Bouchercon. Conversation about the Evolution of the Noir Genre Panel, 1 November 2019, 1PM in Landmark C in Dallas Hyatt Regency. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own.
Panelists: Moderator, Eryk Pruitt (EP). Shawn A. Cosby (SC), Christa Faust (CF), Kelly J. Ford (KF), and Peter Rozovsky (PR).
EP: Let’s get rolling, folks. Of course, if I’ve missed anything, please be sure to fill-in-the-blanks as we go through. Why don’t, y’all just give out your noir cred since you’re on a noir panel. What’s your cred to talk about it? Let’s start with you, Shawn.
[Photo: Peter Rozovsky]
SC: My noir cred is I’ve had my good heart broken by a bad woman. I’ve been in bar fight where I neither knew the opponent, nor why we were fighting.
EP: That was last night, right?
SC: Almost fought an assassin. I was once the unwitting getaway driver to a robbery. Those are my noir credentials. The statute of limitations has run out, so I can talk about it.
CF: Well, I’m gonna get a little cranky about the noir credential bullshit, because I’m here to tell you some of the best noir that is out there is about suburban, desperate, ordinary people who have never done anything wrong in their life and they make that one choice, that one bad decision and it all goes down. But that being said, I grew up on 45th Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan. I worked in the peep booths in the Eighties, and there’s a much longer bio. I can get you an ARC, but for now I think that’ll do.
[Photo: L-R: Christa Faust & Kelly J. Ford from Facebook]
SC: That’s way cooler than mine.
EP: Ms. Kelly Ford.
KF: Yes, I’m sure I’m why I’m here. Yes, I’m from a long line of criminals, including ax murderers, some drug dealers, and then I’ve been arrested a little bit.
EP: Please explain.
KF: That would take too long.
CF: We’ll find her at the bar.
EP: What about you, Mr. Rozovsky?
PR: My scant noir credibility is that I have stolen a car in my life, but the main thing is that I am human. And that is what noir is.
EP: Is this the kind of microphone you can drop because if it is, go ahead and drop it. Christa touched on something that will be basis, the entire emphasis of this panel; but before we can talk about where noir is headed or where the so-called evolution is going or coming from, it’s probably best if we talk about historically what it is, so we can know where we are moving from.
CF: Noir. What is noir? We’ve all done this already? It’s French for black.
KF: Thank you.
EP: Peter, why don’t you fill in on that.
PR: I think I’ve spoken at sufficient length. What is noir? That little definition I gave, I came to after considering that noir means you’re fucked. One thing that noir does not mean is death. Death has nothing to do with noir because death is too easy. I think what noir is about is about being condemned to be alive. [Photo: SW Lauden blog]
SC: I heard someone much smarter than me explain that the difference between a ‘noir story’ and a ‘hard-boiled story’ is that a hard-boiled story is basically about people who kind of want to do the right thing, and a ‘noir story’ is about people who can’t do the right thing.
CF: I like that.
EP: You told me, Kelly, before the panel that ‘I don’t read the traditional noir’, so you didn’t think that you had much to offer. What is it that you don’t read? What do you call ‘traditional noir’?
KF: I think it was Daniel Woodrell who had called Winter’s Bone ‘rural noir’ and ‘country noir.’ He doesn’t subscribe to that anymore, but I was talking about that when I was workshopping my book [Cottonmouths, (2017)]. I had mentioned that to someone and someone who did read noir, and that someone said ‘this isn’t noir, this is blah-blah.’ I went off, thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m not doing noir. I don’t know what that is,’ so…for me, it is darkness, it is the human condition, and that’s what I write and what I read.
EP: I think you did a good job there bringing up Daniel Woodrell because that seems to be the noir I’m drawn to. The old-school stuff is great, Jim Thompson is great, but I think that noir now—especially with the internet democratizing the world is we get to see more noir, more lifestyles, and more walks of life, and Daniel Woodrell draws on the rural noir, which I’m really drawn to.
KF: That’s what I write. I think there is this idea that—at least I have this idea—that noir had to be a PI, had to be set in Hollywood or New Orleans, some other place, and those are great but I was reader across genre first, and it wasn’t until I started to take writing classes that genre had to be a thing I had to think about, and that was really upsetting because I just wanted a concept and call it darkness and whatever it is and across genres. Whether it is true-crime, or give me romance, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t care what it is, as long as it is dark and about the human condition and about, as you said, people who can’t help but do wrong. I paraphrased that all wrong.
SC: I was drawn to what is considered classical genre when I was a little kid. Eryk has heard the story a ton of times, but I grew up dirt poor. We’d go to a thrift store, and they had a bin. In the bin, you could pick five books for a dollar. Somebody had apparently hated Raymond Chandler because they had dropped all his books into this bin. When I was eleven or twelve, that was what I started reading. I guess I shouldn’t have been reading it but, to me, it reflected the postwar nihilism that America was going through at that time. And then to talk about how noir evolved, we get to the Sixties and Ross Macdonald—Peter’s favorite writer (in joke)—you look at the lack of optimism, the deaths of Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the fall of Camelot. Writers were reflecting that loss of innocence—more than a loss of innocence, but totally bereft of optimism. There is no hope anymore. Then you get into the Seventies and Eighties, the rise of the AIDS epidemic, and the rise of the modern neo-Nazi movement.
You had black writers writing noir. You had Walter Mosley writing and hearkening back to the Fifties, because there was this time period when things might get better, and then things really did not get better. The evolution of noir for me represents whatever is the social malaise that the country is going through at the time when the book is being written.
[Photo: SA Cosby reading his Anthony Award-winning short story at Noir at the Bar, Bouchercon 2019, with an admiring Joe Lansdale watching. Photo taken by Gabriel Valjan]
CF: Absolutely, and I think you also see that, at least with modern writers. People tend to have this tendency to, ‘Don’t focus on the finger. Focus on the moon.’ People focus on the hat, on the shadows, and focus on the furniture of what noir is, and so you end up with a lot of those sort of Mickey Spillane cosplay type of guys, who want to pretend that it’s still okay to slap women and use the N-word because that’s just how things were back then; and my challenge to that is, ‘That’s not about the hat, but what goes on under the hat. That’s noir. If you start diversifying those voices, every person—and I don’t care where you’re from and I don’t care what your background is—you’re human, like you said [Peter], it’s the human condition [Kelly]. It’s the bad decisions that people make; it’s not about the details about the heist, it’s about the way people doing the heist fall apart.
SA: That’s such a great thesis.
PR: Eryk, you differentiated between rural noir and classic noir, and you invoked Daniel Woodrell. Well, for my money, the greatest crime novel ever written is Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. In my edition of it, Daniel Woodrell wrote a very appreciative introduction that I could quote for hours, so I think perceptive readers just treat those as tags, props and cigars, jacks and dames and all that sort of thing. A perceptive reader will see that core of humanity. That’s the last time I’m going to say humanity.
EP: I think a lot of times when we look at traditional noir—and by the way, really quick, Carol Puckett who helped plan this Bouchercon here in Dallas, it was very, very important to her that we have this panel. She specifically wanted this panel to happen. She wanted people to understand what noir is, and especially where it’s going. Look at where it was in the Fifties and Sixties, and those old definitions we’re talking about could be summed up very simplistically as, that it is the bad behavior of white men in the Fifties and Sixties. I think, as we see this concept in urban settings, kind of bleed over into new times, and especially with this panel here, we see those definitions have radically changed since the Fifties and Sixties. Once could argue that this old genre, which celebrated the bad behavior of white men, it has now become probably, we could argue, one of the true genres of social justice. Do you feel the same way?
SC: I think true noir is incredibly infused with the idea of social justice, but it’s truly a looking glass, because a lot of time noir characters don’t get justice. In the end they aren’t able to rise above, and by showing that degradation of the human spirit you allow your readers to see that ‘there before the grace of God, go I’. You use these bad characters as an example of maybe what not to do, but at the same time if you’re doing it right, they empathize with those people and empathize with the plight they’re in.
I like to write about rural, black America, write about rural black people in the south. For a long time, the only idea for noir story, and Eryk touched on it, was a dark alleyway on 42nd Street, or in Chicago, or LA and so forth. But you know what? There is no more frightening noir place then a lonely country road at midnight, with no lights. If you’re not scared there, then you’re either drunk, high, or a sociopath. For me, the reflection that I’d like to show in my work is the desperation of the people I grew up with. A lot of guys I knew are doing time, not because they are inherently bad people, but because they had no other options. Even when they felt they were getting ahead, they were dragged back five steps. You poke a bear with a stick enough, he’s going to bite your ass. I think that’s the ethos of noir I like and I write. Other people write rural noir—and I don’t want to characterize it too sharply—but that is the stuff I’m drawn to because I lived it for a while.
CF: Being an urban person myself I could see how both of these and how you can it both ways—but if you go back to the birth of noir, and you look at Chandler, Hammett, these guys, the Black Mask era—what were they doing in that era? Yes, it was all white men, but what they were doing was that they were rejecting this idea of the British parlor crime, where you don’t see the body and there are no consequences; it’s like a bloodless puzzle. Guys, like Hammett came along and said, ‘No, we’re going to write about the street. We’re going to write about ordinary people, and they are going to speak the way they really speak, and it was revolutionary back then. And I feel what we are doing now is kind of similar, in that we took that one step back then and now we are taking that next step to open up to these different perspectives, different voices, different characters; all of whom have roots going back to that rejection of crime as a bloodless, fun Rubik’s cube to solve and more emotional, more human, more gut-wrenching.
SC: Chandler had that great quote where he says that we try to take murder out of the drawing room in the English manor and put it down in the street with the real people.
CF: It’s just that the definition of ‘real people’ is getting kicked open at this point.
KF: I write about queer people in Arkansas and poverty. I don’t mean to write about social justice, but when you grow up poor, it’s like you kind of can’t help it. I think what you said, Christa, is correct in that it’s even in these suburban and urban environments because sometimes…a country road can be really terrifying to me in a different way. Oh, animals. I grew up in both. I grew up Fort Smith, Arkansas with my mom, and it was a little industrial, and then I was out in the woods with my dad, but I was more scared living with mom in an industrial town because you just never knew when crazy people were hanging around, especially in a poorer neighborhood.
PR: What was the question?
EP: We were talking about noir being a social justice medium and differentiating what it was in the Fifties and Sixties.
PR: I don’t know if it’s more social justice, I am the least marginalized person here, so I don’t know if it is so much a social justice thing as a cosmic justice thing. Look at what happens at the end of some of David Goodis’s novels. At the end of Cassidy’s Girl there’s a protagonist who is going nowhere, a woman who tries to go somewhere and fails and falls back, and in the end, it’s almost an inverted love story. You know how, in hard-boiled fiction, you hear talk about how justice and social order being restored, but noir it’s a cosmic order being restored.
EP: Quick question. Our job as writers in this genre is to empathize with people who do bad things. The acting President of the United States infamously once said that, ‘There are fine people on both sides.’ Do you believe that? Peter?
PR: It doesn’t matter. We’re all doomed anyway.
SC: To jump in on what Peter said. It doesn’t matter if there’s fine people on both sides because these fine people are doing fucked-up shit. There’s a book written by Jordan Harper: She Rides Shotgun [Edgar Award Winner, Best Debut Novel, 2018]. The lead character is a former neo-Nazi, forced to be a Nazi in jail, and you get the feeling it’s not really his thing but he had to survive; and Jordan Harper does something, at least for me, that I thought was impossible but I feel empathy for that guy. I feel sorry for him. I feel the level of desperation that he is at in that book. Any writer who can do that is a writer you need to pay attention to, and at the same time, I have a caveat in my work because I grew up in the south, anytime someone uses the N-word in my book, that character gets their teeth checked. I use that, as Peter would say, the cosmic scale sort of balances a little bit. But if you want to talk about order being restored. James M. Cain’s Postman Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, it’s not so much as the social order being reset right, it’s these dark morality plays where these people pay for their lust, for their transgressions, and no one gets out alive. Thematically or literally.
KF: Defining ‘very fine’ is very subjective because there are very ‘fine people’ who’d like to take away my rights, so…but that said, as I mentioned on different panels—sociopaths, psychopaths, unless you’re that—I think everyone is in this gray area and, as a writer, I want to try and understand them, and dive into their psychology. And I do believe that there are good people, who go bad or think poorly, and I’m not necessarily going to try to change their mind; but I’m going to dive deep into my perspective, and that’s what I’m hoping for when I read other books is, ‘Show me your world’ and hopefully by doing that, they’ll see me and others as human.
EP: She does that very well, by the way, in Cottonmouths with the protagonist’s girlfriend. You’ll love it. Christa?
CF: This is fiction and if you’re not sympathizing with bad people, you’re doing something wrong. Nobody wants to read about cardboard cutouts, or the villain twirling a mustache. I’m guess they’re people who are escapist, like action movies with clear heroes and villains; but for us here, the whole point to that kind of storytelling is to blur those lines. You get good people who do bad shit for decent reasons, and you get bad people who do good shit for their own unknowable reasons, and that’s the meat of this type of storytelling that I find so appealing. When you get into real life and trying to talk about people who feel that you don’t deserve to exist: they want to negate you; they want to control your body—that’s not negotiable, but the stories are where we work out that kind of tension, and we use it to make the reader think.
EP: As you talk about empathy and sympathy, our job is to empathize with these characters doing bad things, is there a line that you won’t cross as a writer, or as a reader? Is there a line in your mind that you won’t cross?
CF: What you have to do is look at who is telling the story that is crossing the line because, as far as I’m concerned, we’re good with—let’s say you want to write a rape scene. Gentlemen, you guys have written enough rape scenes. You can stop now. No more sad daddy stories. You guys know what I’m talking about? This is where a woman’s beautiful dead body exists to make a man sad. It’s like, you write her story. You can write all those same events, and all that same sad dark fucked-up shit, but if it is her telling that story, now you’ve got something. It’s not so much as a matter of taboo, or lines, or what you can and can’t do, it’s who is telling it. Who is your protagonist?
EP: Is there a line, Shawn?
SC: To piggyback off that, yeah, I don’t write from the perspective of the sad daddy trope because I don’t think that is my story to tell. I really don’t. I wouldn’t say so much that there’s a line. People ask that about the violence in my stories. My brain is people getting hit in the face with wrenches and shit. People ask me about that. I feel that there is no line because the characters I am creating and the characters I like, the characters I find fascinating, they are in very desperate situations, and you never know what a desperate person is going to do; and that’s what makes the story is exciting. Yeah, I don’t like violence against kids and I really don’t like violence against pets, but if I can narratively justify it then I will include it. If it works toward the narrative in the story, and the theme and the point I’m trying to make then I’ll include it.
I have a scene in a book right now, where a guy is beating up a guy, who is sort of a sad sack and an intellectually-challenged individual, and you sympathize with the dude doing the beating because he’s been through so much stuff. But then I also have people, rather than sympathize with the theme of being tortured, I have a character, who through no fault of his own, my main character doesn’t care anymore because time is of the essence. If I have to slam your hand in a truck door four times to find out what I need to find out then I’m going to do it. Is that character a good guy? No. Not at all. He’s a functioning sociopath, but he’s also a loving father and he loves his kids, and so he has to do what he has to do. And so those lines only exist insofar as, Do they represent what I need to tell the story or not? If they don’t then I won’t cross them.
[Blacktop Wasteland is slated for release 14 July 2020 from Flatiron Books]
CF: Can I add one small thing and I hope I can get you to jump in as well? There is certainly a prejudice that exists, on the part of readers, against unlikeable women, and this extends to anybody—a white male character who is a son of a bitch and you love him. He’s an anti-hero; but as soon as a woman is out for herself and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else, that’s a monster. Any marginalized character, you’re almost required to apologize for your appetites, to apologize ‘I want money’, ‘I want power’, ‘I want to be on top’, ‘Sorry. Sorry’.
KF: Going back to unlikeable female characters, I am one. Forgot what I was saying. It was too much fun. But this idea that also that women who also make bad choices is, like, there’s something wrong with it. ‘Oh, she has no agency’. It is like, ‘No, bitch, she just made a bad choice.’ That’s the book. That’s terrible.
But I think, too, a lot of it, unfortunately comes from other women and I’m like, ‘You’re living under the patriarchy, honey’. That’s an annoying thing for me, but I think my being from the south, one of my ‘never going go there line’ lines and I don’t want to read it from other people, is the ‘white savior narrative’. It’s not my story to tell, that is my story to push onto the people from the people who have written it and who come from that community, so that’s something. I just don’t want to read that. We’ve seen it, and I really don’t care how you feel about it right now. Your opinion is not important, so that is my one line.
EP: You read pretty widely, Peter. Is there a line in what you’re reading that you won’t cross? Is there a crime, a sin committed that makes you put the book down because you cannot empathize?
PR: I’m sure there is, but I haven’t come across it yet.
KF: I’m working on it. Give me another month.
PR: I was just taking notes as these people were speaking, and yes, for me the question for me, Is what I would read and what I wouldn’t read. I read I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond or GBH by Ted Lewis, or A Savage Night by Jim Thompson, and some of these, particularly toward the end of some of those books, I almost felt sick to my stomach, but I kept the hell reading. I think I read them in one sitting.
Some of the things Shawn was saying, about empathizing with someone who is doing something terrible reminded me very much of a new novel called Three-Fifths by a guy named John Vercher, who is here. You all ought to read it, if you haven’t. There is a young neo-Nazi character in there. And that hits you—I found myself feeling pity for this guy. He’s talking about the terrible things that happened to him in prison, and yet he’s likely the category of person I’d like to shoot in real life, so you’re being torn both ways.
EP: So often we give our characters and the characters we read about, as we empathize, a chance for redemption. We’re supposed to do that. Can everyone be redeemed?
SC: I think the possibility exists, but the desire doesn’t. Does your character want to change? Does he or she feel the need to change, or do they feel justified? For me, that’s the crux and I’m fascinated with that idea in my writing. It’s, ‘Am I worthy of redemption? Do I deserve redemption and can I have redemption?’ I am fascinated with that. What is the effect of that violence on the perpetrator? The character I was talking about in the course of Blacktop Wasteland: he slams hands in car doors, he runs over people with a 71 Plymouth Duster, and beats someone to death with a wrench, and he sets fire to a guy; all in pursuit of this normalcy, this safety net for his family. At the end of the book, he has this question, ‘Can I even be around my kids? Can I be around my wife? What kind of person can do the things I do and still come home, be a father and a be a husband.’ I leave the question ambiguous at the end of that whether he redeems himself or not, even whether he’s worthy of redemption. I think anybody can be redeemed, just a matter of how badly do you want it.
CF: What is even redemption? Redeemed by whom? Yourself? Society? Some perceived religious orientation? That’s a really malleable question. I think again those gray areas. If a person feels redeemed, ‘Are they redeemed? Are we going to redeem them? What are we looking to apologize for?’
For me, I feel and this is especially people for female characters and queer female characters in particular: Fuck your redemption. I don’t need. I don’t want it. I’m leaving it on the table. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t need permission to do bad things. I know who I am and I have no shame. I love characters who say, ‘I don’t need to prove some religious ideal that will excuse my terrible behavior. I’ve got shit to do.’
KF: I don’t think they have to be redeemed. I’m actually more drawn to stories that are an absolute spiral to terror and horror and the darkness. I think I’d hate to write a redemption story, in some ways, I think, ‘Yeah, I love the badness and I think again that, with a queer person, we have to perform for certain audiences, and I don’t want to do that. I want my queer character to be as bad as any white male character. [KJF Photo: Goodreads]
CF: Thank you.
SC: There’s a trope that a lot of people talk about in Hollywood: ‘the Magical Negro.’ I write tough, dark, twisted black characters and that’s fine, that’s alright. We all don’t exist to be Bagger Vance [movie with Will Smith, adapted from the novel by Steven Pressfield]. We don’t have to make Matt Damon better at his golf game. You can actually be a tortured, twisted, upset and maybe nasty villain, and be a black person. That onus doesn’t land on you.
CF: You want to, but I can tell you the numbers, and it’s almost always women. Specifically. I mean, it’s like, Why does a lesbian have to be so mean?
KF: You’re playing into their hands.
CF: By having a queer villain. Of course, the gay guy is the villain, because you’re just following along with the clichés. Why can’t we just be everything? Why do we have to be the one shining example?
KF: It really sucks to see the gay character being the one who lifts you up, or the marginalized—
CF: The best friend.
KF: The best friend is going to show you how to dress, and—
EP: They’re going to die in Act III, by the way. The gay neighbor always dies.
KF: It’s true. Any marginalized character, the minute I open the book. There was this one book, and there’s this one nonwhite person and I’m like, ‘Damn it, she’s gonna die!’ and she did. I was so mad.
SC: I think the great thing about noir is one of the few genres, subgenres or whatever you want to call it, where you can express that. The great Elmore Leonard, in 52 Pickup, has a great black villain. He’s part of a trio: him, a guy, and the main character. And he’s this incredible, fully-formed and smart and intelligent villain, and written at a time when people weren’t writing about black people in general, and damn sure weren’t allowing a black man to run around and shoot up a rich white man’s house. He is able to do those things and, like you said about LGBTQ characters or marginalized people or, in Eryk’s works, really nasty rednecks. You can have that person in a noir novel, and express that person’s point of view and, again with no apologies given and No Fucks Given, I have none left. That’s one way you can look at it.
EP: Let’s talk a little bit here about the protagonist being a marginalized person and doing bad and redemption, but what about a character—and we see it a lot in the current age, with #metoo, and cancer culture, a lot of these bad actors in #metoo who are—how long do I need to atone? When can I be accepted back in?
CF: Sit down for fuck’s sake. I do not care about your poor little fucking career. There are 20 guys, younger than you, who aren’t a jagoff. Sit the fuck down. Sorry.
KF: One hundred percent.
CF: Did I say that out loud?
EP: Can we get the white male perspective on this, Mr. Rozovsky?
KF: It’d better be one sentence.
PR: Eryk, what I wrote about one of Eryk’s books is that he is not afraid to write a character who is a fucking idiot, and come right out and call that character a fucking idiot. But during all this talk that was preceding me, I was thinking, Where are we? We are in the United States of America, the land of Walt Whitman, we all contain multitudes—some people up here may contain more than I do—but we all contain multitudes, and that includes evil and terrible things. And those multitudes just get bigger all the time, so that’s why I think there is a bright future for noir, even though if you go into the book bazaar room there are sections for espionage and suspense, for traditional, for historical, for cozy—where’s the noir?
EP: I am going to get to book recommendations before Q and A. I want to ask a question. In the news a lot, the movie Joker came out, and aside from riffing really well on a movie like Taxi Driver, there’s a lot of criticism they get for possibly glorifying violence, which is basically incel behavior. We’ve got people out there going nuts and shooting up a McDonald’s, shooting up things, and at the same time, you’ve got this Joker. Jed Ayres’s hardboiled wonderland [a blog] wrote an excellent piece on empathy for characters such as this, and an important piece on empathy, however—what is your responsibility to manage this level of empathy versus glorification?
CF: I kind of feel I have to jump on this, on account I have written the novelization of The Killing Joke, which is probably the most misogynistic, fucked up, legendary Joker stories that has ever—
SC: Poor Barbara Gordon.
EP: Do you want to tell them why?
CF: If you’re not familiar, The Killing Joke is a graphic novel, in which is the ultimate sad daddy. The Joker shoots, paralyzes, maybe rapes—maybe not because it’s not specifically stated— the Bad Girl in order to make her daddy sad. Basically, it’s like he broke the dad’s car window, to just piss him off, and here’s a superhero, in her own right, who is not even a character; she’s an object. Given that job, with my cowriter Gary Phillips, the two of us sat down and said, ‘What are we going to do with this? Because if you’re going to have me write this story, it’s going to be me writing it, and I’m not doing that. There’s going to have to be some changes’. And we did kind of approach it with an incel style story, where we said, ‘Alright, there are young men who are really struggling right now, they are lost, they don’t feel connected to anyone, and it’s like if you’re standing there in Port Authority, and you’re by yourself with a suitcase, some guy is going to come up to you and say, ‘Hon, are you all alone in the Big City? You look like someone who needs someone to take care of them’ This is what is happening to young men. They’re getting these Nazi pimps who see young men as fresh meat. They’ll say, ‘C’mon sweetheart, I’ll take care of ya.’
To bring it back to the idea of, ‘Is it okay to have empathy for incels?’ I think there are two ways to ask that question and to answer that question. Which is first of all, are you glorifying? Is it a rallying cry? Are you deconstructing, asking questions? Are you asking hard, confusing, difficult questions that don’t have answers? Or is it, fucking bitches? Fucking women, see…if you would have fucked me, I wouldn’t have blown that church up. If that’s what you’re doing with it then, Fuck no. I have no empathy for that, but if you’re doing what Gary and I tried to do in Killing Joke, which is you are having a character who idolizes the Joker and who is a young kid, doesn’t have a lot of friends, doesn’t fit in, and here comes this cool guy. He’s the Joker; he’s awesome. It’s funny and everyone is going to laugh and it’s going to be a gag. ‘Oh wait, you’re really going to shoot her?’ That’s not funny. Now, you’re digging into the meat of it. You’re not just parroting, ‘Oh poor me. Girls won’t talk to me.’
SC: I think you can have empathy for anyone, but sympathy is another ball of wax. If you watch the movie Joker and you look at the screen and said, ‘Yeah, I get that; that’s me,’ then you need professional help, or find a friend to hug, but if you watch that movie and say, ‘Man, that’s messed up. The dude has a lot of issues. He needs help. I wish someone would give him a hand’ that’s the dividing line.
That being said, when I write, I think I have a responsibility to tell a good story. That’s the first job, whether you’re a romance novelist or a noir novelist, you have to tell a good story. Secondly, I want everything that happens to my characters to be earned, and if it’s earned I sleep well at night, because here’s the thing: crazy people were prevalent a long time before books and TV were everywhere. We were burning people at the stake in the 1500s, and there was not a Joker movie or comic book around, so people will find a way to validate their taste and misanthropy. As writers, you can’t worry about that, you got to tell the best story you can tell. If somebody were to write me a letter and say, ‘I read Darkest Prayer and I went out and killed a bunch of people because Nathan [Wannamaker] is a badass, then I would feel bad. I wouldn’t feel bad that I wrote it. I’d feel bad that someone took that from it.
EP: Are you inspiring incels with your work?
KF: Probably. A bunch of women dating women. Who would do that? I don’t know. It is such a strange thing. I go back to the idea of, Who is pushing this forward? Who decided that this narrative, which we’ve seen over, and over and over again, is the one that we are going to promote? That’s the legacy we are going to leave in our careers, and so that’s something I would not push. The white straight male perspective is not one that we need more insight into.
SC: They’ve had a good 1500-year run.
KF: A good run and at this point, if I were someone with power in publishing, or in the media world, I would be looking towards at these other perspectives because I find them far more interesting. That’s just me.
EP: We’re leading into recommendations on that note. Do you see examples off the top of your head, of people who manage that expectation between glorification and empathy well, or poorly? Either way.
PR: It’s never an issue for me. The most recent books that ‘I’ve read where a certain slice of the Zeitgeist is being exploited that I don’t like at all are certain hard-boiled novels from the Fifties. I think Stephen Marlowe’s and Mickey Spillane’s anti-Communism just grates on me a little, because I don’t think they had the strength and convictions. They were just putting it on the page because that was what people wanted at the time. And maybe now, it’s torture porn or something else. I mentioned a few books earlier where shocking things happened. I never felt for a second that anything was being glorified.
EP: Talking about book recommendations, I have two that I tell are what noir is. One brilliant example is Nabokov’s Lolita , and that dude [Humbert Humbert]is committing what is, in my mind, one of the worst sins there is, and somehow in the book you come to sympathize with him. I read it when I was seventeen, close to Lolita’s age, and now I’ve read it closer to his age, and it’s two completely different readings. I think it is fascinating.
The other [recommendation] is Richard Wright’s Native Son . I don’t know why that doesn’t get credit for not being the quintessential noir novel. If you have not read that, I strongly recommend that you pick it up. Do you guys have any book recs?
[Note: Native Son, the 2019 HBO film is an adaptation of the novel, but listen to EP: read the book.]
SC: If you want to look at classic noir and one of the writers who did it—won’t say better than Chandler or Hammett or Ross Macdonald—is anything by Chester Himes. Chester Himes was one of the great distillers of not only the noir movement and school of thought, and black, white America, the milieu of the melting pot and what creates the mood of noir, the desperation, and conflicts of cultures. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones were just badass dudes. The books? The Real Cool Killers, A Rage in Harlem, Cotton Comes to Harlem [Harlem Detectives Series]. Books by Chester Himes are incredible. Classic noir.
A writer I like now who has a grasp on unlikeable characters, other than the people on the panel here, is a young woman from Nevada named Nikki Dolson. She wrote a collection called All Things Violent about a hit-woman named Cupcake. I love Nikki’s work because her characters are unapologetically human and tortured and twisted, but they’re also characters who speak to me about the desperate situation they are in, and what it is to be pushed into these desperate situations and how they respond to them. It’s not the story I want to tell, but there’s something interesting in reading it and learning from it.
And one more on rural noir, Steph Post’s Lightwood. Excellent, excellent examination of the white male trope distilled through a new world prism is how I’d put it.
EP: What do you think, Christa?
CF: I’ll be cheesy and point to these two, and if you’re not reading one of these two, then you’re missing out big time. Just to bounce off of Lolita, Tampa by Alissa Nutting. If you want to talk about unlikeable female characters, I think I might have had to shower my brain twelve times over the course of that book, but it’s riveting and it’s a story about a female sexual predator pedophile, and it’s—just read it. That’s all I’m going to say.
EP: What do you think, Kelly?
KF: I was, like no more white-male perspective, but here I go. I really love Chris Offutt’s Country Dark is so good. He also has a lesbian character in there. He’s done it really well. I was like, Thank you so much. Anytime I start to read it, I’m like, ‘She’s gonna die.’ It’s not necessarily rural noir, but it is very dark and I’m not saying it because you are here, Anne, but Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne wrote a book that just came out called Holding On To Nothing. It’s pretty dark. I love it because she’s tapping into that country perspective of a younger woman making choices, again unlikeable narrator or unlikeable women, who makes really bad decisions. She has another character who is an alcoholic. There’s that redemption thing and like, Is he going to keep making these bad decisions? He might. Things just spiral, and it’s really good.
EP: What do you think, Peter?
PR: I mentioned a few of my favorite noir novelists in the course of the discussion. I will be cheesy, like Christa was. I have been a fan of everybody on the stage up here with me, from a week in Kelly’s case, and about ten years in Christa’s case. You ought to read them. I’ll steal a page from Eryk and then list three books. Two of them are not crime novels, and they all of them have to do with the hell of living through war and what follows.
One is Journey to the End of the Night [in French, Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932] by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and that might make you so sick that you’ll want to stop reading. If you fine Céline a bit cozy for your taste, then you might try The Skin [in Italian, La Pelle, (1949)] by Curzio Malaparte, who was an Italian Fascist who turned pro-Communist later in his life, and who wrote some hellish stories about the aftermath of World War II in Italy which had switched sides. One more wartime novel, which does follow within the crime genre, is The Great Swindle [in French, Au revoir là-haut (2013)] by Pierre Lemaitre. You’ll learn what a good cassée [in French, face, as opposed to the common words for face, such as la figure or la visage] is. I’m done.
EP: Let’s turn it over to you guys. I’m hoping there are some questions out there. Does anybody have any questions?
Q: How do you feel about the classic noir character is either dead or in jail? Lately, they’ve been allowed to win, or come out on top.
SC: I won’t say that I hate it. I prefer the traditional ending. Maybe not dead or in jail, but emotionally dead or emotionally shattered, or definitely not the same at the end. It’s definitely not a noir novel, but the end of Red Dragon [Hannibal Lecter Book 1 by Thomas Harris]. Will Graham is alive, as good as that is going to do for him. Those novels are ones I enjoy, and appeal to me. There’s nothing wrong with the person coming out on top, but for me, for my reading taste, I’m like Leonard Cohen: I want it darker.
KF: I think, too, that I like it darker. I’m okay when they come out on top, but even if they are not in a physical jail or prison—wait, that’s the same thing. They are emotionally dead or in an emotional prison.
CF: Death is a way out. If you’re dead in a noir novel, you’re probably one of the characters that got the better end of the deal because it’s those endings where the guy makes it that are the darkest.
EP: A classic example of that is The Shield where Vic Mackey makes it, but at what cost?
EP: We have another question.
Q: How do you find the difference between something that is bad, and something the audience can learn from?
CF: I don’t think it’s possible. You can’t micromanage the response of your audience. I’ve had people who’ve written glowing 5-star reviews of my books—and I’m glad you loved that book, and sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking about, but they loved it. Writing is a collaborative process and when your readers are interpreting your words: one person, two people, or four people might see a totally different story. There is nothing that you can do that is going to assure that every single person will get it. You can’t go to every single person’s house, look over the shoulder and say, ‘No. No. That’s what I really meant.’ You can’t do that. You gotta let your baby go and run free in the field. However people interpret it, that’s on them and not you. [Photo: Christa Faust with Gary Phillips, from CF FB]
SC: In my first book My Darkest Prayer, there’s a character in there named Skunk and he’s a benevolent sociopath. He’s a horrible person. He does horrible things. Nine out of ten times, he’s the person people are talking about when they read the book. ‘I love Skunk, man. He’s such a badass.’
I’m like, No, he’s not. He’s a very disturbed individual, and I’m sorry that you like him. You can’t control it. You write the story and hope people get the point of view that you intended, but it’s up to their interpretation. I’m just glad you enjoyed it, bought the book, but do not model your life after Skunk Mitchell.
CF: I was already.
KF: Nobody is doing meth anymore, so we’re good.
Q: Do you see any role for humor in your novels, aside from dialogue?
CF: Absolutely. Absolutely. Any person that. Has been through rough times, regardless of what is your perspective and your background, it’s trench humor. You’ve been in jail, you’ve been assaulted—you survive and that’s your armor, that kind of black humor. Spend any time around surgeons or cops or military or ex-convicts, you’ve got to laugh. It is what keeps you alive in the face of this grinding, unrelenting difficulty of your life.
KF: I find crime writers are the funniest people I have ever interacted with. It’s so much fun.
EP: I was on a panel with you once, and it was a laugh-a-minute. I remember you were explaining your food groups.
KF: Yeah, I said the three food groups: chickens, lesbians, and meth.
EP: Chickens, lesbians, and meth.
CF: I’ll skip the meth.
KF: I also think even in country noir, rural noir, or whatever you call it, you have these isolated groups of people, and any time you have a group of people together that have their own unique club, or whatever you want to call it; that’s just rife for humor. In the south, the hypocrisy alone. I just have to take aim at that, and the best way to do it is with humor.
CF: I’d like to give a shout out to my little toy-truck fun project that I did, which is Butch Fatale, Dyke Dick. It’s hard-boiled at a laugh-a-minute, with lots of lesbians and chicken. No meth, so provide your own.
[Photo: Peter Rozovsky]
SC: My book is no chuckle-fest, but there’s humor in it. The funniest times in my life I’ve ever had is after losing a bar fight, and trying to create a story-narrative that doesn’t end with me getting my ass whooped and my friends calling me out on it. Yeah, there’s a lot of darkness and violence, people getting killed and there’s crime, but there’s also fart jokes.
CF: There’s a certain subgenre, modern fan fiction that takes itself dreadfully serious, and it’s all just so important, and ‘Don’t laugh. Don’t laugh.’
KF: You have to laugh.
SC: I have to tell, y’all We’re all friends here. In my day life, my day job, my wife is a mortician and I work with her at a funeral home. That scene is based on a real-life situation. We had to remove a guy one time and the police called us and said, ‘Come and get this guy out. He’s in there, and you’re going to need some help.’ We’re like, Okay.’ He had died in a sex swing, full-on gear and mask.
CF: I was never convicted. It was thrown out.
SC: I was there and it was me and my wife, and we got to get him loose. I’m looking at this thing and I don’t know how to get him out. My wife is like, ‘You’ve got to pull these two buckles here’ and I’m like, ‘Why do you…never mind.’
CF: I could’ve helped.
EP: What did I tell you about this town’s preacher? Any other questions, folks?
Q: Other than diversity, how do you overcome the market for noir?
CF: I’ve got be honest. I’m the wrong person to ask. I don’t give two shits for market. I write what I write. I kind of can’t help it; it’s compulsive. I’ve worked as a professional dominatrix for more than 20 years. It was always amazing. It was like, ‘I was going to slap you anyway.’ It’s all good. I feel that way about my writing. I’m going to do this regardless. Is someone going to give me money for this? That’s almost like the frosting on the cake. I can’t help it.
SC: I just lie and say write a lot of sex and violence, so come for the sex and violence but stay for the ennui.
KF: I don’t know. All I can do is to continue to push other people’s book onto people. It’s so much easier for me to promote someone else, then it is to promote myself and so I am constantly encouraging people to read outside your own lane, your own perspective, read outside your own country for God sake, because I’ve met so many people who say, ‘I don’t like to read. My wife is one of them.’ I’m constantly like, ‘What do you like?’ I’m always trying to fix them. ‘I bet I can find a book for you’ and I’ve done it. I’ve become a recommendation machine for a lot of books, so I encourage everyone, ‘We’re a wave, we can be the change.’
PR: You have to remind and hammer and hammer it into people’s heads that we are multitudes, as I’ve said, we contain multitudes. First, we expand people’s minds, and then the noir will take care of itself.
EP: Well, folks, this has been a lot of fun.
[Photo Lineup from Scott Von Doviak, Twitter]