Last month I traveled north from my hometown of Los Angeles, to Pegasus Books in Berkeley, California. I was there to take part in a panel discussion about the new Down & Out Books anthology, Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns.
The anthology’s editor, Eric Beetner, was moderating a group of contributors including myself, Joe Clifford, Kelli Stanley, Holly West and Tom Pitts (who recently re-released his excellent San Francisco junkie noir novel, Hustle, with Down & Out Books).
We had a lively discussion that kept me laughing and made me think. Beetner asked interesting questions that challenged the panel members — some who’ve owned guns, and some who haven’t — to consider how, when and why we use guns in our fiction.
He also asked each of us to talk about the stories we chose to donate, which I found fascinating as a reader. I’d already devoured most of Unloaded at that point, but the responses to this question really highlighted the impressive variety of writing styles in this collection.
My own story, “Itchy Feet,” is about suburban family who is having a yard sale while their lives fall apart. The father, Joe, is a successful businessman with a dark past. His wife is so cold and distant that Joe suspects she might be having an affair with one of the neighbors. Their teenaged son is openly defiant, even as he prepares to head off to college. Everything is miserable until an old friend of Joe’s turns up dressed as a clown.
The inspiration for “Itchy Feet” came from hosting a yard sale of my own. Seated among piles of possessions I was trying to unload, I was struck by the probing questions some of the strangers asked me:
“Why are you selling this?”
“Where did you get it?
“How long have you lived here?”
They seemed to be looking for something else from me, a juicy backstory to go with the knick-knacks they bought for quarters. I can’t say that I blame them. I’ve been fascinated with finding cracks in facades for most of my life.
Earlier this year, Down & Out Books released my standalone mystery novella, Crosswise. It started out as a short story that I wrote while vacationing in Seaside on the Florida Panhandle. If you haven’t been, it’s a beautiful resort destination with brightly painted clapboard houses, powdery white beaches and brilliant blue water.
In other words, it’s the perfect place to set a series of gruesome murders.
By viewing the idyllic, almost cartoonish town through the dark filter of my imagination, I was able to explore the tension between what we’re presented and what might be lurking in the shadows. I’ve heard this kind of writing described as “Sunshine Noir” and, at least in my case, I think it fits.
After submitting a story to the Unloaded anthology, I went back and looked at some of my previously published works through the “no guns” lens. I was surprised to discover that while there are guns in Crosswise, most of the violence is a bit more colorful.
This re-examination of my own writing is a direct result of how Unloaded has challenged me as a reader. Anthologies like this one and the discussions they spark — whether at a bookstore in Berkeley, on social media, or over a drink — remind us that stories are a great way to connect with other people around ideas.
That might be a big motivation for me to write, but it’s always been one of the main reasons I read. Well, that and all the sex and violence. Oh, and because I like solving mysteries. Why do you read?