What is the last novel that you read that took your breath away?
I missed Eric Miles Williamson when his first book was published back in 2000, but I just plowed through all three of his novels (Easy Bay Grease and Two-Up and Welcome to Oakland), and they were all equally excellent. Williamson’s place is Oakland, California, and he writes sentences the way his characters make bridges: with concrete and blood.
Read his novels in order, starting with Easy Bay Grease, the story of T-Bird Murphy, which starts with this great sentence, “I smelled dope.” Most of the novel is set in and around a gas station, where T-Bird lives with his dad in a trailer. The book is about work and violence and family, usually at the same time, and music, the way it humbles us and makes us soar. East Bay Grease scared the shit out of me, but it filled me with hope too, and it made me feel better about the world, knowing books like this exist.
What artist’s music makes you feel inspired to write?
As much as I love music, it seldom inspires me to write. It inspires me to drink and, occasionally, depending on how much I’ve consumed, dance or maybe eat a bowl of pasta in clam sauce, but seldom to sit down and be creative.
I write in the basement, in my office, which used to be a potato cellar. I lock the door so my kids can’t get in, and I turn up an old electric fan to block out the world.
If I feel good about what I’ve written, then I meet my wife at the green table in the dining room and we drink and listen to music. She likes the Ramones. I like things with acoustic guitars and fewer lyrics about blitzkrieg and thorazine. I like “Amazing Grace” by almost anyone, but especially by Mississippi Fred McDowell. I like the Rolling Stones. I like the Rolling Stones singing Mississippi Fred McDowell. I like Mississippi Fred McDowell singing about how he doesn’t like rock n’ roll. It’s pretty endless.
What are your three favorite films of all time? Discuss each of them a little bit.
I was sitting in Dee’s Bar in Pittsburgh one Sunday afternoon, and they were playing some Arnold Schwarzenegger film set in the future and there was a woman with three tits in a very futuristic nightclub and I turned to Lori and said, “They’re going to shoot that woman in one of her three tits,” and, ten seconds later, they did.
That’s the kind of movie I watched growing up and I watch now when I’m in a bar and the jukebox is turned off and I’m stuck, but otherwise I like small movies.
A couple years ago, I saw Frozen River, a film about two women—one who works at a junk store, and the other is a sometimes employee at a bingo hall on the reservation—and what they have to do to stay alive and help their families. I finished watching the film at two in the morning. I barely slept that night. The next day I recommended it to everyone I know.
I love Casablanca, mostly because it stars Bogart and Bacall but also because it’s my dad’s favorite film.
My friend Bob Pajich recommended Killer of Sheep a while back, and it was another one to put your heart in the cabinet. It’s about poor people in Watts. One guy works in a slaughter house. His wife is desperate for touch. Lots of people can’t find jobs. Two guys buy a used car engine and drop it from the truck on the way home. It’s like watching a Hemingway story set in the hood with a soul soundtrack. Amazing.
Anything by John Cassevettes, but especially Woman Under the Influence. I’m always shocked when a film has characters who don’t look like fashion models but like real people. I like characters on construction sites. I like kids on school buses. There’s a brilliant scene here involving a spaghetti breakfast, beer and wine, men around the table, and Mabel, the woman under the influence, trying to make it a party.
Last year, my two favorite films were Winter’s Bone and True Grit—both starring amazing young actresses on quests through bad places. Winter’s Bone was based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell. True Grit was based on the novel by Charles Portis. Read the books. Then read their other books, especially The Death of Sweet Mister and The Dog of the South. Then make your own film. I promise I’ll watch it.
What is a concert that you saw in person that you will never forget?
I don’t get out to see many shows, but I go to see Marah every time they come to Pittsburgh. Marah is basically Dave Bielanko, the founder and lead vocalist and lead guitar player, and whoever he wants on stage with him.
Last summer, it was Dave and Christine Smith, a very talented multi-instrumentalist, and they played an amazing show at the Kollar Club on the South Side.
The Kollar Club is an old Slovak club, not really open to the public, so a very nice old lady had to sign you in. Tickets were 10 bucks. The bar served Stoney’s Light, ice cold. Rows of folding chairs lined the hardwood floors. There were poker machines, and old men too drunk to speak.
Around eleven o’clock, Dave and Christine stepped onto a makeshift stage and played brilliant acoustic versions of songs from all six different Marah albums.
Dave is one of those guys who holds his guitar like it’s an extra arm, just completely natural, but who could easily make a song from handclaps and bar-speak.
Christine sings beautiful back-up and plays piano, sometimes harmonica and tambourine, and sometimes she does three of the four at the same time.
This night Christine played a little fiddle. She played drums. Dave fielded requests from the audience. They played forever then came back and did three encores.
I was tired and drunk and happy. Lots of people were. There was a banjo onstage. Someone, I think his name was Jimmy, started chanting, “Banjo.”
Not “encore” or even “Marah.”
I don’t know how many people the Kollar Club holds but everyone there stood up and chanted “Banjo” and Dave and Christine came back.
Christine put on an old red beat-up box with keys on it that looked like it could have been an accordion on another stage. Dave picked up the banjo. They were both smiling and laughing.
Dave said, “This is the last fucking song we’re gonna play, and I mean it, so we’re gonna play it from the bar,” and they did.
Dave and Christine walked across the Kollar Club, through the audience, and sat on the bar, a man dressed in rubber fishing boots and his beautiful partner, one on banjo, one on squeezebox, both singing, and they led us all home.
Complete this sentence: “If I were to teach a course on the works of one author, that author would be…”
I would teach a course on Gerald Locklin. It would be called “Beer, Picasso, Bar Fights, and Home” and it would focus on beer, Picasso, bar fights, and home.
Gerald Locklin is a genius. There isn’t a living poet in the world who can match his range of subject matter, his intensity, his sense of humor, his honesty, and his ear for dialogue.
The texts would include 23 of Locklin’s best poetry collections, his most recent novella, his novel Down and Out, a handful of his short stories, and his essay on attending the premier of Barfly.
The students would have prerequisites in Hemingway, Ed Field, Miles Davis, the Lakers, and the 49er Tavern.
On the last day of class, Locklin would make a guest appearance. He would dance a bell-step and sing whatever his heart desired.
Please Don’t Shoot Anyone Tonight (2010) (Novel)