Monday, October 29, 2018

Ink-Quisitions with Rob Pierce

Soon after creating a Facebook account twelve months ago, writers kindly deluged me with recommended novels. As a neophyte with a huge mountain to climb and a lot of writers to learn about, I decided to spend a year reading short stories online, while also picking up a few anthologies which contained works by writers I’d heard about.

Meanwhile, I was informed last December that I needed to undergo surgery. The procedure, I was told, had a ninety-nine percent success rate, and I felt comfortable with those odds—
Until a week before the operation when the surgeon peered at me over his spectacles and said, “That means there’s a one-in-a-thousand chance you could die or experience debilitating lifelong injuries arising from complications.”

Well, gee, thanks doc. As long as I’m not unlucky number one thousand I should be fine.

Apprehension set in ….

And I decided I should try and read one crime novel before possibly kicking my bucket out of this earthly realm. I chose WITH THE RIGHT ENEMIES by Oakland writer and editor Rob Pierce without hesitation. Rob was the first writer on Facebook to send me a Friend Request. And you always remember your firsts—

Unless they give you the clap or the crabs. And, I’m happy to say that Rob gave me neither. I’d shared news about my December surgery with Rob … as well as my growing anxieties … and asked if he’d be willing to sign a copy of ENEMIES. Besides proving amenable, the venerable Mr. Pierce also told me: “Well, you know what they say—dead women tell no tales.”

Fucking Rob. Mr. Sensitivity.

Obvious why I lined him up for an Ink-Quistion here at Story and Grit!

Finally time to spill some ink folks. And, by the way, WITH THE RIGHT ENEMIES kicks ass—just what the doctor ordered.

Jesse Rawlins

Q. Between writing and editing crime fiction, you’ve been immersed in the World of Words for some time. When was your first story published? And how did your writing life evolve?

A. Depends on what you mean by published. I had stories up on websites I liked quite a few years ago, but the good stuff started with Swill Magazine, which I founded and edited starting around 2006, and ending after eight issues. My best stories from that are in The Things I Love Will Kill Me Yet.
My first story published elsewhere was “Dead Soldiers,” with Flash Fiction Offensive in 2012. Swill was still active then, and editing other people’s writing had a lot to do with improving my own. Seeing the mistakes other people make, things that bug me as a reader.

Funny thing is, “Dead Soldiers” was published when Joe Clifford was the editor at FFO. I’d rejected Joe’s submissions to Swill a couple of times, but they were near misses. On one of them, and this is the first time I’d ever emailed Joe, never having met him, I said that his story read “like it was ratfucked by academia.” Meaning that it felt like too many people who’d seen the story had been allowed to alter his voice in the telling. Thuglit wound up publishing that story, and Todd Robinson knows what he’s doing. Joe and I are friends now, but there’s no way I would have typed that phrase if I didn’t think he could really write. He says it’s the best rejection he ever got; it’s more detailed than just that line.

As to my writing life evolving, it’s all about continuing to write. When I was first getting published it was just short stories. I had also written a futuristic adventure novel that was a bit of a cartoon as far as plot/realism goes. But I love the show Firefly and comic book movies are popular so I thought it might be a viable sale. Friends including published authors agreed, but when I sent it to agents no one saw the market.

I write, so that didn’t shut me up. One day after work I was having a beer at a restaurant down the street when I saw a guy I used to work with walking by on the sidewalk. I called out to him, “Hey Mike, come in and have a beer.” He said, “I don’t have any money.” I said, “I didn’t ask that. Come in and have a beer.”

Mike came in and at some point told me how when he was a kid his mom was dating a bank robber who would leave a suitcase full of money unlocked in a closet. Mike took a 20 once in a while and bought comic books or whatever. Until he got caught. That was the exegesis for Uncle Dust.
When I wrote Dust, he was always just a guy doing a job. And he loved his work. All my characters, they just work for a living. It’s only that some are more sympathetic than others. But they all do horrible shit.

Q. Besides publishing a collection of short crime stories, a novella, and two novels—UNCLE DUST and WITH THE RIGHT ENEMIES—your work has also appeared in numerous anthologies. According to Amazon, one of these anthologies includes the book, CRIME FACTORY, Issue 19 (Volume 2), released in October 2016. The listed price for the lone available used copy is $899.99. Is this a fucking typo—or some truly serious stuff? Just the price alone sounds rather criminal to me.

A. Crime Factory may have gone under. So hard copies may be down to whoever bought one. Check with Andrew Nette on that. I have a .pdf and it’s a great issue. My story in that is one of my best so I hope it resurfaces. I have a few stories out this year, one in Switchblade, one in Shotgun Honey’s tribute to Bill Wallace, and one in the Lou Reed anthology from Down & Out Books, but I don’t have enough material yet for another short story collection.

Q. Since we’re talking costs, female characters like Olivia and Theresa in WITH THE RIGHT ENEMIES suffer immensely. Is their suffering driven solely by plot—merely the consequence of having violent criminal men in their lives? Or do you also believe women tend to fare poorly in American society?

A. It’s the story. Dust put people he loved, or whatever his version of that is, in harm’s way. Dust is responsible, but he’s a man who evades responsibility. It’s also about Olivia’s and Theresa’s attractions to the excitement of his life. You don’t get that clean. You want to be with a man who does shit, some of it’s gonna hit you. They were attracted to danger and they bought a whole lot more than they wanted.

Not to say that women fair well in society. Just to say that I wasn’t tackling that issue.

Q. You’ve been noted as saying you live and will likely die in Oakland, California. Much of WITH THE RIGHT ENEMIES is set in Oakland and its drivable environs. But what surprised me about the book was the absence of notable landmarks: no famous bridges, bars, or restaurants. And no detailed “demographics.” Instead you focus on details that give us a feel for neighborhoods—and the attitudes of folks who live in them.

For example, “Dogs in Berkeley weren’t so easy to find, but Oakland? Everyone had a fucking dog. Lotta pits behind fences, thick iron, cheap tin, whatever, wooden slatted shit that looked ready to fall down.” What influenced your writing style in penning such settings and “landscapes?” Did you take a similar approach in UNCLE DUST—and with your forthcoming novel, TOMMY SHAKES?

A. I write scenes. My characters aren’t going to anywhere famous. But I can tell you about blocks. There’s some of that in Tommy Shakes too. No one’s setting up a crime anywhere popular. And Oakland is block-to-block. Tommy Shakes has a good quick bit about that. What I know from living in Oakland and having lived in other places is the individuality of this city. It’s often an ugly individuality, but there’s a beauty to the resilience of some of its residents. It’s like child abuse; some people are forever ruined by it, others work their way through it, but with an awareness of evil.
The whole idea of there being an approach to Uncle Dust is laughable. I just wrote that motherfucker. Then I spent two years shaving it. Also, Dust isn’t set in Oakland. It’s down the coast somewhere, a fictional town about where Santa Cruz is (an hour south) but with little Oakland all over it.

Q. You’ve described yourself as someone who writes “love stories.” Your short story collection bears the title, THE THINGS I LOVE WILL KILL ME YET. Since you write about some hard-core criminals, such as Vollmer in ENEMIES—a man who holds allegiance to no one other than himself—what role or function does “love” typically have in your works?

A. I think the reason Uncle Dust sold as well as it did is its crossover appeal—Dust meets Theresa and her son Jeremy and tries to be bank robber husband and dad. It’s a domestic drama with criminal elements. And Dust is terrible at domesticity, although he has his moments. His terrible childhood influences him to try and help Jeremy, and in some ways he does.

Then, Vern in the Heat is about Vern and his ex-girlfriend Deria, them getting back together while gangsters are after him and how that changes both what they are together and what she becomes.
The Things I Love Will Kill Me Yet is a collection of stories that includes a lot of self-destructive people doing what they can to survive. The title doesn’t apply to every story, of course; it was something that partially describes many of my characters and partially describes me.

As to With The Right Enemies—this is the detritus of Dust’s various loves running headlong into the detritus of Vollmer loving the hooker Yula. These are love affairs where basically everything goes wrong in the end but began with something resembling genuine love, as much as these men could give it.

Q. These days you’re now the co-editor at Flash Fiction Offensive alongside Hector D. Jr.—and if I understand correctly, you’re also an editorial consultant for All Due Respect Books. Editing’s an activity that takes time away from writing. So what keeps you involved with editing—which can prove a tedious task? For example, if I understood one of your Facebook posts correctly, editing works was one of the things that delayed the completion of Tommy Shakes—and prevented that particular book from being published this year.

You’ve also mentioned to me about beta-reading books by Marietta Miles and Greg Barth. What appeals to you about their works?

A. Actually I haven’t worked with FFO in a while. I did a solid year and even flash pieces cut into my time too much. I gave Hector plenty of notice; he just hasn’t had my name taken off the credits. I edited regularly at All Due Respect until sometime during the writing of With The Right Enemies. I told Chris Rhatigan I needed to stop editing until I finished Enemies. I was almost done writing the book when Chris asked if I wanted to edit the next book in Greg Barth’s Serena series. Of course I said yes. I love editing Greg and his writing is a lot cleaner than when I worked on his earlier books in the series. He says that was my influence. It would be hard to get a better compliment than that.
These days my editing is almost exclusively confined to freelance work for writers I particularly enjoy working with. My all-stars: Greg, Marietta, Tom Pitts, Paul Heatley. Greg and Tom have referred some good writers my way as well.

I rarely find editing tedious. It is, however, time consuming, and I’ve had little time of late. So if someone sends me something, the first question I ask is, “When do you need it?” So long as it’s something I want to work on, I meet deadlines.

As to the appeal of the writers you asked about, it’s the quality of the writing. Marietta and Greg are both southerners, but have pretty much nothing in common as writers. Marietta writes in more of a traditional gothic crime style, while Greg writes fast paced hardboiled bloody fiction. Tom Pitts and Paul Heatley also write hardboiled stories, Tom writing of seedy drug-related crimes, Paul of badass Brits. One thing they all have in common—their characters hook me. The stories are personal. I need plot, and they all provide that, but I wouldn’t care if I didn’t care about the characters.

Q. Without giving away any major plot points, what can you tell us about your forthcoming novel TOMMY SHAKES? What’s Tommy’s psychological make up? And do you envision TOMMY as the first in another trilogy—or as a stand-alone book?

Tommy is a career criminal, not a particularly successful one, who’s trying to salvage his marriage and relationship with his teenage son by pulling one big job. He thinks it’s about the money, regardless of how often his wife tells him that’s not the problem.

Tommy’s a former heroin addict who’s turned to drink. He’s prone to a lot of throwing up and shitting but he gets a shot at a big job and figures if he pulls that off he can work out everything. This all takes place in my East Bay world, and a major character in this book will have a major role in the one I’m writing now, but this won’t be a trilogy.

Actually, I haven’t written a trilogy thus far. If that reference is to Uncle Dust, Vern in the Heat, and With The Right Enemies, Tommy Shakes could be considered the fourth in that series, with the book I’m writing now the fifth.

Pulling these last two questions together—editing other people’s writing slowed down my own to some degree, but there was a greater cause, an emotional one. I wrote Tommy knowing that my wife of many years was moving out of the house soon. With us it was planned, but that didn’t make it easy for me. At the same time, I was writing about Tommy trying to salvage his marriage. There were parallels, difficult to write but necessary.

Because All Due Respect is now an imprint of Down & Out Books, by the time I got Tommy Shakes to ADR there was a line ahead of me in terms of when it would be published. Thing is, I’m always slow to get words on the page. I need to get the right words on the page. If it doesn’t tear me apart, how’s it going to tear apart the reader?

Q. You mentioned having a drink with a pal in a bar earlier. What are three of your favorite places in Oakland to buy a friend a drink?

A. I like Telegraph in Oakland. It’s near downtown, has a great whiskey selection, outdoor seating, and a burger that’s half beef, half bacon. Beer too, usually a good selection. Also, it’s close to home.

The bar I go to most often is the Parkway Lounge, a couple doors down from the Parkway Theater, where Will Viharo used to host the midnight movies. Main reason I go is it’s the bar closest to home.

The Kerry House pours a pretty good Guinness and they’re right down the street from a good theater. For when you need that post-film pint. Near a pretty good bookstore too.

That said, the place I go most often when I go out for a drink is Triple Rock in Berkeley. It’s a block from work, brew pub with a large selection, and regulars I like. Mostly I drink at home, but if a post-work drink or two is required, that’s my place 90+ percent of the time.

But to fully answer the question—if they’re really my friend, they should be buying me a drink.

Foks can visit Rob on Facebook:

And they can find his books on Amazon: