Please welcome Stephen Romano, author of Resurrection Express, to the blog! Also, be sure to check out the giveaway details at the bottom of the post for a copy of Resurrection Express!
Stephen, you have a long list of accomplishments to your name, including work in screenwriting and illustration. You also co-authored Black Light, and your brand new book, Resurrection Express, just came out! How long did Resurrection Express take to write, and what inspired you to write it?
I was broke and I needed to sell my soul in a big hurry! (Laughs) Seriously, though . . . in every joke there’s always a weak ray of truth, right? And the truth is that, yes, I have done a lot of stuff in a lot of mediums, including a great deal of raw, violent, uncompromising work that the “cool people” have found mighty darn awesome, particularly SHOCK FESTIVAL and THE RIOT ACT. You get great reviews and your contemporaries pat you on the back and call you a genius, but none of it pays the rent. If you don’t have a day job—if being an artist is all you know how to do professionally—then you’d better make money doing it or you’re just washing dishes on the day after the wrap party, you know? SHOCK FESTIVAL was a project I put my heart and soul into for two years and it got really dumped on by the publishers. It came out in 2008 and was a big disappointment to me on many levels. I ended up penniless and starving. So it was time to pull myself up by the bootstraps and do something about that.
I needed a few projects that could put me on a bigger, more commercial radar. I got a dialogue going with an influential editor named John Schoenfelder at Little Brown, who’d just been hired to head their new Mulholland Books thriller imprint. I didn’t have an agent at the time, but John and I really hit it off, and he was always interested in any story pitches I had, so I just kept throwing stuff at him until he liked one. That was Elroy Coffin and Resurrection Express. I just kind dreamt Elroy up on the phone one day when we were talking. He liked what he was hearing and I burned through a really hungry first draft of the entire novel on spec in just under two months—because I had to make a sale, like really damn soon, or I was gonna to be out on the street—then presented it to John. And that was when things got a little complicated. Basically, we disagreed about the direction I’d taken the story in. But Schoenfelder still liked my writing a lot, and he invited me to work with Melton and Dunstan on Black Light instead. I appreciated the offer and it was a deal that paid my rent for a while and got me an agent, too. I’d never had one before, always kinda taking it to the street, you know? But it’s a luxury I can definitely appreciate, and David Hale Smith is one of the best out there. He and I agreed that I’d nailed the character of Elroy Coffin with that tortured first draft of Resurrection, so we stuck by our guns when it came time to jump ship later and take it to Simon and Schuster.
As far as story inspiration goes, I just invent these things as I write them. That’s an approach that tends to scare the hell out of a lot of editors, because sometimes they wanna know up front what you’re doing. That was part of the reason John and I parted ways in the end. But, you know, if it hadn’t been for John’s initial enthusiasm for the project, I probably never would have written it in the first place. Define irony, man. (Laughs.) I did have a pretty solid idea of what I wanted to do—an angsty, claustrophobic heist/chase thriller that erupts on a far more epic scale—but I literally threw the early rough outline over my shoulder past a certain point and let Elroy run into a very dark night. He came in and took over the story! You have to let that happen or it just kinda devolves into cookie cutter bullshit. Outlines can be the death of true creativity when you’re on the front lines of something that feels like it could be special.
I made a conscious effort this time, however, to ratchet down the intensity of the violent stuff, so the book would be appealing to as many people as possible . . . but, well . . . even “toned down,” you can’t really take me anywhere. My stuff is very smartass, very full of a worldview, you know? It’s hard to calm that raging beast, even when you cut out a few exploding heads or usages of the word “fuck” or whatever. The attitude is always there. So I made an uneasy peace with a slightly cleaner direction, and when it went to Simon and Schuster, my brilliant new editor made the suggestions that aimed the novel into that elusive wider audience demographic. The final solution was something so simple, and it had been lurking right in front of me the whole time. Ed Schlesinger and the ladies who run Simon and Schuster/Gallery Books are geniuses, and Resurrection owes a lot to them, too.
What would be your elevator pitch for Resurrection Express?
In an overall sense, pitching it to a reader now, I would say it’s a dark action suspense piece with a strong obsessive romantic undercurrent and a real ‘anything-goes’ attitude problem. I wanted to take the idea of the male dominated action thriller genre and kind of turn it on its ear a little, while tackling the equation of a techno-thriller with all the boring parts cut out. The whole series character thing has been really played to death—it can be very predictable. And ‘cyber-crime’ stuff can get quite bogged down in its own technobabble BS. Nobody understands that shit anyway, so screw it, you know? What’s really important are your characters, and how they exist in the action. Nothing is predicable or dull in Resurrection Express. And the narrative flow is very front-loaded with a lot of literary devices that harken closer to guys like Chuck Palahniuk. I go around saying it’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE meets THE GETAWAY by way of Jason Bourne, directed in a tag team by Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan.
What are a few of your favorite thrillers/crime novels?
SHELLA by Andrew Vachss is my all time favorite thriller. If you wanna see what fuels the “dark” in Resurrection Express, read that bad boy. It’s astonishing. Filled with truth. Hard and unflinching. Elegant and stylish, written in first-person from the point-of-view of a truly horrifying character, with a sensitivity that makes him totally accessible, and not a trace of wasted muscle anywhere on the damn thing. Almost perfect storytelling. And the thing with Andrew is that most of his books are very real—as in, he usually never makes any of this shit up. The awful beats and backstory that make up SHELLA are one hundred percent authentic. I think the best, most lasting works of fiction in this or any genre, have a lot truth to tell, and Andrew is a master of that truth. But do not come unprepared. It will shock the hell out of you.
Also, I would recommend, in no particular order: THE GAME OF THIRTY by William Kotzwinkle (see below), FREEZER BURN by Joe R. Lansdale, MONEY SHOT by Christa Faust, SAVAGES by Don Winslow, THE RAP by Ernest Brawley, THE RUNNING MAN by Richard Bachman, LOGAN’S RUN by William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, A QUIOR OF ILL CHILDREN by Tom Piccirilli, GUN WORK by David J. Schow, NEUROMANCER by William Gibson and RUN by Blake Crouch. Those are some classics, with a few newer ones sprinkled in.
I like Christa Faust a lot. She’s a classic original. I love the tacky way she puts that quote from Quentin Tarantino on her books: “Christa Faust is a Veronica in a world of Betties.” I think I’d like it if John Waters called me a “Patty Hearst in a world of Hannibal Lecters.” Seriously though, these guys are all awesome. I’ve even been privileged to work with Lansdale, who is a true hero and mentor. We’ve done movie stuff together and he was my martial arts consultant on Resurrection Express and Black Light.
Are there any authors that particularly inspire you?
William Kotzwinkle is my favorite living author. He has written so many things in so many styles and categories and has excelled so well in all of them that I’m sort of convinced he’s not of this earth. I wrote a long gushing piece about him recently over at Criminal Element. You can read it here: http://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2012/09/william-kotzwinkle-mastery-in-disguise-stephen-romano The Kotz is the kind of writer everyone should read if they are learning the craft, because he teaches you that there is no such thing as genre. His magic stretches across those battlements and has created a truly astonishing body of work, from his early masterpiece THE FAN MAN, through NIGHTBOOK and JACK IN THE BOX, then holding steady with THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN and his masterful mystery thriller THE GAME OF THIRTY. If you are not a writer, read him anyway. The latter two books I mentioned, BEAR and THIRTY, are great primers to his work. He is amazing. Oh yeah, and he even wrote one of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, too, so he’s also super cool!
You’re well known for your love of film (and success in the industry). What are some of your favorite crime films?
Oh, now you went and did it. Get me started on all this shit . . . (laughs) . . . oh, and by the way, what success in the industry are you talking about? My colleagues on BLACK LIGHT are a lot more successful than I am in the film business, that’s for sure. The bastards. (Laughs.) But I do like me some movies, in all kinds of genres. At my blog, I tend to concentrate more on film than literature, because it ain’t very healthy to shit where you eat, if you get me. I’m gonna get all kinds of hell just for talking smack about Christa Faust over here. (Laughs again, looking around nervously.)
Well, okay, let’s see. DIE HARD is still a real favorite of mine, even though that might seem like a cliché to some people in this day and age. I was blown away when I first saw that one and I still love it now, because it does what I’d partially hoped to do with Resurrection Express, in combining elements of rapid-fire action with a super-slick heist scenario, some shocking, brutal moments and a really believable central protagonist that you truly care about because he comes off like a guy you could have a beer with. But he’s also conflicted and vulnerable. The film does veer out of control in a few places, and I still think they have one too many cutsie joke moments, but it’s basically a really good synthesis of grit and crowd-pleaser beats.
NEAR DARK is a vampire thriller without vampires that almost everyone has forgotten about—and when I say that, I mean that the film is set in a world where the word “vampire” is never spoken. It kind of takes back the street cred from cute hipster stuff like (the original) FRIGHT NIGHT and LOST BOYS, which are set in the “real world” where everybody knows about these bloodsuckers and all the ways to kill them and the mythologies and such. NEAR DARK not only aces all that up front, but it really rewrites the whole idea of what a vampire is—these fellas don’t have fangs, they don’t turn into wolves, they don’t even dress very nice—and then tosses it with some real badassery. The scene in the bar where the vampire gang just rolls in and kicks ass is legendary. And Bill Paxton was never better.
Some other faves are Luc Besson’s LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, John Woo’s THE KILLER, John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13—all films that favor style and soul and heart and attitude over narrative logic. I think the overarching themes and noble ambitions in those films outclass most anything being made today. On the more plotted and thoughtful side is L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, which I pretty much believe to be the best tough guy cop thriller ever made. Also you can’t go wrong with RESERVIOR DOGS, CHINATOWN, RISKY BUSINESS (yes, I think of that film as a thriller—watch it again!), FAST WALKING, I SAW THE DEVIL, THE MAN FROM NOWHERE, U-TURN (based on an equally amazing novel by John Ridley), VIDEODROME, THE BROTHERS BLOOM, BLOW OUT or John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. The latter is another example of style and attitude over substance, but it’s a badass show of muscle, man. I never get tired of watching Snake Plissken. I almost cried in the theatre when ESCAPE FROM LA came out, though. So awful. Too much light and not enough shadow in that one.
You’re a man of many talents, but is there any particular medium that you prefer to work with over others?
Well, I was put on this earth to write, so that’s the medium I prefer . . . but I get ants in my fucking pants alla time, you know? (Laughs) I do those other things to keep from being dominated by all the Veronicas and Hannibal Lecters out there. I think if I only made music or movies or paintings or books, I’d go crazy. You gotta be well-rounded, right? It’s funny, because before SHOCK FESTIVAL, I was never a finishing illustrator. I dabbled here and there, but I never took any artwork to completion. I had to teach myself how to do that because the book’s art requirement was so massive, and I ended up becoming so good at it that real movie guys were suddenly asking me to do their posters! It sustained my life when the writing dried up for a while. That just blows my mind when I think about it for more than a few seconds. So it’s all served a very valuable purpose . . . but writing is what I always come back to. She’s my first true love. And I feel I’m better at it now than I ever was before. You know you’ve kind of arrived at a certain mastery of your craft when you can look back at something you wrote a few years ago and not be completely embarrassed by it. There’s still some early stuff out there that makes me feel like a Muppet in a world of Darth Vaders.
When you manage to find some down time, how do you like to spend it?
Christ . . . down time? What the fuck is that? (Laughs) Seriously, when it’s time to blow off steam, I get busy with nerd things and man things. I collect trashy paperbacks and movie tie-ins. I got really obsessed this year with stockpiling old Super-8 movie loops from the 1970s—films like REPTILICUS and KONGA, which are just about the coolest things in the world. I found a color/sound ten minute “best of” reel for a film called CREATURE OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is this fantastic cheeseball horror action jungle thriller made in the Philippines by Eddie Romero. It was a sequel to THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND. I was obsessed with the film for years, then found it on Super-8 on Ebay! I like shooting and hiking—I own a lot of the high caliber hardware depicted in Resurrection Express. I think most thriller writers who deal in this type of heavy weapons stuff should at least go out to a gun range once in a while. There’s nothing quite like holding one of those bad boys in your hand and exploding a target at fifty paces, man. You start realizing how tough your characters really have it. The recoil alone from a Mossberg 500 pistol grip assault shotgun will put you in the hospital if you’re not careful, man. I’m the only liberal you know who has a collection of firearms to beat Sarah Palin. (Laughs.) Ted Nugent could still kick my ass, though.
As a fellow Texan, I have to ask, what’s your favorite thing to do in Texas on a Saturday night?
A lot of times I’m a total shut in. I’ll spend months on projects and it’s hard to unwind after a day of writing or editing or whatever. I discovered Blu-ray in the past year, though, which is great if you’re a couch potato or a film nerd. Seriously, if that sort of thing means a lot to you, there’s nothing better than re-discovering ALIEN in Hi-Def. It’s like being a kid again, only better. But I also like the lakes in Austin, and Barton Springs. We have amazing sushi joints here, too, and I’m a junkie for all of them. Alamo Drafthouse is a great place for revival cinema, but that’s never on Saturday—it’s always Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday!
I also used to really love going out to the Continental Club on Tuesday to see Toni Price, who as you probably know, is an amazing folk blues singer. She has a whole cult of followers that totally pack that place every time she plays. It’s a real shot of concentrated Texas honkytonk culture. I was part of her congregation for more than two years. But I stopped going because I saw that Toni was drinking herself to death on stage every night, and I couldn’t bear to watch that. I hope she’s slowed down a little since then. People sometimes ask me if I named my femme fatale in Resurrection Express after her . . . but that’s a big no, no, no, folks. Actually, Toni Coffin is named after a rather feisty lady I briefly dated a few months prior to writing the book. If you know me long enough, you always end up as a character in one of my crazy stories. For the record, Elroy Coffin is named after the youngest Jetson and Eli Wallach’s “Adam Coffin” in a 1977 film called THE DEEP. Shit . . . see how boring I am? You ask me what my favorite Saturday nightspots are and I tell you about my characters. I should just stick with gun club stories . . . (Laughs)
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events (or anything at all!)?
Well, there is a film in development based on BLACK LIGHT, which is being done by Michael DeLuca, the super-producer responsible for just about every cool movie you’ve ever seen, including MONEYBALL and THE SOCIAL NETWORK. We’re working on that right now. Everyone seems to want a film based on Resurrection Express, too, so we’re looking into that. And there will be a sequel in print to Resurrection, too. Actually, I finished the first draft just a few weeks ago. It’s called The Suicide Contest. Always gotta keep that ball in the air, baby . . .
Keep up with Stephen: Website | Twitter
About RESURRECTION EXPRESS:
There is no code Elroy Coffin can’t break, nothing he can’t hack, no safe he can’t get into. But for the past two years, he’s been incarcerated in a maximum-security hellhole after a job gone bad, driven to near-madness by the revelation of his beloved wife’s murder.
Now a powerful and mysterious visitor who calls herself a “concerned citizen” offers Elroy his freedom if he’ll do another job, and sweetens the deal with proof that his wife might still be alive. All Elroy has to do is hack into one of the most complicated and deadliest security grids in the world—clear and simple instructions for the best in the business. Or so he thinks.
Quickly drawn into the epicenter of a secret, brutal war between criminal masterminds, Elroy is forced to run for his life through a rapid-fire labyrinth of deception, betrayal, and intrigue— where no one is to be trusted and every fight could be his last . . . and the real truth hidden beneath the myriad levels of treachery may be too shocking to comprehend. . .
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