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Court Merrigan: Like a Boss

I'M UP TO my shoulder in a pregnant cow.
            Court Merrigan’s rural farm has over a hundred head of cattle, countless free-range chickens, a bull off someplace where it can’t gore me, a rooster that thinks eleven AM is the crack of dawn. Big farm house with a wrap-around porch. Rose bushes. Barn the size of a city block.
            “What are you doing?” Court asks, walking up with a shoulder-length rubber glove and some tube of lubricant.
            I look at the rubber sleeve, the lube, look back at my own arm. Naked.
            “I thought you wanted me to examine the pregnant…cow.”
            “No,” Court says, gritting his teeth. “I was going to check on the calf, and you were going to keep your hands to yourself. Maybe you could keep singing Celine Dion songs like you did for the whole ride here from the airport.”
            “Oh. I misunderstood.”
            Court drops the sleeve. Points with a mean-looking finger. “That is not the birth canal, you moron.”
            I turn back to the cow—whose tail is whipping me in the face—and take stock of what I’ve done. “So this is…?”
            “Smell it.”
            “Oh God…” I pull my arm out. I knew something was wrong when the cow sounded like it was giggling as I went to examine the pregnancy.
            “I’d like you to leave.” Court says. He pulls out an old cigar, chews on it. Seems like that’s his release. His anger management.
            “Dude, I didn’t mean to cornhole your cow-”
            “Out of all the guys they could have given this gig to, how you, some goofball who has no compunction about sticking his entire arm up the asshole of a farm animal and not know the difference, how you got it blows my mind.”
            “Like I said-”
            “You know I had to turn in a resume?” Court says, stalking closer. “What was your hiring process? Did you win a belching contest? Where on the application did you checkmark that you were willing to explore the anal cavity of livestock for a fiction magazine? I had to actually prove myself worthy. Matt sent me three stories to edit and gave me a one week deadline. That’s nine thousand words.”
He ticks off on his fingers. “Multiple character points of view, three very different tones, works riddled with clichés and confusing imagery. Each one of those stories had at least two scene settings apiece. One of them told half the story from the perspective of a disemboweled squirrel. The fact that I made something halfway legible out of that piece of crap is a miracle unto itself. Even then Matt said it was only so-so.”
Court’s in my face now. “You know the semester at the college was ending that week and I was up to my eyeballs in thesis papers? My kids were down with the flu. Have you ever competed for a gig while not sleeping and cleaning up vomit?”
            “Court, that’s my Sunday evening.” I look back to the house. “Do you have a hose or something? The stench on my arm is burning my eyes. What do you feed these things-”
            All I know is he punched me. I woke up at least a half hour’s drive down the road. Nothing but dust scrub everywhere. Blood from my nose is crusted down my face. No pants. My arm is still sticky.
            And for the record, I didn’t win a belching contest. I won a Dirty Sanchez contest.

***

Define noir, please. Why (or is it?) is it important to have darker stuff in the fiction community?

Because we live in a noir world. Robot drones blowing up weddings, drought burning up a whole nation's crops, krokodil, child slave laborers and Honey Boo Boo. You can't see the light until you've been through the dark, right?


Where does the grit behind your fiction come from?

The Wyobraska dust in my veins, I think. I grew up with the constant threat of apocalypse, right - remember when Reagan was on TV slurring on about the Evil Empire and how what we needed the MX nukes to protect our freedom? Yeah, they put those silos in like 20 miles from my house. I remember looking up to the blue vault at the jet contrails, wondering if this was it, there were the Soviet missiles incoming. So there's that. 

And then the early 80's, man, that was the Farm Crisis. I grew up on a farm in western Nebraska and a good half of our neighbors went belly-up. I used to go around with my grandpa to the auctions, hollow-eyed farmers watching from empty doorways as the labor of a lifetime went to the highest bidders, their neighbors, dogs wrestling in the mud. It wasn't that we were poor - my dad worked 20 hours a day to keep new shoes on our feet - it was just the constant feeling that one more hail storm, boy, and that was it. We were going to have to sell up and move to town.

You grow up country, it's hard to say which is worse - selling up, or moving to town.


Bourbon and Asia seem to pop up a lot when you talk about writing. Why?

Wait, who doesn't talk about bourbon? 

Asia: I lived in Japan and Thailand for a decade; it's going to be another 6 and a half years before I'll have spent as much adult time in the US as I did over there. I think everything I ever write, no matter how country-fied, will have an Eastern refraction to it.

I got married and had a daughter in Thailand and then I imported them both to the US so, in some senses, I still haven't really left.  


For the things I read on a consistent basis, you have probably one of the widest ranges of settings this side of a James Rollins novel. What drives that? I know you lived in Thailand and Japan for awhile. My settings usually involve some guy's dank basement or the back of a windowless van--but I guess we write what we know--so to see your stuff taking place everywhere in the world makes me wonder just what you know.

I get restless, I think. I've done a lot of wandering and while I'm now pretty geographically fixed, I guess my mind isn't done.

"People are people", right? Bullshit. People act and think in profoundly different ways on a mountainside in Ikuno-cho, Japan and a beach in Pattaya, Thailand than they do in Laramie, Wyoming and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That's what I know.

I find that interesting as hell, all the more so when I write stories about good people doing wrong and bad people doing worse. 


If there is one Court Merrigan story people could read, what would it be? Why?
I think my favorite is “The Gleaner's Union," just out in Thuglit. It's based - very loosely - on a story my grandpa told me one time. It really reflects where I'm trying to go in rural noir - hard dust under your fingernails and ain't no sheriff coming to bail you out.

Quick, finish this statement: "The last time Ryan and I were together we _____ and I said you'll never be able to ____ all of that before the cops get here and then he said _____ and I decided I would burn the place down."

Then: "I kind of liked that old man. He ____ , but of course, that was before I met Ryan. That dude ____ everything when he shows up."

"The last time Ryan and I were together we drank moonshine leaning against the old brick tenement and I said you'll never be able to chug all of that before the cops get here and then he said the hell I can't but before he was done I decided I would burn the place down."

Then: "I kind of liked that old man. He had the thing about pogo sticks, but of course, that was before I met Ryan. That dude could pogo off a roof and not even ripple his beer. Everything gets jumpy when that guy shows up, man."


What parts of Court make it into your stuff?

I don't know if I'm ever much in my stories anymore. I used to write more literary stuff which probably had lots of autobiographical elements, I don't remember. But nowadays the people I write about are way more badass, and bad, and just downright interesting than me. Plus they always seem shit always seems to be coming down on them. Other than my 2-year old's temper tantrums, I don't have a lot of darkness or rage in my life these days.

But I'll tell you who is in my stories - my father and grandfather. My uncles and my grandmother. That story in Thuglit, "The Gleaner's Union," and just about all the stories I've got tumbling around in my mind which are worth a damn I know are worth a damn because I heard them as stories first. Now I just have to gussy them up for the page, you know?



So, the failure listings on your blog. That's kind-of ballsy. What prompted you to do that?



I haven't updated that one in a while. Quite a few failures behind ...



The Failure section is pure catharsis, man. Rather than sit and stew over a bourbon in the study, I chronicle a rejection on there, and never think about it again. Even the ones that stung. And quite a few on there stung. 

That sounds so healthy. I usually drive down to the river, wave a Ben Franklin out the window, take the hooker back to my place and beat her with a coat hanger...speaking of stinging.



Funny how the stigma and stench of failure quickly dissipate in the pixelated light of day.

I got the idea from Roxane Gay, whose blog is actually called I Have Become Accustomed to Rejection. Jac Jemc used to do it, too. 

Jac Jemc? I don't think that's a real name. Do you think that by chronicling the rejections it has an effect on how you are viewed by those sites?

I don't think the list has had any affect on how I've been viewed by mags. I had a goal to hit the Thuglit, Needle & Beat to a Pulp trifecta, which I'm hitting this year; but prior to being accepted there I chronicled multiple rejections from all of them. If the editors at those mags noticed at all, I doubt they did more than chuckle.

It also really helped me clarify what and who I'm writing for. A ton of the mags listed there are literary-type jobs that I will almost certainly never submit to again; I'm not writing that kind of fiction anymore. When I first started listing my rejections, I was still writing some overtly literary stuff, but now I'm all pulp all the time. 

The last true literary story I wrote has, at last check, been rejected something like 50 times from every top literary mag you've ever heard of. Kind of an object lesson there. 

How has it been received by others?

The feedback I've gotten on the Failures has been overwhelmingly positive. I think a lot more people are doing it now. The stigma of being rejected is fading somewhat, I think. Which is a good thing.
 

The story 25 Grand is surprising bleak and illuminating for a few reasons. The human trafficking/prostitution aspect is gritty and I liked how the narrator was so callous about it. I've read that every villain is the hero of the story and this importer/exporter/pimp/narrator states he's doing good. The story ends with no firm resolution and that, I think, affects the reader in a strong way. I liked the ending because it felt real. What was the story behind that?

The human trafficker thinks it's preferable to be a sex worker in Japan than a slum rat in Bangkok. That's not an original sentiment; lots of sexpats (not a typo) in Thailand say the same thing - that it's better to work on your on your back than with your back. You could probably find a few sex workers who would agree, but they'd both be missing the point: the shitty thing is that these girls (and boys) are faced with that dilemma in the first place.

So if you're the promoter of such choices, if you require that such shitty dilemmas exist in order to make your illicit living, you're going to have to be one callous motherfucker. Which is another way of saying you're a moral coward. Because the narrator here doesn't have the sack to face up to the real world pain his "work" causes: he's not going to be there when his hired thug does very, very bad things to that girl's family. Neither, by the way, is the little girl's mother, who stole the money in the first place. The way of the world, right? Especially in the Third World. The hammer stroke so often falls on those least culpable and least able to bear it. 

You have two stories that tie together, Dogs at the Door and Our Mutual Friend. Did you write them as one project or did you write one and felt the need to write the other?

They actually started out as one long story. We used to have this old camper at home when I was a kid, and sometimes we'd sleep out in there, and the lining around the doors was all warped and cracked, and in the cool of the mornings there'd be dew forming up on the inner slats. So I had this image of a little boy, thirsty, licking that dew. I mean, how do you end up on the lam, running a trailer park/ghetto in rural Wyoming? Because when you were six there were dogs at the door. 

In the title story, Moondog Over the Mekong, you employ a literary style that I haven't seen in your other stuff. Huge paragraphs, sparse dialogue (although it picks up as the story goes on) and easy, plain statements that drive the narrative. Were you experimenting with anything there or is that just how the story got written?

Definitely experimenting. I think I was reading a lot of Faulkner at the time and so was enamored of enormous, enormously complex sentences. I haven't tried to write like that since, though. Think I should? 

If a theme song played every time you entered a room, what would it be?

If I was busting into a room like a boss, MMA style, then it'd have to be The Dropkick Murphys, "Worker's Song."  

In a more subdued setting, "Tom Ames' Prayer," by Robert Earl Keen.

***

And that’s how Court Merrigan rolls. I first heard of the dude when Out of the Gutter did their massive overhaul and added Bareknuckles Pulp to the scene. I thought to myself, with a name like Court Merrigan, this guy has to be stand out. Then we arm-wrestled. Of course I won, but he held his own. Now, he has my respect. Get Moondog Over the Mekong here and check out his author site here. And when you visit Wyoming, Court invites all of you to dance the Gangnam Style moves with him on Thursdays at Bobby Joe’s Cowboy Inn just outside of Green River. He’s good.

Next week—Thomas Pluck. Synonyms for that guy’s last name include: backbone, hardiness, guts, grit, intestinal fortitude and spunk. Seems like he was made for noir. Also, give him a long, snow white beard and he’s Santa Claus. An MMA Santa Claus, but still.

Court Merigan’s short story collection MOONDOG OVER THE MEKONG is out now from Snubnose Press and he’s got short stories out or coming soon in Thuglit, Needle, Weird Tales, Plots With Guns, Big Pulp, Noir Nation and a bunch of others. His story “The Cloud Factory,” which appeared in PANK, was nominated for a Spinetingler Award. He runs the Bareknuckles Pulp Deaprtment at Out of the Gutter and lives in Wyoming with his family. To learn more about Court, visit his website.