Benoit Lelievre reviews books at his site Dead End Follies. He also writes sharp, tight crime stories, that fit comfortably in the traditions of Noir and crime fiction, but also stretch them that bit, giving his narratives an original, unsettling voice. His story “Undead” is up at The Flash Fiction Offensive now and encapsulates this effective mix of styles. He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about conviction and Art.
Is there a particular work of fiction that has had the most influence on you?
Of course. It was somewhat of a defining moment for me. In my life, I mean. I walked into my Contemporary Japanese Literature class in my first year of university and there was this guy Dave already there and reading a book. He was a nerdy kid with a thing for gothic. He creeped me out because he was very lanky and he wore those fishnet shirts. He also always had foundation cream to hide his acne. Turned out it was the least creepy side of him, but that’s another story. He was reading MYSTIC RIVER by Dennis Lehane.
I knew about Clint Eastwood movie adaptation back then, but I hadn’t seen it yet. When I asked Dave if the book was good, he told me: “It’s interesting” which is lit speak for “go fuck yourself” or “I have no clue what I’m reading”. I was always die hard about books so I decided to find out for myself. Turned out it was a very good decision. Beforehand, I associated crime fiction with mysteries. There was a sleuth, a culprit and the book was the time it took for them to find each other. There is a mystery to MYSTIC RIVER, but it’s not what the novel is about. It’s about loss, coping and darkness of the human mind. It’s a story where everybody loses and there’s nothing you can do about it, but try and salvage the most you can.
It was the first novel I read with elements of contemporary noir (I do think there are distinctive eras to noir) and it might not be the most hardcore, but I have a special place in my heart for Dennis Lehane. He introduced me to a genre I didn’t think existed and that I actually wanted to write myself. I have read it several time since.
WB Yeats said prophetically in the Second Coming “the worst lack all conviction while the best are full of a passionate intensity” do you think morality has been reversed in the last century?
This is a very deep and complicated question. The concept of morality has a lot to do with the Judeo-Christian heritage. Really, read your ten commandments and you will be surprised to find how well it applies to modern life. Since I’m agnostic, I belive more in a set of values than a rigid code. But to answer your question, there is been a clear point in the last century where the rules of morality drastically change. Just as artists started to question and challenge the way things always worked, Ronald Reagan has been elected president of the United States.
It’s an important point in history, because it’s when the greater good has stopped being the government’s priority. Well, this is debatable of course, but the Reagan era is a clear departure point. The babies of Ayn Rand were given power, bank regulations have been cut and the middle class slowly started to disappear. Things have started to work backwards ever since. I am in the first generation in who knows how long, that will be poorer than their parents. How is that supposed to be? There’s someone (or someones) who take care about the world I live in, who don’t care about anything but the money in their pockets.
Everything was affected. From the geopolitical map to even literature. Noir has changed drastically through the Reagan era. Anthony Neil Smith said that contemporary noir has a lot more to do with psychological horror than traditional noir (Cain and such). It’s not juste a bunch of scumbags anymore. It’s a lot more personal, demented and sure shit a lot darker than it used to be. Moral hasn’t been reversed, but it became a tool more than a code of virtue. It was swallowed by capitalism. That’s what I think happened.
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
I think good writers do, yes. It has to do with the eternal writing advice to “torture your darlings”. Good writers will care about their readers, more than their protagonists. When you’re very good, approaching masterful levels in writing, you can torture your darlings AND torture your readers. Two books I’ve read lately, EVERY SHALLOW CUT, by Tom Piccirilli and CHOKE ON YOUR LIES by Anthony Neil Smith did that to me. Coincidence or not, they are the best two books I’ve read in this decade so far (the new decade technically started in 2011, right?). But you have to be REALLY good to pull that off.
Whenever I write something and that I feel it doesn’t work, I tell myself I need to make this darker and gorier if possible. When it’s dark enough that I stumble upon the gates of hell, I’m usually satisfied with it. Graham Greene was right when he said that, but he was very polite in his formulation. Writers need to be violent assholes under the lid.
What has your experience in the martial arts taught you as a writer?
It helped a lot. It’s funny because not that many people know I’m doing martial arts. I’ve never been a mountain of muscle and I don’t like to talk about it. I find (especially now that it’s trendy as all hell) that people have such extreme reactions when you say you’re doing martial arts. Everybody think they have a special bond with you. There’s the UFC fans that ask you questions about the latest show before saying hi in the morning. There are the street fighters who bore you to death with their stories or the old drunken, fat guy at the bar, who says he has a black belt in Shotokan Karate and talks to you like you did war together. Truth is, I started martial arts about ten years ago for very personal reasons. I was tired of being a mediocre person and I wanted to do at least one thing better than the others in my life. So I never wore it like a medal. It was my little thing I did for me.
I wouldn’t be writing today if I didn’t go through martial arts first. Before, I had this weird impression that you were good or bad at something from birth. That you couldn’t get better. I was proven wrong. Martial arts taught me how to get better at something. Through focus, repetition , good work ethic and perspective. I’ve never been a title winning fighter and I don’t think I’m an award winning writer, yet, but it gave me the mindset necessary to evolve within a discipline. Also, it put me in front of failure and made me humble. Failure of my body, failure of my mind, failure of my ego and sometimes, just bad fate.
So yeah, it was of a tremendous help to me. I was never compelled to write martial arts stories, but it gave me the necessary set of tools to learn and get better at what I do.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
I can see you have chosen your words carefully. “Revolution” is the important term here, because it’s what it is. A goddamn revolution. Not that I had any major issues with the way the publishing industry was run before (please note that I don’t exactly have a wealth of experience on the issue, though) but I find it’s making a few interesting corrections to the equation.
The biggest thing is that it democratizes publishing. Whoever has enough balls to get his work out there and read by the anonymous masses can do it now and without bleeding themselves dry. That removes from the equation the ever-so-bored-and-unartistic business major working in the marketing department of a big publishing company, telling everybody which genre they should publish if they want to make money and whatever is safe or unsafe. That guy is best as far as possible from the publishing world. Seriously, fuck that guy. With the eBooks and the terrific distribution system Amazon created for them, the only variable that matters anymore is the quality of the writing and it’s quite refreshing. It’s still the Far-West over there as everybody can publish, but it will become a self-regulating entity over time. The ruthless bunch of reviewers over at Amazon will make sure of that.
But with the good, comes the bad. Amazon is a company that is pushed forward by very smart and very aggressive marketers and NOBODY seems to care among the Big Six of publishing. They might not have the money to follow them in what they do, but they need to start thinking outside the box or Amazon will soon become the Big Brother of publishing. In a few years, they have went from internet retailer to a superpower of Google and Facebook magnitude (I might be exaggerating here, I don’t have number to prove my claims), but they opened a publishing house who releases AMAZING titles because the others are too chickenshit to do so. They will now open book stores because Barnes & Nobles doesn’t want to carry their titles, which I think it utterly brilliant.
And I love Amazon. Because they always have whatever the fuck I need and I don’t have to deal with the shitty English major at my local bookstore, who looks down on me because I don’t want to discuss David Foster Wallace with him. I’d like to encourage my indie bookstore, but Montreal has none for English books. I love Amazon, but somebody needs to step up and give them competition. I don’t mean powering through and competing at the same things, but thinking outside the box and offer a different product or concept they can’t quite replicate. Because I might hate Amazon tomorrow if they continue to grow like this, without any opposition whatsoever.
Is there a particular event that has changed you and influenced your writing?
There are many of them, but I will try to keep them under a lid, so let’s say I’ll give you three. My hometown is all over my stories. A small, remote town, where you can’t really escape because everybody knows everyone. It looks nice, but the town has two faces. A lot of alcoholism, drugs, suicide. I always write about towns like this. I rarely, rarely write about big cities. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because I have been very unhappy for very long there and I have to write it out of me.
Then came fear. This visceral unreasonable fear I grew while watching true crime television and yet I kept coming for more. I still watch and read a lot of true crime today, but the fear is gone. I go back to this place a lot though. To the person I was, the frightened child. My parents never really know what was wrong with me, so I had a lot of “snap out of it, kid” and “get a grip” so I carried this fear for a long time, into my teens. I was scared to get abducted, scared to fall from a swing a break my neck, scared of older kids (sometimes rightfully so). Even today sometimes, I’m walking in the street and I cross a guy. I’m thinking “What if he stabs me?” or things like that. According to the studies, 20% of people have a form of mental disease. Mine is paranoia. I turned it into a very efficient tool for writing. I put my fears on paper.
Reading FIGHT CLUB also was a turning point. Changed the way I read books, changed the way I looked at myself. It’s the reason why I joined a gym in the first place. I wanted to destroy beautiful things and seep into my own mortality.
Why do you think people want to read about crime?
This is difficult to answer, because there are many aspects to crime novels. There are mysteries, thrillers, hardboiled, noir. I think crime fascinates people because of its the forbidden fruit. The oldest object of fascination is what you can’t have, or in this case do or even be. We have forbidden a certain set of actions and behaviors as a society and therefore it’s human nature to be fascinated by it. Some are fascinated by the freedom criminals have and others (like me) are fascinated by what gets somebody to cross that line, so we all use literature as a looking glass.
I like noir and psychological horror better than any other genre, because they examine the process that drags people in and out of dark places. My favorite stories are those where the protagonists find some kind of strength to it. Like BREAKING BAD’s Walter White, you know? His life going down the shitter, but he becomes more than he would have ever been. He was destined to be a sucker , a rat and now he’s a freakin’ drug lord? How did that happen? How humans survive and thrive on an empty tank is what I love to read and write about. Contemporary noir covers that very well. That’s why I read this particular subgenre of crime, but for many people it’s probably different.
Your stories are extremely realistic and evocative narratives. If you had to name one you are proudest of which one would it be and why?
It’s the first time my work has been described as “evocative”. I like it, thanks! I’m very secretive about what I do before it’s out in the world, so I don’t get that much feedback. There are two stories I’m more proud of. SECOND ROUND DIVE (even if I hate the title. I always hate my titles), published in Beat To A Pulp: Hardboiled anthology is the first short story I have written. In there I share a lot of my views about boxing and fighting in general. A lot of apprehension with the sport too. Some reviewers who competed before recognized that and it made me very proud. It’s not very technically sound, but there’s a lot of heart in it. Plus it was published in a very reputable magazine, alongside names I respect a lot like Kent Gowran and John Hornor Jacobs.
I really like BURNING also, the kickoff Lowell Sweeney story I have published in Pelp Metal Magazine. It’s a little melodramatic and there are a few copyediting errors, but technically, it’s my best story yes. Plus, Lowell IS a melodramatic bastard with a fucked up perception of life, so it fits very well. He’s going to come back soon. He’s feeling a little better, but not by much.
Do you think crime is motivated by the desire for possessions and do you think extreme psychopaths are separate?
Not necessarily desire for possessions, but yes. I do think all the ills of mankind are driven a desire, one way or another. Physical lust, desire for a better life (bank heist, killing your boss), desire to be someone else, It’s always about wanting to have what you don’t.
Psychopaths are indeed separate, I think and it’s why they are so fascinating to me. In a psychopath’s mind, he is the only person that really exists. Everything and everybody are objects to his satisfaction. There this case in Quebec of a doctor who sliced his two kids because his wife had divorced him. If I stretch hard, I can understand how depression can get you to shoot your kids and then shoot yourself, but peep this.
He searched Google for painless ways to kill himself that nice, then literally sliced his kids. He said at the trial how his son was begging him to stop. Then he tried to committ suicide by drinking windshield washer. I mean, what the fuck? Of course he passed out before dying and had his stomach pumped. The most disgusting part is that he was declared innocent for cause of momentary mental issues. Of course, no psychiatrist is able to say WHAT he has and he won’t be released from the loony bin until they do. At his parole hearing he said he wanted to start practicing medicine again and have other kids. That’s a textbook psychopath. He wants to rewind and start things over like it never happened. His actions have no weight, no reality. To him, a child is a commodity. Disgusting but fascinating at the same time.
If you achieved all you wanted and had the chance to thank those you learnt from what would you say for the merit of those still trying to learn Art?
We’re a long way from there! But I’ll play along. I would tell young writers to write. As much as they can, as regularly as they can. Nothing will replace that. Seek writing advice whenever you need it, but keep your critical distance and more important, be aware that you can grow dependent to it and fuck up your writing. There is no substitute to writing with furious passion. Don’t talk about it too much, keep your nose down and do your thing. You have to love the fiction. You have to love living in that world and be comfortable there.
I don’t have many people to thank, but some have been very helpful so far. David Cranmer, who was the first person I didn’t intimately know to lay an eye on one of my stories. He gave me positive criticism and worked with me towards publication. Kent Gowran, Sabrina Ogden, Matthew C. Funk, Steve Weddle, Jimmy Callaway and all the editors who worked with me. I think it’s all of them, but I might be forgetting some. Heath Lowrance and Jennifer Hillier for being friends. Keith Rawson, for opening up doors for me without me ever asking. Such kindness can never really be repaid. Frank Bill and John Rector for sharing advice and insight with me. Those guys owed me nothing but they took time and helped. Ron Brown, Paul Brazill, Matthew McBride…dammit I’ll stop there. It sounds like a goddamn Oscar discourse. Point is, I’m a thankful guy. Thanks to you too for the Chin Wag.
Ben thank you for an insightful and great interview that I hope will draw new readers to your work.
Find everything Benoit Lelievre at his website ‘Dead End Follies’