Monday, August 22, 2016

Steve Huff takes on Saul Goodman's best advice



He tweets. "Good thing about insomnia is my neighborhood gets weird between midnight and 4 AM. *opens iPhone, types 911 but doesn't send, just in case*"
He sings. Tenor. "I studied to be an opera singer. Did it professionally. But once, a singing gig fell through after I'd learned all the music. I was very excited about it; next thing, the producer called and said the company's not doing any more productions at all. I was depressed by that, so I diverted myself in the blogging."
He parents. "I get up around 4 a.m. and write or research for a couple hours. Then I get the kids up and off to school. Sometimes, I take my wife to work—she's the English chair at Worcester Academy. After school, when the kids come running back in, I have to remind them I'm actually working."
He's funny. On deciding to be one's own lawyer, for instance: "I applaud your moxie. Because to face a court of law with your wits and whatever legal training you picked up from the Google school of law—and that one cousin who's been to jail so much he really knows stuff, man—takes courage."
He's versatile. He edits and blogs about science and "cool tech" for "Maxim" magazine's online site. He has thousands of Twitter followers for a satire on life coaching that he runs with two friends. His credits include TruTV's Crime Library, the New York Observer and the Observer’s tech blog, observer.com, CBS News, Village Voice Media, the Daily Beast, Esquire.com and Complex Magazine.
Just now, he's written a book. You've probably never heard of him.
Steve Huff lives in Worcester, on the border between a nice, and a not-so-nice, neighborhood. This makes for very interesting scenery. The uniform-jumping-over-the-hedge kind. He is about as busy as a writer-journalist can get, but he always remembers to think like a guy who's hungry for clients. He hasn't forgotten lean times. Right now, though, life is promising: a major publisher has released his first book, "Don't Go to Jail!: Saul Goodman's Guide to Keeping the Cuffs Off." (see sidebar)
Anyone familiar with the AMC television series "Breaking Bad" or its spin-off, "Better Call Saul," knows about the shady lawyer played by actor Bob Odenkirk. Saul's an Albuquerque attorney who handles those luckless offenders—petty thieves, pot smokers and the like—who end up in small courtrooms with judges who've seen thousands of them before, and will see thousands more. He's tricky, savvy and usually gets the job done for his clients.
Done, that is, if they do two things—as related by Huff. Handling a sticky legal situation is often as much about the point of view you approach it with as it is about the alleged crime itself. Saul's first bit of advice: "Keep your mouth shut." Second comes "call a lawyer." He really means it: "I want to put into your brain a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Saul Goodman singing "MAKE NO STATEMENTS" to the tune of the 'Hallelujah Chorus.' "
It's hard to imagine Huff could write so expertly about legal matters, but he does. "I'm not a lawyer," he says. His work has been vetted by the program's legal consultants, however, and assisted by his years of legal writing. In earlier years, the knowledge gleaned from his research and writing background earned him interviews on major television news and crime programs—an interest he's now abandoned because of its gruesomeness.
"I had been writing about criminal justice since 2005," Huff said. "In 2004, almost nobody was blogging yet, and those who were wrote about politics. I liked crime stories, criminal justice stories, so I wrote about them. It was just good timing, at the beginning of social media intersection with crime stories. I was an amateur—but within about six months of the first post, I was getting calls from editors at big web sites, wanting to hire me to write articles for them. Writing work took off from there."
He focused on crime until about 2009, then started to look for variety. He loved humor and had friends who were working as comedians, so he fed that need. It was lucky happenstance that he got the job. A friend saw an editor's tweet, looking for someone funny who could also write about crime. The timing was perfect.
Once hired, he was given an almost-laughable deadline: one month to write the book. Not many people would jump at that; Huff did. "There was a lot of intense work," he said. "The all-nighters kind. I might as well have been a law student for a few weeks there. But I didn't have to cover the deeper intricacies of the law because I was supposed to write something that was in context of "Better Call Saul"—a book that one of his potential clients would want to read. Saul handles kind of small-crime stuff in "Breaking Bad" and in "Better Call Saul." Cops finding weed in your car. Getting caught urinating in public. The book is fiction in that way—Saul is writing a kind of conversation with a client."
Don't mistakenly consider this a humor book—alone. It's a serious book written with humor. Big difference. It's about avoiding jail if you can (read up on "attitude"), handling yourself in court, or in jail, snitching—or not, avoiding future temptation once you're out, and modifying your life.
It is funny, all the way through, but it's a solid book of advice as well. "You're your own worst enemy by not knowing your rights and how to handle yourself in an arrest," Saul says, via Huff's pen.
To prepare, he said, "I sat down and binge-watched the first season of "Better Call Saul." I tried to catch a number of episodes of "Breaking Bad"—episodes in which he was featured—to get an idea of the voice of the character. His voice informed some of the humor." Capturing that voice was a shared task. "The book really is kind of co-written. I wrote the manuscript and it was sent off to the writers for the show. Then, a number of them did what they call a punch-up. They don't edit your manuscript; none of my content was changed or corrected. They just made it sound more like the character might talk. Some of the jokes are theirs and some mine (I'm pretty proud of a couple of them.)."
Though he was ghost-writing, and knew his part would be anonymous, the publisher (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press) gave him cover and title page credit for his work. "I woke up the day after I turned the book in and thought 'that felt really good.' It gave me a lot of confidence. Even if you're making a living in digital publishing (aka blogging), any writer wants to see themselves in print."
The book came out in April, and he's soon to start another one for 2017. He's reticent to say too much about it right off, beyond its connection to the shows.

In the interim, he'll continue his gig as a writer and contributing editor to maxim.com and hopes to delve into some singing this summer.

"It's funny. I've been finding myself wanting to do it again, because my voice is still in good shape; I just haven't pushed myself to get out, beyond church choirs and that sort of thing. I'll look for some opportunities to do it this summer. It's a part of me, and I don't want it to be sitting there gathering dust."

He blogs, too, on current events, history and "bad ideas." His life-coaching parody, Your Life Coach, appears on twitter as @lifecoachers. It boasts 41,000 followers and the honor of being blocked by life-coaching guru Depak Chopra.

"I noticed that Twitter was full of people who presented themselves as life coaches," he said. "They were saying the sort of rote things you can get in any book. My friends got together with me to do it. We were all adding lines." Others noticed, and followed. Some of them—though he didn't realize it—were famous in their own right, like—shall we say—rock stars. "They would re-tweet it and suddenly I had a lot of followers. That's how social media works. You can become friends with somebody who has a million followers."

A self-described "recovering fat guy," he finds time away from his sedentary occupation to keep trim, frequently taking runs in his neighborhood. Though he's from Tennessee, he and his wife have enjoyed living in Worcester for the past four years. "In a funny way, we really find it charming," he said. "There are these circles of neighborhoods radiating out from the city center. We're right on the border between where it can get a little hectic, a few break-ins, and such, and a block away—where it's always very pleasant. Being from the South, I've lived in apartments and in suburbs, but never in this urban setting. When Spring comes, you pop your windows open and immediately you can hear everyone doing their business."

Though there's a good-sized list of digital publications he's written for, he enjoyed doing a book. "It's a lot more fun than I anticipated it would be," Huff said.
He's an expert on criminal justice and cyber crime—fields of expertise he gained by doing his job well.
"You've got to work, work, work," he said of freelancing. "You can't take a break from what you're doing."

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