Exclusive Interview: Deadbomb Bingo Ray Author Jeff Johnson

While many noir crime novels are centered on a detective or cop, some of the best have instead been about the bad guys. Bad being a relative term, of course. Following in the tradition of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, Jeff Johnson’s new noir crime tale Deadbomb Bingo Ray (hardcover, paperbackKindle) following the titular fixer as he tried to start a new life in Philly…until (of course) his old life catches up with him.

Jeff Johnson Dead Bomb Bingo Ray A Long Crazy Burn

What is Deadbomb Bingo Ray about?

Ray is a fixer from Vegas who moved to Philadelphia after blowing up a few people in a bent card came. He rose to the top of the underworld food chain, and he operates there in much the same way. If you have a problem and you can’t go to the cops, and if you can find him, Ray might be able to help. If he does help you, he gets paid on both ends. The client ponies up, but he also squeezes dough out of the burn itself.

When he gets news that a hedge fund manager he was hired to take down has come back with a solid plan for revenge, he turns the tables once again, but this time he’s stretched to the limit. Plus, one of the players is a physicist, caught at the fringe of the operation. She’s obsessed with perfection, and she and Ray…sparks fly.

Where did you get the original idea for Deadbomb Bingo Ray, and how different is the finished novel from that initial concept?

I’d written a few novels after Tattoo Machine, but I needed an agent to sell them. It seems like I do my best work when I’m in motion, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone. I left Portland and headed east. New York didn’t seem like a good fit after I checked it out. I’d have to work around the clock to afford a place. So, Philadelphia. I have a brother there, too. From there I could go back and forth to New York, infiltrate the publishing world, make connections, and see the East Coast on a budget all at the same time.

In that year, last year I mean, I wrote two books, Deadbomb Bingo Ray and Grand Estuary Grand. Deadbomb Bingo Ray is my Philadelphia noir novel and I tell you what, man, that city is the place to be if you want to write a book called Deadbomb Bingo Ray. Dark, ruined, incredibly dirty, and about as friendly as a radioactive ant pile.

And where did you get the name Deadbomb Bingo Ray, and why that as opposed to calling him Deadbomb Bingo Dave or Deadbomb Bingo Pete?

Deadbomb Bingo Teddy! Deadbomb Bingo Gary! No, Ray has a ring to it for me, don’t know why. When I was in first grade, there was a super mean girl who beat on all the kids, and her name was Ray. Maybe Rey. It’s possible it started there. Ray has a ring to it, especially when you put Deadbomb Bingo in front of it.

Deadbomb Bingo Ray has been called a noir crime novel. First, do you agree with this assessment, or do you think there’s a better way to describe it?

Noir is good. Neo noir is a term that gets bandied around, but essentially — in my mind anyway — noir always boils down to fuzzy morals. The far reaches of the anti-hero territory. And it’s dark. Hope is in short supply. Anymore man, this is a nation of thugs. People are wicked poor, absolutely crushed by a system that has no mercy for anyone but the people on the top or the people clawing their way there. If you want a hero, you kind of have to walk into an abandoned building in the modern American wasteland looking for Ray. Noir is making a comeback because it’s a sign of the times, man. I read somewhere that zombie fiction comes in cycles that reflect general popular unrest. Cuban Missile Crisis, you have zombie movies. Vietnam War, zombies. Etcetera. Look at where zombies are right now, man. Noir is part of the same thing.

So what noir crime writers or novels do you feel were a big influence on Deadbomb Bingo Ray?

George V. Higgins was the man. Richard Stark. God, great stuff there too. Now we have Sean Doolittle, man that guy is great. The Cleanup, I mean, man, go read that. Fantastic book, all of his work is great. Jason Starr is a magnificent noir writer too. Scott Philips.

What about other kinds of writers? What writers or specific books do you feel had a big impact on Deadbomb Bingo Ray, but only on Deadbomb Bingo Ray, ones that are not a big influence on your other book or your style as a whole?

Ah, you know, like every other writer, I read all the time and the list changes month to month. But pound for pound, I guess the real stars that stand out for me, hmm. Kim Stanley Robinson has to make the top of the list. He’s a science fiction writer, of course, but no matter what you write, or even what you like to read, there’s something there for you. Other writers that hold sway in my inner landscape, let’s see. Jeffrey Ford. He’s sort of the king, in my mind, of a weird little kingdom of literature that includes K.J. Bishop, another favorite of mine. There’s so many really. I just read a western by Brad Smith, The Return Of Kid Cooper, and I loved it. That one will stick with me for a while. Craig Johnson and Robert Craise, Walter Mosley, Joe R. Lansdale, I watch out for new work from those guys. I really dig James P. Blaylock, too. I know. Total surprise.

How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you think a big influence on Deadbomb Bingo Ray?

I write some for television, and I have all kinds of irons in the fire out that way, but no, not really. Television has been dumbed down to optimize the profit margin in the worst possible way. When something like Mr. Robot makes it through the great dummy filter it’s a fuckin’ miracle. There’s hope.

I never play video games, don’t think I’d like them.

Movies…man, there are so many great movies. But not any that come to mind when it comes to adding anything to what I’m writing.

Now one thing I thought was interesting was that the press materials your publisher sent me for Deadbomb Bingo Ray had a chart of “competitive and comparative titles” that included Carl Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey, Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? by Stephen Bobyns, and Dennis Lehane’s World Gone By. Do you think fans of those books would like Deadbomb Bingo Ray as well?

You know, I hope so! But that list surprises me actually. There’s some Elmore Leonard and James Elroy in the design ancestry of Deadbomb Bingo Ray, some of the variety of darkness you might also find in Charlie Huston, the madness of Jim Thompson, the place-as-character of Scott Phillips. But I’ll take it. Dennis Lehane in particular. Total rush to be compared to him.  

Jeff Johnson Dead Bomb Bingo Ray A Long Crazy Burn

Now Deadbomb Bingo Ray is not your first foray into crime noveling. You have two books in your Darby Holland Crime Novel series: Lucky Supreme and A Long Crazy Burn, the latter of which just came out a few weeks ago. What can you tell us about that?

Darby Holland is the owner of a tattoo shop in Old Town, Portland. Gentrification is shutting places down left and right to make room for the new bright ATM bistros and futuristic hair spas, and, of course the harder you squeeze, the stranger the stuff you get. When you put the screws to a veteran tattoo shop, they aren’t going to react like a normal business. I was a tattoo artist for way too long, that’s what Tattoo Machine was about. So I got to use many of the stories I’ve heard over the years. The transmission box in book two, A Long Crazy Burn? No spoilers, but no shit that is based on a real event.

The characters in the tattoo world, I mean, man. Total gold mine. I could go on and on, but fiction is, it turns out, a really good tool to use when you want to see what’s going on in certain places.

Do do you think people who enjoy Deadbomb Bingo Ray would enjoy A Long Crazy Burn and vice versa?

You know, I bet they would. At the heart of both is crime. Crime and the unlikely, wrong kind of hero. The bonds people form when the chips are down and there’s nowhere left to run.

But Darby and Ray would not get along if they met each other. These are different, very different books, in very different places. Portland is beautiful for one thing, and that’s just scratching the surface. But the feel is the same in some ways.

Speaking of which, is Deadbomb Bingo Ray also part of a series?

It’s possible. A series is a good thing for a writer to have going, money wise. The books reinforce each other in so many ways. There’s been talk of keeping the Darby Holland books going. Then there’s been talk of doing something instead with Gelson Verber from Everything Under The Moon. Everything Under The Moon was published by Soft Skull, and they have a small but very professional marketing team. But me? I’d like to see where Ray goes. He’s my latest literary invention, so maybe I’m enamored with him the most right now. We’ll see.

Your previous novels Everything Under The Moon, Lucky Supreme, and A Long Crazy Burn have been optioned by Hollywood. Has there also been interest in turning Deadbomb Bingo Ray into a movie, TV show, or video game?

Deadbomb Bingo Ray is being shopped around Hollywood right now by an agent at ICM. This is the best possible scenario. CAA will try to stack your option, as in “Here, but you can only use CAA directors, CAA actors, and CAA staff,” and even then they have no real drive to get it done. They can pick the low hanging fruit and they do. ICM has a better rep for being flexible and productively greedy rather than monstrously gluttonous. We’ll see. I don’t know about you, but I’d watch something called Deadbomb Bingo Ray.

If Deadbomb Bingo Ray was to be adapted into whatever you said, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles, and why them?

Doh! Kid in the candy store. For Ray, hard to say. Maybe Jude Law’s skuzzy ex con cousin if he has one. Josh Harnett. Skuggy? Hmm. Samuel Jackson can’t play every interesting black criminal, but you get the picture. Agnes Capsule? Dude, I would go into some kind of thespian old folks home and pick the tiny old lady with the glittery purple wig. But that’s just me.

Jeff Johnson Dead Bomb Bingo Ray A Long Crazy Burn

Finally, if someone enjoys Deadbomb Bingo Ray, which of your books would you suggest they read next and why that?

Not long ago I finished Shopping Cart. I sent it out and a few publishers bit, but I’ll see if my agent can do anything with it first. But the Darby Holland Crime Series would appeal to all the fans of noir. If they liked the blurring chess game genius angle, with the odd, off beat concussive element of love, Knottspeed, A Love Story, my most literary and obscure, even hidden, novel is a good fit, too.


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