September 7, 2015

A Game of Bait and Kitsch: an interview with Adam Howe, author of 'Gator Bait'

Prohibition-era 1930s… After an affair with the wrong man's wife, seedy piano player Smitty Three Fingers flees the city and finds himself tinkling the ivories at a Louisiana honky-tonk owned by vicious bootlegger Horace Croker and his trophy wife, Grace. Folks come to The Grinnin' Gator for the liquor and burlesque girls, but they keep coming back for Big George, the giant alligator Croker keeps in the pond out back. Croker is rumored to have fed ex-wives and enemies to his pet, so when Smitty and Grace embark on a torrid affair…what could possibly go wrong? Inspired by true events, Gator Bait mixes hardboiled crime (James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice) with creature horror (Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive) to create a riveting tale of suspense. 

Gef: Following up on Black Cat Mojo, you have a new southern crime novella in Gator Bait. How did this one come about?

Adam: After Black Cat Mojo, I wanted to show I’ve got more game than just donkey-dicked porn dwarfs and diarrheic dogs. Maybe not much more, but a little. So this one’s slightly more serious, albeit still laced with black humour. It’s a hardboiled riff on a true crime story: Texan serial killer, Joe ‘The Alligator Man’ Ball, the Prohibition bootlegger turned bar owner who fed a bunch of gals to the pet gators he kept in a pond behind his place. Crazy, but true. Horror movie fans may be familiar with the Joe Ball story from the Tobe Hooper flick, Eaten Alive.

After a few false starts, the story finally wanted to be written. I’m very pleased how it turned out, and delighted with the reader response so far. Gator Bait will be part of my next collection, Die Dog Or Eat The Hatchet, out in November. It’s the shortest story of the bunch, and the publisher and I are releasing it early at a bargain basement price of only 99c (!) to try and tempt readers who might be otherwise leery of stories about well-endowed dwarf porn stars.

Gef: How intensive did research get for you, given this one is set during the Prohibition era?

Adam: Very little research involved initially. Beyond re-reading Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, for its structure, and the noir-ish tone I wanted, and watching Prohibition era stuff like Boardwalk Empire. I’ve read enough classic crime fiction that, hopefully, the period feels real. But my stuff tends to operate in a kind of heightened reality anyway, so there’s a little leeway. It’s always great fun writing hardboiled. ‘Dames’ and ‘hoods’ and ‘hooch’ and ‘rods.’ There’s a real beat to it, daddy-O. While drafting Gator Bait – and without wanting to give away story spoilers – I did stumble across a particularly gruesome historical fact that became integral to the plot, and gave me my title. Quite horrifying, if indeed it’s true. And considering this fucked-up world, it probably is. Readers should be warned that Gator Bait is a period story set in the South, and is highly racially charged.

Gef: “Inspired by true events.” I take it there is enough creative license here that “based on a true story” wouldn’t fly?

Adam: The Joe Ball story was my starting point. “Deranged bar owner feeds victims to pet gator.” What more does a writer need? Beyond that I made everything up

I used The Postman Always Rings Twice as a rough template. (Structurally speaking, I find it helps to use an existing work as a template. Obviously you need to put your own spin on things, and your voice must be strong enough to avoid the work becoming derivative of the source – or outright plagiarizing it!)

There’s a nod to Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. (Olly’s last decent film? I’ve got a soft spot for Any Given Sunday.) And of course, Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, aka Deathtrap in the UK, which was also inspired by the Joe Ball story - just like Eddie Gein inspired Hooper’s breakout flick, Texas Chainsaw.

Gef: As a British writer, is there a particular allure to the American south for you?

Adam: Well, I’m not even attempting to write an accurate depiction, just riffing on the southern stereotype, which seems to lend itself to the hyper-real crime/horror stuff I write. As a ‘city boy,’ and a Brit no less, the south seems so colorful and exotic, the people larger than life. There’s an anything-goes quality. I can write the most outrageous shit, and it still seems plausible. “Well, it IS the south.”

I wouldn’t want to visit the south I write. I wouldn’t want to meet any of my backwoods characters in the flesh. I especially wouldn’t want to raise a glass of hooch with Horace Croker at The Grinnin’ Gator.

Writing Americana seems to come to me naturally – I hope my readers would agree – in fact, these days I often struggle to write in my British voice, get all stiff upper lipped and formal. Writing Americana, I can loosen my tie and have fun.

Gef: Gator Bait is a fairly fast-paced story too. Is that by design when you sat down to write this or just something that came about organically? When does pacing come into consideration during your writing process?

Adam: Since I was using The Postman Always Rings Twice as my template, which is a novella by today’s standards, I figured Gator Bait would end up being fairly short. But I just take it as it comes. Of course, pacing’s always important, especially when writing suspense. As Elmore Leonard said: Cut out the parts readers skip. Coming from a screenwriting background, I’m always looking to enter scenes late and leave early, keep things moving. I’m pleased with the pacing of Gator Bait. It builds a nice head of steam as it rockets to hell. I worked hard over several drafts to tighten the screw. The final scene should be almost as uncomfortable for the reader as it is for the characters.

That said, I think with Gator Bait there’s enough material I could flesh it out to novel length. There’s interest in a film version. As and when I find time to write the screenplay I can explore that world in a little more detail.

Gef: It seems you gravitate towards the novella length of fiction in your writing, at least with Gator Bait and Black Cat Mojo. Is that a story length you’re comfortable with? Has the rise of the eBook lent itself to more publishers being open to novellas, do you think?

Adam: As I think I mentioned the last time we spoke, coming from a screenwriting background, it seems to me that a 20/30k word novella is roughly equivalent to a feature film screenplay, so I’m comfortable there. But I’m slowly building stamina, writing longer works without losing the intensity of the short stuff.

A lot of readers seem to be resistant to reading anything below novel-length. I see Amazon reviews for short story collections that begin “I don’t normally read short stories BUT…” And a five-star review often follows. I don’t know why it is. The length of a story should have no bearing on a story’s quality. Maybe readers have been scarred by the navel-gazing ‘literature’ they were forced to read at school? Maybe they think bigger is better and they’re getting more value for money with a novel; but how many novels have you read that feel like they’re padded? So yeah, I like shorts, and some of the best stuff I’ve read recently has been novella-length. Off the top of my head: Stephen Volk’s Whitstable, Joe Lansdale’s White Mule, Spotted Pig, and Stephen King’s 1922.

I’d like to think my novellas are giving readers more bang for their buck than they’ll find in a lot of novels. (Did I mention Gator Bait is only a buck?)

Hard for me to say how publishers feel about novellas. I’m still fairly new to this, and learning as I go. I know the big publishing houses aren’t interested in anything less than novel-length unless it’s written by a ‘name.’ While shopping Black Cat Mojo around, before I found a good home at Comet Press, it certainly seemed there were a lot of small presses open to novellas.

Gef: Do you have anything else in the works for 2015? What irons do you have in the fire?

Adam: My plan this year was to have two books on the market, starting with Black Cat Mojo, and ending with Die Dog Or Eat The Hatchet in November; this would leave me free to write my novel (yeah, a NOVEL!) for the rest of the year. I got a little sidetracked writing additional material for Die Dog – but I can live with that because I’ve produced what I consider some of my best work. Now it’s time to knuckle down and “write a fucking novel,” as Stephen King once said to me. It’s called One Tough Bastard. My love letter to 80s/90s action flicks. Unless it turns out fucking terrible and I junk it, I hope to introduce readers to washed-up action star, Shane Moxie, and his chimpanzee sidekick, Duke, as they unravel a criminal conspiracy in Hollywood. Even by my standards, this one’s batshit crazy. The Pulitzer’s pretty much a lock.


Adam Howe is a British writer of fiction and screenplays. Writing as Garrett Addams, his short story Jumper was chosen by Stephen King as the winner of the On Writing contest, and published in the paperback/eBook editions of King’s book. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in places like Nightmare Magazine, Mythic Delirium, and Thuglit. His first book, Black Cat Mojo (pub. Comet Press) is available now. Die Dog Or Eat The Hatchet is due 04/11/15.

Follow him at Goodreads and Tweet him @Adam_G_Howe

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