GAME PLAN: ALANA MIEKE INTERVIEWS OZARK DOGS ELI CRANOR
Eli Cranor got the crime fiction world's attention with Don't Know Tough, a great new voice in rural noir. He took a created a crime novel that looked at the role of football and religion in small town America. In his follow up he adds dark history, PTSD, and meth to the the mix. Hard Word contributor, Meike Alana, tackled the football coach and writer for a some questions.
MEIKE ALANA: You spent most of your life involved in the game of football, first as a player at multiple levels and then as a coach. That clearly informed your first book, “Don’t Know Tough.” How did your football career and experiences influence “Ozark Dogs”?
ELI CRANOR: For better or worse, football has shaped nearly every facet of my life. I tackle my writing the same way I did a game plan. I take a very methodical, disciplined approach to each novel (sometimes too disciplined). As far as "Ozark Dogs" is concerned, there's a scene or two that features a football game (and a DKT Easter Egg), but other than that, this isn't a football book. Far from it.
M.A. : In “Ozark Dogs” you focus on a blood feud between two families. What was your inspiration for this story?
E.C. : I live in my hometown here in Arkansas. We're a relatively peaceful community, but every now and then, violence breaks out. When it does, it feels even more shocking. That was the catalyst for this book—wanting to explore the aftershocks of small-town violence.
M.A. : The characters in “Ozark Dogs” have experienced generational trauma–many have a family history of poverty, drug use/addiction, violence, adultery, PTSD. The way you describe these characters, even those that commit the most atrocious acts, feels sympathetic. You lead the reader to understand how and why these experiences have led these people to do so much harm to others. Was that challenging to write?
E.C. : I'm a high school English teacher. For the better part of my career, I've taught kids ensnared in poverty. I actually just took a job this year where I teach English 11 and 12 to kids in the Arkansas juvenile correctional system. After hearing my students stories—the extremely tough childhoods, abusive parents, etc—it's almost impossible for me to cast judgement on them. I try to extend the same logic to my characters.
M.A. : Was there a particular character that you especially enjoyed imagining? And conversely, was there one you found difficult to get a handle on?
E.C. I had fun with Evail Ledford. I wanted to make him a different kind of "bad guy." Jeremiah Fitzjurls, the novel's protagonist, took some time to get right. I didn't know many Vietnam veterans. For the first couple drafts, I thought his war stories fell flat. After a while, I began to get a handle on the napalm.
M.A. : I want to ask you about this great line. Your main character, Jeremiah Fitzjurls, lives in the junkyard he runs where he maintains an armory. As he’s entered the armory he sees all of the guns and ammo (“friends from his past”) he’s stockpiled but it’s also where he keeps his books–shelves of everything from philosophy and religion to Southern fiction to mystery and horror. And you say, “There were more books than guns. Jeremiah learned long ago that a book was a weapon, and like always, he’d gone about arming himself.” Can you elaborate on that? And also talk a bit about the books and writers you’ve armed yourself with?
E.C. : I guess it's just my take on the old "pen is mightier than the sword" line. There's nothing new under the sun, right? So, yeah. I wanted Jeremiah to be more than just a veteran who owned a junkyard, and books can do that to people. Books have the power to make people better, worse, or both in different ways. For me, I'm armed with everybody from Lao Tzu to Shakespeare. I had to memorize 25 Shakespearian sonnets for my undergrad and recite them in front of the class. I still have a few stuck up there, a great party trick.
M.A. : You have a great backstory. You’d been writing for years, unpublished until you actually self-published a book for young readers–in early 2020, and we all know the world stalled right around that time. But then you won a manuscript contest which led to a publishing deal for “Don’t Know Tough.” Would you mind telling that story? And what kept you writing during the years when you were receiving rejections?
E.C. : The farther I get into this, the more I realize my come-up story isn't all that unique. It took Jerry Spineli (a hero of mine) 15 years to land his first book deal. Jerry Spinelli! Fifteen years! It took me five, which of course felt like forever at the time. The Dali Lama said something once about "being worthy of your struggle." I think that applies to authors, especially. Those early years are necessary. Mississippi author Larry Brown said, "If you're willing to hurt bad enough, you can have it." But yeah, "Don't Know Tough" was rejected by over 200 agents. When I got tired of waiting, I self-pubbed a middle-grade book (channeling my inner Spinelli) called "Books Make Brainz Taste Bad." It's about a school run by zombies who are using screens to fry kids' brains. I was literally behind one of those elementary school stage curtains wearing a rubber zombie mask about to do a talk for students when I got the email from Juliet Grames saying "Don't Know Tough" had won the Peter Lovesey First Crime Novel Contest. I know I'm a novelist, but I'm not making that up.
M.A.: You write a spot called “Shop Talk” for Crime Reads where you discuss the craft of writing with other crime fiction writers and I’d love to know more about your craft and process-
M.A.: Plotter or pantser? E.C. :Both.
M.A. : Computer or longhand? E.C. : Both.
M.A. : Do you have set times/traditions around writing? E.C. : 5am most every morning (before the kids wake up and emails arrive)
M.A.: Where do you get inspiration? E.C. : I take a cold shower before I go down to write. That helps get the blood pumping. I then read one page of this great book called Walking On Alligators. While I'm writing, I drink strong black coffee and listen to Miles Davis's Kind of Blue on repeat (6 years and counting).
M.A. : Who’s your first reader? E.C. : My wife. Though I do read each day's work out loud to my mom at night (guess that makes her my first listener).
M.A. : Do you believe in writers’ block? If so, any suggestions on how to break through? E.C.: A walk or a workout of some sort seems to help. For me, an open water swim most always does the trick, especially if it's cold.
M.A. : What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten? E.C. I've got three, and all of these were gleaned from William Boyle: Be a fan first. Don't get bitter. Make weird choices.
M.A. : Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
E.C.: I really wish I could...
M.A.. :Any other writers/books we should be adding to our TBR piles?
Michael Farris Smith