Treading the darkest paths: an interview with Joel Rose
by Mark Vanner
"I read tons of stuff and lots of different stuff. I'm always stealing."
"I been shot. I been shot in the head. In the heart. I been shot in the cheek. In the jaw. In the mouth. I been shot in the gut. I been shot in the back, in the arm, in the neck. I been shot in the balls."
These are the opening lines to Joel Rose's brilliant modern masterpiece Kill Kill Faster Faster. Published over a decade ago by Canongate books, Kill Kill Faster Faster tells the story of ex-con, Joey One-Way as he struggles to come to terms with life on the outside, his brutal past and his own psychotic inner turmoil which threatens to destroy everything around him. It is a modern day tragedy, a bleak poetic opus of sex, violence and obsession told on a tidal wave of lyrical flick knives. What is so unique about this book is the way in which it is written. It has a voice completely of its own which carries the reader seamlessly from chapter to chapter through horror, humour and pain. When I first read this book ten years ago, I read it in less than a day. It was my own personal saviour. I felt as though I had discovered the new rock 'n' roll and I was the only person in the world who knew about it or Joey One-Way. This was the book that made me want to write for better or for worse and picking it up ten years later it still carries the same intensity and rawness for me it did all of those years ago.
Now Joel is back with his third novel The Blackest Bird, a monster of a book, which fictionalises the true murder story of Mary Rogers. Set in nineteenth century gangland New York, The Blackest Bird follows the story of High Constable Hays as he attempts to unravel the second and final disappearance of the infamous segar girl. The detailed interweaving of the plot once again sees Joel treading the darkest paths of the human condition delving this time into the psyche of Edgar Allen Poe as just one of the many characters scattered amongst the dense pages of this book. The novel itself took Joel seventeen years to write and reading it you will understand why. I can only imagine the amount of research, which must have gone in to putting this book together. It is a story of epic proportions and just like Kill Kill Faster Faster and Kill the Poor before it, seems destined for a big screen adaptation.
After a brief correspondence with Joel via email, he kindly agreed to let me ask him a few questions for Dogmatika. It's not every day you get to interview one of your heroes and so I was extremely excited to be doing this and also a little worried I would totally fuck it up. Joel Rose is a refreshing change from the norm. The few writers which I have spoken to in the past have mostly seemed self absorbed and intent on pushing there latest book onto me. Joel Rose was none of these things. For me, Joel Rose is a gentleman, an ordinary guy writing extra-ordinary books.
Thanks again to Joel Rose for his generosity and for kindly taking the time out to answer my less than polished questions.
Mark Vanner: Kill Kill Faster Faster and The Blackest Bird are two very different books, both in style and context. I want to start with Kill Kill Faster Faster. How did this book come about? And where did the character of Joey One-Way come from?
Joel Rose: The voice of Kill Kill was with me for a long time before I knew what it was. I love to walk in the city and as I walked the voice (more like a song) would come to me. I would hear, "I've been shot. It's all right, it's okay, you can still have kids." I didn't know what that song was, what the voice meant: you know, I already had kids. Then one day I wrote the words down in my notebook and then I couldn't stop.
MV: It's interesting you mention walking in the City. Im guessing some people would choose the countryside or a beach to enjoy a leisurely stroll along. What is it about the City that attracts you?
JR: I just like to walk. I don't care where it is. It's the way I get around, the way I get to know a city. Any city. It's the way I get to know the country, too, it's the way I get to know the shore. When I walk everything is there for me. When I travel it's the only thing I want to do is walk, and I love the country as much as the city.
"He pulled a copy of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and put it in my hand. He said, "Can you feel the heft of this? This is a novel. I think you can write novels." So that was the end of my medical career."
MV: Earlier you touched upon the voice of Kill Kill. For me, it seemed to have a style and rhythm all of its own. It's what makes this book so unique. The narrative is infectious and grabs you by the balls from the very first line. It's like a song you hear on the drive to work that you can't get out of your head. Was this style a conscious decision? Or a natural progression?
JR: Once it came on me it was a conscious decision, but the song imposed its presence upon me, and wouldn't let go.
MV: When did you first start writing? Was there a specific big bang moment or inspiration which made you decide you wanted to become a writer?
JR: My old man was a waiter. He never had the opportunity to go to school. Not even grade school. My mom was sickly while I was growing up. She almost died a few times. I was supposed to be a doctor when I went off to university and save my mom. But the first day of classes the head of the Rhetoric Department called me on the telephone and said he had read an essay I had turned in and would I stop by his home. He brought me into his study, pulled a copy of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and put it in my hand. He said, "Can you feel the heft of this? This is a novel. I think you can write novels." So that was the end of my medical career.
MV: I know some writers like to have strict writing schedules or routines when it comes to putting words down on to paper. Could you tell me a little about your writing process, whether you have any habits or routines? And how often do you write?
JR: I write everyday. My dad worked nights, came home at 4:30 am. By the time I came home from school, he was already gone off to his job. So I used to get up at 4:30 to be with him. I still get up that early. I make coffee and go to my desk. My boys get up at 7:00 I give them breakfast, make their lunch. My wife takes them off to school. I work the rest of the day, until its time to pick them up. I then put a few more hours in before dinner. I rarely work at night.
"There is a tie between Kill Kill and The Blackest Bird, and that tie is the late great Nuyorican playwright and my good friend, Miguel Piñero. Those parts of Joey One-Way that are not based on me are based on Mikey."
MV:I noticed on your website that you are the proud owner of two guitars. How long have you been playing and what guitars are they?
JR: Oh, I play really bad, but my guitars are nice. I have two Martins. One is a dreadnaught DM, the other is an OMC-15E with a Fishman pickup. I guess I've been playing since I'm fifteen.
MV: How influenced are you by music?
JR: Because I have such a tin ear, music is what I aspire to. My writing is my music.
MV: Have you ever been guilty of striking 80's rock poses in front of a full length mirror with one or possibly both (it's possible) guitars? My particular favorite is the one I like to call the 'Cock Crusher'. You'd know it if you saw it… Parted legs, guitar thrust outwards from the pelvis. Believe me…that ones a winner, despite it being a little uncomfortable in the groinal department.
JR: I'm leaving that to you, Mark.
MV: That's probably for the best. Anyway, your new novel, The Blackest Bird is a colossal book, which delves into one of America's darkest periods of its birth. How much research did you have to do for this novel and what drew you to these particular grim events in time?
JR: I did a ton of research that extended over many years. There is a tie between Kill Kill and The Blackest Bird, and that tie is the late great Nuyorican playwright and my good friend, Miguel Piñero. Those parts of Joey One-Way that are not based on me are based on Mikey. He spent a lot of years in prison and wrote Short Eyes, his award winning play, with a bunch of other guys while in Sing-Sing. Miguel and I both worked on Kojak at the same time, but separately, and we were later writing partners on Miami Vice. He lived on Sixth Street on the Lower East Side and I came from Seventh. While we were working on Miami Vice he used to carry around a copy big red encyclopedia of American crime, Jay Robert Nash's Bloodletters and Badmen. We used to obsess over that book looking for plot ideas. I got into the history of New York City crime from there, then began frequenting a bookstore called New York Bound in Rockefeller Center looking for more. The proprietress gave me a copy of the Gangs of New York and in my possessed readings and purchases that followed I stumbled onto the story of Mary Rogers and John Colt and insinuated Poe in their center.
MV: I loved the character of Poe and also, without giving too much away, your interpretation of his death, which even today remains somewhat of a mystery. Included amongst the pages are also scatterings of Poe's poetry and prose offered to the reader as part of the puzzle. How much of a fan are you of Edgar Allen Poe's writings?
JR: I'm not that big a fan. I respect him, of course, in the biggest way, and some of the stories are so fantastic, but what I saw most was the frustration. The writer who knows he has something to convey, yet never can quite get there. In Poe it's the frustration that wins out: always broke, always suffering, never accomplishing that which he perceives he deserves. A life of misery and confusion, poverty and genius.
"I'm not that big a fan of Poe. I respect him, of course, in the biggest way, and some of the stories are so fantastic, but what I saw most was the frustration: always broke, always suffering, never accomplishing that which he perceives he deserves."
MV: Who else do you like to read? Are there any writers you particularly admire or books, which have inspired your own writing?
JR: I read tons of stuff and lots of different stuff. I used to say Celine and Henry Miller, but now I don't know anymore. I enjoy Lee Child. I'm always stealing.
MV: In the author’s'notes and acknowledgments section on the last few pages of The Blackest Bird you write that it took seventeen years (eighteen including holidays) to complete this book. How did you maintain your focus on the novel for this length of time? Were there ever days when you thought, shit, where do I go from here?
JR: Over those years I was defeated so many times. I knew the story was excellent. I wanted to tell it. I needed to tell it. But the truth is the original book I envisioned is not the book I wrote. Things changed for me through all the years, through all the false steps. It drew me closer to the character of the writer, to Poe, but also to Hays, the sane figure, the wise and fallible father.
MV: Kill Kill has recently been adapted for the big screen. You mentioned earlier about your time writing for Kojak and Miami Vice, how much input did you have when it came to the making of this movie?
JR: When the book was first published, I had a lot of interest from Hollywood, but Irvine Welsh advised me to sell the rights to a small independent company, like he had Trainspotting, and that's what I did. The director, Gareth Roberts was remarkably respectful. He wanted to remain truthful to the book. I did the original script, and some reworking, but Gareth took much of it on himself. He did an outstanding job, and the film, only recently completed, looks great.
MV: If you could choose one person to spend six months sharing a cell with Joey One-Way, who would it be and why?
JR: My wife, man. She was there for the Kill Kill. She spent a lot more time than six months putting up with me while I was writing it, and in the aftermath. I was fucking brutal. She probably wants to pay me back.
MV: My final question is, what's next for Joel Rose? And will we ever see the character of Joey One-Way resurrected for a possible sequel /prequel to Kill Kill Faster Faster or is that something you would purposely stray away from?
JR: You'll never see the character of Joey One-Way again. Not through my cipher at any rate. I'm on to something else. Hopefully, it will be as good. Maybe not.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Mark Vanner is 29yrs old and now lives in Oxfordshire, UK. His poetry and stories have appeared in books and magazines world wide including Anchor Books, Poetry Monthly, Swill Magazine and forthcoming in Pearl. In 2004 his poem 'It Only Hurts When You Walk Away' was short listed for the Forward prize. For more information visit: www.markvanner.com