Here is what Jesse James Kennedy tells us about himself:
"My nephew was sent to prison a couple of years back and asked me to send him my stories to help him pass the time. After he read the stories I wrote he asked me to write something longer and I began Missouri Homegrown. I sent him chapters as I wrote them and he passed them around to other inmates and a couple of guards and they enjoyed them and asked for more so I kept going. (I left out the chapter on the prison break for obvious reasons.)
"I am 45 years old, did a short stint in the Army, 10th Mountain Division Light Infantry which was part of the inspiration for Jay McCray. After the Army I got a little wild, did a little time, and then moved from job to job keeping out of trouble and reading a lot and learning to write. I've known many people similar to my characters but none were quite that violent."
The McCray novels have won praise from Publishers Weekly, Booklist and many others for their harsh, fast-paced realism and sharp character portraits.
Jesse James Kennedy lives in Missouri, where he is at work on another novel.
With Black Hills Reckoning, Kennedy has brought the McCray saga to a close. But he's not--we hoped--done with writing. Seeking reassurance on that score, Perfect Crime checked in with him.
Q.: Your work has been described as "country noir," brutal yet characterized by "gripping, beautifully executed scenes." The drug-dealing McCray family comes alive as ruthless but far from one-dimensional.
A.: I have grown quite fond of the McCrays. Kind of sad to see the trilogy come to an end.
Q.: How do you view these characters?
A.: There’s no doubt there is an anti-hero vibe to them. Bukowski once said, “I have always admired the villain, the outlaw, the son of a bitch. I don't like the clean-shaven boy with the necktie and the good job. I like desperate men, men with broken teeth and broken minds and broken ways. They interest me. They are full of surprises and explosions.” I share that sentiment and it is in that vein that I see the McCrays. They are not knights in shining armor, they are knights in dented, banged-up, blood-encrusted armor who cuss, drink too much, occasionally enjoy violence more than they should, but who are also brave, tough and not without a code of ethics though it is different than what a lot of people would consider ethical.
Q.: It came as a shock when you killed off one likeable character in Tijuana Mean. Was that difficult to do?
A.: It did give me pause toward the end of that book. When I started that novel, I knew the death of that character would set the stage for the next book. I was surprised though at how much that character blossomed, kind of stealing the show really. I did kind of regret having to bump them off, but I feel the character development added to the impact of the death and the novel.
Q.: Home-grown drug-dealers, Mexican cartel gunmen, biker gangs--what's Missouri come to?
A.: Contrary to most people’s wholesome view of the heart of the Midwest, Missouri has always been overly violent in comparison to the rest of the country. A lot of people don’t like to hear that, but it is a statistical fact and has pretty much been true for the state’s history. We are the home of Jesse and Frank James, Bloody Bill Anderson, the Younger brothers, Belle Starr, and a plethora of St. Louis gangsters. St. Louis has consistently been dubbed the murder capital of America with more per capita homicides than any other U.S. city. In 2019 it was number five in overall crime with KC Missouri coming in right behind them at number six. There has also been a long tradition of Missouri outlaws and gangsters being resistant to outside forces. The James gang was born out of resistance to the railroad and carpetbaggers, the Irish gangsters continued to run St. Louis long after the Italian Mafia had taken over most of the other cities; they even repelled an invasion by Al Capone. National motorcycle clubs started in California like the Hell’s Angels spread chapters all over America and even deep into Canada, but rural Missouri is still dominated by a local bike club whose name I’m smart enough not to mention in an interview. And all these local outlaws got heavy support from the locals who have always been more comfortable with the devil they know. The tension between local drug dealers and the newly emerging Mexican drug cartels was of course the inspiration for Missouri Homegrown.
Q.: You've said you've known people like this, though not as violent. Are you writing an intensified social realism?
A.: Yes, that term’s perfect. The storylines are of course embellished for the purpose of drama, but most of my main characters are based on real people that I was or am very close to. I don’t invent many personalities, I steal them.
Q.: The McCray saga would make a heck of a TV series. Any nibbles?
A.: There was a thrilling moment when someone who said they were connected to Lionsgate inquired about screen rights to Missouri Homegrown, but nothing came of it. I think the heavy action of the trilogy would fit very well into a series in the tradition of Sons Of Anarchy.
Q.: What's next on the novel front?
A.: I had started a novel about an ex-con who gets out of the joint and finds work on the music festival circuit. I put that on hold to do Black Hills Reckoning and have had trouble getting back in the rhythm of it. But very soon I intend to clear my schedule and throw myself into it.
Q.: You've also written short fiction and poetry.
A.: I have had a handful of poems and short stories published. Each is a quite different writing experience. Poems I never even think about writing unless I’m overcome with a sudden inspiration which, as cliché as it may be, usually only comes when I’m drinking. Short stories are the most planned out, I don’t physically write an outline, but an outline appears complete in my mind before I start writing, I know every step that I’m going to take and I write the story straight through from beginning to end. Writing novels is by far my favorite and most rewarding experience. I usually have an idea where I’m going to start and where I’m going to end but getting from A to Z is a complete act of faith, the closest I’ve ever come to a religious faith. I will just start writing scenes, not in the order that they appear in the novel but just as they come to me. I feel like at some point this character will get into a fight with that character and I write the scene. At some point two characters will have a conversation and I write that. Each one of these scenes is like carving puzzle pieces, and you just trust that they’ll not only fit together but fit together in a way that connects your beginning to your ending. And at a certain point when I think I have enough, I lay them out in front of me, put them in order and it works! Sometimes I will have to fill in a gap here or there, but for the most part, the pieces fit together, and the picture is complete. It is really amazing seeing it come together like that. I kind of feel bad for people who have never experienced it.
The Big Thrill interviews Jesse James Kennedy