Monday 31 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: RON EARL PHILLIPS interviews RON EARL PHILLIPS

1. I was asked to give you an interview. What do you think about that?

Thrilled? Ecstatic? Honored? No. Actually confused. I'm not sure what this is all about. Who are you?

2. I'm the guy asking the questions. Got it?

Sure. Whatever.

3. Good. Says here you're a writer? What have you written?

Words. Sequentially. One after another. Until they form sentences, paragraphs and eventually a story.

Oh, come on, don't give me that look. You know all the answers anyway. It's all on that cheat sheet of yours.

OK, Okay.

I am a writer, but not published. Which is why I don't particularly like that question. Someone finds out you're a writer and first thing out of their mouth is 'what have you written?' That leads ultimately to rolling eyes. It's a prejudicial question I think.

If you're not published you're nothing.

4. Wait, my little magic cheat sheet tells me you are lying. You are published?

Let me see that. Oh, I thought these questions were geared towards crime writers. Yeah, I guess I've been published.

I had some poetry published in my high school's first literary journal, Reflections. Also some more poetry in a similar type journal in college. But does that really count?
Oh, and most recently, um, 7 and 5 years ago, a couple of 8 page shorts for the comic anthology Digital Webbing Presents. Klik Boom: Exterminators. It's was a quirky mob meets mad scientist meets blue jello kind of thing. I wanted to do a whole series, but being a writer, finding the right artist was a hard proposition. Someday. Right?

You're still giving me that look.

Yeah, I see. By the time this get's published I will have a couple stories published on Christopher Grant's A Twist of Noir, an online flash fiction journal. He kindly let me participate in his 600 to 700 word challenge. I did stories 641 and 672, respectively entitled "Fish Stew" and "Killing Hope."

5. So you started writing in High School? That means you've been at it ...

Let's not go there. Yeah, writing has been an on and off again affair. And I started earlier than that. Writing (and drawing) Spidey self-made comics in grade school, first short fiction in junior high, then in high school I got turned on to two things. Poetry and Programming.

In college got back into writing fiction, but turned out that writing code paid better. Especially when the Internet boomed. And then life happened. Wife, kid, house, bills and more bills and more bills.

6. Yeah, life sucks.

Not really, it is what it is. Good, bad or me. Life happens and I've been playing at this writing thing for a while. Call it a wasted youth or an education of life, I'll go with the latter. Young or old, all that matters is that the story gets told.

7. Um, yeah. Are you working on anything new that you can tell us about?

This has been a very productive year. I've probably written more since May than the last 4 or 5 years. I'm always working on something now. The problem, and this is where I'm going to get dodgy, is that once I put the words to it, publicly, I have a horrible track record on dropping the ball once I let the cat out of the bag. Sorry for the mixed metaphors. So I can't tell you what, but my goal is to continue writing and being productive.

8. Is there anything related to writing you will tell us?

Anything? Well what got me writing again (regularly) is the great support from the crime writing community. Before last April I was completely unaware of sites like A Twist of Noir, Plots with Guns or Beat to a Pulp, and many many more. Through social media one writer friend led to another and another. I put some stories out there for challenges and contests, and the response was positive, encouraging even. I found this motivating.

A particularly motivating site was Friday Flash Fiction which was hosted by Cormac Brown. Unfortunately Cormac could no longer maintain the site, so writer friend, Chad Rohrbacher, and I started up Flash Fiction Friday to continue on the fantastic service that Cormac provided. The gist behind it is that weekly, on Friday, a new story prompt is posted and participants have about 5 days to write a story based on the prompt.

It's a great exercise for any level of writer, and participation isn't mandatory. Participating once doesn't obligate your soul. If nothing more, it provides some fun and sometimes creative reading.

9. That does sound useful. As a writer who/what motivates you?

Ultimately, as a writer I have to motivate myself. That can be a chore when there are so many distractions.

Family obviously motivates me. My wife actually gets upset when I'm not writing.

Other writers motivate me. Especially the ones in the trenches now. And in crime fiction the trenches are deep with talent. You have to admire that, and even desire to be part of that. As a writer. As a reader they fill my head with entertainment.

10. So who are you reading now?

Quite a bit. If I learned anything, or at least agreed on, with Stephen King is that a writer has to be a reader. It's your first course in the education of writing. Without that foundation you can't write consumable fiction. So I try to read as much as I can.

This last year I've been on a bit of a crime spree, so here's a list of new and old writers I read and recommend.

Duane Swierzynski has written a few good books over the last few years and they just keep getting better. EXPIRATION DATE was a nice cross genre book.

Charlie Huston really knocked me out with THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH.

Don Winslow writes some gripping stuff, SAVAGES was the last one I read of his.

More widely known, I've yet to be let down by Dennis Lehane and Marcus Sakey. I want to pick up their books they day they publish.

I've got a couple books by A Neil Smith, YELLOW MEDICINE and HOGDOGGIN' that I have pretty high on the reading list.

Also there on top is Hilary Davidson's THE DAMAGE DONE.

So many books, so many good authors. Like I said, the trenches are deep with talent.

All good recommendations. Thanks for the time.

When not interviewing himself, you can find Ron Earl Phillips on his website, mucking around on Facebook and Twitter. And he invites you to join in weekly (or whenever) at Flash Fiction Friday.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: RYAN DAVID JAHN interviews RYAN DAVID JAHN

Q: You’re an American, but your novels are published first in the U.K. What gives?

RDJ: It’s true. My first novel came out in the U.K. in November 2009, but won’t hit shelves in the U.S. till May 2011. My third novel, The Dispatcher, will come out two months later in the U.K. and has no scheduled release date in the U.S. And there’s a second one in there somewhere. It comes down to who said yes first.

I was working in reality TV when I lost my job in April 2008. Between 2004 and 2008, I’d gotten a few work-for-hire screenplay gigs, but nothing had come around for a while, and I’d already blown the money from the last one on a European vacation. I was broke. Between April and August I played a lot of internet backgammon and collected unemployment checks and looked for day-labor gigs, whatever I could find. I thought about going back to writing novels. I’d written four or five unpublishable books some years earlier and missed it. I missed writing books, that is, not being unable to publish them. I thought maybe I’d bang out a few Western novels and try to sell them to one of those publishing companies that breaks even with the library market. I wrote about 25,000 words of one when my hard drive took a shit and I lost everything I’d written. I figured it was a sign. So in August, I started writing a different novel, a novel I wanted to write, without much thought as to whether there was a market for it. It happened to be a crime novel. I finished in September. I rewrote it a few times. In November, I submitted it to half a dozen agents and two publishers. One agent wanted to look at it, but the publishers weren’t interested. I sent it off to the agent. In December, I submitted to another half dozen agents and a publisher in the U.K. The publisher offered a contract on January 8. I signed it. Now Macmillan U.K. is my primary publisher. Penguin bought U.S. rights to my first novel from them, and is releasing it in May.

A couple months ago, as I was going over the page proofs for my third novel, the agent who asked to look at my first book two years ago finally got around to telling me she wasn’t interested representing my work.

Q: Your first novel has two different titles; it’s Acts of Violence in the U.K. and Good Neighbors in the U.S. Why?

RDJ: I called it Acts Of Violence. Macmillan went along with that. My editor at Penguin didn’t like the title much. We did some brainstorming. Good Neighbors is what we ended up with. I honestly don’t have a preference. I care about the text itself. Titles are peripheral from where I stand -- unless someone suggests something just blindingly awful. But I don’t think Good Neighbors is that. It’s a different kind of title, ironic rather than straight forward, that’s all. I think it works.

Q: Why did you choose to write crime novels?

RDJ: It wasn’t a conscious decision. I certainly don’t care much about police procedure, or any of that. I’ve become more concerned with that stuff with each book, as readers are smarter than I am and demand verisimilitude, rightly, but I only care about it because I don’t want my fuck ups to pull readers from the story I’m telling. The emotional truths are what matter to me. I’m interested in characters in extreme situations, characters pushed to their breaking point. Crime fiction tends to put characters there in a hurry. So I use it to do that, and then see what happens. If I knew a genre that did it better, I’d play in that sandbox instead. I don’t. Horror fiction equals it, but I can’t write a vampire or a werewolf or even a ghost without smirking. I simply don’t believe it. But I believe a man with a crowbar who’s got blood in his eyes.

Q: Who do you admire, then?

RDJ: Paul Auster, J.G. Ballard, Lawrence Block, James M. Cain, Raymond Carver, David Goodis, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Jim Thompson.

Q: You said you don’t believe vampires or werewolves or ghosts in fiction but mentioned Stephen King as someone you admire.

RDJ: I can’t create a world in which those things exist. If I get thrown into such a world, that’s a different matter. Write anything convincingly enough and I’m happy to believe for the duration of the story. Such things are only hurdles when I’m writing.

Q: What’s your favorite drink?

RDJ: Depends on the weather. Scotch, red wine, or beer.

Q: Do you ever drink when you write?

RDJ: Every once in a while I’ll hit a scene I don’t want to write for whatever reason -- maybe it’s got a character doing something I wish he wouldn’t do, or it’s got a character going through something I wish she didn’t have to go through -- and I’ll avoid sitting at the computer for days. I’ll wash dishes. I’ll alphabetize books. I’ll watch an entire season of Bizarre Foods in two days. Finally, I pour a glass of whiskey and sit down, drink half of it, and write. Once I’m past that scene, I’m back to writing sober. It’s just that sometimes a scene is like Christmas with the in-laws. You can’t make it through unless you’re slightly toasted. That said, I don’t really drink much. I like a buzz, not a blackout.

Q: Why would you write a scene you didn’t want to write?

RDJ: Because it’s the truth. You can’t lie about what happens in a story just because it makes you uncomfortable. Once the world of the story exists, once the characters have come to life, your job is to be honest about what they say and do and what happens to them, whether you like it or not.

Q: Have you been drinking tonight?

RDJ: I had two margaritas and a beer at a Mexican restaurant while eating tacos and listening to a Johnny Cash cover band. I should be in bed with my wife right now.

Q: Blended or on the rocks?

RDJ: No thanks, I’m finished.

Tuesday 25 January 2011


Sometimes all a writer needs is a title.

That's what the good guys over at Title Fights do, give you a title to work with.

They also offer a platform for some outstanding work. If you haven't been there, go check them out when you've done. No excuses, now.

Here they are.

Q: What inspired you to start Title Fights?

Mitchell Dahlhoff: Title Fight's moment of conception, like most, started in a bar in Chicago (90% of people are conceived in Chicago, look it up). We were in town for AWP and attended an off-site reading that's local to Chicago called the Dollar Store Show. I won't go into the specifics of that reading series but it was a similar concept to how Title Fights initially worked, which is giving authors a frame of reference for a reading while still allowing for as much personal freedom as possible, but I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anyways, TJ and I were at the show and were really blown away by it. For me, it accomplished something that I think contemporary literature really needs to be more focused on: it made writing hip. It was cool - these people were cool for being up there, doing what they were doing. It was like seeing a band play, the energy of it. And it was doing something else literature needs to work harder on: it was making a space for itself. That's a big question, now, is how do you put what you write in front of people, and this was a way to do it, a way that was forceful and engaging.

So, obviously, we were determined as hell to rip them off as much as we possibly could.

Train rides from Chicago to Minneapolis take a long time. Enough time to conceptualize a reading series, it turns out. Working from titles is a bit of an old writing exercise, one that I had used in the past, and we figured by taking titles from specific source materials (children's stories, race horse names, etc.,) there would be a definite cohesiveness. And then when Title Fights came up as a name and it was a pun (Puns! So literary!), it was like a sign from the writing gods, you know, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were toasting us up in heaven or something.

So, that was the conception. The birth was a few months later, after hustling some money from the English Department of our school and roping a few writers we knew into playing a part in our delusions. It was a success, I suppose - I hesitate to say we were bigger than Jesus at this point - successful enough to encourage us, suffice it to say. I think, for me, the biggest success of the reading series we did, short lived as it was, was in creating a sense of community for the writers around us, of giving us something that was our own, and maybe, hopefully, bringing a little culture to the Minnesota prairie.

Anyways, we kept it going, trying out different things, Dan came on board (and we love him for it) and then we all graduated and had to break up the band. The question on the lips of the nation was: Is this the end of Title Fights? We immediately ruled out leaving it to people coming up behind us in the program at school, because, honestly, this might be the one good idea the three of us have and we need to keep it locked up. So, since we were being scattered to the winds, the easiest answer was to move online and to open it up to the loving, gentle arms of the internet. So now we're an online journal, and our baby is growing up, and I couldn't be prouder.

Dan Vierck: You really laid down the autobiography.

I don't have anything to say in response to question except I thought it was a great idea and decided I would do anything it took to be a part of it and keep it alive.

T.J. Staneart: Well said.

Q: How does it work?

TJ: Each month one of the three of us picks a theme that we think we can get a good number of titles from then we try to invite new people to submit. They have one month, and they have to use the title we give them. These are the only hard rules, and they are not really all that hard. I feel like the heart of what we are doing here is the challenge of it. We want it to be what you can write, rather than what you have written. Our numbers are going up, but we still get a lot of return business. Most of our stories are from past fighters.

When writers send the stories in, I think we all look for different things. I want to be moved by something in the story. If it’s not the writing, then an interesting angel on the title would do it for me. I have no problem rejecting one I don’t like.

DV: I want to get a sense that the author enjoyed themselves - that they didn't abide by too many academic restrictions. I like the idea of the author not feeling too much outside pressure for the story, and instead relying on themselves to make the story whatever it's going to be. Above all, I want the author to enjoy the story, and for that to come through in the writing.

MD: Yeah, I think the thing with Title Fights is that there's a sense of play and energy to the work, which is sort of the whole point. Obviously, as editors, we're looking for competency but beyond that we're pretty open minded. I just want stories that are good to read and have a title we gave it, it's really that simple.

Q: What changes are in the foreseeable future for Title Fights, if any?

DV: Well, next month, if you can believe it - we're going to have a different theme for the titles. I don't know what else, or, I'm not the best person to talk to about it anyway.

TJ: I have nothing to say on this, either, but Mitch, you could talk about maybe going from a blog format to a real site.

MD: Sure. Soon, hopefully - within a year, I would say - I hope to transition Title Fights from a blog format to a more traditional web journal format. The biggest obstacles in this are financial, paying for a domain, buying software that allows us to design the website since my HTML skills are pretty crude, and so on, not that any of that matters whatsoever for Title Fights' literary concerns.

I guess, really, the biggest changes I hope for Title Fights is that it'll become more popular, reach a bigger audience and allow us to draw submissions from a wider audience. For myself, my biggest concern with Title Fights right now is making this happen, and moving to a more traditional site will give us - justly or not - a greater shot at being taken seriously by people. If we do become more popular I think the biggest change will be to our publishing pace, since publishing one theme/issue a month will be more difficult the higher numbers of submissions we get.

Q: When you assign someone a title, what do you hope to get back from them? What are you looking for in the stories they submit?

MD: Well, we pretty much covered this, so I won't reiterate what I said, but I guess the one thing I'll add is that my view on editing has always been not to only pick stories that I like personally, but to try to look for stories that I see other people liking. I think a lot of editors only pick their own pet favorites, rather than thinking about their audience, and I think that's a big mistake.

DV: We did cover this pretty much, didn't we?

For editing Title Fights I've been approaching it with a very open mind. I'll admit I haven't rejected a story yet - I'm stoked we're getting anything. And it hasn't been a problem because everything I've read has been enthusiastically written and fun to read.

As we grow and get more submissions I figure I'll weed them out by how consistent they are within themselves - how successfully confident, brave and conscientiously idiosyncratic they are.

TJ: I want to be moved in a way that I would not have thought of when I gave the title away. That said, I also want a good voice. I feel like that can put a story over the top. I am a bit more hard nosed than Dan, but I try to be fair.

Q: Why three editors?

MD: Well, besides the mythological history of the properties of the number three, it's to allow us to share the work load evenly. Each month one of us is the editor, then with the next month we shift. So, for each month of editing, you then get the next two off. This stops us from being burnt out by the work, or having trouble communicating, and a lot of other problems that come up when you have multiple people sitting in the driver's seat.

TJ: I think it also give the site a more diverse feel. You can look month to month and find different aesthetics. I think, too, the rotation gives us time to come up with good titles. If it were just one of us, I think we would run out of title themes that can go the distance. Bad titles doesn't always mean bad stories, but it certainly can't help.

DV: And we're busy guys. We're all in grad school, we each have at least one relationship going, plus your everyday existential twentysomthing bullshit. Editing Title Fights once every three months is fun. It's something to brag about. In our literary circles, it's a pick up line.

Q: Are you happier with your creation now as a lit. journal, or do you miss the reading series?

DV: If we were all in the same city, it'd probably be a reading series too. That was a lot of fun. Editing is a very different thing than being a writer/reader. It's fun, too, something new and exciting for us.

TJ: Personally, I loved putting together the readings. Getting writers, a stage, getting the word out. It's all so much more active in a reading series, it's much easier to track progress.

Title Fights online is great, and requires a lot of the same organizational skills, but it lacks the thrill of a live reading, and I miss that.

MD: I would be ecstatic to someday bring back a Title Fights live reading, and hopefully someday we'll have the cachet to pull that off in a really meaningful way. For right now, though, I think the journal is really the phase we need to be focused on.

Q: How do you reach out to authors, given that you are asking for original work as opposed to taking open submissions?

TJ: We have been really lucky. We have a number of repeat offenders, almost like a fan base. Certain writers will come back again and again, and this speaks to one of the things at the heart of the project: a reason to write. I think the challenge is good for everyone who tries.

Also, as we have said, we in grad schools around the country and that is a good way to hook new, young writers.

DV: We're good people. People like to do the things we ask them to do.

I'd like to note that when we started out we were hitting up every writer we knew of. I even sent an e-mail to Michael Martone. But the first handful who wrote for us were people that a common professor of ours, Anthony Neil Smith, contacted. They've turned out to be the most consistent and enthusiastic participants.

Q: Given that the form is often criticized, what do you feel are the pros and cons of doing an online journal?

MD: I've thought about this pretty extensively but I'll try to keep it short. First, it's cheap. Second, it's organic. We're allowed to expand and adapt as we take submissions. In a print format, once you decide the form something is going to take, you are committed to that until it's time to put the next issue together. We can make changes to the way we do things every month, daily if we wanted to. Third, our rapid publishing rate is the best way to get noticed. If we were a standard print-only annual, we'd send a letter out, get submissions, go through the whole process, and then a year later we have a product. But these days you can't have a year between products or everybody moves on. We have new stories every month, meaning that every month we have a new chance to get someone's attention, and since we'll be publishing again soon, keep that attention.

The only major drawback is that as of yet the literary establishment is still a bit blind to a small journal like ours. And maybe that's how it should be, honestly. I think we do good work and will continue to do so, and I think the literary community on the internet is something I want to be a part of and help shape, and hopefully we're accomplishing that in our own small way, even if that means never being taken as seriously as something like the Paris Review or whoever.

DV: I don't think we're trying to compare to anyone else, so much. I think there are similar prompt-centric journals out there (Significant Objects). And yeah, they do things we want to do (print anthologies, have "big names"), but we also just want to do this thing. Established benchmarks of success aren't our primary goals.

TJ: I agree with both Dan and Mitchell. Upward motion is our only real goal. We aim to meet or beat our last issue, I think, not the other publications out there.

That said, we could go a lot of ways with that. I feel like right now we are a young publication with a lot of room to grow, and it's the online platform that is giving us that room. In print, with the costs and manpower, a failure would kill Title Fights, if not, us. Print would be a great place to end up, and if it happens down the line, we'll be more polished and practiced. I would say an online journal is where we belong right now.

Q: What do you feel is your role as editors in the direction of the journal?

DV: I like how TJ said "upward." I think that terminology should... if we had an office, we would put 'Upward' on a banner and hang it from the ceiling. It's our responsibility to get the kinds of writers we want, and I think we want (almost) everyone.

When we have enough writers that we all feel comfortable rejecting some to make room for others, then it will be a more nuanced direction and a way to tell the editors apart, i.e., 'This editor likes shorter pieces,' 'This editor likes subtler pieces,' 'This editor quotes commercials and squeals all the way home.' But for now it's just our responsibility to, like TJ said, take Title Fights upward.

MD: I think that Dan is right that, at the moment, we're not getting the volume of submissions for us to really differentiate ourselves in concrete terms, but I think we do have differing styles. Personally, I'd say over half the stories I've published I did a fairly good amount of editing on, taking out a lot of stuff, and that's something that the more I do the more I enjoy it, I love to try to refine the work we get. I think that maybe sets me apart a little bit, in my focus on the actual writing, whereas I know that TJ has asked people to change things from more of a concept/plot angle, and I don't know that Dan really focuses on editing as much. I think all three approaches are completely valid, and I think that people are definitely getting three different experiences depending on who’s editing.

Q: Can the world look forward to a Title Fights of poetry, maybe even non-fiction?

TJ: I really see genres like non-fiction and poetry under the "upward" umbrella, but I don't think we have the mindset to form a whole issue around either one. All three of us could edit a poetry or non-fiction round, but could we do it better than a poet? I don't think so, myself. Title Fights was born in fiction, and shifting out of it might take some new blood.

MD: Yeah, hopefully someday we'll have the onus to start a Title Fights franchise that we can license out to other people, but I think for our concerns we're just going to keep to what we know.

DV: Geez. My biggest dream for Title Fights was getting Michael Martone. I could see a Poetry or NF special round, for sure.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: ROGER SMITH interviews ROGER SMITH

A funny thing happened to me on Friday morning. I had an e-mail to let me know I was the winner of his competition at THINGS I’D RATHER BE DOING, and his Crime Fiction Fairy Tale contest.

It means an awful lot to me as you can probably imagine. It means an awful lot because of the quality of the other entries. It's not too late to read them. All you need to do is click. You won't be disappointed whichever direction you choose to go in from there.

Thanks to John Kenyon for setting it all up.

Today, coming over to dance, is Roger Smith.

Roger Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now lives in Cape Town. Before turning to a life of crime, he was a screenwriter, producer and director. His debut thriller, Mixed Blood, was published in the U.S. and Germany in 2009. It won the Deustchen Krimi Preis (German Crime Prize) and was nominated for a Spinetingler New Voice Award in the U.S.A.

The movie version of Mixed Blood is in development starring Samuel L. Jackson, with Phillip Noyce directing.

Roger’s second book, Wake Up Dead, has been published to critical acclaim in the U.S., UK and Germany and will also be released in Japan, Italy and France.

His third book, Dust Devils, will be published internationally in 2011.

Visit Roger’s website:

1 The book that changed it all for you?

The Hunter by Richard Stark. The first Parker book – lean as a Brazilian supermodel. I was about twelve when I first read it and was totally unprepared for its amoral worldview. I still have that dog-eared little paperback.

2 An author you admire outside of crime writing?

Ian McEwan. A so-called literary author with the plotting muscle of a suspense writer. The opening chapter of Enduring Love has to be one of the most gripping I have ever read, across all genres.

3 Do you think your books are funny?

I don’t write capers but I think there’s dark humour in them. Mixed Blood’s villain, Rudi Barnard, is a comic figure in a very black, Sweeney Toddish way. A reviewer somewhere said that Wake Up Dead is like a farce with dead bodies and I enjoyed that. South Africa, like most societies in turmoil, seems an ungodly mix of comedy and tragedy.

4 A few songs that tell us where your head is at?

Johnny Cash doing Trent Reznor’s Hurt. Hey Joe by Hendrix. Iggy Pop’s Some Weird Sin. And lately I find myself singing Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson in the shower – Christ only knows why.

5 Is your third book, Dust Devils, autobiographical?

No, even though I wanted to call it No Country For Middle-Aged White Men. The main character, an ex-Lefty who has become disillusioned with contemporary South Africa, is a composite of a lot of people I know but he’s put through all kinds of hell and torment. So, happily, not autobiographical.

6 What’s the stupidest question anybody ever asked you about your work?

If I write fiction.

7 What is a subject you’d like to write about more?

Sex. I’m finishing my fourth book now and it has a bunch of sex scenes. Terrifying to write, but fun.

8 A book you wish you’d written?

My fifth.

9 Is there any subject you consider taboo?

No. If people do it, I’ll write about it.

10 What’s your favourite literary quote?

“Out of the old gut onto the goddamn page.” – Terry Southern.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: MICHAEL MORECI interviews MICHAEL MORECI

Now, tell me, Thomas—


Oh, right. Of course. So you are a…

Writer. Did you do any research before this interview?

[long pause]

I see here that you work in a couple different mediums. What attracts you to working in such a way?

I love all mediums, whether it’s comics, prose, video games, movies, or animation. But my main passion lies in simply being a storyteller. It’s always nebulous and difficult to talk about the mysterious “where do you get your ideas from” aspect of artistic creation, but I generally start any story with a concept. I unravel the story from there, and allow it to take me where it needs to go.

Granted, I work primarily in comics, and there are a few reasons for that. For starters, I grew up on comics and movies—visual storytelling has instructed not only how I form my art, but also how I interact with the world. I also love the dynamic within a creative team, that collaborative process of a few people working to make something unique. Not only that, but comics allows you to really burst ideas without limit—sci-fi, horror, super hero, you can do anything so long as you do it well.

But, like I said, my responsibility is always to the story. For instance, the prose short story I have forthcoming in Needle, titled “Anonymity”, I couldn’t tell as a comic. It relies much too heavily on the interiority of the main character—there’s a psychological subtlety that couldn’t be conveyed visually. But for something like Terminus, a graphic novel I’m working on with artist JM Ringuet, the visual component is as much a part of the story as, say, the dialogue or plot.

Do you find it difficult to transition between prose and comics writing?

No, not really. The main difficulty I have is finding time—my eyes are always bigger than my appetite when it comes to work. There are so many projects I have in mind, in need of attention. The thing is, though, as an independent comics creator, my role extends well beyond being a writer. By necessity, I’m my own agent and publicist—that’s the transition I find challenging.

What made you want to be a writer?

I don’t know for sure. I remember being a kid and drawing Simpsons comics, back in the 6th grade or so, and selling them at school (unfortunately my art is still at that level). Some of my fondest memories involve comics, movies, and books. It’s always been in me to tell stories—it’s ingrained in who I am.

Are comics going the way of the dodo bird?

Not at all. Look, comics are going through a difficult period right now. Sales aren’t great, the market is shifting, and the evolution of digital technologies is filling a lot of people with anxiety. There’s a lot of talk about how to fix comics, and who/what’s to blame for the industry’s failings. It’s odd, though, because in 2010, sales were down, but it was an excellent year for comics, content-wise.

One of the main hurdles the comics industry needs to solve is how to overcome the perception, real or otherwise, that the culture is a closed circuit. You can casually read books, or casually watch movies; you really can’t be a casual comics reader (or at least the reader the direct market wants you to be). The industry relies too heavily on a certain type of comics, and there’s just too much history, continuity, crossovers, etc. to unpack. I’ve been reading comics most my life, and even I get confused sometimes.

No one is to blame here, not the publishers, creators, or fans. It’s systemic to the industry, and the burden is on all of us to find ways to foster a wider range of creativity that brings people in. Graphic novels and limited series are playing a big part in this shift. Publishers like Image and Archaia do an excellent job of allowing creators to tell their own unique stories, and more of that is needed (and bigger sales).

Expanding creative boundaries (and market boundaries) will only make the industry stronger and more diverse; comics need to attract new readers, I don’t think anyone can argue that. And if the industry is healthier, everyone wins—publishers, retailers, fans, and creators. I just don’t buy the thinking that the way to fix comics is to keep churning out the same content in the same format. Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Look no further than the thinking that says, “let’s stick to what hasn’t been working and see what happens.”

What do you hope to achieve, ultimately, as a writer?

Short answer: fame, fortune, and the ability to buy my way out of anything.

Beyond that…creative freedom. I want to be able to tell the stories I want to tell. Now, this doesn’t mean I’m implacable and can’t take editorial guidance or input—far from it. Nor does it mean I’m uninterested in writing a big-name comics property. I’d kill to write certain Marvel and DC characters and stories. But I’d like to maintain a sense of versatility and push boundaries in both story and art. I see what JM Ringuet and I are doing with Terminus and, not to toot my own horn, but I think it’s pretty special and I never want to abandon that.

I see someone like Greg Rucka and I think, yes, that’s where I’d like to be. Last year, he wrote Batman, released a novel, and launched an amazing mini-series, Stumptown, with Oni Press. I’d like to have the freedom to tell such a range of stories—and have people want me to tell them.

What’s the key to success as a writer?

Work. Work really hard, for a really long time, and you’ll get there.

I once had a writing teacher tell me that the secret is simple: just wear everyone else out. And he’s right. I’m not going to lie, I’ve seen friends and peers who are more talented than me fall to the wayside. They lose their work ethic, their drive, then everything is gone. Forget all that nonsense about writing when the muse whispers in your ear: if you want to earn a living as a writer, you need to treat it as a job. Somerset Maugham said “I write when inspiration strikes; fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine a.m. sharp.” That’s the necessary attitude.


There are so many comics, movies, and books that have sparked my creativity over the years that it’s hard to name them without leaving out far too many.

What I really tend to admire are the artists who stick to their guns and fight to maintain their artistic credibility. Stanley Kubrick is a brilliant mind I admire, greatly. I can literally go on for hours discussing the painstaking beauty that is inherent in each of his films, not to mention the genius. He never allowed himself to be swayed, nor did he ever, ever play it safe. Same goes for Alan Moore.

I also look up to “big idea” writers—Brian Wood, Brian K. Vaughn, Jonathan Hickman. Comics is a blessed medium in that it knows no boundaries, creative or otherwise. Comics readers are the most risk-taking out there, in that they’ll support the most off-the-wall concepts and stories. Things that, as a movie or TV show, would send people running in the other direction.

You have a pretty full dance cart for 2011. What’s on tap?

Lots. It’s weird, because so many things are happening at once even though the work stretches back for years.

First up is Hoax Hunters, a continuing series written by Steve Seeley and I and illustrated by JM Ringuet. It’s going to run backup, monthly (starting February 9), in the pages of Hack/Slash, a comic that I’m crazy about. To have my work actually appear in that book—and with Image—is exciting, gratifying, and completely surreal. I’ve been an Image reader since day one; in fact, one of my first original comic creations was a character called M.I.A., who was a direct rip-off of Deathblow (originally from Darker Image). Only M.I.A. had a knife for hand—take that Deathblow.

After Hoax Hunters is Quarantined, an original graphic novel with art by Monty Borror. It’s a zombie story that I promise is different from the zombie pack.

I’ve got some other projects in works as well, namely Reincar(Nate) and Terminus. I also am going back to the developing board and will get some new projects off the ground in the coming months.

When are you going to write a novel?

One day—it’s a promise I’ve made to myself.

If you weren’t writing you’d…

Likely turn to a life of petty crime. Or basketball hustling, like in the movie White Men Can’t Jump. I’ve got the part down where no one in their right mind would think I’m any good. Proving them wrong…that’s the part I need to work on.

Thanks for taking the time. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but this has been one handsome interview.

It sure has been.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: IAN AYRIS interviews IAN AYRIS

The book I'm reading at the moment,Broken Dreams, is by Nick Quantrill and is published by Caffeine Nights. Essentially a detective novel that adheres to many of the great traditions, it has that British slant to it. Just over half way through, there are enough balls in the air to keep me riveted. I'd highly recommend it, not least because of the main character Joe Geraghty.

The reason I mention it is that today's interview features a man who's also been snapped up by Caffeine Nights. Abide With Me is due out later this year and I for one can't wait to see it.

I've been following Ian for this past year and have been impressed by his output. More than that his consitency is impressive, turning out story after story from the top drawer.

It also needs to be said that he's lovely and helpful, which makes his success all the more satisfying.

Check him out here, find one of his many stories on the web and get ready for the novel. You won't be disappointed.

Here's Ian:

1. So what's all this writing malarky, then?

Started out of nowhere, really. A couple of years ago, there was this bloke come into my head. A sort of psychotic ne'er-do-well you'd like as not cross the street to avoid. But there he was. In my head. And he started talking. Only way I could get rid of him was by writing it all down. Then he went. When I looked through what I'd written, I sort of liked it. Posted it on a writing site where it was seen by a publisher. Next thing I know it's in a book (Byker Books' Radgepacket: Tales from the Inner Cities vol. One).

2. So is that where your stories come from? People getting inside your head and not leaving till you've written down what they want you to say?

Yes. That's why I can't ever plan or outline or anything, The couple of times I've tried, it's just been rubbish, like I'm trying to put bars around the process, chain it up, you know. I can't plan because the urgency to get these voices out of my head doesn't allow me to do it.

3. So what is your 'process'?

Like I said, I get these people come in my head. One at a time, normally, but sometimes it's more. And they start talking. And I listen. And then these pictures start coming. Strange pictures of the inside and the out of it. Sometimes it's just colours, or the feeling has a colour, and I work with that. When it's done, I go over what I've written a couple of times with my sensible head on whilst the emotional bit that wrote it goes and makes a cup of coffee and puts it's feet up for a while. It's exhausting, you know. Then I go down my list of places that seem to like my stuff, and decide where to send it.

4. So are you saying you don't get your ideas from anywhere, they just appear in your head?

No. I have to open the door. And that can be overhearing a conversation on a bus or a train, seeing a particular site as I'm walking down the street, hearing a song on the radio, stuff like that. All these things are gateways.

5. You're one of those wimpy house-husband wotsits, aren't you? Hoovering, ironing, dusting, looking after the kids, that sort of thing. How does that impact on your writing?

Funny. A load of my stories seem to be about characters trapped in a reality they neither understand nor deal with on any effectual level. My wife would say the correlation is unmistakeable. I'm also a counsellor in one of the most deprived areas of London. Needless to say, that also has a huge impact on my writing.

6. Word is, you've written a book. What's that about?

I've written a book called 'Abide With Me'. It's unpublished, so technically, it's just a big document on my computer, but if you want to go with 'book' that's fine with me. It's the story of two kids growing up in East London in the seventies. And it's got gangsters and football and biscuits and a spell inside and that bloke who held up them tanks in China a few years back – they're all in it. Some kind fella described it as being like 'A Guy Ritchie film, without the boring bits' – which I sort of liked. An octogenarian from the Salvation Army accused me of attempting to 'single-handedly dismantle the English language' – which I like even better.

7. How did you get into all this crime/noir stuff?

Again, sort of by accident. I had all these stories, which people on the writing sites seemed to love, but I had no idea where to send them. I'd not considered them crime and I'd never heard of 'noir'. So, I'd written this story called 'The Argument Bunny', about an unhinged man and a toy bunny. Sir Paul Brazill suggested I send it toPulp Metal Magazine. It got in. And that opened the door for me to the likes of Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers, A Twist of Noir. Beat to a Pulp, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Out of the Gutter, Yellow Mama, and all those other great crime/noir zines. Turns out, I write 'noir'. And I never even knew.

8. I get the noir stuff in your stories – the downtrodden and the lost and the broken, etc. but the crime stuff, you've never written a story where the main character is on the right side of the law. Why's that?

I don't know, really. I suppose I was never into all the police procedural stuff, you know, all that forensic gumph. Just used to bore me to tears. Then I read 'Broken Dreams' by Nick Quantrill, with his PI Joe Gerghaty. 'Broken Dreams' showed me you can write a main character on the right side of the law that is both flawed and vulnerable yet take on the role of making a situation good again. After that it was just a short step to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I've got a PI story running round my head at the moment, so hopefully I'll get it down soon. Redress the balance, you know.

9. So Nick Quantrill, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, what other stuff are you influenced by?

I love a load of old stuff – Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Samuel Butler, Virgina Woolf, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad. And the Russian stuff – Dostoyevsky, Chekov, Solzhenitsyn. Spike Milligan was a genius. And the old Will Hay films, The Goon Show, and Monty Python. I love all that absurdity, you know, all those trampled boundaries.

10. Very interesting. But perhaps not quite as interesting as you think. Beer and crumpets?

Yes please.

Monday 17 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: MATTHEW FUNK interviews MATTHEW FUNK

There have been 16 entries over at Things I’d Rather Be Doing in the Fairy Tale contest. If you haven't been there, I think that you possibly should - there are some excellent entries that need to be seen.

Today's interview also needs to be seen.

Here's Matthew Funk:

SCENE: Starbucks at the corner of 17th and Grand — Matt Funk’s Starbucks. Under the brown slat awning, his unpublished characters have gathered on the wicker chairs and concrete to interview him.

Reaver, a browned behemoth in Grecian breeches, plays his curved flaying knife through his fingernails and glares at Funk with blood-colored eyes. Lia, blond pigtails pluming from under her Scythian cap, curls sullen and scantily clad in Reaver’s lap.

Off to the side, Stagger Lee leans, smoking in flagrant violation of the Starbucks ban. Jari Jurgis, all slender intensity and crossed arms, keeps her distance from him and her eyes on him.

Everybody keeps their distance from Ava Delacroix. She sits on a metal chair, prim and perilous as a China doll about to slip from a high shelf.

In the corner, Siegfried and Sigrid sit with identical insouciance, pale as the ice-cream suits they wear.

Funk waves invitingly.

Stagger saunters up.

Stagger Q: Alright, son, what’s been itching at me is how in Creation you think you know what it is to be country? You’re about as Los Angeles as a $10 hamburger, valley boy.

A: I don’t lay any claim to understanding what it is to be, as you put it, “country.” But what I am is a very effective listener. I have a knack for listening to what people say, how they say it and why. I reckon I couldn’t be a writer without it.

Being a writer isn’t so much a matter of being good at talking as it is being good at listening. You need to have the kind of mind that picks up all the little details around you, especially the details of other people. You absorb it like muscle memory. Then it comes out naturally.

Creativity is as much about observation as it is about expression. I would even say, it’s more about that. Case in point, I don’t know a whole lot of writers who are entirely comfortable in social situations. We tend to be more of an introspective breed than otherwise. Even the hustlers among us have sensitive cores.

So the question is, how is it that excellence of written expression is found in these anxious, introverted types? My answer would be that something about writers that has them fascinated with people—be it respect, love, fear—creates in the writer a hunger to pay attention to those around them.

Lia pounces off Reaver’s lap and storms up to shove her head under Funk’s chin.

Lia Q: You stuck me in a crystal. I don’t care if it was supposed to be a paradise-on-Earth kind of trance. Paradise, my ass! Did you really think I’d go for that? Hypnotized in a cave for years while the man I loved went on his merry way? And what was he so bloody merry about anyway?

A: I had to find a way to avoid a happy ending. That’s the worst thing that a writer looking to serialize a novel can do—end the story in a way that resolves every conflict.

At the end of Reaver, I had to make it so that Reaver kept going. If he settled down happily with you, raiding the Roman trade lines in and out of Judea, it would have defeated the whole purpose of the novel: To suggest that when it comes to living in civilization, the only peace we can hope to attain comes from letting go. We need to accept our limitations.

Reaver, representing the Greek mythic hero struggling with his world’s culture shifting from the individual being valued above the Roman ideal of the state, can’t accept that he’s achieved paradise. He has to constantly crave more, conquer more, seek more. He’s man at the most animal state—like a dog who will eat until his stomach bursts.

That’s the point I was making with Reaver. Man, an as individual, has the means and lust to devour the entire world. But when other people—family or lovers or society—enter into the picture, we have to either accept we can’t have all we want or sacrifice our attachments to get it. This isn’t just about the shift in the classical hero types—from the never-satisfied, ever-ruthless personages of Jason, Hercules and Achilles, to the state-centered Aeneas. It was about how being a social creature demands that we make choices that limit us.

Reaver leans forward, snatching up Lia by the flank and growling from under his thicket of a mane.

Reaver Q: Who do you think you are, deciding what kind of ending I’m going to have? I take what I want. And I got no questions to ask of you.

A: No, I’d imagine you don’t think you do. That’s another critical part of your character. You’re man at his most selfish—the Nietzsche superman taken to the most antisocial degree.

And, like I said, you exist in all of us.

We all come to a point similar, figuratively, to where you, Reaver, started your life and where you’ve never really left: In a dark cave, alone, hungry and desperate.

We’ve all been in that dark cave with no one to turn to and no promise of survival. In those moments, we are most ourselves. And the scary thing is, we know it. We know that, ultimately, we are alone, and that we live and die that way. We may hang our hopes and opinions on others, but we live scratched on the neck by the knowledge that all we claim around us as part of our world might be stripped away. Only we will be left, and even that may end.

It’s a terrifying place, which is why I made you such a terrifying person. Sure, people may read your story and think you’re the paragon of the ruthless bad ass, but I know what really drives you. I know you’re really just a scared child, orphaned before you ever knew what a family was and forced to feed on what you could rip from the wilderness.

You’re man’s nature state for me, Reaver. You ask for nothing because you fear asking would make you seem subservient—make you seem weak. But the dirty secret is that all strength is forged from fear.

Ava raises her hand. She is as quick as she is neat, and Ava is immaculate. Funk calls on her.

Ava Q: I know I was afraid. I can admit it. I was afraid of not being perfect. I tried so hard to save the world from the Disassembling Angels by doing all those horrible, horrible things to people. Was I right in doing that?

A: Were you right that butchering innocent people prevented the end of the world? I can’t answer that, any more than I can answer whether my going to work at TK Carsites prevented the large hadron collider from blowing everything up, or whether doing your best to raise a child makes a positive difference, or whether anything leads to anything else.

You were both right and wrong. Ava. That’s the closest I can come to the truth, because I believe that any “plan” we see to the working of the universe is what our own minds impose on it. We can’t truly know the consequences of our actions.

I know I’m running the risk of sounding as crazy as you are, but hear me out. It all comes down to Baby Hitler.

How many times have you heard people fantasize that, if they had a time machine, they’d go back and kill Hitler as a kid? I’ve heard it about a dozen. And yeah, Hitler was about as bad as they come in his effect on people’s lives. But can we really say what a world without him would have been like? No. I could certainly conjecture that the Holocaust might not have happened. It might have anyway, though. I could hypothesize that without Nazi Germany, Stalin would have invaded Europe, and that millions more would have died than in World War 2. Maybe that would have even led to a nuclear war with the USA. Maybe it wouldn’t have. We can’t say. We can only impose the rationales that we understand. And the further we get from personal judgment and personal decision, the less able we are to comprehend the ultimate result of our actions.

Ray Bradbury posits this with his short story, The Sound of Thunder, which tells of how crushing a butterfly in the age of the dinosaurs leads to the future being warped on even a basic evolutionary level. Bradbury’s choice of a butterfly isn’t coincidental—he’s alluding to the “butterfly effect,” how a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a chain of cause and effect that creates a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s the world we live in, whether we like it or not—meaning, whether we believe in a sentient being, God or Gods or Karma, consciously controlling elements of our lives or not. Even people who believe that God has a plan, and is dispatching angels or casting miracles as a result of our prayers or bad deeds, have to admit they don’t really know what His plan is. Yes, I’ve heard my fair share of how prayer achieves miracles—not just from Christians, but from Buddhists and Hindus and Wiccans. But I’ve yet to see the empirical evidence that in all cases, “A” leads to “B”. Causes do not always lead to the same effect. Life sometimes forces in directions that look bad, but end up better than we ever could have imagined. Conversely, we sometimes work very hard to do good, only to end up doing incredible harm.

How many Hitlers and Ted Bundys are we creating by helping others survive? And how many Einsteins and Picassos are we destroying by not giving someone a chance at professional success, or giving them enough to eat, or giving them a good upbringing? And what, even, would the overall effect of these people being absent from humanity’s development be?

We create the order we see in the world. We can attribute it to something else, but it comes from us. We are our own cause and effect.

Jari’s fingers are crushing creaks from her leather sleeves.

Jari Q: Don’t play yourself off as a pop-physicist. You write stories about bad things getting worse. Why’s the cause and effect so horrible?

A: Conflict drives a story. The more that’s at stake, the more powerful the story. For me, the most fascinating power in storytelling is fear.

I want my reader to see the light in the monsters I write about. But I also want them to feel that if those monsters let their antagonists get their way, worlds are going to end.

Siegfried arches an eyebrow and lets smoke leak from a corpselike smile. It glistens, sharp as the lines of his suit.

Siegfried Q: So when do I get my story told, Matty? For nine years, my sister and I and all our little friends have waited up at the Baronage. Do you think you’ll ever get around to telling the story of Germany’s happy monsters during our War on Terror?

A: See, Siegfried, right out the gate, you’re hitting on why I’m not rushing right out to get your story in print—that “War on Terror” line. I began writing about you and your family and the whole German-Soviet experience during World War 2 at a time when the twin towers were still standing. As you know, what happened next only sped my work and stiffened my resolve. I craved to convey that much of the psychic torment and political reaction America was going through bore a terrifying resemblance to what Germany went through back then.

Truth is, people aren’t ready to read that kind of story. That kind of analogy is an insult to many, a question mark to most, and a damn sight uglier than just about everybody cares to read. Not even to account for the fact that I was clueless as to how to construct a decently paced narrative back then. The bottom line is that people don’t really want to read anything that humanizes the soldiers of Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany, especially a rank band of true-believing perverts like you. That whole decade was a time of humanity’s worst evil, and society prefers to believe that it can wrap it in a neat, hermetic system of moral black-and-white, and lock it into history.

Maybe we can. I hope so. Terror and racism and factionalism have only gotten worse since I began writing about World War 2. But insisting on championing such a distasteful story at the expense of my career is folly. Realizing that was my first step in transforming from someone who writes to a professional writer.

Jari nods from above crossed arms, noting, “I wouldn’t want to read about some Nazi babykiller’s inner child either.”

Lia shoots her a glance, then slings one at Funk. Her fingers unfurl, finding the shaft of her spear. She clutches it with purpose.

Lia Q: When do I get my story told? I’m not a creepy Nazi. And I’ve waited for six years!

A: You’ve waited for about two years, but never mind. The answer is that I see a lot of trends in publishing—namely, the digital format—that is very promising for long, challenging works like Reaver.

I don’t mean e-Publishing. I’m very wary about self-publishing and especially in the electronic format. I’ve seen it work for a select few people, but in each case, I can see the reasons why. It works when an author knows who their market is and knows a simple, cost-effective way of getting their attention.

That’s not my style. However, the iTunes business model suggests that established authors can explore new ways of publishing that can give voice to texts unsuitable for traditional publishing models. Many critics look at the internet and see a death warrant for reading, but I think the contrary is true. Reading is the principal form of communication online. It’s just that people read blog post sized pieces. That’s one reason that “flash fiction”—stories told in 1,000 words or less—has experienced such a boom.

What I hope to see is a revolution in how stories get told. Yes, I love the conventional format, but I think that written works have to give a nod to how reading works is changing.

Right now, I want to sell my crime fiction in a conventional format, to establish conventional cred. But I’m looking forward to being at the forefront of the new media—the new business models and new literary art forms—that will give voice to works otherwise doomed to silence on the basis of size preventing a sales model.

Sigrid waves her brother’s smoke away.

“And he fancies himself an artist,” she says.

“Like any mercenary too cowardly to embrace his trade,” her brother adds.

“An author, no less,” Sigrid adds.

“More like a well-shorn sheep,” Siegfried lights another smoke.

“I remember a man who tried to keep himself warm in his sleep with money as his blanket.” Sigrid muses.

“Oh?” Siegfried asks, fumes rolling from his lips. “What happened to him?”

“He burned quite lovely when the bombs fell.” Sigrid says. “Those sleeping bare to the cold were only singed.”

“Lovely indeed.” Siegfried smirks.

Sigrid Q: You see, Matthew? My stories aren’t ugly. My stories are beautiful. Do you deny this?

A: Your stories are about finding the beauty in a hideous situation. Sometimes, the beauty is just in the artistry—using exquisite or lyrical language to convey the gruesome. Sometimes the beauty is elemental—it’s in the core of the characters, their passion and self-sacrifice casting light on a monstrous environment.

In either event, that’s what so attracted me to warfare as a subject. There’s an undeniable dichotomy to warfare. It’s a condition of human extremes. That means you get the extremely horrid and the extremely virtuous. There are as many stories of men and women giving their all for the sake of others as there are stories of cruelty, suffering and loss for no reason. It’s randomness at its best and worst. It’s also intention at its most glorious or most monstrous. The subject matter shines with the grotesque.

And for someone like me, who likes to cast that shadow—to show how relative light and dark are—war is a perfect studio. I get to show how one person’s virtue is another person’s abomination. If that sounds like a vain statement, consider that every time a soldier mustered the courage to risk life taking out an enemy in order to save his brothers in arms, some family lost a son or a husband or a father. One man rescued lives by incredible bravery, while at the same time, a home somewhere got a dreaded visit from a chaplain that devastated their lives forever.

A lot of my colleagues in crime writing talk about “what is noir?” I believe warfare is the soul of what noir is—a realm in which there are no black-and-white moral scenarios: Every hero is an accidental monster. And there is a beauty in that, as absolute as there is a sin.

Stagger snorts on behalf of the crowd. He bounces his cigarette off the glass door with a finger’s flick and lets his shoulders dance a moment. They settle like Gulf coast heat. His eyebrows climb.

Stagger Q: What’s all this talk about sin, anyhow? Son, any story about me and mine is a story about folks just getting it how they live. Why you got to cast everything in four-color comic book format?

A: I read too many comic books. Either that, or too many books on myths.

Somewhere along the line, I got hooked on the notion of Joe Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” I didn’t know the term until I was well out of my writing program, but I was a zealot for it all the same. I see life in terms of battles, puzzles and challenges, large and small, that lead a person along a quest. A quest for what, well, that’s up to the seeker. I know a lot of people who are just chasing their diseases. They don’t want to get better so much as they get off on seeing how bad off they can be. It’s a Hero’s Journey all the same. It just happens to be going in a downward direction.

It tends to make my stories into open-ended episodes. I don’t write for one novel or one short story. I cast my stories in the mold of a single link in a long chain of development. At heart, I’m a sequential story teller: A comic book writer, a classical studies scholar, a character-driven author.

I don’t much cotton to endings. I’m always thinking of what’s next—what’s going to rise from the ashes.

Jari rolls her eyes, inspiring a chuckle for Stagger. Ava’s composure becomes more polished. And the Twins, Sigrid and Siegfried, slide on a knowing grin.

But Reaver’s teeth scrape. Lia is darkening in his lap. She bounds up again, snatching her spear and sticking out her lip just as far.

She drives both at Funk’s face as the Reaver looks on with grim approval.

Lia Q: So we don’t get a happy ending, hm? Just challenges and more chapters?

A: No happy endings. There’s no such thing.

Like I said, happiness is about letting go. It’s about saying, “This is enough.” And for those of you here, and for all heroes, there’s no such thing as letting go.

Your people, Lia, the Scythians, said that the greatest kindness of the world was the power to forget. But for a story to work, there can be no forgetting. There always has to be another score to settle, another love to win, another ghost to lay to rest.

I don’t want my stories to end. I write stories to haunt. Like you all haunt me.

Dancing With Myself: KATIA LIEF interviews KATIA LIEF

Why are you looking at me?

You asked to interview me, so here I am. Haven’t you ever done this before?

Of course I have. So let’s begin. How tall are you?
5’ 1”

That’s a lie!

Okay. I’m actually 5’ ¾”

So you’re really short.

No. I’m petite.

Are you French?


You said petite, which is a French word. I’m not as stupid as I look, you know.

No, I’m not French. But I was born in France. We came back to the States when I was a baby and—

Right. I’d love to hear your life story but I have limited time, so let me ask you this: What is your best recipe? The best thing you know how to make that you created yourself.

You wouldn’t ask a man that question.


So why are you asking me for a recipe when you wouldn’t ask, say, John Le Carre or Jonathan Franzen for a recipe. And I don’t think you’d ask them about their height, either. Would you.

You didn’t ask that as a question, which indicates hostility.

I realize that.

Let’s move on. So what we’ve learned about you so far is that you’re a French dwarf who doesn’t cook—

Hold it now. I didn’t say any of that.

Relax, honey. I mean please, have a drink.

You are the most arrogant interviewer I have ever encountered!


You deserved it.

Now I understand: You’re a violent person and that’s why you write crime novels.

Wrong again.

So…if you weren’t a French dwarf who had to waste hours every day eating your meals in restaurants, maybe you could take the time to write a real novel instead of pumping out, what, seven thrillers in a row?

Plus two so-called literary novels at the beginning of my career.

Meaning no one read them and you had to keep your day job. You’re glaring at me, which means I’m right.

Next question.

You’ve just started a new crime series, with two books published in the U.S. just one month apart: You Are Next and Next Time You See Me. But until then, you hadn’t published a novel for three years. What did you do for those three years? And how did you write Next Time You See Me so quickly?

I don’t even know how to begin to explain this to you, but I’ll try. I take nine or ten months on a book. It was the publisher’s decision to publish them so close together. I didn’t stop writing after my last Kate Pepper book came out, I just—

Sorry, who?

Kate Pepper. It was my pseudonym up until now.

So you had a pen name. Why?

Seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ll still be Kate Pepper in Germany, because—

Let’s move on. I understand your series is also coming out in the U.K.
Yes, but under slightly different titles. NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME will be called HIDE & SEEK for the U.K. version.

So you publish under different names, and different titles. What exactly are you trying to hide?

Actually I’d rather not be implicated. So, what do your children think of your books?

They’ve never read them. They’re more interested in whether I’ve brought home cookies from the store.
And your husband?

He likes them.

Well, he’d better say that if he wants any chance of a half-decent meal. He’s living with an angry French dwarf who loathes the kitchen.

Where are you going? We haven’t quite finished!

Saturday 15 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: DEE DE TARSIO interviews DEE DE TARSIO

I don't know if you've ever followed the link from here to Terrible Minds. It's the place where Chuck Wendig throws out brilliant pieces of advice to writers and lets us have them for free. Amazing. Not only is it the kind of advice that's not always readily available, it's also put in terms that I can understand (take for instance a reference to an under-cooked brownie).

Just before Christmas I put the final full stop on a novel I'd been working on for almost a year. It should have been six months, but I wasn't as dedicated as I might have been. I also got totally wrapped up in this blog and in watching all the episodes of The Wire. It would be too generous to myself to call it research, but it's going to be my excuse.

Anyway, one of Chuck's most excellent tips is to put the novel away for as long as it takes to lose a sense of ownership of it. In that way, you can truly make the necessary changes without taking it personally.

Easier said than done.

I tried and tried, but couldn't help to go and take a nibble here and there. I was totally useless at it.

Last week I found a solution - start writing another novel.

7 days later and I have the beginning of a story, working title 'Echo, Narcissus and the Weather Girl. Teacher noir it it's genre if I get it right.

I put it up here yesterday in one of the pages. If you find you're at a loose end at any point and feel like you could help me out, it would be good if you'd take time to go and have a look. There's a lot of it, so I wouldn't expect anyone to plough through the 7000 words plus, but if you could read a little of it and drop a comment at the end I'd be grateful.

I'm not looking to hear about the detail as I'm writing without looking back, more a general impression; criticism with a broad brush, if you will.

To make it simple, you could just leave a colour.

Green: All systems go. Keep at it. Like it so far. You have something there.

Amber: Well, it's not baked, hasn't really got my interest, I can see what you're getting at. Maybe keep going and see where it takes you.

Red - No idea what's going on. Can't see it. Wouldn't read on. Go edit the other one.

Other - explain.

I can take a good kick, so don't hold back.

Enough of my own shallow tales.

If you don't have time to look, no worries, but do yourself a favour and get along to Terrible Minds, OK.

Here's Dee De Tarsio's excellent take as she Dances With Herself.

Dear Mr. King,

Wait a minute. Why are you writing a letter to Stephen King?

Well, I like to think of it as a lifeline to his wife, Tabitha. Have you read his latest book, Full Dark, No Stars? (which I downloaded on my kindle for $14.99 making my novel, The Scent Of Jade, a steal at the introductory low, low price of .99 cents--come on Mr. King, throw a fan a bone here!)

But I digress. He dedicated this brilliant wife-killer of a book to his wife. He might have wanted to reconsider that and maybe paid tribute to Charlie Sheen or Dr. Phil. I’m just saying. I’m thinking Mrs. King might like to take a taste of a little lighter fare right about now, and the Mister could use a chaser, too.

So in essence, your book is a palate cleanser.

Oh, honey, it is the sweet sorbet of sauteed Snickers. I may be mixing metaphors here, because I do love the food channel--does anyone else think Alton Brown is kind of sexy? Holla! But, what most guys don’t know, is that women’s fiction has a lot to offer. I don’t think I’m being presumptuous about the reading habits of XYs. My husband wouldn’t be caught dead reading girl stuff, unless I convince him otherwise. Women, however, have a wider scope of authors that we enjoy, including guy books by guys.

My husband, who has earned his title of beditor, once complained that ‘women sure do think a lot.’ That’s right, we do. Live and learn, hombres.

Actually, The Scent of Jade grew out of his suggestion and into a women’s fiction action adventure novel. There are NO car chases, explosions or dead guys, however, stuff happens! My protagonist still has plenty of time to think, especially when she’s in the marijuana field with the monkey. She does get shot at, there are NO strappy sandals, and there is SEX.

What can guys learn from chick lit?

Lots of cool stuff. Like women think it’s sexier for guys to fill up our cars with gas, than to play bongos on our ass. (See what I did there, I made it sing-songy so it can be remembered easier.) Come over to the pink side--you don’t know what you’re missing.

You act like men are from Jupiter, that’s why they’re stupider.

If the planet fits... I kid! I am simply issuing an invitation to take a ride on the chick slide. OK that sounds dirty, but maybe I can capture someone’s attention here. There are so many smart women writers, all I’m asking is that guys take a spin, read it and weep, and for extra relationship bonus points, check out what your significant other is reading and share your feelings! It’s fun! Trust me.

You really think Stephen King is going to respond to you?

He’s going to have to sign that restraining order sooner or later.

What do you want from him--a blurb for your book?

That would be genius. I’ve even taken the liberty of writing it for him myself: Three little words that any author would love to hear, 10 little letters; he doesn’t even have to waste time on an exclamation point. Ready? Here goes:

From intergalactic bestselling Stephen King of the Universe, on The Scent of Jade:

“I read worse.”

You must really think you’re fly like a G6.

More like a V8.

What are you working on now?

Ros. It’s a women’s fiction novel about a woman (ta da!), Micki Cramer, who rescues a pilot from a plane crash behind her house in San Diego, California. Ros, the pilot, was on a mission to find her missing brother who crash-landed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Seems she was a bad driver, too, missing her target by nearly a thousand miles and more than half a century.

Whoa. That sounds like a sci-fi book.

Well, it’s not. It’s women’s fiction.

Isn’t there an alien in there?

Well, yes, but...

Then how can you say it’s not science fiction?

You’ll just have to read it yourself.

Well done.

Stephen King--BLURB ME!

The Scent Of Jade

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Dancing With Myself: MARK BILLINGHAM interviews MARK BILLINGHAM

How about this for a great idea for a blog.

Find out which e-books are selling well and talk about them. You might think about taking it on yourself, but I'm here to let you know that some one's already doing it and is going to be doing it rather well.

It's a brilliant concept, set up by a man who knows his onions and his garlic, Allan Guthrie.

The aim of the blog is set out clearly as a showcase for:

some of the current top-selling e-Books...[bringing] some excellent new titles to the attention of a wider readership.

which is beautiful in its simplicity.

You'll find it over at

While on the subject of Mr Guthrie, his novellas Bye Bye Baby and Killing Mum are a steal as e-books. Check out the links to the right for a look-see.

And so to today. Dancing with razzle and dazzle, we have a shining star of the British crime fiction firmament. Please welcome Mark and Mark Billingham.

MARK: Good to meet you finally. You’re taller than I’d imagined.

MARK: And you look a bit…older. Maybe it’s time to get that author photo re-done.

MARK: You should probably just crack on with the questions before we fall out…and don’t start with that old chestnut about why a stand-up comedian would want to write dark crime novels.

MARK: Oh…OK then. So…why the country music in the books? Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, I mean per-lease!

MARK: I was very aware that there were already a lot of music-loving detectives around when I started writing the first Thorne book and because of this I originally thought that there would be no music in the books at all. This quickly proved impossible, but I tried to resist giving him the same taste as me and so early on he was quite into Garage and Trip-Hop, which is the kind of music I hate. It was a stupid thing to do and I quickly put it right. So Thorne likes country, same as I do and it’s the perfect kind of music for a crime novel. The best country songs are dark and twisted tales contained within - and to an extent masked by - an entertaining melody. I think that the best crime fiction works in much the same way.

MARK: If you say so. Is Thorne like you in other ways?

MARK: I think any author who denies there is anything of themselves in their central character is being disingenuous at best. Lying through their teeth at worst. A novel gives you space to get stuff off your chest, so if Thorne is ranting about the state of the health service or whatever, that’s probably me. We have the same birthday but we support different football teams and he’s shorter than me and I think that as my life has got better he has probably become rather more miserable. Funny that.

MARK: Talking of funny (though it’s a matter of opinion) are you still doing any stand-up?

MARK: No, I’ve finally knocked all that tomfoolery on the head. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day and the books now involve so much travelling that I would be away from home far too much if I was still performing as well. Besides which I hadn’t written a new joke in ten years. I still do something close to stand-up at book events—

MARK: Like I said, a matter of opinion—

MARK: But I’m not gigging in comedy clubs any more. I should say that stand-up comics are a far more twisted bunch than crime writers, so I don’t miss it too much.

MARK: Some crime-writers must be pretty twisted though.

MARK: Oh don’t get me wrong, some are as mad as a box of frogs, but generally they’re a pretty good bunch. On the whole, genre writers seem a little friendlier and less competitive. It’s a nice gang to be part of. I heard a brilliant description recently, when someone described crime writers as the “smokers of the literary community”. We’re slightly marginalised, a little bit naughty, but we’re having a lot of fun.

MARK: Naughty? Are you able to provide details?

MARK: Well let’s just say that last year at Harrogate, one well-known writer of historical crime got very friendly with a purveyor of urban noir and an award-winning writer of cosy mysteries. Quite a threesome…

MARK: But you’re not willing to name names?

MARK: I’m willing to consider reasonable cash offers.

MARK: Tom Thorne finally hit TV screens last year. Were you pleased?

MARK: I was very pleased. It had been a long time coming, but I was thrilled that when it finally happened, I was so closely involved. Writers are usually out of the loop on these things, and often that’s the right place to be, but I was close to it from the very beginning having got together with David Morrissey, who was the actor I had always wanted to play Thorne. And I was proved right, because he gave a stunning performance, leading a phenomenal cast that included Aiden Gillen, Eddie Marsan, Natascha McElhone and Sandra Oh.

MARK: What about the people who were unhappy at some of the changes made to the books?

MARK: There have to be changes when a novel is adapted for the screen. Aside from the necessary conflation when you’re making a 400 page novel into three hours of TV, there are things that can be done in a novel that are simply not possible on screen. I can be inside a character’s head. Crucially, I can be inside a killer’s head without revealing their identity to the reader. This is very much trickier on screen, so you have to find solutions to these problems and inevitably this means changes. So while in some ways it’s flattering that people are upset that Elvis the cat is missing, or that Thorne’s car is different, it’s really not worth getting worked up about. As for the casting itself, no actor will ever correspond to the image that a reader has inside their head. It will be interesting to see if readers of the next Thorne novel see David, or Aiden or any of the other actors when they are reading the book. I can tell you that writing Thorne has not changed for me at all…

MARK: Talking of readers being unhappy. Do you still get angry emails from people complaining about the swearing?

MARK: What, you mean those well-balanced and charming people who seem to enjoy books about murder, rape, pain, grief, blood, violence etc, but get worked up about the F-word? I get a lot less than I used to, but when they do ping ominously into my inbox, they are usually corkers and I take great delight at reading them out at events. Basically, if you send me nutty emails, you must accept that I WILL keep them in a little black book and at some point use them as a source of cheap laughs. That’s got to be ten questions.

MARK: Some were supplementary enquiries or casual remarks, so I don’t think you should count those.

MARK: OK, two more.

MARK: What’s the book you’re most proud of?

MARK: Well, that implies I’m proud of all of them (laughs, then stops quickly). I think actually it would be parts of various books. The concept of Sleepy Head and the character of Alison. Some of Lifeless and Bloodline.

MARK: Answer the bloody question. Come on, if you were hit by a bus—

MARK: Oh, that’s cheery.

MARK: I’m just saying. If you could take one book with you to your grave…

MARK: All right then. In The Dark, probably. That might sound odd, as it isn’t a Thorne novel. Something else that upset a few readers.

MARK: Any more standalones?

MARK: Definitely. Are we done?

MARK: The next book?

MARK: Bloodline is coming out this July in the US, published by Mulholland Books. The book I’ve just finished features Tom Thorne and Helen Weeks, who is the major character in In The Dark. It’s coming out here in August and it’s called Good As Dead. Happy?

MARK: Delirious, thank you. Would you sign a book for me?

MARK: What do you think?