When did you read your first Lou Berney book? Maybe you’ve been there from the beginning, when he kickstarted his career with a New Yorker short-work sale followed by the release of his strong collection of stories, The Road to Bobby Joe. Or perhaps you started with the first of the Shake Bouchon titles—the magnificently titled Gutshot Straight. More likely, you hopped onboard the Berney bus after he published his modern crime-fiction classic, The Long and Faraway Gone, a novel that has gained stature in the genre with each passing year. (That was the one that made me stand up and take notice.) Even if you’re new to this author, Berney’s is a voice that compels you to pay attention. With the forthcoming release of his new book Dark Ride, Berney cements himself as a poet of the flawed midwestern hero, the laid-back sarcastic and reluctant protagonist—uniquely American and uniquely memorable.
Recently, as Dark Ride was poised for its debut, I had the opportunity to chat with Berney about his entire career—how it began, what challenges he’s faced along the way, and how it’s been going. Here’s our conversation.
Jason Bovberg: You made a splash right out of the gate when The New Yorker published your short story “News of the World.” It was a fascinating debut on the scene, considering the “worldly” feel of that story, contrasted with the more localized Oklahoma/Louisiana settings of your later work. How do you look back on that early success and that story in particular?
Lou Berney: That story came out of my experience, in college, as a chaperone for middle-school kids traveling in Germany and Austria. So, in some ways I was “localized” even then, writing about a landscape I knew firsthand.
It blew my mind when The New Yorker accepted that story. When the editor called me, I was convinced—for several minutes—that it had to be a joke one of my friends was playing on me. Luckily for me, I didn’t hang up. Anyway, at the time, I was flying I was so happy that I’d been published by The New Yorker. I wasn’t dumb enough to think it was always going to be this easy, but I also felt like I was on a runway, picking up speed, getting ready to take off. (Narrator’s voice) That’s not exactly what happened.
Jason Bovberg: Still, did the New Yorker sale lead to securing an agent, as well as selling your collection The Road to Bobby Joe? What’s the story of your beginning in publishing?
Lou Berney: The story in The New Yorker actually got me an editor and a publisher before it got me an agent. A highly regarded editor named Cork Smith (he was at one point Thomas Pynchon’s editor) read my story in The New Yorker and offered to sign me up, on the basis of that one story, for a collection. I had to scramble around and find an agent (a terrific guy named Richard Parks who ended up being my agent for many years until he retired).
Jason Bovberg: You’ve talked about how you no longer write short stories, but The Road to Bobby Joe has some powerhouses. A favorite is “In the Weeds,” which stands as an early, culturally inquisitive study of midwestern life. Do you have your own favorites among those stories?
Lou Berney: I haven’t read any of those stories in probably 20 years. I like to keep moving forward! That’s not to say I don’t still feel great affection for some of those characters. Quong in “In the Weeds” still sticks with me, and Sous Chef Norris. Frank from “News of the World” feels like he’ll always live in my head. “One Hundred Foreskins” is a story I still think about a lot, because it was so strange and fun to write, and to this day I’m still not sure where it came from.
Jason Bovberg: So, OK, what were the challenges you experienced next? In particular, after the release of The Road to Bobby Joe?
Lou Berney: After The Road to Bobby Joe came out to a lot of critical praise, I wrote my first novel. It was huge, spanning multiple centuries, and took me five years to write and revise. While it came close at a few houses, it got rejected by every publisher. So I wrote another novel. This one took three years, I think. And … it got rejected by every publisher. So, a very different experience than my first story and book.
Jason Bovberg: Care to share thoughts about those two novels? Did you feel as if they were early attempts to find your voice, or …?
Lou Berney: I think I’d found my voice with my first two unpublished novels, more or less at least, but I was still grappling with various issues of craft. I could tell a story but I didn’t really know how to construct an effective plot. That was a big thing.
Jason Bovberg: This is probably where Gutshot Straight comes in. That began as a screenplay, right? At first glance, this appears to be the turning point in your career that led not only to your success in books/fiction but more specifically in crime fiction.
Lou Berney: Yes, Gutshot Straight, or at least the seed idea of it, started as a screenplay. Working in Hollywood for several years after my unpublished novels taught me so much good stuff about structure and plot. I think it was the education I really needed. And it helped me pinpoint crime as my “home” as a writer. Crime fiction, which spans everything from thrillers to cozies to you name it, is so wonderfully elastic. You’ve got some expectations to help guide you when you need them, but you’re also free as an author to subvert, subvert, subvert.
Jason Bovberg: Whiplash River established the Shake Bouchon books as a series, and yet a third novel, Double Barrel Bluff, remains unpublished. Curious about your thoughts of the series as a whole, and whether we’ll see that third book someday…
Lou Berney: I love that series and the characters in it. I enjoyed writing those books, but it was also tough because I didn’t want to just write the same book over and over again. Each time, I had to come up with a new plot, a new motivating desire, new arcs, and so on—all within the confines of existing characters. I think I’m generally much more comfortable writing standalones. But Double Barrel Bluff will definitely be published, probably sooner rather than later. It’s just been a question of timing.
Jason Bovberg: Shake seemed to establish that “flawed, smart, wisecracking nice-guy hero” character that you excel at. He echoes through your later books. What appeals to you about Shake and his voice?
Lou Berney: That’s just the kind of voice I enjoy writing and/or just comes easiest, most naturally to me. I don’t know if I can explain it any better than that.
Jason Bovberg: Well, speaking of that voice, an argument could be made that it propelled your next book, The Long and Faraway Gone, into something of a modern classic. I love Wyatt’s voice and his personal connection with the crime he’s drawn into. This book finds a perfect balance between haunting horror and that easygoing/wisecracking humor. The setting and points of view work very well. What are your memories of crafting this book, and at the time did you feel it would be something special?
Lou Berney: I was really inspired by Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, I remember. That novel made me realize that it’s okay to write a crime novel with humor but also a lot of darkness. It gave me permission, I guess I’d say, to follow my own natural instincts. Life isn’t neatly light and dark—it’s marbled with both, and the books I love reflect that. The book wasn’t particularly easy to write at times, but it always felt right to me. Wyatt and Julianna came alive in my head very early on.
Jason Bovberg: The Long and Faraway Gone seemed to open doors wider for you—back to hardcovers, awards, wider recognition. What are your memories of the book’s reception among readers and the genre?
Lou Berney: It didn’t make much of a splash at all early on. But then I started getting more and more emails from readers who really connected with it. I think The Long and Faraway Gone really benefited from word of mouth. People would write and say, “Oh, I heard about your book from my friend or neighbor.” Then it won the Edgar for best trade paperback, and that gave it a huge boost.
Jason Bovberg: This is probably a good time to ask about any autobiographical elements to your books. Obviously, the setting of The Long and Faraway Gone is close to home for you, but how much of you is in Wyatt? Did you work at a movie theater, for example?
Lou Berney: I worked at movie theaters all through high school, so a lot of the details (and teenage schemes) are definitely autobiographical. I wasn’t a Wyatt, though — probably more of an O’Malley.
Jason Bovberg: Any anecdotes from that time?
Lou Berney: There was one time a rich oilman swaggered into the lobby during the bargain matinee and offered to give all the employees a hundred bucks each if we stopped the movie, rewound it, and restarted it so he didn’t miss anything. Our assistant manager agreed and had the projectionist do it, but the projectionist ratted him out and the assistant manager got fired. And of course none of us ever saw the hundred bucks.
Jason Bovberg: What do you think it is about The Long and Faraway Gone that resonates with readers?
Lou Berney: I’m not sure. I think our experiences when we’re in high school have an outside impact on our emotional lives, maybe, so there’s something universal about Wyatt and Julianna being so obsessed with that period of their past.
Jason Bovberg: Have you ever faced any pressure to continue with the character of Wyatt as a series, given that you’ve already established him as a unique “investigator” type protagonist?
Lou Berney: I get a fairly regular stream of emails asking when I’ll write another “Wyatt book.” I’d love to do it, since I love Wyatt, but it would have to be a book that really needed to exist on its own, and so far I haven’t had an idea good enough.
Lou Berney: There was a lot of enthusiasm for November Road when I sold the idea, but the book didn’t work at first. I made a lot of mistakes. In an early version, the whole thing was set in a small town in Oklahoma (where Charlotte lives) and it felt just really stagnant and un-dynamic. It wasn’t till I had the idea to get Charlotte and Frank on the road, and a hitman chasing Frank, that the pot really started to bubble and I got excited by the story. My brother-in-law grew up in a small town in Kansas, and he told me how his parents and all the parents in his town warned their kids to stay away from the next town over—you know, never ride your bikes over there! It turned out that was because the next town over was a mob cool-off town, where the mob sent hitmen after a job to lie low. I loved that idea, and originally Frank was going to be a hitman lying low in a small town. That was another mistake I made early on (see above)—making Frank a hit man.
Jason Bovberg: When I think back on November Road, the JFK assassination connection stands out. Was that a contributing factor to making the book “click” for you?
Lou Berney: Originally, the main character was going to be the guy responsible for killing John F. Kennedy. When I switched the main character to a fixer, a talker, a charmer—and put him on the run—that’s when everything really fell into place.
Jason Bovberg: It’s been 5 years since November Road. I’m curious how the pandemic affected your creative output.
Lou Berney: I spent about two and a half years working on a novel that just didn’t ever come together. It was a very frustrating (and harrowing) experience. Right around the time COVID-19 became widespread, in March 2020, was when I decided to pull the plug on that book and switch to something new. In some ways the isolation of those early COVID months might have given extra momentum to my work on Dark Ride.
Jason Bovberg: So how did the story of Dark Ride come about?
Lou Berney: After I pulled the plug on the novel that didn’t work, I felt like a complete failure, like I was incompetent at the one thing I badly wanted to do well. So that’s kind of how I found the character of Hardly, in Dark Ride, also a guy who feels overwhelmed by the task he’s confronted by. “Write what you know,” right?
Jason Bovberg: Dark Ride feels like a return to the smaller-scale, intimate, laid-back storytelling of The Long and Faraway Gone to me. Was it a conscious effort to set the tale “local” and revisit that kind of easygoing voice? In light of your answer about feeling like a failure, was there a sense of “returning to the familiar”?
Lou Berney: I didn’t see it as a return to the familiar. In fact, it felt kind of like the opposite, especially since Dark Ride is written in first-person, which I hadn’t done (and only in a short story) in 30 years. A lot of what might seem familiar to a reader in Dark Ride I probably wasn’t conscious of at all. I will say that with Dark Ride I tried not to overthink things, relatively speaking, so it feels intimate to me too for that reason.
Jason Bovberg: Whatever the case, Dark Ride is a mesmerizing (and dark) ride. You excel at tales of redemption from out of darkness. Would you say redemption is a theme that fascinates you?
Lou Berney: Thank you! And I guess is does fascinate me, though I didn’t realize it and wasn’t really thinking about when I wrote Dark Ride.
Jason Bovberg: One powerful aspect of the book, for me, is the way Hardly interacts with the friends and relatives around him—that is, his community—to find the answers he needs. (Perhaps that’s another component derived from the pandemic, the notion that “it takes a community to solve this.”) Are any of these supporting characters inspired by people around you?
Lou Berney: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure how much any of those secondary characters were inspired by people I actually know, but I think they must have been to some degree. But the idea of growing your own family, as it were, really connecting with people, was always on my mind while I was writing, and I know that must have been influenced by the pandemic. I wanted Hardly to be a guy who experiences real connection for the first time in a long time, so that’s what’s at stake for him, as well as the other more obvious stuff.
Jason Bovberg: Earlier, you mentioned that you like to “keep moving forward,” but I’m curious whether you’ve ever been tempted—at a later date—to revisit your earlier unpublished novels or even the one you abandoned recently, at a point when you have a different perspective on them? Or once you get to a certain point beyond them, are they relegated to the past forever?
Lou Berney: No, I’ve never had the urge to revisit. I’m not sure why. I think I feel like it was a different me that wrote those earlier novels, so they’re a bit like strangers to me.
Jason Bovberg: Are you working on anything new? Dark Ride is a strong book, so I hope it absolves you of any feelings of failure!
Lou Berney: I feel really good about Dark Ride. It turned out to be exactly the book I wanted to write, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. I’m already a couple of hundred pages into a new novel, completely different in some ways from Dark Ride and other stuff I’ve written (but probably with similarities I can’t see yet!), and I’m loving it—the book, the process, everything. Knock on wood!