Kelby Losack and I share the same publisher, Broken River Books. It's through our mutual publisher that I got to know him, and it's a connection I'm very glad I made. Kelby's first novel with Broken River, Heathenish (his second novel overall), came out in 2017. It is a raw, unvarnished yet superbly controlled book about one youthful guy's progression from self-destructiveness to something tentatively better. It presents with absolute clarity and no moralizing people, in Gulf Coast Texas, conniving and scrapping and fighting to survive.
In his new book, The Way We Came In, ordinary people with scant means are still scrapping to survive. But Kelby changes the emphasis in this story. Trouble begins early and from a situation simple but real: two brothers, twins, both young, need money to pay their rent. This is not a crime novel set among the higher ends of the social ladder. It's crime among people who are the ones most likely, in actual life, to end up in court and jail. Kelby has complete command of his material, and the striking matter of factness with which he delivers it only increases your reading engagement. There is emotion but not a jot of sentimentality, and partly because of this, Kelby gets you to root very hard for his central characters as they go through dangers and struggles.
In this piece he's contributed, Kelby talks about where he gets a lot of his writing inspiration from.
MY LITERARY HEROES ARE RAP ARTISTS
by Kelby Losack
I can’t honestly name an influential crime author off the top of my head. Not to throw shade, but when I’m trying to summon the muses, I’ll click over to Sound Cloud before I crack open a noir. Maybe it’s because familiarity breeds contempt, like, I’m too much inside of the literary world to see the magic all the time. I’m seeing all the gears inside instead of being wowed by the magic or something, I don’t know. What I do know is this: the crafting of my prose, my voice – these are things I’ve tweaked and evolved primarily under the influence of indie rap.
There is a lot of real, honest-to-god art being made in the underground hip hop scene these days, and I’m endlessly searching for more artists to discover. Throughout the writing process of my last novel, The Way We Came In, I had at least thirty-some rappers queued up on the playlist, probably more. Definitely more. If we’re talking influences, though, we can do a pick three of whose work I vibe with... who I’ve learned the most from.
Let’s talk plot structure, and let’s also talk JPEGMAFIA. “Peggy” – as he’s lovingly nicknamed – spits bars in an often hostile, energetic tone over glitchy, lo-fi beats that bring to mind the days of dial-up internet and dusty cartridge games. The standard sixteen-line verse is rarely delivered on a Peggy track. The music often “skips” like a scratched CD and Peggy will shift instantly from yelling to singing to whispering to yelling again. His last album, Veteran, is one I’ve kept going back to since it dropped in January. The chaotic energy of it has inspired me to give less fucks about hitting all the notes the right way – the expected way. Whenever I get bored with a chapter or a concept I’m working on, I’ll cut to another scene, start developing another idea, shift the tone. Sometimes I want to yell, sometimes I want to sing, and that transition – especially because of my ADD – can happen at any moment.
If JPEGMAFIA has influenced the way I like to arrange words on a page, Starlito and Cousin Stizz have been the main rappers I should acknowledge for developing my delivery of the words themselves. Starlito sprinkles little details throughout almost all of his songs that let you know this is something he’s lived – it’s something he could only know if he’s been there before – and as a result, it’s a more engaging experience for the listener. For example, there’s this line, from “Baby Fever”: “Drove from Phoenix to Vegas with just three songs on my playlist/‘Dear Mama’ by ‘Pac and Jay-Z’s ‘Momma Loves Me’ and ‘Mama I Made It.’” Starlito is in his thirties with no children, writing a song loosely inspired by the implications of its title, and in this line he’s describing a four-hour drive with the same few songs on repeat – all of them songs about mothers. He doesn’t have to tell you what he’s thinking, just that he was listening to these songs over and over, and you can imagine the things that were going through his head at the time.
It’s the little details that are especially important when you’re trying to express yourself in a three-minute song. Or, yeah, when you’re writing minimalist prose. It’s why when I’m writing a scene about characters cutting and bagging up dope, there will be a Weight Watchers scale on the table. Or, when a character is having his Tarot read at a party, the cards will be prostitute calling cards with Sharpie drawings on them. I’ve seen both of these scenarios before, and it was these odd little details that stuck with me. There doesn’t need to be a lot of detail, because just the right detail will amplify a single bar, or a single sentence.
You ever feel like all the ideas have been expressed already? All the good stories already told?
Yeah, they probably have been. Doesn’t mean they can’t be expressed in new ways, though.
There’s a line from “No Bells” where Cousin Stizz says, “Look inside my cup, ask my drink what’d it smack me for?”
I love that line. Whatever is in his cup is giving him a buzz, nothing special about that, but it’s the unique way he describes the shift in his inebriation that makes the line stand out. I don’t meditate on clever lyrics like this too much when writing, however, because trying to be clever comes across as pretentious, obnoxious, dishonest. It is something I think about, though, when contemplating the purpose of the story I’m trying to tell. During those “why bother” moments, I’ll remember that yes, every story has been told, but I haven’t told it my way yet. Thanks to the inspiration of my favorite rappers, I’ve got that underground hip hop flavor to spike the literary punch bowl with.
You can get The Way We Came In right here.