Over a handful of hot August nights, I had a chance to chat with the author of Hard Bite and Bite Harder. We talked about the darker side of comic relief, source material that burbles to the surface unbidden, and the work of writing. Covered pretty much everything but monkey sex.
Anonymous-9. Give her a warm welcome.
Rob Brunet: I'm interested in hearing how you approach some of the provocative dark aspects of your writing with respect to its humor. It seems clear that you are setting up scenes or characters that can be viewed from both a straight lens and a warped one. Please tell me I am not in a sick minority because I see the levity. But do you see it right away? Is your first take the funny one?
Anonymous-9: In terms of "provocative dark aspects" can you be specific about that? Oh yes, I'm deliberately provocative a LOT, but I want to address exactly what you see as provocative or taboo...
RB: Confronting the reader with uncomfortable truths or at least situations they may choose to ignore. Even just using the word “cripple”. Do you go there on purpose?
Anonymous-9: I have to say it's 100% on purpose. I narrowly avoided getting killed as a child and for a few terror-filled years I prayed daily asking God to please not let me die. I managed to grow up, attend university, and at one point volunteered with AIDS patients. It was the most meaningful work I've ever done. There was no room for bullshit, no room for modesty, and no room for pretending. I spent time with dead men walking and time with men in hospice beds who could no longer walk while they soiled themselves and wasted away and still managed to have dignity and a sense of humor. My gallows humor is honestly earned and it's the real me.
How you likin' me so far, Rob?
RB: More ’n more...
Anonymous-9: Writing a character on the verge of death cannot be sustained without humor. Can you imagine dragging a reader through some maudlin, downer, weepy story? They'd never stay with it. So to get across the mindset of someone who has accepted the inevitability of his own death, it needs action and humor and intimacy. The book brims with life, energy and motion to counter the Reaper lurking in the background.
RB: You also delve into paraplegic sex. I’ve done the whole “what if” and “what would be the point without”—if I sound like a Viagra commercial, so be it.
Anonymous-9: I dated a man for a while in a wheelchair. He had developed cancer as a young man and the radiation killed nerves in his feet. We found each other online and met at Shutters in Santa Monica for a drink. I had no idea he was in a wheelchair until he showed up and wasn't shocked because I'd had a friend as a child who had a metabolic bone disorder which made her misshapen. She was very deformed but sparkling with life and personality. Valerie taught me to look past the physical to see the person. So I had a drink with this man and we started dating. We broke up eventually but it had nothing to do with unsatisfactory sex or his disability. Given my background, the book seems like an organic creation of my experiences, wouldn't you say? But having said that, I didn't go back through my life and say, "Oh I'll throw that in there." I mean my experience opened me up as a writer to naturally include it. There was no mystery or negativity to keep me from going there. It never occurred to me Dean Drayhart wouldn't have a sex life. There was no psychological barrier for me to cross; it was just part of the landscape. The dots didn't connect to my own life until you started asking these questions!
RB: You live in LA, land of the car, where walking across an intersection to get a cuppa can garner strange looks. Did that inform your plot—cold impersonal vengeance against hit-and-run drivers whose victims’ deaths were, at worst, inconvenient?
Anonymous-9: I had a bad motorcycle accident about ten years ago on Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica during Sunday late-day traffic. I wasn't an experienced driver and my pals had just left me after a day-long motor in the Malibu canyons. Traffic was heavy and I should have been in the inside lane but I wasn't. A black BMW pulled out in front of me from a beach parking lot. I was surrounded by traffic, nowhere to go, and hit the brakes.
I could feel the bike starting to go down and the next thing I knew I was flipping and rolling alongside cars on the pavement. My bike was shrieking and throwing up sparks as it skidded along behind me. I was rescued by my fellows in the unwritten international brotherhood of motorcyclists that demands you always stop and help a down bike. (I use "brotherhood" in the "mankind" sense that encompasses women in this instance.) The black BMW never slowed and never stopped. The driver must have known I was down, but who knows? I was torn up and injured but am now completely recovered... and taking revenge on black BMWs everywhere.
RB: Can I ask about the monkey? Did he come first or did you create him to lighten the mood?
Anonymous-9: Sid came about because Dean needed a pair of hands and someone to assist. I thought about tools and a sidekick or a dog, and then came across these helper monkeys that are trained right in Santa Ana, California. I didn't create Sid to lighten the mood, although he does, and I'm quite surprised how much people love him. They're just crazy about him. I thought he might be mildly entertaining at best.
RB: His character permeates every scene he’s in. You capture the addled monkey brain in twitches, impulse, and relentless focus on Dean’s commands. Where did you get that?
Anonymous-9: The monkey mind. Humans are almost big monkeys, no? Take away the layer of civilization and our greater intelligence, and we have the same impulses, emotions, helpfulness, selfishness. Researchers estimate capuchins to be operating at the level of a human 3-year old. Sid is a motivated child with excellent motor skills to get what he wants. It's easy to be Sid.
RB: Given how Sid came about, I'm guessing you didn't set out to write a series monkey. At what point did you realise he had great legs?
Anonymous-9: It's funny because people were saying the story had "legs" back when it was still a short story. That's the term they used: legs. Funny huh? I had no intention of writing a series. Allan Guthrie and Kyle MacRae of Blasted Heath signed me to a two-book deal, bless their hearts, and I didn't realize a series was even in the cards until Al wrote one day and said, "You know we're really interested in publishing series." So not having planned anything or set any of this up for a series, I dove in and pulled the rabbit out of the hat the second time around.
RB: Do you want to tell us anything about where he goes in the second book, Bite Harder?
Anonymous-9: Book 2 is written as a standalone. Nobody needs to read a word of the first book, Hard Bite, to understand every move and motivation in Bite Harder. But there's a lot of unusual action and laughs and emotion to be had in Book 1, so if somebody really likes the ride, they'll like both books. Anyway, I was stalled out for a long time on Book 2 and I was also sick for about a year and unable to write. Nobody knows that, not even Al and Kyle. Doctors weren't helping so I hunted and hunted for help, finally found it, and with my faculties back, threw myself at the book in a panic. The first draft was like lifting cement blocks because I was writing Cinda's story and she had become the main character and it was the wrong direction but I didn't know it. I sent the draft out to beta readers who were terribly polite but the excitement just wasn't there. I was in Palm Springs at the time at a condo owned by a pal and he lets me use it in the summer. I take care of the place and clean it etc. I LOVE PS in the summer. It's so quiet and only locals are there--you have everything to yourself. Of course it's 112 in the shade.
Anyway, I was in Palm Springs when the hammer dropped that the first draft was a dud and boy, what a dark night of the soul that was. Tears, self flagellation. I had worked so hard. But it wasn't good enough. So next morning I girded my courage to the sticking point, ripped it apart and started from scratch. Almost scratch. I still had the first three pages. Later I found that a lot of stuff could be retooled and went back in. Second time around I got it right.
Bite Harder starts off just a couple of days after Hard Bite ends. It's all real time. Both books add up to 96,000 words and they would make a hell of a long weekend read.
RB: “One hell of” being an understatement! You probably get asked this all the time, but what's your Anonymous-9 pseudonym all about?
Anonymous-9: I'll say stuff I haven't said a million other places about the fake name. I couldn't have written some of the stuff I came up with under my own name. I realized that my image of myself was constricting—I wasn't letting myself go. Under the cloak of anonymity I was free to cut loose without being afraid of criticism or censure. Now that I have a certain amount of approval I'm protected, I could write under my own name, but A-9 is a brand now. I'm stuck with it. And that's okay.