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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Interview: Peter Farris

I had just gotten to BoucherCon (what another BCon story?) in the middle of panels, just before lunch, not a person I knew roaming about, so I set down and look over my goody bag. That when Pete came up and asked me if I was me and introduced him as he. Or something like that.

My first impression was Pete was a genuinely nice guy. That he was about as bad ass as could be. Was this really the guy who wrote that funny, disturbing Disney Noir? He is definitely multifaceted. As you can see from his contributions to Shotgun Honey: Disney Noir, Tornado Noir, The Traffic Stop, and the microfiction bundles Day Traders 1 and 2.

If he wasn’t already in his own band, I’d call him a rock star and try my lamest Doom Claw.

I’ve wanted to interview Pete since we met, but held off to support his book, THE LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING, not that it needs it. I heard it’s as complex and riveting as listening to Kent and Peter talk about Bee Keeper Noir and Hard-boiled Clowns. It was some fun talk. Now let’s grill this mother.

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

To be honest, I feel like I fell into crime fiction by accident. I wasn’t as familiar with the genre while writing the first draft of LCFTL as compared to now. Sure, I’d read folks like Chandler and James Ellroy, but I was really influenced by southern writers more than anybody else, stuff that carried the “literature” tag even though now that I think about it, William Gay, Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown were dabbling in crime and noir in their own ways. Now that I’ve read more authors in the genre, it excites me just how varied and wide-open crime fiction can be.

About ten years ago I was working as a bank teller when my branch was robbed. That experience made a lasting impression, and when I sat down to write LCFTL about the only thing I was sure of was that it would open with a violent heist. I’d always been fascinated by prison gangs and prison culture, too, which eventually seeped into the novel. When the book sold, I took a step back and figured: you’ve got the Aryan Brotherhood, a bank robbery, cops and convicts…I think you wrote a crime novel, buddy.

It sounds like LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING might just fall under that umbrella. Outside of the bank robbery, what inspired you to write LCFTL? What inspired you to write?

I played in bands for all of my twenties, and was always writing lyrics, but I remember exactly when a friend of mine recommended I read Mississippi author Larry Brown. That was in May of 2002. Brown’s work (and path to publication) inspired me, and triggered what’s since became a compulsion to (try and) write publishable fiction. Up until that point I’d read mainly horror, some of Chuck Palahnuik’s books, stuff like that. Dirty Work was the gateway novel, leading to what’s since become a deep love of regional fiction. More importantly, Dirty Work demonstrated to me how you could tell a complicated, brutally honest story using simple language. That kind of revelation was huge.

My old man is an author, too, and as I get older I realize what a profound influence he’s had on me. Growing up I was always around books, and had the opportunity to see everyday what the life of a working writer entailed. The immersion and concentration required of the gig…and occasional afternoon nap. My father had a bestseller at twenty and spent a lifetime telling stories. If writing remains a vocation or hobby that occasionally brings in a little money, that’s fine with me…as long as the work comes from an honest place. I suppose it really boils down to having an impulse to express yourself. I don’t know why that impulse is there, or where it comes from, but what I do know is if I don’t act on it my mood and outlook go to shit.

Tell us about the bands where you in? Do you think that music influenced the type of writer you’ve become?

I was in a band from Connecticut (CABLE) for approximately eight years. We were a sludgy noise rock band influenced by everyone from Black Sabbath to Fugazi to Waylon Jennings.

One thing that defined CABLE through the years were abstract lyrics that touched on recurring themes…mainly frustration with everyday life and a desire to escape it. We (meaning myself, bassist Randy Larsen and guitarist Bernie Romanowski) always hit certain notes in our lyrics i.e. whiskey, pills, Montana, heartache and broken glass…that sort of thing. But because our vocals were screamed and not sung, it allowed us to write outside the box of your typical rock band verse and chorus. Now that I think about it, our songs were like mini working-class dropout fuck-the-world noirs. We were writing fiction without really knowing it. By simply trying to be creative with what were essentially short prose pieces, I understand now that CABLE inspired me to think in terms of second and third person, in characters and situations and story lines that could be resolved or at least suggested during a few minutes of distorted riffs and balls-out screaming. No doubt that influenced me as I made the leap to short stories and eventually novels.

The Failed Convict (our crowning achievement if you ask me) was actually a concept record about a prisoner who breaks out of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee. It was pure coincidence, but around the time I signed the book contract and not long after we cut the record, I realized The Failed Convict and Last Call for the Living shared a sort of creative synergy, so much so that I decided to use Randy and Bernie’s lyrics from the album as epigrams.

So you’ve traded telling stories with music for books?

In some respects, yeah. Putting lyrics to music was the avenue for me that I imagine could’ve been poetry or flash fiction for another writer. Eventually you wind up experimenting with every form, although I admit I’ve never tried to write a play. Maybe one day.

From you, I expect a heavy metal musical, THE DOOM CLAW RISES. Are you still juggling between work, writing and music? How do you compartmentalize?

As for balancing a day job and writing, it’s a challenge at times. I’m not big on word counts but I’ve found the goal of 2-3 pages a day (or night) achievable more often than not. But there are stretches where I don’t write a single word, moments when I simply can’t will a decent sentence. I’m always thinking about writing, though, especially when I’m knee-deep in a new novel. You walk around with those characters. “Mulling time” is what a writer pal of mine from South Carolina calls it. And sometimes a really productive Saturday and Sunday is all it takes to erase from my memory a lackluster work week.

I’ve worked early in the morning and by contrast stayed up all night and never seen the sun. I’m finding as I get older I’m placing more value on consistency and routine. This quote by Flannery O’Connor has become a motto of sorts over the last year: “Just write every day whether you know what you’re doing or not…Sit at yr machine.”

You’ve written a few shorts for us, each different from the other, each successfully entertaining. Do you approach short stories differently than a longer work, like LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING?

Absolutely. I really enjoy writing short fiction. It’s a challenging form but I tend to only write if the mood strikes me. I think that’s one reason my short fiction bounces around, from splatterpunk to crime to Lovecraft-inspired material and even more literary-minded stuff. It’s much more impulsive and I never put too much thought into where I might submit a story or what genre it fits in to. With a novel, however, I know what sandbox I’m playing in from the start.

One of the stories that gets brought up in conversation, and was even nominated for a Spinetingler, is “Disney Noir”. It was brutal, funny, absurd and if the Mouse House cared… well, I don’t want think about it. What’s the story behind the story?

I actually visited Orlando with my fiance and her family. I can’t remember who mentioned it, but the costumed employees came up in conversation…about the tunnels they used to get around the park and also the rumored party culture associated with that line of work. As we were walking around I assumed the guy in the Mickey suit had been on a week-long coke binge and Snow White was banging evening-shift Donald Duck behind Goofy’s back, that sort of thing. I have trouble taking anything at face value so I had to suspect with all these lovable characters there was something dark and sordid going on beneath the surface. Lord knows what’s actually under Disney World. Probably torture rooms and burn pits.

After reading LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING and thinking back to your short “The Traffic Stop”, what is your relationship to the cops? Are you a wanted man? You seemed pretty clued in?

Haha! Nah, I’m a law abiding citizen. Drive the speed limit and even use my turn signals.

I’ve hung out with quite a few cops over the years, and consider one a really good friend. He was an early reader of Last Call and an invaluable resource. Every writer should have a friend in law enforcement.

I think you’ve nailed the hardened criminal and the prison ecosystem, with your portrayal of Hicklin and Preacher. What are you’re top 3 Prison Life movies, why?

American Me and Michael Mann’s The Jericho Mile are at the top of the list for sure. The Jericho Mile is a really touching story, one that manages to humanize a hardened convict while still nailing the unique social dynamic that informs every minute of penitentiary life. Jericho Mile was actually filmed at Folsom Prison and knowing what a student of west coast prison culture Mann is, there doesn’t seem to be a false note in the entire (made for TV) film.

American Me has to be one of the finest and most frightening movies about latino gangs I’ve ever seen, and a dangerous production to be associated with. From what I understand former members of the Mexican Mafia serving as consultants were murdered, allegedly for the film’s depiction of homosexual rape. Writer-Director Edward James Olmos’ life was even threatened. Regardless of whether that particular element is exaggerated or accurate, every other aspect of American Me just drips with authenticity.

Another favorite of mine is Animal Factory, directed by Steve Buscemi and based on the novel by former convict-turned-writer Edward Bunker. Most folks talk about Mickey Rourke’s turn in the film, and it is impressive, but for me it’s Big Fish with a heart of gold Willem Dafoe that steals the show. It’s a nuanced little film with a lot of depth, and one that never is compelled to hit you over the head with stereotypes. Oh, and Danny Trejo is in it. How could you not love Danny Trejo?

My dad is somewhat of a gun enthusiast, to put it lightly, so I have an appreciation. Hicklin’s Mossberg is a beaut. What’s the biggest gun you’ve fired?

I shot a muzzleloader in .45-70 back in the Fall. It was a hand-loaded round, used for large game like black bear although it’d take down a buffalo or elephant of that I have no doubt. After I fired that beast, the rifle’s owner (a friend of my fiance’s father) said I did exactly what everyone else does after they shoot it: laugh hysterically.

With the release of LAST CALL FOR THE LIVING, anyone who reads it is going to what more, so what’s next for Peter Farris?

I just turned in my next novel. It’s about a teenage prostitute who finds sanctuary with an eccentric bootlegger.

I’ll have to put that one on my “To Want” list. Before you go, do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

Listen to Waylon Jennings.