Author Paul J. Garth, submits to a gentle interrogation on his reading and writing habits.
Paul's novella - The Low White Plain - part of A Grifter's Song series was enjoyed last month.
Is the writing full time, part time, a hobby? Is there a day job? Can you offer us a potted biography of yourself?
I have a full time day job, and a wife, a kid, a dog, and a house, so I’m stretched thin already, before I can even think about writing, but I approach this as something just as important to me as my full time job. The difference is, obviously, I can’t put the same amount of time in to it, but I take it as seriously as the job that pays my bills.
A biography? Sure! I was born in the Midwest, grew up in the south, then came back to the Midwest. I’ve been in punk bands and metal bands and partied a lot. Went to college for American literature, got jobs related to technology, started writing stories, got married, became a dad, and kept writing, and in between all that I ate some excellent tacos, drank some smooth bourbon, and read a lot of great books.
I’ve recently read and enjoyed The Low White Plain.
Can you pitch it to a potential reader in 50 words or less?
Sam and Rachel, two professional cons, have their back against the wall; their last job went south in a hurry, so they’re forced to take something that doesn’t smell right. But even their finely honed noses can’t detect how bad this job actually is, or the ghosts that will come back to haunt them.
I might be mistaken, but I think it's your first published longer work? Can you confirm?
Yeah, this is the first thing over 8k words I’ve had published, but far from the first longer work I’ve written. One of the really great things about this project was, before I wrote word one, I knew it was going to be published, which allowed me to get out of my own way. When you’re writing something longer, it feels like every paragraph has the potential to be the thing that collapses the rest of it. Or, at least, that’s how it’s been in my experience. But with THE LOW WHITE PLAIN, I didn’t have the luxury of worrying about that, I had to just keep my foot on the pedal and push through.
Two of my trunked novels will never see the light of day, for very good reason, but I have hope for the third, a book about train-hopping criminals, depression, family, and heists, called BLOOD BENDS THE RAIL. But THE LOW WHITE PLAIN taught me a better way of working on longer stuff, so, whether its something I’ve already written, or something I’m going to be starting on soon, you’ll definitely see me tackling longer work going forward.
How long from conception to completion did The Low White Plain take? Was it a smooth process or were there many bumps in the road along the way?
The most difficult thing was coming up with the story. Sam and Rachel are grifters, and I knew there had to be some kind of con at the heart of the book, but I don’t really have a brain for cons. I mean, I can obviously spot one in the real word, but coming up with one? I could not think of anything that would be exciting or interesting. But when I figured out the book didn’t have to be about the con, but instead the weight of living the kind of life Sam and Rachel live, things really took off, and I was able to come up with a nice, simple con for them to get wrapped up in.
I believe TLWP is the (checks notes) 27th published story in the ongoing adventures of a couple of grifters, Sam and Rachel. I might be wrong but I think Sam and Rachel are two characters created by Frank Zafiro, then loaned out to an assorted bunch of miscreant authors to see what scrapes they can get involved in.
How did you get involved with the project, did you reach out to Frank and pitch him an idea? Or was it him to you?
Frank read a story I wrote in the The Eviction of Hope anthology, called “The Hope of Lost Mares” and sent me a very nice email inviting me to the project, hoping I would bring something a little different to what had been done before. I’ll be really honest, I almost said no, not because I wasn’t flattered, I was, but because I felt like I was already too busy, and I was afraid to write about cons, and afraid to write
series characters. But I’m so glad I said yes and pushed through. THE LOW WHITE PLAIN has been an amazing ride, and I owe Frank a lot for reading that dark and depressing story and seeing what I couldn’t, that I had the right eye for Sam and Rachel, at least for one adventure, anyway.
Was it necessary to know all about the pair's previous escapades, before you penned yours, or did you come into it blind?
I came in to it pretty blind. There is a series bible I studied up on, and I read a few of the past entries, but since each entry is a standalone, once I had the basics, I started freewheeling and doing my own thing. During the editing, there were a few points that Frank said something along the lines of, “Sam wasn’t in X at this time, he was in Y,” or “Could we change this to X, to better align with a previous entry?”, all of which I was happy to correct, because I know there are some people who have read all these books and really love Sam and Rachel, and I want to do right by them.
Was it restrictive writing about loanee characters? Did you feel any added pressure? There are some talented guys and gals that have delivered for the project.
Seriously, some of the people who have written for this series are insane, right? S.A. Cosby. Holly West. Eryk Pruitt. Eric Beetner, Hillary Davidson, Carmen Jaramillo, Gabriel Villajean. I mean, come on. There’s a bit of a legacy there, right? Something you hope you can live up to and stand amongst, and I think, or, hope, I guess, that I did. But the challenges with this book, honestly, didn’t come with the loanee characters, or even the other people who have written for the series. It really all came from that initial email from Frank. I didn’t really know what he wanted me to do, he just said he thought I could deliver something different, and I wanted to live up to his expectations. I hope I did.
Did the end result mirror both your expectations at the start of the process, or is it a very different tale to what you imagined?
It’s pretty close to what I imagined, in terms of plot. But, as I was writing, I realized I had a lot to say about the weight of all this and how it was affecting Sam. That wasn’t in the original plan, at all, but I think it’s the heart of the book, and I’m thrilled I stumbled across it.
Was there one spark or germ of imagination which started this story off in your mind?
The germ of the story was Sam and Rachel in a cheap hotel in the middle of nowhere, waylaid by a blizzard. I wanted to know why they were there. What had gone wrong right before that, and how they were going to get out of whatever was haunting them.
Can you remember what your first published story was and where it dropped?
Yes! I don’t think you ever forget your first. It was a story called County Road, at Shotgun Honey. It’s been almost ten years since I wrote that story, and I reread it again a month or so back, and still love it. As a writer, I’ve improved a lot since then, but I think you can read that, and then read THE LOW WHITE PLAIN and see a pretty clear line between the two, which, to me, says I started out right.
Do you have a typical writing schedule?
I’m a midnight guy. I mentioned above how hectic life can be, and I am no good at writing when life is happening around me. I need that break. That disconnect. A dark room, a dim lamp on in the corner of the room, and droning music. I need that midnight vibe to find my voice.
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?
I’m about 50/50 on knowing what is going to happen. Sometimes, I have an idea in my head and I’m writing to it, but sometimes a story won’t tell you what it is until you’re in the actual drafting process, sometimes it’s something you need to find through doing. At this point, I’m comfortable enough with myself to start, even if I don’t know where something might go, because I know I’ll find it.
Are you a plotter, or do you make it up as you go along?
Both, I think. I like to plot the broad strokes of a story, X happens then Y then Z, but everything between that, and sometimes the ending, is something I have to find by doing. If I know too much about a story before I write it, the writing itself isn’t much fun, so I like to keep it vague. I think about it like filling in a map. I know Chicago is here, and Denver is here, but all those miles in between, I don’t know anything about them, and that’s where the fun is.
Are there any subjects off limits?
No. That’s the simple answer. The more complicated answer is: No, but don’t write blithely.
I think of it this way. You can write whatever the hell you want to write, but publication is a different matter entirely. First, publications have the right to say, “we’re not okay with the content of this piece so we’re going to pass.” Now, most of the time, they won’t even say that, you’ll just get a rejection, but if you think it is because of the content, you need to understand, that an absolutely valid position for a publication to take. For example, I edit for a magazine that has decided we’re not going to take Copaganda stories. Is that not an exercise of our free speech to do so? So often, if you listen to people who crow about how they write things that are only off limits, it’s a weirdly one-way street. They can write whatever they want, but the priliveges of speech extend only to them. If I, or my editorial team, were going to decide something else, suddenly it’s a Free-Speech issue. Which is bullshit. Now take that and apply it to any other popular “off limits” subject. You want to write about child rape, fine. But I don’t have to publish it.
Second, and I think this is the most important part of this question, is, if you write something and it is published, you have to be willing to hear criticism of that work. If someone says, “the way you wrote X is disrespectful to this group” or “The way you did Y shows you don’t understand this dynamic,” that’s just as valid as someone saying, “The prose didn’t work for me,” or “I thought the ending kinda ran out of gas.” All are valid complaints, and by taking on touchy subjects, you need to be open to criticism of how you wrote those. Does that mean that all that criticism is going to be accurate or insightful? Absolutely not. But as a writer, you need to ask yourself every time you see a complaint if it is. Because we all know the people who are willing to take NO notes are assholes.
So, yeah, that’s my response. Write whatever you want, but be respectful of the places you’re sending you’re work to, and be open to feedback. Do that, and you’ll be fine.
Are there any unpublished gems in your bottom drawer?
I mentioned it above, but I think BLOOD BENDS THE RAIL is pretty damn good. It’s not quite there yet, but I really like it. That, and, I have a few short stories that I think are really great, but somehow I’ve just never found the right home for them.
What’s the current project in progress?
Last week, I sat down and made a list of short stories I want to write. Five of them, and I’m hoping to have them all done by November. Why? I don’t know. I don’t have any plans or hopeful homes for most of them, but, over the last year or so I feel like I’ve forgotten the joy of short story writing, and I want to knock out a few before starting in on my next solo novel.
Other than that, I also have a book I cowrote with Dennis Tafoya called THE THROWAWAY that I’ll hopefully be able to share more about soon.
What’s the best thing about writing?
Those moments where it’s just THERE, and all you can do is get out of the way.
One of my most treasured moments in my writing career was while working on a story called “Aperture” that, ultimately, was published in Vautrin. While drafting it, I had a session where I sat down, started writing, and then I looked up and I had a fresh thousand words, with a scene I had not previously thought of, and it was just done. I was sweating, had no memory of writing it at all, and though it was obviously my writing, I had absolutely no memory of where it came from, almost like Automatic Writing. I swear, that feeling was better than any drug I’ve ever done, and I’m always chasing that experience.
The self-doubt, long hours, low pay, and loneliness.
This is why everyone who writes should be careful in who they share too much with, in terms of other writer friends. Too many love to only talk about the highlights, but the real friends will talk about the grind and how it’s wearing on them. It doesn’t solve for the momentary loneliness, but it does the existential loneliness, and those people who are willing to share that with you? That’s a friendship to be treasured.
Moving on….What are the last five books you’ve read?
The Blacktongue Thief- Christopher Buehlman
Like a Sister – Kellye Garrett
Heaven’s a Lie – Wallace Stroby
A reread of Ellroy’s LA Confidential
And an unpublished novel I can’t talk about yet, written by a friend.
Who do you read and enjoy?
This question is just going to turn in to a couple hundred names saying FUCK ITS SO GOOD so, I’m going to give my highlights: Dennis Lehane, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, S.A. Cosby, James Ellroy, Megan Abbot, Nikki Dolson, Elmore Leonard, Clive Barker, Laird Barron, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, and Cormac McCarthy. But to see what I’m reading on a pretty up to date way, follow me on Twitter. I try to talk about whatever I am reading over there.
Is there any one book you wish you had written?
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock is the book that made me say, “holy shit, you can do that?” and inspired me to try it myself. I truly think, if there’s a book that gets me, in all my grace and ugliness, it is that book.
Favourite activity when not working or writing?
Listening to music, or playing Dungeons and Dragons. I fucking love Dungeons and Dragons.
What’s the last film you watched that rocked you?
I rewatched ZODIAC the other night, and I swear, it’s one of the top five finest films ever made.
TV addict or not? What’s the must watch show in the Garth household?
We try to squeeze in an episode of something most nights before my wife goes to bed (and I go write). Lately, it’s been:
And I’ve been goddamn loving WE OWN THIS CITY
What are the last three pieces of music you’ve listened to?
“…Five Daggers” by Black Cobra
“Angel Duster” by Run The Jewels
“HAIL” by Bongripper
RANDOM TRIVIA FUN QUESTIONS
What’s your favourite vegetable?
Cucumbers. Throw some Beaumonde spice on top? Perfection.
When and where did you last have a fist fight? School, church, a sleazy neighbourhood bar?
The last fight I was in was a literal streetfight. A dude roadraged (despite him being in the wrong) got out of his car, and came to my window, screaming he was going to beat my ass. I got out of my car, he wound back to throw a punch, and I headbutted him, shattering his nose.
Yes, I did kick him when he was down.
Have you ever been thrown out of a bar or a club?
Yeah. Once for being drunk, and once for being a drunk smartass. Both stories, I think, are better told in person.
Do you have any tattoos?
I really want to answer this with “just scars” but I don’t think people can see how I’d be laughing at anyone who would say that seriously, so we’ll just say “no”.
What was your first pet’s name?
Gracie. She was a West Highland Terrier, and the best goddamn dog ever. I miss her.
What’s the worst meal you have ever eaten?
Probably something that had some poppyseed bullshit in it.
Do you have any irrational fears?
Heights. I hate heights more than I can tell you.
When did you last tell a lie?
“Nah, of course you can have that last taco. I wasn’t going to eat it, I promise.”-----------
Many thanks to Paul for his time.
You can catch up with him at the following haunt.
Twitter - @PauljGarth
Do yourself a favour and check out The Low White Plain.