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An Interview with Charles Ardai

Author of Fifty-To-One, Songs of Innocence and Little Girl Lost

Cofounder of Hard Case Crime, author Charles Ardai generously agreed to an interview with MostlyFiction.com. Ardai’s third novel FIFTY-TO-ONE appears on the shelves November 2008. For more information about Hard Case Crime, visit www.hardcasecrime.com

This interview was conducted by Guy Savage for MostlyFiction.com (MF). Read Savage's review of FIFTY-TO-ONE as well.

Fifty-to-One by Charles ArdaiMF: For our readers, please explain the genesis of Hard Case Crime
 
Charles Ardai (CA): Max Phillips and I had worked together for years on the Internet company Juno, which I founded and ran and for which Max was in charge of graphic design.  When we merged Juno with one of its competitors back in 2001, Max and I found ourselves talking about what we might want to do next, and over drinks one night we started discussing the great paperback crime novels we'd both grown up reading and sadly had been born too late to get to write ourselves.  And at some point we asked ourselves why we couldn't start a new publishing company to put out a line of pulp crime novels in the old style.  Now, there were plenty of good answers to that question -- but we didn't think of them, or at least weren't dissuaded by them if we did, and off we went on our quixotic quest.  It took us two years to find a publishing partner interested in printing and distributing the books and then another year to pull the first list together, but when 2004 rolled around, Hard Case Crime was finally fully baked and ready to come out of the oven.  It's been going strong ever since.

 

MF: Please describe your new novel for our readers.
 
Charles ArdaiCA: FIFTY-TO-ONE is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Hard Case Crime -- I set out to imagine what it would have been like if we'd been around not for 50 books but for 50 years.  What if Hard Case Crime had been founded in 1958, at the height of the popularity of pulp paperbacks, when Mickey Spillane was the genre's biggest star and youngsters like Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block were just getting their start?  In this alternate universe, Hard Case Crime was still founded by a guy named Charles, only he's an unrepentant con man and flimflam artist out to make a quick buck, and the particular scheme he has in mind involves paying an 18-year-old nightclub dancer to write a tell-all about her gangster boss.  Which she does, and it becomes a big hit -- but that leads to complications when the Mob and the NYPD both come after our heroes when a fictitious $3 million heist she describes in the book takes place exactly the way she described it.  It's a comedy, inspired by some of the crazier, zanier works of Block and Westlake, who also make cameo appearances in the book.  I had a blast writing it and I hope readers will enjoy it similarly.

 

MF: How significant has crime fiction been in your life? Which writers/novels have had the most influence on you?
 
CA: I grew up reading voraciously in all genres -- well, not literally all...I never read much romance (though my mother did) or westerns.  But I loved science fiction and fantasy horror and adventure and Great Literature and five-act dramas and memoirs and on and on.  The one genre I came back to more than any other, though, was crime fiction, and I'm not sure I can tell you why.  Maybe it had something to do with growing up in New York City in the 1970s, where crime was a very real part of your daily life.  Certainly it had something to do with the puzzle aspect of classic mystery novels -- I've also always been a fan of stage magic, and there's a sense in which a well-written mystery novel is very much like a great magic trick, with all the same sorts of misdirection and surprises.  But part of it was just a certain resonance I found in books about people breaking society's rules and then either getting destroyed or flourishing as a result.  I loved getting inside a criminal's head and seeing the world through his or her eyes.  For this reason, some of the authors I loved most were the ones with the darkest vision and the most identification with their criminal characters: James M. Cain, Lawrence Block, Graham Greene, Cornell Woolrich.  I also fell in love with writers whose prose was stunning: Raymond Chandler, for instance.  You roll his sentences around on your tongue like a fine wine.  There are plenty of others who've influenced me as well -- you can see a lot of Ross Macdonald's influence, for example, in my two Richard Aleas novels, and my new book, FIFTY-TO-ONE, is very heavily indebted to the comic work of Donald Westlake.  Like the master thieves I like to read about, I only steal from the best.


 
MF: Has film noir influenced your tastes at all?
 
CA: Absolutely.  Both modern and classic noir films have inspired me -- there's a visceral charge you get from watching a story unfold in a dark theater at 24 frames per second that you just can't get any other way, and I've spent plenty of hours enjoying that charge.  I remember THE LAST SEDUCTION blowing me away, and when we later published Charles Williams' great A TOUCH OF DEATH, it was in part because it reminded me so strongly of that movie.  We published Wade Miller's BRANDED WOMAN because I loved the book -- but it certainly didn't hurt (and it might have influenced me to read the book in the first place) that Miller also wrote the book that became Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL.  And there are plenty of other examples, more than I could possibly list here.  It's no accident that my wife has bought me all the Warner "Film Noir" DVD sets for my birthdays over the last several years.  She knows what I like.


 

 

MF: Hard Case Crime has a good number of readers at the noir of the week film site . Aficionados of the genre welcome Hard Case Crime’s titles, and I’d argue there’s a real market niche for this specialization. Is it difficult to connect with potential readers when you have to compete with much larger publishing houses?
 
CA: You know, it's funny.  We certainly don't have the resources the bigger houses have, so we can't afford to run ads in the New York Times Sunday Book Review or on television.  But somehow, word has gotten out about us nonetheless.  And it's largely been because of enthusiastic readers talking about us, for which of course we're enormously grateful, whether it's at the level of individual word of mouth or professional reviews and articles in major publications.  Mass-market paperback novels very rarely get reviewed -- but somehow our books have been reviewed or written about in all the largest newspapers in America and most of the major magazines, ranging from Time and New York and Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly to Playboy and Reader's Digest and Parade.  We've been featured on CBS Sunday Morning and on NPR.  And the people who have written and broadcast about us have been very generous with their praise.  This has made a huge difference in terms of ensuring that readers who might enjoy our books hear about them. 


 
MF: Hard Case Crime seems to be a labor of love and a publishing company born from ideals. Do you agree with that assessment?
 
CA: It's certainly a labor of love.  If you add up all the hours I've spent on the line since 2001 and the paltry profits we've made, the money I've taken home comes out to much less than minimum wage. In other words, I would make more money flipping burgers at McDonald's.  So it's a good thing that money's not the only reason I'm doing it.  I mean, I'm very proud that it's a self-sustaining business, that it actually does turn a profit -- but I'm even more proud that we're putting out good books with handsome covers and giving a new generation of crime fiction readers something to look forward to each month the way their parents and grandparents used to back in the 1940s and 50s.  When I look at my bookshelf and see 50 of our books there, I feel I've done something that has touched hundreds of thousands of people's lives, something that gives people pleasure -- and it feels good.


 
MF: Hard Case Crime publishes long out-of-print titles as well as brand new titles. How do you select titles for Hard Case Crime?
 
CA: I have one advantage, which is a huge collection of old crime paperbacks that I've been accumulating (and reading) for the past 20 years or so.  Any time I want to choose a book to reprint, I just go to my shelves, hunt around a bit, and invariably find some books that I loved when I read them and that have been out of print for far too long.  The next challenge is finding the author or (if the book's very old) the author's children or grandchildren, and that can be hard sometimes -- but choosing the book in the first place isn't.  On the original side of the line it's harder, because there we're at the mercy of how quickly writers happen to submit books that I happen to fall in love with.  Fortunately, the same publicity that has helped us connect with readers has brought us to the attention of crime writers, and these days we're getting several novels submitted to us every day -- more than 1,000 every year, which is something like 200 times more than we could possibly publish.  Of course, most of the submissions we get are awful -- that's true for every publisher -- but every so often there's a real gem, and finding those gems is extremely gratifying.

 


MF:  Hard Case Crime book covers get a lot of attention. How do you select/commission the artwork?
 
Songs of InnocenceCA: Every cover is original -- that is, brand new, commissioned specifically for that book.  We've never bought a pre-existing piece of art and re-used it.  Finding the artists is a matter of scouring the world of commercial illustration and gallery art.  We've found talented young artists who made their bones painting movie posters or comic book covers; we've also found a number of painters who were working in the original pulp era -- men like Robert McGinnis and William George and Ron Lesser -- and who are excited to do some old-fashioned sexy covers again.  Getting to work with these painters and getting to watch scenes from our books spring to life on canvas is one of the greatest thrills of publishing Hard Case Crime.


 
 
MF: Hard Case Crime Book Club (and I’m a member) seems a novel idea. How did this come to be?
 
CA: That was actually Dorchester's idea.  They print and distribute our books, and they already had book clubs for their romance, western, and thriller imprints; once we'd been around for a while and had built up some repeat readers, it made sense to try creating a Hard Case Crime book club as well.  The vast majority of our sales are still through bookstores and other retailers -- but we do have a base of die-hard fans who want to know for sure that they'll get every book we publish and enjoy the convenience of not having to remember to hunt the new title down each month, and we're very happy to give them what they want.

 

MF: This November Hard Case Crime will publish its 50th novel, aptly named Fifty-to-One. Each chapter is the title of a Hard Case Crime novel. How was this idea created and how difficult was it to write a novel with these chapter titles already mapped out?
 
CA: It was the hardest writing assignment I've ever tackled -- and I once wrote a mystery entirely in double-dactyls, so that's saying a lot.  For one thing, the book was the longest I've ever written; for another, it was hugely constrained.  It had to be exactly 50 chapters long -- not 49, not 51.  Each chapter had to fit one of our book titles, in sequence, and those titles obviously hadn't been chosen with this in mind.  I had to work in some titles like LEMONS NEVER LIE and ZERO COOL and THE MURDERER VINE that were not easy to integrate into the story.  But it was also a great deal of fun.  I woke up each morning feeling like I was walking a tightrope blindfolded, but somehow at the end of each day I'd made it to the other side without tumbling to my death, and the feeling was sort of exhilarating.  It's a bit of a stunt -- but who doesn't like a great stunt?

 

MF: How do you juggle your Hard Case Crime responsibilities with your writing career?
 
CA: It can be tricky, because there's never a time when I really have nothing to do but write.  For instance, right now I need to write one of the books in our upcoming Gabriel Hunt adventure series -- but at the same time I have manuscripts for that series coming in from five other writers, and I have to edit those.  Meanwhile there's a new Hard Case Crime book to copyedit each month, and one to proofread...it's a time-management challenge to be sure.  But I try always to set aside at least some time each day for writing.  I don't always succeed, but I always try.


MF: For your novels LITTLE GIRL LOST and SONGS OF INNOCENCE, you use the pseudonym Richard Aleas but in your latest novel FIFTY-TO-ONE, you use your real name. Why the shift?
 
CA: I wrote LITTLE GIRL LOST under a fake name in part because writing under fake names is a proud pulp tradition (just look at how many pen names guys like Block and Westlake and Ed McBain used...hell, "Ed McBain" is itself a fake name, since the man who used it was born Salvatore Lombino).  I also did it to help distinguish between my role as an editor (which I did under my real name) and my role as one of the authors in the line.  Finally, I did it because it helped me overcome some sense of inhibition I otherwise had when writing -- I didn't have to agonize over every single sentence, because it wasn't going to be my name on the book!
 
I changed this for FIFTY-TO-ONE mainly because that book is a comedy (Richard Aleas writes tragedies), and specifically it's a comedy about a man named Charles who edits a line of paperback crime novels called Hard Case Crime.  Given the book's hall-of-mirrors plot, I thought it would be fun to use my real name this time -- that way you've got a fake memoir about a fake memoir and a book about an editor named Charles written by an editor named Charles.  If it helps blur the lines a little between fact and fiction, I'll be very happy.


 

MF: Do you think that there's a resurgence of interest in crime fiction? In other words is this a genre whose time has come again? If so, how do you explain that?
 
Little Girl LostCA: I don't think crime fiction has ever fallen out of popularity, but the popularity of certain subgenres -- hardboiled, cozy, thriller, what-have-you -- does wax and wane.  Hardboiled crime fiction was out of favor for many years because it had become stale and cliched and overly familiar -- how many times can you read the same opening scene with the tough detective in his office when the leggy dame walks in to hire him?  When we started Hard Case Crime, we bent over backward never to repeat any of those cliches and to give people a wide selection of material that may actually have been written half a century ago but feels as fresh as anything written today.  The result: People started getting interested in hardboiled crime fiction again.  Eventually the cycle will run its course and our type of story will probably attract a smaller, more dedicated readership again -- but it's nice that in the meantime a wider audience is curious about what we're doing and willing to give it a try.

 

 
MF: Do you ever feel as though you were born out-of-time? Do you ever see yourself as a Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade style PI in a rundown office in Los Angeles?
 
CA: I do feel that way -- and not just because of crime fiction.  My musical tastes basically stop at 1958 or '59 -- I'm a Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern kid all the way.  I loved eating at the Automat when it still existed.  I grew up watching Fred Astaire and Buster Keaton and Buster Crabbe, and reading books from the 1800s and early 1900s.  I also watched STAR WARS, of course, and played videogames and so forth, so I'm not suggesting that I don't have a modern bone in my body -- I ran an Internet company for seven years, for heaven's sake -- but I often feel myself drawn to an earlier era.  And classic hardboiled crime fiction is part of that.  I probably wouldn't be any good as a private eye, and I certainly wouldn't want to leave New York for L.A. -- but I do find myself tempted sometimes by fantasies of running an old-style speakeasy or hanging out a shingle and playing detective."


 
MF: What’s next for Hard Case Crime and Charles Ardai?
 
CA: If you ever want to know what's coming down the pike for Hard Case Crime, you can see the next 8 or 9 months' worth of novels on our Web site, www.HardCaseCrime.com.  If you look at our 2009 titles, you'll see intriguing items such as a never-before-published thriller by the late Roger Zelazny, who was better known for his award-winning science fiction; a long-lost novel by Lawrence Block that he wrote in 1961 under a fake name that he has never acknowledged until now; a hardboiled detective story about a break-in in a Washington D.C. hotel room by convicted Watergate mastermind E. Howard Hunt; a Cold War suspense yarn set in Hungary by a man named Robert B. Parker...but not the same Robert B. Parker who writes  the Spenser novels (this one died in 1955 and worked as an OSS agent during World War II); the long-awaited new novel by Russell Atwood, author of the cult favorite EAST OF A; and more.  But in some ways the most exciting new development is outside of Hard Case Crime: In May we're going to be launching a second series, this time focused not on pulp crime fiction but pulp adventure fiction.  This series will only include original novels (no reprints) and all the books will be about a two-fisted modern adventure hero named Gabriel Hunt.  You can see what one of the cover paintings for this series will look like at www.HuntForAdventure.com.  So...lots of good stuff.  Stay tuned!

 

MF: We will! Thanks, Charles for the enjoyable conversation.



Read our review of FIFTY-TO-ONE at MostlyFiction.com


 

 


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