By Naomi Hirahara
Veteran Los Angeles writer Gary Phillips signed “Violent Spring,” one of his first mysteries featuring his black private eye, Ivan Monk, with one of his trademark lines, “The Writing , that’s the fight.” It was 1995, when I was an aspiring novelist and editor of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper, looking for some words of wisdom from a more seasoned professional.
Since that time, Gary and I have become colleagues in detective writing. He’s asked me to contribute short stories to some of his many anthologies, including the upcoming “South Central Noir” (Akashic, September 2022). I used to collect all the books he wrote or edited, but as that number grew to over 50, I gave up that business.
I knew some things before this interview. I knew he was from Los Angeles, a comic book nerd and a former high school football player. And that his mother had been a librarian and his wife, Gilda Haas, a well-known community organizer and economic justice advocate who taught at UCLA.
Many of Gary’s touchstones in Los Angeles have disappeared or changed: the hospital where he was born, Queen of Angels, in Echo Park has closed; the original location of his mother’s library, the Ascot branch (256 W. 70th Street), now houses the offices of the Legal Aid Foundation; and his high school, Los Angeles Lutheran High, where James and Janice Hahn attended, is no longer in South Central.
Gary has always strived to keep Los Angeles history at the forefront of readers’ minds and his latest mystery novel, “One-Shot Harry”, which features a black press photographer in the 1960s, perhaps best sums up his passion for the past.
Q: I consider One-Shot Harry, perhaps more than any other of your books, to be a quilt of your life. Touchstones of politics – not only Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to Los Angeles, but also Mayor Tom Bradley’s election campaign and also the mention of Julian Dixon. Do you feel a particular affinity with this character?
A: My mother, who was a librarian, had multiple sclerosis, so it got worse with 24-hour care and I was that little kid. A big part of my life was me and my dad.
I was an only child. My father and I were quite close. Some of Dad’s characteristics and his drive show up in various characters. I realize that even though Harry is a Korean War veteran – he’s not a WWII veteran – Harry can sound so real because he mirrors my pop. My father was a poor kid from Texas. During the Depression and the 1930s, he worked for bootleggers. On the other hand, he had a brother who remained in France after the war. So in the 1950s, he would go to France and take me, a little boy, with him.
Friends would come over, play dominoes and drink beer in the kitchen, and I would invariably hear their stories. They stayed with me. I would remodel them and redo them. While I’m not factually accurate in all respects, there is truth in the emotions.
Q: Tell us about Harry’s development as a freelance black press photographer. Did you have to do a lot of research?
A: Harry is based on two real people. One is Harry Adams here in Los Angeles who was a black freelance photographer. He took what you would call pictures of middle-class black society. Her photos are in a collection at Cal State Northridge. He was also a part-time barber and I thought that was great.
The other influence is the legendary Arthur Fellig aka “Weegee”, a New York police photographer from the 1930s to the 1950s. He had a police scanner in his apartment and ran around the five boroughs. He was taking a photo of a man in a hallway with a knife in his head, men being taken away in a paddy wagon, people lying down after a drunken fight and someone shot dead after a mob fight. It was that guy.
Q: We share the same editor at Soho Crime, Juliet Grames, who received the Ellery Queen award at this year’s Edgar Awards, and I wanted to know if there was anything in Juliet’s editorial notes that definitely helped you. to elevate your manuscript to the next level?
A: She challenged me at the end of her first incarnation. I tend to have loose threads in my end, only because it looks more natural. I’m working on Harry’s second mystery and coming back to pick up looser threads.
I had fun with changing viewpoints in a few places that she didn’t think worked and thought she was right. We reached a compromise at the end of the book; there is a scene that switches to the female protagonist.
Q: In some ways you are very different from Harry because I don’t think I’ve ever seen you take a picture.
A: I’m a terrible photographer, but I have the help of today’s built-in cell phone technology. Harry got shot while being shot or beaten, so you’re right, he’s very different from me.
Q: Have you ever taken a photo or video of a crime in progress?
It’s funny you ask me that – Gar Anthony Haywood and I worked on an anthology, “Witnesses for the Dead”, inspired by Darnella Frazier, the young woman who captured the murder of George Floyd. The unintended consequences of putting a camera on these phones is that we can capture mischief on these devices that we carry in our pocket.
Q: What is the last photo you took with your cell phone?
A: It’s easy. My grandson, Silas, who is seven years old.
Q: Each writer has their own way of participating in the literary community. I think your most visible way is to gather authors for short story anthologies. When did anthologies become “a thing”?
A: Writer Jervey Tervalon first recruited me to work with him on a collection of cocaine stories. It became “Cocaine Chronicles”, which Akashic released in 2005, a year after “Brooklyn Noir” launched Akashic’s Noir series. Once we did that one, I had a bug.
Even though now I keep saying I’m going to quit, I still feel like I’m persuading myself to do another anthology. The draw is the complexity of putting together a team of writers, assembling a book around a theme, and telling them to go for it. I enjoy seeing what people come up with. It reinforces for me as a reader and writer that there are so many ways to get into a story. There’s something about the form of the short story and reaching a satisfying conclusion in a short time that I find appealing. I keep coming back to it.
Q: You have a lot of nostalgia for old Los Angeles. What places have we lost that you really missed?
A: One place I miss a lot is Teriyaki Suzuki. It was on Pico and Dunsmuir. It had a horseshoe counter and served ginger fried chicken with rice, spaghetti and Mexican food. I cried so much when this place closed in the 1990s. I consciously kept it alive in my fourth Monk novel.
I also miss the jazz spot, Parisian Room, which is now the Ray Charles post office. And also Yee Mee Loo’s bar in Chinatown on Spring and Ord.
Q: On your website, you have an ironic count of how many donuts you’ve eaten. Right now it’s up to 4,000. Do you think the actual number is more or less? And where’s your go-to for the most delicious donuts in LA?
The actual number is too frightening to consider. In terms of chains, Winchell’s. I go there once a week and get a chocolate twist and crumb frosting. As for a family operation, Magee’s Donuts, where I order a mini cinnamon roll and a cruller. I also try to hit the gym a few days a week.
Q: You also worked on the FX TV show, “Snowfall,” thanks to an introduction by the late John Singleton and Walter Mosley, who also writes for the show. “Snowfall” will enter its final season. Has working on television affected your prose writing?
A: It helped me edit more accurately. By writing a book, you have as much real estate as you need to tell your story. You can be stylish with the inner landscape you want to explore. With a script, there is brevity.
Working in the “Snowfall” writers room was a positive experience. We do deep dives into the psychology of the characters. But these scenes may not be seen on screen.
I think more about what my character wants. And I’ve always married dialogue and plot, but the writers room fused that better.
Naomi Hirahara’s award-winning historical mystery set in 1944 Chicago, Clark and Division, is now available in paperback. The second in his Hawai’i-based mystery series, An Eternal Lei, was also released this year.