Back in August, a longtime friend Ryan Sayles reached out about his new book Like Whitewashed Tombs which released August 29th from Down & Out Books. Ryan’s work first appeared on Shotgun Honey in 2011, and he returned several times since. In fact we had the pleasure of publishing his novel Goldfinches in 2016. Before that he was my publisher (Zelmer Press) allowing me to include my short story “The Last Shot” in the western anthology Five Broken Winchesters.
How’d you get the gun? Or rather, what drew you to crime fiction?
I got the crime fiction gun kind-of by accident. The first books I really started seeking out on my own as an adult were supernatural thriller and horror stuff, like Stephen King and Dean Koontz. I read a ton back then. I liked old-school science fiction as well. Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, the generation of guys who used words like “ray gun” and thought that the USA would still be fighting the Soviets in the year 2155. At some point I discovered Chuck Palahniuk and went his way for a while. After a year or so of consuming as much as I was, I thought I’d try my hand at writing. I was a natural bullshitter and enjoyed when I could lead someone along with one of my idiot stories. Seemed like the next step was to write.
The first novel I wrote was science fiction, the second was transgressive. Next, I wrote a horror novel about a hardboiled detective who took on a case that involved a demon and her cult. I had recently watched the original Dirty Harry movie and the hardboiled genre just spoke to me. That was my first journey into writing crime, albeit it was a vehicle for a ferocious supernatural story. The book never went anywhere but the character stuck with me. His name was Richard Dean Buckner.
A few years later, after writing a few more books—one or two that were supernatural and one or two that weren’t—I decided I needed to get into one lane and stay there for a while. I read some agents stating that unpublished novelists were a harder sell if they bounced around wildly. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. At the time it sounded very true. I really enjoyed writing about Buckner, so I decided I’d write about him but I’d leave the supernatural stuff alone for a bit.
At the same time, I discovered what was an entirely new world to me: online short story publishing. I thought I could build my resume by writing short stories and trying to get them published at these various sites. Hopefully, that would help me get a novel picked up. One such site was Shotgun Honey, and I was honored when an RDB short story was accepted here.
So, I fell into crime fiction a little bit, and once there realized I enjoyed the grittiness of it. My wife told me she thought I was really captivated by humanity and its reaction in crime. How decent people can do bad things and vice versa. I do enjoy the character study of it. When I land on a concept or idea like that, that’s when I know I have a story.
I can relate to jumping around in fiction and style. It’s all part of the journey, and the more avid and diverse reader the more to pool from as a writer. You mention King and Koontz as early gateways, but if you could choose a writer or writers, whole would you say influenced your creation of Richard Dean Buckner?
RDB came from a few places. I read a collection of short stories entitled Shadows Over Baker Street that placed Sherlock Holmes and his impeccable logic into the insane world of H.P. Lovecraft. I loved the idea of that conflict. And after watching Dirty Harry for the first time, who wouldn’t think a .44 magnum could solve all those problems? I thought a hardboiled detective getting thrown into something supernatural would be very cool. I also read Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer and I loved his narrative voice. As soon as I finished that book, I knew I wanted to copy it. So, I just went for it.
The voice you developed for Richard Dean Buckner how would you describe it? And do you feel that is a voice you carried over to Like Whitewashed Tombs?
Describe it… hmmm… I tried for a stark, blunt narrative. It was first person and I’ve read other people describe the RDB prose as “stream of consciousness” which I think is neat. The first novel in particular, Subtle Art of Brutality, I didn’t really know the hardboiled or noir genres per se, so I was just writing what I thought those genres would sound like. I didn’t do any homework on it. All my metaphors and similes were fairly dark and nihilist. I wanted to project a sense of doom and have the reader picture everything in grayscale. I think I’ve stepped away from that some, though I find myself always struggling over each sentence, no matter what I write. RDB’s inner monologue is either short, choppy sentences or bigger explosions of long run-ons. Like any writer, I try to avoid clichés and have fresh, unique language. I figure if I can capture the reader somehow, with either language or character or plot, I’ve got them. And if I capture them with all three, they’ll have a really good experience.
After I wrote Subtle Art of Brutality, I became a police officer. There, I was writing straightforward, just-the-facts-ma’am reports every day. That became the bulk of my writing. It had an influence on my narrative style. I think it all coalesced into what I have now.
The voice in Like Whitewashed Tombs is the voice I started developing with RDB, but I wanted to do something new with it. I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian while I was writing, and that book forces you to either love it or despise it. I’m not in the same category as McCarthy—I know that. But I was very swayed by how he did things and to a small degree, tried my own version of it. McCarthy is known for his extraordinary vocabulary—especially archaic words, how he integrates the nomenclature of everything into his descriptions, how vivid everything is. His shocking violence, which is strongly on display in Blood Meridian. I leaned heavily on my wife’s thesaurus for this book. I really enjoyed just looking up a word that, as I used it in the story, I thought to myself, “this is very average sounding. Let’s see what I can replace it with that will pop and add some depth.” I wound up with a bunch of those words, and I thought it added to the uniqueness of the story. I’m sure some readers will go through it and accuse me of smelling my own farts, of being self-indulgent. That’s fine. I wasn’t trying to show off. I was trying to add another dimension. Maybe I pulled it off, maybe not.
There’s a section in the second act that takes place just after dawn on Halloween when heavy fog sets in. That chapter was a joyful challenge to work on because the fog became another character. It was almost an antagonist in and of itself. Describing it and how the characters—two cops during a foot chase—interacted was very satisfying. The way it played with light and concealed things. How it moved. I had a friend who read a draft of the book describe the fog as another character and for once in my god-forsaken life, I felt like I did something right.
I think the result in Like Whitewashed Tombs is a narrative that I won’t be able to replicate. That’s fine. That book was extremely draining to write. I’m very proud of it but it took me months after finishing it really come back around and want to do another project.
Give us the pitch for Like Whitewashed Tombs.
The fast pitch is that it’s a story about redemption. Two broken men at the most conflicted, pivotal points in their lives seek how to resolve themselves to fate. And as their pivotal points come at odds with each other, well then, it gets hairy.
From the back of the book:
In the city of Rigid Creek, ugly things have come to blot out the light.
Corporal Joshua Marks struggles with his place life. A veteran officer and respected leader, he’s reached the end of his tenure. Widowed, months from retirement, called to the priesthood. His partner, Officer Bale Hammond, a once respected hotshot who has slowly left a trail of errors and questionable actions. Burned-out, unsatisfied, tortured.
As autumn settles along the city, a man robs a liquor store for some quick cash but winds up leaving two dead bodies. The murderer escapes the police, only to be squeezed by both his dealer and his loan shark for more. Always more.
Tensions escalate as both Corporal Marks and Officer Hammond reach impasses in every aspect of their lives as well as their partnership. All the liquor store robber sees is an ever-increasing amount to his debt.
A fantastic storm on Halloween. Violation and carnage. Extreme failures. Corporal Marks looks at his world crashing around him, wanting to save his friend and partner from his self-induced downward spiral. Wanting to show him the light cannot be blotted out, even when they’re in full dark. Officer Hammond wants to fix his broken life, but only has broken tools to use. Wants to stop feeling like a corpse with a pulse only because even death isn’t through with him yet.
They all want redemption, but violence keeps getting in the way.
You had spent time in service to our country, though a different branch, did your experience in the military or those of people you know influence your creation of Corporal Marks and Officer Hammond?
I was in the United States Coast Guard for a little over six years. Growing up in almost the dead center of the nation, there obviously were no coasts. So, when the time came to really think about my future, the idea of going somewhere different was appealing. My father-in-law, originally from the Boston area, would always fondly remember the Coast Guard. I joined up with them. Went to Maine, Georgia and California. I was mostly in anti-terrorism units, driving high-speed boats. It was a lot of fun.
As it applied to Cpl. Marks and Ofc. Hammond, neither one of those guys was prior military. But, being in the military shaped a lot of my views and habits and I imagine that subconsciously comes through the characters. In my experience at my own police department, about half the folks there were prior service. I think in the end, the police culture is shaped enough by military to where whatever I was conditioned into at the PD, it had roots in the military. And as I was writing this book, I was thinking with my police hat on it, and that was sewn with some military threads. In my previous book, It’s Ugly Because It’s Personal, that centered around a police department that was heavily based on my own. That book I think has a lot more insight into the culture and goings on of police life whereas Like Whitewashed Tombs I think is more about two guys who happen to be police.
The hierarchy of command, the discipline, the roughneck accountability. I’m sure there’s a tax office somewhere with these same traits, but they’re certainly found in the military and police. Or, they were when I was in, anyway. I got out of the military in 2008 and the police in 2015. A guy that started the day after I quit the PD now has more time on that I did. It’s weird to think about. It might be that my old PD is a world different than it was, so these books might only serve as a time capsule for my memories of how it was.
You’ve spent a lot of your life dedicated to duty, but not just to your country and community, to family and, from what I remember, faith. The title Like Whitewashed Tombs isn’t as simple or as direct as some of your past books. Is there some symbolism to the title?
Yessir. Both the military and the police require dedication. I’ve moved on now into the trades and am happy because I finally make a decent living. I married my highschool sweetheart and we’ve made seven gorgeous children. Those also require dedication. We’re a Catholic family, which I love. The older I get the more informed by faith I become. I’m still a tattooed, salty turd of a man, but I’ve got more depth and hope than I ever had before.
I try to put some thought into all my titles. When I look at books on the shelf and I see rather generic things like (I’m making these up, or at least I don’t know of real books with these titles) “Evening After Next,” “The Loner” or “The Green House,” I’m not intrigued at all. I know there’s a whole marketing department behind them, they’re designed to appeal to the widest audience, yadda yadda, but there’s no sex appeal in those for me. So if I can, I try to have a title that will make a person passing by interested enough to at least pick the book up and read the back. And then they can set it down, disgusted with me as a human being and furious I drew them in with a cool title just long enough to waste their time on a book they won’t want to read. But at least I drew them in for a moment.
Like Whitewashed Tombs is from a passage of scripture: the Gospel according to Matthew, 23:27. It’s spoken by Jesus as he chastises the Pharisees (an orthodox sect of Judiasm known for their ultra-adherence to innumerable and minute laws) for being like whitewashed tombs. There was some significance to tombs and burials in general to the ancient Jewish culture (among other things they were commanded to bury their dead, whereas many of the other peoples who populated the world at their time left them out to rot, be eaten by wildlife, burned them, et cetera). But, in that particular verse, Jesus was accusing the Pharisees of being outwardly clean and pious while interiorly being “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanliness.” Meaning they were very concerned with their outward appearance of piety while inwardly—where only God could see—they were filthy. That, to me, was a metaphor for the character of Bale Hammond. I didn’t spend a lot of time with him preening his physical appearance but rather, I focused on how he was perceived by himself and others. Eventually, all the cracks set in and he wasn’t fooling anyone, but the title jumped out. I’d originally thought I’d apply it more to the other primary character of Joshua Marks, but as his character developed he wasn’t really that way. I didn’t push it.
The cover came from the idea of Momento Mori, or “remember your death.” It’s usually depicted as a human skull and a flower, although there’s plenty of variation. Some folks, when they’re contemplating their life, find it useful to remember they’re going to die. It encourages them to live better, fuller, all that. While I was writing the book my wife had a melanoma cancer on her inner left forearm. They removed it and it looks like they got it all. She didn’t need chemo or anything, but it left her with a gnarly scar on her arm. I love it. I really do. She calls it her momento mori.
After researching that type of cancer, it seems to be either it’s found and removed and that’s it, or it kills you. There’s no in-between. It opened both of our eyes. I wound up getting a momento mori tattoo on my inner left forearm and colored the flowers in blue for her eye color. It’s just one more way we’ve joined together.
Both Joshua and Bale are looking at their lives and whatever it is they have left of them. Of course, each of them have to at least confront the possibility of his own death. On the cover, instead of flowers I asked for grape leaves, which have significance in the book with the biblical Parable of the Vineyard. The biggest theme of the book is redemption, and that parable teaches about how one may come into life with God even at the last hour of his mortal existence. I guess this book is an extreme example of that, but author Flannery O’Connor said, “… to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” With whatever meager talent I have, I’m trying to shout.
I like to include a little craft talk with these interviews, and the obvious question I have given your busy life is where do you find the time to write?
I find time wherever it is. It seems inspiration strikes in the early afternoon or at one in the morning. If it stays with me, I can punch out about two thousand words at a time. But I need quiet. You can imagine in a house of nine people, there’s not a lot of that. Right out of high school I worked at a casino here in town. There I learned to tune out a wall of white noise in the background. I just do it without thinking about it now. That can come in handy when I start getting into a groove while writing. It’s a double-edged sword, though. My wife has this weird expectation that when she speaks to me, I’ll listen. And when I’m concentrating, I’ll completely tune her out. But, I always remind her that the twenty dollars I’ve made off of my writing, she has spent. On groceries. For the children. So, she needs to put up with me ignoring her. That’s how that works, right?
One last question, before I let you go to write the next novel. We’ve talked about your inspirations, authors that set you on the path of a writer. Who are you reading now?
I’ve just finished reading a high fantasy series from the 1960s called The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Disney made an animated movie called The Black Caldron which is loosely based on its first two books. I stress “loosely.” My wife wanted the kids to do some summer reading. I decided to read along with the boys, chapter for chapter. My oldest son started the first Chronicles of Prydain book and I fell in love with it. I owned two of the books in the series as a child and still have them today. Getting back into now brought back some nice memories. After we read the first one, I just kept going. I’ve consumed them all.
Meanwhile, I showed my kids a scene from the movie Prey where the main character Naru gets attacked by a bear, which eventually fights the Predator. I told them nothing about it and just wanted them to watch. My wife started watching it and asked if it was a movie based on the book The Island of Blue Dolphins, which is itself based on a true story of a Native American woman who lived alone on an island for decades after her people left it. My wife produced the book from our stash downstairs and had my second oldest son read it. I read it as well. Great book. I’ve recently read James Rollins’s The Last Odyssey and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I started Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises but man. I just wasn’t in the mindset to push myself through it. I’ve got some T. S. Elliot also I’m looking forward to getting into. I’ve got some weightier Catholic nonfiction stuff ranging from capital punishment, critical race theory and how Christianity shaped western values that are on my TBR pile.
No crime fiction, though. Funny. Probably not the way I should end this interview, but there you go.
Ryan Sayles is the Derringer-nominated author of the Richard Dean Buckner hardboiled PI series, The Subtle Art of Brutality, Warpath, and Albatross as well as the standalone novels Goldfinches and Together They Were Crimson. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of venues in both print and digital media. He was the editor of the clown-themed anthology Greasepaint & .45s and has been included in numerous others such as the Anthony Award-nominated Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen and Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns.