Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Interview: Matthew McBride

Cover: A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBrideI often talk about good people, the folks I’ve gotten to know over the last few years from the crime fiction community. Matthew McBride is good people. He is a past contributor of Shotgun Honey, and has had stories with Plots with Guns, Thuglit, A Twist of Noir and others. His first novel Frank Sinatra in a Blender is an inspired work that turns the PI genre on its head. His follow up A Swollen Red Sun has gotten early praise from Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Johnny Shaw and many others.

I look forward to digging into Matthew’s latest, and with the help of Rob Hart and Mysterious Press I am offering an advance reader copy of A Swollen Red Sun to a lucky reader who tells us about their worst job in the comments of this interview. Any comments will be eligible, but the one with a good story will likely have chicken for dinner.

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

Writing anything else would be boring.

Was there a gateway author? A writer or writers that made you want to write works like Frank Sinatra in a Blender and A Swollen Red Sun?

Not really. Growing up I always read a lot, but I never knew a genre such as crime fiction existed. This was pre-Internet, so all I had was our local library, and living in a small town offered a small selection. At one point, like so many other writers, I discovered Elmore Leonard, and I read a few of his books and liked them. But mostly I read King and Grisham and Hunter S. Thompson. Those were three of my favorites.

There are always new inspirations to be found. When did you first start writing?

In high school. I have always known I wanted to write, I just didn’t know what I wanted to write. Or how to go about writing it. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but the idea that some uneducated, small town boy from Missouri could carve a path into the publishing world seemed unattainable to me.

Yet, you did what many are afraid of doing; you quit your job to write. Jump us through that decision.

I built minivans for thirteen years and I hated it. I liked the people I worked with, but I hated the repetitive work of the assembly line. Plus, most of our bosses were assholes. But it wasn’t really their fault. Because their bosses were assholes too, and they instructed them to be assholes toward us. As strange as that may sound, that was their business model at Chrysler. So when they announced they were closing our plant I knew that I was done. “I have one chance to get outta that shit hole,” I said. Because I knew I would not get another. It’s like if I didn’t go right then and there while I could, I knew they would have me for life.

So I quit with no regrets. But now, looking back on those days, my decision was not without consequences. Almost halfway to retirement I went from making thirty dollars an hour to making eight. What I once made in one day I now made in six. And spending almost four years writing a single book was not without its casualties.

So, in the end, was it worth it? I don’t ask that question. You have to move forward and push through the detritus. But I am proud of where I am as a writer; the road to get here was just much harder than I could have anticipated.

Working the hard road isn’t new for you; I remember interviews around the time of Frank Sinatra in a Blender release of you writing on the line and anytime available. Did Frank start on the line or after?

Cover: Frank Sinatra in a Blender by Matthew McBride

I wrote my first manuscript on the assembly line, in between jobs. That one may or may not ever see the light of day. When I wrote Frank Sinatra in a Blender I was working as a tree trimmer, clearing power lines for an electric company. I used a chainsaw for ten hours a day cutting down cedars. On the weekends I also worked security at these MMA fights, and one night this dumb asshole in the front row named Chad [REDACTED] kept jumping up on his seat and yelling, he refused to sit down. So at some point the idea came to me I should write a story about a guy at an MMA fight who kept jumping up on his seat and yelling, who refused to sit down—so the security guard cuts off his legs with a chainsaw to teach him a lesson.

It was completely over-the-top, even more so than it sounds if you can believe it, but people liked the story so much it planted the seed in my head for a detective novel about a PI who drank copious amounts of alcohol, abused pharmaceuticals, and carried a chainsaw.

But A Swollen Red Sun is nothing like Frank Sinatra in a Blender.

So what is A Swollen Red Sun like? Give the readers the pitch.

When my agent pitched the book it generated interest pretty quickly from several big publishing houses—and some of them really loved it. But they said it was too dark. There was graphic drug use and brutal violence. But they’d read it again if I agreed to make changes. Tone it down?

But as far as changing the story, in no way was that appealing. I could not bowdlerize the book. So I said I’d pass on the changes—I wanted to be true to the characters. Even if that meant it would remain unpublished, that was fine with me; I knew eventually we’d find a publisher who loved the book as much as we did, so I stuck to my convictions.

While it is a world of fiction, one thing’s assured: The fallout from Meth ruins lives and breaks people. It’s about the chemical-ravaged heartland of Missouri and the people who were born here. It’s also about the Sheriff’s Department in Gasconade County, where I actually live.

Sheriff’s Deputy Dale Everett Banks is a good man, but he does something bad, which completely goes against his character. Of course, that’s what makes him an interesting character—there’s a lot of depth to him—so you take this good man and you test him—put him in a situation where he’s tempted to do something wrong. And he does. But the audience likes him enough to forgive him for it, because his reasons for doing what he did are genuine.

Then there is Jerry Dean Skaggs: A convict on parole for shooting a bald eagle (among other things), as well as a pot cultivator and a meth cook. He is the epitome of a lowlife scab if ever there was one—there’s his partner, Bazooka Kincaid, fresh out of prison for robbing Cracker Barrel restaurants to finance a derby car for the big fall smashup—but not just any smashup, this was The Firecracker 5000, the Granddaddy of all Demolition Derbies.

He also works on a turkey farm for a boss he’d like to kill.

Olen Brandt is a farmer who has lost everything in his life that is important, now the only thing he has left is the dog by his side, and a son in some prison he may never get out of, for a crime he surely did.

He plows field after field on his Allis Chalmers and looks for a reason to go on living. Somewhere in the pages of the book he finds it.

In the end, everyone’s worlds collide as a result of the choices Banks has made.

It sounds just like my kind of read; I’m a real fan of multiple POV and seeing how the writer brings it altogether. Are there any contemporaries you would compare with the story or your writing?

I’m not one to compare myself to other writers, but I’m sure comparisons will be made.

I suppose that is the job of others isn’t it? Let’s talk mechanics, what’s your writing process? You outline? A note taker? What’s your day look like?

I’ve never outlined anything I’ve written and I’m not sure how you do it, but the idea of writing down what you want to write about before you write about it seems like it would take the pleasure out of writing. For me, the beauty of the art is the discovery of words. My only real goal is to sit down, find the zone, and lose myself in the process. There is minimal note taking, because notes that I take I’ll just lose. It’s a spontaneous course of action. I never know what I’m going to write until it’s written, and I have no idea how something will end until it’s over. If I knew how a book was going to end I would not be able to finish it. Even as I write the last page I’m just as surprised as the reader.

But that’s an interesting question, because every writer has a way that is unique to them, sometimes they just have to find it. Like, last year, when I got smashed at a bar in New York, with my agent, Todd Robinson, and Glenn Gray. We talked about the creative process, and how most of her clients wrote linear—they write page 1, then page 2, and so on—just as the reader would read them. But for me that doesn’t work. The idea of rules just seems boring. I’ll write the end of a book, then the middle, then jump to out to the 3/4 mark, then go back and write a different beginning … then, totally out of the blue, create a new document page and write two new characters completely unrelated to the story and give them five pages and save it and return to the story I’m working on. Then three weeks later write the story up to the part where I throw in these two new characters. So, basically, I write books in scenes. A lot of them having no real frame of reference with the actual story I’ve been telling. I just blend them all together.

It might sound chaotic, but it’s the only way I know.

What is flowing out of the chaos next? Another novel? A new Nick Valentine? More short stories?

Classic Matthew

I don’t like to talk about future writing projects. It’s never a good idea and nothing good can come of it, but I have no plans to write a sequel to either Frank Sinatra in a Blender or A Swollen Red Sun. People ask, but I’ve never wanted to be that kind of writer. I understand people get attached to characters they like and they want to read about them again, but I feel like I need to create new bodies of work. And while I realize a writer that achieves success with a book could make more money with an ongoing series, and for the very reason I just mentioned, that’s just not me. Though it’s nice to get paid—it’s important to get paid, and I’m glad I get paid—it’s still not about money. I’m not even sure why I write, but creating something out of thoughts and words plugs some kind of vacancy that only writing books can fill.

Thank you for the time, but before you leave us do you have any parting words, pearls of wisdom, for our readers and writers out there?

I am not one to offer writing advice and I always feel strange when it’s asked of me, but on the rare occasion that it is, the best answer I can give is the same answer I always give: Don’t be afraid to have fun while you write—and if you know the kind of books you want to write, but don’t know what to write: Read the kind of books you’d want to write, then write the kind of books you’d want to read, so any book you write will be the best book you could write.