Deadlines Column – July 2012
By Blu Gilliand for White Cat Publications
A Few Kind Words with Tom Piccirilli
The first Tom Piccirilli book I ever read was A Choir of Ill Children. I picked it up (despite not knowing anything about the author at that time) because I was intrigued by the title. I was mesmerized by this strange, surreal slice of Southern gothic fiction and quickly hunted up everything else of his I could find. As I soon discovered, there was a large and ever-growing body of work to catch up with. Piccirilli is a talented author of prose and poetry, and his recent transition from horror to crime has only served to sharpen his voice and bring new focus to the themes of loss and regret that punctuate his best work.
Piccirilli’s latest book is drawing strong praise from all corners, and will hopefully help to expand the audience of a writer that I feel is criminally underappreciated. It’s my privilege and honor to devote this month’s “Deadlines” to a few words with the author of The Last Kind Words, Tom Piccirilli.
WCP: There’s a lot going on in The Last Kind Words. There’s a murder mystery. There’s the classic story of a thief trying on the straight life for size. But you’ve brought the family drama front and center in this book. Was that a conscious decision from the beginning, or was it the direction the story led you?
TP: From the beginning I wanted to write a family saga first and foremost. It just happened to fit in well with my interest in writing crime fiction. I constantly wanted to fold the two aspects together. Family and noir. Noir is usually a very solitary sub-genre: characters face their troubles and almost certain deaths alone. They’re not often surrounded by family members, they’re not often forced to deal with loved ones’ issues (sometimes even minor issues). So Last Kind Words gave me a chance to run in a new direction and try my hand at some different kinds of storylines.
Family issues are a common theme for you. What is it about the crime and horror genres that lend themselves to stories about families and family drama?
It’s not so much family drama per se as it is personal identity. Where we come from, what’s in our blood, the sins of our fathers, the loss of our ancestry all plays in to personal darkness, values, sense of ourselves, and does it with some emotional resonance. Everyone has a family, everyone has a similar sensibility when it comes to family. We love them, they drive us crazy, etc. It’s a very common ground, and if a writer is busily doing anything, it’s finding common ground with his audience.
There’s a lot of dark material in this book. Was it difficult to write?
All of them are pretty tough going. Writing is so much creating fiction as it is going through the threads of your own life and plucking out ones that you can use to weave the fabric of your stories. Dealing with your deepest personal issues, opening up your scars, recalling to memory certain events in the most excruciating detail is always going to be painful to do. But nobody ever said that writing was easy.
I understand that you’ve already written a sequel to The Last Kind Words. Is there anything you can tell us about it at this point? Will this become a series for you?
Really can’t say at this point. The next book is entitled The Last Whisper in the Dark and deals with Terrier Rand’s attempts to help his best friend out of the criminal world and save his life when a heist goes bad.
What about the “Chase” character from The Cold Spot and The Coldest Mile? Will we be seeing him again?
Not in the foreseeable future. I would love to do a third book in the series one of these days but it doesn’t look like it’ll happen anytime soon.
You’ve shifted in recent years from writing horror to writing crime, yet no matter which “period” your work comes from, the voice remains the same. How hard is it to establish your own writing voice, and at what point did you realize you’d found your own style?
You probably spend the first ten or fifteen years that you’re trying to write trying to discover the sound of your own voice. It’s not just a matter of saying something but of having something to say. It took me a fair amount of time to find the maturity and the worldview to discover my now natural voice. You start off wavering, you start off jumping around trying on different identities before you finally land in your own skin.
Are there other genres you’d like to write in?
I’d like to do a big sprawling science fiction/fantasy novel one of these days, but it’ll probably never happen. Science fiction/fantasy is too difficult for me. I love reading cats like Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Robert Reed, Philip K. Dick, Spider Robinson, Tanith Lee, etc., but that kind of world building doesn’t come naturally to me as a writer. Still, I keep hoping one of these days I’ll be able to at least attempt it.
In addition to writing horror and crime, you’ve got a couple of Westerns (Grave Men and Coffin Blues) under your belt. Any chance of returning to that genre?
You never know. It was fun to do at the time, but it’s a genre I really had to immerse myself in in order to work in it. It’s an easy genre to fall out of if you don’t always have western films in your DVD player or western novels on your night stand. Again, it has to do with world building. Writing about the 1880s is a whole different world and you need to constantly be aware of that as you’re working. It also doesn’t come all that natural to me.
I’m sure you get tired of long-time fans asking if or when you’ll write more horror. If I’m not mistaken, there’s a zombie book in the works that should make them happy, right?
Two. A novel entitled Vespers and a lengthy novella called Pale Preachers are due out from Creeping Hemlock later this year/early next. Two very different takes on zombiedom.
You’ve published quite a few novellas (or “noirellas”) in various digital formats. Has this helped you reach a new audience? Is it something you will continue to do? Why or why not?
It’s nice to have the option, that’s for sure. In the past a writer needed to find a (usually) small press publisher to do signed limited editions of novellas. Now, I can pick up a few hundred extra sales a year from folks simply downloading the work via my digital publisher Crossroad Press.
What books have been the most difficult for you to write? The easiest?
They’ve all been difficult. I wouldn’t classify any of them as easy, but the easiest was probably A Choir of Ill Children, simply because I never even thought of it as writing a novel. It was a really cathartic experience, an experiment in absurdity. I wanted to write a surreal novel where I was completely unfettered from standard forms of writing. If there was any kind of rule I lived by when writing I made sure that I broke it. It led me into a new understanding of storytelling and let me go places that I’d never quite explored before.
Of your characters, which ones do you identify with the most?
Probably the nameless protagonist in Every Shallow Cut. A lot of that character is me. Or would be me in similar circumstances. I mentioned things in there I’d never mentioned in my writing before. Ultimately, that’s what you do. You use up your life in your work.
I always enjoy the book reviews you post on your blog (http://thecoldspot.blogspot.com). What are some books you’ve read lately that people should be on the lookout for?
I recently finished up several crime novels including James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, Peter Farris’s Last Call for the Living, Matthew McBride’s Frank Sinatra in a Blender and Nate Flexer’s Corrosion.
What’s coming next from Tom Piccirilli?
Well, we’ve already mentioned the next Rand family novel and the zombie tales. In the meantime I’m just working on another book and more short stories.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He writes a monthly column, “Deadlines,” for White Cat Publications. He also covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country (http://theoctobercountry.wordpress.com), and is a regular contributor to Horror World (www.horrorworld.org) and FEARnet (http://www.fearnet.com). Stalk him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.