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The smoking gun: An interview with Charles Ardai

By Alan Kelly.

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3:AM: I read that you’re a “dot com” success, being the CEO of Juno. Why did you start Hard Case Crime?

Charles Ardai: When we merged Juno with one of its competitors, NetZero, I got together with the fellow who had done all our graphic design, Max Phillips, and over drinks we talked about what we’d like to do next. We were both writers; we both loved the colorful, sexy, sharp pulp crime novels of the 1940s and 50s, and at one point in the evening one of us said ‘Why doesn’t anyone publish books like that anymore?’ and the other said ‘Why don’t we?’

3:AM: You’ve reprinted old pulp classics; was it difficult finding titles that where ‘lost’? Could you tell me a bit about your investigations, how you came about the books?

CA: Between the start of the paperback revolution (usually dated back to the publication of Mickey Spillane‘s I, the Jury in 1947) and the time that slim, sexy paperback crime novels fell out of fashion in the 1970s (when young readers became more interested in Kurt Vonnegut and Ken Kesey than Erle Stanley Gardner and Brett Halliday), several thousand books were published by more than a dozen publishers. Most of these books have been “lost,” and most of them deserved to be. It’s not hard at all to find lost books. What’s hard is finding that tiny sliver of this gushing fountain of literary productivity (not quality, note – productivity) that were actually good reads, and then the even tinier sliver that remain good reads today. They’re out there – but they are a tiny, tiny fraction of all the books you might find. How do you find them? You read. I’ve been reading crime novels for thirty years and have thousands on my shelves; and I remember the ones I liked. When the time came to pick titles to reprint, it was just a matter of going to my shelves and saying, ‘Man, people would really love that one…’ But it was only simple because of years and years of buying up old paperbacks on yard sales and estate sales and so forth, and reading them one by one.

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3:AM: Your novels are seedy, seamy, with hard women, tight plotting and lots of sex and violence. What is the deciding factor in publishing a submission?

CA: Really, there’s just one deciding factor: Does the book keep me reading? Our lives are so busy, mine more than most. Nothing’s easier than putting a book down unfinished, nothing harder than continuing to read a made-up story about made-up people with made-up problems. But once in a while an author starts telling a story that’s so compelling, and tells it in a way that’s so compelling, that you just can’t stop reading the damn thing till he gets to the end. Those are the books we publish.

3:AM: Christa Faust is the first broad on your books. Anymore noir/hardboiled female writers you’d like to publish, Allison Brennan, maybe, or Megan Abbott?

CA: I’ll publish any book I love, regardless of what conformation the author’s genitals happen to take. It just happens to be the case that the overwhelming majority of people who wrote hardboiled crime fiction in the pulp era were male, and that most of people who submit original manuscripts to us today are male. I’d gladly publish tons of books by women if we got tons of great submissions, but it just hasn’t happened. Now, Megan’s an interesting case – she’s a good friend, and originally wrote her Edgar Award-winning novel, Queenpin, for us. I made an offer on it when it was only half finished because it was obvious just how good it was going to be. Unfortunately, the publisher of her first two novels had a right to see her next book, and when they saw it they could tell just how good it was, too, and they bid more for it than a small outfit like ours ever could. So that became “the one that got away” for us. We even had a cover painted and everything – you can see it, because we wound up using in on George Alexrod’s Blackmailer. It was a great cover for Blackmailer – but really it was supposed to be the cover of Queenpin

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3:AM: Should a writer be familiar with Donald Westlake or the L.A. Quartet before they send you an manuscript?

CA: Oh, I don’t think it’s necessary that a writer be familiar with any particular books or authors – I can imagine a great hardboiled writer who’s never read Westlake or Ellroy (though he’d have missed out on some great books). But it’s hard to imagine a great hardboiled writer who hasn’t read widely in the genre. That’s part of how you become great, and also how you avoid accidentally repeating stories and scenes that have been done before: by reading what’s come before. You can read Westlake or Block or Chandler or Hammett or Leonard or Macdonald or MacDonald or Spillane or Cain…you don’t have to have read absolutely all of them. But if you haven’t read a batch of them, you’re probably not well versed in your chosen field.

3:AM: Stephen King found a departure from writing horror and signed up with Hard Case Crime. Did he approach you or was it the other way round?

CA: A little of both. I approached him to see if he might consider writing a blurb for the line, since I knew (from essays he had written, and hints he’d dropped in some of his books) that he was as big a fan of old-time pulp crime fiction as Max and I were. He thought about it for a few months and then contacted us to say no, he didn’t want to write us a blurb – but how about writing us a book instead?

3:AM: You write pulp yourself, Fifty-to-One, your offices are even in there. Will you be writing more pulp and will you make a cameo in it?

CA: Funny you should ask. This summer we’re launching a new series called The Adventures of Gabriel Hunt, which is a sort of companion series to Hard Case Crime. Instead of pulp crime fiction, this one revives pulp adventure fiction in the Indiana Jones/Doc Savage vein. All the books are about a character named “Gabriel Hunt” and each of them is credited as having been written by Hunt himself, but actually they’re being written by old friends like Christa Faust and David J. Schow and James Reasoner…and me. And if you read the one I wrote – Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear, which comes out at the end of July – you’ll find a scene in Istanbul where Gabriel briefly meets a familiar-looking fellow…

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3:AM: You’ve also published Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence under an alias. Why an alias?

CA: When Hard Case Crime was starting out, I wanted to keep separate my persona as editor of the line (which I was doing under my real name) from my persona as author of one of the books for the line. There’s also a great pulp tradition of writing novels like this under fake names. Donald Westlake was also Richard Stark; Lawrence Block was also Paul Kavanagh and Chip Harrison and Sheldon Lord and many, many more. Evan Hunter was also Ed McBain and Richard Marsten, plus “Evan Hunter” wasn’t even his real name – he was born “Salvatore Lombino.” So it felt like a tip of the hat to the old days for my first novel to be credited to the anagrammatic “Richard Aleas.”

3:AM: The cover art of each book is utterly fucking fantastic. Could you tell me a bit about the artists? And how long each cover takes?

CA: Thanks. Getting to work with our artists to create these images is one of the greatest pleasures for me. We’ve been fortunate to find a small number of artists who were working in the 50s and 60s and are still painting beautifully today, guys like Robert McGinnis and Ron Lesser; we’ve also found guys from the next generation such as Glen Orbik and Greg Manchess and Ricky Mujica and Ken Laager and Chuck Pyle, guys who are able to paint in that lush, gorgeous, classical style you saw back in the old days. Each painter works differently – some will turn out a painting in a week, others will take two months. But the end results speak for themselves. Pulp is all about the stimulating images, not just between the covers but on them as well. And anyone who doesn’t find these artists’ work stimulating must be dead and decomposing.

3:AM: What are the plans for Hard Case Crime in the future?

CA: We’ve got some very exciting stuff on tap through the end of 2009, you can see it on our website. After that, we’re going to take a hiatus of several months just to a) give me time to breathe (I’ve been putting out a book a month more or less for five years), and b) give me time to get the Gabriel Hunt series properly up and running. But we’ll come back strong in 2010 – I can’t tell you about the books we’ve got lined up, but rest assured they’re pretty damn exciting. Our painters are working on covers for them as we speak.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly is the contributing editor to Dogmatika. He has worked for a number of specialist magazines, Film Ireland, Pretty Scary, Penny Blood, Bookslut et al. He lives in Wicklow and is partial to pulp, noir, hardboiled, brainy erotica and horror fiction.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 21st, 2009.