REVOLUTION JOHN: So you’re writing crime fiction these days, and kicking ass, as usual. You write across a wide field of forms and genres, man. What led you to make the full commitment to crime novels?
RUSTY W. BARNES: Nobody was kicking down my door with publishing opportunities based on my novel manuscripts or good looks, and I was laboring over words trying to write what would serve as my entry into the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL sweepstakes of time, which was Reckoning, my first novel. It took me ages to publish it, written in 2008 and finally pubbed in 2014, after trying agents and big publishers with which I had minimal chances. I took some time off to write poems and decide how I wanted to spend my writing life from there on out. Jedidiah Ayres sent me an email about my story collection Mostly Redneck, and we began chatting, as you do, and I liked what I was hearing about the books he was publishing (Peckerwood is a great one), and I slowly made friends in the online/indie crime scene. Thomas Cobb, author of Crazy Heart–yes, that Crazy Heart–and Shavetail and a bunch of other unfairly little-known books, a great literary friend of mine, was also writing a crime novel. I thought, if Tom can write one, why not me? So I did. I noticed a lot of people writing lots of short novels, harkening back to the golden age of pulp books, where many writers cranked out a million words a year. So I wrote a short novel. No agents, as usual, were interested, but one of them suggested I try the indie crime imprint 280 Steps. I sent the book in, the publisher accepted it, and soon after, a sequel. In 2014-2015 I ended up writing four of these short novels of 40-50K. I just finished the third book in the series for 280 Steps, and I have another standalone novel I’m about to send out. I’ve also got some crime stories that I’m treating as a novel-in-stories, which will be ready soon.
So I guess I’m a crime writer for the near future. It fits in with all my obsessions. Most important, I’m having fun.
RJ: It’s working for you, man. Ridgerunner, the first book you published with 280 Steps, was great. And something I noticed while reading it was that, although you were clearly writing within a certain genre, you retained your poetic use of language for the most part, your poetic expression when diving into character. So now you’ve finished that three-part series for them. I have to think having several books out there, especially in a series, will increase the number of times you find a royalty payment in the mailbox. We don’t write for the money, exactly, but that’s probably going to be nice.
RWB: I’m glad you noticed I tried to keep my style, my style. My crime fiction seems to a bit more streamlined than my ‘litfic’, but I didn’t make any changes to the way I write for these books. I just made them shorter, topping them out at 45K or less. Short read-in-one-sitting novels.
I hope royalties come. People seem to like the idea behind Ridgerunner so I hope it sells. I wish I knew what else to do to make it sell. I’m sending out a lot of short stories and flash fiction, trying to keep my name in the public eye, before pub date. I don’t really know what else to do.
RJ: I see you have been immersing yourself in reading noir and pulp and crime literature. What amazing reading have some of us missed? Do you have two or three writers who are emerging as high water marks for you as a reading writer?
RWB: Oh wow. I’ve discovered a whole genre’s history lately, and it’s been so much fun. Authors I’ve read recently include many contemporaries: Anthony Neil Smith, Christa Faust, Jed Ayres, Jake Hinkson in particular, Ryan Bradley, Heath Lowrance, Matt Phillips, James Sallis, for writers that are new to me. There are many more. In a historical sense, the writers that have become important to me are all over the place. I’ve loved David Goodis, Gil Brewer and especially Charles Williams, Jim Thompson, from the pulp legends library. Holdover stars for me include Robert Parker, James Lee Burke, Eric Rickstad, Paul Doiron, Urban Waite, Ben Whitmer, Ace Atkins. Sorry, two or three don’t cut it. I read much more than I write.
RJ: I love that you read more than you write, Rusty. I’ve been trying to do the same for the past three years or so. Do you always read as a writer? If not, how do you turn that switch off and just enjoy reading a good book? Turning the switch off is something I’ve yet to manage.
RWB: I used to read as a writer almost exclusively, trying to suss out what was working, but it made me unhappy, let’s say, to imagine readers doing the same thing to my work. My flaws are so apparent to me I try not to think of them unless I’m expressly doing something to improve.
I want to get lost in a story. I like pretty language, but I like stories more. People; Action, Consequence. Things happening, in other words. I don’t always get there, but I try.
I give up on books a lot more these days. In the old days, I would plow through something even if I didn’t like it much because I thought the writing might teach me something, even small, that I could use somewhere down the line. I don’t have that kind of patience or desire anymore. If something sucks now, I just quit on it.
RJ: I’ve started doing the same thing. I know I don’t have another forty years to spend wasting time on books that don’t do it for me. Let’s talk a little about how other writers seem to judge writers of popular fiction. What do you say to writers of “literary fiction” who maintain crime, romance, horror writing, etc. is formula fiction? Who, basically, contend it is lesser fiction.
RWB: I don’t pay much attention. If the work comes via formula, you’re doing it poorly. I wrote a lot of stuff with crime in it to begin with, so to switch to a focus on crime and exploring what happens when you strip a character of all the things that make them happy to see what they will do, well, that’s a lot of fun. I don’t want to be exploitative, but I like the fun of writing fistfights and gun battles and cheap sex, seeing what people will do when the chips are down. Hell, what will they do when there are no chips left to be down?
That doesn’t mean I won’t write litfic again. It’s in my bones, so to speak.
RJ: How important is promotion, Rusty? I mean, writers today, especially small press writers, seem to have to wear a few hats, not the least of which involve marketing and promotion. This seems new, a thing attached to the new technology, social media, etc. Thoughts?
RWB: It’s important. So important. I don’t know how to do it. No one in the midlist or indie press has the money to do it well. So we all promote ourselves to the extent of our self-loathing on Facebook and Google+ and on blogs, and hope that our publishers will give us high-res pictures and some places at which we can beg reviews. It kinda sucks, in short.
Honestly, I don’t mind doing it, but I also notice the number of friends in my Facebook feed go down by one or five every time I self-promote. What can you do? I’m not going to let my books die because I’m too shy, even though I probably am shy.
My rule of thumb is that for every message I put up about my work online, I have to promote other people’s work five times. That eases my conscience, and I read so much I never run out of people or posts to promote. But, of all the hats I wear, self-promoter feels the tightest.
RJ: The question I’d ask myself—
Who is the writer you always go back to?
RWB: It’s Larry Brown, far and away. I’ve read everything he saw fit to print many times, so it’s not as if I consult him or read him every month, but his is the narrative voice in my head when I try to write, and since I’ve committed some of his work—mostly from JOE and BIG BAD LOVE–to memory, I can call on him like I did last night. I felt like shit, was depressed, the new antipsychotic making me so fucking tired, yet antsy at the same time, and I was like, I can’t do this. Then I thought about the narrator LB watching Sheena Baby—hope I got the name right—wobble away with her fine ass sticking out, trying to get a ride. I figured, if Larry could write that when he didn’t feel up to it out there in the cool pad or wherever he was doing his writing at the time, at the firehouse or at his in-laws, I think I can sit here in my comfortable house around my wife and kids, making all the noise in the world (I prefer it that way), and crank out a thousand words. It’s the way I live and breathe.