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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interview: John Kenyon

When you think about “Things I’d rather be doing?,” generally it’s a more personal thought. For me that’s how I was introduced to John Kenyon, whose website Things I’d Rather Be Doing acted as a gateway to all things that interest John. Part blog, part magazine, it is an introduction to John’s thinking, manner and style. Since then I’ve gotten to know John through his fiction and his publication Grift Magazine, even shared lunch with John and his interviewer, Chad Rohrbacher, along with some shop talk.

John, a former newspaper man, get’s the tables turned this week with Chad asking the questions.

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

I suppose it all dates back to my Dad and the Hardy Boys. He read them as a boy, so there were some of those iconic blue-spined books passed down when I was a kid, and I devoured those. From there it was a constant progression through to the point where I started reading mysteries as an adult. Lawrence Block was my gateway drug, leading me in all sorts of directions.

As for crime fiction vs. straight-up mysteries, I’m more interested as a writer in exploring the impact of a situation more than the situation itself. The whodunit, while still interesting, doesn’t grab me the way an exploration of the social and economic impacts of crime do.

Tell us a little about yourself. Just a little background

After 20 years in journalism, I have moved to the nonprofit world. Iowa City is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature, and I am the director of the nonprofit that manages that designation. It’s a dream job, working every day to spread the word that books matter.

Can you talk a little about your writing process: computer? Long hand? Dark corner in an office? By candle light? Coffee or whiskey?

Stories usually start out with a scribbled note about a situation, followed by couple hundred hastily banged out words the next time I can get to a computer. Then I’ll pick at it until it feels like it’s going to work. From there, it’s usually late nights working in the home office after everyone’s in bed.

So your collection, “The First Cut,” recently came out via Snubnose Press, can you tell me a little about the collection?

For the most part, The First Cut collects the best of the stories I’ve published over the past five years or so, including a couple that first appeared here at Shotgun Honey. There’s one new story that I didn’t really perfect until it was time to submit the manuscript which is new to the collection, and one decade-old story that appeared in a great regional journal here in Iowa, The Wapsipinicon Almanac.  It’s all crime fiction, save for the last, which was more a stab at literary fiction but which still has sinister overtones that I feel makes it a good fit with the rest.

Did you listen to music while you wrote any of the stories? Is so, what? Did you find them affecting your narrative?

I can’t listen to music with words while writing, so it’s a lot of jazz and instrumental stuff. White Lunar, an album of soundtrack work from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Angelo Badalmenti’s soundtrack to “The Straight Story,” are two that I return to a lot. If I need to get hopped up, I’ll do it with something loud and fast before I sit down.

Were there any specific people, places, or incidents that inspired a story?

For some of them, yes. But in most cases, it would be something small that set my mind to wandering, and it’s the eventual mental destination that led to the story. More often my stories begin with a “what if?” proposition. What if an organ transplant guy had his vehicle break down and had to take the subway? What if a mobster’s attempt to bury a recently deceased colleague didn’t go as planned? What if someone wrongly caught up in the War on Terror decided to exact revenge? I set challenges for myself with these questions and when I have successfully answered, I know I have a story worth keeping.

Can you explore the process of putting the stories in the particular order in the final version? Did it change? If so, can you share some of the choices you made and why.

I knew from the moment that I thought of assembling a collection that I wanted to start with “Cut.” It sets a tone I wanted. It’s dark, but also funny in spots. It also was my first real success, thanks to the fine folks at Thuglit. From there, it was simply a matter of wanting the stories to flow, mixing long and short, dark and funny. I also wanted to end with “The Bluffs,” which is the oldest story in the book. It’s the most different, stylistically, and the longest, and it felt like a good closer.

In this book, there seems to be a real clear throwback to old-time pulp and the late 40s-50s radio thrillers. Do you find those as influences? If so, any in particular?

That’s the first I’ve heard that description, but I’ll take it. Really, my aesthetic is less hard-boiled than that of a lot of my peers (or the rest of the Snubnose stable), and that’s part of it. I suppose as well that it is my journalistic background. I’m used to telling the entire story, and so perhaps my plotting reflects that.

So you have a magazine? What was your thinking behind it?

As I said above, I have a different aesthetic from some people. I love the other publications that are out there, but there wasn’t one that offered exactly what I wanted. The only way to get that, I realized, was to do it myself. I wanted something that offered strong stories as well as some solid non-fiction with essays and reviews. The first issue was something I’m very proud of; replicating that has been difficult. Which leads us to…

How do you balance your editing versus writing work as I imagine both take a lot of time?

If you asked any submitter for the second issue of Grift, they would say I balance it in fairly lousy fashion. It has been a struggle. As I launched Grift with the first print issue this spring, my writing really took off. It was hard to balance the two (particularly when you add in family, job and other pursuits). It’s a matter of being mindful of the need to tackle both jobs. I have a duty to the people who took the time to contribute to Grift, but I have a duty to myself to keep working on my own stories and projects.

The website looks fantastic, so what made you want to also have a print version and not just on-line?

Thank you. I’d like to take the credit, but it’s really just a well-tweaked WordPress theme. As for having one or the other, the print mag idea came first. I wanted a web presence, and then figured it would be a good idea to have news, reviews and flash fiction there as well. That has proven more difficult to maintain than I thought, but it has been a nice way to keep the name out there during the long wait between print issues. Plus, I have had the honor of publishing some great short fiction from the likes of Matthew C. Funk, Andrew Waters, Thomas Pluck and many more.

With the your collection, The First Cut, behind you and the ongoing Grift Magazine, what’s next for you as a writer? What’s your next pitch?

My hope is that my next thing will be a novel. I have one done and edited, and now it is being read by a few friends with the hope of having it polished and ready to send out very soon. It’s a crime novel, but more funny (I hope) than hard-boiled. I’m about halfway through a second novel and have an idea for a third that would be a fairly radical departure. While I’m juggling those projects, I’m working in earnest on a contribution to the Fight Card series of novellas about boxing that should come out early next year.

Thank you for taking time with us, can you give us, our readers, any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple — that’s creativity.” – Charles Mingus.