By Daniel Ford
I became friendly with author Brian Panowich after I crashed a Twitter conversation between him, David Joy, and Michael Farris Smith about music, bourbon, and writing. That exchange led to the creation of Writer’s Bone’s “The Writer’s Guide to Music” and an advanced reader copy of Panowich’s debut novel Bull Mountain (which comes out July 7, and will be reviewed in this week’s “Bruce, Bourbon, and Books”).
Panowich was also nice enough to talk to me about being a comic book kid, how he developed his writing style, and the inspiration for Bull Mountain.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Brian Panowich: I think I knew when I was a little kid that I wanted to write. I lived in my head a lot and read books more than I did anything else. I was terrible at sports and I was pretty geeky. But as I got older, my endless string of other interests distracted me from writing and dragged me all over the place. I definitely wasn’t the guy that stayed focused his whole life on one goal and is now living his dream. Once I got my tumbleweed tendencies under control, I returned to writing as a plausible medium for me to create something. So although the seeds were planted when I was a boy, it took nearly thirty years for me to actually nurture them.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
BP: I was a comic book kid. I still am, to be honest. Frank Miller, George Perez, Chris Claremont, they were the guys that taught me how to tell a story. As I moved forward, Edgar Rice Burroughs became a huge influence via my father’s bookshelf, and of course I went through a Stephen King phase, but then I found Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy and nothing was really the same after that.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
BP: I devour music like food. It’s as big a part of my everyday life as breathing, but I need total silence when I write. I can’t even tolerate a television in the background, so writing at home with my wife and four kids is pretty tough. I wrote the entirety of Bull Mountain locked up in a spare room at the fire station where I work. I’m lucky to have the kind of job that afforded me that extra time alone at night to write, or else it would have taken me a lot longer to do it. I applaud the folks that work a nine-to-five job, come home to a family, and still find the time to write.
Nowadays I use the few hours I have to myself while the kids are at school to write and I try to do it everyday, even if it’s just to jot down a few lines. I have to write something everyday or I feel unbalanced, like I wasted daylight. I don’t anyways want to, but once I start I usually end up engrossed with whatever I sit down to accomplish. And I do outline—to a degree. With Bull Mountain, I wrote a sentence or two summarizing each chapter that fit on the front of one sheet of paper. That was my road map. I veered from the map quite a bit, and that’s the point I think, to let the story tell itself, but that road map was there to steer me back on track if it got out of hand.
DF: How did the idea for Bull Mountain originate?
BP: I always liked the idea of everyone thinking they are the heroes of their own story. The bad guy never thinks he’s the bad guy, so I wanted to write something to that end, but didn’t know exactly what about. I like to ride mountain bikes. I’m not very good at it, but I ride a lot and that’s where I do a lot of my plotting and scheming. I was out one day riding and listening to The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” and the first line hit me like a hammer. “When I get off of this mountain.” I know that’s not a lot of lyric, but that line struck me for some reason and within the next few miles, I had the general plot of Bull Mountain fleshed out. I wrote two short stories that night from two opposing points of view, one from my protagonist and one from my antagonist, with the idea in mind of not really knowing which was which. Those two stories got me my agent and became this book.
DF: The crime genre has certain built-in tropes that can deter some writers from taking the plunge. How did you ensure that your tale was original?
BP: I think it helped that the crime aspect of the novel was secondary. I wanted this book to speak more about the family dynamic of these people than the actual crimes they commit. I wanted to build a saga around that idea on par with something like The Godfather, and I didn’t spend a lot of time researching if the angles of the mystery had been used before. In fact I was positive they had been. With the billions of stories that exist in the world, written or spoken, it’s hard to believe any idea can be completely original, but it was still a story I wanted to tell with my own unique perspective, and I think that comes through. I also thought I was on to something by setting it in a part of the country I feel goes unnoticed. There’s a rich history in the North Georgia Mountains that I’m proud to be a part of now.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
BP: I think it’s impossible not to inject yourself into the people you write all the way across the board. Your good guy is the way you’d want to be at your best, and your bad guy is still a product of what you yourself define as bad, but at some point they stop being you and take on lives of their own. Clayton Burroughs started out very similar to me, but as the story became more about him, he became his own person. My villains are the same way. They might start off as bad as I think I could be, but before long I’m shocked at what they can do on their own. The bit players are largely based on people I’ve met over the years. I file away mannerisms and turns of phrase and blend them together to form new composites accordingly, but if a character progresses, I don’t see the person I based them on anymore. Kate Burroughs, Clayton’s wife, is a great example of that. Her character grew and grew as the story developed and before I knew it, she was dictating to me how she would act. I love it when that happens.
DF: What are some of the themes you tackle in Bull Mountain?
BP: Family. Dysfunction. Loyalty. Take those three and crank it up to eleven.
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
BP: I knew I had a pretty good starting point, but it was a good five or six drafts later before I was comfortable sending it to my agent. Even then, I think comfortable is the wrong word. It was more like, at some point I just needed to stand back and let go. That was tough for me to do. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a manuscript and say it’s done. I could revise and revise and revise forever and always find more things I could do to improve it. I think some authors get stuck in that and end up standing in their own way. That sucks, but I can understand how it happens.
DF: How do you balance writing and marketing your work (i.e. book tours, engaging with readers on social media, etc.)?
BP: I’m blessed in that department for two reasons.
1. I love running my mouth. I was born with the gift to gab and in most cases, when not mixed with copious amounts of bourbon, it works out for me in social settings. I enjoy connecting with people and talking about art, music, books, whatever. Social media is fun. It can be a little tedious and makes me feel a bit pretentious sometimes, but over all I enjoy it. I’m finding out that that makes me a touch different than a lot of other authors out there who are generally more secluded that I am.
2. I’m also working with a top-notch team at Putnam who knows exactly what they’re doing. That’s great because it allows me to focus on the fun part—the writing. Knowing I have the best marketing and PR people on the planet in my corner makes that balance incredibly easy.
DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?
BP: I just turned in a second book in the McFalls County Series that features a lot of the same characters from Bull Mountain. That should be published by Putnam next year. I’m also in the process now of plotting out a third one. I love the idea of writing about different characters, and different eras even, that all share the commonality of place. The fictitious McFalls County is the only guaranteed recurring character. Bull Mountain acts as a springboard into that.
I also just finished a comic book script for a Hawkeye story I want to pitch to Marvel…(Hey Marvel, are you listening?)
DF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
BP: Mainly, be wary of other author’s advice, especially those that make their money solely by giving it. There really are no rules. I’m not saying don’t ask questions of the writers you admire (I did) or that all “how-to” books are snake oil. Studying your profession and using the bits and pieces that make sense to you are essential, but any book, seminar, or pay-to-play contest that promises the moon can be downright predatory. Only three things are going to help you produce art for a living. Producing art, letting people see it, and doing both of those things with fearless tenacity. And none of that will cost you a dime.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
BP: I rub my feet together like a cricket when I sleep. It makes my wife crazy.