Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Bunny hugs and eBay orders: The Steve Weddle Interview

By Eryk Pruitt

When naming giants in the canon of rural/Southern crime fiction from the 21st century will inevitably name Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and of course Steve Weddle, who, in 2013, published his debut novel-in-stories, Country HardballThat masterpiece is often named as an influence to the next generation of authors who write rural settings, namely Jedidiah Ayres, SA Cosby, and myself.  

For ten long years, Weddle fans have waited for his follow-up novel. Often we’ve had to make due with a short fiction piece, such as the one published in Playboy in 2015, or by squinting at the Instagram posts he’d teased out while handwriting—handwriting—his next opus. 


Ladies and gentlemen, the wait is over. Amazon Reads customers can download THE COUNTY LINE right now and through the month of January. Folks who want the physical book in their hands will have to wait until February 1, but after the long ten years, what’s another four weeks? At any rate, Weddle returns to form with his latest, The County Line, and I’d argue he’s outdone himself. This new one takes us back to the early days of the 20th century where—


You know what: None of y’all are here to listen to me jabber. How about we have the man himself talk about THE COUNTY LINE?


ERYK PRUITT:As you know, I am a big COUNTRY HARDBALL fan, so I could hardly wait for THE COUNTY LINE. What were the seeds to this story? 


STEVE WEDDLE: COUNTRY HARDBALL was populated with the Tomlins and Rudds and Pribbles of Columbia County, Arkansas. While the stories in that 2013 collection were set in that time, I was curious how those families had gotten there. That book ends with Roy Alison, whose kinfolks are Tomlins, working to find out what had happened to his grandfather, who may have been killed by Franklin Rudd back in the 1950s. I’d thought about having Roy Alison track down Franklin Rudd, who told him about what had happened in the 1950s, but Rudd had to carry the story back to the 1930s for some context. I had this David Mitchell CLOUD ATLAS thing all planned out. Well, when Playboy came calling after COUNTRY HARDBALL published and asked for a short story, I peeled off the 1950s portion of that, which left me walking around in the 1930s, a period that has fascinated me because of outlaw camps and prohibition and the Great Depression and early jazz and so much more.


EP: Your sense of place in THE COUNTY LINE is absolutely amazing. You drew us into this world and locked us in. What inspired you to write about that part of the world?


SW: I grew up in that region, and it’s pretty tough to get all that dirt out from under your fingernails, if you ever wanted to do so. As I’m sure you know, whether it’s east Texas or North Carolina or my own little corner of Arkansas, once you start digging around in the lives of these characters, pretend people or not, they get their hooks in you. I’ll read family histories and diaries and yearbooks from that time period or read a newspaper article about a pharmacy celebrating five decades and I’ll get to wondering. You let the movie play in your head and just walk around inside of it. 


EP:  You had a keen attention to detail in THE COUNTY LINE. There were so many random bits which kept us immersed in the time and culture of Depression-era Arkansas/Louisiana. From famous criminals to blues singers to sports interests and even a Bunny Hug cocktail. I could probably pick your brain for hours about research, so how did you go about researching the culture back then? How did you choose what to keep and what to leave out?


SW:  Had I known before I started what it was going to take to pull this off, I’d have bought stock in eBay. I’ve ordered so many out-of-print books and farmers’ magazines and catalogs that I’ve had to clear out a closet upstairs for everything. Leaving any of that out of the story was tough, because I’d read an article about local banker and I’d see so much detail I wanted to use, from his cufflinks to the way he sat in his car. Editing this story down, keeping it as tight as I could, that was tough. There’s just so much great material.


EP:  One of my favorite aspects of the book is the rich, tongue-in-cheek dialogue. It was very comparable to what I might read in books by William Gay, Daniel Woodrell, or Chris Offutt. Even the dumbest of characters you write speak in such a way that renders them smarter than the reader. How did you hone your dialogue in such a way? 


SW:  If you watch a movie that came out this year, you get a sense of how people talk, but just a sense. Same with movies from the 1930s, I think. Go back to, say, Gold Diggers of 1933. Most of us know the song, “We’re in the Money,” but not the movie. The way people talked on stage then was probably further from the way real people talked than the gulf between movie talk and real talk today. My sense is that today, filmmakers want their movies to sound more realistic, except Wes Anderson, of course. So I couldn’t rely on movies of that time, though that’s the first thing that comes to mind, because we have people from 1933 saying words and we can see and hear them. Ah, the magic of talkies. 


So for me, I read through diaries and newspaper articles and out-of-print novels and letters. Reading collections of letters is great because people sound different based on their recipient, so you get a variation of flavor even from the same writer. And I looked online for “slang from 1930s” and so forth, most of which I discounted because it just sounded too phony, though there were a few keepers.


Once I had the characters well formed, I got a sense of which of them would be saying which phrases, because not every outlaw sounded like James Cagney. I’d see a phrase or a rhythm of dialogue and know pretty quickly whose mouth that belonged in, you know? 


EP: There were ten long years between COUNTRY HARDBALL and THE COUNTY LINE. What was that journey like? Please tell me it won't be ten more years until the next one....


SW:  Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.


EP:  You have teased in casual conversation that you will be revisiting this world in the future, namely with more Cottonmouth Tomlin. The ending (which absolutely stuck the landing BTW) certainly leaves it open for more trips to town. Can you share any information on that?


SW: THE COUNTY LINE mentions Cottonmouth’s time running guns and working for Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray in Honduras. The next book, as it stands, features a friend of Cottonmouth’s from that time coming to Arkansas and following the trail of the Knights of the Golden Circle. In researching Honduras for THE COUNTY LINE, I kept running across stories of mercenary Lee Christmas, and I need to get a version of him into a book soon so I can write off some of these eBay purchases. 


EP:  Can you share a little of the process of bringing this book alive? Do you write every day? I saw several Instagram posts back in the day of pages written by hand. How much do you write by hand and how much did it change over the time it took to write it?


SW: I’m up pretty much every day around 4 a.m. to write. Some days it’s editing or reading or researching, but the goal is to write. I tend to draft by hand in a hardback notebook. The right-hand side is for the draft, and the left-hand side is for notes. I find that as I’m writing, I’ll think of plot points or character development I want to add in later, so I’ll jot a note to the left. Or I’ll drop in some research notes there on the left. For me, a solid day is filling a page of the 5 x 8.25 notebook, which is usually a couple hundred words or more.

Later, when the pages have been typed in Scrivener, I’ll be able to pop back and forth between scenes and can do a hundred words or a thousand words in a day. I write scenes, not chapters, so it’s usually still a little messy until I get to the point that I’m ready for someone else to read it. 


EP: This is your first book with Lake Union publishing. How was the experience working with them? 


SW: In addition to being thoughtful and organized, they’ve really helped carve this book into shape. They’re engaged in the book, sure, but they’re so astute in terms of getting the book into the hands of readers.


EP:  What are you hoping most that readers will take away from the book?


SW: I was listening to an interview David Remnick conducted a few months back with Salman Rushdie, and Rushdie said that the purpose of a novel is to bring joy to the reader.  That seems a very straightforward way of thinking about it. Sure, I want folks to be engaged with the characters, to roll around in the scenery, to be on the edge of their seats for the plot twists. But, you know, I really want the reader to come away from the book having experienced joy in the reading. Life is tough. Enjoy yourself, why don’t you? 


The County Line is now available as an Amazon First Reads selection for January and will be published on Feb. 1, 2024.


THE COUNTY LINE, in an early, hand-written draft.


“At once wry, thrilling, and full of heart, The County Line evokes the Coen brothers at their period best, while staking out a voice and milieu all its own.” —Chris Holm, author of Child Zero 

“A book both wistful for the past but also brutally honest about it. Steve Weddle has crafted a bluegrass hymn with the notes written in blood.” —S.A. Cosby, author of All the Sinners Bleed 

“It’s like Faulkner had a love child with a couple of Elmore Leonard’s 1930s-set novels.” —Nick Kolakowski, author of Boise Longpig Hunting Club

“A slide into the American Abyss from one of our best fiction writers. Steve Weddle’s spectacular novel dramatizes how, in this country, all that glitters is only a gleam away from all that guilt.” — Aaron Gwyn, author of All God’s Children and Wynne’s War

The County Line is downright biblical. In his latest novel, Steve Weddle follows his truly unforgettable protagonist, Cottonmouth Tomlin, on a lyrical journey through Great-Depression-era Arkansas. As an Arkansawyer who’s often struggled to reconcile my place in this world—this book hit home.” —Eli Cranor, author of Ozark Dogs

“This is the book I have been waiting for and it does not disappoint. Every word in every sentence on every page is jam-packed with pure TNT. Steve Weddle delivers cracking dialogue, tense action, and most of all: heart, to transport us to another time and place that you won’t want to leave. A perfect addition to the canon of Southern literature.” —Eryk Pruitt, author of Something Bad Wrong

“With wit sharp as viper fangs and characters whose pulses vibrate on each page, The County Line is hilarious, tragic, thought-provoking, and relentlessly entertaining. Even the dust rising off dirt roads to drift between cypress limbs is vivid enough to pierce the veil between 1933 and now. This is a storytelling feat.” —Chris Harding Thornton, author of Pickard County Atlas and Little Underworld

“I was lucky enough to get an early look at what is certain to be one of my favorite books of 2024. Cottonmouth Tomlin returns from running guns in Honduras to run the Arkansas outlaw camp left to him by his uncle. The camp is a safe place for criminals to lay low as long as their misdeeds take place over the county line. Cottonmouth has bigger plans, though author Steve Weddle keeps you guessing as to whether he has the brainpower to pull them off. There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard in this drily witty tale, but Weddle’s colorful characters and savory dialogue are all his own. A hugely enjoyable read that builds to a tremendously satisfying conclusion.” —Scott Von Doviak, author of Lowdown Road

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