Liam Sweeny is the author of Street Whispers, a short story collection out today. It’s an eclectic collection of pulp, grit and noir stories inspired by the Capital Region of New York, a rust-belt crossroads in the shadow of the city that never sleeps.
ADR: The stories in your collection mostly take place in the Capital Region of New York state, nearby to Albany and Troy for those unfamiliar with the area. Are there any other authors writing about this region? Why do you find that the region is a good setting for crime fiction?
LS: I live in the city of Cohoes, which is north of Albany, across the Hudson River northwest of the Troy city center. The area was written about famously by the author William Kennedy in the books Ironweed, Legs, possibly others, I’m not sure. Caleb Carr, author of the Alienist series, lives in Rensselaer County, Troy’s county, and he wrote the book Surrender New York, a story that takes place in a fictionalized version of Rensselaer County. James Howard Kuntzler’s World Made by Hand dystopian series takes place in a fictionalized city just north of here. And there was the movie The Place Beyond the Pines with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendez was about, and shot in and around the Capital Region city of Schenectady.
The Capital District is a very old place. Albany, in its incarnations, has been around for four hundred years. It was a fort, a Dutch trading post, a barrier to the British conquest of New England (the capital district includes Saratoga.) The Continental Army set up camp in my back yard, quite literally. And later, with the construction of the Erie Canal, this area boomed, and was home to many firsts, specifically in industrialization. Troy was the first steel capital before Pittsburgh, and Cohoes was the home of the first industrial textile mill. Troy also had a few cultural claims to fame, the “Home of Uncle Sam,” and the home of “The Night Before Christmas,” and it’s a mark of belonging in Troy to know the story of meatpacker Sam Wilson and the Troy Sentinel newspaper article in 1823.
It boomed and it busted, and is struggling to boom again, to hide the scars of vacant concrete factories and the curbside litter that speaks to the dissolution of neighborhoods that, at one time, took care of their streets. We have nanotech and polytech and, I think, seven or eight colleges, and we have people working three jobs to afford a studio apartment, basic bills and food for the week. And that’s something that’s happening everywhere. But people here still wake up each morning with pride that they live in what could rightfully be considered a cradle of America.
As one last note, this area is the intersection of the Interstates 90 and 87, which make it a crossroads of the Northeast. We get enough drift from that to keep things interesting.
ADR: Which other short story writers did you consider influential on your work? Who else are you reading in crime fiction right now?
LS: I was named after Liam O’Flaherty, and I was exposed to some of his stories at an early age. I mean, they’re dark as hell. Grit like a sanding belt, and they opened my eyes up to the period in Ireland that he wrote about. It was one of the first times I was awakened from the fictions we have in this country to a new reality: The Ireland of shamrocks and leprechauns to the one of stark Catholicism and the visceral sacrifice of a man to cold industry. Kurt Vonnegut was another influence, I mean, not the same as O’Flaherty, but I liked his ability to dash your expectations of a character’s moral standing. He showed the fragility of judgmentalism. In my time of coming out with plot twists in short stories, I could always feel that groove. Also, Steve Weddle, and his book Country Hardball, showed me a side of country life that resonated with the fact that deep country is only ten miles out in any direction from here, and made me want to set stories in some of the outlying towns.
Right now, I just finished Joe Clifford’s Broken Ground, which isn’t out yet, but is in the Jay Porter series that I’ve been following faithfully. I also just finished Eryk Pruitt’s What We Reckon, which was an incredible standalone, and I hope he follows that up. I’m currently reading Tom Pitts, American Static, and am just getting into Jen Conley’s Cannibals. I’m waiting for Ryan Sayles’s Albatross. I am thinking of re-reading Les Edgerton’s Death of Tarpons, which may not specifically qualify as crime fiction, but it is told by a master of the genre, so I’ll count it.
ADR: Your story “Rats” is about two characters who had fairly comfortable lives but end up homeless. Is there a story behind this story?
LS: If a group of kids beat up a dog sitting on a bench, there’d be public outrage. People would want twenty years in jail, call them psychopaths. If those same kids did that to a homeless person, some people, too many people, would think (or say) “Well maybe he shouldn’t have been sitting there.” We treat homeless people like a child treats the toys she threw in the closet to get her room clean. Invisible. And when that door cracks open now and again, those toys come to rest on the floor, they’re seen as a reminder that the room’s not truly clean.
I try, in “Rats” and in other works, to get people to look at the toys on the floor. I want to give a voice to the homeless. I want to give my voice, hopefully it helps. I was working for the homeless cause ever since I was ten years old. I’ve slept out, I’ve rallied—I’ve also worked in an SRO for people who’d otherwise be on the street. And as a disaster volunteer for the Red Cross, I’ve welcomed people into homelessness, if I think about it like that. I’ve met fascinating people, and ice-cold bad asses, but I never met anyone who didn’t deserve the basic human dignity of recognition. And I met a lot of people who started out living the American dream only to have one or two big things happen to them. That was the driving force behind “Rats.”
ADR: Why write crime fiction? What draws you to the genre?
LS: I started writing crime fiction largely for the community of crime writers. Great, welcoming people. I mean, that may be too simple; I started narrating the criminal life by being either in it, or a stone’s throw from someone who was in it. When I went to high school, I had a bit of a streak. Drinking, smoking, vandalism, petty crimes—nothing felony level, not trying to hurt anybody, but if your weekend starts with a trip to the dealer that was supposed to be home, only to have to hit Third Street, ’cause you get two-for-fifteens and they’re chub, and the guy uptown selling the dancing skeleton paper was a paranoid freak with three Rottweilers, then you probably hang with some criminals. I started in sci-fi/fantasy, but transitioning into crime fiction was really like coming home. Hell, half the time I feel like I’m padding my friends’ resumes when I write my crime fic’.
ADR: When did you start writing? What keeps you going?
LS: I wrote poetry on and off from the time I was thirteen. I got a creative writing scholarship to Hartwick College in ’94 for a play I wrote. But, by “on and off,” I was very off. I didn’t stay at Hartwick. I spent the next ten years playing guitar, and periodically coming up with a poem, nothing great. Then, in 2005, Katrina hit. I was glued to the TV the whole time people were trapped there, incredulous. Now, I was hyper-political then, and I wanted to scream about George Bush basically forever. And when Pat Robertson said that God did it, even more pissed. I wanted to bring Jesus back to say something to the Bushes and the Robertsons of the world. But by page eight of that, I realized what every writer does—your characters take on their own lives. By the time I went to New Orleans, I went from never writing a short story to eighty-three pages.
I went to New Orleans for three weeks with Catholic Charities in December of ’05 to January of ‘06, and did a lot of casework, met a lot of evacuees, and heard more stories than I can remember. When I got back, I moved in with a couple of friends. I had a tiny concrete room with one window into nothing. I set up a coffee pot, locked myself in, and cranked out another three hundred pages in about three weeks. That was my first book, Anno Luce. After that, I wrote two more big novels, but I paced myself to about a thousand words a day. And that’s my general pace now. I like to get it as good as possible when I first write it, so I keep my word counts manageable.
ADR: Crime fiction often deals with those on the margins of society, who are struggling in one way or another. That’s certainly true of your work. What draws you to write about these characters?
LS: What draws me to the kinds of characters you find in crime fiction is the imperfection. I look around and I see life hooked on Photoshop. And, now that I use Photoshop, that means so much more to me. I think of it like Japanese Kitsugi, the art of repairing cracks in china with a lacquer mixed with precious metals. The cracks, the imperfections are the history of the thing, not to be concealed, but to be celebrated. Crime fiction celebrates people with cracks in them. Crime fiction heroes (or antiheroes) aren’t perfect, or impervious. They don’t always have that perfect line, or the path to success imprinted on the backs of their eyelids like motivational Powerpoints. They’re the “us” that we don’t want to admit to, the thrift-store shoppers that aren’t just there looking for vintage, the hammered Cassanovas who shit their pants and are still hopeful on the dance floor.
Liam Sweeny is an author and graphic designer from the Capital Region of New York State. His work has appeared both online and in print, in such periodicals as Spinetingler Magazine, Thuglit, All Due Respect, Pulp Modern and So It Goes: the Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is the author of the collection Dead Man’s Switch and the detective thriller Welcome Back, Jack.