When I started writing Joe Coffin Season One I felt I needed an image in my head of what Coffin looked like. I knew he was going to be big, and probably not good looking (I’m being kind there). Joe Coffin is a British mobster, a heavy, a big tough guy who might have a heart of gold, but then again might not. I had his character traits down pretty good from the start. He’s not a thinker, Joe, he’s a doer. He’s a man of action, who’s prepared to do what needs to be done at that particular moment. Not a planner or a strategist, maybe even not particularly bright. Doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the morality of his actions either.
But put him in a tight corner, and he’ll fight his way out, even if it means wading through a river of blood to do it.
Likewise, if you’re his friend and you’re in that tight corner, he’ll wade through that river of blood for you, too.
But physical characteristics?
I couldn’t quite pin down what he looked like, his appearance was more than a little out of focus.
And then it hit me.
Joe Coffin looked like Harry Crews.
I first came across Southern Gothic author Harry Crews when I was reading Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. (And if you are interested in the art of writing, Block is currently updating this classic for the digital generation. I recommend you grab a copy when it comes out.)
Crews, who died in 2012, wrote what has been described as The Southern Gothic Literature. Flannery O’Connor on steroids as one reviewer put it.
But to me, he wrote horror stories.
I can still remember reading the final pages of The Gypsy’s Curse. I was on a packed commuter training travelling home from work. The Gypsy’s Curse had infuriated me as much as it had entertained me, maybe even more, and I had sometimes thought of giving up on it. But I stuck it out, and to this day it remains one of my most profound experiences in reading a novel. The ending had such an impact on me, my face turned cold as the blood drained from it, and I had to put the book down a moment to catch my breath.
But Crews the man fascinated me as much as his novels. His autobiography of his childhood is as horrifying as anything within his fiction, and his essay on how he dealt with the loss of his youngest son made me cry.
This is the man who, upon waking up in a pile of broken glass and vomit after a year long bender, said, “Hey man, the party’s over,” and checked himself into rehab. The man who got up at four every morning to write, because there was no one to call you on the phone, and nowhere to buy booze.
So Harry Crews became the physical inspiration for Joe Coffin.
To be fair, there’s no longer a resemblance. Coffin never had a moustache for a start.
But Crews was the starting point.
Harry Crews also inspired one of my short stories. I tried reading his novel Car a few times and always gave up in frustration. But then one day I read it, and I loved it. Long before that though, it had already inspired in me the concept of a man determined to eat an entire car. I wrote that story and I dedicated How To Eat a Car to Harry Crews.
You can read it for free as a PDF here.
And if you like that, well, you can have the book of short stories in which it’s included for free.
Just sign up to my mailing list. You’ll get Joe Coffin Season One first, but then I’ll also send you Population:DEAD!
How’s that for a deal?