Niall and I first met as undergrads at Mount Royal University. From what I remember, we first connected through our mutual love of film, either through a course or a club of some kind. It wasn’t long before I learned that Niall was also a fiction writer, and we started exchanging excerpts from our works-in-progress. Niall’s rare, formidable talent was immediately evident to me—I saw in all his work a unique sense of humour and a mastery of pacing, plot and voice. After reading his phenomenal debut novel Only Pretty Damned (available now through NeWest Press), I reached out asking if he’d like to do a Q&A. He kindly agreed, and the dialogue below is the result of our email exchanges.
Mike: Something that immediately strikes me about Only Pretty Damned is how clearly it draws from your love of cinema (especially mid-century noir), while also working on a deeply literary level—voice and point-of-view are so fundamental here. How did you “find” the protagonist Toby’s voice?
Niall: That’s such a great question. For me, one of the most attractive things about noir is the unique narration style. I love stories told in the first-person because I’m intrigued by the prospect of a narrator with shaky credibility, someone who’s just giving you one side of a story that could have so many different sides to it. When I started writing Only Pretty Damned, I knew I wanted to tell the story through the eyes of a damaged protagonist whose vantage point made the reader question what they were being told, or, in some case, what was being left out. These were the sorts of protagonists I’d found so compelling in some of my film noir and crime fiction favourites—Frank Chambers from Cain’s from The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Nick Corey from Thompson’s Pop. 1280, to name a couple. I found that the voice came pretty naturally once I got going, which I’d to attribute to writing in the first-person, where you sort of have to become the character when you write her or him. Having a pretty clear idea of what sort of tone I wanted helped as well. Yes, now that I think about it was definitely these two things, because the only other explanation would be that I, like Toby, am a total curmudgeon, which I refuse to believe is the case.
Mike: I don’t think you’re a curmudgeon, Niall.
This book engages with genre in interesting ways—it draws from a wide-ranging lineage of crime and Gothic writers (I saw echoes of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Stephen King, James Ellroy and many others). What inspired you to take on this unique genre hybrid of the “Gothic carnie-noir”?
Niall: I thought a circus would be a unique place to set my story because there’s so much there to play with, and it’s a setting that lends itself to both noir and the Gothic. When I first began toying with the idea of writing a story that took place in a traveling circus during the 1950s, I thought about the sort of characters you’d find there. On the one hand, you’ve got drifters—very much a noir staple—these nomadic folks who travel the continent and are always on their way to something that they know is temporary. This prospect seemed so rife with potential to me. I’ve always been fascinated by subcultures as well, these insular communities that have their own social codes and slang and all that. One of the most captivating things about circus and carnie life to me is the fact that you’ve got this very odd mix of outsiders who live by their own set of rules. And just like so many of the characters you find in Southern Gothic literature, they know they’re different, they know they live beyond the realm of normalcy, and that dictates the way they view themselves and their understanding of how they fit into the world around them. There’s also a lot of thematic overlap between noir and the Gothic. Corruption, transgression, delusional, haunted people struggling to find their place. I definitely found the genres made for a great mix.
Mike: So, upon mentioning some of the writers who came to mind while I was reading Only Pretty Damned, I’m curious: who/what were the novel’s main influences?
Niall: Oh man, what a loaded question! As far as novelists go, you nailed it when you mentioned Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Stephen King and James Ellroy. I’d add Dorothy B. Hughes, Flannery O’ Connor, Raymond Chandler, Donald Westlake, and Megan Abbott to that list too. Beyond that, the work of Ed Brubaker was a huge influence on the book. He’s written a number of brilliant comics and graphic novels, but I’d say the series that had the greatest impact on me were The Fade Out and Criminal. Like yourself, I’m also heavily influenced by film. I drew upon both classic noir and neo-noir, and, of course, Hitchcock. In fact, there’s even a scene in the book that takes place in a theatre that’s playing Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. I think I owe a lot to music as well. Nick Cave and Tom Waits are great storytellers. If you’re thinking in terms of hemispheres, Cave is about as Southern Gothic as they come, and Tom Waits is the kind of guy you’d find sipping bourbon in a bar in an old crime flick. I also have to mention 80s punk, and in particular X, one of my favourite bands. Their music has a lot of thematic crossover with noir. In fact, I remember reading an interview with X singer and bassist John Doe where he said that they were chronicling the same gritty side of Los Angeles he read of in Raymond Chandler novels, which I thought was pretty inspiring given the distance between his band’s music and Chandler’s stories.
Mike: Given the historical setting (post-WWII North America) and context (a traveling circus), I imagine this book required a fair amount of research. You achieved an amazingly immersive sense of time and place! What did your research process look like? Did you outline the novel in advance?
Niall: Thanks! I’m glad you think so. I think my love for books and films from or set in the 1940s and 1950s helped, but, yeah, I certainly did have to do a lot of research, especially when it came to the circus stuff. Before I started writing I was watching documentaries and reading books on circus history. But then I reached a point where I realized if I was going to wait until I was a circus aficionado before I started writing, well, it would be a long time before things got rolling. So, once I felt I had a passable level of understanding when it came to the ins and outs of circus life, I just started writing, but I was continually researching throughout the entire process. There were so many little things to figure out, not only in terms of historical accuracy and the way I represented the circus, but also logistically, given that the circus I was writing about was always on the move. Needless to say, I spent lots of time flipping and scrolling my way through old photos and city maps. My publisher, NeWest Press, was very helpful with this as well. Jenna Butler, who edited the book, and NeWest’s Marketing and Production Coordinator, Claire Kelly, offered much-needed insight on all things historical. The icing on the cake is that in addition to them providing vital guidance with the historical stuff, I now also know a bunch of ultra-obscure 1950s trivia. Next time I see you, I’m going to tell you a thing or two about the history of the Frisbee.
As far as outlining goes, no, I didn’t outline the novel in advance. I knew who the characters were, I knew where the story started, and I had a feeling about how it ended, but not much beyond that.
Mike: I was impressed by the book’s balancing act between empathy and pessimism. It displays genuine sympathy for its characters’ faults, but it doesn’t short-change on Thompson-esque bleakness. How did you find that balance? Was it something that arose organically?
Niall: It’s hard for me to pinpoint how a balance like that comes about, but I’m glad you think I pulled it off! I guess it probably comes down to understanding the characters I was writing, which, let me tell you, took some time. I think that once I was able to figure out what motivated each character, the balance became something that happened organically. And it’s a very necessary balance to have. The story might be pessimistic and bleak, but at the end of the day, I was writing about people, and even the most unpleasant people are complex.
Niall Howell was born and raised in Calgary, where he still resides with his wife and three pets. His short fiction has been published in The Feathertale Review and FreeFall and he holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mount Royal University, and a Bachelor of Education from the University of Calgary. He enjoys playing bass, and obsessively collects records and comics. Only Pretty Damned is a part of the Nunatak First Fiction Series. Niall can be found on twitter @niall_howell.
Only Pretty Damned
Niall Howell’s Only Pretty Damned is a taut noir that takes you behind the big top, revealing rough and tumble characters, murderous plots, and crooked schemes designed to keep Rowland’s World Class Circus afloat for another season.
When Toby, former trapeze artist turned disgruntled clown, begins seeing Gloria, a young and beautiful dancer longing for a bigger role under the spotlight, his hardboiled past resurfaces.
Can he live without Genevieve, his ex-trapeze partner and lover?
What ruthless actions will he take to regain his position as the headlining act?
And will Toby’s past repeat itself as he tries to untangle the ropes that bind him and take a leap to roaring applause?
Mike Thorn is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies and podcasts, including Dark Moon Digest, The NoSleep Podcast, DarkFuse, Unnerving Magazine, Turn to Ash and Behind the Mask – Tales from the Id. His film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, The Seventh Row, Bright Lights Film Journal and Vague Visages. Visit his website (mikethornwrites.com) and follow him on Twitter (@MikeThornWrites).
In the bleak landscape of Darkest Hours, people make decisions that lead them into extreme scenarios – sometimes bizarre, often horrific, always unexpected. Between this book’s covers you will find academics in distress; monsters abused by people; people terrorized by demons; ghostly reminiscences; resurrected trauma; and occult filmmaking. Ranging from satirical to dreadful, these stories share a distinct voice: urgent, sardonic, brutal, but always empathetic.