Interview: Rusty Barnes – the editor, the writer, the man

The Editor

Sandra Ruttan: You’re the editor of Tough. How long have you been running this crime fiction ‘zine?

Rusty Barnes: Tough has been online officially since July 2017, though we ran a couple reviews before we officially launched.

Sandra Ruttan: You specifically ask for crime fiction stories, as opposed to mysteries, etc. What is it that you like about crime stories that draws you to that side of the genre?

Rusty Barnes: I’ll be honest. I have never had an ideal relationship with authority figures, and police are the ultimate authority figures. They give me tickets, they try to intimidate me, they’re generally not around when you really need them–it’s only natural that I be attracted to the other side of the law, at least in my fiction choices. I’m pure as the driven snow in my normal life. I was an Eagle Scout for God’s sake, and that is something you never live down nor can live up to. 

Otherwise, I’m not really interested in mysteries. Whodunit is never as interesting as whydunit or howdunit. Also, I rarely saw crime growing up, but it seemed as if it was always at the margins of my life. I had uncles who were not blood, who did some questionable things, cousins who looked at me a little strangely in my do-gooder Boy Scout uniformed persona of the 80s and a family with a healthy disrespect for certain laws that countered their very real and human needs. Like food.

Again, that’s not the whole answer. I like to look at, write about and read about ordinary but desperate people doing extraordinary things or resorting to tactics that may not be in the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules. Crime fiction is where those characters live. And so, here I am.

SR: What are the biggest mistakes that you see from people submitting to you?

RB: They don’t read the backlist. And no matter how many times I tell them not to send them, I get square-jawed cop stories and ghost stories and paranormal romance, all kinds of stuff. I like stories that are a little outre or cross-pollinated from other genres, but Tough is a crime journal, not horror and not science fiction.

SR: Have you noticed any shifts within the genre since you started Tough? An emphasis on a specific type of crime or themes that seem to be more common?

RB: I haven’t noticed any trends to speak of. For a while, because of Matthew Lyons’s “The Brother Brujo” in BASS 2018, we got a lot of straight-up horror. I imagine it will be the same if we get into any of the prize journals for stories this year. They’ll be a flood of alligator-man PIs following our story on the same. I’m kidding about that. We didn’t publish an alligator-man PI story, nor do we want to.

SR: Is there anything you’d like to see more of in your submission inbox?

RB: I would love love love to see more stories with rural settings. Rural noir, to use the overhyped term from a few years ago. The market may have been glutted, I don’t know. I still love that shit. Send it to me.

The Writer

SR: How long have you been writing crime fiction for?

RB: I have been writing crime fiction since 2014, but have been reading it off and on since the 70s. Also, the years 1989-2014 were spent looking for the kind of fiction I wanted to write, so I ended up with a lot of the so-called K-Mart realists and strong sullen men-type fiction in my wake. But I tend to read everything within an arm’s length.

SR: What is it about crime fiction that appeals to you as a writer?

RB: I’m attracted to ordinary people being pushed beyond their normal limits. Part of it comes from my tendency or belief, which I learned from Larry Brown, to saddle my characters with all the trouble they can handle and then some. My first novel Reckoning began with a question. What if these kids found a naked woman in the woods? What would they do? What would happen next? What if she turned out to be. . . and so on. 250-some pages later I had a novel. People in the industry I respected called it a rural noir, even proto-crime fiction, and in my desire to write something in which things actually happened, I became a crime writer.

SR: You also write poetry. How long has that been a passion of yours?

RB: I’ve been writing lines as long as I can remember. The first poem I can remember writing was at about nine. My family was into pre-1840s frontier reenactments at the time, and I saw my father in a buckskin coat with his Harper’s Ferry .58 over his shoulder, and I wrote a poem about it called “The Buckskin Wraith.” Later on I wrote a five or six page epic in terza rima, all about my senior year classmates. It didn’t go over well, but I’ve been writing poems since I knew enough to make it part of my identity, and one bad grade in a lifetime of generally good ones wasn’t enough to stop me.

SR: What is it you find appealing about writing poetry?

RB: I love the feeling of starting something and often being able to finish a draft in a few minutes or a few hours. Stories, essays and novels are work for me, but I feel light as rain writing poems. I write them now in breaks between longer prose projects, usually in two-or-three draft spurts which can often be massaged into something passable. My standards are lower than most poets, though.

The Man

SR: What inspired you to start writing?

RB: I don’t remember, entirely, but I know that even in my amoeba stage I was attracted to having written. But a lot of people want to have written something, and I knew from reading all the time that everyone started with a blank page and inchoate desire. I figured if I could do nothing else, I could work at it, and so I have become a workman in many genres, with as much mastery as the Lord will allow my ego to absorb.

SR: Favorite color?

RB: Black. If you pushed me, brown. Maybe green. Definitely earth tones.

SR: Favorite food?

RB: My wife’s Thanksgiving turkey, brined and roasted. Get in mah belly.

SR: Favorite way to spend a Sunday afternoon?

RB: On the couch with my family around me absorbed in their various interests, with plenty of coffee to fuel me and a pile of books at hand.

SR: Favorite book?

RB: Changes with my mood, but right now, Port Tropique by Barry Gifford, a book I could happily read another ten times before I die.

SR: Favorite poem?

RB: “This Be the Verse” by Philip Larkin. Not PC to love Larkin now–he had odious, horrid, views on some rather important matters–if it ever was,  but boy do I feel the first few lines of this one.


SR: Where can people find out more about Tough?

RB: You can find more about Tough at or on Facebook at

SR: Where can people find out more about Rusty?

RB: I maintain space at, and on Twitter @rustybarnes23. Easy to remember too, that my digital life is also curated at

With my wife, the poet Heather Sullivan, I edit Live Nude Poems (