Reed Farrel Coleman is a hard boiled poet and Noir writer who was the executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. He has published twelve novels, two under the pen name Tony Spinosa, in three series, and one stand alone with Ken Bruen.
He is also the three time winner of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year.
He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about crime fiction and totalitarianism.
Do you think Noir without sex is lacking something?
I’m generally not a rules dedicated kind of guy. I guess my one writing rule is anything goes if you can make it work. So I never approach any reading of genre or sub-genre with preconceived notions of what that book or story must contain. Well, a PI novel must have a PI, but beyond that it’s the quality and entertainment value of the writing that matters. I like sex in Noir as much as the next reader, but don’t feel it necessary. In any case, I find the implications of sex or sex as a rewards for misdeeds more provocative than the act or acts themselves. My flip answer would be that I find sex lacking without Noir.
You are given a large sum of money to carry out a hit. How would you go about it to avoid detection?
There are a few ways one might go about it:
1. Take the money and run, forgetting about the hit.
2. Pay someone else to do it for you and then kill the person you hired.
3. Find someone dying who needs the money for his or her family and let them do it.
4. Make it look like an accident.
5. Of course the most detestable is to kill many people with something like a bomb so that it is unclear who the actual victim is.
Do you think killing and fucking are related?
My wife and the women I was with before her sure hope not! Do I think they’re related in the mind of the Noir fan? Some yes. Some no. I would be lying, however, if I denied that culturally there is a blending or rather an association between sex and violence. And it’s so odd that in our culture full nudity in movies is frowned on in a purely sexual context, but if a totally nude woman is brutally murdered, that’s somehow okay. That’s the perversity.
Tell about Gun Church.
Well, depending upon my frame of mind, I either see GUN CHURCH as a labor of love or an albatross. Here’s the story: At the very first Thriller Fest, I was listening to a weapons demonstration given by my friend, Jim Born. Someone in the audience asked a question about the spread of shotgun pellets and Jim said something like, “You’d have to really be a gun nut to answer that question.” When Jim said that, a complete plot popped into my head. It was about a once-famous writer who had fallen on very hard times and was now teaching creative writing at a rural community college. This guy saves his class from disaster and then falls in with a cult-like group of people who basically worship handguns. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say it’s sort of WONDER BOYS meets FIGHT CLUB with guns. It took about 5 years to write and it went through wholesale changes. 5 years! I usually write a 300 page book in about 5 months. Finally, Audible.com expressed real interest in the book and they worked with me to get it just right. It will be out this November as an exclusive audio book. I can’t wait to hear it.
Do you think the rise of the theocratic right is a bigger threat in America than the criminal underclass?
Frankly, I think there are any number of threats to America and most of them are self-inflicted. I think our founding fathers would be horrified by the right and left. I know I am. No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, it would be hard, if not impossible, not to be disgusted with the level of our political discourse. The criminal underclass has nothing on the government.
Do you think that totalitarianism is the death of existentialism?
How did you know philosophy was one of my majors in college? I have to say many of the questions you’ve asked me are deep and require actual thought. I’ve gotten so used to giving pat answers to pat questions that I’m a bit rusty. Briefly, no, I don’t think totalitarianism is the death of existentialism. I’m not particularly fond of existentialism, but one of its beauties is that it can exist (sorry) in a vacuum, independent of a particular culture or societal norms, whatever they may be. As long as one person holds onto an existential view of his or her life, existentialism can’t be wiped away. Even if someone devised a way to eliminate existential thought from current discourse or found a way to go back and erase it from textbooks, computers and scholarly works, it would inevitably be rediscovered.
Who are your literary influences?
Actually, I love answering this question. My early influences were poets and sci fi writers—interesting combo, huh? I loved Asimov, Rod Serling, Harlan Ellison, Orwell, Poe, Wallace Stevens, TS Eliot, Vonnegut, chandler, Hammett … the list is long and varied. I continue to be influenced by almost everything I read. In some sense, current writers influence me more directly than my early favorites. For instance, Lawrence Block, Philip Kerr, Peter Spiegelman, SJ Rozan. Even writers whose work is very different than mine influence me; people like Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott.
Is there any one incident that has changed your life?
There are hundreds, but the one that had the most profound impact on me was watching a man die from a gunshot wound. I was fifteen and walking to work when I heard a gunshot. Like a total idiot I ran toward it. There, lying in the street in front of the post office in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn was a man with a dime-sized red spot on the belly of his shirt. He wasn’t bleeding very much—what did I know about internal bleeding when I was fifteen? His breathing was all ragged. He didn’t moan or anything and I remember people were kind of frozen around him, not moving, just watching. Me too. When the ambulance came, the EMTs—that didn’t have a name for them then, but that’s what they were—worked on him. Then he stopped breathing. I thought, how could someone die from such a little, barely bleeding wound? Then this thing happened that I will never forget. One of the EMTs removed the man’s sock and ran a tongue depressor along the bottom of the dead man’s foot. It just seemed so fucking weird to me. Only years later did I find out they were looking for something called a Babinski reflex. It seems only the newly born and the dead don’t have one. I’ve written an essay about the incident that appears in BROOKLYN NOIR 3 and a poem about it for THE LINEUP.
If you could ask one question to any writer living or dead what would it be?
I would ask Shakespeare who he really was.
Is writing worth the sacrifice?
A: Most casual readers, I think, tend to have romantic visions of the life of writers and artists. My life is anything but romantic. Writing is a job and it’s a struggle like any other job except that it doesn’t always come with a steady paycheck or paid vacation time or benefits. Is it worth the struggle? That’s easy to answer for myself. Yes, I would do this insanity all over again given the same choices. I wonder sometimes, though, if my family feels the same way. My wife and kids—they’re not really kids anymore—have had to make sacrifices too because of my choice of career. We haven’t traveled as much as we would have liked to. My kids didn’t go to the colleges they might have gone to had I been a clerk or worked in middle management. My wife has had to work summers to keep us afloat. So when I write on my acknowledgment pages that none of this would have any meaning without the love and support of my family or when I get up and accept awards and thank my family, I couldn’t express just how much I owe to them.
Thank you Reed for a thoughtful and insightful interview.
Reed Farrel Coleman links:
In addition to the audio book ‘Gun Church’ coming out this November, look also for ‘Hurt Machine’, reportedly the last Moe Prager book, coming from Tyrus Books, December 2011