Master of cracker noir 

Unlike the sleazebags who populate his books, Fred Willard takes a walk on the mild side

Fred Willard is not the crusty bar barnacle you might expect after reading one of his novels, because if you were expecting that you'd be mistaking the writer for one of his characters. And I knew that.

Read an excerpt from Fred Willard's new book, Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac.

I met Willard before I read his first book, Down on Ponce, owing to the fact that he introduced himself to me while I was shamelessly (and ineffectually) plugging my work to mondo-author William Diehl at Diehl's own book signing a few years back. Willard happened to be there and stuck out his hand in hearty greeting. Looking back I realize the introduction was based on Willard's charity as much as it was on his inability to resist shamelessness. He is, after all, an observer of the filmy side of life; the human dregs, the big broken capillaries of society. The losers. He could probably tell I was testing my toe in that cesspool and decided to say hi. For that I will always be grateful, because when you're floundering nothing makes you feel better than a simple gesture of acceptance. "Welcome," his hand seemed to say "We're all whores here."

Since then, the film rights to Down on Ponce have been bought by an independent production company and the movie is presently in development, and Willard's second novel, Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac (Longstreet, $22), officially hits the streets next week. Now Willard is known as the master of "Cracker Noir," his books boiling with smarmy characters and their bizarre antics. So of course I call him up, since I've been lying to people for years about how he was my good friend due to that one encounter.

And here I'm surprised, because he seems genuinely happy to hear from me and we go about setting a date. I want to meet at the Clermont Lounge, that pit of sifted decadence on Ponce de Leon where the strippers are all flawed in the most fabulous ways (like the one who had her implants removed so today she has two flapping turkey wattles where her tits used to be), and it would have been a poetic environment -- us hanging out like two human teabags steeping in bourbon and cigarette smoke -- only we would have been mistaking Willard for one of his characters again. "I'll be happy to go," Willard offered amiably over the phone, "it's just that I don't drink and it's not normally a place I would frequent."

He suggests the nearby Majestic instead, a notorious 24-hour greasy spoon, also on Ponce, that somehow manages to retain its genuineness without becoming a parody of itself. But I veto the Majestic because the cook there once mistook me for an off-duty stripper, and I'm still at odds with my reaction to that mistake, which is to say I was jointly horrified and flattered.

So we end up at Aurora coffeehouse in Virginia-Highland instead, which really is where Willard likes to spend his time. This all goes to show that Willard is as game for manufactured drama as anyone, but in the end he's just as comfortable with the truth, the truth being that he's just a joe with no need to romanticize his image, and, after having waded through giant kiddie pools of crap his own life has thrown at him intermittently (some of which he has fictionalized in his novels, and some of which, like his battle with rheumatoid arthritis, he simply tries to tame to the point of being bearable), in the end it's the truth that has always been his most effective protection.

"I'd go into a lot of really fucking bizarre places and be around people who were basically gangsters and moonshiners, and I found out if you try to blend in with them they're not gonna believe you and they'll think you're an asshole," Willard says. "So you just go in and be yourself. Absolutely."

In his former life as a newspaper photographer, he found that being himself was a sort of force field against disaster. Once, when answering a call to cover an armed hostage situation, he accidentally walked into the middle of the SWAT operation before they had time to secure the perimeter. "I just parked in front of the house, got out and noticed people laying on the ground," he recalls. "If I acted anything other than nonchalant, I would have gotten my ass shot off."

Instead he just got tear-gassed. "I went home after that -- completely frazzled, recently terrified, soaked in tear gas -- and I started talking about it to these people, and they all were looking at me like I just shit on the floor." The reason, he feels, is that they were uncomfortable with the reality of his situation, they didn't want to face the fact it could have happened to them. To Willard, this illustrates the problem anyone faces when they devote themselves to fictionalizing life as they've actually seen it, "because the level of denial is so unbelievably high."

That fact slapped him in the face like a frozen mackerel a decade ago, when he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a debilitating condition that at times leaves him incapacitated and feeling like "God's personal pin cushion."

"One of the things that interested me when I first got sick -- and to a certain extent treating arthritis is like voodoo, there's so much that isn't known about it -- is that you run into these people who are just freaked out, and they want to find a way to place blame on you for your condition as an assurance it won't happen to them. They believe life is fair, and they want evidence that you caused this to happen to yourself. And if you're not careful, you can spend more energy making other people feel better about your disease than on healing yourself."

After his diagnosis he needed to trade news photography for another vocation. Fiction fit the bill. Besides, Willard points out, the Writer's Guild offers a boffo insurance package. "Some people say this was God's way of giving me time to deal with the things in life I needed to deal with. ... Well, thanks," he muses, "but I wish God had been a little less generous."

By now we have left Aurora on North Highland Avenue for the patio at the Local, which overlooks Ponce de Leon Avenue. The sidewalk scenery has changed from soccer moms with jog strollers to a stream of wasted, cauliflower-faced street urchins who look burdened by the immense effort it was to awaken alive that morning. These are the kind of people Willard is famous for depicting.

I put us here on purpose, and as cosmic punishment for staging the atmosphere, the effect feels fake and I'm sorry I did it. But Willard doesn't care, he's game for doing the Ponce de Leon dog-and-pony show one more time. "As a writer, the trick is not to take yourself seriously," he says, "because if you do, people might make the tragic mistake of taking you seriously, too."

At that we sit back and watch the parade of characters. Me with my wine, he with his Diet Coke. At one point a man shuffles up to us with a big leather belt in his clutches, it looks like he's about to try and sell it to us ("You can whip some major ass with this thing," might have been a good pitch), but he thinks better of it and continues on his way without a word. We watch him go. "Life isn't fair," Willard says. "That's one of my favorite things to keep remembering."

Fred Willard will give a reading and sign copies of Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Emory Commons Chapter 11 Books. He also has signings scheduled at the Buckhead Barnes & Noble Oct. 5 and the Sandy Springs Chapter 11 Oct. 11.

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