Johnny Temple’s Introduction to USA Noir
November is pub month for two additions to the ever-growing Noir Series: Dallas Noir and USA Noir. While Dallas Noir is a collection of all-new noir stories set in and around the Dallas area, USA Noir is the first of its kind for our Noir Series: an expansive “best of” volume, featuring thirty-seven stories in a single volume that spans more than 500 pages. (It’s a great gift for the noir lover in your life. . .) To celebrate the publication of these two noir installments, we’re pleased to reproduce Akashic publisher and USA Noir editor Johnny Temple’s introduction to the volume.
by Johnny Temple
In my early years as a book publisher, I got a call one Saturday from one of our authors asking me to drop by his place for “a smoke.” I politely declined as I had a full day planned. “But Johnny,” the author persisted, “I have some really good smoke.” My curiosity piqued, I swung by, but was a bit perplexed to be greeted with suspicion at the author’s door by an unhinged whore and her near-nude john. The author rumbled over and ushered me in, promptly sitting me down on a smelly couch and assuring the others I wasn’t a problem. Moments later, the john produced a crack pipe to resume the party I had evidently interrupted. This wasn’t quite the smoke I’d envisaged, so I gracefully excused myself after a few (sober) minutes. I scurried home pondering the author’s notion that it was somehow appropriate to invite his publisher to a crack party.
It may not have been appropriate, but it sure was noir.
From the start, the heart and soul of Akashic Books has been dark, provocative, well-crafted tales from the disenfranchised. I learned early on that writings from outside the mainstream almost necessarily coincide with a mood and spirit of noir, and are composed by authors whose life circumstances often place them in environs vulnerable to crime.
My own interest in noir fiction grew from my early exposure to urban crime, which I absorbed from various perspectives. I was born and raised in Washington, DC, and have lived in Brooklyn since 1990. In the 1970s and ’80s, when violent, drug-fueled crime in DC was rampant, my mother hung out with cops she’d befriended through her work as a nearly unbeatable public defender. She also grew close to some of her clients, most notably legendary DC bank robber Lester “LT” Irby (a contributor to DC Noir), who has been one of my closest friends since I was fifteen, though he was incarcerated from the early 1970s until just recently. Complicating my family’s relationship with the criminal justice system, my dad sued the police stridently in his work as legal director of DC’s American Civil Liberties Union.
Both of my parents worked overtime. By the time my sister Kathy was nine and I was seven, we were latchkey kids prone to roam, explore, and occasionally break laws. Though an arrest for shoplifting helped curb my delinquent tendencies, the interest in crime remained. After college I worked with adolescents and completed a master’s degree in social work; my focus was on teen delinquency.
Throughout the 1990s, my relationship with the urban underbelly expanded as I spent a great deal of time in dank nightclubs populated by degenerates and outcasts. I played bass guitar in Girls Against Boys, a rock and roll group that toured extensively in the US and Europe. The long hours on the road not spent on stage gave way to book publishing, which began as a hobby in 1996 with my friends Bobby and Mark Sullivan.
The first book we published was The Fuck-Up, by Arthur Nersesian—a dark, provocative, well-crafted tale from the disenfranchised. A few years later Heart of the Old Country by Tim McLoughlin became one of our early commercial successes. The book was widely praised both for its classic noir voice and its homage to the people of South Brooklyn. While Brooklyn is chock-full of published authors these days, Tim is one of the few who was actually born and bred here. In his five decades, Tim has never left the borough for more than five weeks at a stretch and he knows the place, through and through, better than anyone I’ve met.
In 2003, inspired by Brooklyn’s unique and glorious mix of cultures, Tim and I set out to explore New York City’s largest borough in book form, in a way that would ring true to local residents. Tim loves his home borough despite its flagrant flaws, and was easily seduced by the concept of working with Akashic to try and portray its full human breadth.
He first proposed a series of books, each one set in a different neighborhood, whether it be Bay Ridge, Williamsburg, Park Slope, Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy, or Canarsie. It was an exciting idea, but it’s hard enough to publish a single book, let alone commit to a full series. After we considered various other possibilities, Tim came upon the idea of a fiction anthology organized by neighborhood, each one represented by a different author. We were looking for stylistic diversity, so we focused on “noir,” and defined it in the broadest sense: we wanted stories of tragic, soulful struggle against all odds, characters slipping, no redemption in sight.
Conventional wisdom dictates that literary anthologies don’t sell well, but this idea was too good to resist—it seemed the perfect form for exploring the whole borough, and we got to work soliciting stories. We batted around book titles, including Under the Hood, before settling on Brooklyn Noir. The volume came together beautifully and was a surprise hit for Akashic, quickly selling through multiple printings and winning awards. (See pages 548–550 for a full list of prizes garnered by stories originally published in the Noir Series.)
Having seen nearly every American city, large and small, through the windows of a van or tour bus, I have developed a deep fondness for their idiosyncrasies. So for me it was easy logic to take the model of Brooklyn Noir—sketching out dark urban corners through neighborhood-based short fiction—and extend it to other cities. Soon came Chicago Noir, San Francisco Noir, and London Noir (our first of many overseas locations). Selecting the right editor to curate each book has been the most important decision we make before assembling it. It’s a welcome challenge because writers are often enamored of their hometowns, and many are seduced by the urban landscape’s rough edges. The generous support of literary superheroes like George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom have edited series volumes, has been critical.
There are now fifty-nine books in the Noir Series. Forty of them are from American locales. As of this writing, a total of 787 authors have contributed 917 stories to the series and helped Akashic to stay afloat during perilous economic times. By publishing six to eight new volumes in the Noir Series every year, we have provided a steady venue for short stories, which have in recent times struggled with diminishing popularity. Akashic’s commitment to the short story has been rewarded by the many authors—of both great stature and great obscurity—who have allowed us to publish their work in the series for a nominal fee.
I am particularly indebted to all sixty-seven editors who have cumulatively upheld a high editorial standard across the series. The series would never have gotten this far without rigorous quality control. There also couldn’t be a Noir Series without my devoted and tireless (if occasionally irreverent) staff led by Johanna Ingalls, Ibrahim Ahmad, and Aaron Petrovich.
This volume serves up a top-shelf selection of stories from the series set in the United States. USA Noir only scratches the surface, however, and every single volume has more gems on offer.
When I set out to compile USA Noir, I was delighted by the immediate positive responses from nearly every author I contacted. The only author on my initial invitation list who isn’t included here is one I couldn’t track down: the publisher explained to me that the writer was “literally on the run.” While I’m disappointed that we can’t include the story, the circumstance is true to the Noir Series spirit.
And part of me—the noir part—is expecting a phone call from the writer, inviting me over for a smoke.
JOHNNY TEMPLE is the publisher and editor in chief of Akashic Books, an award-winning Brooklyn-based independent company dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction and political nonfiction. Temple won the 2013 Ellery Queen Award; the American Association of Publishers’ 2005 Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing; and the 2010 Jay and Deen Kogan Award for Excellence in Noir Literature. Temple plays bass guitar in the band Girls Against Boys, which has toured extensively across the globe and released numerous albums on independent and major record companies. He has contributed articles and political essays to various publications, including the Nation, Publishers Weekly, AlterNet, Poets & Writers, and BookForum. He is also the chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council, which works with Brooklyn’s borough president to plan the annual Brooklyn Book Festival in September. He is the editor of USA Noir.
Posted: Nov 7, 2013
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: Johnny Temple, Tim McLoughlin, Brooklyn Noir, Heart of the Old Country, Noir Series, Arthur Nersesian, The Fuck-Up, Chicago Noir, Dallas Noir, USA Noir, DC Noir, San Francisco Noir, London Noir
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