‘That Left Turn at Albuquerque’: An Interview with Scott Phillips

 In Culture, Interviews

There is a crafty uneasiness in the work of Scott Phillips. Delightfully gritty and grim, his books—filled with body counts, black humor, unexpected plot twists and crisp narratives—have established him as one of the most prolific writers of contemporary crime fiction.

His debut novel, “The Ice Harvest” (published in 2001) was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the California Book Award. Four years later, it was adapted into a motion picture starring John Cusack, Connie Nielsen and Billy Bob Thornton and directed by another fellow creative with St. Louis roots, Harold Ramis.

Since then, the Wichita-born writer and photographer has continued to spin yarns (including “The Walkaway,” “Cottonwood,” “The Adjustment” and the short story collection “Rum, Sodomy and False Eyelashes”) that explore the darkness of the soul without recycling trite clichés or relying on the altruisms of squeaky-clean protagonists. Now a full-fledged St. Louisan, Phillips is back with his ninth novel, “That Left Turn at Albuquerque.” Dubbed “a hard-boiled valentine to the Golden State,” its pages are filled with amoral characters whose best-laid plans go ironically awry, giving readers a thrilling romp filled with noir-flavored misconduct.

His latest book centers on a bankrupt attorney named Douglas Rigby whose last scheme, a cocaine deal gone wrong, left him in a bad way. Eager to make his money back and return to the top, he formulates a less-than-perfect art forgery heist that forces him to navigate his way around some unpleasant situations and shady people.

Phillips spoke with Guided: St. Louis about fake art, his creative process, his life as a Hollywood screenwriter and his latest novel.

Guided: How did your time in France and Hollywood influence you as a writer?
When I was l first living in France, I was writing a novel—and it was really crap.  It was an alternative universe science fiction book set in a world where the North lost the Civil War and the continent was split in a sort of European way, with North America made up of 15 countries. It wasn’t very good, but I finished it. At around the same time, a friend of mine who was a soap opera TV star was getting a lot of attention in France. We ended up deciding to try and make a movie together. We wrote a screenplay which frankly wasn’t very good, but I got an agent in France out of it.

At a certain point, I wasn’t making much money in France, and a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you come to LA? You’re a good screenwriter.” Then I did some time in LA writing screenplays with my friend Dave Maisel, and somebody read one of our spec scripts and hired us to write this movie, “Crosscut.” By the time we finished that, I really hated the whole experience so much that I decided I was going to write a book. I liked that idea because I didn’t have to collaborate with anyone or have anyone tell me what to write.

I started writing “The Ice Harvest,” which started with something that had really happened to me: I saw a guy set his hair on fire in a bar at five in the afternoon. At that point, doing screenplays had taught me some things about writing stories, and it ended up being a much simpler story than what I had been going for in fiction. I was writing something that I wanted to read—and that turned everything around. 

Guided: As an author, were you comfortable with having someone else adapt the “Ice Harvest” into a film?
I was planning on writing the screenplay myself. But then I got a call saying that Robert Benton and Richard Russo wanted to do the screenplay and asking if I minded stepping aside. I knew that having their names on a screenplay would get it read by everybody—and my name on the screenplay didn’t mean very much. They changed a few things, of course, but by and large, they were very respectful. Richard Russo, who is not too shabby a novelist himself, and Robert Benton, who has done a lot of literary adaptations, had a lot of respect for the book. With these situations, you basically take the money and run and hope for the best. You also have to accept that it is in someone else’s hands.

Guided: Where did the idea for your new novel come from?
I always wanted to write a book about art forgeries, and I had an idea about a guy who had a pretty crappy art collection and then someone recognizes something in it that is actually really valuable. But the guy who owns it doesn’t think very much of it and wants to give it to his old high school. Then there also are these people who know what he has in the collection and start plotting to separate him from this artwork by creating a fake and then selling a new fake one.  I was always interested in Han van Meegeren, the guy who forged Vermeer and Elmyr de Hory, whom Orson Welles made “F for Fake” about.

Guided: What is it about art forgery that intrigued you?
I have been reading about it for years and years. I have a book that is a collection of famous fakes from museums. I also have a few books on Vermeer, and I even mention van Meegeren in this book. I have always liked the chutzpah of it and the idea that if an expert can’t tell the difference between a fake work and a real one, then who is to say it is not a pretty good painting?

With this book, I also liked the idea that the forger’s intention is to do a better painting than the original artist. I also was interested in who the middle men are and how many people do you need to know to pull this off? It was kind of based off the idea that certain ex-pat Russian artists became very valuable abroad during the Soviet era, and [with] the rise of the oligarchs … you have Russians with a lot of money, and they want to bring these painters back home.

Guided: How long did it take you to write “That Left Turn at Albuquerque”?
It took a long time.  I had started writing it, and then I was dissatisfied with it. There was too much philosophy of art in it, and it was getting too long. The main character originally was the old guy, the forger, and I realized that he wasn’t the most interesting character—that was the psycho lawyer, Rigby. So I decided to go with him. At a certain point, I stopped working on the book and worked on a nonfiction book for hire. After a while, I realized I had a way to make this book work and make it more of crime story.

Guided: Where did the title come from?
The title came long before the book. I always liked the title. I don’t know how I thought of it. It’s from Bugs Bunny, but it also suggests something that went wrong.

Guided: Is there something about the Midwest that makes it a great setting for crime fiction?
People don’t think of the Midwest when they think of crime fiction. They think of big cities. When “The Ice Harvest” came out, a lot of people told me that they didn’t think of Wichita as a gritty place, they thought of it as this wholesome town. Overseas, folks thought it was this very exotic locale. For me, I can write about the Midwest because I was born here and I live here. I have written about other places like Paris and Los Angeles and a little bit about St. Louis. In this book, I even managed to make fun of the Loop Trolley. That makes it a historical novel.

Featured image courtesy of Scott Phillips.

[Editor’s note: Due to the COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, Scott Phillips had to cancel his promotional book tour midway through. If you’d like to purchase a copy of his book, consider ordering it from a local independent bookstore like Left Bank Books (offering curbside pickup, $6 home delivery in St. Louis City and County and free shipping), Novel Neighbor (offering curbside pickup, free home delivery within five miles of its Webster Groves location and private shopping appointments) and Afterwords Books in Edwardsville (with online shopping and delivery straight to your home).]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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