Episode 52: Paul D. Marks

Teddie Matson had a golden life, until her path had the misfortune of crossing mine. I sat staring out the window of my office, k.d. lang playing in the background. It was a while till the sun would set, that golden hour when everything takes on a gilded glow.

Golden hour is the time when the light hits just right in the early morning or late afternoon. The time when movie cinematographers most like to shoot. The light is tawny and warm. Gentle. It makes the stars shine brighter.

Golden hour is the time when Teddie Matson was killed.

— Paul D. Marks, White Heat

I had so much fun talking to author Paul D. Marks about his novels, his short stories, and his encounters with the LAPD. Paul’s noir sensibility and love of Los Angeles come out in everything he does, but nowhere more than in “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” his short story which was nominated this year for the Macavity Award and which you can read right here.

Paul has his own website, where you can keep tabs on his current and future projects. He also blogs at Criminal Minds and SleuthSayers. Social media buffs can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Paul gives a shout-out to classic authors, including Raymond Chandler, David GoodisRoss MacDonald and John Fante, as well as masters of the short story genre, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Cheever. As a fan of classic noir myself, I have to say I see the connection between Raymond Chandler and Paul’s work. The mean streets of L.A. may have gotten more congested, but there’s still a dark side to sunny California, and Paul explores it in much of his work. 

Transcript is below. Enjoy the interview!

— Laura

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Transcript of Interview with Paul D. Marks

Laura Brennan: My guest today is the author of the Shamus Award-winning mystery/thriller, White Heat. But Paul D. Marks is perhaps best known for his short stories. He was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Reader’s Award Poll, and his work, which tends towards Noir, has been widely published, recognized with multiple awards, and anthologized. His story, Ghosts of Bunker Hill, from the November 2016 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, is currently nominated for a Macavity Award.

Paul, thank you for joining me. 

Paul D. Marks: Well, thank you for having me, Laura. I’m glad to be here.

LB: In the reviews of one of your novels, one of the reviewers said that, essentially, you are the master of all things noir and Los Angeles. So, you do, you really seem to love Los Angeles.

PDM: I do like Los Angeles, probably partly because I was born here and grew up here. My mother and family — her side of the family goes back a long ways. And when I was a kid, it was still a little bit of Raymond Chandler’s LA. He was still around, although I wasn’t conscious of him. He was around and Los Angeles, as I remember it as a child, was kind of how he described it in his books, especially the later books like The Long Goodbye. I think just growing up here, by osmosis you get the ambience and the feel of the place and that comes out in my writing.

LB: Is he what drew you into noir?

PDM: Probably what drew me into noir is movies. As you probably know, he wrote a couple of really great noir movies like Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia. So I’d watch the movies and you see “The Big Sleep, based on a novel by Raymond Chandler,” or “Dark Passage, based on a novel by David Goodis.” And my mom had this double volume of mystery books, I can’t remember the name of it. And if I recall, the first story or first novel in this collection was The Big Sleep. So one day, I guess I was intrigued by this sinister-looking collection of stuff and I had seen the movie The Big Sleep, and I went and I read the novel in that collection and I was hooked.

After that, I read everything I could by Raymond Chandler and he’s still my favorite. I love David Goodis, too. And my introduction to him was also through the movies: Dark Passage, another Bogart and Bacall movie that I really like a lot. So I think my initial interest in noir came from the movies and then it expanded into books and short stories from there.

LB: Just to also throw some love on Raymond Chandler, I think The Long Goodbye is one of the finest novels ever written. I love that book.

PDM: I agree with you and if I had to pick a favorite Raymond Chandler book, and that would be hard to do, I would have to say The Long Goodbye. So we are like spirits on that one.

LB: And also on film noir. What you think about them really makes them unique and special?

PDM: I think in a large part they are a reaction to World War II. A lot of the movies before the war were escapist musicals and light comedies and things like that. I think if you look at an actor like Dick Powell, who started off as a kind of light, leading man in musicals and stuff, and then if you look at him in Murder, My Sweet, you can almost see the change happen in that one movie. From the lightness of the prewar period to the darkness of the during the war and postwar period. Robert Mitchum said that when they were making those movies, they just looked at them as B movies, crime movies. And only later did the French critics coined the term “noir.” But I think mostly they are a reaction to the horrors and the darkness that the world saw during World War II, and probably the Depression as well.

LB: So, in addition you also, you worked in the movies.

PDM: I was a script doctor. No credit, no glory, and my dad could never figure out what I did for a living. I never had a screen credit.

LB: Well, yeah, but a lot of work goes on behind the scenes and people don’t get enough credit for it. Do you feel that that helped your other writing?

PDM: Oh, absolutely, because one of the things that you do is tighten up things. And I can remember one time, I was working on a script that somebody had given me, and what I did was that I literally deleted the whole first act because it was all back story. I kept a handful of information from there and I inserted it, but I basically started on Act II and made Act II, Act I. I think when I started writing prose, that kind of structure, that working with structure really helped. In fact, a lot of times — not all the time, but a lot of times — I write my first draft in Final Draft, which is a scriptwriting program, and as a screenplay.

LB: Really?

PDM: Yeah. Yeah.

LB: Do you do that for your short stories as well as your novels, or is this for your novels?

PDM: I do it for both. The reason I do it is because in doing that, I can just do like a slug line, EXTERIOR BEACH – DAY, whatever. So-and-so does this, and then have some dialogue. And I’m not really concerned with the ambience or things like that. In fact, when I first started writing prose, people told me they read like screenplays. The hardest thing for me to do was writing description because in screenplays, description is very sparse. I mean, a beach is a beach and you don’t go into long, melodious descriptions of it.

And then the other thing was interior monologues or the character’s thoughts and things because, again, you don’t do those kinds of things in screenplays. So there was a learning curve. And I think I’m still learning, but hopefully getting better at it.

LB: Let’s talk a little bit about short stories. You’re the first writer that I have interviewed — and I am interviewing you by popular demand — so you’re the first writer who I’ve interviewed who focuses primarily on short stories. And it is such a completely different animal than writing a novel. What drew you to short stories?

PDM: I think it’s kind of a mercenary thing — not financially mercenary, but just the idea that you could write one and it would be done and you would have the finished product a lot sooner than you would have a novel. A novel could take a year to write, a short story maybe a few weeks. I am still writing novels and I do have the sequel to White Heat so I don’t want to just be out there as a short story person. But, yes, I like writing short stories. They have their own set of challenges. In a way, I think sometimes it’s harder to write a short story than it is to write a novel because you have to do it within such a confined space. You want to have, at least in a genre story, you want to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It can be open ended, but it still need some kind of a resolution.

To me, writing a novel is more like writing a symphony where you have different movements and an overall theme and things like that. A short story is more like when we had 45 single records, more like a little pop song. You know, two-and-a-half minutes and you’ve got to get it all in there, in that short space, and you want it to have a hook and be catchy.

LB: Well, and artful as well.

PDM: That too. Yes.

LB: I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am to hear that there’s a sequel to White Heat.

PDM: Well, thank you.

LB: So I definitely want to talk about that. But before we do that, I want to stick with short stories For just a little bit longer. I want to talk about “Ghosts of Bunker Hill.”

PDM: Okay.

LB: So this is a fantastic short story that appeared at the end of last year in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and it’s been nominated for one of the major awards in mystery, The Macavity Award. It is so spectacular. It’s really, I feel like it’s a love letter to all of Los Angeles noir.

PDM: Well, thank you. I couldn’t ask for any more in terms of how somebody reacted to it, so I really appreciate that. And I think you’re right, I did write it with that kind of homage feel to it.

LB: Where did the idea for the story come from?

PDM: Well, when I was younger, my friend Linda and I would go exploring Los Angeles. We would literally just get in the car, point it in one direction or another and drive. And we saw the remnants of Bunker Hill while they were tearing it down and doing the redevelopment there. But even before that, I went down there with a friend of mine and we saw the old Victorian houses and we went in and explored. I even took the top of a newel staircase post, which I have. It’s one of my prized possessions. So I have this great memory of Bunker Hill from when I was younger.

It’s always stuck with me as part of LA. You know, talking about film noir movies, in a lot of noir movies there are scenes shot at Bunker Hill, like Kiss Me Deadly and Criss Cross and other movies. Even movies set in places like San Francisco, they used Bunker Hill to double for San Francisco. So it’s always there, it’s always coming back. So I think the locale has always stuck with me as this kind of quintessential LA noir location.

As far as the actual story of Ghosts of Bunker Hill, I had heard about a man who answered the door, and I think there was a delivery of some kind, and he was shot. And then the story opens with the main character answering the door and getting shot, and it just kind of takes off from there. Some of the “ghosts” that he deals with are like the ghosts of Philip Marlowe and things like that, that come back to guide him, shall we say.

LB: It’s terrific, and you have it on your website, actually, you connect to it so that people can read it. So if it’s okay with you, I’m going to go ahead and, in the show notes, link to your website so that people can actually find the story.

PDM: Oh, that would be great! And if there are any Macavity voters out there and they feel like voting for it, that would be great, too.

LB: That would be awesome, too, yes. We talked a little bit earlier about White Heat, which is — that was your first novel.

PDM: First published novel, yes.

LB: That was your first published novel. How many did you write before that one got published?

PDM: I don’t remember, but I did have a novel that I had written way back when that was a satire about a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood. It actually got picked up by one of the major publishers, and unfortunately they had a change of editorial staff and my novel got swept out with the new broom. Because it was a satire, a lot of the humor was topical. One of these days, I’m going to pick it up and updated without the topical humor because it’s still a funny story. And basically everything in it is true. All the crazy stuff that the character goes through is true, except for the murder mystery.

LB: I think that that’s a part that people don’t understand, too, about the profession of writing novels, is that there’s a lot of stuff that happens even between your novel being accepted and then your novel actually being published that you don’t have a lot of control over.

PDM: That is so true. One of the reasons, one of the many reasons I wanted to start writing prose fiction is to have more control over what I do. Although I know that there are still editors and other people who have input and things like that. Yes, there’s a lot, we mentioned Broken Windows — the sequel’s actually been written for a while and it was with an agent, but I think that agent had some issues. Not with the book, but medical issues. So nothing happened with it. The book was delayed, delayed, delayed, but I just signed with a publisher to put that out. So, yes, there are all kinds of things why, reasons why things don’t done or don’t get done quickly or timely or something like that, yes.

LB: So Broken Windows is a sequel to White Heat?

PDM: Yes.

LB: Fabulous. So White Heat won the Shamus award. Congratulations.

PDM: Thank you.

LB: It’s mystery/thriller but also very noir.

PDM: I think it is noir in the sense that the main character is a screwup. In fact, it starts out with him talking about all the different ways he screwed up his life. And then somebody — he’s a private investigator — and somebody walks into his office wanting to find an “old friend” from high school. The character realizes, even in the days — because it’s set right during the 1992 Rodney King riots. So even before the Internet was as big as it is today, and as easy to find people and things like that today, he knew he could find this person pretty quickly because he had a friend in the DMV that could track her down. He does it and doesn’t even have the paperwork, and then a couple of days later, he’s reading in the paper that the person that he found is dead. And now he feels guilty because he knows his client is the one who killed her. He found the person for the client and so he’s inadvertently part of the crime and he feels guilty and he wants to solve it. So he screwed up yet again at the beginning of the book.

I think in that sense it’s noir because to me noir is people tripping over their own faults or weaknesses, their Achilles’ heel, and that’s what he does.

LB: You also set it during a particular time in LA’s history, right around the Rodney King verdict and the riots when everybody’s on edge.

PDM: The whole city was on edge. I remember, you could just see smoke anywhere you were in the city. The whole city was affected by it. My character, Duke, finds himself in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, in the heart of the riots, when they break out. He’s down there researching the case because he’s looking for the person who hired him, but he’s trying to find that person via the victim and her family.

LB: Right. So he’s down there, and he’s in the middle of everything. I think that’s another way it feels very noir, is that not just his world but the world around him reflects everything kind of blowing up.

PDM: It does. It’s very apocalyptic in that sense. I think kind of symbolic. And even though the story is set in 1992, which in some ways seems ancient compared to today, I think a lot of the issues that it deals with are still very relevant today.

I think it’s a mystery story or a thriller, or noir story, but I also think it deals with much more serious issues of race and racism and things like that, in the context of a mystery story.

LB: Tell me a little bit about Vortex.

PDM: Vortex is a novella that I did that’s also noir, noir mystery. It’s about a soldier who comes back from Afghanistan and finds more trouble here than he ever had over there, and he had plenty over there. But while there, he and a couple of his buddies hatched a plan to steal some money. He was the one in charge of protecting it, and while recuperating from wounds, he’s had a change of heart. He doesn’t really have the money, but his buddies don’t know that. So they come after him to get the money and it just goes downhill for him from there.

LB: So, I’m curious, with short story writing: as a writer, how do you build a career?

PDM: I think there’s a symbiosis between short stories and novels. When I get a story published in something like Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock, they have readership in the hundreds of thousands. A lot of them will read your story and then hopefully they will go back and find your novels. And vice versa, if people read the novels and read your bio and see that you had a story published here or there, they’ll go seek it out. So I think they both build on each other. I think both things are good and they both add to your reputation as a writer and who you are as a writer, and they reinforce each other. So I think it’s a good thing both ways.

LB: Who are the writers, who are the masters of the short story now? Who do you look for?

PDM: I’m always hesitant to say current people because I’m always fearful of hurting somebody’s feelings if I leave somebody out. I would prefer more classic people that I like. That would include Raymond Chandler, of course. To me, he’s in a class by himself. Nobody touches him. I love Ross MacDonald. I like John Fante, not really for short stories but for his books, and he has influenced me a lot, too. David Goodis did both short stories and novels, Jim Thompson, Jorge Luis Borges, believe it or not, has influenced me. A couple of my favorite short stories are Soldier’s Home by Hemingway and May Day by Fitzgerald. Not genre stories, but I like both of those stories, especially Soldier’s Home. And John Cheever’s short stories. John Cheever is one of the masters of the art.

LB: So I understand that you have had your own encounters with the LAPD. Do you want to share that story?

PDM: Well, I like to say that I’m one of the few people who have pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. And that is absolutely true, but maybe not as dramatic as it sounds initially. Nonetheless, I think it gives me some noir cred.

When I was living in West Los Angeles, I was living in a four unit building and I was the only unit upstairs. The woman in the unit whose entrance was right at the bottom of my stairs got attacked by a guy. I had been coming home, and her boyfriend came home around the same time. We chased the guy down the alley and the cops were called and there were like 50 cops and helicopters and everything, it was insane. But they didn’t catch him. And he came back again and got her again, beat her up, she was pretty black and blue; luckily it didn’t get farther than that. And I would go down before she got into her apartment and check it out to make sure nobody was there. And I told her, if the cops are ever going to stake out your apartment, let me know.

So, one day, I guess she had moved out with her boyfriend for a while, and I hear the helicopter overhead and I come out, and I see these two absolutes scuzzballs come out of her apartment. And they’re what, about 20, 25 feet at the bottom of the staircase — it’s an outdoor staircase. And they’re facing away from me and I had a pistol in my hand. And I aim it at them, just like you see in the movies, and I say, “Hold it!” And they turned around slowly, luckily, and cooler heads prevailed. They identified themselves and told me to go back into my apartment, which I did.

And then I’m all nervous, you know, I’d just pulled a gun on to cops. So I called the apartment downstairs and one of the cops answers the phone, and he says, “You the guy from upstairs with the gun?” And I said, yeah. He goes, “You really made me nervous, man.” And I’m thinking to myself — but I didn’t say — not as nervous as I was when I found out you are the cops. But I did pull a gun on two LAPD cops and lived to tell about it.

LB: And you did it as a hero. So well done.

PDM: I did it is a good guy, but nonetheless it could’ve gone bad. Luckily the cops were cool, I was cool, and everything worked out.

LB: What is next for you?

PDM: Well, I just signed a contract, last week as a matter fact, with a publisher to put out Broken Windows, the sequel to White Heat. So very excited about that. He’s also going to reissue White Heat, so they’ll come out kind of like a one-two punch. And I’m working on a couple of other novels, I have a novel set in the LA homefront during World War II, which is an era that I really like. It’s about a very unusual character in a swing band and gets involved in a mystery. That one is almost done, it’s about 99% done.

And then I’ve also got another novel set in New York, which I’m really excited about. And luckily, when I went to pick up the Ellery Queen Readers Award in April, I got to do some first-hand research for this novel that I’d been working on already, set in New York. So that was really cool. And I’m also working on some short stories. I’m working on another — the Ghosts of Bunker Hill, the main character in that story is named Howard Hamm. I have a new Howard Hamm story coming out in the September/October issue of Ellery Queen, which goes on sale towards the end of August I believe. I’m working on some other short stories and those two novels, certainly enough to keep me busy for a while.

LB: If people want find you online, where can they find you?

PDM: My website is www.PaulDMarks.com, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, I blog for two blogs, SleuthSayers and 7 Criminal Minds, so I’m all over the place.

LB: Paul, thank you so much for joining me today.

PDM: Thank you, Laura. I really appreciate your having me and it’s been fun.