Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Interview—Tom Piccirilli

I’ve been a long time admirer of Tom Piccirilli. His narrative voice is one of the most stylized and fearless of the current batch of neo-noir novelists. I was recently fortunate enough to steal away some of Piccirilli's precious writing time to talk about his most recent releases (the brilliant Every Shallow Cut and his collaboration with Ed Gorman, Cast In Dark Waters.) as well as his experiences in e-publishing and his upcoming hardcover release from Bantam THE LAST KIND WORDS.

I hope you enjoy

Keith Rawson: Over the last year you've focused intensely on the current economic state of the U.S. How much has the down turn in the economy affected you and your community?

Tom Piccirilli: I have focused on economic woes in some recent short fiction and my noirella EVERY SHALLOW CUT especially, because finances have been tight here and growing ever tighter for the past year. My wife has a heart attack in early ‘10, and though I thank her doctors daily that she's made a full recovery, the hospital bills continue to pour in. Being one of those millions of Americans without health insurance, we've been brought to the brink of ruin by our debts. Being a nervous, tense, worrisome soul even at the best of times, I'm all that to the nth power now. And though it helps to make for some deep dark noir, it hardly sends me to sleep with dancing sugar plums in my head. At least two of our neighbors have been foreclosed on and it's a real possibility that me or anyone else can get crushed beneath our mortgages and wind up back in Ma's basement or out on the streets. Write what you know, and at the moment I know stark terror pretty well inside out.

Keith Rawson: 2010, I think, has been the first year in close to a decade where you didn't have a full length novel appear, what's the reason for this?

Tom Piccirilli: My next novel for Bantam THE LAST KIND WORDS has been trekking on a long and bizarre road. As anyone who's paying attention knows, the publishing world is in a bit of disarray now. Random House, the parent company of Bantam, came in and restructured the whole place among layoffs and a culling of the book lines. Somewhere in there, though, the good folks at the house decided to push me out of mass market paperback originals and shove me up to hardback with a nice big publicity push. We've already got blurbs from the likes of Lee Child, Daniel Woodrell, Nancy Pickard, and a number of other generous, first-rate folks. However, Bantam has decided the best time to release the book is in summer, and since they couldn't quite make it for summer of ‘11, the novel is now currently slated for summer ‘12.

Keith Rawson: Is this your first time publishing in hardback and why did Bantam decide to with your next full length release as a hardback?

Tom Piccirilli: It's my first time in hardback from a major publisher. I've had tons of small press limited edition hardcovers, but this is the first novel from a NYC publisher the size of Bantam. Apparently they've got great faith that the book has some kind of mainstream appeal and might actually sell copies. It's the story of a former thief who returns to his criminal family shortly before his brother is to be executed after going on a killing spree. The brother claims that he did go on a rampage, but that one of the murders attested to him he didn't commit. So my protagonist is drawn into this bizarre mystery, helping a brother he hates, forced to face people and events from his past that he doesn't want to face.

Keith Rawson: EVERY SHALLOW CUT is a bit of a departure for you. It's dark but doesn't really stick to any particular genre. What's the novella about and where did the idea for the story come from?

Tom Piccirilli: It's the story of a homeless writer who's lost his house and wife amidst the economic downturn, who is finally pushed to the point of violence. He buys a gun and goes on a cross-country trek with his bulldog to see his older brother. Along the way he relives his past, his highs and lows, his busted dreams, and his failures, while trying to make sense of his own downfall. It's kind of a meta-fiction, with a lot of autobiographical realistic emotions focusing on a lot of raw honest stuff, most of which has never really happened. It might be a departure for me because it's not a horror or crime tale, but is dark as hell, and in some regards possibly my darkest story ever. And anyone even remotely familiar with my work can see that it shares certain themes with my other noir fiction.

Keith Rawson: You also recently released a collaborative piece with Ed Gorman--Cast In Dark Waters. Is this an e-book original or was is it previously published? Also could you give a brief summary of the book?

Tom Piccirilli: It was originally released as a limited edition hardcover as part of Cemetery Dance's Novella series. It's our homage to the old pulp magazines and such writers as Robert E. Howard, Kenneth Robeson, and Maxwell Grant. It follows the story of Lady Crimson, a female pirate captain who rules her crew with an iron fist and sails in search of treasure to a distant island where vampiric-like beings haunt the tropical waters and jungles. Going ashore she finds a fabled temple with a thousand stone stairs and is forced to outwit and battle a tribe of monstrous creatures as well as various undead former friends and lovers.

Keith Rawson: Was Cast In Dark Waters your first collaborative novel? And would you ever consider another collaboration?

Tom Piccirilli: It's the first collaborative piece I ever did. I've also co-written a short horror story with Ken Bruen. But I'm a complete control freak. I can only collaborate in a certain fashion, which is how I came to do these two pieces. Both of my collaborators got to a certain point in the story and then turned it over to me to do whatever I pleased. They never rewrote me and didn't mind if I rewrote them. Unless I have that kind of control, I just can't co-write with anyone else. I don't play well with other children in the sandbox.

Keith Rawson: Inevitably, I'm going to have to ask you about e-books and the e-publishing process. First, which do you prefer, traditional publishing or e-publishing and what are the up downsides of both for you?

Tom Piccirilli: If I was one of those cats who's selling 500 units a day, or even a week, and keeping 90% of the cash, I'd definitely be a big proponent of e-publishing. But at this point, for me, it's just a little extra gravy a month. Financially and career-wise it has not replaced traditional publishing in my life, although it is a terrific supplement. I can bring out-of-print books back into print with only a modicum of expense, I can do original novels or novellas or collections that don't seem right for the traditional presses for one reason or another, and I can toy with prices or do monthly sales or any other damn thing I feel like doing. E-book publishing is having total control of the material. Traditional publishing, though, still offers me advances, an editor, a physical book, sales from brick and mortar bookstores, a team of folks dedicated to promoting foreign sales, some advertising, etc.

Keith Rawson: Will you be re-publishing the horror tittles you wrote for Dorchester (Leisure Books) or is the publisher still in control of the copyright? And what was your take on Brian Keene's current situation?

Tom Piccirilli: I own all the rights to my work. I'll probably be reprinting some of the books in the future. Right now I'm more focused on my crime fiction and getting that out in front of my readers. I'm glad that Brian was willing to go to the mattresses to get Leisure to return his rights to him. Few writers are willing to draw a line in the sand and refuse to let the publishers cross it. Whether it's because of lethargy, inertia, or fear, too often authors are taken advantage of by corporate forces.

Keith Rawson: You came into publishing at the tail end of the horror boom of the 80's, what's changed the most in publishing since then and what would you change back if you were in control of the industry?

Tom Piccirilli: Well, since then just about everything has changed. Less bookstores, less copies of books in stores, less love of genre fiction, it seems. You used to be able to put "horror" on the spine of a book back in the 80s, not so anymore. There's so many biases and worries and emphasis on mega-sellers rather than mid-list. The mid-list is effectively gone, the paperback scene is going. If I could change anything it would be that publishers spread the love around, try to build up entire careers rather than selling single books or series. Push the authors, push literature as a whole rather than the flavor of the hour, keep the people who love books in business, because without them, there is no business.

Keith Rawson: What's been your proudest moment as a novelist and what's been your most difficult?

Tom Piccirilli: I've been in this game over 20 years, and it's never been easy. Writing is a gut-wrenching process and publishing can be even worse. My proudest moment is the fact that I'm still alive after being kicked in the head by every boot in the biz imaginable.

Keith Rawson: Do you ever see yourself returning to writing novel length horror or has the voice disappeared?

Tom Piccirilli:The voice is there but the desire is gone for the time being. Maybe the wheel will turn again somewhere along the way.

Keith Rawson: Not to be too invasive, but what are you currently working on? And other than THE LAST KIND WORDS what else can we expect?

Tom Piccirilli: LKW has been pushed back to '12 but I'm currently working on the sequel THE LAST WHISPER IN THE DARK. Besides that, there's always some noirellas and short stories in the pipeline, but it's a bit too early to discuss them at the moment.


  1. Great interview, Keith. Longtime admirer of Tom's writing. Breaks my heart to read about his struggles and I'm hoping Last Kind Words is the big breakout bestseller it deserves to be.

  2. I'll second that. I've been a fan since I read the Night Shade Books edition of A Choir of Ill Children.

  3. I'll third what Peter said above. The guy has such a distinctive writing voice, it's hard to imagine THE LAST KIND WORDS not being a huge success with a push from a major publisher. Piccirilli's writing is dark but beautiful and real...