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Last week on the interview series I talked to Rob Hart, author of six novels. He shared how he develops suspense early in a novel to keep readers engaged.
3 BIG TAKEAWAYS
Josh Stallings’ latest book TRICKY, was listed by Library Journal as one of the ten best crime books of 2021. YOUNG AMERICANS, a disco heist novel was nominated for the Lefty and Anthony awards. Born in Los Angeles, and raised by counter-culture activists in Northern California, he grew up an undiagnosed dyslexic and spent some time as a petty criminal and failed actor before becoming a movie trailer editor. He, his wife, and two wonderful mutts now live in Idyllwild. TRICKY, was written in honor of his son Dylan, who is intellectually disabled.
David Gwyn: [00:00:00] Have you ever wondered if your characters are three dimensional? Have you gone back through your manuscript and thought, Would she really say that? Are you fighting to ensure you respectfully represent the characters you're creating? If any of that sounds like you, you're going to love today's guest.
Josh Stallings latest book Tricky was listed by Library Journal as one of the 10 best crime books of 2021 Young Americans. A Disco heist novel was nominated for the Lefty and Anthony Awards. Born in Los Angeles and raised by counterculture activists in Northern California. He grew up an undiagnosed dyslexic and spent some time as a petty criminal and failed actor before becoming a movie trailer editor.
Tricky was written in honor of his son, Dylan, who was intellectually disabled, and today Josh and I are going to talk about writing characters. I'm David Gwyn, a writer with a finished manuscript trying to navigate the world of traditional publishing. During this season of the podcast, I'm asking agents, book coaches, editors, and authors, how they suggest [00:01:00] writers go from the end on a first draft all the way to signing a publishing deal.
Last time on the podcast, I talked to Rob Hart in a really fun interview about how he develops suspense early in his novels. As a way to keep readers reading. The link for that episode is in the description today. I'm asking Josh about an article he wrote recently in which he shares how he creates the characters in his crime novels.
Josh was an absolute blast to talk to, and you're absolutely going to love this. So let's get right to it. ,
josh, welcome to the interview series.
I wanted to start out by saying how excited I am to have you on. We met through Chantelle Aimée Osman, who I've had on here a few times, and she. Talked a lot about you and how how much she loves your work. So I'm really glad that we get a chance to talk.
Josh Stallings: Thank you for having me.
And Chantelle is a freaking goddess. My friend , she's awesome, a great editor. Working with her has just been phenomenal for me.
David Gwyn: Yeah, she's been on a few times.
We always have a really great conversation. So when she said I should have you on, I immediately reached out. I knew, you know, she had a good, good nose for that. So let, [00:02:00] let's talk a little bit about, about your book. Let's talk about Tricky. I know that's your most recent release. And, and it's a book that was listed by Library Journal as one of the best crime reads of 2021.
Josh Stallings: Isn't that amazing, , And I was, I was floored because, and just so you know, I've, I've had independently published books. I've had , Agora with Chantelle, Not a huge, we don't have a huge reach. She gets amazing writers books that get noticed, but it's not a major publisher. So to get them to notice a book coming out like that was what was so shocking to me.
I love librarians. So . Well, I mean, any of us who grew up particularly, I don't know if it may be everyone, I don't wanna say this exclusionary, but those of us who grew up poor libraries, where we got our books, man, , librarians were the first people to notice I was dyslexic. And Oh yeah. Realized that big print books were better for me.
So if they could find large print, I could read them better. Cuz a little space around it helps my brain not skits.
David Gwyn: You mentioned your, [00:03:00] your dyslexic, how does that impact your writing? Do you have a different system? What do you do that, that might be different for you than for another?
Josh Stallings: That, well, there's some, some mechanical things I can't spell. I use right word, . Wrong spelling cuz English is like god damn bitch. just like, oh, the red, red. But how do you spell it?
The same way? Led. Led. You spell it differently, you know, that kind of crazy is. before anything goes to anyone, my first editor before it goes to my agent is my wife has always been, you know, throughout my writing, she de dyslexias it, but she also knows my voice. So there's a lot of things.
I play with tense, I play with things on purpose and she knows those and so she doesn't try and turn it into a, to a academic document, which can be a problem. So that's, she understands that I, I actually know the language well enough I have to play with it, but sometimes I can't spell all the words right or ilop them.
I do it at one editor called Yodas . Are you writing a character's Yoda, or did you fuck this [00:04:00] up? .
David Gwyn: It sounds like it's working out for you, .
Josh Stallings: Yeah, it also though, what we are discovering about dyslexics and I've been on panels, one was Neurodiverse panel. It was all writers with different weirdnesses.
And what we've discovered about dyslexics is we're really good at global thinking. We're good at, at as architects. There's some place we're really good that you wouldn't, that you go, Huh? That's weird cuz we see globally, I was a film editor for a long time doing trailers and I could see a movie globally in a way that other editors didn.
Right where I could actually pull things and go, Oh, this could go like this, or this goes like that, because I see a whole thing. Now, the problem with that is you're in a, you're in an exercise class and, and the person says, Okay, swing your hips clockwise. Okay? For a dyslexic, I think clockwise, from what position am I looking down the clock?
Am I looking up at the clock or is the clock going this way in front of me? By the time I figured out what they. They're on to the next move. And I'm like, Well, but wait, I just got it. . That's, [00:05:00] that's where being dyslexic slows you down. Where it speeds you up is that I just, when I'm writing a novel, I see so much I see all around the world around it, so I'm always pulling something else into it.
I'm always slipping into over here where you wouldn't expect it to be. Cause that's how my brain's working. . Yeah.
David Gwyn: And you write, you write Neurodiverse characters. I mean, I know you have some in, in tricky. Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the idea for this story and, and how that, that kind of came
Josh Stallings: about?
My oldest son is intellectually disabled and. When he turned 26, he had his, they different words for it, but as I understand, it's late onset. Schizophrenia happens around 26 years old to most people, whether or not they're intellectually disabled. With him, it was harder cuz we couldn't talk about what was happening.
He didn't, He has a lot of language, but not that kind of, you know, he's, Yeah. So at one point in this, he trashed his room and he was starting to get violent, which he'd been the greatest kid in the. He was the best kid to raise cuz he [00:06:00] really, he, we would give all the cousins for him to watch cuz he's not the kid who ever pushed the rules. Okay. So 26 he trashed his room and we make the biggest mistake of my life cause I called the police. Hmm. And they showed up our house and there's a cop and yelling at him. Telling him to comply, pointing at his badge going, Don't you know what this means?
And my wife says, No he doesn't. And the cop has his hand near his gun. Luckily in LA there was a smart team got called, You can't call them. The officers have to call them in. And they're a team of an officer and a psychologist. And when they showed up, they deescalated it within I less than 30 seconds.
Just because they, and they talked to him like and said, Hi Dylan. Oh it's so neat to meet you. Suddenly everybody's now talking and they're sitting on a couch and saying, You're gonna have to come to the hospital cuz you need to see that, but you're in your pajamas. Do you wanna wear your pajamas at the hospital?
Cause we can get some clothes on. Do you want that? And it was a real [00:07:00] respectful conversation and that deescalated it. Well that stuck in my mind a long time. And we've seen police shoot mentally ill people all. In la that's a, seems like a hobby, but it stuck with me. I knew there was a book in it.
I knew I wanted to write it and there's some other things I wanted to write about and that's why that's the main character and tricky is somebody who was assassin for a gang, who then had brain injury and is now either lying or telling the truth about being. Intellectually disabled. And one of the questions of the book is who he is and what is justice, and what are the police and all these, So it's, it's a bigger book, but for me it was about capturing my son in that moment and then thinking about it for a book.
Like, what do we do about that? How do we confront that? , I can see as a dad that hits you, man. .
David Gwyn: I can't even imagine in that moment how, how traumatic it was for, for really everyone involved. So when you're thinking about the stories that you [00:08:00] write, you know, largely crime fiction, why do you choose that as your, your vehicle or your genre of choice.
Josh Stallings: That's a good question. Cause I'm really questioning what does it mean anymore? I, I really am, I'm questioning what is crime fiction? Why I chose it in the beginning was, and I wrote three very hard boiled novels, was because it was what I was reading, and as a dyslexic, I fell in love with really short, punchy books.
As an ex criminal coming out of kind of the dark side of the world as a young man, they spoke to me. There were books that spoke to my life. I could write about drug addicts, I could write about all these things that, that were in my world. So that brought me into crime fiction. It's one of the things Chantelle is doing is she is bending genres so far outta genre.
Like apparently what I wrote was a police procedural. That's what I'm being told. She said, Yeah, this is not
It's a story about people. Yeah. But then again, you know, To Kill A Mockingbird is also is [00:09:00] a legal thriller if you want to classify it, but they won't. They'll say no. That's a classic, That's literature. So anytime it's good, they take it outta crime fiction and call it literature. I'm looking less and less Cause I, I get bored with the tropes.
With the tropes of crime fiction. I get bored with these ideas that any of them that say, Here's how it works. And then you go, Okay, now I know the next thing. Now the cops are all bad or the cops are all good. The. Poor people are criminals in a lot of books because you know, they don't have the same morality as we do or whatever.
Any of those tropes, I'm just like, Dude, I don't need it anymore. , this is, we need to use, this is a place, to put real social messages, which is I try and do, is sneak into them some feelings. Hmm.
David Gwyn: Yeah, I think that's so important and I, I feel like we're gonna get which I'm really excited about.
We're gonna talk about an article you wrote that, that talked about some of these tropes in really in crime fiction, but also in really any fiction. And so I do wanna dig into that. But before we do, tell me a little bit about [00:10:00] how you got started writing.
Josh Stallings: I started in film as a film editor, which was great for dyslexic.
And so I was doing that. I've been writing since I was a kid. I was second in grade. I wrote a play that was all sword fighting. So not, not good, not literary genius. Okay. , but, and a little sexist. If I remember, the girls in class would complain cuz they just got to stand around and kind of go, Ooh. As the boys sort had a swordfight.
It wasn't good, and I'm not real proud of it. I'm glad it doesn't exist anywhere on video . So, but that writing has always been part of my life. Reading has always been part of my life. I was, as a dyslexic, I hated it and I loved it. I, my father and mother read to me. My father read every night, or my mother did.
And so as a little kid, I grew up hearing. And I love writing, and what got me into writing is I wrote, I started writing screenplays. I did some script doctor work on some indie films, some [00:11:00] other stuff. And I wrote a thing about Thor. They wanted me to write Thor along before the Marvel movies. And I wanted to write a real, I love the Norse myths.
I wrote a real, like an outline for a Norse myth, and I thought we could do this, this, we could do rag rock for real. And they went, No. What if he was frozen at a block of ice? Is really what we're thinking. And then he comes up in mid guard or mid Dale and there's the teenagers. Basically they wanna do an Encino man with Thor.
And I went, Okay, I'm outta Hollywood. I'm done . And the way I learned to write fiction, cuz I've always loved it, is I spent a year writing every day a little, and once a week I'd write a short story and they started out shitty and they got better and better. And I, I figured, I, I came up with a few techniques about, like, I had a bag of names.
If I didn't know what I was gonna write about, I pulled out two names and I wrote about those two people. Just to teach myself the craft. Yeah. And what I discovered that I didn't know is I thought I would get, get good at it, and then [00:12:00] I'd be a writer. I learn on every book. I'm always in this phase of learning.
How does this book work? I have four, five, I think trying to get the numbers right. Yeah, Trick's. The fourth book I've written and been out there in the world and I've got a new one out and I'm on, I'm really writing in my sixth book right now, and I don't know how it works either, so, And I think that's good.
David Gwyn: Yeah. It's a whole new world. Every time you, you open up the the laptop, right. Every time we get started a new book,
Josh Stallings: fuck. Oh, that's how this one works, Part of it is also if you are auto didactic. I, which is to say I didn't go to college and the reason why is I couldn't, as a dyslexic, I couldn't test well enough to get into a school that had teachers as smart as I was.
So it was as weird combination that I would put in class with people who I knew more than them, and it's so I've trained myself well, [00:13:00] part of that means you have to keep doing it your whole. That's kind of cool. Like I'm always learning. I'm always, right now I'm reading. I just read East of Eden for the book I'm writing.
For some reason I can't explain it, just I knew it intuitively. I'm reading only Steinbeck and I'm going back to all of his books and ones I hadn't read. I needed something fresh in my head, and what I was reading was a lot of new crime fiction and it's good and it's people I love, but I was not helping me and Steinbeck had a voice that I needed.
So I read East of Eden, which is a mindblower of a. Now I'm reading his journal, it's called Journal of a Novel, The East Eden Papers. Every day that he wrote on one site, he, he would write on the other side, he would write a little diary to his, to his editor, like a letter to his editor. And so I, you're able to see his in real time thinking.
That's how I'm teaching myself how to, It's like that's what I have to keep learning more. And every book I have to find something that I love [00:14:00] and something that I wanna learn. It's like I wanted to play the first book was very straight first person. The second book I wrote, I wanted to add a new character in who was their own point of.
And how do I do that? So when you get to them, you know, it's their, their voice, not the other guy's voice. And so each, each book that I write, I'm trying something, I'm going, What do I do here? How does this work? ? Yeah,
David Gwyn: that's so cool. That, that's a really interesting way of thinking about it. And so, Now to kind of flash forward a little bit, you're, you're rep by Amy Moore Benson at Meridian Artists, right?
Yeah. I always like to ask authors who are on here to kind of give like an agent shout out, like why you decided to work with Amy and, and what you like about working with her.
Josh Stallings: Amy is. She's multiple things. I got to her because Jamie Mason, who's a writer, who is as a word crafter, I don't think it's anyone better for me, and she's just, she puts sentences together [00:15:00] in ways other people don't.
She's also neurodiverse, She's ata, so she doesn't see images in her head when she thinks of something, and I don't know, but that affects the way she puts words goes. Anyway, I fell in love , with Jamie's writing, and Jamie loved my memoir that I wrote. That was, it was up for, for a crime fiction award it's outta print, but all the wild children.
Yeah, it was up for Bosko for a best true crime fiction. Oh, nice. So he, she gave it to her agent, who is Amy and Amy read it and. Amy contacted me and said, Oh God. And she, she started going on about wanting to rep me and she's going on. I said, But first she said a few things that were true about my work and she's going.
I said, You can stop talking now. I mean, I love hearing it. It makes me feel good, but I'm gonna say yes. I've already decided that. , I know people that you rep, I've talked to them, I've done my work, and I made a commitment. When I left work in Hollywood, I only wanted to work with people. I cared. and that cared about me and I, and, and when I [00:16:00] started writing, The only thing I care about in writing is I wanted people that made the work better.
Not sold it better, but made it better. And she gets what I do and she gets in there and we go through conversation before goes out and she makes good suggestions and she can see where I'm mis not seeing something and the work is better because of her. The work is better because of my wife. And now working with Chantel Un Trick, the work is better because of Chantel.
All three of these women make my work better and honestly, That's the key to me. So, And Amy's brilliant. She is. She's been an editor. She can really, her and I can talk about the business and what's going on in a way that is very adult , you know. Yeah, that
David Gwyn: makes a lot of sense that that's like a good working partnership.
Somebody that , you respect and that can make, like you said, make the work better.
Josh Stallings: Yeah. And it gets, they have to get what you're doing. Every writer is doing something else with their voice and doing what they [00:17:00] care about.
And if you have an agent who doesn't get what you're doing it, they will never represent you the best. Because they won't understand who you are or they'll give you notes that don't make any sense to who you are and what you're trying to do with the book. My favorite note, I get it from from my wife, and then I'll get it from Amy on times and Amy will go.
What were you trying to say here? And I'll say, . Yeah. You didn't say that. . . No. Here's how to fix it. Nothing else. She goes, What were you trying to say? She said, Yeah, I kind of understood that's what you were trying to say, but that isn't what you said .
David Gwyn: That's awesome.
Josh Stallings: That's great. First reaction is not as pleasant as this first one.
What? What do you mean? Maybe you need to read it again. .
David Gwyn: Yeah. Well, hey, if you're hearing it from multiple places, it must be true, right? ?
Josh Stallings: I have learned. Once somebody proves they know something like that, you trust their vision, then you just trust them. And then you squish that voice that says, Fuck you,
Don't say it out loud, you keep it in here. My least favorite comment fucking ever, okay, worst [00:18:00] is show. Don't tell. I hate that. I don't know what it meant. It drove me nuts. Show don't tell. I thought I'm a story teller. I can tell , well, Chantel said that about the back of Tricky. There was a point at which in the last quarter of the book, she said, It's just showed.
You need to not show to. You need to show, don't tell. And because I trusted her and she'd been smart, I went, I'm gonna go home and figure out what the fuck she means. What she meant was in film sense, I was doing a music montage for the back end where the audience needed real scenes. They need to feel those scenes, not have it play out like a montage.
Hmm. And once I saw that, that I'd created a montage cuz I was done with what interested me, but I wasn't really, I, it took me three days to fix, but it, it was listening to her with trust as opposed to looking for her mistakes. Like, you know, I mean, sometimes you listen to somebody listening for when they're wrong, [00:19:00] so then you can tell 'em how they're fucking your book up.
I trusted her. So I listened to her going, If I'm not understanding it, it's not her fault. I've gotta think deeper. What is she trying to say? They have to earn that. I believe somebody has to , show me some truth and some wisdom before. I don't give that to everybody. I think cuz people have all kinds of crazy fucking ideas.
And I used to listen to everybody, Oh, you can't do that. You should hide this. Oh, don't do that. Nobody wants that. Well, you haven't proved anything to me until you prove something to me. Then I don't really have to listen. Does that make sense?
David Gwyn: Yeah, no, that's, that's good stuff. I mean, that's such important and, and valuable for people who are listening to this podcast are like largely people who have a couple manuscripts that they've written and like, you know, maybe gotten rid of, like they weren't quite ready and they're, they're really doubling down on the one that they're on, whether they're, you know, writing or in the writing process or in the editing process, or even in the querying process.
And, and for them, I think, you know, there's like this prevail. Theory that like, Oh, just take any agent who even looks your way, like, throw your work at them and hope that they, that [00:20:00] they'll just say yes. And I feel like listening. The more I listen to people and talk to people in the industry, the more they're like, No, no, no.
You gotta, you can't rush that relationship with, whether it's an editor or an agent or even like a writing, you know, a writing relationship where you're working with somebody. Like it has to be something that is organic and that it, there's respect on both sides.
Josh Stallings: I think think part of that is being honest about your work.
That is a really hard thing. I sat down with Amy and when she was going out with Tricky and we, she's, you know, people are getting big deals and people aren't getting big deals and all those things and she said, I don't know how big we we'll have to see. And I said, Amy, the most important thing to me is you find the right deal that we can pay back.
That's more important than a big number. I can brag my friends at the bar. It doesn't, That's not because if it's, if we get a number that we know we can pay back with a publisher we like, they'll let me do it again. And I'm in this for my life. This is what I love. If you get the big number, and I've seen people [00:21:00] get the big number and not pay it back, and it's really hard to get back on top after.
Because that's, that's the one sin in modern publishing is not paying back your advance. . .
David Gwyn: . So you wrote a really great article that I'll share with everyone. If you're listening, I I'll share it in the description. You're, you're definitely gonna wanna check it out. And, and it was like the rules for, for writing crime fiction.
And I, I do wanna get to them, but first can you tell me a little bit about Criminal Minds Virtual Panel blog and what it is?
Josh Stallings: Criminal Minds is. It's amazing. It's, it's 10 writers working each week. Five of us work every day. One of us answers the same question and when they invited me to come on, I was so amazed cuz they're really good writers and they're in very different fields than me.
I mean, they write cri, it's all crime, but, but it's all the way to cozy, to psychological to period. It's all of that in the writer's group, which makes it interesting to. Like, I think you can get an echo chamber if you hang around too many people [00:22:00] in the same genre, in an exact corner where you're playing.
We each have us turn writing questions for a month, So it's, it's really us running the site. Yeah. I've done it for about a year now and every time one, I come up to needing to write another one, I get pissed off.
And why am I doing this? I got a novel to. And every time I'm done writing one, I feel better. Cause , four the questions a month. And one is about business, one is about reading, one is about craft and one is about, I can't remember, but
But I love thinking about craft and it, it, it focuses my thinking into that and reading the other writers focus me into how we, how different our answers are sometimes and similar. But we think about things very differently and, and I think anytime you have a chance to talk about craft with other writers is golden.
David Gwyn: I thought this was a really important piece that you wrote, not just for crime fiction, but really for, for writers, regardless of genre. I feel like you're gonna find something on this list that you used or are planning on using in a manuscript. For me, it was so interesting to [00:23:00] think about the complexity of a character.
And I feel like the way you dismantle a lot of that, and you say like, you know, you can't use a cardboard cutout in fiction because people aren't like that. And so I think regardless of, and I think it's important for representation and it's important for, for kind of the social aspect of it, but even just writing a better story, I think you're, you can write a better story doing these things.
Josh Stallings: Yeah, I, and I, I don't know if I said this in the article or not, but it comes down to the bottom line about treating every human as a human, as rich. That nobody is their worst day. Nobody is their best day. I don't write about psychopaths, so I don't know about that. That may be pure evil. I don't know.
It's just not what I write about. Right. But most of us are a combination of everything. . And the reason to do it is either because you want to be a good social person or you care about the people around you or care about the world, and those are things I care about. But [00:24:00] there's a bigger reason. It keeps it from being boring.
It makes it real. If you're writing about a unique person, no matter if we all are telling the same story, yours will intrinsically be different cuz you're writing about it. No one will go up with the same person if they're a rich. If you write about the rich quality, not the money, I mean the richness of that character.
If I write about an old man and I'm thinking about my father and all of his crazy and all this, it won't just be an old man, it will be that one, and you'll read it and go, Oh, I haven't read about that person, .
David Gwyn: Okay, I wanna pause here because we're about to get into the list, but before we do, I just wanna highlight a few things that Josh talks about. First, he talks about finding people who you can trust to look at your.
I keep hearing this over and over from writers who have found success. They found people who they can trust to look at their work, and then they do this next thing, which is not super easy. You have to be honest about your work, be vulnerable, and know where you need to improve. Only [00:25:00] then can you actually get better.
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When we go back to the interview, we're gonna go through the points Josh made in his article. Let's go there. Now
So , I'm actually gonna read number one because it, it was short, but also because I think it was so dense and I, I want to just, Dive into it and talk a little bit about what, what you meant by it.
So number one was violence hurts everyone involved. And you say that it eats away at victims and assailants for creatures with such a violent history. We humans haven't often dealt with it or it's aftermath. Well, if I'm afraid to show all of this, I shouldn't write about [00:26:00] violence. Can you just share a little bit about what you meant?
Josh Stallings: I meant my personal experience has been, I've been on both sides of violence and when I, when I hurt someone, it made me cry inside. Something felt broken. I didn't feel victorious. Even if I acted victorious, when I had violence done against me, it made me feel small and made me angry and wanna hurt someone.
And the recognition that both of those things, both sides feel, that means there is some reality there that isn't. I think in the eighties I thought, Wow, shit, since we've been doing cowboy westerns, we've, we've minimized this stuff and then the eighties action films, we minimize this stuff. There's so many times that in writing we minimize it and the only for me, the only crime in writing crime fiction is if you don't show that it hurts.
If you make it seem easy, because we live the rest of our lives [00:27:00] with what we do. They're cruel acts. I've done that. I wake up in the middle of the night still thinking about, and I probably was 13 when I did them. , obviously, it buries itself in our psyche. I, and I think it diminishes us as humans.
Anytime we look at either somebody who's hurting someone else as a non-human, or someone who's getting hurt as a non human. Either one of those diminishes us as humans. And I think part of us as writers are trying to hold up humanity. We're, that's our job, right? Is to show how hu to show humanness our robotness and the humanness in robots.
Cuz even if we're writing about robots, we're really using it as metaphors, aren't we? ? I mean, we use everything to get at that idea. Yeah,
David Gwyn: that's, that's such a cool one. It was one that, like I said, I wanted to read because I felt it was so powerful. And, and, and I think too, like you're saying, it's, it's that, that emotion piece, like how, how are you going to show the emotion in this?
And, and that's what's so important about writing. [00:28:00] So number two here was. Poverty and drug addiction doesn't equal criminality. How can people thinking about this, how can that be more accurately portrayed in fiction? How can characters like that be more accurately
Josh Stallings: portrayed?
It's important to remember there are lots of people who are poor, who aren't criminals. . Sometimes you're so broke, you've got no choice. Sometimes you are hungry for stuff. Like you're a teenage kid who doesn't have nice clothes. I was that, and all the other kids have cool clothes and you want to have the cool clothes, so you start stealing clothes.
Well, does that mean I'm morally broken or is society kind of weird? At that point? Have we held up things as too valuable? When we shoot a young man for stealing a car, we say a car is more valuable in that young man's life. Yet we say we believe in redemption. We believe people, the redemption power of ge whatever, right?
Of whatever faith you want to choose. [00:29:00] But we don't really believe in redemption if we believe that that car being stolen was more valuable than that young man's life. Sometimes you'll see in crime, and there's some, sometimes we call it poverty porn, me and my friends , where it writes about poor people, but they're, Oh, it's just like, Oh, it's so gritty and tough.
That's written by people haven't been poor. Cause it's not gritty and tough. It's hard. There are days that are hard when you're poor. There are days that are funny and there are days that are good and all those things. So part of that is this trope of being poor equals being a criminal isn't true.
It's, you have to question those things when you start writing about it. Doesn't mean there aren't poor criminals, but there's also a lot of other kinds of criminals like cops. So that's what that, that was trying to get at is just to dig deeper and look at it.
David Gwyn: Yeah, and I think it gets right to the, that part of motivation.
And if, if there's that, that simplistic motivation for a particular character, it feels fake to a [00:30:00] reader, right? Like I feel like you can see, and you, a reader reacts to that, whether they realize it or not. If the motivation is just this person is poor and therefore they're stealing, it's like that, that just doesn't feel real, like a real life situation.
Okay. Let's go on to number three, which is, this one was one of my favorites. I love this one. Which we've talked about actually a little bit as well, which is criminality does not equal lack of morals. And you share a story about a friend of yours and how that kind of amplifies what this is. And so can you share that story quickly and then talk about what you learned from
Josh Stallings: it?
Yeah, the. That was about Thomas. Mm-hmm. . And he was, he was a good friend. And I went to a high school in East Palo Alto, which was large, predominantly black and pretty, pretty tough. It was a lie and I had not, not where I grew up. And me and Thomas, cuz he was Mexican and I was a white, skinny kid, gotten, everybody was kind of pissed off at us most.
and there was a group of young men who wanted to front with him and came up to [00:31:00] Thomas and were just pissed that he was a honky lover. And it was just all this shit was going on and it was, and there was anger and there was a lot of undercurrent violence. For reasons or con more complex. . And I remember I had a knife in my pocket and I was starting to open it thinking if this goes wrong, I'm gonna need to hurt someone.
And Thomas knew Kung fu and he, he, like, when we fucked around, he would knock me on my ass all the time. And I'm a big guy. But he was, he was a badass man. And he didn't, he just look and he looked over at me and he nodded and he walked away. The fight didn't happen. And I thought, moral. What a moral young man Thomas was.
Now, he and I had had creeped houses. We had stolen guns, We had sold drugs. Well, drugs I always think of, I say that and it sounds like, ooh, but it was really hash and pot, which right now people would go, Yeah, that's legal. Back then it wasn't. But so anyway, he and I, I, he could have easily been written as a criminal character, but he was deeply moral.[00:32:00]
He didn't, he walked away not because it was the smart move or the, or the, the some kind of chest move where if I walk away then there'll be, which it actually did. They thought we were both crazy and maybe bad asses. But that wasn't why he did it. He did it because there's no reason for somebody to get hurt him, me, them over a silly insult.
, he lived a life above that, so he had bigger, better morality than most people. I. So that's what that, you know, .
David Gwyn: Yeah. And I think it goes back to that, that idea of like the three dimensions of a human being. And then when you're writing in, in fiction, whether it's crime fiction or any fiction, like you want to create that three dimensions and, and how do you do it.
Josh Stallings: I think part of how the, how to, for me, I, I know a lot of people and I knew a lot growing up, so I often I start with the characters based on somebody I know and that that gives some riches to us and pretty soon into it, it becomes not them at all.
But I've started from a base of something real and if I don't [00:33:00] know, something, I've done a lot of, I wrote the first three books were was a trilogy of books getting Deeper into Sex in America. Sex for Sale started in strip clubs, ended with people being trafficked. and each one was tougher, but with each one I had to do, I interviewed more people and I grew up around strippers and some things like that that I already knew.
The first one was easier, but I still went out and said, Well, where are we now? Let's talk. Did a lot of interviews for the, For the middle one, I was in en Sonata hanging out with what I called street concierge. It's a guy who would go and go, What do you want? What do you want? I got it. I can get you anything.
What do you want? And had breakfast, you know, at three in the morning with a prostitute who was out, who's a street walker. And said, Do you wanna have breakfast? And she said, I, I, I, yeah, no, I'm kind of tied. The night's done for me. I said, No, we're not sex. I'm talking breakfast. . I like breakfast. So getting to know real humans gave me somebody to think about when I was writing it, to hold my stuff up against, Is this real, [00:34:00] isn't it?
You know what? That where you can go. If she saw this, would she be okay with the way I portrayed her? It puts some, it puts some of my own skin in the. Like, not that, then she will, cuz I will change enough things so no one will quite know it. But in my mind I think, would she be okay? Have I, have I done honor to what she did, spending the night telling me her story.
It's a, so that's, that's a how to is don't Google, but get out in the world.
David Gwyn: Yeah, I love that. And, and it goes right into number four here. Cause you, you talk about sex workers and gang bangers, but also I feel like this is a standin for, for. Character cutout that people use and, and that they're often misrepresented and they're often like the singular cardboard cutout stand-ins.
Why was that an important one to have on your list? I think you say don't let a simple description stand in for real character work.
Josh Stallings: It's, And it's a million ways that it shows up. It's important to me because it's, it's the only way you get to good writing.
But we all do it [00:35:00] sometimes. And when I wrote Tricky, the Cop, I wanted to, I was thinking of my grandfather, who was a good cop, turned out being a good man. I wanted to write a good cop, but I knew he needed to have some kind of issue. You're dealing with issues. So I would go with the, I want, Oh wow. I'm tired of, I'm 31 years sober, so I'm really fucking tired of drunk standing for Character.
Drunk cop. Well, that's his character. Or he's drunk cop who's sober now, going to meetings. That's his character. That's not a character. That's a, that's a small part of a human. I'm not an ex drinker. I'm not a sober alcoholic. I'm me. And so I don't, so I don't, I'm not gonna do that. So I said, I know I haven't seen a good one about a really, a real sexist cop who's just like a real womanizer.
And I thought, that'll be fun. Okay, so I wrote the. Quarter of the book, sent it to my agent. She read it and she had her young assistant read it and she gave, Amy called back and just said, In this day and age, that ain't gonna fly. That the way he treats women in [00:36:00] this world that we're living in is not gonna work.
Get deeper, cuz half of the people on the planet are gonna be pissed off when they read it and aren't gonna get past it. I also. Just to sidestep that I was using the R word, which I used in my community, my son, intellectual disabled, and she's, I wanted to use it so that the Cisco, the character who is intellectual disabled, could correct him, could correct the cop.
She said, That's great. You've got it six times in the first chapter. How would you feel if you read that in a book? I said, I'd throw it against the wall. She said. You get my point. So I, You have to be aware. There's a reader out there that isn't me, and I actually had to wake up to that. I'm not my son or his community.
I'm an ally, and that puts me in a different position. If he used it, that would be okay.
David Gwyn: How did you come up with a character trait that felt different enough to you and realistic at the same time?
Josh Stallings: It forced me to go to a new place that I really found I loved and it was, [00:37:00] it was something I thought about. My grandfather came from Texas as a young man, like at seven. His father died young. He grew up, but, and I thought about Texans and I thought about, Hi, this guy. What if he had a grandfather who was also dealing with Alzheimer's?
So there was something at home to deal with. But what if he also thought he was a Texan? Cuz his grandfather had raised him, his parents had been killed and been raised by his grandfather. His grandfather said, Being a Texan isn't where you're born. It's, it's a birthright. It's your blood. So you've got this LA born cop who wears cowboy boots and has that vibe to him and that kind of the, his good cop grandfather taught him to be a good cop and a good man in a Texas way.
And suddenly I'm writing about somebody I've never heard about before. It's not McLeod, it's not an actual cowboy is a guy who grew. With a cowboy for a grandfather . Right. So it got richer and then I, so I, I was forced to go deeper and deeper and discover someone who was a real person, not a symbol. [00:38:00] Mm.
David Gwyn: Yeah. I love that one. Nice last one. So you say no one is only who they are on their worst day. So how can remembering that help writers in their own writing practices?
Josh Stallings: For me, they also aren't who they are on their best day. And the reason why that I bring that up is that nobody is perfect. Somebody do can do something heinous in a book, and they aren't the worst person.
They aren't. That's who they were that day. Now they may be a horrible person. There are people who are monsters, but The whole point of, for me lately in writing crime fiction is that you get to the end and you realize most things that happen happen for stupid reasons, not for smart reasons, not because of great crime boss.
It's, it's for stupid things. It's, it's accidents happen. It's the cover ups that cause people going to jail, not the crimes. Because you look and go, That was just a fucking accident. That was, that was your worst day. Yes. You had a bad day. So part of it is looking at. And [00:39:00] reminding myself to continually look at that.
I just read in this Steinbeck Notes book and it's the next thing I'm gonna add to my arsenal, which is monsters think everyone else is a monster. That's kind of how you get to be a monster is you feel I've been put down by all these monsters. So from their point of view, they are the victim. The world is full of monsters.
They need to fight. And so any way I can get my head into another character, one of the tricks I do, and I learned it on young Americans, which has two, it's. It's a seventies heist disco heist novel set against the world of glitter rock. So it's, but it's got a lot of different characters. What I did is I went through and when I was done with the manuscript, I went through and read it, just one character at a time, all of their stuff, and made sure they tracked and they were real.
And then I took the next grader, cuz I get caught in the story. [00:40:00] It's easy to not track, are all the characters real? You don't notice it, but you'll feel it as a. But by reading, just, I would pull out all of one character, put them on a page. I'm just gonna read her today. And I would just read it with nothing else around it and go, Is this person real?
Do they have an arc? Does anything ring untrue? It's a way that i's just a technique I use to then in bigger books start to go. Oh, okay. Now everybody's, Now everybody's alive. Good. .
David Gwyn: We check a heartbeat, right?
Josh Stallings: Exactly. It is . And if they don't have one, get back to work on that care.
Are you starting to notice certain flaws? Real go. Oh, wait, that's a weird thing. . Yeah. Hasn't that character, They wouldn't say that.
David Gwyn: Yeah. and that's why I really wanted to, to kind of go through this list piece by piece with you. I feel like, like I said, regardless of genre , whatever you're writing, if you're listening to this, going through these and, and thinking.
Whether it's crime fiction or not. Like, are you using these cutouts? Are you using stand-ins? Are you using things that [00:41:00] have been seen before? And or are you actually thinking about them and creating your own unique twist? And, and those are the things that set apart good books and, and books that aren't quite there yet.
Josh Stallings: and I, I wanna be, I wanna be honest with, with writers who haven't written as much as me, I still wind up doing it but it's an editorial that I catch. That I look for that and sometimes when I'm writing fast, I need to just put in a cardboard character that says some words cuz I need to keep moving down to figure out what's happening.
I don't, I never know my novels, I start at the beginning. I write till I'm at the end. I just how I work. So sometimes I do that, but then my wife will say, or I'll go back and read it and notice that. So it isn't like I never have it do it. I just have found ways to catch it. You. To like look through every car and go, Have I done that?
Have I done due diligence on every character? Cuz man, we all, the more complicated the book, [00:42:00] the more we're gonna miss things. You know, the more we're gonna have to find a way to go back and check for that and look. But if it's on your radar and you go, I'm gonna, I'm gonna go through and make sure, I'm gonna make sure I got no cardboard and I have no dialogue, that has just stand in for real dialog.
Because that's what I do. I sometimes just am like, I'm pounding so fast. They, they all sound alike. Mm-hmm. , because I'm just trying to, I know, I know how, I know the scene, so I'm pounding as hard as I can. And then to get to the next scene and, and then at some point I've gotta go back and, and double check my work.
And luckily I have good people around me who also double check it. ,
David Gwyn: it's important. That's
Josh Stallings: important. Yeah. Fuck, they're our safety net. Right? .
David Gwyn: So as we kind of wrap up here, what's, what's one thing, like I said, the, the people who listen to, to my podcast. Traditionally, typically the people who interact with me are people who've gotten those, you know, they've got a few manuscripts under their belt and they're, and they're really working on, on the one, whatever one they're working on is the one.
They want to be the one. So if you had one [00:43:00] piece of advice or one thing that you hope a person who's listening to this thinks about and takes away from this conversation, what do you think that one thing would be?
Josh Stallings: There's so many things flood through my head. What? What is on my mind today? Is this, I've been thinking a lot about writing to market, which we've been doing lately.
There's a thing about, you know, people, you, you have do comps, two books that are like your book that are good sellers. I hope when you do that, you lie that it wasn't why you wrote the book. Tricky. Could be, I, it's Rain Man meets Bosch. Well, it's not, but I could say that it's not because. What we need to do is go
what do I want in the world that doesn't exist. There aren't enough books about neurodiverse characters. The way our culture looks at intellectually disabled adults was really bothering me and I wanted more books like it. That was one of the motivating factors, not looking at what was, cuz it's not an easy book to sell.[00:44:00]
It was what's not in the world right now that I. My, my books about the sex trade. There was no hard boiled books that were honest about what it was that would look at it and go behind the curtain and go, you know, once you've given behind the curtain, you'll never want to go to a strip club again. Cuz you know what women feel like and it's, but they really like me.
They think I'm funny cuz you're paying them. So those kind of things, like what is not, what do you wish was in the world? And write that. Because that's more important than what's selling right now. Cuz if you were to write what's selling right now today, you sit down and start writing it, I give you maybe six, eight months a year to write it.
Well now you're year behind the curve. Someone buys it. Well now you're at two to three years behind the curve when it comes out. You can't write towards what's hot or anything else. Write what you goddamn want to. This is your chance. Writing is the only job at which you get to choose what you're gonna.
It's [00:45:00] brilliant. I mean, to me, until they pay you to do it, you are getting to choose what your story is. I met lately, and this sounds weird, and I don't mean this as like an old man curmudgeon thing. I look each day and I started writing a new book. My new book is a Steinbeck idea. This thing is someday it'll be something wonderful, but right now it's in my head and as it comes up.
But the reason I started is I've. I've got a book that's out on submission right now that's another book about la but in 1984 in a crime book, and I thought, if I die tomorrow, what do I wanna be working on? If it doesn't reach that level, then I don't wanna do it. I don't, It's life is too short and words are too precious to me.
David Gwyn: It's such a valuable message for, for people to hear, especially as they're kind of walking away from this, this interview. I really hope that, that, that sticks. My last question. Where can people find you? Where can people look you up?
Josh Stallings: I am josh stallings.com. I have a site, I am on Facebook, I'm on [00:46:00] Twitter.
All of those are at my site. I'm always open to talking to people. I'm easy to reach an email josh josh dos.com, and I really am open to talking to people. I, the only thing I ask is before you reach out to me and say, Could you blurb my book? At least have read my book and see if my books or anything like your books.
I get that a lot. No, I love you, man. Have you read my books? Well, not yet. Well, then why would you want me to blurb your books? Why would you want me to? I don't get it. Like, get, understand what I do and see if it fits what you. So that's my only
David Gwyn: request. . That's awesome. Now, and I'll for, for people who are listening, if you wanna get in touch with Josh, I'll, I'll link to his site and to Twitter so you can get in touch with him
it's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you, Josh. I really enjoyed chatting. Thank you so much for taking the time. Oh,
Josh Stallings: thank you man. I love talking. I love talking to you. It was cool. .
David Gwyn: like I said during the interview with Josh, I, I loved this article that he wrote so much as a way for fiction writers to write well-rounded characters. He was so much fun to talk [00:47:00] to, and I really hope you'll check out the whole article we were referencing.
I've linked that in the description for this. Next time on the podcast, we're talking to literary agent Emmy, Nordstrom Higdon. We talk about what they're looking for in a submission, how to make yourself query ready and so much more. If you haven't already subscribed, be sure to do that and make sure you rate and review.
It means the world to me. I'll see you next week.