Frank Bill may need no introduction. His work has graced the pages of Granta and Playboy, Hardboiled and the New York Times. He writes hard-hitting fiction set in his home region, which first collected in his stunning debut of connected stories, CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA. I had the pleasure of reading his first novel, DONNYBROOK, where he deftly forges a near-mythic tone of hardboiled action with gothic literary sensibility into a gripping story of marginalized people doing their damnedest to claw their way out of the hardscrabble hell of America’s heartland. Centered around the Donnybrook, a sleazy saturnalia of underground bare-knuckle fighting, it reads like gritty action-adventure filtered through the fierce gaze of Flannery O’Connor. I invited Frank to Belly Up to the Bar after meeting him at an event with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, where he had a chance to talk fighting, martial arts, and its primal influence on our so-called civilization.
FB: Thanks. Basically a few things. Guy I trained with back in the mid 90’s always talked about guys he worked with and they talked about these underground fights in abandoned warehouses and other unknown locations. We never went but it kinda stuck in the back of mind regardless of existence. When I started writing the novel, it didn’t have a name. I knew I wanted to incorporate what I knew about meth/drug culture in general, working class or the struggling class and fighting. My good friend who is a cop said something one day when I was doing research with him when he was shooting the shit with some other cops.
It was a helluva Donnybrook, he says.
I asked who is Donny Brook?
Not a he, he tells me. An Irish fighting festival.
Hence I looked into it. Then my novel had a name.
You know there’s a Donnybrook musical, based on The Quiet Man? Back in the ’60s. I’m not sure your novel would translate, but I liked how you put a soundtrack to the action. If you could hand the reader a bunch of CD’s to listen to while reading, who’d be on them?
FB: No I didn’t know that. Interesting. CD’s, easy: anything by Ray Wylie Hubbard, Scott H. Biram, The Drive By Truckers, Patterson Hood, Chris Knight, Eagles of Death Metal, Slayer, John Prine, Bob Dylan, Gutherie Kennard, Hayes Carll, Hank III, James McMurtry, Son Volt, Johnny Cash, Lincoln Durham, Lightin’ Hopkins, Slipknot, Pantera, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Dowd, Steve Earle, too many to name. I’m a big music fan.
Whoa, hell of a playlist. I loved Son Volt’s first two albums, I have to get more of them. I recall that you have a fighting background in kung fu. And it shows in your fight scenes. They’re brief, vibrant, and realistic. I train in Thaing and Bando, Burmese boxing and grappling. Fu, the Chinese enforcer, was one of my favorite characters. Have you gone past black belt, or tried other styles? And what made you put on a gi in the first place?
FB: I began studying Korean martial arts when I was 11. Earned my black belt by fourteen or fifteen. When I turned 18 I began studying closed door Chinese Kung Fu or Gung Fu as some pronounce it. And there are no belts involved. Just levels. As I progressed in age I left my studies with my first teacher. Cross-trained in western and eastern (Thai) boxing. Dabbled in Ju-Jit-su. Found another closed door kung fu teacher. I started studying martial arts as a kid because I was small. Boney. But had this crazy fascination with the old Shaw Brothers kung fu films.
I want to train with Joe Lansdale down in Texas sometime. His fight scenes are always on the money. But DONNYBROOK is a lot more than fight scenes. You have a real cavalcade of characters, each of whom could break out and have their own novel. And while there’s not an ambiguous ending, it does feel like the beginning of a new adventure. Will we see more of Purcell and Jarhead?
Great to hear it. Meth carves a swath of destruction through your stories like flesh-eating bacteria. The meth-head has become the new crack-head, a cautionary tale, a lost cause, the walking dead. How hard has it hit your home region, and if you could change one thing about how we deal with it, what would it be?
FB: Meth has hit my area hard. Not many counties can say they’ve a lawyer who dated a client and started cooking it in their kitchen. It’s worked its way through the heartland. I don’t know what can be done at this point other than to keep educating people about what it does. You can make all the laws you want but it’s almost too little too late. Meth was an issue in this area in the ‘90s but no one paid attention to it.
I heard Larry Brown’s JOE is getting the movie treatment. Maybe that will introduce him to more readers. David Gordon Green’s a hell of a director, too. The memoir piece you wrote for the New York Times–about your grandfather chasing down a deer with a club to put meat on the table–really hit home. I’ve always been a city boy, but my great-uncles are children of the Depression and were avid hunters, long into their eighties. They did what was necessary to provide. It seems like as a culture, we’re losing touch with what it means to be a man. And you explore that tangentially with the three bare-knuckle fighters who converge on the Donnybrook. Do you think boys learning to fight- whether it’s wrestling or kung fu- might give American manhood back its center?
FB: I think every child, male or female should learn to box but also they should learn about or some form of spirituality. Not be a brute or a Buddhist but to learn discipline, how their body operates and how all of this links to the body and mind. For manhood, you have it or you don’t. I was fortunate to be around many great men growing up who been educated by life, but never appreciated my history or where I came from until I got older and began to read and write. A lot of it, for me anyway, comes from how one is raised.
I’m big fan of boxing and MMA and I respect all those involved, those guys and gals have guts and heart and the training they endure, the level at which they strive for is beyond amazing.
Yeah, you can only get so much discipline from physical training. I was talking with Zak Mucha about this too. We’re working on ways to make ‘manhood’ center around protecting those who need protecting. But any change will be glacial.
We tackled music and books, but for the finisher, it’s death row time. What are your last meal, and the last movie you get to watch?
FB: Last meal. Big ole thick ass Rib-eye, medium-rare. Cesar salad. button sized mushrooms sautéed in butter and soy sauce, fried potatoes with onions/peppers and a half gallon of Pappy Van Winkles. Movie, High Plains Drifter or Cool Hand Luke.
DONNYBROOK hits the streets on March 5th, from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux . If you want a fierce read by a hardboiled warrior-poet, a backwoods Breaking Bad meets Bare-Knuckle Brawls with a dash of kung fu and American gothic, get in line for this one. You won’t be disappointed.
“Bill portrays depravity and violence as few others can—or perhaps as few others dare to do . . . The plot builds relentlessly to the final round of the Donnybrook and gives the reader unexpected jolts all the way through . . . Bill is one hell of a storyteller.”