Interview with Leonard Fritz

 Interview, Leonard Fritz, New Pulp Press  Comments Off on Interview with Leonard Fritz
Nov 222011

Leonard Fritz’s In Nine Kinds of Pain, the latest from New Pulp Press, is one of those novels that knocks you over the head and leaves you in a daze, as if there’s one of those spring-loaded boxing gloves behind each page. Fritz is full of surprises, ideas, and especially stories, and his debut novel is as audacious as it is awesome. I could keep gushing, but instead I’ll just post a link to my review so we can get on with the interview.
Pulp Serenade: Where did the idea for In Nine Kinds of Pain come from?
Leonard Fritz: Well, I wanted to write some Detroit stories, so I began piecing together personal stories with stories from the neighborhood I lived in. I just followed the ol’ chestnut, “Write what you know.” This book is what I knew.
PS: How similar is the final product to your original conception of the novel? Were there any big changes during the writing or editing process?
LF: The final product is very close to the way I envisioned it from the beginning. I kind of work that way, where I have the concept and then I flesh it out. I usually just allow the ending to happen, though, see where it goes and where the characters take it. In the editing process, there were some things that needed updating, like any reference to any part of Tiger Stadium. I had the old ballpark as a meeting place, but more of the ballpark kept getting torn down every week, so I had to eventually omit that location altogether. I wanted the story to be relevant to now.
PS: Are there any parts of the book based on real events? Like the whole garbage dump-drug smuggling operation?
LF: Most all of the book is based on real events and real people, in whole or in part. And the garbage dump thing was real, too. When I heard about it I thought it was too cool not to include in the story.
PS: Some of my favorites parts of the book are the “Here is Wisdom” segments that engage one-on-one with the reader. Even though they’re not commenting directly on the story, they’re setting the stage. Why did you choose to deliver the information in this manner as opposed to inserting it more conventionally into the narrative?
LF: Because I thought all that info as narrative for the characters would slow the story down, and I wanted it to be fast-paced. And I didn’t want to have the characters deliver all that foundation because they’re not thinking about that—they’re just living their lives. But, I needed a way for the reader to know how Detroit clicks in order to help them understand the why’s and how’s of the story, so I decided to incorporate those look-ins.

PS: To me, the main character of In Nine Kinds of Pain seems to be Detroit itself. You even dedicate the book to the city. It’s not a pretty portrait, but it’s very affectionate. What is your own relationship to the city like? Are you a native resident?
LF: I lived in Southwest Detroit for about 35 years, so I did my time. I’ve worked for the city and was an elected official for the area and loved the city but, like in the story, it won’t love you back. I wanted Detroit itself to be the antagonist, and I guess that must have come through.
PS: So, would you recommend Detroit as a tourist destination? If you knew someone was visiting the city, what would you recommend they do, and where would you recommend they definitely not go?
LF: If you visit Detroit, either stay right near the ballparks—I mean, don’t leave that entertainment district at all—or venture way out into the suburbs. Otherwise, you’re like that idiot I describe at the beginning of the book, wandering into the neighborhoods, not knowing what you’re getting yourself into. Come see the Tigers or Red Wings, soak up the atmosphere of a blue-collar town, then leave immediately.
PS: There are no conventional heroes in your book—no beacons of morality, goodwill, or upstanding citizenship, and no one that you would really want to model your own life after. Yet there is something appealing to them… For me, it had to do with how much more alive they seemed the closer to destruction they came. As I said in my review, they seemed to really appreciate life, even if it wasn’t an ideal one. I was wondering what it was that drew you to the characters, and made you want to get into their heads and under their skin?
LF: I guess just wanting to have characters that were flawed, because that’s what I saw. Even the people we look up to, all of us, are flawed in some way. And I’ve known some great people, some people that would literally lay down their life for me, people that have my back to this day and have giant hearts of gold, but would be considered cold-hard criminals in normal society. It’s a strange dynamic to live in.
PS: Why did you choose to include comic panel inserts throughout the novel? Did you ever consider writing the entire story as a graphic novel?
LF: I’ve always liked to draw, and I wanted to have some fun. At first I thought of illustrating parts of the text, but then I thought little sidebar stories that were illustrated outside of the text would be more interesting. I felt that the whole novel itself didn’t really translate well graphically, though, like the “Here is Wisdom” parts.
PS: There are several illustrative homages in the book: Daniel Clowes, Margaret Kilgallen, Jorge Longaron, and Alden McWilliams. Could you say a few words about these artists, and why you chose to pay tribute to them in this way?
LF: I love Clowes’ darkness and knew that he would be one of the artists that I needed to include in this tribute. Kilgallen’s street sort of tagging quality caught my attention a few years back, and I grew to appreciate her work. Longaron and McWilliams reminded me of the old Sunday comics or the Saturday morning cartoons, and I always loved those.
PS: Who are some of the writers who have been the biggest influence on you?
LF: Bukowski and Irvine Welsh were my biggest influences, I think, just because they gave me permission to write stories that weren’t happy, and I think I needed that. They were sort of my springboard backwards to writers like Camus. And I didn’t read Hubert Selby Jr. until someone in grad school said I wrote like him. I gravitate to the dark and unusual writers, which, I guess, isn’t much of a surprise.
PS: How about Detroit writers—who has gotten the feel of the city right, in your eyes? And what about Detroit on film—any favorite movies set in the city?
LF: Maybe Robocop? I don’t know. I like Elmore Leonard but not because of his Detroit portrayals, but because of his characterizations. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Detroit someone or seen a Detroit something and said, “Wow, they really captured the city!” I’m trying, but I can’t think of any who’ve done the real Detroit justice.
PS: You close the novel with a Nietzsche quote: “To expect that strength will not manifest itself as strength…is every bit as absurd as to expect that wakens will manifest itself as strength.” I was wondering why you chose that quote to end the book? In some ways, it reminded me of the parable of the scorpion who stung the frog who was carrying it across the river and explained, “I could not help myself. It is my nature.”
LF: Well, I wanted to end with a quote and Nietzsche’s philosophy definitely lends itself Detroit. Then, once I started re-reading the manuscript, that ending quote popped into my head, because it was very appropriate—don’t wander into the Murder Capitol of the World and expect anything less that what it is, and don’t expect it to change and get mad when it doesn’t. It is what it is, and the people are what they are.
PS: How did you get hooked up with Jon Bassoff and New Pulp Press?
LF: He gave me an opportunity so I sent him my stuff. I’m grateful he gave my writing a chance. Getting published is one of the biggest crap-shoots out there, I’ve found—you really have to have the right person read your stuff, the one who likes your style and your story, and hit them at the right time. I didn’t realize until I was getting my MFA how polarizing my writing was—I had some who loved it to death and maybe worshipped it too much, and others who hated it so much they hated me personally.
PS: How do you discover new books to read? Local booksellers, online, word of mouth…
LF: All of the above. I like to troll around small bookstores, large bookstores, go online, read reviews and such. I did a reading at a small indy bookstore a few weeks ago, and while I was in the back waiting to come out to talk and sign the book, I was looking through their stacks and making a mental list of new books I wanted to get my hands on.

PS: I saw online that you also did the cover for Jake Hinkson’s upcoming Hell on Church Street. Do you do a lot of graphic work outside of writing fiction?
LF: I’d have to say I’m more of a graphic artist than a writer. I know that’s poison to admit, but visual art will always be my first love. I like fooling around on the computer and doing design things, but I really love to take pen to paper and just draw. For me, the line between telling a story with text and telling it through visuals is blurred, and I’d like to incorporate more visuals into my text for the next one.
PS: What’s up next for you? Your website mentions a new novel for next year, You Can Kill Anyone. Can you say a few words about that book, or any other projects you have in the works?
LF: You Can Kill Anyone could be considered a continuation of Nine Kinds, but it’s really a stand-alone story. Some of the characters make appearances in the next one, like Father Costa in a flashback. Jimmy Bible is a main character in the next one, where he is only mentioned as an ancillary character in Nine Kinds. But, it’s a lot like the neighborhood, where you may not know someone personally, but you know their father or sister or cousin and you can relate to them because of that relationship. We’ll see how the next one goes.

"In Nine Kinds of Pain" by Leonard Fritz (New Pulp Press, 2011)

 Leonard Fritz, New Pulp Press  Comments Off on "In Nine Kinds of Pain" by Leonard Fritz (New Pulp Press, 2011)
Nov 122011

Opening Leonard Fritz’s In Nine Kinds of Pain is like stepping into the Noir Asylum for the Mentally Insane. It’s cracked-out crime fiction at its finest and most fucked up. There’s power in Fritz’s words, and every page seems capable of catching you off-guard, holding you at gunpoint, stealing your wallet, busting your nose, and leaving you bleeding, black and blue, and blubbering—in a metaphorical sense, that is. In real life, I’d never volunteer for an ordeal like that, but in a book, that’s exactly the sort of stylish bravado I want to see, and it is doubly impressive coming from a debut novelist. In Nine Kinds of Pain is ambitious, but more importantly it is also successful—not to mention batshit crazy, and pretty damn funny.

How does one even go about describing the story? It’s like an explosion of bad people, bad intentions, and bad feelings. There’s Baby, a prostitute who is left bleeding on a pile of garbage by a brutish client; now she wants to get the hell out of Detroit once and for all. Then there’s her two-timing boyfriend, Dante, who’s gotten involved with some dangerous dudes. Father Costa is an alky priest with a bad case of DTs, and whose increasingly whacked-out religious visions all center around Baby. Then you got Dallas, a desperate, horny, and suicidal cop whose wife has dumped him. Meanwhile, Dallas’ crackhead colleague, Ron Frady, is knee-deep in an a big scheme that will either make him rich or get everyone above killed.

Phew—that wasn’t easy, and even that doesn’t do In Nine Kinds of Pain justice. Fritz has constructed a story that doesn’t rely on a linear mystery. There’s only one way this story can end—and that is badly. We know “whodunit” because we’re following them every step of the way. In true noir fashion, Fritz is more interested in the motivating factors that force his characters to make such terrible, foolish decisions. Take for example Father Costa. When he turns the vestry upside-down for a bottle of anything to take the edge off, we feel every shake and every drop of cold sweat. And as his preoccupation for Baby turns into a delusional nightmare in which he plays Jesus, we walk through every Biblical fantasy alongside him. By the end, little that Father Costa says or does makes much sense in the real world, but inside his head, he is playing out a religious drama of futile redemption and martyrdom. Who knows what the rest of the world thinks of Father Costa—we never see him from their perspective. Fritz burrows deep inside the priest’s own booze-addled consciousness, and from his perspective, everything is at it should be. It’s a wild ride seeing the world through Father Costa’s eyes, and he’s only one character among many in this psycho-prismatic novel.

When it comes to style, Leonard Fritz can be as daring and bonkers as his characters—but he’s also a heck of a lot smarter and more self-controlled. The fractured narrative and experimental prose suggested William Burroughs, while the stream of consciousness and gutter rhapsody reminded me of Henry Miller. I mention these authors not only to suggest the sophistication and high-quality of Fritz’s writing, but also to point out that In Nine Kinds of Pain isn’t your run-of-the-mill crime fiction novel. It’s a welcome reminder of just how far-reaching, diverse, and experimental the genre can be. Fritz is an exciting and fearless writer. Throughout the novel, he breaks the narrative and delivers a series of chapters titled, “Here is Wisdom.” These are didactic, direct-addresses from an unknown narrator to the reader, talking about Detroit, the hierarchy of the streets, and the down-low on politics, drugs, and violence that contextualize the story for non-natives. It’s like a tour guide given by Travis Bickle: bitter, disgusted, intolerant, but strangely understanding and poetically perceptive. Fritz’s literary arsenal also includes comic panels (drawn by himself—damn, he’s talented!), and even a mathematical equation, to tell his story.

Call me crazy, but as dark as the book is, I also thought it was pretty funny. That’s one of the things I like most about noir—things are terrible, but sometimes you just have to laugh. And I laughed a lot when I was reading In Nine Kinds of Pain. One of my favorite passages had to do with Dallas and his failed attempt to get back with his ex, Liz. As if things couldn’t get worse for the guy, when he gets home, his neighbor’s dog is gone. The guy is so pathetic, he doesn’t even have his own dog to mourn over—he has to look across the street. Here’s the passage as written by Fritz: “He had been saddened after his date with Liz, a date that didn’t go as well as he had hoped, a date in which he had pulled out his penis. He’d been further saddened when he’d returned home and had discovered that Smiley, the one true bright spot in his life, the smile in most smile-less days, was gone.”

I’m not sure whether the Detroit Chamber of Commerce should put a hit out on Fritz or give the man an award—hopefully the latter—because as vicious and vile as the city comes across in the book, it is written with such loving pride and protectiveness. You get the feeling that if anyone else said anything bad about Detroit, Fritz would be the first one to step up and defend his city. While New York City inches closer and closer towards Disneyland, Fritz’s Detroit still has an edge to it. I’ve never been to there but, oddly enough, after reading this book, I kind of want to go. (But I’ll probably stay away from the neighborhoods where Baby, Dallas, and company hang out.)

In Nine Kinds of Pain isn’t for the cozy-inclined—there’s nothing wrong those types of novels, and I occasionally want something lighter as well, but it is worth knowing what you are getting in for with this book. These characters are at rock bottom, and they aren’t redeemed by any hearts of gold or final acts of absolution. They’re addicts, dealers, prostitutes, killers, no good lovers and back stabbers. The best you could say is that they do what they have to do to survive, but even that’s a stretch. What makes them appealing to me, at least, is that when they reach the end of their proverbial rope, they all seem more alive than ever before. Their lives may suck, and they may hate Detroit, but man, they really want to hang on to what little they have. In a weird way, they value existence more than many. These aren’t boring characters. They’re not apathetic and they don’t sit down and watch sitcoms until the cows come home. They’re active and they’re crazy and they’re funny and they’re interesting as hell. Sure, they screw up their lives and everyone else’s, but at least they don’t go down quietly. There’s something wonderful about reading characters so full of life, even if it is an admittedly unpleasant one. But thankfully, even that doesn’t stop them from living—or dying—to the fullest.