I'm delighted to have one of my long time favourites on the blog today answering a few questions about his latest book (and other things) - The Butcher's Prayer - which is I'm happy to report one of the best books I've read this year. See yesterday's blog post.
Is the book writing full time? If not, what’s the day job and can you give us a quick biography of yourself?
Not full-time. Nope. Never got there. But I love being a Professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. It’s been over 15 years now.
A quick bio: Call me Neil. I’m fat. I love Mexican food, cheap red wine, my 2 & 3/4ths cats, and my wife. I once co-created an e-zine called Plots with Guns and edited that thing into the ground. I’ve published fifteen novels, two and a half novellas, a fuck-ton of short stories, two essays (I think) and exactly two poems. I like Americana and roughed-up blues, 1970s Italian crime flicks, Brit noir and fancy hotels.
*I’m about to read your latest offering – The Butcher’s Prayer. Can you pitch it to a potential reader in 50 words or less? (*Done and dusted now)
Wouldn’t that be great if I just stopped there? No?
Anyway, it’s inspired by a real murder. I used to go to church with the killer (before he was a killer, obviously). And it’s haunted me for a long time.
Failed preacher turned cop. Failed Christian and husband turned drug dealer turned murderer. Lunatic turned fugitive. What happens when the killer you’re chasing turns out to be your own brother-in-law? Is your father, older brother, and sister going to help you or hinder you? What prevails: faith, family, or justice? Mississippi swamp noir.
I didn’t count the words.
You’ve written a ton of books – at least fifteen – in three different series as well as standalones – do you have a favourite of the bunch? Which one are you most proud of?
It’s difficult, you know, to pick one fave at this point, but some of them hold special places, more than others. WORM, for instance, never got a fair shot. I had a heart attack halfway through writing it, and it introduced Slow Bear, who went on to have his own novella, which most readers love. At the moment, I’m most proud of WORM. And I had high hopes for Billy Lafitte in YELLOW MEDICINE and three other books, but due to…I have no idea…the 3rd and 4th books just fizzled. I was hoping to turn Billy into a long series character, but there’s no point if the readers aren’t there.
ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS was the one my ex-agent and I thought would go to auction, but ended up rejected by all of NYC. Thus, my ex-agent became my ex-publisher (Blasted Heath) and we tried it as an e-book original. It was the closest to a real mainstream thriller I’ve ever written.
I’d start them off with YELLOW MEDICINE and HOGDOGGIN’. Before that, I was not as sure of
myself. After that, I was completely full of myself (kidding…). Billy Lafitte is a combo of my heroes, like Milo from Crumley, or Easy from Mosley, or Lou Ford from Thompson. Those books are gonzo noir, southern noir, Dakota noir, black comedy lie Chester Himes, transgressive. Yeah, if you like Lafitte, maybe you’ll go on to like WORM and SLOW BEAR.
Do you have a favourite format to work in? Novel, novella, short story?
Novel, above all else. I love to read novels, and I love to write them. I’m also getting into that area between novella and novel. I miss the shorter novels of the older pulp paperback days. I still like writing a short story now and then, but it’s much more rare now. Although I’ve currently got the bug and I’m working on a few.
While Sean is one of our best friends, he wasn’t involved with PWG except to publish a story in it (which went on to become THE CLEAN-UP), and to cheer us on. It was originally me and Hunter Hayes while we were in USM’s Center for Writers grad program. Hunter moved on to lit studies after a while. He’s a big fan of Elmore Leonard and Martin Amis. He was responsible for the name, too.
Victor ended up as a silent partner, and he wrote a column called “Hard-boiled Dixie.”
The first version of it went from 1999 to 2004. It was growing a lot, but I was also taking on a new job and doing more of my own writing. So I shut it down. But when some other zines – ThugLit, for example – started making their mark, I got jealous and wanted to start it all over again. We picked up again in 2008, but once again my own job and writing got in the way, so I passed it along to the fantastic team of Sean O’Kane, Gonzalo Baeza, and Erik Lundy. They did a fantastic job until 2011, when we all decided to call it a day for good.
Well, I talk/text with Victor and Sean Doolittle nearly every day. We’re still very close, even though we live in three separate states. I haven’t traded emails with Hunter in a very long time, when I asked if he was okay with me moving ahead with PWG 2.0, and he was. We had another editor and columnist, Trevor Maviano, who I’ve lost touch with. We connected again for the second run for awhile, though. He’s a monster crime writer, but I think he couldn’t stand the business side of it. I understand.
I still talk to Sean and Erik every now and then. Not sure why I haven’t talked to Gonzalo in a long time.
No chance of a PWG comeback?
I actually sold the name and domain to Sean, so it’s his call if it should ever return. Now, if I ever had *real* money, like Hollywood or lottery money, then I’d probably buy it back and turn it into a zine and small (really small) press, really nice editions in small print runs. But that’s just daydreaming.
Can you remember what your first published piece was and when?
It was a short-short crime piece called “The Third Example” – written as part of a pamphlet about an Atkins-like diet that turned people into raving murderers – in a small magazine called Crimestalker Casebook. It took well over a hundred submissions before landing that first checkmark.
Do you have a typical writing schedule?
I wish I did. When things are going pretty well, I try to go for a few hours midday, maybe between 10 and 2. I can get about a thousand words a day on a novel. But when the day job interferes, then I either go for days or a week without adding a word. Sometimes I’ll just shut it down for even longer, but I hate when that happens. I’ll try to get at least a page of something in the afternoon.
I can’t write at night, though. I don’t get people who can do it really late. Once I get home from the office, around 5 or 6, I’m done with fiction.
Do you insert family, friends, and colleagues into your characters?
I take the fifth.
I mean…they’re composites. I don’t think I’ve ever had a character just be a person I know.
When you have an idea and you sit down to construct your story – do you know what the end result is roughly going to look like? Are you a plotter, or do you make it up as you go along?
Not always, but most of the time. The only book I plotted completely beforehand was ALL THE YOUNG WARRIORS. I wrote several outlines, each one longer than the last, until the basic story was down. But the others are usually half-baked. The endings come after not much longer, though. I was just thinking about the two books I’m working on right now, and I am pretty sure about the ending for one, but have no clue how the other is going to turn out.
I have not found anything yet. I mean, I have to want to write about it. I wouldn’t do it just for shock value. While I lean towards transgressive work, I’d say I’m nowhere near as transgressive as some of my favorites in that category. I think the sex scenes I write feel like amateur porn – meaning a mix of real sex and something a bit ridiculous. Sex is messy, smelly, noisy, and awkward, which is why it’s interesting. And there’s a big difference between realistic violence and the over-the-top ridiculousness of exploitation violence. I think sex and violence in art has a purpose.
However, I’ve wanted to write a book for a while now, inspired by an awful story about a drunk K9 cop on camera kicking his dog, hard, several times. The dog lived and was taken away from him, but I just couldn’t help but think “Is this guy redeemable at all?” What if this was a one-time mistake and now he’s lost a dog he cares about? Everyone I’ve talked to about this has told me “No. Don’t. You can’t write it. He’s not redeemable.” But what am I currently doing? Yep, I’m drawn to the fact that no one feels anything but hate for the guy. There’s a story there.
How long from conception to completion did The Butcher’s Prayer take? Was it a smooth process or were there many bumps in the road along the way?
Because this was inspired by a crime from the 90s, I’d say I’ve been mulling this book for over 20 years. But I actually began writing it after a long depression where I thought I was done with novel writing. I’d burned out on three novels for a company that just didn’t bother with any sort of promotion. Sales were almost nonexistent, and I felt like it was done. But I started working on Butcher’s in either late 2017 or early 2018. I wrote the first fifty pages three different times, starting with a blank page. I ended up writing it relatively quickly, especially because I lucked out on a referral to one of the best agents in the world. The guy even called me and said we could work together. And then he pretty much disappeared. But hey, it drove me to finish the book, try other agents, and eventually find a home for it at Fahrenheit 13 in 2020. Chris Black saw the good in it.
I think it followed what I set out for it. The last page was one I wasn’t so sure about. But Chris Black assured me it worked perfectly.
Was there one spark or germ of imagination which started the story off in your minds?
The murder that set this off in my mind was when a butcher who used to go to my church shot a man, then used his butcher tools to dismember the body and throw the pieces in the bayou behind his house. My stepdad was the funeral director in charge of dealing with all the parts and just the look on his face…whoa.
I had sat across from this butcher only a few years earlier at a church Valentine’s dinner as he proposed to his girlfriend. So it was shocking to find out he’d fallen so far.
You’ve had a variety of publishers over the years and you’ve outlived several of them, have you found a spiritual home with Fahrenheit Press? I think they’ve been responsible for your last few coming into print.
Ha, yeah, I am the kiss of death for publishers. One things they’ve all had in common: small, indie presses (well, okay, Bastei Lubbe was a big corporation. That was the exception). It felt to me, twenty years ago, New York publishers were willing to take chances on riskier books, or dark crime novels. But by the time I got ready to send out my stuff, that had changed. The indies took me in, gave me the freedom to write what I wanted. I especially am grateful to Allan Guthrie for being my agent, then publisher, then editor for nearly fifteen years. He founded the digital publisher Blasted Heath and gave five of my books a home.
Fahrenheit is publishing amazing authors and great books. I mean, Ian Ayris alone is enough to justify what they do, but then they keep on going! They really do take risks, and after reading quite a number of their books, I talked to Chris Black and showed him SLOW BEAR, which I had hoped to turn into a novel, but I ran out of story too soon. But he was excited to take it for the Fahrenheit 13 noir imprint.
I hope to finish out the Slow Bear trilogy with F13, but I’m moving on to another publisher now for my next novel, and it’ll be unlike anything I’ve ever been involved with before. Sorry I can’t announce it yet, but soon. Very soon.
Are there any unpublished gems in your bottom drawer?
Not in the bottom. I’m sitting on one right now called MURDERAPOLIS that I thought would be a big, epic Don Winslow or Richard Price style book. But we’ll see. My new publisher hasn’t read it yet, so I’m crossing fingers.
What’s the current project in progress?
The K9 dog novel is the current one. I published a piece of it over at Punk Noir Magazine, called “Underdog.”
But I’m also working on book two of a series I’m starting with the new publisher. I think it’s pretty different from my recent books…but I change up what I’m doing every book anyway.
What’s the best thing about writing? The worst?
I like seeing the finished product, with the cover, the typesetting, the binding. It feels real, not just a “hobby” in my head. Writing is a bit like directing a movie in my head. I get the final say.
The worst is the feeling of starting over every time I write a new book. It feels like I can’t break the “thousand reader club” to get more eyes on the books. Starting a new story is excellent. Starting from ground zero with sales, well, that’s hard.
Yikes. Let me see…not counting the unpublished books I’m reading for friends, I’ve been rereading Garcia Marquez’s novellas for my lit class. Jim Goad’s The New Church Ladies, David Gordon’s The Bouncer, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, and Jonathan Ames’ A Man Named Doll.
Who do you read and enjoy?
So so so many people. But let me again mention Ian Ayris, who deserves to be a literary star. ABIDE WITH ME is a masterpiece.
Is there any one book you wish you had written?
First, I’d have to time travel back to the 50s or 60s, where I think I’d do a good job writing Gold Medal or other pulp novels, like HILL GIRL or SWAMP BRAT, those country exploitation books, real Erskine Caldwell territory. And somehow that would lead me to writing THE KILLER INSIDE ME, because the fascination with what Thompson did there is eternal. Lou Ford. Wow. What an asshole.
Favourite activity when not working or writing?
My wife and I love to travel, be it to England, Scotland, and Ireland, or across our own country to Colorado, down to New Orleans, Cancun Mexico, Italy. But when I’m home, I like to cook Mexican food, and I like listening to a lot of music. I play a little guitar, so that’s a nice pastime.
What’s the last film you watched that rocked you?
This is the toughest question. I am really a bit stumped. I had to save it for last and come back.
The one I’ve thought about most lately has been THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, There is some brutal stuff in there, but also a few gorgeous images. It reminded me of a much more disgusting movie called THE GOLDEN GLOVE, which covered similar ground, but not as “classy.”
TV addict or not?
Oh yeah. Less so as the years go by, but I still watch a lot. I like the noise of it. But I get annoyed with the bandwagon-hopping for so many shows, it’s sometimes like people know they’re supposed to like something to be considered cool or hip, and it spreads like bacteria. Yeah, my wife and I got tired of Justified, couldn’t stand Wandavision, on and on.
What’s the must watch show in the Smith household?
We always watch Good Mythical Morning first thing every night. It’s just a silly show on YouTube, but these guys are really fun. We also love Taskmaster, a ridiculous UK show.
The last few things we’ve enjoyed: Line of Duty, Better Call Saul, Big Bang Theory.
What are the last three pieces of music you’ve listened to?
GA-20, “Give Me Back My Wig,” Ethel Cain, “Crush,” and Muddy Waters, “Champagne and Reefer.”
I am all over the map on music, but I grew up on 70s rock, loved hair metal as a teenager, then got into Christian rock for a decade, not so much anymore. Now I’m a big Americana fan and what I call raw blues and raw country: I like it stripped down, lo-fi, nasty-sounding guitars and amps.
RANDOM TRIVIA FUN QUESTIONS
What’s your favourite vegetable?
Is a chili pepper a vegetable? Is a potato? I’m going to go with avocado.
When did you last have a fist fight?
Never! My only real fight was in junior high school. This kid kept bugging me, so we had a shoving match in the gym locker room, then later we wrestled like idiots in gym class. The coaches called it off, and that was that.
Have you ever been thrown out of a bar or a club?
Not yet. Man, I’m boring.
Do you have any tattoos?
No. Don’t want any.
What was your first pet’s name?
Tabby (a small mutt).
What’s the worst meal you have ever eaten?
I had a pigeon, I think, in Prague that also had some gross foam on it that looked like spit.
Or the potato salad my dad forced me to eat when I was a kid, making me hate it forever.
Do you have any irrational fears?
I think the books cover all my irrational fears. I have so many it’s hard to list them. I’m just a nervous guy.
What’s your favourite vacation destination?
Iceland. I really felt at home there, in a way. I was in awe everywhere we went. It’s crazy expensive to live there, unfortunately, but the fact that it’s a small country, amazing in its stark, rough beauty, makes it appealing to me.
When did you last tell a lie?
Probably earlier in this interview.
Many thanks to Neil for his time and do yourself a favour check out his work.To date I've enjoyed The Butcher's Prayer, XXX Shamus (as Red Hammond), Yellow Medicine, The Drummer, Psychosomatic, All the Young Warriors, The Cyclist and To the Devil My Regards (with Victor Gischler)
You can catch up with him at the following haunts...
Website - anthonyneilsmith.com
Twitter - @AnthonyNSmith
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/anthony.n.smith
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/anthonyneilsmith/
And check out his latest and possibly his best ....
The Butcher's PrayerCalled to a crime scene when a terrified woman raises the alarm on a horrifying murder, Detective Hosea Elgin finds the victim’s body has been dismembered with professional precision.
Very quickly, two small-time drug dealers are identified as the probable assailants and a manhunt is launched to bring them into custody.
With the two suspects on the run, the consequences of their actions continue to spiral out of control and it becomes clear that while one of them is focused on survival, the other wants only revenge.
As the net begins to tighten on the fugitives, Detective Elgin finds that the case begins to move very close to home and what began as just another murder investigation is developing into something much more personal.
The decisions he makes and the actions he takes may well solve the case and bring the criminals to justice, but in the process he might just tear his family and his church to pieces.
With The Butcher’s Prayer, Anthony Neil Smith shows once again he’s a writer at the very top of his game. This immersive piece of Southern Gothic Noir certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted but with the skill and nuance we’ve come to expect from Smith he dazzles with writing that is precise, measured and never gratuitous.