Thursday, December 3, 2015

Fathers and Sons: An Interview with Brian Panowich

Interview by John J. Kelly

“The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son” is a maxim as old as Scripture. Can individuals step out of the shadow of a shameful family past and still preserve the pride of legacy? It is also the question that dominates the highly acclaimed debut novel Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich. Bull Mountain, with its blood-soaked soil and dangerous backwoods hills, is home to the Burroughs family. The novel traces the family’s lawless lives at the edge of society in north Georgia from the moonshining decades of the 1940s till the even more deadly meth-fueled present. It’s a multigenerational saga told from various perspectives and points of view; a dark and violent family tragedy about how people learn to live lives of unspeakable cruelty and still believe in their own righteousness. The Los Angeles Review of Books had this to say about the novel: “What Panowich puts together is more than a history of family, but a chronology of the violence perpetrated for nearly a century in maintaining an empire built on bootleg hooch and drugs–not in the name of power, women, or money, but of home....He tears apart the hardened, Southern man so popular in rural noir. Even more, he does so while maintaining that those characters have a moral, human center.“

Author Brian Panowich grew up a military brat, moving from city to city with his parents and then hitting the road again as a touring musician for more than 15 years. He finally settled with his wife in Georgia, where Panowich fell in love with the close-knit mountain folk. He says he wanted Bull Mountain to be about “the people you don’t hear about” who risk everything to protect their own from the rest of the world. Panowich now works as a full-time firefighter and says he wrote Bull Mountain in the time between alarms at the firehouse, hiding away in the corner with a computer. I recently spoke with Brian in a series of wide-ranging conversations in which we talked about the family ties that bind us, fathers and sons and the importance of always remembering where you come from.

John Kelly:  How did you go from touring as a musician for more than 15 years to sitting down to write Bull Mountain?

Brian Panowich:  I was writing little short stories to keep myself entertained when I came off the road, because I needed to keep myself busy and keep my creative juices flowing. There was another writer named Ryan Sales who was doing the same thing as me. He called me one day from Missouri and said, “Hey man, I keep submitting my stories every day to small presses and I keep getting rejected and I’m sick of it, so I’m gonna start my own press and I was wondering if you wanted to get involved. ” And I said, “Sure, what kind of thing did you have in mind?” He said, “I don’t know, I’ll write one story and you write one story and we’ll put them out like punk rock bands used to do with .45s.” He suggested we start with zombie stories, because they were popular, so we started with those. Before too long, we asked two other guys to get involved. So we had this little cabal and we named it Zelmer Pulp after Ryan’s son’s first name. It was more of an exercise or workshop than anything else. One of the guys who got involved was Chuck Regan. He’s a former comic book guy and he suggested we do science fiction, which scared the shit out of me, because I didn’t know anything about science fiction. But it was just strictly for fun.

One of the other guys was a guy named Chris Leek. He’s a brilliant British writer. He had written a story called “Candy’s Room” and had it published on one of these small crime fiction websites. And the guy who ran the website said, “We should do a whole anthology of Springsteen songs. You know, like everybody pick a title of a song and write a story.” We had no publisher, no distributor, no nothing. Just like five guys and idea. But when we started putting some feelers out we got contacted by Springsteen’s people and they said, ‘We think it’s a great idea, do it.’ The Boss says it’s cool. We had a sign-off from the Man himself. A few weeks later, Dennis Lehane got in touch with us. He’s a huge Springsteen fan and he wanted to know if he could put a story in it.

And so we put out this anthology, Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen, and people loved it and it was nominated for an Edgar Award for Mysteries. It was almost like we brewed that stuff in the basement and now it’s on the same shelf as Jack Daniels.

JK:  What were your reading habits when you were growing up?

BP:  My father taught me how to read. He loved to read comic books to me. And I say this with pride that I’m a comic book geek. My Dad love Marvel, DC, crime stuff, all of it. And he had a massive collection. That’s how I learned to tell a story. Stan Lee taught me how to tell a story and Chris Clairmont’s X-Men taught me how to tell a story in sequential art. Eventually, I moved up the food chain a bit. My Dad had all these Tarzan novels and that old pulp Doc Savage. Mickey Spillane came up next and then I discovered Elmore Leonard, who’s probably the greatest writer I’ve ever read. My Dad dug it and he turned me onto it and that’s how I ended up here.

In the early ’90s, when I was massively into comics, I went to Georgia Southern to take Journalism was because it was the closest thing to a writing degree I could get.

I started getting away from my comic book obsession in high school because chicks weren’t into it. They just didn’t dig it. And I’ve always been skinny and I couldn’t throw a football. Sports never interested me, so I had to figure out something to attract women. My father was a musician, so I inherited some of that, too. My three chords and love of music was something that chicks were into.

A bunch of my buddies in college were in a band so we hit the road. It seemed like I was doing that forever—playing guitar. I loved it. I might still be on the road, but my daughter was born. And as soon as she was born, I was done. I wasn’t going to miss a second being on the road. I actually got back into reading a lot because I had her in my lap.

To be honest though, I started to get to where I was miserable all the time, and actually resentful of my wife and my daughter, because I missed being out there writing songs and being part of that “thing.” So that’s how I started writing again. Being able to write out little short stories and posting them and getting feedback made me feel like I was part of something bigger again. I was creating something again. And that’s all the aspiration I had, right there, was to do that. I wanted to say I was part of this community of writers who appreciated each other.

When I got the call from literary agent Nat Sobel in New York who said he read one of my stories and wanted to turn it into a novel, I was kinda shocked and surprised. I had no intention of ever being a novelist.

JK:  Seriously?

BP:  Yeah. (Laughs) It’s a tough story to tell especially in front of 15 to 20 aspiring writers who come out to hear you talk. To find out I’m a failed musician and I turned to this as a substitute and it’s paid off. But the way I see it, I was chasing success for so long that the minute I let it go and dedicated myself to my kid, it found me.

JK:  So your dad played mostly guitar?

BP:  Yeah, but he played anything. He was one of those guys who could pick up any instrument and fiddle with it for a few minutes and he could play it. I don’t have that gift. I inherited the ability to shoot the shit and spin a yarn. So for me, writing songs was lyrically where I got my strength from.

JK:  What were your lyrics like?

BP:  Most of them were like Springsteen songs. I liked story-songs. Songs with characters.

JK:  How did touring as a musician inform the kind of characters that fascinate you?

BP:  There’s a lot of my musical background in Bull Mountain that you don’t see, like Mobile was one of my favorite places to play, so I based one of my characters in Mobile. One of the most important bars in the book was a real bar I knew and the character Lewis was the culmination of several scumbags that I knew and combined into one construct.

JK:  My mother died a few weeks ago and it’s been a tough stretch. It’s been a lot harder than I ever expected. Are your parents alive?

BP:  My mom is alive thankfully, but I lost my father when I was 29. And it was the worst experience of my life. I stayed angry about the death of my father for a long time. It really defined how I looked at the world for a long time. My dad and I were solid. And he’s the reason I write. So I can relate. It doesn’t get any easier. You just learn to deal.

I just had this conversation with my buddy, because he just lost his dad and he’s going through a pretty rough time because he didn’t have a good relationship with his dad. All he could think about were all the times he let his father down and was a shithead. And as a child of a parent, that’s what you think about some times. You’re not thinking about all the good times you had, you think about all the things you did wrong. And as a parent of four children, I see now that all the angst and anger I had because of all the things I did wrong weren’t at all what my father was thinking about when he was sick. All he saw during the end were the times we hung out and went to the movies and all the times I was there for him. All the little things he saw about himself in me. That’s the big difference between being a parent and being a child. When we lose a parent, we dwell on those things. And we think about how we wish we could go back and fix things. The parent only sees the things the child does right.

But I was so angry with everybody – it was the doctor’s fault, it was my mom’s fault, it was my brother’s fault for not being around, it was God’s fault, it was everybody. Most of all it was my fault, I thought.

But no, man. It wasn’t. It was cancer’s fault. Cuz that’s some non-biased shit and it doesn’t care who it affects or hurts. So you can’t blame a disease. You just have to accept that it happened. It took me damn near six years to do that.

JK:  Some of the characters in Bull Mountain seem so completely despicable, even when they are not.

BP:  That was the point. That was exactly the point. If I could get you to understand why these guys are doing what they are doing, then they’re not evil. I explore a lot more of that in the book that I just finished writing, which is a sequel to Bull Mountain.

Everybody thinks that they are the hero of their own story. Gareth was doing what his father taught him to do. So for him to go off and do the heinous stuff that he did, I want you to ask yourself, “Was he a monster? Or was he simply a product of the way he was raised?’ He was abused and subjected to some pretty horrible shit from the time he was nine years old on. And that informed who he was.

JK:  Bull Mountain received phenomenal reviews from the start. What was your reaction to all the good reviews?

BP:  I had kind of a mixed reaction. The rave reviews are suspect and to make matters worse, they set you up for a fall. I’m a big fan of the three-star reviews. The five-star reviews, man, all they do is put pressure on me to make the next book even better and then I might have to start selling myself out. The one-star review doesn’t really do me any good either. But the person who says, “This book’s pretty good, but here are my problems with it…” That is what makes me a better writer.

John J. Kelly is a veteran of more than 30 years in journalism. Born and raised outside of Boston, MA. he graduated from the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. While in Boston he worked as a journalist, writing for such publications as the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix and Boston Magazine. Since relocating to Detroit in 2009, he has contributed book reviews and author interviews to the Detroit Free Press, Detroit Metro Times, and Cincinnati City Beat His book reviews and author interviews can be seen at

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