Tag Archives: literary fiction

Q & A #90 – C. Joseph Greaves, “Hard Twisted”

In the fall of 2019 at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, I attended a launch event for C. Joseph Greaves’ Church of the Graveyard Saints, a literary mystery-thriller in southwest Colorado. At the time, I also snagged a copy of his novel Hard Twisted, which had come out in 2012.

I read Graveyard Saints right away, but Hard Twisted sat on my shelf for two long years. Who knows why you turn to certain books at certain times, but it finally bubbled itself back up in my queue last month. As often happens, it hit me at the perfect time. Or maybe it was the quality of the prose that drew me in. Or maybe it was the desperate plight of the young, female protagonist during the worst hard times – Dust Bowl America in the 1930’s.

A full review follows, but know that I’m not alone in raving about this novel:

“A kind of Dust Bowl Lolita… A gritty, gripping read.” ―Los Angeles Times

“[A] compelling novel…Readers can’t help but open their hearts to Lottie. …Her story with all its gritty details and twists deserves wide readership.” ―Library Journal, starred review

“Impressive…a strong literary voice who can render period with authority and violence without sensationalism.” ―Publishers Weekly

Chuck was kind enough (once again) to answer a few questions by email about Hard Twisted and the many other projects he’s got underway:

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Question: Based on the extensive and detailed Author’s Note at the end of Hard Twisted, you clearly put many years into researching this story—including visiting locations in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma and tracking down a whole host of records and documents. How did you know you were at a point where you could actually start writing?

C. Joseph Greaves: I did much of the research for Hard Twisted between 1993 and 1996 while still practicing law in Los Angeles, and not necessarily as a prelude to writing. More, I suppose, to satisfy a curiosity. It was only upon retiring in 2006 that I decided to try my hand at this writing business, but once I’d done so I knew that the story of Lottie Garrett and Clint Palmer would be one of my subjects.

When I resumed researching the story, I had a powerful new tool at my disposal—something called the internet.  So, for example, one of the issues that had plagued me was the question of what had become of young Lottie Garrett?  I knew, from a single paragraph that had appeared in a Texas newspaper in 1935, shortly after Palmer’s conviction for murdering her father, that Lottie, then but 14, had been sentenced to reform school for “associating with a known criminal.” After that, however, the trail had gone cold. But with the advent of Ancestry.com, I was able to locate Lottie’s son Dillard who, incredibly, still lived in Hugo, Oklahoma, where his mother had been kidnapped over 70 years earlier. From her son’s wife I learned that Lottie had married at age 21 and become a mother, and a bookkeeper, and had died in 1991.

But to your question, I began writing Hard Twisted in 2008, and was still researching as I wrote. So for another example, I didn’t have Lottie’s grand jury testimony, which I found in a Salt Lake City museum archive, until after I’d written a first draft. So yeah, the process of research and revision continued right up to the eleventh hour. Probably not the ideal approach, but hey, it worked for me.

Question: Since you knew going in how the story ended, what was your thinking going in about what you wanted to explore in your writing?

C. Joseph Greaves: Lottie’s ordeal. That was my alpha and my omega. The first time I stood beside the crude, frozen John’s Canyon dugout to which 14-year-old Lottie had returned in January of 1935, after just losing her newborn baby, to rejoin her psychotic kidnapper, I knew there was a compelling human drama to be explored.

The term Stockholm Syndrome didn’t exist then, and I’m not sure the concept really did either. So I saw not just an opportunity, but also an obligation to tell the story, and to tell it from her point of view as a homeless, motherless waif with an alcoholic father who falls under the sway of a charismatic drifter who takes her on a one-year crime and killing spree across the American southwest. Getting inside her head and bringing that story to life in a way that conveys her fears and her hopes and her motivations—you just don’t get many chances like that as a writer.

Question: How exactly did the discovery of those two skulls lead to this specific story? What was the connection?

C. Joseph Greaves: There may not be a connection, other than as my entrée into the story. After finding the skulls in November of 1993, I was introduced to a woman named Doris Valle, who ran the trading post in Mexican Hat, Utah, and who’d self-published a little historical pamphlet called Looking Back Around the Hat that recounted the 1935 John’s Canyon murders of Bill Oliver and Jake Shumway in three or four pages. Doris theorized that Palmer and Lottie had gotten their job herding sheep for Harry Goulding by killing two Navajo herders who’d been working for Goulding, and that those were the skulls I’d found. Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t. But that discovery, and my conversations with Doris, were what started me on the road to researching, and ultimately to writing, Hard Twisted.

C. Joseph Greaves

Question: The narrative voice for Hard Twisted is matter-of-fact and, well, wonderfully dry in a way that evokes the times. How did you develop and/or hone the style?

C. Joseph Greaves: Mostly by channeling Cormac McCarthy.  I love his spare but intricate prose style and sought to mimic it as best I could in service of a very McCarthyesque yarn.  I had also met an older gentleman in Santa Fe, where I wrote Hard Twisted, who’d grown up on a farm near Paris, Texas in the 1930s and who turned me on to a great memoir called This Stubborn Soil by Bill Owen. That book definitely informed some of the linguistic nuance that I hoped to capture. I like to think that I have a pretty good ear for dialect, and following Palmer and Lottie as they travel from Oklahoma to Texas to New Mexico to Colorado and finally to Utah afforded me great opportunity to stretch those muscles, as it were.

Question: How did you approach writing from the point of view a 14-year-old girl living in the 1930’s? Did you feel like you got to understand Lottie?

C. Joseph Greaves: As to the latter, I don’t honestly know.  As I write in the book’s Author’s Note, “That Lottie was Palmer’s victim—not to mention a victim of her upbringing, and ultimately of the criminal justice system of her day—is beyond dispute. Whether her victimhood arose from seduction, coercion, force, or some combination of all of them, or from some misguided or manipulated collaboration, is entirely problematic. It is in this last respect that Hard Twisted is most purely and unequivocally a work of fiction.”

Having Lottie’s trial testimony, as recorded in newspaper accounts (there is no surviving trial transcript), and having both her Texas and Utah grand jury statements, afforded some limited insight into her thinking. Those were helpful, of course, but to spend 300 pages in close third-person narration obviously requires a certain amount of what I’ll call empathetic projection—understanding what she went through and trying to put yourself in her shoes. Or I suppose you could just call it writing fiction.

Question: A question about the path-to-publication of Hard Twisted: the book won a major prize in manuscript form before it found a publisher. How did entering that contest come about—before or after landing an agent? And how long did it take to find a publisher?

C. Joseph Greaves: Albuquerque-based SouthWest Writers used to run an international writing contest that, unfortunately, they’ve since abandoned.  I’d retired from practicing law in L.A. and I’d moved to Santa Fe and written two spec novels—first a legal mystery called Hush Money, and then Hard Twisted—but as of 2010 still had no agent, no publisher, and no real prospects for either. But then I heard about the contest and entered both manuscripts. There were over 680 entries that year in sixteen different categories, all of them blind-judged. I was later invited to the award ceremony as a top-three finisher in both the mystery and historical novel categories. Then at the ceremony they announced that I’d won both my categories, and was awarded the grand-prize Storyteller Award (and a check!). I later learned that Hard Twisted had come in second overall, and Hush Money first.

That got me a New York agent, and in very short order—literally a couple of months—we’d sold Hush Money to St. Martin’s Minotaur in a multi-book deal, and Hard Twisted to Bloomsbury.  Because the books were so radically different—Hush Money is a breezy whodunit—Bloomsbury insisted that I publish Hard Twisted under a name other than Chuck Greaves, and so we compromised on C. Joseph Greaves.

Bloomsbury at the time was launching a new, all-literary imprint in the UK called Bloomsbury Circus, and they selected nine novels from around the world for the inaugural catalogue, Hard Twisted included. That was a nice honor. Booklist then named the audiobook version, wonderfully acted by Meredith Mitchell, to their year-end “ten best” list.

Then when Quantas Airlines reviewed it in their in-flight magazine, it received front-rack placement at every airport newsstand in Australia, and I was interviewed by Kate Evans (“the Australian Terry Gross”) on ABC National Radio. Heady stuff for a guy who, before winning that contest, couldn’t get arrested in a bookstore.

Question: Can you talk about how much the writing and publishing world has changed since you started putting out books? You’ve had books with Bloomsbury, Minotaur, and most recently, Torrey House Press. You’ve been very well reviewed and received, but it’s a tough business. Agree? Any advice to others? Any insights on what it takes?

C. Joseph Greaves: It is a tough business, and unless you’re a household name, you’re judged strictly by your recent sales history. Fortunately, both indie publishing and the proliferation of smaller presses, sometimes highly specialized—like Torrey House, which focuses on environmental literature—have cracked the door a bit.

When I started out, I was snail-mailing query letters to agents with self-addressed return envelopes enclosed. And every one of those 30-plus envelopes came back with a rejection letter. I think I embody the adage that a professional author is just an amateur who wouldn’t give up.

Having now published with a big-five (Macmillan), a major independent (Bloomsbury), and a small press (Torrey House), I’d say that the level of personal attention and satisfaction you’ll enjoy is inversely proportional to the size of the publishing house. Another adage I’ll endorse is that writing is an art and publishing is a business. You need to understand that, and wear your big-girl panties going in.

Question: Any updates on the pilot for the television series “Badwater” that you wrote and helped produce? What’s the hardest part of writing screenplays?

C. Joseph Greaves: As far as Badwater’s prospects for acquisition go, I’ve entered the acceptance phase of the Kubler Ross grief paradigm. I’ve been noodling with Felix Alcala, the director and co-producer, about other avenues we might explore, but those remain theoretical at this point. Talk about a tough business!

Screenwriting is a different animal altogether than novel writing, although I think it actually plays to my strengths, which include succinctness and facility with dialogue. The learning curve is a bit steep because you’re working within very circumscribed boundaries in terms of format and length. But once you master that, then imagination and originality are the coin of the realm, just as they are with fiction.

If anyone’s interested in learning the whole story behind Badwater, they can read it here.

Question: Care to share a bit about your songwriting career? How does it fit—or not—with all your other writing? Do you need to play an instrument to write songs? Also, favorite musicians or musical acts? Who do you listen to? 

C. Joseph Greaves: Around two years ago, a friend from high school—a very talented musician and composer—reached out to me and asked whether I’d ever considered writing song lyrics. I really hadn’t, but I’d just watched the Ken Burns documentary on country music, and was intrigued with the possibilities. So I said yes to John Melnick, and together we’ve been collaborating on our little catalogue of mostly country, pop, and adult contemporary songs.

As you know, John and I wrote the song for the honky-tonk bar scene in Badwater. Other than that, we haven’t released or shopped anything just yet, but hope to do so before this year is out. Stay tuned!

My musical tastes gelled in college in Los Angeles in the early to mid-70s when we’d go to clubs like the Troubadour, the Roxy, and the Palomino and see acts like Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Bonnie Raitt, and the like. I lived briefly in the Caribbean after college, got into reggae, and got to see Bob Marley live more than once.  As for punk, grunge, disco, hip-hop, rap—none of that really spoke to me. But I was early onto the Brandi Carlile bandwagon, having seen her perform at a bar in Santa Fe and then having name-checked her in my 2013 novel Green-Eyed Lady.

I play a little guitar, although not well, and I don’t use it while songwriting, since John does all the composing.  Really, writing song lyrics is just a hybrid form of poetry, and that for me has been a new and exciting outlet for my creative energy—something that you, the polymathic Mark Stevens, can certainly relate to!

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MORE: Chuck Greaves/C. Joseph Greaves is the author of six novels, including Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury), a Wall Street Journal “Best Books of 2015” selection and finalist for the 2016 Harper Lee Prize. You can visit him atwww.chuckgreaves.com

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REVIEW:

In an imaginary and brief bit of court transcript from the trial of Clint Palmer at the start of Hard Twisted, C. Joseph Greaves zooms in on a critical issue. Was 14-year-old Lottie Lucille Garrett married to Palmer? Did they not live together for several months? Between the lines of the lawyer’s questions, it’s easy to tell what he’s thinking: was she only a victim?

And then he asks Lottie: Did you “cohabitate?”

“Did what?” replies Lottie on the stand.

“Cohabitated,” says the lawyer. “Lived under the same roof.”

“Well,” replies Lottie. “There weren’t no roof to speak of.”

Indeed. The vast majority of Hard Twisted is outdoors, on the move—a hardscrabble, meandering route through the Dust Bowl and tough times of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. We’re in the 1930’s.

After the opening excerpt from the trial (the first of many throughout the novel), Greaves immediately set us down on the roadside with Lottie and her father and paints the scene with this gorgeous paragraph:

“They followed the Frisco tracks with their bodies bent and hooded, the pebbling wind audible on the back of her father’s old mackinaw. To the west, a line of T-poles stretched to a dim infinity before a setting sun that melted and bled and blended its sanguinary light with the red dirt and with the red dust that rose up like Hell’s flame in towering streaks and whorls to forge together earth and sky.”

We are smack into the moment. Harsh conditions, campfires, cockfighting, scavenging for food and hope. Greaves gives us casual introductions to father and daughter and they quickly hitch a ride from a guy named Palmer who, Lottie thinks, looks “fiercely defiant.”

Lottie is not wrong. First impressions, in this case, do not lie.

Drawn on the famous “Skeleton Murder” trial of 1935, and all the events that led up to Clint Palmer’s trial, Hard Twisted takes us on a suspenseful, taut trip that puts Lottie and her captor Clint Palmer on the edge of survival. And, given Palmer’s fiercely defiant nature, moments of confrontation, violence, and murder.

Hard Twisted is earthy, rough, raw, and rugged. Once Dillard is out of the picture, the vast majority of the novel is Lottie and Palmer on the move. The states and cities change, but not the feeling of restlessness, lawlessness, and searching for food, shelter, and trouble.

“Oklahoma City, Shamrock, Amarillo. Long and flat horizons. Vast plains shrouded in dust clouds that billowed and raged and swallowed the Buick, dimming their headlamps and forcing them to the side of the road. Then, clear nights with cow towns and Okie campfires twinkling like starlight to the farthest edge of nothing.”

Palmer takes what he wants, brutalizes or bullies those in his way, and is always looking to take advantage. Palmer understands himself all too well.

He tells Lottie: “I’ve been in some hard places in my life and I seen some things no man ought to have seen. I know that don’t excuse what I’ve done, but a dog that’s been kicked too much, well, he’s liable to bite and scratch when he ought to be a’ lickin and a’ waggin his tail. And that’s me right there in a nutshell.”

Is Lottie trapped? Could she have tried harder to escape, to signal for help? Lottie’s got her head down, focused on the next meal or next situation and it’s hard to say that life beyond Palmer’s grim world is any less unscrupulous. Or mean. In the context of the times, and the wide open spaces of the American West, where civilization is a loose notion, Lottie’s options are few. The search for the spot where she might have crossed the line into Palmer’s sociopathic, amoral life is very much like a search for that dim infinity.

Hard Twisted is a finely wrought and downright memorable read. 

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Previously reviewed (also with Q & A).