FUN WITH OBSESSIONS: An Interview with Author Rusty Barnes

ridgerunner

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.

PURCHASE RIDGERUNNER

 

 

 

The Compulsive Scribbler: An Interview with Misty Marie Rae Skaggs

debonaire

SHELDON LEE COMPTON: So what’s Misty Skaggs been up to lately?

MISTY MARIE RAE SKAGGS: well, mostly, keepin’ the wood stove burning. waging war on field mice that have decided to make themselves at home in my kitchen and eat my cereal. and writing. i’m always writing. i’ve been working on rounding up all the short stories i’ve left lyin’ around all limp and pitiful and doing a bit of editing and turning them into a comprehensive collection. i’ve also been dabbling in playwriting. that’s fun. a totally new outlet for me.

SLC: Playwriting? That sounds interesting. I’ve wondered how that would go. What do you think so far? What’s the play you’re working on?

MMRS: i’ve always enjoyed reading plays, ever since i stumbled across Tennessee Williams on the “adult” shelf at the middle school library. and i single-handedly re-started the long-dead Drama Club at my little, rural, high school in a typical, teenage, overachiever fashion. and when i was a student at Morehead State, i was handed an amazing opportunity by Dr. Ritta Abell to help her in transforming some of Crystal Wilkinson’s short stories into a theatrical performance piece. i really got into it, since i wanted to do Crystal’s amazing work serious justice. i love that lady and her writing and everything she’s done for me as a budding author. sadly, i left school before i ever got to see the production, but several of my dramatic translations were included. i hadn’t really thought much about ever trying to write a play of my own, until i connected with a new writer pal with theater experience via tumblr who insisted that he could just see my stories coming to life on stage. i was really flattered to think that my words could paint pictures so clearly for someone. so i figured, y’know, what the hell? maybe i’ll give it a try! and my aforementioned pal, Tommy Anderson, has been helpin’ me with some suggestions and edits along the way. it’s really just an idea of a play so far.

it is interesting! i’ve found that playwriting requires a big shift in perspective and style for me. so many times in my short stories, there isn’t even a stitch of dialogue. all of a sudden, i have to figure out how to make all the unsaid things become clear through conversation. it’s strange and challenging. but that’s why i’ve been diggin’ it, i think.

so far, it’s a play about a couple about ready to come apart at the seams. it’s a play about a woman and her nozy neighbors, about a cozy kitchen and a sterile hospital. and the plague of havin’ “bad nerves”.

SLC: Interpreting prose to plays seems like it would be challenging, but fun, too. I notice that most of the time you seem to write poetry. But that poetry reads much like short fiction. Do you consider yourself a poet first? If so, what is the primary reason?

MMRS: well, i write about as much short fiction as i do poetry. but the poetry seems to be what people want to publish. i think that the line between poetry and prose doesn’t have to be quite so strict as we make it. a good poem can tell a story just as powerful as a two hundred page novel. and that’s a tricky question for me, do i consider myself a poet first. why do i have to be one or the other? i mean, honestly, it took a long time before i even considered myself a “writer”. to me, writing was som’m i’d just always done. as long as i can remember. i suppose really i consider myself a compulsive scribbler and an active observer. i don’t like labels and i’ve found i don’t fit into many of ’em anyways.

pois text

SLC: I actually agree with you about labels, in that respect. As long as you’re working creatively, that’s all that really matters. It’s been my experience that labels inevitably lead to cliques. And cliques are revolting.

I’ve also had the pleasure of publishing some of your artwork here at Revolution John. Both you and your mother are wonderful artists. Creative people often have difficulty fitting into society, I’ve found, since you mentioned most labels not fitting you anyways. Because of this I’ve had so many different jobs. Have you had a similar experience in the work force?

MMRS: mmmhmm. i think i knew in elementary school that i didn’t fit in anywhere. my teachers used to confiscate my books on the way out to recess and try to force me into some socializing. you know how those creative weirdo types are.

shoo, Lordy. yeah, me and the work force don’t get along.ha! i’ve given up on the nine-to-five bullshit, for the most part. i live broke and i love it. even if it is a little stressful sometimes. you’d be amazed at all the things you think you gotta’ have but you can live without. i kinda’ like depriving myself. it’s like a challenge. make do or fuckin’ forget about it, Misty! sheesh!

but yeah, i have worked a plethora of weird and various jobs over the years. i’ve been a waitress. i’ve been a nanny. i’ve cleaned hotel rooms. i’ve worked the night shift at a truck stop in the middle of the midwest. i’ve produced and hosted a television show for college campus teevee. i even worked at a forensic mental hospital very briefly. right now, my job is writing and making art and takin’ care of my adorable little Mamaw and our home out in the middle of nowhere. i couldn’t be happier.

SLC: That’s great. I took care of my grandmother, who I call Mother, until her children (with the exception of my dead father) put her in a nursing home. It was a great couple of years. You mention teachers persuading you away from books to interact at school. What were those books? Do you remember? What, if any, impact did they have on you?

MMRS: i moved in here to help Mamaw take care of my Great Mamaw. i was with her right up until the end, ’till she passed away here in our living room. i don’t regret it even for a minute. i’m so glad she could spend her last days where she wanted to be. she was still making quilts on her old treadle Singer a week before she passed.

in regards to teachers and their persuasion, that’s putting it euphemistically. i used to like to read at recess. i’d climb way up into the highest piece of playground equipment and have this little fortress where i’d read and people watch. hahah! my sixth grade teacher would catch me heading out to the playground with a book in hand and there was no persuasion to it, she’d straight up take it from me and tell me to “go be a normal kid and have some fun!” she just couldn’t believe that for me, a book and a half hour to myself WAS fun. the most fun. i got in trouble in third grade ’cause whenever i would finish my work before the other kids, they’d let me go to the library and get a book to read. well….the librarian decided that there was no way i could be reading four to five books a day, so i proceeded to get all little kid offended and summarize ’em all for her. she told me i needed to start reading longer books and leave her alone. hahaha! that’s how i discovered Louisa May Alcott and Judy Blume and other early favorites. then in middle school/high school i had to bring a permission slip from home before the librarian would let me read books off the “adult shelf”. those books meant the world to me. that’s where i discovered writers like Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison. after that snooty librarian turned me away from her desk after i tried to check out The Bluest Eye, i made it my mission to read through that whole shelf before i graduated. out of curiousity and spite. ha! i did it, too. i read that damned library dry.

book stack

SLC: That’s a cool origin story. I’m sure all writers probably have one, but that’s a nice rebellious one. I like that. So, as for reading, what are your reading habits these days? I try to read more than I write lately. Do you have any reading goals?

MMRS: hmm…i reckon my primary reading goal is to always be reading. it’s kind of a compulsion for me. if i’m not in the middle of a book, i feel a little lost. i can’t really afford to be picky about my reading material, either. i think that being broke has actually helped broaden my tastes. i rarely ever buy books brand new. but i’m constantly adding to my second hand library via junk stores and flea markets and yard sales. you never know what you’ll find if you take the time to dig around! i read anything that looks interesting. fiction, nonfiction, poetry. there’s always a book or two in my life.

and in my purse. really though, i have a “purse book” at all times. it’s what i read when i’m waiting in line or at the doctor’s office or whatever. right now it’s The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen. it’s been pretty decent so far, that’s my purse book. i’m usually all caught up in least two books at a time. today i also started reading Alice Munro’s short story collection The Love of a Good Woman. and the last book i finished was The Inventor and the Tycoon by Edward Ball. that one was nonfiction about Edward Muybridge, the father of the moving picture. who also happened to be a murderer. i’m all over the place with my tastes.

SLC: You mention that finding reading material is kind of hit and miss for you. I can relate. Due to limited library volumes and money, I often have to wait until Christmas and birthdays to buy books. I end up doing as you said, sort of reading a mix of things. We know reading is directly linked with better writing. How important is reading various kinds of books to your writing? For example, at one point the only library books I can check out for my Kindle were Japanese authors. This led to me becoming obsessed with Japanese short fiction and then writing a lot of stories with that inspiration sort of leading me. Do you have this experience?

MMRS: i feel you on the birthdays and xmess schtuff, that’s usually when i get new books too. i’m also really lucky to have tons of smart, literate friends and we all kind of swap around what we’re reading and share. i love that. getting a good recommendation and a hand-me-down read someone’s excited to share.

i feel like reading various kinds of books is pretty vital for any writer who wants to grow. i’ve found that plenty of people i meet in the literary world have tastes that are intensely specific. that gets on my last nerve. these types, they like a few authors or they like literature that comes from certain regions/lifestyles and that’s ALL they read. i can’t imagine. that’s crazy limiting. i think once or twice a year you ought to force yourself to pick up a book you’d “never” read and then read it. it’s good for you. life ain’t always about getting what you want or your personal preferences. and there are as many different perspectives as there are people on this god-forsaken planet. me personally, i want to hear as many of those points of view as possible. variety is important to my life, not just my writing. i’m kind of a bumpkin, really. born and raised out here in Elliott County. i’ve never even seen the ocean. as a matter of fact, i’m so country i call all seven of ’em “the ocean”, collective like. and i may not be the least bit well-traveled, but i’m sure the hell well read. it’s been my way of seeing the world so far. and i think by reading a wide variety of subjects and styles and genres, i make myself a better writer AND a better person.

SLC: What are you working on now? What’s on the shelves that we can buy from you lately? What are some things you’re writing now. Any projects, or are you still drawing up a floor plan for one or two?

MMRS: no book deals for me, i’m afraid. i’ve been working on putting together a short story collection to send out for consideration. as well as some poems i’d love to see in chapbook form. but i do some self-publishing, ’cause i was a teenage zinester and i think it’s lots of fun. i have a poetry chapbook available, all about prescription drug abuse in Eastern Kentucky. i’m also publishing in journals and whatnot as often as possible. i just got a piece accepted by Still, which i’m pretty damned proud of. and one of my poems made it into Quarried, the thirty year anthology for Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. that’s really exciting to me, seein’ my name in print with so many amazing Appalachian writers. you can pick that up through Dos Madres Press. and i recommend you do pick it up, it’s fantastic. plus, i’m painting and writing flash fiction pieces that go with each individual painting. i don’t typically write those down anywhere else, i like for ’em to be truly one of a kind. i try to stay busy. oh! and you can always keep up with me at the blog – http://lipstickhick.tumblr.com