Aaron Philip Clark is the author of “The Science of Paul” and “A Healthy Fear of Man”, both recently released by Shotgun Honey and reviewed here at this blog. Clark was nice enough to respond to my questions via email. You can learn more about Clark at his website.
David: I’m a little late to the game with “The Science of Paul”, but I absolutely loved it. What struck me the most was that the crime and the plot driven by the crime were almost background music. The real star was Paul Little. What drove you to write more of a character study than a wham-bam-thank-you crime novel?
Aaron: Paul Little was inspired by Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. Both characters originate in the South and journey to metropolitan cities with the hope of a better life—they could very much exist in the same literary world. Paul and Easy exhibit a strong need to preserve their identities. In Devil in A Blue Dress, Easy wants to prevent foreclosure on his home. As a black man in the forties, owning a home was a great accomplishment and it indicated upward mobility, and in many ways, a path to a prosperous future. For Paul, he has nothing except his humanity and prides himself on not losing that in prison. Paul is governed by empathy and he sees human existence as inherently flawed—and he simply doesn’t fit in the world. Paul is courageous because he recognizes that he’s very much ‘other’ and he’s fine with it. He has no desire to fit in or play a role in a society he deems as another prison. The farm in North Carolina is where Paul sees himself as being able to live freely. While Easy’s identity is rooted in independence and progress, Paul’s identity is deeply connected to familial roots and assuming control over his existence. I knew a character as conflicted as Paul would need a strong interior voice and that prompted the first-person narrative. Since Paul is not a detective or private investigator, it was important for him to operate as a novice and someone who was cut off from street culture—he’s very much a product of the sheltered life he’s led with Tammy. Paul is an amalgamation of black men I’ve met in my life—some with great hope despite horrible circumstances and others who seem to court death and have an almost fatalistic view of the world. However, it was important that Paul maintain a sense of faith because for many ex-cons, especially black men, it’s the only fuel that keeps them going. Paul believes that no matter what happens if he is alive he still has a shot at happiness. And for black men, no matter our situations, preserving our lives requires copious amounts of mental and physical energy, and there are no days off. The crimes that happen in the novel are not the focal point because crimes, alone, are not interesting to me. I’m fascinated by how the crimes affect the people and communities where they take place. Paul is driven by the need to escape the crime and squalor of Philadelphia, and since it’s the inhabitants of the city that perpetuate the crimes and have essentially corrupted the city, Paul is willing to say goodbye to Tammy and any connections he has in Philadelphia if it means leaving and never having to return.
David: Philadelphia has a strong role to play in “The Science of Paul”, Paul wanting to escape to the North Carolina countryside. At one point, Paul thinks “Philadelphia is a historic ghost town inhabited by those who don’t know they’re dead. In the past, runaway slaves died trying to get here. Now, I’m dying to get out.” It seems as though you get Philadelphia, how did you go about capturing Philly’s essence?
Aaron: I lived in Philadelphia for 3 years while obtaining my bachelor’s degree. I got a good taste for the city and thought it would be a good setting for The Science of Paul. What I loved about Philly was the culture. It was a heavy dose of Americana—greasy food, jazz and blues, and the Liberty Bell—but at the same time, there existed this desperation and an immense sadness. People all over the city were just getting by. There were overgrown lots where buildings once stood. The city was crumbling, and it reminded me of photos I had seen of Kosovo as a kid, but it was even more disturbing because it’s a city in America—the fabled land of milk and honey. I figured if I could capture just a fraction of the real Philly, the city would take shape and come alive in the novel.
David: Paul is an alcoholic, but his big problem is his self-loathing. Most of his relationships have one common thread, Paul cannot understand why anyone would love him. Obviously, Paul’s self-hatred is stronger than most men’s, but I cannot help to wonder that this is why readers connect with him since we all have that feeling that we aren’t good enough. I know there’s a question in there somewhere.
Aaron: Paul’s self-loathing is palpable, and I wanted it to be like a plague that is slowly consuming him. He has such deep regret over what he’s done and that is by design. I wanted to write Paul as a human being and while some may find what Paul did to land him in prison as something a person could overcome, it doesn’t mean that it would be easy. Paul is haunted by his actions and that’s what makes readers root for him—it’s about making the most out of a messy life and ultimately finding some peace.
David: One of the layers of both books is race which is an idling engine throughout, always there, always making some noise, but sometimes racism raises its ugly white head. I particularly enjoyed the scene as Paul walks down the street in a new suit.
“The suit is my new skin, one that seems to diminish my blackness. I’ve gotten used to white men pulling their girlfriends close when I pass, white women crossing the street a block away when they see me coming. But now that I am in the suit, women’s eyes linger.”
The perspective of a black person is not seen a lot in crime fiction books. Even though race is just one of the layers of your books, is there anything that you want a white reader to come away regarding the black experience in America?
Aaron: I can’t say that I’m looking for white readers to come away with anything particular. In grad school, my professor always said to write the book you’d want to read, and, at the time, The Science of Paul was the type of novel I longed to experience. I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to read about a black man who wasn’t a detective or private investigator, but I recognized it didn’t matter. I needed to put Paul on paper and it was important for me to write him with dignity, strength, and intelligence—that was my only focus. I didn’t want to write a face-less black man—a character who you know is African American but moves through the world as if the color of his skin isn’t the first thing people see. I am always pleased when any reader, no matter their ethnicity, connects to Paul. If I manage to expose a reader to an aspect of the black experience they were unaware of, I feel that’s a testament to the novel. The truth is, black men aren’t valued much in American society, or the world for that matter, so if Paul is a conduit to understanding and empathy, that’s a powerful thing.
David: “The Furious Way”, your new novella is coming out in November 2018 and you’re working on a memoir about your experiences in the Los Angeles Police Department. Can you tell us about both?
Aaron: The Furious Way is a revenge tale set in Los Angeles, specifically San Pedro, a port-town just south of Downtown L.A. In the novella, a young woman, Lucy Ramos, seeks out an aging hit-man, Tito Garza, with the hope he’ll teach her how to kill—the reason is simple—she wants to kill the man who killed her mother. However, this isn’t about Tito coming to Lucy’s rescue and Lucy playing the part of the damsel in distress. Tito is in it for the money and Lucy is an active participant in the crimes they carry out. The only thing threatening to derail their mission is when Lucy is given a glimpse of what life could be like if she were able to turn a blind eye to injustice and relinquish her rage.
The working title for my LAPD-centered novel is The Color of Authority. While it’s not a memoir, it is heavily inspired by the time I spent with the LAPD and growing up around the influence of the department. My uncle was a retired police sergeant and I have family members on the job. The job is difficult and it’s even more so for police of color, especially black officers. I wanted to write a novel that analyzes what it means to be a black police officer in a time of ‘Blue Lives Matter’ and videos of unarmed black men being shot. In the novel, the victim, a black male police recruit’s body is found mutilated in the Angeles National Forest. The protagonist, Detective Finnegan, rose to the rank of detective quickly and he shares a connection to the victim that could jeopardize his life as a cop and his freedom. Like The Science of Paul, The Color of Authority is a character-study but is equally plot-driven.
David: Give me five books to read, genre doesn’t matter.
- Another Country – James Baldwin
- Devil in a Blue Dress – Walter Mosley
- The Life & Times of Michael K – J.M. Coetzee
- Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand – Fred Vargas
- The Prone Gunman – Jean-Patrick Manchette.
Thanks for reading this interview with Aaron Philip Clark. Make sure you go and buy his books.