Interview: Todd Robinson

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When I first came into this crazy crime addled community I scoped out the alpha dogs, the guys running the show. There weren’t any bigger than Big Daddy Thug, Todd Robinson, founder of THUGLIT and launcher of more than one career. Looking at his magazine, I decided at the moment I was going to be part of that action. As soon as I made that decision, Todd put the magazine on hiatus to focus on what he does best, write. The magazine is back with a vengeance and Todd’s book THE HARD BOUNCE is one of my must haves for 2013 (available for pre-order). Let’s just hope the Mayans were wrong.

So, are we ready for some Thug?

How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?

I was about 24 years old and working the door at Boston’s legendary Rathskellar in Kenmore Square when I picked up Andrew Vachss’s BLOSSOM and Elmore Leonard’s GLITZ. At the time, I was. It was the first fiction that I’d read where the characters spoke to the world I lived in, that reflected the nature of life at street level without judgment, that accepted those character’s struggles with as much humanity. When I read those novels, my reaction was, “Hey! I know stories like these. I know people like these.” For the record (and since I’ve been asked multiple times already) The Cellar in THE HARD BOUNCE is a not-so-veiled doppelganger for The Rathskellar. Anybody who knew that scene back in the day might even recognize some of the (also not-so-thinly-veiled) characters in the novel.

Job experiences are great to pull from for writing, especially ones that put you face to face with people of all walks. Before we jump into the writing, tell us about your greatest contribution to the writing community? How did Thuglit come about?

thugpirateIn 2004, I was looking at the markets for short fiction, but couldn’t find anybody who was publishing the kind of gritty fiction that I liked to read—that I wanted to write.

By the time I was pointed at Plots With Guns, they had already stopped taking submissions. There wasn’t much of anything else

At the Toronto Bouchercon, I got into a couple of heated discussions with the long-time AARP members that held a stranglehold on the most prominent short fiction markets. They kept complaining that their sales shrank every year; I told them that their audience was dying of old age. I kept questioning them about publishing material that spoke to an audience that wasn’t of my grandmother’s sensibilities, maybe loosening their restrictions on language and sexuality—in other words, adapting for a younger market. Needless to say, they didn’t take my suggestions civilly. And neither did much of the audience, which consisted of mostly residents of what I could only assume was the same nursing home, and cozy aficionados. Basically, by the end, I was told that there was no market for edgy fiction, and if I didn’t like what they did, I should go start my own magazine. I did.

And I think the number of literary awards and accolades that THUGLIT has garnered over the last seven years, side-by-side with what they’ve achieved, speaks for itself.

Reminds me of a conversation I had with a cozy writer on the way home from the St. Louis Bouchercon, a definite generational divide. Not to rehash too much history, but a lot of readers like myself missed the Thuglit the first go around, so give us the highlight reel, the behind the scenes of becoming Big Daddy Thug.

I already had the domain name, which served as a half-assed blog. THUGLIT was my answer to Chick Lit. And a “thuglit” is also a term in the urban dictionary for “a little thug”—a tem I thought was perfect for short fiction in our vein. I just opened it up for submissions on writer forums, Craigslist, and the such. It amazed me how many writers and readers, right off the bat, were so grateful that somebody was publishing their kind of fiction. Two issues in, and we had Derringer nominations and a story in Best American Mystery. It just kinda snowballed from there.

As far as Big Daddy Thug is concerned, it started as a joke. One night at the bar, this drunken bimbo was complaining that I didn’t buy her a round. The owner of the bar, eager to move the screeching harpy away from earshot, waved an okay to me to comp her one. I found a middle ground. I told said Bimbo, that I would buy her a round if she said “Thank you, Big Daddy.” Much to my surprise, she did, resulting in a spit-take from my boss, and a free shit-brand rum-and-coke for Bimbo. Everybody wins! After that, Big Daddy became the nickname for my nasty side, and the nickname has followed me through three different bars now.

So when we started the mag, I thought it would be fun to have noir alter-egos and to have an alternate universe for the editors to play in. Over the years, the core group of our editorial knuckle-headery consisted of Lady Detroit (Allison Glasgow) and Johnny Kneecaps (John Moore); and our guest editors were Caesar Black (Robert S.P. Lee), The Pope of St. Louis (Jordan Harper), Roadhouse (Justin Porter) El Feo (Alejandro Peña), and now, we’ve just added The Blue Dahlia (Julie McCarron) to the core.

A bunch of little thugs showing what you could do. I dig. You and I have some common ground where we both entered as writers and let circumstance evolve us into more. I can’t imagine you expected to be approaching 10 years as a publisher and purveyor of other writers’ works?

I had no intention of being on this side of the desk at ALL, much less for nearly a decade. If you’ve ever enjoyed anything out of THUGLIT, you owe a strange debt of gratitude to the cozy biddies who issued a challenge to a guy that doesn’t take challenge lightly.

Are you a hat wearer? You seem to wear a few of them as publisher, writer, family man and working stiff. How do you manage that balancing act?

Like the old saying goes; “Want to know how to get something done? Ask a busy man.”

I read submissions on my subway ride to work. I’m answering this question while the kid naps (he’s three-years-old) and the wife is at school. I’m working seven bar shifts next week. When the kid goes to bed tonight, I’m designing the cover for the third issue of Thuglit and editing a story. I always feel like I’m behind on something (and I usually am). If I take any time off, even one night, I get anxiety attacks. Oh, and I told my agent that I’d have a new novel in her hands by the end of January.

I may have psychological issues…

You didn’t leave any room write? I get what you’re laying down, every scrap of time is an opportunity. All those stolen opportunities have resulted in your first novel, The Hard Bounce being released from Tyrus Books. You touched on it at the top of the interview, give us the pitch!

thehardbounceI’m a binge writer. I need larger blocks of time to write, but when I do, I fly. I recently got into a conversation with kid who was in the Creative Writing program at The New School and he was curious about my process. God bless the kid—head full of flights of fancy, but also wedged firmly in his own ass. He said that he could maybe get two or three good paragraphs out in a week. I replied that I stitched together three good hours the week before, wrote a 12 page short story, and had it placed in a magazine before the weekend was over. My personal best was 223 pages written in 8 days. I almost had to be hospitalized after, but I did it.

The Hard Bounce…man. Been ten years of rough road on that baby, but it’s finally seeing the light of day. The fucker has been with four publishers, five agents, and has seen more edits than I care to count any more. But I’ve always believed in the book and loved the characters. I still can’t believe most days that the journey with it is almost over (it comes out in January 2013). My only concern is over-hype. I mean, this book has been on some people’s radar for a decade, been so close so many times, and so many people have (God bless ’em) been waiting to see it. But you know what? Honestly? I wrote what I hope is a fresh take in a genre I love. I really hope that people love the ride and feel with the characters as deeply as I do. But I live in fear of that over-hype. I’m not a literary writer. I’m a storyteller. Some people talk to me about it like they’re expecting some ten-year opus of literature. I just want people to have fun with the read. Hope they walk away wanting more of it.

I’m terrible with “the pitch” aren’t I?

Buy the book. I’m pretty sure you’ll dig it.

I really, really suck at the pitch…

Ten years is a long road, ten years of being passed through so many hands and coming so close to publication. During any of that time did you think, I’ve got this brand, Thuglit, maybe I should just do this on my own? Especially with the changes in the marketplace in recent years?

I have considered it. The problem was, years ago, to self-publish was tantamount to career suicide. You couldn’t get reviewed, you couldn’t get in bookstores. Most products that came out of print-on-demand publishers was shoddy. Kindle and E-books were in their infancies and didn’t have the market share that they’ve achieved in only the last three or four years.

Another issue with self-publication is promotion. And when I say promotion—let’s face it—we’re talking money here. If you look at the numbers, a very, very, low percentile of self-published authors reach any kind of success. And those that do, have either invested immense amounts of money in their promotions, or have benefited from publishing the traditional route first—benefited previously from having the stamp of “legitimacy” awarded to their work and had their names churned in front of audiences through the marketing machines of the industry. It really pisses me off to see these “self-publishing gurus”, who have had thousands of dollars spent on publicity by their previous publishers, shit on writers who want the same benefits that the “gurus” enjoyed by starting out on the traditional route—also with editors who helped them refine their craft over the years. Then these fuckwits walk around like they’re self-made and did it all themselves, and everyone else is a pack of idiots for attempting to do it the way THEY did. Pisses me off even more to see their acolytes blindly cheer these egomaniacal jerkoffs on by buying into their bullshit. And I don’t know if anybody else has noticed, but a HUGE number of these loudmouthed “successful” self-published authors jump onto the next “legitimate” publisher that sails by when the opportunity arises. That should say something right there about the problems with doing it yourself.

I still believe that an institutional stigma exists against self-published works, it’s just not as severe. Hell, I have prejudices against self-published work. When I tell people that my novel is coming out, their first question is, “Who’s publishing it?” Most of these people asking the question don’t know Random House from Full House. They just want to know whether it’s self-published or not, since I’m sure that the majority of the time they ask the question nowadays, the answer is going to be “self-published.” Comparably, I self-published a collection of short stories earlier this year, and when I tell people that it’s self-published, I can almost hear the muscles straining under their eyelids as they fight the urge to roll their eyes. The eyes roll a little less when I rattle off the magazines that previously published the stories. The problem is this—when you’re a writer thinking about self-publishing, your opinion is not enough. It really isn’t. While it’s nice to enjoy a self-actualized sense of quality in your writing…you WROTE the fucking thing. If you get an entire industry telling you that something is not up to par in your work, you might want to pay attention, try another angle. A real problem with the relative ease and product quality of the self-published market is that so many of the books writing-wise just aren’t that fucking good. I like to think that the last ten years have taught me a lot, both by giving me room to grow as a writer AND to implement that in my novel as I went along. Looking at the earliest drafts of my novel, I want to fucking puke—and it was almost published. If it had been, either by myself or someone else, it would be in that state forever. NOW, will I look back at The Hard Bounce in another decade and want to puke? I sure hope so. I hope I continue to learn and grow in the craft to that point until every decade makes me want to projectile vomit all over my prior work.

If you want to be a writer…a real writer…then you should learn something from every rejection you receive, try to grow, rather than stomp your feet and just publish it yourself. Being a writer is a fuckload more than just being published.

Are there any new voices come up through Thuglit or other short story venues readers should keep an eye on? Some rising stars?

There are other short story venues???

With the THUGLIT reboot only two issues in, it’s too small a sample size to really determine who’s a rising star just yet. We’ve already published a couple of tales from powerhouse regulars such as Jason Duke, Matt Funk, Mike Wilkerson, Katherine Tomlinson and Pat Lambe. Any one of them could blow up at any time.

Jordan Harper, Hilary Davidson and Mike MacLean and Johnny Shaw are already superstars in their own right, so they get a DQ from “rising star” status.

Justin Porter, whom we’ve published multiple times over the years, just sent off his first novel— which I’m willing to throw money on as being something to watch out for.

But the name that’s already setting off my radar is Terrence McCauley. The guy has submitted only two stories and he’s already got two stories accepted. Even though there’s crossover within the narratives, each story reads at such different emotional/perspective levels that I was legitimately surprised when I realized that both stories were written by the same person. That punk can write his ass off.

Thank you for taking time with us, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

Tell your story. That’s it. Just tell your story.

Interview: John Kenyon

When you think about “Things I’d rather be doing?,” generally it’s a more personal thought. For me that’s how I was introduced to John Kenyon, whose website Things I’d Rather Be Doing acted as a gateway to all things that interest John. Part blog, part magazine, it is an introduction to John’s thinking, manner and style. Since then I’ve gotten to know John through his fiction and his publication Grift Magazine, even shared lunch with John and his interviewer, Chad Rohrbacher, along with some shop talk.

John, a former newspaper man, get’s the tables turned this week with Chad asking the questions.

How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?

I suppose it all dates back to my Dad and the Hardy Boys. He read them as a boy, so there were some of those iconic blue-spined books passed down when I was a kid, and I devoured those. From there it was a constant progression through to the point where I started reading mysteries as an adult. Lawrence Block was my gateway drug, leading me in all sorts of directions.

As for crime fiction vs. straight-up mysteries, I’m more interested as a writer in exploring the impact of a situation more than the situation itself. The whodunit, while still interesting, doesn’t grab me the way an exploration of the social and economic impacts of crime do.

Tell us a little about yourself. Just a little background

After 20 years in journalism, I have moved to the nonprofit world. Iowa City is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature, and I am the director of the nonprofit that manages that designation. It’s a dream job, working every day to spread the word that books matter.

Can you talk a little about your writing process: computer? Long hand? Dark corner in an office? By candle light? Coffee or whiskey?

Stories usually start out with a scribbled note about a situation, followed by couple hundred hastily banged out words the next time I can get to a computer. Then I’ll pick at it until it feels like it’s going to work. From there, it’s usually late nights working in the home office after everyone’s in bed.

So your collection, “The First Cut,” recently came out via Snubnose Press, can you tell me a little about the collection?

For the most part, The First Cut collects the best of the stories I’ve published over the past five years or so, including a couple that first appeared here at Shotgun Honey. There’s one new story that I didn’t really perfect until it was time to submit the manuscript which is new to the collection, and one decade-old story that appeared in a great regional journal here in Iowa, The Wapsipinicon Almanac.  It’s all crime fiction, save for the last, which was more a stab at literary fiction but which still has sinister overtones that I feel makes it a good fit with the rest.

Did you listen to music while you wrote any of the stories? Is so, what? Did you find them affecting your narrative?

I can’t listen to music with words while writing, so it’s a lot of jazz and instrumental stuff. White Lunar, an album of soundtrack work from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Angelo Badalmenti’s soundtrack to “The Straight Story,” are two that I return to a lot. If I need to get hopped up, I’ll do it with something loud and fast before I sit down.

Were there any specific people, places, or incidents that inspired a story?

For some of them, yes. But in most cases, it would be something small that set my mind to wandering, and it’s the eventual mental destination that led to the story. More often my stories begin with a “what if?” proposition. What if an organ transplant guy had his vehicle break down and had to take the subway? What if a mobster’s attempt to bury a recently deceased colleague didn’t go as planned? What if someone wrongly caught up in the War on Terror decided to exact revenge? I set challenges for myself with these questions and when I have successfully answered, I know I have a story worth keeping.

Can you explore the process of putting the stories in the particular order in the final version? Did it change? If so, can you share some of the choices you made and why.

I knew from the moment that I thought of assembling a collection that I wanted to start with “Cut.” It sets a tone I wanted. It’s dark, but also funny in spots. It also was my first real success, thanks to the fine folks at Thuglit. From there, it was simply a matter of wanting the stories to flow, mixing long and short, dark and funny. I also wanted to end with “The Bluffs,” which is the oldest story in the book. It’s the most different, stylistically, and the longest, and it felt like a good closer.

In this book, there seems to be a real clear throwback to old-time pulp and the late 40s-50s radio thrillers. Do you find those as influences? If so, any in particular?

That’s the first I’ve heard that description, but I’ll take it. Really, my aesthetic is less hard-boiled than that of a lot of my peers (or the rest of the Snubnose stable), and that’s part of it. I suppose as well that it is my journalistic background. I’m used to telling the entire story, and so perhaps my plotting reflects that.

So you have a magazine? What was your thinking behind it?

As I said above, I have a different aesthetic from some people. I love the other publications that are out there, but there wasn’t one that offered exactly what I wanted. The only way to get that, I realized, was to do it myself. I wanted something that offered strong stories as well as some solid non-fiction with essays and reviews. The first issue was something I’m very proud of; replicating that has been difficult. Which leads us to…

How do you balance your editing versus writing work as I imagine both take a lot of time?

If you asked any submitter for the second issue of Grift, they would say I balance it in fairly lousy fashion. It has been a struggle. As I launched Grift with the first print issue this spring, my writing really took off. It was hard to balance the two (particularly when you add in family, job and other pursuits). It’s a matter of being mindful of the need to tackle both jobs. I have a duty to the people who took the time to contribute to Grift, but I have a duty to myself to keep working on my own stories and projects.

The website looks fantastic, so what made you want to also have a print version and not just on-line?

Thank you. I’d like to take the credit, but it’s really just a well-tweaked WordPress theme. As for having one or the other, the print mag idea came first. I wanted a web presence, and then figured it would be a good idea to have news, reviews and flash fiction there as well. That has proven more difficult to maintain than I thought, but it has been a nice way to keep the name out there during the long wait between print issues. Plus, I have had the honor of publishing some great short fiction from the likes of Matthew C. Funk, Andrew Waters, Thomas Pluck and many more.

With the your collection, The First Cut, behind you and the ongoing Grift Magazine, what’s next for you as a writer? What’s your next pitch?

My hope is that my next thing will be a novel. I have one done and edited, and now it is being read by a few friends with the hope of having it polished and ready to send out very soon. It’s a crime novel, but more funny (I hope) than hard-boiled. I’m about halfway through a second novel and have an idea for a third that would be a fairly radical departure. While I’m juggling those projects, I’m working in earnest on a contribution to the Fight Card series of novellas about boxing that should come out early next year.

Thank you for taking time with us, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple — that’s creativity.” – Charles Mingus.