This week I caught up with Tony Knighton, a short story writer who has recently moved into longer pieces and who specialises in noir writing. It was really great to hear from him, and he was keen to discuss his work and the importance of reading for the imagination.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards noir fiction?
My writing tends to be spare. I try for density of information – saying a lot with as few words possible.
I’d always read crime fiction, mostly the darker stuff. I try to write the sort of things I would like to read.
Most of my work is written from the point of view of the criminal. It’s just how my imagination works. I don’t know enough about police work to write a procedural.
What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?
I’ve spent most of my life in Philadelphia, and have been a member of the Philadelphia Fire Department for the last thirty-one years. It’s essential for firefighters and cops to know where they are and where they’re going, so we tend to be obsessed with a city’s geography – what it’s like and who lives there. This obsession plays a big part in my stories.
I’d thought about writing for a long time, most often when I’d read something that was poorly written. I’d think to myself that I could do better.
I started to write during a prolonged struggle with insomnia; I needed to do something that was quiet and productive. After writing a few short things, I found myself working on a piece that wasn’t anywhere near finished at sixty pages and realized I was writing a novel. You can’t put that much time into something and keep it to yourself, so I began to submit work.
Having previously published short fiction, how do you adapt your writing style when creating longer pieces?
I think the story itself determines how long it will be. I don’t make a conscious decision to change style.
Do you find the word limit on short stories restrictive or freeing?
Definitely freeing. I like to set parameters – impose limiting factors on much more than just length. Once certain decisions are made, you can let imagination take over.
How do you define noir fiction and why do you enjoy writing this particular genre?
Duane Swiercznski spoke about the difference between Hard Boiled and Noir. He feels the major difference is the ending; in Noir, the protagonist is fucked.
While I think that is a good rule of thumb, I don’t necessarily agree that a tragic end is essential. Any crime story that is dark and/or seamy can qualify.
With regards to the books you read, do you have any particular favourite writers or series?
I read and re-read the Richard Stark books compulsively.
I think that George V. Higgins The Friends of Eddie Coyle should be required reading in every English class.
Hammett, Jim Thompson, Ross MacDonald, James Ellroy, Thomas Perry – all of them great.
While not strictly crime fiction, I couldn’t do without Flannery O’Connor, Pete Dexter or the greatest short story writer of all time, John O’Hara. In their work, the stakes are always high. There are many others.
How important do you believe variety in reading material is for a writer?
We gotta read – it’s the reason we got into the game. Variety is a good thing as long as you enjoy it.
I have a pile of books to be read on the table next to my bed. There are two kinds of books in the pile. One is books that I know I should read because they are important – great literature – they will make me a better person. The other books will be fun. Guess which are always on the top of the pile?
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
More than reproducing specific places or incidents, I do my best to recall what I thought or how it felt, and try to invoke those thoughts and feelings through a character’s dialogue and actions. As I said, my writing tends to be spare, with little or no interior stuff, so I don’t know how much of that a reader picks up on.
When I get stuck I go back and edit. If I wait until I’m in the mood, I’ll never get anything done.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I’ve never written with anyone, so I’m not sure how that would work, but I’d love to hang out with any of the writers I’ve mentioned.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
Yes. I’m friends with Peter Rozovsky, from the blog Detectives Beyond Borders. I told him about a story idea I was messing around with that would essentially be homage to Slayground. He thought that would make a cool anthology – stories inspired by specific Richard Stark books. That’s as far as we’ve gotten – maybe as far as we’ll ever get – but it’s exciting.
Are there any new books or writers that you are excited about going forward?
This year I found out about Ray Banks – amazing stuff. I’m roaring through his titles.
Over the last couple years I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some people who are involved with crime fiction –writing, reviewing, etc. – and doing interesting things with it – Andrew Nette, Sam Starnes, Dana King, Scott Adlerberg, Jed Ayres and the wonderful Lou Boxer. I’ve made friends with other guys in the life through email and Facebook – guys like Norman Prentiss, Ben Jones and Greg Barth. And I always look forward to reading the work of my old friend, the fabulous Jon McGoran.
They’re all doing cool stuff.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
The nicest thing that I’ve discovered about writing crime fiction is that there is a real scene, and it’s incredibly welcoming. The people in it are generous to a fault.
I want to thank you again for giving me this opportunity.
Thanks to Tony for taking the time, it’s been really fascinating. Find out more about Tony and his work HERE.