Friday, May 7, 2021

Why would I write a police protagonist in 2021? By Josh Stallings

Q: We are living in interesting times. How has the social unrest and societal perception shifts changed your work?

A: Epic fantasy writer Tad Williams once said that he maps out these huge multi-volume stories while leaving himself wiggle room for who he will be six years down the road when he’s finishing the last book of the trilogy. 

Leaving room to grow as a human, and letting that affect the work is vital. And complicated.

I write entertainments, fast moving crime novels. But Josh the human is an ever evolving socially conscious man. I was raised in the counter culture, think hippies meet the Quaker peace and freedom movement. I am drawn to subjects that have social relevance, and then I try and forget that and concentrate on story.

More than a few readers have asked me if I was still writing and if I was, why haven’t I published anything for several years? I was writing, just not the part where I type words into sentences. To be able to write Tricky, I needed to discover how I felt about policing in America. That meant lots of research, reading interviews, talking to folks on both sides of the law, and the toughest part, personal reflection and honest inventory of a lifetime of interactions with the police. 

My grandfather was a LA Sheriff for most of his adult life. My father was arrested and jailed for anti-war efforts. I have been arrested. I have known cops. I have known criminals. I lived through the Rampart scandal and the Rodney King uprising. There was a pile to unpack.

This journey led me to some clear ideas on where we got it right, and where we got it wrong. Having done all the research, I tossed it out and wrote the story of Detective Madsen and Cisco, a cop and an intellectually disabled former gang member learning to see each other beyond the labels and preconceptions.

The book was done, sold to Agora, waiting on final edits when George Floyd was murdered. The Black Lives Matter movement is amazing and long overdue. And it led me to question if it was appropriate to write a police hero in these times? 

I don’t write heroes. I write flawed protagonists, doing the best they can with what they’ve got. I am interested in deeply flawed people who are trying to be better. Even in these politically divided times, we need to keep the conversations going.  

Detective Madsen isn’t me, but we share some core values and we are both works in progress. 

Young Americans was set in 1976. The focus of the novel’s action is a heist, but the story speaks to sexual identity and the fluidity of affectional orientation. Things I knew about coming of age in the SF bay area during the ‘70s, and a subject I dug deeper into when teaching sex ed to Unitarian Universalist youth. I know it upset a few people that I was writing about a transgender woman in the 70’s, as if that was anachronistic. It wasn’t. Valentina is based on a woman I was friends with at the time.

Quick diversion: “We kissed like we invented it.” From Elbo’s Mirrorball is the best description of a teenage world view I’ve ever read. 

To write the books I want to write I must keep doing the hard work of confronting my own biases and honestly look at how my privilege formed my world view.

Then toss the personal work out and write a fun yarn.

SHORT ANSWER (The Cliff Notes) Everything around me affects my writing. Everything.


Catriona McPherson said...

Love it - think about the issues, do the research, then throw it all out and write a story!

Gwenivere said...

Please keep doing the hard work Josh! I'm happy to wait for a great read!!!!

Susan C Shea said...

“We kissed like we invented it.” From Elbo’s Mirrorball is the best description of a teenage world view I’ve ever read. - Had to Google it (yeah, Im that uncool) but it is a masterful description. Thanks, Josh!