Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Magic City Blues: A Conversation with Bobby Mathews

 I've known Bobby Mathews for a few years now. Not only have I had the pleasure of editing one of his stories in Rock and a Hard Place (you have have heard we have a new issue out, which you can check out here!) but I've also had the pleasure of having him as a friend. We've drank together, talked shit about football teams together, and we've traded more than a few encouraging texts while in the middle of some tough writing. 

Speaking of, Magic City Blues, Bobby's second novel, just dropped last week. Starring a legbreaker turned knight errant, it recalls Parker, Leonard, and Westlake, while also being, undeniably, Bobby Mathews. 

To celebrate the release of Magic City Blues, I chatted with Bobby about writing, Birmingham, and lots more. Check it out below, and when you're done, make sure you get Magic City Blues. Look at that, I even gave you a link straight to it, so you definitely don't have an excuse. 

Magic City Blues was supposed to be your debut, but Living the Gimmick came first. How long has this story been inside you, and how does it feel to finally have it out in the world?

Magic City Blues started probably in 2018 or so, and I put it away for a while because I couldn't find a way to move the story forward. In 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic raging, I had a lot of time to think about writing, and pulled out Magic City Blues. It was already around 30,000 words ... I thought "I've put too much time into this story to let it die," and then I realized that I needed to inject some life into it, make the setting more believable and relatable. So I began deepening the book's real-world ties with Birmingham.

It feels very good to have the book out in the world, even with the distribution hiccup Shotgun Honey had on launch day. What I feel most, probably, is relief. I was beginning to believe the book was snakebit in some way ... but for better or worse, MCB is here. And so far, folks seem to like it. 

Tell me about Kincaid, the main character of Magic City Blues. He’s obviously inspired by a lot of single name PIs, but he’s got his own thing too. How did you find the balance to his character?

Kincaid definitely has a lot in common with the singly named PI, but his outlook is, I think, darker. He's not really an investigator. He's the guy who'll visit you if you get behind on the vig that you owe to your local loan shark, or the guy who intimidates witnesses in order to make sure his bosses don't go to jail. In Magic City Blues, he's forced into being an investigator because he believes it's the best way to serve his client.

I think Kincaid's humor and self-understanding help bring balance to the character. He knows who he is and what he can do — and what he can't. He takes the work he does very seriously, but he doesn't take himself seriously at all. He's also got some undiagnosed (or mis-diagnosed) PTSD, as well. He lives in temporary housing — a crumbling motel rather than a real fixed abode — by choice, because it's easy for him to leave everything and everyone behind if he needs to. 

Birmingham is the other main character in the novel, and throughout, the city feels real. Like a character. How did you feel about committing your version of the city to paper? Any trepidation about focusing too much on its flaws? Or any fear you were painting it as more rosey than it actually is?

I love Birmingham, despite its flaws. The crime rate is high, the Alabama Department of Transportation is hell-bent on fucking up the roads for a generation, and downtown floods during the summer rains because the sewer system is woefully inadequate, and gentrification is a huge issue that no one wants to grapple with. And yet ... and yet Birmingham is still a jewel. We have a world-class food scene with multiple James Beard Award winners, our reputation as a banking and innovation hub in the Deep South is well-won, and the city is actively trying to overcome its racist past.

I wanted to "get it right" in the sense that I want people to recognize this fictional version of Birmingham. The John Hand Building, Eagles Restaurant, Gip's Juke Joint, the clubs and bars, Carraway Hospital ... all of those are  where I say they are, more or less. I did take some liberties with things like setting scenes at Pale Eddie's Pour House, since Pale Eddie's closed during the pandemic. But it was my favorite dive bar, so it had to go in. I tried, as much as possible, to play Birmingham straight ... it's too rich in history and in its present-day resurgence to treat it any other way than how it is.

Your work seems to often be dealing with the past; the wrestling circuits you grew up attending that are no longer around, the city trying to outgrow itself and it’s past, the Knight Errant inspired by your favorite writers growing up who may have less of a place in the modern world. Do you think that’s the Southerner in you (if you accept that the South is always in conversation with its Past) or are you digging for something else, something more personal? Or is it both?

It's likely both. I try to be aware that as a white Southerner I probably have something of a genetic predisposition to mythologizing the past, and that's a dangerous road to go down. The thing that I try to do when writing about the past is to use my perception of it to uncover potentially hidden truths. Like in Living the Gimmick, the main character discovers that his best friend is not — and never was — the person he thought he was. When I think about my characters, one of the things I try to explore is how much we lie to those closest to us, how much we lie to ourselves. Are we really who we think we are? Are our best friends really who we think they are?

Faulkner had that famous quote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I think about that quote a lot. Down here we live with the long shadow of the Confederacy that casts evil ghosts like lynchings, Confederate monuments, "militias" and rednecks who think "the gub'mint" is out to get them. It's an attitude and outlook that's been handed down since the Civil War and the Reconstruction efforts that came afterward. 

But I think for me, a lot of my efforts to look into the past come down to this: When you're young, it's easier to believe in something. Whether it's wrestling or religion or redemption, belief is important. It's a way to belong. As you grow older, belief in just about anything is harder. I think a lot of my work incorporates people who are looking for something to believe in ... even if it's just the gun in their hand.

I can see that in your work. The other kind of artery I’ve noticed in your stuff is that so much of it is set against change. Either some debilitating change that has already happened, or one that is in the midst of happening. If we take your comments about belief and put them against the backdrop of change, does that make you feel your work is cynical but striving, or disappointedly optimistic? Or somewhere else on the spectrum? 

There's a line in one of Jason Isbell's songs that I will probably end up getting tattooed on my arm at some point: Experience robs me of hope.

With apologies to Yeats, that's life, isn't it? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Yet we get up in the morning and take care of the kids and go to work and mow the yard and wash the car and watch the TV in spite of the chaos and entropy going on around us. We carry on in spite of knowing somewhere down deep in our souls that this world is completely — maybe irreparably — fucked up.  Another Isbell reference: "We ain't never gonna change, we ain't doing nothin' wrong. We ain't never gonna change, so shut your mouth and play along." Dark, but maybe as I think about it, somehow hopeful, too. Or at least the way I hear it. We're trapped in this circumstance, but we'll keep swinging until we go down permanently.

That's all underneath. On top, though? I think a lot of my stuff is typically about middle-aged dudes who struggle to understand the changing world around them. How do they react when they've been knocked down? Do they get up and carry on? Do they decide to take someone down with them? What's their reaction to failure and heartbreak and pain? Do you take it, swallow it down, learn from it, and move on ... or does it poison you? I think it's an incredibly difficult and brave thing to take failure and stand back up and carry on, to adapt to the new circumstances after that failure. So maybe experience does rob us of hope. But we go on anyway, and isn't that kind of hopeful in a way? 

Two more questions for you: you’ve got two well received novels out, but you’re also a prolific short story writer. If you had to pick three short stories you’ve written to show readers what you’re all about, which three are you picking, and why?
And finally, what’s next? Are we going to see Kincaid again, or are you focusing on something else?

Three short stories that show my best work: Negative Tilt, which is a story you know pretty well. It appeared in Rock & A Hard Place # 7 in early 2022. I think that's probably the best story I've ever written — and it may be the best story I'm capable of writing. But I also have a soft spot for The Ghost of Buxahatchee Creek, which appeared in Reckon Review in July 2022. And The Swahili Word for Hope was published last year in The Dillydoun Review ... I think in some ways I began looking for more from myself when it comes to my short fiction, and those three stories reflect that.

What's next? I wish I knew. I've got a couple of partially finished novels, so at some point I've got to get to work on them. My hope is to find a good agent — scratch that, the right agent — and see if I can leverage my well-received novels into something more. I have hopes for one of these partially finished books. The working title is The Children Are Sleeping, and it's a Southern gothic set against the backdrop of a hurricane coming up from the Gulf of Mexico and wreaking havoc with the lives of my characters.

I don't know  for sure that we'll see Kincaid again, but I hope we do. I like that guy.

Thanks to Bobby for swinging by this week. And, again, check out Magic City Blues. I promise you'll dig it. 

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