Monday, December 28, 2009

"Flight to Darkness" by Gil Brewer (Gold Medal 1952/New Pulp Press 2009)

As its title proclaims loud and clear, Gil Brewer’s Flight to Darkness is a monument of pulp psychosis—a turbulent, never-ending nose-dive into the depths of one man’s paranoia that, to his utter and horrifying dismay, repeatedly comes true. Nightmares manifest in his real life almost as fast as he can think them up which, considering the degree of his mental trauma, means that things turn bad awful quick for Eric Garth. Originally published by Gold Medal in 1952, we can thank New Pulp Press for giving the book its first reappearance in fifty-seven years. This marks the first release of their “Legends of Pulp” series.

Flight to Darkness opens on Eric’s last day at a California sanitarium where he is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences during the Korean War. He dreads sleep because of a single, reoccurring dream in which he murders his wealthy half-brother, Frank, with a wooden mallet. His only consolation is Leda, a nurse who gives him plenty of close, personal attention. When Eric leaves the sanitarium, he drives off in a new car with Leda, his wife-to-be, in the passenger seat. She’s anxious to get married, but he doesn’t trust his sanity enough to commit just yet. En-route to Florida to reunite with his family, things literally turn south. Eric is suspected in a hit-and-run incident, and then his brother Frank shows up to re-institutionalize him. And then Leda stops visiting him at the hospital. Suspecting the worst, Eric plots his escape—only nothing can prepare him for the mess that awaits him back home.

As in Brewer’s excellent 13 French Street, the main character’s increasingly manic, warped consciousness infects every aspect of the narrative. The first-person narration entraps us in his fragile worldview, which is always on the precipice of shattering. Just like the claustrophobic house in 13 French Street, the physical environments of Flight to Darkness are manifestations of Eric’s psychological states. The movement of the novel is from the sterile, falsely calm sanitarium to the wild backwoods of Florida, with raging rivers and shifting earth that crumbles under their feet because of the torrential rains (a perfect symbol of the characters’ own insecurities).

Communicating the mental distress of his characters is one of Gil Brewer’s strengths as a writer. Physically, the novel alternates between stasis and motion: confinement in hospitals, jails, and secluded cabs, contrasts to the larger action of driving across the country, breaking out of hospitals, and car chases deep into the woods. While the plot shifts between these two modes, the internal narrative of Eric’s mental state continually pushes forward at an erratic rate. Even in the moments of relative still, there is never calm: rising tension, but never release (until the climactic finale scene, that is).

So where does this “flight to darkness” take Eric? Nowhere, really. Geographically it takes him around the world (if we mark the start of his journey during the Korean War and the conclusion in Florida), but psychologically he realizes much of what he already knew and feared before. Even when he first meets Leda, Eric thinks to himself “There she was. My fate stood right there in the door…A fate that was going to be mixed up with death, murder, money, and hell.” He knows she wants money, and it is his brother that has the money; the doctors’ concerns for his own stability are proved right (aided by some scheming frame-ups); his brother’s criticisms of his uncontrollability and penchant for wasting money seem right-on; and he even throws away (at first) a loving relationship for a second chance at a knowingly dangerous fling with Leda. This actualization of one’s own self-doubts is a reoccurring theme not only in Gil Brewer’s work, but also of many of the pulp paperback originals of the era, and one of the defining characteristics of noir literature.

As one would expect with Gil Brewer, Flight to Darkness is filled with snappy dialogue, creative and vivid euphemisms, and striking phrases. Here are just a few of my favorites:

“I cursed her. She was a complete savage, bursting with passion, lustful, wanton, wild. At first it was like drinking hot red wine. Then the whole world shuddered and rocked, with the trees thick and mingled with her hair and the smell of it with the sunny shade, a dark blinding explosion.”

“The open door of the sedan swung gently, to and fro. Wild and with unseen tears in the sunny afternoon.”

“My chest felt as though it was in a vise with somebody slowly turning the handle so my breath came shorter and shorter until I might not be able to breathe at all.”

“It was wild crazy loving and she said things only I would ever hear and half-recall as we tumbled headlong and viciously up through the blackness into the star-studded night.”

[Cover art by Kenney Mencher.]

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Ticket to Ride" by Ed Gorman (Pegasus Books, 2009)

The eighth and final entry in Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain series, Ticket to Ride (Pegasus Books, 2009) finds the Iowan lawyer enmeshed in a web of local, national and international politics, all of which are converging right in the heart of Black River Falls. It’s 1965, different stances on the Vietnam War have divided the town, and the anti-war Sam McCain seems to have found himself on the unpopular side. Things start to heat up when Lou Bennett, whose son was killed in the war, crashes McCain’s anti-war rally and starts a fight with the charismatic young protester Harrison Doran. From there, things only get worse: Bennett is found dead the next day, and Doran is arrested under suspicion of murder. With the whole town convinced of Doran’s guilt, McCain begrudgingly agrees to defend Doran as a favor to a friend. Complicating things even further are McCain’s crush on Bennett’s daughter-in-law Wendy, and a skeleton in the family closet revels a web of secrets that Black River Falls would have preferred to keep buried and forgotten.

The reasons for Gorman’s reputation as a first-rate novelist are on full display in Ticket to Ride. As in The Midnight Room (released earlier this year and reviewed here), here he mixes suspenseful plotting with a humanistic sensibility that makes us sympathize with the characters, regardless of what moral/political side they are on, and what things (good or bad) they may have done. “Cliffie was supposed to be a cartoon,” our narrator says, “It pissed me off that he’d forced me to see him as a human being.” Character is one of Gorman’s strongest suits, and Ticket to Ride is brimming with lively characters, such as a Midwestern wannabe beach-bum surf rocker named Turk, and a pulp writer named Kenny (“One of Kenny’s best serious stories was called 'Grudge Humping on the Amazon.'”).

While the author’s sense of humor is more pronounced here than in The Midnight Room (McCain’s wry observations are an integral element of the narrative’s pacing), it would be a mistake to call this book merely “lighthearted.” As the book’s prologue illuminates, Gorman is investigating not just the murder of Lou Bennett, but also the larger cultural and political climate of the 1960s, which affected the small towns of America as much as they did the nation. It makes a fascinating comparison to our own times, in which much of the nation still remains divided on current political issues, and in which heated arguments and polarizing rhetoric can often muddle the possibility of constructive debate (as is the case in Ticket to Ride).

For all of its humor and cultural insight, for me Ticket to Ride is at its most effective when dealing with the emotions of its characters—wounded lovers trying to move on in their lives, and particularly McCain’s own struggle to come to terms with his father’s mortality and understand their own misunderstandings: “There were times I’d resented him…but these times were always forgotten in the respect I had for what he’d been through and the love I felt for all the patience and encouragement and love he’d given me. Hell, I’m sure there were times when he’d hated me.”

This may be the final Sam McCain book in the series, and while it happened to be my first, it most certainly won’t be my last.

And now for a few favorite quotes from the book:

“It was an afternoon of heat and lawn work and little kids cooling off with moms aiming hoses at them and teenage girls in bikinis sunning themselves on towels and hoping to put a fair number of men in mental hospitals.”

“But Molly’s fetching looks were misleading. She was like dating a character from an Ibsen play.”

“Turk had the looks and sneer of most teen idols. What he didn’t have was the talent. So he tried to compensate for it by mixing James Dean and Marlon Brando. We weren’t having a conversation. We were having Acting class 101.”

“I felt like an encyclopedia salesman who’d just been rejected for the sixteenth time that afternoon.”

“Decades of smoking, drinking, screwing, and being sick in various ways tattooed the air forever.”

“Time overwhelmed me sometimes, how one era appeared bright and fevered, only to dim with another new era suddenly there, bright and fevered, in this long, unending continuum.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Interview with Charles Ardai

Second in the Gabriel Hunt series, Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear (Leisure Books, 2009) was penned by none other than the mastermind behind the whole operation, Charles Ardai. The book finds the adventurer traveling across the globe as Gabriel tries to solve an ancient mystery of the Egyptian sphinx while keeping one step ahead of a ruthless Hungarian criminal. Ardai’s parallel careers as editor and writer for both the Hunt and Hard Case Crime lines make him a unique figure in the publishing world. Recently I had the pleasure of discussing how these two positions affect one another, particularly within the context of the Hunt series.

Pulp Serenade: From Hungary to Egypt to Greece, there’s a lot of geography, mythology, and history in Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear. What sort of research was required for this book?

Charles Ardai: Well, my family's from Hungary, so I've been there a couple of times, and of course, I live in New York, so that takes care of the first two locations in Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear. But for the rest I relied on the magic of the Internet. It's a wonderful thing: You want a map showing every detail of the landscape around the Great Sphinx or every road on the Greek island of Chios? Want a hundred pictures of the Sphinx from every possible angle and every possible time period? It's all just a click away. Things that might have required enormous labor to unearth are trivial to find now. But there's a flip side, too, which is that anything that's easy for you to find is easy for your readers to find, too -- so while in the past a novelist might have been able to get away with making things up, secure in the knowledge that almost none of his readers would know better, he now can be sure that if he gets some point of geography or history wrong, every reader can check him on it and call him on it. So with the enhanced ability to do research comes the obligation to do it, too. And I did. All the interesting historical details in the book are, in fact, true. (Though I fudged details here and there to make for a more exciting story.)

PS: With series novels, it seems that there needs to be a balance between keeping the character consistent from one novel to the next, but also allowing for enough change so that the character grows and keeps the reader interested. Was this something you were conscious of while writing?

CA: It depends on the genre and the level of realism you want. Sherlock Holmes doesn't change significantly from book to book; Matt Scudder does. Indiana Jones didn't change much from movie to movie. We met his lost love in the first one and his father in the third, but he didn't really change, per se. And I think it's in the nature of series adventure stories for the hero not to change a whole lot. You want there to be some interesting character development within a given book -- the character faces some terrible stress and discovers things about himself as he fights his way through it -- but when the next book comes out, he's more or less the same guy as he was in the last one. Now, if we wound up publishing not six books about Gabriel Hunt but sixty, I'm guessing we'd introduce some changes along the way, just to keep things fresh. But it's less critical in the first six books. Remember, for the first few books, you're still discovering who this guy is in the first place -- it's going to be pretty new and interesting even if he doesn't change a whole lot.

PS: Speaking of change, have advances in technology changed the adventure genre much since the days of Doc Savage? At one point, comparing his dead cell-phone to his trust 1945 wristwatch, Gabriel comments, “Sometimes, he thought, the old technologies were better.”

CA: The biggest change in the adventure genre is one that has nothing to do with technology, which is that there basically isn't an adventure genre at all these days. In the late 1800s and on through the pulp era (ending around World War II), you had enough tales of high adventure being written and published and read to constitute a genre. Then the genre morphed into something called "men's adventure," which was more military and less archaeological -- more Rambo than Raiders of the Lost Ark, to use a 1980s movie metaphor. And today there's very little of either. Clive Cussler is sort of adventure-y, and there's all the crypto-religious conspiracy stuff Dan Brown unleashed, but aside from the occasional Indiana Jones tie-in novel, the traditional adventure story has basically ceased to exist. That's why I wanted to create Gabriel Hunt, because I missed this sort of story and no one else seemed to be doing it.

Why is this? I'm not sure. I don't think it has to do with technology making the stories harder to tell -- sure, if you have cell phones some suspense scenes play out differently, but it's easy enough to send your characters to the deep jungle or the heart of Antarctica or a buried city where reception is nil. I think the bigger issue is that, unlike crime or romance (but like pornography, another genre that used to fill bookshelves and has been conspicuously absent for the last thirty years or so), adventure is a genre that's just inherently more fun to experience in a movie or videogame, or through some other kinetic visual medium, than on the page. What's more stirring, watching the truck chase in Raiders or reading about it? Seeing that giant boulder barreling down on Harrison Ford to the strains of John Williams' score...or reading about it? Seeing it will win out every time. (Whereas I'd argue that, for instance, what Cornell Woolrich does to evoke suspense on the page is more viscerally effective that what almost any film director has ever accomplished with visuals.) 

That said I do think there are things you can do on the page in an adventure novel that you can't do on the screen -- all the geography, mythology, and history, as you put it. Conveying a deep sense of the characters being enmeshed in a story that has its roots in bygone centuries. Getting inside characters' heads and finding out what they're thinking while being chased by those giant boulders.

As for technology (and I apologize for straying from the topic), I do think you lose something of the classical adventure flavor if you focus too much on things with bleeping digital readouts, or micro-tracking devices, or fold-out LCD screens -- that stuff feels more James Bond than Indiana Jones. You can use a tiny bit of it if you dirty it up enough -- but not much. Adventure is about sweat and grime, rope and leather, rust and relics -- not about buttons and screens.

PS: Whose life would you prefer: Gabriel or Michael Hunt?

CA: In real life? Michael's. In real life I basically *have* Michael's: I stay at home in a nice apartment in New York City, I talk on the phone and work on the computer in a room surrounded by books. I worry a lot, especially when people I love choose to do reckless crazy things, like flying off to the jungles of Botswana to do research (as my wife Naomi did for her book Empire of Ivory). I was sipping consommé from a porcelain cup while Naomi called me on a satellite phone to say, "An elephant just stuck its head into my tent." And I was very happy to be where I was rather than where she was.

PS: How does stylistic consistency within a series work, with so many writers involved each with their own distinct voice?

CA: It works because everyone has the same beloved references in mind -- all our writers grew up reading H. Rider Haggard and Doc Savage, they all grew up watching Republic serials and Indiana Jones movies -- and because they're all working from a bible I wrote, describing who the characters are, what sorts of things they would and wouldn't do, and what sorts of stores I wanted to tell. Then, when each manuscript comes in, I do a detailed line-by-line edit that not only eliminates glaring inconsistencies (Gabriel's sister can't be short in one book and tall in the next, though her hair color can change) but also results in a smoothing out of the divergent prose styles. I mean, you can still tell they were written by different people -- David Schow's use of language is as different from James Reasoner's, as you can imagine -- but they at least feel like they're writing about the same character. In this respect it's a little like a comic book or TV series. How many different writers have taken a crack at writing Batman comics over the years? Hundreds, probably -- but it's still Batman each time out. And on a TV show you generally have a writer's room with maybe eight or nine people around a table, each tackling a different episode or a different set of scenes, and then the showrunner polishes it all and puts it all together. From the viewer's point of view, it's a single coherent set of stories about a group of characters, but behind the scenes it's the work of a group of disparate writers.

PS: Has your work as an editor and publisher influenced your own work as a writer?

CA: I hope it's made it better. Certainly, exposure to thousands of bad manuscripts over the past few years has given me a greater appreciation for how hard it is to write a good one; and also, just at a practical level, has exposed to me just which scenes in the crime genre are tired and overdone. If I've seen something in a hundred submissions, I'm much less likely to write it myself. Which is one of the main reasons I encourage writers who want to get published in a genre to read a lot -- and I mean a LOT -- in that genre. A hundred books, two hundred...know what people have done, both good and bad, before you start playing around with it yourself. (Would you go to Carnegie Hall for an audition on the violin if you'd never listened to a few hundred pieces of classical music?)

PS: Have you thought about expanding the Hunt series to short stories? Perhaps some sort of pulp-inspired magazine along the lines of The Doc Savage Magazine?

CA: Actually, yes -- but it's tricky. I was planning to write a Hunt short story for an anthology of adventure stories Otto Penzler was working on, and I came up with a great plot, but what I found when I sat down to write it was that it's very hard to cram an adventure plot into 5,000 or even 10,000 words. Exotic scenery takes a certain amount of page space to describe, and a good action scene eats up a certain amount of words, and before you know it, your 10,000 words are gone. You can't do a proper adventure story, with multiple exotic locales and a backstory about an ancient artifact and multiple exciting action set pieces, in 10,000 words. I mean, you *can*...but it can wind up feeling rushed. And the alternative of doing a miniature story, with just one setting and one action scene, isn't entirely satisfying either. Of course, there are decades of great adventure stories to use as models, so it's obviously not true that it can't be done...but I think adventure as a genre just works best at novel length (as opposed to mystery, for instance, which in some ways works better at short story length; certain puzzle plots can support 5,000 words but not 50,000). Combine that with the fact that fiction in magazine form is dying (the audience for magazines like Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps a tenth what it was at its peak) and that, while there are hundreds of writers already producing mystery short stories, there are very few who are already writing adventure fiction, and you can see why launching a magazine of adventure short stories would be a risky proposition at best. But that doesn't mean it's not a tempting one.

PS: Any possibility of Gabriel Hunt making it up on the big screen?

CA: Yes. It's a definite possibility. One of the finest agents in Hollywood is currently discussing that very topic with a number of producers and studios, and I think there's a good chance we'll see something happen.

PS: What are your thoughts on the current state of the adventure genre? How does its popularity with readers compare with previous eras?

CA: I think I've probably covered this in my (off-topic) answer to your earlier question, so I won't rehash it all here, except to say that adventure stories have never diminished in popularity -- it's just a question of the form the storytelling takes. Every year Hollywood puts out a number of adventure films and TV series, and they generally do well at the box office, whether it's the period shenanigans of the "Mummy" movies or a child-oriented picture like the recent "Journey to the Center of the Earth" or a TV series like "Relic Hunter." Videogames like "Tomb Raider" are bestsellers (and in turn spawn films starring Angelina Jolie). "Jurassic Park" and "King Kong" are basically adventure stories. In comics, there's a new series coming next year that will team Batman with Doc Savage.

The one place you don't see adventure fiction much any more is in the aisles of your neighborhood bookstore, and that's a shame. The same people who enjoy a "Tomb Raider" game or film would enjoy a Gabriel Hunt novel if only they picked one up. And hopefully they will.

PS: What’s next for Ardai the writer? Will “Richard Aleas” be making his return anytime soon?

CA: Ah, Ardai the writer! Well, first Ardai the editor has to finish working on the next batch of Hard Case Crime books, including Donald Westlake's never-before-published Memory; and then Ardai the editor has to edit the sixth Gabriel Hunt book; but once those tasks are done, Ardai the writer can pick up his pen again. And what will that pen produce? I don't know yet. I do have an idea for another "Richard Aleas" book, a one-off not featuring John Blake but very much in the same spirit as the Blake books, but I don't yet feel I've quite figured out the right way to tell that story. So I don't think that one will be next. I could write the Hunt story I wasn't able to cram into 10,000 words as a novel -- that would certainly be fun -- but after working on six Hunt books in a year and a half, I think I'll be ready for a break. Which leaves a few other possibilities, including a fantasy novel I've been telling people about for more than a decade but still haven't written, and a screenplay Naomi and I have been working on that's just too good not to finish. No shortage of ideas -- just of time...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Interview with Tom Piccirilli

Winter may be approaching, but you don’t know cold unless you’ve read Tom Piccirilli’s Shadow Season, a bleak, snow-bound nightmare of isolation, mistrust, and unleashed emotions. Thankfully, though, Tom Piccirilli is the exact opposite, a warm and friendly writer who generously took the time to answer a few questions for the site. Here is our recent conversation:

Pulp Serenade: For the first question, why don’t we start at the beginning? Where did Shadow Season start for you – was it a character, a location, a mood? All of these seem integral to the novel.

Tom Piccirilli: I'm not someone who can ever point to a particular reason for any of my work. I'm not sure how or even when an idea begins to take root. But by the time I'm ready to start writing there's something there, a kernel of a concept with some basic idea of character, setting, theme, etc. It all kind of hits at once, everything more or less tangled together. I think that's why they all appear to be so integral, because they are integrated right from the get-go.

PS: How did you come to choose the two epigrams, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and the gruesome folk rhyme “The Two Dead Boys”?

TP: I wanted something moody that really encapsulated the feel and atmosphere of the novel. The surreal and intensely dark (but also quite bizarre and humorous) "Two Dead Boys" seemed to really hit home. It mirrors and parallels in a warped fashion some of the narrative drive of the book. The book is dark and intense and offbeat, and so is the piece. The Eliot poem is one of my favorites and I love the music of the stanza. The idea that a shadow takes on human qualities really hit home for me.

PS: One of the things I was most drawn to was the deliberate pacing. How do you gauge the narrative speed of your own work, the rate at which the story and details unfold?

TP: I just don't do "normal" very well. Some writers do. They spend the proper amount of time showing their protagonists in a life of normalcy and then describe things going to hell in a handbasket. I prefer to start in the basket, already in motion, in third gear at least, with the story already whipping along. It helps to keep me interested in the story over the long haul, and hopefully keeps the reader gripped as well.

PS: In what ways did Finn’s blindness challenge or liberate you as a writer?

TP: It was difficult as hell because the novel is written from Finn's point of view, so I had to change my usual narrative style. I couldn't use any concrete details or visual descriptions. I had to focus in on using the other senses and in experimenting with how else to tell the tale to readers who are used to being fed depictions and colors and visual illustrations. I wrote most of the book with my eyes closed, purposefully making it difficult on myself so that, to a very small degree, I could imagine how being blind would effect me. It seemed to me that in films and books the blind protagonists always got along so well. It never made them bitter, never truly handicapped them. So I wanted to focus in on the pain involved, the fear of losing your grounding, your life, your mind.

PS: I was very intrigued by this subculture of “holler” families that lies at the margins of the town. Where did the name “holler” come from?

TP: "Holler" is standard for "hollow," the small in-between towns tucked back in the hills and valleys, usually in the deep south and Appalachia. I wrote a couple of southern gothics a few years back and learned a lot of these small communities during my research. I just took it out of the south and moved it to upstate New York, which can often feel just as off the map as any other place in the boondocks.

PS: Finn, Ray, Roz, Rack, Harley – none of them seem to fit traditional notions of heroes and villains. And at one point, you even describe Finn’s thoughts as, “He wonders if Rack Moon, this knife wielding rapist, has tender dreams for his family?” Can you talk about this delicate blend of characters that are certainly sympathetic, but often highly reprehensible?

TP: The gray area between good and evil is the most fascinating place to work in, I think. If you want to be truthful to the story, the idea of human nature itself, then you can't have a character who is totally good or totally evil. There's no such thing, really. The villain is the hero of his own story. They all have their genuine reasons for doing what they do, no matter what kind of fallout or consequences. When writing these characters I had a lot of fun trying to move the needle on the gauge a little. Okay, in this scene, this guy is more bad. Now he's a little bit more good. Okay, she's just fucking awful. No wait, she's doing something nice. It keeps the reader on his toes and is simply more honest, I feel.

PS: Could you say something about your decision to write the novel in the present tense as opposed to the past? As a reader, it stood out as very significant for me.

TP: Present tense is so immediate, and when you're writing from your protagonist's POV, it really puts you in his head. Since I was, as I mentioned, a little hamstrung in my ability to describe and detail events, I thought I could make up for that by going even deeper into the character. That's really what a book is. It's someone or something sort of whispering this tale in your ear. "You wanna hear an amazing tale? Well, here it is–" Present tense allowed me to get a little closer to the reader, hiss in his ear a little louder.

PS: At the beginning of the book, Jesse remarks on how Finn never broke the spines of any of his books. What are your habits as a reader? Do you have a large library of your own?

TP: I'm a non-stop reader and I'm still pretty obsessive about keeping my books in good shape. Over the past couple of years my tastes have narrowed to reading mostly crime fiction. As big a fan as I am of science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc., I just can't keep my head interested in any of it at the moment. I'm sure the wheel will turn again one day, but for the time being, I'm a noir-head.

PS: In your bio, you mention that you enjoy reading Gold Medal books. What is it about them that continues to attract readers half a century later, and how do you see yourself influenced by them?

TP: I think a lot of it goes back to that gray area I mentioned earlier. Noir fiction essentially takes a righteous person and focuses on that weakness in him that tempts him to cross over into doing selfish, greedy, unrighteous things. But it's all understandable. You can understand why these people do these terrible things. You understand the fear, the vice, the temptation, the lust that moves them away from the good but meager life and try to grab the big bad brass ring. Whether that brass ring takes the form of stolen bank loot, an underage temptress, a seductive married woman, or whatever, you are totally on board for the ride. I think that's why I dig them so much. As I climb screaming into middle age, a lot of rose-colored petals have fallen from my eyes. I now understand the pain of mediocrity, the power of the unfulfilled dream, the desire for greater satisfactions. That human drive is a human greed. The older you get the louder the clock ticks, and the harder you're willing to push and the more you're willing to gamble on getting what you want. Dealing with that in my fiction is a nice way to vent.

PS: Your bio also mentions “trash cult films” and “Asian cinema,” and I think one can detect a certain cinematic strain in Shadow Season, particularly its pacing. Have you ever done any writing for movies before, or are you interested in doing some?

TP: I'd love to do some work for Hollywood. It hasn't happened yet, but I'm willing as fuckall.

PS: What is an average writing day like for Tom Piccirilli? Where and how does all of this happen?

TP: In a manner of speaking I write all day long. Meaning I try to stay in the proper mindset to write. So I'll read for a while, and then write a few paragraphs. Then I'll watch a movie, and then write a page. Then I'll walk the dogs, and I'll write a bit more. It helps to keep me from burning out in front of the screen. I don't understand these people who say they write from 8am to 10pm. I also don't believe them, but that's another story. The point being, the story is always there in the back of my head, and it's always going no matter what I'm doing. I try to write 1k clean words a day that won't need a lot of editing down the line.

PS: So much of Shadow Season has to do with the various pressures felt by Finn. As a professional writer, what sort of pressures do you feel?

TP: Like I'm sitting at the bottom of the ocean, baby. The pressures of life stack up, and making a living by tapping on a keyboard and making up stories is a rough trade. The pressure to produce, the pressure to be original, to not repeat myself, to keep shouldering through the other writers and make room on a bookstore shelf for my work, to pay bills without being a corporate wage slave, and not getting the benefits that said wage slaves get. But mostly it's about staring at the empty blank white page and trying to put something on there that people will want to read. It's a constant fight against the white.

PS: Has the experience of writing a novel changed for you over the past two decades?

TP: I know my voice better now than back when I was starting out. The process has evolved. I write a little faster now than I did back then, but there's a bigger fight not to repeat myself, not to cover the same territory. When you've got 20 novels and a couple hundred stories behind you, you've got to search farther and farther from home for material.

PS: And lastly, what is next for you? Any upcoming projects that we should be looking forward to?

TP: My next novel is called The Underneath, although that's a tentative title, and it should be out sometime in ‘10. It's about a young man who returns home to his family of thieves on the eve of his brother's execution in order to find out why his brother went on a killing spree. It's as much a family saga as it is a crime novel. A new novella from Tasmaniac called The Last Deep Breath will see print early next year as well, and a digital novella Cold Comforts will be available for download from Delirium Books sometime in the next few weeks. Keep checking my FB page and the blog for updates:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Anthony Boucher on Words and Writing

The politics of reviewing can be murky waters. For me this process is both an enjoyable creative act as well as a reflective one that helps me parse out my own thoughts on what it is I have read or watched. And while I don’t think one necessarily needs to be a novelist to write about novels, or a filmmaker to write about movies (as not every reader/audience member will have this background), it’s an issue that I always think about. (I do enjoy writing short stories and have a few in the works right now, but aside from small projects I would hardly call myself a filmmaker.)

Anthony Boucher was one of a kind, admired both for his critical and fictional writing. In his essay “You and the Reviews and the Reviewers,” he takes up the issue of what makes a good critic, and whether or not they should be active in the field they are writing about. Here’s an excerpt of what he had to say:

“Foremost a liking for mystery novels… Second, as thorough a knowledge as possible of what’s been done in the past… Further desiderata include some knowledge of literature in general…

“Should the reviewer also be a creative writer? That, my friends, is a tough one. Either way, the victim of an unfavorable review can make what seems a legitimate complaint. If the reviewer is not a writer, what does he know about the field? He’s probably soured and frustrated because he can’t sell, and takes out his spite on those who do. If he is a writer, he’s jealous of competition, he can understand only his own kind of story, and who’s he to talk anyway – look at his own stuff!

“Perhaps the ideal mystery reviewer is the man who knows the mystery novel detailedly and intimately, and yet can view it with the detachment of the scholar who has no desire to write fiction; but James Sandoes and Howard Haycraft are rare figures. It’s true, unfortunately, that the average noncreative reviewer of mysteries simply does not know enough about his subject…”

–Anthony Boucher, “You and the Reviews and the Reviewers.” From The Mystery Writer’s Handbook, ed. Herbert Brean (Harper & Brothers, 1956), pages 261-262.

"Shadow Season" by Tom Piccirilli (Bantam, 2009)

Is it that a book just happens to come along at the right time of your life, or do your own circumstances open up the text in distinctly personal ways? Tom Piccirilli’s Shadow Season was one of those books that I connected with from the very first line, and went on to read in a single afternoon. It’s an uncompromisingly dark story masterfully told that speaks well beyond its gripping scenario. As one character reflects on his own life, “It’s not much of a story. A common drama, an average tragedy just like everyone’s. When you boiled it down to the highlights you realized that you were where you were because you look a left turn instead of a right…” Piccarilli allows us to connect with the characters on a level that feels very private, perhaps all the more so because of the main protagonist’s blindness: together, we share in his darkness.

The most redolent description of Shadow Season comes from Piccirilli himself: “savage hopelessness.” It’s how he describes the atmosphere of a train ride to Sing Sing prison, but it is equally suggestive of the cold flames that slowly consume St. Valarian’s Academy for Girls and the small town of Three Rivers, NY one bleak wintry day. It is as though the uncomfortably familiar Cold Spot (the title of his excellent, Edgar-nominated novel published in 2008) had somehow become manifest and escaped the deep recesses of a character’s subconscious and taken root in reality: “it was a deeper and blacker place than he remembered, but the ice slid over his utter desolation, cooling him, forcing him to function.”

As snow falls and the temperature continues drops, the cast of characters in Shadow Season find themselves deep in the winter of their discontent. Finn is an ex-cop-turned-teacher unable to shake the anguish of a former case that resulted in the death of his wife, the permanent loss of his sight, and the incarceration of his former police partner. But even the isolation of the woods can’t provide a haven, as the amorous advances of a young female student have recently compromised his position with his boss, Judith, and his girlfriend, Roz. (That Roz used to be involved with his former partner doesn’t make things any less complicated.) A stroll through the cemetery destroys his already fragile sense of equilibrium as Finn comes across a battered young girl named Harley Moon who suggests that he is in danger, and then disappears as mysteriously as she first appeared. Finn thinks nothing of it, until Roz fails to return from an impulsive run to town. As the snowstorm worsens and school becomes cut off from the outside world, Finn begins to sense that they aren’t alone at the school anymore.

Piccirilli’s refined artistry as a writer, particularly his expressive phrasing and impeccable pacing, are on display throughout Shadow Season. Finn’s hyper-sensory perception as a result of his blindness seems to infect Piccirilli’s prose, which uses touch and temperature, sound and smell, to evoke the physical surroundings of the campus, and the increasing isolation of the hostile environment. Even Piccirilli’s decision to write in the present tense seems related to this overarching sense of “blindness”: everything is happening “now,” with no foresight into the future, and no assurance that everything will turn out all right in the end, if in fact there ever will be a finite “end” to any of this. This only adds to the highly cinematic quality of the narrative, with the bulk of it occurring on a single day with the occasional flashback to earlier times.

Much like Ed Gorman with his recent The Midnight Room, Piccirilli (who collaborated with Gorman on the book Cast in Dark Waters) isn’t interested in standard divisions of good and evil. As one character says, “In the movies the heroes are supposed to be more clever and outwit the bad lads…But I’m not clever, I’m a fookin’ idjit in most things.” It isn’t even that Piccirilli’s heroes show shades of villainy, or that his villains are sympathetic, because the narrative doesn’t rely on such dichotomies. Instead, human failure seems the operative motivation for all the characters, which brings to mind the famous quotation from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” It is the search for these reasons that preoccupies Finn – not only about his partner’s corruption and his wife’s death, but also the mutual attraction with his student and the sudden appearance of Harley Moon and her brothers that seem to want something from Finn and falsely assume that he knows what it is they are after. As his past and present reveal themselves to be more connected than even Finn was aware of, the answers to his questions become at once more apparent and increasingly opaque.

Finn is dismayed to discover that, indeed, everyone does have their reasons, but that doesn’t give any more coherence or meaning to life. “You’ve got to wonder what any of it means. Maybe there will be revelations and understanding at the end, but probably not. You don’t always get the answers you need.” What Finn is after is control, not only over his own life, but the world around him. First as a police officer and then as a teacher, he sought to assert his own influence over others. Even his switch of locations from New York City to small town Three Rivers can be seen as an attempt to regulate his grasp on reality (literally and figuratively). In this light, “blindness” becomes emblematic of our own uncertainty and anxiety about where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going in the future.

Finn’s increasing disappointment with himself and his failures is highly relatable, and it is not just limited to his character. Were Piccarilli to tell the story from Judith’s perspective, we would see dissatisfied spouses and professional collapse; or from the point of view of Murph (the school’s custodian) we get a sense of unrequited ambition, the unsuccessful dreams of an Irish immigrant who comes to America and is as far away from his goals as ever. We only get hints of these parallel, unexplored narratives, but even this is enough to remind us that Finn is not alone in his condition – and Piccirilli and us are right there alongside him every faltering, uncertain step of the way.

Favorite quotes:

“Everyone needs affirmation.”

“In a lifetime of mistakes, she’s only about halfway up the list, but she might be the one to finally bring me down.”

“The old ways don’t die, they persist through poverty, illness, depression, murder.”

“Sometimes you play the role and sometimes the role plays you.”

“He falls to his knees as the past embraces, fondles, and murders him.”

“Anyone worth a damn has secrets.”

“Egos are delicate. Inconsequential achievements are sometimes the only ones you get.”

“His past wants him more than he wants it.”

“Even shadows want to survive between the moments when clouds pass overhead.”

Howard Browne on Words and Writing

Before he was writing Halo for Satan, Halo in Blood, and The Taste of Ashes, Howard Browne was like the rest of us (well, maybe his life was a little more colorful and exciting than mine -- ok, a lot more). In his own words, here is the inauspicious beginning of Howard Browne's career as a writer.

In 1937 I was in my early thirties, and I told my wife, "I'm going to be a rich and famous writer."

She laughed, saying, "You never finished high school . . . "

"I can read – I figure I can write," was my reply. I had read Jack Woodford's Trial and Error, a book about how to become a professional writer, in which he makes it look so easy, and he said the easiest people in the world to write for were the newspaper syndicates -- if you could spell correctly, they'd buy it.

I'd seen that in the Chicago Daily News they ran a daily short story -- a thousand words. I thought, lemme try it, I ought to be able to write a simple little plot, and I wrote a couple. I wrote them in longhand, but had my secretary type them up at the office. I sent them to Pat Lowry, and soon had a phone call telling me to come in and see him. I thought maybe I'd plagiarized something unconsciously, but I went in to see him. He said, "I'm buying these two stories, and I'll pay you $15 a piece, but don't write any more for me." The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

I said, "Why not?"

He said, "You write too well for this market -- try the pulp magazines."

I went home and thought, "Pulps? Fuck that, I'll write a novel!" I'd been an avid reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I thought, hell, I'll write a Tarzan story -- I know 'em backwards. But I had to prepare myself for it. I took his books and made lists of adjectives -- describing jungle, describing animals, action, etc. -- and I categorized them. So, if I'm writing and I want to describe the jungle, I turn to this list of fine adjectives -- I handled it like I'd handle a problem in school! And I wrote Warrior of the Dawn – it took me 52 Sundays, because that was the only day of the week I had the time to write. A local bookseller, Max Siegel, sent it to a publisher, and he got ahold of the publisher's reader's report, the opening line of which was: "Take the typewriter away from this man before he hurts himself." Now that doesn't exactly fill you with confidence! Then it got nasty. I could have killed the guy. His name was Lawrence Dwight Smith. Later on I wrote a book in which I killed off a Lawrence Dwight Favelle, so I got him.

--Howard Browne, "A Brief Memoir"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Interview with JB Kohl and Eric Beetner

JB Kohl and Eric Beetner's One Too Many Blows to the Head was just released by Second Wind Publishing with cover art by Marc Sasso. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing both the authors about their writing and reading habits, as well as their thoughts on noir and pulp literature and film.

Pulp Serenade: Team-writing has been producing some great stuff recently, like Ken Bruen’s collaborations with Reed Farrel Coleman (Tower) and Jason Starr (Bust, Slide, and The Max). The rest of us writing solo are clearly missing out – what is the best part of having a writing partner?

JB Kohl: I think the best part of having a writing partner (for me) is the anticipation of seeing what would happen next. I found knowing that Eric was working on his own story line kept me motivated to push my own character a little harder. We wrote in alternating chapters...finish one, send it off, wait for the next. Although we had an outline we worked from, things will always deviate from an we waited. It was always thrilling to get a new installment from Eric. I would read what Ray was up to and that would guide how I positioned Fokoli in the next scene. I found it to be anything but boring.

Eric Beetner: Not boring at all. Downright exciting. My favorite part of One Too Many Blows To The Head was getting to write a novel and at the same time read one. With each new chapter that came in I got to get pulled deeper into the story and have it stay fresh for the entire writing process. Sometimes it is easy to get too inside a book when you’re working on it all alone. This allowed us (well, me anyway) to keep a critical eye and respond to the new chapters as a reader first and a writer second. I felt good about sending chapters to Jennifer and having her react the same way. We had a broad outline but things would change and the specifics were all new to each of us every time we would open an email.

I just finished Tower and love the Max and Angie series from Bruen and Starr. Now having been through it I understand the appeal. Especially in this day of file transfers and email it is easier than ever to work on a book from half way around the world if you so desire.

JBK: I also think the choreography — if I can use that term — was neat. Eric has a real knack for getting his character into a real pinch. Because my chapters were often written in response to his, it was fun to play off of what was happening with kept me on my toes.

The other thing we’ve mentioned over and over but have neglected to mention here is that there is something to be said for being in completely different time zones. It was easy to send something off to Eric and then sit back and wait. We both have a similar work ethic so neither of us had to wait long for the next installment. Truly, it was the easiest writing I’ve ever done.

PS: Which is more difficult for you, getting the words on the page, or editing once they are there?

JBK: Without question getting the words on the page. I have to remind myself to chill out and not edit until it’s all done. With One Too Many Blows To The Head, knowing that someone else was going to be reading my raw stuff was a little unnerving at first. I had to work to get over that. In the end, I think the trouble I had with regard to editing was knowing when to stop.

EB: For me it is the editing. I hate it. By the time I decide to go to the trouble to write something I know exactly how it will go and how it will end, etc. I have written sixteen screenplays, and scripts are all about structure and economy so you damn well better know where you’re going. A novel is much more time consuming and filled with a million tiny details so when it comes time for me to blurt it out I storm ahead and don’t look back. This leads to some frightening discoveries in editing. I have a lot of “What the hell was I thinking?” moments.

I can deliver a high word count every day when I’m in the inertia of it but that’s not to say it is all gold, or even tarnished brass some times. Guess that’s why my first solo novel hasn’t sold. Needs another serious editing pass. I’ve been so eager to avoid doing it that I went ahead and wrote a whole other solo book.

Another great thing about collaborating was having that second set of eyes on everything you do. Made editing less painful (because I made her do most of it!)

JBK: Yeah. You still owe me a year’s supply of chocolate for that too.

PS: Reading habits? Just one at a time, or five? And how about your To Be Read pile – is it taller than you?

JBK: I try to pick up stuff from people I don’t know as often as I can. If the synopsis is good then I’ll read it. And yes, I read four or five books at a time. (Three at the present time.)

Genres? Obviously I like crime, but I fear that if I only read crime I wouldn’t be able to bring any other elements into my own writing. So I read romance occasionally to keep that melodramatic edge to things...the misunderstood man, trying to better himself. I think that helps generate interest from female readers, like why chicks love Mad Men on TV, I guess. I also read horror. (Dan Simmons is one of my favorites, as is King, of course). I read mystery (Agatha Christie, Diane Mott Davidson, and too many others to mention) and I’m reading a mystery by a relatively new author named Jacqueline Winspear entitled Maisie Dobbs. I picked it up because my daughter’s name is Maisy. I just finished L.A. Noir by John Buntin and Devil in the White City by Erik Larson — both non-fiction. At any given time there are three or four books on my nightstand to be read. And if a book is really good, I read it once a year or so.

PS: I know what you mean, Jennifer, about reading outside of one particular genre. John Fante’s pacing and structure is as big an influence on me as someone like David Goodis – and even though they were writing different kinds of books, comparing them reveals more similarities than at first might be expected.

EB: I can only read one at a time. If I had my way I would only read on airplanes. Trapped in one spot with no option to go anywhere is my best reading scenario. Other than that I only read on my lunch hour from work. People tend to think I’m antisocial (which is kinda true) but I don’t care. I need my reading time. It does mean I only read a tenth of what I want to read in a year. Right now my TBR pile is 39 books deep. Yep. Sad but true. Curse you Hard Case Crime year-end $1 sale!

PS: Only 39? I will not admit the number in my pile, but lets just say I have begun stacking books in front of books on my shelves. I like to read one book intensely in as few sittings as possible, which is difficult now that I am in Grad School (which eats up most of my time). Another problem that when I read an author I like, I jump at getting other books by them. But for every book I read, I usually discover other books that they like, or similar books recommended to me by friends. And soon this web of books to be read grows out of control.

OK – next question. Someone wants to know what “pulp” is – what one book (or short story) do you give them and why?

JBK: I give them The Deputy’s Widow... because I wrote it. And because I’d like to think it holds all the elements of classic noir: a good story, a hopeless world, a femme fatale, a hopelessly flawed man looking to set a crooked world right.

Of course, the first true noir/pulp I ever read was The Maltese Falcon and I fell in love with Sam Spade. I’m sure impressionable girls read that book when it first came out and thought, “If only Sam had met me, he wouldn’t have been so miserable. I could have made him happy.” Because, you know, that’s how young, impressionable chicks think.

PS: The Maltese Falcon was also my first foray into noir. As much as I liked it at the time (sometime early in high school), it wasn’t until I read Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly that I was truly hooked on the stuff. That was the first time that my eyes couldn’t keep up with how fast I wanted to read a book.

EB: A hearty seconding for The Deputy’s Widow. It was the book I read that made me send Jennifer one of my stories and then jump at the chance to write with her. Classic detective fiction with enough modern touches to be something new. Get to work on that sequel, will ya! I mean, after ours of course.

I’d go Cornell Woolrich for sure. A short, not a novel. Maybe "The Heavy Sugar." I love Woolrich’s use of blatant coincidence. It requires a suspension of disbelief but if you buy into it then he gives you a hell of a ride. I like that he didn’t do detective stuff, as much as I love a good Chandler. I prefer stand alones about sad suckers who get stuck in quicksand of their own making.

I guess I would start with a Woolrich collection like Darkness at Dawn or Night & Fear. If you’re not hooked by the end of that then Noir is not your thing. Move on.

PS: I love Phantom Lady and Black Angel, but now you are reminding me how much Woolrich I still have to catch up on! Speaking of Black Angel and The Bride Wore Black... The femme fatale – is she really out for blood, or just the figment of an overly active, paranoid masculine imagination?

JBK: I could get into a lot of redundant analysis of how men are threatened by powerful, intelligent women, how men think with what’s below the belt rather than with what’s above the neck and that’s why the femme fatale is such a powerful character... but puh-lease. That’s not accurate so let’s not go there.

Here’s what I think: I think the femme fatale adds an element of danger for male readers in the same way a James Dean character made girls’ hearts go pitter-pat in the 1950s. The femme fatale is appealing but can you trust her? Is she misunderstood or truly bad? One just doesn’t know. The only thing that’s certain is that she’s got a secret and, humans being what we are, we just gotta know. And we gotta know no matter what. If that means a guy has to wrestle a rattle snake, well then I guess as long as the snake has big boobs he’ll probably enjoy the match, even if he gets bit.

EB: Wow, wrestling a rattlesnake is as good a metaphor for the femme fatale as I’ve ever heard.

Is it a cop-out to say, “a little of both”? I think the most famous and best loved (if they can be loved at all) are no doubt out for blood. On screen think Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Jane Palmer in Too Late For Tears, Jill Merrill in Night Editor or Paula Craig in Framed (both of the later played by Janis Carter, for some reason the least recognized but bitchiest bitch in Film Noir)

Now, if you talk about the perspective of the writers then you are entering different psychological territory. Are they mother figures? Stand-ins for the wife? Paranoid depictions of repressed homosexuality? Depends on the writer. Many volumes have been written, though, by angry undergrads about the rather misogynist tone of many, if not most, of Noir literature and especially the films.

The fact remains - the more blatantly self-serving and cold the femme, the more the audience loves her.

PS: Best film adaptation of noir literature?

JBK: I have no idea. I loved L.A. Confidential. And, I don’t guess you could call it noir, but Denis Lehane’s Shutter Island has always been one of my favorite books and that’s being made into a movie. I can’t wait to see what that one is like.

EB: This is so tough. So many great films have been made from rather pedestrian titles which I think makes a better adaptation than a great book to great movie transfer.

I’m tempted to go Woolrich again here. Rear Window is an easy target. How can you go wrong? Phantom Lady is a pretty good film from a solid but not amazing book.

But really I have to say The Asphalt Jungle is right up there but comes a close second to The Killing. The fact that Kubrick was allowed to retain the fragmented structure of the source material, Clean Break by Lionel White, is still shocking to me. But he came out with one of the best and most different crime films ever.

PS: Jennifer, I’m looking forward to Shutter Island as well. Both of you hit on some of the greats. I can’t argue with any of them. Alain Corneau’s Serie Noire, based on Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman, sits at the top of my list. How about a favorite pulp cover?

JBK: I can never pick a favorite of anything. My kids ask me stuff like this all the time... I love all the pulp covers. I have an old “Detective Short Stories” pulp from March 1939 and if I had to, I’d say that’s my favorite because I love that copy and I’ve read it a hundred times. It’s got a woman in a red dress on the front. Her back is pressed up against a guy with a gun. She’s in a red dress (of course), slightly ripped in front, hanging off the left shoulder. The man behind her is firing the gun. Behind him is a second man, crouched on a tabletop ready to jump him. It’s all very, very suspenseful. Really. It is.

EB: I can’t believe I have an answer for this. First off it should be said that there is no true way to pick one because just when you decide on something you see the next one and it becomes your favorite that week.

I have a soft spot for Kiss My Fist. I will admit that 50% of my love for this is the title. The boldness to put such violence right on display! It’s a good painting too. I could give a dozen that are just as good, if not better, art-wise but nothing compares to the combo of art and title.

It must also be said how thrilled we are with the cover for One Too Many Blows To The Head. It was painted by my good friend Marc Sasso who usually works in the fantasy realm. He does some truly phenomenal stuff and he graced us with this art as a favor. I told him exactly what we wanted and he knocked it out of the park. From there Jennifer and I did all the layout, font choice, positioning and stuff ourselves which was fun and kept us very invested in making it look great. We think it is a great throwback to vintage pulps but with a modern look too. So far the response has been great. It stands out at a bookstore too.

Now, invite me back when you talk about favorite Noir posters. I could talk for weeks on that. Gives me an excuse to sift through my collection too. So many great images, such little wall space.

PS: Lastly, what keeps you putting the words on paper even in hard times? Any words of wisdom you can share with the rest of us writers?

JBK: The love of words I guess. And the realization that there are so many good writers now getting recognized thanks to the evolution of small independent publishers. It’s like there’s this whole movement out there now and rather than feeling competition from writers, there’s this huge support system. Getting my work read doesn’t feel unobtainable. There are hundreds of writers in the same situation as me, all working at their craft simply because they love it. How can that not be inspiring?

Write what makes you happy. Read what makes you happy. Writing is tough enough. If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, you’ll be miserable.

EB: Jennifer is the old pro between us and this is only her second published book so we’re not ones to talk too much about wisdom. I have been writing various things, TV and film, for years and some of my best work decorates bookshelves and drawers all over Hollywood but the publication of this book is testament to a very obvious and over-stated fact: just keep writing. My first scripts weren’t that good. I trust my next novel will be better and the one after that even better. I learned SO much on this one from Jennifer’s much better critical eye and her noticing of several bad habits I have that exposed my lack of formal training.

For me writing a book or a movie is the one place where I can have total control over a story. For my day job I am a film and TV editor so I get notes from network execs every day of my life and my work changes and adapts according to others whims. Sometimes for the better, I’ll admit. Often not. But the fact is that I am not in control of my daily creative output. When I sit and write – I am.

People are so quick to completely change a script without a second thought. With a novel much less so. No one ever says, “Great! Love it! But what if he’s a girl and they live in New York, not Iowa and maybe she has a best friend who’s a ghost and they solve crimes together.”

So the thing that keeps me putting words to paper is the joy and satisfaction of creating a story from nothing and for that brief moment, not having to compromise. The compromising comes later.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Book Trailer for JB Kohl and Eric Beetner's "One Too Many Blows to the Head"

Book trailer One Too Many Blows To The Head from Eric Beetner on Vimeo.

To help celebrate the release of their new novel One Too Many Blows to the Head, just out from Second Wind Publishing, authors JB Kohl and Eric Beetner will be dropping by Pulp Serenade later this week for a conversation about collaborative writing and all things pulp- and noir-related. The book, which is set in 1939 Kansas amidst the crooked world of mob-controlled boxing, is already garnering high praise. Megan Abbott said that it "feels like a long-lost pulp you find in a favorite bookstore. A delicious mix of classic hardboiled grit and the heart- heavy world of film noir, it’s a one- sitting read that sends you back to a lost time of fight halls. Chicago boys and last chances.”

Check back later this week for the interview with JB Kohl and Eric Beetner, and pick up a copy of their book!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Adapting Jim Thompson

UPDATE: Looks like they have removed the trailed to the new version of The Killer Inside Me from YouTube. At least we can still enjoy the clips from the other Thompson adaptations at the bottom of the post!


Thanks to Paul D. Brazill for pointing out the blog Bukowski's Basement, which featured a link to a trailer on YouTube for the upcoming adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom (The Road to Guantanamo and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), and scripted by Winterbottom and John Curran (whose only other screenwriting credit according to IMDB is a 2004 movie called Down Rusty Down). It stars Casey Affleck as Sheriff Lou Ford, Kate Hudson as the "good girl" Amy Stanton, and Jessica Alba as the prostitute Joyce Lakeland. It certainly looks better than the 1976 adaptation with Stacy Keach that was directed by Burt Kennedy. Previously I co-wrote with Mark Asch an essay on all of the Jim Thompson adaptations for Moving Image Source. Here's what we had to say about that version:
Burt Kennedy’s 1976 adaptation of the book exposes Hollywood as completely unprepared for the challenge... Kennedy’s Lou is an ant, at the mercy of his illness whenever it’s triggered by a dripping faucet. As in Spellbound (1945), traumatic memory triggers psychosis; for Thompson, paranoid schizophrenia is just how Lou’s wired... Further flattening Thompson’s conception is the casting of Stacy Keach—charmless as old dumb Lou from Kalamazoo, wooden as the cunning sadist inside, tone-deaf when calibrating different elements within the same scene.
Trailers aren't often accurate reflections of what the final product will be, so I'm still unsure of how this adaptation will turn out. Thompson's novels pose a particular challenge in that they often rely on the tension between a seemingly normal social mask and the violent desires and thoughts running through the character's mind. Not only is this difficult to do on film without resorting to obvious methods like voice-over narration, but Thompson's characters are frequently so vile and repulsive that it is hard for actors to embody them the way they come across in Thompson's books.

The four best adaptations in my opinion are Maggie Greenwald's The Kill-Off (1989), Alain Corneau's Serie Noire (1979) (based on A Hell of a Woman), Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de torchon (1981) (based on Pop. 1280), and Stephen Frear's The Grifters (written by Donald Westlake).There isn't a trailer for The Kill-Off online, but I found clips for the other three films on YouTube. Of the four, only Coup de torchon and The Grifters are on DVD, but the other two are well worth tracking down.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Charles Willeford on Words and Writing

“I joined writer’s clubs, short story classes, where we sat around and read each other’s efforts. It was terrible. It was a never-ending run on a runaway treadmill. The more I tried to conform to the formula the more hopeless it all appeared. I lost all hope; I reached the point where I no longer cared what people thought about my writing. And that is when I began to write.

“I wrote for ten years before I sold a line. During this period I discovered encouragement, many times, is a lot worse than discouragement. Only by reaching the depths of depression can you find the courage to go on.”

–Charles Willeford, “Writing as an Art”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

First Lines: Jonathan Latimer

I remember when I was first getting into crime fiction, I was in a used bookstore in Bangor, ME, passing over all the titles in the “mystery” section, and not knowing 95% of the authors. There was something about the oddly plain, red typography of one spine that caught my eye, Solomon’s Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer. The collage-style cover of black-and-white photographs was certainly appealing, but it was the first line that instantly arrested me. Almost as soon as the book was bought it was read. Who was this Jonathan Latimer, and where can I find the rest of his books?

Several years later, I now have all of them, and even though I still have a couple left to read, I decided to pull together the first lines of all his novels. I tried something similar a few months ago with David Goodis, and the results seemed to cohere more than they do here. Oh, well – still some good first lines, though I still think Solomon’s Vineyard still takes the cake (and, for my money, it is his best novel). Also, for those interested, there is a complete bibliography available at Rara-Avis.

"It was nearly evening." –Murder in the Madhouse, 1935

"In the cell to the right, a man was still crying." –Headed for a Hearse, 1935

"The morgue attendant jerked the receiver from the telephone, choked off the bell in the middle of a jangling ring." –The Lady in the Morgue, 1936

"With a hollow rattle of its muffler the Greyhound bus disappeared down the cement road and left me in the darkness." –The Search For My Great-Uncle’s Head, 1937

"Sunset splashed gold paint on the windows of the white marble house, brought out apricots and pinks and salmons in the flowering azaleas." –The Dead Don’t Care, 1938

“There’s a burglar downstairs,” Ann Fortune said. –Red Gardenias, 1939

"In the afternoon a white mist came down from the mountains to the plateau, veiling the scrub timber and the underbrush and the road." –Dark Memory, 1940

"From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed." –Solomon’s Vineyard (The Fifth Grave), 1941

"A buzzing noise woke Sam Clay." –Sinners and Shrouds, 1955

"He first heard the sound sometime around quarter to eleven." –Black is the Fashion for Dying (The Mink Lined Coffin), 1959

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Kenneth Fearing On Words and Writing

Some reflections on the craft of writing by the author of The Big Clock, who was also a terrific poet. This excerpt comes from the Preface to his New and Selected Poems from 1956.

"There can be a unique exhilaration in creative writing, and it can offer the surprise of final discovery. These qualities exist in life (sometimes), and if they are not to be found in a verbal presentation of it, then the reader (or audience) has been cheated and the writer has been killing everyone's time. This excitement and surprise must be real, not counterfeit, and have in it the breath of those crises upon which most people feel their lives are poised, sometimes crossing into them, in fact, and then rarely with routine behavior, seldom with standardized results. A writer cannot do much to transmit an excitement he does not feel, and the only surprises are those that find themselves, as the work grows." – Kenneth Fearing, Preface to New and Selected Poems (1956)

Photo by Jean Purcell, circa 1940

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"It's Always Four O'Clock/Iron Man" by W. R. Burnett (Stark House, 2009)

What does it mean to praise an author and his or her work? To assign my own words to describe those of another? I could easily label W.R. Burnett as a “great” writer, or call either of his two novels in the new Stark House Press collection – It’s Always Four O’Clock and Iron Man – “great” works, but somehow that label feels inappropriate considering Burnett’s condemnation of the word in It’s Always Four O’Clock.

“Words, words, words! And I’m stuck for some to use. Words are like painted marbles, they get all the stuff rubbed off of them. Take ‘great.’ What does it mean? It means ‘great,’ you donkeyhead, you yell back at me. All right. So now we got ‘great’ movie actors, and ‘great’ automobiles, and ‘great’ refrigerators and even ‘great’ lipsticks. So what are you going to call George Washington? Do you dig me now?”

Not wanting to be guilty of comparing him to a kitchen appliance, I’ll have to find another way of praising him. He’s graceful or fierce in all the right places, merciless or full of aching sympathy depending on what the moment calls for, and never there’s a word out of place. Burnett manages to be as unconventionally elegant as Royal, the pianist/composer in It’s Always Four O’Clock that defies the borders of jazz and classical, and as direct and no-nonsense as one of Coke Mason’s knockout swings in Iron Man.

The most fitting epithet, however, comes from David Laurence Wilson, who referred to Burnett as “a mercenary with a pen” in his introductory essay, “W.R. Burnett: A Versatile Hardboiled Master.” Interweaving personal remembrances of Burnett (whom he was fortunate enough to know) with keen critical and biographical insight, Wilson evokes not only the intensity with which Burnett uses words, but also his ruthless precision. These two novels are unmistakably the work of the same creator, yet they are so distinct in their styles, so utterly different in their approaches. It’s Always Four O’Clock, with its casual, first-person narrator, seems to take on the freewheeling sensibility of a jam session, while Iron Man’s sparse, removed prose can seem as cold as Coke Mason’s sweat before the big match. What unifies them, then, is the pitch-perfect harmony between the story and the language used by Burnett to tell it.

Originally published in 1956 and finally making its paperback debut, It’s Always Four O’Clock isn’t your typical rise and fall story, partially because the rise is so short lived, but mostly because its fall is filled with the tragic, all-too-human ironies that only an unfortunate survivor can detachedly laugh at on the surface while silently cursing on the inside. Stan Pawley is a jazz guitarist without much ambition, and while he likes the guys he plays with, he knows it’s not real music, that a lot of them are just going through the motions. Then one night in a bar he befriends Royal Mauch, an aloof and eccentric pianist, and together they form a band that pushes all the boundaries their contemporaries refuse to push. Burnett clearly sympathizes with each of the members of the group, all of whom are caught between art and commercialism – between destroying yourself over your work and compromising your work in order to make that paycheck. Self-destructive drive, ambivalence, and opportunism each contribute to the group’s collective downfall, but to Burnett’s credit he doesn’t create easy martyrs or victims, just characters with no easy out.

Whereas It’s Always Four O’Clock is filtered through Stan’s guilt, regret, and pathos, Iron Man (originally published in 1930) betrays no emotion. Told in strictly detached and impersonal third-person, the story unfolds almost entirely through dialogue and objective action. Reading this story of middle-weight boxer Coke Mason, who like Royal Mauch rises through the ranks to mythological heights from which he can’t help but fall, it is no wonder that Hollywood would soon be calling: the emphasis on external action over internal thoughts is made for the movies. The lack of intimacy with the characters also foreshadows the major betrayals and breakups that befall Coke Mason as his career grows: Burnett hides subjectivity in order to emphasize superficiality. In the book’s final pages, when Coke finds himself alone and surrounded by status-centric bloodsuckers, Burnett burrows deep into his character, revealing to us mountains of pain and emotion that even Coke didn’t realize he contained before. Such stylistic orchestration succeeds in making an even greater impact on the reader: when Coke takes those final punches (both literal and figurative), they hurt like nothing else that has come before.

Another way of linking the books that also brings in some of Burnett’s famous works (such as Little Caesar) is that these are quintessential books about America, particularly the conflict of idealism and the way things really work behind closed doors, where corruption and disillusionment run rampant. The Land of Opportunity can sometimes be deceiving: success and wealth may seem they are for the taking, but taking isn’t always the way to achieve them (at least not for very long). “Sometimes it is good to remember even the inconvenient aspects of American culture,” reminds David Laurence Wilson. And he’s right – look at these two books by Burnett, and you’ll see a diverse cross-section of life (in terms of race, class, gender, and politics). More than just portraits of a nation, they are also invaluable commentaries on society and culture at the time.

Quotes, as always.

It’s Always Four O’Clock

“I felt as out of place as a blind man at a burlesque show.”

“Did you ever walk into a wide-awake, enthusiastic, sober gathering of friends when you were drunk, tired, disgusted, sleepy and ready to knock your head against the wall? Then you know what I mean.”

“Yeah. You know. Four A.M. It’s when the world slows down. It’s when things look worst. It’s when most people die.”

Iron Man

“Funny!” he thought. “When I didn’t have Rose I figured if I could find her, I’d never be lonesome no more. Funny! Yeah, and when I was a kid I thought if I could ever be champion I’d be the happiest guy on earth. Funny, how things are!”