Frank Bill is a literary brawler. Every character gets thrown into the melee; no one is spared. Compared to Larry Brown, Cormac McCarthy, and Quentin Tarantino—for both the violence in his stories and the simple truths that echo from his prose—Bill writes sentences that are abrupt and vicious. In Donnybrook, his first novel (following the story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana), it's the shortest sentences that hit the hardest: "Pulled the trigger. Red parted white." Or: “Fixing to get a drink chased with some answers.”
Donnybrook is the story of a three-day fighting competition run by a brutal and wealthy thug. All of the characters—outlaws and degenerates the lot of them, with names like Chainsaw Angus and Jarhead—are careening toward the Donnybrook competition, where the final winner takes all. Bill’s characters are savaged by the poor economy and the crystal meth culture, and he portrays their desperation with stunning honesty. His novel’s unforgettable voices provide an intimate look at the consequences of the erosion of America's working class.
I threw some questions at Bill last month, and his responses reveal an uncompromising writer with purpose and a learned wisdom. He may be a brawler, but he’s not without compassion.
Oxford American: In both Donnybrook and Crimes in Southern Indiana, your characters often bend to social and situational pressures, such as unemployment and criminality. Was this a conscious decision?
Frank Bill: What I struggled with for many years was how to take working-class problems or conflicts and make them interesting. Like, Big Dave is a farmer. His crops didn’t do so well this year or last year. He has mouths to feed. Bills to pay. Land to prepare for next year. But he’s asshole broke. Still owes on the previous year’s loan. Writers like Raymond Carver and Larry Brown did it without effort: they shined a light on class and the problems that forsake men and women in their daily grind of life. But I realized, they’ve already written that. It’s time to turn up the volume. Raise the bar.
I kept going back and forth through my family’s history. Sometimes I’d write things down exactly as they happened. But it wasn’t until I let my mind actually create and bend truths into other truths, fusing them with what was going on around me, that questions arose and I unearthed the other side of things, like what happens when there's no light at the end of the tunnel. What about the people who only know one way: survival? What will they do?
They’ll do whatever it takes to get by. Human beings have a breaking point. A man who fights in a war sees loss and causes loss; it’s a double-sided coin—he doesn’t forget that. There are consequences. Cause and effect. He has to live with that; his government doesn’t. And when you write about the breaking point, it sometimes turns people or readers away because they’re so used to that formula for a happy ending. Oh, he’ll get medicated. He’ll go to counseling or self-help.
Guess what, that’s not real life, not where I come from anyway.
OA: How did Larry Brown influence you?
FB: When I first read Joe my first thought was that my grandfather and my father had been fused as one being—and how the hell did this writer in Mississippi know my family in southern Indiana? Larry had this sense of place, and of the working-class male who drank, drifted, hunted and fished, had bad marriages, hung out in taverns, and kept one of Kentucky’s cash crops booming from one cigarette to the next. His people lived hard and numbed themselves with booze. They knew what it was to taste bitter, to suffer from bad decisions but keep on trucking. When I read Larry I thought, I’ve gotta one day meet this guy, he’s been cut from a similar cloth. He knows his people and where they come from. I began reading everything he’d written, over and over. To this day I still reread Joe every year.
OA: The pacing and action of the plot in Donnybrook is relentless. Was this a natural storytelling style for you from the get-go or did it slowly evolve?
FB: It evolved over time through my writing of short stories. At first I kept trying to mimic writers that I admired and held in high regard rather than letting things go and writing what I wanted. I was writing what I thought journals wanted to publish. Then I found my breaking point.
OA: What was your breaking point?
FB: My breaking point came from being turned down, over and over, and I was pissed off. Decided to write what I wanted. What interested me as a reader. Words that moved like adrenaline in the veins. Stories that held literary power but gave a human punch.
I penned a story called "Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell," sent it out to journals and entered it into a small contest held by Lunch Hour Stories, a print journal. Then I began working on a story called "Old Testament Wisdom." Before it was finished, I received a letter from Lunch Hour Stories that said my story had taken third place. I’d get paid, I think fifty bucks, and get ten copies of the story. This was around 2009. After that, I finished "Old Testament Wisdom" and submitted it to several journals—one was Thug-Lit, an online journal where a lot of writers were getting looked at and landing agents. The story was accepted. Lunch Hour Stories went out of business before "Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell” got printed, but I did get paid. After that, I kept writing what I wanted and never looked back.
OA: How long did you write before you had success with publishing?
FB: I began writing in 2000. Filling up notebooks with ideas and plotlines and characters. It wasn’t until around 2004 or 2006 that I began to get a story published here or there. But in 2009 my work began getting accepted and had a small following online. And in 2010, I landed my first two-book deal with a publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
OA: Was there a specific moment, or a story, in which you discovered your voice?
FB: It was several stories: "A Coon Hunter’s Noir," "The Old Mechanic," and "The Penance of Scoot McCutchen." Problem was the stories didn’t get accepted at first, though several editors commented on them; “The Old Mechanic” got a two-page letter from one journal. So, I kept getting frustrated and writing less violent stories. They’d also get turned down. “A Coon Hunter’s Noir” got the attention of the editor of Hardboiled, but he was hesitant to place his finger on why he couldn’t accept it. I let that story sit for maybe six months or a year. When I picked it back up, I knew immediately it’d been overwritten in a few places. I edited it down. Made it tighter. Sent it to Hardboiled. And it was accepted. I’d been holding back and not writing what I wanted to write.
OA: Can you envision crystal meth use and the manufacturing of meth ever decreasing? Can government policies or new laws have any impact? What are your thoughts on the legalization of drugs?
FB: Two meth labs just got busted in my area and made the local news. So I’d say at this time it’s not slowing down. It’s been “too little too late” from our government. And now every time a hardworking Joe goes to the pharmacy he suffers the backlash, getting ID’ed for certain cold medicines. It’s crazy. Not that you mind it but when you’re sick or if you have allergies, you’re being monitored like a criminal.
I’d support the legalization of marijuana. Never had a pothead break in to my home, steal from me, rob me or otherwise. I do not support the legalization of other drugs, especially meth. The U.S. government could do more on the drug war front, but it chooses not to. Nixon declared the war on drugs when he was in office in June of 1971 and we’re still fighting it in 2013, and it’s worse now than it was then.
OA: What's something you wish you’d known twenty years ago?
FB: That happiness isn’t always found, but it’s sometimes earned.