Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson
Jake Hinkson’s debut novel, Hell on Church Street, blew my mind into unidentifiable pieces. I love the book so much I’ve been forcing it upon just about everyone who will listen. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Jake a few questions regarding his debut, and he was kind enough to supply some great answers.
MysteryPeople: Geoffrey Webb is a bit of an odd character. At first he seems relatively harmless, if a bit devilish in terms of his vices, but he crosses the line almost effortlessly. What inspired you to write this character?
Jake Hinkson: He started out as a voice. He just started talking, “To begin at the beginning, I had an abusive father. I know my kind always does, but we’re a regenerating lot of bastards.” Now, I’ve written some characters that it’s taken me a while to find, but Webb just seemed to be there rattling around in my subconscious. I discovered a lot about him as I wrote, but I didn’t have to force anything out. He just kept telling me new stuff. I felt like a court stenographer recording the confession of a really horrible person.
MP: Hell on Church Street deals with the themes of religion and corruption, are these two things you think go hand in hand?
JH: I think noir fiction is, at its core, about uncovering the rot beneath the rather banal surface of things. People are accustomed to seeing noir used to undercover the rot of politics, the rot of the criminal justice system, the rot beneath the supposed suburban utopia, whatever. For me, though, noir seemed like a very natural mode to talk about religion, and not just any old brand of religion but Christian fundamentalism—which, today, has become the mainstream religion in much of America, certainly in the south where I grew up.
To answer your question more directly, though, I’d say yes. Religion and corruption obviously go hand in hand. They always have. The bible itself is full of stories of corrupt religious officials. The essence of religion is a claim to absolute authority, and that kind of power attracts bad people and corrupts good ones.
MP: Did you pull from any influences while writing this novel?
JH: I like to say that if Jim Tompson had knocked up Flannery O’Connor in a cheap Ozark motel I would have been the offspring. Between his godless Oklahoma and her Christ-haunted Georgia sits my sweaty little slice of Arkansas. I think Hell On Church Street reads like a Thompson character wandered into an O’Connor story.
On a side note, someone the other day said that my second book, The Posthumous Man, reads like a cross between David Goodis’s Black Friday and Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Maybe I just have one foot in noir and one foot in Southern Gothic. That seems about right to me.
MP: The characterization in Hell on Church Street leads me to believe you may know people like the ones you write. Did you base any of your characters on real-life events?
JH: The characters and events in the book are not based on real people or real events. I made it all up. Having said that, I come from a family of preachers and deacons and pillars of the church. I’ve spent a lot of time backstage, so to speak, with preachers and youth ministers and music ministers and evangelists and revivalists. The most common compliment that I get about the book—other than it reads fast—is that it feels like an authentic look behind the scenes at a church. I’m very pleased by that.
Readers always want to know if Geoffrey Webb was inspired by any creepy real life youth ministers. Let’s just say I’ve met some folks who weren’t all they purported to be. Something Webb says in the book is 100% true. Some ministers are good people doing their best to serve god. Others are lazy phonies who just want a cushy job with a three-hour work week. It’s hard to tell the difference unless you know what you’re looking for.
MP: The story is narrated as a flashback and is bookended by present day events. Was this something you wanted to do going into the novel, or did it emerge during the writing process?
JH: That aspect of the book emerged in the writing process. As I mentioned before, I started with Webb’s voice. Once I started writing, I began figuring out where the book was headed. Around the same time, I started writing a short story (or what I thought might be a short story) about a car-jacking. Once I got a little ways into the story, it became obvious that the car-jacking should kick off the book.
After I finished the first draft of the book and began to revise, it dawned on me that the entire book is heading for that final scene. That final scene is really what the whole book is about.
MP: New Pulp Press published Hell On Church Street, what has been your experience working with them?
JH: God, it’s been great. Honestly. Jon Bassoff, the guru at NPP, is a man with a vision. Of course, so was Charles Manson. No one’s perfect.
But Jon’s a straight-shooter. He’s got good taste (or a refined sense of bad taste, depending on your perspective) and he knows what he likes. Our working relationship has been, for me, a joy from start to finish. And I have to say, I look at the catalog of books he’s putting together and I’m proud to be part of it. The author roster of New Pulp Press reads like a rap sheet of degenerate assholes. That’s good company for me to be in.
MP: Any chance you’ll swing by Austin in the future? I’ll buy the beers.
JH: I am going to take you up on that for sure. I have some family in Texas, and I’m hoping to make a trip down there. Probably not this year, but maybe in early 2014. I’ll for sure let you know. Second round’s on me.
Eternal thanks to Jake for taking the time to answer my questions. If you haven’t already grabbed a copy of Hell on Church Street, swing by BookPeople and I will put one in your hands. You can check out my review of HoCS here and you can watch Scott and I get all nerdy about the book’s publisher, New Pulp Press, here. Also, make sure you check out Jake’s blog for some great insight into noir, past and present.