One Bite at a Time

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Good Time Was Had by All

This is going to be a difficult blog post to write, among the my hardest ever. If all blog posts required this level of gut-wrenching effort to produce, I wouldn’t fool with it. Okay. Enough. Let’s rip this Band-Aid off all at once: I’m going to say nice things about Ed Aymar. Happy?

Ed used his not inconsiderable (and wholly inexplicable) skill at talking people into things to get One More Page Books in Arlington to host an evening of crime fiction last Friday. Ed cobbled together a panel that consisted of Christina Kovac (The Cutaway), Sherry Harris (author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series), and Burt Solomon (Killing Willie Lincoln), then risked it all by inviting me.

A crowd of about thirty people showed up anyway and was treated to an evening that showed the uninitiated why crime fiction writers are so often described as the friendliest and most open of all writers: because they are. From Christina’s tales of gruesome dead bodies through Sherry’s cats on her book covers (there are no cats in the books) to Burt’s trials to get the proper Lincoln son on his cover, Ed led an entertaining evening that lasted well past when the good people at One More Page thought they’d be able to go home.

Regardless of who came up with the idea, having a cross-section of crime writers was inspired. Christina writes contemporary thrillers; Sherry does cozies; Burt leverages his non-fiction research skills for historical mysteries; I’m hard-boiled. The audience that appears at such an event is pre-disposed to like crime fiction. Why not give them a taste of what they already like, but in different flavors? The audience questions kept us on our toes and the chats during the signing period were just as good.

So thanks to everyone at One More Page for having me, thanks to everyone who showed up (especially those who bought every book I carried in with me), and special thanks to Christina, Sherry, and Burt for being such great co-panelists.

And, damn it, special special thanks to Ed Aymar, who was directly responsible for 75% of the events on the Resurrection Mall World Tour™. He teed me up for the moderator’s gig at the Gaithersburg Book Festival last month and invited me to read at the Noir at the Bar he set up later that evening, in addition to the event at One More Page. If one is judged by one’s friends, Ed’s can get away with anything.

One thing about him, though. He has like no back hair. None. It’s weird.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Conversation With Angel Colon

Officially, Angel Colón is the Anthony and Derringer Award-nominated author of No Happy Endings, the Blacky Jaguar series of novellas, and the upcoming short story anthology, Meat City on Fire (And Other Assorted Debacles). His fiction has appeared in multiple web and print publications including Thuglit, Literary Orphans, and Great Jones Street. He’s repped by Peter Steinberg at Foundry Literary.

Just between us, we’ve been online friends for a few years now and there are few who are more fun to trade ideas with. Read on if you doubt me.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about this Blacky Jaguar character.
Angel Colon: Blacky Jaguar is the last son of a bitch you need walking into your life. Ex-IRA, current FBI most-wanted, and all-time asshole. He's a swaggering, loudmouth, villainous prick who happens to let his conscience--what little of it there is--get the better of him on most occasions, though, there's usually an obscene amount of collateral damage left in his wake.

I like to say he's a hurricane what walks like a man.

In other words: the ideal drinking partner.

OBAAT: So how’d he get hooked up with the Cool Clux Cult?
AC: Blacky's an idiot, but he's not dumb. After his exploits in The Bronx during Fury the man knows he's working against the clock and will be behind bars before long. That said, he figures a road trip to Graceland is in order as it's been on his bucket list. Unfortunately, Blacky needs money and finds himself wrapped up in an old friend's mess against a shadowy internet cabal making life pretty damn difficult for the residents of a Tennessee town. The Cool Clux Cult is a frustrating problem for Blacky - how does he win against something he can't punch? And how does a man with a background in a heavily political movement (which is me putting the IRA lightly, I know) handle coming face to face with ideologues and modern American social justice?

OBAAT: As a fellow Down & Out author, I was tickled to death to see No Happy Endings was recently nominated for an Anthony Award for best novella. Give us some idea how proud the other nominees should be to have been included in your company.
AC: Who doesn't want to be on a slate with a story about stealing semen in the middle of a hurricane? That's some prestige money can't buy!

All jokes aside, it's insane to see No Happy Endings get enough love to even be shortlisted. I'm proud and also pretty fucking humbled that enough people thought enough of the story to include it in their lists for nomination.

That said, it is infinitely entertaining a novella about a sperm heist and Johnny Shaw's outstanding short story, “Gary's Got A Boner,” were both nominated. I think this year's B'Con may have a subtle theme.

OBAAT: Let’s talk about writing in general for a minute and the process that earned the nomination. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
AC: It's a big mix but I ultimately edit as I go and then I edit some more followed by ugly crying and more editing. Novellas are a little easier to burn through and come back to sorting out in multiple revise phases. The length is also useful as I can read the story out loud to my wife - which is sort of a tradition for Blacky - and spot where the voice is off or when I use redundant phrases.

Honestly, the hard work is constant. No Happy Endings, which earned the Anthony nomination for Best Novella this year, went through three completely different protagonists and a POV change. It took me a while to find a sweet spot that lived up to my initial "pitch" and even then what was printed was not what I originally had in mind - which is pretty fortunate!

OBAAT: I know the feeling. I was 40,000 words into my third Nick Forte novel when I realized I had a tar baby on my hands. I outlined what had been done, outlined what else needed to happen, and threw away a bunch of stuff. End result was a Shamus nomination. My current novel, Resurrection Mall¸ started out as a Forte story until I realized 50,000 words in it didn’t belong there, so I threw away almost everything and started over with it as a Penns River novel that eventually got a contract from Down & Out. At what point did you realize you had to go back to the drawing board, and what was your reaction when you decided you had no choice. Mine was, “Awwww, fuck.”
AC: It's a palpable, ragged breathing, veiny-necked anger when you have that moment of "Awwww, fuck." It happened with Blacky Jaguar Against the Cool Clux Cult, too. I had entire subplots in this bad boy that forced two from-the-ground-up rewrites. One bit: there was going to be a pair of teenage girls on a Bucket List style road trip—one was dying from leukemia—and  they literally latch onto Blacky in the middle of this whole mess. Ultimately, they were a distraction and had their own legs. Silver lining there is maybe that becomes its own thing. Really, that's about what keeps me sane sometimes - the idea that what I throw out isn't necessarily a wasted effort. Sometimes it's just meant to fit somewhere else.
OBAAT: You’re into novellas, as No Happy Endings and the Blacky Jaguar series all fit the form. What appeals to you most about novellas? Do you have trouble getting your stories to fit comfortably between short stories and novels?
AC: I've actually completed five novels now. One is with my agent and the other two are being retooled. What I like about the novella is the format allows me to tell stories that aren't 'aligned' with whatever the latest flavor of the month 'sure path to publishing success' may be. I can chase those random concepts that have legs longer than flash or short fiction would allow without having to pad the damn thing into oblivion.

Let's be honest, Blacky Jaguar is fun as hell and I love that people always ask for more of the character, but I truly believe I would not get that response if I made you read through 300-plus pages of the character. I think writers need to recognize that finding the right length for a project is just as important as the actual project. I can't tell you how often I read a novel that could have lost 100 pages easily or read a short that has the legs to be novella/novel length but falters.
Writers have so many options these days. Exercise them!

OBAAT: Excellent point about how Blacky—all characters, all projects—have a prime length. Too short and people feel unsatisfied. Too long and you’re trying to wring blood from a stone. (We’ve all read books—and series---where that happens.) You and I have a similar take on that. The catch is that the archetypical “best seller” has an approximate length that people expect, and one deviates from that at one’s own peril. As a fellow deviant, what are your feelings about writing books that may limit your mass appeal? More to the point, who do you write for?
AC: I write for my kids - weird answer, so let me elaborate. I write material that makes me happy and doesn't necessarily compromise my specific vision because I want my rugrats to see that this pursuit, and all the goddamn work that comes with it, is meant to be satisfying to the artist as much as to the consumer. Can I write to the market? Sure. Will I? Maybe. I can't say for certain an idea might grab me that leans heavily to the mainstream. (Hell, one or two novels I'm working on just might). That doesn't mean I'll ever sacrifice my voice, though. It took me a long damn time to be comfortable with my voice and I don't want to walk away from that.

In short - if I can be an example to my kids in that sense - it's 100% worth it. I don't want them to believe the payoff has to be money or fame. Those things are certainly nice and definitely something to strive for, but the satisfaction of creating and sharing is something that I am so happy to have had the good luck to experience.

OBAAT: Novellas have made a bit of a comeback recently as e-books, largely because production costs make it difficult for print publishers to find a good price point. Down & Out is bringing Blacky out in paperback. Was that your idea, or theirs, and how did it come about?
AC: Down & Out rocks? It's a pretty cool partnership now that Shotgun Honey and Down & Out have joined forces. That said, I've been lucky that all of my releases so far have been available in print and digital! I am that damn cool. On a more professional note, though - I think there's still something to holding a physical book no matter the length. With the way Amazon and other sellers are built, I think it's ridiculous to not offer readers an option - especially if the cost is at a minimum.

OBAAT: So I’m guessing I’ll see you in Toronto. Tell you what, if you don’t win the Anthony, first drink’s on me. If you do win, first drink’s on you. I mean, you’re celebrating and almost certainly wouldn’t have won without the OBAAT bounce, right?
AC: For sure I'm in Toronto, but I'll be on a plane when they don't call my name. Scheduling demands my ass back in the States on Sunday afternoon. My wife and kids give me a wide berth for this stuff, but being gone from Thursday is pushing it. (Also, the only other flight out would have me landing later than I need to be driving on the Jersey Turnpike than I'd enjoy). Still, we'll certainly have a drink or two and I'll bitch about something involving the current state of crime fiction politics as is required at Bouchercon.

OBAAT: We’ll just have to have that drink in advance. I’ll buy and you can pay me back after you win—with interest—in St. Petersburg.

Thanks, Angel. This was great fun. Looking forward to more from you.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Conversation With Nik Korpon

Here’s Nik Korpon’s Amazon bio:
Nik Korpon is the author of The Rebellion's Last Traitor (Angry Robot 2017), Queen Of The Struggle (2018), and The Soul Standard, among others. (Editor’s note: Plus my personal favorite, Stay God, Sweet Angel.) His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Thuglit, Needle, Out of the Gutter, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, and a bunch more. He lives in Baltimore.

That’s fine as far as the writing credits go. It’s the “He lives in Baltimore” part I take issue with. He doesn’t just live in Baltimore. He absorbs Baltimore. He squeezes the life out of Baltimore then shakes it back into existence. To say “Nik Korpon lives in Baltimore” is like saying “Batman lives in Gotham City.” Marlo Stanfield crosses the street to avoid Nik Korpon. Anyone who doubts this didn’t see Nik’s precedent-shattering performance at last month’s DC Noir at the Bar. You don’t fuck with Nik Korpon.

He’ll talk to me, though. And did.

One Bite at a Time: Let’s start with how glad I am we finally got together here. We talked about doing an interview a while ago and things never quite came together. Tell me a little about your new book, The Rebellion’s Last Traitor.
Nik Korpon: Thanks! I'm glad to be here too. The Rebellion's Last Traitor is about a former revolutionary-turned memory thief called Henraek. About ten years before the book starts, he and his best friend Walleus led the rebellion against the brutal authoritarian government party, but when it became clear that the rebellion wasn't going to succeed, Walleus went turncoat, trying to talk Henraek into coming with him. (This all happens in the first chapter so I'm not spoiling much.) Henraek flipped his shit and started a riot, which accidentally killed his wife and son. So the book starts with Henraek stealing memories for the Tathadann, and selling some on the side on the black market where they're consumed like drugs. But after one mission, he finds a memory that suggests the story he'd heard about the riot isn't quite true. The book follows him as he searches for the truth about his family. And obviously, a ton of shit goes massively wrong along the way.

OBAAT: I tend to say writers are tripping over ideas and the real challenge is to find the one we like, suits our abilities, and we feel like living with for a year. The concept for The Rebellion’s Last Traitor isn’t the kind of thing one trips over every day. Where did you come up with that one?
NK: This book has been through a ton of different iterations, but, if I'm remembering correctly, it started with wanting to write about a thief, but a thief who steals something other than money or jewels or whatever. Eventually I stumbled over the idea of stealing memories. It ended up tying in well with other themes I tend to write about: what it means to be family, relationships between fathers and sons, the idea of having a homeland, how memory intersects with our conception of ourselves. And overall, I thought it was just a cool twist on the usual mystery novel.

OBAAT: I love that concept. When everything else is taken away from us, all we have left are our memories and whatever comfort they can bring. The idea of memory theft risks the removal of much of what makes us who we are. That’s got to be the scariest part of the book, the concept of memory theft.
NK: I definitely agree. Part of it comes from reading a lot of books on Buddhism, which looks at your relationship to the concept of self and reality. That easily slips into "Well, if I'm not really happy/angry/mad/hungry, I'm just experiencing a mental reaction to certain stimuli, then what if that stimuli is just a reaction to something else," and suddenly you're living in a simulation or whatever.

OBAAT: I think of you as a crime fiction and noir guy. Is this your first foray into science fiction?
NK: Pretty much. A lot of stuff I've written crosses the genre line—I think it's called slipstream but I can't keep up with all the categories—but this is the first real sci-fi thing I've done. And technically it is sci-fi, but part of me feels weird to say that because it's definitely not hard sci-fi. The comparison I always give is think X-Files, not Star Trek.

OBAAT: We met at a Noir at the Bar event a few years ago, I think it was at Slainte in Baltimore. I mean, we knew each other online, but we met face to face there, and I always think of you when a Noir at the Bar is scheduled for DC or Baltimore. How did you get hooked up and what keeps you coming back for them?
NK: Yep, Slainte is right. That was a great reading. The weather sucked but all the readers killed it.

I ran a reading series called Last Sunday, Last Rites for three years with my buddy Pat King out of the hostel where I worked at the time. I eventually stepped away because my son was born and I was too busy, but I missed being involved in them. So Brian Lindenmuth and I started talking about setting up crime readings in Baltimore, maybe a year before we did that first Baltimore N@B, but it never came together. Then Kieran Shea hit me up because he and Steve Weddle were looking at doing an N@B in town and thought I could help find a place to do it. Kieran lives in Annapolis and OC, NJ, and Steve is in Virginia, so it made sense that I would be the one who kept doing them. I don't do as many as I'd like, but the answer's somewhere between being really busy and being kind of lazy. And also because Ed Aymar does such great ones in DC that I have a hard time keeping up.

OBAAT: Speaking of Aymar, he set up the DC Noir at the Bar event we both read at last month. You and I are also on a panel with Cristina Kovac he’s running this Friday at One More Page in Arlington, assuming he’s not a ward of the state by then. (It will be the next Friday by the time this runs. Don’t panic.) How did you get hooked up with Ed, assuming you’re allowed to tell?
NK: When I was little, Ed was famous. He was the greatest Samurai in the empire, and he was the Shogun’s decapitator—wait a sec, wrong story.

Ed came to that Noir at the Bar we were talking about earlier, at Slainte, and introduced himself. We've become good friends, in large part I think, because he pulls me into a lot of his schemes, and man does that dude hustle. He's always organizing a reading or a panel or some kind of event, and he's really generous with his time and making sure to include local readers. I'm thankful for him because I get to participate in a lot of things that I'm too lazy or busy to set up myself. 

OBAAT: The Noir at the Bar Ed pulled off last month in DC was, I think, the best I’ve been to. The quality of writing was exceptional, as was the quality of the reading. Eryk Pruitt won the machete, but you stole the show with your performance art piece that put me in mind of the Reverent D. Wayne Love from the group A3. This may be of interest primarily to those who were there, but where the fuck did you come up with that? It was the single most memorable thing I’ve seen at a Noir at the Bar event.
NK: Thanks for saying that. It was a lot of fun to do. It started after Ed told everyone he got an engraved machete as the Audience Favorite prize. Then he texted me, saying Eryk had given him a clip of his shit-talking video and we'd all better bring it. So my goal was, basically, to out-sacrilege Eryk. The whole thing was a story at first, then I thought it'd be cooler to have it be more of a performance art kind of thing, and it all went to hell from there. But I think the main thing was to be entertaining. We're lucky at N@B because many of the readers are characters and sarcastic loudmouths anyway, so the readings are interesting. But a lot of readings are quiet, navel-gazing events, and I wanted to do something off-the-wall that people would remember.

OBAAT: I know there are writers who don’t like to read in their own genre when they’re working on a book. They think they’ll fall into the other writer’s style or voice. What—and who—do you like to read, and does that ever enter into it?
NK: It doesn't bother me much anymore. I think I'd avoid reading people when I started writing books, but by this point my own voice is fairly defined (or is evolving constantly enough) so it doesn't affect me much. I guess I try to read in the genre I'm writing to sort of get my head in the game. But I do read certain authors before starting a book if I want to try to channel them. Don Winslow and Dennis Lehane are two I fall back on frequently. I'm really looking forward to having time to read their new books this summer. Tana French is another one. Her writing amazes me because she'll have nine pages of interrogation—and that's nine pages of small type and narrow margins—but they're absolutely riveting. I don't understand how she does it. Gabino Iglesias is another writer I read when looking for inspiration for the book I'm (hopefully) starting soon.

OBAAT: I need to read Winslow. I’ve been tripping over his name for a couple of years now. I’ve been in the tank for Lehane for quite a while. I’ve heard him say he writes about the people he writes about—basically the working class and criminals—because he understands them and doesn’t give a shit about the rich. Stay God, Sweet Angel revolved around characters—notably Damon—who can’t catch a break. It doesn’t sound like Henraek and Walleus exactly have the road rising to meet them, either. What attracts you to these kinds of characters and stories?
NK: Winslow is fantastic. For my money, one of the best writers working today. I was lucky to get to interview him when he was touring for The Cartel (again, thanks to Ed pulling me in) and kind of froze, so I ended up asking him about surfing and fish tacos (which, if you've read the Boone Daniels books, makes sense). But he was really nice the whole time and I think happy to get different types of questions. I'm really looking forward to the books he's doing with Michael Mann. 

I'd put Lehane in the same boat, too. What I like about Lehane is the focus on working class people, people I know and grew up with, which is probably the reason I write about who I write about. Maybe it's the class-warfare chip on my shoulder, but I don't give a shit about the rich. Rich people problems are boring. Most people have no conception of what $50,000 is really like—like, in cold, hard cash—much less millions, so there's inherently more drama is someone scrambling to find $20,000 or something because you can imagine yourself in the character. It's like that old Elmore Leonard maxim: "Never have more money than you can fit in a suitcase." And people always want to root for the underdog, the downtrodden and the dispossessed. Although I torture characters in books, I think I tend to write happy endings (relatively speaking) and if I wrote about rich people, I'd just destroy their lives and not give them any hope for redemption.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
NK: I've been writing a ton of essays and lining up interviews to promote Traitor, so that's taken up a lot of my (scant) free time. I also pitched on two really cool projects that didn't pan out but had a lot of fun with them. In between that, I've been working on a synopsis for a new thriller, which I'm really excited about since I've never written an out-and-out thriller before. Or at least my version of one. I've found that if I have a good, detailed synopsis, writing the book is a lot easier because I'm not constantly worried that it's going to fall apart at any moment and allows me more mental space to have fun with it. Which has been a good thing, because I've rewritten this story from the ground up about six or seven times. I'm pretty sure I found the right one this time.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

It's movie time again. A mixed bag this time.

Fate of the Furious (2017) Every so often The Beloved Spouse has a hankering for mindless “blow shit up” movies; this franchise is a favorite in that genre. I once in a while am not as attentive a husband as I might should be and feel a need to make it up to her. Fate of the Furious came out about the time these two personal traits required reconciling, so we actually went to a theater and saw it opening weekend. I’d seen a trailer and assumed there was a tongue-in-cheek element, which was my first mistake. I was familiar with director F. Gary Gray from his deft handling of the remake of The Italian Job. Gray should have watched that one again, like a hitter watching video or past at bats when a slump has him down. (Actually, we should have watched that one again.) Kurt Russell tries and Helen Mirren succeeds, but the only time the movie’s potential for comic absurdity works is near the end, when Jason Statham and a baby shoot their way out of an airplane in flight. I didn’t expect much and was greatly disappointed.

Drive (2011) Ryan Gosling does his considerable best, and I know this is a cult film and James Sallis is a cult author I’ve read and enjoy, but there’s no there there. The film has potential, and it has moments, and it’s a great set-up for a noir story, but there’s something missing. I’m willing to admit this might just be me, but the high hopes I had from the first 20 minutes did not hold up.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2016) Seth McFarland tries to do for the old West what he did in Ted, one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. A Million Ways has its moments early—describing Parkinson’s Disease as “another way God shows us he loves us” and the listing of several of the ways one could die in the American West that are often overlooked in romanticized versions—but overall it’s sophomoric in the execution as well as the writing. I can forgive one or the other. Not both.

Silverado (1985) Lawrence Kasdan’s homage to 50s Westerns. I didn’t like it as much as I remembered and near the end I remembered why not: there’s a lot of crap in 50s Westerns. Give me the revisionist stuff that begins around the time of Sam Peckinpah, such as Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch. Wonderful production values and a great cast, though Kevin Kline is miscast. Homage is great, but this needed more originality in doing so.

The Right Stuff (1983) Damn, this is a great movie. It won four Oscars and anyone who doesn’t think it’s is a better movie than Terms of Endearment probably shouldn’t be voting. Perfectly cast and executed. I even loved the soundtrack and I’m a notorious prick about soundtracks. (Bill Conti did win the Oscar.) Perfectly cast and hits all the right pitches, though not a “Make America Great Again” gloss-over; it shows the early space program warts and all. Now I’m going to have to read Wolfe’s book again.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Conversation With Tom Pitts

Tom Pitts is one of those writers who lingered on the periphery of my attention for quite a while before forcing his way to the head of the queue. I’d heard his name bandied about by people I trusted and heard great things about Hustle. Still, I hear good things about a lot of writers, and justifiably so, but there’s not time to keep up with all of them. Then I helped The Sole Heir move to Connecticut (did I mention she’s in medical school?) and needed something to read on the train ride home. Pitts’s Knuckleball was on my Kindle so I gave it a tumble. The book was a pleasant surprise from start to finish, my only disappointment due to its brevity. Not that anything seemed incomplete. I just wanted more. I then moved on to Hustle, which was completely different but just as good.

Tom’s new book, American Static, drops later this month. He was good enough to take time from a hectic pre-launch period to chat with me.

One Bite at a Time: First off, thank you, Tom, for stopping by. I’m a big fan of your work and very much looking forward to American Static. Tease us a little about it.
Tom Pitts: Without getting into the synopsis, American Static refers to the undercurrent of violence in America, that constant buzz resonating through our culture. It’s a book that starts of as a happenstance meeting, but it’s like meeting the devil at the crossroads. The buzz begins and builds till it deafens you, stuns you, and wrings you out. At least I hope that’s what it does.

OBAAT: A lot of people would describe their book the way you just did and I’d think, “Uh-oh. Gratuitous violence displayed as hip, cool, and groovy. Tarantino in print.” In your case, I’ve read Hustle and seen how you handled the life of street boy addicts in an unapologetic and non-sensational manner, so I’m not concerned. Unlike a lot of neo-noir writers who seem to want to revel in the story’s depravity, you always keep the characters foremost. How do you decide how much is enough, or too much, of the peripheral stuff like the drugs and violence?
TP: I wish I could decide. Each book I’ve written, I’ve thought, “I’m going to sit down and write something lighter, something more character driven,” and what comes out is a crime novel.
As far as the drug use goes, balance is not a consideration. In a world of crime, drug use is always out of balance. That’s why most crimes are being committed. It’s the drug use behind them. I have a brother-in-law that just served 18 years and 9 months for a stack of crimes, but there wasn’t a single drug charge among ‘em. However, it was the drugs that drove him to all of those offenses. That’s the great unreported statistic in prisons. They consider prisoners drug offenders when they’ve been collared for drug crimes, but most of the time guys serve is because of their addictions—one way or another.

OBAAT: That’s a great point. One of those that I knew was right as soon as you said it, but never occurred to me before, at least not in those terms. Now that you got me thinking about it, drug addiction is a terrible thing for the addicts and those close to them, but the societal effects are all due to ancillary things: robberies and burglaries to get money to buy drugs, or the seemingly motiveless violence that can come from being high on the wrong thing, or too badly strung out. Americans as a society tend to look at all problems as enforcement issues. Where do you see the optimal line between law enforcement and treatment?
TP: Truly a tough question. It’s like when mayors are asked, “How would you solve the homeless problem?” No matter what solution you suggest, it’ll have unpleasant fallout. I think the most basic thing we can do is to do our best to take the drug use out of the equation. Not through tougher borders or longer sentences, but by recognizing that it’s drugs that drive most of the petty crime. People still think greed is the most powerful defect in human nature, and I wonder if it’s not the need to be comfortable, to have those pleasure receptors ringing all day and all night. We do it with food, TV, all sorts of things, but most of all we do it with substances.

OBAAT: It didn’t take long for you to become one of my favorite writers. I read Knuckleball a couple of years ago, and Hustle last fall. What sticks out in my mind is how different the two books are. You have a wide range of stories you tell well, but the core elements of the writing are still there. How do you decide which ideas are worthy of the time and effort of making into a book?
TP: You know it’s a blessing to just get one good idea. And when you have it, you know it. When the lightning bolt hits, you gotta run with it. I still remember the exact time and place when the ideas for both Hustle and Knuckleball hit me. American Static too. Although, that one took a bit longer to gestate.

OBAAT: Like a lot of my favorite authors, you work both sides of the street in the publishing business, as you’re also acquisitions editor at Gutter Books and Out of the Gutter Online. How did you get into that?
TP: I was an editor at Flash Fiction Offensive—a job that Joe Clifford dragged me into when he scored the gig way back when—and Matt Louis, the man behind the curtain at Gutter Books, said he wanted to step up the amount of books he was releasing. Matt, Joe, and I had lofty plans at first, but we quickly learned it’s a difficult task to take on what’s needed—what’s really needed—to run a small press properly. Acquisitions editor looks nice on the bio, and I’ve put a few books out there, but I don’t really consider myself active. I think the best small presses are run by guys who are not writers.

OBAAT: Do you find you work with Out of the Gutter has any effect on your own writing, either for good or ill?
TP: I think the Flash Fiction job exposed me to a lot of writers who I otherwise wouldn’t have read. I’m a notoriously slow reader, and I tend to stick to well-known authors, playing catch-up for the many years I was too distracted by addictions to experience all the great books out there. At Gutter I came across guys like Beau Johnson, Nolan Knight, and Jon Ashley. Guys who have a great feel for the language and who are in my wheelhouse as far as genre goes. I don’t think there were any negatives. It trained me to be more disciplined with my schedule. My life is always full and crazy, so I needed to have strict times to read submissions, days to publish, times to promote. Unfortunately, I did most of that at my old job, working graveyard at a taxi company. When I switched to a day job, I couldn’t sneak my Gutter time onto the company clock anymore.

OBAAT: What do you like to read and how does it affect your writing? Or does it?
TP: Sounds trite, but I like the good stuff. Books that are so good they either inspire me to become a better writer, or make me want to give up because I know I’ll never come close. Particularly when I’m editing one of my novels, I feel like I need something that’ll elevate my own work. I want works that’ll lift me up, artistically anyway.

OBAAT: What writers or filmmakers or artists in general have influenced you the most and in what
TP: It a dangerous line to toe when one talks of influences. You don’t want to give the impression that—because you say you were influenced by an author, you think you’re on the same level. For me, that’s never the case. Here’s a weird example, Don DeLillo’s Libra was a huge influence on me. The way he shifted PoVs with ease. I loved that, and I do it in my own work. It drives some of my editors nuts, but I feel like the shifting PoV, or omnipresent PoV, can make a story so much more cinematic. That’s the way film works. You don’t actually get a PoV from a film, it’s a roving eye.

OBAAT: Is there anything you wish interviewers would ask about more? Some topic you’d like to see writers discuss more in forums such as this?
TP: I know it’s boring for a lot of people, but I’m always interested in the process. It’s the discipline that intrigues me. Guys like Elmore Leonard, how the hell was he so prolific? I tend to compare it to my own habits and see if there’s something I can extract from the writer I can apply to my own life.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May's Best Reads

I started a program to be sure favorite authors don’t fall through the cracks a couple of months ago and it’s already started to pay dividends. Not that I’m no longer looking for new stuff, but I have a tendency to try to keep up which leads to some favorites slipping unintentionally off the radar. This sometimes calls for a re-reading of old favorites, but there.s nothing wrong with that, either.

All the Dead Voices, Declan Hughes. The best of the Ed Loy books. Hughes remains true to his Ross Macdonald roots, as the solution to Loy’s cold case lies far in the past, though this time not just a family’s past; the Irish Troubles are in play. Few can pull off shifting time perspectives of a book written primarily through the main character’s first-person POV. Hughes not only pulls it off but makes it a strength of the storytelling with all of the linguistic poetry one comes to expect from Hughes, but a plot a little more complex but less complicated than some of his other books. This is the one to read if you’re looking for an entry point in the Loy series, as you’re definitely going to want more.

Crime Song, David Swinson. Swinson wasted no time climbing to the top of my list of “must read” authors and to the even more elite circle of those whose books I’ll read as soon as they’re available. Crime Song follows onto the acclaimed The Second Girl without missing a beat. This time we get a little more backstory into grossly flawed antihero Frank Marr with a peek into his family life. Swinson knows police procedure and attitudes as well as one would expect from a retired cop, and is as familiar with DC’s drug trade as one would expect from a cop who worked narcotics for as long as he did. Those are assumed from reading his background. What’s surprising is the writing talent that allows neither of the above to ever sound perfunctory or formulaic, and creates prose that is worth reading for its own sake while never getting in the way of the story. The ending would do Ray Donovan proud. Another brilliant book by Swinson. If only he wrote faster.

Jimmy the Wags: Street Stories of a Private Eye, James Wagner (with Patrick Picciarelli). A laugh-out-loud cautionary tale of a retired police officer’s life as a PI. Wagner is as tough as one expects an NYPD lifer to be, gradually falling prey to increased expectations and the lifestyles of those around him. It’s both apologetic and unsparing and worth the time of anyone interested in PI stories. Or character studies. Or just entertaining stories well-told. I’ve read this book multiple times and hope to be around long enough for many more.

The Walkaway, Scott Phillips. Possibly Phillips’s best book; certainly the most affecting to me personally. A sequel of sorts to The Ice Harvest, this is the story of Gunther Fahnstiel, retired Wichita cop who walks away from his assisted living community looking for…well, he’s not exactly sure. A lot of people looking for Gunther aren’t exactly sure, either, but a critical mass of them come together through the intersection of two cold cases that might lead to the old man’s whereabouts. All the delightful turns of phrase and perverse side stories one looks for in Phillips tied together with a plot that begins as disparate threads yet pulls together neatly in the end.


Friday, May 26, 2017

A Good Day

Saturday, May 20, qualified as a good day even by my dickish standards.

I’d never been to the Gaithersburg Book Festival before, mainly because it’s always on a Saturday and I’d have to leave the house. Ed Aymar (more on him later) suggested me as a moderator for a panel, the folks at GBF took him up on it, and I had no graceful excuse not to go.

Everyone associated could not have been nicer, and the preparations were clearly first rate. I’ve never been treated nicer at an event, not even when I was the main attraction. (VIP parking.) The Beloved Spouse and I got there early to drop off books and to catch Austin Camacho’s thought-provoking talk on black private eyes, or, more accurately, the dearth thereof. (There will be more on this topic in the weeks to come.)

Austin’s gig led into the aforementioned Ed Aymar (who gets around more than a herpes virus) interviewing Jen Conley about her short story collection, Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens, which is nominated for an Anthony. Ed broke the ice with doughnuts, then Jen carried him for 45 minutes.

At 12:15 I had the privilege of moderating a discussion with Matthew Betley and Rick Campbell. Both write military thrillers, which is a little outside my normal wheelhouse, but the stretch was invigorating. Both were excellent panelists with plenty to say and engaging manners. I’d love to meet them both again for a less formal conversation, especially after Matt wins a Barry for his novel, Overwatch.  

Next up was Neely Tucker interviewing Christina Kovac and Adam Brookes about how their journalistic backgrounds affect and inform their fiction. Another interesting set that could have lasted longer.

There was more to come, and we unfortunately had to bail before Nik Korpon spoke with David Swinson and Mark Hannan. We had things to take care of before the evening festivities, for which we needed to be in fine fettle.

Noir at the Bar has become an international institution. (Fuck Peter Rozovsky.) Ed Aymar has pretty much made the DC events his own and no one is complaining. Last year he encouraged audience participation by allowing the listeners to choose a winner, who received an engraved dagger. This year’s prize: an engraved machete. Ed don’t play.

Neither did the readers. The upstairs area at the Wonderland Ballroom was filled for the middle event in what was billed as a “Noir at the Bar Crawl,” which opened Friday night in Richmond and would conclude on Sunday in Baltimore. Ed assembled a first-rate line up: himself, Kim Alexander, Jen Conley (also doubling up), yours truly (who rarely falls so early in any alphabetical list), Nik Korpon, Adam Meyer, defending champion Eryk Pruitt, J.D. Smith, David Swinson, Neely Tucker, and the man who knows more euphemisms for female genitalia than any three cunts I know, Steve Weddle.

I’ve been to several Noirs at Bars; none matched this. Not a weak story in the bunch, but a few stood out, notably Weddle’s Scott Phillips-esque examination of TV’s The Love Boat, Ed Aymar’s whorehouse robbery, Neely Tucker’s delicious dialog, Jen Conley’s true confessions, and Nik Korpon branching out into performance art that included audience participation. None were sufficient to prevent Eryk Pruitt from defending his crown, as he walked away with cutlery for the second year in a row.

I’ve had better days, but none as a writer. Many and sincere thanks to everyone connected with the Gaithersburg Book Festival. May 19, 2018 is already reserved on my calendar. As for Noir at the Bar, that’s a special group of reprobates. I’ve been to several, and no one puts on a show like Ed Aymar. If you’re in the area for the next one and not easily offended, there’s no way to have more fun.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ray Donovan, Season Four

 This isn’t my first blog post about Ray Donovan. I loved Season One and liked Season Two almost as much. Season Three I didn’t say anything about, mainly because it wasn’t as good. Season Four is a half notch down again. I see a pattern developing.

The show has always lived on the edge. Ann Biderman created a fascinating anti-hero, a sociopath with a conscience. (Yes, I know that’s an oxymoron. Watch the show and see if you don’t agree with me.) Ray had a knack for creative solutions, often using one problem to solve another and getting what each client wants, though maybe not in the manner expected. Or hoped for. Too bad. What a lot of powerful people forget about someone like Ray is that once you ask him to get you out of trouble, he has something on you. Ray has a code, so your secret is safe. Unless you fuck with him.

The show rides on the backs of the Donovan boys: Ray (Liev Schreiber, who has become
one of my favorite actors), Terry (Eddie Marsan), Bunchy (Dash Mihok), and the anti-matter to their matter, father Mickey (Jon Voight). Seasons One and Two played on the dynamics between them, exacerbated by Mickey’s criminal history and the brothers’ problems with a pedophile priest. Ray’s business associates Avi (Stephen Bauer) and Lena (Katherine Moenning) were devoted to Ray for reasons never explained but understood, and he stood by them. His family—wife Abby (Paula Malcolmson), daughter Bridget (Kerris Dorsey), and son Conor (Devon Bagby) exist mainly to break Ray’s balls, as if he doesn’t have enough going on already.

Seasons One and Two worked because there was a line to how crazy things got. Ray always found a clever way out before things overwhelmed him altogether, and the solution never strained one’s suspension of disbelief.

Then Biderman left the show. I can’t find anything that said she was forced out—though she did appear to run over budget based on one account—and I did get the impression from interviews she prefers getting a project off the ground to keeping it running. For whatever reason, she left. And took her vision with her.

I’m big on vision in creative projects. As an old boss used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Biderman knew where she was going, and she knew how to get there. She had a gift for creative, multi-tiered solutions to Ray’s problems. Combining that with the interplay between the Donovan men made the first two seasons fascinating television I’ll definitely watch again.

Biderman’s replacement—I could look up his name, but don’t feel like it—lacks her gift for the clever solution, and doesn’t appear to understand how best to leverage the Donovan family dynamic. His solution is to keep creating more outrageous situations with solutions that require brute force more than wit. The best thing about Season Four was promoting Mickey’s son by a different mother, Daryll (Pooch Hall) into a more interesting part. Terry doesn’t do much more than run the gym, and Bunchy’s story has become a soap opera. Abby got breast cancer early in the season and made a miraculous recovery; Bunchy’s wife Teresa (Alyssa Diaz) comes down with post-partum depression and snaps out of it just in time to resolve a crisis. So, meh.

The worst failing in Season Four is Ray. He recovers from the wounds at the end of Season Four and takes six months to stop drinking and looking to live a better life. First problem he finds, and boom!! He’s worse than ever. He’s always asked Avi and Lena for extraordinary devotion, but they knew, no matter how much he broke their balls, he had their backs, and they owed him. In Season Four he’s become a prick with them, too, hanging them out to dry until Avi find himself in a situation—thanks to Ray—he can’t get out of. Ray comes through, but things have reached a point where one has to wonder what it is he did for Avi and Lena to inspire this level of devotion.

With all this in mind, will I watch Season Five when it’s ready? Damn right. Schreiber as Ray
is too compelling to miss. His performance here got me to looking him up elsewhere and I’ve yet to find anything he doesn’t do well. (Examples: Spotlight, Pawn Sacrifice, Defiance, Goon. Yes, Goon. You don’t think he was good in Goon, I will lay you the fuck out.) The show’s worth watching just to see him and Jon Voight go at it. (And the other brothers, too, when the writers give them something worthwhile to do.) But the other reasons to watch get thinner by the year.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Journal

I think it was William Goldman who said he never kept a notebook because he’d remember any idea worth writing. I subscribed to a similar position for many years, with no more than random notes in a Word file and saving online newspaper articles for anecdotes that might be of use in Penns River. Then The Sole Heir™ bought me a wholly unexpected Christmas gift: A Novel Journal.

It’s a nifty idea. A nicely-bound, sturdy journal with a difference. Each “line” is actually miniscule text of an actual author’s work. She bought me Arthur Conan Doyle; the first story I wrote between the lines of was “A Scandal in Bohemia.” I appreciated the gift but wasn’t sure how much use I’d get from it. After all, I was never much of a note taker. I made a point to use it to show my appreciation and found it much more useful than I’d expected.

Among the benefits of plotting in advance is that I rarely get stuck. When I do, my habit is usually to either take a walk, take a nap, or take a shower. Even then, the idea won’t work itself out until I noodle it out with pen and paper. Something about the physical act of writing unlocks a portion of my creativity. Maybe it’s the ability to draw lines and cross things out without permanently deleting them. Maybe because I’ve been writing by hand longer than I’ve been typing and the process doesn’t seem as mechanical. Could be the tactile sensation of pen on paper. I don’t know. All I know, or care about, is that it works.

What I learned with my first few dutiful entries in the new journal was I enjoyed the new process. Not resorting to longhand only because I was stuck made it more fun. My imagination loosed itself to play more easily. The journal became less a warehouse to save fragments of ideas than a place to work them out once I decided they were worth keeping. Some entries are several pages long.

It’s become my go-to source anytime I need to think creatively. Flipping through it now I see notes on what questions to ask at the Bouchercon panel I moderated last year; a temporarily set aside proposal for a detective fiction class I’m thinking of teaching; random ideas for future Penns River books, or even just characters or subplots within a larger story; the noodling out of the core idea for the story I plan to read at an upcoming Noir at the Bar; blog posts; and notes on the work in progress. The most recent entry is for a character in a future Penns River book that grew into a plot as I wrote it. Soon as I’m done here I have a potential ending for that story I’ll get down.

What the journal allows me to do that I hadn’t before is to let ideas ripen. Most of us are aware that teachers use repetition of concepts as frequently as they do because one never knows which other influences have worked on a student so that today becomes the day something you’ve said fifty times before makes sense. I have ideas in here I’m started to noodle and given up on. I have little doubt that at least some of them will find more fertile soil should I stumble across them in six months or a year. Or five. They’re not going anywhere.

This new concept works so well for me I’ve expanded on it. Last summer The Beloved Spouse and I took a road trip west that included a stopover on Dodge City KS. There I bought a small journal at the Boot Hill Museum specifically to take notes on the research I plan to do this summer for a Western I still hope to write. Earlier this year TBS and I went north to visit TSH at medical school and went to the Mark Twain Museum, which sold the Twain counterpart to the Conan Doyle journal I like so much. Arthur is filling up, so I brought Mark home with me.

There’s not a lot of stuff in my journal by many writers’ standards. It’s not like I feel compelled to make a notation every day. (As anyone who has read my books can tell you, I don’t come up with things worth writing down every day.) Still, it’s become a trusted companion that I rarely go away overnight without. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

A Conversation With Jochem Vandersteen

Jochem Vandersteen is a rare bird, a Dutch aficionado of private eye fiction. A rock music reporter by day (by night?) he’s the founder of a group of hardboiled writers known as the Hardboiled Collective. Jochem made his bones in crime fiction in two ways. He’s the owner of one of the pre-eminent blogs for PI fiction, Sons of Spade; and writes his own stuff, best known for the Noah Milano series of novellas and stories. His newest Noah Milano novella is Serving Justice.

Jochem’s the kind of guy with enough things going on that he lends himself to a more conversational approach to an interview, so I was delighted when he agreed to take some time out of busy schedule to chat with me.

One Bite at a Time: It’s been a while since we heard from Noah Milano. What’s he up to this time?
Jochem Vandersteen: The security specialist business is slow. That's why he decides to do some process serving for Maxwell Slim, his dad's lawyer who has gotten him out of some jams in the past. When he clashes with a MMA fighter and stumbles on a dead body stuff gets nasty. Also, it's his birthday! All of this can be found within the pages of the new novella, Serving Justice.

OBAAT: It’s been a while since you’ve been here, too. What have you been up to lately?
JVS: Living life, working, taking care of my family and finding the energy to write again. Sometimes the fact I get good reviews but sales stay low can drag me down a bit. Luckily I read some good PI fiction lately that sparked my energy.

OBAAT: Your blog, Sons of Spade, has earned an intercontinental reputation. What is it about private detectives that winds you up so much?
JVS: I like mystery, I like action. PI's combine that. Also I love the fact that in most PI stories you really follow the story through the eyes of the protagonist, making you live his life within those pages.

OBAAT: Who do you consider to be the cream of the crop in PI fiction?
JVS: In the past of course Raymond Chandler. After that Andrew Vachss, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, Robert B. Parker, Todd Robinson, Dave White, Alex Segura, Les Roberts.

OBAAT: It’s traditional for PIs to have done something else first. Usually they’re cops. Noah has a different pedigree. What did he do before he turned Shamus?
JVS: His background is pretty unique. I didn't want him to be a cop or soldier, so I thought... Who would have criminal contacts and who would be able to fight off the bad guys? A criminal of course! I also love redemption stories (like the Xena tv show) and from that the idea was born that Noah Milano would be the son of a big mobster, looking to better his life because his mother asked him to just before she died. One of the main plot drivers of the stories is how hard it is for Noah to do his work as a security specialist but still stay far away from the man he used to be.

OBAAT: I was in an interesting Facebook chat a few weeks ago, talking about detectives and their psycho sidekicks. Some of your favorites have them, some don’t. What’s your thought about detectives who have helpers like Hawk or Mouse or Bubba Rogowski to handle some of their dirty work for them? Does Noah have one?
JVS: Noah has one, maybe two. Tony Hawai is his buddy but also a small-time crook. He's more of an informant than a real pyscho sidekick though. Kane, Noah's mentor, taught Noah all his fighting skills and works for Noah's mobster father. He doesn't hesitate to kill or torture when necessary. That's not to say Noah doesn't cross the line himself every now and then. The main reason Kane is there is to connect Noah to his darker past and because... psycho sidekicks are just insanely cool!

OBAAT: Your taste in PI writers run the gamut from Chandler through Parker to younger writers like Dave White and Todd Robinson. What do you think has changed most over the years?
JVS: Stories have gotten a bit deeper I guess. More character development. More influences from the thriller genre or with female PI's the chick-lit genre. Basically though I think nothing has changed that much, really. It's still about loners out for justice, just like I like it.

OBAAT: When did you first decide you wanted to write PI fiction?
JVS: When read my first Spenser novel I guess, back when I was an early teen. When I later read Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone I was inspired to really go ahead and do it. His characters felt so young, fresh... It showed me that a PI doesn't have to be into jazz and be in his forties, I could relate to them more so I decided I could write about a PI I could relate to as well. Ironically I am in my forties myself, I still listen to metal and punk rock, not jazz though.

OBAAT: I can see Noah’s unorthodox background causing him trouble, though. Fictional cops and PIs have a history that alternates between cooperation and animosity. Noah’s background and family must make that even tougher. Does he also have problems with clients who come to him to skirt the law, assuming he’s still connected somehow?
JVS: Yeah, that played a part in some of the short stories like can be found in Tough As Leather. There's also a lot of trouble he runs into because the cops, especially his nemesis Detective Williams, still want his hide. He can't count on much cooperation from them, so he has to use his more criminal contacts or his best friend, Medical Examiner Minnie.

OBAAT: I’m in the process of re-reading Declan Hughes’s All the Dead Voices. Hughes spoke at Bouchercon several years ago and gave an impassioned plea in favor of private detective novels, arguing that, when done right, they are the highest form of crime fiction. Reading one of his books provides a compelling argument in that direction. Do you agree with Declan? Either way, why do you agree, or disagree?
JVS: I guess they can because of the chance to do a good character study. I'm not sure other crime novels can't be just as good. Just depends on the writer. I'm not in this racket to be the highest form of crime fiction. Just to serve up some very good entertainment.

OBAAT: To me, the core difference between a traditional PI story and much of current Elmore Leonard-George V. Higgins-influenced crime fiction is the first person vs. third person point of view. The PI can put his or her thoughts directly into the mind of the reader, but can only transfer knowledge he or she is privy to. Multi-POV stories allow the reader to know more than any of the characters, but lose a little of the intimacy of speaking directly to the reader. You’re a PI guy to the core. How to you take advantage of those strengths and try to minimize the weaknesses?
JVS: It's cool to see the story through the eyes of the PI and I find it comes very naturally to write that way. I try to take the reader along the ride and make the voice entertaining. I find the voice of the first person PI just more entertaining. Also, I think it prevents people from skipping parts because they're just not interested in the other character whose POV you follow. Also, there are no clues given away like that. Basically I see more strengths than weaknesses in the first person POV.

OBAAT: What can we expect from Noah in the near future?

JVS: Not sure yet. Right now I'm writing my first Cash-novella, where an ex-cop gets out of jail after being wrongfully imprisoned there for killing his family. Now free, he wants to find clues to the real killer and ends up being hired to track down the missing daughter of a mobster. Don't worry, Noah will be sure to return in another short story, novella or whatever. He's been with me so long I won't every let him go.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Conversation with S.W. Lauden

S.W. Lauden get around. He’s had short fiction published by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Dead Guns Magazine, Akashic Books, WeirdBook, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey, and Crimespree Magazine.

His short story, Itchy Feet, was published in Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns (Down & Out Books). His short story, Big Shots, is included in the anthology Fast Women and Neon Lights: Eighties-Inspired Neon Noir (Short Stack Books). His short story, Customer, appears in Waiting to be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak Inspired by The Replacements (Gutter Books).

He is the author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series including Bad Citizen Corporation and Grizzly Season (Rare Bird Books). His Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper novellas include Crosswise and Crossed Bones (Down & Out Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast with Eric Beetner.

One Bite at a Time: Hi, Steve. It’s been a little while since we chatted. Welcome back. Shayna Billups and Tommy Ruzzo are also back in Crossed Bones. Tell us a little about those two and their story.
S.W. Lauden: Thanks for having me back, Dana. Tommy and Shayna are star-crossed lovers who first showed up in my novella, Crosswise. She's a femme fatale who cost Tommy his NYPD badge before luring him down to her hometown on the panhandle of Florida. She leaves him high and dry shortly after he gets a job as head of security at a retirement community where several of the tenants start dropping dead. He tries to solve the murders to win Shayna and his badge back, but things quickly spiral out of control in the most ridiculous and violent ways.

By the time we catch up with Tommy and Shayna in Crossed Bones, she's off partying in New Orleans and he's a drunken wreck stranded in Florida. A chance meeting with a mysterious older gentlemen at a pirate-themed bar sends Shayna on a treasure hunt in North Carolina. When things get out of hand, Tommy and his bartender/boss/best friend set off to rescue her. They soon find themselves caught between a biker gang and a band of cocaine-dealing pirate impersonators. That's when things get interesting.

OBAAT: I see you fell back onto Raymond Chandler’s famous advice, that when stuck for what happens next, have a biker gang and a band of cocaine-dealing pirate impersonators come through the door. I know you didn’t expect to drop that on us and not have me ask you where you got the idea.
SWL: Chandler truly was a visionary! I’m not exactly sure where the inspiration for Crossed Bones came from—might have been a fever dream, or maybe I ate too much sugar—but I do know that I set out to have fun with these characters. The folks over at Down & Out Books started referring to the Tommy and Shayna books as crime capers, and I think that fits. In general, they’re a little more freewheeling and fun than the Greg Salem books. Something about the length and pace of novellas sets me off in a different direction I guess. The books are still pretty dark and feature lots of bad people doing terrible things to each other, but some of the situations tend slightly toward the ridiculous.

OBAAT: I think of you as an L.A. guy, yet Crossed Bones takes place largely in North Carolina, which is about as far from California as one can get without a passport. Why there?
SWL: I’ve lived in L.A. most of my life, but I’ve done a fair amount of traveling. In particular, touring in a band offers up a unique view of cities you might not otherwise visit. It’s just a series of very short, very intense experiences in specific places that often only reveal the most extreme parts of their personalities to you. You don’t leave there pretending to truly know the place—how could you?—but it’s possible to develop some strong, often misguided impressions based on your limited experience there. Years later, I find that business travel and certain types of whirlwind vacations (weekend weddings, etc.) can have the same effect. That’s kind of the perspective I was writing from when I created the fictional locations in both Crosswise and Crossed Bones.

OBAAT: Did you plan to have Tommy and Shayna come back even before you wrote Crosswise, or was that a more recent decision?
SWL: Not originally. Crosswise itself grew out of a short story I wrote while on vacation in Florida. That short story never got published, but a few people who read it encouraged me to expand the story, which is how it evolved into a novella. My editor, Elaine Ash, was a big supporter so she passed the novella along to Eric Campbell at Down & Out Books and he agreed to publish it. One of the things we discussed back then was potentially turning these characters into a series, but that's as far as we got. And then one day last year I got an idea for a story that quickly evolved into the second Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper, Crossed Bones.

OBAAT: You describe Tommy Ruzzo as a disgraced NYPD cop. Greg Salem, protagonist of Bad Citizens Corporation and Grizzly Season, also had a police career that didn’t work out so well for him. What about fallen cops plays so well into the stories you like to tell?
SWL: Believe it or not, I didn’t really realize I had done this until after Bad Citizen Corporation and Crosswise were both published. Could be a uniform fetish, but more likely there's a pretty pragmatic reason—an ex-cop has certain skills and training that will come in handy when they try to solve crimes, or otherwise stick their nose where it probably isn’t wanted.

I also like the idea of failed authority figures. There’s a certain romance to a flawed person who tries to do the right thing, only to succumb to the parts of themselves they were avoiding all along.

OBAAT: Crossed Bones and Crosswise are billed as novellas. What appeals to you about the shorter form?
SWL: I really like novellas as a reader, especially for crime fiction. There's not a lot of room for exposition, so the writing and the pace of novellas tends to be quicker. And, if you're somebody who reads a lot, it's nice to be able to finish a book on a long plane ride or when you’re on vacation beside the pool or at the beach. It's a unique experience that's different than getting pulled into a novel that takes a week or two to finish. Novels can be more of a commitment, but novellas are like a one night stand or lost weekend. Both are enjoyable in their own special ways.

OBAAT: We talked a little about your life as a musician when last we chatted in December of 2015. As a recovering musician myself, I wonder if anything you learned as a musician carries over into writing. Not just story ideas, but craft elements.
SWL: When I was still playing in bands, I always thought that playing shows was a lot more fun than rehearsing. That might seem obvious, but I've known plenty of musicians who are perfectly content noodling away in their bedroom or studio. If your aim is to get your music (or books or paintings or interpretive dance) in front of more people, you have to do both. One feeds off of the other. As tired a cliché as it is, I have to remind myself to sit down in a chair and type...and just keep typing. As far as I can tell, that's the only way that you're ever going to make anything happen. It can be lonely, tedious, frustrating, and emotionally exhausting, but that's the gig. It makes those agent and publisher phone calls, book launch parties, writers conferences, and five-star reviews that much sweeter when and if they come along.

OBAAT: The hero of your novels Bad Citizen Corporation (one of my favorite titles ever) and Grizzly Season is Greg Salem, former cop and punk rock legend. As a punk rock legend yourself, how much of you is in Greg?
SWL: Greg is a punk rock legend in his hometown and other little pockets of super fandom around the imaginary world I've created for him. I'm not even a punk rock legend in my own living room—just ask my wife and kids. But I did play in bands for a long time and I'm not sure I would have written a trilogy about a punk rock P.I. if I didn't have a personal perspective on that world and an emotional attachment to the people who inhabit it. Music—whether it was punk, glam, alternative, indie, metal, or good old fashioned rock and roll—was pretty much my whole eco-system from the time I hit puberty until, well...what's the opposite of puberty? Let's just call it middle age. Even now I can get lost in songs in a way that is unlike almost any other experience in my life. That's something that I've tried to build into Greg's character, both as a foundational part of his backstory and as something that he struggles with as he gets older.

OBAAT: You mentioned last time you were here there would probably be three Greg Salem books. Is that still the case, and, if so, what’s the status?
SWL: The third book in the planned Greg Salem trilogy, Hang Time, is with my publisher, Rare Bird Books. I'm pretty thrilled with how it turned out and have gotten some great feedback from beta readers. That book should be coming out in October of 2017.

OBAAT: You’re currently partnering with Eric Beetner on a monthly podcast called Writer Types that I’ve already come to look forward to, and I’m not usually into podcasts. How did that come to be?
SWL: I'm really happy to hear that you're enjoying the podcast! Eric and I hit it off pretty quickly when I started poking around the LA crime writing scene a few years ago. We both have backgrounds in music, and we both see the need to support the Indie crime/mystery scene in our own ways. He is, of course, one of the founders of Noir at the Bar LA and has given countless authors the chance to read in front of a supportive, drunken crowd. I've been doing interviews (much like this one) on my own blog for a couple of years now, often featuring many of the same writers from the N@B LA events. We are also both big podcast listeners, so all it took was a road trip to a book signing in San Diego to bring it all together. That happened last October and the first episode was published in January of this year.

OBAAT: What impressed me right away about Writer Types is the caliber of guests you get. The first four editions had the likes of Megan Abbott, Lou Berney, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Sara Paretsky, just to name a handful. That’s truly skimming the cream. How do you and Eric decide who to invite, and how hard is it to work out schedules?
SWL: When it comes to the crime/mystery community, we're truly spoiled for choice. There are so many talented authors to choose from in various stages of their writing careers. And so far the vast majority of the ones we've contacted have been responsive and open to giving us a chance to interview them, or have a little fun with them on microphone.

So, recording an entertaining conversation with an interesting person is actually pretty easy. Getting the stars aligned so that all the players are available at the same time and with a stable internet connection? Not so much. Everybody involved is busy, including me, Eric, and our reviewers, Kate and Dan Malmon from Crimespree magazine. But this whole thing is a labor of love, so it's all been worth it as far as I'm concerned.

Ask me again after episode six.