I’ll be honest: I hadn’t heard much about David James Keaton until his collection Fish Bites Cop! landed on my doorstep. Three stories later, I was Googling him (I know, that sounds odd). Turns out I’d missing a treat because his short fiction has appeared everywhere (and by everywhere I mean well over 50 publications, including Grift, Chicago Quarterly Review, Thuglit, Pank, and Noir at the Bar II) and is, as expert reviewers say, very good. Now Keaton has a new novel coming soon from Broken River Books, and rumor has it you can kill someone with it or use it as a doorstop. Good time to talk to him, right? I thought so.
GI: You have this small cabin in the woods and you go there to write your novels. Yeah, that’s not a question; I just wanted to let you talk a bit about that so that folks don’t think you’re there naked, drinking blood, and typing with your toes. Or maybe you are. Whatever works for you, man.
DJK: The only blood being drank was my own because there are thousands of mosquitoes up there. In fact, I got bit so much their anticoagulant venom got me high. No shit, I was dizzy and talking to them, trying to line up some dead ones as a warning to the rest. Not a whole lot of writing got done. Well, some stuff got done, about a normal-sized book’s worth got done. But it’s gonna change before it’s a real book. But the writing shack thing is a new tradition that I hope to keep up. It’s on the property of my wife’s family’s cabin. They call it the Screen House. Which sounds an awful lot like Scream House. Many hours in the Scream House. I left behind a lot of my blood, smeared mosquitoes, and Snickers wrappers.
“Snickers wrappers” is prison lingo for BODIES.
GI: The Last Projector is around 150k words. Why not 200k? Are you one of those lazy writers? Why keep it so short?
DJK: It’s shorter than I thought it would end up I was writing it. Until revisions started, and then I didn’t remember writing any of it and it felt gigantic. Then on the next draft it felt tiny and manageable again. Then I printed it out and everybody started laughing. A police officer friend told me he was going to shoot it to see how many pages his bullet could get through, but he never did. I hope he gives me a heads-up if he’s going to actually do this.
GI: Fish Bites Cop! was amazing and weird. Everyone kept calling it a crime book, and it was, but it had enough bizarro in it to qualify as a bizarro book. If you had to define it in 1000 words or less, how would you do it?
DJK: Thanks! Yeah, I don’t know what genre it was. Still don’t. Just like trying to define bizarro. That’s like magical realism, right? But with shit and blood flying everywhere? If so, yes, I’ll be that, thanks. But to define it? I tried to do that once over at Elizabeth White’s page with an essay called “It’s Supposed to be Funny, I Swear!” and I still stand by that declaration. But the “funny” was there to disguise a genuine grudge against blustery law enforcement types and authority figures, so maybe it’s more satire. The authority bashing was sort of organic to most of the stories, and there wasn’t a set theme for a collection until I looked back at what I’d written over a period of three years and thought, “Hey, there’s a through line here.” The playful story where Dog the Bounty Hunt— er, uh, “C.A.T. the Skip Tracer” is brutally murdered for laughs was probably the most conscious authority bashing in the book. So is that a genre? Mean-spirited Slap Attack Fiction? It’s that.
GI: That collection was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror. That means it was also a horror book. Crime. Horror. Bizarro. Are you above and beyond categorization or just trying to get fans of all genres to hold hands and sing Kumbaya?
DJK: That award was a fun surprise, but it did make sense to me when I thought about it, as horror sometimes becomes that place where different genres do hold hands. Or at least thumb-wrestle.
GI: Why did you decide to go with Broken River Books with this novel? How much grief did J David Osborne give you? How much did you give right back?
DJK: Broken River Books recruited me on a rooftop in St. Louis after J.D.O and I had both read for a Books and Booze event. Osborne said, “I loved your shit! Send me more shit!” and I said, “I loved your shit! More shit will be sent!” At the time, The Last Projector was called Spunkwater, and it was in limbo at a couple places, but his enthusiasm after reading it was undeniable, so I pulled it and probably burned some bridges to work with him instead. But come on, those other guys had the damn thing for nine months. Nine months and no baby. Life’s too short and the indie scene is way too juicy right now to waste that kind of time. But yeah, as far as grief, we’re both trading some consensual grief. The book has gone through a few incarnations, but it’s all good. He’s a great editor, all joking aside. He found at least one typo per page, as well as a sheet of fun “Plot Inconsistencies” he made for me. They say things like, “Little Mike is burned to death but the motherfucker is having a conversation in the last chapter.” Whoops! This I fixed by making Big Mike talk to his finger instead. Because he missed his buddy!
Another example. Last night he called me drunk and said, “Hey! I was gonna put up the pre-order link for The Last Projector tonight. You want to really complicate things and promise you’ll sign them all?” I said, “Yes! As long as it really fucks things up.” “Oh, definitely,” he said. “Logistically, this will be a nightmare.” And I’m like, “I’m in love with this plan.” So now I have to sign hundreds of books and my apartment will look like Boxville, New Mexico. Luckily, we live close to each other. That was a lie, he’s a hundred states away. Oh! More grief that I’m not sure he knows about but will now – on the last round of edits I wrote him into the novel mostly to rub a balloon against his head. And I wrote one of the characters from his own novel into my novel just to screw up that character’s arc. One is easier to find than the other, which is probably why he hasn’t said anything yet. See that? These are the kinds of things you can probably only do at an indie press. Indie for life!
GI: Was that The Last Projector-Fish Bites Cop!-The Last Projector line of questioning confusing? Would you buy me a beer?
DJK: It made perfect sense! The books are intertwined anyway. Fish Bites Cop is the genesis of The Last Projector. All the paramedic stories ended up being expanded on in the novel, a lot of the “Jacks” are the “Jack” of the novel. Other times, “Jack” was just a way to avoid naming a character, which I always hate. And the opening story of Fish Bites Cop, “Trophies,” the one that follows a police officer’s head after it’s shotgunned off and bounces around the freeway and goes on adventures is also a mini-fable from The Last Projector. They were both written simultaneously.
GI: You write short stories and novels: do you prefer one over the other? Why?
DJK: I’m more into novels now, as it feels like I can consistently finish them. They used to seem like an impossible goal. But I wrote a couple screenplays a few years ago, which basically taught me how to outline a novel, something I never bothered with before. Not that The Last Projector is the result of any kind of reasonable plan or organization whatsoever.
GI: Your work has a cinematic quality to it that comes from your passion for movies. Also, you write scripts. What are you working on now and what role does that love for film play in your writing? Oooh, smart question coming: is TLP an homage to movies… and stuff?
DJK: Those screenplays that I wrote didn’t sell, after some agents and small studios wasted years of my life keeping me on the hook like it would happen “any day now.” So I turned a couple of them into novels. My goal is that someone wants to make a movie out of a novel of mine that used to be a script so I can say, “Ah ha! Back-doored your ass, suckers!” And also because turning scripts into books in order to make movies is hilarious. It’s like that race track I had as a kid that will make no sense to anyone but my brother right now: Big Detour: The Loooong Way Around.
GI: You have a thing for zombies. Are they passé now? Can we start calling ourselves undead hipsters now?
DJK: I don’t want to be the kind of asshole who says he was into zombies before they were cool. But I was totally into zombies before they were cool. And now that they’re enjoying this healthy backlash and unfashionable played-out phase, I’m sort of liking them again. I’m probably done writing zombie stories though. “The Ball Pit” in Fish Bites Cop felt like an ending to me.
GI: I already gave you unlimited word count to answer everything, so I’ll cut that back to ten words. You have ten words to tell folks what The Last Projector is all about.
DJK: How about a haiku instead?
The Last Projector.
What’s it about?
Canines. Jealousy. Movies.
No, that was stupid. Let me try the ten words thing. It’s like, instead of yelling “fire!” in a movie, it’s yelling “movie” in a fire! Okay, that was even worse, and not ten words. You’ll have to ask somebody else. I can’t sell it.
GI: You have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, but your love for pulp and horror arguably make you the antithesis of a large chunk of the MFA folks I know. What gives?
DJK: My schooling took about a decade longer than most, so let’s not get carried away with that “MFA” thing. In fact, the best writing I did had little to do with the workshop process. Here’s a weird story. I accidentally took at class in grad school that was half Spanish, and I was failing it (read the course descriptions, kids!). “Failing” in grad school means a “C” because they’re fucking ridiculous. And I didn’t want to drop it because it fit my work schedule and I was close-captioning full time. Anyway, the teacher assigned 100 Years of Solitude, which probably fits my earlier definition of “bizarro” up there actually. And him and I started talking about that book and Márquez’s little gold fish and then talking movies and how Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo was likely an homage to that book, with the boat in the jungle, etc. So I sought out that movie, and there was a scene in it where a drunken rich guy waves a wad of cash in front of the face of someone who could really use it, then throws it into a fish pond with some big-ass fish, and one of them swallows it down. And I became obsessed with that moment in the movie and turned it into “Nine Cops Killed for a Goldfish Cracker,” which then became the sorta title story of Fish Bites Cop (the original title of that story), and my first “real” short-story sale. I don’t know what the point of that story is, except it’s something about doing my best work outside of the typical MFA experience. I wouldn’t trade that “C” for nothin’.
GI: Who’s the sexiest indie crime writer alive?
DJK: Flannery O’Connor. Look into those eyes. Oh, wait, alive? Jed Ayres by a longshot. Dogfather of Noir at the Bar. The dude was immortalized as an ascot-wearing villain in the comic Mind Management for chrissakes. He also talks soft and spooky like he just got done eating a cake made of faces.