Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce (left) and Thomas Kaufman attend the Shamus Awards ceremony in St. Louis, 2011.
I’ve been following the work of Thomas Kaufman ever since the publication of his first novel, Drink the Tea, which introduced laconic Washington, D.C., private eye Willis Gidney and won the 2008 Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press competition for Best First P.I. Novel. Kaufman’s follow-up, Steal the Show (2011), was even more engaging. There is compassion and dry wit in the oft-troubled world of Willis Gidney, which makes Kaufman’s stories a pleasure to read.
In synopsizing the plot of Drink the Tea, Kaufman’s publisher, Minotaur Books, described Gidney thusly:
Willis Gidney is a born liar and rip-off artist, an expert at the scam. Growing up without parents or a home, by age twelve he is a successful young man, running his own small empire, until he meets Shadrack Davies. That’s Captain Shadrack Davies, of the D.C. Police. Davies wants to reform Gidney and becomes his foster father. Though he tries not to, Gidney learns a small amount of ethics from Shad--just enough to bother a kid from the streets for the rest of his life.In an overcrowded genre, Kaufman’s gumshoe is a most refreshing and watchable player. But what also makes this series enjoyable is the author’s cinematic storytelling style. He comes by that style honestly: for years Kaufman has been laboring behind the lens of a movie camera, primarily as a director of photography but occasionally as a director/cameraman. His many credits include work on Discovery Channel productions, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and the very popular NBC-TV series The West Wing.
Now Gidney is a P.I., walking those same streets. So it’s no surprise that when his closest friend, jazz saxophonist Steps Jackson, asks Gidney to find his missing daughter, Gidney is compelled to say yes--even though she’s been missing for twenty-five years. He finds a woman who may be the girl’s mother--and within hours she turns up dead. The police accuse Gidney of the murder and throw him in jail.
Maybe Gidney should quit while he’s behind. But when his investigation puts him up against a ruthless multinational corporation, a two-faced congressman, and a young woman desperate to conceal her past, Gidney has no time left for second thoughts. In fact, he may have no time left at all.
I’ve met Kaufman at Bouchercons over the years, including the 2011 event in St. Louis and again at last year’s Bouchercon in Cleveland, and have learned a number of interesting things about this now 57-year-old novelist, filmmaker, and musician (in his spare time, he plays upright bass and bass guitar). During the 2012 Shamus Awards banquet, however, we took the opportunity to chat at greater length about his life in film, the influences on his prose-writing, the genesis of Willis Gidney, and much more. Then recently, I asked him some extra questions, including about his brand-new e-book, Erased and Other Stories. The results of those exchanges are posted below.
Ali Karim: Tell me, what compels you to write?
Thomas Kaufman: This whole writing thing, it’s like a sickness. I blame it on the airline industry. Working as a cinematographer, I travel a lot. If the airlines hadn’t kept me waiting endlessly in terminals, or sitting on the tarmac, or wasting hour upon hour in soul-sucking tedious travel, I might never had reached the frustration level necessary to say, screw this, I have to use this time somehow. I got a laptop and started writing Drink the Tea.
AK: Do you come from a family of readers?
TK: Yes, and quite a few writers too. My aunt Carole wrote opening monologues for Steve Allen on The Tonight Show before turning to non-fiction books. My uncle Ted wrote several non-fiction books as well. My brother Pete has a novel out, and will soon have a true-crime book about identity theft during the Yukon gold rush. And my niece Miriam has a book of poetry. A number of librarians in the family as well.
AK: During your early education, what were the books and authors that influenced you most, steering you toward the writing world?
TK: I read a lot of science fiction growing up--starting with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, graduating to [Arthur C.] Clarke and [Isaac] Asimov, then Harlan Ellison, Fred Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Alfred Bester. Around 16, I read Dickens, Thackery, Thomas Wolfe, Ken Kesey, and Somerset Maugham. At 18, I was given a copy of Farewell, My Lovely, and that’s when the penny dropped. I decided that somehow, some way, I was going to write a P.I. novel.
AK: Do you read widely in the P.I. genre, and what do you see as pivotal novels featuring private eyes?
TK: I read all of [Raymond] Chandler and [Dashiell] Hammett, of course: they’re the Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet of American detective fiction. Then there was Cornell Woolrich, Horace McCoy, Frederick Brown, Chester Himes, Ross Thomas, Charles Willeford, Donald E. Westlake, and Lawrence Block. Plus lots of others I’m not naming, of course.
AK: Americans usually consider P.I. fiction a U.S. creation. But credit must certainly be given to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well. Are you a fan of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson?
TK: You have to credit Conan Doyle for creating what is arguably the most memorable character in detective fiction. As to origins, Holmes came about 40 years after Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first private-detective story, but you don’t see Robert Downey Jr. playing [C.] Auguste Dupin, do you?
AK: Given your interest in cinematography, what do you make of the various big- and small-screen incarnations of Holmes and Watson, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch?
TK: The current BBC series with Cumberbatch and [Martin] Freeman is great fun. The director, Paul McGuigan, seems to have taken a page from the Guy Ritchie playbook, in terms of the way the programs are directed. It has a modern feel, and that’s fitting because the show makes Holmes and Watson modern characters.
The tools of cinematography have changed a lot since Basil Rathbone first appeared as Holmes. Still, the aesthetics have changed very little. It’s all about story. The cinematographer’s job--like the director’s, the editor’s, and the sound recordist’s--is to help tell that story. If you compare the relatively static camera of those early Holmes films with the moving, variable frame-rate work in the most recent Holmes movies and TV shows, you see a world of difference. You can’t deny the commercial success of the newer Holmes films, but there’s something about Rathbone as Holmes that’s compelling.
AK: From whence did your interest in cinematography spring?
TK: Well, in addition to a family of writers and musicians, we also have photographers. My mother, Joanne, was a graduate of the Eastman School, and taught aerial photography to the Army Air Force during World War II. My cousin Jordan Klein won an Academy Award in technical achievement for designing underwater camera housings (he shot the underwater sequences for [1954’s] Creature from the Black Lagoon). My uncle and brother were still photographers. So it felt natural at an early age to fool around with still cameras. At age 10 I had built a darkroom and thought that was the bomb, until I discovered an old 8mm motion-picture camera in our attic, and taught myself how to shoot with it. No idea what I was doing, of course. I just knew I was having fun.
AK: That eventually led you to study film production at the University of Southern California. Can you tell us a little about that experience, and were you also writing fiction during your student years?
TK: I was writing all through high school, and wrote my first novel at age 22. I loved being 22, and thought I had written something perfect. I couldn’t understand why no publishers wanted it. When I read it now, I see that it’s not fit to line a birdcage. As to living in L.A., it was like a six-year out-of-body experience, apart from the traffic jams.
AK: Tell us a little about some of the film productions you have been involved in. And I see that you have some awards on your mantelpiece.
TK: I’ve been very lucky, in that I’ve worked with great documentary directors--Charles Guggenheim, Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore, and Mark Jonathan Harris, to name a few. Just as I’ve tried to learn from the writers I admire, I’ve also tried to learn from the directors.
Sometimes people tell me how hard my job is, that as director of photography, I’m in the hot seat. But it’s nothing compared to being the director. In a way, being a director is like being the author--whether a project succeeds or fails is on you.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., I found out about Gallaudet University, the world’s only university that serves the deaf and hard of hearing. They also have education from pre-school through high school. When I visited their pre-school, I grew fascinated with how quickly children learned sign language, and decided to make See What I’m Saying, which won an Emmy Award. I’ve also worked on three Academy Award-nominated feature documentaries. One of them, Promises to Keep, is about homelessness, and informed my writing Drink the Tea.
AK: A personal favorite among the productions in your canon is 2010’s chilling look at the legacy of the Cold War arms race, Countdown to Zero. Can you tell us about working on that project?
TK: Lucy Jane Walker directed Countdown, and she had some great ideas about how to shoot the film. Basically, she wanted a similar look to The Bourne Identity. I think I achieved some success there, but for budget reasons they had to scale back, and I wound up shooting far less of the film than I would’ve liked. Working with Lucy was great fun, and we filmed what I believe is the last interview with [former U.S. Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara. He gave an impassioned plea for the world to eliminate all nuclear weapons. It’s a great film, and a worthy topic. [Editor’s note: At least for the time being, you can watch all of Countdown to Zero on YouTube.]
AK: You’ve labored on these documentaries, but have you ever wanted to film a piece of fiction? Working behind the camera can be akin to creating your own view of a situation, as a novelist tells a story.
TK: Ali, I knew you’d get to that eventually! First, I have shot fiction. I won the Gordon Parks Award for my work on an adaptation of Cinderella called Ashpet (1990]. I’ve also been a camera operator on The West Wing, and shot behind the scenes for The Wire, 24, and [the TV miniseries] John Adams. As to writing, there’re many parallels between filming a scene and writing a scene in a novel. For instance, where does the camera go? It’s a basic question, relating to point of view. Is the camera looking up at a character, making the character seem powerful and important? Or is the camera looking down, making that character seem weak, powerless? Is the camera moving or static? Does the camera use a wide-angle lens to emphasize the spaces between people, or a telephoto lens that seems to stack people close together?
When you write a scene, you have to consider point of view, and where your audience/reader is in relation to the characters. After so many years behind the viewfinder, I tend to visualize the scenes I’m writing. Where are my actors? How do they move? What’s the staging?
You want to see some great staging, check out the opening of Sullivan’s Travels , by Preston Sturges. Early in the film, there a three-minute continuous take with three actors in a small space that’s incredibly dynamic. It’s visual, yet so subtle. Imagine getting that into a book!
AK: You have carried out a good deal of research with cops during your documentary filming. Could you share some of your experiences?
TK: I got to be friends with a producer who was doing crime shows for a cable channel, and he asked me to direct and shoot a number of episodes. I had a blast. The policemen and -women I met were natural storytellers, and they had great stories to tell. I’m still in touch with four of five of them.
One of the stories I did involved a guy who killed his girlfriend, burned her remains in a 55-gallon drum over three days, then emptied the remains into a nearby stream. He still had to dispose of the drum, so he drove it to a construction site and left it there, among all the other drums. The problem? At dawn, the foreman noticed that all of his drums were green, but someone had left a blue one. You see, in the dark, the colors looked much the same. So the foreman called the cops, who found bone fragments. A forensic anthropologist was able to tell from the fragments that the victim was a Caucasian woman, early 20s, between 5-foot-4 and 5-foot-8, and weighed about 120 pounds. Given time, I think the forensics guy could’ve told the cops how much change she had in her pocket when she died. Anyway, the cops were able to locate the victim’s boyfriend ...
Here’s the thing, though--after the boyfriend gets rid of the 55-gallon drum, he goes to a bar, gets pissed, and tells the victim’s brother-in-law what he did. He confesses everything! The brother-in-law tips off the cops, who arrest this scumbag.
Now, do you think the confession made it into the show? Guess again. As the producer explained it to me, for the show to work, all the criminals had to appear to be geniuses, so that the cops looked even smarter when they caught the bad guys. This helped me realize that “reality TV” isn’t real, and it’s often barely TV. I think Donald Westlake had fun satirizing it in Get Real, the last Dortmunder novel.
Author Kaufman reads from his novel Steal the Show at Washington, D.C.’s renowned Politics and Prose Bookstore. You can watch all of his presentation, beginning here.
AK: You share a similar background with Lee Child, who worked in TV film production before becoming a novelist. Do you think that both of you share that cinematic sense of perspective in your storytelling?
TK: What’s funny is we both worked for Granada Television, though Lee worked full-time as a director in the UK, while I shot only the occasional job in the U.S. Lee’s books are cinematic, I really enjoy them.
When I write a scene, I tend to see it happen. That’s the result of years behind the camera viewfinder, watching life unfold. So I visualize where the actors are, how they move, what the lighting is like, but I’m aware of the other senses, too. Unlike film, a book can involve all the senses. Does a place have a unique smell, taste, or touch? George Orwell excelled at combining all the senses to bring his world to life in the reader’s mind. In Nineteen Eighty-Four , Orwell gives the reader an all-too-real look at what the future may bring.
The other thing is, I keep yelling “Cut!” when I finish writing a scene. This really upsets the people at Starbucks.
AK: Did you have one of those wonderful “eureka moments” when you consciously applied yourself to writing fiction?
TK: More like a “get off your ass” moment. After [composing] that first novel [at 22], I knew I wanted to write another, and wanted it to be a private-eye novel. But I put it off, concentrating on film work. When my first child was born, I realized the clock was ticking. So I started writing on a more regular basis.
Most of Drink the Tea was written in airplanes or hotel rooms, while I was traveling on shoots. I still write outside my home, but now find I don’t have to be on an airplane to get a chapter done. So long as I sit in a cramped position, drink coffee, and eat little bags of peanuts, I can pile up the chapters.
AK: Other than that first, youthful novel, do you have a drawer with other early work, all gathering piles of dust? And did those efforts prove to be learning experiences?
TK: That first book taught me what not to do, and showed me what I didn’t know. I’m a better writer because I wrote it.
As a teenager I took a week-long workshop with jazz pianist George Shearing and his group. I had lessons in the morning with his bass player, Andy Simpkins, who was terrific. And in the afternoon we all got together, Shearing would hear us play and talk with us. Driving to the first day of the workshop, I thought I was God’s gift to jazz. By the end of the week, I realized I knew nothing at all.
So on the very last day, Shearing sensed that some of us were feeling pretty down. He said, don’t worry, if you feel that you know nothing it means you’ve learned something this week. The thing to watch out for is the feeling that you know it all, that you’ve got it all under control--that’s when you’ll stagnate as an artist. I think that’s true for writers as well as musicians.
AK: Two years before it actually appeared in print, Drink the Tea won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press contest for Best First P.I. Novel. Tell us about that experience and also about what Robert J. Randisi and the PWA [he founded] mean to you, since you seem to have a fascination with the private-eye genre.
TK: Each year St. Martin’s has four different competitions for different mystery genres. For the P.I. genre, it works with the PWA. I applied and was instructed to send my book to Robert Randisi as my judge. I thought I was screwed. I mean, Randisi knows the P.I. genre better than anyone. Drink the Tea is not a conventional P.I. story. So I figured there was no way I could win the competition. In fact, when I sent the manuscript to him, I distinctly remember thinking I was throwing away $6 in postage. It was a shock to learn I’d won. I still think some ghastly mistake was made, though I’d never admit that publicly. This is all off the record, right?
AK: Tell us a little about you series lead, Willis Gidney. Where did he spring from? And why use Washington, D.C., as the stories’ backdrop?
TK: Let’s answer your question with a question: Are you troubled by unsightly back story? Do you wish those troubling details could all be erased?
That’s what I thought when I was creating Willis Gidney. Why bother with back story? Just invent a guy who doesn’t have one. So Willis Gidney is a product of an author’s laziness. I decided to make his early life forgotten. Since I’d worked on Promises to Keep, I thought it’d be a good idea for Willis to have grown up homeless. Traumatic childhood, memory gone. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. It turned out I had quite a bit of research to do, relating not only to homelessness, but also D.C.’s juvenile justice system. Of course, this was a good thing in the long run, but lots of heavy lifting. Hey, I got into this racket for the easy money and loose women. Still waiting for both, I’m afraid.
AK: I hear that George Pelecanos, another writer who uses the U.S. capital as a backdrop, enjoys your work.
TK: George has said nice things about what I’m doing. He’s one of the best writers in America, in my humble opinion. He’s also a neighbor, and over the years he’s offered solid suggestions and insights about what I’m writing. George’s D.C. is different from mine, but that’s because we’re different people. I love his work, and reading his descriptions of D.C. is like reading great reportage. The only other writer I've read who is as insightful about D.C. is Edward P. Jones (check out his Lost in the City).
AK: Recently, Scottish author Ian Rankin, when he was being interviewed by the BBC about the return of protagonist John Rebus [in Standing in Another Man’s Grave], said that he might not get on with Rebus if he actually met the man. Might that same thing be true if you encountered Willis Gidney in a bar?
TK: Willis has got some issues, but it would be hard not to like the guy. I often think of him as a nephew who doesn’t take advice terribly well. But I think we’d get along. We’re a lot alike. In fact, if I were taller, younger, better looking, and had faster reflexes, we could be twins.
AK: Are you a detailed plotter, or do you allow your imagination to take you on a journey traversing the high-wire?
TK: I talk to writers about this from time to time. The bottom line is, whether you outline or do it on the fly, you’re going to spend time staring at a blank page. I think outlines are terrific, I just suck at writing them.
The P.I. story is primarily an American invention, and so is jazz. So it feels right to forgo an outline and riff my way through a book. I once heard jazz bassist Rufus Reid talk about playing a song. He said that once you learned the melody and knew the chord structure, the song becomes a playground. The melody and chords are like the rules of the playground, so once you know them, you can have lots of fun. I think the same is true of a mystery, or of any genre, for that matter. Writers just want to have fun.
AK: There’s a lot of pathos in Gidney’s back story and also in his investigations, and in both Drink the Tea and its follow-up, Steal the Show, you pepper the narrative with social commentary, which adds a dimension to the tale. Would you care to comment?
TK: The great thing about the P.I. novel is how adaptable it is, how much you can do with it. It can be funny, dark, a thriller, a whodunit, a puzzle piece--whatever you want it to be, provided you know the rules of the playground, right? This includes social commentary, and who better to talk to the reader about disparities than the private eye? He crosses all boundaries--social, economic, political, and in Willis’ case, ethical. Plus, D.C. is a great town to write about, because it’s the home of the federal government, which controls the purse strings for what’s really a small Southern town, where people work and live and pay taxes. So the conflict is built in.
AK: Was it hard to follow up Drink the Tea, which was a remarkable tale of the dark side of family dynamics, with Steal the Show?
TK: I began a story arc that covers three books, starting with Drink the Tea. My P.I. finds an abandoned child and the smart thing is to turn her over to D.C. juvenile services, but he can’t bring himself to do it, since he barely survived D.C.’s system himself. In Steal the Show he’s trying to do right by this kid, and it leads to unforeseen complications in his life. I thought it was a good story, and I liked Willis getting antagonized from all sides. The next [still-untitled] Gidney book continues this particular arc, and the reader gets deeper into Gidney’s character.
I think family conflicts spring up like mushrooms in a forest. Steal the Show had it’s genesis in a story a friend told me about a father, a son, and a third man, who became partners selling an electronic device. They became successful, and the father and the other man squeezed the son out of this business. The son had signed a non-compete clause, and he used that time [away from work] to redesign the device so he could compete with his father and run him out of business, which he eventually did. I thought that was an interesting family dynamic, and used it in
AK: Did you plan that Drink the Tea would lead to a series?
TK: It wasn’t until I finished Tea that I realized how much I had come to know Gidney, and how much I liked him. I knew I wanted to write more about him. One of the things people tell me is that they love spending time with Gidney, and that to me is a fine compliment.
AK: Did the film backdrop for Steal the Show come from your own experiences in that industry? And do you believe in the old adage, “write what you know”?
TK: It’s certainly easier to write what you know, but it’s also important to write about what most people don’t know. When we read, we like to feel we’re getting an inside look at something, so I did that with Steal the Show. I’d done quite a lot of work at the National Institute for Standards and Technology [NIST], and was fascinated by cryptology and the digital revolution’s impact on it. Plus, it was fun to use people I’ve known from the film business as characters in the book.
AK: I enjoy the wit in your Gidney novels, as I think dark tales with striated morality often need a bit of humor to keep their narratives from becoming too gloomy. But tell us your own views on the deployment of humor in fiction.
TK: It’s tricky, because humor can undermine you if you’re trying to generate suspense. So I wind up cutting a lot of funny stuff in successive drafts, because I think it’s misplaced. Willis uses humor as a coping mechanism, so it’s OK in a tense situation, to an extent. But when he or someone he loves is threatened, it’s no time for jokes.
That said, I love humor mixed in with dark tales, and some people can do it perfectly--Donald Westlake and Carl Hiassen, to name two.
AK: One thing I really enjoy about the Willis Gidney novels is that they contain a sense of awareness of the problems weaker members of society face amid the randomness of life. I’m assuming that you must be of the liberal political persuasion. So what were your thoughts about last year’s U.S. elections?
TK: Ali, I’m not sure one needs to be a liberal to write about other people’s problems, but yeah, I am a liberal. A few years ago I had lunch with Lee Child and a dozen of his fans at Bouchercon, and I told him how appreciative I was for his anti-war views in Nothing to Lose
As to our election in 2012, I was petrified. In the summer of that year, I thought [Republican] Mitt Romney might actually become the next president. So I went out and canvassed door-to-door, I drove people to the polls (and wrote a short story about that, “Four More Years”), and I worked a phone bank--in short, I became the thing I hate, an odious pustule who calls you up while you're resting in the evening to ask impertinent questions, like who you’re going to vote for! But I was frantic, I knew I had to do this. If Romney won and I did nothing to help stop him, I’d hate myself for the next four years.
AK: So where are you with your follow-up to Steal the Show? And what has Gidney been up to since we last read about him?
TK: Gidney’s a lazy sod, I can tell you. I have to do all of the heavy lifting. He did form a jazz band, the Willis Gidney Quintet. It’s a skilled group of musicians, if you don’t count the bass player. We’re playing in clubs around D.C. and it’s great fun, even though Willis has yet to show up for a single rehearsal or gig.
Still, Gidney has condescended to appear in two of the short stories in my new collection, Erased and Other Stories. ... In addition to Gidney, I also have two stories that relate to the Holocaust. Years ago I shot a TV [special] with Walter Cronkite, Holocaust: In Memory of Millions, and interviewed people who survived the Nazi death camps. They told stories I’ll never forget. One of them was the basis for “Erased.”
Readers tell me they love Gidney, so I’m hard at work on the third novel about him, his girlfriend Lilly, and the bizarre Washington, D.C., scene that surrounds them. This new book goes deeper into both of their characters, and I hope readers will like it.
AK: Finally, can you tell us about some of the books you’ve read and been excited about recently?
TK: Lately? I’ve been reading Reed Farrel Coleman, Steve Hamilton, John Lutz, Allison Leotta, Laura Lippman, Daniel Stashower; and re-reading Ross Thomas, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block.
AK: Thanks for your time, Tom. And you’re much better-looking in person than in your pictures.
TK: You’re very perceptive.