B Chris Bell and I share a publisher, Airship 27 Productions; I’ve also reviewed a few of his novels for Black Gate. I first “met” Chris on Facebook back in 2011, and later that year met him in person at Chicago’s “Windy City Pulp and Paperback Convention.” We hit it off right away, having so many things in common — books, TV shows, movies, and music. Plus, he lives in Chicago, not very far from me. He also knows more about pulp fiction than any three people I know. Over the past few years we’ve become good friends, and he, his lovely wife Darlene, and I get together on occasion to watch movies of all kinds, talk about books, life, and how we can solve all the world’s problems. Chris is a pretty prolific author, and I think everyone should his Bagman series, set in 1930s Chicago. Great fun — and he captures perfectly the era and attitude of Chicago. Not bad for a guy raised in Texas. And like another Texas writer I admire, Larry McMurtry, Chris has a natural-born gift for storytelling. I hope I can talk him into writing that western he talks about writing. I especially love for him to write a weird western.
So Chris… what and who are some of your influences and inspirations?
Dashiell Hammett is the big one. I mean, the guy created the Hardboiled crime genre. I’d love to invent my own genre, but those mental illness stories don’t exactly make for “feel good movies of the summer.” I was raised by pop culture, so comics, movies, and Rock ‘n’ Roll are all big influences. Comics led me historically to pulp magazines, which led me into the Adventure and Science Fiction genres. The big ones would be Harlan Ellison, Lawrence Block, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Joseph Conrad, Jack London, Philip K. Dick, and, right now, Murray Leinster. Did I mention Joe R. Lansdale?
I’d have to say ultimately, that everything I see and do is an influence. I tend to like a lot of offbeat authors, some now forgotten. Peter Rabe comes to mind. Mostly what I want is a story that’s a cohesive whole of a brand new experience for everybody involved. I love big, broad concepts, but I also love the slice of life stuff, or the odd viewpoint. I suppose my aim is to connect those things. So, top five? Hammett, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Jack London, and… Murray Leinster. I’ve been revisiting a lot of his stuff recently. Next month it might be a whole different list.
How and why did you decide to start writing?
I think my mom suggested it to shut me up. (laughs)
It started with reading a lousy book. I won’t use the author’s name, but it was one of the hundreds of Detective Profilers out there still, and it was all too predictable. I had majored in journalism in college, and knew I could do better, it just took a while. Then I got locked up in a substandard Mental Illness ward for Bipolar Mood Disorder and Substance Abuse. The place was hell, and I wanted to describe what if felt like. The result was Bipolar Express. After that, my love for Pulp Masked Avengers blossomed, and I began to wonder what would happen if you put a masked avenger in a hardboiled, Black Mask Magazine style story, and the result was Tales of the Bagman. Of course, now that I have all this pulp fiction out there, I’ve been growing into other genres.
What genres and/or literary style do enjoy writing in the most?
Each genre or style has its own appeal. I love crime and mystery because of the rules of reality, and I love Science Fiction where the rules don’t apply. For instance, I love writing horror settings because of the shadowy mood. Once you learn that, you can apply it in Thriller, Adventure, or Science Fiction form. I learned one thing writing crime, and that was a great place to start. The trick is to use simple, easy to understand sentences to get to a place where you haven’t been before.
Tell us about your latest published book, short story or novella.
Tales of the Bagman, Volume III! Once again, our friend and rogue Mac McCullough is on the streets of Chicago, 1933. This is a great volume to come in on, because at this point all the characters are set up and go right into action. Can Mac juggle his double life? Well, yeah, just not as well as he thinks he can. Even as Prohibition is about to end, he’s going to have to take on a new and mysterious mob. He also gets to take on a kidnapping ring that doesn’t even bother to ask for a ransom. And, in a story I’m very proud of, Crankshaft has to solve a Blues Mystery on Maxwell Street. That one’s got a load of Blues royalty in it… And now we’re back to my Rock ‘n’ Roll roots.
Besides the “entertainment factor,” what do you strive for in your writing?
BLOOD, BLOOD, AND MORE BLOOD! (laughs maniacally)
Well, I do a lot of historical and scientific research, but I don’t think this question is about that, huh? I am always trying to find a new twist to an old archetype, and maybe that’s where psychology comes in.
Remember Ridley Scott’s early movies, Blade Runner and Black Rain? The stories are clear and concise even if there is a lot of stuff spinning around in the background and on the edges. There’s a part of me that wants to focus on those spinning oddities and tell their stories, but those objects have to have a story of their own. Mostly, I want to make you feel what the characters are feeling, and I want the reader to realize that other people feel just like they do.
I think I’m looking for a different viewpoint that confirms things I suspect are true: that one little reflection in a puddle that defines the world for everybody. Then again, there are some days I just want to write something to piss somebody off. I guess, ultimately, I feel like it’s my job to make the reader want to turn to the next page, to see something they might want to think about.
Would you say that your stories are more plot-driven or character-driven?
Character for sure! Shakespeare already took all the plots, and six-guns have been interchangeable with plasma rifles for decades. A good character will give you the plot. One of these days I’d like to make the main character a sociopath like Patricia Highsmith did with Ripley. Problem is, sociopaths aren’t likeable characters, Highsmith and Charles Willeford have already been there, and that’s a hard market.
What can you tell us about your latest work(s) in progress?
First, let me point out that I’ve got a Bagman story coming out in Airship 27’s Mystery Men and Women #4 , and a lesser known pulp detective will be making his appearance in his own book, also published by the Airship.
But, what I’m really excited about now is The Precog on the Borderland. It’s the story of a veteran with PTSD whose nightmares come true. Those dreams lead him to a telepathic homeless man who is holding our universe together. That telepath leads him to the Ireland of William Hope Hodgson’s horror classic, The House on the Borderland, where we find an entirely secret subculture that’s been defending our dimension for over a hundred years now, and of course — there’s a threat! This one runs from Psychological to plain Horror, to Adventure, Science Fiction, Fantasy and beyond! Even has a bug-eyed monster. It’s a big deal for me, so I’m shopping it through some more traditional channels now. At this point I’ve already got ideas for a trilogy, and I’ve started working on another story where Space Misfits take down a Criminal Corporate Empire not unlike the six corporations that own Earth’s media.
What are some literary goals you’d like to achieve?
Well, there’s that trilogy… but first we have to get the book on the shelves. I have a homegrown Horror story from my childhood that involves Texas in the seventies I’ve been leaning toward for a while now. It involves growing up, being different — aware — day-to-day redneck life, suicide, the supernatural, and swimming with cottonmouth snakes, but I’m going to have to visit my own past for that, and that can be emotionally tricky. I’d also like to write something reminiscent of Irvine Welsh’s street characters, like in Trainspotting or Filth. I like those seedy guys. And, someday, I might write some non-fiction, most likely punk rock stuff or something about explorers, but right now most of my goals involve making smaller numbers larger.
What genre of fiction have you not yet written for, but plan to in the future?
Besides the Horror novel I just mentioned, there’s a Western involving the Texas Rangers during the Mexican Revolution I want to do. The ultimate chase will lead back into the U.S. And…Oh, I don’t know… a locked room mystery? The ultimate Sherlock Holmes story? Nah, I’d expect more reluctant heroes in hopeless situations. Come to think of it, that’s how I feel when I start working on a book.
Name a few of your favorite literary characters and tell us why they are your favorites?
My first big three characters as a kid were Robin Hood, Huck Finn, and Tarzan. Then came a more complex character, Bruno Statchel, from The Blue Max. I’d seen the movie, and had no idea the book was a completely different animal. Discovering Bruno to be more sympathetic in the book, I learned the story is really about alcoholism and the loss of hope — and that was every bit as important as learning those Johnny Weismuller movies weren’t the “real” Tarzan that was in the books.
Off the top of my head, I love the heroes, detectives, gangsters, cowboys and spacemen. I love Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder because he’s in recovery. I love Sam Spade because he speaks the truth. I love Tarzan because it’s a great idea stolen from the Romans. I love history and myth. I love Robin Hood because laws aren’t justice. I love Huck Finn because he looked dumb, but was the only one who could see the truth. In the end, I think fiction is just a bastardized version of the truth.
Let’s see, I already mentioned Blade Runner. I have The Maltese Falcon memorized. The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and a ton of TV. I love old movies, too. White Heat and The Roaring Twenties, with Cagney. Every Bogart movie. Robert Mitchum — and Dana Andrews, because he was in so many noir films. Modern stuff, I love The Matrix. I love Star Wars and the serials it reminds me of. Again, we’re talking gangsters, cowboys and spacemen. And, yes, I need to do something in a halfway house with characters like Welsh’s Trainspotting.
Tell us about your writing habits, such as: Do you outline extensively? Do you create your characters first, or your plot? Do you listen to music while writing, and if so, what kind?
I outline extensively, it’s just that the characters don’t always agree. I tend to write a character into a scene, and then let them tell me what to do. It can get confusing if you don’t know the character or are too married to the plot. I’ve had characters lead me into armed warfare when I my plan was to make a phone call. So, yeah, I plot — and then the plot changes. A lot of it is just making the middle work, so I can get to the end I want, and even then the ending might be a toss-up. It’s like real life, you can plan like hell, but like the man says, “It ain’t gonna be that way.” With every word your options lessen. That’s the lesson.
I still try to write a thousand words a day. Sometimes it’s just a sentence, but writing daily is the best way to keep your head in the story. I’d love to be in the situation where I could just wake up and start writing, or write at night till I’m ready to fall asleep, but… life. So, I’m writing in my head all the time. If I’m not writing on the train to work, I’m reading. I write on the computer, in a paper notebook, on index cards, napkins and the back of old memos. I write at home, at lunch, I’ll stop and make notes wherever I am. For me, at least, writing is an act of faith. A hope that something will come of all this.
As far as music, I’m eclectic as hell, but I won’t listen to anything with lyrics while I write. So, I listen to movie soundtracks, ambient stuff like Brian Eno, Be-bop Jazz, Spaghetti Western soundtracks. Sometimes, I just leave the TV droning in the other room so it doesn’t seem so lonely. That could account for some of my Bowery Boys dialogue. Sometimes, I just leave old B-Westerns streaming, so when I get a break I enjoy it, but I don’t get too distracted.
What else can you tell us about yourself and your reading habits?
I read a lot. Not always one thing at a time, but a novel every week or two. I spend a huge amount of time scouring old pulp magazines. The internet archive keeps my Kindle loaded with pulp. I’m in the library every other week at least, and I’m always discovering old authors that are new to me.
As far as myself, I’m a mystery even to me. I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a misfit, even among misfits. Whenever there’s some big cultural thing, I’m usually as fascinated by what led up to it, and of course, all the Ridley Scott weirdness spinning around in the corners of the frame.
Oh, I suppose I should also mention I’m in recovery. Haven’t had a drink in over a decade. So, yeah, I suppose I believe in miracles, too. But miracles only occur in the realm of human interaction — and occasionally in good works of fiction.
Thanks for the interview, Joe. You’re a mensch. Of course, there are a million more characters and authors I wanted to mention as influences, but that’s the trick to this writing gig, isn’t it? Get the most important thing on your mind down, and then decide what’s really important. Writing is a pretty good metaphor for living as far as I’m concerned. Again, it’s an act of faith.
Thank you for such a wonderfully insightful and very enjoyable interview, Chris. We’ll get together soon, and we’ll binge-watch old gangster, film noir and horror films! Maybe we’ll throw in a good western or two, as well. And by the way, I’ve been revisiting Murray Leinster, and enjoying every word! — JB, over and out.
B.C. Bell, author and creator of the Tales of the Bagman series — some dozen pulp fiction novellas, from The Avenger to Secret Agent X, and the Horror/SF e-book Bipolar Express.
“…be there, or miss out on the invention of the greatest new American pulp imagination at work in decades!!!!” — Keith Allan Deutsch, Publisher, Black Mask Magazine
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Black Gate Book Reviews, by Joe Bonadonna: