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Interview With an Author: Gary Phillips

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Gary Philips and his latest novel, One-Shot Harry
Author Gary Philips and his latest novel, One-Shot Harry. Photo credit: Robin Doyno

Son of a mechanic and a librarian, Gary Philips has published various novels, comics, novellas, and short stories, worked in TV and edited or co-edited several anthologies including the Anthony-winning The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir. Violent Spring his debut mystery nearly thirty years ago was named in 2020 one of the essential crime novels of Los Angeles. His latest novel is One-Shot Harry and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for One-Shot Harry?

I’d been ruminating on the character of Harry Ingram for a while. Once I learned of MLK’s visit to Los Angeles in 1963, four months before the March on Washington, a story started to percolate.

Are Harry, Claire, or any of the other characters in the novel (other than the historic figures) inspired by or based on specific individuals?

My Harry is inspired by the real-life Harry Adams, a Black freelance photographer, and part-time barber here in L.A. Some of his photos are archived at Cal State University Northridge. The other person who inspired Harry is Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee. He was a crime photographer in New York who in the 1930s and 40s captured numerous grisly shots of the dead, the wounded, and then arrested. He inspired a TV show called Man with a Camera starring Charles Bronson and Joe Pesci essentially played him in a 1992 film, The Public Eye. There’s also a biography written by Christopher Bonanos about him, Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous. Not for nothing all three smoke cheap cigars and two of them, Ingram and Fellig, like pastrami sandwiches.

Anita Claire is a “red diaper” baby, a term used for the offspring of lefty parents. She and her parents who are in the book are inspired by various historical figures such as the Red Queen of L.A. Dorothy Healey, a man I knew, public housing crusader Frank Wilkinson (called Frank Wilkerson in the book), Bill Wheeler, an Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran who I also had the pleasure of knowing, and Alice McGrath, an organizer with the Community Party USA involved in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I work from an outline though I often deviate from that as the story progresses. It does arise as I work perhaps a character I thought was going to be more prominent becomes less so and vice versa. Other characters spring up as the story takes turns and junctures I didn’t see coming until I’m in it. In particular for One-Shot, the ending I had in mind changed by the time I got there. It was tweaked further once I got notes back from my editor. But I feel the book is better for that as opposed to what might have been.

How familiar were you with Los Angeles in 1963? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write One-Shot Harry?

I was in grade school in ’63 so just impressions from then. But I’m always doing some sort of research when I write, even if it just means using the internet. But my deep dives are as they were in the books I’ve had on my shelf for some time. This includes Johnny Otis’, who appears in One-Shot Harry, Upside Your Head: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, his first-hand recounting of the heyday of Central Avenue and its jazz clubs, Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s, To Protect and Serve: The LAPD’s Century of War in the City of Dreams by Joe Domanick and A People’s Guide to Los Angeles by Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough and Wendy Cheng.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

No big revelation, but sometimes when you go down the rabbit hole, you find other useful information in the warren to be used later.

One-Shot Harry is quite the trip down memory lane for people that remember Los Angeles from decades ago! So many of the places that Harry visits during the novel no longer exist while a few are still around. Do you have a favorite place from the past that you wish was still here? A favorite that has survived to present-day Los Angeles?

There was once a restaurant called Teriyaki Suzuki on Pico Boulevard in Mid-City. They had this horseshoe shaped counter to eat at and you could get such wonderfulness as fried ginger chicken with rice and spaghetti. There were enchiladas on the menu too as I recall. As to gone and missed, I’d say the Parisian Room, a jazz club that once was on the southwest corner of La Brea and Washington. The likes of Brother Jack McDuff, one of the masters of the Hammond B-3 organ played there. Reynaldo Rey, a local comedian performed there. Now it’s the site of the Ray Charles Station post office.

Is One-Shot Harry the beginning of a new mystery series? Will readers get the chance to follow Harry Ingram on any future investigations? If so, what are your plans for the series?

Right now I’m working on the second Harry Ingram novel which begins smack dab in the middle of the Watts riot or rebellion depending on your point of view. This was August 1965. Beyond that, not sure if I’ll do a third Harry novel at this time as I’m hankering to circle back to my private eye Ivan Monk who I wrote four novels, and a short story collection. He first appeared in Violent Spring in 1994, set in the aftermath of another civil unrest, the events of 1992 here in L.A.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

The Roach by Rhett C. Bruno, Unforgetting by Roberto Lovato, Falling by T.J. Newman and The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Ross Macdonald, Richard Wright, Rod Serling, Andre Norton, and Walter Gibson who wrote the Shadow pulp stories.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Daddy Cool by Donald Goines.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I suppose like a lot of people, I could pretend I’ve read Moby Dick but I haven’t. I’m sure though I’ve fibbed reading some other classic, such as Anne of Green Gables.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

It had to have been from the spinner rack in the corner drugstore one of those Conan the Barbarian paperback reprints (another character from the pulps) with those Renaissance on steroids covers by Frank Frazetta.

Is there a book that changed your life?

From the Twilight Zone, a prose short story collection of Rod Serling’s TZ teleplays. I was 9 or 10 when I got this and reading those stories, being inside the head of the characters which was different than just watching them, opened up the third eye in my head. This for me illuminated for the first time the power of storytelling.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Not one book per se, but I’m a fan of the Parker series by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Parker is an amoral professional thief, and the books have a spare, lean, taciturn quality to them, especially the ones he penned in the 1960s. Very little interior landscape of parker in the book, he is defined by his actions. I taught in an MFA program and one point, and would always recommend a title or two of his to my students.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

There’s this cat, guitarist-singer Tommy Castro who’s been knocking around for some time, only I’ve just recently heard him on Ann the Raven’s blues show on KCSN and he knocked me out. Starting with his recent A Bluesman Came to Town and working backward in his discography.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Breakfast at the S&W diner in Culver City where the pancakes are as big as hubcaps. Then to my gym, after that get a schvitz at the City Spa, also on Pico in Mid-City, then a light vegan lunch at the Grain. Afterward, return to my sanctum sanctorum, do some reading of one of the books on my nightstand, then off to Drobe Stogies, a cigar lounge in Inglewood to have a stick and maybe a sip of cognac with Chester Himes and Stephanie “Queenie” St. Clair, queen of the numbers rackets in Harlem back when to swap lies. Mind you, as I tool around to these different locals, I’m driving my restored, cherry 1967 Pontiac GTO with Tower of Power among others playing on the cassette tape deck. Dinner would be steaks at Taylor’s in K-Town with Frederick Douglass, Hammett, and Picasso. A nightcap at the Crimson Lounge (a joint that doesn’t exist anymore) with Che Guevara and Josephine Baker as we discuss what is to be done—and that’s the day!

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

The question is how long do I think I can get away with this? The answer is until I run out of gas.

What are you working on now?

In addition to the next Harry book, writing a comics miniseries taking one of my other characters from prose, Martha Chainey who was featured in High Hand and Shooter’s Point. She’s a cold cash courier out of Vegas. Also looking forward to returning as staff writer for the final season of Snowfall.

Book cover for One-Shot Harry
One-Shot Harry
Phillips, Gary

In One-Shot Harry, author Gary Phillips provides not only a top-notch mystery/thriller, but he also provides a window to the past that clearly illustrates, simultaneously, how much things have changed and how much they remain the same in both the city of Los Angeles and our world.

Phillips highlights numerous Los Angeles locations and businesses that have disappeared in the decades since the early 60s, when the novel is set, conjuring an almost tangible sense of what living in Los Angeles would have been like.

Writing over five decades after the novel is set, Phillips is able to make sly commentary on some situations and developments through the speculations between his characters about their world and their future. Knowing how things will play out as history unfolds, Phillips is able to highlight concerns for people of color in Los Angeles that still exist in the present and have yet to be adequately addressed.

One-Shot Harry is a taut and thought provoking mystery filled with ambiance, thrills, and a new amateur detective readers are going to love.