What: Author of SUBTLE ART OF BRUTALITY, WARPATH, THAT ESCALATED QUICKY! and the forthcoming GOLDFINCHES and I’M NOT HAPPY ‘TIL YOU’RE NOT HAPPY. He’s had over two dozen short stories in print and is a founding member of Zelmer Pulp.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just read your intense and engrossing novel, THE SUBTLE ART OF BRUTALITY. How did you develop the “half predator and half savior” character of Richard Dean Buckner? How about the story?
First off, thank you for the compliments. They really do mean a lot. The idea of Buckner popped up in 2006 while I was stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area. I wanted to write a hardboiled character who was so hardboiled he was scraping the line between awesome and cartoonish. I wanted to crank everything up to eleven and have people like him because everything he did was the writing equivalent of the scene in an action movie where a cool guy walks away from an explosion and doesn’t turn around. Eventually I found my voice with him and I feel comfortable where I landed.
The story was based on a real life event of mine. The house my wife and I bought had a woman who lived here before us. Delilah from SAOB made the same mistakes she did. In the book the Bellview couple was loosely based on us. A guy really did come to our front door asking for the woman. I found a crack pipe in our basement ceiling. Having the real life sketch of this woman’s troubles and mistakes, I just filled in the blanks as to why she’d gone there and then had Buckner look for her.
As I was reading THE SUBTLE ART OF BRUTALITY, I imagined Richard Dean Buckner as a 70s bad ass like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood. Do you picture a specific actor or person when you create characters?
I love those characters. Good men willing to meet the bad men on their level, and not lose their way too much. I heard a saying once, “We all want to be knights but we don’t want to bleed like them.” I think that’s so true. Dudes run their mouths but have no idea how to stand up to evil. We need more guys willing to throw the first punch in that situation.
I’ve tried to pick actors to use as references, or even just keep a list of physical traits for characters. I don’t have much luck. I do have several photographs of a woman that I based Buckner’s unnamed wife off of. I keep them private, but they’re rock solid as her reference. I have a clear picture of Buckner in my mind. I’m reluctant to share though; a few people have told me what they think he looks like and it doesn’t line up at all. I figure I’ll leave it to the reader.
Richard Dean Buckner reads like a serial killer’s name. Any significance to why you chose this name for your protagonist?
My father’s name is Richard. It means “powerful king” and it fits who Buckner is. Using Dad’s name was my homage to his service as a cop for thirty years. I did it for six and it’s ugly, thankless and everybody wants you around, if for nothing else so they can hate you later. My wife picked Dean, for no other reason than she liked it. Buckner is my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. It has a percussive sound, and stands out without being too foreign or “stand outish.” If that makes sense.
Snubnose Press, my original publisher, was wonderful to me and I owe Brian Lindenmuth and company for my big break into the indie scene. When Down & Out republished SAOB, I put Brian in the dedication. As I was finishing WARPATH, I realized Snubnose had been effectively dormant for quite some time. It just seemed I’d do better to find another publisher. Down & Out seemed out of my league, so when everyone else turned me down I went for them. Eric Campbell must have been high when he signed me, but he did.
You also released the second Richard Dean Buckner book, WARPATH, in 2015. How does Buckner evolve between the two books?
I evolved between them, that’s for sure. I wrote SAOB in 2009, before I was a police officer. It took less than three months. I started WARPATH in 2011 after I’d been a cop for two years. I ran out of steam on that book about 40K words in, and then over the course of three years finished it by writing big chunks. I’d put down 10K and not pick it back up for months. Hell, I wrote a 140K sci-fi novel during one of those breaks. And I didn’t actually come up with the “real” ending until after I finished the novel and was proofreading it. I’m pretty sure some of the stuff in the published book was first draft.
The biggest evolution between the two, for he or I, was I wanted to scale back how Buckner left a trail of corpses everywhere. While it was cool that he literally beat everyone to death along the way, I thought it made him one dimensional. So he changed as a character. I worry that people who love the first book will read the second and think I lost my spark or something. I don’t worry too much, but some. Not to mention that when I wrote WARPATH, my writing style had changed. I was writing so many police reports that it bled over, as much as I fought it not to.
Will there be a third Richard Dean Buckner book in 2016?
Yes. The book is called SWAN SONGS ALWAYS BEGIN AS LOVE SONGS. My job has been all-consuming and it has killed any free time I’ve had to write it. My test for returning to a book after having a long break is if it still calls to me the way it did when I was enthralled by it before. I’ve got quite a collection of novels that pooped out after 30K sitting on my computer. But Swan Songs has been just as fresh and entertaining to write since I sat down to start it. Eric is going to kill me for messing up his 2016 schedule, but I hope to make it worth the wait. I’ve been referencing SAOB a lot for this book, trying to go back to Buckner’s roots.
I actually started writing novels. Just sat down one day and started a book. It took me two years but I finished it. I figured short stories would be a quicker fix for that writer’s high, so I started writing them. A few are making their debut appearance in my new collection called I’M NOT HAPPY ‘TIL YOU’RE NOT HAPPY coming out soon through All Due Respect Books. I then wrote four novels in a row, including an early version of RDB, before I returned to short stories. I realized I was all over the map genre-wise and felt I needed to streamline so I could better brand myself. I liked writing RDB so I wrote some crime short stories to build a resume before I approached an agent. Never landed an agent, but I got the book published so who cares.
Just one? Oh, how about “In Defense of Castles in the Air,” an RDB short published in Crime Factory #12, right here. But there’s also “Uncluttering,” a story that seemed to hit home pretty hard. It hit me hard because it was based on a real event. And “Collection,” a story all my Zelmer Pulp friends told me went too far. That’s why I like it, I guess. And finally, “Obsidian,” my weird western in ZP’s FIVE BROKEN WINCHESTERS. I love that collection of stories. I think it’s our best.
I write short stories with the gut punch in mind. I want to get in, set it up, hit, and leave. I write the whole thing to support that punch. Most times I’ll even divvy up the word count to establish an “outline” of sorts. If I know I have a thousand words total, I’ll shoot for 300 words an “act,” as it were. Then I’ve got approximately 100 words for cushion. Ridiculous, I know, but it really does help me distill down the language and push the story.
A novel I want to meander and see how long I can draw out a moment. Hide things and pull them out later. See how many scene changes I can do. I always want the reader to wind up somewhere completely differently than where they started in the book. I try to work in pairs of threes in a book. Three events, all connected somehow, each more dire than the last. The three fires in SAOB, the three lovers. I heard somewhere that the human mind likes three. It also likes odd numbers. I learned that in photography composition. So using three of whatever in a story seems like a fitting application.
I don’t have a preference. I love shorts because I can finish a lot of diverse product, but I love novels because I have a long space to stretch out and concentrate on the little details.
You are also a founding member of Zelmer Pulp, a publishing house specializing in “retrofuturistic, pulp hero, dark crime, monster noir, and neoclassical postapocalyptic multigenerational uber-exploitive psychodrama”? What does Zelmer Pulp have planned for 2016?
Man, ZP will always be there. We’ve slowed down our production as new things have arisen. Brian Panowich is busy writing for the big leagues with his BULL MOUNTAIN stories. We’re really proud of him and he’s done quite well. It’s a blessing and curse because since he’s done well, they want more magic out of him. He’s got it; I have all the faith in the world, but it keeps him tied up. Isaac Kirkman has found his calling being a human rights activist for the people of Mexico. He’s dedicated all his time to fighting for them. We have plans for a book here at some point, but with the holidays going on and everyone being pulled in so many directions it’s been a slippery plan.
Since we’re in the middle of the holiday season, what is the best book you have received as a gift? What is the best book you have ever given as a gift?
The best book I’ve received as a gift was Dean Koontz’s ODD THOMAS. If you haven’t read the opening few chapters of that book you have no idea how gorgeous the language can be. I remember reading those chapters—the whole thing, really—and having my eyes opened to how transcendent and beautiful a story can be, even one about a kid surrounded by death.
The best book I’ve ever given was REAL ULTIMATE POWER: THE OFFICIAL NINJA BOOK. If you don’t own a copy, you need to be killed by having a huge penis beat your head in.
S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in March 2016.