A Conversation with Josh Weiss
What inspired you to write Beat the Devils?
It all began with my grandfather and his stories of survival during the Holocaust. I never got the chance to know him all that well, but his legacy lived on through his son, my father, who never wasted an opportunity to lecture my siblings and I on the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. I always had a strong desire to write about my grandfather, but was always a little hesitant because I didn’t have all the facts to write a true biography or work of nonfiction.
In college, I watched John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate for the first time and was utterly blown away by it.
Wanting to tell a Cold War thriller of my own, I began playing around with the idea of a Jewish Holocaust survivor solving some kind of mystery during the McCarthy-driven Red Scare of the 1950s (all while cynically coming to grips with what they went through during WWII). Then the lightbulb went off: why not base the main character on my grandfather? That was the foundation, though I ended up drawing on a number of my favorite pieces of media — from Watchmen to The ODESSA File to Jay Roach’s 2015 biopic about Dalton Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston.
Which authors have influenced your work the most?
In no particular order, the authors that have influenced me the most are Ira Levin, William Goldman, Frederick Forsythe, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, Eric Garcia, Brendan DuBois, Ryan Graudin, Ian R. MacLeod, Philip K. Dick, Chaim Potok, Alan Moore, Damon Knight, Mark Greaney, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Chabon, Annie Jacobsen, Jerome Bixby, Robert Harris, Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Matt Ruff, Philip Kerr, and Ray Bradbury.
It’s also worth mentioning that a number of people of this list were major supporters of Beat the Devils and for that, I am profoundly grateful!
Hollywood movies and television play a huge role in Beat the Devils. What are some of your all-time favorite movies? How did they inspire your writing?
The classic Warner Bros. productions featuring Humphrey Bogart — such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep — are certainly high up on my personal list of favorite films. The whip-smart dialogue, black and white film stock, dynamic lighting choices, swelling scores, and Transatlantic accents are always in the back of my mind while writing a period piece like this. I really do hope refracting the story through that prism of cinema comes across on the page.
John Huston, who wrote and directed The Maltese Falcon, went on to make several more iconic pictures with Bogart, including Across the Pacific, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen (which finally nabbed Humphrey a well-deserved Oscar victory), and a little project called…Beat the Devil!
Needless to say, I absolutely adore movies. I really could go on and on about all my top choices, but that would probably cause your eyelids to droop. I’ll just say that a number of noirs, neo-noirs, and noir pastiches (Chinatown, Blade Runner, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Minority Report — to name a few) were the biggest sources of inspiration for my first novel.
And heck, while we’re at it, let’s throw the Cohen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! into the mix as well. That movie’s penchant for hilariously playing up the farcical aspects of Old Hollywood — like its irrational fear of communists — kept recurring to me as I tried to infuse little bits of irony here and there.
What is your writing process like? Do you have set hours when you write, or only when inspiration strikes? Do you have any special places you like to write?
I try to set a concrete goal for myself every day (weekends included). If I can hit 1,000 words before I go to bed at night, I’m happy. If that doesn’t happen, though, I don’t beat myself up over it too much. Any progress is a victory — remember that.
Just don’t procrastinate or else you’ll let a month or more go by without writing a single paragraph. I live in Philadelphia, so the weather isn’t always the nicest here, but when it does get really warm, I love typing away on my apartment’s roof deck that overlooks the city skyline with an ice-cold drink not too far away.
Which of the characters in the book do you relate to the most?
Not sure if this is a cop out or not (no pun intended), but I’d have to go with Morris Baker for the answer on this one. While the character is loosely based on my grandfather, his struggles with faith are very much an extension of my own experiences with religion and the cognitive dissonance that comes with moving away from one’s strict adherence to an Orthodox lifestyle. Don’t let anyone tell you different: Jewish guilt is real!
Were there any major changes to plot or characters between your first draft and the novel now?
There were many! In my very first draft of the book, the Black Symphony planned to nuke the planet into oblivion and escape to Mars where they would establish the Fourth Reich. They had a rocket ship and space-suits ready to go at the Griffith Observatory and everything. Luckily, my amazing agent (Scott Miller) and editors (Ben Sevier and Wes Miller) talked me into scrapping that original climax in favor of a slightly more believable one.
The initial draft also had Roger Danforth (Arthur Scholz’s academic colleague at USC) turning out to be a double agent for the Nazi cabal, which had infiltrated Edward Murrow’s resistance movement. All of it ended up being too convoluted in an already complex story, so I just rolled Danforth’s betrayal into the big Sophia twist.
It also meant getting rid of a big nighttime showdown between Baker and Danforth at a seaside amusement park in Santa Monica, which was a lot of fun to write. Who knows? Maybe that sequence will show up in another book down the road.
There was also a brief look at Baker’s time living in New York City after his arrival in the United States. This final flashback interlude, which explored the main character’s relationship with a doomed lounge singer in Harlem, fell between the amusement park climax and Baker’s conversation with Rabbi Kahn. Ultimately, however, it ended up feeling a little too repetitive after Sophia’s death and was scrapped in favor of Baker breaking things off with Liz.
This change came at Wes’s suggestion, and served to underscore the destructiveness of Morris’s romantic life with a woman we’d known since the very first chapter. Here’s a little fun fact about the creative process: while writing the break-up scene, I had Jerry Goldsmith’s “Love Theme” from Chinatown playing on a loop. Feel free to go back and read the chapter with that music in the background. I think it synchs up pretty well, if I do say so myself.
Morris Baker loves a glass of peach schnapps. What’s the significance of this drink? Is there a background story as to why you choose it?
In the Jewish faith, we read a different parsha (or chapter) of the Torah (Old Testament) each week. When we reach the very end of the Torah at the start of new year and begin the whole process again, we celebrate with holiday known as Simchat Torah. It’s customary for adults to organize big parties for everyone in the community and when I was growing up, my parents would often host such events for members of our synagogue. That’s just a long-winded way of saying that a bottle of peach schnapps was always present on the party’s alcohol table.
If you’ve ever taken a sip of peach schnapps — particularly as a mischievous young kid who wanted to stay up late on those nights — then you probably know it’s one of the most cloyingly sweet spirits in existence. No one in their right mind would ever drink the stuff straight out of the bottle; it’s meant to be mixed into other cocktails!
I just thought giving Baker an inexplicable taste for one of the vilest liquors on Planet Earth would make for a fun character quirk. Funnily enough, a professional mixology friend recently informed me that peach-flavored schnapps didn’t become a mainstream spirit until the 1980s. So I guess Baker was a bit of a trendsetter for his time. If that answer isn’t good enough for you, then let’s just chalk it up to the whole alternate timeline thing.
Which character was the hardest to write? Which was the easiest? Why?
The easiest characters to write were the ones I made up: Baker, Connolly, Valentina, Fenwick, etc. Things get infinitely more difficult when you’re dealing with individuals who actually existed: Elizabeth Short, Enrica Soma, Dalton Trumbo, and, of course, the great Humphrey Bogart. Not that I’m an expert on writing historical figures in works of fiction, but I do try to find a nice balance between reality and whatever pops out of my imagination.
The Enrica Soma of Beat the Devils, for instance, is meant to be an homage to the smart, sexy, and dangerous women of the film noir genre (like Lauren Bacall and Mary Astor), not a beat-for-beat recreation of John Huston’s real-world spouse. Bogart, meanwhile, is an amalgam of the real actor as well as all the tough guy roles he played throughout his career.
Beat the Devils takes place in Los Angeles, California. Do you have a connection to this area?
Nope! I’ve been to Los Angeles twice in my life — once when I was 4 then and then two decades later when I was 23. Both of those trips to the City of Angels were pretty short.
I initially considered setting Beat the Devils in Manhattan (a place I know much better), but that idea didn’t stick around for very long. The best hardboiled noir stories are also set in LA against the backdrop of palm trees, corruption, and celebrity culture. There is something so appealing about a mystery in Tinseltown. Of course, that meant a good deal of research (and visits to Google Maps) on my end. Worth it!
I would, however, like to stress that this is not a one for one recreation of 1950s Los Angeles. It is a romanticized interpretation of a place my brain often likes to visit during the long East Coast winters. A sun-soaked metropolis of glamour and cynicism; adventure and enchantment; romance and betrayal; dreams and nightmares. A place, my friends, where anything can happen.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers hoping to be published for the first time?
I’m wary to give advice because there’s no set formula to succeeding in this business. All I can say is that if you’re serious about writing a book, then write it. Don’t think about getting an agent or selling it just yet. Put words on paper and keep doing that until you’re done. The book starts out as something that is for you, and you alone.
Once you’re done and confident in the manuscript, then you can start reaching out to agents. You’ll get more rejection responses than interested ones. That’s just how it works. But here’s the good news: it only takes one single person to “get” your vision. I’d been turned down more times than I could count when Scott reached out one evening with those four words you dream of hearing as an aspiring author: “I love the book.”
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m in the middle of editing and collecting feedback on a direct sequel to Beat the Devils, whose story picks up about 18 months after the events of the first book. It’s called Sunset Empire and will explore Baker’s connection to the wider Jewish community of Los Angeles. Oh, and it’s mainly set during Hannukah, so expect a latke or two…
This inventive, page-turning crime thriller with "palpable emotional depth" (New York Times Book Review) envisions a world in which the Red Scare never ended.
USA, 1958. President Joseph McCarthy sits in the White House, elected on a wave of populist xenophobia and barely‑concealed anti‑Semitism. The country is in the firm grip of McCarthy's Hueys, a secret police force evolved from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hollywood's sparkling vision of the American dream has been suppressed; its remaining talents forced to turn out endless anti‑communist propaganda.
LAPD detective Morris Baker—a Holocaust survivor who drowns his fractured memories of the unspeakable in schnapps and work—is called to the scene of a horrific double‑homicide. The victims are John Huston, a once‑promising but now forgotten film director, and an up‑and‑coming young journalist named Walter Cronkite. Clutched in the hand of one of the dead men is a cryptic note containing the phrase “beat the devils” followed by a single name: Baker. Did the two men die in an attack fueled by better-dead-than-red sentiment, as the Hueys are quick to conclude, or were they murdered in a cover-up designed to protect—or even set in motion—a secret plot connected to Baker's past?
In a country where terror grows stronger by the day, and paranoia rises unchecked, Baker is determined to find justice for two men who raised their voices in a time when free speech comes at the ultimate cost. In the course of his investigation, Baker stumbles into a conspiracy that reaches deep into the halls of power and uncovers a secret that could destroy the City of Angels—and the American ideal itself.