Show Notes for John Schulian Interview
John shares some of the primary characters in his book, which include an ex-boxer, a massage girl, a washed up B-movie actor and thug. Then we discuss the book itself and why he chose this story as his first novel.
We discuss some of John’s favorites in the crime fiction genre and how those books kept him company during the days when he traveled around the country as a sports writer.
We discuss the long strange trip John’s manuscript took before being published by Tyrus Books. John shares some specific feedback he received from an editor who did not acquire the book, and how that feedback allowed him to create a much richer character in Nick Pafko.
The Interview transcript: A Better Goodbye, by John Schulian
Stephen: Welcome back to CrimeFiction.fm, where we bring the authors of today’s best books directly to you. I’m your host, Stephen Campbell, and I’m here with John Schulian, the author of the gritty noir novel “A Better Goodbye,” which was released last month. John, welcome.
Stephen: It’s a pleasure to chat with you. I absolutely love this book and it’s that rare combination of literary and gritty crime. There aren’t enough of these novels written anymore, and I tend to think that books like these are the really good ones. And “A Better Goodbye” really falls solidly in that category.
So first, kudos to you for a fantastic book. Now, let’s talk a bit about the storyline to give the listeners a little sense of what the book is about.
John: It’s about two lost souls, I think two people who would qualify as lost souls. One is Nick Pafko, who was a boxer. Ten years earlier, he killed a man in the ring and it derailed his career. And when we meet him, he’s been laid off as a baggage handler at Los Angeles Airport, and he’s just drifting, taking odd jobs. One of the jobs he winds up taking is providing security in a high-rise apartment building, where he watches over the flock at a sensual massage operation.
One of the girls who works there is Jenny Yee, who’s an Asian girl who’s working her way through college in the sex trade and is kind of savvy and kind of naive, very, very bright, and isn’t, I think, really aware of the risks she puts herself at by working in the business. Until there’s an incident, we shall say, early in the book, and she runs into the aftermath of it, and that convinces her that she will only work in places where there’s security.
The person both Jenny and Nick work for is Scott Crandall, who was once the star of a TV show called “Stormy Weathers,” which was syndicated, non-primetime junk, as he likes to think of it. And now, his acting career is in the dumper, and he’s a pimp basically, to put it mildly. He, in his own way, I guess, is a loss, so he’s certainly pretty much friends with the one ally he has or thinks he has is Onus DuPree Jr., who is the son of a former big-league baseball player and a seriously bad guy, a sociopath, whose every move is violent, threatening, criminal. He was a lot of fun to write.
Stephen: It has to be a challenge because you’ve got these four distinct characters, as you’ve described them. All of them could be completely unsympathetic in lesser hands, but they were all just completely engaging characters. And when we would go from one perspective to another, there’s always that sense as a reader. It’s like, “Oh, I was trapped in this story and now I’m over here.”
But for me, in “A Better Goodbye,” it was like, “Okay, all right. Now, we get to find out what’s going with this person. How challenging was that to create these characters and do it in a way that the reader, I don’t know, not only has a sense of who they are but appreciates them for who they are.
John: I just wrote them the best I could. That doesn’t sound like a very brilliant… But I wanted to tell the story from different points of view. In the beginning, we have chapters devoted to each character, and then, when they have finally come together in the high-rise apartments, then we go to different points of view within the chapters.
So in the middle of the scene, we will jump from, say, DuPree to Jenny. It just struck me that that was the only way I could think to tell the story. It seemed logical, and I think, as a writer, if you can convince yourself of the logic, that may be half the battle.
Stephen: Now, it’s interesting to me that this is your first novel. You’ve written other books before. You are an award-winning journalist, you’re a script writer, you’re a television show co-creator, a producer. Pretty much everything that you can do in the writing life you have done before, except write a novel. So why something this gritty for your first novel?
John: Well, I suppose it comes from reading too much Elmore Leonard, and James Crumley, and James Lee Burke, and on and on.
Stephen: Now, let me just jump in and say there’s no such thing as reading too much Elmore Leonard.
John: Now, you’re right about that. Actually, I’m at the stage now, where I’m re-reading Elmore Leonard.
Stephen: I’ve done that myself.
John: When I was traveling a lot as a sports writer, those were the books that kept me company on a lot of flights. And I really, really enjoyed them, and I love the genre, and I think some of the best writing in American fiction is Bingham and crime novels. Really wonderful writing.
James Lee Burke is a masterful writer, for instance, James Crumley was a wonderful writer, and Elmore Leonard, it goes without saying, was brilliant in the way he used dialogues to tell stories, following the path of George V. Higgins. So I was just under the influence of these guys. And I like noir, and I like noir movies, particularly the stuff from the late ’40s and early ’50s, out of the past.
So it just seemed natural, and then I just had to find the ideas for the book itself. And one of them was Nick killing the man in the ring, killing his opponent. And I had read a story years and years ago, right after I got to Los Angeles to work in television, about a fine young boxer from the San Fernando Valley, who killed a man, and it stopped his career cold. This was a very promising boxer.
Now, a lot of boxers fight their way past tragedy. Sugar Ray Robinson killed a man in the ring. Emile Griffith infamously killed Benny “The Kid” Paret. When Ruby Goldstein, the referee, froze and didn’t stop the fight in time, both of them continued to fight. Nick couldn’t. Nick was paralyzed by it, and I thought that was a terrible burden for a man to carry but also an interesting one. And how does he deal, now, when he’s confronted with situations where he must respond with violence.
And then the other half of the equation, it came from the back pages of the “LA Weekly.” When I got here, it was a wonderful newspaper. They did terrific work about the arts, about politics, about music. If you wanted to see who was playing in town, you went to the “LA Weekly.”
But in the back of the paper were page after page after page of massage ads. Massage wasn’t all they were selling, but it was what they were advertising. And I thought, “There’s a whole sub-culture here. There’s something going on.” And I thought, “Well, maybe the LA Times, who was really in its heyday back then, would do something about it,” and I don’t believe they ever did, at least nothing I read. And LA Weekly wasn’t going to talk about it because that was a great source of income for the paper.
So when the time came, I thought, “Well, we can marry these worlds.” And then I had a boxer friend in Chicago, when I worked there, who actually watched over a hooker, who had been arrested. And instead of calling a lawyer, just told the police everything she knew about the guy she was working for. And then was being threatened and one thing lead to another. And they had to call the boxer, and he just kept an eye on her and made sure nothing happened to her.
So the ideas come to you from different places, and this place, I guess, was triangulated.
Stephen: Now, one thing I think will be very interesting to listeners. As we’ve mentioned, you have an enormous background as a journalist and as a writer, but this was your first novel. So my assumption was that this was something that you wrote, sent off, got a publishing deal, and voilà, it was published a year, 18 months later. Is that what really happened?
John: I love a good joke. No, this is not what happened. I wrote the first draft to “A Better Goodbye” in the first six months of 2004 and before I went off to teach for a semester at my alma mater, the University of Utah. And then I came back and I wrote another draft of it, and then I probably did some more polishing. I sent it to some writer friends for their notes and worked on it.
And then I finally got an agent somewhere late in 2005, early 2006, and then nothing happened with that agent. And he was a wonderful guy, a legendary guy in the business, but he just couldn’t seem to do anything for me.
And after about three years or so, four years with him, then I changed to another agent, who just really had the patience of Job with me. We sent it out. Every time I’d read a review of a crime novel published by a house that I wasn’t familiar with, I’d call my agent, say, “Let’s send the book there. Maybe they’ll be willing to publish it.”
And I have a raft of rejection letters, nothing as bad as James Lee Burke. His novel “The Lost Get-Back Boogie” was rejected 111 times before it was published.
Stephen: I didn’t know that.
John: And when it was published, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. So this happens in the best of families. And I won’t say that I wasn’t downhearted many times.
We had one very close call at Random House. There was a wonderful editor there, one of the best editors in New York. And he liked the book, and his one note was that Nick, at that point, was too mopey for the book’s good. He had this dark cloud that he was living under, which is casting a pall on everything in the book.
So what I did was I rewrote one third of the novel, based on that one note. And I pumped Nick up a little bit, tried to make him a little more amiable, gave him a little more attitude, a little more humor. He still has the tragedy in his life, he’s still haunted by it, but he is a more rounded character. And he really, really, really helped the book.
And a couple of years later, lo and behold…
Stephen: Just like that.
Stephen: So that was a great note that you got from the fellow at… Did you say Random House?
Stephen: Yeah, because Nick, in this version of the book, is just, I don’t know, a very memorable character because he has this tragedy in his past. But the way he deals with it, it’s there, and it’s this enormous weight that, from time to time, pulls him down a little bit. But he deals with it okay, and that just really seems to make him as a character, at least for this reader.
John: Well, and bless your heart for your kind words about the book and about Nick. I really appreciate hearing that.
Stephen: Well John, where can readers find this book?
John: Well, it’s on Amazon, of course. I like to think it’s at your finest independent bookstores across the country. I know I’m going to be doing readings at a few places. This month I’m going to be here in Pasadena, California, where I live, this Thursday evening at Vroman’s Bookstore, which is a wonderful independent bookstore. And next month, I’m going to be in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the King’s English Bookstore, another terrific independent bookstore. And then, in February, I’m going to be in Austin, Texas, at BookPeople, which is a great town and a great bookstore.
Stephen: And if you’re not in any of those towns, but you like to buy from independent bookstores and you don’t see it, just ask them, and they’ll get a copy, I’m sure of it.
John: I certainly hope so, but it is out there. And I’m 70 years old, and I wasn’t expecting to have to wait this long to publish a book, but if feels good, it really does.
Stephen: Well, congratulations, because it really is an extraordinary book. I can’t recommend it highly enough for people that like this kind of very literary, yet noir-ish, storytelling style. It is just really an ideal example of that. So what’s the best place for listeners to find you online?
Stephen: All right, and I will spell that. It’s S-C-H-U-L-I-A-N, and I will link to that in the show notes. John, thank you so much for being here today. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.
John: Steve, thank you very much. I appreciate it.
From the Publisher:
Nick Pafko knows he can’t be a professional boxer forever. But he never guessed it would end so quickly, and so wrong. Broke and unemployed, Nick has little choice but to call a number given to him by a friend. On the other end? Scott, a washed-up B-movie actor who runs a so-called massage parlor looking for somebody desperate enough to work security.
Jenny Yee doesn’t really mind massage, until the day she finds her coworkers robbed and assaulted. Fearing for her safety, she resolves to never work without security again. With mounting expenses, she knows massage is the fastest way to get paid. When an old massage acquaintance calls Jenny to ask her to work for Scott, she agrees–and before long, she’s the top earner.
Scott is an arrogant moron, but he’s harmless compared to the thug he calls “friend”–Onus Dupree. When DuPree decides to rob Scott’s massage joint, it’s the perfect opportunity to beat up Nick and take advantage of Jenny. Can Nick stay true to his promise to protect Jenny? Can he protect himself?
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John Schulian Website www.johnschulian.com
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