Todd Robinson is known in the crime fiction world for two things. He’s the author of The Hard Bounce (Tyrus Books), a gritty and often hilarious novel involving two bouncers in Boston. He is also the creator of Thuglit, one of the most original fiction journals in the past decade. If Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine are the respected but somewhat staid grandparents of crime fiction, then Thuglit is the creative, brash punk kid. If you’re interested at all in noir, you should check out some of the back issues available online – there’s nothing else like it. I spoke with Robison recently about The Hard Bounce, his follow-up entitled Rough Trade (Polis Books, forthcoming in August), and the recently announced end of Thuglit.
James Pate: One of the elements in The Hard Bounce that I found especially strong was the way the novel mixes a sort of comic noir sensibility with very bleak, disturbing material. I’m particularly thinking of the way the early scenes with Boo and Junior seem to set the reader up for a crime narrative that’s primarily comic in tone – and the way later material (involving possible snuff films, etc.) is so jolting (in a good way) because of that earlier, lighter tone. As you wrote The Hard Bounce, did you always intend for the narrative to incorporate such disturbing material, or did that aspect of the story develop during the writing process itself?
Todd Robinson: It was a long process developing what would become…can it be called a style? I’m not exactly a guy who has a lot of “style points” tucked away in my ledger.
The first few submitted drafts are nearly unrecognizable tone-wise from the finished novel. I was lucky enough to have disaster after disaster strike the publication of the book over a ten-year period. It enabled me to re-work the novel a nearly inhuman number of times. But in doing so, it enabled me to refine and clarify my voice. And that is one of the hardest things for an emerging writer to figure out for themselves—how they need to tell a story. Love it or hate it, I write Boo and Junior in my own voice—to the point of where I’ve had friends complain, saying “I liked your book, bit it was like you sitting on my shoulder and yelling in my ear for 320 pages.”
JP: The Hard Bounce definitely has a strong voice. Whenever I read it, I would hear Boo’s voice in my head long after I put the book down – which is always a sign of really vivid characterization. Boston has a powerful presence in the novel, too. Did you use a lot of your background for the novel? It seems like a personal novel in some ways – there’s nothing generic or cookie-cutter about it…
TR: It’s all part of my background, my history. There’s not a character in there that isn’t based on (or an amalgam of) people that I’ve been blessed to have crossed paths with at one point or another. In all honesty, I’m not that creative. I’ve just been lucky enough to have had great characters roaming through my life.
As far as the stories and situations are concerned, they too have a modicum of basis in reality. I just imagine what the outcomes of particular situations could have been had they turned south. REALLY south.
Someone at a book event in France made an observation that many writers create worlds to write in in order to escape a reality. They liked what I was doing because it felt like I was embracing my past, my reality, rather than creating one to escape from. I liked that interpretation a lot.
They were amazed in France that my own backstory was the same as my characters’.
They would ask, “So you really were a barman?” which always made me laugh.
Were? I flew back to the States on a Monday and was back working at the bar on Tuesday.
JP: You don’t have to answer this, but is Sid’s Vids based on an actual video/DVD store? (Note: Sid’s Vids is a video store from hell that plays a pivotal role in the novel. If you Google Sid’s Vids, you get a trailer park in Canada.) I’ve heard you now live in New York. Has New York had an impact on your writing? Or do you still feel primarily drawn to Boston?
TR: Sid’s Vids is based on a real video store that used to be on Comm Ave out by the BU stadium in Boston. I don’t remember what the real name was, but I made up the name Sid’s Vids.
It was probably the shadiest storefront I’ve ever seen. It was exactly as I described in the book, with suspiciously old and sun-faded titles in the dirty window that you could barely see through.
One day, after walking by dozens of times and thinking that the place was no longer in business, a guy straight out of central casting for the role of Chester the Molester came darting out the door and scuttled down the street. Curiosity got the better of me and I looked in.
The…human(?) behind the counter was very close to my description of Sid. And I don’t think I properly describe how bad the smell was inside that place. I’m not sure anybody could.
I’m from Massachusetts originally, but have lived in New York now for twenty years. Writing New York is very different from writing Boston. Besides the face that they’re very different cities socially, I don’t think that The Hard Bounce could take place in New York. Nor could the follow-up Boo and Junior novel, Rough Trade. Those two stories are very unique to both my experiences in Boston and they way the city breaks down socially. New York, particularly Manhattan, doesn’t work in the same way. I’m attempting a standalone thriller set in New York after I finish the third Boo and Junior novel.
It’s already a challenge, as New York isn’t the same city as Matt Scudder’s. There’s no surface dirt. One has to dig deeper to find it here. Especially today. Boston still takes great pride in its blue collar roots, holding the dirty fingernail on its middle finger high. It’s one of the reasons I’ll always love Boston.
And fuck the Yankees.
JP: Does Rough Trade pick up pretty much where The Hard Bounce left off, or does it happen later? Also, The Hard Bounce ends on a great set-up for Rough Trade, suggesting that Boo’s mysterious sister might appear in the next novel. Does she play a role in Rough Trade? And do we learn more about Boo’s (horrific) backstory? (Obviously, don’t answer anything you feel might give too much away.)
TR: Rough Trade opens up around 6-8 months after The Hard Bounce. There’s a little bit more of the backstory and the Butterfly Effect of those traumas.
We learn a lot of new things about the characters (some of which ain’t pretty) and the secrets that we all keep, sometimes from those closest to us.
Other than that, mum’s the word… I didn’t necessarily set up questions in The Hard Bounce to answer them immediately. I want to build stories within a life, a life that has questions and damages that won’t get answered or healed in a timely or convenient fashion. I’m not even sure what some of those answers are yet. And that’s half the fun in writing these characters and their lives, figuring it out as I go along.
JP: A couple of last questions, these regarding Thuglit. It seems to me that Thuglit has had a big impact on crime writing in the last few years, and has helped established what’s sometimes called “gonzo noir” within the larger crime fiction scene. Why did you originally start Thuglit? And were you surprised at how influential Thuglit would become? Also, as I understand it, Thuglit is ending its run. Why did you decide to bring it to a close, and are there any plans for Thuglit in the future (maybe in a different incarnation)?
TR: When I announced the end of the run of Thuglit, I was shocked by the outpouring of respect for what we’d done over the last eleven years. The reason we did it was because nobody else was. It wasn’t that we were publishing “gonzo fiction,” we were just publishing good crime fiction with a modern sensibility.
And I’m very surprised at the impact that the magazine apparently made. Really surprised. Especially when the number of views the announcement video received was over three times the number of units we moved in the last year. People are weird.
I’m closing it because it’s time. The sales were dropping rapidly (and they were never great to begin with), and I need more time for my own writing. I work like an animal, and I got tired of spending my time on a magazine that has been nominated for and/or won nearly every major award in crime fiction—a magazine that almost nobody wanted to pay two bucks for. The frustration and stress finally got the best of me.
There are absolutely no plans to return to Thuglit. I know some people are holding out hope, as we did disappear for a couple years after the birth of my son. After the final publication (Thuglit: Last Writes, which I hope to have up in the next couple weeks), it’s done. It’s dead. Even if I suffer a traumatic brain injury and think that doing another magazine is a good idea, it won’t be Thuglit.
I honestly think that the market for short stories is gone. There are some amazing works by a lot of writers out there in the form, and it breaks my heart that nobody is reading it. But just because I like the form, doesn’t mean that anybody else does. Some people like Hawaiian pizza. Those people may be monsters, but they like what they like. I like short stories, but getting people to read them is apparently a Sisyphean feat—and getting them to pay two fucking dollars for it is even harder. After eleven years, I’m just letting that fucking rock roll down the hill.