Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Writers With (Night) Jobs: Todd Robinson

Any man who willingly calls himself Big Daddy Thug is a man to be reckoned with. Todd Robinson has been a champion of crime writing pugs slugging it out underground for years through Thuglit, one of the most respected crime ezines out there. And the anthologies bearing the Thuglit name are among the best in neo noir fiction you can find. And I'm not even in them so I am not contractually obligated to say that so you know it's for real.

Then there's his writing. Oh damn, the writing. Up my alley is a cliche, but true in this case. Up my dark, piss-smelling, hooker infested alley. 

The evidence is collected in Dirty Words, which contains one of my favorite pieces I've read all year – the introduction. Todd Robinson doesn't give a fuck. About the only fuck he gives if for you to know how much he doesn't give a fuck. And he writes like it. You know what they say – dance like no one is watching and write like you don't give a fuck. Or something like that.

Wow, lots of cursing. Guess Todd inspired me.

I'll take the high road and not point out that his recent hosting of the NYC chapter of Noir At The Bar was a full year behind me in L.A. I won't mention it at all.

So let's hear what the man himself has to say.

What do you do as your day job?

I've worked in bars for over 20 years. Bartender, manager, DJ, bouncer. You name it, I've done it. Nowadays, I'm just bartending.

When do you find time to write?

It's hard. I'm a terrible time manager to begin with. Plus there's a little boy of my loins (who's going to be 3 in September) who makes working at home during his waking hours impossible.  Besides, there's nothing I'd rather do than spend what was once my writing time wrapping my head in tinfoil and playing Evil Robot to his Superman.

How has your job or coworkers ever influenced a story?

I don't think I could have been a writer without my job.  My last published story, "Peaches" (published in Grift Magazine) came as a result of an old-school Hell's Kitchen resident sitting at my bar and yakking for two hours. Had an ex-Army Ranger at the bar last night talking for three hours about his time working for "Big Mike" in New Jersey. Every few anecdotes, I'd stop him and say, "You know I'm completely stealing this shit, right?" He'd shrug and keep talking.

What would it take for you to quit and write full time?

A hell of a lot more money than the nothing that it generates now. Although I don't know if I'd ever leave the industry completely. It's too rich a mine for characters and stories for me to abandon it.

Do your coworkers know you write? Do they know you write dark crime fiction?

They do. I'm a shameless self-promoter at the bar. I even acknowledge that in the introduction to my short-story collection Dirty Words (available NOW for Kindle. Get it!) See?

What do they say about it?

Not much. They're as impressed with my lack of "success" as I am—which is to say, not at all. Keep in mind, I am in NYC, where every-fucking body is writing something, acting in something, etc, etc. When people ask me at work how the writing is going, I answer; "I'm still standing behind this side of the bar ain't I? You'll know it's going well by my absence."

With your work on Thuglit and publishing the anthologies you do a lot related to writing that isn't directly writing. Do you consider all the work that surrounds writing and getting your name out there a part of the "job" of writing, or is it something you'd rather be able to hire a desperate college kid to do for you?

Absolutely. Although the reputation we had at Thuglit leaned more towards the career-damaging side than enhancing. We operated with a, "Don't give a fuck WHO you are. You just better be good," philosophy. Some would call it an attitude, rather than a philosophy. (ahem) That attitude pissed off quite a number of writers who thought their name alone should have gotten them into the mag—writers who might have been able to help my career along at one point or another.

Meh. Fuck them.

Do you think people respect writing as a job, or does it come off as less "work" than a labor or office job?

Hell, I don't respect it as much as a labor or office job. If the process of writing was as hard as a lot of bitchy writers made it out to be, more people would be aspiring coal miners or data-entry assistants. To write is the dream. If your dream is to stock the shelves at the Entenmann's Outlet, God bless ya. You're probably a lot happier than me. There's not a steel plant worker in the world who gets through his days by thinking; "Could be worse. I could be writing." Some writers really need to shut the fuck up about that shit.

Be honest, if you wrote full time, do you think you'd be disciplined about it?

Probably more so. I would hope so. Christ, I would hope so. I'm plagued with too many ideas and not enough time. If I had it, I would really do some damage page-count wise.

What job, other than writing, would you most like to have?

I discovered late in life (by designing the website, its covers, yadda, yadda…) that I both enjoyed and supposedly had a knack for graphic design. I really dig it.

What has been your best job? Your worst?

Y'know? I love the bar I'm at right now. The owners are great people to work for, the bar and customers are for the most part chill, cool and literate. I have worked in some hellacious shitholes over the years, so I appreciate the place I'm at.

The worst is hard to nail down. I was a busboy at a wedding hall. The office gig I worked for nine months when I first moved to NYC was pretty hellish for the monotony. I've worked in bars that were hyper-violent both in reputation and in execution (but that was also kinda fun), I've worked for owners who were so fucked up and coked out that half the job was managing them. The absolute worst I would say was working for this twisted fucking Italian woman who knew absolutely nothing about the bar business, and only had the joint through the grace of her mother-in-law (who owned the building) and the fact that she was apparently at one point a little hottie and married a dumpy little  fucktard she could steamroll—therefore living a life of no consequence. That gig was just maddening. ARGUING with me that fucking Blue Moon was an import beer because it says "Belgian-Style" on the label—THREE WEEKS IN A FUCKING ROW!!!. Woman was seriously and dangerously stupid.

Fuck, I just got riled remembering the (short) time I worked for that crazy bitch.

When do you find time to read?

I have a long subway ride to and from work. I also can't sleep at night until I've read a couple of chapters. It's just a ritual, part of calming my brain before sleep that I've done since I was five years old.

Have you ever, or maybe how often, have you considered quitting and shacking up to write novels, money issues be damned?

Money can never be damned in my world. It's not even a fantasy that enters my brain. I've worked in bars almost non-stop since I was 19. My industry has no paid vacations, no sick days. You either work, or your family doesn't eat. It's even more hard-wired into me now that I have a son. I took one (ONE) sick day in 20 years when I thought I broke my foot, and that was nine years ago. It should be noted that I worked a double-shift (about 15 hours) ON that injured foot the day before. Wound up making the injury much worse. I did have a boss send me home once when I was behind the bar with a fever of a 105. I couldn't even stand any more. I told customers that if I could reach it, they could drink it, but I wasn't walking down the other end of the goddamn bar to make their Amaretto Sour.

What is your ultimate goal with writing? Full time journeyman or millionaire? Or are you satisfied doing it part time?

I used to dream of riches. Then I dreamed of making a living. Now I just appreciate any form of income from this shit. End of the day? I always appreciate someone really digging a story. I don't even focus on the "paying markets first" submission rule. I'm just writing to be read, hopefully to be enjoyed. Last week, this young girl who's a regular at the bar came down after work just to say how much she enjoyed the collection (Dirty Words available NOW for Kindle. Get it!). Didn't even stay for a drink. That made my month.

Given what you've earned writing, dividing it by the hours spent, what would you say is your hourly wage as a writer?

Pennies. Pennies on the hour. Maybe not even a whole penny. Seriously. Jesus, I've never really thought about that. You factor in editing time, and you couldn't find the hourly monetary amount with an electron microscope.


Do you have a spouse/partner that would support you writing full time?

She says she would, but I could never ask her to. It's not in my DNA. I need to contribute to my family. Writing just hasn't proven to be a way to do that for me.


Gina G. said...

I really enjoy these interviews, and this one is no different. I've heard a few people in the industry laugh about their time working with Mr. Robinson and how he's burned bridges that might've led to a nice career, so it's interesting to read an interview where we can get a feel for his self destructive personality.

I suppose Mr. Robinson can be considered a cautionary tale about believing the myth that being an asshole will lead to some form of Bukowski-ish literary respect. Unfortunately, all it leads to are closed doors and a life spent opening beers for drunks and zero recognition of your work.

Looking forward to your next interview.

Mike Wilkerson said...

Good candid interview. Big D's definitely got something to say.

Todd Robinson said...

Thanks! Uhhh... Have we dated?

Steve Weddle said...

good stuff

Christopher E. Long said...

Great article! I appreciate Todd’s honesty.

Thomas Pluck said...

To quote another writer whom I respect, "I'd rather burn a bridge than crawl across it."
Or as I like to say, I'm here to kick ass, not kiss it.
Good for you, Todd.

Jason Duke said...

I don't think Todd's an asshole at all. I still remember the time I had just got back from Iraq and he mailed me a whole shitload of free Thuglit anthos. He talks tough and candid, but he's a cool guy.

chandel. said...

Having worked with this man, and having been witness to both his soft and hard sides, I'd say this is very honest of him.
I wish more people in this world had half as much dignity, respect, and compassion as this man.
Dirty Words is excellent and should be read!

Ryan S. said...

Love this series. It's great to meet the people behind the stories, and Big Daddy Thug is at the top of the heap.

noternie said...

Gina G sounds like a rather bitter lass. Perhaps she's been lingering on the fringes of the industry. Or maybe smack dab in the middle of it, but not actually part of it.

It's worth noting that Todd Robinson has earned considerably more than zero recognition, particularly among those who work and write in his area. Just because it's not coming from the industry laughers she values most desn't mean it's invalid.

It's curious, frankly, that she puts forth such effort apparently grinding axes because he asn't kissed asses.

Fuck 'er. He writes good stuff. Worth reading. And he's a far more interesting writer and interview than she is a commenter.