Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with Liam Sweeny to discuss his new short story collection, Street Whispers (All Due Respect).
Firstly, congratulations on the publication of Street Whispers. How hard was it to select the stories – and indeed the running order?
Thank you. It was difficult to pick and arrange the stories. They were written at different times, some for publication, some for fun, a couple were lost treasures, so telling a story with the stories—it didn’t immediately lend itself to that. “The Gull Princess,” the first story, was a story that I felt had a ton of heart for its size. And I wanted to think about how people read short story collections. For a reader that’s unfamiliar with your work, you have maybe two stories to hook them in, and that first story’s got to hit. I think they all hit, especially with the crime-noir crowd, but that first story, I needed it to be something that could capture people who read broadly, like people that I encounter in my day-to-day travels. I’m hoping I achieved that.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection? If so, why is it your favourite?
I’m torn between “The Gull Princess” and “Rats,” but through sheer weight, I would go with “Rats.” I got into writing to put a focus on people that have become invisible to society: the homeless, the hopeless, the disregarded, the background criminals—basically the weathered people who’ve all but given up on finding a legit place in the world. “Rats” is about the life and death of a homeless man named David, and his friend, who remembers him as he makes his way through the city to make David matter. When I was about ten years old, my mother was active with the homeless rights movement in our area. I was involved in sleep outs and rallies, even getting to the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. This was a time when people were fighting to end homelessness with housing solutions. Soon after that, the focus shifted to a homeless “industry” of sheltering, treatment and managing the homeless on the street, i.e. city ordinances, police actions. I’ve also worked in an SRO for a time, so I’ve seen that battle from both ends. I’ve never myself been homeless, but that’s a matter of ‘any given Sunday’, I guess.
What is the oldest story in the book? How do you think your style has evolved since then?
I think “The Ninth Step” is the oldest one, yeah, “Ninth Step.” It’s a story about an alcoholic coming to terms with his past, but with a twist. And that where I think I’m a different writer now than I was then. I used to pride myself on coming up with interesting twists. Whether it would be a full-on plot twist or just a turn of phrase at the end, I loved getting people to think one thing, and flip them around a hundred-and-eighty-degrees to show them what was happening while they were watching the left hand. I still like this, I think it’s fun, and if anything, I try to build upon the foundation I’ve built when I write one of those stories now. But I’ve been going down the path of slowing down the frenetic pace of action and focusing on the essence of a dramatic moment or moments, the intense focus on a person, giving my readers a mind’s-ride through very tough situations. I think this is where the first story, “The Gull Princess” is at.
Do you think crime fiction is too safe? Do you read mainstream crime fiction, or are your tastes firmly rooted in the independent scene?
That’s hard to say. I like authors like Don Winslow and James Ellroy, and they’re raw. And I’m sure there are many mainstream writers I know nothing about that are the same way. My tastes are rooted in the indie scene, primarily because I really want to support the scene that I’m in. I want to help the author that let their car insurance lapse so they could afford an editor before I want to help the author that has a full marketing team stocking the supermarkets and pharmacies with their books. The public “at-large” will buy their books and sing their praises; they don’t need my help as much. Crime fiction, to me, is gritty and organic and unapologetic. It takes risks, creates characters that are an affront to all we hold holy. I see that more in the indie scene, the willingness, in some cases the ability, to take risks.
Your collection has been published by All Due Respect/Down & Out Books – do you have any favourite ADR/D&O authors or titles you would like to recommend?
God, I could probably go through both catalogs and just pick people wholesale. Most everybody that I like has at least something in ADR/D&O. I’ve actually thought of going to my local indie bookstores with a printed-out catalog and a televangelist’s grin, making sales. But here goes a few. I’ll just give names, because I dig all of their work that I’ve read.
Les Edgerton, Jack Getze, Tom Pitts, Ryan Sayles, Eric Beetner, Jon Bassoff, Angel Luis Colon, Jen Conley, Danny Gardner, Beau Johnson, Dana King, Ed Kurtz, S.W. Lauden, Terrence McCauley, Marietta Miles, Kate Pilarcik, Anthony Neil Smith… I think that’s a big enough reading list for people to start with. Also, Joe Clifford, a writer I follow, will be joining the family soon.
Which contemporary writers do you consider to be your peers?
Stephen King, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling… Seriously though, my favourite authors from Down & Out and All Due Respect could be really copied down here. And a few others, so let me give a shout-out to EA Cook, who I can say is a true peer (we grew up writing together,) Todd Monahan and Paul David Brazill.
I think that we have a natural solidarity in that we’re all putting ourselves out there because we have something to say, and for whatever reason, we’ve sought our platform in the indie circuit. Broadly, I could consider everyone who writes my peer, because at the end of the day, we aren’t in competition with each other as much as we’re competing for the attention of that kid going to town on Candy crush Saga on his phone for five hours instead of picking up a book. I’ve always felt kinship in the writing community, among people who were well-known or unknown, and I’m sure I’m more in the latter category.
If your career trajectory could follow that of any well-known writer, who would you choose, and why?
I’d have to say Herman Mellville. He lived across the river from me. He wrote what would much later become the world-famous Moby Dick, but didn’t really see that kind of fame, because he died, well, “not world-famously” about thirty years before his work had its revival. I’m partially joking, but I’m not looking for the kind of fame in my lifetime that some other authors have. Success, in that it pays the bills and made everybody happy, would work for me. But, seven hundred years from now, someone digging up a disc with all my writing on it, and not finding much else from the 21st Century, would be a treat.
Do you crave mainstream success, or is developing cult status satisfying enough?
Oh, cult status all the way. I want a seedy strip club in L.A. named after the seedy strip club in a couple of my stories, and anybody who comes in and quotes my characters gets all the Bacardi 151 they can drink. It’s kind of funny that you ask this. One of the stories is about a cult leader. Also, we have an honest-to-God cult in the area. I won’t name it, but we’re talking forced sleep deprivation and genital branding. I don’t want that in my cult.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans?
I have the second in my Jack LeClere detective series, Presiding over the Damned, coming out in August of this year. I have the third novel on deck, and currently, I’m just writing as many shorts as I can, trying to find homes for them, and hopefully have another collection in time.
Liam Sweeny is an author and graphic designer from the Capital Region of New York State. His work has appeared both online and in print, in such periodicals as Spinetingler Magazine, Thuglit, All Due Respect, Pulp Modern and So It Goes: the Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is the author of the collection Dead Man’s Switch and the detective thriller Welcome Back, Jack. The next Jack LeClere series title, Presiding over the Damned, will be out in August from Down & Out Books.
His new collection, Street Whispers, will be out on February 23rd, and is available for preorder now.