I first came across Chris Baer’s work the way most of us find books: via the recommendation of a writer whose work we love and opinion we respect. In this case, Craig Clevenger. He raved about Chris’ work on his site so enthusiastically, I had to track down an old copy of Kiss Me, Judas at Powells. I was sucked in by the very first page. I lost a lot of sleep that night because I had to finish the damn thing. Dark, violent and powerful, but with humor and a heart (and kidney) that were evident too. Incredibly vivid characters and an intensity rarely found in a novel. It’s one of my favorite books. Chris took some time to talk with me about his new book and the re-release of his previous novels.
Your two previous novels, Kiss Me Judas and Penny Dreadful have been re-released, along with the new book in the trilogy, Hell’s Half Acre. How did that come about, your hooking up with MacAdam/Cage and the books being re-released?
By weird chance, Craig Clevenger and I discovered that we lived around the corner from each other. I say weird chance because Clevenger and I both fly pretty far under the radar. Neither of us goes out much, and when we do it’s more likely to be a dark little bar with three patrons than any sort of urban meet and greet. Plus neither of us is listed in the phone book and until recently probably half the people I work with and/or associate with regularly were unaware that I even write books.
Anyway, Clevenger gave a copy of The Contortionist’s Handbook to a friend of a friend to pass to me, with his email address enclosed. I read the book and thought it was brilliant, but immediately lost the number. Eventually I tracked him down to say “great fucking book, man. Let’s have a beer.” After which, Clevenger interviewed me for the Chuck Palahniuk fan site The Cult. During the course of the interview, we talked at length about those first two Phineas Poe books, lamented the fact that they had recently gone out of print and so forth, and discussed the long lost unpublished third Phineas book, which I had buried in a shallow grave in my file cabinet when my editor left Viking and I got sucked into Hollywood purgatory after the screenplay version of Kiss Me, Judas started getting heat. My thinking was that I would go back to Hell’s Half Acre if and when a movie happened. Kind of like waiting for a hopeless lottery ticket, I know. But within a week of the interview with Clevenger, my agent got a handful of phone calls asking about Hell’s Half Acre. One of those interested was Clevenger’s editor on the Handbook, Pat Walsh, who Craig had praised as a damn good editor and excellent drinking buddy. So we sent him a copy and now eight months later, Hell’s Half Acre is out and the first two have been reissued.
Really, the whole thing is an almost sickeningly feel good story.
You say that you had buried Hell’s Half Acre in your file cabinet grave. Does that mean it would have stayed there if everything with Craig/Pat Walsh, etc hadn’t happened, or would you have eventually taken it out again and tried to sell it or self-published it? I know you were also working on something called Godspeed?
Good question. I did kind of bury Hell’s Half Acre for a while, and concentrated on other things, which was a strange thing to do maybe because it was easily the best of the three Phineas books, the best thing I’d written. It’s richer and more complex even than Penny Dreadful, and I think it’s more exciting than Kiss Me, Judas… and Phineas and Jude have evolved a lot. Their relationship is deeper, more interesting. They’ve got a lot of shadows and scars between them. But it was funny, or depressing… while I was pretty sure this book would see the light eventually, it just seemed like the audience wasn’t really there for another Phineas book, not yet. There was a while there, post-Columbine and then post 9/11, when the words “too dark” were serious bad voodoo in books and film. Now, it seems like the tides have shifted again. You say the words too dark and people want to eat it up like ice cream. And it seems like MacAdam Cage sniffed the wind and saw a market was there for Phineas, and for ice cream.
You mention how dark the Poe books are. I remember you telling Craig that you write in binges, not setting up a daily writing “schedule” because you can’t have the writing explode the same way you can when you go to a motel for 10 days and just write write write with no distractions. Is that darkness something that just comes from the subject matter (death, rape, kidney theft, violence) and the style you’re working in, or does it also come from the way/place you write?
The edge of the knife blade feel to my stories and the way I approach work are a chicken & egg kind of thing, I reckon. Definitely, working in binges tends to hypnotize me, and there’s an element of method acting there. I take my laptop to bars and cheap motels. I deprive myself of sleep and food and human contact. I smoke one cigarette after another. If I’m writing about Phineas, who is always on the edge of completely losing his mind, I encourage myself to go there. And it’s easy for me to get there.
On the other hand, if I’m sitting at my desk at work on a Monday morning and I have to write a scene or transition chapter short notice, it comes out pretty much the same way. Primarily because of the details I invariably focus on: the mosquito buzzing past unseen, the cigarette ash turning white, the hair falling in your eyes, the smell of fried eggs from this morning, the lipstick stain on your pillow, the sirens in the distance, the pounding in your head… I don’t know. It’s just the way I write, the way I feel like I was trained to write by the writers I read when I was a kid, when I was 17 and obsessed. That’s when I was reading Bataille and Camus and Nabokov, Philip Dick, Jim Thompson. The madness is always in the details.
Are you at a point now where you can write full time, or do you have another job as well? I ask for two reasons: one, what have your coworkers/friends/family said in the past about the subject matter of your books? And two, for all the writers out there, if they need another job to pay the bills, do you think it’s better for them to have a writing job (reporting, editing, resume writing, business writing), or do you think a non-writing job is better so it doesn’t interfere with the mindset/energy needed to write when you get home and on weekends? Personally, I think it might be the latter. God knows that a non-writing job is certainly more secure, financially.
Man, I would love to be able to write full time. One thing I’ve learned though, sometimes too much free time can be a dangerous thing. These days I clock in 9-5 as a newspaper editor. It’s more fun than not, the job gives me a lot of free time, and I like being immersed in the news.. and they pretty much let me write anything I want. But when I was starting out as a writer, I stayed away from jobs that had anything to do with the written word. I drove a cab, worked as a homeless counselor, washed dishes, served coffee… I had all the grueling shit jobs. But it kept the mind clear, and provided me with a lot of killer material.
You spent some time in L.A. writing screenplays and spec scripts. What was that like?
Put simply, there’s a reason they call it development hell. That shit is one of the lower rings.
How is the Kiss Me, Judas movie coming along? You’re writing the screenplay with someone? How is the screenplay different than the book, not just in terms of what happens but also the actual writing of it?
The Judas movie is in the simmering stages of middle development, is how I’d best describe it. The book was optioned by Mythic Films and a director named Ralph Hemecker, who polished his chops directing episodes of The X-Files and Millenium, and most recently produced and directed the Witchblade TV series. I cowrote the Judas screenplay with a friend of mine, an LA writer named Sterling Anderson. We wrote the first draft maybe two years ago, and it’s gone through at least ten rewrites- some were just cosmetic jobs, others involved fairly heavy reconstruction. The master script adheres very closely to the book for the most part, but there are some completely new scenes, new chunks of dialogue.. a lot of great stuff that I wish I could warp back in time and plug into the book. Because after five years and the writing of two more Phineas books, I have a stronger understanding of the story and the characters.
The actual writing of the script was great fun, and sometimes difficult as hell. Because while you are stripping the story down to a skeleton form, and tossing out the extra meat… you’re also exposing those bones to the sun, which can be scary. If you’ve ever seen a spaghetti western, you know how skeletons fare in the sun. So in a lot of ways, if you want the script to read well, it has to be better than the book. And at this point I think it is.
Do you spend a lot of time online, visiting other writer’s sites or surfing the various literary blogs? Personally I find them an incredibly dangerous, seductive time suck for a writer!
True. if I need to get any serious work done, I hole up somewhere that has zero internet access.
You’ve got an impressive web site yourself now. A blog, essays, short fiction, even a message board. What the hell took you so long? Heh…
Ignorance, laziness. With a healthy splash of “who gives a shit?” And for a while I think I enjoyed the invisibility.
Name: William Christopher Baer
Family: Safe from stalkers
Favorite Books: The only book I go back and reread anymore is Neuromancer, by William Gibson.
Favorite Music: Johnny Cash
Favorite Films: Begins and ends with Bladerunner.
Favorite TV: Dodger game on Sunday afternoon with Vin Scully.
Favorite Food: Double cheeseburger from In&Out
Favorite Drink: Jack and Coke
Guilty Pleasure: Jack and Coke
Best Advice: Don’t drop the soap.
The Worst: Don’t worry, it’s not loaded…
My Idea Of Hell: You ever see the movie Cube?
Superman or Batman? Spiderman
Vegas or Hawaii? Hawaii
Paper or Plastic? Plastic