Building a Book Playlist

New YorkedOne of the first things I do when I write a book is make a playlist. I’ve got three rules: It can’t have too many songs—I like to keep it to roughly an hour’s worth of music. Only one song per musician or artist. And none of the songs can have been used in a previous book’s playlist.

I don’t listen to it while I write. When I’m actually sitting at the keyboard I prefer music without words, like Bach’s cello suits or Aphex Twin or Sigur Ros (they sing in a made-up language; doesn’t count).

The soundtrack is for editing, or while I’m walking to and from work, or when I’m at the gym. Anytime my mind is wandering and it helps to be in the right headspace.

South Village is the third Ash McKenna novel, set on a hippie commune in the middle of the woods. Ash, an amateur private investigator (though he prefers to himself as a blunt instrument), is hiding out from a bad thing he did, waiting for his passport to come through so he can flee the country. And then someone gets killed. Just when he thinks he’s out, he gets pulled back in.

The book is a little bit about madness, but also a little bit about loneliness. And it took me a while to find the right combination of songs, but this is what I came up with.

The ‘Nam Connection

“Shelter from the Storm” – Bob Dylan

“All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – The Rolling Stones

This isn’t exactly scientific, but I wanted to evoke the feeling of the Vietnam era, when hippie communes were growing in popularity. These are some songs I’d expect to hear while watching a movie in which soldiers traipse through the jungles along the Meikong River. And each one plays a bit into Ash’s personal journey.

Plus, the first two Ash novels—New Yorked and City of Rose—feel very current to me, whereas this one feels a bit untethered to time period, given the lack of modern amenities at the commune. So I wanted the music to reflect that.

The Hippie Connection 

“Revolution” – The Beatles

“Redemption Song” – Bob Marley

“John and James” – The Maytals

“What I Got” – Sublime

It’s a hippie commune. There’s got to be some Bob Marley. And “Redemption Song” is a little on the nose, but it’s also a really good song. “Revolution” is the same—a little obvious, but it works for me.

I went to SUNY Purchase College, which had a big hippie scene, so I’m pretty used to that vibe. I spent a lot of time listening to Sublime, though I guess that’s not exactly unique to my college experience. But I also listened to a lot of the Skatalites and the Maytals, ska bands from Jamaica. Something was going to end up here; just happened to be “John James”.

Time to Get Angry

“Sleep Now in the Fire” – Rage Against the Machine

“Dogma” – KMFDM

“I’m Against It” – The Ramones

Part of the book involves militant hippie activists and a protest, so I needed some angry songs on here, too. The Ramones because I always need at least one punk song on every soundtrack. Rage Against the Machine because it’s Rage Against the Machine.

KMFDM, to my mind, is Rage Against the Machine with more staying power and a better sense of humor. I could have picked a lot of songs from their huge catalogue, but went with “Dogma”, because there was a snippet I wanted to use in the epigraph. Which the band leader, Sascha Konietzko, very graciously allowed me to use.

The Personal Cuts

“You Learn” – Alanis Morissette

“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – Johnny Cash

Twelve years ago, when I visited The Hostel in the Forest—the commune South Village is loosely based on—my friend Jacqui and I were driving from Brunswick to Athens. It was the middle of the night and I got it in my head I wanted to listen to Jagged Little Pill. I don’t even know why. We had to visit three Wal-Marts before we found the CD, and then we sang along until sunrise, driving back road through Georgia. I associate that album with that trip. “You Learn” gets a spot.

And, finally, Johnny Cash. This particular song made it because Ash is dealing with his loneliness, and how he relates to other people. But also, I’ve always got to have Johnny Cash. That should probably count as the fourth rule.

From The Atari Times to The Throes of Crime

erikarnesonsquareOne of my earliest memories of school is writing a short story about King Kong and how proud Mom was when I brought it home. (I wish I remembered more about the actual story — I’m certain it would have made a worthy sequel to the original film.)

A few years later, I wrote a four-page newsletter called The Atari Times to share my fifth-grade thoughts on the Atari 2600 and games like Pitfall, Space Invaders, and Circus Atari. Dad took my creation to work and made photocopies, then drove me around our development as I dropped off free samples to drum up subscriptions. (It didn’t work. There might have been a second issue, but I can’t swear to that.)

As a freshman at Temple University, I started a play-by-mail professional wrestling simulation called the Global Wrestling Federation. Mom and Dad helped me file a fictitious name registration with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and buy some advertisements to find customers.

When I started writing for a small music magazine called Notebored, Dad bought me a subscription to Writer’s Digest to help me learn the craft.

In short, Mom and Dad were relentlessly encouraging.

Last year, they both passed away. Mom suffered a stroke on April 22, and I will always believe that she would have fully recovered — except that Dad died of a heart attack just two days later. Once the reality set in that her husband of 45 years was gone, Mom was ready to join him in the next life. She did so less than three months later, on July 12.

14691927_10210834636448831_8116857010231003939_oThe James and Jeanne Arneson Memorial Scholarship Fund was created to honor their memory and continue their legacy of encouragement. The fund provides financial support to graduates of Wilmot High School in Wilmot, South Dakota, who display an aptitude in creative writing by authoring a short story.

Why Wilmot? Dad’s grandparents — my great-grandparents — moved to the United States from Norway in 1903. In 1914, they moved to Wilmot, a small town (population 492) in northeastern South Dakota. That’s also where they’re buried.

The scholarship fund is managed by the South Dakota Community Foundation, with a Scholarship Selection Committee consisting of me, my wife Elizabeth, and authors Jen Conley, Merry Jones, and Jon McGoran.

Superintendent and High School Principal Larry Hulscher and English teacher Danielle DeGreef made sure students were aware of the scholarship and encouraged them to enter. In May, Elizabeth and I visited Wilmot to award the first scholarship to senior (now graduate) Jessica Zempel, who won for her short story “Love, Lust, and Death.” We can’t wait to see what students come up with in future years.

If you’d like to donate to the fund, it’s pretty simple.

My first book, The Throes of Crime, a collection of 26 short stories and six true-crime essays, is available at Amazon (ebook and paperback), and all proceeds from The Throes of Crime benefit the fund.

If you’d like to donate directly to the scholarship fund, you can find out how at my website.

And please take a moment today to encourage someone — a child, a parent, a friend, a stranger. Encouragement is a powerful thing.

The 5 Minute Interview: With Grant Jerkins

He’s an overweight, mostly bald, late-middle-age white guy in skinny jeans. Phil Collins meets Phil Collins. Like that. But like a really old Phil Collins. A sad spectacle.

We meet at the Viper Room off the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. Almost two hours late, Jerkins offers no word of apology, no acknowledgement that he is tardy to the party.

A Pixies T-shirt bulges at the belly as he tosses a pack of Camel Wide Blue onto the tabletop and wedges himself into the booth opposite me. One can’t help but wonder if the convenience store was sold out of American Spirits.

I glance at the publicist hovering just out of plain sight, but well within earshot.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s make this real. No handlers. No interference. Just me and you. Five minutes of honesty. Being straight with each other. You down with that?

Jerkins sighs and motions away the publicist.

INT: Don’t you think it’s a bit trite to interview yourself? It’s kinda been done to death.

GRANT JERKINS: Says you. What’s old is new. Here’s the secret to writing: There are no new stories. It’s up to the writer to tell old stories in a fresh way.

INT: That’s the secret to writing? Clichés are okay?

GJ: Yep.

INT: That’s great. Sagely advice. Faulkneresque.

GJ: ‘Stories from the past don’t die. They haven’t even been told yet.’

INT: Not how that goes.

GJ: ‘Haven’t even been told yet.’ Think about that.

INT: Okay, let’s tie that into your new release, Abnormal Man. It’s about a kidnapping gone wrong. Has that one been told yet? A kidnapping? Gone wrong?

GJ: Not the way I tell it. Have you read the book?

INT: I want to stay with this train of thought before we get into those kinds of specifics. I did a little research on this, about how many books and movies have used the kidnapping-gone-wrong trope. Sticking to things released just within the last twenty years. Care to guess how many there’ve been?

GJ: I have no idea.

INT: Guess.

GJ: I’m not interested.

INT: A shitload. A shitload of books and movies have used that plotline.


INT: You can’t smoke in here.

GJ: It’s the Viper Room. They allow smoking. Johnny Depp smokes in here all the time.

INT: Okay, but you’re not Johnny Depp. You’re like, a sad old man trying to cling to his youth. And you’re way too old to be wearing skinny jeans. Let it go.

GJ: Have you actually read the book?

INT: Let’s shift gears. What’s up with that cover art? What’s that about? It’s a pink tree in like a deserted Wal-Mart parking lot or something.

GJ: Did you notice the crack in the asphalt leading to the tree?

INT: A bit obvious. But yeah, man. I get it. I get the symbolism. Asphalt cracked in the past hasn’t even cracked yet. I so totally get it.

GJ: Look, the point isn’t that it’s about a kidnapping or that there’s crack in a parking lot. The point is that sometimes we make bad decisions. Sometimes we do things we regret. And hurting another human being can be the biggest regret of all. And maybe we try to fool ourselves, try to believe that our actions were preordained. That what we thought were choices were never choices at all. It was never under our control.

INT: Fate? Seriously? You really are bringing out the chestnuts.

GJ: You have a young man. The protagonist in the book. He’s introverted. Isolated and lost. No friends. Nothing. An island in a sea of humanity. Except he likes fire. He’s sexually stimulated by fire. It’s his only friend, his only escape. Was that a choice for him?

INT: It’s easy to shock. Oooh, he gets off on fire. How disturbing.

abman_1800x2700GJ: Not the point. And you’re right, it is easy to shock. But sometimes when we get to glimpse into someone’s unguarded core, it’s shocking. Hell, the banality of it can be shocking. But what makes it worth exploring is the question of how did that person get that way. How did any of us get to be who we are, doing the things we do? Was what got you here today in front me in this booth the culmination of a series of choices, or were you destined to be a hipster douchebag from the moment you were born? Were you always someone unable write anything of any substance on their own and therefore must associate himself with serious writers hoping the glam rubs off?

INT: A serious writer? That’s how you see yourself?

GJ: What about a child molester? Or a rapist? It’s uncomfortable to talk about, to think about. But are those choices? Is that someone’s fate? Or even a result of chaos? Did carbon atoms swirling about the galaxy bring them to that point? Isn’t it worth putting some thought into how the most despicable amongst us got to be who they are? Or, putting all that aside, what about their humanity? They are human, right? We are all human, so as uncomfortable as it is, we need to acknowledge that our humanity binds us. That we overlap and have commonalities in that regard. What if we concentrate on that overlap, our humanity as a Venn diagram, and then consider the problem from there?

INT: You are not a serious writer. You think you’re like Bret Easton Ellis or something?

GJ: I cannot stand that prick.

INT: Guess what? Our humanity just overlapped. I can’t stand that fucker either. Are you down with the new crime movement? That whole thing? The whole Southern Gothic Burn Barrel Rural Noir thing? Someone like Brian Panowich? What’s you’re take on him?

GJ: Tattoo-riddled charlatan.

INT: We really are seeing eye-to-eye. So Venn it’s Zen.

GJ: Nah, see, I actually like Panowich. I was testing you. I dig his writing. He’s righteous.

INT: He’s a serious writer. I’ll give him that much. But you, you are not a serious writer.

GJ: I try. I honestly try. I aspire.

INT: Dude, you’re a fucking hack. You’re not even a hack. You’re like… Like a nothing. You’re like dark matter. You might exist, but probably you don’t. You don’t exist.

GJ: You’re right. I don’t exist. I’m not even past yet.

Yes, Exactly Like That

What’s your book about?



You start. You stop. You start again. You fumble around your marble mouth. Your tongue all of a sudden weighs twenty pounds. You then say some canned crap that sounds a lot like canned crap.

This is the drill when I’m sometimes asked about my books. Keep in mind I used to pitch script ideas to studios. I was better at that. That I can get geared up for. That I can prepare for. Basically I down an unreasonable amount of coffee and work out the pitch ahead of time. Talk it through. Work out the kinks. Research who I’m meeting with and the company / studio they work for. Try to understand what they might want to hear. Also, when you do those types of meetings you’re almost taking on a character of sorts. It’s you not being you. Another version of you, you’re a sales guy all of sudden out to close a hot lead. You’re not the writer bleeding out every word, searching for the best way to describe how it feels to be empty and alone in the universe. No. In a pitch meeting you’re working a room and brother, you are on. But in a way it doesn’t matter, because in those rooms, a lot of times, it’s all up of grabs anyway. I’ll give an example:

You say, “This script is about an average person’s struggle to find hope in hopelessness.”

They say, “You mean like Fast and the Furious?”

You say, “See, you get it. Exactly like Fast and the Furious.”

That’s sometimes how it goes. You say something. They say something. You pivot off what they say, because you desperately want the gig, and in the end it’s this mangled mess of a thing that neither one of you are really all that interested in. You smile, they smile, you accept their bottle of water and hope you see somebody cool as you leave the studio lot.

With a novel it tends to be different, for me at least. This is something that you set out to write and, at least with me again, no one told you That sounds amazing, go write that, can’t wait to read it. Books are all a little more personal. A little more of you pours into them. A bit of you seeps in somehow. So when you’re cornered in a random situation and asked the question of what your book is all about you might have to pause. Sure, there is a quick Amazon description you can throw out there, but that somehow feels like cheating. Sounds a little like your reciting the alphabet. You also don’t want to stand there for half and hour taking a deep dive into the backstory of the Waiter that takes a bullet to the head on page five.

To be clear, you should absolutely memorize the Amazon description as a backup if nothing else. Gotta have something in your back pocket if your brain goes shithouse. All of this is to say, hey I get it, it’s hard to talk about your stuff sometimes.

People also want to know what genre or category your write in. Reasonable question, but another one that can trip you up.

My stuff, my writing, is the product of all kinds of things. When I was in screenplays I’d write several different genres. Horror, rom-com, thrillers or whatever a meeting might want me to be. If you have to jam my books all into a category? Yeah, it’s crime fiction. Some are very crime fiction and some are tilting towards other things.

14034994_10208348038591234_6596683013820239818_nMy new one, Genuinely Dangerous, is a tough one to plant a label on. That’s by design. When I started out with it I wanted it to be this fun, insane book that read like Chuck Palahniuk joins Elmore Leonard on a road trip with Hunter S. Thompson driving and Charles Bukowski serving drinks from the backseat.

If I pitched that as a movie the silence in the room would be deafening. Blank stares. Heads down looking at iPhones. Hell, that might be the last meeting I ever had. This would not be well received around town. Hard to make a poster of that. Difficult to envision a trailer with that setup.

But you can do that in a book and I’d like to think I did just that. You can really do anything you want in a book. Granted, yes, there are some book ideas that more commercially viable than others, but as far as just writing something, it’s pretty damn wide open with books.

Take what I just said about the Chuck and Hunter road trip thing and strap this on — Genuinely Dangerous is story of a down and out screenwriter who’s fallen out of favor with the movie biz because his second movie tanked and tanked hard. He’s taken refuge in the suburbs and he’s become obsessed with getting back into Hollywood. He has a crazy idea for a movie. He wants to embed himself with a crew of bank robbers and film a documentary while they work their dirty deeds. You know, war correspondent style. What could possibly go wrong?

Okay. Now that’s a thing. That’s a book. It’s dark comedy, satire, big action crime book and it’s the book I wanted to write. It’s a book I would want to read even if someone else wrote it. So that, kind folks, is what my book is about.

And yes, it’s exactly like Fast and the Furious.

The Fine Art of Killing Your Darlings


“All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”

– Martin Amis, “The War Against Cliché”

Some things take a few minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master. Games like chess, for instance, or knocking off a bank and getting away with it. Flash fiction also falls into this category: sure, a lot of people can type out 500-700 words, but stitching (and cutting) that mass of verbiage into an effective story takes a lot of skill and practice.

The great thing about a Website like Shotgun Honey is how it gives the crime-fiction writers of the world a no-bullshit platform for their best short work. Just a handful of venues these days seem to offer that kind of opportunity: Out of the Gutter is also going strong, along with The Molotov Cocktail and a handful of others. Every week, these sites offer a collection of short hits, quick enough to get you through your next bus-ride or waiting room sojourn. I always like a bit of literary murder and mayhem right before the dentist drills my teeth; it really puts my minor pain in proper perspective.

And every week, the editors behind those sites need to weed through a ton of stories in order to find the roses. What differentiates the stories that make it? They tend to push back hard against the clichés of the genre, offering a new and startling take on old, dusty tropes.

Fortunately, a crime cliché is easy to pick out of the lineup. Italian mobsters who speak in exaggerated New Jersey dialect? It was old long before Francis Ford Coppola shot the first frame of the Godfather trilogy. Serial killers with cute nicknames who work as cops by day? Snore. Femme fatales who plug their loving men in the back and walk away with the cash? You’ve seen it too many times to count.

A twist on a tired trope, on the other hand, is pure gold, especially if it comes with an unexpected ending. For example, take a look at “Getting the Word Back,” a story by fellow Shotgun Honey editor Angel Luis Colón. What starts as a standard-issue liquor-store robbery quickly evolves into something far weirder—and, in the end, about twice as vicious as you were expecting.

With my own flash fiction, I’ve tried to subvert clichés whenever possible. Take my story “Special Delivery”: while a lot of hardboiled tales focus on people trying to bust out of prison, I wanted to write something in which an anti-hero had to break in. I took a fair bit of inspiration from last summer’s infamous breakout at Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York, in which a pair of prisoners figured out a way past the prison walls via underground tunnels,Shawshank Redemption-style.

When it came time to collect the stories for my new noir-fiction collection, Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me, I realized that, in many ways, the flash fiction had been harder to write than some of the longer pieces. With a “full sized” short story or novella, you have the space to build an entire world; with flash fiction, you must telegraph a lot of information in as few words as possible. (The best flash is also self-contained: contrary to what some writers think, snipping a fragment from a longer narrative and presenting it unedited as a short-short story is often an ineffective technique if you want to be published.)

In the end, I alternated the collection’s longer pieces with flash fiction, creating a “long-short-long” rhythm that hopefully keeps readers engaged all the way through. Check out Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and let me know if you think it works.

And in the meantime, if you’re writing flash fiction, remember to kill your darlings as ruthlessly as possible. Your red editing pen (literal or metaphoric) makes for a fine murder tool.

Stand aside, Kayfabe. Here Comes Wrestletown.

Temp CoverI’m baaaaack.

Thanks to head honcho and good friend Ron Phillips for having me. It’s been too long. I’m even getting the itch to submit soon, if you can believe it…

But onto the topic at hand – looking back over the years of chatting with Ron on g-chat, hanging out at cons, etc. – one thing that we really connected on (besides crime fiction and Shotgun Honey, of course) was comics. Ron did some work in comics back in the day and it was a lot of fun to see him reminisce while I ground away on my dreams of grandeur.

Fast forward a bit and while working on some comic projects, I wrote KAYFABE, a crime novel about a retired pro-wrestler named Seymour “Savage” Jackson. I love the book, but it’s a bit too one-note for me when it comes to plot. After several drafts I re-outlined the book many times, yet still (to this day) haven’t tackled it. But the pro-wrestling aspect stuck with me.

I’ve been on a huge nostalgia kick over the last year. I could put the blame on having two young boys, but it’s likely just me being a big kid. Part of that has been reconnecting with pro-wrestling, another diving back into manga, especially the more ‘literary’ and ‘slice-of-life’ from creators like Taiyo Matsumoto and Inio Asano.

Out of this madness, WRESTLETOWN was born. An illustrated hardback novel (cover and interior artwork by Andrew MacLean) about two orphans coming of age in a city obsessed with pro-wrestling, with fans who believe the action is real. The genre is a lot more fuzzy than KAYFABE or my other previous work, but I can definitely tell where my crime writing shows through in my voice, which is a long way of saying that my time with Shotgun Honey, both reading and writing (especially reading) has stuck with me since.

inklogo_120x120-5411e9d5cb4d7a47a13543245393f0b5WRESTLETOWN‘s a little different, a lot of fun, and my favorite project to date. The book is being published with Inkshares, a publisher that functions like Kickstarter, except by copy instead of dollar amount. I hope you guys will give it a look and consider supporting the pre-order campaign to bring this baby into existence in mid-2017.


Until next time…give ’em both barrels!