Joseph B. Atkins: This is a crime novel written in the hardboiled tradition established by writers who’ve inspired me. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, and Cornell Woolrich usually set their novels in the big cities of the North and West. Mine is set in the South, a place just as gritty and noir as Chandler’s L.A. or Hammett’s San Francisco. Several of the novel’s major characters appeared in an earlier, unpublished novel of mine, and I wanted to see what the future held for them. The South is also a character in the book, just as Chicago is in Nelson Algren’s work. I try to understand why this tortured place is the way it is, and why its people behave the way they do. This book does that, just as my earlier nonfiction book, Covering for the Bosses, did.
M.C.: What is your book about?
J.B.A.: It’s 1960 in the South, and the region is about to explode over the issue of civil rights. Casey Eubanks is a small-time hustler in North Carolina on the run after an argument with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin Bux dead. A crony sets Casey up with a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a former Nazi with a wide financial network. Duren hires Casey to do a hit on labor organizer Ala Gadomska, who’s stirring up trouble at Duren’s garment factory in Mississippi. Things go wrong, and now Casey’s on the run from Duren’s goons as well as the cops. Onto the stage steps reporter Martin Wolfe, who wants Casey to join him and FBI agent Hardy Beecher in a plan to bring Duren down. Casey steals Wolfe’s car and returns home to Orella, where a bloody shootout with a Duren goon convinces him to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance. They take off across the South to execute a plan that may be crazy enough to work or more likely blow up in all their faces.
M.C.: What themes do you explore in Casey’s Last Chance?
J.B.A.: A reviewer of Covering for the Bosses criticized that book for being an indictment. My plea? Guilty as charged. Casey’s Last Chance is also a kind of indictment of the South, but this writer-as-district attorney issued it with love, if that makes sense. What I’m truly indicting are the oligarchies that have always ruled the South. Each of my main characters is caught in a vise, partly of his or her own making, but partly, too, because of powerful forces at play in their society that helped tighten the grip. It’s no accident my main bad guy, Max Duren, is a former Nazi. He’s found a perfect home in Dixie. Within these broad themes, however, is a much more important one, whether a born loser like Casey Eubanks is beyond redemption. Casey’s Last Chance is a search for an answer.
M.C.: Why do you write?
J.B.A.: I’ve been writing since the 8th grade, when my English teacher, Mr. Watson, absolutely wowed me with his classroom tales about and by Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, and so forth. I studied at three universities, soldiered, worked as a house painter, furniture mover, construction worker, warehouse worker, before my belated beginning as a journalist. Eventually I made the very difficult transition from newsroom writer to fiction writer—it’s harder than you think—and the reason I did was I never stopped writing. I always kept a journal, jotting down impressions, the little details you’d otherwise forget. I write because I have to write, and I get in a bad mood if I don’t.
M.C.: When do you feel the most creative?
J.B.A.: I’m a morning writer who has often written in the evening, but usually a glass of bourbon is nearby evenings and while that makes you feel brilliant at the time, the verdict is often the opposite the next morning. I’m freshest in the morning. If I’m on a writing project, and my head’s really into it, I’m thinking of ideas while I shave, shower, when I sleep. I keep a notepad by the bed to jot them down, then after my morning ritual get them onto paper. I’m going over plot and character while I’m driving to work or home or sweeping the back porch. Ideas are coming to you, too, of course, during the writing process, and one of the joys of writing is when some important revelation emerges out of the ether, and there it is, a crucial new element to your novel!
M.C.: How picky are you with language?
J.B.A.: I tell my students here at the University of Mississippi that language is your constant companion, your tool, and hopefully your friend, not your enemy. Have a respect as well as a love for it. How you use language tells a lot about you as a person as well as a writer. The hackneyed phrase, the cliché, all the shortcuts become a question of one’s integrity, one’s commitment and sense of honesty, ultimately one’s desire for truth. We all begin by borrowing—my first stories as a 14-year-old were the most pitiful imitations of Edgar Allan Poe and Jack London you can imagine—but even then I was somehow on the search for my true voice. If you keep at it, you eventually find it. It’s there. You just have to do some serious excavation.
M.C.: When you write, do you sometimes feel as though you were being manipulated from afar?
J.B.A.: Our experiences in life, the people we’ve known, our victories, our failures, all this is the stuff from which we draw as writers. I’ve lived hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from where I grew up most of my adult life, yet those faces and voices I knew way back when are the ones that haunt me most at the writing desk. This is not always the case, but I reach back a lot. Maybe that’s a kind of manipulation from the ghosts of my past.
M.C.: What is your worst time as a writer?
J.B.A.: Well, rejection slips are pretty hard to handle, and you never really get used to them no matter how many you find in your mailbox! Then there’s that nagging little devil on your shoulder who whispers in your ear, “Should you really be doing this? Don’t you think there’s better use of your time?” You look around, and it just seems so much easier for others than it is for you. Why am I having to scratch and claw while so-and-so is celebrating his latest book-of-the-month award? Most writers go through long hard years before things start clicking. Nowadays I never send something off unless I know in the very depths of my heart that it’s the very best I can do. If it’s rejected, so be it. It took me a while to reach that place. But you know, even great writers still got rejected late in their careers. Nelson Algren, one of my heroes, couldn’t find a publisher for his last couple of books. He even had a magazine article rejected. This was one of America’s greatest writers!
M.C.: Your best?
J.B.A.: When it’s early in the morning, or occasionally late at night, and I’m at my desk when that revelation I mentioned earlier manifests itself before your very eyes, some new secret about your character that you never before realized, some new turn in the plot that seems so obvious but was so elusive just five minutes before. Those are moments of pure, unadulterated joy, moments when you jump up from your chair with a loud “Whoop!” You know in those moments that you’re doing exactly what you are meant to be doing.
M.C.: Is there anything that would stop you from writing?
J.B.A.: I think a writer writes because he or she has to do it. I’m not talking about the wolf at the door, and somebody’s got to pay the bills. Of course, that can be great motivator! What I mean is that despite all the griping and groaning you’re doing this simply because it’s who you are. I live in Faulkner’s town, and the old man died at 64, having said, I believe, everything he needed to say. He wrote and kept writing until he said it all, and then he died.
M.C.: What’s the happiest moment you’ve lived as an author?
J.B.A.: Getting that letter of acceptance in the mail. Vindication! Back to hell with that doubting devil on your shoulder. Then holding the book in your hand. It’s your baby. It really is. You fought like the dickens to bring it into the world, and now that it exists, you’re going to still fight for it like a mama bear!
M.C.: Is writing an obsession to you?
J.B.A.: I’ve always had a day job—working as a reporter, teaching at a university, doing the dozen or so blue-collar jobs I did as a young man. I never had the luxury to be without the distraction of having to earn a living by some other means! So I’ve had to find those blocks of time, build a schedule and be disciplined, in pursuing this writing business. I’ll tell you, though, I’m not a happy camper if I’m not writing. I get grumpy, out of sorts, hard to live with. It’s like somebody slipped you decaf, didn’t tell you, and you’ve been drinking cup after cup all day getting increasingly irritated because there’s no damned buzz.
M.C.: Are the stories you create connected with you in some way?
J.B.A.: Casey’s Last Chance has lots of bits and pieces of Atkins family lore. In fact, I write on the Acknowledgements page that “the rich garden of Atkins family tales and legends provided the seed that became” this novel. Casey himself was partially inspired by the black sheep of my family, a man in and out of trouble his entire life and an embarrassment to his relatives. I’m sure this has my late father turning over in his grave. I can hear him now, saying, “Of all the people in our family, you had to write about that son-of-a-bitch?” Forgive me, Dad.
M.C.: Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Do
J.B.A.: Hmmm. I think you write to understand reality, to get beneath the veneer and understand what the reality really is and why. The writing exposes it, and, when successful, does away with the pretensions and subterfuges that people use to make reality seem something other than what it is. This way you’re not running away from reality. You’re confronting it, standing up to it, telling it, “Now where are you going to hide?”
M.C.: Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about you and your work?
J.B.A.: I have a blog called Labor South and you can access it as follows: http://www.laborsouth.blogspot.com. I’ve never used it for my fiction, but it will tell you a lot about me and my views on things. It includes a lot of my journalism, articles on everything from writing and music to politics, the South, and the plight of the working man and woman. I’ve got a point of view, and some won’t like it, but it’s who I am.