JB Kohl and Eric Beetner's One Too Many Blows to the Head was just released by Second Wind Publishing with cover art by Marc Sasso. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing both the authors about their writing and reading habits, as well as their thoughts on noir and pulp literature and film.
Pulp Serenade: Team-writing has been producing some great stuff recently, like Ken Bruen’s collaborations with Reed Farrel Coleman (Tower) and Jason Starr (Bust, Slide, and The Max). The rest of us writing solo are clearly missing out – what is the best part of having a writing partner?
JB Kohl: I think the best part of having a writing partner (for me) is the anticipation of seeing what would happen next. I found knowing that Eric was working on his own story line kept me motivated to push my own character a little harder. We wrote in alternating chapters...finish one, send it off, wait for the next. Although we had an outline we worked from, things will always deviate from an outline...so we waited. It was always thrilling to get a new installment from Eric. I would read what Ray was up to and that would guide how I positioned Fokoli in the next scene. I found it to be anything but boring.
Eric Beetner: Not boring at all. Downright exciting. My favorite part of One Too Many Blows To The Head was getting to write a novel and at the same time read one. With each new chapter that came in I got to get pulled deeper into the story and have it stay fresh for the entire writing process. Sometimes it is easy to get too inside a book when you’re working on it all alone. This allowed us (well, me anyway) to keep a critical eye and respond to the new chapters as a reader first and a writer second. I felt good about sending chapters to Jennifer and having her react the same way. We had a broad outline but things would change and the specifics were all new to each of us every time we would open an email.
I just finished Tower and love the Max and Angie series from Bruen and Starr. Now having been through it I understand the appeal. Especially in this day of file transfers and email it is easier than ever to work on a book from half way around the world if you so desire.
JBK: I also think the choreography — if I can use that term — was neat. Eric has a real knack for getting his character into a real pinch. Because my chapters were often written in response to his, it was fun to play off of what was happening with Ray...it kept me on my toes.
The other thing we’ve mentioned over and over but have neglected to mention here is that there is something to be said for being in completely different time zones. It was easy to send something off to Eric and then sit back and wait. We both have a similar work ethic so neither of us had to wait long for the next installment. Truly, it was the easiest writing I’ve ever done.
PS: Which is more difficult for you, getting the words on the page, or editing once they are there?
JBK: Without question getting the words on the page. I have to remind myself to chill out and not edit until it’s all done. With One Too Many Blows To The Head, knowing that someone else was going to be reading my raw stuff was a little unnerving at first. I had to work to get over that. In the end, I think the trouble I had with regard to editing was knowing when to stop.
EB: For me it is the editing. I hate it. By the time I decide to go to the trouble to write something I know exactly how it will go and how it will end, etc. I have written sixteen screenplays, and scripts are all about structure and economy so you damn well better know where you’re going. A novel is much more time consuming and filled with a million tiny details so when it comes time for me to blurt it out I storm ahead and don’t look back. This leads to some frightening discoveries in editing. I have a lot of “What the hell was I thinking?” moments.
I can deliver a high word count every day when I’m in the inertia of it but that’s not to say it is all gold, or even tarnished brass some times. Guess that’s why my first solo novel hasn’t sold. Needs another serious editing pass. I’ve been so eager to avoid doing it that I went ahead and wrote a whole other solo book.
Another great thing about collaborating was having that second set of eyes on everything you do. Made editing less painful (because I made her do most of it!)
JBK: Yeah. You still owe me a year’s supply of chocolate for that too.
PS: Reading habits? Just one at a time, or five? And how about your To Be Read pile – is it taller than you?
JBK: I try to pick up stuff from people I don’t know as often as I can. If the synopsis is good then I’ll read it. And yes, I read four or five books at a time. (Three at the present time.)
Genres? Obviously I like crime, but I fear that if I only read crime I wouldn’t be able to bring any other elements into my own writing. So I read romance occasionally to keep that melodramatic edge to things...the misunderstood man, trying to better himself. I think that helps generate interest from female readers, like why chicks love Mad Men on TV, I guess. I also read horror. (Dan Simmons is one of my favorites, as is King, of course). I read mystery (Agatha Christie, Diane Mott Davidson, and too many others to mention) and I’m reading a mystery by a relatively new author named Jacqueline Winspear entitled Maisie Dobbs. I picked it up because my daughter’s name is Maisy. I just finished L.A. Noir by John Buntin and Devil in the White City by Erik Larson — both non-fiction. At any given time there are three or four books on my nightstand to be read. And if a book is really good, I read it once a year or so.
PS: I know what you mean, Jennifer, about reading outside of one particular genre. John Fante’s pacing and structure is as big an influence on me as someone like David Goodis – and even though they were writing different kinds of books, comparing them reveals more similarities than at first might be expected.
EB: I can only read one at a time. If I had my way I would only read on airplanes. Trapped in one spot with no option to go anywhere is my best reading scenario. Other than that I only read on my lunch hour from work. People tend to think I’m antisocial (which is kinda true) but I don’t care. I need my reading time. It does mean I only read a tenth of what I want to read in a year. Right now my TBR pile is 39 books deep. Yep. Sad but true. Curse you Hard Case Crime year-end $1 sale!
PS: Only 39? I will not admit the number in my pile, but lets just say I have begun stacking books in front of books on my shelves. I like to read one book intensely in as few sittings as possible, which is difficult now that I am in Grad School (which eats up most of my time). Another problem that when I read an author I like, I jump at getting other books by them. But for every book I read, I usually discover other books that they like, or similar books recommended to me by friends. And soon this web of books to be read grows out of control.
OK – next question. Someone wants to know what “pulp” is – what one book (or short story) do you give them and why?
JBK: I give them The Deputy’s Widow... because I wrote it. And because I’d like to think it holds all the elements of classic noir: a good story, a hopeless world, a femme fatale, a hopelessly flawed man looking to set a crooked world right.
Of course, the first true noir/pulp I ever read was The Maltese Falcon and I fell in love with Sam Spade. I’m sure impressionable girls read that book when it first came out and thought, “If only Sam had met me, he wouldn’t have been so miserable. I could have made him happy.” Because, you know, that’s how young, impressionable chicks think.
PS: The Maltese Falcon was also my first foray into noir. As much as I liked it at the time (sometime early in high school), it wasn’t until I read Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly that I was truly hooked on the stuff. That was the first time that my eyes couldn’t keep up with how fast I wanted to read a book.
EB: A hearty seconding for The Deputy’s Widow. It was the book I read that made me send Jennifer one of my stories and then jump at the chance to write with her. Classic detective fiction with enough modern touches to be something new. Get to work on that sequel, will ya! I mean, after ours of course.
I’d go Cornell Woolrich for sure. A short, not a novel. Maybe "The Heavy Sugar." I love Woolrich’s use of blatant coincidence. It requires a suspension of disbelief but if you buy into it then he gives you a hell of a ride. I like that he didn’t do detective stuff, as much as I love a good Chandler. I prefer stand alones about sad suckers who get stuck in quicksand of their own making.
I guess I would start with a Woolrich collection like Darkness at Dawn or Night & Fear. If you’re not hooked by the end of that then Noir is not your thing. Move on.
PS: I love Phantom Lady and Black Angel, but now you are reminding me how much Woolrich I still have to catch up on! Speaking of Black Angel and The Bride Wore Black... The femme fatale – is she really out for blood, or just the figment of an overly active, paranoid masculine imagination?
JBK: I could get into a lot of redundant analysis of how men are threatened by powerful, intelligent women, how men think with what’s below the belt rather than with what’s above the neck and that’s why the femme fatale is such a powerful character... but puh-lease. That’s not accurate so let’s not go there.
Here’s what I think: I think the femme fatale adds an element of danger for male readers in the same way a James Dean character made girls’ hearts go pitter-pat in the 1950s. The femme fatale is appealing but can you trust her? Is she misunderstood or truly bad? One just doesn’t know. The only thing that’s certain is that she’s got a secret and, humans being what we are, we just gotta know. And we gotta know no matter what. If that means a guy has to wrestle a rattle snake, well then I guess as long as the snake has big boobs he’ll probably enjoy the match, even if he gets bit.
EB: Wow, wrestling a rattlesnake is as good a metaphor for the femme fatale as I’ve ever heard.
Is it a cop-out to say, “a little of both”? I think the most famous and best loved (if they can be loved at all) are no doubt out for blood. On screen think Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Jane Palmer in Too Late For Tears, Jill Merrill in Night Editor or Paula Craig in Framed (both of the later played by Janis Carter, for some reason the least recognized but bitchiest bitch in Film Noir)
Now, if you talk about the perspective of the writers then you are entering different psychological territory. Are they mother figures? Stand-ins for the wife? Paranoid depictions of repressed homosexuality? Depends on the writer. Many volumes have been written, though, by angry undergrads about the rather misogynist tone of many, if not most, of Noir literature and especially the films.
The fact remains - the more blatantly self-serving and cold the femme, the more the audience loves her.
PS: Best film adaptation of noir literature?
JBK: I have no idea. I loved L.A. Confidential. And, I don’t guess you could call it noir, but Denis Lehane’s Shutter Island has always been one of my favorite books and that’s being made into a movie. I can’t wait to see what that one is like.
EB: This is so tough. So many great films have been made from rather pedestrian titles which I think makes a better adaptation than a great book to great movie transfer.
I’m tempted to go Woolrich again here. Rear Window is an easy target. How can you go wrong? Phantom Lady is a pretty good film from a solid but not amazing book.
But really I have to say The Asphalt Jungle is right up there but comes a close second to The Killing. The fact that Kubrick was allowed to retain the fragmented structure of the source material, Clean Break by Lionel White, is still shocking to me. But he came out with one of the best and most different crime films ever.
PS: Jennifer, I’m looking forward to Shutter Island as well. Both of you hit on some of the greats. I can’t argue with any of them. Alain Corneau’s Serie Noire, based on Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman, sits at the top of my list. How about a favorite pulp cover?
JBK: I can never pick a favorite of anything. My kids ask me stuff like this all the time... I love all the pulp covers. I have an old “Detective Short Stories” pulp from March 1939 and if I had to, I’d say that’s my favorite because I love that copy and I’ve read it a hundred times. It’s got a woman in a red dress on the front. Her back is pressed up against a guy with a gun. She’s in a red dress (of course), slightly ripped in front, hanging off the left shoulder. The man behind her is firing the gun. Behind him is a second man, crouched on a tabletop ready to jump him. It’s all very, very suspenseful. Really. It is.
EB: I can’t believe I have an answer for this. First off it should be said that there is no true way to pick one because just when you decide on something you see the next one and it becomes your favorite that week.
I have a soft spot for Kiss My Fist. I will admit that 50% of my love for this is the title. The boldness to put such violence right on display! It’s a good painting too. I could give a dozen that are just as good, if not better, art-wise but nothing compares to the combo of art and title.
It must also be said how thrilled we are with the cover for One Too Many Blows To The Head. It was painted by my good friend Marc Sasso who usually works in the fantasy realm. He does some truly phenomenal stuff and he graced us with this art as a favor. I told him exactly what we wanted and he knocked it out of the park. From there Jennifer and I did all the layout, font choice, positioning and stuff ourselves which was fun and kept us very invested in making it look great. We think it is a great throwback to vintage pulps but with a modern look too. So far the response has been great. It stands out at a bookstore too.
Now, invite me back when you talk about favorite Noir posters. I could talk for weeks on that. Gives me an excuse to sift through my collection too. So many great images, such little wall space.
PS: Lastly, what keeps you putting the words on paper even in hard times? Any words of wisdom you can share with the rest of us writers?
JBK: The love of words I guess. And the realization that there are so many good writers now getting recognized thanks to the evolution of small independent publishers. It’s like there’s this whole movement out there now and rather than feeling competition from writers, there’s this huge support system. Getting my work read doesn’t feel unobtainable. There are hundreds of writers in the same situation as me, all working at their craft simply because they love it. How can that not be inspiring?
Write what makes you happy. Read what makes you happy. Writing is tough enough. If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, you’ll be miserable.
EB: Jennifer is the old pro between us and this is only her second published book so we’re not ones to talk too much about wisdom. I have been writing various things, TV and film, for years and some of my best work decorates bookshelves and drawers all over Hollywood but the publication of this book is testament to a very obvious and over-stated fact: just keep writing. My first scripts weren’t that good. I trust my next novel will be better and the one after that even better. I learned SO much on this one from Jennifer’s much better critical eye and her noticing of several bad habits I have that exposed my lack of formal training.
For me writing a book or a movie is the one place where I can have total control over a story. For my day job I am a film and TV editor so I get notes from network execs every day of my life and my work changes and adapts according to others whims. Sometimes for the better, I’ll admit. Often not. But the fact is that I am not in control of my daily creative output. When I sit and write – I am.
People are so quick to completely change a script without a second thought. With a novel much less so. No one ever says, “Great! Love it! But what if he’s a girl and they live in New York, not Iowa and maybe she has a best friend who’s a ghost and they solve crimes together.”
So the thing that keeps me putting words to paper is the joy and satisfaction of creating a story from nothing and for that brief moment, not having to compromise. The compromising comes later.