With the recent publication of his novels New Yorked and City of Rose (Polis Books), Rob Hart has emerged as an incredibly talented crime writer (which is saying a lot, since there’s a renaissance in noir writing going on at the moment). Both novels have an astute, satirical eye, and keen sense of place, but what really stands out is the character of Ash McKenna. He has the tough outer shell of Ellroy’s protagonists, but beneath that surface he’s a psychological wreck, due largely to his father’s tragic death. Altogether, McKenna seems like a noir character for our age: confused, frustrated, and by turns bracingly bleak and quietly hopeful. I interviewed Rob Hart this April, asking him about McKenna, New York, and his decision to have McKenna, the ultimate New Yorker, turn nomadic in the later novels.
James Pate: One of the elements that I really liked about New Yorked is the way in which your novel not only maps New York geographically, but also maps it in terms of time — for example, fragments of 70s New York exists (and crash into) the highly gentrified New York of today. And your character Ash McKenna, I imagine, would probably feel more at home in the New York of the Ramones and CBGB than the New York of Starbucks and sky-high rents. As you were writing New Yorked, how much of this mapping was deliberate, and how much was simply the natural outcome of trying to describe New York as it exists today?
Rob Hart: When I wrote the book I was working through whether I wanted to stay or move, so a lot of the mapping came from a personal place. I was born in New York and I love it, but this town will wear on you. I was born in 1982, so I grew up on the tail end of the Bad Old Days. It didn’t impact me in a way that it did my parents, but there are things I remember about it. And it sucked.
Now it’s a lot safer, but it sucks in a different way. One of my favorite bars is getting torn down for a luxury apartment tower. The city has a very unique identity, and it’s losing that.
Identity was another reason I wrote it: I wanted to write about the way New York City looked like to me. In part because everyone’s story is different, and in part to preserve it.
Ash is one of those people who wishes the city would go back to those days, definitely, and I know a lot of people who feel like that too. Though I question the wisdom of that. It used to be really insanely dangerous.
It’s a tradeoff. A shitty tradeoff–safety or identity–but it’s a tradeoff.
JP: That’s a good point about identity: Ash McKenna strikes me as a New Yorker down to his bones and gristle (tough, but good-hearted at the end of the day). I thought he was one of the most compelling characters in a crime novel I’ve come across in a while. He’s as full of potential fury as some of Ellroy’s leg-breakers, and yet truly wounded due to his father’s death, and Chell’s murder. That mixture of rage and vulnerability is unusual, I think. How did you go about creating such a fascinating character?
RH: I like PI characters a lot, and we usually meet them when they’re older and jaded. I thought it would be fun to write an origin story. Ash is 24 in New Yorked and will one day probably be a private investigator but isn’t there yet.
Your mid-20s is a weird time. You’re legally an adult, and you have all this autonomy, and a lot of people rebel against that. Which is why we get adult kickball leagues and Transformer movies.
A lot of people in the mid-20s also think they have the world figured out and they don’t. They don’t know shit. I’m in my 30s and I still don’t know shit but at least I can recognize that fact.
This is all to say I wanted Ash to not have his life together, but feel like he did. That way when I upended it, there’d be a lot of ground to cover. This whole series is about him growing up and finding his moral compass.
JP: In terms of Ash McKenna developing as a character – I think a lot of readers, myself included, were surprised to see the second McKenna novel taking place in Portland. Many noir writers tend to be associated with specific cities or regions (Laura Lippman with the Mid-Atlantic, Dennis Lehane with Boston, etc.). It seems like a bold and surprising move to have McKenna’s next story take place in Portland. I think the risk pays off: it’s enjoyable seeing McKenna navigate through less-than-familiar territory (such as a vegan strip club, no less).
But what were your initial reasons for making such an unexpected move? Were you purposely trying to play against expectations by not having the next novel set in New York? And what’s in McKenna’s future? From what I’ve read online, it sounds like he’s headed to hippiedom next…
RH: Ash was originally meant to be one and done. But there were some other books I wanted to write, and I didn’t know how to differentiate them from New Yorked. Then I realized I could just make all the books a series about Ash, and the whole thing clicked. It keeps it fresh for me–I like the challenge of doing a new location each time–and my hope is that it keeps it fresh for the reader. And for Ash it seemed important to take him out of his comfort zone.
The next stop, after City of Rose, is a hippie commune, which is based on a place my friend used to manage in the Georgia woods. I was a little afraid of that one–it’s loosely based on a real place but otherwise is made up out of thin air, and it gets a little weird–but I’m very happy with how it turned out. That’s called South Village, and comes out this October. I just started the fourth one, which will be set in Eastern Europe. I’m signed with Polis for books three and four. I’m hoping to finish off the series with a fifth book that brings Ash back to New York.
JP: I’m really looking forward to seeing Ash in a hippie commune. I can imagine that really would be out of his comfort zone! One last question: if you had to choose six or so indispensable noir novels – books that you just can’t see yourself living without – what would they be? What books made you want to be a writer? Which ones have a continuing influence on you?
RH: Here are six books that are very important to me:
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. First book that really socked me across the jaw.
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk. First book that made me really seriously want to write (because I didn’t know books could do that).
In the City of Shy Hunters by Tom Spanbauer. Best book about New York City I’ve ever read, and also the best book I’ve ever read.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. First book that sucked me into crime fiction.
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. I am constantly giving this collection as a gift to people.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. Made me rethink a lot of things, both as a person and as a writer.