I became aware of Eric Beetner while visiting my usual southern California haunts a few years back—specifically, Book Carnival, a wonderful bookshop in Orange that I used to visit in my college years for signings with authors like Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon and Dean Koontz. I was a voracious horror reader back then, and I still have a soft spot for the genre. But these days I’m far more invested in the crime genre, having spent a lot of my free time reading vintage pulp novels (from writers such as James M. Cain, Day Keene, Cornell Woolrich, and Jim Thompson) and today’s best juicy-dark mysteries (from writers such as Joe R. Lansdale, Duane Swierczynski, Charlie Huston, and Scott Phillips). While I was visiting Book Carnival on that particular trip back to my home town, the new owner of the shop turned me on to Eric Beetner, who I’d JUST missed at a signing alongside the aforementioned Duane Swierczynski. Leafing through the suitably pulpy paperback, I knew right away I’d found something right in my sweet spot.
I quickly discovered that Beetner was a prolific writer who’d already amassed a bibliography of about twenty titles, from cowritten endeavors to single-author novels, from striking pocket-book novellas to in-your-face edited collections of down-and-dirty short stories. It was almost dizzying, facing this sudden body of work, wondering where to dive in. So much goodness! With titles like Nine Toes in the Grave, A Bouquet of Bullets, Six Guns at Sundown, The Year I Died Seven Times, Dig Two Graves, and (perhaps my favorite) Stripper Pole at the End of the World, Beetner was clearly an author who spoke to me deeply. I started sampling his work online, and then I knew I had to HAVE IT ALL. My shelves are now teeming with Beetner.
I was recently fortunate to start up an online conversation with Beetner himself, and through our missives I’ve found him to be a cool, thoughtful fellow, fervently active in the crime-fiction community and multifaceted when it comes to his wide variety of vintage and modern influences … in short, someone I’d love to share a beer with—which makes a lot of sense, as he’s the organizer of the Los Angeles chapter of Noir at the Bar, a long-running series of events involving crime writers sharing their work over suds. Beetner is also the mind behind the Writer Types podcast, which I highly recommend to writers of all types.
As part of our email correspondence, I had the opportunity to talk to Beetner about his work, his thoughts about vintage pulp fiction, and his contributions to the genre at large. Read on!
Jason Bovberg: Let’s start at the beginning. Is it accurate to say that you began by coauthoring novels with another writer, JB Kohl? At the time, and also in retrospect, what was the experience of cowriting like for you, and how did that evolve to producing your single-author work?
Eric Beetner: My first published novel was co-written, but I’d written stuff before that hadn’t sold yet. And I’d published about a dozen short stories. When Jen asked me to cowrite with her, I figured I had nothing to lose and I really enjoyed the process. I’m really proud of the books we wrote together, and they got my foot in the door, even though our first publisher was so small as to be insignificant and they weren’t connected to the crime/mystery world in any way, so by the time I published my first solo book it was like starting over. But also by the time I wrote my first novel (which is now in a drawer somewhere never to be seen by anyone) I had already written 17 feature-length screenplays, a half dozen TV pilot scripts, and many short film scripts. So the discipline of writing something and seeing it through was nothing new to me.
I’ve had really good luck with co-writing, though I always caution people against it. You have to have a thick skin and be able to walk away at any point. I worked with writers who are kind and generous and also just good craftspeople and that’s what you want. A true collaboration. I’ve done write-for-hire stuff, too, where a series bible already exists, and that has its charms and drawbacks. I’ve been a part of a few large groups of writers doing a novel-length thing where each person writes their own chapter. Most of those have been disasters! After the last one collapsed and never came out even after I stepped in to rewrite some stuff and do an extra chapter, I vowed not to do that again.
The novels I cowrote with Frank Zafiro are just getting a re-release, and I hope more people find those books. They’re a lot of fun.
I don’t know if cowriting has influenced my other work at all, or if it did it was in subtle ways that I don’t notice. I’m always good with deadlines, so that aspect didn’t change. I collaborate all the time in my day job, so I was used to working with people.
Eric Beetner: I like short form stuff. It’s a different kind of storytelling. You get a different style in a half-hour TV show versus a feature film. There’s an efficiency there that I like a lot. Plus, the satisfaction of doing it comes quicker. And some stories are just meant for the shorter form. Every writer gets a great idea that’s a nugget but doesn’t have the legs to sustain a full novel. Those can often become shorts. Then sometimes there are stories or characters that you want to explore more deeply in a novel, and it’s nice to have the time to spend. I’m sure I’ll always keep writing short stories, and I find it hard to say no to a novella if I’m asked. Like last year when I got invited to write one for A Grifter’s Song series and for Guns and Tacos. They were both super fun, and I knocked them out quickly. I’d love to do more of that.
I’ve got a bunch of short stories gathered up, and I keep thinking I should put together another collection. When I have the time, maybe I will.
Jason Bovberg: I gathered in a previous interview or two that you love vintage pulp fiction. I’m a big fan myself, love Day Keene (Bring Him Back Dead), Charles Willeford (Kiss Your Ass Good-Bye), Harry Whittington (You’ll Die Next!). Obviously I’m also a big-time lover of what Charles Ardai is doing with Hard Case Crime. I wonder if you could talk about how you were drawn to the pulps and how they’ve influenced not only your chosen genre but also your attitude as a writer.
Eric Beetner: Vintage crime novels are interesting to me because a lot of writers start there and end up writing imitations of them early on. I certainly did. In a way, they’re like training wheels or like punk rock. Stripped down, back to basics, and deceptively simple. They can be dismissed as somehow lesser than, similar to how people dismiss the Ramones. But when you really look at it, the simplicity of it is a skill. And the satisfaction from the short sharp punch they give you is something I know I go back to time and time again. When I need to reset after trying to read a few books that don’t work for me, I always go back to something vintage, and it’s a refreshing palette cleanser. I can get what I love about crime fiction in a tight package with nothing wasted. I miss the days of the 45,000-word novel. You can’t survive on a diet of only that, but it sure is the right thing now and then.
My own work is always very stripped down, shorter, and tightly written. I think that’s why I like the old pulp style. That said, I’m a crime guy, not a detective guy. A huge swath of those books are all just carbon copies of each other and even then they’re trying to be Chandler and Spillane. So I like true crime novels and not PI or cop novels, mostly. And I never write about cops or PIs (though I was pleased when my first PI story ever was nominated for a Shamus award, so maybe I should do more)
I also love the discovery. With reissue presses like Hard Case Crime, Stark House, and Armchair Fiction, there are so many great novels out there to be discovered. And I enjoy the hunt for the obscure in films, music, books. So I will always return to crime novels of the ’40s and ’50s because they keep delivering for me in the same way I’ll never stop listening to my Ramones albums.
Jason Bovberg: I have to admit, I did exactly what you’re talking about with The Naked Dame. Those early novels are such pure narrative exercises that they’re irresistible for crime writers. Now, as I go rediscover some Ramones, I wonder if you could point to a couple of your all-time favorite pulp writers, as well as one or two more modern influences on your work?
Eric Beetner: Ever the contrarian, I won’t say Chandler or Hammett. Or even Cornell Woolrich, though I love his stuff. I think two writers I’ve most connected with as I’ve gone back and read a decent amount of vintage crime novels are Charles Williams and Lionel White. Both wrote straight-ahead crime novels, no PIs here, and both excelled at stories where I could never see the next turn coming. Williams’ Hell Hath No Fury (aka The Hot Spot) is a must-read crime novel, in my opinion. And White’s Clean Break made for an all-time great film noir, The Killing. But both men have novel after novel that I’ve loved. William’s down-and-dirty noirs like Nothing In Her Way, Talk of the Town, or Man on the Run and then his nautical noir books like Aground, Scorpion Reef, and of course Dead Calm.
Then White has unsung classics like To Find a Killer, A Grave Undertaking, and The Money Trap, among many others. Both men published a lot, so there’s a deep reservoir to draw from when you start to discover their work.
I also should mention William P. McGivern, king of the dirty cop novel. Love him too.
Today I really try not to draw influence from other writers. I never want to do an imitation. But early on, for sure, some books made me find the niche I wanted to be writing in. People like Allan Guthrie, Victor Gischler, Duane Swierczynski, Megan Abbott, Steve Brewer, Ken Bruen, Sean Doolittle, Dave Zeltserman. And more recently, I’ve loved books by Laura McHugh, Robin Yocum, Allen Eskens, Attica Locke, Steph Post, Brain Panowich, and maybe my all-time favorite writer, Joe R Lansdale. They all make me want to step up my game.
Jason Bovberg: One thing I’m always curious about is development of style. You have a distinct narrative method. Your style, your voice, seems to veer toward urgent, in-your-face, propulsive, potent, darkly comic. I’d point to some of the older and newer names on your list (the pulp of the ’50s, Lansdale in the ’80s, the Irish crime of the ’90s) and nod my head, although your stuff has a unique rawness to it that’s irresistible and very fun. You feel the writer feverishly typing out the tale, devious grin plastered to his mug. Getting past authorial influence, what do you suppose are the cultural or personal factors behind your style? Is it just a matter of having a blast?
Eric Beetner: I think my style evolved from or was at least influenced by screenwriting more than anything. Movies are my first love. I went to film school, I work in the business as an editor, so my whole job day to day is trimming the fat, getting to the action, streamlining a story down to the essentials and working with pace. I like the efficiency in screen storytelling. I wrote scripts for years and got very close on several projects but, alas, nothing ever got made, so I kind of burned out, and at the same time the industry was changing and I had a family to support. So when I shifted to novels, I kept the tight pace I’d learned in screenwriting. I’ve had a lot of people describe my style as “cinematic,” and that is not by coincidence.
The humor comes from my own sarcasm and dark taste in comedy. I don’t set out to write jokes, and I’m always surprised when people say my books are funny. The humor is very dark and usually at someone’s expense. But that’s just me in real life. Ask my wife and kids.
And I do think your image is right. I enjoy writing and sending a story to odd places. I enjoy the mayhem. I write books that I’d want to read. I do that knowing it moves many of my novels into “cult” status, like so many of the movies I loved in my youth, films that have a small but devoted following and also never led to big careers for those writers. You can’t make a living writing cult movies.
One reason I immediately loved Duane Swierczynski books is I had that same image of him. His whole story process seems to be “Y’know what would be cool?” and he goes from there. I love that, and it leads to stories that are unpredictable. When you consume as much story as I do, it’s so easy to spot the patterns and guess the way a story is going to go. Even more so in Hollywood than in novels. But when you can surprise everyone, that’s a win in my book.
Jason Bovberg: So far, we’ve talked about pulps and influences, old-school paperbacks, narratives of yore. It feels like you’ve achieved a sort of cult status among a smaller but enthusiastic audience. I, for one, want to see you break through. There are occasions when pulp crime tales like yours resonate with larger audiences. “Pulp Fiction” is an obvious one, but then Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” flopped with a similar goal. Coen brothers films probably fit here. Movies like “John Wick” and “Nobody.” In the book realm, Lansdale has found the sweet spot. Chuck Palahniuk. S.A. Cosby just hit it big with a low-down, pulpy crime tale. I guess I’m asking … How are modern pulp writers tapping into an audience that’s definitely out there, ripe for those kinds of stories?
Eric Beetner: If I knew the secret, I’d sell more books! I honestly think there is no formula to it. Lansdale has built an audience over decades of hard work and great books. Now and then, something breaks through, but it’s rare and there seems no rhyme or reason to it. Most books that become hits in any genre you can point to two dozen others like it that didn’t hit. Who knows?
Cult status is all I ever aspired to. I was the same way playing in a band. All my favorites were not chart toppers, and I preferred everything that was going on outside of the most popular stuff, whether music, movies, or books. I don’t aspire to be Lee Child. I also don’t denigrate what they do. You like Dan Brown, then good for you. You like Marvel movies, good. Doesn’t mean I want to see them, but anything that entertains you and gives you pleasure is a positive. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I don’t believe in limiting yourself. I can like a million seller or the number-one box office hit the same as an obscure book or band. It’s whatever hits you.
More often than not, people are taking in what they are sold or fed. Most people don’t do the deep dive into whatever entertainment they consume. And that’s fine. Again, if it keeps you fulfilled to have a streaming service pick your music for you, then go for it. So when a book or a movie becomes the thing everyone is talking about, then it’s the one most likely to get read or seen. I always bristle at any “best of” lists because it should always come with the caveat that the list is the best of what you consumed. You can’t read every book, listen to every album, see every movie. Nobody can. But for some people, like me, it’s hunting for the rare artifact that is a big part of the pleasure.
And then you have to factor that people only have room in their lives for a few things each year. It’s abnormal to read as much as I do with 150 books a year or more. Or to see as many films as I do. If you only read four or five books a year, your chances of finding some obscure lost crime novel are really slim. That’s just the reality of it.
The great thing about how vast entertainment is these days is that there’s something for every niche audience. It’s just hard for creators to make a living at it, so careers tend to be short and fleeting. Nature of the biz and not anything new. There have always been fringe artists clinging to the margins, and often they only get a chance to create a small handful of works. But for the ones who find it, it means the world to them. That’s all we can ever really hope for. The 1 percent of wide, truly visible success distorts the idea of what success is. I know I’ll never quit my day job to write full time. Which is one reason why I’ve worked hard to maintain a day job I like very much and keeps me creative.
Jason Bovberg: So let’s hear more about the day job!
Eric Beetner: Working as an editor and producer in TV can be really rewarding. I love that I have a job which is creative on a day-to-day basis. I don’t suffer in a cubicle crunching numbers and use writing as an outlet. And the parts of my brain that get exercised editing are the same that help craft a story. I think about structure all day long, I think about streamlined storytelling, about show-don’t-tell, about pace.
Now, the downside is the notes process. I do my thing and then hand it off and then get told by a number of people how to fix it, change it, do it differently. Often I can push back and fight against a certain note if I really disagree with it, but most times I have to do what they say and often the note is vague, so I have to figure out a solution on my own. So when I write, I feel complete ownership over the story. It’s why I don’t use beta readers or belong to a writing group. I get enough input from others all day long! I want to sink or swim on my own with my writing. If it sucks, there’s nobody to blame but me. But if it’s good, then I can lay claim that all the ideas were mine.
Eric Beetner: S.W. Lauden, who I created the Writer Types podcast with, and I often discussed how our punk rock band backgrounds gave us a certain “scene” mentality when approaching crime fiction. A genre is similar to a scene in music, and we were both very DIY, let’s-put-on-a-show kind of guys. So from the very start, I’ve wanted to give back to the writing community and also be a person who offers a platform for writers. Through the podcast and through Noir at the Bar, which I’ve hosted and organized in Los Angeles for nine years now, I feel like a part of the scene. I don’t do it to promote my own books, and I can say definitively it has not done a thing for my book sales or my career at all. But I’ve made great friends, I’ve helped a ton of writers, I’ve gotten help in return, and for all the work that goes into it, the personal payoff is far more rewarding than the professional one. I’m just not a sit on the sidelines person.
It helps that I don’t get stage fright, so hosting things is fun for me and not torture like it is for many. I’m curious about other people, so I like interviewing. There are times when I need do a gut check and evaluate how much time it takes from my writing and my family, so I’m always wondering when the podcast has run its course. But I’ll keep doing it as long as I enjoy it and it keeps me engaged with the writing community.
Jason Bovberg: To wrap up, I wonder if I can get all Barbara Walters on you and ask you to wax philosophical about what you love about writing. The connection you want to have with your ideal reader. The mark you want to leave on the genre.
Eric Beetner: All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a part of the conversation. I think I’ve achieved that. The troubling bit comes when they stop talking about you. And it’s not about the attention or the recognition. If you want fame, writing is a terrible way to go about it. It’s just wanting to get a fair shot. Wanting to feel like people are in your corner. It’s all too easy for a writer to let the dark thoughts creep in and lose sight of that. I do know the way through it is with the work. Like writer’s block: The only way through it is to write through it. If I tell myself a good story, that’s the only reader that matters in the end. If I never publish a thing again, I’ll be sad, I’ll be frustrated, I’ll know I had so much more to say, but I’ll never lose sight of what I’ve been able to build. I have a body of work. I have the confidence that I worked hard at it, that I helped others even when it felt like nobody was helping me. And I know that feeling is bullshit—that dozens of people have helped me along the way. I only need to put pen to paper and scratch myself out of a dark hole with words. Even if I’m the only one who will ever read them.
The mark I want to leave? I doubt it’ll be as a best seller! I guess the best-case scenario would be 50 years from now another reader like me would go seek out some obscure book from the past and find my work. And that reader would think, “Why wasn’t this guy more popular?” Of course, better for that to happen now while I’m still alive! But for a lasting mark, you could do worse than to be re-discovered.
Here’s what I’d say to that reader: Honestly, thank you for wanting to give my books your time. A writer can read a hundred good reviews and still focus on the one bad one. But, like any writer, I can face daily humiliations and setbacks, but it only takes one new reader to give me the motivation to keep plugging away a little longer.
Thanks so much.