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Jess Walter and Thomas Mullen on Character, Crime, Class, and the Whole Genre Thing

Oct 08, 2010 in Books, Mulholland Authors

Jess Walter writes about cops and feds, hapless realtors and laid-off journalists, poets and hit men. The protagonists of his three most recent novels are a mob informer living under Witness Protection and obsessed with his new voter registration card (Citizen Vince, winner of the Edgar Award), an NYPD survivor of 9/11 with a memory problem who gets mixed up in a shadowy intelligence organization (The Zero, nominated for the National Book Award), and a struggling journalist-poet who starts dealing pot to save his mortgage (The Financial Lives of the Poets, which was showered with acclaim last fall and was just issued in paperback).

I’ve never met Jess, but we’ve traded a few e-mails over the years, starting with the day I finished reading The Zero and was compelled to send him an electronic high-five immediately. Since his work seems to straddle the nefarious and hard-to-place (and some would say nonexistent) border between literary fiction and crime fiction, suspense and humor, genre and non-, he seemed an appropriate person to interview for Mulholland’s new website.

Following is a not terribly linear series of Qs and As we emailed each other over the past week, while he took a break from the publicity for The Financial Lives of the Poets paperback release and I procrastinated on writing a final chapter of my new manuscript.

THOMAS MULLEN: It seems to me that over the last few years the news has been full of stories about intelligence and espionage and new kinds of crime—CIA agents “rendering” and/or torturing people, journalists being prosecuted for their stories, the new “industries” around legalized pot in some states, etc. (Some of which are issues your last two books touch upon.) Are there times when you think, damn, there are so many amazing stories happening in the real world, how can fiction possibly keep up? Or do you think, wow, what a great time to be a novelist, especially one with a penchant for writing about cops and criminals?

JESS WALTER: I don’t imagine the gap between fiction and the real world is any larger than it ever was; how could you write a novel that kept up with events during, say, World War II? Fiction has always been the worst way to break news. That’s why, for me, character is a more rewarding and reliable starting point for a novelist. Real, organic-seeming characters can illuminate any event—whether it’s timely, the way I’ve worked recently, or steeped in history, like your novels. I like what Emerson said: “Fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures.”

Or hell, I could quote your own The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers (“Facts only make so much sense on their own …”), in which your choice to enliven a classic story of Depression-era criminals with surrealism reveals truth about mythmaking that nonfiction simply couldn’t.

TM: Do you think the nebulous border between literary fiction and crime/suspense has strengthened over the years, dissolved, or moved in one direction or the other? Do you think readers care about such labels, or is this a creation of publishers or the bookstores who have to decide where to shelve the darn things?

JW: For me, it’s a phony border. So I’ve just taken to ignoring it, pretending it isn’t there. I used to get sort of animated about the whole thing, but it’s like worrying about the weather. It doesn’t matter where my books are shelved; all I can do is write the book I want to read next.

TM: The impact of financial hardship, in particular the effects and causes of our recession, is paramount in your new book, The Financial Lives of the Poets, which is both side-splittingly funny and deeply serious. Now, I have a theory that I want you to either amen or shoot down. I myself always wanted to write a novel that dealt with financial issues, i.e., what it’s like to struggle in a country in which individual success is held as the ideal; what it’s like to lose everything; how hardship exacts a toll on the relationships between husbands and wives, fathers and sons. (Which Poets absolutely nails.) I tried to do this with The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, but, even so, reviewers usually focused on other elements of the book. There seems to be this literary blind spot when it comes to this issue, I think.

“Literary fiction,” it seems to me, is predominantly a white-collar, privileged thing, usually written by college-educated (and even MFA-approved) writers, and reviewed and then taught by same. Whereas crime fiction, in all its permutations, trends more blue-collar—it has cops and bouncers and waitresses and stoned doughnut-store employees, all of whom are worried about paying the bills, and some of whom are pushed by circumstance or bad luck into committing crimes. Crime novels are far likelier to tackle these things, albeit in a less “look at me! I’m commenting on society!” kind of way. Do you buy this theory at all? Am I being totally simplistic? Am I reading the wrong books?

JW: It’s an interesting observation, and probably true at some level—that fiction is less concerned with the poor and working poor than it should be. But I’m not sure crime fiction really addresses class issues either. After all, that’s not really its intent, is it? I don’t think just writing about waitresses or cops or doughnut bakers makes a work about class; crime novels are mostly about…crime. And since most crime novelists are also college graduates and members of the middle class (or higher), it might seem disingenuous or even voyeuristic for a crime novelist to claim the mantle of the underclass chronicler. (In fact, if you’re comparing poverty bona fides, literary novelists might point out that at least there’s a market for crime novels.)

As for great fiction about class: Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, William Kennedy’s Ironweed and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, the stories of Raymond Carver, T. C. Boyle, Edward P. Jones, and Junot Diaz, the books of Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie and, maybe most of all, the great Richard Price.

Recently, I’d say Bonnie Joe Campbell’s American Salvage, Phillip Meyer’s American Rust, and Donald Ray Pollack’s Knockemstiff took on those themes pretty well. And Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games is a masterful crime/social novel that takes place in Mumbai, where the rigid strictures of class are more than an obstacle, but literally can never be overcome. Here, stories about class are almost always about aspiring up.

To me, there are two books that stand like pillars on either side of the subject, one viewed as literary, the other as crime: The Great Gatsby and The Talented Mr. Ripley. But nothing recently has touched on class the way The Wire did, the way it braided not only crime, cops, and courts, but also schools, politics, and labor. I’d be curious which crime novels you think tackle class in an interesting way.

TM: I agree that most crime novels aren’t about class necessarily, but I do think they are more likely to handle issues that are tied into the poor or working-poor experience than “literary novels” are. Mystic River isn’t really “about class,” but certainly the ways in which growing up poor limits your world view and your life options is a major thread in the story, as Jimmy takes a few wrong steps as a teenager, and years later he’s haunted, tragically, by the mistakes he made when he was younger. In a way that never would have happened if, say, he’d been sent to prep school at age sixteen instead of doing B&Es (in which case, it would have been a charming, coming-of-age literary novel).

Okay, to redirect:

In your positive Boston Globe review of Denis Johnson’s excellent Nobody Move in 2009, you wrote that:

“It can be dicey for a literary lion to wander into the crime genre. Adhere to form and the author risks condescending or producing a faint copy of something disposable; subvert those conventions and the result is often flat, a thriller with no thrills.”

What are some of the things that literary fiction writers get wrong when they dabble with genre?

JW: The only dangerous thing is to “write down” in some way…to condescend to a form you believe is beneath you. You hear from literary writers sometimes the idea that it would be “easy” to write a mystery bestseller—just flatten the characters and take out the good writing. Or crime novelists who think that to write literary fiction one simply must be turgid and self-important. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t fake any of it. If you don’t love the kind of book you’re writing, it won’t work.

TM: And sometimes a little genre is exactly what a lit-fiction author needs to focus his or her thoughts and get an actual plot. Some of my favorite recent books straddle the lit-fiction/crime or /SF boundaries, like Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, George Dawes Green’s Caveman’s Valentine, Margaret Atwood’s last two dystopian novels, and of course your books.

JW: That’s a great list (and you could put your books on it). I think writers are less concerned with such distinctions now; there are more cross-genre novels than ever, as writers draw from the genres that inspired them when they were young, whether it’s comic books, sci-fi, young adult, horror, or crime. (None of us started by reading Proust.)

I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about this, since your books blend historical and crime fiction with hints of the surreal and allegorical—you seem to be blending genres in a really unique and self-assured way, especially for such a young novelist.

TM: I just think it’s fun. That’s the main thing. I knew I was writing about the Great Depression and all this heavy stuff, but I want people to actually enjoy reading my books. I want them to put down Firefly Brothers and think, “That was a blast.” And the vintage noir era, the fedoras and the topcoats and the old cars, there’s such a wonderful romanticism there. I do think that working in genre forces some writers to keep their eye on the plot more, which can be a very needed thing. I’ve certainly read plenty of novels that had a lot of things going for them but ultimately failed to coalesce, I think because the writer was actually afraid of having too much plot, as if it’s some crutch for weaker writers.

I don’t want to misrepresent myself—my bookshelves are overflowing with books that have nothing to do with genre, and I certainly feel that the occasional baggy monster, when it does work (like The Corrections), is such a joy to read. I just think, as a writer, the trick is to remember your audience and to take them on a trip, or an adventure, or an experience. Trying too hard to impress your audience, rather than trying to entertain them, can lead to some overwrought, narcissistic stuff.

But back to The Financial Lives of the Poets: When I read it in September of last year, I was stunned at how timely it was. Given how long it takes to write a novel, I just don’t understand how you actually did this. Please tell me you didn’t write it three months.

JW: I did write it quickly…not three months, but maybe six. I had been wanting to write a novel about a guy coming apart and just decided to go with this voice-driven, extended riff, first person, so it wasn’t complicated in structure or tone. I’ve always had the theory that a good book can take months, not years, to write, that a book like The Zero, which took three years to write, was, in fact, six months of efficient work spread over three long years. So I just tried to cut out the superfluous stuff—which turned out to be mostly self-loathing and drinking—and worked seven days a week and eight to ten hours a day until it felt right. I don’t think I could do that again, but it was a fun experiment. I think it’s a mistake to assume that your work habits will always stay the same.

How about you? Did you find the process of writing the second novel (and the upcoming third) similar to the first?

TM: When the writing is going well, yeah, it can go quickly. Which sometimes makes me worry: “Wait, if I’m writing this fast, it must suck. Because isn’t it supposed to be hard work, suffering for your art and all that?” But no, it isn’t. Like a hitter on a hot streak, it’s best not to dissect your swing and instead just feel good that you’re seeing the ball so well.

That said, my first two books each took about nine months for the rough drafts. My third, of which I’m about to send a rough draft to my editor, has been much trickier. Closer to your The Zero experience. I bounced around a bit between projects until something clicked.

I will say this: I almost always dislike a book when I start writing it. I end up asking myself, “Do I dislike this now because it’s a natural part of the process to dislike it, and I need to stay with it and soon it will click? Or is this a sign that it’s just a bad idea, and I should stop now before wasting five months?”

Do you have this same love-hate thing with your books? Do you feel suspicious when things are going well, or just feel like a badass?

JW: There are a few badass days, maybe one in thirty—a few more when it’s going well. To my deep shame, I did once high-five myself. But I think that love-hate relationship with the work is unavoidable, especially while you’re in a novel. I’ve taken to thinking of it as a kind of engine of creativity—the expansiveness of those bursts of creation (I LOVE this!) followed by the harsh editing that pounds it into shape (This shit needs fixing).

Once the books are done, I lose touch with them a little bit. That’s why I always find book tours so strange. I’m on to the next book—can’t think of anything else—but readers are just discovering the last one. It’s like constantly bringing your ex-girlfriend home to dinner with the parents. Yeah yeah, she’s nice, but you should see the girl I’m dating NOW. I find the books shrink in my estimation once they’re done, which is why it’s so nice to have readers connect with them, to remind me of all those things that inspired me in the first place. So it’s not that I hate them so much as I forget why I loved them. And then when I go back, I’m often surprised that they’re doing so much more than I recall.

TM: Your books are very, very funny. Which is saying a lot considering that the last two in particular deal with some heavy, potentially ponderous stuff: 9/11 (The Zero) and our current financial collapse (The Financial Lives of the Poets). Is humor something that comes organically with the voices you choose, or was it more deliberate in your thinking, i.e., “I’d better get some laughs and lightness in this book, or else it’ll be way too dark”?

JW: I’m always a little gun-shy about the “humor” question. Sam Lipsyte and I recently did an event in New York called “On the Comic Novel” in which we spent the first fifteen minutes squirming about the title of the talk. I think humor works best in service of other things—profundity, suspense, romance, just about anything. But alone, ”funny” can make a work dangerously thin. Jokes are like appetizers: no matter how good they are, they’re not a meal. And I certainly don’t think of being funny as a narrative strategy so much as an unavoidable outlook on life, usually connected to absurdity and even tragedy, and filtered through characters, which is probably why I didn’t even think about the fact that I was writing satirically (sometimes absurdly) about the terrorist attacks and the recession.

The Financial Lives of the Poets is a kind of comic rant, one very pissed-off, hapless victim of the recession (and of his own greed) bumbling around making mistakes and ranting about the state of our culture. I like humor when it’s grafted to anger or fear or danger.

And here’s the question for you: what can you tell me about the new book? Your work has always managed to be paced so well while being incredibly rich in atmosphere and character. Do you feel as if you altered your style in the service of “crime fiction”?

TM: The new book is pretty far from crime fiction, so the style is somewhat different from Firefly Brothers, which borrowed from thirties-era hard-boiled writing. The new one is kind of a spy novel and kind of dystopian future thing. It’s mostly set in post-9/11 Washington, DC, where I lived for many years, so it was a joy to write in a contemporary vernacular after two historicals. Oh, there’s also a time traveler. So I guess the genre-mixing continues…

Jess Walter is the author of five novels, including The Financial Lives of the Poets, a 2009 Best Books choice by Time, NPR’s Fresh Air, the Washington Post, and others; The Zero, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award; and Citizen Vince, winner of the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel.

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize. His second novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, was published in January, and his third, The Revisionists, is scheduled for a fall 2011 release by Mulholland Books.

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3 Responses »

  1. Here is a relevant quote that speaks to one of the ideas put forth in the above exchange. Clearly someone else is nibbling around the edges of the same idea of the relationship between class and fiction.

    “The use of Baltimore as a millennial tapestry, in fact, might be seen as a quiet rebuke to its own great living novelists, Anne Tyler and John Barth, both of whose exquisitely styled prose could be accused of having turned its back on the deep inner workings of the city that executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore reporter, and producer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore schoolteacher and cop, have excavated with such daring and success.”

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