Broken River Books and weird crime fiction: an interview with J. David Osborne

By Gabino Iglesias

J. David Osborne
J. David Osborne is one of the most exciting young voices in crime fiction. His first novel, By The Time We Leave Here, Wel'll Be Friends, won the 2010 Wonderland Award for Best Novel and left everyone who read it wondering who the hell this guy was. His second novel, Low Down Death Right Easy, garnered praise from critics and fellow authors alike and established Osborne as the new go-to author for visceral, hard-boiled, and strange working class fiction. Now, Osborne is sharing much more superb crime fiction, but he didn't write it. Broken River Books, Osborne's new project, is crime and neo-noir-centric press that's kicking things off with books that are already generating a nice buzz. I wanted to learn more about the books, Osborne's motivations, and the Kickstarter project that's will help him get things started. Here's what he had to say.

GI: You have to write, work, promote your books, and do whatever else you do in Norman: why start a press and take on all that responsibility?

JDO: I started this venture with a startling and at times adorable level of naiveté. The doe-eyed gee-whiz "isn't this fun" element still hasn't been sucked out of me and I truthfully hope it never is, but I think maybe I have my head on a bit more straight than when I first nodded to myself and thought, "sure, yeah, lesdoit." But, I am nothing if not relentlessly positive: I'm doing this because I'm sure, despite the long hours of work sitting in front of a computer wondering does a comma go there and wait didn't that character just have a black eye, that this is a venture that will make me happy, my authors happy, and readers happy once the books are nestled safely on their bellies or chests or wherever you place a book when you're reading it. I tend to err on the side of pitbull lockjaw determination and, yes, naiveté. I'm constantly learning. But it's learning that I actually want to do.

GI: You write crime, but it's really weird crime. You could've easily started a bizarro press or an everything press, so why crime?

JDO: I think Broken River is just the natural extension of my aesthetic tastes: it's just exactly the kind of press that I'd like to see, the kind of press that didn't quite exist before we put it together. I could've done Bizarro, yeah, but I feel like between Eraserhead and Grindhouse and Raw Dog and on and on, Bizarro is pretty well covered. And an everything press would just seem a bit too wishy-washy for me: I wanted a project that had a clear mission statement. I wanted to make a crime fiction press that showcased the best talent the genre had to offer. I wanted crime fiction that was challenging, that fucked with reader's expectations a bit. And that's what we've got.

GI: Few indie presses can kick things off with the quality of work that Broken River Books will be putting out. You're coming out swinging with books by Stephen Graham Jones, Jedidiah Ayres, William Boyle, Red Hammond, and Pearce Hansen. How did you go about selecting the first five books?

JDO: I asked SGJ, Hansen, and "Red" personally through Facebook messenger if they had anything that I could publish. I did this with pretty much all of my favorite authors. It was nerve-wracking, to work up the balls to ask these people with confidence: "hey, this thing I'm doing is gonna be cool, wanna hop on board?" Everybody didn't hop on board, which is cool, but those who did blew my fucking mind. Then I got Jed's book in the BRB submissions email. And knew halfway through that I was putting it out. And then Bill's book, it's a bit of a slow-burner, but I found myself pulled in by the intimacy of the whole thing, that he really knew these characters and that therefore I was really getting to know them, too, and that they were complex in all the right ways and human in all of the wrong. So yeah. Long story short: I got five books that blew my socks off.

GI: Broken River Books is publishing Jed Ayres and SGJ, both of whom I'm sure everyone reading this already knows, Boyle's first novel, and Red Hammond, who was created by a known author in order to put out a book he considered too raunchy. Was this mix intentional or just an awesome thing that happened?

JDO: There was, to be honest, kind of a "mixtape" sensibility to the whole process of assembling these titles. Even the order that I usually refer to them in bespeaks a kind of "playlist." That's the order I'd like people to read them in, if they get all five of them: LEAST OF MY SCARS then PECKERWOOD then STREET RAISED then GRAVESEND then XXX SHAMUS. You start off with Stephen's book, which is a kick in the pants and just a hell of a way to start the damn thing. PECKERWOOD is still crazy but a little more introspective and character driven (well, SGJ's is character driven, too, but it's one character, who's fucking insane). Then you get STREET RAISED which is like, the most pure "noir" or "classic" crime novel I have, the one that sticks most specifically to the structure, but that takes that structure to its most extreme ends, and so in a way that book is perfect for the middle, it's a perfect dark little nexus of the launch titles. So then you come out the other side of that and you have Bill's quiet book, this book I feel so close to, and it's a brief respite from the nightmare, though it's still, yeah, completely fucking dark and depressing. Then you end up with XXX SHAMUS, which is pure golden beautiful writing, every word is on point. It's one of the best PI novels ever written, to use Allan Guthrie's words. And it will completely wreck you. The last third of this novel made me sick and destroyed my soul for about a day. It is powerful in a completely unexpected kind of way. And so, by the end of those five books, you will have "listened" to Broken River's first "album," and you'll kind of have an idea of what we're about. I really hope people get all five and read them in that order.

GI: Submissions were open for a while and you must've received a lot. What was that experience like?

JDO: It was phenomenal. It broke my heart, turning down some of the great work I saw during that time. I actually stayed up nights thinking to myself "maybe there's a way that I could fit this in, somehow" but knowing deep down that it wasn't right. I really didn't receive any garbage at all. I do have one funny story though: there was an author who submitted to Broken River early on. I was a fan of the man's work, I'd actually read his stuff since I was in high school. I was really stoked because he had this whole series of books he wanted to put out. He had a badass cover letter, said he was the next Elmore Leonard, and let's make a lot of money, etc. I like that dick-on-the-table swagger. However, I read the first novel and it wasn't right for me. Just didn't really hit me. So this puts me in a weird position: how do you get across to this person, "Hey, I really respect you, you're kind of someone I look up to, and I really don't mean this in a rude way, but it's just not something that I could put out now. It's just not gonna fit." I sat at my email for like an hour trying to think of the right words, feeling kind of sick. Never been good at disappointing people. Then I sent it. And the next day I get this email back: "Your loss. Sorry you couldn't see the potential." And I was like, "DAAAAMMMMNNNN." Fuck all that catty nonsense, though. Most people, in fact everyone else, was extremely gracious. I feel like I made a lot of friends through this process.

GI: Everyone and their dog has a Kickstarter, but yours is unique and you've actually managed to raise more than half your goal. Why did you decide Kickstarter was the way to go?

JDO: My dog saw that I was doing this and asked if I could start one for her. She said, "Make it for bones." I mostly ignore her. Kickstarter is a great way to get people looking at the press. It's actually a marketing strategy in addition to a fundraising campaign. There are people that I have connected with through the Kickstarter website and through the countless Facebook posts, tweets, and retweets than I would have gotten through a typical "press launch." I don't know what it is, but it's just something that draws folks in. This tension, will it or won't it. On the more real, boring, "money" side of things, though, I really am a financially humble man. I get by in my own way, but it's tough for me to come up with the capital to do even the most basic of the press's "startup" costs. Again, that's where that fucking naiveté really kicked me in the ass. But hey, I decided to go ahead with it, I have the five books, I'm editing them up as we speak (well not literally because I'm typing this), I have five of the best covers ever from Matthew Revert, and I am steady building a network of friends that are stoked about the whole thing. So, the Kickstarter is a preorder that also helps me get the thing out. It's a win-win. There's no something for nothing, here. I am selling a product.

GI: For a pledge of $700, you will hand-deliver all five print editions of the Broken River titles and take whoever pledged that to dinner at Applebees as long as the person lives in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Dallas, Austin, St. Louis and Kansas City. First, you know I live in Austin...was this a special invitation? Second, how much moola would take to make you extend the offer to other places?

JDO: It is a special invitation to you and/or any other sexy motherfucker willing to drop serious coin. I would extend that offer to further locations if the price is right, but don't get it twisted: when I say Applebee's, I mean fiesta chicken and beer. I'm not sucking your dick. Unless the price is right.

GI: You read extensively: can you give us some favorite crime, horror, and bizarro authors? Since you'll also be publishing new authors, can you tell us which new voices you're excited about?

JDO: Crime: James Sallis, Daniel Woodrell, Elmore Leonard, Benjamin Whitmer, James Ellroy, Cormac McCarthy, Charlie Huston, Ken Bruen, Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, Warren Ellis, Anthony Neil Smith, Jake Hinkson

Horror: Adam Cesare, Brian Keene, John Skipp, Shane McKenzie (another Austin dude)….honestly I am ashamed to say my horror diet has been really limited as of late.

Bizarro: hoo boy…so much going on in this genre. Everything from Cameron Pierce, both that he himself has written and the stuff he puts out on Lazy Fascist (all of it…it's not all bizarro but my god it's good). Cody Goodfellow, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Carlton Mellick III, Spike Marlowe, I am going to end up leaving a lot of people out, and that will make me sad, but they are all my homies, my first family, and I love them all. Just google "bizarro" and go from there. You will not meet a nicer, tighter-knit group of weirdos. So much love for them.

New voices: The Velvet, this old message board, managed to cultivate a lot of great talent that I'm now trying to get on board with Broken River. They are sensitive boys, though, most of them. Chris Deal doesn't pick wrong words. Eddy Rathke is a fucking poet. So, yeah, those two. I'm excited about Adam Cesare, who is prolific and gifted. Michael Kazepis broods a lot, but the dude has real talent, writing to get excited about.

GI: At some point BRB will open to submission again. Can you tell authors what catches your attention as an editor?

JDO: I tend to need to be hooked right from the get-go, obviously. The first round of submissions, I gave them all a long, healthy chance: ten, fifteen pages. After my inbox flooded, though, shit got really cutthroat. So yeah. I don't think you need to get stupid with it, don't start with like a ticking time bomb or someone with a gun to their head, unless that's really what you want to do, but the writing, those words have to be on point. I want to read dirty, clipped poetry. I want voices. And then, in the long run, what I'm looking for are stories that care more about the characters than they do about telling me about how dark and gritty this world is. I want to know people. I already know everything is hopeless.

GI: You've mentioned that you're anal about edits, a perfectionist who spends serious time making sure everything is right. Between work and writing, how are you also balancing your new role as editor?

JDO: I just fit it in where I can, whenever I can. For example, doing this right now, I'm in a coffee shop called the Earth here in Norman, a really great little hippie spot with plenty of meat-alternatives and cute waiters and waitresses. I'm waiting for my wife to get out of class at OU so's I can take her to lunch. I work plenty at the restaurant, and it's alternately mind-bogglingly stressful and boring as all fuck. But if I'm not wiping down tables or cooking food, I'm on my phone writing down ideas or corresponding or researching. I love my wife dearly and I need to spend time with her. I have a beautiful dog that needs to go outside and play fetch and walk around. So I have a life. Friends, etc. But I have this, too, and so my life is packed to the fucking nines with shit to do. I take the moments as I get them, and I have a laptop, so I squeeze it in. It's a hustle, and I love it, and wouldn't want it any other way.

GI: What are you working on now and when can we expect to read the whole GOD$ FARE NO BETTER?

JDO: I'm working on a sequel to LDDRE that's almost done. It's called BLACK GUM GODLESS HEATHEN, and the title character is the scariest motherfucker ever. I'm finished with a draft of a prison boxing novella called WHY AND WHAT'S THE REASON FOR. I'm in the planning stages of a crime novel called MATRIARCH. I'm excited about that one. All three protagonists are women. There's a distinct lack of women in crime fiction, and when they do appear, it's as some sexual object, either of desire or revulsion or deception. I wanted to write a novel with women who were just, you know….people. Also, Megan Abbott and Christa Faust and several others are doing their thing, and that thing is awesome, but we really need more women, more people of color, in crime fiction. I should've said that earlier: not to sound weird, but I'd really like some diverse voices at Broken River. Other than that, GOD$ is shaping up to be a beast of a novel, one that I thought would be finished soon, and still hope that it is, but it just keeps unraveling further and further. My typical writing style is very methodical and terse. I promised myself with GOD$ that I would be as self-indulgent as I wanted. It's got aliens and time worms and hitmen that can unhinge their jaws like snakes, and halfway through the novel time gets messed up and different characters switch bodies and like the main characters house ends up inside this drug dealer's compound and yeah. It just gets fucking weird. People are either going to love it or hate it, straight up. But that's my statement to the world, I think. That's the big novel I need to birth.

Thanks for your time, and thank you to everyone who believes in Broken River Books, whether you back it now or later or whenever you can. I love all of you.

J. David Osborne knows and loves crime fiction, and he's bringing that passion to BRB and managed to put together a first batch of books that will please fans of the genre and put the press on the map. If you want to help BRB out, check out the Kickstarter here.