Chris Bauer is a Philly guy. It's ingrained in his nature and, not surprisingly, in his writing. Growing up in northeast Philadelphia—playing sports on blacktop and concrete, grappling with neighborhood kids, and enduring twelve years of Catholic education—flavors much of his work. His horror/thriller novels include Hiding Among the Dead, Scars on the Face of God, and Jane's Baby.
Chris took some time from his busy schedule to share some insights about his fiction, his writing strategies, and his thoughts about publishing in general.
Thanks for talking with us today, Chris. Tell us about your latest novel, Hiding Among the Dead. What's it about?
So, this Navy SEAL named Philo Trout retires from the military and buys a small Philly business that specializes in commercial crime scene cleaning. He runs smack-dab into a local crime syndicate of unlikely pedigree: the Hawaiian mob. Thought to be eradicated in Hawaii, the mob family has resurrected itself in the unlikely confines of Philadelphia, its business model now including organ trafficking, preying on desperate immigrants for their raw materials.
Add to this, Philo is also a retired, undefeated, illegal bare-knuckles boxing champ. Plus, one of his employees is an amnesiac. Another employee, the former owner, a woman, needs a lung transplant from all the toxic cleaning chemicals and two packs of Camel cigarettes she's inhaled each day.
Great conflict, plenty of action, and a bit of gore—'cause, after all, they're crime scene cleaners, and some crime scenes have been known to make even the toughest of cops and EMTs lose their meals.
Yep, crime scenes can be nasty. How much and what kinds of research were required?
I followed a certain Australian crime scene cleaner named Sandra Pankhurst whose personal struggles have been chronicled by Sarah Krasnostein's The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster (St. Martin's). I also did extensive research on grain elevator explosions in stevedore environments like in Philadelphia, where a few pivotal scenes are set in an abandoned grain elevator. I even researched Smokin' Joe Frazier's Gym, now a Philly landmark on the National Trust for Historic Preservation list. But the real question is, have I personally visited any bona fide gruesome crime scenes that needed remediation?
The answer is… drum roll please…
Nope. I pulled up pictures of many a crime scene online. I also looked online at what meth operations and hoarding can do to a private residence and checked into the cost of remedying murders and messy suicides and other destructive events. Plus, I looked into the illegal organ trafficking market to price some organs. Wanna buy a bowel?
When writing the novel, was there ever a point where you thought, "Wow, I've gone too far"?
Yes. At the beginning of the novel with the inciting incident, and again with the death of a hoarder while she was "indisposed" in her bathroom. The first trauma scene the Blessid Trauma Cleaning team (Philo's company) must remediate is a suicide by Amtrak—a mother and her two children, one an infant. It does push the boundaries a bit when having to deal with children as victims. Frankly, I think the scene sets a realistic tone for what real-life crime scene cleaners must frequently face—powerful images that convey the realism of how harsh these environments can be. Not gratuitous gore here. The demise of these characters is, sadly, important to the plot.
How is the book different from your previous novels, Scars on the Face of God and Jane's Baby?
Scars on the Face of God is pure, unadulterated horror with biblical undertones and overtones. It's set mostly in 1964 but uses a real-life 13th century manuscript known as The Devil's Bible (also known as Codex Gigas or the Giant Book) as a catalyst. The Devil's Bible became the spoils of several European wars since its handwritten origin in Podlazice, Bohemia, by a Benedictine monk who, according to legend, finished writing it in a single night by summoning the Devil's help. It's on display online, and the original manuscript is housed in the National Library of Sweden.
The novel deals with a copy of the codex written in German (literary license: different European language versions were written around the same time) that terrorizes a small German Catholic parish outside the city of Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century before its rediscovery in the mid-sixties creates a panic in the same parish.
Stephen King once said, "We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones." Do you think that applies to your work?
With Scars, absolutely. The germ of the novel came from my experience with children my age born with birth defects in the Mayfair section of northeast Philadelphia. When I began writing Scars, I'd just read A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr, which highlighted a real-life leukemia cluster located in Woburn, MA that was caused by tainted water allegedly coming from local toxic waste dumping by Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace and Company. Outstanding, heart-wrenching, real-life story.
For me, a classic "what if" emerged. What if what I saw as a child in Philly was the result of a leukemia cluster coming from similar culprits and poor or nonexistent environmental practices in the 1940s and 1950s? Some significant research later, I discovered that my section of Philly had been a hotbed for the tannery industry at the turn of the twentieth century. The tanneries were notorious for burying their waste or dumping it into the local water supply like the Delaware River and various small creeks. This was how the novel started, but it took on an abrupt horrific edge when a) I saw the movie The Devil's Advocate (Pacino, Reaves) where Pacino's character talks about the Devil's writings and b) I discovered the existence of The Devil's Bible. I blended two stories, one about leukemia clusters and corruption and heartbreak of families losing children to disease, and one coming from a legend surrounding the potential birth of the Anti-Christ foretold in my reconstructed version of The Devil's Bible.
Jane's Baby, on the other hand, was not straight-up horror.
It's a political thriller that attempts to answer the question of what happened to the baby in the middle of the 1973 Roe v Wade landmark Supreme Court decision. Contrary to what most folks realize, the Jane Roe baby was born. She was put up for closed adoption, where neither party knew the other. She would now be in her late forties. The novel looks at what might happen if she became a prominent adult in the judicial system, then learned later in life that she was the Roe baby. Antagonists have learned her identity and intend to use it to their advantage. One antagonist intends to kill her.
Sounds again like an incredible amount of research. Plus, Roe v Wade is such a controversial topic.
I'm very proud of this timely, what-if novel about a woman's right to choose in that it does not try to solve the abortion debate. But it does use it to fuel a literally and figuratively explosive time bomb that threatens to overturn the 1973 decision.
You've been picked up by Severn River Publishing. What are the advantages of working with a traditional publisher?
Scars on the Face of God: The Devil's Bible was first published by Drollerie Press in 2009. Drollerie Press went under, returned all rights to me, and I re-pubbed the novel myself in 2011.
When I closed the deal with Severn River Publishing, they wanted to republish Scars as part of it, which made me happy. It's a great sleeper of a horror novel, has been reviewed well on Amazon, received some nice blurbs, and it gained some notoriety as runner-up for the best in ebook horror per the 2010 EPIC Awards.
The advantages of working with independent Severn River Publishing vs. self-publishing are editing, marketing, and their interest in branding/re-branding their authors. I've received what I consider excellent content and copy editing from folks who are or have been Penguin Random House editors. Severn River also prides itself in understanding the Amazon marketplace inside and out, and is adept at strategically aligning novels within the Amazon genres so they can perform at their best. (Okay fine, we're still waiting for that spike in readership that other Severn River authors have enjoyed, but I'm hopeful this will happen with a few more books under my belt—and interviews like this.)
Do you have an agent? If so, what advice do you have for an author seeking one?
I'm currently unagented. I intend to get back on the agent query horse in 2020 after I fulfill my contract with Severn River Publishing. I like Severn River as a publisher and might stay with them if they'll still have me. But, regardless, I do hope to interest a new agent. I've had two already, and both relationships have been good experiences for me, but we weren't able to close the big-ass deals we were both looking for so we parted ways. My most recent agent and I severed our relationship just before I signed the Severn River Publishing deal.
My advice would be to stay vigilant and keep writing and querying. It took more than 75 queries to find my first agent. The door opened a little quicker when I queried re Jane's Baby, but it still took time.
How do you think your childhood on the streets of northeast Philadelphia impacts your writing?
Wow. I've been calling myself a "brute force" writer, a "wysiwyg" (what you see is what you get), meat-and-potatoes kind of storyteller. My byline reads "The thing I write will be the thing I write." I'd say that my attitude probably comes from my hometown environment.
My blue-collar machinist father, smart enough to have gone to a good engineering school but who never had the chance. My homemaking mother (three kids, beauty parlor on Fridays, loved drinking her Manhattans there). And a large extended family on my mother's side. This all provided the basics for my education—at Catholic elementary and high schools, and at Penn State and for entertainment. I did love my youth spent on the Philly streets and playgrounds, playing sports and watching my beloved Eagles and Phillies through some of the toughest years (60s, 70s).
I played rugby for my high school, Father Judge (go Crusaders!). Being one of the smaller guys on the pitch meant I usually took more of a beating than I could dish out. I really hated some of the opposition. As the "hooker"—or the "center" equivalent on a regular American football team—sans any padding, my face and shins took a god-damn beating. It's one of the reasons the protagonists I typically choose to write about, both male and female, are all good with their fists and can handle themselves when necessary. It's to provide a little payback, and some straighten-your-ass-right-the-fuck-out action for the underdog. Yes, extremely gratifying.
What author(s) do you most want to emulate?
Steve Shilstone (Chance, a baseball book); Dean Koontz for his Odd Thomas series, as much or more so than Stephen King; Elmore Leonard for his minimalism; Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn), Jennifer Hillier (Jar of Hearts). All wonderful voices. The thing is, I love using a hard-edged voice for my protagonists, and these writers have done such a great job in creating voices for their characters. Adding to this list, on the strength of one interview I saw in the International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine last year, I want to add Chantelle Aimée Osman, author, and an editor at Agora Books (a Polis Books imprint), who tells it like it is every time I see her quoted somewhere.
Do you read reviews of your books? If so, how does it (or does it not) affect your writing?
Yes. ALL. THE. DAMN. TIME. For me, it's a sickness. One way it affects my writing is, simply, it keeps me from doing it. I'll go searching for new rankings and reviews on my novels regularly (got three novels out there, will add two more attention-hoggers/personal distractions by the end of 2020). If I see unflattering comments, even though they may be very few, I do take them to heart, because I want EVERY reader to love the story.
Does it change my writing? It could, if it's very specific, if I missed something about the characters/plot/theme, etc. I have yet to run across one that made me genuinely stop and rethink my purpose in life, that I might have no idea what I'm doing, etc. Of course, I don't need feedback like that because I typically arrive at that conclusion all by myself at least once daily, then I talk myself back inside off the ledge.
Here, for example, is a review on Amazon for Hiding Among the Dead that, for this reader, genuinely reflected her feeling about the novel, but it made me question why she picked it up to read it to begin with. Her review title is "This book will keep you up at night." So far, so good, right? It's actually a flattering title, IMO. Then, "Unable to finish this book. Found the subject of cleaning up crime scenes and the criminal aspect of disposing of body parts to be too distasteful." Two stars. The more I thought about it, and in acknowledging that she'd invested some time in it, she was actually being nice by not making it one star. HOWEVER, potential readers, PLEASE be aware of a novel's content before you decide to post a poor review because the subject matter wasn't a match for you.
Do you participate in public readings, like Noir at the Bar?
Yes. I LOVE participating in Noir at the Bar readings and other public readings. I've done a few to large (80+) audiences and one to an audience of only two (excluding other readers), the latter a bust but still fun. I've sweated my way through all of them, literally, but I still love doing them.
What advice would you offer to writers who haven't done one yet?
First bit of advice is to do them if invited. You're probably reading your material out loud already (you need to do this as part of the manuscript review process if you aren't). So, these kinds of readings are as exhilarating for the author as doing a theatrical play vs. film is for an actor. Instant gratification from audience reaction.
The operational advice: Stay within the time allotted. Seven-to-eight minutes is usually best, and exceeding ten minutes is at your own risk. I don't care what you think about your material, it is NOT the exception, people's eyes will glaze over, so stay within the allotted times. The audience will thank you, and you won't piss off the organizer.
Practice, practice, practice. Get the inflections right, the gestures right if any, the facial expressions right (if any are necessary), the voices right.
Do not speed through the reading like you don't want to be there, or like it's 2 a.m. and you just heard "last call" at the bar. Slow down, enunciate your material, and don't slur through your words, which also means staying sober.
Make the font on the page large enough for you to read easily. Make your written page breaks occur at the end of paragraphs if possible, or at least not have you needing to turn the page in mid-sentence.
I like to bring more than one copy of the reading with me (for those of you who, like me, do not read from an electronic device). Some of us now have trust issues when it comes to doing readings because CERTAIN OTHER AUTHORS OUT THERE on occasion like to mess with your printed reading material if it's left unattended. 'Cause, you know, it can be fun watching someone scramble, blank out, get sick, or panic in front of an audience, right?
And don't forget your glasses if you need them. I did that once. What a disaster.
What's your next project? A Philo Trout sequel?
Next crime thriller, Binge Killer, releases later this year (2019). The protagonist is the younger sister to my well-received protagonist in Jane's Baby, and the novel is the start of a new series about her that I expect to call the "Lethal Women" series. After that, a Philo Trout crime scene cleaner sequel (Blessid Trauma Thriller #2, title TDB) moves into the rotation, due out mid-2020. It's my current WIP and I'm having a ball with it. It takes place in the Hawaiian Islands. I'm working on how to get someone else to pay for some research trips there. Not having any luck.
Last question: Quentin Tarantino or Francis Ford Coppola?
Tough call. I've liked more of Coppola's material, because he seems to get the best out of his actors almost every time he films. But damn, Tarantino has some really interesting, crazy, violent, in-your-face takes in so many films of his that I've liked.
My choice: Tarantino. His good stuff is consistent (IMO) and it's newer. Coppola's good stuff is off-the-chart incredible, but I haven't taken to his newer offerings. Yet. Because, see, I've been busy, doing a lot of novel writing lately, with deadlines and shit, and that's taking up so much of my time, you know, and yada yada, and so forth, etc., etc.
Thanks so much for the interview, Weldon.
Always great to talk with you, Chris!
This interview was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Suspense Magazine.