Who are you? Where are you from? What are you working on these days?
I’m Nils Gilbertson and I write crime and mystery fiction, sometimes with a philosophical bent. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently live in Washington, D.C. While these locations have some redeeming qualities, I hope to someday move away from the coasts. All I have to do is convince my wife to come along.
After my first novel was set in and around San Francisco, I wanted to try something different.
Right now, I’m working on a crime novel that takes place in western Oklahoma and intertwines my love of outlaw country music and noir fiction. It features a down-and-out songwriter and the trouble that follows when an old flame comes home to the small town. It’s got honky-tonks, meth dealers, grenade launchers, and original lyrics sprinkled throughout. A fun one to write, for sure. Now I need to figure out the ending.
I’ve also recently finished two short stories that I hope will find homes soon. One is a crime story about the dangers of falling for a stranger in a neon-lit dive bar. The other is a psychological thriller that explores the effects of isolation and alcohol withdrawal. Needless to say, my family and friends are still waiting for me to write something a little less grim.
What do you hope to accomplish as a writer?
At the most fundamental level, I write because it’s a creative outlet that I’ve gravitated towards since I was a kid, and I can’t imagine not writing. I still have stories I wrote when I was in third grade, they’re pretty hilarious. I’m an overthinker by nature, and fiction has always served as an oasis where I can explore whatever’s on my mind without the pressure of being right or wrong. Throwing an idea out there (“what would you do if…?”) and building a story around it has done much to help me put to rest some of the big questions that keep me up at night (crime fiction is fertile ground for this sort of exploration). Writing is a key component to maintaining my mental health. That’s an accomplishment in itself!
Of course, I also have external goals and would love to continue to publish my work and make a career out of it. For a while, I’d been happy writing stories, sharing them with friends and family, and then letting them collect dust in my drawer. But I decided that if there are folks out there who like my stuff enough to read it, why not let them? Since I started submitting my work a couple of years ago, I’ve been lucky enough to place stories in a bunch of fantastic publications in the indie fiction scene and share TOCs with countless great writers. There’s no shortage of talent out there.
I’ve also tried my hand at writing novels. As I mentioned, I’ve finished the first and the second is in progress. My near-term goals are to (1) place the first with an agent or publisher and (2) finish the second (which somehow has been harder than the first). I also hope to continue to write and place short stories, as that’s still my go-to literary form.
But I’m careful not to lose sight of the fundamentals. I write because I love writing. If that leads to publication, fame, fortune, literary groupies, etc., great. Unlikely, but great. If it doesn’t—even if I knew it never would—that wouldn’t change a thing. I mean that to the fullest extent. Even if I had to shred everything I wrote after each session, I would still write. The goal of my writing career is to pursue my ambition for publishing work while never losing sight of what brought me to the craft in the first place.
Who are some of your influences? How have they influenced your work?
I enjoy a range of authors and like to think I’ve drawn influence from different corners of the literary world. I’m a big fan of 20th-century classics, my favorites probably being Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. But my go-to genre is the noir lineage of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Ross McDonald, and Jim Thompson, through modern hardboiled crime writers like Dennis Lehane, James Lee Burke, and Walter Mosley. I also enjoy philosophical fiction—Camus, Kafka, Hesse, Walker Percy (The Moviegoer), Vonnegut. (You could categorize the “classics” named above down here too.)
One author I’ve found brings some of these strains together and thus has had a big influence on me is Friedrich Dürrenmatt. He’s a 20th-century Swiss author who wrote the best philosophical crime stories you’ll find. Go read The Pledge!
While I don’t hold particular writers in mind as influences when I write, I think my interest in both noir and philosophy/psychology shows. It’s a classic pairing, after all. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice influenced Camus’ The Stranger. Jim Thompson was the “dime-store Dostoyevsky.”
Music also influences my writing, in particular, the country/folk genre. This includes older artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and modern guys like Evan Felker (Turnpike Troubadours), Cody Jinks, and Jason Isbell. Great country music means great storytelling that examines the dark side of the day-to-day. I keep finding similar themes in my own stories.
What are some writing tips you’ve received over the years you feel have helped you
improve your writing?
Don’t overthink it. Write the damn story and don’t worry so much about following rules. If you read and write a lot, you’ll instinctively figure it out.
For me, writing is an escape from the world where everything has to be just right. Too much focus on rules and tips and tricks can turn a hyperactive mind against itself. Good writing comes from the subconscious, and the subconscious is digesting these best practices on its own when you read and write.
This applies to editing too. No doubt revising is important and the common refrain about the “shitty first draft” is true, but, don’t let the editing process become an excessive scrutinizing of every word and phrase and punctuation mark. This can turn a good story into a tedious compromise with your own neuroses.
Write with your gut, and don’t let your head get in its way.
What are you currently reading? How’s it going—recommend, or no?
I recently started Willie Vlautin’s latest novel, The Night Always Comes. He’s another one of my favorites, ever since I read The Motel Life. He writes with such authenticity about such real people that, so long as you have a heart beating in your chest, he’ll have you emotionally invested from page one.
After I finish that one, I’ll catch up on the stack of indie crime books, mags, and anthologies I’ve compiled this year. Between the long hours at the day job and getting my own words onto the page, it can be tough not to let reading take a back seat. But, there’s so much talent out there in the indie community and I try to make a point of keeping up and seeing what my peers are putting out. And it’s not hard to stay interested and supportive, as so many of them are consistently publishing stellar work. I’ve also seen new publications popping up over the past few months which is exciting, both as a contributor to and consumer of the market.
If you had the chance to see one musician/group live in concert, living or dead, who would it be and at what point in their career would it be?
I’ll start with two older ones. First, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968. That’s as legendary as it gets in live music history.
I’ll also mention Merle Haggard on Austin City Limits 1985. Some nights I pour a whiskey and watch the whole thing, wishing I could time travel.
The last one is at least a theoretical possibility. If the Turnpike Troubadours get back from their indefinite hiatus, I’d do unconscionable things to get to a show. If you don’t know them, the band is incredible and the songwriting is unmatched. But I’ll take it easy on the TT proselytizing. (Evan, if you’re reading this, I’m a huge fan.)
What should we look for from you in the near future?
I have short stories forthcoming with Pulp Modern Flash, Thriller Magazine, Econoclash Review, and Mickey Finn volumes 2 and 3 (a noir anthology series from Down & Out Books), so keep an eye out for those. If you haven’t checked out Mickey Finn 1 edited by Michael Bracken, go grab a copy. It’s top-notch stuff. One of my favorite stories I’ve written will be in vol. 2 later this year and I can’t wait to be a part of such a fantastic anthology series.
Nils Gilbertson is a crime and mystery fiction writer and practicing attorney. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Nils currently resides in our nation’s capital, where he spends his time avoiding politicians. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Modern, Mystery Weekly, Pulp Adventures, Thriller Magazine, Close to the Bone, and others. He is currently working on a novel. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and find him on Twitter @NilsGilbertson.