Chances are, you’ve already experienced Jordan Harper’s work. Even if you haven’t read his fiction—the independently published American Death Songs or Love and Other Wounds, released today via HarperCollins’ Ecco imprint—Harper’s crime-minded touch has appeared across mainstream television where he’s written for The Mentalist and Fox’s Gotham.
For his new collection of short stories, Harper’s hacked away at anything that might resemble a TV-ready world. These tales reject any notion of black-and-white heroes, and instead turn their aim toward drug deal watchdogs (“I Wish They Never Named Him Mad Dog”), folks who clean up Hollywood actors’ messes (“Beautiful Trash”) and a dog fighter trying to save a dying pit bull (“Lucy in the Pit”).
We caught up with Harper to discuss Love and Other Wounds; his forthcoming novel, If All Roads Were Blind; and the alternate reality that is Hollywood.
Some of the stories we see in Love and Other Wounds appear in your last collection, American Death Songs. How did the collection come together as we see it now?
Harper: I’ve been writing short crime fiction stories for the last seven or eight years, and a couple years ago I got a little bored with my day job and decided I was going to put together a collection to self-publish. The original version of this, American Death Songs, was completely self-published. It was something that I put together to hand out at Hollywood meetings. I put it up for sale on Amazon and I think it was only purchased by crime fiction writers, but it fell in the hands of Nat Sobel, who’s a great literary agent. He thought he could sell it for real, and he went out and did that. It’s a same collection in a lot of ways, and American Death Songs is completely unavailable now.
Paste: I saw that. It’s going for a ton on Amazon now.
Harper: I think those are just bots who do that—I really doubt anyone’s really paying $80. If you know anyone who is, send them straight to me. [Laughs].
You’ve said before that it’s difficult to split the difference between TV writing and your fiction writing. What does that split look like when you’re working on short stories?
Harper: I’ve never had a job where I wasn’t a writer. I spent a few years after college being a copywriter in advertising, and after that I was a rock journalist for a couple of years as the music editor at an alt-weekly in St. Louis. Then I was a freelance writer, and then I was a TV writer. I’ve learned that you’ve just got to turn it on when you get the chance. You can not wait for inspiration to strike. I never don’t have a project going, it’s either a TV script, or a novel, or a short story or a pilot. There’s always something going on other than my 9-to-5 job. You don’t have any other choice when you want to write for a living. You have to turn it on.
In some of the busier times, how do you do that?
Harper: Sometimes I’ve been over-scheduled. It takes some conscious effort. But something I’ve learned is that things take as long to write as you schedule them to take. I have a deadline for a TV script in four days. Anything is possible if you give yourself time to do it—then it’s just a lot of switching back and forth. For example, I turned in a first draft of my novel to my agent. And I timed that so I would finish that right before I had to write my first script for Gotham. I left my novel kind of sitting for three weeks, wrote the script for Gotham, which I’m about to get notes on, and after the weekend, I’ll go back to working on the next half of the novel. I will give myself exactly as much time as I need before I go to my next script for Gotham, which will be in a month and a half or so. There’s really no other way. To have a creative day job, where we’re being creative all day, it’s hard to go home and be creative at night. But I’m lucky in that I’m surrounded by really talented writers who never take breaks, and everyone here is working on pilots or their feature scripts. We’re all workaholics in Hollywood [laughs].
You’ve lived in L.A. for some time now. When you want to visit a place like Detroit or the Ozarks in a short story, how do you get in that headspace?
Harper: I’m from the Ozarks, and most of the stories [in Love and Other Wounds] that are set in the Ozarks are the earliest stories I’ve written. I haven’t lived there in about a decade, and to be honest, I don’t know if I’ll ever set anything in the Ozarks again. I’ve left, and there are still a lot of people there like Daniel Woodrell and Frank Bill. In that rural noir setting, I feel like I can’t compete with them anymore. I’m too far gone. And now I’ve switched to rednecks, more to the Inland Empire. With Detroit and some of the more random settings, you do the research and you remember what you can. But I do really like place as a character, and it’s something I do work for.
In Detroit specifically, dogfighting has been in the news for a while. What kind of research did you do for the story that features dogfighting extensively, “Lucy in the Pit”?
Harper: “Lucy in the Pit” is one of my favorite stories in the collection. From the moment I started researching it from the moment it was published, it was probably three years. It was really something that was born of research. A lot of that was done online. Some of it was done at pit bull rescues in Los Angeles. I was doing a bit of research when I stumbled on a website that was a dog fighter forum. I found this 8,000 to 10,000-word essay that this guy had written on how to save your pit-dog’s life. I was so fascinated by it. The image of the dog fighter is an image of evil, and I don’t approve of dog fighting, but to read an essay like that, it suggests that there’s some form of empathy and humanity behind it. That’s what spurred the story in my mind, and the really hard details on how you save a dog’s life. I bought a lot of books, a lot of century-old books on Amazon that are all rated one-star because people are horrified that you can buy books on dog fighting. I buy books like that all the time. My hobby is collecting true crime books. Not so much serial killer books, but dogfighting books. I’m looking at my bookshelf here at work. I’m looking at the text on global drug enforcement right next to the complete book of combat handgunning.
Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?
Harper: I sat down last night and I reread the first story in the collection, “Agua Dulce.” I feel like it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written. My ability to choreograph that level of mayhem—I’m impressed, because it’s not usually my strongest suit. There’s something really clean about the story that I really like. The other story would be the first crime story that I wrote, the last story in the collection, “Johnny Cash is Dead.” It’s based off my grandfather, who was a prison guard and a knife-maker. He was the general kind of badass, the kind they don’t make anymore. He had just died. I was looking for some way to pay tribute to him, and I wrote that story. The story that the old man tells about taking a man on a ride to be hanged is actually a story my grandfather told me. I think I did a pretty good job of capturing what made my grandfather and men like that interesting and unique without glorifying them too much.
You see that a lot in Love and Other Wounds, empathizing with characters without glorifying their actions. Is that a hard line to toe in crime fiction?
Harper: It’s not difficult for me, which is why I spent so much time there. I think it’s easy to inject humanity into people if you suspect, on a base level, they’re like yourself no matter where they’ve gone in life. They feel the things you feel, they think the things you think. We’ve all gone wrong on different levels, and there’s such an instinct in our culture to demonize “the other.” Another thing that I do in my writing: I’m a huge believer that we’re all just animals. People make the mistake of anthropomorphizing dogs—I think people make the mistake of doing that to people, too. We’re not that different than animals. You see a lot of references in my work, like to a “lizard brain,” and I like having emotions come out as physical symptoms. If you reduce things to that, people start to look more and more the same—in a good way.
With the broad spectrum of crime fiction considered, is there anything you won’t write about?
Harper: There are things that I’m not that interested in. I’m not interested in serial killers in the same way that most of America seems really interested in serial killers. Crime fiction exists to allow you to play in waters you normally don’t get to swim in. I’ve used this line before, but I feel like crime fiction brings to your sense of morality what Superman comics bring to your sense of gravity. It’s a way of transcending a part of yourself that’s normally hidden. I like armed robbers and gangsters—people who lived outside of the law. It seems to come from an anarchist impulse, outside of the constraints of society. I feel like I’m getting really pretentious here [laughs], but I think the serial killer fascination comes from a fascist impulse or the desire to control people. Considering innocent victims, I certainly write about them all of the time in my day job, but I prefer a world where everybody’s life is on the line because everyone’s decided to play the game. I’m working on an essay right now that I’ve not formalized called “I’m Sick of Dead Women.” So much of our culture is based around this fetishization of dead women, which is something I’ve taken part in during my day job. There’s something more alluring about a murder involving a dead woman than there is a dead man. I don’t think Twin Peaks would have been as interesting if it had been about who killed Chad Palmer. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that.
You see those two worlds, TV and crime fiction, come together in the story “Beautiful Trash.” What was it like bringing the small-town criminal type to the entertainment industry?
Harper: It was a lot of fun and something I might do again in my next novel—not the one that I just turned in, but the next one. I kind of want to set it in that world. I’ve been [in L.A.] for eight years, and I’ve heard a lot of stories. Everything you’ve ever heard about Hollywood is true. All the good things you’ve ever heard, all the bad things you’ve ever heard. It’s all true. I’m fascinated with secret lives, and so many people live in what’s called the “open closet,” which means when you meet them on a TV set or a movie set, they’re gay. But in the press they aren’t. There’s a really good reason for that. Once they’re labeled as gay, they can have a hard time getting cast in things. There’s a weird 1950s thing that’s either running through the American or the Hollywood psyche. I got interested in that, just the way messes get cleaned up. I have never seen anything as bad as the Bill Cosby story, or the alleged Bill Cosby story. But I’ve seen things that made me understand how things got covered up for that long. I’ve seen the systems that are in place that allow things like to that to occur, and it’s really interesting. There’s a very deep well to be dug out.
What can you tell me about the novel you just turned in?
Harper: It’s called If All Roads Were Blind, a quote from a poem by Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde. It’s about an 11-year-old girl who is kidnapped by her father who she hasn’t seen in six years because he just got out of prison. You learn that they have both been marked for death by Aryan Steel, which is my stand-in for the Aryan Brotherhood. It’s a road novel, sort of a white trash version of Lone Wolf and Cub with an 11-year-old girl and her father going to war against the Aryans. It has a lot of work left, but I have no idea how people will accept it.
What has you on edge about that? The strong Aryan role?
Harper: The first draft of the book, which was a failed first draft, I wrote from the father’s perspective. I realized I was writing the story the wrong way. It needed to be told from the 11-year-old girl point of view, which meant exposing her to some really terrible things. A real girl going through the experiences in the novel would be a horrific thing. I’m hoping that people can remove themselves enough to see the story of an 11-year-old girl who does actually become stronger and a more active character through the novel without getting too caught up in the character of the brutality around her. There are consequences of her being exposed to this. For that same reason, I worry about people’s reaction to “Lucy in the Pit,” which involves doing things to an innocent animal. I don’t like to equate the real world with the fictional world, and I hope readers realize that.
At that age, not many people have even experienced the death concept in a big way. What was it like exploring that through those eyes?
Harper: I did my best to remember what I was like at that age, which was obviously different. But I talked to a lot of women in my life and read some books about that period of life. I cheated by giving her a lot of my own backstory. I cheated by making her a gifted 11-year-old. She’s allowed to perceive a lot more than an average 11-year-old, which I don’t want to make as an excuse for sloppy writing. I’m not doing that. But I’ve gotten questions around this before, and I wonder why people find it more difficult to see through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl than a White Power killer. And to add to that, I gave this girl a lot of qualities that I already had.
Has working on Gotham opened your eyes to any elements of crime you thought you’d already known?
Harper: I feel like I’m in a pretty comfortable world. I grew up a pretty big Batman fan, of the Alan Moore and Frank Miller comic books. Gotham encourages us to go big, and sometimes in fiction I can tend to go toward the smaller moments. There’s value in that, but there’s value in severed head in baskets or machine guns and explosions. One thing I’ve learned from [Gotham writer and developer] Bruno Heller is he has an Alexander the Great sort of mind. He’s an anti-James Ellroy, who is someone I really admire as a writer, but Bruno’s stories have a very clean, clear simplicity to the plot. That allows you to be more ornate with the characters and action and dialogue. That’s been a great lesson.