Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lightwood on The Coil

So many thanks to Al Kratz over on Alternating Current's The Coil for this killer review of Lightwood!

"Opening Steph Post’s second novel, Lightwood, is like finding a new series on Netflix and knowing after the first scene that you’re going to be needing some more free time."

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!


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Lightwood Review in the Sun Sentinel

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."

Friday, May 19, 2017

Love in a Teenage Wasteland: An Interview with Ed Tarkington

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 of Only 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!

Vending Machine Press

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!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Rhysling Poets' Showcase

Many thanks to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association for the nomination of my poem "Alice-Ecila" for a Rhysling Award (and for the fact that my photo is next to Neil Gaiman's- a fact that I will never forget....

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

My Book, The Movie

Many thanks to Marshal Zeringue for letting me build a cast list for Lightwood over 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....!