Many thanks to Alternating Current and Kevin Catalano for this interview. I love questions that really make me think about my own work!
"In the best possible way, Steph Post’s Lightwood is reminiscent of Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind than Home and Brian Panowich’s Bull Mountain. There is family drama, stolen cash, a meth-cooking biker gang, a gun-hoarding prepper, and a terrifying preacher who doles out punishment through “baptism by fire.” However, Post’s novel is unmistakably feminist, in the sense that its strongest and most memorable characters are women. The result is a kind of country-noir crime novel that is both satisfying and original." -Kevin Catalano
Sometimes I come across a book that I want to shout from the rooftops and press on everyone I meet. Usually, this book is a novel, occasionally a short story collection by a favorite writer, but very, very rarely an anthology. Well, I suppose I just needed to find the right one.....
The Highway Kind: Tales of Fast Cars, Desperate Drivers and Dark Roads, edited by Patrick Millikin, is the book I've been telling everyone about this spring and I'm thrilled to bring you an interview with the editor himself. The Highway Kind, featuring crime stories by writers both famous and relatively unknown, is a collection of eclectic tales built around our complicated obsession, fascination and fear of roaring engines, open roads, dusty chrome and the possibilities of who we might meet when the sun goes down and the broken asphalt beneath our wheels begins to cool.
Steph Post: Before I get into the book itself, I’m curious as to how an anthology like The Highway Kind is formed. The authors contributing to the book range from crime fiction heavyweight Michael Connelly to Diana Gabaldon, well-known for her time-traveling fantasy series Outlander, and everyone in between. In compiling the stories for The Highway Kind, did you seek out these authors specifically? Was there a process for selecting the stories included in the collection? And did the finished product resemble what you had in mind when you first conceived of The Highway Kind?
Patrick Millikin: It was a very idiosyncratic process, I must admit. Basically, I just came up with a bucket list of favorite writers. I was conscious of trying to get a wide variety of styles and approaches. I did commission all of the stories and it was a real honor to get to work with such an immensely talented and creative group of writers. Working in the book business for over twenty years has been a blessing and has enabled me to get to know a lot of writers. The early commitment of writers such as Gary Phillips, Mike Connelly, and Diana Gabaldon really gave me the self confidence to approach a major publisher with a formal proposal. Most of the writers I asked were able to carve out time to participate, but there were a few I really wanted to have that just couldn’t make it work schedule-wise. For instance, I pestered the hell out of Daniel Woodrell and Percival Everett, both heroes of mine, and they unfortunately couldn’t do it. There were some really fortuitous surprises along the way though: George Pelecanos put me in touch with Willy Vlautin, who in turn put me in touch with Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. I’m really pleased to have a hand in publishing Patterson’s first published work of fiction. I hope he writes a novel one day. He’s such a talented writer.
As for the finished product resembling my original idea, it ended up being quite different. My first thought was that I would pair each writer with a particular car and that he or she would pattern the story around the car. It was a cool idea, and we were thinking of having sketches of each car at the beginning of each story. Hell, that might have been more commercially viable, I don’t know, but I am very proud of the way the book morphed into something much deeper and, at least to my way of thinking, more interesting. It’s gratifying to hear from more and more readers who are finding their way to it.
SP: I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of the stories in The Highway Kind, but at the end of the day, my favorite story of the collection is Willy Vlautin’s “The Kill Switch,” a quiet piece revolving around the acquisition of a Pontiac Le Mans that is equal parts grit and heartache and has stuck with me since the moment I finished reading its last sentence. This probably isn’t the sort of question I’m supposed to ask, but… do you have a favorite story in the collection? Or one that you wished more readers would pay attention to?
PM: I’m gonna have to plead the Fifth on that one, for obvious reasons. I am really fond of all of the stories in the book, for different reasons. That being said, Willy Vlautin’s story is really a beautiful piece of work, I agree. Another one I’m keen on is Kelly Braffet’s “Runs Good.” C.J. Box’s contribution is a killer, and I was very thrilled that George Pelecanos agreed to submit a piece. Luis Urrea’s story is surreal and wonderful. Stroby wrote a righteous one. They’re all terrific.
SP: The gamut of themes, plots and settings in this collection is also astounding, especially given the parameters of writing about crime and cars. Were you surprised by the variety shown by the authors of The Highway Kind?
PM: I was indeed, and that was one of the real joys of putting this book together. One thing Josh Kendall (my editor at Mulholland) noticed right away was how personal the stories were. There was a confessional feeling to a good many of the pieces, which I thought was fascinating. We realized that we were really onto something, that the stories of course featured cars, but they weren’t about cars; they were really about people and difficult situations.
SP: I love that. In almost every story, I detected the presence of nostalgia, too. Was this something you noticed when reading and selecting the stories for The Highway Kind? And why do cars and nostalgia go hand-in-hand when motor vehicles are certainly not an outdated mode of transportation?
PM: That’s an interesting observation and it hadn’t really occurred to me on a conscious level. I think that many people have nostalgia for their youth, even if the “good old days” are inflated and/or distorted by time. We romanticize our cars, especially our first cars, perhaps because they provided the means of experiencing life more fully, beyond the circumscribed world of our childhoods. There’s also a good bit of nostalgia for the days before our cars were all controlled by computers; when, as I mention in the intro, it was a symbol of masculinity to know one’s way around an engine. So much of this knowledge, the mysterious art of carburetors and so forth, is only kept alive these days by classic car enthusiasts. I guess there’s a longing for a more intimate, grounded connection to our physical environment. And also, those old cars had so much style, didn’t they?
SP: In the preface for the collection, you write about the American mythology of cars and how it developed in the transition from horse to automobile and owes much to both Westerns and crime fiction. I find this idea fascinating and I was hoping you could elaborate a little more on how America, cars and genre fiction all fit together.
PM: I think it was just a natural progression. When you think of the classic Western hero, it’s typically a loner on horseback, one who has largely abandoned the confines of the civilized world for the freedom of the frontier. The horse provided mobility, and in some ways I suppose it represents man’s domination of the natural world. Of course, there’s a distinctly American wanderlust that plays into this whole mythology. Think of Huck Finn lighting out for the territories, now that’s a classic American archetype. The West, or the idea of it, becomes such a huge part of the transition from the Western novel to early American crime fiction. California, and particularly Los Angeles, was touted by boosters as the Promised Land, where people could escape from their old lives and pursue the “American Dream.” So much of the early crime fiction, set in LA and elsewhere, explores the messy reality underneath this facade. Of course, the advent of cars played an enormous role in this. One thinks of Philip Marlowe cruising the mean streets in his car, or the anonymous road-side diners of James M. Cain. There are so many great examples, from Dorothy B. Hughes to A.I. Bezzerides to James Crumley.
SP: On a completely different note, you also write about “aloneness” in the preface and how cars create a space for us to be both free and isolated. You write that “cars facilitate our secret lives” and point out how driving can bring us to an almost meditative state. I found myself concurring out loud when I read this; my car is my sanctuary. It’s a place to cry, rage, think, zone out, make resolutions, ask myself difficult questions and turn up the dial until I almost blow the speakers. But then, I like being alone. Do you think that this seclusion is something we need or is the space created by our vehicles actually detrimental to us by creating such isolation?
PM: Damn, that’s a difficult question, Steph. I like that Pascal quote that Willeford (if memory serves) used as the epigraph for one of his books: “All of Man’s unhappiness stems from his inability to sit quietly in his room.” I think that solitude and seclusion is something that we desperately need more of, not less. That was one of the key ideas that inspired this book – many of us spend a significant portion of our lives alone in our cars. Driving a car, like many rote activities, requires attention but allows the mind to roam. It can be an extremely meditative activity, especially at night when there aren’t a lot of people out on the road. These days it’s becoming a harrowing experience, as more and more people are distracted by their phones and paying less attention to the physical world.
SP: And finally, I have to ask about your “dream car.” Mine is a 1967 superhero blue Corvette Stingray and one day, come hell or high water, I will be sitting behind the wheel. Yours?
PM: I’d love to completely restore my 1960 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. It’s my favorite year for Cadillacs, and I prefer the clean lines of the 1960 to the all-out decadence of the ‘59. I tinker with it as time and money permit. Sure it only get a few hundred yards to the gallon, but damn is it sweet-looking. Someone’s selling a nice-looking green 1969 Cadillac Sedan Deville for a very reasonable price here in Phoenix, and, as it is my birth year I’m sorely tempted… but my driveway already looks like a used car lot.
Many thanks to Oline Cogdill for this wonderful review of Lightwood in the Sun Sentinel (South Florida) newspaper! Here's a snippet:
"In Lightwood, Steph Post shows a flair for delving into the dark side of small towns and the even darker drive of families. While most of the realistic characters in Lightwood are not likable, Post makes us care deeply about what will happen to each, much as authors Daniel Woodrell and Elmore Leonard have done in their works."
Every now and then I do an interview where I find myself nodding along at every sentence, feeling like the author and I are on the same page, even more so than I was reading said author's novel. This conversation with Ed Tarkington, author ofOnly Love Can Break Your Heart, a visceral novel of growing pangs set in a small Southern town in the 1970s, is one of those interviews.... Enjoy.
Steph Post: I'd like to go ahead and start with the coming-of-age theme running through Only Love Can Break Your Heart. At its core, the novel is about Paul, and then his younger half-brother Rocky, coming of age, exploring their identities and learning their places in the world. In this day and age, most novels dealing with these themes are considered YA, but I definitely felt that Only Love Can Break Your Heart was written for adults. Who was your intended audience with the novel and why?
Ed Tarkington: I try not to think too much about audience when I’m writing. I begin with a character and an emotion or conflict and just go from there. Only Love Can Break Your Heart came from a deep-rooted desire to resolve or make sense of some difficult and disillusioning events from my own childhood, so it just seemed natural to tell a story that began in the narrator’s early years and encompassed the ensuing process of growth and reckoning. I think most writers are in search of insight or epiphany regarding the people and events or circumstances that gnaw at them. I still have a fairly romantic view of where writing comes from. The first audience is me. If the text feels true on the page, I figure maybe the people who read the same books I read and love will be moved by the story I’m telling.
Regarding the YA thing: I have to admit, the concept was not something I’d thought about at all until I started traveling to promote Only Love Can Break Your Heart and have met some YA writers and seen them in action at trade shows and festivals and so forth. The YA writers I’ve met are amazing people, and amazingly talented. I know a few novelists who are intentionally writing in that genre and producing incredible work for younger readers. But I know others who, like me and probably you too, just wrote the best book they could about the things they cared deeply about, and then an agent or editor said “we could do well if we pitched this as YA.”
If “Coming of Age” is a YA theme, then The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a YA novel. So is Great Expectations, and Catcher in the Rye, and The Unvanquished, and The Bluest Eye, or, more recently, The Goldfinch, which sold a bajillion copies in hardcover and won the Pulitzer Prize. I don’t mention these titles to invite comparison, but, rather, to say that I don’t see the theme as being the sole province of adolescent readers, or a book that speaks to young writers as one that should not also be read and taken seriously by adults. These days, genre is a pretty unstable concept anyway. Remember, the last book Colson Whitehead published before The Underground Railroad was about a zombie apocalypse. The one he wrote before that was about a teenaged boy and his friends spending a summer at the beach. Does it get any more YA/Coming-of-Age than that?
SP: As we just discussed, Only Love Can Break Your Heart is about growing up and, aside from time passing, hallmarks of this experience abound: discovering music, smoking cigarettes, admiring the cool kids and learning about sex. Was it deliberate to include these markers along the way or did these totemic moments come about naturally in the course of the story?
ET: Honestly, I don’t make any deliberate choices in my writing beyond what feels urgent and natural and rooted in a character’s desires and the obstacles between her/him and their fulfillment. As I mentioned above, the origin of this story was very personal for me. I have a much older half-sister with whom I had a relationship somewhat similar to Rocky’s and Paul’s. I wanted to write about that, but I was reluctant to write a memoir. I’m from one of those Southern families that doesn’t want its dirty laundry aired in public, and I love my mother too much to tell the truth. Furthermore, I think emotional truth is easier to get at when you distance yourself from the facts. So I decided to flip the gender and turn my sister into one of the “bad boys” from my street whom I observed when I was a kid with a mixture of awe and terror. They all smoked and drank and started having sex pretty young. So the story I had to tell was true to their experience, along with Rocky’s as a kid who idolizes and desires to emulate his older brother but doesn’t really fit that mold. As for totemic moments, well, isn’t that the stuff that matters to everyone when they’re going through that time of their lives?
SP: While many of the characters in your novel illicit sympathy from the reader, they are all deeply flawed- a characteristic that adds to the authenticity of the novel. What draws you to writing about these types of characters?
ET: What draws me to writing about flawed people? Being one, I suppose. Plus flawed people are the most interesting. Like that Kerouac quotation on ten thousand dorm room posters says, “the mad ones are the only ones for me.” I’ve always been drawn to the outsiders. I think this is a persistent theme in most of the novels I really love. Hester Prynne, Ahab, Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, the Invisible Man, Randall McMurphy, T.S. Garp, Sethe—they are all so different, but in the most important ways, they’re wrestling with the same problem, whether it takes the form of resistance to social and political injustice or to the issues that arise in the smallest, but perhaps most influential, institution in all of our lives: our families. I just have enormous empathy for those who by choice or circumstance are unable to fit or conform into institutions or situations where most people appear to feel at ease. The reality, of course, is that, at least a some point, we all feel that we don’t belong, and we all struggle with our sense of self and our places in the world. I do, anyway—still. So those are the people I’m interested in—my people, I guess you could say.
SP:Only Love Can Break Your Heart, set in the 1970s, really plays up the element of nostalgia, something I've noticed more and more books, films and shows doing as of late. Do you think there is a reasoning behind this trend? And why do you think readers are so affected by the nostalgia in the novel?
ET: I wrote this book at a crisis point in my writing life. I’d worked for seven years on another book which was good enough (along with a referral and a lot of luck) to get me a really good agent, but the book did not sell. I was married with a toddler. I’d left the graduate creative writing world and taken a job teaching English and coaching wrestling at a prep school because I couldn’t afford not to have health insurance. The price of this compromise was a dearth of time to write, travel, or research the way I had for the first book. So I had no choice but to turn back to the place where I started—the place where I was formed, and where the urge to tell stories originated in me.
I don’t think that the nostalgia you’re noticing is a new trend, particularly in novels with adult narrators reflecting on childhood. Any time adults look back on the past, they do so with at least a small measure of nostalgia, because the world always seems simpler and more comprehensible through a child’s eyes. The point of what happens in Only Love Can Break Your Heart is to carry the narrator—and, by extension, the reader—through the process whereby the child narrator matures and begins to see the world and the people he loves for what they really are. If there is a particular trend of nostalgia in this cultural moment for the period of time I’m writing about, that’s circumstantial, dictated, I suspect, mostly by the fact that people who can remember those years are a big market with a lot of buying power. Twenty-five years ago, pop culture was dominated by nostalgia for the World War II generation. A decade ago, Mad Men kicked off this huge nostalgia for the early 60s, which was a pretty grim time but which still came across on TV as comparatively sexy and glamorous, despite the misogyny and racism, the alcoholism and serial infidelity, etc. Now the 70s, which I barely remember but know from history class was not exactly the smoothest decade in American history, and the 80s, which, in my recollection was a pretty tedious time characterized by terrible fashion, lame music, insipid sit-coms, and perpetual fear that we were all either going to get blown up by the Russians or catch AIDS, are getting the same treatment,. Even books, films, and TV shows that mean to satirize or critique those times unintentionally romanticize them, the way even a decidedly anti-war movie like Apocalypse Now or Platoon makes combat seem thrilling and adventurous. So it goes.
SP: Finally, music plays a big role in the novel: the title itself comes from a Neil Young song. Why was it so necessary to include all of the song and music references? How important is music to you, both in your personal and writing life?
ET: When I started the book in response to the urge I mentioned earlier to write about my half-sister, the first thing I thought of was the voice of Neil Young. When I was six years old, my half-sister gave me my first rock records—Best of the Doobies by the Doobie Brothers and So Far by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I would sit in my room and listen to those records over and over. My favorite song was “Helpless” by CSNY, which is basically a Neil Young solo track. The voice just hypnotized me. Listening to that song was probably one of the most important formative influences in my life as an artist. In school, when I was supposed to be doing math problems, I would stare out the window and just think about the sound of that voice and the images it describes. A big part of the bond I formed with my half-sister revolved around that music—sitting in her room listening to records while she drew or painted and smoked one cigarette after the other. So really, the soundtrack of the book was set twenty years before I began to write the story.
I think the extent to which people of mine and previous generations fetishized specific music and musicians may be difficult to fathom for people who have grown up with streaming media. This is not a criticism so much as an explanation. Before everyone had perpetual access to everyone, you latched on to someone like Neil Young or Keith Richards or Bob Dylan and literally wore them as badges on your jacket, both as signifiers of your identity and talismans of safety in the feral halls of public middle and high schools. So this isn’t a contrivance for me; it’s utterly organic to the lives of the characters I’m writing, who began as memories of people I once knew.
Music is less important to me now than it was then, though it still matters a lot. We connect most viscerally to music when we’re kids, because it offers a vehicle or conduit for our emotions at a time when most of us lack the vocabulary to express those feelings in language. Before we can even read or form words, we make and respond to music. So there’s really nothing purer or more primal. As we get older and our understanding of language catches up, we find a different, perhaps deeper means of self-knowledge through reading and writing poetry and prose. So I still get the same satisfactions as always from music, but my heart belongs to the novel.
Living in Nashville and having worked in my twenties at a music club, I’ve met a lot of famous musicians, and I can’t deny being a little giddy at times. But I nearly fainted after I met Louise Erdrich. Writers are my rock stars.
So many thanks to Ed Tarkington for stopping by and giving so much to this interview. Be sure to pick up your copy of Only Love Can Break Your Heart, available now from Algonquin Books, today. And, as always, Read, Review and Recommend. Cheers!
If you're interested in reading Lightwood, but still need an extra nudge, you can read the first scene over at Vending Machine Press. Many thanks to VMP, both for this showcase and for publishing past work!
Many thanks to Marshal Zeringue for letting me build a cast list for Lightwoodover at the My Book, The Movie site. Some of the picks were easy (ahem.... Margo Martindale for Sister Tulah), but others were certainly more head-scratching. All I can say is, casting directors: take note....!
S.W. Lauden has written one of the craziest, wildest novels I've read this year and I'm thrilled to be able to catch up with him to discuss Crossed Bones, a strange crime tale of low-lifes, bad decisions and, oh yeah, pirates. Crossed Bones, the follow up to Crosswise, debuts this Tuesday (May 1st!), so go ahead and pre-order now....
Steph Post: Okay, Shayna and Tommy... wow. I'm not going to ask how you came up with these two crazy main characters—because I might not want to know—but I did want to ask about their role in the novella. Would you say that Crossed Bones is more plot-driven or character-driven? And is this style found in all of your work?
S.W. Lauden: Thanks, for having me, Steph! And thanks for the great blurb for Crossed Bones.
Writing the two Tommy and Shayna novellas has been an interesting challenge for me. The first book, Crosswise, started out as a short story I wrote while vacationing on the panhandle of Florida. I came up with the crossword puzzle concept and started writing without knowing too much about the characters. Because of that, Tommy and Shayna truly unfolded as I wrote the story and just kept developing as it evolved into a novella.
When it came time to write the sequel, I had every intention of centering the action on Tommy’s search for Shayna. But as I wrote, her story kept demanding more and more attention. I found myself needing to answer the question of why he’s so obsessed with her. The best way I could figure out to do that was letting her take the wheel (helm?) for a few chapters. The result is that Crossed Bones is probably more character-driven than Crosswise.
By contrast, I’d say that the character development and storylines in my Greg Salem punk rock P.I. novels are more intentional, and decidedly less crazy. The Tommy and Shayna books are definitely a separate animal.
SP: Shayna, in particular, is more at home in the underbelly of the various places she winds up in for both books. That's probably why I enjoyed her character so much; I'm usually the one rooting for the loser or underdog. What attracts you to writing this type of character? And why do you think readers enjoy them so much?
SWL: Shayna’s a real bad apple with a serious taste for trouble. Tommy’s no angel either, but his law enforcement background keeps him honest most of the time—at least until he gets around her. Then all bets are off. There’s something about the nature of their relationship that makes him kick morality to the curb whenever they’re together. Maybe it’s love, or maybe she brings the real Tommy out into the light. Whatever the reason, the two of them together is a pretty dangerous combination.
I like writing these two characters precisely because they are so over-the-top. Everybody has some amount of darkness lurking around, but most of us manage to keep the darkness under control. It creates a sort of morbid fascination with the types of people who give into those temptations, giving the rest of us a glimpse of what might happen if we ever gave in too.
SP: It's funny; the only two places I've ever lived are Florida and North Carolina and both are places where Shayna and Tommy find, and cause, trouble. In your mind, what is the connection between the two states? Is this just an east coast beach bum coincidence or was there something else at work here?
SWL: I did want to keep Tommy and Shayna near the ocean, but I’ve also had great experiences in Florida and North Carolina over the years. Having been to both places, I felt a little more comfortable writing about them, but I still fictionalized the main settings. The plots and characters in the Tommy and Shayna books are extremely dark and cartoonish, so I didn’t want anybody to think I was actually trying to describe a real community. These stories are meant to be collages that I'm pushing to one extreme or another.
The panhandle of Florida—with it’s white sand beaches, crystal clear water and laid back resort vibe—seemed like a great place to set a series of murders. That was the inspiration for Crosswise. Once I decided to make the sequel about a modern day pirate treasure hunt, the outer banks in North Carolina was the obvious choice for Crossed Bones.
SP: As you just mentioned, Crossed Bones has a bit of a pirate theme, both at the campy and serious level. Pirates and crime would seem to go together, but you still don't see this combination in many contemporary crime fiction novels. So first of all, why don’t more people write about pirates? (I mean, come on, everybody loves pirates) And second, what brought you to the "pirate-noir" genre?
SWL: I'd guess that more people don’t write about pirates because the pirate meme has jumped the shark so many times in popular culture. At this point it’s pretty hard to picture anybody besides Johnny Depp whenever the word is conjured, and that’s a character most of us could use a break from. So you run a very serious risk of being completely cheesy or terribly derivative by embarking on a pirate tale, especially one that makes no pretense of historical accuracy.
That said, pirates remain an enduring symbol of self-indulgence, greed and violence—and I wanted to send Shayna on a strange and desperate adventure—so I took a stab at it. I think the campiness of the pirates helped to balance out the violent rabbit hole the characters go down in this book. There’s a healthy dose of absurdity built into the DNA of the Tommy and Shayna books that allowed me to play with that theme, or at least that's what I was going for. My hope is that people will have as much fun reading Crossed Bones as I did writing it, but I won’t be surprised if a trashy/campy beach book about cocaine-dealing pirate impersonators isn’t everybody’s cup of grog.
SP: Along with the fabulous Eric Beetner, you host a monthly podcast called Writer Types. It's a fairly new podcast, but has quickly gained quite the following. What makes Writer Types stand out in the crowded sea of literary podcasts?
SWL: I'd say that it comes down to the quality and variety of the guests. Eric and I have been pretty stoked by the caliber of authors and industry professionals that have appeared on the podcast so far—and we're getting more request every day. The crime and mystery universe is vast and diverse, filled with a lot of characters that are pumping out some truly amazing books. From that perspective, other than giving ourselves the daunting challenge of doing so many interviews for each episode, we've gotten pretty lucky so far. You can ask me again in another couple of episodes and I might give you a totally different answer.
SP: As you are someone who has a pulse on the literary crime scene, I'm dying to know what novels you're looking forward in the coming year. Any titles I should really have my eye on?
That's just off the top of my head. A lot of good books coming our way in the near future.
SP: Okay, my reading list just got completely updated.... So, finally, book-wise what's next for you?
SWL: Rare Bird Books will release the third book in the Greg Salem trilogy,Hang Time, in October of this year. After that, I'm working on a new novel that is still in the early stages. It's fun to write about new characters and new landscapes after spending a few years with Greg Salem and Tommy and Shayna. I'm hoping that one will see the light of day sometime in 2018.
Lots happening with the St. Pete Sunlit Festival this month! If you're a local and want to stop by to say hi, I'll be at the MFA on Thursday, participating in the Literary Carousel and at the St. Petersburg Main Library this Saturday as part of the "Writers, Winners and the Publishing World" event. Hope to see you there!
Today, I'm over at LitReactor giving advice on how to support your favorite authors on the cheap. Some of these only take 10 seconds, and all are free, but they honestly mean so much to an author. Take a look!
Thirteen Ways to Support an Author Without Spending a Dime
Today I'm sitting down with Nicholas Mainieri, author of the literary thriller The Infinite. As it will soon become obvious to you, Mainieri is a master craftsman when it comes to story and language and I'm grateful of the opportunity to pick his brain on topics such as setting, revision and style. And, as an added bonus, Mainieri was kind enough to share the books he is most looking forward to this year. Read on!
Steph Post: The settings of New Orleans and Mexico are conspicuous and vivid in The Infinite. In the way that they contributed to the novel, I felt that they were almost characters themselves. How important were these two settings to your story and, in general, what is the significance of place- especially real places- in a work of fiction?
Nicholas Mainieri: Setting is one the most important aspects of good fiction, regardless of whether that particular setting is a real place or not. A purposefully described setting establishes mood, echoes character’s emotions, and makes things like extraordinary acts of violence or goodness seem plausible. Actions are woven out of the fabric of setting. When that setting is a real place then things like the moment in time, the specifics of a local culture matter as well. It can be a fine dance between making a certain place “accessible” and being too esoteric. I think New Orleans and Mexico are kind of natural bedfellows. Complicated, beautiful places. I frequently return to the author Jorge Hernández’s phrase regarding Mexico as a place of “enduring contrasts,” and I believe that applies to New Orleans as well. Divides between rich and poor, life and death, play and work, good and bad seem both more pronounced and somehow more blurred. The great themes of literature live and breath. Specifically, these settings were logical bookends to a story that is in part about the cyclical journeys of things like drugs and cash but also people.
SP: I’m also curious about what drew you to the setting of New Orleans, and specifically post-Katrina New Orleans. Did The Infinite need to be set in a city still reeling and rebuilding from the effects of a catastrophe?
NM: I think of The Infinite as a sort of post-post-Katrina story. It’s set in the spring of 2010, a time that seemed to me then as a transitionary period, a complicated slide out of reconstruction and into new development or redefinition. When the rebuilding work was drying up, when the school system was undergoing the final moments of an extensive overhaul, and so on. I was interested in thinking about those who are going to bear the illest effects of massive social change—the young, the poor, the immigrant. And certainly I was thinking about my home, this city I love, that had been rebuilt by immigrants even as our public discourse increasingly vilified them. SP:The Infinite is a lyrical novel that clearly utilizes your deftness with language. Oftentimes, language and story can be at odds with one another, as one element is sacrificed for another. This seems to occur in both literary and genre fiction, but I didn’t see that struggle in The Infinite. How can you make “poetic” language best serve, and not interfere with, the story?
NM: Well, thanks, Steph. Language is often where I have the most fun with a story, and I believe that one element does not always need to be sacrificed for the other. They can serve each other—the writing can be artful and the story can move. Doesn’t mean that it always works out. Some folks, mainly a few former teachers, would still tell me I’m too precious with language, and there’s some truth to that. Bringing these things into harmony has to come in revision, the continued rewriting, polishing, trimming, culling. I let it flex as best I can on that first draft, then don’t let anybody see it. One thing I ask myself, when considering a particular word choice or syntactical shape or whatever, is whether this particular arrangement of language is doing more than one thing—is it just pretty? If so, then it’s got to go or be rewritten. But if I can justify that it’s doing something in addition to being pretty (like complicating character, echoing emotional truth, advancing plot, resonating with theme) then I work to hone it best I can.
SP: One of the things I loved about The Infinite is that it’s clearly a literary novel, but one with grit under its nails. Did you ever encounter problems with either writing or selling a novel that balks somewhat at the “literary style?”
NM: I was ready to encounter it, sort of expecting it. The books I like the most are those literary novels with grit under their nails. I know I’m not alone in that, and I was just trying to write a story I’d like to read, myself. I got super lucky as this book found the perfect agent and editor for it—I never had to explain anything along these lines. From the get-go, they both saw it as a serious work of fiction first and foremost. SP:The Infinite is an adult novel, but the two main characters are teenagers. Was it difficult for you to get inside the heads of Jonah and Luz? As a high school teacher, I’m around teenagers every day and the rollercoaster of emotions is staggering. Did portraying Jonah and Luz come easily to you or was it something you struggled with?
NM: I think the adolescent rollercoaster of emotions is a thing we’ve all been through. It’s a true thing. I imagine that most writers have the realities of those days tucked away in their little mental folders of material. What was more challenging, perhaps, was portraying young people who aren’t just contending with those things, but also the profound realities of poverty and death and violence and true hopelessness. I thought to myself that Luz and Jonah are two people who would have grown up quickly. I wanted them to be able to meet their challenges thoughtfully and determinedly. They are “teenagers” technically, but I never thought of them in that way. The first time somebody at my publisher referred to them as teenagers it kind of surprised me, believe it or not, but it is of course undeniable. However, they’re dealing with and handling things that a lot of “adults” will never have to.
SP: And finally, just from your writing style alone, I’m guessing that you have pretty good taste in books…. What upcoming novels are you looking forward to this year? Who should I have on my radar?
NM: I recently read advanced copies of a couple really great books coming out this year. The Boat Runner, by Devin Murphy, is an exceptional epic of WWII and refugees—it crushed me, in the best sense. In the Valley of the Sun, by Andy Davidson, is an artfully written and very scary story, like Barry Hannah meets Stephen King. I’m also looking forward to Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (sci-fi Joan of Arc! From one of the coolest writers working today). The great Percival Everett has a new one coming out, So Much Blue. I don’t know much about it, but he wrote it, so I’ll read it, excitedly. And will this be the year that Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger hits shelves? I will drop everything.
Me too! Thanks so much to Nicholas Mainieri for stopping by. The Inifinte is now available and you should definitely pick up a copy. Happy Reading!
My "Book Tour Author Survival Guide" is now live over at LitReactor. This post is close to my heart- my own book tour for Lightwood was a roller coaster whirlwind of events and emotions and I wanted to share what I learned with other authors. I hope that these tips can be of some help or at least let others know that it's okay not to be perfect....
Steph Post: I'm going to go ahead and start with the obvious- the title. The Granite Moth is the second of a series of PI novels featuring Kathleen Stone, a master of disguise. The first book was titled The Red Chameleon and so there's a trend here. Both animals reference Kat's ability to don a new wig and assume a new identity at the blink of an eye, but where did the inspiration come from with using colors and animals? And is this a trend that is going to continue throughout the series?
Erica Wright: When I was twelve, I wanted to be a zoologist. Then I passed out dissecting a frog and was gently encouraged to consider other careers. I’m still obsessed with animals, though, so the titles were an extension of that interest and a logical fit for a character who prides herself on disguises. I started a newsletter because that seems to be the number one piece of marketing advice for writers, but it’s mostly about critters. Did you know that rats in Mozambique helped clear the country of landmines? Amazing. Yes, this is definitely a trend I can’t escape.
SP:The Granite Moth had been on my radar for a little while and a large part of that was due to the cover. The design here just screams that the story inside will be dazzling. It's sort of disco meets old-school pulp which, honestly, mimics the style of Kathleen Stone and your writing. Did you have a hand in the cover selection?
EW: Charles Brock designed the gorgeous cover. I was given a couple of options for The Red Chameleon, but this style was a great fit for the series.
SP: One of my favorite elements of The Granite Moth is the wacky humor that rides alongside the hardboiled storyline. Part of this is due to the plot- the story opens with Kat watching a larger-than-life drag queen float in the middle of a Halloween parade- but much of it comes from the protagonist herself. Kathleen Stone is serious about her job, but also has a wry wit that made this character refreshing in a sea of gritty, hard-nosed private eyes. Where did Kat's voice come from? I'd imagine she's a helluva lot of fun to write.
EW: I was reading a personal essay by Oliver Sacks who had face blindness, a disorder which makes it difficult to recognize faces, sometimes even of people you know well. I wondered if there could be a related phenomena—someone whose face isn’t very memorable or that seems to change depending on the situation. Not exactly a glamorous superpower, but one that Kat has embraced. Some of her humor comes from this reality. She could feel sorry for herself; after all, she’s a young woman who sees the same fashion magazine covers as everyone else. Or she could take advantage of her unique ability to disappear in a crowd. In some ways, this quirk is a stand-in for how she grapples with questions of identify after being undercover for two years. She’s not quite as forgettable as she likes to believe, and yeah, she’s such fun to write. I look forward to spending time with her.
SP: I haven't yet read the first novel in the series, but I felt that The Granite Moth clearly stood on its own. Is it difficult to write successive books in a series, knowing that the reader may not have read about the origins of the character?
EW: It’s easier in the sense that I know the characters better than I did at first. While they still surprise me at times, they also act in ways I understand. I realize that this might sound crazy to non-writers, but after you spend years with fictional people, they don’t seem so fictional anymore. But I definitely needed help from my editor, the brilliant Maia Larson, to show me where more backstory or explanation was required. I always want to be fair to my readers.
SP: In addition to writing crime novels, you are also an accomplished poet. I was surprised, but thrilled to hear this as I love it when I discover a writer who can play across the board. And Instructions for Killing the Jackal is now high up on my list. Do you find any conflict in your writing life as you straddle these two genres?
EW: I started writing fiction after I finished my first book of poems. That collection took me ten years, and my poetry tank was on empty. Instead of sending the book out and waiting for rejections to roll in (“That way madness lies”!), I started working on a novel. My first attempt was embarrassingly bad, but I still learned a lot from that failure. Now, I rarely write fiction and poetry on the same day, or really, during the same week.
SP: In addition to everything else, you are also a creative writing teacher. What is the best piece of advice or learning moment you ever received from a student?
EW: Oh, I love this question! In the very first session of my very first creative writing class, I was administering an exercise that I hijacked from one of my professors. Basically, I asked a series of unrelated questions, letting students respond to each one. It’s supposed to help with negative capability. Anyway, I was rushing through the questions because I was nervous, and this good-natured group of writers started chuckling and were all like “Take a breath! Slow down!” That was excellent teaching advice, but I apply it to writing as well. It’s not a race, and it’s not a competition. The nice part of this writing business is that there’s plenty of success to go around, which means you can root for others as much as you root for yourself.
And that, if not anything else, is why I am a new fan of Erica Wright. Be sure to check out both her Kathleen Stone series and her works of poetry. You can also catch her over at Guernica magazine, where she serves as senior poetry editor. Many thanks, Erica!
Today I'm bringing you an interview with L.A. native and neon-noir author Nolan Knight. His recent novel debut, The Neon Lights Are Veins, is unlike anything I've read before (and that's saying something!). The novel's story is a fast-paced mystery and caper, dragging the reader through the underbelly of the Los Angeles night, but most impressive is Knight's style: in your face and no-holds-barred.
Steph Post: The first word that comes to mind when I think of The Neon Lights Are Veins' style is "kaleidoscopic." There's a lot of color, a lot of flash, a lot of snap. It's a style I have seen in noir before, but it's still rare. How did you develop this unique style and how important was establishing this style to the development of the story?
Nolan Knight: First off, thanks for having me here, Steph. Referring to the visual aesthetic of the novel, I think that it is less a stylistic choice than just an authentic rendering of nighttime Los Angeles in roughly 2008. When it comes to the actual design of the narrative, that came out of being patient with the process. I started Neon Lights in 2010 and had a shorter draft (similar to what was published) by late-2012. I shelved it, then came back several months later, needing fresh eyes. I think that the time spent fleshing out the vision I had for it is reflected in the end product. Neon Lights became more fluid and dense with each given pass.
SP: In contrast to all the flash, however, The Neon Lights Are Veins also takes place in a world obviously jaded. The first section is aptly titled "Loveless Gutters" and that line in the opening scene- "too bad this world craved dreamers"- sets the tone for a story set among worldly and world-weary characters. Did you ever worry that this story would be too dark for readers?
NK: No. Fortunately, there’s only one reader I worry about when writing anything—and that’s me. The fact that most of my favorite authors’ books developed strong readerships over years/decades, that’s enough for me to believe that other likeminded folks are out there, ones who could possibly be interested in a story like Neon Lights. That’s all that matters.
SP: One of my favorite things about The Neon Lights Are Veins are the characters and their names in particular. Mongo, Elvira, Rocco- the names are fantastic. Where did they come from? Are any of the characters based on real people?
NK: Most of the characters in the novel are based on random people I would come across in my old East Hollywood neighborhood. Drug dealers on skateboards, crust punks busking for beer, etc. As far as names are concerned… I remember when my wife and I were first dating, introducing her to my friends brought something to light: So many of them had odd nicknames that it made it hard for her keep track of everyone. This was something that I had never even considered growing-up in L.A. It got me thinking of how bizarro names had become household in my everyday life. So, when it comes to naming characters, most of the time I find myself taming down versions of what I’d like to call them.
SP: Another defining element of your book is the cracking, whip-smart dialogue and slang-filled prose. From the first sentence, the reader is dropped right in the middle of this world, with no narrative reprieve. It's an immersive reading experience, you might say. Do you write your first drafts in this voice or is this a carefully cultivated style?
NK: This is just the voice that I feel most comfortable with. Anyone can look back at my short fiction catalog and see the footprints. Immersive is a good way to describe Neon Lights. Sink or swim. If I’ve done my job, the story will hook a reader and remove their safety net at the same time. For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than reading a book where I can trust that the writer is in complete control while he/she takes risks with a progressive story.
SP: The city of L.A., particularly it's underbelly scene, really functions as its own character in The Neon Lights Are Veins. How important was this specific setting to the storyline? Could this story have been told in another city?
NK: Los Angeles is a predator in Neon Lights, another antagonist that lures characters with beauty into a doomed existence. When I look at the story overall, I see the main characters as puppets, their strings popping to the fingers of L.A. The City as The Beast was imperative to the text. I’m not sure that it could be told in another city—only for the fact that I don’t know any other cities as well as I know Los Angeles. Born and raised. Thirty-six years. I’m still learning great things about this city every day and plan on growing old with it.
SP: You are clearly a noir writer. In addition to The Neon Lights Are Veins, you've written stories published in Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Needle and other noir-friendly or centered outlets. What draws you to the noir genre?
NK: When it comes to literary interests, I’m not drawn to any specific genre. If it’s a solid story, I’ll devour it. Most of the shorts I’ve had published definitely have a noir tendency, and Neon Lights is a noir novel; however, the novel I’ve just finished doesn’t read like noir to me, but I bet it will to readers. I think it’s just the setting that I’m drawn to. I like to be out late at night and so do my characters. Not much good happens in Late-Night-Los Angeles, and that’s often the tone reflected in my writing. Call it noir, call it whatever—just have a peek and see for yourself.
"...Always pushing and churning all at once, everyone filled with conflict, loyalty or rage, or all of it all at once, because that's what crime novels are, the push and pull of doing the right thing, while constantly trying to define what the right thing is..."
As today is International Women's Day, I thought it was the prefect time to highlight some of my favorite female authors. These ladies are as badass as they come and if you're not yet familiar with them and their work, that needs to change...