Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Talking Fadeaway Joe with Hugh Lessig

Crooked Lane Books (August 22, 2023)


By Steve Weddle

Recently I chatted with Hugh Lessig, whose short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, as well as that magazine John Hornor Jacobs and I started up, Needle: A Magazine of Noir

Hugh's debut, Fadeaway Joe, published August 22, 2023. 
“Man, I can’t tell you the last time I tore through a book like I did with Fadeaway Joe. Paula Jessup is a two-ton firecracker and Joe Pendergast is the match. Echoing the best work of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, Lessig filters it all through a voice entirely his own.” —Todd Robinson, author of The Hard Bounce and creator of Thuglit.

Steve Weddle: Library Journal said your debut is carried by "intriguing characters" and Mark Westmoreland said that Joe and Paula "get into your marrow and travel with you." What do you think makes Joe and Paula come alive in your story? 

Hugh Lessig: Joe and Paula engage in an emotional tug of war throughout the story. Paula pushes Joe out of his comfort zone and Joe promptly returns the favor. Yet, both need what the other has.

Joe is an old, white guy who never married or had kids. His experience in dealing with young people comes from working the door at a bar. He grew up in the segregated south. His dad ran a corner grocery store and belonged to the Klan. If a Black person came into the store and touched a piece of produce, they bought it. Now here comes Paula, a 22-year-old biracial, Mohawk-wearing firecracker. She was raised by a grandfather (another old, white guy) who was a bum and small-time hood. She is both scared of Joe and fascinated by him.

Why do they need each other? That becomes farther along in the story, but Paula needs the sort of protection Joe can provide, while Joe needs a planner and a schemer to get back at his boss.

Rob Hart helped edit this book, and I was particularly pleased at his comment that the novel is “just the right amount of gritty before giving way to the depths of human connection.” That’s where I was aiming.


SW: Joe Pendergast is struggling with early-onset Alzheimer's in this book, a fight the reader really feels throughout the novel. How important was it to you to really capture this, rather than merely using it as a plot device?

HL: My dad suffered from dementia late in life, and I began reading about it. One thing that fascinated and terrified me was how dementia can sometimes lead to episodes of aggression or rage. My father was not a violent man. He almost never raised his voice. I couldn’t imagine that aspect of the disease affecting him.

Joe Pendergast is naturally violent. He can bring a man to his knees by bending his thumb. He can dislocate the thumb. He can break it. For him, that’s a day at the office. His violence is a tool, and he always controls it. But dementia-induced rage is violence without the guardrails. How would he act? 

There are two instances of uncontrolled anger in the book, one where Joe is exhausted late at night and waves a gun at his neighbor. The second occurs later in the book where he is frustrated at Paula and lashes out with half-fist. The consequences of the violence are minimal – he never fires the gun, and Paula gets a bloody nose – but I found them more chilling than the more controlled acts of violence elsewhere in the story.

The diagnosis of early-stage dementia also lights a fuse inside Joe’s head. He knows his days are numbered, but he doesn’t know how slow or fast the disease will progress. First, it creates a sense of urgency. He’s been abandoned by his boss, he wants revenge and he wants it soon. But when he meets Paula and their relationship progresses, he becomes reflective. He can help Paula navigate a tough crossroad in her life, and he begins to wonder about his legacy (which ain’t much, at this point.) He believes a man will be remembered for the last thing he did.

SW: Joe's story of coming to terms with his lost friendship with Maxie and what to do about it seems as if it could have been its own novel, yet you've woven this in beautifully with Paula's involvement with a trafficking ring. Did you start out with this combination fully formed or did it develop as you went along?

HL: It developed as I went along. This story began as a piece of flash fiction published in Shotgun Honey in 2018. It was a death row scene between an elderly criminal and his much younger partner. It got me thinking about a longer story involving a criminal whose life was winding down and a younger person whose life was at a crossroads. 

In the first draft, “Paula” is a male character. Switching to female increased the tension for Joe, who doesn’t know how to handle a wise-cracking young woman. I knew the story would turn on them having to depend on each other. Joe could provide physical protection, which meant Paula needed to be on the run from something. Hampton Roads has had its share of trafficking -- both labor and sex trafficking – and she stumbles into a situation that she tries to solve. That prompts bad people to chase her. Oddly enough, Joe’s breakup with Maxie was the last part of the story to fall into place. I knew Joe had to be a tough guy, and it seemed like a collector of gambling debts would be a good day job for him.

SW: You were a newspaper reporter for decades. Was that helpful for this story?

HL: Yes, in both specific and general ways. Toward the end of my newspaper career, I covered the military in Hampton Roads and became interested in veteran homelessness. I interviewed a number of homeless people, and that helped develop Paula as a character. She is newly homeless and living out of the back of her car.

For years, I always thought of homeless people as two-dimensional, this shadowy person standing at the end of the exit ramp holding up a sign. My work as a reporter helped me see them as people with work histories, family lives and skills. Many were temporarily homeless or “couch surfing” with friends until they recovered. A few of them, not many, ended up favoring the homeless life. They didn’t want four walls and a roof.

Homelessness did not define them, and it does not define Paula. She simply sees it as another problem to solve.

Working as a reporter generally helps when writing a novel. Andre Dubus said talent is cheap, and what really matters is discipline. A career in news writing will teach discipline. You must press your fingers against the keyboard when you’re tired, stressed, busy, hung over or half sick. I’ve written news stories in hotel lobbies, airport terminals and buses, with all sorts of distractions. I didn’t need my special music for inspiration. I didn’t need to wear my favorite hat. If I had a muse, it would be yelling, ARE YOU DONE YET?

As a reporter, you meet people at various highs and lows. You interview lottery winners and people who lost their jobs in corporate downsizing, parents frantically looking for a lost child and the joy of a homecoming soldier who returned safely. It’s fertile ground for developing characters.

SW: Are there any "minor" characters in this book you'd like to develop a little more into their own story?

HL: Donna P.L. Fallon appears very early in the story as Joe Pendergast’s neighbor, then plays an important role during the climax. She is an amalgam of every kind/nosey/oversharing neighbor I’ve ever had, and her backstory merits a stand-alone treatment.  I’ve got her 1,500-word bio sitting in a file, most of which never made it into the story. 

She’s in her mid-40s, raised by hippies who ditched their van and moved to a trailer park to raise a family. Mom and dad tended to walk around naked (Inside the trailer, not outside.) smoked pot and disdained material wealth. Donna was the most beautiful girl in high school, but she refused to go the cheerleader/homecoming queen route. 

She took up exotic dancing at a “gentleman’s club” after high school and made good money. Her dad would wait in the parking lot to pick her up. She got into real estate a few years later, taking courses and trying to avoid talking about her past. 

Her career path – exotic dancer to realtor – is based on a real woman I once interviewed during my newspaper days. The exotic dancer stuff was off the record, sadly. But I imagine Donna as someone who gets up in your face, smelling of breath mints and perfume, with floppy hats and jangling bracelets. 

She is equal parts curious and kindhearted, and her exotic dancing days have taught her not to take an shit from men. In some ways, she is exactly what Joe needs to get through his various challenges.

SW: What's next for you?

HL: I have three stories due out in various anthologies. The first comes out in September. It’s a collection from Down & Out Books, and all the stories are set during Prohibition. I also have a novella due out from the same publisher, part of a novella series based around a Dallas, Texas chop shop where the main character is a car thief.

I’m working on a second novel about a famous thief in a small Virginia town. She grew up homeless and stole from rich members of the Mallet Society –  a rich men’s club that runs the town. She’s eventually caught, serves five years in prison, and returns to her hometown determined to change her ways. As the story begins, she is blackmailed into burglarizing the home of the richest woman in town, where she finds a secret that would bring down the hated Mallet Society for good. But will the town believe its most famous criminal is now a whistleblower? In a fever of creativity, I have titled it “Mallets.”

Hugh Lessig spent more than 30 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter, covering everything from city council meetings to the earthquake in Haiti. Along the way, he’s met people at the highs and lows of life, interviewed accused murderers and governors, welders and lawyers, and old men who fought our nation’s wars. Born in eastern Pennsylvania, he moved to Hampton Roads, Virginia in 1997. His short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory and Needle. In addition, his work is featured in the following anthologies: Mickey Finn 21st Century Noir, Volumes I and II; Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties and Guns & Tacos. Fadeaway Joe is his first novel.

FADEAWAY JOE: Sixty-four-year-old Joe has known violence his entire life. For forty years, he’s worked as an enforcer for loan shark and close friend Maxie Smith, breaking more than a few bones along the way. When Maxie abruptly fires him, Joe isn’t sure where to lay the blame—on Maxie, the man he once considered his brother, or on the early-onset Alzheimer’s that made Maxie lose faith in him in the first place.

To keep his head above water, he begins to operate a food truck that’s barely getting by. Desperate to regain some purpose in his life, Joe makes a life-altering decision: he’s going to take down Maxie Smith by any means necessary, once and for all. However, his plan of revenge is sidelined when he meets twenty-two-year-old Paula Jessup, a wise-cracking amateur detective with a few scheming cards up her sleeve, who’s on the run from a trafficking ring she’s been investigating. The two form an unlikely bond: Paula needs some protection and Joe needs a purpose.

With the stakes running high and the clock ticking down—will this gamble pay off?

Get your copy of  Fadeaway Joe

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