Cecilia | On 16, Set 2011
Anthony Neil Smith, this is his note on Facebook: “I write. I teach. I like tacos and wine”. He published “Yellow Medicine” with the cop Billy Lafitte, a few months ago and it was an incredible success!
Today, on my blog, my interview with Anthony!
1. Tell us about Billy Lafitte. How did it born the idea to create such kind of character ?
A.: Some of it came from my anger at my first few months in Minnesota. I’m a Southerner who moved up north for my new job at Southwest Minnesota State University, and I was alone and living in a creepy house like the one Billy lives in. I was convinced there was something going on with crystal meth in the abandoned barn next door, but I steered clear. So Billy was my way of responding to the loneliness and anger—but he had the power to do something about it.
Another part came from my interest in writing unsympathetic characters in such a way that the audience still roots for them. It’s a tough call, and many publishers wince at “unsympathetic protagonists”, but I have always been drawn to their charisma. Like Vic Mackey in The Shield or Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs, we are drawn to them in spite of their obvious evil.
2. Billy Lafitte, the soul lost in a hurricane. A very beautiful definition that gives the idea of a person that is not able to avoid troubles. He is, on the contrary, one that is looking for troubles. But is Billy Lafitte really so bad ? Or he is simply a weak ?
A.: Probably more weak, but he would like to think he’s “bad”, or at least “badass”. He uses his attitude to get what he wants, and also to hide his weaknesses. He doesn’t want to be alone. He wants to be looked up to. But the only way for him to get what he wants is through intimidation, it seems. At least in Yellow Medicine that’s the case. What happens in the book changes him, though. He can’t keep up the performance once he realizes what it has doen to those he cares about.
3. Don’t you think that you have been a bit excessive to describe him in this negative way ?
A.: Are you scolding me? I think Billy would appreciate being talked about like that, just as long as someone was talking about him. It’s cool to be the outlaw, and he plays his part well. But when the reality of it hits, is he willing to follow through or does he back down? Or is he too afraid to back down? Anyway, he sees himself as a bit of a rockabilly cop, a Gene Vincent figure.
4. Generally an adult that becomes a criminal, a killer, an outcast, had a difficult past, a hard childhood. Billy Lafitte, also in this case, is in countertrend. Son of an electrician and a teacher. An adolescence as many others….why did he become in that negative way ?
A.: I believe in many cases these days you see privileged children—rich and famous parents, or at least well-to-do—acting entitled and breaking the law, thinking it doesn’t apply to them. Drugs, fights, damage to property. Do we call them criminals or just spoiled? Their parents clean up their messes. I see Billy more in that vein. He became a cop so he could act above the law, and his colleagues would be there to clean up his messes, the same way he would for them. I really do admire and respect police officers. It’s a tough job and I salute them, but we also see the bad side when some rotten cops end up getting away with things they shouldn’t because of that “Blue Shield” of silence or protection.
5. Do you think that, beside all, he could have some ideals to hold on ?
A.: He’s loyal to those he cares about. Even after his divorce from Ginny, Billy felt she would always be part of his world. He had to protect her and the kids, even from far away. He has a lot of respect for his ex-brother-in-law for giving him a second chance. He would die for Drew if it would save her. So that core sense of loyalty is his guide, even if he has to play dirty to stick to it.
6. Frequently people has compared your character to Toby Sawyer by Victor Gischler, your friend, in “The deputy” but it seems like night and day, the hero and the antihero. Do you agree with these definitions ? Could they get along together ?
A.: I think Toby would think Billy was a jock and not his type of friend. Just a blowhard. Toby has a good core, a lot of which grows during The Deputy because he wants to be a good dad. Billy’s shot at being a dad came and went. He wants to protect his children but he can’t raise them. I would agree that they are hero and antihero, these two guys.
7. Generally the noir genre is frequently connected to authors like Derek Raymond, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy. Are you afraid to be compared with authors like them ?
A.: Afraid? No, no, no. I gladly accept any comparison. I love those writers. One thing I found interesting about Jim Thompson, from Robert Polito’s biography, was that he was squeamish about violence and blood. And that made me think, well, of course. The best noir writing is the stuff that makes you cringe. But you can’t stop reading it. You become addicted to the cringing. How awful can people treat each other? That’s the true attraction of reading noir, figuring out the depths of characters’ desperation and justification.
8. Do you believe that this genre is known and appreciated enough or, commercially, it does not work ?
A.: As a commercial genre, not so much. At least not full-fledged noir. As a “flavoring” or “spice” in thrillers and crime novels, it’s excellent. People like the noir feel even if they want happier endings. I believe the real appreciation for full-on noir now comes more from the literary fiction crowd, especially when dealing with rural writers like Thompson, Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy, and Dorothy Allison.
9. How much there is about pulp and how much about noir in your style ? How would you define your writing style ?
A.: I would describe it as “broken”. I want shards of sentences to stick together and make sense in context. A professor once said my sentences were “nailed together wrong”, and he liked that. I want to cut out everything that’s unnecessary and get as close as you can to the character without going into stream of consciousness, because there’s no real style in that. Style is in crafting the moment. Crafting the thoughts so that the reader is engrossed by the story, not paying attention to the style, but knowing there’s some reason they can’t get enough of this story. The result is a faster pace, or at least the illusion of one.
10. “Yellow Medicine” is your debut novel in Italy but in reality you have written a total of four novels. Could you describe us the plot of the other books ? To which one are you more attached and which one of them you would like that will be translated for the italian market ?
A.: I have high hopes that the next Billy Lafitte novel, Hogdoggin’, will be released in Italy. I really think it’s a strong book, looking at Billy from 3rd person, from the points of view of several characters. Escaping from Agent Rome, Billy joins a biker gang. How about that?
I also hope my first novel, Psychosomatic, would find a home over there. It’s what I call my “noir cartoon”, a really crazy ride.
My next book is perhaps my most complex, and we’ll see if anyone in Italy wants to consider it. It’s called All the Young Warriors and is more of a thriller than a noir novel.
11. In a part of your novel, you describe the horror of Katrina hurricane and the disasters created. Where were you when that hurricane has hit the Mississippi area ? Billy Lafitte behaviour reflects partially what it has really happened ?
A.: I had just moved to Minnesota when Katrina hit, and on that morning I was talking to my mom on the Mississippi Coast, and she said, “There’s water coming in the house. I’ve got to go.” And she hung up. And I couldn’t get in touch again.
But when I did, I found out that my grandmother’s house, sister’s house, and parents’ house had all been flooded. My parents’ place was the worst. And there was nothing I could do. When I even mentioned coming down to help, my mom said, “Then you’d be hungry and miserable too. Stay where you are.”
But all of my family stayed, built again, and are making it. When I finally made it down, my stepdad took me on a tour of the Ninth Ward, where the worst flooding in New Orleans occurred. It had been four months and everything was still abandoned, ghostly. My stepdad was a mortician in New Orleans, so he was responsible for a lot of the bodies that were found.
Their neighbourhood looked like a post-apocalyptic video game. It was eerie.
So that feeling of being an exile cemented itself in me, and led to Billy’s feelings, too. Every time I visit my hometown now, it looks more and more decomposed. Almost like no one had the will to try. Even with the big beach houses going back up and the more modest middle-class homes being restored, there’s a pall of death to the whole place.
12. I’ve discovered that you like very much psychobilly music, so much to mention it in the novel speaking about Drew, a girl that has win over Lafitte heart and sings in a psychobilly band. If you have to combine a song to the novel, which one you would choose ?
A.: I like a lot of different types of music, but alternative country and rockabilly have a special place. I discovered psychobilly and thought it fit the novel’s feel, even if it wasn’t a huge thing in this neck of the woods. So I had this local bands of misfits playing psychobilly for people who didn’t like it much. I thought it showed how they had to do something to escape the typical boredom of living out on the prairie, miles from anything. And it also attracted Billy, having to start over so far from home, to see this gorgeous woman willing to dress up like a goth with the band, but who was a different person in day-to-day life.
There’s a band called The Chop Tops I really dig. I played their song “My Curse” all the time while writing the book. Definitely fits Billy.
13. In spite of this character so “demanding and predominant” in the plot of Yellow Medicine there is the place to describe how much has changed the Americans attitude after the terroristic attacks of 11 September in NY and how the fear is still present and unctuous. What do you think it has to be done to have a more safe society ?
A.: People don’t take their safety for granted as much anymore, but not by much. What we really want, of course, is invisible security that protects us without getting in our way. But that’s not possible without giving up a lot of privacy. People think the new airport security in America goes too far, but what if they were doing all this snooping without our knowledge? And aren’t they already?
So I feel safer. I feel safer on planes. I don’t think they’re going to be hijacked or blown up by bombs anymore. And I feel pretty safe in the rural Midwest. So a lot of the question in Yellow Medicine regarding the terrorists would be “What happens when they come to your town?” Not the big city, but the small one. How does that change things? We all look at meth as a “local” scourge, but we know Afghanistan’s money crops are opium and heroin, so why can’t terrorists go after all that meth money in America, especially the homegrown terrorists? Can’t take it for granted, that’s all I’m saying.
14. How did you have your approach with your readers ? Have you also been in Italy to present your novel, together with your friend Victor Gischler, but also together Massimo Carlotto, Tim Willocks, J.R. Ellroy, Linwood Barclay, Joe R. Lansdale. “Musts” of American literature. Which effect has created this situation to you?
A.:I like to be approachable to a point. I like to think my readers can be like my students—I have my office door open when I’m here, and any one is welcome to drop in for a chat. So I like to have conversations on Twitter, or in my comments on my blog, or on Facebook. I like to hear what people think, even if it’s critical. At the same time, I think I have a “persona” online that works for me. That’s the “writer” me, so I don’t just open my entire life to anyone who comes along. That’s a necessary thing for an author, I believe. You give enough of yourself while still holding something back. Same with celebrities and paparazzi, or the way it should be, but these paparazzi idiots think they’re entitled to take the private side, too. Well, they’re not.
I had a great time in Italy at the dal Mississippi al Po Festival, very much enjoyed meeting those writers you mentioned. I felt very energized in Piacenza because the questions and the conversations about the books were very engrossing. Italian readers take their fiction very seriously and with intensity. So it’s good to have that kind of response. It was also good to be able to have much more personal conversations with these writers than we would at, say, a large conference like Bouchercon. There was a real sense of community between us, all staying at the same hotel and riding in the same cars, eating at the same table each day. I really liked how quickly we all seemed to get along.
At this stage I would stop, even if the questions are still a lot. I would ask you also about future projects but I’d like that the protagonist would be, in this moment, Billy Lafitte and “Yellow Medicine”. The rest……to the next interview!
Thank you so much for taking the time to ask. I really did enjoy it. My next book will be from an e-publisher. No plans for a print release at the moment, but I’m trying new things. That book is called All the Young Warriors and is more of a thriller than a noir novel, but still very dark.
I hope Hogdoggin’, the next Billy Lafitte novel, will be translated (although I’ve been told the title will have to change for Italian audiences), and if you know some English, you can take a peek at the opening section of the third Lafitte novel, The Baddest Ass, at PANK Magazine (http://bit.ly/nwDCMh
). I hope to have that finished next year.
Thank you very much Anthony and good luck!