What: Mike Monson is the author of the novel “Tussinland,” the short story collection “Criminal Love and Other Stories,” and the novellas “The Scent of New Death” and “What Happens in Reno“. He is also the editor for All Due Respect, a publisher of crime fiction books and a quarterly magazine.
Interview conducted by email. Some answers have been edited.
I thought that “Tussinland” was one of the best modern Noir novels I have read. What was the inspiration for writing this particular story?
Thanks. That’s a little complicated. In the summer of 2012, when I first started writing fiction I somehow got the idea of writing about a sort of lost guy living in Modesto with his mother who got hooked on tussin/dm while working temp office jobs. It was semi-based on some experiences I’d had years before but completely exaggerated and fictionalized. I remembered doing some internet research on the recreational uses of DM and one very complete and detailed website used the term “tussinland’ to describe the hallucinogenic place that one could get to if enough cough syrup was ingested in a short period of time. It even described a phenomenon that I put into the beginning of my novel where the DM-user will have, for some unknown reason, a really bad ugly experience, after which it is never good again.
Anyway, I wrote about 30 or 40 pages but had no idea what to do with what I had. So, I kept putting it aside while I wrote short stories and the novellas “What Happens in Reno” and “The Scent of New Death”. I’d go back to it and try to turn what I had into a crime novel and kept developing plots that didn’t work, some of which I devoted more than 100 pages to before finally deleting. Eventually, last summer in Hawaii I figured out what I want to do with it and the book as it exists now came pretty fast.
Why is Modesto a good setting for the story in “Tussinland”?
Probably mostly because that’s where I’ve lived since 1994. Early on when I realized I wanted to write crime fiction I knew it would be important to me to create as complete a sense of place as I could manage. Not sure why, but I definitely love books that really explore a location, like James Lee Burke’s books about Louisiana/Texas/Montana, Michael Connelly’s books set in Los Angeles, Pelicanos novels set in D.C., etc.
Plus, I knew that Modesto and the Central Valley of California hadn’t been explored very much in crime/noir so I thought maybe I could create my own niche. And, I love rural settings for crime, but I wasn’t familiar enough to pull such a thing off, because while I’ve spent time in rural and country and southern places and had relatives and friends in those environments, it really wasn’t my true life, you know? But, I felt Modesto was even more interesting and new because it is this unusual combination of equal parts urban, rural and suburban and I hoped because of my background I could really claim it as my own, or at least try.
The plot of “Tussinland” is brutal and violent, but some characters remain sympathetic. How do you strike that balance so well?
That has actually surprised me. I didn’t do it on purpose at all. A lot of the criticism of most of my stories and novellas has been the lack of sympathetic or likable characters. I didn’t care about this, I actually enjoy that criticism, and I figured I’d get the same flack about “Tussinland”. However, people actually like and pull for the loser main character Paul Dunn, and this is definitely an accident. My guess is because he is totally a victim, that he really has no violent, selfish or vindictive thoughts or motivations of his own, and, he is so sweet to his step-children and continues to take care of them when his wife starts to go a little wild.
At the time of this interview, “Tussinland” is #25 on the “Best Sellers in Noir Crime” list in the Kindle store. What were your expectations when you first published it?
Well, since it was put out by our indy crime/noir press All Due Respect Books, my expectations weren’t too high. It wasn’t a mainstream release by one of the big publishers, it wasn’t written and edited with the intention of mass success, and ADR has very little budget for or expertise in marketing and promotion. And, it is sold strictly on Amazon: e-book for Kindle and Createspace/Print On Demand for paperback. My other books (also indy releases) had sold between 100 and 400 copies and had been relatively high in the Amazon noir rankings for short periods of time, so I was hoping “Tussinland” would do maybe slightly better. After just over two months it’s sold about 400 and right now it’s at two to five copies a day, but who knows how much longer that will last? Probably not much. So, it’s done a lot better than I’d thought. In fact, I was kind of convinced it was just a big mess (before Chris Rhatigan and I started ADR Books and decided to publish it, I’d gotten pretty dismissive rejections by one agent and one publisher), but Chris and Craig McNeely both thought it was okay so I decided to trust them. But, either way, because of the subject matter, bad language, violence, and dirty sex, it’s definitely not a book that is going to be wildly popular, so the potential is inherently limited to a kind of specialized and very small readership.
As you can see from those numbers, being in the top 20 or 30 in kindle noir isn’t as impressive as it may sound. It basically represents being #18,000 or so to about #38,000 give or take in the entire Kindle store. So, keeping a steady sales rate of about 2 to five books a day keeps one at that level among all the books in the noir category. Hard boiled, for example, another sub category of crime, is much larger and it takes much stronger sales to break into the top 100, let alone the top 30 on that list — somewhere like, below 15K down to maybe 5K in the entire store. Tussinland got into the top 90 in hard-boiled twice for just a couple of hours on days when it sold about 12 to 15 copies. And, the top hundred in the general crime fiction main category, right now the number 100 book is just above #5000 in the kindle store and the number 1 book is a James Patterson book that is #105. So, for those, that’s selling as low as 300 a day to up to about 1,000.
You also have a lot of great reader reviews in the Kindle store. How have you been getting the word out about “Tussinland”?
When it first came out I sent copies to all the people who review crime/noir books, and I put out press releases to all kinds of newspapers and podcasts and radio shows. I made sure people who I knew that liked and reviewed my previous books knew about it and got a copy. And, I created a Facebook page for the book, which allowed me to pay to boost posts directed at people who ‘liked’ things like crime fiction, noir, etc. I’m not sure which of these things, if any, worked. With few exceptions, the books been ignored by (non-Amazon) reviewers, and no one picked up my press release. My guess is that the Facebook boosted posts helped because I think the title/cover was eye-catching and made some people who didn’t know about me and my other books give it a try. Other than that, I think it’s just word-of-mouth. I really don’t know what I’m doing with promo/marketing. I just try everything and hope something works.
You didn’t start writing until 2012. Since then you have published several short stories, novellas and a novel. How do you explain the sudden burst of creativity and productivity?
I really can’t explain it. I tried to write all my life and I’d been a reporter off and on and did some playwriting years ago, so it wasn’t like I was brand-new at writing in 2012. My best guess is a combination of two things happening: first, I had just spent a couple of years really digging into zen and vipassana buddhist meditation techniques and ended up with a very clear conviction that the important thing to being alive was to just be yourself as completely as possible and part of that for me was to write whether or not anyone ever read what I wrote; and second, I found myself married to a woman (Rebecca of course) who just had my back in a way I’d never experienced and gave me the kind of love and support that I needed to write the stuff I wanted to write the way I wanted to write it. Oh, and one other thing — I’d spent years and years with a long commute in which I’d read several books a week and I think that was a great education for a writer.
Hard to say, I’m not really an editor in the traditional sense. I’m more of a “culler of submissions.” I read stories submitted to the magazine and books submitted to the book company and pass on to my partner Chris Rhatigan what material I think is worthwhile. I do very little line editing. I’ll say, though, that I’m even more convinced than ever that the most important thing in fiction is story. Other elements are great and important too, like characterization, place, voice, point of view, humor, style, dialogue, but none of that matters if no one cares about the story being told.
What advice do you have for aspiring Noir/Crime writers?
Pay as little attention as possible to what people like me say and just write the shit you want to read.
All Due Respect Books launched in September. How many books have you published so far? How many are in the queue?
Right now we have six:
- “you don’t exist” – Double novella release by Pablo D’Stair and Chris Rhatigan
- “Tussinland” by Mike Monson
- “Two Bullets Solve Everything” – Double novella release by Rhatigan and Ryan Sayles
- “Prodigal Sons” by Mike Miner
- “Revenge is a Redhead” by Phil Beloin Jr.
Coming up is “The Deepening Shade,” a collection of stories from Jake Hinkson, “Love You to a Pulp” by CS De Wildt, “Uncle Dust” by Rob Pierce, a collection of Alex Cizak stories called “Crooked Roads,” and a series of novellas featuring the character Selena by Greg Barth.
What were some of the best books you read in 2014?
That’s hard. I read so many good ones. I particularly enjoyed:
- “To Sleep Gently” and “Voiceless” by Trent Zelazny
- “The Wheelman” by Duane Swierczynski
- “Cold in July” by Joe Lansdale
- “Dirtbags” by Eryk Pruitt
- “Toxicity” by Max Booth
- “Killer” and “Small Crimes” by Dave Zeltserman
- “Hustle” by Tom Pitts
- “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em” by Chris Leek
- “Sport” by Scott Grand
- “Wake Up Time To Die” by Chris Rhatigan
- “Lamentation” by Joe Clifford
- Read my INTERVIEW with Joe Clifford
- “Lost in Clover” by Travis Richardson
- Read my INTERVIEW with Travis Richardson
- “Jungle Horses” by Scott Adlerberg
So many. And, of course, all the books that were submitted to ADR Books that we are publishing I loved because we wouldn’t be publishing them if Chris and I both didn’t adore them.
If you could recommend one piece of your writing to somebody, what would it be?
I want people to read everything, jeez. How about my story Heritage Classic? It’s definitely my favorite short story and it’s the first thing I wrote back in the summer of 2012 that really seemed to work. Plus, it’s interesting that it’s done in second person and there isn’t any sex or violence. It can be found here on the great journal Literary Orphans. Or, by buying my short story collection Criminal Love.
Previous Interrogation: Ian Rose/QuarterReads.com
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Akashic Books, QuarterReads and Crimespree Magazine. He is currently working on the novella, CROSSWISE, and his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You can read one of his recent short stories right HERE.