Interview with Rob Pierce, author of Tommy Shakes

Rob Pierce is back for his FIFTH book with All Due Respect. I sat down with him to talk about Tommy ShakesHere’s the pitch:

Tommy Shakes is a career criminal, and not a very good one. He earned his name as a heroin addict. Now he’s just a drunk, drinking so much that he spends much of his time in bathrooms, exploding from one end or the other.

He’s in a marriage he wants to salvage. He convinces himself that his wife will stay with him if he can bring home enough money. She tells him that won’t do it, but Tommy gets a crack at a big heist and decides to pull the job.

The job is ripping off a popular restaurant that runs an illegal sports book in back. When it turns out that one of the security guys works for a local gangster, Joey Lee, Tommy figures there’s enough money that it’s worth the risk.

They pull the robbery but one member of Tommy’s crew gets gun happy and it turns into a bloodbath, which includes killing Lee’s man. Now they’re wanted for murder, and the law is the least of their problems.

All Due Respect: Many of your main characters are competent criminals. They may make some poor decisions, but they succeed (in crime, at least) more than they fail. Tommy, on the other hand, is a fuck-up at all parts of his life. Why did you decide to write about him?

Rob Pierce: Fuck if I know, Chris. I was long-term sick with minor illnesses and my wife was talking about moving out if I didn’t stop drinking. And I wasn’t going to stop. I was willing to cut back, but that didn’t work so well the more serious her talk became. So I wrote this character based on me, made him an incompetent career criminal with family and drinking problems. It hurt like hell to write but what the hell, it hurt like hell just to live. I’m fine now though, don’t you and your readers worry your pretty little heads. In some cases really little.

ADR: There’s a network of Bay Area criminal characters who populate all four of your published novels. Even though the novels aren’t a series, the appearance of these characters make your work more cohesive. How did this come about? 

RP: It’s primarily selfish. I wrote characters and I wasn’t done with them. Just because one story ends doesn’t mean all the characters do. And these are my settings. Once I’ve created an area in the reader’s mind, what am I supposed to do with it, dump all the characters? Hell, it’s easier to keep the characters alive, extend them, put them in different situations and see how they respond. Some better than others, that’s for damned sure.

ADR: There is more literal shit in Tommy Shakes than any book I’ve read. Why did you choose to render Tommy’s gastrointestinal sickness in such detail?

RP: I was going through some ailments and decided to blend them into what I was writing. Like the end of chapter one, which doesn’t work if it’s not followed up throughout the book. It’s also probably symbolic as to how his whole life is a mess, but I didn’t think about that. I just wrote the book. And what the hell, it is funny at times. Just a mundane thing that frequently interferes. Hell, sounds like some people I know.

ADR: Many crime writers painstakingly detail the crime itself, but leave criminals’ personal lives on the sidelines. But your work seems to give both equal weight and follows these tough motherfuckers around like it’s a documentary. Uncle Dust is another example of this. What draws you to writing about the personal lives of your characters?

RP: What is this, crime writer confessional? Going for the kill here, Chris?

Really, the truth is I care more about the characters than about their crimes. Their crimes serve a variety of functions: keep the plot moving, sure, but to some degree their crimes are what the criminals live for. It’s their chance to make a living on the outside, which they are damned grateful for. Although of course they don’t show gratitude, they just commit the crimes. But take a look at Dust, for instance. You know that guy was never going straight. He could make millions on a job and be out looking for work a couple of weeks later. Criminal work, of course, the only kind there is for a guy like that.

ADR: What initially drew me to your work was your prose style. Which writers have mostly influenced you in this regard?

RP: I like that you don’t ask which writers I like; that list is far too long. I think my prose style has been directly influenced by Dashiell Hammett for directness and morality. Chester Himes for his fight scenes among other things, and how beautifully he could describe a scene. Jim Thompson, for his lack of morality. David Goodis (god I love his minimalism). Patricia Highsmith, for how much she fucked up the inside of my head. Oh, and for dialogue: George V. Higgins and Leonard Gardner (Fat City may have been Gardner’s only novel, but lord it was a beaut.)

I don’t dislike modern writers, I had just read so many older ones that really shaped my writing. I did take a bit on action scenes from Greg Barth and Tom Pitts, but those were both after Uncle Dust. I don’t know, man. I suppose everything I’ve read has shaped my writing, but then Cormac McCarthy, whose writing I love, just fucks up my writing. I start to write in a McCarthy style and it just sucks. He ain’t me and I ain’t him. So if this question’s for advice, mine is to write like who you resemble. Not like who makes your writing suck.

Check out Tommy Shakes here.



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