We’re looking forward to this month’s Hard Word Book Club discussion of Dig Two Graves by Eric Beetner (Wednesday, July 31 at 7pm). The lean and mean (under 200 pages) book involves the violent night of a a professional robber as he tracks down his prison lover with cops and gangsters on his tail. Eric will be skyping in to join our conversation. As you can tell from this interview we recently did with him, it should be an informative discussion.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What’s interesting about Dig Two Graves is that you take a lot of the homosexual subtext that some believe to be in some hard boiled novels and make it text. How did the idea come about for going after a prison lover for revenge?
ERIC BEETNER: Revenge stories are nothing entirely new, so I wanted to mix it up a bit. I thought the idea of this guy battling his own heart and his own desires as well as his sense of honor and the criminal code was interesting. Obviously Val is not entirely homosexual, or at least he hasn’t admitted it to himself. The way he feels for Azin indicates he could go both ways. But the dueling identities within him I think make him a pretty interesting guy.
As far as subtext in other books, I tend to think most of that is BS. It seems like something grafted on long after the fact and perpetuated by either the revelation that an author was homosexual, or by the fact that writers weren’t “allowed” to have a gay character in the classic period anyway of the 40s and 50s. It lets people read subtext where there is none. Not that it didn’t happen, but not as much as some academics claim. In my opinion anyway.
MP: Val is a pretty rotten character who doesn’t even have the level of professionalism of someone like Stark’s Parker, yet I stayed with him. How did you deal with the challenges of writing about such a lowlife?
EB: Writing lowlifes with rooting interest seems to be my wheelhouse. I’ve been very pleased to hear great feedback on a few of my books where the main characters could be seen as despicable jerks. We discussed this a bit on a panel recently with Johnny Shaw, Seth Harwood, Gary Phillips and Paul Bishop and my response then was that as long as a character is secure in his or her own moral code, I think you can get away with a lot more. Since Val is confident in what he is doing and has justifications that he can explain well, the audience tends to see his logic and go with it. Also, he’s brokenhearted. Who doesn’t relate to that? It’s something I work hard to do – to make characters who do morally questionable or reprehensible things into real, relatable humans. A dash of humor goes a long way. If a character is fun to spend time with, you’ll forgive some of the things that happen when you’re hanging out.
MP: Like a lot of great noir, Dig two Graves comes off as a fever dream. How important is style to your work?
EB: I like stories with a compressed timeline and I think the way Dig Two Graves happens in such a short period of time adds to the rush. Being a novella, too, I was intentionally being brusque with the language. Keeping things tight. Truncated. Clipped. Style is important, but I’m certainly not a stylist over a plotter and character builder. I admire books with great style like Frank Bill’s Donnybrook or the Sailor and Lula books of Barry Gifford. Or Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. All unique styles with a singular voice. I tend to keep things more straightforward, perhaps use too many similes (but I love them like a dog loves a bone) and make sure the story is clear at all times.
MP: Dig Two Graves is a novella and much of your short fiction (most is collected in Bouquet of Bullets) is really short. Is brevity one of your goals as a writer?
EB: I think it’s a product of my busy mind and my writing schedule. I only get a short amount of time to write late at night after the kids are in bed. I write in bursts that are highly productive, but compressed. That has something to do with it. I also prefer shorter works, usually. I come from a film and TV background and once you get in the mindset that you can tell a fully fleshed story in 90 minutes, why do you need to bloat it out beyond that? I know everyone always says, “The book was better.” But I don’t always agree. Very often brevity is what makes a story exciting and engaging. I believe in letting the audience fill in the blanks. It keeps them engaged.
Crime novels used to be much shorter in the Gold Medal paperback era. You look at something like The Postman Always Rings twice and then that is only slightly over 40k words. And it works great.
I have no problem if someone wants to write or read huge tomes. More power to you. I also only get my lunch hour at work to read, so my reading goes the same way as my writing. I feel more accomplished when I read something shorter and it doesn’t take three weeks to finish it. I’d never get to read anything else if I decided to start reading George RR Martin.
I also can’t deny that my day job as an editor for TV informs my creative life tremendously. My brain is wired to trim the fat, keep things moving, cut to the chase. I bring that to my writing without realizing it.
MP: You’re also a graphic artist, designing most of the covers for Snubnose Press. Does the visual art feed the writing for you?
EB: No. That is a lark and I can’t believe I’ve been able to snow people for this long (44 covers and counting) I’m one of those jack of all trades, master of none type of pseudo Renaissance men. I’ll try anything, so I tried making book covers for my own books when the options I had were not to my liking. I’m a very DIY kind of person, sometimes to my detriment. But it’s a great little side venture that allows me to flex a different part of my brain and it’s a ton of fun and I’m quite proud of a lot of the covers I’ve done. Especially considering I don’t have the full version of Photoshop, have never taken a class and generally don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
MP: It’s obvious from your work that you’re a fan of dark, hard boiled fiction. Who do you think is one of the most unsung writers in the genre, either past or present?
I’m a big fan of vintage pulp fiction and I wish people would get beyond the Hammet, Candler, Cain triumvirate. I think Chester Himes never gets enough recognition. His first chapters are always some of the best “grabbers” I’ve ever read. William Ard is one of my favorite old pulp guys, along with Lionel White, Harry Whittington, Day Keene.
Today, I wish more people read Sean Doolittle, Allan Guthrie, Mark Conard. Writers with decent followings who could still break through to the Gone Girl size audience are people like John Rector, Owen Laukkanen, Duane Swierczynski, Victor Gischler. I recently found Grant Jerkins who I am liking a lot. Johnny Shaw has written two of my favorite books in recent years. And my fellow Snubnose brothers and sisters. There are some really great books Snubnose has put out. Proud to have my cover art adorn these fantastic books. If you liked Dig Two Graves, you’ve got to check out A Wind Of Knives by Ed Kurtz. I think they would make a great Ace Double edition with two books in one. His is about a gay man seeking revenge on the men who killed his lover in the old west. Great stuff.
Eric Beetner will Skype into our Hard Word Book Club meeting this Wednesday, July 31 at 7pm. The discussion is free and open to the public. You’ll find us up on BookPeople’s third floor. Copies of Dig Two Graves are currently available on our shelves at BookPeople.