Michael Hemmingson – interview

August 16, 2011
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hard cold whisper by michael hemmingson

I recently came to Michael Hemmingson’s work based on an impulse purchase of his new novel, Hard Cold Whisper, for .99¢ on the Kindle. The book blew me away, it is a hard and fast novel that reads like a Gold Medal book for the new millennium. What really blew my hair back was to see just how prolific he was and the large and varied body of work he had compiled.  Recently I conducted a brief interview with the author.

Brian Lindenmuth -Some of the old pulp writers were extremely prolific, wrote across a variety of genres, had pseudonyms, and even wrote porn and erotica novels to pay the bills.  If one was to look at your body of work they would see many of the same traits.  Plus, at last count, you’ve written like a bajillion books.  What kind of writer are you?  How would you describe your style?  Are you a modern pulp writer in the vein of Westlake or Block or Silverberg?

Michael Hemmingson – Funny you should ask since I admire Westlake and Block and Silverbob and their days of pulp hack work in the 1950s-60s, and write about it a lot at my blog, Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books. The reason these guys were writing fast in so many genres was market demand. The pulp magazine markets in sf, western, and crime dried, paperback originals were the place to work. Westlake and Block (and others, like Barry Malzberg and Richard Curtis) started off working as readers at the Scott Meredth Agency, and Silverbob was repped by that agency (Scott Meredith did not exist, it was a name used by two brothers, so when the feds or an angry writer came to the office looking for him, and no one knew what he looked like, they would say he was out of town). Many of the softcore porn publishers turned to Meredith asking for a certain amount of books with certain teams, and the agency used its surplus of writers to fill the orders, including employees who were hungry to publish and young enough to need it. Block, at 20, sold his first two novels under female pen names, as lesbian titles—he was so good that many critics cite one of his names, Jill Emerson, as a leading female writer of the era (Hard Case is soon to publish a “lost” Jill Emerson crime lesbian novel).

I feel I would have made a great hack writer back then—putting out some gems the way Silverbob and Block did (I’m not keen on all of Westrlake’s titles).  Each writer had his own system of churning these books out within a week: Block did the 5,000 word chapter a day method, so that in 10 days he had ten chapters for a 50K word manuscript, the average market length of those books then (including crime, mystery, romance and sf paperbacks).  Silverbob kept work hours: in the morning he would complete two chapters, have lunch, go back and write two more chapters until five. So in four days he would have a book ready.  They were generally under contract to write a book a month, Block as Andrew Shaw or Sheldon Lord, Silverbob as Don Elliot or Loren Beauchamp.  When they needed more money, they would write two, even three. They were paid an average of $600 to $1,000 per book, no royalties, $200 for every reprint. Now, given the time and inflation, 1958-1966, $1,000 was like $10,000, which isn’t too bad by today’s standards for paperback advances (which runs $5-15K from major publishers), and rent in Manhattan for a four bedroom apartment was about $150-200 a month, compared to two or three grand now. There was inevitable burn out, and writers started getting better work—Block with crime fiction, Silverbob with non-fiction YA titles (the sf market did not get back into the swing until the late 60s, when he produced such classis as Nightwings and Thorns). So these guys would farm out their contract to other, hungry and eager writers, paying them $800 and keeping $200 for their names, Silverbob only did this once but Block did it a lot…sometimes the other writers would attempt to imitate Block, sometimes not…in one case, one of Westlake’s ghost writers for the Alan Marshall pen name, had such a vastly different style: all exposition and very little dialogue. Not the best Alan Marshall titles.

Yeah, I think I would have survived well back then. The market and outlets for this kind of work is barely there now. I have written in many genres because at the time of writing, that genre interested me: whether it is crime, sf, erotica, western, mainstream literary, experimental literary, criticism, ethnography (I have a degree in cultural anthropology). I don’t really view the body of my work as separated into genres; I see it as all one thing, just my writing, whether it is prose, poetry, screenplays, even plays. For instance, this month I published a few erotic titles as well as critical essays in Critique, SF Studies and the New York Review of Science Fiction, as well as a critical bibliography of Raymond Carver’s limited edition and small press books and chapbooks for the annual Resources for Literary Studies volume, all the while working on a crime novel called A Bra Full of Bulletx and talking to publishers about possibly putting out my new collection of seven long literary stories, Cardiff-by-the-Sea. And Amzon (and others) just listed for pre-sale my annotated bibliography of William T. Vollmann, out in library grade cloth at the end of the year.

Erotica and smut is another thing. That is all done for money, sometimes with literary intentions. I started off with Blue Moon books in 2001; they bought thee manuscripts of mine I was having trouble selling elsewhere (two originally contracted with Masquerade Books before they went bellyup) because of its sexual content. To me, they were literary novels about sexuality in the Miller, Nin, Bukowski vein. Blue Moon, which went kaput with all of Avalon’s imprints in 2007, marketed them as porn. They did well and I wrote fast, so my agent started to secure me two book contracts, then four book contracts every nine months, basically seven or eight books a year. Many were under my name, same under pen names. Looking back I should have used more pen names. I published some Blue Moons with ambitious literary intention: the House of Dreams trilogy had copious footnotes and appendices, The Las Vegas Quartet varied style in each volume. The Comfort of Women is my response to Bukowski’s Women. Drama is an autobiography of the theater group I was literary manager of in the late 1990s.

Now, all the smut I do is under half a dozen pen names; the only ones under my name are ebook reprints of the Blue Moons. Simply for money, so I have buffer time to work on other things, like a spec screenplay or this Big Novel I have been working on for more than two years, or my memoir of being a wire news service journalist in Tijuana, reporting on the drug cartels and having a baby down there with a woman much younger than me.  The past few years it has been good money, mostly in ebooks, but that has started to taper down after Amazon began to ban and censor books with “certain” taboo themes—made no sense, they took down titles of mine that were moving hundreds of copies a month. I guess they didn’t want the profit to conform to political correctness. Jeff Bezos once claimed to the press he did not believe in censorship and was an advocate of the First Amendment…that was a lie.
I came to your fiction by way of your pulp/crime fiction, what crime fiction do you like to read?

I’m not a big fan of whodunit mysteries or cozies, though I will read them if recommended. I prefer crime fiction with a underdog, or even criminal, protagonist, such as the works of current Lawrence Block, Andrew Vachss, Ed Gorman, Ed Lee. I am a big fan of Joe R. Lansdale. I dig most private eye yarns, and bad cop scenarios. (Bad Lieutenant: New Orleans is a masterpiece, the evil cop has a happy ending, never atones for his crimes.) I lean toward the noir and retro noir styles, although some writers just don’t have a feel for old noir. The criminal, who winds up doing a good deed, solving the murder or helping someone out, is the kind of stuff I dig. Maybe he gets the shaft for doing good, maybe he gets rewarded.

Your output is very high, what is your process?

More like what is my fear: starvation. I can’t go back to the 9 to 5 workforce, it would kill me mentally and physically—I’m 45 after all, and even with a degree, the avenues of employment are slim.  There’s journalism, there’s screen work, there’s ghostwriting, but that comes and goes.  If I get a good check from a book or screenplay option, I can kick back for two months and not pound out smut and work on something else, or not write at all.

I wish I could say I have a steady process, like Silverbob’s, which I  have tried. When a deadline approaches, I am at it all day. When I am working on something for myself, it’s at leisure. Sometimes I impose self-made deadlines just to get something done: “Okay, by the end of August, I will finish that sf novel for Wildside Press.” (That is this month, book is Poison from a Dead Sun.) “September I will finish my retro crime novel, A Bra Full of Bullets. October I will finish that critical book on Gordon Lish overdue to Routledge.” And so on. I have a lot of unfinished manuscripts, some under contract, all overdue.  Silverbob recently told me: “One book at a time.”  Sage advice.

Let’s talk a bit about your latest book, Hard Cold Whisper. What is it about? What were the influences on it?  Did you really write it in three days in Tijuana?

Yes, I wrote Hard Cold Whisper in Tijuana during last Labor Day weekend during the Three Day Novel Contest. I had always wanted to enter that contest and decided last year I would, just for fun. A buddy and I rented out a motel room in Tijuana and worked on our books – I think he got three pages and I got 160. In between, we went to the clubs and hung out with hookers on the street and dodged bullets. This all reminded me of Charles Willeford, who would hole up in a cheap motel room in San Francisco’s Tenderloin to write his classic crime books for Beacon. The published version from Black Mask is a slightly expanded, slightly revised version of what I came up with in those three days. I was and am proud of what I created so fast, a hyper violent novel in the same vein as Wild Turkey, a crime novel Forge published ten years ago and has been optioned four times, this last time looking like it will actually get made.

Hard Cold Whisper is about a process server who gets involved with this young Hispanic girl who is caretaker of her aging, dying and rich auntie. She convinces him to murder the aunt, the promises of wealth and sex. She is setting him up. Not the most original plot, walking in James M. Cain and Gil Brewer (and even Orrie Hitt) territory, but I place in a lot of unexpected twists and turns to keep things happening, sub-plot crimes that later factor into the main crime.  One murder leads to more murders to cover up the first, etc. I was thinking of the Fawcett Gold Medals when I wrote it, such as Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin or Block’s Grifter’s Game (aka Mona), both Gold Medal classics.

I’ve posited that e-publishing will favor the prolific, which you are.  What are your thoughts on epublishing?

Like any lover of the printed and bound book, I was resistant and hesitant at first. I have since leaned toward the marketing of such, after all I have made money from ebooks and my ebook sales currently outdo my print sales.  It is looking like the way of the future, and printed books will be novelties, special editions from small presses. Most of the large companies now have ebook only divisions, generally in the romance and erotica categories. It favors the prolific because there is no inventory or not much of an investment for the publisher—but who will buy these books? Marketing these titles is most important: people need to know the product is out there to consumed. This is the same for new writers: the only monetary investment for the publisher is overhead for the editors and designers, and bandwidth for hosting the titles.  With no printing and warehouse expenditures, it is easier to take a risk. But what is the sense and reward of accomplishment? If HarperCollins or Ellora’s Cave turns down your erotic ebook, you can just as easily put it up on Kindle yourself, and there are instances where writers make a fortune on Kindle and get signed elsewhere, or go print through Amazon’s new print divisions. But is having your first novel appearing on a Nook screen the same as holding a newly printed and bound edition of your first novel? For some writers, getting read and having sales is the top priority, and that’s okay. Many writers, and publishers, resisted the paperback, seeing it as shoddy and worthless, compared to a fine hardcover edition. Raymond Chandler was very against having The Big Sleep come out in a cheap 25 cent paperback, until he saw his sales report: hundreds of thousands of copies sold, many to soldiers in Europe. Then he changed his tune, as money will do that: so we see the same with ebooks—sales have changed my tune. But I will always favor the printed book. I have been fortunate to have had a few hardcover and quality trade paperback titles come out that were not from Print on Demand.  POD is the future too, and POD product is starting to look and feel like good off-set: see the titles O/R Books puts out, they are POD and refuse to work with Amazon, cutting out all middlemen, and they seem to be doing well. Good interior design and good paper, and not that annoying barcode on the last page that LSI uses, your POD product can be nifty.

What do you most value in the fiction you love?

Integrity, honesty and truth. Sounds like literary fiction but these elements can play a part in genre fiction, all genre fiction, even smut.  Look at the genre work from Silverberg or Harlan Ellison or Samuel Delany, the crime books of Andrew Vachss or Lansdale, and you have integrity, honesty and truth, the same you will find in the work of William T. Vollmann, Raymond Carver, or Richard Ford. Integrity for the craft, honesty of the characters, truth in the setting and situation, but also all elements in the heart of the writer.

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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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One Response to Michael Hemmingson – interview

  1. Naomi Johnson on August 16, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Excellent interview, thanks to both of you.

    Bezos lied. What a surprise.