Friday 6 May 2011

Anthony Neil Smith interview: Yellow Medicine

Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith

Anthony Neil Smith is the author of Psychosomatic, The Drummer, Yellow Medicine, Hogdoggin', and the e-original Choke on Your Lies. He is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Southwest Minnesota State University. In addition, he is the publisher for the noir e-zine Plots with Guns. You can find him at, and on Twitter at @DocNoir.

Can you sum up your book in no more than 25 words?

A bad cop from the Gulf Coast gets bounced off the force after Katrina, and gets a second chance in rural Minnesota. Once there, he gets a lot worse.

That wasn’t 25, so the answer is “no”.

What's Yellow Medicine's publishing history?

In 2008, it was published by Bleak House Books, a great indie house for dark literary fiction and crime novels. They took Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’ both, published them in ’08 and ’09.  Then Bleak House...well, the people who started it left to start another company, and Big Earth, the company who owned Bleak House, kind of stopped putting out Bleak House books.

You've made almost all your backlist available now. Were you tempted to make any changes to the original texts?

I made a couple of changes to The Drummer in order to drop lyrics I had used in the original, but overall I felt satisfied with the stories I had told. I’m sure if I had taken a closer look, some things would’ve driven me crazy, but I didn’t want to be like George Lucas fucking around with Star Wars, right? I was the writer I was when I wrote those stories, and that’s the way those stories got told. I’d rather them be flawed that way rather than messed around with.

What makes Yellow Medicine's protagonist, Billy Lafitte, different from other bad cops?

Most bad cops in fiction are kind of like cartoons, I think. Either that or doing it for “good” reasons, like Vic Mackey from The Shield (looking out for his family). I wanted Billy to be a guy who had this arrogant charisma that would make him sort of attractive in a weird way, and yet I wanted the menace under the surface to be obvious. If you get in his way, he will take you out. And he will hate having to do it. But in Billy’s mind, Billy comes first.

I also let him tell his own story in Yellow Medicine. I thought it would be a sick joke—make an unsympathetic character irresistibly engaging.

How do you want the reader to feel when they're reading about him?

I want them to be offended by his awfulness, and yet still rooting for him. Kind of like the way I feel about Cartman on South Park.

You write incredibly convincing sex scenes, something many writers find difficult. Any tips?

I think like amateur porn. Pretty straightforward. And then I make it a bit awkward. There are lots of sounds and smells and slipperiness and ugliness that go along with sex, and I think highlighting that part of it all makes it more convincing while still being sexy. I think the voyeur aspect of normal people fucking is more interesting than the slicked-up, fake boobs, same ol’ positions and fake moaning and groaning in every scene of professional porn.

Also, no fucking metaphors or analogies. No “water rushing into underground caves” or any of that bullshit. Fucking is fucking and if you’re thinking too hard about describing it artfully, it ain’t fucking no more.

Who designed your cover?

The e-version is designed by Erik Lundy, the new Art Director at Plots with Guns. We worked on it for a couple of weeks trying to get the feel of the novel in a retro, “Matt Helm/Shell Scott” sort of way. I think he did an amazing job.

How much difference does a good cover make?

I think it’s huge. I collect a lot of old '60s pulps based on the covers many times. I’ll get the same title three times because of different covers. I prefer covers that treat the book like it deserves a strong piece of art to draw people in. You want an artist who goes for the feel of the book rather than just pasting together a stock photo, a big author name, and a title. I also love the “branding” of certain publisher or authors. That can add a lot. Old Penguins, Gold Medals, current Vintage Crime, etc. Even with e-books, a cover can help with the overall experience of reading the book.

Do you have any other projects on the go?

The second Billy Lafitte novel is HOGDOGGIN’, originally out in 2009, which I’ll have ready for the e-market around the first of June. Otherwise, I’m working on new stuff, both for Kindle and for the traditional market. We’re trying to sell a thriller in NYC as we speak.

What did your agent tell you about using the word 'sequel'?

That I’d get a spanking if I used it. So I changed the previous answer.

What's the best piece of business advice you've been given?

To write what I want and let the audience find me rather than trying to write what the market suggests. And with e-books, I can do this even more so. It allows me to feel a bit like a Gold Medal author. I imagine myself in Donald Hamilton sunglasses churning out Matt Helm books.

Also, someone told me to stop worrying about the money and worry about the readers. Getting the readers is what it takes to get the money. And I’m seeing that in action. Sounds like common sense, but how many people get a big advance and are then dropped because the readers weren’t there like the publisher thought? Just asking.

Smart advice. Any tips on how to 'get the readers'?

Oh god, if I only knew that, I’d be soooo happy.

As a reader, how would you describe your taste in crime fiction?

I like style. Some styles more than others, but style and voice are very important.  I also like attitude. So I guess my favorite is what I call “smart pulp” and “gonzo pulp”. It’s written in a way to hook you without making the reader constantly stop to notice the sentences and say, “Good writer. Good words.” A successful book would have you race to the finish, then say “Great story! Great writer!”

What crime book are you most looking forward to reading?

I’ve got a sneak peek of Roger Smith’s next book, DUST DEVILS, on my Kindle  (Thanks, Rog), and it’s burning my hands. Can’t wait.

What makes you keep reading a book?

I don’t know, but I do. There has to be forward motion, something compelling to make me want to find out what’s next. Not a lot of filler. It’s a secret we all want to discover, and sometimes we accidentally do.

What are your views on eBook pricing?

They should be cheap. We should be concerned about getting those books out there and making them affordable so that people are willing to take a chance. Hardcover books are way overpriced. Trade Paperbacks are sneaking up there, but you can still get them for a decent price on Amazon. But Mass Market, the innovation that spurred a surge of reading in the 20th century, now costs 10 bucks? And they’re larger? Why?

It doesn’t make sense, and neither does the agency model of trying to equate a file with a physical book, charging the same price as a trade paperback. And you think that encourages e-books sales? I think e-book between 99 cents and 3.99 are the sweet spot and will make a shitload more people pick up new writers.  And I bet there’s a surprise on the way. For instance, would I rather pay 10 bucks to see a movie in a noisy theater with inferior screen and no pause button when I need to pee, or pay 10 a month for unlimited streaming movies at home on my HDTV? Now how can that work with books?

What are the greatest opportunities facing writers these days?

E-books and social media are huge opportunities. You can build a brand, find new readers, communicate with them, and learn what sells.  Doing it on your own teaches you a lot about what moves the needle, what doesn’t. And it’s fun.

As long as the writer can find a really good editor to help out, and some early readers to make suggestions, then e-publishing can be an enormous boost in audience numbers and confidence.

How do you feel about the ease with which anyone can publish?

I don’t mind it. It’s like a farmer’s market now. Everyone selling his own veggies. If you’ve got good veggies, people will keep coming back to you. Some people complain that it’s still the same as vanity publishing, but I disagree. I believe e-publishing is giving a lot of writers what they always wanted but couldn’t get with the old system.

How do you feel about awards?

I deserve them.

You seem to favour rural settings. You ever tempted to set a novel in New York or Los Angeles or Edinburgh?

Nope. I write about the places I live because I’m interested in those places, those people. I don’t know much about New York or Los Angeles, so I’ll leave it people who do, like Colin Harrison and T. Jefferson Parker. As for Edinburgh, I’m too afraid I’ll get gutted by some vegetarian terrorists if I get the details wrong.

For me, there’s something about the landscape where I live now in Southwest Minnesota that is oppressively noir, even though the people put on an “aw, shucks, we’re just folks” sort of facade. Scratch the surface and you find a cold, dark center.

How about writing novels outside the crime genre? Ever tempted?

If the story showed up and demanded to be told, sure. I used to think I’d end up doing some sort of novel based on the Pentecostal church I used to be involved with before I dropped out and went heathen. But it never felt right.

The thing is, though, I like the label of crime writer. I like what I do. I think crime fiction takes normal human experiences and amplifies them, makes them louder and more vivid (the way Flannery O’Connor said we need to write for a world full of the “blind and deaf”). There’s a lot to get out of that. I’ve never found crime fiction to be “just” entertainment. Some of the best stylists and most serious and interesting work I’ve read has come out of crime fiction (and this is coming from a Creative Writing professor who spent five years in a CW grad program). So I’m proud to be a part the club of crime writers and I don’t see a need to write outside the genre. Yet.

Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith


  1. Interesting thoughts. You're right about the correlation in between low prices and new writers. If you look at the New York Times best seller list, Hardcover is full of superstar writers and newcomers slip gradually in the Trade, Mass Market and E-Books list.

    Agree also on the nature of crime fiction. The real side of people show up in adversity and most times, it's not pretty.

  2. Mass Markets have pretty become trade paperbacks. They used to fit in a pocket, not anymore.

    I agree about not writing to the market. Trends change and the author is left trying to figure out where to go next.

    ANS delivers killer trashy words.

  3. As always, an entertaing read and I'm hard pressed to think of an author, who can mix humor and intelligence like ANS can. This maxd eme laugh out loud:

    "Fucking is fucking and if you’re thinking too hard about describing it artfully, it ain’t fucking no more."