Amazon Crime Author Joe Clifford: a tortuous Ink-Quisition interview with Crime Writer Jesse Rawlins
Season's Greetings ladies, gents and miscreants. Your Center Stage host Mick Rose here. Today crime writer Jesse "Heels" Rawlins closes out her 2019 interview schedule with San Francisco author Joe Clifford. Life isn't always pretty ... and this interview ain't either. If f-bombs offend you? Now's the time to haul ass outta here.
But if like Authors On The Air host Pam Stack you enjoy a good roll in the dirt? I trust you'll enjoy this show.
Photo: Amazon Crime Thriller Author Joe Clifford
Welcome to the wooden rack in my brand spankin’ new torture chamber, Joe Clifford. I spent three years cursing your tattoo-stained hide. Then the last two working on repentance, reparation, and forgiveness. All this history … though we’ve never met. And yet here we are at last. Funny isn’t it? I’m about to achieve closure by opening fresh wounds in you.
You’ve authored 10 published books. The 5-tome Jay Porter thriller-mystery series launched with LAMENTATION in 2014—followed by two stand-alones THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY in 2018, and SKUNK TRAIN—which just rolled off the tracks and into readied book racks this December. Eight of these works precluded by your essentially-non-fiction debut JUNKIE LOVE in 2013. Which I just pleasurably finished reading.
A slew of spilled ink in a seven-year span. True that doesn’t compare with the blood loss you’ll suffer today. But impressive none-the-less. I’m also stunned to learn maiden JUNKIE LOVE wasn’t your cherry-popping payday. The first words you got paid to string together instead involved “poetry.” Care to spill your guts about that, Joe? Or should I peevishly carve ’em out?
Yeah, poetry. The only bigger colossal waste of time than prose, Jesse. Maybe I should temper that comment with something like “that’s just my sense of humor.” Sorta. Not really. I mean, writing is rejection and dejection, and anyone who tells you otherwise, to quote Wesley, is trying to sell you something. The older I get the more I understand the world needs more construction workers. I enjoy writing. As much as I “enjoy” anything. And, sure, the world needs art. But the “world” is presently constructed. Good fucking luck making it. I don’t know.
What was the question? Oh, yeah, poetry. I’d been in bands for years, even during the Junkie Love days. Although when I moved from Connecticut to San Francisco we didn’t play as much because all our instruments were in hock for drugs. But you write lyrics, and that’s a form of poetry. So when I went back to school, it was a natural transition.
But lyrics are not poetry. Form of, maybe. But poetry is a school with a rich history and tradition, and there are some people who are great at it. I realized I hated most poetry. There’s a snippet of a Tony Hoagland poem I love.
“I know there are some people out there
who think I am supposed to end up
in a room by myself
with a gun and a bottle full of hate,
a locked door and my slack mouth open
like a disconnected phone.
But I hate those people back
from the core of my donkey soul
and the hatred makes me strong
and my survival is their failure,
and my happiness would kill them
so I shove joy like a knife
into my own heart over and over
and I force myself toward pleasure,
and I love this November life
where I run like a train
deeper and deeper
into the land of my enemies.”
― Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me
Which to me is as good as writing gets. I can’t tell you how much I love that excerpt. Because it applies to me and my life and my attitude toward shit. I guess that’s my point. Prose, poetry, music. Unless is speaks to me and where I’m coming from, I don’t have much use for it. Most poetry doesn’t speak to me. And what I want to explore, thematically, it doesn’t seem like poetry is the best outlet or avenue. Plus, no one is adapting a chapbook into a movie.
You’ve dished a lot a lot I could dissect here. Let’s see if I can snip one tendon at a time.
You spent years immersed in your Jay Porter series. Porter’s a flailing rural New Hampshire handyman hankering to keep his tattered life stitched together—while often butting heads with powerful forces he deems evil.
But you veered from Porter to pen the stand-alone THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY. Enter Alex Salerno, small-town gal from upstate New York—who gets nabbed by serial killer Ken Parsons. While Alex survives his clutches, she can’t escape the trauma.
What are some of the themes you’re trying to present and explore in these books, Joe? And do they share common themes? Or is Alex Salerno’s tale a completely different venture?
The One That Got Away? Oh right, the book that was read by about 10 fucking people. Best goddamn thing I’ve written. Nothing. No one gave a shit. Oh, wait. That’s my internal voice. (No one likes our internal voice, Joe. I know. I know. Did you remember to get the cocaine? I mean, coffee?)
Ah, yes, literary themes. Or to borrow from my academic nomenclature/vernacular and make the word less offensive to the high-minded: the center. I think “theme” turns people off because it reminds them of high school and not being able to get a date and all that. One of my first writing professors, Steve Ostrowski, introduced me to “center,” and I find that infinitely more palatable.
Both Jay and Alex are … prickly characters. Which is another word for “unlikeable.” The dreaded “unlikable protagonist.” If I’ve heard one criticism of my work it’s that my main characters are “unlikeable.” I think it’s a bullshit response and an easy target. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of reasons not to like my books, and characters like Jay and Alex are a fine place to start. I will not argue they are “likeable.” My problem is I don’t know what fucking world other people are living in, but 90% of the fucking people I meet are unlikeable. We manage to get along because we have to share this spinning blue ball.
But “likeable”? Then again, seeing as how so many cite the same criticism … I don’t know how to address it, really. I can only say that I find most people “unlikable,” and those are the people I “like” the best. I don’t have any use for the common, normal, and ordinary. I like the junkies, fuck-ups, and losers. The marginalized and downtrodden. I find that character fascinating. How these people can keep getting knocked down and getting back up, striving for a prize they will almost certainly never get. The folks who wake up and give themselves an earnest pep talk in the mirror and set out to attain the American Dream because they believe it is possible to attain pies in the sky are not the people I am writing for—
Which probably answers some of my self-posed questions above!
To answer your actual question: Is there a common theme or center? Yeah. But I can’t say it any better than John Mellencamp—although I think he was still Johnny Cougar when he said it: Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone. How these people make it to the end of the day without putting a fucking gun in their mouth and pulling the trigger is the real mystery in my books, and the story I’m interested in telling.
If I knew anything about “normal” Joe, I wouldn’t own a torture chamber—and you wouldn’t find yourself lashed to this wooden rack. You’re not the first writer I hold in high regard who’s shared with me that one of their books has sold 10 copies or less.
But to give our chat some context—for the sake of people who are influenced by this stuff, rather than simply the words inked on the page—your 2012 story, “Stuck Between Stations” earned a Pushcart nomination; in 2013 you were gifted an Acker award, a tribute to Kathy Acker and given to folks in the avant garde arts community who’ve made outstanding contributions in their discipline in defiance of convention, or else served their fellow writers and artists in outstanding ways; and setting aside for the moment your labors as an editor—your first and third books in the Jay Porter series, LAMENTATION and GIVE UP THE DEAD earned Anthony nominations for Best Novel: with the latter winning the Bill Crider award for Best Novel in a Series.
These achievements noted, you were literally born in the middle of fucking nowhere: the central town of Berlin, CT—incorporated back in 1785, but home to less than 20,000 souls. Berlin lies roughly 15 miles south of the capital city Hartford, which despite its tall buildings ain’t very big either: fewer than 130,000 eat, sleep, and piss there.
No big surprise you yearned for something different. And inspired by the likes of Jack Kerouac, in 1992 you moved to San Francisco, seeking to pursue a career in rock-n-roll. You spent nearly a decade shunning different kinds of traditional commitments. But you eventually made a major one: deciding to pursue a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing at Florida International University (FIU)—where you studied under writers James W. Hall, Les Standiford, and Lynne Barret from 2005 to 2008.
Besides possibly suffering from early onset dementia, got any clues as to why you wanted to try your hand at fiction writing, Joe?
New phone, who dis?
Sorry. I just reread my answer to question 2. Holy shit was I in a pissy mood or what? Jesus. I’m bad. But I’m not that bad.
Yeah, mental illness. I saw a meme the other day (God, I love a good meme), and the gist of it was something like, “You are so brave to talk about your mental illness,” and the response was, like, “Yeah, that’s the mental illness.” There’s a danger with being too forthright, I suppose. I strive to be authentic (named first son “Holden,” hate phonies, etc.). But it’s also, like, “Jesus, man, shut the fuck up and quit complaining.” And I get that too. I’ve lived a pretty charmed life. But what you see is what you get, I guess.
Anyway, your question. I recently got my hands on a copy of my high school yearbook. I know high school. Which I used to look back on and really, really hate, and I’ve come to realize I didn’t hate the school or the town or the people as much as I hated myself. I’ve actually become pretty good friends with a lot of my graduating class of ’88, and there’s no point mentioning that except to say that hating on high school is sorta passé and gauche. I was slow to mature. Hell, maybe I haven’t matured yet. Never will. Since we’re all Mellencholy (I know it’s misspelled): “Growing up leads to growing old, and growing old means dying, and dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun.” (Get it?) Or something like that. I’m not a walking John Fucking Mellencamp discography.
Anyway, my high school yearbook ambition reads something like “to keep writing.” It also mentions marrying my high school girlfriend, which thank God didn’t happen. But 1 out of 2, to misquote the great Meatloaf, ain’t bad (I have no idea what’s up with all the mediocre rock quotes). I was surprised to see that as a yearbook goal or whatever because I don’t remember writing being that much a part of my life in those days. I drew a lot of pictures, played in rock bands, was always “artsy,” but, yeah, I guess a part of me always figured I’d end up here writing.
And to clarify re: writerly bitterness. I have been extremely blessed to do this for a living. (It only cost me a piece of my heart and the ability to ever walk right again; and I make that trade 10 out of 10 times.) My books sell more than ten copies. I’m doing all right. And the fervor of my readership and passion of my fans more than make up for any lack of royalties.
It’s funny because I was just talking with my friend Mike TV (of the band Get Set Go), and we were both commiserating about the realities of being a professional artist. I mean, dude had a couple songs on fucking Grey’s Anatomy. That’s big time. I first heard Get Set Go in grad school, and their Ordinary World was on perpetual playback. To me, Mike was a rock star. He still is. But having gotten to know him more personally over the years, I also know, despite his successes, he’s also very much an artist trying to make ends meet, and that is just the grim reality of making art in America. I’m not going to get on my twenty-year-old soapbox and rail against capitalism. I don’t know if there is an economic system that fucks artists more gently. I only know that placing dollar values on works of heart and soul are never going be commensurate.
Then again, any monies received is a gift. Because I’d be doing this shit regardless of whether I was getting paid.
I used to be a Lennon dreamer. Spent several decades trying to change the World—
And the World kicked my fucking ass.
Finally I adopted the Mellencamp mantra: Nothin’ Matters & What If It Did? Expect nothing but fucking shit? And you’ll never be disappointed!
Might sound morbid to many, but I’ve found this Paradigm shift extremely liberating. Many of Life’s smallest and unexpected positives now feel magnified. Generous kindnesses from strangers—especially from Readers and fellow writers—I count chief among them, so I hear you loud and clear on that front, Joe.
One of these experiences took place in January 2019, and involved being asked to accept the publishing and editing torch for 11-year-old crime, pulp, and humor zine The Flash Fiction Offensive (FFO)—an outfit you spent five years of your life operating—alongside San Francisco crime writer Tom Pitts. In monetary terms the job pays Zero Dollars and Zero Cents: no matter how little or long anyone labors there.
If several other crime writers hadn’t kindly agreed to donate their time and jump on board on board with me? Flattered though I was, I would’ve declined the Invitation. Your tenure at FFO started back in 2012. And you mentioned earlier this year you loved working this mag. What was this Love Affair like for you, Joe? What turned you on?
Shit, it was so long ago I forget. No, oh, wait. Authors. I liked working with new authors especially, ones who hadn’t been published but were desperate to break in. That was legitimately fun. Because often the stories were almost there, and we’d work together to push them over the top. And the writers were so appreciative. And I felt like I was making a real difference in someone’s life. Yeah, it was small. We were just this little online zine. But you know when you aren’t published. It’s the top of the fucking world. So that was always really special.
Among other endeavors, you’ve also edited two short story tribute collections for Matthew Louis’s Gutter Books—TROUBLE IN THE HEARTLAND: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen (December 2014) and JUST TO WATCH THEM DIE: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Johnny Cash, which released in September 2017—the same month I finally caved and created a Facebook account.
Perhaps about a year ago you gave some high praise on Facebook to freelance editor and All Due Respect book publisher Chris Rhatigan. Since my college days I’ve encountered a slew of writers who view editors as Public Enemy Number One—rather than as “partners” in the writing and publishing process. If I recall and understand correctly, you once compared “editing” to the task of directing a movie.
How do you view the relationship between Writers and Editors, Joe? And how would you describe your approach and style to editing? Heavy-handed? Lax? Somewhere in between? Ever tell someone who got their nose out-of-joint to suck it up and stop being a pussy?
I think the relationship is paramount to professional writing, and once you get published, you are, for better or worse, a professional writer. I know so many writers who had the chops but simply couldn’t take the criticism of having anyone dare tamper with their precious little words. And that’s a shame, because no one is going to get to see their work; no one is coming to the door to beg them to read their short story or whatever (except maybe their mom). There are just too many writers. It’s supply and demand, and the supply is overflowing, so editors—and if you’re lucky enough agents and publishers—don’t have to give into an author’s petty demands.
And, sure, sometimes it sucks. I’ve been on both sides. And as the author, even though I’ve worked as an editor, it always hurts when suggestions come back that your story or book isn’t perfect. But that’s the thing: it never will be. A good editor will take any book—and I mean any—and be able to find fat to trim, errata, whatever. And, sure, a lot of that will be quibbling and even needless (which some authors may use to point out how their little masterpieces shouldn’t be touched—but here’s the other thing: you and I aren’t J.D. Salinger or Gillian Flynn, whose work I guarantee was subjected to heavy editing!).
As authors, all we want to hear is, “It’s perfect! Don’t change a thing!” And you’re never going to hear that. Except from your mom. So give it to her, or just toughen up, buttercup. (And I say this as one of the more sensitive-to-criticism authors. That li’l pep talk is mostly for me!) I get it. It hurts, sucks, but that’s the game. Editors have a job to do. Authors have a job to do. Publishers have a job to do. Luckily, the goal is the same: to put the BEST work out there.
From the other side, as editor? It depends. I’ve worked with or been contracted for jobs where the publisher is like, “Yeah, take an easy hand.” And so that’s what I do. The longer authors are in this game, the more rights they’ve earned. So I get that too. But you see it all the time. An author whose early works are lean and tight (think: Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises). Because they took editorial suggestions!
Then you get Hemingway as he’s turned into Papa and crap like Over the River or Through the Trees or whatever that shit was called, and you know at that point, no one was going to tell the dude what to do, and the work suffers. Honestly, I think I’m a better editor than I am writer. Writing is like life: it’s very easy to see what other people are doing wrong. If I could only pinpoint the same with my work, maybe I’d have that illusive Big-5 deal!
Like most authors, you’ve got a blog, as well Twitter and Facebook accounts. When you ran FFO you instituted a policy that all submitting writers HAD to have a Facebook account. When you passed the Torch on that operation, this mandatory Facebook requirement remained in place. And that’s the reason I spent three years cursing your tattoo-stained hide—I didn’t want a fucking Facebook page … though I did want in at FFO.
Although FFO launched in late 2008, you created the mag’s ongoing Facebook account in June 2012—and you remain active on your personal Facebook page. Why do you consider Facebook a necessary evil, Joe?
Y’know, I feel guilty about this one. Sort of. I mean, I think I helped writers like you by forcing you to accept the fact, however begrudgingly, that you HAVE to get out there and do what the industry wants. If you want a chance, you play by the rules. I don’t back down from that. Agents and editors, they want a social media platform, and those who stubbornly cling to the idea that Facebook or Twitter or social media branding dilutes their work … tend not to get published. There are always exceptions that prove the rule. But, really, you want to get (traditionally) published, the fact is, it’s a fucklot easier if you just play the game.
That said, Facebook sucks donkey dick. I’m so fucking sick of it. The politics. The fucking minutia and in-fighting and pack mentality, and God forbid you fuck up and say the wrong thing. Like piranha devouring a cow to the bone. And this isn’t a backlash against “cancel culture.” People SHOULD be held accountable. And I am so far left, just call me Che Guevara and give me a motorcycle (I think that metaphor works but who knows? I’ve been writing for hours and my brain is mush). Fighting for social justice is a mutherfucking noble pursuit. It’s just exhausting. The constantly having to … Facebook. And keep up with the trends and people and, Jesus, I think I’m just old and tired. I can tell you this. If I were writing my first book, knowing what I know now, and someone said to me, “You need a Facebook account …,” I’d book a tee time and say fuck it.
Before I turn you over to medical staff, Joe—and then dump you back in the gutter once again, speaking of promotional endeavors, your latest novel SKUNK TRAIN released on December 2nd.
Congrats on book ten. This saga launches in the backwater wilds of Northern California’s Humboldt County. And quickly jumps the rails when a drug deal at the sleazy roadside Skunk Train Inn turns into a murderous melee—that sends fifteen-year-old Kyle Gill hauling ass for San Franciso in a truck filled with drug money. With a cadre of cops and creeps wanting young Kyle’s ass … or more accurately the cash and his whole life, Kyle hooks up with a high school chick named Lizzie: and their tails wind up in Skid Row Los Angeles—
Not my idea of a romantic destination. Sounds like a case of young lust or delusional love at first site. But since this book centers on these two kids, do you think most readers will find them more “likeable” than Jay Porter and Alex Salerno?
In a word? Yeah. It’s a softer novel. More idealized, hopeful, romantic. There’s still drugs and crooked cops and death and guns and fucked-up shit, but there’s also more heart. Part of that is because the two protagonists, Kyle and Lizzie, are so young. When you are young, there is hope. I’m 49. It’s over for me. I’m not changing. So many goddamn parts are broken inside me, I swear, if I were a horse they’d have shot me by now.
While Mr. Clifford’s getting patched up? I consider his debut book JUNKIE LOVE an exceptional read. And I’ve shared some thoughts below for anyone who’s inclined. Meanwhile, thanks Mick Rose for hosting us here at Center Stage. We wish all a y’all a safe and sane holiday season. Cheers!
Photo: JUNKIE LOVE ... A rebel's decade-long journey through heroin's Heart of Darkness
Labels: Yellow. Pinko. Trailer Trash. Amateur. Wino. Addict. The Label List proves bloody endless.
Sometimes folks pin Labels on us. Sometimes we pin them on ourselves.
While this book bears the title JUNKIE LOVE? Woven into these pages I discovered Joe Clifford's love for many things. A Love of Infinite Possibilities. A Love for San Francisco. A LOVE for WORDS and music—often buoyed by Comradery. A deep Love for Beauty, yes. But a Love for the bizarre, the foreign, and the ugly as well.
But one of Love's biggest Pitfalls? Once its arrows pierce us we routinely tend to Over-Romanticize.
"Being a junkie was being part of a rich tradition," Clifford wrote in 2013. "Dee Dee Ramone, Lenny Bruce, Jim Carroll. A Johnny Cash middle-finger-fuck-you to the world.”
Psychologist Sigmund Freud is attributed as saying Love is a good psychosis. (I couldn't quickly find such a quote.) Nevertheless the strange doctor did write: "We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love."
Clifford's experiences run the gamut of human emotions. Sometimes we laugh. Other times we cringe.
Just as my interview with Mr. Clifford drops f-bombs and we used words and expressions some would consider crass? So does JUNKIE LOVE. His tale at times also proves sexually explicit. If you can't handle that? I'd suggest you skip reading this book.
Anyone who checks out JUNKIE LOVE on Amazon may notice two different covers for this book. The cover for the edition I've used here includes an Afterword by Mr. Clifford—and that's one I recommend—not the first version, which portrays a hypodermic needle piercing a red heart.
While the rest of world typically rates books using 1 to 5 Stars? I award 1 to 6 Stilettos. I suspect my Stiletto Ratings ain't highly-coveted. YET. LOL. But I awarded JUNKIE LOVE a stellar 6 Stiletto-Rating—and this book's the first to gain one.
Crime writer Jesse Rawlins
Photo: British Amazon Author & Punk Rock Enthusiast Paul Matts
Center Stage host Mick Rose here, and living the Ages-Old-Adage "No Rest for the Wicked" ... while hoping tonight's performance doesn't turn into a case of "Only the Good Die Young." On that note, I'll turn the spotlight on Paul Matts, who's gotta be counting his blessings right about now. Paul boldly made the voyage from England and agreed to play 6 STABS with psychotic crime writer Jesse Rawlins. But "Heels" tore a shoulder muscle playing this twisted game of hers Sunday night: and she's more heavily sedated than The Ramones at their "highest." Getting this party started before that high wears off "sounds like a plan." Cheers folks!
Hi Paul. You live and write in Leicester, England. I first discovered your work at Brit Grit author Paul D. Brazill’s eclectic Punk Noir Magazine (PNM). How and when did you discover PNM—and when did your work first appear there?
I first discovered Punk Noir Magazine about a year or so ago, Jesse. A mate had told me about author Paul D. Brazill’s work—and I read his book A Case of Noir, amongst others. Superb. I then investigated him a little further and came across Punk Noir, which is his cultural magazine.
I soon realized it was a quite an eclectic mix: short stories, flash fiction, poetry, reviews, and other features related to films and music. I love it. Paul is helpful and encouraging, and I’m in awe how he finds the time to run Punk Noir and yet remain such a prolific, quality writer.
My short story “Revenge Can Be Sweet” appeared there in January 2019. I’ve had several pieces appear in PNM since, and I’m proud of that.
You write both non-fiction and fiction—and often draw heavily from your love of punk rock music and your experiences both as a night club owner and a band promoter, as well as a musician. In fact your first novel DONNY JACKAL just released. Described as an English coming of age tale, this adventure’s set in 1978 and revolves around mesmerized teenager Donny Jackson: a punk rock star wannabe living in the English suburbs—three long hours south of London—where the punk scene action thrives.
Care to share how your love affair with punk rock evolved, Paul? And led you to eventually own and run The Attik night club in Leicester City center for eight years?
The seed of my love for punk rock music, and later for the punk scene, came when I was a kid, about eight or nine years old. I remember the headlines in the newspapers and on the television relating to the Sex Pistols. Basically, they were threatening mankind’s very existence, if you believed what some people were saying at the time. Obviously, that was intriguing. I had no solid idea, aged eight or nine, who they really were, but I found the whole thing very exciting. Then I discovered the music of the Pistols. Loud, loud guitars. Words I could sing along to.
As I got a couple of years older I started watching Top of the Pops on television and at that time, punk and new wave bands were making regular appearances so I got to see them. I would then track down shows that were playing this new music on Radio One—the UK’s prime radio station at the time. I started recording stuff off the radio and basically, that’s when my love of music generally, and not just punk music, grew.
When I got some cash of my own, whether it be through pocket money or cash earnt from delivering newspapers, it went on records. I used to ask for records for birthday and Christmas presents. The first band I really got into were The Clash. I can still remember my Mum getting me their albums from a local superstore, and my Dad ridiculing the song titles. Mum liked their rock n’ roll elements, though! They had a major impact on me and introduced me to a wide range of musical styles and way of thinking. As I searched more I realized Punk had a DIY ‘can-do’ attitude, ranging from the music itself, where anything could indeed go, to the clothes and everything else.
I guess this positive approach influenced me in opening ‘The Attik’ club and venue in 2000. Anyone who opens an underground music haunt must have this positive, ‘can-do’ approach to life. Either that or they must have something seriously wrong with them! Everything seems to be against you a lot of the time … councils, licenses, breweries, big corporate competitors. But you just do it and go with the ideal. We based it on the kind of sounds one may hear on the John Peel show. Music from the cupboards, from the bedrooms, from the obscure corners of society.
Punk rock and its associated genres ... especially post-punk and hardcore … were popular and had a definite scene at The Attik. Rockabilly, Ska and Reggae. We had them all covered. Various non-commercial forms of dance music were part of our scene. You know, Rave Culture material, Drum n Bass, Hip-hop, Hardcore and Deep house. We also had a healthy electronic music scene, too. Some of our best nights were Electro nights.
Being part of the Punk network was something I very much enjoyed. The camaraderie, working together, supporting each other. The Attik was a drop-off for touring bands. Lots of colourful characters, new bands, established bands, local bands. Local DJs. Guest DJs too. We had two floors: one for live sets, the other a bar area. It had a nice, sweaty, tight atmosphere and more than once had CBGBs mentioned by way of comparison. Maybe because of the toilets.
It finally closed its doors in 2007. The finances no longer added up and I made the very difficult decision to step away.
My short story ‘Revenge Can Be Sweet’ was based on a night at The Attik. It’s a fictitious tale of revenge being obtained in a subtle, underhand, way. With devastating consequences, and mates looking out for each other. A punk rock show featuring English ska/ street punk band The Filaments, provides the backdrop for the story.
I played guitar and bass in a few bands prior to opening the Attik. I guess the most notable was The Incurables, who released an album called Fade in the late 1990s. You can track it down on Spotify. I wrote and co-wrote quite a few tracks on it. They weren’t a punk band, more a contemporary pop act in a similar vein to The Sundays.
People tend to equate two key topics with rock stars: sex and drugs. DONNY JACKAL launches with the unexpected news that the lead singer for Crack Mass—the most notable punk band in Donny’s hometown Oldtown is dead—presumably from a drug overdose.
What influenced you to write a punk rock mystery, Paul? Did you slaughter a bunch of musicians in your youth? And finally conclude the only safe way to “confess” would be to include all the gory details in a novel?
Ha Ha. No, I didn’t slaughter a bunch of musicians … none of that was ever proven! Anyway, Crack Mass’s lead singer Tom Coates may not have died of a drugs-overdose you know …. Or maybe he did? No spoilers, Jesse!
Seriously, the book’s as much a coming of age and kitchen-sink drama as it is anything else. I’ve written another book, still being edited, called Toy Guitars. The character, Donny Jackal, appears in this book too. It’s set in 1980, so two years on from the first book. Donny isn’t the main character in Toy Guitars but his role is important, and I felt the inspiration to turn the story of his own background and opportunity in life into a book of its own. The story sheds light on his relationships with his parents, authority, mates, co-workers and Ali, his girlfriend. Adolescence, really. I enjoy gritty period pieces and having a plot with a few questions in it seemed to be a good idea.
I would like to develop his character even further, really. There’s plenty to go at.
On a more serious note involving “drugs.” Teenagers who wish to either experiment or escpape their emotional pain and problems—and criminals or opportunists who sell drugs—routinely interact both in and around night clubs. Did drug-related activities present any problems for you Paul as a night club owner? And did you have a staff that included bouncers to deal with potential fights and other problems? Or was your clientele in Leicester wondrously well-behaved and copacetic?
Like with most night life, especially that spent down the world’s back streets, drug problems did surface from time to time. With me being both being a licensee and the owner I had really to be vigilant, on behalf of the staff, clientele and myself, really. It’s a responsible position, running a club. The authorities never have to be asked twice to close down a small backstreet venue. Easy target, see.
Our staff, including the security staff, were a decent gang. We’d look out for each other and a mixture of excitable, often drunk people and loud music can occasionally lead to bust ups. You just try and diffuse it. Calm people down. The staff and clientele knew each other through the club, and to be honest it had a family feel at times which made dealing with difficult situations a hell of a lot easier.
It was scary when gangs turned up looking for an individual or two who they knew were inside. If a gang wants to storm the door of a small club, then it’s difficult to repel. We had to be particularly on guard and to be honest if we thought such an incident was on the cards, we’d close the doors.
The cover art for the e-book version of DONNY JACKAL declares, “Opportunities Come at a cost.” We learn in the opening chapter that 19-year-old Donny’s stuck in a dead end job and still living with his parents. But much to Donny’s surprise, opportunity comes a knockin’. The remaining members of Crack Mass invite him to audition as a singer. Hell yeah, hallelujah! What better way to impress his new punk rock girlfriend Ali?
But as local punk rock legends, these dudes ain’t novices to the music scene. And we get the stark impression their motives for approaching Donny stem from secret agendas.
Besides playing in bands and running the Attik, you also spent years as a “promoter.” Are any of the pressures Donny gets exposed to based on real-life situations you experienced yourself—or perhaps witnessed first-hand, Paul?
I used to promote as ‘101 Productions’ in Leicester. Again, punk rock and associated genres. Lots of fun. And tension. There would be financial pressures. Would we get enough through the door to cover the cost of the band and their rider, venue hire? Band riders can stretch to a fair bit of dollar, you know! As a promoter the overall success of the gig rests on your shoulders. You want the band happy and relaxed, the equipment all working, the soundman and venue staff all happy and working efficiently. It needs to run on time. And after all of that, you have your fingers crossed people turn up and all have a blinding night.
Sometimes a gig on the face of it would go well but the band weren’t happy for some reason. Other times the band would be happy but the customers would moan beer prices were too high, the toilets were shit or something. One night, Ed Tudor Pole was playing and all was going well—and from nowhere a huge punch up erupted. He’d invited a local band to play ‘Swords of a Thousand Men’ with him. He was a solo performer at the time, see. Turned out someone had spilt beer all over the bass player’s girlfriend. The bass player jumped down from the stage, layed into the protagonist and all hell broke loose.
Somehow, I came away thinking all of this was my fault. Obviously it wasn’t--I didn’t throw the beer.
As for witnessing pressures, young artists, whether it be new singers, guitar players or whatever, are prone to pressure. They, particularly in punk rock circles, often end up playing in famous bands as a replacement for a legendary band member who has passed away or has moved on. So, they need to step up to the mark. It’s assumed they can play the songs, but they often need to perform a role, someone for the singer to bounce off, for example. The audience has expectations and are often cynical and need to be won over by the new kid.
So, the psychological pressure this alone can put on young performers is immense. And this is without considering the external pressures. Lack of sleep on tour, drugs, drink, poor nutrition and the stress this all places on personal relationships. The punk rock dream has obvious appeals, but the less glamorous side is one I became familiar with as I spent time talking with these band members.
Well, Paul, your DIY punk rock approach to the Writing Life has definitely served you well in a short amount of time. You’ve certainly been head-banging in the mosh pits so-to-speak. I like the way you’ve enthusiastically supported other writers and magazines by reading their books and stories—while also writing book reviews and the like! The Writing Life ain’t always easy. But guess what?
There’s no toilets to clean!
Happy Holidays to you-n-yours, Paul. And good luck to you and Donny Jackal. Muchas Gracias Mick Rose for hosting us. Let me pour you a bourbon, buddy.
Crime Writer Jesse Rawlins takes 6 STABS at Amazon Author Jason Beech ... proving this genre's a Messy Business, and you can NEVER GO BACK
Photo: Amazon Crime Author Jason Beech
His work is "Messy Business"
Greetings everyone. Center Stage host Mick Rose here. A bit worse for wear. Singed my left arm pulling tonight's pizzas from the oven. Reminded me of those heraldic signs they used to post outside a lotta factories: We have gone 28 days without an Industrial accident.
Grabbing a calendar and usin' my fingers, I reckon Center Stage went 75 Days without an ounce of Bloodshed. But we can kiss that streak Goodbye: cuz crime author Jason Beech is about to dance the 6 Stabs two-step with psychotic crime writer Jesse "Heels" Rawlins. Better him than me. Hope y'all enjoy the show!
Welcome to 6 STABS, Jason Beech. You know you’re about to bleed in exchange for this interview, right? But as you’ve learned over the past decade, crime writing’s a Messy Business.
It’s a bloody business, so what else can it be but a messy business? Pass the mop, Jesse.
Your latest book—NEVER GO BACK from Close To The Bone Publishing, releases November 29th—but the Kindle version is already avaible for pre-order from Amazon.
What 6 words best describe your book, Jason? Please keep in mind I’m gonna stab ya for each word you dish me.
Hot murder. Cold homecoming. Brutal awakening.
And watch it, that knife’s a bit pointy.
This new crime thriller launches with a murder—committed in Spain by one Mr. Barlow Vine. Two-part question, one stab: Without telling us who he kills or why, what’s this dude’s back story? Lawyer? Doctor? Disreputable-degenerate football coach who likes to throw his weight around? A wannabe crime writer just doin’ a bit of first-hand research?
And more importantly from my perspective: Do we meet Mr. Vine before he wastes this bloke? Or after the criminal deed’s been done?
Football coaches are way too loud—he’d be noticed straight away and carted off to the clink. So Barlow Vine’s a real estate agent, or a realtor if you prefer, who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps from being a council estate tearaway. You meet Barlow as he’s come back to his hometown after the murder.
Barlow’s in denial that he’s now a criminal and thinks he can find some form of safety back home.
For those who don’t know, you were born and forged in Sheffield, England: roughly 168 miles north of the capital London. But you boldly moved to New Jersey-USA to teach and coach what you call “football”—the game folks in my redneck part of the woods call soccer. And, now having a soccer foot in each country, you routinely set some of your stories on English soil: while others such as your 2018 novel CITY OF FORTS unravel on the mean streets of America.
Which spurs me to ask another two-part question. The first half is simple: What motivated you to stage this murder in Spain?
The second half is also simple. But I’m going to stab you viciously, Jason. Why? Because I shouldn’t have to ask it, sir. Your book description on Amazon notes that after Mr. Vine’s committed the life-altering act of murder he’s faced with the task of returning to his “hometown.” While the surname Vine suggests he live in England? Please do tell us Mr. Beech the name of his hometown and where it’s located.
Spain was an easy choice. I know Spain. My first ever holiday abroad was in Spain, at a hotel later closed because it suffered a bout of Legionnaires disease. The last time we visited was in 2012, for my nephew’s wedding. I thought the town, Nerja, the perfect place for an English expat to miss desperately when he left to go back to the cold, grey streets of Sheffield—his hometown.
Sheffield is one of Britain’s five largest cities. It’s northern England, central U.K., and about four hours drive north from London if you get good traffic. It’s post-industrial. It still makes steel, in fact more than it did before the war, but most work gets done by robots. Most employment is now in public services like the National Health Service and the universities. Sheffield University works on many NASA projects.
The city got bombed to shit in the Second World War and cheap, nasty-looking buildings replaced the bomb sites. They’re now starting to beef up its appearance, but the first thing many people see as they enter the city is the cold, brutal Park Hill flats which Gargoyle over Sheffield.
However, it’s got some lovely parks, and the city’s southwest is the country’s fourth richest area. But it cannot match Nerja’s warmth and vibrant colours. So it’s a hard homecoming for Barlow Vine.
Regardless of whether you got wonked in the head with a football or some miscreant spiked your tea, you decided to spice NEVER GO BACK with some strange kids in Sheffield decked in Edwardian garb. I ain’t no fashion maven. So what the hell is Edwardian garb, Mr. Smartypants? And how do we distinguish this clothing from lets say Jacobean threads or Jesse Rawlins garb like faded Wrangler jeans?
Faded Wrangler jeans would never have washed in Edwardian Sheffield. The kids wear black trousers, white shirts, they could be second-hand clothes, but they’re not what you’d expect kids to wear in this day and age. They live in some rundown house on a godforsaken hill on the city’s outskirts and live a very strange life with their mother and an accordion. It would only get stranger if they were to wear Jacobean threads, whatever they are.
Although I suck at math I’m gonna do my best to frame a 3-part question. So brace yourself for some razzle-dazzle Mr. Fashion Courtier. As happens all-too-often, Barlow’s motivations for murder involve a woman. What’s this gal’s name? Is she from Spain? And does she cause trouble for Barlow—such as going to the cops and accusing him of murder?
She’s Maria. She’s Spanish, she’s salty, she’s full of colour and life, and I can’t give much more away than that. But the murder takes place out in the sticks—so it’ll take a while to find the corpse.
Okay, now somewhere in this deceitful mess, Barlow finds himself confronted by some “dead-eyed killers who want to use him for their own ends.” Care to share some insights about these killers? I’m thinkin’ they could be ex-wives wanting their latest husbands killed. Or maybe ex-mother-in-laws—jonesing for sexual favors ….
Don’t stare at me like my ideas are stupid. You’re the one who wrote about weird Edwardian wannabe kids, Mr. Beech.
These dead-eyed killers keep the unemployment numbers low. They’re good at killing. They do what they need to do to keep ahead of the game, though they enjoy it a little too much.
The main killer is Kevin Fishwick. Barlow can’t take him seriously with a name like that, but he soon will.
I like to stare. Just for the sake of it.
Guess that explains why you became a writer. We’re good at staring into space. But before I turn you over to the medics, Jason ...
Besides your novels CITY OF FORTS and MOORLANDS, you’ve also published story collections under the name BULLETS, TEETH & FISTS. Some of your stories center on humor—while some I’d call quite violent. Where does NEVER GO BACK fall into this mix in terms of violence?
Never Go Back is violent, though I wouldn’t say explicit. It has its moments, but I like it short and sharp, with consequences. It’s not a comedy, but my editor at Close to the Bone called it witty. I’d go with violent crime drama with funny bits in. That’s the poster blurb right there.
Well, Jason. You're looking like a poster boy for a Band-Aids campaign, so now's not the time to be "blurbing." Sure hope Barlow Vine appreciates the drubbing you took on his behalf. Meanwhile, it's bourbon time for me. Thanks Mick Rose for hosting us!
NEVER GO BACK releases on November 29, 2019 but is available for pre-order on Amazon
Anyone who's inclined can visit Jason Beech on Facebook. Congratulations are appropriate. Condolences are NOT. He brought this suffering on himself. Mr. Beech can also be found on his blog Messy Business. His regular features include: "Stuff I Wish I'd Written"—during which he tries to con us into thinking he's "civilized." How? He reaches out to other writers, and duly asks them questions about their favorite books.
Never read stories by Mr. Jason Beech? You can get a FREE taste below at Brit Grit author Paul D. Brazill's Punk Noir Magazine.
"The Kid with the Sad Face" by Jason Beech
Photo: Countdown by Crime Writer Matt Phillips
Greetings Ladies, Gents, and Miscreants. Your host Mick Rose here. Rather than a live show, tonight we're letting the silver screens at Center Stage cast their lights on Matt Phillips in a previously broadcast transmission. Meanwhile I will neither affirm nor deny whether or not the fudgy chocolate confections we're serving tonight are in fact pot brownies. Instead I'll say, "Welcome to California, USA—San Diego to be exact. Where smokin’ and buyin’ weed is legal: with certain caveats of course."
While possession and use of marijuana still carries penalties in most regional jurisdictions throughout the United States, California approved a plan allowing state-licensed retailers to sell recreational-use weed obtained by state-licensed growers in May 2016. And pot enthusiasts launched a “countdown”—with the clock hitting zero on January 1, 2018—when retail stores opened their doors for the first time in state history.
Long before California opened its retail doors however, weed aficionados grumbled in the whisper-stream that pot products sold by the state would prove so weak in quality they wouldn’t be worth smoking—never mind buying. Meanwhile, anyone with an ounce of sense (let alone an ounce of weed) suspected that individuals and cartels alike, who make a sweet living off little ol’ Mary Jane, would not meekly slink from the marijuana scene.
So … has the illegal manufacture and sales of cannabis-containing products magically ceased in California during the past 20 months?
“Hell no!” indicates former journalist Matt Phillips—an accomplished crime fiction noir writer, who’s called San Diego home on-and-off for the past ten years.
Inspired by events past and present involving marijuana: including the narco squad raid of an illegal dispensary in his neighborhood, Phillips has penned the fiction noir COUNTDOWN, published by All Due Respect (ADR), and recently released this spring.
“To me, life is a countdown,” Phillips says. “Each of us is marching toward death—there’s no stopping that march. A great noir novel always—one way or another—looks at how the march toward death drives us to make curious decisions, whether good or bad.”
In this noir universe we meet ex-Marines Abbicus Glanson and Donnie Echo, no strangers themselves to violence, since they did duty in Iraq. As civilians in San Diego they drift without purpose—till Glanson gets the brilliant notion of pulling off a heist.
The target? Illegal primo pot dealer LaDon Charles.
Street-wise LaDon ain’t got the luxury of puttin’ his profits in a bank … he’s gotta stash his cash. An unfortunate business weakness—that Glanson and Echo plan to exploit.
“But Glanson and Echo aren’t what I’d call natural born leaders,” Phillips told FFO by means of carrier pigeons. “U.S. Marines are taught to kill. And sure they learned some other skills. But even when they get decent ideas, these two miss key points. More than anything else, Glanson and Echo know how to screw good things to hell--that’s their specialty.
“There’s also a Wild Wild West mentality to selling weed in California. At the Federal government level, marijuana is still considered an illegal drug. Just as a criminal like LaDon Charles can’t bank his cash-sales profits, most of California’s licensed dispensaries can’t either. Banks have to avoid dispensary cash—or they risk becoming entangled in Federal money laundering laws—and California dispensaries could have their bank assets seized. Interesting times for sure!”
I eagerly asked Matt if he’d swing by Flash Fiction Offensive’s Los Angeles office for a chat. Matt claimed he was in Mexico—lookin’ for Arizona crime writer Bill Baber’s missing muse. But I suspect he didn’t feel like dealin’ with FFO publisher Jesse Rawlins, and her manically-maniacally-growing knife collection ... which she’s fond of using.
By means of an especially fat carrier pigeon, Mr. Phillips did kindly send us a transcript of the chat he had with ADR publisher Chris Rhatigan, when COUNTDOWN first released. We hope you enjoy their talk as much as we did.
Miscreant Mick Rose
Host of Center Stage & FFO Non-Fiction Editor
(Bourbon’s his drug of choice)
All Due Respect: Several of the characters in Countdown have a military background and have served overseas. Why did you choose to focus on these characters?
Matt Phillips: I started with an Iraq war vet and loved the character. One of his important character traits is that he’s an outcast (like any good noir character) and a little bit screwy. It just seemed to me that he would only closely associate with someone who he had a previous connection to—that meant it’d probably be a buddy from the service. I think it’s really important for writers to explore the ideas behind societal violence … how violence and aggression are instigated, perpetuated, approved, encouraged. All great noir stories—in some way—look deeply at these ideas.
I’ve worked as a reporter and I always think about an old guy I met while covering an activist march. He was a Vietnam veteran and he was explaining to me why he was there. He pointed at a few large bank buildings in the cityscape and said, “I’m against war because it hurts young people and it makes bankers rich. That’s the simple fact.” Whatever you believe or think, how can you not explore that as a writer of noir? Countdown is a continued exploration of violence and how it intersects with economic concerns.
ADR: Your experience as a reporter is part of Bad Luck City and seems to pop up often in your work. Tell me about your journalism experience and how it’s influenced your fiction writing.
MP: Working as a reporter has certainly influenced me. I was the editor of my university newspaper as an undergraduate. That led me to a feature writing internship at The Denver Post. Working in that newsroom really taught me what it was to be a professional writer. There’s no ‘writer’s block’ or excuses in a great newsroom. You get it done and you get it done by deadline. It was crazy to work with so many talented people…As a feature writer, I had a lot more leeway on my reporting and deadlines… But you still have to deliver. Since then I’ve done a fair amount of freelancing, but the state of journalism means it’s tough to make a living at it. You can make some scratch, sure, but it’s not a career (unless you get hired on full time salary).
Now, I work at a nonprofit and a lot of what I do (in addition to email marketing) is brand storytelling. That’s basically how my journalism training has shaken out—nonprofits and companies are more willing to pay me for those skills than are any news orgs. It’s a bummer because I love reporting, but I need to eat. And so does my family.
The biggest thing I learned as a reporter was how to listen for dialog. You get a rhythm and feel for how people speak when you’re trying to record exactly what they say. I try to listen to cadences and melodies in speech. Even the way a quote looks on the page can tell you something about how people speak, where they’re from, what they do for a living. I try to mimic those rhythms, patterns, melodies in my own dialog. One goal of mine is to latch onto a really great true crime story, report the hell out of it… I’m sure the right story will come along, but for now I’m focused on fiction.
ADR: California voters approved Proposition 64 in 2016. How do you think the legalization of marijuana has changed things? Or has it had little effect?
MP: Great question—as far as people buying and smoking weed, I think very little has changed. I live in San Diego and pretty much everybody smokes weed (at least socially). I think it’s less secretive, in some ways. Now, when I play poker with buddies or go to somebody’s house for a party, there’s always a couple people with vape pens or an edible. They had this stuff before, but now they’re not even testing the waters with a large social group—they just whip it out. The business aspect is interesting. Seems to me like there’s still a lot of black market weed sales. Maybe worse, big corporations are in the weed business. This puts the industry square in the hands of powerful people. My guess? A lot of small growers will be (or have been) swallowed up by Big Money. But then again, I’m no economist.
The biggest cost to marijuana being illegal (and still illegal on the federal level) is/was the human cost. Even as some states and cities have started to vacate low-level marijuana sentences and expunge marijuana-related ‘crimes’ from peoples’ records, there is no getting back one’s time spent in prison. There is no substitute for time—and when time is taken from you? That hurts. And it’ll hurt forever.
ADR: Countdown starts with this wonderful dialogue you overheard at a bar. How did this come about? Did you know right away that this would this basis of a novel?
MP: Countdown is very much a street level novel. Like any good writer, I’m always listening, eavesdropping, filing snippets away for my creative process and output. I bet the greatest writers are all world class listeners and observers. I happen to spend time in bars (what can I say?) and one particular place I frequent is really hyper-local. Recently I was there and the entire bar (customers and bartenders) made some kind of de facto agreement to only speak like a ’90s wrestler…For the entire day. I get a kick out of what passersby must have thought as they heard, “Give me another Helldiver IPA, brother! Ooh, yeah!” And of course the bartender’s response: “I’ll give it to you, brother—yeah! But you better take it down, brother! Ooh, yeah—or I’m gonna get you, brother!”
Anyhow, you hear a lot of interesting shit if you just shut your mouth, turn off your smartphone, and listen to the people around you. Do I know that anything I file away is going to become a novel? Nope. I just work with what I have…
ADR: There’s always a sense of place in your fiction, as you explored in an essay about the genre’s approach to setting. How are the stories you tell about San Diego different than those of the rural Southwest? How does setting shape your work?
MP: Thanks, man! Countdown is definitely a San Diego novel. It explores the mid city area of San Diego, where I live and have lived for around ten years. For me, setting informs the conflict and the mentality of the characters. We can’t separate ourselves from where we are…Not for very long at least. Most of my characters are both enthralled with their settings and—paradoxically—hungering to somehow escape. Like most of us regular people, I imagine. Like we’re seeing in politics, these two kinds of ‘places,’ simply evoke different concerns for those who live there.
I guess the difference between these settings then—aside from the obvious—comes down to character traits. We are who we are, but we are often also where we are. Weird, but true. I haven’t talked about this much, but one of my favorite books is Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane. It’s set in Key West and, despite being labeled as literature, it’s a really fantastic noir novel. I think—subconsciously—I’m trying to create a similar feel for readers as I had reading Ninety-Two in the Shade, Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89, Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, and Newton Thornburg’s books like The Lion at the Door, To Die in California and some others. If readers like to go where I’m taking them, I think they’ll enjoy my stories so much more.
Photo: Crime Author Matt Phillips
Matt Phillips lives in San Diego. According to rumors, he's plotting a takeover of the crime fiction underworld. His books include Countdown, Know Me from Smoke and The Bad Kind of Lucky. His short fiction has been published in places like Mystery Tribune, Tough and Shotgun Honey. You can visit him on Facebook and also on his web site.
Photo: Publisher-Editor & Crime Fiction Writer Jesse Rawlins a/k/a Heels
The Legend of Crime Writer Jesse Heels Rawlins by Center Stage Host Mick Rose
Visitors at Center Stage and crime magazine Story and Grit have likely seen and read author interviews and books reviews by crime writer Jesse Rawlins. But who is this gal of devious Southern Charm, lightening-quick with her wit, and ever-eager to inflict bodily harm?
According to Legend, Ms. Rawlins "stumbled into a life of crime" when her tawdry tale "Dick Tracy (Dirty Jobs)" appeared at illustrious flash fiction crime magazine Shotgun Honey in February 2017. Seven months later she tumbled into The Gutter at Flash Fiction Offensive with her debut story, "The Ensenda incident" (which crime and mystery writer James "Jim" Shaffer dubbed an "International Shit-Kicker").
Flashing her Trademark stilettos, Ms. Rawlins also made two splashy appearances at Canada's eclectic Red Fez Magazine—founded by Leopold McGinnis, and artfully presented by a charitable host of fez-wearing editors. Jesse's flash fiction debut "The Jimmy Choo Blues" was followed by the zany short story crime caper "Inside Pandora's Box" (later republished at Poland's Punk Noir Magazine).
Forging her way across the Atlantic Ocean in late December, courtesy of Spelk Fiction Editor Cal Marcius in England, Jesse paid tribute to her Southern Redneck descendants from the United States (whose roots reach back to England) with her flash fiction crime tale, "The Proxy." But she turned up at Spelk again in March 2018 with her startling crime noir "Kiss Me Goodbye, Baby ..."
Vacillating between hardboiled crime and humor, a number of Jesse's 2018 yarns kindly found good homes with Arthur Graham & India Brittany LaPlace at Horror Sleaze Trash, Mark Westmoreland's Story and Grit, and North Carolina's The Rye Whiskey Review. These adventures include a dark sexually-charged tale she considers her signature story, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf." Meanwhile "Dick Tracy (Dirty Jobs)" was republished at Under The Bleachers (fondly known as The Frat). Barroom poet and Editor-in-Chief John Patrick Robbins subsequently graced Ms. Rawlins with the nickname "Heels." And a degenerate Legend was born.
Photo: Crime Fiction "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf by Jesse Rawlins
If one believes the rumors, after earning the nickname Heels, Ms. Rawlins culled a like-minded band of merry, murderous miscreants, who helped her snag the publishing and editing torch at 10-year old crime magazine the Flash Fiction Offensive (FFO) on February 4, 2019 in a bloody Gutter coup. She quickly created and launched Gut-Shots (short stories that pack punch). And with help from Miscreant Friends, FFO will celebrate its 11th Anniversary this December.
Gut-Shots: Short Crime Stories that Pack Punch (Created by Jesse Rawlins)
While editing and publishing endeavors slowed her fiction writing ventures, the increasingly psychotic Ms. Rawlins continued to punish authors at a frightening pace in 2019. So she was pleased when Brit Grit crime writer and Punk Noir Magazine publisher Paul D. Brazill gave her zany crime caper "The Bayou Boobie Blues" a fine home in July. All told, tall tales penned by Ms. Rawlins made 15 appearances in the two-year-period of September 2017 thru September 2019, including the Winter 2019 print collection of Ramingo's Porch from Pski's Porch Publishing. Where her criminal debauchery leads Jesse next? I doubt even Heaven knows. But I suspect we haven't heard the last from Jesse "Heels" Rawlins.
Photo: Crime Fiction Writer Jesse Rawlins a/k/a Heels presents "The Girl Next Door"
Photo: Crime Fiction by Jesse Rawlins "The Ensenada Incident"
Photo: Crime Fiction by Jesse Rawlins "Kiss Me Goodbye, Baby ..."
Ink-Quisitioner Jesse Rawlins prods author Marietta Miles into talking about May Cosby, and her new book AFTER THE STORM
Photo: Southern Noir Author Marietta Miles
Hi Marietta. You live and write in Richmond, Virginia. Florida publisher Down & Out Books (D&O) released your novella MAY in December 2017. And D&O is set to release your follow-up book AFTER THE STORM September 30th.
I just finished reading MAY. And we first meet your title character as a ferocious hurricane surges toward her home in fictional Folly Island, off North Carolina’s coast, in 1987.
But we quickly find ourselves transported to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1970—May’s last year in high school. As May batten’s down the hatches and the storm advances, her past continues to unfold in a series of flashbacks, written in present tense.
I’d say she’s lived a life no one would choose to live, Marietta. So why did you create May Cosby?
You know, I feel like I’ve known or at least met many Mays in my lifetime. They’ve stayed in my memory and each makes up a measure of this character.
I’m sure you’ve met them, Jesse. Regular women who end up doing small, but important things. Step-moms who work at the all-night grocer to buy tennis shoes for another woman’s child. Grandparents who raise their grandchildren because the mother or father can’t or shouldn’t. Women in imperfect situations finding any way they can to love and protect. These women don’t get a lot of shout-outs.
Really, one of the foundations of May’s story, in both the first book and AFTER THE STORM, is motherhood. Motherliness in all of its different dressings.
Raising children is one of the jobs you don’t want to screw up. The ramifications of throwing in the towel and not committing reach far and wide. The damage can last for generations.
Worst case scenario you raise a violent criminal. Or, best case, you simply rear a child who will be riddled and pulled down by the same hang-ups you as the parent have lived with. In-between lies the possibilities of addiction, abuse, or depression. So many crippling potholes. The cycle of volatility continues. Sins of the father and mother, as they say.
I think May’s parents were too young and too distracted. A million daily problems plaguing them. As a teen, May wandered and floundered with no one to look out for her. When she became too much of a handful, Mr. and Mrs. Cosby did what they thought was best.
But sometimes, despite the most well-intentioned attempts, parents get it wrong and those mistakes can lay a very long and bumpy road.
I know you have daughters, Marietta, and I’ve got a strong sense of how seriously you take parenting—so I understand how the theme of “motherliness” could appeal to you when writing novels. But perhaps you can enlighten us further on why you’ve now chosen to write two books involving a character like May Cosby, whose life is filled with what I’d call “mundane activities.” Your writing’s been described as “Southern Noir.” And May’s life essentially proves “humorless.” She seems to consider herself a “Misfit”—and I can certainly relate to that.
But other writers on the so-called Indie Crime circuit routinely write either zany or violent crime stories with characters who take on qualities many would call “larger-than-life.” Why do you think you’ve chosen a different path?
The stories I’ve had published are pretty realistic, Jesse. They involve things that can happen. May is a small-time weed dealer, for example, who sells just enough pot to supplement her meager income. So the characters are just three or four steps off the right path. They can go one way or the other. The choices they make have much to do with who they are as a person, and what they’ve learned in their life. They have families that are too busy for them, too caught up in their own needs. Their mother or father might be locked up in prison or already dead. Such characters will probably make a lot of missteps and those fumbles can be learned from—or can be the death of them. I tend to write about the death of them.
There’s a heavy dose of family dynamic in my stories because family, too much or too little, can deeply affect who a person will become. I write about simple people and psychotics. They all started somewhere, and to me that’s interesting.
I also think boredom is a strong instigator for some cases of extreme behavior. Sometimes, the worst crimes happen for no other reason than the perpetrator had nothing better to do.
I wouldn’t say I’ve consciously avoided the “larger-than-life” crime writing. I also think I don’t write zany or wacky because I don’t really read wacky books. Though I myself am extremely wacky.
My taste in reading has always leaned to the darker side. Mainly horror. When I do read crime it’s usually heavy, psychological crime with elements of horror. RED DRAGON. SILENCE of the LAMBS. The BLACK DAHLIA.
My first novella ROUTE 12 from All Due Respect books feels more like psychological horror. Very Different from my two subsequent books MAY and AFTER THE STORM.
I could crack a few quips about the wacky side of your personality, Marietta. But I’m trying to behave. Not easy I assure you!
So … how do you want readers to feel toward May?
One friend said they wanted to shake her—and then hug her. Reviewer David Nemeth wanted to buy her a hot meal. California writer Sarah M. Chen said that, too. All things I’ve felt for her, as well.
May is broken. She just doesn’t know it. She doesn’t sulk or complain. She just picks up her shit and moves on. For better or for worse. By choice or by force. For her, living might be more of a habit. A series of tasks to get her through each day. Half-assed attempts at making her life a little better. Never fully dedicating herself to anything or anyone.
I imagine a lot of people can relate to that way of thinking. Existing can be hard—it can take a lot out of you. If like May, you’re still inching forward and keeping your head above water after one of life’s curveballs? Well, I think that’s close to heroic.
But May is sometimes fearless for the wrong reasons. Brave when it’s too late. Distracted by her own baggage, which makes her very human.
May Cosby in some instances doesn’t strike me as someone unwilling to commit. Rather, like many people, she meets others with “no desire to commit”—or, unwittingly but to her benefit, aren’t worthy of commitment. I actually admire her willingness to venture from place-to-place. Some folks never live more than a matter of miles from where they’re born.
I did feel however that May’s “too insular.” And I’m not blaming her for that. But in my everyday life I don’t “engage” with folks who have “no desire to engage.” So I wouldn’t feel compelled to even buy May a cup of coffee. If I were to somehow have a serious conversation with her? I’d suggest she try and find a good therapist—which is no easy task in my experience.
I can see why you say she doesn’t seem unwilling to commit, but she definitely commits to the wrong people, or at the wrong time—and that leads her to becoming almost too careful. She leaves the best people she’s ever known out of insecurity and fear. She’s the perfect example of someone who would benefit from therapy, but not everyone has those resources.
The story also spans the 70’s and 80’s—and the availability and cultural acceptance of therapy has changed drastically since then. That generation was still dealing with the “don’t-talk-about-it and have-a-stiff-drink” way of handling mental and emotional issues. May is riddled with those same hang-ups.
And, yes, May has ventured out and traveled: but many times, for the wrong reasons. First she was forced away from home—then she ran away. After that she keeps everyone at a distance.
Moving and experiencing the world is an important and special aspect of life. My Dad was in the military and we moved a lot. After graduating I took off and did a fair share of my own poking around the world. No matter how hard it was at the time I’m glad I had the chance to travel—but May is trying to find a corner to hide in, not see the big-wide-world. She’s never learned how to stick around, only beat feet. In that regard, I think she’s pretty typical.
Is it your hope that some readers will find saturating themselves in May’s life therapeutic, Marietta? And perhaps feel less “alone” if they do feel like a “Misfit?”
My favorite books mean a lot to me, they’ve helped me get through tough times. Living in L.A. in my late twenties and in N.Y.C. in my early thirties would’ve been impossible without the public library. Books helped me to forget and took me away and, at times, made me feel understood. Less alone. It would be a gift if I could do that for someone else.
Like teenagers and adults alike, May gets sucker-punched by life experiences she’s not prepared for or equipped to deal with. These events leave her confused—and although she’s about 34 when the storm indeed hits Folly, the beleaguered woman is still confused.
Much of her confusion stems from the fact that her parents don’t talk to May when she lives with them—they talk at her: and together they make unilateral decisions for their daughter without her input. I could relate heavily to May in these two areas, so reading her story sometimes took me places I had no desire to re-visit. And given some of May’s misfortunes, which I’ve never experienced, I imagine some female readers might experience troublesome flashbacks as well.
When the storm hits you also expose readers to physical violence that doesn’t arise from the hurricane itself. Whether only psychologically—or quite possibly otherwise—this violence will carry long-term if not life-long consequences for May.
Considering the ways you’d initially shaped May’s life, did you find weaving such story-ending violence into this tale difficult, Marietta?
It’s a dramatic moment, Jesse—but it didn’t feel out of place. I tried to build up to that violent bubbling point. I wanted to show small, almost forgettable incursions occurring throughout May’s life to demonstrate just how tired she is at this point. Fed up and done fucking around.
Underneath it all, May is very angry person. The scene you mention is the first time she’s ever let go and let everything flow out of her. Every hurt or betrayal came back and she responded to her feelings. Her need.
The consequences of that purging are something May has to deal with throughout AFTER the STORM.
At the conclusion of MAY, surviving inhabitants are evacuated from Folly. But as your new book begins, May Cosby returns to the devastated island. In what ways does May change or evolve in AFTER THE STORM?
And who are some of the people she meets in these next chapters of her life? Is this book also written in present tense?
Yes, AFTER the STORM is also told in present tense, Jesse. May wouldn’t have returned to the island if she and Tommy—a forgotten, troubled teenager whose mother has simply vanished—hadn’t crossed paths. I imagine she would have taken off. He’s the reason she considers, on a whim mind you, to stick around and move forward. Rebuild.
Going back to a home that’s been destroyed. Seeing the rubble of your life in a heap. Saying sorry. Facing the fight. Or, as it also plays out in May’s story, holding the face of someone you love as they pass. These are the hard things to do, the terrible things. Running away is easy. May tends to take the easy way out.
Because of all these different building blocks in her past she doesn’t know how to withstand life—she only knows how to start a new one. To me, those are two very different things.
Her evolution, if there is one, is ugly. She trips and falls. Fails. A lot. And her steps are quite small. She is, I think, like most people in that way. May tries to be a better person—much as her own folks tried, yet she’s the same broken record, playing on repeat.
But in AFTER the STORM, May’s mistakes, her addictions and risky way of life, prove dangerous for Tommy, who she aches to protect. Her choices—combined with his instability, insecurities, and his naivete′—put him in harm’s way.
Significantly, Curtis, a young man with a fairly dark family history, much like Tommy and May, is on the run: with his sister Icky Vicki as an unwilling accomplice. They’ve fled the mountains of Virginia and like a bullet, he’s pushing his stolen Mustang toward Folly’s crystal coast. Rudderless and given to dark tendencies, Curtis is just stepping into his violent persona.
He’s evolving into a hunter--
Keen eyes open for weak prey.
While May’s male adversary appears early in MAY, we don’t learn much about him until the storm hits. In terms of the kinds of crime books I typically gravitate to—it’s where you bush-whacked my attention.
Now that your first book MAY reveals Ms. Cosby’s daunting past, I’m guessing we learn intriguing details about Curtis and his sister Icky Vicki much earlier in AFTER THE STORM? Sounds like this poor girl was born behind the eight ball, Marietta. Dare I ask how she earned the nickname “Icky?”
And speaking of attention-grabbing, since we’re drawing to a close, I also outta mention: Los Angeles crime and suspense writer Eric Beetner certainly did an arresting job designing the cover for AFTER THE STORM.
Eric’s extremely talented, and immersed in the writing life. Besides being a prolific writer and co-hosting the podcast Writer Types with Steve W. Lauden, he also creates book covers for publishers All Due Respect and Down & Out. Publishers work with a lot of cover designers—and I was very lucky, since authors like me don’t get to choose their artists. Having Eric design the cover for AFTER the STORM was secretly on my wish list, Jesse!
I’m hoping readers will find the next chapters of May Cosby’s life—as well as these new characters like Curtis and Vicki intriguing. Vicki’s given the name at the end of AFTER the STORM, so if I told you I’d be revealing too much. No spoilers, Jesse.
But readers will discover early on what what happened to Vicki and Curtis. And for them, the violence just continues.
Thanks for the chance to chat, Marietta. I know you’ve been busy lately. Best wishes to you and May Cosby—as well as to your family of course. And thanks Mick Rose for hosting us here at Center Stage!
Photo: Jesse "Heels" Rawlins
Publisher-Editor-Crime Fiction Writer
Addicted to tawdry tales that sometimes make her blush, Jesse Rawlins typically writes crime, mysteries, and humor. Places like England's Spelk Fiction, Canada's Red Fez, Punk Noir Magazine in Poland, and The Rye Whiskey Review here in the USA have kindly published her stories. Care to say “Hello?” You can visit Jess on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jesse.rawlins.583
Photo: Author Sebnem E. Sanders (Novelist & Story Teller)
MR: Today I’m pleased to present author Sebnem E. Sanders. Born in Istanbul, Turkey, these days Sebnem dreams and writes along the stunning eastern shores of the south Aegean Sea—which flows between Greece and Turkey. “Sebnem” in Turkish means “Morning Dew.”
Greetings, Sebnem, and welcome to Center Stage. At what age were you enthralled with reading? And what types of books first interested you? Did you initially read works in Arabic?
SES: I think I was seven, in first grade, when I learned to read and write, Mick. We started school in mid-September, and in late November we celebrated the Reading Festival where all the first graders were given red ribbon bows pinned to our uniforms, which meant we could now read and write.
I loved reading fairy tales from Andersen, Grimm Brothers, and 1001 Arabian Nights. Later stories from Jules Verne, children’s classics, and mystery books.
I never learned the Arabic Alphabet because during the early years of the Republic, in 1928, Turkey began use the Latin Alphabet.
MR: When did you first start penning your own tales, Sebnem? And how much time lapsed before your saw your first story published?
SES: I was in elementary school when my passion in writing began. I had some honours, also in prep-school. Later in life, I started writing poetry. The 70’s were very turbulent years in Turkey. The leftists fighting with the right-wing supporters. Brothers and sisters, killing brothers and sisters. Very sad. I was also in love. So poetry was my only escape. Almost everyone is a socialist in their youth, I was, too. My first vote went to the Republican Party, Ataturk’s party. I’ve never voted for any other party since then.
It took a long time before I saw my first stories published. Although I was the editor-in-chief of our school paper, The Campus Chronicle, and contributed to the literary magazines of the American Colleges in Istanbul, I had to earn a living and began to work. It was a long working career in Turkey and abroad, until I retired, and could begin to follow my passion.
My first stories were published in The Drabble, 100 word-stories, and then in many online literary magazines in the US, UK, Canada, The Far East and Turkey. I’m most grateful to The Drabble for publishing my first stories.
MR: You’ve done a bit of travelling—including visits to the United States, and time spent in England. Are there any other countries you’ve visited, Sebnem? And do you think your time in other countries has shaped your writing in any ways?
SES: Many… I lived in England and in the Far East, mainly in Singapore and Hong Kong, during the last days of the colonial period, pre-1997. I enjoyed both cities, Mick, but not the humid climate. At least Hong Kong had two seasons, Summer and Fall. In Singapore, there was only one season, rainy or sunny with 90% humidity.
The reason I travelled a great deal in my youth is because I worked with the Italian airline Alitalia in Istanbul. I was the secretary to the Alitalia General Manager for Turkey, and I could get free tickets and hotel discounts all over the world. So I indulged. “I am a part of all that I have met,” in Tennyson’s words. Naturally, this has shaped my writing. I’m a universal person. I like to think of humanity without the restrictions of race, nationality or religion.
MR: You certainly embody that belief, Sebnem. You’re often extremely active on Social Media and kindly support an array of writers and poets world-wide, myself included, and I greatly appreciate your enthusiastic spirit.
Since you retired and found yourself free to pursue your writing dreams, have you been able to interact in person with other Turkish writers? Or do you find your relationship with other writers limited to email and other electronic communications?
SES: I don’t think the literary circles in Turkey know about me because I write in English, Mick. So I was very happy to have my stories published at The Bosphorus Review of Books--which is the only English language online literary magazine in Turkey, with an English editor. Having my work published there gave me some exposure in Turkey.
Most of my friends say I should publish my book collection Ripples on the Pond in Turkish. But this endeavor requires further work. I cannot translate my own stories, so I’ll need to have them written in Turkish. Maybe, I’ll do that after my next book is published.
Since I write in English, my author friends consist of an international group: from the US and Canada, to the UK, Ireland, Europe, Australia, and a host of other writers from all over the world who also write in English.
We all support each other’s work on social media, as well as exchange critiques, and write or share reviews. As much as I would like to meet all of them in person, most interactions are online. However, we did have a small authors meeting in Athens this year with DJ Meyers and his wife, from Australia, Joanne J. Kendrick and Pamela Jane Rogers from the US, her late husband from the UK, and me from Turkey.
MR: Your flash fiction and short story collection RIPPLES ON THE POND released in December 2017—and will soon celebrate its 2nd birthday. While I haven’t read every story in RIPPLES, Sebnem, I can certainly detect the early influences of the Grimm Brothers and 1001 Arabian Nights in your writing. Many of your tales are considered “Speculative Fiction”—strange events often take place in “super-natural” fashion—they defy the so-called Laws of Nature or the Universe as we presently understand them.
What draws you to penning these types of dramas?
SES: I’ve always liked “Speculative Fiction.” In fact two of my longer work fall into this category or genre. I believe the fairy tales of my childhood must have a great influence, but I never actually plan on writing a speculative tale. I’ll feel inspired by a prompt—a photo or a painting, something in the news—a book, a movie or a conversation.
Then, sometimes weeds talk, buildings lament, trees feel and understand, a character like Ivan gets infatuated with ivy –and Bernard gets obsessed with his mannequins.
Author Kathryn Gauci came up with an interesting term, “anthropomorphic slant”—attributing human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena—just like we find in fairy tales.
MR: Your publisher for RIPPLES—The Gargoyle Chronicles—is located in Australia, and managed by author D.J. Meyers, who’s fascinated with gargoyles, among other things. In fact, if I understand correctly, all the books offered by this publisher have one thing in common: every work contains the word “gargoyle” in at least one sentence.
Which of your stories references a “gargoyle,” Sebnem—and how on earth did you find this publisher?
SES: I met David J. Meyers online at the now defunct Harper Collins writers’ site called Authonomy. I’d joined this site back in 2012 with a completed manuscript of The Child of Heaven. DJ and I began to read and edit each other’s work. That’s how our friendship began, and in the summer of 2013 DJ and his wife Michelle visited Istanbul where we met in person.
DJ writes fantasy and historical fiction, and publishes his own work. He kindly encouraged me and offered to publish my fiction collection, Ripples on the Pond, in 2017.
I don’t know whether all of DJ’s work contains the word “gargoyle.” Knowing his stories, that would be fitting. I suggested he use the name “The Gargoyle Chronicles” as the publisher. But I don’t think any of my stories reference a gargoyle. That’s strictly DJ’s territory.
MR: You have three additional manuscripts in various stages of completion: The Child of Heaven, The Child of Passion, and The Lost Child. The titles suggest they’re all related in some way. What can you tell us about these works? And do you have any specifics hopes or thoughts about where they might be published?
The Child of Heaven is a fantasy about an alien child who visits Earth to learn about human feelings from the main character, Leila, who lives on the shores of the Southern Aegean.
I’m rewriting, editing, and polishing this tale at the moment. It’s a different kind of book, but contains some of the characteristics one finds in The Little Prince and The Alchemist. I’m hoping this one will release in 2020.
The Lost Child is about parallel universes and speculates whether humans are capable of changing their ways in altered circumstances. Central to this story, a man loses his child in both universes.
Meanwhile, The Child of Passion is contemporary fiction with romance.
These completed manuscripts will be self-published. The three stories are not related. However, each involves a child. Why? I have no idea. But probably because I don’t have any children. Although none of these children are main characters, each one influences the main characters in their stories to change.
Photo: Contributing Writer Sebnem E. Sanders
MR: You also have stories in the book collections ONE MILLION PROJECT, THRILLER ANTHOLOGY and PAWS AND CLAWS. What can your share with us about these adventures, Sebnem?
SES: My contribution to the One Million Project, Thriller Anthology is a short story called “Mummy’s Torchlight.”
It’s a sad tale about a young boy whose mother is murdered, and how he copes with this tragedy as he grows up and faces the culprit. But NO spoilers, Mick!
My contribution to the Paws and Claws collection is a flash fiction story called “High-Flyers.”
This is another anthropomorphic tale, told by a red kite who observes the human condition from a bird’s eye view.
Photo: Contributing Writer Sebnem E. Sanders
I didn’t begin as short story writer. In fact, I never thought I could write one until I joined the Flash Fiction Group on Authonomy. The group, then hosted by author Darius Stransky, gave me a warm welcome, so I began to write a story every week. I believe flash fiction is an inspiring exercise to create something new—in style and plot—while improving one’s skills to write concisely due to the limited word counts. “Short and sharp,” as online magazine Spelk Fiction says.
When Authonomy closed, Darius moved the group to Scribblers in 2015—and asked me to host it a year later. Although I’m still running the group, membership numbers aren’t as high as they were in Authonomy.
By 2016, I’d written over 150 stories. I chose 71 and posted them on Scribophile for critiques and editing—and finally Ripples was published.
MR: Well, Sebnem … your writing career certainly didn’t involve “instant gratification.” But I’m surely pleased your dreams and endeavors have been wonderfully realized and received. Thanks for sharing with us here at Center Stage—and I hope you make new Writing Friends as a result of our chat!
As always, thank you fine Audience for joining us! Truly a pleasure.
Mick Rose Grateful Author (and Reluctant Poet)
Crime & Western Writer Bruce Harris proves wily in a booze & blood-soaked 6 Stabs showdown with Jesse "Heels" Rawlins
Photo: Amazon Crime & Western Author Bruce Harris
Welcome to another spurious edition of Center Stage with your increasingly apprehensive host Mick Rose. Sidling under the Spotlight today—as we resume parsing the gritty pages of the HARDBOILED crime collection from Dead Guns Press, I'm pleased to present Amazon Author Bruce Harris—who not only writes across several genres: he also blends and bends them.
Knowing full well the night will turn cacophonous once psychotic interrogator Jesse Rawlins takes the stage, I asked the cool-n-collected Mr. Harris to swing by early for a couple of drinks. And to discuss some "business matters." The cash bar's officially open—and the pizza's free as always, just like the Admission Tickets.
MR: Welcome, Bruce. The mics are “hot.” You grew up in Plainview, NY out on Long Island, but later attended North Carolina State University—which is only about 9 hours and 540 miles south. If you don’t mind us asking, what did you study there? And when did you first get the hankerin’ to start penning your own stories?
BH: That 540-mile one-way commute nearly killed me freshman year, Mick. Thank goodness for my Ford Pinto. It might have been infamous for its exploding gas tanks, but it got good gas mileage. I studied psychology, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Social Psychology.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories hooked me on reading. My early writings are “serious” Holmes articles that appear in The Baker Street Journal, The Sherlock Holmes Journal, Canadian Holmes, and others. My first book is Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: About Type, published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box in 2006. It’s still available online! It’s a look at Holmes and Watson, comparing Type A and Type B personality types. To this day I continue writing Holmes-related articles.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer hooked me on crime and detective fiction. I’m still blown away by the Ellery Queen mysteries. Murder mysteries—especially locked-room mysteries—interest me more than straight crime. I’m also a big fan of the old pulps and hold the writers from the 1930’s – 1950’s in high esteem. That’s not to say there aren’t incredibly talented crime and mystery writers today—there are! But, I don’t want to forget about those who came first.
MR: Gotta love Fords, Bruce. The later technology in their “run-away” Explorers might’ve gotten you back and forth quicker—but your gas mileage wouldn’t have been as good. Glad you survived the Pinto and the commutes. How many years of study before you got to clutch that Ph.D. parchment in your hands? Did you plow straight through starting with that freshman year?
BH: Yup, straight through. I never intended to get a Ph.D. when I started out. But after my senior year, I had no job prospects. Instead, I applied to the graduate program and got in. I became the epitome of a professional student. It took almost 10 years from my freshman year to the end. That’s a long time. A couple of those years are still a little fuzzy.
MR: Quite an accomplishment, Bruce. Most of my conscious daily moments are fuzzy. And I didn’t study for a decade. But I've read some Mickey Spillane. And a slew of John D. McDonald: though largely his Travis McGee series that launched in 1964, rather than his early works, which first saw print in the 50s. Good reading. But trying to wrap my head around some of the generational mindsets held by some of the characters had a tendency to tax my bourbon-addled brain. Though on second thought what doesn't?
When you say that locked-room mysteries interest you, does that mean you also write these puzzles, Bruce? I couldn’t write one of those buggers if my life depended on it.
BH: The closest thing I’ve written to a locked-room mystery is “Death Trail,” a western short story from September 2016 that appeared online at Frontier Tales. In this twister, Polk City’s Sheriff Stock finds himself under pressure to fill a vacant jail cell—and gets his chance to put a killer behind bars when the stagecoach pulls into town—and its only passenger is a dead man. But how can a man stab himself in the back? The sheriff quickly discovers this is no ordinary murder.
I’d direct readers interested in these types of stories to Otto Penzler’s massive 2014 anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries.
MR: Besides writing mysteries and seeing your crime tale “Last Meal” published in the gritty HARDBOILED fiction collection alongside 13 other writers, you’ve also had your crime stories published in a number of online magazines including the Flash Fiction Offensive and Shotgun Honey.
Yet you just mentioned Westerns—you’ve authored 7 such books so far, and you’ve also had various Western stories published in collections. So, Bruce, how did a kid from Long Island fall in love with the west and decide to put pen-to-paper and write Westerns?
BH: “Write what you know?” Nah. “Write what you like.” That’s what I did. I grew up watching TV shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. Who can resist a saloon brawl, or a card game in a smoky saloon? Admit it, Mick. You’ve wanted to swing open batwing doors at some point in your life!
I admire the cowboy’s code of honor—the downtown settings—as well as the wide-open trails. The western pulps captured the characters of the old west: rifles, stagecoaches, robberies, and the like. Authors like Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone bring these things to life.
My two favorite westerns I’ve written are actually mixed genre western-mysteries. In addition to “Death Trail,” my 2018 book, Murder at Bullet Pass is also a mystery. This one features a Rabbi who helps a sheriff solve the murders.
MR: I’ve actually swung through batwing doors, Bruce. But that’s cuz I needed to use the loo in a dive bar. My quiet life idea of high drama at midnight!
Speaking of drama, that rat-tat-tat we’re hearing tells me Jesse “Heels” Rawlins is approaching stage right. Don’t know who they are … but she’s got a couple of scary brutes with her. My cue to vamoose and grab my balcony seat.
“Hi, Jess. Bye, Jess.”
JHR: Later, Mick. Well, well, well. If it ain’t Bruce Harris. Sounds like we both suffer from “arrested development,” Dr. Harris. But I’ve always been a Dr. Seuss fan. So I call these thugs Thing 1 & Thing 2. For a couple a bottles of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine they do anything I tell ’em.
“Lucky for me. Not so lucky for you. Since you love the old west so much, but I’m far less nostalgic, my Things here are gonna strap you to this mechanical bull, which I’ve set for a sloooow ride. And while we have our little chat, I’m gonna stab ya with this custom Buck Frontiersman Wild Bill Cody knife. After the show, I’ll mail this baby to you in New York for a souvenir.
The price was absolutely criminal: $425 on eBay. But for now you can enjoy the quality of the blade firsthand—by my hand, of course. Did you know that I’m a Leftie, pardner?
The only Westerns I’ve read are by mystery writer Robert P. Parker. And to the best of my recollection, Parker’s tales aren’t set in “the old west.” Sounds like this genre’s pretty wide open. What kind of characteristics do writers like Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone tend to use in their novels? And how are yours both “similar to” and “different” from theirs?
BH: Fortunately for me, Things 1 and 2 aren’t as sharp as the $425 knife with which the sinistral Jesse seems so enamored. In fact, I’m not sure these two made it out of grade school. I think I can loosen my hands …. Yup, her dynamic duo don’t know how to tie a proper knot.
Without oversimplifying things, Jesse, Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone each give the reader good guys and bad guys and the good guys always win. I guess you can say their stories are anti-noir. Johnstone is probably more adept at character development, but both know how to keep the action going, forcing the reader to turn pages. The other important thing the two have in common is that their stories are well researched and historically accurate. Their various heroes share common traits, including love of family, honesty, and loyalty.
William W. Johnstone is now a cottage industry, run out of the family’s Tennessee farm. William W. Johnstone passed away in 2004, yet the Johnstone name continues stronger than ever. This year, 23 books will be published, and 29 are planned for release in 2020.
I wouldn’t mention my westerns in the same breath as L’Amour or Johnstone. That’s like comparing the 1927 Yankees with a lousy little league team.
There … got my hands loose.
Jesse, your two friends make me nervous. A Pair of Polished Peacemakers happens to be the title of one of my westerns, available at Amazon. And whaddya know—I also happen to have a pair of polished peacemakers aimed at their roid-filled bodies. So tell ’em to back off, Rawlins.
JHR: Hey, Mick! How much did Bruce pay you to keep his heaters?
MR: Hundred bucks and a bottle of Four Roses bourbon. Man’s gotta right to defend himself if the price is right.
JHR: Okay Thing 1 and Thing 2. Here’s four more bottles of Boone’s and bus tickets back to Cleveland. Now go play in traffic.
Meanwhile, since I live life in The Gutter, I don’t trust any of you varmints. If you look carefully at your chest Bruce, you’ll see 3 red circles dancing across your dubious heart—cuz I placed snipers in the balcony. So set your Peacemakers on that table by the bourbon—and plant your ass on that bull.
Very good, sir. Now that we’re all pretending to be civilized, you recently retired. And I imagine that’s given you a lot more time to write. And watch old westerns, of course. Do you have a routine writing schedule nowadays? How much time do you typically set aside for writing?
BH: I typically write between 1 and 4 hours a day. It breaks down to one or two hours in the morning and the same in the afternoon. I work in a coffee shop or the library. I don’t like writing at home. If things go really well in the morning, I’ll skip the afternoon. The rest of the day is spent reading, cooking, and walking for exercise—I refuse to run or jog.
JHR: I’ve got few professional sports teams I irrationally hate more than your Yankees, Bruce. I won’t stab you for that. But I will say I once visited an Irish bar that had three shamrocks mounted on the wall. They read: A-Rod sucks. Jeter Sucks. And Clemens is FAT. My kinda bar! Meanwhile, if The Gutter whisper-stream is true, I hear you’ve got a baseball story due for publication. Care ta talk about that?
BH: In what part of Boston is that dive located? I wouldn’t step foot in a dump like that even if they were doling out free vodka. Well… maybe if it was Grey Goose. Okay, if it was Grey Goose I’d go in … but I’d sit with my back facing those odious signs.
Jeez, word gets around in The Gutter. I’m a SABR: Society of American Baseball Research member. One of the society’s many committees is the Baseball BioProject. SABR’s website says, “The Baseball Biography Project is an ongoing effort to research and write comprehensive biographical articles on people who played or managed in the major leagues, or otherwise made a significant contribution to the sport.”
I’ve finished one biography, that of Bob Tufts. Bob pitched for the 1981 San Francisco Giants. Are you listening Bill Baber? And also for the Kansas City Royals in 1982 and1983. Bob is a bright guy, with degrees from both Princeton and Columbia Universities. I’m also working on a bio of Pete Craig. Pete pitched for the Washington Senators between 1964-1966. Neither are household names, but both have fascinating stories to tell. There are currently 4,985 completed bios on SABR’s website.
By the way, Rory Costello is co-chairman and chief editor of the BioProject. He’s completed around 100 biographies. Rory is also no stranger to crime fiction or The Gutter!
JHR: You also recently saw a slice-of-life essay involving one of your childhood experiences published. I was amused and stunned when the corporation involved responded on the magazine’s web site in a matter of mere days. What was your reaction when you saw the company’s response?
BH: You’re referring to my piece on Charles Atlas that appeared in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. It’s a fantastic website, chronicling stories about New York City past and present. Initially, I was surprised that the “Charles Atlas folks” responded, but after thinking about it, it makes sense. The product is still available, and there is nothing more important to a company than its brand. My piece was intended to be humorous and hopefully it was taken as such. I think the company’s response was professional and appropriate.
JHR: Since you mentioned “cooking,” Bruce, and your contribution to the HARDBOILED crime fiction collection from Dead Guns Press chances to carry the title “Last Meal”—are you one of these guys who tosses spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks in order ta tell if it’s cooked “just right?”
And what are some of your Specialty Dishes? Fenway Franks and popcorn?
By the way, that bar with the awesome shamrocks? Not even in the state of Massachusetts, let alone Boston. This may come as a shock to you: but peeps from all across the country hate the Yankees, Bruce.
BH: Some people don’t like the Yankees? Surely that’s fake news. Don’t get me wrong; I love Boston and Fenway Park. As for the Red Sox … let’s talk about cooking. My specialty is roast chicken. I make it at least once a week. The following day I turn the leftover chicken into chicken salad. I make pretty good codfish cakes—very labor intensive, and a mean egg salad: naturally very easy. I also love grilling—burgers, steaks, hotdogs, chicken, ribs, fish, etc.
JHR: Stories I’ve read by you have involved characters ranging from crooked cops to stunt pilots, hardened criminals, and sleazy amateur con-men. Some involve surprising twists. Some are comical. Others violent. But “Last Meal” proves “sad.” And that fact surprised me.
Have you written other sad stories, Bruce? And what motivated you to pen “Last Meal?”
BH: The only other sad story that comes to mind is a flash piece, “Tommy and the Jerk,” which appeared in the obscure and defunct Twisted Tongue magazine back in April 2010. I have a 14-word untitled story online at Nanoism published July 19, 2019. It’s sad. And a sad 10-word untitled story that appeared online in Dime Show Review in May 2018.
“Last Meal” was inspired by Cornell Woolrich’s, “Cigarette.” That story originally appeared in the January 11, 1936 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. “Cigarette” also appeared in the 2005 Woolrich anthology, Night & Fear. It’s a race against time story. The protagonist, Eddie, tries to locate someone named Adams before Adams lights up a poisoned cigarette.
Woolrich is a master at creating tension. I wrote “Last Meal” while vacationing in Singer Island, Florida. I sat outside on a 6th floor balcony, overlooking the pool and ocean, distracted by the poolside sights and smells coming from the grill. It took several days to write but somehow I finished it.
JHR: On the subjects of “finished” and “cooking, you’re starting to look like an over-filleted mignon, Bruce. So the Angels of Mercy—otherwise known as the Story and Grit medical team are gonna stitch you back together—then dump you in The Gutter so you can go about your miscreant business.
Oh! And since you didn’t answer my question about throwing spaghetti against the wall? Take that! A delightful 7th stab.
Thanks y’all for joining the show. And thanks Mick Rose for hosting us.
Photo: Crime Fiction Writer & Editor Jesse Rawlins
Addicted to tawdry tales that sometimes make her blush, Jesse typically writes crime, mysteries, and humor. You’ll usually find her stories on the wrong side of the tracks, including flash-zine Shotgun Honey, The Rye Whiskey Review, and Punk Noir Magazine. She dazedly accepted the online publishing torch for 10-year-old Crime, Pulp & Humor mag the Flash Fiction Offensive in February 2019. And her murderous band of writing cohorts keep Jesse on her “heels.” Wanna say “Hello?” You can visit Jess on Facebook:
Photo: L.A. Crime Author "Steve" S.W. Lauden
Greetings, ladies, gents and miscreants. Your host Mick Rose here. When I constructed Center Stage: lovingly laid the hardwood floors, hung the burgundy curtains, cushioned the leather seats, and fastidiously strung the lights, I never imagined featuring bloodbaths. Who in their right mind would allow a knife-wielding psychotic dominatrix to repeatedly stab them in exchange for free publicity?
The answer's obviously no one. But many Writers are far from "normal"—and crime writer Jesse "Heels" Rawlins fiendishly takes full advantage of their lust for fame and fortune—and more likely, their kinky thirst for pain. Marching under today's spotlight is Los Angeles crime writer and musician "Steve" S.W. Lauden. While Steve's always beat the drums, I've got a sickly suspicion he'll soon be singing out of key. Could he possibly look more stoic? I can't decide if I should admire Steve ... or pity him. While I muddle this question, it's time for me to march to my safe and comfy balcony seat. Please join me in raising a glass to Mr. Lauden and Ms. Rawlins. Two sick puppies without doubt!
JHR: What 12 words best describe your Anthony Award-nominated crime book CROSSWISE—and its companion follow-up CROSSED BONES—which feature disgraced former NYPD cop Tommy Ruzzo and his manipulative Florida-born love interest Shayna?
SWL: Girlfriends who love cocaine too much are really bad for NYPD careers.
JHR: You grew up living a punk rock life in Southern California, and these days you live in Los Angeles. Your Greg Salem private investigator trilogy and your recently-released power pop heist THAT’LL BE THE DAY are also set in California. So, Steve, what inspired you to unleash Tommy and Shayna roughly 3,000 miles away in fictional Seatown, Florida?
SWL: My family vacationed at a beautiful beach town on the panhandle of Florida. We stayed in a big clapboard house with a huge front porch and balconies that faced the white sand beaches and crystal-clear water. I got up early every morning to write while my wife and kids were still asleep. The area was so peaceful and relaxing that my crime writer brain decided it was the perfect place to set a series of murders. I had a lot of fun playing with crime fiction tropes and Florida clichés. Crosswise started out as a short story, but eventually grew into a novella after a little encouragement from my editor at the time. Down & Out Books, which is based in Florida, was the perfect publisher for that one and the even crazier follow up, Crossed Bones.
JHR: You called these Ruzzo capers crazy. Other readers have as well. I tend to describe escapades like this “Zany.” No guy—or gal—in their right mind would continue to pursue the affection and attention of a babe like Shayna. I got the impression from our chats last year that your punk rock private investigator Greg Salem lives a much darker life.
Yet despite the levity in CROSSWISE, the murders are truly gruesome. You just don’t clobber us with details. In what ways are the Ruzzo capers similar to the Salem series, Steve? And in what ways do they differ? Meanwhile, where does THAT’LL BE THE DAY play into this mix?
SWL: The Greg Salem books are much darker and probably more self-serious. I was writing from personal experience about the things I had seen first-hand—or heard about from reliable sources in the punk scene I grew up in and around. I witnessed and took part in a lot of self-destructive behavior during my high school and college years, but somehow managed to find my way to the other side of it. Meanwhile, I have friends who are still living that life and those books were really about me questioning what my life would have been like if I never left and never changed. In a way I admire them for sticking to their guns, but I also know that it’s ultimately not the life for me.
Crosswise came along after I had gotten a lot of that out in the first Greg Salem book, Bad Citizen Corporation. I think that I needed to tackle something that wasn’t so personal, and maybe even a little funny, at least according to my own warped sense of humor. Meanwhile, That’ll Be The Day sort of strikes the balance between Greg Salem and Tommy Ruzzo. In my opinion, it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done.
JHR: Crossword puzzles play a strong central role in CROSSWISE. I chanced to discover online that CROSSED BONES hinges on a quest for rumored hidden treasure. Did you do any factual historical research, Steve? Or is this treasure simply the concoction of a demented crime writer who spent too much time baking in the Florida sun?
SWL: The pirate treasure in the book is meant to be an overblown example of the lengths Shayna will go to in her never-ending quest to entertain herself. The research I did was more about the types of small Eastern seaboard tourist traps that rely on their historical connection to Blackbeard and other famous pirates to drive the local economy. The pirate treasure and backstory were really fanciful and mostly the product of my own over-active imagination. It was a lot of fun to write, but I’m not sure readers totally understood what I was going for—which means I either missed the mark or I’m a lot more like Shayna than I care to admit. Pick your poison.
JHR: Despite my love for music, I dove into the Ruzzo series first because of a comment you’d made about Shayna. She’s not a major character in CROSSWISE—she’s the force that drives most of Ruzzo’s actions. And a cold and calculating dame she is. But you mentioned she took on a life of her own when you wrote CROSSED BONES. Would you say she’s evolved or “devolved,” Steve? Her lust for hidden treasure suggests she’s still incapable of genuinely caring about anyone except herself.
SWL: It became clear in writing and publishing Crosswise that Shayna was the real star, so it seemed natural to center the second book in the series around her. But she’s absolutely insane compared to Tommy Ruzzo, so Crossed Bones is consequently a lot crazier and unhinged than the first book. As a character, Shayna’s a bundle of energy with a huge brain that’s always working overtime. She’s wickedly smart and absolutely ruthless, but also way too easily bored. It’s a dangerous combination that often doesn’t end well for her or the people closest to her.
She has neither “evolved” or “devolved” because she’s known exactly what and who she is all along, and she makes no, er, bones about it. It’s everybody else around her, and perhaps a few readers, who insist that there’s a heart of gold somewhere in there. That’s the power she has over people and she’s not afraid to use it to her advantage again and again.
JHR: Your latest work THAT’LL BE THE DAY is a self-published project. How long did this affair take you start-to-finish? And what do you think of the process? Did you run into any pitfalls the rest of us might learn from?
SWL: I honestly spent longer thinking about That’ll Be The Day—and convincing myself to explore self-publishing—than it took me to write the thing, get it edited and hit “publish” on Amazon. It has been one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in publishing. A lot of that has to do with the length—17,000 words, and the subject matter, power pop. I’m currently putting together the outline for the second book in the series which I hope to self-publish in early 2020.
The main thing I’ve learned from self-publishing That’ll Be The Day is to have realistic expectations. This isn’t the kind of project that lends itself to unrealistic fantasies about seeing your book in airports, or even most bookstores. That’s freeing in a way, especially when it’s a world you really love and that you truly believe the right readers will find over time, even if there aren’t thousands and thousands of them. At least I hope so. I’m really proud of it.
JHR: Since I hate math, here’s a Bonus Question. Maybe I’ll stab you; maybe I won’t. Got any new work hovering on the horizon? Or is a writing break just what the doctor ordered?
SWL: The inspiration for That’ll Be The Day actually came from a non-fiction project I co-edited with Paul Myers. It’s an essay collection about power pop bands like Big Star, The Bangles, Sloan, Fountains Of Wayne, A.C. Newman/The New Pornographers and others called Go All The Way that will be published by Rare Bird Books this October. I also have another crime novel that will likely see the light of day in the second half of 2020.
Thanks so much for repeatedly stabbing me!
JHR: I'd say the pleasure's all mine, Steve. But in your case I highly doubt that. You're still engaging in self-destructive behavior, just like in your youth! A second childhood, perhaps? I'm on my third. And I plan on staying here.
Meanwhile, the dedicated Story and Grit medical staff flew in from Oklahoma on their own dime, and they're gonna stitch you back together. As for our kind and attentive audience, I offer some thoughts on CROSSWISE, which Mick and I both awarded 5 out of 6 Stilettos.
Crosswise launches quickly—and, without fanfare, we meet P-whooped Steve Rizzo and his love-interest Shayna Billups. I would've welcomed a bit of foreplay in the form of a Prologue portraying their time in New York City. But the action in Seatown, Florida warms us hot and fast. We're suddenly at a murder scene: and the killer needs catching!
Lauden's keenly created some of the craziest characters I've ever encountered. And he tosses these tropical fruits in a whirring blender, along with some coconuts. A certified recipe for disaster as the death toll mounts like a raging hurricane. If you're looking for a serious police procedural, you may wanna whistle past this particular graveyard. Absurdity routinely routs sound reason in this zany crime caper.
But if you enjoy humor, action and who-dunnits? Rizzo, Billups and a cast of miscreant misfits should keep you smirking and entertained in this hot, breezy read—where the players shroud their motives. And missteps do prove fatal. While Steve readily admits to employing tropes and stereotypes, I found his corporate moguls splendidly unique, and even more bizarre than legendary Howard Hughes.
Thanks for hosting us Mick Rose. Y'all stay safe out there and thanks for joining the show.
Addicted to tawdry tales that sometimes make her blush, Jesse typically writes crime, mysteries, and humor. You’ll usually find her stories on the wrong side of the tracks, including flash-zine Shotgun Honey, The Rye Whiskey Review, and Punk Noir Magazine. She dazedly accepted the online publishing torch for 10-year-old Crime, Pulp & Humor mag the Flash Fiction Offensive in February 2019. And her murderous band of writing cohorts keep Jesse on her “heels.” Wanna say “Hello?” You can visit Jess on Facebook:
Photo: Crime Fiction Writer & Editor Jesse Rawlins
Photo: Crime Writer Chris McGinley
Please, step right up, folks. Unlike Vegas, what happens at Center Stage with your host Mick Rose doesn't stay here at Center Stage. Nope, we share these performances all over Social Media. And today we're casting our eyes once again on the grit-filled crime fiction collection HARDBOILED from Dead Guns Press, co-edited by M. Leon Smith and John L. Thompson.
The challenges backwoods law enforcement officer Curley Knott faces in "River of Nine Dragons" prove difficult. And for author Chris McGinley, answering questions from crime writer Jesse "Heels" Rawlins while knowing full well she'll be stabbing him with an Italian-made stiletto's no simple feat either. So rather than postpone the inevitable, time for me to scoot upstairs to my balcony seat and pour myself some good Kentucky bourbon. Anyone interested in grabbing their own copy of HARDBOILED can find this gem by clicking the Magic Box below the tantalizing cover.
JHR: Hi Chris. Welcome to 6 Stabs. You live and do your writing in Eastern Kentucky, USA. The city of Lexington to be exact. Roughly 320,000 people—just like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cincinnati, Ohio. Mention Lexington to most people and immediately they think of horses and the festive Kentucky Derby.
But you typically set your fictional crime tales in backwoods Kentucky places: dark Appalachian mountains, where nearly everyone owns guns. Places where “outsiders” are sometimes not welcome. Men are often violent. Illegal drug use common. Some criminal characters live in single-wide mobile trailers “that should have been abandoned.” Beach towels hanging from the windows instead of drapes or curtains.
I’ve heard tales such as yours dubbed Kentucky noir—or Appalachian noir. How do you view your writing? Do you see yourself as adding to this tradition?
CM: Hi, Jesse. Nice to be here. “Noir” is such a slippery term nowadays. In recent years, it seems to have broadened to include all sorts of elements I would never have considered “noir” in the 30's and 40s sense. And yet, I'm not averse to its use, nor do I reject it as a means to describe my writing specifically.
Yes, there are dark elements in all of my stories, absolutely. But as for the people in my stories, I write about crime, so disreputable types appear all over the place—hardly the typical folk of the region—who are genuine, warm, and intelligent. That must be borne in mind: The elements in my work are those of genre fiction, not real life.
Eeriness is also a big goal in what I try to achieve. If I can create a strange mood, something mysterious or unnerving, then I feel I’m on my way to writing a piece that could be successful. Though the term “noir” might be limiting for a writer who seeks to publish “literary” fiction, I feel it suits my work pretty well. I also like to think that extant in the writing are other genre elements, like those of the thriller or even the horror story. If these sensibilities dovetail with what’s considered “noir,” and I think they do, than yes, the writing’s “noir.”
JHR: You drew attention to the “real-life” folks who dwell in regions where some of your backwoods stories are set. Some fiction writers set their tales in actual cities and places. Others create “imaginary” cities and towns. While lots of writers—myself included—use a mix of both.
Without doing a bit of research, fiction readers can’t discern what’s “fact” and what’s “fiction” in terms of geography and setting. Your stories “Hellbenders”; “With Hair Blacker than Coal”; and “River of Nine Dragons”—which appears in HARDBOILED—strike me as good examples.
“Hellbenders” launches with a gruesome murder investigation in the heights of Black Owl Mountain. In the other two tales, we follow the investigations of Burley County sheriff Curley Knott—a Vietnam war veteran, whose combat experiences in the Mekong Delta linger. One of Curley’s manhunts takes him to Red Loon Mountain.
Far as I can tell, Burley County, Black Owl Mountain and Red Loon Mountain don’t exist. But in the mid-1990’s I did a fair amount of traveling through the Appalachian Mountain range: including parts of Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia—where I witnessed living conditions that mirror some descriptions in your stories.
One of my Kentucky excursions included a canoe trip at Richmond’s historic Kentucky River Lock and Dam, roughly sixteen miles southeast of Lexington, near Fort Boonesborough State Park. Most of the decrepit mobile trailers were adjoined by mountains of trash—that towered over their homes. Led me to wonder if some of these poor folks had electricity or running water.
I made this five-mile river trek the week of Thanksgiving: all the trees bare of leaves. But the trees proved far from bare—black, green, and white garbage bags … and trash like fast food wrappers—all clinging to and fluttering from their otherwise naked branches. And I’ve never seen more spent shotgun shell casings, which littered those river banks, in my entire life.
So three-part question, Chris. Have you spent time in Appalachian regions similar to where your stories are sometimes set? Do you get the sense that living conditions have improved in the past twenty or thirty years? And do you use fictional names for your settings as a conscious attempt to avoid creating the appearance of “stereotypes?”
CM: I’ve traveled all around central Appalachia over the years, especially eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and eastern Tennessee. In fact, there are also rural areas just outside of Lexington that are similar in many ways to Appalachia proper. But as for conditions in the mountains, Jesse, some areas have suffered while others have remained economically constant, or even improved—just like many other regions in the USA.
It’s true that the decline of coal over the last several decades has affected the economic heath of the eastern Kentucky region that I write about. But the whole story is so much bigger than coal alone, and far too daunting to discuss here. Sadly, in popular depictions of Appalachia—in Hollywood and TV productions, for example—people are first and foremost portrayed as poor and unintelligent. There are, of course, many reasons for this: not the least of which is a romantic mythos about the region itself, and simple ignorance as well. Yet it’s important to remember that such representation are skewed in several respects.
For anyone seeking to learn about the Appalachian economy, and about Appalachia generally, the Appalachian Regional Commission’s easy-to-access publications, and Elizabeth Catte’s fine book, What You are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, are good starting points.
As for place names, all of mine are fictional. Fictional places give authors a freedom to invent material without worrying about accuracy: Is that mountain really east of the house? How long would it take to drive from point X to point Y in that particular county? Is that old convenience store still on that same road? So, in my stories place names reflect the kinds of names one will find in the region, but they’re all 100% imaginary.
Much of my interest in setting stories in Appalachia has to do with geography. Because I try to create an eerie atmosphere in my work, the wooded hills of the region nicely suit my aims. Appalachia is a place of intense natural beauty. But in any atmosphere where locations are remote and sparsely populated, a writer can create a sense of foreboding or fear—even within a place of great natural beauty. Obviously, there’s a long history of American writers and their engagement with the woods, or with what was once known as “primeval nature” in university literature courses. So, my approach is nothing new, though I hope that I add a new twist to the tradition in some way.
JHR: You also teach middle school children. And I often see on Facebook you keep these kids engaged with vital projects, including growing vegetables. Given the violence in your stories, do you tend to keep your “Writing Life” segregated? Any of the school administrators—or parents of your students—ever express concerns?
CM: The sixth graders I teach are pretty oblivious to the fact that I write stories at all. If it does come up, I always say that the stories I write are geared to adults, and they seem to understand that. On the other hand, a colleague recently taught a unit in creative writing for eighth graders during which the students read one of my flash stories, “The Haint.” I came into her classes and did a tutorial on story arcs, characters, endings, and on the elements of short fiction generally. We talked about my story and how it operated. There’s violence and profane language in that one, and yet the session reminded me of some of the more successful talks I conducted when I taught English and film at the University of Kentucky—completely professional and serious.
Happily, parents and administrators are incredibly supportive of my writing, Jesse. They’re forever asking about my forthcoming book of stories, and about when they can purchase it. Not too long ago I attended a writers conference in Milwaukee for which the school supported me. The principal noted, “You're writing informs your teaching,” and indeed it does.
JHR: In stories like “The Haint”—which appears in online flash-zine Shotgun Honey, and is free for folks to read—we certainly feel that eerie quality you alluded to. Some mention “local folklore” … creepy tales first murmured in the days of yore—even before Kentucky became the fifteenth American state in 1792.
Your approach reminds me of early American writer Washington Irving, and his well known stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These tales were published in 1819 and 1820, less than thirty years after Kentucky’s statehood.
Irving drew from Dutch and German folklore—even though Van Winkle’s set in New York’s Catskill mountains, and Ichabod Crane’s Sleepy Hollow takes place in rural colonial Connecticut. Do you turn to “actual” Kentucky folklore when you pen your stories, Chris? Or do you rather use the traditional idea of “folklore” to give your tales a spooky feel?
CM: The folklorish elements in my stories are really a synthesis of components found in old American writers like Irving, Hawthorne, Cooper and Charles Brockden Brown. I mix these in with what I know of rural folklore the world over, including Appalachia. Indeed, it’s hard to separate the origins for many of these myths and stories. Even old Gothic tales like those of Poe and Irving can be traced back to earlier, European traditions, as you noted, Jesse.
Though my style is obviously modern, I get a good deal of inspiration from stories like Irving’s “The Adventures of the German Student,” Hawthorne's “Rappacini's Daughter,” and Poe's “Imp of the Perverse,” among others. Sometimes there’s a real-life mountain-type character, like a granny woman or an archetypal midwife, who gets tied into a story with a folklore element. Or I might use an animal, like a hawk or a snake, to create an eerie mood or a scary moment.
JHR: You have strong passions for film, food, books, and architecture to name a few. So what lured you into the writing life, Chris? And when did the desire to see your work published first hit you?
CM: I came to fiction writing late in life, at about age 50, so I’ve only been at it a few years. I produced some scholarly publications way back in graduate school, and I wrote some movie reviews for a local newspaper as well. Though none of it was noteworthy, really. But a few years ago, I read a piece of flash fiction on a friend’s advice, and I said to myself, “Wow, I could do that.”
I did, and online magazine the Flash Fiction Offensive accepted the piece. I felt a little thrill and produced a few more. From there I moved to longer fiction and into forums like Tough, Switchblade, Mystery Weekly, Pulp Modern, and a forthcoming story in Mystery Tribune.
I’ve written a 70,000 word police procedural about cops in the late 70s—a case involving a nun’s convent and a killer who’s taking out pimps. If anyone is interested in this piece, please contact me. The 70s are suddenly topical again!
This whole writing thing just snowballed. A book of my Appalachian stories was accepted for publication, and I'm presently working on a novel that features Sheriff Curley Knott.
JHR: You’ve withstood this stabbing impressively well. But before you get dizzy from too much blood loss, what can you share with readers about your forthcoming debut book. I imagine we may bump into Sheriff Curley Knott out in the mountains. But I’ve also read your story, “Anka” at Story and Grit: an adventurous tale featuring an Inupiak eskimeaux woman the locals in her village call Anna Reed. So will we find more stories like hers that aren’t set in Appalachia?
CM: Shotgun Honey, an imprint and partner of Down & Out Books, is set to publish a collection of my stories called COAL BLACK in December. The book contains about ten pieces, all set in Appalachia—but across different time periods. Two stories include Vietnam Veteran and expert tracker Sheriff Curley Knott. The rest involve a host of miscreants and losers, flawed lawmen and forlorn types generally—along with noble types, too, though they have a tough time. Several feature female characters, both law enforcement types and criminals. Others showcase animals and spirits based on the region’s topography and folklore. Which of these creatures are real might be tough to tell, however.
JHR: I gotta tell ya, Chris. The way your tattered skin's flapping like dying fish gasping for oxygen—while spewing blood like a leaky lawn sprinkler—I can't tell if you're still human or a creature-feature either. So time to turn you over to our Story and Grit Good Hands medical staff, who flew in from Oklahoma to join us once again.
Meanwhile, I'll raise a glass and three cheers to Mick Rose for hosting us! Stay safe, y'all.
Addicted to tawdry tales that sometimes make her blush, Jesse typically writes crime, mysteries, and humor. You’ll usually find her stories on the wrong side of the tracks, including flash-zine Shotgun Honey, The Rye Whiskey Review, and Punk Noir Magazine. She dazedly accepted the online publishing torch for 10-year-old Crime, Pulp & Humor mag the Flash Fiction Offensive in February 2019. And her murderous band of writing cohorts keep Jesse on her “heels.” Wanna say “Hello?” You can visit Jess on Facebook:
Photo: Crime Fiction Writer & Editor Jesse Rawlins