Could you tell us about your childhood, and about how you took up writing crime literature?
I get asked about my childhood often, probably because the way T-Bird Murphy is depicted in both East Bay Grease and Welcome to Oakland seems brutal to the kinds of people who read literature. Suffice it to say there were hard times and there were beautiful times. I just mostly wrote about the hard times, and that’s what I usually talk about when asked. It makes for better press—you know, the poor abused child and how he overcomes adversity, shit like that. The Great American Lie. No one ever recovers from poverty and abuse. So how about this—instead of talking about the ugliness of my youth, I’ll tell you some of the good things.
You know, when you’re a child and poor you don’t realize you’re poor, especially if everyone else around you is in the same circumstances. You have to eat ketchup sandwiches? So what—so does the kid next door. Your shoes have holes in them?—same for your best friend. You walk to school because you can’t afford a bicycle?—join the legion marching down the sidewalks of doom. Unless you have the misfortune of meeting rich kids and their parents (which normally you don’t), you never realize that your economic situation is any different than anyone else’s. It’s just life.
Well, I grew up really, really poor. There were times when there wasn’t even bread or ketchup in the house, maybe some saltine crackers, maybe some canned tomato soup. But I didn’t go hungry. I grew up in northern California, and walking to school I could pick plums and apricots from the trees that lined the streets, fallen walnuts from the yards of neighbors, oranges, lemons, avocadoes, cherries. It meant that I perpetually had the runs, but I was always fed. I’d eat dinners at the homes of my friends who had better off parents. I got free lunches at school. Other kids would share their sack lunches with me. It was no big deal.
Not until I got to college, that is. Not until I started dating girls. Then, then, my friend, then things got fucked up. I’ll never forget my first college “date.” I took a rich girl (someone whose parents owned a house was a rich person, by the standards of where I grew up) to a play in San Francisco, Shakespeare’s Richard III. After the play I made the mistake of offering to introduce her to my family. I took her home, and when I pulled up to the curb and she saw the shack my father and brothers lived in, she said, “Take me home. I didn’t know you were like this.”
“What?” I said.
“Like this,” she said. “This,” and she looked at the shack and closed her eyes.
I drove her home in silence.
This scenario repeated itself over and over again, and still does to this day. My college sweetheart, an upper-middle class girl from Alaska, wouldn’t marry me because her family disapproved of her marrying a poor boy. My second wife’s family hates me to this day because I married her and defiled her by procreating with her, inseminating her with blue-collar sperm.
I get invited to parties at the homes of rich people as a token White Trash representative. They flash me around like a prize pig, trying to show how liberal and free-thinking and prejudice-free they are by having a poor person on display. It’s disgusting.l
There were plenty of good times, though. The man who raised me (he wasn’t my father) would take us camping at least twice a month. He was a mechanic, and he tooled the engines of a drag boat, NDBA (National Drag Boat Association), a blown-fuel flatbottom named “Spooky.” We’d go to races all over the western United States, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, California, and my brothers and I would swim in lakes while drag boats roared the quarter-mile strip at 200 miles per hour. Barbeques at night, all the kids roaming the dark grounds of the motels, or the campgrounds, or the woods and fields and shorelines.
We had near-total freedom as children, freedom to explore the mountains and the cities and the ghettoes and the neighborhoods where we should not have been. We drank alcohol and smoked pot and our parents didn’t care. We stalked the streets in the predawn and defined ourselves, instead of letting society define us. We broke laws, and sometimes we got caught, and we learned how not to get caught, what our limitations were. We were old at a very young age, something that no longer happens in America.
The only people who are truly free in America are the very rich and the very poor. Neither group has anything to lose. They both get to do whatever they want. I consider myself, now, at the age of 51, very fortunate indeed to have grown up poor. No one can tell me what to do, and the man I am is the man I have intended to become.
And how did this lead you to write crime literature?
I am grateful that Welcome to Oakland was not, like my previous two novels in France, released in a Noir series, that my work is finally considered literary. Some of you French folks have tried to explain to me why my fiction is classified as “crime literature” over there. I don’t, in American terms, write “crime literature.” I’d like to think I write Literary Fiction. You folks call what I write “Polar” or “Noir” or “les Romans Policiers.” I have been told that because I write of “dark” subject matter, of the “lower classes,” that I am somehow separated from mainstream “literary” writers by the French. I may be wrong on this, but it seems the French have decided that if the main characters of a book aren’t wealthy assholes worrying about their existential crises, if the characters of a book experience the vagaries and tribulations of everyday life for the working poor, then the book is instantly classified as “Noir.” So writers like Barry Hannah and Chris Offutt get classified as “Noir” authors, rather than literary authors. I notice that authors like Faulkner, Jack London, Steinbeck, and Hemingway get to be classified as literary authors.
I am finally a literary author in France, and I have my brilliant editor at Fayard, Lilas Sewald, to thank for this.
Last year I was on a panel in Saint Malo, at the Etonnants Voyageurs festival, entitled, “White Trash,” featuring me and Donald Ray Pollack, who also writes about working class people. How come authors from working backgrounds are called “White Trash”? I may not have the manners of an aristocrat, a trust-fund shithead, or a diplomat, I may not have my pedigree, I may not know who my father is (but who does? only the mothers know for sure), and I don’t wear scarves, sweaters, or gloves. Sometimes I wipe my nose on my sleeve. I don’t clip my fingernails, I chew them off. I curse too fucking much. I’ve been known to piss in an alley or two in my time. I don’t shine my shoes and I hate wearing ties—never worn a turtleneck in my life—but I’ve read more books than anyone I know, and I write better books than most authors in America. Want to know what real white trash is? Wall Street brokers, bankers, insurance companies, oil conglomerates, media moguls. That’s where you find the real shitbags of America.
How did you do research for your novel, Welcome to Oakland?
None of my novels have been “researched.” I’ve just written about what I’ve lived. Like T-Bird Murphy, I’ve been homeless, maybe about six months of my life. I’ve lived in the cab of a garbage truck. I’ve lived in garages without plumbing or a stove. I’ve known many, many people who have been murdered. I played trumpet professionally. In my novels, I take my own experiences and modulate them into a cohesive story, altering the truth into something believable. If anything I tone the truth of my life down. Some of the things that have happened to me, that I have witnessed, would be so horrific that people would shake their heads and say, “No way, amigo.”
Is Oakland the reverse side of the California dream, the American dream?
When East Bay Grease was published in France as Gris-Oakland, that was a label I got stuck with, the guy who writes about the opposite of the rêve Americain. I think that’s a load of bullshit. “The American Dream” is, and always has been, a lie. It’s now fed to the people here in the States through the media like a narcotic, and it’s marketed abroad through our movies and television shows and news broadcasts in order to make America seem like something other than it is. We are and always have been a nation based on brutality, a capitalist battle to do harm to our fellow countrymen and to any nation that would challenge us. I write about the reality of vast swaths of America. The only reason it seems like I’m telling a different story than my more well-heeled fellow authors is that people who aren’t wealthy usually don’t write books. They work.
In Noir Beton you show us the precarious daily life of those violent, solitary men who work on building sites. Is this how you personally view how things go on such sites? If I’m not mistaken, you used to be one of those yourself.
First of all, the construction workers I worked with were much less violent than the professors I have worked with. At universities, professors are hell bent on destroying each others’ careers. They’d do anything to ruin each other, to destroy their colleagues utterly. One of my colleagues, upon hearing that I’d landed a truly great university position, e-mailed that university with a laundry list of reasons that university should not hire me. The university retracted their offer. I haven’t been able to land another university position since, as the whole country found out the vile things she accused me of, which were, by the way, lies. No matter. I am guilty unless proven innocent. If someone is accused, he is assumed to be guilty, or at least stained. She even said I’d never had a legitimate publication in my life. This was a woman I’d considered a friend of the family. She and her husband used to babysit my sons so my wife and I could go out to dinner.
I never saw anything like that on the construction site. On the construction site, you got a beef with someone, you knock him upside the head. He hits you back. You go back to work. At the end of the day you have a beer together at the bar. There is far more solidarity among workers than there is among white-collar assholes, supposed “professionals.” I’d rather be punched in the face than have someone slander and libel me. Construction workers have a code of ethics. Professionals do not.
If I tell you that you’re the mouthpiece of the invisible and outcast people in American society, what do you answer?
But there are others. Paul Ruffin writes about the poor of Mississippi and Texas. Larry Fondation writes about the downtrodden in Los Angeles. Daniel Woodrell shows the lives of Ozark Mountains hillbillies. Chris Offutt about Kentucky backwoods folks, Michael Gills about the poor in Arkansas, Ron Cooper about the destitute in South Carolina. Patrick Michael Finn’s depiction of the workers of Joliet, Illinois is harrowing. There’s Donald Ray Pollack, Glenn Blake, Dagoberto Gilb, Marc Watkins, Joseph Haske. There’s a crew of us out there. My redneck mafia. I’m flattered that I’m seen as the ringleader, that I’ve received so much recognition, especially in France, but I’m only one among many authors who is revealing the nasty truth and terrible beauties about the less fortunate.
What are your writing habits? In the evening, the morning, at a desk?
Right now it’s noon as I write my response to your question. A cigarette burns in an ashtray stuffed with butts. A half-empty beer stands on my desk and I’m listening to Hayden’s symphony #98 in B-flat. My phone has rung a dozen times already this morning, and I haven’t answered it. Wadded-up sheets of paper litter the floor, early drafts of this interview. A pile of unfolded laundry nearly blocks the doorway to my office, which is a small, dark space, the only light being the computer screen. I am wearing pajama bottoms and a wife-beater.
I am a sporadic writer. Sometimes I’ll go months without writing a word, and other times I’ll write 1000 or more words a day for months on end. Writing is very hard for me, and so I avoid it until either I have assignments to complete or a novel that absolutely must burst forth from me. I have only written books because I have felt it absolutely necessary to do so. If I ever find myself writing a novel just to write a novel, just to get something in print and maybe make some money, I will quit writing forever. The only books that should ever be written are those which must be written. It is a crime against humanity to write a book that need not be written, and those guilty of having done so should be punished severely. Preferably beaten with a blunt object.
Who are your favorite writers?
Impossible question. I don’t have any “favorite” writers. I do, however, have writers I return to repeatedly. Every few years I re-read Moby Dick, the greatest American novel ever written. I am devoted to Shakespeare’s King Lear. From the Bible I read The Book of Job. I’ve read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn many times. I carry Emerson’s essays everywhere I go. Nietzsche and Shopenhauer, E.M. Cioran, Faulkner, Sartre, Beckett, Joyce, Kafka, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Baudelaire and Whitman, Yeats, William Carlos Williams. Rimbaud. From all of them, and from many more authors, I learn the tricks of my trade, and I remember that I will never be as good a writer as any of them.
Do you have an anecdote about your novel Welcome to Oakland that you’d like to share with us?
Things were very painful for me when I wrote Welcome to Oakland. I don’t like to think of that time in my life.
What topic in the international news makes you angry? What topic makes you laugh?
I don’t own a television set, and I don’t subscribe to any newspapers. I don’t know what’s happening in the news, and even if I did, here in America we don’t get international news. It’s been years, many, since I’ve glanced at an American TV report or newspaper and seen any information on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we still at war with them? You have to remember, I am an American, and therefore I am ignorant of all things outside my own neighborhood. That’s the culture we have developed and continue to foster. I don’t even know the names of my state senators, let alone my congressmen. They’re never mentioned in the papers. Laws are passed every day in my state and in the US congress, and the laws are never, I mean never, reported in the papers or on the TV.
What makes me laugh in the international news? Nothing.
The Concierge is curious! Could you tease our curiosity and tell us what your next novel will be about?
Well, I was going to write a novel I have been researching my entire life, a book called Victory. It’s set during World War II, and begins when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Theater becomes a new focus of American military attention. Our naval fleet had been focusing its attention in the Atlantic, since that’s where the war was. But all that changed when we went to war with the Japanese. We needed warships on our western coast, and lots of them. In Oakland, my hometown and the hometown of my forebears, and its neighboring town, Richmond, the Kaiser corporation and the Moore Dry Docking company began building what are known as “Victory” ships. The problem was that there were not enough able-bodied workers on the west coast to build these ships.
So what the shipbuilding companies did was bombard the poorest states of the US, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, with advertisements, in the newspapers, in the magazines, bills posted on telephone poles, leaflets dropped over small towns from airplanes, and these advertisements promised steady work and decent wages. Three million people migrated to the western states, California, Oregon, Washington, and they found employment in the shipbuilding industry. Blacks, Hispanics, poor whites, recent immigrants, all of them working making Victory ships. They established themselves and brought their entire extended families to the west.
And then the war ended. The shipbuilding industry fired almost the entire labor force.
Instant ghettoes in Long Beach, Oakland, Portland, and Tacoma, where the shipyards were.
The effects are still felt today. The families of these people still suffer the poverty resultant of these massive lay-offs. And the racial tension that exists in places like Los Angeles and Oakland—it’s the direct result of the shipbuilding boom and ensuing bust.
Victory will be the tale (as yet untold) of these workers and their families, a three-generation epic saga that begins with the migration to the west and ends with the current situation on the west coast.
The other novel I’m working on is called Up Yours, Williamson. It is the third and final installment of the T-Bird Trilogy, which includes East Bay Grease and Welcome to Oakland. Up Yours, Williamson fills in the gap between T-Bird’s youth and his eventual ruin, which leaves him living in a garage in Missouri.
But there’s a twist. Up Yours, Williamson is going to authored by T-Bird Murphy, not Eric Miles Williamson. It’ll be T-Bird’s story about Eric Miles Williamson, the author of novels about Oakland featuring T-Bird. T-Bird is indignant, because many, if not most, of the things Williamson ascribes to T-Bird are, in fact, the doings of Williamson. T-Bird is a decent, working class guy with a wife he’s had for 30 years, four grown children, and a stable job. T-Bird will rat out how Williamson is not some blue-collar writer, but instead a college professor who only works twelve hours a week and spends most of his remaining time reading, writing, and drinking too much liquor. He’ll tell how most of the men at the hometown bar in Oakland barely tolerate Williamson and his high-fallutin attitude toward them, how they only tolerate Williamson because his family has been in the same neighborhood for a very long time.
Here’s the last line: “Williamson is finally getting what he deserves.”
How do you see your country? What are your hopes for its future?
America is a shithole. If I could leave it and be a professor in another country, I would. Got a job for me?
The problem is, no one will hire an American. They know how useless we actually are. Around the globe, people know we suck. And, at one time or another, we’ve shat in everyone else’s backyard.
Here in America we hire Canadians, Brits, Frenchmen, Nigerians, anyone who is not American. But ain’t no one in the world going to hire an American English professor. And I can’t emigrate and be a plumber unstopping your shit-plugged toilets unless I can prove financial independence. Which means, in the eyes of the world, the only American worth a shit is a rich American. Mitt Romney can move to France. I can’t. You can have the shitbag. Take Bush and Cheney too, while you’re at it. Please. That’s your immigration policy, though, far as I can tell. And that of most other industrialized nations of the world.
My hopes for America? I hope to someday escape it, and take my family with me. Then I’d like to watch it burn.
What are your favorite songs, your favorite music?
I was, you know, a professional musician, a trumpet player. My father before me played in the Oakland Symphony, and so did his father before him. I have the family trumpet (actually, it’s a cornet). It was made in 1886. A silver Conn. I just played it last night for a friend of mine. I play it for my sons (they’re 6 and 8 years old). Music is an absolute necessity in my life. My soul would shrivel and die without it.
I listen to many types of music. I have no favorites—same as your question about authors I like. But I’ll give you a list of bands, composers, and performers that I listen to repeatedly, that both incite me and quell me, that combine to sing the song of the music of the spheres for my soul. Here goes. I like to listen to Bach, Hayden, Mozart, and Mahler. Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Stan Kenton, and Al Hirt. If I listen to rock music, it’s Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Kid Rock, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel. I like to listen to Tito Puente and the Gypsy Kings. When I wrote Welcome to Oakland I listened to a lot of rap music, to get myself in an Oakland kind of mood. The Tower of Power, especially their first album, East Bay Grease (from which I stole the title for my first novel), is a band from Oakland that used to practice in the lube bays of my father’s gas station, and I can’t express enough how much they’ve shaped my writing, the rhythms, the contrasts, the themes and variations, the force and pulse of my prose.
What are your favorite movies?
I don’t watch movies. I read and write books.
What do you think about your French readers? What memories do you have from your visits to France?
My readers in France are much more sophisticated than my readers in America. In France, readers understand that my books are social critique, that I’m trying to show capitalism for the ugly beast that it is, that I’m attempting to convey that working-class people in America deserve a better deal than they’re getting, that there’s honor and beauty and dignity in the working class, that they are trapped in the miasma of manual labor and living in slums because of the capitalist oppressors they serve, that their conditions will only become better through solidarity and fire. The French understand this, and applaud it.
In America, I’m seen as a loudmouth braying over the tenement rooftops of the ghettoes like a dirty cur. When I attack the complacency of the rich and their disdain for the poor, I’m seen as a malcontent whiner, a puny whisper seeping up from the sewers of America. In America the general population wants happy-ending morality tales in which everything ends up swell, in which the justice of the Bible’s fairy tale reigns supreme. So average readers, idiots mostly, don’t like my work. Or they like my work for all the wrong reasons, thinking that T-Bird is a hero, not an example of the degradation a man can fall into in the working class. On the other hand, the New York literary establishment doesn’t like my stuff either, because I write a literature of rebellion, a literature which shuns their pretensions, their conceits, their rules. If you write against the establishment, you’re sure not to become part of it.
But I’m very happy of my position in America. Melville was reviled, and so was Mark Twain. Henry Miller was banned, and so was Burroughs. Ginsberg was banned, Faulkner was ignored, and Poe died a pauper. I’d like to think my work to be as dangerous as these folks. In America, if a great number of people admire your work when you’re alive, your work is certain to suck. Examples: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth. I’d much rather be hated like Mailer than loved like Alice Walker or Amy Tan or Robert Stone.
My French readers rock.
What will be your final word?
Bartender, make that a double.