Dallas Texas-based writer Jonathan Woods' book of noir crime stories Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem (New Pulp Press) recently won a 2011 Spinetingler Award for Best Crime Short Story Collection and was called by New York Magazine: “Hallucinatory, hilarious, imaginative noir.” Jonathan’s website is at www.southernnoir.com
What was your motivation for writing Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem?
From the time I discovered the world of books in my now distant youth, I’ve always had a desire to be a writer. In high school I was particularly drawn to the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe: “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Masque of the Red Death.” There is something about the madness of Poe’s characters and the sheer bravado of Poe’s prose style that uniquely capture the insanity of our existence. It’s all taken from the crime section of your local newspaper but recast in black diamond brilliance by Poe. The French writer Felix Feneon for a number of years wrote a series of newspaper squibs mostly about murder and mayhem. More than a 1,000 of Feneon’s miniatures are collected in his Novels in Three Lines published by New York Review Books. Each one could become a story in the sequel to Bad Juju. I think Camus’ existential dilemma of the 20th Century, as formulated in the stories of Meursault’s pointless murder of an Arab and of a plague descending upon a provincial North African town, is directly descended from Poe’s vision. When I sat down to write the stories in Bad Juju I wanted in some manner to pay homage to these two amazing writers, also with a nod or two to James M. Cain, whose The Postman Always Rings Twice is said to have inspired Camus to write The Stranger.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
The act of creation, putting words on a blank sheet of white paper, watching as words merge into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages and pages into a completed story, nothing is more exciting than this. I prefer writing short stories because there is an intense period of creativity almost like a fever dream that goes on for some number of days or at most for several weeks and at the end you have in your hands a story that is 98% finished. Writing a novel is a much longer process requiring constant discipline over a long period of time. In either case the act of writing is for me an intensely personal experience, even a mystical one. But there is a second part to the writing life that I think is universal to almost every writer, which is the need for validation. This occurs when a story, born from many hours of intense work in an empty room with the door closed, is accepted by a stranger for publication. Stories that do not see the light of publication are like stillborn children. It takes intense self-discipline and a great personal desire to learn the writing craft over a period of years without this validation, to keep going month in and month out with nary a kind word. When some public success for your writing finally arrives, if it ever does, it’s almost as if it’s happening to another person. The success of Bad Juju since its publication in April 2010 has been truly amazing to me.
How important is a book’s central character?
In fiction writing character and voice are the two elements that drive the story. Once these have come alive for me, the action of a story just seems to miraculously unfold. Sometimes I know how a story will end before I start writing. Other times the ending becomes clear somewhere in the middle of the writing process. The central character creates the voice, the tone, the mood and atmosphere of the story. Bad Juju contains nineteen stories, all of which have different central characters sometimes speaking to the reader in first person, other times observed in the third person by the reader. But each story is driven by its unique central character or pair of characters or sometimes group of characters. Even in a story like “No Way, Jose,” which is an ensemble piece with many characters converging toward a climax, there is one character who acts as the moral or philosophical compass or anchor for the story. In “No Way, Jose” that character is Maud Floodway, the high school girl who is screwing her science teacher. Maud’s importance to the resonance and meaning of the story becomes fully apparent only after the story ends.
What aspects of marketing your book do you enjoy?
It’s a cold, cruel world out there and if you want your book to have a chance of success you’d better be 100% focused on marketing it. This means a ton of hard work that has nothing to do with the creative process or mystical experience of writing fiction. Marketing is all about believing in what you’ve created and working your ass off trying to get other peoples’ attention. “Hey, look over here! Check this out!” It’s like getting up every morning for your day job that pays the rent and puts food on the table. That said, the part of marketing that I’ve enjoyed the most is getting out in public alone or with other writers at bookstores, coffee houses, bars, crime writer & crime fan gatherings like Bouchercon or Noircon, book festivals, book clubs, writers’ conferences, workshops and whatever other venues you can find and meeting people who love good books, including hopefully your book. In touring around for Bad Juju I’ve met an incredible number of welcoming and generous people, many of whom I have stayed in touch with. I also love going to see other writers on tour. Most recently Walter Mosley came to Dallas, where I live, and talked about the writing life, read from his new Leonid McGill tale When the Thrill Is Gone and answered questions from the audience. He was hilarious and amazing; one of our great crime story writers. A legend in his own time!
How much difference does a good cover make?
Most book covers today are lifeless Photoshop manipulations of images that bear little or no relationship to the story between the covers. Therefore, I was thrilled when my publisher connected with the neo-noir artist Kenney Mencher to do a painting for the cover of Bad Juju based on the title story. My spouse showed Kenney’s work in her gallery in Dallas and I introduced Kenney to Jon Bassoff at New Pulp Press. The cover painting for Bad Juju is striking, sexy and calls out to the reader. I’m a huge fan of the often lurid book cover paintings for the many paperback original crime and adventure novels published in the fifties, sixties and seventies, inspired by the same hard-edged realism as in the work of Edward Hopper. In recent years Hard Case Crime has done a fantastic job of paying homage to and reviving the use of film noir style paintings for the covers of their books. I truly believe that a great cover helps sell books. And even if it’s not true, I’d rather my books have cover paintings that derive from the great American tradition of pulp illustration and film noir, which tradition inspires my stories, than be saddled with a collage of banal photographic images. I’m thrilled that Kenney’s cover for Bad Juju won a 2011 Spinetingler Award for Best Crime Book Cover.
Which author should be better known?
A number of little known but amazing books & writers come to mind, including Thomas Burke’s Limehouse tales of lust, murder and opium dens in fin de siecle London’s Chinatown and Lafcadio Hearn’s gothic miniatures collected in Fantastics and Other Fancies, originally published in the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans long before Hearn moved to Japan. But the one book I recommend that everyone hunt down and read is Alexander Trocchi’s noir masterpiece Young Adam. Often labeled as a Scottish beatnik, Trocchi was born in Glasgow in 1925. Moving to Paris in his twenties, Trocchi was the editor/publisher of the influential avant-garde literary magazine Merlin, which published work by Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller among others. Trocchi’s Young Adam was published in 1957 by the notorious Olympia Press. It tells the dark tale of a drifter and sexual predator who may also be a murderer. While perhaps owing some of its inspiration to Camus’ The Stranger, which appeared fifteen years earlier, Young Adam is a truly original and stunning work of art. Young Adam reeks of the decadent life of the demimonde in the lesser cities and canals of Scotland after WWII and is awash with lust and danger. The book is heartless and haunting and brilliantly hopeless. I reread it with regularity. Trocchi went on to become a heroin addict. Besides Young Adam Trocchi wrote some interesting pornography and a well-received autobiographical novel about a junky living on a barge in New York City, but he never again achieved the crystalline originality of Young Adam. Young Adam was adapted into an excellent movie directed by David Mackenzie and starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton.
From an artistic rather than a financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?
My favorite living writer is the inimitable Robert Stone. That having been said it is a difficult choice to pick one of his books as the one I would most wish to have written. In his books Stone has the amazing craft of marrying the pace of a thriller with dead on commentary on our human frailties and the crazed world in which we struggle to survive. Raymond Chandler sought in The Long Goodbye to write a detective novel that transcended the crime genre. Graham Greene divided his writing into serious novels and “entertainments.” Stone, who is sometimes described as an inhabitant of Graham Greene country because of the exotic locales of his books from a tropical banana republic (A Flag for Sunrise) to Mexico (Children of Light) to the French Quarter of New Orleans (A Hall of Mirrors), writes books that explore the dark side of human lives and the moral choices we may barely have the courage to make. At the same time Stone keeps the pages of his dark, ambiguous tales moving at breakneck speed while lacing them with sardonic wit. Forced to pick one of Stone’s books as the one I most wish I had written, I would have to choose Dog Soldiers. In the novel Stone spins the tale of a once-idealistic counter-culture journalist covering the Vietnam War who undertakes a get rich quick scheme of smuggling a kilo of heroin from South Vietnam back to the States. Needless to say things quickly go awry, some bad hombres step in and lives are lost and others compromised. Dog Soldiers won a National Book Award and was subsequently adapted into the movie Who’ll Stop the Rain starring Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld. The movie title is taken from the song by the quintessential Vietnam War era stoned hippy band Creedence Clearwater.
Do you have any projects on the go?
At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches on a crime novel called A Death in Mexico that will be published by New Pulp Press in April 2012. Set mostly in the colonial Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, it tells the story of Inspector Hector Diaz’s investigation of the brutal murder of an ex-pat American woman. An excerpt from A Death in Mexico recently appeared in the noir issue of the London UK-based literary webzine Beat the Dust. A new story “The End of Love” was just published in the literary webzine 3:AM Magazine, also based out of London UK. And new stories are forthcoming in crime fiction anthologies from CrimeFactory (in conjunction with New Pulp Press) and from Spinetingler Magazine. Another novel and more stories are, as they say, in the works.
Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem by Jonathan Woods