Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Story Behind the Story:
“Interlock,” by Gary Alexander

(Editor’s note: This 32nd entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series introduces to The Rap Sheet Gary Alexander, a former insurance industry employee and Seattle, Washington, resident, who says he has been “abusing mystery readers for over 30 years,” ever since he sold his first story to the late Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. He’s since written 11 novels in three different series, beginning with Pigeon Blood [1988], which introduced Bamsan Kiet, a police superintendent in an imaginary Far East nation. A standalone e-novel, Dragon Lady, released in the spring of 2011, is set during the Vietnam War, in which Alexander himself participated during the mid-1960s. His new book, Interlock [Five Star], is the third to feature Buster Hightower, a standup comic who manages to become entangled in one intrigue after another. Below, Alexander looks back at how his own life influenced the writing of that work.)

Interlock is perhaps the most self-indulgent novel I have ever written.

Correction. It is the most self-indulgent novel I have ever written.

The eponymous Interlock, however, isn’t fictional. It is a 24-by-36-inch acrylic painting on stretched canvas in an understated black frame with a silver molding. I can reach from my keyboard and touch the painting where it hangs on my office wall. (That picture is featured on the top of my new novel’s cover. The lower part is that same painting, upside down.)

Alas, it was not painted by the fictitious Kennedy Scott and is not valued at $243.6 million. I painted it in 1975 and have never tried to sell it. I haven’t the foggiest idea what price it would go for, if anything.

Interlock, the painting, is a child of the Vietnam-era G.I. Bill. My eligibility for that program was about to expire and I didn’t want my education tuition bennies to go to waste. I immediately ruled out such fields of study as particle physics and the collected works of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Bor-ing. I wanted something fun.

I’d always enjoyed drawing and sketching, and didn’t live far from Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington. At the time that school had perhaps the finest art program in the area, even superior to the University of Washington’s. So on a dark and stormy afternoon, I enrolled.

Over a two-year period, I stuck a toe in everything Highline CC offered: glass blowing, ceramics, silk screen, drawing, a couple of academic art classes, and above all, painting.

The painting classes were taught by the late, great Bill Mair. We worked in acrylics, oils, gouache, and watercolors. Bill taught us the basics and the nuances of color, perspective, and negative space.

Like Interlock’s Kennedy Scott, I flitted from style to style, from landscape to still life to figure (we had a nude model) to surrealism to abstract. Most of my work was of the last sort, partly because I didn’t draw especially well and partly because I simply liked the look of the end result.

I patterned Interlock’s drunken, nihilistic Kennedy Scott after Jackson Pollock. Both were brawling boozers who defied convention and met similar ends. With a blood-alcohol count of who-knows-what, Pollack ran his Oldsmobile convertible off the road in 1956, killing himself and a passenger.

I deleted Kennedy Scott from the living in 1994, by having him light a cigarette at high speed, lose control, and wrap his car around a tree. He was driving a 1978 Chevy Camaro with a hood scoop and a squirrel named Rocky that lived in the upholstery. Scott’s blood-alcohol ratio was more alcohol than blood.

The painting, Interlock, falls into the abstract sub-category of “op art.” How the design came to me, I have long since forgotten. I do recall going through at least two rolls of masking tape and any number of tubes of acrylic paint. Another kudo to Bill Mair; without his class on color, no way could I have managed Interlock’s gradations of red, blue, and violet.

Whether Kennedy Scott’s/Gary Alexander’s painting or Butch Hightower’s/Gary Alexander’s vegetarianism is more self-indulgent, I don’t know and I don’t care.

Only Buster Hightower, stand-up comic and series protagonist, seems to be bothered by the fact that his older brother is a “vegetation,” as he terms it. Buster hadn’t been in contact with Butch for years, when early in the novel, Interlock, he receives a middle-of-the-night phone call. Among his disturbing revelations, Butch announces that he is a vegetarian, a sure sign to Buster that he’s had a nervous breakdown.

Buster’s verbatim reaction:
“Holy cow! You mean you’re on a diet of hay and alfalfa and spinach?”

“Spinach is good. All the vitamins and minerals in spinach, it blows the cholesterol right out of your veins.”

“Who the hell are you, Popeye?”

“Vegetarianism is great, Buster. Where I was for the last few years is vegetarian friendly. That’s where I started it. Their local cuisine is the triad of corn, beans and squash.”

“Where the hell’s prime rib in this triage of yours?”
Butch doesn’t inform Buster that he has stolen a painting worth a quarter of a billion dollars from some very unpleasant people, and is currently on the run. Nor does he mention that he’s a degenerate gambler so deep in the hole, he can’t even see bottom. Nor, like me, that he’s a middling artist--who painted Interlock fakes to throw pursuers off the trail.

Nor does Butch know that an assassin has been dispatched in his direction, a Russian whose hobby is embalming his “tasks.”

I realize that I’ve alienated Buster Hightower by bringing a “vegetation” into the story line--and a family member at that. But you can’t please everybody, even people who don’t exist.

Interlock, the novel, includes Butch Hightower’s recipes. He and I collaborated on all of them. Butch and I parted literary company after the final edit of Interlock, but he’s been hanging around in my kitchen. Like it or not, he’s acting as an advisor as I continue experimenting with food, documenting the successful dishes, discarding the mediocre and outright foul ones.

His input is often helpful, but he can be a royal pain in the posterior too, rhapsodizing and evangelizing the benefits of vegetarianism, needlessly preaching to the choir. Butch is inflexible when we differ, vulgar, profane and opinionated. He is as inarticulate as the Food Network stars and their instructions to add in and reduce down, which grate my teeth.

We endlessly test variations of meatlessloaf. As Butch says, meatlessloaves are like snowflakes. In its myriad forms, though, that dish is our pièce de résistance.

Butch and I maintain an ongoing recipe book, and will do so long after Interlock has come and gone. It tends to ramble, a stream-of-consciousness kind of thing. The file is roughly in alphabetical order, with recipes constantly being tweaked and added. Butch is disorganized in every aspect, which drives me right up the wall. But what’re you gonna do?

Interlock, the novel, will go on sale April 11. Our recipes are contained in a Word document, available free of charge to anyone upon request--whether the book is purchased or not. (Just send me an e-mail note here.) I can--sigh--live with it, but if you don’t shell out for Interlock, you’re gonna make Butch awfully grouchy.

READ MORE:An Interview with ‘An Irreverent Goldbrick’--Gary Alexander, Author of the Vietnam Novel Dragon Lady,” by Libby Sternberg (Istoria Books Blog).

1 comment:

Matt said...

I once interviewed Mr. Alexander for a story I wrote about Northwest crime fiction writers for some magazine around here, I forget which one. I found his book "Kiet Goes West" to be one of the funniest detective books I'd ever read. I haven't read any of the Hightower books, but superindendent Bamsan Kiet and his adjutant Capt. Binh were a delight to "work with".