I remember when I first spotted Frank Bill’s debut story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana on the New Release table at my favorite local bookstore—that stark cover art, that sepia photo of the burned-out car, that scrawled title treatment. On the back, that pronouncement from one of my favorite crime-fiction writers, Donald Ray Pollock: “Good Lord, where in the hell did this guy come from?” It was enough for me to throw down my cash and take the book home, oh yeah. I devoured the tales, blown away by the toughness of their prose, the stark observational bluntness of their collective view of middle America, the feeling that I was experiencing something genuinely bleak and all too real.
Crimes in Southern Indiana thrust Frank Bill into the crime-fiction conversation, and he’s been there ever since, cataloguing vivid realities and conjuring tales that really kick you in the gut. Bill followed up that collection with his modern classic Donnybrook, his propulsive novel about Jarhead, the bare-knuckle fighter in Kentucky clawing his way toward—or away from—a better life. After that came The Savage, which pulled no punches in its elevation of Donnybrook‘s major themes, imagining an America that has been brought to its knees. It’s a book that has been called “post-apocalyptic country noir.” (If such a phrase resonates with you, you’ve come to the right place!) A few years would go by before Bill snuck onto the scene again, this time in a co-authoring capacity with Norman Reedus, whose book The Ravaged debuted in hardcover in the states to glowing reviews, thanks in no small part to the way Bill’s stylings and contributions aligned with Reedus’s ideas.
And now Frank Bill is up to his old tricks again with Back to the Dirt, a gritty, autobiographical tale about the aftermath of a stunning, violent act. It’s a novel populated by people shoved to the edge of desperation, living in communities suffering under the weight of poverty, addiction, and random violence—in short, forgotten America.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Frank Bill about his career and specifically the release of Back to the Dirt. Here’s our conversation!
Jason Bovberg: Your 2022 Rougarou interview is a great place to start for information on your beginnings and inspirations. I’m interested in your career from the publishing perspective. What led to the acceptance and publication of Crimes in Southern Indiana? Was it a matter of the right person taking notice of your stuff at the right time?
Frank Bill: I had published plenty of stories in journals. After about 8 years of that, I figured out that I could write about what I knew. Working class. Crime. Drug abuse and physical abuse and trauma. The human condition. Things took shape. Basically, I had to put in the work. Edit and rewrite over and over. Slave over every sentence.
Then Scott Phillips, Neil Smith, David Cranmer, Jed Ayers, and a few others took interest in my work. Recommended some agents. Neil and Scott turned me on to the agent that would sign me. And from there, she and I worked on editing the novel I was writing at the time: Donnybrook. And she had my manuscript of short stories. Then she sent the novel out, and we got an interested editor.
Jason Bovberg: Was there a moment in your early career that you can point to and say, “That’s a moment that made the difference”?
Frank Bill: Probably when I sent out “The Old Mechanic” and got written notes on the returned story. Later, I ended up publishing “The Penance of Scoot McCutchen,” followed by “Old Testament Wisdom.” What helped most was the editors’ notes. They saw something in my writing.
Jason Bovberg: In general, what are your thoughts when you recall the release/reception of Crimes in Southern Indiana? I remember it as a punch to the gut; a great heralding of a new voice. It certainly caught my attention and turned me into a Bill reader. Over 10 years later, it still casts a long shadow. Is there a lingering sense that the brutal punches of those short pieces really capture something unique about your subject matter?
Frank Bill: Some folks felt it was a breath of fresh air, shining a different light on the midwest in a way others had not. As I said, I basically write mostly what I know, relying upon personal experience and family history, and combine my interests with what’s going on in my neck of the woods, whether it be drug abuse, loss of jobs, decline of personal skillsets, or just the decline of the midwest and the blue-collar folks, while tying in action and movement. I hate slow stories with too much exposition. Some folks get what I write, and others do not. And that’s fine by me. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea.
Jason Bovberg: You’ve gone on to focus on powerful longer-form writing, but do you still write short stories?
Frank Bill: I’ve written a few short stories over the years for Playboy and some other places, like an anthology, that asked for my contribution. Each of them were paying publications.
Jason Bovberg: Do you ever imagine releasing another volume of short fiction?
Frank Bill: I do have a manuscript of shorts I’ve passed to my agent. But my main focus is long form.
Jason Bovberg: Donnybrook made a big splash. What was the transition to long fiction like for you? Had you been working on that one for a long time?
Frank Bill: I actually started out writing novels. Donnybrook was my third novel. The one before it was more or less rural literature, not nearly as action packed, I pulled the Moon Flispart short stories from it, “Officer Down” and “A Rabbit in the Lettuce Patch.” I started short stories after my second attempt at the novel.
Jason Bovberg: You mentioned two novels before Donnybrook. Did anything come of the first novel you wrote?
Frank Bill: I pulled two stories from that one, too. It’s still sitting on my laptop. And only one other person has read it.
Jason Bovberg: Can you describe the experience of the Donnybrook film adaptation, from the author’s perspective? What kind of involvement did you have, if any? Are you happy with it?
Frank Bill: Everyone was super cool and kind. I had zero say. My script was bought but was not used. I was on set 5 days during the shooting. That was during the release of The Savage. So I got pretty busy. My wife and I basically arrived on set early, had some good food, met the film and set crews. Talked and shook hands. Lot of hardworking folks. Hung out with the producer, fight coordinators, and different folks. It was an interesting time. (Producer) David (Lancaster) and (director) Tim (Sutton) are good folks.
Jason Bovberg: Are you happy with the Donnybrook film? Can you appreciate it on its own terms?
Frank Bill: All I can say is, I wrote the book, not the film. There are elements of the film I like and elements I do not. I appreciate the opportunity to see my book turned into a film. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s all I’m gonna say.
Jason Bovberg: The Savage is a sequel, of sorts, to Donnybrook. It ups the ante, providing what some might call a pessimistic view of America’s near future. Do you share that feeling of pessimism? Was that a product of the book’s time (2016)? Are things even bleaker now to you?
Frank Bill: The Savage is about everything we’ve lost. And what society as a whole has lost, in my point of view. I don’t consider it pessimistic I just believe folks as a whole have lost their roots, of what their parents and grandparents have done and learned to get us to where we are. If anything, we’re morally bankrupt. Van Dorn is a combination of myself and my cousins and the farm and land we grew up on as kids. That’s the entire setting. And it has nothing to do with 2016; I started that novel in 2011, the same time as Back to the Dirt.
Jason Bovberg: How did The Ravaged come about?
Frank Bill: My agent emailed me, asked if I’d be interested in writing a book with Norman. His agent had reached out to her. I said yes, and we were connected. Had a long discussion about his idea and our common interests, and we made it happen.
Jason Bovberg: Can you describe the writing process with Norman Reedus?
Frank Bill: He had three character sketches. I developed them and wrote the story, sending him sample pages for input every 25-50 pages. It was a lot of me texting and emailing him to pick his brain about the biker character that’s based upon him and my cousin who served in Iraq. Then Jack is based upon my uncle and a guy Norman met on a flight. And the train hopper is based upon my niece and Norman’s idea.
Jason Bovberg: So tell me about the genesis of Back to the Dirt.
Frank Bill: Like all of my fiction, this novel comes from where I was born and raised. It is my most autobiographical fiction to date, pulling from my time in the factory, my father’s time as a Marine in Vietnam, trauma to my mother, an explosion I was involved in at the factory, and stories from the folks I’ve worked around within the factory and my infatuation with strength training.
Jason Bovberg: I’m curious about the autobiographical nature of Back to the Dirt. I know you incorporated personal material into The Ravaged, but was there a feeling for Back to the Dirt that you wanted to fully return to your own work?
Frank Bill: I actually wrote the rough draft for Back to the Dirt in 2013. I incorporate personal material into every novel. I write what I know. And what I don’t know I research or interview folks who do. I was preparing for book edits on Back to the Dirt when I got the email about writing The Ravaged. Then COVID-19 hit. So that pushed edits out on Back to the Dirt and I wrote The Ravaged. There’s never a plan not to write my own books.
Jason Bovberg: Did something else precipitate your shift toward stories about yourself and your father?
Frank Bill: Even in Crimes in Southern Indiana, there’s not a story in there that doesn’t come from me and my upbringing. Same with Donnybrook. They’re all personal. I just flip everything upside down. It’s the same with The Savage. Back to the Dirt began with a picture, the photo of my dad holding the grenade launcher, then combining his time in war and my time in the factory. The explosion was real, I lived through it. Pie was a real person. I write what I know.
Jason Bovberg: Back to the Dirt explores the aftermath of a singular act of violence from several perspectives. Was there a point of view you explored that surprised you or took on more vitality than you expected?
Frank Bill: No there wasn’t. The writing isn’t much different than my past works as far as perspective goes. I believe this is by far the most balanced book I’ve written.
Jason Bovberg: What’s on the horizon?
Frank Bill: I’m writing a nonfiction book. Part true-crime/memoir, similar to In Cold Blood or My Dark Places. I’ve turned in the first 122 pages to my agent. We’ll see what happens….