Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Down These Dark Roads: An Interview with Patrick Millikin, editor of The Highway Kind

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.

So many thanks to Patrick Millikin! If you're ever in Scottsdale, Arizona, be sure to drop by The Poisoned Pen Bookstore to say hello to Millikin and buy some books from him. Also, keep an eye out for Millikin's first anthology, Phoenix NoirAnd, of course, go get your hands on a copy of The Highway Kind today!


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