Liam Sweeny is the author of Street Whispers, a short story collection out today. It’s an eclectic collection of pulp, grit and noir stories inspired by the Capital Region of New York, a rust-belt crossroads in the shadow of the city that never sleeps.
ADR: The stories in your collection mostly take place in the Capital Region of New York state, nearby to Albany and Troy for those unfamiliar with the area. Are there any other authors writing about this region? Why do you find that the region is a good setting for crime fiction?
LS: I live in the city of Cohoes, which is north of Albany, across the Hudson River northwest of the Troy city center. The area was written about famously by the author William Kennedy in the books Ironweed, Legs, possibly others, I’m not sure. Caleb Carr, author of the Alienist series, lives in Rensselaer County, Troy’s county, and he wrote the book Surrender New York, a story that takes place in a fictionalized version of Rensselaer County. James Howard Kuntzler’s World Made by Hand dystopian series takes place in a fictionalized city just north of here. And there was the movie The Place Beyond the Pines with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendez was about, and shot in and around the Capital Region city of Schenectady.
The Capital District is a very old place. Albany, in its incarnations, has been around for four hundred years. It was a fort, a Dutch trading post, a barrier to the British conquest of New England (the capital district includes Saratoga.) The Continental Army set up camp in my back yard, quite literally. And later, with the construction of the Erie Canal, this area boomed, and was home to many firsts, specifically in industrialization. Troy was the first steel capital before Pittsburgh, and Cohoes was the home of the first industrial textile mill. Troy also had a few cultural claims to fame, the “Home of Uncle Sam,” and the home of “The Night Before Christmas,” and it’s a mark of belonging in Troy to know the story of meatpacker Sam Wilson and the Troy Sentinel newspaper article in 1823.
It boomed and it busted, and is struggling to boom again, to hide the scars of vacant concrete factories and the curbside litter that speaks to the dissolution of neighborhoods that, at one time, took care of their streets. We have nanotech and polytech and, I think, seven or eight colleges, and we have people working three jobs to afford a studio apartment, basic bills and food for the week. And that’s something that’s happening everywhere. But people here still wake up each morning with pride that they live in what could rightfully be considered a cradle of America.
As one last note, this area is the intersection of the Interstates 90 and 87, which make it a crossroads of the Northeast. We get enough drift from that to keep things interesting.
ADR: Which other short story writers did you consider influential on your work? Who else are you reading in crime fiction right now?
LS: I was named after Liam O’Flaherty, and I was exposed to some of his stories at an early age. I mean, they’re dark as hell. Grit like a sanding belt, and they opened my eyes up to the period in Ireland that he wrote about. It was one of the first times I was awakened from the fictions we have in this country to a new reality: The Ireland of shamrocks and leprechauns to the one of stark Catholicism and the visceral sacrifice of a man to cold industry. Kurt Vonnegut was another influence, I mean, not the same as O’Flaherty, but I liked his ability to dash your expectations of a character’s moral standing. He showed the fragility of judgmentalism. In my time of coming out with plot twists in short stories, I could always feel that groove. Also, Steve Weddle, and his book Country Hardball, showed me a side of country life that resonated with the fact that deep country is only ten miles out in any direction from here, and made me want to set stories in some of the outlying towns.
Right now, I just finished Joe Clifford’s Broken Ground, which isn’t out yet, but is in the Jay Porter series that I’ve been following faithfully. I also just finished Eryk Pruitt’s What We Reckon, which was an incredible standalone, and I hope he follows that up. I’m currently reading Tom Pitts, American Static, and am just getting into Jen Conley’s Cannibals. I’m waiting for Ryan Sayles’s Albatross. I am thinking of re-reading Les Edgerton’s Death of Tarpons, which may not specifically qualify as crime fiction, but it is told by a master of the genre, so I’ll count it.
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