Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Interview with Adam Howe

Adam Howe is an author I'm glad I believed the buzz about.  I picked up his collection of novellas, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, based on the good things I'd heard about it and because I'd enjoyed reading some blog pieces he wrote for Jed Ayres' Hardboiled Wonderland site.  It was obvious from his writing there that he has a funny, incisive sensibility, a view of the world that comes from a sharp, sometimes threatening, angle. All of this is on full display in the three novellas in Die Dog, a collection that mixes horror with satire with noir with pulp with a complete lack of narrative inhibition. I had a great time reading the book and raced through it. What's clear is that Howe, with only Die Dog and an earlier novella collection called Black Cat Mojo under his belt, is an accomplished storyteller and quite a craftsman - a writer in total command of his extreme material.  

I had the chance to talk with Adam about his books and the films and writing that have influenced him.

SCOTT ADLERBERG: When did you start writing, and did you start out writing the kinds of stories you write now?
ADAM HOWE: started writing at an early age, even dictating stories to grownups before I could write myself.  My mum recently sent me one of my earliest efforts, about a bulletproof werewolf.  Illustrated, no less.  According to my scrawled signature (maybe it’s an autograph, I was an ambitious kid), I was six-years old when I wrote this masterpiece.  So yeah, it seems I was writing much the same shit, just without the sleazier elements of my current work – that’d be worrying, a six-year old writing about dwarf porn stars and sodomite orangutans.  As a kid, I was drawn to horror.  I’d haunt the horror section at my local video store, soaking up the lurid box art, and write stories based on what I imagined the films to be.  My parents divorced when I was very young, and I moved with my mum to her home country of Australia, while my dad stayed in England – so maybe I was filtering my anxieties through horror.  More likely I was just hardwired for horror.  Most young boys like blood and guts and nasty shit.  I just never really grew out of it.
It’s apparent that movies, B-movies, horror movies, are something you love and that you draw upon them perhaps as much as fiction as an influence?  What kind of movies did you like growing up, when you were 12, 13, a teenager?
Hey man, I like good stuff too!  But yeah, busted, I’ve got a soft spot for schlock. As a kid, the movie that made the biggest impact on me was Jaws, after which I was fiend for killer animal flicks, most of them Jaws knock-offs, and monster movies.  At a way-too-young age, my mum innocently rented me a video double-bill of An American Werewolf in London and John Carpenter’s The Thing, which I watched alone.  She monitored the first five minutes of American Werewolf to check it was suitable for an impressionable young child.  The opening scene in The Slaughtered Lamb seemed harmless enough, so she left me to it.  Moments later, I was traumatized by the sight of a werewolf savaging David Naughton and Griffin Dunne on the moors.  In terms of graphic content, American Werewolf and The Thing are a considerable step-up from Jaws, and it’s fair to say they blew my tiny mind.  But after that, I couldn’t get enough. 
I subscribed to Fangoria magazine, pinning the pullout posters to my bedroom wall.  During the UK’s ‘video nasty’ hysteria, many of the movies described in Fango were either slashed to ribbons by the censors, or banned outright, and it was hard to track down a lot of this stuff.  Again, I used my imagination, writing my own versions.  Wish I’d kept those stories.  It’d be interesting to see how my bootlegs measure up to the real McCoy versions.
Around age eleven, I moved back to England, where under my dad’s tutelage, I received a crash course in action movies, and was fortunate to be around for the Golden Era of 80s action – what a time to be alive!  I particularly enjoyed producer Joel Silver’s oeuvre, and the early work of Steven Seagal.  I pity the kids of today for their lack of potbellied, ponytailed heroes.
Each novella in Die Dog has, in some way, to do with animals.  Or creatures anyway, that may or may not exist.  In each case, having an animal in the story adds a great element of unpredictably.  You never know what an animal, or skunk ape, will do.  Any idea where this interest, engagement, with animals comes from?  Is it an interest that extends outside fiction, like to pets or an interest in wildlife?  Did you want to be a biologist when you were a kid?
The animal motif in my work came about after I wrote the story "Of Badgers & Porn Dwarfs" for the Black Cat Mojo collection.  The story was inspired by a hoax news article, which claimed that celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s dwarf porn star lookalike had been discovered partially devoured in a badger sett.  The image of a dwarf versus badger battle royale was too good NOT to write.  I envisioned it as a scale version of the David Mamet-scripted killer bear flick, The Edge, in which Sir Anthony Hopkins and F.A.G. President Alec Baldwin fight a grizzly bear to the death.  After that, the floodgates opened, and a menagerie began stampeding from my brain.
As for where it really started?  I guess I never grew out of that boyhood phase of dinosaurs and predatory beasties; a rite of passage, I suppose, in which boys tentatively tests the boundaries of danger and fear.  Growing up in the Australian countryside, there was never any shortage of exotic critters.  I’d embark on backyard safaris, trapping venomous creepy crawlies in jars to keep in my bedroom (to my mum’s delight), or take to school for ‘show and tell.’
Today my interest in wildlife is much more casual.  I have a Jack Russell terrier called Gino, named after Steven Seagal’s character in Out for Justice.  I watch the odd nature documentary here and there.  YouTube clips of animals going berserk on live TV are always good for a laugh.  The interaction between man and beast is a constant source of schadenfreude.
As I’ve said, Jaws made a huge impression on me as a kid.  So initially I planned to be a shark hunter, like Quint.  I sang a mean Spanish Ladies, and even affected Quint’s habit of nibbling crackers and crushing beer (OK, soda) cans.  When it was pointed out to me that this profession didn’t end well for Quint – visions of Robert Shaw gargling blood as ol’ Bruce chomps his guts – I decided instead to become a marine biologist, like Hooper.  Unfortunately, Jaws had also implanted in me a mortal terror of the ocean, so that was a non-starter.  Somewhere along the way, I cottoned on that Jaws was fiction, that someone had written it, and so I chose the safest course of action and decided I’d become a writer.
The three tales in Die Dog all delve into a particular slice of low-down pulp Americana, if you will.  You capture each particular milieu so well.  When did you start to develop a fascination with these strands of American culture?  More through books or movies or a combination of both?
I spent my formative years living in small-town rural Australia, which I imagine isn’t a million miles removed from the American South.  I’m a city-suburbs boy now – to be honest, I was never really a country boy, I just lived there – but I still feel an affinity for the country, and the no-bullshit attitude of country folks.
For good or bad, Americana dominates pop culture worldwide, and the ludicrousness of redneck ‘Murricana appeals to my sense of humour – which you may have noticed, is a little warped.  There’s a mythic quality to the South and her people that suits the hyper-real worlds of my stories.  I’m not interested in realism so much as I am in subverting tropes and stereotypes, while telling an entertaining story. 
My inspirations are more consciously drawn from movies than books.  That’s where my ear for the language comes from.  American Southern noir and hick-lit fiction is a relatively new discovery for me, but a sub-genre I feel at home in.
Who are the writers who’ve made the biggest impression on you?
The writer whose voice I first really connected with was Stephen King.  As a kid, I went to King for the blood and guts, the vampires and werewolves and killer clowns; but over the years, I stayed for the characterization.  These days, I much prefer his non-supernatural work, such as his superlative noir "1922" from the Full Dark, No Stars collection.  My first break as a writer came when King chose my short story Jumper as the winner of his On Writing contest, which was open to unpublished writers outside the States.  My winning story was published in the paperback and Kindle versions of King’s On Writing, and I even got to meet the man himself.  As you can imagine, it’s proving hard for me to top the achievement of that first published story.
In my teens, I started writing screenplays.  The best way to learn the craft is by studying produced screenplays.  In the pre-digital days, this was much harder to do than now.  Screenplays were difficult to obtain in the UK, not to mention pricey.  But I lucked out, snagged a job writing copy for a mail-order company supplying scripts to universities, writers and film geeks.  The screenwriters I most admired were Shane Black, David Webb Peoples, and Quentin Tarantino.  Black, in particular.  Really dug his smartass buddy repartee, and his action writing.  It’s great to see Black enjoying a renaissance right now.  Can’t wait for The Nice Guys.
In my twenties, I landed an agent and embarked on a ‘career’ as a screenwriter.  Had a few feature film screenplays optioned, doctored other writers’ work.  But nothing I wrote every made it to the screen.  In the end, it became too dispiriting seeing piles of work left to gather dust, and I made the jump back to writing fiction.  But those years as a screenwriter taught me much of what I know about traditional story structure, and gave me my ‘cinematic’ prose style.
Also around this time, I was working for crime writer Maxim Jakubowski at his Murder One bookstore in London.  There I discovered some great crime writers – Chandler, Hammett, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Lawrence Block.  But I was still a punk kid back then, mostly grooving on true-crime and horror, and I took for granted what should have been my education in crime fiction. 
I’m making up for lost time now.  Crime fiction scholars like Kent Gowran and Jedidiah Ayres are a boon for relative noobs like me.  Through Jed’s Hardboiled Wonderland blog, I’ve discovered some great writers.
Most recently, the writer who’s made the biggest impression, with his genre bending, and use of humour to move between light and darkness, is the Champion Mojo Storyteller, Joe R. Lansdale, whose work re-energized my own.  Even before I read him, I felt like I’d been hearing his voice, or one like it, in my mind for years.  Joe’s also a solid guy.  ‘Die dog or eat the hatchet’ is a phrase I’d noticed him use in his work, meaning ‘do or die.’  I contacted Joe, asked if he’d mind if I used it as a title, and he gave me his blessing.  He could have just used it himself.  “You’re right, it IS a good title.  Thanks, kid.”  Man, it would’ve killed me if the next Hap and Leonard book was called Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet… 
Talk a little about your process?  I know – it’s obvious from the writing – that you put a lot of effort into crafting your sentences and stories.  The events in the narratives may be wild and extreme and gory but the writing is lucid and tight.  The plots are well wrought and have a definite beginning, middle, and end.  There’s even restraint in how language is used – very little profanity, no straining to be ‘disturbing’ or edgy.  Nothing seems forced or excessive for mere shock value.  Do you wing it as you write or outline a lot?  Go through many drafts?  Proceed slowly, correcting and editing as you go?
It’s easy to dismiss pulp fiction as superficial and disposable, but I put as much time and effort into the work as any other writer you care to name, so I appreciate the compliment, thanks for noticing.  I’d disagree with you that there’s little profanity in the work, but that it doesn’t draw attention to itself is great, means it isn’t gratuitous.
I’m self-taught from reading and trial-and-error writing, and I find it hard to discuss the mechanics of the craft; I work from the gut, write from the heart, I know what I’m looking for, and when it’s right.  My MO comes mostly from screenwriting, which is all about structure; solid beginning, middle, and ends. 
I work from an outline, but the outline is flexible.  My first draft tends to be a first act, setting the scene, establishing character; I’m feeling my way into the story.  As the story is slowly revealed to me, I rework my outline, refine those second/third acts, start shaping the plot; sometimes I’ll start from scratch and rewrite that first act to reflect later changes.  So quite often, my first draft is a solid first act and second/third act outline, where I’ve figured out various story beats, including the climax.  As a result, my second draft is usually structurally sound and remains the spine for future drafts.
I’ll write at least three drafts, page one rewrites, with further polishes and revisions as necessary.  Before subbing to publishers, I hand the manuscript to my #1 beta reader and editor, Bill Chaney, for final revisions before the ‘house’ edit.  Bill’s not a pro, just a friend whose opinion I value.  His tastes in genre fiction are very different than mine – he’s ‘outgrown’ pulp, and prefers more literary work – which I think makes for an intriguing clash of influences and styles.  I have Bill to thank for tipping me off to Joe Lansdale; he spotted similarities in our work, and suggested I might like Joe, which proved to be an understatement.
In Gator Bait, you explore some racially charged stuff, albeit stuff based on historical fact, in the US South.  It’s all organic to the story and after all, these things described may have actually happened, but did you have any worries about what reader reactions would be?  More generally, what has been the reaction to this collection and your brand of uninhibited, “yes, I went there” fiction in general?
As far as I can tell, readers and reviewers have taken to the ‘edgier’ elements of my work in the spirit I wrote it.  A quick look at my story synopses should let you know if my work’s for you.  As writers, it’s hard enough to silence our own inner critics, without worrying about the opinions of others, especially the self-appointed moral guardians who seem to exist solely to be ‘offended’ by things.  Of course, I considered the racial elements in Gator Bait.  But in the end, I felt the language was in keeping with the period and place – 30s Louisiana – and so I went with my gut and trusted the intelligence of the reader to contextualize those elements.
I am, by and large, a pulp writer.  Even as a reader, I prefer subtext to be, you know, sub-textual.  I want to enjoy a good story – even a ‘tough’ story like Gator Bait – without being moralized to.  So when it comes to writing period pieces like Gator Bait, I prefer the reader brings their own experience to the mix, rather than writing revisionist history.  I want the reader to feel uncomfortable.
Gator Bait, though a period piece, was written during the Ferguson riots, and the Black Lives Matter protests, and that tension bled subconsciously into the work.  It was only in later drafts, while searching to see if the title Gator Bait had been previously used – it had, but I figured what the hell – that I stumbled across the historical practice of ‘gator bait.’  This refers to Southern alligator hunters using slave children as ‘gator bait’ to lure their prey.  It’s hard to imagine this was a widespread practice, but that it happened even once is quite horrifying enough.  When I wove this history into my narrative, it created even greater tension.  Does it make for an unpleasant, uncomfortable reading experience?  You bet, and I’d hope so; Gator Bait is a suspense story, after all.  Is the subject matter inappropriate, or is it inappropriate for a white male writer to write about such subject matters?  Well, that’s more subjective.  All I can tell you is that my intentions were honorable, and that I wasn’t thinking much further than just telling a good story.
With these stories, especially what happens in the middle novella, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, you’ve set a high bar in terms of outrageousness, gore, and brutality.  How do you approach a follow up to this?  Do you want to top yourself by getting even more outrageous and bloody, or do you change direction, even if writing horror, to try to entertain through different means?  There’s always the balance between giving your audience what they might expect from you and pushing so hard readers can see you’re only trying to surpass how far you went last time.
Die Dog was written as a standalone novella, to capitalize on my Stephen King connection.  My first book, Black Cat Mojo, is an offbeat crime/horror collection.  When I was pimping that book, you bet your ass I marketed myself as ‘the winner of Stephen King’s On Writing contest,’ but I imagine readers who came to Black Cat Mojo expecting King-type stories got a shock with titles like "Of Badgers and Porn Dwarfs and Jesus in a Dog’s Ass" – not exactly The Shining, right?  So with Die Dog, I tried to write a more ‘traditional’ crime/horror story, which is kinda funny considering how fucked-up the story turned out.  I was leaning towards the extreme end of the dark fiction market, so I knew I could push boundaries, but even I worried I’d crossed the line in certain scenes.
In movies and books, I like graphic content, and I seem to have a dubious flair for writing violent action scenes, so I might as well play to my strengths.  What stops graphic content from becoming gratuitous is character; without strong characterization, all the reader’s left with is gore for gore’s sake, which really doesn’t interest me.  So I don’t intend to try and out-gross-out myself.  That’d be hackwork.  I’ll write graphic scenes as and when the story demands it.  I’ve got many other stories I’d like to tell, even in the horror genre, which won’t require a fisting-by-disembodied-limb scene.  Time and a place for everything!
Your first two books, Die Dog and before that, Black Cat Mojo, were published by an indie press.  What’s your view of the whole indie press boom?  Is this a good time to be an author with all the publishing choices around or a maddening one with the glut of books being published whether by large presses, small ones, or authors themselves?
This ‘boom,’ it’ll translate to megabuck sales soon, right?  To be honest, I don’t follow the markets very closely, so I don’t feel qualified to answer.  I lucked out with my publisher, Comet Press.  I’d enjoyed their dark fiction anthologies, and put them high on my wish list when I started seeking publishers for Black Cat Mojo.  Fortunately, they dug the work, and were among the first publishers to get back to me.  My experience with Comet so far has been only positive, and I can’t recommend them highly enough to other writers.  Good people.
With the ease of digital publishing, there’s a ton of shit out there, written by self-proclaimed ‘Amazon #1 bestselling’ authors.  I don’t know how other readers navigate it all; for me, I rely on the recommendations of my friends in the crime/horror fiction communities.  From what I can see, many small presses are publishing infinitely more interesting works than the majors, by writers who deserve to be bestsellers. 
I intend to take a crack at the majors myself, once I progress from writing novella-length fiction to novels; I’m still adapting to the shift from screenwriting to prose, and I’ve found that a 30k word novella roughly equates to a feature film screenplay.  To have any chance of success, I guess I’ll have to tone down my more lurid elements – if I can – but I’ve got a lot of more ‘mainstream’ stories I’d like to tell.
I think I read somewhere that you are actually working on a novel now.  If that’s true, anything you can give away about it?  And are there any more Reggie Levine stories in the future?  I think your ex-boxer turned bar bouncer turned (for one story at least) skunk ape hunter is quite an engaging and idiosyncratic character and I’d love to read more about him.
My white whale of a novel remains elusive.  I haven’t been satisfied with early drafts, but I’m determined to finish the fucking thing.  It’s called One Tough Bastard, and it’s an offbeat crime/thriller, and my ode to 80s action flicks.  It concerns washed-up action star Shane Moxie, who’s like a combo of Jack Burton and Kenny Powers.  Shane’s biggest hit was a buddy action/comedy in which he co-starred with a hyper-intelligent Nim Chimpsky-style chimpanzee called Duke.  Duke went on to the A-list, and became the most celebrated animal actor since Lassie.  Shane flushed his career down the toilet.  When the two are reunited for the anniversary screening of their cult movie, they soon find themselves embroiled in a criminal conspiracy involving an Arnold Schwarzenegger-style action icon… A lot of what I’ve written really works, the characters are fun, and I’m sure readers will dig it.  But it’s just not quite ready yet.
As for Reggie Levine, he’ll be back in action later this year, or early next, in Tijuana Donkey Showdown.  I really put the poor bastard through the wringer this time.  It’s the first sequel I’ve written, so it’ll be interesting to see how readers feel it measures up to Damn Dirty Apes.  It’s certainly crazier.
When sleazy used-car salesman (is there any other kind?) Harry Muffet recruits Reggie to retrieve his wife’s Chinese crested terrier, which is being exhibited as a chupacabra at a rundown roadside zoo, our hapless hero is dragged into an epic clusterfuck involved neo-Nazi drug smugglers, a donkey porn star named Enrique, and in a hairpiece-raising cameo, Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage.
I’m also collaborating with horror writer Adam Cesare on a period crime/horror project we’re pitching as Michael Mann’s Public Enemies meets John Carpenter’s The Thing.  No title as yet, and we’re a little behind schedule due to other work commitments, but hopefully we’ll have this one ready for next year… So, lots to look forward to – and hopefully much more to come!

Black Cat Mojo can be found here.
Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet can be found here.
From May 17 through May 21, you can get Gator Bait as a standalone novella for your Kindle free right here.

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