Whether you call it a heist novel, a hostage drama or a manhunt thriller, Peter Farris's Last Call for the Living is a debut announcing a serious new talent. A bank heist in small-town Georgia opens the book with the lone armed robber escaping with the haul and a hostage - one of the tellers. The narrative is split between Hicklin - the thief, Charlie - the hostage, Sallie Crews and Tommy Lang - our law enforcement eyes and ears and finally Hicklin's former compatriots - members of the ruthless Aryan Brotherhood prison gang - determined to find Hicklin and retrieve the stolen cash for themselves.
What ensues is a tense hideout, a desperate investigation and a brutal treasure hunt that leaves a trail of bodies into the mountains of rural Georgia. The book also features one of the most stunning action set pieces I've ever read - a gun battle erupting in the midst of a Pentecostal church service complete with scores of wriggling venom factories. Really, probably the best shootout I've read since Dennis Tafoya's The Wolves of Fairmount Park or Stephen Hunter's Dirty White Boys - to which, Last Call is drawing deserved comparisons.
Peter Farris graciously agreed to answer a few of my questions:
What was the genesis of Last Call For the Living?
Ten years ago I was working as a bank teller when our branch was robbed. After that experience, I developed something of an obsession with bank robberies. When I sat down to write Last Call For the Living I was certain of one (and only one) thing--it would begin with a violent heist.
Growing up I also loved films like American Me and The Jericho Mile, which fueled an intense fascination with prison gangs and west coast prison culture. But it was a book by Pete Early called The Hot House that peaked my interest in the Aryan Brotherhood. Around the time I was researching Last Call a major RICO case against the AB's top leadership was underway in Los Angeles. The media coverage really kickstarted my imagination, and inspired me to write a character with ties to the prison gang.
It's a nicely rounded ensemble of characters, though Hicklin felt like the main character for me. Was he yours? Was Charlie? Who was your focus?
I suppose you could say they both got billing above the title in my mind.
Even in the earliest drafts of Last Call For the Living, I knew Hicklin and Charlie were going to have the spotlight on them most of the time. But I don't recall ever thinking it was a novel about one or the other--it was always about them. And as I kept chipping away at the manuscript, kept revising, the dynamic between Charlie and Hicklin became absolutely vital.
I love your read of it being primarily about Hicklin, however. Because with the book in the rearview and some time to think on it, I realize from a technical standpoint there are multiple flashbacks regarding Hicklin's life before and while he was in prison. I can understand how a reader might get a fuller sense of his life whereas with Charlie, I present him in the here and now of the story, reacting to one traumatic circumstance after another.
You mentioned The Hot House, any other non-fiction books you'd name in Last Call's ancestry?
The Black Hand by Chris Blatchford, Education of a Felon by Eddie Bunker, Fish by TJ Parsell, Inside by Michael Santos, In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott, Soledad Brother by George Jackson and False Starts by Malcom Braly.
Speaking of Malcolm Braly, although it's a work of fiction I should mention his novel On the Yard. My editor at Forge had worked with Braly and recommended the book a few years ago as I was slugging through drafts of Last Call For the Living. I've never read a more vivid depiction of penitentiary life and although I couldn't claim it to be a direct influence on Last Call, it certainly was inspiring. Another novel I'd like to mention is The Star Rover by Jack London, a work I'd argue is the granddaddy of prison lit.
And where did you study snake-handling?
I have no personal experience with it, but not an hour north from the county I was raised in you can find small churches where I suspect snake handling is still practiced regularly. Certainly near the Tennessee line and out toward Alabama there are generations of families that worshipped that way and still do.
I can remember being a kid in 4-H or Cub Scouts and reading one of the Foxfire books that had a chapter on snake handling and just being terrified. Curious, but terrified. That terror struck me again when years ago I thought to visit an address up in Kingston, Georgia where I learned there was a church. But I lost my nerve. It just felt wrong to sit in on a service, an obvious outsider and non-believer to those people, interested only in how he would stage a shoot-out in their place of worship. I wound up driving around the countryside for a while and smoking a lot of cigarettes.
Two books were particularly eye-opening, however: Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington and Serpent Handlers by Fred Brown. Both were fantastic from a research perspective, but they also disabused me of many misconceptions I had about Pentecostals. I'm not a religious or spiritual person, but there's something to be said for worshipping with such reckless abandon, such fervor, where you lose yourself completely in your faith. It might be peculiar and dangerous, but from what I've gathered most believers are searching for personal salvation. I can respect that.
Well it's one of the most memorable gunfights I've ever encountered in fiction. In fact, guns in general, I feel like I know a lot more about guns in general after reading it. That, bank robbery, The Aryan Brotherhood, Prisons and... NASCAR. They all seemed infused with special authorly enthusiasm, were there any personal interests you had to cut out? Will they be in your next book?
I can't say I cut anything interest-wise from the book. If anything, I had to show restraint or at least decent judgment in what details I incorporated into the prose and what I left out. Avoiding the sort of info dumps you come across in procedurals or thrillers, that sort of thing. With fiction writing I'm discovering that it's all about getting the "lie" just right. You have to, despite your enthusiasm for a particular subject, avoid showing off. Otherwise, you're going to lose the reader.
As for the next novel, it certainly reflects a renewed interest in hunting and the outdoors. It's about a teenage prostitute who finds sanctuary with an eccentric bootlegger.
Read more at Hardboiled Wonderland.
Jedidiah Ayres writes fiction and keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.
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