A Little Good, A Little Bad…Bit of Both

Just popping in here to archive three very different new interviews that are up on Kirkus Reviews in recent days.

Funny GirlA little good: I first met Nick Hornby about fifteen years ago—I think he was touring behind How to Be Good, but I can’t be sure. No, come to think of it, it had to be earlier because I had a signed copy of his anthology Speaking With the Angel. That was an interesting copy. At one point, it had been signed by Nick as well as Dave Eggers, Roddy Doyle, and Helen Fielding and I’m sure I could have gotten a line on Irvine Welsh and Zadie Smith eventually. But then I went to England and it just became another one of my Lost Things.

That meeting happened not long before I became a writer myself, so it was cool to interview Nick about his terrific new novel, Funny Girl, for Kirkus Reviews. It’s a novel about a young beauty queen from Blackpool who comes to London to become a star, and does. I can testify that London always seemed that way—if you had good teeth and could knock two sentences together, it felt like you could have your own television show. I was surprised to learn that Sophie, the sparky comedienne who centers the novel, was inspired in part by Nick’s interactions with the lovely Rosamund Pike, who appears in An Education starring Carey Mulligan, with screenplay by Nick Hornby. But we also got around to talking about how An Education and Funny Girl, which are both historical set pieces set in the 1960s, naturally fell into one another, even as Hornby was writing about two very different kinds of girls.

“I suppose, both with An Education and Funny Girl, their lives are circumscribed to a certain extent by the times and expectations and barriers to where they want to be,” Hornby explained. “Young men don’t tend to have those barriers. Much of what stops them from becoming who they want to be is internal. I became interested in the perimeter fence, if you like. It’s kind of intrinsically dramatic. You definitely can’t have one without the other. I was reading a lot about the period when I was writing the movie, so that developed a real interest in the times for me. I had never written anything historical before I wrote An Education, and I really enjoyed it. In a way, it was slightly frustrating to have to stop in 1964, because I knew that the world was about to change. I wanted to find a way to write about that change from an angle. I guess the interesting thing about that kind of entertainment industry was that they weren’t as affected by the Beatles and everything else that came after.”

Coop_9780804140560_jkt_all_r1.inddA little bad: When Elmore Leonard passed away in 2013, I was bummed out for a while. Someone that influential—especially someone you met and spoke with a few times—at first you think, “Man, there aren’t going to be any more of those books now.” But then someone comes along and smacks you between the eyes with a killer tale and eventually you realize that Elmore Leonard was the Big Star of crime writers. (This observation is brought to you by the old joke that almost no one ever bought a Big Star record but every single person who did went out and started a band).

The kick-ass book that landed on my desk a while back that reminded me a lot of Elmore’s books was The Marauders by Tom Cooper. It’s a nasty little story about scumbags out in the bayou fighting over drugs and lost pirate treasure and it was really great. It reads like John D. McDonald and Elmore Leonard went out and had horrible little babies. It even got a blurb from Stephen King, who almost never comes out for this sort of thing anymore, but I think I prefer the words of fellow crime novelist Richard Lange (Sweet Nothing, 2015, etc.) who said, “It’s funny, sad, and wise, sometimes in the same sentence.”

Not that these things always go smooth. I got to track down Cooper at his lair down in NOLA, and you can read that interview in Kirkus as well. But we also got to talking about the absurdities of marketing and I got to the bottom of how a brutish crime story about one-armed treasure seekers, psychotic killers and off-the-rails drug dealers ultimately connected to…Harry Potter.

“It had a couple of crappy titles for a while,” Cooper told me. “It was called The Muck and the Mire for some time. It was only a few months later that I got a different perspective. It sounds like some kind of Fiona Apple album instead of this novel. It was also called Barataria for a while, and my editors very wisely pointed out that the title implied a familiarity with southern Louisiana that people just don’t have. They wouldn’t know what it means. It was actually a few of my ex-students who are now friends that suggested the Marauders, because of the Harry Potter connection. At first, I thought, I don’t want to make that kind of connection. Then I got to thinking about it, and I said, yeah, I would love to get connected to that thing. If I could sell some books, I would put a wizard on the cover if I could.”

The Long and Faraway GoneFinally, here’s a bit of both. Every now and then you hit a novel where once you talk to the writer you quickly find out that he has no idea at all how really gripping his book is—my guess is that once you get that close to a piece of work, you inhabit its world so fully that you can’t see it with fresh eyes anymore. That was the case with The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney. I don’t usually take “work books” with me on vacation but I happened to grab this one by accident when I took it with me to San Francisco, and it really grabbed me. Now, I knew Lou had written two solid and funny crime novels, Whiplash River and Gutshot Straight, about a retired wheelman named “Shake” Bouchon, but this new one hit me in a very different place. When I wasn’t navigating Chinatown and the Embarcadero, Berney had me wrapped up in Oklahoma City in the mid 1980s—part of it is because I’m the right age to remember what it was like growing up in rural America before the Internet and smart phones, but I can tell you that Berney captures the mood perfectly.

The book concerns a private eye named Wyatt who is forced by circumstances to return to Oklahoma City where he grew up. When he was just a kid working in a movie theater as a teenager, Wyatt was the only survivor of an armed robbery that killed six of his co-workers in cold blood. Wyatt’s counterpart in this murky story is Julianna, whose beautiful sister Genevieve disappeared from the state fair in 1986, the same summer as the theater shooting. It’s eerie stuff, drawing influences seamlessly from all sorts of noir traditions and literary styles. This thing even came out in trade paperback first, so I highly recommend picking it up when you get chance. As it happens, I did manage to interview Lou a few weeks later and we talked about some of the things that influenced The Long and Faraway Gone.

“One of my favorite novelists is Tana French, the Irish writer,” Berney told me. “I love In The Woods, which I didn’t read until I started this novel, but it has the same kind of central issue where something happens to the main character long ago and there are no easy answers. What I took from her book is that as long as you answer the main mysteries, you can leave other things unsaid, which feels real. I like the idea that Wyatt is never going to know why he was left alive. You can’t leave him on the hook. It’s too easy. You have to make sure you cover all the other bases or I feel you’re cheating as a writer.”

I also did what I find myself doing with most crime writers lately, which is to delve into the perceived differences between crime writers and so-called “literary fiction” writers. You know where I stand—I think people like Tana French and Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane are doing some of the finest writing of the 21st century and will happily put any of their work up against something like Cloud Atlas or Haruki Murakami any day of the week. But I can’t seem to stop myself from asking these guys where they see themselves in the big picture, and Berney had thoughtful things to say.

“I am playing around in the pool but I have deep and abiding respect for the work that is being done and has been done,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of great writers like Ross Thomas who didn’t get their due, so it’s nice to see people in the genre getting their due now. I think there’s just so much opportunity to stretch in crime. It’s not limiting. You can be Dennis Lehane or you can be Donald Westlake or you can be Laura Lippman or Sara Paretsky. It’s such a big tent and there’s so much opportunity to write exactly what you want to write. I’ve been able to write these two fast, fun crime novels in the vein of Elmore Leonard but I’m also able to write this new book, and my publisher is thrilled about all of it. It’s not a narrow genre so I never feel like I’m trapped in a cage. That’s incredibly liberating, to be able to do anything you want in a crime book.”

That seems as good a place to stop as any: do anything that you want to. Seems like fair advice for clean living, right?

Altered States

I am returned from a well-deserved vacation in the wilds of Florida, so I suppose it’s probably time for me to do the round-up of stories from the past couple of months.

DrewSpeaking of Florida, I was happy to start the year by speaking with promising young novelist Drew Perry about his comedic novel Kids These Days. I really enjoyed his first novel, This Is Just Exactly Like You, about a man trying to keep his family together and a rather poignant portrayal of the challenges of raising an autistic child. In “A Life Gone Sideways,” at Kirkus Reviews, we talked about the bizarre garishness of the Sunshine State (which I found very much intact during my own travels), not to mention the bizarre nature of being a parent. Not having any myself, I was surprised to find that Drew was not in fact an evangelist for parenthood.

“I might even be the opposite,” he admitted.”We don’t talk so much about how hard it is to have kids. I think there is this ‘Have Kids! The Musical!’ vibe out there sometimes. I think we should be more open about what a disaster it can be. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also admit that I can be one of those a-hole dads standing around the grill saying it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” We also found that we can definitely relate around a general feeling of nervousness, not to mention that enduring sense of humor about the world’s weirdness.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as anxiety proper, but I’m definitely made nervous by a world in which so much hard can befall us with absolutely no warning,” he explained. “But if I didn’t find the strangeness of the world funny, I’d be doomed. I think ‘coping mechanism’ is too easy a way to describe it but I delight in the strangeness of things. I have a buddy who calls up and leaves messages like, ‘Hey, I just wanted to call and let you know that I passed a guy out on Battleground Avenue beating a stop sign with a chain and I thought that would be the sort of thing you would like.’ It’s those little things that I hold onto in order to stitch the world back together.”

Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation

ImageI’m doing a lot of interviews with cool people right now, but I wanted to jump on for a few minutes and add a little back story to a story that was published today. In a feature I think turned out pretty good, I interviewed the great singer-songwriter Joe Henry and his talented filmmaker brother David about their new collaboration, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him. You can check out the resulting feature, “A Little Pryor Love,” at Kirkus Reviews here.

Now, I know a lot about Richard Pryor—we’re talking professional-level lore about his comedy, his process, and his deeply screwed-up life. Not only did I read his autobiography and several other books about the man, but I own maybe three box sets that chronicle his decades of comedy and dozens of associated albums. To me, he was in that pantheon that includes George Carlin and Bill Hicks where I just couldn’t get enough of the man. Much of comedy is of its time. People like these—and let me include contemporary comedians like Tig Notaro in that lineup—somehow breach that barrier.

In these very early interviews, Joe and David both said they were the same way; swapping Richard Pryor albums and staying up late to see him on television. I had heard a rumor that Joe keeps a portrait of Richard in his office, and I was pleased to find out that not only was the rumor true, but it still hangs there today. Anyway, the point is that I took this book with me on vacation to the heart of desolate Mesa Verde National Park and was just absorbed by it, and learned a great many things about Pryor that I—and in fact, not many other people—knew at all about the fiery rise and doomed arc of his life.

I tend to write long anyway, so I’m grateful to my editors at Kirkus Reviews for as much rope as I get, but there’s a lot that gets left out of these stories. I always liked liner notes, so here’s a couple of unpublished bonuses for you travelers who followed this story down the rabbit hole. Here’s David Henry on the dual nature of Richard Pryor:

“Almost everybody we talked to still absolutely love him, even if they were brutalized by him or betrayed in some way. He was an irresistible person. But no, we didn’t soft-pedal any of his behavior. He was very forthright about using coke to wild excess, but he always placed it in the past. He never owned up to being a current user. He could still tell the truth but he wouldn’t admit that he wasn’t going to stop.”

And here’s Joe, when I asked him if the experience of producing or collaborating with so many different artists (and it’s a laundry list) comes to mind when he thinks about the mad life of Richard Pryor

“It does have an effect. Anytime I’m that deeply invested with another artist, it changes things for me in ways that I sometimes understand, and more deeply in ways that I don’t. I think the most visceral way I can suggest studying Richard has changed me is to be so aware of how vulnerable one has to be, in the grander sense of the word, to be able to give something back of substance.”

Just to add to the experience, I wanted to share the song that started this whole ride. In 2000, Joe wrote a song that later appeared on his 2001 album Scar, and featured accompaniment by the legendary jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman. It’s an extraordinary piece of art in which Joe sings in the persona of Richard Pryor.

You should also check out Joe’s Esquire article that followed, “How to Write a Song.” And on David’s behalf, I would also encourage you to check out his new movie, Pleased to Meet Me. Although the film hasn’t been sold yet, there’s a lot of interest in it, and it’s a very strange comedy starring John Doe from X, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright III, and Joe Henry. There’s a great trailer on the site as well.

And by all means, go check out Furious Cool. It’s a fantastic examination of one of America’s most gifted, searing and flawed personas. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite moments with Richard Pryor from Live on the Sunset Strip.

Keep in mind, almost everything Richard Pryor ever put on tape is NSFW, so be forewarnedit’s not at all my intention to offend anyone, so be aware there’s some hard language here. But give yourself a few minutes of open-mindedness and you’ll experience a great moment of enlightenment on the part of a guy who was often not very self-aware. Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Pryor.