Gregory Kirschling
March 14, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

Don’t judge ”Serpent Girl” author by his cover

Authentically badass and yet utterly winning, Matthew Carnahan’s Serpent Girl is a ripsnorting neo-noir that features a carny double-crossed by his buddies and bent on payback; a band of murderous outlaws called the Skullf—ers who make the Hell’s Angels look like ”a bunch of whiny nine-year-old bitches”; and some freaky sex between the hero and Eelie, a legless circus freak with flippers for arms.

In person, Carnahan, 44, looks like the kind of guy who’d write a debut novel like Serpent Girl: beefy frame, longish and greasy red hair, motorcycle boots, goatee, bike chain looped through his belt. A skateboard is parked outside the door to his Santa Monica office. But something is off. He’s strangely shy and soft-spoken. He serves jasmine green tea. His cellphone ring tone is cheeping birds and whooshing rain-forest waterfalls. Oddest of all, when that phone rings, Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt is on the other line. She’s his girlfriend and the mother of their 10-month-old daughter, Mákena lei (Hawaiian for ”the many flowers of heaven”). What’s going on here?

”Being a nice guy helps you be a tough writer,” explains Carnahan, a veteran of 77 odd jobs (he’s kept track) who’s also written several TV pilots and directed a few littleseen indie features. ”I have a lot of dark corners that, since I’m not a sociopath, I don’t get to express on a daily basis, but if I go surfing in the morning and then write this gnarly s— in the afternoon, then I can go home and be Daddy and be loving. If I didn’t write this stuff down, I might be more like the guy you expected to meet.”

Hunt suggests Carnahan is even more complex. ”It sounds [like] what you found is the idea that he’s naughty in his writing and nice with me. I wouldn’t agree.” At home, she says, ”He’s naughty and nice.”

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