Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Philadelphia crime writer Tony Knighton to discuss his new novel, Three Hours Past Midnight (Crime Wave Press).
Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Three Hours Past Midnight. The Richard Stark/Parker influence came through very clearly – where does he rank in terms of your favourite writers? Which other writers – crime or otherwise – have influenced your style?
Yes, I am a big Richard Stark fan. He wrote consistently great stuff. Even Mister Westlake’s earliest published work seems every bit as good as anything else he wrote. The man was a master.
I would have to say that George V. Higgins made an early impression on me. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is still one of my favorite books. Anyone who has read it raves about the great dialogue, and it is, but to me, Mister Higgins genius lay in trusting the reader. He gives no explanations or back-story. He knew we would get it.
I read a lot of straight fiction, too. I’m a big fan of the Johns – O’Hara, Cheever, Updike, and of course, poor John Kennedy Toole. I think Confederacy is the funniest book I’ve ever read. The way he was able to keep all those balls in the air was inspiring.
The Philadelphia backdrop and locations seem hand-picked to lend authenticity to the story. How important is location to you – as a reader – and as a writer?
Location means more to me as a writer than a reader. Specific places inspired scenes in Three Hours Past Midnight. There’s a protracted chase sequence that follows the route I walked and rode to work during the time I wrote the book. I’m currently writing a scene that takes place along the Susquehanna River in Central Pennsylvania. It wouldn’t have occurred to me without seeing the location first.
Three Hours Past Midnight seems to flow effortlessly. Was it an easy book to write, and did you cut much out of the finished work?
Thanks, that’s a nice compliment. No, it wasn’t easy. It was a shit-ton of work.
I didn’t have to cut a lot. Early in the writing, I’d intended to make the story’s locale more far ranging, but I changed my mind before I ever got there. If I come to a point in the writing where I’m not sure what happens next, I’ll skip ahead to something I do know.
I tend to revise compulsively, so often, by the time I’ve completed a first draft, much of the manuscript isn’t too horrible.
It sometimes feels like we learn more about the supporting characters than we do about your nameless protagonist – was this a deliberate strategy?
That’s a great question. I know what you mean, but no, that wasn’t any sort of conscious decision. I think it’s more a function of the narrator’s personality. He’s telling the story, and what he considers significant. Other people are his business. For instance, he acknowledges and is wary of another character’s marksmanship, but makes no reference to his own abilities, even though he usually manages to hit what he shoots at. Sometimes while speaking with others, there are allusions to past events, but these are sketchy. Silhouettes.
Do you think contemporary crime fiction is too safe? Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?
Absolutely, most mainstream stuff is too safe. Entertainment is big business. Music, movies and publishing used to be controlled by businessmen who also enjoyed these businesses and their products. They were motivated by their own tastes, and were willing to take a chance on something different if they liked it. Now, the only motive is profit, and the people in charge are only interested in sure things. Most readers, as well as listeners and viewers, crave the familiar. This leads to stale output.
I think the interesting stuff nowadays is coming from independent presses. Most folks published by independent houses try to write the kinds of stories that they’d want to read. That keeps things fresh.
There are still some fine crime fiction writers published by the big five. Thomas Perry is an example. I love The Butcher’s Boy.
Your book has been published by Crime Wave Press – do you have any favourite Crime Wave authors or titles?
Benedict J. Jones. His Charlie Bars stories are great fun. I dig his short stuff, too. Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money is cool. Ezra Kyrill Erker’s Salaryman Unbound is deliciously creepy. These are some of my favorites, but you can’t go wrong with anything from Crime Wave Press – those guys know good fiction.
Which writers do you consider to be your peers?
There is a lively crime fiction scene, and I’ve made a lot of friends, both in person and through e-mail and social media, but I would hesitate to consider myself their peer. I feel more like a kid who is being allowed to hang out on the corner with the big guys – guys like Scott Adlerberg, Jedidiah Ayres, Greg Barth, Nick Korpon, Jon McGoran, Andrew Nette, the horror writer Norman Prentiss, Eryk Pruitt and Sam Starnes, to name just a few.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?
That’s hard. I’ve had the good fortune of spending most of my life working at a job that I enjoy. To be more successful would mostly mean a having a larger readership. I’m a pushover – whenever I’ve met someone who’s liked any of my stuff, I’ve immediately asked, “What was your favorite part?”
If I had to pick someone specific, I’d go with Donald Westlake. He seems to have been a happy, fun-loving guy.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans?
I’m not a good planner. I’ll just keep writing and sending stuff out, reading, and spreading the word about good stuff that I happen upon.
Thanks again, Tom.