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AUTHOR Q&A

Questions and Answers about Paul Barile's debut novel My Brother's Hands

WHO WOULD YOU LIKEN YOUR STYLE TO?

As a young man – I always had a paperback in back pocket. Typically the titles ranged from “Young and Wild” to the seminal rebellion tome 1963’s “The Young Punks” (edited by Leo Margulies). That book was billed as “The savage, frightening story of the teenage jungle.”  I remember my mother complaining that I was reading trash and my father reminding her at least I was reading. 

When the high school started mandating S.E. Hinton books on the reading list – I was in my element. I had no idea that those iconic novels would start me on the path to raising my standards when it came to making literary choices. (So many books – so little time.)

By the 1970s I began to saw my way through Stephen King and Douglas Adams. John Irving was instrumental in my turning a corner from whatever book was being passed around by family and friends to seeking out books that spoke to me. This led me to E.L. Doctorow and William Goldman.

I like to think Doctorow was an influence, but that would be giving myself more credit than I am ready for. Goldman had impact on my work if only his freewheeling storytelling style.

In the early '90s I was at an airport waiting for a friend when I happened on a newspaper article about Nelson Algren. To celebrate the ten year anniversary of his death there was about to be a rerelease of many of his early titles. I read the article feverishly knowing that my literary journey would never be the same again.

His influence on me begins with the melancholy spirit that pervades much of my work. He paints pictures in sepia tones. Much of what I do would be in the same bin in the art store as most of what he has written.

His obvious love of his characters is an enormous part of all of my writing. You can’t – as a writer – fully realize character if you don’t love them. You don’t have to like them – or the things they do (although I believe Algren did) but you have to love them enough to explore them and paint the picture that is their story. There is also his subtle humor that will go unnoticed if you’re not tuned in.

Then I discovered Charles Bukowski. One of the biggest lessons I learned from him is to just write. Just write. Don’t talk about it – just write. Just keep pounding the paper with the pencil until the pencil is gone and then get a new pencil.

Suddenly – and I am not exactly sure how – I was introduced to Don Robertson’s work. I was not ready for these books. I had no idea that someone could write books that were so rich and full of life and color and texture. It was like he was teaching me the craft through reading his work. His Morris Bird III trilogy was set in Cleveland, Ohio and revolves around major events in the city’s history: the East Ohio Gas explosion, the Indians winning the pennant, and the Korean War.

“The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread (1965)” is the first of these novels. Even though in actuality I was three years old when he wrote it – it seemed like a fresh work – almost a genre on its own. “The Sum and Total of Now” (1966) I read in one sitting on a late night bus ride home from (coincidentally) Cleveland. Finally “The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened” (1970) was the final book in the Morris Bird III trilogy. I was captivated – absolutely and completely captivated.

As with all things coming full circle – it was Stephen King who is responsible for the resurgence in the interest of Robertson’s work.  

I like to think that as I continue my journey – there are parallels drawn between Robertson’s body of work and my body of work. Of course I also wish that someone would draw parallels between my bass playing and Paul McCartney’s bass playing. 

WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR or AUTHORS?

Trying to pick a favorite author is like trying to pick your favorite slice from a single pizza pie. Different authors serve different purposes in my life. As my literary diet is as diverse as my culinary diet – I have to have more than one favorite author.

Michael Connelly makes for a great appetizer. His work is tasty and enjoyable without being cumbersome. His Harry Bosch series is exciting  – if just a shade darker than standard page-turners. The stories are complex while remaining accessible. He elevates the craft of procedural novels gun and holster above his peers.

For a good hearty meal – you can never go wrong with Nelson Algren. His gritty approach to the underside of our lives is honest and sincere and doesn’t flinch at a sock in the jaw. He’s not an academic so much as he is an urban anthropologist. His work seeks to reflect the existence of as well as defend the actions of the denizens of the barrooms and the back alleys and the boxing gyms of post-war Chicago.

His unflinching storytelling style has been imitated over the years, but it has never been duplicated.

John Grisham is always a just dessert.

I have to file a disclaimer here that states that I do not believe Grisham is a great writer. He is like a pop star or a Hostess cherry pie. He cranks out likable stuff with very little depth. It all tastes good – but it is mostly just a passing feeling. It is evokes momentary pleasure rather than lasting happiness. Great for the beach or a long train ride, Grisham offers a guilty vice.

Honorable mention (after dinner drink?) is Robert Crais. The Elvis Cole novels have developed into an entire universe of fun and engrossing mystery novels. The arc of Cole’s story – dating back about a dozen books – has been one of a character maturing right in step with the author who is going through the maturation prices son his own terms.  

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE BOOKS?

I absolutely enjoy reading biographies. I am also a big fan of true crime stories. These are both non-fiction forms – but they are entirely different in their approach to writing. Don’t even get me started on books about boxers and boxing.

Perhaps my favorite books are mid-century classics by the men and women who earned their stories the hard way. My personal favorite is Nelson Algren. I believe he is one of the most overlooked authors of the 20th century. His novel “The Man with the Golden Arm” won the inaugural National Book Award in 1950.  

My favorite book(s):

Never Come Morning
Nelson Algren

This examination of the Polish community in post-war Chicago is both poetic and brutal. The crush of life wrestles with the hope of love in a tragic but lyrical story. Bruno “Lefty” Bicek is a prisoner in a world – at least to some degree – of his own making. His struggle is the framework for Algren to give the disenfranchised a voice in the literary landscape. The stubborn insistence that love will conquer is a steady theme for me. I believe reading this work a young man had much to do with that idea.  

Bummy Davis vs. Murder, Inc.:

The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-Fated Prizefighter
Ron Ross  

This is the true story of Al “Bummy” Davis and the sacrifices he made to earn his shot in the ring. The writing is crisp and compelling. The character development is so complete – closing the book often felt like hanging up the phone with a friend.

The final scene stayed with me for weeks after reading the book. The melancholy tone that pervades my work comes from books like this one.

The Time Traveler's Wife 
Audrey Niffenegger

This tender and nuanced book is a 300-page love song. Primarily set in Chicago – this book tells the story of Henry DeTamble and his strange reaction to stress which results in time travel on a very personal arc. The story of love here is as timeless as the protagonist tripping across time itself. At the same time it is completely new and uncharted based on DeTambles affliction. 

What inspired you to write the book?

When I began this process – I had two things in mind; make an opening sentence so unique it would engage readers immediately and secondly write something that would entertain myself. We write for ourselves and edit for our audience – I wanted to write something for myself that I could escape into and just laugh while, simultaneously, paying tiny tributes to people and things that mean a lot to me.  

As with most of my work – there are pop culture references (some more subtle than others) which were chosen as a way of reflecting the various influences on my work and my life in a wider sense than just writing. 

Tell us what the book is about...

My Brother’s Hands explores the story of young Peter Campbell and how his life gets turned upside-down when he realizes that he has incendiary stigmata. The stigmata is a phenomenon that some believe occurs spontaneously in the hands of people. In young Peter’s case – they are incendiary which means that – from time to time – he can shoot fire from his hands. 

Young Peter goes from being an outcast to the most popular guy in Orton’s Cove over night. He is ill-prepared to handle this new-found celebrity and less so when two dubious preachers of decide to take him under their wing and enlist him in their traveling revival show. 

Young Peter learns a lot about life – and about himself – as he and the merry band of soul stirrers travel the back roads bringing music and love and fire to the hearts and homes of people who are just looking for a little salvation.