If you’re like most readers, you first encountered the fiction of Jordan Harper in his gritty, affecting debut novel, She Rides Shotgun. It’s one of those crime novels you might call a slow grower—finding modest initial success and then gradually accumulating recognition until it becomes something of a cult classic. Today, most crime-fiction aficionados point to She Rides Shotgun as a pivotal work in the genre, an emotional powerhouse that introduced a vivid new talent onto the scene. Harper seems to be suddenly all over the place in late 2022, having just released a new novel in the She Rides Shotgun universe, titled The Last King of California (available in the UK), and looking forward to the wham-bam release of another crime novel early next year!

Truth is, Harper has his hands in more types of media than you might realize—and has for quite some time. Originally from Missouri and steeped in the southern noir atmosphere of the Ozarks (influenced by such writers as Daniel Woodrell and Frank Bill), Harper got his start in gut-punching pulp mags like ThugLit and Out of the Gutter. He assembled his early stories into a self-published book titled American Death Songs (later released in a slightly different form as Love and Other Wounds), intended to serve as a Hollywood calling card—and indeed he eventually made his way to the left coast, where he came up through the rigorous tutelage of the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop. You can sense the cumulative effect of fast, no-bullshit, highly disciplined screenplay-focused Hollywood writing in Harper’s no-nonsense style, exemplified most startlingly in his forthcoming Everybody Knows, which is due to be released in January 2023.

In the wake of Bouchercon 2022 in Minneapolis, where Harper debuted pre-publication copies of Everybody Knows to an enthusiastic audience of fans, I had the opportunity to sit down with him and ask him a few questions about his career, his inspirations, and his future.

Jason Bovberg: I’m fascinated by the career path you’ve taken, both from your background in music/film writing and your “writer’s room” evolution. You’ve talked about how your self-published story collection American Death Songs started as a sort of Hollywood calling card. Even now, you seem to be straddling several Hollywood vocations, from producing (The Mentalist, Gotham, your personal project L.A. Confidential) to screenwriting to (in your forthcoming Everybody Knows) authoring a stinging crime-fiction critique of the town. Which brings you the most personal satisfaction, and do you plan to continue straddling?

Jordan Harper: Fiction brings me much more personal satisfaction, with one caveat: Being in a writer’s room for a TV show, when it’s going well and the group of people is good, is as much fun as you can have at a job. You’re solving fun problems with a group of creative people. It’s great. But Hollywood is Hollywood, and while mainstream publishers are getting more conservative about what they will publish, it’s nothing compared to Hollywood. My fiction is the purest expression of what I have to offer the world, so that’s what I favor. If I ever achieved massive success, I would be interested in producing very small budget film, which is another place where creativity can hold sway.

Jason Bovberg: You discussed the stories in Love and Other Wounds in a terrific interview with Paste Magazine. I was hoping to dig a little deeper into the story of how American Death Songs, the little-seen calling card, became Love and Other Wounds, the HarperCollins/Ecco edition that put you on the crime-fiction map. Was it really just a stroke of luck that the collection fell into the hands of the exact right literary agent?

Jordan Harper: Well, the thing missing from that story is that in the years before I came to Hollywood I had written a novel called at different times Dirtnap Avenue or The Cool Hand War. It was about a gangster family in St. Louis, where I used to live. And I had been approached by Nat Sobel because of my early short stories in ThugLit. I sent him the novel and he liked it but thought it needed some work, so he and I did a couple of rounds of notes on it. But we never really got it right. It’s a first novel, and there’s some pretty big problems with it. So, I thanked Nat and went back to the drawing board. When I put out American Death Songs as a self-published book, it was because it never occured to me that a publisher would want a short story collection like mine. And then, somebody got it to Nat, who was like, “Why didn’t you send this to me? We could publish this.” And it turns out he was right.

Jason Bovberg: She Rides Shotgun was your first novel. I’m curious whether that U.S. title came first, or the UK title A Lesson in Violence, and which was your choice/your favorite? Why the name change?

Jordan Harper: Nothing I’ve written has been published under its working title. The working title for She Rides Shotgun was Greenlit, a much pulpier title, and then it was sold under the title If All Roads Were Blind, which is taken from a Bonnie Parker poem and is far too literary-sounding. I agreed that the title needed to change, and after a few rounds of brainstorming I came up with She Rides Shotgun, in part to avoid one of those “The Girl …” titles that were in vogue at the time. The UK publisher didn’t like the title because they thought UK audiences would find it confusing, as they don’t use the “shotgun” slang for the passenger seat. I wish I’d fought for them keeping the title, because first of all, I don’t think titles need to make sense (what is a Reservoir Dog?), and secondly in our one-world age it’s led to confusion and some people buying the novel twice by mistake.

Jason Bovberg: I heard you tell the story of starting over with She Rides Shotgun, rewriting much of the book from Polly’s perspective so that the book offers the “he said/she said” narrative that really gives the book its power. Can you put into words the thought process of this narrative decision, and how you believe Shotgun is elevated by giving Polly a POV?

Jordan Harper: I had done the classic thing of finishing a draft, leaving it alone for a few months, and then sitting down to read it to see how it felt. I actually printed the whole draft out, using the printer at my office on the TV show Gotham. And on a slow day I sat down on the floor of my office and started reading the draft and realized my mistake within twenty pages. Nate simply isn’t the character who has the interesting arc in the book. Polly’s journey from focusing her anxiety inward to learning how to push it back out onto the world is the real journey, and since it’s an interior one we had to be inside her head. When told purely from Nate’s POV, it felt very macho and flat. And I was shattered, because I knew it meant a page-one rewrite of the whole book. So I left the draft on the floor of my office, the read pages scattered around it, for a long time. My fellow writers said it looked like a death scene. And then I got over it and I sat down and did the work, and the result was a much better novel. Honestly, I think I was just scared to try and write from a little girl’s POV, but I’ve since come to realize that I have more in common with an 11-year-old girl than I do a hardscrabble armed robber fresh from prison.

Jason Bovberg: You’d dabbled with Aryan Steel (your stand-in for the Aryan Brotherhood) in your short fiction, and obviously that neo-Nazi prison gang features prominently in Shotgun. What was surprising to see is that the primary focus of the novel is the powerful father/daughter relationship between Nate and Polly. Can you talk about your impulse to write a book about that dynamic, set against the backdrop of white power gangsters?

Jordan Harper: It’s interesting to me because I don’t have children and don’t plan to, so I suppose I should have a reason for wanting to write about that dynamic. But again, that’s me putting myself in the role of the parent, and it turned out that what I really wanted to write about was the role of the child. And a lot of the Nate parts that wound up getting cut were about his relationship with his brother, who acted as a father figure, so that again it’s about being a child and finding strength. As far as pairing that sort of story with white power gangsters, I subscribe to what I call the Stan Lee school of fiction. There’s a different type of writer who says to himself, “Wow, sometimes I get so angry it’s like I don’t recognize myself. I think I’ll write a novel about a fiction writer who gets so angry he sometimes doesn’t recognize himself.” I don’t have a lot of time for that type of writer. Now Stan Lee, on the other hand, he says, “Wow, sometimes I get so angry it’s like I don’t recognize myself. I think I’ll write a comic book about a nuclear physicist who becomes a giant green personification of anger.” That’s the kind of storytelling I like and that I strive for. Take real, deeply felt human emotions and wrap them in some sort of candy-coated shell.

Jason Bovberg: One of the things that I most value about your fiction is your precise use of perspective. Even in your early short work, you’re experimenting with first person, second person, and other limited voices. In your novels, you seem to relish the way perspectives can bounce off each other and add to the richness of the narrative. And this, in my opinion, is in an era when a lot of writers are making “head-hopping” errors (poorly handled perspective shifts). I’m curious what fascinates you about perspective in fiction, and how you developed such precision with it.

Jordan Harper: As far as the second question goes, I think I got better at handling perspectives by experimenting, as you noted, in my short fiction phase. Short stories are such great places to experiment. One maxim I hold to is, “If you’re going to be weird, be short.” It’s difficult to sustain things like second person for a long time; even the most acclaimed second-person work I can think of, Bright Lights Big City, is really only acclaimed for its first chapter, which serves as a great short story. When I started the book I’m doing now, I toyed with the idea of doing it partially in first person and partially in second, but once I realized how much the second-person protagonist was going to be in the story, I went back to close third. I’d like to give a split first/second story a try, particularly in some sort of love story.

The longer I go, the more I drift toward close third as my favorite perspective: It’s great for controlling tone (the most important thing a writer can do, in my opinion), it lets you have a lens to view the world through, and it lets you escape the POV of the protagonist just enough that you don’t get trapped. You can let their thoughts and feelings get projected into the work without having to deal with the questions of unreliable narrators (a style of storytelling I’m uninterested in). As far as when to switch protagonists, in a novel I cherish multiple POVs because of how much control that gives you when it comes to pacing a story. Knowing just when to cut away and when to pick up separate story threads is an art, but it’s a good one to learn.

Jason Bovberg: It’s been five years since She Rides Shotgun, and you’ve got two books coming out in short order. ‘Tis the season of Jordan Harper! I think a lot of readers will be curious about the timing. First of all, how long has The Last King of California been gestating, considering that it’s a follow-up to She Rides Shotgun (referencing the events of that book and set in the same universe)? This book is readily and cheaply available from the UK, but do you anticipate a hardcover U.S. release?

Jordan Harper: Yeah, The Last King of California has been gestating for a very long time. I wrote a very, very different version of the book pretty close after writing Shotgun, but there were some things in my personal life that got in the way, and I ended up shelving it and focusing for a while on television work, especially once I got the chance to do L.A. Confidential. And in the aftermath of doing that I had the idea for Everybody Knows, and wrote a first draft of that, and while I was letting that draft sit so I could read it fresh, I ended up looking at the book that would become Last King. And I thought it was closer to being done than I had thought, and so the six-week break I was planning to take on Everybody Knows became six months and I finished it.

As far as a U.S. release, I really don’t know. Someday. My suspicion is that one way or another, I’ll publish it in America after I put out the follow-up to Everybody Knows, but I doubt it will be in the form of a hardback.

Jason Bovberg: What grabbed you about the lead character in The Last King of California, the young Luke Crosswhite, survivor of childhood trauma? The book strikes me as an “other side of the coin” look at the periphery of Aryan Steel, a new take on family dynamics, another kind of coming-of-age tale.

Jordan Harper: Like I said, this book took a lot of different shapes before it was finished. And the idea of Luke as the rejected child of a criminal empire was there in most versions of it, but it wasn’t until I wrote the flashback scene of Luke and his father in the bowling alley that it all came together for me. I almost wrote it like a short story, a stand-alone piece, and for a while it was Chapter Zero of the book. But then I wrote what became the Chapter Zero of the finished book and knew that was the way to open the book. I only realized after finishing it that the “trauma novel” is a currently fashionable thing, so I guess I was accidentally on-trend for once!

Jason Bovberg: So, L.A. Confidential. I was lucky to be able to view the pilot, and it was quite a powerful adaptation, really capturing the Ellroy tone within the limitations of network TV. I’m sure it was a tough thing, seeing a labor of love not quite make it to fruition. How do you feel about the experience now?

Jordan Harper: It was such a blessing to get to adapt what is maybe my favorite book, and to work with the incredible cast, including Walton Goggins, who was one of the stars of my favorite TV show of all time, The Shield. It was also heartbreaking, of course, to not only get that shot but also really feel like we pulled it off—and then to have it not happen. I hope to get to work with everyone involved again. I’ve actually been talking to some of the behind-the-scenes people about something new, which would be great.

Jason Bovberg: Can you talk about James Ellroy as an inspiration, particularly regarding the style of your next novel Everybody Knows? How would you say your influences have evolved over time?

Jordan Harper: To me, Ellroy is the best. Particularly the run of LA Confidential, White Jazz, and American Tabloid. The gun-crack beauty of the language, the depth of the characters, and the way he presents a hyperbolic, pulpy version of Los Angeles/America that is somehow a more honest portrayal of this city/country than art that is more “realistic.” For me now, the key parts are the ways he uses language and heightened detail to create a total and complete dream world. And the ambition. The taking of big swings.

Jason Bovberg: Everybody Knows is so deliciously cynical about Hollywood. It’s a fantastic marriage of style and subject matter—no-nonsense, brutal. It feels wrenched from today’s headlines, but also recalls the best of classic pulp. They always say “write what you know,” and that feels especially true in this case, given your biography. Can the reader attribute the book’s strengths to things you’ve seen firsthand in the industry?

Jordan Harper: It’s not that I’ve seen the precise type of behavior that is portrayed in the novel. But I’ve been a part of a machine with a very toxic person at the core of it, and I’ve seen the way the power structure protects and coddles that person if they’re earning money for everyone. At the end of the day, I suspect it’s not that different than working at a nuclear power plant that’s leaking toxins into the groundwater. Nobody involved in keeping the plant open even as the poison pours out thinks they’re a bad person. They’re just doing what they think they’re supposed to do. I think a lot of Hollywood is like that: a bunch of people who’ve been fooled into thinking the way the world is, is the way it has to be. So at its heart, Everybody Knows is a novel about power and what it’s like to be caught in its grasp.

Jason Bovberg: You’re already writing the follow-up to Everybody Knows? What else is on the horizon?

Jordan Harper: Yeah, I’ve got about 50,000 words of the next book done, in very rough draft form. It will be set in the aftermath and world of Everybody Knows with a new set of protagonists. Other than that, I’m working on a few TV pitches, and may have some exciting staffing news in the near future.