I'll be upfront - this week's newsletter will be a bit...quick and breezy? I have family and friends in town and that's eating into most of my newsletter prep time. #firstworldproblem, I know, I know. But there we are!
Because I've caught up with the latest Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips collaboration, The Fade Out, and because I learned it was ending (!) with #12, I decided to re-read their previous series, Fatale. As with The Fade Out and Criminal (which I also just re-read), I can't say anything negative about Fatale - it's really Brubaker and Phillips at their creative peak, meshing together elements of film noir, Lovecraft, historical fiction and so much more. Layered, evocative and surprisingly heartfelt, the book will grab you with its most immediate traits - the mesmerizing lead that is Josephine, unfiltered violence, beautiful artwork, etc. - but stay jammed in your skull for some time because of its masterful execution and structure. It's a book that's both instinctual and precise and probably my favorite work from a team who's entire output I admire.
Prose-wise, I've been on a Ross Macdonald binge of late, re-reading his first four Lew Archer books, The Moving Target, The Drowning Pool, The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin. Well, listening, as my commute now involves me driving. The audiobooks are narrated by Grover Gardner, who does a solid job.
When I was first getting into "classic" mystery novels a friend described Macdonald as "Chandler, but with tighter plots." I don't fully agree with the statement, but I can see where it comes from. Whereas Chandler was all about tone and style, Macdonald delivers in that area while still managing to untangle his myriad plot threads by the third act. Sometimes the act of untangling lacks the oomph one would hope (it seems like he was very much getting the hang of things with Target), other times the endings arrive with the strength of a (well-earned!) sucker-punch, like in Drowning Pool.
Macdonald manages to create an L.A. that's sunny and shiny but rotting under the floorboards, telling stories of fragmenting families and secrets from the past rising up. It's amazing that his themes, style and knack for voice appear so distinctly from page one. Probably one of my favorite mystery writers ever, and this re-read has got me all the more eager to read his letters to and from Eudora Welty, which were collected recently.
We bonded over a shared love of Sara Gran's own detective series, general views on kindness and lots more. This was a fun interview and I appreciate her taking the time. (As usual, this was edited for clarity, content, etc.)
Erica, thanks so much for chatting! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I'm a new resident of Nashville, and although I remain skeptical of hot chicken, everything else seems great. There's live music in every nook and cranny, plus an active literary scene. I'm going to be on a panel at the Southern Festival of Books next month, and I'm over the moon about that.
Did you always want to write mystery novels? What was the genesis of The Red Chameleon and Kathleen Stone?
Not at all actually. While pursuing my MFA in poetry, I took a few fiction classes, but couldn't seem to get the hang of it. I would spend too much time futzing over a single word or sentence. And I know futzing is part of the process, but at a certain point, it's also a crutch, a way of not moving forward and, consequently, not risking failure.
A few years after I finished my degree, I was reading a lot of mysteries while teaching at John College of Criminal Justice and thinking about the emotional challenges of undercover work. Kathleen Stone emerged from that obsession. I knew I was serious when I started waking up early each morning to work on The Red Chameleon. I am absolutely not a morning person, but I would stumble out of bed, grab a Coke Zero, head back to bed with my laptop, and write a thousand words. So that I don't get concerned emails, I'll mention that I've been trying to give up my Coke Zero habit, but since I'm drinking one right now, I'd say my failure thus far is obvious.
I think we can safely file Coke Zero under "forgivable habits." Were there books or authors that directly influenced your fiction writing?
When I discovered Janet Evanovich, I became aware of how a writer could be funny one minute and intense the next. I don't know if you've read the first book in her famously comedic Stephanie Plum series, but the crimes are pretty brutal. Yet she manages to make those scenes believably dark while staying true to her plucky but in-over-her-head protagonist. That appealed to me. But more somber writers like Marisha Pessl have also been influential. I'm surprised her wonderful novel Night Film wasn't more universally praised. I admire Laurie R. King, too. I'm reading Julia Dahl's Invisible City right now, and that could be its own master class in pacing.
I know we both share a great affection for the work of Sara Gran, who I think is painfully underrated. What is it about her writing that you connect with most?
Sara Gran is the perfect gateway drug to crime fiction. I've recommended her Claire DeWitt series more times than I can count, and so far, nobody's wanted their money back. Those books are just so wonderfully weird while still working within the constraints of a mystery series. To me, she shows that there are no limits to this genre. She makes me want to write better, bolder novels.
What can readers expect from your second mystery novel, The Granite Moth?
The Granite Moth is a bit darker. Kat is investigating a possible hate crime, so I wanted to respect that there are real people in the United States experiencing real fear because of how they look or who they love. But there's humor, too, characters laughing in the face of fear because that's what we do sometimes.
You're also a poet. Do you find that the need to be succinct, or, I guess, more mindful of the words you use as a poet helped you write prose? Are skills gained doing one transferable to the other? Am I making sense?
Totally making sense, but it took me awhile to figure out how to use what I know about poetry in fiction. The obvious link seemed to be language, but as I confessed, focusing too much on word choice became a hindrance, particularly with a first draft. Instead, I found my study of prosody—the formal aspects of poetry—to be most useful. When writing a sonnet or villanelle, there's creativity, of course, but also a puzzle-solving requirement. With a mystery, there are certain expectations to be met, as well.
Are there poets you look to for motivation/inspiration?
I'm already imagining how this answer is going to go off the rails, so I'll stay with living poets. I'm sure I'll wake up tomorrow and wish I had included someone else but Barbara Hamby, Emily Fragos, W. S. Merwin. There are younger poets like Shelly Taylor, Cynthia Cruz, and Ocean Vuong who are absolutely killing it. I was so, so happy that Gregory Pardlo's Digest won the Pulitzer last year. Since I mentioned one collection by name, I'll add Carolyn Forché's The Country Between Us. Aleš Šteger's Book of Things (translated by Brian Henry) is one of my favorites. I read Lucie Brock-Broido's most recent collection Stay, Illusion multiple times. My friends Matthew Pennock and Ricardo Maldonado are a constant source of inspiration, and I'm lucky enough to read their poems in infancy. Oh, and I'm waiting for my copy of Ada Limón's Bright Dead Things to arrive at Parnassus Books. She's one of the best poets writing today.
How do you find time to do all this writing while also serving as a senior editor at Guernica? What do your duties there entail?
I really believe in the work of Guernica, so I make time for the magazine. As the poetry editor, I mostly read a boatload of submissions and occasional solicit, mostly from translators, and decide what appears in each issue. I've had help before, and those folks were bright, passionate advocates, but it's hard for me to give up even a tiny bit of control. I want every poem to be the kind of poem to turn a poetry skeptic into a believer.
Juggling my editing and teaching responsibilities with my writing is tough, but everyone else I know is making the same sort of sacrifices. We're all finding a few stray hours each week and wishing we had more.
You live in Nashville and are from the area, but you also spent a lot of time in NY for your studies. Do you miss the city at all? How does your home state inspire your writing or creative process?
Oh sure. I miss my friends, and I miss leaving my friends' events early to wander through the quiet, semi-deserted streets alone. "Great mother of big apples it is a pretty / World!" wrote Kenneth Patchen, and there's not much prettier than New York City at night. But Tennessee has always been important to my writing. My poems definitely have a Southern gothic flare. That's started to sneak into my fiction, as well. I have a short story coming out in Alfred Hitchock Mystery Magazine that's set entirely in a honky-tonk.
What's one thing you can share with us that's maybe not in your official bio?
I feel like this is the perfect opportunity to reveal some sort of hidden talent, but I don't have one. I'm an aggressively mediocre cook, and I can never remember the rules of Catan. I'm not even that great at Boggle. I am a sucker for any festival named after a fruit or animal. I wrote about the 2013 Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival in Claxton, GA for Chapter 16. And when I lived in Gainesville, attending the Annual Florida Bat Festival at the Lubee Conservancy was a highlight.
Are there any TV shows, movies or records that have particularly grabbed your attention lately?
I didn't watch much television for several years. Not for any artistic, snobby reasons—my bunny ears didn't work too well and I didn't have money for cable. Which is to say, all these great shows on Netflix seem new to me, and I'm afraid to answer this question. Have you heard of this show called The West Wing? It's amazing! I'll be forever grateful to Season 2 of True Detective for introducing me to Lera Lynn. I've been listening to her song "My Least Favorite Life" on repeat. I heard Kristy Lee perform at the Ryman last night and was blown away by both her songs and voice. Her new album is Raise the Dead.
Lera Lynn was definitely one of the high points from the season - this coming from someone who didn't hate it with the same fire as the rest of the Internet seemed to. Any advice you'd give to a new writer?
Kindness is king. To yourself, to others. The writing world can seem brutal until you start rooting for writers, not envying their success or comparing it your own. In the end, we write—hopefully—because we love to read.
That was fun! Did I miss anything?
I really like Diet Dr. Pepper and should probably give that up, too.