The BULL Interview: Frank Bill

The BULL Interview: Frank Bill

It seems Frank Bill is everywhere—reading in Corydon, Indiana, drinking beers in St. Louis, chugging into Indianapolis to sell more books; in the hands of readers in airports, dimly-lit bars and break rooms around the country. I tracked him down to find out where his voice and interest in violence came from, and how readers should take his unsettling message.

JYS: How’re things? How have the last two weeks been (since the release of Crimes In Southern Indiana)?

FB: I’ve had several interviews, different blogs, bookstores, stuff like that. It’s just been crazy. It really has.

JYS: Were you expecting the response?

FB: No, actually I wasn’t. Not that I didn’t believe in myself, but I didn’t really know it was going to happen. If you go back to when I got an agent and I went through edits, she had this manuscript once everything got ready and it took six months. I expected maybe eight months or so before hearing if it was accepted, and it only took two weeks. So it happened fast. And I talked to FSG (Farrar Straus Giroux), I came home from work and we had a forty-five minute chat, and they’d read my novel, and they wanted to know if I had anything in the way of short stories, so I sent them that. We talked, and I didn’t know how that worked, I didn’t know that when an editor is interested, you talk to them, you hit it off, and they go back to the publisher. The whole thing was 50/50, whether it was going to happen. And they came back with an offer. My agent texted me, I was at work—I work in a warehouse—and I got it and was screaming, Son of a bitch! And I was like, I got a fucking book deal.

JYS: How do you feel about the book? I know I just got done with some edits on mine and I have sort of a love/hate relationship with it – there are still things I look at and feel like a different person wrote it. It’s almost like looking at old pictures of myself. How do you feel looking at yours, now that it’s been published and given so much attention? As a piece of art?

FB: I think those stories, at the time I wrote them, are the best that I could. Being able to move on from it, because of being edited, I understand more about writing and can actually turn things up a notch. I learned more about character development, plot, all of those things, and I’m even more judgemental about what I write than I ever have been. The book is the best it could be, from that time. I gave it my best, so I feel really good about it. Could it have been better? Things can always be better, but it’s the best it could be and I’m really happy about it. In my mind, it’s a great book.

JYS: I’ve met a lot of people who’re always worried how this or that was going to hurt their chance of publishing…

FB: I think I did that for too long. I mean, I started writing in 2000, and in those first three years it was more about forming sentences and finding a flow, because I wasn’t big into revision. And then I wrote “The Accident” story, the first short story I tried to write, and it got published. I was just writing about this accident I was involved with, this fucking explosion, and post-traumatic stress. I had six months there where I couldn’t write because of medication. Actually, when you’re talking about stories, I worked on that for twelve to eighteen hours. I basically started working on it in the morning and I worked on it all day and all night, and I’d sit down and write and then proof it and then get up and proof it again. You know, you get in that grain of writing, you get that high…

JYS: Yeah, I call it catching a seam, like tearing fabric and it keeps coming…

FB: Yeah, you don’t even want to quit. You just start shovelling in coffee, and you don’t want to eat, it’s like a rollercoaster ride.

JYS: What is your process like?

FB: Sometimes everything comes out all at once. Like having a hangover. Other times I have to work and struggle and think or take a drive or listen to music and come back to it. It took me a long time to understand that, I kept thinking I’d sit down and write and it’d be right. And that’s not where it’s at—that’s revision. That’s where you build scenes and characters and fill in the gaps. You get a good rough draft and then I’ll whittle it, put a sheen on it. Get it as perfect as I can, and it took me a long time to realize that but that’s what an editor looks at. They want something that’s not sixty or eighty percent, but they want something that’s ninety-five or a hundred. Ninety-five you can publish, you can sit down and figure it out. It’s a long process to get to that. You have to become your own judgment by reading and writing a lot and being able to critique yourself. I didn’t go to writer’s workshops or anything, I’d always heard horror stories from people who got there and people got jealous. And they critique the shit out of each other.

JYS: It seems like you taught yourself.

FB: I’ve never taken a class, no.

JYS: So was it just because you loved reading? What brought this on? Have you been writing for awhile?

FB: You know, when I was a kid I kept a journal but I lost touch with it. I was always writing but I never read fiction, just nonfiction. And when I went to see Fight Club I looked up the author, because I loved the movie, and I couldn’t find that book but found Invisible Monsters, and I read the first line and I thought holy shit this guy can write. I read it in a day or two and I’d never done that before. And I read Fight Club and Survivor and I found out if I like this author I should check this guy out, and that’s how I found Larry Brown and Tom Franklin and Brad Watson and I could relate to them. I never thought I could do that, write about my family and the crazy people my grandfather or dad ran around with. And it took a long time to understand how to tell a story, and my grandfather and father were great storytellers. My dad still tells stories. He’ll tell you about who he’s been running around with, the things they’re up to, and it all turns into one big story. Two hours later you get off the phone with him.

JYS: My dad and grandpa are and were the same way. They never picked up pens, but they knew just how to tell a story.

FB: Yeah, and that’s the kind of thing you should treasure. I wished I would’ve written down a lot of things from when my grandpa was alive. I mean, he’d come home from work and the first thing he’d do was feed his dogs. He came in and had supper with my grandmother and then he’d call his coon hunting buddies and they’d talk about dogs for two or three hours. And they’d plan on hunting. I wish I would’ve paid more attention.

JYS: That’s how my grandpa was. And looking back now, it’s like he had a pitch-perfect understanding of narrative.

FB: You know, you grow up in that era and you didn’t have television. They went and hung out, it was family oriented, you bonded over stories and that was all you had. You had radio too, of course. Grandma loved Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr., and those guys were storytellers.

JYS: I get frustrated, as someone from that area, because I feel like those people might not have read as much literature or as many books because it almost feels like the market or culture has left them behind. There’s even the term “flyover fiction,” meaning this area isn’t someplace you tell stories about. So what do you think this area has to offer in terms of literature or storytelling?

FB: I mean, you still go down certain back roads and find people who aren’t working or are living off social security and I still know other people who don’t have that good a job, people just making it. And I mean it’s still natural around here, you have hunting and fishing. And you have immigration. Along with immigration you’ve got drugs, and when I was doing research on the title story for the collection, and I did research on Latino gangs and my buddy’s a cop and since 9/11 immigration’s overflown. You’ve got people coming in illegally and there’s nothing to do about it. We started looking at it, and these are people running away from poverty, and they’re not all bad people, but you get gangbangers mixed up in that. And they’re using some of the ones who aren’t. You know, they say take this with you, a type of drug, and we’ll help you. Smuggling. And they’re in the same situation as some people are here, trying to get by. So you’ve got a lot of people mixed together.

JYS: I realized early on that there’s a real voice, a focus with this book—where did that come from? What were you setting out to do when you wrote this?

FB: Originally, I mean, I’d read a lot of authors like Chuck Pahlaniuk, people whose work I liked because they weren’t boring. A lot of things I’d read I’d think a lot of people have done this and I couldn’t relate to it, and I liked that he made really strong points about society in the things he was writing about, and the way it came across it got my mind going. It really got me thinking about things in a philosophical way. And he turned me onto other writers like Larry Brown and Tom Franklin. I didn’t think I had the chops for it, to write that way, about the land and the people. I started focusing on where I was from and how I was brought up; I wanted to bring people into an environment and tell about peoples’ struggles and get into the grain of people no one writes about. I wanted to get into why those people are the way they are. Like they’re horrible, but you don’t understand—yeah they’re criminals, but there’s a state of mind there because they’re barely getting by.

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JYS: They’re desperate as hell…

FB: Right. Maybe they’re awful people, but they’re just trying to get by. They don’t really care if someone gets hurt, because that’s not their prerogative. They’re just trying to get by.

But, to get back to your question, for me to write all that stuff, I didn’t really have a general idea, or theme when I wrote. I just wrote what interested me about society and class as a whole. People who are still here, but you don’t see them or hear about them anymore. You read about them in small town newspapers, people who are jobless, and they disappear all over the place. You don’t read about people living in cars or camping spots in books.

JYS: I’m from that same area, Southern Indiana, and some of these people are like starving animals who’re just trying to survive. Why do you think these people have been forgotten for so long and why is there so much attention on them right now in literature?

FB: Well, one reason it was overlooked is because this generation is more about being glamorous, about trying to be movie stars, and it’s like people no longer know the history of where they came from. What their grandparents did to get them to where they are today. They take things for granted. I guess people like myself, Donald Ray Pollock or Larry Brown or whoever, are writing about it and it took awhile for it to pick up steam. You know Larry Brown wrote great books and they’re getting attention now. Gosh, a few generations back my grandparents lived this way and the way people are looking at it now is because of where society is going. People aren’t raised to think for themselves anymore, to live off the land or garden or fish.

It’s like people going fishing, you don’t even get the worms out of the ground anymore. You go to the store and buy them. When I was a kid you went and got worms from under a fucking rock.

So why are people focused on this now? I don’t know. I can understand why it’s been overlooked. This is the Generation of Me, getting a job and a nice car and wearing certain clothes for status. And I can’t stand that.

JYS: For me, a lot of fiction that’s been popular has been escapist work. And then I look at this book, the one you wrote; I would say it’s unflinching. It’s the fact that the violence is rendered here and not just hinted at, that the violence has a purpose behind it. Maybe that doesn’t work well for escapist readers because it’s understandable in a way that might make people uncomfortable. How did your understanding of violence come from? Where you grew up?

FB: A lot of it’s come in the last five years from how my dad’s told me more about his experiences in the Vietnam War. He was over there for a year. The other part would be stories my mom would tell me about my grandfather, who I never knew. A lot of these are stories I grew up with. And back in those days laws were different. You could get away with more. And I used to watch Clint Eastwood movies, crazy action movies like Deliverance or Taxi Driver or Deer Hunter.

JYS: You brought up the idea of culture changing, and I remember growing up and you could get away with beating the hell out of someone…

FB: Yeah, you could. You could drink and drive and get away with it.

JYS: Sure. And you read Big Bad Love and you read all these stories about drinking and driving and you think my god, but even when I was sixteen there were road soadies, people doing that all the time. So, culture is moving away from that, but also moving toward materialistic things. So, in your opinion, what do you want to see? When you write a book you want to change culture, so what kind of change would you like to see develop?

FB: I’d like to see more stories like the kind I write. Or Don Pollock or Tom Franklin. They’re really great stories. With good storytelling. Or Larry Brown or Barry Hannah. William Gay’s another one I like to read, who’s got more of a gothic or southern gothic voice to him. But I’d like to see more active narratives, prose that really moves you. I don’t read any commercial fiction at all. I’ve got nothing against it, I just don’t read it. When I read, I read for language and story, and I don’t want to be bored. I want writers that move. Chuck Pahlaniuk and Irvine Welsh are like that. Bret Easton Ellis too. Those are great writers. Aaron Morales’s Drowning Tucson is great too.

JYS: On that note, and a formalistic one, I noticed in the book you have a lot of sentences where the proper noun or noun is dropped. Like, “John went into the room. Grabbed the gun. Pulled the trigger.” And I noticed a lot of periods where the character drops out of the writing. Is that just a stylistic tic?

FB: It’s a rhythm. When I write it’s a rhythm. I get it down and I break it apart, and I want to know what things look like and taste like. I try and describe things so you can feel them, so you can get involved while you’re reading. And it’s like, in boxing or martial arts, a pummeling. Or kind of like working the heavy bag with a rhythm. Skipping rope or jogging. You get a rhythm and your breath going and your lungs where you need them to be. You don’t want to go too fast or too slow. You can slow down or speed up, but there’s a rhythm to maintain.

JYS: So what’s on the agenda for you now? Are you soaking this up?

FB: I’ve got a two book deal, so I’ve got a novel coming out September next year. I’ve got another novel that I’m about 17,000 words into and another book after that that I’d like to get done and pitch it with the novel I’ve got now. It was something I came across research-wise about this family, and he said I should write about this, and I got all the details down about this case he’d worked. And I was like, I have to write about this. As crazy as this story is, it’d almost be crazier if it was nonfiction. And I’ve been working on essays about books that’ve influenced me, how I grew up, the crazy shit I did in the past. Things that I’ve drawn from in my writing.

JYS: What’s the novel about?

FB: It’s actually about a meth cook and a boxer and a law enforcement officer who has some dark secrets and gets criss-crossed. And there’s this big bare-knuckle boxing tournament called Donnybrook, which, if you read Cold Hard Love, that’s kind of a prequel to the novel. It’s kind of a wild ride, so much so that I’ve been told it needs to slow down in spots and that made me feel good. And I wrote that because I wanted attention, I got tired of being under the radar, and that’s how I got where I am, writing with that fast pace.


About the Author

Jared Yates Sexton is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University and the author of the book An End To All Things. His work has been featured in Salon, Hobart, PANK, The Southern Humanities Review, among others, and has been nominated for a pair of Pushcart's, The Million Writer's Award, and was a finalist for The New American Fiction Prize.