Joseph B. Atkins is a native North Carolinian who worked on tobacco farms and in textile mills in his youth, served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and studied philosophy in Munich, Germany. A veteran journalist, he worked at several newspapers in the South and as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C., before becoming a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Atkins is author of Covering for the Bosses, a book about the Southern labor movement and journalists’ failure to tell its story. His fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Hardboiled, and his novella, Crossed Roads, was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Awards in New Orleans.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Casey’s Last Chance. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: It’s 1960 in the South, when the region is about to bust wide open with the struggle over civil rights. Casey Eubanks is a small-time hustler in North Carolina on the run after a fight with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin dead. A crony sets him up with a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a well-heeled, politically connected former Nazi who needs a hit done on labor organizer Ala Gadomska for stirring up workers at a Duren garment factory in Mississippi. Casey’s hired, but things go wrong, and he’s on the run again—from Duren’s goons as well as the cops. Enter Martin Wolfe, an alcoholic journalist who tries to recruit Casey to join him and rogue FBI agent Hardy Beecher in a plan to bring Duren down. Casey steals Wolfe’s car and returns home to Orella, where a bloody shootout with a Duren goon convinces him to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance, a wild plan that might work but could also blow up in their faces.
Several of the major characters in Casey’s Last Chance also appeared in an earlier, unpublished novel of mine, and I wanted to see what the future had in store for them. Also, on a trip to North Carolina a few years ago, a 90-year-old cousin of mine told me a story about the black sheep of the Atkins family, a man who’d been in and out of trouble and prison most of his life. After many dissolute years, the black sheep tried to return home but was turned out by relatives, who bought him a bus ticket to Charlotte and told him not to come back. Soon afterward, he’s walking down a city street, has a heart attack, and dies. The relatives pooled resources to pay for a headstone and grave. This inverse version of the prodigal son’s story helped inspire Casey’s journey.
Q: What do you think makes a good hardboiled crime novel? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: It’s tempting to resist labeling, but it is what it is. I wrote for many years in a kind of Southern gothic mode, still do, but then I discovered Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Cornel Woolrich, that rich and very American school of hardboiled crime writing, where the writer, as Chandler once said, gives “murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons.” I thought to myself about these writers, “These are my people!” Much maligned by the literati in their day, they’re viewed as classics today. Lots of imitators are around, but the real deal can be found in the following: (1) A lean, honest, cut-to-the-chase writing style; (2) A storyline that deals with real people in real situations, even though it’s fiction, and written with authenticity; (3) A sense of the bigger picture, that underlying the actions and behavior of the characters are things in American society that help prompt them. I think my writing today is a combination of Southern gothic and hardboiled. I believe the South is every bit as noir as San Francisco or New York.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: A writer friend of mine gave me great advice along the way. In an earlier version of my book, I ended the story long before the final end that was published. “You’re just half way there,” he told me. “Now take it all the way.” And I did. That same writer gave me good advice again as I neared the final version of my novel. This time, he said, you’re taking too long to get to what this story’s about. I sliced the first three chapters to start where the published version now starts. That was hard! I had then to go back and work key elements from those three chapters back into the book in ways that would fit and be natural, but I did it. Keep the reader in mind as you work your way through the story. You want to keep that reader hanging on to the strap, gasping for air half the time and not daring to let go! End each chapter on a note of suspense so that reader just absolutely has to go to the next page, the next chapter.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: Casey Eubanks is a guy haunted by his late mother’s sexual promiscuity, his family’s rejection of him, the lack of respect he gets from others. His girlfriend Orella is the only one who ever gave him that respect, but he has a hard time taking a chance on a woman, and he’s quick to see betrayal in them. He’s an angry man who blames others for his problems but deep down knows he’s at the bottom of most of them.
I have a book of extensive notes and character bios, clipped photographs (of real people past and present who I think looked like my characters), hand-drawn maps of rooms, buildings, and alleyways, pages of historical facts and other jottings, all of which helped me keep track of the tiniest details. If a character has dark brown eyes on page 30, he better still have dark brown eyes on page 230! Casey is loosely based on the earlier mentioned black sheep of the Atkins family, something that I’m sure has my father turning over in his grave! Still, I never got to know that black sheep like I know Casey.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by old Nazis who escaped the hangman and are living out their lives in some remote backwater. I’ll never forget the great Jewish actor Nehemiah Persoff’s brilliant performance of one once on Twilight Zone. My German mother actually spent months in a Gestapo prison for a minor offense during World War II. A bit of anger can be a great motivator in writing. Don’t ever let it blind you, but I tell my students anger and especially righteous indignation helped spur a lot of the great writing and reporting in our country. My villain, Max Duren, is not only an old Nazi but he also looks suspiciously like a really bad boss I once had! Of course, that boss didn’t commit murder and mayhem, but I sometimes evoked him in the wee hours as I imagined Max the Big Mahah moving about his suite in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: Yes, as I said earlier, end each chapter on a note of suspense. Write in a fluid way that also makes that happen from sentence to sentence. Don’t get bogged down trying to tell too much at one time. Learn to sprinkle telling details and important information through your novel like so much stardust. Tantalize the reader, give him or her just enough to make them want to know more, and be cruel enough to make them wait a bit. Writing is an amazing exercise in honesty, truth, integrity. Keeping that reader in mind helps keep your ego at bay. You’re not writing to impress your readers with how smart and clever you are. You’re writing because you have a great story to tell. George Orwell said, “Be a windowpane.” He means don’t stand between your reader and the story. Make the reader even forget he’s reading a story. Make him live it!
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: I made the South my “beat”—both as a journalist and fiction writer—a long time ago. It was my great dream once to leave this damned frustrating region, and I did. A year in Vietnam, four in Germany, and eight in D.C. made me see the South in a whole different way. I returned a student wanting desperately to understand the forces that have made it what it is. Casey goes from one end of the South to the other, and this setting is a character in the book, just as Balzac’s Paris or Algren’s Chicago are to their books. Yet the setting ultimately is a metaphor. What you’re really probing is the human condition, yes, in a particular place and time, but still the human condition that transcends place and time.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: I see a consistency in my work as a journalist and as a fiction writer. I may be a professor and writer today but I’m also still a working-class guy. My father was a tool & die maker, my mother a seamstress for many years, and I did blue-collar work into my late 20s. Most of the people who populate this novel are working-class folks, doing what they can to survive. Big forces are at play that affect their lives in significant ways and make it hard for them to see their way out. Not letting them off the hook, but it’s true. That was a theme of my book on the Southern labor movement, Covering for the Bosses, and it underlies the predicaments my characters in the novel find themselves in. The people running the South in both books have certain fascist characteristics that cannot be denied. It’s no accident Max Duren got himself a nice little setup down in Dixie.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: Over-editing can definitely drain the juice out of a piece of writing. The writer can do this himself, and I may have done this with my first and still-unpublished novel. I kept taking it out of the oven and tampering with it, adding a bit of spice here, a squeeze of lemon there, then putting it back in till I burned the damned thing! Know when to let go. Eudora Welty once said a writer should quit on the third draft. Hemingway used to tease F. Scott Fitzgerald about excessive rewriting, yet Hemingway could be guilty of this too. It’s like everything. Every writer needs an editor, and it’s the rare early draft that doesn’t require a bucket-full of red ink, yet that can be overdone, too. Both the writer and the editor have to know when things are just right. I’m not sure there’s a demarcation line between craft and art, but you’ve reached the summit when you’ve created something that somehow just needed to be created. Writer-artist Chuck Trapkus told me that once, and he was quoting stonecutter Eric Gill.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: You’ve got to strive for honesty in your writing. It takes a certain amount of integrity to avoid the shortcuts–the tired cliché, the borrowed phrase, the hackneyed description–and carve out a language that’s uniquely your own. Of course, we all start out borrowing, like I did in the 8th grade when I fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe and began churning out imitations so poor that Poe turned over in his Baltimore grave. You’ve got to work hard to find your own voice, of course, and not let every gust of wind throw you off course. If it knocks you down, pick yourself back up, and go at it again! Finally, you’ve got to define what success means to you. If it means a mansion on the hill and late-model sports car with a buxom blonde in the front seat, then you’re shooting for a different kind of success than I am. Not that I’m eschewing the fun money brings! Success for me is connecting with readers in a real and important way, where something I’ve written affected them and maybe, just maybe enriched or simply made their lives better in some way. The writer who achieves this has a deep empathy for people and the human condition. The ancient philosopher Philo of Alexandria once said, “Be kind to others for everyone is fighting a great battle.” The writer who’s successful in my book is the one who has a real and motivating sense of the truth of those words.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: You can say the same thing about a reporter, a journalist. You’re always taking notes of observations you make going through life. You never know when you might need them. I’ve kept a journal since I was maybe 14 years old, and I’ve gone back to them many times to refresh my memory about certain experiences or events. The writer of fiction should do this as well. Here I go quoting other people again, but a late good friend of mine, Marty Fishgold, once told me, you spend the first half of your life going to the carnival, and the last half telling people what the carnival was like. Well, I would amend that to say, you’re still going to the carnival the last half of your life, too!
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: I got inspired early in life reading great writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Later I discovered Dorothy Day, Raymond Chandler, and modern writers like William Kennedy and Andre Dubus. Reading about their lives as well as reading their work inspired and encouraged me. Books and essays on writing like Nelson Algren’s Conformity, Hemingway’s On Writing, and Jon Winokur’s compendium, Advice to Writers are rich in wisdom about this craft. Get to know some writers. I treasure the many hours I’ve spent with my good friends, novelists Ace Atkins (no relation) and Jere Hoar, talking about not only writing but also horses, dogs, guns, crime, film noir, women, and bourbon while we shared a few glasses of the latter!
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: Only to say that beginning or struggling writers should go about discovering the passions that drive or motivate them, the ur-sources of what fire may be in their bellies. Maybe it’s an anger or righteous indignation about certain injustices out there. Maybe it’s an intense desire to understand why people are the way they are, what connects them or separates them. Maybe it’s a desire to come to terms with certain unresolved things within one’s own life, a desperate need for answers that may or may not exist. Find those driving forces, set out to get to the truth that underlies them, and do it in a way that’s honest and not afraid of hard work. If you do this, I know I’d like to read your book when you’re finished!