Brimstone and Potpourri: MysteryPeople Q&A with Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie follows a man just out of prison after a twenty-five-year stretch for killing a bully back in his mid-teens. The victim’s father, a mob captain, doesn’t think he’s paid enough. This a hard-core crime novel with a beating heart. We caught up with Mr. Pluck to talk about it.

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

MysteryPeople Scott: How did the idea for Bad Boy Boogie come about?

Thomas Pluck: Bad Boy Boogie is a story I’ve been kicking around for at least ten years, inspired by events in my hometown, and how the place has changed since. It’s an odd suburb, Martha Stewart sprang from one side like a decorating demon in a cloud of brimstone and potpourri, and I grew up on the other, literally across the tracks, in a zoned industrial dump between a truck repair shop, a quarry filled with trash and capped that we called “the Fields”, an and abandoned paint factory we used to explore. The part of town where my old Italian grandmother, when she went to the town hall to ask the mayor to replace our streetlamp light bulbs, was told, “if you don’t like it, move.”

MPS: Even though the book takes place in Jersey, Jay’s Louisiana upbringing plays a big part in his history. What makes it an integral part to you who has a foot in both cultures?

TP: I’ve loved Louisiana ever since I grew up watching Justin Wilson cook on PBS with my grandma. “Ah garawntee!” That love led me to James Lee Burke. I read Black Cherry Blues and was hooked, and in college, I took a road trip down to New Orleans in my Mustang… with Jersey plates. We didn’t get stopped once. I wanted Buford T. Justice to barbecue my ass in molasses, but I was disappointed. I’ve loved the state ever since, and I wanted to portray my hometown through the eyes of a stranger. Jersey and Louisiana have some similarities– swamps, a reputation for corrupt government, and a love of good food– so it worked out. As one character says, “Jersey’s the armpit of America and Louisiana’s the crotch.”

MPS: What did you have to keep in mind about having a character just out of prison who went in at such an early age?

TP: I read a lot of narratives by ex-cons in Angola and elsewhere to get the mindset, but I know a few personally and when you’re institutionalized from a young age you form a protective shell, and see everyone as a potential mark or predator. And to me, that made for an interesting head to get inside and see the world through, as most of us citizens are oblivious in many ways. Some cons turned fighters helped me with that, and Les Edgerton, the crime writer. His novel Just Like That depicts the outlaw lifestyle perfectly.

MPS: The violence in this novel is not fun, mainly because you feel Jay putting his humanity on the line. How did you approach it for this this book?

TP: My first published novel, Blade of Dishonor, is a pulp adventure and the violence in that needs to be at arm’s length or it becomes Blood Meridian with ninjas. Bad Boy Boogie, while a two-fisted romp at heart, treats violence more realistically, as I’ve personally experienced it. The story is about the consequences of violence, whether it is aggression or vengeance in response to it. Blood feuds are not pretty, and to wage one, you have to be a certain kind of human. I read Lt Dan Grossman’s study On Killing and drew on my association with a few people in the life to make Jay capable of extreme violence while holding onto his humanity. He pays for it dearly.

MPS: As well as being an up and coming writer, you’re also an respected critic in the genre. Has that had any effect on your writing or do you try to separate the two?

TP: My inspiration as a critic is writer Harlan Ellison. He’s known for being irascible, but I’ve corresponded with him, and it’s really that he brooks no bullshit. He is honest in expressing his emotions and strips away what is expected of a critic. That’s what I try to do, just give my honest emotional reaction to a book, whether I devoured it or threw it across the room. But as a writer, I recognize that we do the best we can with limitations of time, experience, and skill, and I respect the work put into art. If I think you could’ve done better, I will say so, but without snark or contempt. If you say you wrote a book in 45 days and it feels like it needed three more drafts, I’ll say that, too. There will be missteps in a book, if we don’t pore over it for decades. Some are just too big to hold in your head all at once, and there are skills and tricks that make us, as readers, forget or forgive the little stumbles. The best way is to write a damn good story with a character we can’t get enough of. Writers can be very unforgiving of other writers, but as long as I feel you’re doing the best you can, and aren’t being cocky and not putting in the work, I’m pretty forgiving.

MPS: You have a story in Lawrence Block’s anthology Alive In Shape And Color, coming out in December, where writers pick a painting to use as  a basis for a short story. Could you tell us about the painting you picked and how it set up your story?

TP: I’m honored to be in LB’s collection, with so many great writers. Mine is based on “Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind” by Jean-Léon Gérôme. It fascinated me ever since I first saw it, the raw fury on her face as she rises, and I wanted to put a story to that face. I set it on an archaeological dig in Germany, where a mysterious slaughter occurred thousands of years ago, based on a real find, and collective myths of a primitive paradise. But being me, the real story is the relationship between the woman running the dig and the TV personality sent to do a “In Search Of” style piece on it, and their own dark history.

You can find copies of Bad Boy Boogie on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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