An interview with Patrick Hoffman on The White Van, unlikely heroines, and what comes next

I LOVED Patrick Hoffman’s debut novel THE WHITE VAN, and was thrilled when he agreed to answer a few of my questions about the new book, and more!

patrickhoffmanYour experience as a PI and investigator for the San Francisco public defender’s office were a huge influence on your highly praised novel, THE WHITE VAN. Will you tell us a little more about it and what made you take the plunge into writing?
Yes. Investigating has been the most amazing job. I spent almost ten years investigating in SF, and I’m still working as a PI in NY. It has allowed me all kinds of access to people and places that I never could have gotten otherwise. I get to watch genius lawyers. I get to hang out with alleged murderers and gangsters. And I get to prove that cops are lying. It’s the best job ever.

As to the writing, it wasn’t a “plunge” so much, as a long, slow crawl. I spent about fifteen years failing as a writer, before I finally could even start that first book. I wasn’t able to finish things. I wanted to write, but I didn’t know how to do it. I had to mature a little bit, first.

Did you have to do additional research for the book, or did you rely on your work experience?
I mainly relied on work experience. But some of my characters are Russian, so I had to do some research about them, and then I found a nice Russian woman who read over the manuscript and offered some great advice about how to make it more authentic.

Emily is an unusual and unlikely heroine. Why do you think readers will root for her?
Let’s talk real here for a moment, Emily is a crack addict. She is addicted to drugs. She would steal this laptop right off my lap. Some people have a problem with her. I love her. I don’t think that being addicted to drugs makes you a bad person. I think stealing laptops is bad, and I think smoking crack is bad, but inside of Emily is a hero that is willing to make heroic choices, and take control of her life in a way that a lot of non-crack smoking people never do! Also, she’s got a sense of humor.

thewhitevanWhat were some of your favorite characters to write in The White Van?
Emily! I also love the main “villain” of the book, Sophia Kamenka. She is a sixty year old motherly-looking Jewish gangster, who talks about cutting people’s hands off. There is also a very small role involving a snitch in jail. I liked writing about him. I think the role of snitches is an amazing one, and the power exchanges that go on between a cop and a snitch are fascinating. Also, I loved writing about my Cambodian brothers in the Tenderloin!

Your dialogue has been described as similar to “Elmore Leonard in his prime.” What do you think of that comparison?
That sounds pretty fucking good.

What is your writing process like? Organized, organized chaos, or other?
I hand wrote the first book, so I’m not very organized. I just kind of start at the beginning and then push on through. I have a hard time plotting while I’m not actually writing. This next one has been equally unorganized, but I’ve evolved to a laptop.

What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring author?
The night before I started this first book, a friend of mine explained to me that writing did not always have to feel inspired. That the bad feelings you get while you are writing are a natural part of it, and are actually even a good sign. That would be my advice: bad feelings = good sign, also, don’t rely on inspiration. Just write for an hour a day and finish projects‼

Your novel deals with the seamy side of San Francisco, and goes to some dark places. When it comes to writing, do you consider anything off limits?
At this moment in time, I would be scared to write about rape, or child molestation. Obviously, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be written about, but I would be scared.

Speaking of San Francisco, it’s almost a character unto itself. What would you say is the best, and the worst, of the city?
The best (besides my friends and family) is the food: Vietnamese, Mexican, Thai, Indian-in that order. Also, the lack of snow is nice. I like the hills and the Victorian buildings. I like all the weirdos, although they are being priced out.

Which brings us to the worst: techies. I don’t have a problem with individual techies, but as a market force they have ruined San Francisco. It feels like a natural disaster. Those google buses were bumming me out way more than any drug addict could.

What’s in the works next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’m finishing a second novel right now. It will be published by Grove / Atlantic, and it is so scary at times, that I can barely read it.

Keep up with Patrick: Website | Twitter

At a dive bar in San Francisco’s edgy Tenderloin district, drug-hustling Emily Rosario is drinking whiskey and looking for an escape from her desperate lifestyle. When she is approached by a Russian businessman, she thinks she might have found her exit. A week later—drugged, disoriented and wanted for robbery—Emily finds herself on the run for her life.

When cop Leo Elias—broke, alcoholic and desperate—hears about an unsolved bank robbery, the stolen money proves too strong a temptation. Elias takes the case into his own hands, hoping to find Emily and the money before anyone else does.

A sharply drawn cast of characters—dirty cops, Russian drug dealers, Chinese black-market traders, street smart Cambodians, and shady entrepreneurs—all take part in this terrifying tour through San Francisco’s underbelly. Confronted with the intimate details of characters that blur the line between good and evil, and twists that surprise until the end, readers of THE WHITE VAN will find their own moral code challenged by the desperate decisions the characters are forced to make.

About Patrick Hoffman:
Patrick Hoffman worked for nine years as a private investigator, and as an investigator for the San Francisco public defenders office. During his time at the public defenders office he worked in the homicide unit, where he was the sole investigator in numerous murder trials that resulted in not guilty verdicts.

During his time investigating in San Francisco, Hoffman spent his days and nights finding witnesses in some of the most violent neighborhoods in the Bay Area. He was also writing a novel, and on his lunch hour, or after work, he would park his van (a white van) and write for an hour a day. The people he met–from the men and women he defended, to the witnesses, and the victims themselves–all had a profound influence on the characters in his book.

Prior to working as an investigator, Hoffman, for four years, drove taxis in San Francisco. He was born in San Francisco, but raised in Colorado. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Film Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Hoffman has recently moved to Brooklyn. He’s a New York State licensed private investigator and he has started his own private investigation firm.

The White Van is his first novel. He is working on a second novel which will also be published by Grove/Atlantic.

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