Most of our Gauntlet members over the years have been past contributors to our online flash offering. Having been here since day one, it gives me a unique opportunity to watch these writers grow in their craft. Though I admit, Paul’s contributions have shown exceptional skill from his first story. Two weeks ago, THE LOW WHITE PLAIN released as the 27th entry into Frank Zafiro’s A Grifter Song novella series. I was provided an advance copy and I can say I wasn’t let down. Like the previous short works I’ve read from Paul, THE LOW WHITE PLAIN is propulsive thriller whose depth and complexity belies its compact word count. It makes me look forward to seeing Paul J. Garth on the cover of future books.
How’d you get the gun? Or rather, what drew you to crime fiction?
I read a ton of crime fiction growing up, mostly Robert B. Parker, a few Grishams, Agatha Christy, and some Ed McBain. Basically whatever my parents had lying around. That, and a lot of horror. I can’t remember reading much in high school, I was too busy playing in punk and metal bands, but when I did get back into reading, it was after finding and falling in love with Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor.
When I got older, especially in college, I spent a few years reading more “literary” work. I hate that term, “Literary”. Like it provides some kind of otherwise-unexpressed value opposed to other books, but you know what I mean, with a focus on Southern Gothic fiction. And then I got kind of overloaded on it all, and fell immediately back to crime fiction.
But the cool thing was, because I was now approaching these books with “literary” training, I saw, for the first time, that crime novels are really just stories about the failures of society. These things that persist and linger that everyone looks away from. At the end, these shadows either overpower the hero, or a new path is set forward. I saw that crime fiction and gothic fiction have a lot in common, and when you combine them, really powerful things can happen.
It was Lehane, in my post college period, that really blew this all open for me. Shutter Island was an absolute god damn revelation. And since then, I’ve been chasing that exact alchemy; that mix of violence and dread and place and psychology and excitement. Nothing else scratches the itch, and crime fiction is the best place to find it.
You’ve been an active participant in the crime fiction community both as a contributor and an editor for several years. Your first story for Shotgun Honey was “Country Road” back in… get this… 2013. For such a compact story, which would you believe is below 700 words, you can see the literary quality in crime fiction you talk about. The moral dilemma and the impact of choice. It reads like the work of a seasoned writer. How long had you been writing by then and how have you grown since then?
It’s insane to me that this thing that feels like it has been such a huge part of my life, hasn’t even been going on for ten years. Nine years now, I guess, I’ve been a crime fiction writer, and though I remember other parts of my life – being in punk and metal bands, being a student, etc – they seem so long ago. Like a different person. Which I guess is a long way of saying I’m so happy and lucky that I’m still at this, and that people are reading.
“Country Road” is, for all intents and purposes, my first short story. I’d written a few other things before then, horror stories, if I remember right, but never did anything with them because I knew they were bad. But Country Road was really lightning in a bottle. I found Shotgun Honey, read a few stories, and decided to give it a go. And then, like two hours later, the story was done. Contrast that with Opprobrium, which I remember taking a goddamn month to write and get just right.
What you mentioned, dilemma and the impact of choice, those are the big things for me. The biggest things. A rule I have (in my writing, not editing) is that, at the end of every short story, a character’s life needs to be changed or have changed due to a decision (or refusal to make a decision). Sometimes for the better. A lot of times, for the worse. Those are the building blocks, so everything since Country Road has been adding in actual technique; pacing and plot were not things I understood when I started. Looking back on it, I think it’d be fair to say I understood the heart of the writer, but not the brain. Thankfully, I’ve made some progress in the years since.
Nine years is a good span of time, and from an outsider’s perspective you’ve used the time productively contributing to respected magazines and anthologies in the genre. You mention “Opprobrium” was a challenge, what story has been the most rewarding?
Oh, that’s such a good question, in part because I have two answers, and both are for very different reasons.
The first story I thought of was “The Hope of Lost Mares“. That story is probably the hardest I’ve ever worked on a single story. I’m not kidding, I think I rewrote that thing, top to bottom, eight or nine times. Each time I was able to get a little closer, get a little deeper at the feeling I was digging at, but it absolutely refused to come together. And then, when it finally did? I can not tell you how satisfying that was.
The second is a story called “Aperture“, that appeared in Vautrin last year. It was based around an idea I’d had for a while – what happens when a news photographer stumbles across a crime scene the cops haven’t found yet? – but I didn’t have it fully fleshed out. And then I sat down, started writing, and it was just there, like it’d been waiting for me. I’m not kidding, there is a section of that story that I still can’t read without getting goosebumps because I know I wrote it, but I don’t remember writing it at all. I remember looking up, seeing words on my computer screen, and asking myself, “What the hell just happened?”
Both those things are the best parts of writing, I think. The constant iterative work to grind something out, and those few blessed moments where something else takes control. One is a reminder that writing is work, and the other is a reminder that we’re lucky to get to do this.
“The Hope of Lost Mares” appeared in Eviction of Hope edited by Colin Conway containing stories about a rundown tenement, The Hope, being restored to its past glory at the cost of its tenants. Conceived and existing within Conway’s 509 Crime universe, for lack of a better term, Conway gave you and others keys to his playroom. What was it like to work on a collaborative project? Were there any reservations or restrictions?
Honestly, it was a super free project; Colin, after invitations went out, gave us a bible, saying, these are characters you might appear in your stories, but that you can not kill them. And you can’t ruin or destroy the building. Other than that, we were pretty much free to do whatever we wanted. I know Hector (Former Shotgun Honey Editor, whose story, “La Chingona” made it as a selection for Best American Mystery and Suspense), took things outside of The Hope, but I kept things mostly on the property, until the very end. There’s something about a building that’s rotting that draws me in. Not because I think that everyone who lives there must be rotting themselves, but rather because it becomes a symbol of American Decline, which is a theme I’m fascinated by.
Similarly, while working on THE LOW WHITE PLAIN, Frank Zafiro gave us a series bible to reference, including a synopsis for every past A Grifters Song entry, but really, the only rules he really pushed were, Sam and Rachel’s love is unbreakable, though it can be strained, and they can’t die.
It’s weird, working in other people’s playgrounds, but kind of freeing, too. Any time you’re staring at a blank word doc, you can get a sense of paralysis, but when you have a couple of rules, that paralysis lifts. It’s like, and I know this is a weird comparison to make, bowling with bumpers. When you’re doing something collaborative, as long as you stick to the rules, you can’t fuck up too badly. But, at the same time, you can absolutely kill it. Minimal downside. Infinite upside.
There is one other point I want to make on this, though. The kind of work we’re talking about can seem collaborative, most of it isn’t, or at least not intensely so. Frank and Colin have the good sense to stay out of people’s way, and, though The Hope and Sam and Rachel aren’t my characters or my settings, by the time I was done with them, I felt like they were.That’s a huge part of it. If you’re given the keys to something, you have to be willing to step up and make it your own, even if that ownership only lasts until you type, THE END. If you can’t do that, you’re not really bringing your full self, and I have to wonder what you’re writing at all.
THE LOW WHITE PLAIN is the 27th entry into the A GRIFTER’S SONG series, tell us briefly about Sam and Rachel and then where you take them in THE LOW WHITE PLAIN.
Jumping into a series that is now 27 entries deep is pretty wild, especially when it’s a series that so many insanely talented writers have contributed to.
Sam and Rachel are grifters and lovers, always on the run, always on the lookout for the next con they can pull off. They don’t have an easy life, necessarily, because their past is always at their heels, but, at this point in the series, I think it’s fair to say that their past and the consequences waiting for them if certain people ever catch up with them is something they’ve become comfortable with. They know it’s out there. That it might show up one day and catch them by surprise, but they can keep that possibility at a distance long enough to live it up and pull jobs.
I wanted to shake that up, to see less of the naturally cool and suave conmen, and rather discover the wounded animals underneath. What happens when you have to take a job you know is rotten? What does that do to your psyche? Your anxiety or paranoia? If you can make it out alive, do you start wondering why the hell you’re even in this life to start with?
Basically, to start, I put them in a deep dark hole, then handed them a shovel and told them, “The only way out is through.”
It gets grim and violent and pretty psychologically dangerous, with even the landscape itself becoming an oppressive character, but because it’s a series, they do make it through. But it comes with a cost.
“The only way out is through” is a strong statement for the book, but it’s one that can be applied to writing for many authors. The butt in the seat philosophy. What style of writer would you call yourself, and what do you do to carve out time from the day job, extracurriculars and family?
Well, I mean, it’s right there, right? You gotta get it done. You gotta get it out. You can’t edit a blank page. But, at the same time, you’re not going to write anything good if you’re burned out, so you have to be aware. I think of it a little bit like seasons. When I’m in a project, I’m focused on it. Trying to get something down every single day, and if I can’t do that, because of life, or because I literally fall asleep at the keyboard, that’s okay. Five outta seven days isn’t a bad, achievable goal to have. But when that’s done, I definitely take some time.
There’s not much value in throwing myself in to the next thing when my head and heart is still with the last thing. There’s a bit of a breakup period where you replenish yourself through reading or playing video games or, in my case, plotting intricate and intensely in depth Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. But your head is always doing something in the background. Football players never go to the next season having totally forgotten the playbook. I think that’s a healthy way of approaching this, if only to keep things manageable.
As for me? My writing is done at night, a little before bed. I have a day job, a wife with a demanding job, a three year old, a dog who is literally on medication for being too wound up, and all the bullshit life throws at you. And we, as a family, get through our day by all sharing the load. That’s hugely important. But when everyone else is asleep, I stay up and write. I’m sure I could find other times to do it, if I really wanted to, but I like my pattern now. I like that I get to hang out with my wife and my kid. And I like my headphones in the total dark and then moving from the keyboard back to bed. If writing is a ritual, all my stuff is the result of a midnight ritual, which, despite being something tremendously cheesy to say, feels right.
I know from our interactions your music tastes can be eclectic, but at the end of the day you’re a metal head. What was playing in those headphones while writing THE LOW WHITE PLAIN?
A lot of drone metal, mostly. Bongripper has an album called Glaciers that I listened to quite a bit. There’s a band from Nebraska called BUSSSSSGASSSS whose album, Snake Hymns, was on a pretty steady loop. SUNN 0)))’s Black Album got a lot of play. And, because this book deals with occultist satanists in the middle of a snowstorm, I had to throw on some black metal too, if only for the vibe, but I tend to skip most of the Norwegian early 90s stuff, so I listened to quite a bit of Wolves in the Throne Room while writing this. And then there are the usual suspects as well, Electric Wizard, Cough, Hell, Bell Witch, Indian, Fister, and Primitive Man.
My music tastes are as wide ranging as my tastes in reading (would you believe we play way more country music in this house than metal?) but, because I can’t write to anything with lyrics, or at least lyrics I can readily make out, my default writing music is usually metal or drone or experimental stuff like Basinkski’s The Disintegration Loops.
That’s interesting. I can’t listen to music while I create, but maybe I should go for something more instrumental. Is THE LOW WHITE PLAIN the longest work you’ve written or published? And do you have anything in the works for readers who enjoy the novella?
THE LOW WHITE PLAIN is the longest thing I’ve published, but far from the longest thing I’ve written.
I’ve been really trying, the last few years, to break out of short stories and into longer works, but it’s been hard. I have, I think, three absolutely trunked novels that no one should ever read, and a longer novella, like, knocking right on the door of novel length, called BLOOD BENDS THE RAIL. I think of that one as my punk rock book. It’s about crime and train hopping and dead family and found family and has some absolutely vicious violence in it. It’s written in a style totally different than my “normal” style. Super cut down. Super fast. Super angry. Like Ellroy or David Peace, almost. It’s one that I think I can get across the finish line, but I need to find someone okay with a 45k word book, first.
Finally, I’ve got a collaborative novel I wrote with my friend, Dennis Tafoya, called THE THROWAWAY that we’re currently doing some incredibly cool shit with (though we can’t talk about it yet).
It’s weird to think back on all that writing and realize I was still pushing out a couple short stories last year too, plus editing, and I’m honestly kind of wondering how I fit all that shit in. If nothing else, it explains why I’m tired all the time.
You’ve referenced McCarthy, Flannery, Ellroy and Peace as pivotal authors in your own journey as a writer. What are some contemporary or newer authors that bring the same juice? Who are you reading and recommending?
There are so, so, many amazing writers out there right now, it’s honestly hard to keep up. Like, I read a fair amount, and I feel like I’m jumping from book to book because I don’t want to miss a new voice.
So, knowing full well as soon as I answer this, I’m going to think of ten more people I should have mentioned, here we go: James DF Hannah writes a PI series better than Rober B. Parker. I recognize that’s a big statement. It’s true. Nikki Dolson is The Queen. She’s up there with Megan Abbott, and, like Abbot, she uses suspense brilliantly, but also adds this disconcerting flair of suburban familiarity mixed with Vegas sleaze that just hits all the sweet spots. Nick Kolakowski does violence better than anyone; that its usually coupled with absurd, but believable, dialogue and characters is just a bonus. Rob D. Smith is quietly turning out an unmatched ouvre of short stories across all genres. Curtis Ippolito takes tender, debilitating trauma and turns it into compelling and tragic crime novels. Mike McHone… man, there isn’t a story from that guy I’ve read that hasn’t blown me away. Bobby Mathews writes these, I think I can only call them “searching” stories, about people lost in the world, and the cost of finding your place. Everything I read from Mark Westmoreland is great. You always think you’re reading something fun and breezy and then the violence sets in and you realize you’ve been reading a very different book than you thought. Its fucking great. S.A. Cosby. I mean, yeah, at this point everyone has praised him, but it’s still not enough. Blacktop Wasteland is the crime novel of the decade. If it’s not, the only other contender I can think of is Jordan Harper‘s She Rides Shotgun. That dude is an inspiration, and, as an aside, just seems like the coolest guy ever. Kelly J. Ford writes these beautiful southern noirs about place and identity that I recommend everyone should read. Chris Harding Thornton is the first writer also from Nebraska who wrote about Nebraska as a place I recognize, which is to say, a little tilted, a little darker than looking out your window would suggest. John Woods. Holy shit, he can write. If you like Donald Ray Pollock, you need to read him. Jake Hinkson is the master of American Religious Noir, and I think someday his books will be studied as very specific reflection of a very specific, sick, culture. Gabriel Hart is always dropping stories I’m obsessed with. There’s a music to them, and I can almost hear it. David Heska Wanbli Weiden‘s Winter Counts is absolutely phenomenal, Native-noir, a genre I hope to see a lot more of, and I can’t let this opportunity go by without shouting out William Boyle, who I am convinced is the most unsung poet of American Noir today. He’s like if Wiley Vlautin moved to New York and was somehow friends with both Bob Dyland AND the guys down at the docks at the same time.
Outside of crime, I’ve recently read Christopher Buehlman’s The Blacktongue Thief, which was amazing, and John Hornor Jacob‘s A Lush and Seething Hell, which is not only terrifying, but also contains some of the best prose I’ve read from anyone whose name isn’t Cormac McCarthy, and you know I’m always shouting out Laird Barron, who will be seen, I think, as more important than Lovecraft, someday.
It sounds like you’ve been stealing books from my shelves, or we happen to go for the same authors. Some mighty high praise, and Jacob’s might owe you a drink or more with such a comparison. Thornton is new, so I’ll be sure to check him out. I think we’ve run the gamut, but with your book two weeks old do you have any parting words?
I want people to read The Low White Plain, because I poured so much of myself in to that book, but, for parting words, I think I’d like to say something a bit more comprehensive than shilling for a single book, so that leaves this: Support crime fiction. Eat tacos. Listen to heavy metal and bang your head. Read good books and be kind to others and recycle your goddamn plastics, please.
Paul J. Garth is a Best American Mystery and Suspense distinguished story author who has been published in Thuglit, Tough, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, Rock and a Hard Place, and several others magazines. He lives and writes in Nebraska with his family, where he eats too many tacos, listens to too much heavy metal, and enjoys just the right amount of bourbon. An editor at Rock and a Hard Place and Shotgun Honey, he is at work on his first novel, and can be found online by following @pauljgarth