Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Interview with Crime Writer Phil Beloin Jr.

Phil Beloin Jr. writes crime novels and stories. His short fiction has appeared on many online crime fiction sites. I met Phil when we both attended the University of Bridgeport film program. He works a seasonal job, mostly in the spring and fall. This gives him time during the off-season to write. Join me as I take a look into the mind of a crime fiction writer.

Unreliable Narrator: How did you get interested in writing crime fiction, and do you consider it a contemporary version of the pulp fictions popular in the 20s, 30s, and 40s?
Phil Beloin Jr.: A friend of mine handed me a copy of James Crumley's Dancing Bear and I was hooked on crime fiction. Before that I had been reading anything that looked interesting, like the classics, best sellers, and almost any genre fiction with an enticing jacket. But with Crumley you had character, setting, plot, and prose blending into a thrilling, perfect read. I just couldn't believe how good it was, and still is on several re-reads.

What drives me to read and write crime fiction is that it delves into seedier milieus and the darker aspects of human behavior. Greed, lust, addiction, any self-destructive activities can be explored and exploited by a writer.
Today's crime fiction is certainly a progression of the golden age of pulp, but thanks to the Internet, pulp is making a strong comeback. There are quite a few sites out there (called e-zines) publishing pulp stories, with both modern settings and throwback pieces. Growing up in the 1970's, the pulp influence on TV included shows like Star Trek and the Super Hero cartoons. Those visuals, story lines, and characters have stuck with me and come into focus when I'm writing.

UN: You were interested in crime stories back in college. Who are some of your influences? Are filmmakers as much an influence as writers?
PB: My interest in crime stories came from my enjoyment of movies and TV shows. As a kid I just loved those 70's crime films, replayed on the tube. A fast ride of machismo, violence, and sex. Very exciting and so different from my quiet upbringing. The TV shows were good, too. I remember watching Cannon (with his car phone!), Barnaby Jones (an old detective, wasn't he on the Beverly Hillbillies?), The Rockford Files (my favorite of the 70's bunch), and even Magnum PI (an 80's detective, but pulpy all the way.)

UN: You write novels and stories. Which are more fulfilling?
PB: Novels are certainly harder to write and really require discipline. I enjoy that hard work, but it can burn me out. What I like about a short story is that it doesn't stay with me as long as a novel. I write it—in an hour, a week—then it's gone from my consciousness, sent off to a magazine or e-zine and I really don't think about it too much...It's on to the next idea, whatever it may be. So I think the shorts are more fulfilling. Plus I've placed a few and hope readers have enjoyed them.

UN: When you think up an idea, do you wonder, should I make this a story, a novel, or maybe consider it for a screenplay?
PB: Several of my short stories I think of as blueprints for novels. I did draft out a novel from one of my shorts, but the manuscript is currently sitting in a drawer...err in the hard drive of my computer. One of my novels, Zipp, would definitely make a great film. Jeez, my wife and I have already cast the thing.
A lot of the shorts I write are set-up pieces, plot heavy, with a twist. I'm going for a quick, fun, read.
Recently, though, I've gotten more internal with my shorts' characters, and they're getting darker. But the set-up pieces and darker shorts wouldn't make a great novel or a screenplay. (Though a film short wouldn't be out of the question!)

UN: Your stories, while mostly set in modern times, really seem steeped in the 1930s and ‘40s, with tough talking detectives and dames, criminals in flop houses, doomed lovers. Is this a conscious decision? An homage to the original pulps? Or do these settings come naturally?
PB: I really enjoy writing in a sparse, old fashioned way, and tossing in odd words and phrases. I think it keeps the read fun. Most of the crime novels I'm reading these days are all written in the same style. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy them; I'm just trying something a little different. So it is a conscious decision to steep my writings in the past, but at the same time, this style flows out of me quite easily, without much mining. I often wonder how I could know or remember some of the weird parlance that pops onto my computer screen. It's like, shit, where did that one come from?

UN: One of your other interests is American history. Ever consider working those elements into your stories?
PB: What I enjoy about American history is that it is great fodder for story ideas. My god—the morons, the greedy, the brilliant who have made this country what it is! History is a great insight into character, especially (the era) I love the most: the 19th century; when the United States became one country and began its quick ride to the TOP. I have one story, set in 1938, relying on historical fact, called A KILLER COMBO...besides that, I tend to name many characters after Civil War Officers. These names are quite flowery, especially those Southern folk.

UN: What attracts you to the crime genre? I mean, do you come up with the plot and then put some characters in the mix? Or do you think up the characters first, and then go, what can I do to really fuck them up?
PB: What attracts me to the genre is its believability factor. No matter how twisted or unusual the story is, it could actually happen (some have—watch the local news, another source for off-beat story ideas). I don't see life or the world in a 'speculative' way. Thus, crime writing. As to plot and character, depends on the idea. It's only as I get into it, do I try to twist plot and characters on their backs.

UN: You write during the months when you’re not working at your seasonal pay-the-mortgage job. What’s a typical writing day like?
PB: A typical day starts with trying to help get everybody off to school and work, which mostly involves staying out of their way. I usually read a little bit while the chaos runs amuck. Around 7:30 the house is empty, the coffee brewing. I check out my notes and ideas scribbled everywhere and sit at my desk. I write for four to five hours then lunch break. After lunch, I may write for an hour or so, or not at all depending how the morning has gone. I may peruse markets, looking to submit stories. Or I may stop working altogether and do other things. I try not to give myself a goal for the day, only that I work on something.

UR: After you’ve been away from writing for a month or two, what do you do to get back into the swing of it? What’s your writing process?
PB: When I decide to purchase a book, I look at that first sentence, first paragraph very carefully. I can tell a lot about the style from that. So for my writing I focus on the first line, the first paragraph. What can I do to hook the reader into my fiction, long or short? Opening lines are always popping into my head, but the question is, what can I do with them? For example, a few days ago, as my wife and I were out doing errands, this came to me: 'I'm a dropout, a drunk, a druggie, a dangerous motherfucker with a Derringer...' That's all I have so far and I don't know where it's going. But it sounds like a good start...So, what I do is look at some of these opening lines I've written down, and try to flesh something out from there. Usually it's a short story. Writing a few of shorts gets me back into writing something longer, or rewriting a manuscript in dire need of an overhaul. Oddly enough, sometimes I come up with what I think is a catchy or quirky title, and try to work a story out of that.

UN: How long did it take you to get published after you first sent out your work? Do you have any advice for writers looking to approach online publications?
PB: When I decided to write short stories, I didn't think I could do it. I mean, I had been working on two novels for years and that's all I knew how to write, mostly self-taught by reading and studying novels I liked. So my first short stories were quite long at 5000-6000 words. Hard for a novice to get these published. So I read shorter works found all over the Web, and those pieces showed me a few things. So a year after writing my first short, I wrote a 1000-word piece called "Sweet Wife" and sent it out to five markets. Three took it, (two rather quickly after submitting), and one even paid me for it. And so from that success, I kind of knew what I was capable of and what editors and readers were looking for in a short. My only advice on submitting to e-zines (is) read a few of their stories and if you like one or two, mention that in your cover letter to the editor. But be sincere.

UN: What are you working on now?
PB: The winter hiatus is coming up, and I'm rewriting several short stories I wrote over the summer and picking through some notes, seeing what flares up. Most are rather dark ideas focusing on mental illness and how it plays in noir. I.e. crazy broads and hoods up to no good.

UN: You mention James Crumley as an early influence. What contemporary writers do you read now?
PB: Two crime/noir writers with a unique style: James Ellroy, who has a tremendous impact on my thought process, and Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor series. I've read nothing like these two guys. Both are brilliant, while being suspenseful, violent, sad, funny, and, above all, entertaining.
And while they might not need the plug, check out the Hard Case Crime series. Most of these books are beauties, including some great ones from the distant, and not-so-distant, past.

UN: What are your future plans? Another novel?
PB: Right now FIVE STAR publishing is looking at my novel, THE BIG BAD. If accepted, I’m sure I'm looking at re-writes. Also, I have a rough draft for a sequel, called THE BIGGER BAD, which I want to improve and get ready to show.

You can find some of Phil’s writing here:
Sweet Wife
The Last Loose End
Drop Off
A Pain in the Ass
Shallow End
A Killer Combo
The Black Bat, his only speculative piece, written in college


Liz (made in lowell) said...

Wow, fantasic interview of a really interesting guy! Love it

Liz's Mom said...

What a great idea for a blog post.
I enjoyed reading this interview, I love the funny, tough talking style of writing. You bring that out by your good questions, to which Phil wrote excellent answers. GREAT lurid book jacket photos.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Excellent interview, Dell. It's interesting to learn a bit about a genre of writing that's unfamiliar -- to me, anyway. :)
Fun to read about Phil and his writing process!