The Coping With Sanity Interview: Jordan Harper

Jordan Harper first came to my attention in the pages of THUGLIT and then through the slush pile of my own DEMOLITION. His stories were always raw and nasty and amazing and a real pain in the ass to format. But it was worth it. He went off to Hollywood to make it big and ended up writing witty things for Simon Baker to say as Patrick Jane on THE MENTALIST. But apparently he doesn’t have enough of that sweet gooey Hollywood money and he’s looking for more by selling his short stories. The collection, AMERICAN DEATH STORIES is available now.

You’ve got this new book of short stories out, AMERICAN DEATH SONGS, which is a collection of stories published by such esteemed luminaries as Todd Robinson and myself among others. Is is true to say that you owe your career to me? I mean us. Why these short stories? Why self-publishing? Why now dammit?

Yeah, I do owe my career to you guys. I published some of these short stories before moving to LA, and when I was going out to meet people in Hollywood those short stories got me noticed, and helped me land my current day job. So the check’s in the mail. (The check is not in the mail).

Why these stories? These are my best stories from the past six years, and I needed to publish the book so I can put these stories away and move on to my next batch. I decided to go with self-publishing because my day job already has me neck-deep in the world of agents, multi-national corporations and executives, so with my fiction it was important to put out exactly the stories I wanted to put out. Also, I read an interview with Louis CK where he said “quit waiting for permission.” Hollywood is full of creative people who are waiting for someone to give them permission to create something. I decided I didn’t want to do that. So I made the book.

I still want it to look like a professionally produced work. I hired editors and copyeditors and a goddamn badass cover designer (seriously, look at that cover; it’s awesome. It’s designed by Jason Gabbert, who I found because he did the cover to Megan Abbott’s Dare Me).

If I have any success I’d like to keep doing it, but that doesn’t mean I’m foreswearing professional publishing forever. It is a lot of work, and the publicity angle has me pretty stymied.

So these stories are raw and nasty and some of them are just plain mean. Are you itching to write something longer like a novel or manifesto?

I’ve got a lot of raw dough proofing right now, a lot of rough drafts of things that I’m going to be fixing and hopefully publishing in 2013. I’ve got one novella, How to Kill, which is a really bleak noir about a suicidal, Doug Stanhope-ish comedian who becomes the MC of a drug-den bar in the high desert. I’ve also got the rough draft of a novel, tentatively called Ride or Die, which is a modern take on Lone Wolf and Cub about an ex-con and his daughter, both marked for death, taking on a white-power gang in Southern California. And I have something about dog fighting that might be a novel or a novella called Lucy in the Pit. The first part of it was published in the new ThugLit #1.

So either I have a lot of projects brewing or I have a problem finishing things. Probably the latter.

Anything you have no desire to write?

When I came out to Hollywood I thought I wanted to write movies, but the more I learn about the movie business the less interested I am in it. I’d love to write smaller stuff, but being a big-time screenwriter doesn’t have much appeal to me anymore. They don’t make the sort of movies that I grew up loving anymore, and there is a belief in Hollywood these days that the script doesn’t matter for big-budget films. And box-office results tend to prove their point.

Did I hear something about you writing for television?

Yeah, for the last four years I’ve been a writer for The Mentalist on CBS. It’s writing cozies rather than the hardboiled stuff I prefer, but it’s been a great job, and thanks to the talented high-level writers on the show, I feel like working on the show is like getting paid to go to grad school for my MFA. And some days you go to work with Malcolm McDowell or William Forsythe.

On the other hand, when I’m on the show I find it difficult to produce outside work, which is something that eats at me some days.

Tell me more about your social media habits. Is it important in these days of tweets and privacy-whoring billionaires to have a presence out there?

Honestly, I’m really bad at Twitter. I think it is important, but I don’t think I have it down very well right now. I think I probably need to learn to let loose more often and have fun with it. I have a lot of followers because of The Mentalist, and sometimes I worry about offending them. It’s certainly not something I think about with my fiction, so I should probably loosen up. Tell some fart jokes, post bloody crime scene pics.

I have an ingrained dislike of self-promotion that makes me squeamish about self-horn-tooting (also I’m not that flexible). I do it, but I always, always cringe.

You moved from Missouri or some such bland mid-western paradise to LA for your new career. Has it screwed you up in any measurable way?

Well, it wasn’t exactly paradise, but I am originally from Springfield, MO, the Queen City of the Ozarks. LA screws everyone up a little, I guess. But I came here via New York City, and that place already messed me up enough that I’m not sure what effect LA is having. But most people who hate LA have never been here, or came here for a crap vacation because they didn’t take the time to learn about all the amazing places in this patchwork city.

The one thing I tell people about working in Hollywood is, everything you have ever heard about the Industry is true. Everything. Except probably that thing with the gerbil, but I wouldn’t be shocked.

Has it influenced your fiction at all?

It saved my fiction career, I’m pretty sure. When I first started writing crime fiction, I concentrated on what’s now called “country noir,” as that’s what I’d grown up around. There’s at least four stories in American Death Songs set in the Ozarks. However, now that I’ve been removed from there for so long I’ve written more about Southern California, the desert, Brooklyn, places like that. One story is set in Hollywood.

And since I’ve started branching out, that Midwestern country noir genre has elevated some real heavy-hitters like Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock and Frank Bill. I’m glad to not be the other guy who writes crime fiction about the Ozarks, because Woodrell is brilliant. It’s one of the reasons I called the book American Death Songs. There are stories from all over America in the book, and that’s one of the things I like about the collection. Regional noir is a great thing, but it’s best saved for people who still live in the region.

Have you explored the dying pornography scene?

“Dying pornography” sounds a little hardcore for my tastes.

What’s your real world situation like? Wife? Friends? Disease-riddled lovers? Pets?

I’m married with a puppy, which in LA is like having a kid. But you pay less for private school.

What does your real life mean to you as a writer?

I enjoy my real life, but at this point in my life I’m very focused on writing. Between my job and my other projects (I didn’t mention above that I’m also writing a pilot right now), most of the time I don’t spend thinking or working on my stuff is spent recharging. But there’s a lot of recharging. I’m not half the workhorse some people are. I envy those people.

Finally, tell me one thing you’ve never told any other interviewer.

I have just enough narcissist in me to really enjoy being interviewed. Can I talk about myself a little more?

No.

Thanks for popping by Jordan. Now all of the rest of you go buy his collection so his dog can go to the fancy school and not that crappy “special” one.