Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Yes, The Beloved Spouse and I physically departed Castle Schadenfreude to see a movie. Not just any movie, Mad Max: Fury Road. We left with mixed emotions, though an estimate of our overall impression is made clear by our agreement that she will pick our next movie adventure.

(Editor’s Note: Spoilers abound.)

One problem with the film was the chase scenes, which is a serious matter when talking about a movie that isn’t much more than a series of chases. (I referred to it as “action porn,” with just enough story to serve as a combination bridge and excuse for the next chase.) The chases are substantial cinematic achievements—especially when taking into account less than 20% of the action was CGI-enhanced—but a couple went on past the point of sustaining excitement into the land of “It looks they had one more stunt they wanted to try.” True porn would also not have confused the money shot. Things are so hectic—and the editing so frantic—when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) kills Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) the viewer can’t tell how she got to him, how she killed him, how she got back, nor how they retrieved his body. Too much depends on adrenaline overdoses getting viewers to overlook oversights, or, as my father would say of an imperfection in cutting the grass, “No one’s going to notice driving by at sixty miles an hour.”

The ending is also weak. When Max (Tom Hardy) and Furiosa return victorious, displaying Immortan Joe’s body to the masses, the entire power structure rolls over, and life will now be different. We’re expected to believe people whose power and enhanced living conditions depended on the status quo are now just going to bow down and accept what’s coming to them. It’s too na├»ve an ending for such a borderline nihilistic movie.

There are plusses to balance the ledger. Director George Miller and his co-writers (Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) don’t insult the audience’s intelligence. You’re left alone to figure out the backstory and key plot motivators without much explanation. Everything you need is there, but you have to pay attention. A lot of films that claim to be more intellectually-motivated would do well to follow this example.

The chemistry between Max and Furiosa—wait, I should have said “Furiosa and Max:” it’s really her movie—is spot on. Theron and Hardy are perfectly cast, and pace the evolution of their characters’ relationship from mistrust / having to trust / trusting / willing to die for effortlessly. The depth of their bonding is brought home, not with over the top dialog or a sexually-charged (and inappropriate) scene, but by how they exchange eye contact at the end. Again, more done with less said.

The real plus-plus—and the primary reason I went to see it—is that Fury Road makes men’s rights
activists’ heads explode. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is the girl next door compared to Theron’s Furiosa. Hair cut almost to the scalp, missing half a forearm, bound up and dressed for desert battle, she sets the new standard for badass, regardless of gender. And she’s Charlize Theron, for Crissakes. She’s hot. She can’t help it. Furiosa could be a litmus test for MRAs. Real men respected her strength, and were still aroused at some level. MRAs were terrified, their tiny little dicks crawling even farther back inside than usual.

And it’s not just her. All the women kick ass. The escaping wives look soft and cuddly and sex-objecty, but all do whatever needs to be done. The tribe of women they encounter before starting back have had everything taken away and survive by working together, while the male-dominated society back in the Citadel holds power by controlling all the water and food and parceling it out however best suits their needs to remain in power. (Talk about your one percent.)

On balance, two-and-a-half stars out of five, but I’m glad I went. I’ve done quite a bit of research into the men’s rights movement for the work-in-progress, and there is not a more detestable bunch of self-serving, weak, cowardly, bullying, dickless pieces of shit to be found drawing breath. (And yes, honey badgers, I’m talking about you, too.) Anything that riles them up and gets them to voice their opinions outside the manosphere where they can be exposed is a good thing. I don’t know if this was the intent of Fury Road—I’m inclined to think it was an unintended consequence of the film’s equal treatment of the sexes—but it was worth leaving the house for just for that.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Twenty Questions With Charlie Stella, Author of Dogfella

Charlie Stella, The Godfather of Mob Fiction, has taken on a new challenge: non-fiction. Charlie has helped James Guiliani write his memoir, Dogfella, the story of how an abandoned dog changed Guiliani’s life from Mob enforcer to animal rights advocate and obsessive protector of dogs. Yes, I know. That’s a story too syrupy even for Disney to tell, but it’s true. How can this be? I’ll let Charlie tell you, in his own inimitable words. (Double thanks to Charlie for taking time away from his beloved Tampa Bay Lightning to sit for this interview. GO BOLTS!!)

One Bite at a Time: Dogfella is a departure for you. Not only is it non-fiction, it’s told from the main character’s point of view as a memoir. Before we get into more about that, give us a brief overview of what the book covers.
Charlie Stella: James “Head” Guiliani’s wild and crazy life; from his earliest memories to the present day. I thought I lived a few lives … James has me beat by a country mile.

OBAAT: How did you hook up with James? (And, since someone is sure to ask, is he any relation to Rudy, though I’ll understand if James is reluctant to acknowledge any blood ties.)
CS: The project came as a surprise through the SNHU MFA program I graduated from. Apparently, my agent for the book, Jeff Kleinman (Folio Literary Management) was also connected to the program through Diane Les Becquets (the director of the program at the time). He was at our senior readings and he heard my ability to curse every other word on a page … and he had an in-house project through their London office (the agent representing James) … I was contacted by him a few weeks later. He asked me to submit a few writing samples and James liked the cut of my jib (as expressed in street dialogue). We speak the same language, James and I. The Rudy thing … Big smile.  That’s actually covered at one point in the memoir … but, NO, no connection to the psychotic lunatic who loved his country so much, he ducked serving in Vietnam at every single opportunity so he could become the mayor made famous by hiring a future convict as his police commissioner. Fuck Rudy Giuliani. Take notice of the spelling. The good Guiliani, James, he rescues animals 24/7. Rudy, who I once supported back in my angst with the Democratic Party, has proved himself an irrelevant windbag. And James’s brothers, all of them, served in the military (Army and Marines), so fuck Rudy Guiliani again. (Editor’s Note: Such an elementary error would normally result in the sacking of the interviewer. However, since said interviewer is also the editor and publisher of this blog, we will settle for a harsh reprimand.)

OBAAT: How long did you work with James on the book?
CS: Wow. In the end it took us more than a year but not because we weren’t working. There was the publishing buyout, then the non-buyout, etc. We’d start and have to stop and then start again … in actual time, probably six months, although it took me a bit longer to polish it. I’d go to James’s store, The Diamond Collar, with a bag of bagels or box of donuts and we’d work a few hours at a time. I went to his house and interviewed his lady, Lena … they really do have a ton of animals there they’ve recued. It’s no bullshit about how much those two do for animals.

OBAAT: In what ways is James like, and unlike, you?
CS: The physical traits are obvious. We’re both tall, thin and handsome MF’ers … okay, scratch that. We both played in similar puddles, although his were a lot more high profile. James was with the Gotti Jr. crew out of the now infamous Our Friends Social Club in Queens (literally around the corner from the Bergen Hunt and Fish Club, John Gotti Sr.’s hangout), although one was business and the other used more for entertainment. We both can read people pretty quick (that’s a street thing you kind of learn subconsciously, I think). We both still have street chips on our shoulders, but mine has been somewhat calmed over time. James still has his, but he’s eleven years younger than me. Time may wear him down some. His dedication to animals is very real. I love my dog, don’t get me wrong, but I could never do what James has dedicated his life to do. It’s no bullshit about the time and effort (and money) involved in animal rescue. James does it 24/7 … no breaks ever. As far as different, we’re pretty much politically polar opposites (which proves people with different views of the world can co-exist, right?). James is a very religious guy. I’m a devout atheist. Of course we’re both fashionistas, but I have to admit his outfits probably look better than mine. (Unless I’m wearing my Bolts stuff … then, forgetaboutit, I’m a fuckin’ stud.)

OBAAT: Everyone would have dismissed this as a fictional story idea: mobster rescues abandoned, dying dog and changes his life. You’ve come to know James pretty well. What happened there?
CS: I’d call bullshit on a story about a gangster finding an abused abandoned dog and how it leads to animal rescue too, except I’ve seen James tear up at the mention of Bruno (the dog he and his lady found). There’s also a lot more to the story, including his addictions to alcohol and drugs, a two-year bid in an infamous Long Island prison (Riverhead) and just how much his lady, Lena, meant to his life. I know first-hand what a woman can do for a man. I was engaged in a pretty shitty life myself until I met Ann Marie. That redemption stuff really does happen.

OBAAT: How did Dogfella come to be published?
CS: I think James had a ton of exposure with the reality show that was featured on the Oprah channel. He’s become a genuine celebrity in New York and it made sense for a smart agent/agency to jump on the opportunity for a book deal. James was getting press long before the Oprah show. He’d been featured in New York newspapers a few times as well, including a great headline of James’ dog, Primo (a 140 pound Cane Corso), and former Governor Spitzer, with a headline that read: Which Dog has Fleas? You gotta love it. James also helped retrieve bodies from the towers after they were attacked. He was working construction close to Ground Zero and he spent a night helping the steel workers retrieve corpses.

OBAAT: Americans whose knowledge of organized crime is only as detailed as watching the Godfather films and The Sopranos may wonder how it was James was able to walk away and start a new life. Was he a made guy? In today’s mafia, would that have made a difference?
CS: James was what is considered a mob enforcer, someone you send to do the dirty work. (Not to be confused with a hit man—he wasn’t that.) He was also involved with his street gang, 112 (in Richmond Hill). The funny thing is, for a brief period after my first divorce, I lived not too far from where James was hanging out in Gotti Jr.’s joint. I lived in Richmond Hill with a bunch of other window cleaners (what I was doing while learning the street ropes after my first divorce). Enforcers can walk away or be excommunicated, so to speak, for any number of things. In James case, he tried to pull a potentially profitable job without letting the people he was around know about it. He was pinched and went away for two years, which probably kept him from catching a beating. Associates are earners, both legitimate and illegal, so walking away usually has to do with finances and whether or not you’re looking to pull money away from those you’re around. For James, it was both that hijacking job that he kept to himself and his inability to stay away from drugs. Going away was probably a blessing in disguise, because by the time he came out, the Gotti crew had suffered Senior’s demise and they had bigger problems to concern themselves with. For me it was much easier to walk. I left my loansharking and bookmaking behind. I went from having a very healthy cash income to being a working stiff (although I’d always been a working stiff, taking breaks from time to time to try and be a writer). It was probably a smart play on my part to always keep up with the computer world and having a work resume. Some of it was pure bullshit (my resume), don’t get me wrong, but not the jobs, just the gaps in years when I was working exclusively on the street. Now, here’s another amazing thing that connects James and myself … Dr. Salvatore Pernice … he also played (and continues to play) a big role in James’s animal rescue, but long before I met James, Dr. Pernice saved Rigoletto (our dog) … what are the odds?

OBAAT:  Has there been any interest from the movies? I know I just made fun of it as a fiction idea, but as a true story it’s fascinating.
CS: I sure hope so. I think James has been contacted a few times now. Although Oprah canceled the show after putting it on an impossible to survive spot, the show now airs via Animal Planet in several countries (for which James doesn’t get a dime—go figure).

OBAAT: Now that you mention it, what was the deal with the TV show? Oprah Winfrey Network had it on for about twenty minutes before cancelling. (I’m no TV executive, but I have to believe “finding an audience” takes more than two or three episodes. It’s not like production costs were going to break Oprah.) What happened there?
CS:  See above. They put it on a Friday night at 10:00 p.m. on a station that caters to a specific audience. Most of those who watched it, seemed to like it fine, but numbers rule the roost and without the push, there’s no way to survive. I don’t know how it wasn’t picked up, but it still may be. Time will tell.

OBAAT: You’re well-established as the Godfather of crime fiction. A couple of years ago, you attended the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. How did that affect your outlook on both reading and writing?
Listen to me...
CS:  I think you’re the only guy who says that, but it is very kind.  Initially, I wanted to have a backup plan (teaching) for when capitalism (as we know it today) finished outsourcing the industry I work in. I went with that game plan in mind. I quickly changed my mind and would probably work at McDonalds before trying to teach. I’d love to do so, make no mistake, but the bullshit teachers have to put up with (bureaucracy, etc.) is a non-starter for me. What I gained from that program was (for me and to me) invaluable. The reading lists alone have opened up my mind (at least) to some wonderful reading/finding new authors (and older authors that are new to me because of the lack of reading I’d done for so long). And the people … I met some wonderful people in the program (fellow students/writers and mentors) and I have strong ties to that community now. Of course, the Dogfella project was an extra nice surprise, since it pays for the degree, but that wasn’t to be expected on any level. I see lots of bad mouthing about MFA programs in general, and what I say is this: It’s what you make of it that matters. If you’re getting an MFA degree to become rich and famous, you’re a putz. If you’re getting the degree to grow, you’re on the right track. I’d do it again if I had the time. Yeah, college has become a business, and numbers again skew the product, but let’s face it, if you’re serious about writing, you’re going to do what you have to do anyway. My wife and I discuss the college problem today a lot; how it has become a means to a financial end, a job. Far too few people attend for the sake of growing, what we think it’s all about (which is why it should be FUCKING FREE). I found the MFA program valuable because my background was focused on politics while I was in college and then making money on the streets. I didn’t read the kinds of books I read now. The program introduced me to an entire new library of great writing … and the juice to write you walk away with (after each residency) is invaluable. I wrote tons more than usual (whether I used it or not) after each residency.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
CS: Teachers … going back to high school, although I actually finished as a co-runner-up in a Catholic school contest when I was younger (and nobody believed I wrote the damn thing, probably because I was one of the dumbskis). Later on an English teacher in high school, Mrs. Miller, assigned Camus’ The Stranger and that knocked me for a loop. Who does that, starts a book with: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. It got me thinking, which is what we’re supposed to do, right? I started writing stuff about my whack job family and what we were going through at the time (including my short stint in a nuthouse) and found I enjoyed writing. Then I put everything aside to play and prepare for football. Fortunately, a football scholarship took me out of state (away from distractions) and I took another English course in college and met Dave Gresham (and took more classes from him). He gave me the confidence to pursue writing. I had ZERO encouragement other than Dave and my Mom (but my mother would’ve been happiest had I taken safe civil service job). Dave stuck with me through most of my very immature adulthood. He’d read my feeble attempts to write novels but would always encourage me to keep trying. Eventually, I got lucky, but without those teachers, forgetaboutit … I’d be in jail or dead today. All glory to teachers, always.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
CS: My MFA thesis was actually a fictional memoir of my incredibly dysfunctional family and life experiences. I won’t even attempt to have it published for fear that the two remaining kids who continue to speak to me won’t if it’s published. I think I sent some of it to Patti Abbott and she was also very encouraging for me to keep working it. I did and I have a few drafts, but I won’t do anything with it. I did a lot of the dopey jobs I wrote about in my early novels. I experienced a lot of what at least a few of my characters lived through, did, etc. My family, from very early on (when I was a kid), did some shady shit to survive, and then my old man took off and the financial bottom dropped out … and our family life/world changed forever. As it should, life has provided enough material for a library. Now, to get it all down, right?

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
CS: Pretty much everything. The research, the creation of characters and situations that leave me wondering what if. I can get lost in this stuff, not come up for air for hours at a time. I can’t imagine my life without it and I suspect my wife is very accurate when she says it saved me. I know that one of my favorite parts of the MFA program was the research paper I did on Richard Yates use of third person omniscient … well, look at the title: Richard Yates’s Third Person Omniscient: Atmosphere, Characterization and Judging from on High.  How cool (and exciting) is that? J

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
CS: Everything and anything. Plays are what I started writing when I finally got serious after a few failed novel attempts, so David Mamet, for sure. Sam Shepherd also. Eugene O’Neill. Good movies can do it. A good song can do it (Tom Waits). An overheard conversation or an imaginary one. George V. Higgins remains my very favorite crime writer (even if it makes him turn in his grave to be called a crime writer) … but I’d have to add David Lynch (Blue Velvet remains my favorite movie of all time) … Gustav Mahler’s personal story with his wife, Alma, plays such a HUGE role in a novel I’ve been writing for several years now. So, I reiterate: everything and anything.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
CS: I spend a lot of time at my computer (home and at work). I’m either working on something of mine or writing for my blog or researching. Sometimes I’ll write for six hours with little breaks. Sometimes I’ll write for twenty minutes while watching a Netflix movie or series, constantly taking breaks to return to writing. The next day I look over the mess I made the night before and can focus again. At some point it takes the real work (editing), but I really can’t say I don’t like any part of writing. I suspect individuals have to figure out how to manage their time. I’m fortunate because my wife is a gallivanter (what I call her) … she leaves me alone for long periods of time while she does her things (gardening, shopping, general gallivanting. She just left her nursing job (she’d been working two jobs for a few years now) so now we both have four-day work weeks (the money I earn from writing, I can’t consider work—I can’t because it’s more a pleasure than work). We both have a four-day week, but different work days off. Monday is my most productive day because I’m alone all day. I still get up very early when there aren’t many distractions. I don’t do any of my political rants at 4:30 in the morning, not unless something catches my eye while I’m having coffee. Getting up early always works well for my production, but I write between hockey periods, sometimes during commercials, etc.  Bottom line: you make the time.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
CS: Read, read, read … and avoid the naysayers. I read at least two hours every day (or I try very hard to do so). I read when I take my two walks at work (before and during lunch). I read on the treadmill, between weightlifting sets, when I’m stuck in traffic, walking across the parking lot and riding the elevator when I visit Momma Stella, on the throne and when I go to bed. Reading is essential. The writing too, that goes without saying, but I’m not so sure one can be done without the other (for most people). As for naysayers, ignore and avoid them like the plague. My life changed dramatically for me when I shut out a few people who made me miserable.

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?
CS: For me it’s always character first, then situation (I guess that’s a combination of setting and plot), but plot comes last (when I rewrite) because I generally don’t know the plot until I’m well into a novel. Most of my novels and stories begin with a single line of dialogue, but of course I have a setting in mind when that happens. I’ll write that scene or just part of it. If it’s the right spark, a few months later I’ll have a novel. Tonight at dinner my wife told me about a first-year associate lawyer at her firm who found an error in a document someone did and told his secretary “whoever did this should lose their job.” My wife was irate and she said, “You’re the first person I thought of when I heard that, what you always say about people like that. They can use a little fucking terror in their spoiled lives.” “A shove down the subway stairs,” I said. “Yes,” she said. She’s a lot tougher than you might think, my wife. Guess how that story will begin? Why character is so important (for me) has to do with the actions that flow from that character; essentially how the novel will develop because of those actions. It’s why I can’t outline. The characters take me wherever they’re headed.

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?
CS: Revolutionary Road. It’s akin to verismo opera for me. It’s the real world (at least how Yates saw it when he wrote it, but I think it still applies). With all the talk today of “American exceptionalism” (how I hate that fucking phrase), Revolutionary Road is a reality check. As if people born here have some special genetic code to make them exceptional. As if the rest of the world is just waiting, watching, and envying all our greatness. Revolutionary Road bangs that nail with a jack hammer. Most of the players on the world stage around the globe, for whatever reason, live pretty ordinary lives (Yates used the term, “mediocre”), but we often have to have very high expectations for ourselves. Most often, I think, we can’t adjust to life without celebrity or greatness (or those fifteen minutes, etc.). Some never get to experience happiness, not for long stretches anyway. I was a victim of it for a while, but not when you might think. That was back in my street days. I liked playing a role where I was kidding myself. I liked being able to do things for people I liked and to people I didn’t like. It was a fugazi delusion of power (and total bullshit). Writing allowed me to escape that and Ann Marie allowed me to give writing one last shot. I’m a much happier person these days. I’m fine earning a living as a word processor and writing for extra coin. The bigger money from the street nearly ruined me. I only wish I’d read Revolutionary Road thirty years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have understand 90% of it. There are some wonderful lessons in that novel.  A second choice would be The Grapes of Wrath, but that’s the socialist in me.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
CS: Wow … not sure anymore. For a time it was drumming. I’m back into lifting weights again, but that train has left the yard (as far as besting myself) … getting back into a semblance of decent shape has become a priority (albeit with bumps in the road) … reading, I guess. I truly love to read.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
CS: A few things. A novel featuring Strat-O-Matic about a few lawyers in a money league … the story that already started at the dinner table … a few plays that have been started but not finished … two other literary attempts that I return to from time to time … I’m sure there will be more by the end of the weekend. That’s the beauty of this shit we do … there’s always another thought that leads to a spark, and like The Boss says, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”

Sometimes I’m so musicalistical …

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Man in the Window

In my first (and so far only) traditionally-published novel, Grind Joint, Chicago PI Nick Forte visits his home town of Penns River, PA. While there he beats unconscious a man who annoyed him, saves his cousin the cop from being kidnapped by Russian mobsters, almost provokes a brawl in a restaurant, and kills a couple of guys. (Hey, he was only there for a week.) Forte doesn’t have a death wish; he does have serious case of Don’t Give a Shit.

Readers liked the character—he’s only a guest star in the book, which is part of the Penns River series—which got me to take John McFetridge’s advice and bring out the Nick Forte novels I’d written over the past several years, to show how he came to be that way. (Forte, not McFetridge. John was born smart. I should listen to him more often.) Nick’s a small town boy who failed as a musician and got a real job teaching in the Chicago public schools. He got tired of being the only unarmed person in the building and the cops were hiring. A good cop, the musician in him didn’t take to the regimentation, so he went out on his own.

In the first Forte novel, A Small Sacrifice—which I may have mentioned once or twice was nominated for a Shamus Award last year—Forte grapples with the violence he faces, and frankly, doesn’t come off well. Left to his own devices, Forte would have allowed A Small Sacrifice to tie the record for shortest series in history. (One book, in which the hero dies.) In the second Forte tale—The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Ofhe handles himself a little better, but his reluctance to be more proactive continues to haunt him.

On (or about) June 11, the third Forte novel will drop. (Available at all finer Amazon and CreateSpace outlets near you.) The Man in the Window is a story that orbits Forte’s past as a musician, and his best friend from that life. The principal violist of the Chicago Symphony asks Forte to find out if his wife is cheating on him, but the violist is killed before the report clearing her can be delivered, an apparently innocent victim of a drive-by. The next day Forte is asked to investigate further by a close friend of the dead violist. This leads him to finding people in places they don’t belong, with dubious reasons to be there. When his old trumpet-playing buddy becomes dragged into the worsening situation, Forte finds himself untethered from his natural instincts, and discovers other, less natural inclinations that he’s better at than expected, and comfortable.

I didn’t plan for this character arc. I meant for Forte to be an everyman with some skills who finds himself in situations where he’d have just enough guile and guts to get by. As the series went on, I understood at some subconscious level there was no way for him to experience all he’d been through and not be changed somehow. He could be repulsed by the violence, but continuing a series down that road didn’t appeal to me, in part because that’s not how I thought Forte would respond. Quite the opposite, Forte finds himself drawn in by how violence can accomplish good ends, at least in his eyes. As time goes on, he is not only less willing to walk away, he’s happy to be the initiator.

There are at least two more Forte books on the way. Volume Four, A Dangerous Lesson, will come out in late 2015. That concludes Forte’s development prior to the fateful visit home in Grind Joint. The current work-in-progress (working title Bad Samaritan) shows his continued evolution. Or descent, depending on your point of view. What happens to him after that, I really don’t know.

James Ellroy, talking about the two early giants of the PI genre, said Chandler wrote about the kind of man he wanted to be; Hammett wrote about the kind of man he was afraid he was. That’s a little how I feel about my two primary protagonists. Penns River cop Ben Dougherty is the kind of man I’d like to think I am. Nick Forte is the kind of man I’m afraid I could be, under different circumstances and stimuli. I’m sure I’ll keep him around, one way or another.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Twenty Questions With Eric Beetner

I first became aware of Eric Beetner when, preparing for a Bouchercon panel, I read his novel, The Devil Doesn't Want Me and couldn’t help but visualize what a great movie it would make. Then only issue I have with Mr. Beetner’s writing is what a hard time I have keeping up with him. In addition to The Devil Doesn't Want Me and his newest, Rumrunners, he has also written Dig Two Graves, The Year I Died Seven Times, White Hot Pistol, Stripper Pole At the End Of The World; the story collection A Bouquet Of Bullets; co-authored (with JB Kohl) the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble; and has written the novellas FIGHTCARD: Split Decision and FIGHTCARD: A Mouth Full Of Blood under the name Jack Tunney. This is all since last Wednesday. The man’s a machine.

Eric lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts the Noir at the Bar reading series.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Rumrunners.

Eric Beetner: It's a story about a family who has been doing driving for a criminal enterprise for generations, dating back to prohibition when they were genuinely running rum in the back of model Ts. Now, though, the youngest McGraw, Tucker, doesn't want any part of the family business. Until his dad goes missing during a run. Now Tucker must team up with his grandfather to find the missing McGraw. Things get ugly from there, as usually happens in my books.

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.)
EB: I liked the idea of a guy who has turned his back on the life of crime his father and grandfather have led, only to be sucked into it against his will. From there, I guess I liked the idea of drivers. Getaway drivers, liquor runners, anyone specializing in that part of a criminal operation was interesting to me. It grew out of that. My favorite kinds of stories are ordinary guys thrust into circumstances that are beyond them, and watching them work their way out, often awkwardly and with terrible consequences. 

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Rumrunners, start to finish?
EB: I write fairly quickly, after long periods of thinking about a story and hammering out an outline. I'd say four months from when I knew I was ready to go. I write at night after my day job and after the kids are in bed. If I could do this full time, I'd knock out four or five novels a year easily, I think. 

OBAAT: Rumrunners takes in three generations of “protagonists:” Calvin (the old man), Webb (his son), and Tucker (Webb’s son). In what ways are they like, and unlike each other? For that matter, in what ways are they like, or unlike you?
EB: They're all unlike me except that they are from Iowa. But even with that, I haven't lived there in 35 years. Calvin and Webb are cut from the same cloth, and Tucker is, too, but he doesn't want to admit it. There are many instances in the book where you see his skills as a driver and as a criminal that have been dormant inside him for years. In a way this is Tucker's coming of age story, even though he's already in his thirties. 

OBAAT: In what time and place is Rumrunners set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
EB: The time is now the place is Iowa. I wanted a setting that was off the beaten path. It was more interesting to me to have these families – the McGraws and the Stanleys, who they drive for – be big fish in a very small pond. To set this story in New York or Chicago would have taken it in a very different direction. In backwoods Iowa they can live in their own world and all the pressure on them is from that alone, not the extras that come from living in a big city or being a part of a huge criminal empire. These guys are small potatoes, but they take pride in what they do and no matter how small your world is, when it comes crashing in on you it has the same impact as anyone else. 

OBAAT: How did Rumrunners come to be published?
EB: It was a long road. This book is over four years old. When I originally had sent it to my agent we were shopping another book which eventually got picked up by a division of a Dutton/Penguin. (That book, The Devil Doesn't Want Me has been my most popular book to date) so Rumrunners kind of took a back seat. Then I kept writing more and more novels and I'd get excited about whatever was shiniest and new.

I always liked the book a lot and had plans for a trilogy with these characters, but it was always kind of the forgotten child of my books. When 280 Steps came calling and asking if had anything they could look at, I pulled this one out of the pile and sent it to them. Thankfully they saw the potential and it was saved from obscurity.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
EB: I read almost exclusively crime novels. Some nonfiction, the occasional sci-fi. I love old-school pulp and noir novels about ordinary sad suckers trapped in a web of their own making. I like pulp writers like Harry Whittington, Cornell Woolrich, Day Keene, William Ard. 

Some of the most consistent writers I read today who have yet to fail me with their brilliant work are people like Urban Waite, Roger Smith, Jake Hinkson, Sean Doolittle, Joe R Lansdale, Grant Jerkins, Allan Guthrie, John Rector, Max Allan Collins.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
EB: I've been writing since high school. I started in screenplays for a long time before ever attempting a novel. I loved that in writing a script you could play all the roles in your head. You were director, actor, set designer, editor. It was the only time you ever had complete control over a script. 

When I started writing novels and short stories I enjoyed that same aspect. While you were in the act of writing you weren't beholden to anyone else but yourself and the story. You could move all the pieces on the chessboard without any repercussions. Once it's out and with a publisher or out to readers, you face expectations, personal opinions, skewed perspectives. But when you're writing you control that world fully. And I guess deep down I'm a storyteller, even if my main audience is myself. If I can entertain me, then I figure I have decent shot of doing it for other people.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
Eric Beetner is, in life, a pleasant and not
unattractive young man, yet all his photos
make it appear they are remaking In Cold Blood
and he got a sweet part.
EB: I make stuff up. As a writer, and as a reader, I want to be taken out of my life and shown different people doing different things. I would be a terrible criminal, I'm sure. I've never done drugs, never carried a gun around, never committed a crime worth mentioning. I'm a straight-laced guy and a good citizen. So that's prepared me for wanting to delve into the total opposite of my real world, so if people sometimes think I get dark with my fiction, it's only because my real life is so bright.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
EB: Aside from what I said above about creating and controlling your made-up world, I'd say it's creating a story and characters out of thin air.  I used to play music in bands and I always loved that there would silence, nothing, and then suddenly here was a song. Out if nothing! It's the same way with a book. There are blank pages, and then after a while there are people and situations that never would have existed had I not written them down. That's kinda cool, I think.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
EB: My early life was far more influenced by films than books. I read as a kid, but I didn’t have the same passion for what I was reading as I do now. Mostly it was that thing where the required reading in school wasn’t speaking to me and so I didn’t get out a search for what I really loved in books because I found it in movies.

And even there I liked it pulpy. I love Blade Runner, John Carpenter films, I loved horror movies growing up. I also was very eclectic in my film tastes. By the time I graduated high school I had seen everything from Italian gore-fest horror films to Marx Borthers comedies to Bergman films. I frequented the art house cinema in the town next to mine and went to subtitled films alone all the time. I worked in a video store (remember those?) so I saw anything and everything I could get my hands on. I sampled it all and I loved across genres. Blues Brothers is as good as Citizen Kane to me. Big Trouble in Little China is as funny as Annie Hall.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
EB: I'm an outliner. They are skeletal, but I know where I'm going. And things can change. A good outline is flexible. 

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?
EB: I hate rewriting. Hate revisions. I try to get it as right as I can the first time out. I'll never let a plot hole sit unattended in hopes of figuring it out later. I fix it then. I don't really go back and read anything as I go. I plow ahead and only read back once I've finished. I've seen people get hung up on reworking something midstream and it sucks all the momentum out of it. I think momentum is a lot of writing. 

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?
EB: I write on silence. Being a musician maybe, or just how deeply I relate to music means I can't use it as background noise. 

If this book had a soundtrack it'd probably be a lot of outlaw country. The Smokey and the Bandit soundtrack. Fast paced bluegrass. In other words, nothing I listen to very often in real life, but stuff I like when I hear it.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
EB: I think just to focus hard when you are working. Don't take frequent breaks. Finish a thought before you stop for the night. When you sit down to write, don't start by checking email and all that junk. Twitter can wait. Sit. Focus. Work. 
And then please don't end by tweeting your word count. Nobody cares. The finished product is what matters. 

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
EB: Write what you would want to read. I think that's the first step toward finding your own voice. If you try to study what sells you will fail every time. Don't go for someone else's style, no matter how much you admire that writer. Write your book, not theirs.

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?
EB: Story and character are so inextricably linked that it’s hard to put one above the other. They’re co-dependent. You can have a book with interesting characters but if the plot doesn’t go anywhere they are wasted lives. Conversely, you can have a runaway train of a plot but if you fill it with cliches and empty characters, the reader won’t be thrilled because they won’t relate to it on a human level, which is why we read.

Setting might be last on my list. I write a lot of anonymous places. Cities that aren’t named, stuff like that. It can help add to the universal relatability of a story. I’ve read some great books that I felt were bogged down by a little too much site-specific detail. If a reader isn’t already intimately familiar with your locale, it might not matter if you get every street corner exactly right. Those are details sometimes best left out.

Tone is important, but I think it often comes subconsciously for a writer. If you write from the gut, the tone will follow.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it ab
out that book you admire most?
EB: What a great and difficult question. I’ll say Wild at Heart. I’m a huge Barry Gifford fan and this is ground zero for most people on his work and the start of his most famous creation, the Sailor and Lula books.

I’m fascinated by people in the margins. The outcasts and the ones living in shadows. That’s who Gifford writes about. He has such a distinct voice and he breaks a ton of rules. All those asides and tangents! But I love it.
I wrote a script once that almost got made that, looking back on it now, has a very Barry Gifford style, although this was before I’d read anything of his. It was all short vignettes and weird, unconnected scenes. We did a staged reading of it and some great actors read including Joe Mantegna, Charles Durning, David Alan Grier, Dan Lauria. A studio guy came up to me after and said, “Great stuff. I loved it. Funny and wild. Y’know, it’s not a movie, but I loved it.”

I feel that when I read Gifford. I’m sure some people think, “But it’s not a novel.”
So, yeah, I wish I’d written Wild at Heart.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
EB: I work in the TV/Film industry so I can claim watching TV and movies as research. I’ve been known to paint – badly. I still play music – not often enough. I love being with my kids and my wife. I’m pretty easy to entertain since if I’m ever at a loss I tend to create my own entertainment. I’m never bored. I won’t let myself be.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
EB: This is a very busy year for me. I have a number of books coming out over 2015, but those are already written. Over Their Heads is a crime novel I wrote with JB Kohl. The Backlist is an old school mafia hit man/woman novel I wrote with Frank Zafiro. I have a novella I wrote that will come out near the end of the year called Nine Toes in the Grave. And I just released the full omnibus version of my serialized novel The Year I Died 7 Times.

I’m working now on some short stories I have due for anthologies I’ll be in. Always working a new novel, though at this point I’m trying to pick which of the outlines I have that I want to start.

And if all goes well and there is a decent response to Rumrunners, I would love to complete the trilogy I always wanted it to be. So, fingers crossed people want to read more about the McGraws.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Twenty Questions With Josh K. Stevens

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.