Winner of the 2015 Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Independently Published Book
El Viejo saved Sin’s life back when the boy was a 12-year-old punk hellbent on shooting up the school bus with his daddy’s .357. And now the old man’s gone missing. So Sin straps on his guns, grabs his go-bag, and hikes into the desert to find him, only to uncover a nest of killers with ancient vendettas waiting out there with the king snakes and coyotes. —MW
Shelf Unbound: You’ve created a modern minimalist Western noir style, with a Breaking Bad kind of cool bad guy protagonist. How did you develop your style and what influenced it?
Matt Ingwalson: My characters tell me how to write their stories. The Owl & Raccoon books are all clipped cop talk. Regret Things was as unrestrained and ambitious as its heroine, Nicki. And Sin Walks Into the Desert is empty and haunting because the main character is an empty, haunted human being.
There are Western plains where the horizon is so far away it’s meaningless. The world is a flat surface without any walls to hold you. That sense of infiniteness, that’s what I wanted to achieve with the language in Sin Walks Into the Desert. It’s a story about scary men searching vast spaces, trying to decide what their humanity is worth.
Shelf Unbound: The young Sin is similar to the archetypal shooters we see in the news today—a bullied, disaffected kid who gains access to a gun. But his parents take action and send him off to live with his uncle, who teaches him an old school “law of the West” good guy/bad guy moral code. What is the reader to make of Sin’s obsession with guns?
Ingwalson: It’s a good question. I purposefully resisted giving easy answers in the book. On the one hand Sin just has a lot of normal teenage angst but without any buddies to help him through. But on the other hand, something is seriously broken inside him. His idolization of his big sister borders on obsession. And he was born with a homicidal urge he doesn’t have the social skills to repress or the mental dexterity to understand. He’s constantly suppressing his nature, and as a result he’s a bit of a shadow, living right on the edge of something terrifying. Guns are the only things that give Sin a sense of control. And he’s not just good with them. He’s a natural killer.
Shelf Unbound: In addition to Sin Walks Into the Desert and its prequel Regret Things, you’ve written a series of police procedurals. What interests you about crime?
Ingwalson: David Byrne once said singing is a trick to get people to spend more time with music. And I think that’s part of it. The crime genre is a trick to get people to spend more time with characters, more time in uncomfortable situations.
But part of it is that genre fiction is just cool. The real world is artificial and stupid. I’ve seen enough genuine tragedy that trumped-up literary drama makes me want to go around punching people. I write crime, noir and horror because they’re fucking cool. Sue me.
Shelf Unbound: By day you’re a copywriter for an agency. How has being a copywriter influenced your fiction writing?
Ingwalson: I wrote three novels when I was in college. They were awful—navel gazing and whiny. So I shoved them in a drawer and spent the next 15 years working as a copywriter. But as I got promoted to creative director and then executive creative director, I found myself writing less and less. So I went back to fiction as a creative outlet, and my style had changed without me even realizing it.
I actually wrote a blog post about what authors can learn from copywriters and I’m going to crib from that here:
1. Know the end. When you write an ad, it only ends one way. The reader buys what you’re selling. You work backwards from that point to build gripping copy. This is the opposite of the inverted pyramid technique journalists are trained in.
2. Inhabit a voice. Writing is not the linear assembly of grammatically correct and accurately spelled sentences. The best ad writers are method actors, slipping completely inside a brand and effortlessly adopting its tone.
3. Have an idea. People hate advertising. So to be noticed, copywriters have to grasp for big, original ideas. (Or if not completely original, at least charmingly unexpected.) And copywriters learn to communicate those ideas fast.
4. Learn to write dialogue. You want to write how people talk, go bust out a few dozen radio spots. Your ears will guide you. There are a lot of published authors whose dialogue wouldn’t survive the first creative review in any agency in America.
Shelf Unbound: You recently published the third book in the Sin & Nicki series, To Guns. What’s it about, and what do you like about writing books as a series?
Ingwalson: A reviewer called Sin Walks Into The Desert a neo-Western and I thought, “Yeah, that sounds cool. I’m going to write another one of those!” To Guns was all about getting Nicki and Sin stuck in a showdown in the middle of the mountains and watching them Bonnie-and-Clyde their way out.
To Guns is a fun book, but like Sin Walks Into the Desert, it has some pretty edgy themes. Nicki’s flaw is narcissism; no matter how much attention she gets, it’s never enough. And Sin doesn’t have the skills to get out of anything without resorting to violence.
Neither one of these characters is finished, either. The fourth book will be mostly Sin and it will massacre anything else I’ve published. The fifth book, if I get there, is going to skip a decade and involve Nicki’s daughters. Get stoked.
Read an Excerpt:
The voice on the other end of the phone sounded like sandpaper would sound if it whispered and was a woman. Every other word, she had to pause and breathe, shallow breaths that took forever to happen. Sin was used to it, waited patiently for her to get the words out. “Thanks.” Wait. “For calling.” Wait. “Kiddo.”
To which Sin said nothing.
“Seen el Viejo recently?”
“About a week.” When Sin spoke, it was at some volume just barely above silent. Catrina waited a bit to make sure he’d actually finished before she went on.
“Not since he went to the place?”
“No, he’s at that Denzhone place for a few days still.”
“He’s got a situation.”
Anybody else, Sin would’ve laughed. El Viejo didn’t have situations, except the arthritis that kept him in his rocking chair and off the streets where he belonged. But the voice on the other end of the phone, the voice that talked instead of texted, it belonged to la Calavera. Catrina Limon. Special Agent Catrina Limon.
Special Agent is one of those titles like Senator. Once you have it, you get to keep it forever.
El Viejo’d met Catrina when she moved out to do border security with the ATF many years ago. He’d consulted with her unit on strategy, tactics and local customs, and eventually they got around to pulling triggers.
Anybody el Viejo pulled triggers with didn’t screw around much.
That went double for la Calavera, even if she, like el Viejo, was stuck in a chair these days. She was one of the first and best female agents the federal government ever had training anti-terrorist units along the Mexican border. She was old even then, older than el Viejo, but they both had family in the same area of Wyoming so they shared that in common. Or maybe el Viejo fell in love with the idea of an elderly female out in the desert commanding a tactical team. He’d taken her under his wing, taken her drinking, taken her out to the desert to show her how the cartels set up mobile staging sites to get guns, drugs, workers and slaves across the border.
Turned out she’d chalked up three kills as a sniper back in her time someplace she couldn’t really talk about or maybe didn’t want to. Nicaragua? Cambodia? She wouldn’t say. But three. No shit. Most guys couldn’t say that, could they?
El Viejo could say it a few times over, but he was a different topic altogether.
“Why do you say that?” Sin said.
“We got.” Wait. “A photo.”
“OK,” he said and he hung up his phone. No need to be polite or say goodbye. You couldn’t offend someone like la Calavera.
Sin stood up and slipped his phone back in his pocket.
Even though it was just about fall, it was still seventy degrees at night and he had no jacket. He shook his shoulders a bit and let his t-shirt arrange itself over his belt.
“You going?” Sindy asked.
“You coming back?”
Sin didn’t know how to say goodbye, especially since he’d just got there. Finally he leaned down and kissed Sindy where she’d kissed him, on the skin up underneath her ear. She had a little rose there that trailed down the back of her neck, the stem ending somewhere near her spine.
He didn’t really make eye contact with her as he slouched towards the door.
From Sin Walks Into the Desert by Matt Ingwalson. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.