Tim Bryant is a writer attracted to the past. His Dutch Currridge series features a detective in post-war Fort Worth. His latest stand alone, Constellations, ping pongs through different historical periods. The story begins with a young reporter in the late fifties. He comes across a man telling life stories that may or may not reach back to the Civil War. Tim Bryant comes to speak and sign Constellations, Thursday, June 25th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. Mr. Bryant joins us in conversation with Joe R. Lansdale, whose latest novel is Paradise Sky. We talked to Tim about the book, music, and and time.
MysteryPeople: Constellations is very much a unique tale, mixing several genres. How did it come about?
You never know where you might find the seed of a story. With Constellations, it all started when I read a magazine interview with Bob Dylan, and he was talking about transfiguration. He had this bizarre idea that he’d somehow been transfigured from this other guy named Robert Zimmerman who had died in a motorcycle accident. And the way he talked about it was kind of off-the-wall, but it was spooky too, and I was drawn in by that spooky element. This idea of supernaturally taking on the spirit of another person, of projecting ourselves through time like this, just resonated with me. Then, combining it with that dark, southern Christian element, it just seemed like something to start with. And so it was. It all unrolled from there.
I read a lot of history, especially local, Texas and southern U.S. history, and I was also interested in the history of riverboat communities. It’s an era that came and passed quickly, and maybe that’s why it’s so fascinating to me. It’s almost like a mirage, this blink-of-an-eye after the industrial revolution but before the railroads. And this small Angelina River in East Texas, this river that I was so familiar with, had been a route for riverboats to take cotton down toward Houston, although, to see the river these days, you’d never think of it or think it was possible.
So I guess these disparate ideas, these ideas that dealt with what’s possible and what’s not possible, and the chance that maybe the line isn’t as definite as you would think or that we don’t know as much as we think we do; these are the things that set Constellations into motion.
As far as mixing different genres goes, it was and is a mystery to me. That’s where it begins and ends. It’s as much a mystery as Dutch Curridge is. Maybe it doesn’t rely on typical tropes, but it’s about life, and life is a mystery.
MP: How did working on a stand-a-lone feel after hanging out with Dutch Curridge in three books?
TB: It was nice to work on something that wasn’t going to be a series, because it allowed me to follow the arc of the story to its end and let that end carry its full weight. Not having to leave Art as a viable character for further novels meant I didn’t have to write consciously. My best writing is intuitive, meaning I don’t outline and chart things out. That’s true with at least the first and third of the Dutch Curridge novels, but I do have a few rules that are always in the back of my mind with Dutch. There’s a continuity of character that dictates certain things. The main one, of course, being that he has to leave the book ready for the next one.
With this one, I didn’t know if or how Art would survive the end until I wrote it, and so I was taking the same trip through the story as the reader. All the way to the end. Practically speaking, it means I had the opportunity to get the ending exactly right. I wrote it instinctively, but I had time to live with the ending, think about it, talk it over with a few people, and I found that I learned more about why it ended the way it did after I had written it. If I had projected myself onto it, it might have ended very differently.
“So I guess these disparate ideas, these ideas that dealt with what’s possible and what’s not possible, and the chance that maybe the line isn’t as definite as you would think or that we don’t know as much as we think we do; these are the things that set Constellations into motion.”
MP: As with most of your books, music plays an important part. Here it seems to have a feeling of solitude as well as connection. What did you want to explore about it this time?
TB: I’m glad you picked up on that, because that was the idea I was trying to open up. This idea of music being so intrinsically part of us that it represents both our separateness, being that intensely personal expression that identifies each of us as an individual soul – whether it be our spiritual fingerprint or the fingerprint of God on us — and our connectedness. The connectedness for the fact that we all seem to have it in common, or at least the propensity for it, and that singing or playing music together is very much a chance for dialogue, a common language and even religion.
Obviously, music had a spiritual make-up long before we got to Art and the Black spirituals of the American South. Going back to Africa, back Native Americans and most indigenous peoples, music has been seen as akin to prayer, this communication with something bigger or better than ourselves. Art absolutely sees it in those terms.
So do I. The epigraph of the novel is a line from The Waterboys’ song“Don’t Bang the Drum,” which asks a question: “What show of soul are we gonna get from you?” I wrote that epigraph at the top of page one of CONSTELLATIONS and began writing, and it was my guiding light all the way through. It makes the connection to music explicit. If that doesn’t do it, I’ll admit that I named Art after Art Blakey, the legendary jazz drummer. If that doesn’t do it, the chapter headings should, as I named them like you would song titles on an old blues album. The more I could give this story the feel of old blues and jazz music, which is what the story is filled with and, to a large extent, told through, the better.
MP: Constellations deals with myth versus fact. Do you see a place for myth?
TB: Most definitely. I think there’s a place for myth in all of my stuff. The story of Whitey Calhoun in Dutch Curridge, the wild boar in SPIRIT TRAP, both deal with finding the line between truth and myth. You know that saying, if you’re confronted with truth and myth, always go with the myth. I believe in that. Of course, my characters are concerned with finding the truth, whether it’s Dutch solving a case or Art seeking the truth of his identity and his past. It’s probably the tension between my characters seeking that truth and me seeking the myth that’s at the heart of my writing. There’s also the thought that you can tell more from a society from their myths than anything, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. There’s often more truth in myth than people want to admit.
MP: Most of your books take place in the past. What draws you to other times?
TB: I’ve tried to figure that out, and I’ve even talked to other writers about it, and I can’t figure it out. But they all tell me to keep doing what I’m doing. I think the whole mythologizing thing probably plays into it. If I’m going to write characters into a world, I guess I’m just more interested in putting them in a place that’s a bit mysterious to me, so that I can poke around and discover it.
Having said that, I’ve always been interested in the Civil Rights era south, because there was so much tension and change and upheaval going on. Those are things you look for when you’re writing, and I guess most Southern writers end up dealing with that stuff in one way or another. With Constellations, I just backed up and took a wider view.
In some ways, it’s not incredibly different from the Dutch books. It is the first one I’ve written from the Southern Black perspective. You might think that was a major change, but, once I did the necessary research — which included talking with as many people who were there and still remember – it really wasn’t. I wrestled for about an hour with the question of how to authentically write an African-American protagonist. Once I came to the realization that you write them the exact same way you write any other protagonist, I was good to go.
MP: You’ll be doing the event with fellow Nacodoches resident Joe R. Lansdale. What about East Texas creates good writers?
TB: It’s definitely something in the water supply. That also accounts for all the misfits and oddballs, which give us plenty to write about.
Join us here at BookPeople for a visit from Tim Bryant, Thursday, June 25th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. Bryant will be speaking and signing his latest novel, Constellations. You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.