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.

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