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?

Pigeonholed

I think about genre a lot. I don’t mean in the sense that I’m trying to come to some kind of deeper understanding of a swath of literature, but in the sense that I still don’t understand it after all this time. I think it came from one of my first interviews with the Scottish novelist Ian Rankin. I don’t think it made the original feature, but he talked about discovering crime fiction in the first place.

“I started reading crime fiction the final year of my studies instead of reading about Muriel Spark,” he said. “I was reading Chandler and Hammett and Ruth Rendell and P.D. James.  Immediately, I liked the strong sense of place that you get in crime fiction, the strong central character, the traditional storytelling with that strong sense of a beginning, a middle and an end.  I like the games that you can play in a crime novel.  I found that everything I want to say about the world I can say quite nicely in the crime genre, so why do anything else? They were also the kinds of books that my Dad read.  I thought, do I want to spend seven years at university writing books that are only read by people at university, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or do I want to write the kind of books my Dad would read?  It was a pretty simple answer.”

The next few features are a good example of the width and depth of a specific genre. Painted in broad strokes, all of these novels can comfortably be pitched into the mystery section or an airport bookstore and do quite well, but they’re all so very different that it’s easy to see how badly “genre” can be characterized sometimes.

The AccidentI suppose the most recent feature I’ve published is this interview with novelist Chris Pavone about his new novel The Accident. Pavone, of course, is the former cookbook editor who hit it big with The Ex-Pats, his chronicle of expatriate life that accidentally turned into a huge thriller. The Accident is another stand-alone novel set in the interconnected world of Pavone’s novels, with curious cameos from players from The Ex-Pats. As it often goes, I was surprised to learn that Pavone didn’t even know that he was writing a thriller when he set about writing his first novel. For having such a clear, propulsive voice, the author has very little knowledge or expertise in crime fiction.

“Because I don’t immerse myself in crime novels, I wasn’t following any particular formula, ” he explained. “The Ex-Pats is more influenced by good, caper-y movies than it is by crime novels. There’s something about the sort of set piece of a tight cast of characters who are all lying to one another about almost everything that felt to me a little more like a play or a movie than a book. Very often, books have far wider-ranging action and characters than the Ex-Pats did. I did have in mind – it was very cinematic to me. I was always trying to establish a visual for each sequence and have the action be very dialogue-driven without focusing on chases or violence, but just people lying to each other. I don’t read a lot of books about that kind of duplicity.”

More on guns, dames and the disappeared after the jump. Continue reading

What Might Have Been

It’s no secret that I love alternative histories, not to mention the secret histories of the world, so these next two interviews feel like kindred spirits to me.

DominionFirst up, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing C.J. Sansom, the distinguished Scottish novelist and iconoclast behind the Matthew Shardlake historical thrillers and the very fine spy novel Winter in Madrid. I feel very lucky to have caught him when I did, because his new novel Dominion is spectacular. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. I had to laugh when the interview was published to see no less than Stephen King broadcast, “That book DOMINION is terrific. And no, this isn’t one of those publisher-sponsored blurbs. I just fell in love with it. Nice and long, too.”

As stated, it’s an alternative history of World War II, but it’s a damned thoughtful one, let me tell you. Sansom pulled off a great trick, as we discuss in “Inventing a New History,” in that he only changed a single fact: instead of the ferocious Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister, the so-called “architect of appeasement,” Lord Halifax, takes the role. By the time we catch up to the “present” in 1952, Great Britain is under German occupation and America has retreated under the cover of isolationism. It’s a great spy novel but it’s also truly creepy at times, throwing out seemingly random facts like the fact that the Holocaust has come and gone, with only whispers that it ever happened at all. I’m told that BBC radio adapted it as a miniseries, so there’s a note to self to go check that out, too.

You can get the most interesting comments in the interview at Kirkus, but I thought it was worth sharing a few conversations that didn’t make it into the feature. It was a bit too much to go into there, but Mr. Sansom definitely had an agenda in writing Dominion.

The author, a trained historian himself, managed to drum up a bit of controversy when the book was released. The minor kerfuffle was over his portrayal of Enoch Powell, which you can read about in the British Press. The underlying theme of the novel, however, is warning against the dangers of nationalism. It’s an issue that Sansom cares about deeply, as it falls right in line with his passionate opposition to the Scottish vote on independence later this year. Here’s what he had to say about the dangers inherent in national idealism.

“The short answer is: look at modern European history,” he explained. “The first danger is the extent to which socially liberally or socially conservative views on issues of personal freedom prevail. Those are the things that most people argue about when they argue about politics. About only a week or two ago, Nichola Sturgeon, who is the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, said that independence transcends conventional politics. Well, I think it’s very bad to transcend conventional politics, because you’re saying other issues don’t matter; it’s just nationality that matters. I think that’s wrong. It’s also completely unrealistic and myth-making because the issues that one faces in daily life are ones of political economy. Dreams of nationality don’t fill people’s stomachs. It’s also dangerous because nationalism by definition defines itself against an an enemy of ‘other’ There always has to be an enemy. That’s dangerous.”

“If you say nationalism trumps other issues, it’s very easy to stomp down the road to authoritarianism,” he continued. “I’m not saying it always happens, but there is always a risk. Nationalists also wind up anthropomorphizing the nation as just a collection of people who lived in the same place under the same political rule for a few hundred years. Nationalism gives the state a sort of human personality. The national destiny, the national dream, the national feeling. To me, that’s all just so much rubbish.”

Half WorldBack on this side of the pond, I connected with novelist Scott O’Connor about his eerie new novel Half World. It’s about one of the great secret histories of America, delving not only into a series of desperately dark personal journeys but into the connective tissue of American conspiracies, the threads that lead directly from Menlo Park to Dealey Plaza to Jonestown, Abu Gharib and beyond. In my feature “Thought Control” at Kirkus Reviews, we delved into the history of Project MKUltra, the CIA’s decades-long experiment in bioengineering behavior through the use of LSD, behavioral modifications, hypnosis, rape and torture.

“What we know is true is a very small percentage compared to the theories out there about the program,” O’Connor explained. “A quick Google search will implicate MK Ultra in just about any act of public violence in the past 50 years. The records were only destroyed because the agnecy knew that public hearings were coming. The political climate was changing because of Watergate and Vietnam and they knew they were going to be called to be counted. In the mid-70s, there were a couple of hearings in which they disclosed assassination attempts and coups. It was pretty shocking, especially at the time. The idea that this was the project that they destroyed records over is terrifying. I mean, they didn’t destroy the records about trying to kill Castro, which was a pretty shocking revelation in 1975, but this had to be buried. It really makes you wonder how bad it got. As a novelist, you now have something to write about because it gives you a place to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have happened there.”

Sleep tight.

The Round-Up: On Vets, Spooks and the Beginning of the End

It’s been a busy week here at the office between consulting, training, interviews and a little rock n’ roll here and there. here are a few updates from a snowy first week in October.

NostalgiaFirst, Kirkus Reviews kindly published my feature interview with novelist Dennis McFarland about his contemplative new novel Nostalgia.  Kirkus called it, “A distinguished addition to fictionalized narratives focused on the Civil War and its aftermath” but I think it’s deeper than that, as I discussed with Mr. McFarland during a rich conversation about the novel’s themes and the character of Walt Whitman, who I discovered during the course of my research really did work as a volunteer in Washington veteran’s hospitals during the Civil War. More specifically, it was a way for the author to approach the modern plague of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury from a different perspective. (Side note, even though I use the term PTSD in the feature, I really do prefer the connotations of PTSI. These people aren’t fundamentally broken in some way. Something happened to them. That’s an injury, not a disorder.)

Thank YouWhile McFarland’s Nostalgia uses the patina of the American Civil War to tell the story of Summerfield Hayes, I can also recommend another recent non-fiction work that addresses the issue of post-war reintegration with the clearest eyes imaginable. I was reading the Tattered Cover’s (my local bookstore) list of upcoming events this morning, and noted that Washington Post reporter David Finkel will be coming in November to sign Thank You For Your Service. It’s a follow-up to his war reporting in The Good Soldiers, following the men of the 2-16 Infantry Batallion home from the war. It’s a terrifying, eye-opening book about American service that ought to be required reading for anyone on either side of an international conflict.

I’ve also been reading about the death of popular novelist Tom Clancy this week, with quite a few reservations. I have to The Divisionadmit that much of my exposure to the so-called Clancy-verse came through videogames like Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six, but I have let myself go with one of his airport thrillers from time to time. However, conservative pundits and literary critics alike are hailing the author like he was some kind of military genius to be lionized in the canon of American literature. The truth is that The Hunt For Red October is a very good first novel, with a tightly controlled atmosphere. The Cardinal of the Kremlin is a fine entry in the espionage genre, and my favorite of the books remains Without Remorse and Rainbow Six, all because John Clark is a far more interesting character than everyman Jack Ryan. It’s around the time of Rainbow Six (which I still suspect was largely ghostwritten) that the Jack Ryan series becomes absolutely ridiculous, as a (eerily prescient) terrorist attack wipes out most of the White House administration and much of Congress, while a mid-level CIA analyst becomes President of the United States. Unfortunately in the end, Clancy had become a brand unto himself, a product to be marketed to teenagers and middle-aged men. Don’t even get me started on the corollary series like Ghost Recon and Net Force. It’s a fairly well-known fact that co-author “David Michaels” is just a placeholder name for whatever ghostwriter has been hired for a particular product. It’s my odds-on bet that Clancy books will continue to be pumped into the marketplace, just like the late Robert B. Parker’s. In some ways, I suppose it’s the end of an era. Personally, I think the future of thrillers belongs to people like Charlie Huston, or Warren Ellis, or Max Barry, who seem to have a much better sense of how terrifying the future of espionage actually may be.

The October ListFinally, if you really want to talk about someone who’s smart, prolific and has an uncanny ability to pull the rug out from underneath his readers, you can’t miss with Jeffrey Deaver, whom I profiled in Kirkus Reviews this week. I quite like Deaver’s books, although I’m sometimes startled by his voluminous output. Much like Robert Crais, Deaver’s work is always solid, and he’s prone to doing interesting things like writing and recording an entire album of country music for one of his Kathryn Dance novels, or writing up real recipes that coincide with Jacob Swann, the serial killer who haunts the latest Lincoln Rhyme novel The Kill Room. His latest, The October List, is about as experimental as anything I’ve seen in the genre, proceeding backwards chapter by chapter, a la Memento. It’s a trick that’s a lot easier to pull off in a visual medium, but Deaver does marvelous work here. Enjoy the interview, where we had a great talk about reverse chronology, his James Bond novel Carte Blanche, and how Steven Sondheim kicked the whole mess off.

I’m out. Have a nice weekend, everybody.