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.


Interview: Peter Farris

I had just gotten to BoucherCon (what another BCon story?) in the middle of panels, just before lunch, not a person I knew roaming about, so I set down and look over my goody bag. That when Pete came up and asked me if I was me and introduced him as he. Or something like that.

My first impression was Pete was a genuinely nice guy. That he was about as bad ass as could be. Was this really the guy who wrote that funny, disturbing Disney Noir? He is definitely multifaceted. As you can see from his contributions to Shotgun Honey: Disney Noir, Tornado Noir, The Traffic Stop, and the microfiction bundles Day Traders 1 and 2.

If he wasn’t already in his own band, I’d call him a rock star and try my lamest Doom Claw.

I’ve wanted to interview Pete since we met, but held off to support his book, THE LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING, not that it needs it. I heard it’s as complex and riveting as listening to Kent and Peter talk about Bee Keeper Noir and Hard-boiled Clowns. It was some fun talk. Now let’s grill this mother.

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

To be honest, I feel like I fell into crime fiction by accident. I wasn’t as familiar with the genre while writing the first draft of LCFTL as compared to now. Sure, I’d read folks like Chandler and James Ellroy, but I was really influenced by southern writers more than anybody else, stuff that carried the “literature” tag even though now that I think about it, William Gay, Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown were dabbling in crime and noir in their own ways. Now that I’ve read more authors in the genre, it excites me just how varied and wide-open crime fiction can be.

About ten years ago I was working as a bank teller when my branch was robbed. That experience made a lasting impression, and when I sat down to write LCFTL about the only thing I was sure of was that it would open with a violent heist. I’d always been fascinated by prison gangs and prison culture, too, which eventually seeped into the novel. When the book sold, I took a step back and figured: you’ve got the Aryan Brotherhood, a bank robbery, cops and convicts…I think you wrote a crime novel, buddy.

It sounds like LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING might just fall under that umbrella. Outside of the bank robbery, what inspired you to write LCFTL? What inspired you to write?

I played in bands for all of my twenties, and was always writing lyrics, but I remember exactly when a friend of mine recommended I read Mississippi author Larry Brown. That was in May of 2002. Brown’s work (and path to publication) inspired me, and triggered what’s since became a compulsion to (try and) write publishable fiction. Up until that point I’d read mainly horror, some of Chuck Palahnuik’s books, stuff like that. Dirty Work was the gateway novel, leading to what’s since become a deep love of regional fiction. More importantly, Dirty Work demonstrated to me how you could tell a complicated, brutally honest story using simple language. That kind of revelation was huge.

My old man is an author, too, and as I get older I realize what a profound influence he’s had on me. Growing up I was always around books, and had the opportunity to see everyday what the life of a working writer entailed. The immersion and concentration required of the gig…and occasional afternoon nap. My father had a bestseller at twenty and spent a lifetime telling stories. If writing remains a vocation or hobby that occasionally brings in a little money, that’s fine with me…as long as the work comes from an honest place. I suppose it really boils down to having an impulse to express yourself. I don’t know why that impulse is there, or where it comes from, but what I do know is if I don’t act on it my mood and outlook go to shit.

Tell us about the bands where you in? Do you think that music influenced the type of writer you’ve become?

I was in a band from Connecticut (CABLE) for approximately eight years. We were a sludgy noise rock band influenced by everyone from Black Sabbath to Fugazi to Waylon Jennings.

One thing that defined CABLE through the years were abstract lyrics that touched on recurring themes…mainly frustration with everyday life and a desire to escape it. We (meaning myself, bassist Randy Larsen and guitarist Bernie Romanowski) always hit certain notes in our lyrics i.e. whiskey, pills, Montana, heartache and broken glass…that sort of thing. But because our vocals were screamed and not sung, it allowed us to write outside the box of your typical rock band verse and chorus. Now that I think about it, our songs were like mini working-class dropout fuck-the-world noirs. We were writing fiction without really knowing it. By simply trying to be creative with what were essentially short prose pieces, I understand now that CABLE inspired me to think in terms of second and third person, in characters and situations and story lines that could be resolved or at least suggested during a few minutes of distorted riffs and balls-out screaming. No doubt that influenced me as I made the leap to short stories and eventually novels.

The Failed Convict (our crowning achievement if you ask me) was actually a concept record about a prisoner who breaks out of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. It was pure coincidence, but around the time I signed the book contract and not long after we cut the record, I realized The Failed Convict and Last Call for the Living shared a sort of creative synergy, so much so that I decided to use Randy and Bernie’s lyrics from the album as epigrams.

So you’ve traded telling stories with music for books?

In some respects, yeah. Putting lyrics to music was the avenue for me that I imagine could’ve been poetry or flash fiction for another writer. Eventually you wind up experimenting with every form, although I admit I’ve never tried to write a play. Maybe one day.

From you, I expect a heavy metal musical, THE DOOM CLAW RISES. Are you still juggling between work, writing and music? How do you compartmentalize?

As for balancing a day job and writing, it’s a challenge at times. I’m not big on word counts but I’ve found the goal of 2-3 pages a day (or night) achievable more often than not. But there are stretches where I don’t write a single word, moments when I simply can’t will a decent sentence. I’m always thinking about writing, though, especially when I’m knee-deep in a new novel. You walk around with those characters. “Mulling time” is what a writer pal of mine from South Carolina calls it. And sometimes a really productive Saturday and Sunday is all it takes to erase from my memory a lackluster work week.

I’ve worked early in the morning and by contrast stayed up all night and never seen the sun. I’m finding as I get older I’m placing more value on consistency and routine. This quote by Flannery O’Connor has become a motto of sorts over the last year: “Just write every day whether you know what you’re doing or not…Sit at yr machine.”

You’ve written a few shorts for us, each different from the other, each successfully entertaining. Do you approach short stories differently than a longer work, like LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING?

Absolutely. I really enjoy writing short fiction. It’s a challenging form but I tend to only write if the mood strikes me. I think that’s one reason my short fiction bounces around, from splatterpunk to crime to Lovecraft-inspired material and even more literary-minded stuff. It’s much more impulsive and I never put too much thought into where I might submit a story or what genre it fits in to. With a novel, however, I know what sandbox I’m playing in from the start.

One of the stories that gets brought up in conversation, and was even nominated for a Spinetingler, is “Disney Noir”. It was brutal, funny, absurd and if the Mouse House cared… well, I don’t want think about it. What’s the story behind the story?

I actually visited Orlando with my fiance and her family. I can’t remember who mentioned it, but the costumed employees came up in conversation…about the tunnels they used to get around the park and also the rumored party culture associated with that line of work. As we were walking around I assumed the guy in the Mickey suit had been on a week-long coke binge and Snow White was banging evening-shift Donald Duck behind Goofy’s back, that sort of thing. I have trouble taking anything at face value so I had to suspect with all these lovable characters there was something dark and sordid going on beneath the surface. Lord knows what’s actually under Disney World. Probably torture rooms and burn pits.

After reading LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING and thinking back to your short “The Traffic Stop”, what is your relationship to the cops? Are you a wanted man? You seemed pretty clued in?

Haha! Nah, I’m a law abiding citizen. Drive the speed limit and even use my turn signals.

I’ve hung out with quite a few cops over the years, and consider one a really good friend. He was an early reader of Last Call and an invaluable resource. Every writer should have a friend in law enforcement.

I think you’ve nailed the hardened criminal and the prison ecosystem, with your portrayal of Hicklin and Preacher. What are you’re top 3 Prison Life movies, why?

American Me and Michael Mann’s The Jericho Mile are at the top of the list for sure. The Jericho Mile is a really touching story, one that manages to humanize a hardened convict while still nailing the unique social dynamic that informs every minute of penitentiary life. Jericho Mile was actually filmed at Folsom Prison and knowing what a student of west coast prison culture Mann is, there doesn’t seem to be a false note in the entire (made for TV) film.

American Me has to be one of the finest and most frightening movies about latino gangs I’ve ever seen, and a dangerous production to be associated with. From what I understand former members of the Mexican Mafia serving as consultants were murdered, allegedly for the film’s depiction of homosexual rape. Writer-Director Edward James Olmos’ life was even threatened. Regardless of whether that particular element is exaggerated or accurate, every other aspect of American Me just drips with authenticity.

Another favorite of mine is Animal Factory, directed by Steve Buscemi and based on the novel by former convict-turned-writer Edward Bunker. Most folks talk about Mickey Rourke’s turn in the film, and it is impressive, but for me it’s Big Fish with a heart of gold Willem Dafoe that steals the show. It’s a nuanced little film with a lot of depth, and one that never is compelled to hit you over the head with stereotypes. Oh, and Danny Trejo is in it. How could you not love Danny Trejo?

My dad is somewhat of a gun enthusiast, to put it lightly, so I have an appreciation. Hicklin’s Mossberg is a beaut. What’s the biggest gun you’ve fired?

I shot a muzzleloader in .45-70 back in the Fall. It was a hand-loaded round, used for large game like black bear although it’d take down a buffalo or elephant of that I have no doubt. After I fired that beast, the rifle’s owner (a friend of my fiance’s father) said I did exactly what everyone else does after they shoot it: laugh hysterically.

With the release of LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING, anyone who reads it is going to what more, so what’s next for Peter Farris?

I just turned in my next novel. It’s about a teenage prostitute who finds sanctuary with an eccentric bootlegger.

I’ll have to put that one on my “To Want” list. Before you go, do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

Listen to Waylon Jennings.


Interview: Frank Wheeler Jr

I remember my first night at BoucherCon this last year, hooking up with Matthew C Funk, Dan O’Shea and the moving party that was Team Decker, named for their astounding agent Stacia Decker. And I asked one of the party goers, “Where’s Frank?” They pointed over in the general direction of Frank Wheeler Jr. and I was confused. He had a beard, but that wasn’t Frank, was it? I was looking for Frank Bill.

Sorry Frank.

The next day, during the bowling tournament, where Frank, this Frank, and Joelle Charbonneau were valiantly anchoring Team Decker (alas not enough to bring home the win). Name on the board was Frank Wheeler.

I would later find out more about Frank and his book THE WOWZER, which after these many months since has launched this week from Thomas & Mercer, the mystery imprint of Amazon.

As I finish up this interview, thumbing my way through THE WOWZER (almost 90 pages in), I can say I am thrilled to support Frank and his debut. Terrific book.

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

I came to Crime Fiction through the side door: Crime Films. I was raised on Hitchcock. This instilled in me a love of watching people do bad things. One of my earliest memories of a sociopathic character is from the movie “Charade.” One of Hitchcock’s lighter films, very jokey in parts, but there are a few very intense scenes. The scene that really got under my skin was where James Coburn is blocking Audrey Hepburn from leaving a phone booth. He wants to know where the money is and she doesn’t know. He begins lighting matches and dropping them in her lap as she cries and screams for help, snuffing them out frantically. He never changes his expression, or tone of voice, for the whole scene. He’s just this calm and steady monster. I thought, “God that’s cool!”

I became obsessed with Scorsese and DePalma films in my teens. I couldn’t get enough of the Crime Genre. In my late teens, when I started thinking of writing as more than a hobby, I kept coming back to murder in my stories. I experiemented with several different types of writing, but they always seemed to be lacking that sociopath. That’s where I got the gun, I guess. Starting with Hitchcock.

I can see the influence of film in your stories. Both “The Good Life” from Crime Factory #7 and “Slick Texas Money” recently from Beat to a Pulp have a cinematic feel, scope. Is it fair to say your writing is more Scorsese than Hitchcock?

Hitchcock drew me in, but Scorsese was a revelation. Two of his films, “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” still rank in my top five movies of all time. Again, it comes back to this archetype of the sociopath. They are the protagonists in so many of his films. For a kid raised in a series of very conservative church congregations that used guilt as the primary instructive tool for their children, that lack of guilt felt by these characters was quite an attractive thing. I really envied these gangsters, these mob guys, that acknowledged no authority higher than themselves. I knew I’d never be one of these guys, but I found that they were the personalities I put into my stories. Even recently, in the novel I’m working on now, I noticed that I’d used that scene from the end of “Casino” where Joe Pesci’s character dies in the cornfield. Also, in the same novel, the slow motion shot of the silenced .45 when Samuel Jackson’s character is executed, this stuff just creeps in. And thank God for that, I guess.

What kind of influence will readers find in your upcoming novel, THE WOWZER? Give us the pitch.

The books that influenced THE WOWZER are primarily Patricia Highsmith’s and Vance Randolph’s. I was reading “The Talented Mr. Ripley” around the time I wrote the short story THE WOWZER is based on. And I’d been reading Randolph’s collections of Ozark dialect and folklore for maybe a year prior while I was working on a different novel set near Fayetteville. In fact, most of the chapter titles are little idiomatic gems I found from his collection of Ozark folk speech. I wanted the readers to feel like they were being told one of those Ozark stories, rather than feel like they were reading a book. The voice, Jerry’s voice, partially came out of that desire. Maybe it was my way of paying homage to my storyteller-uncles from the area.

Patricia Highsmith was who I consulted to make the monster into flesh and blood. In her Tom Ripley novels, she shows how a nice, considerate, unassuming young man may commit the most atrocious crimes, then go right back to being to being that same gentle person. That was important, making Jerry a believable monster. He needed to seem like a guy you’d want to have on your bowling team. But only because of what you don’t know about him.

THE WOWZER, named for the monstrous Puma like creature from the Ozark’s lore, as told to you and likewise your protagonist Jerry, mixes folklore with drug running and corruption? How did you go about mixing legend with fact, or the reality within your story?

I never was told any Wowzer stories by my uncles. I don’t know if they’d ever heard of it or not. But that’s how these things go. Some legends are popular in certain spots and not in others. I found the story when reading Randolph’s Ozarks folklore collections. As for Jerry’s perspective, it’s difficult to separate legend and fact. Sure, he knows the Wowzer is just an old folktale that no reasonable person would believe about a monster in the woods. But a different part of Jerry’s brain knows the Wowzer to be very real. I don’t see this as being in conflict. People can experience the supernatural as real even when they deny its existence. You can absolutely know there are no ghosts in the attic, but you get goosebumps going up there all the same.

Where did the idea for THE WOWZER, tying folklore to crime and corruption, come about?

Corruption was always an important part of the stories I heard growing up. One uncle from Oklahoma would, when driving around the county, point to the political yard-signs and tell me a bribery or cover-up story for every candidate for sheriff, mayor, or city council. Some of my uncles from Arkansas had been heavily involved with labor unions, and they had lots of stories about corruption and the conflicts that came from it. People prey on others. That was a theme I learned early on.

Maybe this means I’m out of touch, but I’m something of a perennialist. I don’t believe people, after millions of years of evolution, are suddenly going to start thinking and behaving differently. Same with the stories we tell. I’d agree with Campbell that the modern stories are ultimately the same old ones we’ve been telling for as long as we’ve had language. And corruption has been a persistent theme. Think about Aesop’s fable of the Wolf and the Lamb. The moral at the end of the story begins: “A tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny…” This was written something like 2,600 years ago. But I don’t mean to suggest I’m seeking justice for any perceived tyranny. I cite this example only to show how pervasive what we call corruption is in human experience. It only makes sense to me: people use whatever means they have to protect their own interests. If someone has more to protect, and also more means, he will certainly be at a greater advantage to do so than someone without.

The word I use is predation. Regardless of the lamb’s objections, the wolf preys upon him. Or sometimes, upon a weaker wolf. Dog eats dog, right? In the human realm, this is when violence is visited on another merely as a matter of business. Nothing personal about it. Just a temporary denial of the other’s humanity in order to accomplish an end believed to be necessary to the one inflicting the violence. When I encountered the work of Niccolo Machiavelli, I got a much better look at this side of human nature. I admired the practicality of Old Nick’s approach to politics. Don’t deal with people as they ought to be, but as they are. What people should be never enters into it. In order to protect themselves, some people find they are capable of denying the imperative to love thy neighbor, which allows them to do the bad things.

I mentioned earlier that The Wowzer is the monster in the woods. Probably that’s the best explanation for the story. This kind of predation, the kind they teach you not to do, is deep within some (I’d argue most) of us. It scares us (some more than others) to think that it’s just below the surface. I believe it’s the same thing, whether the story is several millennia old, or just a few days. The monster in the woods really isn’t that far away.

A well thought out reply. The deeper context of beast in relation to the man is something you’ve lived with for a while, and stirs thoughts for this reader on just what or who the monster, The Wowzer, is? Let’s shift a bit, describe the writer’s journey? How did THE WOWZER become the one, the debut?

I’d written this short story based on a minor character from a different novel I was working on. The protagonist of that story was Jerry. Once I’d begun telling his story, I couldn’t stop. My original intent had been to keep revising the other novel till it was ready for submissions. While writing the third draft, I had to start writing notes for Jerry’s novel. I must’ve written two dozen false starts. Then I took a fiction workshop with my mentor, Jonis Agee, and I convinced her it was time for me to put down the other novel and write the new one.

Grad school was quite difficult for me. See, I’m a pretty slow reader. And having three classes in one semester that require you to read over a hundred pages each week for each one (a lot of it dense critical theory that may as well have been in Greek), also while working at my assistantship, didn’t make finding the time to write easy. Finally I decided to clear aside one day. I picked Saturdays. I made sure I did everything else, homework and otherwise, on the other days of the week. Saturdays I committed to working on Jerry’s novel. That semester, for a few months of consecutive Saturdays, I’d write for twelve or thirteen hours straight. Nine AM to ten PM. I have a shoulder injury from a car accident several years back, and during these writing sessions, my whole left arm would just go numb after a few hours. I’d have to break ,and work the feeling back into it. Eat something. Then go back into The Wowzer. At the end of the semester, I had the first draft.

Jonis told me to clean it up, then send it out. After talking to some people, she got me some names of agents. Stacia Decker read it, got it, said she wanted to represent it. After doing some more revisions, we got it on the desk of an editor at Thomas & Mercer, and he gave it a green light. The rest you know.

A lot of lonely Saturdays that seem to have paid off. Time management is always an interest to me, how writers juggle family, work and/or school. Are you still on your Saturday schedule or are you notching out time in other ways?

It’s very rare now that I can sit down to type for a stretch of time like that. I’m working two jobs now, and when I have a day off, I spend it with my wife. That means I’ve had to learn to steal an hour here, two hours there, sometimes just a half hour, and use it to write. The first draft of the latest novel I’ve been working on was written mostly in the library of the community college where I teach, in the ninety minute gap between two of my classes. But the time I spend sitting in front of my laptop, that’s only a fraction of the time I spend writing. I think a lot of writers may agree with me on this. I’m working on stories in my head whenever something else isn’t occupying my attention. And that’s where much of the creative work is done. When I sit down to type, I’ve already been working on the story for a long time.

I call that tumbling the story around, the internalization and mental dialog that take place during stolen moments of work. Living with the story for a while like that, do you just purge when you write or do you do any kind of outlining?

I always outline, whether a novel or short fiction. I need a map, or I get lost. But part of the beauty of an outline is that it can be changed when necessary. I work the story around in my head for a while, draw some characters, get an idea of where I want to go, and then I sketch it out. But it’s just the major plot points. Only the bare bones. When I sit down to type, I fill the flesh in on the skeleton.

THE WOWZER debuts this week with the support of Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, whose growing stable includes Barry Eisler, J A Konrath, and Shotgun Honey alum, John Rector, plus many more incredible authors. I bet it makes all those lost Saturdays worth it to get this point and be part of a next generation publisher?

Publication certainly does sweeten the deal. But to be honest, I’d be writing this stuff anyway. For me, writing is a way to be a kid again. And the fact that people want to read it, well, that’s like telling the kid he’ll get a bigger allowance if he keeps playing outside after curfew.

Best of luck with THE WOWZER‘s debut. I know I’m eager to open that first page and not put put it down until the end. Before you go, do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

I’m nobody to take advice from. I write fiction for the fun of it, and I don’t care to tell others how to live or what to do. I will say that this novel was a work of pure joy for me. I loved every minute of writing it. That’s not to say it was easy, but it was rewarding. I hope you all enjoy it.


Interview: Heath Lowrance

A gambler, a liar, and a cheat walk into a bar…

Heath Lowrance has been telling stories most of his 40+ years, and like with good whiskey, the stories just get better with age. And let me tell you, Lowrance’s stories go down smooth and hit you with a kick.

Last year, I shared pages with him in Luca Veste’s OFF THE RECORD anthology, enjoyed his debut THE BASTARD HAND, as well as stories from his collection DIG TEN GRAVES. Not to mention we added Heath Lowrance to our list of offenders recounting the story of a “No-account Sonofabitch” last November.

So let’s find out how this man from the South, living in Detroit, got the gun?

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

The same thing that draws me to all good stories, regardless of genre– I enjoy stories about extreme situations, and people behaving in extreme ways. Crime fiction probably does that better than any other kind of story. We sometimes dismiss the idea of melodrama or tragedy, but those qualities are what make fascinating stories, and hardboiled/noir has them in spades.

Were there any writers, present or past, that have inspired or motivated you?

Yes, lots. It’s no secret that I adore the old paperback original writers, cats like Gil Brewer, Day Keene, Charles Willeford, etc. I always go back to them when I’m in need of inspiration. Their modern day counterparts, for me, would be Allan Guthrie, Tom Piccirilli, Ray Banks, just to name a few. There are more great writers around these days than we’ve had since the early ’60’s, so there’s no shortage of choices.

Your blog is called Psycho Noir, where you interview, review and pimp a wide variety of books, authors, and not just crime or noir stories. What does the combination of psycho and noir mean to you? Your readers?

Honestly, I chose the title Psycho Noir only because I liked the sound of it, and the fact that my first novel (THE BASTARD HAND) more or less fell into that genre was a total coincidence. As far what it means, well… I would say psycho noir has everything to do with the protagonist’s state of mind. There’s usually some element of delusion, or a skewed perception of reality that leads him down a very dark, dangerous path. Jim Thompson’s POP. 1280 is a great example, and so is Allan Guthrie’s SLAMMER.

But I find myself moving away from using the terms “noir” and “psycho noir” because, as marketing code-words they’re fairly useless. Your average reader has no idea what you’re talking about when you say them. And the readers who DO know have their very own specific definition in mind already. If I have to hear one more time about how “noir” and “hardboiled” are not the same thing, I think I might snap.

Publisher New Pulp Press released several wonderful books last year, your debut THE BASTARD HAND being one of them. It’s been well received, for those who haven’t read it, can you give us your pitch?

Yeah, New Pulp Press is great, and Jon Bassoff is an absolute pleasure to work with.
THE BASTARD HAND goes a little something like this: A seedy drifter with a tenuous grasp on reality meets up in Memphis with a charismatic preacher bent on booze and women. Together, they travel to a small north Mississippi town, where the preacher, who has a hidden agenda, begins sowing the seeds of discord– all in order to bring down the Wrath of God on their heads. Sex, over-the-top violence and other hijinks ensue.

I’d ask you how you came about writing THE BASTARD HAND, but I doubt a straight answer could be had. So I’ll ask you what do you have in mind for a follow up novel? And when?

My next novel is coming pretty soon from the awesome Snubnose Press. It’s called CITY OF HERETICS. It’s a very different sort of novel than THE BASTARD HAND–a little tighter and meaner. Even though it takes place mostly in Memphis, I’ve moved away from the Southern Gothic thing and into more hard-boiled territory with this one.

You don’t stake your writing to any one particular genre. This last year you wrote two Western novellas Miles to Little Ridge for and from Beat to a Pulp Books, and That Damned Coyote Hill which is currently unavailable. What brought about the diversion?

I just like challenging myself in various genres, I guess. As far as Westerns go, I’ve always liked Western movies but had never read a Western novel until shortly after finishing THE BASTARD HAND. I had an idea for a story that would only really work as a Western, and so thought I should familiarize myself more with the genre before attempting it. On recommendations from James Reasoner and my friend Cullen Gallagher, I was lucky enough to start with some of the best stuff out there. When I realized the rich story potential in the genre, I just sort of went nuts with it and read something like 60 or 70 Westerns in the year that followed. I got excited about it. So you can expect more Westerns from me in the future.

And about That Damned Coyote Hill— it’ll be available again pretty soon, from Beat to a Pulp, along with a second story about the character Hawthorne.

You did a fine job on both. Glad to hear Beat to a Pulp is picking up That Damned Coyote Hill and its follow up. With these various projects going on, what’s your style of writing? Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy?

A little of both, really. I usually start a story with only a vague idea of what it’s about. I just go where it takes me at first. By the time I’m about a fourth of the way in, I’m normally able to figure it all out from there and will do a very, very loose outline of the rest, just so I don’t get lost. But I really think it’s important to keep the outline as loose and open as possible, just so you don’t wind up strangling it to death before it has a chance at life.

My wife and I have been watching that show “The Dog Whisperer”, and writing fiction is a lot like walking a dog– you have to let the mutt explore a little bit, but you also have to hold tight to the leash and let it know YOU are the boss.

You must have a well behaved dog. Not only keeping yourself on point with various genres, you wrangle your stories well regardless of length. Are there any different challenges to writing a success short story as opposed to novel length prose?

I think so. Short stories are more unforgiving. They need to be a tight, cohesive set of scenes, far more so than a novel. There’s no room to mess around– you have to go right for the jugular, whereas with novels you can toy with your prey a bit more, bat it around and taunt it. A short story shouldn’t allow anything extemporaneous. I think that’s why a good short story is able to shake us up and leave us slack-jawed, a much different feeling than finishing a good novel.

In fact, I find myself moving toward that philosophy with novel-length stuff as well these days. I think THE BASTARD HAND meandered a bit (in a good way) but CITY OF HERETICS and my other stuff since then are different. Short, fast, savage.

What’s been your most challenging story to tell and why?

I’d say the one I’m working on at the moment, actually. I’m closing in on finishing it, but it’s taken waaay too long and has been amazingly difficult to pull off. It’s a commissioned novella, and it gets hard for me when I know there’s someone waiting for it. I freeze up for some reason, start worrying about whether it’s good enough. That’s a character flaw for a writer that I’m working on fixing. But I think, for all that, I like that it’s something different for me and it’s been a rewarding experience. But every story you write has its own set of challenges, right?

There’s a lot of truth to that. What fun would a story be if it weren’t a challenge? None for you equals none for the reader, I’d imagine? As a reader, who are you reading right now?

I’m just finished up James Reasoner’s collection, TEXAS RANGERS. After that, I’ve got A DIET OF TREACLE lined up, by Lawrence Block. Then maybe an old Elmore Leonard Western called GUNSIGHTS. I just came off a month long non-fiction binge, though– read this great history of the 1930’s called THE DARK VALLEY, by Piers Brendon. About twice a year I get the non-fiction itch and will read five or six before getting back to fiction.

Sounds like wonderful fodder, both fiction and non, to nourish the creative brain. Give us one last bite, do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

Words of wisdom? Not really. Keep kicking against the pricks? Question authority? Be cool?

The only thing I’ve learned in my 47 years is that there are no platitudes or words of wisdom that stand up to deep scrutiny. So to hell with it.


Interview: Nigel Bird

One of the beauties of being part of the Shotgun Honey team, of the internet in general, is having had the privilege of “rubbing” shoulders with writers from around the world, and a true gentleman like Nigel Bird.

I first “met” Nigel when he caught one of my first stories online and did the darnedest thing — he invited me to participate in in his Dancing With Myself series of self-interviews. I was nobody, but Nigel said, and I paraphrase, it’s not what you’ve written or read, but that you love the genre. It was something like that and I was gobsmacked.

Since then, Nigel has released three outstanding short story collections, edited and/or contributed to a half-a-dozen anthologies, not to mention been part of a fantastic British Invasion we’ve had going on here at Shotgun Honey.

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

My first gun was a ray gun.  Built to shoot aliens.  It came in the back of a tricycle that Santa left for me one year, next to my astronaut suit.  It gave me big dreams.  And saved the world.

The attraction to crime-fiction grew from a love of old black-and-white films – gangsters, westerns and private detectives.  It was probably the heroic aspect and the power of the male leads that drew me in.  That and the adventure.  And there was always a power-play between justice and injustice that had my emotions doing cartwheels and the contradiction of the most powerful characters being utterly flawed.

TV played a big part, too.  Kojak, Hill Street Blues, Hawaii 5-0, Bluey Hills, The Sweeney and the like were the best things on the box.

The draw to books took a while.  Because of the way my eyes scan, reading’s not the easiest of pleasures and because I felt I had to keep up with my mates who were all reading serious literature, the marriage wasn’t immediately harmonious.  At college I studied Social Science.  I took the Sociology of Film and the Sociology of Literature as options because I wanted to spend time on things I really cared for.  The issue with the literature class was that, though I read many brilliant books, there were a fair few that were dry as a bone.  I found Raymond Chandler and Junky and Maigret, all introduced by the same mates who read every spare second they god, and that was what entertained me on the bus to those literature seminars.  I loved them.  Still do.

My reading continues to have something of a mix to it, but since my writing has become crime and noir based, I’ve concentrated mainly upon Crime Fiction for the last couple of years.

Did you have an early interest in writing? Or were your studies in Film and Literature born from other desires?

Something in school put me off writing.  My presentation was untidy and my spelling  not up to scratch.  I spelled my name Bid once when I was  about 8 or 9.  Teach did his line in wit and managed to make me feel completely useless.  So I think I came to hate it.

Film was all about pleasure.  Going home after a hard day at school and finding relief in the form of Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton who were always on at about tea time.  Pure escapism would have been my motivation, the thrills of being the hero or the villain or the man who ended up with the girl.

Literature was also escapism, but only when it was read to me and I’m another on the list who can cite special teachers who made all the difference in that respect.

My life wasn’t awful or anything.  Escapism wasn’t born out of unhappiness in general, but it did stem from my general ineptitude socially and from my being painfully shy – other worlds were far more straightforward than real people.

You’ve seem to have managed your way through that awkward stage, becoming a growing voice online in crime fiction. What inspired the Dancing With Myself interview series on your blog Sea Minor?

There were a couple of things.

The first was an event at the Hay-On-Wye  book festival.

I went along to see an interview with Lawrence Block and Ian Rankin as guests.  It should have been brilliant.  Thing was, the interviewer was so determined to show off as he asked his questions, he took more time speaking than his guests and managed to completely ruin something I’d really been looking forward to.  I did get to grab Mr Block outside afterwards though, giving him a copy of the poetry/story zine I was producing with my brother at the time.   ‘Something for the plane’, I said as he took it – and you know, he was a real gentleman about it and said  he’d take a  look.

The second idea came from the launch of Allan Guthrie’s first novel ‘Two Way Split’.  I’d like to be able to say that my finger was so very much on the pulse that I knew what I was in for.  Sadly, it wasn’t the case and it had more to do with the name and the  book cover (I didn’t like the cover, but it didn’t half shout out at me).   Anyway, he read for a while and then went on to interview himself with the questions he’d anticipated.  It was so refreshing to get the answers we wanted to hear instead of the usual obvious type things and it cut out the  need for any ‘smug bastard’ type questions that seem to come up every time a mic is passed around.  Me being there was a lucky break for me – it started a ball rolling in my mind that hasn’t really come to rest since.

In both cases, I had the feeling that a writer might be the best positioned to ask interesting questions of themselves.  Hence the idea.

And it meant I didn’t have to do lots of research  (sorry).

The Dancing with Myself series seems like a great way for writers to break out, be themselves. Nice nod to Allan there. Inspiration is everywhere. 2011 was a bit of a break out year for you, releasing 3 short story anthologies and being included in at least a handful more. What changed in 2011? Stars align? Deal with the devil?

The devil and I parted company a while ago.  He still pops up every now and again, but I have disguises that are keeping me hidden for now.

You’re right to say that 2011 was a great year.  A break out year.

Like many things, the part observers got to see was the tip of an iceberg, one that’s been floating around for many years.

I can’t put it down to any one factor.

First of all hard work.  I’ve been slogging away at different aspects of writing for over half my life.  Along the way I’ve had a number of break outs.  Perhaps I could describe each movement as being a passage from one waiting room to the next.  There’s the effort involved in locating a door before any knocking can start and then there’s a whole lot of knocking.  The door opens a crack and you have to push as hard as you can for as long as you can until it opens enough to pass through.  Instead of finding wide-open spaces and the heaven of your choosing,  you find another door – bigger than the first.  Heavier.  More robust.  Higher up and harder to reach the knocker.  I imagine the sequence could go on forever.  Which is beginning to sound like a fairytale – I’m thinking of the soldier going down into the ground to steal things for the witch.  Anyway, last year I entered through a lovely door, kind of realised that I liked it  there and decided to stick around for a while before looking further ahead.

Luck.  I did get lucky.  Lucky that the web made the world smaller for me and that I found myself within a rather splendid community.

The backs of others.  I hitched some rides along the way.  Places where people work hard to support writers and fiction in general – magazines, blogs and publishers.  There have been so many, but I can illustrate by picking Spintetingler as an example, putting up a ‘Conversation With The Bookless’ with me, selecting me for a ‘Best Story On The Web’ then later inviting me into the Snubnose debut, ‘Speedloader’, picking ‘Smoke’ for their ‘Best Novella’ lineup.   All of those pieces helped me to put together a bigger puzzle, a more focused picture.

Confidence – each success brought the confidence to write the next piece and to produce work without compromise.  It’s no accident that after a break where my muse had vanished that the return to work comes just after being chosen among this year’s Spinetingler nominations.

Progress – getting better at the craft of writing.

The break of e-books and getting in early enough to be noticed.  It was the next wave of the revolution and I happened to catch it and manage to stay on my feet for a while.

Friends.  The support of others has been incredible.  People writing reviews and offering interviews; those who’ve taken part in the ‘Dancing With Myself’ series; the Woofers and Tweeters; those on hand with kind words during tougher times.  They’ve been one of the biggest factors.  (Thanks all).

‘Pulp Ink’ sums a lot of it up, really.  Working alongside Chris Rhatigan was a real treat.  I learned a lot from him as we went about our business as editors.  It brought together a group of writers of the highest quality.  We tapped into the knowledge, experience and talent of Needle Publishing and we had ups and downs along the way that we managed to even out.  The result is terrific and a testament to the coming together of so many factors.

It’s not all been plain sailing either.

My best friend went and died on me last year.  I spent a great weekend with him on his houseboat in London, said goodbye and got on the train home to hear the news that  he’d gone  while I was on my way.  It did mess me up pretty good and writing just hit the skids.

And ‘Smoke’, the novella that was almost an accident that seemed to be very highly regarded had to be pulled from sales after the implosion of the publisher.   That cloud does at least have a silver lining in that it will be published after some hard edits by Blasted Heath.

And my novel ‘In Loco Parentis’ hasn’t made the cut yet, so who knows what will happen there.

Yes, it was a great year.  I hope it can carry on in such a way and that I can find the stamina to stick with the ride.

Much of your success, and following accolades stem from your decision to venture into e-pubbing. What made you venture out into those unsteady waters and what advice do you have for those contemplating e-pubbing?

The decision was an easy one given the material I was writing.  Short stories haven’t been flavour of the month with traditional publishers for many years, so the opportunity of putting out Dirty Old Town was difficult for me to resist.

To give a little perspective, I’d written a novel and had been given enough rejections to fill a folder.  Stemming from that were some positives in terms of feedback on my style, but it didn’t fit the market.

I didn’t have the confidence to put that novel out and left it while the clarity of vision about what I wanted to write improved in its focus.

Dirty Old Town (and other stories) seemed like the step I needed to take.  I knew I had strong material, that there was enough in my production from the year prior to its release to make a  very good collection so it was all systems go.  I am a little impetuous, to be honest, so as soon as I had the idea I was going to do it regardless.

I didn’t know what I was doing.  The cover design was a learning curve, I had no ideas about formatting and I wasn’t sure how to sell the thing .

To start off, sales were a nightmare, but I got to a happier place eventually.

The rest followed.

Two more collections have seen the light since then, as well as work in anthologies  and with publishers.  It’s all part of the curve.

I even put out that novel of mine, too; it’s under a pen -name, so it won’t be found, but I’m glad I’ve let the characters in the story out of the box.  Sales are barely a trickle, though on that one it’s not the point.  When ‘In Loco Parentis’ hits the streets (and it will), I’ll still see it as my first novel .

Advice is difficult to give.

There’s nothing wrong with putting out work as self-published, not at all.  It’s something I’d like to encourage.  I would suggest that it should be part of a rising curve rather than the start of one.    Build up some kind of platform before just launching into things.  Edit well.  Keep it to the best of your ability.  Don’t throw things up there with the idea that more books will equate to more sales (more books of lesser quality shouldn’t).  Don’t give up the day job.  If you feel you have something really good on your hands, approach a publisher – tree or e – and wait for some feedback.  Don’t take any of it personally (I’ve made that mistake more than once), whether it be a harsh comment, malice, no sales for a couple of days, or whatever form the adversities take; it really isn’t something to get hurt feelings about and if you aren’t able to rise above things you may well go crazy.  A good cover always helps.  A good title is cool.  If you can get some quotes under your belt, so much the better.  Don’t be too hyped on the forum boards and try to understand the rules of self-promotion wherever you are.  Leave the trolls to share the poison between themselves.  Keep pushing and asking and begging and prostituting until you can’t take it any more.  Try and break out of the obvious circles when seeking publicity.  Be patient.  Don’t stop writing because you’re trying to sell something you worked on a couple of years before.  When your book leaps in the Amazon charts, don’t take it as a sign that you’re the new Hemingway or Atkinson, because a day or so after you might be lurking in the hundred-thousands.  Listen to advice, especially about your work.  Try and improve.  Write to the best of your ability.  And don’t give up the day job (I know I said that already) no matter how quickly it seems to be killing you.  Enjoy it.

IN LOCO PARENTIS sounds like your next big project, can you give us the pitch?

Teacher noir.

We have a youngish male teacher working with Reception class children.  He’s a bit mixed up, particularly when it comes to women and in relation to being overly protective of his charges.

Not only does he gets mixed up with a rather sexy parent from the school, he’s half-in half-out of a relationship with his step-sister.

When a drug-addicted parent deals out a little too much discipline to his son,the teacher makes sure that it won’t happen again and when a colleague slaps a child round the head it leads to some pretty unpleasant results.

It’s a novel where the protagonist unravels and where the heart and the head of the reader might well end up in conflict, or at least I hope it is.

I haven’t read ‘The Slap’, but I’m guessing it could be  ‘the hard slap’ or ‘the slap with teeth’.

I haven’t read ‘The Slap’ either, but this sounds a little close to home, at least with the protagonist being a teacher. What has being a teacher brought to the table as a writer?

For that particular piece, one hell of a lot.

In general terms, it’s difficult to say exactly.

I do get to experience aspects of the world that I’d rather not have to see.  There are situations that I become fairly closely involved with that shine a light on what poverty and substance abuse and the like can really do.

Perhaps what comes through the most frequently in my work relates to the fact that no matter how tough things get for a child, family or community, there always needs to be someone around trying to ignite or maintain a flicker of hope.  Without the hope, everyone would most likely give up.  Maybe that’s why my tales seem to have that angle.

And where things go badly wrong and hope is useless, I guess it comes out in  my stories in the good I try to find or the reasons (for that some may read liberal excuses, but I can’t change that outlook any more than I can completely transform a child’s actions in a situation when it’s all they’ve ever known).

What does 2012 and beyond have in store for Nigel Bird? More collections, anthologies?

I’ve just started something new.

It’s not the novel I was anticipating at all, but the idea came and I’m rolling with it in my usual organic way.  It started with the desire to write about someone with ‘locked in syndrome’ and has evolved from there.

Pulp Ink 2 is well on its way now.  We’ve had a great response and some brilliant stories.  Chris and I are hoping to roll up our sleeves a little more in terms of the editing this time round.  I’m a little more in the back seat this time; it’s not the way we set out, it’s just the way of the flow.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a story accepted for Lost Children’s follow up and I have a couple of juicy invites that I hope I can live up to.

If I were to pick a five year path, I guess it would be to write and have published a couple of high quality novels of novellas and that I have enough material for another collection.

I’m also rather enjoying reviewing books these days.  I’d like to hone some of the skills required for that and to spread the word for the writers I’m reading.

Do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

Mainly thanks.  Thanks to you for this interview here.  Thanks to all those who’ve helped in so many ways.  I have shocking organisational skills, but do have a good memory for kindnesses done and will do my best to make sure they’re paid back in some small way – you can hold me to that , too; a little nudge might help if anyone feels the need.

And wisdom? My favourite quote comes from Wittgenstein, – ‘All I have to offer is my own confusion’.  I can’t tell you anything else he said, but that one phrase has become my excuse.

One more thing.  If you read something of mine and don’t rate it, see a mistake, an incongruity or room for improvement I’d be delighted to hear about it.  Just drop me a line.


Interview: Chris F. Holm

Last week saw the release of Chris F. Holm’s first novel DEAD HARVEST, a multi-genre mash-up that walks the line between Heaven and Hell, literally. With an engaging protagonist, Sam Thornton, attempting to unravel the complexities of a job gone wrong and not get in too deep with the boss, it looks as though Holm has the start of a fantastic series, if not fantastical.

Though we’ve yet  to coax Chris into contributing to the digital tome of Shotgun Honey, he is no stranger to short fiction. Having appeared in such venues as Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, Demolition Magazine, Flashes in the Dark, as well as in print with “The Hitter”, appearing both in Needle and again in Best American Mystery Stories 2011, “The World Behind” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and “Action” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

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

I was raised in a family of crime-fic readers. My grandfather was a cop, and he went through crime novels by the bagful. The whole family would pass them around, trading stacks of paperbacks at Sunday dinner. And the mindset trickled down the generations, since before I was old enough to partake of Wambaugh and Sanders, my parents were schooling me in The Hardy Boys, Christie, Poe, and Doyle. I literally can’t remember a time before mysteries, so how could I possibly write anything else?

Some familiar footsteps there with the classics. THE HARDY BOYS bring back some memories. Which was better the books or the TV series?

For me, it was all about the books. We had a yellowed set of them that I’m guessing dated from the ’50s. I probably read ’em through three or four times. By flashlight, under the covers, as they should be read.

Late nights by flashlight, the lore of every bookish kid turned writer. What you write today, from the gritty short story, “The Hitter”, to your new sci-fi noir novel, DEAD HARVEST is a good distance from those childhood mysteries. What are some writers who’ve inspired and helped mold you as a writer?

I tend to think every book I’ve ever read, good or bad, has played some part in molding me as a writer. As far as who inspires me, how much time you got? Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, for laying down the blueprint. Ross Macdonald and Lawrence Block for perfecting it. Donald Westlake, for creating in Parker the most compelling antihero ever written. P. G. Wodehouse for his clockwork timing and stunning wit. Tim Powers for his unmatched imagination. Michael McDowell for his ability to conjure the sort of creeping dread that’s lacking in most modern horror. Susanna Clarke for her ability to craft a world as believable as it is fantastical. Lovecraft for his unhinged glimpse-into-the-abyss mentality. And that’s just to name a few.

As I make my way to the finish of DEAD HARVEST, I can see many of those elements at play. The use of traditional pulp/crime fiction overlaid with the supernatural, a wonderful genre mash-up. One review referred to it as Gonzo Pulp, not that I’m sure what that is? How would you classify DEAD HARVEST? Give us the pitch.

I consider DEAD HARVEST to be fantastical noir. I think that’s far more descriptive a term than urban fantasy, because it captures the flavor of the book, and anyways, who says dark, gritty modern fantasy has to happen in the city? The pitch is this:

DEAD HARVEST is the first in a series of supernatural thrillers that recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. Think angels driving Crown Vics and demons running speakeasies, and you’ve got the gist.

Sam Thornton collects souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Once taken himself, he’s doomed to ferry souls to hell for all eternity, in service of a debt he can never repay. But when he’s dispatched to retrieve the soul of a girl he believes is innocent of the crime for which she’s been condemned, he does something no Collector’s done before: he refuses.

DEAD HARVEST is the first in an ongoing series, where do you plan on taking Sam Thornton?

Well, I’d say to hell and back, but the poor guy’s already there, ain’t he?

I can tell you book two, THE WRONG GOODBYE, sees Sam flitting from the Amazon to Amsterdam to the American Southwest as he hunts down an old friend and fellow Collector who’s stolen a soul he was sent to collect. The story plunges Sam headlong into the demon drug trade, and suggests to him there may be a way to escape the bonds of servitude to hell… provided he can stomach the price. The scale of the story is far larger and more sprawling than that of DEAD HARVEST, and book three, should I be lucky enough to get to write it, looks to be larger still. Who knows what book four might hold?

Well here’s to a long adventurous series. I hate to judge a book by its cover, but really it’s the first thing that sells the book for most? DEAD HARVEST and THE WRONG GOODBYE have really unique covers, did you have any input and what was the thought behind these throwback covers?

I’m fortunate in that I did get a fair degree of input in my covers; I understand that’s not often the case, but then, most writers aren’t lucky enough to sign with Angry Robot. That said, I can’t take credit for the concept. That was all my editor, Marc Gascoigne. He wanted to evoke the classic Marber-era Penguin Crime covers of the ’50s and ’60s, and make my book look like some long-lost dime store pulp. It was a bold choice, but one that paid off beautifully, thanks in large part to the stunning execution of the concept by the artists of Amazing 15 Design.

I’m enjoying DEAD HARVEST, which is getting good reviews and nice word-of-mouth for a first novel, but this isn’t the first book to garner nice praise. In 2010 you release your short story collection, 8 POUNDS. Tell us about that experience?

8 POUNDS was a bit of an experiment for me. Ebooks were just starting to really catch on, and it seemed to me the format was uniquely suited to a short collection. Traditional publishers aren’t terribly interested in publishing a 150-page short fiction collection by a relative unknown, and who could blame them? Print costs mean they’d have to charge more for it than folks would be willing to pay, making it a losing proposition. But with ebooks, that’s not a concern. Each of the stories in 8 POUNDS had been previously published, most of them in markets long since closed, so the argument that self-publishing forfeits the chance at selling first publication rights was moot in this case. In short, I couldn’t see a downside to putting it out there and seeing what happened.

What happened is I sold somewhere on the order of 20,000 copies, wound up on a couple years-best lists, and raised my profile considerably. Granted, I sold them at under a buck a pop, so I’m not exactly swimming in riches, but it was eyeballs I was interested in, not money. I think a lot of my success came down to luck: I hit the market at a time when there weren’t many short collections out there. Now, so many talented writers are putting out their own short collections, I’m not sure I could compete. Still, it was a valuable experience. I will say this, though: getting that damn thing formatted right was a bitch. Kindle is a fickle mistress.

From cover to formatting, I have to thank you for doing a highly professional job. Not always a priority in the blooming ebook marketplace. Bravo!

Many of the stories in 8 POUNDS were previously published elsewhere, so you’re very familiar with both the print and online short story marketplace. Do you see any strengths or weaknesses over print versus online?

Well, first off, thanks, though I can’t take credit for the cover: that was all John Hornor Jacobs’ doing.

As for the strengths and weaknesses of print versus online…

Online’s a great way to get exposure, because anyone with a computer can read it; there’s no need to track down a print copy. And there’s the quick-fix nature of it. Turnaround from submission to publication is generally quicker with online publishers, so if you’ve got the itch to get something out there quick, online’s the way to go. I’ll cop to subbing to online outfits first when I’m jonesing to publish. But no doubt, online is impermanent. Sure, that picture you posted on your MySpace in 2001 of you doing naked keg-stands will follow you to your grave, but chances are, that story you just published in an online magazine won’t be up a year from now.

Print, on the other hand, is print. You can touch it. Smell it. Hold it in your hands. Sign a copy and give it to your Grandma. I mean, let’s face it, not a one of us got into writing to see our byline all lit up in pixels; there’s a certain romance to ink on paper that’s hard to discount. But the flipside is, unless your short winds up in Playboy or the New Yorker, it’s gonna be hard for folks to lay their hands on a copy, and likely expensive, too.

If you ask me, though, the real key isn’t the medium, it’s the editor. Find a publication whose taste you trust, and you’ll do just fine, whether in print or online.

We know that THE WRONG GOODBYE is the next book in The Collector series, what else do your readers have to look forward to in the near and far future?

Well, my current work in progress is a sprawling international thriller based on my Anthony-nominated novella “The Hitter,” the story of a hitman who makes his living killing other hitmen on behalf of their would-be marks. And I’ve got designs on at least a half-dozen other novels, from a sprawling, science-fictional conspiracy novel to some good, old-fashioned country noir. As to what I tackle when, who knows?

“The Hitter” was so well received when originally published in NEEDLE and then again in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2011, do you worry about expanding the material? And as a writer of both short and long fiction, what’s the process like transforming short to a longer work?

First question first: hell yes I worry. In fact, it was my agent who first suggested doing it, and at the time, I balked. I’d already told the story as well as I was ever going to, I thought, and anyways, I knew all the beats. That made it dead to me. For me, writing is about the thrill of discovery, and absent that, how do you keep your ass in the chair?

But a funny thing happened on the way to shelving it forever: that dead thing stirred. I found a fresh angle I hadn’t considered before, and facets to the characters I’d sketched out I’d not explored in the short. So I started writing, thinking it’d probably fizzle. It didn’t. Now, I think it may prove to be the opening installment of a series, which should tell anyone who’s read the short the story’s changed considerably. I see it as less a straight adaptation of the short story than a novel that utilizes some of the same ingredients, in the same way that Chandler used to cannibalize his short stories to craft his novels. Hell, I test out concepts intended for my novels in my short stories all the time — the only difference is, this time, I’m just calling my shot ahead of time.

We all look forward to your future work, and thank you for taking time for Shotgun Honey and our readers. Do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

Wisdom? From me? Not hardly. The good news is, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that wisdom ain’t what gets you published. What gets you published is being too butt-stubborn to give up.


Interview: Anthony Neil Smith

Nestled in a farm town just this side of Minneapolis, Anthony Neil Smith uses the frigid world of his adopted home state, Minnesota, with snow rake at hand and Herman Dog at his side, to write crime. Neil, he’s a middle-name-kind-of-guy, sounds like a superhero and to many he is as the nefarious Doc Noir: as creator, purveyor and publisher of noir and transgressive crime fiction.

His story, “Herman Dog Digs” stands as Shotgun Honey’s more unique shorts, casting Herman as dog-of-action sniffing out the sordid truth of the world. Smith’s shorts have been published in numerous journals and zines, and his novels published in print and as e-books, from the Billy Lafitte novels, YELLOW MEDICINE and HOGDOGGIN’, to original titles, CHOKE ON YOUR LIES and ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS, the latter published this last week by e-publisher Blasted Heath.

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

Legally.

And I wanted to find out what happened to the Hardy Boys, who were trapped on that plane heading towards the sea! After that, I had to read them all. And then my folks got me a handheld quiz game for Christmas which had a “detective and mystery” cartridge, and I played it until I nearly had them all memorized, which moved me into adult crime fiction pretty quickly.

After my dad was killed in a car wreck when I was ten, the whole business of funerals and death stayed with me. I don’t know, it just seemed to fit. While I later drifted on to sci-fi, comic books, rock guitar, and even a stint of Christian rock guy (no more. Nope), I always circled back around to crime fiction.

From what I know of you, you are a displaced boy from the Bayou living in the Minnesota tundra. Can you disprove that and has that factoid crept its way into your work?

I’m a whatsit who and when now?

Okay, okay, yeah. I was born and raised down South, lived there until I graduated with my Ph.D., then got a job in Michigan for a few years. After that, Minnesota. And since then, I’ve fallen in love with the cold.

But read YELLOW MEDICINE and you’ll see my original response. It’s an angry book. Lafitte, the Southern exile cop, is pissed to be stuck in Minnesota. He hates the people and the cold. He hates himself.

It took falling in love with a Minnesotan woman to make me fall in love with Minnesota, and now I can’t imagine leaving the North. I like the cold. So you start to see the exiles in my work fade away. You begin to see Lafitte in HOGDOGGIN’ want a place to belong. And in the newest novel, ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS, we have characters heavily invested in Minnesota, especially the large Somali population in the Twin Cities. They’ve really settled and made themselves a big part of the Metro.

So the displacement has evaporated.

Since you’re a converted Minnesotan, that must mean you own a roof rake. Would it make a good weapon… and what is a roof rake?

It would not make a good weapon unless you are, like, twenty feet tall.

A roof rake is exactly that: a rake for your roof…to remove the several feet of snow that piles up on top.

So I guess we won’t be seeing roof rakes used in future novels then, at least not in a traumatic way. What if… never mind.

You’re giving me ideas.

Can you tell us more about Billie Lafitte?

Billy is a bad cop from Mississippi who gets fired for doing bad things during Katrina, and gets a second chance in southwest Minnesota–prairie country on the border of South Dakota. And, man, he starts right up on being worse than he was down South. I had a lot of fun trying to write in his voice, this horrible person I wanted the reader to root for…and feel queasy about it.

In HOGDOGGIN’, I expanded the scope. He doesn’t get to tell you his story. Instead, he’s just one of several voices, but he’s the center of everything. And we find out he’s a lot more complicated than you’d expect.

I’m working on a third one in which I wanted his thought to be shielded from the reader. All the other characters see him, deal with him, but we never get inside Lafitte’s head.

For a while, Billy was, kind of, me–at least the bitter part of him–except that he had the power to do something about his misery. But he changed during the course of YELLOW MEDICINE. He makes choices I wouldn’t make. But he also loses a lot more than I’ve ever lost, too.

I look forward to seeing how the 3rd book works out, I have both YELLOW MEDICINE (signed even and you own me a beer) and HOGDOGGIN’. I know there’s been a few books since, but tell us about writing before Billie?

I wanted to work in comics when I was in junior high. I think I had a good idea for a series, but I never got past one “first issue” a friend and I put together.

Anyway, I thought I had a winner with an idea called THE UNDERTAKER AND THE THIEF. I even had a handwritten crappy draft. But it never worked. I gave up, got rid of it. then there was this detective I wrote about, a cajun named Mason Jane. I’d been writing abotu him since I was a kid. The older I got, the younger he got, and we sort of met in the middle in grad school and I wrote a short novel called DEBRIS, sent it to an agent, even had Scott Phillips read it.

But after finally hitting grad school, getting serious, and publishing quite a few stories in crime mags and lit mags, I had a few stories linked with the same characters, so I decided to give another novel a go. That one turned in PSYCHOSOMATIC, and it finally found a home at PointBlank Press after a long, depressing “close but no cigar” submission process.

Then I wrote THE DRUMMER, which was the beginning of my “guy runs away and starts his life over again” obsession, kind of my take on the conspiracy thriller, but with a lot of hair metal nostalgia in it. My agent at the time told me it would “poison” my career, so we parted ways and….well, eventually I found myself in the sway of Allan Guthrie.

I won’t even tell you about the “porno P.I.” novel that I never sold. Written between THE DRUMMER and YELLOW MEDICINE. I still like that book a lot. Wish we had been able to place it.

In the last year, you’ve embraced e-publishing, releasing both PSYCHOSOMATIC and THE DRUMMER in digital formats, so what are the odds we might see that “porno P.I.” story yet?

I’ve actually got my entire backlist up as ebooks now, plus the one original CHOKE ON YOUR LIES, and Blasted Heath is releasing ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS in November.

I wasn’t sure about ebooks at first. I like paper. I like paperbacks. But I don’t like the prices, which seem to keep climbing. And I also didn’t like that my old books were just kind of floundering without a digital outlet. So I got back the rights to PSYCHOSOMATIC, then happily discovered a had digital rights to my other three, too. I means, it’s not really self-publishing if they’ve already been published by others, right? So I started with PSY, got a new cover from “Poker Ben” Springer, and put it up to see what would happen.

Just knowing it was alive again made me rethink things, especially after Allan told me how many novellas he was selling on Amazon each month. It was a crazy number. So I asked him if I should give it a shot with CHOKE ON YOUR LIES. He agreed, and I’m really excited by the result. Since January, I’ve sold over 3000 ebooks. CHOKE is especially an exciting one to watch as we’re now over the 800 sales mark. Yeah, I priced them all at 99 cents, but it was about finding new readers for the long haul more than it was about making money. I would like to make enough to justify writing a book a year, but that number is not quite as high as I once thought it was.

Epublishing has given us a ton of great new voices in a very short period of time. Writers are connecting with readers, using Twitter and Facebook to create fanbases, and generally having a great time.

Will the Porno P.I. novel ever show up? I don’t know. I’m starting to like the “cult” value of just letting people sneak looks at it every now and then.

One of the more unique stories here at Shotgun Honey is your “Herman Dog Digs.” We know you like to talk about Herman, so tell us about the stories inspiration?

Herman is the bestest puppy ever. He’s nearly two now.

My wife does this thing where she “talks” in the voice of our pets–two cats and Herman–and so Herman has this very distinctive voice in our minds. So I just had this image of me getting killed by robbers, and Herman being all torn up about it. So I wrote it in Herman’s voice. It also plays on the fact that in spite of the great love we have for our pets, if we were to die, they’d eat us.

It is a dog-eat-dog world, and in the end we’re all just kibble. “Herman Dog Digs” is just one of many shorts on the web and in print, we can even buy the “early crap” as an e-book, but as short fiction goes, you’re not just a writer. Tell those in the void about Plots with Guns.

Cool. Not going to go for the long version this time, but in ’99 a couple of friends and I were talking about the lack of good noir markets in literary mags. We knew some smaller ones, and the web mags were in their infancy, but we wanted a mag that was much more raw. So I had some free web space that came with my email account. Since it was there, unused, I thought we could turn it into a webzine. And PLOTS WITH GUNS was born. It took a few issues to really get the groove, but after that it was loads of fun. We made a lot of friends–new writers, big shot novelists, our heroes. Once the friends got busy with other things, I kept PWG going for a while. That first run was about four and a half years. We decided to shut the doors with an anthology by Dennis McMillan, and then, that was that.

Until these new kids popped up with MURDALAND and THUGLIT. I was so jazzed by those that I “came out of retirement” and brought PWG back. I love it being out there. And we found a whole ‘nother group of emerging writers, and found even more big shots willing to be nice to us. But as things go, I once again found it tough to keep alive with my own writing and day job (creative writing professor). This time, I wasn’t willing to let go. So I brought on a new editorial staff and art director to do the day-to-day stuff and take it into the future while I paid for the site and made sure these guys were going in the same general direction I would like. Sean O’Kane (ed), Erik Lundy (art), and Gonzalo Baeza (asst ed) have done a incredible job, too. They ramped up the look, the layout, and the fiction. I’m bowled over by the new Fall ’11 issue. Very proud.

Here’s the deal: write a great noir or transgressive story with a gun in it, send it to O’Kane and the boys, and only the very best gets in. If accepted payment will be a drink from any one of us next time we see you.

It seems you’ve been riding on the cusp of new trends and changes in marketplace, having run a top notch short story crime-zine and re-released your back list as e-books, did you ever consider jumping on the wave of new crime e-publishers?

You mean establish my own e-publishing house? Oh, no, no, no. No. No no no.

In the back of my mind, for a long time, I’ve had the daydream of having my own indie press, sure. Mostly, it’s been about doing cool paperbacks, though. I like the trade pbs with French flaps and rough-edged paper. But I don’t want to run a real business, really. Way too much to deal with–legal, taxes, paperwork, etc. and even though e-publishing might be cheaper to handle cost-wise, the workload to do it right would take a lot more time in the day than I have.

That’s why I’m glad to be an author on a great e-publisher like Blasted Heath, run by two guys who do have the time to make it right. They’re stretched to the limit, thinking up all sorts of new ideas and picking up amazing books. They’re working hard on promotion, too. So I live vicariously through Allan and Kyle, really.

If I ever win a giant lottery (talking millions here), then I would absolutely start my own press. But no other way, really.

It’s a crazy thought, but seems like a natural progression. Your readers are happy though to have publishers like Blasted Heath so they can have more compelling stories like ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS. Sell our readers on your latest book.

I should let other do this, because it sounds more real. For instance, if you check the reviews on Amazon, you’ll find some crazy raves, four and five stars. Some folks (including Spinetingler editor Brian Lindenmuth) are saying it’s quite possibly the Book of the Year. I’m humbled and pleased by the kind words.

I got really interested in this story about young Somali men from the Twin Cities, where there is a very large Somali population, disappearing from their homes only to reappear in Mogadishu fighting for a terrorist army. So it got me to thinking about who recruited them, why they went, and what it would be like for someone who didn’t fit in. Also, out here in our small farm town, we see many Somalis who have branched out from Minneapolis and now live and work here. So what if one of them went missing? What would the effect be? So, while those questions ended up being modified a bit, they were the seeds. And I wanted it to be a gritty piece of pulp while also invoking both Minnesota and Somalia as well as I could. I did not visit Somalia, unfortunately. But I really dove into the research and tried to give it as good a shot as I could.

With the good reviews and the great support from your publisher, Blasted Heath, hopefully ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS continues to be well received. Hate to let you go, but before you do, do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

Don’t wear shorts out in the snow. I’m not concerned about your health. I just think it looks fucking stupid.


Interview: Ray Banks

In the category of Authors Deserving More Recognition, Especially Here In The States, I present Ray Banks.

Ray Banks, hailing from the shores of Edinburgh, has worked, in his own words, “as a wedding singer, double-glazing salesman, croupier, dole monkey, and various degrees of disgruntled temp.” He is the author of the Cal Innes series which recently concluded and made it to the shores of America with Beast of Burden. He has written for a variety of short story markets, including Shotgun Honey with Pineapple Rings, his novella Wolf Tickets recently concluded in NEEDLE and his semi-biographical (not really, but maybe?) Dead Money released to e-books everywhere from Blasted Heath.

You can learn more about Ray at his websites The Saturday Boy and Norma Desmond’s Monkey, he’s a bit of a movie buff, a fact that was totally missed in this interview.

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

James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford. Those guys. They taught me that crime fiction was something to aspire to, not shy away from. Before them, I was dicking around in a literary fashion, putting out epiphany stories told in voices that weren’t authentic. Cain, Thompson and Willeford (and then later, Bruen, Woodrell, Himes and Lewis) showed me that crime fiction wasn’t all about police procedurals and mysteries to be solved. It could be as personal as any great literature, but it had to be narratively compelling too. As challenges go, that one was irresistable.

To name names, that’s an impressive line up. Some usual suspects. Americans even. Was there any one book that turned you towards crime writing? A book who made you think, “I can do that?”

Does anyone have just one book that turns them to crime writing? I’m suspicious of anyone who does, to be honest. It’s either a pat answer or something pathological. In my experience, it’s never one book that does it. You read and read, and then one day you find yourself writing a crime novel and it feels like the most natural thing in the world. And none of those authors made me think I could do it. Quite the opposite. They were so good, all I could do was aspire. But they showed me that there was something to aspire to, which was more important.

For those who haven’t read a Ray Banks’ novel, short story or even your recent flash story here at Shotgun Honey, how would you describe your writing?

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious twat (too late): Profane, but humane. I’m not particularly interested in genre as I am in damaged individuals, some of whom happen to be criminals. I hope my stuff’s reasonably amusing, too. There’s nothing worse than bleak for bleak’s sake.

Speaking of pretentious twats, on the shelf in my study is a copy of Saturday’s Child, the first Cal Innes novel. What fuels Cal Innes?

A deep, abiding dissatisfaction with the private eye story in Britain, which was (and still is for the most part) mired in a kind of pseudo-hardboiled Chandleresque pastiche. As for the character himself, he’s fuelled by misplaced indignation, codeine, vodka, cigarettes, and complete and utter self-delusion.

Was The Saturday’s Child the first effort as a writer and can you describe the road to your first published work?

God, no. I had at least four or five full-length novels before The Big Blind that will never, ever see the light of day.

I didn’t really start writing for publication until around 2001-2. My first paid-for story, an Innes story as it happens, was picked up by Handheld Crime in 2002, and from there I did what everybody does these days, which is write as many short stories as I could and sub them to places that either paid or edited. I built up a small readership as well as got to know other writers online, and after The Big Blind did the rounds of various publishers and agents that either gently rejected it or were downright bilious that I’d deigned to submit, I shoved it over to Allan Guthrie, who had a Writer’s Showcase thing over at his website, Noir Originals. I figured I’d leave it there and get on with something else. Al ended up becoming commissioning editor for PointBlank Press and asked me if the book was still available. It most certainly was, so they published it to what I can only assume was a rapturous silence.

You’ve taken Cal Innes through 4 books, concluding with Beast of Burden, the final book in the series. What comes next?

With Cal? Nothing much. Otherwise, I’ve got Wolf Tickets, which recently came to an end in Needle, and Dead Money is out now. I’m working on a semi-sequel to that called Inside Straight, I’ve got a couple of screenplays on the go, and about three different books that I have to choose between as the next project. Busy, busy, busy.

Wolf Tickets was a wonderful addition to Needle. Was it written specifically for the magazine and what considerations did you have writing it as a serial as opposed to a straight piece?

Thank you – very kind of you to say so. It was kind of a trunk novel, that one. Started as a collaboration with a very famous Irish crime writer who wrote the first chapter (and whose identity is obvious when you read it), but couldn’t continue due to contractual issues, so I asked if I could rewrite his stuff and continue with it. He gave me his blessing so I finished it off in a month, stuck it in a drawer and that was that. Because there was no way on God’s green earth that a book about a dog-killing drug dealer and a shoplifting drunk would ever be seen as marketable.

Then, when the guys at Needle said that they were looking for serials and I realised that I didn’t have much else out that year, I asked them if they were interested in Wolf Tickets. Bless their skidded pants, they said yes, and so I did a rewrite as and when it was needed to make it work as three separate chunks. From what I hear, Farrell and Cobb have been quite popular, which is gratifying, considering how parochial it is. I’d hoped to take them into a series of their own – make ’em my Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Johnson or my Hap and Leonard – so we’ll see what happens with the sales when it comes out as a one-er next year.

Well, here’s to success towards future Farrell and Cobb stories. I saw mention that Wolf Tickets will be released sometime as an e-book, like Dead Money and Gun before it. What’s your take on the format?

Yep, Wolf Tickets will be out sometime next year, date to be confirmed. As for ebooks, well, here’s the thing – I’m a niche writer and, unless I totally fluke it, I probably always will be. As much as I love being in hardback, I know of only a few people who’d buy a new author in that format, and I’ve long since thought the trade paperback an awful, over-priced invention. As a writer, I want to get my books in the hands of as many readers as possible, as cheaply and as quickly as possible. I also want to feel like I’m working with my publisher, that I have some kind of voice in the process, and I want to be paid more money and more often. As it stands, I can only get that with e-publishing. That’s not to say I’ve forsaken print – I still have the print rights to all the new stuff coming out from Blasted Heath, and I’m open to offers – but print is no longer the priority. Getting the work out there is.

Why don’t you tell us about Blasted Heath and your new release, Dead Money?

Certainly. Blasted Heath are a couple of spunky young things by the names of Kyle MacRae and Allan Guthrie. otherwise known as Sexy and Sexier. Kyle’s an entrepreneur, Al’s a former agent and editor – when they get together it’s MOIDAH! Anyway, they got this wacky idea to start up an e-publisher and because a bunch of us owe Guthrie considerable amounts of money, he signed us up on long-term unbreakable contracts. As a result, you’ll probably see a lot of ebooks coming your way, starting with the five launch novels, including my own Dead Money, which is about a philandering, borderline alcoholic gambler of a double-glazing salesman who has poor taste in mates, but will help you dispose of a body at a pinch. He gets caught up in all manner of hilarious scrapes and comes to learn how to be a better person. Or something. I’m kind of shit at this.

I suspect Guthrie has screws to a lot of talented writers, his name comes up a lot. I want to thank you for spending time with us, but before you go, do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

He does. He’s an animal. As for pearls of wisdom, if I had any of those, I wouldn’t be writing. Pig ignorant, me.


Guns of Palo Alto

I’ve always been an adrenaline junky.

1972 – I am 13.  I found my brother’s snub nosed Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special.  I unload it and replace one cartridge then spin the cylinder.

I pull back the hammer.

I’m a pussy, so I look to where the shell is in rotation.  I put the gun to my head and pull the trigger.  Snap!  Case-hardened steel hits an empty chamber.

I spin the cylinder again.  Snap!

And again.  Snap!  Snap!  Russian roulette is dull if you know where the bullet is.  I’m not nuts enough to play it any other way.  I’m not suicidal.  I’m bored.  Through sheer gauze curtains I look out on Hamilton Avenue.  Palo Alto is suburbia to the tenth power.  A teen rides down the street.  I track him with the revolver nestled in the crook of my arm, like some TV cop.   I pull the trigger and make a bang with my mouth.  I pull the trigger again.  The roar is deafening.  Flame shoots from the barrel singeing a hole in the curtain.  The window pane explodes out.  Where the bullet lands is anyone’s guess.  But the kid on the bike rides on, unaware of how close he came to a real bad day.  The crook of my arm is bleeding from the nick the bullet left exiting the barrel.  The powder burn leaves flecks imbedded in my flesh.  They will scar for life.

1974 – Kool and Gang’s Jungle Boogie thumps.  I am 15.  It’s Saturday night.  My 17 year old brother Lark and me are running My-O-My, a teen disco.  It attracts a largely Black crowd into lilly White Palo Alto.  Lark is working bounce.  Moms is behind him at the front door.  A candy red dropped Chevelle stops in the middle of the street and a cat in his early twenties gets out of the passenger seat and moves with intention toward the door.  He’s street hard, prison buff.

“Sorry sir, no one over eighteen allowed.”  Lark’s voice is flat.

“Fuck it.”  The man pushes.  Lark stumbles back, but doesn’t fall.  He squares himself and moves in, his hands are in fists.  He can sense how this will go down.

“Motherfucker, white boy please.  Get the fuck-”  The man cocks his arm.

“Stop it this mo-”  Moms steps between them.  The guy’s fist is already flying.  It connects with a five foot nothing older white woman.  She recoils back into Lark, moaning.  Her arm hangs limp.  The guy susses the situation.  He just hit a white woman in Palo Alto.  Instantly he is back in the Chevelle and gone.

 

The cops are called.  The club is shut down for the night.  Some of the rougher kids are pissed.  They all want their money back, even the ones I know snuck in the back door.  Seeing Moms get hit hasn’t put Lark in a forgiving mood.  He’s barking.  Snapping.  Paul our friend and sound tech takes Lark into the office for some strong rum therapy.

 

Lark, Paul and me all go to the hospital.  Moms shoulder is dislocated.  She has a spreading hematoma in the shape of a fist.  Lark stares at the bruise.  We get Moms home and in bed, loaded up on Vicodin for her pain.  We each borrow two for our pain.  You can tell a good drug one of two ways, you have the doctor’s Drug Reference Guide, or you read the label, Vicodin take 1 every 4 hours for pain.  Do not take with alcohol.  Do not operate heavy equipment.  Bingo!  We chase the pills with rum.  Not an MD in the group, but we know our medicine.

 

“They can’t skate on this little brother.”

“No, they can’t.”

“Cops won’t find them.”

“Cops won’t try.  They think it’s our own fault for bringing Bloods into their city.”

“Then it’s on us.”  I have no idea what he means.  I doesn’t matter.  I’m down.

 

Affluent Palo Alto is separated from ghetto East Palo Alto by the Bayshore freeway.

On our radio Curtis Mayfield sings Freddy’s Dead.  The Firebird moves like a predator.   Paul is riding shotgun.  Behind him, I am loading my .44 with homemade hollow points.  He looks back, fear in his eyes.  He sacks up and keeps it to himself.

“There they are.”  I look up and across the street to Speedy Liquors.

“You sure that’s them?”  Lark is the only one who saw their faces.

“It’s their car.”

Lark pulls into the parking lot.  His headlights sweep across four hard men.  He parks the car so that the passenger window faces them.

“Josh, one thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t hit me.”  He winks.  We are running on the perfect combination of Bacardi, Vicodin and adrenaline.  I watch Lark move around the hood of the car.  The men are smoking and drinking forties.

“Paul, roll that window down, now and get on the floor.”  He doesn’t ask why, we are traveling way outside his four dots.  I cock the revolver.  I lock in on the men.  The tall one in the middle is clearly the alpha.  He goes first.  I am rationally deciding who I will shoot and in what order.  Lark is careful not to put his body between me and them.

Lark is speaking to them.  I can’t hear them over KSOL, The O’Jays are playing in every car that passes.

 

Lark turns and walks back to the Firebird.  I don’t let my focus leave the men until we’re rolling.  “Wasn’t him.”

“You sure?”

“Said it didn’t I?”

We cruise East Palo Alto for two more hours and never see the guy.  I have no proof, but I suspect the guy in front of the liquor store was the man who hit Moms.  I don’t ask Lark.  He doesn’t offer.

In bed that night I fall apart.  All the fear floods into my head.  Tears run down my face.  Somewhere inside I am broken.  Not a moral man.  My father and other Quakers went to jail defending nonviolence.  My grandfather was proud to have never discharged his service revolver.  Me, I’m in a car calmly planning who’s life to end first.  I am afraid of what I am capable of.   Afraid of arming the beast.  Afraid I won’t need the beast to act with dark intention.