On Killing Malmon, Walter White and an Audience's Moral Compass, a conversation with Dan and Kate Malmon
Dan and Kate Malmon are the readers ever author would want. They are voracious, passionate, critical and they will travel insane distance for the privilege of exchanging ideas with them. They're awesome and they may or may not be closet cannibals. Like the superheroes they both love, they morphed into editors for the anthology Killing Malmon, which is about exactly what you think it is.
So, I wanted to have a chat with them in order to understand who they are better and give you a stronger understanding of why you should read Killing Malmon. And they knocked it out of the park.
So, without further ado...
Ben: So...uh, why d'you want to kill Dan?
Kate: My lawyer has advised me to not answer this question lest I draw attention from our insurance company.
Dan: That's the short answer. The long answer? My life is weird. In 2014, Crimespree Magazine held a flash fiction contest. The crux? Somewhere in the story, "Dan Malmon" had to die. Fast forward to the 2016 Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee. Eric Campbell from Down and Out Books was talking with Jon Jordan of Crimespree... and the result was the upcoming collection of those stories, plus the addition of a whole slew of new stories as well.
We agreed to the publication of the anthology on the condition that 100% of the proceeds go to the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Ben: Yeah, but...why killing you? Why not kill Jon Jordan? Is he afraid of you, Dan? Because, you guys seem to nice on social media, I have a secret theory you guys are closet cannibals. Are you guys cannibals?
Dan: I'm too small and stringy to be much of a snack.
Kate: While I AM from Wisconsin, I am, in fact, not a cannibal.
Why would people want to kill Dan? That's a great question. I don't exactly know why, and not just because my lawyers have advised me not to answer this question. I think there's just something about Dan that brings out the stabbiness in people.
But whatever it is about him, it does draw out 30 really good stories. So you could say he's the MURDER MUSE.
Ben: So, I'm three quarters into Killing Malmon (I will by done by the time this conversation is over) and developed a "Malmon Factor" theory that the best stories are those featuring the most Malmon and blending reality with fiction. Brad Parks, Jeff Macfee, Thomas Pluck, Dave White and Danny Gardner all hit the nail on the head in regards to the "Malmon Factor." So, I'M curious. what are your favorite Malmon deaths in the anthology and why?
Kate: I think my favorite of Dan's many deaths is Panda Heist by Jay Stringer. It's incredibly clever and hilarious. I can't say anymore than that without giving too much away. RD Sullivan knocks it out of the park with Well Dead. It is super tense. I was squirming in my seat reading it.
Dan: Picking my favorite death is a pretty macabre thing to do. I don't have a favorite, but a few that jump to mind have to be:
Rob Hart's The Hug because Kate is such a badass in it. Jeff Macfee's The Last Issue because I could see this happening in real life. And Matthew Clemens' Love That Dirty Water because it takes place at my personal holy place, Fenway Park.
Ben: So, I have a difficult question for you guys. Please, don't take offense to it because I have a theoretical answer to it and it's not "nobody". Who do you think outside of the usual suspects is going to take interest in a book about killing a book critic?
Kate: My lawyers and my insurance man will be greatly interested in this book.
Dan: This is a very legit question. We knew this would be a very niche project. But hopefully, we can reach the wider crime fiction community based on the quality of the authors who are on board with us. Also, we have reached out to the MS Society. We hope to be exposed to a whole segment of the population that isn’t necessarily filled with avid crime fiction readers, but may be intrigued enough to crack the cover of our book.
Also also,our first event, which is scheduled for Pub Day, is booked at the Source Comics and Games. The Source is our favorite comic book store, so we are hoping to achieve crossover success in that regard.
Ben: See, my theory is that Dan is the key here. The more Malmon in a story, the better. The collection reads (when it's at its best) almost like a cartoon. So, Dan is like Wil E. Coyote, except he's the victim. Tell me, what is the most violent thing Dan's ever done?
Dan: Violence? Let’s just say, I learned how to be funny at a young age. It was easier to be everyone’s funny pal than it was to take a fist in the face.
There was the time I ordered those rocket powered roller skates from Acme. Those were pretty boss. But then that boulder fell on me. And that damn bird just chirped at me and ran away. Boy howdy, I wanted to do some violence then.
Kate: That was totally my favorite story. I think about you getting crushed by that boulder all the time. ALL THE TIME.
And I laugh harder and harder each time.
Ben: Nice. Here's another difficult question, then. And it comes from a personal place because it's something I really struggle with. How do you reconcile your need for dark and violent crime stories with horrors of the real world? Because I don't. There was this amber alert in Canada a couple weeks ago and I stayed glued to my laptop screen like I been binge-watching Law & Order SVU until it was over. AND IT LASTED FOR TWO DAYS. I freak myself out for doing that, but on another hand, I can't get behind like...crime fiction anthologies against guns. You guys are voracious crime fiction readers like me. How do you deal with it? How do you reconcile your need for freaky crime fiction with freaky everyday news?
Kate: I enjoy some true crime stories, like Helter Skelter. Reading about what makes people lose touch with reality fascinates me, but I also enjoy when you get to the part about the people that stop the crimes from happening and do the right thing. Just like you and the two-day Amber Alert, I was drawn to the radio, TV, and internet after the Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing race to find the bombers. I think that’s what draws us to the real-life crime events: you get to see the real-world superheroes go to work and fight the bad guys. Or if you take the crime completely out of it and look at the recent natural disasters, the tales of destruction in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico are astonishing and absolutely heartbreaking. But it’s the stories of the heroes that draw me in. People helping others not because they have to, but because it is the right thing to do.
This enjoyment of the hero prevailing is what draws me to crime fiction. In many of the books and stories, the black hat loses and white hat wins. The books are also a distraction from the real world because sometimes you just need that escape and a reminder that the good guys can win. Lately, it’s hard to remember that the right side always overcomes. It’s this need for justice that brings be back to the genre.
Because you bring it up, I do think there need to be anthologies against guns. We live in a violent world and, like I said, the books are an escape from it. If a collection of short stories can provide a break from that kind of violence, great! I also think it is a great chance to add some creativity to a story if you take away guns. The stories can become grittier because there is that element of hand to hand battle because the villain, or hero, can’t stand across a room and shoot someone. They need to get up close to the victim to finish them off. I’ve heard that strangling is a more personal way to kill someone because you have to get so close to them and you can look the victim in the eye as they die. You have to commit to the act and not just pull a trigger on a whim.
Dan: For me, it’s totally different. I don’t follow true crime at all and until I read Meg Gardiner’s Unsub, I’ve never even read a serial killer story. I come to crime fiction from the Han Solo school: I need someone to be the reader’s POV, to point out the humanity, the ridiculousness of the situation. I don’t need my hero to be a comedian, but my first tastes of crime fiction were Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr and Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar. Smart-asses both.
Eric Beetner’s Unloaded anthology hit me much harder than I would have expected when it first came out. I despise the scourge of guns that has flooded our country. In fact, we were doing a Noir at the Bar not long after it came out. We didn’t have a contributor at our reading, but I gave a short piece on the anthology and asked our bookseller for the event, Subtext Books, carry the book.
Ben: So, this is interesting. You guys are profoundly moral readers, which is not abnormal or anything. But that explains how you balance being fascinated by freaky true crime and dark, gritty fiction. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you guys are interested in boundaries and testing the sturdiness of your morals. Am I close? I'm a slightly different reader, but I can understand the drive. What was the biggest challenge to your morals ever experienced in true crime or fiction? Which story, true or false made you think you were maybe thinking about the world the wrong way.
By the way, I'm going to sound like a complete shithead, but when I want to take a break from violent books I read Raymond Carver or Haruki Murakami. I love fictional guns. The more fictional guns, the better.
Dan: I don’t think we are “moral” readers, per se. We just are drawn more to stories with heroes and villains. Does that make sense?
Kate: It's not that I'm a "moral reader"; I just want to be entertained. There are somethings that I flat out refuse to read - harm to children and animals, especially dogs. I'm not seeking to test boundaries, I just like to see where the story will take me.
Ben: Well, heroes and villains are a moral line you draw. Personally, the more times an author will cross that line in a novel, the happier I get. That's why I love James Ellroy's novels so much. Let me ask you another question that'll will perhaps make me understand better: what did you think of Breaking Bad's protagonist Walter White?
Kate: Walter White started out with good intentions: make enough money so his wife and children could live comfortably after brain cancer claimed his life. However, his continued bad decisions made the rest of the show. If he hadn’t decided that cooking meth was a good solution to his problem, then he wouldn’t have met Jesse Pinkman. If he hadn’t met Pinkman, then he wouldn’t have made the decision to let Jane overdose so he wouldn’t have to share Jesse’s attention. And so on and so on. I don’t think he’s a victim of circumstance by any means. He made this choices that ultimately led to his death, in so much that he (spoilers!) falls victim to the machine gun he rigged in his trunk to kill the gang holding Jesse hostage.
Dan: Love me some Walter White. The expression is “Everyone is the hero in their own story.” That pearl never was more on point than here. White’s story is the story of a good man dealt a bad hand, and trying to leave his family in good shape after he’s gone. But every concession he makes takes away a little piece of his soul. And it happens so slowly, and so skillfully, that you don’t even realize that the hero of the story is now the villain in the story of his family. Brilliant.
Ben: My take on ol' Walter is that the evil, conniving and destructive bastard is the best Walter he could possibly be and whoever entered his life while he was denying this urge to build something great (Skyler, Walt Jr.)were the true victims of circumstances, to echo what Kate said. He was born to be evil and there was a nasty part of me that enjoyed seeing him succeed at something. My favorite scene in the entire show is in season two, when he shows his newborn the 1,2 million dollars hidden in the walls because he has no one else to share it with. That and when he told Skyler with pride and anger: I am not in danger, I AM the danger. So, I don't think he was a tragic hero. Is that weird?
Dan: On this, we agree! He was a good person as a family man and teacher, but when he found his calling as a drug lord and realized he was good at it... then why would he stop? And as viewers, we were in the situation where we didn’t want him to go back to his old life either. We wanted to see how much of his soul he would sell? How much of his soul was left?
Yes, the baby scene is wonderful. I liked the scene in one of the first couple episodes, where not long after his diagnosis, Walter shorts out a loudmouth’s car battery without the owner seeing him do it. Walter is still very timid, and it kind of came out of nowhere. But a great look at what was to come.
Kate: Walter did some terrible things, but nothing that would make me label him as “evil”. I think he knew what he was doing was wrong. At the beginning he had an altruistic motive - provide for his family. Then he got greedy and couldn’t stop filling his subbasement with the stacks of cash. Like his lawyer, Saul, you could say he was morally flexible. In the end, he does make good on his original plan and makes sure that Walt Jr. gets the money. Walter even helps Pinkman escape the gang he’s been forced to work for. I don’t think the actions truly evil person would benefit others like some of Mr. White’s actions.
Ben: So, what is for you an example of immortal crime fiction? Something that swept you up your feet. Can't name any of the authors featured in Killing Malmon. I want some intense, first love stuff. And was there anything you've read that you've hated? That pissed you off?
Kate: I’m glad I took some time to reread this question, because I was racking my brain to come up with immoral crime fiction that swept me off my fee. But now that I understand the question…
Victor Gischler’s Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse was one of the first crime fiction books I remember reading and wanting to tell the world about. The book takes a creative look at what the world could be like in the future and what it would be like for someone that had disconnected from it while everything went to shit. This is one of my go to books when someone asks for a recommendation. If they aren’t into the weird stuff, I’ll suggest Shotgun Opera by Gischler. It’s another early crime fiction novel that stopped me in my tracks.
There have been plenty of books that I hated. One book came out recently and many of the people in my online circles loved it and I couldn’t stand the protagonist. The character was whiny and I wanted to punch the person in the face. Most of the time if I’m not digging the book I won’t finish it. In this case the writer had some clever plot lines, but the lead was insufferable. A book will get relegated to the Little Free Library pile if it doesn’t keep me interested after 100 pages.
Dan: Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston. Everything about that book felt new, fresh, unique, and weird. The narrative was different. The energy of it was exciting. Even the paper the book was printed on felt unique. The Hank Thompson trilogy opened my eyes to the wider crime-fiction community. A Dangerous Man is my favorite of the three, I’m a sucker for a redemption story. And baseball plays a huge part in it. But Caught Stealing knocked me on my ass first.
Ben: Did this foray into publishing inspired you to go beyond criticism in any way? I like to say that everyone involved with publishing actually writes fiction. I sure do. Is it your case, guys?
Kate: I have no secret ambition to write the next great American thriller. The handful of reviews I do write is enough for me. I will admit I did enjoy the behind the scenes cat-wrangling for putting the anthology together. There were spreadsheets and checklists and all the things that tickle my right brain.
Dan: LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL NO.
Ben: Any project if yours you want to plug? Where and whendo people can get Killing Malmon?
Kate: Glad you asked! Killing Malmon will be available for public consumption on October 19. You’ll be able to find it online at Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, and other online retailers. Select independent bookstores will be carrying the book as well (check your local listings).
Two official, for real signings have been scheduled. The first will be held on publication day, October 19, at the Source Comics and Games in Roseville, MN. The second will take place at Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis, MN, on November 14.
Finally, 9 of the Killing Malmon writers will be on hand at Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee on November 4. This one-day convention is our own mini-Bouchercon. We get to hang out with cool writers, see a ton of our friends, and spend time with my parents. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with my mom? *looks at Dan*
Dan: “Kate and I will be appearing at the Starlight Lounge just off the Strip starting the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas. There is a two-drink minimum and the lounge hasn’t been updated since ’73. Also, don’t forget to tip your waitress.”
Thank you for having us over, Benoit!