I met Tom Bouman at the South Dakota Festival of Books in September and I was lucky enough to sit on a panel with him and South Dakota’s extremely popular Sandra Brannan.
I had read Dry Bones in the Valley and enjoyed it. Immensely. Country noir? Maybe. You’ll see lots of comparisons in reviews to David Woodrell and I think that’s about right. Maybe Tom Franklin, too.
I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Tom started out the panel by reading something he’d written specifically for the occasion (I assume), a piece about hunting and walking in the woods and then shifting to a few thoughts about the pleasure of writing and the quest within.
Tom’s piece set the mood for the panel and was a highlight from a weekend of cool conversations and thoughts about books, both fiction and non.
For its elegant style alone, Dry Bones in the Valley is a cool read. But the plot and the setting provide plenty of punch, too. A full review follows. At the festival, Tom graciously agreed to a Q & A and we conducted the following by email. Tom, who once worked as an editor at a publishing house, has some choice words and advice for writers, too.
Question: So I’ll start with a chatty one—and feel free to say “don’t lead the witness,” but what did you think of that very cool South Dakota Festival of Books?
Tom Bouman: It was a highlight of my year. Of all the adventures Dry Bones in the Valley has led to, the South Dakota festival was one of the most unexpected and wonderful. I only wished I’d had more time to meet more people and see more of the hills.
Question: On the panel, you talked about the elusive nature of “perfection” in writing fiction. Given the zillions of possible combinations between the imaginations of readers and writers, can there be a universal definition of perfection in writing? Care to elaborate a bit?
My fellow panelists Sandra Brannan and Tom Bouman in Deadwood, S.D.
Tom Bouman: Mark, I think what you’re referring to in my portion of the panel was not the elusive nature of perfection, so much, as the elusive nature of what makes fiction feel alive. Like the book itself is alive. Does that sidestep the need for a universal definition? I think so. Actually, in fiction, perfection can often be the enemy of life. Flaws and imbalances, if they’re not merely sloppy or lazy but the result of risk or obsession, suggest the kind of deep authorial engagement that inspires writing with life. What can feel alive to one reader may not to another, but broadly speaking, within categories, it is a recognizable quality or noticeable lack within a book. To me, reading fiction without life is pointless. I probably shouldn’t reveal too many secrets of the guild, but as a book editor I began to decide on a submission based on the presence or absence of this quality within the first ten pages. And I’m not the only one.
Question: I read somewhere that you woke up one day with the voice of Henry Farrell in your head. True? Had you been thinking along those lines? Developing an idea at all? What I’m getting at is—had you been working toward finding that person?
Tom Bouman: That is absolutely true. It’s also true that I have no recollection what he said. I had not been working directly toward finding Henry, but it’s fair to say I was working indirectly, all my life: reading, absorbing experiences, listening and getting to know people.
Question: Your first-person writing style is so smooth and relaxed. Natural. There are a slew of compliments along these lines online. Since it almost feels like you’re hearing a story from Henry, I’ve got to ask—what’s your process? Do you read your manuscript out loud before you submit?
Tom Bouman: Thanks, man. Yes I do read the whole thing out loud as a final chance to revise. It removes a lot of awkwardness. Here’s another voice-related process thing: I have a century-old thesaurus on my desk, which I occasionally consult for words that can contribute to narrative voice. They have to feel natural and be immediately understandable for me to use them, and if they’re not I’ll hear it when I read it. This is not a trick I could use for just any book, but it suits Henry’s voice.
Question: Henry Farrell, in some ways, is so likable because he’s thoughtful, deliberate, contemplative at times, and cautious. Were you concerned that this wasn’t the recipe for a typical cop protagonist?
Tom Bouman: Yup. I worried that he’d bore readers. But Henry is the character I had to write, all the same, not somebody else. He’s a reflection of my belief in character as a driving force in fiction, and what I mean by that is to the extent he attracts a reader’s interest, it’s not because of some extraordinary ability or attribute or circumstance, but because of our intimate knowledge of his character, measured out over the course of the novel. Actually I get annoyed when characters have too many unique attributes or quirks, or are too good at things. Take Horatio Hornblower—he started out a bumbling midshipman, and part of the tension and pleasure of reading that series is watching him develop as a naval officer and a human being. I’d like to do the same for Henry, and you have to start somewhere.
Question: Given the setting, there’s a strong undercurrent in the story (at least to me) of isolation versus the idea of community, of working together, of connectedness through family or points of view. That’s not a question, I realize. But, care to comment?
Tom Bouman: Yeah. At the outset of writing this book, I tripped over something until I learned to embrace it: the world I write about isn’t strictly divided into criminals and upright citizens, or along political, cultural, or socioeconomic lines. It is, as you say, interconnected.
Question: The Washington Post raved about the “Dickensian” quality to your fictional population. What’s your approach to introducing new characters? It seems to me that you treat “major” and “minor” characters with the same level of detail, even if their appearance on the page is short-lived.
Tom Bouman: I’m happy you think so. I tend to know more about my characters than what appears on the page, and that’s because they have to do things, and to know what things they’re going to do, I have to know what their motivations are. And that involves digging way back into childhood, family, disappointments, joys, secrets, religions, addictions, desires, obsessions, prejudices, educations, romances, and so on. When characters aren’t treated with love and respect, it has a deadening effect on the whole work, and I really work hard to avoid that. That goes as much or more for the villains and ne’er-do-wells.
Question: You’re worked on the other side of the business, as an editor at a publishing house. What was your takeaway from the publishing business today and what’s the number one thing you’d tell new writers out there as they try and get their career going today?
Tom Bouman: One fact that I’m not sure aspiring writers understand is the sheer volume of submissions an editor sees, and the frequency with which they see essentially the same mediocre book, over and over. There is an imbalance between the hard work and courage aspiring authors summon in order to put their work out there, and the level of excitement with which it will be received by a publishing professional, and that’s too bad, but unavoidable.
So how do you get around the problem of too many books? I’ve said this elsewhere, but research is one way. Research gets you out of yourself and into a community of interest with the rest of the world. Sure, you can turn your own life into material, but if that’s what you’re doing, then you have to research that life, same as any other subject, and in some ways that seems even harder than getting out there and looking into something else. As an editor, when I received a submission that promised access to an interesting subculture or place or idea or moment in history, it went to the top of the pile.
Number two, and I’m far from the first to say this: write the book that obsesses you, that you want to write, and don’t chase trends. It’s undignified, and you’ll always be too late.
Question: I found a mention online of your praise for McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who didn’t like that book. What is it about that book? Ever tempted to write a saga that involved and sweeping?
Tom Bouman: “We don’t rent pigs.” Lonesome Dove has everything. It’s funny, sad, thrilling, philosophical, beautiful. And as violent as it is, there is an unusual feeling of innocence to it. Such a long novel and you never want it to end. I tend to think in smaller stories, but I do have a historical novel in mind about the Albany and Susquehanna railroad war, fought over access to Pennsylvania coal mines in the mid-nineteenth century. That’s somewhere down the line, and it’d be a wider focus than the Henry Farrell series. But nobody can get anywhere near Lonesome Dove.
Question: What’s next?
Tom Bouman: I’ve got two Henry Farrell books under contract, and I’m writing the second book in the series now. I’m too exited by my next idea and too protective of it to say too much, but I’m thinking of a gentle literary novel about literature, love, and grief, with some quiet supernatural elements, taking place in a mansion full of treasures, or what I’d consider to be treasures.
- Winner of the 2015 Edgar Award, Best First Novel by An American Author
- Winner of the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Mystery/Thriller Category
Jump-started by a great opening line and a smooth, seamless style, Dry Bones in the Valley is a fine mystery with a slow-burn, brooding quality.
Tom Bouman’s steady prose has that easy-going style as if we’re all sitting around a campfire. Let me tell you a story.
We’re in fictional Wild Thyme Township in Holebrook County, Pennsylvania. Clans and stories run back to the Civil War and beyond. There are those who “sidestep the law, object to government, and profit off the land. Poachers of lumber and deer, burglars, rumored to be dipping toes in the drug trade, they believe they are fighting an eternal Whiskey Rebellion. As we don’t get too many high-ranking federal officials visiting, they cast me—a mere municipal officer, mind you—in the role of government tyrant.”
“Me” is Henry Farrell, the town cop. He’s stationed in the town garage with the plows and fire truck. The once quiet valley is being invaded, the “stop-start whine of machinery contending with the earth.”
As Henry tells us in the opening salvo, there will be a body and he soon finds a young man and when they find his mangled body they stare so long that the “chickadees start singing again.”
Nature is around every corner. So are the intrusions of civilization—and exploitation of the land–and the desperation of poverty, too. There’s hope (fracking money and leases to the energy companies) and despair (meth). The woods are dark and the swamps are thick—and Farrell proceeds with a dry, stone-cold sense of purpose. His department is vastly under-resourced. Having cops around, and giving them decent budgets with which to operate, are not community priorities. But Farrell plows ahead, a wary eye alert to every encounter, familiar faces and new ones, too.
One of the things I liked best about Dry Bones in the Valley is Bouman’s touch with Farrell’s first-person narration. Farrell is occasionally our tour guide but the prose never comes across as over-the-top expository. “If you’re in a mood, turning onto Old Account Road won’t cheer you up. It’s more than a dirt track that the township doesn’t maintain in the winter or any of the other seasons. Why, I don’t know. I guess there are problem a lot of people below the poverty line living on it, and people who don’t pay taxes. The road was like a creek bed; that night, you could see great ribbons of muddy water cut through it, right down the middle, exposing fins of blue shale. My shocks whined, even at ten miles an hour.”
The tug of the prose pulls you like, well, I wish Bouman was here to fill in the blank. He’s a master at metaphor and simile. A short beard covers the “wattle” of a man’s neck. A man pops out of waist-high cover “like a lemon seed.” The sun makes its “slow vault” across the sky. Best of all, the images show Farrell’s sharp eye for detail and ability to engage at macro and micro levels. As a reader, you will slip completely into Farrell’s likable world view. One chapter near the end starts out with a question: “Can I tell you one more thing about my wife Polly and our place in Wyoming?”
Not that Henry’s got it easy or that everything in Wild Thyme is laid-back. Hardly. The case requires every bit of Henry Farrell’s energy, but he’s not a whiner. He’s a relentless pursuer of the truth and fully aware of his situation. He knows that listening is just as important as looking. “Take more than a step a second,” he says, “and you’re not really after anything.”
Henry Farrell, who thinks in equal parts about justice and mercy, isn’t afraid to walk as slowly as possible.
(I first “read” this by listening, by the way, and the narration by Joe Barrett was fantastic. I later had to get the book to see how Tom built this memorable world on the printed page.)