Check this out. Cam and Jimmy have their first jam piece LUKE 19:27 in Plots With Guns January (all 13,000 words!) and they're about to start something new called DRUGLAND PARADISE, something which should keep all our ears to the ground for a while. I know we'll all be there.
Before either of those things get fully underway, THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN
DANCING CHEEK TO CHEEK: Part 2
THE INTERNET’S BEST PALS JIMMY CALLAWAY & CAMERON ASHLEY talk some more.
The following was recorded somewhere between San Francisco and San Diego on October 17th, 2010, the last day of Bouchercon.
CA: Let's get it back to writing and a rather obvious and rather boring question, but it's a question I don't think I've ever asked you – favourite writers.
JC: Oh yeah! Well, coming up in reading crime, Elmore Leonard was the first guy to knock me back on my heels and be amazed at how he could have such likeable characters in such unlikeable situations and he makes that look easy...
CA: And that is very much a trait of your work.
JC: What's that?
CA: The likeable guys who do unlikeable things thing.
JC: Oh. Oh, thank you. Well, I can guarantee you can trace that right back to Elmore Leonard.
JC: So, yeah, he was a huge influence – oh and for dialogue. I like writing dialogue and I like reading dialogue and his dialogue is never contrived...
JC: I saw an interview with him once, I think on The Daily Show, where he talked about going to prison in Detroit or something to talk and one of the inmates was telling him, “You write the best crack dealer dialogue for a guy that's never dealt crack before,” and he was very flattered by that. And along with him, was when I discovered Ed McBain with his real stark procedural style, he really showed me what could be done with so little.
CA: Yeah! Exactly! And I don't even really like police procedurals generally, but McBain is one of the few guys...I love those books.
JC: I don't know that I've read any other procedurals. I thing I've just stuck to the McBain stuff. I might have started something else and then put it down...and I was talking to Megan Abbott about this, that I think it helped in his case that he came from a literary background, that he wanted to be a “real” writer and the procedural stuff was just something he started to pay the bills and coming from a more, uh, a more highbrow background, that he really had an ear for people's voices...
CA: Oh, no doubt.
JC: and he was really the perfect kind of combination of street smarts and book smarts to where, as a craftsman, he was one of the best, but he also was, it will sound cliché, but he really captured the voices of his characters...these scumbags, and these cops, these blue collar dudes. So yeah, from the outset, I think those two were the biggest influences on me. But since then, like those were like gateway drugs, ‘cause then you get into Willeford and Block, and go back to Hammett and Chandler and I don't think there's anything, of all the books I've read...there's so very few that are really shitty. And it all goes in the vault and now I'm struggling to remember names, there's just so much of it. And this speaks to me just how superior crime fiction is to all the other genres, including your standard literary, as that's where people do their best work and it's the most sincere form of literature, I think. What about you? What bug bit you to do this?
CA: Okay, I finished my Honours in Literature and...got a bit burned by the whole experience, and just got really tired of being told what to read and what I couldn't read and how somebody like Phillip Dick was “academically acceptable” but to...so many others just weren't. And again, this is a very Australian mentality...although I think it's changing, because, when was this...? 2000. And I think it's slowly changing, but at the time there was this weird mindset of Canon. And if it's not in the canon, then it's not acceptable. But once you die, or some philosopher finds merit in your work, then you're bumped up into the Literary canon, like Phil Dick, and I just got sick of this shit. I finished my Honours and I just really wanted to get back into reading crime. McBain and Ellroy were really like the first crime writers that I ever read and that was before I kind of started studying Literature and so I finished up my degree and I wandered into Kill City, which was a crime book shop in Melbourne, not there anymore sadly, and David Honeybone was sitting behind the counter and I just walked up to him and I went, “Hi, my name's Cam, can you please give me some prison novels?” and I walked out with Eddie Bunker's Animal Factory and some Andrew Vachss which Dave put me on to, and from that point, it was just... a madness for me. I just soaked up as much of this stuff as I could. But in terms of direct influences, there's also some weird stuff. Ken Bruen, as you know, has been something of a mentor to me...
CA:...and it's just undeniable the influence he's had on my work and there's weird things too, like JG Ballard, not probably what anyone would term a crime writer, but just what I found interesting about Ballard was the notion that these psychopaths, or just people with just strange psychopathological issues, could, through a chance meeting with some strange person, could go on this weird little journey into their own mindscapes, it's just crazy stuff. And what ends up happening is, I became fascinated in how he transforms the kind of media-saturated landscapes into a terrain that is kind of created by the melded mindscapes of whoever is being initiated into this world and these crazy psychopath characters, and that to me was just brilliant. I mean, I don't read Science Fiction anymore. I just don't get it.
CA: Ballard kind of ruined it for me.
JC: Yeah, he did.
CA: He was the guy who said, you know, I'm not going to write about the future anymore, there's no need to write about rocket ships when we can, you know, get in a car and fucken travel into the...you know, the metaphor of going out into space and using space and aliens as a “deep look at humanity and where we're headed!” Like all that stuff is just completely unnecessary when we can get in the car and the car is the rocket ship and that fucken hill over there, that's outer space, where are we going? Where are we, what's happening. And the more we talk about it...like, here I am, from fucking Australia and here we are on the 101 driving back to San Diego and I'm not even sure where we are, but to me, it's all...this is America, but it's already filtered through my own kind of Pop Cultural influences and experiences and that, to me, is in a very Ballardian sense, is the melding of all that. This landscape that I'm looking at is already transformed through my imagination, you know, and that's powerful, powerful shit, I think and also what he does with the concept of enclosed spaces and architecture and all these beautiful little passages about how everything is framed and contained by the space that you're in and yet you're transforming the outside of that. It's fascinating and so, there's pretty much always some kind of Ballardian undercurrent to everything I've ever written...you just probably wouldn't know it. Probably the least obvious influence on my stuff, but probably the most important in a lot of ways.
JC: Well, let me ask you this. Not to put you on the spot, but Ballard really changed the rules as far as SF went, not unlike what Phillip K Dick was doing...
CA: Oh, yeah. Yep.
JC: Who would you say is doing that for crime? I mean, it's gone through a lot of changes. You think of Sam Spade and...it's really like the hero's journey, just with booze and broads and bullets, but we've really come father from hardboiled and really more into neo-noir. Who would you say is responsible for that?
CA: Oh, Jesus.
JC: Not to, you know, put you on the spot...
JC: 'cause, you know, we're closer to it, we have a better understanding of it, rather than SF that we're just not as close to, not nearly, but I'm hard pressed to think of anybody, but what do you think? I mean, I think Ellroy is probably...
CA: I was actually going to say that. I think that the way that he kind of forges ahead with his stuff...and what I find really interesting about Ellroy too: the crazier that guy gets, the more I fucken love his books. And I'm not quite sure why that is. I completely understand why people are turned off by the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy. I completely understand that, but to me, White Jazz was far more difficult and impenetrable than the ‘Underworld USA’ books. Like, White Jazz is the only Ellroy book I haven't finished and I don't know why that is. To me, once he started getting into American Tabloid, I mean, you can just see the rhythm. And sure, it's off-putting for the first few pages, but then it's like ka-chung, ka-chung, ka-chung, there's a beat to it and once that starts rolling, I just find it hypnotising. It's like being in a trance reading his stuff. So, yeah, Ellroy would be my answer to that. There's also guys, I mean, I always talk about Ken, but that guy has done sooooo much for not only Irish crime fiction, but for crime fiction in general. You look at the evolution of that man's style in a very, very short period of time...and you can argue that perhaps he's getting too spare at this point, there's an argument that could be made for that, but what's he's doing is bringing back a lot of poetry to it and again, there's a rhythm to it. Oh! The nicest thing anyone has said to me so far, I think, was Josh Converse when we caught up with him and he said, “Cam, there's a real rhythm to your stories...”
JC: It's true.
CA: Ha! Well, I actually attempt to do that, I didn't realise that anyone actually kind of noticed that. And that's really coming from that stuff. But then you've got people like...well, you know about my crush on Megan Abbott...it's gigantic...
JC: Well, and who can blame you...
CA: Her books...it's just...when I read her stuff...it just is so achingly beautiful. So gorgeous. So yeah, these are the two kinds of things that I like, I like either beautifully crafted, gorgeous sentences or really hard, clipped stark stuff. But what they have in common – I've gone completely off-topic – hahaha!
JC: You're fine.
CA: But what they have in common is this idea of musicality, whether it's stark and punchy or long and flowing, there's got to be some kind of musicality to it. I mean, I just, I can't stand that popular fiction sheen that so much shit has...
CA: I understand why people read it, but it's just boring to me. Really, really boring.
JC: I don't understand why people read it.
CA: Well, there's a familiarity to it. It lessens the work for the reader. But all those guys, they just seem so interchangeable and I don't know if that's an editorial thing, like I don't know if all these guys have the same editor or whatever, and they just kind of gloss all this up and put their own kind of sheeny stamp on it, but it's so off-putting to me that their voices, no matter how good they may be with dialogue or how well they can craft a character, there's just this...ubiquitous gloss to everything that stamps out any kind of voice. And I suppose, trying to drag this back to the question, all these people who have real voices are the people who are pushing this stuff forward and, to me, that's the most important thing. And if there is no voice, then I'm really not interested.
JC: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I think that Cormac McCarthy, who I suppose no-one would consider a “crime” writer, he's more in the Literary field...
CA: Yeah, he's a great example too.
JC: I think that stuff like All The Pretty Horses, which is just beautiful, with all these descriptions of Mexico and this love story...and I'm far from being sentimental, but the love story in that just crushes me. And then there's a Mexican prison knife-fight scene that made my toenails curl.
CA: Ha! Right!
JC: Christ! And Blood Meridian obviously. I wish I could remember what Ben Whitmer was talking with us about the other night, but I was hammered.
CA: Ohhhh, that was fantastic!
JC: I'm assuming that what I was getting at was that he really does have this delicate balance in his work, he's really stark...like, punctuation, the fuck with that...
CA: Oh, and Charlie Huston is also someone who does stuff like that. Fuck, I should've mentioned him...
JC: Yeah. And Nick Tosches...he's mostly a biographer, he's written crime but, uh, his voice is unmistakable.
JC: And it's fucking great.
JC: Josh Converse turned me onto that guy, for which I will forever be in his debt. Like and he writes this stuff as Nick Tosches. In his voice.
JC: Like I wouldn't have the balls to think that anybody would want to hear anything in my voice. Right? Then I read him and go, well, the option's there...but then if you start reading this stuff then you want to do that but then you're just ripping off Nick Tosches at that point...and McCarthy's just like Pynchon or Salinger, like, I don't wanna talk to anybody, just leave me alone. Like he's out in the middle of the New Mexico desert writing books and Oprah drags him out of his shell for a while and he couldn't be less interested in anything Oprah has to say to him. And it's so inspiring to see these cranky old farts out there getting this work done. It doesn't have any of that gloss. They are their own men...not just as a writer, but as a person, I couldn't be more inspired by that...
CA: And that's true and that's exactly what I'm getting at...well, what I think I'm getting at...I've no idea, actually...but the point is you sit there influenced by these people, but it's a subtle influence on your work, it's an influence in attitude. Not a stylistic influence.
JC: Yes. Right.
CA: Because who wants to read a Cormac McCarthy rip-off?
CA: Who wants to see a JG Ballard rip-off? Who wants to try and see me do awful Megan Abbott-esque books...
CA: They would be terrible. Just terrible. So, but, you know...
JC: But as writers and as creative types, that attitude is indispensible.
JC: Because otherwise, you're completely hamstrung and you can do nothing...like, “Oh, I'll just write in that way that he does,” so not stylistically, yeah, but attitude...and your own voice will come out from that, once you clear all the other bullshit out of the way...
CA: Yeah! And this is why I'm also really interested in and why I've got great, great hope, and I just praaaaaay that Frank Bill's books do really well...
and for more, PART 3 will be posted next Wednesday.