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Santa Fe Psychosis: Surreal Noir in the Land of Disenchantment

An Interview with Author Max Talley

by Silver Webb

This is not the Santa Fe you dream of, filled with hot air balloons and pueblo pottery, that soft light giving the desert a glow. This is not Santa Fe Dream Getaway. It's Santa Fe Psychosis, by Max Talley, published in Spring 2022 by Dark Edge Press, a story that starts in the quaint center of the "City Different" but soon veers into the lost corner of the Land of Enchantment. Or perhaps we should call it the "Land of Disenchantment."

It begins the way all good noir crime does, with a beautiful woman in trouble and a private eye called for help. But Jackson Bardo, war veteran and demolitions expert, will face much more than ex-girlfriend Jenny calling him in the middle of the night to bring cash fast. He is soon pulled into a case by the Santa Fe Police Department and his old colleague Detective Juarez, as young women start turning up murdered. Half suspect, half hero, Bardo faces not only the corruption lurking in the wealthy families of Santa Fe, but the unthinkable crimes that occur out in the desert.

There are whispers running through town of a busload of bohemian musicians, a sort of Merry Pranksters via Jonestown, holding parties in the desert and young women with the same tattoo on their ankles, not surviving the night. The deeper Bardo falls into this K-hole, the weirder it gets. Add in a bruja harboring secrets, and you have the kind of story that you start after dinner and then race the morning alarm clock to finish.

I'm delighted to be talking with Max Talley, a frequent Lit Jo contributor and author of this strange, dark circus of characters.

"I must trust you first." Luna took his right hand, her long curled fingernails scraping across his skin. "You just arrived in New Mexico. Your palms are moist from the ocean, not dry like our high desert. You are not infected yet."
"By the insanity. Santa Fe psychosis." She nodded with a rueful smile.
—Santa Fe Psychosis

Silver Webb: Santa Fe Psychosis cannot fairly be called a love letter to Santa Fe, at least not of the traditional variety. You delight in bringing characters to the fore who are troubled in the peculiar way that people can be, hiding from society in the high desert, forgotten by most of the world. Corruption, murder, and drugs are at play here. You've spent a lot of time in Santa Fe. Is there truth to the psychosis, or is this a Santa Fe born of your imaginings?

Max Talley: Crime fiction is often an exaggeration. Maybe you take all the things that might happen in a year and condense them into a month. There is something haunted and ghostly about the high desert around Santa Fe, so I thought that would be a good setting. Statistically there is much more crime in Albuquerque, but I thought that region had been covered in the Breaking Bad series. My book is definitely fiction, and depicts what could happen, rather than what is happening. That being said, there are two Santa Fes, the Plaza and historic area that tourists assume is the whole city, and a much larger area to the west where the majority of the population lives. It is not crime-ridden, but the potential for vice exists.

"Bardo knew that those who lived on cigarettes, lines of coke, and whiskey, turned into the frightening sexless character at the end of a bar by their fifties—with a weather-beaten face and a hoarse laugh. That sad realization only spurred Bardo to see Jenny sooner, before brutal time and gravity took their toll."
—Santa Fe Psychosis

SW: Although your characters are modern-day and forego trench coats and seamed stockings for jeans and cell phones, the feel of the story certainly evokes the shadows and mystery of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel. What is the appeal of that style to you and were any particular authors in the back of your mind as inspiration?

MT: I love Hammett and Chandler, as well as pulp crime paperbacks with trashy, lurid covers. Jim Thompson was a master of such pulp, though he generally wrote of criminals and conmen, and their inevitable plunge toward death or imprisonment. I'm influenced by James Lee Burke, because he gives the reader a crime story, but also philosophy and detailed settings. Something extra. If you can sneak in a little literary style, without losing the breakneck ride on the backbone of plot, then I think you have something. Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson are not really crime writers, but they show a deep understanding of both bad people and violence.

"Back in a tent in the desert, recovering after a concussion grenade went off too close. An army doctor and a nurse gazed down at Bardo, and Iraqi children raised corners of the tent flaps to watch before being shooed away. How long ago was that? Fifteen years? He'd forgotten the overwhelming heat. It could paralyze you. He opened his eyes, Abiquiu, and the teenagers circled around the cot. How old were they, sixteen, seventeen? They pressed against him, crawled atop him, wiped sweat off his brow, kissed his fingers. A boy licked his toes. It felt like creeping death."
—Santa Fe Psychosis

SW: When not writing short stories or novels, you are a painter in the surrealist tradition. A style of art that, like noir, is both anchored in a zenith of popularity in the first half of the 20th century, but also of timeless appeal. It seems to be an aesthetic that pervades your writing. You take what might be a Thunder Heart, straight-ahead desert crime novel and subvert it with the inescapably strange. I won't say you've cornered the market on surreal noir, but it is a distinct combination. As an author and painter, what is the value of the surreal to you and how did you put yourself in a frame of mind to create the massive left turn at Albuquerque that left us hallucinating and lost in the desert?

MT: "Surreal Noir." I'll take it! Surreal can mean different things to different people, but generally it has to do with dreamlike states, hallucinatory visions, memories that haunt us, the mysterious, otherworldly presence. We lead our rational lives as humans, but our minds function on several levels, mixing logic and order with dreams and memories. How can we survive long if we don't remember the sound of a rattlesnake when we're hiking? So, I think the surreal is always with us, sometimes invisible, at the periphery. Most of David Lynch's films could be called Surreal Noir. In crime fiction, many characters have crazed dreams of making their one big score or finding love with a corrupted woman or man. It often takes place at night and in odd or deserted surroundings, therefore it lends itself to the surreal, or at least a touch of it. If a writer goes too far out there, then the story may become incomprehensible.

SW: One of the strengths of your story-telling is the way you let the mystery reveal itself naturally. No detective wins on every clue, and Bardo and his team are lured down many dark roads, not all of which advance the investigation, but taken as a whole, all drive the story forward. In one of your other lives, you lead a rock band called the Trip and are a music fan. Is building tempo and tension in a story analogous to the composition of a musical piece for you?

MT: I like that in crime fiction, the detectives are always out interviewing people, following cars, making hunches. However, to maintain some patina of realism, it's important that not every suspect be guilty, that there are red herrings, that the protagonists might stumble onto some other sketchy operation beyond the scope of their case. As long as they are plowing

ahead toward the main goal of solving the crime or finding a missing person, I think readers will allow for tangents and misfires. Though those "dark roads" as you put it, need to have their own drama and sense of danger too. As far as music, yes, rhythm is super-important in writing. I'm not sure I'd compare it to my songwriting with different lyrical verses and a repeated chorus. There is some connection, but it's deep and mysterious and I'm afraid to unravel it and risk losing whatever it is that I can't describe to you.

SW: You teach writing workshops for the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference and Santa Fe Workshops, often focusing on how to make the first few pages of a story irresistible to publishers and readers. Clearly this is an art you've mastered, with numerous short stories in publication, as well as novel Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, and coming out later in the year, My Secret Place, a story collection published by Main Street Rag Books. What are the elements of a good story that draw the reader in right away? And now that you've drawn us in to Santa Fe Psychosis, can we hope for a sequel or do you have other projects in the works?

MT: Whenever you think you've mastered something, that's usually when you're about to slip and fall on your ass. To a degree, I understand how to inject drama, tension, and the sense that important events are going to occur (hopefully before page 150) right away. Not all fiction works with lots of plot and action on the first page. I don't know the exact equation

or I would be flying to my castle in Switzerland in a private jet and complaining about the WiFi. I do think you need to have characters with flaws, but who are compelling. Heroes that may have screwed-up but are now determined to make things right. Despicable villains that you can love to hate are good too, though you can't go overboard or they become cartoonish.

I prefer bad guys who love their children, pet their cat, then strangle a random person because they say a phrase that reminds them of the mother that hated them or the partner who dumped them. Illogical, changeable people are more frightening to me.

Maybe someday I'll continue the saga of Jackson Bardo, Juarez, and Detective Ravello from Santa Fe Psychosis, but my focus in the immediate future is on literary fiction collections. I have a warehouse filled with short stories, and though they don't have expiration dates, as humans, we all do... I love to end interviews on a cheery note. Thanks for your questions, Silver Webb.

SW: Thank you for speaking with me and best of luck with your writing.

Max Talley was born in New York City and lives somewhere in Southern California. His writing has appeared in numerous journals, including Vol.1 Brooklyn, Atticus Review, Entropy, Santa Fe Literary Review, and Litro. Talley's first novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014, his curated surreal anthology, Delirium Corridor, debuted in 2020, and his short story collection, My Secret Place, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Books.

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