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Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Tom Pitts on John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany

Hi Tom, which book are we talking about?

John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

There are big themes in this book – which resonated with you the most?

Religion? Or fate? I guess religion, but that’s not what resonated with me most. It was the humor.

The novel starts with Owen Meany hitting a foul ball and killing the narrator’s mother. That does make me laugh (I haven’t read the book) – does that scene represent the book’s style of humour?

Yeah, the absurd kick-start is typical of John Irving. But the thing that struck me most is the way he had the diminutive Meany’s lines all in caps. It was a simple gag, but never failed to give the character’s voice a unique and hilarious tone.

John Irving

Owen Meany is barely five feet tall, so what is Irving doing with those capitals when he talks? Does he have a big booming voice to contrast with his physical appearance?

Exactly, and I believe he’s even tinier than that. But it’s more than that, The Voice gives him an innocent, childlike quality that forms his pure view of the world. He’s unsullied. The other portion of the book, the narrator’s present tense, deals with the narrator’s struggle with religion. That’s why I think, in a way, Owen is treated as a tiny little Messiah.

Is that because of how he killed the narrator’s mother – I can see the baseball as some kind of lightning strike?

It’s pretty complex, the plot of balls, and it has a lot to do with free will, destiny, the big questions. But that’s not why I truly love the novel. I love it because I read it in a time of my life when I absolutely required escape. It was part of my own experience with serendipity and destination.

Where were you in life when you read it?

I was squatting in an abandoned jewelry store on Mission Street during the night, and wandering the streets during the day. I was down and out as I have ever been. I literally found the book in the gutter. I was able to escape out of my world and into John Irving’s. I loved it so much I didn’t want to leave – I read it twice in a row. I read it by candlelight in the squat at night.

It feels too pat to suggest the book pulled you out of that phase by itself. Did it give you a roadmap?

It was certainly instrumental in easing my pain. It was part of the series of strange and seemingly unrelated events that led me to finally get off junk and get off the street. But I absolutely remember eating the donuts that I’d taken from the AA meeting that day while I read that book by candlelight at night, the wax dripping over everything in the pitch-black darkness of that awful cement squat. Owen Meany’s world in the 60s was so warm, so interesting, so polar-opposite from my life at that moment, I was completely enveloped in it while I had my nose in that book.

I’m imagining you laughing in that dark cement squat while reading. When you put the book down and came back to the moment of your circumstances it must have been tough. Did you read until sleep took you, or stare at the darkness to imagine living in Owen Meany’s world?

Both. It’s hard to describe my life then. It was so dark inside that squat that you could not see your hand in front of your face in the middle of the day. You walk around flicking the spark on a Bic lighter because you didn’t want to use up the butane. It was basically me, a bloody sleeping bag, a pile of dirty needles, and a bunch of wax candles I’d stolen from Walgreens. And the book. I read it in the night and when I brought it out into the day it was covered in wax drippings. Sad times, but they were very vivid. Being instantly able to step into Owen’s world was magical. It’s funny too, the other book I remember having found was a paperback version of the Catholic catechism, a strange parallel to the narrator’s religious crisis in the novel.

Did you believe in God before this period in your life? Did you believe during, after, and now?

Yes to all three, but my concept is certainly not a normal one. Never been a religious guy, although I still perform weddings in California! I mean, I certainly believe in a power greater than myself. And I certainly believe in science. I don’t just believe that God and science can coexist, I think they are actually the same thing. Talk about unpopular opinions.

Tom Pitts

You perform weddings? As a priest?

As a minister, yeah. The Church of Universal Life. Remember, they used to advertise in the back of Rolling Stone magazine? It’s where Johnny Carson was ordained.

That’s brilliant. I didn’t grow up in the States, so I had no idea such institutions advertised anywhere. In Britain what we understood of American religious life came from movies or the occasional scandal from televangelists. In what ways does the narrator’s religious crisis chime with your experience?

Universal life, you could join for a dallar. I don’t think you pay anything now, just go online.

As for the parallel, it was just the appearance of religious type items. It was an odd thing to stumble upon. You start grabbing at straws. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I was spending my days eating pastries in an old church. That’s where the soup kitchen was. The universe conspired to allow me just enough time to tread water so I could get clean.

What’s the book’s funniest passage?

Hell, I don’t know. It’s been years since I’ve read it. Almost any of the passages where Owen is speaking certainly bring a smile to my face. But what it comes down to, the reason this whole subject came up in the first place, is do I wish I’d written it. Yes, and I think I know why. Irving created this funny, warm, wonderful place, and he did it without the kind of bloodshed that comes out so naturally in my own work. To create a novel so engaging without relying on violence in action – it’s somewhat of an enigma to me.

The film based on A Prayer for Owen Meany

What draws you to write violence?

Honestly, I don’t know. It seems like everytime I start a new novel, I want to write something more character-driven, less brutal. But when I start writing, it just steers itself back to a crime tale. The story just kind of takes over.

You ran The Flash Fiction Offensive with Joe Clifford, so you read a ton of crime-related fiction. Do you still read a lot of the genre, or do you wander into different, maybe even other John Irving-like reading directions?

Not often enough. Every time I read outside my genre, I’m reminded what a pleasure it can be. This year I’ve covered some historical stuff, some Hollywood trash, and that’s about it. It’s true, reading all those submissions grew a little weary after a while, but I still read a fair amount of crime fiction. Right now I’m reading November Road by Lou Berney.

Have you seen Simon Birch, the 1998 film based on A Prayer for Owen Meany? Does it do it justice?

You know what? I’ve never seen it. I figure it’s just the universe stepping in the way to save me. I hear it’s terrible. In a related case of serendipity, I never saw No Country for Old Men, or The Road till I had actually read the novels. Not intentional, just divine intervention.

Your books are gaining great reviews. What’s next, and are you feeling pressure to maintain such a highly regarded streak?

In a word, yes. My next one is actually solid and I’m confident about it, it’s part of the same quartet as the first three novels. But the one I’m writing now? Of course I’m tortured with self-doubt, that’s an occupational hazard, right? But after all my talk about simplicity, chose a path so convoluted and complex, I may not be able to bring it to fruition. In fact, if I come up with a simpler more straightforward idea, I’ll probably abandon my work-in-progress and just run with that.

The best of luck with that, Tom. You’ve been a great guest. Any final words?

Thank you for having me. This is been one of my favorite interviews ever. And if any of your readers rush out to read A Prayer for Owen Meany, don’t blame me if you don’t like it. It may have been one of those time-and-place situations. I can’t go back and read Kerouac or Bukowski or a lot of those authors who I loved in my youth. I tried a couple other novels of John Irving’s–I loved Cider House Rules–but for the most part they seemed a little canned and pretentious. But they’ll always be a warm spot in my heart for Owen Meany.

***

Tom Pitts is the highly rated author of Piggyback, American Static, 101, and others. He used to publish a host of short fiction at The Flash Fiction Offensive along with Joe Clifford.

Check Tom out at his website HERE where you can also buy his books.

Buy A Prayer for Owen Meany HERE.

Further reading


My books, full of criminal goodness, are 50% off throughout December. They go down well with turkey, Yorkshire puddings, and eggnog.

City of Forts

“A brilliant read that explores society and all its cracks. Jason Beech expertly balances the nostalgia of childhood adventures with the brutality of life in a very grown-up and dark town. City of Forts deserves to sit equal with the greats as a piece of entertainment and a study of modern life’s struggle”

– Aidan Thorn, author of When the Music’s Over from Fahrenheit 13 Press.

Moorlands

“This book has some serious grip. It sinks its teeth into the reader fast and hangs on. Solid throughout, visceral. Thoroughly enjoyed it.”

– D.S. Atkinson

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists

“A great collection of shorts from an author with a stellar writing style! The first and last tales are the most entertaining, serving as perfect book ends to house the others in-between. There is a lot of depth to each story, which is difficult to accomplish considering their brevity. I will be investing more of my time on Mr. Beech.”

– Shervin Jamali, author of Remember.

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists 2

“… keeps you turning the pages from beginning to the end.”

– Amazon Reader

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Paul Heatley on Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and The Cartel

Hi, Paul. Which book are we talking about?

Hey, Jason! Well, the book I most wish I’d written is The Cartel by Don Winslow – however, I feel you can’t talk about that without also talking about the first in the series, The Power Of The Dog. So, two books! Two very, very good books.

Mexican cartels, high-end prostitutes, American foreign policy – these books sound grand, epic, maybe polemical. Are they also personal?

Oh, absolutely. Art Keller is a family man. So too is Adán Barrera. Family plays a big part in the lives of most, if not all, of the characters, whether that be husbands, wives and children, or brothers and sisters. It shapes them, in some cases it motivates them. But it’s also a case of finding family that isn’t blood – Nora and Juan Parada spring to mind. But also of friendships, and what a broken or destroyed friendship can do to drive a person forward.

The growth of Art particularly is central to both books. He’s on a bleak path, and it gets bleaker the further along it he goes. Is he going to come out with his soul intact? Well…

Where does Art’s downward spiral, if that’s the right term, start from?

So, in book one he starts off as very much the good guy – he’s going to do things by the book. About halfway through, things are starting to get him down. He’s turning dark. Politics are holding him back, not to mention that most of them are on the take. It’s dawning on him he needs to turn to the dark side, to fight fire with fire. The turning point is when he gets into bed with the Mafia to rip off Adán’s cartel. After that, he’s struggling to save his soul as much as he is to bring down Adán. At the end of the book, he’s successful at both. In book two… Well, he’s a different kind of player after years spent in hiding, separated from his family. He’s dark, and he’s staying dark. Now he knows how to play the game, he won’t make the same mistakes, and he doesn’t trust anybody.

Don Winslow

What’s Adán Barrera’s motivation as a cartel boss? Is he in it to safeguard his family’s fortune? Did he fall into this life through circumstance? Is he just bad, and enjoys being bad?

Much like Art, he starts off with decent intentions – well, semi-decent in Adán’s case – but turns bad far sooner, to the point of becoming irredeemable once he’s ordering mass executions and the murder of families. Whatever his motivations starting out, he soon becomes far more obsessed with the notions of power and control than anything else. I think Adán does enjoy being bad, although he doesn’t see himself that way. He’s the hero of his own narrative.

It makes me think of Ellroy’s American Tabloid in its scale. Does Winslow use a matter-of-fact style of prose?

Ellroy is one of my favourite authors, too. I admire authors who write such big, epic, labyrinthine novels and make it look so easy! One of the things I admire so much about the Cartel novels is their sheer ambition. It’s one of the things that really motivates me in my own work – to get better, to plot and write bigger, ambitious works.

To answer your question, yes. The style is direct, it’s straight to the point. I understand Winslow spent something like six years researching the first book, so much like American Tabloid it has some basis in fact. Scary, terrifying fact. One thing I’ll say about Winslow’s writing in particular – no one writes an action scene like him. Absolutely no one. You feel like you’re there, in it, like the bullets are whizzing past your head and you’ve got one chance to make the shot that’ll save your life. I held my breath at parts.

And the shocks! Jesus Christ, he really pulls the rug out from under you with some of the reveals, particularly in The Cartel. These are epic fucking books. I can feel myself fanboying talking about them, remembering key scenes, insisting to other people that they read it for themselves.

What is Winslow saying about the Drug War?

That it’s endless, that it’s an abyss of corruption, violence and death. That no matter who the figurehead of a particular cartel is, it’s a hydra – if you chop off one head, there’ll be another, there’ll be more, to take its place. I believe this last one particularly is going to be the theme of the forthcoming third and final part of the trilogy, The Border, out in February.

Do the novels explore possible solutions to the drug war?

It’s been a while since I read them both last, and I don’t remember if the possibility of a solution presents itself. What I remember most is the sheer nihilistic hopelessness of it all. Winslow’s quite active on Twitter, he talks about the drug war and the cartels a lot there, so perhaps he has personal solutions, but I don’t recall them in the books. Like I said, what I remember most is the never-ending bloodshed and the sense that it’s going to go on and on and somehow just keep getting worse.

How do Art and Adán, once friends, separate into opposite sides of the law?

I think there was always an understanding that they would end up on opposite sides of the law. The familial pull was too strong for Adán, and after he gives in to that, he wants the power. Then of course he dupes Art to his own ends, he kills his partner, there are threats upon his life, upon his family – things really escalate…

Is Art the protagonist and Adàn the antagonist, or is it more complex than that?

It starts out like it could go either way. Adán could be an anti-hero, but it doesn’t take long before he’s sucked into the kind of actions that make him a total villain. Whilst he does perform altruistic acts such as funding schools etc, it’s quite clear this is all a sham to curry himself some good favour with the people he’s actually exploiting.

Art on the other hand is much more complex. As I said earlier, his journey becomes darker. He starts out clean-cut, and by the end he’s got a lot of blood on his hands – not as much as Adán, but still more than plenty to give him some sleepless nights. He’s a pure anti-hero, very much driven to get his man any way he can.

The ending of The Power Of The Dog leads to some redemption for Art, and it is an absolutely perfect ending. So much so in fact that when I learnt of the sequel I was concerned that it would undo what had been accomplished. You know what? The ending of The Cartel manages to build upon the first’s and is still deeply satisfying. The two compliment each other very, very well to the point it’s hard to choose one as being better over the other.

Do you think there’ll be a sequel? [This is where I had a brain fart, as Paul had already talked about the sequel in an earlier question – I’ll get my coat] If you wrote it, what dark alleys would you go down?

There IS a sequel! The Border is coming in February 2019. Needless to say I’m very excited about it, and curious what’s going to happen after the ending of The Cartel.

I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d handle it. Winslow is a master and I’m nowhere near his level. I’m fully prepared to strap in and enjoy the ride!

You’ve written quite a few books now – how far are you from Winslow?

I’m still a ways off! If we go off my paperbacks, I’ve written seven books with another two coming next year, and I think he’s at nineteen? Something like that. So I’ve still got a way to go. And in terms of quality? Oh man! Most of my books, with the exception of Violent By Design, are quite short, too. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about writing being ambitious – after I wrap up work on a few shorter works, it’s time for me to get more ambitious in what I’m producing.

I outline each chapter when I write, with a brief overview of the whole thing. What do you do?

Same! I keep a reasonably detailed plan before I start – a character list, and an outline chapter by chapter. I like to have it planned out otherwise I’m liable to lose the way and end up writing myself into a corner with a Gordian knot I have no idea how to cut through. So many of my early projects stalled because I didn’t have a plan for them, because I hadn’t properly thought them out beforehand. Obviously sometimes things change on the fly, and that’s fine. You can change your plan on the go and make it work around your new ideas.

So where’s your ambition going to take you? What elements do you want to dive into for the longer form?

I have some ideas for what I’m planning to do with a longer form, but I don’t like to discuss things in great detail until they’re done. Firstly I have to make sure my talent can match up to my ambition. Either way, it’s going to be a case of writing and working through it and keeping at it until that tenacity pays off and I’m able to come out with something I can be proud of.

Your books have been very highly rated. Is your worry about the longer form more one of needing to do meticulous research than your storytelling chops?

I guess that would be part of it, yeah. The good thing about novellas is they’re quite fast to write, I usually have one written in a fortnight (obviously the editing takes a lot longer), and usually they require a small amount of research. Something bigger like I’m planning is going to require a deeper level of research and planning, but it’s been an ongoing process of books and YouTube videos now! I believe it took Winslow twenty-one years to research and write the complete Border trilogy, and I mean, man, that’s a daunting thought.

I expect yours to come out before 2039. It sounds like you’ve made a start. Is the hardest part of research not just the research, but how to implement it in your story with a light touch?

That’s exactly it! It’s easy to get pages and pages of research that you want to put into your story, it’s harder to do so in a way that isn’t heavy-handed and is going to keep people’s attention, because the things that interest you aren’t necessarily the things that interest your readers. When a person comes away having learnt something, without realising they were in the process of learning something, that’s a success.

The Power of the Dog and The Cartel: films or TV series?

It’s my understanding that some movies are going to be made, I believe either produced or directed by Ridley Scott. That’s pretty exciting. It’ll be interesting to see who’s cast to fill out the roles. Personally, no-one springs instantly to mind as to who would play Art, Adán et al.

The books however are so epic they would maybe work better as a TV series, but I think in the right hands a movie will be more than adequate. And also, in the wrong hands a TV version could suffer.

Paul, you’ve been a top guest. Any final words?

Thanks! I hope people check out Winslow’s Cartel books and see why I rate them so highly, I really don’t think I can do them justice, you just have to read them yourself! Also, for my own news, keep an eye out for two new books from me in the first half of 2019 – Bad Bastards with Fahrenheit 13, and Guillotine with All Due Respect. Guillotine actually releases the week before the final part of the Cartel trilogy comes out in February. That’s a literary battle I’ve already lost! Haha.

***

Paul Heatley writes hard-hitting noir, including An Eye for an Eye, Fatboy, and Violent by Design. If you go on Goodreads and check out the reviews you’ll see how highly regarded he is.

He lives in northeast England and you can find his short form work smeared across websites such as Shotgun Honey, Close to the Bone, Spelk Fiction, and The Flash Fiction Offensive.

You can buy Paul’s books HERE.

His website is HERE.

You can buy Don Winslow’s books HERE.


50% off all my books through December – click the links below to buy.

City of Forts

“A brilliant read that explores society and all its cracks. Jason Beech expertly balances the nostalgia of childhood adventures with the brutality of life in a very grown-up and dark town. City of Forts deserves to sit equal with the greats as a piece of entertainment and a study of modern life’s struggle”

– Aidan Thorn, author of When the Music’s Over from Fahrenheit 13 Press.

Moorlands

“This book has some serious grip. It sinks its teeth into the reader fast and hangs on. Solid throughout, visceral. Thoroughly enjoyed it.”

– D.S. Atkinson

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists

“A great collection of shorts from an author with a stellar writing style! The first and last tales are the most entertaining, serving as perfect book ends to house the others in-between. There is a lot of depth to each story, which is difficult to accomplish considering their brevity. I will be investing more of my time on Mr. Beech.”

– Shervin Jamali, author of Remember.

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists 2

“… keeps you turning the pages from beginning to the end.”

– Amazon Reader

It’s Christmassss – 50% off my books

The ebook version of my books are 50% off all through December. The Bullets collection of short stories are free on non-Kindle formats. A review is always appreciated if you fancy dipping in.

I’m blatantly biased – I like them. If you trust me (look into my eyes, not around) I know you’ll like them, too.

City of Forts

“A brilliant read that explores society and all its cracks. Jason Beech expertly balances the nostalgia of childhood adventures with the brutality of life in a very grown-up and dark town. City of Forts deserves to sit equal with the greats as a piece of entertainment and a study of modern life’s struggle”

– Aidan Thorn, author of When the Music’s Over from Fahrenheit 13 Press.

Moorlands

“This book has some serious grip. It sinks its teeth into the reader fast and hangs on. Solid throughout, visceral. Thoroughly enjoyed it.”

– D.S. Atkinson

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists

“A great collection of shorts from an author with a stellar writing style! The first and last tales are the most entertaining, serving as perfect book ends to house the others in-between. There is a lot of depth to each story, which is difficult to accomplish considering their brevity. I will be investing more of my time on Mr. Beech.”

– Shervin Jamali, author of Remember.

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists 2

“… keeps you turning the pages from beginning to the end.”

– Amazon Reader


Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Tom Leins on David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet

Hi Tom, which book are we talking about?

Hi Jason. Thanks for having me! I have really enjoyed this series of interviews so far. We are going to be discussing David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet: Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999), Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000), Nineteen Eighty (2001) and Nineteen Eighty-Three (2002). It’s a fantastic series of books: grim, gritty and gripping.

These have been on my list for ages. I need to get involved. What are they about?

In that case, hopefully I can persuade you to nudge them up your reading list! The series unfolds in Yorkshire in the 1970s – against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. It starts with an investigation into a number of missing girls, and quickly degenerates into a hellish examination of police corruption, deranged violence, repressed vices and Northern sleaze. A number of recurring characters lurch from book to book, as David Peace continues to crank up the horror. His unflinching storytelling style and labyrinthine approach to plotting saw Peace likened to James Ellroy – with good reason.

My God, you’ve forced them right up my list. I’m old enough to remember when the Yorkshire Ripper was caught in my home city, Sheffield. Scared me half to death.

How would you pigeonhole the books?

I think every generation has a bogeyman, and the spectre of the Yorkshire Ripper looms large throughout these books. Weirdly enough, despite these heinous acts, the Ripper isn’t even cast as the chief villain of the piece – there are a number of grotesques, all jostling to cover up their own misdemeanours against this chaotic Ripper-inspired backdrop.

Pigeonholing is tough – really tough! The Red Riding Quartet doesn’t really resemble any crime fiction series I’ve ever read. Peace’s prose style owes a lot to Ellroy, but this approach is given an utterly convincing English makeover. Utterly compelling – just a great concept, really well executed.

The first book is almost 20 years old, so I hesitate to even describe the series as contemporary fiction, but I think that these books are contemporary classics. A lot of writers of our generation cite Peace as a significant influence, and I hope he gets the credit he deserves.

Ultimately, these books belong in the canon of British crime fiction – if such a thing exists. Top-notch writing.

Is there a main protagonist, or a number of them? Are they heroes or anti-heroes?

The central characters shift from book to book, but there are a handful of protagonists who make it through to the final book in the series – just not necessarily the ones you might expect!

The opening book focuses on Eddie Dunford, a cocky young reporter who lands the job of crime correspondent for the Yorkshire Evening Post – only to realise that his dream job is far more horrific than he could have ever imagined. Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter in Nineteen Eighty is probably the closest the series has to a good man, but even he is dangerously flawed.

There are no heroes, not really – and no anti-heroes either. The collective moral code runs from murky grey to pitch black, and the characters who try to make a positive difference often have shadowy motivations and end up hopelessly out of their depth anyway.

As you can probably surmise, this isn’t a series in which you root for the good guy – it’s a series in which you plunge headlong into a cesspool of depravity and wade through the gloriously filthy world that the author has created.

You said David Peace is a little like James Ellroy. Does it read like a news story? What exactly is the style?

This is blunt force storytelling: brief, sawn-off lines weaved into dense ominous chapters; repeated motifs and phrases; stream of consciousness period details; an unflinching eye for queasy observations; and a seamless blend of real-life events and fictional content. Taken together, it’s an intoxicating blend.

You talk of northern sleaze running through the book. How do you define that?

Ha! Good question! To me, everything about the book – the sleaze, the corruption and the violence – is aggressively northern. David Peace wrote this series while living in Japan, but he grew up in and around the locations depicted in the books, so the psychogeography element gives the book an extra edge.

Most British crime fiction I had read up until that point had been set in London, and it is clear from the jump-off that you are not in London anymore. In period crime pieces set in London, there always seems to be a hint of Soho glamour. In David Peace’s world there is absolutely no glamour – just bleak situations that get warped even further out of shape. Put it this way: it’s not just the rent boys who need to wash out their mouths with coach station tap water after the skin-crawling sexual encounters in these books!

So, northern sleaze isn’t quite right, but provincial sleaze doesn’t sound quite right either. (After all, West-country sleaze is a different kind of beast altogether!)

(Quick Northern sleaze side-note: another recommended read – especially to fans of David Peace’s work – is Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers. This is one of my favourite British crime novels of the last decade, and the Northern sleaze depicted in Ben’s book probably outstrips Peace’s material.)

Seems like a night out in Rotherham. Eddie, the reporter in the first book, sounds like he’s only just started in journalism. Does he start off cocksure and idealistic? Where does he start, where does he end?

It has been many years since I read the first book, so the precise details are hazy. The way I recall it: Eddie starts out under the misapprehension that he can make his name by reporting on the headline-grabbing case of a missing girl, but his motivations shift as the investigation grimly unfolds, and he realises that the police are likely complicit in the very crimes they are supposed to be investigating. The more nastiness Eddie unearths, the deeper in the mire he gets, and the more he starts to unravel. Suffice to say, he ends up taking things very personally indeed.

On my first day at DVD Monthly I thought I was entering a queasy world of sexual depravity when I was asked to review the reissue of Emmanuelle, but Eddie’s introduction to the world of print media is far more disturbing!

David Peace, born near Wakefield, said he feared his mother would be the Yorkshire Ripper’s next victim, and that he had nightmares his own dad might be the killer. Are there any characters in the books which reflect such a crushing sense of dread?

The book I have at hand is Nineteen Eighty-Three, the final instalment. In this one, the narrators are Maurice Jobson, the senior policeman whose corruption oozes through the whole series; BJ, the rent boy who has flitted in and out of the series, witnessing a number of key moments, not least the bloody conclusion of Nineteen Seventy-Four; and Big John Pigott, an essentially decent small-time lawyer, who is urged to look into the circumstances surrounding the imprisonment of soft-in-the-head Michael Myshkin, who has been convicted of certain crimes depicted in earlier books.

The more blood the characters have on their hands, the more cocksure they are, and of the three narrators here, it is Piggott who has the most brutal inner monologue. From a visit to Myshkin’s desperate mother, to a Friday afternoon pub crawl with his mates, everything Piggott thinks and does is rendered in queasy, sticky, hellish detail, and this unwarranted sense of guilt compels him to look deeper into the case.

In this world, the decent people – and there aren’t many of them – experience the most crushing dread. Grim, right?

British coppers in the 1970s had a terrible reputation. Do the books dig into the reasons behind their corruption?

Well, these books certainly do their level best to reinforce that particular perception of British policing! Cigarettes stubbed out on flesh, suspects threatened with live rats, flimsy confessions coerced out of vulnerable suspects – and far worse – the Red Riding Quartet plumbs some inventive new depths as it seeks to give us an insight into old-fashioned law enforcement techniques.

As to why they do it: I think they do it because they can. These cops have gone unchecked for so long, they now inhabit a moral vacuum. Sure, they go through the motions: press conferences, door-to-door enquiries, interviews… but these half-hearted gestures feel like a subterfuge designed to hide their own crimes, mistakes and perversions.

Sometimes you aren’t even sure who is covering for who – they are just doing it out of habit, which actually seems worse in some ways. Similarly named characters flit in and out of the various stories, and this only enhances the feeling that these sneering middle-aged men are merely interchangeable cogs in a dirty great machine.

Are the cops aided and abetted by a corrupt or weak political culture? Do the books go into the murky politics of the 70s?

I’m finding it tough to recall how much the political landscape impacts on the narrative of these books, but it definitely adds to the grim backdrop. The later stories take place during the Thatcher era, and the books are peppered with references to her policies. These nuggets are generally conveyed via snippets of radio chatter or newspaper headlines, and serve to bolster the ugly mood, rather than paving the way for any specific atrocities that take place.

This arm’s-length approach works fine for me, as I’m too young to recall Thatcher with any degree of clarity. To me, she was just another creepy face from my childhood – alongside Ronald McDonald and the guy on the side of the Matey bubble-bath container!

Did these books get you writing?

While I was definitely aware of the books – Peace came to my attention when he was included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list in 2003 – I didn’t actually read them until at least 2010, after watching the 2009 TV series on Channel 4. (The TV movies were flawed, but impeccably cast, and strayed from the book in a number of ways – doing away with Nineteen Seventy-Seven altogether. Discrepancies aside, the TV cast was so good that the two versions have congealed in my mind, and it’s hard to separate the two, especially in cases where the content diverged!)

Anyway, I had already been writing for a while at this point – my first story was published back in 2003 – but they definitely prompted me to refocus on what I actually wanted to write. To my eyes, this stuff was bleaker and more demented than most crime fiction I had ever read, but still broadly classified as ‘literary fiction’ – as a result of the Granta inclusion, I suppose. It was hugely inspiring that something this abrasive was packaged up by a major publisher and lobbed at broadsheet readers and mainstream crime enthusiasts alike!

So, yeah, the books have inspired me rather than influenced me – and they have really fucking inspired me! (Note: when I’m deep into a longer writing project, I always step away from reading crime fiction and concentrate on non-fiction or other genres, as I’m worried about a subconscious influence leaking into my own work. In sharp contrast, the piece I have been working on while doing this interview has some subtle nods to Red Riding, which probably wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been discussing the book this month!)

Is that all hush-hush until it’s out there, or can you tell us what it is?

This new one is another dirty little Paignton Noir novelette in the vein of Skull Meat, Snuff Racket and Slug Bait! I’ll spare you the details, but it concerns a decades-old conspiracy, which Joe Rey finds himself in the middle of. As always, the title came first, the cover came next and the story followed! All things being well, it will be out before the end of the year. Now the Rey stories are beginning to find an audience, I want to make sure that the e-books keep on coming, thick and fast – and hopefully capitalise on whatever momentum I have managed to build up. All will be revealed very soon!

Sounds like another cracker.

Are you surprised David Peace followed the Red Riding Quartet with GB84 (about the Miners’ Strike) and The Damned United (about a football relationship)? Does a theme run through them?

Cheers. I hope people dig it!

I haven’t read GB84 yet (although I have a copy in my loft), but I read The Damned United shortly after finishing the Red Riding Quartet, and it’s bloody fantastic. Easily as good as the earlier books – if you’re a football fan at least.

It applies the same stylistic template as the crime novels; it takes place in the same era (it focuses on Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44-day stint in charge of Leeds United in 1974); and it is powered by a gloriously confrontational central figure – so there are a lot of parallels. Also, I think Peace excels at telling smaller stories within bigger stories, and picking this calamitous 44-day period within a very impressive career is a masterstroke.

I was initially disappointed with the film version, which emerged a few years later, but when I saw it again recently, I enjoyed its more light-hearted take on the subject matter. To be honest, I only remember the (boozy) puffier-faced Clough from the late ‘80s-early-‘90s, so this glimpse into the demons that initially drove him was absolutely fascinating to me.

I’ve not read the book, but I really enjoyed the film. It’s a problem with most biographies in that they are too broad. The specificity of The Damned United is definitely how it should be done.

If you were to write a bio, who would you write about and what part of their life?

Yeah, I totally agree. Some of the best biographies I have read have concentrated on the type of material that would only get a passing mention in a conventional book.

This is the toughest question yet! I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I still don’t have a good answer for you, so I’m going to approach the question from a different angle.

If I wanted to write something that blended fiction and reality, it would have to be a story with a local connection. One of the most eye-opening things I have read this year was an old piece by an ‘alternative historian’ called Kevin Dixon on the secret occult history of Torquay. Notorious occultist Aleister Crowley – once denounced as ‘the wickedest man in the world’ – spent World War II living in Barton, Torquay, where he was reputedly visited by British Intelligence personnel, who wanted his advice on how to deal with Hitler’s Deputy, Rudolf Hess – a fellow occult enthusiast. The fact that this meeting occurred in Barton – one of the least glamorous areas of Torquay – is genuinely mind-boggling.

I definitely won’t be writing a biography any time soon, but I’m very keen to explore the secret occult history of Torquay in a future Joe Rey book. If there is anything that could persuade Rey to hop on the Number 12 bus and take a case in Torquay it is the occult, so watch this space!

Tom Leins

I’d get involved in that.

Do you read books more than once if they grab you? Will you read The Red Riding Quartet again?

Cheers!

The only books I have read more than once as an adult are On The Road by Jack Kerouac, The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter and Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson, which is a pretty random mix. Those were all books that I had read previously, and later plucked off hostel/internet cafe shelves when I was travelling around Central America in 2005-2006. It wasn’t particularly easy to find new books on that trip, so I ended up double-dipping a few times. I also plucked my first ever Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block books off hostel shelves on that trip, but that’s a different discussion for a different time!

I’m not a big re-reader, purely because I have hundreds of unread books in plastic crates in my loft, and I love the thrill of discovering something new. That said, David Peace’s books are definitely in the ‘keep’ category, alongside Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, James Lee Burke, Joe Lansdale etc. All stuff I would like to revisit, but probably never will – at least not until I retire!

You like your fiction dark and dirty. What do you read for light relief?

To be honest, I don’t actually read for light relief. I read because I want to be challenged, unnerved and entertained – preferably all at the same time! Crime fiction probably accounts for 80% of what I read, and I struggle with a lot of comedic crime thrillers – unless the humour is sufficiently dark and the stakes are sufficiently high. I think of my own stories as surreal, violent little comedies – and that probably tells you everything you need to know about my warped sense of humour. (Comedy-wise, TV is definitely my medium of choice!)

Tom, you’ve been a dark, filthy, and cracking guest. Any last words?

Jason, it has been a real pleasure! Thanks very much for having me. Answering questions – even ones about another writer’s work – forces me to think about what I write about and why I do it. So, yeah, this has been a great experience.

PS. Let me know what you think of the Red Riding books!

Will do.

***

Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK. His short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Near to the Knuckle, Flash Fiction Offensive, Pulp Metal Magazine, Horror Sleaze Trash and Spelk. A pair of Paignton Noir novelettes, Skull Meat and Snuff Racket, are available via Amazon. Repetition Kills You will be published by All Due Respect (an imprint of Down & Out Books) in September 2018. Find out more at:


City of Forts

“A brilliant read that explores society and all its cracks. Jason Beech expertly balances the nostalgia of childhood adventures with the brutality of life in a very grown-up and dark town. City of Forts deserves to sit equal with the greats as a piece of entertainment and a study of modern life’s struggle”

– Aidan Thorn, author of When the Music’s Over from Fahrenheit 13 Press.

Moorlands

“This book has some serious grip. It sinks its teeth into the reader fast and hangs on. Solid throughout, visceral. Thoroughly enjoyed it.”

– D.S. Atkinson

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists

“A great collection of shorts from an author with a stellar writing style! The first and last tales are the most entertaining, serving as perfect book ends to house the others in-between. There is a lot of depth to each story, which is difficult to accomplish considering their brevity. I will be investing more of my time on Mr. Beech.”

– Shervin Jamali, author of Remember.

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists 2

“… keeps you turning the pages from beginning to the end.”

– Amazon Reader

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Aidan Thorn on Matt Phillips’s Know Me from Smoke

Hi Aidan, which book are we talking about?

Know Me From Smoke by the brilliant Matt Phillips

This has been on release for the amount of time it takes to draw breath – so this is some claim to be your favourite book. Did it hit you straight away, or has it lingered and taken over your mind?

I know, right. It’s something very special. For me it has everything, it’s brilliantly written, there are characters with more dimensions than a Prodigy track, it’s perfectly paced, it has crime and heart in equal measure, it just sort of sings as a book.

Matt Phillips is a writer I’ve been following for a few years and he’s good, I really like his work, but this book stepped him up to the big leagues as far as I’m concerned. I felt it put him on a par with the greats, the Pelecanos’, the Leonard’s, the Block’s etc… and I think that’s another reason I love it so much, I’ve seen one of my peers, someone that’s with the same publisher as I am, someone that’s moving in the same writing circles that I am, write something that truly blew me away. I’ve read great books by some great undiscovered talent but this was that and then better than the most well known of authors, too.

I don’t typically like overly descriptive books, Matt Phillips has a way of making every scene in this book part of the character of the book. His descriptive work not only brings the scenes to life but it always moves the story along too. It’s just brilliant

Matt Phillips

So what’s the synopsis?

Ha, so now you’re asking, every writer hates writing the synopsis and I’m no different, and now I need to give you Matt’s, here’s the blurb from the publisher…

Stella Radney, longtime lounge singer, still has a bullet lodged in her hip from the night when a rain of bullets killed her husband. That was twenty years ago and it’s a surprise when the unsolved murder is reopened after the district attorney discovers new evidence.

Royal Atkins is a convicted killer who just got out of prison on a legal technicality. At first, he’s thinking he’ll play it straight. Doesn’t take long before that plan turns to smoke—was it ever really an option?

When Stella and Royal meet one night, they’re drawn to each other. But Royal has a secret. How long before Stella discovers that the man she’s falling for isn’t who he seems?

A noir of gripping suspense and violence, Know Me from Smoke is a journey into the shadowy terrain of murder, lost love, and the heart’s lust for vengeance.

That makes it sound good, but believe me it’s better than that

So what’s the main pull? The plot? The characterisation. Phillips’ way with language? Is it hard to quantify?

In what is essentially a short book (a little over 200 pages) there’s so much. The two main characters have their own stories, that obviously merge, but the beauty of the way Phillips writes is that despite this being written third person there’s a clear distinction in character voice depending on whether we’re with Royal or Stella and he expertly changes that voice in line with the perspectives, pressures, emotions of those characters.

There’s clear conflict in both of the main characters. Stella feels conflicted at falling in love with another man, despite the death of her husband decades before. She also feels exhilarated by this fresh new love with this man who is a mystery to her and yet familiar also. Her journey (fucking hate that word) through this book is one of growth and strength, unshackling herself from a past, and yet she is still so connected and close to it – to say much more would give the game away and I don’t want to as I want people to read this book!

Not that it’s not obvious where this book is heading fairly early on. That’s actually part of the beauty of this book. We know there has to be a moment of realisation, a moment of decision, the joy is in how Phillips gets us there.

With Royal, it’s different, there’s an attempt at growth, possibly even a genuine desire for it, but is he far too deep in as a criminal to really change? Is Stella enough to get him there? He comes out of prison and is given little hope of true reform being homed with two criminals hell-bent on staying that way, and this is Royal’s conflict, can he go against that and change his life? And even if he can, has his past damned him before he even had a chance – did he ever even deserve a chance?

As for Phillips’ way with language, the story is told in such an engaging way that it just feels like you’re being told it by a really charismatically eloquent person you’ve known for a long time. Someone whose company you enjoy. I already said, every word advances the plot, regardless of whether it’s descriptive or conversation, there’s nothing wasted in these 200 pages.

So he’s a criminal and she sounds like a respectable member of mainstream society. What brings them together? What connects them?

Royal is staying in a halfway house on leaving prison and Stella is a bar singer. By rights they shouldn’t meet and it’s probably the first sign that Royal isn’t going to stick to the straight and narrow. His parole officer tells him no drinking but his house mates, a couple of cons themselves convince him to head out for drinks with them. Royal’s arm doesn’t take any twisting. Stella is instantly drawn to him despite his friends being assholes toward her, he seems different and familiar to her.

Does Royal want change in his life with his release from prison?

Now that’s a good question, he claims to, and in his head I think he wants to, but actions speak louder than words and his actions are still those of a criminal. Perhaps a reluctant criminal, but a criminal all the same. It’s just the way he’s wired I suppose.

What does Stella see in him? I’m guessing she doesn’t realise he’s a criminal when they meet?

Apart from the obvious phyiscal attraction, she likes that he’s not like the other men he’s with, that he’s more of a gentleman and discourages their bad behaviour towards her. But most of all she is attracted by the fact that he’s both a mystery and familiar to her.

You say there’s joy in the way Phillips gets you to the realisation. At only two hundred pages, how does he manage to fill it with character and plot? Is it a character piece more than plot-driven?

Not the realisation for the reader, the reader will see it coming early. It’s the realisation for the characters. Yes it’s a character piece, but it’s also a plot-driven piece. I always say why use ten words when one will do, and Phillips is a master of using exactly the right amount of words. There’s no padding here. He writes a book here for the modern reader – we’re busy people, I don’t have time for a load of stuff I don’t need, tell me the story and tell me it well. I want every word to count and it really does in this book. It feels like he’s thought about every word. A very wise person once said, if we had more time we’d have made it shorter. There’s far more skill and thought that goes into making a perfect tight read than some thing that sprawls on and on forever and barely moves from page to page. But then I would say that, I wrote novellas.

You should read Quincunx by Charles Palliser. 1,000 pages of small print, in the style of Dickens, with the meh-est ending ever. Still, I love a deep dive.

What’s the longest book you ever read?

Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy a good long read, as long as the words are useful. Take those Larsson Girl With books… I’ve read them all, they were fine, but there is a lot of padding at times. Longest books I’ve ever read – not sure because I mostly read on kindle these days. I’ve read some Stephen King books, they tend to have some weight to them. Roots by Alex Haley I remember being a big old book with some very small print. I’m not against a well written good book. It’s when I’m reading it and thinking, bloody hell there’s another 600 pages of this yet… if it’s good I don’t think about the length. It’s about the quality not the girth.

Talking of Dickens, I read A Christmas Carol most Christmases… But it’s very short, other Dickens books, I’ve read a few, and there’s often some length there.

Know Me from Smoke is defined as noir. How do you define noir?

I read a brilliant quote from a review of this book today that defines noir for me. The quote is by Bruce Harris: “Noir succeeds when the atmosphere blends with the characters, defining and directing behaviors, becoming its own powerful driving force.”

For me noir is an atmosphere. It’s also about its characters, usually people on the edge of society, people that feel like they could be sat right next to you in a bar, at the gym, in a restaurant, but not people you’d have around for dinner or meet at work. They’re the same as us, and yet different. Noir stories always feel to me like the sort of thing I might have got caught up in myself if I’d taken a few different turns at times.

Definitely. A fight that leads to another neighbourhood’s alpha males making a visit to your area. The friend who takes it a step too far and drags you all into a hell hole.

What near misses have you had?

I’m not going to pretend I’m some tough guy, I’m just a normal bloke from a normal upbringing. I grew up in a place in Southampton called Lordshill, it’s a tough place but I had a good family and on the whole good friends, and so I mostly managed to stay on the right path. But of course, like any kid growing up in that environment, there are moments when things could have gone worse. I got the shit kicked out of me the day before my Grandma’s funeral because I happened to be with the wrong crowd – I’ll never forget how angry my dad was with me for that, it hurt to know I’d added to his pain at such a shitty time for our family. I got stopped by the police because a shopkeeper pointed me out as part of a gang that had robbed her shop and mugged a kid for his shitty Argos-bought watch… I was part of that gang, but I wasn’t there when they did what they did. And that was the last straw for me and them. I saw that kid sat on a chair that the shopkeeper had grabbed from the back room of her shop, bloodied and crying, and I thought ‘fuck those guys’. I went home and never went back to them. A couple of those guys have been in and out of prison since, and I knuckled down and went another way, ended up in a great job, with great friends. If I’d have been with them when it had happened who knows which why I’d have gone. There have been many more moments I’m sure, but those are the ones that stick in the memory as the ones that woke me up and made me realise I needed to correct my path. I was hanging around with kids that carried knives – I changed that for kids who carried guitars… much more fun. About five years after I stopped hanging with those guys a kid of 16 was murdered outside that same shop my old friends had shoplifted from and mugged a kid for his watch. He was stabbed to death by a ‘friend’ I’m not going to claim that could have been me, but it certainly made me feel two things, sad and grateful.

What is noir for you? Do those near misses resonate when you’re reading it?

I guess they do a bit. I guess that’s why I read and write noir. It’s about those moments in the margins of your life. The moments you imagine things could have gone wrong and so yes it can resonate with moments from the past at times. I often read or write a character I think he or she is just like someone I know or knew.

David Nemeth recently labelled Know Me from Smoke ‘Noir as fuck.’ Where do you put it on the noir-ometer?

It’s like a lesson in noir, but not one of those smug ‘this is how you write’ lessons, just a really great and entertaining example of the genre. NOIR AS FUCK sounds about right, really.

If Know Me from Smoke is Robert De Niro, which book is Al Pacino?

The Big Blowdown by George Pelecanos

Is Rival Sons, your new book, ready to go out into the world?

It is, it’ll be heading out into the world just before Santa’s sleigh in early December. Want to hear what people are saying about it…

“This nuanced, multi-layered homecoming tale packs a real kick-in-the-teeth. Powerful stuff.” Tess Makovesky, author of ‘Gravy Train‘ and ‘Raise the Blade‘.

“A really strong story with great characters. Aidan Thorn is at the forefront of the new wave of British noir.” Chris Black, Senior Editor at Fahrenheit 13

I also got a blurb from Matt Phillips himself, a great honour considering the way I feel about Know Me From Smoke… “Rival Sons is a story about evil overtaking good, how one brother can corrupt the other, and how the lineage passed to us can be more corrupt than any jailhouse snitch. In this blast of a novella, Aidan Thorn delivers––these characters know rivalry and vengeance, guts and glory, failure and worse-than-failure. They also know love and courage – well some of them do.”

– Matt Phillips, author of Know Me from Smoke, The Bad Kind of Lucky, Accidental Outlaws, and Three Kinds of Fool

It sounds cracking. Do you feel you’ve got the writing thing locked down?

Absolutely not. I barely write these days. Rival Sons was the last large project I completed. Since then I’ve completed one short that was in Switchblade issue 6, started another longer piece (novella/novel) called Docklands that I’ve wanted to do for years, and edited an old novella that I want to try out on the world. I’m not really writing at all these days, unfortunately. And I say unfortunately because, yes I do love it and literature is a passion but that said I am a very lucky man in that I also have a day job that I absolutely love, so as that’s got busier it’s meant less writing time but as much as I’d like more writing time I will never complain about getting to do something I love and care about each day.

Aidan, you’ve been great. I’ve gone and bought Know Me from Smoke. Best wishes for Rival Sons.

Thanks for the effort you put into this stuff, Jason. I hope you enjoy Know Me From Smoke half as much as I did. I’m currently reading Matt’s latest, due out soon – The Bad Kind of Luck. It’s another great read.

You can buy Know Me from Smoke direct from Fahrenheit Press, or Amazons US and UK.

You can buy Aidan Thorn’s work from Amazons US and UK.


City of Forts

“A brilliant read that explores society and all its cracks. Jason Beech expertly balances the nostalgia of childhood adventures with the brutality of life in a very grown-up and dark town. City of Forts deserves to sit equal with the greats as a piece of entertainment and a study of modern life’s struggle”

– Aidan Thorn, author of When the Music’s Over from Fahrenheit 13 Press.

Moorlands

“This book has some serious grip. It sinks its teeth into the reader fast and hangs on. Solid throughout, visceral. Thoroughly enjoyed it.”

– D.S. Atkinson

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists

“A great collection of shorts from an author with a stellar writing style! The first and last tales are the most entertaining, serving as perfect book ends to house the others in-between. There is a lot of depth to each story, which is difficult to accomplish considering their brevity. I will be investing more of my time on Mr. Beech.”

– Shervin Jamali, author of Remember.

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists 2

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