The latest city to get in Akashic’s sights is that tough city by the bay. In Oakland Noir, Jerry Thompson and Eddie Muller have gotten a cadre of authors that reflect the diversity of both the city and the genre. Eddie also contributed a story dealing with one complicated land lady. Both editors were kind enough to do an interview with us.
- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
MysteryPeople Scott: What unique quality does Oakland bring to noir?
Jerry Thompson: Oakland is a city with eyes, fingers and a rich memory of events that created some of the most legendary characters in fiction, film.
Eddie Muller: I grew up with an image of Oakland as the most noir city in the world—by which I mean black. African-American. Which was supposed to scare us white folks. After living here for more than 25 years I now see what BS that was, and still is. Sure, scary shit goes on here—but most of it happens inside gangs and on the police force. I’m more wary of City Hall right now than a rough corner of West Oakland.
It’s funny: We got a great review in Kirkus and a so-so review in Publisher’s Weekly. And guess what? Kirkus dug the fact that the stories showed the cultural diversity of the city and offered some surprises—while PW bemoaned the fact that the stories weren’t really all “noir” and there was a lot less crime in them than expected. Somebody was working off some pre-conceived ideas …
“The plan of attack came out of a need to make sure we stayed authentic to the city of Oakland, Her voice, her silences, her drumming…her shadows.”
MPS: Was there a plan of attack for choosing the authors?
EM: I was only interested in participating in this project if the lineup of authors reflected the actual demographics of the city. The last thing I wanted was to cater to a bunch of self-proclaimed “noir” writers from the outside feeding off a notion that Oakland was a violent, crime-ridden city. Jerry knew the local authors better than I; he had a better sense for achieving that right mix. In large part, Jerry was the “acquiring editor” on the project; I worked more on honing the stories.
JT: The plan of attack came out of a need to make sure we stayed authentic to the city of Oakland, Her voice, her silences, her drumming…her shadows. I started with my phone book. Scouring every page for authors I had introduced, hosted, and worked with over the past 27 years. Each writer had to live in Oakland or near by, and they had to be in touch with aspects of Oakland’s political, racial, sexual and literary history. Of course the first names we thought of were legendary writers like Gary Soto, Nichelle Tramble, and Ishmeal Reed, who I corresponded with from time to time. He and I would chat when we saw each other on Grand Avenue by Lake Merritt on Sunday afternoons. He was gracious and encouraging, and happy to listen to the ideas I had about the book but was too busy to come on board as contributor or co- editor, to fine tune to stories. Eddie and I knew Oakland Noir first and foremost had to represent the racially mixed community. We really lucked out with the choices we made.
MPS: What drew you to your story, Eddie?
EM: There are bits of my own life in there—as I’m sure there are for all the authors in this collection. For me, writing “noir” is largely about examining things in your life when a different choice here or there, an exertion of pressure, internal or external, can push you over the edge into darkness, and perhaps tragedy. For me the essential ingredient in noir is empathy. I wanted to write a short story that logically and convincingly followed a character from the prospect of happiness to the pit of despair, while touching on some social issues of the past 25 years that have put many people on that course. I noticed recently, looking back on the fiction I’ve written, that I never write “villains.” Everybody’s got a reason.
MPS: What is the biggest misconception about the city?
JT: The biggest misconception about the city is that it’s chocking with violence and back biting. I write in the introduction for instance that Oakland is a city that holds a grudge… that’s a misconception because in reality it’s a small town where people know each other somewhat intimately, especially in the black communities.
EM: I don’t know about misconceptions, because I don’t pay much attention to what the media is selling these days. But I do believe that Oakland suffers—on the national stage—from being judged by the expectations that are applied to other more glamorous cities. This is a working person’s town. I hate that it gets looked down on by the elites—just look at what’s happening with the sports franchises here: the Raiders want to move to Las Vegas, the A’s want to move to San Jose, and the Warriors are moving to San Francisco. This after the Oakland fans for years have given these teams nothing but undying loyalty and rabid support. And the owners just spit in their faces and say “It’s just business.” Bullshit. If owners expect loyalty from fans, it should cut both ways.
“Oakland has always been San Francisco’s ugly kid sister. But that’s a very shallow media perception—which is the specialty of our very shallow media.”
MPS: How do you see its relationship with San Francisco?
JT: When I was called to the east bay I felt as if Oakland was looked upon like the folks who lived across the tracks ya know, there was nothing really going on in Oakland except for crimes being committed, people struggle or just getting by. These days, it’s like the new frontier, for all the people who have been squeezed out of SF because of the tech industry pioneers and trust fund brats.
EM: As I just suggested, Oakland is like a dog who stays loyal even though it’s kicked in the head routinely. So don’t be surprised when that dog finally bites back. Oakland has always been San Francisco’s ugly kid sister. But that’s a very shallow media perception—which is the specialty of our very shallow media. These days, San Francisco is obsessed with selling its soul to the highest bidder. My hometown is like a whore who’s doing so well she sells herself only to the highest-paying clients, who all look and act alike. Oakland, by contrast, is the woman you make a life with. She may be a businesswoman, a nurse, an artist—she’s a lot of things, and she’s tough.
MPS: What do you think the biggest misconception of noir is?
EM: That it’s violent. At least that’s the perception that bothers me the most. That noir means lots of gunplay and high body counts. Not my noir. I’m into it for the psychological and sociological aspects. Why do people hurt themselves and the people around them? That’s really at the root of every crime story, and lots of crime and mystery fiction exploits that fact very superficially—noir isn’t afraid to explore it.
JT: I feel the biggest misconception of noir is that it’s limited to a specific time, like the 40’s and 50’s. Exclusively white gangster types and red headed bad girls strapping blades between their thighs… Not a bad misconception but somewhat narrow. One immediately thinks of the way films captured noir with pictures like Maltese Falcon, and Don’t Bother to Knock. We are refreshed to know that noir also includes the amazing worlds of Chester Himes, Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim… Wonderful extremes.
You can find copies of Oakland Noir on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.