I had Joe Ide over to my house to drink a beer and talk about his life and his book.
BEN H. WINTERS: When I heard about this novel, written by a Japanese-American guy who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, I presumed, like an idiot, that the hero of the book was someone with that exact background. But he’s not: Isaiah is African-American.
JOE IDE: Yes.
How much of you is in this character?
He is a lot of who I’d like to be. He’s very cool. He’s very calm. He’s very quick on his feet. He has a lot of expertise in all kinds of things. He’s very brave … I really don’t resemble him. I mean, he really is someone I would like to be.
Where do you think he came from? Is it just all aspirational? “This is a guy I want to be?”
There were all kinds of sort of boyhood influences. One was Sherlock Holmes. But the other was movies. I mean, like Steve McQueen in Bullitt, Sydney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. All those kinds of things. That sort of quiet, watchful, intense, inward guy, who’s got all this stuff in his head, you know? All these skills and all this intelligence. And how he’s always the smartest guy in the room, and nobody else knows it. That kind of character always intrigued me. But it was — you know, it was a mash-up of all kinds of stuff.
Did you ever see action like that when you were growing up, or is that more from the movies?
That was from the movies. That was from being a screenwriter. Thinking visually, thinking set piece. That’s where a lot of that came from. I mean, seeing eight trillion movies. The kind of book it was, it needed action. He had to be more than cerebral, you know? He had to be more than Sherlock Holmes.
What do you mean, “the kind of book it was”? How would you categorize the book?
I saw it as an action comedy, that was — it wasn’t a procedural. I mean, there’s procedural stuff in it. It’s really a hybrid, you know? There are thriller aspects to it. There are procedural aspects to it. There’s caper aspects to it. But it doesn’t really fit neatly into any of those slots.
I definitely got some of that caper. It was pleasing that it had a little bit of that Elmore Leonard feel. What other crime writers come into it for you?
I put John le Carré as a crime writer. He had a heavy influence on me. As well as Elmore Leonard. Elmore Leonard’s my guy. And Walter Mosley. And — who else? Don Winslow. I mean, really, the usual suspects. There’s nobody particularly unusual. You know, I’ve read everybody in crime fiction. But I think I’ve stolen the most from Elmore Leonard. I mean, I’ve just — I’ve lifted things from him whole hog. His — the way he can characterize people, make them jump off the page. It’s deceptively simple. Really deceptively simple. He can reveal character, push the story forward, tell you where you are, tell you what the person looks like. All these layers, in a simple conversation. It’s fantastic stuff.
We oftentimes feel like we have to write a ton to get somebody across. When in fact, it’s — as you say — it’s a question of finding just the perfect detail.
It’s that relevant detail. There are whole passages in Elmore’s books where a character talks, and Leonard never tells you what the guy looks like. But you know it. You know who he is, you know how old he is, where he’s from. All that stuff. It’s really remarkable.
The book gets heavily into the world of rap music. Is that a world that you spent time in, that you knew about? Or is that a world that you thought would be fun to set the book in?
It was a number of things. I’m not a rap aficionado. You know, I have like three rap albums in my collection, and they’re all 20 years old. Biggie and Tupac. But I had this sort of random fact that I had learned: that Tupac had sold more albums dead than when he was alive. And then it struck me that if his record company had killed him, they would have made a ton of money. And that just stuck with me … And then, when I was putting IQ together, I wanted him to do something that was — that had this layer of satire, where I could take some cultural phenomenon, and use it as a component to the story, but make fun of it at the same time. Rap music is just such a juicy target, you know? And it’s sort of sacred. I mean, nobody actually really makes fun of it, really sort of takes it apart and looks at its components and says, “This is ridiculous.” And so, it both sort of fit the environment and the story, and it gave me room to slip in a little commentary: to make fun of all the wretched excess, to make fun of all the kind of ridiculous lyrics. All that kind of stuff. And I could channel it through Isaiah.
The characters are quite heightened in IQ: the rapper, the entourage, the record company executives. But then, I guess, in real life, in the music industry, people are often self-consciously heightened.
I’m pretty tame, actually. The rap world is outrageously outsized. And it is larger than life. I mean, you know, when rappers are at home, they’re just as ridiculous as anybody else. But it is a larger-than-life industry. And they all — not all, but they go out of their way to present larger-than-life images. And when I was writing the book — it didn’t even occur to me until I was writing, that: What is the guy like at home? What is his personal life like? What if he got tired of it? What if he got tired of rapping about guns and women? What if he just ran out of gas, like many of us do, and just got depressed?
A part of the book that I like is that you find a way, even amid all the crazy action stuff, and the satirical material, to find some moments of real poignancy, which do come with some of the secondary characters, but most often come through IQ himself. I wondered if that came naturally in inventing the character? He is kind of a sad guy, and he’s working through his grief throughout the book.
Part of it is calculated. I wanted the character to be emotionally driven. I didn’t want him to be driven by someone handing him some money and a problem, and saying, “Go solve it.” I wanted it to come from inside of him. Because those are the kinds of things that interest me as a reader: a character who’s emotionally driven, who has an emotional life, who is flawed. And he may have skills, but as a person, he’s like everybody else. He has his own constellation of fears and vulnerabilities. I like that kind of character. So I wanted to keep him grounded to the degree that I could, given the rest of the book. And probably the toughest thing was tone. It was trying to walk that line between making him feel grounded, and at the same time, doing outrageous things. That was the hard part. I frequently wrote — I must have as many pages as the book is long of stuff I threw away.
Oh, god. That’s a good ratio! I also wondered about the formal choice: the book is sort of spliced between what I would call his “origin story” and this most recent case. It felt to me, at times, like the book could have been one or the other. Was it always both of these stories?
It evolved into two stories. I was going to write a 250-page Elmore Leonard–type crime novel. That was my goal. But as I wrote it, I began to see more possibilities. And what has always bugged me about many of the Sherlockian characters is that they show up fully formed. They just — there they are.
Certainly Sherlock does. We get much more about Watson’s past than we ever do about Sherlock’s.
Yes. They just show up. They have all these skills, and they have all these things they can do, but we never know how they got there. We never know how they formed their personalities, or why they’re doing what they’re doing, why somebody so smart isn’t a brain surgeon … I wanted to see myself. I didn’t really know. I mean, I made all that stuff up, thinking, Why would he be so observant? Where did he get those powers? He wasn’t just born that way. I mean, he was naturally observant, but how did he get so keen at it?
I like the scene where he spends an hour, two hours, watching the cars go by, trying to memorize everything he can about those individuals.
That kind of thing, I didn’t want to make it quirky, or idiosyncratic. He had a reason. He was looking for his brother’s killer. So it was that question always driving him, emotionally. Whatever he was doing, he did it for something that came within him, as opposed to just this kind of obsessive studying that most of the Sherlocks do.
With this book, I can feel some research in there: in the fighting dogs, some of the guns, some of the details about the music industry. I’m wondering: How much research did you do? Were you making phone calls? Were you taking trips?
It was mostly phone calls and the internet, because I wanted specific details. I wanted really specific information. Sort of subculture stuff. Like, about dogs, and selling crack, and those kinds of things. To make those worlds alive. To make them like you’re in a real place, and this is how it actually works. But, you know, not to do a treatise on these things. But just enough to make that place feel real. Like, this is really how they breed dogs. That kind of thing. So I did a lot of spot research. I knew what the scene was, and I knew what kind of information I wanted. So, I didn’t read a bunch of stuff and find what I was looking for. I didn’t read great treatises on dog breeding; I went after: “How do you breed a big dog?” And then I’d call around, and I’d talk to people. And I talked to people who bred dogs, and knew about genetics, and that kind of thing. And so, I could bring those details to bear, and give it authenticity and color … Most of the stuff in there is, of course, a combination of what I remember, what I researched, and a whole bunch of stuff I made up.
What do you mean, “what you remember”? Just stuff you remember from your life that you’ve lived?
I remember a lot about gang behavior. I remember a lot about selling drugs.
Did you sell drugs?
My brother did. My brother was a career drug dealer.
Was he in a gang, or was he solo?
He was much more of a badass than me. When we were kids, he was in a gang. In an all-black gang. He was, like, five feet tall at the time. But he was a little bad motherfucker, boy. He had this thing about fighting, where if he got into a fight, he would try and kill you. I mean, kill you. At the very least, maim you and put you in the hospital. This is before guns, you know? When it was just, sort of, you do your little Muhammad Ali impression, you know, somebody gets a busted nose, and everybody goes home. Nobody wants to fight somebody who wants to kill you. Even if he’s five feet tall!
So this is the Asian kid in the all-black gang?
Do you think that there was an element of, “I gotta prove that I'm the craziest guy out here, I’m the toughest guy out here”?
No. I mean, he had to do that to actually survive. I mean, both me and my brother got picked on because we were small, not because we were Asian … After he got into a few fights, even though he got his ass kicked, nobody really wanted to fuck with him. Nobody wants to fight you if you’re insane. I mean, it might be a chihuahua, but the son of a bitch has rabies, and he’ll fucking bite you.
I noted in your acknowledgments — what did you say? “A reluctant nod to my brothers.” Is there anything in the relationship between you and your brothers that informs the relationship between IQ and his brother?
No. The relationship between IQ and his older brother is just wishful thinking, you know? That's the older brother I wish I had. Me and my three brothers fought like savages. We were constantly at each other. We were largely unsupervised. My mom and dad were working all day. My mom was a secretary. My dad worked at a community center. We were inordinately poor. We were intensely poor. And we were just on our own a lot. Four boys, and we’re all about four years apart. It’s a wonder we all came through. My younger brother threw a brick at me from a second-story window. He tried to stab me with scissors. I threw a hatchet at my older brother and tried to crush his head with a pipe. These were things that just happened … I mean, me and my older brother pinned my younger brother down on a bed and tried to burn the hair out of his nose with a lighter. I don’t know why. We didn’t really need a reason.
So at least some of the violence in the novel you come to honestly.
Yeah. Violence was pretty normal.
So then, later in life, you did a bunch of jobs. You worked as a screenwriter for a long time. What are the other jobs that you did?
My first job was a schoolteacher. Why are you laughing?
I don’t know. After all that hitting people with a pipe, it just struck me as funny.
I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, it’s one of those things people do if they don’t know what to do. I taught for a semester. Well, I knew right off that I didn’t like kids. I mean, I learned that right away. I don’t like these kids. I was popular, but I was a terrible teacher. And so I fled back to graduate school, and did that for — got a master’s in education for no reason I can think of, except my friends were in the program. And then I taught — they had a position called “lecturer” at this particular university, and you could hold that job while you were getting a PhD. And then, I joined a business consulting firm. I did that for maybe a year. I was a middle manager at a huge corporation. I was director of an NGO that serviced abused women. I worked for a French entrepreneur, who turned out to be a crook.
So you had all the jobs.
I started everything, you know, with a good heart.
So then, did you start writing screenplays? Is that what happened? You started writing screenplays?
Yeah. Everybody starts with screenplays, I think, because they think they’re easy. And I saw a lot of movies, you know?
You watch a movie, and you go, “I can do that.”
Yeah. I had a friend of a friend who was an agent. And I wrote exactly one dozen lousy, embarrassingly bad screenplays. And I would send them to him. And he was a very kind man; he’d send them back — he’d read them! — send them back and say, “This is shit. This is boring.” Literally, a dozen screenplays, which I worked hard on. And I finally got the hang of it and wrote a good one. And he sold it. It was called Lawfully Wedded Wife. It was about a woman who didn’t want to get married, but she had to get married, because she was going to inherit a huge amount of money. So she married a convict that was in for life. And then he got out.
Yeah. It is. That fell through, but I started to work. And I got good at it. Even for a guy who’s not produced, you make a good living as a screenwriter. And I was selling specs and stuff. It’s hard to give up the lifestyle. Even though you’re not getting anything made, you know, you’re living good. At least for a kid from the hood, you know? I’m doing okay. But eventually, it just got so demoralizing.
What got demoralizing? Just watching things go out in the world and not happen?
Yeah. I’d work really hard on something for months and months, and then, you know, the studio head got fired, or the budget’s too big, or the star dropped out. And so, a total of maybe 11 people would have read it. And then it’s on a shelf. And do that time after time, after time, after time, and it just got so humiliating. It got to a point where sitting down at the computer — so much futility was associated with just that act. I could not open the screenwriting program without feeling sort of a physical revulsion … I literally got ill. I mean, I got seriously depressed.
The universe was telling you it was time to try something else.
I mean, I literally could not go on, even if I had wanted to … I didn’t do anything for two years. Nothing. I was so sick of writing that I traveled. You know, I brooded. I walked my dog. I mean, I read a lot. That kind of stuff. But I was really lost. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But then, it got time to, you know, “You’re gonna have to buy some groceries here, pal.” You know? And so, the only thing I knew how to do, sadly, was write. I had no other marketable skills. None.
That's what happens to writers. After a certain point, there’s no turning back. Which is a little glib to say, because of course, there’re jobs out there. But I think it’s a sense of, “I never got a graduate degree. I never went to military school. I never learned a trade. This is what I know how to do.”
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, everything on my resume was so old, it was useless. And once I get outside my imagination, I’m so incompetent. It’s frightening. Actually, there’s a saying in my family: “If your plane crashes in the Amazon, and you need to survive, Joe would be the one that you’d kill and eat.”
First day. Don’t even wait until you’re hungry.
So, you know, I had to write something. I couldn’t write a screenplay, and so I thought I’d write a book. And writing the book was just so liberating. I really got in touch with why I love writing, because I could do anything I wanted. No producers, no studio executives, no three acts. I could just write what I wanted, how I wanted to write. And it was terrific. It was joyful, but it was intense. It was the kind of work where, you know, you’re not laughing out loud or anything. But it’s the kind of work where you’re not looking over your shoulder. You’re not talking to yourself. It was terrific, you know? And what I said to myself was: “Finish the fucking book. You don’t think about who’s going to buy it. You don’t think about agents. You don’t think about any of that shit. Write the fucking book.” And so, every day, I would sit down, and say: “Okay. Write the fucking paragraph. Finish the fucking chapter.” It was glorious.
And you did it. You wrote the fucking book.
I wrote the fucking book. Shit.
Sometimes it’s hard to not think about who’s gonna read it, and what they’re gonna think about it, and what’s gonna happen to it. Will it sell? You gotta put all that stuff aside and just live with the characters. See what happens.
And of course, when I finished the book, that’s exactly what I worried about: “Who’s gonna buy this piece of shit?” Actually, the thought of giving it to somebody who knows about books, and having them read it, was fucking terrifying. First thing, I sent it out to readers. People I know. You know how things in your life never work out? Or, at least the way you think? Even if they do, they’re not the way you think, or whatever. So I’m thinking, I have a cousin. Frank Fukuyama. World-famous political scientist. He’s a chair at Stanford, he’s on the board at RAND, all that shit. And the question was, would I send it to him?
Are you close with him?
No. I hadn’t seen or talked to him for years. On a whim, I called him, and I said, “Will you read my book?” And he’s a kind and generous man; he said, “Sure.” So I didn’t hear from him in a long time, and I’m figuring, “Well, sure. He’s on the board at RAND.” And then he called me and said he liked the book. I’m like, “Holy shit! Really?” And then he asked me, “Do you have an agent?” I said, “No. But I’m gonna go look for one.” He said, “Let me hook you up with mine.” It was Esther Newberg. And Esther’s fierce. She’s just fierce. She read the book over the weekend, because Francis had sent it to her. And then she called me up, and the first words out of her mouth were, “I want to sell your book.” So after I got my tongue out of my throat, I said “Sure!” She sold it in a matter of weeks. And then sold it to TV a few weeks later.
What’s going on with the TV? Who optioned it? Who’s the studio, or production company?
Atlas. Chuck Roven. He does the Batman movies, and DC Comics, all that stuff. He’s a big dude. So they hired Matt Carnahan, who was the writer/producer on House of Lies. And we’ll see. He’s about finished with the pilot. They’re gonna send it to me. We’ll see. I’ve met him. He’s a good guy.
You didn’t want to write it?
That was a nice shudder.
Oh my god, to go through that process. I’d have to open Final Draft, you know? I just couldn’t do it.
All right, this is the last thing I’m going to ask you about. My work this year — a big, big part of it, both in terms of writing and then in the presentation of the book to the world — had to do with racial dynamics. The fact that I’m white, and I was writing about a black character, and I was writing about race. So it’s been very much in the forefront of my mind, and something I’ve tried to approach with a lot of respect, and a lot of humility and thought. And there’s been a lot of conversation about it for me. I wondered if that was something, given that you’re not African American, and that most of your characters are — then again, unlike me, you’re not white, either. And you grew up in a much more black community than I did. And I just wondered if it was something that ever gave you pause? How did you approach that? Or was it something that was a nonissue for you?
It was a nonissue.
I wrote them as characters that happened to be black. That was how I felt about the people who I grew up with. I mean, they’re people; they’re black. It was like, “Well, you know, they’re people, and they have brown hair.” So I just wrote them as people. And you know, the vernacular, and all that stuff, is just window dressing, really. I tried to stay true to them as just people. They have a certain cultural background, a context, and certain defined behaviors, in that particular world, but that’s window dressing. It’s really being emotionally true … It was really about: Is this an honest portrayal of this particular guy? You know, the black part notwithstanding, it was just, “Is that an honest portrayal of him”?
Of that guy. Of IQ, or of Cal, or whomever.
Yeah. And it’s the emotional life. From that character’s point of view, is he saying what he would say? Is he doing what he would do? Which, for me, is honest. That covers that, for me. And that was it.
Ben H. Winters is the author of nine novels, most recently Underground Airlines.