Belly Up to the Bar with M.H. Mead

M.H. Mead is the pen name of the writing duo of Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion, authors of FATE’S MIRROR, THE CALINE CONSPIRACY, and most recently, the Motor City techno-thriller TAKING THE HIGHWAY. Detroit has become a commuter nightmare of dystopian proportions that gives us “fourths,” professional carpoolers needed to fill a car so you can ride in the HOV lane, and computer-controlled traffic patterns. As a fan of speculative fiction, science fiction that considers the issues facing humanity today and in the future, I enjoyed “Riding Fourth,” the short story set in the future of TAKING THE HIGHWAY, so I invited Yang and Campion to belly up to the bar.

Taking the Highway

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Hello Margaret and Harry, or M.H. … what can I get you?

 
 
 

mh mead Harry: I’ll take Captain’s and Cola with lime.
Margaret: I’ll have what he’s having.

 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP:I gave readers a hint about the future Detroit in TAKING THE HIGHWAY, but tell us what the story is about.

 
 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: The Detroit of the future is a newly-evolved model of prosperity, but that prosperity is fragile. A ring of poverty circles the city like a noose, which makes commuting from the suburbs into the city a dangerous prospect, unless you’re on the highways. Since every highway is restricted to cars with four passengers, those carpools who come up short hire professional hitchhikers—fourths—to round out their carpools. The city needs fourths. Fourths need the work. It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash.

Or to end up dead.

Someone is killing fourths and the only one who can stop the killer is jaded homicide detective Andre LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

Tom Pluck BeerTP:I’m a total motorhead, though my mechanic skills peter out after electronic fuel injection came around. I drove a ’65 Mustang ragtop in college–bought with my own cash after paying tuition, mind you–and I love a well designed car, whether it’s ’70s Detroit muscle or my Mini Cooper turbo. What are your favorites?

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: We test-drove lots of contemporary American power to see which one we thought would become a classic. Which car of today would be considered a desirable antique in a future of smoothly plastic electric cars? A friend took us for a ride in a Viper, but we had to pass because it was only available in manual transmission. It was too much to ask that our hero be able to drive stick in that world—alas. Although we loved the Mustang and the Corvette, we came back to Dodge for the Challenger. Andre and his brother share a bright red, 2008 Challenger, inherited from their father. The brothers constantly fight over who gets to drive it, even though it’s too valuable to be driven at all.

2009-hurst-hemi-dodge-challenger-front-angle-588x441

Tom Pluck BeerTP: In “Riding Fourth” you make it clear that Fourths are second-class citizens. We like to think America is a classless society, but that’s only because it’s taboo to talk about it. And your car says the same things about you in America as your schooling and accent do in England. What inspired you to make a car-less underclass for this novel?

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: We’re big fans of science fiction novels that focus on the cultural impacts of new discoveries and evolving technology. Detroit has been saved by shrinking its footprint, but that makes the commute there and back again from the suburbs a tricky thing. People will hire fourths only if they have to. Since you don’t want just any stranger in your car, fourths have to look good, act polite, and charm instantly. Our fourths are day laborers with the wit of Oscar Wilde, gigolos with the sophisticated charm of James Bond, and they are constantly clawing for respect. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t.

 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” That’s from Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD. But I also like “Nobody walks in L.A.,” by Missing Persons. We have it on the jukebox. You got no wheels, you got nothing. Tell us a bit about Detroit. I haven’t been there for decades, and residents have a love-hate relationship with the city. What made you set it there?

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: The Motor City hates the hate when it comes to public transportation. The unspoken undercurrent is “anyone not buying a new car as often as possible is part of the problem.” At the same time, cities often have islands of safety surrounded by lakes of poverty. We just took both things to their logical extreme. Honestly, the most science-fictional aspect of the entire book is the new prosperity of Detroit. In our imagined future, Detroit is a great place to live, work, and even vacation. One of our favorite scenes in the book is when Andre, working as a fourth, is picked up by a family of tourists. Their outsider’s view of Detroit really shows how the city has changed.

Detroit Grand Prix

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I was sorely disappointed that it wasn’t like ROBOCOP described it, when I visited. New Jersey has the same self-deprecating sense of humor. What are some of your favorite movies? They don’t have to be about cars or Detroit.

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: We could probably carry on entire conversations using nothing but movie quotes. THE PRINCESS BRIDE has the best lines. “Have fun storming the castle!” and “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means,” and “I do not think you’ll accept my help, since I am only waiting around to kill you.” We also love little Ronald Ann in A WISH FOR WINGS THAT WORK. Her simple, “Uh-huh, save it,” speaks volumes.

What’s even more fun is quoting lines from really bad movies. Bruce Willis in STRIKING DISTANCE, half-shouting, half-whining, “I’m trying to solve a murder, here!” cracks us up every time.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Here’s a buck, pick a few songs off the jukebox that readers should listen to while reading TAKING THE HIGHWAY.

 
 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: We could take the easy way and name car songs like “Highway to Hell” and “I’m in Love With My Car” and “Pink Cadillac.”  But you know what would be even more fitting? Classic Motown. Our near-future Detroit has a lot in common with the Detroit of the 50’s and 60’s. It was a time of prosperity, of population growth, of optimism. Yet, there was an undercurrent of poverty and inequality that exploded a few years later. Things were good on the surface, not so good underneath. And yet that music—The Supremes, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye—is music everyone knows by heart.

 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I tried collaborating on a story with a friend of mine, but I found it very difficult. Then again, I’m a brutal editor. For the record, “Riding Fourth” didn’t make me reach for my red pen. I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to reading your novel. What is it like collaborating on novels, like you do? How do you not kill each other?

 

mh mead Harry & Margaret: It starts with respect. We were classmates together and beta readers for one another long before we were collaborators. We have confidence in each other’s opinions, so if one of us says, “This is a problem,” we know it is. We often differ about the best fix, but the trust and respect means we will eventually find a way.

Do we ever want to kill each other? Heck, no! We’ve had a few serious disagreements, but 99 days out of 100, this is the most fun we’ve ever had writing.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: And speaking of death, what are your respective last meals?

 
 
 

mh mead Harry : The bleu-crusted, aged tenderloin filet from The Rattlesnake Club on Detroit’s Riverwalk. I’d pair it with a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from Three Saints Santa Ynez.

Margaret: I don’t really care what’s for dinner, as long as there is key lime pie for dessert. Just like that character from “Dexter,” If I had the perfect slice of key lime pie in my stomach, I could die happy.

key-lime-pie-m

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I’d skip the grape juice, but key lime pie and a good steak sound like a great way to go. Thanks for dropping by and piquing my interest even further in your novel.

 

Taking the Highway is available for Kindle and in trade paperback. M.H. Mead’s website can be found at Yang and Campion.

 

BW Beer Mug

Belly Up to the Bar with Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block should need no introduction. Author of the Matthew Scudder detective novels, the Bernie Rhodenbarr series of burglar mysteries, and standalone novels and short stories too numerous to mention, his most recent novel is HIT ME, starring everybody’s favorite hit man: Keller. Mr. Block is one of our greatest living storytellers, and I’m glad that he continues to write long into his self-professed retirement. If you haven’t read his work, the Hit Man series with Keller is a great place to begin.

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

Lawrence BlockLB: I’m good, Tom.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: The hit man is well-worn territory, but with Keller you’ve created one of the most likeable and believable killers in fiction. I knew a guy–to use the Jersey parlance–and Keller’s sense of calm, and his capability for calculated violence ring utterly true. There’s a sadness in the stories, as well. The loneliness of the job is the perfect foil for the excitement of the hunt and Dot’s acerbic sense of humor. So where did Keller come from, and what keeps you returning to tell his stories?

Lawrence BlockLB: Well, I had a story idea that turned into “Answers to Soldier.” Guy goes out to Oregon on business, makes the mistake of getting to know the quarry, has fantasies of quitting the business and making a life for himself similar to the guy’s, goes so far as to look at houses, then comes to his senses, kills the guy, and goes home. The hit man turned out to be Keller, and I wound up having a lot more to say about him.

HIT ME Lawrence Block

Tom Pluck BeerTP: When I pick up one of your books, I know I’m getting great dialogue. The latest Matthew Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, begins with a conversation between Matt and Mick Ballou that I could have read for the entire book. George V. Higgins said “Dialogue is character and character is plot.” Do you think it boils down to that, or is there something more to it?

Lawrence BlockLB: Well, it was true for Higgins. It depends enormously on the writer. Some of us are intensely visual, for example. They know what all the people in their books look like, see the rooms in their lives fully furnished. What I tend to know most about my characters is what they sound like, how they express themselves.

Snake Stamp

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve traveled the world, but your fiction is mostly set in New York. Keller seems the most widely traveled of your creations. I read a lot of New York authors, but when Scudder is walking around town or Bernie is scoping a building, I feel not only like I’m there, but that I’ve lived there and know the town. Which I don’t, except as a Jersey invader. What keeps your stories in New York and the States, when you’ve visited so many exotic locales?

Lawrence BlockLB: New York has been home to me in a very fundamental way from the first time I came here. It’s as natural for me to have my characters live here as it is for me to live here myself. In the mid-80s my wife and I moved to South Florida, and I found myself wondering if I’d wind up setting most of my fiction there. I realized that I probably wouldn’t, that I had no real sense of the inner lives of people there. Thus I’d go on setting my stories in New York.

hit me stamps

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Keller’s stamp collecting has become almost as intriguing as his hits. I missed out on the last philatelic edition, but I snagged the one Mysterious Press is doing for HIT ME. (The philatelic edition is a special first edition that comes signed, with a special postage stamp affixed to the cover, and a souvenir sheet of stamps) I never collected stamps, but I did collect coins, then lost my collection to some unscrupulous movers. A pristine 1945-S Mercury dime will be my Rosebud, I imagine. There’s something about stamps, coins and bank notes besides the art and their monetary value–they’re tangible icons. I was a numismatist, and you’re a philatelist. Which both sound like kinky perversions, and to a degree they are. What stamps do you collect? Does Keller have your dream collection?

Lawrence BlockLB: Keller collects worldwide, 1840 to 1940, which his British Empire collection extending through the reign of George VI. Me too. How’s that for coincidence? Keller, of course, has a much better collection, because he had the sense to pick a far more lucrative profession.
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’re a writer’s writer. I say that because you’ve written several books about writing that tell it straight, such as Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. One of my favorite quotes is when you respond to that ubiquitous cocktail party nightmare, the person who says they’d love to be a writer if they only had the time, as if it were a hobby, not a skill and a talent. You said no one says that to a pro ballplayer, and I took that to heart. Writers don’t get respect, and we’re often the last to get paid, if we get paid at all. Would you say that’s gotten better or worse?

Lawrence BlockLB: It’s probably stayed about the same. One difference is that people tend to think we’re rich. They read about the contracts a couple of people get and figure we all make that kind of money. I remember Evan Hunter telling me how some clown from some college explainded that, for a donation of a mere ten million dollars, they could build a new dormitory and name it after him. “What kind of money do they think we make?” he marveled. On a lesser scale, but just barely, some well-meaning fool once advised me to charter a private plane for my book tours. Jesus. You go to some town, spend two hours in a bookstore, sign twenty books, with translates into what, $60 in royalties? It’s absurd enough for a publisher to fly you in coach, which is why book tours are finally coming to an inglorious end, but charter a fucking airplane?

Kukri Stamp

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve always been one of the most tech-savvy writers I know. You had your email address in your books 20 years ago. And in your fiction, you manage to get the reality of computers and cell phones into the stories without making them linchpins of the plot, where the tension hinges on how many bars of signal someone has. I liked how TJ was the go-to character for the non-technical Scudder. That worked, you acknowledged the Internet but kept his feet on the ground. People have arguments about cell phones in mystery stories. Do you think technology leaches the tension out of a mystery?

Lawrence BlockLB: I think it might. It certainly performs that function for life itself. Nobody gets to be alone anymore.
 
 
 
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’ve taken self-publishing head-on, releasing short stories, backlist titles written under pen names, and two short story collections: one of Matthew Scudder tales and another of Ehrengraf, the only lawyer I truly enjoy reading about. If you were a beginning writer, would you take advantage of self-publishing, or do you think the traditional route remains the best way to establish yourself?

Lawrence BlockLB: I’m not sure I know the answer, and it’ll change in ten minutes anyway, given the current pace of change in and out of publishing. But from where I stand (well, sit, actually) self-publishing certainly appears to be the way the world is moving. It’s the best choice for an increasing number of writers—and it’s often the only choice.
 
 

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Thank you for indulging my questions. Before you go, what would you like for your last meal?
 
 
 
 

Lawrence BlockLB: Treacle.

 
 
 
 

HIT ME is now available in the philatelic edition from LB’s bookstore, and his website is as you’d expect, LawrenceBlock.com

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Belly Up to the Bar with Katherine Tomlinson

Katherine Tomlinson is the author of six books of crime, urban fantasy and dark fiction. She has written for feature film and television, and for newspapers and magazines across the country. Her work has appeared in A Twist of Noir, Pulp Ink 2, and Weird Noir. She is also the editor of the upcoming Dark Valentine Press anthology Nightfalls: Notes from the End of the World which includes stories by Nigel Bird, Patricia Abbott, Jimmy Callaway, Richard Godwin, and yours truly.

nightfalls 2
TP:  Welcome to Belly up to the bar, Katherine- what are you drinking?

 
 

katherine tomlinson

KT: Would you mock me if I ordered a virgin Sea Breeze? I’m diabetic so I save my calories for things that are really important, like the occasional fleur de sel salt caramel (thank you Trader Joe’s for making them available year ’round) and spicy Thai drunken noodles with chicken. I am all about the spice.

TP: Not one bit! I do partake of nonalcoholic beverages, they are one of my many vices. You write dark fiction. The first story of yours for me was “Water Sports” in A Twist of Noir (not what it sounds like, pervos) which perfectly captures the voice of a psychopath. Where does that voice come from? Is there a place that you go, or a memory you conjure?

 

katherine tomlinson

KT:  I have no idea. Compared to so many people I know, I won the parent lottery. I was loved, encouraged, praised, and given access to books and art and music (we had a piano) and travel. I tend to be a pretty positive person (I wear pink! I have a cat!) and I often wonder if it’s because I write out all my anger in short stories. And really, my fiction is only darkish compared to something like Plastic Soldiers by W.D. County or your own Black-Eyed Susan (which I admired very much.)

TP:  One of my favorite movies is Last Night, a Canadian film about the last day on Earth, and how people spend it. It is surprisingly mundane, but very thought-provoking. What inspired the theme of the Nightfalls anthology, the end of the world?

 

katherine tomlinson

KT: I don’t know that movie. I’ll have to check it out.

One of my good friends and I had thought about doing an end of the world webseries that would climax on 12.21.12. The idea was to follow a lot of stories, a la Crash or Valentine’s Day–all of them tied together by the office building where the characters worked. That project didn’t come to fruition but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I ended up playing around with a story I called “Conor and Travis Salute the Fallen Warriors” about a couple of World of Warcraft players who stay connected to the bitter end. It still needs some work, so I didn’t put it in the anthology.

TP: That sounds like a great concept, really. I was briefly addicted to MMPORGs, and find the so close, yet so far dichotomy lends itself to a good story. (For the record, I sold my account and helped pay for my sister’s wedding.) The introduction you wrote for the anthology moved me. People seem to wander around in their own little worlds these days, and believe that only their pain matters, and everyone else’s is somehow their own fault. Do you think people have become more and more selfish, or that we’re just more aware of it?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “When you’re cold, don’t expect sympathy from someone who’s warm.” I think that during the run-up to this year’s presidential election, the lines being drawn between those who are warm and those who are cold was pretty stark. It was all very Gilded Age and “I’ve got mine.” And it was troubling. I was especially troubled by some of the new euphemisms–talking about “hunger” as “food insecurity.” Food insecurity. My aunt is a retired Methodist minister and one of her longtime outreach programs is a food bank that serves a pocket of semi-rural Southwest Virginia. She’s feeding hungry people, not people who think they’re going to gain weight if they eat a whole non-fat muffin.

I think the proportion of selfish and clueless people is about the same as it’s always been–we just hear about it more now. What is that line from A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is asked to donate to the poor–“Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?” That was written in 1843, almost 170 years ago and every time I heard a reference to the “47 percent” last fall, I thought about Dickens.

TP: It’s refreshing to hear you speak of it as bluntly as I see it. Money forgives everything in America- it is very Machiavellian. And compassion is seen as denying some Darwinian imperative, by people who don’t believe in evolution. It’s utterly bizarre. From your bio, you’ve traveled the country from Hawaii to the coasts. I tend to be fascinated about the little pockets of character all over the country. What are some of your favorite places?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  I like cities on the water, oceans, lakes, rivers. I love San Antonio and am seriously considering moving there at some unspecified future date. I miss my hometown (Washington D.C.) terribly and when I was back there this summer, I was reminded anew of how much I love that city. It’s so green. My neighborhood in Los Angeles is a little oasis of trees and flowering Japanese magnolia and jacarandas in the spring, but L.A. was carved out of a desert thanks to water stolen from the Colorado River, and the desert is just waiting to take it back.

I love New Orleans too, that glorious wrecked wedding cake of a city. (I love that if you ask cab drivers where to find the best bread pudding in the city, they know. They talk about food there like people in L.A. talk about celebrities.)

I’ve never been to Portland, Oregon but have fallen in love with the city from watching Grimm. (Yes, like those who buy Playboy for the articles, I watch Grimm for the scenery. It has nothing to do with Sasha Roiz. Really.) I also have a soft spot for Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. You want characters?  There are some serious characters on Ocracoke.

dc in snow

TP: I love New Orleans, myself. Its old history as a free city lives on. And DC, the cherry blossoms and the worldliness. Writers always talk about their favorite writers, but I think there so many other influences on writing. For me, movies and music were a big part of it, the dark fatalistic tone of the nuclear age, and the raw, outlaw ferocity of early rock ‘n roll. You’re welcome to mention the writers you admire, but what else has inspired your writing?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  The Washington Post. (Most people don’t know this but until 1981, DC also had an afternoon paper, the Evening Star, and it was a damn fine publication.) So I grew up reading two local papers a day.  My father subscribed to both the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. My parents were news junkies who would have loved the world of 24/7 news cycles.  All that news just sort of acted as fertilizer for my imagination. I was a journalist for 15 years before I turned to fiction and I loved that I was paid to ask questions; that I could be nosy for a living.

 

I write a lot of fiction based on random news. (And I owe a lot to the Drudge Report, which is a never-ending source of inspiration.) But even the regular news these days is weird: Disembodied feet washing up in Toronto, bodies piling up in Detroit morgues. Tsunami debris coming in with the tide. Dolphins being murdered. Choking to death on roaches. The stories practically write themselves.

I was also a crazy fan of Twilight Zone and I think it shows in my stories, I do love my twist endings and I blame that on Rod Serling. At Thanksgiving this year we had the annual TZ marathon on in the background and everybody at the table could mouth the dialogue along with the characters … for every episode. Yes, everyone I know is a geek. One of my favorite writers is Stephen King and you can tell he grew up watching those same episodes.

TP: Oh yes, Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. That sense of fate inspired “Black-Eyed Susan,” which may be why you liked it. Thank you, by the way. For me the weird news source is Weird NJ magazine, I’ve written for them and I love exploring all sorts of forgotten history. You write a lot about fear, and it is the most visceral of emotions. As an adult, I find it tougher to get scared for entertainment. I loved supernatural horror, but aliens and werewolves aren’t scary for me anymore–the fear of losing loved ones to disease and accidents is all that remains–and that is too painful to read, sometimes. What is your favorite fear to explore in your writing?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  As a movie-goer, I am a horror movie maker’s dream audience. All you have to do to scare me is have something jump out at me. I still remember the jolt when I saw Jaws for the first time and nearly swallowed my popcorn because the editing and the music conspired to trick me into relaxing just before the shark popped out of that hole. (And for the record, I have been nervous about swimming in the ocean ever since.)

I think my stories are fed from a wellspring of anxieties that aren’t entirely my own. I’m afraid of heights but not of snakes. Around my house I am spider-bane, the designated killer of all things eight-legged and yet I have a totally irrational fear of going to bed with the Christmas tree lights burning. The most successful woman I know is haunted by a fear of being homeless. I once saw a neighbor totally freak out when a kitten licked her toe. “Get it away from me,” she shrieked, scaring the kitten.

If I had to narrow it down, I’d say I write a lot about loss. The death of my younger sister five years ago remains a tender spot and I have returned to that grief a number of times in stories. I don’t want to exploit that though, because that gets boring and kind of sleazy.

 
 

TP: My condolences, Katherine. Loss is the one real fear, for me. Men are told to be protectors, and we often base our self-worth upon it, in part, so loss of a family member—especially a female one—chills us to the core. And there’s all sorts of guilty emotions caught up in it, because it’s rather sexist, and possessive, isn’t it? Thank you for your honesty, not everyone likes talking about fear. So, other than Nightfalls, what is your latest book, and what do you have coming down the road for us to look out for?

katherine tomlinson

KT:  I am finishing up my first novel, Begotten, which is best described as urban fantasy, although I am beginning to hate that genre tag because so many books in that niche are same-old, same-old. My heroine is a crime reporter who follows paranormal crime. Unlike Carl Kolchak (Kolchak the Nightstalker was another big inspiration for my writing), she exists in a world that knows about supernatural creatures, so paranormal crime is just a regular journalism beat like reporting on City Hall or writing about high school sports.

The book takes place in the paranormal Los Angeles of my L.A. Nocturne stories (shameless plug), and I find it way too easy to slip into that world. Going from short stories to a novel, though, has been hard work. Novelists Christine Pope and G. Wells Taylor have been pushing and prodding me through the process, though, and I owe them a lot for their support.

 

 

TP: I’m looking forward to it. Stephen Blackmoore’s City of the Lost was a surprise favorite for me, and he made the Kirkus top 100 with it. I hope yours is there next year. Thank you for giving us a lot to think about, Katherine. One last question—what would your last meal be?

 

katherine tomlinson

KT: A rare steak. Ripe tomatoes from my great-uncle’s garden. Garlic mashed potatoes. Or macaroni and cheese. Green beans with bacon and crushed red pepper flakes. Bread pudding from Commander’s Palace in New Orleans or Ina Garten’s chocolate cake with a side of caramel ice cream made from my great-grandmother Julia’s recipe. Or maybe all three if I still have room.

commander's palace bread pudding souffle

TP: That sounds delicious. Makes me want to fire up the electric chair, but then I’d never get to read Begotten. Thank you for dropping by, and for a great conversation.

You can read more of Katherine’s work at her blog Katomic Energy and her list of books is on her website.

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Belly up to the Bar with Chad Eagleton

Chad Eagleton is a two-time finalist of Watery Grave International, and his story “Ghostman on Third” was nominated for a Spinetingler Award. His work has appeared in Discount Noir, Crime Factory: The First Shift, and Beat to a Pulp, and he wrote the excellent heist tale “Go Away” for Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT. He’s also very likely the most knowledgeable authority on author Shane Stevens, best known for By Reason of Insanity.

TP: Hi Chad, welcome to Belly Up to the Bar. What’ll you drink?
 
 
 

CE: I don’t really drink that much. When I do I tend to stick to beer. I’m partial to Franziskaner, Peroni, or Red Stripe. Though there’s a local brewery that makes a wheat beer that’s pretty fantastic on tap and served with a fresh slice of orange. Hard alcohol and I had a falling out years ago during my misspent youth. We’ve never gotten along since, except for a brief fling at a friend’s wedding.

TP: Good taste in beer, sir. You work at a university, don’t you? No better reason to drink. It’s almost a given, that anyone involved in higher education will have a drink after work, like journalists and theater people. What is it like seeing fresh-faced students leave home for the first time, and how does it inform your writing?

CE: It’s both wonderful and terrible. Working in The Dean of Students Office, I see young adults at their best and at their worst. I see students come to campus and flourish. They open up their entire world to new people, new ideas, and new experiences. They travel abroad for the first time. They start clubs and put on events. They initiate great acts of widespread charity.

I also see the students who flounder. They get lost on such a large campus. They get caught up in partying and drinking. They have a mental breakdown from the stress and the loneliness. They lose a parent while trying to prepare for finals. They go to a party and a stranger sexually assaults them.

It’s the best job I’ve ever had and it’s the worst.

TP: I’ve always felt that the transition from high school to college, employment or vocational training is rather abrupt. In school, you may or may not be nurtured, but you are punished for self-destructive behavior, like skipping class. Then suddenly you’re free, and there are consequences. You’re expected to have been taught life skills, when that is becoming increasingly rare. It’s incredibly fatalistic, for a country that when polled, doesn’t believe in evolution, but does believe in “survival of the fittest,” or at least in blaming you for how you were raised. We sacrifice our children on the altar of this self-sufficient ideology, this myth we’ve created. It’s kind of like bullying, or the cycle of corporal punishment- Hell was good enough for me, now it’s your turn. Andrew Vachss made us aware of the cycle of child abuse creating violent criminals; do you think crime writers like us can do the same for emotional abuse and bullying?

CE: In general, a lot of people tend to be myopic when it comes to others. That makes emotional abuse and bullying tough to tackle. Those scars are scars on the inside, so they’re not readily visibly to the naked eye. And it’s part and parcel to that ridiculous self-sufficient ideology that’s so prevalent in our society. Too often emotional abuse is dismissed as just toughening the person up, preparing them for the harsh world out there. Some have the foolish idea that the responsibilities of a parent extend only to food, clothing, and shelter. So they neglect emotional growth when that’s what determines how we interact and treat each other. Then there’s my all-time favorite response, just get over it. Yeah, just get over it has worked for no one ever. The people who say just get over it? They’re really just speaking from their own hurt place. What they’re saying is, “No one helped me, why should anyone help you?” And they haven’t even gotten over it themselves. They’ve just buried it better.

I mean, think about it like swimming. How many people do you know who actually learned to swim by being tossed in the deep end? I can’t think of any. The ones I know are terrified of swimming and the ones who say they ain’t, well, I’ve never actually seen them swim.

And when it comes to bullying, a lot of people have trouble understanding that it’s harder for the bullied now. In my high school, there was one particular hallway I avoided and I especially loathed riding the bus. I mean, the bus was hell. Absolute hell. Even after I finally had enough, punched one of my bullies in the face and tried to choke him out, I still hated to see that yellow monster top the hill. But I had the luxury of escape. I could avoid the hallway. I could not ride the bus. I could go home and not suffer the same torments I suffered at school. Kids now don’t have that same luxury. Their lives are different. They’re on Facebook and Twitter; they have e-mail accounts and cell phones. Bullies have 24-7 access to their headspace. That’s fucking rough. I don’t know if I could have taken that.

As writers though, we can dig in to those places, show that headspace, and what’s going on behind closed doors. I think it’s our responsibility, not just as artists, but as human beings. We are all in this life thing together, man. That doesn’t mean we need to meet regularly and hold hands and sing kumbaya. But your wellbeing impacts my wellbeing. And that guy over there? His wellbeing affects my wellbeing and your wellbeing. I mean, you know what, man, fuck getting kicked into the Spartan pit. You know what happened to the Spartiate class? They don’t exist anymore.

TP: I had my share of bullying back then, and I used the Internet to escape. Now it’s a deathtrap. But I agree that writers should have some sort of motive in regards to the rest of humanity, even if it means making people happy from a good read. One writer you introduced me to was Shane Stevens, who is best known for writing the first serial killer novel, By Reason of Insanity. You’re a scholar of his work. I’m fascinated by your research into his career. He began with the pulps, wrote social novels set in Harlem, P.I. novels set in New Jersey… his prolific and varied output is an inspiration. Give us a portrait of the man and his work, and why you chose to research it.

CE: My obsession with Shane Stevens started when I got The Dark Half for Christmas. King’s novel is a supernatural thriller, but he included these excerpts from protagonist Thad Beaumont’s pseudonymous crime novels. My experience with crime fiction was pretty limited then, so those really jumped out at me. I liked reading King’s book, but I wanted more Alexis Machine.

In his afterward, King reveals his intentional nod to Shane Stevens’ novel Dead City. He praises Stevens’ books, writing: “These works, where the so-called ‘criminal mind’ and a condition of irredeemable psychosis interweave to create their own closed system of perfect evil, are three of the finest novels ever written about the dark side of the American Dream.”

Whoa. That was some heavy shit for a 13-year-old, but, man, I wanted to read those.

While I didn’t have much luck then—you have to remember this was before everyone had an internet connection and Amazon didn’t exist—I never forgot Alexis Machine and I never forgot Shane Stevens. Over time, I tracked down the six novels he wrote under his own name: Go Down Dead, Way Uptown In Another World, Dead City, The Rat Pack, By Reason of Insanity, and The Anvil Chorus. Later I put together that he wrote two P.I. novels under a pseudonym, found them and read them. All of Stevens’ work floored me. Here was the sort of crime fiction I wanted to write: a good story with a social conscience; work that’s gritty and dark, but not squalor porn; fiction that shines a light in the darkness, instead of breaking the few bulbs still burning—too many writers revel in writing about aberrant behavior as if that proves they’re some sort of hard ass.

Then a couple years ago, I sat down to write about his work for Forgotten Books and realized I knew virtually nothing about Shane Stevens the man. Hell, I didn’t even know what he looked like. I tried Googling him and came up with squat. What you see in his Wikipedia entry is the extent of info that’s readily available. That intrigued me. So, I started researching and began piecing together a portrait of one of the most mysterious men in crime fiction. The most Stevens every talked about himself was in his Contemporary Authors entry when he wrote, “I never give interviews, stay in shadow, travel by night. I don’t associate with writers, don’t do book reviews, don’t play politics or give advice. I try not to hurt anyone. I go where I want and write what I want.”

TP: I’ve picked up two of Stevens’ books, Anvil Chorus and By Reason of Insanity. Almost all his work is out of print, sadly. Like another author I know we both admire, Manly Wade Wellman. He’s easily described as Weird Appalachia. I’d compare him to Lovecraft, but despite writing about a region expected to be racist, he manages to avoid Lovecraft’s sickening xenophobia, intentionally or not. I just finished John the Balladeer, and found some of the Silver John novels, about the troubadour with the silver-strung guitar encountering human evil and the pre-human unknown, and what impresses me most is his writing, not just his fabulous imagination. You can’t skim him, and there’s no point- he wastes nary a word. What brought you to him, and what can you say that might lure him some more readers?

CE: I discovered Wellman through Karl Edward Wagner, who was best known for his sword and sorcery tales featuring the immortal Kane. After Wellman’s death, Wagner served as agent for his literary estate. I read a collection he edited that included a number of Wellman’s Hok The Mighty stories. Hok is a Cro-Magnon caveman adventuring at the dawn of human civilization. The stories were a lot of fun to read and, along with the overview of Wellman’s career, piqued my interest.

So I sought out Wellman’s other work. The man wrote a ton of stuff, across a variety of genres and did it all well (he beat Faulkner out for an award given by Ellery Queen’s readers). Two of his standouts for me are: John Thunstone, an occult detective with a sword-cane forged by a saint, and John the Balladeer/Silver John. Wellman’s work is very imaginative, he has a cleaner prose style than a lot of the old guard so he’s aged much better, and he managed to avoid the racist under/overtones that ruin so much pulp. Seriously, if someone ever released the Complete Manly Wade Wellman (which I’d gladly buy), everyone could find at least one thing in there they’d enjoy reading.

TP: Hell, I’d buy that book. I hope someone collects it, like they did to Paul Cain’s stories recently. Let’s get the trinity of influences out of the way: books, movies, music. I know you’re a big rockabilly fan- what do you love about it?
 

CE: There are so many books that have meant a lot to me, but if we stick with crime fiction, number one would be Shane Stevens. His Way Uptown In Another World is a big messy book, but it’s simply beautiful. Every now and again, I’ll grab my copy, open it and start reading. There are passages that still get me. If I owned a small press or won the lottery, I’d buy the rights and reprint it in a heartbeat.

Richard Stark’s The Hunter is a perfect crime novel. The series went on far too long, but The Hunter is just stunning.

Andrew Vachss is another big influence too. He hits those same notes that Stevens does, and his work outside writing is untouchable.

James Lee Burke always gets me. He writes some stunningly beautiful prose and the humanity present in his work is unrivaled.

Movies are the same. When I was a child we lived out in the middle of nowhere. There weren’t a lot of other kids near us and my parents worked a lot, so I was mostly on my own. I watched a ton of films. I wouldn’t even know where to begin talking about those influences. If I were forced to name a couple of crime films, I’d say: Way of The Gun, Get Carter, Hard Boiled, Le Haine, Le Samourai, 25th Hour, Brick, and Memento.

Music? I listen to music constantly and listen to just about everything except for jazz. Old standbys are Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, The Ramones, Joy Division, Howling Wolf, and Bruce Springsteen. And a lot of rockabilly.

You know, my father and I have never been particularly close. Rockabilly is one of the few things we’ve ever been able to connect on. I love both the simplicity and the energy of the style.  It has that same sense of exuberant rebellion most people look to punk for. And that classic greaser look was the first time I ever remember seeing something and thinking, now that’s cool.

TP: I’m looking forward to your anthology, Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats. I played a couple early rock and rockabilly collections continuously when I wrote my story for it. The ’50s were a time of turbulent change in America, but everyone thinks it was Ozzy & Harriet. The war vets came home, and how could you keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen the world? Why did you choose to put this anthology together?

CE: America loves to mythologize its past and the ‘50s are no exception. That’s definitely part of it. Wanting to dispel the Leave It To Beaver idea of the decade. I’m also sick of period crime fiction populated with guys in suits and fedoras who are on their way to a jazz club. I mean, Jesus Christ, does anyone really think that describes all of America from 1930 through 1960?

But also, it’s something I’d like to read. That’s what really excites me about the changes in publishing. It’s now possible to do projects that don’t fit into those narrowly defined and lowest-common-denominator levels of appeal. Will HHH sell a million copies? No, but who cares? It’ll rock anyway.

TP: You’re damn right it’ll rock. Besides telling a good story, which is every writer’s duty, what do you hope to accomplish with your writing?
 
 

CE: A lot of people say a writer’s job is to be a professional liar. I disagree. Stories are how we convey information and make sense of tough things. I think a writer’s job is to tell the truth. The truth can be wrapped up in fantasy and make-believe, but it should still be the truth. That’s what I think the old writing adage “write what you know” means. What you know is the truth about your world, about your society, and about being human. That’s what I want to do—tell the truth. If I can do that while not starving, I’ll be happy.

TP: Yes, the canard about hiding the truth in a lie, or rather, a made-up story. I think that’s important. There has to be something in there that’s true, even if it’s childish. Aren’t escapist fantasies true? Some of us wish we could be Conan, or a sorceress, or in crime fiction, the big bad-ass. My guilty pleasure is Robert E. Howard. I know the pulps are glorified now, but having read all of Howard’s Conan stories, I appreciate the imagination, but acknowledge their indulgence as well. I don’t care if the President reads Conan comics, it is still a guilty pleasure. So that’s mine, what’s yours?

CE: Absolutely. Escape is necessary. I don’t want anyone to think I do nothing but immerse myself in slit-your-wrists realism. I have tons of guilty pleasures. I mean, I play video games, tabletop role-playing games, and watch way way too much Anime. Then there’s my big soft spot for sword and sorcery fiction. Especially the ones written just after the baby boomers discovered psychedelics. That’s when you get the really weird stuff, like: “Only Kragzan, the lone Atlantean warrior with the glass eye carved from a meteorite that bestows the ability to see into the 5th Dimension, can tame the savage army of sex-starved Amazons and turn their fury against humanity’s cruel Lizard Overlords in post-apocalyptic Manhattan!”

I’m also a sucker for kung-fu films. I mean there’s always been great cinema from the east, but I’ll gladly watch the crap with the terrible sound effects and the awful dubbing. Oh, man, and I’ll kill hours watching those direct to videocassette B-movies from the late 80s and early 90s. Crap like Trancers or Dollman vs. The Demonic Toys. I love those.

TP: Please write about Kragzan. A lot of good grit is coming out of your part of the country, the Midwest, of late. Frank Bill in Indiana, Donald Ray Pollock in Ohio. What used to be dismissed as regional fiction. What was it like growing up in Indiana, and what kind of soul does your part of the country have?

CE: Honestly, like anywhere else it was good and bad. Mix “Small Town” by John Mellencamp with Springsteen’s “My Hometown” and you’ve got what it was like to grow up in Indiana. It’s all that stuff you see in right-wing political ads: cornfields and farmers, hard work and family values, a strong sense of community. But it’s also: acres and acres of Wal-Marts that have devoured local business, poverty and close-minded ignorance, and what-the-fuck-are-you-to-me. Indiana is like the rest of the country. Conflicted. Confused.

TP: I think America believes its own mythology. I think American Gods by Neil Gaiman was a good book, but he barely touched the surface, because he got tied up with actual pantheons. We believe in the cowboy, the lone killer who comes to town, and our monsters are stereotypes from movies and the news. The welfare queen, the crackhead, and maybe the terrorist. Terrorists exist, but not as we imagine them. Any thoughts on that, or have I had too many beers?

CE: Mythology was created to give comfort. Early man squatted in the caves and huddled together near the fire because they were afraid of the darkness and the beast noises in the night, the thunder crack and the lightning strike. They created gods and monsters and demons to explain their fears and all the things they didn’t understand.

As human beings we hunger for continuity. To fulfill that desire, we tell ourselves the world is purposeful, that our lives can be directed by a well-thought-out plan.

We’re wrong.

The problem is too many think the alternative is to accept life as meaningless. So, instead of facing the hard truths and rising to the challenge, we choose to death-grip the easy make-believe bullshit. It’s a human thing, sure, but it’s 100% an American thing. Mythology reigns as king here and it’s to our detriment.

It’s sad because there’s another strain to the American psyche that has the potential to lead us all to a better place. We just have to give up our fantasies: 9-11 was not a global conspiracy by our government or the Bilderbergs or the Illuminati or Satanists. The past was not wonderful, the future is always better. Poor is not a choice. You will probably never be rich. You will not get that raise just because you worked hard—nothing in this world is a meritocracy. And, if there is a God, that higher being doesn’t care who you vote for.

TP: I’m not sure the future is always better, I think Progress is another of our myths, but we certainly treat people better. I was stunned to read that the bloody 20th century was the least violent on record. Holocaust and all. That’s terrifying. Speaking of death, what’s your last meal?

CE: Sushi. Really really good sushi. Not the kind you buy in the grocery store or get at a buffet. The kind you don’t get to order. The kind the chef prepares for you. He sets it in front of you, you take it, you eat it and you don’t use soy sauce.

TP: Omakase. Go ahead, say “Gesundheit.” I would. Thanks for dropping by, Chad. I enjoyed chatting with you. If you come to New York, we’ll go to Masa and have a master make us sushi. But one last thing. Other than Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hell Cats, what are you working on?

CE: There’s a lot coming down the pipe: In The Clear, Black Fields of Night for Beat To A Pulp, “The Girl With The David Bowie Eyes” for Paul Brazil’s next Drunk on the Moon collection, “Blood on the Milky Way” for Andrez Bergen’s Tobacco-Stained Sky.

More immediately, and more personally, however, is Hoods, Hot Rods, and Hellcats. The project’s proven to be a lot tougher to finalize than I thought it would be, though everyone involved has been incredibly patient. I think people will be pleased with the final book. The cover is phenomenal with artwork by Skott Kilander and layout by Brian Roe of RSquared Comics. The stories are topnotch. There’s an introduction by someone I’m a big fan of. And it’s been fact-checked to avoid period goofs.

Then, my main focus will be the Stevens book. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been researching him for a while. I do, honestly, probably know more about Shane Stevens than anyone else, except for Shane Stevens. I’ve got a pretty detailed timeline of his life. I’ve spoken to friends, exes, and colleges. I’ve got a number of his letters, and I’ve tracked down about 15 photographs. I’ve got an evolving bibliography of everything he’s written that goes far beyond the 8 novels—I’ve probably read more of his work than anyone else, except for his mother.   I don’t know if a publisher will ever touch it, but if not I’ll put that out myself too. If nothing else, I hope it leads to a widespread reprinting of his catalogue. And, assuming people are actually interested, I’ve tracked down his personal papers, so…

Other than that, I just want to say thanks for having me, man. You’re one of the good ones, Thomas Pluck. It’s been an honor.

TP: Glad to have you. I’ll be looking for those books.

 

 

Belly up to the Bar with Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is one of the founders and editors of Crime Factory, and the author of Ghost Money, a gritty crime novel set in Cambodia and published by Snubnose Press. His fiction has also appeared in Noir Nation and Phnom Penh Noir. Welcome Andrew to Tommy’s Tub, where we serve up the suds… 

TP: Welcome to Belly up to the Bar, Andrew. What are you drinking?
 
 
AN: It’s hot in Melbourne today, so I’ll have a Pacifico and a tequila chaser.
 
 
TP: I looked forward to meeting you in New York before NoirCon, but Hurricane Sandy put the kibosh on that. The City has inspired plenty of writers, and many readers who never visit love to read about it, to tour it vicariously. You chose Cambodia as the setting for your first novel. Have you lived there, and what makes you passionate about it?

AN: Yes, I glanced at some pictures on Facebook today of people yukking it at Noir Con and saying what a good time they had and I’m deeply jealous. Now I’m thinking of hitting the northeast of the US in the first half of the year now.

I started writing the book that eventually became Ghost Money in 1996 when I worked for several months in Cambodia as a wire service journalist.

I’d first travelled to Cambodia in 1992. It was a desperately poor and traumatised country. The Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths by starvation and torture of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians during their rule in the seventies, were still fighting from heavily fortified jungle bases. The government was an unstable coalition of two parties who’d been at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade and whose main interests were settling historical scores and making money.

Phnom Penh, the crumbling capital of the former French colony, was crawling with foreigners; peacekeepers sent by the West and its allies to enforce peace between the various factions, and their entourage of drop outs, hustlers, pimps, spies, do-gooders and journalists. The streets teemed with Cambodian men in military fatigues missing legs and arms, victims of the landmines strewn across the country. There was no power most of the time. The possible return of the Khmer Rouge caste a shadow over everything.

Cambodia fascinated me from the moment I first arrived. The people, the contrast between the anything goes, Wild West atmosphere of Phnom Penh and the hardscrabble but incredibly beautiful countryside.

History oozed from the cracks in the French colonial architecture and protruded from the rich red earth, sometimes quite literally in the case of the mass graves that litter the countryside. Things happened every day – terrible events and acts of heart breaking generosity you couldn’t make up if you tried.

I always thought Cambodia would be a good setting for a crime story. But I also wanted to capture some of the country’s tragic history, the sense of a nation in transition.

I was too caught up in the day to day reporting of events and trying to make a living as a freelance journalist to put much of a dent in the book. That didn’t come until nearly a decade later, when one day I sat down and started reading through some old notes.

TP: My dream is to travel as widely as Lawrence Block, probably my favorite New York writer. He’s been all over. He was in Japan, and missed the storm, in fact. I know from your blog Pulp Curry that you love the old stuff, but who are your favorite living writers, and why?

AN: Well, a number of your countrymen and women make the list. James Ellroy, because his LA quartet blasted a huge hole in crime fiction that a lot of others were able climb through and do interesting stuff.

I’ve loved everything Megan Abbott has ever written. An enormously talented woman and a master of allowing class, sex and social observation to collide in a way that does not take away from the precision of her plot and characters.

I’m a big fan of Martin Limon’s books featuring Sueno and Bacom, officers in the Criminal Intelligence Division of the US military based in South Korea. They are among the small but growing number of good, hardboiled/noir books set in Asia.

Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time is a work of genius. I read it in January this year, and it’s still my best book for 2012. Rural noir with major kick, but no matter how sexually and physically deranged things get, Pollock avoids the temptation to play the story for cheap thrills. There is real humanity in these stories, even the most wretched of his characters struggle for meaning. Can’t wait to see what he does next.

In terms of non-US writers, let me see. UK author David Peace is up there for his quartet, Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three. It is possibly the best crime series I’ve read. His depiction of northern England is incredible. And, unlike Ellroy, many aspects of what Peace writes about are familiar to me because of the cultural transference that took place from the UK to Australia.

I’d like to be able to list a lot more Australian writers as being major influences, but the crime scene here can be a bit pedestrian, partly, I suspect because we are so small (numerically not in terms of land mass). Garry Disher, who writes the Wyatt books, is a great writer and a great guy. The Cliff Hardy books by Sydney writer Peter Corris, have to get a mention, especially the earlier ones, for their depiction of class in eighties Australia. Western Australian writer, David Whish Wilson is also terrific. His debut crime novel, Line of Sight, is the best piece of crime fiction written here in years, an incredibly evocative depiction of Perth in the seventies as well as a great study of organized crime and corruption.

TP: I appreciate your rigor with research. I try to do the same. While not all stories require it, I think the attention to detail allows you to paint a picture with a few strokes and not set off the reader’s bullshit detector. Ellroy and Abbott are two of my favorites as well. They’re like archaeologists unearthing the history of human weakness. What do you strive for in your own fiction?

AN: I think I am still trying to figure that out. Indeed, I suspect writing is a continuous and ever evolving act of try of trying to figure out what you want to do. For now, I’d say I’m striving for to entertain but also deliver grit, authenticity and, as I said above, a convincing sense of place and history, one that hopefully sheds some light on a few little looked in nooks and corners.

That’s why Abbott and Ellroy are so interesting. Ellroy’s books read like a parallel history of the second half of the 20th century in the US. Abbott’s work exposes alternative histories. My favourite of her books is The Song Is You, the story of Gil ‘Hop’ Hopkins, a movie studio publicity man/fixer/pimp whose life unravels when he is confronted with the consequences of a seemingly insignificant act one night. It’s a wonderful counter narrative to the myth of Hollywood.

TP: I’ve never been to Australia, but will be visiting soon enough. My wife has always wanted to tour the whole continent. When I think about pop culture that’s affected me, it always goes back to Australia. My favorite band? AC/DC, preferably the Bon Scott years. He had that outlaw edge, and that really influenced me. We spoke a bit about musical influences, I think they get overlooked with writers. Who doesn’t write with music playing these days? Who are your favorite bands, and do they influence your writing at all, in tone, subject or rhythm?

AN: Bon Scott’s time with ACDC is still incredibly influential in Australia. The way ACDC played, their incredible outlaw rock and roll life style, it contrasts so sharply with the sanitized mainstream rock scene today, it’s almost like they were from another planet. I remember very vividly watching TV with my parents in late seventies and witnessing their sense of shock when ACDC came on. They simply could not get why Angus would wear a school uniform when he played, in addition to so many other things about the band. Interestingly, there is very little writing, and certainly no crime writing, I’m aware of, that’s captured this.

I have to say, the only music I ever listen to when I write is jazz and only the jazz up until the late sixties, Davis, Coultrane, Mingus, Cannonball Adderley. I’ve never really thought about it, but if I had to answer why this is the case, I think it’s as much about the incredible sense of history I get from listening to jazz, as the music itself. History is very important to me and this is reflected in how I write. I don’t know whether my style hardboiled, noir, pulp, whatever those labels mean, but I always try and inject a sense of history, of paths taken and not taken, into my characters. It slows me down as a writer. I like to get the history right, but each to their own.

TP:  Movies are another influence. I’d be nowhere without Mad Max. Australia has a great film industry. You had a grindhouse era, but also haunting films like those of Peter Weir, and ones that are just plain fun like Starstruck, the new wave musical. Hell, I even liked Young Einstein, and I’ll admit it. You write about crime films on your blog as well. What are some that you think deserve to be better known?

AN: I think we used to have a great cinema scene, one that was not afraid to put out gutsy, capital ‘G’ genre films, like the ones you mention, that were either terrifying or funny. These days we still put out some great films, but are funding bodies are dominated by film academics, so preference seems to go to long, ponderous art house films, which usually seem to involve a torturous coming of age story in some dreary working class suburb or depressed rural town.

Related to this, we have a rich history of directors doing an incredibly kick arse genre movie as their first film, then going onto to make progressively more mainstream fare, usually overseas. Not that there’s anything wrong with mainstream, but it’s almost as though they are afraid to touch another local genre film once they get a hit under their belt.

Bruce Beresford’s first movie was Money Movers in 1979. I’d argue it’s one of the best heist movies around. Phillip Noyce’s first movie in 1982 was Heatwave, a terrific noir based on the real life murder of an anti-development campaigner in NSW in the seventies. More recently we’ve had Animal Kingdom, Red Hill and Snowtown, all terrific crime films by actors who are now going onto more mainstream fare.

In terms of other must see films. Anyone with a thing for rural noir should check out the 1971 film Wake in Fright, about a mild mannered teacher who gets stranded in a hard scrabble town in the middle of the Australian desert. One of the most overlooked Australian films in my view is The Cars That Ate Paris, a 1974 horror/comedy by Peter Weir. It’s about a rural town whose inhabitants make a living from causing car accidents and scavenging the remains, both materials and people. Weir also made an excellent film in 1977 called The Last Wave, about a Sydney lawyer whose life falls apart in steange ways after he becomes involved in defending an Aboriginal man accused of ritual murder. Last but not least, I would encourage people to check out the little known 1979 film, Thirst, a uniquely Australian take on a vampire film.

TP: I honestly think the latest generation of writers, especially plot-driven fiction, are as influenced by film as they are by books. Let’s go back to New York. I’m sorry you didn’t make it this time. New York is one of those cities that means a lot of things to different people. What were you looking forward to most?

AN: For me, New York summons up the ghosts of so many books and films, it’s hard to know where to start. 2012 has been a bastard of a year, the low light of which was my mother dying of cancer in January. It left me exhausted and, to be honest, what I was looking forward to most, aside from meeting you and a number of other writers, was a couple of weeks to myself to walk about a city I’ve heard so much about. Aside from attending Noir Con in Philadelphia, that’s really all I had planned. Like I said, next year.

TP: Going back to the Hurricane, folks in Coney Island are refusing to evacuate because of looting. Do you think people are generally good or bad, and either way, do you think the veneer of civilization make us more likely to behave badly when it is broken?

AN:I think we are both good and bad and I’m not sure it has much to do with our so-called level of development or economic advancement. I spent nearly seven years working as a journalist in Asia in the nineties, including in some of the poorest countries in the region. Obviously, I saw some dreadful things. I also witnessed and been on the receiving end personally of some incredible acts of generosity.

TP: Crime Factory just put out a Horror issue. I think both genres are similar in many ways. They can be a response to fear, and they can be cautionary tales. Are you a fan of horror fiction, and what do you make of the recent popularity of supernatural crime novels?

AN: I read recently that Western society’s interest in supernatural and the occult increases in times of great social dislocation and upheaval. Certainly, that makes sense if you think about the upsurge of films and books about the supernatural in the late sixties and early seventies.

I can’t stand a lot of the stuff that passes for horror these days. As far as the films go at least, there seems to be a hell of a lot of incredibly violent, gratuitous stuff around.

I am interested in some of the books and films that came out in the sixties and seventies, like The Mephisto Watlz, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen, Race with the Devil, The Wicker Man, to name just a few. Back then there was much more of a focus on the genuine weirdness and horror of the occult and the people who practiced it, rather than demons or whatever slashing up teenagers.

TP: I’m with you on the gratuitous horror. I think young men especially try to shock, to show we’re unafraid of flinching from the dark, but it gets tiresome. I call it squalor porn, and I agree that Mr. Pollock managed to evoke some sick individuals without crossing that line. He’s one of the best of the bunch. Frank Bill excels at it too, but he’s a lot more raw. You can shine a light on the depths of human depravity without drooling over it. If you’re just showing it to show it, it’s been done a thousand times before. Evil is banal, serial killers are boring once you catch them. They’re all the same, broken machines. People are interesting. The choices they make, and how they live with them.

I’m glad you gave us some Australian novelists to check out. I think with the shipment of criminals in the 18th and 19th centuries, people expect Australia to have a lot more crime fiction, about guys like Chopper Read. Does the outback give Australians the same sense of wild pioneer spirit that Americans get from the West, like you could run off and be an outlaw?

AN: I have to say I am not a fan of Chopper. He is basically a violent career criminal who has made a living writing books of questionable authenticity and accuracy about what he’s done. We are very into true crime in Australia at the moment and at the risk of annoying a lot of people, most of it is sensationalised crap. That’s not meant to sound squeamish, I just think the reality of Australia’s past is much more interesting than it is usually portrayed in the true crime books or shows in TV. Virtually the only exception I can think of now, is a series called Blue Murder, about a career criminal in Sydney called Neddy Smith and his relationship with a legendry hard man and cop, Roger Rogerson. It is the best true crime TV ever made in Australia.

Regarding how we view our outback, that’s a very interesting question and in answering it, I’m probably talking as much about my own feelings on the issue as I am trying to sum up any sort of consensus about what Australians think.

Most Australian, like me live on the coast. I think for a long time we were basically terrified of our interior, which is beautiful but also incredibly vast and inhospitable. Linked to with is the incredibly brutal nature of our establishment as a British colony that I think we are still a bit in denial about.

I mentioned Wake in Fright earlier. It’s a great example of the fear about the bush semi hard-wired into the psyche of most city dwelling Australians. The movie is also excellent but when it first showed in the late sixties, people walked out in disgust at its – very accurate – depiction drinking and male violence. Another movie that deals with our extreme ambivalence about the outback is Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg. It’s an incredibly haunting film about two children stranded in the outback. They are befriended and saved by a young Aboriginal boy but the two cultures simply cannot understand each other.

Improved transport and technology have broken down the remoteness of the outback and with it a lot of our fear. But what we have now is a sort of enforced bullshit nationalism that idealises the bush and our past relationship without, I think, really understanding it. We don’t really want to come to terms with things out our treatment of the original inhabitants, which was/is bloody shameful.

Interestingly the outback is now the scene of a huge mining boom. It’s provided a second chance for a lot of people. You can, literally head out there and make a fortune, which fits into the pioneer notion you talk about. The boom is delivering great prosperity but also damaging the environment and dislocating small rural towns.

So, in terms of how this has been reflected in crime fiction and film, the results have been pretty unsatisfactory. There have been a few road movies of varying quality. In terms of crime fiction, Auther Upfield wrote a series of great books in the sixties featuring a black police detective called Boney, which are worth reading. More recently, Adrian Hyland has penned two novels set in the outback and featuring an Aboriginal policewoman. I have to say I’ve not read either of them but they are supposed to be excellent. I am waiting for a really good crime novel to use the mining boom as a setting.

TP: One last question. What’s your death row meal?
 
 
 
AN: Anything Mexican.
 
 
 
TP: Thank you for coming by, Andrew. It was great having a drink with you. I hope we meet sometime, in New York or on your side of the world.
 
 
 
AN: Thanks for having me.
 
 
 

Belly up to the Bar with Anonymous-9

Hey folks. Welcome Anonymous-9 to the bar. Spinetingler Award winning writer of “Hard Bite,” which she’s just expanded into a novel for Blasted Heath.


Tom:
Good evening… Anonymous-9. What are you drinking?






Anonymous-9:
Santa Barbara Landing Chardonnay, 2009. It’s $3.99 a bottle. After a decade of Two-Buck Chuck, I upgraded, even though I have to drink half as much to stay in my budget. Note to those who do not shop at Trader Joe’s: 2-Buck Chuck is a cheap bottle of wine made famous by the grocery chain. I try to work just enough to keep body and soul together plus pay the rent, so I have time to write as much as possible. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for fancy taste in wine. I haven’t enjoyed a beverage that cost more than 5 bucks a bottle (unless somebody else was paying) in years. But my impoverishment won’t last forever. Either the writing starts to pay for itself or else. It’s a real investment, and things get incrementally better every year. “Don’t quit early,” is my motto.


Tom:
So your novel Hard Bite is out today, about a paraplegic with a homicidal monkey named Sid. Hard not to be interested in a setup like that. What made you write it?


Anonymous-9:
HARD BITE started out as a short story. It was the third short story that Beat to a Pulp ever published and I submitted it because the site was still finding its footing and there wasn’t that much material to choose from. Patti Abbott had given David Cranmer THE INSTRUMENT OF THEIR DESIRE for the kick-off story and it just blew my socks off.
This was back in early 2008, I believe. HARD BITE got a big reaction out
of people and won Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Short Story on the Web 2009. I didn’t even know I’d been nominated until Cranmer emailed to tell me. Anyway, it was obvious that the protagonist, a paraplegic with a helper monkey named Sid, grabbed people in a big way. So I slogged for 4 more years and finally got it whipped into an acceptable novel. Many drafts, many rewrites, much hair pulling.


Tom:
David really lit a powder keg with Beat to a Pulp, didn’t he? When I started writing, his zine was one of the first I wanted to crack, because I was impressed with the quality of the stories. I’m not surprised that you and Patti Abbott both got in early. Was the novel a story you wanted to see told?


Anonymous-9:
Yeah I got in early—I was Editor at Large for BTAP the first year and a half of its existence. Great experience. I wanted to see a novel that turned some of the conventions of crime storytelling inside out. I wanted to take risks and break rules and still have the story “work.” As an editor I have only one rule: Break all the rules you want, but it has to “work,” people have to buy into it. My premise is so outré that every agent passed on it and just about every seasoned editor who agreed to read it said something like, “This premise is outrageous. Let’s see if you can deliver.” It took me several drafts and years of work but finally Allan Guthrie and Brian Lindenmuth both decided separately and simultaneously that I had finally delivered.


Tom:
That’s a lot of work. A story takes what it takes until it works. I find that a lot of writers either lose patience or get frustrated and move on to the next project when a good story needs that kind of work. I know you’re an editor, what are your thoughts on that?



Anonymous-9:
The problem with half the writers is they are willing to take criticism but they’re not willing to put in the work. The problem the other half is they’re willing to put in the work but they’re not willing to sit still for the criticism. If a writer can meet somewhere in the middle, it’s a done deal.


Tom:
James Lee Burke says a good crime novel is a sociological novel. What are your thoughts on that?






Anonymous-9:
Mr. Burke isn’t here to defend himself, but if he meant that a good crime novel reflects the mores and values of the society it’s set in, then I’d agree. I’m writing about Los Angeles, 2011, and what a sociological study that is. I get it all in from Bel Air to Hawaiian Gardens (not far from where I live) which had the biggest gang bust in US history in 2010.


Tom:
You mentioned turning the conventions of a crime story inside out. What genre trope or cliche drives you crazy?


Anonymous-9:
They don’t get a chance to drive me crazy because they bore me to death first. I love detectives and mysteries but please, please give me something fresh and different about a character I haven’t seen before, a crime I haven’t seen before. And give me visuals, lots of visuals. Writers sometimes forget the reader is not in their head. I like watching a movie while I read and the only way that can happen is if the writer paints vivid pictures. I find visual minimalism incredibly unsatisfying.


Tom:
According to the FBI, violent crime in the US, particularly murder, is at an all-time low. Yet crime fiction seems more popular than ever. Have you experienced crime or violence up close?



Anonymous-9:
I live in a suburb of Los Angeles, right next to Long Beach. It’s famously dangerous and violent. I see crime and violence on a daily basis, in fact right now we have a neighborhood mail thief working the streets and the cops were here a few days ago. Apparently he/she is following the UPS truck and then snatching packages. They actually SIGNED for a package my blind landlord ordered and stole it. I hear gunshots outside at night on a weekly basis. Crime and violence come with the territory when you line in a cheap neighborhood in LA.


Tom:
Well, I’m glad you dodged those. Let’s turn that around. What’s your death row meal?



Anonymous-9:
I wouldn’t want to say in case it came true.





Tom:
Kristine Rusch says the best promotion for your first novel is your second novel. What’s next on tap?






Anonymous-9:
BITE HARDER is in the works. It continues in real time where HARD BITE leaves
off. I’m also adapting HARD BITE into screenplay. I already think Jon Hamm of Mad Men would make a great Dean Drayhart. He’d have to go on one of those starvation diets, but he’s a great actor and has keen instincts plus the perfect eyes for the role. HARD BITE drops OCTOBER 25TH, 2012. First the e-book, then the WORLD.
I’d also like to complain and blast the crap out of my publisher Blasted Heath. But I can’t. They’ve treated me too well and thrown terrific support behind the HARD BITE promotion. I produced my own trailer and paid for it myself, and I got a terrific deal but it was still expensive. I ate hotdogs for a month just to license the footage. So when BH saw the trailer, saw that T. Jefferson Parker was willing to say positive things–I’m one of the few writers who thinks calling my stuff “outlandish” is positive–BH revved everything up a notch. They’re running a contest to win a Kindle Paperwhite over on their website. You are invited to enter.
They’re also running a contest on Goodreads. You’re invited to enter that too!


Tom:
You hear that, folks? Better stock up on Purina monkey chow. It may just save your life.





Belly Up to the Bar with Patti Abbott

I’d like you all to welcome Patti Abbott to a new feature of the blog, where I interview folks at the imaginary tavern in my head. If you’re not familiar with Patti’s work in the crime fiction genre, you’re only hurting yourself. She’s written more than 80 stories, including “My Hero,” the Derringer Award winner for 2009. Her collection MONKEY JUSTICE (love that title!) is published by Snubnose Press, and she is co-editor of Discount Noir. Let’s give her a cheer.

Tom:
Good evening Patti, and welcome to Belly up to the Bar. What are you drinking?


Patti:
White Wine, Savignon Blanc, very cold, preferably from Australia with South Africa being the runner up. Marlborough’s Nobilio is my cheapy favorite. I never pay more than $12 a bottle because I can’t tell the difference. As long as its dry and fruity, I’m good. Hate wines with the oaky taste of Chardonnay though.Or Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale (from Kalamazoo, MI. I like any wheat beer really.
I didn’t start drinking beer until the last Noircon. And I haven’t looked back.


Tom:
Well, beer drinkers are certainly welcome here. I’ve had Two-Hearted, a long time ago. Reminds me of that Hemingway tale, “Big Two-Hearted River.” But enough about beer, it’s for drinking, not talking about.

First let me say that I’ve admired your stories for some time, and the first I remember reading is “The Perfect Day.” It was so far above what I’d been reading that it inspired me to aim higher myself. That’s why I approached you for the Protectors anthology, and your story for it, “The Search for Michael” opens the book. Would you tell us a little about the story and the history behind it?


Patti:
“Perfect Day” was a story I couldn’t get published in a literary zine. I tried a few first since the crime element is so slight that I thought most crime zines would not take it.
I felt blessed when Chris Rhatigan published it in ALL DUE RESPECT and was astounded at the great response. This story will be part of my novel in stories HOME INVASION (Snubnose Press). It is heartbreaking to me that children have to grow up with monsters like Billie and Dennis Batch as parents. The children quickly become the parents and never recoup their loss. However as you will learn from the novel in stories, Billie’s childhood was dreadful too.

“The Search For Michael” is 2/3rds true and happened to a woman I came to know in my book group. She died rather suddenly (although she was a generation older than the rest of us) and another member told me her story after her death. And then, since her husband had taught at the school where I worked, another friend told me the same story. How the parents eventually spent all their money looking for the son who walked out the door in his twenties, all his meds left behind. Everything left behind. The father quit his job, even hired PIs in various cities to look for him. After his death, the mother indeed went to psychics all over the country, taking what comfort she could. The third part is an invention although he did have a sister who was a physician. I felt the story need resolution so I gave it a likely one and then took it back a little. The woman in my book group read a draft of the story and was really angry with me because I had betrayed the woman’s use of psychics, which she thought made her friend look crazy. Not crazy to me at all-I would have done it and cops do it too. I hope she has softened on it by now.



Tom:
I’ve felt an underlying anger in your work, or maybe a disappointment. Am I projecting this, or are you looking at the world and finding it wanting?



Patti:
You are an insightful reader, Tom. If I write in the first half of the day, as I usually do, it is in a black mood. A mood that awakens me every morning and I have trouble shaking off. Maybe the Irish in me. Or maybe the childish belief I harbor in fairness.

The world is not sentient I remind myself.
Yes, I have a lot of trouble with the world we live in and tend to see the dark side of even the most neutral events. I find the world wanting in how we treat children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and the mentally challenged. If we are ever judged, it will be on this ground–what we did for the least of them.
Once in a while, I can pull off a cheerier story, but they are not my best usually. I am also more likely to write about victims of crimes rather than perpetrators. I just don’t find perpetrators that interesting with a few exception such as Walt White. His is a journey from goodness to evil and that does interest me.
If you take a show like DEXTER though for instance, is it the serial killers that really interest us? They are almost exchangeable. Did someone give them a rule book?



Tom:
I’m with you on that. The banality of evil has been written about by better thinkers than me, but you’re right, when humans go really bad they tend to a pattern. Psychopaths or severely abused children robbed of any empathy by a litany of pain and neglect. Dexter is amusing for the characters, not the serial killer concept. Would you say we glorify crime more, as society and the law becomes more and more regimented? Or is it mere wish-fulfillment, vicarious violence meted out on our peers (which is what I think of the zombie phenomenon, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms)?



Patti:
In terms of books, television and movies, a lot of people. especially men, like to see violence and power. They identify with and watch those people who wield power–not the ones who are victims of it. I don’t think they are necessarily rooting for the bad guy, but instead rooting for the guy who is in charge, be it a mobster, a super-hero, a cop, a hit man. I think certain incidents bring out our sympathy for the victim of a bully, for instance. But at the same time I think we are suspicious of those who can’t solve such problems. We are about to perhaps elect a President who has said, let these people fend for themselves. And that sort of thinking filters down. If you are not popular or rich or successful, it is probably your fault, many would say. They never seem to acknowledge the fact we don’t all start from the same place in terms of money, color, family, IQ.
I am all over the place here but you get the drift.



Tom:
Writer interviews always go to “influences,” so let’s turn that around a bit. You run a web series called Friday’s Forgotten Books. If you could pick one author who is not generally taught in schools, and put them on the curriculum worldwide, who would it be, and what book?



Patti:
Now that’s a question I have never considered. I think I would chose Margaret Millar. She is a beautiful prose writer with great psychological depth. I don’t think you could go wrong reading her books. Dorothy Hughes and Patricia Highsmith would be two more.
I am not choosing these three because they are women but because they are interested in character and place above plot.



Tom:
I’ve never read Millar or Hughes, but I will. Patricia Highsmith is also one of my favorites.

You’re from Detroit, right? I’m from Jersey, so we both must have a love-hate relationship with our region, because we’re still here and not crazy. What do you love about your city, and what do you hate? And if you could hand me a book that revealed its heart, which one would it be?



Patti:
I lived in New Jersey for five years so I know it a bit too.
I would give you THEM by Joyce Carol Oates, which I think is her finest book even if she wrote it forty years ago. Paul Clemens MADE IN DETROIT is terrific too.
Detroit has all the cultural institutions of a major city–I like that about it. What you may not realize is that Detroit is surrounded by some very affluent suburbs that have art houses, theaters for plays, bookstores, things to do. I like that Detroit keeps fighting back with its music, its attempts to rebuild through attracting younger people to various areas. It is a great food city. A great sports city. We have every ethnic group you can name. If I walk the campus at WSU, I see young people from every region of the world. WSU had the largest Middle Eastern contingent anywhere but also huge numbers of students from Africa, Asia, Europe.

I hate the constant corruption, callousness and incompetence of Detroit politics. I hate that Detroit has allowed hundreds of architecturally important buildings to come down without thought. I hate that only twenty-some percent of students in Detroit itself finish high school. I hate that there are many, many, many city streets where only a few houses now stand. It is ugly outside of a few cultural areas. Although they have begun developing the waterfront, why not years ago like Baltimore? Why did Cleveland build the HALL OF FAME when Detroit has produced tenfold the music? Because, as usual, Detroit dropped the ball. I cannot tell you how much federal money was lost because they could not write the grants or hold on to them. It is a city filled with patronage jobs held by completely incompetent or corrupt people. Witness Kwame Kilpatrick, the scourge of the early 2000s.



Tom:
I will definitely check those books out, and if I make it up to America’s Mitten again, I will ask you for places to visit.

What would you say is the one topic you hope to have the last word in your fiction, and if you can’t be the one… is there someone else you’d be OK with taking that ring from you?



Patti:
At this point, I would say victims. I am really comfortable writing about victims. I am not sure who else victims interest. I don’t read too many stories about them.



Tom:
I think maybe the thriller genre has a lock on them, but I think they have a home in noir and the crime story, and I’m glad you’re telling their side.
It’s getting near closing time, so what do you have out there
that readers need to check out, and what is next down the pike?



Patti:
I have a story coming out in Crime Factory’s Horror Issue. I have a story coming out in Ed Gormans’s latest anthology. One in Mysterical-E, one in an anthology on Lee Marvin, one in a new Beat to a Pulp anthology, one in Katherine Tomlinson’s new anthology on the last day, one in Shotgun Honey next month. Probably too many.

Have you noticed how bees become very active just before they die?



Tom:
I know I’m not the only one who hopes you’ll be buzzing for a good long time, Patti. Thank you for dropping by. I’ll keep a case of Two-Hearted Ale cold for you.