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