Vital Crime Fiction: Main Bad Guy by Nick Kolakowski
Nick Kolakowski stopped by for a chat—I was thrilled to talk to this working journalist and crime writer. Kolakowski’s work is the rare hybrid between well-paced action, literary prose and the enduring comedic underpinnings of writers like Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. Fact is, this guy could write himself into and out of a locked room with more verve than an Elvis impersonator trying to take his act from an airport Hilton to the grand stages of Vegas.
You get it: Kolawkowski knows how to put together a sentence or ten. Main Bad Guy (from Shotgun Honey) marks book number three in the Love and Bullets Hookup trilogy — thrilled that Nick Kolawkowski took the time to humor me with answers to my usual probing questions. Here’s the lowdown:
Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Washington City Paper, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, and Rust & Moth, among other venues. He lives in New York City.
Tell us about the Love & Bullets trilogy. What makes it unique and where the hell did you come up with Bill and Fiona (and this Elvis thing, which I love)?
When I was but a wee lad, I managed to see a bootleg copy of “True Romance,” and the experience stuck with me — mostly the incredible scene where Dennis Hopper provokes Christopher Walken into shooting him, but also how the whole narrative seemed to perfectly encapsulate the ‘lovers on the run’ subgenre.
A few years back, I wanted to take my own shot at the genre (so to speak), but I wanted to mix things up a bit. In most of those films and books, the woman on the run is the vulnerable one, a relative innocent (at least at first); and her male partner, if not the most lethal or sophisticated type, at least has some inkling of what to do (you see that in “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Badlands,” and however many other examples). In mixing it up, I wanted to make the woman in the relationship as lethal as I could, and the man would be an ingenue of sorts — in way over his head.
That was the initial thought, at least. At it evolved, Bill and Fiona (as I eventually named the couple) became their own characters; Bill isn’t great at being a fugitive, but he does have some skills (and a remarkable sense of style), while Fiona is very good at bloodsport — but she really, really wants to quit the murderous life.
And having a villain dress as Elvis was something I’d wanted to do for years. I started with the image of a dude in a rhinestone suit brandishing a rocket-launcher and worked back from there — what would it take to have someone willingly play dress-up like that? The answer, of course, is that you’re a borderline-lunatic who’s just hit rock-bottom in your personal life.
From the first sentence of A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps I marked you as a noir writer with roots in a larger literary tradition. Your prose is soooo damn good. Can you talk about your history as a writer? How’d you start? What drives you to punch at a keyboard? Who are your influences?
I started young, writing crime and horror stories as a teenager. I can’t do anything but write; I get twitchy when I haven’t put down words in a few days, and I feel incredibly fulfilled (at least for a day or two) when I finish something.
All my influences were old-school: Chandler, Hammett, Mosley, Goodis. And when I was much younger, I tried to imitate their measured, stripped-down, literary styles. It didn’t work; I’m too hyper. Shane Black became a huge influence (in terms of reading his scripts), because he’s managed to synthesize a proper respect for the classics with a sort of lunatic-exuberant vibe. My first drafts are nutso; on the rewrites, I try to modulate myself a bit with a classic mindset, strip out some of the more over-the-top bits. Editors help with this.
I’d like to know how you make it as a writer. I know you live in NYC, and I see your name on the Noir at the Bar handbills (digitally, alas), but I’m wondering how ANYBODY makes it in New York, let alone a noir writer…No matter how freaking talented you are. In other words, how’s the business of being alive?
Most of us writers have day jobs. I certainly do. Fortunately, my day job is as a journalist so I’m always engaging that writing gear, one way or another. As much as I’d like to be a full-time novelist, I don’t think it’s in the cards for the time being.
Let’s talk process: What kind of writer are you? An everyday kind of writer? A sprinter who bangs out ten thousand words in a weekend? What’s your regimen and why does it work?
I’m an everyday writer. I feel good if I bang out 1,000–2,000 words a day, and really good if I hit 3,000 words. Although I was once a die-hard ‘pantser,’ writing the narrative by feel, I’ve recently become much more of a preemptive outliner after two projects turned into bloodier messes in the rewrite phase than they needed to be.
That regimen works for me. I used to write a much lower word-count per day, and focus obsessively on polishing sentences before moving on. It was a little bit precious, which I guess is what you expect from people in their teens and early 20s still trying to figure out their style. Then I actually started getting published, and enough editors drowned my babies in front of me that I realized that excessive polishing can sometimes end up all for naught. Now I try to achieve a balance between making steady progress and making sure everything reads smoothly.
I’m curious what you think about the future of noir and crime fiction. Where are we headed from a publishing and story standpoint?
I think the rise of indie presses has been an unmitigated good thing; there are more channels for interesting voices to actually break out. I love what Broken River Books is doing; Osborne is a superior editor, and he’s got a great eye for subversive/bizzaro writers. Down & Out Books, Polis, Hard Case Crime… there’s a lot of authors who have a platform and use it well.
Then you have the Big Five, which produces a lot of good work. I’m currently plowing through Philip Kerr’s “Metropolis,” for example, and loving it (although I’m sad it’s his last book). But those imprints are also dependent on books and authors who have a dedicated following, and who strip-mine the same plot points and characters without a whole lot of variation. I review those novels on a regular basis, and I can tell which plot beats are coming up and when; it’s very factory-like. I just hope that the success of those books allows editors at those imprints to take more risks with stuff that isn’t riddled with clichés.
Bottom line: I think we’re on two tracks right now. The indie scene is healthy (well, as healthy as it can be; it’s still risky to be a small publisher) and the Big Five seem to be dedicated to doing their thing. It’s a big enough pond for readers of all kinds. I don’t think we’re about to plunge into any sort of paradigm shift anytime soon.
Personally, I think anybody could read any of these books without having read the other — do you agree with that? Pitch readers on Main Bad Guy — why should they pick up the book and squirrel down into an easy chair with the thing?
I think they’re all capable of serving as standalones! I wrote them that way deliberately; there are no cliffhanger endings, and the information from the previous books is woven into each sequel. (This isn’t “Avengers: Endgame,” where your enjoyment hinges largely on seeing 22 other movies.)
Main Bad Guy is a quick hit of bloody noir that combines a lot of tropes — locked panic rooms, aging gunslingers, lovers on the run, lunatic villains — and smashes them into a new (and hopefully exciting) form. You can finish it in an afternoon, and I tried to make it as much of an adrenaline rush as possible; there’s no wasted movement, only a sense of barreling forward. If “Endgame” is sold out, and you need a solid thriller to see you through the weekend, I’d heartily recommend it; hopefully the reader will have as much fun plowing through it as I did writing it!
They will, Nick—I’m sure of it. Thanks so much for swinging by for a chat!