"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Special Guest Star: Joy Castro!

It's been a while since I've posted--and I realize I've posted nothing as we've been reading Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation and talked about true crime.  I will remedy that.  Soon.  But there's fun news to talk about:  Joy Castro, one of our delightful creative writing professors at UNL, came to my English 180 class on Friday to talk about her debut noir thriller, Hell or High Water, which came out this summer.  When it came out, I was getting ready to head to Montreal for IASIL and couldn't get it in print before I left, so I got it for my iPad and read it on my trip.  So great.  

I'd paired the first three chapters of her novel with Lee Horsley's "Regendering the Genre" chapter from Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, to take what we'd been talking about with Vowell and our concepts of crime literature as they've been evolving over the course of the semester.  My students are turning in their final essay on Friday, so I'm excited to see what they write about.  I'd asked my students, as they were in their groups, to consider how Horsley sees the ways that gender works in contemporary crime fiction, but what's really interesting is how she draws that lineage back even to the Golden Age of crime fiction, where women like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers reigned supreme.  As Horsley breaks down the binaries associated with gender on the page, I asked my students to consider how regendering affects the four main areas of the text:  the author, protagonist, victim, and perpetrator.  Horsley writes, "The recovery of female subjectivity is more complex than [changing the male protagonist to female]:  there are other key roles that female characters occupy.  The revisionings of the female transgressor--and indeed victim--are as significant as the better known series which recast the investigative role."  It was with this in mind that I wanted us to talk with Joy about her novel, which reinvisions the role of women in all these areas.  (My students were uncharacteristically quiet, but as we talked on Monday after they'd had time to process, they had quite a bit to say.)

We started with these questions:

  • What are the large scale issues that this book addresses (or will address)?  What about large-scale questions this novel presents?  How are they presented in a way that provokes conversation and debate different from other modes of fiction?
    • Issues of social order/disorder?
    • What are the societal fears that drive this novel?
  • Creation of suspense?  Where do you see elements we’ve discussed before?  
    • Joy Castro (from an interview with Amelia Montes):  “For readers, true suspense comes from caring about characters.  When you really care about a character—when that character feels real on the page—then his or her fate matters to you.”
  • Where do you see the intersection of this novel with Lee Horsley’s ideas about gender and regendering?  (Specifically, your group’s assignment: victims/perpetrators/protagonists/authors.)
  • Issues of place:  place as active character, place/displacement/out-of-place, movement and stasis, natural and built environments?

This is a book I wish I could have taught in its entirety and next time I get to teach a crime lit class, it's definitely going to be on the list.  Issues of place/displacement/out-of-place were some of the things that stood out to me as I reread these first three chapters, trying to look at them as if I'd never seen them before.  The drawing of both the built and natural environments contributes to this, the buildings of various parts of New Orleans, a natural environment that is itself a built environment that affects every single cell of those who live there.  I want to talk gendering of Nola, Joy's protagonist, and I want to talk about things that I can't reveal here for spoiling the plot.  I want to talk more about the creation of suspense that we talked about with Agatha Christie, the use of breaking the reader's trust, reader's assumptions, control of the clock, and more.  What's more suspenseful than issues of violence against women and children (that social fear we've been talking about all semester), combined with the rapists that Nola is interviewing--many in positions of power and authority, men who should be absolutely trustworthy, clergy and assistant principals and more.  I want to talk about the craft of fiction, the craft of crime fiction, and I want to talk details--especially the layering of sensory details.  It's not enough just to have a scent-drenched paragraph; what makes Joy's work great is that those senses are layered.  Smell with color, tactile details with taste.  That's the mark of a truly great writer. Here's a link to Joy's blog post on "The Fragrance of Fiction."

One of my students missed Friday (traveling to play in the marching band for UNL's Big Ten Championship...or whatever it was that turned out to be on Saturday) and unfortunately, she'd also missed Kent Krueger's Skype for marching band as well.  Because I didn't want her to miss out completely on the conversations with writers we'd had this semester, Joy kindly consented to answer my student's questions via email.  

As we have been studying, place is extremely important in crime fiction.  With this in mind, why the setting of post-Katrina New Orleans?  What elements of this setting made your story unique? What questions does this setting raise (in relation to social disorder/societal fears)?

Hell or High Water is a story about aftermath:  the aftermath of sex crimes (for both perpetrator and survivor), and the aftermath of a natural catastrophe.  The reason that New Orleans felt like the perfect setting to me is that my fictional thriller is rooted in a real-life fact:  that over 1300 registered sex offenders went off the grid during the Hurricane Katrina evacuation, and by 2008, around 800 were still missing.  The novel's protagonist investigates that specific crime situation in the midst of a city that's still reeling from hurricane damage. The fears most invoked by the setting of 
Hell or High Water have to do, I think, with the power of nature to devastate our cultures and communities, and with the power of a criminal to devastate our psyches.

But New Orleans is also a uniquely rich setting in that it's a very complicated city with a racially troubled history.  Even today, it has many different neighborhoods that reflect extreme, racialized differences in wealth and access to political power.  The societal fear of the poor Other is part of what the protagonist Nola, a Latina who grew up in the Desire Projects in the Upper Ninth Ward (historically a poor African American area) and who now works primarily with white, middle-class people, must contend with.

We have also spent a lot of time talking about gendering. What does the woman protagonist, Nola, have to do with this image of gendering and how does having a female protagonist change the crime novel? Nola is also young. What does age say and change about the protagonist in this crime novel?

I enjoyed reading the chapter "Regendering the Genre" from Lee Horsley's book Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction that your instructor assigned.  The most significant ways 
Hell or High Water plays with gender and genre is that its protagonist combines or conflates all three of the typical roles for women in crime fiction that Horsley mentions:  femme fatale and victim, as in traditional crime novels, and detective, as in later crime novels, especially those written by women.  Without giving too much away,
I'd say she also functions as a perpetrator.  I wanted to undo some of the false bifurcations or compartmentalizations of women's identities that traditional crime fiction perpetuates.

On the issue of age:  Nola is only 27 in the novel, and she has some problems with ageism.  Because she chafes at the control her section editor Claire exerts, and Claire's seniority is an easy signifier to latch onto, Nola frames her resentment in terms of Claire's age.  This ageism melts away at the end of the novel, when she's able to empathize and imagine herself in Claire's shoes in years to come.  I made Nola prejudiced toward an older female colleague because I wanted to give Nola, who's so sensitive to inequalities of race, class, and gender, an ideological blind spot.  I didn't want her to be too perfect.

Nola is not a hired investigator, an ex-sheriff, or an experienced lawman. Instead, she is a middle-class journalist. How do her career and social class also shape the way the crime investigation unfolds?

I'd nuance this observation and note that Nola's currently--barely--middle-class, but that she comes from a background of poverty, which she does not disclose to her colleagues and friends.  This background of economic difficulty and living with chronic danger both creates tension for Nola as she tries to "pass" among her colleagues and friends and makes her keenly aware of class difference as she navigates the different neighborhoods of New Orleans.  The inequalities form part of what she reports.

The fact that she's a writer, rather than someone professionally involved with law enforcement, changes the angle of access.  She's not a medical examiner, so we don't get forensic details.  
Hell or High Water is not a police procedural.  Nola's a journalist:  a trained, persistent researcher who's good at interviewing people, uncovering facts, and shaping a coherent narrative.  That's where the focus of the novel lies:  in character, in psychology, in the facts and statistics concerning sexual crimes.

The fact that Nola is a reporter also leaves room for her to reflect on the constructed nature of stories, even supposedly objective news stories: what we include, what we leave out, and the fraught issues of power that surround and inform those choices.  By making her a journalist, the novel allows Nola to engage meta-narrative considerations.

On a personal note: What is it like having your novels read by famous authors? I saw a quote about your book from Dennis Lehane and The New York Times Book Review, and wondered how this must feel as an author living in the often-ignored city of Lincoln, Nebraska.

It's nine kinds of wonderful.

I'm very, very lucky that my first book has gotten this kind of attention. Authors are busy people, and I'm grateful that Dennis and other writers, as well as critics at great newspapers and magazines, made time to read my book.  I recently got to do the same for first-time mystery author Stephanie Cha, and I felt very happy to be able to help a new writer out a little.


So, I'll just save up these moments as they're spinning in my head and hope I'll get to teach to them someday soon.  I'm hoping to be able to do a more focused interview with Joy in the very near future, so stay tuned!  As it is, I'm working on planning my Intro to Creative Writing (250) and Intro to Fiction Writing (252) for spring, and I've just lined up Sean Doolittle to come to my 252 to talk his suspense novel Rain Dogs.  One book always leads to another!

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