(Editor’s note: In this 60th installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series, The Rap Sheet welcomes Craig Faustus Buck, the Los Angeles-based author-screenwriter whose first noir mystery novel, Go Down Hard, was published this last summer by Brash Books. Buck’s short story “Honeymoon Sweet” is currently in contention for both an Anthony Award and a Macavity Award. He was also an Anthony short-story nominee in 2014 for “Dead End,” and wrote an Oscar-nominated short film. Buck is currently the president of the Mystery Writers of America-Southern California chapter.)
The protagonist of my debut novel, Go Down Hard, is a bottom-feeding ex-cop tabloid crime writer named Nob Brown. He’s always struggling to work his way up the writers’ food chain, so I figured I’d give him a shot at improving his lot by letting him interview me for The Rap Sheet.
Nob Brown: Let’s start off with a softball. Why did you write Go Down Hard?
Craig Faustus Buck: It was an act of defiance against what I’d like to call a long and distinguished writing career but, in fact, it was just long.
NB: “An act of defiance” is pretty vague. How about some context?
CFB: I’ve made my living as a writer since graduating college in 1974. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, a freelance book editor, a ghostwriter, an academic abstract writer, a magazine writer, a magazine editor, a war correspondent, a non-fiction author, a network TV writer/producer, a screenwriter … you name it, I’ve written it. But all of these roles had one thing in common: I was writing for a taskmaster. Whether he or she was an editor, a publisher, a producer, a network, or a studio, I was always under someone’s else thumb (yes, it’s awkward, but grammatically correct. Never use it in dialogue). When I took an early Writers Guild pension, I decided to call myself retired and write for myself for a change. I tried my hand at noir crime writing because that’s what I most enjoy reading, and the impulse spawned Go Down Hard. I only hope my audience has as much fun reading it as much as I did writing it, because it was a true exultation of freedom.
NB: Did you always want to be a writer?
CFB: No. When I was young I wanted to be a whale.
NB: Is it true that your first paying writing gig was for a school science lab equipment catalogue?
CFB: Yes. My first freelance gig was writing limericks for Frey Scientific. I guess you need a touch of levity to sell plastinated sheep brains.
NB: Go Down Hard sets a seasoned journalist--namely, myself--on the trail of the killer of a rock-and-roll goddess, a woman who I idolized in high school and fantasized nightly about losing my virginity to.
She was shot 20 years ago, but somewhere in my investigation I turned over the wrong rock and triggered a contemporary murder. Where did that story come from?
CFB: First of all, you’re no seasoned journalist. You’re a Los Angeles Police Department burnout with no writing background, who trades on your ex-cop street cred to talk a few rags into printing your stuff.
NB: You sound just like my mother, only without the accent.
CFB: To answer your question, the story of Go Down Hard evolved from its characters, which was a whole new adventure for me. You asked earlier about what I meant by an act of defiance. Part of that was a revolt against
outlining. Most of my more recent career was spent in the salt mines of network television. When you get a TV writing job, you have to write an outline, which they call a treatment, and it has to get approved by whoever’s paying you
before they let you “go to script.” That process usually includes several rounds of notes from many people, including the guy in charge of snacks on the set. Every “beat” has to be painstakingly outlined, which can make the writing of the script itself sort of boring, like painting by the numbers.
(Left) Craig Faustus Buck
So when I started writing crime prose, I skipped the outline and just started writing by the seat of my pants, letting my characters do the driving. It was an exhilarating experience, even if it took me three times as long as it should have to finish the book. I think the process added a lot of surprises to the story, because even I didn’t see them coming. I didn’t even know who the murderer was until I wrote the second-to-last chapter.
NB: You must have had some sort of story worked out before you started writing.
CFB: I was actually planning to transform one of my screenplays into the novel. I thought the characters were interesting and the story seemed to work, so I figured it would be a piece of cake. Little did I know. By the time I finished, only one character from the script remained in the book, a secondary character, and the film plot had shriveled into unrevealed back story. Virtually none of the screenplay survived, though I did recycle some of it in a few short stories, one of which, “Dead End,” was nominated for an Anthony Award in 2014 and became the basis for my novella, Psycho Logic, which got published that same year.
NB: Why didn’t the script work out?
CFB: The translation was dive-bombed by point of view. When I started writing the book, I chose to use a first-person, present-tense narrator--namely, you. I heard the voice in my head, probably from all of the great film noir I’ve loved throughout my life. A first-person POV is intense, immediate, and evocative, but it is also structurally limiting, something I hadn’t fully grasped when I started writing it. The film story depended on playing various character POVs against each other, juggling secrets and lies. Suspense usually depends on the audience knowing about threats that the protagonist doesn’t see coming. You can’t do that with a first-person narrative. So what started out as a thriller, while still suspenseful, became more of a character-driven mystery. With a lot of dark humor, of course. You can be a funny guy, this interview notwithstanding.
NB: Do you mind? I’m trying to be professional about this.
[CFB rolls his eyes.]
NB: Judging by the reviews, Go Down Hard sounds pretty lighthearted. T. Jefferson Parker described it as “a spirited mix of noir homage and hard-boiled spoof, and Craig Faustus Buck gets the proportions just right. Sexy, tough and comic.” Yet there’s a lot of bleak psychological subtext. What’s up with that?
CFB: I’ve co-authored four pop-psychology books about various sorts of physical and emotional abuse, including one that became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. I also did a lot of writing for Human Behavior magazine and Psychology Today. The inner workings of the human psyche have always fascinated me, so it should come as no surprise that they play a central role in my writing. But I work hard to keep that stuff between the lines. My book is a noir romp, not a psychology course. There’s nothing worse than an academic lecture in the middle of a crime novel except, perhaps, a political diatribe (Stieg Larsson pasticheurs take heed). I also ghosted a pop-gynecology book, but I keep those references between the sheets.
NB: You touch on a lot of worlds in this book, including aging rock-and-roll stars, live Internet sex shows, unethical psychiatrists, Slavic mobsters, and estate planning. What kind of research did you do, especially on the first two?
CFB: Rock is the soil from which I sprouted. I grew up above Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip during the ’60s, when The Doors were the house band at the Whisky a Go Go. I formed my first rock band when I was 12 and played in several after that. I ran the light show at the Whiskey when I was in high school. I haunted the Ash Grove and the Troubadour. A lot of my musician friends from those days are
still working. They’ve played with everyone from Dylan and Paul McCartney to Michael Jackson and Frank Zappa. Research into aging rock and rollers is just a phone call away.
Live Internet sex, on the other hand, was something I knew little about, other than what I’d seen in the media. So I had to do a bit of digging there. Luckily, I live in the San Fernando Valley which--until recently, when L.A. County passed a law requiring condoms on porn shoots--was the adult entertainment capital of the world. It wasn’t hard to find sex workers to interview for the price of a beer. There’s even a bar here that has porn-star karaoke once a week. Through networking I got invited to a porn industry Halloween party in a B&D (for the uninitiated, that’s Bondage and Discipline) porn film studio complete with dungeon sets. They had a topless DJ, privacy tents, stripper poles, an inflatable wading pool filled with olive oil, and a lot of people in wild costumes with even wilder stories to tell. I never knew how sheltered I was until I tried to fathom why a woman would volunteer to
let a film crew light a fire on her nude body. She didn’t even get combat pay. On the other hand, she said it didn’t hurt. I guess it’s the same sort of masochistic impulse that drives a person to write a novel on spec.