Interview: Jordan Harper

(c) Brian HenniganJordan Harper is a name worth getting used to if you love reading crime fiction. After some excellent short stories, his first novel, She Rides Shotgun, has been published by Ecco and already we are predicting nominations and awards for the author. The book tells the tale of Polly McClusky, a California pre-teen whose father has just been released from prison. Both of them are being pursued by a merciless gang of white supremacists because her father Nate didn’t play along with them while incarcerated. You can read our full review here, but in the meantime let’s… meet the author!

First off, can you tell me more about your background and how you ended up writing crime novels?
I was born and raised in Springfield, Missouri, Queen City of the Ozarks. Crime has been a passion of mine since I was a little kid. My family on my mother’s side has been involved in law enforcement for a long time. My grandfather was an old Ozarks badass who was a prison guard and made knives in his spare time and slept with a gun under his pillow. She Rides Shotgun is dedicated in his memory.

His uncle, Ollie Crosswhite, was a cop in Springfield in the 20s, and in 1931 he was one of seven policemen killed in the Young Brother’s Massacre, which was the single largest loss of law enforcement life in American history until 9/11 – much bloodier than the Kansas City Massacre a year later, but we know that one better because Hoover used it to justify beefing up the FBI. My family had this old book about the massacre, this incredibly pulpy and violent book that I read over and over again, and I think that was my introduction to crime stories.

What do you think crime fiction lovers will love about She Rides Shotgun?
She Rides Shotgun wraps a very human story about a daughter and her father in a candy-coated shell of prison gangs, drug deals, skinhead tattoo numerology, bent cops, shankings, meth, cartel dope mules. It’s an ode to familial love and armed robbery. It draws from a mini-genre of crime, the criminal and child on the run, for fans of The Professional, Paper Moon or Lone Wolf and Cub. It’s paced like a shotgun blast.

Why is it being called A Lesson in Violence in the UK? The US title seems so much more nuanced when held up to the story.
Simply, the phrase ‘riding shotgun’ isn’t well-known in the UK, making the title nonsense. Trivia: The working title of the book was If All Roads Were Blind, a reference to the Bonnie Parker poem that opens the book.

Tell us more about Nate and Polly McClusky and how you cooked them up?
Nate is named after Nate Diaz, my favorite MMA fighter, who tends to win his fights through a combination of technique and sheer force of will. Both Nate and his daughter Polly are defined by their immense force of will, although when we meet Polly hers has been locked down and manifests itself as anxiety. I love stories about people coming out of their shells and embracing their true selves, and getting to take Polly through that is one of my favorite parts of the book.

There’s a lot of depth to Polly and her journey is both internal and external – for you is she the main character? How did you get into the head of a young girl so well?
Polly is absolutely the main character of the book. She’s the one who undergoes the biggest transformation, and she is the one who really undergoes the hero’s journey in the book. I didn’t get this at first, and early drafts of the novel were much more from Nate’s point of view. When I realised I was telling the story from the wrong point of view, and that this was Polly’s story, the book took a huge leap forward. I think in the early drafts I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get into the head of a teenage girl – as if I have more in common with a muscular and vicious armed robber than an 11-year-old girl. I gave Polly a lot of my own backstory – particularly the weird feeling of being a ‘gifted’ kid, how she prefers to not do homework since the punishment is staying in from recess, so she can just read in peace.

What kind of setting and backdrop did you want to convey, what kind of America are we in here?
It’s the America of gunfighters and murder ballads, that America that has always been more violent and raw than other places. It’s sort of a dream place, hot with a dirty sky, a place more dangerous than the one I live in. It’s a fun place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

On the other hand, the book is fully intended as a love letter to my adopted home of Southern California, a place where you can go from endless suburbs to cosmopolitan melting pot to the insanity of the high desert all in a day’s drive.

The book is getting a great response and we think it will win awards. What’s your reaction to the praise received so far?
It’s immensely gratifying. Awards are great if they come, but to me it’s the response of individuals that I find the most rewarding. The response from my fellow crime writers has been great, and I’m just very grateful that the book is out and people are reading it.

Who or what has influenced you as a crime writer?
James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy are my style gods. For the tone I want to hit, I think about Reservoir Dogs and True Romance, so Quentin Tarantino for sure. I grew up on gangster movies, Goodfellas and The Godfather and Miller’s Crossing. I also consumed a lot of gangsta rap in high school, and I think I learned a lot about storytelling from that. I’ve said before that Ghostface Killah is one of the best short crime fiction writers working today.

What are you reading right now and what’s it like?
I’m reading To Live and Die in LA, which of course inspired the classic movie. It’s interesting. The style isn’t much to speak of, but the story is compelling and it feels very real and grounded. You know you’re reading realistic cop fiction when the cops hate their bosses and the district attorneys more than they hate the criminals.

What’s next for Jordan Harper?
I just finished a new draft of the film script for She Rides Shotgun, which I’m very excited about. I’m working with some great producers and I really hope it becomes a movie. After that, I have a couple of different things that I’m working on, so we’ll see what pans out first.

Well, we hope one of those projects is another crime novel. Read the review of She Rides Shotgun, Jordan Harper’s crime debut, here.

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