A Noir Master Class with Pablo D’Stair

It’s difficult to remember exactly what year it was, but around 2010 I discovered the work of Pablo D’Stair. I devoured all of the Trevor English series and several other of his noir works, mostly published through KUBOA, a publishing house D’Stair ran himself. He wrote in an entirely different style and approach than other crime writers I had encountered. D’Stair’s work convinced me that independent literature was a worthwhile venture.

Now I have the pleasure of reissuing all of D’Stair’s work through All Due Respect Books. Man Standing Behind was published last month and the Trevor English series will kick off 2020. He’s also working on a new piece titled Shill which will be serialized and released on this and other blogs.

I talked with D’Stair about, well, everything noir.

All Due Respect: Much of your work involves one character acting as a tormentor for the narrator. In Kaspar Traulhaine, Approximate, it’s the stranger; in Man Standing Behind, it’s the gunman; in the Trevor English series, it’s Norman Court. Does the narrator’s character determine who the tormentor is?

Pablo D’Stair: Oh, of course it does.

What is wonderful in noir is that the stage is set, unconsciously, from the drop to be sympathetic to whichever character is not doing what they ought be doing the most. ‘To dig the villain,’ so to speak. And of course for true noir: it is always villain vs villain – one rotten person up against it due to the machinations of another rotten person (however banal or however outlandish those machinations may be).

A noir-reader has a built in aversion to someone wanting to just get on with life, to play the game according to Hoyle. When the table is set, stakes being laid out, a noir-author knows no one reading is thinking ‘Gee, I hope Billy or Gina get to live the life they wanted to live and come out of this okay’ – quite the opposite! The reader is somewhere inside, from word one, thinking ‘Fuck Billy or Gina! Let’s see how smart they feel after (fill-in-the-blank)!’

So the tormented/tormentor dynamic has to be based on the filter-character and the filter-character is the (relatively) more normal sort. Then it’s a game of turning a scenario from all angles to systematically screw them.

Therefore the characteristics of the filter/figure determine all. You set the relativistic-dials of Sensibility to this character’s wavelength and come up with a foil for them on that same wavelength who keeps them from being able live as they want; or better, who makes them see the futility in the way they live, in all that held meaning – who shows them they are just plain lousy at being whatever it is they have lived life thinking they are. You come up with their worst nightmare and watch them flail in it until they are devoured.

Because there is something ugly, through the aperture of noir, to normalcy. As garish, as unhinged, as amoral, as awful as the filter-character may be in a given story (because, hey, it’s noir – it’s the playground for the unlikeable/irredeemable) they must always be weaker, in the end. It is by making them weaker that they inexorably lose the reader’s sympathy. And this is what must happen – we must grow to think less of the voice/eyes through which our story is told – we must reinforce their despair, become the cold eyes proving that everything they are afraid is so and they will never come out of it on top. The filter-character must be brought low in the mind of a reader, all the moreso if they triumph in a traditional way – any traditional triumph for the “hero” of noir is them admitting they are not special (they call for help, rely on a system outside of their own abilities – they do something that makes a reader think ‘I see why you did that – yes, I understand that choice, considering your specific circumstances.’)

The more we understand the filter-character’s choices, the more we detest them – which is why our sympathies go to tormentor, who we must never understand and who we love for their other-worldlyness – their reinforcement of our deep desire that there is something we haven’t thought of, a way to live we might not be able to hack, but we were correct in thinking was there: there is something and someone better than us.

We are, in a sick way, reminded we are the filter-character …

Noir has to put it in our faces, as readers and as people, that we hate our choices – probably most especially when they are the right ones! We might be glad we made them … but we hate them. They might be proper, noble (even if only relatively) … but we hate that, most of all.

That is: the noir-hero must be a loser, par excellence! One achieves immortality in the Valhalla of noir by being ruined so wholly we cannot help but admire them as a god! “You think *you* got the short end of the stick? Look at this dim bastard! THAT’S how you get the short end of the stick!”

ADR: One thing I’ve always appreciated about your work is how claustrophobic it feels, how the reader is trapped in the narrator’s head. Why does this approach appeal to you and how do you go about creating this effect?

PD: I have a rule about how many Suspensions of Disbelief are allowed in a noir story. ‘One’ is ideal (this covers the set-up: “guy finds gun on seat of car” etc); Two is the limit (this covers the plot-quirk: “guy decides to keep the gun/throws gun away but someone comes looking for it”).

From there? Piece needs to “keep interesting but be as boring as possible.”

I used to comb shelves for noirs/crime books NOT about detectives/former detectives, books NOT about folks already involved in nefarious things – I didn’t want tales set in some alien world, but in my typical humdrum. I’ve no interest what someone with mob connections/contacts in the underworld would do in X or Y situation, but am obsessed over what a “regular, unadorned person” would do if something untoward/lurid/macabre started encroaching into their life – or better: with peeping on someone normal beginning to trespass into territory normally designated to those with an insider knowledge (or best of all: I want a story that is both).

So I write like this:

Someone has something in their apartment – I want it/need it – Here I am, outside the door: how do I get in? – Not “How does someone who can pick a lock get in?” not “How does someone who can call in a favor from some shady character get in?” but “How the fuck does PABLO get in?” and more directly: “What is Pablo willing to do to get in?”

No allowance for lucky happenstance (key under the mat/neighbor entered to feed cat and I snuck in after) etc. At every step, I think to myself “What checkmates in one?” and then I write that. If I can come up with another move after – great! If not? No one will ever know: some half-written piece goes on the failure heap.

That’s where the tension comes from. “If I crap out at page 10? Not so bad … Now I’m at page 50 … what if the bottom falls out now? … 150 pages in? … if I checkmate myself now, I’ve lost the entire work!”

That artistic noia is the key, combined with how I always “start from premise and make the rest up as I go” – every word/scene/event occurring to me linearly (and no back-tracking, even if I think of a really, really cool idea). The claustrophobia/dread is propelled by genuine anxiety, the nausea of the writer trying to spoil the writing. It is the only way to truly approximate the existential dread of failure in the fictional character – to write/live always only a penstroke away from failing at even writing a character failing!

ADR: There’s a strain of absurdity in your writing that I think is often missing in crime fiction, which tends toward an ethic of “getting it right” and “doing your research.” However, the absurdity is more one element of the story. In Man Standing Behind it’s that the gunman is making Roger follow him around while he shoots people, but why he picked Roger and why he wants a witness to his crimes are irrelevant. How would you characterize the role of absurdity in your work?

PD: Absurdity is the crux of the work. Noir is a constant game of switcheroo, a macabre bout of gainsaying. What seems absurd at the start should morph into seeming understandable – what starts as understandable should morph into seeming absurd.

Imagine observing a pointillist painting:  when looked at from a distance, all seems detailed, crisp, appropriate, real: a single world that can be grasped and judged through a comfortable aesthetic aperture – the closer one moves in, the more the actual painting is revealed to be smears, dots, disconnected portions that only gain orderliness when kept away from.

Noir? It’s moving in and out from those two extreme points of observation (which both exist at once, of course, are component of each other). So the act of writing (and maybe by extension the act of reading) noir is to hunt for the exact vantage, head tilt, distance where clarity turns to chaos and vice versa – to approach and retreat, approach and retreat, never certain which step makes the difference.

I ask: What is it in this individual’s (reader/writer/character) perception that makes the person too close in to the canvas think they see, and so are able to comment on, the entire picture?; or else what makes the person who is seeing the entire picture become possessed of the idea that they are only seeing a portion and so demand an even more removed vantage? (After all: move far enough away from our Degas and it loses cohesion, just as well – the total becomes too condensed to make out details in, the entirety of the canvas soon so tiny it’s just an indecipherable daub like the daubs it consists of … only it is a daub not part of a larger whole, just a painting, a world being walked away from backward)

Apply that mindset to identity, morality, choice: that is the absurdity in the work. You can’t be asked to judge a Degas from an inch away, after all! Except that’s what is demanded every moment of every day of and by everyone!

From a distance, an individual can pontificate on a wide set of experiences and assign an order to it – it is easy to be calm, moral, understanding, balanced (or to imagine one is being so, anyway): All the world is a clear image and because it is being regarded from safety and with only a detached investment judgments can be made, verdicts set down, complex rhetorical reasoning offered, plans laid out.

A person who is in closer, who is PART of the set of experiences? They have no distance. All there is, from the standpoint of the individual, is chaos, uncertainty.

In one of my other novels (one of the cousin books to Man Standing Behind) a character who has made some highly questionable decisions reasons in the following way – and it’s the most precise way I’ve found to express the entire mindset of noir while within a narrative and, indeed, is the very definition of what absurdity is to me per my life and my writing: “I chuckled, sadly, blaming it all on something else.  This certainly wasn’t how I behaved.  I was only acting this way because this was happening.”

ADR: You said: “I used to comb shelves for noirs/crime books NOT about detectives/former detectives, books NOT about folks already involved in nefarious things – I didn’t want tales set in some alien world, but in my typical humdrum.” Who were the authors you read who captured the typical humdrum?

PD: It’s kinda a funny saga about that.

Groundwork was set due to my buying cassette after cassette of old time radio shows – this woulda been fifth/sixth grade (Suspense, “Columbia’s outstanding theatre of thrills” especially – truly the only and finest education a writer ever needs) because many of those were people, ordinary, getting in fixes, their fault or not, entire crux typically they had no special set of skills … hence Suspense (the show had its share of detectives, espionage, plucky reporters, but those never struck me deeply.)

Somewhere in all that (based largely on an episode entitled “The Earth is Made of Glass”) I got enamored with the Laboratory Murder – a killing for the pure philosophy of doing it. Curiously, this timed directly with my first reads of Conan Doyle, with watching Homicide Life on the Street etc so a weird skewering took place in how I’d consciously choose to view/read: saw the detective as Villain set to keep Hero from accomplishing something – for no more a motive than why the baddie did it/wanted to do it – just two worlds, at odds, forming all these crisis and I fundamentally understood each as well as the other.

As to scouring shelves: outside of reading crime books and just deciding to sympathize more with the perpetrators than the detectives I could not find anything I “believed in” – nothing that felt like shoplifting the Basic Instinct VHS from Dart Drug or lifting few bucks from mom’s purse/dad’s wallet – the headspace, knowing there was transgression but still finding myself the hero, the sympathetic – the point being I had done something of vital human importance, punishment almost a simpleton mistake, wholly overlooking the truth of shared experience.

The closest I came was French existentialism! My big joke (though it’s true) is that I first read The Stranger and The Fall as thrillers! I sought out things like them – again looking for thrillers – and discovered The Trial, The Tunnel, Crime and Punishment, The Pledge and their ilk – and soon I found it was not purely Crime that tickled me, books more in line with what I was after could be found in oddly horrific places or in places with no kind of otherworldy import at al – The Tenant, for example, or La Mustache.

But again – none of these quite hit the spot (as close as, say Postman Always Rings Twice came) as far as what I was truly after. The stakes were always so high! To me, low stakes felt so much more thrilling, terrifying, and important! A joke with my dear friend and fantastic author/artist Goodloe Byron became “But can there even BE a great novel WITHOUT a murder.” (not that there’s anything wrong with murder – I guess I wanted … a low-stakes murder!)

Of course I found things CLOSE to what I wanted – I consider A Simple Plan about as perfect a “modern thriller” as could be, per my taste (though even it drifts afar from my personal sense of stakes) and so I looked for things “like that”. Would come up with Windfall (or “the poor man’s A Simple Plan,” as I always called it) and Bad Chemistry – random paperbacks, just would read the back and if it didn’t say “retired detective” or “up and coming reporter” I’d take a chance. Found a terrific, terrific old book called No One Knew They Were There that was a gem (as was The Little Girl Who Lived Down The Lane). With many of these (Windfall in particular) I would ADORE elements of the set ups, how mundane things were set and how meticulous in the specifics of noia and trying to get away with something – but none of them really walked the line I needed.

And then, of course, came Highsmith (let us all take a moment to prostrate ourselves in supplicance).

Like magic, she arrived in exactly the way I needed – as a correction to Hitchcock! Oh, I loved his film of Strangers on a Train – a go-to for what I needed (as was his Rope and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch Hiker or Compulsion with Orson Wells) – but when I picked up her novel and realized how different – how beautifully, relentlessly, inwardly unrelenting it was and how in it – Guy DOES HIS MURDER TOO oh, it all changed for me. I was in love.

Of course she gave me Ripley (without who there would be no Trevor English – indeed, a joke while I was writing that was I might as well call it The Talentless Mister English!) but it was her masterworks like Found In The Street (my favorite) Those Who Walk Away, A Dog’s Ransom, The Blunderer, Cry of the Owl, The Price of Salt that made me realize I didn’t have to invent a whole genre, I had something to live up to – and something I’d never be able to.

ADR: One thing I enjoy in a Pablo D’Stair book is the overwhelming, relentless negativity. These characters can’t even enjoy a cup of coffee or a cigarette or a screw. They alternate between mediocre status quo and all-consuming terror. What are the origins of this approach?

PD: Too far into my young adulthood I was quite the petty “intellectual criminal.” I’d spent my formative years listening to radio shows about Laboratory Murders, Crime as Art and such nevermind – fell head over heels in love with these notions, seemed like some jolly fun. So I’d shoplift, do my best to learn to forge signatures, the mechanics of quick change cons – at work I’d grift the till, run coupon scams, and, sometimes, plot after-hours lootings.

No motive beyond “Isn’t this a charming thing to be able to say I’ve done?”

Far too late into life (even after having kids and all!) it occurred to me: “While it is charming to tell stories of what I USED to do, if I was STILL doing things like that at THIS age it would be gallows absurd, almost horrific!”

As some chump kid I could say “I’m gonna rob a store of $20k!” and a sensible friend or adult would appropriately chime in: “Sure – you could … and spend your life worried about being caught … or dealing with the consequences … or you could get a job that pays more than $20k a year and … have the exact same benefit with … no risk.”

There was a delicious headspace, going through with little crimes – a focused, obsessive joy, like childhood play – gloriously free of consequence. “A teenager got caught shoplifting? Stop the presses!” right?

But say the same youthful, formless energy to commit an act – especially a petty one – remained present in someone older but the stakes don’t raise proportionate to the age. Suddenly, the shift in scope makes the theft of a Popsicle magnificently nuanced and dire – almost uglier than the thought of bank robbery, assault, murder. Not in the sense of “You’d go to jail for stealing a Popsicle” but imagine your wife learning you’d been stealing Popsicle – your boss, your kid’s teacher reading about it in the local paper! Or it coming out that you can’t afford birthday presents because you’ve been running red lights on purpose – all the crazier cause you’re making sure you weren’t putting anyone at risk, but now you’re stuck with the tickets – and then it turns out you’ve been purposefully not paying the tickets and so fees have been accruing! Imagine putting your actual livelihood and stability (as well as that of those you love) at risk not for some gigantic “This will set me up for life” payoff – but because you kind of wanted to steal VHS copies of the special edition of Caddyshack!

Now: imagine you didn’t commit whichever crime/transgression on impulse, but spent adult hours planning the heist, daydreaming it, scrutinizing the nuance and logic to make sure you don’t get caught … and now you haven’t been caught, but you might be … unless you do one more thing … tell one more lie … take one more chance … I mean: Try enjoying your smoke break or sex with your wife with all that going on!

Of course, when writing a noir novel the stakes can get extreme or start from a more dire event – but the mood, the drama must grow from the same disproportionate impulses. Noir is adult consequences applied to childish worldviews – and the key is a headspace that refuses to reconcile its position with that of the reality around it.

ADR: Most crime fiction writers tend toward the specific in setting and time, but none of your books has this quality. The characters could be anywhere in a place that’s “probably the U.S.,” anytime in the last couple of decades. They smoke generic cigarettes, go to no-name restaurants, take the metro from one stop to the next. Why choose this blank canvas to work from?

PD: The simplest answer is: noir is tracing the currents of perception. As much as possible the perception needs to be wholly subjective to the piece – any hints of influence should be wrested away from Outsiders (readers).

Noir doesn’t work, full stop, if mood/atmosphere isn’t the intoxicant that informs everything. A piece is going to follow a trajectory/plot/argumentation/sequence through all iterations until the desired terminus – but the “way it feels” is the raison d’etre.

Being honest, the principle reason I like the technique for noir is I find it artificial to depend/utilize a “set geography” either as a crutch or as positive-extra-spice; both things make the words seem less authentic because they draw on/depend on something not original to the writer.

All this sets it up as a rule that “X sort of things happen in Y sort of places” which makes noir into an antiseptic fairy tale. The Seedy Underbelly of Detroit might as well be Hogwarts (and thus be regarded in the same distanced, fantastical way) if there is a tone that “this is the hidden world wherein no-goodniks lurk”.

That’s all fun, but it makes the investigation aspect noir seem an affectation – in this, it makes someone writing crime/noir who hasn’t “lived it themselves” (which is, I rather hope, most of us!) seem even more like they are just putting on impostures, doing dress up, than we all know they are.

Pablo D’Stair isn’t a blackmailer/murderer/what have you, so it’s “pretend” in certain specifics – but as I mentioned in a previous answer, those are the limited suspensions of disbelief I allow into each story – everything else should, for all intents and purposes, be documentary: an honest look at one’s opinions, desires, impulses, ethics, told through one’s personal filter with no dependence on or meta-winking at tropes etc.

Personally, I have a story (first person/third/hybrid voice, doesn’t matter) describe a character “downtown, on a metro, eating fast food, smoking cigarettes” rather than “in New York/on the D-Train/eating Hardee’s/smoking a Lucky Strike” because the reader will (just based on how cognition works) substitute in details specific to their experiences that fit the MOOD the prose exudes.

If I name specifics? A reader not only is competing with the perceptions others have put in their heads (influences from films, other books, personal travels, anecdotes from friends) which bring outside colors/flavors to My Perception/Mood but could brush up against odd conflicts.

For a silly example? They might connect Roy Rogers with happy good times while I want to paint it in roiling, paranoiac tones; the specific of “Roy Rogers” would cause some level of dissonance in that the reader would “start with specific and the specific would inform the tone/mood” – or another way of putting it “Pablo’s paranoia would seem a warped version of a Regular World instead of being THE WORLD that even things-normal-to-the-reader seem perverse within.”

Interestingly, I could describe in excruciating detail where every scene I’ve ever written takes place – the exact moment of my life being drawn on for setting, mindset, all of it. It’s all connected to mood (“Now the story takes a dark turn – so it’s set in X apartment I lived in in Y town in Z year – but the hallway, that anticipation, is drawn from a different memory connected to an altogether different era/location/thing I saw”) – but to throw in those details would mean nothing to anyone else! I just spinkle in some few minute details to make the narrator’s mind seem as hyperspecific as mine (as anyone’s).

Keeping the words more general focuses the reader inward – they experience things like a dream, which is how I try to write them: via unconscious reference. In a dream, I know details without having to know them – but in writing, like with a dream, the more details I prattle about the less anyone cares to listen! Now: if the reader can have a dream experience, using the currents of my mood but replete with their own unconscious colorings (aspects they don’t need to justify or check against fact) they can come closest to the experience of writing the novel, which is the closest to living the novel, being the novel, owning the dream as theirs over anyone else’s.

I want a reader to remember what they did, not what I wrote.

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