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 Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe, so I get why Hayden Fuller is a former hockey player, but I was intrigued about why this series is set in mid-1960s Toronto, which you are too young to have had be a formative part of your life.
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