Interview: Frank Bill

This week it is a down right joy to bring Frank Bill to the How I Got The Gun? table. Frank, who most of you should know, spent the last few years deep in the trenches unleashing pulse pounding stories of rural Indiana to various print and online presses, building a landscape stark and desolate, and somehow pulling at our hearts with near biblical truths.

Next week those stories are brought together in Frank Bill’s first book, CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA, released by publisher Farrar, Straus and Garoux, and available for pre-order if you are inclined to visit either Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I recommend you buy it. But if my word isn’t enticing enough maybe the interview will have you sold.

Without further ado Frank Bill and How I Got The Gun?

How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?

Two things my father and my grandfather always had, a gun and a pocket knife. That was just part of being a male. Third thing was more than likely a Zebco fishing rod.

I never considered myself a crime writer. But no one would take a chance on publishing my work. I read anything from Hemingway to Larry Brown or Andrew Vachss to Jim Thompson. And from those writers I discovered Tom Franklin, William Gay, Craig Clevenger, Will Christopher Baer and Eddie Little. Those writers made me realize what I could do with language, tone and voice. Those guys really tell an absorbing story. Then if you look at the ladies, A.M. Homes or Dorothy Allison, you ask yourself is this crime or is it literary? Fuck no it’s just damn good writing. And what draws me to those writers is the same thing that drew me to trying the crime venue, class. People getting by the only way they know how, by their gut or their place or situation in life. I can identify with that.

In your book, CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA, you populate your stories with both the working class man and men who live in violence and crime, often pitting the two against one another. Is this built upon your view of class and social issues in southern Indiana?

It’s not so much crime as its survival. It’s the class that has been forgotten after they’ve slaved their lives away. They’re getting by the only way they know how. Take Old Testament Wisdom. When the jobs started to disappear in the 80’s and the farming communities took a hit, a lot of farmers were left with little options. Some decided to use what they knew: farming. They learned to grow marijuana within their feed crops to sell for a big profit. They had mouths to feed. New machinery to buy. Loans at the bank. They were vested in an age old occupation, a way of life. And within this way of life, people who are from the land, had their own way of dealing with or weeding out problems within their communities. Hence the title. And in a sense it is based upon stories I heard growing up within Indiana or maybe I even crossed paths with some of these people. My people, or the people I write about, are those who’ve been ignored.

You start off CRIMES with a dark, powerful trilogy that goes from Hill Clan Cross to These Old Bones and finally All the Awful. Each stands solid on its own, but together it sets an immediate tone for the book. Can you walk us through the creation of these stories?

The Hill Clan stories were a major work in progress. I’d written Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell and Old Testament Wisdom. I had these ideas about the life of  guns. How they get bought by one person. Stored in someone’s home. Then stolen and used for a crime. Passed onto someone else. Maybe sold on the street and end up several states away. That was the original premise of Amphetamine Twitch which when I wrote it was called Flavors of Degradation. It was one huge story or rather a rough draft.

It opened with a house getting broken into. A gun being stolen. Then sold. Ends up in the hands of the Crase family’s boys in another state where a drug deal goes wrong. The DEA are after the Crase family, trace the boys to their fathers and have a big shootout in a hotel and a small town cop is in the mix as well. It was a big multipoint of view story with too many layers. Problem was it needed to sit. And after it did I realized it was too much for a short story. It was actually many short stories. So I broke it apart. I had Amphetamine Twitch and The Hill Clan. After I got finished drafts of each I asked myself, where did these people come from? Who are they? And I wrote These Old Bones. Which lit the flame for All the Awful. And in a sense they were connected to Old Testament Wisdom but I didn’t make that connection till I started working on edits for the book and realized the Hill Clan was blood relation to Jacque and the surrounding terrain of Old Testament Wisdom.

While reading CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA it was a nice surprise to see one or two stories I’d read before like Cold, Hard Love which I enjoyed originally in NEEDLE Vol 1, Issue 2. What other venues have your short stories appeared?

My first published story was The Accident, it was accepted by a place called The Circle Magazine. Then A Coon Hunter’s Noir was published in Hardboiled. Other venues followed, Thuglit, Plots With Guns, Talking River Review, Darkest Before the Dawn, Beat to a Pulp. Needle. And now Playboy.

Images of your readers have been popping up online with the latest copy of Playboy containing the story Hill Clan Cross. The running joke when referring to the men’s magazine is that we read it for the articles, but in truth it has published stories by some of the best literary writers. How’s it feel to be among that exclusive group and how did you manage the gig?

Its pretty damn amazing considering how long I struggled with rejection letters from the Missouri Review, The Georgia Review and even the North American Review. Years and stacks of letters. And now I get to be among writers like Chuck Palahniuk, Thom Jones, Denis Johnson and Hunter S. Thompson. Its an amazing honor. And I owe it to my Editor’s Sean and Emily at FSG, my Agent Stacia at DMLA and Amy at Playboy. Everyone had an influence and a strong belief in my work. Here’s a link to their top ten writers: Top Ten Writers Published in Playboy.

A sweet, sweet redemption indeed after being rejected by such notable literary magazines. Looking back at your other successes, several are online magazines much like Shotgun Honey. Would you describe your experiences contributing and being read by the online community?

Everyone has been very cool. Ben Springer has been a greater supporter but so has Rod Wiethop. He approached me at Bouchercon in Indy several years ago and introduced himself. Told me how much he dug my work. Now he’s one of my closest friends. A real person of the earth. Knows where his people come from. Much like Jed Ayres, Neil Smith, Scott Phillips, Kyle Minor, Christa Faust, Keith Rawson, Gary Lovisi, David Cranmer, Allison and Todd Robinson, Aldo Calcagno, Elaine Ash, Greg Bardsley, Kieran Shea and the list goes on and on. I’ve made some true friends. And you can read some of those first letters of acceptance that I received from editors below.

Frank,

Lady Detroit here, from Thuglit.

I just read your story “Old Testament Wisdom” for the third time and I have to tell you that it’s as powerful a story as any I’ve read anywhere. The cadence in the narrative, it’s damn lyrical, and at times point-perfect. I think your storytelling is striking and am surprised that you are still a “struggling writer.”

That said, I think it would be shame to publish this story just now. Honestly, it needs a good edit. Some of the sentences are so heavy with description, they drive the reader to a halt, especially in the action scenes. Even on a third reading, I found myself retracing steps through sentences to find out what’s actually happening. While you set the atmosphere with your descriptions, there are definitely some that are distracting. There are also a few similes bordering on the cliché and they stick out (not in a good way) amongst your other specifically crafted words.

Basically you are fucking explosion, and it’s pretty damn exciting, but I really feel it could be BRILLIANT if it was tamed a bit. We don’t normally do serious editing at Thuglit because, frankly it’s too time-consuming for a free webzine, but I believe this story really deserves another look. I’ve asked Todd if we could bump your story to a future issue to give you time for another edit and he gave me the go-ahead.

In my readings, I printed a hard copy and marked it up with some edits. If you feel you’d like the extra input from an unbiased reader, I’d be happy to mail it to you. By no means, if you accept, should you feel obligated to my suggestions. You should do always do what you feel is right for your work.

Shoot me an email and let me know what you think.

Either way, it was a pleasure to read.

Allison
ladyd@thuglit.com

Todd Robinson
www.thuglit.com
http://www.myspace.com/thuglit

Dear Frank,

Congratulations! “Trespassing Between Heaven & Hell” has been selected as the THIRD PLACE winner in the Lunch Hour Stories 2008 Short Story Contest. Your prize will include publication (in May 2009), 5 copies of the printed story, a free one-year subscription to the magazine (commencing immediately), and a cash award of $50 (payable upon publication).

Of your story, our judges said: “Trespassing Between Heaven & Hell” kept us on the edge of our seats. The narrative offered a quick start, then held our attention through to the end. The writing is strong, as is the narrative voice, and the story deserves to be read.

A formal packet of information will go in the mail to you tomorrow, but please let me know if you have any questions after you receive it.

Again, congratulations!

Nina Bayer, Editor
Lunch Hour Stories Magazine
www.lunchhourstories.com

Frank,

Well, we are definitely interested in “Rough Company” for PWG. It’s a great story, and you’ve got great style. You also do things that drive us up the wall, some descriptive tics that go way overboard and stick out like sore thumbs. After the last edits, we still had that feeling, but we want to run the story (and we didn’t want to take anything away from your style), so Tom and I looked it over, and we’ve come up with this edited version. Please compare it to your most recent version and see if you’re okay with the changes we made (should be mostly small things, like saying “locks” instead of “hair” way too often, or a few “extra” adjectives taken out).

If you’re okay with it, please go ahead and send a bio and photo (photo is optional), and we’ll get that thing up with the new issue later this week.

All best,
Neil

You’ve built — no earned – quite a community of friends and fans online. How helpful were the online successes to transitioning to traditional publishing?

Very helpful. Making those connections with like minded people, Neil Smith, Jed Ayres, Scott Phillips, Keith Rawson, Greg Bardsley, ect., really helped me out more than they know. I’d written so long in my own little world with little input. It was nice to finally have some light shined in the shadows.  And when I wrote Donnybrook, authors were kind enough to read the early version of the manuscript and blurb it. Which showed support for my work and I think that played a big role in getting published. Meaning I had a fan base.

Last year before you signed your book deal the good folks at Do Some Damage published an excerpt from Donnybrook. After that, I was personally hooked on Frank Bill from that moment. Give our readers a synopsis of Donnybrook.

My agent Stacia Decker, pitched it as Fight Club meets Deliverance. It follows the lives of four men. A small town cop, an ex-bare knuckles champion turned meth cook, a Chinese debt collector and a bare knuckle brawler trying to escape the hills of Kentucky by using his God given boxing skills by setting out for Indiana to fight in a backwoods free for all tournament called Donnybrook. It’s a backwoods story of survival, incest, broken bones, meth, and prophecy. It could be termed as grit lit or manly literature.

Sounds like our kind of literature, that’s for sure. Crimes In Southern Indiana hits shelves on August 30, 2011 and Donnybrook in 2012, what’s down the pike between and after for Frank Bill?

I’ve got two books. One I’m working on when time permits. About 17,000 words or more. It looks to be a very big book and a wild ass ride. The second is based an actual crime family my buddy told me about and no one has written anything close to it. So if I can get my next book finished I’ll pitch both of these. I’ve also got a few other nonfiction ventures but the day job is killing my writing time at the moment.

Juggling two careers will tax any sane man; thankfully for writers sanity isn’t a question. How have you managed to fit writing into your daily schedule?

Up Monday thru Friday between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. punching the keys. Then I write during breaks at work. On the weekends I get up around 6 or 7 am and write till about 1pm. But at the moment, with the release growing closer, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews.

That is a hellava schedule and we appreciate the time you’ve given us. Thank you, Frank. Do you have any parting shots, pearls of wisdom, for our readers?

Write what you dig, not what you think people want. I went back and forth with that for years. Now, I don’t waste words, I write them.


Interview: Daniel B. O’Shea

Welcome to our new interview series “How I Got The Gun?” where we will interview past and hopefully future contributors to Shotgun Honey. The goal to give you insight to the stories, the process and the inspiration of some of the finest, in our humble opinion, writers new and old.

Shotgun Honey debuted with its very first story “Two-Phones” by Dan O’Shea. He likes to brag he was Shotgun Honey’s first, except in more colorful terms. So it seems only fitting that we give him a second chance to be the first again.

How’d you get the gun?

The gun? What gun? You got my prints on it? DNA? Anything? Didn’t think so. You wanna talk about the gun anymore, then ask my lawyer.  Next question.

I didn’t want it to go this way. Play hardball, but we need answers. Get to the root of things. You’ve got a criminal history. Can you tell us about Two-Phones?

Two-Phones started out as a flash-fic thing on my blog, 1000 words set in an airport.  And I got it in my head that the airport is the one place where you really can’t have a gun – or at least where it would be damn hard to sneak one in.  So suppose you’re a hit man who’s just as happy to work without one.  And that was Slim – the main character.  Then, when Shotgun Honey opened, up, I went back to Two-Phones, tightened it up some, and you guys picked it to lead things off.  And that was pretty damn cool.

I plan to get back to Slim someday, give him a longer work out. He’s got more in the tank.

We’ll have to keep an eye out for Slim. A regular MacGyver. Good with his hands. Two-Phones is just one, are there other short bits of crime fic out there?

A few here and there. I’ve got a short called THIN MINTS over at Keith Rawson’s awesome Crimefactory. That one is also in the Noir at the Bar anthology available through Subterranean Books.

Then there’s BLACK FRIDAY, an ode to marital bliss that you can find in the DISCOUNT NOIR anthology, which is a collection of flash fiction pieces all having to do with a purely fictional retailer called MegaMart, which, Untreed Read’s lawyers assure me, has nothing to do, besides some passing resemblance, with any chain of soul-sucking discount stores that may or may not have been founded in Arkansas.

And then there’s THE BARD’S CONFESSION IN THE MATTER OF THE DESPOILMENT OF THE FISHMONGER’S DAUGHTER, in the Spring 2011 edition of NEEDLE, a Magazine of Noir. That little experiment in Elizabethan Noir, a genre that Shakespeare himself started with Othello and which I am trying to revive, got under my skin some, such that I’m now writing an entire novel featuring the Bard himself as an Elizabethan shamus.  If you want to see how that’s going, you can pop over to my blog , where I’m posting chapters of that as I go. I’ve also got audiofiles of a lot of my sort fiction up there, and, well, lots of other crap.

You’ve got quite the rap sheet. A multiple-offender with THIN MINTS. I think you might have missed one with episode 66 Seth Harwood’s CrimeWAV.com where you gave voice to your words. How’d that come about?

I’ve been doing the audio files for my short fiction all along — I always read my work out loud anyway, because I think it’s a great backstop to visual editing.  You get a real feeling for the rhythm and feel of the language.  And back in the day, I used to do some radio, and have even taped some podcasts for my day job, so I figured why not stick the files up on the site?  I mean the ladies do love my pipes (just ask Sabrina Ogden).  Seth Hardwood’s gotten a lot of mileage out of doing audio, and regularly pops new stuff up on CrimeWAV, so when he asked if I’d send him a WAV file for THIN MINTS, that was an easy hell yeah.

I can see how reading aloud is a useful tool of the trade. Do you have any other tools in your kit? Helpful to other crime-minded folks?

Oh man, I dunno. Ask John Hornor Jacobs or Joelle Charbonneau or Frank Bill or any of Stacia Decker’s other clients that have book deals out the ass. I’m reluctant to give any writing advice until there’s some real proof that I’m doing anything right. Chuck Wendig’s got a mess of writing advice for sale on his blog, go see him.

My sense is there are a couple zillion ways to skin this writing cat, if you can get the little bastard to hold still, and any of them can work.  Some folks outline, some wing it, some do a slow-and-steady thousand words a day, some write in binges. You gotta read alot, but everybody knows that. The reading out loud for editing thing, that works for me and I’ve heard a lot of people say the same, so it’s worth a shot.

And you have to find some way to stay motivated through the rejections and the bad days and the dry spells. The trick I’ve hit on for motivation is this whole public novel writing deal. I wrote the rough draft of my last novel, THE GRAVITY OF MAMMON, in public, posting chapters up on my blog as I completed them — a chapter a day for a good stretch of the book. I may not have made a cent yet on the fiction writing business, but I’ve written for a living one way or another my whole adult life, mostly as a freelancer, and I’ve been conditioned to work on deadline. Novel writing doesn’t come with one. So, by making the promise to post as I go on my blog, I’m building in some accountability.  Shame as a motivator, I guess.  I don’t have much of a blog following, but I know there are at least a handful of people out there reading along who are waiting for the next chapter, so it forces me to keep moving the ball.

It worked for MAMMON (and I’ve finally completed a pretty extensive overhaul of that draft and have it in to Stacia, so she should be shopping that around soon) so I’m doing it again for my current WIP, my previously mentioned experiment in Elizabethan noir entitled ROTTEN AT THE HEART, in which our old pal Bill Shakespeare is coerced by his powerful patron into serving as a gumshoe. If you want to follow along, just check my blog each day, or you can catch up on the book to date right here.Hell, it took me something like ten years to finish my first novel, and I did a draft of MAMMON in six weeks. I’m thinking I might have ROTTEN AT THE HEART done quicker than that.  So maybe I’m an exhibitionist — maybe I need an audience in order to work.  Who the hell knows.  I do think, as a group, we writers might have a few more snakes in our head than the average bear, so we each have to figure out some way to tame those to our own ends.

You might not like giving advice, and as you said there are many ways to skin this cat. It’s been helpful to know what works for you. As it turns out for a criminally minded person you’re quite helpful. Is it true you recently had writing challenges on your blog to benefit others?

I’ve hosted a few flash fiction challenges in the last couple of years, but it hit me back in April, when that plaque of tornadoes ripped up a good chunk of the south, that a flash fic challenge might be put to some better use. I guess each of us from time to time is moved to send off some coin to support one cause or another, and when I saw what the tornadoes had done, it seemed like an appropriate time to drop a few bucks on the Red Cross. So I put out a flash fiction challenge asking for stories with tornadoes as a theme, with a promise to send $5 to the Red Cross for each entry.  And that whole thing was a win-win.  Twenty-five entries, so the Red Cross got $125, everybody got to read some kick-ass fiction and I got a little bump in blog traffic.  A couple of folk even kicked in some cash of their own.

So, when I got the flash fic challenge itch again in July, I figured why fuck with a good idea.  This time, the cause was Heartspring, a center for children with Autism in Wichita, where, I will admit in the interest of full disclosure, one of my sons was a resident for several years.  Good people doing good work.  Twenty-one folk signed up, so that was another $105 to a good end – with, again, some of the entrants or other blog frequentees chipping in some cash on their own.  Which reminds me, I foolishly also promised a goody to the author of my favorite story out of that bunch, and I’ve got to finally make a call on that.  Next time, I’m gonna make it a poll, because it’s too damn hard to pick.

I think I’ll stick with the charity model for flash fic stuff. The dirty little secret about the crime fiction crowd is this: the nastier the stuff they write, the nicer they are.  Scott Phillips published his kick-ass novel RUT through Concord Free Press, which gives the books away and just asks that readers make a donation to charity. And he and Jed Ayers put together the Noir at the Bar anthology for the benefit of Subterannean Books in St. Louis, a great indie they wanted to support.

I think it’s safe to say you’ve got a soft heart under that — as has been proven by your recent interview with John Hornor Jacobs — badass exterior. You seem pretty multifaceted, so I have to go back to the first question. How’d you get the gun, or rather what about crime fiction draws you in?

It would be great to be John Updike (aside from the whole being dead part) but that ain’t me.  I resisted the allure of genre fiction for a long time – I guess it was the snob in me. But partly it was just that I read the wrong stuff. I picked up a Mike Hammer novel once, and that seemed like porn for developmentally delayed males who couldn’t bring themselves to look at dirty pictures.  I guess I mentally painted the whole genre with that brush.

But then I ran in to some other stuff. Like the Smiley novels by John LeCarre (ok, I know that’s espionage and not crime fiction per se, but that’s how genre fiction started toying with my corset hooks). And damn, that stuff was good. The stories were compelling, but the characters were still rich and flawed and human and the political atmosphere so compelling, so clearly and cynically drawn that hell, it felt like actual literature, except it was, you know, actually ABOUT something . Then I read some Len Deighton, and I drifted over to Ross Thomas and, well, I was hooked.  I felt like this was something I could actually write.  It took a long time for me to finally get serious about it, but now I’m having a swell time. Here’s hoping I actually sell something some day.

Not a Spillane fan? I guess we all have our crosses. Deighton and Thomas hooked you, what writers inspire you?

I guess that depends on how you mean inspire.  If you mean by their craft, James Lee Burke is a big one. He continually proves you can invest the genre with real humanity and heart, and that the quality of your prose still matters.  I’m a big John Sandford fan, too. Totally different style from Burke, but he consistently delivers. But there’s another kind of inspiration, too.

Folks that inspire me to keep swinging. Guys like John Hornor Jacobs, who’s really more in the horror genre, but who prove that if you keep your head down and work hard, good shit happens. A year or so ago, John and I would routinely chat on Facebook about the various near misses we’ve had with various editors at  various houses, and now John’s sitting on, I dunno, something like a zillion book deals. He’s got editorial flunkies fetching his coffee and groupies sending him pictures of their boobies. Or Joelle Charbonneau, the queen of musical roller-skating, not-quite-cozies. Or Frank Bill, who’s personally creating the literary tradition of Southern Indiana. Or Chuck Wendig, who’s got his fingers in more pies than a meth-addicted baker.  But they all help reinforce the same lessons.  Keep your eyes on the prize and keep your fingers on your keyboard, because it’s the only way anything happens.

You seem to definitely keep your fingers moving. As you mentioned earlier, you’re currently posting a public first draft of ROTTEN AT THE HEART which features an unlikely protagonist, Shakespeare. What was the genesis behind writing an Elizabethan Noir?

That came completely out of left field. My daughter’s college curriculum last spring was heavy on Shakespeare and Milton – a lot of Elizabethan and Jacobean era stuff – and she and I were talking one night, and she asked “What would happen if Shakespeare wrote noir?” And my immediate response was “Othello,” ’cause that’s about as noir as it gets. But all the noir I’ve read has been prose, not plays, and it’s often written in the first person. And that gave me an itch, so I wrote the short story for NEEDLE that I mentioned earlier.

What I noticed writing it was that the faux Elizabethan language isn’t just an exercise in translation, where you think “this is how I would say this in modern English, now how do I fake it in 1590.” Because language doesn’t work that way. Language is the stuff of thought, and when you change the way you talk (or write), it changes the way you think. Most of what I’d written to that point was dialog driven, but this turned out to be far more introspective. Where my style previously had been pretty terse, with a lot of very short sentences and even sentence fragments, this took on a flowing, almost stream of consciousness feel.

Then I caught some reruns of the old Ken Burn’s documentary series on the Civil War, in which they’d frequently read snippets of letters soldiers had sent home from the front. I was struck with the almost universal elegance of expression in those letters, their emotional fluency. So much of crime fiction now is peopled with the uneducated or the undereducated. So the language is sparse and coarse (and should be), but, as a result, so much has to be implied instead of said. I know the sacred cow of writing, and it seems especially crime writing, is to never say in two words what you can say in one. But writing the Shakespeare story left we with the sense that more words sometimes means more depth, more nuance, a more authentic connection with the reader.

So I decided what the fuck, and set out to do a whole novel of it. Which went badly at first — I knocked out two quick chapters last spring that I liked, and then felt completely stymied. I had two problems. One, at the same time I first took a crack at the Shakespeare novel, I was doing a considerable overhaul of THE GRAVITY OF MAMMON (my first online novel), and I think the conflict in style between that and Shakespeare was infecting me with a sort of stylistic cognitive dissonance that was hurting both projects. So I set Shakespeare aside and focused on MAMMON. The other issue was that I really didn’t have much knowledge about he period. I know my Shakespeare pretty well in terms of the plays, but I knew next to nothing about daily life in London in the 1590s, or about Shakespeare’s actual life. So, while I finished MAMMON, I also did a lot of reading about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Then, with MAMMON done, I sat down to give the Bard another shot. And, in the first ten days of writing, I cranked out better than 35K words. I’ve never made that kind of start before, not even close. Now, it’s a first draft, and it’s a complete departure from anything I’ve tried before, so it could be a complete cock-up, but so far it feels right to me.

ROTTEN AT THE HEART seems like an extraordinary exercise in style and concept, and if it is a cock-up, well sometimes you have to write what feels right. We appreciate anyone who is willing to step out of the box and explore what crime fiction can be. Do you have any parting shots for the readers and writers?

Just this. For a lot of wasted years, I either didn’t write fiction or only toyed at it because I had this stupid idea that I was all grown up and had kids and responsibilities, and imagining I was going to be a novelist was like thinking I was going to play third base for the Cubs. I’d dearly like those years back. So don’t piss on your own dreams, and don’t let anybody else do it either. Other than that, I think I’ve pretty much emptied my magazine.