Noir Con or bust guest post #4: “I Can’t Kill Him. He’s My Brother”

Fourth cab off the rank in my ‘Noir Con or bust’ series of guest posts is Baltimore writer Nik Korpon.

I’m looking forward to meeting this guy at Noir Con. Korpon’s got serious crime writing form. He’s one of those writers I’ve heard more about than I’ve actually read. But that’s changing. Earlier this year I read his knock out dystopian noir novella, By the Nails of the War Priest, and I’m half-way through his recently released short story collection, Bar Scars. Both are excellent. In the US I’m hoping to pick up a copy of his one novel that’s been published so far, Stay God.

I never thought of myself as a ‘theme’ writer. After I’d gotten over the delusion that I was saying Important Things About The Human Condition (like most new writers do, I think) I had no interest in commenting on anything other than the impact a good story can have and creative uses of a broken bottle. In my mind, I was writing about the people I saw as I wandered through Baltimore, only superimposing a more dramatic arc to their day. I was filling in blanks between the guy I saw at the laundromat, guardedly loading his clothes into the washer, and the woman with scratches on her forearms who was getting coffee at the 7-11 across the street.

Until, of course, I wasn’t.

I didn’t realize it until a year ago, as I was beginning to sort out stories for my collection Bar Scars, which was published in September by Snubnose Press. By this point I’d written a couple dozen decent shorts, three novels (though only one has seen the light of day so far) and three novellas, so not a huge amount of work, but enough to make me smile for a minute. In sifting through all of this stuff, I started taking notes of who was in what story and how it all played out (something I also talk about here). I was surprised to look at all the characters and see how many were related, either by blood or by spilling of blood. I mean, they don’t call it Smalltimore for nothing, but still. After thinking about it, though, the relationships made sense.

I come from an Irish-Catholic family, which means there are a ton of us and there’s always arguing and ball-busting at every holiday and birthday. Power-relationships were always in flux between the uncles, the cousins were constantly jockeying for favor with the uncle, and inevitably there’d be whispers about what trouble the nephews had gotten in this week. This atmosphere was bound to leach into my writing, which it did with a vengeance. Although a clever whodunit is always nice to read, what really does it for me is seeing the person wielding the knife, and knowing who’s waiting for them at home. At it’s core, it’s probably just what good writing is about–creating an impact with a real character–but it was strange to realize I’d been writing domestic noir without knowing it.

The other thing that gave me pause wasn’t just that the characters were related, but the number of fathers and sons who popped up in my writing. Most people mine personal experience to give their writing some human touches, and my stories were no different. I had a strained relationship with my father for a number of years. Maybe these stories were me trying to understand my father. Maybe they were me trying to re-imagine the relationship in fiction but still failing. Maybe they were looking at myself from my father’s perspective, figuring out how to reach this snot-nosed bastard who just wouldn’t be understood nor act rationally. Whether it was an absent father trying to love their son or a son breaking free of their father’s shadow, the dynamic of my middle years was always simmering in there, though thankfully it was subtle enough to not be embarrassing.

This whole revelation really became tangible up eighteen months ago, when I became a father myself, and the new paradigm in which I was writing made itself apparent in my office. I was writing an origin story novella that ended up a novel (the one in Submission Limbo) because I couldn’t figure out why a character in another novel wasn’t working (this is the Keeping My Desk From Rocking novel.) The backstory was a perfect noir set-up: His wife was a junkie who OD’d while their son was in the bath, causing him to drown and the character is forced onto his dark path. Perfect, yeah?

Pretty much, until my wife came into my office and handed me my bright, bouncing baby in a Star Wars onesie as I’m writing the scene where the character finds his son. I mean, really, that sounds like a noir novel unto itself. I found myself physically unable to type that scene. The backstory I’d concocted when I was just a married dude with a couple cats, while appropriate for the story, just wouldn’t work. I simply couldn’t do it. At first, the revision was a huge pain in the ass, but it made me go back and reevaluate the story beats within this new context and come up with something else, which incidentally hits much harder emotionally and doesn’t rely on shock and awe.

My natural inclination is to run once I realize I’m treading familiar terrain for fear of becoming boring or complacent, but something about this sub-sub-sub-subgenre – Domestic Hardboiled or Dad Noir or something – just feels right. That’s probably not the best sentiment to express while discussing recent fatherhood, but that’s for a different essay. From my experience, families are many things, but consistent is not one of them. To create a crime novel about a family, then add in the constraint of ‘Well, I can’t kill the bastard because he’s my brother and Mom will be seriously pissed’ really twists the screws against characters’ temples and makes them act in compelling, sometimes surprising, ways. What in life do people fight for with more abandon than family?

Too, who knows what could be created? Maybe you do take that step you can’t take. Maybe you do kill the bastard, even though he is your brother. What’s Mom going to do now?

You can pick up a copy of Nik Korpon’s latest book, Bar Scars, released through Snubnose Press, here.


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