Knox Thompson thinks he’s working a hustle, but it’s a hustle that’s working him. Trying to keep his pizza shop and parents afloat, he cleans out a backroom Kentucky poker game, only to get roped into dealing marijuana by the proprietor—an arrangement Knox only halfheartedly resists.
Knox’s shop makes the perfect front for a marijuana operation, but his supplier turns out to be violent and calculating, and Knox ends up under his thumb. It’s not long before more than just the pizza shop is at risk.
SHELDON LEE COMPTON: Tell me a little about how your recent novel Hillbilly Hustle came to be.
WESLEY BROWNE: My family has co-owned a pizza shop called Apollo Pizza in Richmond, Kentucky since 2012, but all told it’s been around about forty years. Before we owned it, it was kind of an open secret in town that you could buy pot there. It struck me that a pizza shop that sells pot made a decent setting for a book. I was in a novel class at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop in 2014 and we were supposed to develop a protagonist. That was where I started to work on the idea of this pizza shop owner. He changed a lot over the course of time and so did the book, but the seeds of Knox Thompson and Hillbilly Hustle were planted there. In the novel, Knox owns Porthos Pizza, a pizza shop in Richmond, Kentucky that bears an eerie resemblance to the old Apollo Pizza.
SLC: It’s especially clear you put a lot of thought into the book. It’s the first true treatment of the contemporary landscape of marijuana in our fair commonwealth, to my thinking. As you’ve told me before, that’s an aspect of the drug culture in Kentucky that’s not often put into focus. And Apollo Pizza…man it’s a legendary spot for regional literature, too. You host readings there, if I’m remembering correctly. How important is it to you to support others who are out there writing and publishing, laying their hearts bare so to speak? The one time we had a chance to actually hang out, during the Lincoln Memorial University literary get-together back in 2015, I knew right away you were a generous member of the citizenry.
WB: We’ve hosted readings at Apollo Pizza for I don’t know how many years, at our Pages & Pints Reading Series. It didn’t actually start there. Before we brought it to Apollo, I hosted a series at the Richmond Area Arts Council for a couple years. Before that I was going to readings on campus at Eastern Kentucky University. Only six or eight people would show and I would be the only non-student who wasn’t there for credit for a class. It seemed like a waste of the writers’ talents but it was kind of the only game in town. I wanted to bring those writers to the community, and also the community to those writers. My wife was president of the Arts Council at the time and they didn’t host any literary events, so the board was glad for someone to create programming.
We drew decent audiences to most of those events, and after we took over operations at Apollo, we’d go there afterward for dinner and drinks. Logistically, it became easier to just host the whole thing at Apollo, where I had the run of the facility and the schedule. Pages & Pints was born.
At its peak, we drew more than 60 people to standing room only readings a couple times. We’ve had some really big names. As with anything, attendance has slacked off some with passing time, but we still draw 20-30 most nights we host a reading, which is nothing to sneeze at. Once a year we host one to fund a scholarship to the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. That’s the next one coming up. It’s the only one that’s not free to attend.
SLC: It’s really interesting to learn the history behind the series. And if you’re getting 30 people to a literary reading, you’re basically performing magic. That’s fantastic.
So how have things been going with your debut novel Hillbilly Hustle? Do you have many events lined up—readings, book signings, and so forth? Do you have plans to write another book? Also, if you would, talk some about how you became interested in writing and how you became connected with the Appalachian literature scene in general.
WB: This being my first book, the business baffles me a little. Hillbilly Hustle’s official publication date is March 1, but tons of people had it in hand by late January. I knew it would go early, but not that early. It had something to do with stock issues at online sellers, and in trying to fix them their internal release dates got changed and it started shipping.
Our first launch event isn’t until February 27 at Country Boy Brewing. They brewed a special Hillbilly Hustle beer—delicious, by the way. I’ve been writing novels for 23 years and this is the first time I’ve published one. I’m also a pretty incorrigible extrovert. Because of that, I’m ready to come flying out of the box. We have 25 appearances in seven states and I am here for it. I’m sure it’ll be a grind, but it’s a grind I’ve craved.
I have a follow up to Hillbilly Hustle in progress called Spoon. It’s the second of three books I have planned involving these characters. The antagonist from Hillbilly Hustle, Burl Spoon, is at the heart of the next.
I moved to Kentucky in 1996, and soon after that I started to read regional authors. I didn’t really come into the Appalachian literature scene until I attended the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop in 2011. That was the first time I connected with the actual people who wrote what I was reading. My teachers that year were Silas House, Amy Greene, and Charles Dodd White. That changed everything. Not just what I started to learn, but the friends I made who were also writing. I attended the workshop as a student for a total of five years straight. I read so much Appalachian Lit there at one stretch that I had to make a conscious decision to branch out. I still do read a good bit of it, but I’m reading more diversely these days.
SLC: A couple things right off the bat. Spoon is a fantastic title for a novel and 25 appearances in seven states. My friend that seems nightmarish to me, but since you are looking forward to it I’m incredibly happy for you. And it’ll be great exposure for the novel. But seven states? Lordymercy.
I didn’t know you moved to Kentucky from elsewhere. That’s great. We gained a good citizen of the commonwealth for sure. Whereabouts did you move from? Also, it sounds like you’ve read and studied the literature enough to earn a platinum Kentucky Colonel title by this point. I’ve been told the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop is a fine get-together, and I know several of the folks you mentioned there. Good, good people all around. I can see how spending time there would have helped make you one helluva writer.
Tell me a little about some of the novels you wrote leading up to the publication of Hillbilly Hustle.
WB: I came to Kentucky to go to law school at UK but I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. My wife is from Eastern Kentucky and we were in all the same classes as 1Ls. She didn’t want to move and I didn’t want to leave, so it worked out. The first novel I wrote I started between my first and second year, and big shocker, it was an overly autobiographical novel about a guy at UK law school. Isn’t everyone’s first like that? It was real long, and real bad, but I put some words under my belt.
The next was about a kid who graduates high school but doesn’t go to college as a way of pissing off his doctor father who he blames for the breakup of his marriage to his mother. The kid lives in his mom’s basement and just jacks around. It was better than the first, but it wasn’t good enough.
After that I wrote a tropey middle grade novel for my oldest son that I read to him a chapter at a time as I went. Honestly, I still think that one’s pretty good. I like writing children’s books. I have this gross kids book manuscript that both my sister and David Joy liked better than Hillbilly Hustle. I’ve written some humor pieces that appeared on the McSweeney’s website, and it’s more in line with that. I’ve promised my sister that when the smoke clears I’ll dust that one off and see if I can do something with it. I’m going to need a pseudonym or something because it’s bananas. It’s called The Booger Billionaire. You know, highbrow stuff.
SLC: It’s taken a certain talent to write children’s books. The Booger Billionaire sounds great. I hope it gets out there someday soon.
Before I get into my next question I’m going to include a couple links to some work of yours. The McSweeney’s piece and a fine column of yours from The Richmond Register.
Has your work as a lawyer informed your writing very much? Or is your work separate from your writing? And related, what does your writing schedule look like?
WB: I think being a lawyer has informed my writing a lot, but not so much the legal aspects. I deal with people in awkward situations, crisis situations, bad situations of their own making, all the time, so I’ve learned a lot about human nature. I’ve also learned a lot about the way people lead their lives when they hope nobody’s looking. I represent people who break the law. They tell me about it because it’s privileged. I’ve also heard some absolutely amazing stuff on drug-buy tapes. I never write about my clients, but I write a lot about people who act like my clients. I’m not too interested in writing extensively about the legal system, honestly, but I slip in bits and pieces.
I’m a late night writer so my schedule involves a lot of napping to make up for that lost sleep. It drives my wife a little crazy sometimes, but I relish a good mid-afternoon or early evening nap that fuels my after midnight writing binge. I write a lot better when the house is quiet and it’s just me and the cat and dog. That’s the sweet spot.
SLC: Okay so give me five books you’ve read recently that all serious readers need to go get right now. What makes them special?
WB: I’m not someone who stays on top of reading the newest thing out, so my list might be kind of stale, but here goes.
It’s old and well known, but I just read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone about his experience as a child soldier during the civil war in Sierra Leone. It’s horrifying and captivating at the same time. I’d like my sons to read it so they can better understand the privilege they take for granted, and what can happen when the people of a nation become too divided. I think all Americans should read it for the same reason.
I really loved Hannah Pittard’s novel Visible Empire which is based on a 1962 Air France Flight that crashed killing over a hundred of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens. She tells the imagined stories of a handful of the passengers and the people they left behind. Her dialogue is really sharp in all her books and I like the way she finds notes of levity in tragedy.
I read Frank Bill’s books The Savage and Donnybrook out of order. I couldn’t shake Donnybrook for like a week after I read it. That book was adapted to a movie for a reason. Its action, and darkness, and characters stick to your ribs.
I sat on a copy of Carter Sickels’ The Evening Hour for the longest time but didn’t crack it. That was during my phase when I was trying to slow down on Appalachian lit, but I kept hearing how good it was. I finally got to it and the writing and story made me keep picking it up. I flew through it. It was in some ways similar to other books I’ve read, but the feel was different. The characters didn’t fall into the same patterns so many of them do in small town rural books. It was both familiar and refreshing.
I was pleasantly surprised by Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). It’s an honest and sometimes self-deprecating story of how he and his band Wilco came up. He’s a funny but also no bullshit kind of guy. His anecdotes about the business are all entertaining and he’s not shy about letting you in on the details of his personal life—he’s a pretty staunch family man. You don’t have to be a fan of the band to dig it, but it doesn’t hurt.
SLC: And now name drop five writers you think are underrated and not well-known enough considering their talent. Tell me a little something about them, about their work. Let me know where I can find their books.
WB: Robert Gipe is an author, illustrator, playwright, producer, and retired community college professor. He’s beloved in Appalachian Kentucky but he should be read more widely. He illustrated his novels—Trampoline and Weedeater—in a way that I don’t think anyone has before him. They aren’t graphic novels, they just have line drawings with text occasionally embedded in the body of the pages. If it was just a gimmick, that’d be one thing, but the stories are great. His hardscrabble Eastern Kentucky characters are tragic and hilarious. His books are published by Ohio University Press and are widely available.
It’s crazy to say someone who wrote three books that have been turned into movies is underrated, and maybe I’m crazy, but I still believe Walter Tevis is underappreciated. He passed away in 1984 and is buried up the hill from our pizza shop. Very few people in town even know who he is or what he wrote. He’s best known for The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, but my favorite novel of his is actually The Queen’s Gambit. It’s about a young Kentucky orphan named Beth Harmon who’s a chess prodigy. The way Tevis wrote chess scenes heavily influenced how I wrote the poker scene in Hillbilly Hustle. I just don’t feel like he’s regarded as the master that he was, but maybe he’ll get his due posthumously. Netflix is adapting The Queen’s Gambit to a mini-series. That means four of his six novels will have made it to the screen.
I love Crystal Wilkinson’s two story collections, Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street, but her award-winning debut novel Birds of Opulence from University Press of Kentucky was, to me, one step further. She tells the stories of people I’m not sure a lot of the world realize exist: black families in rural Kentucky. Her writing is beautifully nuanced but also captivating. I recommend everything she’s written.
Ed McClanahan is one of my writing heroes and his novel The Natural Man is among my all-time favorites. He was one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, a Stegner fellow, and a member of Kentucky’s fab five writers, which also include Gurney Norman, Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, and James Baker Hall. He’s also written a bunch of short stories and essays that you can find in collections that feature his signature linguistic gymnastics, including a new one called Not Even Immortality Lasts Forever. Still, The Natural Man is still his one and only published novel. Ed just can’t help being funny, and although his characters are often far from being saints, and some of this tales lean a little crass, there’s always a layer of sweetness about everything he writes. His novel came out over 35 years ago, so it gets overlooked these days, but The Natural Man is still in print from Gnomon Press and easily obtainable. People should obtain it.
Carrie Mullins is one of the best writers I know. Her debut novel Night Garden came out in 2016 from Old Cove Press. It’s about a Kentucky teenager whose older brother dies just before starting college, leading to her family’s unraveling, and her making some real bad choices. It’s a great book. Carrie’s work-in-progress is a big departure. She’s traveled to Croatia to research her next novel about a war criminal turned nursing home aid hiding from her crimes in the United States. It’s loosely based on a true story. The completed chapters promise something special. Whenever she emerges with her new work, folks will want to snap it up.
SLC: Is there anything you’d like to talk about I haven’t thought to ask?
WB: I don’t know if clues give it away, but you have more than a passing familiarity with Hillbilly Hustle. Because it’s a university press book, it had to be peer reviewed. As we both know, you and Jesse Donaldson we’re the authors assigned to peer review it by West Virginia University Press. That was an interesting process because you all agreed on a lot, but also disagreed on some major points, which meant I had to sort that out.
One character who drew some attention in peer review was Darla, a female tattoo artist who I didn’t quite have right. To get her in order, I turned to my friend, Leah Hampton, whose forthcoming debut story collection F*ckface is getting all kinds of buzz. Leah helped me work through some issues I was having, and the character wound up much better for it. Even though Leah helped me, the revision of that character was triggered by the peer review notes I got from you and Jesse.
What I’m getting at is, this novel was an extremely collaborative effort. I could go on for pages about the many people who touched Hillbilly Hustle and improved it. I can’t imagine how it would’ve come out without you all. That was something that really made an impression on me. How much help it took, even after I thought it was done. You all couldn’t make the fixes for me, but you told me what needed fixing, and it was up to me to do it. Some fiction writers don’t like the peer review process. They believe it’s tailored more for scholarly books, and shouldn’t be applied to novels and stories. For me, it worked very well. I would encourage other writers going through that process to embrace it.
SLC: It was my pleasure and privilege to have a chance to offer input on it, Wes. Thanks for talking with me and best of luck with the book events. I hope as many people as possible read Hillbilly Hustle. It’s a fine debut novel, my friend.