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A Conversation with Matthew F. Jones

A Single Shot is in many ways a different breed of noir than other, less daring works of crime fiction—particularly in regard to the way the novel ends. Was choosing a fate for Moon difficult for you? Or did it simply seem like the natural conclusion all the way through your writing process? (Did you have this beginning in mind right from the start?)

I had no idea how the novel would end when I began it or, in fact, until the moment it unfolded while I was writing it.  Once I have the characters I’m writing about in mind – i.e. once I feel that I know them – I try to think as little as possible while writing.  And I never outline or plan out in advance what will happen in a novel or to the people in it.  Once I’ve created the characters, the story as I see it comes more from them, than from me.  I do my best to follow wherever they lead me and, through my own filter, accurately record their accounts.  I’ve never had much luck in trying to manipulate anything to come out a certain way in my own life, and doubt I’d be any better at it in the lives of fictional characters.  Plus I can’t imagine the monotony of writing from an outline.   I sit down to write each day with only a vague idea of  where I’m headed – and never knowing where I might end up – which for me makes writing more of an adventure than a task.

What are some of your personal favorite novels, and do you see any of their influence in A Single Shot, looking back on it now?

I’m an eclectic reader and a lover of many novels, though two unifying elements are found in the ones I admire most; indelible characters whose stories are compelling because of who they are; and a rich evocation of the particular world they live in.  In that vein some that, in no particular order, come readily to mind are, Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Collector, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Sheltering Sky, Augie Marsh, A Flag For Sun Rise, The Quiet American, The Stars At Noon, Suttree, The Killer Inside Me, The Risk Pool, The Cement Garden, Paris Trout, The Professional, Mystic River, Affliction, Fat City, etc.

I don’t in truth see the influence of anyone else’s work in A Single Shot (or, for that matter, in any of my work except possibly in my novel Deepwater the opening scene of which, in retrospect, may have its inspiration in a favorite novel of mine) any more than I think the way in which I speak is influenced by the voices of other people I admire or care about.

More objective readers of the work might see something I don’t, I’m not sure.  It would be interesting for me to know.

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A Single Shot’s Journey to the Screen

In our ongoing celebration of the publication of the first Mulholland Classic, A SINGLE SHOT, author Matthew F. Jones details the ongoing story of how a book becomes a film.

The history of A SINGLE SHOT’s journey to the screen (a history yet in the making) is a torturous one that extends almost back to the novel’s original release in 1996.  First optioned in 1997, the novel has been under option every year since, albeit by a number of different producers and with four different directors attached in that time.  From 1997 to 2007 I was shown versions of, I believe, six different screenplay adaptations of the book (though I’m sure there were more the producers chose not to show me based upon my reactions to the ones I did see!) by a variety of Hollywood writers.  Before showing me his version of it, the writer first attached to the project warned me, “I loved your book, you’re going to hate my script.”  When I finished reading it I sent him a note saying only, “You’re right.”   Since it was the first script of any kind I’d ever read maybe I was being a little unfair, though even in retrospect I believe that assessment was right on; it was pretty horrible.  In trying to make an homogenized version of the story the writer had sucked out all of its soul and made John Moon into a somewhat dimwitted, good-hearted backwoods character only an LA writer (actually I believe this particular writer was from Manhattan, same difference to a rural upstate New Yorker!) thinks actually exists.  And the bad guys of course were made into downstate Italian wise guys!  Thankfully that script went into the toilet along with the first option.  It puzzled me at the time why someone would go to the trouble and expense of optioning a book only to hire an adaptation of it that would remove the book’s core essence and power.  How little I knew about the business of movie making!

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Six Angles of Wrath: An Appreciation of Matthew F. Jones’ A SINGLE SHOT

In 1996, Daniel Woodrell was one of the first to weigh in when Matthew F. Jones’ acclaimed novel A SINGLE SHOT was first published, writing: “Jones owns a fine writer’s eye for the kind of details that matter” in a review that ran in The Washington Post. As Mulholland Books brings A SINGLE SHOT back into print, Woodrell was gracious enough to weigh in once again fifteen years later, with the following essay included as a foreword in the Mulholland Books edition of A SINGLE SHOT.

In a time when reliable standards of personal conduct have allegedly eroded and, no longer anchored by religious conviction or cultural cohesion, have diminished to irresolute situational postures and secular mumbles, an older, less elastic code of honor may seem vastly appealing, even heroic. To avert the confusions attendant on choice, such codes are simplified, starkly so, but clearly: Do that to me, you can rely on me to do this to you. Do that to my kin, watch for smoke from your garage. Say that to my wife, and this is the bog where your worried relatives will find you face down and at peace forever. Should it require the efforts of generations to uphold this code, to respond to the responses, so be it. Such codes ask an awful lot of adherents (my own great grandfather was an adherent, and when a slander on his wife reached his ears obeyed the code promptly and went door to door with a pistol throughout the neighborhood I still live in, but, shrewdly, no one he encountered would admit to being the source and he did not get the satisfaction of killing some poor wretched gossip and his wife attempted suicide by drinking Paris Green while he was out thoroughly publicizing the slander) and deliver little, but they yet exist. Continue reading “Six Angles of Wrath: An Appreciation of Matthew F. Jones’ A SINGLE SHOT”

Do Guns Make the Man?

Deus Ex CaliburWeaponry is highly effective in defining characters. After a thousand years, we still know the legend of King Arthur and his mystical sword, Excalibur.

Other distinctive weapons that define their characters: The hammer of Thor; light sabers in Star Wars – quoted by Obi Wan Kenobi as “an elegant weapon.” Only the elite Jedi use them. In contrast, George Lucas very clearly draws a distinction between Skywalker and Solo when Han tells Luke, “Nothing like a good ‘ol blaster at your side, kid.”

Let’s look at the special linkages writers have forged between two classic characters and the weapons they use: Mike Hammer and James Bond. In Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane created the quintessential hard-boiled detective and reinvented a genre. Ian Fleming’s creation became the model for spy novels for decades to come.

Anyone who has read about these two characters knows that Mike Hammer is one tough SOB and carries a government model .45 semi-automatic pistol. This is arguably one of the most powerful and reliable handguns you can carry on your person. Hammer not only shoots big holes in people with it, but also whacks them in the head with it from time to time. Almost three pounds of steel makes a pretty good blackjack.

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George V. Higgins: An Appreciation of Boston’s Balzac

Decayed Telephone, Old Mine Building, Recklinghausen, Germany, 2006While clerking at a chain bookstore in Norfolk, Virginia a zillion years ago, I once watched in wonder at how a particular customer went about choosing her reading material. She was a regular, who worked in one of the nearby office buildings and who came in to get a book on her lunch break on a weekday. She went to the paperback fiction section and started looking through some of the books there in a manner that seemed both frantic and haphazard: not bothering with such trivialities as authors’ names, plot descriptions, critics’ sound-bites, etc. she ignored the front and back covers of the books while hurriedly flipping through the innards, doing quick scans of chunks of pages in each book, before moving on to the next one and performing the same curious inventory. After she’d been at this for a while, the woman she came in with left the magazine rack and came over to where she was, watched her for a few seconds, then giggled and said, “What are you doing?” The first woman shrugged her shoulders, smiled in a “I don’t care if you don’t approve of this, it’s just how I am” way, and said, “I’m looking for one that has a lot of dialogue in it. I like stories that have a lot of talking in them.”

That woman may or may not be someone who would appreciate the subject matter and characters in the novels of George V. Higgins, but she certainly would not be let down by how much talking there is in them. And Higgins may or may not have coveted her as an appreciative reader of his books, but her sentiment as to what makes a story worth reading, is one to which Higgins would have been fully sympathetic. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Higgins’s first published novel (1972) and still the title he is best known for, is largely comprised of dialogue between its seedy characters. And while Higgins delved more into things like descriptions of people and places, and narrative overviews of situations, in the 25 or so novels he wrote after Coyle, his books continued to be dominated by “a lot of talking” throughout his writing career.

Not everyone is won over by Higgins’s heavy use of dialogue in his novels.  Look at the customer reviews of his books on Amazon and, alongside plenty of raves, you’ll find many complaints of “no action,” “no real story being told,” “the whole book is just people talking.”  In his obituary of Higgins (he died in 1999, of a heart attack, not long before what would have been his 60th birthday) for the U.K.’s The Independent, writer Jack Adrian called Higgins a “one-book man” and grumbled about a lack of various kinds of narrative effects in GVH’s novels. But Higgins, who surely heard many of these gripes in his lifetime, stuck to his belief that the best and most entertaining way to tell a story is by having its elements come out through the conversations of its characters. By remaining mostly clear of lengthy narrative passages, and zeroing in on his characters’ chatter, he forced the reader to pay close attention to those conversations if they wanted to follow the storylines. If the people in his books often come off as faceless, well, again, Higgins was removing all other distractions in order to force the reader to just listen.  In his book On Writing, a treatise on the craft that he wrote for beginning wordsmiths, Higgins has this to say about his reliance on dialogue:

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If You Lived Here, You’d Already Be Home

It's a long long road-BWFor the past several weeks, I’ve been on book tour for my novel, The End of Everything. Tours are funny things—marathons of sorts, running from city to city, hopping time zones, talking endlessly about yourself and your book until you want to plug your ears and hide under the table. And then punctuated by moments of sustaining bliss: the reminder that you are spending at least an hour every day in a new and special bookstore with passionate staff and ardent readers.

On tour, you end up having intimate (in the way book lovers always are with each other) conversations over warped wooden stacks, talking about things like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the early days of Cinemax and why I need to read George Simenon immediately. Thanks to Jeff at City Lights I came home with a book by David Markson, thanks to Corey Mesler at Burke’s Books, one by Charles McCarry. Sometimes, you even have once-in-a-lifetime I’m-Really-An-Author moments, like my visit to Murder by the Book in Houston when a wonderful man named Ed Wey had me sign his leg with a Sharpie so he could make my signature part of his elaborate Maltese Falcon tattoo, which now stretches up his entire leg.

But the part I always forget: Your book transforms when you’re on tour. the story you thought you were telling only turns out to be only half the story. The more you meet with readers, the more you hear the things to which they responded and why, you realize all books are really mirrors, for readers and writers. For me, the mirror held up to my face revealed, more than ever, how much my own suburban adolescence suffuses the book.

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Save The Last Dance for Satan: An Interview with Nick Tosches

Photo by Lorna Doone

In celebration of the publication of NickTosches’ new book of essays on the music business and his appearance tonight at the New York Public Library’s Jefferson Market Branch Library (8 PM), we’ve re-published a conversation thatTosches recently had with NYPL librarian Marie Hansen.

NYPL: According to Conversations with Ernest Hemingway, Hemingway wrote a strict average of 500 words per day despite his penchant for guzzling Mojitos, what are your writing habits?

Days, weeks, months go by without writing. Then, when I get down to it, I work seven days a week, day and night at stretches of from five to eighteen hours. I don’t take breaks, because if I do it’s almost impossible for me to get back to it. For me Mojitos don’t enter into the picture. I don’t know if I’ve ever even had one. The best advice Hemingway offered to any writer wasn’t about writing-schedules. It was: “Posterity can take care of herself.”

How was your interest in Dante and The Divine Comedy first cultivated?

It goes back so long that I can’t remember. I seem to recall that when I was a little kid, there was a slightly incorrect quotation in translation from Dante on the wall in the bar where my old man worked in Newark: “Abandon all hope, you who enter.” Later Dante and The Divine Comedy came to represent to me the noble but always ultimately futile quest for perfection—to come so close, but to never achieve it. Ezra Pound said it all when he said: “I have tried to write Paradise // Do not move / Let the wind speak / that is paradise.” Everything I came to know and feel about Dante ended up in my novel In the Hand of Dante.

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Two Reviews of BLOODLAND by Alan Glynn

Alan Glynn’s Bloodland hits bookstores in the UK today and in the US in January. We’ve been given permission by Bookgeeks.co.uk and Shots Magazine to reprint their reviews of this timely international thriller.

From Bookgeeks. Review by Mike Stafford.

Bloodland is the third thriller from Alan Glynn, author of The Dark Fields (now known as Limitless since being brought to life on screen by Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper). Where The Dark Fields was, as Glynn calls it, “a pharmaceutical Faust,” Bloodland is a far more complex affair, taking the reader from recession-blighted Ireland, to the halls of economic power in Manhattan, to the sanity-sapping violence of the Congo, telling a timeless but contemporary tale of greed, lies and conspiracy.

The tale opens with Jimmy Gilroy, a young journalist, taking on an investigation into the death of Susie Monaghan, a z-list celebrity killed some years ago in a helicopter crash.  As Gilroy’s investigation leads him deeper into a web of intrigue, Glynn offers up brief, punchy chapters, which ensure a tearing pace while teasing the reader with seemingly disparate chunks of information, ultimately revealed to be part of a horrifying but utterly plausible whole.  As an exercise in conspiracy thriller writing, Bloodland is straight from the top drawer.

This is no bog-standard thriller though, and what sets Glynn aside from the crowd is his masterful evocation of the zeitgeist.  Glynn’s characters, while not markedly complex, are emblematic of their era.  Susie Monaghan, the deceased starlet, was vapid, conceited, lurching from disaster to disaster, a product of a tabloid culture that prizes celebrity over attainment.  Larry Bolger, the alcoholic former Taoiseach (I believe it’s pronounced “teeshock”), is an ethically indifferent politician with little genuine power.  Jimmy Gilroy, the closest thing to a hero in the piece, is a journalist easily persuaded to abandon idealism in favour of advancement.

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The Past, Present and Future of Tartan Noir

Edinburgh“Too much black for the white.” That was the assessment of the Ayrshire novelist George Douglas Brown when asked what he thought of his novel, The House with the Green Shutters, over a century ago. It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a very apt summary of a modern phenomenon known as Tartan Noir.

In both tone and theme, Shutters bares close familiarity to Scotland’s newest ‘Black’ novels. It’s a safe bet that this branch of the crime writing family tree is closer to Brown’s offspring than Agatha Christie’s cosy, drawing-room mysteries. Add Robert Louis Stevenson’s psychological explorations of seedy society, and the odds on a unique Tartan lineage become a racing certainty.

It’s no secret that Scottish crime fiction has undergone a boom in recent years, spearheaded by the soar-away success of the UK’s leading seller in the genre, Ian Rankin. So, perhaps a convenient marketing term was needed; but does Tartan Noir do it justice?

The man many regard as the Godfather of Tartan Noir, William McIlvanney has called the term ”ersatz” and distanced himself from the hype. But it was the Whitbread-winner who was first on the scene, with Laidlaw in 1977, clearly chalking a line around the corpse of familiarity.

“I’m a hung jury about the phrase,” says McIlvanney. “I suppose it works as an adman’s slogan. Certainly, for the American market, say, it probably gives the most succinct signal of Scottishness they would recognise. But simultaneously, it suggests an old-fashioned view of the place, as if modern Scotland were being observed through a lorgnette rather than the 20-20 vision of people like Ian Rankin and Tony Black.”
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Continue Reading A Single Shot

If you missed Part I of the excerpt from A SINGLE SHOT, start reading here.

He loses sense of time and objectivity. He sits down on a small rock next to the body and, as the sun heats his naked back, declares himself a murderer. For the moment, he forgets that the body is even there. He focuses only upon his act of killing another human being. He would like to spread the blame around, but can find no one else to fault, not even the dead girl for wearing tan and white in the woods, because it’s not even hunting season and John, after all, is a trespassing poacher.

He picks a small stick up from the quarry floor and doodles with it in the dirt. The blue jays perched above him begin to sing again. A red fox wanders into the quarry, stops and sniffs the deer carcass, then, possibly sensing John’s presence, turns and bounds out again. A hog snake slithers over the dead girl’s feet. The crows caw, alerting others to the death.

John thinks about how he has grown up in and around these woods—on the Nobie side of the mountain—and, like his father and grandfather, has hunted them since he was a boy, and though they fought in wars and he didn’t, he is the first among them to kill someone. He thinks that if his father hadn’t lost the Moon family farm, with its rolling meadows and three hundred acres of game-rich forest, John would not have to trespass and poach to feed his wife and son. They might even still live with him. He looks at his watch. Almost an hour has passed. His left shoulder throbs. His shirt is damp around the wound, but the bleeding, for the most part, seems to have stopped.

He forces himself to stand up, walk over to the dead girl, look down at her lying in the grass like a rag doll casually tossed aside. Boiling with black flies, wine-colored blood slowly oozes from her open chest. John reaches down, brushes several of the flies away, then pulls back his hand wet with blood starting to congeal. He thinks of the hundreds of animals he has shot, gutted, and cut into strips of meat. All the blood he has seen. The wounded deer that he chased for miles to kill. Blood is blood, he thinks, wiping the girl’s on his pants. And dead is dead.

He moves his gaze from her chest to her face. She is beautiful, he thinks, not like a greenhouse flower, but like a wild rose raised in bright sunshine, bitter cold, torrential rain. Sun-chapped lips, parted as if to speak, a bent nose, slightly running, make her seem still alive. A tiny anchor-shaped birthmark mars her right cheek. Kneeling down near her head, John smells orange-blossom perfume, the same three-dollar-a-bottle fragrance he used to buy for his wife. What is your name? he silently asks her. Where are you from? What were you doing in the quarry by yourself? He bends forward and tenderly kisses her lips, then, shocked at his own behavior, quickly rears back and glances around the canyon, up the rock walls, into the white-pine and cedar-tree forest orbiting the upper rim, as if someone might be watching him. Suddenly John feels certain someone is. The thought hits him like a punch: she wasn’t alone. He sees nothing to substantiate this, though. He reaches down and with his index fingers gently closes the girl’s eyes.

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