What happens when a nuthouse runaway makes the acquaintance of a semi-psychotic reverend in a Memphis laundromat and the pair decides to take a road trip to North Mississippi? Get your riot gear on and prepare for the chaos. Neither crack dealer nor churchgoer is safe from this duo in The Bastard Hand, the debut novel of Heath Lowrance. The book was published by New Pulp Press, and it’s a real wild trip across the American South. Lowrance’s pen is on fire, and he writes with conviction, originality, and energy. For my full review, click here.
Lowrance was kind enough to answer some questions for Pulp Serenade about The Bastard Hand, as well as say a few words about his forthcoming projects.
Pulp Serenade: You begin The Bastard Hand with “In the beginning…” – So, how did The Bastard Hand begin for you? What’s the genesis of the story?
Heath Lowrance: It's been a few years since I wrote it, so I don't really remember what sparked the idea. I know I was reading a lot of William Faulkner at the time, and some Charles Willeford, and those two very different writers bled into my head and did a bunch of unpleasant things. I think I wanted to do something really visceral, something that didn't flinch away from ideas we normally think of as sacred, although the religious stuff just sorta crept in there when I wasn't paying attention. Next thing I knew, it took center stage.
PS: I’m a sucker for first lines, they’re one of my favorite parts of novels. Is there any story behind your first line: “My Apocalypse began without the fanfare you might expect.” Did you consider other first lines?
HL: That first line was one of the last things I wrote, actually. I didn't know when I started the book it would end so violently. But when it was done, I thought it might be a good idea to clue the reader in about what he or she was getting into here. A guy getting kicked out of a bar is no big deal. But that guy later deciding that he's God sorta shines a different light on it.
PS: The Bastard Hand doesn’t have traditional chapter numbers or titles. It’s an interesting and bold choice that I really liked – what were your intentions behind this?
HL: The idea was to keep it moving, keep it all feeling like part of a long narrative stream, like a guy telling you a story. And chapter breaks, when you think about it, are sort of false, anyway. Chapter One, Chapter Two... I mean, who cares what the chapter number is?
Some readers didn't care for that approach, though, and I guess I can understand that. That's no clear place to put a bookmark and go to bed. I'm trying the Ken Bruen approach with my next book-- that is, having chapter breaks but not calling them chapter breaks.
PS: I really liked your short story “Testament” – it’s gusty, clever, and pretty damn funny. And like The Bastard Hand, it reinterprets the Bible through new eyes. I could almost imagine Phineas Childe reciting it. Was it written at the same time as The Bastard Hand, or is there any other connection between the two?
HL: I'm glad you like “Testament”--it's supposed to be the first in a series of little stories that will eventually re-tell the entire Old Testament from the POV of God himself, without me making up anything except maybe the Big Man's state of mind at the time. I've sort of stalled on it a little, because it's been a good ten years since I've read the Bible and I intend to be as true to that book as possible. I have some heavy re-reading in the future...
Other than my bizarre fascination with the concept of religious faith, they don't have much to do with each other. The Bastard Hand isn't trying to be anything but a good story, albeit with some serious religious underpinnings. Testament, though... well, I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an agenda there.... ha.
PS: As you were writing The Bastard Hand, did the story change much from the original direction you wanted to take it in?
HL: Yeah, for sure. As I said, all that religious stuff just snuck in on me and took over. I wasn't aware until later that I'd put words in Charlie's mouth--and sometimes in Reverend Childe's mouth--that reflected some of my own thoughts about religion. I hope this doesn't scare anyone off from the book...primarily, it's just a fast-paced, ultra-violent Southern Gothic Psycho-Noir.
PS: Classic noir novels seem to be set in LA or NY, but now we’re seeing a lot more of the country – Woodrell is writing about the Ozarks, you writing about Memphis and North Mississippi, and Sallis is also writing about Tennessee in his John Turner trilogy. What do you make of this trend?
HL: It's the sense of isolation, I think. It breeds paranoia and uneasiness for outsiders. The Ozarks or the Appalachians or the woods of North Mississippi still have the very heavy weight of history, they still have the dark charm of a scary folk tale or ghost story. Even Memphis, which is obviously NOT isolated in the same way, still wears all its past sins on its sleeves, apparent in the old cotton warehouses, for instance: they're high-priced bungalows now, but it was only a hundred and fifty years ago that those very same warehouses were where slaves were worked and beaten. Market Street or Front Street, which is now so bohemian, was once the place where black men were sold to the highest bidder.
You can't get away from any of that in Memphis. The ghosts of it still linger downtown. That sort of backdrop really lends itself well to dark crime stories.
PS: It seems to me that one of the challenges of writing noir is negotiating how dark a character can be before losing the reader’s sympathy. Both Phineas and Charlie have their share of psychotic moments, but to me there’s also something kind of “normal” about them, if I can use that word. They’re sympathetic and, in a way, relatable. Or at least understandable. This is my long-winded way of asking, can you say a few words about developing your main characters, and what challenges you faced when writing them?
HL: Both Charlie and the Reverend were amazingly easy to write. Maybe they're both relatable because the idea of good guy/bad guy just didn't come into the equation. I tried to give both of them real foibles--Charlie his desperate need for human contact, the Reverend his burning desire for... um, booze? Women? But more importantly his thirst to bring Hell down upon the town of Cuba Landing. All those things are twisted, I suppose, but easily understandable.
PS: Did you ever encounter any roadblocks when writing the novel? If so, how did you keep from giving up or scrapping the project altogether?
HL: When I was about halfway through the book, some years ago, my entire life collapsed around me. Got a divorce, went into a monstrous tailspin of depression. Crashed on many sofas, ultimately slept in the back of my car. This crazy shit went on for almost two years before I finally got my act together (well, as much as possible!). When I finally got back to The Bastard Hand I had a very different perspective. So the second half of the book is maybe a bit angrier, a bit more "spiraling out-of-control"-feeling, whereas the beginning is a bit funnier.
PS: What does your writing station look like?
HL: It's a god-awful mess. Books and papers everywhere. Notebooks and loose change, flash drives and Batman action figures.
PS: Token goofy interview question: favorite snack while writing?
HL: White Cheddar Cheez-Its, which drives my wife nuts. That cheezy stuff sticks to your fingers and gets all over the keyboard.
PS: For a while you were hosting an Essential Noir series on your blog, Psycho Noir, where guests contributed their own lists. Where did the idea for this come from, and what does your To Be Read pile look like now?
HL: The idea came only because I was truly interested in what other people with good taste were reading. And it paid off--there were several writers mentioned that I'd never heard of, let alone read, and I immediately started in on making myself familiar with them.
To Be Read, currently: Vincent Zandri's re-issue of Godchild is waiting for review, and I'm really looking forward to it. I just bought a stack of Loren Estleman books that I haven't read yet. And another stack of Frank Kane stuff. More Richard Stark, because I can't allow a month to go by without reading him. Also, you had suggested a few good Westerns for me, which I really need to get to because I'm thinking I'd like to write a Western eventually.
PS: What’s up next for Heath Lowrance?
HL: Good Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, I have a second novel, called City of Heretics, which takes my pathological need to poke at religion to ridiculous lengths. There's an agent looking at it now, the agent of my dreams, actually, and with any luck she'll take the bait. In the meantime, I'm at work on a third, which has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with Professional Wrestling. It's called The Heel.
Those, and a handful of short stories here and there. The usual.
PS: Thanks, Heath, for your participation and best wishes for The Bastard Hand!