Interview: Tom Piccirilli

It’s no secret that Tom Piccirilli is my all-time favorite writer. Why, you may ask, especially if you haven’t read him… Here’s why: his work is beautiful, expertly crafted, memorable, and haunting. It’s stimulating. It’s challenging. It’s entertaining. I could go on. It’s a mystery to me why he isn’t on the bestseller’s list constantly with some of my other favorite writers (like John Connolly and Dennis Lehane.)

I named one of my characters (Red Piccirilli) from my Division series after him. I’ve asked Pic questions over the last few years (and have seen him gladly welcome them from others via Facebook every week) and he’s always kind, always helpful. What’s not to like? Well, if you want a by-the-numbers formulaic story you might not like him, but that’s your loss now isn’t it?

He has an incredible back catalog, from early horror works at Leisure to amazing offbeat dark fiction from Bantam like A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN, SHADOW SEASON, THE MIDNIGHT ROAD, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, etc. And an incredible and huge collection FUTILE EFFORTS, featuring short stories, poetry, and the wicked cornerstone novella FUCKIN’ LIE DOWN ALREADY. Plus fantastic noirellas now available on Kindle: EVERY SHALLOW CUT, THE NOBODY, FRAYED, THRUST, LOSS, THE LAST DEEP BREATH, and ALL YOU DESPISE, among others. And there’s still an iceberg of books buried beneath the water. Tom is one of those writers who have the magic (and the discipline it takes to fine-tune said magic.)

I’m incredibly happy that Pic has agreed to an interview. Enjoy!

Me: Thanks for taking the time to answer questions, Pic!

Tom Piccirilli: My pleasure, Lee, thanks for having me on the blog. As always, I appreciate all your interest. This game is an incredibly difficult one, but having fans like you make it all worthwhile in the end.

Me: My pleasure. Even your crime fiction is beautiful and haunting, where does that stem from?

Tom Piccirilli: From years of honing your craft, finding your narrative voice, and learning how to say what you want to say the way you want to say it. I’ve always felt that it was important to find the innate beauty of the language as I wrote. I never wanted to be a plain writer, but at the same time you always have to be careful not to write as if each sentence is taking a bow, which I was probably guilty of earlier on in my career. That “haunting” aspect is important to make the reader feel something deep for the work. Like a ghost, I want the story to hover and flit in the audience’s mind. I don’t want to just entertain them, I want to move them.

Me: Ever plan to update your wonderful writing book WELCOME TO HELL? Possibly with a crime slant? What have you learned since then and can you share it with us if we give you a lot of money?

Tom Piccirilli: Probably not. The more I learn about writing, the more I realize how little I know about it. What makes it work, what drives the narrative, what people take away from my words. It’s a magical, mystical process. You find a topic, theme, or concept that matters to you, and then you do your best to communicate that to someone else. You draw them through a world of your own perspective and hope that they see and feel things the same way that you do.

Me: You’ve kept your voice (which shouldn’t come as a shock, I guess, since a writer’s voice stems from their soul and perception of themselves and the world around them, right?) What challenges did you face in switching from Horror to Crime fiction?

Tom Piccirilli: Well, a writer’s voice, like the writer himself, is always changing to some degree. We’re living, breathing things and our narrative voice is organic as well. My worldview has shifted, the motifs and themes that interest me are slightly different now at the age of 46 than they were at 25. I care about things now I didn’t understand then. The great fantasy author Jack Cady once told me never to throw any of unfinished fiction out, because somewhere down the line I’d have the skill and control to write about certain things I wasn’t capable of writing about at the time, but I also wouldn’t have the fire and rawness that I had then. And he was right.

As for challenges: Horror and noir writers are always indulging in their darkest, ugliest fantasies. They’re drawn to the awful matters. That’s where they find their drama. That’s where they find their love. They’re tearing into their own scars and making them bleed all over again. And it’s off that blood that we make our art. If it’s art, in the end. But whatever it is, we create it by invoking anguish and conflict and scenes of blood and wreckage. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. For me, it feels as if the horror genre is a young man’s game, whereas noir is for older men. When I was young, I was drawn to Horror because Horror is fantasy that focuses on the fear up around the next corner. Whereas now at 46 I’m drawn to crime and noir, because noir is about the fear that’s tailing you, coming up behind you. It’s the embodiment of your disappointments and mistakes and regrets.

Me: Where do you see yourself going next? Or are you happy where you are, with what you’re writing?

Tom Piccirilli: For the time being I’m happy writing noirish dark crime fiction. One of these days I think I’d like to do a bigger novel that has less concentration on the crime stuff and more on other concerns, whatever they are. Family matters, relationships, and all that other shit that is the focus of so much modern literature. I think I’m finally at that point of my life when I see enough humor and darkness and oddity in the so-called “normal” everyday life that I don’t need the storytelling conventions of genre material. The guns, the double-crosses, the heist gone wrong. Maybe one of these days I’ll get around to writing that book, and then again maybe not. Part of the fun of being a writer is not knowing what’s going to suddenly become of interest to you somewhere down the line. You can’t guess at it, you just have to let it persuade you.

Me: I’d love to read that! What have you found most rewarding in your career? What have you found most disappointing?

Tom Piccirilli: The most rewarding aspect is when someone reacts to the work the way I hoped they would. When they’re moved and shocked and come to love the characters the way I do, and the writing has a real meaning for them.

The most disappointing aspects–well, I’m as needy and greedy as the next guy. I’d like to make more cash, I’d like to have greater Hollywood interest, bigger sales, more brouhaha made over my work. I don’t expect lear jets and stadiums full of screaming readers, but hell, I live in my imagination, so I dream big.

Me: You appear a perpetual student of life and the craft. How important has searching for answers been in your growth as a writer and man? Did you study your favorite writers to see what they were doing right and why you loved it?

Tom Piccirilli: You study the things that matter to you, grab your attention, and hold sway over you. I did study my early favorite authors, which generally means that I began to copy the way they did things in a search for my own voice. They spoke to me, and I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to be a part of the overwhelming grandeur of literature. I wanted to impress myself upon it. Your loves shape who you are and how you come at the world, for better or worse. The same holds true for your hatreds, and your frustrations, and your needs. The more self-aware you are the more aware you are of what goes on in other people too. The truth of what drives them. And as such you can convey that through your work.

Me: Is there any story that you’ve wanted to write but haven’t? If so, why?

Tom Piccirilli: I’d love to tackle a huge, sprawling Science Fiction/Fantasy novel, but I just don’t think I have the chops for it. My mind doesn’t work in that way, in those patterns. I love reading it, and I can appreciate all the effort and imagination that goes into such works, and I pine to do something like that eventually, but it’s just not my strength.

Me: In what ways has writing your stories tested you?

Tom Piccirilli: In every way conceivable. The life of a writer tests your sense of self, your knowledge of the world, your understanding of people. It teaches you how to pay bills with late checks, with no checks, how to call back painful incidents in the most excruciating detail. You wallow in your insecurities because this is such a lonely craft. You crave feedback but you’re constantly worried about failing to meet your goals. It’s a constant struggle with self. It’s so easy to be unsure of who you are because all day long you’re slipping in and out of other identities.

Me: I’ve always thought of you as an original and boundary pusher. Do you purposely shy away from the formulaic?

Tom Piccirilli: I try to keep myself as entertained as I hope the reader will be, and since I’m extremely well-read, I get bored easily. I try to find new ways to say things, and find new things to say as well. The authors who’ve meant the most to me over the years, the ones that impacted me the most, are the ones who found offbeat, quirky, sometimes surreal ways to say the great truths of their lives. Whether they were telling stories that focused on life, love, death, fear, redemption, heartache, whatever, they found an original and grabbing way to pull the reader in. I try to do the same.

Me: I’d recommend three of your works for new readers to see your range: A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN, THE DEAD LETTERS, and EVERY SHALLOW CUT. Which of your novels would you recommend for new readers to try? Do you have favorites?

Tom Piccirilli: Those three are at the top, so I’d probably recommend them as well. I’m very proud of those particular titles because each one seems to be a slight turning point for me so far as my direction and focus were concerned. My new one THE LAST KIND WORDS is probably my favorite among my crime novels, so I’d promote that one too. I think it’s something of a cornerstone among my books. I pushed myself pretty hard to reach new ground, discuss new topics in new ways, and yet also stay in touch with all the other themes and stylistic elements that I think my readers expect from me at this point.

Me: With THE LAST KIND WORDS coming out next, do you feel you’ve hit a milestone? Can you tell us a little bit about the book?

Tom Piccirilli: It’s the story of a young thief named Terrier Rand who returns to his criminal family on the eve of his brother Collie’s execution. Collie went mad dog for apparently no reason and went on a killing spree murdering eight people. Now, five years later, Collie swears he only killed seven people, and the eighth was the work of someone else. Terry not only has to deal with an ex-best friend, a former flame, some mob guys, and other assorted badasses, but he’s also forced to investigate that night his brother went crazy and find out if Collie is telling the truth. But more than anything, he really wants to know the reason for why his brother went on a spree, in the hopes that Terry himself is never pushed to that kind of edge.

The novel is due out June ‘12, and I recently turned in the follow-up entitled THE LAST WHISPER IN THE DARK.

Me: Can’t wait to read them! Thanks so much for spending time with us, Pic!

Tom Piccirilli: Anytime, man! Thanks for having me!

Tom Piccirilli is the author of more than twenty novels including SHADOW SEASON, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. He’s won two International Thriller Awards and four Bram Stoker Awards, as well as having been nominated for the Edgar, the World Fantasy Award, the Macavity, and Le Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire.

Tom Piccirilli’s website

Tom Piccirilli’s blog

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6 thoughts on “Interview: Tom Piccirilli”

  1. Great interview!
    Pic has been a gentleman over the years, kindly answering this newbie writer’s questions. He probably doesn’t even remembering helping me over the years, but he has. And his body of work has been just as educational and inspiring.

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