When last we caught up with the esteemed Florida-noir badass Steph Post (BULL #7), she had just published Lightwood, which introduced the world to Judah Cannon and his family of small-town criminal thugs pitted against a gang of outlaw bikers and the criminal enterprising of one Sister Tulah, a Pentecostal preacher well acquainted with the dealings of the devil.
If you’re not familiar, lightwood is another word for kindling, which in Post’s world of rural Florida noir might as well be another word for dynamite or maybe more likely C-4. It’s rare that you’ll see any author handle so much highly flammable material as deftly as Post does, both in Lightwood and its sequel Walk in the Fire. Even rarer for an author on just her third novel.
There is a careening feeling to reading Lightwood and now Walk in the Fire that builds with each new twist and turn, yet at the same time, rarely feels rushed. One of Post’s best gifts as a writer is her ability to write a page-turner that is just as well appreciated in SLO-MO as it is at break-neck speed.
Post develops these fully fleshed-out characters that are at once gritty and real and deliciously over-the-top the way any good noir should be. Then she lets you watch their lives catch fire, sometimes with a tiny spark, sometimes with a long slow sizzle that ignites into one huge explosion after another.
Okay, yeah, I’m doing that thing where I use the conceit of the author’s books about fire to create an extended analogy for this introduction. Lame, I know, but forgive me my zealotry for moment. I’m simply doing my damnedest to light a fire under y’all’s asses. This is me trying to tell you, this Steph Post, she’s a bit of pyro on the page, and it’s to your detriment if you don’t buy a ticket to watch the fireworks.
Okay, but seriously, here it is, plain and simple: Steph Post is an up-and-coming author to be reckoned with. With Walk in the Fire, she takes a branding iron to every page from start to finish. Whatever she decides to light on fire next, you’d be a damn fool to miss out on the show. (Note my restraint here in avoiding any threats of you getting burned if you miss it).
BD: Last we spoke, Lightwood had just come out and you mentioned turning the dial way way up from your first novel A Tree Born Crooked (which I thought was turned up pretty loud to start). Now we have Walk in the Fire and the dial seems to be turned up even further, at least, in terms of characters, structure, etc., especially with all the great religious stuff with Sister Tulah. (There’s a question in here somewhere, I think.)
Okay, here it is: What was the biggest challenge with working the dial up and down in Lightwood and now Walk in the Fire? And how did you go about walking that balance without going too far? (which I guess is two questions, so already I’m a liar and cheat).
SP: When I think about a novel’s pacing, I think about it terms of breathing. You have all these action scenes or dramatic moments, but then you have to slow things down at certain points throughout the story to allow the reader to breathe and reorient themselves within the story. When I began writing Walk in the Fire, I was very conscious of the fact that it was not only a sequel to Lightwood, but was to be the second book in what will ultimately by a trilogy. I knew that it had to be a bridge between the beginning and ending of the Cannon’s saga, but that it would also have to stand alone, with its own story. I wanted it to simmer, more than just burn. I think Walk in the Fire is a quieter book than Lightwood, in some ways, but it has more intensity. I upped the stakes for all the major characters and also tried to dig deeper into their psyches this go round. Since I knew Walk in the Fire was the bridge piece, I felt like I had the room to explore the characters in more depth, without sacrificing the speed of the plot too much. It is a balancing act, as you say, and the biggest challenging was steering it all straight- not letting myself go too far in anyone direction without keeping the breathing of the reader in mind.
BD: So your mom was raised Pentecostal, but you were not, correct? Can you talk about your research and creation of one Sister Tulah and her church-turned-organized-crime syndicate?
Religion and corruption is nothing new, but you’ve got yourself one of the most memorable baddies I can recall in quite some time here.
SP: I was not raised Pentecostal, but I grew up in the shadow of its mystery. My whole life, I’ve heard stories about experiencing the Pentecostal faith (and I’ve been witness to it) and in creating Tulah, I drew upon the memories and stories and images that had so fascinated me growing up. The jelly jar full of strychnine, for example. It’s a simple, unremarkable piece in the whole Pentecostal tableaux, but I always found it so striking. When I first created Sister Tulah, I did a lot of research, read a lot of books and watched films, and I also talked to my mom about the things that most struck her when she was still involved in the religion. I wanted everything about Tulah to be accurate, but also built from the organic impression I had of Pentecostalism myself.
Without giving too much away, Walk in the Fire opens up the door into Sister Tulah’s “true” religion, and this was created by actually studying and deconstructing the scripture itself. All of the elements of the Order come from the Book of Ezekiel. I pulled from, and then subverted, text, imagery and symbology to create a religion and its principals and ceremonies. In this way, even if readers know nothing about Ezekiel, some of the references should resonate with them, even if it’s only in darkly subconscious way.
BD: Okay, I’m probably reading too much into this, here, but I think I read somewhere that you tend to visualize your writing cinematically, and then I know you’ve mentioned just how influential Justified has been on your writing. I myself wasn’t much of reader until later in my life, and to this day, I’ll write as much to hear my writing being performed out loud as I will to see it on the page.
Can you talk a little bit about the influence of Justified and other movies/TV shows on your writing? How do these cinematic influences differ from your favorite books?
SP: I guess, in many ways, a good story is just a good story to me, regardless of the medium it’s told in. I get really into certain shows (yes, Justified…. Now it’s The Americans and Game of Thrones) that rely heavily on character development and intertwining plot lines. I’m not sure if I’m directly influenced by these types of films and shows or if they just resonate with me, because that’s how I see stories playing out when I write. When I’m imagining a scene, I see less of what’s going on inside a character’s head, and more of how that character is outwardly responding to their feelings or an external situation. Books have more freedom, I think, because the narration can move fluidly between the internal and external lives of the characters. I’m not sure why I write cinematically, but it’s the only thing that makes sense in my head when I begin to tell a story.
BD: I’m always fascinated by authors who can write in different genres and for different audiences. How does the historical/literary/fantasy writing work with (and maybe against) “Southern Crime Steph” (which is a fun nickname by the way)?
Is it simply feeding two different parts of your personality or is there some deeper psychological connection that literary scholars will one day be dissecting? I’m asking this because I feel like this literary yo-yoing might give me an aneurism without a lot of Haldol.
SP: “Southern Crime Steph”—I like that. I may have to start introducing myself this way. I do write in different genres (and will hopefully be able to have readers experience this with a new book in 2019), but I think the readership can crossover. In a lot of ways, I’ve always considered myself a walking contradiction. I’m a southern-fried-vegetarian. I love gritty crime novels and depressing Victorian literature. I’ve written and delivered serious, academic papers on punk rock music and culture. I suppose I just never fit into any one box. I think, though, that there are clear thematic threads that run through all of my work, regardless of genre: championing the underdogs, characters on the fringe of society and questions of right and wrong. Of course, I’m sure if some literary scholars do take a look at my work one day, they’ll probably find something completely different. Which would be just fine with me.
BD: In our last interview you mentioned that you were a little nervous about writing multiple books in the same vein (noir set in Florida). Now that you’ve gone and written yourself into a sequel (maybe a trilogy?), how have you come to terms with your identity as a writer?
Do you usually find yourself needing to scratch a different literary itch when you get done with a book like Walk in the Fire?
SP: I do. I actually switch genres with every book I write. In-between Lightwood and Walk in the Fire, I wrote a novel of a different genre, as you mention. And then, I worked on another novel after Walk in the Fire and now I’m back to finishing the trilogy. I think I have to step away from a genre and completely clear my head from it, otherwise I run the risk of getting bored by my own characters and writing. I do worry about getting boxed in as the “Florida-grit-lit-noir-crime-chick,” which only compromises about half of what I write. I’ve already seen this, in certain spaces, where folks only want more of the same stories in the vein of Lightwood, etc. I do like the position I’m in, and the name I’m making for myself in an underrepresented genre, but I don’t ever want to feel trapped. Or, even worse, predictable.
BD: Here’s my confession, Steph. I’m fairly certain that I accidentally burned my parents’ house down with space heaters I forgot to turn off when I was fourteen. Do you have any confessions you’d like to share with us–fire-related or otherwise? (See what I did there. It’s thematic. And also, I also literally walked into my house on fire to save my dad’s hunting rifles so maybe I feel some kinship with Sister Tulah).
SP: Well, I wouldn’t say that this is a confession, necessarily, but I’ve often thought about why fire is so prevalent in most all of my writing. I read a lot of author biographies and I’m always wondering what someone will one day say about me, as they try to connect my life to my work. In some deep, primeval way, I think fire manages to weave its way into all of my writing because of the impact it had on me as a child. My first memory is one of running down the hallway of our trailer, with my bedroom on fire behind me. Somehow, I knocked over the space heater in my room one night when I was three years old and set everything ablaze (let this be a warning to all readers about the dangers of space heaters!). I wouldn’t say that I’ve consciously incorporated this memory into my work, but I think its lurking somewhere in the depths when I write and the imagery always seems to make it to the page.