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Interview: October 21, 2021

Destined to be a neo-noir classic, Gregory Galloway’s JUST THIEVES is a twisty and twisted crime novel that evokes the worlds of George V. Higgins, Patricia Highsmith and David Mamet. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Galloway talks about what led him to pen his own modern-day version of the noir; the literary inspirations that helped shape the character of Rick, a professional thief and recovering addict; why it took him more than three years to write the book; and who he would like to see direct a film version of this story.

Question: You yourself are a lifelong fan of the noir novel, which has been around since the 1930s. Do you have a particular favorite from the golden era? What about one of more recent vintage?

Gregory Galloway: I vacillate between favorites. It’s usually a fight between Chandler and Hammett, with THE LONG GOODBYE probably coming out on top (over RED HARVEST) more often than not. THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE by George V. Higgins (1970) is another frequent touchstone for me, and LES GOMMES (THE ERASERS) by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1953), although it doesn’t necessarily adhere to the noir label (or any label for that matter).

Q: How long have you wanted to pen your own modern-day version of the noir? And did you find it to be more of a challenge to write in this mode than the style you used for your previous novels?

GG: I’ve wanted to write a noir novel since I was in junior high school, maybe earlier. I wrote noir-ish short stories --- absolutely horrible imitations of Hammett, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and whoever else I was reading at the time. Everything lacked any originality (or quality), so I gave up for a long, long time and went off to write other things. My first novel, AS SIMPLE AS SNOW, was an attempt to put a different spin on the mystery novel (I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Encyclopedia Brown as a kid), which planted the seed to return to noir. The biggest challenge was finding the narrator’s voice, how he talks and how he thinks. Once I had that figured out, I felt comfortable with him in almost any situation --- whether its watching a house, working in a warehouse, talking with his daughter, or committing acts of violence.

Q: JUST THIEVES is narrated by Rick, a professional thief in his 20s who seems to be in the midst of an existential crisis. Who were some of the chief literary inspirations that helped you shape Rick?

GG: I’m reluctant to reveal too much about Rick’s beginnings. But I do remember returning to Georges Simenon --- his “romans durs” more than the Maigrets (although I reread some of those too) --- which was a significant reference point for a character who believes that he’s solving a problem, while the entire time he’s creating more and more problems. THE ERASERS by Alain Robbe-Grillet was another source for his character (which itself drew on Oedipus Rex and involves some famously tragic amateur detective work). And while not a noir writer, Nelson Algren was a good place to go for characters in crisis, the monotony of work and characters beholden (if not outright controlled) by others. I’ve also known some high-functioning addicts in real life --- as well as some who’ve been in rehab and recovery --- and a few thieves here and there who provided aspects of the narrator’s character.

Q: It’s fascinating to see the character of Frank, Rick’s older partner, form before us entirely through the observations Rick makes. Is Rick a classic example of an unreliable narrator?

GG: One of my teachers in college (University of Iowa) was David Morrell, who frequently talked about how a writer should never use the first-person narrator. But if he did, the narrator had to be unreliable. I’m not entirely convinced that Rick is unreliable, but that he, like the rest of us, is wrong about a lot of things.

Q: Did the story in JUST THIEVES veer off at any point from how you had originally envisioned it? And if it did, how did you as the author know when the time was right to go with the flow instead of resisting such a detour?

GG: You assume that I had a vision, which I did not. I had no idea where any of it was going. I started with a scene of two people sitting in a car talking about the value of things, which led me to think of them as thieves who’ve stolen something they shouldn’t have stolen. I started to think about them in an unfamiliar place, which somehow led to the opening paragraph, and then I figured out how to get from the first paragraph to the initial scene I wrote (which is almost 70 pages into the novel). I tend to think about things (and think about them over and over) before I write down a scene or chapter, so I didn’t change direction a lot. Except. I originally conceived of the main stolen object in the novel as a Hitchcock-like MacGuffin that gets things going, but it's not significant and more incidental. The more I tried to forget about it, however, the more important it seemed, so I switched gears from Hitchcock to Hammett and leaned hard into THE MALTESE FALCON nod.

Q: How long did the gestation process for the book take, from inception to completion? Were there false starts, or did you write it more or less in a straight shot?

GG: This one took a while, more than three years. I didn’t have false starts, but I put the book away for a while (maybe almost a year) due to a family tragedy. A very close cousin was murdered, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write a novel that includes violence and death. My cousin --- like the main characters in the novel --- had been in recovery, and I struggled with that shared aspect of their personalities. Much of what I knew about recovery, I knew from my cousin, and I really struggled to put distance between the novel and reality. When I finally came back to writing the novel, I made a conscious effort not to write about my cousin, but there’s his shadow over much of it.

Q: You provide many intentional shout-outs to a wide array of crime authors in the course of the novel, ranging from Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) to Patricia Highsmith to George V. Higgins. But is there a reference point in JUST THIEVES that you think might elude even the most experienced noir reader?

GG: I tried to run the range of references in the novel, from the very obvious to the obscure, with at least three harder-to-spot “easter eggs” hidden in plain sight. I know from experience that readers are incredible detectives, so what I probably consider as “well-hidden” will be quickly and easily revealed.

Q: Given your druthers, who directs the film version of this story? Michael Mann, perhaps?

GG: While I’d love to see how Michael Mann would handle the source material, I think there are other directors who might have a better feel for a more character-driven noir. Andrew Dominik would be close to the top of any list for me --- or Christian Petzold, Cary Fukunaga or Lynne Ramsay. I have a long, long list.