Anthony Neil Smith otherwise known as Doc Noir is one hell of a writer, who is also the Director of Creative Writing Associate Professor at Southwest Minnesota State University.
He writes fast paced crime fiction that leaves his rivals in the shade.
You may know him as the editor of Plots With Guns.
His novels have put Minnesota on the map with Noir.
His latest novel ‘Hogdoggin’ is out.
He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about real crime and gun culture.
Do you think that Minnesota lends itself to a particular style of crime writing?
To be fair, I haven’t really read a lot of Minnesota crime fiction, and the one or two books I have read don’t really have much local flavor. I’ve only been in Minnesota for six years, so I’m really more familiar with the Southern fiction of my home state, Mississippi.
However, I guess I was first exposed to the idea of Minnesota crime fiction through the movie FARGO. And the tone of that seems to still fit, I think, especially if you’re looking at that world as an outsider like Steve Buscemi’s character was. A bit of the absurd mixed with a dark underbelly. Yeah. But the Minnesotans don’t much like to talk about the underbelly, thank you.
“Minnesota Nice” was a concept I’d been warned about–surface politeness that repressed what people really thought. But right away, here in the Southwest part of the state anyway, I was greeted a general sort of unfriendliness. That sucks in a neighbor or plumber, yeah, but as possible characters for noir? Gold mine.
Also, my slice of Minnesota is in farm country. Very rural. And one thing I’ve seen from Mississippi to Minnesota is that rural is rural. A lot of the same attitudes. Accents might change, weather might be worlds apart, but still more similarities than differences.
You see a lot of attention given to Scandinavian crime fiction right now, and I really do love the atmosphere from writers like Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankell–showing us harsh people, withdrawn. You’d think that would translate easily to Minnesota which is full of
Scandinavians and cold weather. But for some reason it doesn’t quite make it.
Henning Mankell is known for his political views, being a strong opponent of the Vietnam war, South African apartheid and Portugal’s colonial war in Mozambique. To what extent do you think these views are reflected in the stark and brilliant figure of Wallander?
I don’t know much about Mankell. I’ve just read a few Wallader books and liked them okay. But I guess thinking of the books in a political way didn’t occur to me. Could be that’s a blind spot for me. I like to read novels where it’s harder to tell where the author comes down on the political spectrum. Even better if over several books he or she is a bit of a wild card. I hear Ellroy call himself a conservative and do a double-take. Really, you can be a conservative and say that? Act like that? Same with Ted Nugent, Andrew Sullivan, Stephen Hunter, for example. I like the politicians who surprise me, make me think. And, you know, being opposed to bad stuff, that’s great and all, but…hey, I don’t like war either. But I won’t oppose them all on principle. Lots of gray areas.
When you read about real crime do you find it more shocking than the events in crime fiction and do you think crime fiction can be too realistic?
I’ve never read crime fiction that feels as real as real life crime, no. And I don’t think we should ever stop striving for that realistic feel in crime movies or novels, but we should also remember that a lot of real life crime lacks the sort of drama that fiction delivers. A lot of crimes in real life are, well, usually inexplicable moments where people who know each other do terrible things out of a strong emotional jolt. The majority, I’d say. And yet whenever I hear of real life crime stories, they get me in the gut.
For example, this case in Massachusetts of the home invasion, where the two assholes tortured the family, demanded the mother drive them to the bank to withdraw money, then raped and murdered the mother and daughters while the dad, tied up in the basement, escaped just as the assholes set the house on fire. That really gets to you. Shit. But as a work of crime fiction? The closest thing I can think of to this is FUNNY GAMES, which has a lot of craft to it (I’m not saying it’s a good movie. Not that keen on it). There’s story. There’s drama in that we see the movement of the story from more than just the outside. There’s even a sick dark humor and metafictional element to it all. We experience it differently than we experience stories of real crime. Maybe that’s what crime fiction’s real power is–showing us crime from the inside-out. But it will always feel like art compared to true crime or news reports. That’s because the artists, even when trying to show shocking crime and violence, are still crafting art, right? Can reality be art? Maybe accidentally.
Crime fiction needs to reach for the realism, sure, but I don’t think it can ever feel the same as how we experience real crime stories when they’re told to us. And they don’t need to. Crime fiction needs to serve a different purpose.
Tell us about your latest novel.
HOGDOGGIN’ was the most recent, from the Summer of 09. It was a sequel, kind of, to YELLOW MEDICINE, which took my characters Billy Lafitte and Special Agent Rome to their psychological extremes (and in Billy’s case, physical). Bad cop Billy somehow got away from Pale Falls and ended up as enforcer for a small motorcycle gang led by a guy named Steel God. Rome used Lafitte’s family as bait to draw him out into the open. And then shit got wild.
I have finished two more since then, which I think will go out to publishers under pen names due to my crappy sales record under my own. The first, I can’t tell you about because we’re keeping the pseudonym secret. But the other I can tell you is a thriller concerning the disappearence of young Somali men from the Twin Cities. About twenty of them vanished, only to end up back in Somalia fighting for the Muslim extremists over there. Something about that really got to me, and since our small rural town west of the Cities has a pretty decent-sized population of Somalis, I imagined what would happen if one of these small town guys became one of those converts, and what the local cop assigned to the case would do about it. The action shifts back and forth from the search for answers in Minnesota, and the action on the ground in Somalia.
After that, I’ve got another idea I’m exploring right now, and since I’ve got a one-semester sabbatical this winter, I’m looking forward to jumping back into the pool. I like it when I’m working on a novel. It seems I only ever take a month or two off from writing one. This time, I’m thinking a few weeks.
There is a definite distinction between various types of crimes, for example between robbery and serial killing. What psychological extremes do you think drive men down criminal paths that many people find impossible to comprehend?
You know, I think a lot of it goes back to a sense of entitlement. Part of a larger, narcissistic personality disorder, maybe. Take selfishness to the extreme. We see plenty of sociopaths around, but they’re not all killers. Many are just manipulators, able to get what they want through emotional blackmail, emotional play-acting, passive-aggressive suggestion (I’m not an expert, though. I’m just pulling this out of my ass as I see it). Never taking responsibility, always ready to pace the blame elsewhere. So the next step, taking it into the criminal world, is to see others’ lives and property as belonging to them to do as they please.
Even the most heated decisions to kill or maim or steal, we see, always come back to the perpetrator not taking responsibility. It was a temporary fugue state, or insanity, or he or she wasn’t thinking straight because, after all, it was the cheating spouse/partner’s fault, or or or…you know. I think of those kids (allegedly) who broke into celebrities’ homes, stole their stuff, paraded it online, and then got a fucking TV show out of the deal.
Charles Baxter talks about something similar in Burning Down the House, about “Dysfunctional Narratives”, starting with Nixon’s Watergate denials/justifications/blame game, that ended up defining how we communicate in contemporary American culture. No one taking responsibility. I’m paraphrasing here, but Baxter says something along the lines of us losing the story of ourselves. Losing our way. And in todays criminals, you see this writ large.
Do you think that crime writing overlaps with horror?
It should, I think. In the best instances, especially with the “suspense” category, which Hitchcock learned to do very well by the time he got to PSYCHO. Yeah, crime, which is the thing that scares us all more than zombies, should be horrifying.
So that’s why Agatha Christie is so hard to read. No horror. Too much tea.
I’m not so sure I like the overlapping of supernatural horror with crime fiction, though. In those cases it’s a bit hard to believe. I can take a psychological fake out, but not an actual supernatural connection. But then again, I’m sure there are some books out there that would prove me very wrong.
I like zombies as much as the next weirdo, and I enjoyed Anne Rice’s rock star Lestat novel, and I like some of Lansdale’s horror stuff, and some King, and so on. And the feel of those books can be a lot like crime fiction. So my objection is more along the lines of having a series detective keep stumbling over the supernatural every time out. Hell, I tried to do that when I was eleven years old–my “cajun detective” named Mason Jane was always finding out it was a ghost or some shit. Of course, those were handwritten, never published. I could’ve cashed in!
Horror and crime should go hand in hand, and I’m glad to see it does in the hands of Sean Doolittle, John Rector, Stephen Graham Jones, Scott Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Lansdale, Allan Guthrie, Ray Banks, Tara French, Sara Gran, wow, that’s a lot of fucking names right there.
What do you think’s wrong with the publishing industry today?
I mean, yes, you’ve got bean counters who won’t publish mid-list stuff, thus making the expectations for everything they do publish unrealistic. But small or indie presses could take up the slack. Except that it’s hard to make money publishing…even if you were to do it like the indie record labels, it’s a different product…
You know, I guess that’s all way above my head. I’m not a businessman. I want to write stories, get paid for them, and have the company who paid for the stories to do its damnedest to get them into the hands of the right readers. I don’t really care what format that is, either. Although I do think paperbacks are better technology than a Kindle, and that hardbacks are way way way overpriced and not a good determination of an author’s selling ability until he or she becomes pretty well known.
But if someone offered me a juicy hardcover deal, I’d take it. So no matter what I think is wrong with the industry, I’m pretty sure I’d fuck it if it was putting out.
What is the most disturbing thing you have ever experienced?
I was on a panel once called “Guys with Guns” or something like that, and we were talking about noir fiction when a woman on the front row, a British writer of mysteries (not my favorites, I’ll tell you that), asked, “Have any of you ever been on the wrong end of a gun?” And of course, no one on the panel had, so she held her nose high and said, “Well, I have, down in the blah blah jungle at the hands of the blah blahs…” Of course, trying to upstage us, make us feel as if we really didn’t know what we were talking about.
But fuck that. No, I’ve never been on the wrong end of a gun. But I’ve been afraid for my life. I’ve lost people in my life, I’ve had some bad bad luck, even though I was raised upper middle class and didn’t get into a lot of trouble. But yeah, I’ve experienced some disturbing shit, but I don’t want to talk about it. I just…don’t think it does any good.
Do you think it’s possible to write a made for film novel and if so how does it differ to other novels?
It would be short.
The best TV shows, like THE SHIELD, for instance, feel like a good novel. But a two hour movie? Feels like a short story, at least to me. Very different experiences.
To write one for film, you have to be as objective as possible, not a lot of character thoughts or description. It just has to move. And it has to have style.
Personally, I’d love to see more adaptations made into completely new stories, like THE HUNTER becoming POINT BLANK, or the way the Coen Brothers made MILLERS CROSSING almost like a Hammett novel, or how Tarantino’s PULP FICTION was the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel ever, even without it being Based on an Elmore Leonard novel (and JACKIE BROWN was not that good of one, I’ll say).
TV is where you can make novel-like stories shine.
Do you think gun culture still informs the American psyche and if so how do you think it links into men’s perceptions of themselves?
Yes, yes I think it does. I think it links into men’s perceptions by having us buy into the fact that we’re the masters of our own fate. A big individualist streak. We protect our households and our families, not the government. The government’s in a building across town. That won’t do.
So, really, it’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness all balled into a 15-shot clip. Is a lot of it pure psychological delusion? Probably. But a gun can end a life, save a life, all at the same time. It makes a man feel safe first, powerful second.
Especially out here in the big, wide, empty Midwest. Guns are like muscle cars. Awesome machines in the right hands, deadly if you fuck around with them. Cool.
Thank you Neil for giving a revealing and engaging interview.
Doc Noir’s office hours are posted here.