Mick Rose & Chris Rhatigan Take Their Smokin' Swings at Author Matt Phillips

Welcome to California, USA—San Diego to be exact. Where smokin’ and buyin’ weed is legal: with certain caveats of course.

While possession and use of marijuana still carries penalties in most regional jurisdictions throughout the United States, California approved a plan allowing state-licensed retailers to sell recreational-use weed obtained by state-licensed growers in May 2016. And pot enthusiasts launched a “countdown”—with the clock hitting zero on January 1, 2018—when retail stores opened their doors for the first time in state history.

Long before California opened its retail doors however, weed aficionados grumbled in the whisper-stream that pot products sold by the state would prove so weak in quality they wouldn’t be worth smoking—never mind buying. Meanwhile, anyone with an ounce of sense (let alone an ounce of weed) suspected that individuals and cartels alike, who make a sweet living off little ol’ Mary Jane, would not meekly slink from the marijuana scene.

So … has the illegal manufacture and sales of cannabis-containing products magically ceased in California during the past 20 months?

“Hell no!” indicates former journalist Matt Phillips—an accomplished crime fiction noir writer, who’s called San Diego home on-and-off for the past ten years.

Inspired by events past and present involving marijuana: including the narco squad raid of an illegal dispensary in his neighborhood, Phillips has penned the fiction noir COUNTDOWN, published by All Due Respect (ADR), and recently released this spring.

“To me, life is a countdown,” Phillips says. “Each of us is marching toward death—there’s no stopping that march. A great noir novel always—one way or another—looks at how the march toward death drives us to make curious decisions, whether good or bad.”

In this noir universe we meet ex-Marines Abbicus Glanson and Donnie Echo, no strangers themselves to violence, since they did duty in Iraq. As civilians in San Diego they drift without purpose—till Glanson gets the brilliant notion of pulling off a heist.

The target? Illegal primo pot dealer LaDon Charles.

Street-wise LaDon ain’t got the luxury of puttin’ his profits in a bank … he’s gotta stash his cash. An unfortunate business weakness—that Glanson and Echo plan to exploit.

“But Glanson and Echo aren’t what I’d call natural born leaders,” Phillips told FFO by means of carrier pigeons. “U.S. Marines are taught to kill. And sure they learned some other skills. But even when they get decent ideas, these two miss key points. More than anything else, Glanson and Echo know how to screw good things to hell—that’s their specialty.

“There’s also a Wild Wild West mentality to selling weed in California. At the Federal government level, marijuana is still considered an illegal drug. Just as a criminal like LaDon Charles can’t bank his cash-sales profits, most of California’s licensed dispensaries can’t either. Banks have to avoid dispensary cash—or they risk becoming entangled in Federal money laundering laws—and California dispensaries could have their bank assets seized. Interesting times for sure!”

I eagerly asked Matt if he’d swing by Flash Fiction Offensive’s Los Angeles office for a chat. Matt claimed he was in Mexico—lookin’ for Arizona crime writer Bill Baber’s missing muse. But I suspect he didn’t feel like dealin’ with FFO publisher Jesse Rawlins, and her manically-maniacally-growing knife collection ... which she’s fond of using.

By means of an especially fat carrier pigeon, Mr. Phillips did kindly send us a transcript of the chat he had with ADR publisher Chris Rhatigan, when COUNTDOWN first released. We hope you enjoy their talk as much as we did.

Cheers, folks!

(Bourbon’s his drug of choice)

All Due Respect: Several of the characters in Countdown have a military background and have served overseas. Why did you choose to focus on these characters?

Matt Phillips: I started with an Iraq war vet and loved the character. One of his important character traits is that he’s an outcast (like any good noir character) and a little bit screwy. It just seemed to me that he would only closely associate with someone who he had a previous connection to—that meant it’d probably be a buddy from the service. I think it’s really important for writers to explore the ideas behind societal violence … how violence and aggression are instigated, perpetuated, approved, encouraged. All great noir stories—in some way—look deeply at these ideas.

I’ve worked as a reporter and I always think about an old guy I met while covering an activist march. He was a Vietnam veteran and he was explaining to me why he was there. He pointed at a few large bank buildings in the cityscape and said, “I’m against war because it hurts young people and it makes bankers rich. That’s the simple fact.” Whatever you believe or think, how can you not explore that as a writer of noir? Countdown is a continued exploration of violence and how it intersects with economic concerns.

ADR: Your experience as a reporter is part of Bad Luck City and seems to pop up often in your work. Tell me about your journalism experience and how it’s influenced your fiction writing.

MP: Working as a reporter has certainly influenced me. I was the editor of my university newspaper as an undergraduate. That led me to a feature writing internship at The Denver Post. Working in that newsroom really taught me what it was to be a professional writer. There’s no ‘writer’s block’ or excuses in a great newsroom. You get it done and you get it done by deadline. It was crazy to work with so many talented people…As a feature writer, I had a lot more leeway on my reporting and deadlines… But you still have to deliver. Since then I’ve done a fair amount of freelancing, but the state of journalism means it’s tough to make a living at it. You can make some scratch, sure, but it’s not a career (unless you get hired on full time salary).

Now, I work at a nonprofit and a lot of what I do (in addition to email marketing) is brand storytelling. That’s basically how my journalism training has shaken out—nonprofits and companies are more willing to pay me for those skills than are any news orgs. It’s a bummer because I love reporting, but I need to eat. And so does my family.

The biggest thing I learned as a reporter was how to listen for dialog. You get a rhythm and feel for how people speak when you’re trying to record exactly what they say. I try to listen to cadences and melodies in speech. Even the way a quote looks on the page can tell you something about how people speak, where they’re from, what they do for a living. I try to mimic those rhythms, patterns, melodies in my own dialog. One goal of mine is to latch onto a really great true crime story, report the hell out of it… I’m sure the right story will come along, but for now I’m focused on fiction.

 ADR: California voters approved Proposition 64 in 2016. How do you think the legalization of marijuana has changed things? Or has it had little effect?

MP: Great question—as far as people buying and smoking weed, I think very little has changed. I live in San Diego and pretty much everybody smokes weed (at least socially). I think it’s less secretive, in some ways. Now, when I play poker with buddies or go to somebody’s house for a party, there’s always a couple people with vape pens or an edible. They had this stuff before, but now they’re not even testing the waters with a large social group—they just whip it out. The business aspect is interesting. Seems to me like there’s still a lot of black market weed sales. Maybe worse, big corporations are in the weed business. This puts the industry square in the hands of powerful people. My guess? A lot of small growers will be (or have been) swallowed up by Big Money. But then again, I’m no economist.

The biggest cost to marijuana being illegal (and still illegal on the federal level) is/was the human cost. Even as some states and cities have started to vacate low-level marijuana sentences and expunge marijuana-related ‘crimes’ from peoples’ records, there is no getting back one’s time spent in prison. There is no substitute for time—and when time is taken from you? That hurts. And it’ll hurt forever.

ADR: Countdown starts with this wonderful dialogue you overheard at a bar. How did this come about? Did you know right away that this would this basis of a novel?

MP: Countdown is very much a street level novel. Like any good writer, I’m always listening, eavesdropping, filing snippets away for my creative process and output. I bet the greatest writers are all world class listeners and observers. I happen to spend time in bars (what can I say?) and one particular place I frequent is really hyper-local. Recently I was there and the entire bar (customers and bartenders) made some kind of de facto agreement to only speak like a ’90s wrestler…For the entire day. I get a kick out of what passersby must have thought as they heard, “Give me another Helldiver IPA, brother! Ooh, yeah!” And of course the bartender’s response: “I’ll give it to you, brother—yeah! But you better take it down, brother! Ooh, yeah—or I’m gonna get you, brother!”

Anyhow, you hear a lot of interesting shit if you just shut your mouth, turn off your smartphone, and listen to the people around you. Do I know that anything I file away is going to become a novel? Nope. I just work with what I have…

ADR: There’s always a sense of place in your fiction, as you explored in an essay about the genre’s approach to setting. How are the stories you tell about San Diego different than those of the rural Southwest? How does setting shape your work?

MP: Thanks, man! Countdown is definitely a San Diego novel. It explores the mid city area of San Diego, where I live and have lived for around ten years. For me, setting informs the conflict and the mentality of the characters. We can’t separate ourselves from where we are…Not for very long at least. Most of my characters are both enthralled with their settings and—paradoxically—hungering to somehow escape. Like most of us regular people, I imagine. Like we’re seeing in politics, these two kinds of ‘places,’ simply evoke different concerns for those who live there.

I guess the difference between these settings then—aside from the obvious—comes down to character traits. We are who we are, but we are often also where we are. Weird, but true. I haven’t talked about this much, but one of my favorite books is Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane. It’s set in Key West and, despite being labeled as literature, it’s a really fantastic noir novel. I think—subconsciouslyI’m trying to create a similar feel for readers as I had reading Ninety-Two in the Shade, Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89, Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, and Newton Thornburg’s books like The Lion at the Door, To Die in California and some others. If readers like to go where I’m taking them, I think they’ll enjoy my stories so much more.