Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Interview with T.J. English

Author and journalist T.J. ENGLISH was recently interviewed by the web magazine Stop & Style NYC, currently posted online (Feb. 2011 issue). The interview touches on a number of subjects related to English's upbringing, his methods and career as a writer, and his feelings about NYC, both past and present. The entire interview, including introduction, can be accessed at http://www.stopandstylenyc.com/stop--chat.html.

The Q & A portion of the interview, in its entirety, is posted below....

How do you choose topics for your work? Where do the ideas come from?

Ideas come from everywhere. I tend to draw my subject matter from real life, so ideas often come from reading newspapers, magazines, books, etc. Ideas also come from my travels. For instance, the current article I did for Playboy on the narco war in Mexico likely would not have happened had I not spent time in Mexico a few years ago at a Spanish-language institute learning Spanish. Yes, I knew about the narco war from reading about it and keeping up on the news, but there’s nothing like being right there in the country where its happening, experiencing it from inside the culture as opposed to viewing it from afar. Many of my books and journalism are initiated by a general cultural fascination with the topic, and then I try to think of ways to apply it to my own writerly point-of-view, which invariably leads me to the criminal underworld, organized crime and criminal justice issues.

Many of the subjects you focus on are relatively dark: mobsters, wars, human injustice, etc. Why do you think you are drawn to such genres?

It’s interesting, because my general interest in these topics usually has nothing to do with the so-called dark side. Years ago, for instance – in the mid-1990s – I did an article about a Jamaican drug posse based in Brooklyn that had roots in Kingston, Jamaica. I became interested in that because I had a deep affection for reggae music, which led me to make a trip to Jamaica. This led to a fascination with Jamaican culture. Okay, so you want to explore Jamaican culture and history, you’re going to find yourself reading about some horrible shit like colonialism, political exploitation, extreme poverty the likes of which sometimes leads to sociopathic or even psychopathic behavior. The truth is, writing about the human condition invariably, in my opinion, leads you to writing about the dark side, because the human social process is one of war, exploitation, violence, and death. The way cities, countries and nation-states are formed usually involves a group of people killing or forcibly dominating another group of people and then imposing rules and laws to keep them in their place. To me, writing about the human social process requires writing about the dark side, although, in some ways, I don’t even think of it as writing about the dark side. I think of it as writing about the world as it really is, not about how we like to pretend it is.

Is there any unattainable topic or subject that you wish you could gain access to and write about? A dream project perhaps?

I don’t think there is an “unattainable topic,” although there are many topics that I’m interested in that, to write about them in any kind of in-depth way or from an insider point-of-view, are so fraught with complications and dangers that the risks and difficulties outweigh the likelihood of getting the story. But this is all relative. In fact, many of the articles and books I have written are on subjects that others might have considered to be “unattainable.” Writing about the Westies gang from the point of view of an insider in the gang was considered somewhat unattainable. Thinking I could get inside Mickey Featherstone’s head – I was told by cops and other writers that it was crazy for me to even think I could do that. I wrote a book, Born to Kill, about a Vietnamese gang based in Chinatown that I think, as you’re reading it, will make you feel as though you are a member of that gang, because I tell the story from the subjective perspective of a gang member who was right there in the middle of things. I’m not mentioning this to brag about it; I’m just saying that one person’s “unattainable” is another person’s “challenge.” I suppose I could have failed at the challenge, but it seemed to me like a challenge worth taking on. I was driven by the belief that these unattainable subjects were, in fact, attainable.

I will give you an interesting example, however, of the only story in my career I was not able to get. I shouldn’t be telling you this, because it makes me look bad, but the truth is any journalist or writer who takes chances will have an occasion where they are not able to get the story they are trying to get.

In the mid-1990s I was sent by Rolling Stone magazine to New Orleans to do a story on the New Orleans police department. The police in New Orleans had been wracked by a series of outrageous scandals that had shocked the whole city, and it’s not easy to shock people in New Orleans. A female cop had killed her partner and executed an entire Vietnamese family while moonlighting as a security guard at a restaurant in town. Another cop had ordered a hit on a women who had taken out a brutality complaint against him; he brazenly ordered the hit over the police radio frequency. A whole bunch of cops – something like twenty – had been running a cocaine operation just like a criminal gang. It was incredible. Anyway, I go down there and set about getting people to talk with me, as I always do in these situations. I got some interesting stuff. Interviewed the new police chief, went into the infamous Desire Housing Project, which I think has since been torn down. But I could not get anyone from within the criminal culture of the NOPD to talk with me. I could not get any of the victims of crimes perpetrated by the NOPD to talk with me. In New Orleans, people were afraid to talk about police corruption. They were afraid they would wind up buried in a swamp somewhere and never be heard from again. There was no tradition of talking to a writer or journalist about this stuff. It was a criminal conspiracy I could not penetrate. I have written about all kinds of criminal gangs, written about them from an insider perspective that many people did not think was possible, but I could not penetrate the fear and long-standing tradition of silence surrounding the criminal conspiracy known as the New Orleans police department.

How do you get people to open up to you? Especially in your early days, before you had any best sellers backing you up. Do you think it has anything to do with your general demeanor?

Generally speaking, every person who talks to you does so for their own unique set of reasons, either they want to get out their version of events, from their perspective, or they want to get something off their chest, or they trust you, and when a person trusts you, sometimes you can’t get them to shut up. Believe me, I go through periods in my life when I am getting calls and correspondences from criminals, gangsters, calls from prison – its one of the reasons I sometimes have problems maintaining relationships with significant others. Not everyone is charmed by the idea of killers and gangsters calling at all hours of the day and night.

As for demeanor, yes, this is an interesting point. I recently had an interesting conversation with a group of retired FBI agents here in New York. Generally speaking, I get along better with criminals than I do law enforcement people, but I was invited to speak to a group of retired agents. It turned out to be very instructive, because we got on to this subject of how do you get people – criminals – to talk to you. Granted, it’s somewhat easier for a journalist or writer, because I’m not going to bust them and have them prosecuted, but still, it all has do with trust. And the only way that kind of trust can be established is if the person you are dealing with feels as though you are listening to them free of judgment. You are not judging them. This sounds like a simple thing, but in truth most cops or journalists or even most human beings are not able to do this. The average person feels as though they represent goodness and virtue. Cops, journalists, they are usually there as representatives of the system. They represent “the right side of the law.” Therefore, the person who they are dealing with is viewed as reprehensible, a criminal, a killer, a drug dealer, a scumbag. How could you even sit in the same room with this scumbag and listen to them tell their version of why they do what they do? Well, I find it fascinating. And the fact that a person feels like I’m listening to them without judgment makes them open up. And the truth is, I’m not judging them. I want to hear their version, and then I push them and probe and ask questions that maybe gets them to tell things they never thought they would. But it all starts with a genuine level of trust.

Have you ever gotten yourself into a bad situation while investigating a story or suddenly crossed a line where you felt like you might not make it out?

I’ve been in a few potentially perilous situations that made me sweat. In Hong Kong, doing a story on the Triads, secret criminal societies, I was in the Walled City, a hermetically sealed criminal enclave in a part of the city known as Kowloon. The Walled City was later torn down, after China took over control of Hong Kong in 1997. I was there in 1992. As I was getting ready to enter the place one afternoon, a taxi driver saw me; he stopped his taxi and said, “Do not go in there. It’s not safe. You will not come out alive.” Or something like that. It was a little unnerving. Because duty called, and I knew I had to go in there. The taxi driver drove away and I entered. Man, that place was wild. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was all closed in, like an underground city, with cables and dripping pipes overhead, and a maze of narrow walkways, dark and damp. Along these walkways were little stalls with all kinds of illegal businesses. There might be a guy selling illegal animals, snakes and other reptiles, and right next to that stall would be a stall with an illegal dentist. There was prostitution in there, women beckoning from the shadows, and little, old Chinese men selling opium and heroin. All kinds of counterfeit goods and illegal shit. It was like an underworld bizarre for vice and illegal goods. And the whole visual look of the place was designed to blow your mind. It was subterranean and spooky and dangerous-looking, like something out of Dante’s Inferno. I’m glad I had a chance to see it before it was obliterated.

I’ve been in some other situations that could have turned bad, I guess. I was in Denham Town, a shantytown in central Kingston that is probably as dangerous for an outsider as anything can be. For the Mexico narco piece I recently did I was in Ciudad Juárez, which is now thought of as the most dangerous city in the world. I was in Felipe Angeles, a colonia, or slum, in Juárez that is the home of the Barrio Azteca gang. I do not go into these places out of any sense of adventure or thrill-seeking. I am not a thrill seeker. I do not bungee jump or cliff dive or any of that silly shit. I have no desire to jump out of an airplane and skydive. I go into these situations because it is my job to do so. And whenever I do something like this, I take great pride in doing it the most intelligent way I can. I do my homework. I never wander into a situation unprepared. I try to set it up so I am never walking into an uncontrolled situation; I set things up beforehand. I usually have a guide or a specific reason for being there. And the idea is to get in there and get the fuck out. Although, yeah, I do sometimes get waylaid by a woman or the exotic nature of a place. But I try not to be stupid about these things.

When or how did you realize writing was your passion?

I guess grade school was when I first started to get positive feedback about things that I was writing. When you’re young, you tend to go in the direction from which you get the most ego gratification. If it had been a musical instrument I was good at, or singing, or gymnastics, maybe I would have gone in one of those directions instead. By the time I got to high school, I realized journalism was a great way to get out of the house, experience life around you, and sometimes stir things up.

At the Catholic high school I went to in Tacoma, Washington, where I was born and raised, my senior year I did an expose for the school newspaper about Pacific Avenue, which was the Red Light district in town. I interviewed street prostitutes and what were called “winos” back then; I went into Elmo’s Bookstore, a porn shop, and described in great detail what was in there. I’m pretty sure it was the first time – and maybe the last – that the word “dildo” appeared in the school newspaper. It caused quite a controversy, and I loved every minute of it.

How long have you lived in NY and what do you miss most about the way the city used to be when you first came here?

I arrived in NYC in 1981; I was 23 years old. I came here to experience life and, hopefully, become some sort of professional writer. I hustled for work as a freelance journalist, writing for an Irish American magazine and weekly newspaper, for the Village Voice, wherever I could get stuff published. In the evenings I drove a taxi, three, four nights a week, sometimes more, to pay my rent and living expenses, which I always kept lean and minimal as I could. In those years, I remember being like a feral animal, hungry, hyper alert, my aspirations as a writer deeply intertwined with the environment I was living in, which, since I was driving a cab, touched on all neighborhoods of the city, all economic classes and races.

That lifestyle of an aspiring artist, if I can use that term, the pursuit of a non-traditional career, living close to the bone, hustling – I don’t think that even exists any more in New York. I mean, having to have a computer and a fancy iphone alone would have wiped me out back then, and you can barely function without those things in the marketplace today.

Starting somewhere in the mid-1980s, New York City completely gave itself over to the business class, cutting back on city services, giving sweet tax deals for businesses and real estate entities. Smarter people than me have chronicled this; I’m not saying anything particularly insightful. But I watched the city I came here to be a part of become less and less interesting. Manhattan, in particular, is now a place for professional business people, lawyers, brokers, etc. The neighborhood where I have lived for 20 years, the Village -- you don’t want to go anywhere around there on a Friday or Saturday night. They say there’s a recession, but you’d hardly notice it in that neighborhood. Swarms of 20-somethings with credit cards, expendable incomes, auditioning for their own reality shows.

What is your favorite thing about living in NYC these days? Do you have a favorite neighborhood/restaurant/bar?

The one thing I like most about NYC hasn’t changed, and that is – pounding the pavement. I haven’t owned a car since I came here thirty years ago, pretty much my entire adult life. I walk most everywhere I go, if I can. The energy and diversity of the street life is still the best thing about the city. And no amount of gentrification can wipe that out. Because they still need immigrants (i.e. cheap labor) to feed the beast, and the city regenerating itself through waves of immigration is still the central narrative of life in NYC; its what makes walking the streets so beautiful and distinctive.

Also, in the last four or five years I’ve also really gotten into biking. It is one of the new things about the city that I really enjoy. Thirty years ago, even if you’d wanted to, there was no way to bike around the city like there is now. Making the city more biker friendly has made it accessible in new and exciting ways, and it’s a great way to stay in shape. Because if you wanna survive in NYC, you still need to stay lean and strong and ready to run like hell at a moment’s notice.

I don’t have a favorite neighborhood, but I do have a favorite eating establishment – La Taza de Oro, the venerable Puerto Rican diner at 8th Avenue and 15th Street, and a bar, the Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge, at 37th street and 8th Avenue.

Who are your favorite writers? What kinds of things do you like to read?

Well, the ones that led me in the direction of non-fiction writing, writers I read in college, were Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion. I’ve gone through phases: the existentialists like Camus and Genet. Dostoyevsky probably shaped my consciousness more than any other single writer, particularly Crime and Punishment, but also Notes from Underground. I went through the classic American hardboiled phase – Hammett, Chandler, James M. Cain, and, most notably, Jim Thompson. I read fiction and nonfiction equally. Right now I’m reading an incredible novel, 2666, by the late-Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. It is an absolute masterpiece.

Overall, much of my reading is dominated by whatever subject I am researching at any given moment. If you look at the last three books I’ve published – Paddy Whacked, Havana Nocturne and The Savage City – go to the bibliography section and you will see dozens and dozens of books I’ve had to read as research for those books. I hardly have time for anything else.

Besides your new book The Savage City coming out next month, what is next for you?

I hope to do a second article on the narco war in Mexico for Playboy. What’s happening in Mexico right now is the organized crime story of our time. And the United States is directly effected in ways that most people don’t think about or realize. I’m also getting together a collection of my crime journalism over the past twenty-plus years that I hope to publish in one volume, under the title, Season of El Diablo: And Other True Tales from the American Underworld. I’m also working on a movie project and have an idea for my next non-fiction book, but I have a policy of not talking about major works in progress until they are a definite thing. Nothing worse than talking up a project, or making a public proclamation, and then, months later, having people ask you, “Hey, what happened with that such-and-such project you were working on…” Then you have to go into a long explanation of why it didn’t come to fruition, how it didn’t pan out for one reason or another. Makes you look like – and feel like – a douche bag.

(The Savage City: Race, Murder and a Generation on the Edge by T.J. English will be published by HarperCollins in March 2011)

No comments: