When I was in the looney bin at Del Amo, I had a fellow patient who was a former Army Ranger. One day, his Ranger friends came to visit him and had to check their weapons at the front desk. When they got back into the patient dayroom, one of them said, "Damn, Jesse, I can't believe you made me visit you in the looney bin without my guns."
It was so good to hear someone crack a joke and talk about what was going on directly.
While the rest of my family and friends were wringing their hands and doing everything they could to avoid mentioning the words "crazy" or "hospital," Khanh showed up with a double double burger from In-N-Out and made a joke about my lace-free shoes. He also said, "You're so lucky. I hope you're taking notes."
A few months later I was fresh out of rehab, having dinner with him and my wife and thinking about what lay before me. The one thing I was sure about was that I wanted to write a book. I knew I had to reshape my life and do things differently. Taking up writing again would be an key part of that.
We were talking about what I’d just been through and I was sharing details about life among the forcibly sober. Khanh and my wife went to grad school together and one of their favorite activities is riffing on story ideas. Khanh started in on ways to make use of all the new source material I’d amassed on the psych ward and in rehab, the ideas getting crazier and crazier as he went on - Satanic angels unleash hell on earth; transsexual trolls fall in love; gender fluid psychic hairdresser turns detective - until he blurted out, “You should write about vampires in A.A.!”
It was a joke, but it stuck. Vampires in Alcoholics Anonymous. It sent my imagination running. Drinkers. Blood drinkers. Addiction. Unquenchable and destructive thirst. I started pulling on everything I’d been through as an addict. The inability to stop using drugs, the damage I caused to the people I love. But also the hope and refuge I found talking to people who’d somehow managed to get clean and sober.
I wanted to write a mystery. I wanted to write a classic, first-person private detective, the more hard boiled the better. I love dark and troubled detective characters: Harry Bosch, Philip Marlowe, V.I. Warshowski, Harry Dresden. I’d read Charlie Huston’s vampire series, the Joe Pitt books, in rehab and they’d gotten me energized about writing again. I saw a way to mix the genres I love – why couldn’t a book be supernatural and noir mystery? All I needed was my detective.
I pictured a man with an old school look. Vintage suits, silk ties, a flask of whiskey in his coat pocket and a snub nosed .38 in a holster. Classic P.I looks., like Gabriel Bryne in “Miller’s Crossing.” And if he looks like he’s from the 1940s, what if he actually is from the 1940s? A man who was killed back then and became a vampire.
Everything in the story opened up after that. His life in the 40s as an LAPD detective. Corrupt as hell, also a drunk. I put him on one of the most infamous cases of the day, the Black Dahlia Murders. Then I went looking for his name. Jack: hard and blunt. Strayhorn: a nod to the famous jazz composer Billy Strayhorn. Jack is a jazz fan, a chain smoker, a blood drinker.
I dropped him into this new world and watched what happened. How did he die? What is his brand of vampirism like and what makes him special?
I saw the first scene right away. Jack standing in the middle of a crime scene, sniffing the air for blood. His dark gift gives him the power to sift through the smell and read all the details of who was there, what happened and how to find the killer.
With that, Jack was on the case.