US crime writer Greg Barth has earned a cult reputation with his blood-splattered, bullet-strewn Selena series – the fourth book of which was published last month. Tom Leins caught up with Greg to discuss series characters, alcoholic intake and the prospect of mainstream success.
The first Selena book set the bar extraordinarily high – have you felt pressure to maintain that quality, or has the writing process been fun?
I’ve not felt much pressure, and the writing has been fun for the most part. I think that’s largely because I’d finished writing everything up through Suicide Lounge before the first one was released. I wrote the fifth and final novel, Everglade, in September of last year. Oddly enough, I wrote the fifth one before writing the fourth, Road Carnage. And that fourth one was the more difficult one to write. I kept hitting a wall about eighty pages into that one, and I scrapped everything and started fresh five times before I got it right. I might have felt some pressure there. I knew I couldn’t let a sub-par volume slip through, and I’m actually quite pleased with the final version of Road Carnage. Definitely worth the effort.
At the end of Suicide Lounge, I got the impression that the Selena series was going to be a trilogy. Were further books always on the cards, or did you opt to reignite the story?
Suicide Lounge felt like an end when I was writing it; but when I was writing the last page, I started having thoughts about what might happen next for her. That being said, there is an end, and it’s the fifth novel in the series, Everglade. I’m not interested in writing an endless series. I can’t imagine Selena lasting for fifteen or twenty books.
The “end” of the series came to me after a discussion with my mother around the summer of 2015. She’d only read part of the first novel at that point and had no real knowledge of what would happen to Selena in Diesel Therapy and Suicide Lounge, but she had a lot of questions about Selena as a character that started me thinking about an appropriate final chapter to the series.
Do you have a favourite book in the series? On a similar note, who has been your favourite antagonist to date?
Oh, that’s like picking a favourite child! I like them all quite a bit. That being said, I do have a few favourite scenes across the series. I like Selena on the bus in Diesel Therapy for example. There’s another scene in that one where she shoves a guy into a hole in the ground. I enjoyed writing that scene. There’s a nasty, brutal scene in Everglade that may be my most favourite. We’ll see how it looks after the final edits, but hopefully you’ll see that one in the near future. There’s a moment in Road Carnage where someone tries to get handcuffs on Selena (she hates those, by the way), and it doesn’t work out so well. I like that scene a lot.
When it comes to antagonists, I’d say Bucky Blake from Road Carnage may be my favourite. He’s largely absent and understated in the novel, but he stands out in my mind. That’s because he is almost Selena’s twin. I don’t think the readers will catch the similarities, and that’s okay. It’s one of those things that’s more fun for the writer than the audience. But if you think about it, he shares many of Selena’s traits. Like Selena, he comes from an abusive family (some daddy issues going on). He has a hateful image tattooed on his arm (again, father inspired), but Selena had a swastika tattoo when we first met her. He’s also in a desperate situation and makes selfish decisions to survive. I’m not making any apologies for the guy, but he’s an angel compared to some of the truly nasty characters Selena encounters. You could even make the case that Bucky’s cause is the “right” one, and Selena is the villain in Road Carnage.
Selena has fast become my most anticipated series character – when you started writing the books, was it always your intention to create a character that people wanted to see more of?
At first I wondered if people would like her at all. There wasn’t much there to endear her to the readers. I felt if she suffered a horrific, undeserved misfortune, people might at least rally around her cause. And then I showed other characters caring for her. Those were my techniques.
What took me completely by surprise was readers’ reactions to her as a character. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear from a lot of readers, and I’ve learned so much from what they’ve shared. I find the reaction to Selena divides largely along gender lines. The men who’ve read the books are vocal about the kick-ass nature of her, and the fact that she’s so sexually active. Men write to me using words like sexy, slutty, trashy, badass—that kind of thing—all meant in a positive way, believe it or not.
The women readers, on the other hand, are interested in her relationships and her well-being. I’m often caught off guard when I am asked about particular characters and how they wound up where they are when they met Selena, or why a particular character had to die. It’s almost like we are talking about real people, and I often don’t have answers other than “I just wrote it that way.” But there’s a certain sympathy that sometimes comes through when talking to women readers that I’ve grown attuned to.
As a reader, who are your favourite series characters? Have they influenced Selena in any way?
Richard Stark’s Parker is my favourite series character. Parker influenced Selena in that she is an amoral person. She gets that from Parker. Lisbeth Salander is another. Selena has a tendency to respond to problems with violence. She gets that from Lisbeth. Another would be Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor. Jack is downing intoxicating substances on virtually every page of his books. He’s pretty hard core. Selena could probably keep up with him. Probably.
Road Carnage is the fourth Selena book to be published in less than 18 months – is it important to you to keep the books coming at such a rapid pace?
It is. I don’t really know why, though. Publishing is exciting and addictive, and I’m constantly ready to move on to the next thing. A book just doesn’t feel done until it’s out there and some people are reading it; but like any other rush, the effect is short-lived and you’re soon craving the next fix.
Selena has soaked up a terrifying amount of punishment – is she indestructible?
She’s resilient. She doesn’t know when to stop. She doesn’t give up. She has a mental tolerance for pain that only a lifetime of fighting to survive could develop. She keeps going no matter what, even with the accumulating effects of the violence she’s suffered taking its toll. That being said, I do think she’s almost indestructible. She’s not in super-hero class like a Jack Reacher or James Bond, but she’s close.
A quick word on the violence, though. This series often has a particularly misogynistic, degrading form of violence that may come close to female torture in some readers’ minds. And I’ve had some influences here as well. Dan Simmons wrote a crime series about a character named Joe Kurtz (Hardcase, Hard Freeze, and Hard as Nails) in which Kurtz endured so much degrading punishment from his enemies, as a reader, I wondered if the guy was going to survive. That series hit me like a kick to the teeth, and I’ve tried to create those kinds of moments in my books. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did the same kind of thing with Lisbeth Salander (although there were some dull parts in that one).
Selena puts away a lot of booze during the course of these books – what would be your drink of choice for people to enjoy while reading?
Kentucky bourbon. Nothing fancy or expensive. Jim Beam is a good choice. Use a cheap, plastic cup like you’d find in a motel somewhere.
Disclaimer – don’t try this at home, kids. Keith Richards, the guitarist for the Rolling Stones, has a persona of consuming incredible amounts of drugs and alcohol over the course of his life. He’s recently came out and said that the persona is much exaggerated. There’s a bit of that Keith Richards mythology written into Selena. Enjoy in moderation.
The twisted, provocative subject matter in the books positions you as something of an outsider. Do you crave mainstream success, or is developing cult status satisfying enough?
It’s hard to imagine these stories reaching the mainstream. They are too mean, too nasty, and too ugly for that. I do think there’s more of an appetite for this type of thing nowadays, though. Just look at the success of TV shows like Game of Thrones and The Sopranos. Both of those were violent, explicit, and have some nasty moments. Music is the same—everybody turns up the volume when AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” comes on the radio, and we all know what that song is about. But publishing is a different thing somehow. Too much sex. Too much explicit violence. Anti-hero character. You aren’t going to get a shot, and I’m okay with that. I don’t have the discipline to sit down and write something that I’m not excited about, and I have extreme tastes.
That being said, I wouldn’t mind selling a BILLION copies!
If the Selena series was adapted for film or television, who would you like to see in the lead role?
If I think in terms of Selena on the big screen, I immediately throw out things like her size, height, weight, etc. in the books and go with who could pull it off. My first pick would be Emily Blunt. I loved her in Sicario. Next pick would be Scarlett Johansson. The first 15-20 minutes of Lucy shows me how well she could pull it off.
Your books have been published by the excellent All Due Respect – do you have any favourite titles in their back catalogue?
Oh man, here we go with the favourite child again. This one is tricky, because I love so many of them, but also because I’ve not read them all. At the risk of skipping someone excellent, let me just say up front, you cannot go wrong with anything from All Due Respect Books. Totally off the top of my head, Jake Hinkson’s The Deepening Shade and Alec Cizak’s Crooked Roads are so good, it’s scary. Stan Miller has one called Prelude to the Massacre. I read an early version of that one, and I haven’t read the final, edited version yet; but, oh man, there’s nothing else out there like that book. So hard hitting, gut churning, terrifying—strong stuff, but not one to be missed. Again, read anything and everything from All Due Respect. You just can’t go wrong. Not a bad title in the lot.
Finally, what publishing plans are on your agenda for the rest of 2016 and 2017?
I have a short story called “Getting Seconds” that is included in the Fast Women and Neon Lights: Eighties Inspired Neon Noir anthology edited by Michael Pool. A lot of great writers are featured in that one. Everglade, the fifth and final Selena novel, will be out. I don’t have a release date for that one yet, and I’m sure it will need some additional polish before it is ready. After that, I’ve got another thing I’m working on—another crime novel that will be a standalone. From there, I’ve got a few vague notions that I look forward to exploring more.