Joseph B. Atkins, a North Carolina native, is a veteran journalist and writer who teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi. As a youth, he worked in the tobacco fields and textile mills that he has described in his writing. After service in Vietnam as a soldier, he lived and studied in Munich, Germany, before beginning his career in journalism. He worked at newspapers across the South and as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C. His writing has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Oxford American, USA Today, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Baltimore Sun, and the Guadalajara (Mexico) Reporter. His novella, Crossed Roads, was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Fiction Awards in New Orleans.
About his book, Casey’s Last Chance:
Set in the South in the early days of the civil rights struggle in 1960, Casey’s Last Chance is a hardboiled crime novel that tells the story of small-time hustler Casey Eubanks, on the run after a violent argument with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin dead. A crony sets him up with a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a shadowy former Nazi with a wide financial network. Duren hires Casey to do a hit on labor organizer Ala Gadomska, who’s stirring up trouble at a nearby Duren-owned mill. Things go wrong, and now Casey’s on the run from Duren’s goons as well as the law. Enter reporter Martin Wolfe, who tries to recruit Casey to join him and FBI agent Hardy Beecher in a plan to bring Duren down. Casey steals Wolfe’s car and returns home to Orella, where a bloody shootout with a Duren goon convinces him to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance. Off the three go across the South to execute a plan that may miraculously work or more likely blow up in their faces.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
My awakening as a reader and future writer came in the eighth grade, when my English teacher, Mr. Bill Watson, opened up a new world to me with his tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London and other great writers. I went home each day to pen horrible Poe imitations but resolved then and there to be a writer. From those earliest readings, I went on to Dostoevsky, Jack Kerouac, and later A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Day, and Southern gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell. Eventually I found my way to the hardboiled school of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, and Cornell Woolrich, and it was those writers who helped me find a voice that was my own. They write from the real world, a bit of the reporter in them even as they write fiction, and there’s also a social consciousness, subtle, not overstated but there nonetheless. That appealed to me tremendously.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
As a veteran journalist, I don’t wait around for the muse to inspire me. I try to look at writing very practically. This is my work, and I’ve got to be disciplined about it, get words down on paper, and be conscious of deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed. Ideas come out of the very process of writing, of course, but also while you’re taking a shower, shaving, driving to your day job, or in the middle of the night, which is why I keep a pen and notepad by my bed. I write in the morning, edit in the afternoon, and typically mull it over with a glass of bourbon in the evening. I have a 300-to-400-page notebook (it’s longer than my novel) that I used extensively in putting Casey’s Last Chance together. It includes roughly sketched chapter outlines, short biographies of all major characters, with telling details about them, hand-drawn maps of significant locations, lists of pertinent historical dates and facts, clipped photos of real people who I think looked like my characters, other notes, jottings, reminders, daily schedules, etc. Someday I’m sure it will be in the Smithsonian Institute!
I wrote an earlier unpublished novel that included several of the characters from this book—Casey Eubanks, Orella Weicker, Clyde Point—and I wanted to see what more life had in store for them. That earlier novel was in essence a prequel to Casey’s Last Chance. In Casey’s character there’s an element of a real-life person who was the black sheep of the Atkins family, a man in and out of trouble—and prison—most of his life. A family member told me of his sad end, how he’d come home after all his dissolute years but was turned out by relatives and put on a bus to a distant city. Soon after he got there, he died of a heart attack while walking down a street. Our relatives had to pool resources to pay for a grave and headstone. An inverted version of the prodigal son! In writing this book, I wanted to wrestle some with that story. I wanted to see whether someone ever gets beyond redemption. I also wanted to depict how forces outside of ourselves sometimes affect our fates as well, and they, as much as any individual evil, need to be exposed.
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
A late friend and fellow writer, Marty Fishgold, once told me that we spend the first half of our lives going to the carnival, and the last half telling others what the carnival was like. I don’t know that there’s an even or clear divide between those parts of our lives, but I do think experience is necessary for a writer if he or she is going to have anything interesting or worthwhile to tell. Exceptions exist, of course. The great German poet Hölderlin, who lived in a sort of castle of the mind much of his life, would be one. My characters are sort of Frankensteinian, made up of bits and pieces of people I’ve encountered in life with additional elements pulled from the air. I’ve driven the roads Casey’s travels in my book, at night and in bad storms, too, without his utter desperation, of course, but some of his and the other characters’ emotions and passions aren’t alien to me. If they were, how could I write effectively about them?
Describe your working environment.
I saw a photograph once of E.B. White writing in this bare room with nothing on the walls and nothing on his desk but pen and paper. I understand where he’s coming from, but I’m totally different. My office at home is crammed with books that have been important to me in my life, baskets filled with notes from past and current writing projects. The walls are covered with drawings, photographs, posters, artifacts such as my German great-grandfather’s old pipe, a painting from Kazakhstan that a student gave me, a tobacco stick, an Argentine carnival mask, a curved knife I bought in Thieves’ Alley in Hong Kong decades ago, my late dad’s fedora. These are not distractions. They’re all part of the world I inhabit when I sit down to enter another world and create. On the wall next to my desk is a calendar, and I mark in red each day how much time I devoted to writing. The markings on that calendar will tell me at the end of the month how much I worked or goofed off.
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
As a young man I was attracted to existentialism as a philosophy and as a way to understand our human struggle. I studied it here in the States and in Germany. Each of us has this lonely quest to live meaningful, authentic lives that also are determined by our relationship to others. I inevitably put my characters in situations where they question themselves and then have to make decisions that will tell a lot about who they are. They make mistakes, like we all do, but then what do they do? I don’t necessarily believe writing should be a didactic thing where your purpose is to teach, improve or whatever. If it’s not a good read, the writer has failed. Humor should be a part of it, too—it’s human after all–and I feel there are a handful of good laughs in Casey’s Last Chance despite its overall darkness. I want what I write to be more than just a good read. To paraphrase the late Catholic Worker artist and journalist Chuck Trapkus, the writer should want to write well what needs writing.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve been fortunate in the past decade or so to have a couple very close friends who are both published novelists with a bent like mine toward noir, hardboiled writing. When I thought I had finished an early draft of Casey’s Last Chance, writer Ace Atkins (no relation) told me, “Joe, you’re only halfway there,” and he was right. I had taken Casey to a profound moment in his life, but then what was the rest of the story? I hadn’t told it yet. Now I have. Follow your story to its ultimate conclusion, and even then there could be some unresolved issues that you may have to address in another book. Also, within the book, keep things moving and don’t get bogged down and overload the reader. Sprinkle your magic throughout the book, telling the reader just enough to keep him begging for more. Then, when the time is truly right, deliver the power punch!
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I’m a journalist as well as a fiction writer, and I’m in the process of wrapping up a collection of essays by me and other writers from more than a half-dozen countries on the global issue of migrant workers. I’m the editor and creator of the project. As for fiction, I’ve written two of what I hope will be a series of interconnected short stories that feature the nephew of Martin Wolfe, my reporter in Casey’s Last Chance, and a somewhat jaded police detective in Memphis who find themselves dealing with modern-day criminals and assorted broken people, much like Martin Wolfe and FBI agent Hardy Beecher did back in 1960.