Anyone interested in crime writing on the net has to know Christopher Grant, editor of A Twist Of Noir.
It is one of the premier ezines and Christopher has published over 500 stories there by many of the top names.
Ever professional and helpful, he has championed some of the newest talent on the block.
I managed to track him down in a sleazy bar at the edge of a town with no name in Minnesota and amid the noise of gun shots in the distance he told me this.
Morning Christopher. I hope you don’t mind if I call you Christopher?
He hits me over the head with a turnip and mutters ‘that’s my lunch. Where did I put my Glock?’ The smell of whisky rises into the air.
I know he’s ready to talk. I watch him take a swig.
What did you do before A Twist Of Noir?
Before A Twist Of Noir existed, I wrote for both Powder Burn Flash and the now-defunct DZ Allen’s Muzzle Flash. I came across both simultaneously and, rather than check out what they had to offer and then try and tailor stories to the style there, I just wrote. Wrote two stories, GETAWAY and THE TOOTH, and sent both to Muzzle Flash. Wrote another, HEROES GET DEAD QUICKLY, and sent that out to Powder Burn and never looked back. Between the two sites, I probably wrote twelve to fifteen different stories for both sites.
Prior to those first two stories, I had never written anything crime-related noir anything that I was comfortable with sharing. With Muzzle Flash and Powder Burn, I did both.
While Christopher lights a match against his unshaven jaw I think of the next question.
ATON is one of the biggest most active ezines, how do you find the time to manage it?
There are a couple of factors in that.
First, you’ve got to want to do something like this.
When Muzzle Flash went down and a couple of other zines followed, I decided that I wanted to open up ATON. Didn’t have a name but it was down to two: either ATON or A Twist Of Crime, which, as I said in a previous interview with Michael J. Solender, was cute but I didn’t want cute.
So, drive and determination is extremely important.
If you have drive, you can find the time.
Still, it’s not easy, especially considering I don’t have a co-editor.
The second factor comes into play here, which is that, usually, I don’t have too much of a backlog, due to the fact that I try to get as many stories up as quickly as possible.
Long story short, I somehow find the time. I’m also motivated by the stories that I receive, which are high-quality, professional caliber, with few exceptions.
When you have great stories to read, you have great motivation to get them out so that they can be read.
A man comes into the bar selling flowers and Christopher throws him out of the door by his collar.
George V Higgins’s ‘The Friends Of Eddie Coyle’ is often cited as a benchmark piece of crime writing, with Elmore Leonard saying it changed the way he wrote. You have mentioned it as one of your favourite novels, why? Why not? That’s my answer.
Okay, I’ll elaborate.
I’ll go Elmore Leonard one better and say that Eddie Coyle helped me understand that it was okay NOT to describe everything in minute detail.
Up until I read The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, I thought that I was doing something that was wrong, not describing everything and everyone down to their shoes. I thought that this might even separate me from being a writer and being a writer that people enjoyed reading.
Strange stuff goes through one’s mind sometimes.
Before I read The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, I knew that the characters and their motivations should drive the story. Eddie Coyle firmly planted that flag in my mind and I haven’t tried to do much else than that with my fiction, even if it’s vague sometimes just what my characters want.
Beyond that, the story presented by Higgins is simply cool.
You have a down-and-out loser like Eddie Coyle, who’s had his fingers broken for naming names and learned his lesson that way. He’s lucky to be alive but he’s about to go up the river for a stretch and he’s trying everything he knows to get out from under the thumb of the law, including naming names again. If you think he’s getting out of this one alive, you haven’t been reading crime very long.
And the dialogue, the real star of the novel, is dead-on to the letter.
Anyone who hasn’t read it should. Like yesterday.
He orders another whisky.
Which living crime writers do you enjoy reading and do you think any of them are innovators in the genre?
Ken Bruen, Elmore Leonard, Gary Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Max Allan Collins, James Ellroy, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Jason Aaron, Dave Lapham…do you have a couple hours so I can name them all?
As for innovation, I’m going to be diplomatic and a chickenshit and say,
yeah, and leave it at that.
He takes a deep swig and waits.
Do you think there are any fundamental differences in terms of culture and literary delivery between English and American crime writing?
Fundamental differences? No.
I mean, I suppose there’s that culture shock of some sort where you read about post office blags rather than bank heists and favourite versus favorite and so on, but I think for the most part, both sides of the pond have pretty much the same ideas of what crime or noir is supposed to be.
If we took Ken Bruen’s name off of all of his fiction, changed the way things were spelled and changed the location from Galway to New York or Boston (even though Ken’s written about both places), unless you had fans looking at it, I’ll be willing to bet you that newcomers to his work would think he was an American writer.
The thing is, I’m not certain if we could reverse-engineer that and make an American appear to be an English or Irish writer, though I’m willing to be corrected on that.
But, as I said, for the most part, I think we all have the same kind of ideas running through our minds on both sides of the Atlantic. Execution might be a little different but execution is a little different for every single writer.
A large Rottweiler enters the room and seeing Christopher there promptly leaves.
Are you working on a novel?
A novel? No.
Here’s the thing.
I have an idea how I would write a novel and this is probably how you’re actually supposed to do it but I don’t know if I’ve got the necessary amount of words to do it.
The way that I would write a novel is to take the first chapter, write it as a short story, leaving with a cliffhanger or an opening to the next chapter and then repeat. And, like I said, that’s probably how you write a novel.
But, as I said, I probably don’t have the amount of words necessary. A novella, maybe.
I’m extremely comfortable in short stories right now and doubt that will ever change, despite the fact that there are a lot of people that have asked me to write a Greta novel. And I will say that I have irons in the fire that could work in novel form but, again, nothing that I’m writing.
He is blowing plumes of smoke into the air and I try to see him through the thick clouds.
Name an experience that has changed your life and influenced your writing. Finally, a question that’s easy to answer. Just kidding, Richard, but these have been great and challenging questions (keep them coming).
The experience that changed my life and influenced my writing is the experience that started me writing in the first place.
I’ve been writing for sixteen years. Well, longer than that if you include all of the stuff I wrote as a kid, both for school and for my own enjoyment but you get the idea.
When I was sixteen, I was in the tenth grade. Here in Minnesota, there was a policy (I don’t know if is still policy) that if you had a certain number of absences per semester, the school could legally remove you from enrollment.
Yeah, stupid-ass policy.
But, as they explain the policy to you, it is there to protect against truancy. Which is, again, illogical. If you kick the kid out of school, how’s he or she going to learn anything?
Well, here’s the thing. I wasn’t skipping out on school. At the time, I got sick a lot. Whether it was because I had a weakened immune system or because kids weren’t kept home from school when they were sick and I just caught what they had.
So I was made aware, just before the Christmas break, that I was coming up on the fifteen days that I could be absent for that semester and I planned, obviously, not to cross that threshold.
Christmas break was two weeks here in Minnesota and what happens during the last week in December and the first week in January? It gets fucking cold.
And what happens to me? I get a lung infection.
The doctor says, “Don’t do anything that’s going to jeopardize your health, such as it is.” This included going out in the freezing temperatures.
How long for the lung infection to clear up, Doc?
Two to three weeks.
So I’m absent from school and I’m over the threshold of those fifteen days and when we call to say that I’m not going to be there, the response is, “Christopher has been removed from [fill in the blank] class and [fill in the blank] class.”
My dad got in touch with the Vice-Principal, who, among other things, was in charge of doing away with students that crossed the threshold, and she says, get this, “If you get a doctor’s note that excuses Christopher from school for a certain amount of time and get it on my desk before such and such time, we’ll reinstate him.”
Yeah, fun shit, right?
But my dad gets the note and he gets it on the desk by such and such a time.
Does this get me reinstated?
Eyes on your own paper!
Of course it doesn’t because what happens? They lose the goddamned note!
Go to call to get my homework for all of my classes and we’re told that I’ve been removed from the school.
At that point, what should have happened was this:
This is what I wanted to do. I urged my dad to sue the school, sue the school district, sue whomever we needed to get me back in school.
And that, of course, didn’t happen, either. I can’t even tell you why we didn’t sue.
At the time, I imagine, thankfully not having had the experience, it must have been like being shot. When you’re a decent student, when you have thoughts about what happens after school and whether you’re going to college or going to get a really great job and eventually have a family and all of that, to suddenly have the carpet ripped out from under you…
A year after all of this happened, I still wanted to know what the fuck happened to this note.
So I went to school the first day the following year and talked with a guidance counselor.
Needless to say, the run-around continued.
What happened to the doctor’s note? Who knows? They claimed not to have received that note, which was a pile of bullshit.
But that’s beside the point.
What did they want me to do?
Go back into the tenth grade.
I found the Vice-Principal, told her that I had completed half of my classes in the tenth grade, was getting no credit for that and said, and I still remember this comment, “If I’m going to be in the tenth grade, I don’t want to be here.” I then ripped the tenth grade schedule up right in front of her, walked it over to the trash can, tossed it in and walked out the door.
Probably three to four years later, I went and got my GED, walked in there and took something like an evaluation test to see whether or not I was going to be able to take the regular test without need of more study and impressed the shit out of everyone.
Two weeks later, when the first opportunity came up to take the regular test, I took it, spent somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three hours taking the test, encompassing all kinds of subjects that I hadn’t yet encountered when I was in school but knew cold and then was told that I could expect results in the mail within a month’s time.
A handful of weeks later, my GED came in the mail with a note that indicated the results of each of four or five categories. When all was said and done, I had scored in the 98th percentile.
Like I said, I was a decent student.
I don’t know whether I would be a writer today if none of that had happened.
Well that guy over in the corner, yeah, the big guy covered in tattoos, he said he wouldn’t want to fuck with you.
You’re known as the editor of ATON, but you also also write first rate crime stories, what led you to editing?
For that answer, we have to revisit the first question you asked: what did I do before A Twist Of Noir.
As mentioned, I was writing for DZ Allen’s Muzzle Flash and Aldo Calcagno’s Powder Burn Flash and suddenly, DZ decided that he wanted to move on for publishing crime stories. I don’t know why and I don’t need to pry to find out. If he wanted to move on, that’s his decision and I wish him the best.
Shortly after, Demolition Magazine and a handful of other sites went by the wayside.
I thought that we, as crime writers, have to have somewhere to go with our stories. So when Chris Pimental decided to start BAD THINGS back up, I piggybacked on his mass mailing and informed everyone that I was starting up A Twist Of Noir and they could check it out, send in some stories and whatever.
As I told Michael J. Solender in my interview with him, I thought maybe I jumped the line and screwed up Chris in the process but it’s worked out okay and Chris wasn’t angry or anything.
Editing is just an extension of writing, really. Every writer ought to be their own editor. In fact, this is where I have the most fun with my own stories because I can always find pieces that should maybe come before something else in the narrative does or I can find stuff that should be excised altogether and it makes the story that much tighter.
That’s how I approach other people’s stories, too, as you know from dealing with me firsthand.
The barman brings over a couple of bottles of beers and Christopher opens one with his teeth, spitting the top across the bar.
Is there a novel you wish you’d written?
Many. American Skin by Ken Bruen, American Tabloid by James Ellroy,
Journal Of The Gun Years by Richard Matheson, Cruel Poetry by Vicki
Hendricks…how much time do you have?
He glances at his watch..
We’ve spoken a lot about crime, do you enjoy other literary genres?
Before I wrote my first crime story, I was writing speculative fiction. Not very well or at least nothing that I ever felt comfortable in sharing (nor would I want it to see the light of day today). Prior to that, I was going to be a stand-up comedian and write my own material. This, unlike the SF days, is stuff that I actually think is funny and would release it if there were an audience for it. I have a bunch of notebooks with comedy in them.
So, yeah, there are a number of genres that I enjoy or love to death. SF, comedy, some horror and comic books and, yes, I consider comics to be literature.
Thanks for the challenging and thought-provoking questions, Richard.
Thank you Christopher for giving such in-depth answers.
He stands up and walks out through the door, it is a hundred degrees and he is wearing a trench coat. I hear gun shots and see him drive away.