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Jarret KeeneInterview

Author of Las Vegas Noir

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Author Interview

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with author Jarret Keene, who is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he teaches American literature and the graphic novel. His publications range across a number of genres, from his rock band biography, The Killers: Destiny Is Calling Me, to his travel guide, The Underground Guide to Las Vegas. He has co-edited a number of short story collections, including Las Vegas Noir and Dead Neon: Tales of Near-Future Las Vegas. His latest offering, Hammer of the Dogs, is a dystopian adventure set in an apocalyptic Las Vegas, and was published earlier this month by the University of Nevada Press.

Hammer of the Dogs has been compared by reviewers to such works as The Hunger Games and Divergent—both very popular works of dystopian fiction. Were these books an influence on your story? What were some other influences?

Yes, of course The Hunger Games and Divergent were an influence on Hammer of the Dogs: the books are so fun! But I went back into the past to study the darker, violent influences on these books: Koushon Takami’s Battle Royale, Stephen King’s The Long Walk, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Jack Kirby’s X-Men comics. The best dystopian YA stories tend to explore an intriguing premise: savage yet gifted kids under extreme pressure from corrupt government forces, forced to fight each other and survive lethal threats. Hammer of the Dogs picks up the conceit and cranks it to eleven, with the protagonist, Lash, armed to the teeth and ready to smash the world in order to save her friends and rescue her father.

Dystopian fiction has become increasingly popular in the last twenty years, within the wider world of speculative fiction. Why is that? Is it simply a reflection of our growing concern for the future of humanity and the world around us? What’s significant about this genre of storytelling, and what does it allow the writer to do, that they couldn’t otherwise?

In our teens, we realize that adult life is dystopian. Today the internet and social media amplify the anxiety of youth with “likes” and “comments.” Now young people run a terrifying gauntlet: tech inundation, college debt, unaffordable housing, COVID lockdowns, endless vaccines, school shootings. The reflection is crystal-clear, and the dystopian YA genre allows us to explore the full range of nightmares, and to give solutions if we’re interested. That’s why the genre continues to grow in popularity. Lash’s solution in Hammer of the Dogs is to pick up the deadly tech and refashion her environment. Passivity isn’t an option. Anyhow, it’s fun to wreck and rebuild. As long as you know how to rebuild.

Las Vegas features prominently in your work, both fiction and nonfiction, and is the setting for Hammer of the Dogs. What role, if any, does the city setting, and the wider Nevada landscape, play in your story? What made you choose the Luxor Hotel as the headquarters for Lash’s school? Are there other Las Vegas and Nevada landmarks that make an appearance in the book?

Las Vegas is a sinful, eyeball-seducing playground. Nevada is a frightening military playground. Yet the desert and mountains are gorgeous. Few realize this, and I wanted Hammer of the Dogs to depict Las Vegas in an unfamiliar way, as a site of desert warfare and twisted entertainment. But Las Vegas is also a blank slate of promise. Las Vegas has been this way since its inception, with the media and government masking its true potential. The book’s hero, Lash, eventually sees the city’s mask, and rips it away. So Las Vegas, plus the surrounding valley, is a character all its own. I chose Luxor, because I used to work there in the communications department. For years, I wrote employee newsletters in the bottom of a pyramid, spotlighting sous chefs and Cirque due Soleil acrobats and guest room attendants. Everything I describe in Hammer of the Dogs, from the employee dining commons to the Luxor Sky Beam, is how I experienced it. It was a world within a world, and we competed with other hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip in fundraising efforts, in physical competitions (including hot dog-eating contests), and we were subject to brainwashing by corporate management and the unions alike. It was easy to extrapolate and imagine gangs of teenagers housed in each hotel/casino—Bellagio, CityCenter, Mandalay Bay, Excalibur—plotting to kill all rivals using drone technology. I use everything in Las Vegas—Boulder City, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas Speedway, Fremont Street Experience, the gypsum mines, The Shops at Crystals—as a background against which Lash wages war.

In your work as an educator you explore and teach about the graphic novel format. How has this impacted your writing? Would you say that your storytelling style is a very visual one, or that you have particular images in mind, when writing? What came first, when you were writing this book: ideas, words, characters, images?

Teaching the graphic novel inspires my writing, which is highly visual. I wrote Hammer of the Dogs as a “movie tie-in novel,” the kind that used to be abundant in the 1980s. Every fun sci-fi/fantasy movie (Krull, Tron, The Last Starfighter) back then had a novelization for sale at the mall bookstore. I “saw” the story unfold before I wrote down a word, which helped me accelerate the pacing and maintain the headlong momentum. So Hammer of the Dogs is, in essence, one revved-up cinematic set piece after another, until the very end where I intentionally let the story go off the rails. Lash isn’t patient. She wants to search and destroy, and I did my best to remove the boring parts so that Lash shines and sheds copious amounts of bad-guy blood. She wanted to fall in love with a bad boy, so I helped her with that as well. Lash made this book adventure-packed, fun, easy to write. So yes, images and ideas always arrived first—then character, then words.

As an educator, you work with younger adults, and your novel is aimed at that demographic (among others). What is important, when telling a story for this audience? Does awareness of the audience change how you write?

I wrote Hammer of the Dogs for a younger audience, sure, but I layered in Easter eggs for Gen Ex-ers and Boomers to savor. There’s a nod to postwar popular culture in every page, from Jack Schafer’s Shane to The Empire Strikes Back to Alice Cooper’s Constrictor. There’s a LOT of references to ’80s hard rock and glam metal, with Lash blasting her dad’s music on his old Walkman whenever she needs to get psyched for battle. I think it’s important to NOT condescend to readers by only presenting one generation’s cultural references. Young people are curious, old people are curious. People are curious to learn about pop culture from every era. So I believe it’s important to satisfy a young reader’s curiosity and take them places they’ve never even considered. I also wanted to take young readers on a mythic journey with Lash. That’s the awareness I brought to every sentence in Hammer of the Dogs: I want younger readers, older readers, any and all readers to be swept up in the momentum of Lash’s adventure. I didn’t change the way I write exactly, but I certainly laser-focused on what makes for full-throttle storytelling.

Tell us about your library. What’s on your own shelves?

If you visit my LibraryThing page, you’ll see my favorite books. But my office shelves are loaded with Jack Kirby-rendered comic books, books about Greek and Roman myths and ancient and classical warfare, and various versions and translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Because I teach American literature and world literature, I have so many favorites, including Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders and Other Lines, Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, Isabel Allende’s Zorro, to name a few. I love the classics, but I get a lot of pleasure from reading comics.

What have you been reading lately, and what would you recommend to other readers?

I recently finished reading and highly recommend the following, especially if you have a taste for alternative, non-corporate literature and writing:

Stephen B. Armstrong’s rock history I Want You Around: The Ramones and the Making of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (Backbeat, 2023)

Bernard Schopen’s Drowning in the Desert: A Nevada Noir Novel (University of Nevada Press, 2023)

Justin Chin’s poetry collection Burden of Ashes (Manic D Press, 2023)

Chris Mullen’s six-book YA Western series Rowdy (Wise Wolf Books, 2022-2023)

Ryan G. Van Cleave’s YA nonfiction book The Witness Trees: Historic Moments and the Trees Who Watched Them Happen (Bushel & Peck Books, 2023)