Interview with Bruce Cook

As a huge fan of Blood Harvest, I’m happy to see Marshal Lawe return to print in Tommy Gun Tango. Will this book take on the point of view of other characters as Blood Harvest did? Any animal POV’s?

It’s so nice of you to interview me, Jackie—thank you! And I am happy that you are a fan of Blood Harvest.
Yes, I am once again using multiple first person points of view in Tommy Gun Tango. That was an experiment in Blood Harvest, and I found I really enjoyed the process. I am sticking with fewer points of view this time around—four people, instead of six humans and two animals. By the way, I borrowed this idea of contradictory/contrasting first person POVs from the Japanese film Rashomon, by Akira Kurasawa.

I greatly enjoyed writing from the point of view of a dog and a crow last time, and some of my readers found it amusing and entertaining. But that choice—to write as an animal some of the time—caused a tremendous split among readers and reviewers. They tended to love or hate the book based on that criterion. I decided to forgo that technique this time around—and besides, Marshal Lawe has moved across the country by car in 1932. His police dog Chief had already passed on to the Great Hunt in the sky.

This story begins with the POV of Marshal Lawe. We then see things from the POV of his serious girlfriend, Gladys, who lost her diner back in Massachusetts and moved to be with family in Los Angeles. We also hear from Jackie Sue, the sexually precocious and ambitious 13 year old from Blood Harvest. She is now 16 and is working as an actress in Hollywood. The final voice is a new character, Al Haine, a handsome Irish gangster, con man, and smooth talker. (Side note: Al Haine is the grandfather of Sam Haine, the lead character in my first novel, Philippine Fever.)

For Tommy Gun Tango, Bruce Cook collaborated with alter ego Brant Randall. What did each self bring to the process?

The Bruce Cook side of me is a scientist and mathematician by training. I worked on the Apollo Project in the 70’s as a laser physicist, before becoming a film maker. Bruce tries to be a close observer and factual reporter.

Brant Randall is the story teller, memory-keeper, spinner of tall tales, researcher of times past and customs vanished. He grew from my work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, director, cameraman, film editor, and sound designer.

You have two very different protagonists in your novels—Marshal Ichabod Lawe and ATF Agent Sam Haine. Do you find it difficult to move between their mindsets? And do you ever work on both series at the same time?

I have written 30 screenplays, none of them sequels to each other. I do not find it difficult to invent new characters. None of them are myself—but they all have aspects of my personality.

This is seasoned with the traits of my friends, family, co-workers, passersby, and enemies.
I haven’t worked on both series at the same time, but I don’t see that it would be a problem. I see it in much the same way as when you move from workplace to home to church to public space—you display different aspects of your personality. When I move from contemporary times to the past I switch attitudes and mores to match the setting.

In Tommy Gun Tango, you take on a real person, actress Jean Harlow, and an incident in her life—the death of her second husband, Paul Bern. This had to be intimidating. How did you approach your research, and were you nervous about upsetting Harlow fans?

I read plenty (and there is plenty to read!), re-watched her films, talked to film buffs—just immersed myself in Hollywood of the 1920s and 30s. I enjoy research, so it was fun, not intimidating.

I perused news accounts of the death of Paul Bern. I was able to get hold of some court transcripts. I found late-life memoirs of people involved with Harlow, Bern, and MGM. I read the gossip sheets from the era. The material was fascinating and contradictory. Bit by bit a pattern emerged (to my eye, at least) of Hollywood studio cover-ups of crimes by stars and producers. The police and city officials were complicit in these cover-ups. From all this data I drew my own (reasonable, I think) conclusions about Bern’s death.

You seem so comfortable writing “outside the box”, whether it’s placing your story on foreign soil in Philippine Fever or traveling back in time for Tommy Gun Tango. I know you lived in the Phillipines, but you certainly weren’t around when Blood Harvest took place in the 20’s. Is this simply great imagination? Painstaking research? Magic?

I’ll pick research and magic.

Seriously, I read accounts of the times written by many different voices. And then I interviewed people who were alive during those times and let their memories flesh out my vision of the past. I also found fabulous visual and audio resources. I was greatly aided by fiction films and documentaries made during that era. The internet and Netflix are wonderful tools.

You are also a teacher. Do you think this impacts your writing and how?

Yes, indeed. I constantly try to improve my teaching—which I see as the process of getting ideas and information from my mind to the mind of the student. And of course that is the same task that an author faces. Sometimes techniques from the craft of writing change the way I teach—and other times the tricks I have learned as a teacher work just as well on paper.

Among your former students are Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons), actor Laurence Fishburne, six Academy Award nominees and winners, and twelve Emmy nominees and winners. You obviously have something important to say to artists. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
The difficult thing is to develop a voice and world view that is your own—recognizable to others so that they can identify with it, but quirky (or twisted or off-kilter or…) enough to force the reader to see things freshly. The writer is a storyteller first of all, a conservator and purveyor of the culture—but if he/she isn’t also an innovator, then the story is old and formulaic, not worth the reader’s trouble.

I have to ask. You used the names of people you know in Tommy Gun Tango. (Including our own Gayle Pool and Jackie Houchin.) Are you careful to be complimentary when you do this?

I asked permission first to name characters after these fellow authors, and told them briefly what kind of character each would be. Once I had written a substantial passage that included them I sent it to them to vet. If either had been offended or homicidal about her portrayal I would change the character name to Jackie Vick.

My buddy Robert Fate also shows up in this book and other friends and family have been used as well. It’s meant to be fun—so if it’s not, I don’t do it.
What’s next on Bruce and Brant’s agenda?

Well….Bruce is writing a textbook on screenwriting just now. When that is out the door Bruce and Brant are going to collaborate once again. The next book is set in contemporary Los Angeles and features a number of ancient gods, mythical characters, and other immortals of waning power and influence. They all are trying to break into show biz to re-establish their identities in popular culture and regain solidity in the Jungian world-mind. The book will be called Nasté, Brutus, and Shorte.

And yes, there will be animals: Odin’s talking ravens, Hugyn (Thought) and Mugyn (Memory), for those of Scandinavian inclination.

You can order the book by clicking on the cover. You can also visit Bruce online.

Review of Bruce Cook’s Books

Dancing with the Stars

A Review by GB Pool

Great atmosphere shares center stage with a cast of memorable characters whose lives are intertwined in this fascinating tale of the dark side of old Hollywood.

Tommy Gun Tango, co-written by Bruce Cook and Brant Randall, brings back several characters from Randall’s Blood Harvest, an equally entertaining story set against a backdrop of the KKK in Massachusetts. And readers of Cook’s first novel will recognize a name that might be a relative of his hero in Philippine Fever, Cook’s adventure story set in the steaming back streets of Manila.

Utilizing multiple points of view, one per chapter, each character starts out by explaining where they came from and about the skeletons in their closets. First is Marshal Lawe, an out-of-work constable from a podunk town called Peony Springs in rural Massachusetts. His little town pretty well dried up and blew away, so he headed west to the Golden State.

Along a deserted highway one night, Lawe sideswipes a hitchhiker who ends up completing the journey with him to the land of milk and honey. This is the Depression, 1932, and everything looks better on the other side of the tracks.

The guy Lawe hits is Al Haine, a two-fisted Irishman who uses one fist to fight and the other to gamble. He is good at both. Talk about the luck of the Irish. Al manages to secure a few extra bucks on their journey to the coast. He never mentions the bruised bodies he leaves in his wake.

Once in Hollywood, Lawe gets himself a job in the movies as an extra. His credentials lead him to a security job for one of the big studios. Al tries his luck at the dog track. He does well and soon moves with a faster, more dangerous crowd.

Laced throughout the opening section of the story are tasty little tidbits ripped from the headlines of the newspapers of the day. Stories like the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the mysterious death of William Desmond Taylor. Each tale shows how the studio heads deal with moral turpitude and the threat to their box office receipts along with their willing accomplices in law enforcement.

Another character who graces the pages is Gladys Alwyn. When the war broke out she left Virginia and turned tricks in New York City before saving up enough money to buy a diner in Peony Springs. She hid her past and became romantically linked with Marshal Lawe, but when the economy turned south, she headed for Los Angeles. She had relatives there. She took with her another, darker, secret that she figured would ruin any further notions about making any permanent plans with Lawe.

Al Haine’s tempestuous past was filled with rapid departures, usually when a dead body turned up. His anarchist tendencies finally landed him in America from Ireland where trouble kept finding him. Once in Los Angeles, he sought to improve his lot in life and ended up working at one of the studios as a dancer in a gangster musical. His dancing partner, Gayle, a gorgeous blonde, is a kid with ambition, but this little number plays by different rules.

Gayle wants to get out of the chorus line and into better things. She is a Jean Harlow look-alike who wants to parlay her considerable assets into a sizable career. The young woman (really young, try sixteen) ran away from her hometown, Peony Springs no less, changed her name to a high-toned hyphenated British derivative and, with a doctored birth certificate that places her outside the statutory range, works every angle to get ahead. She meets Al who likes all her angles. They decide to pool their resources and take Hollywood by storm. But they have no idea what kind of storm is brewing.

So everybody is now in Los Angeles, and a particular Hollywood death draws each into a soul-searching nightmare. Tommy Gun Tango is filled with spot-on atmosphere and terrific characters. Any fan of the movies from the 1930s will be instantly transported to an old black and white movie, so bring the popcorn.

A fast and fun read. My only complaint: I wanted it to last longer. The characters are so well drawn, I wanted to see more of them. But the authors left a few doors open, so there just might be more adventures in Hollywoodland.

Published by Capital Crime Press, $14.95.

Blood Harvest
By Brant Randall
Capital Crime Press, May 2008, $19.95

Review by Jackie Houchin

Reminiscent of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Blood Harvest is the chilling tale of hatred, racism and violence spread by the Ku Klux Klan, not in the South, but in New England in the early part of the last century. It’s the story of two rival bootlegging families, related by marriage but separated by prejudice.

Years earlier, the youngest MacKay daughter defied her family and ran off with Nick DeCosta, a detested, “non-white European.” They had a son, Angus, who ran wild as a teenager. One day the boy showed up at a church social where he found young Jackie Sue MacKay ripe for picking.

Her cousin discovered them under a rhododendron bush, and pulled Angus out by the ear. The MacKay men folk thrashed him and tossed him off a bridge, breaking his leg and nearly killing him.

About that time Nick came looking for his boy, saw him in the riverbed, and opened fire on the MacKay men, injuring several. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder. What follows is a trial with little hope of justice.

What makes this book a pleasure to read, and re-read, is Randall’s unique voice. He relates the story of the trial, the lynching and a bizarre revenge murder through the eyes of nine colorful viewpoint characters – including a dog and a crow – and it’s perfectly believable. His back-woodsy dialects ring true, and his animal-speak is mesmerizing. The mystery is well-plotted and absorbing, his writing is fresh, but it’s the characters that sell this one.