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

Friday, November 21, 2008

Books in My Lobby 4

I've never heard of Joseph Kanon (only 181,000 google results--oh, he wrote The Good German) but I really wonder how captivating and intriguing and tense and superb it is. Let's see what the critics really say.

From "What if? If Joe Kanon had remained a publisher, the mystery reading world would have been cheated the skills of a very competent storyteller." Not bad, not great. Let's see what Publisher's Weekly has to say: "Kanon's second novel, after the very well-received Los Alamos, is somewhat disappointing." Can you say Sophomore slump? I can. Sophomore slump. Library Journal says: "A treat for crime fans who appreciate blithe and brittle writing." Better, better. One more. This from Booklist: "Readers who enjoy Kanon's exciting mixture of the real and the imagined should flock to this excellent historical crime novel." Score! Well played Mr. Kanon, well played indeed.

What's the cheapest copy I can find? Sorry Mr. Kanon, but a used copy of your mass market paperback sells through Amazon for just $0.01.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Since putting away the first draft of my novel, I’ve been working on revising short stories. Not a bad way to pass the time. But whenever I sit to write it takes a few moments to remember what I worked on the day before. The narrative thread that tied together my novel is on a hiatus. So, I have to create temporary narrative threads for each story I write.

It doesn’t always work. I miss living with the same characters for months at a time. The characters from my stories live in bursts, sometimes brilliant, but often foggy and unformed. Especially if I’m still figuring out what the story’s about and what the characters are supposed to do. But characters from a novel stay with me. I know what they eat, what they do on an average Wednesday, what music they listened to in college, whether they know how to spell communiqué.

My novel characters hibernate as I consider them during their long winter, until I'm ready to sit back down and exhume them for another go-round. And when I do, they'll come alive and show me what their favorite colors are and how they quit their first job by skywriting a note to their boss and why they broke up with their pregnant girlfriend on Valentine's day then asked her out the day after.

Until then, I’m rudderless; dealing with cranky protagonists who bother me to understand why I brought them into my world, confused about what to do next. They’re not my first loves, but they’ll have to do for a while.

Friday my iPod Slept Late

Black Lipstick—Grandma Airplane
The Cure—Catch (live bootleg)
Echo and the Bunnymen—It’s all over now, Baby Blue (Live)
Orange Juice—Poor Old Soul (Part One)
Bill Nelson—Another Day, Another Ray of Hope
Pavement—Summer Babe (Winter Version)
The Jesus and Mary Chain—Hole
The Field Mice—The Last Letter
Gnarls Barkley—Last Time
Underworld—Boy Boy Boy
Thievery Corporation—Lebanese Blonde
Figurine—New Mate
New Order—The Him
Belle & Sebastian—I Don’t Love Anyone

Monday, November 17, 2008

Taking a Break

I’ve dusted off an old story that I started maybe four years ago. I read it over and thought, “Not too bad. I can work with this.” I started writing it again, finished a draft, and gave it to my trusty reader, Liz, to get some feedback. “I like it. It’s interesting,” she said, but she went on to point out that there wasn’t a lot of conflict.

In my story the tables are turned on my protagonist and things aren’t what they originally appeared (I won’t bore you with the details). That part's fine, but when my protagonist doesn’t get what he was hoping to get, he doesn’t really care. Liz’s comments made me take another hard look at the story’s structure. Yes, strange things happen and there is plenty of opportunity for conflict, but I realized I missed the opportunities. As Ms. X is fond of saying, “The conflict is there, you just have to find it and bring it out.” I’m paraphrasing. Ms. X is much more perceptive and charmingly off-the-cuff than I.

So, I agreed with my insightful reader, and the ghost of Ms. X (she is not dead, just off in self-imposed exile working feverishly on a second-novel deadline, and remains unavailable for comment). I started working on a second draft by trying to pin-point the areas that needed some trimming, rethinking, and restructuring. I added more back story for my protagonist, cut one character while moving a secondary character into primary position. The story follows basically the same path, I just reconfigured the algorithm.

Or so I thought. The past couple days found me antsy at the keyboard, harrumphing the thought of spending more time on this story. Something was wrong. With the story or my approach to the changes. Hard to say. In a novel when the writing isn’t going well, the scene I’m working on becomes bogged down, and I rewrite the same sentence ten times before moving on, this signals that I’ve run off the rails. When this happens, and I recognize that it’s happening (this ah-ha moment usually comes after a couple days of head banging), then I back myself out of the scene until I hit that spot in the narrative when things started to go wrong. I right myself (the scene, the writing), remove the offending pages (or chapter, hopefully no longer than that) and start writing from the time just before things went bad, continuing into the scene in the new way.

Sure, great for a novel. But does this approach work for a short story? I can’t go back to the beginning of the story and cut out all the offensive stuff. Because then I wouldn’t have a story. I’m not sure what to do. I’m stuck in the middle to last third of the narrative. I’m at a point where I’m about to introduce a fourth character into the mix. I admit I don’t know all the characters that well. I’m a little flummoxed about how old this fourth character is, what she will mean to the protagonist (mother/sister figure, or possible girlfriend), and how the story will play out after I add her.

I’m too close to the story. I need to step back. It’s time to put it away and work on something else for a while. I’m a big advocate for taking time off from any writing. When I come back to a piece after a break (week, month, year) my emotions are drained off the prose; I have no sentimental tie to the narrative and can cut judiciously and objectively. A sentence that once made sense because of my emotional frame of mind stands stark and affectless, ready for the chopping block.

It sounds a little harsh, but it’s a necessary part of writing. My story will be better off collecting dust while I go off and cozy up to another piece of old writing whose time has come. Then, when my sub-conscious has worked out all the difficult bits for me (because that’s the way I imagine it goes down) then I’ll open up that document again and read it over and hopefully know just how to finish it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

2666, the New Novel by Roberto Bolaño

A few months ago I finished reading the English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I’m a slow reader, plus I read more than one book at a time, but the time expense was worth the enviously dizzying, meandering, and generally satisfying result. The Savage Detectives doesn’t feature any detectives in the classic Merriam-Webster definition. Instead its pages are populated by hundreds of Latin American poets, wannabes, groupies, and hangers on. This mammoth book’s plot, if you can call it that, is a fractured, voluminous story of renegade Chilean poets who start an extremist poetry movement. These are young men and women using poetry to rebel and grow up and run off and make love and slowly or quickly die. The book reads like a progression of short stories, all connected, sometimes tenuously, by a core of poets that realizes the only way to speak out against repression in 1970s Central America is to kick in the teeth of established literary greats like Pablo Neruda.

The Savage Detectives shouts to the rooftops in a style that reminds me of sitting around a huge campfire with a hundred guests telling their stories of events surrounding the core poets. Imagine writing a book with a hundred different voices, spanning decades, and covering thousands of miles. Bolaño wrote like a man on fire. Which he sort of was: he died in 2003 at age 50. In the 1990s he knew he was a goner and he pushed his poetry aside and feverishly ground out short stories and novels. English translators are still catching up.

Just before he died, Bolaño completed what many critics are calling his greatest accomplishment, 2666, a novel published this week in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I don't have my copy yet, but it sounds sprawling, split into five sections that, from what I’ve read, could be five separate novels and is “…based in part on the still unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, in the Sonora desert near the Texas border.” It also no doubt touches upon many themes struck in Detectives (and it should be said, his short stories and other novels): literature as journey, as country, as a political ideal; sex and violence; spiritual longing; the search for home/country.

Adding to the mystique is that, while getting a proper release in hardback, it’s also being published concurrently as a set of three paperbacks. In a sleeve!

I love packaging: if the book looks unique, I’ll consider buying it based on physical merits. Plus 2666 is big. 900 pages big. I love big books. Well, the idea of them. I love picking them up and walking around the bookstore with them. And if I buy them I will certain start them and maybe the story will hold my interest enough to get to the end (often by page 200 you pretty much get the idea of any novel) and then I can let it sit like a trophy on my shelf. That’s what happened with DFW’s Infinite Jest; I never got past page 200. But I will come back to that one day. Promise.

2666 sounds irresistibly nuts and maybe groundbreaking and possibly disappointing and wonderfully huge. It’s one book, it’s three books, it’s one book. I guess the idea is to read it and find out. Coming so fresh off of The Savage Detectives I’m not sure I’m ready for another heady, heavy dose of Bolaño. But one thing is certain; I won’t be able to stay away for long.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rex: The Patron Saint of Writers

Sure, you thought the patron saint of writers was St. Francis de Sales. Well, that may well be. But Frank best make room. There's a new saint in town. Saint Rex. I can't say for certain whether he's comfortable being the saint for ALL writers. But he has proven to be a more-than-adequate saint for this writer.

Because of Rex, I can now be online at the same time as Liz. Impossible you say. Not so, thanks to Rex. I can write in the house, or walk down the street and sit under a tree and write in the word processing program of my choice. Insane, how could such a thing be? I know. I never thought it was possible either. Until Rex.

I don't want to embarrass the man...ur, saint. But if Rex hadn't swooped in when he did, I wouldn't be able to expand my writing schedule. For example, I can write while waiting at Goodyear for an oil change. Or while on the road. Or on vacation. At the beach. Or any damn place I want. Saints would rather their disciples not divulge their affinities. But, damn, this laptop works great! Thanks to Saint Rex!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Books in My Lobby 3

Most books in my lobby aren't my cup of java, but I couldn't resist picking up another J.D. Salinger, even though I have about 2 or 3 copies of each of his books already. I just knew it would go to a good home if I snatched it up. Unfortunately, when I brought it back up to my abode, I found the thing smelled of the worst industrial-strength air freshener. I did what my Dad always does when he buys some moldy old books: I aired it out. Since I don't have a porch or a patio or a yard, I propped it in one of our open windows. It took a few days, but the stink finally went away.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Writer’s Education, Part Deux: On Becoming a Novelist

So. How did I continue to produce pages without getting derailed by my perceived shortcomings as a writer? Advice from pro authors and from careful amateurs. I read published novels that had been edited and proofed by professionals. And I had trustworthy readers pore over my drafts and mark them up for me. The more I read and wrote, revised and corrected, the greater my confidence grew.

Soon after I started writing I picked up a book that would become invaluable to my early efforts: John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist. John Gardner, who died at age 49 in 1982, was a celebrated novelist and writing instructor. Raymond Carver, one of his former students, wrote the book’s forward. In the book, Gardner discusses, among many other topics, the education of young writers. I was relieved to read that it was okay to not go to college for writing. In fact, the way he made it sound, it was almost preferable that I was busy living my life and earning the experiences that I would eventually get busy writing about. His words were a validation of the way I was living as a writer.

I still have my original copy of On Becoming a Novelist. Instead of highlighting the pages of interest, I used scraps of paper as bookmarks. Many are still there. I marked a section about combating self-doubt and self-consciousness. Gardner served up a crash course in being true to the fictive dream and not just writing to sell. He introduced me to the idea that you can either write for publication (which, in his estimation, wasn’t a hard goal to achieve) or become a serious novelist. In other words, “…a dedicated, uncompromising artist, and not just someone who can publish a story now and then.”

As with any how-to book, some pieces of advice stuck, and some rolled away for someone else to pick up. But when Gardner wrote about a “quality of strangeness” in all great writing, this sounded like a clue to something I needed to strive for. “There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected—for instance, the late, surprising entrance of Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment, Mr. Rochester’s disguise in Jane Eyre,…” I tapped into this advice as early as I could; the idea that a piece of writing could be great, could transcend. That image is what I keep out there in front of me, the reward that urges my writing, keeps me revising and fussing, worrying my drafts into what I someday want to realize as sublime versions of a specific truth.

Around the time I found On Becoming a Novelist, I had an opportunity to talk to a real author on the phone. It came about like this: My father was a used book dealer on Cape Cod. One of his summer customers was William Hanley, a published novelist from the late 60s/early 70s who had gone on to make a living in TV, winning an Emmy and such. My father was kind enough to ask Mr. Hanley if it wouldn’t be alright to have his aspiring-novelist son give him a call and seek some advice. Mr. Hanley was kind enough to agree.

I got through to him at his Long Island home. I imagined the Jaguar I knew he drove parked out front, next to the four-car garage and the servant’s quarters. Mr. Hanley was gracious over the phone, giving practical advice like when sending chapters to an agent, send consecutive chapters. He admitted he no longer had contacts in the publishing world and couldn’t help there. He conveyed that, from his experience, writing was a long, hard road. Not an easy way to make a living. Don’t expect to. He wistfully wished me good luck. I hung up and wondered if it was easier to dole out advice from the far end of Long Island than receive it in a three-family dump in greater Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Gardner said, “One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel.” I’d add that to be an honest writer, or to be any good at all, you need to keep your id tapped and ready. Maybe your id is your adolescent self, a youthful yet world-wise doppelganger that doesn’t allow clichés to touch paper, constantly scanning your pages for vague language and passive voice, maybe she alerts you to crummy dialogue and overuse of the word Suddenly. Needless to say, I’ve continued writing. And while I have only a few publishing credits, I’ve chosen the middle ground: fighting to stay true as a creative writer while trying to get published.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Writer’s Education, Part 1

I didn’t grow up aching to write. I didn’t know I would be a writer until I was out of college. So it follows that I didn’t spend my college years writing a first novel that would become a brilliant senior thesis, landing me an agent before graduation and a lucrative book deal before deciding which MFA program to grace with my talent, insight, and humility. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

I went to school for cinema. I’ve always loved movies and wanted to learn everything about them. I took screenwriting courses as an underclassman, but never considered expanding writing studies beyond an English Composition 101 writing class. So I felt thoroughly under prepared when I recognized that, for better or worse, I would live out the rest of my adult life as a writer.

A revelatory combustion occurred on a snowy February afternoon. I was a few months out of college, living with cousins in Easton, Connecticut. Relations nice enough to let me crash in the spare bedroom for twenty bucks a week. I wasn’t working, so I had some time on my hands. Officially I was still finishing up my senior thesis film, but that certainly wasn’t paying the rent. On a sunny snow-brilliant Sunday afternoon while my host family sat in the next room doing crosswords and watching a movie, I set out my Smith-Corona typewriter on a TV dinner table, pulled up a folding chair, and started pounding away. It was like my fingers were taking dictation from some hot primal force.

I wrote 30 pages. It was a cacophony of ink on paper, not to mention an extreme display of productivity I’ve never equaled. When finally I finished, fingers cramped, mojo spent and sleeping in a corner, I stepped out of my room into the stunned faces of my cousins. I figured they were pissed that I had made such a racket on their day of rest. But cousin Tempe said, “Wow, what are you working on in there? You typed all afternoon.” I looked at the clock on the VCR. Three hours had passed so quickly for me that I hadn’t noticed it getting dark. “I don’t know,” I said.

Those 30 pages turned out to be the beginning of a novel. Another 150 or so joined them on the pile until I ran out of story. That novel begot another, basically a rewrite of the first one that I was able to take to the end, even after I’d run out of story. And from that novel came, finally, another very similar novel, sharing the same themes, locations, and many of the same characters. If you look at novels in terms of time, I spent about ten years on the process of writing one novel.

For years after that cold February afternoon when I made such a racket and became a questionable commodity in my cousin’s eyes, I wondered if I was a writer. Even though I continued to write. I didn’t have the writing background. I hadn’t had the right education. I had spent my college years parsing movies reel-by-reel, frame-by-frame. I wasn’t writing story after novel after poem. So what made me think I could be a writer? How naive. How utterly self-centered to think that anybody cared what I thought about or wrote.

Aside from not majoring in creative writing or choosing to pursue an MFA, one of the biggest hurdles to clear was my cruddy grammar skills. I had none. I must have been asleep in the right high school English class because I couldn’t have told you the difference between a dangling participle and pluperfect tense. Plus, my spelling was atrocious. My drafts were riddled with grammatical blunders, syntactic nightmares, and tense problems. Overall, I was an English teacher’s heart attack in a handy human package. So how did I continue writing without getting totally disheartened?