Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Alec Cizak

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PMMIII_162x250Writer and editor Alec Cizak started All Due Respect, and has now brought out the brilliant magazine Pulp Modern. It contains some fine crime writing. Issue number three is out now, and was reviewed by Elizabeth White here. It contains some great stories by the likes of Chris Rhatigan, and yours truly. You can pick up your copy here.

Alec met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about Jim Thompson and the great American dream.

Tell us about your time editing All Due Respect.

I started All Due Respect because I didn’t see a lot of journals focusing on pure crime fiction. By pure, I mean, no detective stuff. Just crime and the criminals responsible for it. It was relatively easy to edit because initially only one story was printed per month. I saw early on that such a schedule didn’t quite work. When Chris Rhatigan took over he decided to run two stories a month, which I think makes more sense. All in all, I enjoyed editing All Due Respect because it put me in touch with a lot of the great writers in the online ‘pulp’ community.

Who are your literary influences?

My literary influences are pretty broad. The first writers I read were Poe and Stephen King. Then in high school I discovered Kafka and Hunter Thompson. In college I was turned on to Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. Of course I dig Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The biggest influence, however, is Jim Thompson, whom I consider the most honest American writer I’ve ever read.

Do you think crime fiction needs to be re-written as a genre?

That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I even understand what it is you’re getting at. If I do understand it correctly, I would say that crime fiction needs to be busted up into its different types. I get very sick of explaining the difference between mysteries and what I call crime fiction. I think mysteries need to have their own category and crime fiction needs to be thought of as stories about crime and criminals. Where the term ‘noir’ fits in, I don’t really know.

Do you think it was Jim Thompson’s criminal tendencies that gave his writing an edge?

I believe Jim Thompson’s fiction came from several crucial aspects of his life. The most important being the numerous jobs he had growing up and as a young man. Being alive during the depression also had something to do with it. I’m not sure, but I think he might have been accused of being a communist at one time or another. It’s possible that he didn’t give a damn. Thompson seemed to understand that the deck is stacked for a very small group of people while the rest of the world maintains the same old serf/slave status the masses have always had. This has nothing to do with communism or capitalism. Capitalism is a fine system when it works. Thompson saw its inherent flaws, however, and wrote stories (sometimes) about men attempting to negotiate the border between legal and illegal business and getting burned for it. I’m also aware that his psychotic sheriffs stem directly from an incident in Texas where he encountered a lawman he believed would have killed him without remorse if he didn’t say the right things. This incident of course led to “The Killer Inside Me” and eventually the book that I think is his masterpiece, “Pop. 1280” (which, in my estimation, is simply a rewrite of “Killer…” and as is often the case with rewrites, it’s a hundred times better, not that “Killer…” isn’t a hell of a read either). And finally, Thompson must have generated quite a bit of his view of America from his drinking and that certainly spilled into his writing.

“You know what date is on this coin?”
What do you make of Anton Chigurh’s philosophy in No Country For Old Men?

I think the man demonstrates honor in an odd way. When the protag’s wife says, “You don’t have to do this,” he says something like, “Everyone always says that,” like he can’t believe they don’t understand that he is living by a code that, regardless of whether or not anyone else agrees with it or understands it, he must adhere to. This is, for better or worse, what honor is actually all about.

Tell us about your novel.

Well, I’m actually working on a YA novel at the moment. And while it’s basically a YA book, it does involve at least one minor mystery/crime. That element of the book is more or less a McGuffin, though. Something to hold together the interactions between the main character and the girl he’s obsessed over. The trick is to walk that fine line between what’s appropriate for younger readers and how much reality I can hoist right up to that border. As we know, young people are not stupid or naive about a lot of things. I’m hoping to craft something that helps young readers understand where life is eventually going to go while also entertaining older readers who can nod and say, “Yup.” The book opens with the protagonist’s father, who lives in a trailer park, buying his son a hooker. They say your first chapter eventually gets tossed out. I wonder about this one!

How did Pulp Modern come about?

Pulp Modern was the result of many years of trying to start a print journal that would compensate writers in some way while taking into account that I was a broke s.o.b.! I listened to Harlan Ellison lecture, back in 2002, about how writers weren’t being paid for their work. As you might guess, Ellison was not timid in the language he used to deride this development in publishing. So I tried for years to figure something out. I had a lot of false starts where I posted ads on craigslist and said I’d pay five dollars a story. I received a lot of emails from “established” writers who told me those rates were deplorable. Of course, when I went to look up these “established” writers, I couldn’t find any of their work. Regardless, their anger discourage me for many years. Then I started communicating over the Internet with David Cranmer and he more or less set me on the right track–first starting my own blog, and then All Due Respect. When I figured out how createspace worked, I put several ideas in my head together; When I made short films in Los Angeles, I drew up “deal memos” instead of contracts for both the cast and crew. Any gross profits would be divided equally among everyone who worked on the film. This was in response to a horrible contract I signed (my own fault for not taking it to a lawyer) on my first feature film in which I was screwed out of any profits. So I just extended that idea of everyone getting an equal share of the profits to a print journal. The idea of combining several genres into one journal probably just came from my own schizoid nature, the fact that I like just about every genre there is.

Is there a particular incident that has changed your life and influenced your writing?

There are, honestly, multiple events that have twisted and turned the way I write. I think sobering up at 25 had a profound impact on my writing (and my life in general). When you become an abuser of alcohol and other substances, you’ve sort of made a deal with the devil. To backslide and sober up is to bow out of the deal. The penalty is a life that is more difficult to extract excitement from (at least in the beginning). I discovered Bukowski precisely when I sobered up. His writing demonstrated that it was ok to be honest and pissed off in your writing. The fact that his writing constantly reminded me of the life I had left behind made me even angrier. When I finished my undergrad degree and found that the only job I could get was driving a delivery truck, ‘pissed off’ took on new dimensions (what? no American Dream for me?..). I actually got a handwritten rejection letter from an editor of a major journal I won’t mention by name in which the editor stated, “Nice work. Let me know when Holden Caulfield grows up.” I thought it was a shitty thing to say, but I realize now what the guy meant. The funny thing is, I thought, at the time, that I was living in extreme poverty. After getting screwed over on my first motion picture and moving to Koreatown in Los Angeles, I learned what true poverty is. I had to sleep on the floor of a one room apartment that didn’t even have a kitchen. Mice and rats roamed the carpet while I slept. That certainly added more hostility to my writing. Of course, numerous failed romances have thrown some fuel on the fire as well (I’ve asked three different women to marry me and all three have turned me down!). Only recently have I decided all that attitude up front is a problem. So now, maybe because I turned forty last year, I’m working on soothing my readers into the worlds I create without hitting them over the head in the very beginning.

Do you think the great American dream has become the great American nightmare?

It all depends. If you’re a “day-laborer” coming up from an impoverished country, suddenly making ten American dollars an hour, the Dream is still alive. The U.S. is a constantly evolving human canvass. What my parents considered the American Dream no longer exists. They were post WWII immigrants from Europe who started in poverty and worked their way into the middle class. They did this by going to college. My father worked in a steel mill to pay his tuition. A young person today, for the most part, doesn’t have this option. What industrial jobs we still have in the U.S. employ low-cost, non-union labor (for the most part), making it impossible to pay your bills and save money, which is the way things were in the old days. Most employers don’t want to pay for healthcare benefits (despite the obvious positive impact it will have on their businesses). The worker in the United States is getting a royal screwing over. But, as I stated, those coming here from worse conditions must surely see this as a land of gold. And hasn’t that always been the case since the time the first Europeans arrived and swiped the land from its previous occupants? When I hear working class white and black people complain about Mexicans and Latinos coming here and “taking our jobs,” I remind them that a.) this land has never “belonged” to anyone and b.) workers don’t create jobs, business owners do, so if they have a beef with who’s being hired, they need to take it up with the business owners. What’s happened in the United States since the Bush regime was granted the White House by a Supreme Court decision (and not the will of the people) is that the filthy rich have recognized that their time is coming to a close. Thus, they’ve engaged in a decade-plus land and money grab, leaving the rest of the country screwed. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s exactly what’s happened. When I hear working class folks tell me they support the Republican party, I have to laugh. That party is THE tool of the wealthy. They use fear and religion to manipulate uninformed working class white people to vote for them and then, as soon as they get in office, they work on legislation that benefits ONLY the filthy rich. They’ve busted up the unions. They’re doing everything they can to plant a boot on the collective throat of women. And unless it applies to them, they abhor the basic rights guaranteed in the Constitution. They practice a form of hypocrisy that circles evil and ends on looney. I’m not a liberal. I’m not a Democrat. I just see through bullshit better than most. The American Dream will look like it’s become a Nightmare just as long as the working class whites in this country continue to vote for the very men who would butcher them in favor of profits…

What would you tell anyone starting out as a writer with regards to improving his or her craft, and more specifically, impressing the editor of a journal like, say, Pulp Modern?

First of all, I would suggest learning the craft in a very technical way (the complete opposite of the way I learned it!). All writing stems from poetry. Whether or not you like poetry, it’s a hell of a good idea to write poetry for the simple reason that it will improve any and all other writing you do. And learn poetry the proper way–Learn rhyme and meter first, then bust out with the free verse. Poetry helps teach the music of language. Think about the books and stories you prefer over the ones you don’t; When you’re reading a book by a certain author, are your eyes flowing effortlessly across the page, are you turning pages without looking at the page numbers, seeing how many more there are in the chapter you’re working on? Or are you constantly looking up to see ‘how much more’ you’ve got to read. That, to me, is the tell-tale difference between good and bad writing. This is why I get so upset when ‘literary’ writers complain about ‘genre’ fiction. The issue should always be the writing, the aesthetics. The great god of mfa programs across the land, David Foster Wallace, has
profound ideas running through his work. His prose, in my opinion, is a task and a half to plow through. Now compare that to the ease with which one gets through a good crime novel by the aforementioned Jim Thompson (hell, compare it to the joy one has reading the blocks of poetic prose in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer). Some would call it blasphemous to even compare these two writers, but I think they’re missing the point. Reading should be enjoyable, even if you’re reading about little Bobby going fishing with his dying grandfather on Lake Poopikaka. If the prose doesn’t move, why should the reader continue? Thus, the importance of the music of language, a skill learned first in poetry.

Now, if you want to impress me at Pulp Modern, pay attention to that bit in the guidelines about Junot Diaz and Jim Thompson. That’s the balance I’m looking for. I think the better writers today are genre writers. The 2010 collection of “The Best American Short Stories” just about put me to sleep. A whole lot of stuffy writing about “white people problems.” Both the aesthetic and the subject matter of the majority of the stories did nothing for me or my imagination as I read them. The best of that batch was Ron Rash’s story “The Ascent.” That’s a story I’d print in Pulp Modern. I want the genre writers to step up their game and find ways to bring their genres into the 21st century and beyond. Read some postmodern literature and figure out ways to take the palette of your respective genre and fuse them. In issue three of Pulp Modern I was given permission to reprint the Amy Bloom story “By-and-By.” This is a perfect example of where I’d like to see the crime genre go. In that same issue, I published a zombie story despite the fact that I’m sick to death of zombie stories. But “White Light, White Heat” demonstrated postmodern sensibilities that hoisted it high over the other dozen zombie stories I get on a monthly basis at Pulp Modern.
So there you have it, make your writing sing and give it some depth.

Thank you Alec for a great interview.

ACizak_221x300Links:

Pick up a copy of Pulp Modern Issue 3 (June 2012) at Amazon US and UK

If you need back issues, here are the links:
Pulp Modern Issue 1 * (Sept 2011) – Amazon US and UK
Pulp Modern Issue 2 (Dec 2011) – Amazon US and UK
……….* Issue 1 will be going out of print on 27 Sept 2012.

Find Mr. Cizak here…
No Moral Center – blog posts and lists of his works
Pulp Modern – get the latest news and submission guidelines
Twitter

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6 Responses to Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Alec Cizak

  1. chris rhatigan says:

    Fantastic stuff on both sides of this interview. I’d put Jim Thompson at that level too. I could read his writing all day.

    I’m proud to keep the ADR torch burning and to have a story in Pulp Modern–which is the really the only place to go for a wide variety of engaging genre fiction in print.

  2. A YA book? Quite interesting. Look forward to the future. xx

  3. Alec Cizak says:

    Chris, thanks for doing a hell of a job with ADR.

    Carrie, this interview was conducted a while ago. I actually scrapped the YA book because I just can’t control my potty mouth! I’m working on a “literary” novel based heavily on my experiences in L.A. right around the time of 9/11.

  4. Great interview with a powerful- and clearly driven writer. I really look forward to the Y novel.

  5. richardgodwin says:

    Thanks Alec.

  6. Joyce Juzwik says:

    Terrific interview with a writer clearly dedicated to his craft. Alec, I wish you continued success.

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