My Head is a Choir and All the Singers are Singing Different Songs: MysteryPeople Q&A with Joe Ide

 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Joe Ide burst onto the mystery scene last year with his debut Isaiah Quintabe mystery, IQ, a Holmesian puzzler set in South Central LA. A bunch of us quickly blazed our way through IQ – with its well-rounded characters, stylish action sequences, clever heists, weaponized pit bulls, and foggy-minded celebrities, what’s not to love?

Now Ide is back with the second in the series, Righteousin which IQ and his reluctant side-kick Dodson go on a wild road trip to Vegas to try and rescue a deep-in-debt DJ and her doofus boyfriend after they mess with forces beyond their clearance level. IQ wants a chance to rescue his brother’s ex-fiancee’s wayward little sister, while Dodson just wants a break from home before his new baby is born, but both get more than they bargained for as gangs, gamblers and grim-faced traffickers all converge on the lucky-in-love, unlucky-in-gambling Vegas couple and their LA protectors. Interwoven are new developments in Isaiah’s understanding of his brother’s untimely death. 

Joe Ide mixes his choreographed action sequences with meditations on love, isolation, and friendship, for a surprisingly moving story that we’ve chosen as our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for October. Thanks to Joe Ide and the folks at Mulholland, we got a chance to ask a few questions about the book and the series.

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: I loved the madcap adventure that Isaiah and Dodson take to Vegas. What was your inspiration for the Vegas setting and their road trip through the sleaziest of cities? What kind of research did you do for the Vegas parts?

Joe Ide: I wanted to take Isaiah out of the hood and put him someplace where he have to deal with new situations and different kinds of characters. The more he’s a fish out of water, the more obstacles he has to overcome. There’s that old adage, no conflict, no story. Putting it in another location is a challenge for me. How to use the enviroment to advance the story. Embarrassingly, I did very little research on Vegas. For me ( like Isaiah) the town is “Too bright, too loud, too colossal.” Also like Isaiah, I bought a dog for 99cents and it was as big as a cat. The visuals I took from photographs and videos. As an aside, my Mom loved Vegas. She enjoyed being up at two in the morning, going anywhere she wanted. She had secret pockets in her pants to keep to her money away safe and foil the pickpockets.

MO: Dodson’s romance is unlikely, but the story of his courtship makes his successful wooing of his practical girlfriend believable. Which came first in the writing process, Dodson’s part in Isaiah’s adventure, or his new romance?

JI: I knew Dodson would be involved. He’s Isaiah’s Dr. Watson after all. But I like characters with full emotional lives. I want them to deal with the same problems we all deal with – like relationships. Giving him a romance seemed natural and the book is structured in a way that I that I could write about it.

MO: Both IQ and Righteous initially destabilize the reader’s expectations with two seemingly disparate plots, but then bring them together at the end in just the right way. Do you have extensive outlines before you even start writing? How do you tie it all together?

JI: I start with vaguest idea for a story and then I ask myself questions: Where does this take place? Who are the clients? Who are the bad guys? What do the bad guys want? What are the major problems Isaiah has to confront? And so on, and while I’m figuring these things out I’m making vague, random notes. About a character’s looks or a possible scene or piece of dialogue or whatever occurs to me. Think of it as a pointillist painting. I’m putting dots on the canvas and after I have lots and lots of them, the canvas starts to take shape, and at a certain point, I have to decide, is this a book or isn’t it? I’ve thrown a few away and started over, but when I have the makings of a book, I start writing as fast as I can. If I don’t know something I skip it and keep going until I have the creakiest skeleton of a story with missing limbs. But when I’m done, I have a structure on which I can build. Subplots occur to me as I’m writing and become more dots until they’re little canvases themselves and I see ways to knit them together, things I didn’t know when I started. I’m always thinking ahead, asking myself, where will this go? How will it be resolved? I’m making the process seem much more linear than it is. My head is a choir and all the singers are singing different songs. It takes them a long time before they’re on the singing the same tune. I recommend my methods to no one.

MO: I’ve heard there’s plans for a TV series in the making (which I will absolutely watch and hopefully binge watch!). What stage is the planning at? Who are your ideal casting choices?

The TV world moves at its own pace. I don’t know what they’re actually doing and where they are in the process. Every time a production makes an advance, another compromise is made with the original material. It’s too aggrevating and time consuming to worry about that stuff. I’ll stick to writing books.

MO: So I love Sherlock Holmes, and I love that you’re inspired by the stories, but not beholden to them. In particular, at the end of Righteous (and I promise there are no spoilers in this question) Isaiah is helped not just by his grasp of logic, but by (it seems to me) perfectly timed random fate. How much do you draw on the Sherlock canon, and how much do you like to change things up?

I’m not conscious of drawing on Sherlock. His influence is mixed in with a dozens, hundreds of others, including my own life experience. I don’t really decide how much of this and how much that. It just comes out that way. That sounds simplistic but it’s not. It’s the result of everything that’s ever happened to me put in a blender until it’s all unrecognizable and poured on to the pages.

MO: You have a love of South Central LA drawn from your experiences growing up in the area – tell us about your setting. Which came first to you when you were developing the series, the character or the area?

Chicken and the egg. As you say, I grew up in the hood and I loved Sherlock Holmes. I read all fifty six stories and four novels multiple times. When I decided to write a book there was never any question it would be Sherlock in the Hood.

MO: You have such perfectly choreographed shootouts and fight scenes – how do you plan out the action in your books?

It helps that I was a screenwriter. A set piece in a movie is structured the same as a set piece in a book. It has three acts. Act one lays out the premise, the situation. Act two is the action playing itself out, escalating in intensity until the end of the act where all seems lost for the good guys. In Act three, the good guys rise again and justice wins the day. Maybe. Having that as a base, I start my planning by thinking about outcomes. What do I want happen during the sequence? How do I want it to end? Then I identify the players and what each of them wants. I pick a location that serves these purposes and then I play chess with the pieces. If so and so does this, what’s so and so’s response? How does so and so get from A to B? What’s the most surprising, creative way for these things to happen? Sometimes I draw annotated diagrams. It’s about being specific and patient. Again, the process isn’t close to being that logical or organized.

MO: Obviously Arthur Conan Doyle is one of your writing inspirations, but you seem to draw from a diverse array of genres, and your voice is all your own – tell us about your influences.

All the writers you’d expect. Walter Moseley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Don Winslow, James Lee Burke, Chester Himes, John LeCarre (spy novels are just crime novels in another country) James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, Octavia Butler and on and on and on. Other kinds of books as well. Chris Cleaves, Donna Tart, Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Janet Fitch, Amor Towles, William Styron, Cormac McCarthy – also on and on and on and on. I like storytellers and interesting writing.

MO: Poor Sherlock. His love life is in shambles. Will he ever find love?

Yes, he will! But he will tormented, frightened and flummoxed, (like anybody else that’s in love).

MO: What’s next for the series? It seems like Isaiah’s resolved some of the lingering questions about his brother’s death and is ready for the bigtime in terms of investigations.

My original plan was for the characters to grow from book to book. In IQ, Isaiah is very isolated because of a tremendous burden of guilt. At the end of the book, he sets the guilt aside. In Righteous, he realizes he’s lonely and makes his first awkward attempts at reaching out. In IQ, Dodson learns that he and his girlfriend are having a baby. In Righteous, he has to deal with fatherhood. IQ3 will continue that growth. Of course, there will always be new bad guys and adventures but I don’t know as Isaiah ever take on really big investigations, ones of say, national importance. There are many other writers, like LeCarre, who do that way better than I could ever hope to. Isaiah’s cases will remain in the middle in terms of size. That’s where he (and I) feel most comfortable.

You can find copies of Righteous on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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