Grant Tracey is the featured reader at the November Final Thursday Reading Series, which happens one week early on November 21, due to Thanksgiving. Grant is the author of the Hayden Fuller Mystery Series, which includes the books Cheap Amusements, A Fourth Face and the forthcoming Neon Kiss. 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.
Can you share a bit of your writing process for the recent book?
GRANT TRACEY: The first two drafts of Neon Kiss were written by hand. My mind works differently when I put pen to paper. I don’t chase the narrative as much; instead I develop the characters, context, and situation. Mood resonates. Even with final revisions I have to work off computer printouts to really see the story, to really feel and live it.
What led you to write it?
GT: I enjoy writing an ongoing series. Each novel is self-contained, but there’s a larger character arc, involving Hayden and his girlfriend Stana and Hayden and his father Ira, that closes out with the fourth book, Shot, Reverse-Shot (which I wrote on sabbatical last spring and I will be substantially revising this summer). I guess I’ve always liked serialized stories, and that’s part of the fun of a series like this, seeing how the characters evolve across the various adventures and challenges they take on. How are they constantly re-defining themselves?
I also really like mysteries, hardboiled detective stories, and since I was seventeen, I’ve been writing them. There’s something about a figure who is both inside and outside the law that’s fascinating to track. Hayden sports a 1950s buzzcut, but he has a 1960s liberal outlook, valuing people and believing in collective responsibility.
But aside from all this serious-minded stuff, I want to tell crackling stories that entertain. I know I’m writing in part for other writers, but I get the biggest kick when I hear folks at Bob’s Guitars have read my books and dig them.
What are you most hoping readers will gain from reading your books?
GT: Hardboiled detective stories are more than just entertainments. Yes, the best stories are wonderfully told yarns, but they also say something about love and loss and pain. My hero was a victim of child abuse and that’s something he carries with him, and over the course of these four books he learns to forgive about himself. There’s a perception that the hardboiled tradition is rich in sexual prurience, pornographic violence, sadism, and sexism. That’s not why I read the genre, and that’s not what I’m about.
What writers inspired you?
GT: Favorite writers? Raymond Chandler. He was a master of interiority; mood, and presenting us with a lead character who is a tarnished knight who empathizes with those he encounters. Chandler’s prose is literary and lyrical, rich in similes and psychological nuance.
Mickey Spillane. He always said he wrote thrillers not whodunits. I love the energy of his two-fisted prose and the shock endings to his books. They’re a cathartic rush. For some critics, Spillane is an American primitive; for me, he’s just a great storyteller.
Ed McBain. Inspired by the documentary realism of Jack Webb’s Dragnet, McBain took the police procedural to new levels of crime writing, humanizing the detectives of his 87th Precinct, and opening his narratives up to the lives of the criminals too. His stories have incredible pacing. And they’re smart.
Jim Thompson. His characters are unreliable and nuts. Reading Thompson is like hanging out with a bunch of alcoholics: the day starts off slightly slant; by late afternoon the characters are irrational, full of mood swings; and by late evening they’re violent and deadly, and there may be a body in the kitchen. Savage Night, The Getaway, and A Hell of a Woman are tour-de-forces.
You’re a citizen of Canada. How does this impact your writing?
GT: Well, I love hockey which goes without saying, and in the latest Fuller novel, Hayden’s back in the NHL, playing for, of all teams, the bleu-blanc-rouge of the Canadiens. I’m a Torontonian, so having my hero play for Montreal is, well, it just is.
Anyway, on a serious note, I may be a Canadian citizen, but I love the US and I love Iowa, and every day of my life I live in a space of double-ness, here and there, drawing connections, comparisons. My Fuller novels all set between 1965-1966, and the Canada I’m writing about is the Canada of my childhood, not the Canada of today, so even in my fiction I live in that double space, between past and present. It’s a place I’ve kind of grown accustomed to. I guess in that way, I’m like Hayden: I’m a retro guy who loves 1950s porkpie hats, short hair, and blue jeans; but I’m also a product of the 1960s, someone who cares about social justice and change. Hayden is me, but I’m not him.
—Interview conducted by Joshua Baird