The Word Nerds are happy to have Johnny Shaw with us on the blog today! He’ll be at Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee and today is giving some insight into his characters and his love of pulp novels.
WN: Tell us about Jimmy Veeder and Bobby Maves. What kind of reader is going to enjoy their adventures?
SHAW: Jimmy and Bobby are both farmers in the Imperial Valley of California, right on the Mexican border. Jimmy returned reluctantly after a dozen years traveling the world. Bobby has never really left. They are best friends and absolute trouble magnets. The books are drinky and fighty and fun. There are real stakes, and they are real people, but the trouble is over the top. While there is all the violence that the border can create, I’ve always felt that the strength of the books is the humanity of the characters in the story.
Not that I’m comparing myself to these authors, but if you like Elmore Leonard or Joe R. Lansdale, my books are probably going to be in your wheelhouse.
WN: How has your background growing up in the Calexico/Mexicali area influenced you as a writer?
SHAW: As my first three novels are all set in that part of the country, it obviously had a major impact. It’s a unique place, but I think it took me considerable distance and experience to figure out how to communicate the distinctness of the place.
It’s a farm community. It’s a border town. It’s the desert. Each of those things is familiar to a lot of people, but the combination of all three is very unique to the Imperial Valley. I’ve never been anywhere that comes close to the unique dynamic that combination has created.
My Pop was a sugar beet farmer and I grew up ‘in the country’ (as opposed to ‘in town.’). My closest neighbor was the field-worker bar across the road. If that ain’t the makings for a literary life, I don’t know what is.
WN: What is it that you loved about the old pulp novels that led you to create Blood and Tacos?
SHAW: There’s something about pure entertainment without any pretense. What I call the “ridiculously awesome.” That’s what Blood & Tacos is shooting for. Stories that have decided that they’re not “important.” Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t depth or satire or humanity. It’s just that the desire for relevance isn’t interesting and is kind of silly, but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t relevant.
And while on the surface, the stories deliver on the sex and violence front, they’re usually being written by accomplished writers. Writing quickly, but delivering. The books that influenced Blood & Tacos were often written by very talented writers working for money. Lee Goldberg, Joe Lansdale, Marc Olden, Piers Anthony, Nelson DeMille, and many other authors wrote these books.
I said it in another interview, and I haven’t found a better way to describe the Blood & Tacos approach, so I’m going to repeat myself. Raymond Chandler said, “When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” When it comes to Blood & Tacos, I would say, “When in doubt have an eleven-fingered albino come into the strip joint with a spear gun in his robot hand.” That’s ridiculously awesome.
WN: How has being a screenwriter influenced how you write fiction?
SHAW: When I started writing my first novel, Dove Season, I hadn’t really written much fiction. I hadn’t written a short story since junior high school. But I had been writing for film and stage for over a dozen years.
I knew how to play to my strengths, while at the same time making sure to focus on my inexperience, and making sure it didn’t show through. I was confident in my ability to write dialogue and in story structure, two core elements of screenwriting. I know how to be funny.
I wasn’t confident in description. Description of action, of setting, you name it. So rather than create settings from whole cloth, for example, all the locations are real places. Places I could walk into in my mind’s eye and see every detail clearly. If we were in the Imperial Valley, I could take you on the Dove Season tour.
WN: What’s your favorite word and why?
SHAW: I’m going to cheat and give you two words, because I feel like there are two families of favorite words. A good one-syllable word and a good multi-syllable word. It’s hard to put the two up against each other.
“Pants” is the best short word. It’s the funniest word in the English language, and anyone that says different is wrong. It’s incredible versatile and can be used in a lot of different ways.
“Catawampus” is my favorite longer word. It’s a word I use in my life more than I would like to admit, and it’s just so much fun to say.
WN: What’s next for you as a writer?
SHAW: My new novel Floodgate comes out in February. I’m really excited about this one, as it represents a lot of firsts for me. It’s the first book in a new series. It’s my first book to come out in hardcover. It’s also my first book that’s not set in the desert, but in a city of my own creation, Auction City.
Here’s the back of the jacket copy:
Andy Destra is a mostly honest cop in the most notoriously corrupt and crime-ridden city in America: Auction City. After discovering explosive information that reveals corruption within the highest levels of the police department, Andy is kicked off the force, framed, and disgraced, left to wage a lonely one-man crusade against conspiracies he can’t prove.
Andy’s investigation plunges him into a blackly comic maelstrom of one-armed gang members, slick pickpockets, criminal syndicates, hired mercenaries, escaped convicts, sewer dwellers, and one sinister ice cream truck. At the same time, he must contend with a mystery closer to home: the true identity of his parents, his most unshakeable obsession. Understanding their past may be the key to Auction City’s future as it teeters on the brink of chaos. If Andy can’t solve this case, the Floodgate will fail…and his city will burn.
WN: What book(s) have captured your attention lately?
SHAW: Rather than tell you why, I’m just going to list some of the books that I think everybody should read. Trust me, if you’re looking for a good read, these are great books. THE HARD BOUNCE by Todd Robinson, LOVE AND OTHER WOUNDS by Jordan Harper, BULL MOUNTAIN by Brian Panowich, BLACK GUM by J. David Osborne, GRAVESEND by William Boyle, and A SWOLLEN RED SUN by Matthew McBride. That’s off the top of my head. I love introducing people to new authors.