Southwest of Louisville’s downtown, beyond the mainstream whimsy of Fourth Street Live! and the historic significance of, say, The Seelbach, lies a part of town with a decidedly industrial edge. Framed by the river, the interstate and a series of intricately connected train tracks, it is a far cry from the pastoral settings that inspired Thomas Merton and Wendell Berry to write about Kentucky life. Rolling farmland and fenced-in acreage have been replaced by pavement leading to factory and warehouse openings. The men who work this land wear do-rags, hard hats and steel-toed boots. They punch in every morning, eat lunch in windowless rooms, and punch out every night. It is here, among the rugged industry of Louisville’s southwest side, that award-winning writer Frank Bill finds inspiration for his fiction.
Frank Bill’s debut collection of short stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana (published Aug. 2011 by FSG Originals), blew up in 2011, winning numerous awards, including Seminary Co-op Best Book of 2011, one of MysteryPeople’s Top Ten Books, and Boston Phoenix’s Season’s Best Book. It was also named one of GQ’s Books of the Year. The book, a series of semi-related short stories with titles such as “Officer Down (Tweakers)” and “Old Testament Wisdom,” has been praised for its raw, in-your-face depictions of Kentuckiana’s inhabitants—heroes who tend toward drinking problems, loveless marriages and violent tempers. They have names like Pitchfork and Moon. They kill or get killed at a whipsaw pace.
Bill grew up 30 minutes from downtown Louisville in Corydon, Ind., with no aspirations of becoming a writer. As a child, he did not consider himself to be much of a reader, either, although he enjoyed comics and true-crime books. As he aged, he read books about people he admired, such as boxer Muhammad Ali. He also became interested in psychology and Eastern thought. “I always liked books about why people did stuff or what they thought,” he said. Bill remembers always writing stories and keeping a journal. “I made stuff up and wrote it down, but I never kept any of it until I got older,” he said.
In 1995, 21-year-old Bill went to work in Louisville for what then was called United Catalysts, where his mother also worked. United Catalysts, which also was called Sud-Chemie before assuming its current name, Southern Clay Products, is a paint additive division based out of Texas that has been in operation since the 1940s. Bill has held various positions at Southern Clay Products in his 17 years there, his most recent as a member of the warehouse team. The warehouse of SCP is a series of long, labeled rows full of product skids, blue barrels of liquid additive or large bags of dry material, and it is where Bill spends his days driving a forklift and readying inventory.
While still in his early years of working at the plant, Bill discovered Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club. “I didn’t really start reading fiction until 1999 or 2000,” he said, but something in the author’s style resonated with Bill. He read everything Palahniuk had written and then moved on to authors such as Larry Brown and Charles Bukowski, crediting them, among others, as inspirations for his flawed protagonists worth rooting for.
He got out his old journals and began writing. He got a subscription to Writer’s Digest and started submitting his work. He submitted. And submitted. And submitted. “I failed miserably at first. But I wasn’t doing a lot of proofreading,” he said.
But some journal editors, even in their rejections, indicated that Bill had a knack for storytelling—kind words he credits with keeping him going in the early days. His first acceptance came in 2002 from the now-defunct Circle Magazine for his story “The Accident,” which Bill wrote after being involved in a night-shift explosion.
With the publication of Crimes in Southern Indiana in 2011, Bill now understands his recipe for success. He is a study in self-discipline and grounded living. He’s up each morning before 4 a.m. in order to get his writing done before he goes in for his 8 a.m. shift. Even then, he carries around a small moleskin journal at the warehouse, jotting down ideas or insights as things happen to him throughout the day. “Ninety percent of what I write about comes from something I heard about in real life,” he said. He limits his book-promotional appearances to remain focused on his job, his writing and Jennifer, his wife of 12 years.
Jennifer said Bill has always been a storyteller. When he talks about his characters, they sound more like old friends than figments of his imagination. His next project, Donnybrook, is due out in 2013. Much like Crimes in Southern Indiana, Donnybrook explores an out-of-the-ordinary hero in a less-than-identifiable conflict. It tells the story of Jarhead Earl, who spends his days working part-time at a scrap yard in Hazard, Ky., in order to support his girlfriend and children. His passion, however, is bare-knuckles boxing. When Jarhead learns of Donnybrook, a bare-knuckles boxing event in Indiana, he goes to extreme measures to get there. And it is at Donnybrook that he meets his nemesis, Chainsaw Angus, a failed logger/meth cook.
Bill is content to maintain his schedule, although, like most writers, he fantasizes about a future where he is writing full-time. He writes daily and is working on a screenplay for Donnybrook. Bill loves to get letters from people who relate to Jarhead Earl. “I write for everybody, but I like to know that people like me are reading,” he said. “As long as you’re true to what you’re writing, that’s the important thing.”
Follow Frank Bill at frankbillshouseofgrit.blogspot.com, www.facebook.com/#!/frank.bill.16, and twitter.com/houseofgrit.