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Interviews

Suspect’s Viewpoint: Liam Sweeny

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 sweenyLiam: 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.

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Interviews

Suspect’s Viewpoint: CS DeWildt

CS (Chris) DeWildt is a crime writer from Arizona and like most crime writers, his sense of humor is a bit off. He’s written four books and one short story collection, all of which are still in print. His recent book, published by Shotgun Honey, is Suburban Dick, an aptly titled book that covers the protagonist and the author.

David: My wife was on vacation with her sister and her sister was talking about “me mes”. It took a while for my wife to understand what her sister was talking about, and my wife said, “Do you mean memes?” You’re a bit prolific reposting memes on your Facebook account as well as the Weird Uncle Pete Facebook page. What is it that attracts you to memes? Do memes have anything to tell us?

Chris: First, thank you so much for having me. And thanks for the book review. But Memes, yeah, I’m pretty prolific but I don’t think that’s anything to be proud of. I’m a shit poster, that’s it. But I do love the little bastards and it’s simply because they make me laugh, especially when people get mad. I used to make a lot of original memes until I was banned from the UUUM (Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes) Facebook group. I think my best one received about 5000 likes pretty quickly. Sometimes I’ll see a meme I made still making the rounds on various pages, but I never watermark them or anything so no one will ever know, and that’s fine because memes are for the people! Can they tell us anything? Sure, I think they’re powerful communication tools. They tell you which of your friends are sensitive dumb asses. And in the case of the 4kb of Feces Posting FB page (and about a million similar pages), the memes tell me that younger millennials and whatever generation is following them are fucking insane.

David: What’s Facebook jail like?

Chris: It’s like being grounded and watching out the window while your friends play outside. Mark Zuckerberg is like my dad, which is good because my biological dad died last year and I’m in the market for a new father figure.

David: Gus Harris, the protagonist of Suburban Dick, is a divorced father of two but he’s still heavily involved in his kids’ lives. His two kids aren’t just wallflowers in the book, they’re fleshed out characters, even the youngest who spends most of his time playing video games with headphones on. You “get” kids. Much of this probably has to do with you being a middle-school teacher and a father. It’s easy for older generations to dismiss kids. You could have easily just pushed the kids to the background in Suburban Dick, but you didn’t. Why?

Chris: The kids are an important part of the story, both for the plot and to help develop Gus’s character. His devotion to them is really his saving grace since he makes pretty bad decisions most of the time, I mean the reason he’s estranged from them is bad decisions. But I didn’t want him to come off as a total asshole; I wanted a sympathetic protagonist and his love for his children is the keystone of that sympathy. Sure Gus is funny, he’s fun to laugh at, and he has an interest in justice, but overall he’s not that likable otherwise. He’s a dick! The only way I could tap into any kind of sympathy was by making the whole family as real as I could, the kids included. Fleshing them created that much more tension since we care not only about Gus solving the case, but the kids’ welfare.

David: What are some of the things parents and those that don’t have kids really just do understand about kids today?

Chris: They truly are less innocent than they used to be. Of course there’s always been a cohort of kids who knew more about the world, but in general, what these kids know about the dark side of life amazes me. It’s a consequence of the digital age I think, access to information. But there’s a positive to this too, and that’s the level of acceptance kids today have for people who are different than them. Tolerance seems to be the rule generally speaking, not the exception. Kids truly give me hope for the future.

David: Being a father, husband and a teacher is a lot to do. Throw writing four novels and a collection of short stories on top of that. How do you carve out the time between writing, your job, the school work you do after hours, and being a family man? Along with that, writing novels and short stories are quite different beasts. I would have thought short stories might have fit better in any time you have left to write.

Chris: Discipline is all it is. I haven’t felt very productive lately, but when I’m in the groove with a project I’m up before everyone in the house and that’s my time to write. It’s safe to say that the majority of everything I’ve had published was written between 4 and 6 AM. It’s like anything else, if you really want to do it, you make time. As for novel versus shorts, a daily word count is a daily word count whether it’s a 2000 word chapter or 2000 word short. That said, I am now trying to work on more short fiction. I neglected it once I started finding publishers for the longer stuff, but short stories are my first love.

David: Give me five books or writers to read. Genre doesn’t matter.

Chris: The Mosquito Coast– crazy father sets up dystopian nightmare in Honduras
The Killer Inside Me– crazy cop kills a mess of people because of his “sickness”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest– pretend crazy liberates the spirits of the mentally ill
Raymond Carver- crazy drunk writing about domesticity and the human condition
Irvine Welsh- crazy Scot writing about drugs and criminals

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Interviews

Suspect’s Viewpoint: L.A. Sykes

LA SYKES (3)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.

Spoiler Question
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.

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Interviews

Suspect’s Viewpoint: Chris Rhatigan

chris rhatigan (2)An interview with Chris Rhatigan, a freelance editor and the publisher of All Due Respect Books. He is also the author of several books: The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other, Squeeze, and Race to the Bottom  His occasional blog about writing is worth a read. I asked him several questions over emails.

David: Mike Monson, co-publisher of All Due Respect Books, left this past summer. Can you talk about his enduring influence on ADR as well as how you are filling the hole within ADR due to his absence?
Chris: Mike had been with ADR since the early days, back when it was a short fiction website. He shaped ADR’s identity as a magazine and publishing house exclusively dedicated to lowlife literature. Mike has high standards for storytelling, and we had a policy for every manuscript we accepted–we had to both be excited about it. No easy feat! He also wrote some killer titles for us.
On the second part of your question, teaming up with Down & Out Books has been a great experience. I’m constantly learning from the D&O team, Eric Campbell and Lance Wright, and they’re improving every aspect of ADR from the process a manuscript goes through to promotion and marketing. I also work with a consulting editor (Nigel Bird, Rob Pierce, or Chris Black) on every book we publish.

David: With the recent release of Matt Phillip’s “Accidental Outlaws” and eight books scheduled in the next ten months, it seems that ADR has its work cut out for you all. BTW thanks for piling on to my TBR. Can you talk for a moment about your production processes and the rhythm created for ADR’s upcoming releases?
Chris: We started off publishing one book every month. They were selling well, so we decided to publish two books per month. That was too much. We weren’t giving each title the attention it deserved. So I’ve rolled things back a bit and put some cushion in the schedule. I prefer to read each manuscript at least four times before its released.
Also, one of the important things as a small publisher is communicating with authors. I need adequate time to communicate with writers on each step of the process. I want every author I work with to be proud of the final product.

David: Submissions are still open for ADR and hopefully, you’re getting some activity there, you read a ton personally as shown by your Goodreads reviews, you’re a freelance editor, a teacher, a husband and a new father, how do you find the time?
Chris: I actually left teaching in 2015. Since then, I’ve been doing freelance writing/editing. This is a cliché, but it comes down to what I’m passionate about. I love reading crime fiction and I love working with authors to bring their work to publication. So I get up before my daughter at around 5:30 every day. That’s when I drink an unreasonable amount of coffee and edit. Unfortunately, I haven’t written much over this last year. Lack of time is the number one excuse for not writing, but there it is. Hope to get back to that this year. I was just jotting down some notes for a new book about Lionel Kaspar, scumbag newspaper reporter. The three fans of this series are probably peeing themselves with excitement.

David: I read that you’ve been in India for 6 years. I lived in Venezuela for a few years and I found it to be quite educational to be an American overseas. It is difficult enough to acclimate yourself to a new culture, but even grocery shopping or getting a cup of coffee is just a little different. How do you think it has affected you?
Chris: Educational is a good word for it. A couple of things stand out about my time overseas. One is that when I’m in India, I’m very aware of how American I am–my tastes, my accent, my way of thinking. Then when I return to the States, I feel somewhat less American. Like I’m a step behind everyone else. I’ll come back to an American grocery store and it’s like a bad acid trip. There are just no places even a little bit like that in India.
I live in a small town in the Himalayan Mountains so things are relatively simple. There are only a couple of roads; cows wander around the hillside; we tend to walk almost everywhere we go; we eat Indian food for almost every meal. I’ve enjoyed my time here but I’m ready to go back to the States. We’d like our daughter to grow up around family…and we miss IPAs, pizza that doesn’t taste like ketchup on cardboard, and having a vague understanding of what the fuck is going on at any given moment.

David: Give me five books/authors to read, genres don’t matter.
Chris: Pablo D’Stair should be a legend. His five-book series about con artist Trevor English is a master class in crime fiction. It was this series that got me interested in independent publishing. They have this mundane, grim quality that you’ll never see in books from large publishers.

Kanae Minato is a Japanese writer who has two books translated into English, Confessions and Penance. Both are slow-burn psychological thrillers I’d highly recommend.

Patti Abbott is a writer I always want to talk about, but particularly now since she recently released a short story collection, I Bring You Sorrow. Her novels Concrete Angel and Shot in Detroit are also excellent. There isn’t a crime writer out there who does characterization better.

I recently read How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier. It was recommended in a list of noir novels by French authors. This is an interesting take on the old hitman-about-to-retire plot. It’s more like a weird road trip story with all these tragic, nihilistic characters bouncing off one another. It has this wonderful sense of the absurd and a healthy dose of black humor.

Charles Willeford is a pulp writer from the golden era I only found out about a year ago. Now I can’t get enough. He has a different approach than other writers in this era, taking a more deliberate pace, but if you like hanging out in an evil character’s mind, there’s no one better.

Chris Rhatigan is a freelance crime fiction editor and All Due Respect Books publisher. He is the author of The Kind of Friends Who Murder Each Other, Squeeze, and Race to the Bottom.