By Azam Gill
Light-handed satire with a light touch within a noir framework held up by unforgettable characters and an original theme readies Rob Brunet’s STINKING RICH for possible cult status. To quote award-winning author Les Edgerton, Brunet’s novel is “part THE GANG THAT COULDN`T SHOOT STRAIGHT, part Serge Storms on LSD, part Raising Arizona.”
While the satire works its magic, at heart STINKING RICH remains a spellbinding yarn. Here’s a short summary: What could possibly go wrong when the backwoods Libidos Motorcycle Club hires a high school dropout to tend a barn full of high-grade marijuana? Plenty, it turns out. In a world where indoor plumbing is optional and each local wacko is more twisted than the last, drug money draws reprobates like moths to a lantern. And each and every one of them wants a shot at being stinking rich—any way he can get it.
Rob Brunet’s award-winning short crime fiction has appeared or will appear in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, and Out of the Gutter. Before taking up writing, Brunet produced award-winning websites for film and TV, including sites for Lost, Sin City, and the cult series Alias. In an exclusive interview for THE BIG THRILL, Brunet talks about himself, his writing, and his interests
Let’s start with a brief introduction.
An Ottawa native, I’ve spent my life living and working in central Canada, with a five-year stint in Montreal and the last two decades in and around Toronto. I grew up expecting to write. By the time I was eight, teachers told me I had a gift, but that’s true of most writers, isn’t it? It’s in us forever? As for work, to call me independent would be an understatement. I lasted all of six weeks in university, quitting to join an Internet start-up in some guy’s living room. In 1982, more than a decade before the “Web” was born.
What was behind your decision to give up a successful career for fiction writing?
I started a handful of novels and wrote dozens of short stories in my twenties. Self-doubt kept me from finishing or submitting much of anything. I gave it up out of fear of becoming a starving artist. There was plenty of well-paid work in digital media, even then. Eventually, I hired a bunch of people smarter than me and spent a couple decades building a successful boutique agency. Ultimately, I looked in the mirror and realized if I didn’t make the leap to writing now, it would become a retirement activity, and I felt it deserved more of me.
Which of the two is more satisfying?
Both have their merit. For years, I poured my creativity into a small business. Every day brought new things to learn, and our team crafted excellent, often groundbreaking solutions for some of the best brands in both finance and entertainment. I’m proud of what we accomplished. I gotta say, though, seeing my name on the cover of a book that people find entertaining beats it hands down.
What inspired the idea for STINKING RICH?
If I gave you the nugget, it’d be too much of a spoiler. The story wraps around a single act by a scared man who couldn’t be blamed for what he did in the moment. On a meta level, the setting and characters are inspired by the idea that most people spend a lot of time acting and reacting based on where they live and what they can access. We may imagine we’re goal-driven creatures—and some of us manage that some of the time—but first we gotta survive, and grab some distraction along the way.
Do you see wealth acquisition and the resulting prosperity as agents of positive or negative social change?
It’s funny. A lot of people see the title STINKING RICH and look at my background and think this is a tale of Wall Street bankers or software gazillionaires. Instead, it draws on my love of country, where I’ve always gone to chill. I believe we’ve passed a tipping point where income inequality and the celebration of wealth is hurting far more people than it helps. In terms of STINKING RICH, I hope I’ve described that wealth is relative. One man’s peanut butter is another man’s manna. And there’s only so much you can eat.
What inspired you to continue the tradition of the THE GANG THAT COULDN`T SHOOT STRAIGHT, the Serge Storms series, and Raising Arizona?
Okay, this is embarrassing. I hadn’t heard of Tim Dorsey until other people told me I’d love his work. And I do.
Here’s the thing. Before I got married, had kids, and grew up (still working on that), I used to go hitchhiking in Florida on my way to and from my grandparents’ winter home. Unknown to me, statistically, I did that during Florida’s murder boom. For me, it was just a way to meet interesting characters, more than one of whom have found their way into my writing.
Years later, I read a review of one of Carl Hiaasen’s books and it sounded like my kind of fare. It said something like “black comic satire” and “swamp” in the same sentence. I ran out and bought whichever book it was. I gobbled up his backlist and shelved it alongside Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, and Sinclair Lewis.
The guy was pulling off satire in a current setting, writing whacked stories that were utterly believable in context. It gave me hope. It meant there were readers for black humor, not just film viewers. I had no idea whether I could pull it off, but it was suddenly worth trying. It took a few more years for me to peel some time away from the business, but I started writing again.
Do you write to an outline or preserve a rush of creative imagination?
I’ve tried both, but prefer to let stream of consciousness prevail. Then I edit the hell out of it. I used to scoff at the maxim “writing is re-writing” because I generally lay down error-free prose. Thing is, that’s mechanical, and the rush of the creative is unformed. I need something better than readable if I’m going to ask someone to give me their time, which is what I believe each reader does when deciding to read my book.
Do your characters inhabit your mind and dictate their own development and interaction?
Oh, they live there. They argue with me. They demand my attention and often refuse to follow direction.
How do you create your characters?
They usually start from a quirk, something I observed on the street, overheard on the subway, or read in a local newspaper. If they’re going to survive more than one scene, I poke at them, often with other characters, and see how they react. It’s back to the stream of consciousness thing. I try to let them create themselves. The ones I come up with when I force myself are generally stale and boring to me.
In what way was writing short fiction a help or a hindrance in writing full-length fiction?
When I got back to writing a few years ago, I started with STINKING RICH. I didn’t start writing short stories until I learned it might be a good way to find readers. My love of character sketches and whacked stories seems to help me write them. The main hindrance is just one of time. I’ve written about twenty short stories in the past couple of years, most published or placed, and each one takes two or three days of applied time. That’s a rewrite of novel. The odd thing is, many of my short stories are darker than my long form fiction. Maybe I use it to exercise demons. Or maybe I should force myself to travel there.
Where can your TV experience be spotted in your writing?
My connection to TV and film was strictly through the production of Web properties to promote existing works. Doing that, we worked with some very bright people in Los Angeles. I hope I learned a bit about drawing the heart of a story (or even just one great scene) from a larger piece in order to communicate its essence. While a book offers more time and space to explore people and story, isn’t it better if individual bits of that story scintillate?
Under what conditions do you write best?
In the country, with no one around, music cranked, and oblivious of time. I walk around when I’m blocked. Get up and dance. I’ve found I edit well long-hand standing up with my draft spread across the top of a three-drawer filing cabinet. Sometimes I type there, too.
Do your personal life and writing commitments ever clash? If so, how do you manage that conflict? And who wins?
My wife would probably say the writing wins but I think my life of self-employment has taught me that the first thirty or forty hours of work in a week are the productive ones. You can do sixty or seventy (and I too often do), but all that’s doing is wearing the battery down.
Did the dynamism of Toronto itself provide you with raw material for STINKING RICH?
STINKING RICH is set in the country northeast of Toronto, which essentially stands in for rural anywhere. I’m working on something new with an urban setting, and it certainly draws on my experience of Toronto and other big cities. This is a time of great growth for Toronto, which is interesting to watch. Pretty sure whatever I come up with won’t exactly be a celebration of all that.
Why do you love the bush and what do you do when you’re there?
It’s about grounding. The smells, the growth, the life. And the constant decay and consumption. A fallen tree teems with life decades after it’s “dead.” There’s not a lot of “old growth” anywhere, so often a forest is re-growth, something that got cleared maybe fifty or a hundred years ago, yet it can look like it’s been there forever. Just like it would look if we were suddenly gone. Trees blow me away. I love lying under a pine that has to be a hundred years old and wondering what’s happened beneath its bows. Or watching mushrooms eat away at a stump.
How often do you manage to share your love for the bush with beaches?
I don’t get out into it anywhere near often enough. And often, semi-tame country has to be a stand-in. But I’m out of the city at least once a month, often more, and I find my way to a bonfire a handful of times every year.
What are your other hobbies and interests?
I play piano, poorly and infrequently. Mostly I play a few tunes I composed a decade or so ago. If I play them all, it puts me on the bench for forty minutes, which is one of the best de-stressors I know.
What can your readers expect from you in the near future?
I’m finishing up the sequel to STINKING RICH. This time out, the setting is a bible camp gone bad. And I have a few short stories appearing in different publications. Plus the urban novella. I’ll keep busy.
Rob Brunet’s award-winning short crime fiction appears and is forthcoming in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, and Out of the Gutter. Before writing noir, Brunet produced award-winning Web presence for film and TV, including LOST, Frank Miller’s Sin City, and the cult series Alias. He lives in Toronto and loves beaches, the bush, and bonfires.
To learn more about Rob, please visit his website.