The Rumpus Interview with Joe Ide
At fifty-eight, Joe Ide has published his first novel, IQ. It is a mystery crime thriller that Ide based on his own experiences growing up as a child in South Central Los Angeles, and it is inspired by Ide’s favorite childhood stories and character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
IQ is the first in a planned series that follows Isaiah Quintabe (IQ for short), a young African-American man and high school dropout living in a rough area of Long Beach. He solves the crimes that the police seem incapable–or unwilling–to solve. Like Sherlock Holmes, Isaiah uses his intellect and powers of deduction to figure out the crimes. In the first book, Isaiah, who is struggling to make ends meet, is hired by the rap mogul, Black the Knife, to discover who is trying to kill him. Dodson, the man who brings Isaiah the case, is his Watson-like compatriot.
Ide, who is Japanese-American, fell in love with African-American culture as a young man. After bouncing around from job to job and then working hard but failing to become a successful screenwriter, Joe decided to try writing a novel instead. In IQ, he harnesses the skills he learned as a screenwriter, creating sharp, realistic dialogue. It is a humorous, entertaining book that reimagines the legacy of Sherlock Holmes in a refreshing way. It also honors the experiences of people living in communities that are run-down, poor, and crime-ridden. Ultimately, Ide has created a modern-day hero for those that feel powerless and forgotten.
I talked with Joe over email in the time leading up to and after the release of IQ from Mulholland Books last fall.
The Rumpus: IQ is loosely based on experiences you had growing up. What’s interesting to me is that you could have made Isaiah Japanese-American, like you, but instead you chose to make him African-American. What was your reasoning behind this decision? Was this something you struggled with? Or did this choice just feel natural to you?
Joe Ide: As a kid, I didn’t know any Japanese kids that weren’t in my family. Japanese-American wasn’t a term I used or thought about. My friends were black, and I co-opted their speech, style, attitudes, and musical tastes. My freshman year in high school I got transferred to a school in West LA. The student body was middle class, mostly white and Asian, with only smattering of black and Hispanic kids. It took me a year to make a friend.
It was there I was introduced to white kids and their horrible music, where I tried but never quite fit in with the Asian crowd. I was separated by demeanor and background but at least I had a place to sit in the cafeteria. The best part of high school though? I met the girl who would, some years later, become my wife. I was a murky fringe kid; she was popular and a cheerleader—how I got her attention remains an enduring mystery. When it came time to write IQ, my friends from the neighborhood were the most memorable and meaningful, and, as you say, the choice felt natural.
Rumpus: It is so charming to me that you met your wife in high school. I met my husband in high school, too. We were good friends and started dating each other in college. Do you have a fond memory of your wife from back then that you would like to share?
Ide: My future wife was one of the cool kids. She was a cheerleader, she belonged to different clubs and she had a very busy social life which, unfortunately, didn’t leave much time for studying. We were not yet girlfriend and boyfriend, but I was completely smitten. I sat behind her in history class. The tests were always multiple choice so I would “write” the answers on her back with my finger, similar to the way Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller the letters of the alphabet, except a lot sillier. An odd way to start a romance, but it worked.
Rumpus: I was really looking forward to reading your novel, because I have been reading a lot of serious nonfiction lately. I needed a good old-fashioned entertaining novel in my life. Also, I read Ghettoside, Jill Leovy’s nonfiction book about South Central LA this past Summer, so I was especially interested to read a fictionalized version of some of the topics she covers in her book. It makes wonder, what do you see as the purpose of fiction? And maybe more specifically, what value, if any, do you see in novels that are written to be entertaining but also engage the reader in important and serious issues that exist in contemporary society?
Ide: I think entertaining novels can deal with serious issues as part of the story. John Sanford’s latest, Escape Clause, happens in the illicit world of trading endangered species. Tana French’s main character in The Trespasser, a woman detective, deals with discrimination by her male colleagues. And there are other ways an entertaining novel can contribute to the common good. Violence can be portrayed but not glorified. Vicious characters don’t have to be cool. Kindness and ethical behavior can be virtues instead of vulnerabilities. Intelligence can triumph over guns. Cruelty, misogyny, drug use, violence, sociopathic tendencies don’t have to be celebrated.
Rumpus: Isaiah stops criminals with his intellect, rather than through any physical prowess. Why was it important to you for Isaiah to have this characteristic?
Ide: I wanted to create a character who didn’t routinely resort to violence and wasn’t courageous by virtue of wielding a gun. I wanted to show someone who was powerful and incisive who could face down the bad guys without becoming a bad guy himself. I wanted a hero who was ethical, thoughtful, and just.
Rumpus: IQ has been optioned to be made into a television show. Congratulations, I think it will make a great show. I have to ask you, do you have an actor that you see in the role of Isaiah? Or maybe you think a fresh, new face would be best?
Ide: I’d like to see a someone new. A known actor defines the character to a degree. We know what to expect from him and we’ve seen it before. I want Isaiah to be fresh, someone who intrigues and challenges us, someone we’ll have to watch to unravel.
Rumpus: Outside of Isaiah, did you have a character that you were especially fond of writing and creating?
Ide: The rapper, Cal, a.k.a, Black the Knife. The idea that a celebrity could be depressed by his own success and that one could actually get tired of wretched excess was really fun to write about.
Rumpus: In part, your book is about vigilante justice—or that space where formal systems of law have broken down, requiring individuals to dole out their own justice and create their own rules of conduct and order within their communities. This trope is a perennial favorite among audiences. Why do you think audiences enjoy it so much?
Ide: Almost everyone, at one time or another, has been bullied, harassed, put down, hurt or suffered prejudice with no means of striking back. The vigilante gives us a vicarious way of getting justice. Of retaliating. Of getting revenge. The latter are perhaps not politically correct or realistically possible, but in our fantasies and in our fiction, they’re righteous, and satisfying. At least they are for me.
Rumpus: What is the last book you read that you loved?
Ide: The last book I loved was Mischling by Affinity Konar. It’s about twin twelve-year old girls who survive the atrocities at Auschwitz. Konar writes about the most harrowing, brutal experiences in such a haunting and lyrical way. Somehow, she finds hope and humanity in the most hopeless and inhumane of circumstances. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. I was truly awed by it.
Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite musicians?
Ide: The Temptations, Taj Mahal, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Wynton Marsallis, Otis Redding, Snoop Dog, Lucinda Williams. And if you haven’t heard Marvin Gaye sing the national anthem at the Lakers playoff game, you’re missing out.
Rumpus: I love all of these musicians so much. We have extremely similar taste in music, and I will definitely have to check out Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem. Because he just won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I want to focus on Bob Dylan though. First, do you have a favorite song or songs of his? Second, how do you feel about him winning the Nobel Prize?
Ide: I’m glad Dylan won the Nobel. Dylan stood folk music on its head and elevated rock. He made the genres mean something, with his evocative songs that made you think and imagine. His songs are artful and sophisticated and challenging, and even if you don’t understand them, the sounds of the words were mesmerizing.
That said, I don’t think his songs are really poetry, not like Allen Ginsberg or Langston Hughes. Recite the lyrics aloud and many of them lose their dynamism. They’re another form of literature that needs music to make them go, but go they do, and they’re no less compelling. Highway 61 was the first Dylan album I actually owned, and “Desolation Row” is the song I remember most but I couldn’t tell you why. Something about Dr. Filth keeping his world inside a leather cup and the nurse in charge of the cyanide that, to this day, still strums inside my head.
Rumpus: Do you have any hobbies? If so, what are they and why do you enjoy them?
Ide: Fly fishing. I’m terrible at it, but it’s a good excuse to be somewhere remote and beautiful. Catching something hardly matters and when you do, it can seem like an interruption. Fly fishing also commands just enough of your attention so that you can’t think of anything else. You’re not sitting on your own shoulder worrying about the chapter you didn’t finish. An added bonus, your phone doesn’t work.
Rumpus: Do you have any new projects that you are currently working on that you would like to share?
Ide: The second IQ book.
Rumpus: What is your writing process like?
Ide: It’s very disorganized and non-linear. I’ll start with maybe a page of beat notes and a vague idea of where I’m going. And then I’ll start writing. The opening two pages are very important. They begin defining the world, setting the tone, and they introduce us to the main character. If I have page one down in some detail, that informs page two. After that, I write as fast as I can. If I get stuck on something, I move on until I finish a rough draft. It helps me to have a framework, something to work on and experiment with. From there, it’s like a pointillist painting. I’ll make dots of character, story, dialogue, a set piece—whatever, and wherever they occur, which might be in chapter four, fifteen, twenty-seven, or the prologue. When I have a reasonably coherent draft, I start from the beginning and rewrite it line by line. And then I do it again. And then I do it again. And again. Until at some point, I feel good about it.
Rumpus: Going more specifically into it, what is your least favorite part?
Ide: The blank page. A very daunting thing to make something out of nothing when your only source material is in your head—which, on some days, contains very little or nothing at all. All you can do is keep writing, no matter how badly, and not let up until you reconnect with the story or inspiration comes to the rescue.
Rumpus: Alternatively, what is your favorite part of the writing process?
Ide: Rewriting. The agony of the blank page is over. It’s as if the house is built and now I get to fix it up. Make that turn of phrase snappier, that joke funnier, the character more interesting, the scene more emotional and revealing. And I also get to throw out all the crap I’ve written which is always considerable. With IQ, I threw out at least as many pages as ended up in the book.
Rumpus: Prior to writing this novel, you wrote screenplays. What was the transition like moving from writing a screenplay to a novel? Do you feel it helped you or hampered you in any way?
Ide: Screenwriting helped me in the sense that it demands precision, brevity, and the ability to think visually. It taught me how to write dialogue, how to ratchet up the suspense and write set pieces. On the other hand, it was limiting. Screenplay structure is very defined, and there are also the demands of the producers and studio executives, which may or may not make sense. When I started writing IQ I was appalled to discover my long form prose was terrible. It was stilted, cluttered, and self-indulgent—and there were many things I just plain didn’t know how to do. If, in a screenplay, you’re describing a nice house in the suburbs, you write, EXT. A NICE HOUSE IN SUBURBS. In a novel, that doesn’t quite cut it. I had to go back to the basics. I read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, William Zinnser’s On Writing Well, and Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. I studied books on grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation. It took a year before I could write decent, clear prose.
Rumpus: Other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, do you have any other authors that you feel influence your writing or that you admire and look to for guidance?
Ide: My biggest influence is Elmore Leonard. I loved his quirky, low-life characters and how real they feel. I love how they lead the plot instead of the other way around. I love his mixture of pathos and comedy. And I love the writing. Simple, rich, exciting and economical all at the same time. I think his dialogue is the best in the genre and ranks at the top across the literary board. Other influences include John LeCarre, Walter Mosley, Hunter S. Thompson, William Styron, Chester Himes, William Gibson, and many more have contributed to the mash-up that is my writing.
Rumpus: How do you deal with rejection?
Ide: As a screenwriter, you get used to it. For every project you audition for, you’re doing well if you get one out of three.
Rumpus: If you could give advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
Ide: I am not a great believer in pursuing your dreams at any cost, primarily because your dreams may not be connected to reality. Witness the kids on American Idol who get humiliated because they simply can’t sing. And what do they invariably say as they’re leaving the studio in tears? “But singing is my dream!” I think for things like singing and painting and writing, it’s important to start off with a modicum of talent. I suppose it’s possible to write a good novel with no aptitude for writing, but you’re starting with an enormous deficit. My advice echoes Marcus, a character in the book: Follow your talent, he says. Follow the gifts that already yours and make a dream out of those.
Author photograph © Craig Takahashi.