At the 2011 Bouchercon, I connected with a guy named Johnny Shaw. He was quiet and self-effacing. I figured he was like me, a guy who had written a few short stories, had aspirations to do something bigger, and just wanted to see if he could hang with the crime fiction crowd.
Then he mentioned that he had a book coming out. Again, he shared this news as if it was no big deal. He passed out a few copies that he had. A few of the lucky recipients read a few pages between sessions. A little buzz developed around Shaw.
I got home and picked up a copy of the book. It was a scorcher, one of the best books I read last year (for proof, check out my list). Shaw might have been new to the game, but he was a storytelling pro.
He could sneak up on no one with his sophomore outing Big Maria. Expectations were high. He does not disappoint. Big Maria is successful for the same reasons that Dove Season was — rich descriptions, deep characters and over-the-top action — but it also is more ambitious, telling a more complex story.
That story tells of three misfits who find one another and embark on a crazy scheme to liberate some gold from Arizona’s Chocolate Mountains. The problem? The long-dormant Big Maria mine they seek is now smack dab in the middle of a military weapons testing ground. So Harry, living on questionable disability payments, Frank, an old man battling cancer, and Ricky, a young veteran whose life takes a turn for the worst, band together to find the gold against all obstacles.
GRIFT: A large part of the appeal of Dove Season for me was the sense of place. Big Maria is equally successful in that area. What part does setting play for you? Is it part and parcel of the story from the beginning?
JS: When I wrote Dove Season, I was coming to novels from writing screenplays and stage plays. I hadn’t even written a short story since junior high. So there were aspects of writing a novel that I was confident in: story structure, dialogue, character. But there were other aspects that scared the hell out of me. The challenge of writing prose, for example. Because, let’s be honest, while screenwriting is an art, the prose in screenplays is often a notch above greeting cards in terms of literary merit.
Physical description of location and action were also something brand new to me. So I chose to set the story in a place that not only was a rich location for a crime novel, but a place that I could see very clearly in my head. Rather than make up locations from whole cloth and then describe them, I was able to just choose a real place that I’d been to hundreds of times and describe it. If we were in the Imperial Valley, I could take you on a Dove Season tour.
With Big Maria, I got cocky. I started making up places, using less and less reality and more and more make-believe. While Blythe, Los Algadones, Picacho, the Chocolate Mountains, and the Yuma Proving Ground are all real places, I’m taking a lot more liberties with them. The descriptions are also much more minimal, a geography of unwelcome landscapes for the heroes to traverse.
Loyalty is strong trait for the protagonists in your books, often to the point where it becomes a detriment. Do you have people like this in your life?
That theme ain’t going nowhere in my work. It’s at the heart of the new Jimmy Veeder Fiasco (tentatively titled Plaster City) that I’m writing right now.
I graduated Holtville High School over 25 years ago (Go Vikings!). Believe it or not, my high school buddies and I still get together every summer. About a dozen of us sit around drink beer, shoot the shit, and play horseshoes. These are guys that I went to grammar school with. Those relationships are complex. To the man, there are very few people on the planet that I trust more than them. But that doesn’t mean I like all of them. A couple of the guys are kind of dicks. But I k
What is the deal with Thomas & Mercer? They seem to be grabbing guys up left and right, and their track record, based on what I’ve read so far, is pretty stunning. now their flaws, I accept them, and I love them and trust them any way. That’s what friendship is. Big Maria is dedicated to that group of buddies.
The most interesting thing they’re doing involves how they are balancing the variety of authors.
They have newer authors like myself, Dan Mayland (write that name down, he’s going to be huge), Frank Wheeler Jr., etc., that debuted with them and, speaking for myself, are publishing work that allows me to maintain my somewhat idiosyncratic voice.
They have bestseller and mid-list authors that are finding new audiences and adapting to the modern publishing landscape, writers like Vincent Zandri, G.M. Ford, Sean Chercover, etc.
Finally, there are the re-issues of older work. Not just their acquisition and release of Ed McBain and Ian Fleming, but the re-release of the Heller books by Max Allan Collins, which had been hard to find.
How does your screenwriting background impact your prose? Do you think cinematically when you write?
The biggest way in which screenwriting has impacted my writing is my comfort in writing multiple drafts. Due to the collaborative nature of the film process, it is not uncommon to do a dozen drafts of a screenplay.
I don’t know how many drafts other writers do, but I’m pretty sure I do more. And I’m not talking about picking at the sentence-level stuff, I’m talking about popping the hood, pulling the engine out, rebuilding it, deciding that the rebuilt engine still doesn’t work, and installing a new engine that runs entirely on Fanta.
There are so many writers that appear to be in a hurry. I think it’s a shame. There are writers that list daily page counts that I will never come close to. When has building anything fast ever been a good thing? The house I live in was built in 1920. If I punch a wall, I will break my hand on the lathe and plaster. I guess, what I’m saying is that I don’t want to write a story made of aluminum studs and drywall.
Impatience is the enemy of good work. Deadlines are important and I rarely miss them. But if something isn’t done, it isn’t done. And while I believe that quantity begets quality, that’s only because ninety-five percent of what I write is crap. So the more I write, the more I can pull out that five percent.
As someone who has published one measly issue of his magazine this year, I ask this both out of awe and jealousy: How have you been able to crank out three issues of Blood & Tacos and write a novel? Has that publication accomplished what you set out to do?
You forgot to mention my current screenplay assignment and the short stories that I wrote for Thuglit, Feeding Kate, Protectors, and Blood & Tacos. Which I guess kind of dismisses my above argument for patience.
Blood & Tacos gets done on time because an awesome group of people helps me. First off, almost all the writers are pros and the work they turn in is so strong it needs very little editing (although I have taken two 9,000-word short stories and cut 3,000 words out of each of them). My wife paints the cover image, awesomely I might add. A buddy of mine does the graphic design for the cover and also does the copy editing. And Creative Guy Publishing (aka Pete Allen) handles everything else. I read stories and edit them. I get to do the fun stuff.
But we aren’t resting on our laurels. Once we get the nuts and bolts of it figured out, we have plans to expand Blood & Tacos to a book imprint, a Podcast, and a cool line of rad merch. And I never use the word “rad” lightly.
At the last Bouchercon you were a pretty unassuming guy who seemed unaware that he was about to hit big. How much of that subsequent success has gone to your head?
All of it. I am now a major asshole.