The Jake Hinkson Interview
I’m not one to judge a book by it’s first sentence, but this opening from Jake Hinkson’s first novel Hell on Church Street caught me off guard and propelled me down an unforgettably dark and twisted path:
“I’d been working three weeks at a plastics factory down in Mississippi when the foreman – a bucktoothed redneck named Cyrus Broadway – made the mistake of calling me a lazy asshole.”
The first thirty pages of this book provided one helluva introduction to Hinkson’s work, which is just as startlingly confident in craft as it is possessed with an infectious narrative energy.
I had a chance to chat via email with Jake Hinkson about his novellas The Posthumous Man and the recently released Saint Homicide, both of which are equally fantastic. Some of Jake’s short fiction can be found in the recently released Lee Anthology, and Beat to a Pulp Vol. 1&2 among other places. Additionally, Jake writes film criticism for the quarterly journal Noir City and Criminal Element. His blog The Night Editor is a great source for criticism and recommendations of classic crime films and fiction
Tim: I’m really drawn to Southern fiction despite having lived in the Midwest my entire life. Did growing up in the South influence or impact your decision to write?
Jake: Well, the influence of where you grow up is nearly impossible to overstate, I suppose. Having said that, I’m usually pretty suspicious of Southerners holding forth on the uniqueness of “the South” especially in this day and age. I grew up in a small town in the middle of the Ozarks, but we watched the same TV and listened to the same music as the rest of the country. The big music was Garth Brooks, Nirvana, and Dr. Dre. You know what I mean? There’s a certain homogeneity to modern life, a banality that unites us all. At least there was in my day.
The difference for me, I guess, was the religious environment I grew up in. I was raised in a devout Southern Baptist house. For a while, my family lived at a religious campground, and I spent summers at a Boy’s Work Camp where we did manual labor and studied the Bible. That’s all pretty unique. My uncle was preacher (in his youth he’d been what they called a “circuit-riding preacher”) and I used to ride from town to town with him when he preached at different churches. I loved tagging along with him—he was such a great raconteur. So from an early age, I was steeped in both the literature of the Bible and the oral storytelling tradition of old time country preachers.
So I come by the storytelling gene naturally. Now, just why it morphed into writing fiction, that’s harder to pin down. I guess it comes from a dissatisfaction with the world. You think about, at its core, writing fiction is an essentially blasphemous act, a recreating of the world. All fiction holds a criticism of the world as it is.
Tim: What got you interested in studying film and writing?
Jake: I saw The Fox and The Hound at the movies when I was five or six, and I became a cinephile for life. I really have no memory of a time when I wasn’t interested in movies. Some people just have movies in their blood. Can’t really explain it. When I was in college, I used to skip classes I didn’t like (math, mostly) and go to the library and read film books and watch old movies. My grades suffered—I did this a lot—but I got a real education. I hadn’t grown up with much access to movies (especially older, harder to find stuff and foreign films) and I discovered a whole world in the library. For a few years there, without ever planning to do it, I basically did a self-directed study of world cinema.
And I still suck at math.
To go back, I guess the real key turning point was seeing Casablanca when I was about thirteen or so. I was the only kid in our high school who was obsessed with Humphrey Bogart. That obsession led me into the worlds of classic film and, once I saw The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, into classic crime literature.
Tim: If the work of Humphrey Bogart was your entry point to the crime genre, how did you get started writing?
Jake: I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. I used to staple eight blank pages together and write comic books. Then I progressed into doing a knockoff imitation of Encyclopedia Brown (my real entry into crime fiction). In about the fifth or sixth grade, I took a shot at a novel. A mystery. By high school, I’d discovered Hammett and Chandler and Parker. I tried my hand at private eye stories, but my problem is that I can’t really write heroes, even hardboiled heroes. I’m constitutionally incapable of writing a hero. Understand, I like heroes. I need Marlowe and Spenser in my life. But the characters I create are expressions of what I deep down really think about human beings, and what I deep down really think about human beings is that we’re essentially weak, selfish, and stupid. Maybe that’s why noir is a good fit for me. Hardboiled crime fiction is about toughness. Noir is about weakness.
Tim: Your short fiction and both of your novels feel very rooted in an older classic noir sensibility, but are contemporary work that feels timeless. When you start working on a piece do you have a specific style or approach in mind?
Jake: I usually have a rough idea of where I’m going. The difference between an outline and the finished book, though, is like the difference between a roadmap and the trip itself. You discover things as you go along, you divert from your course when something interesting catches your eye, you blow past things that you thought were going to be interesting but turned out not to be, and so on.
The same thing is true of style. I have an idea of what I’m doing, but it’s a creative act, so it’s always a little surprising. With Hell On Church Street, I found the voice of the main character right away. It jumped right out of me. I just loved the duality of Geoffrey Webb, his surface politeness and deep-seated contempt. Once I locked into his voice, everything came pretty easy.
The Posthumous Man was a knottier story in many ways. Elliot Stilling is a damaged man rather than a bad one. For all his sins, he’s looking for some kind of redemption. That’s harder to pull off, but I knew, from the very beginning, that I wanted to go through a Long Dark Night of the Soul with that character. I knew that his descent into this grotesque underworld was his way of trying to find some kind of atonement for his sins.
Tim: Many of your stories are in the first person and have a very natural and distinct voice. As you mentioned, Geoffrey Webb’s voice came to you very easily, but do you ever struggle to create a voice strong enough to carry a first person narrative?
Jake: I don’t know if “struggle” is the right word because, generally speaking, first person narration comes easily to me and is a tremendous amount of fun. I think I have a good ear. I like listening to people, and I like listening to people with distinct voices. Having said that, it is work. Some characters are thornier than others.
With The Posthumous Man, the voice of the main character was tricky because he’s a guy who, as the story begins, has just tried to commit suicide. I pitched my first couple of attempts at his voice too high. Then I realized that I had it all wrong. When the story begins, he’s already gone as high—or as low, depending on how you look at it—as you can go. So the story is existing in that moment after he’s bottomed out. He’s the posthumous man, after all. He dies in the emergency room for three minutes, and then wakes up to find that he has this bizarre second chance presented to him in the person of a deeply troubled nurse. He’s more philosophical than emotionally frazzled. I mean, after you’ve been dead, what’s there to be frazzled about? Once I realized that, everything clicked.
Tim: How do you decide what point of view will be the strongest to tell the story?
Jake: I don’t think I’ve ever consciously thought about it. I read an interview with Orson Welles where someone asked him why he put the camera in a certain place for a certain shot, and he said, “I just thought it looked good.” I feel that way about POV. Whatever sounds good. Whichever character speaks up the first is generally the one who gets to tell the story. I don’t think I’ve ever started with one character and switched to another.
I will say, though, that I’ve occasionally switched POV in terms of first or third person. I would love to write more in third person, though I think it’s harder fro me to do well. I love to read third person when it’s done by people who do it well—say Elisabeth Sanxay Holding or David Goodis, who were both great at doing that psychologically intimate third-person, or someone like Larry McMurtry who’s the master at the floating, omniscient third-person.
I read something one time where some fancy pants opined that first-person was a positively barbaric way to narrate a novel. That criticism has always haunted me. Maybe it’s true. First-person is, by its nature, limited, so to use it is to limit the perspective of the story you’re telling. But I love it. I love the limitation of it.
Tim: With each of your longer works you’ve written protagonists that are all in the midst of a downward spiral. What attracted you to creating three proudly self-destructive guys?
Jake: What’s funny is that I don’t know that any of them would be proud of being self-destructive. Webb thinks he’s smart enough to get everything he wants, but he’s not. Elliot in The Posthumous Man is living in a spiral shame and self-loathing. And Daniel in Saint Homicide thinks that he’s sacrificing his life for a higher good. So I guess you can say that they represent three distinct forms of self-destruction: hedonism, guilt, and fanaticism.
As far as what attracted me to those characters, I guess I would say that I’m wired to write noir, and noir is about screwing up big time. My books aren’t moralistic, but if they do have a moral perspective it is of the “Hey kids, don’t do this at home” variety. Noir is a psychological examination in one sense, but in another sense it is a good old-fashioned cautionary tale. With guns.
Tim: Does genre or character come first when you start working on a story?
Jake: Always character. I don’t really think about genre. I love Flannery O’Connor and I love Jim Thompson. William Faulkner and Robert B. Parker. I’ve been influenced by Shakespeare and Spillane. It’s all punk rock to me. It all comes down to characters.
The same thing is true of my taste in film. The last two movies I watched were Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and Eddie Cahn’s Main Street After Dark. Kurosawa would be considered a high artist and Cahn would be considered a B-movie hack, but at the end of the day they both lined up actors in front of cameras and tried to make some drama happen.
I think of writing the same way. No matter if you’re writing “literary fiction” or “genre fiction” you’re putting words on a page and trying to stir up some drama. Vonnegut—who, of course, straddled genre lines—said the chief responsibility of the writer was to be a good date to the reader. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to get laid here, people.
Tim: Your work has been justifiably described as the bastard offspring of Flannery O’Connor and Jim Thompson. Has being such a student of the crime genre made it easier or harder to find a niche for your own work?
Jake: I don’t know, honesty. You don’t pick your influences, they pick you. Any craftsman studies the masters—Chandler studied Hemingway, Orson Welles studied John Ford, Lennon and McCartney studied Chuck Berry. You learn from your betters simply because you’re fascinated by them. It’s like a teenager patterning himself or herself on some older, cooler kid at school. It’s an attraction that takes place on some unconscious level. There’s no reason I should love Flannery O’Connor as much as I do except that when I read her work it struck me as being the best thing I’d ever read. (The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor is a masterpiece worthy of deep contemplation. I’d love to spend a year just reading and writing about those stories.) The same thing was true when, a few years after that, I first read Jim Thompson. I read A Hell Of A Woman and Savage Night within a few weeks of each other and knew that I’d discovered someone who’d disguised the bleakest, most beautiful art as pulp fiction. I’m the result of my influences. I can’t say to what degree I’d be better off if my influences would have been more mainstream or commercial or whatever. I’d have to be a different person altogether.
Tim: Growing up in a religious environment clearly impacted you enough that it’s a reoccurring theme in your work. Your protagonists struggle with their faith in different ways, but in Saint Homicide, Daniel is so self-righteous in his relationship with God that he alienates himself from everyone. Did you have any apprehension exploring a darker outward expression of religious devotion?
Jake: I was raised in a very all or nothing religious atmosphere. There’s a line in Saint Homicide where Daniel says, “I simply don’t know what religion means to people for whom it doesn’t mean everything.” Having been raised as a fundamentalist, I can relate to that. I mean, intellectually I understand what might be termed religious moderation, but deep down I really only get fanatics and atheists.
As far as Daniel goes, you know, the idea of a saint is a person who hears a voice that no one else hears and who heeds that silent voice at great personal cost. According to the Bible, God told Abraham to take his son to an altar and slit his throat. And Abraham was prepared to do it. Today, we’d lock up a guy who wanted to kill his child because a voice told him to do it, but clearly we’re still intrigued by that level of faith. Every so often you hear a story about some snake handler dying of a serpent bite. People always mock his death as some backwoods insanity, but I always saw a kind of terrible beauty in it. That guy believed, really believed. I’m utterly fascinated by that kind of faith.
So I was always very excited to write this book—I loved writing this book—because I knew I would get to explore a mindset that holds endless fascination for me. I’m thankful to the folks at Crime Factory Publications for giving me the opportunity to write this novella because this short format is the perfect way to tackle this character. Anything shorter would shortchange him or turn him into a cliché of a religious crackpot, and anything much longer would be too much. The novella form is ideal for the story of this guy.
Tim:What challenges did you have empathetically depicting a character who lacks empathy for those around him?
Jake: You know, that aspect of writing this book wasn’t hard at all. I knew that he was coming from a place of pain and loss. He’s trying to find some meaning, seeking some version of the world where his suffering and the suffering of people he has loved makes some kind of sense. In that way, Daniel is no different that anyone else. We all arrange our world in a way to make it make sense. It’s why, for example, we tell ourselves that people like Daniel are monsters. It makes it easier. But the scariest realization of all is that there are no monsters, only people who do monstrous things. I feel like one of psychological pillars of noir is just that realization: we all have a monster inside of us.
Tim: One of the elements of your fiction and film criticism that I really admire is your ability to concisely articulate conceptually big ideas. How have you learned to keep the language spare, but not lose any of the impact or intelligence?
Jake: That’s kind of you to say.
I just tend toward a certain concision. I’ve tried to hone that, of course, but a big part of it is a disposition toward economy. You work like a sculptor, shaving away everything that’s not the sculpture. Get in, get the job done, get the hell out.
Of course, I’m not placing one style above another. I love writers who are expansive, who can “write long” or who employ a certain lushness of language. I admire that facility if it’s put to good use.
But I always improve by stripping away. That’s just where my instincts go. I like black and white movies; I like two hundred page novels; I like two-and-a-half minute songs.
Tim: One of the cooler projects you’ve been a part of is Crime Factory’s Lee anthology. How did you approach writing a story about an iconic star, who led such a colorful life, but there isn’t a wealth of biographic information to draw from?
Jake: The Lee antho was lot of fun. I had a story idea I’d been kicking around for a while about a down-and-out ex-con who’s approached by a mystery woman to perform a robbery. I had the kernel of the idea but something was missing. Then Andrew Nette from Crime Factory approached me about doing something for Lee and in a flash the whole damn thing came together. Originally the Crime Factory folks suggested I do something on The Big Heat, which is one of Lee Marvin’s best known, and most highly respected, film noirs but one that has frankly never really interested me that much. I was more interested in this piece of shit he made in 1955 called Shack Out On 101. It’s a wretched film—shot on a pauper’s budget with an execrable script and sloppy directing—and I thought it’d be fun to set my story around that time. The down-and-out ex-con becomes a B-movie actor making a Z-grade film, worrying if his career is all washed up. Then our mystery woman shows up with an idea for a robbery. Chaos ensues.
Tim: What’s the best thing you’ve read or watched in awhile?
Jake: Lately, I’ve become more and more interested in the career of W. Lee Wilder, Billy Wilder’s forgotten older brother. (The two did not have a great relationship.) W. Lee was an independent and made a lot of really interesting low-end bargain-budget film noir. His flick The Pretender is a hell of a lot of fun. I just love the low budget aesthetic—the work of talented people trying to make something of out nothing. If you want to understand The Pretender, you don’t compare it to his brother’s Double Indemnity or Sunset Blvd (high end, big studio noir). You compare it to Ulmer’s Detour or Lerner’s Guilty Bystander. On that count, it’s pretty damn great.
The last great book I read is something I’m re-reading, Gene Weingarten’s essay collection The Fiddler In The Subway. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. So smart, funny, and heartbreaking. And profound. It’s just one of the great books as far as I’m concerned.