RR: Tell us a little about yourself
JS: I grew up in Brooklyn, and went to college in Binghamton, New York –
otherwise known as hell on earth. It would be a great setting for Waiting for Godot:
it’s dank, bleak, frigid and in the absolute middle of nowhere. I guess it’s a good place to
start writing so that’s what I did. I took the usual writer’s workshops,
writing some pretty bad short stories. In my senior year I took a crack at
writing a novel, without much success. My main problem was that I had no
idea about structure – I was basically just writing long character studies.
After college, I decided that I would try writing plays, not because I had
any great love for the theatre, but because it seemed natural since my
fiction was mostly dialogue anyway. I joined a couple of theatre groups and
had some plays produced at some very Off-Off Broadway theatres. All in all,
it was a good experience. It’s strange and exciting to hear actors reading
your words on stage – playwriting is probably the most intensely gratifying
form of writing in existence in that respect – but I hated the collaboration in theatre.
Actors only care about the roles, not the plays, and I found that people
were constantly telling me what to write. I decided that being holed up,
alone, in front of a computer screen for months at a time better suited my
personality. So I started writing fiction again.
RR: Cold Caller is an assured debut. Had the idea been developing for some
JS: Cold Caller has a lot to do with work, especially boss-employee relationships. I’ve
had a lot of shitty jobs since college and a lot of shitty bosses too, so
I’m sure a lot of the themes in the book had been simmering in my brain for
years. The setting for the novel is an exaggerated version of a telemarketing company
I once worked for. In the book I describe the company as having all of these
Kafkaesque rules and regulations, but believe me: places like this really exist!
RR: Why a crime novel?
JS: I’d always loved mystery and crime fiction. As a teenager I read Mickey
Spillane and Raymond Chandler. I loved the gritty, hard-boiled prose. Later
on I discovered crime fiction – George V. Higgins, Jim Thompson, and
James M. Cain. Unlike mystery fiction where you know the detective is going
to live and the world will be a safe place again at the end of the book, in
crime fiction the reader is constantly on edge because anybody can die at
any time. I loved seeing the world from this point of view. The
genre also seemed to suit my writing style. I felt comfortable getting into
the heads of loners, losers and psychopaths.
RR: Bill Moss [the narrator of Cold Caller] is certainly a loner, loser and
psychopath. But when we first meet him he seems a fairly regular guy with
regular work, money and girlfriend problems. Did you set out to create a
character on the verge of entering a very dark place ?
JS: Yes. I didn’t want to write a one-dimensional crime novel where there are
good guys and bad guys. I wanted to blur the lines and to do that I needed
to make Bill into a “real” person. So I put him in a situation that a lot of
people can identify with, having some typical problems, before revealing his
dark side. Or, in Bill’s case, his “pitch dark side.” I guess I was also
trying to make readers feel a bit complacent. I love reading books where an
author gets you hooked on a character and, when you finally realise that the
character is on his way to hell, it’s too late. It’s like riding on Space
Mountain in Disney World. You start with that slow ascent in brightness and
you want to get off and then boom: you’re falling in pitch-darkness. That’s
why Jim Thompson is one of my favourites. In books like The Killer Inside
Me and POP. 1280, when things start going bad you can’t do anything except
keep reading because you’re so hooked on the character. I guess it’s similar
to horror movies, when you see the two girls going into the house and
everything seems great but you know at some point all hell is going to break
loose. I love that! But I think there are things at the beginning of Cold
Caller that a reader can look back on later and say to themselves, “Hey, why
did he do that?” So it’s the type of book where there’s a lot of
subliminal foreshadowing going on.
RR: Despite everything he does, Bill Moss comes across as a worringly
sympathetic character. Did you want to get away from the idea that bad guys
are necessarily purely evil?
JS: I think bad guys are definitely evil. If a guy goes into a supermarket and
starts blowing people away with an Uzi it would be hard to find a good side.
But if the story of that guy is told in the right way there might be a way
to make him compelling and that’s what I was trying to do with Bill Moss. I
wanted to give him enough “identifiable qualities” to make him sympathetic,
without making him likeable. That’s what writers like Patricia Highsmith and
Charles Willeford do so well. For example, look at Highsmith’s Ripley books.
Tom Ripley is the most evil recurring character in all crime fiction, but we
keep coming back to him because Highsmith makes us forget about good and
evil altogether and makes us only concerned with what happens. Willeford’s
the same. You don’t care how cruel his character’s are because they’re
so damn compelling.
RR: What book would you most like to have written?
JS: I don’t know if there’s really any point in writing if the themes don’t come
from yourself. But if you put a gun to my head I’d say Crime and Punishment.
RR: Is there anyone writing today you particularly admire?
JS: Elmore Leonard. He’s gained popularity since the movie of Get Shorty came
out, but I still think he’s underrated. It’s no wonder that Quentin
Tarrantino is adapting Rum Punch. He and Tarrantino both have that great
combination of humour and violence. I am also a big Ed Bunker fan. I think
Dog Eat Dog was his best book.
RR: Talking of Ed Bunker, he’s said some nice things about Cold Caller.
Any plans to do what he’s done and write a screenplay? Cold Caller could
make a good film.
JS: I think so too! There is talk of a Cold Caller movie, but nothing’s definite
yet. I doubt they would let me write the screenplay though and I don’t think
I’d really want to. I’d probably want to leave in a lot of things, where
someone with an impartial view might have a clearer vision of it. When it
comes to adapting novels I’m all for collaboration, which might seem strange
given what I think about writing for the theatre. I think it would be fun to see someone
else’s version of Cold Caller and – assuming the person knows what he or she
is doing – it would probably make a better film. But I do have some ideas for
my own original screenplays which I hope to write someday.
RR: What are you working on at the moment? Any immediate plans for the future?
JS: Norton is publishing an edition of Cold Caller in the U.S. and Canada in
April and I’m looking forward to that. Cold Caller will also be
published in German by Diogenes and in French by Fleuve Noir later next year. I
have completed a second crime novel which No Exit Press will publish in the
UK next year. Like Cold Caller, it’s a dark suspense novel set in New York,
but this one is told from different points of view. And right now I’m working
on a rough draft of what I hope will be my third novel. It could be darker and
nastier than Cold Caller, but it’s funny too. At least I
hope it is.
RR: Are you the sort of person that girlfriends take home to meet their parents?
JS: Maybe you should ask my wife that question! But, seriously, I don’t think
I’m at all like Bill Moss. I’m just a nice, normal guy who goes to work
every day and comes home. Although Bill Moss would probably say the same