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Original Essays | September 9, 2013 5 comments
Editor's note: Chris Bolton is not only a former Powell's employee, he was also once the primary writer for this blog. So we are particularly proud... Continue »
Under the Skinby Will Christopher Baer
I never consciously set out to write noir, although the books and movies I gravitate toward generally tend in that direction.
I started writing, as a kid, my own mutant science fiction: the Wild West crossed with Middle Earth, such that a werewolf might coexist on the same plane with Billy the Kid, goblins and zombies. In college, I primarily studied Shakespeare, Faulkner, James Joyce. The stuff that really grabs me is prose that hits like a blunt object. I write as internally as I can manage, by which I mean I try to turn the narrator's body inside out, to literally get under the skin and find the nausea, vertigo, and despair inherent in ordinary personal interactions. I have a tendency to focus on the visceral minutiae, so when I read my work in public, it feels like the stuff of affliction. One reviewer called the Phineas books "existential noir," a phrase that annoys me intellectually, but sometimes feels accurate.
As I've mentioned in various interviews, I write mostly in binges. I write best when I hole up somewhere, isolate myself completely, what I call going under. I finished Kiss Me, Judas on a two-week writing jag in a borrowed artist's studio in the East Bay that had a coffeemaker, cheap stereo, and toilet. And disturbing paintings on the walls. Penny Dreadful spilled out over the course of several months in a Motel 6, while Hell's Half Acre was written in a rented room in North Beach above a bar. To my mind, the Poe books are primarily about betrayal, guilt, redemption the ways that people damage and fail each other. But they are also about the shifts that occur in everyday reality. I burrowed deepest into this idea in Penny Dreadful, where the reality morphs constantly, moving from the realm of a shared consciousness in a fantasy role-playing game to an internal deconstruction of Ulysses.
There's a fair amount of Biblical imagery in my books, no doubt because of my Southern upbringing, which accounts for a certain hillbilly goth feel. But my books are also all about love whenever someone asks what my books are like, the first words out of my mouth are "scary love stories." Everyone comes from a fucked-up family, everyone was damaged by their parents, and everyone is trying to find some kind of love that makes sense so what else is there to write about? But what most interests me are the ways that people wound each other when they are simply trying to love each other. And when a story is coming to me, I follow my characters. I follow my obsessions, and so the stories that unfold in the Phineas books tend toward crime and violence, mystery and erotica. I just try to get under the skin.