No Moral Center: Knuckleball

0692370773So 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
http://nomoralcenter.blogspot.com/2015/02/knuckleball-by-tom-pitts.html


Interview: Matthew McBride

Cover: A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBrideI often talk about good people, the folks I’ve gotten to know over the last few years from the crime fiction community. Matthew McBride is good people. He is a past contributor of Shotgun Honey, and has had stories with Plots with Guns, Thuglit, A Twist of Noir and others. His first novel Frank Sinatra in a Blender is an inspired work that turns the PI genre on its head. His follow up A Swollen Red Sun has gotten early praise from Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Johnny Shaw and many others.

I look forward to digging into Matthew’s latest, and with the help of Rob Hart and Mysterious Press I am offering an advance reader copy of A Swollen Red Sun to a lucky reader who tells us about their worst job in the comments of this interview. Any comments will be eligible, but the one with a good story will likely have chicken for dinner.

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

Writing anything else would be boring.

Was there a gateway author? A writer or writers that made you want to write works like Frank Sinatra in a Blender and A Swollen Red Sun?

Not really. Growing up I always read a lot, but I never knew a genre such as crime fiction existed. This was pre-Internet, so all I had was our local library, and living in a small town offered a small selection. At one point, like so many other writers, I discovered Elmore Leonard, and I read a few of his books and liked them. But mostly I read King and Grisham and Hunter S. Thompson. Those were three of my favorites.

There are always new inspirations to be found. When did you first start writing?

In high school. I have always known I wanted to write, I just didn’t know what I wanted to write. Or how to go about writing it. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but the idea that some uneducated, small town boy from Missouri could carve a path into the publishing world seemed unattainable to me.

Yet, you did what many are afraid of doing; you quit your job to write. Jump us through that decision.

I built minivans for thirteen years and I hated it. I liked the people I worked with, but I hated the repetitive work of the assembly line. Plus, most of our bosses were assholes. But it wasn’t really their fault. Because their bosses were assholes too, and they instructed them to be assholes toward us. As strange as that may sound, that was their business model at Chrysler. So when they announced they were closing our plant I knew that I was done. “I have one chance to get outta that shit hole,” I said. Because I knew I would not get another. It’s like if I didn’t go right then and there while I could, I knew they would have me for life.

So I quit with no regrets. But now, looking back on those days, my decision was not without consequences. Almost halfway to retirement I went from making thirty dollars an hour to making eight. What I once made in one day I now made in six. And spending almost four years writing a single book was not without its casualties.

So, in the end, was it worth it? I don’t ask that question. You have to move forward and push through the detritus. But I am proud of where I am as a writer; the road to get here was just much harder than I could have anticipated.

Working the hard road isn’t new for you; I remember interviews around the time of Frank Sinatra in a Blender release of you writing on the line and anytime available. Did Frank start on the line or after?

Cover: Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew McBride

I wrote my first manuscript on the assembly line, in between jobs. That one may or may not ever see the light of day. When I wrote Frank Sinatra in a Blender I was working as a tree trimmer, clearing power lines for an electric company. I used a chainsaw for ten hours a day cutting down cedars. On the weekends I also worked security at these MMA fights, and one night this dumb asshole in the front row named Chad [REDACTED] kept jumping up on his seat and yelling, he refused to sit down. So at some point the idea came to me I should write a story about a guy at an MMA fight who kept jumping up on his seat and yelling, who refused to sit down—so the security guard cuts off his legs with a chainsaw to teach him a lesson.

It was completely over-the-top, even more so than it sounds if you can believe it, but people liked the story so much it planted the seed in my head for a detective novel about a PI who drank copious amounts of alcohol, abused pharmaceuticals, and carried a chainsaw.

But A Swollen Red Sun is nothing like Frank Sinatra in a Blender.

So what is A Swollen Red Sun like? Give the readers the pitch.

When my agent pitched the book it generated interest pretty quickly from several big publishing houses—and some of them really loved it. But they said it was too dark. There was graphic drug use and brutal violence. But they’d read it again if I agreed to make changes. Tone it down?

But as far as changing the story, in no way was that appealing. I could not bowdlerize the book. So I said I’d pass on the changes—I wanted to be true to the characters. Even if that meant it would remain unpublished, that was fine with me; I knew eventually we’d find a publisher who loved the book as much as we did, so I stuck to my convictions.

While it is a world of fiction, one thing’s assured: The fallout from Meth ruins lives and breaks people. It’s about the chemical-ravaged heartland of Missouri and the people who were born here. It’s also about the Sheriff’s Department in Gasconade County, where I actually live.

Sheriff’s Deputy Dale Everett Banks is a good man, but he does something bad, which completely goes against his character. Of course, that’s what makes him an interesting character—there’s a lot of depth to him—so you take this good man and you test him—put him in a situation where he’s tempted to do something wrong. And he does. But the audience likes him enough to forgive him for it, because his reasons for doing what he did are genuine.

Then there is Jerry Dean Skaggs: A convict on parole for shooting a bald eagle (among other things), as well as a pot cultivator and a meth cook. He is the epitome of a lowlife scab if ever there was one—there’s his partner, Bazooka Kincaid, fresh out of prison for robbing Cracker Barrel restaurants to finance a derby car for the big fall smashup—but not just any smashup, this was The Firecracker 5000, the Granddaddy of all Demolition Derbies.

He also works on a turkey farm for a boss he’d like to kill.

Olen Brandt is a farmer who has lost everything in his life that is important, now the only thing he has left is the dog by his side, and a son in some prison he may never get out of, for a crime he surely did.

He plows field after field on his Allis Chalmers and looks for a reason to go on living. Somewhere in the pages of the book he finds it.

In the end, everyone’s worlds collide as a result of the choices Banks has made.

It sounds just like my kind of read; I’m a real fan of multiple POV and seeing how the writer brings it altogether. Are there any contemporaries you would compare with the story or your writing?

I’m not one to compare myself to other writers, but I’m sure comparisons will be made.

I suppose that is the job of others isn’t it? Let’s talk mechanics, what’s your writing process? You outline? A note taker? What’s your day look like?

I’ve never outlined anything I’ve written and I’m not sure how you do it, but the idea of writing down what you want to write about before you write about it seems like it would take the pleasure out of writing. For me, the beauty of the art is the discovery of words. My only real goal is to sit down, find the zone, and lose myself in the process. There is minimal note taking, because notes that I take I’ll just lose. It’s a spontaneous course of action. I never know what I’m going to write until it’s written, and I have no idea how something will end until it’s over. If I knew how a book was going to end I would not be able to finish it. Even as I write the last page I’m just as surprised as the reader.

But that’s an interesting question, because every writer has a way that is unique to them, sometimes they just have to find it. Like, last year, when I got smashed at a bar in New York, with my agent, Todd Robinson, and Glenn Gray. We talked about the creative process, and how most of her clients wrote linear—they write page 1, then page 2, and so on—just as the reader would read them. But for me that doesn’t work. The idea of rules just seems boring. I’ll write the end of a book, then the middle, then jump to out to the 3/4 mark, then go back and write a different beginning … then, totally out of the blue, create a new document page and write two new characters completely unrelated to the story and give them five pages and save it and return to the story I’m working on. Then three weeks later write the story up to the part where I throw in these two new characters. So, basically, I write books in scenes. A lot of them having no real frame of reference with the actual story I’ve been telling. I just blend them all together.

It might sound chaotic, but it’s the only way I know.

What is flowing out of the chaos next? Another novel? A new Nick Valentine? More short stories?

Classic Matthew

I don’t like to talk about future writing projects. It’s never a good idea and nothing good can come of it, but I have no plans to write a sequel to either Frank Sinatra in a Blender or A Swollen Red Sun. People ask, but I’ve never wanted to be that kind of writer. I understand people get attached to characters they like and they want to read about them again, but I feel like I need to create new bodies of work. And while I realize a writer that achieves success with a book could make more money with an ongoing series, and for the very reason I just mentioned, that’s just not me. Though it’s nice to get paid—it’s important to get paid, and I’m glad I get paid—it’s still not about money. I’m not even sure why I write, but creating something out of thoughts and words plugs some kind of vacancy that only writing books can fill.

Thank you for the time, but before you leave us do you have any parting words, pearls of wisdom, for our readers and writers out there?

I am not one to offer writing advice and I always feel strange when it’s asked of me, but on the rare occasion that it is, the best answer I can give is the same answer I always give: Don’t be afraid to have fun while you write—and if you know the kind of books you want to write, but don’t know what to write: Read the kind of books you’d want to write, then write the kind of books you’d want to read, so any book you write will be the best book you could write.


Tom Pitts Takes Over

Last week I called up Ron Earl over at Shotgun Honey and asked if I could get some promo in for my new novel, HUSTLE.

His answer? NO. Didn’t even think about it, didn’t even take a breath, he just said NO. Then I tried Irvin. Same thing: Flat out NO. (In fact, Chris may have even giggled.) I thought Jen Conley may be more receptive to my plight.  “Ron already called me,” she said.  She should’ve said Ron already warned me. Another NO.  Maybe Erik would give me a different answer. Hell no. He wouldn’t even pick up the phone. Now that I think about it, he may have slipped me a wrong number back in Albany. Fuck this, I decided. These were the guys that published my first crime fiction piece, the ones that first put me on the printed page; I wasn’t going to take the cold shoulder lightly.

 

tompitttakeover3

I packed my gear—thirty copies of HUSTLE, my Remington pump, a case of Red Bull, a bottle of Jack, and a box of shells—and headed out to their fabled secret lair in West Virginia. It wasn’t hard to find. I just watched for plumes of chemical smoke churning up into the air above the sacred hills that used to be home to the best stills of the worst outlaws in the country. I put my truck in low gear, loaded my shotgun, and took one last hit off the bottle of brown.

After miles of mud and back-road ballyhoo, I found their spot and rode up, ready to kick in some doors and do some shooting, but … the fuckin’ joint had no doors, barely even had walls. This is where the country’s best flash fiction has been filtering through? This is the hallowed hall of acceptance and rejection that so many of the best crime writers submit to? It looked like a fucking meth lab. In fact, except for the pictures of me and Joe Clifford scotch-taped to a makeshift dartboard, it was a meth lab. Not the kind you see in Breaking Bad either, but the real deal. Reggie LaDoux would have been proud of that set up.

 

tompitttakeover4

I wanted to plead my case, sell some books, get my message out to the street, but all I found were some ancient penthouse magazines, warped vinyl records, and fifty gallons of acetone. No computers, no internet. I wondered how Ron Earl et al. were able to keep up their weekly servings of flash. Then I saw it, the secret to their success: a pile of books stacked in a corner beside a rusted metal device that resembled a meat grinder. Gooey, pulpy paper was being squeezed out of the grinder’s holes. It hit me, that’s how they do it. They’ve been taking the best crime fiction and distilling it down into 700-word bites and serving to America as new. Brilliant.  

Well, no way was I gonna let my book, HUSTLE, my baby, fall victim to their scheme. I was such a sucker too; I’d brought a trunk-load of copies of HUSTLE, straight from the Snubnose Press, to use as payment for the promo. All I’d really done was bring fodder for their literary cannon (or meat grinder as the case proved to be.)

 

tompitttakeover

It was just as well. To breakdown HUSTLE, a story so sleazy, so explosive, so action-packed, in their pulp grinder would be too explosive—too much for the reading public. It would have blown the lid off their whole scheme. I had half a mind to leave a few behind, let them find ‘em and see what would happen. It’d serve ‘em right.

Instead, I opted for wrecking the grinder by sticking in some Emily Bronte and Dan Brown at the same time. The result? The thing gummed up and pitched off the edge of the bench it was bolted to. I can only guess it was an act of mechanical suicide.

You’re welcome, America. I’ve made crime fiction safe again for all of us.

Now get out there and buy yourselves a copy of HUSTLE.


Interview: Terrence McCauley

me hatThis week we sit down with Terrence McCauley, a New Yorker with a passion for the past. His ex-heavyweight boxer turned enforcer, Terry Quinn, has appeared in joints like THUGLIT and ATOMIC NOIR, as well as recently released novels FIGHT CARD: AGAINST THE ROPES and PROHIBITION, and most recently in our own flashzine with “The Careful Hunter.” His new book SLOW BURN was released from the newly launched Noir Nation Books.

With so much going on, and he’s support of Shotgun Honey, how could we not help him sell some more books. You will buy his books! So let’s get on with it.

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

I’ve always been drawn to unconventional stories. I enjoy the standard cops and robbers stuff, but I’ve never really wanted to write that kind of fiction. I’ve been in politics and government for most of my life, so I know there are no good guys or bad guys in life. We’re all capable of good and bad given a particular situation. I also didn’t want to write excessively about crooked/bad cops either because I think that’s just as unrealistic. I decided to write about people as they were, warts and all.

I set my Terry Quinn character in the past because I didn’t want to write a contemporary story about contemporary problems. Researching modern criminal and police tactics don’t interest me. Sure, they’re important in real life, but I didn’t want to spend time learning about them for my fiction. I wanted my story to be set in an interesting time period in America’s history in general and New York City history in particular. That’s why I set my story during the Prohibition era. It just naturally evolved into a crime story from there and I’m glad it did.

Our readers, some for the first time, got a taste of Terry Quinn the other day with “The Careful Hunter.” Tells them a little more about Terry, what makes him tick?

Throughout the course of the Quinn books and stories, I do my best to portray him as a guy who is much smarter than he thinks he is. He believes he’s just a thug, but no one really treats him that way. He’s every bit as smart as he is tough – and he’s pretty tough. He has a deep sense of loyalty to Archie Doyle, the crime boss for whom he works and the feeling is mutual. So many mob stories feature some kind of predictable schism between the head boss and the hit man. In the Quinn stories, I didn’t give myself that luxury. If anything, consistent loyalty between the two men has forced me to come up with more creative story lines for them.

Do the Quinn stories take place in our present timeline, or an alternate one allowing you more flexibility? What kind of research goes into setting a story in the Prohibition era?

The Quinn stories are set in the 1930s. The setting provides me with the flexibility to use historical figures and events to pepper my stories. I ignore them or pay attention to them, depending on how I feel they can serve my plot’s purpose.

That takes a lot of research which sounds like a lot of work. It is, but it’s also very rewarding. Research gave me new plot ideas and pushed me in directions I never intended to go. That makes my work better and the act of writing it very exciting.

Sometimes writers put a little of themselves in their characters, anything in former boxer turned PI that reflects you?

Well, Quinn isn’t really a PI. He’s more of an enforcer than anything else. I’d say that if there’s anything of me in Quinn, it’s his grit. I’m a great believer in not giving up on anything until every avenue is explored. My writing career has been like that. A lot of people told me to quit writing period fiction and forget about the Quinn character. They told me audiences want a hero they can admire; a character to whom they can relate. But I knew in my heart Quinn was a good character that audiences would like. He’s a cold blooded killer, sure, but he does it for the right reasons. He isn’t reckless about it and he always has a plan. He’s tough with a purpose and he never gives up. I didn’t give up when all those people told me to do so. Now I’ve got several short stories in print and three books on the market. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of a long career.

Forget the naysayers, who and what venues have given Quinn support? Where can our readers find the short stories?

Quinn has found a home in both short fiction and in novels. Airship 27 published PROHIBITION, a full length Quinn novel and FIGHT CARD: AGAINST THE ROPES is about the end of Quinn’s boxing career. Short stories featuring Quinn have appeared in THUGLIT published by the Honey Boo Boo of Crime Fiction today: Todd Robinson. Those stories are called ‘Lady Madeline’s Dive’ and ‘Redemption’. Matt Hilton’s ACTION, PULSE POUNDING TALES, VOL. 1 featured an action packed Quinn story called ‘Blood Moon of 1931’. Out of the Gutter Books ran a story of a 1950s Quinn in ATOMIC NOIR called ‘A Brave New World’. All of these works are available on Amazon. I’m proud that six different publishers (including Shotgun Honey) have proved the naysayers wrong and seen value in the Quinn character. He’s someone I’d like to write about for a long, long time.

FIGHT CARD is a notable series of boxing stories penned by under the pseudonym “Jack Tunney,” an homage I can guess to Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. Many of our contributors have been “Jack Tunney.” Being part of a series like that, were there any guidelines, rules to follow?

ROPESThe main rule is that the story has to center around The Big Fight in a boxer’s career. That makes sure the reader knows there will be some kind of dramatic payoff at the end. Yes, it’s a theme that’s been done to death in almost every boxing story ever told, but Paul Bishop and Mel Odom have done a great job of building FIGHT CARD into a damned respectable franchise. They’ve featured some of the best fiction writers out there today and I’m honored to be part of it. I encourage everyone to check out the series on Amazon. There honestly isn’t a weak story in the bunch. I’m especially proud of my FIGHT CARD entry because it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.

PROHIBITION from Ron Fortier’s Airship 27 imprint was your first novel featuring Quinn. How did that come about and give us the pitch for PROHIBITION?

ProhibitionFINALaPROHIBITION is about Terry Quinn, an ex-heavyweight contender turned mob enforcer who must use his brains as much as his brawn to find out who is trying to undermine his boss’s criminal empire in 1930 New York City. It is a robust crime drama, filled with memorable historical characters like Mayor Jimmy Walker while portraying the way New York was at the end of Prohibition and the dawn of the Great Depression.

Back in 2008, I submitted PROHIBITION in the running for TruTV’s Search for the Next Great Crime Writer Contest. To my surprise, it beat out over two hundred other manuscripts and won the contest. Borders Book Stores was going to enter the publishing market and promised to not only publish the book, but heavily market it in their stores. Well, we all know what happened to Borders and, well, nothing ever happened with PROHIBITION. Publishers looked at the manuscript and, although they liked it, said no one was interested in period fiction any more. But I took into account their more technical criticisms of the work and revised the manuscript, hoping I’d find a publisher for it one day. If the big publishers weren’t interested, I figured I’d give the smaller presses a try. My agent dropped me at that point and I found Airship 27. Ron loved the manuscript, but told me that it was about 20,000 words too long for him to publish. So, I pulled an Ellroy and edited dialogue tags and other information. The result? I came under Ron’s word limit by a thousand or so words. He hired the great Rob Moran to do original interior illustrations and the cover of the book.

The result is a unique work that really stands out. FIGHT CARD: AGAINST THE ROPES was written in late 2012 as sort of a prequel to PROHIBITION, detailing the end of Quinn’s boxing career, which receives a mention in PROHIBITION.

It must be a thrill after nearly 5 years to see PROHIBITION in print? These last few months have been a big upswing, or should I say uppercut, with PROHIBITION, FIGHT CARD: AGAINST THE ROPES and your third novel SLOW BURN from Noir Nation Books.

Slow Burn CoverIt is a great thrill. Even though I kept getting rejection after rejection, I kept writing. I thought about self publishing for a while, but I’m so glad Quinn has found a home in a variety of forms with a variety of publishers. I also have another Quinn story coming out later this year in Big Pulp. It’s a story where Quinn and Doyle go up against Joe Kennedy. SLOW BURN is different from anything I’ve ever written. It’s told in first person from Charlie Doherty’s perspective. He’s a corrupt Tammany Hall cop who finds himself embroiled in a murder/kidnapping case that involves one of New York City’s wealthiest families. It’s set in 1932 during a heat wave that set the entire city on the edge. Throw in the fact that the Great Depression was starting to hit home and it sets the stage for a good story. I’m glad Eddie Vega decided to publish it as the first in the Noir Nation Books franchise.

Like most writers I know, this wave is a long time coming and has been tempered with juggling real world concerns. What’s your day job, and how and where do you find time to write?

I’m the Manager of Government and Community Relations for MTA Metro-North Railroad. We’re the largest commuter railroad in the country and deal with dozens of communities and elected officials, so I’m kept pretty busy. I find time to write any time I can: on the ride into work, on the ride home, at night and on weekends. Writing has always been a labor of love for me and is my way of relaxing. I enjoy every part of the process: drafting, rewriting, editing and especially the feedback I get on my work. Even when it’s negative feedback, as long as it’s valuable in making me a better writer. Of course, when it’s positive feedback, that’s even better.

What can we expect from you in the future?

While I’ll always love the 1930s and hope to write about that era and Terry Quinn and Charlie Doherty for a long time, I’m always interested in challenging myself as a writer. That’s why I’m currently working on a Western I’m calling THE DEVIL’S CUT as well as a short story for The Big Adios. I’ve also got several other projects in the works, including a modern day spy thriller, a space opera and a horror story I’ve been kicking around for a while. Maybe they’ll flop, maybe they’ll find a home. I don’t have any control over that. All I can do is turn out the best work I can and do my best to improve my craft and entertain my audience. I seem to be off to a good start. Here’s hoping it keeps going.

Terrence, thank you for sitting down with us. One last question before you go, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

My advice to any writer is to just write. Don’t worry about publishing trends. Tell the story you want to tell. Tell it your way and find people who will give you honest criticism. Always be open to improving yourself and never give up.


Interview: Joe Clifford

joeclifford-gray

Last time I had the pleasure to interview Tom Pitts, who has been many things over the years, most recently co-editor for Out of the Gutter‘s The Flash Fiction Offensive. So I thought we’d piggyback Tom’s interview with his co-editor, friend and fellow survivor, Joe Clifford. The men two share many things in common, from writing to recovery to music, but having worked with them both I can say the most important thing they share is themselves. Joe is very candid about his life prior to writing, and his words bleed redemption. While every story, long or short, is as varied as snowflake, they each sing of Joe Clifford.

Aside from being co-editor of one of the best flash fiction sites, Joe has released his short story collection Choice Cuts through Snubnose Press, who is also soon releasing WAKE THE UNDERTAKER, as well as the memoir novel JUNKIE LOVE from Battered Suitcase Press. Joe also organizes an open reading series called Lip Service West featuring stories addition.

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

What gun? Who told you I have a gun?! I have a felony. I can’t own a gun!

Crime fiction, eh? Few things. 1.) My thesis advisor in grad school, Lynne Barrett, pointed out in workshop one day how my stories seemed like they could go noir at any minute. Her words. To which I said, “Wow! Because that what I like to read!” And she gave me a “Well, no shit, that’s how it works” look. And that is what I like to read. Jim Thompson. Day Keene. Chandler, of course. So there’s that. Plus coming from the life I left (junkie, streets, etc.), it makes sense to write about that element; it’s the world I know best. And, also, because I was sick to fucking death of literary fiction. The purveyors tend to be douches. Furthermore, I don’t want to read literary fiction. I’d rather shoot myself in the fucking head than read David Foster Wallace. Even writers I like, like, say, Don DeLillo–I was reading White Noise, and I thought the writing was great, and it was gripping. For a while. Then nothing is happening halfway through the book. I put it down. And who cares? Because there’s no story to finish. Last, there is the community. It’s overly simplistic, but noir writers tend to be nicer, more supportive, less pretentious/elitist. Noir is the story of the common man. I don’t give a shit about lacrosse or rowing or using summer as a verb. Ain’t what I’m about. So all those things combined led me to crime.

You’ve been very open to readers and fans that follow your site about your drug abuse and addiction, and the choices you’ve made to feed the next fix. You’ve written a memoir of that time in your life, JUNKIE LOVE. Can you give us a glimpse of that period?

junkieloveIt’s hard to answer that question without the obligatory, “You’ll have to read the book!” But you really can’t summarize an experience like that. You’re right. I am pretty open about that period, almost to a fault. It’s harder for my wife, I think. Because Justine’s 85-year-old grandmother is going to read a novel called Junkie Love that details how I injected heroin into my neck and stole money from banks and had dirty sex. I mean, she doesn’t have to read it. But there it is. For me, though, I don’t see any reason to shy away from it. I spent so long as an addict, sniveling and ashamed; I’m not going to do that anymore. I made some bad mistakes, and I hurt a lot of people. I’ve got a lifetime of guilt I have to carry on my shoulders. The choices I made in those days weren’t the result of malice. I was young, aching, searching for a place to belong. It seems stupid, often regretful now. I get hate mail occasionally. Some people don’t like addicts, reformed or otherwise. But Junkie Love will get into the particulars more. The whys, wheres, hows. There was still beauty in that life, no matter how dark days got. It’s fueled by the Kerouac mad ones, roman candles and shooting stars, all that shit. The book will be released as a novel (i.e., not memoir) by Battered Suitcase Press in April. If you read it, you’ll see the book is less about drugs and more about just growing up. Plus, y’know, you can see how I met (Gutter Books co-editor) Tom Pitts (hint: we shot dope together in a shooting gallery called Hepatitis Heights).

Whoah, let’s roll back here a minute. The memoir’s a novel now?

The book was originally titled (I shit you not): The Prolonged Accusation of a Goldfish (subheading) The Diary of a Lunatic in Rehab (AKA) The Junkie Manifesto. The original text, written on 8 x 14 ” paper, longhand, a month into my sobriety was part memoir/part time-traveling, science fiction novel. Interspersed with narrative of my drug addiction, which was told in a series of non-linear, unconnected vignettes, there was a rambling, barely coherent plot involving very tiny monkeys on a top secret mission to kill god (small “g”). Obviously no one published that steaming turd (although a copy made it back to San Francisco, where it enjoyed some popularity with the underground tweaker sect. I still get notes, from time to time, how that book changed a life).

Then I went to school and learned how to write. I kept the vignettes as a foundation and then wrote a real book about my drug life around it. The title was changed to Junkie Love. But my agent at the time thought it might be causing us headache since that douche James Frey has gotten caught making up his junkie memoir. So we changed the title to Candy and Cigarettes. When I found out there was another book (by CS DeWildt) called Candy and Cigarettes, I thought it would be a clever to pitch it to his publisher, since at that time I’d parted ways with my agent. I sent my C&C to Vagabondage/Battered Suitcase Press.

They loved it. Wanted to publish it. But I’d have to change the title since they already had a Candy and Cigarettes (“So we were the new Originals…). I said how about Junkie Love? Great, they said. One last thing. Gotta publish it as a novel (since they don’t do memoir). Fine by me. That line between memoir and fiction is blurry with drugs anyway. I mean, I’m not a douche (like James Frey). All this stuff did happen to me. But I streamline trips, conflate characters. The experience is the same, but it doesn’t help the reader (or propel the narrative) to say, ‘Yeah, I got arrested in LA, then went back to CT where nothing happened for three months, then I went back to LA and lived in a shelter.’ Just say I got arrested and lived in the shelter in LA. I am using that as an example. I never got arrested in LA. I got arrested in San Francisco. And Massachusetts. And CT, too, I think.

Arrest records to the side, you’re readers have been able to reap the rewards of your writing. Having read, published and produced your writing in the past, your style is not easy to pin down. What should a reader expect from Joe Clifford?

I strive to be accessible. For me that is the biggest thing. I want a conversation with my readers. It sounds a little corny, I know, but it’s true. it’s the reason I made the switch to genre for the most part. Hardboiled, crime, noir, pulp, whatever you want to call it, it’s more fun to read. Les Edgerton made a comment in a thread the other day, something like, “Now that I am out of school, I don’t have to pretend to like shit I don’t like.” We were talking about our shared hatred of Jane Austen. She’s a good example of the exact kind of writer I don’t want to be. Superfluous layers. Phony, bloated. Comedy of manners? What the fuck is that? Pride & Prejudice could’ve been a fucklot shorter and saved me months of wasted time if Mr. Darcy had just asked the girl on a date on Page 1. Waiting 600 pages to try and get laid seems goofy to me. And it’s not just in writing, this accessibility. I try to do it in my day-to-day life. What do you want? What are you trying to say? Just say it, and then we can move on to the next part. Perfunctory drives me nuts. We have 70-something years (or 50-something if you are my family; the Cliffords are cut down early) to figure out what we’re doing here. Waiting 600 pages for a handjob seems like a waste of time.

600 handjobs in, what was your first published work? Do you look back and think, ‘What a turd, I can’t believe they published that?’

Actually, no. It’s pretty fucking awesome to tell the truth. It’s a…poem…called “Saturday Night in the Waning Days of San Francisco.” It’s a goddamn sonnet, too, dedicated to my ex-wife (it’s on the Internet and my website, easily found). I wrote it for an undergrad class after I sobered up. My professor at the time, Ravi Shankar (no, not that one), suggested I entered it into a contest the CT Review was having. I had so little faith in what I was doing (plus, I’m overwhelmed with any kind of paperwork) that I said, “Nah.” Ravi entered it for me. I won an award, was paid to tour the state as a CT Student Poet.

I don’t write poetry anymore. My first piece of published fiction was “Unpublished Manuscript #36.” I added a number after every rejection. By the time it was taken, it was pretty good (it kicks off my collection, Choice Cuts). Not that I didn’t stumble. My first attempts at novels sucked balls. I’ve mentioned often the first draft of Junkie Love was originally about six monkeys the size of field mice trying to kill god (small “g”). It’s laughably bad in parts. Some parts were good enough though that they made the final cut (Junkie Love comes out with the Battered Suitcase in April).

Honestly, it’s hard to get turds published. I actually once wrote a deliberate turd for a literary magazine, mirroring the crap they published. And, yup, they loved it (and published it). I won’t mention the piece or magazine since that’d be a dick move. But if you look through my published pieces, one stands out not like the others. It’s funny with early writing, the unpolished. It’s a little like rock ‘n’ roll in that respect. The early drafts, cuts, takes can be raw and rough, and later versions smooth and shiny. The latter is more professional. But there is something appealing about the unbridled, untamed energy of the former. Like “Can’t Hardly Wait” by the ‘Mats off Pleased to Meet Me vs. the outtake version from Tim.

Choice Cuts, let’s talk about that. How did the collection come about and what’s the process in cohesively matching stories?

ChoiceCutsAs I was gearing up for the Great American Novel, I was, of course, writing short stories. You don’t realize just how many you have, really. I’d been writing them (seriously) since I started this career back as an undergrad at CCSU after kicking junk. This would’ve been around ’01. And most were duds, so you throw those out. But you’re still publishing a four or five good ones a year when you get rolling. By the time I was ready to publish a collection, I had, y’know, 3 dozen short stories I was pretty proud of. Even though I didn’t make the official switch (not that I ever made an “official” switch; I mean, I never sent in my paperwork) to hardboiled and noir, there has always been an element of pulp in my work; it’s what I like to read (is this a good spot to say “Fuck Jane Austen”? I like to get that into every interview). When Snubnose started doing their thing, I wrote Brian Lindenmuth, Snubnose’s editor, and he said to send what I had. I scrambled to get something together. I had Wake the Undertaker ready (my old-school detective novel that Snubnose is publishing later this month). But it seemed like a good opportunity to get these short stories out, as well. And you’re right. What’s the…theme? We hate that word from school days, but you want some cohesion. Doesn’t have to be a Pink Floyd album, but something to tie the work together as a collective unit. And I found that a bunch of my favorite stories involved meat. I love meat. Got a goddamn grill in my fucking house, built right into the other side of the chimney. Eat a steak just about every day (I weight lift when my back holds up). Meat. Meat market. Human life reduced to nothing but pieces of. Parasites. Hosts. Butchers. Slaughter. Then it was finding the right title. Since all these stories also involve really shitty decisions, the word “choice” came to mind. And there you go.

WAKE THE UNDERTAKER is up next from Snubnose Press, drop our readers the pitch. Why do they need to buy it?

waketheundertakerEvery book is dear its author. This was the first real novel I wrote, and it was born from my first interests, pure in its execution, without the interference of market or viability (which are good things to pay attention to!). Wake the Undertaker is a love letter to my first boyhood obsessions–comic books, superheroes, pulp fiction, and later Chandler, Sin City. It’s based loosely on Chet Baker. Not really. I just saw a before and after picture of him (i.e., the heroin), and got the idea. It’s not about Chet Baker at all. Just how my mind works. The pitch? Something like…

Colin Specter is an up-and-coming singer at The Lone Palm, a nightclub in a darker, alternative San Francisco, owned by the Christos’ crime family. When Colin falls for the wrong girl, they order his vocal cords severed and he is set up for a crime he didn’t commit. After seven years in prison, Colin gets manipulated into working for his former tormentors, while he investigates citywide corruption and delves into the whereabouts of his former love, only to discover that nothing is what it seems in a rain-drenched underworld. The book draws on the rich tradition of noir novels like Jim Thompson’s After Dark My Sweet and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, but is equally influenced by more recent anti-establishment offerings, infusing a fast-paced story with a modern and hip vernacular. Wake the Undertaker’s championing of the disenfranchised and subversive makes it as much Slaughterhouse Five and Catcher in the Rye as it does any Sam Spade, private detective story.

Sounds pretty cool, no? That’s the official pitch anyway. I liked what Les Standiford (my graduate program director at FIU) said: “It’s like the secret life of Batman if Batman wasn’t Batman…”

A lot of influences going on here, tell us who are you reading right now and who should readers be keeping an eye on? Besides you of course.

Y’know, I tout this woman and her writing so much, I really am feeling like a tween with a sparkly vampire on her wall. But Hilary Davidson. I am readying Evil in All Its Disguises on my Kindle right and highlighting damn near every other line, going, Wow, just wow. I think her Lily Moore series is fantastic. The thing is, I am a very male writer. Back in grad school, I was chided for my author list because it contained no woman (until Wuthering Heights cracked the list), so it’s a little strange to identify so much with a female author. I just can’t sing Hilary’s praises enough. Other than that? There’s this cache of noir guys coming up. I mean, you have the guys at the top. Hilary, Todd Robinson, Jordan Harper (Hard Bounce and American Death Songs make the early Best Of ’13 list), but I feel really fortunate to be working for Gutter Books with this current crop of noir & hardboiled authors writing their first novels. I can’t get them all in and feelings with get hurt. But Mike Miner, Mike Monson, Mike McCrary, basically a lot of Mikes. T. Fox Dunham. Nicky Murphy. I am continually impressed by the quality of work we receive.

Last time we interviewed you’re buddy, cohort, partner in crime, Tom Pitts. A lot of commonality between you two, which we’ve touch upon in the questions above. Tell us about your music. 

We really are inextricably linked, aren’t we, Tom and I? It’s rare for one junkie as far gone as we to make it out. Two? Love the man like a brother… My music? I have a band called The Wandering Jews. We are currently in the studio wrapping up our latest, All the Pretty Things. It’s taken me a long time to realize the secret to make a good record. “Get the fuck out of the way, Joe.” My friend Gluehead used to tell me, “You know what you should do, Joe? Write your songs, play guitar so everyone knows what the song is. Then get rid of your guitar.” My wife was listening to the rough mixes the other day, and she was, like, “Which guitar is yours?” I said, “Hear that really, really soft one, way in the background?” Truth is I can play guitar OK. But I can’t play like (WJ guitarist) Joe Dean (Tender, six hundred other local SF bands). I have certain strengths. Play to those. Write, sing. Let everyone else do their jobs. Tom Mitchell (Inferno of Joy) plays bass. Jarret Cooper (Pirate Radio) plays keyboards. And they are total pros. They know how to take the few chords I string together and make it sound like a song. This time we got legendary rock drummer Michael Urbano to play drums. You can look him up. Dude’s been on a string of Top Ten hits. Sheryl Crow. Cracker. Third Eye Blind. You name it. Played with Paul Westberg, my rock ‘n’ roll hero. I am never going back to a regular drummer. Your band is only as good as its drummer. Playing with Michael was insane. Anyway, I mention the Wandering Jews a lot in Junkie Love, so Julie Kazimer (who read an advanced copy) told me I should have a new record up on iTunes for some cross promotion. So we got the band back together, man! Ryan Massey (American Steel, The Reckless Kind) is doing the recording at Sharkbite Studios in Oakland. Just a prince of a man with an incomparable ear…

Well, it’s come to the end. We appreciate the one on one, but before you go, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

Oh, man, just like my MIL, I LOVE giving unsolicited advice on how others should live their life (Kidding. Sort of. Not really)… Every day is a gift, that’s why it’s called…the present? Probably Bob Roberts said it best: Don’t do crack; it’s a ghetto drug.

Thanks for having me!


Interview: Tom Pitts

tompittsMy first experience with Tom Pitts was “A Loaded Question” which he submitted to Shotgun Honey back in October 2011, we pretty much ate it up and published it a few weeks later. That was followed up with a longer story, “Luck,” that he submitted and we published in our first anthology BOTH BARRELS. He has publish stories with A Twist of Noir, Darkest Before the Dawn, Near to the Knuckle, Literary Orphans, All Due Respect and others, plus had the release his first novel PIGGYBACK by crime fiction publisher, Snubnose Press.

From the first story about a routine traffic stop to his novel about a drug dealers tracking down a lost delivery, Tom pulls from dark places that dwell in us all, that he has experienced first hand for the benefit of the reader and the detriment of a life delayed and dreams deferred. His words captivate me, so let’s get on with the interview and let the man speak for himself.

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

Way back in the nineties, when I was strung out on junk but not yet out on the street, I found myself in need of a greater escape than heroin could provide. It was then that I discovered true crime. I devoured endless Mafia books and wound up developing quite a collection. (It was later confiscated by the Feds, but that’s a whole nother story.) It was all true stuff, I had no patience for fiction. I decided that I would write my own book about San Francisco organized crime and set out to become an investigative journalist. I went so far as to call the FBI’s famous Bill Roemer and got him to give me his blessing to call his former partner still active in SF. I got shut down from there and decided to give up and try a novel. Drugs got in the way and I didn’t pick up the pen till 2010. That unfinished novel from the nineties still sits on floppy discs beside my desk.

We are the sum of our experiences, and like you life took a detour, but I found that my writing is richer for the experience. Tell us about your journey back and how it benefited or hindered Tom Pitts the writer?

It’s a double-edged sword as far as the writing goes. On one hand, I was able to experience a darker side of life not many people live to tell about. By the time I was done, I’d taken it about as far as you can go. It’s invaluable in crime-writing to experience criminal life first hand. However, had I not been wasting my life in the dregs, I may have had 20 more years of writing under my belt by now. My mind was sharp then and it has since been dulled by my excesses. The regret of a late start haunts me.

The other catch-22 is the limitation of the experience. I’ve read book by guys who know a great deal about stuff I never will. Greater minds than mine who were able to absorb all of life’s experience. Writers who expound on everything from police procedure to the coming-out parties of New York debutantes. I know nothing of cars, or sports, or foreign lands. I write what I know, and that is scumbags.

As far as the journey back goes, it was a slow one. I’d often professed to be a writer back in the old days, and perhaps because I was a songwriter in a band, people assumed it was true. But in reality, I never really did any writing. I was lost on the treadmill of addiction. When I cleaned up in 2001, I got together with my wife and took on the responsibility of fatherhood–two stepsons, 10 and 5 at the time. That put me on a whole new treadmill. I stayed focused on that until about 2010 when I started writing in earnest. (I got my liver fixed int 2009, perhaps that gave me the proverbial “new lease on life.”)

The novella PIGGYBACK came out last year from Snubnose Press. This was your first published long fiction? How did your experience in the drug world influence this story?

Piggyback coverThe impetus for the story came from a similar situation a friend of mine in “the business” had. The trunk-load of weed gone missing with the two girls, that is. The similarities end there. Where my experiences in the drug world really play in is the characters. One thing I learned committing petty crimes and running drugs is: things never end up the way you think they will. Murphy’s Law. Nobody’s on time, the money never adds up, and your co-conspirators are annoying as hell. People will let you down, there is no code. The fact is, most people in the criminal world are like the book’s character Paul, not the anti-hero, Jimmy.

Characters almost as annoying as dilettante interviewers, I imagine? Some time has passed between questions and since I’ve read an op-ed that touched upon your pet peeve of people assuming writing songs and fiction are similar. I do have to ask though, how has your past life as a musician played towards your writing career?

None really. I’m a strong believer in the rhythm of words, but I don’t think it’s tied to music. It’d be nice to tie music and writing together with a poetic connection, but I think the rhythm of words is part of natural speech. It’s a different rhythm than is required for music. I do make a lot of comparisons of writing to music, though. I don’t believe in heavy re-writes, maintaining it’s the same as thinking you can “fix it in the mix” when you’re recording, stuff like that. The experience did, however, teach me a bit about the business end of creating “art.” The band I was in was signed to an respectable independent label. (Back in the early days when there were only a few of them and they were truly independent.) I think it’s very similar to the publishing business these days. The ability to do-it-yourself has upended the industry. Ultimately, that’s probably a good thing.

For those who may be interested, what was the scene like as a musician? Tell us about the band?

It was the late ’80’s. Pre-Nirvana. Everyone was still traveling in vans, not buses. My band was called Short Dogs Grow and we did okay, considering. We toured the country a few times. I miss those days. I was a great way to see the land. From Miami to Boston, Minneapolis to El Paso, we covered a lot of ground. Shitty gigs, lots of beer. Motel 6 and pizza. It was before the drugs really began to kick my ass. We were lucky enough to play with a lot of the era’s punk rock biggies. Black Flag, Descendants, DOA, etc … We didn’t fit the mold well, though. We were a quirky outfit that were more rock than punk. We released two albums with Rough Trade records and then walked on our contract thinking we could do better. We were wrong.

Do you ever consider turning those early days into a story, either fiction or non? A memoir or a fictional shit storm?

It’s been suggested to me plenty. Truth be told, I didn’t retain a lot of memories from those days. If I ever get a memoir going, some of those days will be weaved in. The reality is: the stories from those days are rather juvenile. Getting drunk during radio interviews and abusing the callers, getting jailed for speeding in Beau Bridge, Louisiana. Scabies in El Paso, going on last at CB-GB’s and telling yourself you’re headlining. It seemed cool to be halfway-wrecking motel rooms, but when you look back, all we did is leave a big mess for the maid to clean. What jerks. (When our bass player Carmela first quit the band, she told us, “I’m tired of living in a van with three adolescent alcoholics who think they’re Led Zeppelin.” Ouch.) When you’re young and in a band, it takes a lot of energy and self-confidence to push it in everybody’s face all the time. All that time handing out flyers and trying to get people to come to shows. Bravado. Sometimes I look back and feel like, damn, I was full of shit. Perhaps it’s like Bukowski said for years before being able to write about growing up in Ham on Rye, “I just don’t have enough distance yet.”

If not memoir of those days, do you have one in the works? A collection of experience from your drug days? I’ve seen the stories you share with Lip Service West. They are humorous and horrifying all at once, you bring a genuine experience to the story with an entertaining flare.

Joe Clifford insists that I assemble a collection of my junkie tales. I counted them up the other day and I think I fall short of a book’s worth. I even added in some good shorts from my bike messenger days–being a bike messenger in San Francisco in the ’80’s, now that was a scene. If I can pen a handful more, I’ll look into putting them out. There’s a humorous quality to them that doesn’t seem to come through in my crime fiction. If you can call accidentally shooting up mouse feces humorous. Right now I’m still trying to find an agent to represent me for my “unsavory” novel, Hustle, and I’m trying to squeeze out another novel as we speak. Between writing and co-editing at the Flash Fiction Offensive, my plate is pretty full.

On the chance there’s an agent or two out there reading this, what’s the pitch for HUSTLE?

Hmmn. The ol’ one-sentence synopsis, huh? Okay, here it goes: When two young hustlers, caught in an endless cycle of addiction and prostitution, decide to blackmail an elderly client of their who happens to be a criminal defense attorney, they find that their victim has already been targeted by a much more sinister force.

Okay, let the bidding war begin.

Between writing stories, editing for The Flash Fiction Offensive, the JOB and family, how do you find balance? What method works you through the writing madness?

Easy. There is no balance. My job is from midnight to eight am. That keeps any chance of balance permanently off-kilter. It’s a constant struggle to carve time out for each and all of the above. Sometimes it seems like it was easier to only have to worry about procuring another twenty dollars for dope. I know that’s not true, but sometimes when I see a poor soul lodged in a doorway, drool running down their chin, I think, fuck, that guy has it made. No worries, no responsibilities … what a life. The grass is always greener, huh?. Of course, I know from personal experience, the poor bastard has to sweat hobbling to the soup kitchen in time on a leg swollen with abscesses, oh, and where to find enough cigarette butts to make it though the night, then there’s still that twenty bucks, and on and on and on. I consider myself lucky to be on the crazy treadmill that is my life.

Thank you for taking time with us, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

I think that most writers become writers to expose us to their view of the world, not because they have some need to create art, to make the world a more beautiful place. Write because of the muse? The muse? You kidding? When you write you have to wake the muse up, kick the sides of her bed, check her pulse, make sure she’s not dead.

Oh, and go buy Piggyback before they run out.

Thanks for everything, Ron. It’s been a pleasure.


Interview: Todd Robinson

robinson

When I first came into this crazy crime addled community I scoped out the alpha dogs, the guys running the show. There weren’t any bigger than Big Daddy Thug, Todd Robinson, founder of THUGLIT and launcher of more than one career. Looking at his magazine, I decided at the moment I was going to be part of that action. As soon as I made that decision, Todd put the magazine on hiatus to focus on what he does best, write. The magazine is back with a vengeance and Todd’s book THE HARD BOUNCE is one of my must haves for 2013 (available for pre-order). Let’s just hope the Mayans were wrong.

So, are we ready for some Thug?

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

I was about 24 years old and working the door at Boston’s legendary Rathskellar in Kenmore Square when I picked up Andrew Vachss’s BLOSSOM and Elmore Leonard’s GLITZ. At the time, I was. It was the first fiction that I’d read where the characters spoke to the world I lived in, that reflected the nature of life at street level without judgment, that accepted those character’s struggles with as much humanity. When I read those novels, my reaction was, “Hey! I know stories like these. I know people like these.” For the record (and since I’ve been asked multiple times already) The Cellar in THE HARD BOUNCE is a not-so-veiled doppelganger for The Rathskellar. Anybody who knew that scene back in the day might even recognize some of the (also not-so-thinly-veiled) characters in the novel.

Job experiences are great to pull from for writing, especially ones that put you face to face with people of all walks. Before we jump into the writing, tell us about your greatest contribution to the writing community? How did Thuglit come about?

thugpirateIn 2004, I was looking at the markets for short fiction, but couldn’t find anybody who was publishing the kind of gritty fiction that I liked to read—that I wanted to write.

By the time I was pointed at Plots With Guns, they had already stopped taking submissions. There wasn’t much of anything else

At the Toronto Bouchercon, I got into a couple of heated discussions with the long-time AARP members that held a stranglehold on the most prominent short fiction markets. They kept complaining that their sales shrank every year; I told them that their audience was dying of old age. I kept questioning them about publishing material that spoke to an audience that wasn’t of my grandmother’s sensibilities, maybe loosening their restrictions on language and sexuality—in other words, adapting for a younger market. Needless to say, they didn’t take my suggestions civilly. And neither did much of the audience, which consisted of mostly residents of what I could only assume was the same nursing home, and cozy aficionados. Basically, by the end, I was told that there was no market for edgy fiction, and if I didn’t like what they did, I should go start my own magazine. I did.

And I think the number of literary awards and accolades that THUGLIT has garnered over the last seven years, side-by-side with what they’ve achieved, speaks for itself.

Reminds me of a conversation I had with a cozy writer on the way home from the St. Louis Bouchercon, a definite generational divide. Not to rehash too much history, but a lot of readers like myself missed the Thuglit the first go around, so give us the highlight reel, the behind the scenes of becoming Big Daddy Thug.

I already had the domain name, which served as a half-assed blog. THUGLIT was my answer to Chick Lit. And a “thuglit” is also a term in the urban dictionary for “a little thug”—a tem I thought was perfect for short fiction in our vein. I just opened it up for submissions on writer forums, Craigslist, and the such. It amazed me how many writers and readers, right off the bat, were so grateful that somebody was publishing their kind of fiction. Two issues in, and we had Derringer nominations and a story in Best American Mystery. It just kinda snowballed from there.

As far as Big Daddy Thug is concerned, it started as a joke. One night at the bar, this drunken bimbo was complaining that I didn’t buy her a round. The owner of the bar, eager to move the screeching harpy away from earshot, waved an okay to me to comp her one. I found a middle ground. I told said Bimbo, that I would buy her a round if she said “Thank you, Big Daddy.” Much to my surprise, she did, resulting in a spit-take from my boss, and a free shit-brand rum-and-coke for Bimbo. Everybody wins! After that, Big Daddy became the nickname for my nasty side, and the nickname has followed me through three different bars now.

So when we started the mag, I thought it would be fun to have noir alter-egos and to have an alternate universe for the editors to play in. Over the years, the core group of our editorial knuckle-headery consisted of Lady Detroit (Allison Glasgow) and Johnny Kneecaps (John Moore); and our guest editors were Caesar Black (Robert S.P. Lee), The Pope of St. Louis (Jordan Harper), Roadhouse (Justin Porter) El Feo (Alejandro Peña), and now, we’ve just added The Blue Dahlia (Julie McCarron) to the core.

A bunch of little thugs showing what you could do. I dig. You and I have some common ground where we both entered as writers and let circumstance evolve us into more. I can’t imagine you expected to be approaching 10 years as a publisher and purveyor of other writers’ works?

I had no intention of being on this side of the desk at ALL, much less for nearly a decade. If you’ve ever enjoyed anything out of THUGLIT, you owe a strange debt of gratitude to the cozy biddies who issued a challenge to a guy that doesn’t take challenge lightly.

Are you a hat wearer? You seem to wear a few of them as publisher, writer, family man and working stiff. How do you manage that balancing act?

Like the old saying goes; “Want to know how to get something done? Ask a busy man.”

I read submissions on my subway ride to work. I’m answering this question while the kid naps (he’s three-years-old) and the wife is at school. I’m working seven bar shifts next week. When the kid goes to bed tonight, I’m designing the cover for the third issue of Thuglit and editing a story. I always feel like I’m behind on something (and I usually am). If I take any time off, even one night, I get anxiety attacks. Oh, and I told my agent that I’d have a new novel in her hands by the end of January.

I may have psychological issues…

You didn’t leave any room write? I get what you’re laying down, every scrap of time is an opportunity. All those stolen opportunities have resulted in your first novel, The Hard Bounce being released from Tyrus Books. You touched on it at the top of the interview, give us the pitch!

thehardbounceI’m a binge writer. I need larger blocks of time to write, but when I do, I fly. I recently got into a conversation with kid who was in the Creative Writing program at The New School and he was curious about my process. God bless the kid—head full of flights of fancy, but also wedged firmly in his own ass. He said that he could maybe get two or three good paragraphs out in a week. I replied that I stitched together three good hours the week before, wrote a 12 page short story, and had it placed in a magazine before the weekend was over. My personal best was 223 pages written in 8 days. I almost had to be hospitalized after, but I did it.

The Hard Bounce…man. Been ten years of rough road on that baby, but it’s finally seeing the light of day. The fucker has been with four publishers, five agents, and has seen more edits than I care to count any more. But I’ve always believed in the book and loved the characters. I still can’t believe most days that the journey with it is almost over (it comes out in January 2013). My only concern is over-hype. I mean, this book has been on some people’s radar for a decade, been so close so many times, and so many people have (God bless ’em) been waiting to see it. But you know what? Honestly? I wrote what I hope is a fresh take in a genre I love. I really hope that people love the ride and feel with the characters as deeply as I do. But I live in fear of that over-hype. I’m not a literary writer. I’m a storyteller. Some people talk to me about it like they’re expecting some ten-year opus of literature. I just want people to have fun with the read. Hope they walk away wanting more of it.

I’m terrible with “the pitch” aren’t I?

Buy the book. I’m pretty sure you’ll dig it.

I really, really suck at the pitch…

Ten years is a long road, ten years of being passed through so many hands and coming so close to publication. During any of that time did you think, I’ve got this brand, Thuglit, maybe I should just do this on my own? Especially with the changes in the marketplace in recent years?

I have considered it. The problem was, years ago, to self-publish was tantamount to career suicide. You couldn’t get reviewed, you couldn’t get in bookstores. Most products that came out of print-on-demand publishers was shoddy. Kindle and E-books were in their infancies and didn’t have the market share that they’ve achieved in only the last three or four years.

Another issue with self-publication is promotion. And when I say promotion—let’s face it—we’re talking money here. If you look at the numbers, a very, very, low percentile of self-published authors reach any kind of success. And those that do, have either invested immense amounts of money in their promotions, or have benefited from publishing the traditional route first—benefited previously from having the stamp of “legitimacy” awarded to their work and had their names churned in front of audiences through the marketing machines of the industry. It really pisses me off to see these “self-publishing gurus”, who have had thousands of dollars spent on publicity by their previous publishers, shit on writers who want the same benefits that the “gurus” enjoyed by starting out on the traditional route—also with editors who helped them refine their craft over the years. Then these fuckwits walk around like they’re self-made and did it all themselves, and everyone else is a pack of idiots for attempting to do it the way THEY did. Pisses me off even more to see their acolytes blindly cheer these egomaniacal jerkoffs on by buying into their bullshit. And I don’t know if anybody else has noticed, but a HUGE number of these loudmouthed “successful” self-published authors jump onto the next “legitimate” publisher that sails by when the opportunity arises. That should say something right there about the problems with doing it yourself.

I still believe that an institutional stigma exists against self-published works, it’s just not as severe. Hell, I have prejudices against self-published work. When I tell people that my novel is coming out, their first question is, “Who’s publishing it?” Most of these people asking the question don’t know Random House from Full House. They just want to know whether it’s self-published or not, since I’m sure that the majority of the time they ask the question nowadays, the answer is going to be “self-published.” Comparably, I self-published a collection of short stories earlier this year, and when I tell people that it’s self-published, I can almost hear the muscles straining under their eyelids as they fight the urge to roll their eyes. The eyes roll a little less when I rattle off the magazines that previously published the stories. The problem is this—when you’re a writer thinking about self-publishing, your opinion is not enough. It really isn’t. While it’s nice to enjoy a self-actualized sense of quality in your writing…you WROTE the fucking thing. If you get an entire industry telling you that something is not up to par in your work, you might want to pay attention, try another angle. A real problem with the relative ease and product quality of the self-published market is that so many of the books writing-wise just aren’t that fucking good. I like to think that the last ten years have taught me a lot, both by giving me room to grow as a writer AND to implement that in my novel as I went along. Looking at the earliest drafts of my novel, I want to fucking puke—and it was almost published. If it had been, either by myself or someone else, it would be in that state forever. NOW, will I look back at The Hard Bounce in another decade and want to puke? I sure hope so. I hope I continue to learn and grow in the craft to that point until every decade makes me want to projectile vomit all over my prior work.

If you want to be a writer…a real writer…then you should learn something from every rejection you receive, try to grow, rather than stomp your feet and just publish it yourself. Being a writer is a fuckload more than just being published.

Are there any new voices come up through Thuglit or other short story venues readers should keep an eye on? Some rising stars?

There are other short story venues???

With the THUGLIT reboot only two issues in, it’s too small a sample size to really determine who’s a rising star just yet. We’ve already published a couple of tales from powerhouse regulars such as Jason Duke, Matt Funk, Mike Wilkerson, Katherine Tomlinson and Pat Lambe. Any one of them could blow up at any time.

Jordan Harper, Hilary Davidson and Mike MacLean and Johnny Shaw are already superstars in their own right, so they get a DQ from “rising star” status.

Justin Porter, whom we’ve published multiple times over the years, just sent off his first novel— which I’m willing to throw money on as being something to watch out for.

But the name that’s already setting off my radar is Terrence McCauley. The guy has submitted only two stories and he’s already got two stories accepted. Even though there’s crossover within the narratives, each story reads at such different emotional/perspective levels that I was legitimately surprised when I realized that both stories were written by the same person. That punk can write his ass off.

Thank you for taking time with us, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

Tell your story. That’s it. Just tell your story.


Interview: John Kenyon

When you think about “Things I’d rather be doing?,” generally it’s a more personal thought. For me that’s how I was introduced to John Kenyon, whose website Things I’d Rather Be Doing acted as a gateway to all things that interest John. Part blog, part magazine, it is an introduction to John’s thinking, manner and style. Since then I’ve gotten to know John through his fiction and his publication Grift Magazine, even shared lunch with John and his interviewer, Chad Rohrbacher, along with some shop talk.

John, a former newspaper man, get’s the tables turned this week with Chad asking the questions.

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

I suppose it all dates back to my Dad and the Hardy Boys. He read them as a boy, so there were some of those iconic blue-spined books passed down when I was a kid, and I devoured those. From there it was a constant progression through to the point where I started reading mysteries as an adult. Lawrence Block was my gateway drug, leading me in all sorts of directions.

As for crime fiction vs. straight-up mysteries, I’m more interested as a writer in exploring the impact of a situation more than the situation itself. The whodunit, while still interesting, doesn’t grab me the way an exploration of the social and economic impacts of crime do.

Tell us a little about yourself. Just a little background

After 20 years in journalism, I have moved to the nonprofit world. Iowa City is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature, and I am the director of the nonprofit that manages that designation. It’s a dream job, working every day to spread the word that books matter.

Can you talk a little about your writing process: computer? Long hand? Dark corner in an office? By candle light? Coffee or whiskey?

Stories usually start out with a scribbled note about a situation, followed by couple hundred hastily banged out words the next time I can get to a computer. Then I’ll pick at it until it feels like it’s going to work. From there, it’s usually late nights working in the home office after everyone’s in bed.

So your collection, “The First Cut,” recently came out via Snubnose Press, can you tell me a little about the collection?

For the most part, The First Cut collects the best of the stories I’ve published over the past five years or so, including a couple that first appeared here at Shotgun Honey. There’s one new story that I didn’t really perfect until it was time to submit the manuscript which is new to the collection, and one decade-old story that appeared in a great regional journal here in Iowa, The Wapsipinicon Almanac.  It’s all crime fiction, save for the last, which was more a stab at literary fiction but which still has sinister overtones that I feel makes it a good fit with the rest.

Did you listen to music while you wrote any of the stories? Is so, what? Did you find them affecting your narrative?

I can’t listen to music with words while writing, so it’s a lot of jazz and instrumental stuff. White Lunar, an album of soundtrack work from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Angelo Badalmenti’s soundtrack to “The Straight Story,” are two that I return to a lot. If I need to get hopped up, I’ll do it with something loud and fast before I sit down.

Were there any specific people, places, or incidents that inspired a story?

For some of them, yes. But in most cases, it would be something small that set my mind to wandering, and it’s the eventual mental destination that led to the story. More often my stories begin with a “what if?” proposition. What if an organ transplant guy had his vehicle break down and had to take the subway? What if a mobster’s attempt to bury a recently deceased colleague didn’t go as planned? What if someone wrongly caught up in the War on Terror decided to exact revenge? I set challenges for myself with these questions and when I have successfully answered, I know I have a story worth keeping.

Can you explore the process of putting the stories in the particular order in the final version? Did it change? If so, can you share some of the choices you made and why.

I knew from the moment that I thought of assembling a collection that I wanted to start with “Cut.” It sets a tone I wanted. It’s dark, but also funny in spots. It also was my first real success, thanks to the fine folks at Thuglit. From there, it was simply a matter of wanting the stories to flow, mixing long and short, dark and funny. I also wanted to end with “The Bluffs,” which is the oldest story in the book. It’s the most different, stylistically, and the longest, and it felt like a good closer.

In this book, there seems to be a real clear throwback to old-time pulp and the late 40s-50s radio thrillers. Do you find those as influences? If so, any in particular?

That’s the first I’ve heard that description, but I’ll take it. Really, my aesthetic is less hard-boiled than that of a lot of my peers (or the rest of the Snubnose stable), and that’s part of it. I suppose as well that it is my journalistic background. I’m used to telling the entire story, and so perhaps my plotting reflects that.

So you have a magazine? What was your thinking behind it?

As I said above, I have a different aesthetic from some people. I love the other publications that are out there, but there wasn’t one that offered exactly what I wanted. The only way to get that, I realized, was to do it myself. I wanted something that offered strong stories as well as some solid non-fiction with essays and reviews. The first issue was something I’m very proud of; replicating that has been difficult. Which leads us to…

How do you balance your editing versus writing work as I imagine both take a lot of time?

If you asked any submitter for the second issue of Grift, they would say I balance it in fairly lousy fashion. It has been a struggle. As I launched Grift with the first print issue this spring, my writing really took off. It was hard to balance the two (particularly when you add in family, job and other pursuits). It’s a matter of being mindful of the need to tackle both jobs. I have a duty to the people who took the time to contribute to Grift, but I have a duty to myself to keep working on my own stories and projects.

The website looks fantastic, so what made you want to also have a print version and not just on-line?

Thank you. I’d like to take the credit, but it’s really just a well-tweaked WordPress theme. As for having one or the other, the print mag idea came first. I wanted a web presence, and then figured it would be a good idea to have news, reviews and flash fiction there as well. That has proven more difficult to maintain than I thought, but it has been a nice way to keep the name out there during the long wait between print issues. Plus, I have had the honor of publishing some great short fiction from the likes of Matthew C. Funk, Andrew Waters, Thomas Pluck and many more.

With the your collection, The First Cut, behind you and the ongoing Grift Magazine, what’s next for you as a writer? What’s your next pitch?

My hope is that my next thing will be a novel. I have one done and edited, and now it is being read by a few friends with the hope of having it polished and ready to send out very soon. It’s a crime novel, but more funny (I hope) than hard-boiled. I’m about halfway through a second novel and have an idea for a third that would be a fairly radical departure. While I’m juggling those projects, I’m working in earnest on a contribution to the Fight Card series of novellas about boxing that should come out early next year.

Thank you for taking time with us, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple — that’s creativity.” – Charles Mingus.


A Wonderful Country

A Wonderful Country
A Darius Cunningham and Ezekiel Fisher story
from the world of PENANCE
U.S. Marine Scout/Sniper Barracks,
Camp Pendleton California, 1979

The new guy dumped his duffel on his bunk, looked around the room.

“So, which one of you assholes used to be the best shot here?” he said. Cocky. The new guys always were.

Nobody said anything, just ignored him. He’d learn. Darius Cunningham headed past him toward the head.

“Damn boy, you’re a bigg’un. And nobody ever put much cream in your coffee, did they?”

Redneck. A lot of the Marine snipers were. Back-country boys that grew up shooting squirrels for dinner.

Cunningham stopped, turned, stared down the newbie for a long moment. Cunningham was 6’4” and weighed 220 pounds. He had very dark skin.

“You need some cream, boy?” Cunningham said finally, grabbing his crotch. “I’ll give you a mouthful.”

The rest of the barracks erupted in laughter. Then the door opened, the first sergeant stuck his head in.

“Cunningham! The CO wants you. Now.”

* * *

Cunningham knocked on the CO’s door.

“Come.”

Cunningham walked in, saluted, stood at attention. Colonel Stocking stood to the left. Two white men in suits sat at the other side of the table to the right of the Colonel’s desk. The man on the left was in his mid-thirties, sandy hair. But he wasn’t in charge. The Colonel wasn’t in charge either. The other guy, the guy with the close-cropped gray hair, the smaller guy in the beige, summer-weight suit with the rep tie, the guy who looked like he was sixty anyway, probably older, but who, Cunningham bet, weighed exactly what he weighed 40 years ago, that guy was in charge. He had his eyes fixed on Cunningham.

Colonel Stocking returned the salute. “Have a seat corporal. These gentlemen would like a word.”

Cunningham sat down across the table from the two men, the older guy’s eyes still locked on his. For a long moment, no one said anything. The Colonel did not join them, just stood by his desk like a guest in his own office.

Finally, the younger man spoke.

“Before we begin, Corporal, I’d like you to read something.”

He slid a beige file folder across the table. Cunningham opened the file and read the five, single-spaced pages. The document summarized various sections of the U.S. Code and the Uniform Code of Military Justice governing official secrets, with pointed references to the penalties for their violation. Terms like treason and capital punishment were salted liberally throughout the text. When Cunningham was done, he closed the file.

“Before we continue this conversation,” the sandy-haired man said, “I need you to understand that everything said in this room is governed by the laws outlined in that document. If you are uncomfortable with that in any way, you may leave now and return to your unit. If you stay, and, at any time in the future, disclose any detail of this conversation, up to and including the fact that it ever took place, you will be subject to prosecution under the terms outlined therein. With that understood, do you wish to continue this conversation?”

Cunningham was listening to the sandy-haired man, but was still holding the gaze of the older man.

“Go ahead,” Cunningham said.

The sandy-haired man nodded.  “On certain occasions, we borrow assets from the military to assist with missions vital to national security. We have conducted an exhaustive review of Pentagon files and believe that you are uniquely suited to assist with such a mission.”

Cunningham finally turned his gaze to the younger man. Blondie.

“Who do you need shot?”

“No one said anything about shooting.”

“I’m a sniper. I’m pretty sure you didn’t fly out here because you want me to alphabetize files.”

“The nature of the mission is classified. You will be briefed on appropriate details once you accept it.”

“You gonna tell me where you want this shooting done?”

“Classified.”

“So I’m supposed to sign up blind, that’s the deal?”

“That’s the deal,” Blondie said.

Cunningham didn’t say anything, just held Blondie’s eyes, but the sandy-haired man wasn’t very good at it, not like his boss. After ten seconds, he looked down, put a leather briefcase on the table, went to pick up the file.

“I think we’re done here,” Blondie said, and started to rise. The older man held up a hand. Blondie froze, then sank back into his seat.

“My name is Fisher,” the older man said. “We’re out of Washington.”

Cunningham turned back to the older man. So far as he could tell, the guy had not moved since Cunningham entered the room. Must have blinked at some point, but if he did Cunningham had missed it.

“And by Washington, you mean DC, not the state.”

“Yes,” Fisher said.

“And by DC, you really mean Virginia. Langley.”

Fisher just smiled.

“How about your friend Blondie here. He got a name?”

“A few of them actually, but that’s not important right now. Right now you are talking to me.”

Cunningham waited, still watching Fisher’s eyes, looking for anything, getting nothing.

“OK, if I’m talking to you, talk. Because this take-it-or-leave-it pitch, that ain’t working.”

Fisher nodded. “First, understand that your choice to accept this mission is completely voluntary. I have made that clear to your Colonel. If you choose to walk away, that will in no way affect your standing in the Marine Corps or any evaluation of your performance, past or future.”

Cunningham let out a soft snort. “Of course not. CO comes out says ‘Hey Cunningham, I need a volunteer,’ and I say ‘You know, I’m kinda busy at the moment,’ no way that comes back to bite me on the ass.”

Fisher offered a thin smile. “We have to be careful about what we reveal concerning our assignments to those we approach before we know they are on board.”

“Puts me in kind of a pickle, doesn’t it?” Cunningham said. “You have me read all this shit about treason and capital punishment and such, pretty much says that, if I talk to you and you don’t like something I say about it later, you get to shoot me any time you feel like it –“

“Lethal injection, actually. Before that it was hanging. No one has been executed by firing squad under the Uniform Code of Military Justice since WWII.”

“Well, that makes it all better then, doesn’t it? And I bet everybody that ever pissed you off and ended up dead, they all got trials, right?”

Fisher just held Cunningham’s gaze.

“Let me ask you this,” Cunningham said. “You say you looked at all the files in the Pentagon, and you want me?”

Fisher gave an almost imperceptible nod.

“Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t have any self-esteem issues. I’m good. But you got at least a couple of guys on this base that can out shoot me, on the range anyway.”

“Not during combat exercises.”

“Got one guy that’s just as good, and he’s seen some combat. I haven’t.”

The older man just nodded.

“Then you got the rest of the Marine Corps, you got the entire U.S. Army – now granted, those are Army pukes and not Marines, so by definition they aren’t actually men, but one or two of those Green Berets might actually have some game, maybe some of those boys from this new Delta group I’ve been hearing about. Then you got your SEALs. Overall, gotta be a dozen guys in my league anyway. So why me?”

Blondie interrupted. “We had you pegged as a warrior, Cunningham. A sharp end of the spear type of guy. Figured you’d leap at a chance like this. I guess we were wrong.”

Cunningham turned to the younger man again, held his eyes until the guy started looking around the room. Then he turned back to the older guy. Cunningham wasn’t talking to Blondie anymore.

Cunningham tilted his head toward Blondie, spoke to Fisher. “That what you need? Some guy that’s going to jump through your hoops because Blondie here pushes his buttons a little?”

“No. That is not what we need.”

Cunningham just waited, holding Fisher’s eyes. Cunningham could do that all day. He was pretty sure the older guy could, too. Not a peep out of the Colonel. Usually, Cunningham showed any attitude, the Colonel would tear him a new one. But now he just stood off to the side like a potted plant.

“Ninaelewa kuongea swahili vizuri kabisa,” the older man said finally.

“Sir –“ Blondie blurted, but the older man just held up his hand again.

“Your accent’s off a bit,” Cunningham said, “but yeah, I can get by in Swahili.”

“Your father was a Kenyan national. An intellectual. Close ties to the British colonial administration. He was targeted during the Mau Mau uprising and immigrated to the U.S.”

Cunningham nodded. “Yeah, land of the free. Got to Chicago in 1959. Got beat up for wandering into the wrong neighborhood in 1960.”

Fisher said nothing.

“So it’s Africa. That’s why you like my file. When I roll out of the rack in the morning and get in the shower, me just standing their naked, I’m already wearing all the camouflage you need.”

“Yes, that’s why we like your file. That and, in Kenya and vicinity, when you get out of the shower, you’ll know how to ask for a towel.”

“What’s wrong? When your buddies at Langley made their recruiting rounds at Yale and such, somehow they forgot to pick up enough brothers to lend the right local color to the SOG?”

“Something like that.”

Cunningham waited for the older man to say more, but he didn’t.

“OK,” Cunningham said. “Suppose I’m in, how does this work?”

“Colonel Stocking puts through the paperwork seconding you for a classified overseas assignment. Your Marine Corps service will continue uninterrupted. You will continue to draw pay at your current rank. When the mission is completed, if you return to your unit, you will be promoted one grade. The paperwork in your file will indicate that you were on an international assignment training of forces friendly to the United States. The location and nature of that training will be classified. For the duration of the mission, you will also draw pay at a GS level equivalent to your current rank.”

“So I get to double dip?”

“You will earn it.”

Cunningham nodded, waited a beat. “You said if.”

“Pardon?”

“You said if I return to my unit.”

“You might die. It has been known to happen.”

Cunningham waited. The older man spoke again.

“Corporal, like you, I started in the military. I have devoted my entire adult life to the service of this nation. I believe, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, that this country is the last, best hope of mankind. And I will do whatever is necessary to protect this nation from its enemies.” Fisher stopped for a moment, still holding Cunningham’s eyes. “In this cynical age, some find sentiment quaint. Others find it laughable.”

Cunningham had heard speeches like that before, and the man was right. The sentiment had always been laughable. But this time it wasn’t funny. And Cunningham had been stared down by white men before, but this time there was no fear in the man’s eyes. There was something else. Cunningham thought it might be respect.

“Do you find that sentiment laughable, Corporal?”

“No sir,” Cunningham said. “I do not.”

The older man nodded. Cunningham waited, but the older man had nothing else to say.

Finally Cunningham spoke.  “So now what? Blondie gives me the file again and I put my John Hancock on it?”

The older man shook his head.  “When you agreed to continue this conversation, our relationship became as official as it is ever going to get. The Colonel will complete any paperwork the Corps requires to explain your absence.”

Cunningham nodded. “When do I report?”

“You leave with us today.”

Cunningham nodded, started to rise. “OK. I’m in. I’ll get my gear.”

Fisher shook his head. “Your gear will be provided. You will not return to your barracks. You will not write home. You will not say goodbye to your comrades. You will leave with us directly.”

Cunningham and the older man held each other’s eyes again. So it was like that. Cunningham nodded, stood and put his hand out across the table.

“You and me, we have an understanding. Will you shake on that? Or is that too official for you?”

The older man stood and took Cunningham’s hand, the shake lasting a count longer than Cunningham expected. When the older man released his hand, Cunningham chuckled a little.

“Is something funny soldier?” Blondie said, puffed up, trying to get some skin back in this game.

“Yeah. All my life, my the color of my skin has been a strike against me. And where I come from, most white men’s nightmares include a nigger who knows how to use a gun. Now I got two white guys in suits begging a nigger to do just that.”

Blondie reddened a little, but the older man just smiled slightly.

“Is this a wonderful country,” Fisher said, “or what?”


Take a Shot: Luke Block on The Ultras, Eoin McNamee

Like good friends and lovers, some books just find you at the right time and when you need them the most. I found The Ultras, a brutal 2004 novel by the Irish writer Eoin McNamee, in a battered and dusty second hand bookstore in my hometown of Gravesend. Sitting alongside the Grisham and the Rankin and the Cornwell, it stood out with its distinctive cover – the burnt out car, corpse-like rotting on the side of a country lane. I had never heard of the author and the blurb wasn’t typical of the thriller genre. It felt much more real.

At the time I was struggling with my first book and I needed something other than the usual crime fiction. A book that would disrupt my routine, challenge me, give me something to take a shot at. This book, coming out of a junk shop on the bad side of town, hit my writing nerves like a shot of pure adrenaline.

The Ultras is loosely-based on fact. During the 1970s the British government was engaged in a war of attrition on the streets of Belfast. Police, soldiers, paramilitaries all spinning webs and setting traps. During this ‘dirty war’ a British soldier named Robert Nairac was killed, supposedly by the IRA, on a dark and miserable night in 1977. Nairac was alleged to be an undercover member of the Special Air Service and there still remains great mystery about his role in the Troubles, including the manner of his death in the woods of County Louth. McNamee uses the violent murder of Nairac, and the subsequent police investigation, to base his story upon.  Who can be trusted in a world where there are no boundaries? The police and the government are a violent cartel and offer us no moral centre. McNamee himself gives us no answers and no security – all of his characters are low-lifers that exist in the shadows, in the smoky corridors of police stations and among the battered population. Everyone is looking over their shoulder and, as the book progresses, we’re drawn further into a noir-tinged world of sad-eyed hookers that are trained as spies. Men boasting and fighting in pubs. The army beating down on a population living in siege warfare conditions.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the police and the army are encouraging and supporting Loyalist paramilitary gangs – the so-called Ultras. This is now a civil war with Nairac emerging as a martyr figure. His body is never found and thus takes on the status of icon.

McNamee’s prose is beautifully stark, even poetic at times, and yet he retains a brutal edge. Especially in the scenes of ultra-violence and menace. Teenagers are shot by high-velocity rifles and maimed from shotgun kneecappings. Brutal punishments involve dogs, ropes and iron bars. The police and the army watch it all from the safety of bullet-proof glass.

The Ultras came at the right time for me and changed the way I write. Now I want my characters to be caught in the moral maze, I want the good guys to go bad at the drop of a bribe. I want to push my plots into different and interesting places.

Like good friends and lovers, The Ultras came into my writing life at just the right time and changed it for the better.


Take a Shot: Ed Kurtz on Death of a Red Heroine, Qiu Xiaolong

While recently browsing a local bookstore with some time to kill, I came upon a display of paperbacks from independent New York-based publisher Soho Crime. I was quick to realize that their line consists entirely of “international mysteries,” meaning crime tales that largely take place outside of the U.S., and the first of the lot to jump out at me was Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. Due to my vague and generally unfocused interest in things Chinese—relegated largely to Hong Kong kung fu and action pictures—I was intrigued by the premise of a Shanghai police inspector trying to solve a murder case in early 1990s China, a time of confusing socioeconomic restructuring and high tensions in the wake of Tiananmen Square. I bought the book, devoured it quickly, and am now working on the third in the ongoing series.

In Death of a Red Heroine, Chief Inspector Chen Cao is assigned the case of a body found in a remote canal, who is revealed to be something of a socialist celebrity—a model worker often lauded in the state press. When evidence points to an “HCC”, a high cadre’s child, Chen experiences as much pressure to drop the case as he does to solve it. Xiaolong is Shanhaiese himself and, like Chen, a poet and translator who has resided in St. Louis (home of his favorite Western poet, T.S. Eliot) since coming under undue scrutiny from the Chinese government. Accordingly, there is much in Death of a Red Heroine that comes off as semiautobiographical, and since Xiaolong writes in English for a Western audience, the book presents a tantalizing mystery wrapped in a salient criticism of the sociopolitical conditions Chinese people have faced from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaoping’s later, quasi-capitalist proclamation to “let some get rich first.”

It has been noted elsewhere the real main character of Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series is China itself, and Shanghai in particular. One need not enter into the novel with a scholarly familiarity with the conditions Xiaolong addresses herein, yet he is masterful in the way he weaves social commentary into Chen’s tense struggle to see justice served without losing face and, potentially, political stability. The Chief Inspector already walks a fine line due to his secondary career as a modernist poet, a politically ambiguous profession that could be used against him at any time should he step out of place. Fortunately for Chen, he develops a network of contacts throughout the city—from a successful restaurateur to a retired cop to triad-connected nightclub owner—who assist him every step of the way lest he get too much dirt on his hands. It makes for a diverse and complex cast of characters from every walk of Shanghaiese life and sets up a satisfying series that feels familiar and comfortable by the time the reader opens A Loyal Character Dancer, the second book in the series.

Inspector Chen moved on from Soho Crime after the third book, When Red is Black; the series moved then to Minotaur Books, who released the seventh entry, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, last May.  Nonetheless, I intend to keep a close eye on Soho Crime even as I rocket through the remaining Chen novels. Scandinavians aren’t the only ones producing top notch crime fiction these days.


Take a Shot: Elizabeth A. White on Jack Kerley

I’ve been meaning for the longest time to write up a post about criminally unknown (in the US at least) thriller author Jack Kerley, but something always seemed to get in the way. So, when Ron and the gang at Shotgun Honey asked if I was interested in doing a post for their new Wednesday feature I figured I should take that as a sign to finally get it in gear.

Jack Kerley, also billed as J.A. Kerley, writes a series set in Mobile, Alabama featuring Detectives Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus. The first three books in the series (The Hundredth Man, The Death Collectors, and A Garden of Vipers) were published in the US to overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, they received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist, yet for some reason the series never really gained a toe-hold with American readers. Readers in the UK and Australia were more welcoming and the series, which recently saw the publication of its eighth entry (Her Last Scream), is a bestseller in those countries. It’s also been translated into ten languages and published in over twenty countries, with The Death Collectors even being voted “Best Foreign Mystery of the Decade” in Japan.

Detectives Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus are the sum total of the Mobile Police Department’s Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team (PSIT), which is sarcastically referred to as “Piss-it” by other members of the force. Ryder is the younger of the two, and much of the team’s chemistry comes from the interplay between his tendencies to be impulsive versus the older, more experienced Nautilus’s reflective, even-keeled approach to both policing and life in general. Though they are first and foremost regular detectives on the force, they are specifically the “go to” duo when a case comes along which demonstrates extreme violence, ritualistic aspects, or appears to be part of a pattern of crimes.

One of the things that makes the team so successful, but which Carson has gone to great lengths – including changing his name and purging family records – to hide from the world, is the fact Carson’s brother is himself a notorious, imprisoned serial killer from whom Carson is able to gain insight about the cases he works. Yes, immediately and unavoidably Hannibal Lecter springs to mind. And while there are inarguably some surface similarities, Kerley has done well to distinguish Carson’s brother, Jeremy Ridgecliff, from Thomas Harris’s well-known character. Most notably, the fact the two are brothers adds a unique nuance to the give and take between them; this isn’t merely a random investigator sterilely picking the brain of a caged monster. They share family, blood, and secrets.

Kerley’s descriptions of Mobile, Alabama are atmospheric and evocative, and he makes full use of both the beautiful and occasionally unforgiving geography that is the Gulf Coast region of the US. Hot, muggy, and prone to spit out massive storms at a moment’s notice, the mercurial weather is as much a character in the books as the detectives themselves. As far as the characters go, from the leads to the bit players they are all well-drawn and believable, with both the cops and killers at times demonstrating appropriately macabre senses of humor. And while the crime scenes are quite descriptive and some may be a bit too grisly for the more faint of heart, it is worth noting that Kerley’s criminals are equal opportunity offenders. The victims throughout the series don’t read strictly like a list of contestants in a Miss America pageant, but actually reflect a cross-section of the population. In short, the series is wonderfully balanced, hits all the right notes, and is one you should be reading if you’re not already.

The complete Carson Ryder / Harry Nautilus series is:

The Hundredth Man
The Death Collectors
A Garden of Vipers (titled Broken Souls in the UK)
Blood Brother
In the Blood
Little Girls Lost
Buried Alive
Her Last Scream

Kindle versions of some of the books, including the first in the series, are available on Amazon, and hard copies of all the books in the series can be ordered in the US though the outstanding indie bookstore Murder by the Book. To learn more about Jack Kerley, visit his website: http://www.jackkerley.com/

Thanks to the crew at Shotgun Honey for giving  me a chance to ramble about one of my favorite, unknown authors. I do hope you’ll check his work out.