What: Jake Hinkson is the author of three novels, including HELL ON CHURCH STREET, THE POSTHUMOUS MAN, THE BIG UGLY. He has also published a novella, SAINT HOMICIDE, and a short story collection, THE DEEPENING SHADE. His first collection of essays, THE BLIND ALLEY: EXPLORING FILM NOIR’S FORGOTTEN CORNERS, will be released in March. This summer his novels HELL ON CHURCH STREET and THE POSTHUMOUS MAN will be released in France.
Interview conducted by email. Some answers have been edited.
THE DEEPENING SHADE is a fantastic collection of short stories written over 20 years. How do you feel about some of your older stories at this point in your career? How do they differ from your newer stories in this collection?
Well, let me put it this way: I’m happy with all the stories in this collection. The ones that got cut were either ambitious-but-flawed or were simple entertainments that I didn’t really think held up for repeated reading. Hopefully the stories that are here will all hold up over time.
I’d say the newer ones are more Noir, and the older ones are more Southern Gothic. That would reflect the fact that 20 years ago I was more of a disciple of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. I still love those writers, but I’ve had 20 years of David Goodis and James Ellroy to balance it out.
I’m more myself, I guess. In my youth (I’m turning 40 this year, so I can now talk plausibly about my youth) I was more imitative of writers I loved. As the years have gone on I’ve settled into my voice. This weird fundamentalist noir thing I’ve got going on is entirely me. It comes from the heart. I’m not saying that O’Connor and Goodis aren’t still in my literary DNA. They are, god knows. But so is Robert B. Parker, and Emily Dickinson, and James Baldwin, and Ed Gorman, and Margaret Millar. And Johnny Cash. And Ingmar Bergman. And the Bible. I could go on, but the point is that while my fiction is flavored with a bit of all of that, it’s also pretty much just me. I’m the result of my influences, and the fiction is the result of me.
As for how the market has changed, it’s hard for me to say. Certainly, in terms of print, it’s smaller than it was decades ago—because everything in print is smaller than it was decades ago. Online, though, it seems like there are more places to publish crime stories. Some even pay you actual American dollars, which is always nice. The first time I ever got paid for writing something I cashed the check and went to dinner. Nothing fancy. Burger, fries, a drink. But I just kept thinking, “I’m eating this food because I wrote a story.” Best meal I ever had.
If you had to pick one story from THE DEEPENING SHADE, which one do you think best represents you and/or your writing? Why?
“Our Violence” is the most personal story in the collection, I think. It doesn’t represent me, though. I’ve never written a piece of fiction that was supposed to represent me. Fiction is about taking bits of life and art and sheer fantasy and cooking up something new. There’s no character in the collection who is supposed to be a stand in for me or anyone I know. A lot of the pain and love and confusion in “Our Violence” is pain and love and confusion that I’m familiar with, though.
Many of the stories in THE DEEPENING SHADE deal with religion, including “Randy’s Personal Lord and Savior,” and “The Theologians,” among others. Has this always been a prominent theme in your writing? How has your writing helped you wrestle with religion personally?
I was raised in a very religious atmosphere. My father is a deacon, my late mother was the church secretary, my brother is a preacher, and I have other relatives in the ministry. For a time, my family lived on a church camp in the Ozarks. Fundamentalist Protestantism was the unifying force in my family’s life as I was growing up. At the same time, I was plowing through detective novels like a little fiend. When I first started writing—let’s say in high school—I just wanted to be an Arkansas Robert B. Parker. Then I discovered Faulkner, and I had to contend with that whole Great Southern Writer thing for a while. Then I had the most profound discovery of my writing life: I read Flannery O’Connor. She made me realize you could actually write about fundamentalism. (Sounds funny to say it, but as a kid I didn’t know you were allowed to write about such things.) She wrote about religion in a way that was so dark and funny and downright scary. That was huge for me.
A few of the stories in this collection take place in rural America, but seem to exist outside of a specific time period (“The Serpent Box” and “The Empty Sky”). How important is the setting for your stories?
It depends on what you mean by setting. If you mean the culture of a place, then it’s important to try to create a world for the character to inhabit. If you mean the physical world, I’d say it’s only as important as it needs to be. I describe the setting exactly as much as I think I need to in order to move the story along. I don’t like reading stories or books that go on and on about place. I’m not knocking it; I’m just saying it’s not for me.
I was writing a scene the other day. Story takes place in Washington DC, where I used to live. I had a character walk outside, and I’m sitting there writing, and all of the sudden I realize that I’m picturing a street in Little Rock, Arkansas where I also used to live. So now that setting is a concocted DC/LR simulacrum that doesn’t exist outside this story. And I am 100% fine with that. I know this is a deal breaker for some people. They want every description of every place to be exactly authentic. “The Dunkin Donuts isn’t there! It’s across the street!” And to those people I say, “Good day, sir or madam. Godspeed you on your journey and don’t let the door hit you in the ass.” Fiction is fiction. If you want reality, why are you reading a book? Go outside. I never went to a book for reality in my life. Reality is reality. A book, no matter how “realistic,” is a concoction.
Writing short fiction has influenced my writing overall, but I don’t know that it’s influenced my approach to writing novels.
In your opinion, is writing short fiction a good way to refine your chops to write a novel, or a totally separate discipline?
Yes, and yes. It is a good way to refine your chops because you’re dealing with character and plot and dialog and action and setting. You’re figuring out if you like to use adverbs. You’re figuring out if you like to put “he said” before or after the quote. And so on. It’s all good practice. (Incidentally, writing essays and poetry is also good practice. It’s all about figuring out things you can do with words.) But, yes, it’s also a totally separate discipline. A short story is almost closer to a poem than a novel. My story in this collection “Good Cover” is, stylistically and structurally, closer to a prose poem than a novel.
What advice do you have for new and emerging crime writers?
One, love what you love. Doesn’t matter who your influences are. Study them like they’re the Torah. Two, read everything. Don’t just read crime writers. Don’t just read white guys. Don’t just read the artsy stuff. Don’t just read the trash. Read everything you can get your hands on. There’s nobody who can’t teach you. It all goes in the hopper. Three, write. Don’t talk about it. Don’t bitch about it. Write.
What are some of the best novels you read in 2014?
I finally read IN A LONELY PLACE by Dorothy B. Hughes for the first time this year. God, what a book. I’ve always loved her, but I put off reading this book for years because I loved the movie so much and I’d always heard they were different. Well, they are radically different, but this is what makes IN A LONELY PLACE such an anomaly: it’s a masterpiece of a book that got totally rewritten into a masterpiece of a movie. That doesn’t happen very often. You can’t even really compare them. It’s a delicious apple versus a delicious orange. Everyone should read the book. If you love Jim Thompson, read this. This is Thompson before Thompson. Dorothy B. Hughes is the shit.
What else? Older stuff I read and loved was Dan Simmons’s DROOD, Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY, and Laura Lippmann’s I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE. Newer stuff I really got into was Lori Rader-Day’s THE BLACK HOUR, Eric Rickstad’s THE SILENT GIRLS, and Mike Monson’s TUSSINLAND.
What are some novels you are looking forward to in 2015?
Eric Beetner has a book called RUMRUNNERS coming out this year. Looking forward to that for sure. Beetner is an old school talent, a crime writer’s crime writer like Gil Brewer (although, in my humble opinion, he’s better than Brewer), who writes stuff that is fast and funny and dark all at once.
And Laura Lippman has a new novel coming, I think. I’d read Laura Lippmann’s grocery list.
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. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Stark Raving Press in June 2015. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You can read one of his recent short stories right HERE.