Before he became a novelist, Brian Panowich spent 10 years working as a firefighter in Augusta. The EMS part of his job was tough to stomach at times, he admits, but he had a passion for fighting fires.
“I loved to be able to control something like fire,” he says. “I was never scared of it.”
That’s not to say Panowich is fearless, though. In fact, what puts a little quake in his boots might surprise some. It’s the North Georgia mountains.
“You’re going to see some of the most beautiful country in the world and meet some of the most wonderful people in the world,” he says about the region. “But if you wander down a dirt road that is unmarked, you’re going to see something you don’t want to see. To me, the scariest thing in the world is going down that unmarked dirt road.”
Panowich, 47, has turned that fear into gold with his series of Southern noir crime novels set in the fictitious North Georgia location of McFalls County. His 2015 critically acclaimed debut “Bull Mountain,” about a dynasty of moonshiners-turned-meth makers, was called “mesmerizing” by The New York Times. He followed it in 2019 with “Like Lions,” called “hillbilly noir at its finest” by Publishers Weekly.
“Hard Cash Valley,” Panowich’s third novel, publishes May 5. It focuses on Dane Kirby, a retired fire chief and part-time GBI investigator who, out of all the characters Panowich has created, is most like him, he says. Because of Dane’s intimate knowledge of McFalls County, he is pulled into a federal investigation involving a two-bit criminal, a child savant, a pair of Filipino gangsters and a cockfighting ring.
Like his previous two novels, “Hard Cash Valley” takes place in McFalls County, which Panowich says he patterned after Rabun County, plus “a little bit of Fannin County, a little bit of Clayton and a little bit of Dahlonega.”
Panowich came to his knowledge of North Georgia late in life. The son of a soldier, he was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey, and spent his childhood on U.S. Army bases in Europe until his family settled down in Augusta when he was 12. After getting a degree in psychology from Georgia Southern, Panowich set out to make it as a musician based in Pensacola, Florida.
“I had this plan. I was going to be the next Bruce Springsteen,” he says. Panowich played guitar and sang, and he wrote Southern rock songs that told stories. For more than a decade, he made a living touring Florida, Georgia and Alabama with his band King Thursday.
“Then my first daughter Talia was born, and I knew my aspirations were over,” he says.
That’s when Panowich moved back to Augusta and became a firefighter. As much as he loved the work, he couldn’t help feeling a sense of loss for what he’d given up.
“I was writing songs and when I stopped doing that and (started) working at the fire department, there was a big massive thing missing,” he says. “I’d had a creative outlet where I was in the spotlight and I could create something, and now it was gone. It was bumming me out.”
Panowich, who’d divorced and remarried by then, was expressing that sentiment one day when his wife, Dawn, suggested he try writing stories. He began penning 800-word flash fiction and posting it online. It filled his hunger to tell stories.
“That was it for me,” he says. “I had no aspirations to do any more than that.”
But then one day, he got a call from Nat Sobel, a literary agent in New York who represents James Ellroy and Richard Russo. He’d seen Panowich’s stories online and said to let him know if he ever wrote a novel.
That call lit a fire under Panowich. One day soon after, he laid out his idea for “Bull Mountain” to his co-workers at the fire station.
“They said, ‘Yeah, man, I would read that.’ And they got up and cleared out a closet and put a desk and a chair in this naked storage room and said, ‘Get to work.’ They made me an office,” Panowich says. “That book those guys forced me to write blew up my career.”
Panowich’s introduction to North Georgia came from Dawn, who grew up there. “She’s from a place where every third house is someone she’s related to or went to kindergarten with,” he says. In homage to Dawn and her family, Panowich named the fictitious setting of his books after her maiden name, McFalls.
Despite the rough-and-tumble quality of Panowich’s testosterone-fueled fiction, there is always a strong romantic thread running through it.
In “Hard Cash Valley,” Dane is torn between his devotion to his dead wife, Gwen, and love for his new girlfriend, Misty, who feels as though she’s competing with a ghost for his affections.
“The central focus is this love story between Dane and his wife. True love does conquer all. I’m the guy who believes that,” says Panowich. “Even though I’m a crime writer, I wanted this book to be just as much a love story as it was anything else.”
Panowich and Dawn live in Grovetown near Augusta with their blended family of four children — three girls and a boy, ranging in ages from 10 to 15. She is executive director of an assisted living community, which makes her an essential employee during the COVID-19 pandemic, so Panowich stays home with the kids and oversees their home schooling.
“Honestly, I enjoy it. It’s given me time with them that I do not normally have,” he says. “Normally my schedule is, the kids go to school and once I drop them off, I write until they’re done, and then I pick them up from school, and then I’m Dad. Now my schedule is flip-flopped, and I write when they go to bed.”
The new schedule hasn’t slowed him down. He’s three-quarters of the way through his next McFalls County book.
“Hard Cash Valley”
By Brian Panowich
352 pages, $26.99
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