by Nevada McPherson
I first learned about the work of Atlanta-area writer Manny Torres through the writing community on Twitter. His first novel, Dead Dogs from Moonshine Cove Books put him on the noir fiction map as a talented and innovative new writer to watch, and indeed, as praise for Dead Dogs continues to grow, he continues to create compelling and original characters who live on the perilous edges of society. Torres’s’s latest novel, Father Was a Rat King, was recently released by Uncle B. Publications, and his latest book, Perras Malas, was released at the beginning of July from Outcast Press.
In addition to writing, Torres is an accomplished filmmaker and artist, as well as an astute cultural critic, so I’m glad I had this opportunity to chat with him about his books, the movies, music and people that inspire them, and to get his take on how his adopted home city of Atlanta is portrayed in pop culture these days.
Nevada McPherson: How would you describe your fiction? As crime fiction, noir or something else entirely?
Manny Torres: Something else entirely, but it winds up being crime noir with some gritty realism. Sometimes magical realism. It depends on what I’m writing. I think I’m still trying to write the ultimate beat novel whenever I start writing something new. Dead Dogs was written very much like a beat novel. I wanted it to be loose and easy and heavy on dialogue. I simplified and stripped it down as much as I could to keep the story rolling. It really is my intention to create character studies like Steinbeck or Charles Bukowski, regardless of the genre. Because all my books have a criminal element to them, publishers sell them as “crime books.” It’s easier for people to shop for things when they search by category or genre. It’s pretentious of me to say that I don’t write crime fiction or noir because that’s what they turn out to be, for lack of a better term.
NM: I noticed in one of your recent social media posts a collection of films that you said had inspired your upcoming novel, Perras Malas. What can you tell us about Perras Malas and how these films inspired you? Also, how has your background as a filmmaker influenced your writing?
MT: Perras Malas came from a writing period around 2006 where I started writing crime fiction. Perras Malas was meant to be part of an earlier crime trilogy, but it took me more than a decade to finish because it was like nothing else I’d attempted. I experimented with it a lot over the years, trying it as a screenplay and then writing it as a novel. I edit my writing as if it was a movie, that’s why the structures are frequently non-linear and achronological. I write as I’m remembering the story, which is not always in the sequence that the events took place. The book and movie “Baise Moi” by Virginie Despentes planted the seeds for Perras Malas and was a huge inspiration for it. (That’s the novel where a sex worker and her porn star friend are sexually assaulted and go on a vengeful killing spree). The movies I mentioned in my post (“Female Prisoner Scorpion,” “Coffy,” “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” etc.) are about strong women who choose violence against the men (and some women) who’ve wronged them. Because I’m a visual writer, those movies helped me create the mise en scene, seasoned the tone and established the panorama for my novel. Visually, these are gorgeous films, especially “Female Prisoner Scorpion” and “Lady Vengeance.” There’s beauty in the bloodwork and irony in the violence that inspired me …
The character Kika in Perras Malas is a combination of Sasori from “Female Prisoner Scorpion,” Geum-ja Lee from “Lady Vengeance,” Madeleine from “Thriller: A Cruel Picture” and Pamela Grier’s “Coffy.” Film is my first love. I take as much inspiration from films as I do from books. I wasn’t a very good narrative filmmaker, so I segued into making documentaries. Now I’m focused on writing novels because it gives me full control of the narrative, settings, characters, etc. of my story. Movies are dreams and fantasies projected on a screen, and I’m always immersed in them.
Perras Malas is probably the closest I’ve come to writing a horror novel. I wanted to show that an empowered woman is a superior human. We tend to forget that women are the strongest of the species. Without matriarchy, the tribe has no head. The future is female. My grandmother was a very tough woman who protected and inspired me. She slept with three machetes at her bedside and on many occasions injured several men who wanted to harm her.
NM: Since you’re originally from New York and arrived in Atlanta by way of Florida, do you feel that being from another part of the country gives you a fresh perspective on the South or an “outsider’s” perspective that serves you well in your literary observations?
MT: I think it does. It opened plenty of avenues for writing about criminals outside of New York and Florida. I won’t get into the specifics of the criminals I’ve known in those two states, but living in Atlanta showed me a whole new angle. Crime families are tribal but they’re the same wherever you go. I research crime statistics for the cities I’m writing about and there certainly is no shortage of criminal activity in Southern states, from the Carolinas to Georgia to Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. I’m glad to have discovered Southern eccentricities, and I’m grateful for those types of weirdos.
NM: Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor said that she used violence in her stories as a way to “startle” jaded, modern readers into thinking about the state of their own souls and their relationship with God. How do you see the use of violence in your own fiction?
MT: I would agree with her statement. In the past, I also wrote violent things to startle people, wake them up to pay attention to what I was writing. I actually toned down a lot of the violence in Father Was a Rat King and Perras Malas for my own sake and sanity. Violence is a part of nature and the world, though I consider myself a pacifist. I write about violence because it terrifies me, and writing about it is the only way I know to keep my sanity about the harm of the world. The harm done to animals and what humans do to each other, violence against children, destruction of nature for capital gain. I write about it so I can come to terms with it, to remind myself that ugliness exists no matter how hard you try to see the beauty in everything. When Cormac McCarthy wrote The Road, that was an old writer writing of the subconscious fear of the world he was bringing his young son into. It was a knee jerk response to the repugnant world into which he’d delivered a child. I write violence because existence is blunt, and it hurts. It’s how I cope with its brutality. In turn, violence gets us closer to that idea of what God may be in all His/Her/Its angry maleficence, and certainly our primal selves.
NM: I hear you’re a fan of the FX series “Atlanta.” What do you think of that show as a pop culture representation of life in contemporary Atlanta? What rings especially true? Also, what connections, if any, could you make between that show and the territory covered by your own fictional Atlanta in Dead Dogs?
MT: “Atlanta” is the greatest TV show ever made, right there with “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone.” It’s Afro-Futurist surrealism. A true representation of this city and its people. Anyone who’s ever lived in the city of Atlanta will tell you it’s a surreal place. The show gets that right. Shows us the city as it is, from locations, conversations, situations. I have experienced many of the things I’ve seen on the show: gentrification, riding MARTA, joblessness, drug dealing, black culture, etc. I moved here because I hated Florida and wanted something akin to the New York of my youth. I can’t live in New York because it’s so fucking expensive, so I settled here. Well, Atlanta is not really at all what I expected. I realized early on that I am a cultural minority here, so I’m always on the outside looking in. There is a humor and joy in a lot of the people here that I’ve never seen any place else. It’s how they survive the city’s madness. Every day a block of condos goes up, a part of its history crumbles away. But the people who’ve remained still maintain that heart and soul of this place. A lot of the show fueled Dead Dogs. The ambience, tone, humor. It gave me permission to write about the city the way I experience it. Killer Mike once said that Atlanta was like Wakanda but it’s actually a lot more like Bellona from Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. It’s a post-war city that’s been rebuilt many times over. Like New York, no matter what they dismantle and take away, the true spirit of the city remains with the soul of the people.
NM: Your latest book, Father Was a Rat King, features Soledad, a young, female protagonist working for an underworld figure in New York City. Like Nola in Dead Dogs, a retired Marine-turned avenging angel of sorts, Soledad is tough and resilient. Both of these female characters are forces to be reckoned with, transcending traditional noir female archetypes. Chuck and Phobos of Dead Dogs, on the other hand, are societal “misfits” and not your typical noir “heroes,” yet they have their own reserves of strength and fortitude that see them through rough times. Who are your key inspirations for characters like Soledad and Nola, Chuck and Phobos? Is it the harsh conditions under which they live that makes them so tough, or is their inherent strength what makes them able to withstand the extreme difficulties they face?
MT: I write about the disenfranchised and about losers because I relate to them most. The people who rarely have an exit from their real-world problems. I wrote the female characters based on strong, independent women who raised me, or women I know whose resilience inspires me. They arrive to fix things after men fucked them up. They are the protectors, the saviors. Not of men, but of the world. I’m trying to remind readers that women are smarter and know how to take care of things even if it means getting ugly and violent and killing some people along the way to protect themselves. It’s an inherent strength they have. Soledad is a combination of a cousin of mine, a close friend and perhaps a little of myself. Her struggles were things we all experienced seeing our fathers dissolve down the drain of drinking and narcotics abuse while growing up in miserable places.
Nola is based on someone I know who’s a protector of animals, combined with a lot of personality traits of my grandmother. Perras Malas has several strong female leads, including Kika the main character and Shank, a woman from St. Thomas who wields machetes. Chuck and Phobos also have their real-life counterparts. They never asked to be born into all this miserable shit, so they circumvent society and go about things living by their own rules, their own shakedowns.
A few years ago, I made a documentary (“The Trespasser”) based on my friend Derek who was a street busker hanging out in East Atlanta Village. Everyone knew him and he was a wonderful person going through some real-life shit. Even though he was living at a farm and on the street, he was free. After the documentary, we were going to make a short narrative film about two guys sitting in a car talking. Derek died from a drug overdose, so we never got to film that. Those ideas and the stories he told me is what became Dead Dogs. Phobos is based on him. As far as character strengths, I want my characters to overcome. I paint them into a corner just so I can challenge them as well as myself and get them out intact, more or less. I don’t want to create victims out of them, I want them to triumph over their harsh realities and their faults. I’m determined to get them past the bullshit. I think by the time we get to the third part of the trilogy, there’ll be a balance of all heroes and villains.
NM: Many noir stories are set in locations like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, while not so many are set in Atlanta. Is there much more about Atlanta as an ever-expanding urban setting yet to be explored by writers of noir and crime fiction? Is there anything that’s unique about the urban experience here in the South? As of now, do you have plans for future stories set in Atlanta?
MT: As an ever-expanding urban city, the low-income population is constantly running from the gentrification monster. The class differences are so obvious that you can practically see the affected population running from the looming presence of neo-colonialism. I started writing about Atlanta around 2005, years before I moved here. It’s a centralized city, close to New Orleans and Birmingham and central Florida. The possibilities are endless when it comes to writing crime noir. I don’t know of anyone else writing crime noir in Atlanta from a street level, or at least where I’m coming from. It can sometimes be an ugly place to write about but there is also a lot to love about it. My series of crime novels take place mostly in Atlanta or have Atlanta as a hub to other cities.
NM: Please share with us some of your favorite writers, past and/ or present, and a bit about why they’re your favorites. What are your thoughts on the current literary scene, including that of noir and crime fiction?
MT: The five Bs: Bradbury, Burroughs, Bukowski, Ballard, Bowles. Ray Bradbury was the first to show me that you can write a novel or story like poetry. Fahrenheit 451 is my favorite book of all time. Burroughs was the deviant, scatological genius who wrote the novel I always wanted to write as a teenager but didn’t know how (Naked Lunch). For me, there was the time before Naked Lunch and the time after, and I was never the same as a writer or even a consumer of music and art. He wasn’t just a writer and gentleman junky, he was also a theorist. His thoughts on evolution, crime, control, etc. are very much in keeping with my ideas. But really, his writing taught me how to deconstruct my own. Bukowski helped me develop a bullshit filter, that which I sift all my work through and ask myself, how would he have written that? Is this real or is this literary bullshit? I can bullshit the reader, but am I bullshitting myself is the real concern. Hank provided me with a way to be raw and honest, like Burroughs.
JG Ballard showed me you could write a novel that reads like a medical journal. His grasp of the English language is godlike. Paul Bowles has written some of the scariest and goriest stories, but no one considers him a horror writer. He could tell you about being a stranger in a strange land, and the strange land is you. George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard created the template I use to build crime novels filled with losers and incompetent criminals. I owe my writing career to them.
I also want to mention musicians and poets whom I’ve repeatedly stolen from and whose words live deep in my soul: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Nick Cave, Diamanda Galas, William Blake, Robert Hunter, Patti Smith, Yoko Ono and Pier Paolo Pasolini. As far as the current literary scene, there are many great new writers out there working in all genres. Bestseller lists will always be crowded with dull, mainstream tomes. Thank goodness for small presses. The indie folks are doing all the gritty and honest work because these are writers telling their truths. Writers like Andy Rausch, Stephen J. Gold, DuVay Knox, Max Thrax, Gabino Iglesias, Alec Cizak, Tia Ja’Nae, Beau Johnson, and even you Nevada McPherson, are putting out great, consistent work. Crime noir is something you really can’t fuck up. There are a lot of new books and writers I’m excited about, and I’m glad to be able to take part in their conversation.
NM: In addition to writing and filmmaking, you also create visual art with your painting and photography. How would you describe your art and what influences or traditions, if any, do you draw upon for that aspect of your creative work?
MT: My splatter work tries to make sense of lysergic energy or more so, sexual energy, tries to express the greatest emotions humans feel but can’t quite express. My photography is about the dark landscapes and panoramas of my surroundings and its beautiful people. My mother was an art student and several of my brothers are artists and illustrators. We were always encouraged to create something, anything. I found out that working on different types of art stimulates different parts of the brain. When I tire of writing, creating something else will help stimulate the writing process. I’ve been a photographer since my first 110 camera when I was nine. I started painting almost 10 years ago while on a long writing hiatus. I paint things in bright glowing hues so I can experience the frisson of those colors. I aspire to create amoebic bursts, cellular forms and anatomy inspired by the music of The Flaming Lips, the artwork of Rothko, Pollock, the collage work of Rauschenberg and the little, tiny paintings of Salvador Dali (the one where the skull sodomizes the piano). But writing is the one thing I feel I have full control of creatively. It expresses everything I have to say.
NM: What are you currently working on and what can you share with us about any of your future projects?
MT: I am currently looking for an agent to help me pimp out several crime novels that are completed and ready for publishing. Although there’s a lot of completed work waiting to be released, I have several crime novels I’ve started writing. These books all share characters or take place in the same universe as Dead Dogs. My goal is to one day see them all be made into a TV show or films directed by Jeff Nichols, Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh. Haha. I’ve started two non-crime books, one about a country musician traveling in her RV and a biographical book about the misfits in my high school guitar class. I also want to make a documentary about Puerto Ricans living in America and their experience.
You can follow Manny Torres on Twitter @_MATorres_ and on Instagram @_m.a.torres.
Nevada McPherson lives in the Southern Gothic town of Milledgeville, Georgia: former home of author Flannery O’Connor and site of Central State Hospital, once the world’s largest “lunatic asylum.” Her noir/ transgressive novel, Poser, is the first of the Eucalyptus Lane series from Outcast Press. A graduate of LSU’s MFA Screenwriting Program, she has also written several award-winning screenplays, as well as stage plays, nonfiction pieces, graphic novels and countless to-do lists. More about her writing and artwork can be found on her website. You can also find her on Twitter @NevadaMcPherso3 and on Instagram @nevadawrites. Read her previous work on Deep South here.