Under The Influence – Elmore Leonard – By Tom Leins

I was 25 when I picked up my first Elmore Leonard novel. The Big Bounce.

I plucked it off the communal bookshelf at a hostel in Tulum, Mexico, during a thunderstorm. The hostel was opposite a strip club, presumably very popular with truckers because the road outside was lined with 18-wheelers. For reasons I will never truly be able to explain, the hostel manager was listening to Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, on repeat. I was giving my liver a break from drinking games for the night, and this slim, battered volume grabbed my attention. At this point in my reading life, crime novels were still something of a novelty, and The Big Bounce was like nothing I had ever read at that time. The deceptively simple plot and effortless delivery hooked me in from the get-go, and I tore through the book in a couple of sittings.

It kick-started an obsession with crime fiction that gets stronger with every passing year. I remember following up The Big Bounce with a late period Matt Scudder novel in a collapsed armchair in a Mexican border town, waiting for an early morning bus to Belize… I read a Henning Mankell novel on a dilapidated coach in Guatemala, with a local farmer eating a Styrofoam container full of fried chicken over my head, his holstered machete clattering into me every time we hit a pothole… I read The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn in the hammock of a bare-brick El Salvador motel, guts churning with some unspecified ailment…

All great books, but it was the Leonard one that made the biggest impression on me and my writing. I had enjoyed the movie versions of Jackie Brown and Out of Sight years earlier, but never really considered tracing those movies back to the source – an oversight I duly corrected when I returned home. From the gritty, booze-swilling Detroit stories through to the more colourful Florida-set novels and beyond I envied the casual way he gently nudged bad situations into even worse ones. I envied the way that his taciturn tough-guy protagonists were always the smartest guys in the room. I envied the way his stories were cooler than everyone else’s.

Elmore Leonard is the kind of writer that forces you to get better. There were several occasions, after finishing a Leonard book, when the sheer impressiveness of what I had just read derailed my own writing attempts for weeks. Leonard’s influence on my own writing is probably difficult to detect, but he schools me every time I pick up one of his books.

Over the last decade, since picking up The Big Bounce, I’ve read dozens of Elmore Leonard novels, and never encountered a dud. How many authors can you say that about?

P.S. One of the strangest memories I have relating to The Big Bounce happened a couple of months down the line. We rolled into Honduras on Boxing Day after spending a rum-soaked Christmas at a vegetarian commune in Guatemala. When I’m on the road for an extended period, my first reaction is usually to switch on the TV – mainly to check that it works! I switched on the TV, cracked open my can of Salva Vida, and slumped on the bed. I thought I had lost my mind, as I saw Vinnie Jones, Owen Wilson and Charlie Sheen clad in Hawaiian shirts, appearing to recreate a 40-year-old book I had read for the first time a few weeks earlier! (It was years before I watched the movie in its entirety, and it was every bit as bad as the reviews made it sound. Leonard was no stranger to bad movie adaptations, but this one plumbed new depths! A topic for another blog post, if ever there was one…)

Bio:

Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK. His short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Near to the Knuckle, Flash Fiction Offensive, Horror Sleaze Trash and Spelk Fiction. A novelette, Skull Meat, is available via Amazon and a new book, Repetition Kills You, will be published by All Due Respect in September 2018. For more information, please visit: Things To Do In Devon When You’re Dead.

Are you a crime writer? Would you like to write a short piece about one of your formative influences? If so, drop me a line via the contact form on the About page!

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The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Gary Duncan

As the editor of top-notch UK flash site Spelk, Gary Duncan has probably read more short fiction in the last few years than most people encounter in a lifetime. He steps away from the editorial hot-seat to bring us a new collection of his own flash fiction, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, which blends the surreal, the macabre and the everyday to great effect. Cheeky, playful and thoroughly British, this well-judged collection is crammed with small but perfectly formed delights. Tom Leins caught up with Gary to discuss his new book.

Firstly, congratulations on the release of your new story collection You’re Not Supposed To Cry. What draws you to flash fiction as a medium?

Thank you! Why flash? The short answer, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that I like brevity. I like short sentences and short books, so flash was always going to be a good fit for me. I’ve always been into short stories, so flash was probably a natural progression — how short can you go and still tell a story?

Time is another main reason, of course. I’m pretty busy with my day job (I edit market research reports, rewrite press releases, etc., etc.), but I still like to write something every day. I usually do it in short bursts — 20 minutes, half an hour — and that lends itself to flash. I like to get a first draft down in an hour or so, maybe 500 words, and then go back to it over the next few days, chopping it and rewriting it till I’m happy with it and ready to send it out. I like the editing side of things — more so than the actual writing in fact — so that’s another plus for flash for me. Because they’re so short, I can go through the same story over and over.

I also think you need to write to your strengths. I’m not the best plotter — I’ve done a few longer pieces but tend to get stuck after a few thousand words. All that plotting and all those narrative arcs and such … I usually end up going back to flash, my tail between my legs.

I also happen to spend a lot of time just thinking about stories and scenes and snatches of dialogue. I do come up with a lot of ideas and flash, for me, is the easiest and quickest way to get them out of my head and down on paper while they’re still fresh and before the next idea pops into my head and demands to be written. Maybe I just don’t have the patience or the stamina — I’m not sure I’d want to stick with the same story for months or years or however long it would take me to write a novel.

Where does the title come from? What kind of things are likely to make you cry? What kind of stories are likely to make you cry?

The title was suggested by Dana Keller at Vagabond Voices, my publisher. It’s from a line in one of the stories in the collection, about a bereaved dad struggling to come to terms with the loss of his child and his frustration that his counsellor is breaking down right in front of him: “The counsellor’s eyes are wet, and he thinks this is all well and good, sharing the pain and everything, but then he thinks, hang on a fucking minute, I’m the one who’s supposed to be crying, not you. Me. Not you.”

The original title was Snap. Dana came up with a few other ideas but I knew it had to be You’re Not Supposed to Cry as soon as I saw it.

What makes me cry? Nothing! I’m a no-nonsense northerner and we don’t cry. Never. Having said that, I do have a soft spot for John Steinbeck and that scene at the end of Of Mice and Men … well, that always gets me. But that’s just between the two of us …

As a writer — and indeed a reader — what makes you tick flash-wise?

That’s a tough one. With flash it’s the challenge of writing something in as few words as possible that still speaks of a bigger story. You’re trying to catch a moment, or something glimpsed — you don’t need to know the whole story, but you still need to show enough to engage the reader at some basic level. The best ones are those that need to be read again and again, the ones you find yourself thinking about the next day when you’re in the car or standing in line to pay for your shopping.

A good flash should be just the right number of words — if it’s 400 words, then 400 is what it is and it can’t be improved by adding another hundred words. It should be self-contained and complete, but always hinting at something more.

The content in your collection ranges from the mundane to the macabre. Within which genres do your own reading tastes lie?

I’ll read anything, and I’m a mess of contradictions. I’m reading Alan Bennett’s diaries at the moment, and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (all 800 pages — so much for brevity). I also like to have a short story collection on the go, and right now that’s Tom Franklin’s Poachers (which is brilliant). It’ll probably be something crimey next — I’m a huge fan of Don Winslow and James Ellroy, and I read a lot of Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, Harlan Coben and David Morrell.

I also have a stable of writers I keep going back to for inspiration — Martin Amis, Raymond Carver, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis.

Your stories are all undercut with a very British sensibility. Who are your favourite British writers? And who are your favourite short story writers?

Funny you should say that because I tend to read more Americans than Brits nowadays. Most of my early influences were British though — I remember reading the likes of Stan Barstow and Alan Sillitoe, a lot of “northern” working-class writers like that, and just “getting it” — thinking I can really relate to this, the whole “write what you know” thing. That’s probably why I’m drawn to the mundane, the everyday things. Magnus Mills does it very well, and David Gaffney too.

My favourite short story writer is Donald Ray Pollock — Knockemstiff is my favourite book (short stories or otherwise). But there are so many others — Raymond Carver, Michel Faber, Annie Proulx, Helen Simpson, Jonathan Ames, A.L. Kennedy, Charles Bukowski.

Turning our attentions towards Spelk, the flash site you have edited since 2014. What prompted you to set up Spelk, and how has having an editorial role improved your own writing?

I’d had a few (mostly crime) stories published at places like Near to the Knuckle, Shotgun Honey and Out of the Gutter, and I wanted to set up something similar at first. You look at those sites though, how good they are, and you think it’s going to be pretty hard to compete head-on, considering I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. Round about then (2013, 2014) I was also beginning to write more “quirky” stories, some of which would eventually go into You’re Not Supposed to Cry.

So when it came to the site, I thought it would be cool to create a platform for crime and the “other stuff” — just throw it all together and see what happened. And that’s more or less how it has panned out — I built the site in WordPress, sent out an email begging for submissions and that was about it. I was more than a little surprised when people actually started sending me stuff. Some really good writers too, people I’d been reading on these other sites — Gareth Spark, Ryan Sayles, Aidan Thorn, Paul Brazill, Bill Baber and Darren Sant.

I even managed to get something from RJ Ellory, one of my favourite writers. I’d just read A Quiet Belief in Angels and City of Lies and I don’t know what I was thinking, but I just tweeted him and asked if he’d like to submit something for this new site I’d set up. I thought I’d get a snotty reply from his agent or publicist, or no reply at all. But within hours he got back to me and said, “Yes, of course.”

Working with people like that can only be a good thing in terms of your own writing. By having your own site, you get to see what everyone else is up to, and what works and what doesn’t. I see how others “package” their stories — how they lay them out, how they approach submissions, how they handle rejections etc. You get a sense of the bigger picture too — the themes, the ideas, the different approaches.

I have discovered some great writers through Spelk. Has it been heartening to see former contributors develop over the years? Which Spelk writers do you think are stretching the boundaries of what flash fiction can offer?

Yes, it is heartening. We’ve had quite a few first-timers on Spelk and it’s great to see their names popping up on other sites later. It’s a win-win if they then help spread the word about Spelk — flash is still a fairly small community and I think we should all be doing more to promote it.

It’s hard to define the boundaries because there are so many people doing so many different things with flash.

Style-wise, I think Sophie van Llewyn is doing something really exciting — she’s very lyrical and her stories are always beautifully written. We recently published A Conversation between the Spice Trader’s Daughter and her Lover, a Fortnight after She Burned at the Stake and it’s already one of my favourites on Spelk. And that title — how could you not like that? (I love a good title, and we’ve had some cracking ones — Love in the Time of Expectoration, The Woman Who Waltzed With Ulysses S. Grant, Enea Wants the Venice Water, Role Playing for the Early Patricidist, You Must Eat Your Boots First. I’d never accept a story just for the title, of course, but something along these lines, that sets the story up and makes you want to dive straight in, certainly doesn’t do any harm.)

Paul Beckman is always worth reading because he manages to come up with something different every time, whether it’s the point of view, the theme or the basic mechanics of the story (all-dialogue, bullet form, etc.). I love Howie Good’s elliptical stories — they’re at the shorter end of the flash range, but they’re dense with detail and great imagery.

Finally, what is next on your agenda? Do you have any upcoming publishing plans you can share?

I’m working on another batch of flash stories at the moment. They’re darker, these ones — miserable, but in a good way! I’ve sent a few out but I’m holding on to the rest for now — I’m still not sure if they’re going to be standalone or part of a bigger, themed story. I like the idea of doing a novella in flash, so they might evolve into something like that. I also write as Jack Larkham, nasty little crime stories, so I have a few ideas for him too. Time permitting, of course.

You can order You’re Not Supposed To Cry here.

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With S.W. Lauden

In recent years LA crime writer S.W. Lauden has surged to prominence with a series of compelling novels and short stories. Tom Leins caught up with him to discuss his Greg Salem thrillers, Bad Citizen Corporation and Grizzly Season.

Grizzly Season pretty much picks up where Bad Citizen Corporation left off, but transplants Greg Salem into a drastically different environment. After going to such lengths to develop a convincing backdrop in the form of the Bay Cities, were you worried about comprehensively uprooting your protagonist?

Thanks for having me, Tom.

Great question. I think that going into the second Greg Salem book, I was much more concerned about writing the same story again. I really wanted to challenge him and his sidekick, Marco. So I was willing to take some risks, but I always knew they would get back to The Bay Cities eventually. They can never stay away from the beach for very long without going a little crazy.

Grizzly Season felt like a big step forward from Bad Citizen Corporation. How important is it to up your game with each book, and not re-tread old ground?

I always thought of these three books—including “Hang Time” (coming this Oct. from Rare Bird Books)—as more of a trilogy than a series, so I wanted to go somewhere else with this cast of characters in the middle adventure. I needed them to evolve in order to prepare them for what I had in mind in the third book. Staying at the beach wasn’t going to accomplish that in a radical enough way.

I hope that each of the books can be read and enjoyed on their own, but there are also some over-arching narratives that are intended to tie them all together. Matt Morgan at Crimespree Magazine likened “Bad Citizen Corporation” to an Indie album, and “Grizzly Season” to a major label debut. If that’s the case, “Hang Time” is shaping up to be the introspective solo album that comes after things have inevitably fallen apart. Rock and roll!

Which series characters do you enjoy reading?

The biggest influences on the Greg Salem books came from Don Winslow’s Boone Daniels (I wish he’d write more of them), Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, and Arnaldur Indridason’s Detective Erlendur. I usually focus on story when reading—and those authors are obviously amazing storytellers—but I’d devour almost anything about those three characters.

In Bad Citizen Corporation – through the experiences Greg and his friends – there seemed to be a sub-text about aging, but remaining relevant. Is there any truth in that assessment?

Absolutely. I wanted Greg Salem to be vulnerable, and aging is his Achilles heel. So he has a bit of Peter Pan syndrome, but instead of flying he rides around on skateboards and surfboards. The Bay Cities is his Neverland. All of that is very much tied up with his history as a punk musician. It’s no secret that rock and roll is a young man’s game (at least from a commercial perspective), which can be hard to reconcile if it’s what you’ve organized your life around. We’ve all seen the old man in the slam pit, and it isn’t pretty.

Has crime fiction proven to be an adequate substitute for music in your life? Can book launches and Noir at the Bar events come close to replicating the thrill of a live performance?

They’re different thrills, but share some things in common. I was mostly a drummer, so being a writer is actually akin to “going solo” for me—I’m the one standing up at the mic now, with no cymbals to hide behind. That’s its own kind of thrill and it’s really unique to this period of my life. I’m doing my best to appreciate for what it is.

The biggest similarity to music so far is in the supportive community of writers and readers I have gotten to know. I can’t tell you the number of club shows I played to other musicians. That gives the crime writing universe a certain familiarity that, honestly, is one of the main things that keeps me hustling despite all of the usual challenges that writers face. That and this insane need to tell other people about the stories in my head.

You are a proactive member of the independent crime scene. Do close friendships make it harder to stand out in a crowded field, or do your peers keep you on your toes?

That’s an interesting question. I definitely feel more secure in a pack, which might be a drummer thing, but I do think there’s a need for up-and-coming writers to help each other out. And I love it when I hear about successful authors helping newcomers out.

As far as I can tell, commercial success in publishing might be even more elusive than in music—but neither is a cakewalk. So we might as well have some fun together while we’re toiling away. At least until Hollywood comes knocking, because then it’s every author for themselves!

Of the current crop of writers on the independent scene, who in particular inspires you?

I definitely have to tip my hat to Eric Beetner. The guy is a great writer, incredibly prolific, and probably one of the most supportive people on the Indie crime scene. He has given me and countless other new authors the opportunity to read at Noir at the Bar events in LA and at Bouchercon, and now that I’m working with him on the Writer Types podcast I finally understand just how hardworking and committed he is. Beetner is a force of nature and I’m lucky to call him a friend.

You have put out three books in the relatively short time that I have known you (with another on the way). Can you tell us a little bit about your writing routine? Is it tough to stay disciplined?

I’m not a “write everyday” guy. My family and my day job don’t allow for it and, to be honest, I’d just burn myself out. But that’s me. Plenty of other authors write every day and definitely seem to benefit from it. These days I write early in the morning and late at night—times when the house is quiet. The pace increases as the word count goes up, but that’s the general routine. By editing along the way, I eventually get to a first draft that I’ll read myself and mark up. Rinse and repeat two or three or eight times, and then I lean on a couple of trusted beta readers and an editor to help me make sense of it all. Slash and burn, suffer insomnia for a week or two, eat too much sugar/drink too much coffee, ponder the nature of existence, ride my bike around the neighborhood in a daze, slash and burn some more until—hopefully—I have something to submit. Then I hold my breath until the notes come back from the publisher before starting all over again.

Your books have an enviable mainstream sheen. Is a commercial sensibility part of your blueprint, or are you just telling the stories the way you want to?

Thanks! I really enjoy making stories up and trying to translate my thoughts onto the page in a way that is somehow entertaining—but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t care about selling books. I’m just not sure that it’s anything you can do consciously or we’d all be bestsellers.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans? Can you feed us any Greg Salem tidbits? 

As I mentioned above, “Hang Time” is the final book in the planned Greg Salem trilogy. That one will be published by Rare Bird Books in October of this year. Before that, the second novella in my “Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper” series will be published by Down & Out Books in May. That one’s called “Crossed Bones,” and it’s the follow up to “Crosswise.” Beyond that? I’m cooking up something new right now that I hope will see the light of day in 2018.

Thanks for having me!

 

Book Reviews: Bad Citizen Corporation + Grizzly Season by S.W. Lauden

BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION + GRIZZLY SEASON

Author: S.W. Lauden

Publisher: Rare Bird Books

Release Dates: October 2015 + September 2016

Bounced out of the police force after a dubious shooting, punk-turned-cop Greg Salem – whose cult ex-band gives Bad Citizen Corporation its title – finds himself assuming investigative duties once more when a beloved ex-bandmate is murdered at a show. Accompanied by his flaky drug-addict drummer Marco, Salem tries to keep his personal demons at bay long enough to track down the killer, and redeem his ravaged reputation. The bullet-strewn back-story – and indeed Salem’s battle with alcohol dependency – may recall a So.Cal Scudder, but Lauden’s book actually follows in the sandy, surf-noir footprints of writers such as Don Winslow and Kem Nunn. Like his predecessors, Lauden manages to give the story an impressively claustrophobic feel, which is defiantly at odds with the sun-kissed, beach-side backdrop.

Bad Citizen Corporation is a highly enjoyable series opener, but Lauden kicks the series up a notch with Grizzly Season, which proves to be a creepier, more malevolent follow-up, in which illicit pornography shoots, rural drug farms and mutant drug cocktails loom large. In the sequel, Salem and Marco retreat to a remote cabin in the backend of the Angeles National Forest, only to have their peaceful sojourn shattered after stumbling across an expansive marijuana farm called Grizzly Flats. Charismatic drug lord Magnus Ursus is a great antagonist, and the character of Salem actually functions better when on a collision course with a menacing adversary, rather than chasing shadows, as in the first book.

Lauden is a smart writer with an enviable mainstream sensibility, and given the impressive step up in quality between the first and second books, I’m expecting big things from the third Greg Salem book, Hang Time, which is due later this year.