A veteran of the fiction fringe trenches—Stephen Blackmoore’s highly anticipated debut novel City of the Lost is now available from DAW Books (Penguin). Kieran Shea caught up with Stephen to pick his brain a bit and discuss things fiction-ish and then some.
Kieran Shea: So…City of the Lost. A lot buzz out there…what’s this horror/crime breakout novel of yours all about?
Stephen Blackmoore: That one’s easy. I thought you’d open up with something like, “What’s your favorite fetish?” (Librarians in glasses, by the way). City of the Lost is about an L.A. thug, Joe Sunday, who spends his days working for this low-level crime boss who has him breaking legs and hiding bodies. He’s really not the guy you want to see coming for you. Kind of guy who knows that you can get more with a kind word and a pair of bolt cutters than you can with a kind word alone. Then he gets murdered and raised from the dead. Pretty cool until he realizes he’s got a slight rotting problem. Turns out the thing that brought him back to life might be able to grant immortality. A bunch of people want it and they’re all trying to fuck each other over for it and he gets stuck in the middle.
There’s violence, blood, magic, zombies, dead hookers, cannibalism, Nazis. Oh, and a really pissed off midget.
That’s quite the heady circus–aggregating hardcore crime with horror. As a writer, have you always wanted to mix genre passions?
Yeah, actually. My favorite stories have always been the ones that have one foot in the real world and the other in fantasy. Horror is great for that. Done well it takes the world you know and skews it just enough to fuck with your head.
I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction. My dad would leave the books he was reading scattered around the house and I’d just pick one up and start reading. It’d piss him off because I’d lose his place, but he had five or six going at any time, so it wasn’t that big a deal. But I really got going when I got hold of the pulp writers. Lovecraft, Howard, Bradbury. Something Wicked This Way Comes is still one of my favorites. And then, of course, Stephen King and the other 80’s horror icons. Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, King’s Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary. Exercises in reader investment. By the time they start killing off characters you really care about them.Those kept me going until I ran into Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides, which blends a meticulously researched, swashbuckling pirate story with Voodoo magic and the walking dead. It’s not horror and that got my attention. Much later I read his trilogy Last Call, Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather, which started me thinking of the cross-section between crime and fantasy.
But I didn’t actually get the crime bug until much later. I’d watched old film noirs, read Chandler and Hammett. But they’re kind of dated and, though I love them, I never really looked at them and thought I could seriously write a crime story. Then I was introduced to writers like Thompson, Westlake and Goodis. And then it was, “Jesus fuck, you can write like this?” Somewhere along the line I ran into Joe Lansdale and Charlie Huston and something just clicked. It was less like discovering something new and more like being given permission. I could write really nasty noir stories and still throw a bunch weird shit in there.
It’s an attractive combination. Horror sometimes can be too much for people. Adding crime broadens the appeal. How long have you been writing fiction?
Writing fiction or writing fiction well?
We’re all story-tellers one way or another, whether it’s Uncle Bill talking about the “one that got away” down at the bar over a pitcher or Dostoevsky pumping out War & Peace. Doesn’t matter the medium, human beings tell stories. It’s in our DNA. I started early with stick-figure Zorro comics I drew in first grade. There wasn’t much in the way of plot, just sword-fights and shit blowing up. So, you know, a Michael Bay movie, pretty much. Only worse.
I dug up some stuff I wrote in high school a little while ago and it’s pretty much what you’d expect. The less said about that the better. So I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, and (I hope) it’s steadily improved, but it didn’t really get a kick in the ass until I started taking it seriously around 2001.
Started paying attention to what actually makes a good story, breaking things down. What works, what doesn’t and why. I did the NANOWRIMO thing to prove to myself that I could sit my ass down and do the work, started putting stories out there and paying attention to the feedback I was getting. One of the best things I did was take a short story class at UCLA. Writing classes, like writing groups can be hit or miss. Sometimes they’re just blind leading the blind. I got lucky with this one. Went a long way to helping me figure out some of my strengths and weaknesses and what I wanted to focus on.
I don’t think I’ve been writing well for more than a few years, and on a bad day that’s debatable.
So what’s next for you, now that you’ve crossed over into the realm of novelist?
Well, City of the Lost is supposed to be the start of a series. No guarantees, of course. Sales might suck ass and they’ll drop me. You never know. But there will be a second book, Dead Things, which I turned in a few months ago. Instead of playing around with a single character in the series I’m playing with the world. So this one has a different protagonist and a slightly different vibe. It’s still violent, bloody and, I hope, funny, and takes place in this same twisted Voodoo vision of L.A. If City of the Lost is The Maltese Falcon with zombies then Dead Things is Get Carter with magic.
I worry a little that since it’s a different character readers who like City of the Lost won’t like Dead Things. But I want to create something that’s more of a sandbox to play in rather than just follow one character around. As they say, there are eight million stories in the Naked City. I want to write all of them. I’ve got ideas for four more books in the series so far. Some of them follow the same characters and some of them are completely different. I have plans on bringing back characters from City of the Lost in the third book, though the focus will be on a different protagonist. The working title right now is Fire Season. We’ll see if that lasts.
Beyond that I’m still poking around with short stories and I’m getting into some gaming work. Just turned in a story for an anthology called Don’t Read This Book based around a role-playing game called DON’T REST YOUR HEAD by Evil hat Productions. It’s been a trip. I hope to poke around in that world some more.
I’ve also got some other RPG work for another company that I can’t really talk about. If I can keep from totally fucking that up, maybe I’ll be doing more.One thing that I hope to do, that I haven’t quite figured out how yet, is to get into comics. We had Sean Phillips of Criminal fame (among a few other little things you might have heard of, like Batman) do the cover for City of the Lost and half a dozen black and white illustrations. The man is fantastic. Draws crazy like nobody’s business. Was able to take what I wrote and put a spin on it that was almost but not quite what was in my head.
I love to see the blanks in my writing that other people’s minds fill in. I don’t do a lot of description of my characters, but he nailed them and none of them look exactly how I pictured them. One of these days I’d love to actually write a comic if for no other reason than to see what an artist can do with it. There are some supremely talented people out there and it would be a blast to work with them.
Let’s sew this up with a lightning round of questions. First off, who inspires you the most?
Con men. Not that I like them, but I respect them. Like rattlesnakes. There’s a certain sociopathic ballsiness you have to have to pull off a good con.
Worst enemy of a struggling writer?
Rampant alcoholism? No, wait. That’s the writer’s friend. Distraction, probably. Internet, television, trolling for prostitutes on Santa Monica Boulevard, that sort of thing.
Reason to be cheerful?
I am above ground and out of jail.
What song should play when you hit the stage?
Five minutes of high pitched screams of the damned. Or maybe some Rush. Same thing, really.
What do you order at the In-N-Out?
I’m a heathen for saying this, but I can’t stand In-N-Out. I drive down to Johnnie’s Pastrami on Sepulveda and grab me a French Dip and some chili fries.
Superhero power you wish you had?
Most single superpowers are shit. Get flight without invulnerability and you’re gonna pancake on your first high-speed landing. I’ll take that Wolverine instant healing thing. That’d be nice. I always cut myself chopping tomatoes.
I make mean peanut butter cookies.