William Kent Krueger, “This Tender Land”

Epic. Soulful. Sweeping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Who are your inspirations as writers?

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

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

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

Thank you for these great questions, Mark!

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Katayoun Medhat’s website here.

Previously Reviewed:

The Quality of Mercy

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orchestra Luna. Chet is in the beret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berkeley Noir

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

 

 

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

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

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

She was right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Favorite writers?

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

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

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

Question:  Do you write songs, too?

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

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

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

Question: What’s next?

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

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More: Ted O’Connell’s website

Santa Fe Writers Project