John Wisniewski interviews Daniel Vlasty

stay ugly

When did you begin writing, Daniel?

I remember writing a few really terrible stories when I was younger, probably in high school, and some embarrassing poetry too. But I didn’t start to really write until I was a sophomore in college. I took a creative writing class to fill some credit hours I needed and I’ve been writing ever since.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Off the top of my head — Kurt Vonnegut, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanoes, Sam Pink, Justin Grimbol, Carlton Mellick III, J David Osborne, Stephen Graham Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Ken Bruen, Ed Brubaker, Jason Aaron, Rick Remender, Matt Fraction.

Could you tell us about writing “Stay Ugly“? What inspired you to write?

STAY UGLY is actually like two or three others stories I was failing at writing mashed together. It’s not that complicated of a story but writing it kicked my ass. Probably took me a year to write the first draft and I finished that back in 2018. Just for reference of where this stacks up with my other first drafts: The Church of TV as God took me three days to write, Amphetamine Psychosis took about four, Only Bones was about a week, and A New and Different Kind of Pain took a week and some change. But with Stay Ugly I just felt like I could never get it right and I just kept working at it. I rewrote it in third-person and then back to first person (even tried like half a draft in second person), added characters, removed characters, changed major and minor details, and generally just fucked around with it non-stop until Chris at All Due Respect picked it up and we were able to find some focus on the story.

I’m really glad the book’s out now so I can just move the fuck on. And I love it. I think it’s a great story. But I was also starting to hate it toward the end there.

I really just like Ugly as a character. I like flawed characters. I like bad people. I like to see some shit get dirty and messy and grimy. I like the idea of trying to do better and be better but just fucking up everything and making it all worse.

I think that is human.

Can we speak about “A New and Different Kind of Pain”, Daniel? What inspired this book?

I didn’t think about this at the time I was writing it, but it was definitely because my wife was pregnant with our daughter. I guess I put my fears about not being able to protect/provide for my family in there.

Writing A New and Different Kind of Pain was kind of weird. I had just taken a new job as a counselor on the night shift at a psych ward. But there was some kind of bureaucratic/political whatever bullshit going around and we never ended up getting any patients. So for about 5-6 months I “worked” alone on an empty psych ward over nights. In that time I wrote a New and Different Kind of Pain and most of the first draft of another book that will probably never get finished or touched again or see the light of day.

It was a good experience, gave me a ton of time to write. But when they finally closed the unit it took me some time to adjust to “normal” life again. I’d spent six months alone — pretty much — and basically forgot how to talk to people or function in everyday life. (And I’m still not convinced that I wasn’t unknowingly involved in some kind of isolation experiment — that shit, and all the amphetamines I was taking at the time really fucked with my head).

What makes a good crime novel?


For me, in my opinion, I like my crime fiction to be based in reality. I want to see “real” people reacting to fucked up shit. I want to see characters making the worst possible decisions — decisions so bad that me as the reader (or writer, I guess, too) I can’t do anything but shake my head and maybe cringe.

I was reading a book review a while ago (can’t remember which book it was, not one of mine though) and the reviewer spent most of the review talking shit about how all the characters kept making bad decisions, and how it was so unrealistic because no one ever made a single good decision. But that review was bullshit because people, in the real world, are constantly making bad decisions. That’s basically all people do. If people didn’t make such bad decisions my day job wouldn’t exist (I work at a methadone clinic).

It was also a bullshit review because if all your characters make good and smart and rational decisions then you don’t have a story.    

Can we talk about The Church of TV as God? What inspired this book?

I don’t know that anything really “inspired” The Church of TV as God. I wrote it because back when I was in like my mid-20s I was super into Bizarro Fiction. (If you’re not familiar with Bizarro Fiction the simplest way I can think to describe it as a Troma movie in book form — just weird and crazy and fun and messy, sometimes sexy, often violent).

Every year Eraserhead Press puts out a series of books called the New Bizarro Author Series. It’s for (obviously) new authors and it used to be more of a competition, where the author who sold the most copies would get a contract with Eraserhead. They’d dropped the competition aspect of it before my time in the NBAS — but basically we had a year to prove ourselves, build up an audience and it was a way for Eraserhead to test out new and “unproven” authors, give us little people a shot.

Carlton Mellick III (who is generally known as the Godfather of Bizarro) was once telling me how he writes all of his books in marathon sessions. Where you basically lock yourself in a room, away from the distractions of everyday life, for a few days or a week or however long it takes, and you don’t come out until you have a finished book.

I’d been writing Bizarro short stories for a while and when Eraserhead put out the call for that year’s NBAS I decided to try my hand at something longer. During my time in the NBAS the word count max for the books was either 20,000 or 30,000. So I took CMIII’s advice and locked myself away and just went to work on the craziest fucking thing I could think of. I took me three days to finish writing The Church of TV as God.

It’s about a dude with a TV for a head and his talking dog. They get kidnapped by this cult that calls themselves The Church of TV as God because they believe that he is their savior and that he will help them to fulfill their prophecy, which is written about in their good book, a TV Guide or some shit.

I don’t even know. It’s wacky and violent and bloody as hell. It was a lot of fun to write. I love Bizarro Fiction, still read it often and have plans to hopefully write in the genre again, but right now my interests have shifted to crime fiction.

What will your next book be about?

Man, that’s kind of a BIG question. But right now I’m “working” on three books. I guess, maybe, kind of. They’re all in pretty early outline stages and I’m just waiting for one of them to jump out take up all my attention. This is what I’ve got so far.

Please Come Back to Us is the sequel to Stay Ugly. It’s set two years after the events of Stay Ugly and not to spoil anything but our boy Ugly’s back and shit’s obviously going to get bloody.

Them Animals is my return to the very specific sub-genre of Chicago bike messenger crime fiction. This one doesn’t have anything to do with my other Chicago bike messenger crime fiction book, Only Bones — I guess other than being about some dudes riding bikes in Chicago, drugs, crime, violence, blah blah blah.

The Death of Everything is me venturing outside of crime fiction into… horror maybe, I don’t know yet. I actually just started fucking around with it today. I think it’s going to be about a father and a daughter trying to survive in a post-pandemic world.

This is kind of part of my process I guess. I always fuck around with a few stories until one of them takes over my every thought and it will become my next book.

But also I’m sure if you asked me this same question yesterday or tomorrow I would have a completely different answer for you.

Are there any crime films that you like?

I like a lot of crime films. So many this is an impossible question to answer. So I’ll just list off a few of the last crime films I watched and enjoyed.

Knives Out, Skin, The Fighter, Uncut Gems (I loved this and if you haven’t seen it, you should), The Long Kiss Goodnight, Good Time (This is the movie that in a few ways inspired Stay Ugly), Premium Rush, Brick, Pulp Fiction.

My takeaway/advice: get down with the Safdie Brothers, my favorite current filmmakers.