Jonathan Ashley is a freelance journalist and book dealer living in Lexington, KY. His work has appeared in Crime Factory, A Twist of Noir, LEO Weekly, Kentucky Magazine and Yellow Mama. The Cost of Doing Business, which Frank Bill calls "one black tar mind-fuck-ride of a novel", is out now from 280 Steps in paperback and e-formats.
OBAAT: Tell us about The Cost of Doing Business.
Jonathan Ashley: It is a dark comedy about a person's entry into the drug world. Jon Catlett, a misanthropic literary obsessive, is facing the loss of the only thing in the world he loves; his used bookstore. He has several other problems, the least of which are his love affair with a bi-polar femme fatale heiress to a thriving northern steel company, or the exponentially growing opiate habit he has developed. When Jon, during a deal gone wrong, accidentally kills a fellow drug addict, getting away with murder turns out to be the least of his worries. The steps he and Paul, the obsessive-compulsive manager of Jon's store, must take to cover up the killing result in the two cornering Louisville’s blossoming heroin trade.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
JA: I owned a bookstore in Louisville, actually at the same exact location as described in the novel. I’d also had struggled with different addictions in my life and as a result came face to face with some pretty scary operators. Around that time, I felt very lost and suffered from the most paralyzing depression I’d ever known. I hated everything I wrote. I was in an MFA program where they thought crime writers lesser artists. Finally, something clicked. I was living a crime novel with my deviant behavior and ties to the local drug trade. So, I just started writing, a vague idea about a junkie book dealer who replaces his favorite high with that of power through importing mass quantities of heroin, the city’s now most popular drug. The rest of the work seemed to take care of itself.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write The Cost of Doing Business, start to finish?
JA: I wrote the first draft in two months but, when all editing and re-structuring ceased, I’d spent about a year on the project.
OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
JA: Jon is your classic underachiever. Despite his character faults, his failures, and his horrid past, he still believes he’s too smart to be struggling financially, running a failing used bookstore. He feels undiscovered for his genius, underutilized, and, in all things, that everyone should appreciate him more. He is the most ungrateful character I have ever written. Yet, I try to make the audience understand how he has gotten by in life, sometimes very successfully. Therein comes his charm, humor, and, strangely, an almost unreasonable sense of loyalty and justice.
OBAAT: In what time and place is The Cost of Doing Business set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
JA: It’s a modern novel set in Louisville, KY. I think the place is very important in regards to the story and characters. While a culturally rich Southern city – Southern in that it’s far below the Mason-Dixon line - Louisville is also a poor city full of people trying to just get by another day. The rift between the poor and the ridiculously rich is enormous. The city is blatantly segregated. And lately, a heroin problem worse than some mega-cities has developed. It’s a perfect place for Jon and Paul to proceed along their misadventures. I’ve lived a lot of places, and maybe it’s because of the city’s strange mix of hillbilly and cosmopolitan culture, but I’ve never met more interesting people in one place than in Louisville.
OBAAT: How did The Cost of Doing Business come to be published?
JA: I sent it to several agents who either responded with form letters or pointed out that the novel didn’t seem to fit anywhere. It had a strange mix of black humor, social commentary, violence, with a nearly conventional crime story woven in. I did little to adjust to these agents’ parameter or to try and give them what they wanted because their response was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to write your grandpa’s crime novel. I wanted to write one that deals with real people making hard choices in the face of impossible financial situations, or because of their own demons. Then 280 Steps accepted the work and asked for a sequel.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JA: John Cheever. I recommend his collected stories to anyone who wants to learn how to write and to possibly publish. Dashiell Hammett was writing before and influenced Earnest Hemingway in that clipped, no-words-wasted style that Hemingway made famous. Truth was, he stole it from the best crime novelist every to live. Elmore Leonard will also school you on how to put a story together. Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price have made the undeniable connection in their respective works between crime, class and poverty. They’re the game changers. Then there’s the classics. Lolita, Deliverance, A Fan’s Notes, A Confederacy Of Dunces – those to name a few are books every writer should not just read, but study.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
JA: Jon Kennedy Toole. Frederick Exley. Lawrence Durrell. James Crumley. Hammett. Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard. David Goodis.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JA: I wear a robe, smoke a cigar, and let the robe hang open in case anyone tries to interrupt my writing time. I also keep the office land-mined and only I have the map that can lead a person safely in our out of my office.
If I think of a scene that will come later in the novel, or even say, halfway through the novel, the entire second act comes to me, I’ll jot that down. But I have never plotted one from beginning to end without first writing and letting the characters tell me where they might want to go.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JA: I treat each draft equally. That way if I am killed in a home invasion and can save it to my email before I die, I can say I was doing my best work before I bleed out. I usually write a few pages, then go back and edit them half to death. Then I repeat that process until tea-time. Just kidding. I don’t have tea-time. I just mainline the caffeine right between my toes.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JA: Write your ass off for at least an hour a day. Read what you wrote. Make the corrections. Then put it away and do not think about it until it’s time for you to return to the desk the next day. Write well everyday. Take care of your sentences and your sentences will take care of you. I have learned this lesson the hard way, trust me.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JA: Swimming laps. Walking my dog. Teaching if I have a class at the time. I also write political pieces for a local magazine and sell used/rare books on the internet. For a writer, I’m a fairly busy dude.
OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
JA: Neither. I take with me the comfort that I worked again that day. I was never a disciplined man. But I have made myself one when it comes to writing. Money comes and goes. Praises turn cruel. But the only person that can stop me from is me.
OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
JA: I’d take the money, then move to a country that does not extradite and keep writing anyway.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
JA: I would go with someone like 280 Steps. They're getting great readings for me. Reviews I wouldn’t have dreamt of. The cover is cool. And they maintain an honest, consistent working relationship with me, always open-minded as to possibilities of exposure and higher sale volume. I don’t know that I would make any kind of change right now, knowing what I do of the publishing industry. I guess it would depend on the book I was working on and whatever possible offer an outside publisher might make. For right now though, I am proud that my first novels will be released with powerful support and backing of 280 Steps.
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
JA: No thanks. I’m allergic. They make me break out in warrants and handcuffs. Also, I may have to work in a few months and drinking, for me, can ruin even commitments far into the future. It’s like the domino effect.
OBAAT: Baseball or football?
JA: Football. People are more likely to get seriously hurt.
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
JA: Have you ever killed a man? Say a drifter you thought no one would miss just for shits and gigs or maybe a more sexual MO?
OBAAT: What’s the answer?
JA: That’s a fucked up question, man I’m not even going to dignify that with a response. You’re sick. You’re sick and you need to seek serious psychiatric treatment and bath in Holy Water for about a year.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JA: The Wrong Business – this is the tentative title for the sequel. It brings the rowdy. Ups all antes and the stakes are much higher, as in all good sequels.