Friday, 14 September 2018

Grant Tracey Book Release at FTRS

Grant Tracey takes the stage for a a book release reading at the Final Thursday Reading Series on September 27 at the Hearst Center for the Arts (open mic @ 7:15; Grant Tracey @ 8:00). Tracey will be launching A Fourth Face, his second book in the Hayden Fuller series of detective novels published by Twelve Winters Press. Tracey is also Fiction Editor at the North American Review and a Professor of English in the Department of Languages & Literatures at the University of Northern Iowa. 

One thing that really comes through in A Fourth Face is your love of the language of the hard-boiled detective genre. Can you talk about what drew you to the genre and what writers of detective fiction inspired you?
GRANT TRACEY: In high school I read Dashiell Hammett, inspired by his politics and Jason Robards's portrayal of him in Julia.  I liked his clipped style (it was Hemingway-esque almost before Hemingway) and the Continental Op detective. Red Harvest was a fast-paced violent novel, and I found myself really drawn into it. It was the first book I read and then had to immediately re-read. It just had an energy to it. A dark vibe. And I've always liked film noir and Hammett wrote crime noir. I was drawn to the cynicism, I guess. But it was when I read Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely) that the genre really came alive for me. He had a lush, romantic sensibility mixed with a sardonic toughness. I liked the mood, the subtexts. Later, I read Mickey Spillane and I was blown away. My teachers all dismissed him as a fascist, but I liked the unapologetic way he wrote, the passion in every sentence. He was like a prose comic book writer. And I love comic books. Today, one of my favorite crime writers is Jim Thompson. Nobody wrote like him. He's jazz punk.

What about your writing breaks with some of the contentions or standard styles of the genre?
GT: I guess the thing that distinguishes my writing from many of the other writers listed here is that I invest in half-scenes, summary mode, and free-indirect discourse. PD James was an awesome story teller. She tells stories. Doesn't show them as much. I have scene work, but I like slipping into dialogue that isn't direct but summarized or free and indirect because it creates uncertainty and the landscape of a mystery novel should be full of uncertainty. So I freely move among these modes. Did the detective just say that or think that? Oh, someone's responding, so he must have said that, but did he really say that or is the author giving us an approximation? I like that. It's kind of my jam.

I know about your love of hockey, and you’ve written about the sport in some of your literary works like 
GT: Hayden is a guy who lives on the cusp. He's a retro, a throwback, a buzzcut guy in an era that's changing (the permissive society). Hayden is a liberal. He believes in social justice, helping folks attain the dream and making sure everyone is given a fair shake. And as a Jew, he has experienced anti-semitism and injustice, so issued of fairness or unfairness are very real to him. He believes in people. But, when it comes to sex, he's a square. That's why I set the stories when I did. He's a 1950s cat in a 1960s world, and he's navigating his place between the two.

Though Hayden Fuller is clearly a tough guy who can take care of himself, it also becomes clear in the book that he’s a character who has been wounded, psychologically. How are those two things related?
GT: I think the detective novels I like are pyrrhic.The detective dies a little bit in solving the case. It's certainly the case in all of Chandler. Spillane's hero, Mike Hammer, I think unbeknownst to the author, suffers from PTSD; what he experienced in the South Pacific during WWII. So yeah, I was drawn to that aspect of the genre and wanted to take it a step further with the reveal in this book.

There have been times when detective fiction, as a genre, has been criticized for its gender politics. There are aspects of A Fourth Face that felt like they consciously pushed back against misogyny, while at the same time recognizing the fact of violence against women, and I was wondering how much of that just happened in the writing and how much was intentional.
GT: I was very aware of it and am trying in my writing to complicate this issue. After the first novel, the character of Stana came across for some as a femme fatale. But that was never my intention. She made a bad choice. She's not a spider-woman. So, in the next two books, I'm working to ask some readers to re-evaluate her. Summarizing a character around a single truth is too easy. Stana is many truths, and I wanted to show how complicated friendships and romance can be. Hayden is still drawn to her and they might just be good for each other. Also, the end of A Fourth Face (no spoilers here) attempts to reconfigure or deconstruct the usual bondage scene, such as where a naked or nearly naked Velda is rescued by Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Ed McBain's Doll and what Steve Carella goes through in that mid-sixties classic 87th Precinct novel was a bit of an inspiration for me.

I’d like to be able to ask a good question about the ending of A Fourth Face without giving anything away, but I don’t think I can say much more than “wow, that was an ending!” So, in general, when you’re writing in a genre like this that involves complicated plotting, how much do you need to know about where the narrative is going to end up, and how much do you discover along the way?
GT: I have a blue print plot (who did what and why) before I start writing, but it changes dramatically once I get rolling. Two-thirds of the way through this novel, I saw the ending, but I didn't know who all would be in the scene. And when I got to the ending (involving water), I went through the wall to another level that totally surprised me. Sorry to be vague, but I don't want to give things away. Something did happen when I wrote that final scene that just grabbed me and shocked me. But really, as I write these books, I'm just trying to survive the scene I'm in and allow that to take me to the next scene. Often I discover what scene is happening next by following the impulses of the current scene I'm writing.

-- Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin

Thursday, 12 July 2018

An Interview with Jocelyn Cullity

Jocelyn Cullity kicks off the 2018-19 season of the Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts on August 30 (open mic at 7:15; Jocelyn Cullity at 8). Cullity directs the creative writing B.F.A. program at Truman State University, and she is the author of the new novel, Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons (Inanna Publications), a novel set in 1857 Luckow, India that Jay Parini calls “redolent of Indian life, its tastes and smells, its colors and textures.” In the following interview, Cullity talks about the process of writing this historical novel.

You write that your great-great-great aunt’s diary helped to inspire Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons. Can you discuss how you worked with the material from that original source to craft fiction?
JOCELYN CULLITY: Because of her diary, I was initially interested in a British character based on my great-great-great aunt. However, as I was working on early drafts, I realized that the character who seemed to be more central to the novel was Amah. Amah is based on the little-known fact that African women were a part of the (Indian) royal family’s “Rose Platoon” in Lucknow, India. She is drawn largely from my imagination. The diary, however, continued to give me insight into the events that occurred during the rebellion against English rule.

Historical fiction poses some unique challenges for a writer. What did you do to get into the mindset and to capture the language of characters whose experiences are so different from your own?
JC: I read no history later than 1858 for six years. Kind of crazy! But I wanted to get into the mindset of people living at that time as much as I could.  I found and read as many primary documents as I could about life in Lucknow between 1856-1858. I posted on the walls of my study all the sensory details I read about, along with anecdotes about people living in the city at that time. Two amazing historians helped a lot — Rosie Llewellyn-Jones and Abdul Haliim Sharar. Sharar lived in Lucknow around the time I was writing about, and he wrote down everything he could about customs, clothes, food, you name it, he recorded it. He made it clear to me that Lakhnavis in general were light-hearted, courteous, and deeply generous. I grew to love them very much.

The world of Lucknow that you present was such a richly diverse place, in terms of its inhabitants, its culture and its food. Was that something you discovered in your research and was it a surprise to you?
JC: It was so richly diverse and the more I researched, the more it seemed to me that that was entirely central to the city’s character. King Wajid ‘Ali Shah was largely responsible for the city’s makeup of people from all over India, from Europe, and from East Africa. He loved all sorts of art, music, theater, architecture —` and the city illustrated this. He was a Muslim but, from what I understand, he welcomed many different religions — which is something you find so often in India today, too. He was greatly misunderstood by the English, and greatly cheated by them.
The title character of the book, Amah, is fascinating. She is of East African ancestry, yet she plays a respected role as one of the Rose Platoon, an all-female group of royal bodyguards. How did you decide to make her your protagonist?
JC: The women of the Rose Platoon literally fought against the English, and joined Begam Hazrat Mahal, the African who led the revolt against the English — and there are so very, very few references to these women in the multiple textbooks on the subject that it became suddenly obvious to me that this had to be their story. I found it and continue to find it incredulous that they are absent from so many historical accounts when they were at the very center of the uprising against English rule. One really can’t help thinking that sexism and racism, as well as colonialism, must have had something to do with their significant absence from the English histories on 1857 Lucknow.

There was a moment about midway through the book that really caught my attention (and which I think I can ask about without revealing any spoilers). You write “The big gun above them rules the world like the English rule the world, like Red Man rules, like the Kotwal rules—like the hangman rules. The big gun watches. It tells the crowd to be afraid.” This is a novel that wrestles with questions about power and legitimacy. What does it ask readers to think about the process of colonialism?
JC: Of course many people have written about colonialism, about power and legitimacy. I hope that my book, like others, might remind people that because of the process of colonialism there is so much that we don’t know about the people who are being colonized — that we too often only get a colonizer’s story of a place and its people. I hope this book helps readers to reflect on our own lives today, too. What does the general public in the U.S. know about the people who live in countries like Iraq or Vietnam or other countries where the United States has been involved in conflict? What do we really know about the stories of those places from the point of view of the people who actually live there?

I appreciated the role of food in this book as well, particularly the insistence that even in the midst of turmoil and battles, people need to eat, and there is a wide array of food mentioned in the course of the novel. Was that something you consciously aimed to do or did it just turn out that way?
JC: Sharar (the man from Lucknow who I referred to earlier) wrote down tons of amazing details about what people ate and for what occasions they might eat a particular food. I did consciously aim for food to be a strong part of the setting because really good food and the art of putting on a great meal was clearly extremely important to Lucknow’s royal family — and it was also something that the English scorned the royal family for. The English liked to call the royal family decadent, for instance, because they liked to produce a lot of sugary delicacies. The research often made me hungry!

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