While Paul Krueger was in town for Emerald City Comicon in Seattle, we met up at a local coffee shop—the perfect location, as it turned out, because of Krueger’s years spent “slinging coffee” during a stint in Manhattan, during which a number of book ideas brewed in his head.
One idea became Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, the story of a young woman who returns to her hometown, becomes a bartender at the Nightshade Lounge, and discovers that she has a talent for mixing magical cocktails. The time flew by as we talked about Krueger's debut novel, how Harry Potter is like Star Wars, and why whiskey helps you read minds.
Amazon Book Review: What provided the spark for Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge?
Paul Krueger: Oh, man, it came from a lot of different places. I am one of those millennials who had the misfortune of graduating straight into the teeth of the recession, which meant years of underemployment. I worked in a coffee shop, and originally the idea was to have magical baristas, but I thought alcohol magic would be funnier. And that ended up being a good instinct. But I guess it really came from a few things. One, I wanted to do a book that was about the importance of the service industry, because I think that those guys work so hard. I’m proud that I was one of them. Every single day I recognize lessons that I learned and behaviors that I changed because of two and a half years of slinging coffee in a really busy coffee shop in Manhattan. And also, I love urban fantasy. But everyone in the genre is a magical cop or a magical detective, so I wanted to add magic to a different job and see what would happen. And bartending seemed kind of cool.
This is your first published book, but is this also the first novel you wrote?
Oh, no. [Laughs] Three or four years ago, I wrote the Great American novel. It was going to introduce me to the world as the voice of my generation: an amazing wit with a mind we should all revere. And no publisher bought the book. [Laughs] I got over 100 rejections. It made me stop and think to myself that maybe you should stop trying to be capital-G Great and just write a thing that you would enjoy. And as an added challenge, take your mind off the idea of selling it, and write a premise that is so bonkers, so silly, so ridiculous that there will be no market for it. And that became Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge.
What is appealing to you about urban fantasy?
It’s being able to imagine that there’s more to the world than we currently see. That there are all these layers. I like the idea of peeling back the layers of reality that we live in and seeing the crazy stuff that’s going on behind the curtain. I’m mixing metaphors left and right here, but that’s okay. [Laughs] I’ll shake them and strain them and pour them into a glass, and we’ll be fine.
Also I think it’s because I’m of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter. That book series is my generation’s Star Wars. I can’t think of any story that united us more. That series had an indelible effect on how I relate to magic and how magic relates to the mundane world.
As I kid, I read tons of fantasy and hoped that I’d been adopted and was some kind of magical sorceress—which unfortunately turned out not to be the case. I think that as adults, you still hope that there’s something out there that’s inexplicable and that you will be able to tap into through some means. Like working as a bartender in just the right bar…
Yes, I agree with that completely. With YA, when you’re a teenager, everything is heightened; everything is operatic. While adult fantasy, especially urban fantasy, allows for more of the mundane. So when you’re tackling something like the skullduggery of working a service job, and then adding a veneer of magic to it, I think there’s something really fun about that.
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How hard was it to choose the drinks that would be magical?
I love cocktails, and I love magic systems. I decided that I would have my five base liquors—whiskey, gin, rum, vodka, tequila—and then I had to figure out broad super-power categories for each one. So vodka became a physical enhancement. Whiskey became a mental enhancement. Whiskey and gin are my two liquors of choice, and when you read the book you’ll see my bias pretty clearly in which cocktails get used by whom. When it’s someone I don’t like, I’ll have them using rum or tequila; I have rocky relationships with those liquors.
Once I decided on these broad categories, I thought back to the comic books I’d read and I listed out the super-powers in each categories, and I started assigning drinks. Sometimes there would be a special significance, like how the martini grants you invisibility. That’s my nod to James Bond and spy craft.
I'd never even heard of that yummy-sounding tequila and apple drink.
The chimayo* was one of the specialties at the place I worked, and I decided to incorporate it in the book because although it’s not a well-known tequila drink, I like apples, and it’s probably the one tequila drink that won’t kill me.
[* pronounced CHE-may-oh]
One of the bar owners, Vincent, is fairly antiestablishment. In fact, the whole book has an undertone of being antiestablishment.
I generally don’t base my characters on real people, appearance-wise or otherwise. But in Vincent’s case, I made an exception: He is a gay, blind Henry Rollins. I love punk music.
I wasn’t directly involved in Occupy, but I attended rallies, donated food and came to speeches. I thought that they had a point that if you allow authority figures to run around unchecked, no good can come of it, because people look out for their own interests first and to others' interests never—unless it’s in their own interests to do so. Which might seem like a cynical mindset, but the point of the book is to show that through service—through putting other people’s interests ahead of your own—you can do really good things. Even if it’s thankless, even if no one knows or appreciates what you’ve done, you can make a difference. That is the best way to stand up to an establishment that is indifferent or cruel or corrupt.
So, what’s next for you? Is this a standalone or the beginning of a series?
Well, I’d like to write more in this world. I certainly have ideas. As things stand right now, I left a bunch of doors open and I answered a few questions in such a way that it raises more questions. But as of now we don’t have anything in place for a second or third book. Hopefully Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge will do well, and I’ll have the chance to write more.
What have you read lately that you’ve been recommending?
Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is a barnstormer of a book. I loved it. I just read A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. Schwab. I enjoyed that one a lot, which led me to pick up her superhero book, Viscous. Right now I’m in the middle of The Mortal Tally by Sam Sykes. It’s the second in a trilogy called Bring Down Heaven. It’s the tale of six adventurers who come to a real corrupt hive of a city and get embroiled in a lot of local politics and gang wars. It’s really good, it’s really funny, and it’s very aware in its approach of fantasy tropes—it does a good job of both playing them straight and subverting them. And you can really tell that Sykes is guy who really likes the genre and knows it inside out.
Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge contains fourteen cocktail recipes, including this one for the martini. Click on the image to enlarge.
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