Belly Up to the Bar with Holly West, author of Mistress of Fortune

Tierney's Tavern, Montclair

Welcome to Sally MacLennane’s, my virtual pub. It’s cozy but there’s always room for one more, and the spacious cellar contains every libation imaginable, along with crates filled with treasures undreamed of, a couple of lime pits we don’t talk about, and an obese mouse-chaser named CatLoaf. Take any seat you like, except that one on the end, with the scally cap on it. Fellow everyone called Church, short for Church-on-Fire, always took that seat. Until one night he raised a pint to toast and keeled right over on his back, curled up like a sprayed cockroach. We call it the Death Seat, and leave it empty in his honor. Not saying you’ll get a visit from Mr. D if you sit in it, but Caesar the bartender is liable to wallop you one with the billy club he keeps under the register…

Our guest of honor today is Holly West, author of MISTRESS OF FORTUNE. She’s had stories published in Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Shotgun Honey, and in the Feeding Kate charity anthology. She also writes about crime fiction at Do Some Damage. Let’s get the blurbery out of the way:

Lady Isabel Wilde, a mistress to King Charles II, has a secret: she makes her living disguised as Mistress Ruby, a fortune-teller who caters to London’s elite. It’s a dangerous life among the charlatans, rogues and swindlers who lurk in the city’s dark corners, and when a magistrate comes to her seeking advice about a plot to kill the king, both her worlds collide in a tale of lust, political intrigue, and brutal murder.

Tom Pluck BeerWelcome to Belly up to the Bar, Holly. I’m having a Sazerac, made with Whistle Pig rye. What can I get you?

3 oz Whistle Pig Rye whiskey ½ oz simple syrup 1 dash Angostura bitters 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters ½ oz absinthe Coat the glass with absinthe, pour out the excess. Shake first four ingredients in a shaker and strain into glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
3 oz Whistle Pig Rye whiskey
½ oz simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
½ oz absinthe
Coat the glass with absinthe, pour out the excess. Shake first four ingredients in a shaker and strain into glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

hollywest_sml I’ll take a Belvedere martini, straight up, with a twist.

 2 oz Belvedere Unfiltered ¼ oz Vya dry vermouth Stir over ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist

2 oz Belvedere Unfiltered
¼ oz Vya dry vermouth
Stir over ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist

Tom Pluck Beer Historical mystery usually isn’t the kind of book I pick up, but I had a hard time putting this one down. It’s a hardboiled story, and puts us in the muddy ruts of the London streets more often than the gilded rooms of the royal court. And you know your 17th century England damn well. I felt immediately drawn into Isabel’s world. What drove you to write a story during this particular time?

hollywest_sml First of all, I like that you call Mistress of Fortune “hardboiled.” I was absolutely going for that tone. As for writing a historical in the first place, when I was a teenager, I read a romance called Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. It was published in 1944 and portrays Restoration London (circa 1660-66) so vividly that it transfixed me. I’m not saying it’s the best novel ever written (it was, however, a huge bestseller at the time), but when you’re fifteen and dreaming of being a writer, books like that stay with you. From then on I studied Stuart London voraciously, collecting reference books, reading everything I could about the time period. Funny enough, I’m not all that interested in English history in general, but I’m fairly obsessed with Restoration England and King Charles II in particular. You never forget your first love, I guess.

mistress of fortune

You have a gift for character. My grandfather swam over from Ireland, and I’ve always had a bit of a chip of my shoulder against the British Empire. And yet I loved your portrayal of King Charles. He was incredibly human, and you made him very sympathetic with how precariously the crown was balanced on his balding head. But it was Isabel and her partner in crime Sam who captivated most. Tell us of her background, how she came to be a king’s mistress and where the inspiration for her came from.

hollywest_sml Why thank you, sir! I appreciate the compliment. I’ve had a crush on King Charles II since I was fifteen years old, so by the time I started writing him at age 40, he was a pretty well formed in my mind. He was always destined to be a character in one of my novels, but coming up with Isabel Wilde was a bit more difficult. At first, all I knew was one thing—she’d be Charles’s mistress. Then I learned about Aphra Behn, a successful female playwright of the time (it’s no accident that Lucian, Isabel’s brother, is himself a playwright). Behn worked as a spy for England during her youth and as a result of her service to the Crown, incurred a large debt that Parliament subsequently refused to pay. She spent a period of time in debtor’s prison. I incorporated these details into Isabel Wilde’s back story and used them to explain her unusual choice of profession; determined never to return to prison and unwilling to take on the more typical roles—wife, prostitute, chambermaid—available to women at the time, she convinces a notorious London astrologer to teach her the soothsaying trade.

Tom Pluck Beer I think some readers overlook historical fiction because they forget that we’re actually living in the most peaceful of eras, as disturbing as that can be to believe. Human history is a blood trail from the Lascaux caves to the mechanized slaughter of the 20th century. What was your approach to writing a historical mystery?

hollywest_sml The one thing I tried to keep in mind when I was writing Mistress of Fortune was that these characters, despite living 350+ years ago, were human. I think the tendency (at least it’s my tendency) when reading/writing historicals is to kind of skim over the fact that people had the same hopes, fears, ambitions, et cetera, that contemporary humans have. Their sensibilities might have been a bit rougher (for example, their attitudes toward capital punishment or their willingness to display the pickled heads of their enemies on stakes at the entrance of the city wall) but by and large, they were much more like us than not. And I tried to infuse this into my characters, their essential humanness.

Tom Pluck Beer Mmm… pickled heads. Would you settle for an egg, from the jar? No, don’t. It’s been there since before we were born! You have a strong voice writing as Lady Wilde, and one all your own. But who would you say are your influences?

hollywest_sml Kathleen Winsor and Philippa Gregory for historical fiction. David Liss for historical crime fiction. For mysteries & crime fiction in general, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton and Tana French (there are so many more, but these are some of the biggest). I love true crime and hope to write one some day. In this, Erik Larson and Truman Capote are my biggest influences. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk and The Secret History by Donna Tartt are two of the best novels I’ve ever read, and finally, I’ve got to give props to Judy Blume because her books inspired me to want to write in the first place.

Tom Pluck Beer Judy is a favorite of mine, too. And of course Lawrence Block, who sat in that booth for an interview, himself. Tana French simply stuns me with her stories. And you’re the second friend to recommend The Secret History, so it’s now on my list. You had my mouth watering with the descriptions of spiced ales and roasted oysters. We’ve had some great meals at mystery conventions, but what would you choose as your death row meal?

hollywest_sml I’d choose a medium-spiced lamb korma (a risky choice, I know, given that I’m in prison) with garlic naan and a large Taj Mahal beer.
taj mahal naan

Tom Pluck Beer I love vindaloo myself, but my wife is a regular korma chameleon. They’d hang me for that joke in Stuart-era London, wouldn’t they? You have a background as a jewelry designer, like Lady Wilde’s brother Adam. Can you see yourself writing craft cozies around that particular subject? (No slight meant, you’re sitting in a bar that will feature in a “cozy” of sorts.) If not, what’s next on your plate?

hollywest_sml I’ve no plan to write cozies on any subject, although the goldsmithing trade is the focus of my next book, Mistress of Lies. That said, if a good idea cropped up, I’d try my hand at a cozy, why not? Mistress of Lies is scheduled to be published by Carina Press in Fall 2014. I’m also working on another historical crime novel, this one set in post-WWII Philadelphia and featuring a large, Irish-American family.

Tom Pluck Beer I look forward to them both. Thank you for dropping by, Holly. MISTRESS OF FORTUNE will be released by Carina Press on February 3rd. Readers can pre-order it for Kindle, Nook, and for Kobo via many independent bookstores.

Belly Up to the Bar with Joelle Charbonneau

The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a poisoned wasteland. Humanity survives in the United Commonwealth, where the next generation’s chosen few rebuild civilization. But to enter this elite group, young candidates must first pass The Testing.

Cia Vale is proud to be among the chosen like her father before her. But his warning to Trust No One steels her for the toughest challenge, to decide who is her friend and who will do anything to pass The Testing.


Tom Pluck Beer Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Joelle. What can I pour you?


Joelle Well, I’m mostly a diet Pepsi kind of girl.  But let’s live dangerously.  Pour me a Sauvignon Blanc and let’s walk on the wild side!


Tom Pluck Beer I loved THE TESTING. It reminded me of Ender’s Game, the post-apocalyptic Fallout video games, and the Tripods series by John Christopher. Tell us a bit about the protagonist of THE TESTING, Cia Vale:


Joelle Wow!  Thank you.  As someone who read and loved Ender’s Game when I was just out of high school, I am stunned and amazed to be compared to that story.

Cia Vale is a young girl who has just finished her high school education.  Despite the fact leaving home will mean leaving behind the family whom she loves, Cia wants nothing more than to be chosen for The Testing so she can sit for the examination that determines those who go to the University and become the next generation of leaders.  Cia comes from the smallest colony of the newly recolonized United States (now United Commonwealth).  She has pushed herself to learn as much as possible so she can help rebuild the world the way her father has.  But though she is well-versed in physics and calculus, coming from a community where everyone wants the best for everyone has in many ways made her unprepared for the sometimes less than cooperative spirit than exists in other parts of the country.

Tom Pluck Beer Cia and Tomas make a great team. They’re both skilled and smart, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Cia can handle herself and knows machines, which is refreshing for a heroine in any genre or reading level. But Tomas isn’t dead weight either. I also enjoyed the puzzles and challenges Cia had to get through, which make the SATs seem like a breeze. What was your inspiration for the book?

Joelle  For the last decade, I’ve worked closely with my private voice students as they navigate the testing, application and audition process required to be accepted into college.  The pressure on our high school students is greater than ever before. The need to be better and brighter than the other applicants has never been more keenly felt.  Students are hyper aware that every answer they give could impact the quality of their future. Trust me when I say that I get a lot of phone calls from my students during these months. The teacher and parent in me is worried that the benchmark of success has risen too high and that the tests we are giving are not the type of measurements we should be using to judge our students.  The writer couldn’t help but wonder how much worse the process could become and what tests a future world might want to institute in order to select the next generation of leaders.   And I think it’s safe to say I truly hated taking the SATs.  It was one experience in my life that I’m glad I never have to repeat.

Tom Pluck Beer I see a lot of parallels to education today in the book, which I think will resonate with readers of all ages. How “the right school” makes all the difference, the importance placed on standardized tests, and the tough decisions we make as children, like whether to cheat or not, or whether to team up or look out for number one. Do you think school is a lot tougher for kids today?

Joelle  I do think that school is tougher for kids today.  More than anything I think that our education has changed in the past fifteen years and not necessarily for the better.  There is so much emphasis on test taking.  Teachers are hamstrung by the need to structure their classes in order to achieve high scores.  The problem is that the true measure of a student is not who gets the best grade.  Sometimes those that learn the most do so because they have been challenged, fail that challenge and then are forced to pick themselves up and face the challenge again.  We need to allow our students the chance to fail in order to give them the tools to succeed.  I think that is often forgotten in the midst of judging students by the number they get on a standardized test.

Tom Pluck Beer Your books are known for their humor. The frisky grandpa in Skating Around the Law, and Paige in the Glee Club mysteries. Was it tough to go life or death in a forbidding future for THE TESTING?

Joelle  Ha!  I love Pop in the Skating books and Paige is a great deal of fun to write.  But strangely, while writing a darker themed book was a different challenge, I didn’t find it that it was any more difficult to write.  Perhaps because I wrote the first book for me.  I didn’t know anything about the young adult side of the publishing business.  I just had an idea and I wrote hoping that I could bring the world in my head to life.  For me, writing something not funny was an exciting chance to push myself without having to worry about anyone’s expectations.

The Testing’s book trailer

Tom Pluck Beer I admired the world-building in THE TESTING. The future is familiar enough- post World War 3, with all sorts of weapons of mass destruction laying waste to the Earth- but also refreshing, in that the civilization that has risen up isn’t led by mohawked bikers, it’s smart people banding together. There is something sinister behind the United Commonwealth, but it’s not obvious at first. I hope it was as much fun to write as it was to read. Is science fiction a genre you’d like to return to?

Joelle Thank you again for such a lovely compliment.  I had a wonderful time exploring the world of The Testing throughout the three books of the trilogy.  I think that all societies have a balance of good intentions and bad execution.  The circumstances that forced the creation of the United Commonwealth government also created the need for the leaders to advocate for the advancement of science.  If you can’t drink the water or eat the food you can’t live.  The choices that are made to continue the advancement of society under those conditions can be difficult to make and feel sinister.

Until writing this trilogy, I was a fan of science fiction, but was never certain I could effectively build a world from the ground up.  Turns out, I love the challenge and I am hoping that I get to turn my hand to a new science fiction story in the very near future.  Fingers crossed!

Tom Pluck Beer The Testing trilogy is also your first foray into YA fiction. I recall on Twitter that you said you enjoyed the freedom that writing YA gave you. Care to go into detail now that you have more than 140 characters?

Joelle I did say that!  To be completely honest, I didn’t set out to write young adult.  The story idea I had required a teen protagonist in order for it to work.  The story also required suspense, relationships, science fiction world building, a bit of mystery.  There is also a bit of a romance and who knows how many other elements that are typical hallmarks of different genres.  As writers, we often hear that the first question a sales or marketing department asks about a new book is “Where does it get shelved?”  For that reason, it can often be hard for a new author to combine elements from multiple genres.  There can also be restrictions based on how much or low little violence, explicit language should be in various adult genre books.  But Young Adult isn’t divided on shelves by category distinctions and while some young adult books shy away from violence or explicit words, other books use them liberally.  The only rule is to create the best story possible.  Which I think is a rule all writers and readers can appreciate.

Tom Pluck Beer Last but not least, being a dystopian novel that puts young people in a challenge, it will be compared to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. While those books put the kids on a murderous reality show, The Testing is set in a more dangerous world, which reminded me a little bit of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, where the earth has turned against us, and the stakes are much higher. Have you read any of those books, and what would you say to the fans who pick up yours?

Joelle I will say that I have read both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.  Both are very strong books which some similarities, but funny enough I found the purpose of those books to be very different.  Dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels have a great deal in common, but I am hoping that readers of other dystopian books will find The Testing to have a story that is compelling and characters that make them want to keep turning the pages.

Tom Pluck Beer I said that was the last question, but this is for extra credit. You are about to be cast out into the wasteland outside the Commonwealth. You can choose one last piece of music to listen to, a book to bring with you, and one last meal before you go. What are they?

Joelle EEEK!  Just one song and book?  Okay, well, if I only get one song it will be One Day More from Les Miserable.  And the book would have to be The Stand by Stephen King.  As for a last meal – well, I’m thinking Lasagna.  If for no other reason that it would be a good idea to carb up!


Tom Pluck Beer Thank you for dropping by, Joelle. I truly enjoyed the book and wish you great success. I found it smart and entertaining, a little more Star Trek than an explosive science fiction tale, but just as much fun.


Joelle Joelle Charbonneau is a former opera and musical theater performer turned author of funny mysteries and not so funny young adult novels. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son. THE TESTING will be published 6/4/13 by Hought-Mifflin-Harcourt.

BW Beer Mug

Belly Up to the Bar with Reed Farrel Coleman

It’s 1967 and Moe Prager’s girlfriend has been beaten into a coma and left to die on a Brooklyn street. The same day, someone tries to run down his best friend. Moe, a college student, sets out to find the people behind these attacks, but is surprised at every turn as he pieces together the connection between the local mob, a radical student group, and an undercover cop. All roads, it seems, lead to ONION STREET.

Reed Farrel Coleman has been called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the “noir poet laureate” in the HUFFINGTON POST. He is the author of sixteen novels, three time recipient of the Shamus Award and a two-time Edgar Award nominee, winner of the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards and a founding member of MWA U.


TP: Hi, Reed. Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar. In honor of your Brooklyn roots, I’ve got Sixpoint Sweet Action on tap. But we’ve got a full bar. What can I get you?

RFC: I’m a big fan of Brooklyn Brown ale, but if you don’t have any of that on tap, I’ll take a pint of Blue Point Toasted lager.

TP: Man after my own heart. Let me crack you open a longneck. For readers who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Moe Prager, give us the lowdown on him, and what he’s up against in ONION STREET.

RFC: Moe is both what you’d expect from a hard-boiled ex-cop turned PI and nothing you would expect from one. He’s a deep thinker and has a longstanding struggle with the subjects of God and religion. He has aged through the course of the series and undergone all sorts of growth, change, and tragedy. I thought it was a good time to tell the story of how he went from being an aimless college student in the late ‘60s to a cop. And that’s where we find Moe in ONION STREET. Unlike in the earlier books, this is Moe with no law enforcement experience. We watch him come to grips with the harsh realities of crime.

onion street

TP: With the Moe Prager novels, you dive into the past with great realism. When I read THE JAMES DEANS I thought you’d written it in the early ’80s. It really sparked my nostalgia for dirty old Times Square. For ONION STREET you go deeper into Moe’s past, into the turbulent late ’60s. What draws you back, do you see us making the same mistakes, or is it just a richer canvas?

RFC: I grew up in the ‘60s, but I wasn’t yet a man. Oddly, in recounting it, I was shocked to recall just how many earth shattering events happened in such rapid succession. In the first six months of 1968 alone there was the Tet Offensive, the Pueblo incident, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. However, what people forget or people who didn’t live through it tend not to realize is that life went on. What I wanted to do was to focus on that part, how in spite of the world going to hell around Moe, what concerned him was his own small world. I also wanted to show how his small world and the larger world bled into each other.

TP: I’m looking forward to reading your recreation of the Lower East Side. You have a great ear for dialogue and a fierce emotional undercurrent runs through your work. What stuck out for me were the struggles and family crises Moe endures. I bet he yearns for the day a PI just got a tire iron to the back of the head. Do we see a less battle-hardened, more vulnerable Prager in ONION STREET?

RFC: Exactly. I wanted to show the readers a Moe stripped of his worldliness and experience. Moe has always been a stumbler, but I wanted readers to see his first stumble as a parent might watch a child’s first step. The funny thing is that Moe never really loses his vulnerability. No matter how many blows he takes, he is never hardened to the emotional impact of the events in which he is either a witness or a player. I think that’s one of his great appeals to me and to readers.

james deans

TP: I like that Moe sees his wife’s Irish family dynamic as an outsider. The character of his father-in-law, the defanged power player, is intriguing. Where do you get the inspiration for the pay-to-play corruption you detail so well? Do you have a background in law enforcement or politics?

RFC: I don’t actually have any law enforcement background at all. I have many cop friends and I find them interesting characters. They live in a world apart and a part of our world. I love that tension and inherent drama in that. As far as corruption, that I know something about. I grew up in Brooklyn during the height of Mafia influence and I worked in the cargo area at Kennedy airport for five years (see Goodfellas). I worked with guys just like the people in the movie. No kidding. And when I was young, my dad owned a supermarket. He used to buy his meat from Paul Castellano, who later became the head of the Gambino Family and was gunned down in front of Sparks Steakhouse.

TP: I worked at the docks in Port Newark for a time, myself. It’s an experience, isn’t it? You’ve said that you hate research and THE JAMES DEANS was written without outlining, with very few edits. I’ve “pantsed” one novel, and I’ve taken to outlining, in pencil at least.  Do you write as you go, or do you work the story out in your head before you attack it?

RFC: Each book is different. Sometimes the whole plot to a novel appears in m head. Other times, I’ll read something in the newspaper and that will spark an idea and that will get me going. Sometimes I only know the ending. Sometimes I only know the title. I go with it. There have been times when I’ve just sat down, started writing, and went with it. Although my writing process is always the same, I let keep my mind be open to any good idea or any spark. Although I don’t outline, I am not an anti-outline Nazi. I just have a mind that works the way it works. I don’t enjoy writing an outline because it destroys my enjoyment and surprise.

TP: I was out in the Rockaways a month after Sandy, helping gut people’s homes. It was as bad as everyone says, but people are standing strong. How’s Coney Island holding up? James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown told how Katrina punched a ventricle out of the heart of New Orleans, will you be writing about Sandy or is it too close to home?

RFC: I don’t write message books. If I have an idea to write a book that involves Sandy, I’ll write it, but it would never be my starting point. I don’t live in Brooklyn any longer, haven’t for three decades, but my childhood friend’s house got flooded and he lives a mile away from the beach. Coney Island got slammed.

photo by Val Bromman.
photo by Val Bromman.

TP: I haven’t been to Coney recently, except for a pilgrimage to Nathan’s before the storm. But your description of Brennan & Carr’s roast beef dip is killing me. If you could only visit New York one last time, where would you grab a bite?

RFC: That food question is tough, man. Brennan & Carr would be right there with Nathan’s (only from Coney Island) French fries, Grimaldi’s pizza, Katz’s pastrami.

TP: Grimaldi’s. I waited two hours in the cold to get in once. Still better than pizza I had in Napoli. One thing I noticed, and admired, was that your bio doesn’t punch up your past, and try to find some link to law enforcement or crime. It gets amusing when a writer or publisher feels they have to “grit up” their background to make the stories authentic, like you can’t write what you haven’t lived.  

RFC: People don’t really know what tough is, so why bother. I drove a home heating oil delivery truck for almost 7 years. You try doing that in bad weather in bad neighborhoods for a while. That’s tough. Working at the airport. That’s tough. Carrying a gun? Not so tough.


TP: You have quite a few other series. Gulliver Dowd, Joe Serpe, Dylan Klein. What’s next for Moe, and the rest of your rogue’s gallery?

RFC: Alas, for Moe there is but one more book, THE HOLLOW GIRL. It will be out in 2014 and then Moe and I will part company. The first book in the Gulliver Dowd series, DIRTY WORK, came out in March. The second in the series, VALENTINO PIER, will be out in the fall and I’m in the process of re-upping to do more books. I am also writing the e-book exclusive Det. Jack Kenny series for Hyperion with retired NYPD Detective John Roe. BRONX REQUIEM, our first, came out last November and we’re working on our second, HARLEM NOCTURNE, right now. I’m afraid there won’t be anymore Dylan Klein books, but there may be a big surprise for fans of the Joe Serpe books. Tyrus Books and I are negotiating to e-publish GUN BUNNIES, an alternative second novel in the series. Gee, I wish I was busy.

TP: As for Moe, all good stories have endings. I’m eager to catch up so I can see the finale. Thanks for taking the time to drop by with so much on your plate, Reed. See you at the release party!

Reed Farrel Coleman has a website at and ONION STREET is published by Tyrus Books.

reed release

Belly Up to the Bar with Dan O’Shea


Dan O’Shea is the author of PENANCE, an epic thriller of family secrets and Chicago corruption, his long-awaited debut novel hits the streets on April 30th from Exhibit A books. Dan’s story “Done for the Day” appears in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, and “Thin Mints” is a favorite of mine, from Crimefactory, collected in Dan’s collection OLD SCHOOL. I got acquainted with Dan through his story challenge to benefit tornado victims. He’s got a big heart only rivaled by his talent, and when they get together there’s a story worth reading.

Tom Pluck Beer Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Dan. What’ll you have?

dan oshea thumb A proper Manhattan – so two parts bourbon (or better yet, rye whiskey if you have it), one part sweet vermouth, a splash of bitters, a cherry (and a little bit of that sugary juice from the cherry jar please, ‘cause I’m so sweet). Serve that in a rocks glass over ice. When I go to a bar and order a Manhattan and they bring it neat in a Martini glass, then I know the place is too precious for me by half.

Tom Pluck Beer I think we bonded over charity and our bent noses. How many times have you busted yours? The first picture I saw of you looked like you went a round with Tyson before turned actor.

dan oshea thumb Three. And I’m hoping to give up the habit. First time was playing sandlot ball as a kid. Nobody remembered to bring a catcher’s mask, but I figured what the hell, I’d played catcher plenty of times, couldn’t remember ever taking one square on the mask. That ended predictably. Then there was my abortive boxing career, something I messed around with in my callow youth. I was in the Joe Frazier, destroy-the-body-and-the-head-will-fall school, so I ate a lot of jabs with my beak trying to get inside. Made the mistake of eating a hook instead. The picture you saw was from the famous squirrel incident. Out riding my bike and a suicidal squirrel jumped right into my front tire at point-blank range. I broke my fall with my face, which was just as well. No point messing up any of my better features. Actually, the first couple busted noses left my schnoz a tad off center. This last one seems to have straightened it out a bit. So this would be an excellent time to quit.

Tom Pluck Beer Ha, that’s my strategy. I got no reach, so I get in the pocket and hook the liver. Tell us a little about PENANCE, your crime thriller set in Chicago. Your tales of the old town make your blog a joy to read. I imagine you’ve spun some of that history into the book.


dan oshea thumb PENANCE is divided between Chicago in 1971 and Chicago today (well, my version of Chicago). The backstory deals with some fictional events following up on the very real murder of Fred Hampton, head of the Black Panther party, by the Chicago police, with an assist from the FBI. OK, nobody was charged with murder or convicted of murder, but that’s what it was. I was a kid at the time, and I remember how Hampton was demonized in the media. Actually, the whole civil rights era movement made quite an impression on me. I remember the rioting after King was assassinated, watching my grandparents’ old neighborhood go up in flames.  PENANCE has a couple of intersecting story lines in which the sins of the fathers come back to haunt the sons a generation later, and the city’s history and its culture of corruption feed into both of those.

Tom Pluck Beer You also wrote a book with Shakespeare as sleuth, ROTTEN AT THE HEART. And a short story written in Elizabethan English, in Needle Magazine. What intrigues you about that setting, and writing in that voice? Will we see more of your historical crime tales from this era?

dan oshea thumb The Shakespeare stuff grew out of a conversation with my daughter when she was taking a Shakespeare class in college. She asked what would happen if Shakespeare wrote noir. The easy answer is Othello, ‘cause it don’t get much more noir than that. But I’ve always been a bit of a Shakespeare fan boy and that gave me an itch, which I scratched with the story for NEEDLE (The Bard’s Confession on the Matter of the Despoilment of the Fishmonger’s Daughter). Thing is, the scratching just made the itch worse, so the story turned into a whole novel, my first first-person detective tale, except the detective is none other than Billy Shakespeare forced into the unhappy role of Elizabethan gumshoe by his patron.

Now, you give me way too much credit when you say “Elizabethan English.” Pretty much my own low-rent version of faux Elizabethan English. But I love having an excuse to dump the stripped-down, Mies Van Der Rohe less-is-more verbiage that is the lingua franca of crime fiction and get a little Rococo. What I noticed writing it was that the faux Elizabethan language isn’t just an exercise in translation. It’s not like I write a scene in “regular” English and then translate into my fake Elizabethan. I have to actually get into a different mindset. Language is the medium of thought. When you change the way you use language, you end up changing the way you think. Because the language in the Shakespeare book is fuller, more discursive, so is the thinking.

Part of that, too, is writing in first person. Up until now, all my novel writing has been in third person. It’s been dialog driven. I moved the story along using multiple points of view and cutting between regularly and rapidly. My style doing that is almost ADD. First person is far more introspective. Where my style previously had been pretty terse, with a lot of very short sentences and even sentence fragments, this took on a flowing, almost stream of consciousness feel.

I thought the Shakespeare thing would be a quirky experiment, something I’d end up doing for my own gratification just to scratch an itch, but when I ran it past Stacia Decker (who’s one hell of an agent, by the way) she thought it was worth shopping around. Turned out she was right. Not quite ready for a formal announcement on the Shakespeare front yet, but I’ll just say you can count on seeing more from the Bard soon. (I’m such a tease. Here, let me flash a little thigh for you.)

Old School


Tom Pluck Beer My favorite crime film, THIEF, is set in Chicago, based on crook Frank Hohimer’s self-aggrandizing memoir, THE HOME INVADERS. And Eugene Izzi is one of my big influences. Still think PROWLERS is one of the best reads out there. Who are some of your favorite Chicago writers?

dan oshea thumb Izzi’s great. Saul Bellow wasn’t born here, but he was a long-time Chicago guy and he’s a personal favorite. Nelson Algren of course. Studs Terkel. Scott Turow and Sara Paretsky are probably the reigning royals so far as crime fiction goes, though Turow’s also done other stuff. There is the irrepressible Joelle Charbonneau of not-quite-cozy fame (she’s got two series, one set around the misadventures of a Chicago woman sucked into running a downstate roller rink and the other mixing the world of Glee with murder and mayhem. And she’s about the take the YA world by storm with her Testing trilogy.) Kent Gowran’s a guy to watch – he’s the one that got Shotgun Honey up and running.

Tom Pluck Beer Your story “Done for the Day” was one of my favorites from Protectors. There is a gripping emotional undercurrent in it, and all your work. What’s the well you draw from for your fiction?


 ebookProtectors1024x1544 copy

dan oshea thumb Two of my kids have developmental disabilities, so I know the challenges involved with that, know some of the bad shit that can happen. That’s what gave rise to Done for the Day, the idea that you can try to do everything right and still have it all go wrong. I don’t know that I can define any wellspring for my fiction. I know I’ve always preferred stories where the characters matter more than, or at least as much as, the plot. The types of thrillers where the characters are just props that shoot guns and drive cars fast, I hate those. Give me a textured, sometimes tortured, character like James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux over a one-note tough guy like Mike Hammer any day. Give me one of Le Carre’s morally confused and confusing operatives whose weapon is his mind over Jason Bourne and his quasi-ninja antics.

Beyond that though, I don’t know how to explain what comes from where. Life isn’t simple, neither are people. Stories shouldn’t be either.

Tom Pluck Beer I’m with you. Everything starts with a character, for me. You shared several stories from PENANCE’s tough Chicago world (you can read them here). But what’s next in store for John Lynch?

dan oshea thumb I’m wrapping up the second book in the Lynch series (though I think of them more as the Chicago series – the books have pretty sizable casts, so it feels a bit off to refer to them as just the Lynch series). Book two is entitled Mammon and centers on what happens when a guy who’d grown up in the Chicago area and the left town for the Marines, then the Foreign Legion and then a long, checkered career in Africa comes home with some stolen blood diamonds, and with Al Qaeda, the Chicago mob and the head of a Mexican drug cartel on his tail. Lynch and much of the cast of Penance are back, trying to make sense of – and clean up – the mess.

The man. The legend. The jacket.
The man. The legend. The jacket.

Tom Pluck Beer Sounds fantastic. Before you go, choose one album, one book, and one meal as if they’d be your last.


dan oshea thumb So many crime writers I know are into the whole heavy metal thing, but if I’m going with one album, it’s probably Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne. (Catch me on another day when I’m in a louder mood and it would be Quadrophenia by The Who. For the book, I’m gonna give you a high-brow, low-brow combo of Herzog by Saul Bellow and Dirty White Boys by Stephen Hunter.  Last meal’s gotta be St. Louis style ribs and really good sweet corn on the cob.

Tom Pluck Beer Jackson Browne is a favorite. His songs have the weary sadness of a continually disappointed optimist. And I do believe we shared such a meal at Pappy’s in St. Louis, no? Or was I in a euphoric stupor? Thanks for dropping in, Dan. If you go to Bouchercon, Dan’s the man in the techni-paisley stud-coat. You cannot miss him, nor should you. He’s a fine gent to jaw with.

Dan will be reading from PENANCE on May 3rd at Lake Forest Bookstore in his mellifluous baritone. The Velvet Fog may be gone, but the Thunder-Dome has risen to take his place. You can hear Dan read his story “Done for the Day” here.

"You shoulda seen the squirrel."
“You shoulda seen the squirrel.”

Belly Up to the Bar with Josh Stallings

“Josh has done an incredible job with the hand life dealt him. I admire the hell outa that. All the Wild Children is simply Stunning.” – Ken Bruen

Josh Stallings is the author of the Moses McGuire novels, BEAUTIFUL, NAKED & DEAD and OUT THERE BAD. His latest book is the noir memoir ALL THE WILD CHILDREN, which follows Josh and his feral siblings through the apocalyptic wasteland of the ’70s to the uncertain future. It is white-hot and fierce writing, as vivid and alive as Ken Bruen’s dead zero poetry and James Crumley’s bittersweet songs of American heartbreak. Josh’s stories have appeared in Shotgun Honey and Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, and will appear in the Tobacco Stained Sky Anthology edited by Andrew Bergen. I found Josh through his writing and met him at Bouchercon 2011, and I am proud to have him here.

Josh Stallings

Tom Pluck BeerIt’s not everyone who can write compellingly about his own life, but with ALL THE WILD CHILDREN, you made me gasp, laugh, cry and squirm. (The only other man who’s done that to me is John Waters, after a six pack). After the Mo McGuire books, what drove you to write about your own life?

josh stallingsJS: Thank you man, really.  As for the question, you got it just right, I was driven to write ALL THE WILD CHILDREN.  But to be fucking honest I don’t write what I’m not driven to.  My life is way too busy and complicated and writing is too hard for me to work on anything that doesn’t grab me by the nuts, squeeze hard and say “Write me you bastard.”  A couple of the cats I run with make a living at this game.  Mostly from film options.  So if I ain’t getting rich and it’s hard work and it takes away time I could be fooling around with Erika, then it better matter.

For the past four years, hell longer, the memoir has been calling my name.  Everything I ever wrote was in one way or another dealing with the mess of my life, characters standing proxy for the real life players.  Finally it seemed time to start naming names.  Ok, that is only partly true.  Closer to bone, right?  You want truth.  My older boy Dylan, this amazing retarded young man.  Yes I said retarded.  Fuck developmentally-disabled-delayed-differently-abled bullshit.  All that crap is for folks who aren’t Dylan and me.  We can use the “R” word, we earned it.  My son is retarded, that means behind or delayed.  As a film editor I tell sound mixers to retard a music track by four frames.  Last week I almost took a kid’s head off for calling his bud’s jeans retarded.  It doesn’t mean broken, stupid, ugly, out of style you little prick, in means be-fucking-hind.  So if I say those pants are so nigger, totally kike, spick-ginny- micked-up, Dude, how’s that wash?  Kid was too thick to get it.  Should have ripped off his nut-sack to be sure he didn’t procreate and move on…  Fuck, I’m on a rant.  Calm down.  Breathe.  Ok, what was the question?

beautiful naked dead

Tom Pluck BeerIt’s cool. Did anyone tell Bukowski or Miller to chill? Your life, why write about it now?

josh stallingsJS:  The dark days of my dangerous youth had come hunting and found me.

One son in the hospital for an O.D.  The other in a lockdown psych ward.  Whatever sense of a reasonable universe shredded.  At a conscious and subconscious level I needed to understand my life.  Map the trail that lead to this moment in time.  Moses #1 starts with a gun in his mouth.  That shit was real.  That was me telling it as plain as I could.  I lost friends because they said they couldn’t stand worrying about finding me dead.  Take a dark man and add this on top and it gets pretty fucking bleak.  The memoir started as a few essays, a way to deal with shit that didn’t fit into Moses’ world.  When it crested 70,000 words I thought maybe it was a book.  By then the beast had me by the throat and demanded to be finished.  Books are like needy lovers, break it off early or shut the fuck up, grab the oh-shit-bar and enjoy the ride.

all the wild children

Tom Pluck BeerIt takes guts to confront the narcissism of the post-war generations. ALL THE WILD CHILDREN takes place as Hunter S. Thompson’s “wave” of the ’60s rolls back, dragging you and your siblings through the wreckage. Drug fiction usually bores the hell out of me, but you told it true, with a wicked sense of humor. Who makes you laugh, these days?

josh stallingsJS: Post-war is a bit of an odd concept isn’t it?  The killing has to stop before we can have a post-war. “Life is war without end.  Leave no wounded, eat the dead, it’s ecologically sound.” – James Crumley, and that makes me laugh.  My sister Shaun makes me laugh, she is working on a collection of snarky mommie-lit essays called “Armageddon Is My Backup Plan.”  Her only regret in life is that she wasn’t born a gay alcoholic so her essays would sell better.   She and I talk or text every day.   She could put a snarky spin on a death camp and I swear she’d have me laughing.  My siblings and I place a high value on humor, a lot of days it was all we had to keep us from breaking.  Tad Williams and I became friends mostly because we made each other laugh.  That and the sex thing.  Kidding.  Or am I?  Gossip sells more books than facts… I think.  Anyway, Tadly, his new Bobby Dollar books have given him a place for his silly fucked-in-the-head humor.  Friends make me laugh.  You, Mr. Pluck, make me laugh.

For a while my niece, her friend, Jared and his girlfriend all lived with us.  I couldn’t swing a dead pederast without hitting a twenty-something.  I had two rules, don’t fuck with me when I’m in my office writing, and make me laugh or take it on down the road.  Jared’s dog ate a pair of my shoes, but she leapt and danced like a Chocolate Lab circus dog.  She made me laugh.  She still lives with me.  My big sister Lilly told me I should write comedy.  I said “I thought I did.”  Bloody violent painful comedy.

I don’t search out funny much.  Life is a mean bitch, but also comical.  Laugh or cry, those are the only options on the table.  So, laugh.  Big Vikings look fucking silly crying.

“Nothing is as wicked as another couple’s sex life, or as justifiable as your own.” –ALL THE WILD CHILDREN

Tom Pluck BeerI’m close with my sister too. Veterans from the same foxhole, right? When I read your first novel, Moses McGuire described Los Angeles like he was talking about an abusive parent. He’s more than a tortured hero, you let him make mistakes. Tell us about him and where he came from.

josh stallingsJS: LA.  It birthed both me and Moses.  I love this tarted up whore of a town.  Money is moving east, gentrification is rolling over the heart of Moses’ world.  Friday I ate at a taco joint, watching the street.  There was a mentally ill homeless lady spraying herself with a thick cloud of room freshener.  It was dripping off her arms.  A $170,000 four-wheeled penis extender sat at the curb.  She was shadowed by a high-rise with condos that start at a mil-five.  We just voted not to increase sales tax by a penny, for cops and firemen.  LA, right.  L-fucking-A.

Moses is a man of his city.  Born and raised in her arms.  If you wanted to burn her down, he’d offer you the match then do everything he could to smother the flames.  He is deeply flawed, but he has the heart of a bear.  He is a man of ambiguous moral character.  He’s a good man but he thinks he’s a piece of shit.  He is also a man on a downward spiral, the closer he gets to discovering a moral place to stand the crazier he gets.  The thing he does in Out There Bad leaves permanent scars.  One More Body may be his last outing.  I don’t know if he will survive it physically or emotionally.

He is who I would have been without my siblings.  If at fifteen I had pulled the trigger and killed that guy, gone to jail, I might well have been Moses.  He is a stand-in for me in many ways.  The fierce protection of those he loves is pure me.  His rage is me.  His love/hate relationship with sex in America in the twenty first century is also me.

I wrote many, many drafts.  I think I was trying to figure James Crumley out.  I started out playing in Crumley’s sand box, but Moses wouldn’t be contained.  He is not Milo or Sughrue.  He is Moses.  As the drafts went on I found my voice, yes it echoes of Crumley, but it is mine.  I can hear when it’s true and when it’s faux Crumley I hit delete.

Out There Bad

Tom Pluck BeerThere’s no denying you have your own voice, your own rhythm. OUT THERE BAD tackled sex trafficking, the great atrocity of our time. Every town has a strip club and there’s always the chance some of those dancers are working off debts they will never live to repay. You did some deep research for that book. What kind of places did you go, and what people did you meet?

josh stallingsJS: My sister was a stripper, my father dated strippers.  I’m no stranger to that world.  I’m also not afraid to go where ever a story leads.  4:00 AM Ensenada I met an American hooker, she was too tired to put much enthusiasm into her pitch.  When I said fucking was off the table but I’d buy her breakfast she looked relieved.  She told me about the Mexican Romeo she hooked up with in LA.  They shared some laughs and coke.  She lived with him in Mexico, but he split, they all do, she told me.  By then she was hooking to pay for her drugs, drugs she need to get through a life of fucking strangers for money.  Vicious circle?  You bet your sweet ass.  She had no passport, no way home either physically or emotionally.  We talked until dawn.  I wish I could have helped her.  But she had to carry her own freight.

Another time I was in an Armenian-run strip joint.  A big titted gal with translucent hair whispered at me a warning to quit asking questions, if I wanted to make it home.  I Laughed.  She said it was no joke.  I stopped laughing.

Oddly people smirk, “Oooh, hanging out in strip clubs and bordellos as ‘research’ riiiight?”  Truth is after all night talking to broken babies and watching sweaty men pay to put their fat piggy fingers up stripper’s snatches, all I want to do is go home and scald my skin in a shower.  Some days I long to write a book about a florist who solves crimes with the help of his tabby cat Jeeves.  Or maybe a Zombie cozy.

They even have a street name for this – gorilla pimping.  They traffic in young flesh, drag girls across state lines.  The average age these girls start is between eleven and twelve years old.  Boys they start at six.  Let that sink in.  SIX YEARS OLD. 

For ONE MORE BODY I have done street research, but I have also spent a year reading every first person account from prostitutes, cops, social workers and volunteers, anyone in contact with streetwalkers in the U.S.  I discovered that international sex traffic is a drop in the bucket.  Most of the trafficked girls are U.S. citizens.  Girls kidnapped and forced to suck and fuck adult men.  They even have a street name for this – gorilla pimping.  They traffic in young flesh, drag girls across state lines.  The average age these girls start is between eleven and twelve years old.  Boys they start at six.  Let that sink in.  SIX YEARS OLD.  The more I research the angrier I get.  As a society we either eat our young, or we don’t.  Here in the USA, we eat ‘em with an extra helping of hypocrisy.  A little White girl is taken in California and we get Megan’s Law.  Poor girls of color are snatched at a rate that should have us all puking in our Post-Toasties and we do shit.  Not true, we do less than shit.  In the San Fernando Valley they had a get tough measure, if you catch a man buying sex, you impound his car.  His car?  Really.  Laws are all on the John’s side.  He is a man after all, with natural urges.  They floated the idea of putting his picture in the paper.  Scary stuff?  Fuck that.  Fuck a child go straight to hell.  And no matter how you dress her a twelve year old is a child, as are thirteen and fourteen and fifteen and sixteen year old girls.  Men who are willing to trade these girl’s childhoods just to bust a nut should be shot, slow, I.R.A style.  One joint at a time, then left to bleed out alone in a dirt field.

Tom Pluck BeerI like what Vachss says, if we can’t cure them, we can certainly CONTAIN them. But let’s cool down a bit. One thing that sold me on the McGuire books is the music. The Clash, ’70s soul. Your words have a rhythm to them, a flow, that doesn’t let us get bored. Does that come from the music, from your skills as a film editor, or both?

josh stallingsJS: Yes and Yes.  I am massively dyslexic and I read slowly so I hate overly wordy fat books.   Music drives my brain and my film cutting.  Trailers are tightly condensed highly rhythmic stories.  Ok, I didn’t go to University, you know that, but I am a self taught man.  I’ve read everything Shakespeare wrote, read and read until I got what he was saying.  Without knowing it, structure seeped in.  I would find a writer and read all their works in order.  My old man was a painter and sometime poet, he gave me Dylan Thomas and Richard Brautigan, they both informed pace.  But in truth I think it is just that I can’t type any faster.  All The Wild Children is around 76,000 words I think.  It is my longest book.  If you’re gonna type slow, you gots to make every word count.

Tom Pluck BeerAnd while we’re on music, we know you love The Clash, Parliament, and The Tubes, but I know you listen to newer music. Who’s got your ear these days?

josh stallingsJS: In Tecate I found a CD by Cafe Tacuba, great sound, I love Mexican musica alternativa.  And Lila Downs.  For the new book I’m immersing myself in modern hip hop.  My go to for peace is Admiral Fallow, a Scottish band not unlike Elbow.  Gossling’s dreamy sound is in my headsets as I type this.  Antony and the Johnsons.  And more Clash, more Pogues.  Can’t have enough of them lads.  I have a copy of Josh Rouse doing “Straight To Hell” as a ballad.  Fucking blows my mind.

Yeah, it amuses me when people ignore all hip-hop, or any style of music. I like everything from bluegrass to rap to pop. Just needs something real in it. I didn’t know it, but you cut the trailers for some of my favorite films. Robocop, Dead Presidents. Do you watch the whole film first, how does it work? Does distilling a two hour movie into a one minute spot help you write the most important parts of a story?

josh stallingsJS:  Yes I see all the films.  For Oliver Stone’s Twin Towers I had eighteen something hours to pull from.  Elmore Leonard said he leaves out the parts people skim.  That is what a trailer is.  As for the most important moments, for me they aren’t the trailer moments.  It is the subtle moments that I am most proud of.  In an early chapter of the All The Wild Children I am having my last breakfast in Half Moon bay with my pops.  The wheels are coming off my family.  I am eight and feeling the weight of it all.  The trailer moment would be me, one tear rolling down my cheek as he drives away.  But that didn’t happen.  While we were driving home to pack and dissolve our family, I used the sleeve of my sweat shirt to wipe away the condensation, a small patch through which I could see the world.  That little human moment would never make it into a trailer.

Tom Pluck BeerYou know how the Kinks say “Everybody’s in show biz, no matter who you are,” in Celluloid Heroes? Today especially, with reality TV and YouTube, I think we live like we’re in our own movies. But you’ve worked behind the scenes for years, even directing. Tell us about your moviemaking experiences, and give me your favorite three films.

josh stallingsJS: Dawn is breaking on an indie film Tad Williams and I wrote, I’m directing, we are trying to beat the sun for one last night shot.  “Come on people we’re making a movie here!”  I shout.

Sean the crusty sound guy looks up at me, “Josh you’re making a movie, me I’m pushing records on my Nagra.”

There was the whole Russia adventure, then I got paid to write a screenplay called Thor, but the real Thor, historical Norse myth.  I was over the moon.  Bear and me worked our asses off.  We explored the archetypal conflicts between Loki the half god and Thor – Loki always being there for Thor, but never earning his father Odin’s respect.  In the end, Loki brings on Ragnarok.  Can you imagine a Norse man like me getting to tell those stories?  The producers read it.  And had a panicked meeting.  They wanted Thor to be frozen in a block of ice and discovered in Middale Kansas.  Encino Man meets, well Encino Man.  I worked on a few more scripts, doctored a few but my heart wasn’t in.  They had broken it real good.

Hollywood is no place for creative types.  Hollywood needs creative types.  Hollywood hates creative types.  Hollywood idolizes creative types.  They offer a bag of shekels in trade for giving up caring.  Crumley made more money off movie options than selling books.  Charlie Huston had Caught Stealing optioned before he sold the publishing rights.  Hollywood may be our new patrons.

All that said, I fucking love Hollywood.

Favorite films?

#1 The Wild Bunch.  I have watched it every year on my birthday for many years.  It is the last sincere film I remember being made here.  No quips, no winks at camera.  Bruce Willis would never say “They’re men, and I wish to hell I was with them.”  Not without a wink.  Also that last unspoken moment before all hell breaks loose, the moment when they look at each other and decide to fuck it?  That is a pure film moment, wouldn’t work in any other medium.

#2 Taxi Driver.  It was the first film that made me feel it might be possible for the stories in my head to find an audience.

#3 The Big Lebowski , because, oh fuck it Dude, let’s go bowling.


Tom Pluck BeerYeah, Lebowski in the theater, first run, is one of my favorite film experiences. That loving parody of Chandler, and how everyone in that flick except maybe Donnie, is playing a character they want to be. I want to be more Dude and less Walter.

Your memoir reminded me of some of the best I’ve read, like Frank McCourt, because you find humor in the hell. Which to me, is the truth. Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill… they write dark but put humor in there, because that’s the reality. Humor is a defense mechanism. Who are your favorite writers, period? Not just crime. Dead or alive.

josh stallingsJS: Hemingway.  Crumley.  Bruen.  I didn’t have to think.  I love tight spare prose with not a word wasted.  Thanks for the comment about humor.  It is what makes us interesting.  We primates are the only creatures that can laugh at ourselves, and isn’t that brilliant?  Stunning, really.  All this evolution to deliver a good solid joke.  Works for me.


Tom Pluck BeerAnd you may pretend to be vegan or a healthy eater, I’ve seen you attack platters of bacon like a Viking on a Pictish village. So where’s your favorite place to eat? When I hit the your coast next year, where are you gonna take me to knock me out with a food coma and save California from my rampage?

josh stallingsJS:  Where the fuck did you get vegan healthy eater?  I don’t eat gluten, corn or dairy because they rip my guts up and I’m not in favor of drinking my own blood.  The taco truck two blocks away on Colorado, in the gas station parking lot makes the best carnitas in town.  Two blocks from that is Oinkster, best goddamn burgers going.  Gus’s BBQ in South Pasadena will break your heart and leave you screaming for more.  If you really want a meat orgy come by when Erika throws down on the grill.  Then when your colon needs a rest, Lemon Grass has fine vegetarian Vietnamese food.  Years after we bought in Eagle Rock it was discovered by wealthy hipsters.  My punk son used to scream at them as they drove down our quiet streets.  But the hipsters sure did bring good food with them.  Moses wouldn’t recognize these tame streets.

I’m relatively certain I have bungled this interview to the point where it may crash your site.  But know, I am honored to be here.  Your support of my writing is wonderful.  Your friendship is pure gold.  In the words of my pops, “Kill ‘em all but six, save them for pallbearers.”

Tom Pluck BeerBrother, if we don’t champion what we love we deserve the shit sandwich the world tries to serve us. Thank you for coming by for a balls-out no punches pulled interview.

You can find Josh at his website,

ALL THE WILD CHILDREN is available in trade paperback and Kindle from Snubnose Press. BEAUTIFUL, NAKED & DEAD and OUT THERE BAD are available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Belly Up to the Bar with Frank Bill

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.

Tom Pluck BeerWelcome to Belly up to the Bar, Frank. What are you drinking?

frank billFB: Makers on the rocks.

Tom Pluck Beer I didn’t bring you here to flatter you, but you wrote a hell of a novel with Donnybrook. Tell us a little bit about it, and where the title and inspiration comes from.


frank bill 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.

Tom Pluck Beer 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?

frank bill 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.

Tom Pluck Beer 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?

frank bill 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.

Master of the Flying Guillotine

Tom Pluck Beer 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?

frank bill FB: Thanks. Too kind. You’ll see more from the characters in Donnybrook in a follow-up, titled The Salvaged and the Savage with new characters and story lines.


Tom Pluck Beer 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?

frank bill 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.

Tom Pluck Beer If you could pick three writers that everyone would have to read in school, who would they be?

FB: Larry Brown. Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.
frank bill2

Tom Pluck Beer 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?

frank bill 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.

cool hand luke 1967 1

Tom Pluck Beer 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?

frank bill 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.

Tom Pluck Beer Luke’s a fave for me too. And before you go, what are you working on next?

frank bill FB: Follow up to Donnybrook and a project I signed on for but can’t announce yet. Thanks for the generous words and having me over.

Tom Pluck Beer Thanks for coming by, Frank.

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.

Frank Bill blogs at House of Grit. You can follow him on Twitter at @houseofgrit and find his work wherever fine books are sold:

Donnybrook at Indiebound
Crimes in Southern Indiana at Indiebound

Donnybrook at Amazon
Crimes in Southern Indiana at Amazon

“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.”
—Kirkus Reviews

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Belly Up to the Bar with Jason Karlawish

open wound

I met Jason Karlawish at a book event for Frank Bill. He’s a physician and the author of Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont, based on true events which occurred on the American frontier. Jason teaches medicine, medical ethics, and health policy, and writes frequently about these issues and how they affect us. Voting rights and the elderly. Patenting genes and medical discoveries such as biomarkers. I invited him to put his suede-patched elbows on the mahogany over a drink to chew the fat about all these things.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Jason. What can I get you?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: Darkest ale you’ve got.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Then I’ll pour you an Abita Turbodog. Now, let’s talk about OPEN WOUND. As a fan of weird history, I’d heard of the tale of Dr. Beaumont and his patient. Would you recount it for our readers?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: Yes, this is weird history. In June of 1822, on the remote Mackinac Island, a young French Canadian fur trapper named Alexis St. Martin was at the wrong end of an accidental shotgun blast in the American Fur Company Supply Store. He suffered a horrible wound that opened up a hole into his chest and stomach, exposing lung and spilling out his morning meal, but Alexis was a fortunate young man. Dr. William Beaumont, the island’s only physician, came to his aid. Beaumont, an assistant surgeon in the US army, had experience with gunshot wounds from his service as a surgeon’s mate in the War of 1812. Alexis survived.

But after months of slow but certain recovery, he was left with a deforming injury: a hole into his stomach. Unless Dr. Beaumont kept the hole plugged with a wad of lint, whatever Alexis ate or drank – this pint of ale, for instance – spilled out.

Something happened. Dr. Beaumont came to see his patient as someone, something, that was different than simply a patient well-cared for. His wound became a kind of frontier to explore. Although Beaumont had no training in research, no expectation to do research, he recognized that his patient’s wound was the object of his success. He could study gastric digestion and, in doing so, advance science and also a career that, to date, had been marked by hard work but small rewards. What follows is Dr. Beaumont’s tragic obsession and one of the oddest doctor-patient relationships.

Open Wound is a novel but it’s based on true events — sort of Blood Meridian meets The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lachs.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I can see why you were drawn to this one. It sounds like something that couldn’t happen today. Could it? Or would the poor fella with the hole in his gut be patented by Big Pharma?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: Today, in the US, I doubt a person would suffer such a permanent hole in his side. And yet, patients remain the source of great profit. A patient with a gene or protein or tissue that has value is like gold and the scientists who discover that value will transform it into property and they will “monetize” it. Don’t you love that word?

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Soon we’ll all be monetized, and told to like it. It makes me wonder if we’ll see health insurers asking patients to surrender their rights to any discoveries made with their DNA or their cells before treatment, someday. What dangers do you foresee for patients in the coming years?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: In fact, right now, patients have no claim to ownership of discoveries made from their tissues. The courts have weighed in on that. The “bios” is the new frontier for ownership and profit. Just as American land was in the 19th century.

What is interesting is how the courts are starting to push back on patents on discoveries of nature, such as claims to own genes or proteins that categorize people into states of risk. The courts recognize that no one can own a law of nature. Not the person in whom that law was observed and not the person who observed the law. Prometheus discovered fire, he did not invent it. No patent there. Just the punishment for stealing it from the gods.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve also written about treating dementia. Which next to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) is the ailment which terrifies me the most. Are the treatments promising? I’ve had several relatives with dementia, but their doctors never recommended treatment. It’s still seen as a side effect of aging. Will this reach epidemic proportions, with our growing lifespan?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: I’ve done a lot of essay writing on this and some of that is on my website The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease and the longer we live, the more likely we are to get it, especially after age 70. In this last century, developed nations such as the U.S. and Japan have experienced an increase in life span that is without precedent. The result? We have more people living more years, which means more people with brain failure because of Alzheimer’s disease.

The funny thing about the epidemic is that we have some control over how big it is. That control depends on how we define it. If we say that older adults who have essentially normal cognition but a brain scan that shows Alzheimer’s pathology, that they have Alzheimer’s disease, then we can overnight explode the prevalence of the disease.

The more we know about Alzheimer’s, the less we understand. I am, for example, fascinated by studies that show how most brains of persons who are demented have, not only the characteristic plaque and tangle pathology of Alzheimer’s disease but they also have other pathologies, or how as many as a third of persons with Alzheimer’s dementia don’t in fact have detectable plaque on brain scans.

We’re likely dealing with many diseases here and so we’re in for a long march to discover an effective treatment.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Writing historical fiction seems a different tack for a physician. Thrillers seem to be the norm, though Josh Bazell’s fiction defies easy description (other than “awesome”) and Glenn Gray uses his medical knowledge to springboard into the unique and bizarre. Medical history is fertile ground for ideas. What do you see in your writing future?

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK: I’m fascinated with how risk is transforming medicine. The doctor patient relationship is moving from the bedside of the sick patient, to the desktop of the client at risk. I see these events as part of a larger story of what I call “actuarial capture” – the quant boys and girls rule the world. Look what they did to American banking and finance. They almost took down the world’s economy. So I’m working on a story about all this. It’s a dark comedy that starts something like this….

America’s greatest industry, healthcare, has collapsed and the news reports give the angry and confused residents gathered in the Fox Run Retirement Community’s Commons Room someone to blame—Doctor Apsara Everett, a Vietnamese-American refugee turned celebrity physician—but what the news does not report, yet, is that one of their fellow Fox Run residents, the quiet and solitary Doctor Robert Fane, is her father, and that why her career crashed and Fane family fell apart are part of a larger story of the corruption of American medicine, freedom, and a nation seduced by risk and numbers.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I like dark comedy, and I think anyone who deals with our health care system would love to read about the reality behind the mess we see as the final consumer. Okay, Jason. Death row time. Or, terminal disease in your case, Doc. The end is near. Pick a book, a movie, an album and a last meal.

jason karlawsh thumbnailJK:  So many titles to pick from – Blood Meridian, Lolita, Let the Great World Spin — but I think I’ll go with the book that has stayed with me the longest. Why? That means the book still has something to say to me. A good book speaks to you, changes you. A great book keeps on doing that. It’s a relationship.  I’ll read, yet again since I first read it in college, some 25 years ago, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Yes, it’s a stepchild to his “best seller” Madame Bovary, but it’s captivating tale of young men and women, free and able to make of their lives as they desire, and yet failing miserably at it.

I’ll take a break from this uplifting tale and to listen to Radiohead’s In Rainbows or watch anything by the Cohen brothers and nibble just a few cheese crackers while I drink—yes, I’m lovin’ this ale—but I’ll go out with a case of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Thank you for dropping by, Jason. Open Wound sounds fascinating, and I look forward to your next.

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