Charlie Newton On Writing Off The Grid

Weekly Lizard

Start Shooting by Charlie Newton hits you fast and hits you hard. The prose pops off the page, the characters grab for your attention, and the plot hums with daring urgency. Entertainment Weekly praised Newton’s “lit-fuse urgency” and Strand Magazine said, “Raymond Chandler would be proud.” What does it take to write the way Charlie Newton writes? In this exclusive essay, the author offers his unique take on what drives him forward.

Last week at the track I ran into an ex-girlfriend. We’ll call her Donna, because that’s her name. She’s a psychiatrist—house, vines, car, dog, 401k, daughter at Yale. That’s what she had. She wanted to know what I had. I said, “The eight horse; Sonny Burnett just rode him into the fence.”

The psychiatrist frowned, said she’d heard I’d walked off the grid in 1999 and wondered to what end. I told her I was homeless, wrote crime novels from wherever they took place—Havana, Berlin, Saigon, Beirut, Kingston, Belfast, Cape Town, Ramallah, Port au Prince—and lived off the occasional largess of New York publishing.

The psychiatrist reddened. With effort she wrestled a Teutonic inner turmoil silent, then wanted to know how the fuck I had ended up with her life.

Ah, yes, living the dream. And it is dreamy, for sure, but not the life Kerouac and Hemingway stumbled through. What I can tell you from my fourteen years on the stumble is that you better love the typing hours of your day. The café/coffeehouse culture of Billy Wilder’s black-and-white noirs is gone. The 1950s ingested the same iPhone/bullet train suppository that’s amped Little Leaguers into endorsement deals and meetings with film agents. If you’re looking for venetian blinds or the “Jesus Saves” neon cross outside the Pacific Garden Mission, it’s all Yuppie Gen-X condos. Sorry.

What is still out there, though, is just as rich in the very same sins of greed, lust, betrayal, and mayhem; this century’s human nature just wears different underwear. The good news? Our genre still allows us to model that underwear and walk it past the ever-bloating dynasty of Politically Correct prefects. Nigger? No problem. Kike, dago, bitch, cunt, motherfucker? Go get ’em. Crime writing has almost as much room as rap.

Okay, but does the universe of written entertainments require our opinions, our lens, our backstage pass behind the airbrush? I take a hubris pill every morning so I might be the wrong guy to ask. But since you did, yeah, I think what we do raises the bar, heightens the pheromones, shortens the breath. Even those of us who’ve lived our lives in a cubicle or convent, our skin knows the difference between soap opera and a 4:00 a.m. craving with consequences.

A girl in Belfast who was certain I’d never see her naked told me, “Life’s not an audition; you get the one shot.” And that’s why I finally walked off the grid. Crime fiction is this century’s cutlass, sailing ship, and Jolly Roger. Maureen O’Hara or Errol Flynn in Against All Flags. If you lack the tools to be a Wall Street thief or the haircut to start your own religion, there’s no better way to be a pirate than crime fiction. Live where you want, say what you want, and fade the consequences.

Ah, but should you? Walk off the grid, I mean. Why not tightrope it, keep a foot in both camps, use Wikipedia and Google Earth, that way you can kiss the wife or husband at 5:00 o’clock and mow the lawn on Saturdays. Yeah…you could do that, but you better have major talent at the typewriter, which I unfortunately don’t. I have to be afraid to write afraid. I need the five senses shoved in my face if I intend to shove them in yours.

And then there’s the other thing. A full-ride Peter Pan Scholarship requires that you write about things that matter. Matter to whom? The burning-bush empirical? The publishers? The book buyer at Wal-Mart? Oprah? For damn sure it’s not the empirical, the concept of empirical values died when Cronkite mentioned there might be a problem with Vietnam, the Watergate Hotel, and tobacco. Nor is what “matters” the publishers’ market analysis and distribution channel. And it’s not the personal causes of the beautiful, stunning, thin, brilliant, kind, generous owner of the Oprah Network. Your contract is with the mirror. What “matters” is what matters to you. Most of us are alone when we type it and we probably won’t be on Ms. Winfrey’s couch when it comes time to sell it.

And then there’s the other, other thing…the chance that if you keep moving, stopping in all the wrong places, one of Chandler or Cain’s femme fatales will twist open a smoky set of those venetian blinds, lock eyes with you till your knees buckle, and call your name.