Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Anthony Neil Smith to discuss his new book, The Cyclist (Bastei Entertainment).
Congratulations on the release of your new book, The Cyclist. How would you pitch the story to would-be readers?
A failed Marine falls for a girl hallway around the world and flies to see her on a “blind date”. Little does he know, she’s hiding a secret that might just be the end of him.
Scotland is a country with a rich crime fiction history. Why did you pick it as the location for your fish-out-of-water thriller?
Well, I love Scotland. I’ve been there twice, but I’ve had friends there for years, such as Allan Guthrie (my editor) and Ray Banks. I’ve read loads of novels from the country – everyone from A.L. Kennedy to Irvine Welsh to James Kelman. So it was a natural choice to want to write about it. The Highlands are beautiful, but they can also be terrifying in a sublime way. And Glasgow has a lot of personality and attitude. I feel at home there, even though I’m still learning a lot with every trip I take and every book I read.
Given the right break, The Cyclist feels like it could resonate with a mainstream audience – was that intentional?
Absolutely. I’ve written thirteen previous novels, all of which have attracted a “cult” audience, I’d say, and some of the early ones were really rough “gonzo noir.” And I love those books! However, I’ve always dreamed of a larger audience enjoying my books, the same way I enjoy a lot of mainstream thrillers and crime novels. So that’s a goal of mine: to learn how to write a book that can reach out and grab a very large swath of thriller readers. THE CYCLIST is another step on that journey. I mean, some writers may scoff at James Patterson or John Grisham, but they must know *something* I haven’t figured out yet in order to have so many people love to read them.
Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?
I read all of it. I love the dangerous edge of the indies, and I love the big name bestsellers. And I definitely prefer when the writing and the plot are both working at a very high level, what some people might call “transcending the genre,” although a lot of writers I know abhor that phrase. I don’t mind it. I think it just means to transcend genre expectations, thus reinvigorating the genre we love so much.
The Cyclist drags the reader into so pretty dark places – do you think crime fiction is too safe?
Sometimes, but I also have to face the fact that everyone should be able to enjoy crime fiction at a level that’s right for them, and not all crime fiction is right for every reader. I am exasperated by those people who will shit all over a novel simply because it had “naughty language” in it, but they have no trouble with bloody murder. Or, you know, turned off by sex in a book. I *love* sex scenes in books, if they don’t go for awful poetry over getting the job done.
I don’t think it’s too safe, though, when we consider that so many crime novels are also social justice novels, touching on subjects that more literary writers have been afraid to touch. Think about THE WIRE, for instance, or Don Winslow’s THE CARTEL. Those are politically provocative works.
Did you worry that you had gone too far with any of the violence in the book?
Nope. I think artists should be allowed to go wherever the story takes them, and I think violence in art is never as awful as real life can dish out. But let’s be real: I don’t think I’m glamorizing violence, and any good writer should tell you the same thing. When we write violent scenes, they have to scare ourselves in order for us to know that they work. You can sort of tell which scenes cause us to cringe as we write them. It should feel as dangerous as real life. But then again, like with horror movie gore, we *want* that visceral terror while also feeling safe.
Stepping away from your new book, your back catalogue was recently re-released by Down & Out Books – how did that arrangement come about?
Eric Campbell, who runs D&O, was kind enough to publish some of my ebook originals from Blasted Heath as paperbacks. So once Blasted Heath closed up shop, D&O seemed a natural fit for my backlist. They’ve been great to work with, have given me generous terms, and they are passionate about crime fiction. I’m also glad that I still get to work with my Blasted Heath cover designer J.T. Lindroos, who has performed artistic miracles.
If you could recommend one of your books to a first-time reader, which one would you choose?
Definitely ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS. That is the book that I think should’ve been a bestseller, should’ve been a movie, and should’ve made me rich. I think it came together beautifully. I saw a story about young Somali men in Minnesota who would go “missing” here, only to end up in Mogadishu fighting for the terrorists in a Civil War. It was fascinating and sad, so the story and characters came to me soon after hearing about it.
Which contemporary writers do you consider to be your peers?
Well, that’s a tough one. There are so many that I’m bound to leave some out, and I’m certainly much less read than many of them! But I’ll throw a few names out there, like my close friends Victor Gischler and Sean Doolittle, and Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Jason Starr, Stephen Graham Jones, Adrian McKinty. IT’S NOT A FAIR QUESTION! I’ve met so many great writers, befriended so many, and with our old magazine PLOTS WITH GUNS, I’d even say we helped birth a few careers. So it’s an impossible question.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?
Wow oh wow. I daydream about this all the time, and I hope I can achieve it one day. It’s not so much the money as it is the reaching out to readers… but it’s the money, too. I would love to see myself achieving what James Ellroy has, or Walter Mosley, or Laura Lippman, or T. Jefferson Parker, or Tana French, or Adrian McKinty. I mean, I would love to write full-time (even though I love my job as a university professor) for a big audience that gets where I’m coming from.
But then again, there’s something kind of cool about being a cult author.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans?
I want to work with publishers who a) I like, and b) who want to help me reach more readers. I’d love to work with someone with creative ideas, not just folks looking at the bottom line all the time. After THE CYCLIST, I’m currently working on a book I’ve been thinking of writing for a long time, based on an actual crime committed by someone I once knew. It’s very early, but it’s coming together nicely. I have no idea what people will think of it, but it’s just one I *have* to write to get it out of my system.
After that: another adrenaline-drenched crime thriller, I hope. I’ll write those until I drop.
Anthony Neil Smith is the author of fourteen novels, including YELLOW MEDICINE, ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS, CASTLE DANGER, and THE CYCLIST. He is a professor and the Chair of English, Philosophy, Spanish & Humanities at Southwest Minnesota State University. He likes cheap red wine and tacos. His dog is named Herman, and he is a good boy.