The first book I read of Grant Jerkins was “Abnormal Man” and if you are ready for it, man, you find yourself swimming with some creepy characters–and not in the Stephen King way, more in the way of sexual predators and violent men already pushed over the edge. In my review of Jerkins’s book, I said that “we are not driving by a car crash and staring — no, we are in the car crash and slowly dying.” As far as contemporary crime fiction, Jerkins’s “Abnormal Man” sits alongside Jake Hinkson’s classic “Hell on Church Street”.
Earlier this year, ABC Group Documentation published Jerkins’s short story collection, “A Scholar of Pain“. It’s of no surprise that these stories are as good as they are disturbing. In my review, I wrote, “these stories … combined with the author’s other works begin to fill in the canvas–if you tilt your head so and squint your eyes a bit, yeah, you begin to see something.” All of which leads to my first question.
David: After reading two of your books, “Abnormal Man” and “A Scholar of Pain”, I need to ask, “Are you okay?” I’m concerned.
Grant: I am. I’m okay.
When I first started writing fiction, I thought I would write horror, because that was what I mostly read. Back then, I didn’t even know ‘noir’ was a thing. A genre. I found out about it online, the community of writers and readers. Now noir is everywhere, everybody does it. Kind of like how being gender-fluid is a thing now. Maybe you don’t fit comfortably into a traditional gender role, then you get online and everybody is talking about being gender fluid, and you think, oh, that fits me. I discovered the term noir fit me. I think my writing is quintessentially noir. So, yeah, I’m okay, I just like dark shit.
David: In an interview with Jedidiah Ayres, you said, “Even though people are breaking laws left and right in my stories, these people are crossing a line. Either personally, or culturally—they are crossing a line. Actual criminals live on the other side of that line (and cops too, really). The rest of us just visit there. We transgress.”
Most crime fiction from the point of view of the criminal, they always have a code that they abide by, they don’t tolerate rape, pedophilia, or the killing of children and animals. With your last two books, you don’t shy away from those that journey in these dark areas. Can you talk about your attraction to these voices and the need to tell their stories?
Grant: A code they live by? Maybe James Cagney type criminals. But you’re right, most of us draw the line at rape/pedophilia/child killing/animal cruelty. In fact, rape is kind of iffy. I’d take that off the list of unforgivable crimes. So we’re left with pedophilia/child killing/animal cruelty as the things other criminals won’t tolerate. Unless they’re pedophiles too, then they do tolerate it. Unless they are your fellow animal abusers, then they’re cool with it. Darkness is drawn to darkness.
What is the point in writing about a pedophile? As you said, even other criminals despise them. I think it only becomes interesting in a Venn diagram sort of way. We are all in agreeance that these are vile, abhorrent crimes. But isn’t it interesting to see where our humanity overlaps with those we most despise? It’s uncomfortable. One of the points of Abnormal Man is that in two centuries of medical and scientific advance, not much has changed in our understanding of criminal behavior. Maybe I’m daring the reader to feel empathy toward the most despicable among us. To look at the area where our lives overlap. It’s a difficult subject.
To put it into a religious context, we have to somehow reconcile the fact that these people—like us—are created in God’s image. Every human life has intrinsic value.
Switching back to a secular view, what fascinates me—what I’m drawn to—isn’t deviant behavior; it’s that spot on the Venn diagram where we all overlap. The area where you and I and the teenage boy who likes to set dogs on fire—where we are the same.
Or it could just be that I like dark shit.
David: When I was reading “A Scholar of Pain”, I had to put the book down between stories not only to digest what I just read, but also to catch my breath. You’re considered too dark by those that consume the more popular police procedurals, psychological thrillers, and to catch a serial killer books. A lot of writers grasp onto the formula and I don’t imagine you have give much thought about writing that “rootable” character. You demand a lot of your readers making them move forward without the classic “rootable” character. Do you have any expectations of your readers?
Grant: This question catches me off guard. I guess the answer is no. I have no expectations of my readers. I’m surprised they exist. And glad.
David: Following the previous question, what should the readers expectations should be of you as a writer?
Grant: They should expect to be entertained. They should expect me to try to offer them something of significance. I might fail, but hopefully you can at least see I was trying. I don’t want to waste your time or mine.
David: You had several books published with one of the big publishers and then they turned down Abnormal Man. What made you decide to go with a small niche publisher, ABC Group Documentation, that no one has heard of?
Grant: I was in a unique position in that I knew I was going to go with a small publisher. “Abnormal Man” was never going to be brought out by a big publisher. (Exactly why is another story.) So, I knew it would be a small publisher and I needed to decide which one fit me best. Let me bring this back to my stupid ‘gender fluid’ comparison above. Yeah, I’m noir, and there are lots of small publishers who specialize in dark crime fiction. But I don’t necessarily feel like I fit in the traditional dark crime mode. Get it? I’m genre fluid. In going with ABC Group Documentation (the very name is genre-eschewing), “Abnormal Man” became their first published book. So I ended up helping create their identity, rather than having a publisher push their identity on me. On top of that, I found a muse and lifelong friend in the imprint’s founder, Jeremy Stabile.
David: Give me five books or authors to read, genre doesn’t matter.
Grant: Genre doesn’t matter? Wave that flag.
The first book that comes to my mind—for whatever reason—is “Miss Lonelyhearts” by Nathanael West. I love that book. It’s this incredibly pure distillation of the human heart. Have you ever heard of Vantablack? It’s this weird man-made dark stuff created out of nanotubes. It’s the darkest artificial substance known to exist. It absorbs 99.965% of radiation in the visible spectrum. That’s how dark Miss Lonelyhearts is. And somehow manages to be funny too.
My second, ha-ha, I can’t believe I’m putting this book on a list (other than a book-burning list), is a novel called “Bad Ronald” by Jack Vance. There was a TV movie based on it in the 70’s, but you gotta read the book. Ronald is very, very bad. He rapes and murders a little girl—rather nonchalantly—on his way home from a high school pool party. Ronald’s mother hides him from the police in the walls of their house. Creates a secret room. Mom eventually dies, and the new owners move their family into the house, not knowing Ronald lives in the walls. There’s just something about that book that freaks me out. It’s written in this bizarre Tom Swift style. Like: I shall persevere, Ronald thought bravely. The juxtaposition of that naive children’s-book voice with the truly wicked things Ronald does… It just kills me.
Next is the novel “Better“. It’s by John O’Brien. He wrote “Leaving Las Vegas”. You should read all his stuff. There’s not much of it. He committed suicide young.
I’m really into Octavia Butler. She’s science fiction. Dark science fiction. But fluid. I would recommend her story collection, “Bloodchild“, to start.
I just noticed everybody I listed is dead. With that in mind, last up is Jake Hinkson. To the best of my knowledge he’s still alive. I hope this doesn’t curse him. I’m simply enthralled with his work. Start anywhere on his backlist. There’s not a bum one in the lot. But my favorite might be “Posthumous Man“. Dude’s dark. I’d hate to see where he and I overlap on a Venn diagram.
Thanks for stopping by and reading our interview with Grant Jerkins.
Grant Jerkins is the author of “A Very Simple Crime“, which The New York Times called “An extremely nasty study in abnormal psychology.” The prize-winning debut was selected by Book of the Month Club, Mystery Guild, QPB, The Literary Guild, and Doubleday Book Club; and has since been optioned for film by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Kazan.
He lives with his wife and son in the Atlanta area.