The book is subtitled ‘The Paignton Noir Case Files’. All of the stories are narrated by Joe Rey, a small town private investigator.
SR: You’ve released a short story collection. Give us a teaser for the oldest story in your collection.
TL: The oldest story in Meat Bubbles & Other Stories is probably the least representative: ‘Dirthouse’. This one is almost ten years old, and first appeared on the Beat the Dust website. It is probably the oldest flash fiction piece of mine that I actually still like: a grim mood piece with a savage twist. Strangely, considering the heavy continuity edits I had to do on a number of the more recent stories, this one remained more or less intact.
SR: Where did the title come from?
TL: In recent years I have gravitated towards more visceral story titles and more ghoulish antagonists. The twisted connotations conjured up by ‘Meat Bubbles’ means it is one of the most eye-catching stories in the collection. I also like quirky, cryptic titles – rather than generic off-the-shelf thriller titles – and this one works perfectly for me. (Note: the title of the original story came from a drum & bass track – a fairly random influence for crime fiction!)
SR: What is it about writing short stories that appeals to you?
TL: The immediacy of flash fiction really appeals to me, and so does the inherent challenge of the format. Telling a fully-fledged story in less than 1,000 (or even 500) words holds a big appeal. I also believe that short stories are a great way of honing your craft and road-testing your material and characters. I always feel slightly unnerved when novice writers are able to write a novel out of the blue – after 15 years of short story writing I’m still building up to a novella, and may never actually write a novel!
SR: How do you think short story writing has strengthened you as a writer overall?
TL: I feel like the better my short stories get, the more my longer work suffers – mainly from neglect!
SR: Do you have any recurring characters you feature in more than one short story? If so, what is it about the short story format that suits those characters?
TL: Firstly, all of the stories are narrated by Joe Rey, a small town private investigator, so his experiences provide the central narrative thread of the book. He gets involved in a lot of murky situations during the course of the book, and we wanted to make the cover look like the police case file from hell! I’m sure some of these ‘cases’ could have legitimately been expanded into novellas, but I have a lot of ideas, and not enough time to work on them all, so short stories scratch that itch.
The other recurring presence is Wet-Look, a demented ex-cop who has taken Rey under his wing. Wet-Look is a fairly obscene character, and he definitely functions better in small doses, weaving in and out of the over-arching narrative. Wet-Look’s twisted moral code and savage approach to local law enforcement definitely rub off on Rey – whose conduct spirals even further out of control in the next Paignton Noir book, Repetition Kills You (All Due Respect, September 2018).
SR: When you looked at your stories as a collection did you notice anything about your writing or themes that hadn’t really stood out to you before?
TL: All of the stories were initially published as standalone pieces, in anthologies and online, with just a handful of minor characters binding them together. My next book, Repetition Kills You, was actually accepted for publication before this one, and these were all older stories that didn’t fit that book thematically or tonally. I toyed with lumping them together and self-publishing them, but realized the word-count was too low, and the mainstream crime stories didn’t sit well alongside the more unhinged stories.
To fix these issues I wrote a handful of new stories featuring supporting characters from the other material, and then reworked the whole package with a darker slant and a clearer sense of chronology. In addition, I undercut the stories with a common thread: the sinister preoccupations of a millionaire collector. I’m very glad I reworked the stories, as the book turned into something far weirder and nastier than I previously imagined.
So, to answer the question: any overt themes have been grafted onto the book retrospectively!
SR: What was the first short story that you had published? Tell us a little about it and how it got published. How did that experience impact you as a writer?
TL: My first ever story, ‘The Box’, was published by a now-defunct small UK press called Skrev in 2003, in one of their Texts’ Bones anthologies. It was heavily influenced by the nihilism of Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis, and I have no real desire to revisit it! If nothing else it gave me the confidence to keep on writing, and I notched up a bunch of publications in small-scale British literary magazines over the next five years or so. I only switched to writing crime fiction in 2006-2007, when my reading tastes shifted.
SR: What detail in your writing do you obsess over the most? Character names? Locations? Description? Dialogue? Research?
TL: Strangely enough, I probably obsess over location names. In these stories I use a mixture of real places and fabricated ones – depending on the level of illegal activity being committed! The landscape and geography of Paignton have been preserved, so I figure that local readers will recognize all of the tweaked names anyway. This way I manage to avoid offending any local establishments that unwittingly play host to some of the freakier scenes in the book.
Actually, it is also worth noting that since the first stories in this collection were written, the local police station has been shut down and bulldozed and the local hospital has been closed by the government! These locations are both crucial to assorted stories, so I have had to use a little bit of artistic licence!
SR: What was your journey to publication like? What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome?
TL: This book was picked up by Near To The Knuckle – the very publisher I had in mind for it. A number of the key stories in the collection were first published online by NTTK, as was ‘Snuff Racket’ (the novelette that closes the collection), which was serialized as ‘Didn’t Bleed Red’ in The Blood Red Experiment, a neo-Giallo magazine. Considering the comparative size of the publisher, they have released some absolutely cracking books – including some of my favourite novellas in recent years. I had a lot of fun working with publisher Craig Douglas on this book, and it is a pleasure to slot in alongside their author roster, which includes Paul Heatley, Matt Phillips, Paul D. Brazill, Gareth Spark and many more.
SR: Are you drawn to things that are really popular or wary of them? Do you find it helps you to market your work if you’re familiar with what’s currently selling or do you ignore all of that and focus on what you’re interested in?
TL: Popular books fascinate me and terrify me in equal measure. I struggle to get more than 50 pages into most mainstream thrillers, and these brutal, intense stories of mine are an antidote to that.
I have read dozens of impeccably crafted thrillers from smaller publishers that deserve to tap into a wider audience on their own terms, but mainstream crime readers seem to crave familiarity. One of the biggest draws of crime fiction for me is the sheer variety of content, and the independent crime scene delivers that in abundance.
I have no real mainstream ambitions at the moment – I’m just glad I’ve found a couple of publishers who have bought into my vision. This book in particular is likely to be the most abrasive body of work that ever bears my name, but I have a couple of neat ideas up my sleeve for when I finally decide to lurch towards the mainstream!
Check out Tom’s casting call for Meat Bubbles here!
Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK. His short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Near to the Knuckle, Flash Fiction Offensive, Horror Sleaze Trash and Spelk Fiction. He is the author of a pair of novelettes, SKULL MEAT and SNUFF RACKET, and a short story collection, MEAT BUBBLES & OTHER STORIES (Near To The Knuckle). His next book, REPETITION KILLS YOU, will be published by All Due Respect (an imprint of Down & Out Books) on 21st September 2018.