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

BW Beer Mug

Hardboiled Magazine

Do you like Hardboiled fiction? Then you should subscribe to Hardboiled Magazine. It’s been in print since 1985, created by my friend Wayne Dundee – a hell of a writer himself – and is now run by Gary Lovisi. Paper only, you go to the link below, click Catalog, then select Hardboiled Magazine. It’s $35 for a yearly subscription, old school print and hard as a set of carbide tipped knuckle dusters. You won’t regret it. Frank Bill, Andrew Vachss, Bill Pronzini, Harlan Ellison and Bill Crider have all graced its pages and it is worth the extra steps needed to subscribe in this one-click world. 
Gary takes credit cards now, but I sent a check. It felt like the old days. In a good way…
© 2012 Thomas Pluck I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Great Plucking Reads

Everyone’s picking their favorite books of the year it seems. I reviewed all my favorites here over the months, but I’ll collect them here for you.
I’m all about emotional impact. I appreciate a clever twist or a brilliant storyline but one of the enduring phrases from my youth is from Harvey with Jimmy Stewart and his pooka pal the invisible rabbit. “You can be oh so clever or oh so pleasant. For years I tried clever. I’d suggest pleasant.” Meaning, it’s good to be clever, but don’t be cocky about it. These writers are clever, but they aren’t about being clever. They pack a wallop with their stories and it’s not there to shock, but to shake… to shake you out of jaded ordinary life and make you think, or heaven forfend, care.

So here are my favorite reads of the year. You may truncate them to five or ten to make a handy list.

Out There Bad, by Josh Stallings
A strong new voice and a powerful character blasting onto the scene, Mo McGuire is a dark hero, a wounded warrior, who dares shove our face in the evil we tolerate every day. This is the second book by Stallings and kicked my ass. He takes you on a hellride through L.A.’s human meat grinder and hunts it to its source with a two chilling and remorseless killers at his back. Moses is forced to acknowledge his own complicity as a strip club bouncer, and learns what it takes to stand up for those he cares about. L.A. has a new crime boss, it just doesn’t know it yet: and his name is Stallings.

The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott
The most daring novel of the year, exposing the rotten heart of suburbia. This one’s on a lot of end of the year best-of lists and I will smugly say I TOLD YOU SO. Back when I reviewed it this summer. Nya nya nya NYA nya.  A profoundly disturbing look at the dangers young women face on the verge of womanhood, and a story that will defy your attempts to predict its outcome. When Lizzie’s best friend is abducted, she begins her own investigation… starting with the secrets only best friends would share.

Choke Hold, by Christa Faust
It flies like classic pulp, it reads like truth and it hits you with a smart left hook that leaves you as stunned as a fighter wobbling through his first standing eight-count. There are no slick twists, only artfully written characters, broken down gladiators from the sex and violence trades who’ve battled for our entertainment. They are writ large but speak to a deeper truth. Angel always lands on her feet, but the fear level was the highest for me in this one. The axe is always ready to fall.

Crimes in Southern Indiana, by Frank Bill
A brutal emotional dispatch from the war zone in your backyard. The debut of the year, this is blood feud poetry. Desperate situations where beat-down people stand on the line between what they know is wrong and sheer survival in a hardscrabble emotionally jagged landscape. Staring into the abysmal latrine of humanity, it is easy to sink to nihilism, to embrace the banality of evil, but Frank Bill refuses to take the easy road. People beyond forgiveness seek mere understanding. Desires criss-cross and hurtle together like jalopies down a one lane dirt road. Anyone can write brutality. Giving it a dark but honest human heart takes guts and a keen sense of people, and this novel speaks volumes of messy truth.

Pym, by Mat Johnson
Not a crime novel, but one of the funniest and honest books on race and English literature I’ve ever read. It turns a brutally racist Poe tale on its head and has a snicker on every page while doing it. An African-American professor of African-American studies is fired because he won’t be the token African-American on the diversity committee. While looking for a slave narrative to base his next thesis on, he finds an intriguing document that suggests Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was based on fact, and gathers together a crew to find the islands it described. A bizarre and hilarious adventure through American literature commences, and not a week goes by where I don’t think of this book.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

The grandmaster shows us how it’s done, returning to a place in Matt Scudder’s past where he was less experienced and more vulnerable. There is little action, but you can’t tell from the tension level. No one writes New York like Mr. Block, and he explores new ground by taking us to Scudder’s past. A crook in AA is killed when he begins asking forgiveness, and Matt needs to know why. With his usual bulldog tenacity he explores a rogue’s gallery of human frailty while keeping a slippery grip on his own sobriety. I liked the story, the mystery of High Low Jack’s murder and his shady past, but the characters are what keeps this book in my mind.
The Weight by Andrew Vachss
Character-driven fiction at its best, we meet “Sugar,” a weightlifter and con who takes the rap on a crime he didn’t commit to protect his crew. What happens after he takes the weight is nothing you’d expect. Mentors and feet of clay, and a lead you’d trust to spot you under the bar when the weight is damn heavy.

Frank Sinatra in a Blender, by Matthew McBride
From the title, to its meaning, to its hard-drinking anti-hero and fully-fleshed hard luck villains, not since early Carl Hiaasen has vicious comedy of human existence been so entertainingly portrayed. I still sometimes remember a scene or a line, stare into space and laugh, and everyone around me takes a few steps away from me. Just a great read.

Fun & Games by Duane Swierczynski 

It plays on Hollywood conspiracies and the starlet meat grinder, all while telling a fast paced, thrilling and very funny tale. Duane the Brain can come up with stories I can’t even imagine, and he fleshes them out with hilarious and cynical prose that keeps the pages turning.
Headstone by Ken Bruen
My introduction to Ken’s unique style and fierce heart, I am told this isn’t the best Jack Taylor novel. All that means is the others are even better. A back alley tour of Galway, a city I’ve only seen as a tourist, that was a hell of an eye opener. Taylor tackles mindless hate and nihilism and tears its tongue out at the roots. He fears no evil and leaves no villain spared. Truly excellent writing from a master I will read every word of, before I die.

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell
I let this slip by because it’s a short story collection. But these stories, like Crimes in Southern Indiana, are all about a place and a people and make a patchwork that becomes a tapestry as you step back. This was my introduction to Mr. Woodrell, and I’ve picked up several of his novels since. He has an economy with words that leans toward poetry, and a blood-borne knowledge of the human heart. This is an excellent introduction to the author, who’d be called the Raymond Carver of the Ozarks… if he wasn’t an equally adept novelist as short story master.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck