An Interview with Greg Barth by Rusty Barnes

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August 29, 2015 by RJ

gregbarth

I know how important Selena’s Appalachian background is important to her and to the story. Does that follow for you personally? How did you decide how much background was enough?

 

It does follow for me personally. First of all, I was born and raised in Southwest Virginia, the part of Virginia that is neatly tucked between Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. It’s really the only upbringing I know. My father and both grandfathers were coal miners, and I had a great uncle who was both a coal miner and a moonshiner (consumer and distributor anyway; I don’t think he was a producer). My grandmothers and mother outlived my grandfathers and father, not because they were sheltered (far from it) but because they were the toughest in the family. There was a feminine strength in our family. A resilience and toughness that I identified with. Selena’s upbringing is not atypical of what I have seen and experienced.

 

Growing up, we cut our teeth on coon hounds, corn whiskey, and shotguns. Marijuana was the middle-school import for the youth of my generation, probably our most distinct form of rebellion besides metal rock. The difference between male and female, drunk and sober, good and evil, heaven and hell, were all defined at a young age. Poverty was an ever-present reality. Drug abuse and the destruction of the pride and fortitude of the nuclear family were present in Appalachia in my generation in a unique way. Violence was the heritage of Vietnam of my father’s generation and WWII of my grandfathers’. But there is a strength to the Appalachian family–a bond, if you will–that is not present in the same way in other parts of the country.

 

I felt that Appalachia was the appropriate background for Selena, as it was the place that would provide her with the strength and fortitude that would prevent her from giving up when all was lost. That is the thing that is unique for those from Appalachia–you can lose everything in a day, but you will not give up, you will fight to survive, you will not roll over and die, you will rise again. Selena is a young woman who, whether she knows it or not, feels inferior to the normal cast of society. She feels this way because of her lack of education and her humble upbringing. She has done what she has had to do to survive, but a part of her cannot stand the things she has done. She will not give up and die when the going gets brutally tough, yet she has a self-loathing nature that drives her to alcoholism and self destruction. It is these dichotomies and contradictions that are daily present for those of us raised in the lower-class grit of the Appalachian foothills:  It’s a blend of shame and pride. It’s the tension between freedom and the southern concept of sin.

 

This was not the experience for 100% of my generation, but–for some of us, those who lived daily on the cusp of financial ruin, looking forward to their allotment of welfare cheese and a hot shower when the electric bill could be paid and the lights turned back on–it was. Selena’s experience was uniquely female, and mine male, but that shouldn’t matter to the reader. How vulnerable you feel coming out of that experience into the world at large is just how vulnerable you feel. I remember those girls at the high-school dances in the 10th grade that would catch rides home with coal-truck drivers on they highway at night.They were real people. They were good people. It was just normal for us. Selena is someone I could relate to.

 

There’s a tradition of strong women in Appalachian fiction. How would you like the book to be read, as part of that tradition or a pushback against it? Let’s face it, there are many potential Selenas around, but not many of them get written about or discussed.

 

Easily the best (and toughest) question I’ve been asked to date. For the record, let’s call it a pushback. Sometimes it’s hard for me to distinguish between an Ozarkan, or Southern, or Appalachian character. For example, Ree Dolly of Winter’s Bone is Ozarkan, but how is she different from the characters of Larry Brown or Flannery O’Connor or even William Faulkner? While I would never compare my crude scribblings to the great work of Daniel Woodrell, I think the contrast of characters tells us something about the pushback referred to in your question. To me, Ree is the epitome of the poverty-stricken Southern/Appalachian/Ozarkan heroine. She’s strong, she is passionate about her quest, and she’s not as innocent as other characters (such as Larry Brown’s Fay). Ree has a moral compass that points north when surrounded by a bunch of south-bounders. But Selena is not that. Something right and good with Ree is lacking with Selena.

 

What distinguishes Selena is her amoral nature, her strong bent toward self-destruction, and her willingness to do most anything. She is a young woman who fled home at a young age (the details of which are yet to be revealed in the second novel) and has had to do what is unpleasant and necessary to survive. She has self-medicated to the point that she can semi-function in society, but always on the brink of destruction. The violence that she suffers early in the novel  brutally pushes her over that brink, but it is her strength of spirit that enables her to survive and do the nasty things that are necessary to set matters right. I feel that Selena goes to a length that is not represented often in Appalachian literature, but it is her uniquely Appalachian feminine strength that enables her to survive in circumstances that pride or weakness would lead the rest of us to give up and die.

 

I don’t think that anyone would claim Selena as the paragon of feminist noir, or even the ideal, strong female protagonist of crime fiction. But for those of us who were raised at the very bottom of the proud, strong, self-sufficient, corn-liquored, reefer-smoked, death-metal bottom-rung of Appalachian society–both proud and ashamed at the same time, she just might be our anti-heroine and someone we’d like to share a drink with some day.

 

We’re talking background here. A couple more questions. Which crime writers, past and current, did you look to for inspiration while writing Selena?

 

I wrote about Selena for almost an entire year–about 1,000 unedited manuscript pages–so there are a few people that influenced the later portions that I had not read at the beginning. From the start, Stieg Larsson was an influence. I enjoyed his character, Lisbeth Salander very much and craved more of that vulnerable yet strong female protagonist.

 

Richard Stark was an early influence. His distilled, non-flowery prose style was appealing to me (as I felt myself too much of an amateur to write those long Southern sentences that just drip adjectives and adverbs and have commas sprouting up all over the place). I also liked the amoral nature of Stark’s character, Parker. Parker was a guy that cut his own path in the world. He did things his way and by his own code. This caused him some trouble now and again, which is why we have so many novels we can read about Parker–his trouble created the stories.

 

Another influence would be Carol Clover’s non-fiction work titled Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. I would go so far as to say that Clover’s book is a must-read for anyone out there that is interested in gender concerns in violent films. Especially if that person is a writer. You could also say that the first 100 pages of Selena owe a bit of a debt to films such as Death Wish from 1974 and I Spit on Your Grave from 1978. I’m not necessarily recommending either movie, but I was consciously thinking of them and the impression they left on me as I was writing the first book.

 

During the writing of Selena I read Mike Monson’s What Happens in Reno and The Scent of New Death. While those didn’t influence the idea of Selena, the edginess and on-stage brutality of Mike’s books encouraged me to let the story be as bold as it wanted to be. Mike is very straightforward with the violence in his novels. That is something I appreciate as it gives me some validation of my own work to see others doing this. I’ve also recently discovered Vicki Hendricks. I was finished writing Selena, Diesel Therapy, and Suicide Lounge by the time I read Hendricks’ Miami Purity. Part of me wishes I had read that one earlier. I think some scenes in the novels might have been a bit more explicit if I had. Vicki’s heroines are perfect in my estimation.

 

How do you feel about the camaraderie and interaction between crime writers on the internet and off? It seems to me to be pretty inclusive and largely–in public anyway–free of the status-seeking status quo.

Selena2 (1)

I think the camaraderie is great in the Crime Noir community. You won’t encounter much snobbish intellectualism there. We share something in common that forms a connection that you just don’t have with anyone else. I recently had the pleasure of attending Noir at the Bar in Durham, NC along with Eryk Pruitt, David Terrenoire, Steve Weddle, Geraud Staton, and S.A. Crosby. I can’t remember the last time I had as much fun. There was no status seeking in that group. I can honestly say that Noir writers for the most part are good people that have good intentions and want to do good things. Fortunately they write about a different kind of people.

 

The online community is much the same in my experience particularly among the small press and independent publishers. But writers are just like everyone else, and it depends on what you are looking for. If you are confident in yourself and not seeking constant validation, have a few ounces of humility, and recognize that everyone has a bad day now and again, you are going to thrive in this online community. Just like everyone else, writers have strong opinions on things and cliques form–some don’t care for the self-pubs, some don’t like amazon, some hate the big 5 and James Patterson, etc. Right now there seems to be a lot of bashing going on with E.L. James. Now I’ve never read anything by E. L. James, but I know people who would say those are the best books they’ve ever read. Some people love them. I’m at a point in my life where I am comfortable not judging others over a lot of things that I would have in the past. If E. L. James wants to write it and people buy it and even like it enough to show back up for the second and third installment, then why should I care? I’m happy she’s doing what she loves and that other people enjoy it. When I write something, I’m not thinking of it as anything important or long-lasting, I just want to entertain the hell out of myself while I am writing it. If it’s fun to write, I hope it is fun to read. So that’s just an example of something I disagree with others on, but that doesn’t mean that i’m going to flame out on Facebook and unfriend people, etc. I’m sure E. L. James can take care of herself, this will pass, and I’ll disagree about something else tomorrow.

 

So I guess what I am saying is, the online crime writing community is a great place to be. I love it there. But we are people too and getting along with others online is much like getting along with others in real life. You just have to let people be who they are and give them some space. I don’t like judging others if they are not hurting someone, or taking offense, or have a burning need to force others to agree with me. So I just don’t. I’m kind of hard to offend anyway.

 

How did Selena come about? I know she’s someone you’ve been writing about for some time (now that I know there are sequels). What compels you about her story?

 

First I should say that I have a long commute each day. I spend well over an hour on the road five days per week. I do my writing in my head in the car, daydreaming, listening to music. I find that certain songs inspire me and help me get into the heads of my characters. So Selena may have a playlist of songs that help me channel her. If I’m in Ragus mode, those are very different songs. Before bed each night, I write the scene that entertained me that day. Then when I go to bed, I think of the overall plot of the book and future scenes as I go to sleep. When I spend a lot of time writing, and I’m really in the zone, it’s not unusual for me to dream at night as one of my characters.

 

Now, what does that have to do with how Selena came about? It’s simple. I can hear her voice so well in my head and with such great clarity, I can sit down and start writing as her with almost no effort. I know what she’s going to do in most situations, and it’s usually something most of us would be unwilling to do. It’s not often that she surprises me, but there were a couple of times. When I wrote those scenes, I remember thinking, “Okay, that’s on you, Selena. That one’s going to come back to haunt you, but I get why you did it.”

 

Where did it start? I began to think of Selena first when I was reading the Jack Taylor novels by Ken Bruen. Taylor is a unique character. He’s kind of like Matthew Scudder except Scudder’s got stronger principles. I read several of Bruen’s early Taylor novels in one big binge. I began to wonder if that kind of character could work as a female. Now Taylor is Irish, middle aged, and washed up. Selena is none of those, but I think what inspired me from Taylor carries over, and that’s a bit of regret, self-loathing, but also a stubbornness about making things right.

 

Then at some point, I was toying with the idea of writing a story about a guy (actually Carl, the protagonist from my short story Bona Fide Jobs) who was trying to make a getaway in his girlfriend’s car. Only the car had a device installed that would not let you start it if you had been drinking. In the story, Carl would be unable to get the car started and bad things would happen to him. The thing is, I never wrote that. I wrote instead about a woman in a similar situation. Since it was a woman, I wanted to write it in first person. I’m not a fan of violence against women just for the sake of it. If this character was going to be beaten, the audience was not going to be doing the beating. The audience was going to get beaten right along with her and from her perspective. It was supposed to be a short story, but I heard her voice in a strong way during the daily commute. I discovered that writing a female protagonist meant that I could write about someone who acted out of emotion. An emotional killer doesn’t care about evidence. To an emotional killer, it revenge is personal. It’s visceral. Selena felt it all. She did not start out as a cold-blooded killer. Killing was the only thing she could do to deal with the pain and emotion and discontent she felt after her attack.

 

What compels me to write about her is what I think of as the spirit of her character. Life has dealt her a bad hand, but she is playing every single card for all its worth. She makes the best life that she can. She self-medicates. She seeks physical pleasure. She is willing to do the nasty things required for her to claw out an existence in the underbelly of society. She will go to extremes that are discomfiting for the reader. There is nothing personal with Selena, she puts it all on the page regardless of whether polite society thinks it should be there or not. She maintains a positive attitude, never gives up, is the victim of her own desperate decisions, and cannot just pretend everything is okay when she has been wronged. It’s this complex mix of good and harmful traits that makes her who she is. One thing I have learned about Selena is that I can put her in the worst possible situation, with no support (Prince Charming never comes to her rescue), no deus ex machina, and she will find a way to get out of that situation using only what she can find at hand. Now I am talking about her like she is an actual person. She is not. She is not based on anyone I’ve ever known, but her voice in my head is a channel I can tune in with little effort. I wish all characters were so easy.

 

When you wrote Selena, did you imagine there’d be another two books in here (there are two sequels, right?) How did you know?

 

Not at the beginning, I didn’t. But by the time I had finished the portion contained in volume one, I knew there would be two more. Those two are written and loaded up for release in the months to come from All Due Respect Books. I wrote them straight through with no break. The next two titles are Diesel Therapy and Suicide Lounge.

 

How I knew has a lot to do with how I write in general. When I am putting together ideas for a novel, I need at least a couple of things. First I want to have a character that I am interested in enough to spend a good 12 weeks with. When I am writing, I am thinking about my character during my long daily commute and while drifting off at night, and that is in addition to the time spent writing. But I also need three or four compelling scenes. These scenes might be major plot points that form the story for me as I write toward them. Or they may be small scenes that are unexpected or reveal something I like about the character. In some instances it may be nothing more than a line. For example, the excitement that was the impetus for the third volume involving Selena (Suicide Lounge) started with a single sentence. Now, Suicide Lounge is still pending final edits, but that line in the raw was “It was a week after my Demerol overdose that I moved into the apartment above the Red Light Lounge.” If you know anything about this woman named Selena, you know that line is pregnant with electricity–at least it was for me. When that line popped into my head, I knew there was a novel’s worth of material in there.

 

So, to make a long story short, by the time I had finished Selena, my mind was brimming with character growth ideas, scenes, lines, etc. I knew where the story was going to go, and I was excited about how I would get her there. For Selena, the hurdles get higher, and–as the author, I must say–there are times that she surprises even me.

 

You answered this partly with the Appalachian question, but I’m interested still. What is it in your background that makes this story writeable for you?

 

I spent my first 18 years of life in a world that was dying. It wasn’t evident early on, but as I grew into my teen years, I could not ignore the decay. It was a time of broken families, self-medication with alcohol, lay-offs from coal mining jobs, abject poverty, and contentment rather than justified desperation. Quite simply, we were in decline. My grandfather once told me that God put coal down in the ground so that young men could find work and earn a living and raise their families. He said that with sincerity, and I never questioned him on it. That’s who he was, you understand? And you don’t question that. But I grew up knowing a lot of young men that couldn’t earn a consistent living by digging coal.

 

When the Clinchfield Railroad cut through the Appalachians, a way of life was invented. Mineral rights were sold, mountaintops were stripped off, and the men dug coal. It was dangerous, back-breaking work. The families who lived in the coal camps and paid in script to use at the company store were exploited, pure and simple. But it put food on the table. Poor families were raised on this. Lyndon Johnson created programs and sent teachers into this area for the betterment of its inhabitants. It made a difference. But this was a way of life that was in steep decline when I came along. You’ve heard the old song “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”? Well, I grew up along the Clinch River, and I saw those rusted out coal cars sitting unused every day. Lyndon Johnson was long out of office, and the best I had were high-school teachers that were committed to exposing me to the world outside of the one I was born into. The L&N most certainly did not stop there anymore.

 

The tension that drove me away from Appalachia was that which rose between a kind, loving father who was content with things as they were and my discontentment with the lack of opportunity in the area. That and my youthful passion for what was possible. What does teenage angst look like in that world? There were many days that I walked through the kudzu covered forest by our home and reminded myself that I did not need to think about suicide, because the day was coming that I would turn 18 and would be able to leave. I left Appalachia when I was 18 years old. I didn’t go far, just to the edges, but I went to a world of more opportunity.

 

Does this mean that I am critical of Appalachia and the way of life there? Not at all. It is not a bad place. It is a place to be proud of. I don’t even think that my life was typical of everyone’s raised in that geographical area. My experience wasn’t unique, but it wasn’t exclusive either. My world offered coal mining (which was dying) and little else. I love the area and believe the people are the salt of the Earth. I’ve lived my adult life along the edges of Appalachia in part because of the deep ties that I have with the region.

 

Selena is a grown woman on the small urban edges of Appalachia when we meet her. She has not come to complete terms with her upbringing and who she is. She placates this pain with an almost hedonistic level of freedom and self-fulfillment through pleasure. She has also developed a toughness and a knack for doing the unpleasant things that she has to do to get by. The only thing that holds her back is a feeling of inferiority, a feeling that she is not good enough, that she did not start from the same place as others. This sense of humility that gives her a kinship with those below working class. She feels at home with people who make the gutter their home. I often describe Selena as someone who is “living the dream” when we first meet her, and I believe that. But she is living her dream, probably not yours.

 

Am I saying that I, as the writer of this, feel as diminutive as a tiny, petite woman from Appalachia who did not graduate high school and who feels at home in the gutter because deep down inside she thinks of herself as trash? No, not quite. I am educated and have achieved a certain level of professional success. But I understand it, and have felt it, and know how hard it is to overcome. And I know some people who are still there today and chose to never pull out of it.

 

Do not overlook the fact that Selena has a determined resilience, a strength to survive and overcome anything. That is not present in everyone. Where does she get that? From her upbringing. And just maybe mine.

 

You learn a lot more about Selena’s Appalachian background in the next book titled Diesel Therapy. That title carries a lot of connotations for many of us who have been at the bottom. It carries meaning for those in the federal prison system. It also has meaning for those of us that grew up in the hills where they dug coal and shipped it out in coal trucks. We breathed those diesel fumes daily. Diesel Therapy speaks of something ghastly and unpleasant…but also necessary. For those Selena readers that want to return for a second trip with this free-spirited woman, I look forward to seeing you there. It won’t all be pleasant, but Selena is always a force to be reckoned with. Everyone can be broken, but some people you shouldn’t break.

 
What would Selena’s music playlist look like? Does she rock the iPOD or the traditional cd route or is she a vinyl junkie?

 

We only get a couple of chapters’ worth of glimpse into Selena’s “normal” life in the novel. But already we know a couple of things. We see that she deals with cash and that she certain recreational activities that keeps the cash flowing into and out of her hands at a fast clip. Her money goes toward her habits, so she doesn’t have much of a collection. But we also see that she likes music and can draw some conclusions about here taste. The fact that she shows interest in a CD case for The Teaches of Peaches is a good indicator that she’s a CD woman and likes the music that she hears in the clubs.

 

Selena’s playlist looks nothing like mine. She’s drawn to a female pop singers. She’s into P!nk, Miley, Lady Gaga, Madonna, etc.

 

It might be interesting to also comment on the playlist I use to get into Selena mode when I am writing about her. That playlist would be:

 

“Victim of Circumstance” Joan Jett

“ACDC” Joan Jett

“Dirty Deeds” Joan Jett

“Reputation” Joan Jett

“Pretty Vacant” Joan Jett

“Handyman” Joan Jett

“Star Star” Joan Jett

“You Call Me a Bitch Like It’s a Bad Thing” Halestorm

“HIt Me Like a Man” The Pretty Reckless

“Ray of Light” Madonna

“Pretty Vegas” INXS

“Bad Girlfriend” Theory of a Dead Man

“Every Day is a Winding Road” Sheryl Crowe

“4×4” Miley Cyrus

“Something In Your Mouth” Nickleback

“Safe in New York City” ACDC

 

Hands down, the one song that makes me want to write something about Selena every single time I hear it is Joan Jett’s “Victim of Circumstance”.

 

What would you like people to know about this book or Selena herself that no one but you knows?

 

There is a scene in Selena where she feels a strong yearning for something that she cannot identify. She drinks, smokes weed, and scratches every itch that she can think of to satisfy the need. She gets so stoned that the world around her takes on the blurred edges of a Post Impressionistic style painting, the yellows bleeding into the blues. She attributes this to a Pablo Picasso painting. Eventually she understands that the craving she feels is the strong desire to murder the men that hurt her. What’s wrong with that scene? Picasso was not one off the Post Impressionists. In fact the painting that Selena was thinking of in that hyper intoxicated state was Starry Night over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh. She makes the same mistake inside Jack Jefferson’s apartment. She attributes the prints on his wall as Picasso’s. She does this yet again in an upcoming novel titled Suicide Lounge.

 

Now, whether this says something about Selena’s uneducated taste in art and her intoxicated state of mind at the time, or says more about author’s state of mind when he wrote these scenes and looked up at the prints hanging on his own walls I will leave up to the reader to decide.

 

 

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