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"We need to make books cool again. If you go home with someone & they don't have books, don't fuck 'em."--John Waters

I'm the author of more than twenty novels including SHADOW SEASON, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE DEAD LETTERS, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. Look for my next one THE LAST KIND WORDS due out May '12 from Bantam Books. Contact: PicSelf1@aol.com

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Readers Wanna Know

I received a lot of questions this week about my work, process, etc., and figured I'd answer a few of them in one fell swoop. So here I am, falling and swooping.

Why did you make the switch from horror to crime fiction?

The older I've gotten the less interested I've been in the fantastical, for some reason. Maybe it's just yet another sign of my mid-life crisis, but I find the world at large to be a more disturbing place than anything I'm likely to find in horror/dark fantasy fiction. Maybe this was always the case, but it never felt like it before. As a young man I suffered from Luke Skywalker syndrome as so aptly pointed out by Yoda, poking him in the ribs: "A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph."

That describes me pretty well. The need to fantasize has always been with me, but in my younger days those fantasies--the form my writing took--always involved the supernatural, the world beyond our own. Now, I'm more focused on the world we live in, and what lives inside of us. Our own capacity for evil, for being the outlaw, for violence.

I really enjoy your horror, but I'm not all interested in crime fiction. I want blood, death, and frights. Why should I tackle your newer novels and stories?

Because I'm considered part of a school called neo-noir. The tales are usually action-packed but bleak, bloody, authentic, and dark as hell. Check out Allan Guthrie's SAVAGE NIGHT if you really want some blood, death, and frights. That kid doesn't hold anything back. He comes out of the corner swinging and by the end of the first chapter you've got a headless corpse and a murdered young man on your hands. Read his previous title HARD MAN. In that one you've got a crucified dude in the basement and a hero who's tied up and tortured for a fair amount of the novel.

Read Duane Swierczynski's SEVERANCE PACKAGE, where a group of corporate peons discover they've been working for a black ops government bureau that's about to be terminated. And so are they, by their own boss.

Go buy yourself some Ken Bruen, and visit with his Irish PI Jack Taylor, who is probably the most put-upon character in all of modern crime fiction. This guy gets beat to shit in every novel he appears in. Physically, emotionally, and spiritally. He's had his teeth knocked out, his knees crushed, and wound up catatonic in a mental hospital. You want horror, check in with Ken Bruen.

My own THE MIDNIGHT ROAD features a man revived after nearly a half hour in a frozen lake, who suddenly becomes the target of a murderer. THE COLD SPOT deals with a young thief who has to fight his own stone cold killer grandfather, first to break away and then again when he needs help getting revenge on the people who executed his wife.

Starting to catch on, Skippy? Crime fiction can be just as bold and wrenching as horror. Maybe even more so, since the rules are understood from the very opening. No angels are going to show up in the final chapter to draw your ass out of the fire. No holy water is going to stop your foe, no last minute antidote to the killer virus will be found. It's just you and someone who wants to kill you, and you live or die by just how much pain you can take and how much smarter and tougher you are over the other guy, or how much smarter and tougher he is than you.

Some of your fiction deals with personal loss and tragedy. I can't face such pain head-on in my own work, so how do you find inspiration in it?

Most writers will tell you that writing about something painful is a kind of purgation. It's a way of purging yourself of the burden and weight of that experience. We all have a monkey on our back, something that holds on year in and out. A lost loved one, a tragedy of some sort. And it doesn't even have to be that big a dramatic or even interesting moment. Some small embarrassment or slight that happened twenty years ago can still contain a certain kind of power. You plug into that power and see where it leads you. Maybe down into hell, maybe towards redemption, maybe you even finally manage to divert some of its impact and find humor or enlightenment in it.

Inspiration is always inherent. It comes from within you. Sure, looking at the ocean or having a conversation with a great wit or listening to a favorite song might fire you up, but it's how you process that information, what it instills inside you or dredges up that is really the stuff of your work. You distill it. You absorb it. Your inspiration becomes you.

Oh my fucking god, don't you ever shut up about this deep crap and just talk about movies or something?

Okay, here's one that's a guilty pleasure. The film version of James M. Cain's BUTTERFLY finally hit DVD this week. Starring Stacy Keach, Pia Zadora, James Franciscus, and Orson Welles, the film made a splash at the time (1982) for its incestuous theme, Pia's uber-sensuality, and a pretty exploitive script. This film has been roundly thrashed for nearly 30 years, but after watching it again I think it's actually a pretty faithful adaptation of Cain's material and has been unfairly maligned.

It's the story of a hermit-like silver mine guard (Keach) living out in the Nevada desert during the Depression who is visited by the teenage daughter (Zadora) he hasn't seen for over ten years. She's been raised by her prostitute mother and is now a woman-child who knows how to wrap men around her finger. She's had a baby out of wedlock and is hoping for her young wealthy boyfriend to marry her. In the meantime, she intends to get her father to help her mine what little silver is left in the mountain to get her some start-up cash.

Make no mistake, it's not a good flick. It's equal parts arthouse movie and exploitation, meaning it's pretty and very slow and theatrical, but there's a nice undercurrent of steamy sexuality and rage. From the onset Keach is attracted to his own daughter, who seems perfectly willing to let daddy do the deed. She's hyper-sexed herself and only knows one way to get the things she wants. Cain's hardboiled and streamlined style is submerged here. The original novella is brimming with these very dark elements, but the filmmakers decided to home in almost entirely on the incestuous angle so we could see Zadora's tits in the bathtub. This is not an entirely bad thing.

But if the crime angle had been better balanced into the equation, we could've had a more compelling and suspenseful story, which really doesn't pop until the last twenty minutes or so when Keach finally stops being so tormented by his conflicted nature and finally acts. Zadora was never a good actress but the film and her career were primarily sunk due to the fact that she married the very wealthy producer of the movie. When she won a golden globe for a film that hadn't yet been released in the US, everybody cried foul and said her husband had bought the award for her. Listening to the commentary on the film, her husband acknowledges the fact that she only won because the other nominees for the golden globes spit the votes among them, leaving Zadora a wildcard who only beat them out by a single vote in the end. At any rate, if you've got an afternoon to kill, there are worse ways to spend it than looking at Zadora's supernatural beauty in Butterfly.


Corey Wilde said...

You talked me into it. Anyone who speaks as passionately about Bruen and Swierczynski as you do, deserves my attention. I'm hunting up a copy of 'The Cold Spot' today.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tom,
Even though he writes other material, do you think Cormac McCarthy falls under neo-noir?

Tom Piccirilli said...

I do think he's neo-noir, very much so. He's literate, lyrical, poetic as hell, and writes Lichature with a capital "L" but his writing is drenched in enough atmosphere, murder, and despair to make David Goodis look like the world's most starry-eyed optimist.

Christa M. Miller said...

I think it's interesting that you and I (not that you know me from Adam; is it enough that I work for Shroud? :) ) are switching opposite sides here. After two years (well, more, but two years of getting published) crime fiction, I'm going over to horror because I got tired of feeling like I was writing the same story over and over. That said, I loved "All You Despise" and don't think I will ever be able to stop reading crime fiction!

Unknown said...


Why not write both? I find elements in both genre's to be extemely similar.