The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
22 July 2008
Interview with mystery novelist Ed Lynskey
Ed Lynskey’s mystery novels fall into a genre of their own, Appalachian noir. His fourth novel—and the third in his series about hard-boiled private eye Frank Johnson—is Pelham Fell Here, published in June 2008 by Mundania Press. In this novel, Frank investigates the murder of his cousin to prove his own innocence after he becomes the prime suspect in the death.
Ed, thank you for visiting my blog today for an interview, and congratulations on the publication of Pelham Fell Here.
Thank you. Readers and critics have told me Pelham Fell Here is my best book. The dustjacket blurbs from James Crumley, James Rollins, Kevin O’Brien, J.D. Rhoades, Megan Abbott, Kevin Starr, Anne Frasier, and William Kent Krueger were enthusiastic. Not to overtoot my own horn, but it’s the most gratifying thing to hear—I mean improving and growing as a fiction writer. When I worry is when I’ve plateaued and stagnated.
I mixed in more back story in Pelham and toned down the action sequences and wove in a romance thread. Readers seem to cotton to a likable hero (though he’s flawed, too) to cheer on as well as a couple of love interests.
Appalachia has a culture and mindset all its own. You’ve spent much of your life in Washington, D.C. I’m curious how you went about researching Appalachia and particularly how you learned to recreate the speech patterns and rhythms.
I agree that Appalachia is a unique place. I was bred in the hilly Piedmont on the doorstep to the Blue Ridge mountains. This orients my worldview. Only a few years ago did I relocate to the Washington, D.C., metro area. You’re spot on about the research. I rely on the Internet and Google to do research on various Websites.
A sure, deft sense of dialog is something I labor over. I email experts in their fields, asking too many questions, I’m sure. For instance, Frank is a bluegrass music fan. For The Blue Cheer I contacted several sources to incorporate some musicians native to West Virginia.
Do you agree with the label “Appalachian noir”? How would you define it?
The first time I saw the label was in the dustjacket blurb John Lescroart gave my 2007 mystery The Blue Cheer, set in mountainous West Virginia. I’m okay with any of my books being called “Appalachian noir.” I love the area. But I’m not sure I can offer a viable definition of “Appalachian noir.”
This vivid region (Central Appalachia) has been recently used by such New York Times and USA Today bestselling suspense authors as Patricia Cornwell, Charlaine Harris, and Nora Roberts. So Appalachia remains a viable setting in mainstream commercial fiction.
I guess the noir mood emerges in the fatalistic attitude, stubborn independence, and edgy voice that writers use. A slate of Appalachian writers might include Pickney Benedict, William Gay, Daniel Woodrell, and Breece Pancake.
But then, are private detective novels like I write really noir or noirish? I don’t know. Arguments I’ve seen can go either way. Certain aspects such as the tone, pace, and setting strike me as pretty much the same. Anyway, I use the pulp noir masters such as Gil Brewer, Charles Williams, and Ed Lacy as a baseline or blueprint. Then I add a twenty-first century bent and use my own voice.
I’m not a noir fan myself. Yet the genre seems to be alive and thriving and even cross-pollinating other genres, such as science fiction. What do believe accounts for the genre’s appeal?
I’m not a real authority on noir. I write in several genres (crime fiction, literary, some speculative) with a lot of blurring between them. So, this is my personal take on noir.
Violence, conflict, and other dark forces are at work in a noir, but the predestined bad outcome dooms the protagonist from the get-go. In other words, the protagonist is screwed from page one. No matter what he or she does, they can’t find a way out, and things just go from bad to worse. Given the present world stage filled with its war and uncertainty, noir strikes me as a natural fit.
But a true noir’s nihilistic view is too restrictive and one dimensional for me. I prefer to see redemption, or at least the possibility of redemption, stitched into the narrative’s fabric.
Not every story has to end on a bleak, enraged, or gory note. In fact, many such endings to me are hollow cop outs. You know, the writer doesn’t have a skillful way to close out the third act, so they kill off everybody. What’s really amazing is when a first-person narrative has the main character die at the end. I guess their ghost is who’s been telling us the story.
I have a couple of finished projects I might call noirs, if I want to apply that label. However, literary agents and editors tell me noirs have peaked in their sales and are presently tough sells in today’s marketplace.
Some people write novels and wonder how anyone could compress a story into a few pages, while others write short stories and wonder how anyone could write something as long as a novel. You seem to easily do both, having written hundreds of short stories, many featuring P.I. Frank Johnson. How do you go back and forth? Do you approach short stories and novels differently?
Well, actually, I cut my fiction teeth on writing the short stories. Then I graduated to producing the novels. Novels have been my major focus for a few years. On occasion, I’ll dip back into a short story.
Neither form comes easy to me.
I’m doing the edits on a short story collection now (A Clear Path to Cross, Ramble House, 2008) of my lady P.I. Sharon Knowles. All but one story previously appeared either online or in print. My rereading them leaves me mulling over whether short stories can really deliver the dramatic goods to make for entertaining fiction.
Which do you prefer, writing short stories or writing novels? Why?
Nowadays, the time crunch is really the driver for which one I write. If I have a short slot open, I’ll try writing a story. If I have a week with more time available, I’ll work on a novel. Writing and revising novels, I’ve found, requires multiple revisions and sizable blocks of time.
Look, with a novel you go back and beef up or trim down things like back story, scenes, and character development. A lot of novels I review nowadays are thin on these elements. My suspicion is the writer didn’t follow through on the revision process.
Anyway, my point is doing revisions of novels eats up gobs of time, and none of us is getting any younger. A short story, on the other hand, can be worked in its entirety with each sitting.
What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?
One thing I shoot for each day is to ink some new words on current projects. Some writers prefer to ride the dawn patrol, and others are night owls. I’m definitely the former, when my eyes and brain are the brightest and freshest. Use whatever works for you. I like to work in different places and not be chained to the same desk or work station.
I guess writing classes and critique groups are good things, but again, there’s the time issue. Is your time better spent working on your stuff or learning from experienced teachers and writers? I guess it’s a balancing act.
Do you have any advice for my readers who are working on their first novels?
First novels are a gas. You’ve just dived into the creative process, and it’s like being given a blank coloring book and a carton of crayons. Have at it and enjoy the ride.
I don’t usually outline but that’s changed. If you’re writing a linear noir using a few characters, you can probably do it without a map. More complex plots with a larger cast of characters get tangled up in my analog brain. But then the mighty Faulkner outlined the plots to A Fable on his office walls at Rowan Oaks (I believe you can still see the outlines).
Then you’ll hear from the readers and critics all the things you screwed up and maybe a few compliments. I’d listen to it, and maybe change something, if it makes sense to you. After all, the book is your baby, warts and all, to do with as you see fit. The book has your name on the front cover.
Thank you again, Ed, for visiting my blog to talk about Pelham Fell Here.
Shauna, thank you so much for your slate of engaging, insightful questions. I appreciate your having me aboard your blog to say a few words. I hope your readers enjoy something. I know I did by my participating here.
For more information, visit Ed Lynskey’s Website and his blog. His book Pelham Fell Here, published by Mundania Press, is available online at Barnes & Noble and the Mundania Website.