Interview with Thomas Pluck, author of Bad Boy Boogie
Bad Boy Boogie and Blade of Dishonor and editor of the anthologies Protectors and Protectors 2. This interview was conducted by Dennis Chekalov.
1. Tell us about your first book.
Blade of Dishonor was a challenge from editor David Cranmer, who liked my fighting background and suggested I write a story about a "fighter vs ninjas over a stolen sword." The idea captivated me, I grew up on the lurid and over the top action and martial arts films from Cannon Group, the Shaw Brothers, and the Lone Wolf and Cub "samurai baby cart" movies, and my great-uncles all served in World War II. Then I read an article about the most treasured Masamune katana disappearing after the war ended in 1945, and the exploits of the Devil's Brigade, and the story wrote itself.
2. You are an author of more than fifty published short stories. Why did you choose this format?
Walk before you run. Short stories leave little room for error, you need to grab the reader quickly, and you learn story structure. I wrote after college but gave up after spending a ton on postage and never hearing back from lit journals. I had a crime story published in Blue Murder, then they folded, and I let rejection get to me. A few years later, I was a movie reviewer on Twitter and a friend introduced me to Shotgun Honey and Flash Fiction Offensive, two venues for short-short fiction, and Fictionaut, a community where writers shared stories and gave criticism, and I started writing again. I had ideas backed up in my brain, and they just flowed.
3. Your novel Bad Boy Boogie is compared to books of James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane. What’s the main theme of this book?
Our addiction to revenge, and the consequences, and especially male entitlement to revenge. The victim is not a woman in this novel, but I'll use that example anyway--how many stories start with a female corpse and a furious male avenger? I wanted to turn that on its head. Jay kills a brutal rapist and bully and serves 25 years of a life sentence. But time does not heal all wounds: the family of the murdered rapist want their own revenge, and the people he assumed he saved-- the victims-- don't see Jay as a hero, but as a reminder of a past they want to forget.
4. Bad Boy Boogie is described as ‘a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller.’ Does it mean that we’ll meet Jay again? What waits for him in the next installment?
Jay's own dark past is hinted at in the first book and he heads to Louisiana to unravel it. It involves an old heist gone bad, generations of evil, and the Angola prison rodeo, where lifers with nothing to lose risk life and limb for glory and bragging rights. I attended one for research. They call it "the wildest show in the South" and it's controversial, because the inmates are not trained and the prison makes a lot of money. But they also hold a crafts show where the inmates can sell their wares, and the prison has more programs than many. There are four thousand men in Angola who will never walk free, all lifers. Yet there is little violence, and they don't all have cells. It's a dorm prison with bunks, and ample opportunity to raise hell. The last warden resigned under a cloud of corruption and his son is on trial for fraud, so it's not all rosy, either. There's a character serving in Angola and Jay has to get them out. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.
5. Your book Blade of Dishonor is described as ‘true 70’s-era pulp in its finest form’ (Jason Stuart). What can you tell us about this book?
I wanted to pay tribute to my great-uncles, who told me of their time in World War II. It's dedicated to them. I don't think the Devil's Brigade, the First Special Service Force, a joint US-Canadian commando unit, ever got its due. There was a forgettable '60s movie, and Tarantino based Aldo Raine's unit on them, but both ignored the true, nearly unbelievable feats of the brigade. They scaled sheer cliffs in the alps during a rainstorm to take out SS chemical artillery. They would sneak into SS encampments and slit the throats of nine out of ten enemies and leave "death cards" that read "The Worst is Yet to Come!" in German. They were feared and hated by the SS.
6. You trained martial arts in Japan. How did it help you in writing Blade of Dishonor?
While there are yakuza ninja cults or samurai villages hidden in the mountains outside Niigata, I made all the fights plausible instead of cartoonish. I choreographed a few of them on the mats at Advanced Fighting Systems, and asked my teacher Phil Dunlap for advice. The Philoktetes fight gym in Kameda, Japan, taught by sensei Jin Kazeta, was a big influence. He's a great fighter and teacher and the fighters there are such characters, that a few of them, especially Kubota, influenced Mikio. I also think that even visiting a place briefly gives you a "feel." You need to research all your facts, but you can't get the feel of a place from research, in my opinion. You have to go there.
7. David Cranmer, editor of Beat to A Pulp, calls you ‘a new pulp master.’ What does this genre mean for you?
Pulp is less a genre than a style. You can have pulp SF, pulp adventure, pulp noir... It tends to be a little more gritty or flashy and more concerned with moving the story along than studying the scenery. Sometimes that means going over the top, but in my opinion it doesn't have to be that way. Paul Cain's FAST ONE set the bar for pulp crime, and Stark's Parker is the king. It starts in media res and wastes no time getting to the point. Some might not think Parker is over the top, and it's not a criticism of the character--I love the books--but he's a criminal animal, the ultimate pro, a heat-seeking missile of vengeance. We don't know why he steals, he just does. That's pulp at its finest.
8. You aren't only a writer, but plus an editor of story collections, an Anthony Award Finalist. Please tell us about your anthologies Protectors and Protectors 2: Heroes.
The response, when I reached out to writers to support this cause, was overwhelming. The two books have nearly 100 stories total, from authors of all genres, from James Reasoner to Joyce Carol Oates, Roxane Gay to Harlan Ellison, Laird Barron to George Pelecanos, Hilary Davidson to Johnny Shaw, illustrated stories by Alex Segura and Dennis Calero, an exclusive story by Ken Bruen, fantasy and horror from Charles de Lint and Chet Williamson, I was stunned by everyone who responded. The second book came along because so many wanted to be in the first. The first volume is a little darker, the second lighter. They make a great pair.
9. Arthur Conan Doyle helped victims of miscarriages of justice. Erle Stanley Gardner founded The Court of Last Resort. You are working with the National Association to Protect Children. Please tell us about your work.
These anthologies came about because I wanted to help in the fight against child abuse and defeating online predators. I am not a police officer, I do not have the skills or the temperament to interrogate or apprehend rapists and predators. But I can write, and I know how to publish a book, and I am a good project manager. I can get people enthused. So I leveraged my skills to assist in this fight. People always ask "what can I do?" and you can always do something. You may not be a firefighter, but you can bring water to the firefighters when they take a break. There was a great story recently about a journalist who downloaded the Zello app to cover the flooding in Texas, and she saw the need for more dispatchers to help direct rescue crews, and to talk to people in peril and keep them from losing hope, and she stayed up all night to join the rescue effort. She's a hero, the same as the Coast Guard pilots in the choppers and the "Cajun Navy" boaters out saving people from rooftops. And she never thought she could be.
10. Why is so important to combat bulling, including bullying in schools?
For one, the abuse of power is morally wrong. Monkeys understand injustice, there's an experiment with slices of fruit. They know it and they have brains the size of a tangerine. We understand fairness as children, but it's taught out of us. Something in our system teaches us to accept power as its own authority, that might makes right. And not all bullying is a big kid pushing a little one, emotional bullies are just more clever. I had one who taunted me endlessly because he was a teacher's pet, and knew if I pushed him or lashed out, I'd be punished and my grades would suffer. Secondly, the consequences last decades. Whether its the victim or the bully learning that this is how things work, these people grow up and run the world. Some even become President.
11. You say: ‘Men are as wounded by patriarchy as women’ [in the context of Susan Schorn’s book.] Tell us about your views on equality and masculinity in the modern society.
This is nothing I came up with. I learned it first from bell hooks, but it's a tenet of feminism, that this hurts us all. We are taught to express our emotions mostly through anger or stoic suffering and wonder why we die 8 years younger than women, on average. We say it's "nature," but men imposed our Victorian-era beliefs on nature--read up on "alpha" wolves, they don't exist as we think; and ape hierarchies are much more complicated than we first assumed--and now we use that flawed science to justify our behavior. There's no war on masculinity, just on being an asshole. I train in fight gyms, a traditionally male space. Some of the toughest fighters I know are women, and they are no less "feminine" because of it. My grandmother taught me to cook and crochet, and I deadlift 555 pounds and enjoy nothing more than jumping onto the mats to grapple. People are more than what is dreamt of in our rigid gender roles, Horatio. I suffered from anxiety from an early age, I speak openly about it, and many of my man friends visibly relax, just because a big hulking goon told them, "It's okay to be you." They're so afraid they're not "real men." There are no real men or real women, there are people, and there's no wrong way to be human unless you're a predator. Then we got to lock you up for the safety of the species.
12. What’s the true writer’s goal — to describe the world or to change the world?
Can't we do both? In quantum physics you can't observe a reaction without affecting it. Shining a light on it showers it with photons, which affect the reaction. What if writing is the same? If by observing the world and informing more people about its hidden reactions and secret dark spaces, we are shining a light and making it an ever so slightly brighter place? I like to think we are. Stories matter. They shape the world.
Thank you for this opportunity, I enjoyed answering your questions.
Thanks for a great interview, Thomas.
About Thomas Pluck:
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action-adventure novel that BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.” He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He has trained with fighters in the U.S. and Japan, but he's no tough guy: Joyce Carol Oates calls him a "lovely kitty man."
He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines.
He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines.