Let’s not mince words here. Frank Reardon makes his living as a butcher in Minot, North Dakota. Let’s just imagine for a moment the type of stories a butcher in Minot, North Dakota might tell. Now imagine a guy with the hard-earned writing chops of a Charles Bukowski or Larry Brown.
Frank Reardon has published some of the realest, rawest, no-bullshit books of poetry you’ll find over the last ten years. They have titles like Nirvana Haymaker, Blood Music, Broken Halo Blues, and Curmudgeon Rising. Whether you love poetry or hate it, Reardon writes for you.
Now he’s churning out these short stories as blunt and brutal and full of heart as any you’ll read. Don’t believe me? Check ’em out: We published one last year. It was so good we just published another. Here’s one he published with the man Rusty Barnes at Fried Chicken and Coffee. Here’s one he published with the dude Adam Van Winkle at Cowboy Jamboree.
No shittin you: If I had ten grand sitting around to invest in one book and one author that needs a bigger audience in this world? Y’up, you guessed it. Whatever Frank Reardon’s got cooking, it’s my antidote to so much that ills me. You might try it yourself.
Tragically, like a lot of small publishers I’m broke as a joke, so please—for your sake, for my sake—spread the word: this guy’s fiction is a force to be reckoned with, and you best hop on the Frank train sooner rather than later.
Agents, presses, people with power—I’m talking to y’all. Writer, readers, lovers, haters—I’m talking to y’all too.
BD: You have this line in your story “Fake Spring” from Cowboy Jamboree that floors me every time I read it: “Some say all bars are dead ends, but none of those people have been so lonely, so full of an unknown and indescribable pain, that they’ll go to On the Rocks just so they can feel, even for a second, the same lonely pain coming from anybody who can relate through the silence and off-hand conversation.”
The stories you write about drinking in bars and working odd jobs and annoying co-workers and customers, there’s such an authenticity to them, that it’s easy to think, oh that’s just your everyday material. But shit, I’ve gotten drunk plenty in dive bars like this and worked a lot of shitty jobs like you’ve described. These stories I have, they sure as hell don’t write themselves as far as I can throw them.
What’s your approach to writing these types of stories based on your own experiences? Do they come easy for you? When do you know when you’ve got a story that needs to written?
FR: That line actually came from being in one bar too many over the years. I go through phases when it comes to bars. Sometimes you’ll find me at bars a few times a week; other times I wont go for a few months. I’ll drink at home, or I wont drink at all. It really depends on how I’m feeling.
When I’m at a place like a bar I sometimes watch people, listen to their conversations, etc. What fascinates me the most about people are their facial expressions. A person can lie with their hands. They can lie with the things they say, but their faces don’t lie. Sure, the face can lie when it’s talking to to a person, but when the face is alone that’s when it gets interesting. Watch a person sitting in front of glass of booze, their thoughts pour out of their faces. Watch how they bring the glass to their mouths and watch how they sip it. You can tell if they’re desperate, angry, in pain. Sure, I have no idea what they’re angry about, but that’s where the fiction comes from sometimes, figuring out why. The same can be said about a day job with co-workers, or customers; any place, really.
As for “coming easy,” sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The line you mentioned from “Fake Spring,” I didn’t even think twice about it, it came natural to me. I knew it and understood it. Other times I think I wrote a brilliant line. I get all excited and proud of myself, and it ends up being one of the lines the reader never mentions. The breaks I suppose.
I listened to an interview with Jess Walter awhile back, and he said: “every face, every situation, has a poem or short story in it.” I sat and thought about what he said. It really struck me. I went about my day thinking about what he said, and I looked and watched, and I found it to be mostly true. Once I have a character, whether someone I see in the world or I make them up, then I feel I have a story that needs to be written. Characters are far more important to me than plot. If I don’t have a character then I don’t bother writing the short story. I feel the plot will follow them around like a shadow. If I think of a character one morning, I’ll take them with me to work and think about them: What trouble they get in. Why are they doing this? Living like this? Later that night or the next day, if I can figure it out, I’ll start writing the story.
BD: While we’re on the talking about the way you throw words around, I was curious about your shift from writing and publishing mostly poetry to then picking up fiction? Was there a moment where you were burned out on poetry? Or was it more that you just got a hankering for fiction? Did you read something, and you were like, “That’s what I need in my life”?
While we’re at it, is there a different head space involved for you writing one versus the other?
FR: When I was a young kid I always wrote little one to two page stories. As I got older I did much the same. Then I got into girls, drugs, booze, going to concerts, and partying. Writing in general vanished for a decade. However, I was writing real bad poetry at the time. My cousin Erin and myself would hang out a few times a month, get loaded, and read our poetry to one another. She was the first person that told me to pursue writing. For the first few years I kept it secret for the most part.
I traveled a lot working for the phone company for a long time. I eventually ended up in Alabama, had a child out of wedlock when I was 27, then I got divorced, and all of a sudden I was alone in Huntsville, AL, living in trailer without a family or purpose. I started drinking a lot. I had a friend named Chris Dayton who ran a lending library called The Burning Nun. I couldn’t afford the fees, but he let me hang out in there all the time. I’d sit and read the books with my six’ers of beer. Around that time the poetry started to come. I was angry, hurt, depressed, drunk; I think poetry was the perfect platform for me.
I started to go to local poetry readings, eventually making a couple of friends, and becoming known for my work a little. I still had no clue about publishing poems, or collections of books. I was just writing them like a mad man. Then I’d read them. I stopped being the town drunk, got myself a job, and that began my life with odd jobs. Back then I basically worked to pay rent, pay child support, and what was left over I’d use on beer and eating once a day. Beer seemed like a better financial investment than food at the time. Probably still is some days.
Due to a bad divorce and being unable to see my child, I then hit the road. I put close to 25 thousand miles on the Greyhound. Lived in places like Kansas City, Decatur, Rhode Island, and back home in Boston. None of those places fit. I’d be there for 3 to 6 months, then I’d move on. I was always writing, but without a purpose, an end game. One afternoon while living in Boston, a friend from Canada called and wanted to publish my first collection of poetry titled: Interstate Chokehold, I was elated, however, that collection was garbage. I know it. I’m glad some people liked it, but it was total trash. Too bad, really, because I loved the book title.
When I started living in North Dakota, that’s when I started looking at what I was doing. I was less drunk. I was more stable. I started taking the words more seriously. I was 35 (better late than never). The collections that followed: Nirvana Haymaker, Blood Music, Broken Halo Blues, I’m way more proud of, even if my head space isn’t in those books anymore. Then, magically, after many years the poems vanished.
Throughout my life I have always preferred reading novels or short stories over poetry. I think I got caught up in the idea of being a poet, meaning it was my comfort zone. I didn’t write for an entire year. Nothing. I hardly read anything. Then It was suggested I check out new books by new authors, might help. I read Pollock’s The Devil All The Time. I had never read anything like it in my life. From the third page, until the last, I knew in the back of my head it was time to start writing fiction. Once I finished that book I returned to Larry Brown, Cormac McCarthy, Jim Thompson, Flannery, Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, Carver, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane; authors I had read before, but I couldn’t pull Camus, Celine, and The Beats, out of my ass long enough to see what they were saying. I’m glad I finally did because I rediscovered a lot of magic in a ton of authors I quit on. Plus I discovered a ton of new authors, new to me: Mary Miller, Donald Ray Pollock, Denis Johnson, Jess Walter, Thom Jones, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Rusty Barnes, Wiley Cash, James Lee Burke, Alan Heathcock, Todd Robinson, William Gay, Bud Smith, Carson McCullers, Don Winslow, George Singleton, Smith Henderson, Ben Whitmer, Chris Offutt, Joe Clifford, Joe Lansdale, Erika T Wurth, Tom Franklin, etc.
Anyhow, I started writing fiction. A lot of fucking real bad fiction. Tons of short stories that’ll never see the light of day. Three unfinished novels that’ll never see the light of day. I was actually working on a novel up until last December. I was around 60k words in. Then it hit me that I jumped the shark. It was 100% carnage for the sake of carnage. I made the city of Minot a war zone. It didn’t feel right, nor real, so I trashed it.
I eventually started publishing stories, some good, some just okay, even had one nominated for an award, which I thought was super cool. I was part of the Harry Crews (one of my idols) tribute magazines. So, yeah, I’m having more success with my short fiction of late, publishing wise. Enough success for me to want to put together a collection to send out later in the year to agents/and or publishers. I’m excited about it. During this time the poetry returned. I started submitting them to online zines and Epic Rites Press took notice and they published my most recent chapbook, first in 3 or 4 years, titled: Curmudgeon Rising. They liked it enough to want to see a full length, which I’m putting together now. The poems are done, just need to edit. Blue Horse Press also wants a full length, which is real cool. They do the San Pedro River Review magazine. It’s nice that some people are interested in the poetry. I write fiction every morning for the most part. It’s structured how I do it. I’m at the machine in the morning before work. I used to be that way with poems, but I don’t do that anymore. Most times I write poems in the now, on my phone, and later put them on my laptop. I could be anywhere: a bar, work, in a park, I write them when it strikes me to write them. I don’t worry about it if I don’t write a poem a day or anything like that.
BD: Okay, so from our talks in the past, I know that you’ve got a conflicted relationship with North Dakota. Of course, from my own family up around there, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a conflicted relationship with North Dakota, and those are people who are born and raised up there.
I think I read in an interview somewhere you talked about getting your life together and figuring shit out up there. Then there’s the fact that most of the stories I’ve seen from you are based on in North Dakota.
Is this all just a case of making the best of a shit sundae or is there something more to it that draws you to write about it?
FR: I think the stories, or poems, could really fit anywhere. Unless I’m talking about the weather conditions, or the depression rates, or certain things people say like “Uff-Da,” you don’t get “Uff-Da” anywhere else but the Dakotas or Minnesota. I write the stories here because I’m currently living here. It’s what I currently see and know, but once I move I’ll base the stories where ever that is.
I won’t go into it, (not like the previous answer), but I have a love/hate relationship with North Dakota. I hate the weather. I hate that there’s not much to do here. No concerts I like. No solid museums. I can’t go see a pro sports team play. There’s not much at all. But it also has its charms, some wonderful people. The Badlands is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. But coming on nine years I’m all but done, been done a few years. Besides wanting to live closer to my daughter, the weather is the main factor for me to escape. I’ve been holding onto this job as a butcher and saving so I can leave. I want to be closer to my daughter. Whether that’s in Huntsville, again. Or North Carolina, or Tennessee, I just want to be much closer. I don’t care about people’s shit politics or shit religions, I actually love the south. I love the people, the landscapes, the weather, the friends I made down there, the music, etc. I’m from Boston, lived there the first 27 of my 44 years. I could go back, but I prefer the south. I’m hoping by the summer I’ll start looking for a place to live down there, that’s the goal. Once I’m there I’m sure the stories and poems will reflect where I’m living. I think the only thing that really separates different places are accents. A lot of the people I know in Minot could easily be from Huntsville or Kansas City or Boston.
BD: In stalking you on the Internet, I’ve seen a few places where it talks about your life on the road—both as a kid with your father, and then as an adult bouncing all around this country. How would you say the road life has played into the world you write about?
FR: That’s where it comes from. Those summers on the road with my father and his co-worker, Tim who was a former biker gang member, yeah, those were some wild times.
I was eight years old. Traveling every summer to places like Las Vegas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Los Angeles. They’d wire telephone and security systems for casinos, or office buildings. Sometimes out in the middle of nowhere in these little huts and manholes.
I remember the oddest things like seeing my first southern tent revivals. Or watching Tim go out into the weeds with a machete to hunt rattlesnakes. He’s cut off the rattle and stick it in a mason jar. I had a fine collection of rattles. They were also both con men and crooks. They conned cheap hotel rates, cheap meals. They had a small network of people around the country that they’d get involved with and steal a thousand bucks here or two thousand there.
I didn’t learn about the cons and robberies until I was a teen, and I didn’t learn about what they actually did until I was a father myself. My uncle told me the details. How neither of them did time in prison is beyond me. I don’t know how they escaped it. Perhaps because my father eventually gave it up in the mid to late ’80s. I believe Tim eventually found Jesus and quit drinking. I think he lives in New Hampshire somewhere. He was a big dude back then: 6 foot 4, like 280 and bearded.
Yeah, those summers on the road were magic. The things I saw. The things we did really shaped my imagination. Not many eight year olds get to sit in a giant booth in a casino, eating crab legs with a bunch of fancy Las Vegas show girls. I’ll never forget that, how shy and red faced I was.
BD: All right, so I’m going to put this out there. I’m often weary of admitting how much I dig Bukowski’s work. Around people I don’t know that well, I feel like admitting this is going to have people telling me I’m a complete misogynist and/or having people think I’m just another eighteen-year-old punk who gets a hard-on for writers who write about “booze and broads.” But then under all the ugliness, there’s such tenderness about humanity, about the brutality of the human condition. And frankly, there’s such a tragedy to his various personas, Chinaski and the rest of them. Bukowski’s been important to you. Can you help me better articulate the redeeming qualities for reading Bukowski—for you at least? Do you ever have conflicted feelings about the man versus his work, etc.?
FR: Ahh, the one everyone likes to ask. First, let me say Chinaski was his alter-ego. I didn’t know the man in real life. I didn’t discover him until I was in my early twenties. I read his novels first. I liked them enough, ‘Ham On Rye’ being my favorite. Then later on in my twenties I started reading his poetry. It hit me like a thunder bolt. Here was a guy who was saying shit I knew about, but in a way I had never heard before. This is what poetry should be like. I felt good about it.
I have no shame or guilt about my love for his work. I don’t care if he was a misogynist. Again, I knew his alter-ego was, but I have no idea what he was like in life. Sure, he liked his booze, parties, and women, but so do I. I love women. I enjoy alcohol. I also like a good time, a party. He could take complex thing and say it in a beautiful and simple way. I don’t like complex poetry. Never have, never will. 99.99% of the time I don’t like political poetry, never have, never will. I like what’s true to me. What I see as valuable. Now a lot of people think since they like Buk’s work that they have to live the life of Chinaski. Yeah, that can get boring, it’s another man’s creation. Stop trying to live like him.
If I stopped reading him because of the man he was then I’d be a piece of shit. I don’t dislike Louis Celine’s work because he didn’t like Jewish people. Nowhere in Celine’s novels does he damn a Jewish person. He did that on his own time and he was a shit bag of a person I imagine, but his novels were good. Same could be said for Kerouac or Capote, etc. I think people don’t like Bukowski because he’s popular. I see him as a gateway into an art form that most people hate. No one outside of poets wants to pick up a book by 90% of the poets out there, but they’ll pick up Bukowski. Look, if it wasn’t for him, every small press in the country would look different nowadays. He kicked down the doors of the academics and gave poetry back to the everyday man and woman. Did he succeed? Probably not, but poetry would be a lot different in the publishing world nowadays if it wasn’t for him. Poetry was Rimbaud or Villon or Whitman or William Carlos William, etc. Meaning, written by people who wrote it because they wanted to write it. They didn’t have some bullshit class assignment. I also have nothing against academics. Carver was an academic and his poetry is stunning. I just have a hard time thinking you can find a Bukowski, a Rimbaud etc., inside a poetry degree. Also, I’m not against a poetry degree. If you want to do it go ahead. I guess I don’t give a fuck about the argument of academic Vs street poet. It’s a dull argument that was around before me, and it’ll be around long after I’m dead. Who the fuck cares?
I don’t read Bukowski as much these days. I have every one of his poetry books, even the newest. I guess I’ve read them all, but I still sneak a few of his poems here and there. However, all the stuff that came out after he died has been gutted, ruined; poems I imagine he wouldn’t have wanted in books. But man, a book like Love is A Dog from Hell is a classic, probably my favorite collection of poetry of all time. I have other poets I dig that were academics, like James Wright. Love his work. Yeah, Buk and Wright are probably my two favorite poets of all time. I also dig William Carlos Williams.
I do separate the bullshit from the artist. People might not like to hear that, not this day in age. If Bukowski shot someone, then the man should stand before a judge like anyone else, though I’d still love his poetry. I’m getting too set in my ways to give a flying fuck. People are so afraid to write about this and do this, and say this of late, it makes me sick to my stomach. I fear people policing what some one can say and not say in their work. I suppose I really don’t fear it because I’m going to write about what I want, when I want. Eventually people will grow tired of the thought police. When it comes to thought in today’s world of social media it’s all about “here this second, gone the next second.” If you are afraid to say you like a writer because they are looked at a certain way, then what the fuck is the point in doing any of this? I’ll be damned if the only shit I am only allowed to read is Mitch Albom and Nora Roberts, because they’re sensitive safe. I’d rather read wet receipts than sensitive safe books and magazines.
BD: One of the things I love most about Bukowski’s writing are his stories about the post office and the other odd jobs he put together to pay rent. I remember all the shit jobs I worked to survive through my twenties and early thirties and then I think about guys like Larry Brown, William Gay, and Donald Ray Pollock and those guys always have such an ear for the language of the scrapper, the folks barely making it. On one hand, I don’t like the idea of holding up a writer just for their bio, but on the other hand, I can’t stand “comfortable” writing about characters living “comfortable” lives.
How would you say your experience working jobs to pay the bills has taught you about writing fiction? Have their been specific moments or “characters” that you’ve been like, I have to write about this or it’s going to be that much more miserable to just go on living it?
FR: Like any other person in the world I wish I made more money. I wish the jobs I’ve had made a lot more money. I’d like to buy a new car when ever I want. I want to send my daughter to college without stress. None of that was in the cards for me. I highly doubt I’ll ever have a top ten best seller. I highly doubt anyone will make a film out of one of my stories or anything down the line I might write. However, I don’t do this for the reason financial gain. Would it be nice? Sure as shit it would. I’m not one of those writers who says “money ruins the art,” fuck that. I like money.
I think the ability to write about people in shit jobs is a good thing, or people who resort to alcoholism, or drugs, or committing crimes; I see people like that every day. Maybe they are not committing crimes, but they think about it. I think there’s a bit of release to write about the day job sometimes, or to make something up out of thin air because of the way a crappy job makes you feel. It comes from a place of rage and disgust. There has to be beauty some where in all of this, at least I hope.
There’s also the idea that the bad job puts a person on a schedule. At least it does me. I sometimes ask myself: “There has to be more than this?” So I write. I write stories and poems and I read a lot. Especially up here in the winter. Bad jobs plus long freezing winters can take its toll on a person mentally. It’ll drive someone to the whiskey bottle or meth or opiates. So writing helps, reading helps. I think it was Kerouac that once said “I’m writing this book because we are all going to die.” I just keep doing because the bills do suck, because the hardships do pile up, and writing sometimes makes me feel good. I don’t see it as a race against death. It makes things better. I want to get better at it and keep pushing forward with it.
I get your point about “comfortable.” I don’t much care for that sort of writing either. However, I’m forty-four now, a little bit of this comfort in the real world would be nice. I’m not knocking on death’s door, but my back hurts more now, as do my knees, and hands. I often wonder how long I can keep it up? Meaning, minute in and minute out of lifting 80- to 100-pound boxes without tossing out my back for good.
BD: I know it’s common for writers to look at their early work and see all the problems, see all the things we’ve improved at. But then there’s that raw and naive voice that doesn’t know any better, and there’s something really compelling about that.
Do you ever look back and think, Dude, if only I’d’ve understood this or that? If only I could’ve gotten over myself… Do you ever have conversations/arguments with your younger self about where you were at then versus where you’re at now? I’m asking because I tend to get in a lot of arguments with my younger less fat and more idealistic self.
FR: I used to yell at my younger self all the time. I don’t so much now, I yell at myself in the now, ha! I wish there wasn’t a void of ten years when I didn’t write and I just partied. Yet, at the same time I think I needed that experience of travel, parties, concerts, women, in my twenties.
I think once I am done with a story, poem, a book of poems, I’m divorced from it. Sure, I’m seeking out readers and trying to promote it and so on, but I’m done with it. I don’t feel much for it anymore. I don’t really go back and read it again. Maybe one time when it’s new in the magazine, just to see what it looks like, but I really don’t after.
I think most of the yelling I do is about a lack of discipline when I was younger. When I was only writing poetry I went through a phase where I thought I was going to make money and be a well-known poet. I was trying to be a poet, so-to-speak, rather than write poetry. I kicked that guy to curb a long time back. Nowadays I think everything I write is mediocre. I read books by people I like and I say, “Damn, such a long way to go and who knows how much time I got to do it.” I think that’s where the yelling at my younger self comes in. “Why did you not take this serious back then? Things might be different now.”
Then I laugh at myself and I open up my computer and write the next poem or story. It’s all I can really do.
BD: So you’ve talked a little bit about what you’re working on with your poetry, but I was wondering what you had cooking for your fiction? Are you trying to put together a collection of stories or starting back on another novel? Both? What’s you’re mindset moving forward?
FR: I’m currently outlining a novel. Not not really outlining, but taking a lot of notes and trying to figure out how it’ll work. I have the characters. I have an ending, but I’m figuring it out. It’s a novel based in 1982. The experiences traveling with my con man father and his safe-cracking buddy, Tim. Traveling, coming of age in that world. It’s based on my experiences, but I’d say, when it comes to writing it, it’ll only be about 40% true. I’m not into writing a memoir. I’m not that interesting.
I’m also putting together some short stories. I hope to have a collection to send out to publishers by the end of the summer or sometime in the fall. Basically, writing short stories, sometimes poems, and putting this novel together in my head, until I’m ready to write it. I don’t see an issue working on all of them. I have about half the short stories I need for a book. So I’m getting there.