“Josh has done an incredible job with the hand life dealt him. I admire the hell outa that. All the Wild Children is simply Stunning.” – Ken Bruen
Josh Stallings is the author of the Moses McGuire novels, BEAUTIFUL, NAKED & DEAD and OUT THERE BAD. His latest book is the noir memoir ALL THE WILD CHILDREN, which follows Josh and his feral siblings through the apocalyptic wasteland of the ’70s to the uncertain future. It is white-hot and fierce writing, as vivid and alive as Ken Bruen’s dead zero poetry and James Crumley’s bittersweet songs of American heartbreak. Josh’s stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey and Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, and will appear in the Tobacco Stained Sky Anthology edited by Andrew Bergen. I found Josh through his writing and met him at Bouchercon 2011, and I am proud to have him here.
It’s not everyone who can write compellingly about his own life, but with ALL THE WILD CHILDREN, you made me gasp, laugh, cry and squirm. (The only other man who’s done that to me is John Waters, after a six pack). After the Mo McGuire books, what drove you to write about your own life?
JS: Thank you man, really. As for the question, you got it just right, I was driven to write ALL THE WILD CHILDREN. But to be fucking honest I don’t write what I’m not driven to. My life is way too busy and complicated and writing is too hard for me to work on anything that doesn’t grab me by the nuts, squeeze hard and say “Write me you bastard.” A couple of the cats I run with make a living at this game. Mostly from film options. So if I ain’t getting rich and it’s hard work and it takes away time I could be fooling around with Erika, then it better matter.
For the past four years, hell longer, the memoir has been calling my name. Everything I ever wrote was in one way or another dealing with the mess of my life, characters standing proxy for the real life players. Finally it seemed time to start naming names. Ok, that is only partly true. Closer to bone, right? You want truth. My older boy Dylan, this amazing retarded young man. Yes I said retarded. Fuck developmentally-disabled-delayed-differently-abled bullshit. All that crap is for folks who aren’t Dylan and me. We can use the “R” word, we earned it. My son is retarded, that means behind or delayed. As a film editor I tell sound mixers to retard a music track by four frames. Last week I almost took a kid’s head off for calling his bud’s jeans retarded. It doesn’t mean broken, stupid, ugly, out of style you little prick, in means be-fucking-hind. So if I say those pants are so nigger, totally kike, spick-ginny- micked-up, Dude, how’s that wash? Kid was too thick to get it. Should have ripped off his nut-sack to be sure he didn’t procreate and move on… Fuck, I’m on a rant. Calm down. Breathe. Ok, what was the question?
One son in the hospital for an O.D. The other in a lockdown psych ward. Whatever sense of a reasonable universe shredded. At a conscious and subconscious level I needed to understand my life. Map the trail that lead to this moment in time. Moses #1 starts with a gun in his mouth. That shit was real. That was me telling it as plain as I could. I lost friends because they said they couldn’t stand worrying about finding me dead. Take a dark man and add this on top and it gets pretty fucking bleak. The memoir started as a few essays, a way to deal with shit that didn’t fit into Moses’ world. When it crested 70,000 words I thought maybe it was a book. By then the beast had me by the throat and demanded to be finished. Books are like needy lovers, break it off early or shut the fuck up, grab the oh-shit-bar and enjoy the ride.
It takes guts to confront the narcissism of the post-war generations. ALL THE WILD CHILDREN takes place as Hunter S. Thompson’s “wave” of the ’60s rolls back, dragging you and your siblings through the wreckage. Drug fiction usually bores the hell out of me, but you told it true, with a wicked sense of humor. Who makes you laugh, these days?
JS: Post-war is a bit of an odd concept isn’t it? The killing has to stop before we can have a post-war. “Life is war without end. Leave no wounded, eat the dead, it’s ecologically sound.” – James Crumley, and that makes me laugh. My sister Shaun makes me laugh, she is working on a collection of snarky mommie-lit essays called “Armageddon Is My Backup Plan.” Her only regret in life is that she wasn’t born a gay alcoholic so her essays would sell better. She and I talk or text every day. She could put a snarky spin on a death camp and I swear she’d have me laughing. My siblings and I place a high value on humor, a lot of days it was all we had to keep us from breaking. Tad Williams and I became friends mostly because we made each other laugh. That and the sex thing. Kidding. Or am I? Gossip sells more books than facts… I think. Anyway, Tadly, his new Bobby Dollar books have given him a place for his silly fucked-in-the-head humor. Friends make me laugh. You, Mr. Pluck, make me laugh.
For a while my niece, her friend, Jared and his girlfriend all lived with us. I couldn’t swing a dead pederast without hitting a twenty-something. I had two rules, don’t fuck with me when I’m in my office writing, and make me laugh or take it on down the road. Jared’s dog ate a pair of my shoes, but she leapt and danced like a Chocolate Lab circus dog. She made me laugh. She still lives with me. My big sister Lilly told me I should write comedy. I said “I thought I did.” Bloody violent painful comedy.
I don’t search out funny much. Life is a mean bitch, but also comical. Laugh or cry, those are the only options on the table. So, laugh. Big Vikings look fucking silly crying.
“Nothing is as wicked as another couple’s sex life, or as justifiable as your own.” –ALL THE WILD CHILDREN
I’m close with my sister too. Veterans from the same foxhole, right? When I read your first novel, Moses McGuire described Los Angeles like he was talking about an abusive parent. He’s more than a tortured hero, you let him make mistakes. Tell us about him and where he came from.
JS: LA. It birthed both me and Moses. I love this tarted up whore of a town. Money is moving east, gentrification is rolling over the heart of Moses’ world. Friday I ate at a taco joint, watching the street. There was a mentally ill homeless lady spraying herself with a thick cloud of room freshener. It was dripping off her arms. A $170,000 four-wheeled penis extender sat at the curb. She was shadowed by a high-rise with condos that start at a mil-five. We just voted not to increase sales tax by a penny, for cops and firemen. LA, right. L-fucking-A.
Moses is a man of his city. Born and raised in her arms. If you wanted to burn her down, he’d offer you the match then do everything he could to smother the flames. He is deeply flawed, but he has the heart of a bear. He is a man of ambiguous moral character. He’s a good man but he thinks he’s a piece of shit. He is also a man on a downward spiral, the closer he gets to discovering a moral place to stand the crazier he gets. The thing he does in Out There Bad leaves permanent scars. One More Body may be his last outing. I don’t know if he will survive it physically or emotionally.
He is who I would have been without my siblings. If at fifteen I had pulled the trigger and killed that guy, gone to jail, I might well have been Moses. He is a stand-in for me in many ways. The fierce protection of those he loves is pure me. His rage is me. His love/hate relationship with sex in America in the twenty first century is also me.
I wrote many, many drafts. I think I was trying to figure James Crumley out. I started out playing in Crumley’s sand box, but Moses wouldn’t be contained. He is not Milo or Sughrue. He is Moses. As the drafts went on I found my voice, yes it echoes of Crumley, but it is mine. I can hear when it’s true and when it’s faux Crumley I hit delete.
There’s no denying you have your own voice, your own rhythm. OUT THERE BAD tackled sex trafficking, the great atrocity of our time. Every town has a strip club and there’s always the chance some of those dancers are working off debts they will never live to repay. You did some deep research for that book. What kind of places did you go, and what people did you meet?
JS: My sister was a stripper, my father dated strippers. I’m no stranger to that world. I’m also not afraid to go where ever a story leads. 4:00 AM Ensenada I met an American hooker, she was too tired to put much enthusiasm into her pitch. When I said fucking was off the table but I’d buy her breakfast she looked relieved. She told me about the Mexican Romeo she hooked up with in LA. They shared some laughs and coke. She lived with him in Mexico, but he split, they all do, she told me. By then she was hooking to pay for her drugs, drugs she need to get through a life of fucking strangers for money. Vicious circle? You bet your sweet ass. She had no passport, no way home either physically or emotionally. We talked until dawn. I wish I could have helped her. But she had to carry her own freight.
Another time I was in an Armenian-run strip joint. A big titted gal with translucent hair whispered at me a warning to quit asking questions, if I wanted to make it home. I Laughed. She said it was no joke. I stopped laughing.
Oddly people smirk, “Oooh, hanging out in strip clubs and bordellos as ‘research’ riiiight?” Truth is after all night talking to broken babies and watching sweaty men pay to put their fat piggy fingers up stripper’s snatches, all I want to do is go home and scald my skin in a shower. Some days I long to write a book about a florist who solves crimes with the help of his tabby cat Jeeves. Or maybe a Zombie cozy.
They even have a street name for this - gorilla pimping. They traffic in young flesh, drag girls across state lines. The average age these girls start is between eleven and twelve years old. Boys they start at six. Let that sink in. SIX YEARS OLD.
For ONE MORE BODY I have done street research, but I have also spent a year reading every first person account from prostitutes, cops, social workers and volunteers, anyone in contact with streetwalkers in the U.S. I discovered that international sex traffic is a drop in the bucket. Most of the trafficked girls are U.S. citizens. Girls kidnapped and forced to suck and fuck adult men. They even have a street name for this – gorilla pimping. They traffic in young flesh, drag girls across state lines. The average age these girls start is between eleven and twelve years old. Boys they start at six. Let that sink in. SIX YEARS OLD. The more I research the angrier I get. As a society we either eat our young, or we don’t. Here in the USA, we eat ‘em with an extra helping of hypocrisy. A little White girl is taken in California and we get Megan’s Law. Poor girls of color are snatched at a rate that should have us all puking in our Post-Toasties and we do shit. Not true, we do less than shit. In the San Fernando Valley they had a get tough measure, if you catch a man buying sex, you impound his car. His car? Really. Laws are all on the John’s side. He is a man after all, with natural urges. They floated the idea of putting his picture in the paper. Scary stuff? Fuck that. Fuck a child go straight to hell. And no matter how you dress her a twelve year old is a child, as are thirteen and fourteen and fifteen and sixteen year old girls. Men who are willing to trade these girl’s childhoods just to bust a nut should be shot, slow, I.R.A style. One joint at a time, then left to bleed out alone in a dirt field.
I like what Vachss says, if we can’t cure them, we can certainly CONTAIN them. But let’s cool down a bit. One thing that sold me on the McGuire books is the music. The Clash, ’70s soul. Your words have a rhythm to them, a flow, that doesn’t let us get bored. Does that come from the music, from your skills as a film editor, or both?
JS: Yes and Yes. I am massively dyslexic and I read slowly so I hate overly wordy fat books. Music drives my brain and my film cutting. Trailers are tightly condensed highly rhythmic stories. Ok, I didn’t go to University, you know that, but I am a self taught man. I’ve read everything Shakespeare wrote, read and read until I got what he was saying. Without knowing it, structure seeped in. I would find a writer and read all their works in order. My old man was a painter and sometime poet, he gave me Dylan Thomas and Richard Brautigan, they both informed pace. But in truth I think it is just that I can’t type any faster. All The Wild Children is around 76,000 words I think. It is my longest book. If you’re gonna type slow, you gots to make every word count.
JS: In Tecate I found a CD by Cafe Tacuba, great sound, I love Mexican musica alternativa. And Lila Downs. For the new book I’m immersing myself in modern hip hop. My go to for peace is Admiral Fallow, a Scottish band not unlike Elbow. Gossling’s dreamy sound is in my headsets as I type this. Antony and the Johnsons. And more Clash, more Pogues. Can’t have enough of them lads. I have a copy of Josh Rouse doing “Straight To Hell” as a ballad. Fucking blows my mind.
Yeah, it amuses me when people ignore all hip-hop, or any style of music. I like everything from bluegrass to rap to pop. Just needs something real in it. I didn’t know it, but you cut the trailers for some of my favorite films. Robocop, Dead Presidents. Do you watch the whole film first, how does it work? Does distilling a two hour movie into a one minute spot help you write the most important parts of a story?
JS: Yes I see all the films. For Oliver Stone’s Twin Towers I had eighteen something hours to pull from. Elmore Leonard said he leaves out the parts people skim. That is what a trailer is. As for the most important moments, for me they aren’t the trailer moments. It is the subtle moments that I am most proud of. In an early chapter of the All The Wild Children I am having my last breakfast in Half Moon bay with my pops. The wheels are coming off my family. I am eight and feeling the weight of it all. The trailer moment would be me, one tear rolling down my cheek as he drives away. But that didn’t happen. While we were driving home to pack and dissolve our family, I used the sleeve of my sweat shirt to wipe away the condensation, a small patch through which I could see the world. That little human moment would never make it into a trailer.
You know how the Kinks say “Everybody’s in show biz, no matter who you are,” in Celluloid Heroes? Today especially, with reality TV and YouTube, I think we live like we’re in our own movies. But you’ve worked behind the scenes for years, even directing. Tell us about your moviemaking experiences, and give me your favorite three films.
Sean the crusty sound guy looks up at me, “Josh you’re making a movie, me I’m pushing records on my Nagra.”
There was the whole Russia adventure, then I got paid to write a screenplay called Thor, but the real Thor, historical Norse myth. I was over the moon. Bear and me worked our asses off. We explored the archetypal conflicts between Loki the half god and Thor – Loki always being there for Thor, but never earning his father Odin’s respect. In the end, Loki brings on Ragnarok. Can you imagine a Norse man like me getting to tell those stories? The producers read it. And had a panicked meeting. They wanted Thor to be frozen in a block of ice and discovered in Middale Kansas. Encino Man meets, well Encino Man. I worked on a few more scripts, doctored a few but my heart wasn’t in. They had broken it real good.
Hollywood is no place for creative types. Hollywood needs creative types. Hollywood hates creative types. Hollywood idolizes creative types. They offer a bag of shekels in trade for giving up caring. Crumley made more money off movie options than selling books. Charlie Huston had Caught Stealing optioned before he sold the publishing rights. Hollywood may be our new patrons.
All that said, I fucking love Hollywood.
#1 The Wild Bunch. I have watched it every year on my birthday for many years. It is the last sincere film I remember being made here. No quips, no winks at camera. Bruce Willis would never say “They’re men, and I wish to hell I was with them.” Not without a wink. Also that last unspoken moment before all hell breaks loose, the moment when they look at each other and decide to fuck it? That is a pure film moment, wouldn’t work in any other medium.
#2 Taxi Driver. It was the first film that made me feel it might be possible for the stories in my head to find an audience.
#3 The Big Lebowski , because, oh fuck it Dude, let’s go bowling.
Yeah, Lebowski in the theater, first run, is one of my favorite film experiences. That loving parody of Chandler, and how everyone in that flick except maybe Donnie, is playing a character they want to be. I want to be more Dude and less Walter.
Your memoir reminded me of some of the best I’ve read, like Frank McCourt, because you find humor in the hell. Which to me, is the truth. Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill… they write dark but put humor in there, because that’s the reality. Humor is a defense mechanism. Who are your favorite writers, period? Not just crime. Dead or alive.
JS: Hemingway. Crumley. Bruen. I didn’t have to think. I love tight spare prose with not a word wasted. Thanks for the comment about humor. It is what makes us interesting. We primates are the only creatures that can laugh at ourselves, and isn’t that brilliant? Stunning, really. All this evolution to deliver a good solid joke. Works for me.
And you may pretend to be vegan or a healthy eater, I’ve seen you attack platters of bacon like a Viking on a Pictish village. So where’s your favorite place to eat? When I hit the your coast next year, where are you gonna take me to knock me out with a food coma and save California from my rampage?
JS: Where the fuck did you get vegan healthy eater? I don’t eat gluten, corn or dairy because they rip my guts up and I’m not in favor of drinking my own blood. The taco truck two blocks away on Colorado, in the gas station parking lot makes the best carnitas in town. Two blocks from that is Oinkster, best goddamn burgers going. Gus’s BBQ in South Pasadena will break your heart and leave you screaming for more. If you really want a meat orgy come by when Erika throws down on the grill. Then when your colon needs a rest, Lemon Grass has fine vegetarian Vietnamese food. Years after we bought in Eagle Rock it was discovered by wealthy hipsters. My punk son used to scream at them as they drove down our quiet streets. But the hipsters sure did bring good food with them. Moses wouldn’t recognize these tame streets.
I’m relatively certain I have bungled this interview to the point where it may crash your site. But know, I am honored to be here. Your support of my writing is wonderful. Your friendship is pure gold. In the words of my pops, “Kill ‘em all but six, save them for pallbearers.”
You can find Josh at his website, JoshStallings.net