July 8, 2014

A Blizzard in the Desert: an interview with Joe Samuel Starnes, author of "Calling"

Calling by Joe Samuel Starnes has been re-published by Open Road Media this week, and I had the chance to talk with the author about the book and his writing. But first, a little bit about Sam.

Joe Samuel Starnes has published two novels, Calling (2005) and Fall Line (2011). Calling was re-issued as an ebook by MysteriousPress.com/Open Road in July 2014. His third novel, Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel, is forthcoming in spring 2015. Starnes was born in Alabama and grew up in Georgia, but has lived in New Jersey and Philadelphia since 2000. He has had journalism appear in the New York Times, Washington Post, and various magazines, as well as essays, short stories, and poems in literary journals. He holds an bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, an MA in English from Rutgers University in Newark, and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. He was awarded a fellowship to the 2006 Sewanee Writers' Conference. He has taught writing courses at Rowan University, Saint Joseph's University, and Widener University.

Gef: For as much as the glitz and glam of Las Vegas can provide for fodder in a story, the aftermath of going to Vegas seems just as intriguing, if not more so, and Calling starts off with two men leaving Vegas at probably their lowest points. For you, what was that lure to Vegas, or was it more your characters kind of telling you that's where their story lies?

Sam: I first visited Las Vegas almost twenty years ago for a conference and was blown away by the sheer audacity of the idea of the place – just the pure unbridled ambition of enormous resorts devoted to gambling in the middle of a completely uninhabitable landscape. It’s the American dream on amphetamines and hallucinogens, promising big jackpots and fun around the clock. Of course, we all know that the marketing is a lie, and that most everyone expecting to be a winner walks away a loser, fitting the profile of my two characters. In addition to the Sin City aspect – and where better for a fallen Southern Baptist preacher to run away with bank robbery money, take LSD, and turn violent? – I also became enamored on subsequent visits with the desert landscape around Vegas, particularly the Valley of Fire State Park. The weathered red rocks are beautiful but also harsh and in a way terrifying. Vegas and its surrounding terrain seemed like the perfect setting for these two southerners at the end of their respective ropes to meet.

Gef: On one hand you've got Ezekiel Blizzard, a disgraced preacher without a flock, and on the other you've got Timber Goodman, a disgraced broadcaster without a job. Did either character try to steal the show, so to speak, as you wrote this? What kind of balancing act was involved in conveying both men's stories?

Sam: The genesis of the novel was a first person short story with Zeke, the preacher, telling the story of how he began robbing banks to raise enough money to buy time on radio stations to broadcast his sermons. I began expanding it to a novel in first person, and although I thought the story had worked, the novel, in his voice, was not working for me. After about 100 pages, I went back to the beginning and started writing it in third person and Timber, the journeyman radio deejay, just popped up on the Greyhound Bus. I initially created him to give some perspective on Zeke, but ultimately the novel came to be as much about him as it is Zeke. The structure of the novel is that the chapters alternate with each character going back through their life stories. It begins and ends with Timber, so you could argue he stepped in and took over the book.

Gef: This is a second outing for Calling, as it was published in the so-called dead tree form a few years back. Was finding a way to publish digitally something that you had been striving for, or was this something that just kind of fell into your lap?

Sam: I had not been seeking it out, and was focused on other projects, including the release of Fall Line, my novel from 2011, when I was fortunate to meet the legendary Otto Penzler at the NoirCon conference in Philadelphia in November 2012. I learned about his publishing of out-of-print crime and mystery novels through MysteriousPress.com in partnership with Open Road Integrated Media. The first publisher of Calling had gone out of business and the rights had reverted to me, so I gave Otto a copy and I’m fortunate he liked it enough to want to publish it as an eBook and give it a second life.

Gef: You're a David Goodis fan, I hear. Would you count him as a writing influence, too? Who else has influenced your writing over the years?

Sam: I certainly am a Goodis fan, but I found to him too late to be an influence, certainly on Calling, which I finished more than a decade ago. I discovered Goodis when I moved to Philadelphia in 2006 and became interested in its literary output. I grew up in Georgia, home of Flannery O’Connor, to name just one of my favorite southern writers who influenced me, and was coming to Philly from the New York area, where I’d been for six years, so initially I found Philly’s literary stable lacking and disappointing. Several people I met told me I should read Ben Franklin. Now, I’m not arguing that Franklin wasn’t a genius of the highest order, but he’s not what I was seeking in the way of a fiction writer. But after I lived here awhile, I was thrilled to discover Goodis and read his work, especially Down There (which Truffaut made into Shoot the Piano Player), and many other great novels. His plots are entertaining as hell, as long as you don’t mind downward spirals, and there are moments where his language is as poetic as any “literary” writer (read the passage about the flame opal ring at the end of Chapter 7 in Dark Passage). Goodis also is great at setting, and I think he nails the tough character of some Philadelphia neighborhoods and its people. As for my earlier influences, it’s a widely varied group, but at the top of the list are O’Connor, Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Carl Hiaasen, and Philip Roth.

Gef: Along with the novelist gig, you're also a journalist and a teacher. How have those two jobs influenced your work? I imagine they both help with deadlines, at any rate.

Sam: I learned years ago as a reporter for newspapers in Georgia and Florida that if you didn’t put one word after another, you wouldn’t get paid, even though what you got paid was minimal. The job also exposed me to murder cases and cops and political corruption and the everyday march of flawed humanity that goes on in the world of the police and government beats. I saw all sorts of things most never get to see, and that five-year experience still resonates in my writing twenty years later. Teaching has been great for my writing because it has forced me to regularly go back and revisit the basics and truly understand the techniques of storytelling.

Gef: Where can folks keep up with you and your writing? Which reminds me, what other projects do you have on the go?

Sam: I post everything I’ve published, as well as reviews of my book and other links, on my web site at www.joesamuelstarnes.com. You also can follow me on Facebook, Twitter at @jsamuelstarnes, and Goodreads. As for forthcoming work, I recently sold a book, Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel, that will be published by Breakaway Books in spring 2015. It can perhaps be described as grit lit meets the country club, and I’m delusionally hopeful it will become the Rocky of southern fiction (although unlike Sylvester Stallone, I don’t plan to star in the film, although I wouldn’t mind hanging around on the set). I realize a tennis novel may seem out of character compared to my other two grittier novels, but just imagine gunshots where the groundstrokes are and the narrative arc is not that different. Long-term, I’ve got a good start on a crime series about a Georgia sheriff who takes early retirement and moves to New Jersey and is pulled into a variety of cases, including investigating a heinously corrupt FBI agent. I finished a draft of what I thought would be the first book in the series, but I’m realizing now it may be the third. I’ve got years worth of work cut out for me on that project, but I’m looking forward to writing it.

Thanks, Sam. As for the rest of you, you can grab yourself a copy of Calling by visiting Amazon.com or go direct to Open Road Media for even more purchase links and info.

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