Johnny Shaw’s third novel, Plaster City: A Jimmy Veeder Fiasco, continues the adventures of Jimmy Veeder, a semi-reformed brawler and family man, in California’s Imperial Valley.
Will Jimmy continue to accept family responsibilities in future installments?
I don’t think that far ahead, but probably. It creates unique conflict, and I have no interest in writing about archetypical tough guys. The more normal Jimmy’s life, the more interesting the story becomes when the chaos starts. He’s a farmer who also happens to be a shit magnet. That’s why I call the book a fiasco. It’s not a traditional mystery or thriller. In a story about a cop or PI, they’re initially involved because it’s their job; they get paid. Eventually, the “now it’s personal” moment has to occur to raise the stakes. It can feel manufactured. I wanted to write about a guy who’s motivated by personal obligations from the beginning. But every time he tries to help, he makes things worse.
How do you keep a balance between the books’ serious themes and the slapstick action?
I’m a big fan of dramatic tone change. Too many books rely on a single tone and stick with it. I’ve lost count of the number of crime novels that are “gritty” or “intense.” But without counterpoint, the hyperreality it’s shooting for becomes self-parody. I don’t set out to write a comedy or drama. That would be limiting. I need the characters to be allowed to breathe and react. Hopefully, by not setting limits, I can get closer to capturing the tonal inconsistency of reality.
In particular, how do you keep Bobby from looking like a jerk when he gets his friend’s tooth knocked out as part of a drunken joke?
He is a jerk. That’s the thing. He is both an unquestioningly loyal friend and a dangerous maniac. That’s what makes him such a fun character. Some of the funniest people I know are also the most disturbed.
And what about the amoral Tomás?
Tomás is more of a force of nature that operates in the world of the stories. So when Jimmy’s trajectory crosses his path, he’s on dangerous ground. That’s just the way nature works. The raging ocean doesn’t know or care if a boat is being crushed by its fury. When writing about the Mexican border, the unpredictable repercussions of turning the wrong corner are a big part of capturing the place.
How do your friends in the Imperial Valley like the way you’ve portrayed the place—and them?
My primary demographic in the Imperial Valley is cousins. So I better get it right, or I’ll hear about it.