Interrogation—Nick Kolakowski

Who: Nick Kolakowski

What: Author of A BRUTAL BUNCH OF HEARTBROKEN SAPS and SLAUGHTERHOUSE BLUES, the first two books in the Love & Bullets trilogy. His short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Mystery Tribune, Crime Syndicate Magazine, and various anthologies.

Where: New York

Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.

Congrats on the release of SLAUGHTERHOUSE BLUES. This latest installment takes Bill and Fiona to Cuba and Nicaragua. Why choose those locations?

Around 10 years ago, I had an editor gig that took me through the Caribbean and Central America. I wrote a number of nonfiction articles about Cuba and Nicaragua but always wanted to use them as fictional settings. When it came time to send Bill and Fiona out of the United States, I finally saw my chance. It was great to rip out huge, dripping hunks of personal experience and use them in a novel; not because doing so made it easier to write (it’s always a marathon sprint), but because I could add a deep layer of authenticity to the whole endeavor.

Plus, Bill and Fiona are fugitives, and I’ve always joked that if I had to hide out somewhere in the world, I’d choose either Cuba or Nicaragua. The former, because there’s no extradition with the U.S., and some great bars; if you could keep a low profile, and not irritate the local government, it’d be hard for anyone to find you holed up with your daiquiri. And the latter, because the highlands around Esteli (a small mountain town where Fiona ends up) are very beautiful and relatively remote; depending on your setup, you have a good chance of seeing your pursuer before they see you. Then again, the people pursuing Bill and Fiona are very tough, very smart, and very serious.

Having written fiction about the mob myself, I know how difficult it is to find a new angle on those characters. Is that something you thought about while writing this series?

I thought about it intensely. As an editor for Shotgun Honey, I read a lot of story submissions that feature clichés of Italian and Russian mobsters, and I nearly always recommend rejection on that basis—those portrayals were worn out fifty years ago, long before even “The Sopranos” subverted it all.

So when I created the Rockaway Mob, which is the crew that causes so much trouble for Bill and Fiona throughout the books, I tried to go as eccentric and unconventional as possible. The Dean, who runs the Mob, thinks of himself as a Professor Moriarty type, and he’s certainly ruthless—but he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. The antagonistic muscle of SLAUGHTERHOUSE BLUES, Ken and Barbara, are a white-bread suburban couple who are strictly in the murder business for the money, because they like things like plastic surgery and Teslas. In my mind, the Rockaway Mob is capitalism at its most extreme—the American Dream gone stark, raving mad.

How have Bill and Fiona evolved since the first book in this series, A BRUTAL BUNCH OF HEARTBROKEN SAPS?

At the very beginning of SLAUGHTERHOUSE BLUES, Bill hasn’t evolved much at all; he still aspires to the high life, he’s bored when he’s not hustling some new target, and he’s not great at the fugitive lifestyle. As the book progresses, he becomes tougher, smarter—almost like Fiona—but risks sacrificing some of his joie de vivre, let’s say, in the process. For Fiona, it’s the opposite; after everything that happened in A BRUTAL BUNCH OF HEARTBROKEN SAPS, she’s sick of killing, sick of the hard-knock life, sick of being an assassin. But how can you evolve into something better when people are constantly gunning for you? In terms of character arcs, that’s what I was trying to explore with this book.

Did you plot out all three books before sitting down to write them?

I had a vague idea of where I wanted to take the series, but I didn’t plot anything out in detail. I find that if I plan and diagram things out too much, I start feeling trapped and bored. But I pay for that impulse when I have to rewrite, rewrite, and then rewrite again in order to find the right path forward.

Both A BRUTAL BUNCH OF HEARTBROKEN SAPS and SLAUGHTERHOUSE BLUES are awesome titles. Did you have the titles for all three books ready to go, or do they come while you’re writing?

The title of A BRUTAL BUNCH OF HEARTBROKEN SAPS came about by happy accident. The weekend after I finished the first draft of the then-untitled book, I stumbled upon not one, not two, but three published essays written by friends in which they detailed catastrophic breakups. I mentioned this to my wife, who jokingly shouted back from the other room: “Yeah, you writers are just a brutal bunch of heartbroken saps.” I shouted back: “That’s it! That’s the title!”

SLAUGHTERHOUSE BLUES was the opposite case: I’d wanted to use that title since I was a teenager. Thankfully I never pulled the trigger until now, because I think it really works in the context of this book. I actually keep a notebook with a list of hypothetical titles; it’s always a pleasure to finally slap one on a manuscript.

You also published the short story collection, SOMEBODY’S TRYING TO KILL ME. Do you still write short fiction while working on novels?

I have a rhythm: once I finish a novel, I get it out of my system by taking a month or two and writing a bunch of short stories. It’s a good way to clear the brain. But I can’t write short stories and a novel at the same time; my brain would explode.

There has been a lot of conversation about the current short story market for crime fiction. What’s your impression of the situation?

The short-story market is largely broken. Todd Robinson, who edited the great (and much-missed) Thuglit, summed it up perfectly: when his magazine was online and free, it drew a ton of traffic, but the second he put it into print and slapped a price-tag on it, the readership dove. It’s harder than ever to get people to read things that aren’t free; and virtually all magazines that traffic in fiction (of any kind; not just crime fiction) can’t leverage a model that generates significant revenue off free content—you need millions of readers to do that, and even then, it’s a pretty dicey proposition even if everything works as it should in terms of ads, etc.

I think that a crime fiction publication could make a serious go of it under two conditions: it’s part of a larger publishing company, and thus subsidized or supported in some way by book sales and an established publishing infrastructure (like Down & Out is doing with its magazine), or if it piggybacks on an existing platform of some sort—if you ran a crime fiction magazine on Medium, for example, you wouldn’t have to worry about infrastructure costs, and you’d generate revenue off folks’ subscriptions to the entire platform. But even in those cases, you’re still facing super-tight margins.

So that’s the situation, as I see it. I’m grateful for magazines like Mystery Tribune and Crime Syndicate and Spinetingler and Down & Out’s magazine that are very much still fighting the good fight. But publishing is a struggle, and it’s going to continue to be a struggle for the foreseeable future. When hasn’t it been a struggle, though? Unless you’re The New Yorker, it’s tooth-and-nail out there.

What’s next for you?

This is a two-novel year for me: In August, I have BOISE LONGPIG HUNTING CLUB coming out from Down & Out Books. It’s a modern update of “The Most Dangerous Game,” set in Idaho, that sets its anti-hero against a bunch of lunatics who hunt people for sport. I’m excited about it; if I did my job right, I think it’s going to make a lot of folks really angry…in a good way.

Find Nick Kolakowski: WebsiteTwitterFacebook

Some Recent Interviews:

S.W. Lauden is the Anthony Award-nominated author of the crime caper novella, CROSSWISEand the sequel, CROSSED BONES (Down & Out Books). His Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series includes BAD CITIZEN CORPORATIONGRIZZLY SEASON and HANG TIME (Rare Bird Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in Los Angeles.

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