KEITH RAWSON ASKS me to stop by his moonlighting job for the interview.
I almost get carjacked driving into the neighborhood. Why he asked me to stop in at 2am is anybody’s guess, and he refused to elaborate over the phone.
“You want Mr. Rawson, you get Mr. Rawson at 2am.”
I pull up to the convenience store and wish I’d brought my gun. Cracked parking lot like some giant stomped all over it. The trash bin is graffiti-ed and vomited its contents all down its side. There’s a pool of rancid, torn-open Hefty bags littered in front of it. Even in November I can hear the flies buzzing.
The windows are more armored against intruders than the Normandy beaches were. Exterior lights—the few that aren’t shattered in their sockets—flicker and warn me away.
Step over the bum on the front stoop, open the door and hear a chime so loud it would alert the employee if he were at home. Keith steps around from the beer cooler and nods. Cool guy. No “hello” or anything.
Somewhere I hear a cat meow. I hate cats.
“Mr. Rawson,” he says. “If you like first name-basis shit you can go across the street and interview that Polish guy. His last name is so fucked up no can pronounce it. Not even him.”
“Sure, I was military. I can say Mr. Rawson.” I say, pull out my pad. Feel tears in my eyes. “Would you define noir for the masses-”
“Stop.” he says, looks over my shoulder. Down the isle. Looks to the three street punks, sagging pants with their flat-brimmed hats and 4XL jackets on, huddled, trying to play it cool.
Mr. Rawson breezes past me. The punks look up, look to the door. Mr. Rawson is between them and it before they can do anything besides taste bile. On one side is the long countertop, complete with an overhanging sign that reads
SHOPLIFTERS WILL BE
To the other side is the candy bar display with the barred windows behind it. Neon light drools in from the various beer signs.
A strange pattern in the linoleum beside the front door catches my eye. It looks brown, maybe red. Long ago something spilled and was swirled around by a mop, cleaned as best it could be and the stain bleached and forgotten. Maybe a little more red than brown.
“Give me the fucking Jack, son.” Mr. Rawson says, one hand out, eyes fixated on the front punk.
“I ain’t got no Jack Dan-” and Mr. Rawson throws a haymaker that would have made Mike Tyson jealous. Half the blood in that punk’s face sprays over his two friends as his head nearly spins on the neck. He drops the way Gere should have dropped Roberts at the end of Pretty Woman. Ugly. Hard. Final.
Mr. Rawson leans in, pulls out a bottle of Jack Daniels from the punk’s jacket. Another bottle of something clear slips out with it, along with some potato chips.
“Empty.” Mr. Rawson says. Both the other punks unzip their jackets and drop their scores. I’m impressed by how much they got in those jackets.
Just then another dude throw open the front doors, looks right and then left and sees the scene with Mr. Rawson. Now this dude, 6’5”, 320 if he’s anything, cracks his tattooed knuckles and bows up. Strolls over.
“You three fuckers are holdin’ up the evening. What the fuck is taking so long?”
Dude has a shaved head with devil horns and a lashing tongue tattooed on it. His neck and even his cheeks are inked. His jacket says OUR LORD AND SAVIOR but isn’t referring to Jesus Christ.
The big dude sees the one punk laid out, sees the other two jittering and afraid to move. One of them glances at Mr. Rawson, ratting him out as their hang-up.
The big dude gets up to Mr. Rawson, one finger stuck out into my man’s face. Says, “Who the fuck do you think you are, sugar tits?”
Mr. Rawson removes his tinted glasses and very calmly asks, “Didn’t prison teach you any respect?”
I see the big dude keep his finger in Mr. Rawson’s face while reaches back to his waistline with his other one. I start to shout “Gun!” when Mr. Rawson makes that a moot point.
Mr. Rawson snatches forward with his face, bites the big dude’s finger clean off. Everyone starts screaming.
Mr. Rawson spits the digit out into the big dude’s face, leans over the counter and pulls out a table leg—and actual, lathed table leg—and takes one swing.
One god-awful swing.
The big dude’s head caves in on one side.He flops to the deck and wiggles the way dead bodies do when their brains are still misfiring.
Mr. Rawson stands over him, hammering that thing down like he’s beating a pit bull off his child. “I’ll take some goddamn time outta my busy schedule and teach you some respect!”
And he just drills away. The two other punks stand there just long enough to get the big dude’s blood all over them, then they cut back and around the counter. Run out the door. Cell phones glowing in the parking lot night.
I stand there, impressed by Mr. Rawson’s incredible stamina until the sirens swerve into the parking lot. He just keeps beating the corpse.
“Mr. Rawson? Mr. Rawson, the cops are here.”
Nothing. The ceiling tiles are so soaked they’re dripping.
“Mr. Rawson? The cops will come in here and if you don’t stop they might shoot you.”
Nothing. The windows behind the candy bars are frosted in gore.
“Keith?” I say.
Now he stops, looks like Carrie at the prom right before she slaughters everybody. He stares at me. “What did I tell you about the first name shit?”
I look at the front door. Rawson starts to stroll over there, get between it and me before I can do anything but taste bile. In a sudden panic I point over his shoulder, say, “Hey, look! A deer!” and I bolt for the front door anyways, towards the cops. Maybe they’ll see me and charge in.
I don’t make it. For the single moment I can, I wish again I’d brought my gun.
Define noir for the masses, please.
Noir's a myth. It's something that once was but no longer is. There's bits and pieces of it floating around out in the ether, but for the most part it's been mixed and mashed with so many genres and sub-genres that it's unrecognizable. Which is okay with me, I'm all about the elimination of genre. So as far as I'm concerned, there is no noir or harboiled, there's only stories about someone getting robbed or raped or murdered or falling in love or out of love, or drinking too much or doing too many drugs, whatever. As long as a story entertains, does it honestly have to have a label? For me, there's only crime fiction. Genre's a marketing thing anyway.
Marketing. What a bunch of bitches. I refuse to be part of “The System” in any form. I don’t use a Philips head screwdriver because I’m not a sellout, having some guy’s name on my tools. Where does your grit come from?
I like to play in sand boxes. I like going to the beach and having my wife and daughter bury me in the sand up to my neck, and when I get home, I refuse to shower for weeks because I love the feel of the sand on everything I touch. My socks, my shoes, my underwear, the crack of my ass, the bed sheets, everywhere....And I made some really shitty choices in my teens and twenties which altered my world view, thus the darkness in my fiction. I've more or less embraced the darkness in my fiction, it helps me get some really nasty shit out of my system that I would most likely turn inward and cause some real damage to myself and the people who care about me.
If people could read one Keith Rawson story, what would it be? Why?
ALL OF THEM!!!! Because you should just want to!
I’ve read two of your stories, and in both of them people die at the end. I think I’ve got your formula down. You've got two collections of short stories out through Snubnose Press, what else? What's next?
This is my favorite question EVER! I've conducted maybe fifty author interviews in the past five years and I've asked this question of every single one of them. When it comes out of my mouth these days it just annoys the piss out of me, and I know it's my beef because I'm fairly private with what I'm working on. But right now I'm putting together a new short story collection which will be all new, never before published stuff along with a novella, (We'll see if the folks at Snubnose are into or not?) and I'm working on a seemingly endless novel. (I'm starting to feel like Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys with the goddamn thing.) I've also started poking at another longer project. Plus I've got my next couple months of columns for LitReactor lined up, so I've got a lot going on.
The one thing I've figured out about myself as a writer over the last several years is I actually want to be a writer, not a novelist, but a writer. Sure novels will be a part of that, but I also want to continue writing criticism, narrative nonfiction, feature articles, comic books, maybe a screenplay or two somewhere down the line. I look at guys like Robert Ward, Benjamin Percy, and Sara Gran and I admire their careers because they write screenplays and teleplays, feature articles for national publications, and that's the kind of career I want because I like the variety.
The other thing I've figured out is I can churn out 5000 word stories and articles in a day or three no problem and be completely happy with the finished product. Whereas with a novel, I'm meticulous. Some writers would probably say too meticulous, but it's just who I am. But because of my nitpickery, I'm probably going to be one of those writers who turns out a novel every five years and fills in the gaps with story and essay collections.
Ha! You wrote “fill in the gaps.” Every perverted twelve year-old in my vast audience will be giggling for days. What parts of Keith wind up in your stuff?
When I first started out, almost every story was in a sense about me. But now, I like creating as opposed to writing from experience or memory. I like putting myself in someone else's skin. When you're first starting out, it's easy to write what you know, but as time goes on, you want to challenge yourself and you have to break from experience or your work is going to suffer and even you won't want to read it.
Yeah, you’re on the nose about writing what you know. Most of my stuff is about sexual deviancy and absurd yet prolific violence. You've said you've met James Ellroy in person. What was that like? Did he speak in all slurs, alliteration and obscure 50s slang, or was he--gasp!--a normal dude?
My wife and I met Ellroy at the Poisoned Pen when he was touring with his essay collection Destination: Morgue, and he was pure shtick that night, even when he was talking with us one-on-one, which was no big deal, because, hey, that's what you want from Ellroy when you go to one of his signings. He's one of the few novelists working who says whatever comes into his head even if it offends, and I like that.
I'd like to turn the lights down low and become a quivering puddle of emotion with you. Now, let's talk about Fifty Shades of Grey. I hear you're a huge fan. True?
I read maybe ten pages of it for a column I wrote for LitReactor, and I put it down not because of the quality of the writing, but out of embarrassment for the characters. They were just so unrealistically weak willed. Don't get me wrong, I know you have to suspend belief when you're reading, but it was all just a bit too much. Plus, people just can't write sex, It either comes out too mechanical or too flowery; even writers like Anais Nin and Henry Miller are a bit heavy handed, and at times flat out corny. But, no, I don't hate Fifty Shades of Grey, and when it comes right down to it, I could give a rat’s ass what people are reading. It's their money and time, so if they want to spent it on something like Fifty Shades or Twilight or Hunger Games or whatever, who cares? Besides, it's only entertainment.
You've been involved in a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff in the community, such as the resurrection of Crime Factory—and thank you for that. They've accepted two of my favorite stories (for all you Ryan lovers out there, Issue #7 under the pen name Derek Kelly and the upcoming Issue #12 under my birth name, Ryan Glorious Sayles). You’re also a staff writer for LitReactor and Spinetingler. That's a bunch of editing and non-fiction writing. Do you enjoy that as much as the fiction? Does it scratch a different itch? I know I struggle to BS my way through something non-fiction, so I always want to know the drive behind guys who can rock it out.
It's all just writing for me. Some writers say they have a different switch for writing fiction and nonfiction, but I get the same rush out of both. I will say it fulfills a different need. With nonfiction, I get to stay in my own skin, where with fiction—and I know this sounds hokey—I’m somewhere else and I let the characters take over, but it's still a very similar mindset.
Is there a particular story of yours where, when you sat back and read it, you thought "that's what I'm talking about."
I just finished a first draft of story that did that to me. The character is one of the most psychologically repulsive human beings I've ever written about. The whole thing came out in a rush, which is always a pleasant surprise. But when I was done, I leaned back in my office chair and said to myself, yeah, that's the shit. The same thing happened with the story I churned out for David Cranmer for Beat to a Pulp volume 2. That one was a ton of fun to write.
After reading your stuff, I'd say you're one of the hardest-hitting dudes around. Succinct, gritty and no punches pulled. I'm not trying to gush all over you, but that's what—I think—the people who write our type of stuff shoot for. A lot of dudes hit the target quite well, but you just have tighter groupings. Do you put any thought into making your stuff hardcore or does it just come out that way?
It just comes out that way, particularly in the flash fiction stuff. Like I said before, most of the time I'm on autopilot with my fiction. A lot of writers I was publishing with when I first started out publishing with have the same ability: Frank Bill, Matt McBride, Hilary Davidson, Jedidiah Ayres, Greg Bardsley, Anonymous-9, Jimmy Callaway, Patti Abbott, Kieran Shea, all of those folks are just as hard hitting if not more so. Let me tell you, that was a great group of writers to publish and pal around with, and they still are.
If you and I were to put pasta colanders on our heads, take up some wooden swords and duel, how would that go?
I would dump the wooden sword and beat you silly with the colander. Then I would beat you some more with the stick. That or I would run away screaming like a little girl.
Oh, and we’d also be wearing tutus. And edible undies.
And afterwards we could spot each other on the squat rack.
Moving on, then. It seems to me that with this eZine community we have, folks are churning out short stories as their bread and butter as opposed to the generation of writers before us who, at least it seems to me, concentrated on novels.
I know the old Sci Fi guys like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick made their day-to-day living with shorts, and even Stephen King has a huge amount. But from about the mid-80s on, when the magazines that bought those old stories pooped out, was novel country.
I see where you're coming from saying you'll put out a novel every five years or so and fill in the gaps with shorts and non-fiction. Do you think the trend s shifting back?
It is shifting back for a couple of reasons:
1) TONS of agents and editors cruise the online zines like Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp, ChiZine, etc., and they have been since Dave Zeltserman was putting out Hardluck Stories and Robinson was churning out Thuglit vol. 1. I'm of the opinion that if you're interested in gaining the attention of mainstream publishers and building an audience who's actually willing to buy for a book length work, you need to be sending out to the zines. Plus, there are some zines who're paying markets now like Noir Nation, Blood & Tacos, and Thuglit.
2) Thanks to e-publishing, if you are a short story writer, you can actually put out a collection of stuff you've published previously, mix in some new stuff and BAM! You're making some dough and hopefully building a bigger audience.
If a song would play every time you walked into a room, what would it be? Why?
Um, what's that aria that Ric Flair always walked to the ring to? Meh, fuck if I know? But it would be that one...or something by Sigur Ros, because I'm all about mellow these days, and I like listening to people singing in a language I don't understand.
Keith Rawson, everybody. Tip your waitress and come by tomorrow. He’ll be here all week. Comment below, then comment again.
Next week – Chris Leek. An English dude who came and lived in the USA for a while, decided he wanted to punish himself and moved back to England. Check him out in the Flash Fiction Offensive or his review section here at OOTG. Read his stuff and you’ll know why he MUST be interviewed at NA.