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Author Interview: Richard Kadrey of Sandman Slim

Cover for first Sandman Slim novel

Hopefully by now the word has spread about how badass Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series is. But just in case my readers haven’t heard, let me just say a few things. Sandman Slim, aka James Stark, is the anti-hero that makes all other anti-heroes look like pussies. Imagine Hellboy, but substitute his kittens for a decapitated head side-kick that drinks a lot of beer, watches porn and curses more than an unreasonable amount and you will just start to get the idea.

Add to that a Los Angeles that is a hotbed of magical and supernatural activity. Demons and vampires don’t even begin to cover it. The magically-inclined members of the Sandman Slim universe are called the Sub Rosa, and they pretty much run the city of angels. Stark was a very talented Sub Rosa but eleven years ago the members of his coven conspired to send him to Hell. They succeeded, but what they didn’t plan on was that he would survive down there and then make it back to earth to seek revenge. But there is so much more going on in Los Angeles these days and a man with the talents of James Stark has a destiny larger than revenge. And as Stark’s friend Vidocq so aptly points out, “Revenge is never what you think it is going to be.”

The Sandman Slim series is a noir-revenge-thriller for the Evil Dead generation. It’s righteously irreverent, unapologetically blasphemous, exceptionally violent, and really really funny in that “I can’t believe he just did that” kind of way. It conjures up all kinds of conflicting feelings within me, like making me want to join a motorcycle gang whose mission is to save the rainforest. Or dress up and have afternoon tea on the terrace whilst listening to The Cramps at a volume that really pisses off the neighbors. It makes me want to be just a little bit evil, like that Eartha Kitt song. It makes me want to be that rebel that also saves the whole damn world. And thank my lucky stars, the Dino De Laurentiis company is adapting this into a film. Can I get a “Hell yeah!”?

Cover for the second book in the series

The first in the series, simply titled Sandman Slim, introduces us to Stark, his universe, his misfit band of allies, and the source of his desire for revenge, as well as something much bigger that his nemesis has his hands in. The second book, Kill The Dead, brings Lucifer to Los Angeles. Stark, having made an impression on the big guy while down in Hell all those years, is brought in to be his bodyguard. And oh yeah, Los Angeles is also being overrun by a zombie horde. The third in the series, Aloha From Hell, Lucifer has made it back to Heaven, God is on vacation, and it’s up to Stark to prevent the sides of good and evil from reigning complete destruction down upon every living thing. It’s pretty epic, but you don’t have to take my word for it. William Gibson himself called it a “dirty-ass masterpiece.”

So it gave me a great deal of pleasure, and more than a little nervous excitement, to be able to talk to the wickedly smart and super-nice guy that is the creator of Sandman Slim, Richard Kadrey.

Nerdlocker (NL): How would you describe Sandman Slim to those in the Nerdlocker audience that are unfamiliar with your work?

Richard Kadrey (RK): Probably the same way I describe it in Hollywood now. Imagine if Harry Potter was an L.A. street punk who spent most of his time hustling drinks and girls and stuff and didn’t have much of a care in the world. And never had any formal training, was just incredibly talented, and then went to Hell. And then he came back very pissed off. That’s James Stark, and that’s the basis of Sandman Slim. A man who comes back from Hell to get revenge on the people who sent him there and the people who killed his girlfriend. The whole thing sort of starts on that premise.

NL: I read your blog and saw the list of films referenced in the Sandman Slim novels. Would you say you are a film Nerd and how much would you say cinema influences your writing?

RK: I am a film Nerd and it has a tremendous influence on my writing. I prefer telling stories in a visual way and trying to explain things through the visuals rather than sitting down and explaining every single detail with words, for instance deep emotional explanations of everything. I’d rather let the character’s actions let you know what they are thinking and what their attitude is rather than having a long emotional soliloquy. Even though there are a lot of emotional soliloquies, I try to keep them very specific. They’re only there when they need to be rather than wandering on and on about everything. Whenever I can I’d rather have a character’s gesture, the way they pick something up or look at somebody, let you know what they’re thinking. In the way film is when you see a character’s eyes, when you see someone do something small, a small gesture, picking up a cup, slamming down a cup. Letting you know what that character is thinking without actually saying it.

Cover for the third book in the series

NL: The books do have a very cinematic feel to them. Did you always have the idea that you wanted it made into a movie?

RK: Well all writers want their books to be made into movies. Just on the most mercenary basis you get a lot of money when when someone makes your book into a movie. So yeah, every writer wants their books made into movies whether they admit it or not, Alan Moore aside, but even Alan Moore is doing some movie work right now. So it all comes around sooner or later.

NL: Despite all the times he says he hates all the movies made from his work he still goes and lets another movie be made of his work.

RK: Yeah, exactly. It’s hard to say no, you know, and I love movies and I’ve been working with the people so I love the process and it’s really fascinating to watch it all happen.

NL: Sandman Slim is currently being adapted for film. Did you get to write the screenplay, or did you at least have input into the screenplay?

RK: I had input into the screenplay. I’ve consulted with them on and off since the beginning.  They’ve been really cool about calling me in and asking me about ideas and what I think about certain things. How people should talk and react. So, the movie is not going to be the book, the movie is going to be from the book, if that makes sense. It’s definitely going to be in the spirit of the book, so…

NL: That sounds a bit like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the film is nothing like the book but it’s so very much in the spirit of the book that I loved it anyway.

RK: Yeah, it’s that kind of thing where it’s a riff on the book instead of any kind of literal translation of the book.

NL: I feel like if they honor Sandman Slim’s character it will probably be pretty good.

RK: And that has been the biggest challenge, trying to help them with that. And I agree, if they can get Stark right then a lot of the rest of it will just come.

NL: Are you at liberty to say who is writing it?

RK: No, not right now. None of those details are being made public at this time.

NL: So what made you decide to go with the De Laurentiis company?

RK: If you look at the history of what De Laurentiis has done, everything from Serpico to Silence of the Lambs, I mean they have a pretty good track record. And Dino De Laurentiis himself is an incredibly impressive human being. I mean, here’s a guy who practically invented the post-war Italian film industry. He made it work. You know, he took it from this little boutique industry to a real international force for cinema. That was him who figured out how to do that. So the guy is really impressive and I was immediately attracted to working with someone like that.

NL: Do you have an idea of who you would like to play Sandman Slim, if you could choose?

RK: That’s one of those things that I will never talk about. If you notice in the books Stark actually has very little physical description.

NL: I did notice.

RK: I mean, he has scars and things like that, but I was very, very careful. I wanted every reader to be able to make up their own Stark, so I won’t say who I think should play him in a movie because that would be a way of telling people what he looks like. Until the movie exists I don’t want to impose my idea of Stark on anyone.

Kadrey’s jacket photo

NL: I looked at your picture on the back cover and then every time I read the subsequent books I started thinking of him looking like you. 

RK: That’s cool. I’ve had so many funny descriptions of Stark at this point that that one is as good as any other. My favorite one, the one that I think is a really far afield one, is that he looks like Tom Waits. I thought that was pretty funny, but why not?

NL: Well, Stark definitely has the devil-may-care attitude that I often associate with Tom Waits.

RK: Yeah.

NL: In your process of coming up with the story did you know pretty much everything that was going to happen or did you surprise yourself with some of the things your characters ended up doing?

RK: Well I always outline because these books need to have a certain structure in that mystery-thriller sort of way. So I have to outline, but I always leave some holes in it or parts that are a little vague so I do have the ability to surprise myself. If I surprise myself I figure I can surprise the reader. So it’s a combination of outlining pretty thoroughly and then leaving gaps along the way.

NL: Was there anything major that happened that made you need to change some things later on?

RK: Not in terms of changing things later on but more in the developing of the cosmology of the universe. For instance, I knew originally that Lucifer was going to be a character but I didn’t know that God would be a character. God showing up was a surprise. But when God showed up it was completely logical.

NL: Yeah, to me it felt like you had planned it the whole time.

RK: I always think that it was planned on an unconscious level. There is that old Brian Eno expression, “Consider your mistake a hidden intention.” And I work from that premise a lot. That’s what outlining is for. You’re doing a certain amount of work with your conscious mind and then, if you let the book percolate, your unconscious mind is doing more work and will present you with what you need at the right moment. And that’s where, when God showed up in the form he showed up in, it was completely logical. It did feel completely planned to me, and I do believe, and not in a spooky woo-woo kind of way, but I do believe my brain was planning this without my conscious knowledge of it. And I’m quite happy with that.

NL: I like that you say, “not in a spooky woo-woo kind of way,” like it’s not a metaphysical kind of thing but it’s more like our brain is just a very complicated thing but it’s all there for us to access if we want to. I’m totally on board with that.

RK:  I think that’s part of what being a professional is… when you’ve done it long enough, even if you start writing without all the answers, knowing that when you need them and once you get there they will appear. Because you’ve done it enough and you’ve trained yourself enough, that you’re brain is working on something even if you’re not aware of it. You know, sometimes I’m surprised that it’s always worked. That once I get there I know what I need to do. And if I don’t get it right the first time I usually get it right the second time. I have to back up a little occasionally and take another run at it. But it’s always there.

NL:Yeah, you just have to trust your process.

RK: Exactly.

NL: The universe of Sandman Slim and all the mythology that goes along with it is pretty intense. The world you created seems to use a lot of established biblical and occult symbolism. Is this something you already had a lot of knowledge about or did you have to do a lot of research to incorporate it into the series?

RK: I did a lot of research. And a lot of it came about because when George W. Bush became president all the fundamentalists came to Washington and took over and I wanted to understand who those people were. I knew nothing about them. So I started reading about the history of the church and stuff just to try to understand where this fundamentalist strain came from. And reading about the history of the church will lead you inevitably to discovering all the books that were left out of the bible, all the heretical books. Once you get into the Book of Enoch, which is sometimes referred to as The Angel Book, that inevitably leads you to reading about Lucifer and you know, riffing off Paradise Lost the way I did. And once you get into Lucifer, oh my god, there’s a whole body of history of the development of evil, the descriptions of evil in the western world and the idea of who Lucifer is. All the insane mythology around him, I mean there was no settled mythology about who he was for a thousand years of western history. It really wasn’t until the church needed a boogeyman to control mass populations that they really solidified who Lucifer was. Taking bits and pieces of a lot of old earth spirits, the black beast of the forest… You know, creating that image of Lucifer that we have now. So yeah, that all goes back to George W. Bush becoming president and freaking me the fuck out.

NL: So are you telling me that we have George W. Bush to thank for the Sandman Slim novels?

RK: Absolutely! I owe George Bush a drink at some point.

Richard Kadrey in the light

NL: So my personal favorite character in the series, other than Stark himself, is Vidocq. Did you have a lot of incarnations of that character before the one that ended up in the book?

RK: No, Vidocq pretty much was who he is right from the very beginning. I mean, I read a lot about the real Vidocq so I kind of had a good picture of him in my brain before the book started.

NL: So he’s based on an actual person?

RK: Yeah, he’s a real person, aside from the 200-year-old part. But yeah, Eugene Vidocq is a real person. He was a famous French thief. He’s actually a really interesting person. Vidocq essentially invented modern forensics. He was an ex-thief who hated how the French police worked. Being a criminal and someone who knew other criminals, he understood that when there is a burglary there’s a method to the burglary. So say somebody broke in to the 2nd floor of a building and all the guys the police just arrested only break in on the 1st floor. He knew you had to have some skill to climb up a building to get in on the 2nd floor, and this person used these kinds of tools, and this person stole this kind of stuff. And each of those things are significant in figuring out who the actual criminal is. Whereas the French police would just go out and arrest everyone, every single thief in the city and just beat one up until they confessed. So, Vidocq ended up essentially putting together the whole concept of breaking down crimes into pieces, looking at evidence in pieces, and putting it together into a larger picture to figure out who committed what crime. And of course the French cops hated him for it. They adopted a lot of his methods but they still hated him because he had been a criminal. He is essentially responsible for the Surete, or the French FBI. I mean, that’s who he helped create.

NL: And what inspired you to put him in your story?

RK: I just loved the idea. I found him interesting and I wanted to find an excuse to put him in something. I loved the idea of this crazy ex-thief who also had an interest in science and was into chemistry and stuff like that. I loved the irony of someone like him, who was into a lot of strange science, to be experimenting and do some horrible thing, make some horrible mistake with his scientific studies and you know, suddenly finding out that he fucked up badly and is now immortal. I mean that’s the last thing he would want. And I actually have the whole story, I know the exact story about how that happened. I want to get to write that as a short story or as a comic. I want to tell that story.

NL: Yes please! Either way you must, because I want to read it. And if I want to read it, a lot of other people will want to read it as well!

RK: I do have my very first Sandman Slim short story coming out at the end of July. July 31st, I think. It’ll be an e-book available from Amazon and iBooks and all those formats. It’ll be a $.99 e-book. The title is Devil in the Dollhouse.

NL: It sounds a bit like what some TV shows do with mini webisodes in between seasons. This is like a little $.99 gift to the fans of the books so they have something to tide them over until the next one comes out.

RK: Yeah, it’s just like a little webisode.

NL: I’m sure you have tons of little stories about characters in Sandman Slim that don’t necessarily fit in to the larger narrative but you still want to tell.

RK: Exactly. Like Vidocq’s story. I have some stuff about Allegra and I’d love to tell a story about Candy as well. I think anyone that writes a series like mine has that stuff. They just have so much back story for everybody but there’s no way it’s ever gonna go in the book, there’s just too much. You can’t just stop the book and tell the entire mythology and history of the Jade, it would stop the book flat, but I’d love to talk more about the Jade. But I don’t want to tell too much. I’m a big fan of mystery too. So again, in the way I don’t want to describe Stark, I don’t necessarily want to give too much of a backstory, just enough to be interesting. I don’t want to create an encyclopedia or anything. I want the reader to be part of the process, the reader has to do some of the work. I want to give them enough stuff to play with in their heads but I don’t want to give them everything.

NL: Absolutely. Have some negative space. It’s just as much about what you don’t show as what you do.

RK: Right. It’s the space between the notes, as the musicians like to say.

NL: What would you say your top three favorite films of all time are?

RK: If you can find it, and it’s very hard to track down, the original five-hour version of Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World. The only place to get that is an Italian DVD set. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, that’s a pretty obvious one. And probably Nostalghia by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a great, beautiful little movie. A lot of interesting endings. If you ask me in a week I’ll probably tell you something different, but right now I’ll go with those three.

NL: Right, I find that my top three movies change depending on my mood, although Star Wars does seem to always make the list.

RK: I always feel sorry for the generation that grew up with Star Wars. It’s like the big touchstone of their culture was kind of polluted by that second trilogy and they have to try constantly to get those others movies out of their head when they think of it. I think the Harry Potter generation did better. Like, there are no horrifying Harry Potter movies they have to pretend never happened.

NL: Could you list the top five films that you think people who would like your book should see that maybe they haven’t seen?

RK: Limiting it to five is pretty hard, but I’m a big fan of low budget so I would say first a more recent film called Another Earth. Also, Session 9, a low budget horror film. Vanishing on 7th St, another fairly recent film. Haze by Shinya Tsukamoto, which is not easy to find. He’s the guy that did Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s a short film and low budget, but really intense. It’s really just like a little vision of Hell, and it’s just beautiful. And then also something like The Nameless by Balagueró, the guy who did the Rec movies. But you know, I could give you a bunch of weird westerns, because I consider the book a spaghetti western in a lot of ways.

NL: Absolutely!

RK: The Great Silence, Sabata, and the original Django, the Italian one. That’s a great crazy movie. Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse, that’s a real unusual one. And The Big Gundown, Lee Van Cleef’s big spaghetti western. Oh, and a variation on the western, The Good, The Bad and The Weird, which is actually a very recent movie. It’s a Korean western. I highly recommend it, it’s really a lot of fun.

Aside from his short story, Devil in the Dollhouse, coming out on Tuesday, July 31st, Sandman Slim 4, Devil Said Bang, is out August 28th in bookstores everywhere. And there is a fifth book in the works scheduled to be released a year later. To learn more about Richard Kadrey and his work you can check out his website and blog. In addition to being a writer, Kadrey is also a photographer. A word of caution if you happen to wander to his photo site. His images tend toward fetish and the erotic. They’re fantastic but definitely not safe for work. 

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I am on a constant quest to find what makes life interesting and beautiful. For me that ended up as a love affair with Carl Sagan, Neil Gaiman, my cat Alice Coltrane, and the city of Austin. For me film, literature and art are sacred expressions of the truest, and most interesting, aspects of humanity. I'm here to write about it.