A Seat in the Big Chair: Chris DeWildt

We don't usually do interviews at FFO. But I'm making an exception for CS DeWildt. 

A newcomer to the world of noir, Chris shook off his more literary inclinations to get down and dirty with us here in the gutter. He has impeccable tastes in titles and a seriously fucked-up worldview. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of the man and his work. And after you read this interview, I think you will be too.

CS DeWildt on Candy and Cigarettes, The Hero Code, and Escaping the Shackles of Convention

1.) So let’s get this out of the way. We met because you stole my title. Or maybe I stole yours. Either way, we’re bonded by Candy and Cigarettes, which is the name of my blog and your novella. I came up with the title because I used to pick up girls in rehab with candy and cigarettes. How about you? 

It's a great title isn't it? I was thrilled to be the first person who thought of it, ever. And of course I am honored that you decided to use it too. Second. After me.

Okay, in truth I thought I did my due diligence, which meant going to Amazon and typing in “Candy and Cigarettes.” It wasn't until the publication ball was rolling that I Googled the title and I found your blog; this must have been in maybe 2010? So yeah, I was like "That sucks...but whatever." I either read this or made it up right now, but the same thing happened to Harper Lee with To Kill a Mockingbird. She thought it was a great title, used it, and only later realized it was also the phrase Truman Capote had tattooed on his asshole. Either way, in our experience I think it has proved to be quite serendipitous.

In my world the title means a couple different things. First, it's a metaphor for the simple pleasures in life, the little things that keep you going. Your life may be a pile of shit, but candy is always sweet and cigarettes are always a comfort. That's a lesson my beaten-down characters have learned to use, subconsciously, as a survival skill. 

The actual phrase came to me when I was working in a gas station after high school. You'd get these young girls who'd come into the store on Friday nights, tarted up and looking like they wanted to get fucked, even though they wouldn't know what to do with a cock if it was gagging them. These girls came in and loaded up their arms with candy before coming up to the counter and asking for cigarettes. The juxtaposition of the items always struck me as significant. They became a symbol for not only that period of time between childhood and adulthood, but also innocence and corruption, which is a major theme in my Candy and Cigarettes.

2.) Speaking of your novella, which I just finished. A terrific, twisted, fast-paged read. The entire time reading it, I kept thinking: Jim Thompson. Not that the style or even story are that similar. It just felt like Thompson to me. How much of an influence would you say Thompson has had on your writing, if any?

Thanks. Originally I went to film school and wanted to be a screenwriter so I'd say my storytelling has been influenced as much by cinema as literature. Admittedly though, I have come to the noir dance pretty late...at least in terms of slapping a genre label on my writing and the direction I'm trying to go. I read my first Thompson book, The Killer Inside Me, very soon after finishing a late draft of C&C. It was an epiphany. I literally said to myself, "Wow, I just wrote a crime book." And then there was no going back (the contemporary indie-noir community is so seductive after begging for a seat [without luck] at the literary table). So yes, I think you could say I have been significantly influenced by Jim Thompson. He is my favorite of the bunch, but I was also reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy at the time and his influence definitely slipped in, but his inspiration—to use a nice rejection letter phrase—may have "overcooked" the writing a bit, particularly with regards to the piece as straight "genre fiction," but I make no apologies. I have a novel in publication limbo currently that I pitched as "what you would get if Thompson and McCarthy fought to the death behind a backwoods bar." So yeah, those two are definitely my literary heroes and though I made a conscious effort to step it back a bit in later drafts, you can't help but see the influences if you read their stuff. One C&C reviewer actually mentioned McCarthy in his review, which was simultaneously thrilling and embarrassing. At the end of the day I am an artist and don't want to be forever suckling the teets of my heroes. I want to make my own mark.

3.) Lloyd Bizbang is the hero of C&C. Although that might not be the right word. He’s unlike most leading men, and you pull off a neat trick of making him victimized but not a victim. Were you aware you were skirting such a fine line?

Lloyd was one of those characters I didn't know much about until I wrote him. I didn't go in with any real idea of what I wanted from him as a protagonist. His whole life he has been the victim of circumstances beyond his control and so to a point, other than surviving day-to-day and self-medicating, Lloyd has very little going for him. If I could sum up his character in a word it would be “stoic.” He rolls with the punches and doesn't complain, doesn't cry. He deals, that’s it. In a sense he’s beaten down; he’s long ago given up trying to change his station in life and he’s resigned to being an outcast; however, he meets every challenge with a resolve that can’t be quashed. He may know in his heart the outcome, but he will not allow himself to be a victim if he can help it. I was reading a lot of Hemingway shorts around the time I was writing C&C and I was really taken by what the “scholars” call the Hero Code. Simply put, bravery or maleness or bravado doesn't have to manifest itself in every situation to be at the heart of the character, but the character must realize that [his] survival is tied to making a stand against a loosely defined “tyranny,” be it a fish, a lion, an illness, or another person. Lloyd is always capable of overcoming the obstacles, but the catch is that he has few resources, few choices, and the ones he does have are not positive in a traditionally heroic sense. His position is one that can only be made worse, and as a result his heroism is not so much in overcoming the final obstacle as it is facing it without fear, accepting it and preserving his fighting spirit. It’s the only thing that is absolutely his and in keeping it, he has the final victory.

So to answer your question, was I aware? Not beyond keeping the man consistent, allowing him the mental strength to persevere. I felt that if Lloyd came out on top he would actually lose the quality that allowed him to survive a life of misery. What’s Lloyd going to do if he “gets the girl,” so to speak? He’s a rock, and a rock doesn't need to do shit but be a rock. You can do what you want with such an object, but it remains what it is. It’s always hard, it’s always heavy, and if you’re not careful those seemingly innocuous qualities will end you.

4.) So you're applying the Hero Code...to an antihero. Interesting. Do you think this is the primary allure of noir & hardboiled fiction? The antihero and his fervent adherence to a unique moral code? 

That’s a really good question. And I wish I had an equally good answer. For me, yes, I find the antihero a fascinating archetype and I’ve always been drawn to it. I like the morally ambiguous. I like the internal struggle to do the right thing versus the physical obstacle. I like a person who looks at the world and says if I can’t win within their rules I’m going to make my own. We read for escape and what better to escape than the shackles of convention imposed on us by our culture and institutions? I truly wish I had the balls to just say fuck it and go all the way, just let my Id loose and go wild. But I don’t, so I do the next best thing: I make myself a god to a bunch of fuckers that do have the balls. They are crafted in the image from the dust and debris and shit of my memory. And I love them all.

5.) Your work seems decidedly grounded in dystopia, the wounded characters and relationships. It's not an optimistic view. There's a piece of yours I read called "The Human Zoo," in which convicts are put on display, reduced to animalistic origins, and "The Squirrel Hunter" is a bleak rumination on the circle of life. Your piece we published, "McRib," which is the most popular story we've ever had, is about—well, people can read the damn thing; it's a 1,000 words. My point is...you seem like such a nice, regular guy. Am I missing something?

I may seem that way, “nice.” But then you get to know me and realize I’m just an asshole like everyone else. Yes, my stuff is dark. Am I cognizant of that as I’m working on it? Of course. [B]ut I don’t think it comes off as pure shock, at least I hope not because that’s never my intention. I guess necrophilia and gay golden-shower incest fantasies might shock some people, but that’s not the point. I don’t want to titillate or exploit or simply make people squirm. These are the things my people are into, that’s all. I don’t want you dislike them because of these things, but like them in spite of them. I want to write characters that challenge you to like them. A friend and I were just talking about this John Gardner book On Moral Fiction. Now Gardner has a lot of shitty opinions, particularly some about what art is in writing and I dismiss a lot of what he says, but he understands that true morality can’t be dealt with in fiction if we have these fully developed protagonists and these one-dimensional “bad guys,” and on that point I completely agree with him. Now if Gardner was here to read this, or any of my fiction, I’m sure he’d say I was off base and that I suck, but fuck him. If he’s so smart why’d he crash his motorcycle and die?

6.) OK. Here's the fun part. Pimp what you're up to now. Where can we find your books? What's you're latest novel about? Agents? Publishers? Anything you got to further your career, the floor is yours.

Currently I’m waiting to hear back from my new publisher Martian Lit (martianlit.com), so I can start the edits on my novel Love You to a Pulp, as well as collection of shorts. LYTAP is a hardboiled noir thing set in rural Kentucky. It’s a feel-good piece full of violence, deviant sexual appetites, and double crosses. I’m also working on a new hardboiled novel, an expansion of a currently unpublished 8,000 word short called “The Louisville Problem.” Hopefully people will be reading that short very soon. These are also set in Kentucky. I lived there from 2003 to 2007 and the place had an incredible impression on me. When I left I never thought I would ache for it the way I do.

Candy and Cigarettes is available at the usual online vendors, Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Goodreads, as well as over at vagabondagepress.com. If you’re too cheap to shell out $3 or too lazy to exchange an honest review for a free copy, then my site csdewildt.com has links to all of my shorts, most of which are available online for free.

As for agents, I’m sick of sending out queries. It has been a waste of time and a distraction from the real stuff I need to be doing, i.e., writing books. Sour grapes? Not necessarily, because, yes, I admit, I would love an agent to scoop me up and help me take my work to the next level commercially, but it’s a crapshoot. My approach now is to simply get my stuff out there, get a reader base and try to build my brand. I have no illusions of mega success. My goal is to simply be able to say “I am a writer,” not “I am a writer/whatever else I’m doing to keep my kids fed.” I just want to sell enough books to be able to focus on it full-time. 

CS DeWildt is a liar. He wants to hurt you. His work includes the novella Candy and Cigarettes, and his novel Love You to a Pulp was recently accepted by Martian Lit, along with a collection of shorts. Please visit him at http://csdewildt.com