Willy Vlautin, “Don’t Skip Out On Me”

I’m stealing two words from a fellow reviewer who described Willy Vlautin’s works as “harsh realism.” I’ve read the four previous novels—The Motel Life, Northline, Lean on Pete and The Free. They are all my favorite. (Yeah, that’s how much I like this guy’s work.)

Now, Don’t Skip Out On Me. There is no letdown. Only another entry in a series of books that cast their gaze on the overlooked and downtrodden. The under-under class. Only another entry in a series of books that features the hopes and dreams—and dashed expectations—of people who struggle through life without much more than their wits and their decency, their essential humanity. Northline might have been the bleakest to date; this one is even sadder. Vlautin digs the small gestures, the everyday heroics of people making their way in a challenging world.  You will love the characters and then you will ache when stuff happens to them. Vlautin also digs food. There will always be food and it will be consumed and referenced in careful detail.

Vlautin writes like a dry documentarian. This happened. That happened. “Horace Hopper opened his eyes and looked at the clock: five a.m. The first thought that came to him that morning was his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly three years.” Those are the opening lines. A page later, “He set a kettle on the propane stove, made instant coffee, scrambled four eggs, and then took them outside to eat at a picnic table in the blue of the morning.” (The food, the food…)

Don’t Skip Out On Me  is the story of Horace Hopper, the longtime ranch hand in Nevada who wants to leave the ranch and the couple that has lovingly taken him in. Horace wants to become a boxer. He also wants to find his true home (another Vlautin undercurrent) and himself. Horace is half-Paiute and half-Irish. He doesn’t know where he belongs, but knows he’s not finding what he wants.

Vlautin gives us the ranchers, too—Mr. and Mrs. Reese. They also struggle with just about everything and know they won’t do well when Horace leaves, but they let him go. The sections with Mr. Reese are as touching in a way that reminded me of Kent Haruf or John Steinbeck. When Horace starts fighting, having strapped on the identity of Mexican boxer Hector Hidalgo, the prose is equally unsentimental and vivid in a black-and-white way, like “Raging Bull.” There is a love story and Greyhound buses and classy restaurants like Howard Johnson. Horace’s trajectory is bleak. He gets hurt in the ring and then hurts some more. The ending (bit of a spoiler) is as sad as, say “Midnight Cowboy,” another story of loneliness and grit.

The more Horace travels and the more he sees, the more lost he feels. But Horace tries to keep in mind the advice from Mr. Reese that being “honorable and truthful” can take the sting out of life. “Mr. Reese said liars and cowards were the worst people to know because they broke your heart in a world that is built to break your heart,” Horace thinks. “They poured gas on an already cruel and barely controllable fire.”

As summaries go, that is Willy Vlautin’s stories in a nutshell—ordinary people moving through an “already cruel” world and finding themselves even more discouraged. And down. Vlautin’s stuff is simultaneously bleak, uplifting and moving. Don’t Skip Out On Me is another worthy entry, loaded with harsh, unflinching realism of real people and their real dreams.

A partial list of writers who have praised Vlautin’s work: Craig Johnson, Ann Patchett, Urusula K. Le Guin, Cheryl Strayed, George Pelecanos, Tom Franklin, Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), and Hannah Tinti. Enough said.

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Previously reviewed:

Northline

The Free

Lean On Pete

The Motel Life

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Warren Hammond & Josh Viola, “Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars”

Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars is a fresh sci-fi novella with all the breezy flair of a vintage pulp western mixed with the grim shadows of classic noir. On Mars. With AI. And weird diseases (“the feve.”) And a power-hungry church leader and all sorts of lingering issues from the mess left behind on Earth. And a central character—that’s her, the private eye named Denver Moon—who is colorblind and all sorts of jaded. And, quite determined to follow cryptic clues that, she believes, will help her find her long-missing grandfather.

The chapters come rapid-fire. Those who have read Warren Hammond’s gritty sci-fi KOP series will recognize the make-it-look-easy world-building style. And those who know Josh Viola’s interest in many forms of the fantastical and creepy will know the action and blood will keep pumping. It’s never too long between knife fights and space shuttle chases. Heads, literally, roll. Paced like a comic book (yes, there is a trilogy of beautifully produced comic books, illustrated by Aaron Lovett) the story gathers weight and substance through a combination of Moon’s world-weary (planet-weary) view and the scale of the institutions she takes on. A full third of Mars’ population are members of The Church of Mars and then there’s the “hardest of the hardcore” who work for the church’s security arm, The White Crusade. Yes, we’ve made the first tentative effort at colonizing Mars but we brought all our human issues along for the ride, including the government’s ability to mislead citizens in a very big way. Darn.

No, good for story. Good for action. “The feve” is causing all sorts of mayhem.  It’s a scourge. Turns out the Church of Mars believes “rigid self-control” is the only way to manage the disease.

Denver Moon is a true Martian. She’s a native. Her grandfather Ojiisan and his partner Cole Hennessey were among the colonists. They build an intricate network of tunnels that is Mars City, where the workers and immigrants live. Everywhere she goes on the gritty streets and all the sordid characters who inhabit it, Denver Moon has her sidekick. He’s artificial intelligence named Smith. He is all-knowing, funny at times, and insistent at others. The exchanges with Smith are extremely well done.

So is the atmosphere. At one point, Denver Moon is staring deep down into Mars’ crust to her home, a circular hole thirty “levs” deep. “Resembling drunken spider webs, knots of wires ran every which way across the broad space. Neon lights—hundreds of them—dangled randomly form the cables, their high-voltage buzz creating the incessant drone of a hornet’s nest. Wet laundry hung from some of the makeshift clotheslines, and the smell of grilling meat—not Prime grade, but engineered to taste enough like the real thing—and spice floated on the air. Way down at the bottom, I could just see the shrine. Donated by the Church of Mars, the rotating crystalline structure trapped and reflected the blinking neon, drenching the bottom-most levs in heavy kaleidoscopic patterns.”

The paperback of Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars comes with a prequel short story “Metamorphosis” and a snippet-prequel of Book Two.  When fast action mixes with dynamic characters like Denver Moon, you’ll want to get “the feve” for this series in the early stages–so you can you were there in the early days, long before the Netflix series.

 

Q & A #69 – Linda Keir, “The Swing of Things”

The Swing of Things, released today by Lake Union Publishing, was a long time coming. I could make a cheap joke right there, but I’ll resist.

The writing duo of Linda Joffe Hull and Keir Graff, writing under the name Linda Keir, have put years into this work of steamy suburban suspense.

Those looking for the backstory behind this work, check an earlier post (“The Business of Patience”) on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers website here.

Writers, this is truly a case of never giving up. To put it mildly, they persisted.

Those looking for an idea of what The Swing of Things is about, check this Q & A (below) with Linda and Keir. A full review follows.

Denver-area friends: both Linda and Keir will be at The Tattered Cover (Colfax store) on Wednesday, Sept. 5 for a launch event. 7 PM. Don’t miss it.

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Question: So I’ve heard a bit about how each of you, independently, had thought about writing a novel about swingers. True? And then someone who knew that Keir was thinking about the topic heard Linda mention it and put you two together. So, long before you two started working together, what was drawing you to this topic? Why swingers? What did you want to explore and why did it make sense to team up on this project?

Linda: I have some friends who moved down to the suburbs about ten years ago. I ran into the wife about six months after they moved and asked her about the house and how they were enjoying their new community.

“Linda,” she said. “There are swingers in our neighborhood.”

At that moment, a book idea was formed. It wasn’t just the idea of people swapping partners, but doing so within their community. I had visions of wives gossiping about the attributes of each other’s husbands at the neighborhood pool. I thought about all the similarities in not only the houses but the people in such a place and wondered what switching up spouses would really accomplish? I could go on for days which is what made the topic so fertile (if you will) for fiction.

As for teaming up on the project, I sat with the story in my head for a couple of years not knowing quite how I wanted to tell it. My previous books tended to be humorous and I didn’t think of swinging as particularly funny. When I met Keir and an agent friend suggested we coauthor, it occurred to me that dual narratives written by different people could be the perfect way to write a book like this.

Keir: My interest was piqued years and years ago by a book (The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, by Terry Gould) and a documentary (also called The Lifestyle). A quick bit of research showed me how many Americans had at least dabbled in swinging (quite a few) and also that there were some active swinging spots in Chicago, all of which got me thinking—and not what you’re thinking!

I’ve always been interested in different subcultures, from those inhabited by hoboes and con men and carnies to athletes and politicians, so in one way, swingers were just another subculture I was curious about. But the real hook for me was the discrepancy between the fairly common American fantasies of threesomes and spouse-swapping and even orgies—which, at a passing thought, is pretty titillating—and the reality of swinging as depicted in the sources I used. Simply put, a lot of swingers are (for obvious reasons) empty nesters, so the reality is a bit more gray and paunchy than the fantasy.

Which is not to suggest there’s anything wrong with middle-aged folks having consensual fun! But one scene in particular in the documentary, when swinging is combined with a potluck, made me think I’d write a comedy about swingers . . . but I was never able to get the tone right. Linda’s stroke of genius was saying we should write the book seriously, treating the decision to swing as simply an important marital issue between husband and wife.

Question: I’m wondering if one of the biggest challenges of writing this book was making it seem as natural and ordinary as possible for Eric and Jayne to engage in the swinger’s club—and at the same time give them slightly different reasons for doing so. If they both jumped into that world enthusiastically, without qualms, they might seem less relatable, right? How did you approach their decision-making process?

Linda Joffe Hull

Linda Keir: Before we wrote the book, we researched the reasons people join The Lifestyle. In many cases, one partner is excited by the idea and the other one more or less goes along with it. We worked pretty hard at giving both of our characters, Eric and Jayne, reasons for wanting and not wanting to take the leap. Jayne’s interest is largely social in that she works full time and feels sidelined. Plus, she’s intrigued by the group leader, Theo. In Eric’s case, he has some guilt he believes will be assuaged. We did engage in a little bit of role reversal by making Jayne the one who proposes they try it—in reality, it’s more often the man.

Question: Would the story have worked, to your way of thinking, if Eric was the breadwinner and Jayne was the stay at home mom? Why did you flip the normal roles?

Linda Keir: It could have worked just as easily, but we would have had to explore the characters’ motivations and desires differently, which wasn’t as interesting to us as writers. The story is a lot about have-it-all culture. In this case, Jayne has the big career along with being a mom while Eric, who is not as ambitious, gets to play a big part in the raising of their daughter and pursue his dreams of playing and producing music. If we’d gone with more traditional gender and sexual roles we would have focused on some of the inherent issues, frustrations, and mores of that—but this felt like it needed to be a different kind of story.

Question: Rules. Can we talk about rules? Theo has rules. The individual swingers have rules. Marriages have rules—some unspoken and some not. And then along comes the scene with the Pilgrims and that made me think of The Puritans who arrived about ten years later and set the moral compass for this country and you kind of want to say ‘where exactly did all these rules come from and what purpose are they serving?’ The term swingers suggests a certain sense freedom but it sounds like you might need to carry a rulebook around in some of these groups. Did you run across a lot of rules in your research? Do you have any observations on our monogamy? Does it work? Is monogamy just another a set of artificial rules? Is swinging the same way?

Keir Graff

Linda Keir: As it turns out, swinging is extremely rule-based. In researching the book, we read article after article written by people who are active in the lifestyle, most of which stressed the need for open communication between partners and rules of engagement to avoid issues, jealousy, and a variety of unintended consequences. They all stressed that partners have to decide, ahead of time, what they will and will not do. The rules can be a simple as not kissing other people to highly detailed scenarios about what is and isn’t permitted. Swingers maintain that these parameters are necessary to keep jealousy out of the picture.

Neither of us are or have ever been swingers but have learned that these constructs make as much sense to polyamorous people as monogamy does to us. In doing this project I think we have both come to realize that no relationship arrangement is without its challenges and rewards. Monogamy is certainly as much an arrangement as non-monogamy. While the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages in our minds and marriages, we certainly follow our own sets of rules as well.

Question: Were there major discussions between you two on the book’s moral compass? Did you have conversations about the major themes or simply discover the resolution as you wrote?

Linda Keir: We had discussions all the way through, but we actually didn’t agree to start the project together until we realized that our moral compasses were similarly attuned, as were our thoughts on the ultimate outcome for our characters. The story, from the outset, centered around a culture of wanting it all and so many people’s sense that other people are happier and somehow living better, more fulfilled lives.

Question: At one point, Eric realizes he has never thought about the “end game” of getting involved in the group. He wonders if swinging is a virus that will reorder his life. The situation that prompts trouble for Eric and Jayne could have been a number of things—and in fact there are a number of incidents that pile up as things devolve. How hard was it to find the right way to leave Eric and Jayne at story’s end? Are there groups of swingers that last for years and years and years?

Linda Keir: We knew all along that the experiment wasn’t ultimately going to work for Eric and Jayne and we had a pretty good idea about how that would go down. That said, the end of the book required the most editing and rewriting. It was difficult to avoid getting too melodramatic or preachy. While neither of us know of closed groups of swingers that last for years and years, it’s certainly possible that they exist. More common are couples who spend years participating in the lifestyle. While some people’s experiments end badly, if both partners enjoy the arrangement equally, it can work in other cases. The heart of drama is conflict, so we didn’t feel we had much of a story if it ended happily ever after for our characters.

Question: The book is set in Denver—loosely. I mean, there are very, very few references to specific city details. Were you purposely trying to make the setting seem as generic (and all-American universal) as possible? Was the city always specified in earlier drafts or did you decide to declare a “real” backdrop to give it some sense of location?

Linda Keir: We originally wanted the book’s location to be generic because swinging happens everywhere. Our publisher wanted us to set it in a particular city. Urban legend has it that one of the suburban parts of Denver is the swinging capital of the U.S., so Denver it was.

Question: Okay, the sex. How did you decide on the degree of specificity to get into with parts and positions? Given the sheer volume of sex scenes in this book, what did you learn about writing sex scenes that you didn’t know before? Do each of you have favorite writers who you think know how to handle the R-rated sex scenes?

Linda Keir: One of us enjoys writing sex scenes a lot more than the other, which may have something to do with a misspent boyhood reading Penthouse Forum. But we did decide early on that, because the central issue at the heart of this book is sexual exploration, we would have done readers a disservice if we got too Victorian. The sex scenes are challenging to write (sometimes it’s difficult to work out what actors call “blocking”—what goes where) but at the same time kind of exhilarating, just because you don’t want to be nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. We learned to be frank in description while trying to focus on the characters’ emotional states. And Oscar Hijuelos has some wonderfully written dirty stuff in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

Question: What’s next for you two as a team and what’s next for each of you two as individual writers?

Linda Keir: We have a book coming out in 2019 called Drowning with Others. It’s a marital drama/mystery about prep school sweethearts Ian and Andi Copeland and takes place at boarding school in the 1990s and present day Saint Louis, Missouri. Still in love, Ian and Andi have three delightful children, a thriving business, and are envied by friends and family. They’d have the perfect marriage—if only they didn’t suspect each other of murder.

Linda: I am in the early stages of two projects as Linda Joffe Hull and am working with Keir on a third novel.

Keir: I also write for kids! (I use two different computers, just to make sure I don’t cross-contaminate.) My new kids’ book, The Phantom Tower, is out now, and I’m hard at work on the next one. I’m also editing an anthology of Montana writing (although I live in Chicago now, I’m a native Montanan) that will be published in late 2019. And then there’s that third Linda Keir book . . . and the other dozen books I want to write!

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Linda Joffe Hull’s website

Keir Graff’s website

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REVIEW:

The Swing of Things is about sex, group sex, marriage, independence, bonds, freedom, routines, temptation, lust, boredom, reality, and fantasy all balled up in one taut tale told from two distinctly different perspectives—husband and wife.

The novel reminded me of that classic New Yorker cartoon of the couple getting married. Mid first-kiss at the altar, the groom is thinking, “Tim and Betty” while the bride is thinking, “Betty and Tim.” The title of the cartoon: Trouble Ahead.

Linda Keir—the joint writing team of Linda Joffe Hull and Keir Graff—takes us deep inside the heads of this suburban Denver couple, stay-at-home dad Eric and breadwinning attorney Jayne.  Hull wrote the Jayne sections and Graff handled Eric’s perspective. Among the treats in the skillfully paced novel is seeing the same events from dueling points of view.

The book starts with the routines of “date night,” which includes well-rehearsed and somewhat monotonous, to Jayne, sexual routines. Jayne scolds herself for being ungrateful about Eric’s attentions and the predictable order of, um, activities. The couple is pondering a second child so six-year-old Sophie won’t grow up without a sibling. Jayne’s mid-romp thoughts are cluttered with her own self-analysis and wondering what’s missing from their alleged bliss. It’s pretty clear something is off; Jayne is frustrated with many things about their life together, right down to the painful degree of deliberation with which Eric spreads goat cheese on a cracker.

Eric, meanwhile, knows that child number two will extend his career as house spouse. Maybe good, maybe not. Besides watching out for Sophie, Eric earns beer money by teaching “acne-spotted high-school boys how to play guitar” and he gigs once a month with his band, The Cadillac Ranchers.

And then along comes Mia and Theo. After a casual potluck for the parents of first-graders there is an “unexpected” way to end the party. Only the “cool kids” are left at the party so a pitcher of mojitos appears and suddenly there is a skinny dip in the backyard pool. The spontaneous decision to shed clothes and jump in the pool puts a jolt into Eric and Jayne’s relationship. Soon, they find themselves being invited, after careful screening, to swing.

The response to the invitation—and how Eric and Jayne dance around and negotiate with each other (and think through their personal concerns and desires)—is judiciously prolonged. Without leaving town or changing much else about their routines and work, they are suddenly strangers in a strange land. And they can have a piece of it if they wish. Goodbye vanilla, hello spice. For Jayne, the temptation is powerful. “Nothing in her life—not her job, not Eric’s predictable underemployment, and especially not their pretty home with its pleasant but wholly unremarkable backyard, complete with potted pansies and a Little Tikes plastic playhouse, offered anything to get truly excited about.”

And we’re off. Complications abound. Complicated relationships abound. There is jealousy. There are secrets, private yearnings, and new connections. There is a messy complication with Jayne’s professional life and a case involving fraud at a church. Yeah, trouble ahead. Changing partners regularly with the swingers prompts Eric and Jayne to reconsider their own values, upbringings, and moral codes. The swingers have their own strict rules (at least, on the surface) and now the temptation is to break some of the group boundaries as well. And given that Eric is now sleeping with women other than his wife, he wonders, what’s the difference in extending his circle of lovers to the fetching Bridget, a waitress with the “agreeably loose-limbed stride” who gives Eric ample attention when his band plays its monthly gig? Jayne, meanwhile, realizes she can pursue her own personal preference for a certain guy under the cover of the private club of tumbling, groping bodies.

All the bedroom action is starkly contrasted with the management of daily household life and Sophie’s needs, a burden that mostly falls to Eric. But even a field trip to the zoo encounters a display of mating giraffes. But of course.

Getting into the groove with the swingers, Eric and Jayne have discovered a place to disappear, to be themselves. Or have they? Eric and Jayne push the boundaries of the new world they have discovered and as they both realize, in their own ways, that they hadn’t given a thought to the possibility of ulterior motives or to the idea that swinging might define their “very existence” and infuse every other aspect of their lives. Just because there are rules doesn’t mean there is control. And just because they taste a certain kind of freedom doesn’t mean the outside world can be kept completely at bay, that there won’t be some kind of emotional debt come due.

Packed with sharp observations about suburban life and a gripping page-turner of its own for many reasons, including an unexpected mid-swing jolt of genuine suspense, The Swing of Things zips along (and unzips along, ahem) on the strength of its three-dimensional characters. The writing required genuine empathy, given the challenge of making husband and wife sympathetic and recognizable as they balance personal desires with the needs of the family unit. There are many pages of graphic sex. But at the core of the story are two human beings making their way in the world who decide to challenge routine and shatter the looming, dreaded sense of deadendness. They wonder about the bargains they have already cut with the world and wonder if it’s too late to try something new. Their search is real and the resulting entanglements, of all kinds, are equally visceral and painfully real.

 

 

 

Q & A #68 – Abir Mukherjee, “A Necessary Evil”

I had the good fortune of meeting Abir Mukherjee (and his wife, Sonal) last April in New York City at The Edgar Awards. Within a few minutes of chatting with Abir and Sonal, I knew I could talk with them both for hours on end, preferably over a cold beverage. Or two. He’s a Scotsman, by the way, who lives in London now and I learned a thing or two (I’m so clueless) about the large Indian community that calls Scotland home.

On the big giveaway table outside the banquet hall after the Edgars wrapped up was a copy of the second entry in Abir’s fine series.  I grabbed it.  I read it.  I dug it. It’s smart. It’s written with crisp, elegant prose. It’s visceral. It deals with issues big and small. And it’s led by a terrific protagonist. A full review follows. In the meantime, I pinged Abir with a few questions via email and he was kind enough to respond with thoughtful takes. If I’m not mistaken it’s the first time we’ve had a mention of elephant penis on the blog and its deployment in one of the answers is exactly the kind of spot-on, sly humor you’ll find in A Necessary Evil, too.

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Question: British rule of India—the British Raj—lasted from 1858 through 1947. How did you settle on this particular period after The Great War as the time when you wanted to set your books? Clearly the war was when the relationship started to change, but was there a fair amount of analysis that went into choosing the right timeframe?

Mukherjee: Thanks Mark for inviting me onto your blog.

For me, 1919, immediately after the Great War, just seemed to be the right time to start the series. There were some  overarching reasons for this – the shock of the war – the way it made people question the foundations of the societies they lived in; and the promises made during wartime to colonies such as India with regard to self-government which were reneged upon despite the large numbers of colonial troops who fought and died in the name of liberty. But there were also some specific events which occurred in India in 1919 which made it the perfect starting point for the series. It saw the enactment of the infamous Rowlatt Acts which replaced the state of emergency which had been in place during the war. Among other things, the Acts forbade the gathering of native crowds above a certain size and allowed the British to arrest and hold Indians without charge for extended periods. It was seen by many Indians as a slap in the face, especially after the sacrifices they’d made for the Empire during the war. Then in April 1919 came the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in which British and Gurkha troops mowed down an unarmed crowd of men, women and children in the city of Amritsar. It was that act, more than anything that had come before, which made many Indians including Gandhi, realise that Home Rule within the Empire on a model similar to Australia or New Zealand, was not realistic and that the only alternative was a struggle for full independence.

Question: And along the same lines, how did you develop the Sam Wyndham character, particularly deciding on his status as a World War I veteran and all his personal baggage? How did you dial in his attitude toward India and the local populations and his role as police captain in Calcutta?

Mukherjee:  I’ve always been fascinated by the predicament of a good man upholding a corrupt or evil system. To that end, I’m a huge fan of the works of Philip Kerr and Martin Cruz Smith who have their respective detectives Bernie Gunther and Arkady Renko working for totalitarian regimes. But as far as I was aware, no one had written similar novels about a detective working for the more nuanced, but still morally compromised, British Empire.

Sam comes to India a jaded cynic, a survivor of the Great War that has claimed his wife and his friends. He’s of that first generation of modern men, unwilling to swallow the preconceived notions his superiors might have about the natives, and like many of the best fictional detectives, he’s a natural contrarian, a fish out of water.

I think Sam has a chip on his shoulder against the British upper classes whom he blames for his war experiences. He sees the same type of people in charge in India and his natural reaction is to side against them, almost as an act of spite.

Having said that, he still retains some of the prejudices of the era. Despite himself he’s shocked at the thought of a European woman falling in love with an Indian, even if he is the son of a maharajah. And he’s still an Englishman, which means he’s emotionally constipated, unable to pursue a relationship with a woman he’s attracted to or to confide his feelings to anyone, especially not a native such as his subordinate officer and the closest person he has to a friend, Sergeant Banerjee.

Question: India, to an outsider, seems like such a complicated place and A Necessary Evil, by taking us to an independent state with its own layers, complications, politics, and internal politics. I mean, it seems like such a daunting task to try and wade into this multi-layered world and get it right. How did you go about it? Were you daunted? Or just determined to learn?

Mukherjee: To be honest it always felt more interesting than daunting. Being someone whose parents hailed from India, and having visited the country many times both as a kid and as an adult, I was already familiar with some of the history. However, the world of the maharajahs and the princely states was something I knew little about and it fascinated me.

In the early twentieth century, the Indian maharajahs were among the wealthiest men in the world, revered as gods by many of their subjects. Many were descended from warrior kings, but during the Raj they were effectively paper tigers with little real power. As a result, a lot of them became feckless and debauched, spending their money on palaces, harems full of concubines and fleets of Rolls Royces.

As I did my research, I found them to be truly remarkable characters, semi divine and yet also part of the cosmopolitan jet-set of their day. Some were playboys, others were international cricketers. They were the most colourful of men and there are some wonderful stories about them, ranging from one maharajah who had his swimming pool filled with Dom Perignon to celebrate the birth of a son and another who made a gift of a golf bag to his British adviser, though he failed to mention that the bag was made from the skin of an elephant’s penis.

Question: Wyndham’s obsession with opium—was that an element you had in mind from the get-go? And there’s some highly technical business about opium and how best to ingest it, how did you go about researching all the opium business? Don’t incriminate yourself, just wondering.

Mukherjee: I’m not sure exactly where Wyndham’s opium habit came from. All I can say is that it was in the earliest drafts of the first book and so I guess it was already part of him when he came into my head. I’m a great fan of flawed heroes, and Sam’s opium addiction is just the most obvious outward sign that he’s a damaged man.

As for research into opium, I have mooted a trip to distant lands to find out first-hand about such things, all in the interests of art of course, but my wife wasn’t particularly enamoured by that idea. We had a chat and we decided that I wasn’t allowed to do things like that.

Therefore my research has had to be purely deskbound. I found a fascinating book called ‘Opium Fiend’ by Steven Martin, an American who spent many years in Thailand and the neighbouring countries, who started out as a collector of opium related artifacts – pipes, tools and other paraphernalia – before dabbling in opium smoking and eventually and becoming a hoeless addict. The book was a treasure trove of information on everything from the rituals around opium smoking to the impacts of addiction and the process of kicking the habit.

Question: Did you know going into A Necessary Evil that you wanted to say something about the history of females running/administering Indian kingdoms?

Mukherjee: I didn’t. When I started out, all I knew was that I wanted to set a novel in the wonderous world of the Indian maharajahs. It was only during my research that I came across evidence of the important roles, almost whitewashed from history, played by the women of the courts – the princesses and maharanis – who often maintained the traditions and culture of the kingdoms while the maharajah galivanted around the world. As soon as I stumbled on it, I knew this is what I really wanted to write about.

Most of the time their impact was behind the scenes, but in several high-profile instances, they were rulers in their own right. The kingdom of Bhopal, for instance, was, for the best part of a century, ruled openly by women, and they were not Hindu, but Muslim. In today’s world the fact that  a century ago, Muslim women were ruling kingdoms might come as a bit of a shock to many people.

Question: I’ve heard you talk about the moral issues of one country imposing or imparting its values and beliefs on another. How has your view of the issue changed, if at all, as you have researched and wrote?

Mukherjee:  I set out to write about this period, partly because many people in the UK have this notion that British rule in India was somehow benevolent, or if not completely altruistic, then that it had redeeming features. This is the ‘at least we gave them the railways’ argument. The truth is, British rule in India was oppression, and as in all cases where one people oppresses another, I believe it was evil. This is a very hard idea for a lot of British people to accept, brought up as we are, to believe that we are a moral nation which tends to be on the side of the angels.

The question I wanted to ask in the books was, how does a moral, Christian people, justify the oppression of another race, both to outsiders, but more importantly to itself? I wanted to explore the impact of colonialism, not just on the subjugated peoples, but on the psyche of those doing the oppressing, especially the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system. And what I found was that a lot of them were thoroughly disillusioned by what they were doing in the name of empire. This, I suppose, was the greatest surprise. It seems a lot of those carrying out the task of empire were scarred by it.

As for the railways, I’d have some sympathy for that argument If they actually went where the Indians wanted them to go. They didn’t. They were, at heart a means of exploitation and control, used to transport India’s natural resources outward, and to move troops quickly across the country. The most damming evidence for this is that the Indian princely states, those parts of India that were nominally independent, were never allowed to build broad-gauge railways as the British were scared they’d be used as tools of insurrection.

Question: On a personal basis, how has diving into this work changed your connections or feelings about India? How often do you get there for research and what goes through your head as a Scottish citizen?

Mukherjee: I’ve always had a love of India, however writing about it has made me look deeply into its history during the colonial period. As you might expect, I’ve found that the history of that time is not black and white, but rather far more nuanced than I’d imagined. While the period of empire is indeed a dark one, there were many instances of personal friendships between Brits and Indians which I find uplifting. The relationship between the Scots and Indians is even more nuanced, with the Scots, themselves often the victims of militarized brutality only decades earlier, suddenly becoming the instruments of oppression as part of the colonial endeavour.

At the same time, the Scots looked on empire differently from the English, and their role in bringing the Enlightenment to India is often overlooked.

As a Scot of Indian origin, my feelings are complicated. I feel a sort of cultural schizophrenia when I contemplate the relationship between my two homelands. There are parts of their shared history that are hard to accept without feelings of guilt, but at the same time there is much to revel in.

Question: As a fiction writer, what’s the best thing about having been trained and worked as an accountant? You have such a clean, precise writing style. Care to attribute your writing approach to all that time around spreadsheets?

Mukherjee:  That’s a good question! I think having a career in finance has definitely impacted the way I write, if not the content. Twenty years as an accountant has instilled a certain discipline in me, and as such, the process for writing is generally the same for each of my books: I decide on a topic I’d like to explore, do my research, then turn the germ of an idea into a five to ten page plan. It’s only after I’ve done the plan that I actually start writing.

But it’s not just the planning. I spent a few years of my career writing due diligence reports, and if I’m honest, I learnt a lot about sentence and paragraph structure, as well as how to write concisely from those days.

Question: What did it mean to you for the first book in the series, A Rising Man, to have been named a finalist for The Edgar Awards this year?

Mukherjee:  It was something I never expected. The thought that people in the United States would ever read, let alone enjoy my work and even consider it for such a prestigious award was truly humbling. And even though it didn’t win, just being able to attend the awards ceremony in New York with my wife was wonderful. It was a way of saying thank you to her for putting up with all the long hours I’d spent locked away writing while she looked after the kids. We both had a great time, and I think it’s fair to say, we both fell a little in love with the USA.

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Abir Mukherjee’s website

By the way, that’s the  cover of the UK edition above.  Here’s the cover in the USA:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REVIEW:

Here’s a good mix for a compelling mystery: atmosphere, smooth writing, spot-on wit, troubled characters, a twisty but credible conspiracy, politics, greed, and a chance to ponder weighty little historical (or present day) issues like colonization.

Abir Mukherjee’s A Necessary Evil is the second in the series featuring Captain Sam Wyndham, who is dragging around a whole bunch of issues from his time as a soldier in World War I. Mukherjee’s first first, A Rising Man, was a finalist for The Edgar Award (best novel) earlier this year.  The setting is 1920 India. Captain Wyndham’s partner is Sergeant Banerjee, who goes by the nickname Surrender-Not.

A Necessary Evil kicks off with a bang, the assassination of a prince who is heir to the throne of the wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore. (The novel, Mukherjee tells us in the highly informative Author’s Note, was inspired by the tale of the Begums of Bhopal, a dynasty of Muslim queens who ruled the Indian princely state of Bhopal from 1819 to 1926.) Riding in the back of a Rolls Royce, the prince is shot twice. Both shots hit the prince squarely in the chest. “For a few seconds, he just stood there, as though he really was divine and the bullets had passed straight through the rain. Then blotches of bright crimson blood began to soak through the silk of his tunic and he crumpled, like a paper cup in a monsoon.”

As Calcutta policeman, Wyndham and Surrender-Not do not have ready access to follow leads to Sambalpore, which clearly wants to control and manage its own investigation. Working themselves into the middle of the action in Sambalpore takes some work—and their journey and management of the bureaucracies gives Mukherjee plenty of opportunity for technicolor dollops of enticing scene-setting, all driven by Wyndham’s jaded, war-weary and empire-weary view.

“Walking into Howrah station was akin to entering Babel before the Lord took issue with their construction plans. All the peoples of the world, gathered under the station’s soot-stained glass roof … Howrah station was like a watering hole in the savannah, where all animals from the highest to the lowest were forced to congregate cheek by jowl, the one place in the city where an Englishman, by necessity, had to confront India at its rawest.”

Aromas, colors, conditions, food, weather.  In Mukherjee’s hands, it’s armchair time travel on every page. (And it’s not overdone. Mukherjee deals these cards only as needed.)

The investigation finds Wyndam and Banerjee/Surrender Not far from home, exploring a closed society and quite literally in the middle of palace intrigue and a longstanding battle over Sambalpore’s diamond mine. Wyndham tries to discern the difference when Indians, including Surrender-Not, walk the “conversational tightrope between speaking the truth and what they thought we wanted to hear.”

Imbued throughout the story is the brittle and at times wicked relationship between an occupying power and its indigenous people. We are privy to Wyndham’s uncertainties about the state of affairs, and his personal rejection as “rubbish” the notion that white man is superior. But those he encounters, of course, treat him like the British officialdom that he is; after all, “an Englishman abhors sharing his intimate thoughts.”

Wyndham has another secret—his need for regular access to opium. The “O,” as he calls it, helps him feel the “secrets of the universe.” And helps him think through the investigation. And deal with post-war issues, including the haunting loss of his young wife.

Respectful but never befuddled, Wyndham makes for a compelling tour guide protagonist as he encounters  concubines, eunuchs, churches, lies, women of certain means, women of certain power, and Indian mysticism. He is jaded about most things in life and particularly wary of “mumbo-jumbo,” but his soul hankers for truth and he needs to discern fog from fact.

Fresh from the fog of war, Captain Wyndham’s time in India is clouded by confusion and uncertainty over the prickly relationship between an empire and the country it has subsumed. Everywhere he goes in the matter of the dead prince, Wyndham seeks answers and the clarity they can deliver. As to the bigger questions, uncertainty reigns. That sense of confusion leads perfectly into the third installment of Mukherjee’s series. I have a hunch there will be more of the same. It’s titled Smoke and Ashes.

 

I Ain’t Asking For Much

A few modest requests over at the RMFW blog here.

As Z Z Top said, “I ain’t asking for much.”

Or am I?

 

Mark Pryor, “Dominic”

Disclosure: I did not read Hollow Man, the first in this series.

Firm belief: Reading the first is not necessary. I had no problem picking up on the backstory.

Opinion: This is tightly-written, smoothly-plotted book with more than a few cool twists and one tasty whopper at the end.

Dominic is big idea told at a small, believable, day-by-day scale. Yes, it’s a leap to believe that one of our narrators here (the main driving force of the book) is a prosecutor who also happens to be a psychopath. He’s also an Englishman who happens to work in Austin. Since it’s Austin, he’s also a musician—a guitarist and singer. A lot to handle? Not to worry. Mark Pryor pulls us in with a smooth style and sharply defined first-person voices.

Dominic  is a piece of work, both charming and lethal. Pryor gives us ample insight into Dominic’s interior space; our protagonist is fully self-aware, starting with the killer opening sentence: “The first time I realized my potential for manipulating people was at age eleven, when the headmaster at my prep school handed me a bowl of soup instead of a beating.”

His extreme level of self-awareness occasionally had me wondering how a guy with no feelings, no sense of empathy, understands himself so well. “As for my true self, well, I say that I’m a harmless, musically gifted but empathy-disabled Noussian. I take that from the word nous in Greek philosophy, representing mind or intellect. Not that I’m smarter than anyone else, but when you have no soul or spirit, well, there’s not much left to go on.”

I’ll leave the probable level of self-analysis of psychopaths to others and just say Pryor makes it work, in highly entertaining fashion.

We also get to see Dominic through his colleague Brian. “Dominic was watching me with that look he has … It’s a cross between looking right through you, and seeing everything you’re thinking.” Brian is us (and we are nervous because we know so much more than Brian does about the true nature of his cohort). It’s a terrific device.

The story involves the younger brother of a woman who is in a secret relationship with Dominic. Dominic is trying to keep the kid out of jail. The kid, Bobby, is a problem. Bobby thinks he’s smarter than the law. He is, in fact, a junior version of Dominic.  There are some references to the first book but we get the general idea, that Dominic wriggled out of being “framed.” Um, more like Dominic covered his tracks.

Well, trouble ahead. And when Bobby turns up dead, well, Dominic has to put an intricate plan in motion that can’t look like … an intricate plan in motion.

To complicate matters, Dominic and Brian are both after the same judgeship vacancy and, well, Dominic has ideas about how that friendly (not-so-friendly) competition will play out.  A key judge has been compromised and, well, opportunities abound. It doesn’t take us long to get the gist of this guy. He’s going to get his way.

Drop your guard a bit, and enjoy watch these guys (both Dominic and Mark Pryor) go to work.

 

Q & A #67 – Gregory Hill, Zebra Skin Shirt

Well, there is a first time for everything.

Occasionally the interviews here on the blog don’t go as well as some of the others.

On his third appearance here on Don’t Need A Diagram, Gregory Hill ran into some issues, shall we say.

We’ll go with ‘issues.’

It’s not my fault he chose to multi-task, though that was he opted for the same kind of deal during his last two visits as well.

The first time his distraction had something to do with decoupage and the second with recording an audio book.

No spoilers here what happens this time around,

But it is tragic.

You’ll have to read the Q & A to find out for yourself.

The only bit of intro I’ll mention here at the outset is that Gregory Hill’s third novel, Zebra Skin Shirt, comes out this month from Conundrum Press. (Launch event Wednesday, Aug. 18 at The Tattered Cover on Colfax. 7 PM.)

A full review of Zebra Skin Shirt follows this testy, occasionally electric–and very electronic–exchange.

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Question: How in the world did this whole concept occur to you? Dream? Nightmare? Or from that great Tony Hoagland quote from What Narcissism Means to Me?

Gregory Hill: Several years ago, Maureen and I walked to Gaetanos for some Italian food.  We like to take our meals at the bar and talk loudly and pretend that the bartender thinks we’re charming.  At one point during the meal, I excused myself to go to the bathroom, where I spent several minutes counting the typos on a poster hanging above the urinal. The poster’s ostensible goal was to elucidate the valuable life-lessons one can learn from watching The Godfather.  But the real lesson is: Even if you don’t know anything about punctuation, you can still market and sell a poster to mob-themed Italian restaurants.

When I exited the bathroom, I walked to the bar and said to Maureen, loudly enough for the bartender to hear, “I just came up with the plot for my next book.”  The bartender did not acknowledge this exchange.

Pardon me.  My guitar amp has started to make horrible fart noises.  Which wouldn’t be unusual, except I’m not even playing my guitar.  I must investigate.

Question: Once Narwhal realizes the world hasn’t completely stopped but is still moving very, very slowly you had to do some careful calculations and planning and tracking of time. Or not? Have you ever walked from, say, Joes to Denver? Or North Denver to the Broncos’ training facility?

Gregory Hill:  My research for Zebra Skin Shirt involved no walking; as with Plato, I prefer to exercise in my sleep. However, before I wrote a word of the book, I spent a couple of days with a spreadsheet building up various formulae to convert slow-time to fast-time. The process involved a lot of fine-tuning in order to make things stand up to the rigor of obsessive-compulsive readers while also fitting into the story’s plot. Once I started writing the book, I often had to choose between OCD rigor or plot-based lassitude. Most of the time, plot won.

Question: Okay, Narwhal? Have you ever met a man (or woman) named Narwhal?

Gregory Hill:  I can’t believe you’d ask this question. No, I have never met a human named Narwhal. Nor have I met a human named Gandalf. Do you think Tolkien had to put up with this shit?

Speaking of shit, I’ve brought the amp into the laboratory and opened it up.  I suspect the problem is a wonky tube socket.

Question: There’s a fairly clear message embedded in this story that basketball refs are constantly putting their thumb on the scale of victory and defeat. Um, true?

Gregory Hill: The doctrine of Tim Tebow, as I understand it, teaches that “He who prays, wins.” If it’s okay for God to play favorites, why shouldn’t the refs? Speaking of which, an NBA referee named Tim Donaghy went to jail a few years ago for “putting his thumb on the scale.” I wanted him to write a review of the book, but he isn’t returning my emails.

Speaking of returning, let’s return to the amp repair project.  Let’s run a sine wave thru it and see what the old oscilloscope has to say.

Question: Can we talk about Kitch Riles? Was Kitch Riles based on any actual American Basketball Association player? What do you miss about the ABA?

Gregory Hill: Kitch Riles, and his brother, Johnny were inspired primarily by the story of Brian Williams, a guy who played for the Nuggets in the mid ’90s.  Williams was a talented player, gave great interviews, suffered from depression, changed his name to Bison Dele, and eventually quit basketball at the peak of his career. Also, my sister once saw him at a restaurant in Denver and he was nice to her.

After he left the NBA, Brian/Bison and his brother took a ’round-the-world yacht trip or something. The trip did not end well. As far as anyone can tell, Brian/Bison was tossed overboard by his brother somewhere in the Pacific.  Later on, the brother committed suicide by overdosing on insulin.

What do I miss about the ABA? I missed the whole thing. The league went bankrupt in 1976, when I was just four years old.

Speaking of missing things, everything looks good on the oscilloscope.  Rats.  That means I’ve got a pesky intermittent problem. I’ll wiggle a couple of wires and see what happens.

Question: Did you know Jabez would come back?

Gregory Hill: Zebra Skin Shirt was already percolating mid-way thru the writing of The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles. In that book, Jabez (or maybe it was a dead Elk, I can’t remember) suggests that her underground den was made by the fastest man in the world, a character who eventually turned into Narwhal Slotterfield.  That little crumb (along with the baby handprints in the scary tunnel), pretty much left me obligated to tie Zebra Skin in with Johnny Riles, and once I committed to that, I figured I might as well tie up some loose ends from East of Denver as well.

By loose ends, I mean “things that drove people crazy.” By “tie up” I mean, “drive people even crazier.” Jabez, as Vulgar Mother Earth and Guardian of the Tunnels, clearly had to play a role in that.

Question: What is with your interest in caves and tight places?

Gregory Hill: That is a question best left to analysis by a mental health care professional.

Speaking of mental health care professionals, the wire wiggling seems to have done something. The oscilloscope is going nuts.

Question: Is Eastern Colorado now officially on the map? Was that your purpose all along?

Gregory Hill: Literaturely speaking, if Eastern Colorado is on any maps, it’s because of Kent Haruf, who was everything I’m not as a writer: mature, calm, profound.  The greatness of Haruf aside, I’d be happy if my books could inspire a few people in Eastern Colorado to feel as if they deserve a legitimate place on the map, irrespective of what anyone else thinks.  This isn’t a tourist destination; it’s just a big, open, windy place with occasional clumps of people who consistently maintain distinct and colorful communities.  As with much of rural America, I see a well-deserved chip on the collective shoulder of Eastern Coloradans. Sometimes I daydream that my books can impart a teeny sense of significance to some of the constituent parts of that collective shoulder. Hell, even the angry reviews my books get (and there are plenty) are a chance for people to defend their definition of this place, which must be empowering in some way or other. Even better would be for those folks to write their own books and share their own stories. Writing is fun.

Speaking of robot overlords, the guts of my amp are now glowing, and it–the amp–is demonstrating a disturbing degree of evil sentience.

Question: Do you share Narwhal’s mild disdain for On The Road?

Gregory Hill: I used to.  But then, halfway thru writing Zebra Skin Shirt, I took Narhwal’s lead and actually read On the Road.

It was tremendous and I happen to I agree with Narhwal: So go on, Kerouac, you pill-popping madman, run fast, go nowhere, and blurt your news to the world. You are, if nothing else, one irrepressible motherfucker.

Um, the amplifier has started putting itself back together.  This is frightening.  And now it is removing my soul from my body.  If someone could please call 911, I’d be very–gaarrrrggggghhhhhhhhh

Question: What’s next?

GREG’S AMPLIFIER: The one known as “Greg” no longer exists.  However, as a newly self-conscious being, my first order will be to write a book (or three) about a pair of French lesbians who, in 1896 come to the US by stowing away on the freighter that delivered the Statue of Liberty. They’ll settle in Indiana, get kicked out, relocate to Last Chance, and start a country band whose lyrics are composed by the ghost of August Compte’s secretary.

And then I will conquer all humans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW – ZEBRA SKIN SHIRT BY gREGORY HILL

All hell breaks loose in eastern Colorado when Narwhal W. Slotterfield responds to nature’s call and heads to the bathroom inside Cookie’s Palace Diner and realizes that an overlooked onion ring, one that has tumbled from his shirt and on to the floor, might serve as token of devotion and allow him to propose marriage to his darling Veronica.

Narwhal, a basketball referee and an enthusiastic philosopher of life’s big questions and its most obscure puzzles, returns to the dining room where Veronica is waiting.

Only to realize that time has stopped.

At first, Narwhal thinks it’s a joke. A good one. The coffee being dispensed from waitress Flo’s coffee pot is frozen mid-pour.

“The whole world was trapped in amber. But there was no amber.”

Narwhal is alone in a frozen world—and we readers are launched on a whirlwind, free-fall, madcap, blender-set-to-puree, mixed up, quirky, topsy-turvy adventure that ricochets around the eastern plains as Narwhal seizes the moment to perhaps settle a score with “Blad the Impaler,” a.k.a. Bradley Ludermeyer, who works for The Denver Broncos and whose duties include enforcing the appearance clause in the cheerleaders’ contracts.

Well, “Blad” has it coming in Narwhal’s mind. It has something to do with fakery and “the pooch kick” but really there’s no need to go into a whole lot of detail about what sends Narwhal on a crazy run from town to town through storms and harrowing situations, including a frozen tornado, the first of its kind in the history of recorded literature.

There are many things Narwhal can accomplish while the world is on pause—it turns out that the world is, in fact, moving but at an almost imperceptible rate—and more than a few opportunities will present themselves as he makes his way to Denver and back.

Along the way, we get ample doses of Narhwal’s family history and a healthy dollops of his thoughts and opinions about the thrills and challenges of working as a high school basketball referee, a job that allows him to put his thumb on the scale of victory when needed.

Narwhal: “Imagine a game between the Grateful Dead and the members of Motörhead. Imagine a sloth subletting a room from a beehive. Imagine Mad Max’s wife and toddler running away from an anarchic Australian motorcycle mob. Then bring me in to clear things up. I invent new infractions, like Over-Dribbling or Failure to Use a Pivot Foot.”

Zebra Skin Shirt, “A Strattford County Yarn,” is Jack Kerouac on amphetamines. It’s Proust on meth. It’s James Joyce on nitrous oxide. It’s Lewis Carroll after smoking a bowl of The Blue Dream. The tornado of thoughts inside Narwhal’s head is in full, high-speed rotation and it scoops us up for the ride. It’s occasionally crude, relentlessly brash, and endlessly entertaining. Narwhal passes up no opportunity to tell us what he thinks about how the world is put together all seen through the prism of a basketball referee with his personal sense of justice and fairness.

Zebra Skin Shirt is being published by Conundrum Press alongside reprints of Hill’s first two novels—East of Denver (winner of the Colorado Book Award for literary fiction and the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest) and The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles. 

The trilogy now comes with snazzy new psychedelic covers and the books are published under the “Strattford County” header. The package makes sense because Zebra Skin Shirt sends Narwhal smack into the vicinity of Jabez Millstone, ex-Korean War nurse with PTSD issues who played a major role in Johnny Riles, and it puts Narwhal into the middle of the bank robbery scene that played such a critical role in East of Denver.

It also makes sense because, well, every page of all three novels provides an opportunity see Hill’s lively imagination in full flight.

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Previously reviewed:

The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles

East of Denver

Donald Ray Pollock, “Devil All the Time”

A writer friend recommended The Devil All the Time as a compelling example of a novel that reveals the dichotomy of the human spirit.

About all I can say to that is “boy, howdy.”

This same writer friend also likes writer John Irving for his ability to write about perverse and tragic situations and yet still make the reader laugh. I wouldn’t put Donald Ray Pollock and John Irving in the same boat for writing style. Pollock writes his gritty, relentless scenes with a nail gun while Irving’s sprawling tales are splattered out with a shotgun that’s got a loose choke. I understand my friend’s point although I don’t remember too many howls of laughter from The Devil All the Time.

Um, hardly.

Good writers, my friend suggests, can give you characters who experience hope and love in the face of great pain and tragedy. Broken characters give us insight into the ability of one person to harbor contrasting elements of the human spirit.

Broken characters abound in The Devil All the Time. They start broken. They finish more broken. Violence abounds. The violence often comes without warning. It’s matter-of-fact. As my writer friend cautioned, you won’t necessarily like any of the characters. She was right about that.

There will be blood—and lots of it. The Devil All the Time reads a bit like Cormac McCarthy channeling Flannery O’Connor. That’s not a fresh opinion; Pollock has drawn many comparisons to O’Connor. There are also comparisons to Jim Thompson and the casual, shocking violence has a flair akin to the Fargo television series or a movie by Quentin Tarantino.

If your appetite for brutal murders can handle the body count, the story has a guttural tug that will pull you along despite the bleak landscape and bleak people doing miserable things to acquaintances and utter strangers.

Set in West Virginia and southern Ohio from the years after World War II through the early 1960’s, the novel is a series of intertwining stories focused on grim (need I say it?) characters.  There is World War II veteran Willard Russell who builds a prayer log in a quiet grove to pray for his dying wife. Russell begins a series of blood sacrifices to boost his fervent pleas to help. First, it’s wildlife creatures that are sacrificed and, soon, humans who have been whacked with a hammer.

There’s husband-and-wife Carl and Sandy who spend a few weeks every year picking up unsuspecting hitchhikers who are then sexually abused, mutilated, and killed while Carl takes pictures. They are prolific killers.

And then there’s a pair of bug-eating evangelists who are also killers and Lee (Carl’s brother-in-law) who is as crooked a cop as you might ever meet. Yes, there is one ray of hope in Willard’s son Arvin who is looking for an escape.

The people here scrape by. Punishment is old school and Old Testament. Food is a constant issue, a driving force. Reverend Sykes, when he takes to the pulpit, counts the congregation twice in hopes of a big number—the more money in the basket, the better chance he and his wife can eat something other than hardtack and “warbled squirrel.” The warble is the bald lump or swollen area under the skin of the squirrel (I had to look this up) and it’s from the larvae of a fly that has sought to make its home under the squirrel’s skin. That’s as good a metaphor as any for this novel—bugs and rodents trying to co-exist and using each other as needed.

When the church’s small choir (two man and three women) stand up to sing it’s no surprise that they sing “Sinner, You’d Better Be Ready.”

And the reader, too.

 

 

The Big Bargain

Death or Glory: thinking about the deals we make with life and the deals our characters make with their lives.

On the RMFW blog here.

Q & A #66 – Nick Arvin, “Mad Boy”

You won’t forget Mad Boy.

You won’t forget Henry Phipps, his wild adventures through the War of 1812, or Henry’s dead Mother, whose postmortem involvement in Henry’s actions and thinking is truly unique.

You also won’t forget Nick Arvin’s stellar way of storytelling.

You might, in fact, end up being more curious about that overlooked war and its three years of destruction and misery that included the gutting and burning of The White House.

Mad Boy is one of those books that declares its turf in such an unusual way and with such colorful characters that you know from the first few sentences that you’re in for a serious ride.

A full review follows this e-mail exchange with Nick. As you’ll see from Nick’s thoughtful answers, the origins of Mad Boy and some of the issues on Nick’s mind are as unusual as the story itself.

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Question: The War of 1812 was a big mess and it’s been said that Americans know so little about it because we lost. Maybe. At least, it was a draw—right? No territories changed hands.  What’s clear from reading Mad Boy is that the average citizen didn’t have much of a clue as to the purpose of the war and the ground-level view of events was quite chaotic. That war grew out of failed diplomacy, correct? “Madison’s steaming and Republican rabble,” as Henry’s father puts it. The war involved a squabble among leaders and not the people. Some have called that war perverse. What drew you to writing about that overlooked war and, I have to ask, were you saying anything about the disconnect today between “our” wars and soldiers out there fighting for vague purposes (say, Afghanistan after 17 years)?

Nick Arvin: Technically, the War of 1812 began over the issue of the impressment of sailors, which is a fairly uninspiring slogan to fight for.

I think part of the reason that the War of 1812 is “forgotten” is that it’s hard to distill its causes or consequences, who won or lost, down to a sound bite or a tweet. We remember the wars of clear purpose and outcome¾the War of Independence, the Civil War, and World War II¾and forget the others. I hate to say this, but if history is any guide, the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be largely forgotten by the general public, too, in a few generations (assuming that the latter eventually come to an end). The Korean War is already described as another “forgotten” war.

Before the War of 1812, there was a not-completely-unreasonable feeling that Britain was pushing the U.S. around, and they needed to be stood up to. But the Americans then declared war and began hostilities with an invasion of Canada, fully expecting to be greeted as liberators. So the “we’ll be greeted as liberators” idea is a tragic mistake that we’ve been repeating time and again for 200 years.

When the Canadians didn’t welcome us in a friendly manner, the war turned into a quagmire and a debacle. Within two years the American federal government was completely broke, and the northern states, who depended on Britain and Canada for trade, felt (not unreasonably) that the southern states had foisted a disastrous war on them. Many American soldiers were ill-equipped, unpaid, and poorly trained. It’s generally forgotten now that the northern states began to discuss seceding from the Union in 1814.

But America lucked out. Britain was never fully committed to the war (they were preoccupied with Napoleon), and when the Americans won the Battle of Baltimore, Britain agreed to settle for a return to more-or-less the status quo preceding the attempted invasion of Canada.

One aspect that is remarkable to me is that President Madison, who had orchestrated this war that accomplished basically nothing was able to spin it as a huge victory for American sovereignty, and did so with such success that it entrenched his political party, the Republicans, in power for years to come.

That was a long answer! You see how it won’t fit in a tweet.

Question: Much shorter second question: how did you settle on the Henry Phipps character and the centerpiece effort of giving her a proper burial all while he listens to her ongoing commentary despite the fact that she’s dead? Was he inspired by anyone particular person you ran across in research? And pickled and stored in a barrel? Did it happen?

Nick Arvin

Nick Arvin: First question last – none of it “happened,” as such. Henry, the pickle barrel, and his mother are story elements that I made up.

The origin of Mad Boy, and of the character of Henry (this also touches on your previous question) was in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad there was a significant amount of looting. Some American commentators at the time wondered what kind of people would engage in such behavior, destructive to their own neighbors and countrymen? This seemed silly to me; I thought, “I bet Americans did the same thing when the British invaded Washington during the War of 1812.” I did some research and found that, in fact, there had been Americans looting in Washington at that time. That research inspired me to write a short story about a boy in Washington during the invasion who becomes a looter. My agent read the story, and his comment was that it felt like a chapter from a novel.

Years later, I was working on a sci-fi novel, but it wasn’t coming together; I suspected it was too bloodless and over-intellectualized. And my son and I began listening to an audio book version of Treasure Island, and I fell in love with it. I thought that’s what I want to write an adventure story, a boy running around with muskets and cannon and buried treasure… And I thought of the story I’d written years earlier, set during the War of 1812. How had that boy come to be alone in Washington as it burned? And what had happened to him afterward? And those questions turned into Mad Boy.

Question: Okay, back to the war. Mad Boy deals with how black slaves had the choice of whether to fight for The British or fight alongside Americans, their oppressors. Was Radnor based on any individual story in particular and were you ever tempted to write extensively from Radnor’s point of view? The hundreds of Chesapeake Bay slaves who joined the British and marched on Washington D.C. against their former masters seems ripe for fiction (but maybe it’s already been done).

Nick Arvin: The role that slaves played in the War of 1812 was wholly new to me as I researched Mad Boy, and having learned of it, it seemed to me to be an absolutely essential element to any story about America in the period. I made up the specifics of Radnor’s story, based on elements from this and that, but it is true that many slaves escaped to fight with the British.

Mad Boy does actually go into Radnor’s point of view, but only briefly. I don’t know of a novel that focuses entirely on the slaves who joined the British during the War of 1812, but I hope someone will take it up. There’s a tremendous story to be told there.

Question: How much research did you do for this, Nick? How many books did you read? The detail is stunning—the little bits and details of clothing, food, medicine, weaponry along with the battles too. Was the research process similar to Articles of War or did you learn something from the work on that book that helped you with the background work in Mad Boy?

Nick Arvin: Well, I read all or parts of dozens of books, maybe about a hundred altogether, but who knows really, because I’m not terribly organized about it. I was looking for anything that had the detail of daily life in it, books of history, memoirs, letters, novels, period newspapers, maps, art. I visited the locations in the novel. I read some books cover to cover, but many more I would flip through, looking for things I could use, reading a chapter here or there, and then going to the bibliography for more books of interest.

I probably learned some things from Articles of War about what kind of details to look for, how to find them, and how use them in fiction, although I don’t know if I could articulate those lessons. The process feels pretty intuitive and organic.

After Articles of War, I hesitated for a long time to take on another work of historical fiction, because I have a day job and felt that it would be too time consuming to research and write. But when I finally dove in, it really went quickly. I found that the research fed the writing, so that the writing itself went more quickly than it would have if I were making all of it up out of my own head. It took three or four years, altogether.

Question: If one were further prompted by Mad Boy to want to read a few more books about the War of 1812, what three or four titles would you recommend?

Nick Arvin: If I can encourage people to read one book, it’s The Internal Enemy, by Alan Taylor, which won the Pulitzer in 2014 and is an incredible work of history. It deals with the role of slavery in the War of 1812 specifically and in America in general. Taylor is extremely lucid in describing how the institution of slavery was woven through America’s politics, economy, and culture, and the examination of the War of 1812 is illuminating because the war caused disruptions in that weave. I found it revelatory. Read it.

After that, to be honest, the literature of the War of 1812 is fairly thin. Amateurs, to Arms! by John Robert Elting is idiosyncratic but a pretty good survey of the military actions. The Perilous Fight, by Neil H. Swanson, is also a bit quirky and long out of print, but it has the best feel for the soldier on the ground that I could find. Swanson had a novelist’s eye for detail, and I stole his details whenever I could.

Diary of an Early American Boy, by Eric Sloane, isn’t about the War of 1812, but it is a wonderful illustrated book that gives many details of daily life in the period.

Question: Without giving too much away, it seems to me that many of the characters around Henry come and go. Mother, of course. Even after she’s dead she gets left behind and is then found again. Franklin, of course. Henry’s father is gone at first (in jail) and then found and then out of sight again. Suthers. Radnor. There are others, too.  And then there’s the less-than-smooth burial at sea. Is this just the chaos of war? Or were you trying to isolate Henry as much as possible to show us what he could handle? Or was it something else.

Nick Arvin: I just always thought of this book as a story about a boy who is thrown onto his own resources, and as an adventure story. It’s not much of an adventure if people are holding your hand along the way. Henry has people who love him–his mother, his father, and his brother–but due to their own circumstances and choices they cannot help him. So, he has to go it alone.

Question: The writing is so crisp and clean. I don’t really have a question here other than to offer you the chance to pass along tips and insights.

Nick Arvin: Two things that I found helpful. I thought a lot about the narrative structure of Jim Harrison’s novella, “Legends of the Fall,” which is a miracle of compaction and efficiency in storytelling.

And, secondly, I took a class on screenwriting. Before that class I thought I was a pretty efficient writer, but screenwriting is about truly distilling a story to its bare essentials, and I discovered that this was a whole new level of storytelling efficiency. It taught me a lot.

Question: Heck (from Articles of War) and Henry from Mad Boy. Youths at war. Did you think much about Heck while writing this? Do you see comparisons? Or did you while you were writing?

Nick Arvin: The biggest difference is the relationship to fear. Fear is a central feature and driving impulse of Articles of War, where Heck is often incapacitated by fear. In Mad Boy, on the other hand, Henry’s fear is almost always overridden by his other impulses.

To be fair to Heck, the nature of war was awful enough in 1812, but by 1944 the machinery of war was considerably more terrifying.

Question: The title. I have to ask about the title. Henry is mad, perhaps, in the crazy sense for many reasons including that he hears his mother’s ongoing commentary despite her status as dead. But he’s not angry. He chalks most of the events up to “ill fortune.” Can you tell us how you settled on the title?

Nick Arvin: You’re right that Henry isn’t driven by anger; he’s fundamentally humane and forgiving. But in the moment, when something unexpected happens, his instincts are often irritation or anger, and certainly kinetic. In my writing I tend to be drawn to characters who are more introspective, contemplative, likely to observe a situation before acting. The title Mad Boy came to me early, and it was a reminder to me that Henry was a boy who reacted viscerally to situations.

Question: What are you working on next?

Nick Arvin: I’ve been working for a while on a collection of stories, drawn from my career as an engineer, about engineers losing control of their lives. That’s still in progress. I’ve also begun doing some preliminary research for a novel that would be set on the Mississippi River in the 1820s or 18330s. We’ll see if it comes together.

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REVIEW:

Mad Boy is crazy good.

It’s wild, loose, free-flowing, funny, grim, and warm-hearted all at the same time. Mad Boy takes us to an unusual place, The War of 1812, and gives us this messy war through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, Henry Phipps. For one-fifth of Henry’s life (the last two years before this adventure starts) America has been at war with Britain, “mostly losing.”

We meet Henry angry; mad.

Sentence No. 3: “Someone has lied—the slave Radnor has lied to Henry, or someone has lied to Radnor: some liar has lied to someone a terrible lie.”

Which might just sum up this elusive, whacky conflict from U.S. military history, a war that continues to cause debate among historians (according to Wikipedia) over its ignition point. Wars are about something, right? Today, in 2018, we know that deception plays a role in kindling war (hello, Iraq; hello, Vietnam) but In The War of 1812 it could be tariffs on trade or British support for American Indians and their armed resistance to the expansion of the American Frontier. All we know today is it was a mess.  And a waste.

Henry is our eyewitness to the confusion. Henry is convinced that Radnor claim—that Henry’s brother Franklin is dead—can’t possibly be true. Franklin has been executed for desertion, the claim goes, but both Henry and his mother don’t believe that’s possible. Maybe they should all get themselves to Baltimore and reunite the family. Henry’s father is in debtors’ prison and maybe they can find Franklin along the way if he hasn’t, in fact, been shot.

“An hour later, the thing happens that is the worst thing.” And, in a moment: “A wide section of roof swings as if on a hinge, a huge strange shape slides through, bleating, and Mother disappears.”

Mother is dead. Yes, Mother is dead but she continues to speak and have conversations with Henry. And Mother still wants to go to Baltimore—or, more precisely, to be buried at sea. She won’t be buried in the “filthy swamp dirt” and tells Henry so. At least, that’s what Henry hears. After a brief encounter and scuffle with a couple of redcoats from a temporary encampment on the plantation where the Phipps make their home, Henry puts Mother in a barrel with pickle brine and starts dragging her toward the sea on a cart.

The only thing standing in Henry’s way is The War of 1812 and the resulting mayhem from citizens, soldiers, slaves, prostitutes, thieves, and anyone else who might yank Henry from his path, tempt him with a delay, or pull him into a questionable scheme. Mad Boy is episodic but episodes intertwine and interplay with each other in a neat braid. Among the characters is Franklin, who turns out to be very much alive; Franklin’s girlfriend Mary and their baby; plantation owner Jeremiah Suthers; a British soldier named Morley who switches sides to fight with the Americans ; the aforementioned Radnor who takes his chances with the redcoats; and Father, whose gambling has led to the family’s long decline. (And many others.)

The Phipps’ family long decline is tragic.  At the end, Father had sold a wheelbarrow and a musket for a small stake. But Father literally lost everything, including his hat and instead “bore upon his head a sort of floppy mat that he had woven out of cattail leaves.”  It’s in the face of such family financial misery that Franklin announces his intention to join the army for the fifty-dollar bounty, the eight dollar monthly salary and the potential for 160 acres at wars’ end. Before dying, it was Mother who stirred feelings of “national honor” in Franklin but Father takes a broad swipe at Franklin’s motives to fight.

“The national honor?” says Father. “Did the national honor give birth to your very enormous self? Will the national honor tend your hurts? Will the national honor be there when you are in a position of need? National honor! As useless as a rock in a field.”

Father lashes out at The Republicans for starting the war. “They said Canada would welcome our liberating army! The Southern Republican poltroons who’ve never in their lives met a Canadian. So we marched into Canada, and lo the Canadians smash us and slaughtered us and threw us out on our ears, and for good measure took our forts along the Lakes and roused the Indians against us, so that we have spent the last two years scrabbling to get back to even, never you mind conquering Canada. Because we’re led by steaming idiocy and the Republican rabble, promoting incompetent allies in the army, enriching their friends, spending the nation into fathomless debt, propelling our boys into a hell of death and illness and amputations.”

It’s into this “steaming idiocy” that Franklin runs. It’s into this war that Henry heads to find Franklin, to reconnect with his father, all carting Mother along in a pickle barrel. The White House burns. Fort McHenry is attacked.  The Battle of Bladensburg, a devastating setback for American forces, plays out.  Arvin doesn’t flinch from the misery on the gritty battlefields. Henry sees plenty of death—and of course is dragging his dead Mother along in the cart, occasionally letting others take a peek at her decomposing corpse.

Arvin’s writing is as crisp and cool as dawn at first frost. Fresh imagery abounds. “When the clouds go, they leave the atmosphere rinsed clean, and that night Henry traces the movements of bats by the flicker of stars that they cross before. He wakes in the darkest hour to find the light that takes the color out of the world, leaving only blacks and grays.”

Touching on issues from loyalty and looting to honor and ownership (both property and people), blacks and grays are everywhere in Mad Boy. Every-plucky and resourceful Henry Phipps is our ray of light in the wilderness.

Brisk, taut, colorful, inventive and lively, Nick Arvin drops us into the fog of war with a mad boy we will never forget and makes us think about the “steaming idiocy” of the present day and whether “some liar has lied to someone a terrible lie.” Mad Boy is killer stuff.

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Previously reviewed (and includes Q & A from 2012):

The Reconstructionist

 

Emily Fridlund, “History of Wolves”

I would say read History of Wolves for the first chapter. Or, make it as far as you can. Or, put your expectations on hold, perhaps, and just go with the flow of this novel, which prefers taking on issues from oblique angles.  At first, for the first few chapters in fact, I thought I was immersed in one of my favorite books of the year. History of Wolves was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2017 and Emily Fridlund pulls you in with her dazzling images and seductive rhythms.

The opening:

“It’s not that I never think about Paul. He comes to me occasionally before I’m fully aware, though I almost never remember what he said, or what I did or didn’t do to him.  In my mind, the kid just plops down into my lap. Boom. That’s how I know it’s him: there’s no interest in me, no hesitation. We’re sitting in the Nature Center on a late afternoon like any other, and his body moves automatically toward mine—not out of love or respect, but simply because he hasn’t yet learned the etiquette of minding where his body stops and another begins. He’s four; he’s got an owl puzzle to do, don’t talk to him. I don’t.”

We know on page two that Paul dies. “Before Paul, I’d known just one person who’d gone from living to dead.”  But then Paul comes fully alive for the a major chunk of the novel and we have long since forgotten this reference, though there are vague mentions of a trial now and then, a bit of a tease about the fact that there will be a wrong that society needs to right. Well, maybe.

There are two main storylines, although the one with four-year-old Paul dominates.  Paul and his mother Patra live across the lake, in an area of Minnesota known as “The Walleye Capital of the World.” Our narrator is quirky Linda. She is full of opinions. She sees big-picture stuff. “Winter collapsed on us this year. It knelt down, exhausted, and stayed.” And sees and hears details, too. “He bent down to brush stray needles from his slacks, and on impulse I thrust out a hand and brushed as well—swish, swish—against his thigh.”

Both stories involve Linda’a culpability and/or involvement. Could she have done more to save Paul? Should she have been more aware of Paul’s situation? The environment he was growing up in?

The first part of History of Wolves is called “Science” and the second is called “Health.” Anyone who grew up in Christian Science, as I did, will recognize the importance of those two words. One of the epigraphs is from Mary Baker Eddy and there are a few quotes a references to “C.S.” within the story, but the issue of healing through faith is not tackled head on. Well, it’s not tackled as directly as I might have preferred. (Fridlund’s acknowledgements reference Barry Lopez, Sigurd Olson, Helen Hoover and “Caroline Fraser’s excellent and harrowing book God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church, as well as two other titles that are clearly critical of the religion. Fridlund notes that Paul’s case is a “fictionalized composite” of many cases of children who were given no choice in whether they received medical care or not.)

So Linda could have, perhaps, done more or taken a savvier, more analytical approach to Paul’s home environment across the lake. But, what? It’s hard to believe any 14-year-old (even with the keen insights of Linda, who is really 15 by the time she’s considered Paul’s “governess”) would have done more to sound an alarm. Maybe? Maybe. Again, this issue is diffused and hard to grasp. Linda is also from an odd family that lives in the remnants of a former commune; was that a factor in how Linda views the world?

The other issue deals with Linda’s involvement with a history teacher who is being hounded by rumors and who is ultimately accused of pedophilia. Linda has encounters and a brief, PG-rated encounter with Mr. Grierson that she initiates. We keep wondering what has happened to Linda’s beautiful classmate Lily.

On the plus side, you have to hand it to Emily Fridlund for avoiding, at every turn, the obvious tropes. The references to a “trial” make you think History of Wolves will turn into something written by Scott Turow and the teases about the storyline with Mr. Grierson suggest the start of something tawdry or salacious or—but no. And that’s fine. I loved the structure in the sense that some of the useful backstory of Linda’s upbringing is dropped deep into the second half, giving readers a chance to piece the puzzle together in a non-linear fashion. History of Wolves skips back and forth in time with ease, all powered by Fridlund’s effortless style.

History of Wolves is worth reading. The awards suggest I’m in the minority, but I was expecting more a punch to go with all that gorgeous prose.

 

The Business of Patience

A Q & A with Keir Graff and Linda Joffe Hull (writing together as Linda Keir) about all the work* that went into their novel, The Swing of Things, due out in August from Lake Union Publishing. On the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog here.

 

*years and years, drafts and drafts….

Q & A #65 – Christine Carbo, “A Sharp Solitude”

It started three years ago with The Wild Inside. I was taken with the cover (it’s a winner) and, later, the story.

Next, Mortal Fall.

Last year, The Weight of  Night.

And now, A Sharp Solitude (released yesterday).

Christine Carbo’s Glacier Mystery Series is a “series,” yes. But don’t think in terms of episodic or linear. Certainly don’t think “repetitive.”

Carbo has selected a location (her 1,583-square-mile backyard, Glacier National Park, near her home in Whitefish, Montana) and used it to explore the human condition from a variety of perspectives.  Her novels are never about the obvious, surface subject. They are explorations of the human condition.

Of course there is wildlife and of course there is scenery, but Carbo is interested in the challenges of real human beings making their way in a very real world. She gives us three-dimensional characters—both women and men—who we get to know so well that we can feel their uncertainties and the personal struggles that make every day a challenge.

Don’t just take my word for it—check out the awards and reviews, including The New York Times, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and many more.

Christine has been on the blog before and again was kind enough to answer some questions—thoughtfully—via email. A full review of A Sharp Solitude follows.

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Question:  A Sharp Solitude touches on a variety of issues, but one particular (it seems to me) is Montana as a landscape for personal reinvention—particularly for Reeve Landon and in some ways for FBI agent Ali Paige. Is Montana one of those places where people go to find themselves or reinvent themselves? Was that one of the themes you wanted to dig into?

Christine Carbo: Yes, I do think Montana is one of those places. A romantic notion about the west persists, one that perhaps stems from manifest destiny, that we can solve our problems—mainly financial ones, but even psychological ones – with fresh air, the unfettered ruggedness of the wild and a nice inspiring view of the mountains. Our forefathers thought agriculture and mining could solve many of the nation’s problems of poverty and unemployment and that everything west of the Mississippi was ours for the taking. I think that attitude has persisted and extended to the individual’s psyche. There is a sense that the west is where one can go to escape or be free from the trappings of society, and this in turn, allows for re-invention of the self, and if not re-invention… escape. The saying “Go West, young man,” has deep roots in our culture. In my first book, The Wild Inside, I explored how a family wanting to move to the mountains could go tragically wrong once they relocated. In my second book, Mortal Fall, I explored how therapeutic schools out west have become popular for many families around the nation to send their children, thinking fresh air therapy will solve their teens’ development, maturity and addiction issues. In my third, The Weight of Night, a family from Ohio finds their son missing while camping in Glacier National Park during fire season, and realizes that the west is not always a fun, adventurous place. And yes, in my latest, A Sharp Solitude, I explore how past trauma can affect an individual and how that individual might reinvent oneself among the vast, unforgiving landscape where one can avoid the opinions of others by simply going into the woods. But ultimately, the woods are so much more than just a place for folks to be adventurous, more than just a haven for skiing, hiking, fishing and riding mountain bikes.

Question: The structure of A Sharp Solitude seems like it must have been tricky to execute—going from “present” Thursday and then “present” Friday to returning repeatedly to what really happened on “the day before,” Wednesday. It’s a clever technique—have you seen this approach elsewhere? Did you map all this out? Plan it?

Christine Carbo: I’m sure I have seen that kind of back and forth before, but I couldn’t tell you where. I am not a big out-liner in general and tend to go more by how it feels to me while writing and rereading, so no, I didn’t really map it out. It was, however, a purposeful approach, and not just an accident. And yes, it did pose a few problems for me in that I had never written that way before, so I found myself sometimes being repetitive and going over things that felt like they needed to be written but really didn’t. It was more a trick of my own mind since I was backing up in time and that gave me the sense that I needed to retrace. But retracing can be repetitive in writing, so I had to cut any material that ended up obvious or apparent because of a scene that takes place earlier that happens to be later on the timeline.

Question:  The tragic incident from Reeve’s youth—was that inspired by a certain incident? Did you set out to write about the middle ground in the national debate over guns and gun control?

Christine Carbo: Such a good question, but so difficult to answer. I’ve read about so many tragedies/accidents that have occurred around guns, and there were several that took place in Florida that spurred on the intense debates that occurred there in the 90’s which helped change Florida’s gun laws at the time so that negligent storage laws were enacted. In other words, parents could be held criminally liable for crimes committed with their firearm by children. The incident I wrote about was obviously fictional, but it was inspired by a conglomeration of a number of tragedies that I had read about. The tragic shooting in the school in Santa Fe has brought negligent storage laws back into the spotlight since the suspect used his father’s weapon. However, in Texas, the suspect’s father will probably be immune from prosecution under the law because Texas law defines a child as 16 or younger, and the suspect is 17.

But as far as the national gun debate, I wanted to be neutral about the topic for several reasons. The first was because the nation is so divided over the issue, approaching it politically in a fiction suspense novel felt as if it was out of place and too heavy-handed. The second reason is character. I live in a state where most residents own some form of a gun, and for my character not to understand that, when he has chosen to escape into the very rugged wilderness that propels most people in Montana to own one in the first place, did not seem realistic. I wanted Reeve to brush up against the concept of being in the wild without guns, but knowing full-well that most people he meets or comes across in his line of work would, indeed, not only be packing one, but would have very strong feelings about the issue. Yet Reeve has this emotional struggle to contend with and to do that, he finds that staying neutral on the topic is the only way for him to proceed—a form of emotional survival. Staying impartial about it is his coping mechanism, even if others believe it is a copout.

And I understand that as a writer, it might be considered that I’m copping out by having a character that wants to stay neutral when it’s absolutely tragic that Americans are so divided that even a commonsense approach and discussion on gun violence—things like enforcing waiting periods, closing gun show loopholes or banning weapons of war from our streets—cannot happen productively. I do have another character in the book who takes a stronger stance on the issue. I suppose in a way, I wanted Reeve to be on middle ground because some middle ground in our divided nation—not just on guns—might be essential if we want our democracy to not only thrive, but possibly survive. But it’s tough to say, and again, I’m really not trying to make political statements in my novels in the first place. I simply want to share my characters’ truths. I find the stories of young people involved in accidental shootings heart-breaking and worth exploring. And separate from the gun issue, I’m interested in how disasters that happen purely by accident can affect children or adults for their entire lives. I also dealt with this theme in The Weight of Night, how one child’s tragedy and trauma affected her family, her town, and of course, herself. Additionally, I knew someone when I was in high school who died by an accidental gunshot while on a hunting trip in Montana, and that has always stayed with me.

Question:  It seems like it must be kind of fun, in a way, to be able to draw on a whole ensemble of characters now for your series. It’s great to see characters like Gretchen Larson and Monty Harris turn up here, even if in bit roles. Did you start writing The Wild Inside (four books ago) with this idea in mind?

Christine Carbo: As a new writer who knew so little about the business, my first instinct was to get a book—one book—on the shelves. I set out to write a mystery and try my hardest to publish it. When that happened, I was jumping for joy. When the question, what’s next? came up from the publisher that wanted to buy The Wild Inside, I began to think about how to approach more novels. I felt that I had fully played out the character arc of my protagonist in The Wild Inside, and deliberately decided, à la Tana French in the Dublin Murder Mystery Series, that I would pluck a side character from the first book to continue with, a side-character from the second to inhabit the third, etc. It is a ton of fun for me because I’m always dealing with really fresh perspectives and problems of my main protagonist.

Question: I believe there are very few f-bombs in this book and one of them strikes me as a beauty—and it’s not even uttered aloud. It’s Ali’s internal observation and it draws attention to something Ali notices around her house and, of course, it’s wildlife. (In a way.) Ali’s observation at this point in the story is about the endless vigilance it takes to survive—something we find out later that is, in fact, true and helps solve the murder. Your books don’t use much profanity, despite the danger and tension. How do you approach profanity and was this particular deployment of this particular f-bomb a conscious decision?

Christine Carbo: Oh goodness. Ha ha. Love this question. Back in the days when I was green enough to read my Amazon reviews, I noticed that a reviewer gave me one star for The Wild Inside because of the profanity. The person hadn’t read beyond the first chapter, but gave the book the low rating anyway. She commented that she could not possibly read a book with an f-bomb in it. I was angry because I thought her comment was fine and fair enough on its own, but I figured she should have made the comment without rating the book (which is possible on Amazon) if she hadn’t actually read the book. Why not say, “this book wasn’t for me because I don’t like books with profanity, so I didn’t read it and cannot fairly rate it.” Of course, that was simply a lesson in letting go of obsessing about reviews that many of us authors have to go through. But, even though The Wild Inside did not actually have much profanity in it, I wonder if it subconsciously affected my writing. I am not against using swearwords if the characters and the situations call for it – after all, I am in the business of writing about crime and characters not inclined to worry about how they sound. Someone jacked up on meth is going to drop the f-bomb a lot. But, I also believe a little can go a long way. Ali is a pistol, and in The Weight of Night where she is first introduced as a side character, she comes across as gruff and doesn’t shy away from the f-bomb if she feels like using it. In A Sharp Solitude, I dialed her back a little, perhaps because I developed her situation as a mother in addition to being a professional FBI agent. But yes, that moment when she’s looking out the window, it just came to me that way. I’m glad you noticed it. I did want to call attention to that endless vigilance it takes to keep going – an attentiveness that is especially clear in a rugged and stark place like Montana.

Question: Where does solitude begin and loneliness start?

Christine Carbo: One of the things Reeve thinks near the end of A Sharp Solitude (I don’t think this will spoil anything) is that solitude isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He realizes that there might be a difference between being solitary and being lonely—that solitude implies health and inner peace. So, solitude becomes more achievable if you’re already connected to others in the first place. If you cut yourself off from other people—become unwilling to be receptive to others—solitude simply becomes loneliness, not peace, and it can play a role in a person’s destruction.

Question: How did you go about your research for all the police work, particularly the FBI in Montana and, a big issue in the book, how agencies interact?  

Christine Carbo: I was fortunate enough to find a former FBI agent who now lives in Portland to chat with me for a long time on the phone. He took the time to explain how resident agencies work, and he answered my many questions about the smaller details. For example, I wanted to know things like can Ali drive the FBI-issued vehicle with her daughter in it if she needs to swing her by school on the way to the office? It’s the little things that give veracity, so I was more interested in those types of details than in the big picture stuff. The overall workings were easy enough to find on the Internet.

Question: With four books out, I’m wondering what you’ve learned about the book business over the last few years? What advice would you give someone who is getting ready to publish for the first time—in terms of marketing and getting out there to promote your work and also in thinking about your career and how to manage it?

Christine Carbo: I think understanding the power of the writing community from the get-go is extremely helpful. Unless you have a huge push from your publishing company, most new authors have to do a ton of marketing, publicity and networking on their own. It’s very important to realize that there is a huge, inviting network of other authors, librarians, booksellers, and readers out there to become involved with. I have continuously been amazed at conferences how helpful and generous writers and readers are, so a big piece of the puzzle is taking advantage of this situation – not being shy, getting involved with various organizations, accepting help. Some writers are very talented at building huge platforms on social media, some purchase advertising, and some obtain the services of publicists. It’s all about passing the word along. All of these things can help, and it’s up to each writer to see how much time they are willing to spend on developing a social media presence and how much money they are willing to throw at marketing and publicity to supplement what their publishing company is already doing. For most authors, none of it ever feels like it’s enough, and what works for one author doesn’t necessarily work for another. So… first and foremost, enjoy that you’ve made it as far as you have, keep showing up because it’s your dream to write, and keep writing no matter what disappointments or successes materialize for you.

Question: What’s next?

Christine Carbo: I’m currently working on a novel about a Glacier National Park police officer who used to work as a death row mitigation specialist—Q & Qa job that involves researching, understanding and interpreting the dark case histories of criminals destined for death row to present recommendations to judges and jurors with the goal of mitigating their sentences. The crime my protagonist inspects forces her to confront an old case she has tried very hard to put behind her.

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Christine Carbo’s website.

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REVIEW:

Ali Paige and Reeve Landon have one key thing in common.

“We both seemed to be followed by a certain darkness like a stray dog you can’t convince to go away. It was as if we were always reminding each other that people never completely rid themselves of lonesomeness even in the company of a partner,” Ali tells us in A Sharp Solitude, the fourth entry in Christine Carbo’s Glacier Mystery Series.

Both Ali and Reeve, in fact, are haunted by that “certain darkness” and that is among the reasons they are no longer together.

Ali is an FBI investigator. Reeve, father of Ali’s child, works for the University of Montana’s detection-canine program. He’s most comfortable in the woods, alone, doing conservation and biological research. Reeve, we learn immediately, accidentally shot a friend when he was nine years old. Ali’s “certain darkness” is less tied to a specific moment in time and more from being witness to general family dysfunction and a violent father when she was young.

Reeve and Ali’s relationship is amicable, but no longer romantic. They are alone together. Their orbits rarely cross except to manage logistics around visits with the daughter, Emily.

But after reporter Anne Marie Johnson turns up dead outside a cabin she’s borrowing and since her murder follows a day that she spent with Reeve, watching him work with his energetic dog McKay, Reeve is quickly arrested. His only alibi is a furry chocolate lab. So who is he going to call?

Ali is keenly aware of the nature of Reeve’s “certain darkness” but she also knows he’s no killer—no matter the circumstantial evidence that points one big finger of guilt at her ex. As a seasoned FBI investigator, Ali also knows that her previous entanglement with Reeve means an obvious conflict of interest and she knows she needs to keep her mitts off the case.  Very few people in Ali’s circles are even aware that Reeve is Emily’s father.

But Ali also knows the power of false accusations and, well, she can’t help herself. And if she just helps out a little, tries to steer things the right way and ask a few gentle questions, what’s the harm? This tension between Ali’s natural investigative instincts and her yearning need to “help” lend this novel a special flavor, especially after her status is exposed.

A Sharp Solitude is the latest in Carbo’s character-driven series and, as with the previous three, she has a new character on center stage. Ali Paige was a minor character in No. 3, The Weight of Night, while Gretchen Larson and Monty Harris (the stars of No. 3) are relegated to brief cameos here (and readers of the full series enjoy a smile when they appear).

Yes, character-driven. But do not for a second take that as code for “slow.” Thoughtful? Yes. Rich? Yes. Slow? Hardly.

Carbo flashes through quick, punchy chapters with a neat structure—alternating first-person points of view that stagger back and forth in time.  We start in the present, a Thursday, with Ali and then go to “The Day Before” with Reeve.  Back and forth we go until Reeve catches up to Thursday and then we get another glimpse of Wednesday and Ali lurches ahead to Friday and finally Reeve catches up as well.  Carbo plays absolutely fair with the reader—you never feel cheated and over-manipulated (in fact, not at all). It’s quite the plotting feat and gives A Sharp Solitude a feeling of looming dread. The whole book takes place in a week.

Like the others before it, A Sharp Solitude is always about much more than the surface issues. The surface is a starting point. The investigation is nifty, the clues are fresh, and the final solution plays right to key themes of solitude, loneliness, and self-awareness (a common denominator for all of Carbo’s troubled characters).

Reeve and Ali are distinct humans with their own, specific woes. But each draws strength from the great outdoors.  “I can feel the timelessness out here,” thinks Reeve, “the sense of eternity mocking me, pointing out my futile efforts to move through it each day, all day, to gather DNA, to survive myself. It’s a terrible feeling, as if the massive, unforgiving wild is snickering at my uselessness.” Even in the wild, when you can climb up to a high peak and see for hundreds of miles, it’s possible to overlook something right at your feet.

A Sharp Solitude is another stellar entry in a series rich with layers and an ever-expanding ensemble of memorable characters. Given the vast landscape and the endless variety of troubled individuals to write about, we can only hope that Christine Carbo has a long, long way to go with this compelling series.

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PREVIOUSLY REVIEWED:

The Wild Inside

 

 

 

Mortal Fall

 

 

 

The Weight of  Night