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.


Scorching Love: Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver

There are a select group of, usually, female writers I turn to in times of crisis, in times of desire, in times of need, woe, loss, hope.  These authors include Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Alex Marwood, Megan Abbott, Lisa Lutz, and of course, Laura Lippman.  Laura Lippman often stands in a category by herself—she is both the leading writer in transgeneric literary mysteries, but also a powerhouse who generally puts out a book a year—flawless books, beautiful books, books that always end with emotional punches that are eye-opening in startling ways.  Other than perhaps Lou Berney and Daniel Woodrell, I find very few male authors approaching Lippman’s league.  And do not get me wrong, this review is not a love letter to Laura Lippman.  This is a love letter to Dodging and Burning, the brilliant, impeccable debut by John Copenhaver.  John Copenhaver, who may or may not eventually become the male equivalent of the heretofore unmatched Laura Lippman.

Me in hat.jpgI was hesitant in beginning this book.  OK, that may be a lie.  I was eager to start this book, after reading Kristopher Zgorski’s review at the end of 2017 in his year-end review.  The book features strong female characters, complicated homosexual relationships, and as Copenhaver himself has recently pointed out to me, a challenge to the patriarchy.  There are love triangles, or what might be perceived at first as love triangles, but really, just as in real life, love is much more complicated than it first appears.  There is mystery, and intrigue, as one character points out to the two female protagonists that he believes he has found a body (and taken a photograph) of a deceased—really, murdered—woman, somewhere in Virginia.

Whatever your expectations for this novel are, put them aside. You will not be able to predict a single twist or turn to this book. You will also, likewise, not be able to put it down, just as I read it all in one solid sitting—a long sitting, as it’s not a short book, but a delicious, amazing, startling book.  Copenhaver balances both a beautiful, poetic style written in many forms (narrative, epistolary letters, among other forms and styles of writing) but Copenhaver never once sacrifices story for style.  They are balanced perfectly equally, satisfying everything the reader feels he or she needs in this volume that is too slim for my liking.  I wanted more.

This novel has taken Copenhaver years to write, and what an unfortunate note for readers.  We will have to wait years more for another book from Mr. Copenhaver, potentially, but that is O.K. by me. There are enough twists and turns, jaw-dropping shocks and surprises, that I do not believe I will ever, ever get tired of Dodging and Burning.  This is a book that will never cease to surprise you with its turns and revelations, no matter how many times you breeze through it—and there is a danger in this, the ease with which one can breeze through Copenhaver’s writing without really, truly appreciating it.  Copenhaver’s style, his story, his everything is meant to be savored, like a delicious meal—a last meal, on death row, one you might never have again.  It needs to be appreciated as such.

The fatal flaw in this book is that it is only one book, one volume.  The fatal flaw is that there is not more to appreciate in Copenhaver’s irresistible story and style.  It is endless, how fascinating his words are, his characters and their actions, their voices and their thoughts and their yearnings.  They come to life on the page.  They come to life like no other author I can think of—other than the grand, remarkable, equally undeniably unmatched Laura Lippman.

Perhaps they should start a club.

Matthew and Meike Talk Laura Lippman’s Sunburn

Meike Alana:  Matthew, I loved this book so much!  I think my favorite thing was the pacing–the story unfolded slowly, yet I was completely hooked from the beginning because I knew something good was coming.  What was your favorite aspect of Sunburn and what made you want to read it?

Image result for laura lippmanMatthew Turbeville: At first, I was skeptical of how much I would love this book.  My favorite has always been After I’m Gone, but knowing Laura as well as I know her (on both a personal and professional level), I believed in her wholeheartedly.  Needless to say, the book blew me away.  She made it as compact as a James M. Cain novel, as expansive as a Larry McMurtry epic, and as real as anything else she’s ever written.  I think the best part about this book is the more I read it, the more I become entranced with it.  I’ve read it several times now and I still can’t get over how great this novel is.

Meike:  I thought Laura Lippman’s use of setting (a small, sort of second rate town that vacationers only pass through) and time period (mid 1990’s) was masterful. How do you think those contributed to the story?

Matthew: It’s so different from a lot of her other novels, which are set primarily in or around Baltimore.  Of course, there’s some reason it’s set in Delaware that hopefully I’ll understand one day but am too absorbed with the plot of the novel to bother with at the moment.  I thought it was interesting because it paints this picture of a woman who has abandoned her children and this small-town feel only contributes to that, if you get what I mean.

Matthew:  How did you relate to Polly inside the novel? I know that she is an incredibly complicated character, as most of Laura Lippman’s characters tend to be.  What did you think of her as someone who might abandon her child–and then that ultimate twist–but no spoilers!

Meike: As a mom, I could not conceive of walking away from my child.  And the way Polly did it was so abrupt and final–she had planned the beach vacation specifically so she could get away from her family in a way that would make it very difficult to be found, which left her little girl devastated.  So my initial reaction was that this woman was a monster; I found her actions abhorrent.  That said, Lippman portrays her in a way that made you want to want to like her; you keep reading,  hoping for a sign that she had a good reason for her actions. It was absolutely masterful the way Lippman makes the reader sympathetic to Polly’s plight.

Meike:  Your turn–what did you think of Polly?

Matthew: I thought she was a person.  Incredibly complicated, incredibly unique, incredibly just incredible.  I wanted to know more about her from the beginning–I wanted to know her history and I wanted to put all of the pieces together, but obviously I didn’t get those answers until the very end (which is why readers should stay tuned!).

Meike: Adam is an equally complicated character.  What are your thoughts on how he conducted a relationship with Polly, never coming clean about his reasons for approaching her in the first place? Do you think his motivations changed as the story progressed?

Matthew: I would say his motivations changed as the story progressed (not that I want to give away his initial motivations before the readers gets ahold of his or her copy!).  I think that Laura Lippman is really gifted at very elegantly creating complicated characters–and in under 80,000 words, too! She has created a masterpiece on par with some of the greatest noir pieces, and she has created characters that I can come to again and again (as I have!).

Matthew: What was your opinion on Adam, Meike?

Meike:  I agree, Matthew, I think he changed. It’s really hard to talk to you about this without giving too much away!  I think it’s safe to say that both he and Polly continued to keep their secrets, but their reasons for keeping those secrets changed and perhaps made them become more sympathetic.

Meike: I know we don’t want to give any spoilers, but that ending!  Did you see that coming?

Matthew: You’re right.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers.  Without saying too much, I will say that the ending was sort of a jaw-dropper for me.  But a lot of Laura Lippman books are like that.  She not only knows how to tug at your heartstrings, but also twist your mind so you never know what to expect from the story she’s telling.  And ultimately, I feel this is a very feminist novel, about a woman caught in a very tough position who wants the best for herself and, well, I’ll leave it at that.

Matthew: What did you think, Meike?

Meike:  You’re so right, it was mind-blowing.  It was completely unexpected, and sometimes when that happens in a book it feel contrived. But here, Lippman made all the pieces fit and it was just perfect.

Meike:  One of our passions at MysteryPeople is to be matchmakers between writers and readers.  Who would you recommend Sunburn to?  Readers of what other books and/or writers?

Matthew: I think this book is for everyone.  Everyone.  I think that men can learn from it, women can heal from it (and some men, too).  I know I have healed from reading the book time and time again as well.  Any feminist should love this book.  It makes some really powerful statements.  Also, on a more basic level, anyone who loves a great suspense or noir novel would really love Sunburn.

Matthew: What about you Meike? Who would you recommend this book to?

Meike: As long as the reader isn’t looking for a cozy mystery or in international thriller, I think anyone would love this book! While the plot is pretty intricate, it’s not too complicated for the casual reader to follow and the pacing is spot on. Lippman has put a group of interesting, complex characters into a dramatic setting and unspooled an original tale of secrets and lies.  Sunburn is just a perfect choice for MysteryPeople’s “Pick of the Month” for February!

Pick of the Month: Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Each month we choose one book you absolutely can not miss. This month Meike has reviewed that pick, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, for the blog. It’s out February 20th and you can pre-order now.

9780062389923Laura Lippman’s latest, Sunburn, just might be the perfect beach read. It takes off gradually, allowing the tension to build slowly, until the story plunges the reader into a roller coaster thrill ride with countless twists and turns before smoothly bringing him or her to a satisfying conclusion.  You can no more put this book down than you can stop the ride from hurtling forward.

But Sunburn is so much more—it’s a masterwork of modern noir, invoking the style of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice).  Make no mistake—this is a dark tale of secrets and lies with its share of dead bodies.  It’s not the coaster at a shiny clean mega theme park; the tone reflects a slightly more frightening rickety coaster ride at a second-rate theme park that has seen better days.  Lippman masterfully evokes the shadier side of summer with this searing tale of secrets and passion.

The story begins with Polly, a mysterious redhead who is passing through a small town when she stops in at a bar and meets the equally mysterious Adam; the first thing he notices about her is her sunburned shoulders.  We soon learn that Polly has just abruptly left her husband and young daughter in the midst of a family beach vacation.  The reader also learns that Adam is a private investigator who has been hired to find Polly, but we don’t know by whom. They both realize that a relationship between them threatens the secrets they’re trying to keep, yet they succumb to their mutual attraction and a heated affair ensues.  They decide to stay in town for a bit and take jobs in the local diner.  As their relationship unfolds, each is unsure about the other’s motivations; we slowly learn just how many secrets each is keeping from the other.  There are no heroes here—both characters are deeply flawed, and we’re not really sure to what extent each is simply playing the other.  Lippman keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Laura Lippman  was a reporter for twenty years before turning to writing full time.  She is the critically acclaimed author of the Tess Monaghan series as well as nine standalone crime novels.  Her body of work has received countless awards and Sunburn is sure to receive its share of accolades.

January Pick of the Month: DOMINIC

In Hollow Man, Mark Pryor broke from his square-jawed series hero Hugo Marston to enter the mind of prosecutor/musician/sociopath Dominic. The book showed another side and style to his talent. Now, this new year brings us the return of his anti-hero in Dominic.
The book takes place soon after the robbery, cover up, and revenge Dominic committed in Hollow Man, with him facing a few loose ends. A police detective keeps questioning Dominic while Bobby, a young man with his tendencies, keeps getting into trouble, and –most worrisome — Bobby’s sister, who Dominic seems attracted to, keeps reminding him she knows what he did. Add a position for judgeship and our man begins to maneuver.
Pryor seems to have tapped into Hitchcock as he builds his intricate tale. He piles layer upon layer of plot and tension effortlessly, yet never revealing what he intends to do until the moment of truth. Knowing that we’ve learned Dominic’s narration obfuscates from Hollow Man, he gives us differing points of view in each chapter. We are given a clearer view of the persona he exudes and where the cracks in his mask are that add to the tension. It also allows us to feel the moral blow back of Dominic’s crimes since we learn to understand his victims the way he can’t. Much like The Master Of Suspense, Pryor allows our anxiety to move between Dominic getting caught or his victims getting killed.
The book’s succinct prose and stylish black humor cut to the bone and into the dark heart of our anti-hero. We find ourselves colluding with him, even though we know better and feel the results. With Dominic, Mark Pryor once again proves to be at his best when he is writing about the worst.
Mark Pryor will be at BookPeople with Meg Gardiner on January 30th at 7pm — join us!

Review: Blood Truth by Matt Coyle

Our review of December’s Pick Of The Month: Blood Truth by Matt Coyle:

Matt Coyle understands mood and emotion is essential to a private eye novel. While delivering and engaging plot with plenty of action, his main ambition is getting into the head and heart of his tarnished knight Rick Cahill. In his latest, Blood Truth, it’s all personal.

Cahill has two cases that haunt him better than any ghost. An old flame he still carries a torch for hires him to follow her husband to see if he is cheating. Also, while at his family’s home, he discovers a hidden safe. Inside are a pistol with two missing bullets, fifteen thousand in cash, and a safe deposit key, all connected to an unsolved murder that resulted in his father’s dismissal from the police. The case for the old flame leads to a body in a car trunk.

Both mysteries dovetail beautifully into one another. Coyle executes the reveals and reversals that pilot the story like a master craftsman. Both involve moral decisions and preconceptions Cahill must face along with the danger as he deals with his father’s sins and lost love, all with a dangling possibility of healing if everything is solved.

Like Reed Farrel Coleman, Matt Coyle is able to tap into that classic melancholy of the private detective. He realizes a true hard boiled hero isn’t completely tough. It’s those vulnerabilities that draw us in as he struggles with his soul. For Coyle, it’s not what lurks down those mean streets that pose the greatest threat for our hero, it’s the loneliness one has walking down them.

Q&A with Layton Green, author of Written In Blood

Here’s our Q&A with Layton Author, author of our Pick Of The Month, Written in Blood

MysteryPeople Scott: What I really loved about Written In Blood was how Preach’s personal life dovetailed perfectly with the mystery story. Was there any kind of advance planning in the process to pull this off?

Layton Green: My first editor told me to “always make it personal.” Since then, I’ve tried to heed that advice and blend the private lives of my protagonists with the crime, in some way. I agree that when there is a personal stake in the outcome above and beyond the job, the tension is usually heightened.

MPS: Many writers say they avoid dealing with religion and faith, yet some of the best crime novels and television episodes deal with it. What did you want to explore with that part of Preach’s struggle?

LG: To me, no matter the genre, the best novels deal with the tough questions in life, as well as the quotidian details. It doesn’t have to be overt, but as a reader, I want to know what my fictional heroes think about life and death, and good versus evil, and the meaning of it all (as well as their favorite drink). I decided to use Preach’s past lives as a way to explore those topics.

MPS: Kirby is a wonderful supporting character. Is there a way he came into being with the traits he has?

LG: Thanks! Hmm, you know, I don’t actually know from what void he sprang. I was just trying to make him real, and a reflection of his circumstances and his society. I liked him, too.

MPS: There are literary references in the story, many serving as clues. Was there anything you had to keep in mind when using them?

LG: I definitely did my research on this one, as I didn’t want to misstep and use a false reference.

I reread all the books and hit the commentaries, as well as trying to explore them in a novel manner. It was really fun to tie them all together, and I enjoyed the research into the “lineage” of detective fiction. Oh, and I consulted an intellectual property law professor. He says I’m good to go.

MPS: What did the setting of Creekville, North Carolina provide for you?

LG: The whole enchilada! The setting is loosely based on a real town in the Triangle that has many similarities to the one in the book. I fictionalized it so I could take liberties as needed, but the general vibe of the town, the extreme liberalism and quirky nature, are all there. I was fascinated to see the interplay between the progressive culture and the conservative bastions of the Old South. After a few weeks, I knew I wanted to write about that clash.

MPS: Some of the suspects are writers and not very likable. Were you making any comment on your profession?

LG: Not consciously. Just telling the truth, or part of it. There are many sides to a truth . . . and we crime writers tend to focus on the dark ones.