by Darin Strauss
Published by Dutton
326 pages, 2002
Darin Strauss writes novels whose main characters live in the shadowy edge of society: the circus sideshow, the boxing ring thick with cigar smoke, the back-alley con game. With the critical success of his first book, Chang and Eng (2000, Dutton), and now 2002's The Real McCoy, Strauss himself hardly lingers at the fringe of literary society.
The first novel, a vibrant retelling of the lives of the original Siamese twins, eked from hardened critics the kind of words every first-time novelist dreams of: "Astonishing…" "Dazzling…" "Haunting…" It was selected for Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers Series and the Book Sense 76 picks from independent booksellers.
The 32-year-old Long Island resident and New York University instructor continues to gather laudatory blurbs for The Real McCoy, another inventive take on a slice of American history. This time, he turns his sights on the life of early-1900s boxing champ Charles McCoy who, in Strauss' hands, is the namesake for the popular catchphrase.
In the novel, McCoy is a turn-of-the-century flim-flam artist who wins many of his fights through grand theatrics and packets of blood hidden inside his mouth -- all designed to make his opponents think he's weaker than he really is. In reality, McCoy is a nobody from "pissant Indiana" who steals the identity of another boxer named McCoy who is killed one night in a barroom brawl, then fakes his way to fame.
David Abrams: It seems lately there's been a new wave of literary fiction centered around history -- Charles Frazier, Kevin Baker, Jeffrey Lent and Tracey Chevalier, to name just a few recent authors of historical fiction. What do you think readers are looking for when they hunt down these books? Is there a trend to their reading tastes?
Darin Strauss: Well, I think it's always a little dangerous for writers to think about stuff like trends. I can tell you why I like to write these kinds of books; but I can't say for sure if, or why, people would want to read a historical fiction book. Historical fiction that's trying to be literary in some way should comment, even obliquely, on today. It reminds me of that Shakespeare quote, "By indirections find directions out." So if you write about America in 1900, as I did in The Real McCoy, you can say things about why our country is the way it is today, hopefully in subtle ways.
I actually had an argument with a fellow writer about this recently. He was telling me he didn't like historical fiction. We were talking about Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang and he told me, "Why should I want to read what Peter Carey has to say about the 19th century if I can read about what Dickens has to say about the 19th century?" So, he wants to read authors writing about their contemporary times, about the here and now. But I don't think that's really valid, because, for one thing, Dickens never wrote about this particular story. Writers should focus mainly on telling good stories -- it shouldn't matter when they take place. If it's a good story, it's a good story. And also, like I said, I think you can come at today, maybe in a more interesting way, if you come at it from the past.
The idea of categorizing literary fiction and historical fiction as different is rather new; but the fact is, historical fiction as a genre is incredibly old, probably some of the oldest works of literature we have are historical fiction, before they were called that. The Odyssey and The Iliad both take place hundreds of years before Homer. All of Shakespeare's plays are, basically, historical. He never wrote about his contemporary England. But that didn't stop his plays from having meaning to the people who saw them. Even War and Peace is historical fiction.
Do you feel a certain freedom to be able to work outside the boundaries of contemporary society?
I'm not sure yet if my next book will be historical fiction or not -- I haven't decided what I'm going to write about; but I think the reason I've chosen these two books is because I like to tell larger-than-life stories. I'm attracted to these characters who have experienced interesting lives, certainly far more interesting than anything I've experienced. And so, I just go hunting for good stories. If they happen to take place in the past, I don't necessarily consider that a problem.
In fact, it might be easier to tackle these big stories by setting them in the past. There's something about the tenor of the times today that makes it hard to write about these grand stories. I don't know if there are as many grand stories today -- I mean, we like to tear down our heroes so quickly. I also like to write in a lyrical language and this might not be a lyrical age in some way.
Do we have any Charles "Kid" McCoys in today's society?
I think we do. One of the things I found interesting about this story is that it took place at the very beginning of what today we'd call the "celebrity culture." For the first time, people were hunting for fame as an end in itself, not just the byproduct of an act. Because of the nascent media of the time -- newspapers were starting to get national reach and run photographs for the first time -- people could become famous. If he were around today, Kid McCoy would be a celebrity like Madonna -- someone who is famous for her ability to be famous -- or he'd be some executive at Enron. That's where the flim-flam side of him would come in. This was the beginning of the American go-getter spirit, the entrepreneurial spirit, that made America what it is today. It really started then with people like Ford and J.P. Morgan. I think the dark underside of the American entrepreneurial spirit is the con, the flim-flammer. I don't think it's a coincidence that those two phenomena -- the celebrity and the con artist -- started at the same time. The con man is purely an American phenomenon. Flim-flammers were always American back then and they only went after American targets -- so they were the dupes and the dupers. Because of the relationship between entrepreneurialism and conning, those things have come together today, as we've seen in some of those executives at Enron.
What do you think McCoy represents about America -- either then or now?
In the book, he rises and becomes sort of this icon of truth, this very famous person representing, essentially, nothing. That's one of the things I wanted to address -- how the con man reinvents himself every time he goes out with a new con. Another thing I wanted to talk about was how Americans were also the targets. American con men would sometimes travel all the way to Europe to set up these elaborate scams, but they would always go after American tourists, they would never try to get a European. I mean, who's more gullible than an American abroad? It says a lot about us, that we're able to invent these outlandish stories for our own benefit. Americans have this streak of cunning, but there's also this wide-eyed optimism in America and that's what con men prey on. Those two poles say a lot about America.
You end the book with McCoy reflecting on how he's achieved immortality in a catch-phrase: "In the end there was nothing extraordinary about me but the intensity of my desire." That's a pretty sad statement with which to end the book. Do you see McCoy as a winner or a loser?
That's a tough one. I don't know if I'd put it in those terms. I guess you'd have to say he loses in the end, but yet he's got such charisma. I tried to make him sympathetic, even though he was doing things that weren't necessarily sympathetic. I'd hate to call him a loser, but he's certainly not an unqualified winner, either.
The real Real McCoy had a pretty dramatic end to his life -- he was accused of murdering his mistress, convicted and sent to prison, and then after his release he killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills. Why did you decide to veer away from the actual events of his life?
I was interested in the idea of this guy being a symbol of truth in America, but actually being a liar. The real McCoy wasn't an imposter, he didn't steal someone's identity like my character did. He was crafty in the boxing ring, but he wasn't an organized con man with a mentor named Johnnie Gold. So I figured I'd just invent the story whole-hog. I didn't want to stick with the truth. In fact, I changed his name -- the actual McCoy's real name was Norman Selby and I changed it to Virgil because I wanted it to be this mock heroic epic. There are a lot of elements of The Aeneid and Gilgamesh in the book -- at times, he's called Gil Selby. Gilgamesh is on this quest for immortality, trying to break into Hell and demand that he live forever. My guy is on a quest for a twentieth-century version of immortality which is fame. It's just as quixotic an endeavor to go after immortality like that. When you think about it, the desire to be famous is pretty silly.
And, sadly, today we mainly remember him through a catch-phrase. I'd venture to say a lot of people don't know the whole story behind the saying.
Right, most people don't. In fact, there are competing theories as to the basis of the phrase. There was a guy, an African-American inventor in the 1870s who was named McCoy. A lot of people think he was the basis for the phrase. Because there was a lot of racism back then, people couldn't believe that he could actually invent something and people would say, "No, this is the real McCoy." That's just one theory. But I think it was really the boxer.
How did you happen to decide to write about McCoy?
I'm interested in the idea of identity. Chang and Eng addresses that in some ways, too. The Siamese twins are a symbol for the fact that we're all different people at different times. Near the end of writing Chang and Eng, I was reading a book about identity which mentioned in passing the story of this guy named Selby who was also known as the Real McCoy. I thought it was interesting how he was supposed to be this symbol of genuineness, but yet he wasn't actually named McCoy. I just made the story up from there. I did a little bit of research about the real guy, but then I decided I didn't want to tell that story. I didn't want him to be a murderer and a suicide.
In The Real McCoy, you use a lot of metaphorical language -- "like" and "as" are some of the most frequent words in the text. I can only assume that was a deliberate decision on your part.
That's just the way I like to write. I think my writing has changed since Chang and Eng.
In what way?
There are more similes in there now. Just looking at the two books, I think the language is more energetic in The Real McCoy; it takes more risks. But, thematically, the reason for the metaphorical language is because McCoy is approximating something. This character, Selby, is trying to be something he's not. He's a skinny unsophisticated kid from Indiana, but he's trying to pass himself off as this great welterweight fighter from New York. So he's always trying to approximate some image in his head and I thought if there were a lot of metaphors it would fit with the scene.
There is so much period detail in both of your books. You really put the reader in those worlds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How much research do you do in order to get the setting as convincing as it is?
I try not to do too much research. I took a class at New York University with E.L. Doctorow and he once said, "When you're writing fiction, do the least amount of research that you can get away with." I don't think he was saying "do nothing," but if you do too much, then you run the risk of sounding like a textbook. You'll feel the necessity of putting it all in there; because if you do the work, you want to see it in the book. Also, I think if you do too much research, it will affect your voice because you want to describe things in an interesting way. A fiction writer's responsibility is different than a historian's. The fiction writer wants to be interesting and have his own original language. Your responsibility should be to the story, not to the facts.
I try to write as much as I can without doing any research, and then I go back and fill in some blanks. With Chang and Eng, for example, I didn't do any research on old Siam. I had no idea what it was like as a country, but I had this image in my mind of it as this mystical place. So, I just wrote the whole novel, and then went back and did some research on Thailand to be sure I didn't make any huge blunders.
Tell me about how you got Chang and Eng published. You seemed to blaze onto the literary scene from out of nowhere.
I think I just got lucky. When I was in graduate school, a friend of mine wanted to be an agent. I said, "Yeah, let's work together." But then he went back to his job answering phones and I went back to graduate school. By the time I actually had a novel to sell four years later, he'd become an agent and so we sort of fell in together, so I didn't have to go out and search too hard for an agent. He started shopping around the first thirty pages when it was still really rough. No one rejected it, but a few people said they wanted to see more or that they couldn't buy it just then but they'd keep us in mind. Then we realized that maybe it was a mistake to do it that way -- showing them only the first thirty pages. I told my agent, "I don't want to show it to anyone until it's ready, until it's done." So we agreed we wouldn't show it anymore. But then he was at a party and he started talking about it and the next thing he knew he had an editor calling him up saying, "I heard about the Siamese twins book. I'd like to see it." We told him to wait another six or seven months until it was really ready. He said okay and hung up. But then he called again two days later and said "I was just made editor-in-chief of Dutton and I need to buy a book this week." And we said, "Oh, did we say you couldn't see it? You must have misunderstood us. Of course, you can see it now!" We gave it to him even though it was only about two-thirds done. And that's how it sold.
Chang and Eng has one of the best sex scenes I've ever read. You must have known that was coming, that you'd have to address the complicated issue of marital relations between the conjoined Siamese twins and the white sisters they marry. How did you prepare for writing those scenes?
Normally, I don't like to write sex scenes. They can be hard to do and they can often end up cheesy. But like you said, I knew this book needed to address it in some way. And so, I wanted to show how weird and funny and sad it must have been for these two guys to have sex. The problem when people write about sex is they think about it in different terms than writing other scenes. Writers suddenly worry about titillating the reader rather than focusing on the character. If you just focus on the context of the story and worry about revealing character more than titillating the reader, it's just like any other scene in the end.
In your afterword to Chang and Eng, you write that you were "elbowing the facts toward the novel's own idea of truth." Is this revision of history something you think about as you write?
Especially with that book, I think it makes sense. But it's also probably why I didn't stick to the story of the real Real McCoy. With Chang and Eng, I knew that we didn't know too much about them, so if I stuck to the facts in that book and only told what can be verified, it would be a very threadbare story. We wouldn't know anything about what their lives or their personalities were really like, what their wives were like, what their lives together were like. If I did that, it wouldn't be a truthful picture of conjoined twin life. It's a paradox: if I stuck to the truth, it wouldn't give a very truthful picture; but if I made stuff up and did my job right, I would give the reader a better sense of what the truth of their lives must have been because I could say what their lives felt like or what they were thinking at certain moments.
You really had to face up to the issue of fact versus fiction when you met with some of Chang and Eng's descendants at a family reunion a few months after the book came out. How did you handle their approach to what was, for them, a very real story?
The interesting thing about that is it wasn't such a real story in their minds. As soon as the twins died in 1874, the family stopped talking about them because they wanted to give the appearance to the world that they were a normal white family. They didn't want people to think of them as kids of these oddly-born Asian men. Since they made a conscious decision to not discuss Chang and Eng, all the family history was lost. And so, most of these people I met at that family reunion were hungry for knowledge about their family; they didn't know anything them. They knew less than I did. Some of them had done research, but for the most part, they came up to me and said, "Oh, I've learned so much about my family from your book." That's when I had to say, "Well, you know, it's a novel, so I don't know if that's the way things really were." I was surprised at how many of them had read the book. There were hundreds of them at the reunion and they all had some opinion about it.
You've written a screenplay for Chang and Eng. What was that experience like for you?
It was a challenge because I was halfway through The Real McCoy at the time, so I had to go back and revisit the story that I had forgotten about. It was a good exercise because in taking a 323-page book -- which I thought was already pretty lean -- and cutting it down to a 120-page screenplay, I had to really focus on the key elements. I had to cut out anything that wasn't moving the story forward. So, some scenes from the book that I really liked, I had to cut. But I think it was a good lesson in what are the fundaments of storytelling. Seeing what I would cut from that first book, made it easier to go back to The Real McCoy and focus purely on story and how to move it forward.
Where is the movie project at, in terms of making it to the screen?
They've attached a director -- Julie Taymor [director of Titus and Broadway's The Lion King] -- but I haven't heard anything in a while. Sometimes these things take a long time and they go through fits and starts. Maybe it's just in pause mode right now and it will start up again, or maybe it will just stay in limbo. Hollywood can be a weird place. I'm still optimistic, but I can't say for sure when it's going to come out.
What are your writing habits like? Do you keep a daily schedule?
I work from home, so I try to work from 9 to 5 at least five or six days a week. And so, like anyone with a 9 to 5 job, I take a lot of breaks, make some phone calls and take a long lunch. [Laughs]
What's your approach to revision?
I revise as I go along. And then at the end, I go back over it all again. In some ways I think I'm a better re-writer than I am a writer. I think revision is really the key thing that makes the difference in getting published. I've known a lot of writers who write pretty good first drafts, but then they get lazy about going back and revising them. You have to have the discipline to back and perfect things over and over. | January 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories, Ruminator Review and other literary magazines.