Monday, February 2, 2015

Frank Bill Interview

I have this weird thing that I do where once I read something that I like by someone, I look up the author and find out what they are really like. Like when people ask, “I wonder what they are like in real life?” I always want to find out. It probably shouldn’t effect my opinion of their writing, but it does. I can’t help it. For instance, I think that I like the stuff that Hemingway did in his life almost more than his writing.

There are two authors that I have discovered in the last few years whose books have spoken to me, who make real life jump off of the page and make you feel strong emotions when you are reading their books and whose works stay with you long after you are done with them.  Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock do it for me. They are two “new” authors who get it. They get that life is sometimes cruel, and that people struggle and survive despite their circumstances.

I was reading interviews and articles about Frank Bill after reading his two books, Crimes in Southern Indiana and Donnybrook. He is the real deal. He works a real job, he lifts weights, he has a martial arts background. His discipline is inspiring, and the way that he looks at life is refreshing.   Basically he is  a guy with a great talent and he busts his ass to hone his craft while dealing with all of life’s ups and downs.

I knew I needed to contact this guy, and I was thrilled when he agreed to an interview. I am so pleased to share it.

I really wanted to focus on his life, his process, the way that he looks at things. How he does it all, how he keeps it together- working , writing, training, among other stuff.  I love his answers and his outlook.

Buy his stuff you will not be disappointed.

JS: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. I want to start off talking a little about your writing background .Can you tell me about how one day you decided that you could become a writer?

FB: Well, I’ve been asked this question many times, and for you I’ll give the longer version, basically because nothing happened overnight, and I’ve had years to reflect on my life and how I came to be not so much an author but just a regular guy who enjoys building sentences into stories that I find interesting on some crazed level…..

Working a 12 hour shift on nights, a person has a lot of time to think about the life they’ve chosen and live. Especially how unfulfilling their day gig is. I’ve always been a compulsive or obsessive person, very goal oriented. Whether it be martial arts, weights, drugs or booze. I’ve thrown myself into what I’m doing wholeheartedly, sometimes that has been a good thing others times not so much.

Rewind a few years. I’ve been journaling off and on since I was about 15 or 16. But when people ask, ‘how long have you been writing’, I never consider journaling writing, its just thoughts without much structure scribbled onto a page. But, when I turned 18 I began writing my workouts down the day before I did them (weights/boxing/martial arts) because my Kung Fu teacher at the time asked this of his students. I’d keep track of what I ate, my goals and lists upon lists of what I needed to get done each day, even if it were taking out the trash. I think the saying is those who fail to plan, plan to fail. At any rate, I was never a big fiction reader except for comic books when I was growing up. I was a BIG film buff, most of the books I read growing up were about baseball players like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench or Sandy Koufax, and when I entered high school I read about serial murderers and cults and then once I’d graduated I turned to Asian philosophy, War history and a few crazy books by musician and spoken word performer named Henry Rollins.

Fast forward to me landing a factory job when one of the guys I worked with on nights, he was a book whore, he’d read a book a night. Big horror buff who tells me, “All that stuff you write in your notebook, you should try and get it published, someone would read it.” I’m like yeah, what the fuck ever.

Fast forward. Few years down the road a film comes out called Fight Club, my wife and I caught the film and it hit a nerve in me, summing up things about society, culture, identity, masculinity, consumerism and just being a pissed off person because I’ve never been one to buy into everything that everyone else seems to purchase on a daily basis without even giving it a second thought.

Anyway, in the opening credits I read that the film was based upon a novel by an author named Chuck Palanhiuk. I wanted to see how similar the book was to the film. I went to a Walden Bookstore, no longer in business now, and they didn’t have a single copy. I called Barnes and Noble. No go. But they had another book by Chuck called Invisible Monsters. I drove to the store, bought it. Ordered Fight Club. Devoured this motherfucker in one or two nights. I go back to Barnes and Noble, find another book by Chuck titled Survivor. Received Fight Club, read it and dug it just as much as the film. After this I told myself, I wanna write, I wanna be a writer. To tell stories with some twisted meaning or slant on culture or just some simplistic idea of people living their lives, trying to get by, to survive, I just wanted to tell stories.

So, I started spinning ideas, memories and things I’d done growing up. Kind of like journaling, but I was trying to coin them into stories, I must’ve filled a notebook a week up just writing. Constructing things that really had no shape. More settings and descriptions than anything else.

At any rate, I searched out similar authors whom had that minimalist style. J.G. Ballard, A.M. Homes, Irvine Welsh, Jerry Stahl, Hubert Selby Jr, Thom Jones, Denis Johnson, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, Andrew Vachss, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy, Eddie Little (this guy blew my fucking doors off with his prose).

Then I discovered Larry Brown, Tom Franklin, Gurney Norman, Chris Holbrook, Pinckney Benedict, Chris Offutt, Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, William Gay, Ron Rash and more regional type authors, and I started to identify with them because of the areas and people they scribed about, they were similar to my own people. Working class or blue collar people, war vets, drinkers, bad relationships, loss, hardship, crime, drugs, the human condition. But I didn’t have the chops or rather the guidance at first. But I kept writing. Reading and re-reading, breaking down parts of the books I read to understand the hooks, the backstories and upward arc and the character’s change of a goal or goals, just the whole evolution of a story.

Frank Bill

JS: Was there a particular moment of validation of your work that pushed you forward?

FB: There were several validations, mainly getting a letter from an editor at a college journal that wasn’t a form rejection every few years, something a person had actually taken the time to write by hand and offer a few kind words. The biggest problem I had before getting an agent and a publisher was finding a place that wasn’t afraid to publish my work, what I write is somewhat dark, you can label it crime, noir, grit lit, country noir (a term I detest) or whatever the world finds trendy today, at this moment, (I hate labels, if its good its good), somewhat violent with a literary bent, but I also try to incorporate as much of everything that I know or have lived or that interests me. As a writer one should use whatever it is to tell their story, meaning you may use a bit of fantasy, true crime, grindhouse or something subversive, just draw from life and make it as big as humanly possible. Take a writer like Pinckney Benedict, a writer from West Virginia, his early stories were regional with a pulse, then he wrote a book called Miracle Boy and Other Stories, he blew the doors off of what is perceived to be literature, the man’s got creative skills that will make your soul bleed, I really dig that guy’s work.  

But anyway, a handful of writers and editors actually saw something in me and really gave me a hand, Todd Robinson and his wife Alison (LADY D), Jediah Ayres, Scott Phillips, Anthony Neil Smith, David Cranmer and Elaine Ash, now these guys and gals can also write, bar none, they’ve published books also. But Todd and his wife ran a zine called THUG LIT and Anthony used to edit and run a web-zine-journal called Plots With Guns or PWG and David runs Beat to a Pulp. But each of these people edited and published me and pointed me in the right direction and offered advice and friendship that eventually helped me find an agent. It was no easy task and I’m greatly indebted to each of them.

Frank with his cousin
And his dog Emma
JS:I read an interview where you described your writing process, particularly how disciplined you are with it. Can you describe a typical day where you are hot and heavy into the writing?

FB:On workdays, Monday through Friday I wake up around 4am, get my coffee and breakfast going, take my dog out, feed her and then I eat and set down at my desk to write until about 6:30 or 7:00 am. Then I pack my lunch and hit the road for work and I try to read or write on breaks and jot notes in my moleskin while working.

On the weekends it’s the same thing only I sleep in a bit until about 6 or 7 am. Get some coffee, breakfast, take my dog out and then I sit down to read a bit and write until about 2pm. Sometimes, depending on how things are going, I may write until 3 or 4pm.

JS: Do you write every day?

FB:For the most part yes. But writing isn’t just sitting behind a desk waiting for some magical plot point to hit you. I write at my day job by keeping words in my moleskin notebook or on my break in my journal and I take that back to the desk. Its really about compiling words and sorting them out on the typed page, printing them off to hard copy and revising and reshaping them a million times over and building a bit more day by day.

JS:How do you know when you are done for the day? Is there a word count that you must satisfy?

I’ve never been a word count guy and never will be. Reason being is this, no one can justify how long something needs to be, because everything a writer writes will be edited and rewritten. With that said, I normally know the direction I wanna go with a character or storyline and once I get things shaped and have clarity then I move onto the next  phase. I revise throughout the process because revision is the key. I generally know I’m done for the day when I’m thinking of future scenes and that’s when I outline or jot down the ideas I think the direction of the story is headed so I have something to draw upon when I come back the next day, that’s what works for me. A writer’s brain never sleeps, if you don’t write your thoughts or ideas down, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Even a shitty thought or idea can be built upon and shaped into something great.

JS: What do you do for a day job?

FB: I work for a paint additives factory, driving a fork truck loading and unloading raw material that paint companies purchase, I load them into overseas shipping containers and LTL’s. I also load and unload material into tankers and railcars. I spent 14 years within the plant making the raw materials for paint on nightshift, which I’m going back to, I dig nights and I get more days off (3-4 days a week) to write. I’ve been on days 5 years with a Monday through Friday schedule that I loathe. Getting up 3-4 hours before work to write, then dealing with traffic and management everyday is a bit more than I can tolerate.

JS:Tell me a little about your training. I read somewhere that three days a week you train with weights. What does the program look like?

I’m a Monday, Wednesday, Friday kinda guy. My focus is more on strength training, using the lifts that matter, deadlift, squat, bench press and standing press and if time permits I do supplementary work but I do it in three’s or a cluster of tri-sets with no rest until I’ve done 3-5 sets. I basically do 3-4 weeks of a routine, gradually increasing the weight being lifted over those 3-4 weeks. I try to hit the same muscle groups twice a week one week then switch and hit the other groups twice the following week. That works best for me. Then I’ll switch up reps, the weight being lifted and feet and hand placement (wide grips, narrow or medium grips and elevating my feet). One phase may focus on 1-3 reps with a lot of sets, the next 3-4 week phase I may switch to 10-12 reps then after that I’ll come back to a 4-6 rep range. I’m big on 5x5 by Reg Park every so often and 5-3-1 by Jim Wendler. Guys I read up on whose workouts and advice I try to implement are Charles Staley, Ian King, Charles Poliquin, yourself, Christian Thibaudeau, Mark Rippetoe and TC Luoma, to name a few.  

I also try to implement 2 mile walks, jump rope, farmers carry up and down stairs and boxing when I can.

 JS:What do you get out of the training?

FB:A fucking rush! Focus. Discipline. Strength. Pumped. Nothing expect maybe sex or writing a great sentence, story or paragraph gets the endorphins going like a good lifting session, I prefer to lift heavy in the 4-6 rep range as it keeps muscles dense and hard as opposed to 10-12 reps where you get a pump that leaves the next day. But that’s just me. I know one needs all rep ranges to keep from plateauing.  

JS:What is the gym like where you train?

FB:That’s funny, I haven’t trained in a commercial type gym since I don’t know when. The place I lift in is fucking cold in the winter and scorching hot in the summer. Its basically a 20 x 20 concrete shed with a tin roof, its dank, dusty and of the elements. I have a small space heater I stand next to in-between sets in the winter and a fan for the summer. I have a little over 770lbs of free weights and a pull up bar, a weighted medicine ball and dumb- bells. I’m not a machine guy. I have a bench and rack rated for 600lbs, so I’m basically squared away. I’m by far not a big guy, 5’5” and 185lbs and my max squat and deadlift are 300lbs on an off day, 305lbs or 310lbs on a good day.

JS:Did you have someone who started you in the weight room or did you just pick it up on your own?

FB:I can’t really say. I think my parents bought me a weight bench when I was around 12 years old with the concrete filled plates. And I’ve stuck with it on and off every since. Always reading up on training methods and I have a few close friends who are really dedicated barbell heads as well.

JS: You also seem to "lean to the older ways", as Hank Jr. sings about. You know-whiskey, hunting, working with your hands, blue collar stuff. What appeals to you about these characteristics in a man?

FB: It’s the history of where we come from. Our fathers and grandfathers (plus mothers and grandmothers), they don’t make many men (or women) like that anymore. Those guys were well rounded. They suffered for their skills and knowledge. If something broke they fixed it. If they needed meat, they went out and shot, field dressed and skinned the animal. Some people today they don’t have that nor do they care to have that, they don’t know about their family history or the wars that their people served in or the jobs they worked. And if they don’t they should. If you don’t understand who you are and where you came from how can you evolve? Shit, how can you teach others? It’s like a home without a foundation. I’m 41 and I’m still learning, you’re never too old to be taught or learn.

JS:I was reading one of your interviews and I started thinking that you must have had some good role models that taught you the meaning of being a man. It seems like rural folks have that- mentors who show them the ways of the world. Was there a particular person who did this for you?

FB:Other than my mother and father, my grandparents, each had an influence. They were all great cooks, hunters, fishermen, gardeners and storytellers of life. But then you add in aunts, uncles and cousins, I mean I’ve got two cousins that are like my brothers, then there are in-laws if you get married, so you pretty much have the preparation for life when you come from a good family and mix with another, you just have to realize what you have before its gone.

JS:I have read that music is important to you. But not just any music- you like gritty, down to earth artists. Can you name a few of your favorites and why their type of music appeals to you?

My tastes range from folk to metal to old delta blues and old jazz and old country. The Drive By Truckers, Steve Earle, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Scott H. Biram, Javi Garcia, Lincoln Durham, Slipknot, Slayer, Scissor Fight, Pantera, Hank III, Hank Sr., Johnny Cash, Chris Knight, Tyler Childers, Miles Davis, Sturgill Simpson, Fred McDowell, Rammstein, Hayes Carll, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Rob Zombie, Ryan Bingham, William Elliott Whitmore and too many others to name.

For me music is an escape and an influence, like a good book, the words and rhythms get my mind going, bring back memories, create storylines, emotions and sometimes provide a soundtrack for what evers going on in my life. The Drive-by Truckers, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Javi Garcia, Scott Biram and Lincoln Durham are the ones I keep rotating the most because of their honest lyrics and crazed stories. Tyler Childers is another, he’s very young but his songs sound as though he’s lived a long full life. I’m most fond of singer songwriters. Not into new country or whatever’s on the billboards or fucking Bro music.  

JS:You have a Beagle, correct? I need some stats about the dog and why he/she is important in your life.

FB: Emma. She’s a red tick beagle. I bought her for my wife after we lost our last dog of almost 15 years. I figured I’d get kicked out of the house, my wife wasn’t ready for another dog, but I didn’t. I grew up with a beagle, Jug, that I hunted rabbits with as a kid and my grandfather bred, raised, trained and hunted Walkers and Curs for coon hunting. The man lived and breathed coon hunting. So, I’ve always had a fondness for dogs, but hound dogs are my favorite because I grew up with them. I wanted a German Pointer Hound, but my wife didn’t want a big dog. But I bought Emma down in Baghdad, Kentucky from a breeder who raised black and tan beagles and blue tick beagles. Emma came from the breeder’s first litter of red ticks he’d ever bred. Of course the breeder thought I was gonna hunt her, told me to bring her back and he’d gun break her but I don’t hunt much anymore because I’ve got no time, I fish and I write and I work. My cousin keeps trying to talk me into hunting her with his beagle but my wife and I have taken another route, we started Emma with Flying Feet Agility, have advanced from beginner to advanced obedience and the first three levels of agility and she has three more levels to go. She got a winter break and starts back up in March I think. My wife is wanting to compete with her and the trainer is pretty adamant about it also, so we’ll see what happens. Emma fills that void for me as I never wanted kids but there’s something about a dog, a hound dog in particular. The jaws, the ears, the howling. They never judge, always happy when you arrive home from work and they keep you motivated in your daily life.  

JS: If you had to describe a "life" philosophy that you adhere to, what would it be?

FB: Here are a few:

If you’re gonna do something for others, don’t do it for praise or compliment, do it cause you wanna do it and walk away when the task is complete. Don’t idolize the fake. Be honest with yourself first and foremost and then others rather than offer a load of horse shit regardless of how bad the truth hurts. Work hard and then work a little bit harder, remember everyday that you’re not giving your all to something somebody else is and they’re getting better than you. Good bourbon is sipped and cheap is never opened but given to people you dislike as Christmas gifts. Never take a knife to a gunfight. Always treat an enemy like a friend. Never forget the many uses of the Sears catalog. Respect your family and friends and any man or woman who’s served in a war. Love your wife, your dog and your mother and father cause you wouldn’t be here today without them.

All About Being a Lifer

What's a Lifer? Someone who isn't in to something for just a day, a month, a's for life. Whether its training or your family or your doesn't matter. You work at it, you build on it, you see the big picture . You don't miss workouts because it means something to you. You are like a Shakespearean actor- no matter what is going on in your life, you block it out when it's time to train. You walk into the weight room and all else disappears. Worry about it later.