It was last week that I heard the news: Edward Wright, an Arkansas-born former metropolitan newspaper editor and the award-winning author of five mystery novels, died on May 1 at a Southern California hospital. He was 75 years old, brought down by complications of lymphoma.
Wright had spent three decades in journalism, including 20 years at the Los Angeles Times, working mostly on that paper’s foreign desk, before switching careers. In 2001 he won the Debut Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association for his then-unpublished, 1940s-set novel, Clea’s Moon (released two years later on both sides of the Atlantic). It introduced readers to John Ray Horn, who had escaped a boyhood in northern Arkansas and an abusive preacher father to become cowboy hero “Sierra Lane” in a succession of cut-rate Western films for Medallion Studios. But his assault on the dandified son of Medallion’s chief exec earned him a two-year prison stint. Now, unhappily divorced and blacklisted among L.A. moviemakers, Horn keeps himself out of poverty by undertaking occasional debt collections for his former Native American co-star, casino owner Joseph Mad Crow. Clea’s Moon found Horn looking for his ex-stepdaughter, whose involvement in the “dirty pictures” racket might have led to her being kidnapped. In it’s initial sequel, While I Disappear (2004; titled The Silver Face in the UK), Horn struggled to figure out who strangled his once-beautiful female movie co-star, Rose Galen--a quest that
led him back into a hushed-up scandal of the 1920s. And in Red Sky Lament (2006), Wright’s disgraced protagonist tried to help a screenwriter targeted by zealots bent on purging Communists from Hollywood.
In addition to his Debut Dagger win, Wright picked up the Private Eye Writers of America’s 2005 Best P.I. Hardcover Novel prize for While I Disappear, and Red Sky Lament scored the 2006 Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award. Yet Wright chose to veer away from his John Ray Horn series in order to compose his first standalone, Damnation Falls (2007). Its story about a scandalized Chicago journalist who returns to his Tennessee hometown, hoping to help a childhood buddy reignite his political career (but instead stirring some very dangerous secrets from their slumber), captured the 2008 Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel. Two years later, Wright’s From Blood--about a rebellious young woman whose college-teacher parents are murdered, their deaths somehow related to 1960s anti-war activism--saw print in Britain but didn’t find a U.S. publisher until 2012.
Having read and very much enjoyed Wright’s three Horn mysteries, I arranged to interview the author in 2006. I e-mailed him a primary set of questions about his work and life, and then some weeks later followed up with a
shorter selection of queries, some of which asked for more detail about things he’d told me already. My plan was to gather all of that material together and publish it in an online magazine to which I often contributed, but my workload back then was pretty onerous, and I was having issues with the publication in which I intended to place the Wright piece. One thing led to another, months of distractions ensued, and I eventually abandoned the project, much to my regret (and to the author’s disgruntlement).
But when I read that Edward Wright had passed away (leaving behind Cathy, his psychotherapist wife of 22 years), I decided to dig out the results of our exchange and finally post them here, in slightly edited form. Reading through this lengthy interview, I am reminded of Wright’s conscientiousness in explaining the facets of his life, and what I thought was his remarkable modesty about the successes he’d enjoyed. We covered a great deal of ground during our online discussion, from his Arkansas boyhood to his days as a nuclear weapons officer with the U.S. Navy, his start as a big-city journalist in Chicago to his fondness for the tales of Raymond Chandler and Robert Heinlein, his unsteady beginnings as a fictionist to his hopes of creating a life in which he penned series mysteries and standalone thrillers. Because this interview was conducted in 2006, Wright refers to Damnation Falls by its original title, Redemption Falls.
J. Kingston Pierce: Where in Arkansas were you born?
Edward Wright: In Hot Springs, an
old-time resort known for its scenery, its hot-water baths, and its on-and-off casino gambling and horse racing--not to mention favorite son Bill Clinton. In the old days it drew gangsters down from New York and Chicago; today it’s a vacation and convention spot. I lived there until I went off to college.
JKP: Tell me a bit about your growing up in Arkansas. I think many people have a distorted view of what an Arkansas boyhood is like. They think it was either overwhelmingly idyllic, or backwoods and racist. Set us straight.
EW: I’m sure parts of my growing-up would sound quaint and rural to some--camping with the Boy Scouts each summer, duck hunting on Lake Ouachita (pronounced WASH-i-taw, for all you outlanders), taking dates to the drive-in for burgers and malts. But Hot Springs was a curious mixture of small town and cosmopolitan melting pot, because of all the tourists and retirees from elsewhere. And of course there was the gambling, which gave the town a whiff of corruption that it’s only now outgrowing. (Today the horse racing is all that remains.) My best friend’s father was a bookmaker in one of the technically illegal bookie joints along Central Avenue. For years, one of our most famous residents was Owney Madden, the New York mobster who once ran the Cotton Club in Harlem and later lived out a peaceful retirement in Hot Springs. My mother, an ardent golfer, once saw him playing, shirtless, in a foursome at the golf course and reported breathlessly that his chest was stitched with old bullet holes.
On the question of race, it’s true that Arkansas, like all the South, has had to climb out from under the burden of its past. And as [William] Faulkner keeps telling us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I like to think the good people of the state can learn from that past and are eager to move into the future. It’s easy to stereotype a place like Arkansas. As one example, the public schools have tended not to rank very high. But one
of my high-school friends later went on to run Duke University, and another became commanding officer of the battleship Missouri. And Clinton didn’t turn out too badly, unless you happen to be a Republican. So we must have learned something useful.
For a good account of growing up in Hot Springs, read Shirley Abbott’s The Bookmaker’s Daughter. Her father was a bookie there too.
JKP: What kind of people were your parents? Do you come with the same sort of familial baggage
that many novelists carry?
EW: I think almost everyone carries baggage. Writers may be a little more articulate on the subject, that’s all. Here’s my version: I was lucky to have two loving parents, but I was also aware early on that they had problems to wrestle with and that they thought it best not to talk much about them. Later on, I was able to fill in most of the blanks. One was the suicide of my grandfather when my father was very young; another was my older half-sister’s mental illness. My dad, a hardware salesman, was troubled through much of his adult life, was briefly
hospitalized, and--as a mark of that less enlightened time--underwent electroshock therapy. When he died at age 80, I think it’s fair to say he had not seen a lot of happiness in his long life.
I can barely remember my half-sister, since she spent so much time in and out of mental institutions. Finally on her own--although she shouldn’t have been--she left home for good. Years later, in her 40s, she died of a combination of drugs and alcohol.
All of which sounds a little like Eugene O’Neill. But my younger sister and I came through it fairly well, I think, partly because our mother--a good-hearted woman with a lot of native wisdom--did her best to shield us from a lot of it. And if I learned anything from all those years, it’s that fresh air is a lot more effective than secrecy. One of the themes that has crept into my books is that of fathers and sons. It’s been a minor theme up until now, but in my next book [Redemption Falls] it will be a lot more visible.
JKP: Were there any people who, early on, convinced you that your career calling was to become a writer?
EW: Sure: Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Zane Grey, Mickey Spillane (don’t laugh). But I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought they, and a hundred others, were just inspiring me to READ. For years, all through grade school and high school and college, I just wanted to read. The writing bug didn’t bite me until much later, when I finally understood that all those writers had planted the seed years earlier.
JKP: Heaven forfend that I should laugh at your note about Mickey Spillane inspiring you to write! He certainly occupies a rightful place in the crime fiction-writing pantheon, and one of my longtime favorite authors in this genre, Max Allan Collins, is a big promoter of Spillane’s. But do you believe ol’ Mickey hasn’t been given his proper due as a developer of the American crime story?
EW: No, actually I see him given a lot of credit. For a long time, he had the image of someone who wrote for the semi-literates. But now I think he’s become more respectable. People see him as a bridge between the pulp writers and the detective novelists, with a lean and very readable writing style. You don’t look to him for subtlety. But when you’re 14 years old and ready to move beyond boys’ adventure stories, there’s Mike Hammer, busting down doors and cracking heads. And there’s Velda too, the private secretary of our adolescent dreams. Let us not forget Velda.
The USS Rowan, on which Wright once served.
JKP: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
EW: I’m glad to say I’ve never had a truly horrible job. Even some of the roughest ones--pouring concrete and building bridges over remote creeks in the humid Arkansas summer for the U.S. Forest Service, or hauling boxes of pipe fittings around the basement of a hardware store--had silver linings, usually in the form of the people I worked with. Probably the job that got to me the worst was nuclear weapons officer aboard the USS Rowan. It was the Cold War Navy, my ship had just been selected to carry nukes, and I was put in charge of them, with all that the job involved--safety, security,
training, record-keeping, maintenance. Nothing in the rule-happy U.S. military gets so much attention, worry, and obsessiveness as the care and feeding of nuclear weapons. Being one of their keepers can make you old
before your time. Lucky I was still in my 20s, so I had lots of room to age.
JKP: How does one acquire the job of nuclear weapons officer on board a Gearing-class destroyer, which is what I believe the USS Rowan is. Did you actually volunteer for that position? If not, what made someone
else think you were the right guy to handle nukes? (Yikes!) And for how long did you carry out that assignment?
EW: Kind of a long story. I was working as the Rowan’s anti-submarine warfare officer when the ship went through a major modernization. Nine months later, she came out with a bunch of new weapons systems, including something called ASROC, an anti-sub rocket that can carry a small nuclear warhead. Since that system was part of my responsibility, it was natural for the skipper to send me to nuclear weapons training school and hand me the “collateral duty” of nuclear weapons officer to go along with my anti-sub job. We were actually nuclear-capable for only about the last six months of my hitch. Destroyers are small ships, with a handful of officers. Everybody gets more than one job. At one time or another, I was also gunnery officer, legal officer, and assistant navigator.
JKP: Did you say you left Arkansas only to attend Vanderbilt University in Tennessee? Tell me about that college experience.
EW: I spent a year at Hendrix College in Arkansas first, but then I began to get that English-major gleam in my eye and knew that I should move on. I landed at Vanderbilt because of the reputation of its English department, where memories of Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and others were still fresh. During one of Warren’s visits back to the campus, I tracked him down and got him to inscribe my copy of All the King’s Men. Donald Davidson, one of the poets of the Fugitive movement, was there, and I studied under him. I still remember some of his comments about the poetry of Yeats, Eliot, and Frost, and the sound of his voice as he read some of his own lines from “Lee in the Mountains” in his gentle Tennessee accent.
JKP: Am I right, that you went into the U.S. Navy after finishing at Vanderbilt? Why? And how did that experience help shape you?
EW: The draft was hanging over all of us back then. I had no taste for graduate school right away and wasn’t married, so I had to do something. The Navy was an easy choice, since I’d read [Joseph] Conrad and had a yearning to go to sea. Sometime around graduation, a friend and I went down to the Navy recruiting office in Nashville
and said we wanted to sign up. Turned out we had walked in the wrong door. “Y’all are college boys,” the recruiter said with some amusement. “You want to be officers. Go on upstairs.” Eventually we found the right place, signed the
papers, and a few months later I was going through officer training in Newport, Rhode Island, in the dead of winter. After four months, the Navy spit me out into the fleet as a newly commissioned ensign.
The military’s never fun, but I like to look at the bright side. No one ever fired a shot at me. I learned a few things about leadership and being organized. I learned to navigate by the stars and how to dock a 2,200-ton destroyer alongside a pier. I learned how to get up at midnight to stand a four-hour watch on the bridge, then go below for two more hours’ sleep before reveille. I saw nuclear explosions light up the skies over a tiny dot near the equator called Christmas Island.
And best of all, I got to go to sea--to Hawaii and Kingston [Jamaica], Curacao, and Cartagena, and lots of other places. Conrad was right. The ocean gets to you. I remember one night somewhere in the South Pacific, when I had just gotten off watch and wasn’t sleepy. I went up to the bow and leaned over, listening to the rush of the water. I was alone. Behind me were the running lights on the superstructure, but ahead was mostly blackness. All I could see at first were the stars, including the Southern Cross. Then I noticed that the bow wake gave off its own light, from billions of tiny phosphorescent creatures disturbed by the passage of the ship. We were making our own light in the water. It was magical.
JKP: How long were you in the Navy?
EW: Three years, most of which I spent aboard the Rowan, with occasional temporary duty in places like Philadelphia, Key West, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The Rowan was home-ported in San Diego, and for an Arkansas boy who hadn’t yet seen much of the world, Southern California was a wondrous place. Most of my jobs involved weapons of one kind or another. Before the aforementioned nukes came along to bedevil me, I spent a lot of time working on what the Navy calls anti-submarine warfare. ASW is a fascinating kind of chess match between surface ships and submarines, with each adversary trying to out-game the other, the subs hiding in the depths and the ships
trying to smoke them out.
JKP: Did you consider making the military a career?
EW: No, for all that I got out of the Navy experience, I never considered staying in. I’m too much of a civilian at heart.
JKP: We hear a lot about Guantánamo Bay these days, thanks to the incarceration of alleged “war on terror” participants. Do you have any distinct recollections of that place?
EW: Back then, the Navy considered it tough duty to be stationed there because it was so isolated, and just on the other side of the fence was Fidel’s Cuba, where we couldn’t exactly go for R&R. So, to make Gitmo duty bearable, the Navy set up all the comforts of home--golf course, movie theater, bowling alley, swimming pool. The last time I hit a golf ball was at Guantánamo Bay. My memories, as you can guess, are pleasant ones. The memories of some of those living there now will be very different.
JKP: There’s been a lot of talk, in these years since the start of the Iraq war and its drain on the U.S.
military, about renewing the draft. And some have said that it might be good to have a less homogeneous mix of people in the military, rather than just the gung-ho volunteers; that more diversity in the ranks might help people come out
of the military with a more well-rounded view of the world. What do you think about that?
EW: I’m happy with a volunteer military today, as long as it produces the numbers we need. To bring in people who want to serve, the military has been forced to remold itself into an attractive career choice, and that’s a good thing. In emergencies, though--and the time may not be too far away--we’ll need a draft. Ideally it won’t be the discriminatory Vietnam-era draft that took blacks from the cities and whites from the farms and left college students alone. It’ll be more inclusive. In Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein came up with the notion that military service should be a prerequisite for the right to vote. Sometimes I think the old curmudgeon might have been onto something.
JKP: Were you a big Heinlein fan? I read a lot of his books in high school
and college, and I’m glad to have done so.
EW: I discovered him in junior high, and he was a hugely entertaining writer. All of his characters seemed smart and naturally funny, and I liked the way the dialogue snapped and crackled and moved the plot along. Then, later, I saw that some of his books actually expressed ideas. One of them, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, recasts
the notion of the American Revolution in future terms, with moon colonists trying to throw off the weight of government from Earth. Starship
Troopers raises the question of the importance of the military in a free society. “Universe” is a wonderful adventure story set in deep space about the opening of the mind to knowledge (at least I think that’s what it’s about.). And then there’s The Puppet Masters, which may or may not have a deeper message but which is out-and-out the most entertaining SF thriller I’ve ever read. Too bad the movie stunk.
JKP: I understand that after the Navy, you headed to Chicago’s Northwestern University to study journalism. Is that right? And did you go to Northwestern already figuring that a life in the media was your destiny? How deep was your interest in journalism?
EW: Sometime during my Navy hitch, I came up with journalism as a practical way of applying whatever I’d picked up in that notoriously impractical B.A. in English. So I went for a master’s in journalism at Northwestern. It turned out to be a pretty good choice. The journalism school there was of the practical sort, with no master’s thesis, just a lot of fairly demanding courses. Toughest for me was something called “Reporting of Public Affairs,” in which we were cast adrift in the streets of Chicago and required to cover the news--police, fire department, schools, hospitals, city government, whatever our beat happened to be--right alongside the reporters for the city’s four daily newspapers, then come back to our “newsroom” and write up the day’s news. The learning curve, as one can
imagine, was steep. Since we didn’t have real press credentials, we often had to talk our way past police lines, for instance, or into the mayor’s press room. In that kind of situation, you learn to deal with rejection real fast.
You learn to fail, then try again. You learn that journalism is more about shoe leather than about writing editorials in an ivory tower.
JKP: How eye-opening was it to you to go from Arkansas to the Windy City? What were your impressions of Chicago?
EW: I had almost no image of Chicago before I went there. I was surprised to hear that it was on a lake, since for a time I’d imagined it as an enormous stockyard sitting out on the prairie. I knew all the clichés--Al Capone, the big fire, The Front Page--but none of the realities. When I first arrived, I found it a little overwhelming. Unlike any other place I’d lived, it’s a true city, with a dense downtown and a fast-paced street life. I was lost for a while, and the people seemed distant. The climate is hard to take--brutal in the winter, hot and muggy in the summer. Then, little by little, I settled in. I got a job and took an apartment in an area called Old Town, in a building dating back to the early 1900s. My place was a small, fourth-floor walkup, with a rickety balcony overlooking a courtyard and a view of the downtown skyline. Everything I needed, it seemed, was within walking distance. A block away was the Second City cabaret, and one of the second-floor apartments in my building was used by some of the performers. For a while, the mailbox read “Belushi,” and for a while after he left, it said “Candy.” I slowly got to know the city. I made friends. And pretty soon I found that I liked Chicago.
JKP: You now live in L.A. But do you visit Chicago periodically? Do you miss it? And what’s the one thing every tourist in Chicago has to see?
EW: I’ve been back twice, the first time to visit friends, the second to attend Bouchercon last September . I miss the city-ness of the place, the real skyline, the world-class architecture, the neighborhoods made for walking, the parks, the lake, the deep-dish pizza. I’d long wanted my wife to see Chicago, since she had no clearer an image of it than I first did. So she came with me to Bouchercon. We walked a lot, ate a lot, saw a lot. She loved it, and it didn’t take long before I felt at home again.
What’s the one thing you have to see? Don’t pin me down. But I’ll pretend I’m writing my own guidebook (and make sure you’re there in the spring or fall, OK?). For starters, get out of town. Take the El out to Oak Park and tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio, then spend an hour walking around the tree-shaded neighborhood to see the astonishing collection of homes he designed. Back in Chi-town, visit the Museum of Science and Industry, guaranteed
to bring out the kid in everyone. The museum is housed in the only building left from the Columbian Exposition of 1893. (Reading [Erik Larson’s] The Devil in the White City will give you the historical background.) Walk along North State
and Astor streets amid a wonderful collection of mansions and townhouses, most of them now broken up into apartments. Take the architectural boat tour up and down the Chicago River, then visit the Art Institute, one of America’s
great museums, and don’t miss the Impressionists. Afterward, stroll around Grant Park, between Lake Michigan and the Loop, and take in the sight of that incomparable skyline I mentioned. And then there’s deep-dish pizza for dinner. I recommend Pizzeria Due on North Wabash.
Wright once worked for the Chicago Tribune.
JKP: After finishing a master’s program in journalism at N.U., I understand you signed on as a reporter with the Chicago Tribune. Was that your dream job? Or had you been dreaming about doing something different with your bright new degree?
EW: I think I had a vague notion of going into magazine journalism, but the best magazine jobs
were in New York City, and I didn’t particularly want to live there. Big-city daily newspapering sounded exciting to me, and the Northwestern journalism school functioned as a kind of farm team for the Chicago papers, so I didn’t have any trouble landing a job.
JKP: Chicago journalists have a reputation for being as hard-nosed and dogged as their Manhattan counterparts. Did you discover myriad great journalistic characters during your time at the Trib?
EW: A lot of the Chicago newspaper stereotypes came out of the 1920s and ’30s, when the business was a
lot wilder and reporters were more concerned with getting the story first than with getting it right. By the time I went to work there, things had calmed down considerably. But it was still a colorful scene, with an assortment of
characters. Drinking was the favorite sport at all the papers, and there were plenty of watering holes in the neighborhood. At one of them, my city editor got into a fistfight with one of his own reporters, who was soon out of a job. Harry Romanoff, night city editor of the afternoon American, was notorious for calling up cops at crime scenes and impersonating officials such as the county coroner to get them to spill details. I have fond memories of a gent named Roland J. Spokely, who mentored me on the local copy desk at the Trib. Spoke, as we called him, had worked in newsrooms all over America and was in his twilight years by the time he came to rest in Chicago. Obese and unkempt, he walked with a cane, smoked filthy cigars, wore a vest and tie that were always sprinkled with ashes, and hummed loudly to himself as he deftly pencil-edited reporters’ stories. He also took lunches that were mostly liquid and was noticeably happier in the latter part of his shift. On the day I joined the desk as the greenest of copy editors, he did not deign to speak to me. But later in the day, he passed me a half-sheet of copy paper on which he
had scribbled the exhortation “Edit Tight.” I don’t think the double entendre was intentional.
JKP: How long did you stay at the Trib? And what sorts of subjects did you cover for that newspaper? Was it a satisfying experience?
EW: Chicago at the time had four daily papers--two morning, two afternoon. The morning Tribune was the biggest of the four, housed in a Gothic tower that loomed over North Michigan Avenue just north of the river. The competition among the four was intense, and it was important not to be beaten by your rival--in our case, the Sun-Times. It wasn’t enough just to put out a good paper; you had to have stories that your competitor didn’t.
I spent a couple of years as a junior reporter, covering meat-and-potatoes stories, before I decided that editing appealed to me more. For the next several years I worked as a copy editor on the local desk, as a night picture editor, makeup editor, and then assistant news editor. In this last job, I laid out the news pages in the front section of the paper for the final edition every night. It was fast-paced and exciting; it involved seat-of-the-pants editing and making quick news judgments.
Working at the Tribune, while it lasted, was one of the most fun things I ever did. Chicago newspaper people were a little bit more brash than some of their counterparts at other papers. There was a lot of yelling, something that would be frowned on in the more respectable newsrooms today. Reporters yelled “Copy!,” editors
hollered “Lookup!,” and the city editor would occasionally scream across the room to an unlucky reporter being sent out on a cold night: “Murphy--hat and coat!”
Things would build to a crescendo every night--copy boys dashing around the room, phones ringing, typewriters (and later computer keyboards) clacking. Finally, around 9:30, the last piece of copy moved to the composing room, and the city room grew quiet. Reporters and many of the desk people went home; the rest went for coffee or a late “lunch.” Then, around 11, we could feel a faint vibration coming up from the floor as the giant presses began rolling in the basement. And not long afterward, copyboys would move quickly around the room, distributing the first papers off the presses, their pages still damp and smelling of ink. And a few minutes after that, here came the first copies of the Sun-Times. If we’d beaten them, we gloated. If they’d beaten us, we knew we’d have to play “catch-up.” And a few hours later, we’d show up at work again, the slate wiped clean, another news cycle ready to begin.
JKP: Did you go directly from there to working at the Los Angeles Times? And why make the move? Was it simply a better job offer?
EW: It was in fact a better job offer--partly because of the money, but also because it allowed me to finally return to Southern California. The combination was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
JKP: What were your initial impressions of the City of Angels? Did you see it through Raymond Chandler’s rather romantic lens, or as a crass place to make a living?
EW: I found L.A. to be a very welcoming town, just the way I found San Diego in my Navy days. There seems to be a place for everyone out here. You just have to find your niche. It takes adjustments, no question. The city has no single center, at least not in the sense of New York or Chicago. It’s more a collection of communities. You’ll spend more time in your car than you ever did before. Don’t come here if you need your air to be clean and pure. Watch out for earthquakes and brush fires and mudslides. I never try to sell L.A. to anyone, because I assume they must be happy where they are. But I like knowing that, without traveling far, I can take a walk along the ocean whenever I want, or hike up a remote canyon out of sight of everyone and everything. In the suburb where my wife and I live, we’re very close to the L.A. city line. But our street is quiet, we often see red-tailed hawks overhead, and
our yard gets occasional visits from possums and raccoons. And once or twice we’ve actually seen a coyote skulking along the street just after dawn. One of the L.A. clichés is that the place is one big shopping mall. Well, the malls are here, no question. But nature’s here too. How many cities this size can say that?
I’d have to argue about Chandler’s take on L.A. He’s one of my favorite writers, and I find myself going back to him periodically the way you go to the well for fresh water. But I think we bring a lot of our own romanticism to his books. The great Chandler style, the Marlowe voice, comes with a heavy dose of bile. When Marlowe talks about L.A., it’s usually in tones of disgust. Chandler obviously found great raw material in this city, but I don’t think he ever particularly liked it or felt at home here. And when he finally got enough money, he moved down the coast to that rich enclave called La Jolla, a long way from the mean streets of L.A. that he wrote about so beautifully. For all its many faults, I like this town. When I left Chicago, it took me in and offered me sunshine and oranges and red-tailed hawks. And I think that comes through in my writing.
(Left) Raymond Chandler
JKP: OK, you’re right about Raymond Chandler not portraying L.A. in a totally romantic light. But the fact that he was writing about the city at a time when it was coming into its own as a metropolis--California’s principal one, much to the consternation of San Francisco--gives the Los Angeles in his books a gauzy, nostalgic tone. Do readers (or even reviwers) try to compare your writing about postwar L.A. with Chandler’s work from that same period? And do you ever feel influenced by Chandler’s impressions of L.A., since he was there in the 1940s, and you weren’t?
EW: I don’t know if anyone’s every compared me with Chandler. If they did, it would make my year. As for being influenced, show me a mystery writer who hasn’t been, in ways great or small. But I don’t think I take many
specific cues from him as to the look of the city. After all, I’ve got photos of 1940s L.A., and those great old
movies shot on the streets during that time. I can make up my own geography. And as for his impressions, I’ve mentioned that I don’t exactly share his distaste for the city. The old L.A. I write about is a place where I would have wanted to live.
JKP: What do you think is the most distinctive, hard-to-duplicate element of Chandler’s crime
EW: The voice. Wry and sentimental, tough and poetic all at the same time.
JKP: So, back to your journalism career. How long were you at the Times? And did you work a beat there, or do more feature reporting?
EW: I came to the Times as an editor and, aside from an occasional book review or something like that, never really worked as a writer. I started as a copy editor on the national desk and soon moved to the foreign
desk as the Middle East specialist. I edited all the news out of that part of the world for the next few years, then was promoted to assistant foreign editor. I helped supervise the work of the paper’s some three dozen foreign correspondents, assigning and editing their stories. It was a good job, even more challenging than my time in Chicago.
I helped run the foreign coverage for some of the big international news stories, including the first Persian Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Times was a different experience. It was a better-written and -edited paper than the Tribune, with more Pulitzer Prizes to show for it, but it also had more of the feel of a big, sedate organization. No
yelling, no rushing around. No sense of cutthroat competition for local news, because the Times had no real
competition in the city. Something gained, for sure, but something lost, too. And you know what? Today just about every newspaper has become more sedate, including, I’m sure, the Trib itself.
JKP: Were you happier being an editor than a writer?
EW: Yes. Newspaper folk divide neatly into writers and editors, and they usually pick one track or the other fairly early in their careers. After a couple of years as a reporter, I switched over to copy editing and found I liked it more. Each job has its attractions. The writer covers the news, creates the story, and gets the byline. The editor may deal with 20 stories a day instead of one or two and, depending on the job, may write the headlines, design the pages, or even decide which stories make it into the edition and which don’t. The writer’s focus is usually up-close, the editor’s more long-range.
JKP: In all your years as a journalist, what’s the weirdest experience you had, or the oddest
story you had to tackle?
EW: I think the experience that has stuck with me the longest was the time I spent in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. I went there not as a reporter but as an editor who wanted to get to know that part of the world better. I was actually on a swing that included Egypt
and Israel as well, but Beirut left the strongest impression. The civil war was three years old, with another 12 years to run, and most of it was focused on off-and-on fighting between the Muslims of West Beirut and the Christians of the East.
Before the war, Beirut had been known as the Paris of the Middle East. But the first year of the war had done horrendous damage to the city. Much of the downtown was in ruins, with the big hotels and high-rises pocked by artillery shells and abandoned. The city was split between east and west along what they called the Green Line, and for blocks on both sides of the Green Line, everything was mostly rubble. I could hear small-arms fire every night.
A few years later things would turn much darker--an invasion by Israel, kidnappings of Americans by terrorists, and the suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks that killed hundreds. But while I was there, the fighting was in a lull. I was able to hire a car and driver, get around, talk to people, see things.
One incident sobered me up, though. My driver was taking me over to East Beirut along the only access road that
wasn’t closed at the time, an elevated highway. As we crossed from west to east, passing gutted high-rise buildings, I looked down at the wasteland called the Green Line and reached for my camera. “Slow down,” I told the driver. “I
want to get a picture.” “Cannot slow down,” he said. “Why not?” “Snipers,” he replied, gesturing toward the buildings we were passing, with their hundreds of vacant windows. “Great,” I said quickly. “Step on it.” Who needs photos?
Postscript: Some time after that, a former Chicago Tribune reporter named Sean Toolan came to Beirut as a freelance writer. He was the guy who had once traded punches with his own city editor. But this was Beirut, where no one fought with their fists. Sean was shot to death on the street in what was apparently an attempted robbery.
JKP: A lot of authors start out in journalism, knowing that there’s very little hope of them making a living as novelists first. What do you think are the most important lessons learned by earning your authorial wings in a hectic newsroom?
EW: I don’t think you learn anything about writing fiction by working in a newsroom, unless your
name is Jayson Blair. But there’s a lot to be said for the discipline of reporting and editing, where the emphasis is on clarity, on simple declarative sentences, and on writing
without a slew of adjectives and adverbs. It’s like putting up the skeleton of a building. You start with that, and all the flourishes come later. It’s good training whether you go on to be a reporter, essayist, novelist, playwright, or the guy who writes the annual report for the Consolidated Widget Company.
JKP: I don’t know about you, but I started out in journalism (at newspapers, then at magazines) thinking I was doing an important public service, breaking stories that needed to be told, following the Woodward and Bernstein vision. But I wound up realizing that so much of journalism is just filling copy holes, and trying to seduce readers into believing that they’re getting more than they really are. Maybe I’ve gotten bitter over the years, but I needed to get out of journalism. Did you have similar disappointments/doubts?
EW: There’s something in what you say. Remember, it’s the ads that are laid into the pages first, not the articles. That tells you where most of a newspaper’s profit comes from. But some newspapers try to fill those holes with excellent stuff, not just with stuff, and the challenge to do that every day was part of the lure of journalism for me.
Having said that, daily journalism can wear on you. A lot of people enjoy it and then, having done it, need to move on. That was me. After years of newspapering, I felt like trying something different.
JKP: At some point you stopped working for the Times, and moved toward becoming a full-time novelist. When was that? And what was the transition period like? Was it frightening to make the leap? Did
you have much support?
EW: I left the Times in ’93. The transition period was a little scary, because I had no training as a novelist. To get started, I read a few books on the subject (they must not have helped much, because I can’t
remember them). I took a couple of classes at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program (which were a little more helpful). And I joined an informal writing group composed of a few friends. That proved to be the biggest help of all, because it got me used to producing material on time, thoughtfully reading the work of others and being critiqued by them. Fiction writing is a lonely business, so it helps to get together periodically with others who have the same affliction. I also got support from Cathy--who, by strange coincidence, told me she’d once thought it might be nice to be married to a writer. Now she’s stuck with one.
JKP: Tell me: What was your hardest lesson in becoming a novelist, after spending so long in
EW: This may sound strange, but the hardest thing was to learn how to make things up. All the writing/editing work I’d done up until then had to do with facts--uncovering facts, putting them into words and sentences, rearranging them to make more sense, etc. Creating it all from scratch was a giant leap for me. It meant
learning to exercise my imagination and to have faith in what resulted.
JKP: I can definitely relate. After writing half a dozen non-fiction books, I’m currently working (oh so slowly) on my first novel, and discovering just how much I didn’t know about writing fiction before I started. It’s damnably difficult work, but immensely gratifying, especially when I get into a groove where it seems I’m just writing down what my characters tell me happened next in their story. Do you ever have that same sort of experience?
EW: Sometimes it seems as if it’s happening that way. But then I remind myself that I dreamed up
the characters, and they can’t do anything unless I really want them to. I think what happens is that as a character develops and you get to know her better, she begins to offer you more choices as to the role she can play in the story. In that sense, I guess she’s speaking to you. But you still have to decide. In a way, that’s one of the toughest things for me about writing fiction, and it’s miles away from journalism--the issue of deciding what to do
next. Because in non-fiction, your choices are governed somewhat by the raw material, the facts. In fiction, your choices are almost without number.
JKP: What element of novel-writing have you still not mastered?
EW: All of it. Every part of writing--plotting, narration, description, character, dialogue--is
tough to do, and I just hope to get better at all of those things as I go along.
JKP: So, how many novels did you write before you began work on Clea’s Moon? What were they about, and are they still waiting to be dusted off and revamped someday?
EW: I wrote one fragment of a novel, about 20,000 words, that was so stupefyingly bad I shoved it far back in one of my deepest drawers. There it still sits, never to emerge. Then, around the time I joined the writing group, I started another novel that, with the group’s help, I eventually finished about three years later. A New York literary agent liked it well enough to take me on, but he wasn’t able to sell it. I think writing it was good training for me, and there are things about it I still like. Maybe someday I’ll try to dust it off.
JKP: Can you say more about that unpublished novel? I’ve heard it had something to do with “a notorious murder in 1940s Hollywood.” Might that be referring to the 1947 Black Dahlia killing, which has already provided the jumping-off point for James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia and Max Allan Collins’ Angel in Black?
EW: No, although that’s a great topic, and I’m sure people will be writing about her forever. What I had in mind was a little closer to the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the silent film director--although that happened in 1922. In my book, a scoundrel of a director is killed in 1948 as he is filming an epic about the Spanish Civil War. The movie is never finished, and the answers to everything take 40 years to work out. I also got ideas from the fascinating story of the filming of I, Claudius in the 1930s by director
Josef Von Sternberg. It was shaping up as a potentially great film (Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon among the cast) but was shut down and never finished. The reasons were complicated but did not have to do with a murder.
JKP: Why didn’t you become discouraged after having so many agents turn down your first novel?
Many another writer would’ve gone on to some other career, instead.
EW: Well, I’d tried newspapering, and there was nothing else I wanted to do as much as write
fiction. Besides, I’d told too many people what I was doing. To give up would have been pretty embarrassing.
JKP: Had you enjoyed a long love affair with crime and mystery fiction prior to your starting Clea’s Moon? Or was this new territory for you? And what got you interesting in tackling the genre?
EW: I’ve always enjoyed a well-written mystery or thriller. But I like to read almost everything, including a lot of non-fiction. Getting into writing, I think I saw crime fiction as a manageable genre, with recognizable rules and parameters, that may be a little more friendly to the beginning writer. I still believe
that, but once you get into it, you recognize that the mystery is also a very elastic category, and that you can take it just about anywhere. Maybe that’s why mysteries have so much appeal. They have comfortable niches for readers who
prefer them, and far horizons for those who want to wander.
JKP: How deep into the writing of Clea’s Moon were you, when you won the Debut Dagger Award in 2001?
EW: About 20 chapters in, maybe two-thirds of the book.
JKP: You weren’t British. How did you even hear about the Debut Dagger prize, and what made you enter the contest in the first place? Did you have any expectation of winning?
EW: Cathy and I were on a driving trip around Ireland, and we’d settled into Dublin for a few days. We were sitting in a coffee shop, and I began browsing through a leftover copy of the Times of London’s Sunday magazine. I saw an ad from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain headlined, “You Could Be the Next Ian Rankin,” and describing something called the Debut Dagger competition for unpublished mystery writers. I turned to her and said, “Hey, I’m an unpublished mystery
writer.” I wasn’t sure if the contest was open to me, but at least it didn’t say “Brits Only.” (As I later found out, the contest entries take in most of the English-speaking world. But I believe I’m still the only American to have
I clipped out the ad and brought it home, thinking I’d enter for the heck of it. I almost changed my mind when I found that in addition to the 10-pound entry fee, it would cost me an extra $40 for the international bank draft. But I went ahead. Fresh from the experience of seeing virtually every editor in New York turn down my last novel, I guess I was looking for some kind of shortcut to publication. But since the ad mentioned that the last competition had drawn over 400 entries, I had absolutely no expectation of winning.
JKP: Remind me: What were the requirements and rewards of the Debut Dagger contest? And how important was
winning that in terms of your becoming a novelist?
EW: To enter, you didn’t submit an entire manuscript (lucky for me, since mine wasn’t finished
anyway), you sent in the first 3,000 words. As the ad put it, the winner would get a cash prize, and all finalists would get a written critique of their entry along with a bag of free books. I would have been very happy with the critique and the books, and with the privilege of referring to myself as a “finalist for the Debut Dagger” on the cover of my first book, if I ever had one published. When the word came that I’d won, I was in no way prepared for it. It felt like a gift. The Debut Dagger organizer, Michael Jecks …, asked me if I wanted to come to England for the awards banquet. It was not an idle question, since the World Trade Center had been hit a week or two earlier, and I wasn’t particularly eager to jump on an international flight. But Cathy put it all in perspective: “How can we not go?” she said. So we went.
If I’d been looking for a shortcut, this was it. Within a week of the award--and before we’d even left England--I had a London agent and a two-book deal with Orion Books. By the time a month had gone by, I had another two-book deal with Putnam in the U.S. How important was the Dagger? Very. It opened the doors. To this day, whenever
anyone asks me how to get published, I tell them, “Enter a contest.”
Cathy and Edward Wright celebrate his Barry Award win, for Damnation Falls, at Bouchercon 2008. (Photo by Ali Karim)
JKP: Do you consider yourself a historical crime novelist?
EW: Just a mystery writer. I happen to be writing period novels right now. But my next one will be a contemporary story--still a mystery, but set this time in rural East Tennessee and involving a disgraced ex-Chicago newspaperman (no relation), a former governor, a murder or two or three, buried secrets coming to light, and
the persistence of history. After that, maybe another visit to John Ray Horn’s Los Angeles.
JKP: And what’s the genesis of John Ray Horn, aka “Sierra Lane”? How did he come to you, and is he based on anybody in particular, or perhaps a combination of people you’ve known?
EW: He just sidled in the door one day, so to speak, when I was thinking out loud about possible characters for the next book. I remember saying to my wife, “What would you think about a onetime B-movie cowboy actor who got in trouble with the law and went off to prison, then gets out and tries to put his life back together?” She said, “Great.” And that was it. John Ray isn’t based on anyone I’ve known. His public persona--the movie cowboy--could be a composite of several of the cowboy heroes I remember from movies and TV. The private John
Ray is pure fiction. Same with Joseph Mad Crow, who if anything showed up even faster. He just sprang to life, big and brash, without much encouragement from me.
JKP: Horn seems forever to get the short end of the stick. He’s been blacklisted by movie studios, his wife and teenage stepdaughter are mostly out of his life, and former fans are slightly appalled by his professional backsliding. He can’t even get a steady girl, damn it! Was it necessary to make him quite so pathetic in these books?
EW: I guess I have a low tolerance for the cocky, know-it-all detective who makes everything look easy. I wanted to draw a character who’s been high (a movie star) and then is knocked low, someone who has to look in the mirror every day and compare his old, heroic image with what he’s become. John Ray is an ex-con, an outcast, and
that means that when he’s called on to help people, to make wrong things right, he starts out at an enormous disadvantage. Nothing comes easy for him. I like that in a character.
JKP: In Clea’s Moon, your protagonist describes himself as the elder son of an Arkansas hill country preacher, the Reverend John Jacob Horn, who “could deliver a sermon that had the ladies crying and rolling their eyes, then come home and beat me to a pulp for sassing him.” How did you come up with that background? Was it necessary that Horn’s upbringing be in such sharp contrast with his adult life in that “Sodom called Los Angeles”? And why, to the best of my recollection, have you not delved much further into his family’s past?
EW: Since L.A. is where you go to re-invent yourself, I wanted to give John Ray the kind of repressive background that would make the idea of re-invention especially attractive. Of course, there’s the Depression, which was already pulling a lot of Arkies like him out to California. But because of his upbringing, he has another compelling reason for wanting to get away.
Up until now, I haven’t had much occasion to go into the family’s past. But the next John Ray Horn book may give me a chance to do that. We’ll see. As I mentioned, it’s not just up to me. The publishers and the readers have to want it, too.
JKP: From Clea’s Moon onward, we’ve seen Horn living at and caretaking “the old Ricardo Aguilar place” in Culebra Canyon, “a relic of the silent-movie days when Hollywood royalty built estates to match their
screen images.” You write in Clea’s Moon that silent-movie star Aguilar retired to this mansion when he found it impossible to transition into the age of “talkies,” and that it burned down years later, taking Aguilar with it. Is this wreck of an estate supposed to remind us of any real locale in L.A.? And why did you choose to include Aguilar’s story within Horn’s?
EW: There’s a rundown mansion I’ve driven by in Laurel Canyon, and I’ve often thought it would have been quite a place in its heyday. When I dreamed up a home for John Ray. I wanted it to be an isolated spot, reflecting his lower place in society. I put the ruined Aguilar estate just up the hill from him as a statement about how wealth and celebrity often don’t last long in this town. John Ray had his time in the Hollywood sun; so did Ricardo Aguilar, on a much larger scale. But they both lost it.
JKP: How much of Horn’s motivation in the things he does in your novels comes from his wish to
recapture the heroic renown he had as a movie character, and how much is motivated by his wish to find an honorable identity beyond his film persona?
EW: It’s very little about his old persona. “It was just acting,” he says in one of the books. And from his time in [World War II], he knows that his old heroic image was strictly celluloid. What drives him today, I think, is the need to clean himself up, to prove that he’s more than just the guy who went to prison and lost his family. I’m not sure he ever really believed in Sierra Lane. But I think he wants to believe in John Ray Horn. And is still working at it.
JKP: How would you characterize the relationship between Horn and his old movie sidekick, Joseph Mad Cow?
EW: Trusting but sometimes prickly. Through their history--when John Ray helped Mad Crow get his start in the movies, at a time when racism weighed against it, and Mad Crow later gave him a leg up when he got out of prison--they have relied on each other in enormous ways. But they’re different personalities, and they sometimes
don’t like to acknowledge how much each needs the other.
JKP: Will their relationship change over the course of your books?
EW: Not fundamentally. I think they’ll occasionally strike sparks off each other but always remain friends.
JKP: My recollection of old B-movie Westerners, of the type in which Horn appeared, is they could be pretty cheesy. But were you a big follower of the genre growing up?
EW: A huge fan. The cowboy movie stars defined heroism for me. They were made for kids, remember, and back in the days before superheroes and Star Wars, they were pretty much everything. But I can’t watch those movies today. You’re right about them. They’re badly written, badly acted, badly shot … Tastes change, and what moves you as a kid may not touch you at all as an adult.
JKP: Is there anything you’ve learned since about writing novels, that you wish you’d known when you were working on Clea’s Moon?
EW: I wish it hadn’t taken me so long. I’m getting better at it, but I’m still not nearly as fast a writer as I’d like to be.
JKP: I’m curious about the fact that your second novel appeared under two titles: The Silver Face in the UK, and While I Disappear in the States. Can I assume that was a publisher’s decision?
EW: The Silver Face was my first choice of title. Orion, the British publisher, liked it, but Putnam, the American publisher, didn’t. We negotiated for a while and came up with While I Disappear. Without disliking the American choice (and I like the reference to the song lyric, which is very appropriate to the character of Rose [Galen]), I think I prefer The Silver Face.
JKP: Do you come up with the titles of your books first, or their plots?
EW: Plots, characters, settings. Pretty much everything before the title. Ideally, I think the title should grow out of the book.
JKP: When you’re writing a book, how much of the plot do you have figured out ahead of time? And where do you see the balance between plot driving a novel, and characters driving it instead?
EW: I try to have the setup nailed down pretty well--the basic situation, main characters, and action of the opening chapters--before I start writing. I also need to have the resolution sketched out in my mind. This is, after all, a mystery novel, and the resolution needs to be both logical and satisfying. But everything in between I expect to explore and discover for myself in the writing. I just try to keep the wrap-up in mind as I write, so I don’t stray too far left or right.
As for plot versus character, you can’t do an effective mystery without a pretty good plot. But I’d rather read a good character-driven story, so I tend to lean that way in my writing too.
JKP: Clea’s Moon was mostly about John Ray trying to reconnect with his past by rescuing his former stepdaughter, who’d found trouble in “blue movies.” While I Disappear turned on long-ago jealousy and a crime that occurred at a Hollywood party. And Red Sky Lament is ostensibly about Communist paranoia of the late ’40s. Yet the plots of all three really have to do with sex--and at least in the first two cases, sexual violation. Do you consider sex the foremost motive for crimes, or is it simply the easiest to communicate?
EW: Interesting question. It’s definitely one of those primal things, and yes, I’m sure it’s one of the main motivators for violent crime. As [singer-songwriter] Woody Guthrie says in Red Sky Lament (I admit I put the words in his mouth, but I also believe them): Most murders, at least the up-close, personal kind, are not committed for big reasons, like politics. They’re about small things, like money or sex.
JKP: Without giving too much away, I must say that as I was reading While I Disappear, I kept thinking about the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle scandal, in which that silent-movie funny man was accused (wrongly, it turned out) of raping a starlet in a San Francisco hotel room. Was your story somehow inspired by that incident?
EW: Yes, and you’re one of the few readers who’ve mentioned that.
JKP: Let’s talk some more about Red Sky Lament, which came out in Great Britain earlier this year . The obvious question is: Why hasn’t it been published yet in the States? And are you in negotiations with any U.S. publishers over the book?
EW: We never found an American publisher who wanted to bring it out. As my British editor commented, “It’s tough over there.” But it should get fairly good exposure in the U.S., because Orion is selling it over here through their American distributor, so it’ll be in the stores. They’re also sending out review copies, and I’m hoping
the critics will respond. One early review is in--from Dick Adler at the Chicago Tribune--and to say I’m happy with it would be an understatement. I’ve never met Dick Adler, but I think I owe him a beer.
JKP: I can’t help but wonder whether your decision to ground Lament in the Joseph McCarthy-era “Red scare” had anything to do with current events. I mean, the same sort of governmental intrusion into private lives, and the same fear and suspicion that were prevalent during the late 1940s and early ’50s seem to be having a renaissance of sorts in the 21st century, what with George W. Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program and his administration’s exploitation of fear for partisan political gain. Or am I reading too much into your story plotting? Do you recognize the parallels?
EW: I see them. If they give the book added resonance, I’m glad. But if I was drawing parallels, I really wasn’t giving it much thought. Maybe it was all unconscious.
JKP: I’m curious, is there any difference between working with American editors and publishers, and their British counterparts? Do you find different requests being made of you, or distinctive reader reactions? And did it free you up any to be negotiating only with the Orion folks on Lament?
EW: One set of editors is always less complicated than two. But a good editor is a good editor, whether in London or New York. Whatever differences I noticed were between individuals and not because of cultural differences. In fact, Orion made it a point not to “Anglicize” any of my spellings or references. I’m an American
writer, and they’re happy for me to read that way in England.
JKP: All of your Horn novels so far seem to be crowding into 1946 and ’47, with Lament taking place, I guess, in the spring of that year, which was when Republican Congressman J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, who chaired the notorious House Un-American Activities
Committee--and is mentioned in the novel--traveled to L.A. to meet with film executives in hopes of rooting out supposed “commies” from Hollywood. Are you simply trying to give yourself as much room to write the Horn series as
possible, or do you think for some reason that Horn’s adventures wouldn’t work so well if they extend into the subsequent Eisenhower era, for example?
EW: I picked the postwar years as the period I wanted to write about, and unless I find a reason
to change my mind, John Ray will forever remain there. There’ve been some terrific series characters who move from decade to decade--Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, for one--but I feel that John Ray is a creature of his particular
JKP: Although Representative Thomas doesn’t make an actual appearance in Lament, as far as I recall, singer Woody Guthrie does. But his cameos are pretty short. Other novelists, when they’ve penned stories in which real-life figures participate, often allow those folks to play larger roles in their tales. Why keep Guthrie so confined?
EW: I love to bring in historical figures for cameos--Woodie Guthrie and Charles Laughton in Red Sky and Mickey Cohen in Clea’s Moon, for example. And I try to keep them true to what I know of their real characters. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving them a bigger role in a fictional piece, because that would
mean taking real liberties with who they were. I’m sure E.L. Doctorow and Caleb Carr would disagree.
As I said, I have a lot of fun doing it, and I’m sure I’ll do more. But it’s the sort of thing you can overdo, like making too many references to Studebakers or Lucky Strike Greens. It’s also an easy substitute for the hard work of creating good fictional characters. (Look over there! It’s Clark Gable!)
JKP: Do you think there’s too much effort made by historical novelists these days to rope real-life figures into their fiction?
EW: I haven’t read widely enough to answer that. But in the case of the two writers I mentioned above, I was thinking of Doctorow’s Ragtime and Carr’s The Alienist. And in each case, I thought they used historical figures very well. It worked because they’re good writers who wrote well-rounded novels that didn’t rely on famous names like Harry Houdini or Teddy Roosevelt to carry too much of the weight. If they’d been less accomplished writers, the use of celebrities might have felt more like a stunt.
JKP: Have you long had an interest in Woody Guthrie?
EW: Yes. I’ve had one of his albums since college, or thereabouts. I’ve always been interested in
how art is used to change people’s minds. Documentary film, paintings like Guernica, union songs like the kind Guthrie wrote. But it wasn’t until I decided to do a book about the politics of the 1940s that I really looked into his story. I read Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life, a very readable, warts-and-all biography. And I listened to more of his music. And gradually, I got a clearer picture of the scrawny little guy with the social conscience and the inquiring mind and the questionable hygiene and the drinking habit. Some of the issues I deal with in Red Sky are the very things that concerned him, so he fit very naturally in the book.
JKP: If my memory serves correctly, Horn’s onetime co-star and ex-lover, Maggie O’Dare, has been
part of this series since the outset. But she plays a much larger role in Lament, hiring John Ray to investigate the murder of a screenwriter accused of having been a Communist Party member. And there’s the potential of her having a more substantive part in John Ray’s life in the future. From what you know of these characters, is that a reasonable possibility?
EW: Maybe. But I’m reminded of the way some series writers get in trouble when they make their main character too comfortable. John Ray is a man with a big dose of dissatisfaction in his life. Make him too happy, and I’m afraid I might start to lose interest in him. And readers might too.
JKP: By the way, I have to object (not seriously, of course) to something you write in Lament, in reference to J. Edgar Hoover, J. Parnell Thomas, and a fictional player named A. Dixon Vance. You say that Horn “found himself reminded of an old piece of advice from Mad Crow--delivered only partly in jest, it seemed at the time--Never trust a man who parts his name on the side.” As another guy who does that very thing (my byline being J. Kingston Pierce), what am I to think?
EW: Sorry. I was echoing an old saying that was a favorite of a fellow deskman at the Tribune. I’ve been waiting for years to use it in print. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the management.
JKP: How many John Ray Horn novels are already rolling around in your head? And how about novels that don’t feature Horn?
EW: I have one more in mind that would dig deeper into a subject you’ve raised--John Ray’s
father, the Reverend Mr. Horn. As for other subjects, I’m holding my breath until I see what kind of reception I get with Redemption Falls. If it clicks, I might try another standalone.
JKP: Do you already have a publisher for Redemption Falls?
EW: It’s been sold to Orion in England. Once it’s finished, I’ll show it to American publishers and see if they like it.
JKP: And are you writing this contemporary novel because you needed a break from Horn, or was
the story you’re telling just too compelling not to tackle right away?
EW: I thought it was time to leave John Ray and his world for just a while, although I do plan to go back, assuming readers and publishers will be interested. My main reason for the change was to try my hand at a standalone novel. Up until now, all I’ve published were installments of a series.
JKP: Why did you make the choice to set this next novel in rural Tennessee, rather than Southern California
again? You’ve never lived for long in Tennessee, have you?
EW: The idea was to do everything differently, to change the setting, the time period, even the
narrative voice--from third- to first-person. Contemporary East Tennessee seemed a good contrast to 1940s Los Angeles. And yes, I’ve spent time in Tennessee. There were my three years at Vanderbilt, in Nashville. I’ve been back to the state twice since then. Most recently, I spent two weeks driving all over the place, from Memphis to the Smokies, to see how much had changed and how much remained. It was also partly an excuse to hear some great bluegrass and eat some great barbecue.
JKP: Has your self-definition as a writer changed over the last few years, in terms of what you think you can and cannot accomplish? Where do you see yourself in the arc of your evolution as a novelist?
EW: With each new book, I suppose I’m a little more comfortable with the idea of being a full-time
novelist. I’m not sure the actual writing gets any easier, but I do seem to be doing it a little faster, which is a relief. As for goals, I’d just like to get better--write bigger books, deeper themes, more complex characters, all those things. They can be series novels or not. All that matters is that I don’t stand still.
JKP: A great many crime novelists also pen short stories. Have you ever tried or been invited to write such abbreviated yarns?
EW: I was approached once to write a collection of short stories for some kind of limited-edition publisher, but I had to tell him I’ve never written any short fiction and wouldn’t know how to start. My wife’s been working on a short story lately, though. It’s her first, and I’m very interested in seeing where she goes with it. Maybe I can learn something.
JKP: Do you read much other crime fiction these days?
EW: I don’t read nearly as much as I should. I’m more likely to be into non-fiction. Right now,
because of Redemption Falls, I’m reading Shelby Foote and Geoffrey Ward on the Civil War, just for background.
One crime novelist I mention a lot to others is James Lee Burke. He seems to be good at all the things we try to do, and bad at none of them. Plot, action, physical description, sex, you name it. And no one sets a mood better.
JKP: If you could have written any one or two books that don’t already appear under your byline,
which would you choose?
EW: Moby Dick. But you’re kidding, right? Because I couldn’t have written it. And if I pick a book I could have written, then I wouldn’t have nearly as much reason to admire it.
JKP: Finally, what do you think is the greatest Southern novel ever? (And yes, I recognize the
difficulty of that question.)
EW: You mean after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? (Although I agree with [Ernest] Hemingway that you should stop reading at the point where Jim, the slave, is stolen from Tom and Huck. The rest of the story is just Twain fooling around.) I’d say All the King’s Men. Wherever it ranks among Southern novels, it’s one of the best things ever written about American politics. Having said that, though, there’s a lot I haven’t gotten around to reading, including, I’m sorry to say, much of Faulkner.
Interesting footnote on All the King’s Men: A Robert Penn Warren scholar [Noel Polk] has just published
a new edition of the book that restores almost all of the things Warren’s editor took out or changed when the book was first published in 1946. It even restores the name Warren originally gave to the Willie Stark character--Willie Talos. If you like Warren’s writing, this edition gives you even more of it.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE: Rap Sheet contributor Ali Karim interviewed Edward Wright for Shots back in 2004. And Jeff Rutherford talked with Wright in 2012 for his Reading and Writing Podcast.