RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're now going to introduce you to a Japanese-American author who writes in an African-American voice. Joe Ide comes by that voice naturally. He grew up in Los Angeles in a black neighborhood that helped shape not only his speech but the settings for his best-selling crime novels that feature a young black protagonist. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team took a walk with the author.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Joe Ide and I are standing where he grew up in the '60s with his parents and grandparents on busy Adams Boulevard, south of downtown LA.
JOE IDE: My grandparents lived here because it was close to Little Tokyo. And other Japanese families had fled to the suburbs, but they couldn't afford to move. And my family lived with them because we were just scraping by. So it was three generations of us under one roof.
BATES: The Ito's were the only Japanese family in the neighborhood. His immigrant grandparents kept to themselves. His parents were often at work, which left Joe and his two brothers running around with the neighborhood kids.
IDE: Most of our friends were black, just kids from around here, kids from the neighborhood. Everybody was pretty much the same. I think poverty sort of leveled the playing field.
BATES: The family's wooden home was torn down years ago, but there are a number of places that are still here like this shrine.
IDE: That was where my first girlfriend lived. She was a head and a half taller than me and outweighed me by 40 pounds. Somebody said that when we held hands, it looked like she was a ventriloquist with a Japanese puppet.
BATES: Joe Ide is 59 years old, small with a shock of graying hair and bright birdlike eyes that don't miss a thing behind his glasses.
IDE: I don't know what it is now, that right on the corner used to be a Chinese school.
BATES: We passed the ratchet corner store that he and his two brothers used to patronize after school. It was run by a sour-faced Chinese proprietor who became the basis for Tommy Lau, a gangster who appears in Ide's second book.
IDE: I think he owned a chain of these. He would show up in a Lincoln Continental and a suit. And if he was unhappy with somebody, he didn't say anything, he just looked at them until they either imploded or burst into flames.
BATES: Ide borrowed from himself a bit to create his hero, Isaiah Quintabe or IQ. IQ is a high school dropout whose keen intelligence and restless spirit enabled him to work as a homemade private eye in his East Long Beach neighborhood.
It's a little noisy. Maybe let's walk down this way and around the corner.
BATES: Ide kind of floated through high school, not part of the usual tribes and not motivated to get more than OK grades. Motivation kicked in in college, where he earned a bachelor's degree, then a master's in education. He told me the plan was to teach, but there was one little problem.
IDE: I discovered I really didn't like kids. They were noisy and fussy, you know. They kept asking me questions.
BATES: He lasted for a semester, then was a university lecturer.
IDE: Didn't like that either.
BATES: After that, a string of jobs, everything from business consultant to apartment manager. Nothing felt right. Ide says he was always restless, looking for something he couldn't define except this way.
IDE: I just didn't want to solve a problem that somebody else put in my lap.
BATES: He says he'd wanted to write for years and finally decided to try it. He wrote screenplays on spec and was lucky enough to have an agent friend who critiqued his work. He listened to the criticism, learned, and after a dozen failures...
IDE: Finally, I wrote a good one. And it sold to Disney, and I started to work.
BATES: Writing screenplays was profitable, Ide did it for years, then finally burned out. What he really wanted to do was write books. So he took a deep breath, quit screenwriting and those lovely paychecks and got down to business.
IDE: What I recall is sitting at my desk in my pajamas, typing a lot, talking to my dog and dripping taco juice on my keyboard.
BATES: The result was "IQ," which introduced readers to Isaiah Quintabe. Isaiah is smart, driven and angry. He's traumatized by the still unsolved hit-and-run death of his older brother Marcus, his only family. Joe Ide says while Isaiah tries to find the driver who killed Marcus, he works for people in his neighborhood.
IDE: He takes the cases that the police can't or won't get involved with. And he charges people whatever they can afford, which is usually something like a sweet potato pie or a live rooster.
BATES: Who is now his personal alarm clock, Alejandro.
BATES: In "IQ," Isaiah is hired to find the would-be killer of a rapper, Black The Knife. Black has no interest in joining Biggie and Tupac in the great beyond. The caper goes from Black's suburban McMansion to the LA marina, where Isaiah foils a kidnapper who snatched a Latina child for very perverse purposes.
In "Righteous," we get to know Isaiah's former classmate Dodson, a cranky pragmatist with a genius for the barely legal side hustle. The two are in Las Vegas tracking the disappearance of a cute gambling addicted DJ. She owes a lot of money to a Chinese gangster who sounds an awful lot like the guy who owned that corner store where Joe Ide grew up.
IDE: Thank you all.
BATES: At a reading at Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, Ide tells his audience sometimes he writes what didn't happen to him growing up.
IDE: So when I was writing about Isaiah and Marcus and their relationship, I was writing about the relationship I didn't have with my brothers but wished for and to a certain extent still do.
BATES: The people at Eso Won are mostly African-American and passionate about books. One asked Ide how he got the book's black voices so accurately. He credits his old hood with giving all three Ide boys a good dose of flavor.
IDE: We were all, you know, pretending to be black.
IDE: We never fooled anybody.
BATES: In truth, Ide says his outsider status has served him well.
IDE: I was this murky fringe kid, you know. I mean, I wasn't black. And I wasn't white. And I'm way far from being Japanese. So I'm always on the edges, you know, watching, listening but not really in the mix.
BATES: Being out of the mix and being able to believably embrace cultures beyond his own has resulted in critical praise and a contract to turn "IQ" into a series for cable. But Joe Ide's learned his lesson about screenplays. He's letting somebody else do that. He's concentrating on the future adventures of Isaiah Quintabe. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF UYAMA HIROTO'S "YIN AND YANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.