Cecilia | On 22, Set 2012
It’s an honour for me to have the chance to interview Kent Harrington in this blog!
1. The first thing I want to ask you is: “How would you introduce yourself to the Italian readers to let them know you in the best possible way?
K.: Thank you. The trend with American thriller writers today is to be very parochial and usually America-centric. I’m different. I tend to not put America at the center of the universe. I love my country very much, but it’s a big world out there and I want to describe it without blinders on.
Also, because of my backround—my mother was a Latin and I am bilingual—I am able to appreciate different cultures and societies in a way I don’t think a lot of American novelists working today can. Literature should have universal insights and not be too simple-minded, or nationalistic, or it becomes something other than literature.
2. Why did you decide to test yourself against writing and why did you choose the thriller/noir genre? Once I read you used to write poems….
K.: Well you can’t make a living writing poems! Just kidding, well, not really. I wasn’t a very good poet anyway. But I was dissuaded, when younger, from becoming one by someone who truly was a good poet. He thought I would starve. I starved anyway!
I think I chose to write novels because I loved them. I had a difficult childhood and lost myself in novels, like so many other writers before me. I just thought one day I would try it. I was twenty-two! It was a long time ago, and if I knew then what I know now, I would have become a doctor. I think I would have been a good doctor. When I am reincarnated I want to come back as a physician. But with my luck, I’ll come back a snail, or maybe a monkey.
I chose to write a crime novel because I’d been reading Jim Thompson and he made a big impression on me. I’d grown up with DH Lawrence and Orwell, etc. and reading a “pulp” writer was a big revelation to me.
Jim Thompson understood America and his work inspired me to tell the truth and do it in a style that would hit you in the gut. So I wrote Dark Ride, which was a young man’s novel, and I owe Thompson that. I consciously wanted that bleak Jim Thompson tone (not too far from Hemingway’s tone really). I was like those art students you see in museums copying a master painter. I actually think it’s a good idea for young people to copy a master. Too much attention is paid by academics when teaching creative writing about “your voice.” They don’t understand that novel writing is a craft like sculpture or carpentry or bricklaying; you have to learn how to use the tools first. No one cares—or should care— about the apprentice’s “voice”, not at first. The young writer has to learn how to build the house first. Later, once they’ve learned the basics, they can move onto their special voice—whatever that is.
3. You wrote your first novel “Jungle Red” in Guatemala City. Would you like to tell us what it is about and what was your mood like at the time?
K.: Red Jungle was not my first novel; but I did write it in Guatemala City. My mood at the time was ugly and I was ready to let go of everything including my career. I had failed as a novelist in the States, and I went “home” to my mother’s country to get away from myself. That was a mistake, and a blessing, as I believe Red Jungle, in may ways, is my most passionate novel. But I can’t read it now, as it brings back all those terrible emotions of artistic failure.
Red Jungle is a novel about a journalist that goes home to his mother’s country and then loses himself in a way that is quite disturbing, dangerous and yet exciting too. The jungle was both a metaphor and a reality of what we all face in life at a certain moment when all seems lost and we are facing great difficulty. In some ways our biggest enemy, in the jungle of life, is ourselves. I survived my jungle experience, thankfully, and won’t go back.
I’m also proud of the book because it discusses—inside of a thriller— Guatemalan history, the country’s difficult colonial experience with its knock-on effects from Neo- libral economic policies.
4. Was it difficult for you to have it published? In that case, what persuaded you not to give up and to go on writing?
K.: Luckily, no. I sent the Red Jungle manuscript to Dennis Mcmillan a notable crime fiction publisher who knew me and had published me in the past, and he loved the book. It was later named one of the 10 best crime novels of the year! The book taught me that you never know what can happen next in your life. It’s an adventure; you just have to hang onto the rope during the tough times.
5. I know that when you were nine you had to attend a military school. Did this experience change you? Did this kind of education help you to become a writer?
K.: It was the seminal experience of my life. These kinds of Dickensian schools don’t exist anymore. It was in the 60’s and corporal punishment was allowed. There is no more crueler enviroment than a boy’s school— a military school, however, trumps even that because they actually foster a dog-eat-dog environment, believing it will teach the cadet to be a “good soldier.”
It did ironically set me up to become a writer. Many of the boys who were not crushed by the experience went on to succeed in life: they became heart surgeons and captains of industry, etc., and of course soldiers.
You have no idea how difficult it is to enter a school like that at the age of nine. The school becomes your mother and father. In fact my mother abandoned me to the school, so I didn’t know what normal family life was really like for a child. To this day, when I see young boys with their mothers, I wonder what that relationship is like. The idea of motherly protection must make you feel secure, I suppose. There was no protection like that in the school. Boys either learned to survive the hardships and cruelty somehow, or they were crushed. There was no one to call for help. The housemothers were old ladies who stayed in their rooms. Like most institutions, the inmates ran the place, in my case the older students.
I’ve seen boys crushed and never be the same again. They became punching bags and ciphers. If they were lucky they were taken home by their parents. What the experience gave me was a powerful defensive reflex. I don’t— when things are going badly —expect help from any quarter but instead look only to myself. It was the way you survived there. You HAD to show no emotion and fight back. It didn’t matter if you won or lost, but you HAD to show the aggressor, whoever he was, that you were going to extract a price from them. If you could do that you would make it. Fail that test and you were doomed. So, ironically, the school was a great training ground for high stress occupations; and novelist is a very high stress occupation because most of the time people will tell you you are no good and that you will never publish.And you have no money which is hard. You have to soldier on when you hear this as a young artist or you won’t make it. You have to be indifferent to all that and really believe you can survive, no matter what they do to you. And you have to keep working at your art.
6. What enchants you in the noir genre compared to the others? In your opinion, who are the best writers in this style?
K.: The honesty of the genre. Modern society, ancient societies, they are in fact cruel arbitrary places where Might makes Right. I don’t like that; and I don’t accept it. I do believe we can create just societies and we should try to do so, just as we should honor science, learning and social equality, because they lead out of the darkness. But, having said that, I also understand that Man —as a Buddhist monk once said to Allen Watts—is a Dog. You can’t sugarcoat that. It’s a fact. We are a cruel species who should behave better than animals, but, sadly, do not. In fact, we are worse as we have a higher intellectual capacity and use it for ill. The Noir genre is the best to explore that truth.
7. Joseph Conrad you mentioned in some interview, together with Graham Green, wrote: “ How can I explain my wife that when I’m looking out of the window I’m working? In which way does Kent Harrington work? Tell me your typical day.
K.: When you are working on a novel you are always working, especially during the first draft because that’s when you have to beat out the narrative. You also have to listen to the characters and let them direct you. They lead; you follow. It’s hard to understand, but you are not telling the characters what to do. At least I don’t; they tell me what to do, and then you record what they are doing. Think of it this way: you get up, drink some coffee, turn on your computer, and then, if you are lucky, you watch a movie on your computer screen. The film you see is the novel you are writing. So “do nothing” is my style. It’s the Zen of novel writing.
From the practical standpoint, non-artists will not understand that when you are looking out a window you may well be working because you hear and see something from the narrative. It just happens. My typical day goes like this: I work in the morning until lunch then put it down and go exercise. I can’t write well after lunch. I love to write in the morning. It’s the best time. I hate to write at night. I don’t like it. I’ve had to do it when I was younger but I don’t like it.
8. “Dia de los muertos”, a novel published by Meridiano Zero in 2000, describes a border place in Mexico, Tijuana. When I reviewed it some time ago, I wrote: “The people who don’t follow The American puritan and conformist rules go to the Hell”. What do you think about it ? And what caused the spark you drew your inspiration from?
K.: I had never thought about that until you pointed it out. It’s true in a way. The protagonist is certainly on the “border” between the Puritan rules, you mention here, and rebellion and self-discovery.
So I would think that at least Slaughter, for example, a truly evil character, is punished and pulled down to hell, metaphorically speaking.
The inspiration for the book came from my having spent a lot of time in Tijuana going to the bullfights. It was there that I got the idea for the book when I saw someone who looked like Vincent Calhoun, the book’s protagonist!
9. When I read the novel, I remembered the character of Don Winslow – Art Keller – in “Il potere del cane”. He too was a DEA officer, even if his temper was different from Vincent Calhoun’s. Or are they more similar than people can imagine? Both of them want to change a country, but they have to submit to the inevitable. What is your idea?
K.: I’m not familiar with Winslow’s character not having read the book. I’ve been meaning to, but have been so busy with writing The Rat Machine that there are a lot of books I’ve not read—unfortunately.
I can say that it’s a theme in my work that people still cling to the belief that they can change things somehow for the better. It is this belief that gets them into the worst kind of trouble. I suppose I believe too, myself, that trying to change the world—make it a more humane place— is better than not trying. But it leads to trouble—always.
10. In the summary of Meridiano Zero I have been struck by the sentence “Far from the beaches, the sun and the cards”. Do you think it may exist an artificial and superficial image of Latin America? Or, on the contrary, it is necessary to speak about it since it is always a hot subject to deal with?
K.: Well, of course, sterotypes about Latin America, or any country, usually dominate more than they should. For example, people in Europe believe most people in Latin America are brown skinned or Indian; but in fact, in many Latin American countries, the population is exceedingly varied: black, white, Asian, Indian etc. Just look at Brazil!
What good literature does is take us deeper into a society and educate us. That’s why I wrote Red Jungle. I wanted people who would never go to Guatemala to experience it the way I had. I believe the book is a good primer on Guatemala. And, for that matter, so is Dia De Los Muertos a good primer on Tijuana!
11. Let’s pass on your latest novel “The Rat Machine”. Do you want to tell us something about it?
K.: The story is set in 1980 in Los Angeles, London, Palermo, and Mexico. Alex Law and Butch Nickels—two recurring characters of mine, CIA officers— team up for the first time and enter the murky world of the International Heroin Trade, at the time, run by the Sicilian Mafia. The two pose as drug dealers for reasons that are unclear to them when they are first ordered to go to Los Angeles.
The book is lengthy and is intended to be the first of a three part series. In fact, I got the idea for it while in Rome one day. I came home to the States and began to write the novel that was set in modern Italy, but I realized, about 150 pages into it, that I needed to know what went on in 1980 when the story first started! So I went back and wrote 675 pages ofthat story, which has became The Rat Machine.
12. I read that the book will be the first in a series. How many books will be published?
K.: Hopefully three. I have a title for the second in the series all ready in my mind. It will probablly be set in the 1990’s.
13. Is there a particular character in the serial novel?
K.: Yes two: Alex Law and Butch Nickels. They are recurring characters in some of my novels: The American Boys, The Good Physician and now The Rat Machine.
14. Promote your book and explain your readers why they have to choose Kent Harrington. What would they miss if they didn’t do that?
K.: I think they would miss a wonderful ride to places they would probably never go otherwise and meet people they might never meet. They will get taken deep into the 1980’s international heroin trade in a way no one else has explored it. People who have read the manuscript have loved the characters, said it was a fast-paced read and that they never really knew what would happen next, that it was like watching an HBO series, which is exactly what I hoped for. They said they couldn’t put it down.
Kent Harrington’s books are, if nothing else, relentless and different. That I can promise you.
15. If you want, tell us your plans for the future. I know that they will make a film out of Dia De Los Muertos with John Houston’s son, Danny…..and I saw on the drama of “The Rat Machine” a similar new. What’s about?
K.: Yes, Danny Huston and I are working on the film of Dia De Los Muertos, but like all things in Hollywood, it is difficult and sometimes we have a green light and some times we don’t. Right now we are waiting for the light to turn green again. I hope we make the film. We have a terrific script. I hope to develop The Rat Machine for cable television.
Thank you very much for your answers, Kent, and good luck for your books!