Eric Beetner

with Ron Earl Phillips

For as long as I remember, Eric Beetner has been a fixture of the crime writing community. He became part of the Shotgun Honey community with his story “A Measure of Time” back in 2011, our inaugural year. He’s contributed to our Shotgun Honey Presents series, kindly blurbed some of our novels, and is often mentioned with praise writers and readers alike. Beetner has been quick to support other writers, and a great example was the podcast Writer Types that he cohosted with S.W. Lauden. It’s about time we sat down an talked about his career and his newest release: The Last Few Miles of Road.

How’d you get the gun, or simply how did you get into writing crime fiction?

I was a screenwriter for many years and anyone will tell you that can be a soul-sucking, frustrating life for a writer. When I decided to write a book I took stock of most of what I read which was crime fiction. I had been a fairly eclectic screenwriter, which Hollywood does not reward. So I decided to stick to a lane when it came to books and plant my flag in the crime fiction world where my interests really are. That said, I have done a few Westerns over the years, but most Westerns are just crime stories on horseback so it’s not too far afield.

What types of crime fiction and authors were you reading at the time you started writing? What big influences?

I remember my 8th grade science teacher once handed out old paperbacks to her students. I picked out an Elmore Leonard (STICK, I believe) so I guess I was predisposed to that style of book. I do remember reading A SIMPLE PLAN, by Scott Smith, and thinking that was exactly the kind of story I really liked. Then CONTROLLED BURN by Scott Wolven was a great example of the kind of short story I was drawn to. I’ve always drawn my strongest influences from film, though. I’ve long been a huge Film Noir fanatic and crime movies in general have been among my favorites. I think I got my love for really tight storytelling and pacing from movies more than novels. And of course, when you see something you love and find out it’s adapted from a book, then I always sought out the book too.

What was the transition like going from script writing to prose? And what was the first product of that transition?

I was intimidated at first to write a novel. Screenplays are so skeletal and relatively short so I thought my brain didn’t have the bandwidth for the prose style of a novel. All the little details, the stuff you don’t have to include in a script, scared me for sure. It’s one reason why I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a novel. The last thing I wanted was to be that guy who never finished a book and then ten years later people would ask, “Whatever happened with that novel you were working on?” That would be THE WORST! So I wrote my first book in secret. When I got to the end I was annoyed because it wasn’t nearly as hard as people made it out to be. That first book was really just an exercise in getting to the finish line. I wasn’t too worried about it being good, which is a good thing since it was, in fact, not good. That book promptly went into a drawer never to be seen again, but I had the confidence to do it again and know it wasn’t that scary. 

Now when I go back to screenplays it all goes by so quickly! But the truly important part – coming up with a full and coherent story – is the same in each medium. That part does not change so all those screenplays were all great experience that I brought with me into novels.

You’re definitely not that guy. How many books have you released?

This makes 33, but I am always quick to point out that many of those are very short. 7 have been co-written. A few don’t have my name on them as they were write-for-hires. So I cheat a lot to get to that number to make it sound more impressive than it really is. And that’s not counting the 5 unreleased books I have waiting to go (including my middle grade kids book that I wish I could get sold. I wrote it for my own kids years ago and now the first of them is headed off to college, but I still think it’s a fun book for young kids)

The Last Few Miles of Road (Cover) by Eric Beetner

I was not aware of the ghostwriting. I have questions, but that’ll be for another time. Your newest release THE LAST FEW MILES OF ROAD is the start of a series. Give us the pitch for the book and what you see for the series.

In THE LAST FEW MILES OF ROAD we meet Carter McCoy, a 72-year old who has just been given a terminal diagnosis. He decides that, with the short time he has left, he needs to do something he thought of doing years earlier – to kill the man responsible for his daughter’s death. But Carter is not a killer. Not yet. 

It’s about his struggle with doing this thing he feels he needs to do to balance the scales, and yet not wanting to let go of his humanity. Then a young girl enters his life and he takes on a whole new responsibility and must embrace that sometimes killing someone can benefit another, deserving person. 

I have the two sequels mapped out and I like the idea of following Carter as he adjusts to life on the other side of the law and his own morality. He becomes a bit of a vigilante hero but it never sits well on him. He doesn’t embrace the life of a killer, but he also knows that if he can use it to help people, he will since he only has a short time left. When the shackles of consequences are released, it’s amazing what we can justify doing.

I’m often sold by a cover, and I was very drawn to THE LAST FEW MILES OF ROAD. I know among your various skills, cover design is one you’ve developed. Is this one of your covers?

It is one of mine. I’m chasing your design skills! This one was different for me because I’ve never really done a full illustrated cover like this. The illustrations are not mine, they come from a stock site and then I manipulated them to adjust some colors, add grit and texture, I added the dog in the back of the truck, but I was very nervous about it not looking like a crime novel. I made 7 different designs and showed it to some people I trust and the publisher as well and this was the overwhelming pick over others that were more photo-based and maybe more obviously “crime novel”. I didn’t want to get stuck, though, and not know that I could make the trilogy look coherent so I already have the covers for book 2 and 3 made because I wanted to make sure I could keep the same look, with the same visual style for the whole thing. I found illustrations and made mockups that I knew would make them look like a set. So far people have really responded to it so despite my apprehension, it seems like we made the right choice. But more than most others I’ve done, this one had me nervous.

That’s a pitfall I stumble into often, designing a cover that fits the first book, but when there’s a sequel that can be some juggling. The design you’ve come up with lends itself well for a series. 5 stars on that alone.

But back to the book, Carter McCoy’s condition gives the series a built-in endpoint barring a miraculous remission. Have you ever worked on a series with a built-in timeline or restriction? Has it presented any obstacles?

Not in this way, but in most of my books the threat of death hangs over the protagonist in a variety of ways so this isn’t dissimilar. I’ve done three other trilogies (never gone over three in one series) and each has carried different threats and obstacles for the characters. This time, Carter’s short time really does affect his decisions. Not a lot of characters can honestly say they have nothing left to lose, but when your time is running out it really is the case. But he still wants to maintain his humanity so even as the curtains draw closed, he wants to be a good person and has to reconcile his actions before he exits the stage.

With 33 novels and collaborations under your belt, what does your process look like?

I feel like I’m a pretty meat and potatoes writer, and by that I mean I just knuckle down and do the work. I get an idea, I roll it around for a while and see if it sticks with me. I am an outliner, but I’m a pretty skeletal outliner. I’ve seen some lately that are far too detailed and rigid and time consuming for what I do. I like to remain flexible and be able to change and adapt once I’m into it and making those wonderful little discoveries that come from writing what, on the outline, could be as simple as “He goes to see her”. That can become a 2000 word chapter and turn the trajectory of the story around.

Really I keep trying to surprise myself. I keep trying to put characters into situations that test them, make them confront things about themselves. Once I’m into a book I do like to write every day. I think that inertia helps for sure. It works the other way, too. Each day you don’t write makes the next day of not writing easier to do and soon weeks go by and you haven’t done a thing. 

But I treat it like a craft. There is art to it when you step back and evaluate it, but in the making of it, much like a carpenter or a chef, the task is a craft that requires your experience and your focus. Appreciate the art of it later.

From the many short stories, novels, and compilations, I find your inertia and craft an inspiration. What contemporary writers do you draw inspiration from, who are you reading, and what are you watching?

Oh, so many. Laura McHugh always amazes me with how fulfilling and fully realized her books are without ever sacrificing the thrills or suspense. Jake Hinkson I think is the modern master of contemporary Noir novels. Matt Phillips is doing great work. Of course, Joe R Lansdale is a favorite and always amazes me with how prolific and inventive he is. I’ll always stop and read the latest Ken Bruen book. Duane Swierczynski inspires me. I look up to people who’ve been doing it a long time and still keep up the quality like Walter Mosley. And I love finding the out-of-the-way books, the ones nobody is talking about. Most of the most interesting stuff is happening in the shadows, usually. And when I find them I do my best to talk them up because they need it. And the best feeling ever is finding a long lost vintage crime novel that I love. I check out a ton of the great stuff Stark House Press re-releases and I hunt down old paperback copies of vintage crime novels all the time.

Great selection of authors. I just read Swierczynski’s CALIFORNIA BEAR. Good stuff. Are there any final words for our readers and writers out there?

Thanks for reading and thanks for keeping an eye out for the smaller presses. So many great writers and great stories are being released through small presses these days. There’s only so many books the bigger publishers can release and even many of those fell into obscurity with the larger marketing budgets. But the passion of a dedicated team of true book lovers really makes small press publishing a vibrant community worthy of more attention. You just might find your next favorite author on these side streets and back alleys. 

I hope everyone likes Carter and looks forward to following him on his next adventure.

Thanks for having me, Ron!

Eric Beetner - Photo by Mark Krajnak

Eric Beetner has been described as “the James Brown of crime fiction – the hardest working man in noir.” (Crime Fiction Lover) and “The 21st Century’s answer to Jim Thompson” (LitReactor). He has written more than 20 novels including Rumrunners, Leadfoot, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, The Year I Died 7 Times and Criminal Economics. His award-winning short stories have appeared in over three dozen anthologies.  He co-hosts the podcast Writer Types and the Noir at the Bar reading series in Los Angeles where he lives and works as a television editor. For more visit ericbeetner.com

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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.