Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Interview: James Ellroy

The new novel by James Ellroy, Blood's a Rover, is on my Christmas list this year, and boy am I anxious to read it, having waited 14 years for Ellroy to finish his Underworld USA trilogy. Below is an extract from a lengthy 1995 interview I made with Ellroy. If you want the full 15,000 word interview, in which Dog talks about every book he wrote up until that time, then send $2 to via PayPal and I'll send it to you. Enjoy...

If there's one thing you have to admire about Dog, it's that he puts on a good show. He swears. He digs up his past and shoves it in the faces of his adoring public. He simulates masturbation on stage. He howls like the Demon Dog Of American Crime Literature that he is. What's even funnier is that so many people take this stuff seriously.

Besides, what do people expect after reading one of Dog's novels? From Brown's Requiem to American Tabloid, they're full of swearing, racism, drugs, bodily functions, violence, fluids, sleazeballs and hairballs. How could you expect Dog to be anything other than rabid in real life?

The fuel which keeps Dog up nights writing his fever dreams is the unsolved murder of his mother in 1958. His books are full of mother-substitutes, the most famous being Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, a celebrated unsolved murder which occurred in January 1947. It is as though he is trying to deny his mother's reality by treating her as fiction. However, Ellroy has shown a greater maturity with his last novel, American Tabloid, and with the publication of My Dark Places, which details Ellroy's search for his mother's murderer, he hopes to acknowledge his mother, to recognise her for the person she really was.


James was born March 4 1948 in Good Samaritan Hospital. He learnt to read aged 3, and has been prolific reader ever since. In 1954, Lee and Jean divorced. Lee drank Alka-Seltzer for his ulcer and chased women. Jean drank Early Times bourbon and chased men. James drank what he was given and did some middle distance running at school. Result: James lived with his mother during the week and his father most weekends.

Jean worked as a nurse at the Packard Bell electronics plant and went out with men on a regular basis. One, Hank, was fat and had a thumb missing. She was always pissed. James preferred his father. When he turned 10, he was given the choice of living with mother or father - he chose father, his mother slapped him, he called her a drunk and whore.

Three months later, he arrived back from a weekend with his father to find cops at his mother's house. They told him his mother was dead, a cop gave him some candy, a news photographer snapped him at a neighbour's workbench holding an awl - they didn't use the second picture of him clowning, showing off.

James begged off the funeral. Moved in with father, freelance accountant, womaniser, minor hero in the war, bullshit artist, a history of heart disease. Briefly, Rita Hayworth's business manager in late forties. He wondered whether his father was going to be murdered as well. The following year, his father gave him a copy of The Badge by Jack Webb, which included a summary of Black Dahlia case - Elizabeth Short, a starlet tortured and mutilated, found naked and in two halves, reminded James of his mother, neither case solved.

James used to ride over to the spot on Norton Avenue and 39th Street, where the Dahlia's body was dumped, to feel her presence. He had nightmares about her, saw her in daylight flashes. Read crime novels from that time on. True crime too. He talked about the Dahlia case with Randy Rice, childhood friend. Kicked out of school for truancy. Years later, he went to Black Dahlia's grave, felt that he knew her, loved her.

Aged 17, James went into the US Army, then father became gravely ill, so James faked nervous breakdown, stammered, to get kicked out. His father died. James was virtually penniless and homeless.


Dog became a peeper around Hancock Park, breaking and entering, sniffing women's underpants in South Arden. Bought amphetamines from Gene The Short Queen. When no money, Dog drank cough syrup, or swallowed cotton wads in nasal inhalers to get high. Dog spent nights in Robert Burns Park taking speed and masturbating. This was Dog's life for 11 years, drinking, stealing food, drinking, dropping acid, drinking, shoplifting, stealing drink, smoking Maryjane, living on the streets, lifting wallets, sleeping in dumpsters, flophouses. In and out of county jail more than a dozen times. Had odd jobs, once minded till at a porn shop until his hand was found in it.

Dog caught pneumonia and told abscess on a lung. Coupla weeks later was hearing things from the drink. He knew he'd die if he didn't quit the life. Dog quit. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today, Ellroy doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, goes to bed early. He's very neat, meticulous, keeps a neat house, is disciplined. He presently lives with his wife, feminist author and critic Helen Knode, in Mission Hills, Kansas.

"It's the Hancock Park of the mid-West. I own a house like those, now. The surroundings are restful and physically beautiful and they underscore the silence that I need to work. I abhor outside stimulation."


Dog caddying at the Hillcrest and, after punching another caddy, the Bel-Air Country Club for $200-300 a week, whilst living in a $25-a-week room at the Westwood Hotel. Dog got the idea for a private eye novel in 1978 and began writing it January 26 1979.

I've seen you put Brown's Requiem down in previous interviews, but it ain't no dog. I think it's great and much underrated. It contains all the Dog trademarks: corrupt cops; excessive violence; the Black Dahlia case; our hero getting beaten to a pulp; Tijuana; dogs; wine, women & drugs; the unobtainable woman; and the bittersweet conclusion. The unobtainable woman was a major feature of your early novels.

"I wrote that book shortly after I got sober. I hadn't been with a woman for years and years and years. I'd had scant experience with women prior to that and I was looking for THE woman. I was a big, grrr grrr grrr kinda guy and women were afraid of me. I hadn't refined my social act at the time. I was working as a caddy and sober and writing my first book. I wanted a woman, I wanted sex, I wanted all that stuff and I wasn't getting any, and that's what really informs that book."

I figured that Ross Macdonald would have been a big influence on Dog - Macdonald's books are all about people with hidden pasts, just like Dog's characters.

"Yeah, he is. Raymond Chandler was also an influence early on. He's diminished in my mind now. A lot of his writing is flat-out bad. A lot of the construction is spotty. And I don't think he knew people anywhere near as well as Dashiell Hammett.

"There's a genre ghetto and people want the sympathetic character, the easy-to-identify-with character. People want that rebelliousness, the one person against the system book. Raymond Chandler created a very easy to adapt style which is why so many people have adapted to it with such great success. In America, you're up against a genre ghetto all the time. I've broken through that - I'm the darling of the deconstructionists, college professors, homosexual media mavens, people in the movie biz, the cognoscenti. These media hounds are capable of digging on irony but American writers take an almost perverse pride in being simplistic, in being proud of their genre roots."


"I am a fiend for darkness, sleaze, groovy twisted sexuality. I'm especially interested in this around the late fifties, early sixties, at the time of my emerging sexuality. I recall being holed up with a copy of Confidential magazine looking at a picture of Corrine Calvet for about three hours on a hot Summer night before I even knew what masturbation was. And I like to go back and relive those times, the time of darkness in my life and explicate it.

"I don't like to practice these things, but I'm curious about them. I like to retain an immunity from it which is why I live a very quiet, blissfully monogamous life in Kansas. I love to watch boxing on the TV - my wife has turned into a tremendous boxing fan. I go to the movies occasionally. I love the old film noirs. I lift weights. I like to think.

"I haven't live in Los Angeles in 14 years. I have enough crazy shit going on in my imagination to last me the next 47 years of my life. Believe me, I need no outside stimulus whatsoever. But I grew up in LA and my father was a sleazebag on the edge of the movie biz. I knew that Rock Hudson was a fag in 1959 - it was no newsflash when he finally caught AIDS and died 8 or 9 years ago. I like movies as cheap entertainment. To me, they're like hamburgers. I've ate about 10 profound hamburgers in my life and I've probably seen 10 profound movies. I'm voyeuristically curious about people's sex lives, about their inner moral workings, and here you have a whole cast of - usually very good-looking - characters, both women and men and all I want to know is who's a homosexual, who's a nymphomaniac, who's a sader, who's got the biggest wang in Hollywood, who's got the smallest, who's impotent, who's the underhung, who's the snap-diver, who's the sword-swallower, who's the peeper, who's the prowler, who's the pimp, who's the pederast and who's the panty-sniffer? Don't put me in some fucking Martin Scorcese/Quentin Tarantino symposium - contemporary movies don't interest me that much. I don't want to know about that. I want to know about the stars, what they're up to: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, James Woods, Willem Dafoe..."

Dog entertains and shocks by saying libellous things about various well-known movie personalities. He says he's got some well-placed sources in Hollywood, but anyone could say that.

"It's true."


"White Jazz is definitely a one-off. It's a first-person narration of a very bad man, a cop named Dave Klein, whose life in running down in Los Angeles in the fall of 1958. The book is a fever dream - it's a stream of consciousness style - there are no tricks in it - everything is quite literal but, if you blink, you will miss things. You have to get into the rhythm of Dave Klein's head or you won't get the book at all. There are many people who didn't understand the book. The book did not sell as well as the three previous volumes of the LA Quartet. It was a risk I took - I think the risk is worth it. The important thing with me is always the book, not the sales. I did it for that one book and I returned to a more fully developed style for American Tabloid, and I will never go back to White Jazz again. I've done it.

"Each book, I think, is darker, more dense, more complex and more stylistically evolved than the previous book. I have finished the LA Quartet. It is considered a monument of some sort - I consider it a great monument, like Mount Rushmore, and so does my dog, my wife, my agent and my current publisher. Others are not so charitable, but fuck `em because they don't have to be. The bottom line is this: if you don't like my books you can kiss my ass."


"The short story form does not interest me. I wrote short stories at the behest of editors that I owed favours to and, luckily for me, because I'd recently been divorced, I saw that I had collected enough short stories to sell a short story volume and make some very quick cash with minimal effort. So I wrote a novella to stand as the frontis piece of this collection, called Dick Contino's Blues.

"Dick Contino was a big star in America in the late forties and early fifties. He was a handsome Italian guy who played the accordion and nobody ever played accordion like this motherfucker. He humped it, he wolfed it, he waggled it, he gyrated with it, he orbited it like a fucking dervish flying on benzedrine, maryjane and glue. He was a handsome guy. He really banged that box. He had 400 fan clubs nationwide and 5000 fan-letters a week. But he was a fearful young kid and in 1951 his handsome ass was about to get drafted and sent to Korea. He told the draft board that he was really scared and didn't want to go to Korea. This was the wrong thing to say at the height of the red scare in America. The draft board and Hearst newspapers throughout America took the stand `Hey Dick, you're getting more ass than a toilet seat, you're making five Gs a week and you're 21 years old - we're gonna draft your ass.' So, Dick's ass was drafted. He was sent to basic training at Fort Ord, California. So Dick ran for 24 hours, went home to his mom and dad, turned himself into the Feds, got slammed, took it right up the rump-ramp for this one in the worst way. Got six months in the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington and was then drafted and sent to Korea, where he served with distinction. He came back to find the accordion somewhat passé and his career completely derailed. He went from being a big star and a main room guy, to a lounge act and the star of a very sleazy B-movie called Daddy-O.

"I have some very dim recollections of Dick Contino from the late fifties, and after finishing the LA Quartet I was suffering some separation pangs from Los Angeles, so I decided to do a picaresque, light-hearted farewell to LA in the fifties, hence the novella.

"Dick and I are still in touch. Dick is presently undergoing romantic troubles. He's 65 and is going out with the daughter of one of the members of his original fan club. There is only a 37 year age difference between Dick and this woman. She's an Italian woman from upstate New York. She's divorced. She has had several kids by several different men. I think Dick has picked a black marble with this woman. I think Dick is still, many, many years after his great fame and a few years after his resurgence via me, perpetuating the same patterns with bad women. So, in his way, Dick Contino is a noir character."


"When I finished the LA Quartet, I realised that that was then and this is now. I never wanted to do another novel that could in any way be categorised as a thriller, a mystery or a book based around police work or, specifically police investigations. I realised, what I wanted to do was write a trilogy - three books with fifteen years of American history broken down into five year increments. I wanted one theme to pervade these works and that is politics as crime and the private nightmare of public policy. The genesis of all this is reading Don DeLillo's novel Libra, a brilliantly fictional take on Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. The first book is called American Tabloid.

"Now, I was fifteen when Jack `The Haircut' Kennedy got whacked in 1963. I was never fond of the Kennedys - I never loved them nor hated them. I was unmoved by Kennedy's death even though he was very much of my youth. But now, all of a sudden, after reading Libra, I was obsessed by the Kennedy assassination and the events which I viewed to be the harbingers of it.

"I began to see that Libra precluded me from ever writing a novel specifically about the assassination but what I could do was write a novel wherein the assassination was but one murder in a long series of murders. I decided that this book would be my first novel that would, in no way, be driven by psycho-sexual plots. Some of the action would take place in LA, my chief locale, but most of it wouldn't. I would go one on one with history and recreate that era to my own specifications, so I did.

"I hired a researcher, a magazine editor friend of mine. She compiled chronologies and factsheets for me so that I wouldn't write myself into factual error. I extrapolated from those facts. I show all the real life characters in the book - the Kennedy brothers, Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes and the key gangsters of the era - Santos Trafficante, Carlos Marcello, Sam Giancana - in a totally fictional context. You don't need to show Kennedy giving his inaugural speech or having his brains blown out. We've seen it eight million times. Lee Harvey Oswald does not appear in the book. The assassination is 12-15% of the overall text. If you have the stones to say I can rewrite history to my own specifications, I can populate this book with fictional characters, the minor minions of the time, and make them more interesting and more perversely apathetic than the Kennedys, J Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes and the rest, then you can get away with it.

"I have stopped writing psycho-sexual driven plots. It's the covenant of consciousness. I think writers can get better and better and better and better. I think good writers can bring a thematic unity, an innate talent and a certain native intelligence embedded in his/her unconsciousness and that can see you through any number of books. 3, 4 or 5. There are then the implications of editors - write a series character, a sympathetic private eye, British inspector, innocent person who keeps getting caught up in violent intrigue, so that readers can have somebody to come back to and come back to and come back to. I have decided to ignore that rule and forge my own territory.

"For me, my big thematic journey is twentieth century American history and what I think twentieth century American history is, is the story of bad white men, soldiers of fortune, shakedown artists, extortionists, legbreakers. The lowest level implementors of public policy. Men who are often toadies of right wing regimes. Men who are racists. Men who are homophobes. These are my guys. These are the guys that I embrace. These are the guys that I empathise with. These are the guys that I love.

"Now, parenthetically, a number of critics have called me a fascist, a racist, an anti-semite, an anti-papist because my characters are like that. These are the characters who are portrayed as multi-faceted human beings. The reader, on some level, is meant to empathise with them, and I certainly do. I think what angers critics is that the racism, and homophobia and anti-semitism and everything else that these characters express is not fundamental to their character - they are just casual attributes that they possess because they are men of the time.

"So I write books of the time, in the language of the time in the first and third person, refer to Jews as kikes, homosexuals as faggots, and blacks as niggers. People don't know how to take it. I love the American idiom. If I can dip into the American idiom I would rather use it, as profane and ugly as it sometimes is than so-called normal King's English.

"The bottom line is that twentieth century American crime fiction is the story of bad white men and I'll go to my grave thinking that."

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Cinema: Katalin Varga (2009) / dir: Peter Strickland

Note: Like all of my texts, this is full of spoilers. If you haven't seen the film yet, then don't read.

Although Katalin Varga has a mystery at the centre of its plot, it is told with a directness and simplicity that grips throughout.

The set-up is very simple: Katalin (Hilda Péter) has been dishonorable in the past, her nine-year-old son Orbán (Norbert Tankó) came from the seed of another man, her husband and family throw her and her son out onto the street to fend for themselves. Katalin leaves the village with Orbán on a wooden cart. It is all very rustic and earthy. It feels like a film set in the past, perhaps a few hundred years ago, giving it the atmosphere of a fable told around a camp fire.

As we follow Katalin on her journey we get two surprises. The first is that this is set in modern day - she passes through a city with concrete blocks of flats, and she uses a cellphone. The second is that she has a plan. She heads for a village, meets a man at a dance, seduces him, then kills him. Up until this point, Katalin has been presented as plain, with her eyes downcast, her head in a scarf, her clothes in mute colours. Now, as she becomes a killer, her eyes are wide open, her hair is released and wild, and she is bathed in the red light of the fire. There are some shots where she is the spitting image of mad Sister Ruth (played by Kathleen Byron) in Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947), but perhaps that's just me.

Although we are horrified by the murder, we have also been prepared - we suspect that Katalin was raped by one man, as another (the man she murdered) looked on - and so we still retain sympathy for Katalin as she escapes through the countryside with her son.

The landscape of Transylvania is full of rolling hills topped by luscious forests. It is green and fertile, a place where people follow the rhythms of nature rather than bend it to their will. As Katalin cuts a swathe through this landscape, first on cart, and then on foot, we are always behind her, following, trying to catch up.

When she meets the rapist Antal (Tibor Pálffy), he is in heroic pose - a gypsy with a faintly aristocratic dignity, reaping a crop with his scythe. Antal and his beautiful, gentle wife Etelka (Melinda Kántor) take in mother and son, and the four become close: Katalin with Etelka; Orbán with Antal.

It is obvious that Antal and Etelka are deeply in love, that they are living in a hermetic dream world as only lovers can. Etelka communicates this to Katalin, with the only disappointment being their inability to have children. Etelka talks of this as Antal and Orbán horse around like father and son. There is an instant bond between Orbán and Antal.

In contrast with the loving couple in this rustic idyll, it suddenly becomes apparent that Katalin is out of place. Even her son feels comfortable and at home with the couple since he receives little or no love, affection or trust from his mother during their journey. There is a darkness about Katalin. She is a force of horror and disruption, waiting to explode. You can see that her original plan was to kill Antal, but upon meeting him, seeing how attractive and gentle he is, she is uncertain about how to proceed.

This tension is shown, like the rest of the film, through the eyes of Katalin. We can also hear the tension through the film. The soundtrack - and I'm talking about natural sound here: speech, wind, fire crackling, wooden wheels on rocky roads, etc - is extremely loud, intrusive, disorientating.

On a boat trip, Katalin reveals her past. She was led into a forest and raped by one man as another looked on and did nothing. Afterwards she wanted to die, but the forest and all the animals that it contained came to her, and saved her. It is only then, watching Katalin telling her tale, in contrast to the serenity of the loving couple, that we truly realize how mad and driven she is. She wants revenge and is willing to pay away price for it.

It is only now, when Katalin reveals her secret, that we began to appreciate that all the loud, discordant sounds that we hear is how she hears the world - the world is always a sharp noise in her ears, keeping her on edge. And the noises are mainly of the forest, the creaking trees, the crickets - all the things that saved her nine years previously.

As Katalin exacts her revenge, another cycle of revenge comes into play, leading to the films shocking and unsettling conclusion.

The extraordinary story of the making of this award-winning film can be read is several places.
Here is an interview with Peter Strickland for FilmTett.
Here is another where he talks in more detail.
And here is Peter Strickland's blog.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Interview: Dave Gibbons on Watchmen

Although I had met Dave Gibbons several times in the early 1980s, most memorably with a group of 2000 AD artists on the top deck of a bus on the way to a comic convention in Birmingham, we had never actually sat down and had a proper chinwag about his work. Then, when he began producing such extraordinary work with writer Alan Moore on the Watchmen series, I knew the time was right for an interview.

Dave suggested that he send me black and white copies of the last issue of Watchmen so that I would be properly prepared for our meeting at the Camden Comic Mart (in London) on 11 July 1987, the first day Watchmen 12 went on sale. Dave was mobbed by the appreciative fans, and happily signed copies of the comics before we escaped to a quiet spot nearby on a glorious, sunny afternoon.

Reading this interview now, more than 20 years later, I’m surprised at how mean I must have sounded to Dave. I give him quite a tough time. I come across as picky, critical and not very appreciative of his achievement. Still, gentleman and professional that he is, he persevered with me, made corrections to the transcript, supplied me with nice artwork to illustrate the interview, and a great painting for the cover of ARKEN SWORD 22 (one I have not seen reproduced since).

Below is an extract from the interview. If you are interested in reading the rest of the interview - the full version runs to over 8,000 words, and includes the cover and all 10 pages of artwork and text - then send $2 to my PayPal account (, label it 'Gibbons' and I'll email it to you as a PDF file.


Dave: Alan Moore was asked by Dick Giordano at DC to prepare a treatment for the Charlton characters, which DC had just acquired. When they saw what Alan proposed to do they didn’t want this to happen to the Charlton heroes, and so they suggested that Alan & I come up with some alternative characters to go with the plot.

Let me explain how I got involved. I’d been working for DC before Alan started for them on Swamp Thing, and we’d often talked about doing something together. In fact, Alan had prepared synopses for Challengers of the Unknown and Martian Manhunter, which we’d intended to submit to DC, but for various reasons we couldn’t. The Martian Manhunter had already been assigned for instance.

Paul: That was the Greg Potter story that turned into Jemm, Son of Saturn.

Dave: Yeah. Well, Alan mentioned this Charlton heroes synopsis, and I was interested because I was a little dissatisfied about the way the Green Lantern series had been going. I went to the Chicago Con in 1984, and I got Dick Giordano in a corner and told him I wasn’t going to do Green Lantern anymore, but I’d really like to do what we later called Watchmen - I don’t think it had a name at that point. Dick said it was fine if Alan agreed, and I actually phoned Alan up from the DC offices and told him I’d be drawing Watchmen, and also asked if he wanted to do the Superman Annual with Julie Schwartz. So our DC collaboration started from that trip.

Paul: You’d collaborated before on short stories for 2000 AD – ‘The Clone Ranger,’ and ‘Chrono Cops’ for instance.

Dave: I’m a little older than Alan, but we’re of a similar age and background in comics, and I’ve certainly felt on his wavelength when I’ve had his scripts. I think ‘Chrono Cops’ is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and would certainly be among my personal Top Ten strips. It wasn’t easy to draw - Alan’s scripts are NEVER easy to draw - but he bends over backwards to make it suitable for the artist they’re going to go to. One of the things I like about them is that they’re always very challenging.

Paul: How did you develop the Watchmen characters?

Dave: The first time I read the script I visualized them as the Charlton heroes in their last costumes, so I had quite a difficult time at first devisualizing Captain Atom. Because there was no time pressure at the beginning, I didn’t just come up with costumes one Monday morning. I talked the characters through with Alan and he came up with most of the names, though I came up with Nite Owl, who was a character I drew as a kid. He seemed to fit the Blue Beetle position quite nicely. Then over a period of 7 months, I drew sketches of various things when the inspiration struck me, and the characters just fell into place. The Comedian didn’t have black leather at first. He was dressed in khaki and webbing - more military. But it’s very difficult for me to say with any confidence when I actually designed any particular character. I do remember a weekend after the October 1984 Westminister Comic Mart, when Alan came to my place and we went over the character sketches, ideas, how to do the adverts and covers. Quite a lot of it got settled then, as indeed did the Superman Annual. That Annual is also part of what I consider to be my Top Ten strips.

To diversify a bit, it was great to do Superman after loving him as a kid, but the real kick was to work with Julie Schwartz, who’s a real gentleman and probably one of the best and most helpful editors I’ve ever worked for. The whole thing was a joy.

Anyway, after the brainstorming, I did more sketches and Alan had more thoughts, which led to me getting the first script on March 27th 1985. Watchmen wasn’t scheduled at all until about a year later.

Paul: Did the characters go through a lot of changes?

Dave: What we found with the Charlton characters was that, with all due respect to their creators, they were very much generic heroes. They weren’t the most original concepts in the world. So we found we had a generic stable of heroes. We had the Batman-type character, the super-heroic nuclear hero, the avenger/Mr A character, the glamorous superheroine, the militaristic Judge Dredd/American Flagg! kind of character. So we found ourselves in the position to make our definitive statements about the well-known genres of heroic characters. So although we may have changed bits of dress and character, in broad terms they always fell into those archetypal roles.

I think the one that was the most fully-formed when he came about was Rorschach. Apart from him originally having a full-body costume, which was later changed to just a mask because having a blot over your body was hard to draw with any focus, his character sprang fully formed almost from the very first time Alan mentioned him.

We were afraid that Silk Spectre, who was based on Nightshade - she was just someone to be Captain Atom’s girlfriend - would turn out to be a non-entity, but strangely enough throughout the series they all seemed to get an equal share of the spotlight, and they all became equally interesting.

Paul: You could certainly influence the art, because you were drawing it, but how much influence did you have on the storyline?

Dave: The storyline was largely set, and the plot was sufficient to the purpose, so I didn’t really have any effect on changing the plot, but I certainly think a lot of my visualizations and details changed the emphasis. I wouldn’t presume to tell Alan what to write, but what I would do is talk in general areas like “I’ve always wanted to see a character do...” or “One of the things I’ve never liked about this kind of character is...” So when Alan & I talk on the phone we talk in a non-sequitor kind of way, about what’s on our minds at the time: books, music, etc, and a lot of things in Watchmen have come from that. There’s been a lot of serendipity in it where things haven’t come from Alan or I, but from the general atmosphere around us. Alan’s very perceptive, and I like to think that I am as well, and you can tell from knowing another person’s work what their strengths are, what they want to do, and the general feel they’re after. A lot of it is unstated. At one stage we were spending perhaps 8 hours a week on the phone.

We still respected each other’s area though. I’d never dream of telling Alan what to do. There again, if I saw a line which was a little off, or Alan saw a panel that wasn’t quite what he had in mind, then we’d tell each other. Comics is a collaborative medium after all, and although it may be a cliché, I think we’ve drawn each other out and there’s a sense that the sum is greater than the parts on Watchmen. So I think I’ve had a general influence rather than a specific one on the storyline.

Cinema: Man Push Cart (2005) / dir Ramin Bahrani

I just saw this film for the first time, and I was very impressed by it, so I present my thoughts here...

The title is a very simple one. It gives us a mental image of a man pushing a cart. But it is also a primitive title - the construction is naïve, as though written by a non-native English speaker. So, in some vague way, the story begins to form in our mind before we see the film.

From the beginning and throughout the film we see the central character, Ahmad, pulling his stainless steel bagel push cart through the dark, early-morning streets of New York City. He pulls the cart by hand. He is small and fragile as the mass of cars, trucks, taxis, and buses buzz around him, threatening to sideswipe him.

This physically demanding and laborious task is shown to us repeatedly. Much of Ahmad's life, and the screen time, is taken up with tasks involving the cart. He loads it, takes it on the road, parks it, prepares the hot water, coffee, tea, bagels, danish - all in darkness - then sells his wares to his regular customers, some of whom know his name. The day ends with him packing up, pulling the cart back to the lockup, washing it, and then making his way back to Brooklyn, asleep on the train. (Although there are elements of Neorealism, and perhaps Robert Bresson, in these scenes, their length and repetition remind me most of the fetching and distribution of fresh water in Kaneto Shindo's The Naked Island (1961))

The all-encompassing schedule of his work means that there is little or no time for Admad to develop a life outside of work. On the way home, he hawks porn DVDs to workmen, or trades them for cigarettes with another vendor. The focus of his life is to make enough money to pay for his cart. And when he has paid for the cart, he must then get it insured, and pay for his corner, and so on. It seems that this cycle will have no end, in keeping with the director's stated intention to echo Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, the story of a man who rolls a giant boulder uphill, only to find another at the bottom waiting for him, ad infinitum.

Ahmad is trying to build a stable life of certainty. From this base, he hopes to regain custody of his son, currently kept from him by his in-laws. His past is unclear. He was a rock star in Pakistan, but left that life to be with the woman he loved in America. (His wife died, but we do not know how.) He no longer sings, but during this long period of steady work, he begins to listen to music, and is encouraged to dream of a more prosperous life by Mohammad, a rich Pakistani man he becomes acquainted with. Admad even contemplates a relationship with Noemi, a Spanish girl manning a nearby newspaper stand. As a sign of this new optimism - or perhaps the end of his depression - Admad begins to nurture it a newborn kitten he found on the sidewalk.

The film is called 'Man Push Cart', yet with each viewing of the man pulling the cart, it seems that the cart is pushing the man. In one instance, it does push him over and it begins to roll along the street out of control. The cart is Admad's burden, a burden he must carry through life. It overshadows him, controls him. Perhaps it represents his past, or his inner self. Perhaps it was a shared dream with his wife, or a commitment that they both made - in her sole appearance, in a flashback, she places a sticker on the cart, which he washes around so that it is not displaced.

Even after Admad has parked his cart for the night, he carries its gas cylinder around - a part of the cart always remains with him. Only when he visits Mohammad does his relinquish the cylinder, and it is then that the prospect of a future without the cart arises.

The man and the cart seem inseparable - one cannot imagine one without the other. So perhaps 'Man Push Cart' refers to a single entity, a beast with a man in front and a push cart behind. It trundles through the streets of New York, unseen, untouched, uncared-for, only touching the lives of others, only visible, when it is on a street corner dispensing coffee and bagels.

Near the end of the movie, when the cart is stolen, it is tragic because all of Admad's past, and all of his future is invested in it. He has nothing tangible invested in the girl Noemi (she feels affection for him, kisses him, but is leaving for Barcelona) and has no use for potential music investor Mohammad (who is only interested in making money out of Admad, and bedding Noemi). He is lost without his cart, his other half.

As chance would have it, he helps another vendor pull a cart into a more lucrative corner uptown. There, left on his own, waiting, uncertain of the future, having to start again at the bottom, Admad seems strangely content. This is the way things should be for him. As if to illustrate his contentment, the trees around him light up. Perhaps it is only natural for a man to have a burden, to be driven by it, to be consumed by it, to control it. Perhaps, in the end, it is the only thing he can call his own.

I watched the UK DVD distributed by Dogwoof Pictures (, which I bought on Ebay because it was unavailable from

Friday, 9 October 2009

Interview: Patricia Cornwell

I think I'm getting old. This Summer I have been contacted by people wanting to use past interviews I conducted for ARK and CRIME TIME. So I dived into my shed, which resembles Xanadu out of Citizen Kane, and found about 100 x 3.5 inch disks full of garbled text files. Transferring them onto my computer, I suddenly realised 10-15-25 years have passed since I wrote some of this material, and I resolved to actually begin posting it on this Blog. Hence...

The following extract is from an interview I conducted with author Patricia Cornwell at the Waldorf Hotel, London in 1996. She had just achieved superstardom in the UK and was very difficult to pin down, but the very nice people at Little,Brown allowed little old me to talk to her. I think the reason was two-fold. First, I interviewed another of their authors, Andrew Klavan, and did a good job. Secondly, we let Little,Brown buy the cover of the first issue of
CRIME TIME, which made its debut in front of all the authors and publishers attending the pre-convention party of Bouchercon Nottingham in 1995. This interview was my reward, and I made full use of the allotted 30 minutes.

Whilst transcribing the interview, I noticed something which I think is very telling. Some interviewees talk in phrases, which I then stitch together to make them coherent, and most talk in sentences, but Patrica Cornwell talked in paragraphs. No umming and ahhing. No pauses. Just full-blown, concrete thought. So even though it was only 30 minutes, it was all great and all useable. Very professional.

Below is an extract from the interview. If you are interested in reading the rest of the interview - this full version runs to over 5,000 words - then send $2 to my PayPal account (, label it 'Cornwell' and I'll email it to you as a PDF file.


"Dr. Kay Scarpetta is not similar to anyone. It probably has something to do with the fact that I didn't have anyone in mind when I came up with her. Also, because I'm so rooted in reality - to the real professionals and the real cases - I tend to get somewhat removed from literary, TV or film characters. They, to me, are not reality, so they have no bearing on my work. This means I have a difficult time trying to explain my characters because people like to categorise them by comparing them to other characters."

However, having created this popular character - a female medical examiner who works for the FBI at Quantico - all sorts of variations of her have started to appear in the past five years. The most notable is probably Dana Scully in The X Files, who has expressed some of the same ideas and thoughts as Kay Scarpetta.

"This is one of the reasons why Peter Guber and I are not wasting any time in producing the first Scarpetta film. Unfortunately, my books are the inspiration for other people to come up with other strong female protagonists, particular in the FBI or medical fields. I won't even watch or read these other things that people tell me about because they'll probably just aggravate me."


Patricia knows what she's talking about. In 1979, after graduating with an English major from Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, she became an investigative crime reporter for the Charlotte Observer. It was here that she first became interested in crime and, as part of her job, she gained access to police departments, morgues, laboratories, and detective squad rooms - the people and places that would later turn up in her books. After her move to Richmond, Patricia became a volunteer police officer and was on the streets in uniform. In 1985, she joined the Virginia Chief Medical Examiner's Office as a computer analyst. Patricia wanted to write crime fiction and it was the perfect opportunity for her to do research AND get paid for it at the same time. Eventually, when her manuscripts went unpublished, she ended up needing the job. For six years Patricia witnessed hundreds of autopsies, attended medical school lectures, labs and trials. She researched in the morgue's medical library, wrote technical documents, helped edit the Medico-Legal Bulletin, contributing articles on DNA profiling to link serial killers, the relationship between the medical examiner and the press, drug-related homicides in Virginia and even the importance of accurate technical details in crime fiction. She left the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in 1991 but is now a consultant for them - an honourary title which allows her access for her research. Patricia first went to the FBI headquarters at Quantico to do research for the Chief Medical Examiner's Office, but now visits to do training and research. She teaches classes in media relations and other subjects to the FBI and other investigative agencies.

"One of the reasons I've been fortunate enough to have access to a lot of places and information is because I have a platform of legitimacy from my profession and background. You also earn your credibility through word of mouth and by meeting people. I can't continue to enjoy the world these people live in unless they know they can trust me. They read the books, think I'm okay and the doors open."

She works to get the facts right.

"It's an unforgiving world. If you get something wrong, people turn off you just like that. Besides that, I want to get it right for myself, keep it honest. It's very important to me personally, to get it right, to know what it feels like and to experience it as much as I can."


With access to all this information, and with her two years experience as an award-winning crime reporter for the Charlotte Observer, I would have thought that Patricia would be writing fact, not fiction.

"Sometimes fiction is truer than fact. Actually, I do both, because the scaffolding of all my stories is fact, whether it is a procedure, or the type of case, or the kinds of individuals. It is all rooted in experience and research. That's the fact. The fiction of it is the way that I want the characters to work the cases.

"People have asked me over the years why I don't write true crime and I tell them that I could not bring myself to victimise people all over again. If you have a son or daughter murdered in what turns out to be a sensational crime about which books are written, and you have been on the side of the fence where I have been - seeing relatives sitting in the waiting rooms and the looks on their faces as they come to find out what's happened to their child - I don't want to write about things in gory detail that could upset those relatives all over again. There are cases where people find it cathartic to write about their experiences, and I don't bump the people who do it, it's just that I couldn't, and I don't want to."

Me, again... It was the mixture of both professionalism and emotion that I liked in the books, that make them such rivetting reads. She is still going strong, of course, with the 18th Scarpetta book, The Scarpetta Factor, due out now.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Fiction: A Story by I

I have often been frightened by the thought that, no matter how long I know someone, no matter how intimately, there is always a part of them I will never know, and can never second guess. I have always tried to look inside people, to find out what made them what they were, how their mind worked, so that I could predict their next action or thought. I considered myself quite adept at this skill and have, over the years, been quite successful at it.

This skill have proved helpful in both my life and my profession.

(My profession is not your concern, and I do not wish to disclose it. I will not give you any clues in that area. There are no hints in this text. You will, no doubt, read this text looking for clues. Because this is in a criminal publication, you will be suspicious. At this stage, you may even go so far as to speculate whether I am either a criminal, a policeman, a writer, or a combination thereof. You will never know - it is irrelevant. I need my anonymity.)

This story starts with a friend. I have known this friend, on and off, for many years. I met this person, whom I shall call A, whilst I was at B University. We were an odd couple, and people commented that we had nothing in common. This was true, but I have found that most friends are different from each other - the differences allow us to see each other in a different light, and hence grow as people. The worse kind of friend is one similar to ones self - people hate to be constantly reminded of their own faults.

After University, we worked together at C Ltd for a while, and then lost contact. I moved to D City, married E, moved to F Street before settling in G Road. It was a good time for me. Everything was simple and life was sweet. Then, after ten years, I accidentally bumped into A again and my life fell apart.


How do two people bond? There is no quick application of superglue, and instant symbiosis - it is a long, invisible process where millions of emotional gifts and favours are exchanged. Before you know it, you have reached a compromise, an equilibrium, an understanding. You can spend hours in the company of the one with whom you have bonded, and it feels like seconds.

This was my feeling towards A when we met. However, as I was later to understand, A had obviously changed. We had been meeting regularly for a little time when, over a drink, A said:

“I’d like to ask a favour.”

“Go ahead.”

“Do you know the people across the road from you?”

“Not really. You know, just a nodding acquaintance.”

“Could you keep an eye on them for me? You know, make a list of people coming and going from the house, times, that sort of thing.”


“I know it’s a bit of a weird thing to ask, but it’d be a great help to me. I’m… I can’t really tell you what’s going on, but it’ll make sense at the death.”

Although I was more than a little confused by the request, I agreed. A was always a bit more eccentric than I, and I was always too ‘square’ for most people’s tastes. Besides, it was kind of exciting to be spying on someone else.


At first, E was somewhat sceptical about the whole thing and wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Our road was in a respectable neighbourhood - nothing much happened and, if it did, it was behind closed doors. Nevertheless, over the first four weeks, I established my neighbours, H and J, had a kind of routine: a) first thing in the morning the children (K, M and N) would be sent off to school; b) during the day packages would arrive via delivery vans; c) throughout the evening people would arrive with ring binders, knock on the door, enter, spend a few minutes inside, leave, and drive off.

I did not find any of this suspicious. Obviously, my neighbours worked at home, they ordered their clothes and other items from catalogues, and they had friends or relations around of an evening. They even had grocers and video libraries coming to the door. The window cleaners were around every couple of weeks. The other day I even had a guy offering to clean out my guttering for £12.

You would think that watching people would be boring, that there would be long periods of nothing happening, that your interest would waiver. I didn’t find that to be the case. It became a habit to watch them. I would watch television, do some cooking, gardening, clear out the garage, and always one eye would be kept on my neighbours. Inside the house, my clipboard was always by my side, ready for the next scrap of information. When outside, I would surreptitiously look at my watch and memorise what to write down. (I was able to develop my own set of standard phrases and short-hand initials because H and J had a very rigorous routine.)

E would come home from work and ask me what news I had, what was going on, having caught the bug too. Ritually, E would look through my notes before coming into the kitchen and kissing me. When I told A about this, A laughed knowingly.

“It always happens,” A said. “Curiosity always gets the better of them.”


One day, when I went for a walk down to the newspaper shop, I forgot my money, went back, and realised my neighbours had gone out. It was instinctive. I didn’t know how I knew - there must have been some subtle change that only my senses realised - but when I looked over to their house it was empty. I was shocked.

I thought for a moment. What should I do? I have to know, for certain, if they are there or not. Otherwise, there’d be a gap in my notes, something unknown.

Although, I had never visited the neighbours, I decided to knock on their door. Knock, knock. Wait, wait, wait. No answer. No sound of movement from within the house. Where have they gone? What are they doing?

I didn’t like standing there. I felt exposed. I looked up and down the street, saw nothing but neat rows of grass and tarmac. (Except for the O house - they had an old caravan decomposing on their drive, and the carcass of a car in their garden.) There was no-one around.

Quickly, I walked up to the window and looked in, shading my eyes.

It was messy. Cups and saucers all over the place. Cigarette butts, ash trays. Newspapers, plastic bags, junk mail. All strewn across the furniture and floor. It looked like they spent their lives slumped in front of the box. What a waste, I thought.

Fearing capture, I retreated back to my house and wrote down everything I could remember. There was a certain thrill, a sense of thwarting danger, in the whole exercise. E got the whole story that evening and listened intently over dinner. I remember that we made love that night.


The experience of missing the neighbours, of not knowing where they were, had the effect of making me more vigilant, more determined to chart their every move. My neighbours had done something wrong - they were to blame for something, all I had to do was find that something.

I was now rooted to the sofa in the front room. I had phone, fax, laptop, TV, video, camcorder and binoculars to hand. If I didn’t own it before, I got it delivered pronto.

I phoned libraries to get births, deaths and marriages in their family. I talked to people in the local council offices and found out about the property and the history of the land they were on. The last census gave me more information. I was hooked up to the Internet and so did some background checks on them, see if they owned any companies. I checked newspapers to see if they were mentioned in any articles. No stone went unturned, no fact unchecked.

Looking across the road at them, I knew the neighbours by the shape and movements of their silhouettes. I could predict the sequence of events in their lives. I played little games with myself, timing how long it took them to wash, dress and breakfast, when the post and deliveries would turn up, when the visitors would arrive and depart. I plotted average times of visits by visitor, trying to work out what could be said in that time. I took down the registration numbers of the visitors’ cars, traced them through P (a friend from way back), got names, addresses, and repeated the whole process for every one of them. Q, R and S were retired, lived an hour away, were in different professions, educated in different places, moved in different circles, didn’t know one another. They were completely anonymous. When I checked T, I was sure I’d hit the jackpot (even told A as much), because T’s name kept popping up, but it all led nowhere - T owned a business, was known in the community, was completely harmless.

There were no clues.

They were not suspicious in any way.

They had done nothing wrong.


I had reached the stage where I no longer went out. I had everything delivered to me. Even A started coming to the house. I was spending all my time looking, searching, excavating, digging, hewing data but finding no nuggets of information worth having.

Work around the house was forgotten. E would come home and get stinky with me. It was not a good time.

Frustrated, I tried to think in a different way. Perhaps I was looking for the wrong things? Instead of looking at what was there, what I knew, maybe I should be looking for holes in the data, for things that I did not know. I rifled through the material I had collected, looked at video footage of the visitors, their dress, their expressions, and found nothing. Wherever I went, I always returned none the wiser.


I decided to go back to the beginning. Given time to think, there were certain questions in my mind. First, what had the neighbours done to warrant me keeping tabs on them? Secondly, what had A to do with it? Thirdly, why was I keeping tabs on them?

When A came round for the daily report, I came straight out with it.

“I’ve been checking on the comings and goings of H and J for months now, keeping you up-to-date. Sure, it’s been interesting in a weird kind of way, but I’m fed up with there being no answers. I want to know why I’m doing this? Why did you ask me to do this A? What have they done?”

A looked at me. I could tell that facts were being weighed up, a decision being made.

“It’s for your own protection,” A said.

I was a little taken aback. “But, I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“No. But you might.”

A left me time to think about that. “But what has that got to do with my neighbours?”

“They are watching you. They are waiting for you to do something wrong.”

All I could come up with was a weak, “Eh?”

“When I found out they were watching you, I thought it best to tell you to watch them. I figured that if you watched them long enough, you’d find something on them, you’d have someone to blame.”

“But why me?”

“Why not? Someone has to take the blame. Why not you?”

A got up and left. I felt like a blank page.

“But I can’t blame them for anything.” I muttered. “I’ve looked and looked. They haven’t done anything wrong.”


The following morning, I saw U. U looked suspicious. I decided to find out as much about U as I could. I followed U, and photographed U. U did not disappoint me. If I do anything wrong, then I know who is going to take the blame.

(c) 2002 Paul Duncan

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Introduction and The Ground Rules

Why this blog? There are several reasons. First, some background.

I started publishing my own comics magazine at the age of 15 (Arken Sword, later just ARK), and then co-founded the crime fiction magazine Crime Time (still going strong thanks to the current editor), and then created the Pocket Essentials series of film and cultural books (again, new titles still being published). For many years I have (allegedly) been researching a biography of author Gerald Kersh, but have been too busy to work on it because of the day job editing film books for TASCHEN. My primary aim for each of these projects is to share my enthusiasm for comics, books and films with other people.

As a result of my endeavors it has been my privilege to meet and interview with quite a few artists and writers over the years. During the 1980s, I interviewed comics people like Jack Kirby, Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore, Kent Williams, Dave McKean, Will Eisner, Moebius, Dave Sim, Alan Davis, Alex Toth and many others. In the 1990s, I interviewed Edward Bunker, Patricia Cornwell, James Ellroy, Lawrence Block and George V. Higgins. In the Noughties, I have visited the archives of Michelangelo Antonioni, Roman Polanski, Ingmar Bergman, Michael Mann and Pedro Almodóvar.

Since most of the interviews are out of print (and some have never been published), I have decided to start this blog to share them with you. However, because of time and economic constraints there have to be some ground rules. First, I think I'll only have time to find, edit and upload about an interview a week. Secondly, I'm not going to have time/space to include everything, so I'll offer PDFs and text files which I can email to you directly for a minimal fee to my PayPal account.

I guess the first interviews I should find and post are those with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

In addition to posting interviews, I'll also post any curious notions that pop into my head, and perhaps even bore you with some fiction. Let's see what develops...