Paul John Adams Interview – Know More Than Your Own Life
Author Paul John Adams sat down with me for an interview after I read and reviewed his book.
Paul isn’t your typical urban fiction author. Check him out below catching a bad beat at the poker table wearing what he describes as his “crazy Korean silk outfit”. His book wasn’t typical either. As I said in my review, he draws on his interest in gambling – that’s for sure – but he also gives the story the vibe of a genuine autobiography. It has an aged quality to it that almost makes it timeless. The book gives me the feeling Paul is well read in the classics of urban fiction.
Sam Hunter: How would you sum yourself up?
Paul John Adams: I’m a father of two who aims to steer his children on the right path. I’ve lived well enough, but I’m neither blind nor forgetful. I believe in the universality of human struggle and the occasional necessity of gallows humor. While I’m alive, I knows it’s the strength of family that sustains me. But if, through my words, I can help another soul to shrug off a bit of life’s misery—and even have a laugh at it!—that too will be a treat.
Sam: What drew you to writing Metarules of the S.M.F.? Are you a gangster? Do you have connections with gangsters?
Paul: It’s not like that, no. I’ve never participated in a homicide, I’ve never been part of a gang or any criminal enterprise. I’m pretty straightlace, a peace-loving intellectual type. Some people are likely to ask me about my race someday. I’m dodging that question until someone presses the point because I don’t want to make this about who I am beyond the scope of my writing. I do have a fair amount of experience with gambling, and its not like I haven’t seen some crazy stuff in terms of crime or violence from time to time. If you’ve got your eyes open you can see a lot in this life. But I’ve never subscribed to “Write what you know,” if that’s supposed to mean “Be limited by what you know.” You can put what you know in your writing, for sure, but that’s not the end of it, or shouldn’t be. We’re fictionists; we make stuff up. Writers also research and we learn. A good writer is, of course, also a reader, and just like all the readers out there, we have the power to live many lives through books and other fiction. We also have discriminating minds that let us decide what works for us, what doesn’t, what to reject, and what to embrace. That can shape us and our writing and take us to places we never thought we would go. So, if you really want to write what you know, the first rule has to be know more than your own life. From that comes empathy, and also a richer vision of what life is and can be.
Sam: Still, in writing S.M.F., what made you go in this direction? How’d you pick this project to develop into a novel?
Paul: That’s hard to say. I mean, to make it simple, when I’m writing something, I often have ideas that don’t relate to the book I have in hand. So I jot them down. I keep lots of notes on possible ideas to work with later in other works. So, somehow one day I wrote a note to “Lionize a hero of a legendary golden age of gangs,” or something to that effect. Then I took it up as a project because I liked it and thought it would be a challenge. Then I almost abandoned it when I thought, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” But then I really got deep into my own book and loved it and the characters moved me, so I wouldn’t give it up. It didn’t matter what would happen next, I had to write it. I never entirely stopped doubting either, but that doubt is a nag that challenges you to find solutions and overcome it, and for me, writing is largely about problem solving. You make problems. Then you try to fix them. You get in another mess. Then you bust your brain trying to find what’s right and where to go from there.
Sam: What’s special about this book?
Paul: Well, maybe different readers will see it differently, I don’t know, but I don’t worry about that. What’s special to me is that the book doesn’t conform to any central-conflict theory. It’s not really the kind of book where you say, “What does this character want, how can he get it, what are the obstacles, etcetera.”–That’s too conventional for me. What I like is the fun stuff in between, the tangents, the daily life stuff, and the confusing stuff that doesn’t necessarily take the plot anywhere. I mean, this is a book with a lot of plot for a short book, and there’s a lot of conflict, and it moves, but without the picnic scenes, the horse-track, the Chinese restaurants, and nights at the movies, I don’t think this would be such a good book. I want something immersive, sometimes playful, and also my vision of life is pretty anarchic, so a straight plot-oriented book without digressions wouldn’t do it for me. And there are surprises… just when you think maybe Mala’s not such a deep thinker after all, he comes out with some raving, despairing, semi-psychotic rants that give vent to all he usually suppresses… and then he’s back to cold and inexpressive and you think “What!? I’ve been in this guy’s head through the years, but I still don’t know him?” That’s interesting to me. How are they going to deal with the Walden Street Boys, that’s another issue. And I know this approach can sometimes frustrate a reader, and to a degree that’s intentional. I mean, at one point you expect Mala to tell a story about an exciting burglary, but instead he goes on about the esoterica of his gambling enterprise… that’s where his head is at, and he doesn’t care where your heads are at… and then there’s suspense too, because eventually you are going to get all the exciting robbery stories you want, you’re just going to have wait to get there and slog along through whatever’s interesting to Mala first.
Sam: What’s up with the language in this book and are are you worried people will think it’s offensive and stereotypes black people?
Paul: I don’t expect many people to understand what I’m up to here because sometimes the language seems very natural and other times it seems very artificial. I think what I’ve written here really is half-natural, and half innovation. It’s not strictly an attempt to render the sounds of spoken language, nor does it conform to the editorial standards of “Standard American” English. It’s a kind of language experiment to find a new written editorial standard, as though editors for decades or centuries had accepted some form of African-American Vernacular English as a standard, and then got super-rigid in applying their standards, and meanwhile the lexicon includes language from a micro-culture: one specific gang and their idiosyncratic slang that has never gone far beyond their neighborhood. In other words, it’s an excuse for me to make shit up and justify it. Even spelling, such as See-Low vs. Cee-Lo, etc. Because… well, another big aspect of this book for me is exploring how cultures are formed. Gangs are in an almost unique situation where they can invent a society from the street level up. I’m not talking about franchise gangs like GD or the Crips, which inherit their lit and their signs from a larger preexisting culture, but more like the small nascent community gang that the S.M.F. represents, or maybe the Crips as they were when Raymond Washington ran the show, back when they were rising out of the Baby Avenues.
Sam: When I read it, there were times when I could have thought the speech was slightly at odds with Mala’s narration, but I took that to be because he was writing this memoir when he was older and wiser – and his written expression was therefore quite different to his spoken expression. However, one thing did kinda jar with me and that was the user of “nigger” by black characters when talking about each other. I’d kind of thought they’d have used “nigga” because it’s largely become a default way for many black people to ‘own’ that word and disarm its offensiveness. And at other times the characters used “Afro”, which felt like they were specifically rejecting the n-word as part of their moral code. When the Walden Street Boys used “nigger” that didn’t feel so out of place, because they did mean it in the offensive and racist way. Can you give any insight into why you chose, at times, to use the -er form of the n-word, and at other times why you used ‘Afro’?
Paul: Deciding how to handle the n-word was a dilemma of sorts, but I think I went the right way with it. I started with the premise that it would be taboo language within the S.M.F., but this taboo could potentially be violated. (There are other taboos unique to the gang which go uncommented but result in some of the language peculiarities). Then I had to wonder how or whether Mala would report others’ speech. I considered dodging it altogether, but when I finally got down to writing about the Serrant and Woods lynchings, I realized that I couldn’t get too scrupulous about language when confronting that kind of extreme racist violence. So then I’ve got the word “nigger” used when reporting what racist whites have said, and that makes sense. But there are two instances when S.M.F. brothers violate the taboo directly… one when Horseback just mouths off recklessly (and is immediately chastised for it), and one when Ivan has obviously undergone some changes in acclimating to his new prison culture. At those times, I could have moderated the offensiveness by adopting the spelling “nigga,” but then, there are two counter-arguments: 1) It’s more of a taboo among the S.M.F. than it is among other gangsters, so something’s got to convey the full impact of language taboo being broken; 2) I’ve generally tried to avoid other spelling inconsistencies based on phonetics or who the speaker is, so maybe I shouldn’t break the rule here. Add to those arguments that some earlier writers like Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, William Melvin Kelley, and Ishmael Reed all spelled it out with the final-r despite using alternative phonetic spellings of other words in dialog, and I thought, well, granted those guys are all old, but I’ll follow the old model even if it’s out of sync with the usage of the last 20 to 30 years.
Sam: What do you read, and how much does it relate to what you’re doing here in Metarules of the S.M.F.?
Paul: I read a lot of stuff. I read slowly, so not necessarily much volume, but I read a diversity of works, and… not much of it interesects with what I’m writing in an obvious way. But you can draw inspiration almost anywhere. Like, I don’t think it would occur to anyone to think maybe S.M.F. is related to 14th-Century Chinese literature like Water Margin, or that 20th-Century black criminal gangs would have anything in common with 12th-Century Chinese bandits. But when you read that kind of thing, you find some common ground. Common ground isn’t necessarily interesting, you’ve got to make it specific and personal when you apply it, and then the influences become less obvious. But, seriously, it won’t be apparent to anyone but me, but this book has as much in common with the writings of Shi Nai’an, Seneca, and the anonymous author of Njal’s Saga as it does with Urban lit like Iceberg Slim, or some other innovative black American authors like Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, and Ishmael Reed. But speaking of Reed, he had something important to say, and I often come back to it, “No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.”
Sam: For readers who enjoyed your book, which other books or writers in the urban fiction genre would you recommend?
Sam: So, what’s next for you? I’m not sure I get the vibe from you that you are sat firmly or permanently in this genre. I half expect you to write a Samurai or Shogun novel next.
Paul: As it is, I’m actually releasing my next book right about now, To Fail with Flying Colors, and you were right to guess that it doesn’t fit the urban fiction genre. Although it has no samurai, it does have several dramatic battle scenes in it, narrated by a psychotic who who believes himself to be an exiled king. I’ve got a trailer video to promote it now on YouTube.
Sam: Do you know any other quotes that might be inspiring for writers?
Paul: Yeah. One common question is, “How would you advise other aspiring writers,” or other questions like that. In fact, I’m never going to be beyond the point where I need good advice myself, so my advice is just as much directed to me as it is to anyone else. But because I think writing must always be a challenge of sorts, I think the Samurai writer Tsunetomo–You know, Ghost Dog was largely inspired by his Hagakure: Book of the Samurai–well his quote means something to me; whether it’s good or bad advice, I’ll let you decide: “Common sense will not accomplish great things. Simply become insane and desperate.” That’s the direction I’ve gone as a writer. Whether you want to go that way is up to you.