Richard Price / Harry Brandt, “The Whites”

Riding dynamite dialogue, The Whites rocks from start to finish—a three-dimensional cop navigating a multi-faceted life and a head-scratching series of cases.

This “writing as Harry Brandt” business doesn’t change the fact that it’s Richard Price—The Wanderers, Clockers, Freedomland, Lush Life, Samaritan and work on such knock-out TV shows as “The Wire” and “The Night Of.” The book flap says The Whites “introduces Harry Brandt—a new master of American crime fiction.”  Yeah, sure, if he’s so great (The Whites  came out in 2015), what has Richard Price does for his since then?

The good news is it’s the same old Richard Price—maybe a bit less heavy, maybe a bit more straight-ahead than, say, Clockers. More straight-up urban thriller.

Veracity seems to ooze from every syllable. How do I know? I don’t. It feels that way, though. Price’s research for previous books, embedding himself with police, is legendary. While he claims he did zero research for The Whites, he drew on all those zillion other ride-alongs and let it rip. The credibility issue starts with the cop stuff and carries over into the many aspects of our seen-it-all officer of the law, in this case one Billy Graves.

Billy was once a member of the Wild Geese, “seven young cops averaging three years on the Job, fresh, to anti-crime in the late ‘90’s, a tight crew given a ticket to ride in one of the worst precincts in the East Bronx.” (Yes, capital J J-o-b.)

The Wild Geese, “in the eyes of the people they protected and occasionally avenged, walked the streets like gods.”

Each of these crime fighters had one white whale—the ones that got away. The Whites is about a lot of things, but obsession might be at the top of the list. Thinks Graves: “No one asked for these crimes to set up house in their lives, no one asked for these murderers to constantly and arbitrarily lay siege to their psyches like bouts of malaria, no one asked to feel so helplessly in the grip of this nonstop black study that they had no choice but to pursue and pursue.”

A man turns up fatally stabbed in Penn Station and it might be one of those whites that one of his fellow geese buddies cared about. The victim was once a suspect in the unsolved murder of a twelve-year-old boy. And then another white turns up dead and … we’re off. The past comes rushing back.

Graves is “shackled for all time” to Curt Taft, the killer of three females in one evening—including a four-year-old. “Three shots, three dead, then right back to bed, Curtis Taft, as far as Billy was concerned the most black-hearted of the Whites. But so were they all, if you asked each of their star-crossed hunters.”

Most of the “geese” are living new lives. One manages a funeral parlor. One is an itinerant building super. One works a cop-like job at a university in lower Manhattan. One,  Billy surmises, may have taken justice into his own hands and killed his White—the Penn Station victim.

But Graves is no longer a golden-boy detective. He once accidentally shot a ten-year-old boy while doing his job—the bullet from his gun went through a druggy bad guy and hit a good kid. Is he a loose cannon? The fact that he has survived, even if the shine is off as he works Manhattan Night Watch. And he’s worried that someone might be stalking his family. For starters. His father has issues. His wife, Carmen has issues, too. She is battling a “baffling and invisible dragon.” We see Billy 24-7. And we get glimpses of Billy’s stalker—Milton Ramos (who gets a Moby Dick reference in toward the end of the novel in case we didn’t get the whole white whale business.)

New York, of course, is on full, gritty display. Yonkers, The Bronx, Manhattan. Everything is entangled. These places and these people are of a whole—streets, neighborhoods, and their colorful inhabitants.

Billy searching for a witness at three-fifteen in the morning:

“Billy woke up the tenants on the second floor, an ashy-skinned middle-aged man, dumb with sleep, coming to the door in his boxers as a woman in the back of the apartment screamed like hell about having to go get up for work in a few hours. On the third floor, the door was answered after five minutes of pounding by a moon-faced African in a wrinkled caftan, kufi, and busted slippers, this guy having no English to him, but the TV in his otherwise furniture-less living room was playing so loud Billy couldn’t imagine him hearing anything out on the street short of an explosion.”

The Whites heads to an emotional, climax that stays within the story. Powerful stuff.

And then it’s back to the J-o-b. Capital J.

Donald Lopez Jr., “Buddha Takes the Mound: Enlightenment in 9 Innings”

Now I understand.

It’s the suffering.

“More than any other sport, baseball is suffused with suffering. The best batters fail to get a hit 70 percent of the time. The scoreboard in every stadium each day displays a giant E (for errors). Relief pitchers ae judged not by their wins but by their saves, the number of times they avert disaster. A team that loses four of every ten always goes to the playoffs; a team that loses five of every ten games never does. The season seems endless—162 games—many endured in ‘the dog days of August.’”

If only the 2020 season was 162 games and not the pandemic-shortened 60 games, I could suffer more.

Donald Lopez Jr. makes a case—and it’s a convincing one—that baseball is a Buddhist game. “Like Buddhism, baseball has its own elaborate universe, with good karma leading to rebirth as a god in the major leagues, an abode of private planes and luxury suites. Bad karma leads to rebirth in one of the trifling hells of the minor leagues, with names like ‘Low A,’ with smelly buses and cheap motels.”

Buddha Takes the Mound: Enlightenment in 9 Innings  is wry and insightful. (It’s also very funny.) The thesis, in case you’re wondering, is not a gimmick. Lopez means business. He is the Arthur E. Dink Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan and he’s the author, editor, and translator of many books on Buddhism, including by the Dalai Lama.

Buddha Takes the Mound provides us baseball fanatics a quickie course in Buddhism—and a better grasp on the strange fixation with the peculiar sport and its deep layers of history, culture, codes, and unwritten rules.

Lopez analyzes baseball through the lens of various concepts fundamental to Buddhism—impermanence, suffering, no self, karma, and Vajrapani (“the bodhisattva of power”).

“In The Baseball Sutra, the Buddha reveals that the true meaning of the name ‘Vajrapani’ is not ‘he who holds the club,’ but rather ‘he who holds a bat.’ ‘Vajrapani’ means ‘batter.’ He reveals also that this bodhisattva appears in the human world as a great hitter. He further reveals that one of the human incarnations of Vajrapani was Ted Williams.”

To give Williams the Vajrapani mantle (ahem) is really saying something here because Lopez is a lifelong and ardent fan of the New York Yankees (a character flaw that cannot be overlooked). But Lopez deserves credit for recognizing this essential truth about the Red Sox legend. “His home runs, runs batted in, and slugging percentage all make it clear that he had tremendous power, as one would expect of the bodhisattva of power.” Lopez even gives Williams a pass for his grumpy public persona—and for killing animals; Williams was a legendary hunter, too.

As a true Yankee fan who seeks to display the depths of misery that are possible for the truly devoted, Lopez takes us all back to the World Series in 2001. Yankees vs. Diamondbacks. Game 7. Clemens vs. Schilling. Lopez is not afraid to revisit the pain and misery of it all (as a lifelong Red Sox, I wish he had stretched these pages out; maybe a full chapter). Yankees take a 2-to-1 lead into the ninth inning and the world falls apart.  A single. A bunt. An errant throw into center field by Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher of all time. A poor decision by the Yankees third-baseman. A double down the right field line. A hit batter. A bloop. Diamondbacks win.

“How could this have happened?” asks Lopez, clearly still befuddled by the notion that the Yankees occasionally must also endure the cruel winds of baseball fate. “Fielders make errors, both errors of commission and omissions. Hitters get clutch hits. But for all manner of cosmic reasons, the Yankees seemed fated to the win the game, and to win the World Series. They had the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball on the mound, they had a future Hall of Famers at short, and they had a rock-solid MVP of the 1998 World Series and Gold Glove winner at third. During the 200 regular season, Rivera had seven wins and thirty-six saves. In seventy-five and two-thirds inning pitched, he had not committed a single error. And yet Rivera threw the ball into center. And yet Brosius held the ball. And yet the Yankees lost. There must be an explanation.”

Yes, Buddhism. Rebirth. Past Lives. Karma. The Buddha knows.

And a lesson for everyone outside baseball—about not dividing the world into friends, enemies, and “those to whom we are indifferent based merely on the experiences of this single short lifetime.”

Buddha Takes the Mound will have you yearning for more baseball. During this challenging year, we could all use a little more suffering … of the old-fashioned kind.

 

Patrick Radden Keefe, “Say Nothing”

With over 100 pages of notes backing up every scrap of narrative, Say Nothing is a remarkable account of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland intertwined with the disappearance of Jean McConville, a 38-year-old—and widowed—mother of ten.

Intertwined isn’t quite the right word—the book uses McConville’s broad-daylight abduction (in 1972) as a jumping-off point. The vast majority of Say Nothing concerns itself with The Troubles—though, again, McConville’s disappearance and death create a perfectly murky case study for the whole, protracted, decades-long mess.

The Troubles took the lives of some 4,000 people. On one side, Catholic republicans seeking unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. On the other, Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British army forces. Only 20 individuals were “disappeared.” McConville’s body wasn’t found until 2003, five years after the 1998 agreement that brought three decades of violence to a close.

As Keefe’s acknowledgements and those lengthy notes make clear, Keefe drew heavily on an oral history archive at Boston College. Two interviews in that history were with Brendan Hughes and Dolours Prices—former members of the Irish Republican Army.  They provided plenty of detail about McConville’s murder.

The thick wedge of backstory that forms the heart of Say Nothing is critical to understanding what happened to McConville but the book is hardly a detailed prosecution of her murder, allegedly over her role as a tout (informer).

As many others have pointed out, Say Nothing has no heroes. Both sides committed horrific acts of violence that ended the lives of many innocent civilians. Keefe’s narrative covers all the key figures on both sides along with the tricks, the lies, the ambushes, the terrorism, the traps, the the violence, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, hunger strikes, the hazy legal fallout from the Jane McConville case itself, and the personal fallout on McConville’s offspring. You will come to understand the importance of, well, saying nothing.

Keefe covers Gerry Adams’ conversion from leader of the armed struggle to his role as a political deal-maker—and Keefe credits Adams for an end to the outright violence (while acknowledging that ample tension remains).

“Whatever callous motivations Adams might have possessed, and whatever deceptive machinations he might have employed, he steered the IRA out of a bloody and intractable conflict and into a brittle but enduring peace,” writes Keefe.

Say Nothing—A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland is recounted in calm, clear-eyed fashion. Keefe’s dogged research is evident and his journalistic approach is solid (read those acknowledgements for a good explanation of how he went about corroborating interviews and checking facts). But McGonville’s disappearance drops far to the background as Keefe takes us deep into the “The Troubles” and all the protracted, violent quagmire.

Q & A #84 – Art Taylor, “The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74”

When I first read Art Taylor’s “English 398: Fiction Workshop” in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, I was blown away at the idea and the execution.

If you insist, I’ll dig up the tweet from the summer of 2018 to prove my immediate ‘wow’ reaction.

The story (the full title is “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More”) went on to win a slew of awards, including the Edgar Award for Best Short Story. Let me just say, those awards were deserved.

There’s a huge world of mystery short fiction, of course, but Art Taylor is clearly one of the best in the game. A quick check of all the shiny objects on his shelf will tell you all you need to know.

The decision to read Art’s new anthology, The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74, was a no-brainer. The Four Corners Free Press this month published my review of the collection (click on the image to read the full review).  The collection includes one story set right here in the Four Corner region–“Rearview Mirror,” which begins in Taos.

Art was kind enough to answer some questions, in thoughtful detail, via e-mail. Very honored to have Art stop by the blog!

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Question: First, thank you for doing this! Starting out with a general question.  Can you give us a little background on how long you’ve been writing short stories? When did you realize you had talent for short stories—specifically in the suspense / crime fiction realm? What was the intrigue of the form?

Art Taylor: I was first drawn toward short stories as a reader more than as a writer, though I imagine the two are inevitably linked. While some of the mysteries I loved as a child were novels—the Nancy Drew mysteries, The Three Investigators series—there were also the Encyclopedia Brown books and the five-minute mystery collections, all of those short stories ultimately. Sometime in late elementary school, early junior high, our school ran a fundraiser, with kids going door-to-door to sell magazines, and that was when I first subscribed myself for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—adult short stories then, and formative reading for sure. Add in Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever and more to that mix too—both in school and out. In part because of immersion in reading short fiction, both genre fiction and literary, I think my mind more naturally thinks in that form—the shapes of short stories, the tightness, the efficiency, the way a good one gestures toward a wider world. It’s amazing how much can be folded into such a small space, and I’m always trying to figure out ways to pack in more—that’s the ideal.

Question: In a few of the stories in The Boy Detective & the Summer of ’74, you don’t merely reference the classics, you embrace them—Caroline and Edward reading a copy of Murder on the Orient Express in a story called “Murder on the Orient Express” and Philip in “An Internal Complaint” copying Chekhov “as an exercise,” and Cooper Hobbes in the title story wanting to be “Encyclopedia Brown.” In a way, this could be taken as saying that there is really nothing new in crime fiction, short stories or otherwise. And in another way, the references give us a solid anchor to the story. Similarly, “Ithaca 37” references classic movies, from The Godfather to Taxi Driver and others. It’s a pretty nifty technique.  Was it daunting to name a short story after an Agatha Christie classic? Is it daunting to reference Chekhov and nonetheless plunge ahead with a story? Why does this work so well, do you think?

Art Taylor: Here too I think that reading (and watching!) helped lead to writing in many ways. Often, other people’s storytelling—stories or books or films—prompt my own imagination into gear.  My story “The Odds Are Against Us” was, in fact, directly inspired by a David Goodis story, and then, after writing it, I also realized I’d unconsciously folded in a little bit of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, my favorite of his novels. And I mentioned earlier my own love of Encyclopedia Brown, so there’s a layer of autobiographical content in the title story of The Boy Detective too—and some additional layering, I guess: me reading Encyclopedia Brown, being inspired to write my own stories, then writing about a character reading Encyclopedia Brown, and him being inspired to become a detective and…

There and elsewhere, I’ve recognized the way I’m influenced by what I read and watch, and I’ve passed that along to my character too: people who see the world through the lens of the books and movies they’ve consumed.

Honestly, it wasn’t entirely intentional. Apparently, it’s just the way I see the world.

As for being daunted by conjuring up classic writers and classic texts… “An Internal Complaint” takes off on Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog”—one of the most famous short stories of all time—and while I wouldn’t even joke about my work being in the same company as Chekhov—yikes!—I do hope that I’ve learned something from reading his stories and hope I’ve begun to apply some of what I’ve learned. It’s not meant as overconfidence or overambition in those cases, but more like nods of appreciation.

Question: Since I live out here a stone’s throw from the New Mexico border, can you tell us what led you to place Rearview Mirror in the west? What is it about the wide-open landscape and thieves-on-the-run that makes such a compelling combination? There’s a great fit here between setting and story. And how did “Rearview Mirror” grow from one story into a series that became a novel-in-stories format? What was it about Del and Louise that made you think there was more to discover?

Art Taylor

Art Taylor: Oh, yes, there’s a story behind the story there—one particularly related to setting in several ways. The backstory is a little extensive, but I hope you might enjoy.

My wife and I took a fall trip to New Mexico many years ago—a week-long trip, our first visit to the Southwest: Albuquerque to Taos to Sante Fe and back. A great trip, one of our favorites. Several months later, the Washington Post announced its annual fiction contest—write a short story based on a specific photograph, and that year the photo was an overhead shot of a woman in the passenger seat of a convertible, kicked back, her legs up, and a desert scene in the background. My wife—Tara Laskowski, also a writer—said that each of us should enter the contest, and given that desert scene in the background, I ended up drawing on a lot of details from the trip we’d just taken.

Once I’d overlaid the idea of a getaway over the route my wife and I took, bringing in bits and pieces or our own adventures, and once I’d heard the voice of Louise, the narrator, in my head, talking about how she and her boyfriend Del were putting their life of crime behind them… well, I felt like I was following Louise as she traveled some of the same routes we had.

I ultimately blew past the maximum word-count for the contest, so I never submitted my story to the Post. It ultimately appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

But then there’s more to settings.

The ending of the “Rearview Mirror” opens up toward another beginning in some ways—a real estate job ahead in Victorville, California, a town I’d just picked randomly from the map; I didn’t think too much about it, because I never planned on following these characters anywhere further. It was only years later that I began to wonder what had happened next to Del and Louise, and I began to tinker around with a second adventure—which I decided to move to Napa Valley, because that was another trip I’d taken with my own wife. But then I actually started reading about Victorville and learned how it had been kind of a model for everything that went wrong when the housing market bubble burst and… and in the first story, I’d unknowingly sent my characters toward a real estate job there? In a manuscript I wrote before that bubble burst?

Serendipity—from a writing standpoint at least. I started fresh on that second story, relocated back to Victorville now… but then I still had all the leftover adventures from the Napa Valley story I’d been writing too, so a third story was loosely sketched out.

Ultimately, those stories were joined by three more—in Las Vegas, in South Dakota, and back in North Carolina (Louise’s home state and mine too)—to form my first book, the novel On the Road with Del & Louise. These individual adventures added into a longer road trip of a story, following both their physical journey across the U.S. and also their emotional journey, figuring out what those two title characters mean to one another, where they’re going in a bigger sense.

(And for me, writing a book this way helped me work within my comfort level and hopefully toward my strengths—using individual short stories as building blocks toward a bigger story.)

Question: Back to “Ithaca 37”— about a guy who pays a bit too much attention to movies about people who take the law into their own hands. There’s a low-grade creep factor to this story because we don’t know whether our narrator can tell the difference between stories and real life, even if we want to like him because he likes the same movies we do. Yikes. It’s a great technique. We know from the get-go that he takes his movies much too seriously. I’d love to know how this idea came about—especially the voice for the story itself.

Art Taylor: I often begin stories with the idea of an experiment or a challenge—and in this case the challenge involved an unreliable narrator: Can I tell a story where the narrator sees one thing and the reader sees another? More than seeing really: a story where the narrator says one thing and the reader understands another, with some levels of uneasiness and pity and pathos in the mix—that was the goal.

The idea came from a movie night and a Facebook post. On August 24, 2009 (I just looked it up to verify!) my wife and I watched Get Carter, the Michael Caine version (not the Stallone remake)—named by critics as the best British film of all time. I posted about the movie on Facebook, including a photo of Caine, and a friend of mine commented “Ithaca 37”—the kind of gun Caine’s character Carter carries in the photo. (I have friends who know these things.) The next day on FB, I made a second post: that the film and my friend’s comment had given me the idea for a new story—and I thank Adam Firestone again for that.

I love crime movies myself, and it was fun to use some favorites as the structure of a story where someone lives his life according to the lessons he’s taken from films like that—or the lessons he’s mistaken, that would be more the case.

Question: “English 398: Fiction Workshop” is one of those stories that leaps off the page as highly original. What was the moment of inspiration for this beauty? I’d love to think it came to you while you were teaching a class in writing. I have a hunch it might be one of those stories that almost wrote itself, but … maybe not? Did it take revision (as the story instructs its own author to do)?

Art Taylor: “English 398: Fiction Workshop” was another experimental story—more structurally experimental initially, in this case, rather than in terms of perspective and narration. And the inspiration was directly from the classroom. In fact, English 398 is the actual course number for the fiction workshop I teach at George Mason University.

The goal here was initially to tell a story by following the kinds of writing advice you’d get in a fiction workshop—explicitly having that advice interrupt the story in progress and shift either the prose or the plot as it’s unfolding.

It ultimately also became a different challenge—layering different storytellers against one another and folding in different voices (six ultimately, if I’m counting correctly) to narrate or comment on or even complain about the story.

The revision of all that was key, of course—following the writing advice itself, fine-tuning the sections and the voices, and then trimming it back to leave room for the reader to project their interpretation onto the story. The final section, told from the perspective of a writer for the student newspaper, also required a fair amount of work, trying to get that young woman to sound right, slang and swagger and all.

Question: Looking back on your early stories to what you’re writing now, has there been a change in your writing style? Your approach to the form?

Art Taylor: Stylistically, I’m not sure. I sometimes set out to try different things stylistically—as with the voice of that final narrator in “English 398”—and yet other people have said that my stories have a certain feel or style that stands out as mine. So maybe… not?

Formally, I do tend to veer from more traditional storytelling to more experimental—back and forth, almost one story to the next—and overall, I feel like I’ve gained more understanding of potential structures and approaches, more confidence about how stories might work. Hopefully there’s been growth.

Question: Does it get easier and easier to find ideas for short stories? Or harder and harder? When an idea comes to you, do you know early on whether you’ll be going first-person or third?

Art Taylor: Ha! Despite that last thing I said—greater understanding, more confidence—the truth is writing always seems hard: every story starts with a blank page, every one feels like I’m figuring it all out again. I just hope I’m bringing better perspectives to it. And I’m a super slow writer, so… while finding ideas might be easy, the writing itself usually feels hard.

Question: You’re editing the next short story anthology for Bouchercon, California Schemin.’ (Obviously, too bad there will be no actual conference to celebrate its publication.) But it’s not your first time taking on this role. Can you give us an idea how hard it is to winnow down the submissions? How much work goes into these collections? Given your teaching and writing schedule, what’s in it for you to take on these projects? What do you learn from reading others?

Art Taylor: The couple of times I’ve edited anthologies, I’ve tried to schedule a lot of the reading and editing around some gaps in my teaching schedule—but I still don’t always manage my time well. Solid deadlines help motivate.

I read 44 stories for the new anthology and selected 13 for publication, in addition to the stories contributed by the conference guests of honor: Cara Black, Anthony Horowitz, Catriona McPherson, Walter Mosley, Anne Perry, and Scott Turow. (More than 150 stories were submitted in total, and an initial panel of judges narrowed those down to the 44 I read—reading all of them blind, without my knowing who wrote them.)

So many of the stories I read were terrifc, and so many could’ve made the final cut. In addition to quality, I was looking for a good mix overall in many directions: traditional mystery, hard-boiled mystery, domestic suspense, noir, etc.; some humor here, something more serious there; diversity of characters too, of course. I was keeping one eye on the qualities of an individual story and another on the emerging feel of the anthology overall.

I’ve loved editing both these anthologies—and hope that the reception for California Schemin’ this fall will be as strong as it was for Murder Under the Oaks five years ago.

Question: Final question—the tried and true question: who are your favorite short story writers and who is one writer out there who might be a bit under the radar but who you think could use a bit more attention?

Art Taylor: I always come back to Stanley Ellin as a favorite. Back in 2011, at the St. Louis Bouchercon, Janet Hutchings, editor at Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, mentioned that my writing reminded her of Ellin’s (I can now think of no higher compliment), and I went back and read all of the stories he published in EQMM. He set the bar for any short story writer to aspire toward: meticulous and elegant prose, clockwork-precise plotting, thematic depth, and some daring too—just look at “House Party” or “The Moment of Decision” to see what I mean.

I started out this interview talking about Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the writers there who influenced me—Ellin, Mignon Eberhart, Ed Hoch, Hugh Pentecost… These are the names that stand out in memory as ones I followed. But I also read Flannery O’Connor in school and Eudora Welty and Hemingway and… that list could go on.

As for contemporary writers I admire, there are many I could name here, but I hesitate to start for fear I’d leave out a friend I should mention. As for newer writers, stories newer to me, I want to give a special shout-out to Hector Acosta’s “Turistas”—a stunner of a tale from Angel Luis Colón’s collection ¡Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas! …though with Acosta’s story having been named a finalist for this year’s Edgar, Anthony, and Thriller Awards, I don’t know that he’ll be under anyone’s radar anymore.

I’m looking forward to reading more of his work and to seeing where his career goes next.

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More information about Art at his website here.

Q & A #83 – L. Annette Binder, “The Vanishing Sky”

L. Annette Binder’s short story collection, Rise, was a favorite of mine back in 2013. When she reached out last winter to offer me a sneak-peek at her debut novel, The Vanishing Sky, I jumped at the chance.

My review of The Vanishing Sky, being released today, is below.

Rise was memorable for many reasons. That collection received the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Literature. It was also a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. Binder’s stories have appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, One Story, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, Third Coast, Fairy Tale Review and others.

The Vanishing Sky is a whole different animal–a sweeping and family-centered novel set against the backdrop of World War II in Germany.  It’s worth noting that the first draft of this novel took eight years to write. Then, she put it aside for a while and came back to begin rewriQ & tes. The work and care shine through.

As she did with Rise, L. Annette Binder kindly agreed to answer a few questions by email from her home in New England.

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Question: Can you explain the seed / spark for The Vanishing Sky?

L. Annette Binder: The Vanishing Sky was inspired by stories I’d heard about my father’s childhood in Germany. Like other boys his age, he was required to serve in the Hitler Youth. Family lore has it he ran from his post near the end of the war and tried to make it back to his family. Because my dad died when I was sixteen, I had only bits and pieces of information about his life.  So I wrote a novel to imagine what life might have been like in that place and time and why a boy might choose to run when the penalties for desertion were severe.

Question: Was it daunting to wade into World War II territory, already the subject of so much fiction?

L. Annette Binder: I didn’t really think of it as WWII fiction. I just thought of it as a story about this particular family and the circumstances they were facing.

Question: In the acknowledgements, you mention your great-grandfather’s journal from between the world wars. What role did the journals play in your writing and/or research?

L. Annette Binder: My great-grandfather’s journals were very helpful for some of the details in the flashbacks to the period between the wars. And they gave me a real sense of small-town dynamics in Germany at the time — how the head schoolteacher might hate the priest because of a dispute over some administrative trifle or how judgmental people could be but also how kind they could sometimes be.

The journal entries also gave me concrete examples of the formality with which people talked and how this restraint can sometimes reveal deep feelings. There’s a deeply moving passage in the journal where my great-grandfather talks about the death of a little boy who was taken by a fever. He describes the increasing severity of the boy’s symptoms and the details of his final moments. The pain my great-grandfather felt is evident on the page and is somehow underscored by the formality of his language. “Dear little angel,” he writes, “ask God to give us the strength to reconcile ourselves with the pain of your passing.” In an age where we speak informally and can sometimes overshare, the journals were a tutorial on restraint and decorum and how it can both hide and reveal.

Question: What was your research process like? Did you read other World War II fiction—or avoid it as much as possible?

L. Annette Binder: I tend not to read fiction while I’m at work on my own fiction because it distracts me from my own characters, so I didn’t read any WWII fiction while writing The Vanishing Sky. But I did read quite a bit of WWII nonfiction, including historical accounts of battles, memoirs about life in the Hitler Youth, and accounts of the Allied bombings of German cities. Alfons Heck’s book — A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika — about his time in the Hitler Youth and at the Westwall was an extremely helpful resource. I wish I could have met him and asked him questions. A list of select sources about the latter two subjects is available on my website at this link.

L. Annette Binder

Probably my biggest source, though, was my mother, who spent hours telling me what she knew about my father’s life and what she remembered about her own childhood in Germany. She was just a kid at the end of the war, so her memories were spotty, but she still remembered the villagers putting their white sheets in the windows when the Americans came through. And she remembered her father coming home from Würzburg bloodied from one of the bombing raids. So many of the stories she told me about my father and about her own life found their way into the book, and I’m so grateful we had the time together to talk about these things.

Other details my mother didn’t know I researched online and in books. The cigarettes, the radio sets, how many people in villages had phones — it’s amazing how much you can find out there. I even found and purchased an old German railway map from 1939 that showed me which lines were express lines and which ones had stops.

Question: What was the inspiration for Georg’s journey? How did you map out his route and develop the variety of encounters he would have along the way? And, the contrasting experiences of Max and Georg.

L. Annette Binder: My father was the inspiration for Georg’s journey, and while I mapped out his journey, I didn’t want to make the geography the main focus. It was more about the people he meets along the way. And these people — Irmingard Focht and young Ingrid — came as surprises to me as I wrote. Strange as it sounds, I met them at the same time Georg did.

Georg and Max are such different young men, and I loved writing the story of these two brothers and how they are changed by what they see and do during the war.

Question: In fact, the whole family has such different means of coping and managing (or not) with the war. Can you share a bit about how you thought about the foursome?

L. Annette Binder: The mother — Etta — was the beating heart of the novel as I was writing. I started writing her scenes, and then Georg came into focus. Once I felt like I knew him, I wrote the novel sequentially, two Etta chapters and two Georg chapters at a time, back and forth, until the two stories meet near the end of the book. Max and the father Josef came to me later, and I learned about them as I wrote.

That’s the wonderful thing about writing:  being surprised by your characters and getting to know them as well as (and maybe even better than) you know your own family. I felt sad when I finished the rough draft because I wouldn’t see them anymore, and years later, when I returned to finish the book, they were still there waiting. It was as if no time had passed at all.

Question: There is so much food on the pages here—food being prepared and consumed. Obviously, food is critical in any story but here it almost seems like eating and cooking is an act of defiance, to keep things normal. Or relatively normal. Was that your goal? And, again, would love to know how you researched all the food details.

L. Annette Binder:  Food — or the lack of it — is a big part of the story, to be sure. My mother once told me she was so hungry as a little girl near the end of the war that she ate yeast to fill up her belly. Etta’s fixation on food — “butter was how heaven smelled” — is the result of deprivation, and food is in some ways a proxy for what life was like before the war. Food and memory are intertwined in this way. The difference between people who have food — farmers, priests, the party elite — and those who don’t comes up again and again in the story.

My mom was the main source for the food details. I grew up eating only German food at home — I didn’t even try fudge until I was in high school! I can’t cook at all, but I’ve spent a long time watching good cooks at work.

Question: Your prose style in The Vanishing Sky is very matter-of-fact (to me). I glanced back at all the stories I enjoyed in your short-story collection, Rise, and I believe not much has changed in terms of your prose, but was it harder to sustain over a full novel? What were the challenges of going to the longer form?

L. Annette Binder: The Vanishing Sky was the first piece of fiction I wrote as an adult. It took about eight years to write the first draft of the novel and it sat in a drawer for just about as long until I felt I was ready to revise and finish it. During the period I set it aside, I started writing short stories for the first time. These stories ended up becoming my collection (Rise).

I found my prose rhythm as I wrote the novel, and this rhythm carried over to the short stories. I tend to write at a glacial pace, finalizing each sentence before moving on to the next one. My books have a prose that works for a close third person. I write much less often in the first person, and when I do, the prose has to change pretty dramatically to reflect the speaker.

Question: Care to recommend any writers you’re enjoying these days?

L. Annette Binder: There are so many amazing writers right now. Paul Yoon, Elizabeth Wetmore, Laura van den Berg, Tayari Jones and always Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read No Country for Old Men at least a dozen times. I also go back to Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and Joan Didion’s nonfiction and her novel Play It as It Lays again and again.

Question: What’s next?

L. Annette Binder: I just finished a first draft of a novel based on “Dead Languages,” a story in my collection. The story has supernatural and historical elements. I’m deep into edits now, and this novel is really pushing the boundaries of what I can do, which is exciting and scary, too.

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REVIEW:

In the first five pages of L. Annette Binder’s The Vanishing Sky, we are presented with a home around mealtime in rural Germany. It’s been two years since all four members of the family have been together at the table. Son Max has been at the front. Son Georg is at Hitler School. Mother Etta is working with what’s available from rations and available scraps of food. “Nothing to eat but cabbage and potatoes and soggy bread. No butter most weeks and no meat and the milk ran thin like water.” Josef, a schoolteacher, starts eating before Etta’s prayers are finished, and then there’s talk of going to meet the train. Son Max is due home.

But first things first—Josef stands from the table on cue and sings along with the “funny tunes” on the radio that mock the enemy, “the Amis and the British.”

The radio plays songs for the wives and there are marches, too, “to speed things up.” It’s government radio. “The announcers stammered sometimes with the words. They struggled mightily. One of the generals came on next. He talked about East Prussia, how the Soviets made it inside but not for long. No, the Germans were waiting for the right moment to push them back, and it was always a general who spoke or a government minister and never the Führer.”

Etta knows not to press Max for details upon arrival but isn’t prepared for what the war has done to her son.

At the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth Camp), food is not the issue. Georg and the others are fed meat and thick slices of bread. They are future soldiers and treated well. They are used to the daily routines that include trips to the bomb shelters when the buildings start to rattle. Soon, Georg sneaks away from camp and starts walking home. He would much rather be reading books. He’s confused by his own likes and dislikes. He’s concerned about not being man enough for his tough-guy father, who fought in World War I.

The Vanishing Sky is a powerful novel about one family surviving life in Germany during World War II. Packed with rich detail, L. Annette Binder’s well-chiseled prose is understated and clear-eyed. We are always in the moment with the Huber Family. But there’s a looming sense of dread as well. (The title alone suggests as much.) Each of the four characters copes with war in their own way.

Binder, who left Germany for the United States as a child, drew details from her great-grandfather’s journals (written between the world wars) and from a host of other research and reading. The result is a novel that is both wonderfully atmospheric and deeply personal. Etta, Josef, Max, and Georg all stand in sharp relief against the landscapes and townscapes—and from each other.

The family portrait builds from the ground up—everyday human wants and needs. The Hubers are utterly unique, and yet it’s also so easy to see the hundreds of thousands of others just like them. There is nothing happening in rural Germany that also couldn’t be happening in Massachusetts or Kansas (as the novel lets us see in one particularly poignant moment).

Binder lets us see the bigger picture more clearly by showing us the small. It’s these lives that will be overrun—these kitchens, these yards, these hard-working souls. When the horror comes, the novel’s keen-eyed credibility is so well established that we can’t help but be moved by the violence of the moment. Binder zooms in. Her sketch of a burning tree lets us feel the pain of the destruction.

“Etta raised her hand to her forehead and shielded her eyes, but it did no good. The light found its way in. A walnut tree was burning the courtyard. It shed flames from its trunk. It stood real as a person, that tree, real as a man with arms stretched wide, and still it turned to powder. The flames quivered for a moment and then leapt across to some juniper bushes and to another tree and rose again. They twisted and dripped and fed themselves, and the smoke wound ribbons in the air.”

The Vanishing Sky is masterful and deeply moving.

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For more information, head to L. Annette Binder’s website.

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Previous Q & A (and review) regarding Rise.

S.A. Cosby, “Blacktop Wasteland”

My review of Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby for the New York Journal of Books. Here.

William Kent Krueger, “This Tender Land”

Epic. Soulful. Sweeping.

Sinking into William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land is to wrap yourself in a warm blanket of smooth prose, toss another log on the fire, and savor the journey of Odie O’Banion.

See? Even the name rolls right along. Say it. Odie O’Banion. It’s a name ready for motion, those two fat O’s—three o’s in all—and the nifty alliteration. And ‘Banion’ isn’t much of a stretch to folk hero Paul Bunyan. In fact, tales of Bunyan began as verbal stories told in lumber camp bunkhouses (source: Wikipedia) and This Tender Land carries that same episodic flavor. It’s told with an easy narrative flow. In addition, Odie is an adept storyteller who is able to conjure tales on the spot to entertain, soothe, or explain.

But this is already over-analysis of a story that asks you to kick back and let it wash over you. Once you tap into Krueger’s easy pace, it might remind you a bit of the heyday of Cinerama or something similar where you knew going in that you were in for a full three hours to forget about yourself. It’s a delicious sensation.

Krueger tells us out of the gate we’re in for a ride. The epigram is from Odyssey and in the prologue our narrator (Odie, short for Odysseus, ahem) looks back over the decades and confesses to his skills as a storyteller while noting the important distinction between entertainer and liar. He also tells us what lies ahead for Odie as he ventures from his closed-in world to the big one out there in Minnesota of 1932.

“Things were different then,” says Odie in the prologue. “Not simpler or better, just different. We didn’t travel the way we do now, and for most folks in Freemont County, Minnesota, the world was limited to the piece of it they could see before the horizon cut off the land. They wouldn’t understood any more than I did that if you kill a man, you are changed forever.”

Wise old O’Banion, with perspective, keeps no secrets in the brisk prologue. There will be killing. There will be miracles. “Open yourself to every possibility,” he tell us, “for there is nothing your heart can imagine that is not so.”

It’s 1932, as mentioned. Hardship. Duress. Misfortune. We’re at the Lincoln Indian Training School, formerly a military outpost. It’s also a place of brutality, led by “the Black Witch,” Thelma Brickman (one of many great Dickensian names). The school is also a place of indoctrination, to get Indian children ready for the white world. School motto: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Odie O’Banion and his older brother Albert are the only two white boys in the school. They are also orphans and kept in their own oppressive space for the night before heading off during the day to work, in grueling conditions, at a local farm. One of their oppressors is DiMarco, who delivers “strappings” for those caught speaking Indian. There’s a quarry, a cliff, an abyss, and DiMarco with his “long leather strap.” After a scrap, DiMarco plunges to the depths below. (That’s no spoiler; note the prologue excerpt above. And we’re only a fifth of the way into the story.)

Odie escapes with his brother Albert along with a teenage Sioux named Mose, and a young girl named Emmy. Emmy’s mother, a teacher, is killed by a tornado at the school—offering the first of many lessons about the random acts of God. Or nature. Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy are the vagabonds. They are free. Except they need to stay free. Odie, not yet 13, tells himself that he’s been “reborn” thanks to the killing of DiMarco.

They push off in a canoe down the river, which delivers them from one adventure to another, from one harrowing moment to the next strange encounter. They encounter a wild variety of characters from Dust Bowl farmers to ghettoized Jews in St. Paul to Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon Traveling Crusade. Odie hears an earful of counsel along the way, much of it spiritual. Pluck and savvy help him get back to the river time after time. He’d love to lead his whole scrappy squad of vagabonds all the way to St. Louis, where his Aunt Julia lives, but the going is slow and every trek away from the river in search of food or other resources eats up time, sets them back, or worse. Albert gets in a very bad spot. Odie is forced to make very adult decisions. Recurring themes of identity, family, faith, and hope pepper the tale at every turn.

Odie sees behind Sister Eve’s façade, the fake miracles and fake-dangerous snakes designed to fire up hope among her flock, and Odie learns to use a bit of Sister Eve’s tactics to help his brother. Odie falls for a girl. There’s a town called Hopersville. And Odie searches for the right way forward—and for answers. Who knows best? Which of these strangers can be trusted? Are the authorities on their trail? Is life fair? Will Odie leave his vagabonds and journey off on his own?

A tad fantastic? Sure. What novel with so many references to Homer (Part Four is titled The Odyssey) would not engage in dramatic storytelling—emphasis on story. Homer scholars will have a field day spotting references (One-Eyed Jack/ the Cyclops). With its Huck Finn echoes, The Adventures of Odie O’Banion would have served equally as well as a title. Odie’s journey becomes a kind of anthropological survey of the Depression-era Minnesota Mix Master of races and social classes.

A tad precious? Your mileage may vary, but this should be no surprise. You’ll grasp the flavor of This Tender Land in the first few pages.

Take the ‘i’ out of Odie and you get ‘ode,’ and that’s what this novel is, too—an ode to great American storytelling, an ode to all the big stories that have come before, an ode to the heartland, and an ode to the human spirit. Open yourself, yes, to every possibility.

Q & A #82 – Katayoun Medhat, “Lacandon Dreams”

I’ll say it–the first two mysteries by Katayoun Medhat deserve a much larger audience.

The first is The Quality of Mercy. The second, published in 2019, is Lacandon Dreams. 

Both feature a cop named Franz Kafka who solves cases and puzzles over the meaning of life in the fictional southwestern Colorado town of Milagro.

Both novels are funny, colorful, and fresh. Because Franz Kafka questions everything, they are full of ideas and issues. Seeking nail-biting tension? Seek elsewhere. Seeking well-written mysteries with an easy flair, Medhat might be writing just what you need.

The Four Corners Free Press this month ran my review of Lacandon Dreams (click on image to read now). I’ll post a link once it’s available online.

In the meantime, Katayoun Medhat was kind enough to answer a few questions from her home in England. The Q & A will give you a good idea of what’s going on inside these pages.

It’s clear Medhat has fans—her launch event at the Cortez library last October drew a very nice crowd. But why these novels aren’t on the way to a Netflix studio right now is beyond me. Whoever gets to play detective Franz Kafka will have the role of a lifetime.

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Question: The whole idea of naming your protagonist Franz Kafka (such an interesting idea) was it a slam dunk from the get-go? Did you ever think, “I’ll never get away with this?”

Katayoun Medhat: ‘Slam-dunk’ is a basketball metaphor, isn’t it? The idea to name my main character Franz Kafka wasn’t so much ‘slam’ than literally ‘dunk.’ I always knew that once I had a central character around whom to build my stories, I’d start writing. And there I was in Cortez’ gorgeous outdoor pool swimming my daily mile when all of a sudden there was this light-bulb moment: my sleuth was going to be Franz Kafka. It felt completely right and I knew we would be keeping company for a while.

If I have really gotten away with it, I’ll only know when/ if my books are published in German (fingers crossed). I think in the German-speaking world they may be more protective of Kafka and what he is seen to stand for.

Question: Were you a Franz Kafka fan before writing these two mysteries? What drew you to him?

Katayoun Medhat: Do you have time for a long story? Of course I knew about Kafka, had read some of his works and had found them thought-provoking. But it wasn’t until I heard an audio-play of Franz Kafka’s Amerika on the radio that I really got fascinated with him. Kafka never finished Amerika and anyway he wanted all of his work burned after his death. Amerika is a truly weird and mesmerizing work. It is the bizarre story of young Karl Roßmann exiled to America and it is surreal, humorous, disquieting and at times eerily prescient.

My first draft of The Quality of Mercy was in fact called Amerika. The more I looked into Franz Kafka’s life, the more I felt an affinity with him. Like my Hungaro-Austrian family, Franz Kafka was an assimilated Jew. He wrote in German, but had a Czech accent. It is this cultural in-betweenness, the belonging everywhere and nowhere that I relate to.

Then there are things about him that, as a psychotherapist, I find unbearably moving: for example that he wrote a hundred-page letter to his father with whom he had a fraught relationship. I don’t think Kafka’s father ever saw the letter. And if you have looked at photos of Franz Kafka you will have seen that he had the most hypnotic eyes … I would have loved to have met him!

Question: Why the fictional Milagro and not the real Cortez?  

Katayoun Medhat: Ha! What makes y’all so sure Milagro is Cortez? I’d say that there is a bit of Cortez in Milagro, insofar as Cortez is my blueprint of an American small-town. It is the only American town – except Shiprock and Farmington – that I have spent an extended amount of time in and where I learned about American life. I do love the area. In fact, I don’t know anywhere I’d rather live than in the Four Corners. But Milagro is enough of a figment of my imagination that I can’t be sued for misrepresentation. Does that answer your question? 😊

Question: The relationship and banter between K and Robbie Begay, in both books, is very engaging. Did you envision this cross-cultural connection at the outset of the story or did it grow organically?

Katayoun Medhat: That’s a great compliment! Thank you! In truth I didn’t know where anything of this would go. I just knew that I had a character and I had a place. And I wanted to write it as true to my perception of reality as I could get. And my version of reality in a way contradicts the American ideal of what reality is supposed to be. My version of reality has a minimum of agency, focus and intentionality and a maximum of confusion, absurdity and serendipity in it. And as for Robbie Begay: He just turned up, wedged his foot in the door and came in to stay. I hadn’t planned any of it. K and Begay just started going their own way and I felt as if I was being pulled along by them. That being said I do believe that in their conversations and banter you’ll find the essence of my experience of American society and in a way it is a projection of an internal dialogue that has ruled my culturally hybrid self throughout my life. And of course it is homage to the Diné I met during my times in the Southwest.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about the time you spent in southwest Colorado? What were you studying? Did the spark for the mysteries happen when you were here? Or later?

Katayoun Medhat: I was captured by the magic/ beauty of the Southwest during an American road trip way back in 1995. And what particularly entranced me was the similarity of the landscape and also of the people to the landscapes and the people of my country of birth, Iran. I was fascinated by these Southwestern communities who had been here for hundreds of years, by their living languages, ceremonies and rituals and I was perturbed by the great historical injustices that had been wrought on Native societies.

Eventually I embarked on a PhD combining my two disciplines of Medical Anthropology and Psychoanalysis by focusing on bi-cultural negotiation in IHS mental health services and the DBHS alcohol and substance abuse rehabilitation program in Shiprock. I seem to have fitted in quite well because quite a few DBHS clients took me for a patient in treatment. I loved my time there. There was a lot of group-based therapy and it made me feel so hopeful, because, regardless of what people had suffered and how much Native cultures have been suppressed and Native communities have been oppressed, in these therapy groups the tribal ethos of kinship and sharing was still very much alive. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but an esteemed Shiprock colleague once told me: “Whenever you find a group of Diné you will hear laughter.” And I found this to be true. There is a lot of teasing and calling people nicknames and telling jokes that do often obscurely, subtly and pertinently address very serious issues. And strangely I can’t get rid of the feeling that I have met Robbie Begay, or if I haven’t yet, I will. Robbie is very real to me.

 Question: What’s it like to write novels based in southwest Colorado when you’re living so far away? How did you go about your research, especially all the Native American details?

Katayoun Medhat: As they say: distance makes the heart grow fonder. A lot of what I write about Milagro comes from a place of yearning- and yearning of course springs from that idealized space in your head, which blossoms without being tainted by reality. That blasted head space is all yours to fool around and take liberties in. So I might be sitting at my writing table in the south of England, looking out at a grey, overcast sky and listening to herring gulls screeching- and imagining the conferencing of prairie-dogs under the azure skies and among the majestic mountains of south-western Colorado.

Every time I come back to the Four Corners I see it with fresh eyes and I am so grateful to be here. That said- if anyone wants to sponsor me for a permanent visa I wouldn’t say no…

In terms of research: By the time my first book was written I had been coming to the Four Corners for over ten years. I owe a lot of what I was taught to the inspiring staff and clients at DBHS and IHS; by being invited to participate in certain traditional activities. Then there were the clients at IHS and DBHS who were so welcoming and exemplary in sharing their stories and issues. I could never get over the fact that a majority of clients had been mandated to attend these programs and yet they were constructive and collegial, community-minded and yes- humorous!  Then there was the magnificent Mr. Tony Goldtooth who must have taught the whole of Shiprock and who allowed me to audit his Navajo language class at Diné College. I’m still proud that I scored 100% in my first test!  And all the other generous and inspiring instructors: Mrs Alice Wagner; Mr Herbert Benally of Diné College Shiprock and Mrs Lorraine Manavi of San Juan College, Farmington. And I owe a shout-out to all my class-mates from those various courses who were so generous in their welcome and the sharing of their insights. There were many, many more people to whom I owe a depth of gratitude. Diné bizaad—the Navajo language—is such a complex and inspiring language, but my advice would be to learn it fast, while you are young, because the older you get the harder it is to grasp the tonal subtleties…and that’s when you start saying rude things without meaning to!

Question: One of the themes writer Franz Kafka returned to was the soul-numbing aspect of bureaucracy. And your character K is routinely trying to get past or around the individuals—members of the palace guard—who protect government institutions or agencies, often in amusing fashion.  Was this a purposeful issue you wanted K to encounter, given his name? Something you encountered here as well? Or is it everywhere?

Katayoun Medhat: That is a very pertinent question! As you’ll have gathered by now I’m not much of a planner. It’s more that stuff comes from somewhere (my unconscious I imagine) and finds a place. Thinking about it a lot of inspiration goes way back to when I was working in an adolescent psychiatric unit in London. It probably was one of the most formative experiences of my life and much of what you’ll find in my books: the slightly dysfunctional community, the ‘rage against the machine’, the small mercies of unexpected kindness and the baffling machinations of institutions and bureaucracies all have their origin there. And in this matter I’m completely with K, as you have so kindly quoted in your Four Corners Free Press review: “K’s reality emulated Kafka’s imaginings to an uncomfortable degree. K tended to regard Kafka as a realistic writer.” Though I have to give you that: American bureaucracy ratchets the whole thing up a few notches. It really is a jungle out there!

Question: Your dialogue is excellent–and, in a word, a bit more breezy than some. Do you agree? You’re not afraid to include conversation that might not have a direct bearing on the plot and/or story yet it’s very character-revealing (and interesting). Got any dialogue tips for writers?

Katayoun Medhat: I’d say: just let your characters go where they want to go and say what they want to say. Don’t try to make them say stuff. Just let them play around and give yourself and them time to get to know each other. But then I always loved listening to people and speaking as an Anthropologist and psychotherapist this is what we do: we listen, we observe, we remember. And we rely on our unconscious. I probably have loads of voices in my head that I—unconsciously—draw on.

Question: Who are your inspirations as writers?

Katayoun Medhat: Just to name a tiny number of the many—Samuel Beckett, George Eliot, Franz Kafka, Louise Erdrich, Julio Cortazar. At the moment, I’m really into the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, who died tragically young and who would be noted amongst the literary greats had she not been confined to the relative minority of German readers. Then there is inspiration from the ranks of mystery writers: Ruth Rendell is amongst the towering mystery talents; Reginald Hill for his humour and pitch-perfect tone; Kate Atkinson for her special aptitude for mixing wryness and horror; James Lee Burke for his atmospheric descriptions… then  of course Tony & Anne Hillerman, Craig Johnson. Lots and lots.

Question: Care to tell us what’s next for Franz?

Katayoun Medhat: There are clouds on the horizon (but it ain’t corona!) and- how should I put it…K finds himself in a dark place between the new and the old order, and his sympathies are not quite where they are supposed to be. Working Title is: ‘Flyover Country ‘ (although this may be revised) and it is due to come out in September 2021. Meanwhile I’m waiting for the Coen Brothers to make an approach on the Milagro Mysteries film rights…

Thank you for these great questions, Mark!

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Katayoun Medhat’s website here.

Previously Reviewed:

The Quality of Mercy

 

 

 

Billie Best, “How I Made a Huge Mess of My Life”

They met in the music scene in Boston. He was the bass player in a well-known band, Orchestra Luna. She was the band’s new manager—hired over the bass player’s objections.

His name was Chet Cahill. Her name was Billie Best. They bonded over “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and other vintage sci-fi movies. Members of the band all lived together in an eight-bedroom Victorian house in Newton Highlands. Soon, Chet and Billie were together. It was 1976. “We shared a deep belief in the work we were doing. Orchestra Luna was our love child.”

A year later, the band disintegrated when lead singer Karla DeVito left to tour with Meat Loaf and, later, launch her own solo career. Chet and Billie rented an apartment in Boston’s South End. In the late 1970’s, Chet battled cancer for the first time. Orchestra Luna morphed into harder-rocking Luna and later Berlin Airlift.

After some ups and down, Billie and Chet married in 1985. They rented a chapel they found in the phone book.  It was called Adam & Eve. In marriage, they gave each other space for creativity. Together, after a series of other jobs, they bought a farm in the Berkshires. Cows. Chickens. Fences. Slaughtering at home. And a “gut renovation” of the old farmhouse.

The farm is where Chet died when the cancer came back. The farm, too, is where Billie discovered secrets about her husband—secrets she lays out in the first few pages of her sterling memoir, How I Made a Huge Mess of My Life (or Couples Therapy with a Dead Man).

Orchestra Luna. Chet is in the beret.

The biggest secret is the arrival of a gift when Chet is very sick. A juicer. It’s a gift from the other woman, who quickly earns the nickname “The Juicer” and who also comes for a visit. She wears “high heels with tight jeans.” Billie has seen many such women in rock clubs over the years. Groupies. Billie cooks an Italian dinner for the three of them. (Chet is very sick at the time.) And Billie Best, who pours her soul out all through this memoir, recalls this painful moment over a few gripping pages in Chapter 1.

“This was the day my brain began to separate from itself, cleaved into sections like a melon split with an axe …  I couldn’t believe that my dying husband had betrayed me, was betraying me right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t accept that he preferred to be with her when we had so little time left, and every day was precious. I couldn’t reconcile my self-image with all of this. So I separated myself into pieces, and after September 27th, 2008, wherever I was, part of me was always locked in a box someplace else.”

In a way, How I Made a Huge Mess of My Life is a sort of un-boxing of Billie’s life. It’s raw, honest, funny, insightful, and gripping. Think Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club meets Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with a dash of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go Down to the Dogs Tonight.

The writing is exquisite. Billie Best writes with detail, color, and a terrific sense of rhythm. Her appreciation for story comes as no surprise—nor does her talent for self-awareness.

“Books are my key to the Universe. I read and do, read and do, read and do, until finally I’m certain I know, and I don’t need to learn anymore. I just do. Often that’s when I make my biggest mistakes. I’m so certain of what I know that I don’t allow for the possibility of learning something new. My knowledge becomes a series of switches, on/off, yes/no, right/left, open/closed, a grid of pre-existing ideas that becomes a filter of everything that enters my mind.”

The third or so iteration of the band, just Luna. Chet is second from left.

Chet’s death is moving. So is how Billie handled it. Billie’s life after Chet’s death is powerful, relatable, and admirable, too. Billie tries to make sense of Chet’s behavior—and the behavior of men. Her emotions are bare and so is her thought process. She analyzes choices along the way and, of course, realizes she had flings, too, inside and outside the marriage to Chet. “The arc of karma is long,” she concludes, “but it bends toward payback.”

I knew Billie and Chet. I was a big fan of Orchestra Luna before Chet joined the band. I lived in that eight-bedroom Victorian house in Newton with Billie, Chet, Rick (Kinscherf) Berlin, Karla DeVito, and many others who came and went. I even wrote a few articles and reviews of the band for local Boston newspapers.

To me, Chet was a super kind guy. He was sincere, low-key, and a heckuva bass player. To me, Billie was cool. I remembered being impressed with how she managed to wrangle this large band into some sort of order. I showed up at Orchestra Luna and Luna gigs all over New England with the band in one of the happiest and craziest years of my single, post-college life—a year that began in 1977 and ended with me driving to California, for work, in 1978.

From a selfish perspective, How I Made a Huge Mess of My Life helped me fill in the gaps on what happened to two cool people in the decades after I said good-bye. But it’s a book anyone could—and should—read and savor.

Berkeley Noir

A review of Berkeley Noir (Akashic Books) for the New York Journal of Books.

 

 

Q & A #81 – Ted O’Connell, “K: A Novel”

There are times you pick up a novel and realize, from the first few paragraphs, that you are holding a story that establishes its own world, cuts through the blahs of generic writing, and says “come with me.”

Wendy J. Fox’s If The Ice Had Held, also published by Santa Fe Writers Project, was another such book. And it was Wendy who recommended K: A Novel to me last winter.

She was right.

defies easy definition. It scoffs at formula. The writing feels fresh, the protagonist is unique, and the story is rich with ideas.

When I finished K, I reached out to Ted O’Connell, who graciously agreed to answer some questions (below) by e-mail. No surprise–his answers were as thoughtful and as entertaining as his prose.

My review of K: A Novel for the New York Journal of Books was published here.

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Question: It’s hard to know exactly where to begin, but I’ve got to ask how the whole seed for developed. I’m going to go out on a limb and hazard a guess that you were never in prison in China. Did you tour one for research? Is Kun Chong based on a real place?

Ted O’Connell: Let me start by saying that your questions bear the mark of someone who has read the book thoroughly, and for what it’s worth, that’s really cool in this fast-paced world.

As for the seed of K, there is the cool answer and the real answer and the way these two answers intersect to form the truth. The real answer is that at some point between my two stays in China I heard a report on NPR about a western guy who got in some sort of street fight in China and got tossed into prison. As I recall, it was some sort of special facility that didn’t hold the most hardened criminals. It was miserable and hard, but the guy sort of came to have a real bond with his cellmates. They joked around and laughed together. I can’t remember, but I don’t think the guy spoke much Chinese, and yet he was still able to giggle with his fellow cellmates.

The cool answer is that a year or two later, when I sat down to do some free-writing one evening in my dusty office at Beijing Foreign Studies University, I wrote a line about a guy stuck in a Chinese prison who is trying to “write” his story by memory because no writing utensils are allowed in prison.

Other than the drunk tank, I’ve never been in prison. And no, Kun Chong is not based on a real place. I consciously did not do research when I was writing the first draft. I wanted this place to be of the imagination. Later, when I went back and read some journalistic stuff about Chinese prisons it turned out that some of my imagined details were rather true.

Question: Did you, like Professor Kauffman, always feel like you were being watched? That potential spies were everywhere?

Ted O’Connell: Actually, I did not feel that way in 2012-2013, but I might feel that way now. I’m not an expert, but I know the Chinese government has really increased its surveillance. I did feel “watched” online and in emails and would sometimes write things in code if I was worried about getting a Chinese friend in trouble. I’m sure this code was terrible and very cipherable.

Question: Is it fair to suggest, on some basic level, that K is about free speech? About taking that core liberty for granted?

Ted O’Connell: Totally fair, but if it’s a good book it’s about a lot of things. K is also about fear of intimacy, fear of failure, and the worth and purpose of art and being an artist.

Question: Are there students in China like Vesuvius and Queena?

Ted O’Connell: Yes and no and yes. These young badasses are very much based off two of my favorite students in China. The weird thing is that I can see the real people in my mind as clearly as I can imagine my own mother, but I can’t remember their real names. Now and forever they will be Queena and Vesuvius, and I sort of love them. The girls I knew weren’t as angry as Queena and Vesuvius, but there exist people in China (as in any country) that are angry enough to do some rash things that get them into trouble.

Question: Do you have a love/hate relationship with China?

Ted O’Connell: I do, very much so. Same goes for the U.S.

Question: Do you think, as Kauffman’s father suggests, that China will one day rule our asses?

Ted O’Connell: I’m probably not the person to ask. I think both countries are headed in their own wrong directions. If we don’t address climate change, neither country will be in much of a position of strength.

Question: How much is Professor Francis Kauffman an alter-ego? The whole idea that he worked for an insurance company before landing a job as a teacher—where did that come from? Why that startling contrast in occupations?

Ted O’Connell: Kauffman is in some ways my exaggerated alter ego. He’s way smarter. He’s a way better writer. Much better speaker of Chinese. Way more insecure. Way more anxious and paranoid. I never worked for a corporation in my life. Kauffman working for an insurance firm was made up whole cloth. Maybe it was some worry about writing a campus novel, but I just had this sense that he’d be a more interesting character, more telling of the age we live in, if he worked on the front lines of the global economic system. I figured that would expose him to more harm.

Question: And can we assume that you also have an eye out for humor even in the dark moments?

Ted O’Connell: I grew up watching Hogan’s Heroes on TV. I recall sort of liking it. Years later I watched Le Grande Illusion in a film class and loved it. I learned that Hogan’s Heroes was based on Renoir’s film. The idea that there are moments of levity in prison, yeah, it’s sort of naïve and sort of purely true. It fits with humanity as I want to see it. You see where the NPR story fits in, but it really is so uncool to say that you based your novel off an NPR interview. That would be so Bellingham.

Question: The construction accident he witnessed seemed vivid and, well, plausible. And more scary because of the lack of compassionate reaction by anyone in charge. Was this based on anything you witnessed?

Ted O’Connell: There’s construction everywhere in China. It’s easy to imagine the accidents. And there was an accident on a construction crew on the BFSU campus, and the man’s wife yelled at superiors and demanded proper care, and some students mildly protested.

Question: Favorite writers?

Ted O’Connell: Kazuo Ishiguro, Faulkner, Carver, O’Connor, Kafka, Chang-rae Lee, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff. Anybody named Wolf or Wulff.

Question: And, since you’re a musician, favorite bands or songwriters?

Ted O’Connell: Favorite songwriters are Townes Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, Jeff Tweedy, Robert Zimmerman, and while we’re at it, Anna Tivel. In my opinion she’s the best literary folksong writer in the country today, and I can say that because I’m being interviewed by Mark Stevens. Seeing her in concert is a very efficient experience because it’s like reading a great (not good) book of short stories in an hour and listening to good music at the same time. Plus she’s cute, her guitar is gorgeous, and she’s really nice and makes me cry.

Question:  Do you write songs, too?

Ted O’Connell: Yes, lots. I write songs for The Scarlet Locomotive, the Prozac Mountain Boys, and my newest project called Saloon. For what it’s worth, the only song remotely related to the novel is “Mountain Medicine,” which I wrote in China after a sophomore committed suicide by leaping from her 5th floor dorm.

Question: Did you help dissident rocker Billy Bao Chun with any of his music?

Ted O’Connell: How much should I say in an interview? Billy Bao Chun is based on Ai Wei Wei.

Question: What’s next?

Ted O’Connell: Another Facebook post. I need to up my social media game. That’s the honest answer. There are sexy answers too, perhaps equally true, but honest answers are the kind we need.

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More: Ted O’Connell’s website

Santa Fe Writers Project