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?

Liner Notes: When The Dread Pirate Roberts Met The Godfather

Definition: Liner notes (also sleeve notes or album notes) are the writings found on the sleeves of LP record albums and in booklets which come inserted into the Compact Disc jewel case or the equivalent packaging for vinyl records and cassettes. Such notes often contained a mix of factual and anecdotal material, and occasionally a discography for the artist or the issuing record label. Liner notes were also an occasion for thoughtful signed essays on the artist by another party, often a sympathetic music journalist, a custom that has largely died out.

“Do you want to hear a story? It’s a good one.”

Note to future journalists, if there are any left: if you’re interviewing someone who’s super-famous, these are precisely the words you want to hear. This will also be the story that will absolutely not fit into your word count, no matter how many tricks you try. A few weeks ago, this is what I heard myself when I was sitting at a hotel room desk with Cary Elwes, the actor most famous for his role as the farm boy Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts) in the 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride. You can read my short feature interview with him at Kirkus Reviews about his new memoir, As You Wish. But there’s always so much more behind these interviews—I swear I could compose an entire book based on outtakes alone. That being the case, here’s a couple of interesting moments that didn’t make it into my story.

Elwes has a reputation in Hollywood for exacting preparation, for starters. This isn’t surprising, given his background at The Actor’s Studio in New York, as well as the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which is part of the story I mentioned above. I was, however, surprised at the actor’s reasoning behind it.

Cary Elwe“I’m a historian at heart, if you look at my body of work,” Elwes said. “History was absolutely my favorite subject at school. It’s the only subject where a professor is standing up there just telling you stories. I loved history and I loved learning about our species and all the crazy things we’ve gotten up to in the past, so I became an avid historian by accident. It’s not happenstance that much of my work has led towards that kind of genre. Before the Internet, you would find me in the library. Once the Internet came alone, my life as an actor changed. I used to overdo it. I used to show up with a ton of research, and directors would be like, ‘Cary, relax, it’s just a movie.’ So I finally learned to relax and take the notes I need to take and read the material I need to read and just download it and let the character remember it all. It’s so much easier to let that information come through the pores of a character rather than scrambling to remember ever little detail.”

The only real trouble I had with this particular interview was its timing. As You Wish, you see, was published on October 14th, well in advance of Christmas sales and in plenty of time for Simon & Schuster’s considerable publicity department and Cary’s own team to do their thing. This means that by the time I happened to luck into an in-person interview, Cary Elwes has pretty much been interviewed by anybody who possesses some form of electricity—we’re talking dozens of newspapers, hundreds of morning shows, an epic appearance on Kevin Pollack’s Chat Show, and a good number of podcasts to boot. (Note to self: your own grasp of technology did not prevent the new Apple iOS update from screwing up your recording app, forcing you to record this interview on two antique tape recorders. Your interview prep could definitely use some brushing up.)

Add to this fact that my subject was a bit beat from speaking at Powell’s Books in Portland the night before—an event that drew over 2,000 people during the largest event in the bookstore’s storied history, mind you—and you might see my concern. That was why I brazenly cautioned him that if I started to hear a story that I’ve heard before, I might guide him in a different direction. (Yes, this would be me advising a world-famous actor how to do an interview.) So this is when Cary Elwes decided to tell me a story about being a very non-famous actor, long before The Princess Bride made him a household name.

Princess Bride“I’m in New York and I’m at a restaurant,” he said. “I moved to New York to be around all these titans that I worshiped as an actor. Suddenly, across this restaurant I see Al Pacino sitting down to a meal. Now, you have to watch everything of Pacino’s if you’re serious about acting. You’re not studying the craft if you don’t. My friend I was with pointed him out, so I turned around, trying not to be obvious, and there he was. I thought, ‘I’ll kill myself if I don’t meet him.’ So I timed it as I he started to leave, one of those so-called, coincidental, just bumped-into-him things. He asked my name, and he could tell right away that I was an actor, and he asked, ‘So what are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I just got here.’ And he says, ‘No, you’re not. You’re drifting.’ So, Michael Corleone just called me a drifter, and my heart sank.”

“Then he taps me on the head, and says, ‘What’s this?’ And I said, ‘My brain?’ and he goes, ‘No.’ This is getting better by the minute. Then he tapped me on the chest and says, ‘What’s this?’ ‘My heart?’ I said. He says, ‘Wrong. They’re both muscles. You work out, right? What happens when you don’t go to the gym? They atrophy. Why wouldn’t you go work out both of these muscles? Whenever I’m not shooting, I go work them out.'”

“That was the moment that really inspired me,” Elwes said. “He was the one who introduced me to the people at the Actor’s Studio, and after I had spent a year with them, he introduced me to his mentor, Charlie Laughton. I spent the next two years studying under the great Charlie Laughton and Anna Strasberg, getting lessons that Lee Strasberg once taught, passed down to me from my heroes. Al didn’t really know me at all, and he opened a lot of doors for me, which changed my life.”

All in all, he seems like a decent fellow.