that kind of thing. That being said, the current gentrification is killing SF as a backdrop for crime. I’ve noticed in my last couple of (as yet unpublished) novels, I spend a lot more time in other Northern California locations. But it’s a write-what-you-know situation. My last agent said she’d like to see me write an international thriller. I told her, if I ever get to travel internationally, I’m on it!
MPS: What do you hope the reader gets after finishing one of your books?
TP: I want them to enjoy the rhythm. Things like syntax and prose are secondary to story, but, like a band’s drummer, it’s what makes the difference between great and just okay. If the beat is off, the song sucks no matter how good the idea is. But if it’s on, and the band is tight, you forget about details and live in that moment, loving the experience. That’s what I want readers to have, that magical temporary suspension of disbelief. Oh yeah, and the willingness to buy another book.
You can find copes of Hustle and Knuckleball on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.