Darkness on the Edge of Town: MysteryPeople Q&A with Jesse Donaldson

Jesse Donaldson’s The More They Disappear deals with the murder of a sheriff in a Kentucky town, just as OxyContin gets introduced to rural towns in the late nineties. It is a compelling debut, nuanced in both its emotions and morality. We asked Mr. Donaldson some questions over e-mail as we prepare for his visit to our store this upcoming Friday, August 26th, at 7 PM.

“The novel takes its title from that common desire to leave your town, to disappear. There’s some thematic kinship to this Bruce Springsteen record I love – Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

MysteryPeople Scott: What spurred you to write a whodunnit where the reader knows who did it?

Jesse Donaldson: This is a trick question. I mean, it’s not a whodunit if you know the who, right? And in The More They Disappear that happens rather early. Another writer, Smith Henderson, called it a whydunnit. I’d say the novel has more in common with a police procedural, a la Richard Price – only it is set in rural Kentucky instead of New York City. You follow the deputy sheriff, Harlan Dupee, as he sets about solving a violent crime. The tension is driven by that investigation and its consequences. The larger question is: in the aftermath of a violent crime, will this town held together by increasingly fragile bonds, fall apart?

MPS: What made the early days of the Oxy crisis the right period?

JD: I always wanted to write about the Oxy crisis. In the late 90s and early 2000s, it didn’t get nearly as much media attention as it should have. Newspapers and magazines were more interested in covering the country’s Meth problem. Exploded meth labs make for a nice dramatic photo. The Oxy story was and is way more complicated and in the long run more devastating. It was created by lax regulation by the FDA and states, a dishonest pharmaceutical company, crooked doctors, and millions of people suffering from some sort of “pain”—be it physical or emotional. Moreover, the Oxy issue is directly responsible for the degree of our country’s current heroin epidemic, so it seemed worthwhile to explore its origins.

MPS: All of your characters are fully fleshed out with their angels and demons. How do you approach the people you write?

JD: With empathy.

“Small towns in Kentucky do include hillbillies. They also include doctors, lawyers, public officials, teachers, bored kids, savants, criminals. And sometimes the criminals aren’t just common ne’er-do-wells but doctors and lawmen themselves.”

MPS: What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

JD: Maintaining confidence when stuck in the gyre. A blank page is unlimited potential. That’s daunting. But each sentence that brings you closer to the words “The End” takes away a small part of that unlimited possibility. And that’s frightening, as well.

I learned to allow myself long hours to just think about the book without writing. Walks with the dog were spent examining my characters’ motivations and backstories. Long drives were spent thinking about landscape. I made attempts at lucid dreaming when I got stuck. Those mostly failed, by the way. But occasionally you wake up in the middle of the night and jot down a note and that opens up the next twenty pages.

MPS: Marathon is a fully realized place. What did you want to say about small towns?

JD: That small towns, and more specifically small towns in Kentucky, are not so homogenous as they are usually portrayed. Small towns have very complex hierarchies of class. Certain places in Kentucky, and Texas for that matter, are wrongly stereotyped as backwards or backwoods–overrun by hillbillies. And that’s a crock of shit. Small towns in Kentucky do include hillbillies. They also include doctors, lawyers, public officials, teachers, bored kids, savants, criminals. And sometimes the criminals aren’t just common ne’er-do-wells but doctors and lawmen themselves.

That said, Marathon, the fictional town of my novel, is a place that carries its fair share of desperation. The novel takes its title from that common desire to leave your town, to disappear. There’s some thematic kinship to this Bruce Springsteen record I love – Darkness on the Edge of Town. It followed Born to Run. And whereas Born to Run was all about that romantic notion of leaving the small town and heading out for adventure—the west, the city, the ocean—Darkness was all about trying to leave and ending up nowhere. Which is its own form of disappearing.

“I learned to allow myself long hours to just think about the book without writing. Walks with the dog were spent examining my characters’ motivations and backstories. Long drives were spent thinking about landscape. I made attempts at lucid dreaming when I got stuck.”

MPS: This being a debut novel, did you pull from any influences?

JD: I’m always being inspired by what I read. Some influences you wouldn’t see in the book at first glance. Edith Wharton, for example. Others influenced my writing and then had to be excised. Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree threatened to derail me. For shifting points of view, As I Lay Dying, is a masterpiece. In general, the inspirations reach far and wide. In the crime world, there’s Ross MacDonald, K.C. Constantine, the aforementioned Richard Price, and Walter Mosley. When it comes to landscape, I learned from Willa Cather and James Wright. All The King’s Men was a huge influence. In terms of atmosphere, Pete Dexter’s Paperboy is a hallmark that you try to live up to in your own work. Really there are too many influences to list. But those are the ones that come to mind today.

Come by BookPeople this Friday, August 26th, at 7 PM, for an evening with Jesse Donaldson, speaking and signing his debut, The More They Disappear. Donaldson is a graduate of the prestigious Michener Center for Writers. He will appear in conversation with Philipp Meyer, author of The Son. You can find copies of The More They Disappear on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

Scene of the Crime: MysteryPeople Explores P.J. Tracy’s Minnesota

The mother-daughter writing team of P.J. Tracy have used their native Minnesota to great effect in the fun Monkeewrench series, featuring a group of computer programmers who work with the police. It’s been a bit of a wait for the sixth book, (apparently seeming longer to some), but it is out now, titled The Sixth Idea. it’s also been a while since we’ve done our regular post Scene Of The Crime, where we talk to authors about their settings. So welcome back both.

MysteryPeople Scott: What makes Minnesota a great state to write about?

P. J. Tracy: Minnesota is perceived as being a very hegemonous state, but in truth, there is so much diversity here, both ethnically and environmentally.  We have vibrant and sophisticated urban areas like Minneapolis and St. Paul with large enclaves of many different nationalities, vast swaths of rural farmland that help feed the nation, the Mississippi River and Lake Superior, untouched wilderness, and more than ten thousand lakes.  Each of these widely varied settings has a unique character and culture all their own, so the inspiration for writers is virtually limitless.  For anybody who thinks this is fly-over land, they’re missing out.  (Just for the record, we’re not on the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce payroll.)

MPS: How has it shaped your protagonists?

PJT: Our detectives, Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth, both grew up here, so they have native perspectives on everything they encounter and share it with the readers.  The Monkeewrench gang is comprised of transplants from the southern U.S., so their experiences with Minnesota culture are conveyed through the lens of outsiders who are constantly learning and adapting to the nuances of a foreign land.

MPS: What is the biggest misconception about the state?

PJT: That we have brutally cold, snowy winters and sweltering summers that spawn mosquitoes large enough to carry away a small child.  Our winters can be brutal and snowy, our summers hot and humid, but both seasons can also be mild and pleasant…once every five years or so.  And the mosquitoes usually don’t get big enough to carry away a small child.  But maybe a small dog.    

MPS: What can happen in a Minnesota thriller that can’t in many other locales?

PJT: People can be impaled on ice shards (Shoot to Thrill) and corpses can be concealed in snowmen (Snowblind).

MPS: We had to wait almost a whole decade for a new Monkeewrench book.  Will we get another trip back sooner?

PJT: Oh, come on, Off the Grid was published in 2012, so it’s only been a four year wait – we’ve stood in line longer than that at the DMV!  But truthfully, those four years do seem like a decade to us and probably to a lot of our readers.  The great news is the next Monkeewrench novel is finished, edited, and will be released in 2017.  And we’re well into the ninth in the series, so no more outrageous waiting times.

MPS: Can somebody be a killer and still be “Minnesota nice”?

PJT: We would have to say no to that.  However, they can still pretend to be Minnesota nice, which is an excellent way to lure in victims by giving them a false sense of security and well-being before doing the deed.  You can call that Minnesota ice.

You can find copies of P. J. Tracy’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

 

 

Rot in Rural America: MysteryPeople Reviews THE MORE THEY DISAPPEAR by Jesse Donaldson

Come by BookPeople this Friday, August 26th, at 7 PM, for an evening with Jesse Donaldson, speaking and signing his debut, The More They DisappearDonaldson is a graduate of the prestigious Michener Center for Writers, located right here in Austin, and is one of the emerging voices of our time. He will appear in conversation with Philipp Meyer, author of The Son. 

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9781250050229Jesse Donaldson’s debut, The More They Disappear, looks deep into the darkness that causes rot in American rural towns. It uses a murder in the fictional Marathon, Kentucky to explore the ramifications of the introduction of OxyContin to small-town America in the early nineties. Donaldson argues that, at the time, corruption was making those places ready to be taken by anything.

Events are set in motion as Lew Mattock, the sheriff of Marathon, is shot by a sniper at his own fundraiser. The killer, Mary Jane Finley, a young woman from an upper middle class family, slips away without being noticed. Harlan Dupree, the chief deputy promoted to interim sheriff, attempts to solve the murder of his boss, a man he was at odds with.

Since we know Mary Jane is the killer, the book becomes more of a whydunit than a whodunit. We learn Mary-Jane’s history that lead her to drugs and murder. The description of her first time with Oxy beautifully explains the drug. As Harlan closes in on her we’re given a tour of Marathon’s underbelly and criminal connections. He goes up against both the political and class system, learning Mary Jane is just one part of a larger crime and that she may be a victim as well. With Harlan snooping around in a town so small everyone, including the guilty, can see him snooping, the tension builds for characters and readers alike.

The More They Disappear is both visceral and nuanced. Much like Ace Atkins’ latest novel, The Innocents, it rages at small town indifference and speaks for the unspoken. Here though, there are no Quinn Colson heroes, only victims.

You can find copies of The More They Disappear on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Crime Fiction Friday: “Riviera” by Julie Smith

MysteryPeople_cityscape_72

  • Selected and Introduced by Scott Montgomery
Akashic Books recently released Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, a great addition to their Noir series. The volume features established talent like Ace Atkins and Megan Abbott and talented up and comers like William Boyle. To get us amped for the collection, Akashic posted this great story set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Julie Smith on their Mondays Are Murder Site.

“Riviera” by Julie Smith

‘”Shit on a stick,” Roy said. “It’s her.”

“You’re lyin’!” Forest said. “Not The Dutch Treat, please, Jesus. Anything but that!”

“AKA Spawn of Satan.”

They were at the Gulfport Shaggy’s, about to celebrate a decent haul on a pot deal with a late-morning bloody and there stood The Treat, looking less Dutch than usual, a little more redneck, talking to some senior stoner with ass-length white hair in a sectioned-off ponytail…’

Read the rest of the story.

MysteryPeople Double Feature: GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

Come by BookPeople this upcoming Monday, August 22nd, at 7 PM, for a screening of Gone Girl [2014], followed by a discussion of the book and film. The screening will take place on the third floor and is free and open to the public. 

– Post by Molly Odintz

gone girlWhen I sat down last week to read Gillian Flynn’s mega-blockbuster of domestic suspense Gone Girl ahead of our upcoming screening of the film this upcoming Monday, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew before going in that the book had already made waves as a bestseller, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its unlikable female protagonist. My friends who had already read Gone Girl assured me that the husband was just as bad, although an unlikable male protagonist, in the form of the anti-hero, is much more pervasive.

As a passionate reader of mysteries and an ardent feminist, it would be difficult for me to underestimate the impact of Gone Girl in encouraging publishers to embrace challenging, complex female characters. The early aughts brought with them the compelling but simplistic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the late aughts ushered in the era of The Girl in the Title, in which one Swede and a host of imitators forever linked “girl” with “dark and twisted,” as Flynn Berry pointed out in an interview earlier this year.

Then, with the 2012 release of Gone Girl, we entered into the era of the Unlikable Female Protagonist, previously a category embraced by literary fiction and issued in short print runs, now a qualifier for any bestseller of the domestic suspense variety. Why, you might ask, would I consider an unlikable female protagonist as a positive for feminism?

First, it would be patronizing to write every female character as a sop, morally superior to the no-damn-good men around her, who are thus freed from the responsibility of matching womanly perfection. A woman in literature, just as in life, has a right to complex motivations and wicked behavior.

Second, society has a problem with its willingness to listen to those women not bending over backwards to appeal to their audience. Maybe it’s time to have a whole trend of listening to women we don’t like, because their opinions, feelings, and experiences are just as complex and valid as those of the girl next door, or as Flynn calls it in Gone Girl, the “cool girl.” Gone Girl‘s Amy is not just hard to like – she’s been wronged, viscerally, and irreversibly, and her vengeance, while over-the-top, comes to a place of legitimate pain.

It’s difficult to say much about this book without discussing its abrupt, fascinating end, and so if you continue beyond this point, SPOILER ALERT. I repeat, SPOILER ALERT.

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Philly, Then & Now: MysteryPeople Q&A with Duane Swierczynski

 

 

Duane Swierczynski’s latest novel, Revolver, looks at the 1964 shooting of two policemen and its legacy through the generations, as the son of one of the dead officers plots revenge in 1995, and his daughter Audrey looks into the murder in 2015. Swierczynski is known both for his crime fiction and his contributions to the comics world. We talked to Duane about the book and how he explores family, place, and time.

MysteryPeople Scott: How did Revolver come about?

Duane Swierczynski: This idea was one of those rare gifts from the gods – it was like I had an idea aneurysm one morning (March 23, 2014, to be exact). I’d read a Philadelphia Inquirer piece about the 1963 murder of two police officers in New Jersey, and the impact it had on the family in the present. And then boom – I knew exactly the kind of story I wanted to write, and how it even connected with some characters in my previous novel, Canary. I also knew that it would take place in three different time periods. What I didn’t know? How the hell I was going to pull that off.

“If Revolver has a hero, it’s Audrey Kornbluth, and at first, we think she’s nothing more than a bitter, hot mess who drinks way too much. But by the novel’s end, you kind of fall in love with her. I know I did.”

 

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MysteryPeople Q&A with James W. Ziskin

Heart Of Stone is the latest in James Ziskin’s series featuring early 1960s “girl reporter” Ellie Stone. James will be joining his fellow Seventh Street author Mark Pryor at a BookPeople signing this Saturday, August 20th at 6PM. Our Meike Alana got some early questions in.

 

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

Meike Alana: The Ellie Stone novels are written in the first person, and you write a very convincing female in her early 20’s. How did you develop that voice?

James W. Ziskin: I try to imagine a fully developed character in Ellie. Her thoughts, aspirations, loves, hates. Her joys and pains. Simply describing what she’s doing from chapter to chapter doesn’t cut it, even if her behavior happens to be believable to the reader. That makes for a cardboard-thin character, flat and, ultimately, uninteresting. Instead, I want to climb inside Ellie’s head and create a fully formed character and, by extension, a voice. So how do I get inside Ellie? I mine those emotions I mentioned above. I imagine how she would feel and react in certain situations. Would she keep quiet, mouth off, or feel defeated? What would she say to a man dismissing her as “just a girl”? What would she do if he patted her rear end? What kind of man would she find attractive? Irresistible? Contemptible? It’s hard to do, of course. If you’re truly going to hang flesh on the bones of your character, be she a woman or a man, you need more than just a physical description and a couple of quirks or mannerisms. You need to empathize with your characters. Understand them, think them through. Make them complex, multidimensional, dense, and deep. Give them weight. And once you’ve done that, the voice will come.

“If you’re truly going to hang flesh on the bones of your character, be she a woman or a man, you need more than just a physical description and a couple of quirks or mannerisms. You need to empathize with your characters. Understand them, think them through. Make them complex, multidimensional, dense, and deep. Give them weight. And once you’ve done that, the voice will come.”

 

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