“I’ve been as bad an influence on American literature as anyone I can think of.”
I seem to get most of my best writing done during the cold weather months. You may assume this is because it’s too unpleasant to spend time outside and most of my time is spent indoors, but this would not be the case. There is simply something about the winter that brings out the worst in people, and for a crime fiction author that’s a good thing. I’m an avid reader of newspapers. I mostly read the crime sections and it always seems like during the winter the crimes get more desperate, more ballsy, more bizarre; more, dare I say, inspirational. Perhaps it’s because of the holidays? I once read that the crime rate goes up significantly during the months of December and January, and so does the suicide rate. But for the month of January, above all things, I think about Dashiell Hammett. The man many crime fiction writers and folks “in the know” call the godfather, the dean, the master of modern-day crime fiction. I think about Hammett for two reasons: he died January 10, 1961, and he died broke.
I’ve always enjoyed Hammett’s work; The Red Harvest and Maltese Falcon are two of my favorite novels, but I’ve been troubled by how Hammett’s work has been seen in certain literary circles. Once, while conversing with a high diction, literary crowd, I made a rather controversial statement—controversial enough for the crowd, anyway. I simply stated that Hammett was one of the most important American writers in history, and I didn’t understand why he was consistently overlooked in many MFA programs—it was just rare to find any of Hammett’s books on a graduate reading list. After a few snickers and harsh glares, an older woman tapped my shoulder and said, “Dear. That’s just genre fiction.” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her declaration. What’s so bad about genre fiction? Even though in my humble opinion, The Red Harvest was much more than just a crime novel; it was astute social commentary. The woman’s response prompted me to find out what Hammett thought about his own work. How did he want it to be seen? I began to read up; biographies, articles—anything I could get my hands on. It became a kind of obsession. But even with extensive research, I was unable to surmise what Hammett really felt about his own work. Some critics stated not being recognized by the literary elite didn’t sit well with Hammett, while others frankly felt he didn’t give a damn. Yet, one thing was clear; Hammett took great pride in his writing, and he took it very seriously. He saw himself as a proletariat—an anti-fascist who was more concerned with the struggles of the common man, rather than those of society’s elite. And I suppose as a writer, it’s this interpretation of Hammett that I mostly connect to. I’ve never been one of those writers who racked their brain trying to write the next “Great American Novel.” In grad school I was told to tell the story I wanted, and to write for my smartest reader—I’ve pretty much followed those guidelines; I think.
As the anniversary of Hammett’s death nears, I think crime writers of today can still learn a lot from how he lived and how he wrote. His novels were always fresh and never formulaic. He helped solidify a kind of crime writer’s paradigm. He wrote fast, drank hard; he was a master of sharp dialogue, double entendre and quick wit. He presented a renegade style of writing, the kind of writing that if he were alive today would keep him off of Oprah’s big yellow couch; and even though Hammett died a drunk and in debt; he lived a full life—a life worth writing about. And as I countdown to the publishing date of my first novel, I look back on Hammett’s life with reverence. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what people think, or how they decide to categorize one’s work. All that matters is, if they’re reading it. I can only hope that people will still be reading my novels, once I’m dead and gone, as they do Hammett’s—no matter what type of literary distinction they decide to cast them in. Whether my novels are called works of crime fiction, noir, existential-crime fiction or simply genre fiction; I’m fine as long as they are being read. Hell, I’m fine as long as people are still reading. But if they’re reading my work, that’s even better. I suppose that’s all any writer can hope for these days—longevity.
AARON PHILIP CLARK is a native of Los Angeles, CA. He is a novelist, poet, and half of the spoken word/jazz duo Soul Phuziomati. Clark has worked in the film industry as a scriptwriter and documentary film producer. He currently teaches screenwriting and English in North Carolina. His first novel THE SCIENCE OF A PAUL: A Novel of Crime (New Pulp Press) will be available January 20, 2011.
For more on the SCIENCE OF PAUL and New Pulp Press visit www.newpulppress.com.