The Last Noel
by Michael Malone
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark
304 pages, 2002
What's often said about Hollywood actors is the same thing you notice immediately upon meeting novelist Michael Malone: He's shorter than you expected. Just 5 feet 6 inches from his toes to the top of his balding noggin. Yet he boasts a far larger authorial presence, having so far produced 10 critically extolled works of fiction, including the comedies Handling Sin (1983) and Foolscap (1991), and a trio of mysteries -- the newest of which is First Lady (2001) -- set in the North Carolina Piedmont country of Malone's birth. His latest novel, The Last Noel, a Christmas love story built around two childhood friends (one black, one white), is freshly available in bookstores.
Most writers find a genre of fiction they like, and then more or less stick to it. But Malone, now 60 years old, has hopped around the American literary landscape with the giddy freedom of someone driven by the need to put pen to paper, and not willing to limit his avenues for creative exploration. He's composed plays, screenplays and non-fiction (including a book, Heroes of Eros, about male cinematic archetypes), and in the early to mid-1990s Malone did an Emmy Award-winning stint as head writer on the ABC-TV soap opera One Life to Live, a period during which that series became "the thinking fan's soap," according to TV Guide. (An unofficial fan Web site, Magnificently Malonian, still champions his efforts at the helm of One Life.) Interestingly, the author makes few artistic distinctions between his TV work and his novels, which the great Southern writer Robert Penn Warren once said show Malone's "narrative gift" and "true eye for character in action." Malone even contends -- much to the consternation of some English professors, I'm sure -- that were Charles Dickens still alive, he would welcome the opportunity to exercise his own storytelling talents in the field of daytime dramas.
Born in Durham, North Carolina, Malone was the oldest of six children. He caught the writing bug early and hard, but also became interested in theater and movies. After attending New York's Syracuse University, he chased after a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University, his eventual dissertation covering the "archetypes of innocence and eroticism in American film." While at Harvard, Malone met Maureen Quilligan, a Renaissance scholar to whom he has now been married -- "most happily and luckily so" -- for more than 28 years. (She currently chairs the English Department at Duke University, in Durham.) It was also during his Harvard years that Malone began writing his first novel, Painting the Roses Red, about graduate school; that book was published in 1975. Over the succeeding decades, Malone and his wife have lived in a variety of places -- London, New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles (where their 26-year-old daughter, Maggie, works in the film industry). But just about three years ago, they moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina, a town of fewer than 5,000 people.
While his standalone novels and single collection of short stories (Red Clay, Blue Cadillac, released in mid 2002) have found enthusiastic audiences among readers who enjoy conscientiously plotted but often humorous works replete with eccentric characters, it may be Malone's mysteries that have won him the most consistent following. All three are set in fictional, class-stratified Hillston, North Carolina, a small Piedmont burg of familiar rhythms and history, prejudices and crimes. And they all feature the odd-couple pairing of Lieutenant Justin Bartholomew Savile V (black-sheep scion of the town's founding family and head of the Hillston Police Department's homicide division) with HPD chief Cudberth "Cuddy" Mangum (a Vietnam vet and prodigious consumer of junk food, who feigns ignorance behind country-boy witticisms). The first installment of this series, Uncivil Seasons (1983), has the two officers investigating a brutal slaying that serves as the pretext for a more thorough delving into the deceits on which Hillston's past and privileged depend. Time's Witness (1989) builds from the pending execution of George Hall, a black man Mangum had arrested seven years before for killing a white policeman, while First Lady (one of January's favorite books of 2001) finds Justin and Cuddy pursuing a serial killer, who is targeting local women -- among them, it's thought, chart-topping Irish singer Mavis Mahar, who's in Hillston to give a concert. In these novels, Malone's Southern sense of place is compelling and poetic, not forced (no frequent mentions of magnolia trees and mint juleps), and his dialogue rumbles with sarcasm and wisecracks.
Rather more serious and poignant is The Last Noel. Its story centers on the friendship between Noelle "Noni" Tilden, a white girl reared in North Carolina by wealthy but deeply dysfunctional parents (her father's a romantic drunk, her mother is both distant and controlling), and John Montgomery "Kaye" King, the grandson of the Tildens' African-American maid. Beginning with their meeting in 1963, when young Kaye climbs unbidden on a snowy night through Noni's bedroom window, we follow this pair for more than three decades, over the course of national travails and personal torments. Each chapter captures the lives of Noni and Kaye at a different Christmas, as they grow up and -- though they can't always acknowledge this fact -- grow closer to one another, sharing their strengths and compensating for each other's weaknesses as best they can. Filled with hope and sacrifice, at times unabashedly sentimental, The Last Noel uses the small story of two young lives to illuminate greater issues -- especially the push for civil rights -- that reshaped the American South during the last quarter of the 20th century.
In fits and starts, over several months, I had the chance to discuss with the quick-witted and insightful Malone a wide range of subjects, from his novels and his recent return to the world of daytime television, to his long-standing fondness for the Christmas season and his disgust with America's present, right-wing political administration.
J. Kingston Pierce: Your father was a doctor, but your mother was a fourth-grade teacher. Was it through her that you developed your interest in writing?
Michael Malone: Both my parents were great readers and great lovers of poetry and fiction. My mother had a book in her lap constantly, even in the midst of chaos (she was deaf, and confessed that the handicap could be in fact an asset for an avid reader). My siblings and I grew up in a world in which fictions on the page were vibrant as life. My mother also had a romantic weakness for writers and would march into the principal's office to defend me against charges of telling outlandish tales to my teachers, which indeed I did. "He's not a liar; he has a wonderful imagination. He's going to be a writer." From my mother, I learned a deep sense of the power of the imagination, power so strong it could win you love, it could change hearts and change lives, change whole civilizations.
I read somewhere that you began writing plays while you were still a tyke. What sorts of plays were those?
I wrote endless dramas, with enormous de Mille-sized casts and impossible sets. The Prince of the Chinese Elephants had 42 acts and ranged from palaces in Peking to wars atop the Alps. My poor siblings were obliged to perform in all these melodramas when they were children, and you can imagine their terror even in middle age upon hearing that I was moving back to North Carolina! The theater is my first (and I suspect my deepest) love, as I hope a novel like Foolscap celebrates.
Your college studies were in English. But your doctoral dissertation at Harvard was about innocence and eroticism in film. That makes it sound as if you hadn't decided yet whether to be a teacher, a writer or somebody involved in filmmaking. Or am I reading too much into this?
I was in graduate school because I loved to read. I shifted my dissertation from the Renaissance to the movies because I was going to the movies all the time to avoid writing my dissertation, and this was a way of justifying my constant presence at the Brattle Street Cinema, rather than Widener Library. (These were the dark ages before VCRs, much less DVDs, before AMC and TCM, too.)
I then wrote my first novel [Painting the Roses Red] to avoid writing my dissertation on the movies. All along what I wanted to do with my life was to write fiction and put on shows (and/or movies); it was all (romantically) the same to me. After all, didn't Scott Fitzgerald work on movies too, and even write a musical, and wasn't Gatsby on the stage? My more practical assumption was that I would need to teach, both to pay the rent and to give myself colleagues and community. (The theater and movies have always satisfied a social impulse in me that the solitary work of a novelist can't. That's what got me into television for a while.)
You sold Painting the Roses Red when you were still at Harvard. Did you realize at the time your good fortune in becoming a published novelist so early?
I was so innocent that I didn't realize I had won the literary equivalent of the lottery. I wrote the book, sent it off to Random House, and when they accepted it, said, "Oh right, of course, that's how it happens. Now I'll go to Europe." Which is what I did. Years later, looking at the heaped piles of unsolicited manuscripts stacked against the walls of over-worked junior editors, I see how extraordinarily lucky I was that mine was pulled from such a pile and read.
You've been quoted as saying that you're glad there are "very few copies of [Painting the Roses Red] available anymore." Why would you prefer to keep it out of readers' hands?
My comment was a little facetious, but it is true that Painting the Roses Red is a very youthful and exuberant book, set in the wilds of the 1960s in Berkeley, California, and rather more festively sexual than I would have made it here in my staid middle age.
What one thing would you most like to have known when you were just starting out as a novelist, but that you didn't learn until later on?
That you need a room to work in outside your house, and that you need an editor who isn't going to leave the (publishing) house.
You've published nine works of fiction since Painting the Roses Red. At what point do you think you finally hit your stride?
With Dingley Falls . It's a solar system beyond The Delectable Mountains  and was the first time I felt I was putting fully in place a moral and political vision, and that I had created a canvas of characters able to embody it. Indeed, many people, particularly literary scholars, still think Dingley Falls is my best novel -- because of its very dense and rich verbal surface and the large scale of the formal structure. It also has, I hope, my heart and my humor.
I've heard that of the books you've written, your personal favorite is Handling Sin. For people who haven't read that novel, can you give a brief synopsis?
I couldn't say Handling Sin is my favorite of all my children. What papa would do that? Usually I say that it's one of my favorites, or that it's Maureen's favorite. After all, she's a Renaissance scholar, and Handling Sin is a rewriting of Don Quixote, a comic picaresque. It portrays the spiritual journey of an insurance agent named Raleigh Hayes, who thinks he can insure life against loss and love, [and] who is mistakenly convinced that if you are responsible, reliable and a good citizen, you are without sin. Raleigh's father, a defrocked minister, sends him on a crazy comic quest through the South and into his own past, in order for him to learn that he has the worst sins of all -- pride, despair, contempt for his fellow humans -- and to help him make his way home (in all senses).
What makes Handling Sin so special to you?
[It] holds a special place for me because of the response of readers. Of all my books, it has been the most loved. Through the decades since I wrote it, I've received thousands of letters from readers who want me to know what the book has meant to them -- given them laughter in a sad time, a means of reconciliation with an estranged loved one, a path to faith, a gift for an invalid, and so on. That it should play the role in the lives of readers that the quest serves for Raleigh in the novel itself (a journey to grace, to saying yes to life) has been a treasured gift to me as a writer.
One of the most interesting things about your novels is their diversity. You've ranged from penning comedic stories (Handling Sin, Foolscap) to writing more-or-less serious works, such as First Lady, your third mystery. And now you've published a Christmas tale, The Last Noel. How would you define yourself as a novelist?
First of all, there is nothing more profoundly serious than real comedy, which is an affirmation of human communion, redemption and grace. After all, Dante's work is called The Divine Comedy. Midsummer Night's Dream, Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn -- they're all comedies. Nor do I relegate my "mysteries" to a separate category. So I make no formal distinctions between a picaresque comic epic like Handling Sin, a "murder mystery" like Uncivil Seasons or a novel like The Last Noel ...
I have a great reverence for my heritage as a novelist. The tradition of the form through the 18th, 19th and -- good lord, I suppose we now have to talk of the 20th century as in the past as well -- is very alive and resonant for me. I am also deeply rooted in my cultural heritage as a Southerner. My books reflect both. I write on a large canvas, with a big cast of characters across many social and economic classes. My books move into political arenas, sometimes satirically (as in Dingley Falls), sometimes through the courts and police of a mystery like Time's Witness. I believe passionately that fiction can be both rich in style and rich in story.
Do you think that the variance of your works, the fact that you're not easily categorized, has hurt you as a writer?
Probably, because it's hard for people sometimes to figure out what to do with me. They may read one of my books and love it, but then they try another one and find that it's so different. ... Readers like consistency. If you read mysteries, say James Lee Burke's novels, you know they're going to be essentially the same every time you read one. If you read someone who writes comedy or academic satire, like David Lodge, it's going to be the same every time. But if you read Foolscap, and then the next book of mine that you read is First Lady -- uh, excuse me? So, in a way that diversity is a strength; but in a way, it's a problem for me. Yet I have never done anything "correctly."
Let's talk a bit about The Last Noel. Were you striving with this new novel to write primarily a Christmas story, or a story about love and coming of age during a period of considerable change in the United States?
It's not so much "about" Christmas, but I do hope that the spirit of the holiday is at the heart of this novel. I wanted to do a book that went through a long period of time, because I wanted the social and political and culture history of the country to be in the background. I didn't want to do a "panoramic" book, though. Instead, I wanted to come in at very specific points in history, and it seemed that coming in at Christmastime through the years was a very nice, formal approach. And then the idea came to me to arrange the book around the 12 days of Christmas, with 12 chapters.
In each of those chapters, I see, you reference one of the objects mentioned in the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." In chapter 1, for instance, you mention that Noni Tilden's home contains a "little Christmas sculpture of a jeweled partridge in a malachite pear tree," while it's in chapter 5 that Noni gets married, exchanging rings with her high school sweetheart, Roland Hurd. Very clever.
Then, of course, Noni and Kaye [King] were both born at Christmas, so they share that. I wanted there to be something magical about their relationship. I wanted there to be that closeness between them, even though they're so very, very different.
Yet they share you, your heart. How close did you become to Noni and Kaye during the writing of this book?
I fell in love with both of them. They're truly two of my favorite characters. Maybe because [the writing] was so emotionally intense, I got very involved with them, and was really sobbing when I finished the book, going to pieces.
Noni was a particularly difficult person to write. Because it's much easier to write a Becky Sharp [from Vanity Fair] or a Scarlett O'Hara [Gone With the Wind] -- someone who's a bad girl -- than someone who is so good and so gentle. And that's part of [Noni's] problem -- that her strength is her weakness. She so much wants to meet everyone's expectations and not hurt anyone, and do what will make other people happy, people like her mother ...
Even if it doesn't make her happy.
Exactly. She has a terrible time holding onto herself. In the book, Kaye asks her, "What do you want?" And she says, "I want my father not to drink as much." And he says, "But no, what do you want for you?" And she says that is what she wants.
Noni has trouble defining herself separately from others.
Yes, so part of what the book is about is not only the struggle of African Americans for acceptance and equality, but also the struggle of women for the same things. That's something else these two characters share: They're both, in a way, disenfranchised -- Noni by her gender and Kaye by his race -- from privilege. And in a way, he has the strength that she envies to overcome this.
Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Christmas figure into more of your novels than just The Last Noel?
Christmas is a very big part of Foolscap; the end of that book takes place at Christmas. Time's Witness takes place at Christmas. [The Last Noel] is obviously something I've been feeling my way toward for a while.
What are your own memories of Christmas? How big a deal was it in your childhood home, and how important is it to you now?
Here's how much I love Christmas: We just got our power back on at home in North Carolina after eight days without heat and light [because of a storm]. The next day, we opened our decorated (and I mean decorated) house, as we always do, to the annual Historic Candlelight Tour, in which 1,000 people come trooping through to enjoy Christmas decorations and carols. That night we hosted, as we always do, our annual Christmas party. Christmas was long and fervent at my home growing up. My mother ... loved all holidays. She was also born at Christmas.
I need to ask you about music, because not only did "The Twelve Days of Christmas" help give structure to The Last Noel, but music has also played a role in your previous books. Can I assume that you have a great fondness for music?
I am an avid listener to music of all kinds -- classical, country-western, blues, jazz. I love to go to concerts of all kinds. I love to have musicians in my home and in my life. I play a little piano. My mother was a pianist; my father had a wonderful Irish tenor voice.
It must seem natural, then, to incorporate music into your fiction.
Somebody once said, in an essay I read somewhere, that the two things to be found in all of my books are Sir Walter Raleigh and music. My books are about communion and community. And for me, music is the greatest possible metaphor for human harmony. You can't play or sing together if you hate each other. So the fact that Noni is a pianist is very important in this newest book, as is the fact that she shares that love of music with her father, [Bud Tilden].
He's one of the characters I liked to write about most. Somebody described him as a Fitzgeraldian character. ... He's not strong enough to overcome his faults, but he has kindness and taste and goodness in him; he just doesn't have courage. To see that sort of person without judging them is important to my books.
There's a line in Dingley Falls: "Safe in fiction, they're testing their hearts." If I could pick a line out of any of my works that would say what I'm trying to do, that would be it. Art lets you feel without causing you great pain, because they're not your tears, really. Art also lets you see outside the limits of your own life and perspective, to what you share. I think of Mingo Sheffield, from Handling Sin. When we first meet him, he's a buffoon. He's out of work, he's overweight, he's scared. Yet by the time that novel ends, you realize the incredible loyalty Mingo has. He plays the piano beautifully, he's a sharpshooter, he delivers a baby in a truck -- he's got a lot of virtues. And that would be true of everyone, if you just look.
Does your own ability to see past the surface come as a result of your writing fiction, or did you have it before you began writing?
That's a great question, and I don't know the answer. I've always been a listener. My mother was deaf, and I've sometimes thought that's why I'm a writer now. Because I was the oldest, and my parents were divorced. And she would say, "Listen for me." I'm always listening now, as a result. And when you're always listening, you can see people better. Most people really just talk, and then they wait for the other person to stop talking, in order that they can talk again. They don't ever really see the person they're talking to. So I think it may have something to do with my mother's deafness.
You learned to be doubly aware.
I think so. It's why I like to work at night. Maureen jokes that "9 to 5" for me means 9 at night till 5 in the morning, because it's quiet then. I can't stand any noise. Because I hear everything. My ears are as open as they can be, and everything comes in -- and everything drives me nuts, because I'm already trying so hard to hear my characters.
When I used to look at my manuscripts -- back when there were manuscripts, before everything was on the computer -- I noticed that I tended not to make changes in dialogue, but only in descriptive passages, because I could really hear the voices very clearly. If you look back at Handling Sin, toward the end, when [the characters] are all having dinner together at the bar in New Orleans, there are like 12 people there, and I never say who's talking ...
Because you can distinguish the characters from one another by the manner in which they speak?
Yes. It's one of the things that young writers invariably need to become aware of: People don't talk the same. People don't talk the way they write, or the way other people talk; nor do they talk in orderly and full sentences. Everyone's distinctive in their own ways, and you need to listen for those distinctions.
Your first mystery, Uncivil Seasons, came out in 1983. What were you looking for as a novelist that made crime fiction attractive to you?
As I've said often, I think that readers (and writers) today turn to the "mystery" because they can find there the kind of storytelling they once found in general fiction. When you write a murder mystery, you enlarge your canvas beyond the relational and domestic, beyond the intimate confines of many modern novels. You bring in police and courts and prisons, juries and judges, different occupations, different classes. You move your story into a public realm where plots have moral and political and social dimensions, where private acts have consequences beyond the personal. Time's Witness is a novel with a "mystery" plot. It was a very difficult book to write because its canvas was so large, with a plot interlaced and threaded through the whole social and political structure not only of the town of Hillston (its police department, courthouses, newspapers, political factions, et cetera), but that of the whole state of North Carolina.
Were you a big crime fiction reader before you wrote Uncivil Seasons?
Yes, I loved both the British grand dames (Christie, Marsh, Sayers, et cetera) and the American guys (Chandler, Hammett). But I have a very large notion of the mystery, and as I've said, prefer not to make distinctions among my novels. All novels use a genre: they either do it well (turn it into art and an individual vision) or they don't (and turn it into pulp and formula). Would a bookstore shelve The Idiot and The Sound and the Fury in the "Literature" section, but put Crime and Punishment and Intruder in the Dust in "Mysteries"? Our mistake is to make the genre itself the value. (To say, for instance, that science fiction or mystery are somehow "lesser" than a novel about the paralysis of middle-class angst.) I long ago left [publisher Alfred A.] Knopf, because they pressed me not to publish Uncivil Seasons after a "literary" novel like Dingley Falls. But I think the separation of the art novel (beautiful sentences, wide margins and nothing much happens) from the story novel (a page turner with a thin surface) has been deeply unfortunate. There's a murder mystery in almost every single one of Dickens' novels.
All three of your mysteries have followed a pair of vividly realized players -- Justin Savile and Cuddy Mangum -- who alternate as your narrator. For people who haven't yet read these books, could you give your impressions of both men? And how did they form in your mind as the right figures to lead these tales?
Justin is a romantic traditionalist, emotional, intuitive, personal, and in some ways cavalier, in others, brooding. He grew up blessed with looks, family, wealth -- and resented them all. Cuddy is an ironic modernist, brainy, practical, political, with a great sense of humor masking a deep loneliness and sadness. Interestingly, women readers of the trilogy have always been quite vocally passionate about their fondness for Cuddy, far more so than for the better-looking and more classically heroic Justin. Cuddy and Justin are an odd couple whose affectionate sparring and bantering are very much at the heart of the Hillston books.
Your first two Justin-Cuddy novels were published in the mid 1980s. And then you finally returned with the third, First Lady, just last year. Had you always anticipated revisiting this crime-solving pair, or did you only realize much later that they deserved another spin through the limelight?
When I wrote Uncivil Seasons I had no intention of writing a sequel. Time's Witness came about because I wanted to write a book about racism and the death penalty and was struggling to find a narrator. Finally, it struck me that I already knew the right storyteller. It was Cuddy Mangum, ironic, smart, an outsider from the wrong side of the tracks, a highly political man, leftist in his views but also a believer in law and order. Cuddy's Time's Witness became my Huckleberry Finn to Justin's Tom Sawyer in Uncivil Seasons, and I thought of the books as a duet. But then I kept getting letters from readers while I was "away" in the foreign land of television, asking me where was the next Justin-Cuddy novel. I suppose it was in part their loyalty that led me to return to Hillston.
As for the plot [of First Lady], I found myself wanting to write about the romance of celebrity, about the saints and stars in our lives, and about American modernity both good and bad -- how a small Southern college town could have become a place where a woman's murdered body could lie undetected for months, and then be unidentifiable when found. It felt to me very much [like] the sort of story the lyrical and nostalgic Justin might want to tell. The population of the South is now, on the one hand, much more heterogeneous and, on the other, much less isolated from the rest of the country. That loss of particularity (everyone in America has the same television-derived accent and news; every town has the same strip mall, eats the same junk food, gossips about the same celebrity scandals) makes Hillston a very different town than it was in Uncivil Seasons.
Was there a specific inspiration for the story you tell in First Lady?
The image of a haunted Justin riding his horse at dawn and seeing a beautiful woman throw off her clothes and dive into a misty lake. That woman became Mavis Mahar, the Irish rock superstar of the novel. ...
And that scene introduces the book.
Yes. Also I wanted to play with the convention of the serial killer by having the murderer play with it. The careful disguise of crimes as ritual killings (the mimicking of the tortures of medieval martyred female saints) is an end-game the killer's devised to outwit Justin and Cuddy. I was drawn to the story of a terrifying crime wave tearing apart the politics in a New South town. Cuddy's pride in his police department's reputation is wounded by these crimes; then his job is threatened. He's pushed by the press (and his own ego) into taking public positions he then has to defend. The politics in Time's Witness were more specifically focused -- on Southern racism. Here they unfold around modern changes like media manipulation and the celebrity image of politicians. (The murder investigation first goes awry because state officials have tampered with evidence in a cover up to protect the governor.)
I understand that you'd intended to kill Mavis Mahar right out of the gates in First Lady, but grew so fond of her, you couldn't do it.
Yes, she was supposed to be a corpse. We were supposed to meet her in the book as a corpse. That was the original plan, that she would be a body only. But I said to myself, Let me just catch a glimpse of her first. Well, that was the end of my plan. Then, I decided that the next time Justin sees her, she would be dead. But by then, he was so madly in love with her, and so was I, that I couldn't let her go. She made it all the way to the end of the book. So I had to set the whole story up differently, so that they think it's Mavis who has died [early in the novel], only it's not really Mavis. That solution literally came out of my unwillingness to lose her. Now, there's an example of a great artist, who's not in moral harmony with the world.
Yet Mavis is transcendent. You get a sense of her all the way through First Lady.
I tried especially to show what she comes from, what her life is. That's why it was important for me to have that concert [in the novel's epilogue]. I often read that passage to audiences, where the priest asks what the difference is between a saint and a star. And he says that stars reflect the light, but saints are people the light shines through, illuminating what and who they see. Mavis is a star, but I wanted you to see what that means, that she can cause that harmony in other people by incredible, strenuous effort on her part. And that's why I wanted to take you back to the dressing room [after the concert]. Mavis is covered with sweat and white, totally, but she did it for one little second -- she brought everyone in that stadium into the feeling that the saints in heaven have forever, with no effort at all. That's not to be sneered at, that great gift that she has. But she's a very dangerous character.
Can you see Mavis reappearing in your fiction?
Oh, God, why did you say that? Why did you put that idea in my head? I hadn't thought about it before. [Laughs]
So how hard is it to kill off a character you've created, any character?
Oh, my. Terribly hard.
Even though you know they're fictional?
It doesn't matter. I miss them when they're gone. I missed Noni and Kaye when I finished their book. I missed Raleigh. Because for a while, these characters were my whole life. You know, I had a friend in graduate school at Harvard ... and one day I found her crying, and I asked her what was the matter. She said, "I just finished War and Peace, and I don't want it to be over, because I have to go back to my real life, and I prefer War and Peace." Imagine, now, if you had written that book, how attached you would become. The people in it would become much realer to you than the so-called real world. And then you have to leave them when the book is done, knowing they have no more life. That's a heartbreak.
Do you ever find yourself creating a character who's similar to one you loved from a previous book, in order that you can re-experience them?
Hmm. I'm sure there are patterns there, that you see character types -- like Victoria Hayes, from Handling Sin, the sort of steel magnolia type -- reappearing in my fiction.
Are these character types necessarily based on people you know in real life?
Not so much their particular characteristics, but the quality of the families in my books are often familiar to me. The family in Handling Sin, for instance, has the same quality as my mother's Southern family, though the specifics of their lives are not the same. But I'm sure that everybody I've ever met has an influence on my fictional characters. I've had an influence, too. Cuddy and Justin reflect some sort of schizophrenic split: my humor and kind of political, lefty beliefs are in Cuddy; and my old-fashionedness and traditional romanticism are in Justin.
Can we expect to see a fourth Justin-Cuddy novel?
The next Hillston book is going to be about a stolen election. It will take place in the past, when Cuddy and Justin first meet, when Cuddy is working for (a then-youthful) Isaac Rosethorn, the brilliant old lawyer from Time's Witness. The new novel will center on Cuddy's fall from the Eden of his idealism as he watches the powerful Dollard family steal a Senate seat for Kip Dollard, Justin's uncle.
There's another book I want to do with Cuddy, too, about a very dangerous woman coming back from the old neighborhood, East Hillston -- a sort of white-trash woman. The Popes -- remember them from Uncivil Seasons? The family of thieves? They'll be very big in that book.
A "stolen election," you say? Don't tell me you intend to base a book on the 2000 U.S. presidential contest.
That's what I'm thinking. ... I'm going to just take everything they did in Florida, and do it again, but set it back in time.
And, ultimately, your story will go off in different directions.
Yes, of course. I just mean that I want to look at how you intimidate people and stuff the ballot boxes, et cetera.
Politics often find their way into your novels, whether it's the politics surrounding the death penalty, in Time's Witness, or North Carolina politics, as embodied by Andrew Brookside, the philandering governor in First Lady. Do you consider yourself a political animal?
I am very much so. And I find myself angrier now than I've ever been. ... I find it shocking that the American people have passively and ignorantly allowed their democracy to be hijacked by the Bush cartel, their economy wrecked, their budget surplus destroyed to benefit the rich, their civil rights and their Constitution itself stripped away, their peace and prosperity and their children's future made hostage to a self-serving, war-mongering, corrupt and, in many cases, criminal administration.
How do readers react to the interjection of politics into your stories?
My opposition to the death penalty was very undisguised in Time's Witness. And that bothered some people. Otto Penzler, who's sort of Mr. Mystery, prefers Uncivil Seasons, because it's pure, it doesn't have what to him is an intrusion into the genre of politics.
Yet the intrusion of real-life issues into crime fiction -- whether it's politics or poverty or modern terrorism -- can only be good for the genre, right?
I absolutely believe this is the genre that allows you to do that. To Kill a Mockingbird -- you don't get any more political than that -- and Intruder in the Dust: Those are murder mysteries, and so is All the King's Men. And the South is particularly suited for this type of story, because the region's roots are so twisted and deep -- and present. Someone like James Lee Burke, he goes back and grabs those roots and shows how they're still causing people to behave in certain ways. That, to me, is great fiction.
Certainly, though, the influence of historical roots can be found in crime fiction based outside the South.
Well, you find it in, like, the Dennis Lehane books. I was just reading one of his books, Darkness, Take My Hand. It was wonderful. And I was thinking, reading it, that this is so similar to what I'm doing, what James Lee Burke is doing, but in the Boston setting. You see the same sorts of families, the same sorts of neighborhoods, where people stay for generation after generation.
There was a decade-long span between the publication of Foolscap in 1991 and the appearance of First Lady. During those years, you did something unexpected: you took a job as head writer on One Life to Live. What motivated your career detour into TV soaps?
My love of the theater drew me to the repertory company of a daytime serial. As a child I was always forcing my poor younger siblings to perform in the dozens of lengthy, elaborate plays and musicals I wrote. As a teenager I worked in summer stock; I would sweep any floor, scrub any toilet, just to be near a stage. As a fairly extroverted person, I like the collaborative and performative nature of theater. As a novelist, I write from characters and dialogue, and move the story from scene to scene like a play. For all these reasons I welcome any chance to write a play, a screenplay or a teleplay, and ran off to One Life like a boy to the circus.
Had you been a fan of soap operas before joining One Life?
No, I never had watched daytime television. But as a child, I'd heard the radio serials at my grandmother's house and was fascinated by their emotional impact on the listeners. My view of soap opera as television actually came from watching Masterpiece Theatre in the early 70s -- The Forsythe Saga, The Golden Bowl, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and so forth. It was from these extraordinary productions that I got my excitement about how narrative could be dramatized in an extended serial form, allowing a richer development of characters. Significantly, prime-time has now adopted soap opera techniques -- carrying over story and relational characters. ER, NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under -- they're all soap operas.
Some people look down their noses at the soaps. But I understand you valued your experience as a TV writer. What was it that you found most enjoyable and/or rewarding about that experience?
As head writer, I had a wonderful opportunity for (literally) endless storytelling and for the creation of a wide and various cast of characters. (My writing team produced five hours of interlaced narrative -- that's two and a half movies -- every single week.) I loved working with the highly skilled theatrical professionals -- directors, producers, actors, costumers, set designers and so on -- who put together a daytime show. It's an original American genre and one of the few machines made in the USA that still works.
How long was your original stint with One Life to Live? And didn't you do some more TV writing after that?
I was head writer for OLTL from 1991 to 1996. Then Josh Griffith (with whom I'd worked on the series) and I created a show for Fox. Then briefly I head-wrote Another World.
Do you think that your experience with TV writing changed your novel writing?
I think, yes. First Lady is more linear, and the plot is more driving, than its predecessors. And that's where I borrowed from television. You know, my chapters used to close out very quietly; now, they may end with, "Get out of the car! There's a bomb in the car!" It's the hook trick that I learned from television. Not a bad lesson to learn, either.
Can you see yourself leaving books again to go back to full-time TV writing?
No, I did what I wanted to do in television, and learned what I wanted to learn. Besides, my impression is that there is even more network interference now (as ratings have spiraled downward with shifts in economic and cultural patterns) than there was five years ago -- and believe me, there was too much then.
Yet you've recently agreed to rejoin One Life, this time as creative consultant. What drew you back?
I used to say that I wasn't interested in going back, that I'd only be interested in being a creative consultant, and only if Josh Griffith were the head writer. I never thought (a) that they'd say, "Great," or (b) that [Griffith] would say, "Great." And they both did, so there I was -- stuck doing this again.
Only this time, I take it that your role is fairly minimal.
I'm going to be like Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi. It's my job to say, "Don't go to the dark side." I'm not going to be writing the show; I'm just going to be advising. I'm responsible for the big overviews.
Again, this to me is a kind of storytelling that I don't want to exclude from my life. [Television] has an enormous impact on its audience, and it has a huge audience. There's no sense kidding myself that 5,000 people are going to read my novels in a week's time -- they're not. But I can reach them through television. I've often said that Dickens would have been willing to tackle soap operas, were he around, and I mean that.
Speaking of Charles Dickens, you've frequently been called "the American Dickens"? What does that mean to you, and do you think the label justified?
I am both honored and delighted whenever a critic calls me the American Dickens. While, like Elvis, "I don't sing like nobody else," Dickens is the fiction-maker I most admire for his extraordinary canon. It's not for me to say if the label is justified. But it sure is good to hear.
Earlier this year, Sourcebooks published the first collection of your short stories, Red Clay, Blue Cadillac, comprising 10 tales focused on Southern women -- some of them significantly less than sweet. Your novels also contain very strong female characters. Have you had strong women in your own life who provided good models for these fictional figures?
The novel has always, from its beginning (and women were some of the founders of the form, just as they were of soap opera), built its stories around women, even when written by men: It's Moll Flanders, Clarissa and Pamela, and so on. It's Madame Bovary, not Mister Bovary. It's Anna Karenina, not Allan Karenin. It's Portrait of a Lady. Fiction is about women because fiction is about relationships and emotions. After all, as Freud said, the central question of human existence is, "What do women want?" I asked this once at a literary luncheon and a woman in the audience yelled out, "We want comfortable shoes!"
Yes, I have had wonderfully strong women in my life. They led me to be a writer. If you want to get somewhere, do what Lewis and Clark did: Get a female guide to lead you there.
Can you tell me what, in your mind, distinguishes Southern women from those reared in other parts of the United States?
They're like women in other parts of America, just more so. As Gloria Steinem said about Ginger Rogers: She was doing everything Fred Astaire was doing, just doing it backwards in high heels. Well, Southern women are doing and enduring what other women have to do and endure, but (at least until recently) they had to do it in heels and hats and white gloves and makeup and a sweet smile, with maybe a glass of bourbon and a cigarette to get them through the magnolia part of being a steel magnolia. The women in Red Clay, Blue Cadillac are all very strong people. Sometimes they have to pretend otherwise.
By the way, I hear that Sourcebooks had another title in mind for this collection of stories.
They wanted to call it All the Wrong Women, but I told them that you obviously don't know Southern women. Just because they murder their husbands doesn't make them bad people.
Has your self-definition as a writer changed over the years, in terms of what you think you can and cannot accomplish?
Well, when you start out, you think you can do everything. I don't know that my definition of myself has changed so much. I still want to explore all different ways of telling stories. Someone said to me once that what matters most is to be in the "canon," to be read, to be taught. Good books are read over and over, and the more you read them, the better they are, because they have more in there to give you. ... And if your books are taught and studied, and they are read over and over, your characters stay alive.
Are there books you have read repeatedly?
Yes. [William] Faulker's The Hamlet and Dickens' ... well, I can't say any particular title, just Dickens. I read Dickens and Shakespeare, Dickens and Shakespeare. They're the two greatest portrait painters of characters in my language.
If you could have written any one or two books that don't already appear under your name, which ones would they be?
Great Expectations, Faulkner's The Hamlet and -- well, my God -- War and Peace. War and Peace is the greatest novel. Dickens is the greatest novelist, but War and Peace is the greatest novel. I'd also like to take credit for the short story "The Dead," by James Joyce. That's the perfect short story.
Finally, I'd like to know about The Four Corners of the Sky, the novel you're currently composing. What's that one about?
It's a quest novel. It's about a young woman who's a navy pilot, who is searching for her mother -- she's never met her mother. Her father is a criminal con artist, and she was on the road with him as a child, but he abandoned her. Now, in order to find her mother, she has to find him again. And then the question is, can she forgive either or both of her parents?
A number of your previous novels have been inspired by much older works. You said that Handling Sin was a rewriting of Cervantes' Don Quixote, and Dingley Falls owes debts to both George Eliot's Middlemarch and Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood. Is The Four Corners of the Sky based on any other book?
It is: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Tin Man in this book is a vice cop in Miami with a drinking problem, and there's also going to be a Scarecrow and a Cowardly Lion. But, of course, nobody will ever notice those parallels, unless you tell them.
Who, me? | December 2002
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.