From Stoner to Savior
The Big Thrill Interviews Lou Berney
By Basil Sands
Hello, thriller fans!
Let me, actually, no…let Lou Berney take you on a ride, a DARK RIDE. A tale that is slightly mind-bending but still a smooth and richly textured experience. Or at least, that may have been how the pot-head rea*…protagonist may have worded it.
In multi-award-winning thriller writer Lou Berney’s fifth novel, DARK RIDE, 21-year-old Hardy “Hardly” Reed—good-natured, easygoing, usually stoned—is drifting through life. A minimum-wage scare actor at an amusement park, he avoids unnecessary effort and unrealistic ambitions. Then, one day, he notices two children sitting all alone, and his attention is grabbed by telltale signs that urge him to action. But his commitment to saving these kids from further harm might end up getting the kids, and Hardly himself, killed.
Lou Berney’s four previous novels are Gutshot Straight (2009), Whiplash River (2012), The Long and Faraway Gone (2015), and November Road (2018). The Long and Faraway Gone was one of the most awarded crime novels of 2015, winning the Edgar, the Macavity, the Anthony, and the Barry Awards, as well as the Oklahoma Book Award for Best Novel in 2016. November Road followed suit, winning the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for Best Thriller Novel, the Hammett Prize, the Left Coast Crime “Lefty” Award for Best Mystery Novel, and the Oklahoma Book Award for Best Fiction. His short stories have appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. He lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Okay, let me just say right off the bat that I, this journalist of a sort, a retired Pastor who’d served in the U.S. Marines, straight-up identified with the main character, Hardly, because before those former things, I had been a stoner, and performed those duties with a stoner’s mindset. Not to say that I smoked a bowl before getting behind a weapon or stepping into the pulpit…never, my friend, never. But I was always in wonder at what was happening around me and what was so often a surprising turn of events.
So, I had a chat with Lou:
Can you pinpoint a moment or incident that sparked the idea for this book?
I was working on a novel before DARK RIDE and having a really hard time with it—it was a disaster, basically, and I felt like such a screw-up. Well, they say write what you know, so I finally decided to give up on the other novel and write a novel about a screw-up. Suddenly, I felt free and liberated and very much an authority on the subject.
A novel is such a major undertaking; there’s the writing of it, of course, then you’re spending months and months revising, polishing, and then promoting it. How did you know this was the book you wanted to spend the next couple of years on?
It was just a matter of feel, really. Something clicked. The main character came alive in my head, and I felt like I was part of this book rather than at a distance from it. I wish I had a more rational recipe for figuring out what book is right, believe me.
Were there any particular books, movies, or songs that were knocking around in your head while you were writing this one?
I listened to a lot of Courtney Barnett’s music (Australian singer-songwriter-guitarist). There’s something gritty and real and jangly about her stuff that got me in the right frame of mind. And I listened to a lot of current pop-punk music to try to feel like I was 21 again (age of my main character). There’s a music video for a song called “Pretective Boy” by the Oklahoma City band Skating Polly that I watched a few hundred times.
As mentioned above, a past me really identified with Hardly. When you first created him for this book, did you see an empty space in crime lit that you wanted to fill? What can you share about the inspiration for that character?
My instinct, for better or worse, is to always want to do something a little different, to try a different path through a traditional story. In DARK RIDE, I was really interested by the idea of a main character who is completely unqualified and unsuited for the task before him, and may genuinely end up making the situation worse (even though he means very well). That was an interesting source of suspense for me.
In addition to a great read, what do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I’d love it if readers questioned or re-examined some of the common elements of a thriller. There are things about heroes we all take for granted when we read a book or watch a movie, and I tried to come at that from a different angle.
What can you share about what you’re working on next?
I don’t like to talk about what my work-in-progress is about because it might change radically, but I will say I’ve been having an unbelievably fun and productive time working on it. Knock on wood.
* “Pot-head rea…” – that was long long ago & far far away, etc., etc.…
The Big Thrill Interviews Lou Berney