In your first novel, Last Call for the Living, Hicklin, one of your main characters was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang. You gave a lot of realistic details about this neo-Nazi organisation (the tattoos, the fact that a member is bound to the group for life, the way they act in prison…), how have you learnt about the AB? Have you met those guys?
I’ve always been fascinated by prison gangs and west coast prison culture, and the tribalism that defines it. While contemplating the novel that became Last Call for the Living, the Aryan Brotherhood loomed large in my mind. As a criminal syndicate, they compose such a small segment of America’s prison population, but are responsible for so much violence. I was drawn to their notoriety and ruthlessness, and devoured as much literature as I could about the AB…but that is as far as I went regarding research.
Are the neo-Nazis still very present in the southern states of the USA?
Neo-nazis and white supremacists are still present in the southeast United States (and elsewhere in America for that matter), but I suspect their numbers are relatively miniscule. They are fringe elements in our society, that unfortunately attract a lot of media attention when they congregate.
Do you think that Trump election (and what he said, for instance, after the events in Charlottesville) has strengthened the voices of the right wing extremists, for example of the KKK?
Trump’s comments after Charlottesville were typically baffling. He’s inarticulate, frequently incoherent but there is no denying white identity/white nationalists compose a section of his base. I don’t think Trump has strengthened their cause, however. He has no ideology and no principles, and he’ll eventually abandon his promises to them as soon as it’s politically expedient.
I feel like the subject of the neo-Nazis is rarely covered in novels or films (I can only remember Oz or American History X). Why did you chose that subject and did you fear their reactions?
I took a warped sense of delight in writing a character such as Hicklin in Last Call for the Living, a psychopathic killer who harbors such despicable beliefs. My hope was that despite his prejudice and penchant for violence, by novel’s end the reader would—despite themselves—summon some sympathy for him. I’ve always loved complicated villains in film and fiction. As far as reactions to the novel, to this day I’ve never heard a word from anyone associated with the prison gang.
You live in, and the action of your novels takes place in, South Georgia. Human trafficking, corruption, prostitution, racism, murders, alligators, mosquitoes, boiled peanuts… the tourist board must not thank you… is it so terrible to live there?
Nah, south Georgia is not so bad as I paint it. Just like anywhere, there are good people and bad people out and about…places that are beautiful and places best avoided.
If I am right, your second novel Ghost in the Fields has not been published in the USA yet, only in France, by Gallmeister. Is it because you talk about upsetting topics (racism, poverty, economic crisis…)? Or is it because the publishing business is not well right now?
Ghost in the Fields does not have an American publisher yet. I don’t think the subject matter or quality of the novel is the reason for it’s orphaned status. Let’s just say as far as the publishing business in my country is concerned, I would rather be lucky than good.
Are you surprised that French people are so interested in your work?
I am surprised and incredibly grateful for the interest from French readers. I have Editions Gallmeister to thank, for believing in and supporting my work. France seems to have a thriving book culture, which sadly is not the case in the United States.
Your French publisher has changed the title of your second novel. They have chosen The Devil Himself. Do you think it is a good title?
I was surprised by the title change but I love it. It works beautifully.
You were the singer of Cable, a metal hardcore band, whose last album was released in 2009. Did you write the lyrics of The Failed Convict, which you used as epigraphs in Last Call for the Living? Is it in Cable that you have developed a taste for writing?
I co-wrote lyrics to The Failed Convict with our bass player Randy Larsen. Indeed, being a vocalist and lyricist in bands for many years laid the foundation for writing poetry, prose and eventually fiction.
Don’t you miss playing music live and working with other people, as writing is a very solitary experience?
I have many, many fond memories from my time writing and performing with Cable and other bands, but I’ve always been a loner and preferred my own company. The solitude required for fiction writing is and always will be a major attractant.
Your art of writing is very special. You make the scenes played again by the different characters, so the reader never knows where the truth is. It is very efficient to build suspense. How do you manage to get into several people’s heads at the same time? Are you schizophrenic?
In the middle of writing a first draft, I probably am a bit schizophrenic! Haha! Fiction writing certainly requires imagination and empathy, and it’s easy to feel a little unmoored if you’ve been living in a character’s head for a few days or weeks.
Several scenes of your two novels are extremely violent. You have a really great talent to imagine tortures and awful ways to die. Is it to reflect the violence of American society? Is it much funnier to create dark “heroes” full of anger and hate than ordinary guys?
I’m not sure the violence in my novels is a reflection of America, which overall is a fairly safe country. But it certainly reflects human nature, as we all possess the potential for violent action given the circumstances. Some people are simply cruel and psychotic, others (criminal sociopaths for example) seem to have an extra gear inside them, and use violence as any predator would. These are the characters that frighten and fascinate me.
Which scenes were the most pleasant to write? The hard ones (the death of Grimes, with his burning head), the funny ones (Willie’s arrest and his 130 kilos of nakedness), or the tender ones (Leonard’s buying tampons to his young protégé)?
I enjoyed writing the scenes between Leonard and Maya the most. Their bond is the heart of the novel.
Mexico, the dangerous pimp of Ghost in the Fields quotes: “An armed society is a polite society” and Leonard says: ‘My law here. My justice.” There are so many guns in your novels, and in your country I guess. To take the law into your own hands is a recurring theme of the western movies. Is it efficient because it is not a cliché but American reality?
Vigilantism isn’t very common in America, but it is true—many estimates suggest there are at least 250-300 million firearms in our country. Where I’m from, gun ownership is fairly common, as firearms are used for a variety of lawful purposes, from hunting to self-defense. As a responsible gun owner, hunter and competition shooter, I value our right to own firearms. Likewise, as a crime fiction writer guns are the tools of the trade so-to-speak. As a fan of westerns and noir, there is simply nothing better than a well-written (or well filmed) gunfight.
Aren’t your books also tributes to pulp fictions, or western movies, or dark novels? I think about Harry Crews‘s Feast of Snake and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter…
Harry Crews is one of my all-time favorite writers, but my tastes in fiction are varied. I certainly appreciate westerns, pulp and noir—and elements from each genre trickle into my writing—but my favorite authors tend to be regional, with a strong sense for place and geography. Ron Rash, Rick Bass, Larry Brown and Flannery O’Connor are a few examples of writers I hold dear.
You describe the importance of religion in the rural communities. Baptist churches are everywhere, (which is strange for French people), with specific cults (the snakes, for instance), and the preachers have a prominent role. Do you think that religion impregnates people’s way of thinking, your way of looking at things?
My views on religion have changed over time, but, yes, people from the southeast United States can be and are very passionate about their faith. Fanaticism and zealotry are dangerous, and every day around the world unspeakable violence is perpetrated in the name of one God or another. But I can’t fault anyone for his or her faith. If it makes you a better person, or helps you through difficult times, who am I to say you’re deluded? I simply ask that you keep your religion to yourself. The world would be a better place if more people adhered to that.
The notion of redemption is very present in your novels, and the sense of guilt. Hicklin and Leonard struggle inside with opposed forces, good and evil, right and wrong. Do you think that everybody has goodness in his heart?
I am—to a fault—cynical and misanthropic…just like Leonard. Fatherhood has softened my perspective some, and I have experienced and benefited from the goodness in people without a doubt. I do believe humans are basically kind at heart, but we are a complicated species and continuously evolving (and not for the better I fear). You can never let your guard down, however, and never forget that there are monsters out there among us.
Can you explain us where the title Last Call for the Living comes from? It sounds very biblical.
It was an unused song title from an old book of lyrics.
In Last Call and in Ghost, a lot of your characters’ difficulties come from the bad relationships they had within their family. Is family Hell?
Haha! Family is hell, isn’t it? I’ve seen estrangement in other families and certainly my own, and estrangement is a major sub-current in both Last Call for the Living and The Devil Himself. Families vary wildly, and are like little ecosystems. I find them all to be dysfunctional (to some degree or another), with depths and complexities that can be mined for great fiction.
Haven’t Hicklin and Leonard a lot in common, actually? They have done dreadful things because they had to; they have built legends bigger than themselves; they shine in the dark; they are changed by love. Aren’t you finally an incurable optimistic?
There are some threads of connectivity between Hicklin and Leonard for sure, as both their lives are disrupted and altered by unexpected friendships. As for being an incurable optimist, I don’t know. Fatherhood has changed me for the better, and I don’t feed off negativity like I once did. But I still find time to wallow in misery and despair…old habits die hard. ☺
Interview published in New Noise n°41 – November-December 2017