DRINK THE TEA introduces us to Willis Gidney. Parent-less from an early age Willis uses skills honed on the street in his youth to now work as a PI. Keeping him from straying to far over the line is his foster father Shadrack Davies, a Captain in the DC Police force. Willis is called to look for the missing daughter of close friend and jazz musician Steps Jackson. Willis accepts the hard luck case with little hope of finding an answer. But soon after finding a woman who might be the missing girl's mother, the woman turns up dead, and the police only have one suspect, Willis.
The Hungry Detective: What about your first book, DRINK THE TEA, compelled you to write it?
Thomas Kaufman: I blame the airline industry. Seriously, I'm thinking of suing them. They lock me in their airplanes for hours at a time. You can only stare vacantly into space for so long. Besides, writing is a kind of sickness, and I got it bad from riding airplanes. So I decided to use the time and write the kind of book I like to read.
I started reading detective fiction when I was eighteen and a freshman at USC Film school. My school friend (and now film director) Willard Carroll turned me on to FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. I read all of Chandler, Hammett, Horace McCoy, Cornell Woolrich, graduating to Richard Stark (Donald Westlake). So I have real love of this type of story. There's a lot you can do within the form, and writing inside a genre really appeals to me. All the writers that come before you are your teachers. I've had great teachers.
THD: Willis Gidney is your somewhat reluctant PI. What obligates him to help people? Specifically in DRINK THE TEA, why does Willis help Steps Jackson look for his daughter?
TK: Willis is a great guy, but he does have some issues. In DRINK THE TEA, he deals with abandonment and loss. Willis grows up fatherless until police Captain Shadrack Davies comes along. So family is something Willis has never had. When his friend Steps learns of a missing daughter – one he never knew he had – Willis is compelled to help Steps find her.
Steps gives Willis no information about the missing daughter, it's really an impossible case, and Gidney knows this going in. But he can't walk away from trying to help a friend get a family, even if he can't.
THD: Steps has been an 'unknowing' absent father. How does this drive the story?
TK: Steps Jackson is a composite of several jazz musicians I've met. He's intelligent, articulate, well-dressed. But he's single and on the road. I know a lot of people in the film and video business that are like that. As they age they think about a family, and their not having one. For someone like that, the prospect of finding an adult daughter must be irresistible. But you know nothing of the daughter, what kind of person she is or how she'll react to someone like Steps.
It's Gidney's own background that makes him take the case.
THD: Washington DC is a Den of Thieves or Bastion of Democracy, Willis Gidney also calls it home. As the author, what about Washington attracts you to this setting?
TK: Oh, everything, I guess. It's a city of contrasts, and a city that contains its own contradictions. The juxtaposition of Congress and the city of Washington, DC where 800,000 people live and work and go to school and to church – I mean, we're talking about people who pay the highest taxes in the US and have no representation in Congress. How messed up is that?
I could give you a lot of factoids about DC, but you have to go into the neighborhoods near the Capitol. In the trailer for DRINK THE TEA we shot on Pennsylvania avenue a shot of the Capitol dome as a time lapse shot, it's kind of a beauty shot. Then the next shot is on North Capitol street. It's funky. You're still spitting distance from the Capitol, but around you are enormous KFCs with blue sodium lights on outer space stalks, and Big Ben's Liquor and enormous Exxon stations. It's not a tourist hang-out. The image now is hand-held, long-lens of a lone man (Willis?) crossing a bridge with the Capitol behind him. Those two shots, to me, illustrate the juxtaposition I'm talking about.
(By the way, the second shot of the dome is close in location to the one by Caleb Deschanel of Peter Sellers in BEING THERE).
THD: You have been a successful Cinematographer for a number years. Your work in film has been mainly in the Documentary form. How does your film work inform your writing?
TK: I have the best job in the world. I learn new things all the time, and I get to play with cool gear like the RED camera. Yesterday I was shooting a PBS Frontline for producer Daniel Edge about returning Iraq war veterans. We interviewed a four-star general at the Pentagon, and got some documentary footage at a local gun shop. The day before I was filming for Planned Parenthood, and the day before that a political spot. So there's lots of variety, and lots of types of shooting
I also shoot dramatic pieces. It's fun working with actors. I had a good time in the trailer for DRINK THE TEA.
THD: Where does DRINK THE TEA find its inspiration? In your work as a Cinematographer? Other films? Other books? Real life?
TK: Real life. I was at a Mexican restaurant in LA with a white guy friend and a Latina friend. The three of us were in our early 20's, and she was a successful young woman. The first in her family to graduate college. Our waitress was also early 20's and Latina. For some reason, my friend was mean, maybe just a tad cruel to this waitress for no reason whatsoever. I thought, what would make a person do that? It intrigued me and formed the seed idea.
But I see so much of life through a viewfinder, it affects the way I write. I tend to see the scenes, visualize them, and the characters are actors within those scenes.
THD: What is next for you?
TK: SON OF AN ELEPHANT, the second Willis Gidney novel, is in Senior Editor Ruth Cavin's capable hands. I think if TEA does well, Ruth will want to print ELEPHANT.
I've just posted a video trailer on my website, www.thomaskaufman.com Meanwhile I'm hanging out on Facebook, my blog, and twitter. By the way, who will be the first to write an epistolary novel consisting solely of Tweets? It's shameful to even ponder such a heinous deed.