Sunday, November 15, 2009

Interview with Tom Piccirilli

Winter may be approaching, but you don’t know cold unless you’ve read Tom Piccirilli’s Shadow Season, a bleak, snow-bound nightmare of isolation, mistrust, and unleashed emotions. Thankfully, though, Tom Piccirilli is the exact opposite, a warm and friendly writer who generously took the time to answer a few questions for the site. Here is our recent conversation:

Pulp Serenade: For the first question, why don’t we start at the beginning? Where did Shadow Season start for you – was it a character, a location, a mood? All of these seem integral to the novel.

Tom Piccirilli: I'm not someone who can ever point to a particular reason for any of my work. I'm not sure how or even when an idea begins to take root. But by the time I'm ready to start writing there's something there, a kernel of a concept with some basic idea of character, setting, theme, etc. It all kind of hits at once, everything more or less tangled together. I think that's why they all appear to be so integral, because they are integrated right from the get-go.

PS: How did you come to choose the two epigrams, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and the gruesome folk rhyme “The Two Dead Boys”?

TP: I wanted something moody that really encapsulated the feel and atmosphere of the novel. The surreal and intensely dark (but also quite bizarre and humorous) "Two Dead Boys" seemed to really hit home. It mirrors and parallels in a warped fashion some of the narrative drive of the book. The book is dark and intense and offbeat, and so is the piece. The Eliot poem is one of my favorites and I love the music of the stanza. The idea that a shadow takes on human qualities really hit home for me.

PS: One of the things I was most drawn to was the deliberate pacing. How do you gauge the narrative speed of your own work, the rate at which the story and details unfold?

TP: I just don't do "normal" very well. Some writers do. They spend the proper amount of time showing their protagonists in a life of normalcy and then describe things going to hell in a handbasket. I prefer to start in the basket, already in motion, in third gear at least, with the story already whipping along. It helps to keep me interested in the story over the long haul, and hopefully keeps the reader gripped as well.

PS: In what ways did Finn’s blindness challenge or liberate you as a writer?

TP: It was difficult as hell because the novel is written from Finn's point of view, so I had to change my usual narrative style. I couldn't use any concrete details or visual descriptions. I had to focus in on using the other senses and in experimenting with how else to tell the tale to readers who are used to being fed depictions and colors and visual illustrations. I wrote most of the book with my eyes closed, purposefully making it difficult on myself so that, to a very small degree, I could imagine how being blind would effect me. It seemed to me that in films and books the blind protagonists always got along so well. It never made them bitter, never truly handicapped them. So I wanted to focus in on the pain involved, the fear of losing your grounding, your life, your mind.

PS: I was very intrigued by this subculture of “holler” families that lies at the margins of the town. Where did the name “holler” come from?

TP: "Holler" is standard for "hollow," the small in-between towns tucked back in the hills and valleys, usually in the deep south and Appalachia. I wrote a couple of southern gothics a few years back and learned a lot of these small communities during my research. I just took it out of the south and moved it to upstate New York, which can often feel just as off the map as any other place in the boondocks.

PS: Finn, Ray, Roz, Rack, Harley – none of them seem to fit traditional notions of heroes and villains. And at one point, you even describe Finn’s thoughts as, “He wonders if Rack Moon, this knife wielding rapist, has tender dreams for his family?” Can you talk about this delicate blend of characters that are certainly sympathetic, but often highly reprehensible?

TP: The gray area between good and evil is the most fascinating place to work in, I think. If you want to be truthful to the story, the idea of human nature itself, then you can't have a character who is totally good or totally evil. There's no such thing, really. The villain is the hero of his own story. They all have their genuine reasons for doing what they do, no matter what kind of fallout or consequences. When writing these characters I had a lot of fun trying to move the needle on the gauge a little. Okay, in this scene, this guy is more bad. Now he's a little bit more good. Okay, she's just fucking awful. No wait, she's doing something nice. It keeps the reader on his toes and is simply more honest, I feel.

PS: Could you say something about your decision to write the novel in the present tense as opposed to the past? As a reader, it stood out as very significant for me.

TP: Present tense is so immediate, and when you're writing from your protagonist's POV, it really puts you in his head. Since I was, as I mentioned, a little hamstrung in my ability to describe and detail events, I thought I could make up for that by going even deeper into the character. That's really what a book is. It's someone or something sort of whispering this tale in your ear. "You wanna hear an amazing tale? Well, here it is–" Present tense allowed me to get a little closer to the reader, hiss in his ear a little louder.

PS: At the beginning of the book, Jesse remarks on how Finn never broke the spines of any of his books. What are your habits as a reader? Do you have a large library of your own?

TP: I'm a non-stop reader and I'm still pretty obsessive about keeping my books in good shape. Over the past couple of years my tastes have narrowed to reading mostly crime fiction. As big a fan as I am of science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc., I just can't keep my head interested in any of it at the moment. I'm sure the wheel will turn again one day, but for the time being, I'm a noir-head.

PS: In your bio, you mention that you enjoy reading Gold Medal books. What is it about them that continues to attract readers half a century later, and how do you see yourself influenced by them?

TP: I think a lot of it goes back to that gray area I mentioned earlier. Noir fiction essentially takes a righteous person and focuses on that weakness in him that tempts him to cross over into doing selfish, greedy, unrighteous things. But it's all understandable. You can understand why these people do these terrible things. You understand the fear, the vice, the temptation, the lust that moves them away from the good but meager life and try to grab the big bad brass ring. Whether that brass ring takes the form of stolen bank loot, an underage temptress, a seductive married woman, or whatever, you are totally on board for the ride. I think that's why I dig them so much. As I climb screaming into middle age, a lot of rose-colored petals have fallen from my eyes. I now understand the pain of mediocrity, the power of the unfulfilled dream, the desire for greater satisfactions. That human drive is a human greed. The older you get the louder the clock ticks, and the harder you're willing to push and the more you're willing to gamble on getting what you want. Dealing with that in my fiction is a nice way to vent.

PS: Your bio also mentions “trash cult films” and “Asian cinema,” and I think one can detect a certain cinematic strain in Shadow Season, particularly its pacing. Have you ever done any writing for movies before, or are you interested in doing some?

TP: I'd love to do some work for Hollywood. It hasn't happened yet, but I'm willing as fuckall.

PS: What is an average writing day like for Tom Piccirilli? Where and how does all of this happen?

TP: In a manner of speaking I write all day long. Meaning I try to stay in the proper mindset to write. So I'll read for a while, and then write a few paragraphs. Then I'll watch a movie, and then write a page. Then I'll walk the dogs, and I'll write a bit more. It helps to keep me from burning out in front of the screen. I don't understand these people who say they write from 8am to 10pm. I also don't believe them, but that's another story. The point being, the story is always there in the back of my head, and it's always going no matter what I'm doing. I try to write 1k clean words a day that won't need a lot of editing down the line.

PS: So much of Shadow Season has to do with the various pressures felt by Finn. As a professional writer, what sort of pressures do you feel?

TP: Like I'm sitting at the bottom of the ocean, baby. The pressures of life stack up, and making a living by tapping on a keyboard and making up stories is a rough trade. The pressure to produce, the pressure to be original, to not repeat myself, to keep shouldering through the other writers and make room on a bookstore shelf for my work, to pay bills without being a corporate wage slave, and not getting the benefits that said wage slaves get. But mostly it's about staring at the empty blank white page and trying to put something on there that people will want to read. It's a constant fight against the white.

PS: Has the experience of writing a novel changed for you over the past two decades?

TP: I know my voice better now than back when I was starting out. The process has evolved. I write a little faster now than I did back then, but there's a bigger fight not to repeat myself, not to cover the same territory. When you've got 20 novels and a couple hundred stories behind you, you've got to search farther and farther from home for material.

PS: And lastly, what is next for you? Any upcoming projects that we should be looking forward to?

TP: My next novel is called The Underneath, although that's a tentative title, and it should be out sometime in ‘10. It's about a young man who returns home to his family of thieves on the eve of his brother's execution in order to find out why his brother went on a killing spree. It's as much a family saga as it is a crime novel. A new novella from Tasmaniac called The Last Deep Breath will see print early next year as well, and a digital novella Cold Comforts will be available for download from Delirium Books sometime in the next few weeks. Keep checking my FB page and the blog for updates:


  1. Great interview. I do fancy that SHADOW SEASON.

  2. Nice interview.

    "As I climb screaming into middle age, a lot of rose-colored petals have fallen from my eyes. I now understand the pain of mediocrity, the power of the unfulfilled dream, the desire for greater satisfactions. That human drive is a human greed. The older you get the louder the clock ticks, and the harder you're willing to push and the more you're willing to gamble on getting what you want."

    was my favorite part of it.

  3. A great interview with some interesting questions and responses. I'm inspired to try this guy -Amazon here I come.

  4. I'm with the Archavist in visiting Amazon. Terrific interview.

  5. Tom is my favourite writer at the moment.

    RE: "whispering in one's ear"

    Tom has that (rare) ability with his words to be both elegant, terrorizing, and believable BECAUSE reading him is like someone whispering a story in one's ear.

    It's often painful to slog through some of these Big Time Writers' (and their adjectives and adverbs) novels, luckily that's NOT the case with Mr. Piccirilli.

    Great questions (and answers) BTW.


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