BARRY GRAHAM, Scottish author, journalist, Zen monk in U.S. Books include THE BOOK OF MAN (an American Library Association best book of the year), THE WRONG THING (finalist for SPINETINGLER MAGAZINE best novel of the year), WHEN IT ALL COMES DOWN TO DUST (a MYSTERY PEOPLE best book of the year) and KILL YOUR SELF: LIFE AFTER EGO, an Amazon Kindle bestseller in the Zen category.

Books written, books to write

I’m gratified by the response so far to One for My Baby. It’s a radical departure for me in various ways - the first book of mine with no reference to childhood, and with no backstory at all, and certainly the most stripped-down book I’ve written. My ambition was to get as close to having a blank page as it’s possible to get while still having a story.

It’s the fourth book in what I call my Phoenix Noir sequence (the others are How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy?, The Wrong Thing and When It All Comes Down to Dust, and I think it’ll be the last book I set in Phoenix for a while, though I intend to write a sequel to When It All Comes Down to Dust at some point. I’ve written about Phoenix since shortly after arriving there in 1995, and I’ve now said as much as I have to say about life there for the time being. 

My next book, which I’ve already started, is a cyberpunk story with no specific setting. I also want to write a book of stories set in Scotland, a place I stopped writing about after The Book of Man, and only started writing about again with a story I wrote in 2012, "Big Davey Joins the Majority." Writing that story unearthed something long-buried (and, I had thought, dead), and I realized that I have more stories to tell set in that small, cold country whose accent I still speak with.

And I want to write a Western. And a Zen police procedural series.


I finished writing The Book of Man 20 years ago today

I woke in the afternoon of the first day of 1994, having slept off the debaucheries of a Scottish New Year celebration. I thought I was a few weeks away from finishing The Book of Man, which I had been working on for two and a half years. I took a walk around Leith in the cold, went home, thawed out, ate dinner, brewed a pot of tea and decided to to do a bit of work on the book. When I went to bed, the book was finished. I couldn’t have imagined the doors it would open for me, and I’m still grateful to the book, grateful to have written it.

Tony Black chooses The Book of Man as one of his five top reads


It’s nice when one of my favorite authors likes my stuff too. Tony Black - who interviewed me for his book Hard Truths - named The Book of Man as one of his five favorites in the Scottish Daily Record. I’m in illustrious company; the other four are Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, George Douglas Brown’s The House With the Green Shutters and Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

He writes:

The Glasgow author explores the underside of the city like no other. Poignant and of the time, it’s a classic in waiting. I only discovered Graham recently, and he’s already become a favorite author of mine. A true talent, currently residing in the U.S.

Teachers Beating Kids - Is It a European Thing?

I recently watched, again, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which was an influence on The Book of Man. When it got to the scene in which the schoolteacher slaps the boy’s face, it occurred to me that, in modern times, this seems to be a European thing.

Certainly in Scotland, children were beaten and humiliated by teachers as a matter of routine. From the novels of Barry Hines, I gather that the same was true of the North of England. But the only example of such institutional child abuse I can think of in American literature is in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which was written and is set in the 19th Century. In American books and films, I can’t think of any other examples of the prison-like routines - sanctioned violence, and having to address teachers as “sir” or “miss” - that were common in the U.K. at least until the 1980s. Was the U.S. different? Am I overlooking any books or films?

Weekend in L.A. - Books and Friends

The Independent Book Fair in Los Angeles, at which I performed on Saturday, was organized by my friend Andrew Pogany, former editor of Flaunt magazine, and founder and current overlord of Echo Park Books. (During his time at Flaunt, he published my article about the executions I have witnessed, “Why I Watch People Die,” which won a FOLIO Silver Medal for Best Single Article, and can be found in my book of the same title.)

I arrived in L.A. two days earlier. At the airport in Phoenix, they searched me and scanned me so diligently that they didn’t find the pepper-spray that I had forgotten was in my jacket pocket, and that I only discovered when I put my hand in my pocket as I got off the plane.

The book fair was outdoors, and, unusually for L.A., it was a rainy day, so things didn’t look promising. But the rain never got heavy, though Andrew held an umbrella over the first author who read, Sesshu Foster (author of the wonderful City Terrace Field Manual), and there was an enthusiastic audience throughout. Foster was followed by Mandy Kahn, whom I had never heard of before, but who turned out to be an impressive writer and an extraordinarily cool person as well. Next up was Jessica Garrison, reading from her great One Dollar Stories. Then I got up and recited from memory chapters of How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy? and The Book of Man. Then the ever-superb Larry Fondation read from his recently-completed story collection Martyrs and Holy Men, which I think is his best book so far - a departure that stays in place.

The rest of the weekend was a round of parties with old friends and new, some Christmas shopping in Little Tokyo, where I had the best sushi I’ve ever eaten, some time at the redoubtable Red Lion, and a quick visit to MOCA, where I saw Richard Nixon’s resignation letter - compelling in its briefness and mundanity - and took a picture of a woman who stood viewing photographs in such a way as to become a part of the exhibition.

Daniel Woodrell - Still Outside the Tent

Photo by Keith Rawson
In 1996, I read an interview with Daniel Woodrell in Your Flesh magazine. When asked how he felt about his lack of mainstream acceptance, Woodrell - who was already regarded as one of the best contemporary novelists by the few who had read him - compared it to a tent, and said that he didn’t belong in the tent and preferred to stay outside.

His comment had a profound effect on me. I had been in the U.S. for less than a year, and my novel The Book of Man had gotten some traction, and so the great and the good of mainstream publishing were sniffing around me, trying to figure if I could be a lucrative commodity. I was in negotiation with one agent who was telling me I should write novels that were less dark, not morally-ambivalent, longer, more descriptive, less violent, and about middle-class white people.

Woodrell’s remark perfectly articulated my own feeling, in a way that I had not been able to. Most of the outside-the-mainstream artists I knew only identified as such because they were not invited to the white man’s table, and they would join it as soon as they were allowed to. I had never wanted a seat at that table.

I read the interview with Woodrell on a Saturday afternoon. On the Monday morning, I called the agent and ended our association. And I went on writing what demanded to be written. I am grateful that I did.

Fifteen years later, Woodrell is finally getting some attention, because of the film of his novel Winter’s Bone. (Read my review of the book here.) Little, Brown will soon reissue all of his novels. His new book, a great collection of stories called The Outlaw Album, has just been published, and he was at The Poisoned Pen last night to discuss it.

I asked him about the 1996 interview, and it turned out that the journalist who did it was my friend Patrick Millikin, who was the moderator of last night’s discussion with Woodrell. I asked Woodrell if his feelings about the “tent” had changed since then, now that he’s invited in, and I was happy when he said they had not. He allowed that he might enter the tent sometimes, especially if they had good liquor, but that he had no inclination to stay there and that he believed that no artist should want to. I would say that this is why Woodrell’s books have made some of us feel less alone.

Books in the Wave

Yesterday I watched Two in the Wave, a documentary released last year about the friendship, and later antagonism, between Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. I enjoyed it, and agree with this review from The Village Voice.

Of the two, I much prefer the films of Godard, though Truffaut’s background and sensibility are closer to my own. The Nouvelle Vague was a bigger influence on my early books than anything I read. Truffaut, in particular, influenced The Champion’s New Clothes and The Book of Man. That’s why Before was written blatantly in the style of the Nouvelle Vague, with suggestions for camera angles and soundtrack, but written in such a way as to be purely a novel, unfilmable, though giving the reader the feeling of watching a film. Before will be the next book of mine to be published in French, which lets me imagine the completion of a circle.

Favorite Books I’ve Written

Someone asked me, “What is your favorite of your books so far?”

It varies, but right now I think it would be a tie between The Wrong Thing and How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy?. Both of these are set in the American Southwest. Of my earlier novels, set in Scotland, it’s The Book of Man, which is the one I’ve gotten the most mail about over the years.

My biggest favorite (as always) is the one I most recently finished, which doesn’t have a publication date yet. That will soon be eclipsed as favorite by the one I’m currently writing.