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TEDDY HAYES Interviewed

Written by Ayo Onatade

Teddy Hayes, an American Emmy award-winning television writer, novelist and filmmaker, is a native of Cleveland, Ohio but lives in the UK. While he does not consider himself to be an anglophile, he admits to liking London. He has written and produced for American Television network and has had more than 4 plays produced.
He has hosted intensive weekend writing courses on behalf of Writers-circle.com and in June 2003 he helped the London Borough of Ealing launch their new programme of literary events at Acton Library. Teddy Hayes is also a member of the Burry Man Writers Centre as well as the Crime Writers Association.

Ayo: For readers that don’t know much about you, would you like to start off by giving a bit of background information about yourself? What type of work did you used to do before you came to the UK?

Teddy: I started working in the mid 70s as a system producer in a production company owned by Melvin Van Peebles. Before that I had just done some freelance work for people like Quincy Jones, so I really learned my craft of writing and producing during a period of about five years when I worked for Melvin Van Peebles. After that, in 1981, I set up my own company and I started freelancing, doing everything including public relations. I had various clients - Don King was one of them - then in the mid 80s I decided that I wanted to actually do programmes and so I started to get into the area of television programmes doing a couple of pilots. By the end of the 80s I got into music videos and did those for a long time.

Ayo: Who did you do music videos for?

Teddy: A lot of unknown acts. However we worked for Notorious B.I.G. and Junior m.a.f.i.a.'s Barry Cage. In fact the video was short-listed for Stella Gospel music video of the year. Though we didn’t win we were nominated. In 1989, inspired by Chester Himes, I decided that I wanted to write detective novels. I think Walter Mosley’s first book was published that year - I read it, liked it and said well, the time has come.

Ayo: Do you think that having such a varied career has helped in your writing?

Teddy: Yes, definitely. It has helped give me a different perspective, an understanding of different kinds of people’s situations. It has taught me how to manage very well, because a big part of writing is about managing your time, energy and information.

Ayo: You have been living in England for quite some time now. Do you consider yourself to be an anglophile?

Teddy: Seven glorious years. No, not really, I just think I like England.

Ayo: What made you decide to leave the US and come to the UK?

Teddy: I felt that I was not doing what I wanted in America so I thought I would try and do it somewhere else. I originally thought I was going to Germany but it didn’t happen. I had been coming to England for over twenty years as a tourist and I felt comfortable here and it was also a time in my life when I felt like a change: I knew that I did not want to spend my entire life in America.

Ayo: You earlier mentioned Chester Himes. Were there any other people who instilled in you the need to write?

Teddy: Melvin Van Peebles, who was my mentor, was a big influence.

Ayo: Who are the people that inspire you now?

Teddy: I am still inspired by the writers I fell in love with as a teenager. Agatha Christie for one. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. So many writers, most of whom are African-American. In the mystery genre I would say it was definitely Agatha Christie and Chester Himes and they would seem to be worlds apart. But they both know how to tell a great story and I think that is what I like, the storytelling.

Ayo: What were you looking for as a novelist that made you decide that crime fiction was so attractive?

Teddy: It was what I liked - I liked reading it and I enjoyed it. That’s the kind of book that I always read for my entertainment and my relaxation. And so I think that if you work on something that you like, you will do a better job of it. Even as a teenager I loved detective novels. Hercule Poirot is my favourite character and still is one of my absolute favourites.

Ayo: What about Sherlock Holmes?

Teddy: I like Sherlock Holmes, but not as much as I do Hercule Poirot. Interestingly enough I have just done the stage musical version of the The Hound of the Baskervilles. I finished it six months ago and I am trying to get it on stage somewhere and see what happens. It is all original music and I think that it would be good.

Ayo: Do you find time to read and what have you been reading recently?

Teddy: I’m reading all the time. Right now I’m reading this book by James Ellroy, The Big Nowhere. But the book that I have read recently that I have enjoyed the most was Six Easy Pieces by Walter Mosley. Wonderful writing.

Ayo: Why did you decide to write a series and not a standalone novel?

Teddy: I think a series is much more interesting in that I have a lot of stories to tell. Someone said my books were a statement of social consciousness - I really didn’t think about it, except that it’s just the way my mind runs, to talk about things that bother me or I find interesting.

Ayo: Would you write a standalone novel?

Teddy: I’m doing that now, but you never know if it’s going to be standalone or not: if it is successful then it doesn’t stand alone. It’s quite different from anything that I have ever attempted before and I think that I am going to be writing it with another person. It will be a children’s fantasy book. I wanted to do it because I went to Australia last year and in the forest there it was magical and I thought it would be a great setting for a story. I made my notes and a year later I am trying to thrash it out. Now I think I know the lady I would like to write the story with and we are going to talk about it.

Ayo: How hard was it when you first started writing and has it now become a lot easier?

Teddy: I think I am much more aware of how to write the books because I have written three. Not that I have fallen into a formula but I know the characters voices, the feelings and I know the problems, I know the history of the characters. So it is easier from that standpoint. Getting published is not a problem anymore.

Ayo: Was it hard when you wanted to get Blood Red Blues published?

Teddy: Yes it was hard, extremely hard. It took eight years between writing it and getting it published. People always ask me how many rejections slips I got, but I don’t count them. I am only interested in the positive and not the negative.

Ayo: For those readers that have not yet been introduced to your work, could you give us the low down on Devil Barnett?

Teddy: Devil Barnett is an ex-assassin who has been disillusioned by the US political system having been an insider and having gone as far as he could go. He wanted to go further but realised that there was a class ceiling of racism. As a result he opted to return to his roots in Harlem and live a normal life, taking over the bar that his father owned. In this role he finds himself constantly caught up in the problems of other people - problems that they can’t go to the police with, and sometimes problems that the police have that he reluctantly helps them with because he is a specialist and they know that. He has a very hard urban edge, but he is very cool, very likeable and very intelligent. And I guess somewhat sexy, but also complex. He also has a very dangerous streak as well. You would want him as your friend but not your enemy.

Ayo: So why did you decide to give him such a serious disease like Sickle Cell?

Teddy: I have to attribute that to my editor Dotun Adebayo. When I brought the book to him he suggested that, while he liked the character, he was too strong and that he had to have a vulnerable point. So we made Sickle Cell his Achilles heel because it can flare up at anytime. It can be brought on by stress, by weather, by a number of factors that he can’t control. And I think that it is a serious thing that people can focus on and makes him a bit more accessible for the reading audience.

Ayo: Do you find writing books cathartic?

Teddy: Yes, in fact today I was talking to a friend from the States and he mentioned a scandal that Jesse Jackson was involved in: the one involving Toyota. Toyota sells a tremendous amount of cars to African-Americans but they don’t have many dealerships owned by African-Americans. People like Jesse Jackson go in and do what we call “shaking the company down”. They say, okay you don’t have any African-Americans, we might call a boycott against your product if you don’t do this for us. Jesse Jackson being a political leader of sorts, Toyota is forced into the position of saying okay, you tell us how to go about getting minorities involved as owners of dealerships and so forth. Jackson set up an office and one of the things he was doing was having people submit their applications but he was charging them for them. The people that he was supposed to be helping. So actually he was shaking down both sides. That’s the kind of thing that incenses me and it seems that there are more problems for African-Americans now that they have more black politicians than when they had fewer black politicians. So that just goes to show that skin colour is not a factor in uplifting the race. I say that to say this: the book after the one I am working on now is called Welcome to the Big Shakedown and it will deal specifically with the issues of corrupt politicians and that kind of thing that I think is plaguing America. It will ask America to take a new look at the myth that people who look like us represent us because they like us, but are they in fact doing what they are supposed to do? I think that this is very much something that Africans have always known. But Americans are a bit naïve in that they don’t know that in the same way that Africans do.

Ayo: Which of your books have been your favourite to research and why?

Teddy: Up to now I have known something about the subject of the books I’ve written. Dead By Popular Demand - I knew the music trade; I knew so many things because I was involved and have been for the past twenty years as an artist and as a producer. You get to know things, you get to hear things, you see things. This is my life. It’s all there. I knew what had been going on.

Ayo: In Blood Red Blues so much has happened to Devil that he comes across as being quite disillusioned and extremely weary and tired. Was this intentional?

Teddy: Yes, very because maybe was the way I felt about America. I think mirrored my feelings very much when I left America.

Ayo: The second book Dead By Popular Demand is set in the music industry and as well as dealing with some rather unsavoury people, was it your own musical background that gave you the idea for the storyline?

Teddy: Yes definitely. When I was a producer I actually had a guy who bootlegged my records and he owed me a lot of money. I had to get a collector to get it. The collector was not a nice guy. He didn’t really care how he got the money as long as he got his cut out of it. Some of the things are first hand.

Ayo: What was your starting point for Wrong as Two Left Feet?

Teddy: I just wanted to show corruption. It is really a people story, rather than showing the corruption in a system. It just shows how stupid and silly people can be and how easily they can be caught up in things. And how a seemingly innocent guy can get caught up in something very dodgy, especially when money and love is involved. It is a real kind of human story.

Ayo: So far you have dealt with property in Blood Red Blues, music in Dead by Popular Demand and money inWrong as Two Left Shoes. Do you feel that authors owe some sort of social responsibility to their readers?

Teddy: Not necessarily. I don’t know that I feel that I owe a sense of social responsibility but it may come across in my books. I’m not aware of it if it does. I just do what I feel. I like to let my readers discover things. It is always good when your readers discover things that they don’t necessarily know. That’s the fun of reading.

Ayo: When it comes to crime novels, especially those that are considered to be urban crime novels, a lot of them do focus on things that are going on in society.

Teddy: I think that is the normal course of action for any writer as he or she has something to say. Otherwise why write? I think it is a form of expression. The need to express their feelings and doubts about different issues. It’s like a natural flow.

Ayo: We have the four main women in Devil’s life: Amanda (even though she is dead), Maxine, Sonia and Honey Lavelle. They are four different characters doing different things - Maxine to me is the most fascinating. How did they come about?

Teddy: Maxine is very shrewd. She is one of those women that you find yourself involved with and you don’t really now why and how you got to this point, but it feels good so you keep going with it. She is the kind of woman that can create loyalty. I think the nice thing about writing the Devil Barnett series is I can show all those different kinds of people. People that I have met over the years and people with different kinds of personalities.

Ayo: So what is going on with Honey Lavelle?

Teddy: I think that he knows deep in his psyche that maybe if he ever took the step with Honey that would be the step and he is not quite ready to do that.

Ayo: But what about Sonia?

Teddy: Sonia is another thing and she fulfils part of his family life. She has two daughters and Devil is friends with Sonia’s brother so that is part of his family life.

Ayo: But so is that bit with Maxine?

Teddy: She has Han, which is another part of it.

Ayo: Has he got a phobia about commitment?

Teddy: He has a bit of a phobia, but not a real phobia, to being a friend. The big problem that Devil has is that he knows that at any point he can be in a dangerous situation and he does not want anyone to get to close to him. He is always asking if it is fair to put these people in this situation. It is not that he does not care about Maxine, but he is torn between who he has to be and what they want from him. What is so dangerous about Honey is that she is not really asking him to be anything. At the end of Wrong as Two Left Shoes he is sitting there saying this is a beautiful woman but…

Ayo: Are you happy about the way your books have been received and in hindsight is there anything you would consider changing?

Teddy: Yes I am and I think I am fine. They do what I wanted them to do. When I started writing Devil Barnett I made a conscious decision to be very different to, let's say, an Easy Rawlins. To me Easy Rawlins is much too passive. He is a product of his times. He is in the fifties, Devil is in the nineties. He is passive in that things happen to him and things affect upon him: he is more of a victim and one thing I did not want to do is make my detective a victim. Devil is very proactive and he does not take any shit from anybody and being an ex-assassin there are reasons why he won’t accept this. For me, in Devil Barnett there is always that point that you never know when he is going to explode - how he reacts is always very unexpected.

Ayo: He was much more violent in Dead By Popular Demand than he was in Blood Red Blues.

Teddy: Yeah he was. In Two Left Shoes he did a very dastardly thing. He cut the guy then tied him up and let the rats eat him. It is important to show that side of him. He is capable of many different levels of violence and I think that is what makes Devil interesting. He is a complex person. He's the kind of guy that can take his best friend in his arms and cry for him. But he is also the guy that can cut your head off and not leave any trace that he was there. When you look at a character like that it makes you wonder.

Ayo: I know you are working on Graveyard Samba, which is the fourth in the series. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Teddy: Devil Barnett is a big jazz fan, as you know. He goes to the annual Cool Jazz Festival in Sao Palo in Brazil, and while he is there he gets a call from one of his ex-CIA friends, Jim from Blood Red Blues. Jim asks him to do something for him as he is getting ready to go into deep cover in Europe and won’t be available. His brother has just been killed in Brazil and he wants him to go and claim the body and ship it back and that is how Devil gets involved in this case.

Ayo: What makes a character real for you?

Teddy: Thought processes, history, inconsistencies and ambiguities are what makes a character real for me.

Ayo: Some writers often say that they feel their characters get away from them. Is this the case with you?

Teddy: No. Sometimes I have to define a character more solidly but in terms of the character running away from me or having a mind of its own, no, because the character has to fit in the context of the story.

Ayo: Do you see yourself sticking with this series for a while? Or do you have any other unrelated projects?

Teddy: Yes definitely, without a doubt. I have a detective novel that I am working on called Zechariah Black who is a defrocked vicar with psychic talents. This is going to be set in London, England probably

Ayo: All the books are heavily sprinkled with references to jazz, R&B and soul etc, many of the old classic tunes. Is this as a result of your love of music and is your music collection as eclectic as Devil’s?

Teddy: I am an old classic guy. Probably it is. What happened with my music collection is that I gave away 80% of it when I left the States. A lot of them were vinyl and I gave them to people that I loved. If I want something then I can go and get it. I am a jazzman.

Ayo: In Blood Red Blues Devil makes the comment that music is his passion as well as his shelter from the storm. Is this the case with you as well?

Teddy: Maybe. I don’t know. It is definitely a passion. Not the shelter from the storm because I have to be too involved in it. It becomes the storm itself. I don’t have that luxury of going to music for any solace unfortunately, other than some of the things that I love I am involved in. I have a show in Germany, the Marvin Gaye show that is getting ready to happen.

Ayo: If you were on a desert island and were allowed to take five crime books and five jazz albums with you, which would they be and why?

Teddy: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie as I am a big fan. The Big Gold Dream and All Shot Up both by Chester Himes. Maybe,Six Easy Pieces by Walter Mosley - I like the way it is written. And Jack and Jill by James Patterson - I love James Patterson’s writing, his pacing is superb, he tells a story the way I like to think I tell a story. Music, it would have to include What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye- a serious song. Miles Davis - A Kind of Blue. Al Jarreau - Glow. Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie and Back on the Block by Quincy Jones.

Books by Teddy Hayes

Blood Red Blues
Dead by Popular Demand
As Wrong as Two Left Shoes (Devil...

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