Therese and I are beyond pleased to have interviewed award-winning crime fiction novelist and screenplay writer Jason Starr. Not only is Jason refreshingly real and unpretentious, but his books are insanely addicting. I happened upon an ARC of his latest release LIGHTS OUT (it’s a trade secret how that happened), and I read it in one gulp. Blistering pace, razor-sharp characters, a creeping sense of dread and a wickedly funny voice sets Starr’s work apart, and it’s easy to see why he’s considered a rising star in noir/crime fiction. 

Jason had just returned from a book tour in Australia (where his highly-regarded debut COLD CALLER is being developed for a film adaptation) when he kindly granted an interview with WU.

Update: LIGHTS OUT has been selected as a Book Sense Notable Selection for October, 2006.

Q: Tell us about your road to publication.

Jason Starr: It was a long and winding road. I received so many rejections from agents and editors that any sane person would have thrown in the towel. But I was working as a telemarketer at a time and we telemarketers are a stubborn bunch–when we get rejected, we keep going. Finally my break came when No Exit Press in the U.K.–God bless them!–published my first novel.

Q: Did you get any meaningful feedback from the rejections that kept hope alive? Or did you just know it your guts that you were going to make it? Also, did you sub the novel to No Exit with or without an agent? Do you feel that the UK market is more open to “riskier” projects

JS: That’s a really good point, because it’s always important to recognize a real rejection and a bullshit one. Most rejections are bullshit. When I got form letters, I knew I just had to ignore them, and move on. Odds are the book (or chapters) weren’t read or were read by the wrong person. That’s what you have to tell yourself anyway, because you have no way of knowing whether the material was considered seriously. But meaningful feedback is different. If someone takes the time to write you personally, listen to that advice very carefully. If you think it’s off base, discount it and move on. But if multiple people have the same criticism it probably has some merit and you should take this seriously…But, no, I did not know in my gut I would eventually make it. I’m just very stubborn and when agents turned me down it fired me up because I wanted to prove them all wrong. I did get some very encouraging feedback from agents for Cold Caller, and that inspired me to move on. I eventually started submitted to publishers directly, which rarely works, but worked in my case. I don’t think the UK is better for riskier material, but the smaller presses certainly are.

Q: Most writers can totally relate to the fact that you were forced to be a telemarketer before cracking into the industry with your killer debut COLD CALLER. Do you think you’d have been able to carve out your unique voice in noir crime fiction without having that experience?

JS: I’m not sure about some of my later books, but working in boiler rooms while writing plays and novels definitely had an affect on the attitude in Cold Caller. At my “survival jobs” I was usually the lowest level employee. This was by design because I only wanted to work a few hours a day so I could write the rest of the time. I did a lot of telemarketing, but I was also a dishwasher, a car parker, an office temp, etc. I had a lot of nightmarish bosses and a lot of my work experiences, while nightmarish at the time, became really good material for my books later on. So, yeah, I guess I turned a negative into a positive.

Q: In your upcoming release, LIGHTS OUT, there seems to a battle between the characters to decide which one is the most amoral. In particular, you explore the cult of celebrity and the celebrity comes off the worse for wear. Do you like playing with reader expectations, or are you just following where the character takes you?

JS: I don’t think the characters are really battling to be amoral. I mean, I think a couple of the characters lack the self awareness to judge their behavior; it’s the least thing on their minds because they’re so focused on what they want. Jake, for example, just wants to mask the sex scandal that’s about to break and he has blinders on to the rest of the world. But, yes, I’m aware that I screw around with readers expectations sometimes. In Lights Out, for example, there is one character I’m particularly harsh with, but I think that taking chances with characters, and not always giving in to expectations, is the type of stuff that makes a book unpredictable. This isn’t a detective novel where you have the safety net of knowing that the hero will come through in the end. It’s a crime novel where, like in the real world, there are no guarantees.

Q: Why do you think genre fiction receives so little respect in literary circles, despite the fact that the majority of fiction sold is genre?

JS: I think genre fiction receives the most disrespect from the people who don’t read it, and sadly a lot of people in so-called literary circles don’t know what they’re missing. Some readers have a false impression of genre fiction–they think genre books are trashy, sloppily written, disposable. It’s almost as if because a work is entertaining and plot-driven, they think this is a negative. How did this happen? In classic literature–in the works of Shakespeare for example–great plotting was praised. Of course all genre fiction isn’t great, just like all literary fiction isn’t great. But I honestly believe that some of the best writing today is in genre fiction. I recently co-edited an anthology of horse racing fiction and non-fiction from the likes of Daniel Woodrell, Jane Smiley, Scott Phillips, Ken Bruen, Jonathon Ames, Wallace Stroby, Lee Child, Jerry Stahl, Laura Lippman, to name a few. It’s a great mix of genre writers and a literary writers and I think that the across-the-board quality of the work speaks for itself.

Q: What is it about noir fiction that draws you?

JS: That’s a hard question to answer because people have different interpretations of what noir is. I think of a noir as stories that focus on crimes, rather than solutions, and where plots often spin out of control. I definitely don’t set out to write noir, and am not really sure that all of my books qualify as noir. In Lights Out, actually, I see myself starting to move away from noir, and my next novel has an even larger thriller element. But each time out I just try to write the most entertaining stories I can, but what I like about noir-type stories are the unpredictable plots. In noir, no character is safe, not even the first–person narrator, and that can lead to a lot of great opportunities to create suspense. Q: Have you ever had a plot/story that totally “spun out of control” on you and took you to surprising places JS: Yes, all the time. When I first plotted out Lights Out, for example, I intended for the book to be set in western Massachusetts. Now when you read the book you’ll see exactly how crazy that seems now. When I started writing the first few paragraphs, I realized that this was an urban novel, and had to be set in Brooklyn. Now I think the book is about Brooklyn and I can’t even imagine it not taking place there.

Click here for Part Two of Jason’s interview.

Photo credit: Sandy Starr.

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Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, or join our thriving Facebook community.