Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why I Found Aaron Gunner Necessary

(Editor’s note: Mysterious Press today releases Gar Anthony Haywood’s six Aaron Gunner detective novels--all of which have been out of print for years--in e-book format. The first of that bunch, Fear of the Dark, was originally published in 1988, with the last, All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, released a decade later. We asked author-designer Haywood to recall for Rap Sheet readers the birth of his Los Angeles protagonist. His response appears below.)

Like most aspiring writers, I used to be very good at starting full-length novels and absolutely pathetic at finishing them.

Two or three chapters in, sometimes even sooner, I'd lose the will to go on and would abandon a book just to move on to another one. My fickleness was tied to all kinds of things: insecurity, laziness, and more often than not, the hubris of a young man who thinks baby steps are beneath him. I always wanted to write the “big” book, the surefire bestseller that would instantly make me a millionaire and spare me the indignity of a slow, deliberate climb to the top.

In short, I was an idiot.

So most of my earliest manuscripts were discarded not so much because I found them lacking in quality, but because I found them lacking in blockbuster potential. It was only after I’d decided to write the best book I could, regardless of how likely it was to place me on the New York Times bestsellers list, that I settled down to write--and complete--Fear of the Dark, my first Aaron Gunner novel. It was small and compact, and ambitious only in the way it broke the color barrier for hard-boiled mystery protagonists that Walter Mosley was still a year or so away from shattering, and it was the perfect book for me to be writing at that time.

What I knew about Gunner going in, other than the fact he would be a black man like me, had a lot more to do with what I didn’t want him to be than what I did.

For one thing, I knew I didn’t want him to be a citizen of an earlier time. While I have a great respect for history, I have little affection for much of it, most especially that period before my birth in which black people were still fighting for their civil rights in America. Setting my Gunner stories in the past--specifically in the 1940s or early ’50s--would have placed them in the good company of the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but it would have also required me to write--and Gunner to operate--within the confines of that era. Where Gunner could go, who he could see and talk to--and how he could talk to them, depending on their color and station--all of these things would have been greatly limited if he was to accurately reflect what life was like for a black man at that time, and I was no more interested in going back there myself than writing about someone who’d been born into it.

Additionally, the void I was seeking to fill wasn’t an absence of black protagonists in pre-World War II mystery fiction; Chester Himes, for one, had already answered that call with his Harlem cops, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. It was contemporary mystery fiction that cried out for central characters of color, not the historical variety, and that was the need I was hoping Gunner could meet.

Then there was the issue of Gunner's general demeanor. I’d always been a huge fan of Lawrence Block’s New York P.I., Matthew Scudder, and one of the things I admired most about Scudder was his complete disinterest in the witty repartee that so many of his fictional peers (or their authors, to state it more accurately) seemed to find necessary. I wanted that same sort of jarring disconnect from the Robert B. Parker/wisecracking P.I. model for Gunner.

I also knew early on that I didn’t want Gunner to be particularly brave, ingenious, or good in the sack, all things that were characteristic of hard-boiled P.I.s at the time. How would a modern-day private investigator handle complicated, often dangerous cases with only the tools of an Ordinary Joe like myself to work with? That was the question I wanted my series (and Fear of the Dark was most certainly going to be the first book in a series) to answer.

Finally, as Gunner's very name would surely make obvious, I borrowed heavily from my favorite television private eye of all time, Blake Edwards’ iconic Peter Gunn. Gunn conducted most of his business out of a smoky jazz club called Mother’s, whose proprietor was a large, sultry white woman with a big heart and a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude, and I loved these adjuncts to Gunn’s character so much, I gave Gunner his own version of each: Mother’s jazz club became Gunner’s primary after-hours hangout, the Acey Deuce bar, whose owner is a slightly more imposing, black knock-off of Mother herself, Lilly Tennell. Just as part of Peter Gunn’s modus operandi was to consult with a wide array of snitches, ex-cons, and authorities in every conceivable field over drinks at Mother’s, Gunner would hold similar meetings with acquaintances and informants of his own at the Deuce.

Still, I was reluctant to make Lilly’s bar Gunner’s sole place of business; I wanted him to have a real office where he and clients could actually sit down to talk in private. So I incorporated yet another well-established source of vital information (aka “gossip”) in black communities into Gunner’s life story: the barbershop. I gave Gunner an office in the back of Mickey Moore’s Trueblood Barbershop in South Central L.A. and filled the shop with a host of oddball characters for Gunner to interact with every time he enters or exits the place, starting with his nosy, garrulous landlord, Mickey Moore. Aside from the opportunities Mickey and his customers would give me to lighten things up a bit--most of these people are funny as hell--I would use the barbershop setting, and all its constant chatter, as a window onto Gunner’s everyday existence as a black man trying to get by in the American inner-city of the 20th century.

Fear of the Dark, my first Gunner novel, was essentially written around a single scene that came to me early on. Threatened by some very nasty people to stop working the case he’s on, Gunner does something intended to clearly identify him as someone other than your grandfather's fictional private eye: he quits. Much as you or I would no doubt do, were multiple guns shoved in our face for the same purpose.

Naturally, Gunner takes the case back up eventually, but only after he has demonstrated an occasional willingness to place matters of survival above the need to see justice done. In other words, his altruism only goes so far.

Five books later--my sixth and last Gunner novel, All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, was originally published in 1998--Gunner was still the same contrary hard-boiled P.I. I had designed him to be when the lights went out. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, which had published the last three titles in the series after St. Martin’s Press published the first three, lost interest in doing another, and by that time I was ready to try my hand at standalones. I sold two standalones to Putnam under the pseudonym “Ray Shannon,” expecting to go right on doing so until the mood moved both my publisher and me to bring Aaron Gunner back … But that's not what happened.

Critically acclaimed or not, the standalones tanked, Putnam filed for divorce, and restarting the Gunner series with another house proved to be as difficult as trapping smoke in a birdcage.

Which brings us to today, Tuesday, April 17, 2012.

I hope by re-issuing all six previous Gunner novels, Mysterious Press will rekindle my man’s career on into a seventh adventure.

Because I’m writing that seventh book now, one way or the other, and it sure would be nice if an audience (and a publisher) were out there, ready and waiting for it, upon its arrival.

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