Those of you who've been loyally visiting this site from the beginning (Hi, Lee! Hi, Mom! Hi...! Hmm. That's probably about it....) might remember a semi-regular feature called "More Talk, Less Hock." It was basically an excuse for me to (A) shoot the shhhh with a writing buddy and call it an interview and (B) avoid writing a real blog post. Well, after a short hiatus (three years is "short" as hiatuses go, right?), "More Talk, Less Hock" is back.
Why now? Thank Eric Beetner. I've kinda-sorta known Eric for a few years now. (I don't get out much, so it's hard to get beyond "kinda-sorta" knowing anyone.) He's always struck me as an interesting, intelligent, prolific and all-around nice guy. Interesting because his writing seemed like so much pulpy fun. (When you've got titles like Dig Two Graves, The Year I Died Seven Times and Stripper Pole at the End of the World on your Amazon page, I'm going to take notice.) Intelligent because he says he likes my books, which is either a sign of impeccable taste or great wisdom when it comes to buttering up other authors. Prolific because he's produced a lot of books in a short amount of time. (Duh!) And all-around nice because...well, he's really nice.
And now I can add "talented" to the list of adjectives, because I finally got around to reading one of Eric's novels: Rumrunners, a super-fun, fast-paced thriller about a family of professional getaway drivers going up against a crime syndicate in America's Heartland. The promotional copy describes it as "Smokey and the Bandit meets Justified and Fargo," and if that appeals to you -- and it sure appealed to me -- you should pick up the book. As soon as I finished it, I had two thoughts.
"Hey, I should bring back 'More Talk, Less Hock.'"
And "Cool! I won't have to write a real blog post this month!"
On to the Q&A....
Me: How's it going?
Eric: I guess if I say, "Fine. How are you?" it's not conducive to a back and forth, huh? Things are good but I've been conflicted this week. I just released my fifth book of the year [Nine Toes In The Grave]. I want to be all proud papa and celebrate it but I fear people are going to think, "This jerk again?" I've struggled with wondering what is too prolific. This year has been an odd confluence of back projects finally catching up, shorter or co-written works and old-fashioned ass busting to get pages done. But I never know if I'm doing a disservice to my own works by putting out too many. I guess I'll find out, huh? I've also been reading about how lack of sleep is going to surely kill me sooner than later. Makes me think about slowing down. But then I stare at the old notebook of brilliant ideas and I need to get them out of my head. Do you have that thing where you have to write it down in order to get it out of your brain?
Me: I actually don't have to write something down to get it out of my brain. I have to write down everything in order to simply retain it. My brain seems to have an auto-wipe feature that clears all important information approximately once every two hours. I haven't reached the point yet where I have to pin a note to my shirt with my name and address written on it, but I assume that day is coming. But more to your point -- yeah, I also have files filled with a million (supposedly) killer plots and premises I'll probably never get to. "Where do you get your ideas?" is an amusing question to me. My question would be "How do you make them stop?!?" I'm sorry to hear about the lack of sleep -- it's going to kill me, too -- but I assume that's the price we pay when we're not bestsellers yet we choose to stay in this crazy writing game anyway. I think you were a screenwriter first, right? When did you switch to stories and books? (I would say "switch to prose," but I don't know if it's possible to say "prose" without sounding pretentious.)
Eric: I would love to say it was a mutual parting of the ways between me and screenwriting, but it was more like I got dumped. Or more accurately, never got invited to the dance. I wrote 17 spec scripts, two episodes of TV, a pilot that never got produced and a screenplay on assignment that also never went anywhere. I sold options on four scripts but the only thing I ever saw on screen was a film I wrote and directed myself which promptly did nothing because I'm clueless about how to get it to do something other than play festivals.
I guess I grew to realize Hollywood wasn't for me. The life of a screenwriter is very unstable, very transient. I'd always look at my favorite scripts and movies that were highly regarded, and too many of those writers still had a near-impossible time getting anything else made. Screenwriters have a short shelf life. What I wrote skewed more indie film and small potatoes for studio work. And during the 1990s was the start of the real contraction into what we have now where it's franchise or bust. There are still great films being made, don't get me wrong. I also reached a point where I had a family and responsibilities so I couldn't go mortgage my house to make another film. And the notes. Oh, the notes. For whatever reason books are still highly regarded and you don't get people offering plot changes the second they hear about what the story is.
As a TV editor (my day job) I deal with notes all day long. So I turned to novels as a way to fulfill that creative urge and not have to be beholden to anyone. Sure an editor will change things here and there, but it's not like Hollywood where you get an idea out of your mouth and before you can draw another breath someone is asking, "Can she be a ghost?" Or whatever the new idea du jour is.
So, in short, around 2008 I burned out, got dumped by my agent, flunked out of my dream of movie making and ended up with a second prize that has been in many ways more fulfilling.
Me: When I was in my twenties, I flirted with the idea of moving to L.A. and trying to break into TV writing. I'm grateful now that I didn't bother. Hearing about experiences like yours, I know that I would've been miserable. I love good movies and television, but the process...oy. Because the stakes are so much lower in publishing, writers have a lot more freedom. Are your novels movies you would have dreamed of making? Or is there a bigger split than that for you? Like, you wanted to make small-scale indie dramas, but for some reason when you write prose you gravitate toward edgy, pulpy crime fare...?
Eric: It's weird but I didn't write that much crime in my screenplays. What I did do, which was a mistake, was write all over the place. I wrote dark comedies, serious dramas, weird cult movies, horror, crime. People like to know what they're getting, and eclectic doesn't sell. When I switched to novels I made a choice to be consistent and crime fiction was what I enjoyed reading most so I've stuck with it. No regrets.
I do sometimes look at the old scripts and think I should maybe turn one into a book. Then I get daunted by the task of transforming a story I already wrote (although so long ago they would all seem new now), so I tend to just keep with whatever is the newest, shiniest distraction in my brain.
Would I love to see a book of mine translated to screen? Of course. I have two unpublished novels that I've held back while I shop for a new agent and I think, perhaps misguidedly, that they are more Hollywood friendly than my other work. Movies and TV are still my dream goal. I like having goals out ahead of me. Even when I accomplish something, there is always more to strive for. Keeps me hungry. And frustrated, feeling like a failure, depressed -- all the ingredients for a creative life, right? I'm thinking we should start a blog all about writers insecurities. You and I could fill volumes.
Me: That's a great idea, actually. What do you think of "I Write Therefore I SUCK" for the title? Or maybe we should accentuate the positive and talk about Rumrunners for a minute. I got a big kick out of its mixture of down-to-earth Midwestern reality and high-octane action movie shenanigans. It made me think of grungy '70s chase movies like Eat My Dust and Grand Theft Auto. Was that the inspiration?
Eric: Yeah, I loved some of those old car movies growing up. First career I ever really wanted was to be a stunt man. Really, I was intrigued by the old school liquor smugglers and thought it would make a good multi-generational story. I set this one in the Midwest, as I often do, because I like the small-time crooks. I like stories set off the beaten path, and you get guys who are bigger in their mind than in reality and that makes an interesting dynamic to me. I was born in Iowa but spent a relatively short time there, yet it's influenced my life tremendously. I like the way Midwesterners are humble and taciturn. I like the economy of words and the work ethic of farm life. The characters are fun to write that way.
Much the same I way, I have to think, that Old Red and Big Red were fun for you to write for the juicy way they spoke. I still get such a kick out of those books of yours because on every page, in nearly every paragraph I encountered a way of speaking that was new and exciting to me. A voice different from my own life, which is why I read in the first place.
Me: Thank you, kind sir. And speaking of the juicy language of the Old West, I think I read somewhere that you have a Western in your future. If that's right, how did that come about? The genre is near and dear to my heart, so it's been exciting to see small press and indie writers try their hand at it recently even as the big publishers abandon it.
Eric: David Cranmer at Beat To A Pulp is a flag bearer for the Western and he developed a character called The Lawyer who appeared first in his Cash Laramie stories. The Lawyer was spun off, and David envisioned a series of novellas featuring the vengeance-minded former litigator. Wayne Dundee wrote the first novella and David asked me to come aboard and I didn't hesitate.
I think any fan of crime fiction would do well to explore Westerns. Most are essentially crime and noir stories set against a backdrop that gets them shoved onto a different shelf, which is a shame. I just read, for example, Bill Crider's Outrage at Blanco and Texas Vigilante, and those are kick-ass crime stories that just happen to take place on horseback.
I took influence from my favorite Western films –- the collaborations between Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher. I put myself in that headspace and wrote the first one, Six Guns at Sundown, and I'm due to start the next one soon. They are just as pulpy and action-packed as my crime novels so I hope people will give them a shot.
It's hard to get readers to follow you if you go too far afield, isn't it? Did you get much crossover reading for Cadaver In Chief? Horror satire doesn't sound like the same readership as the Holmes books or your new series, but I think if a writer is good, I'll follow them anywhere.
I was surprised at how many people went along with my post apocalyptic cannibals and strippers novella, Stripper Pole at the End of the World. It has become one of my best-reviewed books.
Really, this is all evidence that I am a whore and will say yes to almost anything. I mean, here I am chatting with you. What depths won't I plumb? This year is the first time I've said no to a project because I am genuinely too busy. It made me sick to turn it down. I still feel guilty. But at some point the work is going to suffer and/or people will just get so damn sick of me.
Me: I couldn't agree more about Westerns. Most of them are crime stories that just happen to take place on the American frontier of the late 1800s. It makes me sad that crime fiction fans go gaga over film noir but have no idea about hard-bitten gems like Boetticher's The Tall T or Anthony Mann's Man of the West. It's the damn cowboy hats. Most people these days see them and immediately run in the opposite direction. So it's great that guys like you and David are flying the flag. I've been itching to not only bring back the Holmes on the Range series but try my hand at some more Western-y spinoffs, as well. I just haven't had time. (I'm a very slow writer. Dammit.) If/when I get around to it, it will indeed be interesting to see how many readers from my newer series follow me back to the Old West. Cadaver in Chief was an interesting experiment along those lines. A failed experiment, I could say, because it's sold horribly. Zombies turn off some readers as quickly as cowboy hats, apparently. On the other hand, I'm really proud of that thing -- in some ways it's the most me thing I've ever written -- and it opened doors that could be leading to very cool stuff. So I'm still hoping it finds its audience one day. That's one of the great things about the new era of self-publishing that we're in. It's not like I have to worry about Cadaver in Chief going out of print. When people are ready for it, it'll be there for them. Speaking of which, how do you feel about indie/self-publishing? It seems like something you have a lot of experience with but wouldn't mind leaving behind, perhaps. I have mixed feelings about it myself -- those feelings being fascination, excitement and terror.
Eric: Yes, I hold out hope for a bigger publishing deal someday, but that's not meant to diminish any of the indies I deal with. I like the looser vibe, the flexibility, the speed they move compared to the glacial pace of traditional publishing. But everyone wants the chance to see what they are capable of with a bigger marketing budget, access to library sales, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus reviews, larger magazine coverage, etc. There is a good chance my numbers wouldn't change. I just want to know, you know?
I am fine being a small-press guy if that's my lot in life. This is not my primary income. Not even close. I can write and publish with the freedom in knowing it's not how I feed my family, as much as I'd love to do it full time. So I can take advantage of all the benefits of a smaller, more nimble publishing company. Plus, the relationship is more personal. It feels more punk rock to me, too. My whole aesthetic was shaped in my teens when the barriers between the art I loved and the fan base was broken down. I have a very DIY mentality and I think it's really exciting that publishing has embraced that in the last decade.
Indie publishers are like indie rock labels. You want to have a reading for you book? Do it yourself. Set it up. Don't let them tell you no. Don't let the gatekeepers keep you out of the whole game, even if they won't let you play on their field.
So I have loved working with virtually all of the indie presses I've worked with. The teams at 280 Steps, Down & Out, Beat To A Pulp and All Due Respect are good, hard-working, intelligent people who have a passion for books and they saw something in my work that made them put forth tremendous effort for very little profit. And I thank them for that.
Even if I can place a book with a bigger publisher someday I can't ever see myself abandoning the small-press world. I look at Joe Lansdale, who still puts out limited editions, weird novellas and other works on small presses while having his bigger deals. I aspire to that someday. I never want to stop paying back the imprints who have taken a chance on me as I get going. But the fact that my "getting going" phase has now lasted 13 books gets a little tiresome. There are the one-in-a-million breakouts like The Martian who transcend the indie or self-published world, but that's not a career plan.
I've avoided straight-up self-publishing original works. The self-pubbed stuff of mine are re-releases of older books or print versions of things only available as books. I sort of know now from experience what I can expect to sell, and I know I need that imprint and the people working on my book's behalf. I simply don't have the time it takes or the marketing savvy to be a true self-published author. It's a hell of a lot of work. I look at someone like Brett Battles and he's very successful but he works his ass off at it. He's putting out a ton of material, working those promo levers, doing the diligence with his editor and that's all out of his own pocket. It's a skill I don't posses, nor do I have the funds. I respect the hell out of that in other authors. I just know it's not me right now.
The market is so flooded that it's become so difficult to get noticed, as it always has in publishing. There was a brief window where people felt as if e-books would be an instant passport to sales, but that's worked its way through the market and we're left with the same truth about publishing as always -- you have to work really hard to get noticed.
I always go back to a quote I've seen attributed to Steve Martin about how to find success in a field where so many people want to be successful: Be undeniably good. That's what I strive for. Even in my small niche genre, I want to be good enough that people can't deny it. I feel like I'm fulfilling that promise a little bit. Being tenacious enough and just being present in the conversation so it gets to the point that readers will have to at least take a look at what I'm doing so they can satisfy their curiosity about who the hell this name is they keep hearing. I may only be getting there a handful of readers at a time, but it's building.
I'm ranting a bit on this one but I'll leave it with this valuable lesson I learned. When I was in a band people did not care for us, generally. We were weird, loud, not for everyone. I remember one specific show where the crowd literally turned their backs on us. They could not have cared less. I looked out and saw what appeared to be not one person paying attention. I got really frustrated for a second, then I said to myself, "Screw it. Play the best damn show you can manage. Play because you love it. Play the way you'd want someone to play." I did that and after the show as I sat, all sweaty and depressed by our sad merch table, two guys came out of the darkness and said how much they loved the show. They bought CDs and compared us to bands I loved. They got it. They were hanging in the back and I couldn't see them, but I was so glad I didn't give up and play a crappy show. I've taken that to heart in all my creative endeavors because I have yet to achieve true success at anything I do. But I do my best to go out and perform, write, edit, whatever to the best of my ability and even if I only reach one or two people with each outing, that's something I can live with and be proud of. To make that small connection is enough of a charge to keep me going.