JP Smith is a fellow writer I've met on my Internet travels and I was excited to learn that the publisher Thomas & Mercer was putting his novels back into print as well as publishing his new work. Since JP's writing journey is a very interesting one, I asked if he would be willing to do an interview and I was thrilled when he said yes.
Airtight is a wonderful new crime drama released late last year. Some have called it Mad Men meets Easy Rider. Here are my thoughts about it.
And here's more about Airtight
Nick Copeland has lost his mind only twice in his forty-eight years—once in college on a bad acid trip, and once at this very moment, as the mountain of bills he’s been hiding from his family finally topples. But Nick’s chance meeting with an old friend, Rob Johnson, pulls on the memory wires. Rob—who’s already lost his wife and job—seems resigned to a life of basic cable and Chinese takeout. Suddenly, the answer to their problems arrives: two airtight jars of high-grade heroin they’d buried under the football field of their old college campus.
Returning to the scene of the crime-that-never-happened seems like a cinch—that is, until Nick takes a trip down Memory Lane and a sharp right turn on Law Enforcement Drive. This is not the beads-and-bellbottoms of their youths, but maybe the Stones were right, anyway: you can’t always get what you want.
Thank you for stopping by blog today J.P.! It's quite an honor to have you here.
It’s a pleasure, Doug.
AIRTIGHT begins with a young Nick Copland inside a college classroom beginning a memorable acid trip in the year 1970. First of all, I loved how you let the reader 'climb on board' his acid trip. It drew me into the story quite well and made me want to know more about him. Tell me, what’s interesting about your main character Nick?
I think what makes Nick Copeland interesting is the journey he takes in the novel. Though he could have come off as a pompous, self-pitying ass, kind of a Don Draper without the heavy backstory, Nick needed to take a journey in the novel that would humble him and allow him to make a choice in the end that would reflect everything he’d learned about himself and those choices he’d made as a young man.
Can I say something here about how people perceive this book? The ending has left some readers on Amazon baffled and sometimes disappointed. Though the book is being pushed by the publisher as a thriller, like all of my novels it partakes in certain genre elements, but in the end it’s a character study of two men who out of desperation take a serious risk. Had I decided to write this as a straight thriller, it would have had all the usual setpieces we’ve seen a billion times before—car chases, shootouts, and so forth. I really wanted to keep it all completely believable. Very few people are involved in either shootouts or car chases.
The jars of heroin the characters dig up in AIRTIGHT remind me of a time capsule that represents the characters desire to unearth happier times in their youth. Regret plays a large role in the lives of these characters. What drew you to this theme in AIRTIGHT?
That’s a brilliant way of viewing the jars, Doug, I must say—I never thought of them that way, but I like it! I’m at the stage in life when I actually can look back and see what I did that was stupid, that was wrong, and, also, that was pretty damned good. My last novel, Breathless, had for an epigram a quote from The Book of Common Prayer: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”
Though I’m not a Christian, I’ve always thought these were especially cogent words. Because that’s all too often how we see our life in looking back—a place of missed opportunities and dumb decisions. The game of What if is played so often, isn’t it. What if I’d done this, that or the other. Well, in fact, you didn’t, so you make the best of what you have here. Nick and Rob are in a dead end. They don’t believe they can make the best in such desperate times. So they go back into the past, figuratively speaking.
Which is when Nick, especially, sees that some of his behavior, especially towards his old girlfriend Kaycee Christopher, really could have been a lot better. More responsible. Less carefree. Not that he’d mistreated her or anything like that, but that he could have been more understanding when she’d become pregnant. But youth is when we make our best mistakes, and then we can spend the rest of our life trying not to be such idiots. Which takes us to the choice Nick makes at the end. Of which I’ll say nothing here.
Some writers shy away from going into too much backstory, fearing it will bog the story down. Yet, the backstories in AIRTIGHT are more surgical in the way they're used, and I think more effective. How do you approach using backstory in a novel?
A person’s life is like a comet soaring through the universe. Its tail is always attached to it, and that’s the backstory. That’s the tale, in fact. We may grow old, we may move through different levels of society or take different jobs, but we always carry the baggage, heavy or light, of our backstories. The past is always with us. The backstory is the backdrop to our life in the present. And I think in fiction it’s important to acknowledge it as a part of the narrative.
Early in your career you walked away from a teaching job and moved to London so you could write. How did that affect you as a writer?
Simple answer? I took off my parachute. We had a little money saved, enough to satisfy the British Home Office that we could support ourselves for a while. It was cheap to live in England then. We didn’t have a car, theatre seats were a bargain, museums were free, and our diets underwent major changes. I remember sometimes we’d each eat 2 ½ strips of bacon and a few boiled potatoes for dinner. Like something out of the novels of George Gissing. It was cheap, and we managed to survive. And lose some serious weight in the process.
But moving there was a kind of test. I’d already written four or five novels that went unpublished, and I also knew that novelists in Britain also wrote for the theatre, for TV, for radio, etc. So I wrote off the top of my head a 50-minute teleplay a few weeks before our move, and on the basis of it found myself a theatre/TV/film agent within a month of our arrival. Through her I signed with an agent to represent my novels. All those earlier years trying to get an agent in the States, and now this. I knew then it was a smart move.
It was when we moved from London to Lyme Regis, on the southwest coast, that I really became a disciplined writer. Though back in New York, when I was teaching, I religiously wrote 25 pages a day after work, now, for the six or so months we were there, I had the whole day to fill. I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing. We were more or less stranded on the coast. If you’ve ever seen the film of John Fowles’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” you’ll know what Lyme looks like. We had no car, there was no train available there. No distractions other than our view over the English Channel and some wonderful places to walk. So I became a writer out of sheer necessity. Which is why I came to England in the first place.
What's your writing process like for a new project?
I think a lot at first. Thinking subconsciously more than actively. I’ll usually get an idea stuck in my head, and then I’ll let it sit. I’ll let the subconscious mull over it. I tend not to use the page (or the screen) as a laboratory, but do most of the writing ahead of time in my mind. Then I type it, polish it, and move onto the next page or chapter.
What was the hardest thing about writing AIRTIGHT?
Knowing what to leave out. Always a tough thing when writing out of one’s own life. As you know, that prologue, the acid trip, was mine. That was how it happened, and it was scary, it was very, very scary, and I was glad I’d taught my roommate how to guide me if I was ever freaking out. I’d never taken acid simply for fun. I’d been taught that it was a serious means of exploration, and I had guides for many of my trips. But this was powerful acid, and I’d become overconfident. I had flashbacks for many years after that, in fact. I had to make sure that I kept it vivid and short and not add all the tiny details I’d experienced.
The part where Nick and Rob go to Cincinnati actually happened—the coffee house was the same, the waitress said the same things—so I was having fun writing all this, though constantly having to remind myself that it was a work of fiction, that I wasn’t Nick or Rob, and that I had to give shape to the experience I recalled and not just let it roll on for forty or fifty pages.
You write quite a lot of scripts too. How did you get involved with screenwriting?
As I said earlier, when I moved to London I knew that writers worked in many media. I spent a morning with the writer Beryl Bainbridge and we talked a lot about this, as she’d had experience working in TV as well as in fiction. She encouraged me to write for what was then a very rich medium in terms of the talent involved. It was the golden age of British TV, in fact, with some extraordinary things being done on the small screen—all of it written by up-and-coming authors as well as by the powerhouse writers such as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Simon Gray, David Hare, and so on. Though I never sold, I got a lot of people interested in my scriptwriting, and when my first novel was published there I was commissioned to adapt it as a feature film. The producers all worked in TV, had just wrapped their first feature starring a little-known Liam Neeson, and had been fans of my work for some years.
The problem, though, is that English drama can be built upon, say, two men in a room with a bottle of Scotch. Pinter—an influence—does this all the time, and creates compelling and often violent drama out of it. Language is a weapon in the English theatre. But when you write for Hollywood, language is a means to an end, and so much depends on setpieces and plot. I still tend to draw out a scene with lots of witty dialogue, and development execs and producers will keep on cutting it!
You've written Thrillers, Mysteries, and also Literary Fiction. Do you have a favorite genre? And if so, why?
I actually don’t write any genre fiction, Doug, believe it or not. Early on in my career I was influenced by, at the time, a new kind of writing out of France, where genre mixed with the literary. Writers such as J.-P. Manchette, Patrick Modiano, Jean Echenoz, René Belletto, and others were writing character-based fiction that borrowed certain tropes from genres such as detective fiction and thrillers. When I first read Proust I realized that his was a kind of detective tale crossed with a spy story. The narrator is an aspiring writer who observes to the point of obsession, who spies, who is searching for something in the same way as Sam Spade might. And he has secrets to hide, just as many of his characters do.
This doesn’t make the publishers’ job any easier, of course. How do we market this? they always ask, because that mingling of genres isn’t that common here. In screenwriting, though, I brand myself as a thriller writer.
What projects are you working on now?
A new novel, like Airtight, built upon a screenplay. As you’ve seen, memory plays a huge role in all my fiction, and I’d written a script—it still goes out now and again—set in the future when the government owns your memories after you die. They go into a central clearing house and are scanned according to various algorithms to seek out any terrorists or burgeoning terror plots. So that memory-tampering is illegal.
But by then technology has given us the capability to delete memories, and of course this gives rise to crime. The main character is the former head detective of LAPD’s Memory Division, now disabled out of the force because he has a form of Alzheimer’s—he’s losing his memory. He runs a nostalgia store off Hollywood Boulevard, and one day a woman walks in and hires him to help her track down a stolen memory.
That’s the basis of the novel, as well. It’s actually quite a sad story, because to live in a world in which you no longer can call even that most personal of thing, the memory, your own, is borderline tragic. It’s the melancholy of Godard’s Alphaville, really.
I’ve also recently finished a new script, “Rouge Incorruptible,” and that’ll be going out to producers after Sundance. Late January. “Body Heat” meets “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
To wrap things up, I would like to borrow six quick questions from the great James Lipton host of Inside The Actor’s Studio. Here we go. Now, J.P.…
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
A great piece of music. A great painting. Anything achieved exquisitely and simply. Great ballet.
What sound or noise do you love?
Bach played on the piano. A Thelonious Monk solo.
Other people’s music played too loudly.
What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt?
J.P., thank you so much for stopping by!
It’s been fun, Doug, and thanks!
Check out all of JP Smith's novels on Amazon
For more interesting tidbits about JP Smith, please visit his website.