Interview: Steve Weddle with Bobby Mathews

When Shotgun Honey publisher Ron Earl Phillips asked me to interview Steve Weddle about his new book, The County Line coming out Feb. 1 from Lake Union Publishing, I jumped at the chance. Steve is, in my opinion, one of the great artists working with the palette of Southern noir and grit-lit. As you’ll see from his answers to my questions, Steve is incredibly smart and thoughtful when he’s talking about writing and publishing. He’s also one of the kindest folks out there, and — full disclosure — helped me directly with a short story called ‘The Swahili Word for Hope,’ which appears in my forthcoming collection, Negative Tilt: Stories.

Without any further ado, let’s get to Steve.

It’s been a bit since you’ve had a new book out, and now The County Line is out in the world. How’s that feel?

Yeah, Country Hardball came out in 2013, so it’s been a little more than 10 years. Been great so far with The County Line, but things seem to have changed. Are we still supposed to go on Brian Lamb’s CSPAN show to talk about our books?

Ha! You’re leading me right into my next question … publishing seems like it’s much different over the last 10 years. During that time, you launched a well-respected magazine, Needle (RIP), and put together an Anthony-nominated anthology, Lockdown, with Nick Kolakowski. But how has book publishing changed for writers?

I’m certainly no expert in book publishing, but, as a reader, I’ve seen more opportunities to get your work to more fragmented audiences, if that makes sense. The lovely and talented John Hornor Jacobs and I started Needle back in the Murdaland, Plots with Guns, Thuglit, Spinetingler, Crimespree Magazine days. There were so many opportunities for short story writers in the crime fiction game. Now, there seem to be many, many indie publishers of crime fiction novels — as well as horror, sci-fi, and other genres. So, I can’t begin to answer the 738 ways publishing has changed in the last decade, but I have noticed that we seem to have more indie book publishers than we had then, which has been great for readers, if you’re able to keep up with it all.

Take us through the process for The County Line. I get a ton of ideas, but not many that will hold the weight of a novel-length manuscript. How did this one come about?

I wasn’t done with the families of Country Hardball in 2013 and wanted to keep going. So I worked on a story set with those folks in that area in the 1950s, then in the 1930s, wanting to tie it all together. The more I read about where those pretend folks in my book came from and where I, a mostly real person, came from, the more time I wanted to spend playing around in that sandbox. I ended up peeling off a 1950s section for Playboy magazine in 2015, which left me quite a few years to move around 1933 with those families in Columbia County, Arkansas.

Also, I’d read about the outlaw camps of the day, from Vivian, Louisiana up to the upper Midwest and thought I could have some fun.

One of the things that I found about the book that really feels true is how often Depression-era outlaws were looked up to — or at least tolerated — by a lot of people during that time. And then there’s the whole matter of legacy and identity in a small Southern community. How do you explain those things for a modern audience?

The short, smartass answer is that I explain it by writing a 300-page novel about it. The more useful (I hope) answer, I suppose, deals with all those “true crime” magazines and movies of the day. I think there was a great distrust of the system, which makes sense because of, you know, that Great Depression thing they had going on. From biographies and diaries from that time that I’ve read, there were quite a few folks who were entertained by seeing the outlaws outfox the law. (Phew, that was a mouthful.) That sort of thing tends to resonate today for the same reason. I said I’m not expert on book publishing, and I know even less about sociology and psychology, but it seems to me that folks like to see people scrap their way to victory against the system of fat cats. There were so many pulp magazines of the day devoted to that type of story, it just makes sense.

I expected both the smartass answer and a thoughtful one. So mission accomplished! Switching gears: I’ve seen photos of your writing process, which seems brilliant and also insane to me. It obviously results in work that is, as the New York Times put it: “dazzling.” Can you explain your process?

As you’ve noted, my last book came out a little more than a decade ago, so I don’t know that this is something I’d recommend. I write longhand in Moleskine notebooks with Pilot G-2 pens, in case anyone cares about those details. The left-hand side is for notes, while the right-hand side is for the story. This allows me to brainstorm ideas, to leave myself reminders about coming back to revisit this concept later, to work out names of characters, and so forth on the left-hand side while I race through telling the story to myself on the right-hand side.

At some point, when I’ve got enough or need to switch gears, I start putting the story into Scrivener. I also have four cork strips, each six feet long, on my office wall. The top strip is for Act 1, the middle two for Act 2, and the bottom for Act three. I tack index cards along these and move them around as I need. For example, there was a scene in The County Line about a kidnapped banker which I thought worked as the catalyst to the story, but then moved it to the second act because I needed to do more work to set it up, and then finally moved it towards the end of the first act. Index cards on cork strips makes this easier for me.

I also have two enormous white boards on a wall in my office. They, effectively, are that wall of my office. Sometimes it helps to walk around with a marker and brainstorm things a bit more vertically. While I’m doing all that, I’m still either writing longhand into the notebook or writing directly into Scrivener at that point. Scrivener, too, allows me to move scenes around, at which point I’ll need to stand up, walk over to the cork strips, and move things around.

I’ve also found that a version of the Pomodoro Timer works for me. I’ll put an album on the record player in my office and write for one side. When that side is over, I’ll get up to flip the album and either go to the kitchen to refill my coffee or whiskey, walk around a bit, and maybe jot some ideas on the whiteboard. Smaller pockets of focus can be helpful. Of course, there are also times when I look up after a writing session and the needle has been bumping up against the end of the side for who knows how long.

How was your experience being an Amazon First Reads author?

I’ve been an Amazon First Reads reader for a long time. Pretty much every month I find something I want to read and, many times that’s from an author I’ve never heard of. And then some months you get two free picks, so I’ll snag a story that seems like my kind of book and then use the second pick on something that might seem, at first, to be outside of my usual read. It’s been pretty interesting to be on the other end of things, knowing that January was one of those “pick two for free” months, so people who have never heard of me are taking a chance on a 1930s story that I made up while Morgana King or Jimmy Smith were playing on my record player, and I was trying to think of a clever way to say “stabbed.”

Your Wikipedia entry says you were influenced by Raymond Carver and Hemingway. But what about Faulkner? When I read your stuff, Faulkner comes immediately to mind.

Yeah, I probably mentioned Carver and Hemingway in an interview somewhere when I was talking about short stories. Faulkner, too, has been a huge influence. Absalom, Absalom! is by far my favorite novel. But I’m influenced by so many people. I’m reading Jesmyn Ward at the moment, and her lyricism is so powerful that I know whatever I do next will be so much the better for influence.

Okay, last question: What do you wish I’d asked you about? (And feel free to answer, too.)

The one book I’m looking forward to this Spring? Good question, but there are so many. I’ve got two of them right here, so let me tell you about those. Eryk Pruitt’s Blood Red Summer is coming out in May. This is the second book in his Jess Keeler series. I did the Kindle/Audible Whispersync thing with the first one, Something Bad Wrong. That one was fantastic as it shifted back to the 1970s and the present to tell the story of an unsolved double murder in North Carolina. I loved reading the sentences, but I also loved hearing the performances of the cast. It was just such a great job that I can barely wait for May.

The other one I read a few months back that is coming out in March is Chris Harding Thornton’s Little Underworld. I said in a blurb that this book is “what might happen if the Coen Brothers set an episode of Peaky Blinders in 1930s Omaha.” That only starts to hint at what’s amazing about this book. The cover copy calls the book “moody” and “ferocious,” which nails the vibe. It’s one of those books that overwhelms your world when you’re reading it because of the feel of the thing, as well as the characters and the story. It’s just such a wonderful follow-up to her debut, Pickard County Atlas, and I can’t wait for the rest of the world to read it.

Make sure to check out The County Line, and it’s also a good idea to catch up with Country Hardball as well, because it’s a hell of a book. Many thanks to Steve for taking the time to talk with me and for his patience with all of my questions.

Steve Weddle is the author of The County Line, an Amazon First Reads selection. His previous book, Country Hardball, which The New York Times called “downright dazzling,” is a collection of connected short stories. A former newspaper editor, he is the cofounder of the crime fiction collective Do Some Damage, the cocreator of the noir magazine Needle, and has taught short story writing at LitReactor.

Bobby Mathews is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, and journalist who calls Birmingham home. His short story, “Negative Tilt” won the 2023 Derringer Award for “Best Long Story,” while his novel Living the Gimmick won top honors in the Alabama Media Professionals 2023 contest. His most recent novel, Magic City Blues, has earned rave reviews for its hard-hitting action, keen dialogue, and artful depiction of Birmingham. His short story colllection, Negative Tilt: Stories, releases March 2024.