The Exiled is Christopher Charles’s debut thriller, featuring a detective named Wes Raney who seeks refuge from his ignominious past in NYC in the brutal and beautiful New Mexican desert. Of Charles’s novel, Shelf Awareness writes “The Exiled is a fine piece of crime fiction with a keen sense of timing and character.” Here to talk about timing and character is Christopher Charles in conversation with his former writing instructor, Laird Hunt, author of the critically acclaimed novel Neverhome.
Laird Hunt: Which came first: Raney in New York or Raney in the New Mexican desert? When did you know you were going to give both Raneys more or less equal portions of the novel?
Christopher Charles: Raney in the desert came first, largely because the desert came first. I started with the crime, or an image of the crime: three bodies in a Cold-War style bunker in the New Mexico desert. The detective grew from the case. The murders felt urban to me—out of place in the southwestern landscape. The detective had to be urban and out of place, too.
To be honest, I’m not sure the decision to give them equal portions of the novel was ever really a conscious one—the past just seemed to be catching up with the present as I wrote, and I went where the story took me.
Hunt: The later Raney obviously contains the earlier. In what ways does the earlier Raney contain the later?
Charles: They’re both motivated in ways they don’t necessarily understand. They’re driven, but their drive is like a foreign entity. Raney at any age would likely launch full-throttle into anything you put in front of him. Both Raneys have an idyllic vision of who they’d like to be, but they can’t stop themselves from chasing after whatever seems urgent in the present. Older Raney realizes that he can only control himself by controlling his environment. But how long can you sustain that? How long can you remain isolated in the desert—even if the desert itself has become your passion—before civilization calls you back?
Hunt: Talk a little about what it was like to write these two versions of the same character. What were some of the particular challenges; what were some of the particular pleasures?
Charles: I approached this back-and-forth as a question, one that’s implicit in the title of the book: Is it possible to consciously reinvent yourself at different stages in your life? Raney says, at some point in the 2002 narrative, that, given our increased lifespan, nobody lives just one life anymore. The desert has become, for Raney (a NYC native) a spiritual refuge—a kind of private monastery where he’s able to keep his drug addiction and his penchant for violence at bay. But has he actually changed, or is he merely keeping his baser impulses (and maybe some of his more noble impulses, too) in check? This is the question he starts to ask himself in the present storyline.
The particular pleasure in writing Raney—especially the younger Raney—had to do with the ways in which he’s nothing like me. Despite his flaws, Raney can handle himself. He’s a Gold Gloves champ, he’s quick on his feet, and his top-notch survival instincts have nothing to do with fear. This aspect of writing Raney was a bit like playing with action figures as a kid.
It was more challenging to consider the ways in which Raney—at both stages of his life, though maybe more so in his early 40s—might be similar to me. I understand what it’s like to tell yourself you’re going to do one thing and then do another; I know what it’s like to fall into a pattern, say to yourself “hey, I’m doing this again,” and then go right on doing it. Raney’s unproductive self-awareness comes out largely in his addiction, but I think we all fail at times (daily?) to be our best selves, and we all develop a convenient if not convincing narrative around this failure. It’s particularly hard for the older Raney to find himself dealing with some of the same issues twenty years later, and I think I was confronting that fear myself as I wrote. That may have been the biggest challenge.
Hunt: I’m always, or at least often, changing character names until the very last minute. How about you? Was Raney, which I think is a terrific name for the protagonist of a crime novel, there from the beginning? And how about his nickname, “Deadly”?
Charles: Yes, Wes Raney was Wes Raney from the beginning. He’s named for two of my favorite jazz guitarists: Jimmy Raney and Wes Montgomery. It’s a tiny tribute to two artists whose work makes me happy to be alive. Most of the character names come from pairings of jazz artists.
“Deadly” just sort of happened as I was writing. Dunham, the character who calls him “Deadly,” enjoys the alliteration (Raney’s undercover name is Dixon, so… “Deadly Dixon”). Dunham, by the way, is named for trumpeter Kenny Dorham.
Hunt: You talked about how different Raney is from you… I’d love to hear you talk about how he is similar. After all, you are a New Yorker, born and bred, who has also lived in the west for extended periods of time…
Charles: He’s definitely an amalgam of a lot of autobiographical elements, though this wasn’t deliberate—he’s just made of the stuff that’s there in my brain. Growing up (primarily) in working class Queens, I had a difficult relationship to my New Yorker-ness. My father and several of my uncles were legitimate tough guys—all fight and no flight (true story: I once saw a guy pull a knife on my uncle. Instead of running, my uncle took off his slipper and brandished it like a weapon. The guy backed down, probably because my uncle—shouting obscenities, veins popping in his neck—looked like an utter lunatic.). I’m just not wired that way. So, for lack of a better word, I always felt like a wimp. Raney is a thinker who’s also a fighter. Unlike my uncle, he’s rational—he does what the situation calls for. In this sense, he’s a projection of who I wanted to be growing up.
And yes, I’ve spent a lot of time in the West, and I love that part of the world. As a kid, I had family in Montana and spent several summers out there. Later, as you know, I went to grad school in Denver and explored southern Colorado/New Mexico. So, the “New Yorker who’s fascinated with the West” bit comes very naturally to me.
Hunt: You’ve created a character who lives hard on the streets of New York in the 1980s and also, in his later incarnation, takes hikes in the handsome New Mexico high country and enjoys a glass of South African white. Talk about creating a character who both fits the hard-boiled model and breaks it. Who were some of your influences in this endeavor?
Charles: Again, the honest answer here might be more autobiographical than literary. My father’s side of the family was very much working class; my mother’s father was a Harvard-educated lawyer—a polyglot and a talented musician who essentially drank himself out of a career. So, when I was growing up, it was all there—the low-brow and the high-brow, the “hardboiled” tough guys, the addiction, the summers in the west. All the stuff that’s in the book was just there.
Having said that, there is a legitimate literary answer, too. I remember, as an undergrad, writing a paper about the “domestication” of the hardboiled detective. This was for a film class, and I was comparing The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade sends the femme fatale down the river; The Big Sleep ends with Marlowe entering the domestic sphere (i.e. Bogart and Bacall get together, a major revision of the book). In general, I think the genre has moved in the direction of Hawks’ film. Contemporary detectives—Kurt Wallander, for example—arrive on the page with a family and a back story. The ethereal urban knight is largely gone.
Hunt: You’ve published a novel, Jonah Man, under your given name, Christopher Narozny, and now The Exiled under a pen name, Christopher Charles. So it’s not just your characters who have different identities! What do Dr. Narozny, PhD, and Mr. Charles have in common, and what makes them different? I’m interested in the kinds of books they have written and will write.
Charles: The pen name is part tribute to my father (his name was Charles, and he introduced me to Chandler), and part signal to the reader about what they’re getting into. I decided to go with a pseudonym for the genre fiction because one reviewer called Jonah Man a “whodunit” (it was a very nice review, but the novel isn’t a whodunit) and that led to some grumpy confusion on social media. The Exiled, on the other hand, is a whodunit—a piece of writing that consciously attempts to fulfill the expectations of the mystery/thriller genre. That’s really what genre is: a clear set of expectations for reader and writer alike. The writer, Christopher Charles in this instance, might subvert these expectations in some way, but they have to be dealt with. This isn’t necessarily true for a novel like Jonah Man.
That’s how they’re different; they’re obviously similar in that they share the same lived and literary (i.e. they’ve read the same books) experience. I was actually surprised, after the fact, by the similarities between the two novels. I’m not sure anyone but me would see this, but they share a lot of the same concerns—especially around questions of identity. Wes Raney and Swain (Jonah Man protagonist), for example, both imagine any number of possible lives for themselves, and both worry that they’ve settled into—or maybe talked themselves into—the wrong one. Wherever you go, I guess…
I’m hoping, under both names, to be more prolific in the future. With any luck, I’m finishing up a “literary” manuscript I’ve been working on for a while. It’s very different than Jonah Man—it started with my thinking about Max Frisch and Javier Marias but has probably become something very different by now. There might also be a story collection in the pipeline.
As Charles, I’m working on a second Wes Raney book. I’m also co-authoring a thriller with a well-known writer, though I don’t think I’m allowed (contractually) to say more at this point.