Tom Piccirilli fits my definition of a writer’s writer. He’s prolific. His work is solid as it is distinctive. He’s a writer who loves genre fiction, and he’s a writer who has something to say about love and loss and strength and weakness, i.e. the human condition. On that score, he’s incredibly perceptive.
And one other thing about Mr. Piccirilli: he doesn’t disappoint.
It was my pleasure to talk to Tom for this special CD interview, which focuses on a couple of new books with MIDNIGHT in the title: Tom’s new Cemetery Dance anthology, MIDNIGHT PREMIERE, and his new novel from Bantam, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD.
Before we jump in, a little about the man himself. Pic lives in Colorado where, besides writing, he spends an inordinate amount of time watching trash cult and reading Gold Medal classic noir and hardboiled novels. He likes his dogs and he likes his friends—Tom’s definitely my go-to guy whenever I need another writer’s email address; this guy knows everyone. He’s also a fan of Asian cinema, especially horror movies, pinky violence, and samurai flicks. Gotta be Tom’s the undisputed master of the quick Netflix turnaround—Pic often sits down with a movie as soon as it arrives and gets it back into the postman’s hand before he leaves the neighborhood. Maybe if Tom’d train the guy better, the postman would always ring twice, and save Tom a trip tracking him down. Hey, I really think it could happen. In Tom Piccirilli’s noirish little corner of the world, anyway.
For those of you who want the straight-ahead stats: Mr. Piccirilli is the author of seventeen novels including THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE DEAD LETTERS, HEADSTONE CITY, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. He’s a four-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award and a final nominee for the World Fantasy Award. To learn more about Pic, check out his official website, Epitaphs, at: www.tompiccirilli.com.
PART: One of the things that really surprised me about MIDNIGHT PREMIERE was the gutsy intro, in which you talk about your family and the death of your father. For me, that went a long way toward explaining the place movies occupy in your life and your work. Movies were an escape from some pretty rough realities—lots of people would say that—but it seems they became more than that for young Tom Piccirilli. Reading your fiction, I have a sense that they were parables, or even playbooks, and that the people you found on the screen cut pretty close to the bone for you. Is that a fair assessment?
PIC: I think that imaginative, sensitive children, especially those who might have some kind of trauma in their early lives—the loss of a parent through death or divorce, say—often have a great need to fantasize. Books and films take on a greater importance to them than a lot of people might think. I tend to think that a lot of my concept of “father” or “manhood” was filled by characters I read about or saw up on the screen. Kids who aren’t being taught about life by their parents are being taught about life by someone or something else. They need to fill the hole.
So I believe that the…the map of the world I learned about early on, the blueprints of life, came from film and literature, and so much of the way that I relate to the world is through what I learned from those forms. And it only makes sense that it would show up in my own writing and would be inherent in the writing and movies that I love.
PART: So, in terms of the way you see the world, what filmmakers or actors cut the deepest, and why?
PIC: That’s a rough question, man. There have been so many over the years who fulfilled some need or interest in me at that particular time. At the moment I’m getting back heavily into film noir—there’s such a slick style to the writing, the acting, the look, and the directing. You watch something like I WAKE UP SCREAMING and Jesus Christ, you’ve got everything right there on the screen. You’ve got Victor Mature and Betty Grable, you’ve got smoke and shadow, you’ve got laughter and suspense and madness and love. And again, to get back to what we were talking about, film noir is from the 40s and 50s, my parents generation, so seeing those beautiful women and handsome men, playing characters who’ve survived the depression and come back from WWII…well, those are my parents up there in some kind of metaphorical sense. As I slide into middle-age, I’m becoming them.
PART: Ditto. I especially loved the way you worked with the whole noir milieu into your newest novel, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD. Your main character runs the Robert Mitchum playbook pretty hard. Anybody cooler in your book, or is Mitchum the guy?
PIC: Mitchum was always the coolest but there was always so much bubbling beneath the hard, hip exterior. If you watch the guy closely you always see a little grin on his lips, even when he’s playing evil or slick, as if he wants the audience to know that it’s all a game. One of the reasons I love HIS KIND OF WOMAN so much is because it actually gives Mitchum a chance to be a noir-hero but also play off some sizzlingly comedic dialogue. You could sense he was having a lot of fun and wanted everyone to get in on the joke. Even when he’s being tortured!
PART: You obviously learned to get your fingers on the pulse of the people made of celluloid and ink at a young age. Did that influence your own approach to creating characters?
PIC: Only so far as I’m a big believer in backstory. Characters who have weighty histories are more intriguing to me. They’re scarred from their battles, they’ve had as many losses as wins, and though that’s colored their outlook on life, they do their best to keep their chins up. It allows me to weave in humor, chills, or emotion when there needs to be some. Those are the characters I like to see on film and read about. They’re caught up in the story, in the novel, in the film, but their actions and their beliefs are larger than what you see on the page or on the screen. They are influenced by the things that have come before, whether we’re privy to that or not. I think it makes for more human, realistic, and relatable characters. Even if the events surrounding them are over-the-top.
PART: Let me take that a little further. In your fiction, I’ve always been struck by your mastery of character. Cookiecutter men and women, these ain’t. The hardcase on his last legs in FUCKIN’ LIE DOWN ALREADY is a favorite of mine…that story’s brutal, and heartfelt at the same time. Flynn in THE MIDNIGHT ROAD is another great character. You spend a lot of time with these guys. How do you get their blood pumping on the page, and how hard is it to say goodbye to them once you type “The End”?
PIC: I’m not sure I ever completely say goodbye to them because they’re all alternate versions of one another. For me, it isn’t important to start with a character’s strength, but to start with his weakness. What is it that makes this person flawed?…what makes him incomplete? What drives his nightmares? And the answer doesn’t have to be some kind of big, major, intense revelation. It can be some small hurdle that for some reason, the character simply can’t leap over. I think that’s more honest. I think that’s more universal. We all have some small quirk that really lashes the shit out of us all of our lives. Whether it’s physical or emotional or spiritual. Some little fucked-up problem or pain or heartache that has taken a sizeable chunk out of each of us over the course of our lives. If I can translate anything like that to the page, I think it gets the heart beating and the blood pumping on the page. Once you know how important the weakness is, you can show how difficult it is to find the strength within oneself to overcome it.
PART: Tell us a little about THE MIDNIGHT ROAD.
PIC: It’s something of a departure for me: an offbeat mystery/noir/suspense fusion about a Child Protective Services investigator who stumbles into a strange situation at a wealthy family’s home while checking on a lead. Flynn winds up in a car chase and dies in a frozen harbor, but he’s revived a half hour later by paramedics. For the rest of the novel he’s not only hunted by a mysterious killer who seems to blame Flynn for something he’s unaware of, but Flynn has to deal with the ghost of a dead dog that talks to him in his own voice and may be either his own brain damage or the angel of death. As mentioned, there’s a lot of backstory and history to the character. I finally gave a protagonist the same love of film noir that I have, so there’s lots of references to the classics.
PART: MIDNIGHT PREMIERE is another project we can chalk up to your love of film. How’d that one come about?
PIC: I’d just attended Horrorfind and ChillerCon—which are conventions featuring lots of well-known and lesser-known character actors, writers, scream queens, and make-up wizards. I was intrigued by how many folks loved writing and reading horror stories about horror movies, using elements dealing with Hollywood, the drive-in, and the movie-making and movie-going experience in some way. I thought it would make for a fun anthology a la SILVER SCREAM edited by David Schow, and your very own IT CAME FROM THE DRIVE-IN, Norm.
So I asked some directors (including Mick Garris and Patrick Lussier), actors (including William Smith, Richard Grove, Kyra Schon, and Linnea Quigley), and authors (including Jack Ketchum, Gary Braunbeck, John Shirley, Tom Monteleone, Ed Gorman, and Brian Hodge) if they wanted to be involved. The interest was overwhelming, and the stories were wonderfully eclectic. There’s truly gut-wrenching poignant tales in the anthology, and others that are just completely outrageous, funny, bizarre, and freaky. When you’re reading a book with a story in it called “Baby Boss and the Underground Hamsters: A Feature-Length Cartoon,” you know you’re reading something fun and funky. That’s Al Sarrantonio’s contribution by the way.
Needless to say, I didn’t just want dark and disturbing horror tales, but also outrageous tales that show the full range of how horror fans feel about grade-B and cult film.
PART: The book definitely pulls that load of freight. I really enjoyed your own Southern gothic story, “Shadder,” by the way. But I’ve got to ask you, Tom—what was it like to work with the film folks? Have any fanboy moments you want to share with us?
PIC: I was a total fanboy from start to finish. Meeting Kyra Schon, the little zombie girl from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was incredible, especially considering the impact that film had on me, and then to work with her (she co-wrote a humorous zombie tale with Mark McLaughlin) was a blast. Patrick Lussier, the director of DRACULA 2000 and WHITE NOISE: THE LIGHT, and I have become good friends since I put the book together. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know him and becoming buddies with him. Getting a chance to hear a lot of his behind-the-scenes stories from the film sets he works on totally geeks me out. Mick Garris was also awesome to work with—very friendly and approachable, a real gentleman all around. But I’ve got to say my biggest fanboy moment was getting a signed photo from William Smith, who I think is probably the greatest all-time character actor villain in the annals of B-movie history. I mean, we’re talking Falconetti here! He’s just the most amazing personal history. Not only has he done hundreds of films, but he’s been a bodybuilder, a rancher, a soldier. Dude, this is Angel from RUN, ANGEL, RUN, the first movie that started the whole motorcycle film craze of the 60s. I had to trim his bio down to two pages because in total it would’ve taken up too big a chunk of the antho.
PART: Too bad you couldn’t recruit Warren Oates to write a story about snake-handlers. That would have been something, but I think you would have needed a shovel.
PIC: If I could’ve tapped the other side for an actor to kick in a story, I would’ve liked to have seen something by Robert Ryan. He was noir through and through, man, and I bet he’d have had some tall tales to tell from hell!
PART: Well, we’ll save digging up Warren for the inevitable movie version of A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN, then. Gotta be a role for him in that one somewhere. But let’s get back to business on this side of the pearly gates—what’s a prolific cat such as yourself got coming up next?
PIC: I just finished two novels back to back. A Hellboy novel entitled EMERALD HELL, where HB heads down to the swampy South to battle an evil mystical preacher, and a straight crime novel THE COLD SPOT, about a young thief who marries a cop, goes straight, and years later when she’s murdered by a crew of robbers enlists the help of his violent criminal grandfather to go after them. Starting the sequel in a couple of days. Also, some short stories will be showing up in ELLERY QUEEN, YEAR’S FINEST MYSTERY STORIES, and an anthology called FIVE STROKES TO MIDNIGHT, featuring work by Chris Golden, Gary Braunbeck, and Deb LeBlanc.
PART: Best of luck with all of ’em, Tom. I’ll be looking forward to reading them, and thanks for the interview.
PIC: Thank you, Norm. Always a pleasure shooting the shinola with you, buddy!