Phil Lowery, author and founder of Dragon Volt Press talks me through his writing and the books and experiences that inspired it.
Tell me about the books you publish. What drew you towards crime fiction and mystery writing?
So far, I’m only a publisher in the sense of self-publishing my own writing. I named my website Dragon Volant Press to leave some options open: blog; platform for my own writing (fiction and non-fiction); or, if it should happen to go that way, an online journal edited by me but featuring the writing of others. I suppose it could even become another news-focused/current events holler-fest and the name would still fit. The tagline for the site is “Fiction. Reflection. Fulmination.” I figured that would leave me some wiggle room. I launched only a few months ago, so things are definitely still fluid. First and foremost, though, it’s an outlet for my fiction. (The ego on him, right?)
What draws me to any kind of fiction is suspense. It’s the essence of any story, crime/mystery or otherwise. Crime and mystery fiction tends to be higher-stakes than other genres in terms of plot, but in any genre the story works only when there are plausible characters facing a significant challenge. A romance novel is a suspense novel. Suspense arises organically from the players and the situations they find themselves in. I guess that’s why, in my own reading, I tend to avoid puzzle and whodunit fiction (also techno- and international thrillers), where the characters (who are usually of the stock variety) are less important than the mechanics of the plot.
What is your background and how did you get in to publishing?
I have been a civil engineer for over 25 years. My first published fiction was in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (November 2015). EQMM has since bought another short story, but when it will see the light of day, who knows. The lead time in traditional publishing (especially short fiction, it seems) can be very long. Since I’m coming to this relatively late in life I don’t have the luxury (or the patience) to wait around for journals and magazines to have first refusal on everything I produce. Online publishing in various forms has allowed writers and artists to get their stuff out there and with any luck find an audience. It’s similar to the heyday of the pulps in the thirties and forties, where new writers could more easily catch a break; or the indie record boom of the late-seventies and eighties, where artists could go DIY and produce their own albums. The difficulty is standing out in the ever-expanding pile of mediocrity.
Tell me about the books you personally write. Where do you find your inspiration?
As a relatively new writer, the documentary evidence is still a bit thin on the ground, but a recurring theme seems to be how ordinary people react to situations gone wrong. It’s not traditional crime fiction; I prefer the ‘suspense’ category. There’s a distinct noir cast to what I write.
I recently finished the brutal process of writing my first full-length novel then editing it into oblivion. It was a necessary ordeal and I hope I’ve learned a lot from it. I salvaged a decent short story from it, at least. Now to avoid all those mistakes in the next novel, currently in progress.
My inspiration is probably too elusive to pin down in words (or maybe I’m just lazy), but I can tell you which writers of the genre I feel closest to and whose work motivates me: James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake. All of whom have written terrible books in addition to masterpieces, so I draw comfort from that, too, when my own efforts just sit there quacking like ducks (with a nod to Isaac Asimov for the borrowed phrase).
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Donald Westlake. His novel The Ax is perfect. I’ve never written a fan letter in my life but I thought it about it every time I read The Ax. I was just grateful that the book existed in my lifetime. When Westlake died I felt oddly guilty that I’d never roused myself to write and thank him for the gift. I suspect our ‘collaboration’ would have consisted of me badgering him for advice until he finally asked me to leave so he could get some work done.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
I can’t write unless I feel some excitement about the story so I guess I would have to say the current novel, which is in early first draft. Also, I’ve discovered (to my annoyance) that I have a very linear brain that insists on completing the current task (at least through first draft) before it will focus on new ideas. So along the way I’ve had ideas that I identify as possible short stories or another novel, which I duly make a note of and set aside for future use. It can be weeks or even months later that I realize one or more of these story ideas are in fact part of the current story, only I’d been too dense to see it. I guess I should learn to embrace my linear brain.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
I’m hopelessly ignorant of current writers. I find I’m going back in time to read the classics of the genre, mostly for pleasure (life’s too short to read crappy books) but with at least half an eye on technique. Currently on the list are Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place and Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man (worth it for the pulpy title alone). Meanwhile I continue to inhale the Parker series. (Westlake again! This time writing as Richard Stark.)
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Anyone who’s interested can watch the sedimentary accretion of my work at www.dragonvolantpress.com, where the updates are infrequent and the site design is decidedly subpar.
Thanks you for taking the time to share this with us, it’s been fascinating.