What: A disgraced ex-film critic whose short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Near to the Knuckle, Flash Fiction Offensive, Horror Sleaze Trash and Spelk Fiction. A novelette, SKULL MEAT, is available via Amazon, and a collection, MEAT BUBBLES (& OTHER STORIES), will be out later this year.
Where: Paignton, UK
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Congrats on the release of SKULL MEAT. How did this one come about?
Thanks, Steve. Weirdly enough, despite the low page-count it took me eight years to put together! The first chunk of the story was published online way back in 2009, and another slab of text languished on my hard-drive for almost a decade. Embarrassingly, assembling the finished version took less than a week!
The novelette length was a bit of a head-scratcher, so I decided to release it myself via Amazon—to satisfy my own curiosity about self-publishing more than anything. I had no idea how a novelette would be received, but I’m happy to say that SKULL MEAT has picked up some nice feedback from reviewers and crime writers alike so far, so it seems like people aren’t too put off by the awkward length.
(Quick quiz question: free copy of SKULL MEAT for the first person who can flag up where the title originated? Hit me up on Facebook or in the comments!)
It was definitely a short story that spiraled out of control, rather than a novella that came up short. As the story started to flow, 10,000 words seemed like a logical target, and the plot was comfortably wrapped up by that point. SKULL MEAT was intended to be the centre-point in a collection I’m working on called MEAT BUBBLES (& OTHER STORIES), but it ended up distorting the flow too much, so I will most likely leave it to fend for itself as a standalone novelette.
If things go to plan, I should have a few books trickling out over the next couple of years, so I think it is healthy to have a cheap SKULL MEAT-length e-book online as a sampler of my work for people to check out.
Prior to SKULL MEAT, you’ve published a lot of short and flash fiction. What appeals to you about the shorter form?
The immediacy of flash fiction really appeals to me, and so does the inherent challenge of the format. Telling a fully fledged story in less than 1,000 (or 500) words holds a big appeal. Different people have different opinions on what makes great flash fiction—I just like to tell the best story I can in the space available. The more observational details, back-story and supporting characters I can cram in, the better it is in my book!
Aside from writing stories for themed anthologies, flash fiction is definitely my favourite thing to write. That said, I have been trying to wean myself off the habit this year in order to finish off my longer works. The plan is working pretty well so far, although I have caved in a couple of times.
Prior to reading SKULL MEAT, I had never heard of Paignton—and now I’m afraid to go there. Is it as violent and depraved as depicted in your book?
For people who aren’t familiar with my home town, Paignton is a much-loved holiday destination within the UK. I think that seaside towns in this country have a Jekyll and Hyde quality depending on the season, and all manner of unknown horrors lurk below the surface. I’m a big fan of location-as-character in fiction, and although I’m pretty well-travelled, I don’t think I could sustain a book (let alone a series) set anywhere other than Paignton.
The characters and scenarios have been given an apocalyptic edge, and some of the location names have been changed (to avoid legal action!), but the landscape and geography have been preserved. Ultimately, this is my interpretation of Paignton, as filtered through the prism of my obsession with US crime fiction.
Every time I think my stories have drifted too far from reality, I pick up a copy of the local paper, and scour the crime reportage, and realise that I’ve only scratched the surface of what actually goes on in this town! (And then I file away the details for future use!)
I sometimes wonder: could a private investigator really flourish in a town like Paignton? Well, they bulldozed Paignton police station to make way for a property development that never happened, and now they have to send out-of-town cops down in people carriers to raid local crack-houses. So, yeah!
Colorful violence is plentiful in SKULL MEAT. How did you settle on the pig-knife as Joe Rey’s weapon of choice?
Honestly, I forget where the pig-knife came from! I think the first reference I remember including was in “A Brief History of Bad Men”, which appeared in WALK HAND IN HAND INTO EXTINCTION: STORIES INSPIRED BY TRUE DETECTIVE. It just seemed weirder and nastier than the alternatives, and became something of a trademark weapon for Mr. Rey—replacing Stanley knives and switchblades in future stories and re-writes. The pig-knife gets him into—and out of—a few scrapes over the course of these stories.
While he encounters guns in a few stories, most of the violence is perpetrated using the kind of weapons you can find in a skip, or at Crown & Anchor Way: pickaxe handles, old hammers, screwdrivers, lengths of chain, car aerials… To be honest, you can buy all manner of amateur weapons in your local branch of Poundland nowadays—and Joe Rey often does.
Your bio describes you as “disgraced ex-film critic.” Seems like there might be an interesting story there…
Lots of disgraceful things happened during my two-year stint at DVD Monthly, that’s for sure, but not much of it is fit to print! Now that enough time has passed, it’s the kind of experience I can dismiss as ‘character-building’, but it was a seriously weird job.
In fairness, the most interesting thing to happen to me was getting to meet and interview Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson and Frank Miller—that was one hell of an experience. Most of the time was spent trapped in a box room on an industrial estate with five other men, being paid to watch the kind of films you would normally go out of your way to avoid. Glamorous, right?
Your short story, “Here Comes That Weird Chill,” is featured in the upcoming anthology, MORE BIZARRO THAN BIZARRO. How does this story differ from your more traditional crime fiction? Do you think about genre much when you write?
I am very excited to be appearing in MORE BIZARRO THAN BIZARRO! “Here Comes That Weird Chill” is a rare attempt at a horror story. It is a Joe Rey story, but it takes a detour away from Paignton into the twisted hinterland of my imagination.
If I was remotely well-known, I think that crime fiction purists would be put off by the fact that I’ve dragged a series character into supernatural territory, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to me. This whole world I’ve created is highly stylized to begin with—I may as well use that to my advantage, and play around with the genre boundaries a bit.
In terms of genre, I can’t ever foresee a time when I won’t want to write crime fiction ahead of all else. I’ve had a whole bunch of stories published by ‘literary’ magazines over the years, but I’d rather write literate crime fiction and not tone down my penchant for bloody violence!
What’s next for you?
Short-term: I’ve just finished REPETITION KILLS YOU (a literary jigsaw puzzle); I’ve almost finished THE GOOD BOOK (a collection of wrestling-themed noir); and I’m struggling to finish BONEYARD DOGS (a violent Paignton Noir novella).
Long-term: ten novellas in the next ten years is my target. This ten-book Paignton Noir series will play out like a suburban take on Game of Thrones. SKULL MEAT is just a brief, nasty taster of what people can expect!
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S.W. Lauden is the Anthony Award-nominated author of the Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper novellas include CROSSWISE and CROSSED BONES (Down & Out Books). His Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series includes BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION and GRIZZLY SEASON (Rare Bird Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in Los Angeles.