Lou Berney has just pulled off one of the most ambitious books to come around yet this year, The Long And Faraway Gone. It deals with two people haunted by crimes committed in Oklahoma City over twenty-five years before. In one narrative, a woman tries to solve the disappearance of her missing sister; in the other, a private investigator, the lone survivor of a robbery at the movie theater where he worked as a teen, returns to the city to work on a case. This moving, well paced, and involving novel is our February Pick Of The Month. Before Lou joins us for our February 16th Austin Noir At The Bar, he was kind enough to answer a few questions.
MysteryPeople: The Long and Faraway Gone is such a unique novel. Was there any certain source of inspiration for it?
Lou Berney: Two real-life crimes were part of the inspiration for the novel. In 1978, six employees of a family steakhouse in Oklahoma City – four of them teenagers – were murdered during a robbery. That really shook the city up, and it shook me up. I was 13 years old and working across town at a hamburger joint. Every time I stepped into our walk-in freezer, I thought about how terrified those kids must have been right before they died. I couldn’t stop trying to imagine what they were thinking.
I was working at a movie theater, a few years later, when two teenage girls disappeared from the State Fair of Oklahoma. It turned out that the mother of one of the girls worked at my theater, checking box-office numbers for the studios. I didn’t know her, but I’d watch her from across the lobby. Again, I just couldn’t stop imagining what she must have been going through.
MP: The plot deals with at least three mysteries. How did you approach those plot machinations?
LB: My first two novels were more about, What happens next? as opposed to, What already happened? So I had to come at this novel in a completely different way. I had to work backwards, essentially. And I broke out each mystery as a separate arc, with an individual outline for each one. Integrating all the various plotlines was probably the toughest part. I wanted to make sure there was balance, and that the reader didn’t lose, or get tired of, any of the threads.
MP: Besides being familiar with the area, how did Oklahoma City city serve you as a setting?
LB: I loved the idea of using Oklahoma City as a setting because it was such fresh fictional territory – there just aren’t that many novels that have been set there. And it’s rich fictional territory too. It’s a complex, surprising, gritty, quirky, beautiful place with a colorful history and a lot more diversity, in a lot more ways, than most people realize (best Vietnamese food in the United States, for example!). And since the Murrah Federal Building bombing twenty years ago, the city has really changed and evolved at a startling pace.
MP: One of the things I loved about the book, was that the mystery revolves around Wyatt and Juliane unravelling each of their mysteries by learning more about the the victim or missing person than the victimizer. How do you write a characters who aren’t physically around in the story?
LB: First, I’m really happy you noticed that this book was more about the people affected by the crimes than about the people who committed them. As for writing characters who aren’t around, my approach was that – for the two main characters, who can’t escape the past – those characters are always around, as much part of their lives than the living, breathing human beings they interact with every day. It’s the old Faulkner quote: for Wyatt and Julianna, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.”
MP: So much of the book deals with people haunted by violence. What did you want to explore in that subject?
LB: Most people know the name of the man who blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Most people who lived in Oklahoma City in the late 1970s know the name of the man who murdered the people at Sirloin Stockade. I wanted to write about the people who died, and the friends and family who had to deal with that grief – and are still dealing with it. I wanted to make those names, in the book, the names you remember.
MP: You pulled off a very ambitious book. What would you tell a writer who comes up with an idea that seems hard to pull off, but it keeps swirling around in his head?
LB: I hope I pulled it off, but the advantage of swinging for the fences is that even if you come up short and don’t hit a home run, you still might bang the ball off the wall for a double. That was my philosophy, at least. There were definitely times while writing this when I thought my reach might have exceeded my grasp. But all the writers I love most always try to do too much, rather than just enough. So that’s what I kept reminding myself.
Lou Berney joins us for Noir at the Bar Monday, February 16, at 7 pm, at the Opal Divine’s on South Congress. Come join us for a night of booze, books and crime fiction. The Long and Faraway Gone hits the shelves on February 10 and is available for pre-order now via bookpeople.com. Copies will also be available for purchase at Noir at the Bar.