Steve Weddle is in the running for the title of hardest working man in crime fiction. From blogging to short fiction to starting a publication with its own book imprint he has developed a reputation for getting things done. Some say he has clones and still others say he is a robot but neither of these are true, he’s just Steve Weddle. If you don’t know him yet, you soon will.
Where are you, right now, as you’re writing these answers?
The back corner in the basement of my house, in the country, rural Virginia.
Who are your influences and what is your unlikeliest influence?
Every book I’ve ever read, I guess. What doesn’t influence me, right? A story I read in this morning’s New York Times about a computer virus might get me thinking and writing. In fact, I thought about some technical malfeasance that I used in novel while I was listening to a podcast featuring Leo Laporte and John C. Dvorak. How unlikely is that?
Old movies, of course. His Girl Friday, Casablanca, The Big Sleep. I like the humor, the dialog, the darkness there.
Music. Bob Dylan. Bongwater. Shonen Knife. Ani diFranco. Hank Williams III. Tori Amos.
The science fiction and fantasy I read growing up. Douglas Adams. Steven Brust. Isaac Asimov. Piers Anthony.
Dennis Lehane. Charles Bukowski. Anne Bronte. Lisa de Moraes. Stephen L. Carter. Raymond Carver. William T. Vollmann. Jules Witcover. Andrew Hudgins. Ron Rosenbaum. That guy who writes the “Idol” posts over at Gawker. David Foster Wallace. Richard Stark. Ezra Pound. Richard Powers. How long can my answer be?
Why do you write?
For the money.
What issues or ideas about fiction have been foremost in your mind of late?
I find the whole analog versus ebooks divide to be fascinating. I just can’t get enough of these blog posts – and I’ve written a fair share – about how author are abandoning traditional methods of writing with pen and paper to writing these electric stories on their IBM Selectrics and their IBM PCs. Look, it’s my firm belief that the story is what matters. People blog and fight all day about how these electric books on their plug-in typewriters will kill traditional books written by hand. Look, they said television will kill off radio. Did it? I still listen to my local university play Schubert in the morning. They said cassette tapes would kill of 8-tracks. Did they? I still listen to my 8-track of the Eagles greatest, even though having “Lyin Eyes” broken half-way through is kind of annoying. “You can’t hide [ca-click] your lyin eyes.”
So I think traditional books written by hand will still be around, even though some folks like these electronic books they write on their plug-in typewriters. All that really matters is whether the story is any damn good.
When did you start writing and what prompted you to do so?
I was a terrible, terrible, terrible student. High school bored the heck out me. So I wrote super hero stories about people in our class. If I remember right (and I usually do) I made this kid who just moved into town the hero. And a few of us were his side-kicks. And we battled who knows what. Probably those evil teachers trying to attack us with their protracted, um, protractors of attackingness while we used a swords crafted by Eddie from Iron Maiden to defend our Castle of Super Badassery. My recollection is that the stories were remarkably beautiful and nuanced.
What do you most value in the fiction you love?
Brevity. I’m a busy man.
And voice. I like to “connect” with someone in the story. I like for the hero to be extremely clever, about 40-years-old or so, and incredibly handsome.
And a good story. The kind in which the twist isn’t just some lame red herring. Like in DOPE THIEF from Dennis Tafoya. The story ends about 2/3 of the way through, then a new story of sorts picks up. I love that. So unexpected. And so perfect. And Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER. The ‘plot’ goes here and there and in the end, maybe the whodunit aspect isn’t exactly what you write home about. But to me, that’s because the story is about the characters. The voice. The pain and the sorrow and that damn broken bird in Chapter Seven. Or Six. Somewhere in there.
Oh, and brevity.
How would you describe your style?
Country casual. Most days it’s jeans and flannel, you know? I have a pair of work boots, steel-toed and all. Those are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned. And they’re light brown and set off nicely with a dark brown, well worn leather belt I have. The buckle on that damn thing has a patina that the Antiques Roadshow crew would crap their pants over. I used to wear a baseball cap most of the time, too, but it messes up my hair. You know, scrunches it down so it looks goofy. I mean, it goes with the style, but I can’t have my hair messed up like that, you know? Simple and uncluttered.
Which, not to get off-topic, is how I’d describe my writing, too. I don’t like complicated sentences, at least not for my own writing. I like to read David Foster Wallace and some Jane Austen and they can craft these convoluted sentences. Remember when Ted Knight was wearing that “comes with a free bowl of soup” hat in Caddyshack and Rodney Daingerfield made fun of him with the “looks good on you, though” comment? Well, that sort of sentence looks good on them, but it isn’t for me. I find that a complex thought needs to be conveyed in a simple form. I’ve read enough scholarly essays on the Patriarchy of Phenomenology to last a long damn while. Just give me uncluttered prose and thoughts worth thinking. That’s how I like to write. And, for some reason, I like to write dialog.
What’s your favorite story written by someone else?
THIS DARK EARTH by John Hornor Jacobs. Seek it out. Bug John for it. More of a novel than a short story.
Also, “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. And “Real Life” in Donald Ray Pollock’s KNOCKEMSTIFF.
What is the value and purpose of short fiction in mystery/crime fiction for you personally and overall for the form and genre?
Seems odd to compare short fiction to novels, doesn’t it? Like comparing a TV show to a movie. Or saying a short story is like an appetizer to discovering a meal by a talented novelist. I don’t know what any of this means. I love short stories. They’re not the singles to an album. They’re stories. Characters. Plot. Conflict. You read “Poachers” by Tom Franklin for the same reason you read GRAVITY OF MAMMON by Dan O’Shea. They’re great stories. Doesn’t matter that one is 20,000 words and one is 90,000, does it? You paying by the word? You want to be entertained. You want your soul tested. I used to think of reading a novel as some sort of accomplishment, like I’d have done something. Short stories are sprints and novels are marathons was my thinking. Yet, some novels I read straight through on a Saturday and some short stories take me three weeknights to finish. The shorter pieces seem to have more containment, don’t they? Like more focused momentum. Not as many – if any – subplots. If there’s development or nuance, it’s rather localized into a single string, not threaded throughout layers for 300 pages. I love short stories. Contrasting them to novels so often seems dismissive, which missed the point.
So the value? The purpose? Same thing as with any story. Entertain me. Break my soul. Leave me unable to form cogent thoughts after. Weave the character’s pain into my heart so that when I think of it again in a week, I mistake it for a beautiful dream I had once, when I was a better person.
Who is the best short story writer that people haven’t gotten hip to yet?
A guy called Don Lee. He lives in Arkansas. He sent in a story for me look at over at Needle HQ. Amazing stuff. And I think folks probably have read John McFetridge in novel form, but not short stories. He has stories for free download on his site folks should check out. And Chris F. Holm’s 8 POUNDS is one of the finest collections of fiction I’ve ever read.
I read a great deal of short fiction for NEEDLE magazine, which I work on with the artsy John Hornor Jacobs. In the past year I’ve seen some fantastic stories that are like that bottom of the ninth, down by a run, with a man on second fly ball to deep, deep left field. Just so beautiful to watch arch through the clear, summer sky, flashbulbs popping, deep rumble as the crowd stands to see the home run. Then it drifts just foul. We get stories that are triples off the wall, singles into the gap, grand slams from the get-go. And then I read a story that just takes off, wood cracking, cloud scraping, and I hold my breath. These are the authors you’re going to hear from soon. When Stephen Blackmoore or Naomi Johnson email me their notes on a story and they’re absolutely unable to contain their glee, their shaking excitement at having read something great from a new voice. This is part of why we do this, right? The freshness. The newness. The excitement of discovery.
What do you like most about short fiction?
I like being able to savor it. Like the difference between having a fifth of Bushmill’s on the counter or a single glass. You know you don’t have much. You sip it. You savor it.
Of your stories, which is your favorite; the one that showcases best your abilities?
I’ve been working on some Roy Alison stories that move between crime fiction and literary fiction. They’re slower, more restrained that what I did last year. I like these quite a bit.
Do you have any short story publications forthcoming?
Two of the Roy Alison stories are scheduled for anthology publication this year. Oscar Martello is coming back to another anthology. I haven’t placed anything else. I should probably send some of these damn stories out there.
Where can readers check out some of your work?
Beat To A Pulp. Crimefactory. A Twist of Noir. Or head over to the Amazon shop and look at the books TERMINAL DAMAGE and DISCOUNT NOIR, two collections that were published last year.
What are you working on now?
A techno-thriller spanning two thousand years. An Oscar Martello novella. Two Alex Jackson novels. A Roy Alison collection. And helping put together the next two issues of NEEDLE.
How do you plan to rectify your booklessness?
This used to sadden me. Oh, I don’t have a book. I’m not a real writer. I need a book. I need a Book Deal. Where the hell is my check?
Now, I’m just honestly more interested in the stories I have to tell. A couple of years ago I finished my first novel, LOST AND FOUND, and teamed up with Stacia Decker. She’s one of the brightest people I know and helped me get the book into shape. Took months after I thought I was done. So we sent it out. Some people loved it. Some didn’t. Those who loved it “just didn’t love it enough.” Or they wanted the story to be bigger, not just the local family saga I’d envisioned. I was fortunate enough that a few top editors took a liking to much of the book and suggested this or that didn’t quite work. So we pulled it off the market and made some changes and sent back to those same top editors who wanted to see it. Tough market. Hard to place a debut author. Loved it, but not enough. Of course, they could have just been trying to be nice with their rejections. Hard to tell. By the way, the first rule of being a writer is never talk about your rejections. Just act as if everything you’ve ever written has been awesome. When you’re trying to get The Deal For Your Book, only mention the positives. “Had a great lunch and talked movie treatment” could be a tweet or Facebook status. Even if you were just talking to your wife about someone else’s movie treatment, make it look as if you’re in demand. Someone needs to snatch you up because you are about to catch a cab to The Auction or The Pre-Empt or whatever. Never ever say someone didn’t like your book. If you go around saying that your book doesn’t work, no one will ever want you. Ever.
So, anyway, at whatever level and for whatever reason, my book didn’t work. Boohoo. Where’s my damn check? I want to be a real writer. I got a wee bit obsessed with The Book Deal and forgot about the book. Why would I want to make the book “bigger” because one editor said to do so? Hell if I know. I’m an idiot. They were all super nice and had something in mind that would work for them. “We already have a series featuring a drug-addicted former reporter. How about if he’s a masseuse in Brooklyn?” Um, yeah.
I joke about it to keep from crying about it because it is my life’s work, but they were probably right. So the book didn’t work. Instead of getting the book right, I was more focused on the book’s rights, if you see what I’m saying.
So I did what anyone would do. I wrote the sequel to a book no one wanted. And I think it turned out pretty good. There’s still some plot elements I need to work on. It’s too complicated, too unfocused in its narrative. I want to work in everything I’ve ever learned in my whole life ever because, you know, this could be the only book of mine anyone ever reads. But I don’t want to rush to get The Deal. I want the book to be right. Because you know what I found out? Talk to someone without an agent. They’ll tell you they have to have an agent. Talk to someone without a deal. They have to have the deal. Talk to someone with a two-book deal. They need that third book under contract. Or they need that television deal. It’s like when you’re young. When are you going to get a girlfriend? You get a girlfriend. When are you going to get married? You get married. When are you going to have a kid? You have a kid. When are you going to have another kid? Grandkids? Retire?
Just enjoy the time with your girlfriend. Enjoy writing the book. We all get so caught up in the next thing that we forget why we’re doing this. Because we love to write. We love to read. It’s the stories, stupid.
I’m fortunate to have great writer pals to help me get these stories into shape. Also, of course, I have the world’s best agent, Stacia Decker, showing me what works and what doesn’t.
So to rectify my booklessness? Well, I’ve written a couple of novels that I want to work on some more, because they can be better. I can do a better job with the writing. And that’s what matters.
Do you have a completed manuscript floating around? Care to tell us about it and maybe share a paragraph or two. [Ed note: Steve was kind enough to provide a lengthy excerpt which will appear at the end of the interview.]
I have the two Alex Jackson novels that were at one point “completed.” I’m reworking them now. I have nothing “on the streets” at this time. So when the phone rings now, there’s not even a sparkle of hope that it’s my agent telling me we got The Offer. Which means I can keep writing without worry. Yeah, that’s what it means.
You have some series characters. Who are they and what are their stories?
Alex Jackson. He worked at newspapers until something he did led to a teenager’s suicide. Alex didn’t handle that terribly well. He came out of it and began doing some media consulting until he was let go. He didn’t handle that terribly well. He’s a bit of smart-ass, but still there’s something endearingly charming about him. His best friend and partner-in-hijinx runs an online porn empire.
Oscar Martello. Probably better that you don’t ask too many questions.
Roy Alison. As a teenager, he was sitting in his bedroom, tripping on acid and listening to some music. Then his mom bursts into his room, says that he has to drive his parents to the ER because his dad is having a heart attack. So they take off, Roy drives into oncoming traffic, killing his parents. From that point on, he continues to make bad decisions. Juvie. Jail. Military. Whatever it is and wherever he ends up, he’s always trying to keep his rage and anger under control. If he were good at controlling his violence, I wouldn’t have any stories.
The following is an excerpt from the second Alex Jackson book.
I pulled up at Southern Maid Donuts near the Hirsch Coliseum, though some corporation had probably bought the naming rights to it. Back in the 50s, the place had been special. They’d brought Elvis Presley back for his final show at the Louisiana Hayride and had to hold it at Hirsch because of the crowd size. The people couldn’t get enough, even after the show. Finally, the producer came out to let everyone know it was over. “Elvis has left the building.” What a phrase to coin. The excitement. Gone. Now this could be any other economically depressed area.
My mother was sitting in a booth near the front door and waved me in. I got us a couple of apple fritters and some coffee.
“I’m glad you’re early,” she said. “I have to run over and visit Mattie Lou. She broke her hip Thursday.”
I had no idea who Mattie Lou was, but I thought I’d cut my mom off at the pass. “Well, tell her I said for her to get well.”
“When did you ever meet Mattie Lou?” my mom asked.
Figures. The one time I try. “So, what did you want to see me about?”
“Your friend? That Ryan person?”
She leaned low into the table. “The child pornographer.”
“It wasn’t child porn,” I said. “It was grown-up porn.”
“How do you know?”
Well, she had me there. “Ma, what did you want to talk to me about?”
“You know these Southern Maids were Elvis’s favorite doughnut.”
“Yeah, I know. What was it you needed to tell me?”
“Son,” she said, reaching into her purse. “I know you’re helping your little friend, and I know you think that’s what friends are supposed to do. But friends also know when to walk away. When their friends are involved in something they shouldn’t be. When you could get hurt.”
“Ma, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Alex, I’ve seen the news. I know what they’re saying about,” she leaned low again, “about the Stripper Strangler. And I don’t want you involved. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Ryan’s in the hospital. He’ll be out soon.”
“Well, you just need to stay out of it, all right?”
“Remember what happened last year.”
“And with that young man in Dallas.”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt,” she said.
“I know you think I just sound like I’m being over-protective,” she said.
“No, ma. I get it. Stay out of it.”
“You don’t know what these people are capable of, Alex.”
“Yeah. I see the news. I know. Be careful. I get it. Believe me. I don’t want to be involved in any of it.”
“That’s what your father said about these people.”
“He could handle it. He didn’t want to be involved.”
“These.” She slid me a photo. A picture from the late 70s, the kind of snapshots we had in boxes and albums around the house. Here you were on your first day of school. Here you were in your Lone Ranger mask and your Batcape for Halloween. Here you are at a party at the lake cabin with your father and his friend Lou Malone and some others.
I looked at the picture. An index card in a library of memories. I looked at the outline of the cabin. Ran my sight along the edges. Finding the memories. Trying to look at it, but not wanting to see it. Vague, like I was remembering a movie I’d seen as a kid. My father and Lou Malone, inspecting the hamburgers on a plate near the grill. All smiles. All fun and games until someone gets hurt.
“Alex, I don’t want to speak ill of the dead. I don’t want ruin your father’s memory, but you have to know, these people are serious. These people are the ones you have to be careful of. Your father knew that. I don’t know why he didn’t—” She stopped. Put the picture back in her purse. “I don’t know why about a lot of things.”
I looked out the window. The traffic. The sandwich place across the street. The tire place on the corner without much business. Cars driving along to somewhere else.
I thought about the photograph. Thought about why my mother still had it. Why she’d dug it out. Why she was carrying it around like a scar. A memory of something lost.
Years before, I’d written a story about a woman whose children had died in a house fire outside Natchitoches. A little boy. A little girl. They’d gotten the woman out, but the fire had started from a space heater in the kids’ room. Never had a chance. The woman kept breaking free of the firefighters to get back inside. Elbows, knees. A race through the front doorway, screaming names. I wrote the story five years after that. She had devoted her life to fire safety. She sat across from in the newspaper’s conference room, rolled up her sleeves and showed me the scars from the fire. Jagged, flat chunks of skin up and down the insides of each forearm. Kyle, she said, holding out her left. Then the right, Kelly. She’d named each scar after a child.
I thought about scars.
The woman’s scars. When they try to make them go away, what do they do? Do they cut around the edges, pulling the scar across your arm like a new skin, pressing it tight against you until it flattens like a year-old grave?
Until the scar becomes more than just a reminder of what happened, a gaping hole to hold the pain. The edges fade, the difference in color drains until you no longer notice the separation, the line where the scar stops and you begin.
My father. Lou Malone. The fuzzy colors of the photograph. One man’s shoulder blurring into the other’s. The man standing at the edge of the photograph. Big. Only partly in the frame. The man who’d killed the hunter at the edge of the lake.
“What kind of work did Dad do for these people?”
“Sweetie, it was just part of his business. It’s what he did.” I could tell she’d gotten close to telling me something. She wasn’t close any more. “Just be careful.”
“Ma, I promise. There’s nothing dangerous going on. Can you just tell me what Dad did for these people?”
“Alex,” she said, “your father and I did not talk about his clients. I never cared for the work he did, but you have to understand that it’s important. Everyone deserves a competent defense.”
Spoken as if it were well rehearsed. Maybe she had to stick up for my dad at church functions, family reunions. But this was more than just courtroom defense. I’d been to my share of criminal trials and I didn’t know too many lawyers inviting the defendants over for a Sunday bar-be-que.
I could feel the blood coming fast into my face, trying to concentrate on calming down. I took a breath. Another. “Why haven’t you told me this before? Why am I just finding out now?”
“I’ve tried, Alex. I’ve tried.”
“When? When have you ever tried?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t try enough.” She sipped her coffee. Looked somewhere else. “It was just too easy not to tell you.”
“I mean, c’mon, someone should have told me that my father was, was what? ‘Heavily involved’ in providing legal counsel to—what do you say?—to ‘these people’ for years?”
“Your father worked with many people. Defending the accused. Like you’re doing with your friend. Proving his innocence.”
She had part of a point. “Nobody’s innocent. But he didn’t do what they’re accusing him of.”
“You sound like your father.”
That should have stung more than it did. My father and Lou Malone. How much more did they work on? Where did this stop?
“What aren’t you telling me?” I asked.
My mother looked at me, raised an eyebrow. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Steve Weddle is an editor, short story writer, and novelist. A former English professor, he holds an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University and currently works for a newspaper group.
His fiction has appeared in numerous literary and crime/noir journals.
In 2009, Weddle and six crime fiction writers created DoSomeDamage, where he blogs on Mondays.
In 2010, Weddle and John Hornor Jacobs created Needle: A Magazine of Noir, one of the top journals for contemporary crime fiction. He lives with his family in Virginia.
His short fiction has recently appeared at Beat To A Pulp, Crime Factory, and A Twist of Noir.