Can we start by talking about your latest book?
The House of Wolfe, published in March of this year by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press, and released in the UK this summer by Ion Mills’ No Exit Press, is the third novel I’ve published about the Wolfe family, and the second “border noir” in the series, following The Rules of Wolfe. Both border noirs can be read as stand-alone works. The first Wolfe book, Country of the Bad Wolfes, spans the family’s first three generations in the Western Hemisphere, ending in 1911 with the Wolfes settled both in Mexico and Texas and prospering in legitimate professions as well as in the gunrunning trade.
The House of Wolfe is a kidnap novel, but focuses, too, on the interplay between the two sides — the full “house” — of the Wolfe family: the American side, which lives in South Texas, and the Mexican side, most of which resides in Mexico City. The Mexican Wolfes are a small, secretive crime cartel of their own, Los Jaguaros, which deals mainly in selling arms to other cartels and in the trafficking of confidential information.
What attracted me to the idea of a series centered on a large family is that it affords the pleasures of a continuous series without restricting the novels to the same main character. There are a number of excellent crime writers at work today whose talent I much admire, but my objection to a series with a recurring main character is that, even before I open the book, and no matter how perilous the story’s events, I already know the protagonist will still be alive at the end. That knowledge is no doubt a chief attraction to most series readers, granting them a certain comfort vital to their enjoyment of the book. But I side with Hemingway, who said all stories end in death, and that he who would keep that from you is no true storyteller. He didn’t mean that the main character must die in the course of a book, but only that the possibility of his death has to be there. In the Wolfe series, the abiding character is the family itself, but it’s always possible that the individual protagonist of a Wolfe book won’t be alive at the end. It’s the only true way I can write a series.
Another thing I like about this series is the wide range of historical settings it affords. Although the first two “border noirs” are set in 2004 and 2008, respectively (and the one in progress is also set in 2008), the original Wolfe book, Country of the Bad Wolfes, ends in 1911, and I like the idea of writing books that will gradually fill that gap of four Wolfe generations between then and now — novels set against the backgrounds of the World Wars, the era of Prohibition, etc. — moving us around in the past even as we engage with the family’s criminal adventures in those particular times.
Who were the writers who inspired you in your fledgling efforts?
My mother began reading to me almost as soon as I was out of the womb, mostly fairy tales, and so you could say my earliest storytelling inspirations were the Brothers Grimm and others of their ilk. Set in dark, spooky worlds fraught with mortal dangers of every sort, those stories were frightening but utterly absorbing, and I couldn’t get enough of them. In school I discovered the Landmark series of history books, wonderful volumes that presented the past as a series of a grand adventures replete with fascinating characters and spectacular conflicts, a view of history that’s never left me and that has served me well. By the time I was an 18-year-old army paratrooper, I had a vague yearning to be a writer but had no idea what sorts of things I could possibly write about. Then I read James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, and I knew. That book’s raw honesty about sex and violence knocked me for a loop. I read it when I was a kid in the paratroopers and witnessed the truths of much of what Jones had written, and I wanted to write books as frank and fearless as his. Much later, Doctorow’s Ragtime would become my foremost model of narrative excellence in its masterful blend of history and fiction. Hemingway was an influence, of course, as was Steinbeck. Every time I read Cannery Row I’m awed by the simple beauty of its style, the neat threads of its wisdom. I can’t leave out Garciá Márguez, especially Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Every reading of that novella is another writing lesson.
How do you regard your writing peers? Is there anyone whose work you never miss?
Among living writers, I’ll read anything by John Coetzee, William Trevor, and Philip Roth, all of them long in the tooth, yes, but with direct concrete styles that largely avoid the sort of look-at-me figurative language that can distract more than enhance. To read them is to remind myself of what a sentence should look like at its best. For outright entertainment I’ll turn to Jim Harrison. Besides his gift for landscape, he’s very good at making sex as funny as it so often actually is. I generally avoid crime novels because I don’t want to be influenced by them, consciously or otherwise. Still, I can’t help returning time and again to Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, just two examples of the crime novel as high literature. I miss Stone no less than I do Garciá Márguez.
Is it a crime writer’s job to talk about the society he or she lives in – or concentrate on the narrative?
Another thing I like about these writers is that they don’t proselytize. Serious fiction tries to tell the truth about how its characters perceive the world, what they think, how they talk. But when a novel sidles into the thematic promotion of some particular moral or political outlook, it becomes propaganda. If a character beats the drum for, say, open borders, or is pro- or anti-abortion, that’s fine, but if the novel does it, then out the window it goes.
In your memoir essay ‘The Outsider’ you comment that you are ‘a stranger in every tribe’: has your background and family history been a large influence on your writing style? Do you think writers should write about something that impacts them personally?
Aspiring writers are repeatedly told to write about what they know, but too many of them mistake that directive to mean they should write only about what they’ve personally experienced. In truth, what you “know” includes everything you’ve ever heard and read. And that really opens up one’s store of material. The trick then is to apply your own experience and insights to it.
How would you define or categorise the kind of fiction you write?
I’I don’t care very much for generic labels, but since my first ten novels were set between the mid-19th-century and the 1930’s and all of the protagonists were criminals — excepting Stanley Ketchel, who yet was definitely an “outlaw” of sorts, and was murdered — it isn’t erroneous to call them “historical crime novels.” The two “border noirs” are. in very simplest terms, “crime novels.”
Violence plays a large part in all of your novels, what draws you to write about violence? Is violence necessary? And how do you think a writer should approach this today?
I write about violence because it’s the most serious, most frightening, most thrilling element in life. Violence rules the world and always has. No law on earth would have any import without the threat of violent force behind it. I like stories that remind us of that immutable fact — which in turn reminds us of the fragility of the “social contract.” It’s one of the reasons crime is such a popular genre in our entertainments. Everyone knows that when push comes to shove, the niceties of law get knocked aside and the knives come out.
Why do you think violence appeals so much to the reader?
If there’s a overriding reason that violence —especially as evinced in crime stories — is so popular with readers, it’s that it permits us to indulge, if only vicariously, the darker side of own mysterious nature. I forget who it was that said we all have secrets that would shame hell, but the dude was right on the money. Excluding reveries of sexual cavort, what fantasies are more common among us than those of refusing to submit to the will of others, or of bending others to our own will, violently if necessary, and maybe even preferably? There’s a close bond between pride and violence, and we all have our pride. When the battered but unrepentant Satan of “Paradise Lost” rises up out of the fiery muck and tells his minions he’d rather rule in hell than serve in heaven, I suspect that, as they read those words from the boss gangster of them all, more readers than would ever admit to it tighten their lips and nod.
Do you bear your potential reader in mind when writing, or do you write principally for yourself?
What can you tell me about your next book?
I’m currently working on the third “border noir” in the Wolfe family series, as yet untitled. For the moment, all I’ll say about it is that the main character is Axel Prince Wolfe, who, as we were told in passing in The House of Wolfe, is Charlie Fortune Wolfe’s older brother, the father of Jessie Juliet Wolfe, and has been in prison since Jessie was two years old. As were the first two border noirs, this one will be published by the venerable Otto Penzler via his Mysterious Press.