How Rebel Ex-Punk Stona Fitch Became Rory Flynn
The Reinvention of a Gritty Crime Writer
“Who cares?” Stona Fitch wants to know. “I ask it every sentence I write: ‘Who cares?’ That can be on my tombstone, I guess. That and ‘He wrote short sentences.’”
“Who cares?” may have the ring of an insult hurled by a 1970s teenager, but it distills Fitch’s writing philosophy and fits his rebel ex-punk persona. It’s the reason his books tend to be short and propulsive—he shows his darlings no mercy, typically cutting each novel’s original bulk by half. The second book in his Eddy Harkness crime series, which he authors under the pen name Rory Flynn, will publish in early June. Dark Horse, like Third Rail before it, fuses the seamy world of deadly designer drugs, the sometimes high-tech sleuthing of the Boston Police Department’s fictional Narco-Intel unit, and a handsome, Harvard-educated detective with a self-destructive streak. In stylish, clipped prose Dark Horse ranges over on the bedrock flint of New England as well as a dynamic city that’s still got plenty of grit but is hardly the “dirty old Boston” exemplified in classics of the genre like George V. Higgins’s Friends of Eddie Coyle. In plot and character, bleakness and humor, the novel is perfectly titrated.
I reach Fitch by Skype in his writing studio in a huge cement warehouse in Concord, Massachusetts, where he not infrequently drops off to sleep on the concrete floor after a late night of writing. This morning he may be a bit punchy, as describes for me the brook that runs out back, the unfurling spring leaves, and the glint of a federal prison about a hundred yards off. “It’s a good reminder when I’m writing that things could be a lot fucking worse,” he says.
I became a fan of Fitch’s about three years ago when I picked up the first novel in the Eddy Harkness series. A 30ish narcotics detective, Harkness is not quite an antihero—his behavior is by and large on the up and up—but he is a flawed and haunted character who, you could say, suffers from occasional problems with anger management. He’s capable of acts of heroism like saving a kid from drowning by tossing him, basketball-style, into an apartment house window. He’s also capable, Andy Sipowicz-style, of smashing a perp’s face into a table. In any scene, you’re not sure which Eddy will show up. It’s an unnerving aspect of reading the Rory Flynn books, these sudden eruptions from Eddy’s psyche, which can feel more dangerous than the drug dealers and killers he faces off against: each one puts him at risk of blowing it. Each time he goes to the place where he loses control, we’re not sure if he’ll make it back. I asked Fitch how he sees this facet of his character.
“You have a guy supposedly in power, as a cop, but Eddy is a bit more fractal and uncontrollable. Every now and then, he has a little black-ice violence thing, like in A History of Violence—one of my favorite films. There’s a moment where the main character seems like a normal guy at a diner, and then he freaks out and beats the shit out of some people who show up. With Eddy you’re never quite sure how he’s going to react. He’s not amoral. In his way he’s a super moralist, but his morality goes beyond the code of being a policeman. He’s not a standard cop. He’s a guy who thinks a lot about what he does but then every once in a while some other hand controls the puppet.”
Fitch does a fair share of research for the Eddy Harkness novels, but he’s not always after verisimilitude, especially when it comes to the workings of the police. “Every cop who’s read the first book says, ‘You don’t know a thing about being a cop.’ I don’t, because I’m not. I don’t claim to be. I didn’t spend 50 days with the Boston Police Department to learn all the lingo. I don’t want to learn all the lingo. That stuff bogs you down.”
Fitch has had to call on his defiant streak—still in evidence almost 20 years after leaving behind his hard-living days touring with cult punk band Scruffy the Cat—plenty of times in his publishing career. He published his first novel in 1992, with a nine-year gap before the second, Senseless, an eerily prescient novel launched on 9/11, whose trauma came to seem perversely connected to the book’s mixed fate. “I was on the phone with my editor in New York bitching about some tiny graphic arts flaw on the cover when the phone went dead,” Fitch says. “He was in lower Manhattan.” The story of an American economist in Belgium kidnapped and tortured by extremists opposed to globalization, Senseless is a gripping, harrowing book, highly praised, published in fourteen countries, made into a 2008 UK film, and blurbed by reclusive Nobel Prize–winner J. M. Coetzee, whose Waiting for the Barbarians in part inspired the novel.
But, as Fitch sees it, Senseless turned into “sort of a career killer. It was like writing a book made out of radium. Anybody who touched that book got sick and died. It still haunts me in a number of ways, from a commercial perspective, honestly, because booksellers go, ‘That guy, that book made my fingers hurt.’ Which was the goal all along of course from my point of view.” The protagonist of Senseless, Elliot Gast, slowly has his senses deadened through a series of horrific torture sessions, one of which involves his hands. “I took that book really seriously,” Fitch says. “I did run a cheese grater over the back of my left hand one morning just to see how that worked, and it hurts. My wife caught me doing that and she was like, ‘Dude, you need help.’” Written in the late 1990s—“the beautiful bright orange Clinton years”—the book’s central conceit, of a man taken hostage and tortured live online, presaged the era we now inhabit, in which similar acts of inhumanity crowd our screens. It was also a fine character study, but it branded Fitch as too dark to touch—which led, in time, to his becoming Rory Flynn.
“Rory was born like many a person,” Fitch says, “in a moment of desperate attraction. When I was on the phone with my agent—he had just read the manuscript for Third Rail—and he said, ‘You know, Stona, this book would be a lot better if you didn’t write it.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘Yeah you’re a tough sell because you’re known as a radium book writer.’ Or whatever he said, that’s my metaphor. ‘You’re tough. You should be more like Boston, more Irish.’ ‘Oh what, like Rory Flynn?’ I could hear him scribbling on a pad trying to see whether the letters stacked nicely. About three seconds of thought went into that and now I’ll be Rory for a while. I’m proud to be a Flynn. Being a Flynn in Boston is like being in the Ramones.”
As Rory Flynn, he writes books laced with a stealth humor, books in which people get beat up, flame out, and OD but also make love, dress up for parties, and take care of their kids. That hardly makes the novels light fare, though. However cleanly they read, Fitch skews dark. “As I kid, I always wrote,” he says. “and I was always attracted to dark stuff, even though I grew up in a very sanitized suburban environment in Cincinnati.” At Princeton he studied writing with Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks, who became a lifelong mentor and friend. Afterward, in the early 1980s, he went to Miami to report on crime during the era of big cocaine. “I was a terrible crime reporter,” he says. “I hated it. I really didn’t like calling relatives of dead people and saying, ‘Was your brother a drug dealer? They found him with 10 pounds of cocaine, he must have been a drug dealer. Tell me about your dead brother.’ Journalists make their living off other people’s misery when you get down to it. Novelists make their living off their own misery, I like to think. As a journalist I sucked. I did not like having to stick to the facts. I left the newsroom one day with a story open on my screen and went to Amsterdam.”
After a stint in Europe, he turned up in Boston, joined a punk band, and toured with Scruffy the Cat for four years. Sony recently re-released the band’s back catalog, and last year Fitch took part in the reunion show. “Relearning three instruments to play one show was pretty insane. Going out and buying an amp, driving around in a van, it was a nightmare. I still have nightmares about being in a van with four smelly guys in leather jackets. It makes writing novels look easy.” The novel writing got underway in the late 1980s, after his bandmates tossed him out for “bad behavior.”
His first novel, Strategies for Success, drew on stories of a great-grandfather who served as a confederate soldier Arkansas and, though not a crime novel, centered around a vicious beating, setting out themes that carry through all Fitch’s novels—violence and the legacy of family history. Elliot Gast of Senseless has plenty of time in captivity to revisit the humiliations of childhood; Eddy Harkness tangles with memories of his father’s criminal schemes and ignominious death. An uncle of Fitch’s by marriage, William Harrington, a thriller writer who ended his own story by shooting himself in the head with a vintage Luger, could be read as an outsize figure in which these two themes coalesced. Harrington was a prolific pulp novelist and ghostwriter for the likes of Harold Robbins and Margaret Truman (she published Washington thrillers), and the first writer Fitch knew. He was also an incorrigible drunk who enjoyed tormenting his nephew at family dinners and vacations, once dangling the seven-year-old upside-down over a precipice above the Everglades. When Fitch grew up, the two parted ways—“I wanted to avoid contagion with the palpable bitterness that pumped through him like central air.”
Fitch sees his uncle’s “corrosive disappointment” as a cautionary tale for writers in dealing with the inevitable failures and financial struggles of the writing life. For him, this meant accepting that novels were not going to support his family. “Writers are lying,” he says, “if they say they don’t have some other source of income. It used to be dirty secret: ‘Oh, I have a day job.’ But I don’t think other people should suffer for my art—other people being my family. If we had to live off what I made from fiction, we wouldn’t have lentils for dinner every night. My daughters would be fighting over the lentil.” Fitch has worked for 20 years as a freelance advertising copywriter for Big Technology. With both jobs, he sees similar ends. “If you write an ad you’re trying to get people to commit to be interested in what you’re advertising. Writing a novel, you’re trying to get them to commit to turn the page and to care about a character made up of a bunch of words. It’s the same responsibility applied different ways and with different financial outcomes.”
So where does fiction fit in? The question of how writers make money, how the pieces fit together, has been getting an airing lately. Fitch’s answer is different from some. “There are a lot of hours in the day,” he says. “I started out writing novels evenings, weekends, and federal holidays. I still rely a lot on evenings, weekends, and federal holidays. I’m a late night kind of guy. But when I sit down to write I forget about everything. I forget I have a family. I forget I have a job. I forget I earn money. It all goes away. Then it comes right back. It’s part of your job as a writer to figure it out.”
Since 2008, Fitch has taken on a third job as co-director of the Concord Free Press, a boutique nonprofit that publishes two limited editions a year and gives them away, a true example of the vaunted but often hollow “sharing economy.” He runs the press with his wife, Ann, in Concord, a short walk from their home. Everyone involved—editors, book designers, printers, and authors—works for free. Readers simply request a book and it arrives at no cost, postage paid. In return, they’re asked to give to a charity of their choice or a person in need, and pass on the book for the next reader to do the same. The project has garnered about a half a million dollars in reported donations so far, as well as the support of writer friends, including Megan Abbot and Russell Banks, who serve on the press’s board, and convinced authors like Madison Smartt Bell and fellow Concord resident Gregory Maguire to give their books away free.
The idea was originally “born out of a weird desperation,” Fitch admits. His novel Give + Take was under contract with a New York house when a rash of staff changes resulted in its cancellation. At the time he was volunteering at an organic farm that gave away its produce to meal programs and homeless shelters. “I thought, why don’t we do the same thing with this book? Give it away and ask people to do something generous in exchange? My wife looked me in the eye and said, ‘I think you just found a new way for writers to not make money.’ And so I did!” The business model neutralizes the question of how writers make money by taking money off the table, at least temporarily—after a printing sells out, books can go on to commercial publication. But in addition to inspiring generosity, the press’s business model recognizes that a book’s true worth is in the value a reader takes from it. It’s a defiance of publishing norms that seems only fitting for a rebel ex-punk who’s put down roots in flinty New England, where stubbornness runs deep.