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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Interview: Frank Bill

This week it is a down right joy to bring Frank Bill to the How I Got The Gun? table. Frank, who most of you should know, spent the last few years deep in the trenches unleashing pulse pounding stories of rural Indiana to various print and online presses, building a landscape stark and desolate, and somehow pulling at our hearts with near biblical truths.

Next week those stories are brought together in Frank Bill’s first book, CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA, released by publisher Farrar, Straus and Garoux, and available for pre-order if you are inclined to visit either Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I recommend you buy it. But if my word isn’t enticing enough maybe the interview will have you sold.

Without further ado Frank Bill and How I Got The Gun?

How’d you get the gun? Or rather what drew you to crime fiction?

Two things my father and my grandfather always had, a gun and a pocket knife. That was just part of being a male. Third thing was more than likely a Zebco fishing rod.

I never considered myself a crime writer. But no one would take a chance on publishing my work. I read anything from Hemingway to Larry Brown or Andrew Vachss to Jim Thompson. And from those writers I discovered Tom Franklin, William Gay, Craig Clevenger, Will Christopher Baer and Eddie Little. Those writers made me realize what I could do with language, tone and voice. Those guys really tell an absorbing story. Then if you look at the ladies, A.M. Homes or Dorothy Allison, you ask yourself is this crime or is it literary? Fuck no it’s just damn good writing. And what draws me to those writers is the same thing that drew me to trying the crime venue, class. People getting by the only way they know how, by their gut or their place or situation in life. I can identify with that.

In your book, CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA, you populate your stories with both the working class man and men who live in violence and crime, often pitting the two against one another. Is this built upon your view of class and social issues in southern Indiana?

It’s not so much crime as its survival. It’s the class that has been forgotten after they’ve slaved their lives away. They’re getting by the only way they know how. Take Old Testament Wisdom. When the jobs started to disappear in the 80’s and the farming communities took a hit, a lot of farmers were left with little options. Some decided to use what they knew: farming. They learned to grow marijuana within their feed crops to sell for a big profit. They had mouths to feed. New machinery to buy. Loans at the bank. They were vested in an age old occupation, a way of life. And within this way of life, people who are from the land, had their own way of dealing with or weeding out problems within their communities. Hence the title. And in a sense it is based upon stories I heard growing up within Indiana or maybe I even crossed paths with some of these people. My people, or the people I write about, are those who’ve been ignored.

You start off CRIMES with a dark, powerful trilogy that goes from Hill Clan Cross to These Old Bones and finally All the Awful. Each stands solid on its own, but together it sets an immediate tone for the book. Can you walk us through the creation of these stories?

The Hill Clan stories were a major work in progress. I’d written Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell and Old Testament Wisdom. I had these ideas about the life of  guns. How they get bought by one person. Stored in someone’s home. Then stolen and used for a crime. Passed onto someone else. Maybe sold on the street and end up several states away. That was the original premise of Amphetamine Twitch which when I wrote it was called Flavors of Degradation. It was one huge story or rather a rough draft.

It opened with a house getting broken into. A gun being stolen. Then sold. Ends up in the hands of the Crase family’s boys in another state where a drug deal goes wrong. The DEA are after the Crase family, trace the boys to their fathers and have a big shootout in a hotel and a small town cop is in the mix as well. It was a big multipoint of view story with too many layers. Problem was it needed to sit. And after it did I realized it was too much for a short story. It was actually many short stories. So I broke it apart. I had Amphetamine Twitch and The Hill Clan. After I got finished drafts of each I asked myself, where did these people come from? Who are they? And I wrote These Old Bones. Which lit the flame for All the Awful. And in a sense they were connected to Old Testament Wisdom but I didn’t make that connection till I started working on edits for the book and realized the Hill Clan was blood relation to Jacque and the surrounding terrain of Old Testament Wisdom.

While reading CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA it was a nice surprise to see one or two stories I’d read before like Cold, Hard Love which I enjoyed originally in NEEDLE Vol 1, Issue 2. What other venues have your short stories appeared?

My first published story was The Accident, it was accepted by a place called The Circle Magazine. Then A Coon Hunter’s Noir was published in Hardboiled. Other venues followed, Thuglit, Plots With Guns, Talking River Review, Darkest Before the Dawn, Beat to a Pulp. Needle. And now Playboy.

Images of your readers have been popping up online with the latest copy of Playboy containing the story Hill Clan Cross. The running joke when referring to the men’s magazine is that we read it for the articles, but in truth it has published stories by some of the best literary writers. How’s it feel to be among that exclusive group and how did you manage the gig?

Its pretty damn amazing considering how long I struggled with rejection letters from the Missouri Review, The Georgia Review and even the North American Review. Years and stacks of letters. And now I get to be among writers like Chuck Palahniuk, Thom Jones, Denis Johnson and Hunter S. Thompson. Its an amazing honor. And I owe it to my Editor’s Sean and Emily at FSG, my Agent Stacia at DMLA and Amy at Playboy. Everyone had an influence and a strong belief in my work. Here’s a link to their top ten writers: Top Ten Writers Published in Playboy.

A sweet, sweet redemption indeed after being rejected by such notable literary magazines. Looking back at your other successes, several are online magazines much like Shotgun Honey. Would you describe your experiences contributing and being read by the online community?

Everyone has been very cool. Ben Springer has been a greater supporter but so has Rod Wiethop. He approached me at Bouchercon in Indy several years ago and introduced himself. Told me how much he dug my work. Now he’s one of my closest friends. A real person of the earth. Knows where his people come from. Much like Jed Ayres, Neil Smith, Scott Phillips, Kyle Minor, Christa Faust, Keith Rawson, Gary Lovisi, David Cranmer, Allison and Todd Robinson, Aldo Calcagno, Elaine Ash, Greg Bardsley, Kieran Shea and the list goes on and on. I’ve made some true friends. And you can read some of those first letters of acceptance that I received from editors below.


Lady Detroit here, from Thuglit.

I just read your story “Old Testament Wisdom” for the third time and I have to tell you that it’s as powerful a story as any I’ve read anywhere. The cadence in the narrative, it’s damn lyrical, and at times point-perfect. I think your storytelling is striking and am surprised that you are still a “struggling writer.”

That said, I think it would be shame to publish this story just now. Honestly, it needs a good edit. Some of the sentences are so heavy with description, they drive the reader to a halt, especially in the action scenes. Even on a third reading, I found myself retracing steps through sentences to find out what’s actually happening. While you set the atmosphere with your descriptions, there are definitely some that are distracting. There are also a few similes bordering on the cliché and they stick out (not in a good way) amongst your other specifically crafted words.

Basically you are fucking explosion, and it’s pretty damn exciting, but I really feel it could be BRILLIANT if it was tamed a bit. We don’t normally do serious editing at Thuglit because, frankly it’s too time-consuming for a free webzine, but I believe this story really deserves another look. I’ve asked Todd if we could bump your story to a future issue to give you time for another edit and he gave me the go-ahead.

In my readings, I printed a hard copy and marked it up with some edits. If you feel you’d like the extra input from an unbiased reader, I’d be happy to mail it to you. By no means, if you accept, should you feel obligated to my suggestions. You should do always do what you feel is right for your work.

Shoot me an email and let me know what you think.

Either way, it was a pleasure to read.


Todd Robinson

Dear Frank,

Congratulations! “Trespassing Between Heaven & Hell” has been selected as the THIRD PLACE winner in the Lunch Hour Stories 2008 Short Story Contest. Your prize will include publication (in May 2009), 5 copies of the printed story, a free one-year subscription to the magazine (commencing immediately), and a cash award of $50 (payable upon publication).

Of your story, our judges said: “Trespassing Between Heaven & Hell” kept us on the edge of our seats. The narrative offered a quick start, then held our attention through to the end. The writing is strong, as is the narrative voice, and the story deserves to be read.

A formal packet of information will go in the mail to you tomorrow, but please let me know if you have any questions after you receive it.

Again, congratulations!

Nina Bayer, Editor
Lunch Hour Stories Magazine


Well, we are definitely interested in “Rough Company” for PWG. It’s a great story, and you’ve got great style. You also do things that drive us up the wall, some descriptive tics that go way overboard and stick out like sore thumbs. After the last edits, we still had that feeling, but we want to run the story (and we didn’t want to take anything away from your style), so Tom and I looked it over, and we’ve come up with this edited version. Please compare it to your most recent version and see if you’re okay with the changes we made (should be mostly small things, like saying “locks” instead of “hair” way too often, or a few “extra” adjectives taken out).

If you’re okay with it, please go ahead and send a bio and photo (photo is optional), and we’ll get that thing up with the new issue later this week.

All best,

You’ve built — no earned – quite a community of friends and fans online. How helpful were the online successes to transitioning to traditional publishing?

Very helpful. Making those connections with like minded people, Neil Smith, Jed Ayres, Scott Phillips, Keith Rawson, Greg Bardsley, ect., really helped me out more than they know. I’d written so long in my own little world with little input. It was nice to finally have some light shined in the shadows.  And when I wrote Donnybrook, authors were kind enough to read the early version of the manuscript and blurb it. Which showed support for my work and I think that played a big role in getting published. Meaning I had a fan base.

Last year before you signed your book deal the good folks at Do Some Damage published an excerpt from Donnybrook. After that, I was personally hooked on Frank Bill from that moment. Give our readers a synopsis of Donnybrook.

My agent Stacia Decker, pitched it as Fight Club meets Deliverance. It follows the lives of four men. A small town cop, an ex-bare knuckles champion turned meth cook, a Chinese debt collector and a bare knuckle brawler trying to escape the hills of Kentucky by using his God given boxing skills by setting out for Indiana to fight in a backwoods free for all tournament called Donnybrook. It’s a backwoods story of survival, incest, broken bones, meth, and prophecy. It could be termed as grit lit or manly literature.

Sounds like our kind of literature, that’s for sure. Crimes In Southern Indiana hits shelves on August 30, 2011 and Donnybrook in 2012, what’s down the pike between and after for Frank Bill?

I’ve got two books. One I’m working on when time permits. About 17,000 words or more. It looks to be a very big book and a wild ass ride. The second is based an actual crime family my buddy told me about and no one has written anything close to it. So if I can get my next book finished I’ll pitch both of these. I’ve also got a few other nonfiction ventures but the day job is killing my writing time at the moment.

Juggling two careers will tax any sane man; thankfully for writers sanity isn’t a question. How have you managed to fit writing into your daily schedule?

Up Monday thru Friday between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. punching the keys. Then I write during breaks at work. On the weekends I get up around 6 or 7 am and write till about 1pm. But at the moment, with the release growing closer, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews.

That is a hellava schedule and we appreciate the time you’ve given us. Thank you, Frank. Do you have any parting shots, pearls of wisdom, for our readers?

Write what you dig, not what you think people want. I went back and forth with that for years. Now, I don’t waste words, I write them.