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Barry Gifford on writing and reading

Readersvoice.com aims to give people a few good reading tips. You might want to check out previous issues, too, for more reading suggestions. For this issue I interviewed author Barry Gifford in between his travels. Also I attended a small literary festival and collected some reading tips and some good advice for budding writers.

Barry Gifford took the time to answer a few questions when he returned from a trip about a month ago.

Born in Chicago in 1946, his first published book was a book of poetry, Coyote Tantras (1973).
His deep interest in the Beats bore fruit when he co-authored (with Lawrence Lee) Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac (1978), and Saroyan: A Biography (1984).
Like Kerouac, some of Gifford’s books explore the travel theme, such as his first novel Landscape with Traveler: The Pillow Book of Frances Reeves (1980). This was followed by the winner of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for fiction in 1982, Port Tropique – also written in 1980.
The characters in the Sailor and Lula novels cover a fair amount of country, too, such as in his best-known book Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula (1984).
Director David Lynch subsequently adapted this into the film Wild at Heart.
This was followed by books like Sailor’s Holiday, Perdita Durango; and Bad Day for the Leopard Man.
Gifford was co-founder and editor of Black Lizard Books until 1989. Black Lizard republished some of the great American crime and noir authors of the twentieth century, including the legendary Jim Thompson, author of such classics as Pop.1280, The Killer Inside Me, Nothing More Than Murder, and The Grifters.
Barry Gifford said he didn’t own the company Black Lizard.
It was sold to Random House which formed Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard in 1990.

Choices about which books to publish went out of Gifford’s hands.

Barry Gifford’s other works include a further collaboration with David Lynch, on the screenplay for Lost Highway (1997).
In 2000 his collected short stories, American Falls, was published.
The Rooster Trapped in the Reptile Room: A Barry Gifford Reader followed in 2003.
When I asked Mr Gifford his favorite books an ironic situation developed, as this month sees the publication of his new book on that very topic.
“In September, Diesel Books will be publishing my book, Read ‘Em and Weep: My Favorite Novels,” Mr Gifford said.
But a few of these authors and titles get touched upon in the course of this article.

READERSVOICE.COM: Where have you been traveling the last few months? Were you traveling to research locations for your fiction?
BARRY GIFFORD: Traveling mostly in Mexico, Gulf port cities, researching locations for fiction and film.
RV: When you travel do you actively seek stories or anecdotes that you might use in your fiction and if so, how do you go about hunting these stories?
BG: I am always listening and observing. That is the first function of a writer, just look and listen.
RV: When did you come up for the idea for Black Lizard Press and what was your motivation in republishing these crime books?
BG: The motivation for Black Lizard Books was to put back into print the work of such writers as Thompson, Willeford, Goodis, Dan J. Marlowe and others which had been out of print for many years, and to discover new writers whose work were similarly on a psychological edge, not easily defined by category.
RV: Which of the Black Lizard titles or authors particularly influenced your writing and what techniques did you take on board from them?
BG: I liked the fact that Jim Thompson and others wrote about the lower echelon of society and imbued their characters with real feelings, avoiding stereotypes.

RV: Which authors did you meet in person and what were they like?
BG: Charles Willeford and Harry Whittington were particularly lively and interesting, generous with their time and stories.
They were great admirers of the Black Lizard series and were proud to be included.

RV: I realise you can’t really rate the relative value of novels, but if you could would you place Jim Thompson in the same league as say Mark Twain or Herman Melville, or his contemporary John Steinbeck?
BG: At his best, Thompson was the equal of James M. Cain, also at his best, as in “Serenade“.
RV: Black Lizard published a few novels by Charles Willeford, and Wild at Heart, the story of Sailor and Lula, was dedicated to him. I was wondering what it was about his writing that struck you the most or influenced you.
BG: Willeford knew a little or a lot about many things, from art to horses to the military. I like the fact that he was eclectic in his interests, like myself. All of this information comes in handy sooner or later.
RV: I was wondering which books or authors influenced your style of humor in your stories, and what other humor you like to read.
BG: Without a sense of humor you’ll die a horrible death long before you die.
RV: How do you construct your plots?
BG: I am more interested in character than plot. The characters usually dictate the action.
RV: What are some of your plans?
BG: My plan is to stay alive for a long time just out of devilish curiosity.
– For more information about Barry Gifford and his works check out www.barrygifford.com.