Aaron Clark's New Novel
Noir fiction is Charlottean Aaron Clark’s passion—crime novels with cynical characters in bleak settings. His debut novel, The Science of Paul: A Novel of Crime, tells the story of an ex-convict who leaves a crime-filled life in urban Philadelphia for rural North Carolina. Published by New Pulp Press, it is being released January 20 and will be available at Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores. We chatted with Clark about his inspiration, writing his first novel, and plans for his next book.
Q: What do you need in order to write?
A: Probably jazz. Really good jazz. And the ability to walk around in a city. Or a nice coastal drive—I think those are the things I need.
Q: Do you work out a plot completely before you start writing?
A: I do an outline. This particular novel was actually written in outline and paragraph form in three composition books. I would write everywhere. I wanted to have the freedom to explore—I didn’t want to stay too true to the outline. I read that James Baldwin used to write with improvisational jazz, so once I started doing that, it freed up that feeling. That’s why music is a big deal, because depending on what I’m listening to it has an effect on the rhythm of the sentence on the words that I use and how it sounds.
Q: Your grandfather went to L.A. and then returned to North Carolina. So did your father. So did you. In the novel, Paul (the main character) returns to his grandfather’s farm.
A: Yeah, it’s kind of an ode to my grandfather in a way. In the next book, which is set completely in North Carolina, it’s a lot more of his memories, that time period growing up. In Paul’s case, he starts in North Carolina as a child and then goes to Philadelphia and then comes back.
Q: How did you become interested in writing crime fiction?
A: I’ve always been interested in the crime genre. Everyone who knows me knows
I’ve probably seen every crime movie, going all the way back to the thirties, as far as the classics: The Maltese Falcon, anything with Bogart, The Long Goodbye. And I was a huge fan of Walter Mosley, who did the Easy Rawlins series, and also Fred Vargas, who was a French writer. For me, I didn’t want to write the traditional crime novel, where it’s a detective or a cop. I wanted to play around with the genre a little bit, so I thought I would mix the traditional with the philosophical because I was always a fan of existential novels like The Stranger, Crime and Punishment—I love those novels. So I wanted to mix it together and see what would happen. It really was an experiment.
Q: Tell me about the characters in this story, how you came up with them, who they’re based on. Are there any nods to these other writers, other places?
A: I wanted a character who would be thrown into a huge mess as far as plot is concerned. Not a detective, but someone who wasn’t equipped with those skills, and I wanted them to solve a crime. I wanted it to be as if you took Easy Rawlins and one day he woke up and decided he didn’t want to solve crimes anymore. I wanted him to be just an everyday guy.
I made my character an antihero, and so the first step was to make him an ex-con as opposed to a cop or a detective—on the other side of the law—and also to make it so that he was a kept man, which plays a huge part in the story. He’s dealing with all this regret from his life before and that he’s really cut off from society. The woman he’s living with, she doesn’t even encourage him to get a job, even though the economy is so bad he probably couldn’t, but she likes him home. She doesn’t push him to change, but he desperately needs to change, and that’s what he’s looking for.
I took him from people I met in Philadelphia, people I met on the street. A lot of guys in the neighborhood we were living in had stories. I wanted just an average guy who has a story to tell, the guy picking the garbage up. We had Luke, who was homeless, and he would sweep our stoop and tell us all these stories because he was a vet. It amazed me that people could be walking around, which society may kind of ignore, but they have these incredible, rich stories. We would meet people sometimes who had known Jimi Hendrix or had known a lot of the jazz players in Philly—a lot of them were musicians. Jazz plays a big part in the book. It’s this idea that Philly is rich with youth and history and art and these people at one time—a lot of the ones who are now living on the street—were big in that scene but because of drugs or circumstances they are kind of forgotten—no one knows they’re there.
Q: What kind of research did you do?
A: I lived in Philadelphia for three years. During that time period I observed a lot, and a lot of things happened. I learned a lot about the justice system there because my car kept getting broken into. I lived in an area just past the University of Pennsylvania, and it’s a weird area because one street separates it from a rough community. And oftentimes students from UPenn get mugged because they don’t know that that’s the border, so they’ll be walking and that will happen. I lived right on the border, so my car got broken into and I just got tired of it. I learned that anything can happen to you in Philly and you might get lost in the shuffle. Any crime can be committed; anything can happen. So it was a wild place to be. And the police were just so, I don’t know, kind of inept. Some were helpful, but some were like, “What do you want me to do?”
Q: Do you like solving a mystery, putting the pieces together, getting clues?
A: I think what I like more is not how much the character or the detective works the crime but how the crime works the detective, what it does to them, how it affects their character. In this book, Paul’s affected by the crimes that he’s committed, but when he sees how these crimes—the ones that take place around him—how they have almost this domino effect (because the crime always changes, naturally, the one who is victimized, but it changes the victimizer), so when Paul can finally see that—the damaging effects of both sides—it changes him. To the point where he feels that he doesn’t want to be a part of society, a society that not only allows his crimes to take place but doesn’t seek justice when they’re done.
Q: Why did you use the name Paul in the novel?
A: Jerry [Grimes, a good friend] had this whole sermon on the role of Paul in the Bible and the idea of redemption. So I think when I was trying to come up with a name to echo redemption or being able to change—because it’s such a drastic change—I thought it was like that character.
Q: Your next novel—do you have a title yet?
A: I’m thinking A Healthy Fear of Man. I want to deal with this idea of him being out in the openness of the land, but he cannot escape man. So the idea is that he’s going to be a Good Samaritan, he’s going to help a person and take that person into his home—even though he knows he probably shouldn’t—and it’s going to lead to the death of someone else. He’s going to desperately try to rectify that. The first book is him coming to terms with what needs to happen and the second book is him actually being proactive to change his mentality, the way he feels. To rectify his past.
Q: Talk for a minute about living in the South. What stands out, what’s distinctive?
A: It’s a lot slower than the West Coast, or I should say Los Angeles, which I found gives me more time to think. And a lot of times I’m able to work stories out in the car, just driving, because I don’t worry about people cutting me off or yelling things at me. In California, when I would drive it wasn’t an enjoyable experience at all. It got to the point where I hated driving. I mean, I love driving—I’ve driven across country twice—but sitting in traffic all day sometimes just to go twenty miles—it made no sense to me. There was nothing I could do. For a while I carried a tape recorder and would talk into it if I came up with an idea, but then that got old because you cannot escape the fact that there are six lanes just bumper to bumper. You feel almost claustrophobic. After a while you kind of go batty. But out here it’s open road. I can get on 40 and not have to worry about traffic unless there’s an accident. That’s the first thing I recognized when I came back, was the amount of openness and space.