A Q&A with Johnny Shaw Question:
You were born and raised in the Imperial Valley. Yet in your 20-year writing career, Dove Season
is the first work of yours fully set there. Why the long wait?
Johnny Shaw: I don't think I consciously avoided writing about the Mexican border. It can just be difficult to see a place as familiar as one's hometown as a subject that would be interesting to anyone else. All those cool, unique details hide themselves in plain sight. But I'm glad I waited--it gave me a chance to do it right, with the proper amount of distance, objectivity, and experience.
Q: Dove Season continues a proud tradition of books and movies set in rural California. What was your approach to creating such a strong sense of place?
JS: In the case of Dove Season, the Imperial Valley did all the heavy lifting for me. It's a unique place to grow up and an amazing backdrop for a crime novel. Usually the only time my hometown is mentioned in the news is for something lamentable: worst unemployment, air pollution, earthquakes, immigration issues, and so on. While all those things may be true, I figured, why not show the other side of the story? The story I know; the human story.
Q: The subtitle of Dove Season is "A Jimmy Veeder Fiasco," which implies we'll be seeing more of this protagonist in your work. What are your plans for his future?
JS: About halfway through writing Dove Season, I knew that Jimmy Veeder and Bobby Maves were characters I wanted to revisit. Not only are they a blast to write, but there is a lot of complexity to their friendship that has yet to be explored. As I write this, I'm hard at work on Plaster City, the next Jimmy Veeder Fiasco. At minimum, I have two more fiascoes in my head, stories that stand on their own but are part of a bigger arc. After that, we’ll see.
Q: Jimmy and Bobby get into some crazy situations on both sides of the Mexican border in Dove Season. How much of the novel is autobiographical? Are any of his misadventures based on your life?
JS: Write what you know, right? Without getting myself into too much trouble, let’s just say that the bars and strips joint of Mexicali are not a world that is foreign to me. And like Jimmy, I did grow up on a farm in the middle of nowhere with a field-worker bar across the street. But if you want to know if I've ever used a shovel to fend off someone with a baseball bat, you’ll have to ask my wife. Just kidding, honey. Put the bat down.
Q: You've written extensively for the stage and screen. How are these processes similar to and different from creating plot and characters in a novel?
JS: Whether I'm writing a screenplay, graphic novel, stage play, or novel, I try to treat each one with the proper amount of respect, emphasizing the given medium's strengths. I've always been of the mind that if you can make the characters breathe and the setting real, then you've gone a long way toward drawing the reader in. The individual medium doesn't matter--it's all about the story and the people who inhabit it.
Think of this title as a coming-of-age novel writ noir. Turning 30 hasn’t meant much more for Jimmy Veeder than moving from one low-paying job to another. “I didn’t have a dream. I just was,” is how he describes himself. Then he gets a call from his dad. Big Jack has cancer, the bad kind. He’s dying. Would Jimmy come and stay with him for a few months? So Jimmy returns to Holtville, the hick town where he grew up, deep in the Imperial Valley in Southern California, next to the Mexican border. His dad’s got one request: find him a whore he knew in Mexicali, Yolanda, and bring her to see him. Jimmy does. His father dies..... Jimmy and his old buddies soon find themselves butting heads with the Mexican underworld. But as his troubles continue, Jimmy learns something about himself. At the end, he’s on his way to growing up—maybe. VERDICT This is Shaw’s first novel, and it’s a good one. (It was a finalist for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.) Aficionados of crime stories will enjoy it thoroughly.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA