Neal Barrett, Jr.:
Genre Cocktail, Anyone?
Agent to Neal Barrett, Jr.: "[Interstate Dreams] is maybe the best book I've ever read. It should be taught in college classes."
Barrett to agent: "Fine. Where do you want to sell it?"
Agent: "Oh, I don't think I can sell it anywhere..."
A veteran of fifty published novels, Barrett's signature works -- The Hereafter Gang, Interstate Dreams, Pink Vodka Blues -- defy neat publishing categories. That makes them hard to sell to "the industry," but not to readers. They crave Barrett's genre cocktails. Hollywood options them, and no less an authority than The Washington Post called The Hereafter Gang "one of the great American novels."
Crescent Blues: You started writing and drawing comic books as a child. How did you go on from there?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: I loved to draw, but it soon became clear that I wasn't any good. Even the other little kids could see that. So I started leaving out the art and just doing the balloons. I thought, "My God, I've invented prose!"
Crescent Blues: Do you recall any useful experiences from your pre-writing employment -- the desk jobs you went through that you feel helped your writing career?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: I started writing short stories and poems when I was in the fourth grade, at about age 10. I sent the poems in to the Saturday Evening Post. Didn't sell any of them, of course. But my point here is that I felt I did have a writing career, even then -- that I didn't want any of those desk jobs you mention. Which, later on, made working in an office even more hellish than I'd imagined.
To answer the question, no -- the only positive factor that came out of working in the corporate world was the increasing desire to get out of it. Desk jobs greatly interfere with your work. You can use their copying machines and steal their paper and pens, but that's all such jobs are good for. Except the salary, of course, but they owe that to you for making you so miserable.
Crescent Blues: Your friend William Browning Spencer used his job experiences in his writing. Have you done the same?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: That's how Bill and I met. We were both doing readings in Austin. He read from Resume With Monsters, and I read from The Hereafter Gang. It was clear at once that we were kindred souls and would eat Chinese food together forever. Both of these novels, of course, are about guys who would do anything to avoid working for some corporate slave lord.
Crescent Blues: Was it difficult to break into the professional writing market, and what type of stories did you originally write?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: I was lucky, I guess. I sold my first two stories to Amazing and Galaxy. They both appeared in the August, l960 issues. I had a novelette in the October l960, issue of Galaxy, and a novella in the November Toronto Star Weekly. That particular story was about 35,000 words long, and it was about the first caveman who brought a blonde back to the tribe. You can take it from there. Trouble ensued almost at once. I stuck with [science fiction (SF)] for a long time. I still do it, though I've branched out into other fields.
Several highlights of discovery come to mind: one, a hardback of Best Supernatural Stories of H.P. Lovecraft (1946) and the February l945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Prior to all this, was the l943 publication of The Pocket Book of Science Fiction (25 cents). I was totally hooked.
Yes, there were paperbacks that cost 25 cents. And there were dime novels. I discovered paperbacks one day around 1942 when I was twelve, walking home from school. (I always stopped at the drug store to look at magazines.) And on this day, a miracle occurred. There, before my eyes, was a rack of about five paperback books. I'd never seen them before, and neither had anyone else. The first one was Lost Horizon. I bought it at once, and I vowed, right there, that I would, henceforth, buy every new paperback book as it came out. I was able to keep up for about a week, then the whole thing got out of hand. Hey, who knew they would publish uncountable millions of the things?
Crescent Blues: When did you feel comfortable moving to a full-time career as a writer?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: I quit my last job about l973. That's when I thought the time was right. I was comfortable in my head, but what did I know? I'd sold about 20 short stories and novelettes, and 5 novels by then. Was I really ready? No.
Neal Barrett, Jr.: It was Kelwin, published by Lancer in l970. It was a post-disaster novel, and contained people like the pseudo-Sioux, the yellow-skinned wizards of Hunan, etc., in a gloomy North America. The hero, Kelwin the Broon, was an "Archaic," a guy who bought and sold ancient relics, got into a lot of trouble and got out by the skin of his teeth. I think it was a pretty good novel for its time. And yes, I hope to God it differs from my present day writing. I'd be appalled if it didn't.
Crescent Blues: Your Aldair novels posit pigs in charge of things. Were you inspired by George Orwell's Animal Farm, or did something else motivate this series?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: Did you notice pigs are still in charge of things? And no, it wasn't Orwell. I'm not sure where the idea came from. Probably a lot of places. The idea was that Man had become so debased he created parodies of himself for his amusement: Pigs were Romans, wolves were wild Saxons, lizards were Arabs, etc. Then, Man disappeared, and these creatures were on their own, having no idea how they came about. So, they proceeded to make all the mistakes their creator made.
I loved doing the Aldair series. It was a hell of a lot of fun. I still think some enlightened publisher will put these four books out again. Maybe someone over there in Aldair's Albion, or in the Colonies themselves.
Crescent Blues: In l986 you wrote your best-received novel up to then, Through Darkest America (copies of which now sell for $195 each). The sequel, Dawn's Uncertain Light, followed in l989. These books present a bleak post-apocalyptic world, replete with cannibalism and a civil war. How do you feel about these books now? Were they major milestones in your career, or just part of a continuous process of developing themes that interest you?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: They were milestones in my mind, and in the minds of critics and readers. Unfortunately, they were published by a house that had never done fiction before and soon became disenchanted with the idea. Even with paperback publication in the U.S. and Great Britain, the books never got out to a greater public. I'm very pleased that they're remembered fondly now.
The books were very different from the stories and novels I had been doing up to then. Humor was, and still is, my favorite way to tell a story. These two books were definitely not funny. I recall some encyclopedia of SF that said something like: "These are terrific books. Don't read them!" To my mind, that's a great recommendation.
Crescent Blues: You've worked on different kinds of fiction -- historicals, westerns, science fiction and mystery. Could you give Crescent Blues readers who might be unfamiliar with your work an idea of what you've done in these fields?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: I don't know if you have room for all this. I've written close to fifty novels in a number of different fields. This is the sort of thing a great many professional writers have to do, while they're writing great works of art. I have tried to write by a single rule: even if you're writing something when you'd rather be writing something else, write as a professional, and do the best you can. If you don't, the reader will most certainly know.
OK -- westerns, young adult (including Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, etc.) Historical novels, mystery-suspense. Fantasy, SF, off-the-wall contemporary novels. Novelizations of movies. I've written a historical marker; not too many writers can claim that.
Crescent Blues: Did you ever write under a pseudonym?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: Sure did.
Crescent Blues: Your Blues mystery series are becoming well known for their unusual humor. For example, in Dead Dog Blues, the killer wires his victims to emulate living actions, e.g., the dead dog barks (with the aid of a Walkman). Where do you get your inspiration for these?
Neal Barrett : I don't have the slightest idea. Yeah, I do, too. People always ask writers where they get their ideas, as well they should. The answer is, if you've been in this profession for a while, "inspirations" or "ideas" are your stock in trade. That's what you think about. That's how life passing by translates to you: it's a story or a piece of a story. It comes to you without even trying; more ideas, scraps and notions than you can possibly ever use. Good ideas, bad ideas. I think this is true for everybody. Whatever you do in life, you tend to filter incoming mail through the channels that mean the most to you.
Crescent Blues: In Pink Vodka Blues, alcoholic editor Russell wakes up to find his female companion shot and himself chased across the nation. He engages in several shoot-outs, including one with a 70-year-old Uzi-toting woman. I understand the book was optioned for a movie. Can you tell our readers anything more about this?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: Pink Vodka Blues was optioned for a couple of years by producer David Brown. Then Paramount simply bought it outright. I have no idea when it will be filmed, or if it ever will. Writers hardly ever have any involvement with the way the movie is shot. They are generally not involved in anything about the movie and are usually not welcome anywhere near the action. I was paid, and paid well -- just as if the movie were to be made. There are whole buildings in Hollywood full of scripts that will sit there forever. I hope they do mine someday.
Crescent Blues: You've received acclaim for your Blues mysteries, Through Darkest America and particularly The Hereafter Gang. Which do you feel is your best novel? Which would you prefer to see as a movie?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: The novel I'd like to be remembered for is The Hereafter Gang. I'm very proud of it. It has always had a big following since it was published in l991. Critic John Clute, in a Washington Post review, said it was "one of the great American novels." Hey, you can't argue with that. Now, it has been republished as a trade paperback, along with a new novel, Interstate Dreams, both available through Mojo Press. Interstate Dreams is the book I feel would make the best movie. That one, and Dead Dog Blues. I'd hate to see what they'd do to The Hereafter Gang. If you've read it, you'll know why. I have a number of short stories I'd like to see filmed.
Crescent Blues: Why don't you take it from here. Consider Crescent Blues an open forum. We don't edit or censor, unless the topic is blatantly illegal.
Neal Barrett, Jr.: Well, that pretty well leaves me stranded, doesn't it? Legally speaking, though, I've got a lot of things going at the moment, and I thank you for letting me talk to your readers.
As I mentioned, The Hereafter Gang and a new novel, Interstate Dreams are out in trade paperback now. So is a collection of short stories called Perpetuity Blues. The latter comes from Golden Gryphon Press.
One of the questions you asked me has a lot to do with the above three books, all three of which came out from small presses. You asked: "Despite your legions of fans and the rave reviews and awards your books and short stories have garnered over the years, mainstream publishing seems to have a problem categorizing your work. Why do you think this is so?" Excellent question. Basically, the story of my writing career.
Most of my writing is "off beat," off- the-wall," etc. What that means is although it's good, even great sometimes -- hey, it's not just me that says it -- an editor sees my work and says: "This stuff is terrific. However, I'd like to keep my job, and the minute my boss sees this thing he'll know it is not, in any way, like the crap we've been buying.
"He'll say: 'I don't know what this is, but it is definitely not a best seller. Now get back to your miserable cubicle and find something the average dork likes to read. Do you like working here, son? Go back and find me a book about lawyers, doctors, rich guys who save the world from evil persons who aren't even Americans, a book about a younger woman and a wise, older guy who meet at a sheep-shearing contest out West. You want to get somewhere in this biz? Find me a book that has all of the above, and we'll see about the twenty buck raise you're always whining about...'"
This is basically the problem, or at least I believe it is. I have seldom been what you'd call commercial. I'm not especially proud of the fact, but there you are. I expect I'll keep doing what I do, and writing things I love to write, and some that I don't.
Crescent Blues: Can you tell us a little about what you're doing now?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: I'm very pleased with one particular project in the works. I did a short story for Dragon magazine called "The Lizard Shoppe." It's a fantasy about a guy who makes mechanical lizards. (In his world, there weren't any lizards. It's just an idea that occurred to him one day.) The story won an award, and Bantam liked the idea. I've just finished the first of two books for them, based on the characters in "The Lizard Shoppe." It's called The Perilous Prophecy Machine, and should be out in December of 2000. The next one is titled, The Foul Treachery of Kings. I'm really having fun with this idea.
I've done novelizations of Judge Dredd and Barb Wire. I just completed a novelization of the upcoming movie, Dungeons and Dragons. I write a column in Amazing Stories called "Ask Dr. Sciense," and yes, that's the way the good doctor spells it. You asked about pitfalls in projects like novelizations. Usually, these books come rather easily. You get the shooting script, and translate it into a novel. There's a lot of room here for your own original work. You can go into more detail, add something to the characterization, and put in some extra scenes.
A little about short stories. I love to write short stories, and I've gained a lot of readers that way. The trouble is, it's a luxury habit, because you can't live off short story money.
What do I want to do next? The truth? I'm going in several directions right now. Ask me later and I'll know. I have several novels I want to see turned into motion pictures. And who doesn't? What a movie sale does for you is buy you good writing time. It allows you to write exactly what you want to write, for a good long while. And that, basically, is what a writer wants to do -- not what someone else wants us to do, which, again, goes back to the salability factor I talked about above. This is a really bizarre profession, but I have no other skills, so this is what I do.
Sometimes people ask me what kinds of book or stories I read growing up. The answer -- and for most writers, I think -- is damn near everything. I read the magazines my folks bought -- marvelous primeval magazines that vanished some time ago: Bluebook (the best), Liberty, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post. All the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, everything imaginable, everything I could find. I read A. Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, [A.E.] Van Vogt, [Ernest] Hemmingway, [John] Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe. All the good stuff, and the bad stuff as well. I still do. Today I read Charles Willeford, Lawrence Block, Patrick O'Brian, Bernard Cornwell, Stephen Hunter, Michael Connelly, and the historical series by Sharon Key Penman. On and on. Who do I respect? A few, including Cordwainer Smith. (No one has ever been like him, and no one ever will be.) Terry Bisson. William Browning Spencer. Joe Lansdale. Lots of others. John le Carre.
Crescent Blues: Anything else?
Neal Barrett, Jr.: Sure. How much time have you got? Thanks for asking...