Darkness on the Edge of Town: MysteryPeople Q&A with Jesse Donaldson

Jesse Donaldson’s The More They Disappear deals with the murder of a sheriff in a Kentucky town, just as OxyContin gets introduced to rural towns in the late nineties. It is a compelling debut, nuanced in both its emotions and morality. We asked Mr. Donaldson some questions over e-mail as we prepare for his visit to our store this upcoming Friday, August 26th, at 7 PM.

“The novel takes its title from that common desire to leave your town, to disappear. There’s some thematic kinship to this Bruce Springsteen record I love – Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

MysteryPeople Scott: What spurred you to write a whodunnit where the reader knows who did it?

Jesse Donaldson: This is a trick question. I mean, it’s not a whodunit if you know the who, right? And in The More They Disappear that happens rather early. Another writer, Smith Henderson, called it a whydunnit. I’d say the novel has more in common with a police procedural, a la Richard Price – only it is set in rural Kentucky instead of New York City. You follow the deputy sheriff, Harlan Dupee, as he sets about solving a violent crime. The tension is driven by that investigation and its consequences. The larger question is: in the aftermath of a violent crime, will this town held together by increasingly fragile bonds, fall apart?

MPS: What made the early days of the Oxy crisis the right period?

JD: I always wanted to write about the Oxy crisis. In the late 90s and early 2000s, it didn’t get nearly as much media attention as it should have. Newspapers and magazines were more interested in covering the country’s Meth problem. Exploded meth labs make for a nice dramatic photo. The Oxy story was and is way more complicated and in the long run more devastating. It was created by lax regulation by the FDA and states, a dishonest pharmaceutical company, crooked doctors, and millions of people suffering from some sort of “pain”—be it physical or emotional. Moreover, the Oxy issue is directly responsible for the degree of our country’s current heroin epidemic, so it seemed worthwhile to explore its origins.

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MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE FAR EMPTY by J Todd Scott

  • Review by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9780399176340The Southwest has become a popular backdrop for crime fiction of late. It operates in both the parallel worlds of modern drug trafficking and historic legend of the old west. Authors utilize a brutal landscape and its history in combination with the brutality of humanity. J Todd Scott, a former DEA agent who worked in that area, uses it to full effect in his debut novel, The Far Empty.

Each chapter follows the point of view of one of the citizens of of the fictional Murfee, Texas or one of their neighbors on the other side of the border. The first one is if Caleb Ross, an awkward teenager and the only person whose side gets told in first person. He discusses his life and the disappearance of his mother. Caleb believes it was murder and knows who the killer is, his father Stanford “Judge” Ross, Murfee’s mythic sheriff.

New deputy Chris Cherry, a young man who returns home after his football career and marriage have been waylaid by an injury, discovers a decomposed, flex-cuffed body. Caleb is convinced it is his mother. Soon, they are in a deadly dance with the judge, pulling a school teacher, drug runners, and others into their tempest of violence.

Scott’s Murfee appears to be a stand in for Marfa, Texas, a town that shares some of its sordid history and mysterious light formations. He uses the state’s legends, history, and its legacy of bloodshed. He examines violence by what parks it and creates a circle of it, avoiding literary distance by tying violence to his characters and making it utterly human.

The Far Empty is is a look at a land and how its history shapes those who live on it today. It’s a place where even the innocent become corrupted. The big land is empty of many things, especially mercy.

The Far Empty comes out Tuesday, June 7th. Pre-order now! J Todd Scott, joined by C J Howell, will be speaking and signing his debut on Friday, June 10th, beginning at 7 PM. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Brian Panowich

Brian Panowich joins us Saturday, July 11, at 5 PM on BookPeople’s second floor for a Happy Hour celebrating the release of his debut novel, Bull Mountain. Panowich is joined by special musical guests The Dan Adams Band, who will perform a song written for the novel.


Interview by Scott M.

Brian Panowich’s Bull Mountain is an attention-getting debut dealing with two brothers on the opposite sides of the law. Brian will be joining us for a discussion and signing of the book on July 11th and was kind enough to accept this opening barrage of questions.

MysteryPeople: Family plays a big part in Bull Mountain. What did you want to explore with that idea?

Brian Panowich: Mainly that family, not only relationships between fathers and sons, but mothers and daughters, siblings, and even husbands and wives inform your every decision, whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s the strongest bond imaginable between any group of people, and simply deciding to not be a part of where or who you come from isn’t nearly as easy as it may seem. Even that decision was informed by blood. Especially in the South, where a family’s heritage is entrenched into the land they live on. A family goes way beyond just its name and traditions, and this book digs deep into how those bonds can blur the lines–and in some cases completely erase them–between what is considered good and evil. What one person thinks of as evil, may very well be what another thinks is the right thing to do by their family.

MP: Does family take on something different in the place you write about?

BW: I think so. I’m an army brat and my small family of four was like a satellite circling the rest of my relatives who were spread out all over the country, but after meeting my wife, a native of North Georgia, and setting root here, I was fascinated at how interconnected her kin were with the area they’re from. The sense of pride and belonging to something that is just for them is overwhelming in the South. It’s unlike anywhere else I’d ever lived. The idea of leaving, or not being a part of the place they love isn’t even an option to them. Home is absolutely not where you hang your hat. Home is the familiar dirt and land that has sustained them for decades. As a kid, I never lived anywhere for more than two years at a time. I’m not in touch with a single person I’ve ever known from the years before my father retired in Georgia, and just the idea that my wife not only knows, but still remains close, to people that were born in the same room of the same small county hospital as her is mind-bending to me.

MP: Clayton Burroughs is such an interesting character in the sense, he has the possibility of going any direction. What was the trick to writing him?

BW: The appeal of writing Clayton was that the conflict he struggled with was never about him wanting to “do the right thing” or “to right his family’s wrongs”. His internal conflict came from knowing he wasn’t cut from the same cloth the rest of the Burroughs clan were. He knew he was a disappointment to his father. He knew he couldn’t do the things his brothers were capable of doing to preserve their way of life. He’d known it since he was a boy, and that guilt of not living up to the Burroughs name forced him to make hard decisions that would eventually put him at odds with the same people that reared him. I don’t even think Clayton was drawn to the law as a way to make amends for his family’s sins as much as it was a way of sticking it to them, like getting the last word. That non-allegiance to either side made him unpredictable and volatile, and that’s the kind of character I wanted to write.

MP: This being a debut, did you draw from any influences?

BW: I have no doubt I incorporated a ton of what I’ve learned by reading other people into this book. I don’t think it’s possible not to. Elmore Leonard’s books taught me so much about dialogue, world-building, and how to make every word on the page necessary, so I’m sure my love of his books will come through to his readers, and the epic scale that I wanted to convey in Bull Mountain is clearly drawn from my love of Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy. I’m sure there is a lot more of my influences in there too, folded and stirred into what I wanted this book to be, but the end result I think is uniquely me, and uniquely Georgian. I also think as long as I continue to read great writers, great writers will continue to help me refine my own voice.

MP: Each of your chapters come off as these well-crafted short stories. How did you approach constructing them?

BW: I knew the first chapter and the last before I even sat down to write the first word. I made a one page outline committing a sentence or two to each chapter in between those bookends as a road map, and then I just let the rest of it unfold as I went. If I thought the story needed to go back in time, I wrote a chapter from that era. If I thought someone else I hadn’t originally planned to expand on had more to say, I wrote a chapter from that person’s perspective. I really didn’t follow any rules. I wasn’t even sure what the rules were. I’m still not sure I know now. I just wrote the story the way I thought it should be told. Not a lot of the process was spent on compiling it them right way. Of course my agent, Nat Sobel, and my editor, Sara Minnich, came on board and helped streamline the narrative and flesh out some back story and I’m incredibly grateful to have them on my team. They are the best there is in this business.

MP: You play with time in the book, dipping into the past several times. Other than allowing reveals to strike at the right moment, what else did the non-linear method allow for the story?

BW: Believe it or not, the only way I was able to allow the reveals in the book to unfold the way I wanted them to was to write it the way I did. Before I sent the book off to my agent, as an experiment, I took all the chapters and rearranged them in a linear sequence according to the timeline and it was a completely different book. It wasn’t the book I wanted to put out there. I wasn’t sure if the format I decided to go with would work or not, but it felt like the only way to get across to people what I needed them to know about the Burroughs family. So I went with my gut, and sent it as I originally wrote it. I’ve read a few complaints from a few reviewers about it being a tough book to follow, but I’ve had a lot more people say it’s one of the book’s strengths. I suppose we’ll see.

MP: It seems like you are the latest in a wave of rural noir authors. What makes the South a great setting to explore the darker side of our nature?

BW: I think the vast amount of unexplored terrain and endless string of backroads that lead to unknown places lend itself to that mystique. Violence and darkness have almost come to be expected in an urban setting, it’s par for the course, but it’s entirely different in the woods. Where the rules don’t apply. Things could be fine at the end of that dirt road, or it may get very ugly, very quickly. It’s beautiful here for sure, but at the same time can be fierce on a moment’s notice. That balance makes a remarkable setting to tell stories like this one, and it’s nice to see the South being represented by all these amazing authors I have the honor of being bunched in with.

I think for the most part, the south gets a bad rap. Considering the way TV (especially reality TV) and film have perpetuated the myth of the toothless hillbilly over the years, it was important to me that Bull Mountain showed the world that wasn’t the case. Not even close. The Burroughs clan may be fictional, but the folks that reside in the foothills of North Georgia have been in the same game other places like Kentucky and Virginia are famous for…without ever getting caught. They have managed to stay under the radar for decades, because family was the point. Not the fame. And I think that speaks volumes about the intelligence and strength it must have taken to pull it off.


You can find copies of Bull Mountain on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Click here for additional event information.

MysteryPeople Review: BULL MOUNTAIN by Brian Panowich

bull mountainBrian Panowich joins us Saturday, July 11, at 5 PM on BookPeople’s second floor for a Happy Hour celebrating the release of his debut novel, Bull Mountain. Panowich is joined by special musical guests The Dan Adams Band, who will perform a song written for the novel.


Post by Scott M.

Rural noir seems to be the debut genre for 2015. David Joy’s Where All Light Tends To Go and Jamie Kornegay’s Soil have already earned much deserved accolades with their darker sides of North Carolina and Mississippi. Now we go to Georgia with Brian Panowich’s Bull Mountain.

The story centers on the relationship of two brothers. Halford Burroughs keeps his family’s outlaw tradition, lording over a small meth empire that started with moonshine generations ago. His brother, Clayton, is the white sheep of the family, becoming sheriff in an adjacent county.

“Bull Mountain is a brilliant piece of brutal poetry.”

An ATF agent tells Clayton that he’s after a biker gang Halford is doing business with and will give his brother complete immunity if he flips. Wanting to save his remaining family member (his other brother recently shot down in a standoff with the law). Clayton treks up Bull Mountain to meet up with his brother, getting himself up for one hell of a fall.

Brian Panowich’s writing is a great example of craft meeting art. He constructs each chapter as its own well-crafted short story, often moving deftly and clearly between past and present. He expands past Clayton and Halford’s relationship to look at different shades of family and ideas of honor tied to it. The result in a narrative mosaic that builds in drama and emotional punch, the clearer the full picture becomes.

Bull Mountain is a brilliant piece of brutal poetry. It takes its characters on their own terms and allows us to understand them and the cycle of violence they generate. Pretty much cemented my belief that rural noir genre has many unseen places to go.


You can find copies of Bull Mountain on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Down and Dirty in the Country: A Quick Look at Rural Noir

Noir is a genre usually identified with the city. Concrete and steel cut off our anti-hero, throwing an endless shadow over him or her. At the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms. When we weren’t looking, the sub-sub-genre of rural noir took over like kudzu.

The roots of rural noir come from the Southern Gothic authors. One could argue that William Faulkner was an early practitioner. As I Lay Dying uses many noir tropes with a stylized point of view, family secrets, dark humor, and a bleak look at class. Flannery O’Connor is another author whose influence shows itself in the works of current rural noir authors. Her use of religion and perspective of evil can be seen in the work of Jake Hinkson in such modern classics as Hell On Church Street

“Noir is a genre usually identified with the city…at the same time, however, authors were also looking at the darkness, isolation, and evil in small towns or farms.”

One of the first great examples of rural noir is James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much. Using Southern speech, much like Chandler used the Southern California dialect, Ross tells the story of jack McDonald, a failed farmer who ends up running a road house owned by schemer Smut Mulligan, who later pulls Jack into a robbery and murder. A power play ends up between the two involving Lola, the wife of the town proprietor Smut is having an affair with. It took the James M. Cain noir structure and themes and put a country spin on it.

Jim Thompson wrote many tales from the city, but some of his best dealt with shady small town lawmen. The Killer Inside Me, still one of the most chilling books ever written, features West Texas deputy and psychopath, Lou Ford. Lou pretends to be a dim hick, who mainly tortures the town citizens, many with their own dark secrets and agendas, by talking in cliches and platitudes. When he develops a brutal relationship with a prostitute, he and the town both violently spiral downward.

“…the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry…”

Thompson took the bad lawmen to new heights in the Sixties with Pop. 1280. MysteryPeople screens Coup de Torchon, French director Bertrand Tavernier’s Algerian-set film version of the Pop. 1280, on Sunday, July 7, as part of our Double Feature Film Series. Screenings will be followed by a discussion of the book and film, and all screenings are free and open to the public. Nick Correy is the lazy, philandering sheriff of a small Southern town during the Nineteen-Teens. When he’s challenged in an election and kills to stay in the lead, we learn how smart and dangerous he is. What is odd is how Nick keeps his genial tone and how the violence almost becomes redemptive in this black satire on small town culture and bigotry. It is interesting to note that Thompson’s father was an Oklahoma sheriff who was caught embezzling when the writer was young.

The author who truly opened the door for rural noir was Daniel Woodrell. Originally writing about Rene Shade, a police detective in a corrupt Louisiana parish, in his Bayou Trilogy, he later moved his settings to the Ozarks, were he was born and raised, in such novels as Winter’s Bone (screened last year as part of our Noir Double Feature Film Series) Woodrell’s novels are somewhat the country cousins to George Pelecanos’ D.C. novels, including the recently released and critically acclaimed The Martini Shot: A Novella and StoriesWoodrell and Pelecanos both create character-driven stories, where criminals are motivated by extreme poverty and drugs (crack for Pelecanos, meth for Woodrell) plague an entire community. Woodrell dives into his stories on a personal level with a poetic prose style. The beginning paragraph of Tomato Red, with its page-long, run-on sentence, is work of great humor and craft. He delves into the lives of the working class and the poor from his area, inspiring a wave of other writers to use their rural background in their noir.

“…rural noir has a strong lineage, an established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story…”

Several of these writers inspired by Woodrell have already established themselves in the rural noir cannon. Frank Bill built a reputation through his short stories dealing with hard men and harder women pushed to the brink of violence and beyond, exemplified in the collection Crimes In Southern Indiana. His debut novel, Donnybrook, is about several characters and the trail of blood they leave behind as they head to a bare knuckle fight. Donnybrook shows how meth in the Midwest has fused the drug and culture together. Another great take on the subject is Matthew McBride’s relentless A Swollen Red Sun. McBride sets a Missouri county aflame when a deputy takes seventy-two thousand dollars from a meth dealer’s trailer in a moment of weakness. The book is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in its look at how a corrupt society destroys itself. Benjamin Whitmer’s anti-heroes get ping-ponged from their country homes to the city, trapped by their violent compulsions, developed of necessity but leaving his characters isolated and alone. Both of his books, Pike and Cry Father, are emotional gut punches.

the genre of rural noir is expanding rapidly, and it has room to do it. Both David Joy and Jamie Kornegay have shown new back roads with their novels Where All Light Tends To Go and Soil. Jamie Kornegay joins us Monday, May 4, for Noir at the Bar at Opal Divine’s. Frank Wheeler, Jr.’s debut, The Good Life, set in rural Nebraska, hopefully ushers in a long career writing great rural noir set in Midwestern wastelands. We also have yet to see many female writers and authors of color embrace the sub-genre. As rural noir grows in self-confidence and acclaim, I hope to see many more diverse voices in the genre, but already, rural noir has a strong lineagean established canon, and the manifest destiny to travel down every back road and tell its story. Like Hank William’s country boy, the genre can survive, and even thrive.

MysteryPeople Q&A with David Joy


David Joy’s Where All Light Tends To Go delivers everything a rural noir reader loves with a fresh take on the genre. With a subtle, poetic look Joy follows an eighteen-year-old Appalachian boy during one summer where he faces a difficult choice: move further into his father’s meth ring or escape his town completely. Both nuanced and brutal, it is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, and a must read. David was kind enough to answer some of our questions and talk about the process of his writing, the people he writes about, and the importance of both Daniel Woodrell and alt. country.


MysteryPeople: Jacob is such a fully realized character. How did you approach writing someone younger?

David Joy: I lived with an image of Jacob in my head for nearly a year before I ever got his voice right. There was an image that’s actually in the book of this young boy standing over a hog he’s killed and realizing just how much power he had over life and death at a very early age. That was the birth of Jacob, that single image. But I tried to write his story two or three different times before I ever got it right. I actually had about 35,000 words of a manuscript that I burned because it was wrong. Sometimes you just have to start over. You have to be brave enough to burn it and start from ashes or the work won’t be any good. There was a long stretch afterward where I lived with his image, but I couldn’t hear him. Then one night I woke up from a dream about him and he was talking. That may sound like hokum or something, but that really is how it happened. I think I’d just been living with him in my head for so long that when his voice finally presented itself it was well defined. I knew everything about him at that exact moment and then it was just a matter of trying to keep up with the story he wanted to tell and do him justice. Hopefully I did that.

MP: You did a wonderful job of expressing the weight Jacob feels to stay in his town and work for his father. Why do you think people stay in their circumstances, no matter how bad they are?

DJ: I think it’s easier to stay put. That’s true for all of us. We get comfortable in our lives even when those lives may not be what we envisioned for ourselves, and that comfortability creates stagnancy. It’s easier to just deal with something you’ve already learned to confront than it is to walk out into the unknown. That’s what the end of that book is all about. At the same time, I think following in your father’s footsteps is something indicative of Appalachian culture. If your father lays stone for a living, you learn to be a mason. If your father works on cars, you become a mechanic. If he farms, you farm. If he runs equipment, you might be on the sticks of a trackhoe at seven or eight. That’s something that’s indicative of the region where I live. A lot of times that is a great thing. There are families here who are known for their work. For instance, there’s actually a really famous family of stone masons from Jackson County, the Hueys, that have been laying rock for generations, a family so regarded they were actually asked to go somewhere in Japan to teach their craft. So I think there’s that type of familial legacy that exists in Appalachia, whether it be a good thing or a bad thing. And on that same note, there are families here who have always been outlaws, every generation that was born. Like the book says, “Blood’s thicker than water,” and Jacob McNeely was drowning in it.

MP: You are getting a lot of comparisons to Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, and Frank Bill, but rural North Carolina has a different feel coming off the page. What makes the area unique to write about?

DJ: The thing that I think all of us have in common is that we’re writing about working class people who are scraping by. When you have absolutely nothing to lose, you’re a lot more willing to do just about anything to make ends meet. That’s what Larry Brown wrote about, Daniel Woodrell, Harry Crews, William Gay, Ron Rash, Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, all of them. So the similarities arise out of the people we’re writing about. These are the people we know. They live right down the street from us. They’re our people. The only difference is that all of the writers I just named are a lot better at it than I am, but I’m learning, I think, and they’ve left a wonderful set of footsteps to follow. But as far as Appalachia being different, Ron Rash has always said that landscape is destiny, and I think that’s absolutely right. There are two ways of feeling about the mountains that you hear over and over when you ask people, and what they always say is either that they feel nestled, like God is holding them in the palm of His hand, or they say they feel trapped, as if these mountains are walls. For Jacob, I think it’s the latter. I also think because this is such a harsh place to survive–the climate, the lack of opportunity, everything–I think all of those things come to govern how we view our lives. So while the circumstances these characters are facing are similar to a lot of Southern grit lit writers, the story is very much Appalachian in the sense that the McNeelys are a part of this mountain.

MP:This being your first novel, did you draw from any influences or did you simply apply what you learned from your memoir and short fiction?

DJ: I think a lot of what I was doing came out of an obsession with Daniel Woodrell. I think he’s one of the best writers in America, especially that stint from Tomato Red, Death of Sweet Mister, Winter’s Bone, and The Outlaw Album. I remember the first time I ever read Tomato Red I spent the entire day reading that opening chapter over and over trying to figure out just what he was doing. That book opens up and you’re at the end of the first chapter before you take a breath. That type of propulsion makes for great fiction. That’s also why it meant so much when he praised the pacing of this novel. The pacing was something I’m trying to draw from him. Larry Brown and Donald Ray Pollock are two more who I think did this really well. So what I’m trying to do on the page is very much rooted in the style of writers that I enjoy. What I tried to do was have a setup that in 30 pages forced the reader to keep going. So within 30 pages of this novel, I tried to set the hook. I think most readers will allow you that much space, or basically an hour of reading, before they decide whether or not they’re vested. For me, it’s very important to fit the crux in that space. Larry Brown said that. He said you start with conflict, and he’s right. It’s like if you were shopping in the grocery store and all of a sudden a fight broke out or someone pulled a gun, you’d just freeze and nothing else would matter in that moment. A lot of what I write, I want to grab you just like that. I want to force you to read whether you intended to or not.

MP: You seem to be a big alt country fan. Is there anything about singer-songwriters you envy and would like to apply to your own work?

DJ: I’m interested in songwriters in the same way that I’m interested in poets and short story writers, and I think that’s because of the emotional weight they’re able to create within a very small space. I was listening to an interview with songwriter Josh Ritter recently, which I think he’s a good example because he’s also written a novel, Bright’s Passage, but what he said is that, “writing a song is like trying to write a novel on a grain of rice.” There’s a lot of truth to that, and I think that also pinpoints one of the reasons I’m so drawn to them. I’m really picky about what I listen to, not picky in the type of music, but picky in the quality of the language. For me, Townes Van Zandt was the greatest songwriter to ever live. The emotion he captures in a single song is an emotion that it takes me an entire novel to reach. I don’t necessarily think that one is better than the other, rather it’s just an element of form, but what I am saying is that it absolutely blows my mind what really great songwriters are able to do in three minutes.

MP: I know you have another book slated for next year. Can you tell us what that’s about?

DJ: The catalyst for the new novel is that two best friends and addicts go to buy methamphetamine and the dealer has been taking in all of these stolen goods as payment, something that happens a lot where I live. So he’s been taking in everything from stereos to firearms and he’s showing off these guns when he accidentally kills himself. So all of a sudden these two addicts are sitting on a couch with a pile of drugs and money at their fingertips. That’s how the book starts. But at the same time, the story has a lot bigger scope than anything I’ve ever done before. This book really became a work about trauma. It’s about how the things that we witness, the things that we carry with us for the rest of our lives, come to govern every action we make. So while the hook is similar in a lot of ways to this first novel in that its about crime and its about methamphetamine, the reality is that both of these novels are about things a lot bigger than that. I want every single thing that I do to shed light on the human condition. I want the reader to empathize with people that they would never come into contact with, people they’d dismiss if they saw them on the nightly news.


You can find copies of David Joy’s magnificent debut, Where All Light Tends To Go, on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Look out for more great interviews with authors!