Reviews

I get a lot of emails from readers telling me what they enjoyed, what actions or characters they identified with and even some editing advice. I like those emails. They let me know my work has found its audience. I don’t get a lot of reviews. This morning I woke up to this review on Instagram. It’s a very cool way to start the day. If you liked A Hell Called Ohio, please consider taking a few moments and reviewing it on Amazon or wherever you found it. Those reviews really help.

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Love

I have a problem. I like to get up early and write but I also like to sleep next to my wife. My other job takes me away from home a lot. I’ve spent years away from my wife. I don’t like this. I often think of the scene in Dr. Zhivago when Klaus Kinski sees the old couple snuggling on the train. It’s cold intellectualism versus real human warmth.

There will be many more nights that I spend alone in a sleeping bag far from home. This knowledge sends me back to bed or keeps me in it.

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Becoming a better marksman

I’ve been shooting since I was a little boy. I’ve shot a lot and the more you shoot, the more you realize there is more to learn. Usually I run my pistol but lately I’ve been trying to become a better rifleman. This fall I took Insights ‘Intermediate Defensive Rifle’. It was an excellent outdoor class that stretched our skills to 600 yards. At that distance you have to trust your fundamentals and math. Excellent class. Also, when Kell packs me lunch it gets quite civilized.

Reading books I don't like- it's a writer's obligation

I read books. It’s my job. I try to read books that will push me, that will improve my game. Mostly I read old books but I do try to stay up on what is considered good or relevant at the moment. Most of the writers I admire are dead. I was lucky enough to read some of them while they were still alive.

Here is my advice to a non-professional reader- don’t read bad books. If a book insults you, insults your intelligence or your knowledge of life- put that fucker down. This is different from books that challenge you, challenge your thought, your opinions. Read those. Understand another point of view. By ‘bad’ books I mean something that rings hollow or deformed. Many shallow books masquerade as deep. They are written by children with no real life experience. I think Jim Harrison called it ‘picking scabs’. Everyone knows the person that likes to rehash embarrassing stories from someone’s past, usually in public, and to everyone’s discomfort. Why are they doing this? Is there a lesson to be learned? No, it’s to bring you down to their level. If you come across a book like that- put it down. I mean that in the animal sense. Take it out back and put it down.

Unfortunately I have to read and finish bad books. They eat my soul and make me angry. Often they are successful and well reviewed. I shrug my shoulders and move on. Don’t let them drag you down.

Have you ever read a book so bad that you wanted to destroy it? I’m not saying I want all copies wiped from the earth but only that I want my copy killed so my soul would be free of responsibility for someone else picking that one copy up. I can be creative in making these books disappear.

Sundog by Jim Harrison

I still get phone calls for my brother-in-law Kyler.  We started a construction business together but it never went far.  And then Kyler died.  I found this copy of Sundog in his office.  I gave it to him years ago but I'm not sure he ever read it.  One of the characters is a construction/civil engineering gypsy.  I think it is a great novel but has never gotten much critical love.  Sometimes I think I like the wrong books.

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Interview with James Steel

James Steel, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania and owner of Bas' Barbell Club, recently interviewed me for his blog.  It was a pleasure.  James is an excellent judge of literature and a very insightful reader.  I really enjoy when readers reach out to say what they liked or didn't and most importantly what mattered.  Check it out at:

www.basbarbell.com

 John Hamilton Interview

I was on Amazon the other day, looking at book recommendations according to my purchases, and I see a book called A Hell Called Ohio. It's 4.99 on Kindle, and I read the reviews. It was cheap, and I liked the reviews, so I bought it.

The book blew me away. It hooked me from the start.  I couldn't put it down.

I wrote a review on Amazon and bought the hard copy. Then I emailed the author, John Hamilton, telling him how much I enjoyed the book and asked John if I could interview him for my blog. He agreed, so here we go. 

His answers are unique and well thought out.

JS:  John, I love your book, A Hell Called Ohio. I was thinking about this last night: To me, the book is about a very unique man, Warrell. He lives in a refurbished gas station, he loves his dog,  and he works in a metal factory. He has saved enough money to not work, but he loves working so much that he sometimes works overtime for free. He fights his friend because fighting makes him feel alive. He loves the library and reading, he can get emotional (crying and dancing alone), without being seen as soft. He has a relationship with two girls at once, he walks out his door and takes his dog hunting, He is a deep thinker and highly intelligent and blows away the typical stereotype of a blue collar worker that one is used to reading about in print.  Does that sort of sum it up? 

JH:  Better than I’ve ever been able to sum it up.  Can I use that as my elevator pitch?

JS: John, we have to do the perfunctory tell me a little bit about yourself.

JH: I grew up in the industrial Midwest and went to Michigan State where I studied history, philosophy and religion.  I still read those disciplines.  My mom was a school teacher so there was never a question of not going to school.  My parents were cool though.  They said go, study what interests you and then figure out what to do.  I’ve been in trucks and construction ever since.

I moved to Washington and got my Class A CDL at 22.  That’s the earliest age you can be insured.  I spent a couple years driving long haul and then drove in-state flatbed and beer.  You get real good at throwing chains on if you’re going over the pass every day.  Eventually, I got a good union job driving concrete mixers, dump truck and boom truck in Seattle.  In between I worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and California.  After that I switched trades and entered the apprenticeship in the Operator’s union.  I worked dirt, mostly bulldozers, for a couple years and then got my crane licenses.  I never journeyed out though and I regret that.  Life just took over.  Now I split my time between the military and writing.

JS: Where did you grow up?

JH: I grew up in Saginaw Michigan.  My dad was a foundry man for GM.  He got transferred to the Defiance OH plant in my junior year of high school so I graduated down there.

JS: Biggest influences growing up?

JH: Personally?  My dad and uncles.  My grandmothers for sure.  Professionally it was Hemingway.  I loved his style.  It was true art.

JS: How did you get interested in going into the armed forces?

JH: I come from a military family.  My dad and uncle were army infantry officers and another couple uncles were marines.  I always thought that was my path and then the cold war ended, the wall came down, when I was in college so I shelved it for a few years.  I joined at 35‑- the latest age possible.  The war was on and I was already a construction dude so I joined the reserve as a heavy equipment operator.  My plan was to do one deployment, do my duty, and then get out.  But I liked it.  The military feels natural to me.  My dad said the same thing.  I just made Senior Chief and I’m in it for twenty.  I’ve been to Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea and all over the US.  Time flies but war and separation really make you appreciate family and home.  I’m a big fan of the US.  “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for.” - Hemingway

JS: You are a Seabee. What are the duties that they perform? 

JH: We are the Navy’s combat engineers.  We started in WW2 when the Navy needed construction pros to build bases across the Pacific island campaign.  They recruited experienced tradesmen instead of kids.  The reserves are similar to the WW2 units.  We can out build the active duty guys because we’ve done the job for money, we work smarter and faster.

My favorite duty was drilling water wells in Afghanistan.  After decades of war there was no infrastructure and no water records so we had to prospect.  It was like landing on the moon, but with more rockets and mortars.  We worked 24/7 for months, the drill never stopped.  We got good water and had a hole collapse from lack of supplies.  We even invented some tooling and techniques.  My team had the record for deepest well at the time, 2040’.  We stopped there because we ran out of drill steel.  The first thousand feet was through alluvial layers and was a real bitch.  We broke bits and had a bunch of problems.  We hit solid granite at 1000’, hard cased the hole and then threw on our air hammer.  We did the second thousand in a few days with two giant air compressors run parallel to clear the hole.  That was good living.

Have you ever read ‘Artemis, the honest well digger’ by John Cheever?  I’m not a Cheever fan but that one is real good.

JS: How did you get started as a writer?

JH: My sixth grade teacher read The Outsiders aloud to us.  That was it.  I was hooked.  From then on I knew I wanted to write but it was just a matter of how and about what.  

JS: Biggest influences as a writer?

JH:  Walt Whitman, Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls), Jim Harrison (Sundog), Bukowski (Post Office), Larry Brown (Fay, Joe), Don Pollack (Heavenly Table and Devil All the Time)- he’s the best thing going right now.  I’m definitely a fan of the Americans but also Houellebecq, Solzhenitsyn, Larteguy, Brodsky…

JS: Besides writing, what else do you enjoy doing?

JH: I’m getting back into hunting and fishing.  I bought a little 16’ fishing boat with a buddy I used to commercial fish with.  We go after Dungeness crab.

Mostly I do gun stuff. I take classes and shoot contests (speed steel, 3 gun, trap and skeet). Shooting is a lifetime skill and you can always learn and get better.

Also, I run and work out.  The military has a culture of fitness that I really enjoy.  There’s no excuse for a fat service member.  We get paid to work out and your strength or endurance may make a life or death difference.  More professions need dress uniforms as a literal gut check.

I like to run. Five to eight miles is my sweet spot and I listen to books.  You can get through some serious classics if you devote an hour or more a day.  The Navy’s standards are a little skewed but you have to learn to play the game.  Twice a year I have to weigh in at a target of 186 pounds.  I like to lift the classic three- squat, deadlift and overhead press and hover around 200 when I’m committed.  My last weigh in was right after SERE school and I had just shed 15 pounds in a week and nailed 186.  But it’s getting tougher as I get older.  Exercise is the best thing for mental health.

JS: What is your writing process? Are you a morning or evening writer? Do you listen to music while writing? If so, what type of music?

JH: I’m a morning guy if I can get out of bed.  I really like waking up next to my wife.  Years away make you appreciate that.  Remember that scene in Doctor Zhivago when Klaus Kinski is looking at the old couple snuggling in the freight car?  I always think of that.  Love is ungovernable by the wealthy, the coastal elites or whoever is the bad guy de jour.

Anyway, morning.  The earlier the better.  Music comes and goes.  I listened to Son Volt’s Trace a lot writing Hell.  It fits the mood.  Sometimes when writing I listen to classical or metal but mostly it’s silence. I was into punk rock in my twenties in Seattle. We had a lot of good shows- good healthy violence with a little street fighting thrown in.  Then I moved to rockabilly and now it’s mostly country.  That seems like a natural progression for a lot of my friends.

JS: I enjoyed the hell out of the Warell character. He understands the primal nature of man as evidenced from fighting his friend for the joy of it, but he is a learned guy, smart and also sensitive. What was your thought process when you were creating his character?

JH: He just seems like a normal guy to me, like one of my friends.  I knew what I didn’t want. It pisses me off when I read these books supposedly about working people and they are all Neanderthals, or junkies, or Klansmen and all stupid.  It’s a caricature.  It’s popular with the MFA crowd.  I’d bet they’ve never worked a real job in their lives and have soft hands.  That shit is unhealthy for society in general.  Kids read these books and if affects how they view the world.  We need to bring back shop class but that’s another discussion.

JS: I saw on your blog a picture of you and your buddy all bloodied up but with your arms around each other. Can you tell me about the picture and how this all went down?

JH: Ha! That’s a long tradition of battling every few years.  It started one fishing season in Wrangell or Ketchikan Alaska.  We get drunk and then see who wins.  I usually lose.  That picture was after a few months of boxing and I kept working angles on him.  A little knowledge goes a long way.  Mostly that picture is of brotherly love.  He grew up very rough but is one of the smartest and well-read people I know, definitely the toughest.

JS:  Warrell’s life almost reads like a diary. Is any of the book based on your personal experiences?

JH:  Hmmm, all?  Not really but everything comes from something similar, maybe just the emotion.  I’ve worked in factories, had crazy dogs, wanted to be a better worker than I was and dated waitresses.  I even dated a librarian but she was nothing like Emily except for the long red hair.  When you are a kid and want to be a writer you hear, over and over, write about what you know.  Then, for me at least, I read all these popular books (pretending to be literature) about suburban angst and sexual frustration and wondered how I would ever write literature.  Reading authors like Bukowski, Harrison and Brown gave me the idea that I could really write about what I know.  

JS: I love the bar scene, where the guy sits in Warrell’s girlfriend’s seat. In a typical book, it would have ended in a huge brawl or someone getting hit on the head with a beer bottle. But the situation is diffused without violence which happens in real life 99% of the time. To me, that encapsulates the “realness” of the book. And instead of it being boring, it actually made me think of the book as almost nonfiction. Real stuff day after day. Not crazy dramatic, but life that happens like it really happens. Was that intentional?

JH: Warrell is a smart guy.  Smart enough to know violence isn’t a half measure game.  To win you have to go faster and with more violence of action than the other guy.  Is that worth someone’s seat?  No way.  He’s just tired and wants his woman to love him.  The college kid might as well be the DMV, just another annoyance. 

JS: Another scene that I really enjoyed was the scene with the guns in Warrell’s place and Emily asking about them. I was like, oh no, its going to be an antigun scene and I am going close the book, but Warrell handled it just right with Emily, knowing that all of it was a little scary for her, so he was sensitive to that, but matter of factly explains the way in which he uses the guns.  Very well done. Not a question about it, just wanted to compliment you on how well you wrote it. And it made me keep reading!

JH: Thanks.  That wouldn’t even occur to me.  That scene is true in the sense that I’ve always had guns around and they have no aura to me.  They’re just tools.  Getting paid to carry a gun really changes things too.  It feels natural to have a gun on your hip.  You watch a bunch of Americans standing around discussing a professional problem with their shooting hand resting on the butt of a pistol and it seems almost genetic.  Afghans are the only other people that seem so wedded to guns but they have crazy, unsafe habits.

JS: What’s the next book about? How far along are you?

JH: It’s about three ex-fisherman living in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.  One drives a concrete mixer.  There’s a teamster strike, waitresses, punk rock and motorcycles.  Hmm, I wonder where I get these ideas?  I hope it’s not an elegy.  The neighborhood as I still imagine it hardly exists anymore.  I’d say it’s 80% done.  I want to have it finished in the next couple months.  I’m scheduled to take another team out next year.

JS: I just want to thank you for the opportunity to interview you for the blog. I hope this helps you sell a few books!

JH: Thanks brother.




Literature

I write literature.  I don't write noir, action, mystery, hard-boiled, smut, etc.  It may be confusing that my characters don't live in the suburbs and deal with issues of angst.  Literature is the exploration of meaning and the examination of of the 'human condition', i.e. life.  Life happens everywhere.  It happens in war, in factories and on fishing boats.  I'm not so sure it happens in the suburbs or universities.

Don't read all day

I saw this sticker on a street sign next to our neighborhood bar in the Irish Channel.  Although I admire the intent and it would be good for business this is not what you want to do.  The first step in understanding life is to live it.  You need to leave your room and live.  Love, hate, toil, fight, lift weights, work with your hands.  Have relationships with family, friends and lovers.  This is especially bad advice for writers.  If you are going to write literature you need to know something about people.

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Happiness

Recently I was reading Jordan Peterson's '12 Rules for Life'.  (Actually, I'm going to rat myself out here- I was listening to it.  I like to listen to books at the gym.  Sometimes I snort or start laughing mid-squat at something in a book and other disciples of iron must think me daft but it has always worked for me as my doctor said- whatever you're doing keep doing it.)  Anyway, he addresses how the pursuit of happiness is a pointless goal.  Ha!, I snorted.  That's exactly what Warrell thought in Hell as he worked.

Happiness! The word itself made me angry. Emotion as a goal. I snorted under my shield and fogged the lens. I couldn’t fathom why the founding fathers had included its pursuit. Why not honor, contentment, or dignity in death? I blamed Jefferson, the hippie. Happiness achieves nothing, creates nothing, not even its own permanence. Happiness never laid a brick or poured a wall. Happiness never founded iron or joined metal. Happiness never felled a tree or won a battle. Happiness was not in Glenn’s heart as he circled us.

If not happiness, what then? I was really up to speed now, tearing through my pile of parts. I hardly looked at each one. They jumped through my hands. Burning metal showered around me. The finished pile grew. There was progression. Progress? Progress towards the grave. We build. We do. We want and we suffer. But progress entails a belief in something outside, something bigger, a culture, a society, a civilization. 

More Truck Problems

Update on my injector problem- I could say it is solved because someone stole my truck.  You know you are a devotee of the mechanical religion when your truck is stolen and you become concerned instead of angry.  I lay awake at night wondering if the new driver is waiting for the glow plugs and taking good care of her- wondering where she is, as if a one-ton diesel was an ex-lover with someone new.  And I wonder if the new lover knows what they've really got, if they really appreciate her.

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E.M. Cioran

Recently 'The School of Life' had a new E.M. Cioran documentary on youtube.  It reminded me of being young and reading Cioran because Jim Harrison liked Cioran and he was supposedly a philosopher and I was studying philosophy.  So off I went to find Cioran at used books stores- hunting the stacks for thought or the more rare find- women.  I read him but was never bowled over by his glorious pessimism.  So those books sit on my shelf next to the other thinkers I don't think about anymore- the German Idealists, the Buddhists, and the moderns.

But the documentary had a quote- "Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone."  Now, that's a gem.  Worth writing down.  As I work on the new book and the doubt monster that shares my office looks over my shoulder and asks, "What are you writing?  A labor history?  Porn?  A fishing screed?  A Clymer or Haynes manual?  Literature?"  That Cioran quote helps me tell the doubt monster to fuck off.  And if you don't know what a Clymer or Haynes manual is you probably aren't in my demographic.

Truck Problems

The damn check engine light came on and my diesel doesn't run so well some mornings.  Some things never change and truck problems are an eternal that I'll probably live with my whole life.  Granted this is the first truck that I've needed a laptop to diagnose.  I can hardly believe that I have an issue on my new truck- it's only 18 years old.  But that's the age of problems.  Still, I don't stress these things anymore than they are worth.  That's a benefit of getting older and having a lot of life experience.  I think back to my first truck that used to go through points like a pretty girl through boyfriends.  I carried a dwell meter and a timing light in my tool box and could get everything kosher on some side of the road between Washington, Michigan or California.  So I'll yank the valve covers off this truck and find out what the demon is and then be back on the road seeing the country and breathing easy.

Art and irrelevance

I don’t think there’s ever been such a rush towards insignificance in the name of the historical future as we’ve seen in the last fifteen years. The famous radicalism of sixties and seventies art turns out to have been a kind of dumbshow, a charade of toughness, a way of avoiding feeling. And I don’t think we are ever again obliged to look at a plywood box, or a row of bricks on the floor, or a video tape of some twit from the University of Central Paranoia sticking pins in himself, and think: ‘This is the real thing. This is the necessary art of our time. This needs respect.’ Because it isn’t, and it doesn’t, and nobody cares.  –Robert Hughes, Shock of the New

Deployment reads

Only an idiot goes to war without books.  Variety is key and throughout the months away books get shared or lost.  People will send me books and I'll send some home to lighten my load.  I remember reading 'The White Spider' while waiting for a helicopter on a trip around Kandahar.  Reading a mountain climbing book surrounded by sand and heat was soothing.

'The Sea-Wolf' by Jack London.  I don't know how many times I've read this.  Every couple years I pick it up and read it again.  My goal is to read the other stories included.  After I finish the title story.  Almost done.

'The Greek Way' and 'The Roman Way' by Edith Hamilton.  It's good to ponder civilization when surrounded by war. 

'Tribe' by Sebastian Junger.  My whole team read 'War' while we were in Afghanistan.  It was required before you were allowed to watch Restrepo.  The new book has been recommended by several people.

'Cross of Iron' because why not? 

'Up in the old hotel' by Joseph Mitchell.  This book was given to me by my friend Michael.  I've been reading it and trying to understand what it means to be a better writer.

Bukowski because, again, why not?

'Sapiens' by Harari.  It's good to ponder the big questions

Fighting and violence

I like fighting- but only my friends. A lot has been written about fighting and violence.  I'll just speak to my own life.  I played football as a boy.  I loved the sport.  I was never fast or particularly talented but I could hit.  That was my specialty- the transference of pain.  I never hated the opponent.  Often they were cross town friends.  But I liked to hit.  I didn't know the importance then of a violent outlet for young men.  Right after I hung up my pads for the last time I went to college and entered a dark time in my life, a clueless, searching time.  I studied philosophy, I became a vegetarian (not very well), I had hippy thoughts.  It was a dark time.  I left college and that came to an end.

I discovered punk rock.  I rediscovered violence.  The violence of the pit and the violence of the street.  Good times.

I was a commercial fisherman in Alaska with Jeff.  Different boats but same fleet.  One night after drinking too much in Craig or Ketchikan we got into a fight.  It's the fight between Mario and Warrell in 'Hell'.  And every couple years we rematch.  Jeff usually wins.

But this year's bout took place at the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club after a speed steel match and way too much Jack and Coke.  And this year I won.  Someday I'll be too old to fight and I don't like that idea.

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The Centurions by Jean Larteguy

Have you ever not wanted to put a book on the shelf because you would be admitting that it is done?  This is how I feel about Lartéguy's The Centurions.  I drug my feet reading the last 50 pages because I didn't want it to end.  Luckily for me I have The Praetorians pre-ordered.  It comes out on June 7th.

These books have been long out of print yet have remained favorites of the counter-insurgency and small wars crowd.  Generals Petraeus and McChrystal are famously fans.

The novel follows a group of French parachute officers from the fall of Dien Bien Phu, through Communist imprisonment, to the battle of Algiers.  Lartéguy was a soldier who fought with the Free French in WW2.  His book is anti-communist and anti-leftist-intellectual which may explain why it has been out of print for so long.  One of the fundamental questions that gets mentioned around this book is: what happens when a class of soldiers realizes that the society they serve is no longer worthy of their sacrifice?  The legions returned to Rome and the Paras threatened to jump on Paris.

"nothing great, alas, has ever emerged from peace... Peace has always been the reign of mediocrities, and pacifism the bleating of a herd of sheep which allow themselves to be led to the slaughter-house without defending themselves."

"I've made two mistakes, gentlemen. I've confided in a woman and I've slept in a bed."

"Capitalist system... using money and technology as a substitute for faith, forgetting that the masses are the mainspring of all endeavor, corrupting them with modern amenities instead of keeping them wiry and alert with the offer of some valid purpose in life... The civilization of the frigidaire and the bidet."

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Jack Donovan

Had drinks with Jack Donovan the other night.  He is the author of 'The Way of Men'.  Read that book!  Talked a lot about publishing and self publishing.  Jack sold over forty thousand copies of his first book. I can't even imagine that number.  And it was without a publisher.  A few days later he talked about the subject on his podcast and even mentioned our conversation.  I'm the guy who writes books for working class men who don't read.  Here's a link to that podcast => Play in new window  We also talked about the possibility of an honorable death in the post nation-state world and the importance of audio books.

More books

The Centurions was out of print for a long time.  It was one of the books I searched for in used shops.  I wanted to re-publish it on Greenside but couldn't find the rights holder.  Penguin beat me to it.  It's a classic of counter-insurgency and finally I get to read it.  I listened to On Killing at the gym and running and am reading On Combat (it's the same thing isn't it- reading and listening?).  Grossman is such a good writer- clear, clever, funny. Welcome Thieves was written by my friend Sean.  I like it that all my writer friends are more successful than me.  I don't know why.  I just do.  And I'm learning the myths of my people.  Writing a book set in Ballard motivated me to do this.