OBAAT is lucky to have sit for Twenty Questions another of the burgeoning number of writers who are making 280 Steps a publisher rapidly earning its cred. Josh K. Stevens’s new book, Scratch the Surface, is a “fun pulp joyride,” according to no less a source than Victory Gischler. (Gun Monkeys, The Deputy.) Josh’s short stories have been published in RAGAD, Boston Literary Magazine, The Woodstock Independent, 55 Words and decomP. His first novel, Bullets Are My Business, was released in 2012. Josh lives in the Midwest with his wife and children.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Scratch the Surface.
Josh K. Stevens: Scratch the Surface is the first book in the Deuce Walsh trilogy, arriving back-to-back this year. Deuce Walsh is a wiseguy who was left for dead. He’s leading his life as a regular Joe under an assumed identity and gets pulled back in to the life when his brother-in-law is in danger. The only way out is to finish one last job and hope that he makes it out alive.
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.)
JKS: The main character, Deuce Walsh, had been lurking around in my head for years and, one day, when I was working overnights doing security, I started thinking (and I had a lot of time to sit and think) that my wife never questioned whether or not I was actually going to work. She just assumed that I was always where I said I was going. It was one of those random thoughts that should’ve just come and gone but this one didn’t. It took root and then started to sprout and grow. I started to realize that, as long as I left the house at the time I normally did and came home at the normal time, no one would know if I called in sick once or twice and got up to no good. As long as I didn’t get fired, it would just be assumed that I was going to work, going through the motions. This got me thinking about the fact that, if you came up with a good enough back story, no one would ever question what you did before the present time. It was a perfect case of dual identities. For some reason, I found this absolutely fascinating.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Scratch the Surface, start to finish?
JKS: From the moment that the idea hatched to completion was a few years. Scratch the Surface actually started out as standalone book and about halfway through, I realized that I was telling two separate stories from Deuce’s life. Once I realized that, the book was done in about three months.
OBAAT: Where did Deuce Walsh come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
JKS: Surprisingly, Deuce Walsh came about completely by accident. I was working at a bookstore and one of the employees took a phone call. She misheard the caller’s name as Deuce Walsh and, for some reason, I immediately thought, “There’s a story waiting to be written with that character as the protagonist.” I latched onto it and filed it away, waiting for the right story to present itself. When the story idea arose, I started seeing that Deuce and I are very similar in nature. We both had some good times in our glory days and, while we’ve both moved on to bigger and better things in adulthood, it’s hard not to think back on those days and pine after the simplicity, the lack of responsibility, the lack of monotony. Deuce and I have far too many similarities to count. Our differences? I haven’t stabbed anyone in the hand. Well… not on purpose… yet.
OBAAT: How did Scratch the Surface come to be published?
JKS: My premiere work (Bullets are My Business) was an e-reader exclusive and I had the great fortune to have the wonderful folks over at 280 Steps stumble across my premiere work. One day I got an e-mail via Facebook telling me how much they enjoyed it and asking me if I had anything else that I was working on. I was taken aback but extremely intrigued so I wrote back and sent over some sample chapters of a few pieces that I was working on. After some back and forth between myself and 280 Steps, we both decided that we would be a good fit for one another and the rest, as they say, is history. The folks over at 280 Steps have been extraordinary to work with from the get go. They were always there to offer assistance, they were quick to respond, the editors really put the time and effort into making sure that the work was polished fully, and the artists who did the covers were just fantastic. I really do think that made a world of difference. I hope that we have a long relationship!
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JKS: I seem to always be drawn back to books that have a post-apocalyptic setting, which is strange, but I generally like to read horror and crime fiction. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time was Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” and “The Twelve”. Just absolutely stunning characters, fantastic plot, crystal clear settings. Blew me away. My favorite authors? Best to try to narrow it down to a top five list: Stephen King, Charlie Huston, Mickey Spillane, Charles Bukowski, and Edgar Allan Poe.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JKS: Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always had stories just bouncing around in my head. I remember that when my kid sister and I were young, we would play with our toys and we would have elaborate plots and stories that spanned weeks at a time. As I got older, the stories were still there, but I had nowhere to put them. I started writing them down in high school, short stories here and there, and two “novellas” that starred my friends at the time. I started writing just so I had an outlet for the voices in my head. I think that I really decided that I wanted to be an author when I was working at the bookstore. I had been an avid reader for as far back as I could remember, but it really dawned on me that authors had such an effect on who I was and what I had become. I really just want to be able to push someone to follow their dreams. If my books make it to one person’s hands who reads it and says, “This inspires me do chase my own dream,” then I’ll consider it a success.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JKS: Ha. I don’t know that my personal life experiences have prepared me for anything. For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated by crime and criminals. I’ve read countless books and watched far too many movies and television shows and I’ve always rooted for the anti-hero. Something about a flawed character has always appealed to me. Maybe that’s what’s prepared me? The fact that I’m flawed? Or maybe I started writing so I didn’t go out and knock over a bank.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JKS: I think my favorite thing about being a writer is hearing people’s reactions to my work. Good or bad, I like to think that I’ve at least made people feel something. The characters that I created are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, getting inside someone’s mind and kicking around a little bit. I like the idea that, with my work, I can at least alter the way they look at the world even if just for a moment.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JKS: So many people have been an influence to me. The people that influenced the style that I write in are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, Charlie Huston, Stephen King, Denis Leary, and all of the hard-boiled pulp novelists of the forties and fifties. However, I’m really influenced on a daily basis by the people that I come in contact with. So much of what is said and done throughout the course of my day is put into a vat in my mind and left to stew all day. Every person in all of my stories is based on someone I know. Not everyone would be thrilled by that knowledge, but that’s what happens. As the saying goes: don’t piss off the writer or you’ll end up in his book.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JKS: I generally start out with an idea or a single scene revolving around the main character. I usually write down notes throughout the day of things that I want or need to have happen but, beyond that, I don’t outline. I’m basically watching a film in my head and corresponding the play by play as I see what the characters do in the situation that has been presented to them. That’s the way I’ve always written. I may give the characters life, but they create their own destiny. And pants… well, pants are always optional. I generally wear them, but only because I just happen to have them on when I first sit down.
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?
JKS: I start by just working to get the whole story down on paper. While I’m writing the first draft, I keep notes of plot points or character development that I want to add later, but I usually just put my head down and barrel through. Once I’m done, I go back to the beginning and do the initial edits. Then I go through and polish up.
OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
JKS: I always listen to music as I write. Generally, what I listen to depends on the scene that I’m writing. If I’m in the midst of writing a fight scene or an action scene, I’ll find a pumping song that I’ll put on repeat until I’m done with the scene. I have a track listing for the “soundtrack” to the book (you know… to make life easier if anyone ever wants to make it into a movie…) For this book (and for the trilogy in general) I found myself continually listening to Lana Del Rey’s albums. When I was writing the final chapter of the book, I listened to her song “Ride” over and over again. It was kind of the perfect piece for the finale of Scratch The Surface, so if I had to choose a theme song for this book, I’d say that’s it. Either that or “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy. That was on constant rotation as well.
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
JKS: Honestly, I’m terrible with time management. I personally do my best work when I’m in the eleventh hour of a deadline and there is a gun to my head. There were many nights that I started writing at 9:00 and didn’t get to sleep until 4:00. As long as you can get it done before the deadline, I say, do whatever works.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JKS: The best advice that I can offer to anyone was given to me by author Marcus Sakey and it was legitimately one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever been given, “Keep your ass in the chair and your fingers on the keys.” That’s the only way that you’re going to get anywhere as a writer. That’s how you create and that’s how you learn. That’s where you’re going to find the voice that works for you. Always be writing.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
JKS: Well, that’s like asking me to choose my favorite child! Each one is special in their own way but, to me personally, I’d have to rank them character, story, tone, narrative, and setting. Character is most important to me because they are the ones that drive everything else. I always start with the characters and get to know them before I put a single word on the paper. They’re the ones who are going to lead me through the story, they’re going to create the tone, the voice of the piece. They’ll let me know where they need to be at any given point in order to get done what needs to be done. When I’m in the chair, writing, my characters show me what they need to do and I follow their lead. Wow…That actually makes me sound like a schizophrenic…
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
JKS: From a strictly greed based, financial standpoint? Any of the seven Harry Potter books. Honestly though, I’d probably have to say “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Harper Lee put out one book and it literally changed the world. It’s still being discussed today, studied, and read today. That’s quite a feat.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JKS: I’m a movie/television junkie, so I spend a lot of time catching up on that. Presently, I’m making my way through “Californication” and loving every second of it. I listen to a lot of music and, once a year I make what I call a “life mix”, creating a soundtrack to the previous year. I love roller derby so I go to that when I can. My favorite past time though is spending time with my kids and reliving my childhood.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JKS: As far as writing goes, while I’ve got several story ideas kicking around in my head at the present time (a couple of full-on pulp novels, a contemporary western, and a young adult book) I think that the first project I’m going to undertake is polishing up a work that I finished about ten years ago and has been sitting in a drawer ever since. The tentative title is “Smooth Beans” and it’s another pulp thriller that centers around a couple of twenty-somethings working at a chain coffee house. They receive a box of smuggled diamonds at their location that were supposed to sent to the corporate office. They decide that this is fate interjecting and they decide to try to fence the diamonds. A series of events unfolds that forces them to hole up in the coffee house and general chaos ensues. Ever since I started writing this, many moons ago, I kept having the tagline run through my head “What if you fell ass backwards into a life of crime?” Beyond that, I’ve been slowly working towards opening my own bookstore and I’d like to put some focus on that so that I can make sure that like-minded people have a place to come and discuss the written word.