Interview with Jason Starr by Daniele Cutali
Good day Jason, and welcome to Sugarpulp Magazine. It’s an immense pleasure to know we’ll soon meet you in person in Padova, at the 2015 SugarCon, where we’ll have a chance to discuss personally your huge contribution to everyone’s imagination through your work in books and comics.
I read that when you were younger you weren’t much interested in literature, but only cared about sports, in particular athletics.
How much truth is there in this? When and how did you start getting more involved in literature, as a reader and then as a writer?
Thanks, man! Psyched to attend SugarCon! Yes, it’s very true! I wanted to be a baseball player—still do! I did enjoy to read, through—just not books that were assigned to me in school.
I think schools are better now at letting kids have a choice about reading material, but back then I felt it was forced on me—so reading felt like work, not pleasure. I did read a lot of sports biographies, and magazines, though, so I was reading all the time.
Some novels definitely made an impression on me—particularly sci-fi and fantasy. The first book I truly loved was THIS PERFECT DAY by Ira Levin.
I also loved comic books, and wrote my own comic book when I was eleven years old. It was called MUGGER MAN—I guess my first ant-hero character, a criminal who was also the hero. I imagined my comic going on sale at newsstands—where comic books were sold back then, and where I bought my AMAZING SPIDER MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA comics. It was a great fantasy.
The characters in your novels (take for instance COLD CALLER or FAKE ID) are very often regular people who get overwhelmed by the American Way of Life.
The wish to emerge, to be known, to make money brings them into a spiral of despair and violence they end up stuck into with no way out; through them, you seem to be accusing the over-the-top aspects of the “American Way of Life”: have you always thought that the “American Way of Life” isn’t all fun and games?
I think I’m a natural observer—I write about what I see around me. My subject matter is usually “normal” every day people. I’m not thinking about writing about the American Way of Life, it just happens because some of my characters have goals and ambitions that are common in America—getting the perfect job, buying a big house, getting rich, making the big score, etc.
But, yes, the American Way of Life definitely has a dark side—just look at Donald Trump! It’s becoming more and more clear that Bret Easton Ellis was onto something with American Psycho—it was a visionary novel. I think crime fiction in America (James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith etc) has been obsessed with issues related to the psycho American Dream since the 1940’s and 1950’s; I just try to put a different spin on it.
In other novels, such as HARD FEELINGS, your characters are successful people whose life is dramatically changed by something they can’t control – or a recurring nightmare. Why do you feel the need (or the desire) to talk about the American Dream counterbalanced by the nightmares it can cause?
I think the two can become intertwined, yes. I mean, look, it’s fiction—so it would be boring if I wrote about normal, well-adjusted people all the time. So I’m usually writing about extreme situations, and I don’t think every person behaves like the characters in my novels. But I do think, in general, America is an ego-driven “selfie society” right now.
We’re obsessed with our images—putting out the wildly distorted Facebook fantasy versions of our lives—and I think there are potential consequences. People can easily feel alienated, detached, bullied, and obsessed. If you have an inflated image of yourself, and an idea of where you want to go, and you end up disappointed—the result, for some people, can be explosive. Mass shootings are becoming commonplace in America; there are too many guns, but it’s also related to something that has shifted in our society.
How personal are such experiences, that you decided to highlight in your work?
I think the general themes have some similarities to my life. For example I worked as a telemarketer for years (COLD CALLER), and was a business reporter (TWISTED CITY), and worked in computer networking sales (HARD FEELINGS) and I love horse racing (FAKE ID). It’s important for me to write about what I know—hopefully it makes my work unique and personal.
But I never write about actual people in my life, and I don’t think I’m like my characters at all. It’s actually the opposite—I write about what I fear. My characters are often the worst case scenario version of myself, my personal nightmare.
Some time ago you said that New York City is your “serial character”. Do you feel that it is still the case? How central is New York City, the city that embodies the American Dream but can also create the worst nightmares, in your body of work?
I like to write about what I know, so New York has been the “go to” setting for most of my novels. There is so much diversity in this city; there is no shortage of subject matter. If it bored me I’d stop writing about it, but it hasn’t so far.
My new book SAVAGE LANE, takes place in an affluent suburb of New York, in an area I know every well. It’s sort of a departure for me, but it’s still New York. In my novels with Ken Bruen, and my comic books I’ve set stories all over the world, so when I set my own novels in New York, it’s by choice. Maybe I’m obsessed with New York and writing about it—that’s very possible. This is why I described the city as my “series character.”
In comics you also brought your characters to the extreme – the best example of this is Wolverine in Wolverine MAX.
We can consider this your trademark as a writer. How do you feel when you need to work on a serial instead? How were your runs with Marvel and DC Comics born?
Yes, I’m writing for the MAX imprint (The Punisher/Wolverine), it’s great to be able to push the limits—I really do love “the edge.” I like the challenge of writing iconic characters, that readers know so well, and trying come up with a fresh spin on them.
My first work in comics was the graphic novel, THE CHILL, and since then I’ve done a combination of creator-owned comics, and licensed material. I like writing original material, but it’s a blast to work with the Marvel characters especially and—as an editor at Marvel said to me—“play with the toys.”
You are mainly a crime/pulp/noir novelist; how did you go from there to comics?
An editor at DC/Vertigo liked my books and asked me to write introductions to volumes of 100 BULLETS by Brian Azzarello and later SCALPED by Jason Aaron. Then I had the opportunity to pitch my own graphic novel, which became THE CHILL.
From there I moved on to do some licensed work. There isn’t one set path to becoming a novelist or comic book writer. I haven’t met two people who have had the same experience. If you want to be a writer, you have to understand that it’s a long, windy road to—hopefully—success, but you need a lot of luck as well. There are certainly no guarantees in this business.
As we mentioned, you’ll be at the 2015 SugarCon in Padova. Have you ever been to Italy before? Anything you want to tell your Italian readers?
Yes, I’ve been to Italy several times; it’s one of my favourite countries in the world! Looking forward to hanging with readers, writers, and fans in Padova!
And I hope everyone will look for my new novel, SAVAGE LANE, which will be published in Italy in October.