Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Interview: Brian Panowich

Around the first anniversary of Shotgun Honey in April of 2012 we published the first story by Brian Panowich, a story about a pool cleaner who got unfair payment for “Services Rendered.” Brian followed up with a variety of stories, but a couple of bookend stories—one published here and the other published on The Flash Fiction Offensive—would take him up BULL MOUNTAIN and land him his first book deal. Today, his book releases to a lot of buzz and praise, all well deserved.

We are all extremely proud to see this release, and to celebrate I spent a week learning how Brian Panowich made it up that mountain.

Let’s see where it takes us.

Ron Earl Phillips
July 7, 2015


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

To be honest? I got it from you, Ron. Well, you and Elmore Leonard. Up until early 2012, I was still struggling to find my voice. In a way I still am, but I don’t think that will ever stop. My reading tastes are extremely varied, and back then it showed in my writing. I was dabbling in horror, westerns, superheroes, some real fantastical shit. The only real crime stuff I was reading on a regular basis was anything by Elmore Leonard, and John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, and even those (Connolly) had a slight super natural slant to them. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto Shotgun Honey that I discovered Flash Fiction as a form of storytelling and then it was off to the races. I used your site like school, studying how to cut and trim a story down to the raw nerve. I discovered a lot of the authors I now consider some of my biggest influences, Chris Leek, Ryan Sayles, Jen Conley, Peter Farris, the list goes on. Outside of one story I’d written and self published at the time, called THEO AND FAT TERRY, my first submission to you was the only real attempt at writing a straight up crime story. It took me two days to write it ( Services Rendered ) and then over a month to whittle it down to 700 words, and I can still remember what I was doing when I got the email from Sabrina that told me it had been accepted for publication. One of the best days of my career. From that point on, I started reading a lot more crime fiction and the day I finished GIVE US A KISS by Daniel Woodrell, I had a profound moment of clarity that pointed me down my current career path.

Well, Shotgun Honey might have been a divining rod, of sorts, but the words were pretty solid when they got here. Shotgun Honey has published four stories by you between 2012 and 2013—so maybe you owe us a new one—but it was “If I Ever Get Off This Mountain” that inspired Bull Mountain, along with “Coming Down the Mountain,” a sibling story that appeared on The Flash Fiction Offensive. Where did these foundation blocks build from?

I had been toying with the idea of writing a story that flipped the white hat/black hat trope on it’s ear and showed that not all the good guys are right, and the bad guys are wrong. I knew I wasn’t the first person to want to explore that theme, so I came up with telling the same story twice but from the two different sides of that morality coin. Even then, I knew I had a cool format, but still didn’t have an actual story idea until one afternoon while I was out riding my mountain bike. Writing was the last thing on my mind and I was listening to a classic rock playlist when “Up On Cripple Creek” by The Band came on. The first line to that song is ‘If I get off of this mountain, you know where I wanna go’ and immediately the entirety of those stories, and what was to become BULL MOUNTAIN, hit me so hard I damn near wrecked my bike. I had to get off and record the plot points into my phone, because I didn’t have anything to write on. I cut my ride short and hauled ass back to the car to write it down, so I wouldn’t forget it. It was just one of those moments that come along that I can’t explain. Those two stories are what attracted my agent, who in turn, quite honestly changed my life.

We’re all glad you didn’t take a spill on that bike, for sure. Had you been actively looking for an agent at the time you wrote those stories? Was there something else in the works before you took that first trip up that mountain?

No, and No. I’d been tinkering with a superhero novel idea on and off for about two years that I’d long ago abandoned, and was shopping nothing. Those two stories we just mentioned were nominated, as you may know since you’re kind of the king of this community, for a “Best On The Web” award in 2013 by Spinetingler Magazine run by Brian Lindenmuth. I didn’t win the award, but they did get read by Nat Sobel of the Sobel-Weber Lit Agency in New York. He sent me a brief e-mail asking me if I had anything longer to show him and I told him I didn’t. He replied that when and if I ever did, to send it to him. I immediately looked him up on the internet and found out he was a legend in the industry. He represented folks like James Ellroy, and Wiley Cash among others, so I sat down to expand my experiment in Flash Fiction into a full length novel. I began to write it every third day at the firehouse (I work shift work as a fireman 24on/48off ) and it took me a year to finish. When I sent it to him, I didn’t even think he’d remember who I was, but he did. He loved the book and took me on as a client. Within a few months, I’d signed a two book deal with G. P. Putnam’s sons. It still feels surreal to me. The book comes out today and my head is still spinning, it happened so fast.

Nat Sobel is a one a handful of agents I am aware who visit our site and others like Shotgun Honey. When he approached you, was there any indication what he saw in those 700 words?

Only that he liked what he read and felt that I had a style that would be commercially viable. I don’t pretend to know what Nat, or any other experienced agent is looking for, and still have no idea what it is that makes one author more attractive than others in a business sense. SH is chock full of the most talented writers I’ve ever read, more so than I consider myself to be, so believe me when I say, if I could put a finger on it, I would, and I’d hold it down for the world to see, but I really think Veterans like Nat go with their gut. That’s also how I would encourage another writer to write his next story, by going with their gut. Damn the rules.

Speaking of rules, on those odd days at the firehouse expanding two short stories into what became BULL MOUNTAIN, did you do much prep work and organization? Or did you fly by the seat of your pants and fill in details later?

I took a couple of days to really flesh out the two main characters, the country sheriff, Clayton Burroughs and the hot shot city ATF Agent Simon Holly. I used music mostly. I wrote notes about Clayton to outlaw country music, rode around listening to that kind of stuff and tried to imagine how he’d act. ( Obviously, there’s a lot of me, in Clayton.) Then I’d crank up a lot of post-punk, and British troubedour shit, like Northcote, Frank Turner, and The Gaslight Anthem to put me in Simon Holly mode. Once I had a good feel on those two, I wrote the entire outline for the novel on one sheet of notebook paper. From beginning to end. I numbered the chapters, and wrote one or two sentences about each. I pulled my crew at the firehouse around the picnic table at work, and read the outline to them, basically asking them if they would read a book based on that sheet of paper. Firemen can be notoriously brutal in their opinions, so when I got an overall thumbs up from those guys, I knew I was on to something. I set that sheet of paper outline down next to my computer and just started to type. I knew where I was going to end up before I wrote the first word, but I wasn’t entirely clear how I was going to get there. I just started digging in and before long the characters began to dictate where the story was headed. I kept that road map next to me for guidance but I watched bit players become major players on their own, and before long the novel had practically written itself. Characters like Kate Burroughs and Bracken Leek dictated me. I’d also like to add that places that are famous for this type of criminal enterprise in places like Virginia and Kentucky are well documented in books and film. Georgia, I can promise, you served as the gateway to the northern states, and kept their shit off the radar. That speaks volumes about the intelligence of a people not looking to get famous…or caught. North Georgia is no joke.

It sounds like you had a lot of support at the firehouse, and I know you’ve got a great group online. How important were these groups in navigating up and down BULL MOUNTAIN?

My crew at the firehouse was supportive as far as giving me the place and time I needed to dedicate to the actual action of writing, and of course they’re my biggest fans, as I am of them. They are the very definition of “Heroes,” but the real backbone of support came from my brothers in the Zelmer Pulp Nation, Ryan Sayles, Chris Leek, and Isaac Kirkman, all of which I met through the online crime fiction community that Shotgun Honey is such a large part of. They were invaluable with their enthusiastic feedback, keen eyes for bad grammar, and most importantly, the pep talks and endless string of ridiculous Facebook messages they provided on days that I was convinced that every word of the book was shit. ZP is a perfect example of how we as writers and creators are supposed to treat each other. The boundaries don’t stop at a professional level. Those guys are my family and I’d bail any one of them out of jail, no questions asked. One founding member of our gang in particular, Chuck Regan, who also doubles as ZP’s resident cover artist, was 100% invaluable to the creation of the Bull Mountain Universe. Not only for his near-genius ability as a content editor and world builder, but as the one man in the group who never held back a punch, even when he knew it would bloody my nose. Chuck is the man that I didn’t want to let down, and he made me a better writer. Period. The love I have for that man is boundless. I challenge anyone out there reading this that thinks they have a perfect novel, to let Chuck give it once over, and if his red pen doesn’t teach you something about what real, honest, character development is all about, I’ll drink a work-boot full of deer piss. Zelmer Pulp is the blueprint for writers’s groups to follow. Go read their stuff on this very site, and it will become even more evident.

They say it’s a small world. So I might be responsible for Chuck, or maybe its just a cosmic coincidence. I’ve known Chuck going on twenty years, and when I connected with him on Facebook I encouraged him to submit to Shotgun Honey. Next thing I know he’s best pals with Sayles. Crazy world. It’s hard not be be pals with the Zelmer crew. They’re a diverse bunch, a lot of different influences. Earlier you said Woodrell gave you a profound moment of clarity, direction. What was that moment, and what other influence molded BULL MOUNTAIN?

Like I mentioned earlier, I’d been struggling to find my own voice for a while. I knew I had some talent, but I was lacking direction. I picked up GIVE US A KISS, and read it in one sitting (it’s pretty short) outside one afternoon in my hammock, and when I finished, it dawned on me that everything I wanted to write about was right there in front of me. My state. The southern foothills. I always wanted to be there as it was. I was drawn there to camp, and ride my bike and felt more at home there then anywhere I’d lived in my life, but never considered writing about it. I imagine Woodrell’s books come through so vividly because he has such an intimate relationship with the place, an not necessarily the characters he’d made up. I was spending so much time thinking about genre and plot lines that I was literally missing the forest for the trees. It’s hard to explain, but I stood up that day and knew exactly what I wanted to be known for. I’ll never forget that feeling. I immediately began to take notice of the backroads, and pig paths that broke off the two lane blacktop I’d driven hundreds of times before to get to my wife’s family gatherings in North Georgia and began to wonder where exactly those backroads led. The stories and ideas began to flow out of that.

So, I should avoid North Georgia? Sounds like a dangerous place.

No way. Not at all. The Blue Ridge foothills around Dillard, and Clayton County (see what I did there) is some of the most beautiful country around. The people are friendly and the food is amazing. Just don’t go poking down them dirt roads that ain’t got no sign on ’em. If people avoided places because they were dangerous, no one would ever leave the house. Remember, Bull Mountain is fictional, but the history is far from it.

Well, I might still tread lightly, especially in Clayton County. I did Google “Bull Mountain GA” just to know where I was keeping clear of, and see there is a Bull Mountain bike trail. I imagine one you’ve ridden before? You’re physically active as a fire fighter, an avid biker, and one tough mudder. Next we’re going to find out you’re a rockstar and Superman?

Well, I prefer Batman to be honest, and the rockstar thing didn’t pan out. I much prefer the seclusion of my office these days to any smokey nightclub. And you nailed it, Ron. I named my fictional mountain after that bike trail in Dahlonega, Ga. The place is known for it’s sprawling vineyards, hiking trails, and boiled peanuts. It’s a country mile from the place I created in it’s name. But don’t give away all my secrets. My Bull Mountain ain’t grown’ no grapes. You ca believe that.

You might not be Superman, but you manage to juggle a whole passel of bad men in Bull Mountain. Can you give the readers the story boilerplate?

It’s the story of a southern family rooted in the North Georgia Mountains that have been providing for themselves and the area’s residents through illegal means for generations. First through moonshine, then marijuana, and now meth in the present day. The sins of the father past down from son to son, until the youngest of the latest generation, Clayton Burroughs, decides to break from the family and become the Sheriff of a small township at the base of Bull Mountain. An uneasy truce exists between him and his brother, Halford, who currently runs the family drug trade, until an ATF officer with a plan to shut it all down comes into Clayton’s office and things get, well, complicated from there. It’s very much a story of family and dysfunction, and loyalty and how the line becomes blurred between right and wrong when blood ties are involved. It’s an exploration into what really define these people. The story unfolds through time starting in 1949 all the way through the present in an old school epic family saga style. I wrote it that way so the reader would understand just how deeply entrenched these characters are to the land and place, and each other.

Bull Mountain is very layered, jumping from chapter to chapter telling the story from different timelines and feeding the readers insight into the Burroughs clan—particularly Clayton, Halford, and their father Garetth—as well as ATF officer Agent Simon Holly. Did you ever find yourself in a corner with a subplot that you had to move the pieces around or leave it out altogether?

As far as cutting anything out, no. Luckily all the story I wanted to tell is in there, but I did do quite a bit of rearranging scenes to cut down on confusion. I also had a world class editor at Putnam ( Sara Minnich) that helped make that happen, as well as helping me flesh out one of the major players. I didn’t set out to write the story in the multi-perspective format, it just kind of dictated to me how it should be written. I needed those stories from the past to enhance the present, and it just sort of came out that way. If I’d have written this book in a more linear fashion, quite a few of the reveals that take place wouldn’t have been able to happen the way I wanted them to. It’s really a love it or hate format, I’m finding out, but there seems to be a lot more love than hate. We’ll see. It’s funny, the follow up I’m working on now, is a linear, straight forward tale, and I’m sure some people will be disappointed that the jumps in time and perspective are missing. You can’t please everyone, just yourself.

You can mark me in the love column, definitely. There was one chapter that showed the brutality of Gareth Burroughs. It was a mean stretch of words, but telling it in the order the way you did gave it so much weight to the end of the book. Of course, it makes it hard to story related questions, so many turns you don’t want to give away. So this is the first of two books. What’s next on the bill? Something related or separate?

I’m so glad you brought that chapter up. It represents something I’m pretty passionate about, and something I think gets a pass in main stream fiction. That chapter was definitely the hardest thing I had to write. I knew it was coming, and I knew it was vital to the story, so it had to be handled right, but I dreaded having to do it, because I needed the reader to remain sympathetic to Gareth despite the heinous thing he does. That scene in particular was one of the reasons I chose to write the book using the format I did. The timing and the execution of it needed to be spot-on for the story to work. I’ve never been a fan of violence for violence sake, I won’t name names, of course, but there are authors out there that seemingly try to shock the reader under the guise of it being “edgy” or “dark”, and then try to out-shock the reader with their next story/book, until before long ,that’s all it is. Shock with no substance. The worst part is normally that violence is against women for the sake of propping up a male hero. I hate that shit. It’s cheap writing, and I wanted to be very careful that nothing of mine drew any comparisons to that kind of garbage. I finally wrote the scene, and then rewrote it, and then rewrote it again several times over, until the violence wasn’t the point. The pain and rage of being born a Burroughs was the point. Hopefully I got that across. Chris Leek, who shares my views of exploitive writing, and whom I consider to be one of the best writers on the planet, told me after reading that scene, that it stuck with him for a long time and really broke him up after, but he understood why it had to happen. His approval was enough for me to feel like I got it right.

The new book is currently on it’s third draft, and tentatively titled LIKE LIONS is a sequel of sorts to BULL MOUNTAIN, but not directly involving the main players. I’ve never been that interested in trying to put my protagonist into a sticky situation and then trying to get him/her out of it in the form of a yearly series. A lot of authors do that incredibly well, but I don’t think I’d be one of them. So the second book has a lot of connective tissue to the first one, but can stand on it’s own with a very different set of themes. The only commonality I want my books to have is the place. McFalls county is the only guaranteed recurring character. The new book will be published by Putnam next year depending on how much surgery my editor, Sara, makes me do. I’ve also plotted out a third novel with that same tie-in feel to the first two that takes a bit player briefly touched on in the new book and puts him center stage. The story also takes place mainly in urban Atlanta. That book is in the “pitch” stage. If I’m lucky enough to continue to have a readership after the first two books, I think this third one will be the biggest risk I’ve taken yet. Because when in doubt, put it all on black, and spin the wheel.

Well, if LIKE LIONS is half as good as BULL MOUNTAIN I don’t think you’ll have a problem pitching that third book. I know I look forward to another visit to McFalls County. I’m a firm believer that good writers are good readers, what books are on your proverbial nightstand?

Since selling BULL MOUNTAIN it’s been tough to read anything. Working under a deadline is a brand new experience for me and it changes your perspective on your work ethic. I did manage to read SOIL by Jamie Kornegay, which was brilliant, but since serious work began on the new book, the only thing I can read for enjoyment has to be way far left of what I’m currently writing myself to avoid subliminal cross pollination, so I’m currently reading THE FOLD by Peter Clines, and the current run of THE GREEN ARROW by Benjamin Percy, but I’ll most likely break down and buy Harper Lee’s book this month and hopefully it won’t keep me from my own work too long.

GREEN ARROW was one of my favorite comics as a kid back in the Mike Grell days. One a handful of comics I’d love to write. What comic book would you want to tackle if given the chance?

It’s funny you mention that particular run, Ron. I’d take anyone I could get, but I do have a pitch ready and waiting for a HAWKEYE story that gives him a Mike Grell Longbow Hunters work over. Burt Reynolds via DELIVERANCE style. That’s a dream project for me that I hope I gain enough clout to at least get someone over there’s attention. I’d love to write a Simon Williams/Wonder Man story too. I’ve always loved that character.

Your takes on the characters would be interesting, and placing Clint Barton in the Georgia backwoods vis-à-vis Deliverance would a mess. Who would be your story’s Bobby Trippe? You don’t have to answer that. How’s it feel to be a Georgian writer on the shelf next to the likes of James Dickey?

I keep waiting to get found out.

Brian Panowich was a touring musician for twelve years before settling in East Georgia with his family. He now works full-time as a firefighter. BULL MOUNTAIN is his first novel.

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