It’s always a great pleasure to experience that sense of excitement and discovery when you encounter a new author, read their work, and realize it’s something exceptional. That’s what happened when I read SELENA, the first title in what–as of day after tomorrow–will be a three book series. I tore through that book in record time and then turned around and bought the second book, DIESEL THERAPY, and tore through that fucker too. Then Mike Monson with All Due Respect Books very kindly turned me on to a review copy of SUICIDE LOUNGE and, like it’s predecessors, I tore through it as well. The SELENA series is something special, and so is the author of this wonderful thing, Greg Barth. I had a really cool conversation with Greg earlier this week and I’m excited to share that with you today. Greg is a smart guy and a very forthcoming one and the following is full of insights into his work, useful information, and things I didn’t know that I bet you didn’t know either. I’ll be reviewing SUICIDE LOUNGE tomorrow, but in the meantime, I’m going to shut the hell up and get on with this fantastic Q&A. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
GB: I was born in Southwest Virginia and have spent the bulk of my life in the Southeast—Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky. I studied literature and poetry at ETSU. I’ve made Bowling Green, Kentucky my home for the last five years.
SL: When did you decide to choose writing as a profession? What, if anything, spurred that decision?
GB: I’ve wanted to be a writer most of my life and tried my hand at it time and again before I found any degree of success. I don’t really think of writing as a profession at this time. It’s more like a hobby or craft to me. My grandparents used to make quilts. There’s a form and structure to quilt-making, but you can also exercise a high degree of creativity. Some quilts are works of art even. My grandparents enjoyed that craft and got a lot of satisfaction from it. On occasion, they would even sell a quilt. Writing is much like that to me, but it’s hard to imagine a Selena quilt.
SL: What attracts you to the flavor of brutal crime-noir that you write?
GB: I can’t write cozy cat mysteries. If I am going to write something, it first has to entertain me. I only care about stories that are primal—stories that involve sex, death, and high stakes. I want to see people who are desperate to the point of behaving more like an animal than a human, and the story is how I put them there, and what they do. I don’t write pretty things. What attracts me to that? I don’t know other than it may be my way of dealing with my discomfiting awareness of the darker things out there in the world.
SL: The Selena series sometimes has a very film-noir feel to it. Are there any particular cinematic influences on your work, or is that merely happenstance?
GB: There are a few definite influences, but they are more from the Rape/Revenge genre. The movie Death Wish was a deliberate influence. I watched that movie a few times before sitting down to write Selena just to get a feel for the plot points and pacing of this type of story. I Spit on Your Grave (the original) was in the back of my mind as well. There’s a little bit of Psycho in there, but that may be harder to see. When I wrote Diesel Therapy, I screened a few prison films, mostly identifying what was cliché in that type of story in order to avoid it in my own book.
SL: Who are your major influences as an author?
GB: Richard Stark first and foremost. I never refer to him as Donald Westlake. They are two separate writers in my mind somehow, and Stark is the one I could never get enough of. I’ve read and reread those old Parker novels so many times. I’m going back through the series again even as we speak.
Ed McBain is another. Louis L’Amour. There’s a bit of Ken Bruen’s influence on Selena. When I read the Jack Taylor series, I can remember wondering if a character like Taylor could ever work as a woman. I never got that thought out of my head. Another would be Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Elmore Leonard, of course. George V. Higgins. These days I read a lot of Vicki Hendricks, who is an influence in my current works in progress. Man, I could go on all day.
SL: If you could only recommend one author that an aspiring crime writer should read, who would it be?
GB: Richard Stark. Everything you need is right there.
GB: It’s critical, but I have to balance it with movies as well. Both are important. The type of writing I like is lean, sparse, not bloated with description and slow, useless scenes. I don’t read much from the New York Times Bestseller List. I don’t have the patience for them. I like things that get moving quickly. I watch a ton of 90-minute crime movies, and I try to write cinematically in a way that moves with the same pace.
SL: Do you have a particular routine that you follow when you work?
GB: Yeah. I don’t write every day. The last thing I want to do is peck away on a blank screen trying to find an idea. I know that works for a lot of people. I just don’t have the discipline for that. I spend days and weeks turning ideas over in my head, building a story slowly scene by scene until I have enough to build an outline.
Once I have three or four big scenes, I notecard them electronically. I have a long commute in my car each day. I listen to music that fires my imagination while I drive. When I am in the car, I come up with the smaller scenes that lead up to the big ones. In the evening I will notecard those scenes. Once I have a story that I am excited enough to write, I start pecking away each evening before bed. It doesn’t take me but a few weeks to actually write the first draft—maybe a month—but that is because I have already written the book in my head.
For me, story is everything, you see. I don’t think of myself as a gifted writer. I balance that by having the best story I can think of. If you have a great story, almost anyone can tell it. Even if the storytelling is flawed, people will overlook small mistakes for a good story. On the other hand, it takes a gifted writer to make something out of a mediocre story. So, like I said, story is everything. If I don’t have a story that will keep me up at night writing it, then I don’t write a word until I am there.
The few weeks that I do write are almost magic. As I put the words down, the story gets better. I get excited and a manic state kicks in. I can’t sleep, and when I do I dream at night as my characters. I’m constantly in the scenes while driving, walking, sleeping, staring at the wall, whatever.
SL: If you could give one piece of advice to a new author, what would it be?
GB: Read the books that teach you how to write movie screenplays (Save the Cat is an excellent one). Take what you learn and apply it to your novel writing.
SL: What’s the worst writing advice you ‘ve ever heard?
GB: Make your book 70,000 words long. Fill it up with description and detail. Don’t write anything too explicit for the mass market. I hate those kinds of books. I believe there’s a hunger for good old fashioned adult entertainment out there—Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and the like. Take on something strong.
SL: The Selena series occurs almost entirely in the American south. How important is that setting to your stories?
GB: Not that important. I think Selena could come from anywhere. I write about that south, because that is what I know and have experienced. Being from Appalachia gave Selena some genuine strength and resilience that exists in a unique way in that part of the country.
SL: Selena is an unapologetically amoral female protagonist. What inspired you to create her?
GB: I wanted to break from cliché. I deliberately picked the most unlikely protagonist I could think of. Selena is the last person you would think of to take down a crew of criminals. To do so, she had to use some nasty tricks. I didn’t put in the obligatory scene early on where she would help someone or perform a kindness to endear her to the readers. I actually had her doing some things in those opening chapters that you rarely see a protagonist doing. I had no idea if it would work at the time, but it was a conscious thing on my part. I hoped that people would be attracted to her sense of freedom and willingness to do just whatever she wanted.
Writing a female protagonist also afforded me a broader palate to work with. I had more emotional range at my disposal. Strong female characters are a thing you hear a lot of talk about these days. One school of thought is to write a typical male character and then go back and change all the male names and pronouns to female ones. In essence there is no difference between a strong female character and a strong male character. I don’t subscribe to that point of view. There’s nothing wrong with a female character being feminine and physically diminutive. She can be both feminine and strong and clever and emotional and all those things.
SL: The books in the Selena series deal with some pretty tough subjects, such as misogyny, sexual abuse, and human trafficking. Talk about that some. Was it hard to write about? And how important is it to the story?
GB: Very hard to write. I had to consciously remove any psychological constraints on myself as a writer to put it all down. There’s a lot of strong stuff going on in these books, but there are some notable things that you do not see. In the first book, there is a rape. That occurs completely off stage, even though much violence is there, the rape is not. In Diesel Therapy there are some unpleasant topics brought up, that I deliberately did not go into in an explicit way. I don’t think of these books as exploitive in that sense. They certainly are in other areas, but not explicit rape.
Misogyny is something else entirely. The books are full of that. Selena fights against a rushing current of that stuff. There’s also the question of my own view toward women as you consider the bulk of my work. I can only say that anything that appears to be a disparaging view of women is better described as a bleak view on humanity as a whole. The men fair no better under my pen. That being said, I’m a raving fan of women and enjoy writing these characters.
I go back to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Stieg was a feminist, through and through, but the original title of that book was Men Who Hate Women. Let that sink in. Just because you are a feminist doesn’t mean you have to write nice things.
SL: Your newest book, SUICIDE LOUNGE, is the third in the Selena series. Will there be more?
GB: I have no interest in writing an endless series. Selena is a character that evolves and changes in each book. She’s not going to be a James Bond type of character that gets a new adventure every few months. The series has a definite end point that has already been written, and you will know it when you see it.
There. See how I didn’t answer your question?
SL: Any other exciting projects you’re working on or have planned?
GB: I have two novels in the works. One is written but needs some polish. The second is about half finished and needs a few more weeks for me to get all the scenes down. They are tentatively titled Road Carnage and Everglade. I am pretty excited about those stories.
SL: If there was one question you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do, what would it be? What would the answer be?
GB: There are no “good guys” in your books. What makes Selena any better than her enemies? Sometimes those lines are blurred.
Selena is the most-wronged character in the stories, and her cause is just. That doesn’t make her a good person, but hopefully she is someone readers can side with.
I consciously include scenes that contrast Selena with her enemies. I don’t think readers notice these, and I don’t think they need to. An example is, in Diesel Therapy, Selena’s uncle takes advantage of a young woman. In that scene, he steals cigarettes from the woman and calls her stupid. Later in the book, Selena has a couple of encounters with the same woman. In the first scene, Selena takes a cigarette without asking. In the second, she asks the woman if she is stupid. I think her uncle is condemned by the reader for these actions, but Selena is excused.
In Suicide Lounge there is a more blatant instance of this. Selena’s enemy is aggressively taking over Selena’s turf, and he has a violent tactic that he employs to do this. In the middle of the book, Selena goes to another city and does the exact same type of thing—she helps another faction take over territory by employing the same tactic. Now, if I did this well, the readers don’t notice the similarity between Selena and her enemy. But it’s satisfying for me to build in those echoes and rhymes when writing these novels.
SL: Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you’d like to share today?
GB: Suicide Lounge comes out on April 1st. It’s always happy hour in the Suicide Lounge.
SL: Happy hour, indeed. I hope you like bloody mary’s. They’ll be the special of the day in the Suicide Lounge tomorrow.