Monday, August 04, 2008

Strong Medicine

There is noir, and then there’s NOIR. For five years, NOIR in caps and italics was defined by Plots With Guns (PWG), the in-your-face, over-the-top Webzine started by three college kids from Mississippi--Anthony Neil Smith, Victor Gischler, and Hunter Hayes. They graduated. Hayes moved on, soon replaced by a bad-ass named Trevor Maviano, and eventually, Gischler stepped aside as well, leaving Smith in sole charge.

During the long, strange trip that was PWG’s original incarnation, many names now familiar to Rap Sheet readers first appeared on Smith’s dark, smoke-filled Web pages: Charlie Stella and Ray Banks, Sean Doolittle and Jennifer Jordan. PWG inspired a host of other dark corners on the ’Net, too, including David Zeltserman’s Hardluck Stories and Todd Robinson’s ThugLit, as well as print mags such as Murdaland and Out of the Gutter.

And then one day, the music stopped. PWG shut down. Maviano disappeared. Gischler and Smith went on to bigger and better things.

For Neil Smith, bigger and better meant his Point Blank debut in 2005 with the novel Psychosomatic. Psychosomatic was PWG amped up a notch with, as Smith puts it, a sort of Grindhouse origin, featuring an armless and legless woman who is as dangerous as they come.

He followed that up with a violent homage to hair metal music, the Two-Dollar Radio release The Drummer (2006). That book was made all the more poignant as it was written just before Hurricane Katrina ravaged its New Orleans setting.

But now Smith is back, and so is Plots With Guns. In the intervening years, the now 35-year-old Smith has moved to Minnesota and moved up to a bigger publisher, Bleak House Books out of Madison, Wisconsin. This summer, he returns with his first Bleak House effort, Yellow Medicine. The usual references to the Gulf Coast and the dark side of American life are there, along with Smith’s apparent new musical obsession, psychobilly. What’s psychobilly? A clinical breakdown is here, but it sounds like the mutant offspring of punk, rockabilly, and an overdose of pulp horror and science fiction. Just the sort of strangeness that Smith’s readers appreciate.

Bleak House says this about his new novel, set in rural Minnesota:
Deputy Billy Lafitte is not unfamiliar with the law--he just prefers to enforce it, rather than abide by it. But his rule-bending and bribe-taking have gotten him kicked off the force in Gulfport, Mississippi, and he’s been given a second chance--in the desolate, Siberian wastelands of rural Minnesota.
I checked in with Neil Smith as he and Victor Gischler (Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse) were in the midst of a barn-storming tour of the South to promote their latest efforts. We talked about his relocation from the South to the Midwest, his music preferences, why he resurrected PWG, and what he’s working on next.

Jim Winter: Yellow Medicine is your third novel and first with Bleak House. How were the people there to work with?

Anthony Neil Smith: Bleak House is what you want in a publisher, especially if you’re on the fringes of genre or taking risks. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and they’re a gang that looks at the book first and foremost. They want to help you find the readers that will like that sort of book rather than watering it down for the masses or just letting it die. So in that sense, you always feel like the writing comes first, and I’m grateful they thought my dirty little book was worth their time.

JW: Did you have the story in mind before moving from Mississippi to Minnesota? Or did it come to you after you moved there?

ANS: I didn’t plan on writing about Minnesota quite yet. Had no idea how long I would be here (but it’s three years now), but now I’ve been bumped up to director of the Creative Writing Program [at Southwest Minnesota State University], and I bought a house, and I married a Minnesota girl, so ...

Anyway, when I first moved here, I rented a place a lot like Billy’s in the novel. It was always damp, mold growing on everything, and then there was an infestation of bugs. This was in Yellow Medicine County, about a half-hour from work. And it just seemed a good title. It had some weird appeal to it. So what I had hoped to do was write a “fast and dirty” cop novel. But it turned into more than that. I think The Shield was a big influence, but I also am a big fan of the “exile in America” idea--take a disgraced cop from Mississippi and drop him in Minnesota and see what happens. Kind of the way I felt a little, as well. And I wanted to play up the ugliness, too, in addition to the weird beauty of the prairie. They go hand in hand.

So there would’ve been no Yellow Medicine or Billy Lafitte without those experiences I had during my first few months in Minnesota. And then I made the rest of that shit up.

JW: Even though this novel is set in the upper Midwest, you manage to give the Gulf Coast a lot of attention.

ANS: It’s the place I know best. It was home for nearly all my life. And, again, the exile idea is fascinating. Starting over somewhere new, trying to escape whatever haunts you (and failing, usually). My folks live right outside New Orleans, and in fact, my mom is a painter in Jackson Square. The rest of my family is scattered along the Coast. They took a hit in Katrina, [it] flooded their houses (nearly eight feet of standing water in my parents’ home), ruined all their stuff, and they decided to rebuild, start again, right there. This happened about two months after I had moved to Minnesota. And I wasn’t able to get back down there until nearly Christmas. It’s changed a lot, some places getting back to normal, and others seeming to sink farther and farther.

But I miss the beach, the waves. I get a chance to go a couple of times a year, but I wonder if the psychology of the place, which used to be wired in my head, has changed so much that it’s harder for me to connect anymore. I do think I have one or two more books set down South in me, though. To at least try to reconnect.

JW: We can’t forget the psychobilly. Is that your regular music these days, or is it just what fits with the story?

ANS: You know, it felt right for the story. But I wouldn’t throw it in if I didn’t like quite a bit of it. I think there could probably be more psychobilly in it. There are about five or six psychobilly bands I really like, and they’re all more in the “billy” mode than the “psycho” (or at least not the metal-leaning ones), like HorrorPops, The Cramps, Horton Heat, Southern Culture on the Skids (yeah, they seem on the psy-billy tip), and The Chop Tops. But I listen to a lot of alt-country, old ’80s hair metal, the occasional techno song, and whatever the hell else sounds good at the moment.

JW: Plots With Guns has returned. What brought that about?

ANS: Well ... competition? I saw Out of the Gutter and Murdaland, and I thought, Wow, they nailed the attitude I’d always talked about at PWG. A number of crime mags just don’t seem to have any real individual identity to them, no editorial angle that connects issue after issue, but these two were really laying it bare--the cover art, the stories chosen, the marketing. They seem like mirror-images, one evil and the other evil-er. Both are print mags, and I knew I couldn’t pull off a print mag without a lot of money (ahem, *cough*, any underwriters out there?). Online, though ... I thought about how I could make PWG work online again now that I could fit it into my life after a handful of years of getting my own work out there, getting a job, settling down. And it’s easier to get online now; [there’s] less time formatting like I used to [do]. So we’re quarterly, we don’t pay, but we try to find the best damned fiction we can (that has a gun in it). Not really “mystery” fiction, but just the best stories of people being bad to each other and the consequences thereafter.

JW: Any chance of another PWG anthology?

ANS: Ha. Ha ha. You know ... when a good publisher comes to us and is really excited about doing it, then maybe. But I’m not chasing them down. Kudos to ThugLit (another awesome attitude-filled ’zine) for finding someone to back them (well deserved), and to Akashic [Books] for making their noir series work. But I think it’s a big undertaking. Dennis McMillan [Publications] did a fine job on the PWG anthology, and it’s an amazing collection. But instead of doing PWG reprints, I’d prefer that a publisher let us do the occasional themed volume full of new stories. We do have a few ideas for that from a plan that fell through a few years ago, so if any eager publishers want to drop me a line ...

JW: I liked The Drummer for its nostalgia towards the hair metal era.

ANS: It’s the stuff that turned me on to playing guitar, and it was what led me to find the type of person I was. I mean, junior high, stumbling around, a comic-book geek (still love comics) and a Dungeons & Dragons dork (but no longer a D&D or RPG fan, nooooo); but then I heard Eddie Van Halen and said, “Oh, yeah, I like that sound.” So I grew out my hair for a handful of years and thought I was going to start a band (but we could never find a drummer!). Years later, it just stuck with me, this idea of writing a book about a band like that, one where the love of the music was real, not ironic or mocking.

JW: Psychosomatic, on the other hand, had this strange WTF vibe, especially with a legless, armless central character.

ANS: I call it my “noir cartoon.” The limbless lady was due to a martini-soaked Victor Gischler scribbling the first line on a cocktail napkin and handing it to me in a bar, saying “There’s the first line of your next story.” And so it was. I published three stories centered in this same “world,” two in [the late] Blue Murder magazine, before realizing “This can be a novel.” So I ran with it.

JW: What are you working on now?

ANS: I already turned in the next Bleak House book, called Hogdoggin’. It’s a sort of sequel (but not [the roots of] a series) to Yellow Medicine, but a very different type of book even though it features the same characters.

I’ve got the next two or three things in my head, building steam, and I’m working on a weird Mississippi Southern Gothic type of thing, I think, involving Pentecostal preachers and evil teenage cults, and something else I’ll keep under my hat. It started kind of Grindhouse style, but I’m not sure where it’ll go, really. It’s a different kind of animal than the others, but still all me.

LISTEN UP: Anthony Neil Smith Interview, by Angie Johnson-Schmit (In for Questioning).

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