Author Jon Bassoff on the Hardy Boys, the politics of noir writers, and using a pseudonym
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Jon Bassoff, a writer of red-meat crime fiction, released his latest book, Corrosion, on October 1, published by DarkFuse. Bassoff also runs his own publishing company, New Pulp Press. He'll be signing copies at the Boulder Book Store on November 14 at 7:30 p.m. We recently caught up with Bassoff to talk about self-publishing, the politics of noir writers, his Southern gothic influences and why he used a pseudonym.
Your new book, Corrosion, just came out, but you wrote another book before that, right? Under a pseudonym?
Yeah, I wrote a book called The Disassembled Man, under the name Nate Flexer.
Why did you choose to go with a nom de plume?
Well, it's been about six years since I started New Pulp Press, and I actually put The Disassembled Man out with New Press, so part of me wanted the separation between my publisher hat and my writing hat, and I'd also just gotten a job teaching high school, and so I was protecting myself a little bit. It didn't really make a difference. Students find those things out. Now I've got tenure so I'm less concerned, and I wrote this one under my own name.
You mention being a fan of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor on your website. Is Southern gothic a big genre for you?
Yeah, definitely. This book, Corrosion, even though it's set in Colorado, is definitely influenced by that kind of grotesque Southern gothic stuff. I like Faulkner, like a lot of guys, but I really love Flannery O'Connor. Faulkner can be kind of inaccessible, but I liked a lot of the narrative techniques that he used. I'm always interested in authors who deviate from the norm as far as narration is concerned. Faulkner is one of those guys. I read The Sound and the Fury a few years ago, which was a torturous read, but it's one of those books that has really stuck with me and been an influence. With Flannery O'Connor, I had read a bunch of her short stories, and I was going to the University of Iowa, where she had gone.
Were you in the writer's workshop?
No, I wasn't smart enough. But I knew her name. I guess the first story I read of hers was "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." That's such an intense short story that I knew I liked her right away. She only wrote two novels. Her book Wise Blood has a really heavy influence on everything I write. She's such a wonderful writer.
I've just seen the movie with Brad Dourif, despite having several friends recommend that book. I think that was that last movie John Huston ever made, speaking of noir guys.
The movie stays pretty true to the book. John Huston's a great director.
John Huston is the reason I got so into the noir genre. I watched The Maltese Falcon and then got really into Dashiell Hammett. I'm not sure why I like Hammett more than the other big noir writers. Maybe because he's so liberal. You take someone like Mickey Spillane, who writes great stories, but he's also almost kind of a fascist.
I don't know exactly why, but so many crime writers in the '40s and '50s were really left-wing guys. Hammett certainly was, and Jim Thompson, who's probably my favorite, really was. For whatever reason, Mickey Spillane could be on the complete opposite of the political spectrum and still work within the same genre.
I think it might be different permutations of the same skeptical impulse. Noir stories, particularly detective stories, often concern a failing justice system. Liberals are looking for some sense of justice from outside the system. Conservatives probably just like the idea of working a guy over. Maybe that's unfair. I like James Ellroy, and he's pretty conservative.
Ellroy's just nut ball.
Why is Jim Thompson your favorite?
Jim Thompson came a little bit after Hammett, so he was writing more in the '50s and early '60s. The thing that was different about him is that he wrote a lot of his books from the perspective of a psychopath. They're almost all first-person, unreliable narrators. They're murderers, the scum of the earth, but he uses so much humor throughout that you end up cheering for these criminals and hoping that they get away with it. The first book of his that I read was called The Killer Inside Me. They made it into a pretty lousy movie a few years ago. I read that one in the late '90s and that's really what influenced me to write a novel.
Were there a few attempts before you put your first book out?
Yeah, I've got a few of those manuscripts buried in places; I think every author needs to do that. Every author needs to write a few that don't go anywhere.
A few mulligans.
Yeah. There were some that I peeked in with a couple agents, and there was some interest but I didn't really feel comfortable with it. There were others that I didn't even feel comfortable submitting. It wasn't until I wrote The Disassembled Man that I thought, "This one I feel good about."
How did you come to start New Pulp Press? Were you dissatisfied with the publishing industry?
Part of it is being a frustrated writer and seeing other people who had started small presses and were doing okay. I figured that I could do what they were doing. The other part of it was that there weren't any presses that published the kind of stuff that I wanted to publish. There just aren't those small crime-fiction publishers that put out some of the edgier stuff. When I started, I honestly didn't know what I was doing or where this was going. I figured that I'd just get a few local authors, get together, put out three or four books and then call it a day. Then you start having agents and people trying to get in touch with you. It's kind of like that Godfather line: I try to get out but they keep pulling me back in. So I just kept going and so has the press. It's a mixed blessing for me because I do like having the press, but writing is certainly my number one passion. As far as time commitment, I wish I had more time to write.
How many other writers do you have at New Pulp Press?
We've published about 25 books now, so probably about 20 authors.
Do you remember what sparked this interest in crime fiction? Was there something that you read when you were younger that kicked this off?
Well, I wouldn't call them noir, but in elementary school I read every single Hardy Boys book, just like most people who end up writing detective stuff. I hated reading until I found those books. My dad also showed me a lot of those classic noir movies when I was younger. You mentioned the Maltese Falcon, which was one of his favorites, too, and one of the first movies I saw. Even when I was a kid I was just fascinated by those movies, by the trenchcoats, the fedoras and the cigarette-smoking. My writing doesn't really fall directly into the noir category, but there's tons of influences from it.
Noir is such a broad term, though, it's tough to nail down exactly what it means.
People in my little niche have tons of discussions about what is and isn't noir and we've never come to a consensus. Some people think noir is only a film genre and refers specifically to the way the film was shot, that black and white, shadowy look.
I think it's called chiaroscuro lighting, and now my semester of film school has finally been useful. The term was invented for the movies, but most of those movies were adaptations of pulp books. I imagine you'd classify noir differently.
Yeah. Other people think that what characterizes noir is the protagonist who keeps getting deeper and deeper, and one mistake leads to terrible things spiraling out of control. But then there's the point of view of the criminal, or the detective, so there's all sort of definitions. There's always an outlier that resists classification, more than other genres, I think.
You mentioned earlier that you didn't like reading until you found the Hardy Boys books. A pretty common observation I've had of the writers that I interviewed is that a lot of them didn't enjoy reading in school, and the reading habits they cultivated on their own are the ones that stuck. Has that been your experience?
It's interesting. Being a teacher, I have my kids read in an academic setting, but I certainly think you want to be able to read with some freedom. It's that balance. Learning to look at the craft of writing and having a really good professor give you insight into what the craft is can really add to your enjoyment of reading. If it becomes something where you're just reading to complete assignments and doing straight comprehension tests, it does kind of take the joy away, I suppose. I certainly read a lot more after college than I ever did before.
In addition to writing, teaching and publishing, Jon Bassoff spearheads the Noir at the Bar reading events. Dormant since May, Noir at the Bar lurches back to life on December 12, hosting readings from Gary Phillips and Court Merrigan in the event's new setting, Under the Snug, located within Colfax's Irish Snug Pub.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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