It’s hard to believe that I’ve been writing about Akashic Books for almost a decade now. Since publishing their first book, Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up back in 1996, this great American independent publisher has continued to give voice to some of the finest, strangest literature in the Western world. Their latest collection is a milestone, a greatest hits of sorts culled from the Akashic Noir line that curates collections of crime stories based around the character of specific cities.
USA Noir collects 37 of the best stories from over 50 other compilations. I’m pleasantly startled to find that I’ve interviewed almost a dozen of the contributors, who include icons of the crime scene like Dennis Lehane, Lawrence Block and George Pelecanos as well as eclectic writers like Joyce Carol Oates, the poet and novelist Maggie Estep, and the talented Megan Abbott.
The new book gives me a good excuse to sit down with Akashic’s editor-in-chief Johnny Temple, who was honored by the Edgar Awards earlier this year with the Ellery Queen Award. Not that he stuck around to receive it; Johnny was inconveniently on tour in Europe with his popular post-punk band Girls Against Boys. He’s one of those guys who make you wonder what you’ve been doing with your time.
“First of all, it was something I wanted to do because I had so many favorite stories myself,” he says from Akashic’s HQ in Brooklyn. “I’ve basically been the co-editor of the entire series but I never had my name on a book cover before. It’s something I’m enormously proud of, not just for myself but also for everyone at Akashic and what we’ve accomplished. It’s a real milestone for us and everything we have built here.”
Unlike other collections, the stories in USA Noir are grouped thematically under six general ideas, which lends a nice nefarious flow to the reading.
“We definitely wanted to group the stories, so we found categories that were broad enough to capture six or seven stories each,” Temple explains. “You have sections like ‘True Grit,' which holds all our gritty, hardscrabble American stories, or ‘Road Rage,’ with stories that have a strong travel or vehicular component to them.”
Temple has always identified Akashic as an author-oriented publishing house so he was quite surprised to earn the Ellery Queen Award.
“That was an incredible and amazing honor,” he says. “Sometimes in this line of work, there aren’t a lot of rewards, so recognition is important. We don’t get paid well for what we do, so there are very few physical awards and the nuts and bolts of running a small independent publishing house can be thankless. By design, being a publisher is often invisible work because it’s all about the books and the authors. When we were given that award, it meant the world to us.”
Temple is not the only one to earn a trophy off of the series either. Three of Akashic Books’ Noir authors have earned the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award from the Mystery Writers of America, while stories from Los Angeles Noir and Phoenix Noir have been awarded for Best Short Story. You would also be surprised to learn that it’s not the most famous mystery writers who earn those awards.
“Of course, Dennis Lehane will always find a home for his work, but part of this story is not just getting people like Dennis Lehane or Joyce Carol Oates or Pete Hamill to write stories for us,” Temple says. “It’s also about bringing up unknown writers. We’re not just proud that we have some bestselling novelists writing for us but also that we publish brand-new writers in these collections.”
That often means that some of these heavy-hitting contributors also lend their hands as editors of these collections, lending their specific knowledge of a city and the genre to crafting the very best representation of a place and time. That often means creating brilliant marriages, like Dennis Lehane editing Boston Noir, George Pelecanos getting gritty with DC Noir, Lawrence Block lending his prickly voice to Manhattan Noir, or Denise Hamilton overseeing the city of angels in Los Angeles Noir I and II. There’s a real art to assembling a Noir collection, according to Temple.
“It’s not as simple as picking out a bunch of stories set in Istanbul,” he explains. “There are curatorial and editorial layers that are far deeper than the surface level. That’s why we want to be working with people who have a strong common vision. In the case of Lehane in Boston or Laura Lippman in Baltimore, those were obvious choices for us. It was just a matter of somehow cajoling these creators into editing the books. Other books, like Richmond Noir, came to us. Andrew Blossom, Brian Castleberry and Tom De Haven came to us with a lot of ideas and enthusiasm, so we worked it out. At the same time, we turn away about 95 percent of the submissions we receive because it’s important for the books to uphold a very high editorial standard and also for the books to fit within the series.”
I’ve always been personally impressed with the enormous societal and stylistic diversity contained within the Akashic Noir series. A less enlightened collection of crime and mystery stories could easily reduce itself to stereotypical cartoons about white detectives with a whiskey bottle and a gun in the drawer but Akashic’s series takes itself very seriously in its mission to represent all aspects of a city’s dark side.
“Yes, we believe deeply and passionately in diversity but there’s more behind it,” Temple explains. “It’s not just about social justice, like we’re purposefully bringing more women in to give them a fair shake. It’s more important to us to make the best book possible. If you have a big book and the majority of the contributors are men, it’s going to be a less interesting book, leaving aside issues of equality. If you have a series based around American cities and 90 percent of your protagonists are white, you’re not doing a good job of representing these places. One of the purposes of these books is really capturing the essence of a particular place and you can’t do that if you’re only looking at one segment of the population.”
Our of my own curiosity, I have to ask about Akashic’s relationship with novelist Adam Mansbach, who has made some great creative strides in his last two books Rage Is Back and The Dead Run and also contributed stories to Brooklyn Noir and Cape Cod Noir. Mansbach also famously became the most successful author in Akashic’s history when his children’s book satire Go the Fuck to Sleep went viral, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and inspiring no less than Samuel L. Jackson to read the audiobook.
“Adam co-edited an anthology for us (A Fictional History of the United States with Huge Chunks Missing) and we struck up a friendship,” Temple recalls. “We have similar musical tastes and we enjoy each other’s company. I remember we were at a friend’s wedding and we were both there with our kids. A few months later, he got the idea for the book, and I imagine that he thought since I was a parent, I would get the humor of it, and he was right. I just got lucky in that we had that relationship. I’ve often thought that the best thing about me is the people that I hang out with. It just happened to be a huge plus in this case.”
Asked if it was at all frustrating to see successful writers abandon Akashic to take their novels to other houses, Temple looks back to his own experience with Girls Against Boys, who signed to Geffen Records in 1996. The move caused some backlash from players in the indie music world, who criticized the band for “selling out.”
“You know, even when we were on top of our game as one of the most popular indie bands in the country, packing clubs and selling records, we couldn’t afford health insurance,” Temple says. “So I have no problem with authors moving on to much larger publishing companies.”
And so this is the way of the world these days. The big-time cash from a major record label has evolved into the small independent publisher that turns out new content on its website daily and is about to launch a young adult line with that shadowy Akashic twist. It’s all been quite the happy accident, Temple says.
“I’ve always loved books but I never intended to be a book publisher,” he says. “This was supposed to be a record label. It was completely on a whim that we published our first book because there weren’t a million indie book companies the way there were record labels. I quickly realized that publishing books brought me everything that was exciting to me about running a record label. But I’ll give it to you that it’s always a little curious that I became a book publisher given that I wasn’t much of a bookworm.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.