So here’s the thing you should know about interviewing Frank Reardon. No bullshit. No flinching. No wincing.
Much like the stories he writes, he doesn’t spin. Anything. He doesn’t shy away or go looking for attention. He doesn’t dress up his life to make it feel like anything other than it is same way he doesn’t dress up his characters’ lives to be anything other than they are. Tooth and nail, I think about that a lot when I’m reading Frank. That and: gristle. Grit. The stuff that we’d like to shed but can’t.
So I won’t beat around the bush here with you either. I’ve already stated my love for the man’s writing before. Think I’m a big old softy? Well, shit, go check out his writing chops for yourself. Then come back and read this interview. We’ll wait. It’ll be worth the wait.
I said this before, but apparently no agents were listening the first time so I’ll go ahead and say it again: Frank’s the next Larry Brown, the next William Gay, the next Donald Ray Pollock. Which is bullshit for me to say, to be honest. He shouldn’t be the next anything. He should be as he is: the present tense motherfucking Frank Reardon. Give him a book deal and he’ll make a goddamn literary genius out of you, probably save or lose your soul somewhere in the process.
BD: I know you’ve been watching a shit-ton of movies during quarantine. How do you feel like this has affected the way you approach writing fiction?
FR: Yeah, I have for two reasons: 1.) To keep myself from drinking too much during COVID, because unless it’s live sports I cannot and will not drink and watch TV. 2.) I love movies. Always have. Next to writing and music; acting and directing, and all that goes into a movie is my favorite art form.
I don’t think it has changed my approach to writing much, although I do believe one can find inspiration anywhere, whether a movie, a song, a conversation in a bar, or in one’s own head. I’ll take Sergio Leone whose movies I have been re-visiting a lot since COVID, both him and Sam Peckinpah. Their crime and westerns in particular. The way, say, Leone directed those duels. I’m not so much concerned with the duels themselves (although brilliant) as much as I am the way the eyes of the men move, or the way their hands float over their pistols, how they communicate anger and desperation with glances. I find ridiculous inspiration in something like their fear or the lack of.
With Peckinpah’s films I have found someone to relate to with violence vs. beauty. My work has noticeably become more dark and violent of late, funny too, but dark and violent. A lot more than I am accustomed to, and not for the sake of violence just to be violent. The characters do want something, but how they get from A to B is violent. Much more violent, and at times a bit more over-the-top than I’m used to writing. In Sam’s films there is an incredible amount of violence, but also friendship, love, and beauty. What COVID and 2020 has done to me on the insides has twisted me up. I can’t seem to express myself very well. So the writing includes a lot of lawlessness, thought, fear and violence. I find comfort knowing there are other artists, like Peckinpah and Leone, I can relate to that are not writers. Writers can be a quiet bunch, or they talk about politics too much.
BD: Aside from the movies, how have you been surviving these COVID days? Anything you’ve gotten back to doing that you hadn’t before? Anything new you’ve been doing to make it through the day?
FR: I’ve been reading and writing a shit ton more than I am used to since I was laid off. Also got back into trail walking the last three or four weeks, which is good for me. Calms me down, let’s me get some exercise, and helps me sort out my thoughts, or stories, or bills. Whatever, really.
BD: What’s the story of the King of North Dakota?
FR: It’s just something I came up with at a bar. A great local drinking hole called The Lamplighter. If I go out for drinks you will usually find me there. A guy who goes there, who also owns a local BBQ joint, has a big German Shepherd named Julius. When I first started going to the bar a handful of years ago Julius was a teenager. He used to come into the bar. He loved being petted by all the patrons and workers, but rarely left his master’s side. I always made sure to kneel next to him and give him all sorts of love.
Now that he’s gotten older he sits in the truck. His master, Monty, he drinks in the bar and leaves the two back windows down. Julius is very well behaved, sits in the back and watches the people come and go. He gets super happy if people go out and smoke because everyone says “hi,” to Julius. One day I noticed how he was sitting with his head out the window. He looked all regal, important, a celebrity of sorts. I started calling him ‘The King of North Dakota.” He deserves the title I believe. In fact, he’s one of the best living things I’ve met since I’ve been here. I knew a bad ass wild cat who lived in my back yard who I gave the name Mr. Billingsly, but that’s a tale for another day.
BD: Over the last year or two, you’ve shifted from being a butcher to working with cars. Can you give us the goods on the people you deal with now versus the people you dealt with before?
FR: Well, sadly I was laid off from my auto job last March 19. Covid life ruined that for me. I don’t mind turning a wrench, and working with mechanics is fun. People like to bust balls, and work with hangovers. Just a great time. Mechanics are a wise old bunch of idiots. I find them incredibly interesting and intelligent.
Truth be told I prefer being a butcher. I’m damn good at it. I’m good with knives and saws and cutting. I miss the meat-locker, the cold, the beef. But like the rest of the country up here there are no jobs in butchering or auto work. I hope this changes over time, but right now I am one of the thirty million unemployed. I’ll be delivering food until something opens up. I don’t know what else I can do to make ends meet. I’m not ashamed about it either. You got to do what you got to do in order to pay the bills.
BD: Shit, man. I’m so sorry, man. That’s a tough, tough beat. And fuck me for not already knowing that. Well, how about the writing? Seems like you are of the Larry Brown school of novel writing where you have to go to work and knock out three or four and be willing to toss them aside before things start to click. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned (or at least has changed) from writing your first novel drafts to the one(s) you are currently working on?
FR: One HUGE thing I learned is not to abandon the work for too long. Over a year ago I abandoned “Amarillo,” to work on a bunch of other stuff. Two, three, four, months went by and when I went back to it I found that I had lost the story and the draft was a mess. I felt defeated and left it behind. Now, I’m on a second draft of a 1970’s crime novel set in Los Angeles of all places, but the characters are from a game show. My choices on location was limited. The difference now is I’m stepping away after working on it for several months, to work on a couple short stories. That’s a week or two worth of work tops. I can do something like that. Yeah, I’ll never leave something behind that long again. You lose the story, ya know?
Another thing I learned from Larry was he wasn’t lying when he said, “you have to keep writing bad shit to get to the good shit.” And sure, I’ll always write some bad shit, but what he meant is if you are teaching yourself you have to allow yourself to be bad. I did that, never quit, and the stories have gotten better, sharper, over time. At least I think they have, and I’m usually very hard on myself.
BD: You’ve done a ton of cool interviews with some really bad ass fiction writers over the last few years. Do you have any key moments from any of those interviews that have stuck with you and/or influenced the way you look at writing and/or life?
FR: I think my favorite interview was with George Singleton. Before we did that interview we talked on the phone for two hours or so. He told me amazing stories about William Gay, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, and others. I was thrilled to have the conversation with him because he is one of my favorite short story writers. One thing I have taken from him, or learned, is not to fear my sense of humor in the work. Sure, I’ve always used my dark humor, but without knowing it. George, he both creates it and uses his own. I have to remember not to take everything too serious. Sure, take the work serious, but have fun with it too.
BD: I know when I was first getting to know you a bit, one of the things I most admired about you was how honest you were with your own mental health issues and your struggles with all that. I also know it’s been a trying few years for you. How have your coping mechanisms evolved over the years? Do you have one main trigger that you struggle with the most?
FR: I have OCD, so I’m not struggling as hard as say a person with Bipolar disorder. However, 2020 and the uncertainty of the year, has put me in a weird place. Us OCD folks like our order, ha! But the thing is most people thing OCD is about cleaning, it’s not. I hate cleaning. Mess is my order. Sure, some people with OCD love cleaning, but not me. Before I was diagnosed I was obsessed with my health. I was in and out of ER’s thinking I had cancer or heart disease or any disease I found on WEB MD. One day I found myself on my hands and knees ripping through my own shit, looking for blood. For a brief second it hit me, “what the fuck are you doing? You need help.” I got that help. It was hard, but I got it and for several years. I can say my hypochondria, my obsession with WEB MD has dropped by 90%. Wild, really. Talk therapy and a low dose med changed that. Nowadays my OCD is counting. Funny, I hated math in high school, but I count everything. Pills especially. I count them, take one out, count them again. I take the mail out of the box, count to ten, put it back in, and pull it out again before I can take it inside.
I like things arranged how I like them: books, pencils in a cup, a wrapper on a table. I like things a certain way or I cannot write properly. I like to shower at a certain time. I can’t stand weird looking glasses. I like plastic cups, pint glasses, or mugs, I cannot drink out of weird looking glasses. 2020 has ruined my order of doing things because I have no job at the moment. I don’t wake up and write early anymore. I go trail walking when I want, and sure that’s how people operate, but it bothers me. I need my set schedule the way I do things. 2020 has fucked it up for me. A couple of times I spiraled out and that’s a scary thing, but I know how to control it now, or how to get a hold of it before it becomes a scary thing. I just need my schedule back.
BD: What has to happen in a story or novel for you to feel like it’s done and I’ve accomplished what I needed to accomplish with that?
FR: For it to be finished each character’s story has to come to a conclusion. I have no interest in extending them, like writing a series. I guess that’s where the money is made, and there are some wonderful series out there such as Hap & Leonard by Joe Lansdale, and Hoke Mosley by Charles Willeford, but really it’s not for me. I like to tell their story, then it’s over. I might create a universe, so-to-speak, where a character from one story might make a brief appearance in another, but they don’t do much else. The characters need to get what they were coming for, or lose it, to have at least touched it.
When I write stories I am very interested and invested in the characters more than I am plot, in fact, I often abandon ideas of plot and some character arcs. I don’t have a plot in life so my characters shouldn’t either. The plot follows them. A lot of writers see that as hack writing, but I don’t. Not every human changes. People sometimes are evil, or trash, or good., and sometimes that never changes. A “thing” doesn’t always change a person, nor does an idea. Although I do see the need for character arcs for some of them, depending on what’s happening with them. For example, a big bag of gold is going to change a person.
BD: You talked about writing darker and more violent stories as of late. What are some other themes and/or types of characters that you often find yourself coming back to? Are there any types of stories/poems/etc. where you are like here I go again, another story/poem about this?
FR: First off, the writing has become a bit more violent of late. I think a lot of this has to do with being laid off since last March. I did have the pandemic insurance which got me through until July, so at least I knew the bills were getting paid, but I was still left to walk around my apartment all day. I wasn’t used to having all the time on my hands. I lost my life schedule which threw off my OCD quite a bit. Add no jobs, the political climate, the virus, the country gone wild, and now the insurance is gone and I am forced to rely on food delivery tips for survival, yeah anger started to pump inside of me.
I needed to vent somehow so I started to write violent stories. I guess there was always an element of violence in most of my stories, but there was hope somewhere too. Of late there is no hope. No coming back. Bad men and women are doing terrible things in the stories I am writing. But I have voyaged into heavy crime and westerns to use that anger inside of me. I didn’t feel like using life in the now because I’m fucking sick of the now. If I have to discuss politics, or the virus, or anything in the now I’m going to scream. Luckily I laugh at everything because it’s all I have left, so my stories, and the novel, I’m working on are full of dark humor. Dark humor helps me cope.
I revisit a lot themes because they interest me: the lost, the forgotten, people living on the fringes of society, the broke, the hungry. Only now, and I’m still looking at those things mentioned, but I’ve added in outlaws, or people who have it all, yet somehow throw it all away. I guess I’m interested in looking at what turns people in society into say an outlaw, or how they face the terror in front of them and what they’ll do to keep the terror away from them. What a person who had it all, money, fame, etc, and lost it, and what they’ll do to get it back. I wanted to know.
The last part of the question. I’m bored to death, at least right now, looking at another working-class poem or story about a broke father. I feel I have looked at stuff like that all I can, at least for now. I’ll never get tired of looking at broke people, just the fighting father part, or poems about the day job.
BD: What did you dream of doing when you were a kid? Who were you drawn to where you’d say, Yeah, that person’s got it going on?
FR: Jesus, I wanted to be a lot of different things when I was a kid. I wanted to be a vet because I love animals. I wanted to be a pro baseball player because I enjoy sports. The idea of being a writer didn’t interest me when I was a kid, though I loved reading. Writing didn’t find its way into my life until I was in my early twenties, even then it didn’t take hold until I was in my thirties. The first decade it was all poetry. I published a few books of it. Thought I would be a poet forever. I think around forty I decided to start writing fiction. I always preferred it over poetry, still do.
I was drawn to a lot of different people as a kid: Indiana Jones, the Hardy Boys, Clint Eastwood, John Glenn, Cal Ripken, Steve Grogan. I wanted to be all those people. They had success, fame, got the girl.