Depending on what you read about him, Frank Bill is either a literary gut punch or just a regular guy who’s into martial arts and powerlifting. Either way, encountering the author is a pretty muscular experience. His writing comes at you full speed and straight on, freighted with no small amount of discontent, violence and vengeance. But despite such thrilling high-intensity prose, Bill’s characters are often grounded citizens who, under less duress, might’ve remained content to live out a quiet existence. They don’t expect much from life, but when they are stripped of their livelihoods, family, dignity, they lash out in ways that can’t be ignored.
This describes many of Frank Bill’s characters, but in particular those of his short story The Disgruntled Americans, in which a group of brothers and cousins living in small-town Indiana take up arms against the establishment. For them, it’s not about the money they steal or the victims they slay. It’s about sending a “wake-up call. To everyone that’s forgotten about independence.” If America was once neatly united under the cause of shaking off the yoke of colonial rule, the modern America of The Disgruntled Americans renders a much smaller and darker rebellion that aims to shrug off the crushing influences of big business and apathetic government. “Dear Motherfuckers…” the story begins, and it only escalates from there.
My own correspondence with Frank was much more polite. He seems as grounded and reasonable as many of his characters might have wished to remain. Despite the popularity of his debut story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana and his 2013 novel Donnybrook (a movie adaptation of which is currently in development), he relayed to me a worldview largely unaffected by literary success. We spoke about his fear of boring prose, how he might’ve seen Donald Trump coming from a mile away and why the French love his take on the dark American underbelly.
You wrote The Disgruntled Americans two years ago—well before Donald Trump’s election—yet the anger and resentment that define these characters are startlingly evocative of what many people now understand to be the president’s hardcore base. Is it possible you knew Trump was going to win, while the rest of us were predicting a landslide defeat?
I had no idea that Trump was going to win. In all honesty, I try to stay away from politics and politicians. Not really my cup of tea or group of people. The media places a spin on everything; no one really knows what to believe half the time. I’m pretty much a middle-of-the-road guy. I try to look at both sides when it comes to class and people. I listen to the people around me and their conversations. The story I wrote has many layers, one being how out of touch America is with America. One group of people believes everything is going good—they’re making money, living the consumerism lifestyle—while another group of people is struggling, watching everything they’ve worked for being given away. I’ve heard this from factory workers to schoolteachers—and even from our protectors in law enforcement and the military.
The story is also about how small towns have lost their simple existence: mom-and-pop shops are sometimes run off by bigger corporations; a grocery store is replaced by a Walmart; a diner or restaurant is replaced by a fast food joint. I believe in supporting local businesses. Are they a little more expensive? Of course. But you gotta support your community. Two years ago, when I wrote The Disgruntled Americans, I felt a vibe from people. They were pretty unsettled with their jobs, the economy, immigration, fuel prices, the war on terror, racism, wages, taxes, drugs, gang violence. The list was and still is unending. And people carry those issues with them daily while trying to raise their families and live their lives.
This story goes to pains to describe why these native-born Americans commit a rather brutal act of domestic terrorism. To what degree do you want readers to sympathize with them?
You gotta have the why; otherwise it’s not believable or even plausible. You gotta make your case; otherwise you’re writing about violent people conducting violent acts without a purpose. One thing I tried to tap into was the vibe or the energy that was going on around me: people and their discontent. I did quite a bit of research on Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph and the Weaver family from Ruby Ridge. I wanted to understand how people could commit violent and heinous acts. I also did research with law enforcement. Do I want readers to sympathize with the violence? No. Do I want readers to understand the characters’ discontent with their jobs, society and daily life? Yes.
I want my writing to be in your face. My biggest worry is writing boring prose.
Each section opens with very deliberate language like “Cut to…” or “Flash back to…,” as if the story might actually be under the omniscient influence of a filmmaker. What was the idea behind this?
I’ve written screenplays and comic books. I wanted a cinematic feel, where the action was in your face, as if you were viewing the words through a camera. But also as a writer I wanted to experiment with style and form.
A review of your novel Donnybrook described it as “a literary shotgun blast to the face.” How did you become interested in writing about violence?
I want my writing to be in your face. I want words. I want action. My biggest worry is writing boring prose. To me, what I write—it’s no different than listening to your local news station. There’s always shootings, drugs, home invasions and a host of other crimes long before the sports and weather. I grew up around stories, and within those stories there was an act of violence involved. It’s just life. I also grew up hunting and training in martial arts and watching plenty of American and foreign horror, drama and action films. That all influences what I write about.
Writing physical action is difficult. How do you keep yours from sounding lame and mechanical?
I rely upon realism and body mechanics, how a person carries themselves and how they react in situations where movement is required. Boxing, martial arts and powerlifting probably help me with the visualization, then it’s about putting everything into words.
I heard a story that, as a younger writer, you once tried to apply to an MFA program, but without the requisite undergraduate degree in hand. What kind of education do you think writers need?
I spoke with someone at Spalding University twice. Basically before I was published and then after I had been published. Shot down both times. To me, the best education is life experience. Get a job. Meet and work with people. Understand struggle, survival. What makes a person tick. Their vices. Get out of the house. Get your hands dirty. Feel some pain. Help other people. The simplicity of every story is the same: a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s how we tell the story that differs.
The best education is life. Get a job. Understand struggle, survival. What makes a person tick.
In a speech you gave in France in 2013, you described waking up at four A.M. to write before going to your day job. Does having a real job inform your writing process?
Yes. I’m around people every day, and we talk about life. Our jobs, our families. What’s going on in the world. The music we listen to. Sports. Movies. Dogs. Books.
So the French are into Frank Bill?
They seem to be, which is weird for me. Being a regular guy, it’s odd traveling to a foreign country and encountering people who want a picture with you or to have a book signed.
But seriously, I’ve been to Paris and I’ve been to southern Indiana. Do you think there’s a common denominator in your work that reaches across such stark cultural and geographic differences?
I believe so. Regardless of demographics, struggle and survival are all the same actions and language. Others who’ve lived with the issues and actions I’ve written about can identify with them.
Like many of your stories, “The Disgruntled Americans” has a rather violent ending. Are there times when you write an ending and think, No, this is too dark?
No. I think as a writer you have to push your boundaries. If you don’t do that, you’ll never grow or mature as a writer.
There’s a video linked to your FSG author website showing you giving a literary Q&A in a body shop in Indianapolis. A different person might’ve come off as a hipster pretender trying that sort of thing, but I thought you looked rather comfortable. Do you find there are any difficulties balancing your rural Midwestern identity with the whole literary author thing?
No. You have to be yourself. I don’t pretend to be something that I’m not. I’m a working-class writer who digs trail running, powerlifting and hound dogs. I love my wife and parents, and I’m thankful for the rich upbringing and morals they offered me. I don’t carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, but I do write about struggling and surviving in the world.
Baird Harper’s book Red Light Run was published by Scribner (August 2017). His short fiction has been anthologized in Best New American Voices and in New Stories From the Midwest and have won the Nelson Algren Literary Award and the Raymond Carver Award. His website is bairdharper.com.