Richard Kadrey relaxes at home (Image courtesy HarperCollins)
Richard Kadrey writes what he calls modern urban fantasy novels, so don’t go expecting much Tolkeinesque prose in his new book “Kill the Dead.” What you’ll find is much more Chandler-like.
“Really what the book came out of was American crime fiction, the stuff from the 50’s really up to the stuff from the 70’s,” he says on the phone from San Francisco. “That stripped down writing style, which has nothing to do with what most people think of as fantasy writing.”
“The character named Sandman Slim is actually a man named James Stark who describes himself as a magician, because he refuses to use the words like wizard or warlock, because he thinks those are way too Harry Potter,” says Kadrey running through the backstory. “He’s very powerful but he has never been to rigorous because magic has always come very naturally to him, so he is very sloppy about it. He’s like a lot of young men, he’s very arrogant about it.”
This arrogance leads him to ruffling the wrong sets of feathers, and Stark finds himself banished to Hell, where he earns a living (if that is the correct term for employment in Hades) as a hitman.
“‘Sandman Slim'” the first novel picks up 11 years later with him escaping from Hell, and coming back to find all the people who sent him there, and killed his girlfriend while he was gone,” Kadrey continues.
Like he said, not a lot of Harry Potter. And just to end any other Hogwarts thoughts, his tale is set in Los Angeles, a city with which Kadrey admits a real love/hate relationship. .
“I can’t think of any other place other than LA and New York where people have such a strong impression without having been there,” he says.
“It’s fun to play off their assumptions and fun to play off the realities, so walking that weird line between the commentary, the reality and just nonsense you made up.”
“Kill the Dead” opens with Stark chasing a Valley Girl vampire through a rundown Los Angeles shopping mall, which turns into a running battle which even the hardened locals can’t ignore. As the story unfolds Stark runs into hoards of zombies who are appearing all over the city even as Lucifer is preparing for a biopic he’s developing with a top Hollywood producer.
Kadrey has a great talent for taking what might be seen as stock characters by other writers and re-imagining them. He says the secret for him is to take away the characters supernatural elements, and then work out how their personalities fit into the plot.
“Is it going to be a smart vampire, or it is just going to be a dumb guy?” he asks himself, although he admits “It’s an odd balancing act.”
And like the great crime writers before him, the story examines more than the simple whodunit aspect of his stories.
“There’s a lot of commentary about your basic class structure in LA,” he says.
There is also a great deal of classical and biblical scholarship behind Kadrey’s characters. He says he became interested in the topics as a result of the 2000 election.
“I owe George W.Bush a drink,” he laughs. Kadrey says he couldn’t understand the world-view of Bush supporters, and the conservative Christian right so he started to do a lot of reading. Beginning with the Bible, then on through the Gnostic Gospels, into Jewish mysticism and beyond.
“It all gets mixed up into the weird brew which really changes how you see, not just the religious part of things, but the society built on top of all those theories has been shaped and changed over time,” he says.
But he funneled his new knowledge into novels rather than politics, saying he had a lot of fun playing with the ideas. And when it gets down to it, he wouldn’t mind shaking things up a little bit.
“I am a very big believer in the power of trash: trash pop culture, trash literature,” Kadrey says. “I really have a lot of affection and belief in that stuff, because art scares people. Trash, pop culture doesn’t. You can put in all the subversive crazy stuff you want in trash culture that will change people’s perceptions of the world, and they will read it and they will take it in. Whereas in art they are going to run from it. So subvert the world through trash. I’m right there with you on that.”
Kadrey describes himself as the classic tale of the overnight success that came after 15 years of work. He’s been working as a writer for years, but it’s only now he knows his place in the writing firmament. He says he once had dreams of being the next J.G. Ballard, but no longer.
“I much more think of myself as Mickey Spillane than James Joyce,” he says. And he uses the Spillane name with pride, saying he was a smart writer who knew his craft.
“One of the best pieces of writing advice you could ever get was this offhand thing he said: ‘The first chapter of a book sells the book. The last chapter of the book sells the next book.’ That’s a little piece of writing advice every young writer needs.”
Even as Kadrey pokes fun at Hollywood though the Sandman Slim stories, he’s delighted that Dino De Laurentiis has optioned his first novel, and he has hopes it may even make it to the screen someday. He says he’s enjoying the process as the producers oversee the creation of the script.
“Even though its really slow – it’s glacial – I am really rather fascinated by it,” he says.
Richard Kadrey will arrive in Minnesota having just finished the third Sandman Slim novel, which at the moment bears the spritely title “Aloha from Hell.”
After that he’s got a bunch of ideas, including for more Sandman Slim stories, and a screenplay he’s going to try on his own.
Of course that’s all after the upcoming book tour, comfortably leading up to, what else, Halloween.
You can hear the first part of our chat, about Sandman Slim and his origins here:
And then the second part about his classical and biblical studies here: