Q&A with Peter Farris, author of The Devil Himself

Read on for J.B. Stevens's interview with Peter Farris, author of The Devil Himself, a southern noir novel first published in France with enormous critical acclaim and which has won multiple literary awards.

Recently, I had the honor of speaking with Peter Farris. Peter is a critically acclaimed crime fiction author and resident of North Georgia (scientifically proven to be the greatest region in the entire universe). He is a French literary juggernaut and is due to break out here in the United States.

Peter’s latest release, The Devil Himself, is getting rave reviews. In France, The Devil Himself won Le Prix 813, Best Foreign Novel at the Beaune International Film Festival, and was a finalist for Le Prix SNCF du Polar. Peter is a serious talent, and I was delighted when he agreed to speak with me. 

J.B.: Peter, again thank you for sharing your time. Can you talk a bit more about yourself and your background?

Peter: Sure. About me, I was obsessed with music and after college bounced around, playing and recording in bands between day jobs when I finally got serious about fiction writing in my mid 20’s. My father was a novelist and screenwriter, so I learned a great deal from him and spent years in a sort of apprenticeship period writing absolute garbage.

It finally came together about 2010 or so. My debut was a hard-boiled heist novel about white supremacist prison gangs—Last Call for the Living—and it came out in 2012. It received fairly good reviews and seems to have a small but devoted cult following to this day, but the novel wasn’t published well, and like 99% of books, disappeared off the face of the earth pretty quickly. Looking to make a change and based on the strength of The Devil Himself, I signed with a new rep at a big literary agency in New York. It felt like the right move, and I thought I was on my way to publishing regularly and, hopefully, I’d have the opportunity to earn a readership the old-fashioned way. That agent shopped TDH around in September 2013 and five publishers passed. After that the manuscript was shelved, was never submitted anywhere again by that agent, and it languished like that for about 7 years. I kept writing but that agent didn’t have much interest in the subsequent novels, either. The success in France made no impression. I was pretty much a one-and-done casualty of the publishing business.

Fortunately, a French publisher (Editions Gallmeister) got hip to my work. They bought the rights to Last Call for the LivingThe Devil Himself, and a third novel The Clay Eaters. Gallmeister released The Devil Himself in 2017, did a fantastic job publishing the novel and it seemed to find an audience right away, was heralded by the press, and ultimately won and was nominated or shortlisted for numerous awards. I was privileged enough to be able to travel to France several times on book tours thanks to the support of Gallmeister, and those are some of my most cherished memories. I have a fourth book coming out in France next year and it’s safe to say my publisher over there is very much like family.

There have been whole articles written about writers like me, who find success in France but can’t get arrested at home. The truth of the matter is most writers don’t get the careers they think they deserve and you have to know the literary business in America is a lottery.

I’d all but given up on publishing in the States when a filmmaker named Laurent Bouzereau reached out to me about The Devil Himself. He was looking to direct his first narrative feature and I just so happened to have adapted it. He loved my screenplay and has been working diligently with his producer to set it up for film and we should have an announcement shortly. It was around 2020 when he introduced me to an agent named Mark Falkin who agreed to take me and the book on and we had an offer for The Devil Himself within a few months. By that point I had been turned down by dozens of agents, all citing the sales of my first book as the reason.

All in, it took nearly 10 years, but I finally released a new novel in English.

J.B.: Wow, the life of a novelist is not for the faint of heart. It’s crazy that agents rejected you based upon the sales of your first novel, but wholly disregarded the huge fanbase you’ve built overseas. It’s interesting how disconnected publishing and writing truly are. Speaking of your writing, can you tell us more about The Devil Himself?

Peter: The Devil Himself was partly inspired by stories I heard from family. My wife’s family is from South Georgia and her grandparents told me about a man with some outlaw tendencies who, back in the 1970s, rode around town with a mannequin in his car, sort of trolling his neighbors before trolling was a thing, just to get a rise out of people. I loved that image—an old man with a mannequin in the passenger seat of his truck—and knew there was a novel there.

I just kept asking myself practical questions, taking that image a step further. What if the man lives with the mannequin full-time? Dresses it up, talks to it, and sets a place for it at the table or takes it to the movies. What if that mannequin is filling some type of void in his life?

From there it was mostly figuring out how to explore those questions and fashion them into a commercial crime novel.

J.B.: I lived in South Georgia for a long time, it is full of unique people, and I often miss the day-to-day craziness. (It is also scientifically proven to be the second greatest region in the entire universe.) I can’t wait to read your take on the area.

You mentioned that The Devil Himself was inspired by a family story. You also said that your father was a novelist. It seems like you have strong familial ties to the craft. With that in mind, did you come out of the womb fully formed, or did you get into writing a bit later?

Peter: I got serious around 2006 after reading Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor, and Barry Hannah. Those writers opened the floodgates to dozens more, all with a strong regional focus that I could relate to.

By then I’d read my father’s work, of course, Stephen King, too, a lot of horror, but was very much a casual reader. The light bulb went off so-to-speak and I began reading with a real purpose and continue to this day. I wrote a grotesque novel set in the world of NASCAR and dozens of terrible short stories before I started to figure things out a bit. Most writers (myself included) have just got to write crap in order to get to the good stuff.

J.B.: Not at all formed, I respect your honesty. If I had an accomplished novelist for a father, my initial (terrible) fiction would be that much more embarrassing.

So, you’re a crime fiction author, and you’ve won tons of awards in the field. However, your father worked in a different genre. That leads to my next question, have you always been a crime-fiction-guy, or did you find it later in your journey?

Peter: I found it a bit later, as I was more a fan of crime films than I was fiction. But I looked at a book like Larry Brown’s Father & Son and Daniel Woodrell’s work and saw the possibilities, writing what you know, about the world around you, the people around you, and not some foreign city you’ve never stepped foot in. I just knew I wanted to play in that sandbox and focus on regional fiction, maybe not even write straight crime fiction but use familiar notes and do something different with the genre, which is what I attempted with The Devil Himself. Looking back, at the time I also loved ballistic action like the kind Stephen Hunter and David J. Schow do and that was a big influence on Last Call for the Living.

There was another important moment where I think the crime writer in me was born: When I was working a day job at First Union Bank right out of college and I was involved in a robbery. I knew then and there I wanted to one day write a novel about a bank heist. It just took me a few years to figure out how to do it.

J.B.: So many people go through traumatic events and run the other way. I love that you leaned into it and wrote a novel with the experience percolating in the back of your mind. Your reaction to the trauma tells me a great deal about your reserve of inner grit. I feel like I’ve gotten to know you as a person—I want to swing back to you as a literary entity. Other than Larry Brown and Daniel Woodrell, who are some of your favorite writers?

Peter: This answer is going to come off as pretentious, but I got so burned out on crime fiction and “grit lit” and I don’t keep up with it like I should. I adore Pete Fromm and Ron Rash, Edna O’Brien and mostly I read a lot of outdoor and hunting-related writing, anthropology, and history. I’ve also been obsessed with Scandinavian poets like Olav Hauge and Rolf Jacobson. Franck Bouysse’s novel Born of No Woman was gut-wrenching but absolutely incredible. I do really enjoy everything William Boyle’s written, Brian Panowich, Sara Gran. Eli Cranor’s debut Don’t Know Tough was fantastic, and Taylor Brown’s new novel Wingwalkers was extraordinary, too.

J.B.: Nah, that didn’t come across as pretentious. I do a lot of these author conversations, and there are a good number of crime fiction writers that don’t read much crime fiction. I love the genre, but still get tired of the tropes every now and then, that’s when I seek out quality palate cleansers. Next time that happens, I’m going to check out some Scandinavian poetry.

In our brief back and forth, we’ve learned about you and your literary existence—is there anything else we should know?

Peter: Just to the aspiring writers out there: keep some perspective and prepare yourself for disappointment and rejection. The only things that matter are the words on the page.

J.B.: I love that, “the only thing that matters is words on the page.” A great way to end our chat. I want to say thank you to Peter for taking the time to speak with me. Also, if you like fiction about the greatest region in the entire universe, check out The Devil Himself. Finally, swing by Peter’s website at peterfarris.com and poke around a bit.

Thank you!

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    I know and admire Peter Farris very much. The Devil Himself is one of my favorite novels and I have reread it over 3 times already. Nice to know more about him.

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