Filed under: Interviews
Steve Weddle’s name is well known to anyone interested in noir writing.
Needle magazine is at the top of the tree in terms of quality and vision and Steve’s Channel Noir is a must see if you like crime writing in any shape or form.
Steve, a former English professor, graduated with an MFA in poetry from Louisiana State University. He now works for a newspaper group in Virginia and writes fiction.
He gave me a fascinating interview, in which we talked poetry, crime, politics and noir.
One weeknight I was sitting on the couch reading Crimespree Magazine. Of course I loved the reviews and interviews and all the news in there, but I wanted more fiction. Same thing with Mystery Scene Magazine. Most of the short fiction I was reading was online. Plots with Guns. Crimefactory. Beat To A Pulp. Twist of Noir. Pulp Pusher. Thug Lit. Thrilling Detective. Authors’ sites. And on an on.
To me, there seemed to be a bit of a disconnect. You could read about the writers in print, but you couldn’t read them in print. Not most of the folks I was reading, anyway.
And then there are the online flash challenges. A thousand words online. Hop from one site to another, reading along a theme, discovering authors I’d never heard of. Great stuff.
All of that just pissed me off. So much great stuff out there and it’s all over the web, but I can’t sit by my library window, fold it in my hand, and read it. I can’t take the stories out on the back deck and read them.
This year I turn 40. I’m not ancient. And I have a decent understanding of this world web the kids are talking about. But I like to have a collection in my hand, ink on paper, where I can read stuff and bookmark stuff and underline stuff and pass it off to a friend and say “read this.” Something I can enjoy at the lunch table. Unroll at the soccer game. And I wanted more people to read all these cool authors I’ve been reading. I wanted to put some of these great writers together, to make sure as many people as possible could see how great they are. You can get lost on the internet, you know? Hopping around from site to site. You bet there’s some great stuff out there, but I wanted an ink-on-paper alternative. As much as I love online crime fiction sites, I wanted a collection offline as another outlet.
So I mentioned that on Twitter and people much more talented and smarter than I am said they thought it was a great idea. So I asked some smart people to help, and they did. John Hornor Jacobs brought the artist vision to the thing. We chatted a few times and I told him what I had in mind. We seemed to be in agreement on most things. Then he’d send me some pages, some design. Unbelievably rich stuff. Sure the dude can write, but the eye he has for the look of the journal was just great. And Naomi Johnson and Scott D. Parker were phenomenal in reading the stories and making some suggestions here and there. And Dan O’Shea came in at the tail end and helped work out some kinks.
That’s the inside stuff. On the outside, of course, I asked some talented people to join in on this idea and send in some stories, and they did. In many respects, this was like a bunch of us getting together and just jamming out some tunes. And yet, each person’s own talents — drum solo, Van Halen riffs on the guitar, banshee wails into a reverb mic — ended up turning the show into such a fantastic concert. I was just really pleased with the way the journal turned out. But not just that. The people coming together to produce something — something literary and something lasting — was just so fantastic. From the feedback we’ve gotten, I can tell people were blown away by the stories, which is what it’s all about.
You graduated with an MFA in poetry from Louisiana State University, which poets do you admire and why?
Kenneth Koch. Gregory Corso. Anne Sexton. Chad Rohrbacher. Richard Hugo.
“Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/traveling-through-the-dark/) is amazing.
My favorite book of poems is The Never-Ending by Andrew Hudgins. He has a couple of great ones in there. One is called “Praying Drunk” and one is “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought.”
He has this style, this persona in these that can be deceptive. Kind of an old country guy, a drunk with a history who catches glimpses of that blinding light in the soul of the universe. He also has a poem called “Something Wakes Me Up” about his neighbors who are sawing apart a deer while he listens like a coward.
A poet named Laura Kasischke wrote one in Poetry magazine back in the late 80s. Maybe early 90s. The piece was about cheating on your spouse and thinking about what color to paint the upstairs bathroom. I’ve never read anything else by her, which is a failing of mine, not hers. But this poem has stuck with me. The poem is called “Palm.” (http://compost-hedgie.blogspot.com/2007/03/laura-kasischke-again-wild-brides.html) There’s this line in it that still, I don’t know. Seems stupid to say it “gives me chills.” But I read it and I get kinda shaky for a second and the hairs on my arms stand up. So whatever that is. I’m sure Hudgins or Kasischke would say it with cleverness. It isn’t about cheating on your spouse. It’s about wanting more. Thinking that there has to be more to your life. To life itself. The reader of her palm works through the woman’s life, how the mundane is punctuated with glimpses of blinding light. More than just simple journeys of family vacations. Here’s the line: “this is how the small survive, the way the small have always survived.” You gotta read the poem. I can’t do it justice. I’m like that guy from Star Trek doing the TV commercial saying how your TV can’t show how awesome this new HD TV he’s selling is because your own TV is crap. Well, I can’t explain how cool Kasischke, Stafford, and Hudgins are. I can point you in their directions, though. That’s the best I can do. Maybe it’s enough.
Do you think it is possible to write crime poetry?
Yeah, I can’t see why not. Once we had that meeting and decided this poem stuff didn’t have to rhyme, what the heck, right? Besides, the whole idea that Emily Dickinson is still taught in schools is pretty criminal, isn’t it? So why not crime poetry? From a certain angle, Sylvia Plath’s ARIEL is a book of crime poems, isn’t it?
I think what you want to do with a “crime poem” is the same as with any other poem. Get to that flash you can’t find in prose, some sort of understanding.
Dogrel about a bank heist, um, no thanks. But why can’t you address the human condition with a crime poem as well as with a love poem?
Crime poetry isn’t new. And it wasn’t new when John Milton took a shot at it, either.
Hmmm. Now I want to teach a seminar in the history of crime poetry.
William Blake said that all poets are ‘of the Devil’s Party’ referring to Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. James Lee Burke writes dark Gothic prose that goes into the internal lives of his characters in some depth, do you think that the popularity of crime writing stems from a desire to witness the extreme darkness within the human psyche?
I think the best crime writing comes from the ability to tell an engaging story involving people you care about. And conflict makes the story, moves the story along. Conflict adds friction. Interest. Motivation. You have to have something at stake. Sometimes that involves a victim staked-out in an ant-infested warehouse. Sometimes it’s crooked cops on a stakeout. Sometimes you’re on your way for a steak dinner and you get mugged. Hmm. Maybe that was too many “at stake” jokes. Fine. And I didn’t even get to the vampire crime fiction jokes.
With the idea that you need something at stake, the dark part of the human psyche is present, of course. The physical threat is important — do this or you’re dead — but I’ve heard people say that all crime writing is wish-fulfillment. You know, the people at work are mean to you. You don’t much care for your family. So you read or write about some tough character, someone who would give that mean jerk on the fifth floor what-for. Someone who wouldn’t put up with that crap. I guess there can be some of that in there. You want to read about people who are better than you. More exciting than you. But I think that’s a limited way of looking at things.
Part of the appeal of crime fiction, especially the darker stuff, is to have a neat, little container in which to hold your fears. People like to be scared. Makes them feel alive. We all know this. We talk about it at our “Understanding People for Crime Writers” meetings each Tuesday night at 8.
But people don’t like to be scared, um, in real life. Is that how to put it? I mean, it’s cool and exciting to read about some dude breaking into another dude’s house and tying him up and torturing him to find out where the blackmail photos are hidden. All cool until one night around midnight you hear glass break downstairs in the storage room, a high-pitched shatter on the concrete floor.
We like seeing horror on the evening news (kids, ask your grandparents) every night, but we don’t want it to be too close. And we like to have reasonable violence, as well as contained violence. That’s why crime fiction is such a comfort. Sure, the guy was tortured for the photos, but I don’t have photos, so I won’t be tortured. I’m safe. Kinda like when we hear about someone we know killed herself last week. We want to know why. We want to find a reason that it won’t happen to us. We press and press until we find out the girl was on drugs. Phew. We’re safe. We don’t do the drugs. This can’t happen to us. We can just turn the channel to another news show. Pick up another book about someone almost us, but not quite.
Violence at a distance. We slow down when we pass the three-car wreck on the highway. But we don’t stop.
One of the prevalent themes of crime writing is revenge. Do you think it’s true to say that revenge is lawless justice and if so what does the frequency of its occurrence say about the legal system we have imposed on the chaos we inhabit?
I’m not sure revenge is necessarily either lawless or justice. Revenge is taking action for a wrong. Maybe it’s a punishment. Life in prison can be revenge for murder in that sense. I guess one of the true statements we can make is to say that revenge is, by nature, reactionary. First you have the wrong — perceived or real. Then you have the reaction meant to settle the score — the revenge.
For crime fiction, this takes a conflict and lays out a series of events that must follow. One of the ways in which this can be made exciting is to move the story, the action, outside of the normal path. Cops spend a good deal of time with paperwork. Not so exciting. Before the accused gets to sentencing at the circuit court level, he or she has gone through, and I’m estimating here, probably 482 earlier court appearances. Sure, sometimes this is sexy. More often, it’s rather nap-inducing.
Man kills man. Cops arrest man. Man goes to trial, then prison. Blah. What if the man escapes the cops? What if he takes a family hostage? What if the narrator is one of those people taken hostage? The way the legal system “usually” helps us sleep at night. But those stories don’t keep us up at night, turning from chapter to chapter until we wake up in the morning with the book on the floor.
I’m sure someone smarter than I am could say something clever about how our “frontier” mentality in America informs the content of our fiction. How at some base-level, we all have to create our own order for the world, our own way of dealing with the chaos that surrounds us, that threatens to rips us all apart.
The idea of “lawless justice,” I think, goes back to what I was saying about the contained violence — ordered chaos, if you want. Brutal horrors lined up in alpha-order on library shelves. Yes, we want justice for wrongs that are done. And we like that justice a little messy. Not, of course, too messy.
Do you think that one of the functions of a narrative structure is to impose order on chaos?
You know those late 50s pieces from Coltrane, when he was working with Red Garland and Miles Davis? Before free jazz ruined the world, I mean. Even up to the mid 60s. You’d have a standard and you’d set up the, let’s see, maybe you’d call it a leit motif? The phrase throughout. Something to hold on to. Then the soloist would take off with scales and chords and you’d never know where the heck he’d end up. Then all of a sudden all those pieces start falling right back in and the song is brought around to the standard again. That’s the kind of jazz I like.
I don’t want just a series of notes following along the sheet music, some formulaic path from beginning to end. And I don’t want idiotic honking not tied to any damn thing. I like to have some understanding of what the expectations are when I start. Then take that and go with it.
This is why I like authors who can start with a conventional idea and then take it into new territory. Brad Parks with his reporter novels. Sean Chercover and his PI work. Joelle Charbonneau and her roller rink murder mystery. You get the set-up — the order — and then you can contain that chaos. Otherwise all you’ve got is a mess.
You know that phrase “Expect the unexpected”? I’m sure there are dumber phrases out there, but I can’t think of any right now. Once you expect it, it ain’t so unexpected, right? So I like to have my expectations set early on, whether it be Coltrane’s “Favorite Things” or Hilary Davidson’s short stories. Then I like to have everything break nasty.
Experimental fiction rejects a linear plot in favour of something more random, more evocative of the way the subconscious works, while traditionally crime fiction has followed the sequential route. Do you think it’s possible to write an experimental crime novel?
The poet Richard Hugo was teaching a creative writing class, listening to kids read their work. One of the students was reading his own composition with the line “I want to hold you forever.”
“Hold her forever?” Hugo asked. The kid said, yeah. Forever. Hugo laughed and asked, “What’re you gonna do when you gotta take a leak?”
That’s my favorite line from a poetry class. I only read about that one.
My second favorite line I got in person and this one actually has something to do with what we’re discussing.
One of my classmates at LSU was taking some crap for a poem he’d written. “I was just trying something. You know. An experiment.”
Professor Dave Smith wasn’t happy. “No such thing as an experiment like that. If it works, it’s a poem. Doesn’t work, it’s a failure.”
My favorite reading experience was when a half-dozen of us at LSU worked through FINNEGANS WAKE. We studied Irish history, watched documentaries, read many other Irish novels. We dug through economic theory from Italy. Church rules for Catholics. (I don’t think they call them rules.) All to better understand this “experimental” fiction Joyce had written. What an amazing book that is. Is it crime fiction? Eh, kinda, sorta. You can do things in there that you couldn’t pull off in anything more “traditional.” When finding “HCE” hidden in a section of drunken hiccups can bring a roomful of 20-somethings to hysterical tears, you know this isn’t a normal book.
I think the idea that anyone can write a book showcasing the way the subconscious works is a bit of a lark, anyway. Really a particle-wave sort of problem, isn’t it? How can you use your conscious brain to write a subconscious story. You’d write a story in the way your conscious brain tells you that your subconscious brain works. You can’t be both at once. You can have a bit of both, but can’t really exist as one and the other. Your conscious brain can’t adequately do the subconscious bit.
Crime fiction inherently follows a causal pattern. The thing before the crime. Then the crime. Then the thing after the crime. (Let me know if I’m being too technical.)
Could you break this apart, as they did in the movie MEMENTO, to come up with something new? Someone probably has. Experiments in crime fiction happen all the time. Time shifts. Unreliable narrators. Points of view. I can’t think of a Faulkner novel that wasn’t crime fiction.
The problem with the subconscious is that it isn’t altogether rewarding, is it? We get glimpses of cleverness, but the payoff just isn’t there. Kinda like a third-rate comedian. Some funny jokes here and there, but not that big one at the end that brings it all back together. You get those minor connections, as in a dream, but no way to hold it together. “There was this horse there who turned into my Uncle Rocky, I guess because of the Italian Stallion, and then he said something that I thought was great and I thought I should write it down when I wake up but then I wrote it down on the horse’s saddle which I guess the horse had come back and I thought I was awake when I did that and then I looked down and I stepped in horsecrap and that’s when I woke up too late to let the puppy out.”
Dreams. Comedy. Jazz. Crime writing. You gotta have something to hold things together. But not too tight. And not all the time. You gotta take a leak every once and a while.
Do you think in terms of crime writing it’s more interesting to read a whydunnit than a whodunnit?
I just finished reading a good book by Michael Connelly. This one involves a cold case that’s brought up again for such-and-such a reason. So you’re expecting there to be more to the crime than you think. Well, there’s another crime related to that one. Then maybe it isn’t. Then maybe the whole reason of why it was brought up again is more important than the crime itself. In books such as that one, you just grab hold of the main guy and hope you can follow along. But in these types of books, you’re reading them because of the main character. These mysteries that have 15 books in the series. Whether it’s Laura Lippman or Reed Farrel Coleman, you’re not reading a whydunnit or a whodunnit when you pick up one in the series. You’re reading a whodunsolvedit.
Readers will go along with you in book three when your guy is chasing down a serial killer. And in book eight when he’s after a group of terrorists. Book eleven when someone is threatening an elementary school with low-grade beef. They follow along because of the character in these.
Then you have stand-alones in which the back of the book sells you. One of those where this, that, and the other is at stake and there’s a ticking clock in the background. She has to find the dirty nuke at hidden at the county fair before the fat lady sings. All without waking her senile grandmother, whom she brought along in a wheelchair for some fresh air before getting caught up in all of this. But what if she finds the nuke on page 25 but doesn’t know who or why. Or she knows the who because he was blown up just as she discovered the location of the bomb. But why was her husband planting the bomb?
I guess the wheredunnit wouldn’t work any more than the howdunnit or whendunnit. “Why” and “who” it is, then.
There’s a good book I read last year called TRUST NO ONE by Gregg Hurwitz. Bad guy going to blow things up. Then the cops kill him. The “who” in the whodunnit shifts because the crime itself has moved. The why moves along at a crisp pace.
If you set it up from the criminal’s point of view, have her kill some folks, then die in a shoot-out with the cops by page 10, I think you could have a pretty good start to a whydunnit. I would think something like this would be just as clue-driven as the typical whodunnit, but you’d need a good deal of psychobabble throughout, um, I mean insight into the killer’s personality to pull that off. Maybe by page 150 you think that the cop who killed her wasn’t as clean as you thought. Maybe he killed her to cover up something.
Whether the book is a standard whydunnit or whodunnit, it seems to me the best books are those that bring in both aspects.
Picking up on what you just said, do you think Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime And Punishment’ was one of the first great crime novels?
Kate Horsley and crew have done some great work at http://www.crimeculture.com in setting up some historical context for how crime fiction came about.
If someone wanted to claim that C&P was the first great crime novel, I’d be OK with that. Keep in mind, though, that it was first read in a magazine, much like the Sherlock Holmes stories that started a couple of decades or so later. And that’s not to mention Poe’s work back in the 40s.
And there was a book by a Danish guy in the early 1800s based on a two-hundred-year old crime. I think that one is considered a “true crime novel,” though. Can’t think of the guy’s name. (Thanks, Google. The books is The Rector of Veilbye by Steen Steensen Blicher. YES. THAT Steen Steensen Blicher.)
As for the crime novel, though, Dostoyevsky would be right there. Drunks, deadbeats, detectives, murder, and political ideology. What more could you want?
Beyond a doubt the biggest crime is that Dostoyevsky didn’t turn this into a series of novels. Maybe Raskolnikov and Sonya leave Siberia, adopt a cute little Persian kitty with some vague psychic powers and travel around the world solving crimes. Heck, he could have taken some minor characters and spun off some Young Adult novellas from it. Then people would remember his name. Dostoyevsky. Geez, what an idiot. Not THE Idiot, of course. That would be Myshkin.
Prior to 9/11, which exposed the vulnerabilities of air space and ushered in a new age of terrorism, the national boundaries of the US had been invaded militarily only once: by Pancho Villa and forces from the Mexican revolution. There is a persistent theme in American literature of the fear of invasion, be it from insurrection from within to fears of the Mafia, FBI, or CIA: do you think that this theme plays a part in crime writing?
Part of that is the basic “fear of the other,” don’t you think? As the scientists will tell you, we wear our New Orleans Saints jerseys to identify with our tribe. When we see someone at the game wearing an Atlanta Falcons jersey, we know he’s “one of them.” As humans, we’re all quite generous in our prejudices. We can hate anyone who is different — and fear is part of that hate. Whether ifrom the color of the skin or the colors of the flag, our “fear of invasion” as you put it, is a strong motivator in our lives and our fiction.
Whether it’s Pancho Villa coming into New Mexico or the government sneaking in to take away my closet of guns, fear makes a good motivator. Imagine “the other” making you powerless. Now that’s good stuff for crime fiction. Michelle Gagnon has a book out called THE GATEKEEPER about a charismatic guy who brings many of these various hate groups together. These groups fear so many things that it’s easy to get them riled up. That can be a powerful force in fiction as well as in popular culture. From the readers’ perspective, these groups become one more “other” to deal with. And each of these groups has individuals with their own stories to tell.
This type of crime fiction shares much of its punch with horror fiction, I think. The fear of something creepy and dangerous under the bed. Monsters. Terrorists. Serial killers. Government spies. Whatever it is, it’s enough to scare you. To take you out of your comfort zone and smack you around a bit.
“Fear of invasion” is, in one sense, a fear of having the status quo altered. A change to your comfort. You’d mentioned earlier about revenge. Much the same, don’t you think? For Panco Villa, the assault onto American soil was revenge for some bad guns he’d gotten. President Wilson sends forces after him, but can’t catch him. Later, President Wilson sends forces into Mexico to stop the Germans from selling guns to one of the Mexican sides. Someone does something, changing a comfort level, then the other side has to seek “revenge” in order to restore the balance — bring order to the chaos, as it were.
And that’s what much of crime fiction is all about — restoring order or creating a new order. Changing the way things are or changing things back to the way they were. Good people do well, while the bad people go to jail. Of course, what happens when the shiny people are filthy, evil bastards bent on keeping everything set to their own order? When the order isn’t all it’s supposed to be? What happens when the best person out there — the person who can set things right — is just back from two years in jail, fighting an addiction to pain killers, and trying to prove that the cop who killed his brother is a crooked son of bitch? What happens when you need an invasion from that rebel, that guy you fear, that “other,” in order to break things apart and create a new order? Well, then you don’t just have crime fiction. Then you’ve got noir.
You certainly do. Thank you for your time Steve, this has been a deep dig into noir and the way literature provides a map of our experience. Noir’s ongoing fascination and power stems from its exploration of characters who are on the edge, living in a twilight zone. It depicts men and women who are not morally upright or heroic, but flawed, desperate individuals caught up in something sinister. Because of this I think its pull stems from the fact that it shows none of us are faced with simple black and white choices. It deals with that world of the irrational that drives so much of our lives.
Filed under: Interviews
If you read any of Jason Duke’s stories at A Twist Of Noir they grab you from the word go.
They have a real, vivid quality that is there in the dialogue and the prose which is like freshly cut glass.
Jason is a Sergeant in the U.S. Army and served 15 months in Iraq as part of OIF 07-09. He also has a BA in Public Relations, which I guess makes him a man who can talk you down before snapping your neck. His stories have also appeared in an array of magazines such as Thuglit, Plots With Guns, Spinetingler Magazine, Pulp Pusher, Flash Fiction Offensive, and his screenplays have earned a special mention in the 2002 American Gem Short Script Contest. He was placed as a finalist in the 2003 Anything But Hollywood Contest.
He has also written a serialised novella, ‘Phoenix Life’. You may want to look out for it on crimewav.com soon. The trailer to it puts it at the top of your reading list. Check it out here.
Jason walks the walk.
He kindly agreed to let me interview him and boy was it worth it.
I arrived in the sweltering heat of a June day in Arizona and moved through the haze to the Iron Horse biker bar where we’d agreed to meet.
Jason was amicable and focused and so I began the interview.
How has your active military service influenced your crime writing?
It’s had a profound influence.
I say ‘fuck’ and ‘prick’ and ‘cock sucker’ a lot more now than when I was a civilian, plus a bunch of other choice words, but those are the ones I toss out there liberally the most. As in, some prick pisses me off, and I call him a fucking cock sucker right before I put him in a rear naked choke.
My 15 months in Iraq is probably what influenced my crime writing the most. I served in Iraq from December 2007 to February 2009. I wrote two breakthrough stories in 2008, “Soldier Boy” for Plots With Guns, and “Running to Zero” for Thuglit.
“Soldier Boy” has a clear military theme. I wrote it shortly after I got to Iraq and started noticing the true scope of how things were over there. The news showed you all the bad shit, which was pretty accurate because the place was a shithole, just the frequency that all the bad shit happened wasn’t accurate. The time I was there, I couldn’t see anything good coming out of Iraq, didn’t want to see. I hated being there and everything about it, which I think is pretty evident in Soldier Boy.
I wrote “Running to Zero” toward the end of 2008. The story has no military theme, but the influence was there. I’m of the Gen X generation. A lot of the soldiers in the Army fall into the Gen Y generation. I dealt with them on a daily basis; we depended on each other. But at the same time, these were also the same young self-entitled twenty-something pricks.
I was reading Chuck Palahniuk at the time and brushing up on existentialists such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, so I started writing about a self-entitled Gen Y kid that blames everyone else for his problems, culminating in his mental breakdown. I was nearly 12 months into my deployment, and by this point had reached a kind of mental breakdown of my own and was like fuck it, fuck them, fuck the world. Like the kid in the story, I realized I was blaming other people, blaming them for my choice to join the Army that led me to Iraq. So I guess writing the story was my way of working things out.
So far, I’ve written only two stories with clear military themes. The second one, “Last Days to Nowhere,” should be coming out in Pulp Metal Magazine soon. I also incorporate military elements into most of my stories, such as “Lie Down With Dogs” at A Twist of Noir or “Bloody Sunday” at Flash Fiction Offensive.
Most crime writers have never killed anyone, when you read descriptions of killings in fiction how real do they seem to you?
Fortunately, I’ve never had to kill anyone either.
Most of the attacks we dealt with in Iraq were IEDs and snipers. There was one major firefight where we actually had targets to shoot at, the spring 2008 siege of Sadr City against the Muqtada al-Sadr Mahdi Army, but I wasn’t there. I’ve seen plenty of the aftermath, as well as live footage from UAV’s or Apaches.
None of the footage was very exciting, or visceral. They just fall down, or if they get blown up, there’s a flash and big cloud of dirt. There’s no blood bursting from the bodies, no bodies or body parts flying through the air. Up close maybe it’s a different matter, but it all happens so fast that you don’t fully register it. You only see the aftermath, then try to fill in the rest.
For me, the aftermath was very visceral, wherein the true horrors lie.
That would be perhaps a realistic depiction of what happens, but not very exciting, especially in fiction.
So I’ve noticed a trend in crime writing that kind of mimics the movies insofar as the death scenes are depicted, where you do have the blood bursting from the bodies, and the body parts flying everywhere. Yet there are levels and degrees, in which you have some writers that go way over the top in their depictions, some not so much.
Also, writers write from an outsider’s perspective; they’re not living it in the moment. As a result, we’re forced to imagine what someone’s brains blowing out the back of their head would look like. I think because most crime writers haven’t killed someone or witnessed someone get killed firsthand, they’re left with what they see in the news, on television, in the movies, in pictures, etc. I think there’s always an attempt made for some degree of authenticity in these depictions, but limited owing to the sources most crime writers derive as a basis for what they believe happens when someone gets killed.
I guess then, for me, not very real; however, a hell of a lot less boring. If the reader thinks it’s real, and there’s that suspension of disbelief, then the writer has done his/her job.
Which crime writers do you like and why?
I like them all. There are no writers I dislike.
I think all writers and the stories they tell have inherent value.
Not to imply they are all necessarily good. I’m as much a hypocrite as the next person and will talk shit about a story if I think it’s bad, but regardless I still give every writer props for telling their stories and sharing them. It’s all gravy. I think the good stories will come to the forefront and it all works itself out in the end. Notice I say story telling. I prefer to sum it all up into that process because that’s the end result. The writing and everything that goes into it is all part of that process.
But I suppose everyone has preferences, and I’m no exception.
I prefer writers who write their stories in a contemporary setting as opposed to writers whose stories take place in the past. That doesn’t mean I won’t support those writers, or dislike their stories. I was fortunate enough to make a Megan Abbot book signing for “Bury Me Deep” and really dig the novel. Same goes for Eric Beetner’s “One Too Many Blows to the Head” or Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series. I just prefer contemporary settings.
I have a taste for depraved, twisted shit. Unlikeable, unredeemable characters; blood, violence, lots of action; sex and profanity. But also stories with a message, that make me feel something, get me thinking afterward about this thing we call the human condition.
Some of the authors I like include Anthony Neil Smith, Seth Harwood, Scott Phillips, B.R. Stateham, Charlie Williams, Kyle Minor, Reed Farrel Coleman, John McFetridge, Nick Quantrill, Dave Zeltserman, Ken Bruen, the list goes on. Three up and coming authors I think everyone should keep an eye out for are Hilary Davidson, Frankie Bill, and Greg Bardsley. Some of the writers I read in the various online ezines include Keith Rawson, Jimmy Callaway, Chad Eagleton, Christopher Grant, Daniel B. O’Shea, Josh Converse, Joyce Juzwik, Steve Weddle, Patti Abbott, Paul Brazill, the list goes on. And this bloke named Richard Godwin.
So, even though I have my preferences, and pimped a handful of names, it’s all gravy, I like it all.
Your screenplays have earned a special mention in the American Gem Short Script Contest and you have been placed as a finalist in the 2003 Anything But Hollywood Contest. You write excellent fast-paced fiction with first rate dialogue, do you see yourself writing more filmscripts?
I do, but my screenwriting has taken a back seat right now. My last attempt was entering the 2009 American Gem Short Script Contest. I made it past the first round picks, but that was it. Screenwriting is a tough business to break into. Two ways to get your foot in the door are knowing the right people, or through the contests. The contests can get expensive, though. I’ve heard screenwriters can make decent money selling their scripts, but very few of those scripts get greenlighted.
Name an experience that changed you and influenced your writing.
Finding a small relatively unknown ezine back in 1999 called Plots With Guns. I was writing horror and sci-fi at the time, and doing poorly at it I might add. PWG catered to a genre called crime-noir I had never heard of before, but when I started reading the stories on PWG, I was like “Oh yeah, this shit is cool. I want to write like this.” So I started sending stories in to the editor, Anthony Neil Smith. It took a few tries. Neil wasn’t like most of the editors I had dealt with. He encouraged me to keep submitting, offering me some pointers, instead of the typical form rejections I was used to with the other editors. I eventually got a story published in PWG, which led to more stories. I found myself writing less horror and more crime. It seemed to me that my crime stories rang truer than my horror. I discovered I had another voice locked away, stronger, truer.
What do you think the difference is between a cop and a soldier and how do you think society functions under military law?
I think a soldier protects the country as a whole from other countries and external threats, whereas a cop protects the citizenry from internal threats and maintains law and order. The decisions behind what is considered a threat is entirely political, on both sides. I think resorting to martial law is bad juju. It should always be a last resort after every attempt is made to resolve law and order on a local level through local law enforcement.
Have you thought about writing a war story?
Like strictly a war story akin to memoirs of my time in the Army? I don’t know, probably not. There are so many more interesting stories out there than mine. Besides, most of the stuff I write turns out crap, with the occasional gem I feel proud bragging about. So I think I’d be hard-pressed to write something good, or even decent, along those lines. My service is up end of next year and I plan to get out and write full time for a while. Maybe that way I’ll churn out more gems than crap. But six years in the Army is still enough writing material to last me a life time. I know I will continue to incorporate those experiences into some of my stories, though not every story because I want to mix it up, be eclectic. At least, that’s how I feel about it right now. Who knows how I’ll feel down the road.
Do you believe that character is destiny?
I would agree for the most part that character is destiny. Or perhaps a better word instead of character is personality. I think personality has a lot to do with how a person’s life plays out, how they choose to affect the world around them. For me, it all boils down to choice. The choices we make in life develop who we are, and the consequence of those choices shape the outcomes of life events. It is within our ability to change ourselves, no matter how far we sink to the bottom or rise to the top.
Why do you think crime fiction is so popular?
I know it seems pretty popular among writers lately, but I’m not sure how popular it is among strictly readers. Seems to me most of the readers are also writers. I think it’s popular because you get to see unsavory characters do dirt; you get to see bad things happen and not feel bad about it. Most of us are regular law-abiding citizens who would never do any of this shit in real life, so we settle for the next best thing. I think that’s what attracts us to crime fiction the most and makes it so popular. When something is illegal, forbidden, taboo, people are drawn to it. Sure, we could go out and rob and murder if we wanted, but there are real consequences involved. With crime fiction, there are no consequences, outside of when it’s used as a scapegoat for the next Columbine.
Do you have any plans to write a novel?
I’m in the process of writing one now, called “One-way Haiku.” I’m also working on a second novella titled “Zooman.” I plan to write more novels. Notice I say write, because getting them published and selling copies is a whole different ball game.
That’s true, as I keep saying, there are many fine writers on the net who deserve to be in print. Maybe the world of publishing is starting to take note of this fact. Good luck with your novel. And thank you for giving a real and fascinating interview Jason.
He rose and shook my hand and I watched as he walked outside. Some biker was pouring beer on his car because it was a BMW, and Jason put him in a rear naked choke. The biker gasped “Nice choke hold brother, I used to be in the Army.” Turned out most of the bikers at Iron Horse were ex-military. Jason let the biker go, came back inside and bought him a beer.
Filed under: Interviews
Robert Crisman has had more stories featured on A Twist Of Noir than anyone else.
He has written novels, ‘Red Christmas’ and ‘Queen Of Chiva’ among them, as well as film scripts, and his tales are dark and edgy and full of the noise of the street. His dialogue is cutting edge and vivid as a smack in the face and his characters jump off the page at you.
He is passionate about many things, as this interview shows.
How did Roanne come to you and what does she represent in your writing?
Roanne was a real lady I knew from downtown and from around Narcotics Anonymous. She’s been clean now for some years, but back in the day she was a real go-get-’em dopefiend who looked like she wouldn’t make it past 30. She was beautiful too, in a wild kind of a way, and her personality and physical appearance captured my imagination.
As to what she represented: Roanne is all dopefiends, and, specifically, me. What she faced is, in essence if not the fortuities, what we all have to look forward to on drugs.
I wanted to show her, first as a person in a world that doesn’t take prisoners.
Most literature, fiction and otherwise, seems to treat dopefiends as some sort of exotic species or something to be put under a microscope and studied, or as sensationalist fodder. Look underneath and all you’ll find are cartoons, nothing human. I think that’s largely because the people who write that kind of crap have never set foot in the muck. Dopefiends are people, with hopes and dreams like yours or mine, whose fears leech those dreams to dust, and that’s what is necessary to portray. Or else, why bother?
I also wanted to show a bit of the dopers’ milieu and how, at bottom, it’s American capitalist society, with its wolves and its sheep and its businessmen, baby, as seen through sort of a funhouse mirror, but no less real for that. U.S. society gave this milieu birth, after all, and its principles are what drive the action down there. The street struts its stuff a little more nakedly perhaps, but there is essentially no difference whatever.
If I did my job, the Queen of Chiva brought that world a little closer to your doorstep than you might otherwise have imagined it to be, to the point where, hopefully, you can see that it’s seeping through your walls…
You write a lot about power structures and the way people inhabit them. Do you think that we are all politicised or that we’re simply inside power?
I’d pose the question another way, without the dichotomy. I think we’re all “inside” power, i.e., subject to it. Yet we are all very much politicized, especially those who would deny that fact. Politics shapes everything from lifestyle to sexuality to religious belief, so how could it be otherwise? And in our society, as in all societies that have existed as yet on the face of the earth, the politicization is shaped by the fact that shit rolls downhill.
How has Jean Genet influenced you?
Genet showed me what sex roles consist of, and that they are social and historical constructs with which biology has had little to do. The guys have tried to go out and conquer the world–with tragicomic results–and women have been there to look good, have kids, work like slaves in the home, and pretty much keep their mouths shut. It hasn’t worked out that way, at least not to the guys’ satisfaction–and it’s always the guys who are the last ones to get the news. Their relative privilege in the war of the sexes acts as sort of a stupid pill I think…
Do you think you will write more film scripts?
I don’t know. I’ve got a ton of ’em I’m trying to shop now.
Who do you like reading and why?
I like Hammett, Ross Thomas, James Ellroy, Carl Hiaasen, and George V. Higgins, among others, first because they all write about crime. Seeing as this is a criminal society, reading these guys allows me to keep my fingers on the pulse, so to speak, of what’s happening in America.
Hammett was the first and most important because he laid the blueprint for hard-boiled fiction. And I’m not talking here about the decidedly soft-boiled Raymond Chandler, whose sentimental detective Marlowe–Chandler’s idea of a decent sort of a fellow, learned in the English public school system–was sort of a cross between Miss Grundy and Ward Cleaver after the divorce, and wouldn’t have lasted a day on real streets. Hammett had been there as a Pinkerton agent, had gotten down and dirty with crooks of all stripes, and knew whereof he spoke when it came time to put them down on paper. No one like him had ever existed in literature before.
Thomas wrote of crime in the suites with an accurate eye and sharp satiric wit, and was the most consistently entertaining writer I’ve ever read. Ellroy is a psycho, and his books are more a surreal nightmare than anything, with exaggerated, sometimes gratuitous violence, which, I think, hews close to the truth of American life as we live it today. I think he enjoys using the n-word way too much; regardless of the fact that it was part of the vocabulary of the “bad men” he writes about, he could throttle down just a bit and not lose a bit of verisimilitude. In this regard, he reminds me of Quentin Tarantino, whom he despises…
George V. Higgins wrote the greatest dialogue ever, and he stripped romance right out of the equation, except in his portrayals of bad-ass government agents sometimes. Higgins is the guy who influenced me the most. I learned from him that dialogue is action–action being defined as that which moves the story along. I read Cogan’s Trade, his third novel, virtually all dialogue, and felt like I’d had my ass kicked for 200-plus pages. Name me another author who could do that.
Hiaasen is funny and right on target with regard to Florida fuckwads. His use of adjectives and adverbs to comically devastating effect is by far the best in the business.
Name an experience that changed you and influenced your writing.
LSD, speed, opiates, then radical politics. I’ll save the whys and how-comes for my memoir.
While you write first rate noir, it is evident you are a political writer in many ways without foisting an agenda on your readers.
On the subject of radical politics, do you think it is possible to resolve false dilemmas and decentre the vital centre through fiction?
In terms of radical politics solving “false dilemmas,” I don’t quite get what you mean. It seems to me that radical politics attempts to deal with real ones. If you mean by decentring the vital center the shifting of the center leftward, I think fiction can contribute to the process by giving people a different set of eyes through which to see the world.
I think “vital center” is a misnomer, however. The political center is composed of both right and left elements, irreconcilables, and any attempt to reconcile them sooner or later is hoist upon the inherent contradictions found in trying to balance the “rights” of the fatcats, for example, with the democratic rights of the rest of us, when capitalist survival is predicated on ensuring that democracy for the hoi polloi is never any more than a formality.
Of course, these days, the “center” is increasingly the right dressed in drag–Obama, et al.–throwing scraps to “progressives” while extending the oil wars and allowing big business to keep right on plundering at home.
Jesus, it’s been awhile since I’ve talked this political stuff, and I feel like I’m talking with marbles in my mouth. I much prefer to stay off these issues generally unless I can find a way to work it into my stories, hopefully in comic fashion.
By false dilemmas I meant that often we are presented with two options to resolve a situation when there are more alternatives.
Let’s talk de-politicised fiction. Dashiell Hammett devoted much of his life to left-wing activism, imagine his left wing leanings removed from his prose, would you still rate him and why?
Hammett’s fiction wasn’t left wing. All that came later. What he was was a pragmatist, dealing with whatever showed up on the plate, but not in any consciously ideological sense. He was kind of like Deng Zhou Peng, the leader China after Mao, who said, famously, “White cat, black cat, what difference does it make–so long as it catches the mouse? Or something like that. Hammett wrote from a jobholder’s standpoint, the job being detection, concerned with doing whatever it took to fulfill that jobholding role.
OK, don’t move, that’s what I’m interested in Rob, what do you think it takes to catch the mouse within the mechanics of a great story?
I think catching the mouse is a matter of letting the story “tell itself” after I’ve pieced the general outline together. I approach the story in a series of calibrations, getting the lay of the land, so to speak, and locating my characters, and allowing those characters to interact plausibly with and within the milieu. The people I write about are people I knew out in the street, who talked, thought and acted in certain ways in different situations, and it’s up to me to allow the characters based on these people to act in a way that is true to them. It’s like recording the people I knew in a way, their voices and actions and whatnot.
The characters drive the story, are the story when all’s said and done, and, assuming I have the ears to hear them and the eyes to see them in action, along with the logic to get it all down on paper, I can’t help but catch all the mice that the story lets loose.
Do you feel there’s a point in the stories you’ve written that you’re the proudest of, that the characters start to live and breathe inside you?
All of them, really. And, talking about the novels, I’m proud of each in different ways. Red Christmas was my first, and it’s where I learned what works for me as narrative. Most people seem to find dialogue hardest to get “right.” I’ve been hearing voices all my life, I rehearse their lines for performances down the line, and I had the advantage of reading Higgins, who showed me what dialogue can do. My first three or so drafts of Red Christmas were narrated by someone steeped in the King’s English, and I know the rules of the language and can use it correctly—but I always felt that I’d begged, borrowed, or stolen it somehow off somebody’s back porch, and that regardless of possession being nine-tenths of the law, that language still belonged to them. Then, one day—in a flash!—it struck me that my narrator should, by logic, be a street guy—who would better know my protagonists?—and from that point my problem was solved. I’d put the narration in street language; it’s the language I think in anyway, and it provided a seamless counterpoint to the dialogue. Like I said, problem solved.
I’m proud of The Queen of Chiva because the protagonists were two women and I think I did them justice. When I first drafted the novel, I gave it to four women to read, including the woman on whom Roanne is based. All these women were recovering addicts and, who better to critique my book? They all said they loved it—God strike me dead if I’m lying!—and two of them told me the denouement had them in tears. Best of all, “Roanne” gave it her seal of approval. All of which told me I’d done what I set out to do, which was to make these two women’s story real as a dime.
I’m jazzed a little bit as well by the fact that as a man, I did justice to female characters. Most male writers I’ve read can’t write women worth a good goddamn. They’re all femme fatales or other stock figures, and not really, fully human, and kind of boring on that account. All the stock figures have been done and done. Women are people, just like men, so why not portray them that way?
I suppose this reflects my competitive side coming out…
Lastly, my comic novel, How George Bush And the Lovely Danielle Saved Planet Earth From Zork the Galactic Destroyer: this was a goof, written last year when I was in danger of going nuts for various and sundry reasons. I’d written two earlier novellas: Bone Thugs, about the Bush administration, and Two Rotten Weeks, about Joey and Danny, the world’s two dumbest crooks. I made the two one by introducing the threat of spacewar invasion by the Zorks who—Anyway, it was a goof, written for laughs, but it also gave me a vast amount of room to talk about the various crimes and follies our rulers commit, all day, every day, and how goofy the rest of us can get as well. Anyway, I had a ball writing this thing and have turned it into a screenplay because I’d love to see it onscreen.
Rob, this was a great interview, thank you for being so open. Your passion, which is so obviously the driving force behind your fiction, and which is present in this interview, is one of the many reasons people want to read your stories.
Filed under: Interviews
If you write crime and read it on the net you know him.
You can’t help but know him.
His stories are everywhere and they leave a deep impression once read. He writes cool and descriptive noir with a touch of humour.
His comments on key sites are omnipresent.
If you don’t know his blog you should.
You Would Say That, Wouldn’t You is full of great writing and information about the latest things happening in the world of net noir writing.
I Didn’t Say That, Did I? is his column at PULP METAL MAGAZINE.
His story DRUNK ON THE MOON will appear in Dark Valentine Magazine on June 11th.
Paul Brazill agreed to meet me and looked sprightly and alert at 8 am.
Then he started on the shots.
How did growing up in the north of England influence your writing?
Oh, I think I’ve drawn on lots of characters and events from childhood and teenage years in my writing and I’m draining that muddy well more and more, it seems. The harshness and the black humour of life in the north east is always there.
The north east, Hartlepool in particular, seems riddled with people who are on the margins and disconnected from mainstream, middle-class society and all the better for it, I think! That’s what interests me anyway, the flotsam and jetsam of life. I still consider myself one of them, too. Gabba gabba hey!
That brings me neatly onto my next question. Do you think the class system in England and crime are linked?
Well, there’s crime and there’s crime, it seems. A doctor’s tax fraud is apparently ‘transgression’ and benefit fraud is responsible for the end of civilisation.
There is certainly a big lump of dispossessed at the bottom of the ladder engaging in petty crimes and at the top people getting away with ‘cutting corners’. I’d love to know how many braying city boys have been given ASBOS.
You’ve been called the Alan Sillitoe of noir, do you think the description fits you?
It’s shocking but I don’t know Alan Sillitoe’s stuff very well. I know I’ve read ‘Saturday & Sunday Morning’ & ‘Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ – and seen the films – but that’s it. Great mind you.
I need to read more of his stuff. I don’t think he was as good looking as me, though.
Has Poland influenced your crime writing and does it have its own particular shade of darkness?
You know, I’ve lived in my own bubble most of my life so who knows what permeates the skin. I don’t plan what I write, I usually just start with a word, image or phrase, so pretty much anything could come out. Since I started writing, at the end of 2008, it seems like more and more stuff from life in Hartlepool has crept into the stories.
Poland, in the past 100 years has lived through Nazi occupation, Communism, Catholicism and cut throat capitalism, so, yes, I’m sure it has more than a few very peculiar shades of darkness. But, I’m no social commentator. I just make stuff up and write it down. Some those things are directly from life and some are complete fabrications and most are a Pick N Mix of fact and fiction.
Tell us about your novel.
This bloke, academic, like, discovers that Clint Eastwood is actually Stan Laurel’s bastard offspring and that Bob ‘Blockbusters’ Holness played sax on Baker Street. He starts to uncover the truth about a secret society of Opportunity Knocks and Junior Showtime contestants who have covered up the great showbiz secrets. It’s called the Vince Hill Code. Naw, it’s probably going to be a novella and it’s another Peter Ord Investigation, like The Night Watchman story, which is in Radgepacket Four and Play Dead Until You Die, which will be in the Harbiger*33 anthology.
You obviously like your music Paul, often using a song with meticulous precision as a backdrop to your stories. How does it relate to your writing and what are your musical memories of growing up in Hartlepool?
Well, my oldest brother – who died in Africa about fifteen years ago – was a singer and musician in lots of bands, playing the working men’s clubs, hotels, cruise ships etc – and I do have a vivid memory of being about five and his band – black Beatles suits, red guitars & drums – rehearsing in the front room.
As a teenager and in my early twenties, I was heavily into music – Bowie, Queen, punk, the Fall, Subway Sect, Scott Walker, Orange Juice, Tom Waits, – and I played bass in a couple of post-punk bands in the early eighties.
That enthusiasm did taper off though and I haven’t actively sought out music for a very, very long time. In fact I’ve never even owned a CD player although that may have more to do with boozing most of my money away.
I’ve named stories after people’s songs, though: Subway Sect, The Birthday Party, Scott Walker, The Clash, the Lurkers & my mate Peter Ord.
Paul you write vivid, dark, highly readable, detailed stories. Name an experience that changed your life and influenced your writing.
Well, I actually started writing when I moved in with my girlfriend Daria after jumping around Poland for about ten years. And then the floodgates seemed to open.
I’ve never seen my stories as particularly dark, though, apart from The Friend Catcher which is supposed to be, well, sad.
I’ve had some dark experiences growing up and over the years and they do creep out into the stories but not directly.
Do you think it’s true that living in exile sharpens your perceptions of your own country?
Well, it certainly gives you another perspective. One of the best things about living in Poland is that I can’t understand most of the things people say. I miss out on a lot of the crap, the moaning.
When I get back to Blighty it usually seems like a blitz of bollocks. Although I then start to enjoy and get into it. Give me a couple of months in England and I’ll be buying the Daily Mail and laughing at Jeremy Clarkeson. Or not.
You seem to be everywhere on the net, how do you find the time to manage so much?
Simple. I hardly work. I’m a self employed EFL teacher and earn just enough to pay for my keep, tax & insurance and the odd night out. Luckily I don’t have commitments like mortgages, kids and the like so I keep my head above water and faff around on t’internet in the meantime.
In the summer I’ll be teaching in Cambridge for six weeks so my presence online will be minimal since I don’t have a laptop. And after that I want to concentrate on giving that novel thing a good kick about so I don’t intend to be around quite as much!
If you had to pick one story you’ve written which you would want to be known for, which one would it be and why?
Oh, tricky, of course, but this afternoon I re-read The Sharpest Tools In The Box, which is at NEEDLE MAGAZINE, and I did like it. It sounded pretty much how I wanted it to sound!
With that, I left him propped against the bar.
Filed under: Interviews
John Mc Fetridge is often compared to Elmore Leonard and belongs to a new breed of Canadian novelist writing neo noir. He is at the top of his form. Novels like ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and ‘Let It Ride’ are multi-layered narratives written with sophistication and punch. If they’re not already sitting on your bookshelf, go out and buy them. Now.
He was kind enough to let me interview him and I found him to be a source of great understanding about the crime novel.
We also talked sport. John wanted to play in goal for the Montreal Canadiens. Now he follows Toronto FC.
Many comparisons have been made between your style of writing and Elmore Leonard’s and contemporary crime writing has inherited a tradition that stems from him and goes back to Hemingway. Conversely, we have writers using more descriptive styles and an interior approach to character: what do you feel about major writers like James Lee Burke with his descriptive and Gothic prose?
I admit I have a tough time getting into descriptive and gothic prose. I wasn’t one of those kids who read a lot of books and even now I’m often embarrassed that I don’t read more. I grew up reading mostly newspapers (and even then mostly the sports section) so I don’t have a great appreciation of “writing,” as much as I do storytelling. But I’ve really been enjoying Brian McGilloway’s novels recently and although they don’t have a huge amount of descriptive prose, he makes excellent use of the landscape of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.
Your novels are packed with action. ‘Let It Ride’ is typically high octane. You put a lot into your novels while maintaining a cleanly balanced and readable prose style. How much research do you carry out?
I do quite a bit of research. A few things in Let It Ride were inspired by actual events as they say – the three women robbing spas at gunpoint was real, for example. And I do a lot of research online. Right now I’m spending a lot of time researching money laundering and crime at casinos. And old rock music. And sometimes I treat my friends and family as research. My brother and my nephew are both in the RCMP and a few of my cousins have done jail time and they’re all storytellers to some degree.
How do feel your writing is distinctively Canadian and distinguishes you from an American author?
In many ways, certainly literary tradition, Canadians have always been influenced by the UK and the USA. They may be two countries divided by a common language, but we’re stuck in the middle.
So, I try not to think about it too much. But I would say that what distinguishes my writing from American writing is the Toronto setting. Toronto is a big city that on the surface looks like an American city – the same chain stores, the same makes of cars on the streets and so on, but it’s definitely not an American city. Toronto was a fairly small, mostly British city twenty-five years ago. Now half the people who live here were born somewhere else and all those cultures are still fairly separate. The USA may be a melting pot, but Canada is hanging on to the idea that it can still be a mosaic.
I don’t make that a focus in my writing, but it is the background that everything takes place against.
What’s it like working for the TV cop show ‘The Bridge’ and how does it link with your prose writing?
There are a lot of great things about working on a TV show. For one thing, it’s very social. There were six of us in the writers’ room, so that’s quite different than the isolation of writing a novel. And when outlining a story we all worked together so there was a lot of cooperation.
And the outlining process is also very interesting. An episode of a TV show has to fit a pretty tight formula – not just that the story has to be told in sixty minutes, but there are only certain characters and locations that can be used. At first that seems very limiting but when one of the more experienced writers said that writing episodic TV is like writing haiku, I had a better perspective. And that just sounds classier than it’s like writing limericks.
We love football in England. Tell us about your passion for soccer and Toronto FC.
Ha, good question. I was thirty years old when I got married and moved from Montreal to Toronto and I certainly wasn’t going to give up my Montreal teams (although my baseball team, the Expos, abandoned me and moved to Washington to become the Nationals) so when TFC came along in 2007 it was my chance to have a home team again. I didn’t know much about soccer but my neighbour is from Glasgow and we go to the games together and he explains some of the finer points.
Going back to that point about so many people in Toronto being from somewhere else, many of them, of course, are from places where soccer is big. The crowd (other than me) is very knowledgeable and represents the ‘new’ Toronto more than a baseball or hockey crowd. TFC’s first star, Danny Dichio said, “No disrespect to those American grounds, but it’s a family-day-out thing. Here we’re playing in front of real football fans.” In Canada we’ve been connected to most things American forever and soccer is a chance for us to connect with the rest of the world. If TFC can win its qualifying games against Motagua of Honduras we’ll be in the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time with teams from the USA, Mexico, Central America and the Carribean. North American sports teams don’t have those kinds of international competitions.
And I really like the sport, it has a different flow than we’re used to in North America. Our football, hockey, basketball and baseball all have any stoppages in play. It’s not something I really noticed until I started following soccer and the game just keeps going. I’m sure that’s symbolic of something if I think about it enough.
It’s been said that your novels mix police procedure with perp procedure, allowing analogies between the two to emerge. Do you think it’s true that great detectives have strong criminal shadows?
Interesting. Makes me think of another sports quote, a baseball player, Dave Winfield once said that the team had a symbiotic relationship with the fans and the joke was that every sports reporter had to scramble for a dictionary.
I do think it’s true that detectives are only half the equation. My brother told me he liked working in the narcotics department best because the crimes were ongoing, the detectives didn’t come in after it was over as in homicide. He described it as more of a chess game, the criminals are trying to keep doing what they’re doing and the police are trying to catch them. Of course, the police have to follow the rules and collect evidence that will be admissible in court. One thing I try to show in my books is that things are getting out of whack. Organized criminals have much better funding and resources than most police departments and, of course, criminals don’t have to play by any rules.
Name an experience that changed your life and influenced your writing.
Okay, one more sports reference. There’s a hockey commentator in Canada named Don Cherry, a much-loved (or much-hated in some circles) guy who was famous for failing to make the NHL (he played a handful of games and the rest of his playing career was in the minors). But then he made it to the NHL as a coach, except that his teams never won the Stanley Cup and the time they got closest they got a ‘too many men on the ice’ penalty (a coach’s penalty) and they lost. So, last year there was a TV biopic about Mr. Cherry and in one of the promos leading up to it a young reporter asked him, “Do you think your life is defined by your failures?” Cherry thought about for a moment and said, “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
So, I don’t think there’s a particular experience that changed my life and influenced my writing, but I think my writing is more the product of my failures than my successes. I failed at a lot of things I tried for a lot of years. You know that expression, those who can’t do, teach? Well, I failed in my (many) attempts to get into teacher’s college, so what do you do if you can’t do AND you can’t teach?
The experience, then, that most influenced my writing was my realization that I was only writing for myself, only writing what I really wanted to read. Oh, lots of people had given me that advice, every writer says it, but I spent a long time trying to write for agents and editors and professors and failing. Now, of course, I think it’s good that none of that writing I did for other people sold because I’d be stuck doing that instead of what I love to do.
This is a really interesting answer.
There’s another one which goes, those who can write do so and those who can’t make it as a writer go into publishing and those who can’t make it in publishing become literary agents and if you can’t make it as a literary agent, God help you.
That’s funny. My agent was in publishing, I’m not sure she realizes she’s on a downward spiral.
There are a lot of fine writers on the net who would love to get into print, do you have any advice to give them?
As for the question, I don’t have any advice beyond the standard, ‘you write the best book you can and you keep sending it out.’ There doesn’t seem to be a standard way to do things anymore. My first novel was published by a small press in Canada (who still, thankfully, publish my books) before I had an agent.
Last year I met Stuart Neville and he told how he had a short story in an online magazine and got a call from an agent who read it and then placed his novel with a big publisher. Declan Burke co-published his first book. All bets are off, it seems.
My bold prediction in publishing is that we’ll see many small presses find solid niche markets. So, I guess if I have any advice it’s to look beyond the big publishers.
Your writing contains a lot of information yet at the same time it never loses its flow. Because you put so much into your narratives do you find you have to structure your books carefully?
Yes, I am finding that I need to structure the books more. I like to start with a theme, a question. With Dirty Sweet it was, “Why do some people see everything as an opportunity and others wouldn’t recognize an opportunity if walked up and shot someone in the head?” So to speak. At first the book was just exploring the question of opportunity.
But with more books I did find that things could easily get away from me. There have been some negative reviews of Let It Ride complaining about just that, too many characters, too many sub-plots and not enough structure to hold it together. So now I’m more conscious of structure. Though I still think in terms of theme, of questions and I’m still more interested in characters than plot. Oh well, you write what you can.
Name two novels you wish you had written and why.
Two? At last you didn’t say one.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” A lot of people like Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane have praised the novel so I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, but everything they say about it is true. For me, Eddie Coyle brought to life a world I really understood, filled with characters I knew. And the style of writing fits the characters perfectly. Many people have called Eddie Coyle the first “dialogue-driven” novel, but what George V. Higgins did was to let the characters tell the story themselves – in their own words and with their own values. Every character in the books has an agenda, everybody wants something. It’s really a complete novel.
And then I’d have to say something by Roddy Doyle. “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors,” and “Paula Spencer,” are fantastic books, deeply insightful and moving. And even funny in places.
I just realized that both writers I mentioned (well, at least those books by them) are almost completely character studies of people not doing so well in their lives. Maybe I like those books now because I turned fifty and things are going so well in my life that I can get into a story like that almost as a tourist. They certainly weren’t the kind of books I read when I was going through those kinds of things in my life. Have to think about that.
Thanks for the interview it was fun..
You’re more than welcome John, it was great talking to you.
There you have it. John McFetridge:
Filed under: Interviews
Anyone interested in crime writing on the net has to know Christopher Grant, editor of A Twist Of Noir.
It is one of the premier ezines and Christopher has published over 500 stories there by many of the top names.
Ever professional and helpful, he has championed some of the newest talent on the block.
I managed to track him down in a sleazy bar at the edge of a town with no name in Minnesota and amid the noise of gun shots in the distance he told me this.
Morning Christopher. I hope you don’t mind if I call you Christopher?
He hits me over the head with a turnip and mutters ‘that’s my lunch. Where did I put my Glock?’ The smell of whisky rises into the air.
I know he’s ready to talk. I watch him take a swig.
What did you do before A Twist Of Noir?
Before A Twist Of Noir existed, I wrote for both Powder Burn Flash and the now-defunct DZ Allen’s Muzzle Flash. I came across both simultaneously and, rather than check out what they had to offer and then try and tailor stories to the style there, I just wrote. Wrote two stories, GETAWAY and THE TOOTH, and sent both to Muzzle Flash. Wrote another, HEROES GET DEAD QUICKLY, and sent that out to Powder Burn and never looked back. Between the two sites, I probably wrote twelve to fifteen different stories for both sites.
Prior to those first two stories, I had never written anything crime-related noir anything that I was comfortable with sharing. With Muzzle Flash and Powder Burn, I did both.
While Christopher lights a match against his unshaven jaw I think of the next question.
ATON is one of the biggest most active ezines, how do you find the time to manage it?
There are a couple of factors in that.
First, you’ve got to want to do something like this.
When Muzzle Flash went down and a couple of other zines followed, I decided that I wanted to open up ATON. Didn’t have a name but it was down to two: either ATON or A Twist Of Crime, which, as I said in a previous interview with Michael J. Solender, was cute but I didn’t want cute.
So, drive and determination is extremely important.
If you have drive, you can find the time.
Still, it’s not easy, especially considering I don’t have a co-editor.
The second factor comes into play here, which is that, usually, I don’t have too much of a backlog, due to the fact that I try to get as many stories up as quickly as possible.
Long story short, I somehow find the time. I’m also motivated by the stories that I receive, which are high-quality, professional caliber, with few exceptions.
When you have great stories to read, you have great motivation to get them out so that they can be read.
A man comes into the bar selling flowers and Christopher throws him out of the door by his collar.
George V Higgins’s ‘The Friends Of Eddie Coyle’ is often cited as a benchmark piece of crime writing, with Elmore Leonard saying it changed the way he wrote. You have mentioned it as one of your favourite novels, why? Why not? That’s my answer.
Okay, I’ll elaborate.
I’ll go Elmore Leonard one better and say that Eddie Coyle helped me understand that it was okay NOT to describe everything in minute detail.
Up until I read The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, I thought that I was doing something that was wrong, not describing everything and everyone down to their shoes. I thought that this might even separate me from being a writer and being a writer that people enjoyed reading.
Strange stuff goes through one’s mind sometimes.
Before I read The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, I knew that the characters and their motivations should drive the story. Eddie Coyle firmly planted that flag in my mind and I haven’t tried to do much else than that with my fiction, even if it’s vague sometimes just what my characters want.
Beyond that, the story presented by Higgins is simply cool.
You have a down-and-out loser like Eddie Coyle, who’s had his fingers broken for naming names and learned his lesson that way. He’s lucky to be alive but he’s about to go up the river for a stretch and he’s trying everything he knows to get out from under the thumb of the law, including naming names again. If you think he’s getting out of this one alive, you haven’t been reading crime very long.
And the dialogue, the real star of the novel, is dead-on to the letter.
Anyone who hasn’t read it should. Like yesterday.
He orders another whisky.
Which living crime writers do you enjoy reading and do you think any of them are innovators in the genre?
Ken Bruen, Elmore Leonard, Gary Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Max Allan Collins, James Ellroy, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Jason Aaron, Dave Lapham…do you have a couple hours so I can name them all?
As for innovation, I’m going to be diplomatic and a chickenshit and say,
yeah, and leave it at that.
He takes a deep swig and waits.
Do you think there are any fundamental differences in terms of culture and literary delivery between English and American crime writing?
Fundamental differences? No.
I mean, I suppose there’s that culture shock of some sort where you read about post office blags rather than bank heists and favourite versus favorite and so on, but I think for the most part, both sides of the pond have pretty much the same ideas of what crime or noir is supposed to be.
If we took Ken Bruen’s name off of all of his fiction, changed the way things were spelled and changed the location from Galway to New York or Boston (even though Ken’s written about both places), unless you had fans looking at it, I’ll be willing to bet you that newcomers to his work would think he was an American writer.
The thing is, I’m not certain if we could reverse-engineer that and make an American appear to be an English or Irish writer, though I’m willing to be corrected on that.
But, as I said, for the most part, I think we all have the same kind of ideas running through our minds on both sides of the Atlantic. Execution might be a little different but execution is a little different for every single writer.
A large Rottweiler enters the room and seeing Christopher there promptly leaves.
Are you working on a novel?
A novel? No.
Here’s the thing.
I have an idea how I would write a novel and this is probably how you’re actually supposed to do it but I don’t know if I’ve got the necessary amount of words to do it.
The way that I would write a novel is to take the first chapter, write it as a short story, leaving with a cliffhanger or an opening to the next chapter and then repeat. And, like I said, that’s probably how you write a novel.
But, as I said, I probably don’t have the amount of words necessary. A novella, maybe.
I’m extremely comfortable in short stories right now and doubt that will ever change, despite the fact that there are a lot of people that have asked me to write a Greta novel. And I will say that I have irons in the fire that could work in novel form but, again, nothing that I’m writing.
He is blowing plumes of smoke into the air and I try to see him through the thick clouds.
Name an experience that has changed your life and influenced your writing. Finally, a question that’s easy to answer. Just kidding, Richard, but these have been great and challenging questions (keep them coming).
The experience that changed my life and influenced my writing is the experience that started me writing in the first place.
I’ve been writing for sixteen years. Well, longer than that if you include all of the stuff I wrote as a kid, both for school and for my own enjoyment but you get the idea.
When I was sixteen, I was in the tenth grade. Here in Minnesota, there was a policy (I don’t know if is still policy) that if you had a certain number of absences per semester, the school could legally remove you from enrollment.
Yeah, stupid-ass policy.
But, as they explain the policy to you, it is there to protect against truancy. Which is, again, illogical. If you kick the kid out of school, how’s he or she going to learn anything?
Well, here’s the thing. I wasn’t skipping out on school. At the time, I got sick a lot. Whether it was because I had a weakened immune system or because kids weren’t kept home from school when they were sick and I just caught what they had.
So I was made aware, just before the Christmas break, that I was coming up on the fifteen days that I could be absent for that semester and I planned, obviously, not to cross that threshold.
Christmas break was two weeks here in Minnesota and what happens during the last week in December and the first week in January? It gets fucking cold.
And what happens to me? I get a lung infection.
The doctor says, “Don’t do anything that’s going to jeopardize your health, such as it is.” This included going out in the freezing temperatures.
How long for the lung infection to clear up, Doc?
Two to three weeks.
So I’m absent from school and I’m over the threshold of those fifteen days and when we call to say that I’m not going to be there, the response is, “Christopher has been removed from [fill in the blank] class and [fill in the blank] class.”
My dad got in touch with the Vice-Principal, who, among other things, was in charge of doing away with students that crossed the threshold, and she says, get this, “If you get a doctor’s note that excuses Christopher from school for a certain amount of time and get it on my desk before such and such time, we’ll reinstate him.”
Yeah, fun shit, right?
But my dad gets the note and he gets it on the desk by such and such a time.
Does this get me reinstated?
Eyes on your own paper!
Of course it doesn’t because what happens? They lose the goddamned note!
Go to call to get my homework for all of my classes and we’re told that I’ve been removed from the school.
At that point, what should have happened was this:
This is what I wanted to do. I urged my dad to sue the school, sue the school district, sue whomever we needed to get me back in school.
And that, of course, didn’t happen, either. I can’t even tell you why we didn’t sue.
At the time, I imagine, thankfully not having had the experience, it must have been like being shot. When you’re a decent student, when you have thoughts about what happens after school and whether you’re going to college or going to get a really great job and eventually have a family and all of that, to suddenly have the carpet ripped out from under you…
A year after all of this happened, I still wanted to know what the fuck happened to this note.
So I went to school the first day the following year and talked with a guidance counselor.
Needless to say, the run-around continued.
What happened to the doctor’s note? Who knows? They claimed not to have received that note, which was a pile of bullshit.
But that’s beside the point.
What did they want me to do?
Go back into the tenth grade.
I found the Vice-Principal, told her that I had completed half of my classes in the tenth grade, was getting no credit for that and said, and I still remember this comment, “If I’m going to be in the tenth grade, I don’t want to be here.” I then ripped the tenth grade schedule up right in front of her, walked it over to the trash can, tossed it in and walked out the door.
Probably three to four years later, I went and got my GED, walked in there and took something like an evaluation test to see whether or not I was going to be able to take the regular test without need of more study and impressed the shit out of everyone.
Two weeks later, when the first opportunity came up to take the regular test, I took it, spent somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three hours taking the test, encompassing all kinds of subjects that I hadn’t yet encountered when I was in school but knew cold and then was told that I could expect results in the mail within a month’s time.
A handful of weeks later, my GED came in the mail with a note that indicated the results of each of four or five categories. When all was said and done, I had scored in the 98th percentile.
Like I said, I was a decent student.
I don’t know whether I would be a writer today if none of that had happened.
Well that guy over in the corner, yeah, the big guy covered in tattoos, he said he wouldn’t want to fuck with you.
You’re known as the editor of ATON, but you also also write first rate crime stories, what led you to editing?
For that answer, we have to revisit the first question you asked: what did I do before A Twist Of Noir.
As mentioned, I was writing for DZ Allen’s Muzzle Flash and Aldo Calcagno’s Powder Burn Flash and suddenly, DZ decided that he wanted to move on for publishing crime stories. I don’t know why and I don’t need to pry to find out. If he wanted to move on, that’s his decision and I wish him the best.
Shortly after, Demolition Magazine and a handful of other sites went by the wayside.
I thought that we, as crime writers, have to have somewhere to go with our stories. So when Chris Pimental decided to start BAD THINGS back up, I piggybacked on his mass mailing and informed everyone that I was starting up A Twist Of Noir and they could check it out, send in some stories and whatever.
As I told Michael J. Solender in my interview with him, I thought maybe I jumped the line and screwed up Chris in the process but it’s worked out okay and Chris wasn’t angry or anything.
Editing is just an extension of writing, really. Every writer ought to be their own editor. In fact, this is where I have the most fun with my own stories because I can always find pieces that should maybe come before something else in the narrative does or I can find stuff that should be excised altogether and it makes the story that much tighter.
That’s how I approach other people’s stories, too, as you know from dealing with me firsthand.
The barman brings over a couple of bottles of beers and Christopher opens one with his teeth, spitting the top across the bar.
Is there a novel you wish you’d written?
Many. American Skin by Ken Bruen, American Tabloid by James Ellroy,
Journal Of The Gun Years by Richard Matheson, Cruel Poetry by Vicki
Hendricks…how much time do you have?
He glances at his watch..
We’ve spoken a lot about crime, do you enjoy other literary genres?
Before I wrote my first crime story, I was writing speculative fiction. Not very well or at least nothing that I ever felt comfortable in sharing (nor would I want it to see the light of day today). Prior to that, I was going to be a stand-up comedian and write my own material. This, unlike the SF days, is stuff that I actually think is funny and would release it if there were an audience for it. I have a bunch of notebooks with comedy in them.
So, yeah, there are a number of genres that I enjoy or love to death. SF, comedy, some horror and comic books and, yes, I consider comics to be literature.
Thanks for the challenging and thought-provoking questions, Richard.
Thank you Christopher for giving such in-depth answers.
He stands up and walks out through the door, it is a hundred degrees and he is wearing a trench coat. I hear gun shots and see him drive away.
Filed under: Crime Noir
It was twilight when he arrived.
The crowd standing outside the club didn’t even see him walk past them.
He went straight to the back and kicking the door open punctured the smiling face of Benito Grillini with so many bullets he was unrecognisable when they found him.
His wife stood for some time staring down at his body before she vomited and wiping her mouth on the hem of her Gucci dress said ‘get the bastard who did this’.
By that time Jack Slick had already returned to his immaculate flat and was pouring himself a glass of whisky.
He sat down and made the call.
He hung up and stood staring out at the silver skyline where birds wheeled in unutterable space devoid of all humanity.
As he gazed out at the river’s stretch beneath him Mimi Grillini was getting undressed.
She removed her silk skirt and stood in her underwear as her lover lay on the bed admiring her full figure.
‘Alberto’, she said, ‘I told you I would get rid of him.’
He took a long satisfied drag on his cigarette, admiring the swing of her tits as she undid her bra and said ‘no one suspected?’
And so she lay down to soil her silk sheets.
The next morning as the sun rose Jack checked his bank account.
He left his flat as Mimi got into the shower and washed Alberto from her skin.
Then she dressed and went to her lunch appointment, wearing dark glasses and the slouched gait of the grieving widow.
When she had milked the support of her friends she returned home and fixed herself a martini before calling Alberto.
‘Get here in an hour’, she said and hung up.
He was late and her greeting left him in no doubt about her displeasure.
‘What fucking time do you call this?’
‘I don’t like being spoken to like that’, he said.
There was a moment’s square off as she stared at him and he ran a hand through his thick black hair.
Then she reached out a hand and unzipping his flies said ‘come on I want you. Fuck me in his bed, screw me until I come on his memory.’
Afterwards as they lay there he looked at her.
Her face was perfectly rigid, like some carving of a woman without any trace of emotion whatsoever.
‘This guy you’ve got’, he said.
‘There’s no way anyone could find out?’
‘He never met me.’
‘We’re in this fifty-fifty.’
She ran her hand down his chest.
‘You’ll get your cut.’
‘People are asking questions.’
‘Like how the killer knew he was there at that time.’
‘Just keep that pretty mouth shut. Now stop needling me’, she said and turned over to sleep.
When she awoke it was getting dark and Alberto had left.
She turned resentfully in the empty bed and got up.
She made some dinner, opened a bottle of wine, walked about her huge and empty mansion and fell into a comatose sleep on the sofa where she awoke to feel a gloved hand on her neck.
She was choking and could see a face but the features were too indistinct in the darkened room.
There was another man in the background.
She was losing consciousness and lay very still until he relaxed his grip.
She disguised her breathing and listened to them rummaging through drawers.
‘She keeps them in there.’
She knew the voice and it chilled her.
And as Alberto removed her banking files and handed them to his accomplice she reached for the gun in the drawer beside her.
They were talking and their backs were turned as she took aim.
‘Stupid bitch’, Alberto said, ‘does she really think I want to screw an old dog like her?’
‘Women like her don’t think. They live in a bubble, getting their own way until they’re too old and someone removes them from their path.’
The figure speaking caught the flash of metal in the moonlight streaming in through the window and he pulled his piece so quickly that Alberto didn’t even register the movement until he heard the muffled shot.
Mimi slumped back on the sofa spreading a dark trail of blood on the fine fabric.
‘Hand me those files’, he said, putting his piece away.
‘Well, I won’t have to fuck her again’, Alberto said. ‘She thought she still had something. But she was worn out and smelt of decay. Without Benito she was nothing.’
‘She was no better than a fucking whore.’
‘We got this one worked out don’t we?’, Alberto said.
‘She would never have guessed, her vanity let her down. That the lot?’
Alberto watched as his accomplice removed a small leather case from his pocket. He opened it and pulled out a needle. It was long and silver in the moonlight.
He walked over to where Mimi lay and calmly threading the tool ran it through her lips, which he pressed together in a soft gesture that was both erotic and absurd. She looked like a duck.
As Mimi’s lips were sewn shut, the tip of her pink tongue protruded slightly, bringing to Alberto’s mind the last time he screwed her.
His accomplice tied the cotton and stood back.
‘There, now they’ll know it was her who betrayed him.’
Alberto looked at her a while before they left.
Outside the moon was bright and full as Jack Slick drove them to his flat where they sat and drank whisky.
Jack reached over and ran his hand through Alberto’s hair. Then he pulled his face towards him and kissed him on the mouth.
‘We got a great thing going ‘, Alberto said. ‘No one would ever suspect us.’
‘Business is good and sex is even better’, Jack said, looking down at the files. ‘I’ll hang this out to wash, you’ll like the Cayman Islands.’
Copyright © 2010, Richard Godwin. All rights reserved.
This is my entry in Needle’s First Flash Fiction Challenge.