To say Josh Stevens debut novel, Bullets Are My Business is my kind of book is understating it. I got a chance to read it ahead of yesterday's release and here is my blurb for the book:
"Grade A neo-pulp. All the style and action of a vintage paperback shot through with all the violence and sex of today. Moves as fast as a bullet from a .38 and hits just as hard."
It's a great book if you like Christa Faust, Victor Gischler or Allan Guthrie and you're a fan of old school pulp writers like Day Keene, William Ard or Dan J. Marlowe.
And now he's here to tell us about his day job as one of the elite few, those unsung heroes, the shining stars in a writers life – a bookseller. So read about Josh below and then do yourself a favor and go grab a copy of Bullets Are My Business, the latest Dutton Guilt Edged mystery ebook. It's cheap!
Tell us what you do and how it is like or unlike a novel?
I manage a big box bookstore. I wouldn't say my job is like a novel, per se, but being surrounded by works of literary fiction definitely helps.
Since you work around books all day as a job, do you ever get burned out and don't want to tackle fiction writing on your off time?
Absolutely. There are definitely moments when my brain just wants to go on a hiatus for a while. Aside from just being surrounded by the written word and constantly trying to keep up with literature (and, I won't lie, popcorn books), I also have a two year old. There are a lot of moments in which I just can't find the time nor the motivation to park myself behind the computer. That having been said, once I am able to find myself in my office, working on writing, I also find myself unable to pull myself away from the keyboard. When I have a story that is snowballing and everything seems to be falling into place, I'll make sure that I spend at least an hour in front of the computer. Usually that hour turns into two or three hours and, since I do it when the wife and kid are asleep, I often find myself getting three or four hours of sleep.
Ah, a man after my own heart. Or at least one who keeps the same schedule. No wonder we write such similar styles. So, how often do you steal work time to write?
These days, rarely ever. At my old jobs, I would spend endless hours writing. In fact, a fairly sizable amount of "Bullets are my Business" was rewritten and edited while I was on the clock at two of my previous jobs. I used to tell people that I was a "paid" writer... I didn't tell them that the payment was actually because I was supposed to be doing other work.
Describe a time when your job influenced a story of yours?
I'm often influenced (as are most writers, I think) by the people I meet and the situations I find myself in. Since I write mostly noir, I usually have to put a spin on these events that involve someone getting their ass kicked or having a gun pulled on them. However, several years back, when I was working at an independent bookstore (Read Between the Lynes, in case anyone is interested), I sat down and wrote several episodes of a sitcom based around the crew that I worked with. The people that I worked with and my close friends loved the episodes so much that we actually filmed the "pilot" episode so that we could submit it to a sitcom pilot competition. Needless to say, we lost, but the episode is still up on YouTube.
What would it take for you to quit and write full time?
If you asked me that question five years ago, I would have agreed to do so for nothing more than a handshake. Now that I'm older and wiser, I think I'd have to change my answer. I'd have to be able to live comfortably. As much as I'd like to be a millionaire, I think that being able to focus solely on my writing would be absolutely fantastic if I could pay all my bills and have a little left over every month. I can always save up for that fur sink I've always dreamed of.
Do you think people respect writing as a job, or does it come off as less "work" than a labor or office job?
I think that people don't really have a whole lot of respect for writing as an actual career, unless you've hit the status of James Patterson or Stephen King. To most people, writing seems to be looked at as more of a hobby than a job. I remember, many moon ago, when I was a barista at Starbucks and I would, while making small talk with the customers, say something about being a writer, the vast majority of the clientele would answer back, "I'm a writer, too." At first, I became excited by this response and I actually joined a few writer's circles of people who had told me of their "writing." This excitement quickly passed when I realized that most of these people were writing to say that they were writers, so that they could surround themselves with actual artists as though they were an accessory. I decided to stop attending these writer's circles when I was asked about one of my characters (of a book that I eventually scrapped) and I responded, "I see him as a Holden Caufield of the noir genre." The person told me that they had no idea who that was. When I explained it was the main character of Catcher in the Rye, they legitimately told me they had never heard of it.
Be honest, if you wrote full time, do you think you'd be disciplined about it?
I really do. I wouldn't be disciplined to work the stereotypical 9 to 5 shift, but I could most definitely stay up for eight hours into the wee hours of the morning. As long as I had a full pack of cigarettes and a mostly full bottle of booze, I'd be set.
What job, other than writing, would you most like to have?
My goal is to open my own indie bookstore. I really believe that, in order to inspire the younger generations to read (and the older generations to continue reading) and write, we, as a society, have to make sure that we don't let paper and ink bookstores fall by the wayside. Being a bookseller is a badge of honor and every legitimate bookseller I know wears that badge proudly. It's up to the booksellers to make sure that great books get in the hands of those who need them. It's up to the bookseller to keep books alive, to offer reviews and recommendations, to know a customer so well that you can tell what kind of book they're looking for just by asking them how their day was. The big box booksellers don't really give a damn about the actual books themselves (and I'm making a blanket statement here but, believe me, I know that there are absolutely fantastic booksellers who worked for the big guys, I'm just saying they're few and far between). They are people that are looking to make a paycheck for companies that, while they started out with the best of intentions, have been mucked up with corporate mindsets and have become more about making money than promoting actual literature. Sorry... Somebody set a soapbox here...
What has been your best job? Your worst?
Working for an independent bookstore as marketing and events coordinator was, hands down, the best job. The worst: Overnight shift at a magazine factory. Brutal.
Has your job, or past jobs, had any influence in inspiring you to become a writer?
Working at the indie bookstore definitely made me want to go out and grab that star. I was surrounded by literature every day, I was talking to a slew of colorful characters, and, on top of that, I was meeting writers every day. These writers wound up becoming friends over time and several of them have proved to be the reason I got to where I am today. (I made sure to thank them all in the acknowledgements of "Bullets are my Business" so I won't go into great detail here). Every day I shelved books or put books into a customers hand, it made me push myself even harder to get my manuscript done so that, one day, another bookseller could push my book into a customers hands.
Is your job harder than writing?
In different capacities, yes and no. At work, when a table set is done, it's done. I can back away and look at it and say "every book is accounted for, there's no dead space." When I put a book into a customer's hand and tell them with enthusiasm that this particular book is one of my personal favorites, I can visibly see that they have been satisfied. It's much more difficult to do that with the written word. In early drafts of the novel, I found myself forgetting that people didn't have the backstory to the characters that I had in my head. Then I had to go back and fine tune and clean the story to make sure that everything flowed. It was time consuming and mentally taxing, but it also left me feeling completely fulfilled when all was said and done. Writing is easier, on the other hand, because when a character truly pisses me off, I can gun them down, not feel any remorse, AND get away with it.
Imagine your job in the plot of an existing book (or movie, I'll give you that much leeway), where does it fit best? Would you be a character in a Jack Reacher novel? A Sam Spade mystery? Matt Scudder? Mike Hammer? What else?
I'd like to say that my job would be a Mickey Spillane novel waiting to happen but, unfortunately, that's just not the case. My job is too regulated to be a pulp novel. To sterile to be noir. There's not enough action. If it was going to be a book, I'd say it would either be a far less gritty version Charles Bukowski's "Post Office" or "Factotum." Maybe it would be a form of dystopian novel, like "1984" or "Fahrenheit 451." Either that or it would have to be a non-fiction book written as a giant rant, a la Denis Leary's "Why We Suck" or Lewis Black's "Me of Little Faith."
Do you ever see a time when you are writing full time?
In my fantasy world, yes I do. I always think that, if I could make enough money to survive comfortably, I would definitely do so. My wife is, thankfully, very supportive and, in fact, is pushing me to focus on writing. Unfortunately, she's not willing to work two jobs so I can quit mine.
How would a character with your career be a good or a bad protagonist for a novel?
At my big box store, I think that a character would be a great protagonist. There's is a great deal of inner turmoil for someone going from an indie store to a big box, so part of the character could feel absolutely torn. There's also the corporate mentality that the character has to rise above every day, the ridiculous rules and regulations that come with the territory, and the employees who aren't true "book people". When you couple that with the fact that the store I work in is located in a high traffic, urban area, you have all the workings of a great character waiting to happen. I'm actually working on using this job as a basis for a current character, although there would be more twists and more guns.
What do you think is the best work experience for a writer to have?
Honestly, I know it sounds like I'm beating a dead horse here, but I have always told my writer friends who are "up-and-coming" that they should absolutely work for an independent bookstore. I always make sure to clarify "independent" as opposed to just "bookstore." Many of the independents I've visited are places where the staff and customers become like a family. They are there to help push you along and they'll be behind you as you move forward. The indie's allow all of their workers the freedom to flex their creativity and, many times, they're willing to try new things just to see if it works. If it doesn't, it's a learning experience. On top of that, you get the chance to meet so many different people who come in and you'll get to know them as well as you know your own best friends. Finally, as long as it's a store that does signings and events, you'll get to meet writers and, most of the writers that I've had the pleasure of meeting, love talking about writing. If you keep in touch with them over the years, they are the best asset to have, not only for publication purposes, but also for advice. I still talk to a great deal of the people I met at my store and, in fact, one of them was beyond helpful in helping me get an agent.