Not Above A Fight: The Hard-Charging Lifestyle of an NYC Noir Guru
This is article is part of an occasional series on stories and storytellers, done in partnership with Narratively, a platform dedicated to original, in-depth, and untold stories. This story was written by Narratively’s Rebecca White.
“Excuse me, can I buy a cigarette from you?” a man asks the bartender, Todd Robinson, in a small Greenwich Village bar called Shade. Robinson, 41, aka Big Daddy Thug, shakes his head. He’s been smoking Parliaments all night on a series of quick cigarette breaks outside, despite the down-pouring rain. It’s 10PM on a Monday in June, and it’s been a slow day.
“No,” says Robinson, taking out a smoke and handing it to the customer, gratis. “But I do insist that you take a postcard.”
Robinson, who is six feet tall, 270 pounds, and sports several tattoos on his arms, reaches up to a shelf behind the bar and grabs a promotional postcard for his first novel, The Hard Bounce.
The postcard design, identical to the book cover, shows the left half of a man’s torso. He’s wearing a black t-shirt and his muscular, tattooed arms are crossed in an intimidating fashion. Below the book’s title is a glowing blurb from fellow author Ken Bruen, who called Robinson’s work “brilliant” and “deeply moving.”
“No way! You wrote this?” asks the customer, leaning forward eagerly. “Where can I get it?” He’s impressed, but he’s also a little drunk. “Everywhere,” says Robinson. “Just not here, not now.”
Nevertheless, stacks of other postcards are fanned out by the entrance to the bar, an example of what Robinson calls his “mercenary nature.”
“I have to be creative. I don’t have the money,” he says of his efforts to publicize the book, which was published in January. He went on a book tour recently, and the expenses were all out of pocket—out of his pocket.
“You only get one first novel,” he says.
Robinson, though, is hardly new to the crime fiction scene.
The creator and chief editor of Thuglit, an award-winning crime fiction magazine that has run on and off for eight years, Robinson has also been nominated for several literary awards, including a Derringer from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In 2011 he won the inaugural Bullet Award. His short story, Peaches, is currently nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Short Story of the Year.
These are not your typical bartender’s accolades, but Robinson is not your typical modern writer either. He doesn’t live in Brooklyn, a known hub for creative types and hipsters. He lives in the unfashionable Woodside, Queens. He doesn’t have an MFA in creative writing. He follows sports religiously. He doesn’t relish in the delights of organic or raw alternatives. He drinks (though, as of this night he hasn’t had a drink in two months). He smokes. He’s not above a fight.
Robinson is a self-described natural storyteller who lives the life of those he writes about: bouncers, bikers, characters named ‘Boo’ and ‘Junior’; misfits, night porters, men with anger management problems—“The damaged people,” he calls them.
“I’m writing stories about guys like me,” says Robinson, who started Thuglit because, he says, “No one was publishing shit I related to.”
Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, he played varsity football in high school, and passed on the opportunity to play in college. Instead, he studied theater, a fact he’s been careful not to advertise.
“Theater is considered so effete, so white collar,” he says. Crafting his image as “the biggest swinging dick on the block” has been to his advantage in his career, though he takes special pride in his knowledge of opera, his ability to recite Shakespearean sonnets from memory, and his love of Star Trek.
Robinson spent much of his young-adult life in Boston, working as a bouncer and a bartender at a legendary bar called The Rathskeller, now closed. A lot of his writing is about a Boston that, he says, no longer exists. His work has been buoyed by real-life, brawling experiences he seems to relish in recounting: “There were five of us, fifteen of them…”
Crafting his image as “the biggest swinging dick on the block” has been to his advantage in his career, though he takes special pride in his knowledge of opera, his ability to recite Shakespearean sonnets from memory, and his love of Star Trek.
A New York City habitué for more than a decade, Robinson lives with his wife and four-year old son, whose pictures he frequently brings up on his iPhone in between checking sports scores; he’s an avid Red Sox fan. He bartends fulltime now while also writing and editing his bimonthly magazine. Two nights later, while sitting at The Bull’s Head Tavern on East 23rd Street in Manhattan, where Robinson used to work as a bouncer, he says, “I’ve always written. I wrote fifty pages of a novel when I was eleven. It was a Jaws rip-off. I didn’t take it seriously until I was 29.”
Success has been hard-fought, though, and Robinson doesn’t yet consider himself successful. His novel took ten years to get published, and financially, he’s several grand in the hole. “I’m broke as fuck,” he says. And it’s all to support a genre that he feels is fighting its own uphill battle.
He tells a story about going to a literary function once and meeting several other writers: “The second the words ‘crime fiction’ came out of my mouth, you could see the sneers,” he says.
As Robinson takes a sip from a beer he regrets ordering, he says, “Crime fiction gets lumped under pop fiction. There is a mindset among artists that if you’re popular, you can’t be artistic.”
Robinson’s characters, while damaged, are not simply reflections of Robinson himself. Though he’s battled with depression, drinking, and other vices in his life, his stories tend to ruminate on themes of redemption, the perception of violence, and “the wrong actions sometimes being the right course.” His world may not be for all audiences, but he’s proud of how he handles fringe, noir material.
“I feel like I write fairly masculine pieces of fiction, but without being misogynistic,” he says. After getting another beer, a whiskey, and smoking what may be his fourth cigarette of the evening, Robinson admits that he feels like he’s on a vacation.
“I work full-time and I have a kid,” he says, wishing there were more time to focus on writing. When asked about his writing process, he shrugs and chuckles. “I’m still figuring that out. It seems that every time I do find a routine, something changes.”
Robinson is writing his second novel right now, and is late in pulling together his next issue of Thuglit. He has a lot of editing to do in the next few days, but views his role as an editor as highly as he does his role as author.
“I’m very protective of my writers,” he says, his tone turning serious.“You fuck with my writers in my magazine, I’ll rip your face off.”
And he’s not kidding. But his literary persona as Big Daddy Thug doesn’t just embody his inner- and outer-thug. The word ‘daddy’ is there for a reason: “I have a very gentle editorial hand,” he says of the writers he’s coached and the submissions he’s reviewed. “I try to tell them what worked for me and what didn’t work for me and why.”
The person Robinson is hardest on is himself.
“There’s a fear that I’m failing, that I’m a fraud as a writer, that I got lucky with my first book,” Robinson admits, telling of the battles he’s fought with depression and how they’ve affected his work. “Fear is a detriment, but it works both ways,” he says. “There’s a lot of motivation that comes with trying to prove people wrong.”Image by Juan R. Velasco