I didn’t know what I was getting when I picked up Frank Bill’s debut story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana. I’m a Hoosier native who’s been gone for over a decade, and pawing the shop shelves for some new fiction, I figured Bill’s tales might seem familiar, even comforting. (As a writer, I also assumed the writing would be top-notch. Most literary types know that it’s extraordinarily difficult to sell a short story collection as your first book.)
Bill didn’t let me down. In fact, his work far surpassed my expectations. I’m not alone in thinking so highly of his prose. Crimes in Southern Indiana was named a 2011 Best Book by GQ and The Daily Beast. It was quite an honor for a guy who began his career by posting stories to crime, horror, and mystery fiction websites like Plots With Guns, where he quickly built a fan base and was asked to join public readings with several well-respected genre authors. An agent at one of the readings took note of Bill’s natural talent and brought him to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, yet he hasn’t let success go to his head. He wrote his first novel, Donnybrook, between shifts driving a fork truck at the Southern Clay Products paint additives factory, where he’s worked most of his life.
Perhaps because he’s so entrenched in it, Bill is a master of conveying life in rural, blue-collar Middle America without pandering to or stereotyping his subjects. Rather, he writes with striking compassion for the kind of casually violent people you’d want on your side during the apocalypse: nihilist alcoholic bartenders who trade in secrets and moonshine, immigrant bookies who’ll cross state lines hunting delinquent gamblers, hard-livin’ meth cookers who know how to go underground for months on end, and the grizzled gunslinging cops who chase them all. In Donnybrook, Bill dives into the world of backwoods, bare-knuckle brawls. And if you’ve already read it and are anxiously wondering: yes, there will be some sort of sequel.
Frank Bill spoke to The Rumpus a few months ago from his home in Corydon, Indiana.
The Rumpus: How did your martial arts background help you write the gruesome fight scenes in Donnybrook? And what specifically did you study?
Frank Bill: From eleven to sixteen, I predominantly studied Korean martial arts—Taekwondo—and got a black belt. By high school, I was kind of into running around, drinking, partying and drugs, and all that stuff, so I kind of fell out of it. When I turned eighteen, I just happened to run into a guy who studied and taught closed-door Chinese Kung Fu. I didn’t really know much about it other than I thought all martial arts were pretty much the same, and [then I] realized they aren’t. I studied traditional Chinese Kung Fu until I was almost thirty years old. I studied the Tiger system under two different teachers. The training and conditioning is rigorous. You have to be pretty dedicated to it to really build up your internal and external. It’s kind of like watching the old Shaw Brothers movies.
I had always heard stories about a [local] Chinese guy who had studied the Fujian temples and knows acupuncture, bonesetting, and herbal medicine. I eventually found him, and he took me on to be one of his students. But by that time, I had started writing and had to make a choice because I was driving three-and-a-half hours once a week to train with him. I did that off-and-on for about two years until it just got to be too much. My writing became more important to me so I kind of had to give it up.
I still work out now to try and stay in shape. My wife and I jog and walk together a couple times a week, just as more of a health thing. But it’s always one of those things, if I could ever get back into it and write and not have to worry about a day job, that’s probably something I would try to do again.
Rumpus: What would have to happen for you to be able to quit your day job right now? Or is that even a goal?
Bill: Yeah. That’s the goal. I really don’t know. If the screenplay sold, that would probably put it on the map because I have another book deal. But the thing is, with book deals, you don’t get all that money up front. You get pieces here and there. My first two books are paid for so I get royalties and stuff but I never know how much that’s going to be. You don’t get those but every six months. It’s one of those things where you’d have to have a really big nest egg.
Rumpus: Is the screenplay ready to ship out?
Bill: I’ve adapted the screenplay for Donnybrook, and it’s in the first rounds with a couple of producers now. With my film agent, she was like, “You know, you’ve never written a screenplay before,” so she had to see if I could even write one—and I did, so she was very happy. She said I killed it.
She would like for me to possibly write screenplays, get me in with a producer or a film company where I could write screenplays and be able to write my books like I like to do. If you get into the Screen Actors Guild, you can get insurance so that would be a nice thing. That’s kind of what would have to happen, because I’m married and I don’t want my wife to have to work all the time. She wants to work part-time and that kind of stuff. I don’t want her to struggle to—well, I don’t want to be the way Cormac McCarthy was when he was younger. I think those are the greatest stories I ever heard about a writer. In his second marriage, he told his wife, “You’re going to have to go out and find a job because I’ve got to finish this book,” and she was kind of like, “Well, I think we need to get a divorce,” and he was like, “Well, whatever. I’ve got to finish this book.” I couldn’t be that way.
But you know…you write. It’s an obsession. It’s just something that it doesn’t matter how many times you edit something. You’re always thinking, I’ve got to get back on it tomorrow, or thinking of something else, you’re jotting notes. It’s kind of like my wife’s always talking about: “Hey, you need to sit with me for a while. We need to spend time together.” And I understand that, but anybody that’s with a writer, it’s got to be hard on the other person because writing’s not a together thing. It’s a solo issue. It’s something you do on your own and you’ve got to be in that right frame of mind. You know what I mean?
Rumpus: Absolutely I do. Being understood in that way or having a community is essential. Do you have friends who are writers? Is this something that you get to sort of shoot the shit about a lot? Or are you kind of out there on your own?
Bill: I’ve actually been able to make friends with guys that I read and looked up to. At first, it was kind of like the little geek boy thing, but then I realized they’re just like me, and then I had to realize I was also kind of becoming established. Maybe I haven’t written as many books, but I have a great publisher and a great team that works with me. [Other writers] understand what it took to get here because they had to do the same thing.
Rumpus: Who are the storytellers in your family?
Bill: My dad, he’s always got something to tell you and tell you forever. Whenever my Uncle Jack comes in from Florida, I always make it a point to meet him and my dad together, because they’ll sit down and talk for hours upon hours about growing up and who’s doing what that my uncle hasn’t seen for a while. It’s just crazy, monotonous stories and the same thing with my grandpa, but you don’t appreciate that until you get older—like my grandfather passed away years and years ago… But a lot of the storytelling…it was kind of like his voice in my head. Like when I wrote “Coon Hunter’s Noir,” a lot of that was influenced by [my grandfather] being a hunter and growing up on his farm, going out and chopping wood. It was kind of something that he always did. He would work Monday through Friday. I think he worked like eight o’clock to four o’clock and he always made it home by four-thirty and came home, fed his coon dogs, and my grandmother always had supper ready, and he would eat and talk about his day. When he got done eating, the first thing he did was he would go to the phone and he’d call somebody he hunted with he hadn’t talked to in a while, just to talk about dogs and hunting trips they had together.
I never really thought a lot about it, but then when I got older and started picking up writers, I’m like, “Holy shit. They’re talking about the same things that I grew up around. They don’t even live around here.” And of course they call those Southern writers.
Rumpus: It sounds to me like a lot of the stuff that you’ve written about—maybe even some of the crazier stuff—actually comes from either experiences that you had: family stories, stuff that actually happened or that you know in some way was true. Is that accurate?
Bill: Yeah. Because I always draw from experience and the things I’m interested in. The other thing is that one of my best friends is a cop, so a lot of times when it comes to law enforcement, he’s got a story to tell you. I’ve traveled with him on the road, off-and-on. He likes it because it gets him out of the office.
Rumpus: So has there ever been anything that you’ve written about that your editor thinks sounds too unbelievable that you’ve had to go to bat for? Like, “This actually happened. I’m not making this up. It is believable because it’s real.”
Bill: No. “The Old Mechanic” is just pretty much like a ninety percent true story. It’s basically me and my real grandfather—not my step-grandfather, the guy I was talking about before. I never knew my real grandfather growing up because my mother did not like her real father. She was around him for maybe six years, and when my grandmother finally got away from him—because he was real abusive—and she remarried, I grew up thinking my step-grandfather was my real grandfather until I was probably fourteen.
I got these cards and stuff in the mail, and I was trying to explain it to my agent and he was like, “How did you not know?” I’m like, “Because my mother never told me. I always thought it was an uncle that I had never met who was sending me cards for my birthday and Christmas.” And the one time I really got to hang out with him, he took me to a gun and knife show when I was about fourteen years old.
He wasn’t mean or anything, but he had a short fuse and a short temper. I grew up around all these stories about this man. In World War II, he worked for the Army Corps of Engineers, and he was in Okinawa, I believe it was. I hate that he passed away and I never got to talk to him about it. My aunt and her two sons—which would be my two first cousins—they were around him all the time, and they can remember he had kept a lot of Time Life magazines because Life was a really big thing. He kept those because there’d been a photographer over there taking pictures, and he was in some of the pictures when they were taking them.
Rumpus: Wow. That’s amazing.
Bill: Yeah. In a sense, a lot of it does come from a real place. But no, I’ve never had to stand up and get in an argument about anything. The thing that [one agent] liked when we were going through all the stories…none of them really had to be rewritten, basically expanded. He had questions. He’d want to know more about this or a little more description here or there, or he would just have questions like, “Do military fatigues really have buttons on them?” He said it like it was something he didn’t know. I would even tell him where some of the stories or the ideas came from, what they were based on, and for every five pages he sent me, he got ten pages back with explanations or even more. He learned a lot, too.
Rumpus: Critics and readers slap a lot of labels on your work: crime, horror, mystery. How do you feel about genre labels?
Bill: I don’t like them. I don’t like labels. I really don’t.
Bill: If writing’s good, it’s good. You can take somebody from every genre, and there’s a reason why they’re good. It’s just because they’re a good writer or what they’re writing about is great. You can put a literary tag on anything. But with literary writers, nine times out of ten, the heart of the story is an element of crime and mystery, and that’s what keeps you in suspense. Now if you go to procedural-type things, that’s labeled “crime” but then it also has “procedural” on it. It might be about a cop but there’s also the human condition of it—why he drinks too much or why he has a bad family life, which kind of goes back to the literary background, because you’re getting into the nuts and bolts of men and women.
Rumpus: Is your style something that comes naturally to you? I know you use this as a tagline on your website, but it’s true: you really don’t waste words. Do you have to go back and edit yourself, or do you just happen to write that way?
Bill: Sometimes I write that way, and then other times I just edit it down. Sometimes I don’t fully have that rhythm but I have stuff that’s more…I guess probably the biggest example is the essay I wrote that my editor tried to place. Nobody would take a gamble on it. They liked it, but I had the same problem because I tried to put it in some literary journals. I had somebody say, “Hey, try this place and tell them I sent you,” and I’d get letters back saying, “We really like this,” and then, “We just can’t take this,” because it was about crystal meth and growing up around it. It’s on FSG’s A Work In Progress.
Rumpus: Is this “We Brought Tomorrow Until Today Was Gone”?
Bill: Yeah. It’s based on a guy that I ran around with in high school, and it’s basically when meth was here but it wasn’t really recognized yet. He had been a gang-banger on the West Coast and he was trying to clean his act up, but when I look back the way that his house was, it was like episodes of Sons of Anarchy. When you got in with that family, people wanted to screw with you. Everybody screwed with that family, but it was like a brotherhood. Everybody was really fond of each other. You’re kind of protective of your own regardless of whether you’re related by blood or not. You were kind of brought into their little world.
He and I, when we first met kind of had a falling out. He came to school wanting to kick my ass and I was like, “Do it.” That kind of won him over as a friend because I stood up to him. He was like, “Do you know what I’ve done and where I’ve been?” I’m like, “I don’t really give a fuck,” but I didn’t know. I was sixteen years old, and here’s this guy that was big into the Latin Kings and stuff like that. I had no idea what he had done on the West Coast. But that kind of won him over as, “I like you because you’ve got guts,” and we just kind of were always good friends after that and hung out together and did a lot of crazy shit until he passed away.
Rumpus: But nobody would go for it because of the subject matter?
Bill: It was too dark. I’ve still got some short stories I’ve tried to place and got letters back, “I like the style. I like the voice. There’s a lot to like here. Just try us again some other time with something else.” No big deal.
Rumpus: I always say I’m really happy to get rejected because at least somebody took the time to get back to me. That’s sort of my motto.
Bill: As long as they reply with a handwritten sentence or two, I know that they actually read it and they didn’t like skim through it. I’ve gotten the little standard, typed-up, copy-made rejection. Now when it has comments on it, well, that’s what kept me going for seven…eight years. Getting one story published maybe once every two years or something. You just keep at it.
Second image of Frank Bill © by Israel Byrd.