Tales of grime, crime, and hard times find a home in Chicago-based (by way of SF) Criminal Class Press, whose band of touring writers will perform at Edinburgh Castle on December 4 as part of an inaugural West Coast tour.
Writers Gene Gregoritz, Brian Murphy, Bill Hillman, Johnny No Bueno and Jeff Kerr kick things off on December 2 at San Quentin State Prison with a “literary throwdown” against a class of inmates whose work appeared in the recent Prison Issue of Criminal Class Review, the press’s biannual journal. From there, they’ll perform here in the city, as well as at LA’s Book Soup and the Portland Story Theater and Alberta Street Pub in Portland.
I spoke to Founder/Editor-in-Chief Kevin Whiteley about the genesis of the press, the seedy underside of Chicago and San Francisco, and the new writer’s workshop at San Quentin.
How was Criminal Class Press first created? Why the focus on gritty, dark content?
It was first created as a literary branch for a record label, but when that fell through we just decided to keep doing it, and we’ve been growing ever since. We had this punk record label, and our mission statement was to bridge the gap between story and song—what compels musicians to write about the things that they do, what happened to inspire those songs? We took that and ran with it and ended up embracing noir and grit and crime, things of that nature.
How long was the press based out of San Francisco before moving to Chicago?
It was based out of San Francisco for about a year—definitely a great place to earn our literary wings. When I moved to Chicago we had a lot of people interested in joining the press and a lot of them lived in Chicago, so it just made sense. We also have [staff] in New York and a couple people in San Francisco.
Do you find Chicago is more gritty than San Francisco? Where does San Francisco fit into the whole noir genre and the mission of Criminal Class Press?
You’ve seen that story collection San Francisco Noir, and then there’s LA Noir, and a lot of those old 50s noir movies have been out in California. We’re really grateful that [San Francisco] celebrates such a subgenre. The city has this mystery to it. The dark side of San Francisco can sneak up on you; it’s a different kind of cold out there, you don’t notice it until it’s right up in your face. In Chicago, it’s there. There is violence and grit and all kinds of stuff around you, and you have to be on your feet the whole time. That’s how I would juxtapose the two. They have their own ways of conveying that aesthetic.
What kinds of writers or stories do you look for?
When we’re soliciting we definitely look for writers whose work has some teeth. They definitely have to have a dark side. A good example is David Corbett — he’s a great crime king, his work is just awesome. One of the books he wrote is Done For a Dime. He actually lives out in Oakland and he read at our second or third reading when we were still in San Francisco. Also Bucky Sinister, another Bay Area writer, he writes prose poetry. His work has a lot of teeth and some darkness to it. So we don’t just look for noir, we also look for gritty stuff. Brian Murphy is going on tour with us, he’s definitely an emerging writer. I can see him becoming a big crime and grit writer. His stories just tell it like it is, he doesn’t hold back on the page, he totally just lets it rip. It’s in your face and the characters in the story are always facing some kind of hard luck, ultimately seeking desperation.
Are any of the fiction pieces ever based on real life experiences?
Let me jump back to Brian Murphy — I’ve become good friends with him, and the stuff he’s told me has happened in his life is definitely reflected in his work. I think some of the writers put their own experience in the writing, and that’s what makes good writing, is having a lot of life experience and being able to put that on the page. Whether the writer wants to fictionalize it or not, you definitely have to have some hands-on experience with hard times in order to create an intense movement.
What’s the most unbelievable or memorable story that’s appeared in the journal so far, that’s really stuck with you?
For me it was Andrew Riconda’s “Heart Like A Balloon,” which appeared in Vol. 3 No. 1 of the Criminal Class Review. It was about this guy who was hired by some underboss, I think he was messing around with the guy’s girl, and he ends up profiling this guy. And he goes inside his house and this guy had tried to kill himself but he had failed at it, and he had carved this piece of skin off of his arm. It was really intense. The story captured grit, noir, intensity—all that in one. It was so awesome that Best American Mystery Stories actually ended up contacting us wanting to feature it in their anthology. But before that even happened I worked with Andrew on this piece; it needed a little polishing but we got it up there. It’s still one of my most memorable pieces, and I really like his work.
Can you talk about the work that Kent and Keith Zimmerman are doing at San Quentin? How did CCP get involved with that program?
My mentor, Anne Marino, had invited Kent and Keith to speak in her noir class about who they are and what they do. I’d met those guys and I gave them my card and said hey I’d like to work with you sometime. What they do at San Quentin is awesome — they teach a writing workshop to some inmates on Fridays. They go out there, they pick a topic and give it to the class and I think the writers are given 30 or 45 minutes to write on that topic. Then they go home and type it up and the next time they come out they read their stories together. From what they’ve told me, it really gives the inmates an outlet and helps them tap into their artistic side. I think it’s a great thing.
And those stories were in the Prison Issue of Criminal Class Review?
Yeah. We put a lot of time and work into that project. It started like a year or so before, because I contacted Kent and Keith and I said hey, I think it would be great if we did this all prison issue and I know you guys work at San Quentin, what do you guys think about featuring all your students? They were stoked about it, so we set up the parameters, we just put [the writers] in charge of that issue. I said you guys are gonna be the guest editors, you guys call the shots on how you want to structure this issue. So it was a really fun project and we’re really looking forward to doing it live, so to speak. On this West Coast tour we have five touring writers and one staff member going out to San Quentin. We’ll write on whatever topic we’re given on December 2nd and then go back on the 3rd for the literary throwdown. Kent and Keith have had professional writers go in there previously to have a throwdown with their students—so far the San Quentin students are undefeated. So I’m telling our guys, we gotta win this one!
So what we can expect from the Edinburgh Castle event?
One of our touring writers, Bill Hillman—who’s also a Criminal Class staff writer—has his own project called Windy City Story Slam. Basically he’s gonna have our writers go up and perform whatever they want for five minutes. They have to have everything memorized; they’re not allowed to read anything. And then the crowd decides who the best storyteller is.
I noticed there’s only one woman on the list of touring writers. Do you find this style of writing is mostly male-dominated? Do you get most submissions from men?
Julia Borcherts was going to come on tour but she’s also a professor and we had a schedule conflict there. I really wish we had more women on this tour, but Criminal Class is not at all a predominantly male journal. In our earliest issues we really didn’t have any women so I talked to the higher-ups and said we really need to do an all-female issue so women writers know they’re definitely included in this project and this cause. That was a really exciting issue for the journal [Vol. 2 No. 3] and ever since then I think it’s heightened awareness that we’re not biased.
Last question – what are your plans for Criminal Class Press in 2012?
Aside from releasing the new issue in January, we’ve never done a tour of the homefront so I’m thinking maybe we should do a Midwest tour. We’re also wanting to do, what I call “Aussies vs. Limeys.” The actual event probably won’t go down until the following year but we’re gonna have story slams in London and Australia, and the winners of those slams will be featured in the following issue. We’re trying to work with Mark Chopper Read because he is just one of the most intense writers and one of the most intense people I have ever learned of. Bill Hillman actually turned me on to him. He never stole or did wrong to anyone but criminals. He figured, who’s gonna care if I rob and steal from criminals? So he did all this wrongdoing to actual bad guys and he did some jail time for it, but he’s out and these days he’s even written children’s books [Laughs] We want to get him involved. We’re also gonna have George Tabb edit an issue; he was an earlier contributor and also the inspiration for Criminal. Another goal is to really get the attention of a larger, more corporate publisher. It would be nice to have a larger ship backing us up. We could do so much more and be of service to many more writers with much more financial support.