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"TO HONOR MY SON": AN INTERVIEW WITH TRICKY'S JOSH STALLINGS

Josh Stallings Tricky became one of my favorite books in the last few years. It follows Neils Madsen, an LAPD detective from the cowboy culture of Terlingua, who catches a homicide with an ex-gang member Cisco, who became intellectually challenges after being jumped. The book is thoughtful and delivers a a great page whipping cop thriller, full of humor and humanity. I interrogated Joss, who gave me insight on his approach to writing the novel as well as the real people in his life who influenced it.


SCOTT MONTGOMERY: Usually you write about people working outside the law. Did writing about a man with a badge bring up any challenges?


JOSH STALLINGS: Absolutely. My misspent youth gave me a clear picture of criminality, an ingrained personal POV. I learned the hard way that violence hurts, and most crimes weren’t committed by

gentlemen cat burglars. Most of the police I had met, were either writing me tickets or arresting me. Except for my grandfather who worked for the LA Sheriff's Department most of his adult life. He was one of the finest men I ever knew. Much of the man I became is due to looking up to him.

I knew I wanted to write about a good cop, a man like my grandpa. I love books like Don Winslow’s The Force, but figured they had cop as anti-hero covered. I wanted to write an honest look at what a good cop in today's LAPD would be like. Before writing Tricky I spent a year researching policing in America, that and the history of the LAPD. Lots of nonfiction first hand accounts, from the ‘rah rah’ the blue line can do no wrong to the disgraced officer who talked too much and then wrote a tell all. They helped form a picture, but for a more global view I found two books written by investigative journalists. “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces,” by Radley Balko who paints a clear vision of how America got where we are today, why tanks are easier to get than funds for sensitivity training. This informed my world view, but I still needed to discover a cop I wanted to write about. That came from “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,” by Jill Leovy, a confrontative honest view of LAPD homicide detectives. Paraphrasing a line from one of the detectives, “When we solve a murder, we save the lives of the victim’s family, who without justice will take it upon themselves, and wind up behind bars.” That is a noble cause. They also said “a victim wasn’t a hooker or a junky, they were all some daddy’s baby.” Those two thoughts opened the door into an honorable cop, and was the beginning of Detective Niels Madsen.


SM: Cisco is such a great multilayered character. What did you want to get across to the reader about people who are mentally challenged?


JS: My son Dylan is intellectually disabled. When he was growing up there was no one like him or his friends in any books I read. Creating Cisco, I wanted to capture my son, his humor, his exasperating literalism. In the beginning of the pandemic I told him we would all needed to wear masks. He looked confused. I added, “You know like doctors wear?” It wasn’t until he asked what kind of masks that I realized he was thinking halloween masks, no wonder he was confused. Once the pandemic became real to Dylan, I was having a frustrating day and he told me the rules for getting through the pandemic, “Dad, we have to be brave, and patient and kind.”

What Dylan is not, is a saint, or a magic being sent to teach us. He has all the feelings any of us do, they may get expressed differently but they are inside him. I also wanted to show Cisco’s community, the many different ways intellectual disabilities / neurodiversity shows up. If you have only one intellectually disabled character, they suddenly need to represent all intellectually disabled people, but by adding his world, Cisco just needed to represent Cisco.


SM: One of the challenges about using L.A. as a setting is that it has been done so many times. How did you approach it to be seen through fresh eyes?


JS: It helps that I was born in LA., as were my father and my sons. People say LA is where you go to invent or reinvent yourself. But that’s ass backwards, people come to LA and then invent the town they want to be in. It isn’t a monolithic city, really, LA is a bunch of small towns, each with their own character and feel. I write about North East LA. My grandmother told me a story about my father playing in the dirt where they were building the first freeway in California, the Arroyo Seco Parkway. The same freeway I pushed my son’s strollers past. In the LA I write about half the people speak Spanish and the best meals come from taco trucks. Chandler’s LA was swank and drenched in Gimlets, and his Bay-City was seedy, it has since been reinvented as Silicon Bay. Time changes LA.

Going back to the McGuire trilogy, and now in Tricky I have planted my literary flag on North East LA, doesn’t mean I don’t drift around So Cal, that is my home base. In Tricky I added historical tidbits to enrich reader’s view of LA. This started when I was searching for a new home for Dylan. I was in Highland Park looking for an address when someone yelled at me, “Go home honkey.” My first response was wanting to yell “Honkey? Where are you from, 1974?” I didn’t, careless words can easily become violence in certain blocks of my town. What they were feeling was the squeeze of gentrification. They had no idea how long my family had been there. Their cultural memory went back as far as their oldest living relatives, “We have always been here,” might actually be only 40 years. When I dug into Highland Park history, I discovered it had been sheep pastures and the first settlers at the beginning of the 20th century were Jewish artists moving down to escape the prices in Pasadena. This doesn’t invalidate the folks feeling pushed out now, but does give some context to it.

That, all of that spicy albondigas soup is my LA.


SM: You’re very good at showing and not telling when it comes to portraying character's thoughts and emotions. What advice would you give to authors who want to acquire that discipline?


JS: I only recently came to understand, “show don’t tell.” I remember Tad Williams saying I needed to show not tell more on my first rough draft of my first book. I wanted to yell, “it’s called storytelling not story showing!” But he’s a dear friend and has written a hell of a lot more books than I ever will, so I mumbled “Right, right. Got it.”

My first three books were first person, because that is how masters like James Crumley, James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley did it. With those I came to see that a lot of my personal interior monologue is me lying to myself and justifying my own BS. Part of the fun of reading Moses is yelling at the book when he starts down a path we know is messed up, but he thinks is the right way to get it done.

In Tricky, I was asked if I would write any of it from Cisco’s perspective. I thought that could be a cute literary technique, strut my stuff as it were. Problem was, I’d be guessing what it feels like to look out through Dylan’s eyes. And if I got it wrong he wouldn’t be able to tell me. To honor my son, I realized I needed to paint how I see him, not how he sees the world.

During the final edits with Chantelle Aimée Osman, editor at Agora books, she picked up on something. I knew there was a problem in the back end of my manuscript. I hadn’t told any of my early readers about this because I find the most honest responses come if I keep my mouth shut. No one pointed it out. Until Chantelle, she said in the last chapters I was telling not showing. After not yelling at her over the phone, I reread the back end and something about her words and my head, clicked. I started my professional career as a film editor, a movie trailer editor mostly. There is a climactic scene near the end of Tricky, I was treating everything after that point like a coda, or music montage. I was rolling credits, but there was still more story to be told. I rewrote these chapters as real scenes, and solved my show don’t tell issue. Easy to fix, once Chantelle helped me see where I went off track.


SM: After slugging it out as a self published author, you're got on the Agora imprint. What has been the biggest difference as a writer?


JS: Um, everything. Self publishing meant from first sentence written to the cover design to shipping copies to book stores and every other thing had to either be done by or corralled by me. My wife Erika

carried the brunt of the editorial work, (that’s still true, I’m a dyslexic writer, so nothing goes out Erika doesn’t check.) Any additional editorial work we paid for out of pocket. All of this took time away from writing. The upside to self pub, once a book was done, I published.

Tricky is a bit less angry and the main characters aren’t drug and alcohol fueled, like my earlier work. I guess I’m growing up, even if it’s ever so slowly. It felt like a larger audience book. My agent, Amy Moore-Benson, sent Tricky out and we got kissing close multiple times. After a year of fretting and privately freaking out when another editor “loved the writing, but…” I was about to walk away when fellow crime writer Jay Stringer suggested we contact Chantelle at Agora. I have known Chantelle through her programming panels and hanging with her at Left Coast Crime and Bouchercon. I knew she was intelligent, and always had interesting takes on books and the worlds they lived in. I already respected her, I just didn’t think she would see Tricky and Agora as a fit. Thankfully I was wrong.

Big differences? Working with Chantelle as an editor was brilliant, and made for a much better book.

The cover showed up in my in box, without my having to think about it. Agora nailed it, coming up with artwork that says sociological thriller more than police procedural.

Plus, I don’t have to call up the printer, or figure out shipping.

With Agora Tricky has been reviewed nationally, by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, CrimeReads.

I haven’t forgotten my indi roots, I’ve heard enough publishing nightmares to know that my next book may not find a home. In that case I can always self publish. It is good to have options.


SM: How good are the odds that Neils will return in another book?


JS: He’s bouncing around in my head, asking to be put on a case. I do love hanging with him and Kazim the rest of the North East Homicide crew.

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