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Stuff I Wish I’d Written

Tess Makovesky on Joel Lane’s From Blue to Black

Tess Makovesky is a fantastic British author whose sly, wicked sense of humour courses through her crime novels. Her Gravy Train is one of my favourite books of last year.

She’s here to talk about Joel Lane’s noir novel, From Blue to Black, which was published back in 2000.

Hi Tess, which book are we talking about?

I’ve just finished re-reading (for the first time in almost twenty years) the noir gem From Blue to Blackby Birmingham author Joel Lane (who sadly died a couple of years ago).

What’s the premise?

The book is set in Birmingham’s alternative music scene in the early 1990s and centres around bass-player David, who joins local indie band Triangle when one of their other members drops out. He falls in love with Triangle’s talented lead singer Karl, but as the band begins to take off, their relationship, and Karl’s mental health, suffer a corresponding tailspin into chaos. Or, as the book’s cover puts it (much more lyrically), “‘From Blue to Black’ is a story of passion, blood and alcohol, broken strings and broken lives – a piercing voyage through our recent musical and political past that cuts to the bone.”

It’s difficult to evoke music through the page without sounding like a Melody Maker journo. How does From Blue to Black manage it?

Hmm, good question. And in a way, I think Joel Lane does make it sound like a Melody Maker journalist – but I also think that was entirely deliberate. The descriptions of the music are less about the emotional response to it (from, say, a listener’s point of view), and more about the techniques of producing tracks and songs and even specific sounds. Which is entirely in keeping with the book’s narrator being a professional musician, and a very technically-minded one at that. So there’s quite a bit of prose that details gigs and recording sessions and drink-fuelled writing sessions in backstreet pubs, all of which comes across as utterly authentic and adds to the raw power of the book.

Joel Lane

Is Karl’s technical-mindedness a key characteristic? Is he in the music world for the fame and fortune, or is music something he just has to do?

Both David and Karl are what you might call musical purists, in it for the sound they want to create rather than any kind of fame. It’s their shared love of style and technique that brings the two of them together, but it also masks the cracks in their relationship and in the whole fabric of the band. Karl is a deeply flawed creative who loves to make music. But he also suffers from terrible stage fright and it’s the conflict between wanting to get his music ‘out there’ and being terrified of performing that helps fuel his eventual breakdown. He reminds me in many ways of Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte – or how Sebastian Flyte might turn out if he was transported to the rock-and-roll era.

Where does Karl’s stage fright come from? What kind of performer is he – is he Freddie Mercury, is he The Fall’s Mark E Smith?

I’ve never seen The Fall perform so I went and checked out a couple of video clips on YouTube and yes – Karl is very much at that end of the spectrum. Cold snarling rage rather than Mercury’s flamboyant, almost joyous performances. At least that’s the impression I get. As to his stage fright, I think it’s partly his own personality, his shyness versus his need to get his art ‘out there’ for everyone to see, which causes massive internal conflict (and is probably recognisable to a certain extent to many creative types). But this isn’t the only factor. Karl also suffers from flashbacks and general messed-up-ness thanks to a traumatic event in his teens. I can’t tell you what it is because it’s revealed towards the end of the book and forms an important part of the plot – as well as delivering a terrific, kick-in-the-pants kind of twist. But it’s enough to affect Karl for the rest of his life. And his coping mechanisms – including way too much alcohol, drugs, and withdrawal from everyday life, really don’t help either.

Karl has dominated the conversation so far, but isn’t it David who tells the story? Is David a strong character in his own right?

The whole book is told in first-person point of view from David’s standpoint and he’s the central element, the glue that holds all of the other pieces – and characters – together. He’s not a typical “hero” – he’s a bit weak at times and prefers to let people get on with their own lives rather than getting too involved or too close to anyone. Interestingly, I’m not sure we ever find out why that is, unlike Karl whose motives are much clearer by the end of the book. But David’s essentially a decent guy – drinks too much, sleeps around a bit, but never seems wholly comfortable with the whole sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll scene in the way Karl and some of the minor characters clearly are. And it’s that decency that could well be his downfall. He’s basically too nice to have the drive required both to succeed in the music business, and quite possibly to cope with the volatile Karl.

If I have a gripe with the book it’s that I don’t think there’s quite enough backstory for David. It would be brilliant to know just a little more about him – what makes him tick, why he acts the way he does. He’s quite a passive character and while that gives Karl all the space he needs to shine through the pages, it means David is more of an enigma than I’d like him to be. Then again, this really is the story of Karl as seen through David’s eyes.-

Joel Lane

Does Karl want to be helped, or does he embrace the ‘unhinged reality’ as a means of escape from his demons?

I don’t think he does want help. He certainly doesn’t ask for it, and at one point he literally runs away rather than accept that he might need it. Whether that’s because he doesn’t want people fussing over him, or whether it’s because he thinks he’s not worthy of helping, I’m not sure, even after reading the book twice. Maybe a bit of both. The bombshell Joel Lane drops near the end of the book would certainly make both possible. As to embracing the unhinged reality, Karl takes refuge in drink and – eventually – hard drugs to escape. But they bring demons of their own, so it isn’t the most successful means of getting away from his problems. But that’s typical of noir, isn’t it? That characters (people) find it hard to understand themselves, or to know what they need for the best. They make all those wrong choices, even when presented with the opportunity to make the right ones, and that’s the desperate, achingly enduring appeal of the genre. Because it’s exactly like real life…

You typically think of noir as guns, femme fatales, money. Is From Black to Blue marketed as noir?

It isn’t your typical pulp noir, certainly, but I believe it fits well into the noir genre overall. I looked up the definition of noir online and the Oxford English Dictionary mentions cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. And From Blue to Black majors on at least two of those – the characters aren’t villains but they really aren’t ‘good guys’ either, and there’s a definite air of fatalism as events slide further and further out of control. Although the book cover doesn’t mention the word ‘noir’ specifically, the blurb and various quotes involve words like ‘jet-black’, ‘disconcerting’, ‘desperation’ and ‘despair’. Without giving too much away, the ending isn’t a particularly happy one and any hope the characters might have had is soon washed away on a tide of broken dreams. And yet the book isn’t a total tragedy; there is still life at the end of it, even if it isn’t the life the characters hoped for. This is really well illustrated by the lyrics from one of Triangle’s songs (also written by Joel Lane), which gave the book its title: The train runs empty down the track Fades with the night From blue to black Wave goodbye to the future It’s never coming back. I do know that Joel Lane himself was passionate about noir, with an extensive, even encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre, and saw himself mainly as a noir writer. From Blue to Black is a great example of how the tenets of noir can be taken and stretched to fit other scenarios that they weren’t necessarily invented for.

Is the novel a variation of the Jekyll and Hyde story? Is Karl the protagonist and the antagonist at the same time?

I’d never really thought of it like that. I guess there are elements of Jekyll and Hyde, but only in the same way that we all have elements of good and bad in us. Mostly, we hide the bad but sometimes it takes over and that’s rather the same with Karl, David and the other characters in the book. However, it’s more subtle than a sudden raging transformation into Hyde or Hulk. Instead the book charts Karl’s gradual descent towards breakdown, with episodes of strangeness, depression, or self-isolation. And what Joel Lane does so well is to make Karl and the others less like characters in a book, and more like complex, richly-imagined and surprisingly real people. Like real-life people they do stupid things, lose their tempers, argue, make up again, love each other and generally rub along with life. And like real people they’re not there to move the plot along or be a cipher for a particular theme or aspect of humanity. They’re just, well, people.

Joel Lane’s The Blue Mask

The novel is set in Birmingham. I know you love Birmingham, but it sounds like the story’s setting mirrors the bleak mental state Karl is in. What’s your take?

I spent over twenty years living in Birmingham and know it pretty well – but I’m not blind to the fact that whilst some parts of the city are surprisingly leafy and prosperous, others are pretty bleak. From Blue to Black is set in various locations around the city including at least one of the greener suburbs (Moseley), and several others that are less salubrious (local clubs and bars, Spaghetti Junction, decaying industrial landscapes in the Black Country). Where Joel Lane excels is in finding the grit and surrealism in even the pleasantest places – and in using them, as you say, to mirror the bleak storyline. The descriptions are remarkably poetic. They grabbed me from the very first paragraph – this one, about Moseley: “A bloodshot moon hung over the tall houses in Salisbury Road, giving faint doubles to the shadows of trees. Across the road, the lights of a housing estate floated in empty air.” Of course, it helps that I was living in Moseley at the time and recognised many of the landmarks. But even when the book moves to places I’m less familiar with, the poetry remains. As does the extraordinary palette of colours, or rather, mostly, the lack of them. Much of the book uses settings that seem bleached of colour, or that reflect the blue and black of the title. Every now and again there’s a sudden flare of vivid colour, often in red or orange – that bloodshot moon, a sunset, a house on fire – to break the monotone. It’s a striking effect, and not one I’ve ever come across before.

Do such descriptions come out of the characters? Some editors think they should – does the descriptiveness take you out of the story even as you admire it?

For me, not really, for a number of reasons. One, the book is in first person point of view so you’re seeing the world through David’s eyes. Then the descriptions, although poetic, aren’t overly long – there’s no sense of the Dan Brown school of using every adjective you can think of, or of the descriptions going on for pages at a time. Two or three lines is about what Joel Lane gives us most of the time, but because it’s such powerful imagery he packs a lot of information into that short space. Where I did find things took me outside the story occasionally was in the track listings of the various gigs the band did. They got rather repetitive and didn’t always seem to add to the story. Once or twice is fine, to give a flavour of what Triangle were playing and how they adapted it to suit different venues/sound systems/audiences, but there were a few too many paragraphs in the vein of “Then we played at…” for my own taste. In the end, though, I think this is down to the reader’s individual preference. I love descriptions of locations, especially if they’re as pared down and evocative as this, but I’ve seen reviews of From Blue to Black that describe it as the most boring book ever. Then again, I’ve seen other reviews that say it “stayed with” the reader longer than anything else they’d read. I’m firmly in the latter camp, but I can see that it wouldn’t be popular with everyone.

Tess Makovesky

Can you imagine what the music sounds like? What’s banging about your head when the tunes kick in?

Oddly enough I don’t really hear the music while I’m reading. Partly I think that’s because I find it hard to mix music with reading or writing anyway. When I write I prefer total silence – or at least nothing that’s going to distract me, like music or voices. And when I read, I’m lost inside the book and very unaware of anything else around me. Plus I think I have a very visual way of responding to what I’m reading – I see the scenes very clearly, but am less aware of sounds, smells and touch. On top of that I’m not actually a big fan of indie/alternative music from the 1990s, so I’ve got very little to fall back on when I try to imagine what it might sound like. If I think of anything it’s probably Joy Division – one of the few bands I know anything about – or perhaps Nirvana, a band that Joel Lane himself mentions in the book a couple of times. None of that affects my enjoyment of the book, though. I’m happy to read the lyrics as a kind of urban poetry, with their own rhythm and “music”, without stopping to think what the guitars, drums and vocals would sound like if I was listening to them in real life.

The book sounds dark. Does a streak of bleak humour run through it?

Very much so. Dare I say, perhaps less than in my own writing, but it’s there. Every so often there’s a wry, dry little comment or line of dialogue, often throwaway, that you could miss if you blink. Often it’s a quiet dig at human foibles or at the more ridiculous side of the music business (‘their haircuts alone were enough to get them signed to Creation.’). There’s also an occasional Brummie in-joke, including someone referring to the band as “Troy Engle”. You kind of have to have lived there, or know what Brummies sound like, to get that one. None of it is laugh-out-loud but it helps to relieve the tension from time to time, and give the reader a quick, sideways smile of understanding. Overall, though, From Blue to Black isn’t a funny book. Most of the narrative is pure noir. And that’s why I envy it, and Joel Lane, for being able to write it, because I struggle to write such dark fiction without the humour creeping in.

Your book, Gravy Train, made me laugh throughout, but some of the stakes terrified me. Do you think humour can dilute a noir novel?

This is a tough one. My first reaction was ‘yes’ but then I paused and thought again. Humour certainly changes the tone of any novel and if there’s too much of it, it probably does dilute the darkness. But it can also be a great way of softening up your audience so that the eventual blow is unexpected and all the more powerful. Tolkien was a master of this technique – he understood that readers mostly can’t stay at the same level of tension throughout a long book. So he interspersed the scary bits with more pastoral or humorous scenes, which made the darker stuff all the more poignant and horrifying. Horror movies often do the same. You’re pottering along, enjoying some minor plot point about the family cat, and then blam!

In the case of From Blue to Black the humour is subtle and scattered through the pages so it’s never enough to water down the bleakness. And in my own writing I like to think my humour is dark enough to point up the hopelessness rather than detracting from it. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I…?

Who do you picture as Karl in a TV series/film?

I tend not to picture characters all that strongly when I’m reading, but if I was pushed I’d say someone who can do quiet intensity, even suffering, without necessarily having the flashy good looks of a big star. David Tennant would be a strong possibility but is perhaps a bit too well known. Others that spring to mind are John Simm or Stephen Graham, or perhaps a young Liverpool actor called Tom Hughes. I’ve seen in a couple of very different roles and he was excellent in both so he clearly has the necessary range – and he’d be closer to Karl’s age during the book, too.

You’ve just finished a new novel. Can you talk about it? If so, what is it, what’s the style?

Hmm, I think “finished” is a little optimistic! But yes, I have indeed written the first draft of a new book, Embers of Bridges, which is similar in many ways to my most recent novel Gravy Train. Both are set in Birmingham, both feature petty criminals, and both are what you might call ‘comédie noir’. In the new book the central theme is loyalty and honour among thieves – or lack of it. Brummie van driver Mickey has been mates with Gaz since primary school. Along with their pals Charlie and Pete, and Gaz’s younger sister Trudy, they formed the Live Hard Die Young gang and spend their spare time robbing newsagents, off-licences and jewellery stores. Until things start to unravel, with job after job going wrong and the gang members falling out with each other. Gaz drags Mickey into one last job on a warehouse in the famous Jewellery Quarter, and suggests a bizarre getaway on a canal boat. But when one of them makes a shocking discovery, it leads to a dark – and watery – conclusion for both of them! As with Gravy Train I had a lot of fun writing it, but it still needs hammering into shape and I’m working on that (with a very large hammer) as we speak.

I loved Gravy Train, so I’m looking forward to this one. Sounds like you’re a pantser?

Hey, thanks for the kind comments – it makes all the hard work worthwhile when people enjoy my books! And yes, guilty as charged on the ‘seat of the pants’ stuff. I tried planning a book out once, and used up so much of my creative energy on a complete list of every chapter and its contents that I had none left to actually write the thing! So now I tend to plunge straight in. I do need a few things to be in place first, though. Most important is the main character(s), plus a rough idea of what the main plot will be. In Gravy Train that idea was a bag of stolen money changing hands many times before it ended up in the local canal, while in Raise the Blade it was the concept of people finding the victims of a serial killer and using the knowledge for their own ends. I also need at least a vague feel for the ending I’m aiming for. And I find it hard to get going unless I have a title, or a working title at least. These days I try to use Pink Floyd lyrics for my titles (‘Raise the Blade’ is from Brain Damage; ‘Gravy Train’ from Have a Cigar, and the new book ‘Embers of Bridges’ is from High Hopes). So before I start any major work on a book you can usually find me poring over track listings on the internet, looking up something that will suit the tone of the book. So far, Messrs Gilmour, Wright and Waters haven’t let me down!

Tess, you’ve been great. Any final words?

Only to say thanks, Jason for such a fascinating, in-depth set of questions, which really got me scratching my head. Thanks too to the late Joel Lane for writing such a fantastic book – and to everyone on here for putting up with me rambling on for so long! And if by any chance you want to look for my own books, you can find all the details at my website at

You can get a feel for Tess’ style with a few of her short stories. Try these out:

The Floor’s the Limit (published by Flash Fiction Offensive).

Bang to Rights (published by Punk Noir Magazine).

Trick of the Trade (published by Spelk Fiction).

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Travis Richardson on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280

Travis Richardson writes hard-edged noir, as you can see from his work at places such as Shotgun Honey and Flash Fiction Offensive. He is a Derringer finalist and loves a bit of Jim Thompson. Welcome, Travis.

Which book are we talking about?

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

Dark, nihilistic noir. What’s the appeal for you?

I like that the story goes beyond noir. It has social commentary about small town values and a lot of twisted humor. You get the perspective of the sheriff of Pottsville who seems to be the stupidest man in the county, but slowly you start to see a darker, hidden intelligence.

What does the sheriff aim his intelligence at? What’s his world view?

It seems that Sheriff Nick Corey just wants to get re-elected, but he is a master of manipulating people who think they are smarter than him. His world view is that he is superior to everybody else.

For what purpose does he want the office?

He would tell you it’s the only job he knows to do – without the sheriff’s position he’d be homeless. But really the position gives him the power to see all that happens in the county, the authority to carry a gun, and the feeling of immunity when he uses it.

Travis Richardson

Does Corey epitomize Thompson’s view of the police? Of authority overall?

That’s a great question. Thompson’s father had been a sheriff in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and moved his family out of town under the cover of night after he was accused of corruption. He did not see his father for a couple of years as he went into hiding in Mexico. Later in life when Thompson was in his twenties working alone on the top of an oil derrick, a deputy drove up and told him he could kill the soon-to-be-novelist and nobody would accuse the deputy. That incident chilled Thompson and became the genesis of The Killer Inside Me. Overall I think Thompson saw the law/authority as people having unchecked (or immense) power that could easily lead to corruption (and inflation of sociopathic egos).

That is frightening. You mentioned the novel’s social commentary. How do the 1280 people of Pottsville treat and react to Corey?

They see him as an imbecile, but are fine with the sheriff because he won’t get in their way if they do something outside of the law. The population of Pottsville operates like a mob. Unfounded rumors can lead to violence and quick mistrust, which Nick uses. The people are also racist, and while amoral, Nick interferes during the beating of black man by making an absurd argument about using city property for abuse while allowing the victim to escape. Nick knows the messed up values of the population. He doesn’t try to change them, but manipulates the people in the moment and doles out punishment later. In some ways the book comes across as an absurd farce, but all of this is happening today. (Social media outrage, people believing outright lies, etc.)

The book was published in 1964, the same year as the Civil Rights Act. Is the movement weaved into Pop. 1280?

Great question. It’s not. Pottsville is so isolated (Potts County is the smallest in Texas) and the people are set in their ways with strong prejudices, which they don’t mind voicing out loud. Even though Nick Corey uses the people’s sentiments to get to his ends, while being intelligent enough not to believe it, he is also a cold-blooded killer with a growing god complex. He will kill the people he saves if they become trouble for him later on. The book exploits the ugliness of small towns, but it is through the eyes of an even darker (and misleading) narrator.

Jim Thompson led an interesting life, including procuring high grade drugs and marijuana for guests at the Texas hotel where he worked as a bellboy. You could say he had an amoral view of life. Is Corey (and Lou Ford from The Killer Inside Me) an extreme extension of the author?

Hmm. I’m not sure. For one thing Thompson was an alcoholic and I could be wrong, but I don’t think either Luke Ford or Corey drink much, if at all. They are surrounded by booze and others drink it to their peril. It’s as if they want a sober mind to have the edge on everybody around them. Thompson never seemed to have that edge in life. He scrambled to keep his head above water, working any job he could find – and his books, while admired, were never bestsellers. He even got screwed over by Stanley Kubrick when he wrote the screenplays for The Killing and Paths of Glory. If anything, Corey and Ford, are antithetical to Thompson: they get what they want and have control. Thompson had neither. Perhaps he wanted those qualities, but felt you needed to be a sociopath to have them.

Jim Thompson

Corey’s clearly amoral in what seems an amoral town. Does he have any redeeming characteristics?

As a reader, it’s fun to see him expose all of the small town prejudices and for a while it seems like he has a moral code under his bumpkin veneer. But by the end he’s lost any morality as his ego inflates to the point he believes he’s above man’s laws. He’s like a trickster god/spirit in fables, but without supernatural abilities.

If Corey is the protagonist, who’s his antagonist? What’s their motive?

Corey has several antagonists including: Pimps who berate Corey because their payoffs entitle them. A condescending neighboring sheriff who believes he can teach the slow-witted Corey through humiliation – with a literal ass-kicking. A do-gooder running for sheriff to end corruption in Pottsville. A hateful wife who uses Corey’s position and “ignorance” to carry on an affair with her supposed half-witted brother. A wife-beating drunk who causes trouble in town and beats Corey’s mistress out of self-loathing. Two mistresses who don’t know about each other, but both have explosive personalities that could undo Corey if they find out.

There are several competing conflicts flying around that Corey has to juggle and with each victory he feels more powerful.

How does the do-gooder come off? The town and its sheriff sound so venal you’d think the principled man would be someone to root for. Or does he rub you up the wrong way?

Not well. He’s hardly seen as Corey tells the district attorney/store owner that he’ll defend his opponent’s honor against all the vicious rumors going. When pressed about what they are, Corey says he’ll not repeat them. The populace speculates, each rumor worse than the next, and soon the do-gooder is run out of town. Corey acts as if he’s defending him the entire time.

Erik Pruitt called your work “bleak, uncompromising and funny.” How deep has Thompson hooked his claws into your writing?

He has to a degree. Definitely the twisted humor, overall darkness, and social commentary – without preaching (i.e., show people’s ugly prejudices without stating it is wrong.) I identify with him being an Okie and working several manual jobs before writing. The one thing I can’t do well is write sociopaths and psychopaths like he can. I usually write people with consciences, who make bad or detrimental choices. Often they are screw-ups, tripping over themselves, or misguided in a moment of emotion. Thompson wrote several characters who are, or believe, they are in control (perhaps projecting his desire for a quality he didn’t have?) I feel Thompson’s overall character psychology is stronger than mine and it is something to aspire towards. Also, some of his books build up to a strong finale, but the concluding sentences are more philosophical than a punctuated climax. I don’t have the nerve to try to pull that off.

How important is humour when reading and writing noir? Can you give an example from Pop. 1280?

It’s a fun thing to add, but not necessary. It’s also tricky to do right because it can derail the tone of a story. Humor can also add or alleviate tension in a scene. One way to is have a straight character, stressed out of his mind in an absurd situation, each choice more frustrating for the character, but funny for the reader. Another is to have a character with funny lines or perspectives that are out there. Corey’s first person narration is long-winded, but funny in his euphemisms and sideways approaches to issues. An example might be the district attorney/storekeeper asking Corey why he doesn’t act honest and courageous if he wants to win an election.

I shook my head, and said I couldn’t “I just plain can’t, Robert Lee, and that’s a fact.”

“No?” He leaned back in his chair. “And just why can’t you, pray tell?”

“For a couple of reasons,” I said. “For one thing, I ain’t real brave and hard-workin [I hit return instead of apostrophe.] “For one thing, I ain’t real brave and hard-workin’ and honest. For another, the voters don’t want me to be.”

And just how do you figure that?”

“They elected me, didn’t they? They keep electing me.”

Later in the same scene with Robert Lee, Corey talks about what a great man his opponent Sam Gaddis is.

“I know Sam’s as good a man as they come. That’s why I can’t understand how all these stories about him got started.”

“Well, that’s fine. I–what?” He stared at me startled. “What stories?”

“You mean you ain’t heard?” I said.

“Of course, I haven’t! Now just what are these stories?”

I made as if I was about to tell him, and then I stopped and shook my head. “If you ain’t heard ’em, you sure ain’t gonna hear ’em from me. No, siree!”

He took a quick look around and leaned forward, voice lowered. “Tell me, Nick. I swear I won’t repeat a word you say.”

Nick continues to refuse to say anything and Robert Lee starts asking around, setting off the rumors. It’s absurd and silly and yet it works with violence in between.

Does the proposed film adaptation of the book excite or scare you?

Mostly excited. Yorgos Lanthimos wrote and directed one of the weirdest and disturbing domestic dramas with Dogtooth. It is about parents keeping their adult children isolated in a permanent state of arrested development. They have no concept of the outside world. The movie was bizarre, with dark humor throughout. He created that environment in a matter of minutes. I feel he’d be able to get the social commentary of Pop. 1280 along with the multiple plot points that Corey has to deal with. There is a lot that Thompson wrote about in Pottsville that is appropriate in today’s political climate.

There are some books like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that I wouldn’t want to see on film, the savagery is too much. The theme is evil consuming everything until only the worst survives. I didn’t care for the movie, The Killer Inside Of Me as it dwelled on the violence of Luke Ford and not the person he’d been – helping out neighbors, patient arrests, etc. – before the psychopath emerges. But don’t think anybody needs to remake TKIM either. Let stay it as a book.

Yorgos Lanthimos

What do you think Thompson would make of the world as it is now?

He’d shake his head and wonder how Texan sensibilities made it to the national stage – pomp over substance, grand statements without evidence, using emotion and prejudice to sway a nation. He might even say I warned you about this evil.

Your short story collection, Bloodshot and Bruised, has had high praise from top Crime writers Jordan Harper, Hilary Davidson and Eryk Pruitt. Do you have plans to write longer works?

I hope so. I have 5-6 manuscripts that are in various stages and outlines for more. Hoping I can have something finished and in good shape by the end of the year.

That’s a ton. How do you keep each straight when you’re writing? Do they bleed into each other?

I try to make the stories distinct and different from each other. Often with unique characters that can’t be interchanged, tones specific to that book, and locations that are different. I have quartet of noir novellas set in the West Texas town of Tarwater. While the town may be a grade above Pottsville, it’s not by much. Three are finished, but the finale is killing me. The opening is strong and I know the end, but the middle is a mess. I wrote the sequel to my first novella LOST IN CLOVER – set in Kansas with a man getting over survivor’s guilt – called POLICING CLOVER, but hesitated sending it out as there was a lot of police work which I’m afraid of getting wrong. I started to change the location to Oklahoma, based on my home town, and start fresh. I began a Western last year where a marshal tries to bring justice for a transvestite murdered by a celebrated murderer. (This has Pop. 1280 themes.)

I’ve written a few comic stories. One is set in the near future after a big earthquake hits LA and a C-list actor wakes up from a coma to become a messiah. I started a second person account of a sidekick to an 80s super-slick cop, making fun of action tropes.

I also started to reconfigure a my first detective novel from third to first-person. I wanted to avoid this, but it might need to be this way to work right.

Finally, I made a 15 page outline to extend a short story into a Don Winslow-esque thriller. The problem is that the story might need to be told in 2 parts. In between, I write short stories. My wife is pushing me to focus on one novel this year. Hopefully I can.

Much to look forward to, then. Here’s to your wife keeping you on the straight and narrow.

Travis, you’ve been a great guest. Any last words on Pop. 1280?

These were great, insightful questions. I’d say, that Thompson isn’t for everyone, but between the brutal scenes, uncomfortable dialogue, and overall chaos, is an exploration of truth. And it isn’t pretty.

Thank you, Jason. These were very thoughtful questions. I enjoyed digging deep for the answers.

Read on:

The Jim Thompson revival.

5 Questions with Travis Richardson5 Questions with Travis Richardson

Here are some Travis Richardson short stories to bite into:

Here’s to Bad Decisions: Red’s Longneck Hooch at Shotgun Honey

A Misunderstanding at Flash Fiction Offensive

You can buy Travis Richardson’s work at Amazons US and UK.

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Bill Baber on The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

Bill Baber is Messy Business’ guest today, talking about James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Crumley has been compared to Hunter S. Thompson and Raymond Chandler, his hardboiled noir having a post-Vietnam edge of cynicism to distinguish it from predecessors.

Bill Baber is a fantastic writer you’ll find all across the internet on fiction sites such The Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Spelk Fiction and a horde of others.

Hi Bill, which book are we talking about?

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

What’s it about?

C.W. Sughrue is a Vietnam vet who works as a bouncer at a Montana topless bar and doubles as a private investigator. Hired to track down an alcoholic author, the pair end up searching for a girl who disappeared in the Haight- Ashbury a decade earlier. The hunt takes them through the underbelly of the American West and into some of the darkest places people are capable of going.

A story about a private dick. There’s been so many, what stands out about The Last Good Kiss?

Well, there are always some cliches with P.I. novels and Sughrue is certainly a hard-drinking example of that. But the writing makes this book stand out.The opening line is as good as any ever written – in any genre. And Sughrue is as unique a character as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. He is sometimes more a saddle tramp than anything else, and Crumley’s stories become modern westerns in a sense.

And the thing about Sughrue is that – even though his aspirations can be somewhat noble – between drugs, weapons and his actions, he is a one man crime wave. But I keep going back to the writing. It was like nothing I had ever read before.I read it for the first time in the late 70’s. Poetic sentences are laced throughout. It was the first literary crime fiction I had ever read and it wasn’t until I discovered Lehane and James Lee Burke that anything else came close.

James Crumley

Is the book written in the first person? Do the poetic sentences come out of the character?

Yes and yes. It is written in first person. Sughrue narrates the story. Here is the iconic first line:

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

This is my favorite passage from the book. Doesn’t get much more noir than this and it’s pretty damn poetic:

“Sadness softened her nasal twang, that ubiquitous accent that had drifted out of the Appalachian hills and hollows, across the southern plains, across the southwestern deserts, insinuating itself all the way to the golden hills of California. But somewhere along the way, Rosie had picked up a gentler accent too, a fragrant voice more suited to whisper throaty, romantic words like Wisteria, or humid phrases like honeysuckle vine, her voice for gentleman callers. “Just fine,” she repeated. Even little displaced Okie girls grow up longing to be gone with some far better wind than that hot, cutting, dusty bite that’s blowing their daddy’s crops to hell and gone. I went to get her a beer, wishing it could be something finer.”

That is poetic. Does the violence come out fast and brutal, like Ellroy, or does he describe it like above?

Unlike some of his other works, where the bodies can quickly pile up, there is not much actual violence in The Last Good Kiss. His descriptions of what leads to the violence is damn good prose as is the implied violence and how that effects the story.

Do you prefer the implied violence? Your short stories contain it, but they’re short, sharp and to the point.

Yeah, sometimes I do. I think it’s harder for a writer to write a crime story without lots of violence. But really good writers can do it. The threat is always there and you feel that constant tension.

What does Crumley have to say about the American West?

He laments the changes. He bemoans over-development, real estate speculators , timber interests, anything that has changed the face of the west. Sughrue and his other PI character, Milo Milodragovitch were born a hundred years too late. They both live by the code of the old west. Essentially, they are modern day saddle tramps who just want to be left alone. I think this passage sums it up well: “I parked beside Trahearne’s Caddy, got out to stretch the miles out of my legs, then walked out of the spring sunshine into the dusty shade of the joint, my boot heels rocking gently on the warped floorboards, my sigh relieved in the darkened air. This was the place, the place I would have come on my own wandering binge, come here and lodged like a marble in a crack, this place, a haven for California Okies and exiled Texans, a home for country folk lately dispossessed, their eyes so empty of hope that they reflect hot , windy plains, spare, almost Biblical sweeps of horizon broken only by the spines of an orphaned rocking chair, and beyond this, clouded with rage, the reflections of orange groves and ax handles. This could have just as easily been my place, a home where a man could drink in boredom and repent in violence and be forgiven for the price of a beer…”

Bill Baber

Does Vietnam sit in the novel’s background? If so, in what ways?

First, here is one more great quote about the “modern” west: “…I put Rosie’s eighty-seven dollars in a dollar slot machine and hit a five-hundred dollar jackpot. Then I fled to the most depressing place in the West, the Salt Lake City bus terminal, where I drank Four Roses from a pint bottle wrapped in a paper bag. I couldn’t even get arrested, so I headed up to Pocatello to guzzle Coors like a pig at a trough with a gang of jack Mormons, thinking I could pick a fight, but I didn’t have the heart for it. Eventually, none the worse for wear, I drifted North toward Meriwether like a saddle tramp looking for a spring roundup.”

The Vietnam war is never far away. It’s not mentioned often in the book but even if it weren’t mentioned at all you would know the setting was the underbelly of America just after it ended. Sughrue is a vet who earned a dishonorable discharge and spent time in a military prison for an assault that went too far. As a result, he is recruited to spy on left wing groups for the government. Between the war and espionage, he hones his PI skills – becoming a warrior without a war.

If Sughrue hankers for the ways of the old west, how does he see his role as an agent for the new America, the one which intervenes across the world and allows big business to transform his ideals of old America?

Hard question, easy answer. Have you been to Montana? That’s his main stomping ground. Hang out in bars there and the rest of the world goes away. Anytime he deals with that kind of bullshit he heads home, says fuck it and goes on a bender. Strip all the macho layers away and he’s a simple man. Good whiskey, good smoke, a pan fried elk steak and the occasional dalliance with a damsel, who is usually in distress, is all he needs to be happy.

James Crumley

Never been to Montana. So who’s the girl and why is she missing? Murder or a need for anonymity?

Betty Sue Flowers. She has a falling out with her mother, who runs the beer joint where Sughrue finds Trahearne. Out of kindness – and for eighty-seven dollars – Sughrue agrees to look for her.

Is Trahearne the alcoholic author Sughrue is initially looking for?


Why does Trahearne get involved in the search?

Sughrue finds him not far from San Francisco and is supposed to take him back to his wife in Montana. But Betty Sue may be or may have been in the Haight-Ashbury, so the two, who have kind of hit it off, take a detour to look for her.

Your bio says you’re a writer of trashy crime stories. How do you categorize The Last Good Kiss?

Crumley’s books are definitely boiled harder than most but I call them literary crime fiction. I put Lehane and James Lee Burke in that same category. There is more going on than just crime.

As I said before, you call your own stuff as trashy crime stories, but you have turns of phrase that could be considered literary. Do you aim for the literary?

Thanks, I do but I have a long ways to go to get where I would like to be. Initially you asked how I would classify my work and I gave that a great deal of thought. I write as a hobby so I suppose that allows me to write in different styles and different settings. For instance, after visiting New Orleans once I have since set a few stories there. I’ve never been to New York but I have written stories set there. Never been anywhere else in the south but have written stories about it. I suppose if I were aiming for fame and fortune I would need to both hone and define my style better. My hope is to someday write a literary crime novel.

What do you like about a trashy crime story? Which movie would fit the bill?

I like the way a trashy crime story just jumps off the page. I hope he won’t take offense because to me, trashy is a great thing in crime fiction and Tom Leins’ Paigton Noir stories are a delight! As far as movies go, Pulp Fiction is the first thing I think of that fits that description.

Tom Leins is a cracking storyteller.
Bill, you’ve been great. Any final words?

Couple of things. It’s too bad Crumley only left us seven crime novels. And earlier I talked about the poetic nature of his writing. The title The Last Good Kiss was taken from a poem by Crumley’s good friend, Richard Hugo.

Thanks for having me, Jason, it’s been fun.

You can buy James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss at Amazons UK and US.

Here’s a taste of Bill Baber’s work. They’ll draw you in and make you push him hard for that novel he’s working on.

Jason Beech’s Books

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.


“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.


“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

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