The last group of stories begins with "A Matter of Time," a flash fiction piece inspired by a horrific moment I encountered at the 24 hour Internet cafe on the corner of Normandie and Wilshire, way back in the early 2000s. I sat down at a computer, put my card in, and when the screen came up, it was filled with child porn images. I looked around for who might have been using the computer before me, but couldn't find him or her. I thought about what I might do if I actually caught someone looking at that shit. My thoughts weren't too pleasant. The inspiration for the character in the story who gets followed by the protagonist came from this asshole who started threatening me in my own damn neighborhood in Koreatown. He had all these peace stickers on his backpack and was talking about how I needed to get out of his neighborhood. I told him, "I pay rent here too, motherfucker," and that pretty much shut him up. Lesson for those who don't know -- fuck with a writer, you will end up looking stupid in an obscure piece of fiction somewhere down the road!
Next up is "Methamphetamine and a Shotgun," the story that kicked off the All Due Respect blog. It's an homage, I guess, to an old Chester Himes story called "Marihuana and a Pistol." Fans of The Searchers will get a kick out of the names of the characters in the story. It's hallucinogenic and seems to have fans and haters (I've gotten multiple hate emails over the story, not sure why).
"Little People" follows. It's another story folks seem to love or hate. It's one of the first stories I wrote where I tampered with the narrative structure (just a little bit in this one). The initial inspiration came from this douchebag I used to work with at Markey's Audio/Video in Indianapolis, way back in the 90s. His name was Don, he was a frat boy from Ball State, and he constantly harped on how he thought "midgets" were "inherently funny." I'm not a PC-type of person, but I didn't need to be reminded of his opinion every day.
The next story is "A Moral Majority," which is set in the fictional town of Haggard, Indiana, in the late 1960s (probably, chronologically, just before "State Road 53" takes place). The title is, of course, a joke of sorts. I've always been fascinated by how quickly the powers that be squashed any social progress made in the 60s and 70s in the 80s. Like, overnight. Now, I refuse to label myself a conservative or a liberal (I'm probably a Classical Liberal, when pressed to identify politically), but I do find it curious that the most vocal conservatives often tend to get caught doing precisely what they're preaching against. That's what drove me to write this story.
The collection ends with "The Ralphs at Third and Vermont." This story was written during my dark period last year when I was being persecuted at Minnesota State University for teaching a Kurt Vonnegut story that made the English department chair nervous. When I lived in Koreatown, on several occasions, homeless guys I'd spoken with at the 7-11, or Ralphs, or the Hollywood Video on Western and Wilshire, or other places, were burned alive by rich kids who didn't live in the area. I have no idea why these assholes would do this kind of shit. In my furious state of mind last year, I came up with the narrative for this story, tying the riots of '92 into it along with the Vietnam War, which is relevant since a great number of the older homeless guys in L.A. are Vietnam vets.
So there it is. The book will be available on May 15. I'm putting together an appearance in Indianapolis right now. I might also have a release party in Florida, I don't know yet. Regardless, please buy a copy, review it, even if you hate it, and let me know what you think.
The next set of stories in the book starts with "Spare Change," which was called "Diseases From Loving" when it was published back in 2009. It's fairly standard noir stuff--pissed off wife, strange man in a bar who thinks he can save her from making a mistake, etc.-- very brief and, I think, has a nice, touching conclusion, which is a rare thing for me.
That's followed by "State Road 53," a story I once described to a French dentist who claimed she loved literature. When I finished explaining the story to her, she said, "That sounds like a novel!" That's either a good or a bad comment, I don't know. "State Road 53" was one of several stories I wrote with the intention of someday having a story cycle about the fictional town of Haggard, Indiana. Someday I may still complete that cycle, who knows?
"Patience," the next story in the collection, is a little Twilight Zone-esque yarn about a police officer and a girl named Patience. I wrote it back in 2008 after hearing a colleague of mine in L.A. talk about his youth in the city, how he often saw police officers taking advantage of women in alleys and other discreet locations.
The story behind "Katy Too," which follows "Patience," can actually be found here.
And the last story in this cycle is "My Kind of Town," the only story I've ever had at Thuglit. It's almost a soap opera. It's the first actual story I wrote about Haggard, Indiana, and I think it harbors some of my dislike for Chicago, a city I always have bad luck in.
So I thought I'd write a few posts about how the stories in CROOKED ROADS came into existence. Here's the first one.
The collection begins with "The Space Between." Those who know me well know that I'm not partial to writing fiction in the present tense. This story, however, is not only in the present tense, it's also written in second person. It was written, originally, as an experiment while I was held captive by an MFA cult in Mankato, Minnesota. Mankato is a city filled with angry white dudes. They're so angry they drive around town all the time shouting horrible things at people walking on the street. I would always challenge them to step out of their cars/trucks and say those terrible things to my face. Never had a taker. Surprise, surprise. I once saw a group of young white guys shout at a homeless man. Real classy. I started thinking about all the slights you get in life, all the breaks that don't go your way, and how that makes someone become a horrible person. I chose the story as the lead-in because it's quick, it's unusually written (for me), and I think it sort of explains how people end up making the wrong decisions that most of the characters in the rest of the stories unfortunately make.
The next story is "Columbus Day," which was written during one of the darkest times of my life. It's based on a joke I once told about Columbus Day -- For Columbus Day, white families cross the street and break into their neighbors' houses and pretend it's theirs. Since I lived in Minnesota at the time, I thought I'd give everything a twist and make it some nice yuppies who get invaded by the descendants of Columbus' original victims (I'm not a huge anti-Columbus person, but I'm not going to pretend for a second his 'discovery' of America didn't have some awful consequences for a whole lot of people). It's a very violent, nasty story. I put it second to basically allow the squeamish to bow out of reading the rest of the collection. I don't want someone wasting that much time of his or her life if the end result is just going to be, "I don't like stories like this..."
That bit of nastiness is followed by "No Hard Feelings," a lighter-hearted story about an unfortunate meeting between two dimwits in northern Indiana, a region I like to write about because a lot of my family is from there and it's part of the Rustbelt, which has taken hit after economic hit for the last forty years. I think it's somewhat humorous and tragic at the same time. I like to call this sort of story "brutal comedy."
"American Chivalry" comes next. It's a story I worked on for a few years before finally sending it out. It's about a guy I knew in Koreatown in L.A. He was homeless because of his drinking. He was a very smart guy who'd had a lot of tough breaks in life. Every now and then he'd disappear from the streets and I'd worry something bad might have happened, but then he'd turn up again and tell me about a job he'd been offered, how hard he tried to make it work, and how the bottle wouldn't leave him alone.
The first group of stories ends with "Dumb Shit," a story written in dialect (something that annoys the shit out of the literary crowd and, therefore, is great fun to write). It's a thinly veiled counter-argument to the idea that Mexicans are "taking our jobs." I also borrowed from my experience as a teacher at Crenshaw high school. One of my students was treated the way the Mexican in the story is (my student was a Crip who pissed off some Bloods from Dorsey and paid a horrific price for it). While the student was not a particularly good student in terms of doing homework and studying, he was very mellow in class and never gave me any hassle when I'd ask him to take his seat (he would occasionally just get up and walk around). When my other students told me what had happened to him, I was so devastated I began looking for a new job.
I will continue discussing the stories tomorrow or the day after.
I'm very excited about my short story collection Crooked Roads, which is scheduled to be released on May 15. I went through the two dozen or so crime stories I've had published since 2009 and chose what I think are the best fifteen. Three flash pieces and twelve 'normal' short stories. They tend to take place in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, or the fictional town of Haggard, Indiana.
When Chris Rhatigan asked me to put this collection together, he said not to worry about having any theme or anything else tying the stories together (aside from being crime tales). That was liberating. In the last five years I've written two theses for both my masters and my mfa and for both projects I wrote inter-connected short stories. It was a pain the ass and I'm not sure either attempt really works. For Crooked Roads, I just placed the stories in an order I felt was logical. Over-analytical folks might find some thread running through them. Most folks, hopefully, will just dig on a natural rhythm between the stories. However you take your entertainment, I'm confident all readers will get a kick out of this collection (with the possible exception of people who don't like profanity or violence or sex. You know, fucking puritans!!!)
Many thanks to Mr. Rhatigan and the rest of the All Due Respect crew for taking this project on.