Wednesday 6 December 2017


Rusty Barnes, author of the recently released Knuckledragger and a lot more besides, kindly answers a few questions for me........

Is the writing full time? If not, what’s the day job? (Maybe a brief bio?)

I suppose you could call me a full-time parent, part-time writer, part-time editor. In strict point of fact, I'm a kept man, as my much more talented wife works a day job, and I take care of and homeschool two of my three kids, as one is quite old enough to take care of herself, though she still lives with us! Up until we had children, I worked as a university adjunct instructor of writing, and as a bookseller in both chain and independent booksellers. Now, I teach only occasionally. I was born and raised in rural northern Appalachia, which informs a great deal of my writing.

To my knowledge, and please correct me if I’m wrong, you have published three novels, two short story collections and a couple of collections of poetry. Do you have a favourite of the bunch? Is there one in particular you would press into the hands of a new reader? Does your work in different genres attract different audiences?
I don't have a strict favorite, no. I'm always most interested in the one I'm currently writing, which at the moment is a crime novel set on and around Revere Beach, America's first public beach, steps from my home in Revere MA.

I am sentimentally attached to my first novel, Reckoning, as it took the longest to write, almost a year and change, and until I had actually finished it, I wasn't sure I had the stamina to complete a novel. It took me till I was nearly forty to settle down and really get to serious writing, though I've been submitting work for publication since 1989: I'm a slow learner, but persistent.

Reckoning is a good place to start with my work, as it's a coming of age novel with elements of crime in it, as opposed to the crime novels I've written since then. It has, I think, more general appeal, though my story collection Mostly Redneck has much more variety of approach and subject matter to it.

I think my stories and novels lend themselves to the same audience, but I think the poetry reaches a different audience entirely, and I'm not sure why. The poetry is  more personal generally, though I approach writing a poem the same way I do a story or a novel--I get a character in mind, or a line, or something from my past sparks me, and I try to make a moment of it, a poem, or if the image or character persists in my imagination, a story or novel.

From personal experience, undoubtedly limited and corrupted by unpleasant school day memories, I’m not a massive fan of poetry. It was always a chore, deciphering meaning, a bit like translating a paragraph of French into English and the effort involved seemed better spent doing other things. Is there a collection of poems or the odd poem you could point me in the direction of that could prove me wrong, or am I doomed to die an ignoramus?

I think you were probably taught poorly. For me, poetry is heightened language with a narrative in the secondary position, but it shouldn't require a degree or a lot of education in poetry to understand. There are poems whose particular approach rewards analysis, but it shouldn't be necessary. I always point people who dislike poetry to Galway Kinnell's work, in particular The Book of Nightmares.  His work is plain and honest at first blush, but complex too in its peculiarities.

From reading some responses to your work, a lot of it seems steeped in Appalachia, how important a place is Appalachia to you?

I didn't discover until I was out of college people and places in fiction that made sense to me, and I found those in Appalachia. I was born in the very northernmost tip of what the Appalachian Regional Commission designates Appalachia, but I discovered myself as a writer there and found kindred spirits in writers like Pinckney Benedict, Silas House, Chris Offutt, and others who've become friends and allies, Sheldon Compton and Charles Dodd White. Appalachia remains very important and formative to my idea of myself as a writer. I'll always return to Appalachian Pennsylvania in my work.

Do you have a typical writing schedule?

When I'm writing, I write about an hour a day, during which I try to get out a thousand words, but will very often stop at five hundred. Rarely fewer, though. Done consistently, this gives me two-three short novels a year, which I've come to regard as my specialty. I feel most comfortable between 40 and 60 thousand words. The last novel I completed was a little longer than that, and I imagine in the rewriting, which I've yet to do, that will swell into a longer novel still. Mostly though, I stay in my my 48K sweet spot, or just under 200 pages.

Does your approach to writing change dependent on what piece of work you are crafting? Do you need a different Barnes head on to write a poem as opposed to a chapter of Knuckledragger for argument’s sake? Are the poems a lot more personal than the prose?
I'm writing either fiction or poetry, never both at the same time. I suppose I could switch off if I needed to, as I've done it occasionally, but I like to stay in a single mindset for a concentrated length of time. It's just better for me to get work done.

Everything I write is personal to one extent or another, though people take the poetry much more literally than I'm sometimes comfortable with. They're all emotionally autobiographical, the poems, if not strictly true.

How long did Knuckledragger take from an initial idea and conception to the completion of the book?

Knuckledragger is a book I had in mind for a long time before I sat down to write it. I've spent my entire career writing about Appalachian Pennsylvania, and for my own sanity and to prove I could do something set elsewhere I wanted to write this book, set in my adopted hometown. It took me about three months to get it down and maybe another month of tinkering to get it tight and right.

What would be the creative process be for one of your poems?

I hinted at this above, but basically, I get a spark, from somewhere, an image or a character or a specific line, and I try to write forward and backward from that line or image, which almost always comes from what ends up to be the middle of the poem. I don't recommend the method, it's just what works for me.

Any unpublished gems in your bottom drawer?

Nothing at the moment. I have the one I just finished a few months ago, about a Croatian hitman, which I need to revise, and I have the current one. I've had the great good fortune of publishing most of what I've written since 2015 or so, and I do have a collection of Appalachian stories I haven't been concentrating on in some time, plus a collection of flash fiction, but I'm more interested in novels at the moment, so they're in need of revision and expansion, too. I'll get to them, just not soon.

Is there a current work in progress? How’s it going? Any hints as to what it’s all about?

It's very early on, but I'm writing a crime novel set on the beach in Revere MA, in which the action follows from the discovery of a woman's head in a lobster trap and goes on from there.

What’s the best thing about writing?

The best bit about writing is having written, knowing that what you've got is finished and in good shape. This is in addition to the mere pleasure of getting words down, without which I suspect none of us would spend much time writing. I'm proud to have another four books coming out in the next couple years from Shotgun Honey and ABC Group Doc and Electric Pentacle Press, so that's some of the best part of writing, too, seeing the body of work pile up.

The worst?

The worst part of it, by far, is trying to promote the writing having finished it. Most of us are not natural hucksters, and it's counterintuitive, even. Most of us are inner-centered people, and promotion forces us into the limelight, and needless to say, some of us are more comfortable than others at this.

What are the last five books you’ve read?

I recently finished Port Tropique and Wild at Heart, both by Barry Gifford, and both are great books. I'm in the middle of Easter Weekend, by David Bottoms, and am about to begin the Big Book of the Continental Op, by Dashiell Hammett, in my attempts to read all the noir of the last forty or fifty years, and to educate myself in the history of the crime genre. You have to remember, I'm relatively new to crime fiction, and need to read a ton of past stuff to catch up. I'm looking forward to new books from Marietta Miles and Nick Kolakowski and Matt Phillips. Oh, I've also begun reading the Longmire novels, after seeing the TV show.

Is there any one book you wish you had written?

Right now, it's Port Tropique. I really admire Gifford's lean style and noir sensibilities. Plus, it's like an education in the pop culture of the 40s through the 70s. I really admire that book.

You also have recently started up a paying blogazine – Tough, which publishes short stories and reviews. What are the aims with that venture?

Tough is my attempt to give back to the crime community. There aren't many journals that pay even our token amount, so it's been instructive and affirming to fill the place in the community above the freebie market but below the journals that pay pro rates. I hope to bring attention to small press books in this respect too, to do on a small scale what David Nemeth does on his website Unlawful Acts, for example.

Favourite activity when not working or writing?

I spend a lot of time in family activities, but when I'm by myself I'm reading or playing guitar, ukulele, and cigar-box guitar, badly.

What’s the last film you watched that rocked you?

The wife and I loved the violent ballet of the two John Wick movies. I'm not a high-art film person or a movie buff at all, really, but I love a good shoot-em-up.

TV addict or not? What’s the must watch show in the Barnes household?

I don't watch a lot of TV. We watch CNN, sadly, or the basketball game. Baseball when it's in season.

In a couple of years’ time…

I hope to have completed another three to four novels and shepherd them into the dull light of publication. I'd like to write a multi-generational crime saga, too, sort of a Sopranos in Appalachia kind of thing, but there's a lot of that going around lately, so I'll probably change my mind. I also hope to have written at least another book of poems and another collection of short stories.

Many thanks to Rusty Barnes for his time

You can catch up with him at the following locations
His website here
Facebook page here
Twitter - @rwilliambarnes

His blogazine site Tough can be found here.

Rusty's books are as follows.
Novels - Knuckledragger, Ridgerunner, Reckoning
Short story collections - Mostly Redneck, Breaking it Down
Poetry - I Am Not Ariel, On Broad Sound, Jesus in the Ghost Room, Redneck Poems, Broke

Knuckledragger and Ridgerunner have featured on the blog before.


  1. I've been to the Pennsylvania Appalachians ('though I didn't grow up there). I can see how that land and the atmosphere could really stay with a person. Thanks for a really interesting interview, both.

    1. Margot, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.

  2. Really interesting interview. The juxtaposition of the poetry with the rest is really curious -- I'm not surprised that Barnes finds it reaches a completely different aufience!

    1. John, glad you enjoyed it. I wasn't especially surprised either that the poems have a different readership. I can only think of one other author I've read who wrote poetry and novels, though I'm unsure if he was doing both at the same time - James W. Hall. I think the novels came after.