Hi Kent. Thanks for accepting my interview and welcome on Liberidiscrivere. Tell us something about you. Who is Kent Harrington? Strengths and weaknesses.
Kent Harrington, the man was born in San Francisco and beyond that is a complete mystery to me, and I’m the one who knows him the best! I’ve got only one real strength and that’s a profound stubbornness. But without it I could never have succeeded in ever finishing a novel, or, for that matter, having any kind of career in the arts. You have to be stubborn and somewhat indifferent to any outcome as an artist—certainly you must be indifferent to criticism or you’ll never get anywhere. So you could say that – up to a point – you have to give a shit and at the same time not give a shit. Those are contradictory ideas, I know, but the world of the artist is a confusing one filled with contradictions, tensions and impossible mazes—it’s a special kind of insanity. Weaknesses. Oh god I have so many. But I consider them, oddly, strengths too. Because through battling my weaknesses I’ve run head long into my humanity. We are all imperfect and fail constantly. You just hope you don’t fail at the big things in life. There was a very famous bullfighter who was once asked what he did to stay in shape and he said “I drink and smoke cigars. How can I ever be stronger than the bull?!”
Tell us something about your background, your studies, your childhood.
I was sent to a military school when I was very young, nine years old. It changed me. I was never the same because once you are cast out from the family at such a young age and into that dog-eat-dog environment that is an all-boy’s school, you can never go back. I never was able to view my parents any longer as protectors, or as “parents”. It’s not that I didn’t love them, it was that once you are left to fend for yourself, with no one to call for help, you either are crushed by the experience, or you learn to survive. In that school survival meant learning how to physically fight. I learned how to fight so that the other boys respected me enough not to pick on me. The boys that didn’t learn that important lesson were crushed spiritually and it was devastating. In many ways I’m glad that I was left to fend for myself as a child because it made me much stronger later in life. I went on to University and got a degree in Spanish literature. I was never happier than as a university student. There is nothing I like better than studying something. Maybe that’s why I chose to be a writer because the novel always turns you into a student. No one can master the novel! No one. For me Heaven will be a university campus with lots of old books, cappuccino, and conversation.
What made you start writing crime fiction?
I stared writing crime fiction because I was intrigued by Jim Thompson’s work. I had not read much, if any, American crime fiction as a student. It was not the kind of reading that was allowed at my school. I wasn’t exposed to pulp fiction until I was in my twenties in fact. I grew up with heavier fare at the school as parents expected their children to be exposed to the classics so pulp fiction was actually confiscated! Anyway, when I came across Thompson, after I was well out of university, I was transfixed because I had not read anything like him. And for whatever reason I felt I understood him, why he’d chosen the style he had. I also wanted to try writing in a more Hemingway style and less of the DH Lawrence style which I’d been trying in earlier work. What I didn’t understand was that it was the Noir sensitivity that was really what was attracting me to Thompson. Anyway, I decided to try a crime novel and it turned out to be my first published novel: Dark Ride. It was a minor success. I was very lucky; it allowed me get my start in the novel business.
In interviews you cite Hemingway, Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Greene, Faulkner, Orwell as a writing influence. Is it true?
Yes it’s very true. All of them had a profound influence on me. I regret now that they have fallen out of favour, at least in this country. We have less style now in popular fiction in America than we used to. I owe those writers a great deal, as they truly made me the person I am today. People who say art isn’t important have never read a great novel. It can change you.
Can you tell us a little about your debut novel, Dark Ride?
As I said I was intrigued by the Noir sensibility. It is a very “sudden” style. Things are seemingly blunt and exposed yet somehow you come to see that it’s just the opposite. In fact it’s through this blunt style that you are introduced to a very complex way of projecting things about society’s other hidden face, the secrets about American life if you will. Ours has always been a society of secrets and double dealing and obviously lawlessness. I mean look at the history of our march West. Why do we feel the need to own so many guns in America? In Dark Ride I wanted to write about a character that was driven crazy by middle class expectations, and the underlying culture of success that dominates here. In the US-- I don’t know about Italy-- if someone wears a suit and has clean hands then they really do get respect. It’s the most amazing thing to witness. If you want to really hide your criminal intentions in America, wear a suit and you will go a long long way. Dark Ride is also about the importance of sexual expression as a language of the human psyche. In other words, sexual expression—as in the case of sadomasochism I write about in the novel -- is extremely articulate about what the larger culture is concerned with. I felt that the culture of success in America is linked to the idea of dominance and aggression and that Jimmy’s inability to be successful made it logical for him to fall under the spell of a woman who was overtly interested in the domination/submission sexual dynamic of sadomasochism. In other words, if you can’t be dominate in the larger world—where you are perceived as a “failure”-- perhaps you can play at being dominant in the bedroom and vice versa? There are cases of very powerful men who pay so they can play the submissive role sexually. Anyway Dark Ride is my American family portrait shot in black and white, and with a double exposure.
Red jungle evokes a richly rewarding literary tradition and especially draws comparisons to the work of Graham Greene, particularly The Heart of the Matter and The Quiet American. Was this a goal?
Red Jungle was my return to the other writing style that I am very attracted to and which I grew up with and which I enjoy; it’s a more literary style say of Graham Greene. ( I like to oscillate between the two diametrically opposed styles.) It’s that “literary” style that I think can add so much to a popular thriller. In other words, the two are not mutually exclusive in my view. In fact there is, I believe, a real plus to the literary style of someone like Graham Greene when you are writing about place. Place is an important part of Red Jungle. And although it was easy for me to write about my mother’s country on one level – I spoke Spanish before I spoke English-- I knew I had to get across that sense of Place through language. If I failed to do that then I felt the novel would fail because it would only be interesting if the reader was really brought to Guatemala-- that special locale. Anyway, that’s what I thought and that’s what I tried to do. If there is a comparison-- and there has been between my political thriller work and Green’s-- it’s because I like to use Greene’s sense of objectivity. Nobody really comes out smelling good in Greene’s world. He reduces politics to the actions of individuals, and that’s what literature is supposed to do. No one gets a free pass. I think I have the same attitude. For example in The Comedians, truly a work of genius, Green captures modern Haiti. He absolutely defines the problems of its colonial status and relation to the US and France over the years. In a way it’s scientific, almost brutal, but sometimes scientists, whether political or medical, have to face the hard truths in order to come up with cures. Good novels help us translate the complexity of the modern world into something understandable. And hopefully we come away more educated. I highly recommend Greene’s The Comedians to everyone. It is a great work of art, and a useful tool in understanding Haiti to this day. That is a remarkable achievement for a novel that’s over 40 years old!
Let’s talk about Día de los Muertos released in Italy with Meridiano Zero. What’s Día de los muertos’s publishing history?
It was published in the US by DMP (Dennis McMillan Publications one of the great and now rightfully famous small crime fiction publishers in the US.) in 1997. I had had trouble placing the book with larger mainstream publishers at the time despite the success of Dark Ride. They viewed Dia De Los Muertos as simply too outré. I’ve never understood that opinion. It was strange to me. However DMP read it and called me back quickly and said they would publish it and damn the torpedoes. They had a hit with it and the book is now considered a noir classic. The original edition sometimes sell for more than they it originally. Funny! Of course I’m proud of the book’s popularity. It was later published By Capra Books, who published Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller and others, in 2004 in trade paper. It’s been published in several countries around the world including in Italy by Meridiano Zero as you said. It’s about to be published by Diversion Books in eBook format this summer in the US. The book has never gone out of print in over 10 years. It always makes me realize that you should never give up on a book just because someone says it’s too much, too shocking.
Can you tell us a little about the writing of the book? What was the most laborious part during the writing?
I wish I could say that Dia De Los Muertos was hard to write, but that’s not true. (Unlike Red Jungle that was difficult.) Dia De Los Muertos poured out of me. I can honestly say that I felt the presence of Hemingway, John Huston and Jim Thompson in the room while I worked. I know that sounds crazy, but some mornings, I swear to you, I felt them there with me giving me advice and cheering me on. (It was very funny and ironic that after publishing the book, John Huston’s son called me on the phone and wanted to make it into a film!) It was wonderful to feel their presence. I hope that happens one or two more times in my life.
Have other works inspired you in the writing of this novel? Was Jim Thompson an influence?
I wanted to do a novel that took place in just one day – twenty-four hours. I knew that, but there is no novel that inspired me in that regard. What happened was this: I had gone down to the bullfights in Tijuana a lot, mostly by myself. Anyway, one day I was having lunch in this place that was a crazy place; it had outdoor seating and all kinds of different people came there: movie stars from LA down for the bullfights, gangsters, Marines, tourists. Just a real mixture of types, and I saw Vincent Calhoun come in. And then I started seeing him other places around town, and that was my inspiration. To me Calhoun exists. He’s a real man. I saw him one Sunday.
Could you tell us a little about your protagonist, Vincent Calhoun?
Vincent Calhoun is a composite of all the tough guys I’ve actually known, and I’ve known some. The thing that makes Calhoun interesting I think is that he doesn’t give a shit. He really doesn’t. He could die or not die in a gunfight. He’s dangerous because he really doesn’t care if he lives or dies. I was working in East Oakland prior to writing Dia De Los Muertos and there was a lot of violence. I’d been working in the worst part of the a hyper-ghetto for several years in fact. I’d almost been killed in a crossfire and I’d kind of lost my mind and didn’t really care anymore if I lived or died as long as I got paid. I just gave up caring. And I think that’s what I infused Calhoun with, my own don’t-give-a-shit attitude. If I died I died. I had that attitude in Guatemala too when I wrote Red Jungle. Thank God I don’t have to live that way now. But it was very real back then and I think it’s what makes some of my novels breath: I’ve been in some crazy places. Unless you’ve really been out on the edge and looked down, then you can’t come back and write about it. Or if you do, I think people know that you’re just “making things up”. There is a lot of Vincent Calhoun I didn’t have to make up, believe me. That’s why he’s real to me, and always will be.
It’s a noir set on the border in the city of Tijuana. Is the Latin world a source of inspiration? Have you read James Elroy’s Tijuana Mon Amour?
Yes the Latin world is a source of inspiration to me. I’ve got that in my blood and I enjoy translating the Latin sensibility to the outside world. I think my thought processess are Latin ones. I have never read Elroy’s Tijuana Mon amour but would like to. I’m going to add it to my must read pile!
I'd like to talk about the day to day process of being a writer. Would you describe a typical working day for you?
I get up very early in the morning and review what I’d done the day before and then dive in. By 11:30 I’m through. I can’t write well after about 12 noon. I leave my desk and go exercise: run, lift weights do something non cerebral. Sometimes, when the book is almost finished, I’ll take a peek at what I’ve done in the late afternoon in preparation for the next day. I don’t work on the weekends, normally. I can’t drink when I’m working. I wish I could, but I can’t. So I don’t. I have to do all my drinking and partying when I’m not working on a book..
Do you write short stories or only novels?
I do write short stories and enjoy them. I would like to write a short story collection before I leave the party.
Who are your favorite living authors?
Le Carre is one name on a very long list.
What's the last book you read?
V.S. Naipaul “An Area Of Darkness”
Do you ever get writer’s block and what do you do when that happens?
Yes, of course. My cure is to keep going to work and facing the page. If it really gets bad I take two or three days off, or work in another part of the book reviewing earlier chapters. I know it will pass and don’t let it freak me out.
Dark ride, The American boys, Red Jungles, The good physician. Do you know if Meridiano Zero translates them into Italian?
I know Meridiano Zero is going to publish Red Jungle soon I hope they do them all!
What is your relationship like with your readers? How can readers get in touch with you?
Well I don’t blog or that kind of thing because I’m always busy working on a novel or a script or something. But I hope that people will join me on Face book which does make me feel connected when I see fans friending my author’s site. It’s a good feeling seeing those faces, because being a novelist is a lonely occupation, let’s face it. And of course they can contact me via my web site. I do read the emails that come through the web site, and when I can, I respond to them. Please feel free to write me via kentharrington.com.
Do you enjoy touring for literary promotion? Tell to our Italian readers something of amusing about these meetings.
The funniest one was with my first book Dark Ride I was scheduled to appear in a Barnes & Noble in a mall in California and I went and they had not been told anything about me and weren’t expecting me. They put me out by the magazines sitting at a little card table with no books. A man came up to me and told me to please move as he wanted to get to the Penthouse Magazines and I was blocking him. I felt two inches tall and since then have always been afraid when I walk into a bookstore for any kind of appearance, that they will not have been told! And I will be put out, all alone, by the magazines again!
Will you come to Italy again to introduce your novels?
I hope so! As I truly love Italy. I hope someone very rich invites me. Someone with a great hotel who says they’ll pay my restaurant and bar bills too! Call me ( smile)
Finally, the inevitable question: what are you working on now?
I’m working on a new crime novel called FRIENDS OF OURS and some of the story is set in Italy!