Tuesday, August 07, 2012
Baltimore novelist Ariel S. Winter (photo by Philip Silverberg)
Earlier today, the first part of my interview with Ariel S. Winter, author of the brand-new and quite extraordinary crime novel, The Twenty-Year Death (Hard Case Crime), was posted on the Kirkus Reviews Web site. Click here to find that exchange.
As I explain there, The Twenty-Year Death is “an almost 700-page-long novel ... that’s really three self-contained (and individually titled) volumes in one, each set in a different decade of the 20th century and composed in a style reminiscent of a different mystery-writing master: Inspector Maigret creator Georges Simenon, first, followed by hard-boiled authors Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson.”
Winter, a 32-year-old resident of Baltimore, Maryland, was very generous with his time, answering my more than two dozen questions at significant length. Of course, that meant that there was considerably more material available than I had space to fit into Kirkus. So, below, I am posting the balance of our recent discussion, which covered everything from Winter’s wide-ranging employment history and his experiences in penning short stories to his interest in children’s picture books and some of his favorite crime novels.
J. Kingston Pierce: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer, and (asked with extreme sympathy, of course) why did it take you so long to reach this point?
Ariel S. Winter: I remember writing my first short story in fifth grade, and I took an elective creative-writing course as early as ninth grade, but it was probably 11th grade that I knew that writing was what I wanted to do above anything else. At the time, I was writing mostly for the theater. I switched back to prose fiction in college.
As to why it took so long ... That’s just the unfortunate nature of breaking into the business these days. I got my first agent one year out of college, and I got lots of positive rejections for many years from other agents and editors, things like “This is a great book, but I don’t think I can sell it in the current market.” Publishers want books to come in finished now, instead of looking at a great book, and saying if I invest in this author, he can develop into an even better author. So in an earlier time, I may have been supported much sooner, but maybe not.
JKP: Let’s go back to your mention of being interested in theater-writing. What was that all about, and have you maintained an interest in stage productions ever since?
ASW: It was in high school and college that I wrote for the theater ... I grew up in northern New Jersey only about half an hour from New York, so I went to a lot of Broadway shows, especially once I was old enough to go into the city alone. A close friend of mine writes music, and so, without telling him, I wrote the rough draft of a musical based on Beowulf, which I presented to him. Fortunately, he agreed to work with me on it, and we spent much of four years working on the project, which eventually had a staging at Princeton University.
During that time I wrote other plays, one-acts and full-length, some of which also had student college productions, and my friend and I developed other musicals. But by junior year of college, I began to feel like the musical couldn’t quite say what I wanted to say at the time, which was something morose and earnest, I think. And the frustration of collaboration left me wanting to do something that I was in complete control of. Those factors, joined with the fact that I was a student no longer living near New York and therefore seeing a whole lot less theater, ... brought me back to prose.
That being said, I have not closed the door completely on the stage, and there’s one musical that I joke about doing every time I see my friend, so I wouldn’t rule it out.
JKP: Did you grow up in a particularly bookish household?
ASW: When I was really little, my grandparents lived with us, and my grandmother was a voracious reader right up until her death. We talked about books all the time. My parents also read, and there were always books around, so I guess that qualifies as a bookish household, although I’m not sure I would have thought of it in those terms.
JKP: You’ve worked in the past as a library employee, a bookseller, and a publisher. Briefly, what were your experiences in each endeavor?
ASW: The summer between sophomore and junior year of college, I worked in the university’s main library as a stacks assistant. I re-shelved books that were returned to circulation, did shelf reading (which is making sure that the books are in the right order by reading all of the call numbers), and ... [I helped with] a major shift in order to eliminate several stacks to make more room for carrel space. For the summer between junior and senior year, and then for about six months after college, I worked in the university library’s preservation department primarily doing spine repairs on the general collection, but also doing some de-acidification, shrink wrapping, encapsulation, and other basic repairs. That first summer I also did journal preparation for commercial binding, which is taking a full year’s worth of issues for a journal, removing the covers, and tipping in the year’s table of contents, usually published with the final number of the year.
Then my first full-time job after college was as a bookseller at Borders. I did that for about three years, with a brief break to do a publishing internship at FSG [publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux]. At Borders, I oversaw the literature, poetry, and drama sections, as well as the DVDs.
(Left) The Corner Bookstore
After my stint at Borders, I worked as an editorial assistant at Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins, a medical textbook company, in their medical education department focusing on textbooks and research guides for medical students in the fields of anatomy, neuroanatomy, neuroscience, and one or two other disciplines.
Then I worked for a year as a full-time bookseller at The Corner Bookstore in Manhattan, which was a small neighborhood bookstore with a dedicated customer base. We didn’t have a computer inventory, but rather kept the inventory on pieces of paper, which forced us to really know all of the books in the store. It was an exciting place to work, because a lot of celebrities are regular customers, but also because a lot of publishers, editors, and journalists are regular customers as well, so it felt as though we were directly part of the whole publishing world, something I didn’t feel at Borders.
JKP: Oh, and I can’t forget to inquire about your previous exalted position as “a pie man.” What was that all about?
ASW: When I moved back to Baltimore after working at The Corner Bookstore, I worked at Dangerously Delicious Pies. It’s a pie shop founded by a former rock and roll musician, Rodney Henry, who still lives like he’s a rock and roll musician. My wife and I were big fans of his pies before we left for New York, so when we got back we went in [to the shop], and on a lark, I asked if they were hiring and if so, would I get to make pies, because if I was going to just work the retail side, I’d rather go to a bookstore. Fortunately they were hiring. The store was set up so that you were in there by yourself, doing all of the baking, all of the front-of-store [duties], all of the receiving, everything until the next guy came in.
We made sweet and savory pies, so in addition to all of the fruit pies and chess pies, we also made steak and gruyère pie, chicken pot pie, barbecue pork pie, and quiches. Rodney developed all of the recipes except for one: The Baltimore Bomb, which I created. It’s a chess pie with Berger’s cookies--a Baltimore fudge cookie--baked in. It was actually featured on The Food Network, although Rodney didn’t give me any credit. He did give me a shout-out at the taping for the Bobby Flay show, though, and my name used to be on the Web site. So my pie is the only pie on the menu not created by Rodney.
JKP: You started publishing short stories before you moved into novel writing. How long ago was that? And were those tales also crime related? And where might readers have seen your fiction in the past?
ASW: When I was in college, I wrote a lot of short stories, and submitted a lot of short stories. At that time, you still needed to send a physical story along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, so it got very expensive.
With the short-fiction market continually shrinking, I stopped writing short stories for a long time, figuring it would be easiest to get a novel published. Of course, on occasion, I’d still write a short story, and about four years ago, a friend let me know about a short-story contest for superhero stories. I happened to have a superhero story already written, so I submitted and won. After that success, I wrote a story in a similar vein, and submitted it to The Urbanite, which is a free monthly magazine in Baltimore, and that got picked up. Outside of those two stories, I don’t think I’ve published any other short fiction, although I’ve had work on McSweeney’s Web site. The stories were both crime related in the sense that one was about superheroes and the other was about a man stealing a police security camera, but I wouldn’t think of either of them as “crime stories.”
JKP: Ever since 2010, I believe, you’ve been composing a blog called We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie. It’s about “children’s books written by ‘adult’ authors,” people such as Aldous Huxley, John Updike, and Patricia Highsmith. Can you tell us why you began that work and whether you intend to continue it, now that you too have embarked on the life of an adult fiction author?
(Right) Author J.M. Barrie
ASW: We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie will be around forever. I have lots of authors queued up for entries, and I learn about more all of the time. It’s just very labor intensive. When I started out, I set the goal of publishing something every week, but that required easily over 20 hours a week, and it just wasn’t sustainable. Now, I try to get something up every six weeks, but there have been longer lapses as well.
It came about after years of noticing children’s books in various authors’ listed works, and wondering what those books were like and why nobody knew about them. Originally, I sent it around as a proposal for an anthology, but, while everyone loved the idea, no one thought it would be cost-effective. So I turned it into a blog, which is what it should have been in the first place. Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings, Graham Greene, Langston Hughes, the list goes on and on. And now some of the books I’ve blogged about have subsequently been reissued, such as Chinua Achebe’s How the Leopard Got its Claws and Eugene Ionesco’s four children’s books. My blog probably didn’t have anything to do with that, but it’s nice to think it might have.
JKP: And I must ask, what’s the source of your blog’s title?
ASW: The “Mr. Barrie” refers to James M. Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan. Peter Pan is of course about childhood, and whether it’s possible to carry your childhood into adulthood, or if the child’s world is cut off from you once you reach a certain age. I imagine Barrie as almost accusing adults, “Were you never children?” And that all of these authors, who have written for children, respond, “We too were children, Mr. Barrie.”
JKP: Your first book came out in June of this year: a work for children called One of a Kind (Aladdin). Had you long wanted to pen a book for youngsters? And what’s the story you tell in One of a Kind?
ASW: One of a Kind is about Lysander Singleton, an only child in a school where all the other children are twins. He’s ostracized for not having a sibling, but once a year the school holds a field day, the Twindividuation, meant to encourage the children to act independently. Lysander, who is always an individual, dominates the games and becomes a star in his school.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I started to think about writing a picture book. I wrote one in high school, but I don’t think that counts. It probably was when I was working at The Corner Bookstore. Almost 50 percent of the store’s business was in children’s books, and I oversaw much of the children’s section, so I became very familiar with the literature. I also was looking forward to having a child sometime in the next few years, so all of the books I looked at, I looked at with the excitement of one day sharing it with my child. And once I got into the form, I had to try my hand at it.
JKP: So do you have children now?
ASW: Yes, I have a 4-year-old daughter, and I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of books with her.
JKP: Do you want to write more children’s books?
ASW: I have several other picture book scripts that I’m very excited about. One is about Baltimore’s Domino Sugars Sign, in the tradition of The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge; another is an almost wordless picture book (interesting to write as a script with no pictures); and the third is a book that I’m thinking of expanding into an early chapter book. Whether it’s these books or other ones, I definitely hope to continue to write for children and for adults.
JKP: This is proving to be a big year for you, publishing-wise. Not only have you seen One of a Kind find its place on shelves, but your adult crime novel, The Twenty-Year Death is being released this week. Were you working on those two books simultaneously?
ASW: “Simultaneously” isn’t exactly right. I’d definitely started The Twenty-Year Death before I wrote One of a Kind, but I was either between books or drafts when I wrote One of a Kind. What’s possibly more interesting is that I sold One of a Kind a full year before The Twenty-Year Death. The lead time in picture books is much longer than in prose fiction, because when I sold One of a Kind, it was as a script. Aladdin then hired an artist, and that artist needed time to make the art. So from sale to published book was about two years. With The Twenty-Year Death the lead time was about one year.
JKP: This new novel is really three books in one, evoking the storytelling styles of Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. Whose style did you find the most enjoyable to work in?
ASW: I know the answer “all of them” is not very satisfying, but I don’t think I preferred one to another, really.
JKP: Have you long been a reader of crime and mystery fiction?
ASW: I’ve always been a mystery reader, though without considering myself a mystery reader. When I was a kid I read Sue Grafton, but really I was (and am) a die-hard comic-book reader. Most superhero fiction is actually detective/crime fiction, and I was especially a Batman fan, which is all detective/crime fiction. That, along with books like Sin City and One Hundred Bullets, fueled my interest in the hard-boiled aesthetic.
Then in the summer between senior year of high school and freshman year of college, a friend and I set ourselves the goal of watching all 100 of [the American Film Institute’s] best American films. We made it through about 60 of them, and many of those films are noir crime films: The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Chinatown, The Godfather, etc. So when I had the opportunity to take a hard-boiled fiction and film noir class in college, I signed up. That cemented my interest in classic hard-boiled crime: Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson, obviously, but also James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Patricia Highsmith. The only modern I have read in depth is James Ellroy, but he’s working in the same milieu; and I love Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon, who’ve both written within the hard-boiled aesthetic as well.
As an aside here, I’ve recently become a very big Tana French fan, and I feel like she’s going at the idea of a mystery series with different protagonists in a different and interesting way than I did. In each of her books [including Faithful Place and Broken Harbor], the protagonist of the next book was a secondary character in the previous one, so she’s building a shared world, but each book exists separately. And, of course, the books are all brilliant.
JKP: When it comes to Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson, which are your one or two favorite novels by each of those authors?
ASW: Simenon is the important one, because for a man who wrote over 200 books under his own name and many more under pseudonyms, it's impossible to know where to start. I didn’t read him for a long time myself, spending many hours online trying to figure out where to begin. In the end, I’ve read from what’s currently in print, which are the “hard novels” published by NYRB Books and the Maigrets published by Penguin. Of those, I love The Engagement, which is about a small-time pornographer getting framed for a murder. He is so pathetic, and the way everyone in his life turns on him is so isolating, and it’s all built around the image of a woman in a window; it’s devastating. For the Maigret books, The Yellow Dog is the one I drew on most heavily when writing Malniveau Prison. It’s typical of the books in which Maigret leaves Paris, and a good place to start.
For Chandler, my favorite is Farewell, My Lovely. It was built out of earlier short stories and as a result, it doesn’t fit together right, but in a way that makes it all feel so much more real. Of course, this whole drug ring doesn’t really have much to do with this murder case, and there's offshore gambling, but yeah, it all goes together. It’s the messiness that makes it true.
For Thompson, there’s always The Killer Inside Me. But one that might not come up as often is Savage Night. It’s about a young assassin who has successfully gotten himself out of the game, until The Man tracks him down and brings him in for one last kill. He needs to take a room in a rooming house posing as a student at the local teacher’s college in order to get close to his mark, and the way he fits into that role, prefers it really, coupled with the savagery we know he’s capable of, is intense.
JKP: Let’s talk about the fact that the characters who continue through the three yarns in The Twenty-Year Death are not the detectives, but rather writer Shem Rosenkrantz and his wife, Clothilde. First, could you describe, briefly, the characters/lives of Shem and Clothilde.
ASW: Shem Rosenkrantz is very loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald. He spent time in France, he spent time in Hollywood, and he spent time in Baltimore. His wife was hospitalized as a psychiatric patient. He was an alcoholic. He was once a critically and popularly successful writer who struggled to get enough work at the end of his life. Of course, there are many, many differences between Shem and Fitzgerald, such as the first marriage along with other things I don’t want to give away. Clothilde came about more organically. This treads on “where do your ideas come from,” which isn’t answerable. She is a beautiful French girl who married a much older American writer who took her to Hollywood, where she unexpectedly was “discovered” and became a very successful screen actress.
JKP: Tell us a bit about your experience at selling this book. Did you and your agent go directly to Hard Case Crime, or did you approach other publishers as well? Did everybody understand what you were hoping to accomplish here? And did editor Charles Ardai at Hard Case suggest many changes to your work?
ASW: I recently watched an interview that Harrison Ford gave when he was promoting Blade Runner in which he was asked, what roles have you turned down that have then gone on to be big successes for another actor. He deferred answering, effectively saying it wasn’t professional to discuss that kind of thing. That’s how I feel about the approach we took to selling the book.
I will say that I always knew that Hard Case Crime was the right place for it, that they would understand what I was doing. Charles was the best possible editor the book could have had. When he signed it, he told me, if I refused to make any changes, he’d publish it as is, but that he thought it could be an even stronger book if I was willing to do the work. In the end, the work was almost entirely in book two. Book three was untouched, and book one lightly touched, mainly to better explain certain things. Book two was reworked stylistically, to capture Chandler without the pitfalls that most people run into doing Chandler. Charles knows better than anybody what is cliché in the genre, and he was able to excise any clichés. All of his recommendations throughout the whole book were always spot on and valid, even when I chose to not adopt them, and there’s no question in my mind that the book would not be as good as it is if someone else had edited it.
JKP: What do you think of artist Chuck Pyle’s cover for The Twenty-Year Death?
ASW: When I signed with Hard Case Crime, my friend said, the first question is who gets the original art for your cover? All of their covers are so striking, and so beautiful. I remember when the line launched, walking into Barnes & Noble and seeing the initial list faced out, and zeroing in. I had to pick up those books, to figure out what they were. Chuck Pyle did the cover for the very first Hard Case Crime book [Grifter’s Game, by Lawrence Block], and I believe he’s done more covers in the line than anyone else. He’s the best.
While he was developing the cover, he did several sketches, and Charles shared them with me, something he doesn’t do with all of his authors. It’s a difficult book to capture in a single image, because of the different styles and the scope of the book. It doesn’t lend itself to somebody punching somebody out, that kind of action scene. None of us were super-excited by the initial sketches, but then, suddenly Chuck had the brilliant idea that became the cover. Charles knew someone who knew [actress] Rose McGowan, and he got her to agree to pose for Chuck as Clothilde. And the whole thing is just so perfect, and--not that I’m biased--possibly the best Hard Case cover so far.
(Right) Actress Rose McGowan
As to who gets the original art? I do have it. My wife and I were saving up to buy it, and separately, on their own, without my knowing, some of my friends took up a collection. In the end, my wife was able to get it for me as a surprise, and she had it framed without my knowing, and now it hangs just outside the door to our library.
JKP: One of the things about that cover, though, is it suggests the woman whose head we see, that of Clothilde Rosencrantz, will have a substantial role throughout the book. But Clothilde, who becomes Hollywood actress Chloë Rose in book two--starts to fade out as The Twenty-Year Death moves along. Her largest role is in book one, and by book three, she’s still a catalyst of the action, but is pretty much reduced to a bit player. Why did you choose to move her farther into the background as these stories roll along?
ASW: Again, it came about organically. I don’t want to give too much away, but the events of book two just happened. And after that, it made sense that she remain largely off screen in book three, but as you say, she’s still the driving force behind it all.
JKP: Finally, I read in your blog that you had a new short story, “Pawn,” rolling out through Hard Case Crime’s Twitter feed last month, 60 tweets a day. For those of us who missed reading “Pawn,” can you tell us something about its plot?
ASW: First, nobody need miss “Pawn.” Titan, my parent publisher, is collecting it on their blog after each day’s tweets. See here.
The story opens at a street race, where a man runs out into the middle of the race and gets hit by a car. He miraculously gets up and starts running, since two other men are chasing him. But he’s dropped a package that one of the street race’s spectators, a young mechanic, picks up. The three men involved in the chase have stolen what’s in the package, an antique carving, from a pawn shop because they believe it contains diamonds. The story is what they do to get the carving back.
Titan wanted a whodunit that could lend itself to a contest in which people could guess the end of the mystery. But instead, I’ve posed the question, who made the carving? It’s a literary reference. I’m eager to know if someone comes up with it.
READ MORE: “Writing The Twenty-Year Death,” by Ariel S. Winter (Lit Reactor); “Interview: Ariel S. Winter” (Crime Fiction Lover); “Digging Themselves Deeper,” by Marilyn Stasio (The New York Times).