Pike's Peak an Interview with Benjamin Whitmer
By Jed Ayres
October 29, 2010
Benjamin Whitmer’s novel Pike is the most exciting, kick ass debut of the year. There, I said it, the book backs me up. Set in the harsh wilds of rural Kentucky, Ohio and on the streets of Cincinatti, Pike bristles with danger, menace, and mortal volatility. The bleak, rugged physical terrain mirrors the psychic and emotional interiors of each character who have been put through hells as diverse as the intentions that paved the way.
At the book’s opening, Douglas Pike is a hard bitten old-timer who grudgingly takes custody of the twelve year old granddaughter he’s never met on occasion of her mother’s death. The girl is as hesitant to go with him as he is to take her, but neither has many options in life. A bent cop named Derrick Kreiger murders a kid in broad daylight and incites a riot on the streets of Cincinatti. When he's suspended from the force, he goes on an end fastening mission that leaves more than a couple bodies in its wake.
The characters Whitmer assumes you'll love as much as he does do awful things. They have terrible lives and bloody comeuppance, but his skill and compassion as a writer wont let you dismiss them as irredeemable. The ferocity of this book is something special and signifies the arrival of a major new talent and voice in fiction. Put Whitmer's next one, whatever it may be, squarely at the top of my anticipation list.
With little fanfare, PM Press's Switchblade line has carved out a niche for finely crafted, hardcore crime fiction with a social awareness, and Pike ought to win them a lot of attention. Benjamin Whitmer, graciously gave his time to answer a few questions:
First off, I know it's a line in the book, but it's also the title of your blog and the name on your Twitter account - Can you explain the significance of the phrase 'Kick him, Honey'?
It's just a stupid joke with myself. It was the first of many laugh-out-loud lines I hit in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and I think at one point I had some cockamamie plan to include it in every book I ever wrote. Y'know, to ensure thematic unity through my work.
Now I've just decided to kill a dog in every book instead. I hate dogs.
Reading your author bio, it sounds like you grew up looking at the world like it was wide open - still wild - and I'd say the characters in your book do as well. They treat societal laws as either ignorable irritants or hostile encroachments on their existence, how much of the author's worldview do they represent?
That’s a great question. Growing up, my mother definitely placed a premium on freedom. I had a lot of elbow room, and there was no censorship when it came to books or ideas. She also had very little interest in arbitrary societal norms – she’s probably the least judgmental person I’ve ever met. She’s an amazing woman, and those are the greatest gifts she gave me. But, of course, that freedom came with a cost. We were very poor, and there were chunks of my childhood where we didn’t have electricity or running water, let alone health insurance or any kind of financial safety net.
For all the talk that goes on in this country about freedom, there ain’t much to be had. There’s no aspect of our lives where we’re not subject to regulation and control, and, as everybody knows, we’ve got more people in prison than any country in the world, and most of them for victimless crimes. No matter how you look at it, when it comes to tangible freedom, the kind that allows us to live how we want to live, we’re one of the least free people around. That’s something my characters grate against, and I absolutely share that with them.
But then I think of before Colorado became a state, when it was pretty much a free-for-all for white settlers. And I think of when white Denverites were worked into a frenzy against the local Indians, and the First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers massacred hundreds of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahoe camped along Sand Creek. And I remember how when they returned to Denver with scalped women’s genitalia stretched across their saddle pommels and Indian fetuses paraded on sticks, the whole town turned out to cheer them on. That’s a kind of freedom, too. And that tension about freedom is something that's been on my mind a lot. I tried to keep it in play throughout Pike.
So was Douglas Pike based on anyone in particular? Or Derrick for that matter?
Well, Pike was based on a few people, none of whom I should I probably name for pissing 'em off. But I did actually have a kind of model for both Pike and Derrick – somebody I could imagine when I came to a mental block.
In Pike's case it was Steve Earle, circa Transcendental Blues. Earle was just out of jail, and was looking big and burly and full of menace to prove himself. For Derrick it was Waylon Jennings back in his cocaine and speed days, around the time of Honky Tonk Heroes. Honky Tonk Heroes is one of the greatest country albums ever released, but you can tell it almost killed Jennings to make it. You look at pictures of him from that time and he’s drawn thin, strung out, at the absolute stretched-out end of reason.
Those were only a kind of body double for the characters, though, if you know what I mean. I didn't try to base the characters on them or anything. It was just a way of getting myself back on track when I needed to. I probably listened to those two albums, Transcendental Blues and Honky Tonk Heroes, three or four thousand times when I was writing Pike.
What importance did the geographical setting have?
All the importance in the world. I had the characters of Pike and Wendy in my head for years but I had no idea what to do with them until my wife and I moved to Cincinnati chasing a job. My daughter was born within a couple weeks of the move, and she had colic pretty bad. We were living in a tiny two-room apartment, and my daughter would cry for four or five hours at a clip, so when I was home from work I'd take her for walks – it was about the only thing that would calm her down – and let my poor exhausted wife get a little rest. We ended up walking all over the city at all times of day and night. Where we lived wasn't a real bad area, but we were bordering a lot of neighborhoods that were, so I'd throw a handgun in my diaper bag and we'd just roam for hours on end. It was then, walking around and looking at the city, that the story started to fall into place.
I always tell my daughter that she can't read Pike quite yet – she's only six – but that she's already been to all the locations. I don't think it's done her too much damage, anyway. She asks me for Cincinnati stories almost every night after storytime.
The beginning of the book places us secure in our sympathies with Pike and set firmly against Derrick, but by the end of the book, Pike's character and history challenge our loyalties to him while Derrick's revealed motives endear him a little bit. In your mind was one character clearly the sympathetic one?
No, not at all. I feel like I probably shouldn’t say this in polite company, but I love them both for exactly who they are. As I see it, that’s one of the differences between crime fiction and police procedurals, forensic whodunits, lone hero serials and all the other stuff (some of which I very much enjoy, for the record): with crime fiction, there don’t have to be good guys and bad guys. Instead, you can put motivation at the forefront and make crime a part of character, creating – at least in my mind – much richer, if maybe more disturbing, stories.
I know there are certainly times in my life when I haven’t been at my best. And I know plenty of people who managed to fuck themselves up real good and/or destroy the lives of those around them. But I’ve never met a single person who set out to do so. Every major fuck up I ever met was the product of poor circumstances, bad choices, and whatever flaws and damage they carried with them. I’m not sure you can pinpoint those bad choices or that damage, and in the case of fiction I don’t have much interest in trying – I’m not real interested in writing psychological whydunits, either – but it’s always there.
Those are the kind of people who interest me: heavily flawed, complicated, violent people, doing what they can with what little they have. Straight good guys and bad guys may exist, but I’ve never seen them outside of comic books. (And, come to think, most comic books are more complicated than that these days.)
Is Crime Writer, a tag you're happy to wear?
Yessir, no doubt about it. My next book actually won’t be a crime book; I’m co-writing Charlie Louvin’s autobiography for Igniter Books – which is about as exciting as it gets for me, being a hardcore country music fan. But after that I’ve got a second novel just about done, a third half done, and I’m researching for the fourth, and they’re all crime novels. They may be a little off center – at least I hope so – but they’re definitely crime novels.
Besides which, one thing I’ve learned over the past month is just how generous the crime fiction community is. I’d probably go broke if I tried to buy Keith Rawson and Brian Lindenmuth all the drinks I owe ‘em. Not to mention Switchblade editor Gary Phillips, who I just got to meet in person, and the rest of the folks at PM Press. And, of course, all the people who've been kind enough to contact me and give me their reaction to the book. I've been blown away, and there’s no way I’d want to jump ship.
And, not to be snide, and I hope it doesn’t come across that way, but if you set copies of the latest releases from, say, Jonathon Franzen and James Ellroy in front of me, I’m reading the Ellroy first. I may very well like the Franzen, I may even think it lives up to the reviews, but I’m reading the Ellroy first. I know that crime fiction’s one of the few places left in literature where we can still talk unironically about things like class, race, corruption, the meaning of violence, the consequences of history, and all the other stuff that moves me, so I’m reading the Ellroy first.
So, yeah, the crime writer tag is something I’m more than happy to wear. I’m very proud of it, and I just hope I live up to it.
How did you get hooked up with Louvin? And not to sound grim, but is there a rush to finish the book or a contingency plan in place if he doesn't see it to completion?
It was actually out of nowhere. Igniter Books is an imprint of HarperCollins run by Neil Strauss and Anthony Bozza, and they wanted to do a Charlie Louvin book, so Strauss contacted my agent and asked if he had any writers who’d be interested in the project. I, of course, jumped at the chance, and we sent Strauss and Bozza some excerpts from Pike. Long story short, they said lots of really nice things about the book, and the job was mine.
As to contingency plans, I don’t think there’ll be any need. Charlie and I have been working really hard and talking a lot, true, but he has more fight in him than I ever thought possible. I mean, it’s pancreatic cancer, so it’s a rough deal, but with the grace and strength he shows every day I have trouble believing he’s going anywhere soon. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but he’s pretty amazing.
Two of the characters in the book are a little pre-occupied with pedophilia - Wendy as a threat and Derrick as a flashpoint for violence - yet the closest thing to a healthy relationship described in Pike involves a grown man and an underaged girl. Care to unpack that a little?
I'm not sure I can, it's just kind of the way the story played out. One thing I would say is that I'm not sure that relationship is very healthy. I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t read the book, but that grown man has his own past he’s trying to redeem. Redemption, at least as it gets presented in a lot of fiction, looks like a tremendously violent process. It’s almost like an act of consumption. I mean if you’re redeeming your own fuck ups through the figure of someone else, you’re basically devouring them into your own life story, right?
Certainly the relationship would still be a stumbling point from any reader's point of view, but in the context of the world of the book, of where the characters come from and what they've dealt with, it holds the unique position of not already having destroyed those involved. It seemed to me one more instance of these characters' disdain for the law - of society of the heart - whatever. And how about the law - Jack, the sheriff? What kind of sympathy or esteem do you as the author have for him?
Ah, I got you. Yeah, I think that’s right. Pike certainly thinks that if the relationship is helpful to the grown man and the girl than society has no place getting involved. And that makes sense. As a society we’re real good at shoveling people into prison, but we have no interest in taking care of kids who are abandoned, abused, or starvation-level poor. It just doesn’t come up in the national discourse, except in the breathless horseshit that runs out of 20/20, Oprah (there goes the book club), or whatever. When you’re down to that level, you survive any way you can, and I think Pike would find passing judgment to be hypocritical at best. Of course, Derrick, he’s not real good at nuance in this case – like most people, I suppose – but sometimes things are more complicated than they look from the outside.
As to Jack, the Sheriff, he’s made his own poor choices, I think. Like the rest of them, he kind of blundered into who he is, and now he’s paying for it. I found him sympathetic, for sure. He’s done the best he could with what he had, it's just that what he had turned out to be inadequate. Which, I guess, it usually is.
How did you become involved with PM Press and the Switchblade line?
It was just good timing, really. My agent had been sending Pike around for awhile, and we couldn’t get anyone to bite. We got lots of really nice rejection notes, but they all ended with “way too dark for us.” I have a friend, however, who knows Ramsey Kanaan, the founder of PM Press, and he knew they were looking for books in the vein of Pike. I passed the information on to my agent, he sent it the manuscript off to the folks over there, and they took it. I was really, really excited, of course, and more than a little relieved. I was starting to think it was going to end up collecting dust in the bottom drawer of my desk for the rest of my life.
How long was it between finishing the book and seeing it published?
It was a while. I think three and a half years, maybe a little more.
And in the meantime what kept you occupied?
Well, I’ve got two small children, so that means I’m pretty much always occupied. But I also just kept plugging away. I wrote a second novel, and accidentally got about halfway through a third, and then for the last couple of months it’s been all Charlie Louvin all the time. My career plan as a writer is to make up for my deficiencies of natural talent with pure tenacity. I just figured if I kept grinding away, sooner or later somebody’d want what I was writing. Or, if not, than no harm done, because it gave me something to do that was reasonably harmless – depending on who you ask, anyway – and which I love doing. Some people live for racing cars, some people for building guitars, some people for cooking, this is what keeps me together.