Thursday, March 30, 2017

Johnny Shaw

Johnny Shaw was born and raised on the Calexico/Mexicali border, the setting for his award-winning Jimmy Veeder Fiasco series, which includes the novels Dove Season and Plaster City. He is also the author of the Anthony Award–winning adventure novel Big Maria and the urban-crime novel Floodgate.

Shaw's latest Jimmy Veeder Fiasco is Imperial Valley.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Shaw's reply:
One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night by Christopher Brookmyre

Comedic density. It’s an important idea to me and my work. If I’m going to be funny, I’m not going to skimp on the laughs. One gag per page is weak. I’m going to try to get in as many as I can while retaining character development and story progression. The Marx Brothers or Zucker/Abrams approach. Quantity and quality.

As hard as I try, I don’t come close to Christopher Brookmyre when he’s trying to be funny. The density of the humor in his early books forces me to set the book down every minute or so. And it’s not one shtick. It’s a wide range of approaches: situational, character stuff, absurdity, over-the-top violence. Brookmyre has a full comedy quiver. Whatever the comedy equivalent of Green Arrow’s boxing glove arrow is, Brookmyre’s got that and more.

His current work appears to be more serious crime fiction (I have no doubt that it’s good, I just haven’t read it yet), but the early stuff, it’s magic. Young and bananas, rough around the edges and ready to throw everything at the story. It’s about the fun and the absurdity, a Scottish punk song with the distortion turned all the way up.

The story? It’s essentially Die Hard at a 15-year high school reunion on a floating resort. A perfect arena for both satire and madness. But it’s the sentence-level mastery that I’m amazed by. One of the most comically dense books I’ve ever read. Making a book read effortlessly takes a lot of effort. I couldn’t recommend this book more.

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

When I wrote my first novel six years ago, for the whole year and change it took to write, I only read authors’ first published novels. I was writing my first book, so it made sense to immerse myself in books that fit the same category. It allowed me to read widely: varied genres, books in translation, contemporary, and classic books. It was a way to create a sense of community. I was with everyone else who sat down at wrote that first page of that first book.

There was no discernible pattern or revelation. Some were just not good. Many of the books were good, but flawed. Either too ambitious, but lacking experience enough to completely pull it off. Or not ambitious enough, falling into familiar territory and not standing out. I could often see the talent that would emerge, scenes and characters and moments that gave a look into the future books of the authors. On the very rare occasion, the ambition and execution came together, and the author nailed it straight out of the gate.

That’s the experience I had recently reading She Rides Shotgun. It doesn’t come out until the summer, but I was lucky enough to be on the Advanced Reader Copy list. It is easily one of the most confident debut novels I’ve read in recent years. If you’ve read Harper’s short story collection, Love and Other Wounds, it’s not going to come as a surprise. Ambitious and well-crafted, Harper uses a simple story to delve into the complexity of one of the most unique father/daughter relationship that you’ll ever read. Beautifully written and very human.

Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

I’ve been quoted as saying that you shouldn’t trust a writer that doesn’t know how to cook. I’ll stand by that. I find the art of cooking closer to writing than any other artform. The development of flavor, the balance between tradition and innovation, the patience of creation, all mirrored in writing.

As well as cooking, I read about food. Nothing better than some A.J. Liebling or Jim Harrison. I also watch cooking shows. They relax me. When I fly, I watch episodes of Chopped back-to-back-to-back. I like watching people solve problems, try new things, and use craft to create art. I also like food. But it’s more recent shows like Chef's Table and the Mind of the Chef that make me really think about the craft and art of a thing, ideas that apply just as much to writing as cooking. Big ideas hidden in a demonstration of making a decorative rose from butter. That’s where I discovered Gabrielle Hamilton.

I’m only about 50 pages into this book, but in those pages she’s been essentially abandoned as a child, moved to New York at 16, and been busted for grand larceny. As far as I can tell, Gabrielle Hamilton would fit in perfectly with most of the crime writers I know. Eventually, the book is probably going to be about food and cooking, but it looks to be a fun path getting there.
Visit Johnny Shaw's website.

The Page 69 Test: Plaster City.

The Page 69 Test: Imperial Valley.

--Marshal Zeringue