April 30, 2015

Laced with Black Comedy: an interview with Adam Howe, author of "Black Cat Mojo"

Black Cat Mojo by Adam Howe: In these three novellas of blackly comic crime and creature horror, you’ll go slumming with well-endowed dwarf porn stars, killer badgers, redneck mama’s boys, morbidly obese nymphomaniacs, dumbass dog-nappers, trailer trash Jesus freaks, diarrheic Jack Russell Terriers, not-so-wiseguys, mob-movie memorabilia collectors, junkie blackmailers, and giant man-eating Burmese pythons.

Available at Amazon.com


I had the chance to ask Adam a few questions about his debut novel and writing in general. Enjoy!

 Gef: What was the impetus behind Black Cat Mojo?

Adam: Honest answer? To have a book of my own in print! I come from a screenwriting background – a largely failed screenwriting background, I should say – I’m still adapting to writing prose fiction. Many years ago, my short story Jumper was chosen by Stephen King as the winner of the On Writing contest run by Hodder & Stoughton, and published in the paperback and Kindle editions of King’s book. As part of the prize, I got to meet The King, who rolled his eyes when I told him I planned to write screenplays; “Write a fucking novel,” he said. Years later, I finally took his advice, and returned to writing prose. After having several short stories published in magazines and anthologies, I felt ready to write longer work. I didn’t quite have the chops to write a full-length novel, so figured I’d start with novellas, learn the ropes. I’ve since discovered that a 20/30k-word novella is roughly the same length as a feature film screenplay, which must be why I feel comfortable there. But I’m more confident now about writing that “fucking novel,” which is in the works.

Gef: What was it about the novellas in this book that stood out for you to be collected together like this?

Adam: The stories have a unifying, albeit very loose, animal theme.  They're offbeat crime/non-supernatural horror (bodily function-horror?) laced with black comedy. The characters are noir-ish in the sense that they’re doomed by their own decisions. I’m calling the style ‘schadenfreude noir’ since I’m encouraging the reader to laugh at the poor bastards. I’m a cruel creator.

Gef: How much of a balancing act is it when blending humor with horror?

Adam: I work from the gut, and try not to overanalyze these things; the fear is the work becomes self-conscious. Dissecting a joke feels a little Teutonic (must be why the Germans are famed for the sense of humour) and I think the same applies to dissecting suspense scenes. While writing more traditional genre material, I’d noticed, or rather, my editor had pointed out, that I was often undercutting tense scenes with humour. Realizing I didn't have a problem with that, with these novellas I went whole hog, allowed humour to be the engine and unwittingly discovered a style that works well for me. I’m pretty desensitized when it comes to horror and humour, and my moral compass is a little wonky. What amuses me, others tend to find disturbing. I just try to have fun, translate that to the page, and hope the reader enjoys the ride; as a reader you can tell when the writer’s having fun.

Gef: Genre labels are great for the bookshops, but it seems that especially with the rise of ebooks that genre mashing has become huge. With a blend of crime and horror in these stories, I take it you welcome that approach, and how do you see it progressing in the future?

Adam: I don’t consider these stories to be a mash-up of horror and crime – like John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, say; although ‘mash-up’ seems a crude way to describe his great work – rather that fans of horror and crime should enjoy them. Not knowing quite how to describe the novellas, I pitched the book to publishers as “Joe Lansdale meets Elmore Leonard.” If all we’re talking about is historical figures versus supernatural monsters, I’m rarely interested; the writing has to be pretty shit-hot, or the gimmick quickly runs out of steam. Humour is important to me, though; I like my writers to have a dark sense of humour, and that humour is rarely darker than in noir and horror.

Going back to Steve King, it’s often overlooked how funny his writing can be. There’s I story I love called Big Wheels, in his Skeleton Crew collection – no one ever mentions it, it’s not one of King’s traditional horror tales – in which a drunk pays a late night visit to an old high school buddy to have his piece-of-shit car serviced, and rakes up a lot of bad memories for the mechanic. Reading it, you get the sense Steve was just goofing around over a few beers, but that story’s a blast. And there’s a character in Cujo, Joe Camber’s Vietnam vet friend, Gary Pervier; his backstory – in which we learn he got his balls blown off in ‘Nam, and is less than happy about it, being “madder than a bull with an axe handle up its ass” – is hilarious. King’s great at writing those blue-collar goofballs.

Discovering Joe Lansdale’s work has been a revelation. I’m still kicking myself that it took me so long to find him. My editor recommended Joe, said our styles were similar. I started with The Pit and was blown away. Hearing Lansdale’s voice was like making a new friend. I realized there was a place for humour in even my nastiest, most caustic work. Returning to an earlier question, King and Lansdale are masters at balancing horror and humour, and it all boils down to character; make the reader care about the characters and everything else levels out naturally.

Gef: How intensive does the research process get for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

Adam: Apart from a thorough (and ongoing) investigation of dwarf pornography, there was little to no research involved in these novellas. But I am a fiend for research. Before starting certain projects, I’ll amass a vast library of material, most of which will be left to gather dust, but it allows me to kid myself I’m working, anything to delay the inevitable pain of writing that first draft.

It’s a fine line between research and procrastination. There’s a bonus short story in Black Cat Mojo, unrelated to the novellas, called The Mad Butcher of Plainfield’s Chariot of Death; an EC horror-style yarn of 4,000-ish words which took me over ten years to ‘research’ before I finally knuckled down to write the fucker. Mad Butcher tells the true story of Bunny Gibbons, the carny barker who bought serial killer Ed Gein’s grave-robbing car, ‘The Ghoulmobile,’ to exhibit at fairs; in my story, and in true EC tradition, Gibbons buys the car and more than he bargains for. As the Crypt Keeper would say: Heh, heh, heh…

When it comes to research, the only trick I’ve learned is to recognize the difference between research and procrastination. Research as much as you need to bluff your way through that first draft, and then fill in the details later. There’ll be other drafts. Believe me, there’ll be plenty of other drafts. (Of course, I’m full of shit. I’m currently developing several period projects, for which I’ve begun hoarding the usual masses of ‘research’ material, and expect to begin writing sometime in the next decade.)

Gef: What do you consider to be the strength or saving grace of this genre?

Adam: Whoa, this question’s a little highfalutin for the likes of me: a schmuck who’s just written a book – but hopefully THE book – about porn dwarfs and dog-nappers and a cripple fighting a giant snake. Maybe I’m doing my work a disservice here, because I do practice my craft, and work hard at it, but I consider myself a pulp storyteller first and foremost, and leave the heavy lifting to other more capable writers. At its best, genre fiction holds a mirror to society, and filters contemporary anxieties in a way that endures, doesn’t seem to date like a lot of literary fiction. But apart from a few satirical potshots and pop culture references, there’s little of that to be found in Black Cat Mojo.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Adam: For someone who enjoys writing grotesques, I disagree that a protagonist needs to be sympathetic or even likeable to be interesting. Perhaps that’s mostly a screenwriting thing, but I’m guessing it applies to mainstream fiction, too. The characters in Black Cat Mojo are all deeply flawed human beings. Most of them could be charitably described as fucking morons. I don’t think that makes ‘em any less compelling.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Adam: My vices – well, I have many – are 80s action flicks, especially the early work of Steven Seagal, in particular his masterpiece, Out for Justice. Even named my dog Gino in tribute to Big Steve’s character. That film is something else. It’s like Seagal decided Goodfellas was missing two things: himself, and aikido.

Also: monster movies, particularly killer animal movies, which definitely influenced the writing of Black Cat Mojo. In fact, there’s a scene in the lead novella, Of Badgers & Porn Dwarfs, in which my diminutive hero finds himself trapped in a badger sett, battling a ravenous badger; I saw it as a scale version of Mamet’s The Edge, in which Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin slay Bart the Bear.

Just to clarify, I like the old monster movies, using puppets and animatronics when real animals couldn’t be used, none of this CGI crap; directors were forced to be creative to hide their shitty monsters from the audience. I don’t have much time for knowingly trashy flicks like Sharknado. (Since I got sober, that is.) The greatest bad movies were made with the best intentions; the filmmakers didn’t know they were making garbage. A movie like Slugs comes straight from the heart, man.

What else? Country music.

I’m not sure how guilty I really feel about liking this stuff.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans? 

Adam: Coming up next is a Southern Gothic kidnap thriller called Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet – my thanks to Joe Lansdale for that badass title. This one’s more traditional horror/crime. And very dark. Makes Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon seem sunny and upbeat. There’s humour too, I guess. But you’re going to have to be a pretty sick sonofabitch to appreciate it.

I’m also finishing up another new novella called Damn Dirty Apes, which the publisher and I may decide to attach to Die Dog. This one’s more in the spirit of Black Cat Mojo. After Die Dog, the reader could use cheering up, and Damn Dirty Apes is just the thing, a rollicking yarn about a posse of misfits hunting a rogue skunk ape that’s kidnapped the local high school football mascot. I’m pitching it as Roadhouse meets Jaws meets Poe’s Rue Morgue. (Which sounds suspiciously like one of those mash-ups I claimed to hate, doesn’t it?)

For the rest of the year, I plan to continue working on my first novel, One Tough Bastard, an offbeat crime caper in which washed-up action movie star, Shane Moxie, and his chimpanzee sidekick, Duke, butt heads with the Hollywood underworld. Another goddamn animal story; I swear it’s unintentional!

Anyone who wants to drop me a line can Tweet me @Adam_G_Howe or follow me at Goodreads.

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