Q & A #58 – Keir Graff & James Grady, “Montana Noir”

You could make a life reading project out of the Akashic Books “noir” series. You might soon need a sturdier shelf.  By my count, there are 90 titles now.  Multiply times 12 or 14 stories per book and you’ve got your work cut out for you – 1,000 stories at the ready, all with that elusive “noir” vibe, however you might define it.

Is “noir” an urban thing? I always thought so. You know, dark alleys and late nights. You need a curb to fall from and a gutter to fall into, right? Akashic long ago proved its point with this specific issue, bringing noir to Cape Cod (as one example) but the vast majority of the series focus on hardscapes with ample room for shadows and darkness, from Stockholm to Singapore, Dallas to D.C.

Well, it gets dark in Montana, too. And there are people there, too.

But I wasn’t too worried about picking up Montana Noir (being published today), which includes well-established writers in the mix and Keir Graff and James Grady at the helm. A full review follows.

First, Graff and Grady were kind enough to answer a few questions by email about the project.

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Question: Montana gets bragging rights, as you point out in the introduction to Montana Noir, for once being the home of Dashiell Hammett. But did you think of Montana as a likely locale for “noir” fiction before starting this project?

JAMES: Montana, like all of America, is infused with noir, and that’s especially true for a guy like me who grew up in Shelby during its rough and tumble Fifties and Sixties when the shadow of Hammett’s Butte darkened the town, along with Shelby’s own noir elements, like the two-story “protected” pink brothel on the north edge of town.

KEIR: My first influences as a crime-fiction writer were the novels of James Crumley, which depicted a side of my hometown Missoula I didn’t think I had seen—until I realized I had. My very free-range upbringing included discovering hobo camps by the river, encounters with hostile junkyard owners, and even a brief period of selling things my friend and I liberated from old railroad shacks to a pawn shop owner of dubious principles. Cruising the drag in high school, I once saw from a distance the severed head of a drifter who decided to end it all by laying down on the tracks. Since I left Montana, I think I’ve always been somewhat offended by people who assume it’s all snowy peaks and golden prairies. Desperation lives everywhere.

Question: The Akashic Noir Series is truly an impressive effort, to my way of thinking, and has provided a great platform to so many established and new writers. Can you tell us more about the process of how you found the 14 stories in Montana Noir? How wide a net did you cast? How many stories were in your pool before starting to whittle down to this group?

JAMES: Akashic’s noir franchise is designed to spotlight novice and mid-list authors, so we made a point of approaching the best mix of writers we could find.

KEIR: You can’t throw a rock in some parts of Montana without hitting a good writer, so choosing such a short list felt near impossible. But with geographic and cultural diversity in mind, we set about looking for the best mix, as Jim puts it, rather than worrying about the “best.” Once we had a group we felt could represent our vision of Montana Noir, we gave them a general idea of what we were hoping for and left them to it. If Akashic wants more volumes, there’s more than enough material . . . and more than enough great writers to write it.

Question: Okay, this is more than one question. Can you tell how you managed to pull in such a legend as Thomas McGuane? Did you ask James Lee Burke if he would contribute? And, you mention James Crumley (one of my favorite writers) in the introduction. Did you poke around to find out if he left behind a short story that might have fit in the collection? Were there any writers you wanted to include but couldn’t make it work for one reason or another?

James Grady (left) and Keir Graff check to make sure the stories cover the entire state of Montana.

KEIR: Our original plan for the book was to include short excerpts from classic works by Montana writers or set in Montana: Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, Dorothy Johnson’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues, and more. Even though it doesn’t fit their series format, Akashic OK’d it—but after countless hours chasing down rights and permissions, we had to abandon the idea. While a couple of rights holders (such as A. B. Guthrie’s family) generously offered free use of the words we wanted, the total fees were more than the modest payment Jim and I are taking home for our work.

JAMES: Tom McGuane is a great guy whose love of literature and Montana made him want to be a part of this project when we asked, and while we worked with Crumley’s widow, we couldn’t find any new prose by him for the book.

KEIR: There were some very fine authors who told us they just didn’t have time to contribute.

Question: Is ‘noir’ something you know when you read it? Were there certain ‘noir’ criteria you applied as you evaluated each story?

KEIR: People have different definitions of noir. Some believe noir stories can’t have happy endings, while others disagree. We didn’t want to advance a definition or apply a litmus test—and the variety of stories reflects that, I think. I’ll offer this passage from our introduction: “Noir is struggle. It’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. It’s being trapped. It’s hubris. It’s being defeated yet going on. Sometimes it’s being defeated and not going on.”

JAMES: All our stories had to be about real Montanans facing real challenges as seen and told through a noir lens.

Question: Did you start out with the idea of ensuring that your stories represented all regions of the state? How did you settle on the ‘road trip’ (your words) approach?

JAMES: Like the diversity of authors, representing all regions of the state was part of the mandatory rules for Akashic’s franchise.

KEIR: And to really know Montana, you have to drive its miles of highway–hence the “road trip” concept. Jim and I got really excited when we were sequencing the stories and looking at the map and we suddenly thought: what if you could place all these stories in one, big, driveable loop? For several reasons, we couldn’t pull that off exactly. But we came close.

Question: What was the most surprising thing, to you, about watching these stories come together, about seeing your state described through a fictional, noir lens? Were you surprised at how ‘noir’ it turned out?

JAMES: I think what surprised us the most is how different all the stories are, the wide range of plots and characters.

KEIR: I agree. The sheer range of characters and situations was something we couldn’t have predicted.

Question: What’s the most noir thing each of you has written? And what is in each of your pipelines for new books coming out?

JAMES: Noir swirls through most of my novels and short stories, and picking one as the most? Hard to say, though maybe River of Darkness–now out as an ebook with the better title of Nature of the Game–set in the secret spy history of the Baby Boomers from Vietnam to Iran/Contra is the most noir of all my novels. Right now, I’m hard at work on a crime/noir novel called Empire Builder, set on the train that roars across the top of the state, through my Shelby, and cuts through the heart of America’s current noir daze.

KEIR: My novels for middle-graders? Just kidding. My most noir book is probably first novel, written under a pen name, about an alcoholic English teacher who fails to solve the mystery of a dead cheerleader. It’s also my least accomplished book, so instead I’ll say it’s my first book under my own name: My Fellow Americans.  That one’s about a Lebanese-American copy editor and amateur photographer who becomes a victim of extraordinary rendition and waterboarding because he happens to photograph the wrong building at the wrong time.

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James Grady’s website

Keir Graff’s website

Earlier review of Brussels Noir for The New York Journal of BOoks

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REVIEW:

Montana Noir reveals that even Big Sky Country works just fine as a landscape for downbeats and deadbeats, cynics and gamblers, posers and schemers. This is a diverse collection with many hits. I’m going to touch only on a few.

David Abrams (Fobbit, Brave Deeds) starts things off with a cracking yarn in “Red, White and Butte.” The opening line sets the mood: “Marlowe was a dead and that was fine by me.”

Marlowe, it turns out, “lay in pieces in a coffin” waiting for his hero’s welcome parade and related festivities. “Next to Evel Knievel Days, everyone said it would be the highlight of Butte’s summer.” Marlowe isn’t the only one who is dead—or even badly wounded. Many of the scars in Montana Noir are found on human skin. But Montana soil bears its share as well. In Abrams’ story, Butte’s Berkeley Pit is the environmental wound. “The gouge of earth glowed orange in the late light. It was the oozing wound of the city, both its pride and shame.” The pit was abandoned and “the pit began to fill with water laced with arsenic, sulfuric acid, and eleven other essential vitamins and minerals.” Abrams’ narrator knows secrets about Marlowe’s alleged reputation. He also knows how to follow a “skunky smell” and how to get what he wants. Or, at least, to try.

Eric Heidle’s “Ace in the Hole” starts with a guy named Chance getting off a Greyhound bus in Great Falls. He hits a bar for a drink and tastes the whiskey, “a first delicious violation of parole.”  Chance goes to a bar in a motel with indoor pool and a mermaid. “Her metallic tail chased behind, drawing gorgeous curlicues with each wondrous pelvic kick.” The sight is about as much pleasure as Chance is going to experience. Being out of prison is not the end of Chance’s troubles. There are debts to pay and car batteries aren’t the only thing that die. Again, industry’s legacy plays a role. Chance contemplates the giant smelter where he was grandfather had worked “as a blacksmith in the war, forging one link in a great chain bringing bright nuggets of copper from the bleeding earth of Butte to Nazi brainpans in France.”  Yikes. What a grim line in a great story.

I nearly emptied a pen underlining all the great lines in Janet Skeslien Charles’ “Fireweed.” I read it twice, waited a week, and read it again. Charles’ style is poetic, brisk, and unique. It’s hard to pick one passage, but here goes:

“”We survey our land, we survey our life. We hear what you won’t say. Nothing escapes us. Nothing escapes. If you were born here, you will die here. I think of the stranger. Even if you weren’t born here, you’ll die here. We know everything. We know that Nancy Mallard loves her horses more than her husband John Junior. We figure her brother Davey might be gay. We know the hospital administrator resigned because he got caught embezzling. (He’s not from here.) Knowledge moves through us, around us, with us, against us. So why don’t we know who killed the stranger?”

A man is dead, our narrator tell us. “There has to be a reason.” And it’s clear the killer is local. As a result, solving the murder matters more. Suspects abound. Charles’ story shifts from first person to third. She speaks for the collective “we” (the town) and, at times, the narrator speaks for herself.  We’re in “farm country” somewhere up near the Canadian border. To repeat, “nothing escapes us.” Even simple –and deadly—misunderstandings.

And then there’s “Motherlode” by Thomas McGuane. Another one to read and ponder. It’s so matter-of-factly slice-of-life that it could have grown out of the Scobey Clay Loam (it’s the unofficial “state soil”). To me, one of McGuane’s signature styles is the ease with which he gets a story up and running. “Motherlode” is no exception. McGuane has a way of not trying too hard. He also sees (or hears or smells) unusual details, like gloppy dressing dripping off a leaf from the salad.

David Jenkins is a traveling cattle geneticist who is forced at gunpoint into a wild detour by a guy named Ray who needs a ride to go meet a woman named Morsel, a woman he met online with an overblown claim about his work. Dave is impressed with the success of the con man who has kidnapped him, in a way, and soon Dave is calculating new possibilities and adjusting his dreams. Brilliant, vivid, compelling.

It’s probably sucking up to laud the stories of James Grady (Six Days of the Condor) and Keir Graff (The Price of Liberty) but both “The Road You Take” and “Red Skies Of Montana” are among the highlights in this volume. Both feature good people searching for new directions. Both feature characters searching for their true identity and their true spot in the world in the face of darker choices. And both leave us hanging with the next moment perfectly in question.

Yes, Montana. Yes, Noir. Cynicism, fatalism, moral ambiguity—Montana Noir offers a big old bucket of the stuff, arsenic and acid and blood dripping from the bucket. Noir isn’t confined to a place. It’s a state of being. It follows humanity wherever humanity wanders. And Montana Noir gives the genre more definition.

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