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.


The Day Traders – Part Two

REPOSSESSED

 

I can see a lot from my window

The drunks driving home

And the repo trucks not far behind

The cats crossing the street

Looking for love

But I can’t shake the sight

Of a cop leaving the scene

Of a crime

With a smile on his face

And a bag in his hand

 

 

I CAN’T KEEP MY HANDS OFF YOU

 

I’m pretty sure the neighbor lady died

Her car is parked in the driveway

And I haven’t seen her for days

The mail is piling up

Her son stopped coming by months ago

I think he’s in jail

And the townhouse is starting to smell

So I go next door, work the lock

And yeah, she’s dead

Really dead

So is her cat

Which makes me sad

I look at her pictures on the mantle

And call the numbers on her credit cards

You know? To check the balances

Then I hop on the internet

To order some flowers

And a new dress

So we can dance one last time

Before the detectives arrive

 

 

NO MORE NIGHTFALLS

 

I’ve got HIV

But it’s not a big deal anymore

Like having pink eye

Or strep throat

But I didn’t tell my Dad that

And now he’s worried

Chewing his nails and pacing

I hope he’s learned his lesson

And leaves me and my brother alone

 


The Day Traders

 

THE HISTORY CLASS:

Craziest thing I have ever seen. SWAT ghosting down the hall. Six of them. Body armor. Machine guns. Cop holds up a finger to his lips and signals for me to keep quiet.

I’m huddled in a corner, hiding under a water fountain. Lockers to my left. Classrooms to my right. Heard screams and gun shots for the past half hour.

Sirens. Alarms.

And I know what they’re going to ask me once they kill him.

Yeah, I knew the dude.

He was my friend. But I never thought he was serious.

Until now.

 

THE LAYOFF:

My wife is screaming.

So is my baby boy.

They’re in the front yard.

So are the police.

I grin.

Raise my pistol.

And kiss my ass goodbye.

 

THE FORECLOSURE:

Idling.

Nobody has noticed. Parked half an hour and nobody has noticed. Imagine that?

Busy Christmas shopping I suppose. Slush is falling.

People have a tendency to look down in weather like that.

Loaded five magazines. Watching folks come and go.

Imagine that?

Wife died while I was looking for work.

These fancy people don’t know what’s coming.

It’ll be hard and fast when I make my peace with the world.


The Traffic Stop

Ronnie Chalmers had a mouth full of pecans when the Caprice passed her at twenty over. The deputy hit the lights and wheeled her patrol car out onto SR-14, the only traffic on the highway tractor trailers freighted with beer, on their way from the bottling plant to places like Tallahassee or Tuscaloosa. She sighted the Caprice, getting an eyeful from the rear view before the driver signaled, pulled into a breakdown lane and cut the engine.

Chalmers cantered her cruiser, shielding herself from the front and behind. Some dirt road deputies were lazier than an uncooked hamburger patty but not Ronnie. She worked out, ate right, didn’t smoke and stayed sharp even on the most boring days in the pothole they called a town.

Her only flaw, at least according to her mother, was that she wasn’t married.

And Ronnie always had to remind momma the state didn’t let her kind marry yet.

 

(Besides, what she really wanted was a hobby, no a vocation, not a wife.)

 

Law enforcement paid the bills, sure, and she’d seen it all patrolling the county’s main thoroughfare. Man cooking meth in the console of his Honda. Propane tanks falling from the bed of a pickup like runaway rolling pins. Mexicans stacked like saltines in the back of a U-Haul. Even a car seat riding on the roof of a sport utility…with the baby still strapped to it.

 

(Everything changed after today.)

 

The plates on the Caprice came back clean.

She adjusted her campaign hat, aware of the eyes watching her in the side view mirror. Chalmers approached the driver’s seven o’clock, her duty pistol half-way out its holster. Closing the distance she bladed herself, stopping about where the back seat of the Caprice began.

The man was huge. Must’ve weighed three-hundred pounds.

And he was naked.

And scratched.

Everywhere. His chest and arms and legs scissored with cuts, like he’d spent the morning dry humping a briar patch.

“You’re not having a very good day, are you, sir?” Chalmers said, watching the driver closely, then adding, “Got a license on you?”

The man obliged, offering an insurance card and license with a deliberate turn of his hand.

“Know why I pulled you over?”

The man pursed his lips and nodded.

“Do you need an ambulance?”

He shook his head.

Chalmers studied the ID, then spoke into her rover, leading with the license number and issue date. She glanced at the back seat. Couldn’t smell alcohol or any other controlled substance but assumed he was on something. PCP or hallucinogens the deputy’s first guess. Gnats were collecting on his arms, the man just a blob of abrasions and stretch marks. He smelled gamey, too. Probably fit to grow grass on.

That’s when she noticed the paperback on the passenger seat.

 

(Raymond Chandler. The Simple Art of Murder.)

 

Her radio crackled.

“Go ahead, dispatch.”

“Valid, no wants,” came the reply.

Ninety degrees by nine-thirty and she had a naked man the size of a fork lift in her presence.

And he technically hadn’t done anything wrong besides speeding. Cleaner than a baby in a baptismal font. Figuratively speaking.

Reminded her of something the Sheriff would say. About those calls straight from The Outer Limits.

You can beat the rap but you can’t beat the ride.

Chalmers was gonna have to get creative. Mister Nude & Wounded was going to jail.

 

(She just loved to read.)

 

“Mind telling me what happened to your clothes?” she said, her attention drifting to that paperback again.

The driver cocked an eye but said nothing. A tractor trailer whizzed by, the trucker sitting high on his throne inside the cab, a wave for ol’ Smokey and her customer.

It gave Chalmers an idea.

 

(Always getting ideas. Always making up stuff.)

 

Backup arrived.

“What we got?” the other deputy asked.

“A big bad bio risk with a taste for the classics,” Chalmers said.

“What’s the charge?”

They looked up as a church van crested the hill.

“Public nudity. Let’s hurry now.”

They gloved up. The naked man didn’t need to be told. He swung his bulk out of the Caprice and put his hands behind his back.

But it was too late.

The man’s pecker swelled and saluted the church van as it passed.

Chalmers counted eight female passengers. Seven shocked faces.

 

(One old lady had smiled.)

 

And all of ‘em got their money’s worth.

 

(You got a book in you an ex-girlfriend once told her.)

 

After a full search and inventory the wrecker arrived.

Chalmers pocketed the Chandler, certain of one thing after the traffic stop.

She wanted to be a writer.


Tornado Noir

Phirun was watching the weather report when the kid pulled a .380 that probably hadn’t been cleaned since the Carter administration.

“I want the cash, man! Hand it over!”

He was leprosy thin, with dirty hands, peach fuzz on his chin, lousy teeth, a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. tee. Phirun looked back at the television. The weatherman from Channel Four said something about a reflectivity core and wind shear. A Tornado Warning had been issued for Whoppaloosa County. Phirun tried to find his Chevron on the radar. There was a lot of red and yellow on the way.

“D-did you hear me, dude? Gimme the goddamn money!”

Phirun gave his robber a cursory glance.

“You rob me now?” he said. “Don’t you watch the news?”

He gestured to the television behind the counter. Noticed the kid’s hand was shaking.

“I’ll give you lotto ticket and a pack of Newports,” Phirun offered, not flinching for a second. “You go now. Save yourself.”

A moment later the siren went off, dopplaring to the interstate and back. The rain turned to hail. The sky was a shade of black usually reserved for coffins and frost bite.

“Now!” the kid yelled, pushing the muzzle of the Beretta in Phirun’s face. The gas station owner held up his hands, placating-like, then opened the register. The kid reached over the counter and grabbed as much cash as he could. Almost simultaneously a straight-line wind in advance of the thunderstorm ripped away the canopy.

The kid turned his head. It was quite a sight.

Phirun produced the machete he kept out of view and swung.

The tweaker looked down at his gun hand, no longer part of his arm, laying on the counter as if he’d presented it for purchase. The blood came in spurts.

“Gawdalmighty Jesussssss!” the kid hollered. He slumped to the floor. Phirun nudged the severed hand so the pistol wasn’t pointing at him.

The lights flickered. Anything not tied down outside was tumble-weeding across the parking lot. Someone off-camera handed the weatherman a piece of paper. A Tornado Emergency had been declared across five counties. The Channel Four meteorologists were grim-faced. Phirun found the language fascinating. Hook echo, supercell rotation, updraft.

The kid started moaning.

Phirun sheathed the machete, dropped the hand in a plastic bag, then came around the counter. Helped the kid to his feet.

“The freezer! Only safe place from tornado!”

The kid gasped.

“My h-hand, man? Where’s my h-hand?”

Between the severed appendage and whatever was floating through his bloodstream, the kid probably was feeling pretty strange. Phirun ushered him into the walk-in freezer behind the sandwich shop. He glanced back at his convenience store, wondering if it’d be there in an hour.

The power went out.

Phirun had always been the prepared sort. Had electric lanterns and a weather radio within arm’s length of the freezer for just such an occasion. The kid staggered to a corner. Wrapped the nub in his shirt.

“You g-gook motherfucker!” he said. “Get me an ambulance!”

“I’m Cambodian,” Phirun corrected him.

“Come to our c-country,” the kid stammered, looking semi-conscious. “Take ‘way j-jobs…”

“Most of my family perished in Pol Pot’s killing fields,” Phirun said. “My father and I emigrated to Georgia before you were born. I been in Whoppaloosa County longer than you.”

The kid struggled to stay upright. His eyes rolled back in his head.

“So c-cold in here…”

The voices on the radio reported multiple twisters on the ground. The sound of the proverbial “freight train” grew louder. Phirun removed the kid’s hand from the plastic bag.

“W-what are ye doing?”

Phirun worked the fingers loose of the Beretta’s grip. He bagged the hand again. Released the magazine, then jacked the round from the pipe. He put the pistol in his pocket.

“B-blanket, dude? I’m sooo cold…”

The kid crumpled.

Phirun unsheathed the machete and went to work.

He wrapped the limbs and torso in Visqueen. Decided to keep the head as a souvenir.

The building shook for a minute, followed by a reprieve. The radio voices told him another tornado was imminent. He hustled through a rear exit. Saw a hundred loblollies snapped in half.

Phirun left the kid on the pavement.

Wondering where the pieces might land.

And thinking it’d been the easiest body yet.


Disney Noir

Somebody threw a bucket of water on Daffy, putting the fire out.

Mickey leaned against a work bench and hustled a cigarette from a soft pack of Marlboros. Minnie lit it for him, then cooed, passing a hand over his crotch.

“He say anything yet?” Mickey said.

I shook my head. Daffy was breathing funny, like he had a cassette tape unwinding in his chest. A ropy drool hung from one corner of his beak. Most of the feathers on his back and shoulders had burned off. The rest were blood-soaked. The smell was outrageous. I swallowed a mouthful of spit and tried not to gag. I looked over at Chip, who was admiring the claw-end of a hammer, and Dale, who was fingering the grip of a chrome revolver. That’s when Donald walked up and popped him in the eye with a fist.

“That’s enough!” I said.

“You give up being a cold-hearted son of a bitch for Lent, Goof?” he replied.

“He ain’t talking,” I answered with a shrug. Always the deferential one.

“He’ll talk,” Donald said. “These fucks from Warner Brothers think they’re tough. But they ain’t tough.” His voice began to fail him, replaced by a hoarse whistle. He produced an inhaler and took a hit. Then he pulled out his dick and started pissing on Daffy.

Minnie favored the member with a covetous smile. Mickey rolled his eyes. Chip and Dale howled with laughter. Daffy struggled but the restraints were tight. I would know. I tied them myself. He wasn’t going anywhere.

I just shook my head.

This was all wrong.

We were three stories under the park, in a maintenance room west of the castle. It looked like an ACE Hardware had thrown up in there. Screw drivers and batteries and copper coil wires and nails by the dozen. Some broken glass. Bloody gauze. Teeth. The bric-a-brac of a capture and question. There was enough of Daffy’s bodily fluids beneath the chair to fill a bath tub. I heard the rumble of the Monorail overhead.

“You like that?” Donald said, stuffing himself back in his shorts. He adjusted his hat, straightened his bow tie and then spit in Daffy’s face. Daffy winced. An eye had swollen shut. He was having trouble keeping his head up.

“What are we gonna do?” I said.

“I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do,” Donald said. “We’re gonna find that no-account son of his—Danger—and I’m gonna carve him to pieces with a Miter saw…right in front of his old man.”

“Blarraargghhh,” Daffy said in protest.

Mickey cocked an eye at him.

“What’d he say?”

“Flurrrrffff glaaak shhhoooofff.”

“His tongue’s the size of a filet mignon,” Chip said.

“What’s that comin’ out his ears? Looks like maple syrup,” Dale added.

“He ain’t talking,” I reminded everyone. But nobody heard me. No one ever did.

There was a knock at the door. Minnie answered.

It was the dog.

“Hey, Pluto,” Donald said.

He didn’t look well. Like he hadn’t slept in a few days. His fur was mangy. An open sore behind his ear looked infected. We all knew he’d been on a bender. Dust. Meth. Easy to score over in Epcot. He leered at us, flashing a mouth full of rotten teeth. Then he gestured at our captive.

“He ain’t singing like we thought he would, boss,” Mickey said.

He took a step toward Daffy. We all grew silent. Pluto scared the hell out of all of us. He ran the park and nobody ever dared cross him.

“Want me to do him, boss?” Donald offered. He was always too fucking eager. Had bodies buried all over Frontierland.

Pluto looked from one duck to the other. Then with a paw he lifted Daffy’s chin, as if appraising him. In all my time with that crew I’d never heard him speak. Nobody had.

The sound of his voice chilled me bone deep. Nothing in my memory was as awful. Not the infant floating face down in Typhoon Lagoon. Or the scream from a severed head on Space Mountain. Or syphilitic Cinderella moaning in her padded room.

“Feed him to the escalator,” he said.