Among the joys of writing crime fiction is being a member of the crime fiction family. With life events keeping me away from my usual blog duties, friends (and kick-ass writers) Angel Colon and Scott Adlerberg cover me today.
Angel Luis Colón is the Anthony and Derringer Award-nominated author of No Happy Endings and the Blacky Jaguar series of novellas. His newest is a collection of short stories, Meat City on Fire and Other Assorted Debacles), which dropped December 4 from Down & Out Books, the leading independent crime fiction press despite having me in their stable of authors. Angel’s fiction has appeared in multiple web and print publications including Thuglit, Literary Orphans, and Great Jones Street.
Scott Adlerberg has a new book on the horizon (Jack Waters) but we’ll have more on Scott as that date approaches.
Keep up with him on Twitter via @GoshDarnMyLife.
Angel C: Let’s get things rolling with something a little off the beaten path. Let’s talk about lessons we learn from media but I’m not too concerned about what’s inspired/informed you that was of sound quality.
So, garbage media; specifically bad media that taught you what NOT to do. Can you cite anything specific you’ve read/watched/heard that made you say, ‘Oh, yeah, avoid that. That won’t work at all’ (and feel free to avoid names to protect the innocent)?
Scott A: Well, to start with, there are Hallmark movies. No one needs to be told how terrible these are, but they are instructive in reminding you how ineffective and uninvolving as narrative are stories that are so relentlessly positive and "inspirational".
But a bit more seriously, there is the flip side of that, miserabilism in storytelling. There are those writers and filmmakers, etc who seem to believe that a relentless focus on the gloomy and somber, the bitter dregs of life if you will, means that the work has more seriousness and profundity - more "reality". Which is utter nonsense. A good example to me is True Detective, the HBO show. Forgetting about the obviousness of its influences and all that. That stuff didn't bother me so much. It had some derivative things, but a lot of good stuff is derivative of stuff even better. That alone doesn't make something unenjoyable. But the show, especially during the second season, had a ponderousness and a somberness that was insufferable. A classic case of a story where the creators confused somberness with seriousness. There's no direct correlation. You can be as serious as hell, but you don't have to be somber every single moment. In fact, without modulation between the two, the somberness comes off as just pretentious. There's a line from Muriel Spark in her book Loitering with Intent that I love: she has her narrator, a writer, say that she is treating a certain story with a light and heartless hand, which is her way when she has to give a perfectly serious account of things. Not somber in the telling, but dead serious in intent. Now Muriel Spark happens to be very witty and funny in her writing, and that doesn't come to everyone, granted, but over time, I've come to admire most works that mix darkness with some form of lightness, even when the overall narratives themselves focus on the darkest things. It's like when I started reading the Russians, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (though not War and Peace). I was expecting the heaviest, grimmest writing from what I'd been told by people (and maybe because of the faces on these writers), and you read these guys and they are dark as hell but also often funny. Page after page, they capture the ridiculousness and self-deceptions of human beings, the ironies of everyday life, the misunderstandings. I use them as examples because when you think heavy, you think someone like a literary Russian. Kafka? All bleakness? Well, when he read his stories aloud to his friends, they'd laugh a lot. In astonishment probably but also because in the very fiber of the bleakness he describes, there is so much absurdity you can't help but laugh. Or if you think crime, in direct contrast to True Detective, think of one of its main inspirations, Chinatown, and you have a story where the tone has the nuances of life, back and forth, dark, menacing, yet shot through with moments of humor and, again, the absurd -- all coming to about as dark a conclusion as you can get. Or David Lynch. Who is more varied in mood than him? The new Twin Peaks season was a perfect example - terror, sadness, loss, confusion, total existential horror, it's all there. But also all the moments of levity, connection, forgiveness, optimism, silliness, even love and joy. That's a complete work, a work with the kind of fullness I'm talking about.
But back to crime for a minute. Most true crime TV shows remind me what not to do. There are so many of these shows now. Episode after episode you get detailed depictions of abjection, intense cruelty, incredible stupidity. And yes, a lot of real crime does consist of little more than this. But as narrative this is not all that interesting, I find. Nonstop brutality, banality and human idiocy. Good crime fiction avoids this because, as a matter of fact, it's highly stylized. Whether it's hardboiled crime or noir-tinged fiction and certainly traditional mystery stories. All of them are quite stylized portraits of crime and/or detection compared to these true crime type shows. You can get pitch-black in fiction, of course, but by definition, a good work of art can't be "depressing". What happens in the story might be depressing, the story might be depressing, but the experience of the work, if well-done, is not depressing. I guess it's all connected to that old college lit term, "the fallacy of imitative form". You see it in a lot of the bad media you asked about. You don't show boredom in a story by being boring, you don't make something more "real" or "serious" by being unremittingly somber or earnestly glum. When I watch or read stuff that goes in that direction, I use that stuff as examples of what not to do.
A: We had a chat about voice recently—specifically about how some writers’ works are enhanced when you’ve heard them speak thanks to how distinct their voices are. You’re pretty well known for your voice but do you ever give that any real thought while writing? Do you ever play around with how you’re ‘telling’ the story?
S: A little bit. I do know - and I've heard you talk about this - that I'm always reading what I wrote aloud. And when I read it aloud, I suppose I'm reading it in something like the voice I use when reading at a Noir at the Bar. If there's something funny, I'll read it aloud with what I think is the appropriate comic timing. You want to hear that and get a sense of how it'll sound to others. And overall, doing that, reading your story aloud as you're writing it, is an important thing. That's when you realize the rhythm may not sound quite as it sounds in your head. In your head, your paragraph sounds perfect. Then when you read it aloud, it sounds far from perfect. And with dialogue for sure. I'm sure a lot of writers do this, but it helps to act out the voices and play around with that. Definitely helps you get a sense of whether a conversation, however long or short, sounds real, sounds alive.
A: What about artistic envy (the healthy kind)? I read Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn this year and I honestly was at a loss with how angry I was that I am not at that level just yet. Have you read anything this year that made you sort of hate the writer for making you feel that need to step up your game?
S: Tough question. I'd say the book I read this year that I most wish I could write is a novel from 2001 by Mary Robison called Why Did I Ever. It's about a woman who has a script writing job in Hollywood and two grown children, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, non-romantic friends, and she reflects on all of them and her life in 527 short segments. That's how the novel is told. All these little fragments that over the course of the book come together to form a clear picture of her sometimes harrowing, sometimes disappointing, sometimes laugh out loud amusing existence. Memories, confrontations, jokes, anxieties, what's happening in her life in the present. Clear, striking language but always using the simplest means. Nothing fancy or forced about the language, no convoluted sentences. I love how she doesn't tell a traditional, continuous story and experiments with form but keeps you wanting to read. And how she's able to get so much depth and emotion and humor across with that simple lucid language. The book's been out of print a long time, but there's apparently going to be a reissue in early 2018.
A: What’s next? Are you writing or researching? Anything else dropping in 2018?
S: In January, I have my 4th book coming out - Jack Waters. You might call it a historical revenge thriller. It's set in 1904 and about a guy, Jack Waters, who lives in New Orleans. He earns his money by playing poker. Through his gambling skill, he has a comfortable life, but one day he kills a man he catches cheating against him. On the run, he flees Louisiana, and he moves to an island in the Caribbean. It seems he'll be able to resume his poker playing life, but he runs into problems with the island's rich and powerful. Frustrated, he joins a rebellion against the government, but his reason for joining the revolutionaries has nothing to do with politics. He has his own reason for joining the rebellion, based on revenge against someone high up in the country.
I'm excited that's coming out soon, and right now I'm working my way into a new book, just getting into it, about 30 pages in. It's about a woman whose son has disappeared. She herself may have killed the 11 year old, her husband may have killed him, or something else may have happened. That's what will come out as the story unfolds, and she's the person telling the story. At the pace I work, I figure writing the book will take up 2018.
A: There's always the question of what book or movie you've seen or plan on seeing. How about we go with music? What have you been listening to while you write lately?
S: I never listen to music while actually writing, but there are things I put on beforehand to get in the mood. I like the group Au Revoir Simone, which I didn't know of till I saw them in the new Twin Peaks (going back to Lynch), and there's this song Track of Time by Anna von Hausswolff that played during the closing credits of the movie, Personal Shopper. Sounds like I only listen to music I discover in TV series or movies, but that's not true. There's always Philip Glass. Tangerine Dream and Underworld. I do listen to a lot of music, going back a ways, with what you might call an electronica sound of some sort, I realize. That gets me in a dreamy mood for writing.