Stories We Tell Ourselves: An Interview with John Copenhaver about Dodging and Burning

Matthew Turbeville: Wow, John. When Kristopher from BOLO Books first recommended Dodging and Burning to me, I was unsure of what to think. Upon looking further into it, it seemed like the book of my dreams, and it turned out it was.  Can you explain where you got the idea for Dodging and Burning?

John Copenhaver: Years ago, in grad school, I took a class on the invention of photography and its impact on literature. We read Sontag’s On Photography and Barthes’s Camera Lucida, as well as Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. I became fascinated by the relationship between images and the narratives that are used to interpret (or misinterpret) them. So, I thought, why not tell a story about a photograph that continues to be re-interpreted? I’ve always loved crime fiction, and this idea fit the genre really well.

MT:  Dodging and Burning is a novel with a lot of unique styles and methods of storytelling.  Can you elaborate on the way you went about telling this fantastic story, and how you decided to approach the novel in such a broad, unique fashion?

JC: Essentially the book is a series of stories, each deeper and wider (and darker) than the one that proceeded it, all related to the essential bit of evidence—the crime scene photograph of poor murdered Lily. So, there needed to be lots of different modes of storytelling: a photo, journals, memoirs, pulp fiction, oral, even coded information. I love Margaret Atwood’s brilliant use of different modes of writing in The Blind Assassin. Also, D. M. Thomas’s heartbreaking and truly remarkable novel, The White Hotel, unfolds through different modes, the truth becoming clearer with each new kind of writing. I really admire those books, so I was chasing a similar effect in my own novel.

MT: I really loved all the characters, even at their worst.  And the story never stopped twisting and turning.  I suppose my next question is how did you first start composing this novel: through character, through story, or in some other way?

JC: Although I began with the photograph idea, when I actually sat down and started writing it, I focused on character, specifically Bunny Prescott. Then, about a fourth of the way through, I stopped and outlined the entire story. I also discovered a lot through revision. In particular, the final twist came to me. It gave me chills. The novel I’m working on now had a similar moment. I can’t say enough about the importance of revision! (Sorry, the teacher in me is coming out.)

MT:  I usually save the heavy-hitter questions for later on in the interview, but I’m dying to ask: you’ve expressed you’re a feminist, supporting women adamantly, and also that you are extremely pro-gay, and also anti-patriarchy (I guess I’m swooning by this point).  What I’m getting at is, without giving away any spoilers, how do you feel this is reflected in the novel, and what were you trying to say in stating these viewpoints and ideas?

JC: Patriarchy is a system under which everyone suffers, most prominently gay men, trans persons, women, and any person of color. But I also think straight white men suffer too. In a patriarchal culture it’s not just that you’re not permitted to say or do certain things, but that you’re not permitted to feel certain things, which is a sort of culturally reinforced, self-inflicted violence. Straight white men, because of their dominant status in our culture, are perhaps the most limited in this respect. Broadly speaking, this confounding of emotion is where their rage comes from. In my novel, you’ll see that the source of most of the violence comes from straight men, but it can be passed on to women, gay men, etc. A sort of chain reaction.

MT: I know that Dodging and Burning took you a long time to write.  Were there ever moments when you truly felt you were going to give up? What advice do you give new and upcoming writers, people who want to make it “big” like how you are doing—or about to do upon the release of this novel in early 2018?

JC: Yes, this book has been long journey. My advice to less experienced writers is simple: If you truly enjoy writing, if you really need it, you will have no choice but continue to do it. Trust in the urge to write, in that compulsion, and it will see you through. Accept that you will always be growing as a writer and accept the fact that you need your friends, your family, your beta testers, your agents, and your editors to see you through the rough places in your work and in getting your work out into the world.

MT: I’ve compared this novel to Laura Lippman’s later, greatest work. Who are your favorite crime novelists (especially women) and novelists in general who have influenced this completely amazing and unique book?

JC: My favorite crime novelists (in no particular order) are Patricia Highsmith, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Val McDermid, Tana French, Sarah Waters, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Ross Macdonald. My literary favorites are Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson, Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, W. Somerset Maugham, and Virginia Woolf … All of whom steal from the crime fiction for inspiration.

MT: I’m trying to avoid giving away any spoilers from Dodging and Burning, because that would be a major disservice to readers. But I do want to ask: how do you view the novel and its ending? Is this a tragedy or a triumph? What do you think crime fiction reflects in general: hope or despair?

JC: We tell ourselves the stories we need to make sense of our world. At times, though, those stories are challenged and disrupted. To move forward, a new story needs to emerge. At the end of Dodging and Burning, the characters uncover what they believe to be a re-interpretation of the past (which is a quality of a lot of crime fiction), but their interpretations differ, because they both need different things to move forward. We can collect as much evidence as we can about the past, but it’s really up to us to decide what story we’re going to tell about it. So, it’s not necessarily tragedy or triumph, but a logical extension of character.

MT:  Returning to your writing habits, can you describe your writing process from day-to-day? Are you a morning or night writer? Middle-of-the-day perhaps? By pen or pencil or computer? How many words or hours per day?

JC: I’m a high school teacher, so I’m a whenever-wherever-I-can-write writer, usually weekends and vacations and snow days. I would love to write every day, but that’s simply not possible given my workload … Always computer. I loathe my handwriting.

MT:  Not that Dodging and Burning needs advertisement, advocacy, or support, as it’s just a frankly amazing novel, but could you pitch to our readers in a sentence or two (or three) why it is absolutely necessary to read this book?

JC: Dodging and Burning isn’t just a historical mystery. It’s a novel about our relationship with the past, a past in which women and gay people were oppressed and marginalized, a past which today feels increasingly present. It’s also a book about storytelling, so it has to have a story full of lots of twist and turns!

MT: While the book is set, in part, decades and decades ago, sometimes it feels like the issues you address haven’t changed much.  How do you reflect upon this?

JC: Back to my earlier comment about patriarchy: Clearly it’s still a big problem. Think about all the sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by men in powerful positions. Yes, we’ve made progress since the 1940s, but we’re far from there.

MT: Continuing on the importance of this book—and it’s a very important book—what do you think the average American, or even President Trump, should take away from Dodging and Burning? There’s obviously a lot I can think of, but I want to hear your central message, the general idea you would want to get into his head.

JC: I hope Dodging and Burning communicates a sense of the struggle that gay men went through at war and on the home front during WWII, and our responsibility to tell their stories, as fragmented as they are, for posterity.

MT: One central theme or issue in Dodging and Burning is the issue America faces with homosexuality and other forms of sexuality.  What do you think is the state of gay literature in America? What do you think Dodging and Burning will do for it? And more importantly, what is the place of the gay man in the crime genre? That seems really important, especially in this book.

JC: There are a lot of wonderful books being written by LGBTQ writers. We need to continue to support great organizations like Lambda Literary and join forces with our allies in the publishing industry. Also, LGBTQ writers need to continue to hone their craft and move beyond coming out stories and erotica. There’s nothing wrong with either, but there’s so much more to be written about. We need to look hard at gay culture. We can celebrate it, but we also need to critique it. Speaking from the standpoint of a high school teacher, we need to get serious LGBTQ books into the classrooms, either as shared texts or as independent reading. YA has made some inroads, but adult LGBTQ literature still stands at the fringes. As for the gay man in crime fiction, he has had a place for many years and will continue to have a place: Think of the novels of Greg Herren, Michael Nava, Joseph Hanson, etc. My hope is that those writers and other LGBTQ crime writers will be read by a wide and diverse readership. The readers are out there, but we need to build a bridge to them.

MT: If there was one thing you could change about Dodging and Burning now that it’s being published, what would it be? I know what I would change: I’d have it last forever.  I just couldn’t stop reading it (three times, so far).

JC: I can’t really think about changes at this point. It’s just not a mental space I can access. That ship, my friend, has sailed.

MT: Do you have another book in the works? I know that Dodging and Burning took a while, but I’m hoping that we’ll get a new John Copenhaver novel soon, as the world (and me too) truly needs your writing.  When will we see another book by you, and what might it be about?

JC: I’m polishing up a novel manuscript, set in post-WWII DC, about two teenage girls, one of whom is (perhaps) a budding sociopath. They work together as amateur detectives to unwind the mysterious connection between an assault on their favorite teacher and the brutal murder of a classmate. I like to think of the novel as a femme fatale’s coming of age story: What were Cora Papadakis and Kathie Moffat like as young women? Can we have sympathy of the succubi?

MT: John, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to MysteryPeople.  We are loving your debut novel, and encourage—even more so than usual—readers to go out and buy a copy of this lovely, stunning, and groundbreaking novel (trust me, reader, you won’t regret it).  Thank you so much for giving us some insight into your thought process and also your novel itself.   I look forward to reading Dodging and Burning a fourth and a fifth and, given I have time, a sixth time.


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