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 He sat down for five questions about noir, violence, and what he’d do if you rescinded all laws for a couple days.
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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.
• • •
Learn more about Knuckledragger. Available in print today.
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.
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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?
Keep my powder dry and stay the fuck inside!
• • •
Buy American Static today in print or digital from Amazon today.
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.
• • •
Buy Texas, Hold Your Queens today in print or digital from Amazon today.
“Now that,” Coutinho said, “is not what the Chamber of Commerce wants to see.”
As soon as said the words, he wanted them back. It wasn’t his style to get flippant over a body.
He had seen death before. Even in paradise people had fatal accidents. Bar fights could end as badly in Hilo as anywhere else, and Hawaii had its share of unfortunates with no one but the police to find them in the end.
But this kind of butchery was something new. Even in Honolulu the cops didn’t see much of it, and the Big Island wasn’t the big city.
His partner circled the body at a distance to get a look at the woman’s face.
“Gladys Robles,” said Kim. “Can’t say she deserved to go like this.”
Coutinho found the odors of death, of blood and bowels, more oppressive than usual. A glance told him that Kim felt the same.
Here was the vulnerability of prostitutes, spelled out in smears of blood on the wall and puddles of it on the floor. The body’s position suggested that Gladys had slid down the wall as she lost consciousness. There were some distinct handprints among the streaks of blood, but they were probably hers.
If they were lucky, some of the blood would be the moke’s. He might have cut himself in his killing frenzy.
Coutinho didn’t feel lucky.
The crime scene techs obviously wanted the detectives out of the way. Coutinho turned and left the hotel room with Kim behind him. In the hallway the Filipino housekeeper who had found the body leaned against the wall as if grateful for its support. She was new enough on the island to be wondering whether this kind of thing came with her job.
“Did you see the young lady arrive?”
“Yes, I see her. She give me forty dollars.”
To clean up after the day’s work and keep an eye on things as much as she could.
“How about her gentlemen callers?”
“I see a couple of them. I have my work to do.”
“So you didn’t see the last one?”
If she had, Coutinho might be working a double murder.
“Thanks. You can go back to work.”
Or back home to Manila, if her nerve failed her. He wouldn’t blame her if it did.
He would have to talk to the desk clerk and the maintenance workers, but he expected similar answers from them.
Right now he decided to get a breath of air. Outside it was misting a little, but real rain had been scarce for months. From the sidewalk in front of the hotel he could see a piece of Hilo Bay, with the usual dark clouds on the horizon. They seemed to warn coastal dwellers to head for higher ground.
Coutinho lifted the hem of his aloha shirt and took his cell phone from his belt. Lieutenant Tanaka answered the second ring.
“How bad?” said Tanaka.
“I hope they don’t come much worse.”
“Anything to work with?”
“Doesn’t look like he cooperated by dropping his driver’s license or anything.”
“So if the techs get no fingerprints or DNA, we’ll have to wait for the moke to do it again.”
Today, Shotgun Honey celebrates its publishing relaunch with the release of Hardway by Hector Acosta. Hector as he’ll reiterate below has contributed to both our flash fiction site content and the Both Barrels anthology series. His first anthology story featured Thursday Malone, a character I immediately gravitated, and considered with much potential. When we branched out into publishing longer works under One Eye Press, I hounded Hector for a Thursday Malone story until he finally submitted Hardway. My first reaction was Where is Thursday? And what am I supposed to do with a story about a hormonal kid with fantasies about wrestling? Instead of throwing it back and demanding Thursday, I dug in, and to my surprise I enjoyed what Hector submitted. It’s not typical OEP/SH stuff, but it was a story with heart, about family, and about the adolescent fantasies that lead to becoming an adult.
Let’s pulled down the mic, and get this event started.
So today is the big day, HARDWAY is entering the ring. What is the music blaring on the PA?
I have to preface this by saying that I’ve been accused of having HORRIBLE music taste. Most the stuff I listen to is either taken from wrestling (shocker), or musicals.
That out of the way, Hardway totally comes out to My Chemical Romance’s Welcome to the Black Parade, partly because I always thought that song would make a great wrestling intro, and also because there’s something about the way the song is structured that mirrors Hardway‘s story. It has a slow, melancholic start, but halfway through the tempo picks up and doesn’t let up for the rest for the song.
Every great wrestler has a great backstory, what’s the backstory for HARDWAY?
The idea of Hardway came after I fell down a Youtube hole and ended up watching a bunch of backyard wrestling videos. Backyard wrestling has a not entirely undeserved bad rap. But as I watched matches where teenagers beat the holy hell out of each, and crash through elaborate set ups even the WWE wouldn’t perform, I realized how much the kids also had to love wrestling. You don’t get thrown off a ladder and into hard concrete if you only sort of like something.
And that’s when Hardway popped into my head. I’d written a couple of stories involving wrestling before, usually from the perspective of a wrestler. And as much as Spencer, Billy, and the rest of their friends would like to think so, they are more fans than wrestlers. I conceived the first version of Hardway as a short story, but after being finished with it, I found I had more to say about Spencer and the RBWL and got to reworking it.
You’ve got Welcome to the Black Parade playing, the fans are rallied behind your backstory, what’s the signature move? What’s going to get fans rooting for HARDWAY?
If Hardway is in the ring, mounting a comeback and preparing end the match, I could hear the announcers (Jim Ross in this perfect, fantasy world of mine) screaming “THE KID HAS HEART,” in that great, Southern drawl of his.
Hardway is a book that ends up wearing its heart on its sleeve. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a crime, there’s people doing stupid things for stupid reasons, and ending up getting mired in violence because of it, but more than anything, it’s about Spencer, a kid who doesn’t quite fit in and is feeling more and more like an island. About the love he has for wrestling, for his brother, and for his brother’s girlfriend. Which is largely what gets him in trouble with a psychotic drug dealer and apartment over.
Being the man behind the mask, the great puppeteer, tell the fans about Hector Acosta.
I live in New York with an understanding wife who allows me to watch way more wrestling than any human being should and a dog which I have a love/hate relationship with. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and have a bunch of half finished vampire detective books to prove it. I became more serious about it when I discovered two things: Twitter, and Shotgun Honey. Both opened my eyes to an insane amount of talented, welcoming writers and their nasty (in the best way) stories. My first thing I ever submitted in fact was a flash fiction piece for Shotgun Honey, and I’ve been–too slowly lately–writing ever since.
HARDWAY has the title and the belt, and the brass wants you for a big tag team event, who do you want in your corner?
Short answer? Just just on my twitter (@Hexican) and pick up the book from everyone I follow.
I’ve mentioned him before, but Gabino Iglesias needs to be read by more people. His barrior/supernatural/noir book Zero Saints was a game changer.
Angel Colon is one messed up guy, and I say that in the nicest way possible. No Happy Endings has probably one of the most shocking opening chapters I’ve read in a while. Plus the dude writes for the WWE comic, so I gotta say nice things.
I’m really looking forward to Thomas Pluck‘s Bad Boy Boogie. Really dig his short stories, and if you want a noir/superhero mashup, you have to read his Denny the Dent collection.
Dave White writes of New Jersey so well I basically have no reason to ever go there.
I’m still bummed Chris Irvin‘s wrestling opus hasn’t come out, but I’ll make do with his great short story collection.
Sheesh, this turned into a ten match didn’t it?
A regular Royal Rumble, for sure. As a fan for wrestling, what is your favorite moment, event, or match up?
Smackdown- August 28, 2003.
This will probably seem like a random choice to most, but it holds a special place for me for a couple of reasons. First, this was at what probably was my peak wrestling fandom. We’re talking ‘takes part in online wrestling roleplay’ level here. Secondly, the show was in El Paso, Texas, my hometown, so I got to experience it live with a bunch of friends. And finally, and probably most importantly, we got to watch the hometown hero Eddie Guerrero make a glorious, twenty minute entrance.
It’s funny, if you ask me what matches were on that show, I couldn’t tell you. All I remember is how the entire arena exploded at Eddie’s theme song, and how we hung at every word he said.
You’ve got the fans going crazy like Eddie with your entrance, what are you going to do for an encore?
I have a couple things I’m working on at the moment.
First up I’m looking to finish a crime story set in a border factory town. It’s the first piece of fiction where I’ve actually gone out of my way to do some research, as it not only takes place in factory town, but also in the 1960’s.
I’m in the revising stages of a horror novella right now. I’m hesitant to speak too much about because I’m not sure if it’ll see the light of day, so we’ll see. I will say that the thing which got me writing it is because for once, I came up with what I thought was a great, fitting title for it.
And finally there’s Thursday Malone. He’s a character who’s shown up in the Shotgun Honey anthologies and one of my favorites to write, and I’m not going to lie, a big part of it just because of the name itself. If everything goes as plan, I should have a new tale before the end of the year with him.
We definitely hope to see these get to the ring. What move would recommend other wannabe wrestlers have in their arsenal?
In a wrestling match, we often only remember the big moves- the finisher that knock a wrestler out, or allows their opponent to get the pin. But the reality is that very few matches would work if the wrestlers did their big moves over and over again. A good match needs to have a sense of rhythm, a back and forth that pulls the audience in.
In writing, sometimes we focus too much on the ‘big moves’. On making sure that the writing is perfect, that we have that great opening line, or that our dialogue sounds just right. And yeah, those are important, but what’s more important is the most basic of things– just showing up to write.
More talented writers have said this than I, and I”ll be the first to admit I don’t always follow this advise, but if you don’t sit down to do the work and build a writing routine, the rest isn’t going to matter. Just like a wrestler who can pull off a 450 off the top rope but doesn’t know how to run the ropes will probably not get anywhere.
Unless you’re Roman Reigns (kidding!)
Praise for HARDWAY by Hector Acosta
“Hardway hits like a chair to the back of the head, but underneath all the bone-cracking action there’s also a surprisingly sweet story about a boy trying to make his way in the world. If you’re a fan of noir or wrestling – or both – this is one show you’ll want to buy a ticket to.”
—Nick Kolakowski, author of A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps
“Witty, touching, and as melodramatic as any classic pro wrestling story, Hardway stands as an excellent debut from Hector Acosta.”
—Angel Luis Colón, author of No Happy Endings and The Fury of Blacky Jaguar
“Hector Acosta delivers a fitting tribute to the passion of pro wrestling. Parts coming-of-age, crime, and nostalgia – with a bit of an 80’s vibe to boot – Hardway hits all the right notes.”
—Christopher Irvin, author of Burn Cards and Safe Inside the Violence
“A novella that hits you where it hurts, forces you to grapple with your desires and defeat, but ultimately leaves you panting and begging for more.”
—D.G. Sutter, author of La Maquina Oscura
Buy Hardway Today!
When I think of dedication, hard work—any and all attributes I aspire to as a writer, editor and publisher—I think of Richard Thomas. That maybe a lot of praise to place on Richard’s shoulders, but having seen his work ethic on display over the last half decade I can’t think of a harder working and talented individual. And the company he keeps is a testament to his dedication to the genre and the writers he has worked.
This month launched a very important Kickstarter, one that is both ambitious and necessary. Gamut Magazine promises to be a diverse online marketplace boasting professional rates and opportunities to be published alongside some of the industry’s top talents.
At this point the Gamut Kickstarter is closing the gap on its $52k goal with just over 2 days to go. Richard and I talked about Gamut, and why it is important for this Kickstart to succeed.
If you look up the meaning of gamut in the dictionary it is defined as the complete range or scope of something. What does gamut mean to you and what is its significance to your project?
When I think about the fiction that I like to write, the stories and novels I like to read, the authors I have published, it’s a wide range of fiction. But typically I am drawn to dark, tragic work, so as far as Gamut, we’ll be focusing on dark fiction, in all of its many flavors. Even with horror there is quiet horror, and splatterpunk, and psychological, and classic. It’s important to me that we broaden our scope, at Gamut. I’m looking for a wider range of stories and perspectives. We’re 60% women, for example, and have authors from all over the world. I love to see new mythologies, new cultures, and new histories. I like to be surprised, so don’t expect to see the same plots, the same creatures, the same tropes.
On the Gamut Kickstarter page you suggest that to understand the aesthetics of the magazine, one only needs to be familiar with your work as an editor and writer. For those not familiar with Richard Thomas tell us about your past works?
Well, I’ve written three novels, the last two for Random House Alibi, the Windy City Dark Mystery series. Disintegration is Falling Down meets Dexter, and Breaker is a mix of Leon: The Professional, Of Mice and Men, The Green Mile and To Kill a Mockingbird. I tend to write neo-noir, transgressive fiction. I also have three short story collections, the latest, Tribulations, out in March with Crystal Lake. My last big story placement was in Cemetery Dance magazine, and I have short fiction appearing in the anthologies Chiral Mad 3 and Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories alongside Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker and Jack Ketchum.
As an editor, I’ve put together four anthologies—The New Black and Exigencies (the latter getting a story, “Wilderness” by Letitia Trent into the Best Horror of the Year anthology), both at Dark House Press; Burnt Tongues with Chuck Palahniuk and Dennis Widmyer, at Medallion (a finalist for the Bram Stoker award); and The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, at Black Lawrence Press.
As Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press I’ve put out six books to date, two I’ve mentioned already, as well as Echo Lake by Letitia Trent; After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones (Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson award finalist); The Doors You Mark Are Your Own by Okla Elliott and Raul Clement; and Vile Men by Rebecca Jones-Howe. Out this year we have novels by Damien Angelica Walters and Steve Himmer.
So that really covers a wide range (a GAMUT!) of fiction including fantasy, science fiction, horror, crime, neo-noir, magical realism, transgressive, Southern gothic, and literary fiction.
That is definitely a GAMUT of fiction. Will Gamut just be a fiction magazine? Or will there be other opportunities to contribute?
We will have new fiction every week, and a reprint every week. I hope to also do flash fiction. As far as other work, yes, we’ll have columns—three are set up now for Keith Rawson, Max Booth and RK Arceneaux. We’ll also do non-fiction essays, poetry, and maybe even a Saturday Night Special serialization. And there will be original artwork with every story.
Once the campaign is done, do you plan on submission cycles or continuously open submissions?
Well, I’ve already got 40 authors involved, as far as solicitations. Not ALL will have original work for me, but most will. So let’s just say I have about 36 weeks set. That leaves the rest of the 2017 to fill out. So, yes, we will open up to submissions later in 2016. Most likely we’ll use the lower Submittable package, which caps at 300 submissions a month. That will include fiction, poetry, non-fiction, etc. That’s why I have three fiction editors and two poetry editors, to help with that. My fiction editors—Mercedes M. Yardley, Dino Parenti, and Casey Frechette will be my first readers. I’ll still solicit now and then, I’m sure. And people will probably approach me as well, but most work will come through the front door. Anything with three yes votes will be forwarded to me with a highlighted status. Two yes votes, also forwarded to me, but not as urgently. One yes vote is probably a rejection, unless the one yes vote is adamant that I see it, then I’ll take a look. Three no votes and I probably won’t even see it. I trust my editors, they understand my aesthetic, but ultimately it’ll be my call. If we feel that we’re getting too many stories to process in a timely manner, then we’ll close the door and maybe do every other month. Whatever we do, I’m excited to work with the authors I know, and stoked to discover new voices as well. I mean, I could take a weird western and then an edgy literary story and then a dark fantasy and then a gritty neo-noir. You never know.
Gamut isn’t the first magazine to vie for a successful Kickstarter. What sets Gamut apart from the others?
Well, first of all, we’ll pay ten cents a word, which is different. Very few places pay that rate, especially with speculative fiction. We’re also focusing on that sweet spot between genre and lit, that hybrid-blending, genre-bending fiction. We’re not going to have “issues” per se, just new content every week, hopefully, every day if we can raise enough funds. We’re including original art with every story, and we’ll also have columns, reprints, poetry, non-fiction and maybe even a serialization. We’re also looking into eBooks and digital downloads, interacting with local theaters to showcase films that fit the Gamut vibe, a Best of Gamut print anthology, and some other services and swag. Only time will tell.
Only time, which starts at the end of the Gamut Kickstarter at 11 pm March 1st.
Should the Kickstarter succeed, and with your help it is guaranteed to hit its $52,000 goal, the first issue will launch January 2017 with stories, columns and industry staples available all online for a small price of $60 a year after the current campaign is complete. It’s going to be a great magazine with tons of potential for writers and readers of neo-noir, crime, horror, transgressive and a multitude of sub-genres.
Today we pull veteran Shotgun Honey editor Christopher Irvin back into the trenches to talk one on one with musician turned writer, avid indie book promoter, and dead eye interviewer himself, S.W. Lauden about his book BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION and his entrance into publishing. This makes a nice bookend to an interview that Lauden published over on his review and promotion site BadCitizenCorporation.com with Chris yesterday in promotion of Chris’s new collection SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE (11/10/15 280 Steps).
Let’s get right into this. You’ve had short stories published at some stellar venues over the recent year. Who is this S.W. Lauden guy hiding behind the drum?
Thanks for having me! I actually did this backwards, from what I can tell. I sat down to write the novel that became BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION about five years ago. I just sketched out the story idea, made a feeble attempt at an outline that I never stuck to, and started tapping away late at night and early in the morning. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft and started trying to connect with other writers that I became aware of the mystery/crime short story universe and the talented writers who populate it. That’s mostly thanks to Travis Richardson, who I got to know through the Mystery Writers of America in Los Angeles. He’s a great writer and I’m lucky to call him a friend these days.
While the novel was being revised, I set my sights on getting some short stories published. Again, backwards. The first thing I submitted got accepted by Akashic Books as part of the “Mondays Are Murder” series online. It’s actually a back story piece to BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION called “Swinging Party”. That put some wind in my sails, so I sent off a few more short stories. Then the rejections started coming, fast and furious. But each scrap of feedback I got helped me understand how to make my stories better. I’d re-work them, re-write them and submit elsewhere. Eventually I few pieces got accepted by publications like Crimespree Magazine, Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners and Shotgun Honey.
I also applied my experience with the short story submission-rejection-feedback loop to my novel. The story has morphed quite a lot over the last five years as I’ve grown, and thanks to some thoughtful critique and criticism. What’s stayed the same is the core concept of a punk rock cop who trolls the beaches of Southern California. I’ve been a musician myself for many years, and I grew up near the beach, so I had a lot of experiences and observations to draw on. It’s a fictional universe, but one that was pretty easy for me to construct.
Congrats on all the success! That’s great to see you were able to incorporate the success (and rejection) of your short fiction into the novel. You mentioned Travis Richardson – there’s been a wave of impressive crime fiction coming out of California in the last couple of years – yourself, Travis, Eric Beetner, Joe Clifford, Steph Cha, Tom Pitts, Craig Faustus Buck, Jordan Harper (I could go on…) – do you do anything consciously to separate your voice/work from the pack? Any west coast writers influence and/or inspire your fiction?
Kind of mind-blowing to be mentioned alongside all those talented writers. There’s definitely lots of publishing action out here these days. I could easily add Josh Stallings, Matt Coyle, Sarah M. Chen, Mike Monson, Anonymous-9, Rob Pierce, Paul D. Marks and Danny Gardner to the list and we still wouldn’t be scratching the surface.
I think any influence the west coast writers had would be more noticeable in the the many revisions of BCC, simply because I hadn’t read many of them when I started it five years ago. What really inspired me to sit down and write the novel were a couple of European authors, Jo Nesbo and Arnaldur Indridason. I devoured their catalogues over the course of a year and really fell in love with their take on mystery and crime fiction. The subject matter and tone of their novels is somber and dark, as is often the case with the settings, but there’s tons of action and the characters are front and center. That’s something that I appreciate as a reader and aspire to as a writer. So I guess it’s a combination of all those influences, in addition to the literary fiction and YA I’ve been known to read.
I don’t think I have to do anything to set myself apart from other writers—west coast, European or otherwise—because I couldn’t possibly write like any of them even if I tried.
Was there an “aha!” moment during your writing where you found your voice?
There wasn’t really a specific moment when the lights went on, but I do remember BCC getting easier around half way through the first draft. I’d finally gotten comfortable with the characters and it seemed less like I was inventing them and more like I was reporting on them. After that I was able to loosen up a little and have more fun with it. I totally rewrote the Marco character at that point and he became the sort of comic relief that (I hope) he is in the final manuscript. Shit was getting too serious. I needed a junkie to swoop in and make with the funny.
Thinking back on the book, the influence of the European authors you mention is really interesting. While there is quite a bit of realistic action in the book, the central mysteries play a larger role, to a point where I think one could argue the novel is a mystery or detective novel with elements of crime. I mean that in the best way as I think it attracts a large audience. In your mind, who are your readers? Who do you want to be your readers?
I have been doing weekly author Q&As on my blog for the last year. One question I’ll often ask is about genre and how important it is. The tone of the responses varies (some writers really hate genre discussions), but the general consensus is that genre doesn’t matter much to authors—at least the ones I’ve interviewed. And I think that’s true for me too. When it comes to BCC, I’ve somehow managed to stay blissfully ignorant about whether it’s mystery or crime or some hybrid of the two. I think that as a reader I view mystery and crime as fraternal twins, anyway. And, like I said above, I regularly read stuff outside of those genres.
As for who my readers are, I’m still at the “I hope to hell somebody reads it” phase. It would be great if fans of Kem Nunn and Don Winslow find BCC because I think it fits in with their Surf Noir books (genre alert!). TAPPING THE SOURCE, THE DAWN PATROL and THE DOGS OF WINTER are among my favorites. Definitely not a comparison—those guys are true masters—but there are some obvious thematic and geographical similarities. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe I just want Kem Nunn and Don Winslow to read BCC. Can you make that happen? Thanks, bro.
Have you taken a look back at your short work as a whole? Seen any themes develop that you were unaware of (while writing) across them? If so, did they make it into the novel as well?
Funny you should mention that because I’m reading this really great short story collection right now. It’s called SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE. Ever heard of it?! I recommend it highly.
But enough about you…
This might not sound terribly original, but a lot of my short stories contain some kind of moral struggle. As a reader I am really interested in what motivates characters, and that seems to find its way into my writing as well. I think there’s a lot of that in Greg Salem. He’s a total bro, but not necessarily the beer-swilling meathead variety. For guys like Greg, “bro” is shorthand for a specific kind of blue collar social contract that puts blind allegiance to friends above almost anything else. Sort of like a gang, only without all the structure. It really defines his personality and leads him to make decisions that aren’t necessarily in his own best interest. It’s an ingrained sense of duty, coupled with a mistrust for the local police, that ultimately compels him to find his friend’s killer.
Ha, thank you. And I see what you mean with Greg. One of my favorite aspects of Greg Salem is the very different (and separate) worlds he straddles – punk rock and law enforcement. You can immediately see parallels to many creatives who must work a full-time day job in addition to writing/drawing/etc. Did you draw inspiration from your own life?
Definitely. I had a lot of different jobs when I was pursuing a career in music, everything from bartending and waiting tables to journalism and temp work. You know, cleaning off the nail polish and washing last night’s glitter out of your hair so you could go bus tables at a wedding reception the next day. And now I’m a writer with a desk job.
With Greg Salem, I wanted to explore what that struggle looks like as he got older—the sacrifices and compromises that artists have to make in the face of the constant temptation to hang it all up in favor of stability (whatever that is these days). Making him a cop seemed like an extreme juxtaposition to the angry, idealistic punk he was as a teenager and I hoped it would give him an interesting internal struggle to deal with. Also, it’s fun to say you wrote a novel about a punk rock cop.
True! That’s a great tag line. What’s next for Greg? From an unexplored past (i.e. his brother) to an uncertain future, you’ve certainly left a lot on his plate.
I’m about half way done with the second Greg Salem book. Writing about Southern California is tricky because so many stories have been set here, but I think Greg and his crew are leading me in an interesting direction for now. He’s definitely bringing along some people, and baggage, from his past.
The cover of BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION is fantastic. How did it come together? Did you have any input during the process?
When I told people that Rare Bird Books was going to be publishing BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, the first response was usually “They make great looking books!” I’m happy to report that they lived up to that reputation in my case. Tyson Cornell, who started Rare Bird, found the painting by English artist Graham Dean and licensed it for the cover. I have to say that I was really blown away when I first saw it, especially since I was picturing something more along the lines of surfers and sharks. Maybe even a surfer holding a shark. And the shark has a gun in its mouth. A bloody gun. You know, something subtle
I hear you have a novella coming out in 2016. What’s the story?
Right before I finalized the BCC deal with Rare Bird, my amazing editor Elaine Ash put me in touch Eric Campbell at Down & Out Books. I had written a short story called CROSSWISE while on a family vacation, but it quickly evolved into a novella. I thought D&OB would be a good home for it and, lucky for me, Elaine and Eric agreed.
CROSSWISE is also set along the beach, but takes place on the panhandle of Florida. The main character is an ex-NYPD cop who follows his coke-addict girlfriend to her hometown. He’s working as a security guard at a retirement community full of colorful characters when she leaves him for her ex-husband. That’s when the murders start happening.
It comes out in March. I just saw the cover art for the first time and it looks amazing. Different vibe than BCC, but still no sharks. Hope to be able to share that really soon.
Looking forward to it (and the sharks, when you can get them). Now take us out! Any signings/readings/etc planned for BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION?
I was planning a traditional book launch party on Nov. 7 in Los Angeles, but it quickly spun out of control. You can take the drummer out of the band…
At this point there are 10 authors reading—both fiction and non-fiction—and four bands playing. It got so big that it completely stopped being about me or my book and became its own stand alone event, which I am calling “Read Out Loud”. It’s happening at a cool outdoor venue along the L.A. River and it’s free and open to the public. Proceeds from beer, wine and snack sales benefit Friends of the LA River. You can check out the Facebook event right here.
I’ll also be doing a reading at Book Show in Highland Park (L.A.) on Nov. 22 for the launch of the new Josh Stallings novel, YOUNG AMERICANS. And I’ll be at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego on Dec. 5. More propaganda about all of that can be found on my blog.
S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.
Chistopher Irvin is the author of FEDERALES and BURN CARDS. His short stories have been featured in several publications, including Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, and Shotgun Honey. His short story collection, SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE, is out this November from 280 Steps.
Around the first anniversary of Shotgun Honey in April of 2012 we published the first story by Brian Panowich, a story about a pool cleaner who got unfair payment for “Services Rendered.” Brian followed up with a variety of stories, but a couple of bookend stories—one published here and the other published on The Flash Fiction Offensive—would take him up BULL MOUNTAIN and land him his first book deal. Today, his book releases to a lot of buzz and praise, all well deserved.
We are all extremely proud to see this release, and to celebrate I spent a week learning how Brian Panowich made it up that mountain.
Let’s see where it takes us.
Ron Earl Phillips
July 7, 2015
How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you toward crime fiction?
To be honest? I got it from you, Ron. Well, you and Elmore Leonard. Up until early 2012, I was still struggling to find my voice. In a way I still am, but I don’t think that will ever stop. My reading tastes are extremely varied, and back then it showed in my writing. I was dabbling in horror, westerns, superheroes, some real fantastical shit. The only real crime stuff I was reading on a regular basis was anything by Elmore Leonard, and John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, and even those (Connolly) had a slight super natural slant to them. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto Shotgun Honey that I discovered Flash Fiction as a form of storytelling and then it was off to the races. I used your site like school, studying how to cut and trim a story down to the raw nerve. I discovered a lot of the authors I now consider some of my biggest influences, Chris Leek, Ryan Sayles, Jen Conley, Peter Farris, the list goes on. Outside of one story I’d written and self published at the time, called THEO AND FAT TERRY, my first submission to you was the only real attempt at writing a straight up crime story. It took me two days to write it ( Services Rendered ) and then over a month to whittle it down to 700 words, and I can still remember what I was doing when I got the email from Sabrina that told me it had been accepted for publication. One of the best days of my career. From that point on, I started reading a lot more crime fiction and the day I finished GIVE US A KISS by Daniel Woodrell, I had a profound moment of clarity that pointed me down my current career path.
Well, Shotgun Honey might have been a divining rod, of sorts, but the words were pretty solid when they got here. Shotgun Honey has published four stories by you between 2012 and 2013—so maybe you owe us a new one—but it was “If I Ever Get Off This Mountain” that inspired Bull Mountain, along with “Coming Down the Mountain,” a sibling story that appeared on The Flash Fiction Offensive. Where did these foundation blocks build from?
I had been toying with the idea of writing a story that flipped the white hat/black hat trope on it’s ear and showed that not all the good guys are right, and the bad guys are wrong. I knew I wasn’t the first person to want to explore that theme, so I came up with telling the same story twice but from the two different sides of that morality coin. Even then, I knew I had a cool format, but still didn’t have an actual story idea until one afternoon while I was out riding my mountain bike. Writing was the last thing on my mind and I was listening to a classic rock playlist when “Up On Cripple Creek” by The Band came on. The first line to that song is ‘If I get off of this mountain, you know where I wanna go’ and immediately the entirety of those stories, and what was to become BULL MOUNTAIN, hit me so hard I damn near wrecked my bike. I had to get off and record the plot points into my phone, because I didn’t have anything to write on. I cut my ride short and hauled ass back to the car to write it down, so I wouldn’t forget it. It was just one of those moments that come along that I can’t explain. Those two stories are what attracted my agent, who in turn, quite honestly changed my life.
We’re all glad you didn’t take a spill on that bike, for sure. Had you been actively looking for an agent at the time you wrote those stories? Was there something else in the works before you took that first trip up that mountain?
No, and No. I’d been tinkering with a superhero novel idea on and off for about two years that I’d long ago abandoned, and was shopping nothing. Those two stories we just mentioned were nominated, as you may know since you’re kind of the king of this community, for a “Best On The Web” award in 2013 by Spinetingler Magazine run by Brian Lindenmuth. I didn’t win the award, but they did get read by Nat Sobel of the Sobel-Weber Lit Agency in New York. He sent me a brief e-mail asking me if I had anything longer to show him and I told him I didn’t. He replied that when and if I ever did, to send it to him. I immediately looked him up on the internet and found out he was a legend in the industry. He represented folks like James Ellroy, and Wiley Cash among others, so I sat down to expand my experiment in Flash Fiction into a full length novel. I began to write it every third day at the firehouse (I work shift work as a fireman 24on/48off ) and it took me a year to finish. When I sent it to him, I didn’t even think he’d remember who I was, but he did. He loved the book and took me on as a client. Within a few months, I’d signed a two book deal with G. P. Putnam’s sons. It still feels surreal to me. The book comes out today and my head is still spinning, it happened so fast.
Nat Sobel is a one a handful of agents I am aware who visit our site and others like Shotgun Honey. When he approached you, was there any indication what he saw in those 700 words?
Only that he liked what he read and felt that I had a style that would be commercially viable. I don’t pretend to know what Nat, or any other experienced agent is looking for, and still have no idea what it is that makes one author more attractive than others in a business sense. SH is chock full of the most talented writers I’ve ever read, more so than I consider myself to be, so believe me when I say, if I could put a finger on it, I would, and I’d hold it down for the world to see, but I really think Veterans like Nat go with their gut. That’s also how I would encourage another writer to write his next story, by going with their gut. Damn the rules.
Speaking of rules, on those odd days at the firehouse expanding two short stories into what became BULL MOUNTAIN, did you do much prep work and organization? Or did you fly by the seat of your pants and fill in details later?
I took a couple of days to really flesh out the two main characters, the country sheriff, Clayton Burroughs and the hot shot city ATF Agent Simon Holly. I used music mostly. I wrote notes about Clayton to outlaw country music, rode around listening to that kind of stuff and tried to imagine how he’d act. ( Obviously, there’s a lot of me, in Clayton.) Then I’d crank up a lot of post-punk, and British troubedour shit, like Northcote, Frank Turner, and The Gaslight Anthem to put me in Simon Holly mode. Once I had a good feel on those two, I wrote the entire outline for the novel on one sheet of notebook paper. From beginning to end. I numbered the chapters, and wrote one or two sentences about each. I pulled my crew at the firehouse around the picnic table at work, and read the outline to them, basically asking them if they would read a book based on that sheet of paper. Firemen can be notoriously brutal in their opinions, so when I got an overall thumbs up from those guys, I knew I was on to something. I set that sheet of paper outline down next to my computer and just started to type. I knew where I was going to end up before I wrote the first word, but I wasn’t entirely clear how I was going to get there. I just started digging in and before long the characters began to dictate where the story was headed. I kept that road map next to me for guidance but I watched bit players become major players on their own, and before long the novel had practically written itself. Characters like Kate Burroughs and Bracken Leek dictated me. I’d also like to add that places that are famous for this type of criminal enterprise in places like Virginia and Kentucky are well documented in books and film. Georgia, I can promise, you served as the gateway to the northern states, and kept their shit off the radar. That speaks volumes about the intelligence of a people not looking to get famous…or caught. North Georgia is no joke.
It sounds like you had a lot of support at the firehouse, and I know you’ve got a great group online. How important were these groups in navigating up and down BULL MOUNTAIN?
My crew at the firehouse was supportive as far as giving me the place and time I needed to dedicate to the actual action of writing, and of course they’re my biggest fans, as I am of them. They are the very definition of “Heroes,” but the real backbone of support came from my brothers in the Zelmer Pulp Nation, Ryan Sayles, Chris Leek, and Isaac Kirkman, all of which I met through the online crime fiction community that Shotgun Honey is such a large part of. They were invaluable with their enthusiastic feedback, keen eyes for bad grammar, and most importantly, the pep talks and endless string of ridiculous Facebook messages they provided on days that I was convinced that every word of the book was shit. ZP is a perfect example of how we as writers and creators are supposed to treat each other. The boundaries don’t stop at a professional level. Those guys are my family and I’d bail any one of them out of jail, no questions asked. One founding member of our gang in particular, Chuck Regan, who also doubles as ZP’s resident cover artist, was 100% invaluable to the creation of the Bull Mountain Universe. Not only for his near-genius ability as a content editor and world builder, but as the one man in the group who never held back a punch, even when he knew it would bloody my nose. Chuck is the man that I didn’t want to let down, and he made me a better writer. Period. The love I have for that man is boundless. I challenge anyone out there reading this that thinks they have a perfect novel, to let Chuck give it once over, and if his red pen doesn’t teach you something about what real, honest, character development is all about, I’ll drink a work-boot full of deer piss. Zelmer Pulp is the blueprint for writers’s groups to follow. Go read their stuff on this very site, and it will become even more evident.
They say it’s a small world. So I might be responsible for Chuck, or maybe its just a cosmic coincidence. I’ve known Chuck going on twenty years, and when I connected with him on Facebook I encouraged him to submit to Shotgun Honey. Next thing I know he’s best pals with Sayles. Crazy world. It’s hard not be be pals with the Zelmer crew. They’re a diverse bunch, a lot of different influences. Earlier you said Woodrell gave you a profound moment of clarity, direction. What was that moment, and what other influence molded BULL MOUNTAIN?
Like I mentioned earlier, I’d been struggling to find my own voice for a while. I knew I had some talent, but I was lacking direction. I picked up GIVE US A KISS, and read it in one sitting (it’s pretty short) outside one afternoon in my hammock, and when I finished, it dawned on me that everything I wanted to write about was right there in front of me. My state. The southern foothills. I always wanted to be there as it was. I was drawn there to camp, and ride my bike and felt more at home there then anywhere I’d lived in my life, but never considered writing about it. I imagine Woodrell’s books come through so vividly because he has such an intimate relationship with the place, an not necessarily the characters he’d made up. I was spending so much time thinking about genre and plot lines that I was literally missing the forest for the trees. It’s hard to explain, but I stood up that day and knew exactly what I wanted to be known for. I’ll never forget that feeling. I immediately began to take notice of the backroads, and pig paths that broke off the two lane blacktop I’d driven hundreds of times before to get to my wife’s family gatherings in North Georgia and began to wonder where exactly those backroads led. The stories and ideas began to flow out of that.
So, I should avoid North Georgia? Sounds like a dangerous place.
No way. Not at all. The Blue Ridge foothills around Dillard, and Clayton County (see what I did there) is some of the most beautiful country around. The people are friendly and the food is amazing. Just don’t go poking down them dirt roads that ain’t got no sign on ’em. If people avoided places because they were dangerous, no one would ever leave the house. Remember, Bull Mountain is fictional, but the history is far from it.
Well, I might still tread lightly, especially in Clayton County. I did Google “Bull Mountain GA” just to know where I was keeping clear of, and see there is a Bull Mountain bike trail. I imagine one you’ve ridden before? You’re physically active as a fire fighter, an avid biker, and one tough mudder. Next we’re going to find out you’re a rockstar and Superman?
Well, I prefer Batman to be honest, and the rockstar thing didn’t pan out. I much prefer the seclusion of my office these days to any smokey nightclub. And you nailed it, Ron. I named my fictional mountain after that bike trail in Dahlonega, Ga. The place is known for it’s sprawling vineyards, hiking trails, and boiled peanuts. It’s a country mile from the place I created in it’s name. But don’t give away all my secrets. My Bull Mountain ain’t grown’ no grapes. You ca believe that.
You might not be Superman, but you manage to juggle a whole passel of bad men in Bull Mountain. Can you give the readers the story boilerplate?
It’s the story of a southern family rooted in the North Georgia Mountains that have been providing for themselves and the area’s residents through illegal means for generations. First through moonshine, then marijuana, and now meth in the present day. The sins of the father past down from son to son, until the youngest of the latest generation, Clayton Burroughs, decides to break from the family and become the Sheriff of a small township at the base of Bull Mountain. An uneasy truce exists between him and his brother, Halford, who currently runs the family drug trade, until an ATF officer with a plan to shut it all down comes into Clayton’s office and things get, well, complicated from there. It’s very much a story of family and dysfunction, and loyalty and how the line becomes blurred between right and wrong when blood ties are involved. It’s an exploration into what really define these people. The story unfolds through time starting in 1949 all the way through the present in an old school epic family saga style. I wrote it that way so the reader would understand just how deeply entrenched these characters are to the land and place, and each other.
Bull Mountain is very layered, jumping from chapter to chapter telling the story from different timelines and feeding the readers insight into the Burroughs clan—particularly Clayton, Halford, and their father Garetth—as well as ATF officer Agent Simon Holly. Did you ever find yourself in a corner with a subplot that you had to move the pieces around or leave it out altogether?
As far as cutting anything out, no. Luckily all the story I wanted to tell is in there, but I did do quite a bit of rearranging scenes to cut down on confusion. I also had a world class editor at Putnam ( Sara Minnich) that helped make that happen, as well as helping me flesh out one of the major players. I didn’t set out to write the story in the multi-perspective format, it just kind of dictated to me how it should be written. I needed those stories from the past to enhance the present, and it just sort of came out that way. If I’d have written this book in a more linear fashion, quite a few of the reveals that take place wouldn’t have been able to happen the way I wanted them to. It’s really a love it or hate format, I’m finding out, but there seems to be a lot more love than hate. We’ll see. It’s funny, the follow up I’m working on now, is a linear, straight forward tale, and I’m sure some people will be disappointed that the jumps in time and perspective are missing. You can’t please everyone, just yourself.
You can mark me in the love column, definitely. There was one chapter that showed the brutality of Gareth Burroughs. It was a mean stretch of words, but telling it in the order the way you did gave it so much weight to the end of the book. Of course, it makes it hard to story related questions, so many turns you don’t want to give away. So this is the first of two books. What’s next on the bill? Something related or separate?
I’m so glad you brought that chapter up. It represents something I’m pretty passionate about, and something I think gets a pass in main stream fiction. That chapter was definitely the hardest thing I had to write. I knew it was coming, and I knew it was vital to the story, so it had to be handled right, but I dreaded having to do it, because I needed the reader to remain sympathetic to Gareth despite the heinous thing he does. That scene in particular was one of the reasons I chose to write the book using the format I did. The timing and the execution of it needed to be spot-on for the story to work. I’ve never been a fan of violence for violence sake, I won’t name names, of course, but there are authors out there that seemingly try to shock the reader under the guise of it being “edgy” or “dark”, and then try to out-shock the reader with their next story/book, until before long ,that’s all it is. Shock with no substance. The worst part is normally that violence is against women for the sake of propping up a male hero. I hate that shit. It’s cheap writing, and I wanted to be very careful that nothing of mine drew any comparisons to that kind of garbage. I finally wrote the scene, and then rewrote it, and then rewrote it again several times over, until the violence wasn’t the point. The pain and rage of being born a Burroughs was the point. Hopefully I got that across. Chris Leek, who shares my views of exploitive writing, and whom I consider to be one of the best writers on the planet, told me after reading that scene, that it stuck with him for a long time and really broke him up after, but he understood why it had to happen. His approval was enough for me to feel like I got it right.
The new book is currently on it’s third draft, and tentatively titled LIKE LIONS is a sequel of sorts to BULL MOUNTAIN, but not directly involving the main players. I’ve never been that interested in trying to put my protagonist into a sticky situation and then trying to get him/her out of it in the form of a yearly series. A lot of authors do that incredibly well, but I don’t think I’d be one of them. So the second book has a lot of connective tissue to the first one, but can stand on it’s own with a very different set of themes. The only commonality I want my books to have is the place. McFalls county is the only guaranteed recurring character. The new book will be published by Putnam next year depending on how much surgery my editor, Sara, makes me do. I’ve also plotted out a third novel with that same tie-in feel to the first two that takes a bit player briefly touched on in the new book and puts him center stage. The story also takes place mainly in urban Atlanta. That book is in the “pitch” stage. If I’m lucky enough to continue to have a readership after the first two books, I think this third one will be the biggest risk I’ve taken yet. Because when in doubt, put it all on black, and spin the wheel.
Well, if LIKE LIONS is half as good as BULL MOUNTAIN I don’t think you’ll have a problem pitching that third book. I know I look forward to another visit to McFalls County. I’m a firm believer that good writers are good readers, what books are on your proverbial nightstand?
Since selling BULL MOUNTAIN it’s been tough to read anything. Working under a deadline is a brand new experience for me and it changes your perspective on your work ethic. I did manage to read SOIL by Jamie Kornegay, which was brilliant, but since serious work began on the new book, the only thing I can read for enjoyment has to be way far left of what I’m currently writing myself to avoid subliminal cross pollination, so I’m currently reading THE FOLD by Peter Clines, and the current run of THE GREEN ARROW by Benjamin Percy, but I’ll most likely break down and buy Harper Lee’s book this month and hopefully it won’t keep me from my own work too long.
GREEN ARROW was one of my favorite comics as a kid back in the Mike Grell days. One a handful of comics I’d love to write. What comic book would you want to tackle if given the chance?
It’s funny you mention that particular run, Ron. I’d take anyone I could get, but I do have a pitch ready and waiting for a HAWKEYE story that gives him a Mike Grell Longbow Hunters work over. Burt Reynolds via DELIVERANCE style. That’s a dream project for me that I hope I gain enough clout to at least get someone over there’s attention. I’d love to write a Simon Williams/Wonder Man story too. I’ve always loved that character.
Your takes on the characters would be interesting, and placing Clint Barton in the Georgia backwoods vis-à-vis Deliverance would a mess. Who would be your story’s Bobby Trippe? You don’t have to answer that. How’s it feel to be a Georgian writer on the shelf next to the likes of James Dickey?
I keep waiting to get found out.
Brian Panowich was a touring musician for twelve years before settling in East Georgia with his family. He now works full-time as a firefighter. BULL MOUNTAIN is his first novel.
A strange thing happens when you manage a site like Shotgun Honey where you become intimate with repeat offenders—authors who contribute frequently over the years. The fact that I can say years also gives me an inside look at the growth of many of those offenders. Authors like Joe Clifford, Tom Pitts, Matthew McBride, Matthew Funk, and so many, many talented folks. And when they sign that first contract I feel perhaps as jubilant at their success as they do. It may be misplaced, but I think of them as my friends. Reading their stories, I’ve already been in their heads.
Today Patricia Abbott and Rob Hart are releasing their debut novels with an amazing new publisher Polis Books, headed by author Jason Pinter (The Mark, The Hunter). Their novels Concrete Angel and New Yorked, respectively, share more than a casual relationship with Shotgun Honey, but a nearly devastating publishing history with the now defunct Exhibit A Press, sibling imprint to Angry Robot Books.
The day that it was announced that Exhibit A Press was folding and immediately ceasing publication my gut simultaneously twisted into knots and dropped. I couldn’t even imagine how it felt for the many writers who had signed with them only months before to have their contracts, theirs books ripped out from under them.
Patricia and Rob have taken time to talk about that news and how Concrete Angel and New Yorked found rebirth in the ashes.
Ron Earl Phillips
June 9, 2015
When you heard Bryon Quertermous’ voice on the phone, did you immediately sense it was bad news? I know I did–not just from his tone but from the fact that he had never communicated with me by phone before. And we are friends as well as editor/writer. I went to his wedding. So his voice on that phone sent chills down my spine. Forgive the cliché, but it was how it felt.I appreciate that he called though. That was the standup thing to do and he did it.
Also did you have some sense trouble was brewing before the call. I did here too because time was passing and I was getting no check and no communication. No response to an email or two I sent them.
It wasn’t his voice that did it. He sent me an e-mail, asking me if I was free for a phone call. And I have no idea why, it was a plain, straight-forward message—but it carried such a foreboding sense of dread that I knew something was very wrong.
And at that point, I was so frustrated with Exhibit A—to be six months out of publication with no advance check, no cover, no edits, nothing, clearly they didn’t have their shit together. Part of me was in denial. I thought there was still time to pull things out. But once I got that e-mail, it wasn’t hard to put together what happened.I felt terrible for Bryon, because I could hear how much it hurt him to make that call. I like to goof on him and pretend it was his fault, but the truth is, we all got jerked around and then very unceremoniously kicked to the curb.
How did you cope? I spent a lot of the following week playing video games and drinking whiskey, convinced my writing career was over.
I think our ages played a part in our response to this debacle. Part of me felt relief. I would not have to put myself out there. I would not have to consult Amazon numbers and wonder how to make a book sell. No self-promotion. Although another part of me felt extreme embarrassment. All the people I had told I was FINALLY going to have a book in print would have to learn I would not. After over one hundred shorts I was still novel-less. You cannot imagine how many people, over the last 20 years, have asked, “And when the novel?”
I remembered doing a piece for Spinetingler a few years back about why I didn’t have a novel. And why didn’t I? Was I that wedded to the short story form? Was I some sort of short story guru?
Because after a certain age, the ambition takes a nosedive. You begin to think, “So what?”
So when Bryon called, I was of two minds as I told him on the phone. Part of me was relieved. But part of me was enraged. How dare a publisher have so little sense of their economic situation that they made offers to writers. Does a contract mean nothing?
You had an agent. What did your agent have to say about this? I have no agent so I was on my own.
My agent was great. After the phone call with Bryon I went outside and sat on the sidewalk and called her, and she was just completely on point. I was a blubbering mess. She cut through the bullshit, told me it sucked, yes, but everything was going to be fine, she was going to get to work that very instant, we’d find a new home, and not to worry.Of course, I was so bereft I didn’t believe any of it. Which isn’t a knock against her. I know there’s a lot of suffering in the world and it’s just a book, but in terms of my publishing career, my hopes and dreams for the future, that was pretty much rock bottom. It’s tough to see the light when you’re sitting at rock bottom.
I know what you mean, though, about being embarrassed. Because I work in publishing, so there’s a certain understanding I go into this with–but to have to explain to my parents, and my in-laws, and my siblings, and my friends–it’s tough. You have to tell the same story over and over, which in a way, makes it worse. If you’re like me, who likes to take shit like that and bury it and pretend it didn’t happen.
How did you end up hooking up with Jason after things fell apart?
Well, that was Bryon again. He emailed me, assured me my book was good, and suggested I try Polis Books where he had gone with Murder Boy. I really didn’t want to do it. I envisioned another round of disappointments. But in the end, I figured, what did I have to lose? I had not been diligent in finding an agent nor in finding a publisher. But finally I sent it out to Polis. And, at about that time, another publisher offered to read it too. So now two new people had some interest in it. But Jason was very quick and offered me a two book deal since I had another book ready to go.At every point along the way, I expected the same thing to happen. Polis was very new and had mostly published ebooks. But Jason Pinter seemed on the ball, doing everything in a timely manner. So I began to feel maybe this would work. And so far it has. I continue to be amazed at how professional Polis has been.
What has impressed you most about Polis, Rob?
“Professional” is the right word. Last night I was out at my local Barnes & Noble, talking to the events coordinator about my signing there. And she said something like ‘It’s so nice that you actually have a publicist.’ Which is funny, because Jason is my publicist. And editor, and marketing team, and sounding board, and advocate…The amount of ground that guy can cover blows me away. He doesn’t sleep. He can’t. I don’t even see how it’s possible.
The thing about Polis is that, since Jason came out of the Big Six NYC meat-grinder, he has to tools and experience of a major publisher, with the passion and can-do attitude of an indie. So it’s a great marriage. He’s open to thinking outside the box, and I don’t have to be afraid of going outside the box for fear of offending someone’s delicate sensibility about “the way things are done.”
I want to take a step back to something you said before–yes, you’re a very prolific short story writer. I knew your name and your work before we became imprint buddies. How does it feel, after so many stories, to be standing on the cusp of a novel?
And in my case, I think of him as my agent too! He’s the only one I go to about any issue. And I am stunned at how quickly he answers me. I have heard stories about writers waiting for weeks to get a response from their agent, never mind their editor or publisher. Transitioning from short stories to a novel feels scary most of the time. I never had expectations about people reading my stories. And I was sort of shocked when people had.
But for the first time, I could have more than three characters in the story. And it could take place over a longer period of time. If felt liberating but at the same time worrisome. Did I have enough to say? Was there enough plot/story to fill 300 pages?
In retrospect, I would not recommend writing short stories for very long before trying to write a novel–if that’s your goal. I think in my case that coming out of a writing program where we were encouraged to get our feet wet on short stories was a bad idea for me. My feet were the only thing wet for a very long time.
Did you have a sequel in mind from the beginning? Did you see your character(s) as needing more than one book to tell their story?
New Yorked was intended to be one-and-done. There were other stories I wanted to write, but I loved the voice of the narrator so much, I eventually came to the realization that I could just write those stories using the same character, and make the series about this kid finding his moral compass and growing into a man.And once that dawned on me, the whole series came together pretty quickly in my head. I’m setting the next few books in places I’ve visited that I really loved–Portland, a hippie commune in Georgia, Eastern Europe. With the fifth coming back home. That’s the plan for now, at least. It’s exciting.
The second, City of Rose, comes out next year from Polis–that was part of my deal. Right now I’m nailing down the third one. Noir at a hippie commune. I think it’s going to be fun.
Is Concrete Angel a stand-alone? If no, would you consider writing a series? And what’s next?
That’s interesting. I think you fell in love with your character. You didn’t want to say goodbye because you knew what he would do next. No, my book is definitely a standalone. I was happy to say goodbye to Eve Moran and allow Christine to go to college and raise her brother. Of course, she did show an aptitude for finding evidence in the end.
My next book is called Shot in Detroit. Parts of it have appeared in several publications (as was the case with this one). When both books were written and it didn’t look like they would see the light of day, I began taking chapters out and rewriting them as short stories. Since I came from that background it was pretty natural for me.
Shot in Detroit is about a struggling photographer in Detroit. She finds a way to elevate her craft and gets into a lot of trouble because of it. I hope to have captured the Detroit of about five years ago, before its recent resurgence.
Can’t wait to read New Yorked, Rob. Thanks for sharing your experiences with me. It’s been great fun. And thanks to Shotgun Honey’s Ron Earl Phillips for suggesting it.
Patricia Abbott is the author of Concrete Angel and forthcoming Shot in Detroit (Polis Books). More than 135 of her stories have appeared in print, many of them with Shotgun Honey. She also published two ebooks (MONKEY JUSTICE and HOME INVASION) through Snubnose Press. She lives in Detroit.
Rob Hart is the associate publisher at MysteriousPress.com and the class director at LitReactor. His short stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Thuglit, Needle, Kwik Krimes, Joyland, and Helix Literary Magazine. His first novel, New Yorked, is available now. The sequel, City of Rose, will follow early next year.
So I just finished reading Tom Pitts’ new novella, Knuckleball. It’s a quick read that manages to pack a lot of information in its limited space. We are thoroughly introduced to a handful of characters whose lives will unfortunately intertwine as a result of a tragic shooting. The drama of solving the murder of a police officer unfolds and is then brought to what seems to be a satisfactory conclusion. Except, of course, this is not a glossy version of reality. This is the kind of fiction where truth intrudes more than it ever could in non-fiction. The novella ends on an ambiguous note appropriate to the tone of the entire story. Justice has many faces, and sometimes, those faces don’t fit so well within the parameters of the law. If you’re like me, if you can’t stand tidy endings where little birds land on a windowsill and sing zippety-fucking-doo-dah, you’ll enjoy Knuckleball.
Review by Alec Cizak
No Moral Center