Slogging it from Nebraska to the Mekong: an interview with Court Merrigan

court merrigan

Court Merrigan, author of Moondog over the Mekong

Court Merrigan, whose story “Slog On,” appeared in Noir Nation 2, is a prolific novelist and short story writer living in the banana belt of Wyoming.  He taught English in Japan and Thailand for a number of years and holds an MA in Japanese, hence his strong interest in Southeast Asia, which serves as the setting of many of his stories. He took time away from his busy writing schedule to talk with Noir Nation editor, Eddie Vega, about his recent novel with Snubnose Press, Moondog over the Mekong

Interview with Court Merrigan

Noir Nation: Your story, “Slog On,” which appeared in Noir Nation 2, was a war crimes story set in World War II. Your most recent collection of short stories, Moondog over the Mekong, has a title that suggests the Vietnam War but the stories cannot be pinned down to anyone time or place. Nevertheless, they seem to have a seedy war time atmosphere. Was that done on purpose?

Merrigan: It’s all war out there, war on the individual, war on dignity, war on pride and love and hope. You don’t find out what any of these are worth until they are challenged, right? I hope that my stories do some work towards finding out just how much.

snubnosepress_logoNoir Nation: We are big fans of your publisher, SnubnosePress. It has become the coin of the crime fiction realm. How did they come to publish Moondog?

Merrigan: I actually joined Twitter because of Snubnose – last year when they were just getting started up, there was no obvious way to contact them, except on Twitter. I really thought that the stories I was writing were what Snubnose was looking for, so I started tweeting at them. Eventually I got hold of an email and we went from there.

Noir Nation: The word on the street is that short story collections do not sell as well as novels. Yet you invested your time and writing talents on putting one together, and Brian Lindenmuth of Snubnose published it. Is the street wrong?

Mekong V15Merrigan: I don’t think the street’s wrong, but it should be! I don’t know why – you’d think that in our Twittified, Facebooked, Tumblrized age, short stories would be the ideal vehicles for driving good fiction, but that hasn’t come to pass.

Having said all that, Brian and the Snubnose crew are putting out a bunch of kickass short story collections, looking to turn back that tide. If it can be done, Snubnose seems like the vehicle that can get there.

Noir Nation: You go back and forth easily between realistic fiction and what some call speculative fiction, which includes anything with a fantastical element, such as time travel, the presence of ghosts, and out of body experiences. Yet they all seem to share a certain brutal tonality and hence a sense of unity. Are you conscious of this?

Merrigan: I shy away from the overtly fantastical, but I am not above inserting the fantastic, if  that makes sense. A story needs what it needs and if a particular piece is pushing me away from realism towards the speculative, that’s where I’ll go.

Noir Nation: You have a long publication list. How do you manage your professional and personal commitments to maintain such a high productivity as a creative writer?

Merrigan: By not getting enough sleep, first and foremost. I carve out writing time at the very beginning and the tail ends of the day, when the kids are asleep. I grew up on a farm and I try to keep a farmer’s sensibility about me – before me lies the work, which ain’t getting done if I don’t do it. My dad and grandfather worked every day of their whole lives, routinely putting in 16 and 20-hour days, and if they ever complained, they never once did it around me. Comparatively, I have a vastly easier life, plush with luxury and ease. Writing is difficult but it’s not hard. Scratching a living out of a hardscrabble Nebraska farm – that’s hard. I bear that in mind when my going gets a little rocky.

I think it helps, too, to not be particularly social. Parties, gatherings, get-togethers – they make me tired. All that conversation and smiling. I prefer dimly lit, empty rooms. With desks and books. And bourbon.

Noir Nation: How are you marketing Moondog over the Mekong? Are there any special secrets you’d like to share? Any back doors in the online marketing Matrix?

Merrigan: Man, I wish you’d hook me up with the marketing gurus who know the locations of these back doors, and have the keys. Moondog is being marketed on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, the usual. My blog is undergoing a site redesign and will soon be transformed into an actual website.

I’m no expert, but I think one of the keys to marketing might be longevity. Hell, it took me ten years to write all the stories in Moondog. I’m not going to give up pushing it online after a few tweets.

Noir Nation: The book’s cover is truly beautiful. The colors, the simplicity of design. Who designed it? And how involved were you with its creation?

Merrigan: The one and only Eric Beetner, a fine writer in his own right, did the cover design. The two of us worked together closely but he’s the one who actually got the work done. Still gives me little shivers of pleasure every time I see the cover.

Noir Nation: What do you think the future holds for eBooks? For print?

Merrigan: Here’s what I can tell you: sometimes now when I pick up a dead-tree book, I get sort of annoyed at all the “flipping” you have to “do” with all these “pages” getting in the way of the story. A book just doesn’t fit in your hand like an iPhone or a Kindle… I’m being flippant— a little.

I’ve been a longtime proponent of ebooks — I started singing their virtues online before I even had an ereader, but I think the time for being a proponent one way or another is past. People prefer what they prefer and I am totally format agnostic when it comes to my own stuff. If you’re reading it, I don’t care how you get it!

Sometime soon, I think, we’ll hit a saturation point where everyone who wants an eReader will have one, if we’re not there already. But because eBooks are just so much easier to get, keep, and transport around, I think you’ll see them continue to eat up market share.

Noir Nation: Tell us about your literary influences.

Merrigan: These days I’ve been reading everything Jim Thompson ever wrote, as well as gobbling up Daniel Woodrell, Hilary Davidson, Lawrence Block, Larry Brown, Jake Needham, Stephen Graham Jones, Philip K. Dick, and Dennis Lehane.

A while back I was introduced to Will Christopher Baer. It is criminal that Kiss Me, Judas didn’t make him Quentin Tarantino-famous. If there’s one novel I could imitate in terms of the sheer sorcery of its fictive dream, that would be the one.

Excerpt from ‘Sacred Skin’ by Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewchatturat

Sacred Skin – Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos

By Tom Vater

 Uaaahh!

The man is running straight at me, his face contorted into a thousand agonies. His bare, heavily tattooed chest gleams with sweat. He screams at the sky, he vomits anger, but he’s rushing directly ahead. He salutes unknown devils, his voice a hysterical siren. He turns on the spot and performs wild body contortions that render his face the color of blood. He rolls in a puddle. He’s bleeding from his left ear. His eyes are blood-shot, his tongue flops from his mouth. Suddenly, he pushes his chest out. The most prominent tattoo on his glistening torso, a tiger, appears to strain away from its owner in an attempt to jump into the crowd and devour the gathered disciples.

The man begins to run again, this time towards the bronze statue of Luang Pho Poen in the front yard of Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist temple and a major center of Thailand’s sacred tattoo tradition.

Today, Wat Bang Phra celebrates Wai Kru, or Teacher’s Day, in honor of the temple’s tattoo masters, a decades-old tradition started by former abbot Luang Pho Poen. A phalanx of army privates patrols the front of the stage. As the man races forward, head-butting into the soldiers, they grab and lift him off the ground. It takes five men to restrain him. He shakes madly and screams, not at them, but at the world. A soldier gently massages the possessed man’s earlobes. Seconds later, he snaps out of his violent trance and becomes one of us again. Humbly, he puts his hands together and bows towards Luang Pho Poen’s statue. The tiger is back in its cage.

Sacred tattoos, called sak yant in Thailand, have been around Southeast Asia for centuries and are said to bestow protection from accidents, misfortunes and crime. Young women have themselves tattooed with love charms to attract better partners, while adolescent males seek the protective power of their yant in fights with rival youth gangs. For most though, the tattoos serve as reminders to follow a moral code endorsing positive behavior.

When a tattoo master applies a sak yant, he also establishes a set of rules that his tattooed disciples are expected to follow for the rest of their lives, usually starting with Buddhism’s first five precepts. Failure to observe the guru’s instructions causes the sak yant to lose their power.

Every day, young men and women gather in temples and countless tattoo masters’ studios around the country to get inked: Tens of thousands of teenagers, motorcycle and taxi drivers, construction workers, night club bouncers, street vendors, factory employees, boxers and working girls – an entire strata of Thai society – are having a second, magical skin applied.

(Continued in Noir Nation No. 2… on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo.)

Tom Vater (in hat) while researching Sacred Skin in 2011.

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Sacred Skin at Wat Bang Phra: An interview with Aroon Thaewchatturat

Aroon Thaewchatturat, who contributed her tattoo photography to Noir Nation No. 2,  discusses sacred tattoos, called sak yant in Thailand, speaks in this video about the animating totem spirits that possess believers during a religious rite. She co-authored with Tom Vater, Sacred Skin, the first English language book on Thailand’s sacred tattoos. Sacred Skin has been reviewed in more than 30 publications, including Time Magazine, and has been the subject of two documentaries, Arte and Die Zeit.

The interview took place at Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist temple in Nakhon Pathom Province, Thailand, about 50 km west of Bangkok.

Below is the book trailer for Sacred Skin. It offers an incredibly rich preview of Aroon’s sublime images.

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Coming sooner than you think!!! Noir Nation No. 2

Noir Nation No. 2 – Product description

Noir Nation is an eBook journal of high quality crime fiction, essays, and author interviews, illustrated with living art: tattoos.

Issue No. 2 is rich with stories that tell of being stopped at a tense Israeli checkpoint, a man reflecting on the death of his sadistic mother while getting a tattoo, hunting jaguars in the Chimalapas jungle, a fatal conversation between a married couple on a Japanese mountain cliff, the consummation of a macabre wedding in Tangiers, a German psychopath who thinks himself a werewolf, a missing prostitute in Cambodia’s red light district, a Boston businessman trying to survive a murderous economy, barroom pickups that turn deadly, soldiers captured in World War II taking grisly revenge on their guards, the renovation of a theater that hides a crime, a pistol-packing Harlem grandmother who fends for her young, a road trip from New Orleans to Vancouver that ends in a Pulp Fiction style shootout, and hitchhikers who should have kept hiking.

Contributors hail from no less than sixteen countries: Finland, Japan, Australia, Thailand, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Israel, Cuba, Canada, Columbia, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Entries include stories by classic noir writers such as Edogawa Rampo, considered by many the father of Japanese crime fiction; Paul Calderon, an actor who appears regularly on the television show Law & Order and who played Paul the bartender in the film Pulp Fiction; and first-time authors Mary Therese Gattuso, Hubert Osprey, and Pierce Loughran.

Afficionados of hardboiled crime noir will see new works by Nick Arvin, Ray Banks, Paul Calderon, Atar Hadari, Sophie Jaff, Susan Lercher,  Julia Madeleine, Court Merrigan,  Joe L. Murr, Andrew Nette, Thomas Pluck, Victor Quintas, Stephen D. Rogers, Ulrike Rudolf,  Bob Thurber, Ruben Varona, Corinna Underwood, and Tom Vater.

The issue also contains an interview with Madison Smartt Bell talking about blowing his knees with Tae Kwon Do and the influence on his fiction by Harry Crews, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Dostoyevsky. And darkly disturbing entries from 400-year-old London’s Criminal Court logs that show how little has changed in the human drive to murder, maim, and enslave others.

Tattoo photos by Miguel Angel, Madeline Keller-Yunes, Julia Madeleine, Ilya Shchanikov, Shaireproductions.com, Aroon Thaewchatturat, and Chris Willis.

Translations by Andrew Kirk, Rowena Galavitz, Mary Tannert, and Eddie Vega.

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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.)