Frank Bill is the author of the collection of stories Crimes in Southern Indiana (FSG Originals, 2011), and the upcoming Donnybrook, due out this month. He talks with us about his Midwestern roots, his inspirations, and his fascination with “grit lit.”
Midwestern Gothic: First things first, tell us about your Midwestern roots.
Frank Bill: I’m born and raised in southern Indiana, where I still live. Growing up I was fascinated by tough guy films like Rambo, Terminator, High Plains Drifter, Dirty Harry, Lone Wolf McQuade, The Deer Hunter, Conan the Barbarian and old Shaw Brother’s Chinese kung fu films. My father always took me fishing, we’d catch minnow’s and crawdad’s in the creek for bait. We hunted on my step- grandfather’s farm where most of my childhood was spent in the woods, building fires, forts, climbing trees, mushroom hunting and sometimes helping with the cutting of wood as my grandparents didn’t have electric heat, they’d a wood stove. And when I wasn’t on the farm I was with my father when he frequented the local VFW or American Legion for Turkey shoots, Grilled Chicken benefits or just stopping in for a drink to socialize and play euchre.
MG: What do you think defines this place?
FB: The people, good or bad and the terrain, the area is rich for hunting, fishing and holds a lot of character.
MG: How long have you been writing?
FB: I started writing seriously around 1999 or 2000 after watching a film with my wife called Fight Club. I’d never been a big reader of fiction, though I read a lot of non-fiction and comic books growing up. But the film struck a chord in me, the whole consumerism thing, about people buying into an image and becoming a product and of course male identity. In the film credits I saw the film based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, so I searched this cowboy out and read everything he’d written at the time and told myself, I want to be a writer. Which led me to my next influence, Larry Brown.
MG: Do you believe the Midwest has affected your fiction? And if so, how?
FB: Yeah, my writing is defined by where I live and how I was raised and what I’ve done and seen. The area, like any place I suppose, is full of colorful individuals, anything from the down on his luck factory worker to the lawyer who cooks meth in their kitchen.
MG: Can you tell us a bit about what your inspirations were for Crimes in Southern Indiana, how it came together, and your experience of finding a publisher for it?
FB: Crimes in Southern Indiana started with a few short stories way back around 2004 or 2006. The first short story that I’d ever written was “The Accident” and in a sense it was a subconscious story about an explosion I was involved in at work but was also influenced by a story I grew up around about my father mowing his mother’s yard. He slipped, had his foot mangled by the mower. Then I wrote “The Old Mechanic” which is loosely based upon stories from my mother about her abusive father and the first time I met and spent the day with him. Next, I wrote “A Coon Hunter’s Noir” which was a combination of my father being a war vet and my step-grandfather being an avid coon hunter. On down the road I wrote “The Pennance of Scoot McCutchen” after my step-grandfather died of brain cancer.
There were a lot of stories in-between as I kept going back and forth with voice, style and structure. That’s on top of two novels. I was more or less trying to write what I thought journals wanted rather than writing what I wanted. Somewhere around 2008 I’d had enough and wrote a short story called Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell which was inspired by a girl up north disappearing and was later found face down in a creek bed. That story got accepted by a journal called Lunch Hour Stories and then I wrote “Old Testament Wisdom” which found a home online at Thuglit. After those stories, I kept writing what I wanted, got some great advice from the editor at Plots With Guns, Anthony Neil Smith, who took an interest in my work, I call him my mentor, you know cause he offered his input and guidance and he’s a damn good writer as well.
But I gained a small online following, made friends with a lot of writers, Keith Rawson, Jed Ayres, Greg Bardsley, Kieran Shea, Kyle Minor, David Cranmer and Elaine Ash. BY 2009 I’d written enough short stories and on Neil Smith’s advice I put all them together as a manuscript and he along with two other writers, Scott Phillips and Kyle Minor, recommended a few agents, one being Stacia Decker. The first agent dug the stories but felt there wasn’t anyone to root for but wanted to see a novel if I ever wrote one, the second was interested in the stories and wanted a novel as well. I was in the middle of writing Donnybrook by this time and I sent her what I had, she signed me after reading the rough unfinished manuscript. Once the manuscript was finished, we went through a few editing phases. Then Stacia sent it out to editors. I got a text within a few weeks when I was at work, “Editors at FSG are fans of your work, can you speak to them by phone this week?”
And that’s I what I did. We had a 40 minute conversation about the stories, the novel, my influences, how long I’d been writing and where I was from. Then I waited for about a week, longest week of my life before I got another text and a phone call and I agreed to a two book deal.
MG: You’ve seen some considerable success with the release of Crimes—GQ named it one of their favorite books of 2011, and The Daily Beast called it one of the best debuts of that year. Has this made it easier or harder to write? Has it affected what you want to write about, and what approach you take?
FB: None of that has affected my writing. GQ and The Daily Beast have been very kind to me and my work. The goal for me is to grow as a writer. Hardest part was not using the same structure for another book and so when I began on my follow up to Donnybrook, I wrote 10k words and set it aside. It was very different. Told from the single point of view of a teenage boy. I second guessed myself. Started something else. Then went back to it and it still held power and movement and I decided this is my next book regardless of if there was interest. And 50 pages turned into 150 pages for the first of three parts and now I have another two book deal with FSG.
MG: You classify your fiction as “grit lit”—can you tell us what defines that subgenre? In your experience, do you find that the Midwest lends itself to presenting the gritty side of life, more so than other regions of the country?
FB: As much as I hate labels or being categorized, I think grit lit is an acceptable term, which I first heard given to author Larry Brown’s work. My writing falls somewhere between crime, literary, action/adventure and masculine. Grit lit for me, shows the working or struggling class. The blue collar men and women, how they get by from day to day dealing with loss, addiction, their job and family problems. Basically dark stories of the human condition. And I don’t think the Midwest is any different than any other region, I mean every area has a south, every area has struggle, poverty and crime. Meaning every place has a story, its voice that separates how it is told but the Midwest has been overlooked.
MG: Do you have any personal connection to writing about grit lit, other than enjoying it as a genre?
FB: Personal in the sense that I can relate to it because of my upbringing. I was surrounded by strong willed men and women who constantly struggled to get by. I watched my parents work to make ends meet as a kid, my father had three jobs at one point, so did my uncle, my mother worked in factories, my grandparents never had indoor plumbing or electric heat. They were country folk, had a cistern, which gave the running water and heated their farmhouse with a wood stove. They had an outhouse. No A/C in the summer, basically open windows and window fans, vegetables from the garden, meat came from hunting or butchering cattle. I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything. From this comes an inner toughness that people no longer have. Which plays a big role in my work. I’m a guy and I write about men. Violence and their actions, good or bad, I’m not into mellow drama or sappy story lines. You either get my work or you don’t.
MG: Your new novel Donnybrook (FSG Originals, March 2013) revolves around a three-day bare-knuckle tournament and the antics of an eccentric cast of fighters and onlookers. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for the novel? Is the Midwest itself a key to the plot? Do you think you could set it anywhere else to the same effect?
FB: I wanted to write about fighting in a way that others had not. Focusing on how a fighter sizes other people up, how they actually fight. The mechanics of how a punch, kick or elbow or head butt is thrown and how the body reacts. Meth was and is something that has taken the heartland by storm and I wanted to showcase that with real characterization, from the cooks to the cutthroats and also the addiction and the maddening lengths that addicts will go to get and use it. Meth had once been popularized by bikers but its ignited across the Midwest, so yes the Midwest is a key point and it wouldn’t have the same effect unless it was a problem in a different area.
MG: What’s next for you?
FB: Two more novels, Land of the Salvaged and the Savage, Back to the Dirt, and a project I signed on for but can’t announce and some other stuff that’s brewing….
MG: How can people sum up the Midwest in 100 words or less?
FB: The area is great for hunting, fishing and antiquing. There’s a lot of great places to eat and drink, we dig our food and our beer and our guns. It’s great for hunting mushrooms and ginseng. But there’s always those places that are buried deep down the back roads that tourists don’t see and some locals like to pretend do not exist, the struggling, the dopers and those that’ll do what they have to in order to get by and if you think I’m lying ask the local police department or watch the evening news.