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Frank Bill: The Short Form Interview

I started writing in 1999 and it was a long trek. I wasted a lot of paper.

Author of the story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana, and the recently released novel, Donnybrook.

The Interview

There's this gross sense of “Well, he just came out of nowhere” for American writers not of the MFA track or either coast. In your case: “Man watches Fight Club, reads Palahniuk, gets book deal with FSG.” But reading a story as sharp and swift as the book's opener, “Hill Clan Cross,” suggests a lot of energy went into “coming out of nowhere.” Tell us about that.

The Hill Clan stories were some of the final pieces I wrote before beginning Donnybrook in 2009. And there's more to it than watching a film, reading books and getting published. I started writing in 1999 and it was a long trek. I wasted a lot of paper. Filling up notebooks with longhand stories, ideas and scenes before I understood structure and how to set up a scene and basically tell a story. I've got several boxes of rejection letters to prove it. But somewhere around 2008 things began to take shape and I realized I needed to write what I wanted and not what I thought journals wanted, but I also needed to revise and edit until a piece was as sharp as could be on my end. There were a few editors who also helped out, Anthony Neil Smith and Allison Robinson offered comments/notes and opened my eyes at the right time.

That story really serves as a great introduction. In one quick interaction, it provokes a thousand questions, and by the end of it, you find yourself saying, “Okay, this is the world I'm going to enter. Let's go.” 

By that time I'd gotten a feel for my voice and how I wanted to write by basically not wasting time on the page and starting from the first sentence with a hook and not stopping until the last sentence.

And when was that in relation to the earlier stories?

One of the first short stories I'd written in the collection, “The Accident”, was written around 2004 or 2005. And there were others like “The Old Mechanic” and “A Coon Hunter's Noir” that followed after. 

I think that's what fiction is missing, masculinity from a male perspective.

Throughout the collection, we find some hard struggles and attempts at coping with them. Though there isn't an overall sense that the behavior is being rationalized, you do give us a kind of logic to the violence in each story. How do you explore the desperation in your characters and the emotion behind the violence? Do you come across any personal conflicts when writing these scenes?

A big problem with fiction and writing in general is people always want answers that sometimes do not exist, the best rationalization I can give you about the human condition is a person's breaking point. How much can a man or woman take before they snap? The people I write about come from the working class or the blue collar, sometimes even lower, and my stories start off with real people until I flip and pile on the conflict, for me I write about a forgotten element of society and I do that with a masculine voice, and I think that's what fiction is missing, masculinity from a male perspective. As far as desperation, you have to know your characters and where they come from and all of this factors into what makes them tick and until you do that, there is no depth. It's not something one gets from a classroom, you either know your people/characters or you do not.  

I want the same experience I get from a great action, grind house, drama or horror film only it's by turning the pages and reading.

You've played with multiple narratives and gaps that lend to suspense — thinking of the son in “Beautiful Even in Death.” And though at the sentence level your style feels utilitarian, we end up with a result that's rich in emotion and scenery. What are you thinking of when you're editing for style, what are some of your top concerns when revising?

I think what you're getting at is I do not waste time on the page with words that are not needed. As a reader I tend to get bored with too much exposition and I think that's been accepted and overlooked for way too long. From a guy's stand point, when I read, I wanna read something that's visceral, in your face and doesn't waste my time. I want the same experience I get from a great action, grind house, drama or horror film only it's by turning the pages and reading. So when I write, I make every word count. I want the reader to see, taste, smell and even be repulsed.

I will always write stories that take place in Indiana.

Finally, as your writing gains prominence, do you feel any responsibility as one of the small number of nationally celebrated Hoosier writers? Are there aspects of Southern Indiana you find indispensable as far as future works are concerned?

Every area has its underclass and people always wanna ignore it or pretend it doesn't exist. What I write about comes from a real place that's soaked in history. I will always write stories that take place in Indiana, it's my home, where I was born and raised, I'll just keep trying to write stories that are not boring. You either get what I write or you don't. There's no middle ground.

Recommended by Frank Bill

The Inventor, 1972

The man and the girl share the thought that the sirens are too far away, that the ambulance technicians will never arrive. The girl sighs again, sighs like a grownup woman who has chosen badly in marriage. The hunter sighs, too. He thinks his body was once a vessel filled with hope for the future, ideas for inventions—as a teenager, he ordered an inventor’s guide out of the back of a comic book—but he long ago became a sack of broken glass. Now he has broken this girl, too, into shards of whatever her whole young self was. He has always been able to picture Ricky Hendrichson as a swollen body on the grass, covered with leeches, and he can see Ricky in his coffin, silent and pale, his freckles covered with makeup, but he has been unable to remember Ricky alive, smoking in that garage, building his homemade bottle rockets on concrete blocks beside the pond, with charcoal, sugar and saltpeter. So when he sees Ricky’s face in the girl’s face, he fears he is losing his mind.

“Please, don’t die,” he whispers.

We read it in American Salvage.

Originally published in The Southern Review: Winter 2008.

Waiting for the Ladies

I puzzled over it and puzzled over it and drove for nights on end looking for that blue pickup, but if there was one in the country I didn't see it. I took back roads and side roads and pig trails that buzzards couldn't hardly fly over when it rained, and I decided he'd done decided to take his goober-grabbing on down the road somewhere else. By then I wasn't even mad and just wanted to talk to him, tell him calmly that he couldn't run around doing stuff like that. I was sure by then that he'd been raised without a father, and I could imagine what their lives were like, him and his mother, eating their powdered eggs, and I couldn't imagine how we could spend 1.5 billion dollars on a probe to look at Jupiter and yet couldn't feed and clothe the people in our own country. I wanted a kinder, gentler world like everybody else, but I knew we couldn't get it blasting it all off in space, or not providing for people like him. Who was to say that if he got cleaned up with some fresh duds, a little education, some new Reeboks, he couldn't get a blowjob in Atlanta? Hell. Why not educate? Defumigate? Have changes we could instigate? Why couldn't everybody, the whole country, participate?

Then I saw his truck.

We read it in Big Bad Love.

Outside Work Detail

I doubt the old Vermonters even saw a human when they turned back to look at me, and certainly, after the first couple of years, I began to feel less and less like someone who'd once lived down the road from them and got drunk an did something stupid. I felt like what their eyes said I was, someone who needed to be in a tiny concrete room behind high fences and armed guards and locked down but good, for as long as the locks held and longer if possible. It was probably only procedure that I was transferred to The Farm, nothing more. In their hearts, no one on that parole board wanted me to step closer to the door–one step closer to being in a grocery store in their town, one step closer to walking down Main Street.

I answered the questions they asked of me, that I planned to go live with my sister Elizabeth in Essex when I was released, and I produced an old letter from her, giving me permission to live at her house and inviting the parole board to call her if they had any questions. She had stopped visiting me after three years, and I didn't blame her. She still wrote occasionally–wrote when my grandmother died–and I was still planning on living at Elizabeth's house when this was over and that was all I could ask of anybody.

We read it in Controlled Burn.

Cold Snap

I told Susan that over in India Cindy would have a job hauling logs or something, and there would be an elephant boy to scrub her down at night with a big brush while she lay in the river, and the elephant boy would be with her at all times, her constant companion. Actually, the elephant would be more important than the boy, I told her, and that’s how you should handle an elephant in America—import an experienced elephant boy for each one, give the kids a green card, pay them a lot of overtime, and have them stay with the elephants around the clock. You know, quality time. How could you blame Cindy for all the shit she pulled? And in the middle of this, Susan has a tear floating off her cheek and I don’t know if it’s a tear caused by the cold or if she was touched by Cindy’s plight. The reason they sent my sister to the nuthouse was that you could light a fire on the floor in front of her and she would just sit there and watch it burn.

We read it in Cold Snap.

Originally published in The New Yorker: Jun 21, 1993.

goodbye Hills, hello night

Our plan was to drive around for awhile first. You don’t never show up to a party early. I liked to show up last, give a war whoop, a Banshee cry, make my arriving known. So quarter past eight Freddy Bailey shows up at my house, him driving, his brother Jim in the front seat telling him where to go, Billy Jones in the back, his hand wrapped around one of the baseball bats like he’d ever have it in him to swing one at anything but a baseball.

“Badass Billy Jones!” I said. “Move it on over.” And I slapped him upside the head because that’s how we did him, and he wouldn’t expect nothing else. Freddy thought this was funny and got to laughing, and Jim slapped his ear with his hand cupped shape of a C. If you slap somebody’s ear like that it rings for hours, and Jim knew how to do things like that—he done it to me and said it was to show me how. Jim Bailey knew how to hurt people a hundred ways and more.

We read it in In the Devil's Territory.

Originally published in Plots with Guns #4.