Monday, June 8, 2009

Questions & A.N.S.wers

Anthony Neil Smith is one of the most persistently subversive writers doing genrre stuff today. He's rooted firmly inside crime and noir traditions, but cannot help monkeying with our expectations. Think you're getting tough guys, tough guy? Think you're not? Think quadruple amputees can't be sexy? Think they're always sexy? His books and stories are littered with grotesque and strange characters who would be caricatures in the hands of most anybody else, but whom he insists first upon creating and second upon making them breath, bleed and spit on the page. The result is that when things inevitably go awry for them, you experience the three way tug of comedy, tragedy and visceral pulp fiction thrill. He's also the creator/editor of the online journal Plots With Guns. His latest novel is Hogdoggin'.

When it arrived, Plots With Guns sorta kicked crime fiction in the balls, gave voice and spotlight to a lot of deserving and hungry talents, including your own. What's its main function now? Is it more a service to a community or a prolonged PR campaign for your own work?

First, I don't think of it as PR for me at all. I don't advertise my stuff on there except for a link to my website on the links page. And I don't publish my own work (in the old days, we only did that a couple times--once for the "pilot" issue to show people what we were looking for, and once when Victor Gischler and I posted a story we'd written together under a pen name). I don't even do an editor's note.

So, for me, it's all about the fact that I love great noir stories, and I am on a search for the stuff that really gets to me the most. I want to be surprised, wowed, touched, and have all my previous ideas about what makes a great story challenged. I like to find the stuff that doesn't fit comfortably in either literary or pulp mags, but just sings really loud on the page.

As for service to the community, I don't know. I keep my focus on the stories, so that means I end up rejecting *a lot* of stuff. If that makes people then raise their game, cool. But I'm not going to be forgiving if the story doesn't do it for me, regardless of the writer's rep.

We started PWG because we couldn't find that many magazines that were publishing the stuff we liked. When I re-cranked it last year, it was because MURDALAND and OUT OF THE GUTTER and THUGLIT had delivered on the promise I had hoped for (that joints like PWG, full of attitude and honesty, would pop up more and more often), and I was chomping at the bit to get back in the game and see would I could do. And, shit, the stories starting coming in and knocked me on my ass.

Is it what you want it to be? Does that change? If so, any idea what that may become?

I think it's mostly what I want it to be. And it only changes in terms of mood, I think, from issue to issue. I like that I have the freedom to experiment, like with the PLOTS WITH (RAY) GUNS issue I have coming up in May. Plus, I'm even considering a "Bonus Summer Special" that I can't talk about yet. With the web, I can do anything I want.

I wish we had more artists, photogs, and graphic designers willing to do original work for us...for free. Right now, I'm just finding stuff on Flickr and asking permission. We've found amazing stuff, absolutely, but it means I have to put in a lot of effort to find the right art. The thing has got to be appealing to the eye in order for it to match the level of quality in the stories. I can do better on that, and I keep trying.

But primarily, I want it to be something where you can't help but read it all because it looks great and the stories won't let you quit.

You've described Psychosomatic as your "noir cartoon". How would you describe the work you're doing now?

I'm not happy with the work unless I'm surprising myself, feeling weird the whole time. I'm aiming for something a lot earthier, but still cartoonish in the sense that it's faster, more vivid, and larger than life. Raw, fast, dirty storytelling.

But right now I'm working on something that's a bit different than the last couple of books, and I'll hold off on talking about it other than to say it's a literary tip o' the hat to a character and series I really enjoy. Like an homage, but all contemporary-ied up.

And several months ago, I abandoned what I was calling my "Pentecostal" novel (I used to be Pentecostal and there's something really strange and fascinating about the faith) because it just felt all wrong. Maybe I'll go back to it eventually. You never know when you'll see clearly what you missed when you abandoned ship the first time.

Oh, and don't count out more novels in the world of Lafitte and his co-horts. Got big plans for those.

How about those Pentacostal stories? They're another side and probably lesser known of your writing. They're funny and not so funny too. How many are there?

Well, I think I did a good handful, maybe close to ten. They were parts of my master's thesis and doctoral dissertation. Some were published, and can still be found online, in Connecticut Review, Bacelona Review, and a few more. There was one in Storyglossia in 2007. Really cool magazine. But I wrote most of them in grad school from 1997 til 2002. I was freshly "recovering" from Pentecostalism and angry. As I workshopped them, my profs said, "These would be good if they weren't so bitter". So I had to work through that in order to get to the fact that I still liked the people. I thought their devotion was fascinating. But it wasn't for me.

Since then, I've tried to find ways to incorporate the story of a fallen preacher into a novel. Not so much a noir book as a Gonzo Southern Gothic. But it just hasn't come together quite yet.

Was Billy Lafitte always going to be a series character?

No, no. I just have trouble thinking in terms of "series" even though I read a number of crime series--Stark's Parker books, James Lee Burke, Crumley's (which seem less a series than a bunch of novels with the same people in them), plenty of others. Same with comics--SCALPED, HAWAIIAN DICK, CRIMINAL (which is only a series in name, really), 100 BULLETS.

Still, I look at my shelves, it looks like my reading habits have shifted mightily away from series.

Ultimately, I just think up a story and go where it takes me. For the follow-up to YELLOW MEDICINE, HOGDOGGIN' (which I was writing before YM even sold to a publisher), I wouldn't have gone for a sequel except for the fact I had this vision of Lafitte rolling back into town on a custom chopper. So I started that before realizing I wasn't interested in having Lafitte tell me his story again. No, I was more interested in how several people saw what was going on. And there it was. I think Lafitte will be in a third novel, but I probably won't get around to writing it until next year. I'm also working on something featuring a different character from HOGDOGGIN', and I'm really excited about how that's going. But that one wasn't originally supposed to feature this character. Just organically became obvious that it should.

What about crime or noir then? Was that always what you were going to write?

Oh yeah. I was hooked by The Hardy Boys in second grade before moving on the superior Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators Series. Plus, I really loved the covers and titles of all the adult crime fiction in the library. I just liked the idea of detectives, of solving crimes. Of course eventually I didn't care so much about the solving any more and just wanted to read about bad people doing terrible things, but with reasons.

I tried writing other things along the way--comedy, teen angst, Christian fiction when I was a holy roller, but it always came back to crime and noir. The "lightbulb" moment was picking up James Ellroy's WHITE JAZZ in the store, reading a few pages, and then picking my jaw off the floor. I thought "I didn't know you could write crime fiction like this". So that was the moment I also realized that instead of just studying Literature, I needed to find some Creative Writing classes.

Even in grad school, I would sometimes toss a crime story into workshop just to see what would happen (and I tried to write them so they weren't obviously genre stories). Eventually, at my dissertation defense, my professor Frederick Barthelme told me not to worry about the literary vs. genre debate. He said I obviously cared about the crime genre, and so I should go after what I liked. And I did. Maybe that'll change one day, but for now I just write the types of stories I would most want to read. And studying literary fiction and craft definitely helped me think about more interesting ways of going about it.

Is it an issue for you still? Is there a level of literary respect/credibility that you want to acheive?

Ha! I want Michael Chabon's career. Actually, no, more like Norman Mailer. That guy could get away with anything. I just want to be able to write about anything and still have it reflect my persona--the stuff I choose as subjects and the voice thorugh which I talk about them. Irvine Welsh sort of has that. Charlie Huston's gaining it. Palahniuk, Lansdale, Larry Brown, Rupert Thomson, Flannery O'Connor, Mary Gaitskill. They can do anything they want.

So it's not so much I want a certain level as it is that I want *a* level, period, so that I can keep writing. Cult status? I'd take that in a second. As long as there's an editor out there who'll take a chance on the next book, I'm game.

We see the literary/genre wall cracking all over the place. But there came a point when I asked, "Why even try to convince the people who are so stubbornly determined never to be convinced?" So I won't. Let them come to me if they want to.

I keep thinking I would've been right at home in the 50's and 60's writing for Gold Medal. Those guys, you know, the best of that stuff stands up all these years later.

How are you coping with the end of the world, (the collapse of publishing as we know it)? Has it created any opportunities that you intend to exploit?

Aw, really, man? I don't get all mopey and pessimistic. People seem to have short memories--stuff gets bad, then it gets better, then bad again, on and on. There will always be storytellers. Always poets, prose writers, and screenwriters. Okay, and now game designers (almost, but not quite, methinks).

I have always loved indie presses, and I'm on an indie press, and I think the indies have a great opportunity to move in and make something of niche audiences and targeted marketing. Hell, Bleak House had their best ever year in 2008, you know? Soft Skull and Akashic are doing very well. My publisher for THE DRUMMER, Two Dollar Radio, blew up *bigtime* in the last couple of years because of some very smart choices they made. So that seems a bit like the "buy local" phenom in certain ways--they go out, find the audience, and make it work, rather than thinking, "Shit, if this book doesn't sell a ga-jillion copies, it's fucked."

You know, if anything, I would like to exploit the "local" markets I fit into. I would love for the books to get more attention in Minnesota and Mississippi (where I live and where I'm from). Seems to be working in MN, but MS is a tough one to crack. Lemuria, the star bookstore in Jackson, ignores the shit out of me. Four novels, and every time they refuse to let me even sign stock. Refuse to carry the thing at all. At least at the even better Square Books in Oxford, MS, they took a chance on a dozen copies of YM and sold most of the books before I got there to sign stock. So those guys, I hope they'll have me back.

And I love the indie stores I've been to in, Memphis, Houston, St Louis (where I'll be busy on my next visit, so I'm told), Madison, and Milwaukee. Those are the places I love to visit, see friends, sign some books. I like that, driving around the Midwest and South, spreading the word about my wicked little novels. Grassroots and shit.

Then again, the Virtual World has been good to us small-timers, too. Blogging, other sites, all that. You've got to rally the readers and try to keep them on your side. I don't want to slap them across the face with my stuff all the time, but I want them to think "You know, based on his posts, his tweets, his blips (sounds like I'm talking droid language), his sense of humor, and the other writers he tells me about, I'm pretty sure I'll like Smith's books. Sold!"

How about region in literature today?

Yeah, there's always regional literature. Feels to me that we like finding ourselves in amongst the things that make us all different. No matter how much TV and strip mall culture spreads, people on the ground still have the landscape, language, and quirks that stand out. We make the strip mall fit *our* context, even as it's working to fit us into its context.

But what does it look like? That's the "you know it when you see it" situation. Flannery O'Connor was even talking about this back in the 50s, and the conversation hasn't changed much. I think the literati have even conjured up the term "the literature of place" to replace "regional lit". Go figure.

That's not to say I won't name names of my faves: Daniel Woodrell (Ozark Country), Crumley (Montana and Texas), Larry Brown (Mississippi), O'Connor (Georgia, mostly), Pelecanos (Washington D.C.), Banks (Newcastle), Guthrie (Edinburgh), Annie Proulx (the dirty American West), Donald Ray Pollack (rural Ohio). Plenty more, it goes on and on. And I enjoy reading writers willing to take hold of the landscape and people with such aggresiveness rather than try the every-person suburb or typical NYC or LA settings.

You know...being from the South, "Southern Lit" was a big deal, and it took coming to Minnesota to see a whole 'nother side of rural lit. Lots of big fish in small ponds all over the country, as far as regional writers the rest of us haven't heard of. There's a big interest up here in preserving the regional lit culture built around Minnesota and the Dakotas. Plus, that melds into Western literature. So I think the small presses out there chruning out the regional darlings are doing well for themseves, and they have no ambitions to take it any further. So we'll always have the regional circles, much like we'll always have local music circles, because the next wave is always hungrier and has less to eat, so they have to find better ways to get fed.

I love the director Craig Brewer's work. HUSTLE AND FLOW and BLACK SNAKE MOAN do a really good job of showing the Old South vs. New South that we lived every day when I was in Mississippi. But they're also really awesome exploitation flicks like you used to see in the 70's. I love the way he used genre excess to still give me a good taste of Mississippi and Memphis in those two movies.

Craig Brewer is a wonderful example of the unexpected flavor of Billy Lafitte who you're immediately on board to enjoy from a remove in crime and punishment, but amidst all the high-octane pulp there's a compelling humanity that makes him tragic and frightening and sometimes sympathetic. Agent Rome pulls it off in Hogdoggin' too. It's a great balancing act. Does either element in your ambitions trump the other?

Not really. I like the word "Trump", though. I used to watch the Apprectice a lot, before it got celebritized...

What was the question again?

Oh, right. You know, I got sick of hearing people talk about my "unsympathetic" characters when I had total sympathy for them. Or at least empathy--I get what makes them laugh, cry, and tick. So it seems the sympathy all those editors were after was a little manufactured. Not "sympathy", but a certain *type* of sympathy. The fatal flaw, the achille's heal. Which is bullshit. Real people are much more complex, rich, and conflicted than that. So I just write em as I see em. Like, when people said Rome deserved to die at the end of YELLOW MEDICINE (several early readers thought so) for being such a bastard, I was shocked. I thought I showed that he was just doing his job, albeit aggressively, and that he wasn't easy to hate. So when Billy launched at him for revenge, I wanted it to be hard to take Billy's side while at the same time understanding exactly why he made that choice.

So, it just makes sense to me.

With Pulp Boy, the Emerson Lasalle biopic, on its way, is your appetite for filmwork increasing?

Um...kind of? I think I would like to write more screenplays. I've done two with Victor Gischler, and we work together pretty well on those. But the solo scripts never get past ten or twelve pages. I don't know what it is. And the deal is, I'm *definitely* interested in writing comic books, so I guess part of the motivation is just in having someone expecting something. With the novels I feel it. But so far, I have a few screenplays I'm working on that I hope to finish in the next couple of years.

What's it like collaborating with Victor, or anyone else for that matter?

Well, I don't think I've collaborated with anyone else on writing projects. On editing, sure. But writing with Gischler...we've got similar senses of humor, I guess, and that helps a lot. Our scripts are more funny than anything else, whereas I would say my fiction isn't quite as obvious about the funny. Darker humor. But, shit, most days I'm looking for stuff to laugh at.

Also, working on a script with Victor, we're never tempted to just stop with the easiest line or scene. We keep pushing each other until the scene has us both cracking up for no good reason other than we've never heard anything like it before. The funny thing about that is both started our first script (the unsold but brilliant CRESCENT CITY SMACKDOWN) with this mantra in mind: "Let's Sell Out." Turns out we couldn't do it, though. We can't sell out because selling out means the writing would be boring, and we can't do boring.

We're big fans of "arbitrary" humor. Stuff that's full of throwaway lines, weird set-ups, especially awkward humor like THE OFFICE, absurd shit like FAMILY GUY.

I think the scripts I'm working on look very very different than the ones we've done together. Just harsher, more like a seventies exploitation film.

What would people most surprised to find you were influenced by?

Hm...Bible stories? I always said that those were bloodiest and most awful because in order to see the good, you had to be shown the worst. I think. Also, maybe Flannery O'Connor, even though that's probably obvious. James Lee Burke influences me more than I want him to. I get inspired by 80's heavy metal, the hair stuff. While I'm not a big fan of hip-hop, Ol' Dirty Bastard had an attitude I thought was like an old school pulpster.

Thing is, I think most of it is out there on the page, even if that means finding it becomes a bit of an easter egg hunt.

Ah, yes, '80s hair metal - anybody in particular inspire you for The Drummer?

Well, not a particular band. It was that middle ground "blues-rock" between the too heavy bands and the Poisons of the world. Folks like Tesla, Tora Tora, Cinderella, Kingdom Come, Whitesnake, and a handful of others who were pretty serious about what they were doing, but who still liked a little flash and glam.

What themes would you say link your stories?

Certainly it would be the awful things people do to each other, and how they justify that. Most of the stuff revolves around relationships, really.

Also, fear. I think the protagonists in my stories have to be afraid of the stuff they're facing. It's bigger than them, bigger and more threatening to their life than anything they've ever come across before.

I think my stuff has been leaning more and more into "rural noir" or "rural gothic" as we go, but still with a rock-and-roll center.

One thing I notice after four novels is that there are a lot of people leaving their old lives behind and starting over with a new one.

Where do you think that comes from?

Hard to say. I know I was hooked on THE HARDY BOYS as early as second grade, especially because the covers were interesting--trapped in a plane, screaming toward a dark ocean? Hey, I want to read about that! So between that and THE THREE INVESTIGATORS and the Michael Shayne pulp novels on my grandpa's bookcase (next to the Westerns, which he preferred), it was an early love affair. The books were dangerous. And since my real life was *not*, well, there ya go.

Then my dad died when I was ten. Nothing nefarious. Car wreck. But that give me my first glimpse of the funeral business, which my mom became fascinated with. So I got to learn a bit more about death than I expected to. For some that would maybe open a up a fascination with the macabre that ended up leading to horror writing, horror flicks. But I danced with the one that brought me--crime fiction, and I explored how dark I could make that.

My first "serious" attempt as a kid at writing a real magazine story was actually half-horror, half-crime. I thought my detective could explore supernatural stuff. So this story had a crap insurance investigator going to check on a family out in the woods who seemed to be making strange insurance claims. He was planning to put an end to the payments by killing them. Turns out *they can't die*, and one even chases the guy after his head was blown off. So, hillbilly undead kill the investigator, and my detective comes in and thinks he sees a murder where everyone else sees a he visits the family, and the guy's got his head sewn back on raggedly...I can't remember how it ended.

Anyway, I've got no problem admitting I'm scared of a lot of shit. Get freaked out a lot. So a lot of the writing comes from exploring those fears. A big "what if" game. That and the early exposure to death, I think that's a clue.

Do your friends and family have anything to say about your work?

My wife hates all of the endings of my books. Says they're never happy. So when I'm working on one and she hates the ending, I know it's good. But she likes the rest of the book.

But, you mom likes them. She doesn't think they're as "nasty" as I tell everyone they are.

Friends outside of the lit world, especially people from Minnesota, get a kick out of them. *And* they see the humor in them. That's good, since I do tend to take some swipes at Minnesota (out of LOVE, people. I insult because I LOVE).

You do describe your work as "nasty" a lot. Is that self defense as in - I called it that first, so you can't tear into it for that - or is it effective marketing

It's (supposed) honesty, I think. I just know that when I go to mystery conferences, I get the feeling there's only a small group of us there that deal in noir and the rougher side of crime fiction. So when I see some grandmotherly types in the audience for one of my talks, and two of them are knitting, I feel (just in case!!) I should warn them. I did that in Omaha at Mayhem once. I said, "Look, I use a lot of filthy language and will talk about sex and awful violence. If that bugs you, get out." And they did. The one remaining lady from that group chided me and said "You got rid of some possible readers." But I don't think so because it seemed if they don't like fucking and blood, then I really don't want them to waste their hard-earned money on my stuff.

I want it to reach the people who find that sort of thing appealing. And I'm certainly not some "splatterpunk" doing shock for shock's sake. I'm not leaning back with an evil smile because I creeped a reader out (I believe John Gardner calls that sort of thing "frigid writing"). No. What I wrote creeped me out first. Made me squeamish while writing it. So I expect someone out there would feel the same and get a similar jolt.

So I want to make sure I'm reaching the right crowd. I don't want someone angry with me because they bought the book and then proceeded to get offended by everything in it. I want them to know up front. And there's plenty enough people who "get" what I'm doing to keep me afloat, I'm sure (I hope).


Kieran Shea said...

That's a lot of grilling, J. Thorough and meaty interview.

Unknown said...

Wow, great interview, Jed, and like the Mcdonald and Minor interviews, you asked all the questions I would've and then some.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Excellent interview. Great questions, interesting answers. A lot to think about.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Very nice interview.

Paul D Brazill said...

Pretty tasty interview, Jed.

Gordon Harries said...

Jed, you've got some interview chops.


Ray Banks thinks so too: