5 Questions with…
Chris McGinley

Chris McGinley’s new collection of short stories, Coal Black, is more than just a great collection of brutal crime stories; it’s a deep exploration of the social ties and crises confronting people in eastern Kentucky. From petty thieves to poachers to cops, he imbues his characters with nuanced life… even when they face grisly deaths. McGinley sat down with Nick Kolakowski to talk about the book, his inspirations, and what he’s reading.

Q. Where do you draw the inspiration for your stories? Are the characters and situations based on real-life people you know?

Hey Nick, thanks for having me. My inspiration comes mostly from other writers, other stories, and from the dynamics of rural regions generally. That is to say, it derives from the collective stories of people in Appalachia, and from people in rural regions, though I don’t live in one myself.

With the proliferation of news outlets and other electronic media, the stories of these people, these regions, are more accessible than they have been in the past—and of course there are books about these areas, too. Even colorless reports like those of the Appalachian Regional Commission provide me with ideas.

And as I said, authors and other storytellers give me inspiration, the writers of the so-called Romantic tradition in American literature—Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Irving—are all hugely influential for me. Like a good many crime writers, however, I don’t really know any criminal types. These characters are inventions in large part.

Q. The book has a real feel for the current issues gripping eastern Kentucky, from drugs to mining. How does your own background factor into what you write? 

Coming from a middle-class family, I’ve been blessed with access to formal education and to employment opportunities that don’t involve corporate exploitation and the cycles of poverty that plague large segments of Appalachia. Frankly, I’ve never had to deal with those problems, and in the end I could never truly understand them. But the stories interest me, the sadness of so much of it, and the fact that it continues to go on, and that people endure.

Q. “Kin to Me” is one of my favorite stories in the book—it features complicated characters, an intriguingly weird premise, and probably the most interesting MacGuffin I’ve seen recently in crime fiction. What was your inspiration for it? As I read it, I kept thinking of Otzi, the famous Ice Man of the Alps…

Funny you should mention Otzi, Nick. I always cover Otzi in seventh grade social studies. (I’m a middle school teacher.) It’s the first true murder mystery, right?  But the idea is that the main character in that story is somehow a part of the legacy of the violence of the region’s past, even prehistoric violence. The Man, as I call the bog body from this story, is a symbol of all this—the exploitation, the violence, the Past with an upper case “p,” if you will. I wanted to trace a history of sadness, of violence and exploitation, that suggests an even earlier origin than that which we commonly think of when we think of Appalachia, or other rural regions. And I wanted to render a character who felt it all and decided to stand up in the only way he could. As for Otzi, and the bog bodies of Iron Age Europe, those guys are always on my mind! 

Q. What stories in this collection are closest to your heart, and why?  

The story that means most to me is “The Quilt.” I’ve never quilted and I’m not a woman, but the idea of some shared craft among women, who often bear more of the burden in impoverished regions, is something incredibly tender and resonant in a different kind of way than other shared things. There’s a sense of one generation passing down something to others, something that’s been lost because of external conditions, but not entirely. I think the end is hopeful. I think the main character experiences something like apotheosis . . . wait . . . that’s the right word, isn’t it?

Q. Who’s your inspiration in terms of crime fiction? Who are you reading right now?

 As far as crime fiction goes, I’ve recently finished some stuff that probably qualifies as “literary crime fiction.” Anyway, I guess that’s what they call it.

Ian Pears’ THE INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST is an excellent “crime” novel, as is THE GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane, which is an historical novel as much as a crime novel. Then there’s Ron Rash’s THE RISEN and SERENA, both of which I read recently. These are most assuredly crime novels, but they wouldn’t be found in the mystery section of the bookstore.  

I just finished a towering novel, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, by Davis Grubbs. But my favorite crime novels of recent years are all three Donna Tartt novels, and if we can go back as far as the 80s, Patrick Suskind’s odd work, PERFUME. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ONCE UPON A RIVER is a great new novel. 

5 Questions with
E. A. Aymar

This week, it’s Ed Aymar in the seat for our 5 questions. Ed is the author of “The Unrepentant,” a book that Publisher’s Weekly described as a “gut-wretching crime thriller.” Ed is also a hilarious guy in person. How does a hilarious guy plunge into those deep, dark places? Let’s find out!

Q. In the intro to this book, you mention interviewing a number of women about their traumatic experiences in the world of prostitution. I’m sure that was difficult and complicated. How did you do it, and did the experience differ from what you imagined it would be heading in?

First off, thanks Nick! I’m a fan of your work and everyone should read your fantastic novellas. And if you or anyone else edits this out, I’ll just post it in the comments. DON’T TEST ME.

As for your question…you know, I’d never done that much research for my writing. Most of the research I’d conducted was location-based; I write about real places, and I always want to make sure my representation is accurate. I don’t feel comfortable writing about a location unless I’ve set foot there and stared at the buildings or streets or fields with my own eyes.

So this was the first time I did research outside of my own experiences, and it was unnerving. Of course I read, and I read as many books as I could until I began to see the correlation between violence and prostitution, which is the line The Unrepentant explores.

But it was talking to people that was unnerving. I don’t have proper journalism training, and I worried about forgetting to ask something, and then having to call the person back, and then forgetting something else, and basically annoying someone to the point of exasperation. But the people I spoke with – women involved in anti-sex trafficking movements, or active sex workers – were incredibly gracious and giving with their time. We had conversations rather than interviews.

[products columns=”2″ ids=”7564″ orderby=”date” order=”DESC”]

Q. Whenever anyone writes about the kinds of things your characters go through, there’s always the risk it’ll be seen as exploitive. You obviously had that concern when writing this. How did you make sure you didn’t go over the line (i.e., checked yourself before you wrecked yourself)?

Nowadays there’s a lot of deserved feistiness in regards to voice – how you assume the voice of a character, why you’re doing it, and what you’re saying – and I was conscious of that when writing The Unrepentant, particularly because one of the co-protagonists is a young woman. I’m in the fortunate position of having a number of peer readers who are talented women writers, a female agent, and the editor for the book was a woman. They made sure I didn’t fuck up her voice or experiences too dramatically, or guy her up too much.

I wasn’t too worried about sensationalizing the violence or depicting sexual violence graphically. My view on violence is generally that it’s callous, and stupid, and cruel. So there wasn’t too much of a chance of me John Woo’ing a fight scene.

I worry about the celebration of violence in our media and entertainment, and I’d hope that this book doesn’t give readers anything other than a general sense of unease in regards to it. I’m not opposed to violence as entertainment, but that wasn’t the right or responsible approach for this particular book.

Q. What made you decide to tackle this novel now? Why this plot?

That sort of ties into the response to your last question. The people who read my other books tended to gravitate toward my female characters, and I wanted a female as a protagonist. And the more you read about violence – particularly from the perspective I chose – the more you come across violence done to women. Charlotte emerged from those two elements, and the rest of the plot came with her. She started it, the story and the other characters followed in her wake.

But I didn’t set out to write a book about sex trafficking and, although that’s obviously a huge element of the novel and a large focus of my research, I shy away from terming it a “sex trafficking novel.” It’s a study of violence, who does it, and how it affects the abuser and the abused.

Visit EAymar.com

Q. You’re well-known as a managing editor (of The Thrill Begins), a columnist (of the Washington Independent Review of Books), and an anthology editor (of the awesome “The Night of the Flood”). How do you think all that editor experience affects how you write novels? Does it impact how you approach your own writing?  

Hey, thanks for not putting well-known in quotation marks! That’s nice of you.

The Thrill Begins gives me a better understanding of publishing than I’d have otherwise. The regular contributors write for a mix of big five and specialty publishers, and some have experimented in self-publishing. We’re friends, and share with each other what our experiences are like. And the features we do often provide an honest look at the variety of experiences writers have in this business, both good and bad. That’s been extremely helpful in regards to navigating my own career.

When I started writing, I didn’t expect to write anything other than novels; largely because I didn’t think I could write anything other than fiction. And then, after my first novel, was published, I realized how shortsighted I’d been. Writing for the Washington Independent of Books has given me the chance to push myself as a writer, and that’s a wonderful thing. I love being able to be part of the publication, and I love getting to flex a muscle I wouldn’t otherwise.

The cool thing about the anthology is how much it made me sharpen my own game. I’ve reviewed short stories before, and it was so cool to get a batch of stories that were all good. Every story was the realization that I was working with a sharp, hungry, talented writer, and that was such a cool experience. And, as an editor, you see how good writers approach their work in different stages, and that’s insight you wouldn’t get any other way.

Q. How’s the crime fiction scene in MD/VA/DC? Is it becoming more robust?

 

I think it’s the best in the country.

I know those are fightin’ words, but I stand by them. This area is producing some of the best noir, cozies, procedural, political, historical, and cop fiction out there. And given the wonderful diversity in the area, we also have the benefit of writing from a variety of perspectives and experiences.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that good crime fiction isn’t being written in the Midwest, California, New York, Florida, the south…not at all. But I’d absolutely put the DC/MD/VA triangle against any of those regions.

Overall, it’s a wonderful time to be writing crime fiction – competitive, but not cruel. We all support each other, and even though we’re going through some growing pains as we necessarily change and understand and adapt, we’re all here and hungry and working to improve. I love that, and I love being part of it, and I love that the triangle reflects the best of that experience. So suck it, Ohio.

Be sure to leave a comment below to be eligible to win a digital copy of THE UNREPENTANT by E. A. Aymar. Winner will be selected Monday April 29th.

5 Questions with
Nick Kolakowski

This week Nick Kolakowski‘s third and final release of the Love & Bullets trilogy hits with Main Bad Guy. Nick has not only contributed this wonderful series to the Shotgun Honey Book line, but he’s also one of the three gauntlet members who review fiction submissions for the site, as well an unsung book editor for our imprint. He helps out a lot.

In fact, usually, Nick is interviewer for the 5 Questions interviews, but today we flip the script. Nick is the subject, and Travis Richardson, who was Nick’s last victim is the interviewer. So lets see what transpired.

Q. MAIN BAD GUY is the third and final book in the “Love & Bullets” trilogy. When you started the first book, A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, did you know it was going to be a trilogy? If so, did you know what each of the stories would be about early on and the ends of the major characters? And if not, do you regret any choices made in the first book that you might not have made if knew it was a three part series?

When I wrote “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps,” I had no idea it would become a trilogy—and I regret killing one of the main characters, who was funny and unhinged and in retrospect would have been a valuable player throughout the subsequent two books. I also regret killing him in a way that gave me absolutely zero wiggle room for bringing him back; at least authors like Arthur Conan Doyle were smart enough to subject their heroes to highly ambiguous demises, like throwing them into a large body of water.

All that aside, after I finished writing “Brutal Bunch,” the characters of Bill and Fiona kept speaking to me, and I felt compelled to begin writing another book about them. Plot-wise, I didn’t know exactly where I wanted them to end up, but character-wise I had very firm ideas: Fiona, who starts out as pretty ruthless and bloodthirsty, was going to get increasingly pacifistic, and Bill, who is a great hustler but pretty much useless when it comes to violence, was going to get more competent at survival.

[products columns=”2″ ids=”7564″ orderby=”date” order=”DESC”]

Q. In MAIN BAD GUY you have a good bad guys (former assassins, thieves, etc.) vs. bad bad guys (evil crime bosses, paranoid drug kings, mercenaries, etc.) Which do you prefer to write and why?

Bad bad guys are hard to sustain over an entire book—that’s why Hannibal Lecter always seems to work better as a supporting character, or at least a second lead, than as a main character. With good bad guys, though, you have a lot of internal friction—there are fine character beats you can mine out of someone whose intentions are good, but whose circumstances lead them to do highly anti-social things like kill people. So I like writing about the good bad guys; they seem more capable of driving a narrative that’s hundreds of pages long.

Q. In the final book, Bill and Fiona spend the entire time in New York. (Seriously they can’t move.) It seems the other two books have multiple locations beyond the Empire State. As a New Yorker, did you want to end the series in the Big Apple as a sort of messed up love letter and what does New York mean to you in terms of crime fiction?

The first book begins in New York (chronologically, at least; it appears in flashbacks) and so I always wanted it to end there. New York has been a prime location for crime fiction for many decades, but the character of the city has changed considerably in the last quarter-century; when you read the early books of someone like Lawrence Block, where Midtown is a seedy wreck, it now seems like an alien world. I wanted “Main Bad Guy” to address New York’s gentrifying environment, and suggest that, no matter how clean or shiny a place might become, at least some of its people will always remain warped or cracked or seedy.

Plus, I’m sick of how gentrification has transformed portions of my neighborhood into a bunch of soulless, tasteless buildings; taking one of those buildings and making it the center of a lot of fiery mayhem gave me a vicarious and vicious thrill.

Visit NickKolakowski.com

Q. The “Love & Bullets” collection has a lot of gonzo action that is hilarious and thrilling. I love it. Were there any scenes that you wrote through the series that you had to retract or tone down to keep it within the realms of reality? Or did you create an impossible situation that Fiona and Bill couldn’t escape?   

I didn’t tone anything down—in fact, at certain key moments, I asked myself how I could maximize the weirdness. The tone of the books is madcap enough that I felt I could really stretch the reality; when you have a character prancing through a gunfight in an Elvis suit (“A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps”), decapitating another character in a self-driving Tesla (“Slaughterhouse Blues”), or trying to hide in a weed grow-house on top of a skyscraper (“Main Bad Guy”), pretty much anything goes.

With “Main Bad Guy,” my goal was ultimately to confine Bill and Fiona into as small a space as possible. I’ve always loved siege movies like John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13,” and I wanted to design something that paid homage to that—put your characters in a box, give them zero resources, surround them with villains, and let them try to figure out how to survive.

Q. You open MAIN BAD GUY with a scene from Fiona’s past. It was a fun and informative scene to know who she is and her relationship with her father. Did you always have that as her bio or did it evolve from the previous novels?

That scene was originally a flashback from the first book! I cut it out because of pacing, but I always wanted to use it; “Main Bad Guy” gave me an opportunity to do so, because it also introduces her father, who plays a major role in the book. If you want insight into Fiona’s character, you just need to realize she’s spent her life emulating her daddy.  

5 Questions with
Travis Richardson

Travis Richardson

Travis Richardson is a regular contributor to Shotgun Honey starting with his first story “The Day We Shot Jesus on Main Street” originally published in 2012. Since then he’s contributed his short fiction to a number of fiction sites and anthologies, becoming an award nominated and well respected writer of short fiction. His work recently appeared in the award winning The Obama Inheritance edited by Gary Phillips.

Today editor and contributor Nick Kolakowski talks with Travis Richardson about his latest release Bloodshot and Bruised: Crime Stories from the South and West, which kicks off with the very story we published six years ago.

Bloodshot and Bruised: Crime Stories from the South and West

Q. Bloodshot and Bruised offers a whole range of crime stories. You touch on everything from the 1992 LA riots to neo-Nazism to good old-fashioned revenge. Is there a common theme that connects most (if not all) of these tales?

While my stories vary in location, structure, and voice, a theme that I often have is the choices that characters make often pivot the stories.  Whether in the present or the past, those choices have consequences. My personal definition of noir is people making bad decisions.

[products columns=”2″ ids=”7564″ orderby=”date” order=”DESC”]

Q. What draws you to writing short stories?

The short answer is completeness and brevity. I can’t say that I’ve ever written a perfect story, but I feel I get closer to perfection the shorter a work is. While editing, I like reading an entire story in one sitting and make changes to the flow and the rhythm that I wouldn’t be able to do with a novel.  A wonderful thing about tight word counts, like flash fiction, is that every unnecessary word gets the hatchet.  

Q. I know this is sort of like asking to choose between favorite children or pets… but what’s your favorite story from this collection?

It’s a little tough, but “The Day We Shot Jesus on Main Street” has to be the one. It was one of my first published short stories, and Shotgun Honey put it out into the world. I received a lot of positive feedback about the story and knew I was on the right path.    

Visit TSRichardson.com

Q. Do you find it easier to write long, or short? What advice do you have for writers who want to craft a perfect short story, but wrestle with keeping the narrative under a certain word-count?

I like the short story because I can complete it. I have several unfinished (and finished) longer works that never feel ready. Typically, my first draft for Shotgun Honey or other flash fiction sites is around 1500 words to get the idea and flow, and then I chip away until only the essentials are left.

I’m not big on descriptions. If there is something unique, I mention it, but outside a of a line or two about a person or place, dialogue and the way a person carries themselves and the way others react to a person or a place is often enough for a reader to visualize all of the elements in a story. 

On longer stories that need to be 5,000 or 10,000 words and I’m over by a few thousand, I’ll try to cut out nonessential scenes by either skipping them or paraphrasing the action. I’ll also go through the MS and focus on paragraphs over 4 lines long and see if I can compress enough words to eliminate a line and move on to the next.

I haven’t been able to do this on a bigger scale for novels. But sometimes bulk is important to the market. I’ve had an agent tell me that while they liked a work, in order to sell a book, I’d need to increase word count to 70k.

Q. What’s next for you?   

Not sure. I finished a short story for an anthology over the weekend. I’ve been writing a quartet of crime novellas set in a West Texas town called Tarwater over the years. The first three are done and edited, I just need to finish writing the finale. I also started a western at the beginning of the year, but left it after 80 pages. I hope to get back to that.

Thank you for the interview, Nick!   

5 Questions with Tom Pitts

Tom Pitts

Tom Pitts is a longtime fixture of the hardboiled scene. His new book, “101,” is a ferocious journey through Northern California’s weed business, set on the cusp of legalization. Its central character, Vic, is a reclusive weed farmer and all-around badass who ends up tangled with some very bad folks. The bodies pile up, along with the double-crosses, as Vic finds himself running out of time and options.

To say anything else would spoil the book’s twists and turns, so we’ll just plunge into our five questions with Mr. Pitts:

101: A Novel by Tom Pitts

Q. It’s clear you did a ton of prep for this book—the detailing around weed, guns, biker gangs, etc. is really impressive. How did you research, and how did that vary (if it did) from your research routine in previous books?

Funny you should ask. I’ve known folks in the pot business a long time. It’s always been a big business in Northern California. Right before I wrote the book, my son started working at a grow in Humboldt County. I went up there to visit and get my hands dirty with the intent of filing away my observations for a book. I still don’t feel like I got it all in; I mean, how could I? But I will say that when my boy (and just to clarify, he’s 28) read the book, he said he got the “feels” ‘cause it made him miss the hills so much. As for the biker end, I interviewed another pal who’d prospected for the big club (the one you’re not allowed to mention), and he gave me a lot of details, like what kind of bikes outlaws prefer, that kind of thing. Texture mostly. But that stuff matters.

I guess technically I did more research than the previous books, although this didn’t feel like research, more like immersion. Yeah, let’s just say I was embedded for a while.

[products columns=”2″ ids=”7564″ orderby=”date” order=”DESC”]

Q. Vic is quite an anti-hero. I don’t think I’ve ever read a ‘suiting up’ scene in a book where, in addition to loading up on a considerable amount of firepower, a character packs an equally considerable amount of alcohol. He’s scary, yet he seems to have a code, and people respect him. How’d you come up with this bad boy, and does he have any real-life inspirations?

He does, actually, but I can’t say who. That’d be “putting yer shit out on Front Street” as they say. But he’s an amalgamation of a couple of tough guys I’ve known. I wanted him to be the strong, silent type, you know? And I needed the reveal of Vic as a mentor to poor Jerry to be slow. It’s clear he’s the alpha dog, but the more delicate side of his nature had to come later.  The anti-hero in “American Static” [Pitt’s previous book—ed.] was such a smartass psychopath, I wanted Vic to be a little more down to earth. And just for the record, I think Vic’s the hero, not the anti-hero. He may get his hands dirty, but he’s always maintaining his code. It’s not the criminal code—God knows there ain’t one of those. It’s more like his own version of the cowboy code.  

Q. The weed business is undergoing some fundamental shifts right now. Some folks even think we’ll see some kind of nationalized legalization at some point (at least after Jeff Sessions stops being Attorney General). Are you ever concerned that something like that would “date” books that deal with weed-based crime? 

That’s the reason I set it “on the cusp of legalization.” I knew it was going to be an issue, but there has to be a line somewhere. Before Prohibition and after, WWI, the late Sixties—things are set in time, there’s no way around it. Good art captures eras; I hope this does the same. It’ll be hard to tell for a few more years.

The characters in “101” are scrambling to grab what chips they can before recreational weed hits the market. Before 2016, the medicinal market was still plenty corrupt. Growers could walk into a dispensary and unload their harvest—if they knew somebody. Nowadays it’s done with licensed brokers only. It takes a lot of money to get one of those licenses, and you have to show it’s clean cash. Laws and bylaws are being created to bust out the Mom ‘n Pop outfits. In fact, they’re adding so many laws and rules, they’re going to kill the taxpaying goose and drive that stuff back underground. That’d be okay with me. And my pals in the hills.

Visit TomPittsAuthor.com

Q. What’s the crime-fiction scene like in the Bay Area right now?

You know, I think I’m plugged into the community, and then I find out something new is happening and I realize I don’t have my finger on the pulse like I thought I did. I’m kind of isolated. Not intentionally, just by work and the drudgery of life. I’m also stuck in San Francisco. Most everybody else in my social strata has been forced out of the City and into the East Bay. It’s a mere fluke I’m still here, hanging on.

Q. With this book out of the way, what’s your next project?  

My next release after “101” is called “Coldwater.” It’s my take on a suburban horror story. A nice couple moves to the ‘burbs and the empty house across the street is suddenly occupied by squatters—if that’s really what they are. The clash between the couple and the squatters and what’s really going on in that empty house is what drives the story forward.