For fans of the crime story, darkness and mayhem are a rush of their own. But the best dark tales are those that manage to deliver introspection and poetic insight from a narrative as it wanders inevitably toward doom.
Welcome to the dark world of Joe Ricker as he leads readers of Walkin’ After Midnight through a series of stories that will, at points, shock even the most versed fans of crime fiction. So, consider yourself warned because the point of no return, as we learn in these stories, can arrive when you least expect it.
Walkin’ After Midnight presents an atmospheric world punctuated by stiff drinks, confused lust, and raw need. There is a dreaminess to this world of damaged lovers and greedy thieves that gives way to moments of poetry and that insight, the introspective quality that makes the crime story something that can inform our understanding and present new questions into our thinking.
If you have the chance, listen to Joe Ricker read his work aloud. His sense of timing and dark humor will be memorable. He will be in these lucky places: Bangor, Ithaca, Atlanta, Oxford, Denton. Take a look at dates right here.
It is my pleasure to share this conversation with all of you. Sit back and enjoy.
Michelle Embree: You do a nice job of creating a dark and ambient world in Walkin’ After Midnight. In the first paragraph–the approach of winter is used to tell us we are entering a world where the best we should hope for, despite our intention or struggle and best effort, the best we should hope for is breaking even. Then, you take us immediately to the bar—to the place where troubles get drown.
This works really well—I woke up in your world instantly. I started circling my foot and humming Walkin’ After Midnight just like the woman in the green dress. Your dreamy bar room got me right away. As adult as your stories are, my first wondering about you as a writer is—what were you reading and watching and dreaming up as a kid? When did you start writing or telling stories?
Joe Ricker: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. I can’t say what as far as stories, but I always burned through one-subject notebooks. I remember crayons, mostly. Then I started writing actual stories in grade school.
I’d project myself into the narratives of my favorite characters; include myself in their stories. That’s how it started, I think, because I was fatherless for the first part of my life and I’ve always been a loner, so characters like Pinocchio or Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter resonated deeply with me.
ME: In the first story we are reminded that life doesn’t go according to expectation, that we may be the driver in our lives, but not necessarily the architect. You have attended to a number of different lines of work that would be excellent for observation. Which ones do you think taught you the most about people?
JR: Most of what I’ve learned about people has come out of my life. I learned a lot about disappointment really young. But I spent a significant amount of time a fucking monster, especially my adolescent and early adult life.
I grew, somehow, away from that. I learned that my own darkness didn’t have to emerge and be present all the time, so there was this evolution of empathy that I got to experience that really gave me some insight into human nature.
The works that I think helped me to realize this were The Stranger, Bridge to Terabithia, (which was one of my favorite childhood books that I reread as an adult) Jesus’ Son, A Separate Peace, and The Killer Inside Me. I may be cherry picking there, but those are the works that come to the front of my thoughts on this.
ME: “Jesus’ Son” came to my mind quite a bit when I was reading. So– all these characters really are you?
I love the themes in this book. I want to talk about a couple of them. Scars, for one. Your characters talk about physical scars and it’s seamless. When I was reading I would think: “oh, yeah. Scars. That’s what we are talking about.” But it comes up naturally from the world of your characters. There is no forcing on your part. So– scars?
JR: Have you ever seen a scar that doesn’t come with a story? I think a lot about scars, actually. The ones we have, the ones we observe and the ones we inflict.
The ones we have we give meaning to, we learn from (or at least we try to) and there’s a range of attachment we have to them.
It’s history, and it’s there, even the kinds that we aren’t proud of. I think this develops how we see scars on other people (both physical and the emotional scars people exhibit through their behavior). It affects our empathy.
People without scars haven’t learned a fucking thing about life. There’s that line from Fight Club (All time favorite movie, by the way) “I don’t want to die without any scars.” I get the sense that without scars, there’s no real experience of life. I feel that, deeply.
Scars are tokens of truth. They’re certainly more honest than words. It’s important to think about scars and where we’ve gotten ours. Even the people who don’t have any have left them on someone else.
ME: You are right I never met a scar without a story. And the scars we inflict, I don’t think we really know how to see these or evaluate them. I think we ascribe powers of imperviousness to other people because we are so distracted by our own wounds– which– Fight Club was about making invisible wounds visible. Getting something to work with, so to speak.
The arc of your book– and I’ll talk more about this– in the first third the question comes up over and over–what’s it like to kill a person? The characters have this wondering and it continuously brought the song– about killing a man in Reno just to watch him die– I was humming this song too. Another dark, dreamy country song. Do you think this is a natural question that people face? Do you think it is somewhat gendered? Do you think it is a cultural phenomenon?
JR: I find it impossible to believe that anyone has never had thoughts of murder or violence, even the slightest glimmer. An individual’s darkness might dictate how long that person thinks about it, but we’re all equipped (in some capacity) to kill. I don’t think this is gendered; however, I think the motivations and methods might be.
I don’t know if it’s cultural. There was a time that we brought children to see public executions. Religion enforces a hypocritical justification to killing. I don’t think it’s a matter of ability, but a matter of what would allow us to kill, what would make us want to kill enough to actually do it?
ME: Certainly your audience anticipates the erotic scenes; it’s part of the tradition of crime fiction as much as murder is part of the tradition. You still need to get away with though, in a good story, you have to earn it and the more graphic the scenes the more the details of that graphic-ness has to relate to the essence of the story.
So–I’m laughing reading your book and thinking– he’s doing it, he’s earning it and the scenes are relevant. It’s skillful in terms of writing and it makes for a book the reader feels eager to get back to reading. Some words from your book: “Sex and murder were about taking control.” If you can illustrate that– you can get away with it– with the graphic nature of both. And you do. Do you have a way that you weigh that as a writer? How do you question yourself or make criteria for these scenes?
JR: It has to feel true, to me. I always question this in the same way the characters commit murder. There’s groundwork to put in for that moment to be special, that first taste of the other person’s breath just before you kiss them, that tense, hesitant pull of that first penetration–that plunge that sometimes makes you feel like you’d swallow your own fucking tongue to hover there for a while. I want to feel that in every scene I write…
If I don’t feel fingers digging into my ribs, it doesn’t feel right.
ME: The sense experience of your book is visceral. You have all of these characters stumbling wildly away from redemption, by either circumstance or choice, or both. They are consumed by desires that pull them under and it comes across so vividly in what you are writing. Do you think we are more willing to do violence for our—possibly perverted—versions of love or is it revenge that does it?
JR: I’d have to choose love. People kill themselves over love, and I think that’s more common than getting revenge against yourself.
ME: Your characters play with power dynamics and there is a questioning of authority and legitimacy, moral and legal legitimacy; that underlies the raw material of the stories. You include a story about a police officer committing a terrible crime. Is this stemming from a particular event in your life? A series of observations?
JR: I dealt with cops a lot when I was younger. I had the shit kicked out of me in a parking lot by three or four of them when I lived in Mississippi. Several years later, after three or four more altercations with one of those same cops, he had me tasered in my living room.
The town settled a law suit out of court over that. But, there isn’t a specific event that triggered this story. Of course, though, it’s something I thought about while I was writing “Wood for the Fire.”
ME: There is beautiful prose in these tales of darkness:
“The struck match snapped, jumped wildly into the air then simmered until he could only see her smile.”
Poetic writing and highly cinematic, it’s that hovering quality you mentioned. You clearly love the stories you are telling and your characters.
What do you think we need most from stories about the dark side of being human? You mentioned your own evolution of empathy, is this book part of that?
JR: I think we need to understand that everyone is suffering on some level. I definitely think I developed as a person in writing these stories.
I wrote more than half of them after I got my dog and it was shattering how I could find the ability to love something so much, but that made me reflect deeply and honestly about my past, the decisions I’d made.
It’s realizing that we could be just as dark, inhuman, evil, unforgivable as the people we think define those things the most. I think a lot of us already have been.
ME: What is the most redemptive quality a person can develop? What do you think makes for the most vital quality of a heroic character/person?
JR: Honesty. If a person/character is honest enough that they have a sense of their own flaws then that is a quality in a character that I really invest in. I’m much more compelled to follow a character, even one who might be a sociopath, than someone who actually believes their own bullshit.
ME: No doubt. It takes courage to be honest.
Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me. This has been fun and I am so glad to have your book on my mind. I’ve learned a lot in this exchange. Best of everything with the release of Walkin’ After Midnight.