The Writer of the 'Better Call Saul' Book Legally Cannot Give Me Legal Advice
Steve Huff has literally written the book on "Jimmy" McGill, Esq.
Steve Huff is the powerful Twitter presence and Maxim editor providing the literary muscle for Saul Goodman, America’s favorite Breaking Bad spin-off lawyer. How did Huff get to be the semi-official historian of Better Call Saul? It’s a bizarre story with plenty of twists, which makes sense if you think about it.
Inverse sat down with Huff to get the full story on Don’t Go to Jail: Saul Goodman’s Guide to Keeping the Cuffs Off, a book without legal precedent or relevance, but with a lot of good jokes.
What’s your background as a writer?
As a writer, I started out doing open mic poetry slams in my hometown, Nashville, Tennessee. (Really, I started writing as a kid — my earliest dream career was writer.) But poetry was my adult entry into making my writing public, and in that context I did pretty well, winning a slam or two in the early 1990s. But I was doing other things to earn money. My career as it is now began in 2005. I’m also a classically-trained tenor, and in late 2004 a really great singing gig doing a pair of leading tenor roles had fallen through, after I’d built up to it doing secondary roles and chorus with big opera companies in the South. I was depressed.
I’d been blogging for a while, and I guess to absorb myself further, I decided to use blogging to indulge a long-time interest in true crime. I began a true crime blog, not realizing it was one of the first blogs defined that way. This was around the time social media was beginning to become its own thing, and I developed an early and intuitive understanding of what was happening. I began folding social media elements into my blog posts — suspected killers’ MySpace pages, last blog posts by crime victims — and because I was ahead of the mainstream media with this element, I was scooping them right and left. This brought attention from an editor for what was a major true crime site at the time. She offered me work writing for her and I couldn’t resist. I’d begun my own true crime blog in late 2004. By autumn 2005, I was a professional writer. From there I made connections with editors and journalists that allowed me to expand my writing to other areas, like pop culture blogging, and I gladly did that. It’s honestly an even longer more involved story than this, but this is essentially the short version. The work I’ve done since 2005, both in crime coverage as well as being goofy on my personal Twitter account led to what I’m doing now.
Tell me about your experiences as a Twitter comedian.
I don’t consider myself a comedian, though I have a deep love of comedy. I have, from the first, viewed Twitter as a pretty pure personal experiment in writing on the fly and getting feedback. It’s an ongoing exercise for me. In learning to write and execute jokes, in almost real-time communication with an “audience.”
How did you wind up getting the opportunity to become Saul Goodman?
Brendan Deneen of Macmillan Entertainment sent out a tweet looking for a writer who could handle both criminal justice and humor and who was willing to write under a tight as hell deadline. A Twitter pal, Ken Lowery, tweeted it at me — seemed to think it sounded like a thing I could do. I agreed and emailed Brendan immediately. I presented him with samples of past writing that covered both my crime acumen, as well as humor, and in a fairly short time I had the job. It was bizarre because, for humor, I mostly just had tweets to show him. I created and am one of the main contributors to LIFECOACHERS, a life-coaching parody account with over 40,000 followers. I sent samples from that in addition to a tongue-in-cheek crime slideshow I did years ago for Esquire’s website. I think the overall combination was what they were looking for.
Were you caught up on the show at the time or did you have to plow through in a binger?
I knew enough from catching Breaking Bad here and there that Bob Odenkirk had created an absolutely indelible character (I was primed to like him because I’ve been a fan of Odenkirk’s work forever), but I’d missed most of Saul’s inaugural season and had to binge it. I also managed to find transcripts — it was important to be able to read Saul’s words in text too. I rarely binge-watch anything all at once. I went through Saul in a day more because it was so good than because I needed to bone up on it.
What are the rules for writing a good Jimmy?
Before he earned his law degree from the University of American Samoa, Jimmy McGill was a small-time but gifted con man. The Jimmy who has a law degree and a practice and that con man are inextricable from each other. And one key to any good con game is patter — a quality that also marks Jimmy/Saul as an attorney. You have to be slick and gifted with words. Funny, compelling, creative. So in my own writing I didn’t try to restrain an impulse to get flashy with language, or to tell a joke. This guy knows his pop culture, too — he makes clever movie and TV references, so those might show up as well — that’s kind of a surface detail, but it matters when you’re putting him down in print.
What’s the scope and focus of the book?
It’s focused on the kinds of crimes an average client might hire Saul Goodman to defend against. Weed busts. Getting snagged for soliciting prostitution. Public urination. It also talks about coping with the criminal justice system if you’re new to it; a little bit of what you could expect in jail, as well as how you might try to clean yourself up after — or at least seem to. It’s Saul giving readers the low-down on a broad range of stuff that might bring them through his doors, and the basic tips any smart defense attorney might give in a casual talk: Always lawyer up, ask for a warrant — stuff in that vein.
How do you write a book from a character that we have a beginning and an end for, but no middle yet? Did you contribute anything that might become part of the character’s arc this season?
This book doesn’t connect with this coming season’s arc, no. I made an effort to dovetail what I wrote with what Season 1 and Breaking Bad established about Jimmy/Saul where it made sense to do so, but the book stands as its own thing. It was planned and is structured so that it wasn’t entirely necessary to know Saul’s whole life story.
What are your own experiences with lawyers and the legal system?
Direct personal experience is fortunately pretty limited. I’ve had to testify at a murderer’s appeal of his life sentence after he claimed a key witness at his trial controverted her testimony with comments on my blog, which was nerve-racking but also fascinating (his appeal was denied, because the witness was totally truthful). One memorable interaction I had with a lawyer years ago: We were talking outside court and he said he had a new card to give me. As he opened his wallet, he very pointedly angled it away from me to conceal the bills he had inside. I never forgot that, because it was such a (possibly unconscious) asshole move. Saul tells a similar tale to illustrate a point in one section.
This book had an interesting side effect for me: I have a much deeper and broader respect for the sheer volume of work attorneys have to do than I ever did before. Lawyers get a lot of crap for a lot of reasons, including how much they charge, but, man, it’s a hell of a job. My perception of defense attorneys had been clouded by slanted news coverage of true crime cases in the past. I see them totally differently now, and feel like that’s part of Saul’s genius. Legal work is on one hand completely fascinating, but also incredibly daunting. My respect for anyone who becomes an attorney has tripled since writing this book.
What’s the most illegal thing you’ve ever done?
In college it’s entirely possible I purchased the occasional illegal substance for recreational use. That’s all you get.
Now be completely honest, which show do you prefer, Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul?
I realized as I took a deep dive that I identified with Jimmy’s character. A guy who’s got a skill, he knows he has it, and he will hustle whatever way possible to make a living with it. He has several disappointments, some huge, feels ill-used, almost quits, but ultimately keeps going. I could see some of the way my writing career has unfolded in Jimmy’s journey to becoming Saul. He’s hustling at first, doing shit by the seat of his pants and hoping it works. He realizes at some point that even with no real moral support (his brother Chuck is a vacuum early in the series, then actively undermines him) he’s actually pretty good at what he’s doing. My training is in opera, for fuck’s sake. And to make steady money in the past I worked fairly low-level jobs running TV master controls. These didn’t prepare me for what I do now or predict it. The only previous writing I’d done for public consumption before 2005 was as an open mic poet. Doing this writing thing, on the surface, made no sense. But I’d always wanted to write for a living. And I’d always wanted to do a lot of it and a wide variety. Now I am. It’s probably overly-complicated, but the character as he’s developed in Saul is very much a guy who makes sense to me, whom I understand on an intuitive, empathetic level. I’ve just dealt with fewer members of the criminal element and would make a lousy con man, because my pasty skin turns lobster pink the moment I try to lie.