The Fiction Circus Interviews Christopher Herz

MIRACLE JONES: Good morning.


JONES: This is the Fiction Circus, and we're here with Christopher Herz, author of The Last Block in Harlem. My first question is kind of a strange one, but I kind of wanted to know, why fiction with this book as opposed to something like non-fiction, like a memoir?

HERZ: I don't know, I think with fiction you have a lot more liberties in the story that you can tell. I mean, you always want to teach people with things that you write, but I think with a memoir or some non-fiction piece, it would just kind of be preachy. With a novel or story, you can entertain, you can get to know those characters. You can create them. Come to life. I like fiction; that's my craft. I'm not a journalist. I can't report just what happens. I mean, everybody watches the news. You see what happens out there. And with fiction, you create things. You make a world. And you live in a neighborhood long enough in New York, and that world starts to be created around you. And if you're a writer, everyone just starts turning into characters on you, including your wife. Everybody's fair game. And fiction's just more enjoyable for me. I've written so much crap other than that, so when I have a chance to write for what I want to write, I'm going to do fiction.

JONES: This is your first novel, correct?

HERZ: This is my first novel, yep.

JONES: First fiction attempt?

HERZ: This is my first fiction attempt.

JONES: Short stories or nothing?

HERZ: I've written short stories. I've been working in advertising. I've written everything from Pokemon cartoons to DKNY perfume ads to molder mediation brochures to pharmaceutical drugs that probably don't work. But this is my first novel. I tried another one when I was living in LA, and it didn't work. It didn't work. It's sitting in a stack of papers. But this is my first one. This is my first true attempt, and this is it. This thing went through at least 20 rewrites, so what you put down first isn't at all what comes out.

JONES: What about plays or screenplays or anything like that?

HERZ: I guess so. I guess I wrote a few cartoons, actually, when I was living in LA. I went to Korea, actually, to write some cartoon that never got made. But I was in Korea writing a claymation story on the top floor of some crazy hotel in Seoul for a little while. Yeah, that's true, I forgot about that. I don't remember those-- LA is a little strange, but yeah, I mean, I've done all that. I've written short stories for myself I guess, but nothing that I've put out there. Nothing that I would consider a craft. I think a novel is something different than everything else. It's kind of religion. It's a piece of work that you're putting out there into the world that's gonna live forever, and you never know who's going to touch.

JONES: This is clearly a book with a message.

HERZ: Yeah, I guess so. I didn't want to leave, like, one message. I really tried not to say, "This is the message that you should take away from the book," because that's the whole point: that one person shouldn't create the message. I wanted to leave it undefined and let everyone take away from it what they wanted to. There's definitely a plan in there, and I think with all the fiction that I write, I have an agenda. I want to inspire action; I want to inspire people to do things. I just see things happening in neighborhoods with working class people that the trend continues over and over and over again. I think that there are some messages and some lessons hidden in the book that I think if you follow, you could save yourself from getting pretty screwed. But it's not an overarching "you have to do this." I don't really think that there's a good guy or a bad guy in the book. I mean, if anything, I think the main character is the worst guy in the whole book.

JONES: One of my favorite parts about it is this paradox that this guy tries really hard to do something.

HERZ: Right.

JONES: But in doing something, he manages to create the opposite of what he wanted through unwise actions or unreflective pure action as opposed to action without...

HERZ: That's the thing. It seems like no matter what you do to clean up the world, the more you try to clean it up, the more it's going to shit on you. So the thing is, what are you trying to clean up, and what are you trying to do? And what's the reason? Are you trying to leave some great mark on the world? Are you trying to make yourself some great person and create a destiny for yourself? When the life you're living is right next to you. It seems like when you get old, and when you talk to old people, they'll always tell you, "None of it was worth it. As long as you have the right girl and the right..., you're fine." So I kind of played out that scenario to the hilt, I guess.

JONES: The central problem in this book is a bad neighborhood getting reformed from outside and then the residents of that neighborhood being displaced because they can no longer afford to live there.

HERZ: I guess so. I would say that's the backdrop of the story. I really tried to tell this story with that as the historical backdrop of what's going on, rather than making that the main thing. But that's true, yes, that is obviously the thing that everybody seems to be catching, so...

JONES: It's certainly not the main thing.

HERZ: It's there.

JONES: But it is very important, this particular genre. It's set on the last block in Harlem.

HERZ: It is actually the last block in Harlem, too.

JONES: Right up to Washington Heights.

HERZ: Like the block after it is... so, yeah it is. When we moved in, the day we moved in, we didn't have any furniture or anything like that. All I had was my typewriter that I brought with me which you see on the cover. And I started writing the book that day, so yeah, I mean, I guess that is a universal problem. But, you know, every neighborhood changes. Right, so the point is, if you create an economic power base for yourself, you can stop that from happening, and that's what I'm trying to get people to see. But I don't want to preach that, and I don't want to write a memoir. I mean, who am I to walk on this block that people have been living on for 40 years and say, "Hey, why don't you do this?" So I'm just saying, "Hey, here's a story. Check out these people, look at how they act. Who do you identify with? Who would you like to be? Who do you enjoy?" and maybe take something away from it.

JONES: Do you think it's possible for old residents and new residents to come together sort of like they did in your book and talk about these things? Or are the tensions just, in reality, too high?

HERZ: I guess, yeah. I mean in reality, the tensions are really high. I think in my neighborhood, the older residents -- some of the people who love the book -- they've been living there for years. They're like, "Finally, somebody wrote a book about the block," and they dug it. A lot of people on the block really, really liked the book. I think the reality of the situation is you have families who have been living in these apartments for years and years and years, and people are coming in and buying the places and kicking everybody out. Why is everything so cheap? You have to kind of look at that, why is the neighborhood so cheap? Why can people come in there and do that? For the people who are fighting for it, and the people who want to have some kind of unity and try to keep the neighborhood good, that's fantastic. But, you know, some guy sitting there who eats a slice of pizza and throws the crust on the ground and throws the plate on the ground and says, "Damn, these people are moving into my neighborhood. What the hell?" You know, you're the one who's bringing the property value down. Right? To allow that to happen. But that's politics, so instead of me saying that, I let characters in my book say that.

JONES: I was not able to actually generate any sort of particular political idea from this book.

HERZ: No, you're not supposed to. I don't want you to. I’m not Ayn Rand. I’m not going to slam my shit home in 5,000 pages. Everyone's gonna take something different. There’s no agenda with the book. It’s just to promote an understanding of everybody and to shine light on this neighborhood that’s going away. I mean, in 20 years, it won’t be like that. My hope is to take... it was my love story to the neighborhood. I wanted to show it. I wanted to capture it, and I can’t take a picture for shit. I’ve walked up and down that street and taken pictures of buildings. The Dawn Hotel and all of that and, say, Nick’s Pub, and they never came out. But when I write about it, that’s kind of my picture. Just putting it out there and showing people the neighborhood.

JONES: You treat the whole neighborhood as a character, I guess is what you’re saying?

HERZ: I guess so. I mean, my biggest audience... obviously I want people to buy the book, and I want to get it out there. Who doesn’t? But my biggest concern was like, the lady who lives two blocks down from me who talks to all the kids and hangs out the window and smokes cigarettes and just knows everybody. And gives the kid an extra 50 cents to go get food or gives them clothes or this and that. And her father’s been living in that neighborhood since the Giants used to play at the Polo Grounds where there were projects across the street, and the Yankees lived in the building where she lives. I was more concerned about what she said than what any other critics would say, and she loved the book. And she was like, “I didn’t answer my phone for two days. You got it. Thank you, thank you.” And for me, I was like, “Fantastic.” People lived in that neighborhood when they used to call it Dodge City, so if you made it from the subway station to your building without getting shot, everything was great. So you hear about these things, and who knows? Who knows what’s going to happen from this?

JONES: One of the tremendous unspoken tensions of the narrative in this: race. It’s never explicitly mentioned once, except where somebody says, “You look Irish,” which sort of, you know, well, probably white.

HERZ: Maybe. I don’t think I mention the color of anybody in the book, right?

JONES: That’s true, that’s true.

HERZ: I don’t like to describe people, like what they look like. I usually just describe who they are. Who knows what they’re going to be, right? Let the reader put that image and who they want that person to be. The story’s told in a first-person, so my hope is that... I like to write in the first-person, because that way the reader can get in the character’s head and just walk through with them. I had no... I tried to write it without having the race of the main character in mind, even though you can determine what each person is. But no, there is none.

JONES: Generally, based upon who’s new and who’s old in the neighborhood. You know, you assume that.

HERZ: Sure. So yeah, I mean, the interesting thing is the readers – the people who come back to me – and they’re like, “Oh, is this person black? Is this person white? Is this person this? Is this person that?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, what do you think?” So it’s based on your own assumptions. And so, I kind of wanted to play with that. You know, “What are your stereotypes of people, that you think...?” And then you assign that to them. But it’s never mentioned, so you’re kind of creating the picture. So it’s interesting. I think that’s very interesting.

JONES: Was that intentional, or did that just come out in writing?

HERZ: No, that was intentional. That was intentional. I went back and I made sure that it wasn’t done. So I don’t think the color of somebody is mentioned one time. Somebody’s race would be mentioned, but only because of where they’re from, not because of who they are. That was intentional. That’s, I guess, the idealist in me. But one of the reasons was you can only do that in fiction.

JONES: Sure, yeah. And that’s one of the reasons why fiction’s so powerful, because it does have that gateway into other consciousnesses that other mediums don’t necessarily have. This is definitely a New York book, right?

HERZ: Yeah, I think so. The general reaction has been from people that New Yorkers really get it a lot more than people who haven’t been to New York. But, you know, I sold 400 copies just walking around the city, so I’ve had people writing me back from wherever, like, “Wow, that was so cool. I got to see a piece of New York. Next time I come there, I’m going out to St. Nick’s Pub, blah blah blah.” Yeah, it is definitely a New York story, absolutely. But not a typical Harlem story, as most things haven’t been written about that neighborhood. Mostly it’s like jazz and boom-boom-boom.

JONES: Jazz and murder.

HERZ: Jazz and murder. Which I guess there’s a little bit of jazz and murder in the book, but that wouldn’t be the overarching theme. But of course, you know, you took that to a publisher, and they’d probably put a gun and a saxophone on the cover.

JONES: Oh definitely, yeah. Gun and a saxophone.

HERZ: Which is why I did it myself. I like the typewriter better.

JONES: Yeah, I think it’s the perfect image for the book, anyway.

HERZ: That’s Greg Flores. He’s the guy who did the cover design for the book, and he’s an incredible designer. He did the layout for the book. He laid out each sentence, so we did it all manually, and he laid out everything. He did the design, and we just took the typewriter around the neighborhood one day, and to tell you the truth, he hadn’t even read the book. I knew he hadn’t read it. I was like, “Make sure you read it before we do the cover shoot,” and he's like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine.” Originally, I wanted to have the typewriter plugged into a lamppost, and he’s like, “Oh, okay, let’s do that.” And he just kind of held the typewriter and looked around and he's like, “Let’s move it in the middle of the street.” He just walked in there, took the shot, and was like, “Yeah, I think we got it.” People go crazy for the cover. So Greg Flores, man, amazing.

JONES: The metaphor is fiction from the street, so it’s sort of got the typewriter right there.

HERZ: Yeah, you got it. Designers, man.

JONES: Do you think people are going to get this book who don’t live in New York?

HERZ: I don’t know, I mean, some people are not going to get the book. A lot of people are like, “I don’t understand it. Was this person a ghost? What’s going on?” Either you get it or you don’t. I think people who are not from New York will understand the story. I think it’s a universal story. I mean, it’s a love story. Essentially, it’s a love story and just about really exploring, you know, “What is a man? What is it like to go out there and be a man in the world?” You’ve got to go out there at one point, and as you get older – I don’t know how old you are, you know. You seem very young and super-ambitious and super-excited about literature and writing, and I follow your stuff all the time. As you get out there and keep going and keep going, people are going to be less and less nice to you, because you’re a man. You’re going to need to fight for every little thing you have. At some point, the need to accomplish something and leave your mark behind becomes very important to you. I think while you’re going out and then how you balance that between things like family and people you love and personal life, it’s very hard. Because usually, it’s difficult to do both. How are you going to be great and leave your mark in the world and still have time to say “I love you” to someone at the end of the night? What’s more important? What’s going to feed your ego? Does that even matter? So I really wanted to explore that. So I think people who are not from New York, yeah, they’ll get that. And, you know, they’ll enjoy the story. Either they will or they won’t. Pretty much straight off, if you don’t like it from the first chapter then... Usually when I was selling it on the street, I’m like, “Here, read the first page. If you like it, great. If you don’t, then...”

JONES: What was your percentage of success?

HERZ: People who read the first page usually bought it. I would say, like, 90 percent. This one guy was drunk in the park one day, totally like wasted, and was sitting with some woman who was probably was or probably was not his wife. And they were just hammered. It was down in Madison Park. He was wearing this really nice suit and she was just wearing pearls, like looking-at-him thing. And I went up to them and I gave them my pitch, and I was like, “Ask me about the book.” He was like, “Well, tell me how it ends.” I’m like, “I’m not going to tell you how it ends. You won’t buy the book.” He’s like, “I’ll buy the book, but I’m not going to read it. But just tell me how it ends, because I don’t want to read the book.” And I told him how it ends. And he’s like, “Oh, okay.” And he gave me $10 and just said, “Thanks a lot.” And he just sat there smiling and looking off into space, plastered with his woman-wife-maybe-not. And that’s New York. So the experience of selling the book has been fucking outstanding. There's been thousands of stories like that, millions of stories like that.

JONES: Who’s your toughest sell?

HERZ: My toughest sell is other writers, because they’ll be like, “Oh, I’m a writer myself. I try to do this myself.” I’m like, “Oh great, why don’t you buy it? It’s good karma for you!”

JONES: You’re like, “Fuck you. I haven’t seen you out here!”

HERZ: Yeah, right. Right. “What are you doing sitting on this bench? Why aren’t you home writing?” But, you know, other writers. Young executives. And tourists. At the beginning, tourists... people were so afraid. Like, you come up to them and they think you want to grab their purse, or they think that you’re trying to scam them, or you think that there’s nothing in between the pages of the book. I think young executives. People who are heading for sitting in offices and stuff. Like I said in the Publisher’s Weekly thing, the people who look like they have the most money with the most expensive glasses and the most expensive bags and all of that stuff were the least likely to buy it. And I was really shocked, because the people who bought it were just working class people who really appreciate someone walking around and selling their book. But towards the end, I can picture... I can see who’s going to buy the book and who’s not, so my percentage of yeses and nos really got... Because after doing it for a while, there’s like five or six different types of people, and that's it. And everyone starts looking kind of the same to you.

JONES: Well, who’s the most likely to buy your book?

HERZ: The most likely to buy the book is the middle-aged guy sitting on the park bench. The ex-fireman, right? The New York people, the people who live in New York. Because the people who live in New York are part of the city, and they’re part of the city. They want to support the city, so they’re pretty down. Working class people, married couples... women with babies love to buy the book. Because maybe they sit there, and maybe they’re like, “Wow, this guy’s going after their dream,” you know? There’s the hot girls who sit three of a kind, and they all have their hair nicely done with their Louis Vuitton bags. They never buy the book. They’re waiting for you to stop talking, because "I'm waiting for a phone call," or “I’m in a meeting” or something like that. There’s the woman executive who’s a little bit older; she’ll usually buy the book. I don’t know if that’s 5 or 6. The guy sitting alone will not buy the book. The woman sitting alone will usually buy the book. It all depends, it really...

JONES: Do you change your pitch for different...?

HERZ: No, my pitch is the same.

JONES: What’s your pitch?

HERZ: My pitch is, I walk up to them, and I’m holding my book in my hand. I say, “Would you mind if I took 10 seconds to present my novel to you? This is my first book. I wrote this between 5 AM and 7 AM every day before I went to work. When I finished it, I published it myself, and I’m out here chasing my dream.” And I put it in their hands. That’s it. Are you going to say no to that? Then I’m sorry for you, because what are you going to spend 10 dollars on that’s better than that? Some guy walking around saying, “This is my book, and I fucking woke up at 5 AM every day, and I wrote this thing. And not only did I write it, but I published it myself. And not only that, but here I’m walking on the streets selling my book to you.” What a great thing! Only in New York could you do that. I can’t imagine being able to do this in another city.

JONES: Who’s your ideal reader? Who would you wish would buy the book more?

HERZ: I don't know, I mean... that’s a great question. Who do I wish would...? Teenagers.

JONES: Teenagers.

HERZ: I’ve been sending a couple out to some high school newspapers, because I figure those are young writers who would like to read something, and I'd like to build my audience. If you’re going to self-publish something, you can’t just publish a book and keep them in the apartment. You can’t do that. You have to promote your stuff. And even if you get published by another publishing company, you’re going to have to promote yourself. They’re not going to do that for you. You’re going to have to organize everything. I’m looking to build an audience. Younger people, I feel, will get the book more. They’ll get the pace of the book more, the story of the book more, but it’s tougher to go up to them on the street. Most of them, really, they don’t have cash, and getting to buy them online, I don’t know if they have credit cards or whatnot. I mean, I’m pretty happy. I’m pretty happy with the range of people. Older people are buying the book. And then they call me with the ending and are like, “Oh, you got me.” The guys like the ending; the women like the middle, so whatever, you know?

JONES: Beyond selling the book in the street every day, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for publicity?

HERZ: I think walking up to people and holding my book in their hand...

JONES: That’s it. You don’t need it.

HERZ: That’s it. Well, now it’s getting colder, so you have to think of other things to do. Now, it’s really hard to get book reviews, because if you go to The New York Times or even The Village Voice, most of them will tell you, “Send it in, but we’re not going to review it.” And that’s okay, I mean, they must have thousands of things. I’ve written to high school newspapers, like I’ve said, and just trying to find bloggers out there who want to read and get the story out. I have a friend of mine who does paper foldables. I don’t know if you saw that...

JONES: The typewriter, yeah.

HERZ: Yeah. He does stuff. He’s great. He just does all these crazy cartoon characters. His name’s Brian Green, and I had him design that thing. And I’d just leave them around the city. I’ve gone into Barnes & Noble and put them in there.

JONES: So you used to do marketing and advertising.

HERZ: Yeah.

JONES: How did the writing of marketing and advertising copy influence the way the book is structured?

HERZ: The main character of the book is a marketing guy and copy guy, so I think the themes of him naming everything – that’s why he calls out brand names all the time. And the brevity of how things are written. I guess that influenced it. My hope is that it didn’t influence it too much, because that stuff just kills me to write, but it pays. It allows me to publish and do all of this. Without that, I wouldn’t be able to make these books. You know, I hired a designer to do that. I hired a programmer to program everything. I paid them well, but I think if you pay people to do things, they’re going to do a better job rather than asking from them, “Hey, can you do this for me?” I’m building a publishing company here; I’m trying to build something. So the marketing and copywriting, I don’t know man, that’s just a different world. If anybody’s out there who’s done marketing and copywriting, it’s mostly bullshit, but once in a while, it’s very cool.

JONES: So clearly in the book, you’re conflicted about it, because the character is a former marketing/copywriting guy.

HERZ: Sure.

JONES: And he tries to find a way to use his powers for good.

HERZ: Well see, yeah, I guess so. I mean, I don’t know that it’s good or not. I see him as a really evil type of guy. The main character, I saw... he’s the villain. The main character is the villain, because if you look at it, he’s very... he's trying to make a name for himself in the middle of all this, and he’s using what he knows to make people do things. And I don’t think he has a judgment on whether what he’s doing is evil or good in the neighborhood. I think he’s trying to get clean. And I think the point is that once you get dirty, it’s very difficult to get clean, and you’ve got to pay for it.

JONES: So you see every move backwards into the marketing/copywriting mindset as hitting the bottle again? Kind of returning to easy attachments in order to...?

HERZ: I guess so. One of the great things about hearing what other people think about things you write is seeing things that you don’t know about, so maybe, yeah. I guess you could say that.

JONES: So it’s kind of like a classic drug narrative, really, where the drug is like the power of influence?

HERZ: Yeah, I guess the power of influence. And I guess the return is the return to leaving your mark in the world and what an absurd thing that is, because you’re just... you're gonna die. And when you die, who knows what happens after that.

JONES: Ozymandias, right?

HERZ: Yeah.

JONES: So you’re starting your own publishing company.

HERZ: Yeah... yeah.

JONES: Did you try conventional publishing avenues before you decided to self-publish?

HERZ: I’ll tell you, when I first came to New York, I had a friend of mine who knew the president of this big publishing company. She set up an interview for me, because I really wanted to get into publishing. I love publishing. Like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to me, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, that’s my guy, because he was a publisher and a writer who created this small group of people. And he brought into what I think was the last great movement in American literature. Right? Without him, there would be no Kerouac or Ginsberg, because he brought them into the light. I love publishing. So I got the interview, and I go up and I get the interview with this woman, and it’s in this incredible office in this beautiful building, and she’s blah-blah-blahing me. She’s like, “Okay, I’ll set you up an interview with our marketing guy. Maybe he can find a job for you.” And I would have done anything. I would have swept the floors there, just to get in on the ground level and learn. So I go in there for my interview, and I dress nice. I dress as nice as I possibly can. I just came to New York with nothing, zero. And I go in there, and the guy’s like, “Hey, how you doing?” And I was like, “How you doing?” And he was like, “Take a look around.” And I look around, and there’s all these 19-year-old girls with huge breasts and tight sweaters, and he’s like, “I don’t think you fit in here. What do you think?” I was like, “I don’t know... I don’t know. Maybe there’s a place for me.” I’m thinking, like, maybe this guy’s fucking around. Is he a funny guy? Is he a funny guy? He’s telling me how he got his job and how he just kind of fell into it, but his friend’s dad owned this or that... And he’s like, “Why don’t you call me 20 times, okay, and I might pick up on the 21st. And then we’ll talk about it.” And I’m thinking in my head, Fuck you. Great. All right, dude. I’m going to put a mental image of you above my desk, and be like, I’m coming after you. And this guy was the head of marketing, and he was telling me, “What could you do to market things?” And I was trying to tell him all these things, and he didn’t know jack. And here I am, this person who’s really eager to go out there and be part of this thing, and I realized very soon that they don’t want you to be a part of it. So I was like, “Okay, great. I’m just going to start my own.” And I just started my own. And now, I’ve sold right underneath that building and sold in front of there. So I know at some point it’s gonna come back. So that was my look into the publishing industry.

JONES: Beyond hiring no one and being, I guess, functionally retarded, do you see any other problems with the publishing industry?

HERZ: No, I mean, look, it’s a business. If you want to have your book in Barnes & Noble, Barnes & Noble has a 28% return rate on all books that they do.

JONES: And they get remaindered, right, so it's burned.

HERZ: Right, so as the publisher, you’ve got to make sure that whatever book you put out there is going to sell. The president of the company, she was very cool. Not the marketing, not the guy. But she was very cool, and she was like, “It’s not like how it was anymore. You can’t find some young writer and try to push him and cultivate an audience and this and that.” It’s just a bottom-end business. I don’t think it’s so much the publishing industry, but it may be the way that books are sold. Like if you don’t go through Barnes & Noble, then you’re hurting. Where else are you going to sell? You’ve got to go through a distributor. And the distributor’s going to pay you probably 55% of your retail costs. And your distributor sells it to Barnes & Noble or whoever decides to buy the book. If those books get returned, you have to pay for all the returns and the shipping and all that. So you’re out. How are you going to afford that if you’re a small publisher? It doesn’t pay to have it in Barnes & Noble unless you have some publicity. So the publishing industry, no. I mean, they put out some great things. They find great writers, and they put them out there. I don’t hate on them. That’s not gonna help. Let them do what they do, but they’re hurting. They’re going to go the same way as the music industry because of all that middle management and marketing people and all these type of things that are not realizing you’ve got to move in a different direction. Their business is too big that they can’t see the new wave of publishing coming in, so I don’t hate them. I don’t hate them. Why not? Because it’s a business. So unless they’re gonna make money off you, why are they going to do a print run of 500,000 books? It doesn’t make sense.

JONES: What was your initial outlay investment as far as print run goes? How many did you print up at first?

HERZ: I printed 1,000. There was I think 40 over, because when you print, it’s either going to go 100 over or 100 under. Because you can't count on the thing. I printed up 1,000 copies. Sold 400 so far.

JONES: So you’ve got 600 left?

HERZ: I’ve got 600 left. Well, minus all the comp copies that you send to reviewers or maybe give to libraries or that kind of stuff.

JONES: Have you considered the ebook market? How do you feel about ebooks?

HERZ: My book is available on Kindle, absolutely. I like it.

JONES: How's that selling? Is it working out for you?

HERZ: It's okay, I mean, I think I've sold 7 copies of my Kindle book. But that's with no advertising.

JONES: Why did you decide to go with Amazon as opposed to somebody like Scribd?

HERZ: I like Amazon, because I don't want to put my book out there in a PDF format, because I don't want anybody else to take the book. Amazon has their own little thing. You know, they're very cool. I haven't really explored too much. Eventually, I would like my own thing. Eventually, I would like my own type of reader and that type of thing. I'm looking for developers right now to do iPhone apps -- that kind of stuff -- because that's the future. And Apple's working on their own type of reader as well, so they're going to have their own kind of Kindle thing coming out. And, you know, you can't fight that.

JONES: The Jesus tablet.

HERZ: Yeah, whatever, you know? I like books, I like paper books. I prefer reading that, but you can't ignore what's coming. You have to be a part of it. I'm doing digital, audio, hardcover...

JONES: So how are you paying your bills right now, in between stories?

HERZ: I was paying my bills selling my book, because if you control the distribution and the publishing, you can make a career out of selling your stuff. If you give it to a distributor or a publisher, you're going to get 10 back on your investment and be scraping by. I try not to do too much freelance stuff, but sometimes I'll get hired to do some writing for somebody, and I'll do it.

JONES: Does it feel kind of bad now that you've had a taste of something else?

HERZ: I haven't done it since I've published the book. The weather's getting cold now, so I can't walk around selling anymore. It's too cold. So you've gotta make money to reinvest in the new thing. I've gotta get publicity, I'm gonna start buying ad space on phone booths. I have some other... You have to advertise. You must be out there. A writer who just sits there and writes and has a stack of papers... it's no good.

JONES: Have you done any live readings in the city?

HERZ: No, I haven't, and that's what I'm going to start doing now. So I don't really know where to go and read.

JONES: Well, we'll talk about that later.

HERZ: You let me know. I was just down in Baltimore. I got invited to go speak on a panel down at the Baltimore Book Festival. The panel was called "Black Money: Redefining Urban Literature." I got down there, and there was Troy Johnson, the editor and runner of this giant website for African-American literature. Tracie Howard, who wrote Gold Diggers. She's a big-time author, and Ellis Marsalis, who's the brother of Wynton Marsalis. I was just in there on a panel with them, and it was fantastic. Things are starting to happen. You contacted me, you're like, "Let's sit down," and you've got this crazy rat with the strings pulling it open on your site. Fantastic. So this is the publicity push. The winter is that time. And I save money. You've gotta save. You've gotta save. I don't party. I do not.

JONES: To me, this is a book about factions, power, charisma, and control.

HERZ: Oh, nice. I'll take that. You give me that little quote, that bump quote for sure. Yeah, for sure.

JONES: Have you consider writing political thrillers? When I was reading this book, I thought, this has got the seeds for...

HERZ: My next book is going to take place in Mongolia during the transfer of power from Communism to capitalism. That's what I'm working on now, so I'm doing a lot of research on that. My wife is Mongolian actually, so I was married there, and I was in Ulan Bator. And the city is very much like... it's a great city, and I'm getting all this stuff in. So that's the next one. It's going to take place in the '90s. So there's... your political thriller will be coming. I love politics, I love it. That's the best fiction there is. These people are insane.

JONES: What's harder for you when you're writing: the plot or the characters?

HERZ: The plot. The plot is very hard. The story is hard for me. I love characters. I love them. Everybody I meet is a character, you know what I'm saying? I have trouble looking into people's eyes, because I start seeing them as a character, and they're kind of looking at me like, "What are you doing?" You know, because I look deep into people's eyes. So that's why offices are really tough for me, because in offices, it's all about what you don't say. You'll be in meetings, and you'll think everyone's talking about this one thing, but that's not what they're talking about at all. They're talking about total bullshit, and if you say anything remotely like this, they'll be like, "Fuck!" That's what the outside world said. The characters are very easy for me. The plot is very hard for me. That's why I was happy with my ending. Because I was like, "Cool, nice. That's like the end of a book."

JONES: Did you have the ending in mind when you started?

HERZ: No, absolutely not. I didn't like the ending as I originally had it.

JONES: What was the original ending?

HERZ: Not as good as that. I'll tell you off the thing. I'll tell you, but just don't...

JONES: Yeah, yeah, I'll redact it. Don't worry.

HERZ: The original ending was just him... the original ending was just him... [redacted], and I thought that was cheesy. I didn't think it was a big thing. I was like, "You know, he wouldn't do that. That's not enough of a payoff for this story. What's the whole point of this? The whole point of the story is that everything around him is dying, and he doesn't realize it." And I was like, "Oh shit, you know what would be fucking great?" I was like, "Yeah, I got it!" And then I ran and met my wife after work, and I'm like, "Listen to this!" [redacted] I called my editor, who's Jackie Lester. She's fantastic. She didn't talk to me for like two months after I was done because I killed her, and said, "Jackie, listen to this! This is the ending!" [redacted] And she was like, "Why would you do that?" I was like, "That is the ending." She was like, "I can't even talk to you right now. My hairs are standing up. That's so disgusting, but I guess it works, but I don't know." I'm like, "Yeah, I'm keeping it, thanks. Just read it." And she's like, "Oh, I like how that reads." 'Cause it's perfect. 'Cause people don't see it coming, and I love it.

JONES: I've gotta tell you, from a critical standpoint -- from a narrative standpoint -- I didn't really like it. I didn't think it flowed well from the initial preoccupation of the beginning, but I love the writing of it. I thought it was fantastically executed. Maybe not necessary.

HERZ: That's what I've heard. But that's one of the things where it's like, I'm doing this because I did what I wanted to do, and any other ending... I've heard that too. But the rest of the story was so much on the ground that I figured this way it would be like, "Oh, cool." And it's a good way to end the book.

JONES: It wasn't a dealbreaker. It just made me wake up at the end. I was like, "Whoa."

HERZ: Well, for the dealbreaker, it's too bad! The book's over anyway! You finished it, so it's not like you're going to stop reading it. I liked it. Men seem to like the ending a little bit more than women like the ending, but it's shocking to everybody, and I haven't had anybody say, "Oh, I saw that coming."

JONES: I did not see that coming!

HERZ: No, nobody. And people are like, "Oh, is she a ghost?" or this or that, but I like it. I think it sums up the book, and it's one of my favorite things that I ever wrote. But usually, your favorite things that you wrote sometimes don't work. But you know, I've heard that too. People say, "Oh, I don't think it works," but, well...

JONES: What was it you said about... "everything's dying"?

HERZ: Everything's dying, but you don't realize what's going on around you. You don't realize that it's that. You don't realize what you're doing, because you're on your own, in your own world.

JONES: Are you going to publish your next book in the same way or what? What are you thinking about that?

HERZ: I don't know, I've been approached by a couple of people that want the book. I don't know, you know, and they want the first writer refusal for the next one. I don't know, if I can develop a good marketing plan to sell it in a little bit of a wider distribution, then I'll do that. I don't think bookstores are the way to go, because if I go to a bookstore, I've gotta charge $14.95 for the book, and that's really expensive I think. I think $10 is a fair price for a book.

JONES: Well, let's be honest, $9.95.

HERZ: $9.95, yes.

JONES: Do you keep a stack of nickels in your pocket?

HERZ: No, people give me 10 bucks. People give me 10. People give me 10. But that's not for the taxman to know. But, yeah, I probably will continue to do it myself. Who knows? Who knows what's going to happen? I'd eventually like to branch out and start printing them in different languages. The printing is the main cost, right? That's the main cost.

JONES: What was your editing process like?

HERZ: I rewrote it... I wrote the first draft on my typewriter, and then I started writing it on a blog everyday. I just would wake up and I would blog a little bit. People started following the story. And then I took all those little sections, and I put it together. And everything was written in the morning. So I wrote I wrote I wrote, and then I edited. I rewrote it like 4 times, and I was like, "Okay, it's time to have someone else look at it." 'Cause after you write something over and over again... don't ever edit your own stuff. It's the worst thing you can do. Find an editor you trust and who's going to be really hard on you. And I did, and she slammed me. She helped bring the character Namuna to life a little bit more. She made her a little bit stronger. She made it less of a lovey-dovey story, and she told me, "You know, there's like 30 sunrises in the book. The sun's always coming up." And you don't realize that, but I wrote it in the morning every day, so I had to edit that down. It's great, fiction's great, because when I do something in life, I'll always regret it. I'll walk away after our interview and think, "Oh, I should have done this, or maybe I should have done this," and this and that. But with novels, you just go. You take the character from 17th Street down to 16th Street, and then he goes. And you're like, "Oh, okay. Oh, maybe he should have bought a paper." Well, you just take him down again, and you put a newspaper in his hand. And you take him again, and you see this person. You just start coloring in and filling in the blanks. It's my first one, so obviously I see some problems. You go back, but...

JONES: What did you mess up?

HERZ: I don't know. What do I say my...? I don't know. There are some errors in there... there were like a couple of errors that I was just like, "Fuck." I would cut off my pinky toe for a proofreader who's just locked in a room with 40 cats and does nothing but proof. So if you're listening to this and you're out there smelling cat food, call me, because that's the hardest thing to find. I think I would have stretched out the end a little bit more, stuff leading up to the end. The change in the neighborhood, but that's not the story I want to tell. I don't tell long stories. I don't give long descriptions of things. I just tell what happens and move everything around, boom boom boom, and I don't want to spend a page on the sunrise. So, no, you can't... nothing, nothing. There's a couple of places I fucked up on, but you know, those are my sleepless nights, with my wife sitting there saying, "Go to sleep, go to sleep," and I'm not going to sleep.

JONES: What did you trade for this novel? What conflicts or passions within you are settled?

HERZ: That's a great question. I think there were a lot of personal issues that I dealt with in the book that I hadn't dealt with or talked to about with anybody before, so I guess I'll let the reader decide what those are. I think I settled my need to be great. There were times when I was like, "I want to be the greatest writer in the world and have everybody talking about the book" and this and that. Now I know, because I've played out that scenario. I wouldn't want to be that main character, because he was great, in the terms of, "Wow, what did this guy do with his life? Well, he did this, he changed his neighborhood, he became famous, he ran a political campaign, he made his mark, people know who he was. His name will live on forever." It's like, "Who is he?" He's just some guy who lost everything in the end, to get nothing. So I think my ego got put in check a little bit with this, which is fantastic. I think the conflict of monetary success got tempered a little bit. Wow, that's a great question. That's a great question. What got settled? What questions did I answer within myself? I'll tell you. I think the question that got answered is answered by other people. My wife asked me, "Why do you write? What are you looking for? Why are you driving yourself crazy over this? What's the big deal?" And for me, the reason I write is because I have a lot of questions. I think a lot of artists feel like this. They maybe have some things that they can't answer themselves and they can't see in reality. "Why do I act like this? Why do I think like this? Why am I like that? Why are these ghosts haunting me?" You can't answer those yourself, because you're just going to spin around in that constant circle and say, "Hey!" And so when I write, I put this stuff out in the world, and I'm asking the world a question. One of the women who bought my book -- she was great, I always used to see her. Her husband teaches journalism at Columbia, and she invited me up to her apartment for coffee to go talk with her and her husband. I was sitting there and I was talking with her, and she was like, "I really enjoyed the book. The ending... I couldn't call you for a week, because it threw me a little bit, but I understand why you did it." I was like, "Okay," and she was like, "I really enjoyed that book." I used to see her all the time when I was selling. She said to me, she was like, "That little boy... the ghost. That's you." I almost started crying, you know? Because I didn't realize that, and that's true. Because the main character of the book isn't me. That is me. And I would never have seen that. It's just some minor character. But for me, I was like, "Wow, that's just amazing." Because that settled a lot of things for me, because you go back and think about that character. I mean, I will never read my book again unless I'm reading it in public, but that was me. And other people tell you things about your book, and that's the greatest thing in the world. And someone's like, "Oh, this about your book" or "That about your book," and like, "Wow!" That's a fucking amazing feeling. That's the greatest feeling in the world, is that... there are 400 copies of my book, and they're all over the world. Tourists have flown back to Ireland, Iceland, Israel, Mexico, Ukraine, you know? All over. Mormons back to Utah, and they're writing me, telling me about this and that. And, like, "Oh, I didn't like this." It's fantastic. But they answer my questions.

JONES: Do people still tell you their stories?

HERZ: People still tell me their stories. I met these guys who were the greatest people. I was in Central Park one day, and these ex-firemen were sitting there. And he's like, "I'll buy the book." It's like, "Great." And he starts telling me, he starts talking. And the guy next to him is like, "I'll buy that book. I'm a sandhog." Do you know what a sandhog is?


HERZ: Those are the guys who dug the tunnels in New York City.

JONES: No kidding...

HERZ: Fuck yeah, man. And these guys first started telling me they were at Ground Zero when all that shit went down. And they started telling me these crazy stories of how people were bringing all the construction workers and police and fire workers all these amphetamines and speed and all this stuff to keep them going. And they were just telling me these crazy stories about old New York. The old New Yorkers are my favorite. New York in the daytime is a weird place, because people are... there are ghosts hanging out. Yeah, they still do tell me stories. There's a million. Even the guy who's going to print out my posters to put inside the phone booths is telling me that he has the connection to this underground boxing world in New York of Irish boxers for the past 50 years, and I'm like, "Oh my God, that would be a great book." So I have to tell these stories. I can't wait to be able to go out and tell all these people's stories. I want to run a publishing company. That's what I want to do.

JONES: Was it a conscious decision to leave some of the characters unnamed?

HERZ: Yes, because he saw people for what they did as a job. He didn't see them for who they were, because he himself had no identity, because he only identified himself with his job. So I think a lot of people identify themselves with what they do instead of who they are. So I kind of wanted to explore that. And I'm really bad with names, but that was a conscious decision.

JONES: So you said you've been here for 4 years?

HERZ: Going on 4 years, yep.

JONES: Do you feel comfortable here? Is this home to you now?

HERZ: This is home. When I go back to LA, I go to the ocean, I eat some calamari, and I drink a Bloody Mary, and I'm like, "Let's go." I love LA, I love California, but this is my home. This is where I'm going to live. I can't see living any other place but here.

JONES: And the other part is music. Music seems an integral part of this book. It's huge, right?

HERZ: Yes, very much so.

JONES: Did you listen to music when you wrote?


JONES: Silence?

HERZ: Silence. That's why I wrote at 5 AM, because there's nothing going on. And my neighborhood, as you can tell from the book, is very loud all the time.

JONES: Are you using the methods of hip-hop in order to promote and publish?

HERZ: Absolutely. Like Jay-Z or more like Russell Simmons. Or even Master P. All those guys sold stuff out of their trunk, and that's how they started it. And when I was growing up, you couldn't buy hip hop in the store. For the radio stations, you had to put tin foil on your antenna to get it in. And now it's this giant multi-million dollar industry, but they built it up from a grassroots thing. Same thing as City Lights. Same thing as all these things. If you start true and you develop your following, and you create a community, you can really develop your stuff. But yeah, the hip hop, I was raised by that. That is my business model. Even these kids on the street in New York who are walking around with their CDs going, "Hey, you like hip hop? You like hip hop? You like hip hop?" I'm like, "Dude, look at these kids. Awesome. I'm just going to do that with my book." Fantastic.

JONES: So where do you think New York is headed, as someone with a...?

HERZ: Who knows? You see all these stores for rent. You see these empty things. What if every block is a Rite-Aid instead of these little mom and pop shops? I think things are headed uptown. Again, who knows? New York is a beast unto itself who will chew up and eat out those that it doesn't want. Because those who think that they're on top in New York will fall very far, as we've seen. I have no idea. I haven't been here long enough to see where New York's headed. I'm just trying to get my own little piece of it and enjoy. I have no idea. I hope in a good place, but probably in the outer boroughs, right? Manhattan seems to be too expensive for most people to live. But you know, we have a great place up in Harlem, and I love it.

JONES: And I guess the big question is, how does your wife feel about the book?

HERZ: She loved it. She loved it. She knows who I am. You know, when I first met her, the first thing I said to her was, "I'm crazy, I'm a writer, let's go." And that was it. And she loved it, she liked it. But that's my wife; she's going to love my book. What's she gonna say? She loved it. She called me crying after she finished it. It's your wife, you know? She liked it, she enjoyed it. She really liked it. Did she mind what I did with the main character? No. I mean, I had to tell her before she read it. Be like, "This is fiction. This is fiction. This is fiction." She still looks at the windows, and is like, "Who's looking in the windows?" and stuff like that, but I think she got a little insight of who I am, some of the questions... she liked it.

JONES: Thanks very much for the interview.

HERZ: Yeah, thanks for talking, man.

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Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

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