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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Interview: Frank Wheeler Jr

I remember my first night at BoucherCon this last year, hooking up with Matthew C Funk, Dan O’Shea and the moving party that was Team Decker, named for their astounding agent Stacia Decker. And I asked one of the party goers, “Where’s Frank?” They pointed over in the general direction of Frank Wheeler Jr. and I was confused. He had a beard, but that wasn’t Frank, was it? I was looking for Frank Bill.

Sorry Frank.

The next day, during the bowling tournament, where Frank, this Frank, and Joelle Charbonneau were valiantly anchoring Team Decker (alas not enough to bring home the win). Name on the board was Frank Wheeler.

I would later find out more about Frank and his book THE WOWZER, which after these many months since has launched this week from Thomas & Mercer, the mystery imprint of Amazon.

As I finish up this interview, thumbing my way through THE WOWZER (almost 90 pages in), I can say I am thrilled to support Frank and his debut. Terrific book.

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

I came to Crime Fiction through the side door: Crime Films. I was raised on Hitchcock. This instilled in me a love of watching people do bad things. One of my earliest memories of a sociopathic character is from the movie “Charade.” One of Hitchcock’s lighter films, very jokey in parts, but there are a few very intense scenes. The scene that really got under my skin was where James Coburn is blocking Audrey Hepburn from leaving a phone booth. He wants to know where the money is and she doesn’t know. He begins lighting matches and dropping them in her lap as she cries and screams for help, snuffing them out frantically. He never changes his expression, or tone of voice, for the whole scene. He’s just this calm and steady monster. I thought, “God that’s cool!”

I became obsessed with Scorsese and DePalma films in my teens. I couldn’t get enough of the Crime Genre. In my late teens, when I started thinking of writing as more than a hobby, I kept coming back to murder in my stories. I experiemented with several different types of writing, but they always seemed to be lacking that sociopath. That’s where I got the gun, I guess. Starting with Hitchcock.

I can see the influence of film in your stories. Both “The Good Life” from Crime Factory #7 and “Slick Texas Money” recently from Beat to a Pulp have a cinematic feel, scope. Is it fair to say your writing is more Scorsese than Hitchcock?

Hitchcock drew me in, but Scorsese was a revelation. Two of his films, “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” still rank in my top five movies of all time. Again, it comes back to this archetype of the sociopath. They are the protagonists in so many of his films. For a kid raised in a series of very conservative church congregations that used guilt as the primary instructive tool for their children, that lack of guilt felt by these characters was quite an attractive thing. I really envied these gangsters, these mob guys, that acknowledged no authority higher than themselves. I knew I’d never be one of these guys, but I found that they were the personalities I put into my stories. Even recently, in the novel I’m working on now, I noticed that I’d used that scene from the end of “Casino” where Joe Pesci’s character dies in the cornfield. Also, in the same novel, the slow motion shot of the silenced .45 when Samuel Jackson’s character is executed, this stuff just creeps in. And thank God for that, I guess.

What kind of influence will readers find in your upcoming novel, THE WOWZER? Give us the pitch.

The books that influenced THE WOWZER are primarily Patricia Highsmith’s and Vance Randolph’s. I was reading “The Talented Mr. Ripley” around the time I wrote the short story THE WOWZER is based on. And I’d been reading Randolph’s collections of Ozark dialect and folklore for maybe a year prior while I was working on a different novel set near Fayetteville. In fact, most of the chapter titles are little idiomatic gems I found from his collection of Ozark folk speech. I wanted the readers to feel like they were being told one of those Ozark stories, rather than feel like they were reading a book. The voice, Jerry’s voice, partially came out of that desire. Maybe it was my way of paying homage to my storyteller-uncles from the area.

Patricia Highsmith was who I consulted to make the monster into flesh and blood. In her Tom Ripley novels, she shows how a nice, considerate, unassuming young man may commit the most atrocious crimes, then go right back to being to being that same gentle person. That was important, making Jerry a believable monster. He needed to seem like a guy you’d want to have on your bowling team. But only because of what you don’t know about him.

THE WOWZER, named for the monstrous Puma like creature from the Ozark’s lore, as told to you and likewise your protagonist Jerry, mixes folklore with drug running and corruption? How did you go about mixing legend with fact, or the reality within your story?

I never was told any Wowzer stories by my uncles. I don’t know if they’d ever heard of it or not. But that’s how these things go. Some legends are popular in certain spots and not in others. I found the story when reading Randolph’s Ozarks folklore collections. As for Jerry’s perspective, it’s difficult to separate legend and fact. Sure, he knows the Wowzer is just an old folktale that no reasonable person would believe about a monster in the woods. But a different part of Jerry’s brain knows the Wowzer to be very real. I don’t see this as being in conflict. People can experience the supernatural as real even when they deny its existence. You can absolutely know there are no ghosts in the attic, but you get goosebumps going up there all the same.

Where did the idea for THE WOWZER, tying folklore to crime and corruption, come about?

Corruption was always an important part of the stories I heard growing up. One uncle from Oklahoma would, when driving around the county, point to the political yard-signs and tell me a bribery or cover-up story for every candidate for sheriff, mayor, or city council. Some of my uncles from Arkansas had been heavily involved with labor unions, and they had lots of stories about corruption and the conflicts that came from it. People prey on others. That was a theme I learned early on.

Maybe this means I’m out of touch, but I’m something of a perennialist. I don’t believe people, after millions of years of evolution, are suddenly going to start thinking and behaving differently. Same with the stories we tell. I’d agree with Campbell that the modern stories are ultimately the same old ones we’ve been telling for as long as we’ve had language. And corruption has been a persistent theme. Think about Aesop’s fable of the Wolf and the Lamb. The moral at the end of the story begins: “A tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny…” This was written something like 2,600 years ago. But I don’t mean to suggest I’m seeking justice for any perceived tyranny. I cite this example only to show how pervasive what we call corruption is in human experience. It only makes sense to me: people use whatever means they have to protect their own interests. If someone has more to protect, and also more means, he will certainly be at a greater advantage to do so than someone without.

The word I use is predation. Regardless of the lamb’s objections, the wolf preys upon him. Or sometimes, upon a weaker wolf. Dog eats dog, right? In the human realm, this is when violence is visited on another merely as a matter of business. Nothing personal about it. Just a temporary denial of the other’s humanity in order to accomplish an end believed to be necessary to the one inflicting the violence. When I encountered the work of Niccolo Machiavelli, I got a much better look at this side of human nature. I admired the practicality of Old Nick’s approach to politics. Don’t deal with people as they ought to be, but as they are. What people should be never enters into it. In order to protect themselves, some people find they are capable of denying the imperative to love thy neighbor, which allows them to do the bad things.

I mentioned earlier that The Wowzer is the monster in the woods. Probably that’s the best explanation for the story. This kind of predation, the kind they teach you not to do, is deep within some (I’d argue most) of us. It scares us (some more than others) to think that it’s just below the surface. I believe it’s the same thing, whether the story is several millennia old, or just a few days. The monster in the woods really isn’t that far away.

A well thought out reply. The deeper context of beast in relation to the man is something you’ve lived with for a while, and stirs thoughts for this reader on just what or who the monster, The Wowzer, is? Let’s shift a bit, describe the writer’s journey? How did THE WOWZER become the one, the debut?

I’d written this short story based on a minor character from a different novel I was working on. The protagonist of that story was Jerry. Once I’d begun telling his story, I couldn’t stop. My original intent had been to keep revising the other novel till it was ready for submissions. While writing the third draft, I had to start writing notes for Jerry’s novel. I must’ve written two dozen false starts. Then I took a fiction workshop with my mentor, Jonis Agee, and I convinced her it was time for me to put down the other novel and write the new one.

Grad school was quite difficult for me. See, I’m a pretty slow reader. And having three classes in one semester that require you to read over a hundred pages each week for each one (a lot of it dense critical theory that may as well have been in Greek), also while working at my assistantship, didn’t make finding the time to write easy. Finally I decided to clear aside one day. I picked Saturdays. I made sure I did everything else, homework and otherwise, on the other days of the week. Saturdays I committed to working on Jerry’s novel. That semester, for a few months of consecutive Saturdays, I’d write for twelve or thirteen hours straight. Nine AM to ten PM. I have a shoulder injury from a car accident several years back, and during these writing sessions, my whole left arm would just go numb after a few hours. I’d have to break ,and work the feeling back into it. Eat something. Then go back into The Wowzer. At the end of the semester, I had the first draft.

Jonis told me to clean it up, then send it out. After talking to some people, she got me some names of agents. Stacia Decker read it, got it, said she wanted to represent it. After doing some more revisions, we got it on the desk of an editor at Thomas & Mercer, and he gave it a green light. The rest you know.

A lot of lonely Saturdays that seem to have paid off. Time management is always an interest to me, how writers juggle family, work and/or school. Are you still on your Saturday schedule or are you notching out time in other ways?

It’s very rare now that I can sit down to type for a stretch of time like that. I’m working two jobs now, and when I have a day off, I spend it with my wife. That means I’ve had to learn to steal an hour here, two hours there, sometimes just a half hour, and use it to write. The first draft of the latest novel I’ve been working on was written mostly in the library of the community college where I teach, in the ninety minute gap between two of my classes. But the time I spend sitting in front of my laptop, that’s only a fraction of the time I spend writing. I think a lot of writers may agree with me on this. I’m working on stories in my head whenever something else isn’t occupying my attention. And that’s where much of the creative work is done. When I sit down to type, I’ve already been working on the story for a long time.

I call that tumbling the story around, the internalization and mental dialog that take place during stolen moments of work. Living with the story for a while like that, do you just purge when you write or do you do any kind of outlining?

I always outline, whether a novel or short fiction. I need a map, or I get lost. But part of the beauty of an outline is that it can be changed when necessary. I work the story around in my head for a while, draw some characters, get an idea of where I want to go, and then I sketch it out. But it’s just the major plot points. Only the bare bones. When I sit down to type, I fill the flesh in on the skeleton.

THE WOWZER debuts this week with the support of Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, whose growing stable includes Barry Eisler, J A Konrath, and Shotgun Honey alum, John Rector, plus many more incredible authors. I bet it makes all those lost Saturdays worth it to get this point and be part of a next generation publisher?

Publication certainly does sweeten the deal. But to be honest, I’d be writing this stuff anyway. For me, writing is a way to be a kid again. And the fact that people want to read it, well, that’s like telling the kid he’ll get a bigger allowance if he keeps playing outside after curfew.

Best of luck with THE WOWZER‘s debut. I know I’m eager to open that first page and not put put it down until the end. Before you go, do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

I’m nobody to take advice from. I write fiction for the fun of it, and I don’t care to tell others how to live or what to do. I will say that this novel was a work of pure joy for me. I loved every minute of writing it. That’s not to say it was easy, but it was rewarding. I hope you all enjoy it.