Promotion ad Nauseam

Self-promotion is my least favorite aspect of writing, and I know I am not alone. I’ve done it wrong before, but I am trying to get better. I have read articles on dos and don’ts and secrets and no-nos, and coupled with my Internet Dinosaur badge (1988… that makes me a young dinosaur) let me suggest the following:

If it feels wrong, don’t do it.


If you automate twitter posts to recur so many hours, I am not going to follow you or follow you back. Because I want to follow people, not town criers or newsfeeds. If all you post is essentially an RSS feed, I will instead follow your blog using my RSS reader. There is no magic number, but I try not to post a link to Protectors more than once a day, usually less often. In the past, I was not as polite, but I learned my lesson. There are twitter tools to find when the most of your followers are active. Share it then. Automate it, even. It’s once a day, who cares? As long as you communicate like a human, it won’t be obvious that you’re like a classic rock station playing “Layla” at precisely 4:32 every day.

A wiser writer than myself said that most people who follow you already buy your books and read your stories. Make them aware of new ones for a brief time, in small doses.

Do NOT send direct messages, especially canned sales pitches like “check out my webpage” or “thanks fr the follow my new book comes out next week RT plz” … this is SPAM. No one likes it. Plenty of people block folks who do this. I unfollow, even writers who I want to follow. Because I know what’s coming next, the spew of self-promotion. Do not feel compelled to follow people back. Are they interesting? Do they simply RT stuff? Listen, this isn’t a circle jerk. If you follow me just to get a follow back, please unfollow me now.


Facebook is less onerous, because if you talk politics or update your wordcount every few hours, I can unclick “Show in News Feed” and mute you. I know writing feels like hard work, but we really need to stop acting like punching in another 2000 words is worthy of discussion. Writers write. Do you write? Great, you’re a writer. We don’t need reaffirmation of this. If you need a daily affirmation- Lawrence Block stresses their importance- read his fantastic guide Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, or the excellent Break Writer’s Block Now! by Jerrold Mundis. Both will teach you how to write in an organized manner, which won’t make a few pages seem delivering a breech birth.

Only make an author page if you also are not friending everyone in sight. Pages are good for keeping personal and professional life separate. There is no point (other than ego-stroking) to invite friends to Like your author page. Friends who like your pages get to see your posts repeated 3-5 times, and again when you share them with Groups. It gets overwhelming and annoying. Also, don’t make a page for every book you write. That’s just silly, it dilutes your fan base. I made this mistake, by making an author page. If we’re friends, please feel free to unlike this page. I have a separate page for the Protect anthologies- this allows people to be alerted of a new charity anthology without having to “be friends” and share personal info with me. That is the only reason for a page on Facebook if you have fewer than 5000 friends (the max).

Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are great. But you know what? E-mailing your entire contact list, or a hidden list of writers and friends is NOT A MAILING LIST, IT IS SPAM. It’s passive-aggressive as hell, because to ask to be removed, the recipient has to tell you they don’t want to hear about your latest story/interview/baby/book/puppy fart video. You want to be a pro, act like one. Use a mailing list service. Mailchimp is one the pros love. It forces you to follow all the anti-spam laws and readers can subscribe and unsubscribe with a click. It is also free. You have no excuse. It asks for your address, so get a P.O. Box. Take some advice from pro Briane Keene’s “Writing Full Time” speech and get a P.O. Box anyway. You will want the privacy it affords you.


Blog every day! Actually, don’t. I did for years. I’d sit around thinking of what to blog. I reviewed every movie I saw. It was boring for me and for readers. Blog when you have something to say. A few times per week. Daily if you aren’t rehashing stuff you’ve said a thousand times before. I blog about a new band, a movie, a dining experience, books, and I try to interview someone at least once every two weeks. The interviews take the most time, I come up with the questions on lunch break, and I edit them and make them look pretty on another lunch break. Blogging is writing- it will sap your creative energies- but it can also inspire you and kickstart you into writing on days when the fingers just want to scratch your ass instead. (NOTICE: all employees must wash hands before writing)

Goodreads Contests

I haven’t done one of those yet, but people sure love them. I don’t see a downside unless you spam about them. Don’t auto-DM people about this or your Kickstarter. They will see it in your feed when you post about it incessantly.

Well That’s Just Like Your Opinion, Man

Yes, it is. These are my opinions. Some people are better at ignoring bad Internet etiquette. And some people go on rampages to destroy people with bad ‘net manners. You don’t want them on your back. The more popular you get, the bigger chance you’ll piss one of them off.

Writers Who Do It Right™

Here are a few writers, both new and established, who in my opinion do it right: Lawrence Block, Andrew Vachss, Christa Faust, John Scalzi, Stephen Blackmoore, Karina Cooper, Christopher Moore, Roxane Gay, Ray Garton, Dan O’Shea, Mat Johnson, Charles Stross, David Brin. I have conversed with all of these writers. They don’t answer every tweet or FB comment, but they interact with writers and fans alike. They do not use their fan base as “minions” or ask questions that could be answered with a Google search. They do not spam you about their new releases, but they make you aware of them. They treat people with respect and thus get it in return. They do not circle-jerk and promote you for promoting them, or reek of desperation.

We all get excited about our work and yes, the best way to get the word out is on the Internet, but let’s do it right and not give writers a bad name. We don’t want to be lumped with Real Estate Agents at parties, do we? Are you looking to buy a house? I can get you a great deal on a mortgage *BLOCK*

Salami out.

Belly Up to the Bar with Zak Mucha

Zak Mucha is a therapist in private practice and the supervisor of an Assertive Community Treatment program, providing services to persons suffering severe psychiatric and substance abuse disorders in Chicago’s Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods, and an advisory board member of the National Association to Protect Children. He is also the author of the novel THE BEGGARS’ SHORE, co-author of the bully-tackling graphic novel HEART TRANSPLANT with Andrew Vachss and Frank Caruso, and his short story “Community Reintegration” appears in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT. I had the pleasure of reading his upcoming novel HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF NOTHING, a gritty blue-collar tale of youth in Chicago. You can read an excerpt here.

Heavyweight Champion of Nothing

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You’re an LCSW, licensed clinical social worker. And from what I’ve read, it informs your writing in a profound manner. What led you to the profession, and what has the experience taught you most?

zakZM: I never in my life planned on being a social worker. The guys I hung out with through most of my life, no one thought much of social workers. I mean, really, that was someone you had to see only if you got caught. Social workers were never any type of role model, especially male role models. They’re still not.

What led me to this profession was I eventually accepted writing was not my profession. To keep writing, I was going to have to keep another job. Most of the jobs I’ve had have been manual labor. I would work a job for so many months and when I had enough money, or because it was seasonal work, I would lock myself in and write for a few months. I’d come out broke and have to get back to work. It’s a lousy and unintelligent way to live, but I did it because I wanted to write at the time…
But while I was jumping jobs, I tried a couple social service things. I had a vague idea I wanted to do something I was hesitant to call “meaningful” or “good.”

I didn’t go back to school for a Bachelors until after Beggars’ was published. So that book was published and I found myself still scrambling for a living. I tried a social service job, which was basically thug work in a juvie shelter for wards of the state. At the time I only had a high school diploma. I left quickly, but took several more years before I agreed with the idea that if I ever wanted any autonomy, I needed to get a college degree. At one point I was teaching writing in a women’s prison which was fun but really I wasn’t accomplishing much.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I really enjoyed HEAVYWEIGHT, which if I had to describe it, is about a young guy coasting along at a moving company, drifting into crime, avoiding responsibility for his mentally ill girlfriend and chronically ill father while figuring things out. You capture that aimlessness of extended adolescence, and the difficulty we have with owning our behavior at that age. And yet, the book is startlingly funny and tragic at the same time. The narrator is exploited throughout, by bosses, women and friends. What inspired the book?

zakZM: Being exploited is a part of it. By people in all three categories. The narrator has no blueprint to figure much out, does he? He bangs along. It’s a revenge fantasy, but I didn’t want to step away from reality when describing how a young man learns the rules of the world. I did work on moving trucks for a long time. The fictional content of the book is a little thin at some points.
I saw a couple old pals the other night. We worked together for years. And for years I heard, “You should write a book about this place…” I was pleased that these guys understood it. They haven’t read the thing and they don’t need to.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: In America, we tend to define ourselves by what we own and what we do, jobs and possessions. And movers get to touch everything we own. There are even packing services, where they box and wrap everything for you. Yet the job is almost treated with contempt, like it’s not for a grown man. The middle-class disdain for blue collar work. I only worked construction for a short time, but I felt it, a sort of paternalism. To a different extent, we see this with wait staff. For the duration of a meal, the middle class gets to rent the experience of having servants. Your book gets this.

zakZM: If you’re ever stuck at a social gathering, that’s the general question: “What do you do?”

Once a pal and I were working a moving job at a hospital… We were, at the moment, under a fume hood, trying to take it apart. Some doctor was talking to us. All we could see were his ankles. At one point the doctor said, “You seem like intelligent guys, why are you doing this work?” My pal under the hood with me actually owned the company.
My pal said, “Hold on. I’m going to look at your face when I answer you.” He got up and introduced himself.
The doctor introduced himself as Doctor Whatever.
My pal said, “No, what’s your Christian name?”
This felt real good. We weren’t going to accept his status.

Sure, if you’re doing the dirty work for a living, you feel the disdain. You end up having to really check yourself from assuming the disdain is always there. This is why I wanted the introduction on crime and narcissism included in the book.

How you treat the people doing the dirty work says a lot about you. Do you take grief all day at work and wait until there’s a barista to sneer at? Or do you get that huffy and entitled with your boss, too?

Waiters, they have a rough job. They have to take such an egregious amount of crap from people. Of course, the potential for vengeance is huge. Any waitress I knew had awful stories about what happens to meals ordered by rude customers.

Of course, it would be more honorable for the waitress to take her complaint right to the customer. But, say you need the job because you have kids. Or if you have a mountain of school loans (the only loans you cannot bankrupt out of—the owner of the restaurant, he can walk away from debt, but his waitstaff  paying for school cannot) your choices are limited. The power dynamic is right there. While the customer feels his behavior is justified because he can pay for the meal, the waiter loses her job for defending herself.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I bused tables ran a factory cafeteria at night, and my mother waited tables at a country club a while, so I know that first hand as well. It’s a form of tolerated bullying. I found your work through HEART TRANSPLANT, the graphic novel you collaborated on with Andrew Vachss and Frank Caruso. One of the messages in the book is that you can’t lose by fighting back, and the way the Gent teaches this to his young charge is ingenious. I wish I’d gotten the same lesson, but it’s not for everybody. The tough problem with bullying, as I see it, is that we reward aggression. We need a certain amount of aggressiveness, as ambition and competition, but in America, success absolves all sins. If there were an easy solution- like “teach everyone that protecting those weaker than you is the true test of adulthood” we’d have done it. Is there any good first step we can take in schools, or at home, start changing things for the better?

zakZM: If you mean aggressiveness as a means of self-defense, sure, we do need that. The lesson is for everybody, but it also had to be presented differently to different people. One guy may have no trouble defending himself from a physical threat. But an emotional threat gets right through his gloves. He was never taught to recognize that as an attack, much less how to defend himself from it.

I’ve been doing workshops on emotional self-defense ever since Heart Transplant came out. Changing the culture is about confrontation. Confrontation is uncomfortable. The slogans – hell check Facebook – are useless at best and offensive at worst.

A lot of the anti-bullying stuff isn’t working because the message, “Don’t be a bully, be nice to other people,” is being thrown at kids (and adults) who have already developed a lack of empathy for others. And every time that person is not challenged on their behavior, that lack is more and more calcified, as well as justified in their own minds.

Once empathy is clearly absent, we can’t infuse it into a person. But we can teach people it’s going to cost them if they try to hurt others. I’ve given workshops where the teachers are burnt out and they’re telling me to tell kids, “Don’t fight,” while I’m also seeing which kids are totally intimidating the teachers and the class without ever throwing a punch.

There are a lot of people who will gladly protect others in a heartbeat, but have a very hard time protecting themselves.

The lessons of emotional self-defense are simple. But they go against the cultural grain. It’s true that the measure of a person is whether they protect others, but before they can truly do that, they have to be able to recognize when they themselves are in pain and be able to defend themselves.


Tom Pluck BeerTP: Chicago is a city with a soul, but it’s a stranger to me. It has its own flavor of corruption, its own blues, and a rough history going back to the stockyards. I was there for a business trip once, I only had time to go to the Billy Goat, the top of the Hancock building, and speed down Lower Wacker Drive. Were you born there, and what keeps you there?

zakZM: I’ve considered leaving it a lot of times. I have left it a few times. The only reason I would leave again is to be with the people I love. They don’t live here. That’s the only reason I would leave.

I was born here. I like the history of the city, but that’s becoming such a distant memory across the whole city. You drive through and try to remember what used to be on this block or that block.  But you can still go to the IWW office and see Joe Hill’s urn. You can see some decent boxing matches. My pal, Ric Addy, DJs the fights. He also sings in a country punk band and runs a fine bookshop. I can go out and see Jon Langford and Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, and Freakwater singing in bars. I hardly do that as much as I’d like, though.

The city itself is changing. The team I run during the day, part of our job is to help clients who are at the very bottom of the socioeconomic barrel. People who are frequently homeless, psychotic, drug-addicted — housing for them is disappearing. There’s a real push to get “those people” out of the neighborhood. I want to ask: Didn’t you see them when you moved in? They were here first. For decades, our neighborhood has, historically, been the shunt valve for the state and private mental hospitals.

The first book I wrote, Beggars’ Shore, was about this same crowd in Uptown. I was not a social worker then, I hadn’t even gone to college, but I was living in this neighborhood and I don’t think it’s a coincidence I ended up back here, working with this population. What I wanted to do with that book —  make some sort of change – was *never* going to happen with that book. But it does happen with the ACT team I run. Writing a book is easier. You can fix your mistakes the following day and there’s no damage. I’ve had days on the job where I knew I wasn’t going home until I found a place for this psychotic person to sleep. And then when I got home, I would get called out again for someone else’s crisis. We’re on-call 24/7.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: You have a career, where hopefully you can see some small mark you leave on the world. You help people, or at least attempt to, on a daily basis. So, what drives you to write? You have a strong voice, so I hope you have more books in you.

zakZM: If I have any drive to write, it’s really not fiction. Maybe years down the road if I retire from one of the jobs I have… But Heavyweight Champion of Nothing is marking the end of one life for me.

Maybe because I’ve found a couple other jobs that have a real importance to me, offer me some opportunity to change things on maybe a couple levels, I have less interest in writing fiction.
I don’t think the shift in my writing goals is coincidental.

There’s non-fiction I’m working on right now, one thing with Marc MacYoung.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: MacYoung, like Andrew Vachss, has written things which changed my life. With Vachss it was “You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart,” where he broke the taboo about emotional abuse. It’s not macho to admit that works “cut sharper than knives,” as INXS so succinctly put it. And MacYoung, he taught me that all my MMA training, weapons katas, stress fire target shooting at the range was trying to fight the fear within myself. It had become a cold shadow following me, the fear of being attacked, or not being able to protect my loved ones. And I think a lot of men have that fear with them, like that Zimmerman guy who shot Trayvon Martin. A lot of people are defending him, that’s how common the fear is. Whether the media drives it, or the NRA, or politicians. All three. Can you tell us a little about what you and Marc are working on, because I will be first in line.

zakZM: Marc and I are working on a book about what to do in situations or relationships where people are not following social scripts. This one is not a physical self-defense book, but more about how to keep a situation from building to violence. In conversation Marc and I found we had a lot of the same ideas. The fear you’re describing is a part of it—we’re looking at how we use our own responses to assess a situation and how to possibly triage our own families.

Marc’s a guy who’s been through a lot. He doesn’t need any more violence to prove he’s a man. He gets it that whatever fear we have, we put it on someone not like ourselves. We provoke them and then use that to justify our behavior. I’m having fun writing this book. This might be the only book I’ve enjoyed writing, but that would be because of Marc.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: In writer interviews, they always ask what authors are your influence, but especially our generations, I think everything from music, movies, TV and video games counts. I’m gonna ante up, one of my favorite crime novels is Prowlers, by your Chicago native Eugene Izzi. What would you say your influences are?

zakZM: Reading and writing were more insufficiently masculine activities, like being a social worker… You didn’t want to get caught doing such things. I had one high school teacher, a man named Jerry Stefl, who could see through me, so he’d slip books to me, knowing I would resent any assignments or instructions. This same teacher ended up getting me a scholarship to an art school. All the deadlines were past, and this being Chicago, I imagine he called on some sort of marker.

I lasted about a minute in art school. I had no clue what I was doing. I remember sitting and drinking with a couple guys who were talking about their trust funds. One guy’s dad owned a newspaper, the other a record company. I thought they were putting me on. “There’s no such thing as a trust fund…” But while I was skipping classes, I hung out in the library. I grabbed everything I could, whether I understood it or not.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I don’t know if it began with Reagan, or after Geraldo Rivera exposed the abuse at the Willowbrook mental institution, but I think we treat the majority of mental illness, especially violent cases, as a criminal justice issue instead of a medical one. As someone on the front lines, can you give us a picture from your turf, and tell us what we should seek for reform?

zakZM: Persons with mental illnesses have been treated horrifically since the start of time. A Google search would give you more information than you could ever want.

I’ve talked to enough people with really violent and psychotic plans. It’s scary because it is not an argument you’re going to win with logic.

A small percentage of cases do become criminal issues. But those cases get such a disproportionate amount of coverage. The program I supervise, we’re almost too late. We’re trying to minimize damage and get people back onto some kind of track after the system has already failed them.

The really vital points of intervention would be much earlier in a person’s life. And only recently are people starting to discuss trauma as a factor in psychotic disorders. For a long time, psychotic disorders were seen as genetic. That’s a part of it, but trauma is a factor. Makes sense — trauma threatens all perceptions of the world and how a person lives in the world. Psychosis is an inability to define the boundaries of the self: What’s me, what’s the outside world, and where do I make that boundary? Think of that and look at emotional abuse – where the abuse demands the victim change their sense of self, diminish the self in order to appease the aggressor. The brain tries to defend itself, but when a person’s perception of themselves is challenged and the person’s perception of reality is challenged inescapably, then the sense of self becomes more and more fragile.

There are really limited resources for outreach programs. I wrote a piece about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where I suggested somebody heard his plans. Later, we all learned that he definitely did explain he wanted to hurt people.

We need to have a system that can triage adolescents as they move into adulthood.
We need a system that will provide intensive services to that adolescent and young adult population – and have it be more than just warehousing in a psychiatric nursing home.
We really need a residential program to handle cases that need more services than an ACT program could provide. We need ones specifically designed for young adults – there’s a real different set of goals there as compared to working with a more middle-aged population with chronic psychotic symptoms.

If anyone wants to argue about the cost to the taxpayer, then they should also justify the cost of ignoring the problem like in Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, or Aurora, Colorado.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: We tend to think of violence as a force of nature, like there is no way to prevent it. It’s easier that way. The quarterly massacres we’ve come to endure as commonly as yearly hundred-year storms have put gun control, mental illness and gun culture into the conversation. I hope we treat mental illness properly within our lifetimes, but I have a feeling we’ll be discussing the same issues fifty years from now. Thanks for coming by and giving us a lot to think about. I think my readers will enjoy HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF NOTHING as much as I did.

BW Beer Mug

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.



I Thank You

First: to my Firecracker, my family, my friends. Thank you.

Then I would like to give thanks to everyone who bought PROTECTORS: Stories to Benefit PROTECT and supported the only lobby which fights the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children exclusively. Take a look at what Protect has done:

PROTECT’s Victories

Maybe you bought the book because 100% of the proceeds go to PROTECT.
Or maybe you bought it for the exclusive first three chapters of Ken Bruen’s upcoming novel, or for the excerpt from the book Charlie Stella’s working on. Or for the DC street tale from George Pelecanos, novelist and writer for Treme and The Wire, the Hap Collins story by Joe Lansdale, the tale by World Fantasy Award winner Charles de Lint, the Edgar finalist from Chet Williamson, the thriller by Michael A. Black, the classic by Andrew Vachss, the WGI winner by Ian Ayris, the Gus Dury tale by Tony Black, the all-new Cash Laramie tale by Edward A. Grainger, the stories by Bill Cameron, Roxane Gay, Jane Hammons, Gary Lovisi and Richard Prosch.

Or it could be the NEW fiction from Patti Abbott, Ray Banks, Nigel Bird, R. Thomas Brown, Jen Conley, Wayne D. Dundee, Chad Eagleton, Les Edgerton, Andrew Fader, Matthew C. Funk, Glenn G. Gray, Amber Keller, Frank Larnerd, Mike Miner, Zak Mucha, Dan O’Shea, Keith Rawson, James Reasoner, Todd Robinson, Johnny Shaw, Gerald So, Josh Stallings, Steve Weddle, and Dave White.

Or because it’s the only book in which my Weird Tale of haunted Appalachia, where two boys tangle with moonshiners, wendigos and demon dogs, and meet hoodoo folksinger Blind Joe Death, will be available.

For whatever reason you bought the book, thank you. You’ve made it a resounding success that will continue to help fund PROTECT’s good work for the decade it remains in print.

And if you can’t support us- you can help by clicking the ‘Share’ button. Spreading the word helps more than you know. But do it tomorrow. Today, spend some time being thankful with those you love, and think of how to give others something to be thankful for.

Wishing you and yours a happy Thanksgiving, and many reasons to give thanks all year.

Thank you.

Thomas Pluck

The Protectors anthology is available here:

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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.

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

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.

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?

“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.

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?

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?

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)?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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?

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.