Interview with author, Eric Beetner, by Matt P. Ryan

Eric BeetnerNine Toes In The Grave

Eric Beetner is the author of RumrunnersThe Devil Doesn’t Want MeDig Two Graves, White Hot Pistol, The Year I Died Seven Times, Stripper Pole At The End Of The World & the story collection, A Bouquet Of Bullets. He is co-author (with JB Kohl) of the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head, Borrowed Trouble and Over Their Heads. He co-wrote The Backlist with author Frank Zafiro and the sequel, The Short List is out next year. He has also written two novellas in the popular Fightcard series, Split Decision and A Mouth Full Of Blood. He lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts the Noir At The Bar reading series. For more visit ericbeetner.com

MPR: You’ve written five books in the past year. I think I speak for all writers when I say that we hate you. How is this amount of production possible? Even Joyce Carol Oates, I would assume, thinks you’re a freak.

Eric: It’s all smoke and mirrors. The publishing industry can move rather slowly so this year has been a lucky confluence of delayed projects, hard working indie presses and my own cheating. In chronological order this year has seen the release of my novel The Year I Died Seven Times which was written a few years ago and saw a serialized release of the course of 2014. The omnibus edition came out in March from Beat To A Pulp.

After that came my novel Rumrunners from a different publisher, 280 Steps. I wrote that book 4 years ago and it languished as something my then agent never sent out to anyone because I kept slinging new manuscripts at him. I always liked it and so when I parted with my agent I shopped it myself and it found a home and has subsequently become my best-selling book. I just finished the sequel, Leadfoot, which will be out next year.

The Backlist I co-wrote with author Frank Zafiro so that’s cheating since I only had to write half a book. Same goes for Over Their Heads which I co-wrote with a frequent collaborator of mine, JB Kohl. We have two other published books together and I love writing with her. Over Their Heads has been the book that suffered and got lost a bit in the shuffle this year from my over-abundance of releases. I really like it and hope people find their way to it in larger numbers.

For Nine Toes, it was supposed to be part of a planned trilogy of noir novellas but the original publisher crashed and burned after they put out the first book, White Hot Pistol. The second book has never seen the light of day, but it will. I tweaked a few things in the outline to make Nine Toes more standalone and then started writing at the end of 2014.

I’ll also have one more novella out this year, a western with Beat To A Pulp. That one I wrote in 2015. I’ve also written the sequel to Rumrunners this year and the sequel to The Backlist with Frank (both out next year) as well as half of a standalone novel and I’m working on two more novellas at the moment.

MPR: Give the reader an idea of what they can expect from this novel?

Eric: Nine Toes In The Grave is my kind of story about an everyman who gets tangled in a web he has to extricate himself from to survive. It’s classic noir territory. I wanted to start it in an almost Noir cliche way with the sexpot wife of the boss and then twist it again and again so even if you think you know where the story is going based on the classic noir tropes, you’ll be wrong.

I don’t want to give anything away here, but it’s about a guy who is having a way worse day than you. It’s one thing piled on him after another and watching him see if he can squeeze his way out to get back to a semi-normal life again.

MPR: Your subtitle is a hard luck story? That would be an understatement. Do you enjoy torturing your characters?

Eric: I do. It’s the basis of good drama to push your characters to their limit. Many of my favorite novelsdo this from Cornell Wollrich to Jason Starr. I like seeing how characters react when they are faced with a fight or flight situation, or if they are forced into a decision that compromises their own conscience. It’s just interesting to me.

I’ve really done terrible things to people in my books. I’ve put them through hell, and many of them deserved it. The ones that don’t still learn something about themselves and their limits. Hopefully the readers put themselves in the character’s shoes for a while and agree with how the character reacts.

But I sincerely hope nobody has to deal with even half the crap I write about. It would mess someone up, big time.

MPR: This novel explores the concept that a regular Joe can do bad things if a bad break comes their way. Is that a truth limited to this story or one that you agree with on a deeper level?

Eric: I do agree that we can be capable of rising to meet the darkness head on if need be. I think exploring that interests me and readers, too. When I read a great book that is set in a plausible, real-world scenario I can’t help but wonder what I’d do. The example I always use is A Simple Plan. The reason I sucked so deeply into that book is wondering what the hell I’d do in that situation.

I probably should find some new examples but it’s the same with The Cold Kiss by John Rector, The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle, Twisted City by Jason Starr. Those are all ‘There by for the grace of god go I’ type books where you could conceive of that happening to you.

I don’t have the same level of relatability when reading about a homicide detective or a world renowned super spy or a serial killer. I want readers to be able to plug themselves into my books and live vicariously for a while.

MPR: As a writer myself, I can get really excited by a line or two from a book that might be less exciting to someone who is a non-writer. One such line I loved in your book, partly because it was clever, but also because of its significance, was the following: “She exhaled a cloud of smoke and it circled around her like a bad idea forming.” Was this a line that excited you, too?

Eric: I’m glad you liked that one. When I write I don’t look back over what I’ve done until I reach the end. Often, when I go back to the top, I forget much of the specifics of what I’d written so, yes, a line like this I’ll run across and feel a sense of pride because I’d forgotten I wrote it so I’m coming at it like a reader.

I love a juicy simile or a tortured metaphor. I need to keep myself in check on those, but I really find pleasure in reading and writing them. A good editor will save me from myself. But when you hit upon a line that is a great show-don’t-tell moment and evokes an image in the readers mind – well, that’s the sweet spot, isn’t it? I come from a film background so I picture things very vividly as I write and I hope to relay that to a reader while still giving enough breathing room for them to fill in details in their own mind. It’s a balance. I don’t like when a writer gives it all to me. Again it comes down to being relatable. If I’m allowed to plug in enough of a percentage of my own reference points while I’m reading a book, it makes it more relatable to me. Yes, transport me. Yes, take me to a world that is not mine. But I don’t want to shut off my brain and have an entire world described to me. And a few select, evocative images are all you need to make me feel the world you’re trying to convey.

MPR: Are there any themes in this story that can be found in many of your books?

Eric: Probably just that sometimes no matter what you do you’re fucked.

I find that I tend to write reluctant criminals. Not being a criminal myself I like to explore the psyche of someone who doesn’t want to kill or steal or hurt, but for one reason or another it becomes the best option at the moment. I do find myself returning to that theme again and again in some form. It’s more interesting to me than a psycho who kills for fun or someone for whom violence is routine.

MPR: Were there ever moments in this book where you recognized your own growth as a writer? Perhaps a technique or an element of fiction that you decided to work on?

Eric: This is an interesting question. I can’t say there was but this was a return to deep noir fiction territory after I’d written two novels that were very different. One a very balls-out thriller like an action film and one another non-stop action piece but with an unreal/almost supernatural twist.

I came to Nine Toes to get back to my roots, I guess. Then, at the end, I had a fear of repeating myself. After the other two noir novellas and much of my other work, I didn’t want to get locked into being that guy. I never want people to feel like they’re reading a re-do of something I’ve already done. It’s tough because I’ve written sequels to things and obviously you want those to maintain a similarity, but for the standalones like this I want it to be unique, even if it’s only my unique take on an established genre.

That’s one reason I agreed to take on writing a western. It cleared my mind for a bit to do something new.

On one of those thrillers I mentioned (both of which are as yet unpublished) I decided to do without any speech tags. No he said or she said. It’s not a radical thing and I’m not the first to do it, but it forced me into a different rhythm with my writing that I feel kept me from sounding repetitive to myself at least, and hopefully to the readers.

MPR: Describe the evolution of your writing style?

Eric: I never thought I had a head for novel writing. I liked the skeletal, spare style of screenplays. I didn’t think I had it in me for the details involved in a novel. When I started writing more and longer prose, I found it wasn’t that different.

Since I started publishing crime fiction I’ve fixed many of my bad habits. I’ve cut down on some crutch words I would overuse, made my editing run more smoothly. Some of the best aspects of my writing I’vebeen able to identify and hone due to feedback on many of my short stories as well as novels. I’ve seen what kind of characters readers respond to and which fall flat.

I’d written so many feature length scripts that I was well versed already in story structure and telling a novel-length story rather than starting a book and realizing quickly that it wasn’t a story worthy of 80,000 words, or even 50,000. I think that holds up a lot of books. People start before the idea is fully baked and then get lost in the muck as they try to pad out a story that wants to be shorter.

I think now I know how to turn on or off my more gonzo side in terms of violence and outrageous situations to put characters in to. I can scale a story back to human size where it wants and blow it out to over-the-top cinematic style if that’s what serves the story.

Mostly I want to keep evolving. I got really close to starting on a novel that is much slower and darkly mysterious than my regular work, but in the end the story just wasn’t coming together for me. It will have to wait I guess until I evolve into being the right person to tell that story. For now, I’m not the guy.

MPR: A few years back, you got an award for the Stalker Award for the Most Underrated Author? Do you feel like you’ve gotten more recognition since then? And if so, how are you able to keep your edge since many writers fuel themselves by feeling underappreciated?

Eric: This is a fascinating question to me and one I’ve thought about a lot. Look, I love being on any list that starts with “ten best writers” or something similar. However, there will come a time when I can’t look past the rest of the list title “you’ve never heard of”. I love it. It’s flattering. It’s more than I deserve.

It’s also going to get real old, real fast. (But don’t let that stop anyone from putting me on those lists. I’d rather be a cult writer than ignored.) Mostly it’s because I know the window is narrow and is already closing. If you achieve some notoriety but fail to break through, people won’t stick with you to wait it out. Believe me, nobody knows how frustrating it is to wait for a larger readership than I do, 13 books in. Why would you want to suffer through that if you didn’t have to? There are too many other good writers out there to follow who will surely eclipse my minor status.

A fellow writer said recently that I was “having a Beetner moment” and it terrified me. Moments pass. People congratulate you, but then they move on.

The respect of my peers is phenomenal. From the start I said all I ever wanted to achieve was to be a part of the conversation, and I feel I’ve done that to a large extent. It doesn’t mean I don’t recalibrate the goals to a higher rung on the ladder.

I don’t draw fuel from any underground status. It’s how I’ve lived my whole life from my time playing in bands nobody liked to writing screenplays that never got produced. I’ve come to expect nothing. Nobody owes me a thing. And if it all went away tomorrow I’d walk away happy. I’ve already done more than most in publishing. I’ve gotten higher praise than I ever felt I deserved. I’ve befriended literary heroes and met them as equals.

Underrated or not is not for me to say. I’ll keep working, keep writing, keep doing my best to be a helpful and constructive part of the crime writing community and try to give back as much or more than I’ve been given, which is quite a lot. And through it all I will continue to expect nothing and be thrilled and bemused when anyone notices that I write anything at all.

MPR: What’s next for Eric Beetner?

Eric: (Deep breath. This is a long list.) Well, there’s that western up next. It’s part of The Lawyer series for Beat To A Pulp and my entry is called Six Guns At Sundown. I’m going to write another novella in the series as well in early 2016.

The Rumrunners sequel will be out next year as will The Short List, my sequel to The Backlist co-written with Frank Zafiro.

280 Steps is re-releasing my novel The Devil Doesn’t Want Me and will be putting out the rest of the trilogy which has never been released before (the third book of which I still need to write) so I’m thrilled about that.

Blasted Heath will be doing an ebook of my novel Run For The Money which I had released in a limited edition run of 100 print copies under the title Criminal Economics (for the true collectors). That doesn’t have a date yet but I’ve been so busy with other releases I’ve told them not to rush.

I will be getting rights back to White Hot Pistol and the other noir novella with it called Blood On Their Hands (for now, it may change) and those will come out in some form or another someday. The guys at ADR press are doing such a fine job with hardboiled noir novellas I may have to pitch them on the idea.

I’ve always got another novel or two brewing, waiting to be written, but I do have three unpublished manuscripts right now ready to get out and get shopped. And I’m thrilled to be working on a project with writer Allan Guthrie who is an absolute hero of mine so I couldn’t be more excited to work with him. It’s still an evolving thing and how it will make it out in the final form is up in the air but could be very exciting, indeed.

Somewhere along in there I’ll manage to do my day job, spend time with my family, keep designing book covers and squeezed in between everything – sleep.