Actually two. The two things Flannery O’Connor says that I’ve memorized for when I can no longer, no matter how hard I try, dodge those questions about why the books I like and write tend to be violent and dark — whatever that means. I offer them freely to you, to memorize for when you get those same questions. They’re the smartest things ever said on the subject, and truer now than they’ve ever been. Both are from my favorite book about writing, her Mystery and Manners. (And, yes, I know, sooner or later I should write a long post about how wonderful France was, and I will, but today I’m thinking about Flannery.)

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.


There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

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Gone to France

I’m out of here until sometime in early-mid April. Off to France for book stuff and Quais du Polar, and gonna spend as much time as I can with my children before and after. Meaning, you won’t see me much on any social media. There’s no part of this trip that I ain’t excited about, but I think my favorite thing on the program is that I get to present a screening of Lonely are the Brave, the 1962 Dalton Trumbo penned flick based on the Ed Abbey novel The Brave Cowboy.

If you’re missing me, I will be on Instagram (see the sidebar), where I’ll be taking lots of pictures for my kids. Also, don’t forget to enter the new Cry Father Goodreads giveaway here. And I’ll be kicking off a new Lighthouse noir session on April 6, and talking about Bad Guys with Big Hearts for the Northern Colorado Writers on April 11.

If you’re in France, I hope to see you around. If you ain’t, I’ll catch you in April. In the meantime, I’ll tell you a secret. When I have to talk to people I don’t know and fake being a real writer — which I will be doing a lot of — I have one simple trick: I pretend I’m Kris Kristofferson in a Sam Peckinpah flick. (A far homelier version, but still.) It’s my if-it-were-up-to-me-I’d-stand-in-the-corner-and-watch-y’all-do-all-the-talking hack. Sometimes it even works.

So this:

Wish me luck.

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Blanca Peak

Was poking around and found a picture I took of Blanca Peak, which features largely in Cry Father. I took it during one of my camping trips down to the San Luis Valley when writing the first draft of the novel.

It’s straight up ahead down the highway, and off to the right is the mesa where Patterson Wells lives.


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Blood Meridian and Madame Bovary


I spend way too much time tracking down Blood Meridian‘s references. Usually that means the lyrics to outlaw country music songs or nineteenth Indian-hating books (because those are the only two things I really know anything about), but a little while back a Lighthouse student found this quote from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when we were reading that final scene with the judge and the dancing bear and the big speech. And my scalp crawled down the back of my neck.

Because lascivious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he now had little belief in their sincerity when he heard them from Emma; they should be taken with a grain of salt, he thought, because the most exaggerated speeches usually hid the weakest feelings – as though the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow into the emptiest phrases, since no one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, his conceptions, or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked pot on which we beat out rhythms for bears to dance to when we are striving to make music that will wring tears from the stars.

I think that might be my favorite passage from any book, ever.

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Slim Cessna’s Auto Club


Sometimes I get to do really cool shit, just because. Like recently I was asked to write a new bio for my favorite band, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. So I did. You can find it on their brand new website. Or below, but you should go to their brand new website anyways. (Photo above by Gary Isaacs.)

There comes a moment in every Slim Cessna’s Auto Club show when you realize you’re seeing something you’ll never see anywhere else. It’s Slim Cessna in a white cowboy hat and beard, the lights haloing his ungainly frame, horn-rimmed glasses flashing through the smoke. He’s trading lyrics and insults with Munly Munly, gaunt and strange, dressed in a shade of black particular to preachers and burnt down barns. Their voices rise and converge in the kind of exquisite harmony usually found in Sacred Harp congregations, and then the band cuts loose, the best live band in the world, and the two men are doing battle, playing out some cathartic war between good and evil on stage. Or trading dance steps. You can’t tell.

I said the best live band in the world, and I ain’t the only one. No Depression and Spin Magazine have said the same. This is a band that’s held its own onstage with everybody from Johnny Cash to the Dresden Dolls. But you listen to the recording of “That Fierce Cow is Common Sense in a Country Dress,” and it’ll take you just about four minutes before you realize you’re listening to the best band in the world, period. It’s Lord Dwight Pentacost leading the lunatic rapture on his Jesus and Mary double-necked guitar; Rebecca Vera playing pedal steel so sublimely that I swear to God you can see the ghost of Ralph Mooney circling the stage; and, holding down the rhythm section like they have with each other since seventh grade, The Peeler on drums and Danny Pants on the doghouse bass, driving the band, making you lose your damn mind.

They’ve been making music for over twenty years, and there is, quite simply, nothing else like it. It’s gospel music, is what I’ve decided. Gospel music for a blasted world. A world straining and bursting in constant pain, but one that can’t help but overspill with joy – even knowing better. And the songs, Jesus. Songs about Colorado Indian hater John Chivington, alien abductions, patricide, a man born without a spine. This is the wild, bloody and weird America of Harry Crews, the only America worth a damn. It’s what Flannery O’Connor was trying to say when she wrote of dark romances and the grotesque. If you’ve got a heart, these songs’ll break it, and if you’ve got any laughter left in you, they’ll beat it out of you until you cry.

I probably can’t improve on what Jello Biafra said about Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, that they’re “the country band that plays the bar at the end of the world.” But I like to think that as long as they’re around, they can still save us from that end. Or at least from what currently passes as country music.

– Benjamin Whitmer, author of Pike and Cry Father, and co-author with Charlie Louvin of Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers

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The World’s Unlikeliest Francophile

Because nobody’s ever accused me of being particularly worldly, I always call myself the world’s unlikeliest Francophile. And here’s a good example of why: My French publisher has started a new noir imprint, and has re-released Pike as book zero with this beautiful new cover:


And, even more exciting, Cry Father will hit France on March 26 as a member of the new lineup.


But here’s the best part. I will actually be in France for the release. As well as to attend Quais du Polar and hopefully meet some of the French book folks that have been selling the hell out of Pike. Not to mention the genius head of my publisher, my Captain Oliver Gallmeister, and my translator, Jacques Mailhos — who, as I always say, is responsible for most of said success.

I can’t read French, so I really have no idea what I’ll be doing or where I’ll be going. But if you do read French, you can find details here. (And then email me and let me know.)

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Dubious Advice Given in my Workshops

To be honest, I distrust most general writing advice. So I give a lot of bad advice in my workshops. I just hope that even though it may be bad, it’s useful to think about. Here’s some of my worst:

  1. I hope you get the chance to watch your entire life disintegrate in one day. There’s no greater gift you can give yourself as a writer.
  2. Cliché will make you a Nazi.
  3. Take walks where you shouldn’t go. Try to find somewhere that you can get hurt for just being who you are.
  4. Plots are for gardeners.
  5. Writing a novel means carrying on a conversation with every other book you’ve ever read. A conversation you can’t share, and wouldn’t if you could. Have a divorce lawyer on speed dial.
  6. Steal everything you can get away with.
  7. Avoid people with moderate opinions. They’re useless to you.
  8. It’s always fun to see if you can sabotage your relationship with your reader.
  9. Hallucinogenic drugs may not make you a better writer, but they can’t hurt.
  10. One good way to inform your understanding of consequences is to get a concealed carry permit. And use it.
  11. Cultivate your prejudices. Nourish them.
  12. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, to be learned while shopping at Whole Foods. There is much to be learned at Walmart. Ignore the politics-of-personal-purity bullshit and shop accordingly.
  13. Read several books at once. It’s a kind of cross-contamination not too far off from the writing of book.
  14. I don’t buy that shit about an author having to suffer for her art. But the desire to be an author is a damn good way to get there anyways.
  15. Ignore as much of the business side of this as you can. If you’re doing it to make money, you’re doing it wrong.
  16. I never met anybody who changed much in life, and I distrust authors who make their characters do it in fiction.
  17. Don’t read to richen your life, that’s nonsense. Live a life to richen your reading.
  18. Everybody is more interesting with a gun to their head.
  19. Every possible book about redemption and closure has already been written and has an Oprah Book Club seal.
  20. Get punched in the face now and then to note your lack of interiority.
  21. Ignore all writing advice not particular to your project.
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M.A. Littler has a new film project starting, and as much as I like the rest of his work, this looks like something truly special. Here’s the link to the crowdfunding site.

Speaking of Littler, Hard Soil is now available for download and on DVD here.

This is what I wrote — was proud to write — as part of the Nashville Film Festival application for it.

There are more definitions of folk music than there are musicians. And with the exception of maybe punk rock aficionados and Marxists, there’s no larger pool of purists and amateur historians. The battles over authenticity can be as fierce as any sports riot, and only about half as intelligible. It was with that in mind that I came to M.A. Littler’s HARD SOIL, and I’ll admit to being a little scared. For him, and for me.

I should have known better. M.A. Littler is too damn smart to give us something we can just as well get in a Wikipedia entry. He leaves the definitions and the proselytizing to others and instead gives us a group of likeminded musicians and fans coming together to experience songs. Songs about tough living, joy, family, and community. They may not be your songs, and they may not fit your definition of folk, but after watching HARD SOIL, I defy anyone to call them anything else. They mean too much to the people singing them, and to the people listening.

Woody Guthrie famously said that he hates a song that makes you feel like you’re born to lose, that makes fun of you for your bad luck or your hard traveling. I’m with him on that, which is why I don’t listen to much out of Nashville or LA these days. But if you’re the kind who prefers murder ballads over party anthems, who believes that it takes lonesomeness and blood to make good music, there’s a place for you a little further afield. In HARD SOIL, M.A. Littler gives us an exquisite tour of the space where punk rock and country music meet. There ain’t no Nudie suits and there ain’t no tour buses, but there is blind persistence in the regenerative power of art, and the community that arises from it. “The lost can’t bullshit the lost,” one singer says. Amen, brother.

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