- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
Josh Stallings took a break this year from his dark and brooding hero, Moses McGuire, to give us one of his best so far: Young Americans, a heist novel set in the glam-rock scene of seventies-era San Francisco. One of our Top 10 Of 2015, Young Americans works as a tight crime novel and a coming-of-age tale of friendship. Josh will be joining Terry Shames and Scott Frank on our Writers To Watch For panel, starting at 7 PM on February 1st. He was kind enough to talk with us ahead of time about his book and the life that inspired it.
MysteryPeople Scott: How did it feel working on something lighter than a Moses book?
Josh Stallings: Really freeing. Three novels in, Moses’s voice had been in my head for five years, his world view is heroically dark. I needed to come up for air and he begged to be left on a beach. I decided I needed to write a disco glam-rock heist novel. Didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded fun. And it was a blast to work on. With Bowie and Donna Summer playing, it’s hard not to smile.
MPS: I know you’re a child of the glam-rock Seventies. What was important to convey about the period?
JS: It was a brilliantly chaotic time, both personally and historically. The free love of the sixties had morphed into something that freaked even the hippies. Gay, straight, bi, trans, all were acceptable options in the San Francisco glitter scene. This was pre-AIDS and post the pill. The crew in Young Americans are in their late teens and starting to get serious about figuring out where they stand on sex and love. Those fluid sexual times made it both vibrant and complicated.
MPS: The heist novel has been done often and there are tropes you just can’t avoid. What was your approach to make it fresh?
JS: I started out studying theater, the way I approached acting was to learn my lines and blocking backwards and forwards, then forget them. For the performance to feel organic, you let go and just be, free-fall. This is how I attack the writing process. I do massive research, for a long time – then write. I loved heist films, but hadn’t read the canon, so I read a hell-a tone of books. I filled myself up on Richard Stark’s Parker novels, Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels, Tim Hallinan’s Junior Bender Mysteries, and Jim Thompson’s The Getaway. Then I forgot about them and started pounding keys. It wasn’t about the heist. It was about a group of glitter kids in deep trouble and sinking deeper with every move they made.
MPS: What I loved most about the book was the feeling of real camaraderie between the thieves. What did you want to explore with their friendships?
I ran with kids like these, my siblings, fantasy writer Tad Williams, and a host of killer queens and kings. They were all crazed, wild andsmart as hell. As strange as things got, they always had my back. We were a family of blood, and of choosing. Together all was possible and important and heartbreakingly passionate. Not sure if I wanted to explore it, or just bathe in it.
MPS: While I have no knowledge of you pulling a heist, I noticed some similarities with the people in this book and your memoir All The Wild Children. What advice would you give to authors using their personal past for a novel?
Fiction is the lie we use to tell our truth. So tell the honest truth about how things feel or felt. Don’t get hung up on the exact details of your life. Invent worlds tethered to your experiences, but be free to roam where the story goes. I have a bit of a criminal past, I creeped houses. I’ve been beat down. I carried a stolen gun. I danced with my girlfriend in a gay disco. I have never pulled a heist. But it isn’t hard to extrapolate. These characters all started out as amalgamations of real people, but by the time the novel was underway, they became themselves.
MPS: What was the best thing about coming of age in the seventies?
JS: SEX… no, drugs… no, rock and roll, oh hell – all of the above.
Josh Stallings joins Scott Frank and Terry Shames on Monday, February 1st, at 7 PM, for an evening of up-and-coming authors. Rooted in tradition, yet helping to redefine the mystery genre for the 21st century, these three writers are not to be missed. Find out more about this event. You can find copies of Stallings’ latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.