Steph Post: Let me just start out by saying that Rumrunners is a hell of a fun book. Crazy families, fast cars, a classic crime- it’s just an all-around good time. Do you think that Rumrunners exemplifies your “style” as a writer?
Eric Beetner: I do think it is indicative of what I do best, which is center a story on the “bad guys” and yet make you like them. I have no interest in writing about hero cops or the ultimate assassin or a government agent backed by the moral high ground. I like the little guys making their way in the world slightly to the left of the law. But I think to draw readers in, they can’t be all bad. We all have a little outlaw in us so I strive to bring that out in my characters and make them relatable even when they engage in actions the reader would (hopefully) never do.
I’ve gotten great feedback on the character of Lars from The Devil Doesn’t Want Me and the sequels to that, and he’s a professional killer. People love the guy, though, and that’s when I know I did my job right.
I’ve also been called a funny writer, though I rarely do it consciously. I like a light touch in the absurdity of situations rather than trying to write funny lines, which I am no good at. But I think a dose of humor now and then really helps with the pace of a book. A reader needs a little relief after the intensity of some of the violence.
SP: As an author who also writes about the weaving web of crime families, I obviously related to, and appreciated, the relationship between the McGraws and the Stanleys. Tucker McGraw is the one family member spanning both groups who has done his best to avoid the criminal lifestyle. Even if most of your readers haven’t grown up with a kingpin parent, do you think they can relate to Tucker’s plight throughout the novel?
EB: We all struggle to build our own identity, don’t we? Tucker is someone who has to rebel kind of in the opposite direction. His rebellion is to fly the straight and narrow. He doesn’t commit crimes and that makes him an outcast within his family. So in that sense I think he is relatable.
Whether it’s that day you move out of the house or the day you stand up to your parents and tell them you don’t want to go into the family business, being an adult is making that choice. I think many of us never quite recover from the consequences of that tipping point. It can effect the rest of your life if it alienates you from your family or if it is a decision you end up regretting.
Tucker’s slow awakening to who he is really meant to be is intended to be a happy story, even if he breaks bad in a way. He’s sort of going through a very late in life coming of age.
SP: Calvin McGraw, Tucker’s grandfather, is my favorite character in Rumrunners. He’s an eighty-year-old badass and the novel’s opening scene with Calvin versus a cocky hipster in a donut shop is one of my favorite first chapters. Was Calvin based on someone you know or met in real life?
EB: Calvin has definitely been the breakout character from Rumrunners, and I’m glad. I think older characters are underserved in stories. I wish I could say he was based on someone I know, but he isn’t really. I used elements of my grandfather in other novels of mine, specifically that he was a pro boxer in the 1930s and I wrote about a boxer living in that era for two novels. But Calvin is maybe a bit of fantasy on my part of what I hope I can be like at his age. Not the criminal stuff, but the attitude. The guy just doesn’t give a crap anymore. That’s admirable on the one hand and it also makes him a formidable foe on the other, even to people a quarter his age.
And his loyalty is unsurpassed. That gets back to being relatable. Calvin in an unrepentant outlaw. He’s lived his whole life on that side of the fence. But he’s fiercely loyal to his family, and that shows the stand up guy beneath the outlaw exterior. I think most people respect a trait like loyalty more than they do to strict lawfulness.
SP: Rumrunners takes place in Iowa and the Midwestern setting is referenced throughout the novel, especially as the Stanley family is one of territory. Yet I could have very easily see the Stanleys and McGraws in a showdown with the Cannons (characters from my novel Lightwood, set in north Florida). Is Rumrunners uniquely Midwestern?
EB: I also think the Midwest is an underserved locale for fiction. I’ve seen the book called Southern noir or country noir and I think people tend to picture more of a deep south when they hear about characters like this, but the Midwest can be just as backwoods, just as dangerous, just as redneck as the South. Some of the worst meth problems are in the Midwest. Hell, our worst heroin problems today are way up in New England, and that doesn’t fit what most people picture in their prep school/ivy league ideas of what New England can be like. So I think the more different areas of the country are represented with the truth of it, the better.
That said, I hope it’s not an unflattering portrait of Iowa. I was born there, but only lived there briefly. I still have family there and spent a lot of time there visiting while I grew up moving to different places on both coasts. Iowa has always had an outsized impression on me, mostly because I think the vast majority of Americans don't know what it’s really like. I know when I lived in Connecticut and wore my Iowa Hawkeyes hat around, the kids who’d never been out of Fairfield County thought I must have been born on a farm and slept with pigs in my bed. They were that clueless about Iowa beyond cornfields and barnyards. But I have a deep affection for Iowa. Some of my favorite memories are there. I’ve written about it a few times and although I always write about some crime taking place there, I think the setting itself comes off well.
But could the saga of Rumrunners have been set elsewhere? Sure. You have my permission to have the McGraws drive through the background in one of your Florida novels. They wouldn’t be entirely out of place, I don’t think.
SP: I had the privilege and pleasure of being part of your Noir at the Bar at Bouchercon this past September. How did you get started with this event?
EB: I knew of the events being held in St. Louis, unaware that it started in Philadelphia. The Philly events weren’t happening any more, but Jedidiah Ayres and Scott Phillips had a regular thing going in St. Louis that I’d heard great things about. When a place called the Mystery Bookstore closed down here in Los Angeles, we lost the hub and central meeting place for crime writers in town. I wanted that back so I called up Jed and Scott to ask if I could do a Noir at the Bar in LA. I reached out to a few LA writers to see if there would be interest and everyone was very excited about it.
That was already 5 years ago and since Jed and Scott gave me their blessing, I think other writers in other cities saw it as a franchise opportunity so now there are regular events all across the country and even in the UK. Everyone does it independently, each event is a little different, but the core concept is the same and that’s to give writers a place to come and get in front of an audience, and a place for writers and readers to interact in the flesh. It’s been a real boon to the indie crime community, the younger writers especially. It’s a right of passage now to read at a Noir at the Bar. We’ve hosted national bestsellers and guests from other countries right on down to unpublished authors. We’ve seen several people do their first ever public reading at Noir at the Bar LA and several have gone on to now be published authors. It’s immensely gratifying and as much work as it is for no money and no gain, really, outside the satisfaction of doing it and the fun times at the event, I can’t see stopping any time soon.
SP: I’d ask you what’s coming up next for you, but I already know- Leadfoot, the prequel to Rumrunners. What prompted you to go back to 1971 and explore the roots of the McGraws?
EB: Well, as you said, Calvin was the star of the show once Rumrunners came out. I had a loose plan for a trilogy starting with the action right after Rumrunners, but the publisher suggested maybe a prequel and I thought it was a great idea. So I went back to when Calvin was in his prime and pushed him front and center. I also gave Webb, who vanishes right at the start of Rumrunners, his moment in the sun. So the story is about Calvin getting caught up in a big turf war between the Stanley family and rival gang from Nebraska, all while grooming Webb for the job and sending him out on his first assignment which does not go as planned.Hopefully people find it as high octane and supercharged as the first book.
EB: Not to blow smoke but I’m so glad I got to read your books this year. A Tree Born Crooked was great and Lightwood just went in my bag for me to start at lunch tomorrow.It’s actually been a great year for dark female writers, which I’ve had a hard time finding in the past. Neliza Drew, Marietta Miles, Sarah Chen. I love having more answers now for when people come asking for female crime writers who don’t do cozies.
Looking back over what I read this year some of my below-the-radar favorites have been Cold Quiet Country by Clayton Lindemuth (you would love it!) A Better Goodbye by John Schulian, All Involved by Ryan Gattis, Gunshine State by Andrew Nette, Revolver by Duane Swierczynski. I discovered Larry Watson this year and I loved Montana, 1948 and American Boy. I read a ton of vintage crime too and really dug deep into the work of Charles Williams and William P. McGivern, who everyone should seek out.