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Criminal Complex Interview: Tom Pluck Will See You In Hell, Evildoers
Thomas “Tommy Salami” Pluck hit the hardboiled fiction scene online like a Tasmanian Devil a couple of years back, taking a bite out of every venue in reach. I knew him best for his hysterical productivity and hail-fellow-well-met humor. Then Tommy got a cause – PROTECT, an organization dedicated to tougher laws on child abuse – and got serious.
Since then, Tom Pluck has been the galvanizing force behind two anthologies to benefit PROTECT, the Lost Children series, that brought together nearly 50 different authors. His social media has been a trumpet against bullying and abuse of all stripe. He’s a skilled hand at stirring up the online crime crowd.
Now we invite him down to the Complex to see what has Tom Pluck so riled up.
Q: You’ve mentioned the role that fury against injustice plays in inspiring your writing. When did you first resolve to become a writer, and what motivated it?
A: I’ve always been a storyteller. My stories come from daydreams I turn over in my head until they become the movies I want to see. Writing is work, as I’m sure you know. I wrote 400 handwritten pages of a crazy space opera that evolved as my world expanded throughout high school. I’d write in class instead of paying attention, because school came easy for me. An English teacher gave us journals, and I made mine into a comedy magazine, mostly riffing off The Far Side, Monty Python, Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I spoofed one teacher as Indiana Jones. I’m about as lazy as Lebowski, so the discipline came much later, in college.
What motivated it? You’re either creative or you’re not. If you are,your head is full of ideas and you need to make space for new ones. I cleared mine by drawing armored babes battling laser tanks and by writing dark adventure tales inspired by Indy, Alien and James Bond.
Q: What works were you drawn to, as a young reader, and why?
A: Encyclopedia Brown. Smarty pants wins the day. In real life we get our ears flicked and our faces pushed in the dirt, in full disclosure. Ian Fleming, David Eddings (a Tolkien follower), Alan Dean Foster, and much too early, Harlan Ellison. I loved his brutal worldview. He was a bullied runt who took on the world. He’s still a hero of mine. Heroes shouldn’t be perfect. You can only learn so much from a goody two shoes.
Q: You’ve branded your writing as “unflinching fiction with heart.” Can you elaborate on what this means?
A: The world is a dark and brutal place. Some ignore it, others revel in it. Unflinching means you do not shy away from the dark side of human nature. Heart means you resolve to fight it. “Hemingway once wrote, ’The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I believe in the second part.” That’s from Se7en, the grungy serial killer movie. It’s a ridiculous story, but has some good writing. That line is gold, and explains unflinching fiction with heart better than I can.
Q: You’ve recently been active linking charity and writing, as with your Lost Children anthologies. Do you see these two activities as natural partners?
A: It helps to have a reason other than money or fame, I think. It raises the stakes. I think crime writing and causes should go hand in hand. Literary fiction is still telling us how hard it is to be rich and white, while for decades, crime fiction has been showing us the faces that Orwell’s infamous boot is stomping on forever. (He said “if you want to know what the future will be like, imagine a boot stomping on a human face, forever.”) The dominion of the state over the individual. The state exists to serve power. Noir, hard boiled, even cozies expose the boot-stomps of the privileged delivered to the weak. It’s not much of a jump, to go from depicting the abuse of power to working to prevent it.
Q: What flaws do you see in the justice system?
A: Everything? But it’s better than the alternative. I have a hard time reading police procedurals. I’ve known some good cops, and plenty of bad ones. There is one law for the privileged and another for the rest of us, and the justice system does very little to balance the scales in our favor. I appreciate the existence of law enforcement- even the corrupt are better than the lawless wasteland of a place like Somalia, the original libertarian state- but in America we worship money and success. It inherently biases us against the disadvantaged. What did they do to deserve that awful hand they were dealt? They look guilty to us. I don’t have any solutions, but in New Jersey, the justice system works as a tax on the poor. Drug courts have no juries; police are ”trained” to determine, by eye, whether you are under the influence of drugs. You don’t get a blood test, unless your lawyer shows up to demand it. You lose your license immediately, and they slap fines on you that you can’t pay because the bus don’t go to your job. So you’re unemployed, you’re indentured to the state, and it becomes a cycle of incarceration that no one wants to stop because the state, county and municipality all dip their snouts in the same trough.
So is it justice, or “Just us?” Ask the billionaire who got probation for drunkenly plowing into someone’s mom. The Chicago cop who battered a waitress. Bernie Madoff’s mistake was robbing the rich. Countrywide will get a slap on the wrist, and they almost single-handedly caused the economic collapse.
Q: What role does the vigilante play in American crime culture?
A: The red state/blue state stuff is unfortunate, but it shows the two-faced coin of American culture. The red states generally have a culture of honor. You besmirch that honor enough, and you need killing. I’m torn, myself. If violence finds my family, I’m all for vigilantism. I’ll hammer your skull into Legos and scatter the pieces in the sea. But I’d be a monster, by doing so. Your family would want to throw chunks of Tommy on the barbecue, and they’d be as justified as I was. Justice is ugly, but it’s all we’ve got. Otherwise you get the Balkans, where people kill you over slights from 500 years ago. Or the Hatfields and the McCoys.
Q: What role does the vigilante play in American society?
A: A crime was committed against a close family member, and by the time I knew of it, the man responsible was out of the country. I wrestled with that for a long time. Should I hop a plane and strangle the guy? The hardest thing for me was realizing that I was not the victim. I was not entitled to justice. Only the victim was. I could not steal it from her. She healed from it long before I did. There’s a story in Protectors that’s based on a real occurrence – a Louisiana boy was kidnapped and raped, and his father waited until the rapist was being transferred at the airport, smuggled in a gun and shot him in the face in front of the police, cameras and everyone.
It’s on YouTube. We love it! Git ‘r done. But the kid, ten years later, hates that his father did it. Not Stockholm Syndrome, either. He doesn’t have sympathy for his rapist, but he was robbed of any closure. He can’t confront the dead man, he can’t even smile thinking of the man suffering in Angola prison for life, as Louisiana is big on life sentences and 75 year terms for kidnappers. That stunned me. Wouldn’t you think he’d want the guy dead? But most of us, we never experience violence up close.
I have. Not that bad, just a beatdown by three guys. Wrestlers. That’s one of the reasons I trained in MMA, so you wrestlers can’t get one over on me again! Anyway, two killed themselves with heroin, and the other apologized, after he flipped his car and cracked his skull open. I accepted the apology. And that closed the book on it. A vigilante robs the victim of that, if he or she wants it. It’s not our fight.
We’re not entitled to vengeance unless it was we who were violated.
Q: Do you think America is becoming more jaded, or more sentimental?
A: We’re sentimental toward the past, as we imagine it. There are no good old days. But we’ve become more jaded toward violence and brutality, sure. We live in our own little reality shows. At least in urban areas. I’m hoping there’s some place I can escape to where I don’t get sighed at for existing ahead of you in line. Jaded is probably not the right word. We’ve lost any sense of community, because our world is virtual. Our friends are spread over the world. We retreat into the world of self.
Q: What is the greatest threat to future generations of Americans, and how is crime fiction addressing it, if at all?
A: Climate change? The encroachment of the government on our civil liberties? I’m not sure how books fix that. Crime fiction should tell a good story, first. If you want to shine a light on injustice, find the story. I’m tired of the CSI stuff where some savvy lab tech solves the murder, every time. That’s fantasy. The reality is much more grim. The Innocence Project is doing more with DNA than the forensics labs ever did. We have whole states like Illinois where the death penalty is on hiatus, because prosecutors railroaded the first poor slob they could find. Gas a car thief for a murder he didn’t commit, they feel like they did some good. Those prosecutors should be sent to Angola for life. I refuse to read books that make them heroes and overlook the sheer volume of mistakes they make with human lives. And think of it this way, if you imprison the wrong man, the killer is out there.
There is at least one case where a husband was framed with bad evidence and the killer murdered another woman before the truth came out. That’s murder, if you ask me. If we’re gonna charge a purse snatcher with murder when the cop chasing him has a heart attack, we need to convict the D.A. who hides evidence that lets a killer remain at large.
Crime fiction can’t solve these problems, but it can illuminate them. There are bad people out there. We know this, and crime fiction should tell us great stories about them. If you want to save the next generation, support PROTECT. They fight to create and fund laws that prosecute the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children, and for awareness of the effects of such abuse. Most sociopathic criminals suffered abuse as children. Think of what a generation with a huge reduction in recidivist, violent criminals could accomplish. One without bullies. Kids who weren’t taught that might makes right, because they were never slapped for having a smart mouth. I don’t know if crime fiction can do that. My money is on PROTECT.
Q: Do you plan future works – independently or collaboratively, such as anthologies – for the sake of a cause or charitable purpose?
A: Right now, no. Two years in a row was enough. I have a great respect for editors everywhere after undertaking Protectors, but I’m a writer, not an anthologist. I have books to write. I know I inspired a couple other writers to create charity anthologies. I hope more will step up.
Thank you Matt, for an enjoyable interview.
Right back at you, Tommy.
Thomas Pluck writes hardboiled thrillers and unflinching fiction with heart. His stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey, PANK magazine, Noir Nation, Crime Factory, Spinetingler, Plots with Guns, Beat to a Pulp, McSweeney’s, The Utne Reader and elsewhere. He edits the Lost Children charity anthologies to benefit PROTECT and The National Association to Protect Children. Thomas lives in New Jersey with his wife Sarah. You can find him as @tommysalami on Twitter, and on the web at www.thomaspluck.com. He is working on his first novel.