Let’s Talk about My New Book, Part Two

Camarillo State Hospital

One of the women’s dorms in the Camarillo State Hospital. From the CSUCI archives.

The university where I work used to be a psychiatric hospital. In my new novel, Dead Extra, I delved into the history of the hospital a bit. I spent a lot of time digging through the hospital archives at CSUCI, listening to oral histories, studying pictures, and reading memoirs from patients and employees. My favorite of these is They Call Them Camisoles. The memoir was published in 1940 and details the involuntary hold that the author, Wilma Wilson, endured in 1939. Wilson was committed for alcoholism. These alcoholism commitments in the ’30s and ’40s were often questionable. Wilson did drink too much. She admitted as much herself. Sometimes, her antics embarrassed her mother. This is what really landed her at Camarillo State Hospital: embarrassing her mother.

I know there were times in my life when my mom wished she could send me away for getting drunk and embarrassing her. I’m glad she never did.

For Wilson, the hospitalization was not about therapy. It was really about free labor. She went to the hospital, worked as an unpaid maid for the duration of her stay, had her stay extended at one point for dubious reasons, and wrote a book about it when she got out.

Both before and after her release, Wilson worked in movies. Actually, she mostly worked as a waitress, but she occasionally found herself in the background of B movies.

In 1943, an army private visited Wilson’s home wanting something that Wilson wasn’t willing to give him. He turned violent. She fled her house and screamed for help. The neighbors heard her, but didn’t come to her aid. According to the neighbor who was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, this was because Wilson was drunk. The army private murdered her.

While doing some research on Chester Himes years ago, I came across his account of meeting with his editor, Marcel Duhamel. Duhamel asked Himes to write a crime novel. Himes said he didn’t know how. Duhamel told him, essentially, to start with a body and try to figure out what happened to it (I fictionalize this exchange in my short story “The Five-Cornered Square” in The Metaphysical Ukulele). When I read this, I knew I had to take Duhamel’s advice.

I started with the basics of Wilma Wilson’s murder. In honor of Wilson, I named the murder victim in my novel Wilma (her last name in the book is Greene). She’s also a Hollywood extra who mostly waits tables. She also does a stint at the Camarillo State Hospital and writes a book about it. The similarities pretty much end there.

I’m not giving away anything when I tell you that, in Dead Extra, the army private does not kill Wilma. There are no army private’s in the book. And I want to be clear that the character of Wilma Greene is not supposed to be Wilma Wilson. Wilma Greene is entirely fictional with the exception of the few things I point out in the previous paragraph. Still, she wouldn’t exist if Wilson hadn’t inspired her.

Let’s Talk about My New Book, Part One

Dead ExtraWe’re still about three months away from the release date, but I’m already so excited about my new novel that I’m having trouble thinking about anything else. When someone asks me how I’m doing, my first thought is, Great! I have a new novel coming out! I think it’s the best thing I’ve written! I almost always contain myself and say, “Good. How are you?” Almost always.

I want to talk a little about the new one here, though. It’s a crime novel titled Dead Extra. It’s set in Los Angeles in the 1940s. One of the protagonists is Jack Chesley, a veteran who returns from a German POW camp to find his wife dead and his wife’s twin convinced the death was murder. It sounds like a common trope, I know. Hopefully, I changed things up enough to that Jack isn’t common. He’s not your typical Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe tough guy detective, for one thing. For the other thing, he’s inspired by a real man.

My father is the youngest of seven kids. The oldest, born 21 years before my dad, was my Uncle Jack. Jack’s middle name was Chesley. I was close with my Uncle Jack for the final fifteen or so years of his life. This started when I was about 13. He’d come down to Florida. I’d take him fishing. He’d take me on drives around town. We’d talk a lot.

As I got older, Uncle Jack opened up to me more and more. He told me stories about his father, my grandfather, who’d died when my dad was a little kid. The old man, as Jack called him, was brutal. A hired thug. A gunman. A killer. And, though Jack didn’t put it in these terms, the old man was horribly abusive to Jack. Jack got away from the old man first by joining the NYPD, then by going off to fight in World War II. His plane was shot down in western Germany. He parachuted out, survived behind enemy lines for a bit, and ended up in a German POW camp. While he was there, his father and his wife both died. When he returned, he got mixed up with his wife’s twin sister.

I took a bunch of these things from my uncle’s life and used them for my novel: his name, some of his war stories, the broad strokes of his relationships with his father, his wife, and his wife’s twin sister. Mostly what I tried to borrow from him was his complexity.

When I got to know him, Jack was in his sixties. He was a recovering alcoholic, a retired cop, a father and grandfather, and just about the sweetest guy I’ve ever known. What also came out in our conversations was that he’d killed people. A few during the war. Maybe a few while he was on the force. I could never reconcile this in my mind. How could you be all these things? How can you be a killer and a kind, generous, thoughtful uncle? How can a young man go through all that Jack went through and emerge whole on the other side?

I don’t know that anyone buy Uncle Jack can answer those questions. I developed the character of Jack Chesley to explore some of these questions and find ways to reconcile some of these things in my mind.

 

The Original Rednecks

King Carswell Road

Unincorporated Carswell, West Virginia.

Originally, the term “redneck” referred to striking coal miners. In 1920, coal operators raised a private army to attack the miners. The miners fought back. They raised an army ten thousand strong and wore red bandannas around their necks so they could identify each other. Out-of-state journalists started calling them “rednecks.” About a third of the original rednecks were immigrants. Another third of the original rednecks were African American.

The original rednecks were part of the largest armed conflict in the US since the Civil War, an incident known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. I’m fascinated with this part of American history. I went to West Virginia this past summer to research the Battle of Blair Mountain and the general labor tensions. Hopefully, this research will develop into a book project.

Another writer who was fascinated by this stuff is James M. Cain. Before Cain became one of the greatest crime writers of all time, he was a journalist for the Baltimore Sun. He covered the West Virginia Mine Wars.

If you want to learn more about all this, skip Wikipedia and check out my article  “James M. Cain and the West Virginia Mine Wars” on Los Angeles Review of Books.

Publishing News

This showed up on the Publisher’s Marketplace newsletter today. You gotta love the author who got top billing!

 

Publishers Marketplace
New deals for May 22, 2018
FICTION
Mystery/Crime
Author of MADHOUSE FOG and OCCUPY PYNCHON Sean Carswell’s DEAD EXTRA, a classic 1940s L.A. noir novel involving dirty cops, B-movie script girls, alcoholic screenwriters, a women’s mental hospital, blackmailing dirty-movie-makers, and a lousy former cop who was presumed dead in WWII but is very much alive, to Colleen Dunn Bates at Prospect Park Books, in a nice deal, for publication in Spring 2019 (world).

Author of HEAVEN’S CROOKED FINGER Hank Early’s next PI Earl Marcus mystery, to Faith Black Ross at Crooked Lane, by Alec Shane at Writers House (world).

General/Other
Author of the forthcoming Bogota 39 Juan Cardenas’s ORNAMENT, about the delusions of art, science, and love, and a drug trial gone wrong, to Lizzie Davis at Coffee House Press, in a nice deal, by Andrea Montejo at Indent Literary Agency on behalf of Editorial Periferica (NA).

Author of ME, MYSELF AND THEM Dan Mooney’s THE GREAT UNEXPECTED, in which two men in a nursing home strike up an unlikely friendship and plan an epic escape, pitched in the spirit of A MAN CALLED OVE, exploring themes of friendship, aging, finding oneself later in life, and experiencing newfound joy, again to Park Row Books, by David Forrer at Inkwell Management on behalf of Legend Press (NA).

Author of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano’s DEVOURING THE SKY, an epic story of male friendship, the enduring love between men and women, and the all-too-human search for meaning as it follows four Italian friends from youth to adulthood, to Pamela Dorman at Pamela Dorman Books, for publication in early 2020, by Andrew Wylie at The Wylie Agency (NA). The original Italian edition is published by Einaudi. Rights sold to Shanghai Translation in China, Le Seuil in France, Rowohlt in Germany, Slovart in Slovakia, Keter in Israel, and De Bezige Bij in the Netherlands.

UK
Author of THE HERBALIST Niamh Boyce’s HER KIND, based on the true 14th-century story of Alice Kytler and her maid, the only person to be burnt as a witch in Ireland, to Patricia Deevy at Penguin Ireland, for publication in spring 2019, by Nicola Barr at The Bent Agency.

Winner of The Guardian’s travel writing prize Matt Stanley’s A COLLAR FOR CERBERUS, telling the story of a callow young graduate who chauffeurs an irascible old writer on an epic trip around Greece, to David Haviland at Thistle.

Amy Patricia Meade’s COOKIN’ THE BOOKS and a sequel, featuring a literary cafe and catering company in a quaint southern town, to Kate Lyall-Grant at Severn House, in a two-book deal, by Jessica Faust at BookEnds.

 

Doc, the Dude, and Marlowe

Lebowski screenshotHave you ever watched The Big Lebowski and wondered to yourself, where does the Dude fit in the spectrum of constructed masculinity from Philip Marlowe to Doc Sportello? Have you ever wished there were a Pynchon scholar who could explain to you the ways in which writers rewrite famous texts, and how they revise them? Have you ever wished someone would really explain the specifics of how our culture teaches males to act like men? If so, you’re in luck. I just did all that.

Of course, I know most people don’t really ask those questions. But I do. I do a lot of scholarship. The University of Georgia Press published my book on Thomas Pynchon last summer. I’ve had a handful of articles in peer-reviewed journals lately. I’m proud of all that stuff, but there’s a downside. It’s hard to share it. Most of the peer-reviewed articles are behind a paywall. Only students and academics can access them. And my book on Pynchon is really important, but it also costs $60. I wouldn’t spend sixty bucks on a scholarly tome on Thomas Pynchon. Actually, I would. I have. Many times. But I have a hard time asking others to do that.

Anyway, bringing it all around, I’ve recently published an article in Orbit: A Journal of American Literature. It’s on all the things I wrote about up in my first paragraph. And Orbit does things right. They don’t charge people to read their journal. They don’t charge scholars to make their work open access. And still they find a way to get the top scholars in the field to vigorously peer-review everything they publish.

So long story short, if you want to read my article on masculinity in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, you can read it here.

And, while you’re there, you can read the review that one of the top Pynchon scholars in the world did of my book (it’s the fourth review; you have to scroll down).

The Totalitarian Playbook

Morpheus Totalitatarian PlaybookThree incidents in my life had become linked in my head. I felt like they were connected, but I couldn’t explain why. Whenever I talked about it, I ended up rambling. At the same time, the editor at Morpheus asked me if I’d written anything recently he could use. So I sat down and wrote an essay that allowed me to clear my head, articulate my thoughts, and get something over to the editor. I’m pretty pleased with how it came out. You can read it here.

Mercy of the Tide Review

I’ll admit that sometimes I review books by friends and acquaintances of mine. I do it often, actually. It is somewhat nepotistic in the sense that I choose my friends’ books as the subject of my reviews instead of books by strangers. It’s not nepotistic in the sense that I won’t review a book anything but honestly. Whether I know you or not, I say only what I genuinely believe in my reviews. That said, here’s my review of Keith Rosson’s book Mercy of the Tide. You can read the review in its original form here.

Rosson Mercy of the Tide

There’s a sense of impending disaster. The guy from TV is president. Moscow and the KGB threaten the American way of life. The doomsday clock ticks ever closer to midnight. People far from DC and national politics struggle to live lives without feeling overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness.

I’m talking, of course, about the alternate 1983 in Keith Rosson’s new novel The Mercy of the Tide.

The Mercy of the Tide opens in a sheriff’s office. A religious wingnut drops a mutilated seagull onto Sheriff Dave Dobbs desk. For the wingnut, the seagull portends something ominous and otherworldly coming to destroy this small coastal Oregon town. Dobbs feels slighted by the dead bird on his desk. Dobbs’ deputy, Nick Hayslip, grabs the wingnut and roughly evicts him. Dobbs and Hayslip aren’t interested in an abstract menace. Dobbs life was recently shattered when his wife Junie was killed in a car accident. Nick, for reasons that emerge later in the novel, is also devastated by this accident. Elsewhere in town, Sam and Trina Finster, the children of the woman who drove her car head-on into Junie Dobbs’ car, are trying to pick up the pieces after the loss of their mom.

Such is the backdrop for the novel. Something wicked is in the distance. Because this 1983 isn’t the one that happened but one that might have happened, nuclear apocalypse is still a looming threat. Trina, despite being nine, is obsessed with the threat. She believes the end is near. No one can comfort her. Her father is a commercial fisherman with no interest in international politics and little interest in raising his kids. Sam looks out for his kid sister, but he’s seventeen. The time is approaching when he should leave the confines of his hometown and reach for something bigger. The fact that Sam’s such an outcast doesn’t help matters. And what’s going on with this mysterious menace leaving mutilated animal corpses along the coastline?

The novel that unfolds somewhat defies genres. The mysterious menace lends a bit of a horror feel to the book. The small town cops forever driving in the rain gives it an air of noir. But Rosson’s willingness to show the consequences of the tropes of horror and crime novels take this out of genre fiction. When characters get killed, their death isn’t just a plot point. We care about the deaths. We mourn them, along with the characters in the book. When there’s a fight, the characters get hurt. They carry their wounds into subsequent chapters. The reader is never let off the hook.

At other times, The Mercy of the Tide feels like literary fiction. There are rich descriptions of coastal Oregon in a time that’s passed, and the depth of Rosson’s investigations into class, gender, disability, and anger go far beyond anything you’ll find in most mass-market paperbacks.

And it’s the anger aspect that carries the book for me. Understanding what anger is and how it operates may be the most important tool in navigating the next few years, because the one thing we see all around us today is a reason to be outraged. We seem to be trapped in an endless cycle of anger, and our anger is often justified. For Dobbs, there’s real reason to be angry. He lost his wife. Nick’s relationship with anger is valid, too. In both cases, though, they demand a form of payback. Whatever payback they get will prove to be unsatisfying. Their drive to enact that payback will doom them. But they hang on to it.

Sam Finster feels the anger early. He redirects it onto anyone and everyone. When his sister wipes out mud-sledding down a hill, his desire for payback leads him to laugh at her. Then he comes to his senses. He runs to help her and pulls her into his arms. As Rosson writes, “She was a slight weight that leaned against him, a weight nearly inconsequential. Christ, like she was mostly jacket. He felt blisteringly ashamed at his earlier resentment—he would take care of her. He would protect her. He would pick up Gary’s slack. She was so little, and she was nine, and afraid, and they had only each other now. He thought, I’ll do anything to make her safe.”

This scene occurs early in the novel, but it sets up the power of the book. We can watch characters consumed by their anger, their lust to make someone pay. We can watch anger destroy them as the world races toward a potential apocalypse. We can release that anger, let ourselves grieve, and learn what it means to love. We can be human and waver between those contrasting impulses. We can find ways to take care of ourselves and one another; we can find meaning even when we feel powerless and hope is hard to find.