Eric Beetner: The Terribleminds Interview
I met Eric Beetner recently when he and Monsignor Blackmoore were kind enough to have me read some Miriam Black at the LA Noir at the Bar, and Eric read a slam-bang piece of grimy, gritty crime fiction that assured me he’d be a natural fit to talk about his work here at the site. I’ve hooked the car batteries up to his manly components — let’s see what he says when we turn up the juice, yeah? (You can find Eric at his site, or on Twitter @ericbeetner.)
This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.
I’ve been thinking about this true story since my recent birthday. See, when I was born, I nearly died. I had a fairly common disorder where both my parent’s blood types got into my system, despite being different types. Basically this means my blood is passing by what it sees as a foreign substance as it flows through my veins and it attacks. Red cell vs. red cell. It can be fatal, especially in a tiny baby. There is no telling blood to just get along.
So I was plucked out of utero early. My dad loves to recall the day. This was 1969 (yeah, I’m old. What of it?) right after it became commonplace for dad’s to be in delivery. On the day it so happened that a half dozen med students were there as well to see the possibly tragic birth. Apparently when I emerged all the students collectively leaned forward with their notepads to gawk at the freak.
There was a wall chart for the new-to-the-process dads. It ranked your baby on a scale of 1 to 10. I was a 1. I had my fingers and toes – that was it. I didn’t cry, didn’t respond to stimulus, which at the time was still a hearty smack on the rump. I was discolored, limp, and generally sad to look at. So sad, in fact, the good folks at the hospital chose to dispense with routine and not take a photo of me for the records since they thought there would be no way I’d survive.
Little did they know my Nana was a nurse for an OB/GYN. She enlisted the help of Dr. Frost and they set about swapping my blood through transfusions. In my 20s I found a clipping my dad saved from the local paper in Iowa City where the hospital put out a call for blood donations. Kinda like a pre-internet Craigslist ad. So my blood was replaced with donations from family friends and some total strangers.
It ends with my favorite thing that has ever been said about me. After many transfusions, but no guarantee I would come out of this anything more than a vegetable if I lived at all, my parents met with Dr. Frost. Keep in mind she was a family friend.
They asked what the prognosis was. Dr. Frost said, and I quote, “Well, at this point, Eric is salvageable.”
I life my life in a daily struggle to justify the hard work and sacrifice of total strangers and the feeling I’ve let them all down by not becoming president or a doctor or astronaut. They all banded together to save a floppy little fetus so I could go on to make up stories and make TV shows. I’m grateful and guilty in equal measure every day.
Why do you tell stories?
I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. My parents divorced when I was 3 or 4. I went with my Dad and he worked full time. My sister and I were the classic “latch key” kids, with hours alone at home after school to fill with some sort of self-created entertainment. In a pre-internet, pre-cable TV world I had to invent my own escape. I’ve always seen storytelling as a way to take myself to other places and other times. I guess that notion has stuck with me. I’m never bored. I know how to entertain my brain if nothing else in my environment is doing it for me. That leads to storytelling, at least it did for me. I subscribe to the notion that if you’re bored then you’re boring.
Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:
I hate giving advice on writing. I know you love it, Chuck, and I know a lot of people have benefitted from your advice. The thing I like about what you tell people is that it is all practical. You don’t tell people how to come up with stories, because you can’t teach that.
That said, I think any advice I’d give is along those same lines. If you want to write – write. Don’t fucking talk about writing. Write. Don’t talk about what you’re planning on doing or what you’re in the middle of doing. My rule is you’re only allowed to speak of it when it’s done. Nothing in the world is more tedious to me than someone talking about a project they’ve been “working on” for years.
And when you finish that thing you’ve been toiling over, start again. Keep writing. Don’t stop and wait for people to discover what you’ve already written. Try to take the stance that the best thing you’ve ever written is the next thing you will write.
What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?
Write what you know. That story up top there is about the most interesting thing that has happened in my real life and that all transpired before I was a week old. If I only wrote what I knew I’d be fucked.
What do you like writing more, short fiction or novel-length? And, the obligatory: why?
If I had to pick I’d probably end up somewhere in the middle, like novella length. I’m an impatient person. Not like, prescription for Ritalin impatient, but I like my stories to move along. I blame TV and movies. I work in TV as an editor so my whole job is to sit and watch images moving quickly all day, and to make them move even more quickly. To trim the fat. And with movies, it is possible to see how a fully fleshed story can be told so economically. So most of my books are on the shorter side, relatively speaking. I doubt I’ll ever write anything at 100,000 words or above. On a solo novel I’ve only ever gotten to just over 70K, and I like it that way.
I’ve written a few novellas like Dig Two Graves and my Fightcard books around 25-27 thousand words and those feel right to me in many ways. Not that I could have done The Devil Doesn’t Want Me in that amount of time.
Shorts are fun, but the novel is a more engrossing experience to read and to write. I do like being able to take a character through many paces and develop the changes characters go through. Ultimately I’ll fall back on the idea that a story is the length it “should” be in order to get the idea across. I’ve read flash fiction that does that and many people seem to think George R.R. Martin needs all those pages to tell his story. Both are valid. My preference is to go a little shorter though.
Most underrated crime author nobody’s reading?
Hey, I’m perfect for this since I was voted Most Criminally Underrated Author in this years Stalker Awards. So, the real answer is probably someone even I don’t know about. I’d love more people to discover Jake Hinkson, but that’s only a matter of time. He just announced a new novella which had me so excited I squealed like a little girl. There are several writers on the cusp who don’t have novels out yet, but will, like Keith Rawson, Matt Funk, Jimmy Callaway. [I second that emotion. -- c.]
I’m always amazed Steve Brewer isn’t a best seller. He writes so much I haven’t been able to keep up, but I’m such a fan of his standalones like Bullets, Boost, Bank Job. It seems like every writer at some point gets compared to Elmore Leonard, but Brewer should be on anyone’s shelf if they like Leonard.
Of course I still wish there was more of an appetite for classic pulp writers beyond the big three of Cain, Chandler and Hammett. Guys like Harry Whittington, William Ard, Fredric Brown, Day Keene. Even writers still with us who started in that era, or the tail end of it anyway, like Robert Randisi, Ed Gorman, the early Lawrence Block novels.
Your protagonists are, as they should be, troubled folks — what’s the trick to making an unlikable protagonist work?
It is tricky. In one of my early novels, One Too Many Blows To The Head (cowritten with JB Kohl) I had a guy who did some very morally questionable things and I got worried that people would be turned off by him. But everyone who read it (all six of them) really rooted for Ray and were on his side. I think if you give readers enough of a real life emotional hook to latch on to, they will adapt to the character’s particular moral code pretty quickly. Lars in Devil kills people for a living, but no one has ever told me they think he’s a sadist or a psychopath. His actions in rescuing a young girl and using his skills to protect her give the reader a reason to be on his side. Plus, if the person is funny, charming and fun to be around you can get away with a lot. I can write the head of a charity for blind monkeys and orphans and make him an unsympathetic asshole as much as I can write a criminal who you’d want to sit down and have a beer with.
The master right now of this is Johnny Shaw. His novel Dove Season literally made me teary with the father/son relationship he built with what could otherwise be a potentially jerky character who makes bad choices. I’m reading his second novel Big Maria now and he’s doing the same damn thing, making me feel so unbelievably deeply for some of these characters that I’ll follow them anywhere down whatever criminal path they take and still be rooting for them to make it out on top. He’s like a magician. I’d say he underrated too, but he selling like hotcakes filled with crack.
Where does The Devil Doesn’t Want Me come from? Why is it a book only you could’ve written?
I think it does come down to that notion of writing about a guy with a big moral deficit, in that he’s a killer, and making him sympathetic, relatable, human. I like to think its one thing I’m good at. I had so much fun in the book with the other hitman, Trent, who is a douchebag. He’s the opposite of Lars as a person and he gets punished for it in the course of the story. I just abuse this kid to humiliating levels, and it was a blast. And the readers, I’ve been happy to learn, are loving his humiliation. Does that make the readers evil people who want to see a guy get his nose ring torn out? No. They just know who they like better (Lars) and who deserves to get a kick in the balls (Trent).
Could it only have been me? I like to think my voice comes through. I don’t know that I’m 100% unique in any way, really, but in the same way that I’m average height, average weight, brown hair, brown eyes, I get mistaken for other people a lot, I’m not unique in any way. But to people who know me, I’m one of a kind. I’d like to think if people read my work, they find something unique about it.
What goes into writing a great character? Bonus round: give an example.
Relatability maybe? Every character has to have something a reader can latch onto. It doesn’t mean they have to like your character, they just have to recognize some sign of real human life in that person.
As an example I’d go with Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. You don’t like at all the things that Lou does in that story, but his actions are explained and justified enough in the twisted logic of his own brain, that you relate to his sick world view.
Likewise people from another era like Old Red and Big Red from Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range series. Here is a narrator from a time and lifestyle that I have no relationship with, but the voice in those books is so wonderfully rendered that I end up completely relating to them.
And OH! a perfect example is Megan Abbot’s The End of Everything. I have not been a thirteen year old girl ever in my life, but by the end of that book I felt like I knew what it was like to be that girl. A blend of perfect little details and universal truths made that a great example of making me, the reader, relate to someone completely different from myself.
Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!
I’ve worn out my recommendations of Hell On Church Street by Jake Hinkson, so I’ll avoid that. (whoops) I’ll give another shout out to Sunset & Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale
Why didn’t more people get into Carnivale on HBO? I loved that show. More people need to discover that one.
I love a good documentary and I was completely blown away by Life In A Day. And you might not expect it from me, but I think the Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up and Sing is brilliant.
Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?
I love words for their sound as much as meaning. Discombobulate. Reticent. Curmudgeon spring to mind.
I blame Samuel L. Jackson (or maybe Tarantino) for Motherfucker completely eclipsing the more simple and refined “Fucker”. Try that some day, pull out a plain old “fucker” and see if it doesn’t get much more of a reaction than motherfucker.
Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)
I am, sadly, one of those jerks who doesn’t drink the booze. I am a serious hot chocolate snob though. I make my own at home and it’ll put hair on your chest as fast as any bathtub hooch you’ve ever had. I use good chocolate (Valrhona, Green & Blacks, Vosages) and I use a lot of it. It’s more like a melted cup of chocolate mousse. I also like to add extras like a few butterscotch chips, a crushed graham cracker for thickness, sometimes a shot of hazelnut syrup. Seriously. I’ll make you one. It’ll change your life. You’ll never touch that Swiss Miss crap again. Oh, and I use half and half. Not water. Not simple milk. I’m in it to win it. I drink a lot of this when I write late at night.
What skills do you bring to help the us win the inevitable war against the robots?
In many ways I am as cold and calculating as our robot overlords. I don’t get overly emotional or sentimental so I’m good in a crisis. I’ll do what needs to be done and not lose my head, even if the right thing to do is leave your ass behind while the rest of us go for higher ground.
What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?
Just tonight before I started this I finished another novel. That makes five that are as of now unpublished. So I got the goods to go on for a long while. I get annoyed at the glacial pace of publishing so I need to relax. My new novel The Devil Doesn’t Want Me needs to live a life out there without another book stealing its thunder. But soon . . . very soon . . .
I do have more stories coming out in anthologies. I’ll be in the Atomic Noir collection they are giving out at Noircon this year (and selling on Amazon) I’ll be in a new antho called Hoods, Hot Rods and Hellcats that is coming soon as well as Beat To A Pulp: Hardboiled Vol 2 and the upcoming Crimefactory anthology Lee, which is all stories about Lee Marvin.
(Check out Eric’s books here.)