Steph Post: I identified so closely with your characters, themes and plot, so I’m going to do my best here to keep my connections out of it and focus on what makes Bull Mountain really stand out in its genre. One is the actual setting of North Georgia and Bull Mountain itself. The location where the story takes place is as integral to the novel as any of the human characters- do you think Bull Mountain could have taken place in any other location? How central really is the land to the story in your eyes?
Brian Panowich: I think the familial aspect of the story is universal. Family is complicated. Maybe not to the degree that I jacked it up to, but in most, if not all cases, everyone’s family, no matter how polished or perfect it may seem to the outside world, has a great deal of dysfunction playing out behind the curtain. So the story can appeal to anyone that wants to make themselves feel a little better about their own family issues by knowing there are way more broken ones out there, but as far as the motivation behind THIS particular family, the land and the right to live on it was paramount. The Burroughs’ hold nothing in higher regard then land and kin, and that aspect was absolutely essential to the novel. Without it, the story wouldn’t have been what I wanted it to be.
SP: Many crime novels have a very linear narrative structure that tumbles the reader one foot after the other down the road of the plot. Bull Mountain plays with time considerable, with generational timelines and multiple stories weaving together, which is yet another reason why the novel holds its own so strongly. In the writing process, how did you plan out these myriad working parts of the narrative? Were you always planning on structuring Bull Mountain this way?
BP: No. The truth is, I simply didn’t know how to do it. I’d never written a novel, and had no concept of how to structure a plot in the traditional three-act format. I just sat down and wrote. Having readers believe that what motivated these characters to do these terrible things was important to me. No one in this book thinks they are the bad guy. The bad guys rarely ever sees themselves that way, and if they do, it makes for a two-dimensional character. If I got to a scene where I needed the reader to feel sympathetic for someone, despite the horrid thing they might be doing, I just backed up and explained it. The format was just the product of my stream of consciousness method of writing at the time. I was worried that the book wouldn’t make any sense to anyone other than me, but it turns out that it is one of the book's strengths. It’s definitely a love it or hate it structure. The follow up I’m working on now is a very linear story that takes place over just a few days, and I promise there will be people out there that hate that, too, but it’s just how the story dictated itself. No plan. No rules.
SP: I’m not going to give anything away here, but I was warned by a fellow author that your first chapter packs a hell of a punch, and man, he wasn’t kidding. I think I honestly did a double take once I realized what had happened. From a craft perspective and a reader perspective, how important is a first chapter to a novel? Is it necessary for it to startle the reader in some way?
BP: I’m pretty proud of that chapter, and had it pointed out to me recently that it could be a short story in it’s own right. I never thought about that before, but I think they’re right. I think my background in writing short stories and flash fiction, where it’s really important to get in quick and get the job done, helped me out with that. I also wanted to set the tone of the novel from the jump. I like it when a book sets the hook early so I know exactly what I'm dealing with before I get invested. Flaps can be misleading. Marketing can too, but the first chapter should be akin to that first sip of bourbon. You either like it, or you don’t. I don’t think you have to startle a reader, so much as just set the tone. I like to know what I’m stepping into. Not everyone likes to read that way, but I do, and I figured I was writing this for folks like me anyway. If the first chapter doesn’t do it for you, go ahead and set it down. It’s cool. Pass it along to a buddy that might like it.
SP: With Bull Mountain, you are joining the ranks of authors writing in the complicated “country noir-grit lit-hillbilly crime-badass whatever you want to call it-genre” along with such greats as Daniel Woodrell and up and comers such as Smith Henderson, Wiley Cash, David Joy and Taylor Brown (whose Fallen Land will be out early next year). What is so attractive to you about this style and genre? Why do you think this genre has so suddenly become popular? Or has it?
BP: I don’t know for sure why it is becoming more popular, and I think I’m stealing someone else’s answer here when I say that the Southern region is under-exposed in this genre. The urban/city environment is so widely covered in books, TV, movies, etc. that the rural landscape is still rich with stories and mystery. I wasn’t necessarily attracted to this genre, either. I, of course, love all those authors you mentioned, and hold them in high regard, but I’m equally as influenced by Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, and even more so by comic book writers like Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, and Chris Claremont. So falling into this particular genre was basically due to the fact that I just happen to live here, and the landscape of this place is what I know. If I lived in a two-story walk-up in Queens, I’d most likely have written a story set there. Or if I still lived in the Panhandle of Florida, maybe I’d have picked that locale. (I read a book set around those parts that straight up kicked my ass. Wink.)
SP: Music has always been an integral part of your life. In what ways has playing music helped or hindered your ability to write fiction?
BP: Well, you could say that playing music hindered my ability to write by putting it off for about twenty years. My mom thinks so anyway. But the truth is, if it wasn’t for the life experience on the road and the stable of odd characters I met and the back file of mannerisms and region specific dialects I picked up while I was traveling, I don’t think my writing would ring as true. There’s only so much you can learn by reading other authors. You have to actively participate in life to be able to write it down. That’s what my career in music was for me—a massive two decade long character study.
SP: Bull Mountain just debuted on July 7th and as we speak, you are on your first book tour. Have the roller coaster emotions of being a successful debut author hit you yet?
BP: I still keep waiting to feel different, but I don’t. I feel blessed. I feel incredibly lucky, and maybe a little more validated that I may actually have some talent, but it’s still me brushing my teeth in the morning, hoping that the next thing I write doesn’t suck. You sent me this interview while I was out promoting Bull Mountain on my first ever book tour, which was an amazing and exhausting experience, but I’m just able to finish this for you over a month later, mostly because I spend a majority of my time battling wave after wave of crushing self doubt about the new book. There is a lot of reward in this business if you allow yourself to enjoy it, but for me, it’s mostly a debilitating focus on the next goal. I hope that changes at some point, but after talking to a ton of new and established writers this past year, it’s per the norm.
SP: What literary influences do you have that readers would find surprising?
BP: I mentioned earlier that I draw a lot from comic book writers. I’ve always been a nerd like that and the simple truth is, those comic books I devoured back in the day taught me how to tell a story. Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Night Returns, Chris Claremont’s X-men. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’ New Teen Titans. All the stories that are finally catching fire in Hollywood and on TV at the moment are the same stories I lived and breathed since I was eight years old. That’s why being compared to Steinbeck or Faulkner is so hard for me to swallow.
SP: I absolutely believe in sharing the wealth and the love when it comes to books, so, as always: who are you reading right now, or have read recently, that deserves a shout out?
BP: The Green Arrow #42 by Benjamin Percy is sitting next to me right now, and it’s amazing. Jamie Kornegay’s Soil is the best book I’ve read this year, and I just started Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot by Reed Farrell Coleman in an attempt to keep myself from doing any writing of my own. That guy is good.
There you have it. Now go buy Bull Mountain for yourself and see what all the hype is about. Many thanks to Brian Panowich for stopping by. I'm sure we'll be seeing more of him in the future!