Please welcome back Joe Ide, fresh from Bouchercon 2017 and a Anthony win for IQ for Best First Novel!
I grew up in South Central LA, in an area beset by gangs, drugs and every day violence. My grandparents lived in the neighborhood because it was close to Little Tokyo. My family lived with them because we were barely getting by. My brothers and I always had clothes on our backs and we were never hungry but there were lean times. I remember a lot of lettuce and mayo sandwiches in our lunch bags and we used to wonder if my Mom thought we wouldn’t notice the missing baloney. It was a discouraging way to grow up but little did I know it was serve as the backdrop to my first book and provide me with an entirely new career.
Until age fifteen or so, most of my friends were black and because, like most kids, my primary aspiration was to belong, I co-opted their mannerisms, style, taste in music as well as the vernacular. In a sense, it was my first language. It was the language I used on a daily basis except when my parents were around. From a very early age, the way people talked fascinated me.
I couldn’t articulate it then, but I it was to me, a form of power. Imagine making someone like you, leave you alone or kick your ass with just the way you put words together! That connection between speech and emotion seemed most evident with standup comedians They said things and the audience laughed. It was instant. It was cause and effect. I had to find out how this worked.
I had a stack of comedy LP’s (and still do) and I played them incessantly. Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Richard Pryor, Bernie Mac, George Lopez, Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, Paul Mooney and a bunch of others.
What I learned is that the vernacular, like most dialects, is a lot about what I call “flow.” A combination of cadence, inflection, syntax and word choice. When I’m writing dialogue that’s what I try and capture. Each character’s individual flow. I think Elmore Leonard is the hands down best at this. You can remove the names and still know with absolute certainty which character is speaking. And Leonard can do so much more. Just by the way a character speaks, you can tell his age, background, level of education, economic status, and even his appearance. Quentin Tarantino directed a movie called Jackie Brown, and there’s a hustler character played by Samuel L. Jackson. The movie was based in Elmore Leonard’s book, “Rum Punch” In the book, there are several pages of dialogue before we’re told how that character looks and yet we already know he looks and sounds exactly like Samuel L. Jackson.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of careers. My first job was as a school teacher, grades 4 thru 6. I learned very quickly that I didn’t like kids. They were noisy and fussy and they didn’t know anything and they asking all these questions. I left after a semester . Then I did stints as a business consultant, university lecturer, a middle manager at a large corporation and director of an NGO that provided legal services for indigent women. Later on, when I was broke and struggling to write screenplays, I ran an answering service staffed entirely by transgenders, I worked for a French entrepreneur who turned out to be a crook and I managed seedy apartment buildings where the tenants strung clotheslines from balcony to balcony, smoked weed in the courtyard and put new locks on the doors when they couldn’t pay their rent. When they wanted to share a phone line they drilled a hole in the wall. But always I paid attention to their speech and tried to absorb the flow. It’s a pastime that fascinates me to this day. If we ever meet, watch out. I’m listening.
Eventually, I started working as a screenwriter. I worked for most of the majors. I sold specs, set up pitches, did assignments and rewrites. I was making a good living but none of the projects got made for one Hollywood reason after another, until finally I burned out. When I opened the screenwriting program I got physically repulsed. I drifted. Being a screenwriter had been a big part of my life and without it, who was I? I took long brooding walks with my dog, railed at the movie business, ate too much, watched a lot of TV and spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself.
It took a while to pull myself out of the dregs of low self-esteem and with the support of my wife, I decided to write IQ. What surprised me was how inept I was at long form prose. My first attempts were awful. I underwrote, overwrote, the story would wander off, the characters were blurred and I lacked descriptive powers. My writing was stilted and awkward. I had no flow of my own. The end result was the classic, godawful first novel. Grudgingly, I went back to the basics. I read On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Elements of Style by William Strunk. I read books on sentence structure, story structure and grammar. I studied novels as opposed to reading them for enjoyment (how does Elmore Leonard DO that?). I didn’t adhere to everything I read but I learned to strip away anything that wasn’t doing what Zinsser calls “real work” and I developed a better sense of what constituted good, clean prose.
A writer friend of mine said to me, “No rigor, no point of view,” and that was certainly true of my experience. Even with a background as a screenwriter, it took a of solid year of writing, rewriting and more rewriting before I could read what I’d written without cringing. It took another two years to complete the manuscript and to find the beginnings of my voice. It turned out to be the best professional decision I’ve ever made. Writing the book was incredibly freeing. I could write anything I wanted. I could create a character, change him or cut him out completely. The characters could make long speeches or not speak at all. I could play with language. I could go off on tangents I thought were interesting. I could write without a producer or studio executive looking over my shoulder. I learned to love writing again.
The core characters return in my new book, Righteous, the follow up to IQ. Isaiah, Dodson and Deronda are back for a new, even more dangerous case that takes them to the bright lights of Las Vegas. There are a host of new characters: A vicious loan shark who wears disco shirts and sings “Staying Alive” on karaoke nights. A homegirl from the barrio who’s determined to be a gangsta even if it costs her her life and a mysterious West African money launderer. There’s also a sex trafficker from the biggest Chinese Triads in the world, a 7-foot tall thug from Canada whose cargo shorts are big enough to carry actual cargo as well as a love interest for Isaiah.
I hope you’ll join them on their latest adventure. I gave the book my all and if I’ve done my job, you’ll have a pretty good time. If not – well — I’m pretty sure you’ll let me know.
Joe Ide is of Japanese American descent. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He earned a Master’s Degree and had several careers before writing his first novel, IQ, the 2017 Anthony winner for Best First Novel. He lives in Santa Monica, California.