Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Story Behind the Story:
“A Good Rush of Blood,” by Matt Phillips

(Editor’s note: This is the 98th entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Its author is Matt Phillips, who now lives in San Diego but grew up in Palm Springs, California. In addition to his latest novel, A Good Rush of Blood—about which he writes below—he has written the noir novels Countdown, Know Me from Smoke, To Bring My Shadow, You Must Have a Death Wish, Three Kinds of Fool, and The Bad Kind of Lucky. Phillips’ short fiction has appeared in Mystery Tribune, Tough, Retreats from Oblivion, Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, and elsewhere.)

I’ve never met a weak woman. Not once that I can remember. The women I know—the ones in my life now and the ones long gone—are hard as diamonds. They are, pure and simple, ass kickers.

When I placed my hands on the keyboard to write my latest noir novel, A Good Rush of Blood (Run Amok Crime), I knew one thing for certain: The center of this story would be a woman, and she would be a total badass.

So was born, or forged in creative fire, Creeley Nash, a former-runaway-longtime-waitress-now-drug-runner who finds herself face-to-face with her estranged mother, a woman who is in prison for life … for murder. And who declares absolute innocence. Is she innocent? As much as Creeley loathes her mother for a rough childhood rife with drugs and abuse and wayward sex, she has a gut feeling—maybe her mother is truly innocent? And what then?

Creeley tries to do right. That’s what then. She undertakes a dark journey—contrasted against sun-bleached Palm Springs—to solve the mystery of her mother’s wrongful conviction. Because that’s what Creeley has inside her, a compass needle whose north is forever aimed at true justice.

Whether it’s delivered by the streets or not.

Look, I’ll be honest: I finished writing this book and thought it was a no-brainer for agents or publishers who profess to want diverse characters and strong women protagonists. I was wrong, and not in the way some might think. I was wrong in thinking that gatekeepers would listen to the thoughts and fears and rage of a woman born of the streets—somebody from down in the gutter. Creeley runs away at 13 years old and lives the street life. We encounter her as she takes the drug mule job, and that’s who she is … Creeley will always live on the dark side.

She’s a gutter punkette. And proud of it.

But that’s not what the gatekeepers wanted.

They didn’t like that Creeley is exploring her sexuality, just coming to terms with who she is or might want to be. Creeley would rather get off to a White Snake album than let a man touch her. She’s downright sick of the male gaze, and all that comes with it. Just make her gay or straight, they told me. It’s less confusing for readers.

And then there is Creeley’s chance encounter—and fast friendship—with a recently divorced gay man. Based partly on an old bartender pal of mine, Kimmie is not only a true Palm Springs party animal, but also a man deeply shaken by his own failure at love. His role in the story as a politically incorrect gay sleuth, though more an emotional shamus than a procedural one, didn't sit well with gatekeepers. Because it complicates things … Couldn’t I just make him a woman, too?

They didn’t like the woman-fighting-for-woman angle. Because it makes more sense if Creeley is trying to unravel her daddy’s wrongful conviction. Can’t I see that? How it lends to the “daddy issues” complex and makes for [melo]drama?

Look, I could have changed all this stuff and—in excruciating revision after excruciating revision—worked my way to a vanilla ice cream novel. Some of you know what I’m talking about: Middle aged white woman—likely a law enforcement officer—is thrust into mysterious circumstances and must “face down demons” to find child in peril. Or, we can all just admit something to ourselves: The gatekeepers don’t want to read, and they don’t want us to read, stories that come from street people. They don’t want people like Creeley Nash speaking to us because maybe, just maybe, there’s something wrong with the world … for real. And maybe we’re part of the problem.

I didn’t want to turn my rocky road into vanilla ice cream. Because Creeley is a composite of all the women I’ve known and still know. She stands up and speaks. She faces you down no matter how big you are. She tells you to fuck off when you deserve it. She keeps moving forward, no matter how hard she gets hit. And it’s not that Creeley isn’t flawed. She has screwed up and made bad choices. She has fucked the wrong men and stayed too long and let everything go to hell. But she owns that, from her first step to her last. And when she stares her mother in the eyes and hears those words—I did not do it—Creeley knows the bonds of blood are calling to her. And everything she’s been through, every wrong turn and bad deed, every mistake she’s made or somehow reversed, give her the grit she needs to solve this mystery.

After a year of shopping my book in all the regular places, with all the inclusive gatekeepers, it was a woman—no surprise—who swiped it off the slush pile at Run Amok Crime. There is no greater honor than to have Creeley chosen—yes, chosen—by a woman.

(Left) Author Matt Phillips.

I said I’ve never met a weak woman. I was wrong about that. I meet them all the time—they live between the pages and sheets of commercial novels the world over. Women who survive by the grace of a heroic man. Women who need a child in peril to bid them to action. Women who need a man to contrast what they are and who they deserve to be. It’s sad, man. All these men writing weak women. Can’t we grow up?

Because it’s a myth—the myth of a woman coming into herself, finally, by the grace of myriad familiar tropes. Another illusion born of the gatekeepers, those treasured arbiters of good taste.

I think men—like me in this moment, paradoxically—are so scared of who we are or aren’t that we need to control what the ideal woman is. We can’t let this thing get away from us … all this power. Otherwise, we’ll be seen for what we truly are—weak. I say we—all of us now—start writing and reading the women we know: Tough characters who know what it is to bleed and suffer and fight and, in the end, stand up to anything and everything.

I don’t know about you, but those are the women I know.

READ MORE:Sudden Death and the Startlement of Absence,” by Matt Phillips (CrimeReads).

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