British author Adam Howe is making a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic with his enjoyably twisted take on Americana, and last year’s three-pronged novella collection Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet offered a thrilling glimpse into his warped world. Tom Leins caught up with Adam to discuss the twin influences of Steven Seagal and Stephen King, and find out why he will never eschew Americana for Brit-grit.
Firstly, what attracts you to the novella format?
I’d rather leave the reader wanting more, than outstay my welcome. Novellas are the ideal length for my brand of high-octane, hyper-real genre fiction. I can keep my foot on the go-pedal, without sacrificing characterisation, which makes for an ultra-intense reading experience. I spent most of my career writing screenplays, which explains my cinematic prose style. Had a few feature films optioned, rewrote or doctored other writers’ work, but nothing I wrote ever made it to the screen, and in the end, seeing years of work left to gather dust became too dispiriting, so I returned to writing prose. As I adapt to this new medium, what I’ve discovered is that my novellas are roughly equivalent in length to a feature film screenplay, so that’s clearly my comfort zone, but the work is getting longer as I gain confidence, and a novel IS in the pipeline.
There remains a resistance among mainstream readers to read anything less than novel length fiction. In today’s world, where people barely have time to read, and so many other entertainment options, it just doesn’t make sense to me. Novellas would seem to be perfect for the modern reader. I think much of this reticence comes down to mainstream readers being scarred by the ‘literary’ shorts they read at school; ambiguous, dense-as-poetry horseshit that barely has a beginning, let alone a middle or ending. Reading shouldn’t be that hard, and in today’s world, can’t afford to be. I’m a storyteller, at heart, and though I write for myself, filling that gap on my library shelf, entertaining the reader is always at the forefront of my mind.
Your stories are like toxic melting-pots of horror and crime fiction. Who are your chief literary heroes?
The main ingredients in my ‘toxic melting pot’ are horror and crime fiction, true-crime, 70s/80s horror flicks, the Golden Age of 80s/90s action movies, the EC horror comics (Tales from the Crypt), and the American ‘shock’ comedians of the pre-PC 80s/90s. These days, my personal reading tastes lean more towards hardboiled crime and non-supernatural horror. As for literary heroes…?
As a younger reader, the first writer whose voice really spoke to me was Stephen King (and through King I was hearing echoes of Bradbury and Matheson and other genre masters). I was lucky enough to meet The King when he chose my short story Jumper as the winner of his On Writing contest. The story, my first published work, was included in the paperback/Kindle editions of King’s book. It’s proving kinda hard to top that first publication credit.
As I’ve said, I spent a lot of time writing screenplays. The best way to learn that craft is by studying produced screenplays on the page, which was harder to do in the pre-digital age. But I lucked out. In my mid-teens, I landed a job writing copy for a mail-order script company, and had a veritable screenplay library to learn from. The writer I most responded to was Shane Black, who you’ll know from Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and most recently The Nice Guys. Classic ‘tarnished knight’ and ‘buddy’ action stuff. Black was left out in the wilderness for a number of years, so it’s great to see him enjoying a renaissance of late.
Most recently, Joe R. Lansdale has made a huge impression on me. His genre blending, and use of humour to shepherd the reader between shades of light and darkness, was something I felt I could do. And his voice seemed to awaken my own inner hillbilly; it’s strange, but before I even read Joe, I’d been hearing a voice like his in my mind for years. I also have Joe to thank for the title of this current book. ‘Die dog or eat the hatchet’ is a phrase meaning ‘do or die,’ which I’d noticed him use in several books. I contacted him, asked his permission to use it, and he very graciously gave me his blessing… instead of telling me to go fuck myself, and using it for the next Hap & Leonard.
Your knack for Americana is extremely convincing – do you foresee a time when you will eschew US stories and write a British book?
No immediate plans. Most of my future works will be set Stateside. I’m at the mercy of my muse, and right now, these are the stories that want to be told. I don’t think these stories would work half as well, if at all, if I set ‘em in the UK. I’ve never taken the adage “write what you know” to mean you must write in your own backyard, but only with authority. I seem to have a good eye and ear for Americana. I liken it to a British singer adopting an American twang to sing rock n’ roll. Of course, it’s a pop culture America, never intended to be 100% accurate, but it seems to work well enough that many readers are surprised to discover I’m a Brit.
I write fiction to escape my own reality, which is pretty dreary. When I look at the mainstream UK crime fiction scene – and I’m generalising here – I see little variety from series police procedurals or Jack Reacher rip-offs; with the exception of writers like Ken Bruen and Ray Banks – and man, do I wish I wrote as well those guys – stuff like that just doesn’t really interest me, as a reader or a writer. Writing Americana allows me to work on a bigger canvas, and Americans are such crazy bastards, I can go as OTT as I want, and it still seems borderline plausible. In fact, much of my work is inspired by ‘weird news’ stories, which most often originate in Florida. Must be something in the water down there.
As a UK-based writer do you think it is harder to make a name for yourself in crime fiction circles, given the strong independent crime scene in the US?
There are so many great indie writers producing truly phenomenal work, not to mention the wannabes flooding the market with shit, that it’s hard to make a name for yourself period. So far it seems the majority of my readers are from the States. Not sure if that’s because I’m writing Americana, that my publisher is American, or just that I’ve yet to establish myself in the UK. Not that I’m complaining. At least someone’s reading me.
I’ve been made to feel very welcome by the US crime fiction community. My humour seems to translate, and a good story is universal; the storyteller’s nationality shouldn’t really make a difference. I’m not attempting to write ‘the great American novel.’ I write pulp Americana, so I’m not treading on any other writer’s toes.
Your books have been published by Comet Press. How did that association come about, and are there any other titles in their back catalogue that you would recommend?
I first became aware of Comet Press through their early crime and horror anthologies. Books like The Death Panel, Vile Things, and others brought some great writers to my attention. So when I started searching for a publisher for my debut collection, Black Cat Mojo, Comet was high on my wish list. As luck would have it, the editors dug what I did, and we continued the relationship to the follow-up collection, Die Dog. My experience with Comet has been only positive, and I can’t recommend them highly enough to other indie writers.
I’d be lying if I said I’ve read all of Comet’s catalogue, so apologies to the guys and gals I’m missing here, but notable names include David James Keaton (Fish Bites Cop!), Brett Williams (Family Business), Barbie Wilde, Tim Curran, Simon Wood, Jason Parent (the upcoming Wrathbone), and Randy Chandler (The Dime Detective).
Comet have just launched their first annual YEAR’S BEST HARDCORE HORROR anthology, which includes my story Clean-up On Aisle 3. This one was first published in Thuglit. It’s a riff on my favourite Elmore Leonard book, Swag. Reading about Stick and Frank knocking over liquor stores, I wondered… what if THIS happened? Thuglit readers seemed to enjoy this one. It brought me to the attention of a lot of new readers.
You are a fully-fledged Seagalogy-toting Steven Seagal fan. If the big man offered you a suitcase full of cash to make a movie of one of your books, would you say yes? If so, which story would you like him to bring to the screen, and which role would he play?
It is hard to imagine Big Steve in any of the Die Dog novellas. Maybe he could play the skunk ape in Damn Dirty Apes – though I imagine Andy Serkis, who seems to have cornered the motion capture monkey market, would have something to say about that. Funnily enough, back in my screenwriting days I once wrote a spec script for Seagal. Have you seen his current, direct-to-video stuff? Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Well, I figured the man deserved better than that shit, so I wrote him something. It was called The Gurkha – “Steven Seagal IS…The Gurkha” – and used Death Wish 3 as a rough story template. Highbrow stuff. Needless to say that nothing ever came of the project. Seagal was gearing up for his reality TV show Lawman, and wasn’t considering movie projects at the time… or perhaps he sensed I was taking the piss by casting him as the world’s unlikeliest Gurkha? Maybe one day I’ll dust off that screenplay and rewrite it as a men’s adventure pulp. It was pretty funny, as I recall. All the bad guys giving Seagal shit about his weight and his hair… maybe that’s another reason he rejected it?
Can you tell us a little bit about your future publishing plans?
Up next is Tijuana Donkey Showdown, the ‘eagerly anticipated’ sequel to the Damn Dirty Apes novella from the Die Dog collection, in which I continue the misadventures of my hapless hero, boxer-turned-bouncer Reggie Levine. No skunk apes in this one, though the chupacabra, and Nicolas Cage, make an appearance. I’ve gone the ‘bigger and louder’ sequel route. This thing’s fucking balls-out crazy. (As if Damn Dirty Apes was subtle.) Like 80s action meets Looney Tunes.
And I’m currently collaborating with rising-star American horror writer Adam Cesare on an as yet untitled period crime/horror project we’re pitching as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies meets John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Beyond that? My partner and I are expecting our first child next month, so I’ve cleared my schedule while I adapt (ha! pray for me) to the change.
Should we expect to see you out-do yourself in terms of disturbing themes?
Nah, to try and out-gross-out myself would be hackwork. My mind tends towards extremes with little coaxing. As you know, I don’t shy away when it comes to writing graphic violence – I seem to have a knack for it, for what it’s worth, so I might as well play to my strengths – but even my most extreme material is organic to the story. I don’t write gore for gore’s sake. It’s not gratuitous. Of course, it may be too much for some readers’ tastes, but that’s purely subjective. Personally, I like my dark fiction pitch-black. I’m drawn to disturbing and ‘controversial’ subject matters – like the period racial tensions of the Gator Bait novella – because it creates the most intense conflict for my characters. I do have more ‘mainstream’ genre stories I’d like to write, in which I’ll dial down the blood ‘n’ guts and madness… if I can. But as I’ve said, I’m at the mercy of my muse, and these are the stories that want to be written right now.
Finally, your books explore some pretty twisted territory – what is the most reprehensible term you have typed into your search engine in the name of research?!
You’re always dicing with danger when you start researching bizarre sexual practices… Most recently, ‘gerbilling,’ which as I’m sure you know, Tom, is when a live rodent is inserted into the anal cavity for sexual kicks. Who are we to judge? This, I hasten to add, was for a story called Foreign Bodies, a blackly comic crime piece about a Z-list Hollywood fixer attempting to remove the gerbil which has become trapped in his celebrity client’s arse. I can assure you that I left my research as the keyword search stage. I’m not a method writer.