Though Pearce and I both lived in the San Francisco East Bay around the same time, we never met till he moved up here to Seattle, where we became fast friends. He also quickly became one of my favorite prose stylists, and I mean that with all sincerity. Nobody but nobody can convey the dynamics of situational tension like Pearce, who employs language both colorful and economic to paint portraits of desperation, violence, and basic humanity in all its fallible facets in the minds of his deliriously enthralled readers.
Like many hardboiled writers (including his pal Josh Stallings), Pearce has lived the type of lifestyle he portrays so vividly. But while his eclectic autobiography may augment the authenticity of his crime fiction, it’s really his skill with words that makes him such a uniquely compelling voice. There simply isn’t anyone else like him, and why he isn’t a household name - outside my own - is truly a mystery the Universe must solve soon.
Meantime, Pearce keeps working, increasingly the odds that one day, his tremendous talent will enjoy suitable rewards.
Meet Pearce Hansen:
Your work takes place in a grittily realistic, hyper-violent world that reflects a harsh reality few of us have experienced or witnessed first-hand. Can you talk a bit about how your personal life mirrors your fiction?
I’m wary of claiming any kind of cred based on ‘mi vida loca’ There’s always somebody who’s seen and done crazier things, or who’s suffered worse tribulations. It’s a meaningless competition and having experienced horrid stuff as a kid is not an accomplishment to brag of.
I grew up in a less than optimum childhood environment; early exposure to crime and violence led to a skewed sense of social norms, coloring my life choices during those formative years. I’ve been cut, shot at, and treated with less than civility. When I was four I had blood splashed onto my face when my friend’s older brother stabbed two men right in front of us. I’ve witnessed one friend murdered and discovered another buddy’s corpse shortly after he was beaten to death during a drug rip-off – I was 13 for that one.
I got a lot of up close exposure to predatory types and am still comfortable around them. Boundary issues led to questionable behavior, and I’ve led a surreal existence. My childhood dentist was a Nazi war criminal who did all my work without Novocain before committing suicide when the Israelis were closing in. I lived with the Yakuza in Japan as a teenager. I was once attacked by a carnivorous slime mold that embedded itself in my skin – it grew quickly enough you could observe its progress as it crawled up my arm, which reduced my tough First Sergeant to near hysterics.
My “job” history is equally checkered: Marine infantry, cab driving in Oakland, bouncing at the On Broadway in North Beach during Hardcore’s heyday, along with the other less savory activities typical of homeless drug addicted youth.
Writers unfamiliar with real world violence typically underestimate how arresting the experience is, for all concerned including bystanders. Time stops. The tableau dominates the attentions and emotional states for everybody involved.
Another pet peeve is characters engaging in multiple long exchanges of heavy blows when one such beating would incapacitate the recipient for months, possibly resulting in permanent damage. If it’s on Cinemax the protag will typically engage in an athletic sexual encounter immediately after being subjected to this punishment – from personal experience, I’ll note that you don’t feel quite so frisky when you’re pissing blood.
After several close calls with conventional fame and fortune, do you feel bitter that your otherwise favorably received body of work doesn’t enjoy more exposure, or do you feel commercial obscurity is the price of producing true art?
At one time I seemed destined for authorial notoriety: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were family friends; Jack snuck me champagne at my aunt’s wedding when I was eight. I also was a ‘book hawk’ for Moe Moskowitz of Moe’s Books on Telegraph in Berkeley, and he was one of the few positive male parental figures I had – on my first date with my future wife, I got to introduce them to their mutual bemusement.
Books and reading were a constant for me growing up and were my sole salvation given that I dropped out of school completely multiple times. Even while squatting off San Pablo in a rat-infested basement with no electricity or running water, I had a stack of books next to my sleeping bag that I read by candle-light. I love the Western Canon and 20th century America pulp, both Early- and Late.
Coincidentally I was homeless when I met my wife, but still pulling down straight A’s in calculus even while fighting off the rats in said basement. However, after I met her and had my son the street life was over for me – an old story I’m sure. It’s been three decades of connubial bliss and day-to-day wage slavery (not that I’m whining – being able to pay the bills is nothing to sneeze at). Now, in my dotage, I’ve morphed into a harmless law-abiding citizen that my feral younger self wouldn’t even recognize.
I’ve been writing for over 20 years. My first novel Street Raised has been printed by two publishers, and a copy of it resides in the Historical Reference Room at the Oakland Public Library. Prominent award-winning artists have praised my work: James Frey, Andrew Vachss, Ken Bruen, Michael Shea, Laird Barron. TCM Noir Alley host Eddie Muller reviewed my first novel in the SF Chronicle. Richard Ramirez the Nightstalker reached out from Death Row to tell me he was a fan (which disturbed my wife no end). My correspondence with Joe Lansdale is archived in the Witliff Collections at Texas State University. I’ve read at Litquake SF and Noir at the Bar Seattle, been published in three languages, and had a Borders book-signing. Christian Slater “expressed interest” in the rights for my first novel, and I’ve had multiple movie options.
But I started showing up on the radar at the exact moment the Kindle Meltdown gutted the trad publishing system. The options never turned into films, the big NY houses don’t even know I exist, and I gave up querying agents long ago.
Still, bitterness isn’t an accurate descriptor – my feelings regarding my writing career’s failure to thrive can be more categorized as amusement, at my own unrealistic expectations. I’ve seen too much to convince myself I’m at all cosmically significant. Blind dumb stinking luck is a laughing participant in all our struggles.
Poetically descriptive prose of intense action sequences is one of your specialties. Is this something you “story board” inside your head first, or do you basically improvise as you go, or a combination of both?
I typically search my memory for real life inspiration, followed by improvisation and stream-of-consciousness keyboard hammering, followed by as many edits as it takes to make it all feel as close to right as I can get it.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
The Viking Sagas for clarity and simplicity. Jack Vance for under-statement overlaying deep emotional wellsprings. Elmore Leonard for character driven plot and having fun on the page. Clark Ashton Smith for unapologetically lapidary language (possibly my downfall, since I’m claiming to want success as a modern writer in the Twitter Age). H.L. Mencken and Bierce for precision and proper use of English, as well as permission to vent my scorn and laugh at the horrific.
What’s next for you?
I’m finally leaving my day job to write full time. I’ll be editing whenever the gigs present themselves. My fourth novel is already outlined, and I’ll be shopping it soon – never say die, right? In the interim I plan on contributing shorts to all and sundry.
I have my health, I have my family and friends, and supposedly I can still spin an engaging yarn. All in all, I’m one lucky guy.
Cheers to all that and more, buddy. I can relate, even to the Christian Slater thing. Your time will come. And I don’t mean that as ominously noirish as it sounds…peace.
Pearce Hansen is a SF native raised in the East Bay, primarily Oakland. He resides behind the Redwood Curtain in Humboldt, with his wife of 30 years. Pearce has been writing over 20 years with three novels, one short story collection, and eight anthology inclusions to his name.
PHOTO: PEARCE HANSEN