1. How do you feel FLOODGATE is a departure from your past novels?
While FLOODGATE is still very much a crime novel, it marks a lot of firsts for me as a novelist. One of the most noticeable ones is that it isn’t set in the desert southwest where my first three books were set, but rather in an urban environment. A fictional city.
The size of the cast of characters has changed, as well. My other books had a more intimate group of central characters with less than a dozen key players in the story. FLOODGATE has literally hundreds of characters running through at sideways angles, a city on fire.
While my other books can get a little broad tonally, I still consider myself to be a realist. I just happen to see the world as absurd and chaotic. FLOODGATE is a little more stylized, somewhere between the ridiculousness of my BLOOD & TACOS stories and the realism of my other novels. The characters are grounded, but the world is insane. That said, as different as it is, I still feel like it’s recognizable as my voice.
That probably has something to do with my sense of humor or sense of fun. It’s something that I carry from book to book, something that I have very little control over. No matter the subject matter, setting, or characters, I’m going to bring that personal element to the work.
2. The character of Andy Destra is conflicted, driven, and relentless. What inspired his character?
Character and story are built simultaneously. I have never had a character fully formed before starting a story. It’s about the two belonging together rather than trying to put a square peg in a round hole.
FLOODGATE is about a character falling into a rabbit hole of conspiracies and syndicates. Andy needed to be ready to believe, so that when the insanity of the world is presented to him, he’s ready to accept the reality of it. Some reluctance was good, but too much slowed the story down.
Andy is recognizable as the ex-cop that is driven and on a mission. We’ve seen that before, but he’s also a contradiction. As most people are. He can be simultaneous brave and afraid. He is capable of being both impatient and incredibly patient. He’s a guy that when he sees a loose thread on a sweater, he’s going to pull it. Even if he knows that it’s going to unravel and ruin the whole damn thing.
3. In FLOODGATE, you introduce Auction City, a depiction of a crime-ridden city with a different set of rules. What inspired this city, and how do you feel it compares to other fictional cities in the thriller genre?
I came up with the premise for FLOODGATE about a dozen years ago. It was originally conceived as a comic book. Writing with author Bart Lessard, we did a bunch of world-building and some story development, but eventually the project was abandoned. Comic books are just hard to put together.
The idea of the conspiracy beneath the surface stuck with me, so when I finally saw a way to approach it as a novel, I asked Bart if it was cool to revisit it. He was the one that came up with the name “Auction City,” after all, as well as some other elements. He gave me his blessing and I ran with it.
The story wouldn’t work without Auction City’s unique history. It sets up the conspiracy that operates below the surface. One that I hope feels complete and unique.
The one thing that separates a lot of fictional cities that come to mind is that the most realized ones are from serial forms like television or comic books. Gotham City and Basin City are built over time, but offer more mood than anything else. They are the backdrop but rarely play a role in the story.
I was really aiming for the complexity of something like the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma from China Miéville’s THE CITY & THE CITY. That book is a remarkable achievement in world-building, and the world of the story and its secrets are integral to the plot. Much more fully integrated than any other fictional setting I can think of.
4. As a seasoned writer of thrillers, how do you keep the “twists” and mystery alive in your writing?
I have never once thought of myself as “seasoned.” Have I hit a milestone after four novels?
I’m also not particularly comfortable with the label of “thrillers.” I suppose the books are thrillers, but I associate that label as something closer to 39 STEPS or NORTH BY NORTHWEST, the innocent man/woman on the run from both the law and the bad guys.
There’s no section in the bookstore called “Fiasco” or “Adventure.” Where would you put Tarzan or even Doc Savage in a modern bookstore? Or The Three Musketeers?
I once defined my genre as: a couple dumb guys with a really bad plan. The characters are shit-magnets, so the twists come quickly as I throw more trouble at them. If I keep asking, “What else can go wrong?” I know I’m on the right track.
One of my advantages as a writer is that I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t outline. I’m not particularly clever. I make it up as I go with very little plan. I rarely know the end, let alone what I’m going to write when I sit down to do the work. That might make the process a bit of a trainwreck, but it does keep it fresh.
Honestly, if characters are talking for more than a couple pages, I’m going to throw some business in. Some action or a wrench in the works. Maybe something small, but I’m going to keep it moving. A straight line is boring, I’m going to keep twisting and turning it as much as I can.
5. What fictional character have you felt most connected with? This can be a character you’ve written, or a character you’ve read.
I described my character Jimmy Veeder (from DOVE SEASON and PLASTER CITY) as not me, but what I could have become. He shares traits with me–my sense of humor, my nonexistent fighting skills, my full head of hair–but mostly he’s a portrait of a path I could have taken.
My mom when referring to the books always says things like, “I liked that scene when you walked in that bar and…” She recognizes me in it, which makes me wonder how much she thinks is true.
6. What was your biggest challenge while penning FLOODGATE?
I’m not going to complain about writing. I grew up on a farm. I know what real work is. I know that I’m fortunate–blessed even–to be lucky enough to be able to do what I do and have people read my work and respond to it. It’s amazing.
That doesn’t mean that every day is blowjobs and leprechauns. The anxiety and self-doubt that comes from creating something and putting it out into the world is a reality. There are definitely those days where you wake convinced that’s the day that you’ll be exposed as a fraud.
I have a strong internal critic that I believe helps me to maintain a level of quality in my work. Harsh, but fair. But it also berates me for the lousy job I’m doing during the early drafts. Putting a bunch of bad writing down on the page is an essential part of the process, but there’s nothing that says that it’s easy to do and accept.
I don’t celebrate my past work. I’m proud of the books I’ve written. But I’m always about the new book. The new one that I would strangle if it were a living thing.
I hope that didn’t sound like complaining, because it wasn’t meant to be. The balance between art and commerce is a complex one. One that any working writer understands and struggles with throughout their career.
7. What do you hope readers gain from reading FLOODGATE?
That they are able to sink into a whole new world and get caught up in the chaos of it all. That and that they learn the true meaning of Christmas.
8. How would you describe yourself as a writer in five words?
Just another guy who writes.
9. Where do you see main character Andy Destra in 5 years?
I have no idea.
Everything that isn’t in the book is up for the reader to come up with on their own. It’s up to their imagination. If I wanted people to know the answer to that question, I would have written about it. The befores and afters of the story aren’t for me to say.
10. What is it about writing thrillers that resonates with you?
For a thriller to exist, some serious shit has got to go down. Some kind of trouble or danger or chaos or disaster. And that’s where I can have some fun. In life, if everything goes right, you don’t get a story. It’s when things go south that you got something to tell your buddies at the bar the next day.
Johnny Shaw is the author of the Spotted Owl Award–winning Jimmy Veeder Fiasco series of novels—including Plaster City and Dove Season—as well as the Anthony Award–winning adventure novel Big Maria. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, Plots with Guns, and various anthologies. He was the creator and editor of the hard-boiled fiction magazine Blood and Tacos. He lives in Portland, Oregon.