A Conversation with Sam W. Anderson
Like Erik Williams, who I interviewed a month or so back, I met Sam W. Anderson in Baltimore a handful of years ago. He’s sort of like my “brother from another mother”, although I hate that phrase. Sam’s stories have meticulousness about them in both writing and detail that is impossible to miss. He’s also possibly one of the nicest people I’ve met in the writing business. His latest, American Gomorrah, A Money Run Omnibus, is just out, and is guaranteed at least a dozen “wait, that didn’t just happen!” moments. He also has a blog and a great collection, Postcards from Purgatory, which may or may not be sold out. I’m sure Sam’ll let me know once he reads this.
Me: I guess the best place to begin this is with The Money Run. It’s one of my favorite worlds, and the focus of your latest collection . Sparring us the boring parts, give everyone an overview of what the place is, it’s rules and population, and whatnot. Ready, go!
Sam: Boring parts? There’s no fucking boring parts!
Well, I suppose I could present them in a boring, atlas-like way, so I’ll “spar” you that. Sorry – couldn’t resist.
The place – the entire good-ol’ USA. Specifically its country roads, lost highways, back alleys, seemingly abandoned docks and airstrips. It’s the black market network that essentially hides right under our noses because we choose to look the other way. Part of us understand the activities along The Run make our lives better, if not better at least tolerable, but our holier-than-thou side simply pretends such things don’t exist.
Rules – Basically three:
1 – Make as much money as you can 2 – Make sure respectable America (referred to as “The Heat” in Money Run lexicon) stays out of the way 3 – Once you are in, you are never out. Never.
Population – Every outsider you can think of. Entrepreneurial outsiders.
Whatnot – Midget handjobs, sex slaves, ice-pick lobotomies, Nipsey Russell, lot lizards, cannibalism…just all sorts of family fun.
Me: Let’s talk about the family fun aspect – your Money Run stories definitely cover a lot of, shall we say, blue topics. Has there ever been a moment when you thought, ‘Okay, this is too much?’ or a worry about how people will respond to what goes on in such a seedy place?
Sam: Every story I worry about that a little. The definitive moment on that probably came during TOSSING BUTCH, SAVING THEODORE. I’d written probably the first five pages in one night. The next day, I re-read it and thought “what the fuck is wrong with you?” But somehow I still liked it. I had to send it to a friend, some clown named Kurt Dinan, to see if maybe I’d entered an area that I couldn’t return from.
Your advice was to “let your freak flag fly.” That is the actual quote. I still wasn’t sure about going forward. So, serendipity intervened. I happened to start reading Tom Piccirilli’s THE CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN the next day. Once I got through two chapters of that, I knew my story was all good.
The last story I’ve started for The Run is the only one where I put it away. It was called THE TATTOOS ACROSS HER TITS. Maybe after I get a couple of other projects done I’ll revisit it, but the beginning to that one actually kind of upset me a little bit.
Out of curiousity – do you think I’ve ever gone too far?
Me: I’m really hard to offend, so I can’t think of anything of yours that went too far. In fact, I like when those boundaries are not just crossed, but destroyed. That’s when an author really is pushing him or herself. People think it’s easy to come up with really messed-up or disturbing ideas, but it’s not. Your Money Run stories border on the absurd at times, and it’s clear how much fun you have when you’re thinking about that world. The “Tossing Butch, Saving Theodore” story is so over the top absurd – midget tossing, handjobs, crazed nuns – that as a writer I can’t help but be impressed because I know how difficult it is to get to those areas. At least for me. Never while reading it thought did I think, ‘oh, this is crossing the line.’
But I think that’s hard for most writers, that “is this going too far?” worry, about their own work. Maybe it’s not a worry for writers who do it full-time, I don’t know, but I know for myself I’m constantly questioning how my employers would view my work. Lame, yes, but when you have a family who depends on that income, you don’t mess with it. That was definitely a worry on my story in Tales from the Yellow Rose, which I thought really pushed the limits of good taste. In fact, I thought of publishing it under a pseudonym.
It surprises me though that you get reluctant about your own work. I guess my impression of you is pretty much nothing offends you. At least that seems to be your sense of humor. So can you give examples of books or movies where you think the writer just went too far?
Sam: To offend me is hard. To disgust me, not so much. Movies do it all the time. I have a very weak stomach – I literally get sick at the sight of blood. When I was eighteen I took one of them assessment tests that tells you what might be a good career for you based upon your competencies and interests. Doctor came up first. The excitement of that lasted for about 37 seconds. I knew I’d throw up the first time somebody walked through the door with a broken bone poking through their skin.
Something that really bothers me in movies are graphic rape scenes. I couldn’t watch the rest of Death Wish after the rape scene, and always have to fast forward through that part in A Clockwork Orange.
I’ve personally never written a rape scene, either. However, the last two projects I’ve been involved with have been collaborations and my collaborators have chosen to go that route. Still really uncomfortable with that.
And while not offensive, there are a lot of really disturbing books out there. THE WASP FACTORY by Iain Banks messed me up, but the ultimate was Jack Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. But I learned a ton about writing from that book. The most effective chapter, after all the horrors described before, he had a chapter of a single sentence saying something along the lines that he can’t tell you what happened at that point because it’s too upsetting. I love that technique…letting the reader’s mind take them to places they don’t want to go. Just brilliant.
Me: You’re right, that example from The Girl Next Door is perfect. The lack of specifics about the crime make it worse somehow. Like if he’d named it or described it there wouldn’t be as much power behind it.
I agree with you on the rape scenes in movies. Over-the-top violence in movies doesn’t disturb me, nor does any of the torture porn films. It’s all silly and unrealistic in my mind. But rape is real, and somehow seeing it acted out and knowing it’s likely way worse in real life makes it difficult to watch. I can’t foresee myself writing a rape scene because I’m almost hyper-alert of my portrayal of women. I don’t want to just write victim roles, which you can see in most of the examples you listed.
Which leads me to this question – since you deal with over-the-top characters in over-the-top situations, how do you keep your characters feeling real and not becoming cartoons?
Sam: A lot of time goes into characters for me – especially The Money Run characters because they straddle that line between silly and caring. But I think it’s the character traits that make them silly, but the composition of their actions and feelings that make them caring. The reader will accept character tics and eccentricities within reason if you can show them as human beneath those character traits.
There has to be an empathy there for the character – no matter how outlandish he/she may appear on the surface. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received came from Melanie Tem. She said to make sure your bad guys aren’t stereotypes – let the reader identify with them. Even if readers hate what the bad guy is doing, they understand why and understand it’s inevitable that the character acts in such a way. I try to apply that to everybody.
Me: You recently released a Money Run omnibus. Does that signal the end of those short stories or is that a world you’ll likely return to? And do you ever get tired of writing about the same place? Isn’t the novel you’re working on Money Run related?
Sam: I have a love/hate relationship with The Money Run stories. They are the one thing that publishers will actually request me to write, the one thing that readers respond to most. I feel a little pigeon-holed in doing them, though.
I mean, what if everybody loved your story from The Yellow Rose so much that all the advice you got was to do something else like that?
I can do more than absurd, but that also conflicts with the challenge to see what I can do next with the mythos. I want to get out before it becomes a parody of itself, which is inevitable, I fear.
The upside is I’m not really writing about one place. Gene O’Neill’s Cal Wild series are stuck in California. Charles Grant’s Oxrun Station stories had a limited area. The benefit of TMR stories is I can set something in New England or Florida or Kansas or Alaska and it’s still part of the same overall framework. So, I got that going for me.
I just hope it’s a while before that parody thing happens, because yes, the rumored novel is a Money Run story.
Me: I can understand that love/hate thing. It must be nice to have people requesting them – you’ve built an audience – but you can’t really expand past it if you want to. That has to be hard. (That’s what she said.)
Fortunately, in a way it’s early enough in your career that you can branch out if you want to. You’ve been writing for awhile now, yes, and have a nice line of credits, but you’re still really working on your first novel and can expand if you want to. Beyond TMR are there other genres you want to explore? Is there a Nicholas Sparks “boy meets girl, girl gets sick and dies” book in you somewhere?
Sam: In my colon – lodged behind the Circle K burrito I had back in 82.
I’ve kind of gone with the plan that once this novel is done, no Money Run stuff for six months. Of course, unless somebody comes out of the blue and offers me a buttload of money. I’m a whore.
The next two projects I think will go a long way in helping me establish myself as more than TMR guy. And if it took those stories to get people to try the next things, then I’m okay with it.
Me: Want to tease (hehe) those projects for us at all? Or promote anything else you have out people should look for? This is your chance to sell yourself, so go!
Sam: Oh, you are a sexy project, and I will give you some play, but can we please just take it slow? I promise it will be worth it…wait, wrong tease.
I have a story coming out in an anthology edited by Kacey Lansdale, FRESH BLOOD, OLD BONES that should be out around November. NAMELESS MAGAZINE will be publishing a story of mine theoretically some time this century, but it’s a while out. Couple of more that have been accepted but not announced yet, and I understand there’s the paperback of TALES FROM THE YELLOW ROSE DINER AND FILL STATION that will be out literally any minute now.
Me: Ooooh, nice mention of The Yellow Rose.
Sam: May I ask your impressions of that project?
Me: My memory is how little I wanted to do it. I’m a ‘one project at a time’ person – and was fully into a draft of my novel and didn’t want to stop any momentum I’d developed. I wrote my story full of anger, a sort of ‘f-it’ attitude and from the idea that if I was going to have to write something it would be as vile as I could make it. Fortunately, that feeling abated as I got moving on the story and am really happy with the result, even if my mom read the first page and refused to read any further. The finished product as a whole is also something I’m really happy with. I love the book itself, and love how all of the stories show our strengths. I think it’s also a really fun, albeit dark, read. So that’s cool, too.
(Dinan note: The paperback is just out today!)
Any parting words before I wrap this up?
Sam: How about this: For the first five people who cite your blog and can produce a receipt for buying AG, I’ll send them a copy of the limited edition of THE UNUSUAL EVENTS OF A SATURDAY AFTERNOON AT BIG K’S TRUCK STOP AND FINE DINING EMPORIUM – A MONEY RUN TALE. While the story is contained in AG, it does have the art of Tom Moran and is a limited edition. It completes the Sideshow Press Chapbook Series…somebody’s gotta want that, right?
So there you have it. Go HERE, but American Gomorrah, then hunt down Sam on Facebook (Sam W. Anderson) and he’ll tell you what to do with the receipt to get limited edition Money Run story. Can’t beat that.