THE DIXON FAMILY CHRONICLES, by Gary Phillips, is a web serial on the Capital & Main site. It charts the fortunes of three African-American characters in contemporary Los Angeles — Uncle Hank Dixon, his grown niece Jess, and his grown nephew Little Joe. All three work, but in a landscape of low wages and housing displacement, everyday life is fraught with uncertainty. They each have to scramble to make ends meet. Phillips uses the structure of the literary serial to explore social and economic issues, and on Capital & Main, a news website “reporting on the current economy and our collective efforts to create a new and better one,” he has found an ideal place to tell his story.
The son of a mechanic and librarian, Gary Phillips is a South Central Los Angeles native. Since childhood, he has been a lover of comics as well as pulp and crime fiction. His novels include Big Water, The Warlord of Willow Ridge, and the Ivan Monk mystery series. He has written numerous short stories, edited Orange County Noir and other anthologies, and authored graphic novels such as The Rinse and High Rollers. His latest work includes Hollis, P.I., a prose short story collection of six hard-hitting, hardboiled tales of a character, Nate Hollis, he first created in Angeltown, a comics miniseries. Phillips lives and works in Los Angeles.
SCOTT ADLERBERG: How did the serial come about? And how on Capital & Main, a politically oriented website?
GARY PHILLIPS: I’d written a couple of series, or web serials, before. One was called Citizen Kang, which was about a young Asian-American congressman out of the San Gabriel Valley, for The Nation website. I wrote that toward the end of ’07 into ’08, specifically geared toward the big presidential election, and there was some political intrigue in the series. That was my first experiment with the form.
And then, a couple of years later, I was writing for this other website, Four Store, based out of Los Angeles, and my editor on the Dixon installments, Nathan Walpow, was the editor-in-chief of Four Store. So Nathan and I toyed with the idea for a serial for that site. It’s collected now as a novella called The Underbelly. And this was about an older gent, a brother named McGrady, who’s a Vietnam vet. He’s semi-homeless. At the time we start the story, he’s in recovery. He’s off the booze, he’s off the drugs. And to keep himself sober, he has to have a mission, a goal. The idea is that a friend of his who is handicapped disappears from skid row. Maybe it’s an innocent thing, maybe not. And at some point, McGrady wonders whether he is projecting into this more than is there but nevertheless he gets into it, and we get into issues around gentrification, displacement, issues that have happened in cities everywhere, including LA. The working poor, working folks, where are they going when they’re displaced? We look at the question of the homeless, what do we do with them, etc. So some of those issues were there at the edges of The Underbelly. I also later did this strip called Bicycle Cop Dave. Dave is a white guy who had been a detective. Something happened to Dave in his past and he was busted back down to patrol.
We don’t know exactly what happened to him?
No, we don’t know, but we know it’s not a good thing and now Dave is on a bike patrol, again in the confines of Downtown L.A. This also has been collected in one piece. So, all three things contributed to Dixon.
I’ve known Danny Feingold, who is the publisher of Capital & Main, for a while. I was at something or other and ran into Danny and we were talking about doing something for the site, and I thought what if we did this evolving story about three working-class black folks. We have Uncle Hank, an older guy, Jess and Little Joe, folks in their 20s. And we have some soap opera elements, some pulp elements, and elements around the issues that people who come to the Capital & Main site are interested in.
On the site you talk about how the serial has a long tradition.
Right. It goes back to Dickens and Dumas. And now I guess even more so with Wattpad and Juke Pop, and with some of these apps. There’s a whole thing of web serials for the iPhone and web serials have come back a bit.
When you write a story like this, with social and political commentary, how do you start it? Do you start by thinking what you want to put in there? Or do you think first of the story? You may work differently for a novel that has social issues. But for something like this, which is specifically on a political site, do you think about how you want to talk about this issue and that issue and figure out where to put it in the story?
Everything has to start with the characters. The story has to have a kind of organic life. They can’t just be soapboxes, these walking polemics that we put all our words into.
So each character doesn’t just represent an idea.
Exactly. Jess, for example, who gets involved in a push to organize where she works in Riverside County, we could make her someone who just is in love with the union and goes along with it, but it’s more interesting to say what if she doesn’t go along and is in opposition to the union, as a lot of people would be. She’s not down with everything the union is doing. There’s more drama, more tension.
You gotta have complexity, so that the characters don’t become these cookie cutter folks, one dimensional.
Just touch a little on some of the issues you wanted to explore.
We’ve been getting into questions of labor, working conditions, where Jess works. With Hank, it’s displacement involving the apartment where he’s at. The mighty university nearby has been gobbling up land. What do the people in the building do? How do they fight back? Do they even have a chance? That’s why, at one point, I introduce the character who works for the local council person as a way to talk about, well, if you are displaced, how can you extract the best deal possible from the situation if the situation is going to happen. So we want to try to be hopeful on one hand but also try to be realistic in the sense it ain’t going to be all pie in the sky.
I don’t know if I’ve encountered in a story that a university, an institute of higher learning, is not the villain exactly but is cast as Engulf and Devour. Is that supposed to be UCLA, unnamed?
Yes. They are shown in the story so far as a monolith. I guess the question is how to show their side. Universities in California, UCLA or USC or Stanford, do have community programs. They are aware of their social obligations, so to speak. But there is also this question of their expansion. They are gobbling up territory. So yeah. The villain in any piece never thinks of himself as a villain, and you want to give everybody some dimensionality. They have a rationale is the point.
Jess is a veteran. Any specific reason you chose to make her that?
That gives her some layering and I’ve been reading a bit more reference material about women combat vets. There’s a documentary called Soldier Girl, a Washington Monthly piece called “Women, War and PTSD,” as well as various writings and reading by female vets that I’ve accessed. For instance, I teach part-time in an MFA creative writing program at a local university and there’s a vet writing project that’s presented work by its participants. I suppose the point is there’s ample material out there if you’re looking for it.
You are a crime writer and this story has some sprinkling of criminal stuff. In general, do you find the crime novel is a good way to explore social issues?
It’s a good way to tell a story and a good way to move characters into different situations. On the other hand, having said that, there are some stories I tell that are just crime stories. They don’t necessarily have any other social obligation or meaning than being entertaining or compelling. Sometimes, I split the difference. But whatever your politics are, you as the writer can bring that stuff to the page as long as you make it organic. As long as you’re not hitting the reader over the head or preaching to him, but it has a kind of natural feel with the characters’ situation.
So Hank. You have his past. He talks to Juanita, the social activist, and you get the sense that at one point earlier in his life he fought a fight.
When he was in his 20s, right. He was a showing-up, hope-to-die revolutionary, and that didn’t work out the way it was supposed to work out. Also, I think Hank has done a little time so Hank has knocked around a bit. And — not giving too much away — there is a reason his niece and nephew are close to him. Something has happened to their mother. And Juanita knows Hank from the past so she can sort of push him on this question of are you going to step up. What are you gonna do here, Hank? In dribs and drabs, Hank’s past gets revealed.
Can you tell us a little about the third major character, Little Joe?
Little Joe is called that because he’s six-four and was a star forward in high school and college. He was drafted to the NBA but got cut — twice. He did some time in the European leagues but even though he’s only in his late 20s, a reoccurring knee injury ended his career. He didn’t exactly make big bank in Europe and came home looking for work, a has-been who never was. There’s some bitterness in him. Now he’s in Oakland, athletic director at a city-funded rec center. His story kicks in gear when he’s looking for an at-risk youth he knows and I’ll just say several strands of the underground economy are partially revealed.
Structurally, how do you write this kind of serialized story? Do you have the whole thing already written before you release it?
No. As you said, I have the basic plot or rather the basics of who my characters are worked out, but the great thing about a serial is you can keep it fresh with topical mentions as you go along. For instance, in the posting entitled “No Justice…” the reverberations of Ferguson and the Eric Garner killing are threaded through the installment while the subplots involving the three main characters also unfold. Consciously too, each installment ends on a bit of a cliffhanger or some sort of tease. You leave the reader saying, “What’s gonna happen?” or “Who’s getting out of the car?” or whatever it is, so they come back for the next chapter in the saga.
Is it difficult keeping track of where everyone is week to week?
The lesson I learned from writing Citizen Kang years ago was not to write myself into corners, which I did back then sometimes. I’ve learned more how to keep things on track even while teasing things along. Gotta be careful. Remember what happened with Lost? Everyone just winds up in the big anteroom to purgatory. That’s it? That’s the payoff? You gotta have all the story strands pay off. That’s the lesson I have to keep in the back of my head always: is this the thing they would do on Lost? Let me make sure you get just a little payoff here as we go.
What do you want your Capital & Main audience to take away from The Dixon Family Chronicles?
I hope Capital & Main’s political audience takes away from The Dixon Family Chronicles what I’d want any other audience to take away from my work; that they were drawn in by the lives of the characters, that there was something about their journey they can identify with, resonate with, and hopefully be stimulated and entertained. That the Dixons can be about having something to say about gentrification, labor struggles, the struggles of its characters’ internal landscape, but not be heavy-handed. To have something to say but also ground that in the need to storytell.