We pinned our resident evil genius Steve Weddle down to a board and pointed a fricking laser beam at his middle bits. He asked us if we expect him to talk and we said, uh, yeah. He said....okay.
The real reason we pointed a beam of hot light at his third favourite feature was to get him to open up and talk about himself. And his writing. And HIS BOOK. YES. BOOK. You won't find a harder working or more supportive person in the crime fiction community than Steve Weddle. But what's most annoying is that he writes bloody good stuff, too. Country Hardball is the kind of fiction I like to read, and the kind of fiction I wish I'd written.
Here's part one of the epic chat. Part two will follow in a few hours. As soon as I've cleared the content with our lawyers.
Steve Weddle & Country Hardball; The DSD Interview.
-What's your favourite swear word?
I think I first encountered the word "cockchafer" in a David Lodge book, though it could have been Kinglsley Amis, I suppose. I thought it was a terrific insult, suggesting that perhaps the person in question had undergone only limited training as a prostitue and, therefore, was not terribly good at the profession. Turns out it's a type of bug, like some weird bee. Which makes me love the word even more. I called someone a "cockchafer" a couple weeks back in an Applebee's in Tennessee. True story. It went over about like you'd imagine.
-They say 'those who can't do, teach'. You've done both. Do you think creative writing can be taught?
You're confusing writing with speed, I think. You can't teach speed.
What you do if you're working in a creative writing class, I think, is teach various aspects of the writing life. You can look at examples of pacing. You can talk about whether this story of yours has an effective opening. Neil Gaiman said something about how when people tell you that your story didn't work for them, they're right. But when they tell you how to fix it, they're always wrong. To me, that seems something good that can come from a creative writing class. Having others read your work, getting their comments. You don't have to be in a classroom. You can have peer groups. And there are other options. I just finished teaching a seminar online for the smart folks at LitReactor, who seem to have this down to a science.
-Is there any particular quality that makes a good student? Is there any one trait that you can see in them that makes the difference between the ones who will finish a book and take it to the next level and the ones who don't?
I've worked with students writing fiction and reporters writing (presumably) nonfiction. The trait that marks the successful writer, it seems to me, is curiosity, which is a kind of energy. You can fuel a day of writing the novel because you want to see what happens to these characters. You want to know why a member of the town council voted in a way against the interests of his constituents, so you dig a little deeper. You want to learn about your characters, your setting. I can teach commas and pacing, but I can't teach curiosity.
-Is that curiosity what fuels your own writing? What is most important to you as you sit and start a story?
I'll start a story with character and action. Sometimes, I'll start with two people talking about A Thing. I'll work through this to get to what's going on and why. I don't recommend my process as an example for anyone, but this is how I usually work. Pen and paper, trying to track along as best I can. Sometimes I'll build around a line of dialogue, sometimes around a piece of action. There's this scene in a Nightwing comic book, of all places. He says to some bad guy, "I know a dozen ways to break your arm. Pick a number." So you can start with that, then write your way along either side to figure out how we got there. You figure it's taking place in a back alley, so you move it to a church and see what happens. You change things up from where you first think of them. You send this tough guy into a scene with a broken-down man and you have things turn, so that the tough guy is at the mercy of the old man. You start with a thing and just keep working through it, wondering "What happens if I do this?" and that's how you start a story. Or, you know, that's how I start a story. Maybe you do things differently.
-I tend to start with 'which Daredevil story or Alan Moore comic haven't I ripped off yet?' Do you think about genre when you write?
I don't give a damn about genre. And I certainly don't try to paint by numbers or write to formula. Some people do, and when they're done, you can't see the numbers underneath. Some writers can use an outline beautifully, can put that rising action right on the page it's supposed to go when you're writing to such-and-such outline. But if I were to do that, you'd see lines between the 3 block that was supposed to be blue and the 4 block that was supposed to be green. With other writers, you just see a wonderful piece of writing and you can't notice how they got there.
I've worked on writing a real mystery novel. I've read through about what you're supposed to do and not do. And I've read novels where, when I go back later, I can see all these points where they followed the formula. But I didn't notice that when I was reading. I could be a lousy reader, I guess, but I think mostly I don't notice because those writers are good at what they do. If they're writing a YA dystopian novel, then they do these things at these points. I'm not that good at that, I guess.
There's a story in Country Hardball called "This Too Shall Pass" that opens with a couple of teenagers lying down in field, looking up at the stars. When the book was going around a while back, someone pointed that story out as a YA story. I didn't, and don't, think of it like that. It's a story. And there's another story in that book that someone has called a horror story. Again, that doesn't make sense to me. My pal Soren Kierkegaard equated labeling to negating, which makes sense to me.
I don't set out to write a noir story or a horror story or a love story. I just set out to write a good story, the one the characters deserve.
-Okay, but seriously, what label would you give to Country Hardball? (Ducks.) Actually I think you can tell a lot about someone by seeing what book they throw at your head when you get 'em angry.
Yeah, I don't know how that helps. Do you only read Grit Lit? Rural noir? Then you're doing it wrong. If you're looking for a book that's easily categorized, you probably don't want to read Country Hardball. Look, in all honesty, I've read a dozen Inspector Morse books and thoroughly enjoyed them. British mystery. You know what you're getting, like eating at McDonald's. But if you're trying to label Old Gold and you give it the term "British mystery" then you're doing the Morse fans a disservice because Miller is not Morse. Sure, Old Gold is a British mystery, but that's not all it is. And it really isn't that at all, is it?
I think what happens is that people work to label books because it's an easy shorthand to talk about a book you don't really understand or don't care about understanding. I could talk for an hour about Holly West's Diary of Bedlam and tell you all about the characters and the intrigue and the setting and you'd run out the door to grab it. Or I could tell you it's historical fiction and that would make your choice for you. Also, I think it's called Mistress of Fortune now. Bonnie Jo Campbell writes magnificent midwestern noir, which is great unless you only read northeastern noir.
-If you write like me, and I'm meaning in terms of following a character and seeing what happens, that can mean getting a few thousands words into a project before you really know if you have a story. Old Gold was a short story that turned into a novel by accident. So did Country Hardball grow out of a "write and see" approach, or did you sit down and think "I'm going to write this set thing."
I wrote a few Roy Alison stories and my agent -- our agent -- suggested writing a Roy Alison novel. I think the line was "This is so much better than that other stuff you're writing." So I started a novel, but it didn't quite come together. Then I realized that the book was really about the community, about the different people in that area and how their lives intersected. I started working on stories about these connections. So instead of having a character move about the UK midlands, for example, I worked on stories about the place itself and the people there, about how one family can be fighting against this type of loss while another character sees this little shard of hope in the distance. Eventually, after a great deal of work, these stories came together in what I hope is a book that is coherent in its fragments.
-Something that I really remember about reading the early Alison stories was how strong and clear the voice was, that they felt like the kind of stories you should be writing at the moment.
-Did you notice that as you were writing?
My pal Julie Summerell said something online a few years back about wanting to be better, wanting to do better. Maybe she was talking about a character in a show or a book or just a random fleeting thought. I don't remember the context, but I remember that idea and the line from that Squeeze song that goes "I want to be good/ Is that not enough?"
This concept of always wanting to be good meant that you were doing bad things to begin with, but that you had this hope, still. So you have a character with bad actions, which is the first level. Then you have that second level of desire mixed with regret. Once I started working on this, I had the Roy Alison character.
I wrote "The Ravine" first and then "Purple Hulls," which set Roy up with his grandmother and really opened up the setting for the stories. I did feel, as I was writing these stories, that I was firing on all cylinders, for once. These stories were the best I had in me, you know? When you're in the middle of this type of writing, everything folds into it. At the grocery store, a woman you go to church with tells you how her husband's cancer came back. A TV news story goes on about a local carnival and you remember the elephant that died in your town when you were a kid. All these people who need to have their stories told, everything you run across finds its way into the stories. Everything connects. That's when you know you're writing exactly what you should be writing at the moment.
Check back later for part two.
And make sure you've ordered Country Hardball.
“In COUNTRY HARDBALL, Steve Weddle takes us deep inside a rural Louisiana long since abandoned by the American Dream. His characters carry the weight of their bad luck and sins through a landscape of economic devastation, where bad choices and worse choices seem the only available options. And still they search for something beautiful—love, faith, a moment of grace among the ruins—as they struggle to become better people than they were the day before. Steve Weddle is a powerful, empathetic writer and COUNTRY HARDBALL is a stunning debut. Do not miss it.”