Steve Weddle’s name is well known to anyone interested in noir writing.
Needle magazine is at the top of the tree in terms of quality and vision and Steve’s Channel Noir is a must see if you like crime writing in any shape or form.
Steve, a former English professor, graduated with an MFA in poetry from Louisiana State University. He now works for a newspaper group in Virginia and writes fiction.
He gave me a fascinating interview, in which we talked poetry, crime, politics and noir.
One weeknight I was sitting on the couch reading Crimespree Magazine. Of course I loved the reviews and interviews and all the news in there, but I wanted more fiction. Same thing with Mystery Scene Magazine. Most of the short fiction I was reading was online. Plots with Guns. Crimefactory. Beat To A Pulp. Twist of Noir. Pulp Pusher. Thug Lit. Thrilling Detective. Authors’ sites. And on an on.
To me, there seemed to be a bit of a disconnect. You could read about the writers in print, but you couldn’t read them in print. Not most of the folks I was reading, anyway.
And then there are the online flash challenges. A thousand words online. Hop from one site to another, reading along a theme, discovering authors I’d never heard of. Great stuff.
All of that just pissed me off. So much great stuff out there and it’s all over the web, but I can’t sit by my library window, fold it in my hand, and read it. I can’t take the stories out on the back deck and read them.
This year I turn 40. I’m not ancient. And I have a decent understanding of this world web the kids are talking about. But I like to have a collection in my hand, ink on paper, where I can read stuff and bookmark stuff and underline stuff and pass it off to a friend and say “read this.” Something I can enjoy at the lunch table. Unroll at the soccer game. And I wanted more people to read all these cool authors I’ve been reading. I wanted to put some of these great writers together, to make sure as many people as possible could see how great they are. You can get lost on the internet, you know? Hopping around from site to site. You bet there’s some great stuff out there, but I wanted an ink-on-paper alternative. As much as I love online crime fiction sites, I wanted a collection offline as another outlet.
So I mentioned that on Twitter and people much more talented and smarter than I am said they thought it was a great idea. So I asked some smart people to help, and they did. John Hornor Jacobs brought the artist vision to the thing. We chatted a few times and I told him what I had in mind. We seemed to be in agreement on most things. Then he’d send me some pages, some design. Unbelievably rich stuff. Sure the dude can write, but the eye he has for the look of the journal was just great. And Naomi Johnson and Scott D. Parker were phenomenal in reading the stories and making some suggestions here and there. And Dan O’Shea came in at the tail end and helped work out some kinks.
That’s the inside stuff. On the outside, of course, I asked some talented people to join in on this idea and send in some stories, and they did. In many respects, this was like a bunch of us getting together and just jamming out some tunes. And yet, each person’s own talents — drum solo, Van Halen riffs on the guitar, banshee wails into a reverb mic — ended up turning the show into such a fantastic concert. I was just really pleased with the way the journal turned out. But not just that. The people coming together to produce something — something literary and something lasting — was just so fantastic. From the feedback we’ve gotten, I can tell people were blown away by the stories, which is what it’s all about.
You graduated with an MFA in poetry from Louisiana State University, which poets do you admire and why?
Kenneth Koch. Gregory Corso. Anne Sexton. Chad Rohrbacher. Richard Hugo.
“Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/traveling-through-the-dark/) is amazing.
My favorite book of poems is The Never-Ending by Andrew Hudgins. He has a couple of great ones in there. One is called “Praying Drunk” and one is “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought.”
He has this style, this persona in these that can be deceptive. Kind of an old country guy, a drunk with a history who catches glimpses of that blinding light in the soul of the universe. He also has a poem called “Something Wakes Me Up” about his neighbors who are sawing apart a deer while he listens like a coward.
A poet named Laura Kasischke wrote one in Poetry magazine back in the late 80s. Maybe early 90s. The piece was about cheating on your spouse and thinking about what color to paint the upstairs bathroom. I’ve never read anything else by her, which is a failing of mine, not hers. But this poem has stuck with me. The poem is called “Palm.” (http://compost-hedgie.blogspot.com/2007/03/laura-kasischke-again-wild-brides.html) There’s this line in it that still, I don’t know. Seems stupid to say it “gives me chills.” But I read it and I get kinda shaky for a second and the hairs on my arms stand up. So whatever that is. I’m sure Hudgins or Kasischke would say it with cleverness. It isn’t about cheating on your spouse. It’s about wanting more. Thinking that there has to be more to your life. To life itself. The reader of her palm works through the woman’s life, how the mundane is punctuated with glimpses of blinding light. More than just simple journeys of family vacations. Here’s the line: “this is how the small survive, the way the small have always survived.” You gotta read the poem. I can’t do it justice. I’m like that guy from Star Trek doing the TV commercial saying how your TV can’t show how awesome this new HD TV he’s selling is because your own TV is crap. Well, I can’t explain how cool Kasischke, Stafford, and Hudgins are. I can point you in their directions, though. That’s the best I can do. Maybe it’s enough.
Do you think it is possible to write crime poetry?
Yeah, I can’t see why not. Once we had that meeting and decided this poem stuff didn’t have to rhyme, what the heck, right? Besides, the whole idea that Emily Dickinson is still taught in schools is pretty criminal, isn’t it? So why not crime poetry? From a certain angle, Sylvia Plath’s ARIEL is a book of crime poems, isn’t it?
I think what you want to do with a “crime poem” is the same as with any other poem. Get to that flash you can’t find in prose, some sort of understanding.
Dogrel about a bank heist, um, no thanks. But why can’t you address the human condition with a crime poem as well as with a love poem?
Crime poetry isn’t new. And it wasn’t new when John Milton took a shot at it, either.
Hmmm. Now I want to teach a seminar in the history of crime poetry.
William Blake said that all poets are ‘of the Devil’s Party’ referring to Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. James Lee Burke writes dark Gothic prose that goes into the internal lives of his characters in some depth, do you think that the popularity of crime writing stems from a desire to witness the extreme darkness within the human psyche?
I think the best crime writing comes from the ability to tell an engaging story involving people you care about. And conflict makes the story, moves the story along. Conflict adds friction. Interest. Motivation. You have to have something at stake. Sometimes that involves a victim staked-out in an ant-infested warehouse. Sometimes it’s crooked cops on a stakeout. Sometimes you’re on your way for a steak dinner and you get mugged. Hmm. Maybe that was too many “at stake” jokes. Fine. And I didn’t even get to the vampire crime fiction jokes.
With the idea that you need something at stake, the dark part of the human psyche is present, of course. The physical threat is important — do this or you’re dead — but I’ve heard people say that all crime writing is wish-fulfillment. You know, the people at work are mean to you. You don’t much care for your family. So you read or write about some tough character, someone who would give that mean jerk on the fifth floor what-for. Someone who wouldn’t put up with that crap. I guess there can be some of that in there. You want to read about people who are better than you. More exciting than you. But I think that’s a limited way of looking at things.
Part of the appeal of crime fiction, especially the darker stuff, is to have a neat, little container in which to hold your fears. People like to be scared. Makes them feel alive. We all know this. We talk about it at our “Understanding People for Crime Writers” meetings each Tuesday night at 8.
But people don’t like to be scared, um, in real life. Is that how to put it? I mean, it’s cool and exciting to read about some dude breaking into another dude’s house and tying him up and torturing him to find out where the blackmail photos are hidden. All cool until one night around midnight you hear glass break downstairs in the storage room, a high-pitched shatter on the concrete floor.
We like seeing horror on the evening news (kids, ask your grandparents) every night, but we don’t want it to be too close. And we like to have reasonable violence, as well as contained violence. That’s why crime fiction is such a comfort. Sure, the guy was tortured for the photos, but I don’t have photos, so I won’t be tortured. I’m safe. Kinda like when we hear about someone we know killed herself last week. We want to know why. We want to find a reason that it won’t happen to us. We press and press until we find out the girl was on drugs. Phew. We’re safe. We don’t do the drugs. This can’t happen to us. We can just turn the channel to another news show. Pick up another book about someone almost us, but not quite.
Violence at a distance. We slow down when we pass the three-car wreck on the highway. But we don’t stop.
One of the prevalent themes of crime writing is revenge. Do you think it’s true to say that revenge is lawless justice and if so what does the frequency of its occurrence say about the legal system we have imposed on the chaos we inhabit?
I’m not sure revenge is necessarily either lawless or justice. Revenge is taking action for a wrong. Maybe it’s a punishment. Life in prison can be revenge for murder in that sense. I guess one of the true statements we can make is to say that revenge is, by nature, reactionary. First you have the wrong — perceived or real. Then you have the reaction meant to settle the score — the revenge.
For crime fiction, this takes a conflict and lays out a series of events that must follow. One of the ways in which this can be made exciting is to move the story, the action, outside of the normal path. Cops spend a good deal of time with paperwork. Not so exciting. Before the accused gets to sentencing at the circuit court level, he or she has gone through, and I’m estimating here, probably 482 earlier court appearances. Sure, sometimes this is sexy. More often, it’s rather nap-inducing.
Man kills man. Cops arrest man. Man goes to trial, then prison. Blah. What if the man escapes the cops? What if he takes a family hostage? What if the narrator is one of those people taken hostage? The way the legal system “usually” helps us sleep at night. But those stories don’t keep us up at night, turning from chapter to chapter until we wake up in the morning with the book on the floor.
I’m sure someone smarter than I am could say something clever about how our “frontier” mentality in America informs the content of our fiction. How at some base-level, we all have to create our own order for the world, our own way of dealing with the chaos that surrounds us, that threatens to rips us all apart.
The idea of “lawless justice,” I think, goes back to what I was saying about the contained violence — ordered chaos, if you want. Brutal horrors lined up in alpha-order on library shelves. Yes, we want justice for wrongs that are done. And we like that justice a little messy. Not, of course, too messy.
Do you think that one of the functions of a narrative structure is to impose order on chaos?
You know those late 50s pieces from Coltrane, when he was working with Red Garland and Miles Davis? Before free jazz ruined the world, I mean. Even up to the mid 60s. You’d have a standard and you’d set up the, let’s see, maybe you’d call it a leit motif? The phrase throughout. Something to hold on to. Then the soloist would take off with scales and chords and you’d never know where the heck he’d end up. Then all of a sudden all those pieces start falling right back in and the song is brought around to the standard again. That’s the kind of jazz I like.
I don’t want just a series of notes following along the sheet music, some formulaic path from beginning to end. And I don’t want idiotic honking not tied to any damn thing. I like to have some understanding of what the expectations are when I start. Then take that and go with it.
This is why I like authors who can start with a conventional idea and then take it into new territory. Brad Parks with his reporter novels. Sean Chercover and his PI work. Joelle Charbonneau and her roller rink murder mystery. You get the set-up — the order — and then you can contain that chaos. Otherwise all you’ve got is a mess.
You know that phrase “Expect the unexpected”? I’m sure there are dumber phrases out there, but I can’t think of any right now. Once you expect it, it ain’t so unexpected, right? So I like to have my expectations set early on, whether it be Coltrane’s “Favorite Things” or Hilary Davidson’s short stories. Then I like to have everything break nasty.
Experimental fiction rejects a linear plot in favour of something more random, more evocative of the way the subconscious works, while traditionally crime fiction has followed the sequential route. Do you think it’s possible to write an experimental crime novel?
The poet Richard Hugo was teaching a creative writing class, listening to kids read their work. One of the students was reading his own composition with the line “I want to hold you forever.”
“Hold her forever?” Hugo asked. The kid said, yeah. Forever. Hugo laughed and asked, “What’re you gonna do when you gotta take a leak?”
That’s my favorite line from a poetry class. I only read about that one.
My second favorite line I got in person and this one actually has something to do with what we’re discussing.
One of my classmates at LSU was taking some crap for a poem he’d written. “I was just trying something. You know. An experiment.”
Professor Dave Smith wasn’t happy. “No such thing as an experiment like that. If it works, it’s a poem. Doesn’t work, it’s a failure.”
My favorite reading experience was when a half-dozen of us at LSU worked through FINNEGANS WAKE. We studied Irish history, watched documentaries, read many other Irish novels. We dug through economic theory from Italy. Church rules for Catholics. (I don’t think they call them rules.) All to better understand this “experimental” fiction Joyce had written. What an amazing book that is. Is it crime fiction? Eh, kinda, sorta. You can do things in there that you couldn’t pull off in anything more “traditional.” When finding “HCE” hidden in a section of drunken hiccups can bring a roomful of 20-somethings to hysterical tears, you know this isn’t a normal book.
I think the idea that anyone can write a book showcasing the way the subconscious works is a bit of a lark, anyway. Really a particle-wave sort of problem, isn’t it? How can you use your conscious brain to write a subconscious story. You’d write a story in the way your conscious brain tells you that your subconscious brain works. You can’t be both at once. You can have a bit of both, but can’t really exist as one and the other. Your conscious brain can’t adequately do the subconscious bit.
Crime fiction inherently follows a causal pattern. The thing before the crime. Then the crime. Then the thing after the crime. (Let me know if I’m being too technical.)
Could you break this apart, as they did in the movie MEMENTO, to come up with something new? Someone probably has. Experiments in crime fiction happen all the time. Time shifts. Unreliable narrators. Points of view. I can’t think of a Faulkner novel that wasn’t crime fiction.
The problem with the subconscious is that it isn’t altogether rewarding, is it? We get glimpses of cleverness, but the payoff just isn’t there. Kinda like a third-rate comedian. Some funny jokes here and there, but not that big one at the end that brings it all back together. You get those minor connections, as in a dream, but no way to hold it together. “There was this horse there who turned into my Uncle Rocky, I guess because of the Italian Stallion, and then he said something that I thought was great and I thought I should write it down when I wake up but then I wrote it down on the horse’s saddle which I guess the horse had come back and I thought I was awake when I did that and then I looked down and I stepped in horsecrap and that’s when I woke up too late to let the puppy out.”
Dreams. Comedy. Jazz. Crime writing. You gotta have something to hold things together. But not too tight. And not all the time. You gotta take a leak every once and a while.
Do you think in terms of crime writing it’s more interesting to read a whydunnit than a whodunnit?
I just finished reading a good book by Michael Connelly. This one involves a cold case that’s brought up again for such-and-such a reason. So you’re expecting there to be more to the crime than you think. Well, there’s another crime related to that one. Then maybe it isn’t. Then maybe the whole reason of why it was brought up again is more important than the crime itself. In books such as that one, you just grab hold of the main guy and hope you can follow along. But in these types of books, you’re reading them because of the main character. These mysteries that have 15 books in the series. Whether it’s Laura Lippman or Reed Farrel Coleman, you’re not reading a whydunnit or a whodunnit when you pick up one in the series. You’re reading a whodunsolvedit.
Readers will go along with you in book three when your guy is chasing down a serial killer. And in book eight when he’s after a group of terrorists. Book eleven when someone is threatening an elementary school with low-grade beef. They follow along because of the character in these.
Then you have stand-alones in which the back of the book sells you. One of those where this, that, and the other is at stake and there’s a ticking clock in the background. She has to find the dirty nuke at hidden at the county fair before the fat lady sings. All without waking her senile grandmother, whom she brought along in a wheelchair for some fresh air before getting caught up in all of this. But what if she finds the nuke on page 25 but doesn’t know who or why. Or she knows the who because he was blown up just as she discovered the location of the bomb. But why was her husband planting the bomb?
I guess the wheredunnit wouldn’t work any more than the howdunnit or whendunnit. “Why” and “who” it is, then.
There’s a good book I read last year called TRUST NO ONE by Gregg Hurwitz. Bad guy going to blow things up. Then the cops kill him. The “who” in the whodunnit shifts because the crime itself has moved. The why moves along at a crisp pace.
If you set it up from the criminal’s point of view, have her kill some folks, then die in a shoot-out with the cops by page 10, I think you could have a pretty good start to a whydunnit. I would think something like this would be just as clue-driven as the typical whodunnit, but you’d need a good deal of psychobabble throughout, um, I mean insight into the killer’s personality to pull that off. Maybe by page 150 you think that the cop who killed her wasn’t as clean as you thought. Maybe he killed her to cover up something.
Whether the book is a standard whydunnit or whodunnit, it seems to me the best books are those that bring in both aspects.
Picking up on what you just said, do you think Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime And Punishment’ was one of the first great crime novels?
Kate Horsley and crew have done some great work at http://www.crimeculture.com in setting up some historical context for how crime fiction came about.
If someone wanted to claim that C&P was the first great crime novel, I’d be OK with that. Keep in mind, though, that it was first read in a magazine, much like the Sherlock Holmes stories that started a couple of decades or so later. And that’s not to mention Poe’s work back in the 40s.
And there was a book by a Danish guy in the early 1800s based on a two-hundred-year old crime. I think that one is considered a “true crime novel,” though. Can’t think of the guy’s name. (Thanks, Google. The books is The Rector of Veilbye by Steen Steensen Blicher. YES. THAT Steen Steensen Blicher.)
As for the crime novel, though, Dostoyevsky would be right there. Drunks, deadbeats, detectives, murder, and political ideology. What more could you want?
Beyond a doubt the biggest crime is that Dostoyevsky didn’t turn this into a series of novels. Maybe Raskolnikov and Sonya leave Siberia, adopt a cute little Persian kitty with some vague psychic powers and travel around the world solving crimes. Heck, he could have taken some minor characters and spun off some Young Adult novellas from it. Then people would remember his name. Dostoyevsky. Geez, what an idiot. Not THE Idiot, of course. That would be Myshkin.
Prior to 9/11, which exposed the vulnerabilities of air space and ushered in a new age of terrorism, the national boundaries of the US had been invaded militarily only once: by Pancho Villa and forces from the Mexican revolution. There is a persistent theme in American literature of the fear of invasion, be it from insurrection from within to fears of the Mafia, FBI, or CIA: do you think that this theme plays a part in crime writing?
Part of that is the basic “fear of the other,” don’t you think? As the scientists will tell you, we wear our New Orleans Saints jerseys to identify with our tribe. When we see someone at the game wearing an Atlanta Falcons jersey, we know he’s “one of them.” As humans, we’re all quite generous in our prejudices. We can hate anyone who is different — and fear is part of that hate. Whether ifrom the color of the skin or the colors of the flag, our “fear of invasion” as you put it, is a strong motivator in our lives and our fiction.
Whether it’s Pancho Villa coming into New Mexico or the government sneaking in to take away my closet of guns, fear makes a good motivator. Imagine “the other” making you powerless. Now that’s good stuff for crime fiction. Michelle Gagnon has a book out called THE GATEKEEPER about a charismatic guy who brings many of these various hate groups together. These groups fear so many things that it’s easy to get them riled up. That can be a powerful force in fiction as well as in popular culture. From the readers’ perspective, these groups become one more “other” to deal with. And each of these groups has individuals with their own stories to tell.
This type of crime fiction shares much of its punch with horror fiction, I think. The fear of something creepy and dangerous under the bed. Monsters. Terrorists. Serial killers. Government spies. Whatever it is, it’s enough to scare you. To take you out of your comfort zone and smack you around a bit.
“Fear of invasion” is, in one sense, a fear of having the status quo altered. A change to your comfort. You’d mentioned earlier about revenge. Much the same, don’t you think? For Panco Villa, the assault onto American soil was revenge for some bad guns he’d gotten. President Wilson sends forces after him, but can’t catch him. Later, President Wilson sends forces into Mexico to stop the Germans from selling guns to one of the Mexican sides. Someone does something, changing a comfort level, then the other side has to seek “revenge” in order to restore the balance — bring order to the chaos, as it were.
And that’s what much of crime fiction is all about — restoring order or creating a new order. Changing the way things are or changing things back to the way they were. Good people do well, while the bad people go to jail. Of course, what happens when the shiny people are filthy, evil bastards bent on keeping everything set to their own order? When the order isn’t all it’s supposed to be? What happens when the best person out there — the person who can set things right — is just back from two years in jail, fighting an addiction to pain killers, and trying to prove that the cop who killed his brother is a crooked son of bitch? What happens when you need an invasion from that rebel, that guy you fear, that “other,” in order to break things apart and create a new order? Well, then you don’t just have crime fiction. Then you’ve got noir.
You certainly do. Thank you for your time Steve, this has been a deep dig into noir and the way literature provides a map of our experience. Noir’s ongoing fascination and power stems from its exploration of characters who are on the edge, living in a twilight zone. It depicts men and women who are not morally upright or heroic, but flawed, desperate individuals caught up in something sinister. Because of this I think its pull stems from the fact that it shows none of us are faced with simple black and white choices. It deals with that world of the irrational that drives so much of our lives.