March 14, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Serpent Girl

Current Status
In Season
Matthew Carnahan
Villard Books
Mystery and Thriller, Fiction

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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