If you read any of Jason Duke’s stories at A Twist Of Noir they grab you from the word go.
They have a real, vivid quality that is there in the dialogue and the prose which is like freshly cut glass.
Jason is a Sergeant in the U.S. Army and served 15 months in Iraq as part of OIF 07-09. He also has a BA in Public Relations, which I guess makes him a man who can talk you down before snapping your neck. His stories have also appeared in an array of magazines such as Thuglit, Plots With Guns, Spinetingler Magazine, Pulp Pusher, Flash Fiction Offensive, and his screenplays have earned a special mention in the 2002 American Gem Short Script Contest. He was placed as a finalist in the 2003 Anything But Hollywood Contest.
He has also written a serialised novella, ‘Phoenix Life’. You may want to look out for it on crimewav.com soon. The trailer to it puts it at the top of your reading list. Check it out here.
Jason walks the walk.
He kindly agreed to let me interview him and boy was it worth it.
I arrived in the sweltering heat of a June day in Arizona and moved through the haze to the Iron Horse biker bar where we’d agreed to meet.
Jason was amicable and focused and so I began the interview.
How has your active military service influenced your crime writing?
It’s had a profound influence.
I say ‘fuck’ and ‘prick’ and ‘cock sucker’ a lot more now than when I was a civilian, plus a bunch of other choice words, but those are the ones I toss out there liberally the most. As in, some prick pisses me off, and I call him a fucking cock sucker right before I put him in a rear naked choke.
My 15 months in Iraq is probably what influenced my crime writing the most. I served in Iraq from December 2007 to February 2009. I wrote two breakthrough stories in 2008, “Soldier Boy” for Plots With Guns, and “Running to Zero” for Thuglit.
“Soldier Boy” has a clear military theme. I wrote it shortly after I got to Iraq and started noticing the true scope of how things were over there. The news showed you all the bad shit, which was pretty accurate because the place was a shithole, just the frequency that all the bad shit happened wasn’t accurate. The time I was there, I couldn’t see anything good coming out of Iraq, didn’t want to see. I hated being there and everything about it, which I think is pretty evident in Soldier Boy.
I wrote “Running to Zero” toward the end of 2008. The story has no military theme, but the influence was there. I’m of the Gen X generation. A lot of the soldiers in the Army fall into the Gen Y generation. I dealt with them on a daily basis; we depended on each other. But at the same time, these were also the same young self-entitled twenty-something pricks.
I was reading Chuck Palahniuk at the time and brushing up on existentialists such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, so I started writing about a self-entitled Gen Y kid that blames everyone else for his problems, culminating in his mental breakdown. I was nearly 12 months into my deployment, and by this point had reached a kind of mental breakdown of my own and was like fuck it, fuck them, fuck the world. Like the kid in the story, I realized I was blaming other people, blaming them for my choice to join the Army that led me to Iraq. So I guess writing the story was my way of working things out.
So far, I’ve written only two stories with clear military themes. The second one, “Last Days to Nowhere,” should be coming out in Pulp Metal Magazine soon. I also incorporate military elements into most of my stories, such as “Lie Down With Dogs” at A Twist of Noir or “Bloody Sunday” at Flash Fiction Offensive.
Most crime writers have never killed anyone, when you read descriptions of killings in fiction how real do they seem to you?
Fortunately, I’ve never had to kill anyone either.
Most of the attacks we dealt with in Iraq were IEDs and snipers. There was one major firefight where we actually had targets to shoot at, the spring 2008 siege of Sadr City against the Muqtada al-Sadr Mahdi Army, but I wasn’t there. I’ve seen plenty of the aftermath, as well as live footage from UAV’s or Apaches.
None of the footage was very exciting, or visceral. They just fall down, or if they get blown up, there’s a flash and big cloud of dirt. There’s no blood bursting from the bodies, no bodies or body parts flying through the air. Up close maybe it’s a different matter, but it all happens so fast that you don’t fully register it. You only see the aftermath, then try to fill in the rest.
For me, the aftermath was very visceral, wherein the true horrors lie.
That would be perhaps a realistic depiction of what happens, but not very exciting, especially in fiction.
So I’ve noticed a trend in crime writing that kind of mimics the movies insofar as the death scenes are depicted, where you do have the blood bursting from the bodies, and the body parts flying everywhere. Yet there are levels and degrees, in which you have some writers that go way over the top in their depictions, some not so much.
Also, writers write from an outsider’s perspective; they’re not living it in the moment. As a result, we’re forced to imagine what someone’s brains blowing out the back of their head would look like. I think because most crime writers haven’t killed someone or witnessed someone get killed firsthand, they’re left with what they see in the news, on television, in the movies, in pictures, etc. I think there’s always an attempt made for some degree of authenticity in these depictions, but limited owing to the sources most crime writers derive as a basis for what they believe happens when someone gets killed.
I guess then, for me, not very real; however, a hell of a lot less boring. If the reader thinks it’s real, and there’s that suspension of disbelief, then the writer has done his/her job.
Which crime writers do you like and why?
I like them all. There are no writers I dislike.
I think all writers and the stories they tell have inherent value.
Not to imply they are all necessarily good. I’m as much a hypocrite as the next person and will talk shit about a story if I think it’s bad, but regardless I still give every writer props for telling their stories and sharing them. It’s all gravy. I think the good stories will come to the forefront and it all works itself out in the end. Notice I say story telling. I prefer to sum it all up into that process because that’s the end result. The writing and everything that goes into it is all part of that process.
But I suppose everyone has preferences, and I’m no exception.
I prefer writers who write their stories in a contemporary setting as opposed to writers whose stories take place in the past. That doesn’t mean I won’t support those writers, or dislike their stories. I was fortunate enough to make a Megan Abbot book signing for “Bury Me Deep” and really dig the novel. Same goes for Eric Beetner’s “One Too Many Blows to the Head” or Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series. I just prefer contemporary settings.
I have a taste for depraved, twisted shit. Unlikeable, unredeemable characters; blood, violence, lots of action; sex and profanity. But also stories with a message, that make me feel something, get me thinking afterward about this thing we call the human condition.
Some of the authors I like include Anthony Neil Smith, Seth Harwood, Scott Phillips, B.R. Stateham, Charlie Williams, Kyle Minor, Reed Farrel Coleman, John McFetridge, Nick Quantrill, Dave Zeltserman, Ken Bruen, the list goes on. Three up and coming authors I think everyone should keep an eye out for are Hilary Davidson, Frankie Bill, and Greg Bardsley. Some of the writers I read in the various online ezines include Keith Rawson, Jimmy Callaway, Chad Eagleton, Christopher Grant, Daniel B. O’Shea, Josh Converse, Joyce Juzwik, Steve Weddle, Patti Abbott, Paul Brazill, the list goes on. And this bloke named Richard Godwin.
So, even though I have my preferences, and pimped a handful of names, it’s all gravy, I like it all.
Your screenplays have earned a special mention in the American Gem Short Script Contest and you have been placed as a finalist in the 2003 Anything But Hollywood Contest. You write excellent fast-paced fiction with first rate dialogue, do you see yourself writing more filmscripts?
I do, but my screenwriting has taken a back seat right now. My last attempt was entering the 2009 American Gem Short Script Contest. I made it past the first round picks, but that was it. Screenwriting is a tough business to break into. Two ways to get your foot in the door are knowing the right people, or through the contests. The contests can get expensive, though. I’ve heard screenwriters can make decent money selling their scripts, but very few of those scripts get greenlighted.
Name an experience that changed you and influenced your writing.
Finding a small relatively unknown ezine back in 1999 called Plots With Guns. I was writing horror and sci-fi at the time, and doing poorly at it I might add. PWG catered to a genre called crime-noir I had never heard of before, but when I started reading the stories on PWG, I was like “Oh yeah, this shit is cool. I want to write like this.” So I started sending stories in to the editor, Anthony Neil Smith. It took a few tries. Neil wasn’t like most of the editors I had dealt with. He encouraged me to keep submitting, offering me some pointers, instead of the typical form rejections I was used to with the other editors. I eventually got a story published in PWG, which led to more stories. I found myself writing less horror and more crime. It seemed to me that my crime stories rang truer than my horror. I discovered I had another voice locked away, stronger, truer.
What do you think the difference is between a cop and a soldier and how do you think society functions under military law?
I think a soldier protects the country as a whole from other countries and external threats, whereas a cop protects the citizenry from internal threats and maintains law and order. The decisions behind what is considered a threat is entirely political, on both sides. I think resorting to martial law is bad juju. It should always be a last resort after every attempt is made to resolve law and order on a local level through local law enforcement.
Have you thought about writing a war story?
Like strictly a war story akin to memoirs of my time in the Army? I don’t know, probably not. There are so many more interesting stories out there than mine. Besides, most of the stuff I write turns out crap, with the occasional gem I feel proud bragging about. So I think I’d be hard-pressed to write something good, or even decent, along those lines. My service is up end of next year and I plan to get out and write full time for a while. Maybe that way I’ll churn out more gems than crap. But six years in the Army is still enough writing material to last me a life time. I know I will continue to incorporate those experiences into some of my stories, though not every story because I want to mix it up, be eclectic. At least, that’s how I feel about it right now. Who knows how I’ll feel down the road.
Do you believe that character is destiny?
I would agree for the most part that character is destiny. Or perhaps a better word instead of character is personality. I think personality has a lot to do with how a person’s life plays out, how they choose to affect the world around them. For me, it all boils down to choice. The choices we make in life develop who we are, and the consequence of those choices shape the outcomes of life events. It is within our ability to change ourselves, no matter how far we sink to the bottom or rise to the top.
Why do you think crime fiction is so popular?
I know it seems pretty popular among writers lately, but I’m not sure how popular it is among strictly readers. Seems to me most of the readers are also writers. I think it’s popular because you get to see unsavory characters do dirt; you get to see bad things happen and not feel bad about it. Most of us are regular law-abiding citizens who would never do any of this shit in real life, so we settle for the next best thing. I think that’s what attracts us to crime fiction the most and makes it so popular. When something is illegal, forbidden, taboo, people are drawn to it. Sure, we could go out and rob and murder if we wanted, but there are real consequences involved. With crime fiction, there are no consequences, outside of when it’s used as a scapegoat for the next Columbine.
Do you have any plans to write a novel?
I’m in the process of writing one now, called “One-way Haiku.” I’m also working on a second novella titled “Zooman.” I plan to write more novels. Notice I say write, because getting them published and selling copies is a whole different ball game.
That’s true, as I keep saying, there are many fine writers on the net who deserve to be in print. Maybe the world of publishing is starting to take note of this fact. Good luck with your novel. And thank you for giving a real and fascinating interview Jason.
He rose and shook my hand and I watched as he walked outside. Some biker was pouring beer on his car because it was a BMW, and Jason put him in a rear naked choke. The biker gasped “Nice choke hold brother, I used to be in the Army.” Turned out most of the bikers at Iron Horse were ex-military. Jason let the biker go, came back inside and bought him a beer.