Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ol' Lang's Prime

Paul Brazill is one of the most prolific writers publishing in the on-line crime world today. Tending toward Flash-fiction, Paul brings about dirty, funny stories of men in demise in the time it takes to eat your value meal. Think Charles Bukowski around nine in the morning just about to go to bed for the night, discovering a $50 winning horse ticket in an old suit pocket, long since worth anything deciding for one more round and you'll be in the ballpark. Paul hails from Poland by way of England and brings the Narrative Music series out of middle America for the first time with the dark Germanic tale rendered by.... Randy Newman? Seriously?


In Germany Before The War by Randy Newman

For many years, Randy Newman meant very little to me although he had always been in my peripheral vision. I remember Alan Price’s version ‘Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear ‘ when I was a kid and I was aware of ‘Small People’ but he was someone on the horizon; a writer of novelty songs. Of no interest to someone who grew up on glam rock and punk, then.

However, at some point in the eighties, during my longest period of unemployment, I borrowed Nina Simone’s ‘Baltimore’ from the public library thinking that her voice could transform shit into shinola no matter what the song was. It was a ragged and occasionally brilliant album but the, (Newman penned), song ‘Baltimore’ impressed. 

Some time after that, I visited the town's premier second hand record shop ‘The Other Record Shop’ where Newman’s ‘Little Criminals’ was always in the fifty pence section. The cover didn’t appeal but I bought it anyway.

I don’t remember much of the album apart from this one song. Lush strings, plaintive piano an aching nostalgic feeling. I loved it. I played it without really listening. So, I played it again. And listened.

‘In Germany Before The War

There was a man who owned a store

In nineteen hundred thirty-four

In Dusseldorf ...


Lovely sepia images. Snapshots and memories of somewhere that you’ve never been.

And more:

‘I'm looking at the river
But I'm thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea ..’

A sad, sense of yearning. But then something changes :

‘A little girl has lost her way 

With hair of gold and eyes of gray

Reflected in his glasses

As he watches her. ..


The nostalgic melody starts to seem sinister. The lovely strings are like malignant clouds spreading across the sky. The river seems dark and dangerous .The plaintive piano seems to be stalking. No, you think. It can’t be.

But then,:

‘We lie beneath the autumn sky

My little golden girl and I

And she lies very still ‘

And you know it IS.

It chilled me more than any song had before. And maybe even since.

In Germany Before The War, it turns out, was inspired by the classic 1931 Fritz Lang film M, which featured Peter Lorre as a serial child killer. This in turn was inspired by Peter Kürten who was known as the Düsseldorf Ripper, the Vampire of Düsseldorf or the Monster of Düsseldorf and was executed in July 1931 after confessing to nine murders. 

Here are the lyrics:

In Germany Before The War

There was a man who owned a store
n nineteen hundred thirty-four

In Dusseldorf

And every night at fine-o-nine

He'd cross the park down to the Rhine

And he'd sit there by the shore

I'm looking at the river

But I'm thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea
I'm looking at the river

But I'm thinking of the sea

A little girl has lost her way
With hair of gold and eyes of gray

Reflected in his glasses

As he watches her

A little girl has lost her way

With hair of gold and eyes of gray


I'm looking at the river

But I'm thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea

Thinking of the sea

We lie beneath the autumn sky

My little golden girl and I

And she lies very still

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Upper Deck

Just a little gift from me to you at the end of this year.

Ladies and gentleman I give you Mr. Sick and Twisted himself - Greg Bardsley!

I have no idea what he just said.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Walking in a Winter Murdaland

Three years ago I was at a couples' party - one of those things married folks get invited to because no one invites them to real parties any more. I was minding my own business in the corner, trying not to scratch under the collar of my respectable sweater too much and not drink too much and not make crass jokes too loud... Trying not to party I suppose. My friend, the host, spotted me biting my tongue and rationing my drinks and did the best turn he ever did me, put the first issue of Murdaland in my hand. It was a fiction journal bound like a trade paperback book and the photo of a shirtless man leveling a shotgun at me gave me a tingly feeling. My buddy says, "I saw this at the newsstand the other day and thought of you." No wonder, two of my favorite authors were listed on the jacket, Ken Bruen and Daniel Woodrell. The couples' party stopped sucking immediately. That first issue included a David Goodis reprint and introduced me to a bunch of great writers like Mary Gaitskill, Tom Franklin, Patricia Abbott, Anthony Neil Smith and Gary Phillips.

At the time, I'd written a couple of novellas that I was less than happy with and discouraged with writing in general. I'd never written short fiction before, but this thing in my hand, this nasty little piece of literature crystallized the aesthetic I was looking for and lit a fire under my lazy ass. I was excited to participate in the crime fiction world again and started writing short stories immediately in an attempt to churn out something worthy by the submission deadline two weeks away.

The second issue featured Scott Phillips, Harry Hunsicker, Vicki Hendricks and Jayne Ann Phillips among others, (that did not include me), and followed through on the promise of the first, delivering dark, unsettling and often hilarious tales from the uncomfortably near wrong side of the tracks. I redoubled my efforts to get published there and submitted a story I was sure they'd flip for.

The third issue never came.

Just like that, Murdaland was a thing of the past, put under by a largely indifferent community who didn't know what they were neglecting. The Murdaland crew wasn't making a lot of powerful friends either, outspoken about their frustration and irritation with the state of crime fiction and publishing, they answered the unheard cry of an uh un-large and un-powerful, but enthusiastic cult of readers and writers that I count myself among.

Michael Langnas, the Editor of Murdaland was kind enough to come out of hiding and answer a few questions.

What was the dream for Murdaland?

When we were coasting - maybe teeth inexplicably falling out or showing up for your Geometry exam unprepared and naked. You know, traditional dream stuff. When we were truly on our game - something darker and truly sick and perhaps a lot more Freudian. Something you'd be embarrassed to tell your court-ordered psychiatrist even if there was the chance it might help in the sentencing.

Content-wise what was it what you wanted?

Good dark writing. Nice prose, nice details, psychologically valid. Schlock-free.

Psychologically valid - can you expand on that?

Credible behavior, credible motivation, credible dialogue. If the author tells you what a character is thinking that should be credible as well. With crime fiction there's always the danger of lapsing into fantasy or kitsch. That may be less an indictment of the genre than just a reflection on how hard and disturbing it is to write about violence in an honest way. It's truly upsetting stuff. And readers often want a surrogate character who's super cool. That or a cartoonish villain. Most American crime fiction has one or the other or both.

What was the appeal of a magazine/journal format as opposed to a book anthology?

At the time there seemed to be ten million anthologies. 'Murder and Miniature Golf.' 'Best Mysteries about Fantasy Baseball.' So on and so on. They often were geared around a novelty concept and there was always a lot of padding.

In addition, Cortright McMeel who came up with the idea for Murdaland thought the time was right for a new mystery magazine. Something different than 'Ellery Queen' or 'Alfred Hitchcock'. Neither of which he enjoyed.

It probably says something about our respective personalities - something not particularly flattering to mine - that I wanted to flee from the thing I found mortifying and Cort wanted to do battle with what drove him mad.

So, okay, we went in thinking magazine. Then as we progressed further we sort of took a deep breath and reconsidered coming out as an anthology. I really pushed for a magazine and it was probably a mistake. It's cheaper to print and ship in large numbers. The more you print or ship the cheaper it becomes per item. This becomes a huge factor. And, of course, it's cheaper to pay one set of writers and photographers and graphics people one time than to pay additional sets of writers and repay everyone else for an additional issue. Finally, we really never caught on and didn't get many ads. It soon became clear that without many ads it only made sense financially if we flogged an issue for as long as possible rather than constantly produce new product. The chain stores would keep it in stock for a fairly long time too. Anyway, yeah, we probably should've come out as an anthology.

My interest was always in the stories and excerpts, not in sales or promotion and I'd hoped that we could just have a lot of material and issues coming out. But that wasn't the case. Going as a magazine probably doomed us and I have no one to blame but myself.

Can you talk a little about your relationship with Cort? How you two worked together?

I knew Cort from grad-school where he'd more than earned a reputation as a talented crazy person. Murdaland was entirely Cort's idea. He came up with the name and basic concept. Then he brought me on-board and I probably tilted things a bit more towards my personal sensibility. I did the editing and dealt with actual content and and graphics and stuff for the debut issue. Cort continued to bring writers in with issue two, but he was writing a novel at that point so he was a lot less involved. A guy named Sean O'Kane joined us and was a huge help. The whole project owes Sean a great debt. He was super competent, super industrious and he handled a host of things.

Any predictions for the legacy of Murdaland?Hopes? Fears?

I don't really think there's going to be a legacy so there's probably not that much to predict.

That said, I hope that the people who enjoyed Murdaland read more by the writers we featured. If we introduced someone to the fiction of Scott Phillips or Henry Chang or Rolo Diez or Vicki Henrdicks or Mary Gaitskill or Jayne Anne Phillips or anyone else that's great. Truly, something to be proud of.

I don't know . . . maybe someone in the future will stumble on an issue and enjoy it. That'd be great. And if any writers or future publishers are at all encouraged that's for the best too.

Are you still selling issues?

We're not still selling issues as a press, but I know that some copies of both issues are still available from Copacetic Comics in Pittsburgh.

The site is still up and anyone who's interested can read a generous chunk of most of the pieces from both issues there. I still get e-mail from people at the web address and that's nice.

Are there any future plans for the Murdaland brand name?

Nah, that's over.

Any other literary projects from you then?

I got a little something I'm working on and Cort's written a fantastic novel called 'Short' that'll be coming out from St. Martin's in fall 2010. It's about commodity traders and it makes for quite the ride. You get the sort of inside look, behind-the-scenes stuff that, for better or worse, male readers seem to love. You get the ins and outs of a particular business and American finance in a larger sense, but, along with that, it's just very well written in a way that few, if any, of those books, ever are.

Okay, granted, I'm prejudiced, but, eh, what can I say? It's very strong. It's just got a mixture of black comedy, fine prose and truly in-depth looks at certain milieus that you just don't see in contemporary literature or more popular writing . . . ever. There are some sort of sleazy people in it and some, well, there are some just incredibly sleazy people. It's very funny. A lot of times people will say something is funny when it's sort of whimsical or aspires to humor, but isn't actually all that amusing. This, oh, is genuinely very funny. Charles Bukowski meets Honoré de Balzac. Makes having dealt with Cort's madness almost worthwhile.

Sorry. I'll shut up, but, yeah, you're going to want to check out 'Short'. It's a mind-blower.

Is your project a novel or another journal/anthology, an Ice Capade spectacular perhaps?

Jeez, taunt me further with that which can never be! What I wouldn't give to have the aesthetic vision, the entrepreneurial know-how or just "the people skills" to pull off even a modest Ice Escapade, much less a spectacular. Alas, to quote Dirty Harry "A man's got to know his limitations."

I don't want to seem coy, but, eh, I'm going to leave it a bit vague, if I can. Don't want to jinx anything.

Anything you'd like to get off your chest?

Does it have to be Murdaland related?


Well, my efforts to build a cult around Evan Wright's March 2007 Vanity Fair article 'Pat Dollard's War on Hollywood' have proven to be a dismal failure and I'm a bit pissed about that.

I've never met the guy and have no connection whatsoever with the piece, but I think it's phenomenal. Hence, yeah, my failed effort to form some sort of cult. I suspect it makes people somewhat nervous. They should relax. It's not a reflection on the men and women who are fighting in Iraq. It's a reflection on the country, the society that sent them to fight. Just amazing. An incredible grotesque story of ostensible good intentions, hubris and decadence. A dark delight. I can't believe it's not talked about more. I'd bet that years from now it'll be acknowledged as something of a classic even if people aren't comfortable shouting out from the rooftops about it now.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Patting Myself on the Back

Two years ago the spousal editorial team of Laura Benedict and Pinckney Benedict, she the author of supernatural-tinged thrillers (Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts), and he, the voice of hard-scrabble rural life, (Town Smokes, The Wrecking Yard, Dogs of God) found a project they could come together on, editing an anthology of short fiction called Surreal South boasting a line-up of Chris Offutt, William Gay, Joyce Carol Oates, (and perhaps not coincidentally it featured other literary spouses like Daniel Woodrell and Katie Estill and Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly).

Well, they're back with what looks to be another installment in a series. Surreal South '09 from Press 53 has landed and is another onslaught of over the top thrills and under the covers chills featuring returning Surreal South contributors Kyle Minor, Lee K. Abbott and both Benedicts.

My own story Miriam is included therein and I'm thrilled to be part of this series along with Alexander Lumans, Becky Hagenston, Dan Mueller, Heather Fowler , J.T. Ellison, Jessica Glass, John McManus, Josh McCall, Josh Woods, Kurt Rheinheimer, Melanie DeCarolis, Michael Garriga, Michael P. Kardos, Okla Elliott & Raul Clement, Oscar Hokeah, Sheryl Monks, Steve Patten and Tantra Bensko.

Look for it.

Darkness Take My Hand

Just in time to underscore the dread in your soul during the darkest time of the year, New Pulp Press has released the first of their planned classic reprints, Flight to Darkness by Gil Brewer.

Eric Garth is a wounded Korea veteran whose body is recuperating stateside while his mind deteriorates inside. He's seduced and even become engaged to his nurse Leda, while he fantasizes about killing his brother Frank every time he closes his eyes. Eric is released from the hospital and takes his fiance with him back to the family in Florida, but nothing goes smoothly for him. He goes back and forth between guilt over his fratricidal fantasies and paranoia regarding the way he keeps on getting detained and arrested at the same whiplash pace as his desire for and suspicion of his woman. Or make that women, seems there's an old flame, not quite gone, never far from his thoughts and still waiting for him back home.

The story is told in the quasi-reliable first person and anybody whose read similar stuff from the last sixty years could probably spot the plot points and twists coming, but that shouldn't detract from the pleasure of reading as skilled and confident a genre-master as Brewer who says everything plainly and precisely, unassuming and unapologetic.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Head Shot

One Too Many Blows to the Head is a novel set in the fight world of Kansas City 1939 and it's everything you love about classic film noir only bound and printed. Co-authors, Eric Beetner and JB Kohl are each solid writers on their own, she is the author of The Deputy's Widow and he of numerous shorts published in online zines as well as the film Taking Your Life which he also directed. Together they've pulled off an improbable collaboration by composing and publishing the novel without ever having met... Never even having spoken on the phone...

WTF? you may well ask. I did.

Where did the characters come from?

Jennifer had the character of Dean Fokoli already sketched out as a possible character for her own work and he just adapted perfectly to the new story. We're both originally from the midwest so we liked the idea of it being set there rather than New York or LA. Setting it in the world of boxing was just a vibe we both enjoyed and my Grandfather Ray, whose name I stole for the book, was actually was a professional boxer in the 1930s. I also used my uncle Rex's name who was not a fighter, just a guy with a cool name. To the best of my knowledge neither one ever killed anyone. There is a lot I don't know about that side of the family though.

JB KOHL - Fokoli is a character I created a few years ago. He's sort of a regular guy; the sort we all know. He's middle aged, nice enough, but he's done some things in his past he can't quite let go of.

My first boyfriend (way back in second grade) was a cop's kid. Nice family. The cop had cop friends. They all got frustrated with a guy outside of town . . . you know the sort, beats his wife and kids, is drunk and disorderly . . . just watch an episode of Cops some time.

Anyway, these renegade cops got tired of running into walls when it came to getting justice for this guy's family; so they took the law into their own hands. They went out to the guy's house and beat him up. I don't know how bad . . . I was in second grade at the time after all . . . but those cops lost their jobs. My boyfriend moved to Wyoming after that. Second grade romance over, just like that.

Fokoli isn't made up entirely of that cop, but he's some. He's like those guys you meet at the car parts stores who never smile. He's like the guy that sits on the couch and pretends he can't hear what his nag of a wife is saying from the kitchen because she's usually not saying it, she's yelling it.

EB -When we first started talking about collaborating I knew Jennifer's previous book was a period piece. Our first ideas were centered around a past narrative and a present one using a central mystery that started in the past, which she would write, and was taken up and solved in the present, which I would write. That was a hard nut to crack and one night I was driving home late and had 3 or 4 hours in the car to just think and I thought of this idea of a man out for revenge and the cop who is chasing him. We both latched on to the concept, decided it should all be in the past and it went incredibly smoothly from there.

How much autonomy did you have in defining your character?

JBK - When it came to making Fokoli my own, I had all the autonomy in the world. Eric was wonderful to work with. He had his character and I had mine. There was some cross over in the book, naturally, but by the time we reached that point I had a good grasp of the character(s) Eric created so it was kind of fun to try my hand at writing them. Eric gave me suggestions on what he wanted certain characters to say. Glenda, for example, uses a lot of 1940's jargon. I had to write a scene with her and Ray and Fokoli. There were certain things Eric thought would sound good coming from her, so he sent me phrases I could use. But he always made sure I understood they were just suggestions.

There's a landlady in one of the chapters . . . she first appears as a voice in Eric's work, but I wanted to write her, so he kept her behind closed doors. When my character showed up I got to bring her out and play with her. We are both respectful of one another's work and I think we have a good working chemistry and we both wanted to make the book the best it could be, so it was never an issue.

EB - A huge part of the fun of writing this book was that I got to both write a book and read a book at the same time. We wrote linearly so I would write a chapter and then wait until I got something back from her. We had an outline and some bullet points of what scenes would be but it was very loose and we adapted and adjusted as we went based on what the other had written last. Neither one of us ever really questioned another character's motives or plot points. So I would say we had near total autonomy. The characters only interact very minimally and Jennifer had much of that than I did but after reading each character for so long leading up to it there was never any question of "how would this character react?" or "What would he or she say?"

How was the quid pro quo?

JBK - This is how is shook down: I harassed Eric until he agreed to write with me. Once he agreed I figured we'd talk about some plot ideas. But Eric sent me an idea he had for a novel. I thought it sounded cool. Basically we built entwined stories . . . Eric's character was the innocent driven to do things he never imagined. I built a story around Eric's story in outline form.

We worked from the outline but I think we revised it once or twice as needed. When we started to write it was amazing. Chapter by chapter we hammered the thing out. We started in June and were done late October. I'd send my work into cyberspace like a kid leaving a tooth under her pillow . . . in a few days, the tooth fairy would visit and I'd get a new chapter to read. Easiest work I've ever done.

EB - I started to feel bad at the start because Ray lays out so much of the back story and the groundwork I felt like the first few chapters were too heavy on my stuff and at risk of taking over, but it was needed and after chapter 3 it all is more evenly balanced. Other than that we shared the burden equally. Even since the actual writing with the promotion and publicity side of it we have split things. Jennifer did most of the sending to publishers, I've done maybe a little more of the PR aspect. Put it all together and we come out perfectly balanced, I'd say. She did take on more of the editing process because we wanted there to be one master document rather than two versions floating across the country so she took on the 'keeper of the final draft' title. At the end of that process she did declare that I owed her a lot of chocolate. (I still need to pay up)

About this point I turned the tables on my subjects. They were both so friggin NICE and deferential to the other. Collaboration is a tricky thing at the best of times and methods vary as wide as successes. So I decided to ask them about their working relationship as well as their partner's strengths and weaknesses.

But I went about it ass-backwards.

You ever watch The Newlywed Game? Buncha wide-eyed marital matches bleary from the whirlwind of the past few weeks together answering questions from their mate's point of view. Think of the following conversation like that.

What attracted you to working with Eric?

ERIC BEETNER ANSWERING FOR JB KOHL - I know this one. Jennifer originally contacted me through the Film Noir Foundation myspace page, which I oversee and which anyone interested in film noir should check out. She wrote in to ask if she could link to our page from her author website and I said sure after I checked it out. Her book sounded intriguing so I bought it and I liked it a lot. I sent her a note saying so and included a short story of mine called ‘Ditch’ (subsequently published at Thuglit). She liked the story and asked if I had ever considered collaborating on anything. Yes, she asked me.

I guess she saw potential in that story. It is one of my favorites. I’m quite proud of it and so glad it led me to this partnership. I’m almost certain she doesn’t make a habit of it either. I was the first person she approached about a partnership. I’m flattered.

Why were you eager to work with JB Kohl?

JB KOHL ANSWERING FOR ERIC BEETNER (A quick note - JB had so thoroughly channeled Eric for this round of Q&A that she actually answered in his voice. Readers, I had chills)-
“Eager” is probably a strong word. Truthfully, she’s a nag. In the end I figured it was easier to work with her than to change my e-mail address. Although she did have a proven track record for finishing a novel so that was a bonus.

What are your biggest influences?

EB as JBK - Jennifer is an old school detective novel gal. Chandler, Hammett, etc. She is also influenced by films as much as novels. I bet you could lock her in the basement and as long as she had a Thin Man marathon on TCM she’d be happy. A little Maltese Falcon and some Murder, My Sweet and she’d stay down there for a week.

JBK as EB - Ummm . . . Raymond Chandler, of course. I like Megan Abbott. I read Reed Farrell Coleman. I also like the unknowns . . . any writer who is writing good, gritty stuff that turns my head and churns my gut. I read Thug Lit when I get the chance and I’ve even been published by them a couple of times. I like “A Twist of Noir” and look at that whenever I can. There are lots of good bloggers out there and I like to keep tabs on that when I get the chance.

Who works faster between the two of you?

EB as JBK -
I think she would say she does. She’d be right. I bang stuff out quickly when I get to it but it takes a while some times to find the time. She gave up a budding career in medicine to pursue writing full time so she has her days relatively free. Of course, she has three kids, a household, does freelance editing on books and lives in the wilds of Virginia so I assume she chops wood and quite often fights bears so she might argue that I have more time. She might be right on that too.

JBK as EB -
She did. She works at home and writes full time. I have the Noir Foundation Web site to tend to plus my day job. I also write short stories when I have the time and I’m working on my own solo novel, so I had a lot on my plate while we were writing. Plus, I think Jennifer abuses caffeine.

What did you find most gratifying about working with Eric?

EB as JBK -
Oh my. I know how I’d like her to answer that it was the quality of my writing. Instead, I think she will agree that it was very gratifying the way we never ran into “creative differences”. All along we were very much on the same page as far as what kind of story we wanted to tell and how we wanted to tell it. Of course, I’m sure one of her favorite things was having me a full continent away so if she wanted to ignore me or tune me out it is as simple as not answering an email. That must be nice. I bet my wife is jealous.

What did you find most gratifying about working with JB Kohl?

JBK as EB - It was nice to work at my own pace with no deadlines hanging over my head. I get enough of that in my day job. I liked that I only had to write half a book! Plus, we never had to make small talk or wonder if the other was actually working on the project . . . it was almost too easy.

What did you find most annoying?

EB as JBK - I’ll go with something here that is not personality related but rather my refusal to write in MS Word. I just don’t want to pay that much for Word and I am generally suspicious of Microsoft. It makes it a little hard though when everyone wants submissions in Word, manuscript deliveries in Word, draft revisions in Word. It meant she had to do much more typing drudgery than I did. That got annoying I bet.

JBK as EB - Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s good when Jennifer nags me because I deserve it.

Whose work had more typos?

EB as JBK - Oh mine. No contest. If she says any different she’s just being humble. I am a two finger, stare at the keys typist who goes way too fast and will 99% of the time type form instead of from. That is just the tip of the iceberg of my bad habits.

JBK as EB - I think it was about even, although Jennifer was a total diva about my use of the word “had” in places.

How much research did you do?

EB as JBK -
Jennifer is not a super serious researcher but she did her homework. It was good that her previous novel, The Deputy’s Widow, is also a period piece so she came already steeped in the era. Since her character is the detective she didn’t have to do much research on boxing. We both looked into some things we didn’t know about Kansas City. I know we had to look up if they had cable cars or a subway or just taxis. Stuff like that. The character of Fokoli talks in broad terms about the mob in Chicago and general organized crime details but nothing that needed to be meticulously researched.

JBK as EB -
My grandfather was a boxer so that was helpful. I’ve got some old pictures of him in his trunks. We even toyed with using one for the cover at one point. Mostly I watched old movies which wasn’t hard since I’m a fan of noir films. I didn’t do any police procedural research since that was Jennifer’s area. Regarding the boxing, most of it I already know from my grandfather and the technical boxing aspects were a very minor part of the novel.

The central themes and subtext of this book are ______.

EB as JBK - Hmmm, what would she say? Desperate men taking on futile tasks in order to outrun a past that cannot be outrun.

There is action and a great cat and mouse element to the chase that is central to the plot but each character also functions individually as a Noir archetype of his own. Both men make mistakes they regret. Both men are being pushed or pursued by forces larger than themselves and both men are shadowed by their pasts. Fokoli a more recent past and Ray a more distant one but they are warped mirror images of each other.

JBK as EB - Revenge and redemption.

I would work with Eric again if ______.

EB as JBK -
If he asked me. Which I have. We are each finishing up solo projects and then we have a rough outline for a sequel to One Too Many Blows To The Head which could be really cool. I never thought we could take this story anywhere else but the more we thought on it things fell into place. We’re a little burnt on these characters after the editing and revisions phase of publication but we are both really excited to get into these guys again. It was too much fun. We can’t stop now. This isn’t the last you’ve seen of us as a team

I would work with JB again if ______.

JBK as EB - Not “if”, “when”. We’re already outlining a new novel. We’ll keep working at our own pace, doing our own things, and somewhere down the road, you’ll see another book by us on the shelves.

I think that's all I have to say about it. I hope that helps you get a better idea of what we did/how we worked together. We both continue to agree we won't meet or speak. That may change in time . . . for now I kind of like the way things are.

Well, I never got them to really snap at each other, but what they've pulled off is remarkable. One Too Many Blows to the Head is available from Second Wind Publishing.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Road to Nowhere

Patrick Shawn Bagley writes fiction, long and short as well as poetry. Further he teaches fiction writing and strikes me from afar as one of those professors I would have wanted to get if I'd ever gone for school learnin. His prose is strong and clear, lyrical, but peppered with well placed obscenities and folksy slang that make me wonder who speaks that way in Maine? PSB is this week's contributor to Hardboiled Wonderland's Narrative Music series.

The Road to Nowhere

It’s a hard-boiled white trash bedtime story, like a Daniel Woodrell novel set to music. It’s an ode to the kind of love that’s born of desperation and inevitability. I’m talking about Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever.” Along with “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Copperhead Road,” and some of those down-and-dirty old bluegrass tunes, “The Road Goes on Forever” is part of what I consider required listening for anybody who reads or writes country noir.

It’s the story of Sherry and Sonny, stuck in a small town where everybody knew them. Knew their families, knew how they lived. Knew how they’d end up. They were trapped by the low expectations of others. Sherry worked at the only bar in town, serving drinks and trying to be just friendly enough for a decent tip without getting her ass grabbed. Nights off, she and her friends hung out down by the river, thinking that when the beery cigarette haze faded out the next morning things might be different. She knew better. This was Sherry’s life: taking shit at work; taking shit at home; TV, beer, maybe a little pot; getting laid when she felt like it, but most of the guys around there were fuckin’ losers.

Sonny kept to himself. In his late twenties, he was a little too old for Sherry’s crowd and his own friends had left him behind—either moved away or settled down to family life. Sonny should’ve done one or the other, too. Senior year of high school, he’d taken a shot at getting into the Navy, figured it was as good a way out as any. When he flunked the test, his family sang a chorus of We Told You. So he stayed at home and peddled weed until the sheriff popped him one night. Sonny did his time and came back to town. Where the hell else did he have to go? Jobs were scarce and the few places hiring didn’t want to take on a felon. Pretty soon Sonny was selling nickel bags again.

You know damn well they’d seen each other before that night. Sonny wanted Sherry, but figured she’d never go for a guy like him. Sherry worried her friends might say Sonny was too old. Still, there they were—watching each other. Sonny was shooting a little eight-ball, killing time before meeting his supplier. Sherry brought a beer and a shot to an out-of-town lardass who’d been hitting on her half the night. When she bent down to set his drinks on the table, the bastard slid his hand right up inside her skirt.

Sherry jumped back, spilling the guy’s bourbon. Sonny was already crossing the floor. When the fat man made another grab for Sherry, Sonny whipped a cue stick across his face. Even over the George Jones song on the jukebox, you could hear that stranger’s jaw break. The son of a bitch hit the planks and stayed there. Sonny turned away, shoved a buck in Sherry’s tip jar on his way out. Sherry decided she’d had enough of that place, that town, the whole damned life. Tossing her apron over the bar, she ran after Sonny.

They took his pickup down to Miami Beach, grabbed a motel room and some booze and holed up there until the money ran out. That was the moment when they could have gone into the straight life. They had a choice. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But, as Sophie Littlefield reminded me a while back, “motivations are worked into the soul like dirt caked into calluses.” Sometimes escape is impossible because you just don’t know how to be any other way.

So Sonny hooked up with this guy he’d known in the joint. A couple nights later, Sherry drove Sonny to a derelict house in the shitty part of town. She kept the engine running while Sonny went inside with a briefcase full of money to make a buy from some Cuban refugees. Maybe it was a setup from the start. Maybe Sonny’s friend was a rat. Maybe somebody Sonny didn’t even know had a beef with the Cubans and decided to drop a dime. However it happened, the cops showed up. Soon as Sherry spotted the first cruiser, she drove around to the back.

The Cubans took off with their stuff. Sonny grabbed the cash and busted out a bathroom window. He hit the alley running, but one of the detectives was already there. Sonny was on the ground and handcuffed when Sherry came along and put a .410 slug in the back of the cop’s head. They jumped in the truck and hauled ass back to the motel.

Sonny knew the cops would find him. He’d left his prints all over that house. He was going down, but Sherry didn’t have to go with him. Sonny gave Sherry the money, told her if questioned to say the whole thing was his doing. Sherry stood there and “watched him as his tail lights disappeared around the bend.”

Six months later, Sherry was back in her home town. She hung out in the same old places, drove the same gray streets. Only this time she cruised around in a new Mercedes.

And Sonny? He went down on a murder rap for that cop, got a trip to the chair.

It didn’t have to happen that way.

It was always going to happen that way.

“The road goes on forever and the party never ends…”


Patrick Shawn Bagley’s stories of rural crime have appeared in Crimespree, Spinetingler, Thrilling Detective, The Iconoclast and the anthology Uncage Me (Bleak House Books). He lives on a dead-end dirt road in a small Maine town.

“The Road Goes on Forever” originally appeared on Robert Earl Keen’s 1989 album West Textures. There’s a more kick-ass version on #2 Live Diner (1996). The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson) covered it in 1995, but you can skip that one. Joe Ely’s 2002 cover is cool, though.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Un-Cosy or Noir es Perros

While studying the bookshelves at the home of Frank Bill several weeks ago, I came across a title that I hadn't thought about in quite a while, The Dog Fighter by Marc Bojanowski. I picked it up when it first came out because it had an arresting cover and intriguing title that proved apt enough. It was gritty and bloody with Cormac McCarthy-ish ambitions what without using the punctuation and all. And yep it was about a dog-fighting gladiator in Mexico. Seeing it on Mr. Bill's shelf made me think about Frank's own story The Flesh Rule. From there I got to considering dog-centered stories, (not necessarily gladiator stories)and recalled a short by Daniel Woodrell titled The Echo of Neighborly Bones about vengeance taken over and over after an asshole kills the wrong neighbor's pet. But the best dog-related story I've read recently has got to be Irish author and poet Gerard Donovan's Appalachian novel Julius Winsome. It paints an unsettling portrait of a man unraveling and the retribution he pursues against the world after his dog, is killed by hunters. The language alone is worth the price of the book. It's not a sub-genre I've ever sought out, but once in a while I find myself looking for a good dog related story.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

If it's not Scottish - It's Crap!

Allan Guthrie writes whatever the hell he wants to. It's bloody, yeah, absurd? sometimes, twisty? okay, heartbreaking? often and funny for those with a twisted sense of humor. He cemented the top spot on my read-first list when picking up anthologies this summer with his absolutely sick and hilarious yet squeaky-clean, (language-wise) story The Turnip Farm (from Uncage Me edited by Jen Jordan) and by publishing a kick ass viking story in a crime-fiction book (Haermunde Hardaxe Was Here from Sex, Thugs and Rock & Roll edited by Todd Robinson). His novels depict Edinburgh's streets run amok with characters exacting retribution for wrongs profound and puzzling and encountering sword-wielding stoners, basement crucifixions and baseball bat leaning collection specialists in the land of cricket. His latest novel Slammer, (about a rookie prison guard in over his head), has just been released in the U.S. and while playing it straight with the yuks, it goes for your gut with surgical precision and reads like printed crank. He's been an editor on titles like this year's Ken Bruen/Reed Farrell Coleman collaboration Tower and is also a literary agent representing HBW favorite Anthony Neil Smith among others.

What exactly is the deal with blood feuds in Scotland?

Pure fiction. The truth is, everybody loves one another in Scotland. We're a nice bunch, like crime writers. Actually, most of us are crime writers.

How many of your stories revolve around someone's child, (or adult child) being killed?

In terms of novels, I'd say two out of the five. I'm not sure, though, cause I'm not convinced that Savage Night actually centres around the particular death you might be thinking of, it's just an incident that helps move things along more quickly. There's a third contender, possibly, in Kiss Her Goodbye, but the protagonist's teenage daughter isn't killed, she commits suicide. So I'll stick with two as my answer. Just so happens I've recently finished a novella that centres around the kidnapping of a seven-year-old. I'm not going to tell you whether he dies or not, though. You'll have to wait to find out.

The tone of your work swings hard and fast between utterly tragic, absurdly comic and horrific, often within the same chapter. Have you ever been told to pick one and stick to it?

I've been lucky enough to be allowed to do my own thing. And I do like a bit of horrifying tragi-comedy. Possibly comes of reading so much Charles Higson, Christopher Brookmyre and Douglas Lindsay in my formative writing years. But I think in SLAMMER I've pulled back quite a bit on the humour. Yeah, there's a chuckle or two in there but the overall tone of the book is largely melancholic.

Yes, Slammer is dark straight through, why did you approach it that way?

I just fancied writing something with a different mood. Also, because it's entirely written by the protagonist, there are comedic restrictions in terms of how he perceives the world.

As much a fan of hardboiled and noir fiction as you clearly are, you seem bent on subverting every hallowed tradition, or cliche if you like, of the genres. Why's that?

I'm flattered you think so, but to me the "hallowed traditions" are represented by the novels of Caldwell, Cain, Goodis, Thompson, Himes, Lewis, Raymond, Manchette. I think I'm continuing in the same tradition, so I'm not sure I'm subverting anything.

Well, take Hard Man. The title itself prepares you for a tough guy story, but Pearce is hardly the hardboiled hero in the traditional sense. Your 'hard men' tend to be struggling with impotence or an aversion to blood, sexual identity or un-manly shames of one sort or another. They have to really be forced into action or otherwise utterly psychotic in the first place. When you get down to it Nick Glass, (the entirely out of his depth prison guard in Slammer, whom no one - not inmate, co-worker or spouse respects or fears) may be your most traditional man of action.

Absolutely true. I don't identify that much with hardboiled character types. I'm much more into noir characteristics: fear, paranoia, anxiety, psychosis, etc. You'll find any number of protagonists like that in the work of the authors mentioned above, though. Most of those writers are frequent explorers of issues of (mostly) male identity, masculinity, manhood -- or even the loss of it (see Jim Thompson's The Nothing Man).

I heard somewhere we might see a sci-fi novel from you soon. What sort of Sci-Fi aesthetic might that adhere to/lean toward?

It's something I'd like to try, certainly. I'm a big fan of Philip Dick, Alfred Bester, some Robert Sheckley. The novel I have in mind is a space noir and no doubt some of those influences will crop up.

Some of the most interesting scenes in your novels feature characters tied to chairs, beds or otherwise bound to large stationary objects while various unpleasantries are visited upon them. Is this a theme you're trying to work into each story?

No. Neither is the broken nose in the first chapter of each of my first four books.

What's up with the Two Way Split film option?

Two-Way Split has been in development for a while, but we've pushed through to the next level. It's now in "advanced development" with Plum Films and Scala Productions. We have a script everybody seems to like and we're optimistic we'll get the money in place to make the film before much longer, so keep your fingers crossed.

Have you written screenplays for your books?

I co-wrote the screenplay for Two-Way Split. I haven't written any others – not my own, although I've co-written an adaptation of Swierczynski's The Wheelman.

Would you?

It depends on the book. Some are more challenging than others, and those are the ones that would most interest me. I'm certainly not precious about the movie being faithful to the book, though. I'd like the movie to be better than the book, and it's hard to be better if it's faithful.

Can you explain that or give any examples of films you think were better than the books of origin because of their unfaithfulness?

Well, it might just be me, but I never think of a novel as being finished. There comes a point where I have to stop (or am told to stop), but I could make improvements forever. I kept going back to Two-Way Split for a couple of years after it was published. Completely pointless exercise, I know. Examples of some films that are better than the source material: On Dangerous Ground, The Graduate, Dr Strangelove, Adaptation, The Shining, Goldfinger.

What kinds of straying from your own books do you think would improve possible film projects and would you want to be making those decisions yourself?

I could give you a concrete example from the adaptation of Two-Way Split. But it would ruin the surprise so you'll just have to wait. I don't mind who makes the decisions, no. Once the film rights are optioned, it's out of my hands. When it comes to writing, my philosophy is to concentrate on the things that are within my control and not worry about the things that aren't.

Has Duane Swiercyznski ever tried to sell you drugs? Or taxied you around?

How dare you, sir! I am incredibly offended on Duane's behalf. He's a fine writer and a fine gentleman. So let me state for the record that he has never taxied me around.

Are there other story telling mediums you'd like to explore?

I'm open to just about anything. I tried radio drama once but without much success. Wouldn't mind a shot at a graphic novel. And song, of course. I used to compose a bit when I was younger. I'd love to see Hard Man: The Musical.

I like the US cover of Slammer. I saw it on the bookshelf at a store yesterday.

Dammit. Was hoping I'd sold that one.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

L.A. Times

What a week folks. After catching Neko Case Thursday night in St. Louis I hopped a plane for the coast way early Friday morning and hopped off in Los Angeles where I was in attendance at the AFM (American Film Market) where buyers, sellers, talent and the beautiful and shameless hawk their wares, (and by "in attendance" I mean haunting the bar in the lobby). I was there to hustle a little film I wrote called Mosquito Kingdom and help the producers push some of their other projects. It was an operation executed in the same manner as the film's production - improvise, bullshit and steal. I was happy to help. Got the chance to rub elbows with the likes of Robert Rodriguez and Black Caesar himself, Fred Williamson and had a nice chat with Richard Ledes the director of The Caller, (Elliot Gould and Frank Langella - nice) on the pleasures of working with Laura Harring. Also got tossed out on my ass, like I deserved to be, from the offices of a certain company who have acquired Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me from Jim Thompson's masterpiece of the same name. I have seen clips and let me tell you, Casey Affleck is once again fighting through my reservations to his casting and turning in what looks to be a scorching performance. I'd never been to L.A. before. Enjoyed the weather and the beach and The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood Village. I had breakfast with ex-St. Louisan current staff writer on The Mentalist and all around badass Jordan Harper. We talked favorite subjects like James Ellroy, Shawn Ryan, Todd Robinson and the tendency of publishers to pull their punches when handling "dark material". I asked him the progress on his yet unpublished novel Dirtnap Avenue and he said he'd been getting the same story a lot- "Love the book. Too dark for us. You'll never sell it." Seriously? That is a sad sad thing to hear. DA is as pleasant an ass kicking as you're likely to read anytime soon. Anybody reading this, (of course I mean publishers/editors) and wanting to take a look at this great little book should head on over to his website and request one. Also had a good meeting with a script agent and discussed the possibility of developing one of the original scripts I wrote with Scott Phillips into a television show... Interesting. Veddy interesting. I'm back to St. Louis now and have a couple film projects to consider, (one writing, one acting - c'mon, really?). Dunno what I'll have time or energy for, but it's nice to be asked. On a sad note, it doesn't look like Daniel Woodrell will be in attendance this Sunday for the St. Louis International Film Festival's presentation of the Director's Cut of Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil, (from Woodrell's fantastic Civil War era novel Woe to Live On). Bummer. Incidentally, while I was away St. Louis hosted Leonard Cohen and Jonathan Lethem. Though not together.

Monday, November 2, 2009

TP Your Bookshelf

Tom Piccirilli writes books that get read. Try one, you’ll see why. They move at sprint pace toward bloody finales that leave you ready to pick up another and wondering why you don’t read more books. The answer unfortunately is probably because there aren’t a lot of authors who write like him, packing pulpy thrills, humor and tragedy onto every page. The good news is he's written some twenty of them and shows no sign of slowing down. He first made a name for himself in horror, but has since expanded his genre line up to include westerns, super natural thrillers and noir. His latest is The Shadow Season.

What was the reaction from your publishers when you wanted to write the first crime novel?

It's been a slow and natural process moving from dark fantasy fiction to crime fiction. There was an interim when I was writing crossover material--novels like HEADSTONE CITY, THE DEAD LETTERS, and THE MIDNIGHT ROAD all are essentially crime novels with supernatural overtones. So moving right on into noir/crime fiction seemed the right thing to do. My editor at Bantam has always been very encouraging and allows me plenty of room to move and follow my own course.

Does it feel limiting to write "straight crime" titles without the boundless possibilities afforded by the supernatural or fantastic?

No, because I've learned that real life can be even stranger than the fantastic. There's just as much to pore over and consider horrific in straight crime as there is in anything else. Horror is often defined by good vs. evil. There is some overwhelming evil presence or monster or that must be faced and fought. But in crime fiction there's a much wider grey area. That leads to more exploration on the concepts of good and evil. My protagonist Chase from THE COLD SPOT and THE COLDEST MILE is a getaway driver and a thief, but he's still my good guy. Things aren't so cut and dry, so easily defined. And that's what inspires me now, mining the differences, examining the moral details. How many people do we know who might be tempted to abscond with funds if they thought they could pull it off? Especially in the current economy? The set-up is classic but commonplace, universal. Maybe that's why I like it so much. It touches on truth. I'm more concerned with that than the supernatural, and perceptions of the truth are as boundless as writing about the supernatural.

The Cold Spot had an interesting feel. It felt both researched and given to real insight to the lives of "blue collar" criminals as it did shot from the hip and given to "speculative criminal reality". How much research goes into the Cold books as opposed to say the Westerns?

Much more had to go into the Westerns, believe it or not. They had to be historically accurate, so I had to learn a bit about guns of the period, facts about the Civil War, life on the Apache reservation, etc. The authentic feel behind the THE COLD SPOT and THE COLDEST MILE is more romanticized. I pick up pieces here and there from newspapers, cop shows, factual crime TV bits from, say, the Tru Channel, and then try to breathe life into all that. A lot of it also seems like common sense. If you were going to pull a heist, you would do it this way instead of that way. Elmore Leonard tells a story of how he once called a bank to ask them how the money was delivered and taken away, and of course they hung up on him. So he just wrote what seemed like the most logical way for it happen, which apparently turned out to be correct.

How about with The Shadow Season? Writing for a blind protagonist must've posed some ahem unforeseen challenges.

I've been wearing glasses since I was 10, and the older I get the thicker they get. So at its heart, SHADOW SEASON is about my own fear of blindness. Again, I did a smattering of research but, and this might sound a little Afterschool Special-ish, I wrote most of the novel with my eyes shut. Sounds goofball, I know, but imagining having to deal with certain issues in the dark really started to spook and frustrate me. I kept putting myself in that place, that place that I was terrified of being in, and as a consequence I think the novel works on a down-in-the-gut level. Even though the story is about a blind cop dealing with some badasses at an all-girls school during a snowstorm, he's not Daredevil. He doesn't set traps and turn his blindness to an advantage. A *lot* of people believed I would go in that direction. Because we've seen it so many times before. But where's the emotional honesty in that? Where's the validity of the story? It wasn't what I wanted to focus on. Shadow Season is still a crime-actioner of sorts, but with a much more authentic human feel.

Where did it originate?

Who the hell knows? I have no clue how those writers can point and say, "That's where the impetus for the novel came from." For me, some concept or theme or image worms its way into my head and won't leave again until I write the story.

Do your books feature any themes or recurring details you've been unaware of until a reader pointed them out?

No, not really. At this point of my career and my life I'm pretty self-aware when it comes to my writing. I know I have father issues, I know I'm nostalgic, I know I have a tendency to climb onto the cusp of being maudlin. The draw of the past is always a major concept of the fiction, as is the search for and understanding of personal identity. I know which wells I keep returning to and which mines I'm exploring. The trick is to do it differently each time out of the gate, but since these are mostly universal themes, I think it's fair to say that my readers can relate to the material no matter how it’s molded story by story.

Do you feel that your "self awareness" is a help or a liability to your creative process?

It's a help. It's what we strive for, at least to a certain level. Knowing our strengths and focusing in on them. Knowing our weaknesses and staving them off. That doesn't mean I don't experiment or stretch myself or make attempts to aim in different directions. But knowing what your strongest foundations are can only help when you're putting your story together brick by brick. I also know when I've beaten a horse to death (sorry, I'm mixing my metaphors all to hell here) and I'll back off of a particular theme, or a specific way of bringing that theme to life. After my mother died I wrote a number of hospital stories because that was still so overwhelming an experience. But after a while I knew I needed to pull myself away from it or I'd just be repeating myself in the work. I had to make a conscious effort not to return to that place and tell a similar story. No matter how important those circumstances were to me, they would've just bored the reader. If I wasn't aware that I was doing it, I wouldn't have cared.

How many of your characters "are" you? How much of your craft is catharsis?

Well, it's sort of standard to say this, but that doesn't make it any less true. All of my main characters have a bit of me in them. And I'd say that because of that damn near all of the writing is cathartic in one way or another. Through my characters I get to say the things I never got to say, do the things I can't do myself, play out old conflicts to different resolutions. The thing is that no matter how many times I tackle this kind of a purging, I don't quite get it right, and that leads me to try again, which leads me to writing my next work. John Irving once said that after finishing a novel he begins his autobiography, except that nothing very interesting has ever happened to him, so he makes up more and more things, and pretty soon he has a new novel. That's the feeling I have when it comes to catharsis. The more I try for it, the more I need to try again next time.

What's the most personal of your work then?

Actually, my next novel THE UNDERNEATH seems to be one of the most personal of my works. A lot of the plot has been dovetailing with my own mid-life crisis. Even though the subject matter isn't autobiographical--it's about a young man who returns to his family of professional thieves a week before his brother is due to be executed on death row--a great many of the familial challenges he faces are very broadly similar to things I've been feeling in recent years. It was a difficult book to write for that reason.

Yet you completed it on pace with your significant body of work. What kind of schedule do you have? Is it self imposed or deadline motivated?

I try to do at least 1k words a day of polished, clean prose. That allows me to write two novels a year as well as a couple of novellas and a number of short stories. Jumping between the different mediums also helps me to keep things fresh.

What's left in your ambitions?

I still have tons of them. Hit the bestseller list. Get a good movie made based on my material. Try other genres and sub-genres that I haven't tackled yet. But I think that all of it boils down to: Write a better book.

Are you developing projects in other mediums currently?

Depends on how you define "development." There's always someone in H-wood interested enough to at least check out the work, and sometimes it goes along a little further than that, but as for having a film or a TV series coming out anytime soon, sadly that's not the case. Although who knows what the hell will happen tomorrow.

How much control over your product do you have at this point in your career as opposed to when you were starting out?

So far as the major publishers are concerned, it's about the same as always, which is to say very little. I get some small input on the cover art and layout but that's about it. In the small press it's a little different--independent publishers are more interested in learning from my experience and they go out of their way to make me happy, so I get more input on art, layout, advertising, etc.

Do you write under contract or on spec?

At this point it's all contracted for before hand.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Needles & Pills

Last year when Anthony Neil Smith announced the idea to do a themed issue of Plots With Guns set 500 years in the future and call it Plots With Ray-Guns, I geeked out and thought "I've got to be part of that". I worked out what I believed to be the perfect story for the issue and submitted it waaay early. Rejected. "Too Sci-fi". WTF? With just a touch of bitterness I checked out the issue when it was published and one of the first pieces I hit was Kieran Shea's Koko Takes a Holiday. Oh, shit, I thought, so that's WTF ANS was holding out for. Some balls out prose that was so electrifying it could've been about uh, flowers or the weather or a sale at the GAP and still held my attention. I recently told Kieran this and he confessed it was his 3rd attempt to get into the issue. So there you have it. We both wanted in. I was told "no" and quit. He was told "no", came back again, was told "no", came back again with an amazing piece that couldn't be turned down. You and I could both learn a thing or two from K-Shea, who by the way is guest blogging today in the Narrative Music series.

"Lord I'm Discouraged"

When Jed asked me to contribute to this blog tangent, I immediately went to a song that’s been in my heavy iPod rotation— “Lord, I’m Discouraged” by The Hold Steady. This song just breaks your goddamn heart with a sledgehammer…a lover’s unanswered prayer for a girl decimated by the horrors of hard addiction.

Despite the band’s reputation for rousing, humid anthems to youth passed, lyricist and lead singer Craig Finn has a deeper storyteller’s marrow laced deep in his bones. Maybe it’s the Irish Catholic thing, I don’t know, but troll through the band’s catalog and you’ll find his songs are populated with very troubled characters. Men and women sifting through the wreckage of indiscretions and indulgences, striving for grace in an unforgiving world.

The brilliance of Finn is his ability to define scenes with targeted thrift. Just when you think a line will end predictably, he’ll whip it around and sucker punch you. Kind of like early Springsteen back when “the Boss” had a pair of hairy wind chimes dangling between his legs (another discussion entirely). For example, in “Lord, I’m Discouraged” right before an achingly sweet and cresting guitar solo, Finn employs this line to sum up a drug deal:

“This guy from the north side comes down to visit, his visits they only take five or six minutes…”

Either observed or participated in, Finn knows the dark side. Drug dealers of serious weight rarely stick around after a buy.

“Lord, I’m Discouraged”

Lord, I'm discouraged
the circles have sucked in her eyes
Lord, I'm discouraged
her new friends have shadowed her life
Lord, I'm discouraged
she ain't come out dancin' for some time
I try to light candles
but they burn down to nothin'
and she keeps comin' up with
Excuses and half truths and fortified wine
Excuses and half truths and fortified wine
Excuses and half truths and fortified wine
There's a house on the southside
she stays in for days at a time

I know I'm no angel
but I ain't been bad that way
Can't you hear her?
She's that sweet missing songbird
when the choir sings on Sunday
And I'm almost busted
but I bought back the jewelry she sold
And I come to your altar
But then there's just nothin'
and she keeps insisting
the sutures and bruises are none of my business
she says that she's sick
but she won't get specific
the sutures and bruises are none of my business
This guy from the north side
comes down to visit
His visits they only take five or six minutes

Lord, I'm sorry to question your wisdom
but my faith has been waverin'
Won't you show me a sign
let me know that you're listenin'
Excuses and half truths and fortified wine
Excuses and half truths and fortified wine
Excuses and half truths and fortified wine
I know it's unlikely she'll ever be mine
so I mostly just pray she don't die

Monday, October 19, 2009

Indiana Jonsing

Back in St. Louis. Back in my own bed. Back to my old bad habits. First a big thanks to Frank Bill and his lovely wife and apologies about the toilet. BTW they make some good sturdy industrial strength plungers in Indiana. Email Frank and I'm sure he can tell you where to pick one up. I got to see first hand the locations described in his dark stories of rural blood feuds as well as good hunting and fishing spots in the area. We stayed up too late talking reading, writing, horror movies and the guilty pleasures of Bud Light Lime. Yes, Blimey. Friday afternoon I drove up to Indianapolis and found a place to park, then made a line for the hotel bar. On the way to said bar I accosted Duane Swierczynski then made an ass of myself to Martyn Waites, Gary Phillips, Megan Abbott and Reed Farrell Coleman. A while later Anthony Neil Smith came to my rescue joined by fellow First Offender Karen E. Olsen who helped me learn some conversational subtleties that I put to good use when I chatted up Sophie Littlefield and Craig McDonald. Ran into fellow St. Louisans John Lutz, Robert Randisi and Rod Wiethop dragging their long suffering wives along to yet another event populated by misanthropic alcoholics. Scott Phillips showed up as I was sharing a "tall guy" moment with Kieran Shea and Seth Harwood and we were joined in dinner by Stacia Decker, John Rector, Dan O'Shea, Dennis Tafoya and other pleasant rummies too numerous to count with double vision. After dinner I made fan boy advances on Victor Gischler, Sean Doolittle, Dennis McMillan, Sean Chercover, Marcus Sakey, Alison Janssen, John and Ruth Jordan before retiring to befoul Greg Bardsley's bed, (cause he didn't arrive till Friday) in K-Shea's room. Shea was a class act it's gotta be said who made the whole thing possible for me. No way I could've afforded it without his offer of a place to sleep. In the morning Shea and I shared breakfast and spoke of our various projects then he encouraged me to sneak into a noir panel featuring Mr. Gischler and Christa Faust before skipping town to attend to aforementioned familial commitments. Thanks to everybody who made the trip a possibility and a pleasure.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Where The Wild Things (Will Be)

Just found out I've got enough scratch for one night at Bouchercon in Indianapolis. What this means: after work on Wednesday I will leave for Indiana and crash at the home of Frank Bill and raid his liquor cabinet, I mean garage. Thursday morning as soon as I'm sober and caffeinated I will continue on to Indianapolis, (perhaps Mr. Bill riding shotgun) and crash the hotel room of Kieran Shea and Greg Bardsley, (who won't actually be there till Friday dammit) and stink up the latrine. Thursday night I will meet up with Scott Phillips and (I'm told) Anthony Neil Smith, Stacia Decker and Dan O'Shea, (maybe more) and play pin-the-kitty-on-the-cozy with substances that rhyme with drunk. Friday morning will find me back on the road to St. Louis with a lifetime's worth of cautionary tales in the back seat. See you there.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Surviving Helena

Going way off the reservation when I reveal I was watching the second season of Flight of the Conchords the other night and saw the episode in which Art Garfunkel makes a cameo. Laughed pretty hard, yet not as hard as one of the only other times I recall seeing Garfunkel in a film, (outside of Catch 22). The unintentionally funny Boxing Helena also starred Julian Sands, Sherilyn Fenn - that chick who wore the awesomely tight sweaters in Twin Peaks - and Bill Paxton. Me thinks it was the movie that Kim Basinger was sued for breach of contract for leaving and gladly paid $$$ to get out of. At its core was a decent idea for a scary movie, but the end product was, well I hope it wasn't what anybody was going for. The director, Jennifer Lynch, (daughter of David) spent the last fifteen years or so in hollywood purgatory for that one and re-emerged recently and quietly with a hell of a sick picture called Surveillance. So glad she got the chance to make another flick. Reminded me of the gratitude for second chances I felt after seeing Richard Shepard's bounce back effort, The Matador after his flop The Linguini Incident sent him to development no man's land. The cast of Surveillance got new leases on their careers, (in my eyes), too. I've never seen Bill Pullman so good, so creepy and nervy and jittery. Even though I love some of his pictures - The Last Seduction, Lost Highway, he's not been the strong link. And Julia Ormond had one memorable performance before this, the detached detective in Smilla's Sense of Snow after spending her earliest exposure as the woman coming between men, (Legends of the Fall, First Knight, Sabrina). French Stewart shakes free his 3rd Rock persona as a bored cop abusing travelers on his beat, (think a far more sadistic version of Super Troopers) and Cheri Oteri makes a solid go in a dramatic role. As Lynch recalls in one of the special features ...the phone rang and I picked it up and heard "You are the sickest bitch I know" and I said, "Dad?"... So, yeah. Second chances and reinventions. Good for them. Now for a Garfunkel image makeover.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Nothin' Feels Better Than Blood On Blood

Guest contributor, the multi-talented Craig McDonald, continues the conversation of Narrative Music today at HBW. I'm running out of ways to say it... Him good.

Nothin’ Feels Better Than Blood On Blood: Narrative Music by Craig McDonald

Two men, one woman: a noir staple.

Sometimes, there’s sexual conflict; sometimes the tug of war is more emotional.

Two of my favorite novels, James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, and Craig Holden’s Four Corners of Night, work that dynamic — two men, one woman.

Add to the roster Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman, a cut from the Flannery O’Connor-inspired 1982 release, Nebraska . Of course, Springsteen has long peppered his albums with crime-inflected ballads (a few years back, an actual anthology of crime stories centered on his Born To Run-era song, Meeting Across the River, was published).

But for me, Springsteen’s most evocative exploration of crime is Highway Patrolman.

Joe, Franky and Maria…

Their tale eclipses the other noir-tinged songs on the very dark Nebraska album — lingering more powerfully in the mind than the title track, or Johnny 99 and State Trooper.

Joe and Franky are brothers who come of age in the early- to-mid 1960s in some farming community, perhaps situated in northern Michigan (the geographical clues dropped in the lyrics, appropriately, are confusing…give no concrete sense of place other than proximity to the U.S. ’ northern-most border).

Franky ends up in the Army: whether he enlisted or was conscripted is unclear. Joe, the levelheaded, steady brother, gets “a farm deferment,” heir-apparent to the family business.

But a failing crop market forces Joe to a course-correction in order to support his wife, Maria. He takes a post in the highway patrol, rising to the rank of sergeant.

When Franky comes back stateside in ’68, Joe’s official duties find him doing what he’s done all his life — trying to corral his brother who “ain’t no good”…to make him “walk that line.” But youthful, boys-will-be-boys escapades escalate with age and post “in-country” ennui.

Franky more frequently needs a protective brother operating under color of authority to haul his ass out of increasingly bloody bouts of bad behavior.

A man who “turns his back on his family,” he “ain’t no friend of mine,” Joe says, a repeated refrain.

We see it all in novelistic detail: lives lived in a dead-end town…nights lost in road houses, “takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria” while a sticks band’s cover of “Night of the Johnstown Flood” plays on.

Things blow to pieces one night in a barroom brawl that leaves a kid “bleedin’ hard from his head.” The beaten-on boy’s best girl fingers Franky as the perp and the call goes out over the radio.

Joe chases his brother down dark, back roads to the Canadian border. There, Joe breaks off the pursuit…sits in his cruiser and watches his brother’s “taillights disappear” across that line.

Highway Patrolman is a spare, evocative song that finds its most effective rendition in the crude recording its songwriter originally intended to serve as a demo.

Even a pre-Rick Rubin Johnny Cash can’t touch the original’s power.

In 1991, the song was actually adapted by Sean Penn for a little-seen film called The Indian Runner.

I didn’t know the flick’s pedigree the first time I stumbled across it on some late-night channel-surfing binge. But the epiphany came strongly and quickly: the song’s DNA and sad story of family allegiances run that deep.

Craig McDonald is the author of HEAD GAMES and TOROS & TORSOS. His third novel, PRINT THE LEGEND, is coming from Minotaur Books in February 2010

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bone's a Rover

So it's out. Bloods a Rover drops into today's milqtoast literary scene like a turd in the picnic basket and gives us reason to believe again in the big publishing houses for just a minute. Anybody hear Ellroy on NPR this morning? That guy gives more golden soundbites than any politician. Also on this day, I spend more of my hard grifted money on postage to Cullen Gallagher who should be congratulated for just giving a shit enough to read my little blog and answer an easy question. Congratulations, then, Cullen. I'm sending him a copy of James Ellroy's Destination: Morgue! For the rest of you, here's the old post in which I propose that The Big Lebowski was a quasi-remake/sequel to the movie Cutter's Way, (mind you - not the book Cutter and Bone). I am outdoing myself for lazy blogging.

The Coen Brothers said in their acceptance speech at last year's Oscars that perhaps their success with adaptations was due to their pickiness in material saying they'd only adapted Cormac McCarthy and Homer. But that didn't ring true to me. They've made no bones about their fondness for James M. Cain and the direct influence his writing had on The Man Who Wasn't There and I think some pretty interesting parallels could be drawn between Miller's Crossing and Cain's Love's Lovely Counterfeit, but I'm thinking of The Big Lebowski. "Ah" you'll say, but Lebowski was mere homage to Raymond Chandler, and there may be something to that, but it's not Chandler I'm referring to. In 1976 Newton Thornburg published an atomic sour-ball of a thriller called Cutter and Bone. Set in its own time, it depicted a post-Vietnam America succumbing to rot from all directions. At the center of the story is Richard Bone, a former husband and father, now California beach bum, societal dropout scraping by as a handyman gigolo. His best friend is Alex Cutter, a bitter, damaged Vietnam veteran who has sacrificed various parts of his body and crucial parts of his humanity for his country. Bone has a love/hate relationship with Cutter, who gives him a place to live in between sugar-mommas, but drives him and everyone else away with his scathing diatribes on culture and depravity and gleefully points out hypocrisy and moral shortcomings everywhere he sees them, especially in himself and his friends. One night Bone witnesses the body of a young girl being dumped in a trashcan and after telling the police he could not identify the dumper, makes the mistake of musing to Cutter the possibility that it was a wealthy businessman he saw do the dumping. And they're off. Bone wants to forget he said anything the minute it leaves his mouth. He just wants to get back to the easy dope haze he calls home, but Cutter will not let go and drags him into a wild investigation of "the man" who stands for everything wrong with the world that can't be pointed to in their own example. The book is strong, hard stuff and was made into the movie Cutter's Way in 1981. The film is pretty good on its own terms, but just can't pack the same punch delivered by the book. But get this, Jeff Bridges plays Bone in the movie. Watch Cutter's Way and The Big Lebowski back to back and try not to see the connections. Is Lebowski a sequel? Or a remake? I think it goes way beyond homage. The Dude and Walter are far less tragic than Bone and Cutter, but they carry the faint echo into the 1990's of the original 1970's scream. I don't think the Coens will ever comment on it, but the glazed smirk of Jeff Bridges' Lebowski says it all. A wink's the same as a nod, Dude. Perhaps Lebowski deserves an entirely new category, (though if O Brother Where Art Thou counts as a straight adaptation...). Can't wait to see what The Yiddish Policeman's Union becomes through their lense.

(That project seems to have been shelved, now, but rumors swirl around a re-make of True Grit starring Jeff Bridges. Hmmm).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hardboiled Wonderland & The End of the World

Graphic artist John Hendrix's work has been featured in everything from The New Yorker to Rolling Stone, Esquire to Paste, Wired, Vanity Fair and beyond. His work is often about calamity, destruction and the uh... end of the world. Last year he illustrated the children's title Abe Licoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale by Deborah Hopkinson. This year he returns with his first book as author and illustrator, John Brown: His Fight For Freedom, about famed and infamous abolitionist John Brown. It struck me as such a hard sell for a children's book, such a compelling, dark and gutsy idea in a time when "religious extremism" plays a front and center role in suffering and conflict around the world that I had to pick his brain a bit. In the author's note in the book, Hendrix is careful to point out that John Brown's "religious extremism" was rooted in freedom and not oppression which makes him stand out, but holy crap it's still a controversial theme for a tot's book. I read it with my five year old and had a veeerrry interesting conversation afterward. (Mike Knowles at Do Some Damage had a worthwhile bit on challenging children's books a couple weeks back). So here I go straining the limits of the genre again. Sue me.

Was the book a hard sell to publishers?

My first book I wrote, John Brown, ended up being my second book.

Scholastic was really interested in it when I approached them in 2003. They bought it and we were off. They were very supportive of my drawings and really felt like they could overcome the difficult subject matter to get it to fit their list. But, ultimately, we both agreed that it wasn’t really the best fit for us together. I resold the story to Abrams in 2005 and that was a much better house for the book. They do smaller runs of books that take more risks, so there isn’t the pressure to sell 50,000 of them to break even. In the end, I just wanted it published somewhere, and I’m really fortunate that it is at a house like Abrams.

While JB was lying fallow, and given that I had shopped my work around to every place in New York with a civil war interest, the story for "Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek" was a really good fit when it came across my desk.

What was the origin of the project?

It has been a long time coming as you know, but the process has been very rewarding.
For me, all ideas start with visuals. I first fell in love with John Brown as a visual subject.

I had lived in Kansas for seven years, so I really knew about him as a kind of folk hero first. Then when I moved to New York, I met a John Brown scholar, Louis A. DeCaro, he had written a very positive portrayal of John Brown’s life called “Fire From the Midst of You”- and I loved it.

When I started reading about him, I also became really enamored with who he was and what he believed in. So, I made a list of all the images I wanted to include in a story about his life, and wrote the book around those ideas. Even though I wrote the book, I would never start with words. I am not a 'writer's writer'... but an artist who uses words to frame and create my own visual content. The images are always the staring place for me.

To me, Brown is a true civil rights hero. And most people think he is a lunatic. We have this popular image of him as an insane loony who killed people with some flawed notion of his own importance who was punishing innocent civilians because of his religious beliefs. When you really read what he believed and why he was brought to his actions- you see just how unique he was in his own era. A true visionary, and he has been minimized because I think most people are uncomfortable with people who are strongly motivated by religious ideas. I feel as though he deserves a more accurate account of his life.

Where did the fascination with Brown begin? What other biographical and historical elements would you have liked to cover?

Someone recently said that perhaps I should try to do kids books on subjects that shouldn’t have kids books. I like that idea. Now, that is harder than it sounds once you start making a short list. Better yet, are difficult and untold stories. What about the German minister who tried to kill Hitler, Dietrich Bonheoffer? Or I’d love to do a book about the man who ended slavery in England, William Wilberforce. These are great stories with a sharp moral edge to rub against- and stories that most people don’t know.

Why American historical figures? (Lincoln and Brown) Any others in the queue?

I really do believe that you should write about what you know, and for me, I grew up in the heartland of America- spent my summers on my grandparents farm in Vernon County Missouri (a place that John Brown raided to free slaves when he was in the area!) and so I feel really connected to the stories of the American experience. Now, as I say that- I’m working on a story that takes place in France, but has connections to the spirit of John Brown. I’m in the midst of selling this idea, so I don’t want to mention it specifically- but I can say there will be guns involved.

Any other ideas for children's books?

Children's books were the first illustration vehicles that I truly loved. Of course, my editorial career took off when I first started out in NYC and I love doing those images as well, but my heart has always leaned towards story in sequence.

For my next book, I will be working together on another book centered on the Civil War. (Most people think I’m a civil war nut, when in fact I just really love history- this will be last civil war book for a while.) It is a great story about a young girl named Sarah Edmonds who dresses up like a man to fight for the Union. She was such a great soldier that they asked her to become a spy. So, in a Shakespearean twist, she dressed up like many different kinds of people- black slaves, female nurses, male soldiers, all to spy on confederate cannon positions. We couldn’t focus on all her spy missions in the book, so we illustrated just one episode where she dresses as a male slave- darkening her skin with silver nitrate. True story!

Adult books?

You could argue that the John Brown book might be better suited for an adult audience, but when you are working with images- there really is no market for adult picture books, unfortunately, unless you are counting graphic novels. But that isn’t really what I do.

Your work has a tendency toward disaster and apocalypse, where does that come from?

I’ve often thought about this and it is hard for me to come up with any particular reason I’m drawn towards these types of images. Artist statements that try to ferret out all the subconscious reasons for making particular images often defeat the magic of the work- and seem a bit self-important. I think that it is partially a love of the forms that come in those images- but that might be oversimplifying a bit. Some of it comes from my faith and the connection to biblical imagery- and imagery that came out of the church in the late 19th century- spiritual warfare and use of symbols much like the Book of Revelation. Of course, my work is also unavoidably goofy. I find that pairing lo-fi silly drawings with serious content like earthquakes and the apocalypse is a nice kind of visual tension.

What is the connection between your other, (art), work and John Brown?

It is hard to deny the connection between the bluster and fire of John Brown and the disaster images and doomsday scenarios that populate my other work. The brimstone that John Brown brought to the cause of the enslaved was downright Biblical. On the cover of the book, I was looking at popular images of Moses and Superman for reference… so that should tip my hand a bit. I’ve always been interested in the connection between belief and action- faith and reason- the sacred and the secular. John Brown has all these themes in his life.

How do you present this complex topic to your own children? Has it provoked any interesting conversations with children?

Well, my oldest, Jack, just turned four. A bit young to even have a basic conversation about the realities of slavery. Currently, he can’t distinguish the actual feasibility between someone like Santa Clause, Spiderman and Jesus Christ. He does know that my book is about “John Brown” and likes to draw John Brown on his own- but we really haven’t gone past that, nor should we just yet.

I’m just starting on my book ‘tour’ this fall (three places so far) and I’ll get to interact with more children about the book- I’ll let you know if I get drilled with some tough questions. I can think of a few I’d hate to get asked.

What parallels to today do you find in the book?

Usually, when we hear the name of John Brown brought up in contemporary conversation or in print- it is in association with something either horrible or notorious.
Last year, as the presidential candidate Barack Obama was floundered by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the New York Review of Books compared the situation to the way President Lincoln was mired by his association with John Brown. And on and on, the DC sniper, Timothy McVeigh and the killing of the abortion doctor Tiller have all brought mentions of John Brown- not without reason, but it is too bad that his legacy is mostly centered in the “homegrown violence against Americans” – rather than an American portrait of self-sacrifice.

Certainly, we Americans would agree that some things are worth fighting for and dying for. Our country is founded on the principles of freedom, choice and even happiness. But, it is a fascinating question to ask: how much evil would you personally tolerate before you beat it back? How many friends hauled away in chains would it take for you to take up arms and resist? John Brown could not stand the thought of inaction… for that I admire him.