Who: Dietrich Kalteis
What: The award-winning author of RIDE THE LIGHTNING, THE DEADBEAT CLUB, TRIGGERFISH, HOUSE OF BLAZES and ZERO AVENUE. Nearly fifty of his short stories have been published internationally.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Congrats on the release of your fifth novel, ZERO AVENUE. What inspired you to write about the late 70s punk scene in Vancouver?
Thank you, Steve. I guess when I started writing the story I was thinking of forgotten times and a music scene left behind. I liked punk’s edge and the way it threw a middle finger at the establishment. And Vancouver was this backwater place back then, a sharp contrast to what it is now. And the late seventies were also a time before Google Earth, Google Maps and satellite imagery, back when pot fields were a lot easier to hide. All of that seemed a perfect fit for the story I wanted to write.
You depict the denizens of that scene as destitute and a bit desperate. Do you think the history of punk rock has been sanitized?
I think when punk came along, there was a certain shock that came with it. Outside of its small fan base, it wasn’t well received in the mainstream. Major labels were reluctant to sign punk bands, most radio stations wouldn’t play it, and clubs wouldn’t book punk acts. When I first heard it, I liked its edgy sound, but I thought of it as a kind of music experiment, a fad that would burn out as fast as it came, but it sure was a welcome change from disco.
Has it been sanitized over the years? Maybe it has, or maybe the shock has worn off from when it started over forty years ago. It’s interesting to note that stars like Johnny Rotten, Iggy Pop, Joey Shithead, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith and Mick Jones are still standing and involved in making music.
The drug trade plays a big role in this book. What came first for this story—the drugs or the music? How did one lead to the other?
The idea was for the heart of story to revolve around the indie music scene. The drugs came in as a way for Frankie del Rey to make ends meet and to scratch up enough cash to cut a record and get her band Waves of Nausea out on the road.
I couldn’t see someone like Frankie having a nine-to-five job. Running dope shows us something about her character, like she’s willing to take some risks. After she starts seeing Johnny Falco and he goes and rips off Marty Sayle’s pot field, the risks get stepped up.
Is the marijuana catapult real, or a figment of your imagination?!
A bit of both really. Back in the day, I did know a couple guys who found out about a pot field growing out in the country, and they couldn’t resist. Armed with plenty of big green garbage bags, they drove off to fill up the back of a pick-up and ended up having rock salt shot at them. Coming back with only a really good story to tell. And I guess that story stayed with me over the years. As a lot of story elements I use, this one just spun from something that really happened to what ended up in the book.
Which was more fun—creating characters like Frankie Del Rey and Johnny Falco, or the names of the fictional punk bands in ZERO AVENUE?
It was a fun coming up with both. While I love dreaming up my characters, I wasn’t sure I could pull off a female main character like Frankie at first, but once I started writing her character it all came together and worked out. She’s just so punk and obsessed with her music, and I like how she never let anything get in the way of her dreams in spite of everything that comes at her. She’s definitely not someone to mess with, and that makes for a pretty good protagonist.
I loved dropping my imaginary characters among the real life ones like Wimpy Roy and Joey Shithead. And it was fun coming up with band names like Middle Finger and Waves of Nausea and dropping them among the real bands of the time, bands like the Subhumans, Pointed Sticks and the Braineaters.
Speaking of Joey “Shithead” Keithley (of legendary hardcore band, D.O.A.), why did you choose to feature him among the fictional punks in ZERO AVENUE?
Joey Shithead’s a punk legend around Vancouver, and he was right at the heart of the punk scene back then, and he’s still standing and going strong. In fact, he’s even run for public office, and his band D.O.A is still pumping out music. How could I not include him, even in a small way?
Why do crime fiction and punk rock go together?
Crime novels are fast-paced and packed with action, violence and desperation, and the punk scene was so edgy, raw and angry and had this us-against-them outlook. It just made a great backdrop and a perfect fit for a crime story.
What’s next for you?
After ZERO AVENUE comes POUGHKEEPSIE SHUFFLE which will be released by my publisher ECW Press next June. The story takes place in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy just released from the infamous Don Jail. When he lands himself a job at a used-car lot, he finds himself mixed up in a smuggling ring bringing guns in from Upstate New York. Jeff’s a guy who’s willing to break a few rules on the road to riches, living by the motto ‘why let the mistakes of the past get in the way of a good score in the future.’
I also have a short story that will be included in the upcoming VANCOUVER NOIR, part of Akashic Books’ Noir Series, edited by Sam Wiebe.
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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.