Rusty Barnes will be familiar to many of you through his short story output and his website Fried Chicken and Coffee. He is about to make a dent in the crime fiction landscape however, with his new novel Ridgerunner, which was published by the excellent 280 Steps earlier this month. Tom Leins caught up with Rusty to discuss authenticity, carnage and work ethic.
Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about the book’s setting? The natural gas industry looms large in the background, but doesn’t dictate the plot. Was this a conscious decision?
The natural gas industry? Yes, it was a conscious decision. The gas industry is what everyone talked about for a few years, and it has changed the area where I grew up for the worse. There are people, even in my extended family, who took the industry’s money to lease their land, but I’m not sure the money is worth what happened to the place. It seems now as if the gas companies took what they wanted and left the water table fucked and left the fracking water, heavy with chemicals, to drain wherever they wanted with little to no regard for the consequences.
The backdrop felt very authentic. How much of the location is real, and how much is imagined?
The setting is based on the geography of my hometown, Mosherville, Pennsylvania. I added a mountain, named Stark Mountain, and an unnamed river a few miles away, but if you wanted to find the towns I’m basing the books on you could do it pretty easily. I’ve played fast and loose with a lot of details, though, based on what the narrative needs.
One of the most interesting elements of the book for me was the way that Matt’s family is placed at the forefront of the narrative. So many crime novels favour the amoral loner as the protagonist – was it a deliberate choice to depict the very real impact of Matt’s actions on his family?
No crime is ever committed in a vacuum. These killings and robberies and drug deals have a human impact, and a lot of crime fiction, as you say, features amoral loners who seems to have no relations other than the women they fuck. I wanted the importance of family and connections to weigh heavily on Matt’s mind as well as the other character’s actions. Those connections continue to matter in the next book featuring Matt.
What were the most gruelling passages to write – the scenes of physical carnage, or the scenes of emotional carnage?
The physical carnage was much more difficult for me. Emotional carnage I’m familiar with. The physical aspects of it, fight scenes and the like, have not been a part of my life since my teens, and I really had to stretch myself for some of it. Having said that, action is so much fun to write. If a character needs an ass-kicking, he gets it, in my books. If all else is failing in a narrative, if a writer gets stuck, blow something up, literally or metaphorically.
How intricate is your planning? Do you map your storylines out in advance, or do you just start writing and see where the narrative takes you?
I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t know what my characters will do until they do it. I try to write, when I’m actively writing, a thousand words a day. I stop when I’m still going well, as Hemingway advises us, and I write notes as to what happens next in the narrative in capital and block letters, at the end of what I’ve written. That’s the extent of my planning.
What do you hope people take away from the book?
I hope they think it was a good story. I’m not saving the world with this fiction, I’m trying to write something that entertains in the way Graham Greene made distinctions between his novels and entertainments.
You seem like a pretty prolific writer – have you always had the same work ethic?
I’ve always worked hard at writing, but my 20s and 30s were spent just living, pretty much. I couldn’t write a novel to save my life. I tried and failed maybe six or seven times, but I wrote four or five hundred stories during that time, about half of which have been published. So I was always writing pretty well, but couldn’t seem to manage a novel. Then I turned forty. I had writing goals I’d wanted to meet before thirty, and I had only reached one of them by the time I was forty. Halfway done, in other words. I finished my first novel then, and wrote a huge number of poems. It took me several years to publish that novel, Reckoning. I tried for agents large and small and no one took a chance on me until David McNamara, from sunnyoutside press. He published my first three books. Then I rediscovered crime fiction and began to write it exclusively. I’ve written five short novels since then, and they’re much better than what I wrote before. I seem to have a knack for novella/short novels of 40-45,000 word novels.
Who, if anyone, do you consider to be your literary contemporaries?
I like a lot of writers in the small press, but have a special fondness for Jake Hinkson’s work wherever he publishes it. I also like what Garnett Elliott does in his Jack Laramie Drifter Detective novellas. Anthony Neil Smith’s Billy Lafitte series is great too.
Your publisher, 280 Steps, has carved a solid reputation for itself in a relatively short time. Do you have any favourite books among their back catalogue?
Chris Irvin’s collection is great, as is Eric Beetner’s Rumrunners. I’m looking forward to books by Ro Cuzon and Beetner’s Leadfoot.
Are there any other independent publishers that you gravitate towards?
I read almost everything All Due Respect, Beat to a Pulp, 280 Steps and One-Eye Press publish. Also, Broken River Books and Blasted Heath.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans? Is it true that Ridgerunner is the first part of a trilogy?
A sequel to Ridgerunner, the Last Danger, comes out in Winter 2017. I also have a third book in the series completed, called Apocalypse Money. If they sell, I’ll do more. Also, Travis Neisler from Ravenwood Quarterly is doing another book of mine, a limited edition hardcover novel-in-stories about a Croatian enforcer named Kraj. I have another novella called Knuckledragger making the submission rounds, and I’m halfway through a short novel about a man who’s struggling with both his marijuana grow and his father’s slow but merciless progress toward death from leukaemia. It’s crime fiction that’s about family ties.