Monica Adame Davis speaks to “pulp” author Scott Wolven about Roberto Bolaño, Louisiana cooking and the brilliance of HBO programming.
When I was first read Scott Wolven’s work, I knew I had stumbled upon something fresh and so different from other contemporary short stories I have read. In Wolven’s Controlled Burn: Stories of Prison, Crime, and Men, each story was alive with brutal hardship and landscapes that have proved impossible to forget. Upon finishing the collection, I was convinced that I too could properly load a pistol or even feel the monotony of days passing by in a prison cell. Wolven presents Noir to the reader in a form that is highly stylized and leaves us nostalgic for more modern day pulp. I had the pleasure of speaking with Wolven about the past and future of Noir, the inspirations behind his vivid characters and stories, his close relationship with landscapes, and his much-anticipated novel False Hopes.
Monica Adame Davis You have been featured in Best American Mystery Stories seven times in a row, which as Publisher’s Weekly puts it, is twice as often as the next most-often writer Joyce Carol Oates. You are clearly celebrated in the literary world, but remain underground and undiscovered to discerning readers. Do you feel that your success and praise by authors like Richard Ford, George Pelecanos, and Elmore Leonard has been somewhat shrouded because you are primarily known as a writer of short stories?
Scott Wolven I feel lucky to be mentioned in the same paragraph as Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, George Pelecanos, and Elmore Leonard. It was an amazing honor to be included in the Best American Noir Of The Century, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler—the same goes for being included in the Best American Mystery Stories series. Short stories have just always suited me, although I’m trying to get on-track to have a novel come out every one or two years now. My forthcoming novel is titled False Hopes and I’ll have another one, plus some short stories, before the year is out. That might put my stories in the hands of more readers. I have some stories on Kindle, too. I remember a couple of years ago reading something by Gary Fisketjon about what can trigger the “discovery” of a writer who is just a little off the radar for readers—I think my new stories will do that. Move me onto the radar. My aim is to have my new stories keep me in that good company of writers.
MAD Do you ever find yourself thinking about your readers before, during, or after the completion of a story? I often wonder this about writers and how large a role (if any) the reader plays in the creative process. (As readers, we’ll try not to take your answer too personally.)
SW I never think about anyone reading my stuff when I’m writing it. After the work is done, I always hope it will move some reader, somewhere, to emotion of some sort. That’s when the story has done its job—the after-reading wow for the reader, hopefully a wow that continues.
MAD Your stories tend to involve the following: guns, meth labs, prison, alcohol, and harsh weather. They are cleanly written and feel very honest. Can you describe what inspires your characters and story lines?
SW I generally write about people in difficult circumstances. I’m always trying to tell the best story I can—not only through the writing, but through the story itself. I think John Edgar Wideman said it best when he talked about the writer creating fiction/facts. Life can be so full of hardship—all anybody has to do is look around a little and it’s more research than any story can handle. Hemingway used to make readers feel as if they were at the bullfight or horse race. I want to put readers into the difficult circumstances of my characters. Maybe these things—guns, meth labs, prison, alcohol, harsh weather—are my bullfights. And I want the reader in the front row, to have blood splatter on their shirt. My characters rarely have it easy.
All types of things inspire me. The poetry of my colleague Tim Seibles. My brother Will is a terrific artist (and chef)—his stuff always inspires me. My friend Marko Shuhan is a great artist, always inspiring. Some stuff written by Roberto Bolaño as well. Just the everyday world as seen through my eyes.
MAD I think it is difficult to read Roberto Bolaño and not feel inspired. When I first read Bolaño’s short stories, I noticed that they ended on a note similar to yours. They often end right end before the trigger is pulled—whatever is coming is left to the imagination. As a reader, I truly enjoy these endings because I feel they allow for more of my participation and make a story feel more alive. What is your motivation behind ending your stories in this way? Or, is it even a conscious choice?
SW Roberto Bolaño certainly knew how to write fantastic stories. I don’t think my endings are a conscious choice. I know that in short stories, I generally want that feeling of a story being alive, so I don’t want to stop it at the end. As you said, it allows the reader to think, But what if this or that had happened? and to imagine the story continuing.
MAD As an editor of the literary review, The New Guard, you established the column Writers to Writers: Fan Letters to the Dead, where you submit a letter to Jim Thompson asking him to write a new masterpiece and provide him with a new typewriter and booze. Can you describe your relationship with pulp fiction of the past and describe how it has influenced your present?
SW The New Guard is a great literary review. Shanna McNair is the Founding Editor and a fine writer herself and she’s got a spark of genius. We discussed ideas that would stand the literary test of time and settled on the Letters section, which proved very popular.
It was serious fun to write to Jim Thompson. He’s a favorite of mine. That was one of the most amazing things about being in Best American Noir Of The Century—being in the same table of contents as Jim Thompson, among others. As for pulp, I think Anthony Neil Smith at Plots With Guns has his finger on the pulse of contemporary pulp in a big way. On stories from the past, Charlie Stella and I have had long conversations about George Higgins. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a classic. And Crime Factory is keeping solid crime stories going. I’m in an anthology from them, published by New Pulp Press, which is coming out soon.
MAD Were you already writing when you discovered Jim Thompson? What in particular do you appreciate about his work? And to reverse the question I asked you earlier, do you often write with other writers in mind?
SW I was already writing when I first read Jim Thompson. He manages great dialogue, tough characters in tough spots that generally get worse—he makes it look easy, but it is oh so hard to imitate or duplicate.
I don’t write with other writers in mind. In fact, I try not to read anything when I’m writing.
MAD Your stories always seem firmly grounded in their locations: New Orleans, Idaho, Nevado, upstate New York. Do you travel a lot to familiarize yourself with these locations or are these locations based more on how you imagine them to be?
SW Those are places I’ve lived. I enjoy stories that are strongly rooted in a location—having lived and worked in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina, HBO’s Treme comes to mind right away—terrific series! I’m a huge fan of the show. David Simon and his team are doing a fantastic job of getting it right. He should call me—I’d work for po-boys and cold Abita.
I teach in Maine, at the Stonecoast MFA Program from the University of Southern Maine, so maybe there will be more stories set in Maine soon.
MAD If David Simon agrees to the po-boys and Abita, don’t forget to send some our way. We are a bit starved for good Southern food in New York City or perhaps as a Southerner I refuse to pay the premium. I could go on about this for days . . .
HBO has put out some amazing shows. Did you watch The Wire?
SW Let’s just stay in the Quarter. We start at Café Fleur De Lis for breakfast, it’s Johnny’s Po-boys for lunch, and ciopinno at the Pelican Club for dinner. In between, we’d have to hit Cochon and Herb Saint and maybe Acme for oysters—don’t get me started.
The Wire was outstanding, truly, and I exchange an email with George Pelecanos every once in a while about Treme. I think they have a team that is delivering some of the best television writing out there. George does it in his books as well. It’s artful—both The Wire and Treme. I’ve always been a big Anthony Bourdain fan, and to see him make those restaurant scenes come alive—that’s impressive. To me, both The Wire and Treme will have a far-reaching and lasting impact—the stories and the way they’re telling them exceed the rest of what’s on the small screen.
MAD When I purchased your book Controlled Burn, I noticed that there are two editions available to purchase. There is an American edition and a French edition entitled, La Vie en Flammes. I do not speak French, but I remember wishing for a moment that I did, because the cover is so stunning. Who took this photograph and why do you feel it is appropriate for your short stories?
SW The French edition cover photo comes from Bruce Davidson, the American photographer who has had a long association with Magnum Photos. I was very pleased that it was chosen for the cover.That particular picture comes from a series by Davidson titled 1959 Brooklyn Gang. I was very fortunate to be published in France by Albin Michel with a terrific editor Francis Geffard and wonderful translator Cecile Deniard. In Fall 2010, one of my stories was featured (along with three other authors) in Vintage America, a collection of photographs by Patricia De Gorostarzu. This edition was released in conjunction with Festival America, the annual literary and cultural event run by Francis Geffard.
Critical reception of the book in France was tremendous. I don’t speak French either, so I felt particularly lucky to have so many French readers. My work has also been translated into Spanish and Japanese and of course, the Best American Mystery Stories has a worldwide readership, in a wide-range of languages.
MAD Have you ever checked out the work of Enrique Metinendes? His work seems appropriate for a crime book, because his work is of actual crime scenes. I read about his work in the New York Times in 2006 and it is abysmally dark, but I have to admit that these scenes are photographed well.
SW Enrique Metinendes is a dark inspiration. We need someone there, to record it. As I said earlier, just look around a little and life will provide more than any story could ever handle.
MAD I know you are working on your first novel. Can you please describe what this process is like for you in comparison to writing a collection of short stories? And will the recurring characters Art, Jim, Greg, and John be making an appearance?
SW If a short story is the sports car, the novel is the muscle car. Big engine, lots of long speed. Doesn’t care how much fuel it burns. A novel allows for more room, more digression. John and Greg, my two private investigators from Idaho, are featured in False Hopes. There are other recurring characters as well. I think it will make for a good reading ride.
Monica Adame Davis is a freelance project editor, photo researcher, and writer living in New York City.