CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF THE PINE BARRENS with Jen Conley

I've gotten to know Jen Conley over the past few years through conventions and working alongside her at Shotgun Honey, and as a big fan of her work, I'm very excited to see her debut collection, CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF THE PINE BARRENS, hitting shelves this May. It was a pleasure catching up with Jen and discussing the book. Check out the pre-order via the stellar cover image below. Jen Conley_Can

Chris: You are well known in the short crime fiction world, but for those who don't know, who is Jen Conley and what's CANNIBALS all about?

Jen: I write crime fiction, usually peppered with a bit of horror. Most of my fiction takes place in the Ocean County area of New Jersey, where I grew up and still live. For a few years I’ve been one of the editors of Shotgun Honey, a flash fiction site that publishes crime fiction. In my other life, I have a fourteen-year-old son and I teach seventh grade Literacy, otherwise known as English.

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Chris: Many of your stories are set in or around the Pine Barrens. I don't know too much about New Jersey and its geography, but I found this setting to be fascinating. Can you talk a bit about it? What draws you to it? What does it mean to you?

Jen: The Pine Barrens is a large region of forested land in central and southern New Jersey. Because of the sandy soil, or “sugar sand”, it wasn’t great for farming so it’s been pretty much been left undisturbed. It became protected land in 1978 under the Pinelands National Reserve, which also protects the watershed areas. (Although, sadly, a gas line was just approved to run through part of it.) Anyhow, in the 1700s and 1800s, there was some industry--sawmills and iron--but it was a difficult place to live, so towns would pop up and go abandoned. Today, it’s the largest body of protected area in the mid-Atlantic states. The trees are scrub pines, which are pygmy pines, and that, with the sugar sand and the lack of development, give the area a ghostly, desolate feel. Especially at night, when you can hear all sorts of wildlife--several types of frogs, toads, insects, owls. It’s really a great place to visit, just bring your bug spray. The mosquitoes and pine flies, especially the pine flies, are downright relentless. Those things hurt.

I guess I’m drawn to it because of the spookiness--lots of “ghost” towns of abandoned settlements. This area used to have a pretty strong iron industry until it moved to western Pennsylvania, so, like I said, it’s pretty desolate. I’m also attracted to the drabness, too, because it’s not pretty forest at all, but it makes for a wonderful setting for crime fiction. The people who live in this area are usually not wealthy, it’s pretty middle class and working-class, and for someone who likes to write about ghosts and working-class people, it’s perfect for me. Plus, it’s where I grew up, so I tend to be sentimental even if it doesn’t come completely across in my stories.

Oh, one more thing--the famous Sopranos episode, “The Pine Barrens,” that wasn’t filmed in the Pine Barrens. It was filmed in upstate New York. It’s a fantastic episode but the first time I saw it, I was really pissed. I could tell it wasn’t filmed in the Pinelands because the trees were wrong, and when the camera panned out, there were large hills in the background. There are no large hills in the Pine Barrens. It’s mostly flat.

Chris: Your stories featuring your character Officer Vogel are some of my favorites. In the past we've talked about you doing more with her. Any plans?

Jen: I’d like to because I love her character but I don’t have any definite plans yet. She’s a very reticent person, compassionate on the inside, but cold and tough on the outside. It’s a good mix for a character of a crime novel but I need a plot and I haven’t wrapped my head around an idea yet. I’m working on it.

Chris: I love how you tackle trust/mistrust in your stories featuring Vogel, and even more so in "Pipe" and "June." What draws you to these stories?

Jen: I’m a big fan the theme of betrayal. I guess that’s why I love The Godfather I and II, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos. Even my all-time favorite, Mad Men, works on this theme because Don Draper spends his entire adult life betraying himself.

But in both “Pipe” and “June,” we’re dealing with kids, kids who are betrayed by adults. There is another level of tragedy in that and I think it breaks my heart--I like to write stories that break my heart on some level, even if I’m ending it on an upswing. I also like writing about kids but I’m aware that creating sympathy for them is an easy gig, because everyone feels bad for a kid in trouble. So I have to tone down my kid story ideas, not write so many.

Chris: Talk about the process of forming the collection, the selection of stories, etc. Any must-haves? Anything not make the cut?

Jen: It took me a long time to put a collection together. I tried before but I found I was writing stories to fill the collection and they weren’t all up to par, so it’s almost as if I had to wait until they all came to me. Until I was happy with each and every single one.

As for selecting stories, I wanted to pick the stories that actually took place in the area I was writing about. I have stories that take place in London, in New York City too, and those didn’t make the cut because they didn’t take place in Ocean County, NJ, which is part of the collection’s signature. In addition, some of my Pine Barrens stories didn’t make the cut because their themes were too close to something I’d already chosen.

I also made a point to bookend the collection with two stories: “Home Invasion” and “Angels.” In my first story, “Home Invasion,” the main character is haunted by a devil. In the last story, “Angels,” the main character is haunted by angels. So those two were definite picks. I suppose I was going for the classic ying/yang idea.

Chris: "Pipe" might be my favorite of the collection. How did this story come about?

Jen: Back when I was in high school, there was a small skinny kid who was bullied by some of the older boys. One of the older boys told the kid he was going to beat the shit out of him the following day. So the kid came to school with a pipe and hid out in the bathroom. I think he was caught before anything went down. I don’t remember much else about the incident, none of the names, etc., which is good because then I could write the story as fiction. Yes, there was a movie from ‘87 called “Three O’Clock High” with a similar premise, but that was comedy, and bad comedy at that because it wasn’t a good film. The real story from my school was very sad, and this sad, desperate image of going to school with a pipe to defend yourself against boys who were the size of fully-grown men just hung out in my head for years.

Chris: "Home Invasion" is another favorite, in which I get a strong "A Good Man is Hard to Find" vibe. Who/what do you see as your influences?

Jen: Definitely Flannery O’Connor. That has to be one of the best stories ever written, by the way.

I’m a big fan of the short stories by Annie Proulx. I also love the short stories by Edward P. Jones and Ron Rash. I think those three writers are my biggest influences, none of which are actually “crime” but there’s a sense of place and people who struggle constantly, which is what crime fiction should encompass, or at least, I think so.

But as for writers, or collections of stories that made an impression on me when I was young, I’d have to say the stories by Langston Hughes. One of my college professors had us read them and I remember I enjoyed the tales everyday people just trying to get by but more so, I was influenced by his style. His characters jump off the page, as do his descriptions. But his descriptions aren’t overblown, just very simple. One sentence and you can see everything. That’s what I like.

One collection that has stayed with me over the years is Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. She’s a beautiful writer but boy, does she hit you in the gut and that collection is relentless. I haven’t read everything she’s written although I read Veronica a few years ago. It’s gorgeously written (and I took some notes on her style) but that book depressed me for weeks. Hell, I think it stayed on my mind for almost a year. There are so many painfully beautiful images on those pages that to this day are forever planted in my brain. But the bottom line is that I was bugged out by that book. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Maybe I’m just impressed by her power and as a writer, that’s a bar I’d like to reach.

One other thing--although I love my mob movies and TV shows, I’m not a fan of too much blood. I like stories about people’s lives, about what’s going on inside and around them, about how they got to the violence. Not so much the violence itself.

Chris: How has your work with Shotgun Honey influenced your writing?

Jen: I think so. Not everything that comes through the submissions process is successful and I think that’s what really hits home with me--sometimes I’ll read a story and start reworking it in my head and then I realize I can’t do that for every writer. What Shotgun Honey has also taught me is draw it tight. One or two scenes, one to three characters, one problem. And because we only accept 700 words per story, it’s very, very important to make sure every single word counts. Leave out the backstory--and I love backstory-- but you can’t do that in flash. So your backstory has to be a sentence or two and then your character in action has to show the rest.

Chris: Any plans for a book launch or readings around release this year?

Jen: June 3rd, I’m having a book event at Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. Hopefully I’ll have more events. I’m new at this promotional stuff.

Chris: What's next?

Jen: I’ve decided to take a break from short stories. They’re my great love but I’m never going to get anywhere if I just write short stories. So I’m working on a thriller/horror book. It’s about a woman who gets involved with a bad guy--I know that’s vague--but she’s in transitional point in her life, she’s restless and also desperate to have a family, and he’s good-looking, cool, and all that good stuff. It’s got a horror touch so there’s more to it but I guess I’m going for a thread of reality--what happens when you land a guy who seems perfect for you, accepts you as you are (my main character has some horrible scars from a dog attack) but as the relationship evolves, he becomes darker, almost abusive, then abusive, and you have come to the realization that you have extricate yourself from it all. Of course, it takes place in Ocean County and I’ve got the “first draft” written but I’m in the process of slowly and methodically going through each chapter, rearranging, cutting, expanding, rewriting. My writing MO is this: blow through the first draft, then go back and do the “decorating” as I like to call it. This method works for me only because of computers--you never really have to write new drafts, do you? You just improve on the first. I have no idea how anyone wrote in the old days, before computers, before you could cut and paste and then cut and rewrite… what a pain in the neck.

Thanks for having me Chris! It’s been a lot of fun.

April/May Noir Catch-All

It's been a busy couple of months! Between travel and scribbling away furiously as deadlines approach, the blog has taken a backseat. Here's a short recap: Noir at the Bar Crew[Left to Right - Dale Phillips, Connie Johnson Hambley, Errick Nunnally, Chris Irvin, Tony McMillen, Bracken MacLeod, Mike Miner, Stona Fitch, Patrick Shawn Bagley]

Noir at the Bar Boston II was a great success. Nine authors read some stellar fiction in front of a big crowd. Beers were drank, books were raffled, good times were had. Here's a recap courtesy of Dale Phillips. Stay tuned for news on the next event - June 15th, 6-8pm at Trident Booksellers & Cafe.

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Speaking of fun, Independent Bookstore Day at Papercuts J.P. was a blast. Paul Tremblay and I read some of our favorite fiction by other writers that has inspired us (Shirley Jackson, Nathan Ballingrud) and had a great chat about crime and horror. Be sure to snag Paul's A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS when it drops in June!

Here's a shot Paul took of me talking to myself...err...my doing my thing..

Papercuts

Essay

Write The Individual - a short bit on me writing from a female first person POV, the Andrew Smith debacle and advice from Kelly Sue DeConnick.

Interviews

Terribleminds: Five Things I Learned Writing BURN CARDS

One Bite at a Time - Twenty Questions

Chatteriffic

Reviews

My Bookish Ways: Read This

Bracken MacLeod - I like my Noir dark, thank you very much!

Just A Guy That Likes To Read

Chris Dikes - Despair runs deep...

Goodreads

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Locked and Loaded: Both Barrels 3

The third volume from Shotgun Honey is out! This baby was a ton of work and took a couple of delays to come together, but I'm proud of how it turned out. Give it a look - there is some fantastic stuff within.

Featuring 25 stories of crime:

“A Boy Like Billy” by Patricia Abbott “Border Crossing” by Michael McGlade “Looking for the Death Trick” by Bracken MacLeod “Maybelle’s Last Stand” by Travis Richardson “Predators” by Marie S. Crosswell “Twenty to Life” by Frank Byrns “So Much Love” by Keith Rawson “Running Late” by Tess Makovesky “Last Supper” by Katanie Duarte “Danny” by Michael Bracken “The Plot” by Jedidiah Ayres “What Alva Wants” by Timothy Friend “Time Enough to Kill” by Kent Gowran “Copas” by Hector Acosta “Yellow Car Punch” by Nigel Bird “Love at First Fight” by Angel Luis Colón “Traps” by Owen Laukkanen “Down the Rickety Stairs” by Alan Orloff “Blackmailer’s Pep Talk” by Chris Rhatigan “With a Little bit of Luck” by Bill Baber “As Cute as a Speckled Pup Under a Red Wagon” by Tony Conaway “Chipping off the Old Block” by Nick Kolakowski “Young Turks and Old Wives” by Shane Simmons “The Hangover Cure” by Seth Lynch “Highway Six” by John L. Thompson

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Bouchercon!

It's official - I'll be crashing Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, NC come October. AND my buddy Joe Clifford is up for TWO Anthony Awards - LAMENTATION (Best Novel) and TROUBLE IN THE HEARTLAND (Best Anthology or Collection) - the latter of which is extra-awesome as it features my story, "Death to My Hometown." Hope you see you there.

Until next time...thank you to everyone for your support of BURN CARDS. Can't wait to announce what's coming next.

BURNCARDS

 

 

Friday Listen - CRIMINAL WORDS

Sure, you've got your Friday Read, but how 'bout a Friday Listen?

criminalwords4Enter Erik Arneson and Scott Detrow with CRIMINAL WORDS, an audiobook full of crime fiction short stories — written by the likes of Joe Clifford, Jen Conley, David Cranmer (writing as Edward A. Grainger), Chris Holm, Erik Arneson, Tom Pitts, Steve Weddle, and me [woo!].

Download away [for free!] HERE. You've earned it.

Needle Magazine - Spring 2014

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The latest issue of NEEDLE: A Magazine of Noir is now available. Featuring crime fiction from some of the best -- Heath Lowrance, Rob W. Hart, Patti Abbott, Taylor Brown, Jen Conley, Stephen D. Rogers, Court Merrigan, Sandra Seamans, Trent England, Christopher Irvin, William Boyle, William Dylan Powell, and Tom Joyce. Cover art by Scott Morse.

My story, "Union Man," is my favorite story that I've written. It's a story I wrote when my son was around ten months old - a story I'm not sure I could have written without the experience of being a father. I had the chance to read a short snippet last November at the Noir at the Bar 'panel' at Bouchercon.

I hope you'll pick up a copy - not only for my story, but for the powerhouse lineup featured in this issue. It's guaranteed to be a knock out.

NEEDLE: A Magazine of Noir - Spring 2014 (LuLu Marketplace)

Interview with Terrence McCauley

Most of you who visit this site know I do a little 'book a week' post each month to review/promote writers and their work. For a few months I've had plans to follow up some of those reviews with author interviews. Alas, life got busy (as it tends to do) but here we are (better late than never) kicking it off with SLOW BURN crime/pulp author TERRENCE MCCAULEY.

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Winner of the 2013 Stalker Award for most Criminally Underrated Author, McCauley is the author of two novels,  PROHIBITION and SLOW BURN, as well as numerous short stories in THUGLIT, THE CRIMSON MASK, NOIR NATION, ATOMIC NOIR, THE KENNEDY CURSE, THE BIG ADIOS, and SHOTGUN HONEY, among others. He also is an editor for the FIGHT CARD series and GRAND CENTRAL NOIR, a charity anthology.

Prohibition     Grand Central Noir     Slow Burn

What kinds of fiction did you read growing up? What grabbed you and still sticks with you today?

Growing up in the 80s (I'll be 40 in February), I actually hated to read. I was more of a movie/tv kid. I'd fall asleep trying to read, even if it was necessary for school work. But I was fortunate enough to come from a family of story tellers, so I was surrounded by plot development and characters, though I didn't even know it at the time.

In high school, I had to read THE SHINING and my love of reading grew from there. I gravitated to action books like CATHEDRAL by Nelson DeMille and epics like TAI PAN by James Clavell. TAI PAN was the first book that made me want to take a shot at writing a story on my own. It took a while for me to actually do it, but the seed was planted.

As for the genres I read now, I'm all over the place. I read westerns, spy thrillers, pulp stuff and even zombie novels. I try not to get stale with my writing or my reading.

Much of your writing takes place in the 1920's and 30's. What about this time period keeps bringing you back?

I enjoy writing about the 1920s and 1930s because it's a simpler time in which to tell a crime story. I can focus on telling a story without worrying about describing modern crime techniques and technology. All of that is important and can lead to great stories, it's just not the kind of story I want to tell. I enjoy writing about that period of American history following the horrors of World War 1; a war we've unfortunately forgotten about in part because there isn't as much footage available about it as World War 2 and subsequent wars. World War 1 is also a very difficult war whose origins are difficult to understand. That war deeply affected the psyche of an entire generation of people throughout the world. I'm not talking about the supposed Lost Generation like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and others. They were drunks and flakes and bullies looking for an excuse to get drunk and would've found it even in the best of times. I'm talking about the regular people who came back from the war or lived through it here at home and had to rebuild their lives. The impact of the war and the resulting economic boom led to a dynamic time - Prohibition, The Roaring 20's (in spite of Prohibition) and The Great Depression. The era is filled with interesting characters in turmoil which makes for a great dramatic setting.

What do you think makes for compelling noir?

To me, compelling noir is bad things happening to imperfect people. Compelling noir also avoids stereotypes, like the alcoholic, haunted detective. The smoldering bombshell client with trouble in her heart and sin on her mind. The tough, but beautiful government agent. I roll my eyes when I read descriptions of stories like that and tend to buy something else. Of course, the protagonist has to be wronged in some way, otherwise their wouldn't be a story. But the characters themselves can be different and free from old time plot devices that may have worked decades ago, but have become somewhat clichéd now.

As we are nearing the holidays - What are some of your favorite books and short stories from 2013 that you recommend readers check out?

The best thing about being a noir/pulp writer right now, there are so many talented people working out there today - both in the long and short forms. Long form you've got Johnny Shaw's BIG MARIA  and Todd Robinson's THE HARD BOUNCE and Dana King's GRIND JOINT are all winners. Les Edgerton's THE RAPIST is a hard book to read because of the subject matter, but it's still a hell of a tale. Tim O'Mara's CROOKED NUMBERS and Charles Salzberg's DEVIL IN THE HOLE are both great.

As for the short form, damned near anything featured in THUGLIT or SHOTGUN HONEY/BOTH BARRELS are always good places to look for fiction. Stories by you [editor's note: yes... there were bribes involved], Nik Korpon, Jen Conley and Richie Narvaez are examples of some of the finest fiction in the genre. In my opinion, this is a great time to be a crime fiction writer, but an even better time to be a crime fiction reader.

Speaking of short fiction, I'd also ask everyone to take a look at GRAND CENTRAL NOIR, an anthology I edited where every single dime goes straight to a wonderful charity here in NYC called 'God's Love, We Deliver'. It's great fiction for a great cause.

Thanks, Terrence!

a book a week 1.6

Post-Bouchercon review time. A lot of new friends and a few recommendations later, I'm swamped with more books on my plate than ever before. But how can I complain? It only gets better and better. On to the reviews!

Bar Scars

Bar Scars by Nik Korpon

Nik Korpon was one of the usual suspects in the small group I toured with most of the time around the Bouchercon campus. A very cool guy and a fantastic writer. I had a great time talking everything from Baltimore to Pigeon books with him (parents with small children...it happens). So it was cool to see that his short story collection, BAR SCARS, was set in Baltimore.

This collection is DARK. One of my favorite kind of books - that I enjoy even more by putting down after a couple of stories and letting them soak in, rather than reading straight through. My favorite story was "A Sparrow with White Scars," followed by "His Footsteps are Made of Soot," and "Haymaker." Heartbreaking stuff and awesome prose.

Happy to be sharing a ToC with Nik in the newly release NOIR NATION #3.

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Under the Dixie Moon by Ro Cuzon

Ro Cuzon was another cool cat in the small crew I rolled around with at Bouchercon. I was sold the moment another writer deemed UNDER THE DIXIE MOON to be like the television show, THE WIRE, only set in New Orleans. Like some of my favorite books, the setting, New Orleans, plays a huge role in UNDER THE DIXIE MOON - almost a character itself. It took me a few pages to get into the novel, but once I was in tune with Cuzon's style, I was hooked to the finish. Cuzon weaves a gritty, complex tale with compelling characters that I found myself liking more and more as I got to know them (even those 'unlikeable' ones). Solid Noir.

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Blade of Dishonor by Thomas Pluck

Action-packed, pulpy goodness! I met Tom only a couple of times in passing and he's one of several writers I wish I had more time with. I'd been meaning to buy BLADE OF DISHONOR all weekend and as luck would have it, I won it by answering one of Todd Robinson's THUGLIT questions correctly at the "Noir at the Bar" panel. BLADE OF DISHONOR was a lot of fun and you can tell the amount of passion and research that Pluck put into it, especially for the WWII storyline. In a way, this book is like getting two stories for the price of one; the story of Butch, the main character's father, could stand on it's own as an excellent book, and while I enjoyed Rage Cage Reeve's storyline, I found myself looking forward to the next installment of WWII action with each passing chapter. Looking forward to more pulp from Pluck.

Drift

Drift by Jon McGoran

DRIFT had been on my 'to read' list since it was released and received praise from several of my friends. In another case of "wish I had read it before I met the author" (of which I appear to have a chronic condition), I had the great pleasure of hearing McGoran read at the "Noir at the Bar" panel (a great back and forth between the main character, Doyle Carrick, and his partner) and chatting with him again, later that night.

I found DRIFT (an excellent and very appropriate title, by the way...) to be compelling and entertaining on a number of fronts, not the least of which was centering the mystery around GMOs. McGoran successfully instructed me on a foreign subject matter without slowing the pace of the story and/or dumping paragraphs of information. I loved the small town setting and the suspended/powerless cop vs. Sheriff struggle early on, and the transformation of their relationship. Tightly paced, great characters and a fascinating mystery. I'm looking forward to McGoran's next book, the sequel to DRIFT, entitled, DEADOUT, coming summer 2014.

NEXT FROM BOUCHERCON: Looking forward to Johnny Shaw's BIG MARIA, Joe R. Lansdale's THE THICKET, and Ed Kurtz's BLEED.

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Shotgun Honey!

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It goes without saying that one of the best moments of Bouchercon 2013 was getting the Shotgun Honey crew together in person for the first time. Jen, Erik and Ron are wonderful people, and I'm more proud than ever to be in their company.

Not only are they wonderful people, but they produce some excellent fiction as well. Check out their latest works (several of which are available online for free) at the links below:

Ron Earl Phillips - "The Last Shot" (5 Broken Winchesters)

Jen Conley - "Mary Mulligan" (Grand Central Noir), "Kick" (Literary Orphans), "Howling" (Beat to a Pulp), AND her story, "Finn's Missing Sister" (NEEDLE) was shortlisted for BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2013!

Erik Arneson - "Noose of Trust" (GRIFT), "Oh Well" (Flash Fiction Offensive), "All Alone" (RELOADED)

RELOADED!

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RELOADED BOTH BARRELS Vol 2 is out and boy is she a beaut! Available in both paperback and e-book, but with gorgeous front/back cover art from the talented Joe DellaGatta, this is a book you'll want to have on your shelf. RELOADED was a blast to work on, and I hope you all enjoy it. Hats off to fellow editors Ron Earl Phillips and Jen Conley, and a HUGE thank you to all the contributors.

SHOTGUN HONEY, the premier crime and noir flash fiction website, is locked and RELOADED with 25 new stories by some of the best authors in the world. Featuring work from Patti Abbott, Hector Acosta, Erik Arneson, Cheri Ause, Trey R. Barker, Eric Beetner, Terence Butler, Joe Clifford, Garnett Elliott, Rob W. Hart, Andy Henion, John Kenyon, Nick Kolakowski, Ed Kurtz, Frank Larnerd, Chris Leek, Mike Loniewski, Bracken MacLeod, Julia Madeleine, Brian Panowich, Terry Rietta, Rie Sheridan Rose, Ryan Sayles, Richard Thomas and John Weagly.

Available through Amazon.