Friday, June 26, 2020

Jochem Vandersteen, Author of Crimes And Riffs: Roadie, Metalhead, PI.

This is Jochem Vandersteen’s fifth interview on OBAAT and each one has been a pleasure. Born and living in The Netherlands, Jochem is as ardent an advocate for American private eye fiction as anyone living. A good review or year-end mention on his  “Sons of Spade” are notable accomplishments and I’m proud to have received both.

Jochem is a writer of note his own self. In addition to two anthologies of PI fiction. (The Shamus Sampler and The Shamus Sampler II), Jochem has published short stories and collections featuring protagonists Noah Milano, Vance Custer, Mike Dalmas, and his newest creation, Lenny Parker. Jochem treads the line between homage and moving the genre forward with aplomb and I’m always interested in what he’s up to. Now you can catch up with him, as well.

One Bite at a Time: Jochem, it’s always a treat to have you on the blog. I hope everything is well with you. Your new book is a collection of your Lenny Parker stories, Crimes And Riffs: Roadie, Metalhead, PI. Talk a little about what readers can expect in the stories. We’ll get to Lenny in a minute.
Jochem Vandersteen: You can expect longer short stories (not yet novelettes
though) divided into small chapters. I first published those at my blog, “Sons of Spade.” They are to a degree standard PI stories but take place partly in the heavy metal subculture and have sometimes a humorous feel although stuff gets dark sometimes as well.

OBAAT: Lenny Parker is described as a “roadie, metalhead, PI,” with PI coming last. Where did you get the idea for him and how did he get into the PI business?
JV: They say you should write what you know. Well, as a metalhead myself and writer for a Dutch webzine about heavy music I know all about the world of heavy metal. I really wanted to set a story in that world. Inspired by other private eyes with part-time gigs I figured a roadie would be a good job that wasn’t full-time enough so offered some chances for the character to do some PI work as well. From that Lenny Parker was born. Lenny started his PI work at a larger PI form, gaining the experience legally needed to start your own PI firm there. At times the daughter of his original boss acts kind of like his muscle and even brains when Lenny needs some of that.

OBAAT: You are as dedicated a devotee of PI fiction as anyone I know, and the entire field respects you for it. I remember what a thrill it was when one of my books made your year-end list in “Sons of Spade” and when you invited me to contribute a story to the second Shamus Sampler collection. What originally drew you to this uniquely American genre and how does it maintain its strong appeal?
JV: I’ve always liked heroes. While I like superheroes I found in the PIs a more relatable kind of hero as a young man. Aside from that I like fast, action-packed reads but detest long fight scenes and a focus on hardware. I like dark stories, but need some lighter moments as well. I like stories that are ripped from the headlines but don’t beat you down with morals. The private eye genre offers me all of that.

OBAAT: Have you ever thought of writing a PI who must go down the mean streets of Amsterdam or Rotterdam?
JV: Not really. I’m not even a fan of PI stories that take place in other places than the USA. I think the PI is as connected to the States as the cowboy is. I have been tinkering around with characters in my home country but if those ever come out they will be in my own native language and not feature private eyes.

OBAAT: You like protagonists who have unorthodox backgrounds. Noah Milano is the scion of a mob family. Vance Custer is a literary Travis McGee who will take on a case if for the book rights. (What’s not to love about a badass writer?) Lenny Parker we already talked about. What draws you to these kinds of characters and how do you come up with them?
JV: You need to do something original to stand out when you want to tell traditional tales but stand out. That is why I try to think of original angles to the backgrounds of my characters. You forget to mention my vigilante character Mike Dalmas who is blackmailed by the cops to take on some missions for them. I guess these kind of things are what I look for in other characters as well. It’s what drew me to Steve Ulfelder’s Conway Sas, A.J. Devlin’s Jed Ounstead and Steve Hamilton’s Nick Mason or even Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. All fairly standard lone wolf PI-like types who either have a different background or just something different / special than just a fedora and an office with their names stenciled on the door.

OBAAT: You’ve focused on short stories. Any plans for a novel?
JV: Writing a novel takes a long time. With a fulltime job, writing reviews for my blog and for the Dutch webzine I don’t have much of that. I like short stories and novelettes. I can get to the point, leave out the parts people skip and tell as many stories as I can. I have been doing a few false starts on a novel though. So yeah, I might write one in the future. I have started a few that might make it to the finish line.

OBAAT: What’s next?
JV: I will continue writing Lenny Parker episodes on my blog. That is something that comes pretty much without effort. I hope the sales of the collection will give me some extra energy to write more and finish that novel we were talking about.

Friday, June 19, 2020

What to Write and How to Do It?

First of all, this is a first world problem. I neither seek nor expect sympathy. I don’t mean to complain or whine and I appreciate more than I can tell you that I’m not breathing through a ventilator.

We’re all affected one way or another by the virus and a president who shows a willingness to run the country by executive fiat if given half a chance. As I type this the whole country and much of the world is (finally) riled up about how police treat minorities. All these things invade our consciousness and affect each of us differently. That’s as it should be. I worry about anyone who claims to remain unaffected. The trick is to compartmentalize enough so one can continue to move forward, learning along the way.

This is a blog about writing and I’d be lying if I said current events had no effect on my work. It’s not that I can’t write, or that I’m blocked. (Regular readers know how I feel about the idea of writer’s block.) Last week I finished a draft of a story I like, using a process different from anything I’d tried before. The problem is deciding what to do next.

The Western has bitten the dust, shot from the saddle by my realization I’m not at home in either the time or the place. I tried to pull together the scenes I’ve written over the past couple of years and, while there’s writing in there I’m proud of, it feels like cultural appropriation. The story seemed less organic than like bits and pieces of other Westerns I’ve read or seen. Maybe I’ll have an idea I like better someday.

I finished Penns River Volume Six last month, so PR-7 is the next logical step. The timing is awkward. Here’s the elevator pitch: A black cop shoots and kills a white guy. The police find no weapon on the victim. Oh, and the guy was a white supremacist and various factions decide to converge on Penns River to send their boy off in style.

You see my problem?

My PR cops are good people who work hard to do the right thing. There are a few jerks, but I know enough cops to know most of what’s in the barrel are good apples. I want cops to be good guys. They protect the people I care about.

Right now it’s impossible to write such a book and not have it be about more than that.

My timing isn’t altogether bad. A new chief took over in Book 6 and in Book 7 he’s going to start to bring in cops from other jurisdictions to replace an exodus of Penns River retirees. They bring big city techniques and attitudes, not all of them palatable to the holdovers. Or the town.

I don’t write door stops, so I’m in danger of doing what John McNally calls putting too much in the container. This is more often a problem with short stories, but it’s a concern with novels, as well. I also don’t want to give anything short shrift. There are things I dare not ignore, but I want to be fair.

I also can’t afford to write as if someone is looking over my shoulder. My books have always been well received (if not frequently purchased) when all I’ve tried to do is write a book I’d like to read.

Which I suppose brings us to the real problem: I don’t know what kind of book I want to read right now. The Beloved Spouse™ and I abandoned a long-anticipated re-viewing of The Shield last weekend after two episodes. We love the show but neither of us was in the mood to watch it. More than ever, I need to hit a proper balance, and that’s going to require more of a plan than I usually take into a book. I always outline the chapters to remind myself what needs to happen to move things along. How it happens I leave for the actual writing. This time I need a better defined vision of not only what happens, but how and why. Not to do so is an invitation to either drift into blandness, write a screed, or create something that goes in every direction without arriving anywhere.

It’s going to be interesting.

At least I’m not on a ventilator.

Stay well.

Friday, June 12, 2020


I don’t watch weekly television. Most recent was Yellowstone, but even then we DVR the whole season and binge them over the course of a week. This means the last TV show I waited a week for a next episode of was Justified.

Ah. Justified.

The Beloved Spouse™ and I watched all six seasons a few weeks ago, the
second time we’ve hung with Raylan and Boyd and Ava since the show went off the air in 2015. While there are lines we can recite with the characters, there are still things we hadn’t noticed and the special features are as good as any I’ve seen.

I don’t have time to discuss all the things I love about this show. Some plots have more twists than an intestine, but the show is an homage to Elmore Leonard, whose plots got out of hand at times and no one cared. That’s not why people read his books, and it’s not why people watch Justified. Leonard’s writing was all about character and attitude and the show has those in spades, from the opening shot of the pilot, Raylan walking through a crowded hotel pool area to kill Tommy Bucks, to the last scene in prison, where Boyd says Raylan personally delivered news of Ava’s “death” because they dug coal together.

Never has anything that ran as many episodes maintained that level of wit in the writing, people saying laugh out loud things and not realizing they’re funny, it’s just what that character would say. Raylan: “If you wanted me to shoot you in the front, you shoulda run toward me.” Boyd: “God damn, woman, you only shoot people when they're eatin' supper?” Ava: “If by uncomfortable you mean it made my skin crawl, then yes.” Dewey Crowe: ““You mean I got four kidneys?” (We could do a whole series on the wisdom of Dewey Crowe.) Art Mullen: “That mystery bag thing is giving me a bit of a Marshal stiffy.”

The show dodged a bullet when the creators realized Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) could not die in the pilot; the chemistry between him and Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) was too good. This kept Justified from being a crime of the week cop show—okay, an extremely well-written crime of the week cop show—and led them to build around annual villains while still showing what else marshals might do on slow days.

Ultimately what makes the show work—in addition to the talent and dedication of the writers, cast, and crew—was the devotion to Elmore Leonard. The special features are full of oblique and direct references to the respect and affection everyone had for him. He died during pre-production for Season Five, and that year’s extras include a hilarious reading of The Onion’s obituary by Patton Oswalt, annotated to show where they broke all ten of Leonard’s Ten Rules of writing. “The Coolest Guy in the Room” is a half-hour biography interspersed with cast members reading from his books. The extra bonus disk has another half-hour of readings, and the actors who read make sure we know what a treat it was to work with him and know him.

Justified is violent, irreverent, funny, and heartbreaking, all in balanced doses. If you haven’t seen it, do so. If you have, do so again. It gets better with age and familiarity. If you’ve seen it and didn’t care for it…different people have different tastes. You’re just not someone I’d want to hang with, is all.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Joe Ricker, Author of Some Awful Cunning

Joe Ricker is a former bartender for Southern literary legends Barry Hannah and Larry Brown. He grew up in southern Maine and has lived in Alabama, Mississippi, New York, and New Mexico. Ricker spent several years travelling the country with his dog and working as a cab driver, innkeeper, acquisitions specialist, professor, lumberjack, ranch-hand, and strip-club bouncer. He lives in Reno, Nevada, where he hikes daily with his four-legged partner in crime. His new book is Some Awful Cunning, from Down & Out Books.

One Bite at a Time: Tease us about Some Awful Cunning. One hundred words or fewer.


OBAAT: Ryan Carpenter works the flip side of witness protection and helps prospective convicts slip off the radar. Where did you get the idea for this unusual occupation?

JR: I’d gone through a bunch of personal and professional setbacks that were really frustrating. I thought a lot about just saying “fuck it” and dropping off the grid, so I moved back to Maine and started working in the woods cutting timber. I worked all winter and decided to take it up a notch by taking a road trip from Maine to the west coast because I’d never been west of the Mississippi except for some Army stuff in Fort Lewis. I was camping in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and there was a crew of prisoners cleaning up the campground. That was the start of it. From there, the idea took shape and it went from wanting to disappear to writing about a guy that helps other people disappear. At first it was a character who helped people escape persecution, but evolved into him helping anyone who wanted to escape. Battered wives, prostitutes, bikers, etc. Basically, Ryan Carpenter helps anyone who needs to get away from where they are or the situation they’re in and start over.

OBAAT: As your bio shows (I will have included it above) you are the quintessential “well-traveled author.” Was it your intent to move around so much, is that just how things worked out, or is that Witness Protection you’re not supposed to talk about?

JR: After that first road trip, I was hooked. I loved being on the road. I went back to teach at Ithaca College for a couple more years, but after continually being turned down for a full-time position, I decided that life would be better on the road. I thought about how fucking stupid it is for colleges to encourage people to take out student loans to get a degree so they can hire you to teach and those same colleges pay dog shit. And then I realized that I was fucking stupid for continuing to teach, so I went back on the road. I picked up work along the way and I did some freelance writing, so I made enough money to survive, which is a lot easier when you don’t have to pay rent. I loved the road. When I got sick of a place or I didn’t like it to begin with, I went somewhere else. It was insanely liberating, and it gave me more to write about, so it certainly became my intent to move around as much as possible. I did that for two years until I settled in Reno.  

OBAAT: Who are the primary influences on your writing? Were they people you set out to emulate, or was it a matter of looking back one day and realizing they’d had more of an impact than you thought?

JR: I’ve had some amazing people influence my writing – some authors I’d only read and a handful of writers I met while I was bartending at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver were probably the two authors I tried to emulate the most when I first started to make an attempt at crafting a story. I fell in love with Carver’s prose, and I really liked how dark O’Connor’s writing could be. When I started to focus mostly on crime fiction, Jim Thompson, Craig Clevenger, and Will Christopher Baer became the guys I really looked up to. Jonathan Lethem, too, was big for me. I walked out of a job at L.L. Bean just to finish Motherless Brooklyn, which I did while sitting in my car in the Bean parking lot.

In Oxford, I was fortunate enough to have some really great people who not only influenced my writing, but showed me enough patience for me to have the courage to get things on the page. Shay Youngblood and Cynthia Shearer were instrumental in helping me discover my strengths, which were few and often sparse. Tom Franklin and Ace Atkins took some time to help me figure out what I was doing wrong and how to make those adjustments. And Barry Hannah and Larry Brown were gentle enough to throw in a kind word here and there when I asked a dumb fucking question about writing. My time in Oxford is always a point of reflection, especially now that I’m getting things published.

OBAAT: We’re both Down & Out Books authors. How did you get hooked up with Eric and Lance?

JR: That’s kind of a sad turn of events. My first book Walkin’ After Midnight came out with another publisher. Jonathan Ashley, another author with the same publisher, reached out to me at some point, and we started talking crime fiction. When that publisher went under, Jon went to Down & Out and hooked me up with Eric. Unfortunately, Jon died shortly after that, so I never got to thank him for linking me up with them.

OBAAT: The classic final question: What are you working on now?

JR: Other than getting better at coloring in the lines, I’m doing some edits to the next two books I have coming out with Down & Out and finishing up the prequel to Some Awful Cunning.