Tom Piccirilli shares a few words on ‘The Last Kind Words’

Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I think of Tom Piccirilli every time I see that quote. Piccirilli’s work is as honest, raw and emotional as anything you’ll find on the shelves. It’s also as beautifully written as anything out there, and I’ve always felt that he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.
Hopefully that’s all about to change. His new novel, The Last Kind Words, is due from Bantam on June 12, and early reviews are liberally tossing around words like “perfect,” “stunning,” and “superb.” Tom’s doing a blog tour leading up to publication, and I’m honored that he’s stopping by October Country for a visit.
I’m intrigued by the idea that the characters in The Last Kind Words are all named after dog breeds. It’s one of those little details that few writers can pull off – or could even think of in the first place. Where does the quirky stuff like that come from?

Dogs are iconic symbols for me. A dog alone in the yard, howling at night, running wild in the street. A mad dog, a bad dog, a good dog. Symbolically they just seem to dovetail perfectly when discussing a family whose idiosyncratic members are always clashing. They attack, they bark, they bite, they offer company and unconditional love.

Writing is such an intensely personal act for you. Have you ever written anything that you were afraid to let your friends and family read – things that might cause them to worry about you, or that they might recognize and be upset about? If so, what did you do in those situations?

I try to get as close to blood and bone as I can when dealing with certain familial and personal issues/emotions. What’s the point of writing about something and lying about it? Or holding back? Or only going half as deep as you really feel? If I’m going to go deep then I’m going to present whatever I find there the way that it is, whether that’s ugly or embarrassing or painful. I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten to close to a deep nerve for anyone else in my circle. As I’ve pointed out before, almost nobody I might write about reads my stuff. And since they won’t read this either, they still don’t know I’m writing about them or my relationships with them.

If you had to pick one book right now to represent who you are as an author, which one would it be, and why?

Well, since we’re talking who I am now, what I am now, what I think and feel now, then it would have to be The Last Kind Words. It contains the themes and substance and elements that interest me the most at the moment, that have the most powerful draw, the most powerful effect. Most of my work contain similar, if not the same, ingredients, but the stew’s always cooking and changing. An extra dash of salt here or there, a new gravy, a new garnish.

You’ve often said that you didn’t choose writing – writing chose you. Do you wish something else had chosen you instead? If so, what?

Monarchism. I’d like to rule the nation with an iron hand.

Let’s say that The Last Kind Words becomes the breakout hit that you deserve, and Hollywood comes calling. To me, the important thing about a Tom Piccirilli movie wouldn’t be the cast, it would be the screenwriter and director adapting the work. Who do you think could capture your unique sensibilities and voice and bring a faithful adaptation to the screen?

If I could choose anyone I think I’d choose (David) Fincher. The man’s a genius, especially of dark mood and style. His crime films are among the most effective ever. Seven and Zodiac are two personal favorites, and you could probably say Fight Club fit under the umbrella of “crime,” at least partially. But I wouldn’t kick any Hollywood gun off my futon for eating crackers.

“Using Destruction to Build Something Beautiful” – a guest post by Lee Thompson

Lee Thompson writes fiction with a dark tinge – just the way we like it here in October Country. He began selling short stories in 2010, and is gearing up for the May release of his debut novel Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children from Delirium Books. He’s been on a month-long blog tour promoting the book and talking about his approach to the craft of writing, and I’m honored to host his latest stop. Take it away, Lee. 

Using Destruction to Build Something Beautiful
(The art of conflict, subplot, and backstory)
by Lee Thompson

Silly me, I realize as I begin to write this that I could dedicate five pages to conflict, five to subplot, and five to backstory, and a final five to how they all connect. But that’s just not going to work on a blog. Lol. So, I’ll do my best to keep it shortish by writing some lines that you can chew on.

Three writers who I believe excel at writing conflict, subplot and backstory are Peter Straub, Greg Gifune and Tom Piccirilli. These things live and breathe in their books. They’re masters and if you sat down with one of their books and a highlighter to mark all the passages each presents in their work you’d be a busy bastard.

When we’re presented with a character we care about we hurt to see him suffer and love to see him win. He faces conflicts from the past and present, internal and external. They’re building blocks to give the story legs and help our man grow or die. There are conflicts of the heart, of the mind, and of the soul. Some stories stick to mostly present and external conflict. They can be fast, fun reads. Others delve deeply into internal and past/present troubles. The best marriages, and most rounded fiction I’ve read (again, by people like Straub, Gifune and Piccirilli) make the searing of internal/external, past/present conflict seem nearly effortless.

Life is full of a thousand daily sorrows and aggravations. Those conflicts add depth to fiction on top of the main story line conflict: being late, being yelled at, letting ourselves down, noisy children, a lack of focus, distractions, self-doubt, a yearning for a better future than the life we had in the past.

But getting what we want is seldom easy, and that in itself creates more conflict.

Backstory goes hand in hand with conflict, creates it even, as characters hang on to wrongs done to them, words spoken in anger, old jobs they compare their new job to, old relationships they compare with present ones. There is a lot to be said about a character’s childhood and what formed them into the complicated creature they are now. Backstory feeds coals to what was once thought dormant fires. Backstory is dynamic. When it’s not, we know it: our eyes glaze over, our pulse weakens, and the seconds crawl by. When I lived on the streets I met people who had despicable, sad, and horrible backstories. But they weren’t boring. Their histories helped defined them whether they liked it or not. It informed their choices whether they were aware or oblivious. A run-of-the-mill backstory is safe, sure, people can relate to it, but secrets add spice. I’ve got secrets I’ll never share—things I’m ashamed of, scares that made me question reality and the fancy colorful box it dwells in.

Subplots also create extra depth. Like conflict and backstory they connect characters’ lives. While our main character is fighting his main battle, internally and externally, he has things from everyday life he’s still dealing with on some level. And, to boot, our minor characters’ lives aren’t static. They’re moving in the background, living their lives, some of them making choices that knowingly or unknowingly can have an impact on our lead character’s story.

To witness these weaved masterfully I suggest three books: Peter Straub’s Koko, Greg Gifune’s The Bleeding Seasonand Tom Piccirilli’s The Dead Letters.

Thanks for the read! And thanks, Blu, for having me!

-Lee Thompson