I was fortunate enough to meet Peter Farris at last year’s Bouchercon in St. Louis. We had been goofing around on Twitter and various social media platforms over the past year, so we’d “known” each other for a while. Needless to say, on the first night of Bouchercon I got hammered with Farris and this was the first time I heard in depth about Last Call For the Living, and from what Farris told me of the novel, I knew it was going to be far from your run of the mill heist thriller. The story of Aryan brotherhood hardman Hicklin single handedly (It was meant to be a group job, and holy shit are his Brotherhood partners pissed that it didn’t end up that way.) taking down a small Georgia Savings and Loan, and subsequent kidnapping of bank teller Charlie Colquitt is an intense hostage drama overflowing with hard hitting action scenes, and some of the most self-assured prose I’ve encountered since John Rector’s The Grove. (Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it, you can check out the Nerd of Noir’s awesome review right HERE.)
I managed to corner Farris briefly before he left on his first book tour. I hope you enjoy
Keith Rawson : What was the biggest the difficulty you had in writing a hostage drama?
Peter Farris: The biggest issue I grappled with was avoiding any sort of inertia. I almost had to treat the scenes involving Charlie, Hicklin and Hummingbird in the cabin as a three-character play, with every line of dialogue or action pushing hostage and captor toward the relationship that ultimately defines the novel. It’s a challenge, though, when you’re writing about a few people cooped up in an isolated area. Nobody wants to read about days or weeks of repetitious behavior, so I figured by adding sex, drugs and alcohol to the mix, I wouldn’t stall out too often.
KR: Who came first as far as character development, Sheriff Lang or Hicklin?
PF: Hicklin without a doubt. I knew the novel would begin with a violent heist, and the robber taking the teller hostage. Lang really was a practical concern. Local law enforcement would be first on the scene, but for reasons maybe only my subconscious knows, Tommy Lang developed into what hopefully reads as a vital supporting character.
KR: Last Call for the Living delves heavily into prison gang culture, the Aryan Nation in particular. How did you go about researching the subject?
PF: I’ve had a fascination with prison culture ever since reading George Jackson’s “Soledad Brother” in college, and I feel like I’ve become an amateur penologist since, reading everyone from Malcolm Braly and Eddie Bunker to as many non-fiction portrayals of penitentiary life I could get my hands on. But while working on the first draft there was actually a RICO case against the Aryan Brotherhood leadership underway, and subsequently a substantial amount of media coverage. Alleged commissioners and top lieutenants were revealed, as were details on how the AB went about their business inside the federal prison system. I was able to find online the FBI’s files on the AB as well, which, while heavily redacted, still gave me glimpses into how a criminal enterprise behind prison bars could function.
KR: How did you become introduced to the Pentecostal church, particularly the rituals involving serpent handling, speaking in tongues, etc.?
PF: I can remember being in 4-H or Cub Scouts and flipping through one of the Foxfire Books that covered snake-handling. It was scary but alluring and I never could shake the notion that folks could act so deranged. Plus growing up in the south it’s something you’d just hear about it from time to time, from the non-religious “Rattlesnake Roundups” to a news report or documentary about a Church of God with Signs Following–always presented as this fringe spooky thing still practiced up in the mountains near the Tennessee or Alabama line, that sort of thing.
Researching LCFTL I read just about every book I could on snake handling, and almost attended a service up in Kingston, Georgia (not an hour from where I was raised) before I lost my nerve and just drove around for awhile. My opinion on the subject really softened as a result. I came to appreciate folks who could worship with such reckless abandon, lose themselves so completely. By comparison I spent years playing in bands where I’d scream and flail on stage behind a wall of noise, and in some strange way I could relate to people who sought salvation with such fervor. It might be peculiar and possibly dangerous but who am I to know what’s good for anybody but myself?
KR: Was Last Call for the Living originally meant to be a thriller or as a character piece? For you, what was the jumping off point in the novel?
PF: The only thing I was certain of was that the novel would begin with a violent heist.
I really felt like I was writing Last Call For The Living in a bit of a bubble, fully immersed in regional fiction like Larry Brown and Harry Crews and thinking of the novel as a character study first and foremost. I’d read some crime and noir novels, sure, but I was pretty oblivious and way less educated about the genre as compared to now. I suppose with all these obsessions and interests seeping into the novel by the time it sold I took a step back and realized I had a bank robbery and prison gangs, cops and convicts…and a few shootouts for good measure. It eventually dawned on me: “I think you wrote a crime novel, buddy.”
Now that I’ve read more writers, I realize just how wide open the genre really is. Crime fiction can be whatever we want it to be.
KR: Did you know when you started writing Last Call For The Living that there was going to be the type of connection you develop between Hicklin and his hostage, Charlie Colquitt, or was that something that came about as you were writing?
PF: That connection wasn’t premeditated and happened early in the first draft. But it felt like it took revision after revision to really get the dynamic right between Hicklin and Charlie.
KR: With that said, do you outline? How well do you know your characters before you sit down to work out a first draft?
PF: I haven’t outlined a novel yet and am a big fan of working intuitively. I can’t say I’ve known my characters very well at the onset, either.
I suppose every writer strives to kickstart their characters, too, outline or not. Get them operating on their own accord. That’s when you achieve that “magic hour” feeling at the keyboard.
But it’s never a blank canvas for me, either. The book that got the interest of an agent is set in the world of NASCAR and started with an image–what was the ending actually–and I just figured out how to get there. LCFTL I knew would begin with a bank robbery but I’d also become fixated on a scene where a man in a field launched a model rocket.
KR: So can you see yourself sticking with crime/noir in the future, or do you think you’d want to try your hand at another genre?
PF: Absolutely, especially crime fiction set in the south. My next novel is about a teenage prostitute who finds sanctuary with an eccentric bootlegger.
(Although I wonder if I should mention this splatterpunk novel I wrote a few years ago? Imagine Dawn of the Dead meets Die Hard at Columbine High…and it’s set in Arizona.)