Chris McGinley’s new collection of short stories, Coal Black, is more than just a great collection of brutal crime stories; it’s a deep exploration of the social ties and crises confronting people in eastern Kentucky. From petty thieves to poachers to cops, he imbues his characters with nuanced life… even when they face grisly deaths. McGinley sat down with Nick Kolakowski to talk about the book, his inspirations, and what he’s reading.
Q. Where do you draw the inspiration for your stories? Are the characters and situations based on real-life people you know?
Hey Nick, thanks for having me. My inspiration comes mostly from other writers, other stories, and from the dynamics of rural regions generally. That is to say, it derives from the collective stories of people in Appalachia, and from people in rural regions, though I don’t live in one myself.
With the proliferation of news outlets and other electronic media, the stories of these people, these regions, are more accessible than they have been in the past—and of course there are books about these areas, too. Even colorless reports like those of the Appalachian Regional Commission provide me with ideas.
And as I said, authors and other storytellers give me inspiration, the writers of the so-called Romantic tradition in American literature—Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Irving—are all hugely influential for me. Like a good many crime writers, however, I don’t really know any criminal types. These characters are inventions in large part.
Q. The book has a real feel for the current issues gripping eastern Kentucky, from drugs to mining. How does your own background factor into what you write?
Coming from a middle-class family, I’ve been blessed with access to formal education and to employment opportunities that don’t involve corporate exploitation and the cycles of poverty that plague large segments of Appalachia. Frankly, I’ve never had to deal with those problems, and in the end I could never truly understand them. But the stories interest me, the sadness of so much of it, and the fact that it continues to go on, and that people endure.
Q. “Kin to Me” is one of my favorite stories in the book—it features complicated characters, an intriguingly weird premise, and probably the most interesting MacGuffin I’ve seen recently in crime fiction. What was your inspiration for it? As I read it, I kept thinking of Otzi, the famous Ice Man of the Alps…
Funny you should mention Otzi, Nick. I always cover Otzi in seventh grade social studies. (I’m a middle school teacher.) It’s the first true murder mystery, right? But the idea is that the main character in that story is somehow a part of the legacy of the violence of the region’s past, even prehistoric violence. The Man, as I call the bog body from this story, is a symbol of all this—the exploitation, the violence, the Past with an upper case “p,” if you will. I wanted to trace a history of sadness, of violence and exploitation, that suggests an even earlier origin than that which we commonly think of when we think of Appalachia, or other rural regions. And I wanted to render a character who felt it all and decided to stand up in the only way he could. As for Otzi, and the bog bodies of Iron Age Europe, those guys are always on my mind!
Q. What stories in this collection are closest to your heart, and why?
The story that means most to me is “The Quilt.” I’ve never quilted and I’m not a woman, but the idea of some shared craft among women, who often bear more of the burden in impoverished regions, is something incredibly tender and resonant in a different kind of way than other shared things. There’s a sense of one generation passing down something to others, something that’s been lost because of external conditions, but not entirely. I think the end is hopeful. I think the main character experiences something like apotheosis . . . wait . . . that’s the right word, isn’t it?
Q. Who’s your inspiration in terms of crime fiction? Who are you reading right now?
As far as crime fiction goes, I’ve recently finished some stuff that probably qualifies as “literary crime fiction.” Anyway, I guess that’s what they call it.
Ian Pears’ THE INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST is an excellent “crime” novel, as is THE GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane, which is an historical novel as much as a crime novel. Then there’s Ron Rash’s THE RISEN and SERENA, both of which I read recently. These are most assuredly crime novels, but they wouldn’t be found in the mystery section of the bookstore.
I just finished a towering novel, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, by Davis Grubbs. But my favorite crime novels of recent years are all three Donna Tartt novels, and if we can go back as far as the 80s, Patrick Suskind’s odd work, PERFUME. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ONCE UPON A RIVER is a great new novel.
This week Shotgun Honey editor, contributor and author Nick Kolakowski stops by to talk about his new book release, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, from Down & Out Books.
Nick, Nick, Nick… I thought I knew you as an author. Your latest release, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, is out this week and it is fantastic. I’d like to think I’m familiar with your style and stories, we’ve been in a working relationship for… how long? Hint: Jules.
It’s been almost seven years! “How Jules Left Prison,” my first flash-fiction story for Shotgun Honey, came out in ye olden days of 2013, followed by “Special Delivery” and some other ones over the years. There’s a very special place in my heart for flash fiction; it’s a bite-sized bit of nastiness, a little snack of noir. But with Maxine, I wanted to try for something that covered a big chunk of time (the book takes place over decades) and geography (it also takes place in a ruined New York state).
It is more sprawling, obviously, a lot more words allowed than our little flash fiction venue here at Shotgun Honey Can you imagine trying to encapsulate Maxine in a 700 word short? Hey, let’s go shorter. You step into an elevator and a known movie director/producer is standing there alone. Give us the pitch.
Maxine Unleashes Doomsday is about a car-stealing teenager who eventually becomes the outlaw queen of post-apocalyptic America, but in the process of saving her own life she accidentally unleashes a massive evil that could doom what’s left of the human race.
Your books and stories make easy comparisons to movies, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday is no exception. I like Rob Hart’s mashup association of Mad Max and The Warriors. I see that almost right way. So, back in that elevator, who was the known movie director/producer?
Two directors pop to mind. First is Neill Blomkamp, because his vision of the future aligns with Maxine: the extremes of poverty despite futuristic technology, the angry protagonists trying to push back against some kind of massive societal bullshit, and so on. I dug Elysium in a serious way; I thought it deserved way more credit for the ideas it was pushing.
The second would be Lexi Alexander. She’s the best at combining messy, gritty action with this sort of screw-you humor. Punisher: War Zone is another underrated flick (and filled with visual jokes that folks just didn’t seem to get; for example, the ‘SAVES’ sign flickering behind Frank at the very end). What she could do with a character like Maxine would be incredible.
I wouldn’t have thought about Bomkamp because there is a somberness, slow deliberation about his movies. Between the Love & Bullets trilogy and Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, your storytelling always feels on the edge, frenetic and unexpected. Lexi Alexander would be perfect, and it would be nice to see her work in movies again. One thing I’ve always liked about your work is the dark humor. Where does that come from? Who are your influences?
When it comes to that madcap momentum, my biggest influences don’t actually come from noir. When I was really young (maybe too young, but hey), I got my hands on 60s writers such as Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson; they had a lunatic energy that bled down into my own writing. That’s the literary/pretentious answer, at least. The truth might be that I’m just hyperactive and depressive; mush those two things together, and you tend to find everything bleakly hilarious. I need to weave lots of plot twists and weird deaths into my own work in order to stay interested throughout the months-long process it takes to write (and re-write) a book.
So you’re saying that you ascribe to a copious diet of alcohol and drugs? Kesey and Thompson do make great primers to the kind of kinetic storytelling you produce, so as an influence I can see how gonzo beats can manifest in the story. Are these the writers that made you want to become a writer? Professionally, you’ve been working as a freelance journalist, right?
Hahaha, I think all those writers succeeded despite the drugs; Thompson was a wreck at the end. Most of those live-hard, write-hard types managed to burn themselves to crispy cinders, which isn’t anything to lionize. But their writing was exquisite. Thompson certainly made me want to be a writer; so did Raymond Chandler, and so did Chuck Palahniuk. Fight Club was a huge influence on my writing, although as a teenager I tried way too hard to emulate its poetic repetition (which Palahniuk freely admits he took from Joan Didion).
I’m a tech journalist by day, which came in really handy for Maxine because I read lots of analyst reports and talk to people whose job is to predict what might happen 10, 20, 30 years out. We’re building some really powerful stuff with regard to A.I. and machine learning, for example, but as the novel delves into, there’s a very high risk that these systems are going to turn against us at some point. We’re in for a wild ride.
Do you think there was any A.I. that could have predicted you would write a book like Maxine Unleashed Doomsday, say almost 7 years ago when we first crossed the proverbial path? Where did Maxine come from?
Actually, Maxine began right around the time we crossed paths! She started out as a short story (which later became a chapter in the middle of the book) about convoy-runners in a ruined America circa 2030… an idea I’d been playing with for years. I’ve always had a deep love of dystopian fiction, and spent years trying out different plots and characters in that genre, but everything came off as a pastiche of The Road. Finally I focused on trying to portray a more realistic societal collapse, and having a character who lived through it. The key thing, of course, is that Maxine gets weirder and more damaged as the book goes on, reflecting the state of the world around her.
I can understand not wanting to tread into Cormac McCarthy land, that is no country for young writers. I like that what I identify as a Nick Kolakowski story is very much at the heart of Maxine. But there is much more than violence, humor, and complicated relationships (as if that weren’t enough.) This isn’t linear crime/noir storytelling, it’s generational, an evolution of a character from beginning to end. Was this exploring your own style or was it necessitated by the scope of the story?
The scope of the story demanded it. I also wanted to take a character and change them radically in all ways over the course of the narrative: physically, mentally, emotionally. How far could I break Maxine down? How would she build herself back up? What would she look like after the fact? She ends up taking literally decades’ worth of damage, but it leaves her with a mentality that’ll overcome almost anything. My characters in my other books never underwent that kind of arc (usually because my other books take place over a few days at most; Main Bad Guy, the third book in the “Love & Bullets” trilogy, is something like 48 hours in real time), so it was a good stretch for me to explore.
You give readers a glimpse of Maxine’s damage early on, which only pulls the reader into your dystopian world. The scope of the story requires quite a bit of world building. What have you learned as a writer building Maxine’s world?
I’ve learned that you need to establish your world’s internal logic early on, and make sure you never stray from the “rules” you’ve established. This is especially true with speculative and future-focused fiction like Maxine, where you take jaunts into the fantastical. If the world makes sense, you can do anything within that framework, and the audience will stick with you. If you start to break the rules you’ve created because you need to slip through a plot hole or whatever, you’re going to shatter the illusion.
You’re not the first Shotgun Honey alum to release release a dystopian novel this year. Rob Hart who praised Maxine Unleashed Doomsday as mentioned earlier, released The Warehouse. Totally different beasts, but worth noting because dystopian fiction is a genre that cycles in popularity. What’s the appeal of reading and writing dystopian fiction?
The future is scary. We don’t have any control over it. I think the appeal of dystopian fiction is that it gives the writer and the readers the illusion of command — we can see a version of what might happen and, in many dystopian novels, the characters have some say over how that future comes about. I loved The Warehouse and I think Rob did a great job of making his future a believable one; it explores the consequences of capitalism (and e-commerce) in a way that’s frightening and believable.
Plus, going back to the ancient Romans, every generation likes to think that it’s the climactic one, that we’re trembling on the very edge of the End Times. I feel like dystopian fiction helps scratch that weird, narcissistic itch.
I feel we’re coming full circle, so, let’s give a little more love to dystopian futures. This last weekend Terminator: Dark Fate (which is what the 100th movie of the franchise?) was released. Not doing well from what I read, but I loved the original. What are some of your favorite dystopian movies (or novels)?
I think the Aussies do it best, probably because they have a long history of living on civilization’s dry, rugged edge. The Road Warrior and Fury Road are at the top of my list, with The Rover, which is a really rough movie starring Guy Pierce, in close third. The Rover is a little bit like Maxine without any semblance of humor or hope whatsoever; for better or worse, I really think that’s what the world might end up looking like — plus it has one of the best cinematic “punch lines” I’ve ever witnessed. Totally nihilistic.
I do think I saw that you were George Miller’s love child or something. While I enthusiastically encourage everyone to go out read Maxine Unleashes Doomsday right now, I do have to ask what’s next? What can I, your number one fan look forward to in our hopefully not so dystopian future?
If you’re my number-one fan, does that make you my Annie Wilkes? Will you lock me in a room and force me to write? Actually, that would help my writing process, which has been slow as proverbial molasses lately. Right now, I’m working on the sequel to Boise Longpig Hunting Club, which is slated to come out in September 2020; it folds in Bill & Fiona from the Love & Bullets trilogy, because Fiona is actually related to Frankie and Jake, the main characters of Longpig. I just have to finish the bugger… usually I’m a fast drafter but this one has been grinding along. Maybe I’m just getting old.
If Eric gets worried on the deadline, I might just have to come up and hobble you. If not me, I know people. Hopefully, it won’t come to that because I love you like a brother who I really really envy. Despite your current slog, you write enjoyable fiction, you edit like demon, you run marathons and you have better hair. Right? But, the cover for Maxine Unleashes Doomsday is a tipping point. I love that cover. Before I let you go, tell folks about the cover, the process and give some love the genius behind it.
Hahaha, hopefully nobody has to break my legs, but if someone had to, I wouldn’t mind if it was you? Is that weird? That’s pretty weird. Anyway, I love that cover: it’s stark. It was done by Zach McCain, who does a lot of horror covers. He’s big on skulls! But I’m big on skulls, too, so that works out. I was hoping for something post-apocalyptic that was distinctive, that stood out amidst other covers out there, and he outdid himself; when I first saw it I was a bit stunned.
I’m happy to report no harm was done to the author during this interview. I do recommend you go out and buy a copy of Maxine Unleashes Doomsday.
of a mechanic and a librarian, weaned on too many comic books, Hammett, reruns
of the original Twilight Zone, and
experiences as a community organizer and delivering dog cages, Gary Phillips has published various crime fictions and toiled in TV. He is
the past president of the SoCal chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, and
the anthology he edited, the Obama
Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir, won an Anthony.
How did The Movie Makers (Down and Out Books, April 2019) come about?
I’ve done several books with Down & Out, including a collection of my short stories, and have gotten to know several of their writers. Frank Zafiro is one of them, though oddly we’ve never met in person. At any rate, my name was put in the hat when he came up with this series, A Grifter’s Song, a series of novellas, or maybe that’s novellettes, about Sam and Rachel, a couple who are life-long con artists. Each installment, or episode as they’re calling them, finds the pair working another con in another city while trying to stay one step ahead of the mobster out for their heads.
Movie Makers, the two have come to
where dreams are made and crushed, Hollywood, baby. Rachel is posing as an
indie producer backed by Silicone Valley money and Sam a life coach as they set
up their mark. It’s al going according to plan until it does. I like to think
of it as Harold Robbins meets Jim Thompson.
And in February, The Be-Bop Barbarians: A Graphic Novel, was published. Tell me about that.
Barbarians was a labor of love as they say. It’s a graphic novel set in the
late 1950s New York; jazz, the Red Scare, and the burgeoning Civil Rights
movement the backdrop. The main characters are three cartoonist friends
inspired by real life black comics pioneers including Jackie Ormes (who is in
the Hall of Fame for comics), the first black women to write and draw her own
comic strip. In this version she’s called Stef Rawls and she’s buddies with the
matinee handsome Cliff Murphy, who his friends know he passes for white detailing
the adventures of the Blonde Phantom in comic books, and Ollie Jefferson, a
Korean War vet who does hard-edged political cartoons for the lefty newspaper, The Daily Struggle. As these things
happen, events conspire in their lives to bring them together and drive them
apart. The book was wonderfully illustrated by Dale Berry and lavishly colored
by James Brown.
if that weren’t enough, The Obama
Inheritance: Fifteen stories of conspiracy noir (Three Rooms Press, 2017),
what was its genesis?
enough, when I pitched the Obama
Inheritance to Kat and Peter of Three Rooms Press, it was just as the
presidential campaign was heating up, but like a lot of folks, we figured the
Orange One couldn’t win by a country mile. I figured the anthology would be
this quant nostalgia piece, stories riffing on the outlandish right-wing nutjob
notions that had been floated about Obama. Who knew the wildly entertaining
tales in it from subterranean lizard people, the First Lady leading a clandestine
group of vigilante women in Washington after dark to Bo, the family dog,
leading the resistance, could barely keep up with the daily lunacy we find
ourselves in currently.
is it you’re so prolific?
the ideas bubble up, I have to do something with them or they gnaw at me. If
nothing else, I find writing is good therapy.
is crime fiction so appealing?
think because you can present characters who run the gamut in terms of their
psychological makeup. They may have limits or they may be erasing them as you
put them through the paces. They may be cons like Sam and Rachel, amoral, bent,
damaged, or the ordinary soccer mom, but that one incident, that one time she
decides to take a step out of line, we’re vicariously fascinated to see where
this journey will take her.
drew you to crime fiction?
could I not be drawn to it growing up in South Central when I did? Those were
the days you’d hear about some brother getting jacked by the cops out of the
infamous 77th Street Division. Add all those original Twilight Zone reruns I zealously watched and then getting a
collection of Poe’s stories at nine, the course was set.
you think crime fiction is more compelling now that our political climate is
observation. Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring in the back of a pizza
parlor; the president tweets stuff like, “Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally
denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate. He was with
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo…” so you know, case closed; Obama hid the
death panels; Ivanka Trump was granted 13 trademarks in three months from China;
Attorney General Barr plans to investigate spying on the Trump campaign without
a shred of evidence to support this claim and on and on. For sure crime fiction
is more compelling now because at least in crime fiction there’s some sort of
resolution and the antihero has a few good qualities.
do you want to talk about that you never get to, in interviews?
This week, it’s Ed Aymar in the seat for our 5 questions. Ed is the author of “The Unrepentant,” a book that Publisher’s Weekly described as a “gut-wretching crime thriller.” Ed is also a hilarious guy in person. How does a hilarious guy plunge into those deep, dark places? Let’s find out!
Q. In the intro to this book, you mention interviewing a number of women about their traumatic experiences in the world of prostitution. I’m sure that was difficult and complicated. How did you do it, and did the experience differ from what you imagined it would be heading in?
First off, thanks Nick! I’m a fan of your work and everyone
should read your fantastic novellas. And if you or anyone else edits this out,
I’ll just post it in the comments. DON’T TEST ME.
As for your question…you know, I’d never done that much research
for my writing. Most of the research I’d conducted was location-based; I write
about real places, and I always want to make sure my representation is
accurate. I don’t feel comfortable writing about a location unless I’ve set
foot there and stared at the buildings or streets or fields with my own eyes.
So this was the first time I did research outside of my own experiences, and it was unnerving. Of course I read, and I read as many books as I could until I began to see the correlation between violence and prostitution, which is the line The Unrepentant explores.
But it was talking to people that was unnerving. I don’t have proper journalism training, and I worried about forgetting to ask something, and then having to call the person back, and then forgetting something else, and basically annoying someone to the point of exasperation. But the people I spoke with – women involved in anti-sex trafficking movements, or active sex workers – were incredibly gracious and giving with their time. We had conversations rather than interviews.
Q. Whenever anyone writes about the kinds of things your characters go through, there’s always the risk it’ll be seen as exploitive. You obviously had that concern when writing this. How did you make sure you didn’t go over the line (i.e., checked yourself before you wrecked yourself)?
Nowadays there’s a lot of deserved feistiness in regards to
voice – how you assume the voice of a character, why you’re doing it, and what
you’re saying – and I was conscious of that when writing The Unrepentant, particularly because one of the co-protagonists is
a young woman. I’m in the fortunate position of having a number of peer readers
who are talented women writers, a female agent, and the editor for the book was
a woman. They made sure I didn’t fuck up her voice or experiences too
dramatically, or guy her up too much.
I wasn’t too worried about sensationalizing the violence or
depicting sexual violence graphically. My view on violence is generally that
it’s callous, and stupid, and cruel. So there wasn’t too much of a chance of me
John Woo’ing a fight scene.
I worry about the celebration of violence in our media and
entertainment, and I’d hope that this book doesn’t give readers anything other
than a general sense of unease in regards to it. I’m not opposed to violence as
entertainment, but that wasn’t the right or responsible approach for this
Q. What made you decide to tackle this novel now? Why this plot?
That sort of ties into the response to your last question. The people who read my other books tended to gravitate toward my female characters, and I wanted a female as a protagonist. And the more you read about violence – particularly from the perspective I chose – the more you come across violence done to women. Charlotte emerged from those two elements, and the rest of the plot came with her. She started it, the story and the other characters followed in her wake.
But I didn’t set out to write a book about sex trafficking and, although that’s obviously a huge element of the novel and a large focus of my research, I shy away from terming it a “sex trafficking novel.” It’s a study of violence, who does it, and how it affects the abuser and the abused.
Q. You’re well-known as a managing editor (of The Thrill Begins), a columnist (of the Washington Independent Review of Books), and an anthology editor (of the awesome “The Night of the Flood”). How do you think all that editor experience affects how you write novels? Does it impact how you approach your own writing?
Hey, thanks for not putting well-known
in quotation marks! That’s nice of you.
The Thrill Begins gives me a better understanding of publishing
than I’d have otherwise. The regular contributors write for a mix of big five
and specialty publishers, and some have experimented in self-publishing. We’re
friends, and share with each other what our experiences are like. And the
features we do often provide an honest look at the variety of experiences
writers have in this business, both good and bad. That’s been extremely helpful
in regards to navigating my own career.
When I started writing, I didn’t expect to write anything other
than novels; largely because I didn’t think I could write anything other than
fiction. And then, after my first novel, was published, I realized how
shortsighted I’d been. Writing for the Washington Independent of Books has
given me the chance to push myself as a writer, and that’s a wonderful thing. I
love being able to be part of the publication, and I love getting to flex a
muscle I wouldn’t otherwise.
The cool thing about the anthology is how much it made me
sharpen my own game. I’ve reviewed short stories before, and it was so cool to
get a batch of stories that were all good. Every story was the realization that
I was working with a sharp, hungry, talented writer, and that was such a cool
experience. And, as an editor, you see how good writers approach their work in
different stages, and that’s insight you wouldn’t get any other way.
Q. How’s the crime fiction scene in MD/VA/DC? Is it becoming more robust?
I think it’s the best in the country.
I know those are fightin’ words, but I stand by them. This area
is producing some of the best noir, cozies, procedural, political, historical,
and cop fiction out there. And given the wonderful diversity in the area, we
also have the benefit of writing from a variety of perspectives and experiences.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that good crime fiction isn’t
being written in the Midwest, California, New York, Florida, the south…not at
all. But I’d absolutely put the DC/MD/VA triangle against any of those regions.
Overall, it’s a wonderful time to be writing crime fiction –
competitive, but not cruel. We all support each other, and even though we’re
going through some growing pains as we necessarily change and understand and
adapt, we’re all here and hungry and working to improve. I love that, and I
love being part of it, and I love that the triangle reflects the best of that
So suck it, Ohio.
This week Nick Kolakowski‘s third and final release of the Love & Bullets trilogy hits with Main Bad Guy. Nick has not only contributed this wonderful series to the Shotgun Honey Book line, but he’s also one of the three gauntlet members who review fiction submissions for the site, as well an unsung book editor for our imprint. He helps out a lot.
In fact, usually, Nick is interviewer for the 5 Questions interviews, but today we flip the script. Nick is the subject, and Travis Richardson, who was Nick’s last victim is the interviewer. So lets see what transpired.
Q. MAIN BAD GUY is the third and final book in the “Love & Bullets” trilogy. When you started the first book, A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, did you know it was going to be a trilogy? If so, did you know what each of the stories would be about early on and the ends of the major characters? And if not, do you regret any choices made in the first book that you might not have made if knew it was a three part series?
When I wrote “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps,” I had no idea it would become a trilogy—and I regret killing one of the main characters, who was funny and unhinged and in retrospect would have been a valuable player throughout the subsequent two books. I also regret killing him in a way that gave me absolutely zero wiggle room for bringing him back; at least authors like Arthur Conan Doyle were smart enough to subject their heroes to highly ambiguous demises, like throwing them into a large body of water.
All that aside, after I finished writing “Brutal Bunch,” the characters of Bill and Fiona kept speaking to me, and I felt compelled to begin writing another book about them. Plot-wise, I didn’t know exactly where I wanted them to end up, but character-wise I had very firm ideas: Fiona, who starts out as pretty ruthless and bloodthirsty, was going to get increasingly pacifistic, and Bill, who is a great hustler but pretty much useless when it comes to violence, was going to get more competent at survival.
Q. In MAIN BAD GUY you have a good bad guys (former assassins, thieves, etc.) vs. bad bad guys (evil crime bosses, paranoid drug kings, mercenaries, etc.) Which do you prefer to write and why?
Bad bad guys are hard to sustain over an entire book—that’s why Hannibal Lecter always seems to work better as a supporting character, or at least a second lead, than as a main character. With good bad guys, though, you have a lot of internal friction—there are fine character beats you can mine out of someone whose intentions are good, but whose circumstances lead them to do highly anti-social things like kill people. So I like writing about the good bad guys; they seem more capable of driving a narrative that’s hundreds of pages long.
Q. In the final book, Bill and Fiona spend the entire time in New York. (Seriously they can’t move.) It seems the other two books have multiple locations beyond the Empire State. As a New Yorker, did you want to end the series in the Big Apple as a sort of messed up love letter and what does New York mean to you in terms of crime fiction?
The first book begins in New York (chronologically, at least; it appears in flashbacks) and so I always wanted it to end there. New York has been a prime location for crime fiction for many decades, but the character of the city has changed considerably in the last quarter-century; when you read the early books of someone like Lawrence Block, where Midtown is a seedy wreck, it now seems like an alien world. I wanted “Main Bad Guy” to address New York’s gentrifying environment, and suggest that, no matter how clean or shiny a place might become, at least some of its people will always remain warped or cracked or seedy.
Plus, I’m sick of how gentrification has transformed portions of my neighborhood into a bunch of soulless, tasteless buildings; taking one of those buildings and making it the center of a lot of fiery mayhem gave me a vicarious and vicious thrill.
Q. The “Love & Bullets” collection has a lot of gonzo action that is hilarious and thrilling. I love it. Were there any scenes that you wrote through the series that you had to retract or tone down to keep it within the realms of reality? Or did you create an impossible situation that Fiona and Bill couldn’t escape?
I didn’t tone anything down—in fact, at certain key moments,
I asked myself how I could maximize the weirdness. The tone of the books is
madcap enough that I felt I could really stretch the reality; when you have a
character prancing through a gunfight in an Elvis suit (“A Brutal Bunch of
Heartbroken Saps”), decapitating another character in a self-driving Tesla
(“Slaughterhouse Blues”), or trying to hide in a weed grow-house on top of a
skyscraper (“Main Bad Guy”), pretty much anything goes.
With “Main Bad Guy,” my goal was ultimately to confine Bill
and Fiona into as small a space as possible. I’ve always loved siege movies
like John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13,” and I wanted to design
something that paid homage to that—put your characters in a box, give them zero
resources, surround them with villains, and let them try to figure out how to
Q. You open MAIN BAD GUY with a scene from Fiona’s past. It was a fun and informative scene to know who she is and her relationship with her father. Did you always have that as her bio or did it evolve from the previous novels?
That scene was originally a
flashback from the first book! I cut it out because of pacing, but I always
wanted to use it; “Main Bad Guy” gave me an opportunity to do so, because it
also introduces her father, who plays a major role in the book. If you want
insight into Fiona’s character, you just need to realize she’s spent her life
emulating her daddy.
Travis Richardson is a regular contributor to Shotgun Honey starting with his first story “The Day We Shot Jesus on Main Street” originally published in 2012. Since then he’s contributed his short fiction to a number of fiction sites and anthologies, becoming an award nominated and well respected writer of short fiction. His work recently appeared in the award winning The Obama Inheritance edited by Gary Phillips.
Q. Bloodshot and Bruised offers a whole range of crime stories. You touch on everything from the 1992 LA riots to neo-Nazism to good old-fashioned revenge. Is there a common theme that connects most (if not all) of these tales?
While my stories vary in location, structure, and voice, a theme that I often have is the choices that characters make often pivot the stories. Whether in the present or the past, those choices have consequences. My personal definition of noir is people making bad decisions.
The short answer is completeness and brevity. I can’t say that I’ve ever written a perfect story, but I feel I get closer to perfection the shorter a work is. While editing, I like reading an entire story in one sitting and make changes to the flow and the rhythm that I wouldn’t be able to do with a novel. A wonderful thing about tight word counts, like flash fiction, is that every unnecessary word gets the hatchet.
Q. I know this is sort of like asking to choose between favorite children or pets… but what’s your favorite story from this collection?
It’s a little tough, but “The Day We Shot Jesus on Main Street” has to be the one. It was one of my first published short stories, and Shotgun Honey put it out into the world. I received a lot of positive feedback about the story and knew I was on the right path.
Q. Do you find it easier to write long, or short? What advice do you have for writers who want to craft a perfect short story, but wrestle with keeping the narrative under a certain word-count?
I like the short story because I can complete it. I have several unfinished (and finished) longer works that never feel ready. Typically, my first draft for Shotgun Honey or other flash fiction sites is around 1500 words to get the idea and flow, and then I chip away until only the essentials are left.
I’m not big on descriptions. If there is something unique, I mention it, but outside a of a line or two about a person or place, dialogue and the way a person carries themselves and the way others react to a person or a place is often enough for a reader to visualize all of the elements in a story.
On longer stories that need to be 5,000 or 10,000 words and I’m over by a few thousand, I’ll try to cut out nonessential scenes by either skipping them or paraphrasing the action. I’ll also go through the MS and focus on paragraphs over 4 lines long and see if I can compress enough words to eliminate a line and move on to the next.
I haven’t been able to do this on a bigger scale for novels. But sometimes bulk is important to the market. I’ve had an agent tell me that while they liked a work, in order to sell a book, I’d need to increase word count to 70k.
Q. What’s next for you?
Not sure. I finished a short story for an anthology over the weekend. I’ve been writing a quartet of crime novellas set in a West Texas town called Tarwater over the years. The first three are done and edited, I just need to finish writing the finale. I also started a western at the beginning of the year, but left it after 80 pages. I hope to get back to that.
Tom Pitts is a longtime fixture of the hardboiled scene. His new book, “101,”
is a ferocious journey through Northern California’s weed business, set on the
cusp of legalization. Its central character, Vic, is a reclusive weed farmer
and all-around badass who ends up tangled with some very bad folks. The bodies
pile up, along with the double-crosses, as Vic finds himself running out of
time and options.
To say anything else would spoil the book’s twists and turns, so we’ll
just plunge into our five questions with Mr. Pitts:
Q. It’s clear you did a ton of prep for this book—the detailing around
weed, guns, biker gangs, etc. is really impressive. How did you research, and
how did that vary (if it did) from your research routine in previous books?
Funny you should ask. I’ve known
folks in the pot business a long time. It’s always been a big business in
Northern California. Right before I wrote the book, my son started working at a
grow in Humboldt County. I went up there to visit and get my hands dirty with
the intent of filing away my observations for a book. I still don’t feel like I
got it all in; I mean, how could I? But I will say that when my boy (and just
to clarify, he’s 28) read the book, he said he got the “feels” ‘cause it made
him miss the hills so much. As for the biker end, I interviewed another pal
who’d prospected for the big club (the one you’re not allowed to mention), and
he gave me a lot of details, like what kind of bikes outlaws prefer, that kind
of thing. Texture mostly. But that stuff matters.
I guess technically I did more
research than the previous books, although this didn’t feel like research, more
like immersion. Yeah, let’s just say I was embedded for a while.
Q. Vic is quite an anti-hero. I don’t think I’ve ever read a ‘suiting up’
scene in a book where, in addition to loading up on a considerable amount of
firepower, a character packs an equally considerable amount of alcohol. He’s
scary, yet he seems to have a code, and people respect him. How’d you come up
with this bad boy, and does he have any real-life inspirations?
He does, actually, but I can’t
say who. That’d be “putting yer shit out on Front Street” as they say. But he’s
an amalgamation of a couple of tough guys I’ve known. I wanted him to be the
strong, silent type, you know? And I needed the reveal of Vic as a mentor to
poor Jerry to be slow. It’s clear he’s the alpha dog, but the more delicate
side of his nature had to come later. The anti-hero in “American Static” [Pitt’s previous book—ed.] was such a
smartass psychopath, I wanted Vic to be a little more down to earth. And just
for the record, I think Vic’s the hero, not the anti-hero. He may get his hands
dirty, but he’s always maintaining his code. It’s not the criminal code—God
knows there ain’t one of those. It’s more like his own version of the cowboy
Q. The weed business is undergoing some
fundamental shifts right now. Some folks even think we’ll see some kind of
nationalized legalization at some point (at least after Jeff Sessions stops
being Attorney General). Are you ever concerned that something like that would
“date” books that deal with weed-based crime?
That’s the reason I set it “on
the cusp of legalization.” I knew it was going to be an issue, but there has to
be a line somewhere. Before Prohibition and after, WWI, the late Sixties—things
are set in time, there’s no way around it. Good art captures eras; I hope this
does the same. It’ll be hard to tell for a few more years.
The characters in “101” are
scrambling to grab what chips they can before recreational weed hits the market.
Before 2016, the medicinal market was still plenty corrupt. Growers could walk
into a dispensary and unload their harvest—if they knew somebody. Nowadays it’s
done with licensed brokers only. It takes a lot of money to get one of those
licenses, and you have to show it’s clean cash. Laws and bylaws are being
created to bust out the Mom ‘n Pop outfits. In fact, they’re adding so many
laws and rules, they’re going to kill the taxpaying goose and drive that stuff
back underground. That’d be okay with me. And my pals in the hills.
Q. What’s the crime-fiction scene like in the Bay Area right now?
You know, I think I’m plugged
into the community, and then I find out something new is happening and I
realize I don’t have my finger on the pulse like I thought I did. I’m kind of
isolated. Not intentionally, just by work and the drudgery of life. I’m also
stuck in San Francisco. Most everybody else in my social strata has been forced
out of the City and into the East Bay. It’s a mere fluke I’m still here,
Q. With this book out of the way, what’s your next project?
My next release after “101” is called “Coldwater.” It’s my take on a suburban horror story. A nice couple moves to the ‘burbs and the empty house across the street is suddenly occupied by squatters—if that’s really what they are. The clash between the couple and the squatters and what’s really going on in that empty house is what drives the story forward.
Knuckledragger’s milieu is working-class/immigrant-populated but rapidly gentrifying Revere MA, home of America’s first public beach. While walking up and down that very working-class beach and the other city streets, I took inspiration from the many convenience stores, Cambodian markets and bakeries, while trying my best to reimagine it all as the scene of a crime, so to speak.
Rusty Barnes, poet and crime writer, grew up in rural northern Appalachia, where much of his fiction is set. He has two books out from Shotgun Honey: the newly re-issued Ridgerunner and the all-new Knuckledragger. These are very different (and highly readable) novels, although they share a common theme of throwing their main characters into deep, deep trouble. He sat down for five questions about noir, violence, and what he’d do if you rescinded all laws for a couple days.
• • •
Your latest book, “Knuckledragger,” follows in your tradition of hardscrabble noir. This isn’t wisecracking detectives or rich, bored murderers; this is raw, aggressive, gritty stuff. What pulls you to this particular alley of noir?
Here’s the thing: I fight for ways, every day, to channel my own aggression. I don’t mean that I’m aggressive toward people, necessarily, or mean, but rather that many men (many women too, I don’t presume we’re that different) have this emotional weight bearing down on them that manifests itself in aggression, and we’re constantly, if we’re good people, looking for ways to get that aggression channelled somewhere safe for everybody. Some people are into sports, like weight-lifting or other heavy body-impact fitness, some watch sports religiously, and some, like me, channel their aggression into their writing. I am not a violent person per se, but I recognize that part of me that is, and I need writing these kinds of characters to keep me sane. It’s like, here’s a world full of stimuli, good and bad, that often brings visceral, emotional, heavy reactions, but living in polite society demands that you tamp those reactions down, which you do, as all good people do. Or you don’t, and so, violent, dark, stuff emerges. There isn’t much call for that in the literary world I was educated in, though I found a long time ago certain kindred spirits in writers like Larry Brown, Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor, who famously said:
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.
—Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer & His Country”
Crime fiction—I won’t call it noir; that term has outlived its usefulness, despite my fascination with how it’s defined—lets me write those large and startling figures to reflect the violence I see, and also to wrestle with the ineffable, ephemeral good. I also write poetry, as you know, to express beauty where and when I find it, and to counteract the fiction, maybe. Though it’s often dark, too, I find myself more capable of emotional nuance there than I want to be in my fiction. I am a slam-bam pulp writer now, and I love doing what I do.
What’s your writing ritual? What sort of things did you do for research for this book?
I used to have writing rituals, but that stopped when my oldest daughter was born. I write in the middle of the living room now, corner of the sofa, a Bluetooth keyboard paired with a tablet, chaos going on around me, TV blaring, my youngest playing her complex games, my son playing acoustic guitar, my eldest online, and my wife sitting on the other corner of the sofa writing her poems and keeping the house together.
I didn’t do much research for this book. It’s my first book ever set outside of Appalachia, and I did my best to sound like a city-slicker. Candy, my narrator, is about my size but bears little resemblance to me. I basically said, what if this guy was me, except a total badass? And then I wrote.
“Knuckledragger” turns into something of a road novel by its third act. What made you decide to take your main characters on the road, after restricting them to fairly tight locations before that point?
I got bored. I needed something to enliven the plot, so I thought a road trip, a real need to get the fuck out of Dodge, would serve these characters well.It also has to do with a long-running fantasy of mine wherein I run west and set up a survivalist encampment to wait out the end of the world. I did that once and ended up in Houston. Whoo!
I believe James Ellroy once said something like, “Noir is when the main character starts out fucked and things get worse.” Do you believe that? What’s your definition of noir?
Ellroy’s as right as anyone else could be on that thorny subject.
All the world’s laws are rescinded for a week. What do you do?
I finally run all the red lights I’ve tamped brakes on for the past thirty years. And I finally eat the entire ice cream cake. I finally learn, since Heaven is available to me now—no rules, right?—what’s on the other side.
Tom Pitts received his education on the streets of San Francisco. He remains there, working, writing, and trying to survive. He is the author of American Static (Down & Out Books), Hustle (Down & Out Books) and the novellas Piggyback (Snubnose Press) and Knuckleball (Shotgun Honey). He sat down with us for five questions about life, work, and how idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
Your books are like a scenic tour of the noir world, involving blackmail, drugs, politics, murder, and even baseball. Your newest, “American Static,” is no different. How do you personally define “noir”? (I feel like it’s a nebulous term in a lot of ways, but also one that people tend to abuse — “future noir!” “underwater noir!” “clown noir!” — as a shorthand for, “My book has a bit of darkness or weirdness in it.”)
It’s true. The term has been watered down. It’s also a red flag for tropes. If you’re searching around for a movie or book, the word “noir” brings no promise of quality, or at least what I look for in a crime tale. If I’m cornered, I prefer to go with “crime thriller” when describing my own stuff. Neo-noir works nicely, too. I lean on the James Ellroy’s definition of noir a lot: The lead starts out fucked and things get worse from there. And for me, there has to be a ring of truth to it, a feeling like it could really happen. That’s the feel I look for in noir, a sense that characters react the way people really would.
You’ve endured in the crime-fiction industry for quite some time. For every author, it’s often a hard road in terms of getting the word out about your latest books. What techniques have worked for you?
It’s evolved, or changed at least. It used to be Facebook, right? I’m convinced we’ll look back on the years 2012 to 2016 and see it as a golden age of social media. A time when authors—and a lot of different artists—could get the word out on their own. There was a lot of interaction and a feeling of community. For whatever reason, post-election internet has flattened out. You can blame too much politics, not enough politics, whatever, but it feels like people don’t really want that same interaction. The population of sites like Facebook is high, but participation is low. I think that’s why Instagram is so popular right now. There’s almost no interaction. I rely on publicists a lot more now, but that’s not because my star has risen, it’s because of the de-evolution of social media. I have to think about the ways that I find out about books I want to read. And it’s reviews, stumbling across websites, Amazon, and good old word-of-mouth. That’s still the best way. Word of mouth.
What kind of research do you do for your books? You obviously have your lingo down, and your knowledge of how down-and-outers tick.
That’s about it. A lifetime of research in the gutter, unfortunately. I think the trick sometimes is to shape your narrative around what knowledge you have. For instance, if you have a scene with police on their radios and you’re not certain of their numbered codes or ranks (which sometimes vary from department to department), you may have to have the radio break, or the commanding officer may have to have a nickname. Sometimes those minor alterations lead to whole new plotlines. Don’t get me wrong, accuracy is deadly important, but you can make yourself crazy researching minutia. It’s more important to keep that plot moving.
What projects are you working on now?
Nothing! Technically. I’m wrapping up edits for my novel Coldwater, I’ve completed my marijuana opus, 101, and it’s being shopped. My script for Hustle is on hold while the powers that be hash out the details. I guess I’d better start brewing up ideas for the next novel before I get myself into trouble. Idle hands and all that.
All laws in the country are rescinded for one week. What do you do?
When I first read Marie S. Crosswell’s Texas, Hold Your Queens, I was struck by the ferocity of its prose. It’s a novella with serious teeth, which it sinks into some pretty meaty themes: vengeance, justice, love, trauma, death. Although it takes place in the desert, it’s also a very different beast from the glut of neo-Western-noirs that have hit bookshelves over the past few years—a multi-character study that goes into some seriously uncomfortable places, and leaves you thinking.
Crosswell and I conducted a brief interview about the book, which, again, I recommend highly. Out of all the crime novels I read in the course of a given year, this one really stuck with me, and I think it’ll have the same effect on you.
Nick Kolakowski: You not only nail the lingo and details of a murder investigation, but you really get into your lead cops’ heads, how they notice things and move through the world. What did you do to prep for the book, research-wise?
Marie S. Crosswell: I think I did less research than you may imagine I did. What I remember researching the most is actually the historical femicide crisis in Juarez, which I mention in the book. Strangely enough, the situation gets hardly any airtime in the story, but that’s the topic I remember most, regarding research. I first learned of the murdered and missing women of Juarez when I was 17 years old and took a summer writing class at a local community college. The professor, Stella Duarte, mentioned it because she wrote her own book all about it. That crisis stuck with me, and even though Texas, Hold Your Queens isn’t about a woman killed in Juarez, it’s somewhat inspired by the women who have been murdered and disappeared there. The female victim in my book came from Juarez, and Mason and Farrah, the detective protagonists, imagine that she crossed the border to escape the dangerous environment of her city—which makes it all the more devastating to them that she got killed on U.S. soil.
Anyway, I did do some research about El Paso CID and the prison in New Mexico where the villain served a sentence for his previous crimes. This wasn’t my first time writing about homicide detectives, so as far as getting into Mason and Farrah’s heads, I think a lot of that was already there in my creative consciousness. I do watch and read a lot of crime/police procedural stories, which must inform my own storytelling.
NK: Your narrative really plays with time at moments. It’s incredible how you use chapter breaks, and jumping back and forth through the narrative, to build momentum and suspense. Are you a writer who outlines beforehand, or do you write and then re-write until the narrative assumes its final shape?
MC: I’m an outliner. Usually, I start out making notes on the basic events of the story and who my characters are. Then, I usually write out what happens in each scene with enough detail to know where I’m going. Each scene gets a short paragraph in the outline.
I’ve never written a story that has a non-linear time structure, other than this one, so it was an experiment for me. I think it turned out well—although I got a few comments from people I know who read the book, about not immediately realizing they had to pay attention to the dates at the start of each chapter—and I’ll probably use the format again.
NK: It seems like a lot of crime thrillers these days focus on criminality along the southern border. Whereas a lot of those books try to go large and make a geo-political comment, you seem much more focused on inner topics such as love and trauma and the righteousness (or unrighteousness) of payback. Where did the original seed of an idea for the book come from? Is the final book very different from your idea of it at the beginning?
MC: This might surprise you, but I haven’t actually read any border crime fiction, so I didn’t know one way or the other how other crime novels set on the border handle the setting. I chose to set the story in El Paso for two reasons: first, because of the background inspiration of Juarez’s murdered women (Juarez is right next to El Paso, separated by the border fence), and second, because I like to stay in the American West with my fiction. I’m not particularly interested in Mexican crime that crosses over into the States or traffics back and forth across the border, although I’m fully aware of it and how it’s an obvious theme for crime fiction set in border states and towns. I just had this idea of a Mexican woman who crosses into the U.S. to escape the violence and danger of her homeland, and ends up dead at the hands of a white American guy.
Yes, you can look at it through the lens of U.S./Mexican relations, illegal immigration, the highly politicized fight in the U.S. over border security, etc.—but I wrote the story and tend to look at it through the lens of global male violence against women, which is never discussed by any political party in any country. And the thing is, violence against women has no political party. Men everywhere commit it, regardless of how they vote or what ideology they subscribe to. That’s the big-picture politics I’m interested in, if any.
I didn’t think of this consciously when I wrote the book, but it’s in my nature as a writer to tell tightly focused, personal stories, even and perhaps especially when the characters are dealing with violence and crime that happens on a larger scale. At the end of the day, violence and crime happen to individual human beings whose immediate experience of the trauma and horror is completely personal, even if it’s symptomatic of a politics or an event or a war that is much bigger than them. Farrah and Mason exemplify this in the book, and the reason they get into trouble is because they make the murder of one woman personal. They don’t see her as a statistic in a bigger picture of male violence or murder in America or even in their own careers as homicide detectives. They take her death personally, which you aren’t really supposed to do as a cop, and consequently, they don’t act with professional detachment. Unbeknownst to her, the murder victim’s death ends up radically affecting the lives and relationships of these two women she never met. Which is to say, that even violence taking place in the context of a greater event has small-scale consequences for the people involved, consequences that are easy to overlook when you stay focused on the big political picture.
Love is always at heart of my fiction, even though I usually write in the crime genre. I’ve got the same pattern as a writer that I do as a reader and film consumer: I come for the action, but I stay for the love between two characters, usually a friendship. I think the central love in any of my stories balances out the crime; if there’s no love, no tenderness, in a story full of violence, then ultimately there’s no joy in writing or reading it. There has to be something good to give you relief from the nastiness and the pain, especially in stories that end without a perfect “happily ever after/goodness prevails” resolution.
It’s been a few years now, but if I recall correctly, the seed of this story might’ve actually been planted by Season 1 of “True Detective.” I’m a big fan. My book doesn’t really have any similarities to it, beyond belonging to the crime/police procedural genre(s) and following a pair of detectives, but hey, I’m sure you know that inspiration for a story can come from just about anything.
NK: Revenge, or at least the attempt to balance accounts through blood, seems like a thread that runs both through this book and your recent short story, “Tinder,” which appeared in Tough magazine. What draws you to it as a narrative device?
MC: Vengeance has been a theme in my crime fiction since I started writing it, and I’m not entirely sure why. I think the theme goes hand-in-hand with another one that’s prominent in Texas, Hold Your Queens, which is the inadequacy of the legal system when it comes to punishing violent crime. Sometimes, that inadequacy looks like a guilty man getting away with what he did or being under-sentenced, but even a lengthy prison sentence or the death penalty (which these days, means several years of life in prison prior to execution, anyway) can feel inadequate when the man in question has done something beyond the pale.
I could go deeper and say that my crime fiction questions (and ultimately dismisses) the idea that prison or even state execution are sufficient punishment for maliciously violent criminals, and that there is no such thing as justice for victims of rape or malicious murder. What are we even talking about when we use the word “justice”? Why does the state get to decide what that looks like, instead of the victim of the crime or the victim’s loved ones? Realistically, what satisfaction is there for them, in seeing a rapist or a malicious murderer go to prison? Why should a man who destroys someone else’s life or spirit get to live the rest of his life and enjoy physical safety to boot, and can we really call that justice? These are questions that my crime fiction wrestles with, sometimes below the surface.
The desire for revenge is a primitive human urge, part of the non-rational, animalistic brain. A quest for vengeance is one of the oldest themes in human story-telling, one that we never tire of. It’s cathartic for us as readers or audience members to see someone get their revenge; there’s a profound sense of the wrong having been righted or the scales being balanced, that I don’t think we feel in response to a criminal being convicted in a court. And I guess that there is a catharsis for me as a writer, telling stories about people who get their revenge, stories where “justice” is an eye for an eye.
In reality, the majority of bad men get away with their evildoing; the world isn’t fair or just. I think that’s one reason so many people, especially women, fall back on patriarchal religion and the notion of Hell. We all want the bad guy to get what’s coming to him, whether in this life or after death. Writing stories like Texas, Hold Your Queens, I get to make that happen. Maybe that’s why revenge is a recurring theme in my work. These days, I find wrongs in the world I wish I could vindicate on a daily basis.
NK: All laws in the country are rescinded for one week. What do you do?
MC: Round up a bunch of like-minded women, take possession of some serious firepower, and kill as many rapists and bad men as possible.