Unlawful Acts recently reviewed L.A. Sykes’ The Hard Cold Shoulder, published by Near to the Knuckle, calling it ” a strong and savage book.” Sykes also has a collection of short stories, Noir Medley, also published by Near to the Knuckle. He lives in Atherton, Greater Manchester, UK, and works in acute psychiatry – we’ll get to the later. He’s had work featured in or soon to be featured in Shotgun Honey, Powder Burn Flash, The Big Adios, Blink Ink, Daily Love, Dark Dreams Podcast, Nightmare Illustrated, Spelk Fiction and others. For this interview, we’ll call him Lee, since, you know that’s his name.
David:: I need to get this out of the way first: are you a Blue or a Red?
Lee: Rugby League Red: Leigh Centurions
David:: The Hard Cold Shoulder is a journey into the mind of a man slipping into the abyss. Given your work history working in acute psychiatry that obviously had influence over the creation of the main character Pitkin. In many popular books, tv shows and films, the mental illness of a criminal is often used as a prop or a plot point. Not in your book. I found Pitkin to be skillfully drawn. Can you talk about creating Pitkin and his disease if any? Also, could you define in layman’s terms what is meant by acute psychiatry?
Lee: With Pitkin, I wanted to create a character whose job was more than just a pay cheque. He was a copper because he wanted to be with a strong sense of vocation.
Through him, I wanted to address (amongst other things) post-traumatic stress and the impact it has on someone on the front line – people who we take for granted to deal with different forms of carnage for want of a better word. With this I also wanted to look at his sense of identity, and how it led to a deteriorating psychological state when he was taken from his duty.
I think post-traumatic stress is an important issue, and with Pitkin in the prime of his life having been forced out of arguably the main crux of his identity, he carries on as a private investigator in an effort to keep himself from the oblivion of his sense of self. When people do jobs that involve high risk of burn out or post-trauma, unfortunately most of the time they get very little effective help and end up lost, discarded – usually replaced by someone cheaper because they are seen as just a number, which is a tragedy and an indictment of the treatment of mental health problems. In Pitkin’s case, he ploughs on doing what he was made to do, arguably to avoid facing a future even bleaker from his perspective than the one he hurtles towards – a life without the purpose and meaning he had in his work as a copper.
Acute psychiatry in layman’s terms just refers to the stage of an illness; the acute stage is where the symptomology is most florid to the point where hospital admission is necessary, which is where I worked.
David: Our fascination with the darker elements of crime fiction is well-known and as Will Viharo points out in the introduction to your short story collection, Noir Medley, we are tied to these noir characters, “But the hard truth is, they are us.” Do your stories reflect Viharo’s statement? If so, how?
Lee: When Will Viharo says, “…they are us”, he adds, “Just bolder and perhaps more honest in their endeavours to survive…”. And I think he is absolutely spot on in the sense that they’re striving for the same goals as everyone else, it’s just that they’re willing to transgress, take bigger risks and engage in destructive and immoral behaviour to get there. If we accept we are all part of the human race, then we are on a spectrum of behaviour and capabilities, and who knows what people are capable of once desperation, opportunity, and other variables present themselves. In a society where most people (as I’ve often seen reported) are three pay cheques away from the street, it’s no wonder people choose to transgress moral codes and the law of the land, to escape financial insecurity as quickly as possible (although obviously there are other factors too).
It also boils down to recognizing the darker aspects of the human being, and in the fact that no matter what a crime or noir writer fictionalises, someone somewhere is doing something even more horrific right now – at this very moment.
David: Give me five authors or books to read, genre doesn’t matter.
Lee: Very difficult to stick to just five, but I’ll go with: 1984 – George Orwell.
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess; Blood Meridian – Cormac Mccarthy; Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky; and GB 84 – David Peace.
David: Toward the ending of The Hard Cold Shoulder, there is an ambiguity much like The Awakening by Kate Chopin. The lead character in Chopin’s book walks out into the ocean and there’s debate on whether she was committing suicide or not. Towards the end of The Hard Cold Shoulder, you have Pitkin staring into the blackness of the railroad tracks. Why did you choose this ambiguity?
Lee: I chose to end it like I did because I wanted to immerse the reader as much as possible in Pitkin’s journey, which includes the ending. I wanted them to be sat right next to him as the story closes, seeing what he sees and feeling what the reader infers he feels. I felt it was a more powerful effect and is more akin to real life in that there are no easy answers – and I wanted the reader to get the same sensations as Pitkin, in that very moment of his experience.