An interview with John Schulian, author of A Better Goodbye

johnschulianPlease welcome John Schulian to the blog! He kindly answered a few of my questions about his new book, A Better Goodbye!
Will you tell us a bit about your debut novel, A Better Goodbye, and what inspired you to write it?

I like to think of it as character-driven L.A. noir built on the essential loneliness of the sprawling madhouse where I live. Every time I’m on the freeway and stuck in another traffic jam, I look around and see one person to a car, and I’m one of them. We’re on our cell phones, we’re texting, we’re breaking the law to communicate with people, but only rarely do we connect the way people did when it was a face-to-face world. Likewise, the four main characters in A Better Goodbye drive solo, and their paths don’t cross until they meet at an upscale sensual massage operation in a high-rise just off Wilshire Boulevard. Nick Pafko is an ex-prizefighter whose promising career was derailed when he killed an opponent in the ring, a tragedy that has haunted him every day of the ten years since then. Jenny Yee is financing her college education by working as a masseuse and trying to forget the horrific crime scene she walked into at her last job, an experience that almost chased her out of the sex trade. Jenny won’t work at what is known in the business as a jack shack unless it has reliable security, which is what Nick has been providing since he was laid off as a baggage handler at LAX. Both of them work for Scott Crandall, a washed-up grade B TV star who has turned to pimping and is trying to ally himself with the book’s scariest character, a prison-hardened, violence-craving sociopath named Onus DuPree Jr.

The elements of the novel these characters populate came to me in bits and pieces over twenty years. Not long after I began working as a TV writer in Hollywood, in 1986, I read about a promising young boxer, Gabriel Ruelas, who walked away from his cruel sport after his fists ended an opponent’s life. It was a sad story, but also a compelling one, so I filed it in my memory bank and went on about my career. I found the next building block for my novel in L.A. Weekly, the city’s lively alternative newspaper. It always had the best listings for music around town, but its back pages were filled with ads for entertainment of a different kind – sensual massage. There were hundreds of them every week, simple two- and three-line ads as well as two- and three-column ads featuring photos of beauties who had likely never seen the inside of a trick pad. And the amazing thing to an old newspaperman like me was that neither the local press nor the TV stations were taking a look at an industry that was generating an abundance of untaxed revenue. So there was another worthy idea for a novel – but how to wed it to the one about the tragedy-haunted boxer? The connective tissue turned out to be a story told me by Johnny Lira, a former lightweight who grew up tough on the streets of Chicago, where I wrote a lot about boxing as a newspaper sports columnist. Johnny knew a guy who’d fallen for a hooker, and one night the hooker got busted. Instead of demanding a lawyer, she told the police everything she knew about the pimp she was working for. The pimp was not happy, to say the least. But the hooker’s boyfriend asked Johnny to be her guardian angel, and wonder of wonders, the hooker never heard from her pimp again. And yet I’m not sure she was any more grateful than I was, because now I had all the pieces I needed to write A Better Goodbye.

What makes Nick such a compelling character? Why do you think readers will root for him?

Nick, in his way, is Everyman, a decent guy who thought his dreams of a middleweight championship might come true until the night in Oakland, CA, he threw one too many punches. Who among us hasn’t experienced something like that minus the punch and the death? Who hasn’t had his or her dreams shattered? Granted, Nick could have gone on fighting, the way Sugar Ray Robinson and Emile Griffith did after mortally injuring opponents. But the weight of the tragedy was too much for him to bear, and even in a violent society like ours, I think people will understand where he is coming from, and admire him for it.

My goal was to give him the qualities I found so easy to like in the majority of boxers I wrote about, whether they were champions like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard or guys you never heard of. For one thing, even when he wants nothing more to do with fighting, Nick doesn’t back down to anyone, especially the baleful DuPree. But toughness isn’t his calling card, though his face is scarred and his nose oft-broken. He’s got a sense of humor and a little bit of the smart mouth that served him well on the streets. There’s none of the obvious gloom you might expect him to labor under, but honesty comes to him naturally. Ask him a question and he’ll give you an answer even if it hurts him. In an age when so many of the rich and powerful profit by their lies, the devoutly blue-collar Nick may not be the last honest man, but he is among them.

What kind of research did you do for the book, and what is your writing process like?

I wrote hundreds of pieces about boxing for newspapers and magazine. As a matter of fact, my first book, Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists (1983), was a collection of my boxing essays. So I was very comfortable writing about a boxer, and if I did have questions, my friend Johnny Lira, a former professional fighter, was still alive to answer them. As for the Hollywood element of A Better Goodbye, I spent twenty years writing, producing and co-creating TV dramas and action series, and everything I went through, especially the difficult personalities, was fresh in my mind. But I knew nothing about the sensual massage industry. Probably less than nothing, to be honest. So I became a reporter once again and started looking for women in the business who would talk to me. I had no luck whatsoever until I mentioned my dilemma to a young woman friend who was a student at UCLA. “I know someone like that,” she said. Whammo! Problem solvled. Her friend was smart, funny, articulate, open about almost every aspect of her life, and, as you might expect, unbelievably cute. And here was the ironic thing about her life outside the law: She got her job in the sex trade through an ad in UCLA’s campus newspaper. There were other girls who spoke with me after that, but she remained my primary model for Jenny Yee, though their stories were very different. That’s why they call what I wrote fiction.

Once I felt like I had Jenny’s voice in my head and an understanding of the dynamics of a high-end massage operation, I started writing. My goal was a simple one: three pages a day, every day. It was the pace that Pete Dexter, a stablemate of mine at the Philadelphia Daily News, kept when he began turning out the novels that have established him as one of America’s very best writers. Some days I would write five pages or even ten, but never less than three. I faltered only once, when I went out of town for a speaking engagement, It took me three weeks to get back on track, which I think backs up the wisdom of setting a modest but steady daily pace.

Why do you think Hollywood makes such a good setting for this kind of story?

Hollywood’s glamour is ready-made reader catnip – the stars, their love lives and divorces, the zillion-dollar productions, the Oscars, the sprawling mansions, gaudy cars and bejeweled vixens. But it’s the underbelly that people want to read about, the on-set, marriage-ruining romances and the billions that studios cheat out of writers and directors and far smaller fish. There’s something more compelling about scandals and scheming than there is about those precincts of Tinsel Town where great movies and TV series are made. Look at Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locusts and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories about Pat Hobby, a mediocre screenwriter clinging to his itty-bitty niche in the movie business by playing every shoddy angle to write a movie that he wouldn’t pay to see if he lost an election bet. The movie business looked at its image in the mirror and produced such memorable work as Sunset Boulevard and The Player. If the business’s warts showed, it mattered not as long as the movies made money, and they did because the public loved those warts almost as much as they did great movies like Casablanca, Star Wars and Annie Hall.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little about yourself and your background?’

I wanted to play professional baseball more than anything else. Once I realized I’d never be able to hit a curveball, or any other pitch with a wrinkle in it, I turned to writing. I’d shown some ability with words early in life, but by the time I was a junior in college, writing had become all-consuming passion. I set out to be a newspaper columnist and had some success being one in the sports departments of the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News. In what passed for my spare time, I wrote for GQ, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Inside Sports, Sport and any other magazine that would pay me. I jumped to Hollywood on the strength of a script I wrote for L.A. Law and went on to write and produce such prominent series as Miami Vice, Wiseguy, Midnight Caller, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and JAG. I suppose I should also confess that I am one of the creators of Xena: Warrior Princess. After running that gauntlet, it was a pleasure to lock myself in my home office and bang out the pages that became A Better Goodbye.

What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?

It didn’t occur to me until I was well into adulthood that I’d been a rainy-day kid even though I spent the first thirteen years of my life in the dry climes of Southern California. I was an only child with a bedroom and desk all my own, and never did I make better use of them than on rainy days. I remember making my own newspaper by printing the stories and headlines and drawing the photos on sheets of 8×11 paper that I stapled together. More than that, though, I remember the crude, hand-drawn movies I used to churn out on rainy afternoons. I’d see a title for a Western in the paper – Kansas Pacific comes to mind – and then concoct my version of it. My screen was a plain piece of cardboard, with the curtains carefully inked in and slits for what I thought of as the film itself. In reality I drew a series of cartoon panels, taped them together and pulled them through the slits as I provided the narration. The only people I remember seeing these epics were my parents. I charged them a dime apiece, or was it a quarter?

No matter. Even as I kid, I understood that Hollywood operated on the profit motive.

What authors have influenced you the most?

If I’m allowed to dip into my background in journalism, I’d have to say the great newspaper columnists of the last half of the Twentieth Century were my greatest influences. There were the real-world fire breathers like Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and Mike Royko, and then there were the columnists who could deliver nine hundred words of lyrical prose on deadline – Paul Hemphill in Atlanta, Murray Kempton in New York, George Frazier in Boston. When I got it in my head to write sports, I found new influences everywhere I looked. Out of the past came Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, John Lardner and Jimmy Cannon. Then there was the brash new breed of sports columnists led by Larry Merchant, Leonard Shecter, Jack Mann and Robert Lipsyte. Over at Sports Illustrated, Mark Kram, Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, John Underwood, Bud Shrake and Roy Blount Jr. made beautiful music with their distinctive styles. And all around the country there were newspaper scribes to whom attention had to be paid: Jim Murray in Los Angeles; Sandy Grady, George Kiseda and Stan Hochman in Philadelphia; Gary Cartwright in Dallas; Myron Cope in Pittsburgh; and Wells Twombly bouncing from L.A. to Houston to Detroit to San Franciscio.

Somehow, I read just enough books to find my influences in fiction, too. I couldn’t get enough of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Larry McMurtry, and Robert Stone, but the greatest influence of all (literature division) was Leonard Gardner. He wrote only one novel – Fat City – but what a novel it was, spare and beautiful, clear-eyed, unflinching. A classic, really. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor. As for my other influences, I look to the crime fiction I read while I was flying hither and yon as a sports columnist. The leader of the pack was Elmore Leonard, but there were a multitude of admirable writers working the same side of the street: Charles Willeford, James Lee Burke, Westlake and Lawrence Block. They left me with a reading habit that continues to this day as I swell my bookshelves with the work of Daniel Woodrell, Richard Lange, George Pelecanos and so many more. Without the lot of them, A Better Goodbye might not exist.

If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. I found out about Salinger when I played high school football with upperclassmen who thought it was all right to be a jock and read books, too. They were reading poetry, experimenting with painting, and discussing Kerouac at coffee houses, but Salinger was as far as I went. I loved The Catcher in the Rye. I wasn’t a rebel or anything close to it, but I was mesmerized by Holden Caulfield. When I read Nine Stories, however, I realized how flimsy and whiny a character he was. It was the people in Nine Stories who were real in their pain and their modes of escape. I had only the vaguest notion they existed until I read and re-read “Just Before the War With the Eskimos” and “A Good Day for Banana Fish.” I never forgot them.

Read any good books lately?

I’ve read plenty of good books – Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, Redeployment by Phil Klay, The Son by Philipp Meyer – but I’ve also read one great book. It’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a first novel by Ben Fountain that paints an alternately hilarious and scarifying of contemporary America. We live in a nation made grotesque by inequality of every conceivable description, and Fountain, a reformed lawyer, delivered a classic in his description of it. I imagine the Dallas Cowboys’ ownership and fans aren’t too happy with the way they’re portrayed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Anything you’d recommend?

The collected works of Richard Lange. I look at him as one of L.A.’s true civic treasures, a hard-boiled writer with a big streak of humanity. He has compassion for the underdog in a city where only the top dogs get a break. I discovered Lange when I read one of his short stories on the ThugLit website. The next thing I knew, I was buying his first short story collection, Dead Boys. Then came two novels – This Wicked World and Angel Baby – and now he’s back with another book of short stories, Sweet Nothing. He speaks the blue-collar truth.

Keep up with John: Website

About A Better Goodbye:
Nick Pafko knows he can’t be a professional boxer forever. But he never guessed it would end so quickly, and so wrong. Broke and unemployed, Nick has little choice but to call a number given to him by a friend. On the other end? Scott, a washed-up B-movie actor who runs a so-called massage parlor looking for somebody desperate enough to work security.

Jenny Yee doesn’t really mind massage, until the day she finds her coworkers robbed and assaulted. Fearing for her safety, she resolves to never work without security again. With mounting expenses, she knows massage is the fastest way to get paid. When an old massage acquaintance calls Jenny to ask her to work for Scott, she agrees–and before long, she’s the top earner.

Scott is an arrogant moron, but he’s harmless compared to the thug he calls “friend”–Onus Dupree. When DuPree decides to rob Scott’s massage joint, it’s the perfect opportunity to beat up Nick and take advantage of Jenny. Can Nick stay true to his promise to protect Jenny? Can he protect himself?

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