I came across Liam Sweeny when he released his short story collection Street Whispers published by All Due Respect Books. In my review of Street Whispers, I wrote, “My nightmares are the world that Liam Sweeny’s Street Whispers inhabits.” I needed to find out how Sweeny got into my head and he agreed to sit down with me for an interview via email.
David: Let’s talk about your story, “Rats”. I mentioned in my review, the story unmasked a fear that I think many of us have, that we are all precariously situated in our lives. In crime fiction, there’s always a certain amount of fear but it is always removed far from the reader. With “Rats” and other stories, the reader can absolutely picture themselves in these difficult situations. With many in the States one or two steps away from financial ruin, can you talk about how you relate your storytelling these sorts of situations and even those caused by a few bad decisions?
Liam: I want to split open the social construct that says that if you live on the street, or you’re poor, or struggling, that you’re, at best, society’s cautionary tale. We’ve been conditioned to believe that if you’re doing well, it’s because you deserve it, that it was solely because of your character, and nothing else. Only occasionally that’s true. And we’re also conditioned to believe the opposite; if you’re down and out, you must deserve it, and be of weak moral character. Again, only occasionally is that true.
But reality encroaches. We see homeless families that work two jobs and live out of a van. We see homeless veterans. And we feel like we have to explain that away, because the truth, that someone can do right in their life and still wind up busted and broken – that’s a terrifying reveal. In “Rats,” both main characters wound up on the streets for reasons other than a faulty character. And that’s the “crime” of that story – not any crime they’ve committed, but the crime of their very existence.
David: In your interview with Tom Leins you said, “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.” Can you talk about what you’ve learned as a writer over the years and what about a story interest you more now than before?
Liam: I’ve learned a few things as a writer, key of which is that I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. But every writer learns that. In particular, I have learned that you are best served creating characters you care about. A lot of writing critique talks about stereotypical, or two-dimensional characters, and it sucks to read them. But it sucks to write them. All they are is a representative of something you feel you need in your story. But there’s so many other ways to get what you want to convey in there. Do you need the giant bodyguard to only be a springboard for your main character’s wit? Try giving him a quick back-story, just in your head. How does he come back on insults now? Maybe he has to actually get mad to throw a punch at your main guy. Or maybe he just needs to be bored.
I’ve learned to make friends. All kinds of friends, even if I don’t hang with them all the time. I’m learning to figure out their headspaces and the life-hustles and make characters out of them like I’m blending smoothies. I’m learning that no character disappears from existence when you turn the page.
David: Your writing history isn’t genre-bound, though you tilted more to crime fiction of late. You have a new Jack LeClere book coming out in August called “Presiding Over The Damned” on Down & Out Books. Tell us about it.
Liam: “Presiding Over the Damned” is the second book in the Jack LeClere series, and it’s a departure from the first book, “Welcome Back, Jack.” The first book was about a team of serial killers on the loose in the tunnels under the city. There was a significant body count, and a few explosions. “Presiding” is about the murder of an eight-year-old girl, Julia Mae Jefferson, a seeming hate crime in a city that is barely able to contain its racial friction.
New Rhodes is a city that is an amalgamation of the cities just north of Albany, New York, the state capital. The center of it would be the city of Troy. It gives me a comfort to capture, if not the specific feelings, the broad demographics of a very historical rust-belt city, where manufacturing has left, and resources are dwindling, much faster in the neighborhoods that need it most. Julia Mae Jefferson fell through the cracks in streets that were lousy with cracks.
The book has its explosive parts, but it has its tender parts, and some pretty heartbreaking parts. I really hope that this is a book that catches.
David: I’m the type of reader that finds the stories of the disenfranchised more interesting than an art dealer in Soho cheating on her husband. In Street Whispers, I believe you are telling the stories of the people behind the three lines of a police report. How do you go about finding their voice?
Liam: I don’t so much consider myself telling the stories of forgotten people, dangerous people, rebels and outlaws. I’m writing about my high school crew and the hangouts on the hill next to the south end PJs. I was probably the nicest person of all my friends growing up, and I wasn’t nice so much as I didn’t do jail time. They’re my friends and neighbors, good or bad. And you can’t see any good in the world you’re in without being around when the bad shit goes down. Sometimes, what’s behind those three lines needs to be memorialized. Which is tougher to do when you realize that Cops and Live PD is out there doing the same thing… and they have cameras.
David: Give me five authors or books to read, genre doesn’t matter.
Liam: Thinking Fast and Slow, Dr. Daniel Kahneman – This is psychology, non-fiction. I think this is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand what the “gut” is about from a scientific viewpoint. Fascinating, and has helped me innumerable times in life.
Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco, by Theresa Gowan – An engrossing ethnographic study of homelessness in San Francisco, but it could apply anywhere. I walked away from this book with an understanding I wish I had when I started writing “Rats.”
Chester Himes – I’ve recently started reading Chester Himes, and I haven’t read a sentence yet I didn’t love. I plan on reading everything he wrote. The vibrancy of his prose is just hypnotic.
James Ellroy – Before I was a writer, L.A. Confidential showed me how language itself can be a character. I’ve come to see this in all of the work I’ve read since, as a writer, but Ellroy’s work was an epiphany to me at the time.
Les Edgerton – Both his fiction and his non-fiction. I look up to Les as a mentor. He taught me how to rely on my life experience and focus on those moments that really make a story sock you in the gut.