Tom Pitts: Trainspotting and Titanic All Rolled Up into One

HOW MANY ARE we up to now?” Tom asks, piloting the taxi through the throngs of downtown San Francisco traffic.

 I count on my fingers. Take a shoe off. “Fourteen.”

“Are you sure? That’s a lot of dead hookers.”

“It’s your trunk.”

“Fine, fine.”

I light a smoke, pass it up through the partition to him. He drags on it. Hard. I light another one, pull out my cellphone.

“Joe hasn’t texted back yet? You sure about him?”

Tom doesn’t hesitate. “Joe’ll come through. Whenever I need to chop up a body he’s got the goods.”

“Ever chop up fourteen?”

“Naw. But, Joe’s always up for a challenge.”

“I sure hope so. Has he texted you back yet?”

Tom glances at his cellphone, tosses it to me. “He did. I can’t read it right now. I’ll get a ticket or something, I know it. Hands free devices here in California. It's safer, you know.”

"Yeah. Safer." I check the phone. Not good. “Joe says he’s too busy at some kindergarten function. Are you fucking serious?”

Tom looks like he poops his pants. Turns whiter than what Canadians are known for being. Cold sweat. “Dude, stop playing around.”

“I’m not.”

“Dude, we have fourteen dead hookers stuffed in there. Fourteen!”

“I know that. Don’t you think I know that?”

“What in God’s name are we going to do with that many bodies?”

“You said Joe would take care of it!”

“He always does!”

“Well, whatever Plan B is, get to it!” I pound on the partition and drop my smoke. I bend over to pick it up before I hear Tom shout, “FINE! BONZAI!”

I look up and he’s going damn near eighty miles an hour, right off the bridge.

Now I’m pooping my pants and I swear I hear Tom sing “And my heart will go on and on!” as the bay reaches up to claim us. Talk about a drama queen.

Dead hookers. Even after you strangle them to death, they fuck you.


Define noir for the masses, please.

The Masses? Fuck the masses. They hate the real stuff anyway. They all think that noir is the scotch-sipping private dick with his wingtips up on his desk waiting on Jessica Rabbit to walk into his office. Me? I can barely define it for myself. I went to see James Ellroy give a speech on this very subject a few years ago. He had an interesting take on it that I won't do the injustice of trying to quote; I just remember the theme of there being no winners, no heroes. The guy never got the girl. What started as bad luck only got worse. I liked that. His idea was more akin to Bukowski than Chandler. 

Who is James Ellroy? Just kidding.

Yeah, you’re teasin’, but let me pontificate anyway. Ellroy is one of those guys that I like the idea of better than the work they produce. I love his insanity, his approach to writing, his irrepressible character, his whole demon dog shtick, but I don’t think his work always measures up. Burroughs is like that, but more so. Cool cat, but have you ever slogged though Naked Lunch? As far as Ellroy is concerned, I’m more of an Elmore Leonard kind of guy.

Never tried my hand at Naked Lunch. Just doesn’t sound sexy enough to carve out time for it. Ellroy has the slang, the offensive nature, the slick lingo. Leonard has the dialogue that makes me drool and wish I had written it.

Do you try to follow the "no winners, no heroes. The guy never got the girl. What started as bad luck only got worse" theme in your writing? Or do you just freeball it, see where it takes you?

Freeball, baby. I never know where a story is going to take me. That’s part of the magic for me. It just keeps evolving. Plotting is for suckers. I think Stephen King said that.

In his old age, King has become clueless. If he gets hit by a bus again I can only hope that undoes the suck it put on his work the first go round. Oh, that’s terrible. But, I plot like a mother fucker. Kind of. Where does your grit come from?

I eat plenty of probiotics. I'm on the Jamie Lee Curtis diet plan.

Seriously, my grit comes from the street. Didn't you read my bio?!

I did read your bio. It's crazy that you took the knocks and rolls that you did and now you're a family man, right? Where was the transition? Hit bottom, clean up, fall in love?

Turn the lights down, Ryan. This is going to get emotional and I don’t want to see you cry. Yes, it has to be in order. If you switch up Hit Bottom, Clean Up, and Fall in Love, you end up with some serious problems. I know, I’ve tried. It took many, many years to get those three things in the right sequence. 

If you don’t mind I’m going to leave the lights down. Maybe same-seat with you. Just ignore my hand. What parts of Tom wind up in your stuff?

The more frightening question is what parts of the characters end up in Tom? There are always bits of me in every character. The assholes, the heroes that say and do everything perfect, the guys that do despicable stuff, the annoying losers that you don't want around. They're all me. I think that's true of every writer. I try to keep in check how much their character defects enter my everyday life.

What made you want to write?

I hate this question. How do you answer it without sounding like an idiot? Driven to it? No, that's definitely too pretentious. I mean, reading, I guess. It sure as hell wasn't to get rich. That would be delusional as well as pretentious.

Sorry. Didn’t mean to interview you for the most premiere author column the world has ever seen. I’d hate to ask one question about writing. Please, tell us about your Great American Novel.

In the 1990's I needed to learn how to type for my job. I had no patience for the computerized typing lessons. My drug-addled brain decided it would be a great idea to learn to type by writing a novel. Trial by fire, as it were. I still have that fragmented gem that I thought was going to be the next "great American novel." It very well may be.

Best piece of advice you've received about writing?

Forget plots, just take a few good characters, stick 'em in a situation and turn 'em loose. The story will tell itself. Sounds simple, huh? That's 'cause it is.

You were born Canadian and moved to the USA for punk music, correct? Will you elaborate please?

Well, Ryan, this was probably before your day, but in the early '80's there was a huge migration of youngsters to San Francisco, then known as Punk Rock Mecca. It was a golden age. Wanton drug use, nihilistic narcissism (or was it narcissistic nihilism?), and cigarettes were only a dollar a pack. I formed a band called Short Dogs Grow, made some records, toured the country, and drank a lot of beer. Yes, we did play Kansas City, thanks for asking. 

Being Canadian, do you feel a special kinship with Celine Dion or Bryan Adams? What about Ryan Reynolds. He gets all the hot tail.

The Canadian version of the Secret Service, the 4-H club, is still trying to ascertain proof that Ryan Reynolds is actually Canadian. It’s a better kept secret than Obama’s Kenyan birth certificate.

Celine Dion? She’s from Quebec. C’mon, Ryan, don’t you know there’s a civil war going on up there? Besides, if I wanted a French speaking Celine, give me Louis Ferdinand Celine any day.

How was playing Kansas City? I imagine it was the highlight of your life.

Such a highlight I may only be able to look back on it right before death when my life flashes before my eyes.

I don’t actually have much recollection. I do remember a lot of large, black-and-white photos on the wall of old blues cats.

If I was the cover of a romance novel, how would it look?

I envision the publisher throwing a fit, shouting, "Who let Sayles cut off those golden locks?! This thing isn't gonna sell for shit! Give him some fangs or something!

If a theme song played every time you entered a room, what would it be?

I think the sound that the needle makes when it is yanked across the vinyl would be nice. Maybe followed up with some plates crashing to the floor. 

That’s not a song, but I understand. Punk rock isn’t music so I can see where you get confused. What kind of catharsis comes from Lip Service West? Is the act of reading before an audience a new kind of release? A confession? When you've finished, have people come up to you and told you about how they can relate to your stuff?

Relate? No. Most of the stories I've read at Lip Service West (Joe Clifford’s Bay Area reading series) have been true-life tales from my days as a junkie. One piece entailed accidentally shooting up mouse feces; another involved being accosted by a midget while I shot dope in one of those pay-by-the-minute video porn booths. Most of the time the reaction is, "That was disgusting. How is it you're still alive?" And there is no catharsis. Your idea of us sitting over here in San Francisco or Berkeley holding hands and getting in touch with our feelings is based on those old newsreels of the love-ins. Get with it, Sayles.  

You know, I was stationed in the East Bay Area for three years. Lived in Oakland and Alameda. Went all over the bay—even the two foot deep parts—and I formed a decent idea about what you San Francisco folks do for catharsis. We existed in the same place that whole time. It was probably the most influential years of your life.

But seriously, I am enamored with guys like you and Joe who go from where you were to where you are. What was that process? What does it feel like now? I know you wrote a novel while still on drugs, has your writing changed being off of them?

No, I did not know that. When you say stationed, for some reason the image comes to mind of you as a young Dr. Johnny Fever exiled at WKRP.

Military, but that’s like radio in the sense that I used one all the time.

I don’t know when you were last there, but what passes for catharsis nowadays in San Francisco is spending $300 on a dinner for two or paying a mortgage that is comparable to the national deficit. The city is so overpriced and unobtainable; I often wonder how I still live there.

My longshoreman friend, Mark, is always reminding me that San Francisco has always been a city full of millionaires, from the Gold Rush, through the Twenties, and on through today, but I doubt it’s ever been so chocked full of pretentious young people burning their disposable income while the middle and poorer classes are squeezed right out. You gotta make $60 grand a year in that town to live like a bum. Sensitive spot? Fuck, yeah.  Could I get a drink of water or something?

Of course. Let me hold the glass for you while you just- oops. You dribbled. I’ll get that. There you go. Right down your chin, in your lap. There, there. Back rub? Sure. When you’re ready, just keep talking. I’m going to keep this up. It’s good for both of us.

As for those influential years? Yes, the time I spend at the bottom is still crisp and vivid in my mind. It shaped me more than anything else I’ve experienced. But I couldn’t have existed there any longer, not without dying. I think that’s the real secret to getting clean: Live long enough to grow out of it. Eventually everybody matures past that need to get high all the time, the trick with heroin is surviving long enough to get to that point.

Now I actually do write. Instead of living with a monkey on my back and having aspirations to write, I’m actually able to sit down and do it. I guess I’ve gone from hoser to poser to prose composer. You like that, Ryan? I just made it up.

Poetry, Tom. I have a tear running down my cheek. If there was one Tom Pitts story people could read, which one and why?

Shit, if I had to pick one, it’d be Turk and Taylor. It may not be my best, not by a long shot, but it’s the first one I had published. It’s a true story, both sad and hilarious. Better make that sick and hilarious. The magazine that published it, Junk, dug up a video of me reading it and tacked it onto the page—my first ever reading of a story I hadn’t even sent out (thanks, Joe Clifford for convincing me to get up at Lip Service West and read it).

For the fictional stuff, I don’t know. I keep trying to get better. I just finished writing a novel called Hustle. It’s the sleaziest crime tale I’ve written. It’s good and it’ll be my favorite ‘til I write something better.

Now go read Piggyback and let Amazon know what you think. Use a different name, though, I don’t want ‘em to think we got an ol’ boys network brewing.  

Next week--Eric Beetner. The mastermind behind the hits such as Dig Two Graves, Bouquet of Bullets and the new The Devil Doesn't Want Me. Like the Fight Card book series? Beetner does 'em. Like the book covers for Snubnose Press? It's a damn good chance that Beetner made it. Like the Kennedy assassination? Beetner pulled the trigger. Wait. Did he?

Tom Pitts received his education on the street of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. His novella Piggyback is out now on Snubnose Press. He's an assistant editor at Out of the Gutter's Flash Fiction Offensive. More of his work can be seen at