Christa Faust Interview
Close your eyes. Well, not yet. Read the next paragraph first.
Picture a hard-boiled bad-ass. That noir anti-hero with blood-flecked armor, imperfect but too cool to show it. Lighting a cigarette and staring off into the distance with that world-weary look of someone who knows all the angles but still can't figure out how the hell they got into this mess.
OK, now you can close your eyes, and once you get that image of that person in your head, open them back up.
You pictured a guy, didn't you?
I'd bet good money you did, and maybe it's not a sexist thing. It's fair to say that the hard-boiled crime genre has long been a boy's-only club. Sure, there are strong female characters, but at the end of the day, the person at the end with their finger on the trigger is almost always carrying a bottle of whisky and a Y chromosome.
Then a writer like Christa Faust comes along and proves that the girls can get their wings dirty without losing them. Her novel, Money Shot, is a classic hard-boiled slice of crime fiction.
Here's the story:
Retired from her life as a porn star, Angel Dare now owns Daring Angels, a high-class adult modeling agency. Life as a desk jockey is pretty predictable until an underfed foreign girl named Lia shows up asking to contact one of Angel's models. Before Angel can figure out what the girl really wants, Lia makes a hasty exit through the bathroom window. Next thing she knows, Angel herself is locked in the trunk of a battered blue Honda Civic—beaten, raped, shot up and left for dead. Recovering and resolving to exact justice and clear her name of the frame job she's also been left with, Angel turns to the only person who can help, her part-time agency security guy, ex-cop Lalo Malloy. Feisty Angel wises up to the rancid underbelly of the sex trade as she and Malloy take down the hoods one by one.
It's a great book, mixing mystery with an engaging story and some truly beautiful writing. Faust's work spans from short stories to movie tie-in novels like Snakes on a Plane and Final Destination. The bio on her Web site cuts like a blade without waiting for details: "I'm a writer, a cynical, hardboiled bitch with a fetish for noir cinema, tattoos and seamed stockings. I'm older than you think and younger than I feel. I've got great gams and perfect size five feet, if you can handle the razor-edged tongue that goes with them. Want more? Read my books."
Luckily, she was willing to tell us a little more.
Rob Hart: Tell us a bit about yourself - how and where you grew up, and whether you have any formal education or experience as a writer.
Christa Faust: I grew up in New York City, divorced parents split between Hell's Kitchen and the Bronx, and I've been making up stories for as long as I can remember. I do have a B.A. and I took a couple of writing related classes back in college but honestly I don't feel like that had any real effect on me as a writer. The true school of hard knocks for me was my gig writing novelizations and tie-ins. Talk about being thrown in the deep end and learning to swim. You can spend the rest of your life going to writing classes and critique circles, tweaking and polishing your great American novel that no one will ever read, or you can bang out 95,000 words in six sleepless weeks and make your bones as a pro. That was the best education I ever had.
RH: What attracted you to the noir genre? And can you tell us your favorite writers/books from the genre?
CF: I didn't get seriously into noir until I was in my 30s. When I was younger I was more into Splatterpunk and erotic horror but when I crossed over that too-old-to-be-trusted border, I started becoming interested in books that feature older protagonists and more mature themes. Gritty, realistic stories that explore the dark, bleak and ugly side of human nature without hiding behind the metaphor of monsters. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy the occasional horror novel and I like the fun stuff too. Lighter, more pulpy, two-fisted Gold Medal era writers like Richard S. Prather are real comfort reading for me.
Some of my old-school faves (in addition to Prather) are Richard Stark, Day Keene and Chester Himes. Current favorite writers are Megan Abbott and Ray Banks.
RH: Drawing a line from Chandler and Hammett to the crime writers of today, what's changed about the genre? And how do you remain faithful to the trappings while updating it for a modern audience?
CF: Well, on the surface it seems like the big change is the explicitness of violence and sex, but I don't think that's exactly true. Back in their day, the Black Mask-era writers were considered extremely base and vulgar, both shockingly violent and outrageously sexy. Their stories featured realistic scenes involving criminals and underworld denizens who spoke in the unvarnished vernacular of the street. The heroes were often nearly indistinguishable from the villains and the authors defended these stories as much more honest and real than the milder, more genteel traditional mysteries.
While society's standards for what is considered "shockingly violent" have certainly changed in a progressive kind of moral inflation, on average the modern noir genre remains at approximately the same level above the acceptable norm as it has been in decades past. Noir authors today make that exact same argument; that the violence, sex and crude language in their books is simply an unflinching, realistic view of the world around us. I think they are just as right now as their predecessors were back then.
As far as updating the genre for a modern reader, I think you need to start with genuine love and respect for what came before. I don't like books that are written with a campy nudge-and-wink, referring to the genre clichés while remaining above it all with a self-consciously retro kind of meta-ironic hipness. I prefer authors that tell the classic noir stories of betrayal and desperation in modern settings, populating them with flawed, complex characters that modern readers can relate to.
RH: Are there any "rules of the genre" you tried to stick to in writing the book?
CF: No, not that I'm aware of. However, I'd argue that Money Shot is a more of a hardboiled novel than a noir novel. That was a conscious choice on my part. I didn't want to flush my characters down the emotional toilet in the classic downward spiral of traditional noir. I saw Angel Dare as a more complex, female version of the normally male hardboiled protagonist. A lone tough guy unfettered by traditional morality who walks through the grimy underworld and makes his home there but yet still somehow finds a way to come out on top in the end. More like Mike Hammer or Sam Spade than a character like, say, Walter Huff in Cain's noir classic Double Indemnity or any one of Day Keene's benighted, sexually frustrated protagonists. I definitely never saw Angel as a femme fatale. I think a lot of modern reviewers use that term to mean any tough sexy woman in a crime novel or film, but a traditional noir femme fatale is a villain, an amoral temptress who uses her sexuality to enslave and manipulate unsuspecting men. The femme fatale is all about male fear of female sexuality and that's got nothing to do with my book. Angel is not scheming villain, she's a female hero.
RH: Money Shot is about a porn star, and you worked as both a Times Square peepshow girl and a dominatrix. How much of your past did you draw upon, and how did you research the book?
CF: I've never done porn myself but I have done a lot of fetish videos and many of the women and men I worked with on those videos also did the more vanilla stuff. When I was researching Money Shot, I visited sets and talked to people in every aspect of the adult film industry, from producers to shooters to talent. Or more specifically, I listened.
Forget the damn internet, the best research for any writer can be achieved simply by being a good listener. If you're respectful and willing to listen, you can get almost anyone to open up about almost anything.
RH: The sex industry in Money Shot is full of angels and demons. Having worked there, what's your view of the industry, and is there anything about it in particular you were hoping to put across in the book?
CF: The main thing I wanted to get across is that the adult film industry is just a business like any other, populated by good guys and bad guys and a whole lot of in betweens. So many books and movies portray porn as the lowest a woman can possibly sink and seem to view all female porn stars as pathetic, drug-addicted victims who need to be rescued from their grim and unspeakable fate. I wanted to write about a woman who was successful and happy in her chosen profession. On the other hand I didn't want to come off like I was sugar-coating the downsides either. I just wanted to tell it like it is. I wanted to create a complex, believable protagonist and surround her with supporting characters who were just as real as she is, characters who reminded me of the real people I've met in the industry.
CF: I was so excited to score the amazing Glen Orbik for my cover. He's my favorite of the Hard Case artists (with all due respect to Robert McGinnis) and I really love what he did for me. Ardai and I had talked a bit about what sort of images would be right for the cover; I wanted a POV of a woman with a gun and Charles suggested the folded hundred dollar bill. Orbik ran with it and I couldn't be happier with the result.
RH: Tell us about your writing environment. Are there any rituals you adhere to? Do you have a set process for writing and editing? Can you take us through the process for Money Shot?
CF: My writing environment is far from ideal, since I live in a teeny tiny house and don't have a separate office, just a desk in one corner of my living room. However, I do live alone so it's not all that bad. I will say that I'm definitely not a coffee shop writer and will never understand how people can work in a public place like that, surrounded by annoying, inane conversation and endless distraction. I like my privacy.
I used to just write by the seat of my pants when I was younger, but since I started doing the novelizations, my process has become a lot more structured. The work for hire gigs involve a series of synopsis, character outlines and chapter breakdowns and while I don't get that detailed on the personal projects, I do like to write down scenes on post-it notes and play around with them, rearranging things. I always start with an idea for an opening scene. For Money Shot, it was Angel in the trunk, and then I had to figure out how she got there and how to get her out of there. I usually have a pretty solid idea of the complete plot before I start the actual writing, but things almost always change along the way.
RH: You've also written a ton of short stories. How do you approach those, and is there one in particular you're most fond of?
CF: A short story's like a barfight while a novel is a full on war. I often write a short story in a single sitting, just riffing on some image or idea that strikes me with no particular plan in mind. The novels are much more involved and complex and (at least for me) require a lot more forethought. I can't say I really have a favorite short story, but the latest one always seems like the best. At least until I write the next one.
RH: How did you break into the industry? Can you tell us a bit about the path you took?
CF: It wasn't so much of a path, I kind of fell into it backwards without even thinking. A friend suggested I submit one of my stories to a horror antho that was looking for edgy stuff. I did and was accepted. After that I started getting invited to submit to other anthologies. I sold my first novel with a little hustle and then wound up collaborating with Poppy Z Brite on a novel length version of our novella Triads. I got invited to work for Black Flame writing tie-ins and novelizations. I was invited to submit to Hard Case Crime. Then, after some unrelated correspondence about his novel, vintage pulp and other shared interests, my agent asked if he could represent me. Practically every step I've taken has been requested by others rather than initiated by me but I didn't do it that way on purpose.
So when people ask me how to get published, I never really know what to say. Truth is, I don't know myself. I guess your best bet would be to write all the time and get as good as you can be so that when an opportunity comes up, you'll be ready.
RH: Is there any Christa Faust in Angel Dare, or are there any other characters in the book you identify with (or identify with other people)?
CF: All of my characters have little pieces of me in them, no matter if they are male or female, hero or villain. On the other hand, Angel is also very different than me in many ways. I've had people ask if I'm from Chicago (by people from Chicago), or if I was raised Catholic. I'm neither and I have to take that as the ultimate compliment for a writer. Clearly I'm doing something right if my characters are so believable that people think they must really be me.
RH: What, in general, inspired you to write the book?
CF: Same thing that inspires me to write anything. I just want to tell a good story.
RH: Who are your favorite writers, outside the crime genre?
CF: Let see… I really like Larry Brown, though I bet he'd be classified as "crime genre" if he wasn't so damn brilliant. I also have a thing for crossover genre bashers like Joe R. Lansdale and Michael Marshall (Smith). I cut my teeth on early Clive Barker and will always have a soft spot for his darker stuff.
RH: This site, while a general stomping ground for aspiring writers, also highlights the work of Chuck Palahniuk. Care to share any experiences you may have had with his books, if any? Or the movie Fight Club?
CF: By far my favorite Palahniuk novel (and one of my all time favorite novels by any author) is Invisible Monsters. I can't say it directly inspired Money Shot but I was thinking a lot about the underlying themes touched on by that novel -- body image and beauty and how it feels to have that beauty taken away -- when I was writing the scenes of Angel dealing with her swollen and battered face after she is beaten, raped and left for dead.
I got a Kindle for my birthday this year and bought Snuff as my first download. It was fun to read another author's take on the adult industry.
RH: What sort of music/musicians do you listen to? Does music play into your writing process?
CF: I have pretty odd, eclectic taste in music. I like Fletcher Henderson and Rammstein but I can't stand to hear music (or any kind of sound at all) while I'm writing. I find it intensely distracting.
On the other hand I can't work out without music, especially skipping rope or working on the speed bag, and I actually solve a lot of my plot problems in the gym. Go figure.
RH: What else do you do, besides writing? (Or are you one of the lucky few who can support themselves solely on that?) Any hobbies, besides tattoos?
CF: I do support myself (barely) with my writing but I don't know how lucky I am. I think I'd prefer to be rich off some boring day job, only I don't know how to do anything else. I do still take the occasional Domme session, mostly foot worship clients.
When I have time for hobbies, I collect vintage shoes and vintage paperbacks. I love good food. I like to cook and eat out when I can afford it. I love Film Noir and try to see my faves projected on the big screen as often as I can. Mostly I just like to hang around at home with my black and white beasties (two Boston Terriers and two Persian cats.) My life is really not all that glamorous.
RH: As an avid tattoo recipient, what attracts you to them? Do you have a favorite?
CF: I like to say that I only have one tattoo, it's just really big. However if I have to pick a favorite, it would be the winged typewriter on my belly.
All of my tattoos have personal meaning to me and I worked with my artists to design each one. I hate the cheesy generic stuff like the ubiquitous tribal tramp-stamp or the barbed wire armband. What's the point of going into a tattoo shop and picking something off the wall at random? I wanted to choose images that were timeless and beautiful and personal. Images that would make me happy whenever I saw them. I didn't want something that would eventually feel like last year's silly, trendy hairstyle, only permanent.
RH: You've written a number of movie tie-in novels. How do you approach those, compared to an original book? Do they let you watch the movie, and then you write? Do they let you take liberties? Do they let you spend time on set?
CF: It's like this. The book and the movie need to be released at the same time, so I'm usually turning in my manuscript before they've even started shooting or sometimes even casting the film. All I have to go on is a draft of a script, often not even the final draft. If you read my novelization of Final Destination 3, you'll see it has a totally different ending than the film, because the director reshot the final scene at the very last minute, long after the book was turned in. On the other hand, the writers are not allowed to make any of our own changes. We can add in more background material and flesh out the characters (in fact we have to do that because when you're fluffing a skimpy 120 page script into 400 manuscript pages, you need every extra word you can get) but we can't change the story or the basics of the characters. For example, I couldn't make the Sam Jackson character in Snakes on a Plane into a Jewish grandmother but I can give the generic character of a foul-mouthed black male FBI agent a little more depth and background.
RH: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring writers? Is there anything you picked up along the way, or any mistakes you would advise someone to keep an eye out for?
CF: I can't tell you how to get published, but I can tell you how not to get published. Never pay anyone to represent or publish your book. A reputable literary agent will take a small percent of what you earn (usually 15%) after a deal is made, never in advance. A legitimate publisher will pay you for the right to publish your work, not the other way around. Period. The internet is full of hustlers who prey on the desperate and naïve so stay alert and never be afraid to ask questions and check references. No legit agent or publisher will be offended by a little background check because they should have nothing to hide. Be smart and don't get scammed.
My only other piece of advice would be this: Don't keep on trying to sell a book that no one wants, It doesn't matter how brilliant you might think it is, if it's not selling, put it away and write something else. And something else after that. I'm not saying give up after one or two rejections, but if, say ten agents and/or publishers (who you've carefully researched and who are currently representing/publishing the same type of book as the one you are selling) have passed outright on your project, it's time to move on. I think too many would-be writers get hung up polishing the same precious masterpiece for years and years. I say, if it doesn't sell let it go and do something else.
RH: Do you have anything in the pipeline? Any books coming out that we should be looking for? Any more of Angel Dare in our future?
CF: As always, I have a few things in the works. A new novel. A new tie-in project. Mostly stuff I can't really talk about yet, but check in with me over at www.christafaust.com and you can stay current on the next big thing, whatever that may be. And yeah, I think there may be more from Angel, but the jury's still out. You'll just have to wait and see…