California Literary Review

Timothy Watts Interview

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March 31st, 2007 at 8:46 pm

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Timothy Watts

Timothy Watts has been called “one of the most arresting voices in crime fiction.” His fourth novel Grand Theft has just been released. CLR recently caught up with him at his home in Pennsylvania.

Where did the idea for Grand Theft come from?
I always start out with one or two sentences. “What if a guy who’s kind of a crook, but respectable and kind of cool, finds the dead body of a mobster in the trunk of his car while on a date with an investigative reporter?” And that’s what I started with. And those are times when I should probably not be behind the wheel of a car. I should probably not even be alone. I stop at a green light and wonder what all the noise is and realize people are honking at me because I’m thinking, thinking, thinking. And I have a confession. I often think of my ideas in the shower. I don’t know why. I have on several occasions come out of the shower all excited, wet, saying “I’ve got it, I’ve got it.” And that was money lovers and that was steal away. What I started to do [with GRAND THEFT], which I always do, is outline and outline and outline. But it did not start as a book, I was thinking of it as a screenplay actually. I realized pretty early that it wasn’t going to work as a screenplay whatsoever, but all of a sudden I started to realize that this is starting to remind me of my books and it had been awhile since I had written a book and that was all I needed to know. I changed tactics and went at it specifically as my next book.
Now in terms of your characters, these semi-criminal lowlife types. How do you know these people and their dialogue?
Growing up I leaned toward crime fiction long before I started writing. I always consider Philadelphia as a location for a book. I am a Philadelphian born and raised. It’s where I grew up. I know it pretty well. It’s a fascinating place and I think a lot of people know about the Philly Mob and in recent years I mean with Scarfo and everything, they were crazed. To start working with things that might be on the fringe of the mob in Philadelphia really intrigued me – the idea that you can grab some characters from that and really work with it. It’s fun to go down there and just look around and say okay this is where this is going to happen. And it gives me a sense of “well hell” this could really happen. And also Philadelphia has a tremendously colorful, bloody history – the mob and everything. The incredible lengths they went to, to kill each other. The, quite frankly to my view, incredible ineptness sometimes they showed. But they were cold-blooded people. And I just became fascinated with it. And it’s going on in your backyard. You’re safe in your room or your bedroom but they were pulling bodies out of everywhere. Some of the people Teddy Clyde in Grand Theft dealt with, you know I must have pulled some of Nicky Scarfo and Nicky Scarfo was just a deadly man. I paid attention to it and it got almost surreal. I think if I had been involved with Nicky Scarfo I would have run like hell. I would have counted bodies and figured out I’m out of here.
Now in your previous life you were an auto mechanic. Is that correct?
Yeah I was.
Auto theft is a big part of Grand Theft. Is that from your background? Were you aware of these chop shops in Philadelphia?
Oh yeah, naming no names, I know of two people. It’s funny. One guy I’ve known for years and this guy will give you the shirt off his back. He is the nicest guy in the world but because he is my friend, I keep my distance and I would not want to be this guy’s non-friend. He’s actually a pretty good mechanic and somewhere in Philadelphia he’s running a pretty successful chop shop to this day. Whether it’s a compartmentalization or what, he fixes people’s cars during the day and chops stolen cars at night. It’s interesting. He’ll talk about it to me sometimes – not too much, no details or anything. He’ll talk about his view of it – fixing cars and chopping cars, it all makes perfect sense to him. So I have been able to at least bring in some knowledge of that and also I was an auto mechanic for 15 years and quite literally sometimes a car would be towed in and the ignition switch would be so trashed that you would in effect right then and there have to “steal the car” so you could get it running.
OK so you know how to do that.
Yeah. And some of the things I put in the book are true. You know if you think about it, they cannot have 40,000 keys for 40,000 cars. You get some master keys and I guess Teddy Clyde’s approach was certainly viable. One time as a mechanic I got called out. A woman locked her Subaru while it was running and her baby was inside. So in effect I broke into that car and I just kind of knew how, but not with anything like the sophistication a real car thief would have.
Were you a reader as a child? Were you a talented writer in high school? How did the writing skills come about?
I can only say I took no formal courses. I did enjoy about the year with a guy I admire a tremendous amount who was not a writer but he has a gift for concisely and appropriately critiquing other people’s [writing]. No injured sensibility, he just had a gift for saying hey maybe you should do this, do that, whatever. He was a guy, I’ll never forget, he said the most important thing that you need to have or be able to do as a fiction writer. You have to be a damn good liar. And I loved that from the minute he said it. It’s a license to lie. I met him at a writer workshop. I remember as a child I read everything I could get my hands on. One day I decided maybe I could try this. My first effort I actually still have. It’s at the bottom of some dusty shelf where it rightfully belongs. Longhand, number two pencil but I was hooked.
So what did your fellow mechanics think of your writing? Did they know you were doing this?
No not at first. What I did was a little bit calculated. I went after short stories, and I sold three or four. It’s arduous sending them out and you often don’t get them back for six or eight months. I have to tell you, one time I wrote a short story and got it back corrected grammatically and I never sent anything to that gentleman again. You know you meet all kinds of people but I did manage to sell I believe three short stories. It was fun. I wrote a lot of them and I also managed to not sell a lot of them. It’s a tough way to do it and you’re not doing it for the money for sure. But then I took these three short stories and I approached several agents hoping that this would show them that I had some ability. I sent CONS out to ten agents and the first one replied. He said “well it looks like you have some talent” and he sent it back to me and that was it. And I was completely new to the game and I thought about it for three days and I sent it back to him. He called and said “okay I agree to represent you.” I really don’t know why he did it but I’m so glad I decided to send it back to him.
Are you still with him?
Oh no he was a really, really nice guy and fairly well-known in New York side of the industry. Very nice but he was headed towards retirement, a little bit older. I had become acquainted with some people in the industry and as he moved towards retirement I asked around for some recommendations. I believe I’ve had four or five literary agents. I realized with one of them, that he was spending far too much time talking to me. At first it was comforting. I kind of felt important or whatever and then I realized “what was he talking to me for?” I realized it’s not a good sign so I moved on.
Now for a period of time you were writing scripts in Los Angeles and now you’ve moved back to Pennsylvania. How satisfying is scriptwriting compared to writing novels?
The movie world is very tough. You know the book world has more of a velvet glove on, although it’s a business and everyone accepts that. I really enjoyed writing screenplays. I didn’t have too much success at it but the one thing I loved is you can go off genre. You can write anything. It doesn’t mean it’s going to sell. You know there are things that I want to write. I can’t present a great romance to my editor and expect he’s going to be thrilled. But with screenplays I enjoyed just the idea that if I liked it I could write it. It was an absolute education. And I do think a lot of what I did with screenplays helped my book writing immeasurably. It helps with characterization and also helped with literally plotting 1-2-3 all the way through the outline. It has helped so much more for me to know every aspect of the story before I start writing. Which also means it can change as I go but that’s the way I do it.
From your earliest novels to the latest do you see a stylistic difference? Has your writing changed at all in that period?
Yes it has. I love cons which was my first. I more or less just plowed ahead and I like the story very much but I just plowed ahead to see what happened. I know since then that I do give more thought to how the characters actions, thoughts and philosophies actually mirror maybe my own or another person’s. People are many, many dimensional and it’s fun to get in there and see. And also I must say that in effect, sometimes my characters will stop and look at me and say you are completely wrong and we are going to do this. And that’s always fun too. Sometimes I realize halfway through the book that I am way off base with one of my characters and it becomes obvious. Stylistically I can’t tell. I don’t know, it just happens. My dialogue shifts. I’d have to make a real conscious effort to change things like that and I have a feeling it wouldn’t work at all. I think that say for instance CONS, you will see that it is a rough book. I mean rough in the sense that the characters can do some brutal things and the action can be quite raw. By steal away I am hoping I put a little more finesse in there and I do know that steal away seemed to be some kind of welcome change. It might not be my favorite book but I know it was the best to write and there was something in there that was a little bit of a change. I might be moving a little bit more, I don’t know, I hate mainstream, but you know Grand Theft is not a brutal book but there’s violence in it. In CONS for instance there were some really raw emotions that were just beneath the surface and I think that was just kind of my plunge into what they call the hard boiled crime end of it.
So it has nothing to do with your own personal mental state. It’s more your evolution as a writer.
Yes absolutely I think that say with CONS, I’ll give you a for instance. It was the first time I had written a sex scene which is always an adventure. You know that mommy’s going to read your sex scene. But it wasn’t just a sex scene because it was almost a sexual act of violence between this woman and man. I have them scratching and spitting at each other and it was a conscious decision. I went after it whole hog to portray it as that. They were having sex but they were definitely adversaries and when the book came out I heard comments and I’m hoping that people don’t assume that I do that. It’s always what your characters are going to do. I guess there’s a rule you don’t do it in the narrative portion but your characters can do anything. If it’s too much, then you’re going to lose readers. I’ll tell you one thing about a book that I am writing now that I’ve never done before. I have a guy who’s very, very prejudiced and it caused me a little discomfort. He is prejudiced and it’s important to the story that he is. At times it became difficult to write. Part of it was because I really didn’t want people to suppose that was me. It’s not. It’s the character and there’s a big difference. If I am the omniscient narrator and I say something really, really politically incorrect – I would never do that. But the character has absolute poetic license to do anything, say anything. But I had to come to terms with it. What I finally had to tell myself is that no, this guy is this way and I can’t back off from it. And I think any reasonable reader would realize there are people like that but it still made me nervous when I started. I had never done it quite to that extent before.
What do you read now? And also what television and movies do you watch?
Well I actually don’t watch a lot of TV although when I lived in Los Angeles I watched a lot of TV because I was under a mistaken impression that there was a law that you had to watch TV. I find unfortunately that – unless I am taking a long break between books which I don’t usually do – I can’t read fiction anymore. And I really regret it. I actually have some respect for some very good writers. I’ll start to read something and I go “oh boy I wish I was as good as him.” And whether I am or not is not the point. I can get a little bit intimidated. At one time I found that I could be reading a book and I would go “I can write something like that” and that’s a big mistake. So now I read history and biographies. The last book I read was God Has Ninety-Nine Names. It ties in with the Middle East situation. Judith Miller, she’s a writer for the New York Times. It’s a very well written book and it’s alarming because it really brings home the fundamental differences between the way, even countries in Middle East, people view things. It was a fascinating book. I usually read books over a course of several years three or four times.
Now in your novels, every character has either a deep level of cynicism or some level of cynicism. Do you have that in your own life? Do you have to fight that in your own life?
You know I think to a certain extent I do. It is true as far as I can tell, in significant ways, I think your book is at least partially autobiographical. It’s your writing and it’s coming out of your head. Whether you know it or not I’m sure a lot of your own views come out. I’m not thinking of things like political views, but how you view life or something like that. I did come to the conclusion that [writing] is kind of a catharsis for me. I can let go of some of my cynicism and it does come naturally to the characters. I think in a way it’s almost healthy for me. It’s now in the book and it takes it a little bit away from me. I guess I’m imparted into the pages of the book. I feel when I am doing that, right or wrong, I think “okay, I’m nailing this character and I might just be nailing a part of myself.” I also do know specific times when I’m being autobiographical and that is a conscious decision. It’s also sometimes nothing more than write what you know. If you have an anecdote or an event in your life – it doesn’t have to be exact because your job is to lie about it and change it – but if you can, get in there and add it and it makes you feel more real about the book. And I also like to play some small games where you try to mix reality into your book of fiction. In Grand Theft I am not going to say I stole, but I took the liberty of using an Elmore Leonard character, Chili Palmer from get Shorty. I put him in the book. And to me it was just, “my gosh is this real or is it Memorex.” It just felt good. It made the character feel like “oh my gosh I could just go and meet these people for lunch.” And for me it just helped me write more. I enjoyed that quite a bit.
  • steve brown

    good to see tim doing well, i went to valley forge junior high school with him and his little brother, and tim was a mean bully type who liked to scare the crap out of younger kids like myself, and terrorize us on the bus. he was a real piece of work, what an asshole!

  • Mallory watts

    Hes the best writer EVER!!!

  • Victoria Read

    My husband and I have been trying to find out how to contact Timothy Watts to let him know we think he’s a brilliant writer. Any idea how to contact him?

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