An Interview with Crime Fiction Author/Editor Paul J. Garth
Crime fiction immediately brings night to mind; urban underworlds obscured in shadow, veiling the desperate things desperate people do, where the darkness acts as curtain—often even as a blanket—to preserve the existential dread fermenting beneath. But in Paul J. Garth's debut novella, The Low White Plain, noir's typical moody backdrop is subverted to the blindness of snow. It's a stellar analogy, the way a Nebraska blizzard becomes its own slow-churning antagonist, developing alongside a storm of scheming Nazi-Satanists; who surround the periphery of Sam and Rachel, two grifters hired to orchestrate a fake kidnapping then split the ransom with the "victim." With The Low White Plain, Garth has done for crime what The Great Silence did for Westerns, introducing the stark brutality of winter to environments where spilled blood could previously disappear under the dust or sink back into the Earth. In other words: It's easier to forget blood on asphalt than to ignore that red on white, and when the dead appear more pasty than they ever bargained for, it all begins to look beyond the pale.
Paul is also the longtime editor at popular flash fiction crime site Shotgun Honey, and at Rock and A Hard Place magazine—in my opinion, the best noir journal currently out there.
You often profess your love of heavy music, and your distinct approach to rural noir makes me think it could be influenced by black metal atmosphere or even its lyrics. Passages like: “…by stepping foot onto blasphemous soil covered by hellish snow, he was actually placing a foot down into some kind of netherworld, a place where death was more comfortable than anywhere else he’d ever been,” and “…the indifferent earth knew they were here and would be happy to drink their blood.”
Dude! Thank you for asking this specifically. When I was writing this, it absolutely felt like a black metal album, so that someone else keyed into it means the world to me. This is maybe a little insane sounding, and might not make sense to anyone other than me, but any time I start a long piece of fiction, I think of that work as a distinct type of album, even though I’m not making music. Of the long pieces of fiction I’ve written (most of which have been trunked), I have a sludge metal book, I have my late 90s New York hardcore / noise book, which might see the light of day some day, and The Low White Plain, which is definitely my black metal book.
While writing the book, I was listening to a lot of black metal. Wolves in the Throne Room, Oranssi Pazuzu, Altar of Plagues, Panopticon, Coffinworm, Emperor, Ulver, and SUNN 0)))’s Black One. I knew from the start I was going to have hate groups and blizzards and a sense of isolation in the book, so in that sense, black metal made sense, but the music also really began to shape the narrative as well. In the conception stage, I knew the land itself was going to have an oppressive atmosphere, a sense of unease over the whole thing, but I didn’t realize how much it was going to affect my characters and their actions. That, I think, all came from the idea that the book is also a black metal album. Like it sublimated itself, or art found itself manifesting itself in other art.
It's weird. I don’t think I’ve listened to anything you could call black metal more than once or twice since finishing the book. My love for it is still there, but the power of it is, temporarily I hope, gone. For now. I’m sure as soon as it snows again, it will be back.
You’ve said recently how much “place” influences your taste in other author’s writing as well as your own. Could Low White Plain have happened anywhere outside of Nebraska? What, besides the taunting blizzard that blinds us throughout the story, is representative of the area?
The plot could happen a lot of places, but what makes The Low White Plain the book it is is because of Nebraska. Or, at least, my version of Nebraska. Because I live here, I try to be protective of my home, but in a lot of ways, Nebraska is a pretty rough spot to call your home. First, there’s the weather. Blizzards come ripping through every couple of years, and if you don’t have the blizzards, you’re guaranteed at least a few weeks of subzero temperatures – before windchill – in December, January and February. In the summer, it can be just as brutal as Texas. Like, right now, I’m sitting on my back deck and it’s a perfect 78 degrees, but next week, we’re going to have five days in a row of 101 temps or higher, with humidity at 80%. That’s just fucking brutal, and I think, after that kind of continuous whiplash back and forth between extremes, it can make people really hard. The fact that we really do sit on a long, unbroken plain, there’s just nowhere for that brutality to go. At least in Iowa, you’ll come across a pretty sizeable river every thirty to fifty miles, but here in Nebraska, with the exception of the Platte River, which is dried up right now, there’s really not much. The whole thing can feel like too much. Like a break from hard things is not possible. And that absolutely has on influence on people. It can make them hard and mean and fatalistic, and in some ways, I think, it can close people off.
The other thing about Nebraska: once you get west of Lincoln, the whole place begins to feel incredibly lonely and dangerous. You see signs of people, but you won’t actually see many people. Just a lot of place to hide things, a lot of places for people to chase whatever upsetting desires they have. Then, we don’t have any kind of state police force, just a highway patrol. It’s a place that I imagine is a lot like the desert. A kind of lawless place.
I should note though—while all this is true, and all this is represented in my writing about Nebraska, the Nebraska I see when I look out my window is not what I’m writing about. Things are amped up in my fiction. Charged and made more potent or dangerous. I just don’t really write about the beautiful days or any of the nice people you might meet while moving about the state.
If I were telling someone about The Low White Plain, I’d eventually have to mention, “Oh yeah, and then there’s these Satan Worshipping Nazis…” which might sound sensational to some, like a literary B-movie. But I’ve also read Trevor Ravenscroft’s Spear of Destiny, the definitive non-fiction history of Hitler’s occult branch of the Nazi Party, so it’s a legitimate speculation to imagine this element still exists. What kind of research did you do for this ingredient, or was it completely imagined?
It's 100% real. Satanism, the more you dig into it, is such a fascinating, weird thing. There are branches of Satanism I find genuinely compelling and could see myself identifying with, and others I find absolutely repellant, but easily the most despicable are the group in the book. Like, I don’t even want to put their name in an interview that will be published with my name on it, they’re such bad dudes.
There’s some debate about whether or not the organization in the book is an actual organization; that’s what happens, I guess, when you have a leader who no one can identify and who doesn’t communicate for a decade at a time, but whether or not that group is active, their teachings are readily available to anyone who knows where to look, and they’ve directly inspired domestic terrorist groups in the US. They’ve killed at least seven people in the last five years, just in the US, with at least a couple of planned attacks foiled at the last minute that could have been really horrific.
The research on that was tough, mentally and emotionally. Like you said, it sounds ridiculous, but I wanted to get as much right as I could, and show as much as I felt comfortable showing, because they’re here, and they’re not a joke.
After three years editing at Shotgun Honey and two years with Rock and A Hard Place magazine, LWP is your first full-length effort. Was it your plan to wait this long to drop your debut or were you mired in your editorial projects? Is it a relief, or does it feel vulnerable, to finally emerge from the slush piles to have your own work evaluated?
I never imagined, ten years after my first short story was published, that I’d just now be getting around to publishing a novella. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took so long. Part of it was my editorial responsibilities, and the kind of editorial philosophy I’ve developed over the last few years. Anytime I’m editing, my own work has to be so far in the back seat that it’s almost out of view, otherwise I’m not going to give the story I am working with the full attention and focus it deserves. If you’re not able to give a story your explicit attention, if you can’t care for it as deeply as the writer, you shouldn’t be editing it. So, yeah, that probably slowed things down a bit.
The other part of it though, is that, despite writing at least three other novels and another novella, none of them felt good enough to chase publication. There are parts in all those books that are good, that I’m really proud of, but, either because I had too much time to obsess over them, since all of them were unsolicited, or because I didn’t have enough time between my editorial projects, none of them felt like they ever really clicked. One, a stripped down novel about grief and a robbery gone wrong and train hopping and found family and an absolutely terrifying rail-riding gang called FTRA, might eventually see the light of day (it’s called Blood Bends the Rail and I think of it as my hardcore punk / noise book), but I need to figure out a better ending.
As far as how it feels? It feels great. There’s definitely a sense of vulnerability with it, this fear in the back of my head that everyone I’ve ever said “No” to on a story is going to read The Low White Plain and they’re gonna say, “This book sucks! This asshole rejected me?” and, honestly, maybe they’re right to feel that way. One thing being an editor has taught me is that sometimes a story just isn’t for you, which is why the book is such a relief to me: it was written by me, for me. And even if it takes another ten years, I can’t wait to do it again.
I get the feeling you also read far outside of your specialty genre – crime fiction – which I believe all writers should so they don’t churn out the same drivel that makes the genre stale. What are some books/authors outside of crime you feel have been essential to you and your work?
I love this question, because, though I love crime fiction and could talk about the books in the genre I’ve read and the writers in it I love, that’s only half my DNA as a writer. The rest comes from all the books outside of crime I’ve read and loved, and, when thinking about my work, I can make an argument that those books are more important to my foundation as a writer than any crime novel.
Cormac McCarthy is the most essential writer I have. Sometimes, I go to my shelf and will pull off one of his novels and just read a page or two, simply because of the beauty in his words and the technique he uses to stuff every single sentence with as much detail and feeling and theme and action and characterization as possible. Pick any of his books. They’re all literal masterclasses, but the one that lives in my heart is Outer Dark.
Laird Barron is another of the biggest influences I have. His prose is beautiful but expresses the most heinous shit imaginable. Reading him taught me how to write dread, how to let stories bleed in to one another, and how to identify the exact right moment to leave characters to their fate. The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All is a perfect starting point for his stories.
Leslie Marmon Silko is another gigantic influence. Again, it comes down to her prose and her understanding of character while writing about these huge issues and their effects on individuals. Everyone who has read Silko has read Ceremony, and for good reason, that book is amazing, but Almanac of the Dead is the single most upsetting novel I have ever read, and also one of the best.
Isaac Bashevis Singer is one of the best writers of the 20th century, and no one talks about him, which is an absolute shame. If you’ve never read him, go buy The Collected Stories and thank me later.
The rest of my influences outside crime are a lot of the usual suspects. Steinbeck, James Baldwin (Going to Meet the Man is, I think, the single greatest short story ever written, and has shaped what I look for in short stories more than any other piece of writing), Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich, and of course, Saint Flannery O’Connor. I have a picture of her above my desk a friend got for me on a pilgrimage to Milledgeville.
I admit my off the wall influence – You know that part of the Fantasy section of the bookstore, where it’s not even organized by the author’s name, but the series the book belongs to, like Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer or whatever? I read so many of those books, especially the Dungeons and Dragons ones. Some of them are… not great. And some of them are pretty good! But they all are fun, and reading them is a great reminder of how far a solid character and a plot that keeps getting just a bit bigger can take you.
You’re very outspoken about politics and social issues online. Do you see Low White Plain as an “issue-driven” crime novel like we are seeing a lot more of lately, or is it more of an amoral precarious Bonnie and Clyde-type thriller?
At this point of my life, I think the very act of existing is political (especially as the father of a young girl born on to a planet that seems to be incinerating around us all), and my beliefs are integral to who I am and how I look at the world, so there are certainly political elements and issues in The Low White Plain, but I also don’t think my beliefs or opinions are ever expressed didactically.
Reading the book, you can absolutely get a sense of my thoughts on ingrained power in the state and how it is tied to land, the corruptibility of our institutions, the gun fetishization that has rooted itself in our cultural identity, and the long tendrils of fascism touching so many party of our society, and I wanted all those elements to be there, but I also wanted the book to take the characters through a bloody and bad time first.
That said, there are some absolutely amazing books that are very didactic, including Grapes of Wrath, so I think anyone who dismisses didactic or loudly issue driven novels is missing the point of what art can choose to be. But at the same time, I personally didn’t choose to loudly weigh in on some of the issues I’m concerned with, which is okay too.
What does the future look like for Shotgun Honey and Rock and A Hard Place magazine – any bigger projects coming up? As an editor, what advice would you have for a budding crime fiction writer?
RHP has a few things we’re in the early stages of, including issue 8 dropping soon. We were lucky enough to be nominated for an Anthony Award this year, along with our amazing Guest Editor and Friend, S.A. Cosby, for Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression, so we’re really looking forward to Bouchercon and then getting a little loud afterwards about what else we have coming. Shotgun Honey is what Shotgun Honey always is… steady and ever present. It feels weird to be a part of such a legendary site. Obviously, I won’t be there forever, but, probably, in twenty years, I’ll go to their site and it will still be there, dropping stories from young people looking to break in to crime fiction, and I’ll know I got to be a small part of that. That’s just so fucking cool.
As far as advice? It comes down to this. Read as widely as you can. Read fiction and history. Read horror and crime and romance and fantasy and literature. Read about bands you love and artists you don’t particularly care for. Dig for humanity, and then hold it and treasure it and never let it go. Listen to heavy metal and psychedelic country and the Ronettes and Klezmer and chamber music and native music and anything that makes you feel alive. Just absorb it all. And then, when you sit down to write, make me care. Every story should hinge on someone doing something or making a decision, after which their life will never be the same. Every body that drops in your story shouldn’t just be a body, but a person who will leave behind a line of mourners, no matter how bad a person they were. Make sure your story feels rooted in place, and make sure it makes me feel.
And then when you’re done, when it’s the best thing you’ve ever written, send it to me or any of the other amazing journals out there, and start again, and make that the best thing you’ve ever written. You’ve got this.
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