Sunday, October 25, 2015

Interview with Maine Writer Patrick Shawn Bagley

Today we're finding out about Maine writer Patrick Shawn Bagley, who got his debut novel Bitter Water Blues  recently released to amazing acclaim-- and sales. The book is exciting crime fiction.

Q.  So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.
A. Bitter Water Blues grew out of a small scene I wrote, in which these two redneck wannabe hitmen meet a woman in a bar. She wants them to kill her husband, and writes her address on a cocktail napkin. She leaves. The two hitmen hang decide to finish their drinks; the clumsy one spills a pitcher of beer on the napkin and ruins the address. They don't want to look stupid, so they follow the woman and assume the house she spends the night at is her own. They come back in the morning to whack the husband, but--surprise!--it's her lover's house and they kill the wrong the guy. That was it, just four or five pages, really.

Q.  Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?
A. I never map anything out. I come up with some characters that interest me, put them together, and see what happens. The plot grows out of the characters. I tried outlining a few times over the years. I know it works for a lot of writers, but to me it feels restrictive.

Q.  What do you feel is the main theme(s)?

A. Don't fuck with Joey Kotex.

No, I think the theme of this novel is redemption and how all of our actions eventually catch up with us.

Q.  Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?

A. Most people, I think, want to believe that they were good or at the very least accomplished something good in their lives. Joey ran from his past and tried to start over somewhere else, but our past is always with us. It's part of what makes us who we are in the present. Sometimes, if we stop hiding, we can turn around and face things, and maybe do something right. And other times, it all blows up in our face.

Q.  What makes a good book or engaging story?

A. Characters with whom the readers can empathize, even if those characters do reprehensible things.

Q. Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you? 

A. For me, it has a lot to do with the setting. The landscape molds people a certain way, and your theme comes from that. I love the hardscrabble stories by writers like William Gay, Laird Barron, Scott Wolven, Daniel Woodrell, Annie Proulx, Larry Brown, Daniel Mills, Norman Partridge, Cormac McCarthy, Jim Thompson, Tom Franklin, and others. They're my favorite writers. They dig into the poverty of the rural working class, of the unemployed and out-of-luck, people driven by circumstance to make hard or even impossible choices. You can get that same feel in urban settings, too. Pelecanos pulls it off. Richard Stark. George Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a classic of the desperate-loser-as-protagonist story.

My earliest writing influences were sword-and-sorcery and horror writers like Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Lieber, Roger Zelazny, Karl Edward Wagner, Robert R. McCammon, and Stephen King. I read a lot of westerns when I was 14 or 15 years old. I escaped from the darkness of my own life into those fictional darknesses. I wanted to be Elric or Corwin of Amber. I wanted to hang out in a cemetery with Richard Upton Pickman and a pack of ghouls. Chandler, Cain, and Hammett came a lot later.

As an undergrad, Steinbeck became a huge influence, especially The Grapes of Wrath, which I re-read a couple of times every year. It's my favorite novel. I got into Richard Brautigan and T.C. Boyle, wrote a lot of Brautigan pastiches. I got into Flannery O'Connor, Hemingway, Tim O'Brien, Ernest Hebert, Bukowski, Li Po. I started college late. I was 22 years old as a freshman, and I had this weird idea that everyone in college sat around having deep conversations about literature and history. So I dove into all the "classics" I'd missed in high school and went a bit crazy. I read more than 300 books my freshman year, not counting things that were assigned in classes. I read Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, Plato, Kerouac, Plath, Langston Hughes, Ken Kesey, Zora Neale Hurston, Dickens, Achebe, everybody. I read a lot of Latin-American writers: Juan Rulfo, Garcia-Marquez, Laura Esquivel. Come to find out, 99% of the students had barely heard of some of these writers, never mind actually reading them! I loved it, though. Great experience. I'd just wander the stacks at the university library and grab something off the shelf, spend most of day there.

I usually write to music: AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Queensryche, Blue Oyster Cult; heavy stuff from the '70s and '80s. I'll still listen to KISS whenever I can make myself forget how much they suck now, and how Gene Simmons turned out to be such a giant douchebag. I really dig the first three or four Aerosmith albums, but I don't care for anything they did after that. I listen some alternative country stuff, like Drive-By Truckers, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle. You can't pin Steve Earle down to any single musical genre, which is something I respect a great deal. The guy just does what he wants. I love the blues of Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf. Then there's Tom Waits. Every writer needs to listen to Tom Waits.

(Editor's note: This guy has great taste in writers and musicians!!!)

Q.  Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?

A. My main goal is to tell a good story, to entertain the readers. If they get more out of it, that's cool. I hope they do, but my main job as a writer is to give someone a few enjoyable hours.

Q.  Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?
A. Other than being able to write full-time and make a decent living off it? That's it. I want to tell stories and be able to support my family. It's tough to do that. Fortunately, I love my day job. I work at a community support program for adults with intellectual disabilities. It's great. I enjoy going to work, and I'm happy when I come home. What more can you ask out of a job?

Q.  Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? 

A. I think a lot of writers who claim they never revise are full of shit. I believe that Hemingway didn't revise. I believe Harlan Ellison when he says he doesn't revise. The rest of us are mere humans, though.

I'm a weirdo because I actually enjoy revising. The danger, of course, lies in doing too much of it. You can end up second-guessing yourself and tearing up huge chunks of the book. I'm temporarily happy with it when it goes out. If I look at the manuscript, I'll always find something I want to change. That's true for me even after publication.

Q.  Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?

A. I didn't get any line edits back from Snubnose Press. I did them all myself. Back when I had an agent, she was a good editor, but I parted ways with her a few years ago. Now, the paperback version of Bitter Water Blues is with Double Life Press. Because the novel is already out there as a Snubnose Press e-book, we can't really play with the text. I'll fix any glaring errors I missed the first time around, but that's it.

I'd like to do at least one more book with Double Life, so hopefully I'll be able to tell you then what Craig and Emily McNeely are like as editors.

Q.  If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?

A. My main advice for anyone who wants to be a writer is simple. Read. You have to read widely, in and out of whatever genre you write. Read and read some more. Then you have to write, and rewrite and rewrite some more. Basically, I rehash advice that Annie Proulx gave me more than 20 years ago. She said, "Read. Keep writing. Read."

Beyond that kind of advice? I don't know. I'm willing to beta read for certain people; I enjoy that. I don't mind helping someone network, to an extent. I'm not handing out Laird Barron's mailing address. Let's just say, I'll do what I can within reason.

Q.  Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?

A. I'd love too see Bitter Water Blues or some of my short stories up on the big screen. I think BWB especially would make a good film. The biggest thing BWB could lose in a film version would be that close third-person POV I used for each character. I'm not sure how a director would pull that off on-screen.

Audiobooks are good with the right person reading them. Chet Williamson does a great job. I'd go total fanboy if he read my work for audio.

I've always wanted to write comic books, too. Most of the superhero stuff is boring now, but I'd love to a horror or crime series. Or a horror/crime series.

Q.  What's the next step in your writing world?
A. I'm revising some of my country noir short stories for a collection, which I hope will also include a "lost" story that was cut from the final version of Bitter Water Blues. I think my tens of fans would enjoy reading that.

My work-in-progress is a horror novel. It's what I call hardscrabble cosmic horror, set in rural Maine.

Q.  Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

A. I'm a werewolf.

Patrick, thanks for coming by. Readers, if you like good tough crime fiction, this book is for you!

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