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.