By David Nemeth
I was talking with Chris Rhatigan prior to a recent Noir at the Bar–it was either in Philadelphia or Wilmington, Delaware. Rhatigan is full-time freelance writer and editor, publisher of All Due Respect Books, and author of “Squeeze”, “Race to the Bottom”, and more. The talk turned to books and indie crime fiction, the dark kind, the kind that drowns in noir. We agreed that there are a lot of positives in the scene, but one of the negatives is how many indie writers aren’t reading or promoting other indie writers. Recently I saw social media feeds pimping the latest book from the creator of Hannibal Lecter. That book does not need help.
A couple of weeks ago, I got together a couple of writers who write some dark shit, but all three of them read and promote indie crime fiction as well. I asked Jason Beech, author of “City of Forts”; Beau Johnson, author of “The Big Machine Eats” (Down & Out Books); and Tom Leins, “Repetition Kills You” (All Due Respect Books) to chat about indie crime fiction. All three do more than their part in promoting other books and writers which includes book reviews, interviews, or posting photos their ugly mug next to the cover of the book they are reading.
David Nemeth: Can you point to one book that was your gateway to the indie crime scene? Or was it some amalgamation? For me it was Jake Hinkson's "Hell on Church Street" which just blew me away. When I read it, I just thought crime fiction was Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen, etc. But Hinkson's book pointed me to publishers like All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey and the now defunct 280 Steps. And from there, I've just been eating indie crime fiction up.
Jason Beech: I don’t think one novel got me started on indie crime fiction, it’s the websites Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Pulp Metal Magazine and the likes which pushed me into reading the longer works of authors published there. I started following Paul D. Brazill because of one story on one of them, who then guided me into the likes of Kate Laity, Ray Banks, Thomas Pluck, and so on. I’m a big fan of Beat to a Pulp’s and some of the old Radgepacket anthologies. Jake Hinkson’s The Posthumous Man is a classic.
Tom: That's a great point about the online sites. I was reading Close to the Bone and Shotgun Honey content online long before they branched out into novellas. I first encountered a lot of writers who are now mainstays of the independent scene on A Twist of Noir. That site definitely earns its place on the list!
Beau Johnson: Yup, I'm with both you gentlemen. And I'd say I was late to the game, a King/Koontz/Barker guy for the majority of my reading/writing life until I stumbled upon Shotgun Honey and Out of the Gutter Online. But the absolute reason I turned to the Dark side was because of Mathew C. Funk and the amazing stories he wrote not just for those two mags, but a plethora of them. Not ashamed to say I miss reading that Dude either. Dude could flat out write.
David: Jason brought up Paul Brazill, so let's chat a bit about him. If there's one guy out there who is promoting other writers, it's to be Paul. Even before he started Punk Noir Magazine, his blog was a daily source for me. His Recommended Reads have introduced me to so many books and writers. I picked up Paul Heatley's "Motel Whore" because of Brazill. And Brazill was probably the one who pointed me in the direction of Jason and Tom as well. Add to that, man, Brazill can write. I love his short stories and "Last Year's Man" was fantastic. I don't want this to turn into some circle jerk, but I don't think we can underestimate Brazill's influence on today's indie scene.
Tom: I've lost count of the number of writers that I've connected with through Paul. He's extremely generous with his time, and I certainly appreciate his kind words about my writing over the years! Top bloke.
|Paul D. Brazill|
Jason: I love his stuff. Some of his lines have stuck in my head. “Gin makes you sin,” made it into the short story I wrote to promote City of Forts because it’s just funny. His greatest line has to be the shop window sign at the adventure gear shop: “Now is the winter of our discount tents.” I might have got that wrong, but you get the gist. Paul’s a charmer, in the right way, and fills you with enthusiasm for the good stuff.
Beau: Yes, and I enjoy that he's always chuffed. Ps. Please tell me I'm using that word correctly.
Jason: If you’re “well chuffed”, you’re happy.
Beau: Figured as much but always good to know for sure. Like I was chuffed when “Kill Me Quick” by Brazill came in the mail.
Tom: To change tack slightly, it's always nice when someone on the next rung up on the crime fiction ladder reaches down and gives you a boost. I think a lot of writers are preoccupied with clambering up the ladder rather than checking out what is happening behind them. As so many of my peers have started putting books out, I know that my focus has definitely drifted away from new writers notching up their first publications online, towards people with multiple books. Which is sad, really. A whole bunch of us used to publish flash fiction on a prolific basis, and now I have no idea who the next batch of 'ones to watch' are...
Beau: Tom, Dude, you are so right. It's a natural progression, I suppose, as there were times I was chomping at the bit for new flash and my online life revolved around it. It's not the way it's worked out for everyone, but it's the path I have seen for many, myself included.
Tom: I also think I feel more kinship with the writers I developed my chops alongside, rather than a first-time novella writer I have never read before. The online sites act as a kind of proving ground for crime writers and give you a level of exposure and credibility that definitely helps. That said, I've probably missed out on dozens of great books because of my tendency to follow writers who I know can deliver the goods in 1,000 words or less!
Jason: I’m always shocked when a new writer thanks me for sharing their stuff because I remember the thrill when Tom Pitts loved my first ever published story in Flash Fiction Offensive. It does give you a lift as a newbie and helps you ride the rejections.
Beau: Totally. I've always said it's the cake when someone gets your stuff, better yet, when they go out of their way to let you know it connected with them. Doesn't happen often, but when it does, yeah, cake.
Tom: Do you guys believe in creating and reinforcing a 'brand', and do you think there are any independent/alternative crime writers who do that particularly well?
Jason: The word brand has corporate written all over it. Identity might be a better word for what we do. If you were to consider yourself a brand, Tom, what would that involve? Your style? Imagery? The humour?
Tom: I agree! Brands are something that are created by groups of middle-aged men in conference rooms! If they created me, they would all get the sack! As you suggest, I think a sense of identity is key. I would like to think that if someone pays 99p/99c for one of my eBooks they will get what they paid for - for better or worse. I'd like to say that it's an issue I wrestle with, but I'm not that energetic these days. It does fascinate me though. Would more emergent writers get ahead if they had a bulletproof identity? Possibly, but you still need an audience to buy into it!
Tom: Oh yeah, I agree with Beau. I wouldn't change a thing. (Apart from my sales figures, obviously!)
Beau: Yes! Sales figures. Grr...argh...
Tom: Ok, another question: what ingredient is most likely to make you seek out another story/book by a new author after sampling their work? And how many chances do you give someone before you bail out of their fiction?
David: For me, it takes a lot to jump into a 400-page novel. If an author can write a sharp, tight novella in 90 pages, man, I'll go back. Hell, even with a few mistakes – plot holes, weird change in POV – I'll still go back. But a big novel, you better have that shit right. The other thing that comes into play is costs. If your book runs close to US$20 then it better be that good. If your book is closer to US$10 then there's more leeway on my part as a reader.
Tom: Agreed. There are a lot of decent crime novels I've read over the years that would have been even better as novellas. No matter how well known you are, you need to trim that fat until you hit the bone! Novellas are the perfect format for pulp fiction, yet there is a huge disconnect between mainstream crime fiction and independent crime fiction. I sometimes wish there wasn't a ‘Them and Us’ mentality, but the gulf that is contemporary publishing is often framed like that. After years of reading superior small press stuff, I've read a number of mainstream British crime books this year, and the similarities are sometimes more striking than the differences.
Beau: In regard to new authors the ingredient for me is word of mouth, which is also where reviews come back into play. Not all reviews are equal. And yes, everyone interprets differently, and I may like something the next person doesn't, but I can still glean enough from my "investigation" to know if I'm going jump into something new or stick with what I've found. Too, I've read somewhere along the lines that a book gets a review for every 100 copies read. I at one time found this hard to believe. Now, not so much. However, I think I have strayed a bit off topic. I yield back the floor.
Beau: Re: trimming the fat. Hard agree. Lean and mean is the only way to go. My opinion, of course, and if I had to choose, I'm probably in the minority.
Jason: I disagree. I love a lean book, but I love to swim in some of that fat. It’s like films. Most films should not be more than two hours long, but don’t trim “The Godfather” or I’ll plant a horse’s head in your bed. Beau, a Stephen King Book is a minimum 300,000 words, isn’t it?
Beau: Ha! Yup, but man, he still keeps it lean. Except for “Duma Key”. Don't get me started on “Duma Key”...
Jason: If every chapter has the drive of a short story, I’m good with a long one. The trouble is, my Kindle is crammed and I think I’ll die of old age before I clear it.
Tom: Related question: should writers treat chapters like short stories/flash? And can readers tell? I know I do, and I wish I didn't! (I'm sure this primarily affects people with a short story background, but who can tell?)
Jason: I think so, in terms of it having a beginning, middle, and end. Is there a point to the chapter? If not, that’s where it gets flabby and you realise how much you have to slog through.
Beau: This has my DNA all over it. I don't intend to do things this way, but it seems to be the only way I'm able to put the longer stuff together. And yup, our short story background is why we do things this way. Pretty certain.
Tom: Here is another topic that interests me... you guys might have read “Bull Mountain” by Brian Panowich (great book). That book had its genesis in a pair of stories that appeared on Shotgun Honey and the FFO. That feels like a once-in-a-generation agent-meets-writer scenario, but it should also encourage writers to believe that anything is possible, right? Sub-question: is there anyone you can think of who could follow a similar path from flash fiction towards the mainstream?
Beau: I can't say that I do. I remember Brian's stories from SH though. Always liked them but never read “Bull Mountain”. Good on him, yup. It's also great encouragement, agreed. I can't think of any agent-meets-writer per se, but I think Ryan Sayles's Richard Dean Buckner books spun out of some shorts. Great stuff, that.
David: I'm thinking Rob Hart and Jordan Harper started with stories in Thuglit.
Beau: Ah, yes. I believe you are correct, David.
David: How about some indie books over the last few years that you think stand out as the very best? Stuff that friends and family who read King and Connelly would love.
Beau: If I may be so bold: “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps” by Nick Kolakowski, “Zero Saints” by Gabino Iglesias, and “Dig Two Graves” by Eric Beetner”. Anyway, just a few I would recommend. Beetner may fall out of your time frame however.
Jason: Though I don’t know how they stand with King, because...I’ve...err... never read him.
David: And Beau has an aneurism.
Tom: One of my favourites of last year was “Suburban Dick” by CS Dewildt, which was published by Shotgun Honey. Would a Michael Connelly fan enjoy it? Who knows? It's a wonderful title, but also one that mainstream readers may find off-putting! Which is a shame! Independent publishers tend to produce books with far better titles and covers than mainstream books. Mainstream crime covers often seem interchangeable, which is probably the point. Bland products to stock on supermarket shelves!
Jason: Tom, have you listened to the book designer, Steve Bache? He makes exactly this point. He loves designing covers for literary books because he can experiment, but for authors trying to sell he’s adamant you have to design for familiarity.
Tom: I'm not familiar with the name, but it is an admirable sentiment! It has put me off certain mainstream crime series in the past, as I will pick up a book and have no recollection whether I have previously read it or not! I like cover art to reuse certain motifs, but to also surprise me with something fresh. Covers with absolutely no resemblance to their series predecessors are also problematic! I guess this links in to my thoughts on a writer's identity (or branding in the case of major writers).
Tom: I think Craig Douglas at Close To the Bone has delivered some strong covers in recent years, especially the Paul Heatley (“An Eye For An Eye Trilogy”) and Paul D. Brazill (“Small Time Crimes”) books from last year–and my ones (“Meat Bubbles”/“Boneyard Dogs”). It was a real pleasure working closely with him on my books – one of the biggest benefits of working with a small publisher.
Beau: I will totally agree. Down and Out, for me, has always been top notch, ever when I perhaps was not too keen on certain version of a cover. Benefits plus, yup.
Jason: Craig Douglas is a top man. It has to be tough running such an operation. I’m delving into their work now - "A Time for Violence" is very good, and Paul Heatley’s "An Eye for an Eye" has a devastating ending. Looking forward to the rest. I’m a slow reader - I’ve got those Leins and Johnson fellas to get to, too. “Snuff Racket” was a dirty little bastard.
Tom: Thanks Jason - much obliged! “An Eye For An Eye” is one of my favourite British crime novels of recent years. Glad you enjoyed it too!
Beau: I hear you. So many books. So many TBR piles. So little time. Three kids, a wife, a business, writing itself, my girlfriend, her sister. I mean, the list goes on. I kid, of course. My wife, she doesn't like it when I talk about my girlfriend's sister... P.S. “City of Forts” has been on my radar too.
Beau: “Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier, “The Fury of Blacky Jaguar”, “Route 12” by Marietta Miles, and “A Very Simple Crime” by Grant Jerkins.
Don't even get me started...
I kid, of course. Been an awesome find. The crime community I mean. Great stuff all round. Do I like some more than others? Sure, who doesn't. But I have found many more hits than misses: “American Static” and “Knuckleball” by Tom Pitts, “Presiding over the Damned“ by Liam Sweeney, “Junkie Love” by Joe Clifford, “Dead Guy in the Bathtub” by Paul Greenberg, “Cleaning Up Finn” by Sarah M. Chen, “May” by Marietta Miles, “Crosswise” by S.W. Lauden”, and “The Subtle Art of Brutality” by Ryan Sayles.
I feel like I might have left some people out. My bad.
A few more: “Love and Other Wounds” by Jordan Harper, “Let Me Put My Stories In You” by Ryan Sayles, “A Thing Called Violence” by Nikki Dolson, “Rumrunners” by Eric Beetner, and “Fat Boy” by Paul Heatley.
Beau: Ok. I'll stop now. Too much fuckin Beau.
David: Okay, a tough one now. Who are some indie writers you haven’t read, but really want to? I’ll start. Nigel Bird, Mike Monson, Jo Perry, and Matt Coleman come immediately to mind.
Beau: A few for me are Thomas Pluck, Jen Connelly, and Ed Kurtz. I also read an essay by John Vercher recently that has me intrigued for his debut coming from Polis.
Beau: Great stuff, yup.
Tom: I'm really intrigued by the sound of Laird Barron's “Blood Standard” and “Black Mountain”, but I know next to nothing about him. The books sound great!
Beau: But promotion for indie writers is paramount. No one is going to do it for us, nor (outside publishers) should we expect them to. That's fair. But I'm at odds with the adage of "no one cares". On one hand I see this–that no one will ever care as much about your output than yourself. Again, fair. But it can't be the be all/end all, as I can attest. I care. I might not care as much as the person who wrote the book I'm reading, but I still have skin in the game, albeit to a lesser degree. Reviews are key. Shares are key. Word of mouth is key. And God yes it does get tiring, but if we don't do it, who will? Anyways, don't mind me, I'm drunk. As you were.
And then there is my love/hate relationship with Amazon. I feel it both helps and hinders the indie writer. But you gentlemen have already experienced this for yourselves I imagine. I'll tell you this, though: once I realized the hoops they make you jump through my just about exploded.
Jason: I want to read Nikki Dolson, Scott Adlerberg, Joe Clifford. I’ve got Tom Pitts on the Kindle waiting for my eyes. I’ve got Nigel Bird, Thomas Pluck, Robert Cowan ... too much. Too much.
Beau: The pile, it grows.
Tom: I think that, given the niche we occupy, the sad reality is that our friends are also our chief rivals when it comes to selling books. If someone bought one of my books this week, they probably did it so at the expense of another emergent crime writer. My Kindle is stuffed with potentially great (unread) content, so I have to be careful what I buy now, and books that I would have previously taken a punt on now get scrutinised and compared to similar offerings. With Down & Out Books, All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, Close to the Bone, etc. releasing new books on a monthly basis we are spoiled for choice, and the selection process is harder than ever. It's a healthy situation for the independent crime scene, but we still need to be competitive. The next story I publish has to be better than the last. The next interview I give has to be more entertaining than the last. These are things I judge other writers on, and if someone is promoting a book with lacklustre material my interest in their new book wanes.
Beau: Man, I'm with you on interviews. I strive to make each one as different in content as I can and yes, the goal is to entertain, even there. Glad to see I am not the only one thinking along this type of line.
Beau: But I draw the line at giving sex away for free. As I've said before, I'll never fall for that old chestnut again.
David: Tom brings up a great point about the unspoken competition between indie crime writers and the number of books out there to read. I'm scared to look at the unread books on my Kindle. The unread physical books are daunting enough. I agree with Tom that there needs to be improvement book after book, if there's not, I'll definitely lose interest. I also judge writers on whether or not they're reading other indie crime fiction. If all they are reading and commenting on are Winslow and other Big 5 writers, I really lose interest in their books.
Beau: You can't read them all, agreed, and it is totally our job to bring them back for more. Is there competition? Sure. There has to be. But I can also root for the other guy too. Unless they're a jerkface. Jerkfaces should never be allowed into the room.
Tom: I also feel slightly conflicted when choosing what to review on Dirty Books, and since publishing my own books I'm probably overly wary of reviewing books by my own publishers, in case it gets misconstrued as nepotism. Even though those publishers were featured heavily on the blog long before I had a working relationship with either of them. Crazy, right?
Beau: Yup, I can see your plight, but myself, nah, I wouldn't see you doing it that way. Still, I can how some would.
Jason: I read both. That new Ellroy, I’m on it. New Sansom, I’m there. But I won’t review except for a rating - but if I love an Indie I’m all over it. I want Tess Makovesky’s “Gravy Train” to sell a million. I want Matt Phillips’ “Know Me from Smoke” to load him up in champagne and weed forevermore. Same goes for Kate Laity’s/Graham Wynd’s “Satan’s Sorority”. I don’t mind the competition. I write because I like it. If it made me a millionaire that’d be lovely, but I’m not going to write for that, because I’ll end up generic.
Tom: Ultimately, we should all read and write whatever we want. Indie, mainstream, retro... if you dig it, tell people about it. If you hate it, maintain a polite silence! We are all men of impeccable taste (!), but everyone has to find their own path. When you think how far independent crime has evolved in the last decade, I'm highly optimistic about the future. There will always be a gulf in reader numbers, but we know there is no gap in quality. The books that our mates are writing go toe-to-toe with the big boys every time. To me, it sometimes feels like clambering out of the indie crime pit-fight is as challenging as breaking into the mainstream. My advice to writers: don't devalue yourself and what you do. Be nice to each other - we are all down in the trenches together. Support sites like Unlawful Acts and Messy Business! Buy as many books as Beau does! You will be glad you did!
Beau: Ha! Well said, my friend. Cheers.
Jason: I reckon Beau has made a Game of Thrones chair out of all those books.
Beau: I would need the cushion of course.
David: Okay, let's wrap this baby up. Any last words? Or, what do you have planned for the near future?
Beau: Spread the word! As far and wide as our respected platforms can! My pool may be small but I try to make the biggest splash possible when supporting my fellow writers. I had a lot of people help me coming up, I feel it's the least I can do. As for future works? Look for Bishop Rider to return next spring, in a collection called “All of Them to Burn”. Come, meet Rider for the last time...
Thanks, David. Was fun. Appreciate the opportunity.
Jason: It’s been great chewing the fat with you all. It’s hard work getting our stuff recognised, but I’m enjoying the process. I’ll have a new Bullets, Teeth, and Fists collection coming out in the near future, and a new novel, “Never Go Back” in November: Barlow Vine just killed a man – his lover’s lover. Now he’s heading from Spain back to his hometown to escape his actions in the vain hope they won’t catch up with him. “Never Go Back” is a wild ride featuring nurses, strange kids in Edwardian garb, one blinding headache, and dead-eyed killers who want to use him for their own ends. It’s a cold, murderous homecoming – and he’ll need the luck of every bastard to survive it all.
Tom: Thanks fellas, this has been a lot of fun! I'll be jostling for bookshelf space later this year with “Boneyard Dogs” (Close to the Bone, July) and “The Good Book” (All Due Respect, December). The first one is the official sequel to “Meat Bubbles”, and the latter is a collection of interlinked wrestling noir set in 80s Florida. Cheers!
Jason: Thanks, David.
Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK.
He is the author of the Paignton Noir novelettes SKULL MEAT, SNUFF RACKET, SLUG BAIT and SPINE FARM and the short story collections MEAT BUBBLES & OTHER STORIES (Close To The Bone, June 2018) and REPETITION KILLS YOU (All Due Respect, September 2018).
Going forward, BONEYARD DOGS: A PAIGNTON NOIR MYSTERY will be published by Close To The Bone in July 2019, and THE GOOD BOOK, a collection of wrestling noir will be published by All Due Respect in December 2019.
For more details, please visit: https://thingstodoindevonwhenyouredead.wordpress.com/
Jason Beech is a Sheffield native, New Jersey resident — writes crime fiction and interviews crime authors at Flash Fiction Offensive. His coming-of-age crime drama City of Forts was described as “tense, atmospheric, and haunting” by UK crime writer Paul D. Brazill.
You can buy Jason’s work from Amazon and read his work at Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey, Close to the Bone, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Punk Noir Magazine, and Pulp Metal Magazine.
Beau Johnson lives in Canada with his wife and three boys. He has been published before, usually on the darker side of town. Such fine establishments might include Out of the Gutter Online, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and the Molotov Cocktail. Besides writing, Beau enjoys golfing, pushing off Boats and certain Giant Tigers.
Find Beau Johnson online …