Sports columnist, screen-writer and now crime fiction writer John Schulian will be reading from his debut noir, A Better Goodbye, at our Noir At The Bar on February 16th. Noir at the Bar meets at Opal Divine’s at Penn Field and starts at 7 PM. John Schulian will be joined by authors George Wier, Jesse Sublett, and Joe R. Lansdale. John was kind enough to take a few questions from us.
- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
MysteryPeople Scott: Do you remember the first seed of an idea that A Better Goodbye turned into?
John Schulian: I gave up my career as a newspaper sports columnist to come to Hollywood in 1986, but I remained a faithful reader of the sports page. One day I came upon a story that touched me deeply because I had written so much about boxing: A fine young fighter from the San Fernando Valley named Gabriel Ruelas had walked away from his cruel sport after fatally injuring an opponent. His decision to quit struck me as extremely brave, maybe even braver than if he had kept on boxing. I knew of other fighters who continued to fight under similar circumstances – great ones like Sugar Ray Robinson, Emile Griffith and Boom-Boom Mancini – and I had always wondered about the ghosts that haunted them. But in the case of Ruelas, the ghosts won. Not only had they ended his career, but I imagined they would cast shadows over his dreams for the rest of his life. To me, that was the stuff of potentially powerful fiction. I carried it around with me for nearly twenty years before A Better Goodbye began to take shape in my imagination. It would have a beautiful young woman working her way through college in the sex trade, and a failed TV star finding a second career as a pimp, and a bloodthirsty sociopath menacing everyone who crossed his path. But the central figure in my first novel would be a former middleweight named Nick Pafko, who one fateful night let anger turn him into a killer in the ring. Ever since then, he has done hard time in the prison of his own mind.
“Athletes in other sports are coddled, pampered, treated like he golden children they are. Boxers are just the opposite. They grow up just as poor as many athletes in other sports do, but they do so tough and hard, often in trouble with the police as well as their enemies on the street. Many know first-hand about street fights and shots in the night, botched crimes and the inside of jail cells. And if you are a writer with questions, they will answer every one of them for you. In the process, they will be honest, forthright, funny and achingly human.”
MPS: Los Angeles is also a character. What did you want to say about it?
JS: The glamour of L.A. sometimes make us forget the harsh reality faced by the people who don’t become stars, don’t live in homes that look like castles, don’t stand a chance of escaping the margins where they dwell. Back home, wherever that is, Sheboygan or High Point-Thomasville, they were golden children – class presidents and prom queens, stars of the school play and cheerleaders with boyfriends who were quarterbacks. But there is a busload of dreamers who fit that description pulling into L.A. every hour on the hour, and almost none of them achieve anything close to success. If the fates do smile on them, it may be for only one movie or TV series, one album or one brief turn in a different kind of spotlight. Then what? They wind up on the same margins where the characters in my novel dwell, struggling to survive, promising themselves that they can still strike it rich if they can just hang on a little longer.
It isn’t a pretty picture, and the picture gets even worse at rush hour. Every time I’m out there (against my better judgment, I hasten to point out), I’m struck by the loneliness that surrounds me. It’s one person to a car everywhere I look. And it’s that way day after day on hellish commutes that can last an hour and a half or more and gobble up years of drivers’ lives. The drivers numb themselves by yakking on their cell phones or, God help me, texting. They think they can maintain their connection to humanity, but it’s just a sad joke they play on themselves. They are robbed of the countless hours they might share with another human being, talking, exchanging ideas, connecting. It’s so bad that the major villain in my novel, Onus DuPree Jr., gets stuck in traffic on his way to the big showdown. When he should be terrorizing people, he’s crawling along at five miles an hour, thinking back to those glorious days when the street he’s on could get him from one side of L.A. to another in the time it now takes him to travel five blocks. And like everyone around him, he still thinks he lives in paradise.
MPS: You’re main character is an ex-boxer, a sport you’ve covered. What did you want to get across about people in that profession?
JS: I was fortunate enough to cover boxing’s last great era. I wrote about Muhammad Ali at the end of the trail, Sugar Ray Leonard as he took off and flew, and a parade of legends in t he making that included Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns and perhaps our most underappreciated heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. The guys who worked in the fighters’ corners were great, too – Angelo Dundee, Eddie Futch, Ray Arcel, Freddie Brown. And then there was Don King, “a lying, thieving sumbitch,” in the words of heavyweight character Tex Cobb, but also a quotable rascal. King talked. They all talked. They talked whether they were preliminary boys or world champions, and that was what made them the best subjects of all for a sports writer. Athletes in other sports are coddled, pampered, treated like he golden children they are. Boxers are just the opposite. They grow up just as poor as many athletes in other sports do, but they do so tough and hard, often in trouble with the police as well as their enemies on the street. Many know first-hand about street fights and shots in the night, botched crimes and the inside of jail cells. And if you are a writer with questions, they will answer every one of them for you. In the process, they will be honest, forthright, funny and achingly human. Some will reveal lively, hungry minds that never would have brought them near boxing if they had grown up middle class. Almost all will have the sense of perspective that comes with the possibility of death every time they step in the ring.
“The glamour of L.A. sometimes make us forget the harsh reality faced by the people who don’t become stars, don’t live in homes that look like castles, don’t stand a chance of escaping the margins where they dwell…It isn’t a pretty picture, and the picture gets even worse at rush hour. Every time I’m out there (against my better judgment, I hasten to point out), I’m struck by the loneliness that surrounds me. It’s one person to a car everywhere I look. And it’s that way day after day on hellish commutes that can last an hour and a half or more and gobble up years of drivers’ lives.”
MPS: Dupree is both utterly scary, even evil, yet believable and far from a one note villain. How do you approach a character like that?
JS: To make A Better Goodbye work, DuPree Jr., my principal villain, had to be as real as possible. That doesn’t mean he’s brilliant or some kind of criminal mastermind. He is, rather, meaner than he is smart, but he’s also smarter than he is greedy. It’s the action that means the most to him, not the score. DuPree has the long, ropy muscles of an NFL safety and a penchant for violence that he renders on men and women alike. He’s not loud about it, either. I think that makes him even more dangerous. He just wants what he wants, and in this case, it’s Jenny to satisfy his ugliest carnal urges and Nick to prove something about his own manhood to himself.
I loved writing DuPree, which I hope doesn’t say something terrible about me. No rules apply to him. I just threw him out there and stood back and watched the wreckage. I mean, who walks into a snitzy Hollywood bar and the first thing he thinks of is how he’d like to rob everybody in it? And this is when he’s trying to relax before he gets down to the business of being criminal. As cruel and bloodthirsty as he can be, though, DuPree still shares some things with members of polite society. He can’t make his father love him, much less like him. And then there’s the L.A. traffic that stymies him when he’s on his way to the novel’s big showdown. If he needed anything to put him in a more murderous mood than usual, a traffic jam is it.
MPS: You’ve also done a lot of screenwriting. What was the biggest difference with novel writing that you enjoy?
JS: Freedom and control. When you’re a writer-producer on a TV series, you’re under the thumb of the studio, network and executive producers. With movies, it’s the director hanging over your shoulder and a host of producers and studio execs providing a Greek chorus.
The big difference in writing a novel can be summed up in a single word: silence. The phone only rings when solicitors call. You, meanwhile, are doing the job of everyone on a movie set. You’re the director and the cinematographer. You’re in charge of locations and wardrobe. You don’t have to listen to actors who complain that their characters wouldn’t say what’s in the script, but if you’re smart you will. That’s how characters are brought to life, and lively characters are only going to make you look better. So live it up, Mr. Novelist. Take advantage of every break and call ’em as you see ’em. The wold is yours and you’re free at last, free at last — great God almighty, you’re free at last.
You can find copies of A Better Goodbye on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by Opal Divine’s at Penn Field on Tuesday, February 16th for an evening of booze, books, murder ballads from Jesse Sublett, and readings from John Schulian, Joe R. Lansdale, George Wier, and Jesse Sublett. The event starts at 7 PM.