Smith's five novels and ubiquitous short stories are not for the timid. Comparisons are useful, yes? Maybe Charlie Huston, Jim Thompson with a smidge of Chris Bojalian thrown in. Okay, I was kidding about Chris Bojalian--let's go with Larry Brown. I'm most familiar with Smith's two Billy Lafitte books, Yellow Medicine, and Hogdoggin'. Also, a stand-alone called Choke on Your Lies. All are crime-ridden and slick with prose that rarely has an awkward moment. Smith's characters are very poor decision makers and tend to solve their problems with weapons, flight, or good, old-fashioned blackmail. But there's something strangely...endearing about them. I think maybe that last quality comes directly from the man himself.
Q: When did you first realize that Jim Thompson had taken up residence in your brain? There's a lot of praiseworthy, literary-flavored flesh on the bones of your prose of the kind that Thompson had no time for, but the soul is there. What other voices/influences come through for you?
A: I read in [Robert] Polito's bio of Thompson (Savage Art) that Thompson was kind of squeamish and didn't like blood or violence so much. And yet he posed as corpses for the "true crime" stories he was writing (all made up, of course). That turned a switch in me and made me look at Thompson differently. I think about the opening of The Grifters, where the guy gets poked in the stomach with a broom handle (right?) and carries the pain for a while. I prefer that to the eternally beaten yet unharmed hero. I like my characters to feel the fear regular people would feel in such wild situations.
I think I'm also channeling Chester Himes, James Ellroy, and--more often than not recently--James Lee Burke. And floating above them all is Flannery O'Connor.
Q: I love that Billy Lafitte starts out as a sheriff's deputy in Yellow Medicine. Tell us a little bit about Billy's slide into corruption and near-madness, and why it makes a good story? How thin is the line between being a cop and a criminal?
A: After watching The Shield, my only complaint (because it was brilliant all the way through) was that Mackey's money issues were all driven by the great love of his kids. So none of his villainy from that angle seemed "selfish" enough. It gave us a reason to cheer him on. So I wanted to have a bad cop cut loose from that sort of responsibility and see what happened. Turned out the family aspect was a lot more important as the book (and Hogdoggin') went on, but that was the original idea.
Also, having moved from the Gulf Coast to Minnesota, my first few months were, well...hate filled? The landscape, the atmosphere, the personalities, all of it was a clash. So in channeling that anger and frustration into a character who had some power to do something about it, I enjoyed a respite from my surroundings and lived vicariously through Lafitte.
Since then, I've come to love Minnesota, especially since my wife (a Minnesotan) showed me around the state, all the stuff I hadn't seen those first few months. And there's a beauty to the cold, bleak starkness, too.
Q: Will there be a third Billy Lafitte novel anytime soon?
A: I'd love to have a draft done by year's end. It's in progress, and it's due to the e-book sales that I felt confident enough to pick it up again. I always write myself into a corner with Lafitte, so the fun of each one is to get out of the corner. Having fun with it.
Choke on Your Lies. It's a story of a friendship, really--a twisted sort of friendship between an angsty academic who has a cheating wife, and a zaftig lawyer with bad habits and a hearty appetite. And not only is Mick, the protagonist, an academic, but he seems to spend a lot of time weeping. What's up with that? After Billy Lafitte, he was a bit of a shock.
A: It took a while to find the right voice for Mick. I originally tried a less "wussy" sort, but it didn't work. I finally had to embrace something I didn't want to do because it was something I wouldn't normally read: I had to make him a writer and an academic. I still wouldn't write about a fiction writer (I just can't stand fiction writer protags), but by making him a professor, it was cutting close to home.
I also wanted his character to be self-centered, very conscious if his "image", kind of too in touch with his emotions, but it's kind of a front. He knows he's exploiting himself and the people in his life for his "art".
It's Octavia who keeps him in check and makes him face reality. I'd like to think they need each other to help curtail each others' bad habits, but they're so lustful that really they just keep each other ashamed of those habits instead.
Q: As both a crime writer and creative writing prof., where are you most comfortable--the bar at Bouchercon, or hanging around panels at the annual AWP conference?
A: Bouchercon. Something about the "hipster" vibe I see in the literary/academic world doesn't jive with me so much, even tough I really love writing programs and I love directing the undergrad one here at Southwest Minnesota State (and, yes, I do enjoy hipster MFA things like nerd glasses and 80's nostalgia). Very few panels at either conference really sound that intriguing any more, having heard a bit too much of it. But even fewer at AWP get to me because they seem to overanalyze writing to the point of sucking the enjoyment out of the process. I don't get that same feeling from workshops, which I enjoy, but the panels feel a bit...navelgazing. At least at the bar at Bouchercon, the conversations tend to be sunnier (although all the authors write about crime and death) and more engaging. Says me. But I'm an outsider. I guess the table full of hipsters laughing and talking ironically about music are having a great time, so I should shut up.
Q: Lots of mystery, crime, thriller, and other genre writers complain they get the cold shoulder from the academy--and I confess I've faced rooms full of academics who put on polite, frozen smiles when I get up to read. And there seems to be a marked difference between what most creative writing programs are teaching and what their students are interested in writing (and reading). What's your teaching approach?
A: Well, I take the tact I heard from Tod Goldberg about MFA grads: Do you want to be a working writer or an enlightened barista? I think if you teach writers a strong foundation of solid literary techniques, it will raise the standard of any genre in which they choose to write. The push towards literary fiction as the only genre worthy of graduate writing programs has really put a lot of new American fiction and poetry in a box that seems less interesting to the mainstream, and instead is only read by other writers. Any sneering at genre labels comes off to me, now, as a bad business decision. So if you want to write "art" for a limited audience, go right ahead. I applaud that as much as I do my students who want to write sci-fi and fantasy. They're going to write some great stuff, too, for a different audience. So I've let down my guard and I allow genre work in the classroom because I realized that you can lead students towards literary skills by getting them excited about the journey rather than sending them down the yellow brick road with their ankles chained together.
Q: Now that you have--or are about to have--your entire backlist available as ebooks, tell us what the learning curve was like for you. Do you have professional help for formatting, etc? Was your move into the ebook universe a jump, or a shove?
A: No pro formatting. I read the style guides, messed around, trial and error, and now I think they look pretty good. Kindle doesn't allow you to mess around with fonts, but thankfully the one they use is gorgeous. Same with Nook. And I recruited a couple of artists to help with covers (Erik Lundy and Ben Springer) after putting together the one for Choke on Your Lies on my own after discovering the lovely Erin Zerbe on Flickr.
Thanks to the experience my agent Allan Guthrie has in selling his two novellas online, I had a lot of advice and guidance as I got rolling. So I'm glad I figured it out fairly easily.
It was a shove, I'm embarrassed to say. Now that I have a Kindle and I love reading from it, I wonder why I ever would've pushed it away. And I use it as a discovery engine for new writers more than I do as a replacement for paperbacks. I don't get why publishers are kind of dumb about ebook pricing. They're missing out on a grand new market and they need to catch up. Meanwhile, I'm finding the next big things selling books for 99 cents or 2.99.
Q: I read in Victor Gischler's terrific May 1 interview with you that you're simultaneously shopping a new novel with traditional publishers. Is this the future? A combination of traditional publishing methods and direct, writer-to-reader content?
A: I still like publishers. I like the branding you see from good imprints, and the support (cough, cough) they give their writers. I like that they earn the book some automatic respect simply by choosing it, causing some readers to feel comfortable enough to take the monetary risk of paying 15 to 20 (to 30 these days) bucks on a book. And I would love a broader audience, because as a storyteller, I want people to get excited from listening to my stories. That's why I keep telling more stories. So I have no problem with writing some books and trying publishers, while taking some other work directly to the ereader market. Different stories, different audiences.
Q: I saw in a video of your day (here) that you sport a very impressive C-Pap mask for sleeping. My husband, Pinckney Benedict, started using one about four years ago and it changed his life. During his sleep test, they said he was getting about 8.5 minutes of actual sleep a night. For years, he had lived in a sort of waking dream. Are you conscious of your dream life affecting your writing?
A: Not so much. I do remember my dreams a bit better, and they're usually a blend of TV shows with my own life with the feeling of being trapped in an airport and never getting to the gate. I think dreaming is just the brain using stuff for "practice". So it's all random.
The C-PAP did change my life for the better. I can sleep, feel rested, and it helps me feel an energy that I had lost for a while. I can conduct that energy into new projects and stop falling asleep at my desk at 3:30.
Q: Do you see yourself leaving Minnesota and returning to live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast someday? Does living so far away make it more vivid in your imagination?
A: I really don't. If I have my way, I'll retire to Duluth's North Shore. I like it here. The Gulf Coast is home, and New Orleans still rings with romance, but I feel like my hometown is eroding away, uncared for by its residents or officials. The only reason I go back is to see my grandmother, sister, and uncle. The rest of my family lives right outside New Orleans now. So it's a bit sad, really. The Coast still has a lot going for it, especially in Biloxi and Gulfport, which are beautiful, but I don't feel as connected any more after nine years away. But the memories I have still fire up story ideas that might come into play later.
Q: What's up with the venerable Plots With Guns?
A: Still going strong, but under a new captain. I "promoted" myself to publisher, meaning I pay for the site and I get final veto power, but I wanted some strong new hands to choose the future direction for the work and for the art. I can just loll around like Hugh Hefner now in my smoking jacket. Sean O'Kane, formerly of Murdaland and still with Out of the Gutter Books, agreed to come aboard as editor, and Erik Lundy, a fine writer and the artist behind the Yellow Medicine andHogdoggin' ecovers, is tackling the art and layout. So I'm excited to see their first full issue later this summer.
Q: What's next for you? Will you be wandering out of Minnesota anytime soon to meet your adoring fans? (Please say, yes!)
A: Italian publisher Meridiano Zero is publishing Yellow Medicine this month (translated by Luca Conti), and I've been invited to a "blues and noir" festival. Yep. Music and lit together. So that's late in June. After that, planning to hit B'con in St. Louis this fall, and AWP next winter. I get back to the classroom this Fall after a sabbatical break over the winter and spring. Looking forward to it. But for most of my mornings, I'll be holed up here in the office, banging out the next novel, whatever it may be.
Thank, you, Neil! Loved having you here.
Dearest readers, You will love getting to know Neil's work. Here's a link to his killer blog, Herman's Greasy Spoon. And here's a link to his Amazon page, where you can get a whole lot of A.N. Smith e-goodness for .99 each. Would I sound like a shill if I told you that this is seriously kick-ass, quality crime writing? Trust me. Okay?
A gratuitous pic, just because he said I could use any pic I wanted.