Bobby Mathews

with Ron Earl Phillips

Kicking off a new iteration of our original interview series HOW I GOT THE GUN we sat down with Bobby Mathews whose debut book, LIVING THE GIMMICK, releases May 27, 2022 (tomorrow). Instead of an elaborate introduction, we’ll let Bobby’s words speak for themselves.

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

I kind of fell into crime fiction, coming to it out of the hardboiled detective tradition. As a young adult, I found Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective series, and from there I found Donald Westlake (in all of his many names through the years). But I don’t think I really “took off” until I realized how rich and varied the field of crime fiction really is. Crime is relatable, regional. I think I began hitting my stride when I started approaching crime fiction through a distinctly Southern lens. I’m drawn to it now because I’ve come to recognize the desperation and difficulty of growing up poor in the rural South. That sense of never having enough, of seeing what other people have that you don’t, really drives a lot of people into bad decisions.

The moral dilemma is important in writing, especially crucial in crime fiction. I’ve always enjoyed stories driven by circumstance. In LIVING THE GIMMICK, retired wrestler Alex Donovan is thrown into the weeds when his friend Ray Wilder is murdered on his doorstep. What compells Donovan to investigate the murder?

One of the things I like about Donovan is that he’s very straightforward. As readers will see in the book, he’s not great at behind-the-scenes politicking. His straightforward attitude means that when he takes relationships — whether platonic friendships or romantic entanglements — seriously. The fact that Ray is gunned down in front of Donovan is a personal insult to him. So you have the combination of the depth of a lifelong friendship and a personal insult that is really the catalyst for Donovan’s actions/investigation.

LIVING THE GIMMICK  is more than just a murder mystery, but an exploration of old school wrestling. Talk about how you married your two passions.

I blame my Dad, to be honest. I grew up watching Southeastern Championship Wrestling every Saturday with him. As I grew into a teenager and started kind of having less and less in common with my Dad, wrestling was still one way we were able to connect. That time period in wrestling — the late 1970s through mid-80s — was kind of a golden era for wrestling. But, of course, there’s the dark underbelly of wrestling where you realize that there were really a lot of outlaws and marginal people involved in the business, and they would do whatever they could get away with. In some ways that’s changed now, because wrestling went corporate. It’s a much “cleaner” business on the front-end now, because you don’t see the same number of shysters, chiselers, drug users/abusers or flat-out criminals on your TV screen as you might’ve seen back in the day. So finding connections through crime and wrestling was pretty easy, because there are no end of crimes to write about in the industry.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that Ric Flair is pretty much the template for Ray Wilder in relation to glam and fame. So taking “the Nature Boy” off the table, who’s another favorite of the era?

Ric Flair is pretty clearly an influence on the character Ray Wilder, but so are the other Nature Boys who aren’t so well known: Buddy Rogers, Roger Kirby, Buddy Landell. Ray’s name was actually taken in part from Ray Stevens, who was considered the premiere ‘worker’ of his generation. When I was growing up, the National Wrestling Alliance was changing from hard-nosed Midwest stalwarts like Harley Race to the more flamboyant gimmicks like Flair, so Ric is probably the definition of wrestler for me from that era. He out-worked, out-drank, out-hustled, out-partied everybody. There were guys who could keep up with him for a while, but the whole ‘Nature Boy’ gimmick was something that he embraced, that he truly lived 24/7. And he wasn’t the only guy who really lived his gimmick. Back in the day, there was no difference for wrestlers: Who you were in the arena and on TV was who you were. Period.

In LIVING THE GIMMICK, the story has something of its own gimmick, with Donovan’s linear investigation followed by flashbacks that hop through moments of Ray Wilder’s career. As a writer how did you juggle between timelines handling the present and the past?

I tried, always, to use moments of the past to illuminate the investigation and the characters — not just the facts, but the motives and the emotions — in the present. It was also to illustrate how the wrestling business itself has gone from the old-school “outlaw” mindset of many pro wrestlers in the territory days to the “I am an actor involved in a physical role” kind of attitude that many of today’s performers seem to have. It was an interesting writing process, because I was almost always working two chapters ahead in my mind. Each morning when I’d finish that day’s output, I’d sketch out the next two chapters/scenes, so I knew exactly where I was going for once. It was a new feeling!

You’ve worked as a journalist for much of your career. Did that experience help or hinder transitioning into a fiction writer? Was there a learning curve?

I think it helps for the most part in just getting on with the writing. You sit down and do it, you know? As a journalist, you don’t have time to have writer’s block or anything like it. The deadline is always there, looming. So when I sit down, I write quickly and usually with very few typos. When you’re writing every day for publication, it can only help because you’re trying to write to a professional level. And I think it helps in that I have very few illusions about writing. I don’t really wait for inspiration, because the writing is work. So when I sit down to write, I approach it like a job. I’ve been a working journalist or PR pro for nearly 20 years, so that has absolutely helped me with the ability to craft and pace a story. At the same time, fiction is a different beast, so I do approach it differently … even while I try to approach it from a very professional perspective.

I’m a believer that we are always learning, is there anything that you’ve learned about yourself, writing, or wrestling that you didn’t know about?

I’ve always considered myself a practitioner of the ‘narrative push’ method of fiction — meaning that I often wing it and discover the story and characters along the way. A ‘pantser,’ if you will. But over the course of writing LIVING THE GIMMICK, I discovered that I operate better with planning some scenes out. I doubt I’ll ever fully outline a novel-length project, but planning a couple of chapters in advance really helped me push through to get the book done in the way that I really wanted to. So I definitely learned a lot about what I personally need as well as some more about what really works with my writing process. As far as wrestling goes, I can’t say that I learned anything new, but the process — the research and the writing — helped me lay out what I already knew in a different way than I’ve done before.

LIVING THE GIMMICK is a one-and-done standalone, but earlier you mentioned Parker and Westlake as inspirations. Both writers with multi-book series characters. What’s your preference: the standalone or the series? And do you see yourself writing a series?

I think the standalone is my preference, although there’s a lot to be said for series characters. I could certainly see myself writing a series at some point, but I do think that it takes a lot of effort to keep everything moving and to keep up with the characters and their backgrounds/lives. Robert B. Parker was notably fallible in this: If he found an idea he liked better, he wrote it and to hell with continuity. I feel like I couldn’t do that … I’d care too much if I screwed something up. However, if LIVING THE GIMMICK takes off, I’d love to approach the Westlake estate and pitch writing some Parker or Dortmunder continuation novels. I try to do one thing that scares me every month. Whenever I work up the courage, that would be the one thing for that month.

Well, you know Ace Atkins recently finished his run on Spenser… Anyway, since you won’t be jumping on any legacy books what’s after LIVING THE GIMMICK?

Magic City Blues will come out in February from Shotgun Honey (and I’m pleased as punch about it). It’s a murder-mystery set in Birmingham, and there’s a sneak peek at the end of LIVING THE GIMMICK. I’m co-editing an anthology called DIRTY SOUTH: High Crimes & Low Lives Below the Mason-Dixon Line, with Raquel Reyes. Proceeds from that anthology will be donated to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. And I’m working on two novels right now. One is a Southern crime novel called THE BOYS FROM ALABAMA; the other is a Southern Gothic novel set in 1976 against the landfall of Hurricane Eloise along the Gulf Coast. After that, I’m considering writing another wrestling novel, this one based on the rift between Georgia promoters Paul Jones and Ann Gunkel led to a territory wrestling war.

I call dibs on THE BOYS FROM ALABAMA… I look forward to any of these wherever they may land. More books to read, and speaking of more books… I like to end an interview with writing advice or author recommendations. Share the love and give us some authors from your nightstand.

Mark Westmoreland’s A VIOLENT GOSPEL is a great book that I love. Mark never uses a lazy verb, and it’s one of the things that makes his fiction lively and affecting; J.B. Stevens’ A THERAPEUTIC DEATH is a great short-story collection. JB is like that five-tool baseball player: There’s nothing he can’t do. Peter Farris’ THE DEVIL HIMSELF is GREAT so far. Eli Cranor wrote an authentically great novel with DON’T KNOW TOUGH. Libby Cudmore’s THE BIG REWIND never got the appropriate, fawning love that it deserves. Shawn Cosby can write any damn thing there is. The man has talent for days. Paul Garth’s THE LOW WHITE PLAIN is intense and dark and everything you’d want in a book. Paul is a young master of noir, in my opinion. Everything he writes is phenomenal. There’s just so many great writers out there right now, like CW Blackwell and Bill Soldan, who are just killing it lately. And I need to shout-out HARDWAY by Hector Acosta. If I hadn’t read HARDWAY, I don’t know that I’d have come up with the idea to send LIVING THE GIMMICK to Shotgun Honey.


LIVING THE GIMMICK is a unique mash-up of crime and wrestling, something of a natural pairing as Bobby said. It’s available from Shotgun Honey in paperback and ebook. If you support your local indie book shop don’t hesitate to ask if they can order a copy for you.

bobbymathews

Bobby Mathews is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, and journalist who calls Birmingham home. His short story, “Negative Tilt” won the 2023 Derringer Award for “Best Long Story,” while his novel Living the Gimmick and short story “The Ghost of Buxahatchee Creek” each won top honors in the Alabama Media Professionals 2023 contest. His most recent novel, Magic City Blues, has earned rave reviews for its hard-hitting action, keen dialogue, and artful depiction of Birmingham. His next book, Negative Tilt: Stories, is forthcoming in March 2024 from Shotgun Honey Books. When he’s not writing, Bobby is procrastinating.

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Nestled in the foothills of West Virginia, Ron Earl Phillips lives with his wife, a daughter, a German Shepherd, and one too many cats.