I’m so happy to have the chance to interview Tom Piccirilli about writing, life, and his new book, Shadow Season, which hits stores today! —Seth Harwood
SH: You’ve written a whole lot of books now. How many? When did you publish your first novel and what was it?
TP: My new novel SHADOW SEASON is my 20th published novel. My first, DARK FATHER, was a very immature horror novel that’s full of bombastic experimental literary fireworks with no grounding in actual storytelling. I wrote it when I was 21 and I thought I was going to be the next William S. Burroughs or something.
SH: Was it a series book? How many series do you have going now?
TP: I’ve written a couple of presumed series but never made it to the third of any of them thus far. My first two mysteries THE DEAD PAST and SORROW’S CROWN were a pair, my two westerns GRAVE MEN AND COFFIN BLUES followed the same two protagonists, and THE COLD SPOT and THE COLDEST MILE are the first two in what I really hope will be a trilogy following my career thief Chase and his stone cold killer grandfather Jonah.
SH: Who published your first book? Can you tell us a bit about your road to getting published? How you got an agent submitted your book, etc.
TP: Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster published DARK FATHER. My career started very ass backward. It’s a miracle that the book got picked up since I did absolutely everything wrong at the beginning. I submitted a partial manuscript over the transom. The book wasn’t finished. And I sent a dark fantasy novel to an editor in charge of the literary line. But the fates were smiling. Somehow the novel caught the attention of the powers that be and it got picked up. My first agent was someone who swung the boilerplate contract, took her 15%, and left me cold. I went through another four agents in the almost 20 years since then, but none of them ever managed to sell a single book for me. We either clashed personally or professionally. All of the sales I handled on my own until the most recent, when I finally hooked up with someone who I get along with on both a personal and business level.
SH: How long have you been working and supporting yourself as a writer, strictly?
TP: Since the beginning. It’s been a tight tight seriously tight struggle, brother, but somehow I’ve managed it.
SH: What advice would you offer young writers today about starting off a career as a fiction author? Other than head for the hills. Just kidding. Seriously, do you still think it’s possible for a young writer to support him or herself with his/her fiction?
TP: It can happen, but I have no advice on how anybody can make it happen beyond the obvious. Learn your craft. Get an agent or publisher that you see eye to eye with and who will encourage you along a very difficult path. There’s a lot of damn work involved and not much security.
SH: What are some of the best ways you have seen to publicize a novel? Online or off. Can you tell us some of the things that your publisher has done for you that have helped? How about some things that you’ve done yourself?
TP: There’s no one thing that stands out among the many. It’s all a battle of inches, of increments. You push in every venue that you can think of, you make yourself accessible, you do your damnedest to promote. You build your fanbase one at a time, you do signings, you hit conferences, you push to get reviews, you give as many interviews as you possibly can without boring the shit out of the reader. You become a sucker and join up with all these sites. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, whatever. You strain to reach as many people as possible and you hope to Christ that your product is strong enough to keep them coming back for more.
SH: How did you cut your teeth as a writer and really learn to get your chops? Can you tell us about this process for you?
TP: It was hard-fought battle finding my own voice. Some writers have a unique and powerful voice right from the beginning, but I wavered like hell. Like I said, my first novel wasn’t grounded in a mature worldview yet because I didn’t have one myself. After selling the first one there was a long dry spell where I wrote several more books but couldn’t find anyone who’d publish them. I decided I needed to go back and really learn the short form. I spent a year doing nothing but writing short fiction, finding my voice, learning how to edit myself, how to sharpen the prose. Once I started selling short stories regularly and building something of a name for myself in the horror/dark fantasy field, I then went back to all those unsold novels and started mercilessly editing and restructuring them. Once I did that, they began to sell as well. It was a long road made a lot harder because I needed to get a few more years under my belt, had to find out a lot more about myself and the world, in order to put it into the books and really connect with a reader.
SH: Who are some of your favorite writers and people who influenced your work?
TP: Man, the list is endless, and it’s all over the literary map, but if I have to name just a handful I’d say David Goodis, Charles Williams, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich, Donald Westlake, Jim Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, and Charles Bukowski. I’ve been lucky enough to have had three true mentors in my life: Jack Cady, Dick Laymon, and Ed Gorman. The three of them helped me immensely when I was starting out. They were encouraging through the roughest times and always had a kind word or a bit of advice when I needed it. Jack and Dick are gone now but there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not thankful to them. And Ed remains a best friend to many of us in the field. He’s the best of the best.
SH: I notice that some of your characters are legitimate bad asses, brawlers, grifters, card sharks, and underworld geniuses. Do you have to put yourself into this world, or how do you figure out how to write these guys? What kind of research are you up to?
TP: The most recent books THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, and SHADOW SEASON all deal with cops and criminals and living the bent life. The research is pretty minimal as research, meaning I read tons of cop & bad guy books and certain elements stick with me. I used to be a true crime addict too, so some of that has rubbed off as well. And film noir as a whole has a great meaning for me. The intense and basic concept of a good guy being pushed or pulled over the line where he’s forced to do something bad. It’s the call of fate. You fight the good fight every day but sometimes you give in to your baser instincts. You want. You desire. You covet. You fear. You grab. You snatch. You cheat. You get older and realize that life isn’t what you’d hoped it would be, and there’s a real terror there, a hope that you can somehow put your past behind you and filch whatever it is you think you need. The internal conflict is in all of us, I think. So I put myself in that criminal world because at heart I’m a covetous prick like anyone. I just live out the life in fiction.
SH: What’s next for you?
TP: As mentioned my new novel SHADOW SEASON hits stores in three weeks. It’s about a blind ex-cop turned teacher at an isolated private girls’ school who has a lot of unfinished business with his dirty ex-partner. Some bad dudes are roaming the campus during a blizzard and the seductive teenagers are putting my handicapped protagonist through hell. So, lots of giggles and guffaws. The next book is entitled THE UNDERNEATH, another one that deals with the bent life. It’s about a guy who returns home to his family of career thieves on the eve of his murderous brother’s execution. There’s a lot of unanswered questions about his brother’s killing spree, and my protagonist has a lot of regrets and remorse about abandoning his pregnant ex-girlfriend. It’s as much a family drama as it is a crime tale, and in some ways its my most ambitious book yet.