Brian Panowich Talks Hard Cash Valley and More
The world may be on fire right now, but brilliant books are still being conceived, written, published and sold. Hard Cash Valley—the much-anticipated third novel by Brian Panowich, following in the path forged by Bull Mountain in 2015 and Like Lions in 2019—is one such novel. Panowich’s latest offering sets readers back in familiar McFalls County, but pairs Dane Kirby with Special Agent Roselita Velasquez as they follow the twisted trail of a murderer on a hunt of his own.
Hard Cash Valley is your third novel set in the area of McFalls County and Bull Mountain, Georgia, but instead of looking over the shoulder of Sheriff Clayton Burroughs, readers are riding shotgun with Dane Kirby, an ex-fire chief and arson investigator. Same area, but different story lines, different criminals, different men. How do you see Clayton and Dane measuring up against one another? Is there a common thread between these two leading characters? Or is Dane a complete departure from any member of the Burroughs clan?
The common thread between all the characters I write has and will always be the fictional place of McFalls County in North Georgia. It was always my intention from the start, from the very first book, to not write a series about the Burroughs’s family, or even about Clayton for that matter, but to create my own unique universe, where characters, old and new, would cross over into each other’s stories, but the stories themselves would always stand on their own. Much like what Stan Lee did when he set out to create the Marvel Universe (it’s no secret I’m a huge comic book nerd) and an example for the more literary readers out there, I wanted it to feel akin to Faulkner’s “Yoknapatawpha County”.
But the best example about this type of storytelling is the way Elmore Leonard built his diverse body of work all around the area of Detroit. Yes, the place was real, but it was “Elmore’s Detroit,” and his characters overlapped into each other’s books. A main character in one story starring in one novel, could also be a walk-on character in another, and to just a casual reader of that one book, it wouldn’t be noticed, but to the bigger addicts of Leonard’s work, it was like a “tip of the hat” just for us fans. It made us feel part of something bigger—inclusive.
Dane Kirby and Clayton Burroughs know each other well. They grew up together as kids in McFalls County. They worked together as adults. Maybe even dated the same girls in middle school at some point. They were friends in a small town. They know a lot of each other’s secrets. Dane is even mentioned briefly a few times in Like Lions, but Hard Cash Valley is Dane’s story, so there wasn’t any room for Clayton or the Burroughs, although their shadow looms over the whole county from Bull Mountain. Maybe somewhere down the line there will be a story that involves them both, who knows? I’m just having a blast building this world. There’s no telling where it will take me.
While readers familiar with your previous books will find themselves settled again in rural North Georgia, Hard Cash Valley also takes Dane Kirby down to Jacksonville, Florida and a brutal motel-room murder. Being as grounded in North Florida as much as you are in North Georgia, I'm interested in what led you to pick this city to springboard Dane onto the trail of a murderer.
I’ll try to walk gentle here. When I was on the road as a musician, I played a few bars in Jacksonville, including Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous Freebird Café. My band was living in Pensacola at the time and loved it there. I also incidentally fell in love with Mobile Bay, AL, which is also heavily referenced in my books. But not to insult any Floridians, me and the guys in the band were always so unimpressed with the flat hollow grayness of Jacksonville. It seemed like a town made up of strip malls and concrete block buildings. Bland and dreary made up the entirety of the place. Maybe it was only during the handful of times I was there, but that was always my takeaway, so the city stood in such stark contrast to the lush foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains I love.
So, it felt natural for Jacksonville to be the proper place to show how incredibly different the outside world could be to my cast of characters from McFalls County, who knew nothing but the mountains and wide-open spaces. But don’t get me wrong, I love Florida. Tampa in particular holds a special place in my heart. My oldest daughter was born at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, but Jacksonville always struck me as a place unlike the rest of the Sunshine State. It was more like a place no one would want to be in for any lengthy period of time. I even set The Jackals Biker Bar in Bull Mountain in that town for the same comparative reasons. I wanted my characters to feel out of place—like fish out of water. I suppose you could say if McFalls County, GA is the place where my characters feel at home and find solace, then Jacksonville, FL must be the flip-side of that coin.
As a firefighter, people are probably always asking you- 'Why don't you write books about firefighters?' (Or maybe it's just me- as a teacher, folks are always asking when I'm going to write a novel set in a high school. And the answer is- absolutely never.) While Dane Kirby is working for the FBI, he's also a former fire chief and arson investigator. Did you find writing a character from your own professional background easy or did it present its own set of challenges?
This question is a tricky one. I intentionally left any aspect of what I really do for a living out of my first book because I didn’t want people to think I could only write about the things I had first-hand experience with. But that being said, some scenes in my books were pulled directly from the firehouse. The scene in Bull Mountain involving the packing peanuts and the blowup doll actually happened. Two firemen I know actually pulled that caper on each other. It was too funny not to write down. And again, during the botched robbery in the beginning of Like Lions, the character that put diesel fuel in the gas tank of the getaway car instead of gasoline was based on a fireman I know who did the opposite and damn near blew up Engine #1 in my Company. Again, too funny not to write down. But these anecdotes didn’t require them to be firemen.
I came a little closer in my second book where I describe in painstaking detail a house fire, but mainly because it was integral to the story, but even then, I didn’t go into detail about the carnage my experience as a fireman exposed me to. I did it more to accurately convey the total and absolute damage that losing everything—and I mean everything—can do to a person’s life, but I also kept it written in a very generalized way. Even then, I had several people who adore my books tell me that they had to skip over that part because it hit too close to home.
And I completely get that.
That’s the main reason I stay away from it. Because I’ve seen first-hand how painful it can be. Hard Cash Valley is the first time I gave that vocation to a main character, but even then, Dane Kirby is retired, and his fire experience plays very little into the main story.
I guess what I’m saying is that I feel like the tragedies I witnessed over the past decade of being a firefighter don’t belong to me. They aren’t my stories to tell. The horrid and life-altering disasters I did my best to stop from happening, although not nearly enough, happened to other people. Those heartaches and miseries are their own, and I’d be doing them a huge disservice by trying to capitalize on their pain and suffering. That’s something I just can’t and won’t ever do.
In addition to your three novels- Bull Mountain, Like Lions and Hard Cash Valley- your short story 'The Broken King' also takes place in McFalls County. Do you see yourself as centering all of your work in this area?
Yes. That’s the plan. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, I have no desire to write about anywhere else except my made-up world. I might decide to write about earlier time periods in the region, predating Bull Mountain. I’ve got an inkling of an idea about Cooper and Riley Burroughs when they were kids during the prohibition era, but I love building my own world a little too much to leave it yet. That’s not to say I don’t indulge myself sometimes. I get ideas all the time about writing things based in different locales. I’m writing a novella based on a Travis Meadows’ song called The Knives of New Orleans, which obviously is set in the Big Easy, that just begged to be written, and I just finished a story called 'Statesboro Blues' that will be featured in an upcoming anthology based on the music of The Allman Brothers (also featuring Michael Farris Smith, Shawn A. Crosby, Chris Swann, and Mark Westmoreland) that is set in Statesboro, GA, but those are just one-offs for my own enjoyment. I definitely plan to expand on my fictitious region of North Georgia in my novels and keep all of its high profile off-shoots like The Broken King and A Box of Hope (from The Best American Mystery Stories, 2019) based in McFalls County. It’s way too much fun having my own sandbox to play in.
In a round-up of the new 'Southern Writers,' the 'Grit-Lit' or 'Country Noir' or whatever we're calling it these days- maybe, bad-ass writing with a rural edge, who knows- you're likely to be found on the shelf with authors such as Michael Farris Smith, David Joy and Ace Atkins, with a branch out to C. J. Box, Don Winslow, James Lee Burke, Chris Offutt, Taylor Brown, you get the idea. A boy's club (through no fault of yours). For fans of your work, and these other gents, looking to read female authors, who would you recommend?
That’s an easy one.
But first of all I have to say, I’m not sure why the need for such a plethora of labels is given to the kind of stories that writers like myself or the ones you listed write. I don’t think any of us set down that path intentionally. In fact, the labeling can become outright insulting, even if it’s not intentional, like 'Redneck-Noir,' or 'Hillbilly Noir,' but that's not up to me to decide. That’s marketing.
And to answer your question fully, it’s also necessary to say that I’ve always found it to be a real head-scratcher that if a man writes a book similar to the subject matter in mine, or by Ace Atkins, it gets tossed into one of these rural categories, but if a woman writes one dealing with the same type of thing, you tend to find them elsewhere in the bookstores. A huge example of that is the amazing Laura McHugh, who’s The Weight of Blood, Arrowood, etc., is some of the best rural crime fiction out there. Brynn Greenwood, who wrote All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, (one of the best novels I’ve read about rural crime and unlikely love) as well as her follow up, The Reckless Oath We Made, are top-shelf novels that deserve the moniker of “Bad-ass Writing with a Rural Edge” much more than any of mine. There is also Emily Murdoch’s If You Find Me or the mighty Delia Owens, and A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post should be required reading for anyone into rural crime. The list is endless. The stigma, on the other hand, is not.
And finally, to the elephant in the room. There's no way around it, this is a rough time to be releasing a book. Regardless of whether you're an indie darling or a bestseller with a marquee name, book tours and conferences are canceled, book shops are shuttered and promotion is having to take a turn towards the creative. How have you had to adapt your book release to our uncertain times? And how would you suggest readers looking to support you and other authors do so?
Yes, I have, and no, it’s not ideal.
When all of this chaos first hit my radar, me, along with all the other authors I know with Spring releases, began to panic. I allowed that to happen for about a week before I shut that method of thinking down cold. I sat at my desk and tried to figure out what to do about it instead. A phrase you hear quite often around the firehouse is “Adapt and overcome.” So that’s what I had to do. I needed to figure out things like ZOOM, and SKYPE. I had to start learning tech I wasn’t used to. I mean, sure, it was a gut-punch to know that what I consider to be the best novel I’ve written to date is going to be released in the middle of the worst health crisis our country has seen in decades, but honestly, if that’s all I have to worry about through the entirety of this pandemic, then I’m counting myself as damn lucky. After all, I could not have a book coming out at all. I could not have a stellar team of PR and marketing folks at St. Martin’s and Minotaur Books scrambling every day on my behalf to turn a string of canceled appearances into a virtual tour that I don’t even need to wear pants to attend.
Bookstores, too, are rising to the occasion of curbside selling and “hand-selling” books over the phone. The reviews are still coming in hot from the major Lit Journals and advance readers on Goodreads are loving the novel so far. But beyond that, and most importantly, other authors who feel our pain, are not only reaching out to help promote our books but are going to great lengths to entertain some of the more “creative” ideas we’ve come up with.
So instead of stressing about the shitty timing of this chaos that is out of my hands, I’ve decided to focus on the things I can control. I lean on my friends and my readers. I’ve put faith and trust in my publisher, and I do things as an author/human being to try and help out, in some small way, the people out there that need it most. People who are a lot more in need than an author struggling with bad timing. For instance, I donated 30 copies of Like Lions the day it was released in paperback to my local hospital for the overworked staff in need of a little escapism from this nightmare. I also plan to donate all my advance hardcover copies of Hard Cash Valley to the seniors living around town, so those men and women have something new to read while they are cut off from their loved ones.
So, if I were to offer any suggestions to anyone who is currently stuck in a position like mine, I’d tell them this…Do your best to interact with your readers via any platform you use, be creative- if you can write a book, and then get the damn thing published, then you can come up with inventive ways to sell it, too.
And most importantly, take a breath, step away from it for a minute, and go use whatever notoriety you have to help those people who badly need it. Books can heal.
That in itself is its own reward and will inspire you to get through this—and remember, there is always a year from now, when the paperback hits. That’s another chance to get out there and do all the things we can’t do now.
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