Welcome Bill and thanks ever so much for coming along to chat to me about your Words and Music – especially as you are taking some time out from your panel events while we are at Crime Fest this weekend! I hope you are enjoying your fleeting visit to the UK to promote Dodgers!
Thanks Katherine, it’s been a wonderful weekend so far, I have met dozens of folk which has been really exciting. And it’s been warm and sunny!
Can you start by telling us a little bit about Dodgers and how the story came about?
It’s about a 15 year old, East, who lives in a fictional area of Los Angeles called The Boxes. His job is to guard a drug house and keep the police and other undesirables away – a job which he does really well, but on the first morning of book there is a police raid, a shoot out and the house is taken down. It’s not East fault, he couldn’t have done anything to prevent this but he seeks out his punishment and is offered one option: show up tomorrow, with nothing, get in a van, drive across the country and murder a man. He says yes.
I have spent many years as a doctoral student and teacher in American Literature and have a fascination with criminal fugitive stories. I have read a lot of American Slave narratives about men and women who left enslavement and voyaged north on foot through a country that had denied them literacy, maps and knowledge of the countryside. A place that had officially kept them ignorant of the prospects of work, freedom and liberty in the north.
I am fascinated by the different relationships white and black Americans have with these wide open spaces – and the drama, trauma and paranoia that lives in those spaces.
I read Clockers by Richard Price which ends with the protagonist setting off on a bus out into the countryside and I always wondered – what next? What’s going to happen to him as he travels off? I guess that inspired Dodgers!
Could you tell me your first choice of words today?
Native Son by Richard Wright
This is about a 20 year old living in Chicago in the 1930s which was very segregated in those days. I think it is one of the greatest books about disadvantaged Americans and in my opinion Wright is one of the greatest crime writers America has produced. I was thrilled to read that Camus read it while writing The Stranger.
With the publication of Dodgers you have made a transition between being an academic writer and now becoming a fictional writer. How do you feel about your new role as a crime writer?
I was first surprised that Dodgers was categorised as crime but this is a very permeable category! There are many authors within the literary tradition that give us the jolts and show us the shady side of a street as well as any crime writer does. James Sallis is classified as a crime writer and I think his writing is so beautifully crafted and is definitely some of the best writing being produced in America right now.
I have a lot of kinship with crime writers and with literary writers – I don’t want to sit on one side of the fence! The division and labelling of noir or crime is helpful and has a purpose for marketing and for readers so I don’t mind it.
This is your debut fiction novel and Dodgers has been nominated for and won numerous awards and prizes. How has this affected you as a debut writer?
I’m a shy and retiring person – I’m a small groups person so I am deeply gratified by the awards and the friendships it’s allowed me to build but I like to think it’s the book that has gained recognition rather than me. I tend to flee away from praise – it feels like an expensive shoe that might be uncomfortable to put on walk around in!
What have you chosen as your second book?
I have chosen a book from my childhood which was essential in showing me the ‘grey areas’, and first introduced me to characters whose behaviour was ‘outside the rules’. It’s Danny Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.
I read this when I was about 9 or 10 – my mother was a teacher and a librarian so I was well versed in the work of Dahl, but this book was my initiation into the grey areas such as when law doesn’t seem just or the crime that does. I held on tightly to my copy until my daughter was old enough to hear it and I couldn’t wait for that moment that duly came when her eyes went big and round as we watched Danny and his father stealing pheasants!
This is a book from your childhood and in Dodgers you write about a child – a teenager – who is a very different character from you in terms of race, class, age and background. How did you manage to create such a strong credible teenage voice?
I’ve always written about teenagers and the challenges of being a teenager – it’s such a complex and exciting time. East had been in my head for a long time before I started to writing so I felt I knew him well and in many ways he’s an exaggerated version of me.
Ultimately I knew if I were to succeed as a white middle class guy writing as a young black Los Angeles character he had to be a credible 15 year old. Writers often make the mistake about authenticity – the fact is there is no authentic Cuban, Estonian, Turkish person etc. We are all individual people. I think in some ways, although there is a racial and geographical distance between myself and East, it wasn’t as difficult as writing a character from say 100 years ago when the whole cultural and social context and thought process of a person would be completely alien to me.
You say you’re fascinated about that time of being a teenager and always seem to write about teenage characters. Have you ever thought about writing a YA novel?
I haven’t …but I have……. ! It’s like the thing you’re looking for on a messy desk, you’ll have to tunnel down a long way to find it but haven’t the time. I suspect I could write one but I don’t want to at the moment.
What is your third choice of words for us?
My third choice is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.
It is the story of a character trying to hold on inside to some truths. He is a closet gay, American man, living in Paris in the post war years. He is utterly certain that he cannot admit this truth to his loved ones in America and to himself. This book impressed on me that Baldwin is the greatest American writer – his prose is beautiful and painful. There is no better teacher for a writer.
Dodgers is a novel is about a road trip and as we’ve already said, location is important to you and to this novel. In a panel earlier here at Crime Fest you said that in America, your ‘cathedrals are made of sandstone’ – it is your landscape that is your heritage and spirituality. Can you tell me a little bit more about the importance of location in your novel?
Americans look at their land, or what has been their land, as an immense birth right, ignoring conveniently that we got that land through theft and genocide. The land is a mirror for who we are. Many Americans came here leaving a deeply spiritual Europe behind and started to worship the church a little less and the sky and the plains a little more.
I wanted East to see those spaces and re-evaluate them, analyse them and see a different meaning. Usually we head West – to the promised land and to California but East, he goes the other way. He brings a different interpretation to the land.
Thank you so much for sharing your ‘Word’ choices – now could I ask you about your three ‘Music’ choices?
The music I admire most is the music that creates a world or a feeling of something that is alien but is moving – I like it when I recognise a riff or a groove that transports us somewhere.
My first choice is State Trooper by Bruce Springsteen. He’s a great storyteller. It’s flat, quiet and ghostly – just like the highway at night. There’s something unearthly about it. In some ways this is a small record, like folk music in terms of scale, but as scary as everything the blues produced.
My second choice is Ain’t a Jury In the World by Beauty Pill. They are a stellar bunch of musicians. It’s a fully immersive song that you feel you could walk into – a record that builds itself around you like a house. The narrative is about being black, being arrested and thrown into this moment of logical dread about what will happen next.
Before I tell you my third piece I have to apologise to all the ones I left out! But my third choice is The Guns of Brixton from the album London Calling by The Clash. I like the monotone of the song and its shout of defiance. It’s like a snake moving around and has a really scratchy rattle like sound – it is gorgeous. On the morning when not even coffee or exercise will make you move, this record will!
Thanks so much for these interesting choices that reveal more about you and your writing! If Dodgers were to be televised or made into a film do you have any ideas about the sort of soundtrack you’d like?
Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man has a Neil Young soundtrack. He’s playing a guitar and it is like a grumbling, understated moaning but beautifully and emotionally drawn. I can imagine Dodgers being scored with a moody electronic guitar, but then equally with Hip Hop.
I think it has to be made by a director who thinks more about the pacing – it needs a director who will be willing to look at a picture and let that accrue depth and resonance for a while.
And to finish off, what’s next? Are you writing anything at the moment?
For Dodgers, well, Dodgers has left the house after many years of living in my bedroom. I’m just going around trying to clear up after it!
I am writing and it will probably be ready sometime later this year, although in publishing there are lots of different stages and colours of ‘ready’! I’m happy with what’s happening at the moment. I have a character talking in my ear and I’m happy to listen..!
Thanks so much Bill for coming along and chatting to me today. It’s been really fascinating and a real privilege.