Chuck Caruso (8/1/13)
MBTB recently interviewed Portland author Chuck Caruso whose short story “They’ll Call Me Whistlin’ Pete” appears in August’s Kwick Krimes, due on 8/20/13.
1. Many of our readers know you from your days as a Murder By The Book staffer but we’d like to know more about your life as a writer.
I'm mostly a short story writer. I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and a lot of other writers who really devoted themselves to the short form. There's something so perfect about a really brilliant short story that's impossible in a longer form. And of course there a number of excellent crime writers who can do both short stories and novels with equal skill -- people like Donald Westlake, John D. Macdonald, and Patricia Highsmith. Back in the golden age of the pulps, short stories were how authors honed their skills before writing novels. Of course, after television killed the magazine market for short stories you have people like Lawrence Block telling younger writers not to bother with writing short stories, but just to jump straight into writing novels. That was certainly valid advice in the 80's, but I think it's maybe less true now because one of the effects of the Digital Age has been to bring back the short story as a commercially viable form. I'm thrilled that the short story and flash fiction are gaining such popularity lately and that's largely due to online culture.
2. So, what exactly is Flash Fiction?
Different editors give their own definitions of "flash fiction," but basically it just means a really short story. Under 1000 words is a fairly typical limit because you can read a piece that long in about five minutes. I can tell you from experience it can be a real challenge to tell a full story with developed characters and an interesting plot in such a short span. But when you nail it, that's a thing of beauty. I can't wait to read all the other stories in Kwik Krimes. This anthology is being billed as the best of online flash, so I'm counting on some amazing pieces. There are a bunch of great online publications doing short crime stories and flash fiction. MBTB readers would do themselves a favor by checking out sites like Flash Fiction Offensive, which is where "Whistlin' Pete" first appeared, Spinetingler Magazine, Crimespree, or Shotgun Honey. I could go on and on. There's just so many of them!
3. Do you consider “They’ll call me Whistlin’ Pete”, your story in Kwik Krimes, a ‘Western”? And if so, what makes it one and why do you like writing in that style?
Well, everything I write is first and foremost "crime fiction." I think Otto Penzler saw that in "Whislin' Pete," which is why he asked to include it in this anthology. But really I'd say this story and a lot of my other recent stories are "western noir," if I can borrow that phrase from Ed Gorman who stands as the real master of that particular combination. His novels in this vein deserve a much larger audience -- books like Lawless and Shoot First are great crime novels that mystery readers don't know because they get marketed as westerns. Tom Piccirilli has written some great western noirs, and Joe R. Landsdale drifts into that territory as well. Mostly I like writing western noir because it's fun and give me a little bit of a different angle than a lot of the other dark crime being written now. It also seems to me that for as popular as westerns were for much of the last century, we tend to think of those old stories as being pretty black and white in terms of the morality. The good guys wear white hats and the outlaws dress in black. But writing noir set in the Old West lets me explore some real moral gray areas in new and authentic ways.
4. How did the legendary Otto Penzler (bookstore owner, publisher, editor) come across your story in the first place?
I'd published the story at Flash Fiction Offensive a while back and one day I just got an email out of the blue from Mr. Penzler. At first I thought it had to be spam or an advertisement for some new anthology, but when I opened it up it was actually written to me. He and his minions -- I imagine someone like Otto Penzler must have minions, don't you think? -- anyway, he'd seen my story and wanted permission to buy it for this new project he was doing called Kwik Krimes, showcasing the best crime flash fiction from these recent online publications. I was thrilled!
5. You share the pages of Kwik Krimes with some pretty heavy hitters in the mystery and crime fiction world, do we now need to call you Mr. Caruso?
[Laughs.] No, no need for that. But it does feel pretty amazing to be sharing the pages of that book with writers I admire so much. This anthology features stories by Ken Bruen, Tasha Alexander, Reed Farrell Coleman, Peter Blauner, Joe R. Lansdale, Bruce DeSilva, Patti Abbott, David Corbett, Jo Dereske, and more. It's such an honor to have my little story sandwiched in there with all those heavy hitters. With this anthology, probably more people will read "Whistlin' Pete" than have read any of the two dozen or so stories I've published in the last few years. Combined! But you just keep doing you work and see what catches people's interest.
6. What’s next for you as a writer?
I'm still writing a lot of short stories, seems like I always have a half dozen or so in the works. A lot of my western noir tales are all set in Perseverance, Oregon, an Old West town of my own invention. Those stories have overlapping plot lines and share a lot of characters. I like how somebody can be the hero of one story and a bit player in the next. So the first collection of western noir tales is mostly written and I'm hoping to find a publisher for that in the next few months. In the meantime, I'll just keep writing. I've been doing it for years at this point, so it's not like I'm stopping any time soon. And, just between us, "Whistin' Pete" is slowly growing into a longer story too -- maybe even the start of a novel. Turns out that woman he meets at the station is on the run too, so we'll have to see where that goes.
7. How can readers keep up with your latest projects?
I blog online at chuckcaruso.com. That site includes a list of my recent publications, reviews of recent crime novels and movies that I've enjoyed, the pitch for my novel, information about classes I teach in my other life as a college English professor and creative writing teacher. I've also been very happy to include information about my creative writing students who have been getting their own work out there. I'm so proud of them, and I really think that it's all about helping each other grow and find the readers who will enjoy our writing. Thanks so much for giving me the chance to let the MBTB readers know about my writing.