“Poughkeepsie Shuffle weaves a violent tale about banged up people with hearts full of rust. Crossing the border between bleak and bleaker, Kalteis effortlessly shifts gears from broken dreams to petty schemes with a rhythmic voice that’s all his own. If you read one book about gun smuggling, used car sales and hair restoration this year — make it this one.” — S.W. Lauden, author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series
Dietrich Kalteis is a prolific writer. He’s a guy who knows how to get to the meat of a story without wasting a lot of real estate on the page. His latest book, Poughkeepsie Shuffle, starts off sharp (I’m looking at you, finger scene) and stays sharp until the end. You relate when his characters make a crazy-ass decision. We’ve all been there at one point or another. At the same time, these aren’t the sort you’d invite over for a game of Scrabble – no matter how bad you feel for them. Kalteis is that kind of author. He makes you sympathize with someone you’d never want to hang with.
SIDENOTE! Those in Monterey, CA, on October 26th, can meet Dietrich at this year’s Noir at the Bar, which will be held from 7-10 p.m. at the East Village Coffee Lounge in downtown! More details here on the website soon.
See my interview with the author below and learn what drew him into the fine world of crime writing.
WHITEHURST: Poughkeepsie Shuffle deals with ex-con Jeff Nichols, a guy who jumps from a notorious jail right back into the criminal elements. What led you down that path when it came time to write your new book? For that matter, what got you into crime writing in the first place?
KALTEIS: I grew up in Toronto where the story’s set, and I wanted to recreate the city the way I remembered it back in the mid-eighties. It was a grittier, character-filled place back then, before the meatpacking plants and rail lines that once lined the land below Front Street started disappearing, giving way to gentrification and leaving behind its industrial heritage.
And being across the lake from Niagara and Buffalo, the city has easy access to the US, making it the perfect setting for a story revolving around smuggling. I read an article a few years ago about a gunrunning ring that operated between upstate New York and Ontario, being taken down by the OPP and several U.S. law enforcement agencies. And I remember news stories about the increasing gang violence back then, and I wanted to work that into the story.
Then there were a couple of real-life characters that I fictionalized and weaved into this one. For instance, I did meet a guy who claimed he stumbled onto this South American miracle cure for hair restoration. He was so gung-ho about it and spent a fortune and a lot of time trying to launch it, but instead of the riches he expected, he just kept running into a lot of red tape.
Then there’s the Conway character who I loosely based on a guy I met who wanted to teach the world to sing, offering to hire me to help market his new company in exchange for singing lessons. Needless to say, I declined, and I still sing like shit. And there’s the Elvis impersonator, a character based on this guy I met one morning in a copy shop.
I didn’t set out to write crime stories. At first, I wrote a lot of short stories trying to find what worked for me, trying different styles and genres. There was often dark humor in the stories, and that just seemed to fit into a crime story. Plus I’ve got a soft spot for the lowlife characters that usually end up in my crime stories.
WHITEHURST: Say you’re in line at the grocery store and some guy with a case of beer and a bag of Doritos asks you to describe your newest book, what do you tell him?
KALTEIS: Assuming the guy in line offers to share the beer and Doritos, I could give him my elevator pitch after I stopped chewing, It would go something like this: Jeff Nichols, an ex-con recently released from the Don Jail, is discontent with his used-car sales job. Not one to let past mistakes stand in the way of a good score, he’s soon caught up in a gun-running scheme. As things spin out of control, Jeff hangs on, determined to not let anything stop him from hitting the motherlode.
WHITEHURST: Steven Spielberg gives you a jingle one day and wants to film a movie of the book, but he’s not sure who to cast. Anyone you’d recommend for the role of Nichols?
KALTEIS: Bob Odenkirk from Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad fame would make the perfect Jeff.
WHITEHURST: Research is crucial when it comes to great writing, especially writing about bygone eras and seamlessly plopping your readers smack dab in the past, which you do well in this and your other books; how do you get the flow of history into your books (even the 1980s!) without it coming off like a term paper?
KALTEIS: I do the research, then I don’t let it get in the way. I limit how much goes in and I keep descriptions to the barest of details. Too much tends to bog the pace so there has to be this balance. I want to include details that lend credibility, and sometimes they just need a mention, without going into a lot of explanation. And some details give the scene color, creating vivid pictures for the reader.
WHITEHURST: Music. A lot of writers create a soundtrack for their books, others click away at the keyboard in perfect silence. What do you listen to?
KALTEIS: For me, there’s a silence in the music. When I put on my headphones, I play what works with the scene I’m working on. It lets me slip into the story, blocking out the white noise that interrupts everyday life: voices, phones, cars and emergency vehicles going by on the street. For Poughkeepsie Shuffle there was no real theme or soundtrack. And although I like many kinds of music, I was never much for the dance music, post-disco and techno of the era. Instead I went for Springsteen, Warren Zevon, George Thorogood and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And there were a few sixties bands like the Kinks and the Beach Boys making a comeback in the eighties that I still liked.
WHITEHURST: Is there a part of Poughkeepsie Shuffle you like best, a chunk of the book that made you sit back and smile?
KALTEIS: One scene that makes me smile is when Jeff walks into the barber shop and meets the Elvis impersonator. That scene was inspired by this time I took my then five-year-old son to a copy shop, running into Elvis waiting his turn. I got to talking to him, the man standing in his flip-flops, looking like he was coming off a rhinestoned night, with his hair and sideburns askew. He was running off flyers for an upcoming Vegas show at a nearby hotel lounge, so we chatted a bit, then I wished him good luck and got back a bona fide “Thank you very much.” When he left to tack up and pass out the flyers around the neighborhood, I asked my son, “You know who that was?” And I got a very matter-of fact, “Sure, Elvis.”
Some writers are like doctors. They have the stuff you need right when you need it most. Tom Pitts is an author like that. Having read American Static at a time when I was thirsty for a blast of literary danger, the book was like the tall beer Tom’s holding in his author photo. It hit the spot.What starts as a deadly, and compelling, crime thriller; American Static soons takes on a darker twist. The story unfolds to reveal murderous political intrigue, a savage quest for the truth, and weaves in a sweet love story – albeit in a surprising way.
When I got a chance to sit down with Tom, the first thing on my mind was all the great characters sprinkled throughout the book, so I started there…
PATRICK WHITEHURST: You have Quinn, Carl, Tremblay, Steven, Teresa, and a cast of others, nearly all a bit shady. How did you keep them straight?
TOM PITTS: If you’re referring to the juggling of POVs, it’s the only way I see the whole picture. It’s more than just a third-person perspective, it’s a lens through which we can see each character’s motivations. I took this idea a little further than in my last novel, Hustle. And I think the result is a faster moving, more exciting ride.
As far as them being shady, to be fair, kindly ol’ Carl ain’t too shady. But all characters—just like people—come in varying shades of grey. They just aren’t black or white. Mind you, some are blacker than others. I think even the most evil motherfucker in the world still likes a chuckle now and again, still likes to sit down and watch Bob’s Burgers, you know?
WHITEHURST:You’re knocking back a few at the bar and some dude asks you to describe American Static. What do you tell him?
PITTS: I tell ‘em it’s a devil-at-the-crossroads kind of tale. That’s what Quinn is. He’s that intoxicating, charismatic devil that’ll take you on a fast ride to hell.
WHITEHURST:When you gaze at the stars, thinking wistfully on those glorious days spent writing the book, what stands out? What part of American Static really turned you on?
PITTS: I was on a roll after Hustle. I marched forward on this one full of cocky confidence. The plot unfolded and the puzzle presented itself to me perfectly. I love that feeling when the pieces fit together. What I remember most—when I put together the political backstory that’s the impetus for the events—is jumping up from the keyboard and yelling Yes!
WHITEHURST:What can you tell us about an audiobook?
PITTS: I’m very excited about it. It’s the first audio book being done for one of my stories. The narrator, Daniel Greenberg, has done an excellent job. I listened to a lot of audio books during a hellish commute I endured a few years back. And I mean a LOT of audio books, and Daniel has just the even-handed style I like—not too dramatic, not too flat. I’m told it’ll be done by the start of May, so I’m hoping it’ll be available in June. If it goes well, I’m going to do one for Hustle and the new book, 101.
WHITEHURST: The movie question now: who would you cast? I could almost see De Niro as Quinn, maybe a younger version. Thoughts?
PITTS: I do hate being pinned down by this question. Once I have someone in mind it’s hard to get them out of my head, but … since you asked. I think I’d like to see Frank Grillo as Quinn. He’d be perfect for it. He’s got something scary going on just under the surface. It’d be tough for a just any old pretty boy to sell it. Frank has a bit of grit. The kind of guy you can never feel quite comfortable around.
WHITEHURST:What about bands? Who do you listen to when you type?
PITTS: Nobody. I’ve always worked in silence. I’ve gone so far as to stuff toilet paper in my ears and pump white noise through some headphones to find silence. Rob Hart recently asked on Twitter about playlists for writing, the soundtrack that a writer prepares for each novel. A light went on over my head—a playlist to block the world out? Brilliant. Maybe I’ll try it the next time around. Especially if it’s a period piece.
WHITEHURST:What’s the story these days? What are you working on?
PITTS: I just finished the final edits for my next novel, 101. It’s coming out in November from Down & Out. It takes my shifting POV philosophy even further. I’ve very proud of the book. It’s fast-moving, funny, and full of wild characters. It’s set against the backdrop of a pot farm in Humboldt County six months before it went legal in California. I spent a fair amount of time in those hills doing research—yeah, that’s what we’ll call it—and I hope it captures the tone of the hills. I’m still working on the Hustle script and doing the dance with Hollywood. Hopefully I’ll have some solid news to share about that soon. I can say things are heating up though. Then, I suppose, it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work on a new novel. I can’t wait to get back to that strange headspace where I spend a few hours a day in the unpredictable world of my own fiction.
Not every day is peaches and cream. Some days are just terrible. But when you find a good read, it’s always peaches and cream. This was the case when I read Michael J. Clark’s debut crime novel Clean Sweep, out this month from the fine folks over at ECW Press. It’s all warm and fuzzy, in a violent crime-filled way, which is fine with me. Check out my interview with Clark below!
PATRICK WHITEHURST:There are a number of great characters in Clean Sweep. How did you develop them and how did you manage to keep them all straight?
MICHAEL J. CLARK: We start with Tommy Bosco. The good pastor is loosely based on a good friend of mine, a reformed smuggler with the gift of gab when it comes to his days of criminality. Just when I think he’s told me every story, he makes my jaw drop again. ‘Tommy’ just told me a tale about the night he was shot five times, and drove himself to the hospital. I’m sure there’s some truth in that story, be it ever so slight. Maybe it was only twice, maybe he was grazed, or it could have just been cuts from a bullet-shattered side window as he sped away. ‘Tommy’ has this ability to either make you love the story, or love the bullshit. If it’s all just bullshit, it’s the best bullshit I’ve ever heard, double album-worthy.
I’ve read many a police procedural in my time, so coming up with cops that were clean, semi-clean, or dirty/homicidal-for-hire wasn’t too much of a stretch. In retrospect, Clean Sweep could have been written as a police procedural. I decided to bring the fringe characters out of the shadows. Think of the guy who’s always loading a van while being questioned by a pair of homicide cops on Law & Order. Doesn’t he have a story beyond those crates? Maybe, just maybe, Man Loading Van is the story. Same with the person who becomes the corpse. The unfortunate stiff is always the last to know, right up to the point that the hammer hits the back of the shell casing.
In the case of Clean Sweep, I decided to ‘compartmentalize’ the various groups until the need arose to intertwine them. (Uh-oh, I think I’ve got a touch of ‘Tommy’s’ bullshit creeping in here). Keeping the various characters/groups where I needed them to be meant that there were only so many of them peering over my shoulder during the keyboard clatter. It was the only way I could handle it without turning into Jack Torrance.
I’m a huge fan of conspiracies. I truly believe that the development of ‘misdirection technology’ (that TV set you call a phone) is not only planned, its truly required to ensure shadowy success.The conspiracy I floated in Clean Sweep has its seedlings in the sandy soil of historical record in Canada. I just added the Miracle-Gro.
WHITEHURST: A lot of writers listen to a “soundtrack” when they write, music that inspires their words. Was this the case with Clean Sweep?
CLARK: There are a few snippets of music in the book. I enjoy jazz, and I’m learning more about it, though I’m anything but an expert on the notes the musicians play, or the ones they don’t. The ‘music’ has more to do with the research, like watching reams of vintage YouTube that relate to the story. I could listen to British announcers reporting on the 1950 Manitoba flood into the wee small hours. I should mention that my second book is set in 1985 in Winnipeg. There’s plenty of music in that romp, and there had to be. (Silly haunted radios…)
WHITEHURST:Picture yourself plopped down at a seedy dive bar. What would you tell the bartender who asks what your book is about? It’s gotta be different than how you’d explain it to a publicist, right?
CLARK: Well, lets assume that I’m into my third quality scotch by this point, neat. “Well friend, Clean Sweep is about the Winnipeg that no one wants to talk about, but everyone knows is there, just like any town on the face of the earth. And do you have any more peanuts?”
WHITEHURST:Without giving anything away, what part of writing the book made you sit back and think, “I’m a rock star?”
CLARK: Rock star? I’d settle for Polka King right now. I think its when you come up with those fun little phrases, the ‘you’re gonna need a bigger boat’ nuggets. You wonder if they’ll have the same impact for the reader as they did for you.
WHITEHURST:Everyone asks this, so I will too. Who would you pick to be in the Clean Sweep movie?
CLARK: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a few people in the film, theatre, and comedy world in Winnipeg. I’ve been enjoying the adaptation of Caught by Lisa Moore on the Mother Corporation, AKA the CBC. There’s such an incredible pool of Canadian talent to pull from. Kristen Kreuk from Burden of Truth could have her pick of roles. I’ve gotta get Adam Beach in there somewhere. Many of the characters are perfect for the abundance of character actors that abound. I’ve been a fan of Michael Ironside since Scanners. (A perfect Ernie Friday.) As for Pastor Bosco, I’m still thinking. ‘Tommy’ looks a lot like Richard Rawlings from Fast ‘n Loud. Hmmmmm…
Thanks for the great interview, Michael! Clean Sweep is available now. Get your hands on it here.
Thanks to all the great authors who came out for last night’s event at The Press Club in Seaside, CA, and to everyone else who gave us their Friday night. From bodies in trunks to bodies full of junk, these folks make an impression and got the criminal minds flowing. Special thanks to Dietrick Kalteis for making it all happen! Old Capitol Books did a sweet job with the book sales, almost as busy as the bar…
It’s always a delight to sit down with authors and talk shop. It’s especially cool when you get to sit down with one you admire. I got lucky with Dietrich Kalteis. His new book, Zero Avenue, is out Tuesday. The book features a gritty punk tale of crime and survival and takes no prisoners in its detail and scope. A great read. Look hereto get your copy.
Whitehurst: How did you come up with this story? The writing feels so visceral one could almost imagine you had been there.
Dietrich: I do remember the times well, and listening to the music again and talking to people who lived during those times helped a lot with reviving the vibe. What I liked about the punk rock scene back then was its edge and the ‘us against them’ outlook, how that indie ‘shake it up’ attitude threw a middle finger to the status quo. It made a sharp contrast to what some considered a sleepy backwater town at the time. For me, it made the perfect setting for a crime novel.
It was easy to identify with the characters and that ‘shake it up’ attitude. I guess I had a bit of that rebel soul back then, and I did know people growing up who were into the music scene and were a lot like the characters in the book. And I knew some guys who tried to rob a pot field and had rock salt shot at them. So yeah, I guess parts of this one were close to home.
Whitehurst:Having dabbled in punk fandom in the 80s (DRI still gets me misty-eyed), I recognized a number of names, but not all of them. Are these all real bands and how much punk did you listen to in preparing for this book?
Dietrich: I always listen to music while I write, and I play what goes with what I’m working on. For Zero Avenue I got my hands on as much of the early Vancouver punk sound as I could find: D.O.A, the Subhumans, Pointed Sticks, the Dishrags, Payolas, Braineaters, Young Canadians, the Modernettes, the Reactors. I added some early Toronto bands on my playlists, bands like the Viletones, the Demics, the Diodes, the Cardboard Brains, the Mods, and the Ugly. And also Teenage Head and the Forgotten Rebels from Hamilton. I rounded it out with bands from the U.S. like the Ramones and the Stooges. And there were the Clash and the Sex Pistols from the U.K., and lots more.
Frankie’s band Waves of Nausea is, of course, made up. So is Middle Finger. And I threw some real-life personalities in the shadows among the characters I made up.
Whitehurst: What, if anything, didn’t make it into the book that you would have liked to explore further? I loved how the Vancouver punk scene could easily have been the San Francisco punk scene or anywhere for that matter, as the struggle for discord was apparently the same no matter where you happened to live.
Dietrich: There are some great books on the subject that filled in a lot of the details: Guilty of Everything by John Armstrong, Perfect Youth by Sam Sutherland, I, Shithead and Talk-Action=Zero, both by Joe Keithley helped relive those times. And there was Bloodied but Unbowed, an awesome documentary by Susanne Tabata. It’s jam-packed with clips, music and tales from that first wave of Vancouver’s punk scene. Then there were some firsthand tales. In fact, there was so much that could have been included, that I felt I had to be careful of what I did include so as not to slow the pace of the story.
There were many interesting details that I could have expanded on, from the self-published fanzines like Snotrag that kept a finger on the punk subculture, to the DIY recordings and local record labels that sprang up. One thing that I would have like to explore more was how the local scene seemed to line more with what was happening down the coast in San Francisco and L.A. than it did with what was happening in the punk scene in other parts of this country.
Whitehurst: You have written crime stories set in a number of settings, San Francisco at the turn of the last century and Vancouver at the start of the punk movement, what era do you have your sights set on next for your next book?
Dietrich: Poughkeepsie Shuffle is complete except for some copy edits and is due out next year. It takes place in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy fresh out of the infamous Don Jail. He gets mixed up in a gun-smuggling ring operating from a used car lot. The outfit brings guns in from upstate New York, and Jeff’s a guy who’s willing to bend the rules to get on the fast track to riches, a guy who doesn’t let the lessons from past mistakes get in the way of a good score in the future.
The story’s set at a time when I lived there, and I knew it well. On recent trips back I’ve been amazed by how much the city has expanded and grown since those days, so there’s a little nostalgia in there for me.
Right now I’m working on a story set in the dust bowl days of Kansas. It a story about a couple coping with drought, dust storms and debt. And they’ve got some interesting, although not legal ways, of saving their farm from the banks.
Whitehurst: Imagining a gritty, beat-up HBO mini series of this book, who would you picture as the leads, particularly Frankie and Marty?
Dietrich: When I’m writing, I always picture my stories like movie scenes and my characters like actors. For Frankie del Rey I saw her as a punked-up Krysten Ritter with a touch of Patti Smith’s edge. Lose the French accent and Vincent Cassel could play Marty Sayles. That guy’s got the look for it. And for Johnny Falco, I think a young Johnny Depp would be right.
– Bio: Dietrich Kalteis is the award-winning author of Ride the Lightning, The Deadbeat Club, Triggerfish, House of Blazes and Zero Avenue. Nearly fifty of his short stories have been published internationally, and he lives with his family in West Vancouver, British Columbia. Visit his website here.