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The ClassicFilmBoy Interview


When did you first become a classic film lover? I grew up when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were releasing their early films. In interviews, especially while promoting Indiana Jones, they kept referencing classic movies. I soon wanted to know everything there was to know about classic movies. Thanks to VHS tapes, which were new at the time, I watched a lot of old movies when I was still very young.

  

I really enjoyed Ten-A-Week Steale. What was your inspiration behind it? I think Hollywood in the 1920s was as romantic and as full of geniuses as Paris in the 1920s. I'm fascinated by old Hollywood. I love silent films. I wanted to write a story in that setting. I wanted to walk those streets and maybe catch a glimpse of some of those people. I wanted to write something that moved fast and had a lot of surprises, and I wanted the psychological motives of the characters to be expressed visually, much like Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Movies are always an enormous source of inspiration and I'd say L.A. Confidential and Chinatown were targets I aimed for in the type of story I wanted to tell.

  

All of this clearly shows in this book, which has a vivid feel for the time period. It was fun working my way around Hollywood with Walter Steale. It felt alive. Steale fits into that hard-boiled detective mold but I like how you connect him to World War I, which helps to explain his character. He's not your typical run-of-the-mill detective. He's not as clever. He's a man whose engine is fueled by tenacity and guts. I wanted to him to get snared in a web of lies. He allows himself to become the fall guy - he didn't see it coming. So, it was important that he not be a character who connects complicated puzzle pieces too easily as the story unfolds. That would have contradicted how he got into this mess.

He may not be clever, but he's nobody's fool, either. He has keen instincts, even if he can't connect the dots. I like the fact that he lives in Hollywood but is fairly clueless about its number one commodity - movies. It's something that Gin (a platinum blond movie star) recognizes and likes. Her instincts are right as well, which makes them a good pair. Did you have someone in mind when creating her character? Or are you just attracted to smart blondes? Gin's fun, right? She's sassy and flirtatious and cute. She allowed me the chance to open up the gates of 1920s Hollywood for readers, given that she's an actress. But more important than that, she is the sunshine to Steale's darkness. She has a lot of friends. She's under contract at Paramount, play-acting in silly fantasies; she's fairly oblivious to the hell Steale has been through. Life's good for Gin. It's easy. And so, it's easy to see why he's drawn to her. What they have in common is that they both lost their fathers at a young age. Additionally, when we meet Gin's mother we find out that, although it's a troubled relationship, Gin has great love and respect for her mother, and her mother has spent her life fighting injustice - she's a suffragist. So, when Gin sees a similar fighting spirit in Steale - someone who refuses to back down no matter the odds against him - it makes him even more attractive to her. Did I have someone in mind when writing her? I suppose she's a cross between Jean Harlow and Clara Bow. She's got the toughness of Harlow, but she's also adorable.

  

I like that Steale's small circle features a politician, a police chief and a Hollywood star. The attempt was to write a fast moving, fairly short read on a big canvas. More than a character portrait of Walter Steale, it's a portrait of Los Angeles at that time. There are a couple other characters that lend sympathy to Steale. One is an immigrant from Japan, and the other is an Indian Theosophist. If the book were a painting it probably would have a mural-like quality to it. The little building where Theosophists would meet is still in the Hollywood Hills today, not far beneath the Hollywood sign. When Farnham gives his first political speech, it's to the Mexican community. All of these locations are real, and many of the names mentioned are real. Police, politicians, movie stars, immigrants from all over the world, new spirituality - all of these things are vital elements to the story of Los Angeles in the 1920s and still today.

After Jack and the Jungle Lion, how did you come up with its sequel The Elephants of Shanghai? Thirty years ago Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out. As that movie starts a title reads: Shanghai 1935. For thirty years I've wanted to time-travel to old Shanghai because of that movie. This book allowed me to do that somewhat. The Rocketeer was also a big influence. I love the cohesiveness of The Rocketeer despite so much variety in the visual components. Not only does it have a rocket-man, it has Nazis and Hollywood and Howard Hughes and gangsters. Hard to throw all that into a single story and keep the narrative from running off the tracks. I wanted to see if I could manage that. As to the actual story, in the previous one Jack becomes the hero he always pretended to be in movies in order to save the woman he loves. I thought it would be interesting with this new one if WWII started and Jack feels he must contribute something, so he steps into the role of hero again, this time to save the world. Of course the effort is clumsy in the beginning because Jack is more Bob Hope than Indiana Jones, but as the story moves along Jack changes. He summons the courage he needs to do what must be done, and even becomes a bit of an inspirational figure to those around him.

  

It's amazing how much is going on in The Elephants of Shanghai, especially once Jack realizes that his mission is nothing like the fictional ones he pursued in his films. There's hardly a chance to catch your breath - and I mean that as a big compliment. I began to wonder if Jack felt like he was trapped in a more expansive version of one of his films. I put myself in a tough spot after the first story because it was essentially a love story. How do you write a sequel to a love story? You can't have them fall in love again. So, I wrote a straightforward, hard-driving adventure story. That said, I think all stories have to be rooted in some kind of emotion that people can relate to. The emotional foundation for Elephants is that Jack feels insignificant as the world is at war around him. When he decides to do something about it, his wife can't stand that he's taking such risks. In the first story, Jack has the biggest arc. He grows as a person thanks to this woman he's fallen in love with. In the sequel, his wife has the biggest arc. Through Jack she comes to realize the need for looking beyond her family to the world around her.

It's easy to cheer for Jack throughout this story. Despite his flaws, you want him to succeed and grow. But even though Jack is an action movie hero, the real action in this story has a movie feel to it. What choices did you make to keep it from sliding into the cartoonish? The characters have to be relatable, and their motivations have to be clear. If you can pull that off, you can pretty much be as imaginative as you want with the story. I've been reading Leonardo Padura's Havana Quartet. His main character throughout those books is a cop who is prone to fits of nostalgia for his old school friends. On one level Padura is capturing the disillusionment experienced by the Cuban people over time, but from a strictly narrative perspective the nostalgia and the heartbreak for how things have changed, makes the character relatable. I'm not a cop, not a tough guy, have never been to Cuba, nevertheless, I can relate to Mario Conde. Through him, when I sit down to read, I go to Cuba. I'm right there, soaking in the atmosphere, sharing in his heartbreaks. These stories could easily be cartoonish. A tough cop, loner, likes to drink, investigates missing persons and murders - how many times have we seen this? Yet, it's original because the character has depth. We feel we know him. We get into his head and understand what motivates him.

  

You've created many original new characters in this book - Summer, Johnny, Kyo, Chenglei. And you created a breathless pace that escalates with every chapter. Beyond being inspired by Indiana Jones, where did all of these characters and the creative plot thrusts come from? The Mask of Fu Manchu with Boris Karloff was an inspiration. I'm not a huge fan of The Dead End Kids but they, along with Cagney, influenced Johnny Marbles. A lot of this comes from being enamored with old Hollywood set pieces. As example, the sultry singer with her ballroom or nightclub scene. Summer was created for that, and to provide a temptation for Jack, which I thought would be fun. As to the plot, I can't think of any big influences. If someone told me they liked The Elephants of Shanghai and wanted to see a movie that was similar, I don't know what I could point to. Over time, I've picked up a few skills. I just keep telling myself the plot must thicken. I bang my head against the desk thinking of ways to make it more thrilling. Jack and the Jungle Lion, on the other hand, did have a big influence behind its story, which was Romancing the Stone. One of the major influences on Max's character that I've never mentioned before was Bess Armstrong's character in an old Tom Selleck adventure called High Road to China.

  

You certainly succeeded in making this more thrilling. It's the best kind of page-turner! Thanks. As I'm sure you're aware, I'm not alone among writers influenced by classic Hollywood. Not long ago I read Joseph Kanon's Istanbul Passage, and liked it a lot. He's clearly inspired by those foreign-set espionage thrillers from the forties. I've not read The Good German but given what Steven Soderbergh did with it as a film, I'm sure it too has the feel of those old movies.

So what's next for Jack? He's a terrific character and I'd love to see you write a third adventure for him. I intend to write more Jack Hunter stories. I started one set in 1952 where his ex-wife, the ever-dramatic, former silent film queen, Theda Lomond, has a very young boyfriend who is a communist. This gets her in trouble, and she calls the only person she can think of to offer help as a character witness - Jack Hunter. Meanwhile, with television around now, Jack is seeing some of his old movies again, and he misses his younger self, only wishes his movies weren't so idiotic. So, this trip reunites Jack with Theda, only to prove that fifteen years later they still hate each other, and it gives Jack the chance to put in a few calls, see if he can appear in just one last picture, this time he insists on a serious drama. The tone is more old-fashioned farce than adventure, but I think it's a fun idea, and would bookend well with the beginning of Jack and the Jungle Lion.

  

If you could play any role in a classic film, what would it be and why? I couldn't possibly replace the work of any great star - nobody could. Look at Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant and you can see they have stories to tell before they open their mouths then they start talking and their story becomes more and more convincing. Back then, stars and studios worked together at creating these larger than life figures. As you and your readers know, in the old days they wanted you to believe they weren't acting - that it was really who they were. I think those old films benefit from that. Today, it's all about who's available, and who's affordable. It's not about building a film around a particular talent. Casts are easily interchangeable today. Can you imagine a Marx Brothers film replacing Groucho with Bob Hope? It couldn't be done. But today it can. So, when you ask about filling in the shoes of a classic Hollywood performer, I am not being at all humble in saying that the whole idea is preposterous.

The crazy question: Between what performers do you want your Hollywood Walk of Fame star to be located and why? Between Douglas Fairbanks and Cary Grant. Watch their films and look at their faces - you see only exuberance and vitality, the pleasure of being alive. The fact that we get old and die never seems to register. It just doesn't come into their thinking. I really like defiance of death. I'd love to be able to reach out from a heavily trampled sidewalk and grab a little of their immortality.

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"... memorable characters and dialogue, reminiscent of the best of Hollywood's Golden Age."