On Wednesday, the 27th of August, at 7 pm, our Hard Word Book Club will discuss A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride. The book follows a chain of violence triggered by a moment of weakness from a sheriff’s deputy when he takes $52,000 from meth dealer Jerry Dean Skagg’s trailer. The book was our July Pick Of The Month, so we can’t wait to discuss it. Matt was kind enough to take some questions from us.
MysteryPeople: How do you feel about all the favorable reactions to the book?
Matthew McBride: It’s very nice, and still kind of hard to believe. As a writer, you hope people will buy your book and you want them to like it, but I never expected to sell as many copies as I have. It’s mind-blowing, and I’m grateful. Having strangers write you and tell you they love your book is cool. Because I know how it feels to read something you love and feel that way. You want to connect with the author, so you reach out to them. I’ve done that.
MP: While meth is in a lot of rural crime fiction, it is practically a character here. How has it affected where you live?
MM: I’ve been tempted to brand the book Meth Lit, because meth really is a character in this book, and it has affected my life and the lives of those around me in various ways. In Gasconade County, if you’re sick, you can’t even buy Actifed from the pharmacy without a prescription. For some things you have to show a driver’s license. For other things you have to drive to another county. And while Gasconade County is not now technically considered the meth capital of the world as I mention in the book (that distinction now belongs to one of our neighboring counties), it has certainly been called that at times. In the 90’s and into the 2000’s—and even still to this day—meth labs are raided almost weekly. And it was much worse a few years ago. You can read about it every week in the Gasconade County Republican. Someone is always getting busted or someone’s house is getting raided. People get caught cooking meth and they go to jail and they bond out and the cops give them a few weeks to regroup and resupply themselves and then they hit them again. Sometimes guys get caught for the second time before they’ve even been to court for the first time.
It’s all about Pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient harvested from these pills; the component meth cooks need most to perfect their product. About ten years ago they started making you show your drivers license and sign a sheet of paper at the pharmacy window. Now Gasconade County prevents you from buying anything with Pseudoephedrine in it period without a doctor’s prescription. So unless you want to pay an office visit, you have to drive 40 miles to a different county, show your driver’s license, then sign a piece of paper stating you will not cook meth. While these laws are inconvenient for law-abiding, non-meth producing citizens, they were actually created to make it harder for chefs to get the pills they need to cook with, and these laws have made a difference—to an extent—but for every new law that’s made to curb the accessibility to precursors, there’s a guy who cooks crank that’s a very resourceful gentleman and he will just find a new way to make it. If such and such pill cannot be obtained without a prescription, he’ll just find the next best pill that will work, and then that pill becomes the new pill. The quality of the product may suffer, but people will still buy it. And they’ll love it. Even though the product is inferior to what they had previously known. They’ll still snort it or smoke it or shoot it and be grateful for it, while already scheming about how they will get more crank when the crank they have runs out.
But for old schoolers that have been in the game for the long haul, they remember what the good stuff was like. How pure it used to be and how easily it was obtained, and I’m sure a small part of them (guys like Jerry Dean Skaggs) will always look back with fond memories of previous product and long for the good old days.
MP: Frank Sinatra In A Blender was more along the satirical lines, while A Swollen Red Sun is a bit weightier (but no less entertaining). Was the change in tone conscious?
MM: If I had any real goal with my second book, it was to write something completely different from my first book. The characters are much deeper, and they’re drawn in such a way you can relate to them because they’re dealing with real world problems. Issues that we all deal with: Death and disease and loss. Suicide and infidelity and drug addiction. And the extremes people go to to satisfy those addictions.
While Frank Sinatra in a Blender was about embracing addictions, A Swollen Red Sun is about being a slave to them.
MP: Two of your favorite authors, Daniel Woodrell and Dan Ray Pollock, have endorsed the book. What from their work do you hope to apply to yours?
MM: They have become literary heroes to a generation of writers and if I could write half as well as either one of them I’d be walking in tall cotton. But honestly, when I wrote A Swollen Red Sun back in 2010 all I could think about was how cool it would be to meet them. Then maybe I could figure out a way to ask them to read my book without feeling like an asshole. But eventually I did meet them both, and over the years I’ve gotten to know them well, have even read and drank with them, so having their names and words on the cover mean a lot to me. The very same writers who have influenced me now believe in me, and not a lot of writers can say that—plus, there are blurbs from: Todd Robinson, Hilary Davidson, Johnny Shaw, and Ben Whitmer. Writers I genuinely care about as people and whose work I admire.
Between both books, I’ve gotten some amazing blurbs that I’ll always be thankful for. So anytime I see these people at a bar, I owe them a drink. Always. Because that’s the rule.
MP: You have a reputation among your peers as one of the best self-editors. Can you talk about your process after that first draft?
MM: Surely you’re making this up; I cannot imagine anyone saying this. In fact, I know five or six editors who are giving you the finger right now—but!—if I have become a good self-editor, it’s just because I have worked with much better editors than me and I’ve learned from them. Truth is: editors don’t get enough credit. They don’t. And sometimes they don’t get any. But they should. Because it’s the editor that really ties the book together. They polish the words and tighten everything down. The more you write and publish, the more you’ll work with editors and the more you will learn. You don’t even have to try. You just pick things up and they stick with you. Small skills you didn’t even realize you had until you found yourself using them. But I’m also very obsessive/compulsive, so that surely plays a role. It’s a curse, really. I write quickly, but I’m slow to let things go. I need to reread everything fifty times. I’ll do ten or twenty rewrites of anything before I’ll even show Stacia (my agent), who is actually my first editor.
What it comes down to is this: I loathe the thought of anyone reading something I’ve written that’s not as good as it can possibly be. If I think there’s a way to improve what I wrote and make it better I have to try. It’s all about editing: rereading and rewriting. In a way, writing books has ruined me. I look for mistakes all the time now. Even when I’m dining out. I can’t read a menu. I proofread everything.
MP: Would you tell us what you’re up to next?
MM: I don’t even know myself. Maybe nothing. Then again, I might start a new book a half-hour from now. When it comes to writing, I don’t plan a single word. Planning what I want to say robs creativity from the process. For me, writing is about total freedom.
The Hard Word Book Club meets the last Wednesday of each month in BookPeople’s cafe at 7 pm. Join us on Wednesday, August 26, for a discussion of Matthew McBride’s A Swollen Red Sun, available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.