Interview with Ben Whitmer, author of PIKE

Ben Whitmer is an immensely talented and dangerous new voice in the landscape of American Noir. His first novel, Pike, published by Switchblade Press takes a stark view of the Rust Belt, a meaty stew of violence and depravity with haunting images of urban desolation depicted in raw, hard-nosed prose. His second book, a work of nonfiction about the country duo, the Louvin Brothers, is equally harrowing and deranged. Whitmer stopped by to talk to Noir Nation, we found him to be not only a hell of a writer but a polymath, holding forth on everything from crime fiction, country music, Herman Melville and Teddy Roosevelt: the enjoyment was all ours, just as it will be all yours should you pick up one of Whitmer’s books.

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Noir Nation: It says in your bio on Pike you were a petty thief at one time. Please elaborate for our gossip-loving fans.

Whitmer: Heh. That was teenage stuff, mainly. I spent my high school years in a small town in Southern Ohio that was home to a private college. A nice enough place, but to a teenage kid who’d grown up with outhouses and only occasional electricity it looked like a bunch of rich kids playing bohemian. We used to rob ‘em of everything we could. Beer, drugs, music, photography equipment, everything. We’d also break into buildings on campus, take what we wanted, and trash the rest. I was a lousy thief. Got busted for it twice, but was lucky enough to never get in any real trouble. Thanks, in large part, to the kindness of the folks we were robbing. The import of which managed to escape me at the time, but hasn’t since.

I was a pretty good-sized little shit. It came to a head when I was eighteen. By that time I’d dropped out of high school, been (rightfully) kicked out of my house, and was crashing in an abandoned dormitory. But then I got hit with a couple of tumors, neurofibromas, that put me out of commission for a long while. I got to have a good old-fashioned nineteenth century convalescence. It was the best thing that could have happened t me. Though I’d always had a half-ass notion of being a writer, that’s where I started thinking about how to do it. Reading seriously, practicing sentences, shit like that.

Noir Nation: I know for a fact you read Herman Melville. Can you please tell Noir Nation fans what in the Hell a noir crime writer is doing reading Melville and what do you think the rest of us can learn from the author of such challenging novels as Moby Dick, Pierre, and The Confidence Man?

Whitmer: Man, I’m obsessed with Melville. He was one of those I read not too long after that convalescence, and my interest in him hasn’t even slightly dimmed. I‘ve spent 12 years and counting on Euro-American representations of American Indians and the rhetoric of extermination thanks to Melville, and then, just last week, I found myself launching into what looks like a whole new angle with fucking Schopenhauer. And that, too, to get a better read on Melville.

To me it’s the wildness, the fearlessness, the inclusiveness. You feel like the whole world of books is in Moby Dick, with the references, the pastiche-work, the lifting of sources. And all in service of exactly what he wants to say. He could not write falsely, and no matter how pessimistic or strange his worldview grew, he couldn’t help but portray it. To me, that’s it. That’s what makes the writing game the only worthwhile game.

I’m coming back to him, too. I’m in the middle of a move, and since most of my books are packed, I downloaded the complete works of Conrad, Melville, and Poe on my Kindle. Thinking I’m gonna be spending the next couple years patching holes in what I missed and rereading the rest. Right now I’m on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym on the recommendation of a friend, and it’s just brilliant.

Noir Nation: Most of our readers know you as the author of the bleak and superb noir novel Pike, but you also wrote a follow up book of non fiction called Satan is Real, can you tell us about this book?

Whitmer: Satan Is Real is a book I co-wrote with Charlie Louvin who was one half of the Louvin Brothers. They were a blood harmony act in the middle of the last century, known for their bleak gospels and murder ballads. Charlie was the straight-laced brother in the group, while Ira, who died in 1965, was a thorough hell-raiser. He fought pretty much everyone, cussed out Elvis, was shot six times by his wife, died young. The book is a memoir of their time together, and hopefully captures some of their life and relationship.

It was an incredible experience. I’m a big fan of country and western music, and I got to sit on Charlie’s back porch, smoke cigarettes, and listen to him spin these tales of himself and folks like Johnny Cash. And HarperCollins, they actually paid me for it. I’d never done anything like it, and it just kind of landed in my lap, but there was no way in hell I could’ve passed it up if I wanted to.

Noir Nation: When you hear the word “noir” what first comes to your mind and why?

Whitmer: I usually start by thinking of what Dennis Lehane said, that noir is working-class tragedy. That doesn’t mean I know what the hell tragedy is, of course, but that’s usually where I begin. That said, I think the best of noir, like the best of all fiction, doesn’t really know what it is. Or even when it does, it can’t help but take a safety pin and pick at the nerve strings of its own system.

The reason I dig noir is that it seems like one of the few places left you can write about the things I find interesting. Class, race, one’s relationship with the broader society, freedom, prison and punishment, violence, lonesomeness, the never-ending repercussions of the past, etc. I’m not saying I write about any of that well, of course, but that’s the stuff that interests me.

Noir Nation: Your novel Pike is being translated into French. The French loved Poe, Jimi Hendrix, and Scott Wolven, before our fellow Americans appreciated our homegrown talent. Why do you think the Gauls have a good nose for aesthetic style, or not? (feel free to disagree)

Whitmer: I’ve never been to France, so everything I say is going to be completely full of shit. But with that disclaimer, I get the sense the French take books more seriously than we do. I mean, here you’re pretty much only considered a successful writer if you’ve got a movie deal going and/or you’re selling out in Costco. The idea of being successful by virtue of having written a good book sounds kind of ridiculous in the States. Hell, most folks won’t even allow that there’s a such thing as good and bad books — which always weirds me out, in that no one would dispense with that distinction for anything else, from coffee to toilet paper.

Which, I’d guess, means that maybe the French have a better nose for aesthetic style because it’s something they care about? And, largely, we don’t? Of course, that’s a huge generalization, and there’s exceptions and variations all over the place, but I get the feeling that here in the States, folks just aren’t very interested in such things. And maybe they still are in France.

That’s only my answer when talking about folks like Poe and Wolven, though. I sure as hell don’t put myself in their class. I’d love it if folks liked Pike in France, but I don’t expect much. The fact that Oliver Gallmeister saw enough in the book to translate it just makes me happy enough by itself.

Noir Nation: (skip this if you haven’t read Simenon) Here at Noir Nation we promote an international cadre of noir writers, a few of our editors (myself included) are big fans of the Frenchman, Georges Simenon, especially his Roman Durs. Are there any foreign crime authors whose work has inspired you?

Whitmer: Haven’t read Simenon. So, skipped.

Noir Nation: Pike is a bleak novel of rust belt ugliness, depredation and predatory lust. In a lot of ways it is a book the pushes the boundaries of human decency while keeping the reader reeling with some very fine, raw, literary prose not unlike Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Was there any particular book in your mind that inspired you to write Pike?

Whitmer: I’ll bet I answer this differently every time I’m asked it, but there’s two of them, really. The main book was William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume history of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. My wife and daughter bought it for me on Christmas just about the time I was beginning Pike, and it was in the back of my mind all the way through. I didn’t agree with all of it. I thought he was dead wrong on his claim that John Brown’s actions weren’t justified, for one thing. But I couldn’t get the thing out of my head. In a way, that was the question that kept playing itself out for me in Pike: when is violence justified? Of course, that’s too big a question to be answered in any novel, but I got to ask it in a couple of ways that interested me.

The other that set me off was Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I was interested in the way he played with the myths and ideas of border crossing, and the way those borders expand. The way they include the borders between town and country, for instance. And borders between periods in our history. The disappearance of the cowboy way of life being the obvious one.

Noir Nation: You’re also a Western History enthusiast. Could you tell us about your Teddy Roosevelt project and why that is going to upset a lot of conservative, churchgoing TR fans?

Whitmer: Well, if I do my job right, I hope it’ll upset ‘em. TR’s the kind of character you can’t make up. In some ways he’s the quintessential American confidence man, right? This asthmatic, near-sighted, old money gentleman who manages to somehow ensconce himself in the public consciousness as an outdoorsman against all evidence. Of course, almost all his time in the actual wilderness was spent with a good guide to make sure he didn’t get himself killed, but that hasn’t even slowed his self-perpetuated legend.

Then there’s the really weird stuff. Like the racial theories in The Winning of the West, which are insane enough that Hitler seems to have cribbed portions of them for Mein Kampf. And are made all the more frightening by Roosevelt’s taking US Indian Policy on the road as Foreign Policy. And his drumming up an entire war just so he could kill a man in combat. And his having written his first wife entirely out of his own autobiography.

He is, in other words, endless fascinating. But not for the reasons most Roosevelt enthusiasts would give. For me, it’s his charlatanism (Twain), his ominous jingoism (James), and the intense depth of his own belief in scientific racism which guided his sense of history and policy. He’s irresistible, and I feel like everything else I’ve been doing has been aiming at this project. Building up the tool set I’ll need to pull it off. If I can pull it off. I’m more than a little nervous.

Noir Nation: What book do think of as the first important work of “crime fiction” in American and why?

Whitmer: I think it’s further back than we’d like to admit. In fact, I think a lot of what we see in crime fiction can be traced to our frontier fiction. Literary historian Richard Slotkin does an awful good job of making that case in his book, The Fatal Environment, and I’ve always thought it made sense. The tropes are, in many ways, the same: encroaching savagery, regeneration through violence, clear-eyed pragmatism when it comes to dealing with evil, spiritual transfer by blood, all that shit.

A good example is that most clichéd of crime fiction narratives, wherein a gentleman comes home to find his family massacred and is set on a path of righteous vengeance. That one’s everywhere, from the Punisher comics to Death Wish, and it comes directly from the old Indian Hating stories written by the likes of Judge James Hall. Usually while making the argument that the only solution to the so-called “Indian Problem” is complete extermination. It’s transparent enough that Herman Melville deconstructed it in The Confidence Man more than a hundred years ago, and, yet, we don’t seem to be able to stop telling it.

So, maybe, if I had to choose, I’d begin with Robert Montgomery Bird’s genocidal epic Nick of the Woods. There were others prior, sure — and better afterwards. But that’s the one in which, to me, all the elements of blood, race, and class fantasy coalesce perfectly.

Noir Nation: You’re writing a new novel that is a Colorado noir. What themes are you exploring in your Mile High setting that are different form those of your Rust Belt, Pike? Or is it as simple as same kind of bastards, different setting?

Whitmer: There’s two answers here, really. The first is that both books are about characters who ain’t exactly winning, and it’s been my experience, anyway, that once you’re away from the coasts there’s an awful lot of commonality between the people who’re broke. That doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable, of course, no more than well-off folks in New York and Los Angeles. But thanks to our new global economy, most of the folks in this country are taking it from some variation of the same broomstick.

That said, maybe it’s just me, but the West is still its own special entity. And no matter how much the people living in it try to fuck it up and homogenize it, there’s still the landscape, and there’s still the space. And I think that affects people. Also, given the strength of Western mythology there’s this great everpresent tension between authenticity and the lack thereof. It’s omnipresent in the West, everywhere from the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West to pow wows and rodeos. From time to time I wear cowboy boots in homage to it.

Also, the history of extermination campaigns and ethnic cleansing is fresher, and is still being played out in ways that tend to get ignored back East. If you’re of Euro-American extraction, it makes it a little harder to be comfortable with your own presence — at least if you’ve got the intellectual curiosity God gave a stump. It makes for a different kind of character, I think.

Noir Nation: When you sit on your porch in Appalachia or the Crimea years from now sipping some Peach moonshine, what do you have hope to have accomplished or wrought on the face of American fiction?

Whitmer: Man, I’m easy. I’d just like to have kept myself interested right up to the end.

 

Noir Nation takes a turn from which there is no return…

Noir Nation has taken a turn from which there is no return. The new tag line says it all: Crime fiction, film noir, and tattoos…

Initially, we were developing a tattoo theme for Noir Nation No. 2. But after having spent a year talking to tattoo artists and photographers and immersing ourselves in the ever widening gyre of expressive ink, it occurred to us that the enthusiasm we had developed for the art form could not be contained in one issue. More importantly, in our research and wanderings we developed strong relationships — with Julia Madeleine, for example, a tattoo artist and crime writer, and with Tom Vater, a crime writer and tattoo scholar living in Thailand — that suggested we would never experience a shortage of art to accompany our literary content.

As we put the finishing touches on Issue No. 2, we will be posting about some of the photographers who generously lent their work to make this the most talked about crime fiction publication in the world — one we have yet to publish. We have been fielding e-mails from around the world from writers and photographers who heard about it from those involved, asking if we were still taking submissions. The message was amplified on Twitter and Facebook.

And so here we are: Noir Nation, a magazine of crime fiction, film noir, and tattoos…  Coming to you by  Sept. 15.

(In our next post about the direction of Noir Nation, we will review the whys & wherefores of why it took a year to release Issue No. 2. A tale of hubris and tragedy.)

Crime and Publishment – Crime Writing Master Classes

Writer Graham Smith has put together a weekend of crime writing courses at The Mill Forge Hotel in Scotland, 8-10 March 2013 from £75 per day.

There will be four sessions and budding authors will get the chance to pitch their novel directly to an agent. Those involved include Matt Hilton, Sheila Quigley, Allan Guthrie and publishing guru Inga McVicar.

Sounds great,eh?

Find out more here.

 

An Interview with Las Vegas Author Matthew O’Brien – Part 1

Matthew O’Brien, Author  Photo by Florian Buettner

Matthew O’Brien’s debut book Beneath the Neon (Huntington Press, 2007) has taken the world by “storm.” Matt spent years exploring the mysteries of the underground storm drainage systems in Las Vegas. He eventually found his way out and penned the book.

On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in August, I invited Matt to sit down with me to discuss his books, his inspiration, and his view into the shadows of Las Vegas. When I arrived at the coffee shop in the downtown area, Matt was entertaining two fans by signing copies of his new book for them. I didn’t ask him whether he liked to be recognized, but by the smile on his face, I could tell the celebrity feel was welcomed.

And then my interview commenced as we found a table with the Stratosphere towering over us in the distance.

1. I asked Matt what inspired him to write about Las Vegas. He brought me back to December 1997 when he graduated college near Atlanta, Georgia. He wanted to pursue a writing career, and he needed a place to arouse his ambitions. He drove out to Sin City and slept on his friend’s apartment floor as he took on any and every freelance gig he could find, which included writing articles for the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas CityLife. After getting his own place, Matt didn’t even have a desk to write on, keeping his computer on the floor. Luckily, static electricity build-up from the lights in Las Vegas didn’t short out his PC!

2. I probed further and wondered what exactly had attracted Matt to venture underneath the city. He said it had been an article about suspected murder Timmy “T.J.” Webber in 2002. Webber had used the dank and dark underground storm drains to evade police. The fact that someone had escaped to the underground intrigued Matt beyond his wits. He had to find out what else was down there.

3. I asked Matt how Beneath the Neon and his newest work, My Week at the Blue Angel, have changed his life. He said his first book, Beneath the Neon, started out well in Las Vegas when it was released in 2007, but the recession in America that followed actually breathed new life into the book as the media grabbed ahold of it. The media loves using Las Vegas as a finger on America’s pulse with its volatile economy and upside down housing market. Matt’s work fit right in.

4. Noir stories often feature characters who are inherently good, but somehow lose their way. One of my very favorite novels is John O’Brien’s beautifully tragic Leaving Las Vegas (I asked Matt if there is any relation. He chuckled and said “no.”) Matt’s writings deal with this theme relative to Las Vegas. I asked him if he found a common reason why people lose their way in this city. His response included the pursuit of the American Dream. This city entices people from all over the world, from all walks of life (from veterans of war to starving writers!) with an opportunity to live the American Dream. But although there is opportunity everywhere, temptations also fill this city. Gambling, alcohol, drugs, and sex are habit forming and people often become victim to the demons in this city. They need an escape from the lights, and Matt found that the massive underground drainage system provides some of them with this escape. The only thing these individuals need to worry about is if it rains, and although it rarely rains in Las Vegas, when it does, it floods.

5. I asked Matt the most bizarre thing he has seen firsthand on the streets of Las Vegas? Mine would have to be one of the quick-handed street solicitors (accidentally?) handing some girly cards to a kid. It was devilishly funny and deeply disturbing. Matt named similar observations—the bizarre costume characters roaming Fremont Street, and the subtle and often-overlooked interactions between dealer and gambler. He notices the little things.

Stayed tuned for Part 2 of my interview next week where Matt talks about the bizarre things he has witnessed under the streets of Las Vegas.

Matthew O’Brien is the author of Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas (Huntington Press, 2007) and My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas (Huntington Press, 2010). He has won several first-place awards in the Nevada Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest, including Journalist of Merit in 2002 and Outstanding Journalist in 2006. Matt can be found online at www.beneaththeneon.com and on twitter @beneaththeneon and Facebook.

Real Lawyer or Scammer? The Mystery of Hank St. James, Esq.

Noir Nation has been following the story of a large group of indie writers who, acting out of a profound ignorance of their own legal agreements with Amazon and Barnes & Noble, attacked a legally authorized eBook lending site run by a disabled Army veteran named Dale Porter.  (click here for background information).

Since then, some of those writers have apologized for their libelous smears and fraudulent DMCA takedown notices; while others — at least one of whom is associated with the LexiCon Writer’s Conference where some of this started — have thrown up gorilla dust hoping that no one actually notices that they regret nothing but the blowback for their tortious smears (see here).

The story has now taken a sharp turn into the outright bizarre. Dale Porter received an e-mail from a person calling himself Hank St. James, who claims to be an attorney representing the copyright holders of a long list of books credited to 39 writers (see list of books and URLs here).

In the communication that Porter received, St. James 1) states under penalty of perjury in a United States court of law that the information contained in his notification is accurate and that he is authorized to act on the behalf of the exclusive rights holders for the material in question 2) requests that Porter remove or disable access to the material as it appears on his service in as expedient a fashion as possible and 3) offers his lawyer’s e-mail address as piratesinker@gmail.com and his legal mailing address as:

Hank St. James, Attorney
246 Main St.
Wilkes Barre, PA 18706

Here is the mystery:

A search of Pennsylvania attorneys shows that there is no attorney by that name in Pennsylvania. A search of the county property records shows no such address. A simple search of the Gmail address shows that someone named Jack can be contacted with it, and that over 100 DMCA takedown requests are associated with that same address. Oddest of all, given his expertise in digital piracy, Pirate Sinker does not seem to know very much about viruses and antivirus software.

 

The Perfect Wife: a crime noir music video by Amigo the Devil

Readers Beware. Do not watch this with children in the room or with queasy companions who will upchuck on your biker boots. This is a very dark and disturbing video, but the very kind Noir Nation showcases when done by a musico as superbly talented as Amigo the Devil.

His Twitter handle is easy to remember, consistent with sound branding practices: @AmigoTheDevil.

He does not appear to have many Twitter followers at the moment. The reason may be his one-word Twitter bio — Murderfolk — which may be driving away potential followers.

Not surprisingly, the message of the video is that the perfect wife is a dead one. Twisted. Sick. Macabre.

For research purposes, we are now going to play it again and look for his other music.

VegaWire releases revised Metropolis, Sci-Fi Steampunk Noir Classic

In the literature of Sci-Fi Steampunk Noir, there is no more an underappreciated and ignored piece of writing than Thea Von Harbou’s magnificent Metropolis. The book, a novelization of the screenplay the author wrote for her husband Fritz Lang’s film masterpiece of the same name, was a clever marketing move since the sales of one would drive the sales of the other. Yet the two existed as independent works of art. That proved true only too briefly.

Something happened soon after the film premiered. The film studio made drastic and clumsy cuts that made the plot impossible to follow. Censors, exhibitors, and distributors further slashed the film to under 90 minutes from its original length of 153 minutes. Consequently, the film’s reputation for unprecedented spectacle and imagination was forged by its transcendent and timeless visual beauty. And Van Harbou’s novel was largely dismissed as an informational bridge between the film’s original storyline and the multiple butchered versions.

Unfortunately, that has been the way the book has been shelved for most of its publishing history. But the book has a life and a shelf of its own. If the film had never come to be made, this book would still offer a fascinating and emotionally powerful reading experience. We see the stark thematic contrasts between light and dark, God and Satan, the saintly Maria and the demonic Rotwang, the conflicts between starry dreams and manual labor, between steamy pump rooms and airplanes ferrying through bright high rise avenues. We also see romantic love and its mechanical counterfeits, a fictional aspect of the novel that has become eerily true in the age of technosexual robots. Consider these lovely and evocative lines, for example, that connect the crystalline robot named Futura to the first carnal sin:

Send the woman to them when they are kneeling, scourging themselves. Let this faultless, cool woman walk through the rows of them, on her silver feet, fragrance from the garden of life in the folds of her garment… Who in the world knows how the blossoms of the tree smell, on which the apple of knowledge ripened. The woman is both: Fragrance of the blossom and the fruit.

The novel has always stood on its own as a work of art, a work of romantic notions and hard experience, exploring the limits of thinking or clubbing our way out of life’s most horrific challenges. The novel offers a possible resolution: The mediator between brain and muscle must be the Heart.

Whether our attention is focused on resolving the technical quirks to living on Mars, or writing a software code that allows machine parts to contemplate their own existence, or writing a speculative novel on a computer keyboard, or simply trying to quell a labor strike, her words ring eternally true.

NOTE ON THE TEXT The text of the VegaTrope edition of Thea Von Harbou’s Metropolis, while closely based on the 1927 print translation, has been updated to reflect current English usage. For example, the original spellings of “to-night” and “heart-beat” have been updated to “tonight” and “heartbeat.” We also removed hyphens from double words that no longer require them. Certain clauses that seemed burdened by too literal an adoption of the original German linguistic structure were revised to improve comprehension and narrative flow.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Thea Von Harbou (1888 – 1954) was a German actress, author and film director of Prussian aristocratic origin. She was born in Tauperlitz in the Kingdom of Bavaria. Her life-long fascination with India influenced certain scenes of her novel Metropolis, which was made by her husband Fritz Lang into one of the most influential films in any genre. After her marriage with Lang ended in divorce, she married Ayi Tendulkar, an Indian writer and follower of Mahatma Gandhi.

Banville revives detective Marlowe

From WalesOnline

One of fiction’s most famous private detectives is being brought back in a new novel by Booker Prize winner John Banville.

The Irish novelist, who writes crime fiction under the name Benjamin Black, will write a novel featuring Raymond Chandler’s creation Philip Marlowe.

The novel, which will be set in the 1940s in the fictional Californian setting of Bay City, will be published next year.

Banville said: “I love the challenge of following in the very large footsteps of Raymond Chandler.

“I began reading Chandler as a teenager, and frequently return to the novels.

“This idea has been germinating for several years and I relish the prospect of setting a book in Marlowe’s California, which I always think of in terms of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Bay City will have a slightly surreal, or hyper-real, atmosphere that I look forward to creating.”