Interview with crime fiction writer Jason Starr
Jason Starr‘s latest novel, The Pack, is about house-husbands who turn into werewolves. It’s also about the economy, masculinity and sex.
I first came across Starr’s work through a paperback copy of The Follower, his 2007 novel about a stalker. Thanks to the staff selections display at Vancouver bookstore Pulp Fiction, I ignored the Getty Images collage cover, took it home and finished it in a couple of days. It was hard to put down. Bret Easton Ellis blurbs on the back cover: “A masterpiece.”
Starr’s following novel, Panic Attack, has been optioned by David Fincher (The Social Network). He’s also written comics, a graphic novel (The Chill) and is currently writing a screenplay for a movie based on another of his novels, Cold Caller.
We reached Jason Starr at a New York City coffee shop to talk werewolves, crime fiction, and Starr fan Ellis.
Writing and coffee
Shawn Conner: Do you do a lot of writing in coffee shops?
Jason Starr: Yeah, just to get out of the house, that kind of thing.
SC: Are you ever recognized, like “Aren’t you the guy who wrote that book, what are you working on now?”
JS: Once in awhile. In New York you kind of get lost in the crowd.
SC: Do you like that?
JS: I do like that, I like being anonymous. Sometimes I’ll become a regular at some coffee bars. I remember at one Starbucks, I arrived one morning, the manager said, “We had to move your table.” When they say something like that you know you’ve been there a lot.
I’m not the only one. There’s this guy Richard Brody, who’s a film critic for the New Yorker, was writing next to me for years. We finally said something to each other. He was working on his book, I was working on mine, and we became friends after that. Two people writing don’t even talk to each other.
SC: What’s your drink at a coffee bar?
JS: Usually just a tall coffee. Keep it simple.
A life of crime (fiction)
SC: So I wanted to ask you kind of a generic question, but get your take on it. Why is it so hard to write a good thriller? I mean, I start reading them all the time, but I rarely find one I want to finish.
JS: I think the hard part is coming up with something that’s unique, coming up with your own twist, your own voice. I think readers now have a lot to choose from. There’s a lot of competition – people reading on electronic devices, that’s just more competition because you could watch a TV show, you can watch a video you downloaded also. So I think a book, especially a thriller, really has to grab you in some way. The challenge is always characters and plot, and finding the combination that works best. The best stories have characters that grab and get your attention right away. I think all of your attention spans are challenged and we need books that can suck us in right away.
SC: I think one of the things I liked about The Follower is that the main character, the girl [Katie] is not an especially likable person. I mean, you don’t go out of your way to make her likable. She’s just a normal New Yorker.
JS: That’s true. I rarely think consciously about likability. I hope the readers like my characters. But to me, the way I hope to achieve that is by making the characters as real as possible. Hopefully in that the reader will see something, not just of themselves but a familiarity with the real world, and be gripped that way.
With Katie in The Follower, I didn’t want her to do anything that was uncharacteristic. I had a real idea of who she was and how she fit into the world and what she would do in certain situations. I wanted to stick with that whether I felt like someone might get pissed off at the character. It’s more important to be realistic and because of that, hopefully the character will resonate.
From literary fiction to the minimalists
SC: Can you tell me about the evolution of your crime thriller reading?
JS: When I first started writing I was reading mainly literary fiction, books assigned to me in school. I became interested in writing that was minimal when I was in college – Raymond Carver, Hemingway.
Then I realized a lot of the hardboiled writers, especially in the ’50s and ’60s were writing in that way but with stories that were accessible and had really exciting plots. I moved on to Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis. Then I discovered Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins, writers who were using dialogue to propel their stories. That was one of my strengths as a writer, was writing dialogue. So I was attracted to crime stories because of that.
That’s what brought me to crime fiction—the possibilities of plot and moving stories forward. I was attracted to the writing of literary fiction, but I was attracted to the stories of crime fiction. To me, that’s where hardboiled noir fiction merged with that literary sensibility, while also putting story first.
Doc Savage comics
SC: You’ve also dabbled in comic books and graphic novels. Did you have any affection as a kid for some of the characters you were writing, like Doc Savage and The Avenger?
JS: I definitely came to them later. I’d read a lot of superhero comics when I was growing up, like most kids. I got back into comics later on. Lately there’s just been a lot of exciting stuff in comics, people like Brian Azzerello and Ed Brubaker and Jason Aaron are doing some of the best crime fiction. And that kind of brought me back into it.
I’d read some Doc Savage growing up. I wanted to do my own spin on The Avenger, the main character I was working on. It wasn’t just me, it was Azzerello who was the architect of the whole series. We just wanted to bring some aspects of the character up to date, but stick to the original character. I did one comic that had Doc Savage and Batman in it, that was just fun. To write a comic with Batman, to write dialogue for Batman is kind of surreal.
SC: Any more in the works?
JS: I have an issue of Punisher Max I wrote last year for Marvel, that should be out soon. That’s a one-shot issue. Other than that, I don’t have anything at the moment.
A sequel to The Pack
SC: What’s your current project?
JS: I’m working on a sequel to The Pack. Hopefully it will be out next year around this time.
SC: Did you originally envision it as a series?
JS: Yeah, I envisioned it as an ongoing series. Book two is definitely in the works; I have ideas for three and four. Beyond that we’ll see where it is at that point.
SC: What was the original idea behind The Pack? Was it to do something about househusbands or werewolves?
JS: [laughs] I definitely wanted to write a story, again, about this particular character. It was about a man who loses his job and becomes a stay-at-home dad and has to deal with reinventing himself and the transformation of his role, sort of as a metaphor for the larger transformation that happens.
I knew it would have this fantasy element, but it really is a story that is set in the real world. It’s not a paranormal world from the onset. I wanted Simon to be a character who’s real, who’s in a real situation a lot of people can identify with that, especially now, with losing his job. I saw it as a story about Simon first and everything else revolving around him.
SC: David Fincher just optioned your book Panic Attack, and Bret Easton Ellis has been writing a series for Starz based on The Follower. Which of the film projects based on your books is closest to actually working out?
JS: I think The Follower‘s pretty close; Bret Easton Ellis has written three episodes at this point, so we’re all hopeful it’s going to be filmed. Ted Griffin [Ocean’s Eleven, Matchstick Men, Killers] is writing the screenplay for Panic Attack now, I think that has an excellent chance, The subject matter is very cinematic and I know they [Griffin and Fincher] have a lot of enthusiasm for it.
And I wrote the screenplay for Cold Caller. It’s in development with an Australian company, it was going to be set in Australia but now it’s going to be in New York City, so I’m going to do another draft of that.
Bret Easton Ellis
SC: How did Bret Easton Ellis get involved?
JS: We corresponded for a number of years; he read some of my earlier books, including Hard Feelings . At the time we were both at Vintage Books. We kind of stayed in touch. I found out he was interested in adapting The Follower and the deal came together, it was originally set up at HBO.
SC: He’s not the first person I think of as being a crime fiction fan.
JS: He’s definitely a fan. I know he’s very into Raymond Chandler, and that influence was in his last book [Imperial Bedrooms].
I think all my books have been a little different, and I think that one was much different than other books I’ve written – I was writing about twentysomethings, about dating, it was just a much different kind of book for me. But I think Bret is just a fan of the stories and I’m totally excited to have him adapt The Follower, because I’m a big fan of his stuff – American Psycho, Less Than Zero but also Rules of Attraction, which I think is a very underrated novel.
SC: Those are the three I’ve read by him. What’s the next Bret Easton Ellis novel I should read?
SC: And I’ve only read The Follower and The Pack by you. What’s the next Jason Starr I should read?
JS: I would say Twisted City. No, Panic Attack. Yes, Panic Attack.