Conversations with the Bookless: Matthew McBride

If it feels like Matthew McBride stormed the scene, kicked in the door of the genre and took the house it’s because he did. Have Chainsaw, Will Travel has become something of a cult classic. Read it then read on.

Where are you, right now, as you’re writing these answers?

In our old farmhouse along the Gasconade river. We live in wine country. Lots of rolling hills, not far from the Ozarks. I’m sitting on the front porch listening to the rain and watching strong wind bend the two ancient trees in our front yard. It looks like tornado weather. You never know. Three days ago it was 80 degrees and yesterday it snowed. Missouri weather is extreme.

Who are your influences and what is your unlikeliest influence?

Hunter S. Thompson: He was such a rebel and a genius. Hemingway: Because he brought a style into the literary world that defined him. Daniel Woodrell: He paints the landscape with so much color and brilliance; he does amazing things with words. Elmore Leonard is another early influence, but now I keep discovering other writers who move me with their language. William Gay and Larry Brown jump to the very top of the list. There’s nothing more powerful than a brawny southern writing voice that can put you in a chokehold.

Unlikeliest influence would probably be some of my life’s experiences. I’ve actually been in some of the situations I’ve written about. I know how it feels to have cops chase you. To get handcuffed. I’ve had guns pointed at me. I have friends who are locked up for making meth. I’ve had a guy in my house before that’s now in Federal prison for murdering someone. I’ve seen things and places I shouldn’t of and I know how it feels to recognize that moment when you’ve just crossed the kind of line that you can’t uncross.

Why do you write?

Because I’m a shitty carpenter. I’m a horrible mechanic. I can’t weld. All the traditional skills so many other gents are blessed with, I seem to lack. But writing has always been the one constant thing I was driven to do. Even as a kid I was just drawn to storytelling. I was enthralled by the concept of creating worlds in my head. I liked the idea of “inventing” characters and killing them. Or maybe not so much killing them as controlling them. In the real world, you have NO control over anything. You may think you do, but it’s an illusion. You have to go to work. You have to pay your bills and take care of responsibilities. In the end, we’re all just slaves. But in my writing world, I can do whatever I want.

What issues or ideas about fiction have been foremost in your mind of late?

At the moment, it’s all about the e-book. The big question is: Do you self-publish an e-book or hold out for a traditional press? It feels like I’ve waited my whole life to walk into a bookstore and pick up a book with my name on it. But books are so expensive. A man shouldn’t have to try and save up just to buy a book. And who would drop that kind of coin for a hardback when you can just hit a button and download the whole thing for a couple of bucks without ever leaving home. There isn’t a Kindle owner on the planet that doesn’t love physical books, but these are hard times for your average book lover and it’s cheaper to download books than to buy them. So the issue in my mind becomes, does my writing even have a future in fiction? It’s an act of balancing my thoughts — struggling with two different mindsets. Is the glass half full or half empty? And what’s in that glass anyway? Is it Southern Comfort or goat piss? You’re a good writer who’ll eventually make it. You’re a bad writer who’ll never make it. Sometimes I just step back and let the voices in my head fight it out.

When did you start writing and what prompted you to do so?

I might be the only writer to do it this way, but I wrote a novel first. Before anything else. I’d never written a short before either. At the time (2004) my goal was just to write a book. I knew that, naturally, it would be a bestseller. I’d quit my job immediately. Some big shot in New York would cut me a check. I’d go on book tours. But I wrote most of it on the assembly line, building Chrysler minivans in St. Louis. And it was a hell of a place to work. The auto industry in the 90’s was a rolling juggernaut that could not be stopped. Or even slowed. We were living in burgeoning times of financial prosperity and growth. That meant Chrysler was working us to the bone. 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. They wanted our blood. I lived 100 miles away and I fucking hated it. I’d get in trouble at work every day because I just didn’t care. On one hand I was glad for the job, on the other hand I didn’t want to be there. The supervisors would always mess with you, because their supervisors messed with them. The boredom was destroying me. I couldn’t take it. But it was a good union job where everybody stuck together; it just felt like I wasn’t meant to spend the rest of my life in that building. I knew there was a life waiting for me if I could just find it. Or make it. So I did what I do best. I rebelled. I got in trouble. I got fired. A lot. I was in trouble so frequently that I actually set new records for disciplinary procedures. I helped pioneer several attendance programs as well. (Okay, I really am about to make my point here)

Every time I received discipline, we were required to write a grievance statement. Usually just a paragraph or so explaining the situation. But my grievance statements were legendary (if I do say so myself). While most statements were merely a few sentences, mine were often 18 – 25 handwritten pages. Long-winded bastards that I equated to a filibuster in a Senate debate hearing. I’d go after any particular boss I didn’t like and write them into my “story.” – One particularly memorable statement involved a big shot superintendent who was a real prick — his name was Larry Boyce. One night Larry made the mistake of yelling at me for something he couldn’t prove I did. The first mistake he made was yelling at me. He was the Area Manager and there was a chain of command that had to be followed. Technically he couldn’t yell at me. What he should have done was yell at my boss, and then have my boss yell at me. That would’ve been acceptable. But he didn’t. He overstepped his bounds and he was guilty of violating an “over supervision” clause in our union contract. Which meant he was wrong and I could call him on it if I wanted to. I wanted to. So I made him the subject of what would become my most controversial grievance statement to date. In it, I referred to him as “The Colonel” and proceeded to unleash a profound and highly amusing diatribe directed at the one sure thing I knew would cripple him. His thick, powerful mustache. One grown with supreme diligence, and it was truly the source of his power. The results were devastating. Not only did Colonel Boyce shave off his mustache (the only time in 20+ years) but 5 days later he got me fired. Again. But people had really started reading my grievance statements and loving them. The fact he shaved off his stache proved my words had connected like a punch to the throat. They made an impact, however ridiculous that impact may have been. The more popular my grievance statements got, the less I gave a fuck, and the more I wanted to write grievance statements. My coworkers were making copies of them and plastering them all over the mini van carriers so everyone else could read as the vans snaked their way through the plant. I’d humiliate my supervisors with the statements, but there wasn’t much they could do to me. I was hard to deal with because I just didn’t care about the consequences. Sure, they’d fire me, but I’d be back in a week. Then I’d just write another 28-page grievance statement and WIN the grievance — so they’d end up having to give me back pay as well. But people would laugh so hard at the statements that it made it all worth it. I saw grown men cry. All my coworkers appreciated them. They loved to see someone standing up for themselves and fighting, and it made the night go by a little faster. At some point I came to realize I was actually entertaining people with my words. They’d tell me I had talent. They’d say, “McBride, you should write a book.” So I did. I probably have my former coworkers to thank for their confidence.

What do you most value in the fiction you love?

As a reader I want to believe. I want the characters I’m reading about to appear so convincing and real that I forget I’m engaged in fiction. Strong characters have always been important to me, but as I discover new writers and new writing voices, I really find myself drawn into the beauty of the prose. Words are so resolute and powerful. I want the whole experience to affect me.

As a writer, I like the idea of taking a real shit bum and trying to make the reader like him. I imagine what would be considered a typical conversation between two thugs and turn that into dialogue. I think a couple of guys probably would talk about eating taco’s while they’re cutting up a body. In their world, that’s normal. As a writer, I want to try and show readers a small glimpse into that world. Just because a guy kills people for money doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. I want the reader to think, “Well, I know I shouldn’t like this asshole, but I sure do find myself rooting for him.” Maybe he’s a stone cold killer, but he still boasts other positive qualities that’d make any mother proud. I like to see plots unravel too, because a writer can do so much with that in terms of directions the story can take. And in the real world, even the best-laid plans frequently turn to shit. The best crime fiction should mirror reality.

How would you describe your style?

I say fuck a lot. And cocksucker. But I’d much rather have someone else describe it. I’d like to think whatever style I have is mine and mine alone, but everyone’s style is probably a combination of everyone else’s. I think your influences help define your style.

What’s your favorite story written by someone else?

I could flip a quarter or put names in a hat – but I’ll answer that question in a different way. I think the greatest story ever written has yet to be discovered. I think there’s a writer out there that’s submitted time and time again and just couldn’t deal with the rejection so they gave up. It takes guts and patience and confidence and support to stick with this lifestyle. Sometimes I think you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning in a submarine than getting published, but you’ve got to find a way to shrug off the negative and focus.

What is the value and purpose of short fiction in the mystery/crime fiction for you personally and overall for the form and genre?

Short fiction works especially well for mystery/crime fiction because you don’t need to write an entire novel just to tell an engaging story. Crimes fiction is expansive in its range because crimes in general are so broad and wide-ranging. Short story: A guy that’s about to be released from prison gets knifed in the back because he’s a snitch. He could bleed out and die on the floor and the story can end. Or, maybe he doesn’t die. Maybe he removes that shank and stabs the guy who just stabbed him. Then he’s released, but he’s different. Something’s distorted inside; he’s got a permanent reminder across his back. A memento carved into his flesh that he can’t forget. So now he’s become a changed man. His life has purpose — short or long version, you can call it 5-inch scar — and the word count climbs as high as you want it to. All short fiction has the potential to become long fiction. I think that’s the appeal to me.

Who is the best short story writer that people haven’t gotten hip to yet?

This is a hard question to answer because there is so many writers out there hitting it just like me. Trying to carve their initials into that towering literary mountain as they climb. But one writer I always love to read is Joyce Juzwik. Her stories are always so dark and sinister. I’ll read on her Facebook profile how she’s watching the grandkids play videogames and knitting a sweater. Then I’ll read one of her stories about someone who killed their neighbor and put the body in a deep freeze. She’s scary and I really dig her style.

What do you like most about short fiction?

I think writing short fiction requires more skill than people realize. Especially flash fiction – a story under 1,000 words. And it has to have a beginning, middle, and an end. But they’re quick easy reads. You can read on your phone while you’re at the Doctor’s office — when you’re getting an oil change. Having said that, I’m definitely slowing down on the short stories I write. I still have things coming out I wrote last year, but I haven’t written a short in a long time. I really want to focus on writing that you can actually make money from. I don’t see much money in short stories. In the end, I just want to get my books published. If I can make enough money writing to get by, I’ll be happy.

Of your stories, which is your favorite; the one that showcases best your abilities?

My favorite story: HAVE CHAINSAW, WILL TRAVEL. It was published the summer of 2010 in Plots With Guns. It’s what I think of as chainsaw noir because the chainsaw itself essentially became a character in the story. I wrote it because of an actual event that took place while I was working security at an MMA fight. I had an idea for a story and I ambushed Neil Smith with it. (Seriously, I did). He told me to go ahead and send it. I knew how I wanted to write it, but he sent it back with a completely different idea for the story. I liked my idea. But he really challenged me, pointed me in a direction I’d never imagined the story could go, and suddenly birth was given to the idea of a tutorial style noir piece about dismemberment.

Do you have any short story publications forthcoming?

I’ll have a detective story about crime in the 1950’s called HARD LUCK DANCE coming out in Yellow Mama (April) and a story called STEALING INDIGO in Crimespree Magazine (May/June). I’ll also have a piece called Gunpowder & Aluminum Foil going into a NOIR AT THE BAR anthology along with writers Scott Phillips, Jedidiah Ayres, Anthony Neil Smith, Frank Bill, Dennis Tafoya, Daniel O’ Shea, Sean Doolittle, Malachi Stone, . the list of bad motherfuckers contributing to that anthology just goes on and on. As I write this, I have a story called RED DONKEY that just came out in Crimefactory’s Special Edition Kung Fu Factory. [In Print] ?

Where can readers check out some of your work?

NEEDLE, Plots With Guns, Crime Factory, A Twist Of Noir, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Powder Burn Flash, Darkest Before The Dawn, Thrillers, Killers, ‘N’ Chillers, Deer & Deer Hunting (Don’t laugh. They paid well). I blog as often as I can bring myself to do it (usually once a month) at my site GOT PULP?

What are you working on now?

I just finished writing a hardboiled detective novel called FRANK SINATRA IN A BLENDER. It’s about a P.I. in St. Louis named Nick Valentine. He drinks copious amounts of alcohol, self-medicates with painkillers, lusts after exotic dancers and makes no apologies for it. I haven’t said much about the book, but I will say Ken Bruen (Yes, the Ken Bruen) read it, then wrote to me the very next day and said he loved it. Then, in a testament to his amazing generosity, gave me a blurb to use when it gets published. (He said when, not if, so I’m holding onto that).

How do you plan to rectify your booklessness?

I’ve written two novels already and maybe they’ll both get published or maybe they won’t, but I know inside that I’ve written two novels. That’s two more than a lot of other writers have managed to push through and it’s something to be proud of. All I can do is keep writing and submitting until there’s an agent/publisher that wants to work with me. I’ve made good friends that I’m very grateful for and I’ve gained a lot of support in the writing world. I quit a job making $30 an hour at the worst possible time in the history of the world’s economy to write so I’m pretty serious about getting published.

Care to share a paragraph or two?

Here is the first paragraph or two of FRANK SINATRA IN A BLENDER.

“Alcohol May Be Man’s Worst Enemy, But The Bible Says Love Your Enemy”
-Frank Sinatra

The sun was seduced by gravity as evening set in. I pulled into Norman Russo’s driveway as the sky was dying and orange and pink ribbons of color melted into an early winter dusk behind a neighbor’s shed that was in desperate need of paint. The sky expelled its dying breaths and painted the bleak motionless landscape above the house with explosive promises of irreproachable beauty among distant patches of forged hope. I let the Crown Victoria run while I finished the rest of my drink and set the Styrofoam cup next to the shotgun that was mounted to the floorboard. I put a 20 mg Oxy in the middle of a dollar bill, folded the bill up tightly and smashed it to a fine powder with the rounded edge of a Bic lighter.

I rubbed the paper together between my fingers to grind it up as best I could.

The Vic moved as a sudden squall of blustery wind slammed me from the side. There were two empty police cruisers in front of me and an officer on the front porch lighting up a smoke.

I dumped the powder out, rolled the bill up tight like a straw. I took a good look around before snorting a line of Oxycontin across half the length of an owner’s manual for a 1997 Crown Victoria.

When it hit, my right eye began to water on cue. I sniffed hard and took another drink of Gin. I opened my door and felt the wind saw unfathomably deep into my bones. Renewed motivation cleansed my nerves like static electricity as the world inside my head exploded and painted my mind with raw enthusiasm.

Norman Russo picked a pretty good day to kill himself.

***

Matthew McBride has been published in Plots With Guns, A Twist Of Noir, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Darkest Before The Dawn, Powder Burn Flash, Thrillers, Killers, ‘n’ Chillers, Deer & Deer Hunting, as well as upcoming issues of CRIMEFACTORY and Yellow Mama. He lives outside the beautiful wine country of Hermann, Mo with his wife Melissa and his bull Hemingway.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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About Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

13 Replies to “Conversations with the Bookless: Matthew McBride”

  1. You are incredible. I love grievance statements… the story made me love you even more. I’ve heard nothing but great things about FRANK SINATRA IN A BLENDER. I look forward to owning a copy one day. =)

  2. Good stuff. I’m always keenly interested to understand how much of a writer’s personal experience bleeds through in their work, so it’s especially cool to hear McBride describe his personal influences.

    I too, look forward to reading a lot more from this guy.

  3. Great interview. I thought I knew McBride fairly well, but I learned some interesting things. I have never doubted his talent and love whatever he chooses to write. I was privileged to read a draft of his first novel – and have the t-shirt to prove it – and have absolutely no doubt that McBride will be household name.

  4. Terrific interview. Really dug the excerpt from your “Sinatra” novel. Can’t wait until it’s published.