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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Ken Bruen's The Guards

Winter Break is here!  There's not much winter in Nebraska, but I'm soon heading North and there's snow up there.  I can't wait to make snow kitties with my niece (her request) and throw snowballs at my parents' puppy, who is obsessed with snow.  But for now, in the days after submitting final grades and putting together my provisional syllabi for spring, I'm working on the other things that need to get started before I head Up North.  So, I have my experimental chocolate-mint shortbread (didn't turn out exactly right, but it tastes good) on the counter, cooling, and noir-dark Assam in my favorite teapot.  It's Sunday, the Christmas lights are cozy, and I have my fireplace app crackling on my iPad, blues on the iTunes.  A little later in the day, I'll flip on my battery-powered candles and bask in their ambience.  No actual fire in my apartment these days.  Too dangerous.  It is, as my mother said when she saw that my sisters had given me these electric candles for my birthday:  "Well, your apartment is sort of flammable."  Indeed.

But it's a nice day to curl up on the couch with a book, even though that book is one I'm teaching next semester.  Or it's one that I need to read for the two articles I'm writing next semester.  (In addition to revising and defending my dissertation.)

Today, I finished Ken Bruen's first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards.  (Check out the interview I did with him a while back.)  And I'm surrounded by the gritty joy of being back in Galway, even if it's in the company of Jack Taylor--who, I have mentioned, is the most thoroughly unlikeable character I keep spending time with.  I'd read later books in this series, but never the first one.  And since I'm working on this article about the craft of place in Irish crime fiction, looking here at Bruen's first was a good place to start, and this is the joy of being an English teacher, one who gets wrapped up in all incarnations of the page, but in this instance, I'm wrapped up in what I'm reading both as a literature scholar and a creative writer.  It's a heady mixture.

The article itself is starting to take shape in my head, but it's a testament to Bruen (who I unashamedly love) that I keep getting distracted from the real reason I'm reading this book, getting lost in the darkness and the craft of the sentences.  If you've never read Bruen, you must.  It'll take a little getting used to his style--and Jack Taylor himself--but it's worth it.  The darkness of this book comes from the sparseness of concrete details, the lack of sensory images, but I realized on this read that Bruen draws Galway not through the kind of concrete details that writers have come to expect from prose, but through people.  He mentions the Romanian woman blowing on her pipe outside Easons, and I'm pretty sure I've seen her.  It's through these people that he draws the character of Shop Street.  It's through the winos that he draws Eyre Square.  Bruen doesn't need to tell us that the hospital where the wino Padraig ends up is a bleak, horrible place--he doesn't need to tell us the color of the walls.  He just needs to show the orderly giving afternoon tea and biscuits to everyone in the ward except for Padraig.

And then, when you get lulled into the hard quality of what Desi Kenny called "machine gun prose," most of which is contain in Hemingway-spare dialogue, then Bruen hits you with moments like this: "He was one of those skull smokers.  Sucked the nicotine in so hard it made his cheekbones bulge.  He blew out the smoke with a deep sigh.  Whether contentment or agony, it was a close call" (165).  Then you just have to sit back and breathe for a while, because he's just knocked the air from you.  Sentences are amazing, powerful, beautiful things that should never, ever be underestimated.  And this is why.  This is why we read.  This is why we write.

Thinking about the movement between natural and built environments, where the sunshine is something to be avoided and feared, where the entire nature of the narrative is set up in the first lines of the second chapter:  “There are no private eyes in Ireland.  The Irish wouldn’t wear it.  The concept brushes perilously close to the hated ‘informer.’ You can get away with most anything except ‘telling’ (5).  The places so important to the development of characters and development of plots are essential to the Irish peculiarities of telling and not-telling.  Storytelling and secret-keeping.  What we tell and what we don't tell.  And as I'm thinking more specifically about this novel right now, the three main places this story hangs on--various pubs, Rahoon Cemetery, and Nimmo's Pier--each represent a facet of telling or not telling.

Love it.

I'm going to reread other Bruen novels in the course of my work on this article, but I'm feeling good about this start.  And it reminds me why I like to read crime fiction, especially in the wake of Newtown, when I didn't think I could handle any mention of violence--crime fiction gives readers closure, if not a happy ending, then a mending of the rips and tears and gashes that the crime caused.  Whether there's justice or revenge at the end of a novel, that pinhead is ready for the angel's disco.  But the good guys generally win--or win something--at the end.  And sometimes that's what we need.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

State of Mind: Newtown, CT and the Power of Fiction

There's a redhot ball of grief in the center of my chest right now, grown prickles overnight, an absolute inability to voice the grief I am feeling over every new detail coming out of Newtown, Connecticut and all those families facing life without all those incredible people, adults they knew and loved, children who will never be who they could be.  My Facebook feed yesterday was full of parents wanting to pull their children out of whatever school they may be in, hug them, and never let them go.  My niece is only two, not old enough for school, home today with her mom, but the same urge still applies.  This morning, I looked at the headlines and absolutely could not force myself to click on the articles.

There are many other discussions filling my Twitter and my Facebook right now, most wanting real, solid, productive conversations about gun control, the desire to talk about the culture that fuels these killers, ignores their mental health because there are no programs to help them, and more.  But this afternoon, all I can think about is how I spent the last four months talking with my literature students about a genre of literature that deals with this very thing.  How crime literature is the literature of social order, how it responds to our greatest fears as a society, and how we have raised violence to the level of entertainment, rather than the unacceptable action it actually is.

We fear violence against children.  It is one of our greatest societal fears.  Columbine was a defining moment of my world in 1999, Virginia Tech as well.  Schools are supposed to be safe places.  Children are supposed to be safe.  My students and I saw it in Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, in William Kent Krueger's Iron Lake.  Yesterday morning, I saw an article about the stolen babies in Spain and thought that sounded like the basis for Ken Bruen or Benjamin Black's new novel, this link between real life and fiction and the ways that life influences fiction, makes us talk about things that we wouldn't necessarily talk about any other way.  That article seems so distant now.  But it still fits into this larger societal fear of violence against children, the forcible separation of parents from children.  I don't know what to feel, how to feel about the role I've played as an educator in the glorification of this kind of violence.  I teach this literature, after all.  Yesterday, I was working on fleshing out my Irish Noir class that I hope to teach someday (because I have ideas and a brand new binder) and once news of Newtown trickled in, I had to put it away.  I had to go do something, read something, watch something that reminded me of the best parts of being human.

But I am a writer, not only a teacher, and the semester is over.  And this morning, I'm trying to deal with this grief that does not belong to me in the same way I tried to deal with 9/11, all those years ago, in my first apartment in Spokane, days before I began my MFA experience.  My memories of 9/11 are largely sightless, full of September heat on my skin, the voice of Tom Brokaw over the radio in my ear.  I had just moved into my apartment two days before and I had not had cable installed yet, so the images in my head of 9/11 were a product of my imagination and what other people were telling me, via radio, what was going on.  At the time, I was working on my novel, the story of four sisters set during the Irish Great Famine, and in those first days after 9/11, I pounded out so many pages in Brighid's chapter, pouring all my grief and fear and horror into what this sensitive healer was feeling about watching her family and community rot during those days of Black '47.  Today, this morning, I wish I could work on my dissertation, bask in the joy and delight of Galway and the goodness of that city, but for all the healing powers of nonfiction, today I need the healing powers of fiction.  Fiction is how we deal, how we heal, how we operate in a world that we can understand.  It's how we can imagine the grief of those parents, what those children would have heard in those hallways, the color of those hallways, and ask ourselves where do we go from here?  What do we do? And fiction allows us to actually answer those questions, form the path forward ourselves, one brick at a time, one sentence at a time.  By the time we're finished, we have something that might allow us to create that path in this world under our feet.  Fiction is the vehicle that allows us--those of us to whom this story does not belong--to find healing, through imagination, to find the restoration of the social order that the crime has ripped apart.  Whose stories aren't being told?  Whose stories of Columbine do we not tell anymore?  Whose stories of Virginia Tech?  Who has stories we aren't listening to?  And I was reminded that dear friends of our family are burying her mother today, how the most healing part of losing my grandfather six years ago was all the stories in the air.

I went looking for quotes, because my friend Matt Bell posted a quote this morning from the late poet Jack Gilbert:  "If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation. We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil."  At what point can and should we not feel guilty about delight?  About joy?  Like the aftermath of 9/11, when we wondered when it would be appropriate to laugh again?  And the inimitable Joan Didion—“we tell ourselves stories in order to live”—and this was the moment I needed.  We tell ourselves stories in order to live.  Not just survive, not just endure, but to live.  We need stories to move us from one place to another, even if that place is the internal movement of grief.  We need to tell stories to make order out of the disorder, find light in the darkness.  Sometimes those stories are stories that actually happened, the nonfiction that my writerly self so often gravitates towards, trying to make meaning out of what has happened.  But there are times when nonfiction is not the right vehicle, not the right answer to the questions in my head, that I need to create characters and storylines that give voice to whatever it is that I am feeling, because what is inside me needs to find an outlet in some way. 

Grace Paley writes, “You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It’s not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they’re angry, the anger—by habit almost—I wouldn’t say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell. Some guy, he’s angry, he wants to take a poke at someone—or he kicks a can, or sets fire to the house, or hits his wife, or the wife smacks the kid. Then again, it’s not always violent. Some people go out and run for three hours. Some people go shopping. The pressure from anger is an energy that can be violent or useful or useless. Also the pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?”  

There is a lot of pressure inside me this morning, with no place for it to go, and when I write fiction, I write it best under pressure, when I can give this pressure to someone else, a fictional someone else who can do something productive with those emotions in a way that I cannot. The pressure inside me right now, the fear and the anger and the guilt and the injustice and the slivers of hope and joy and delight and laughter, they are important and I need to put them to the page to work through the rips in social order, the incredible societal fears that Newtown now—most recently—represents.  Fiction can do this in a way that no other medium can, in a way that real life cannot.  Nonfiction has its place and in many instances is exactly the right way to work through things that don't make sense.  But fiction has its place too.  Fiction is incredibly powerful, incredibly real, incredibly important, in both the reading and the writing.  We should never take it for granted, because we tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On the Incredible Importance of Introductory Classes

It's the dark of the morning, the first real cold day we've had in Lincoln thus far, and I seem to have forgotten what seven degrees actually feels like on my skin.  And, for once, my office in Andrews Hall is toasty warm.  My Stanley thermos is full of piping-hot, sunshine-in-tea, the delightfulness of Earl Grey Supreme on the Monday of finals week, when I'm sitting in my office, waiting for my students to come by to pick up their final papers.  It seems an appropriate time to put thoughts to page, thoughts that have been twirling around my brain for the last month, slightly solidified as I've read my students' finals (in both the comp and lit classes) and their reflections.  

In what might be my best moment of the semester, one of my composition students is changing his major to English, because he learned over the course of our class the power of the written word.  Yes.  This is why I do what I do, the reason I love teaching composition even though I identify myself as a creative writer.  In my literature class, the reflections of my students are equally enlightening--and the number of them who have decided to take more English classes (now that their ACE requirements have been fulfilled) or seriously consider English majors or minors just makes my little teacher heart go pitty pat.  This semester has been incredibly stressful for a number of different reasons, but here's the part of the semester when I'm specifically reminded why I do what I do.  I love reading their reflections.

A sampling of their reflection comments:

“I’ve learned a lot about literature and reading this semester, probably the most I’ve learned since actually learning to read.”

“Much of the information people know is not from first-hand experience.  Literature has the power to educate people on cultures and areas of the world that they wouldn’t otherwise know about.”

“Literature can shape our beliefs and mental capacity, making us smarter and more valuable human beings.”

“I am excited to have learned that there is still much to learn about the area of reading and literature, and I hope to continue exploring the area by reading more in my free time.  In general, taking this course sparked my interest in reading more.  This was definitely in part due to the passion for reading displayed by the instructor.  By reading and reflecting so many times on different texts, it was a reminder that great authors or people of any profession, are really great beause they love what they do.  It is not only by extreme effort and focus that people become wonderful at what they do, but by a love for what they are doing.”

“I had never taken a class that went through as much detail as we did this semester.  I had no idea, and never even thought that there was such a thing as social class, natural or built environment, or even gendering.”

Nearly all of the students in my literature class told me in the first week that they don't really like to read, that they were only in my class because it fulfilled one of their core requirements.  It didn't surprise me.  I'm used to it.  For my entire teaching career, I've taught the required core curriculum classes, from my composition work at Bowling Green and the classes that I've been able to teach here at UNL.  The general consensus seems to be--from both the teaching and the student perspectives--that those required classes are a waste of time.  Nobody wants to teach those classes, so they’re farmed off on adjuncts or non-tenure track faculty (which is what the General Studies Writing program was comprised of and who are currently fighting for their job security) or graduate students, at larger institutions.  Of course, this demeans both the classes, the students, and the faculty, especially since I actually like teaching these intro classes.  How many hundreds, thousands of students do we see through these introductory classes--that for these students, these might be the only humanities courses they ever take?

“I had never really cared about literature before I took this class to be quite honest.  I wasn’t something that I deemed as important to my life; however, after taking this class, I have grown a solid appreciation for what literature stands for and how it molds your mind into something greater.”

In a recent article in theChronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo advocates for “flipping the curriculum,” that “Introductory courses should be just as good as the Capstone experience.”  He writes, “A few weeks ago, at a conference on the future of higher education held at George Mason University, the topic of large introductory courses came up several times during a panel discussion on how to engage students and strengthen learning. As one audience member described a stimulating capstone experience for seniors, one of the panelists, Mills Kelly, asked why the university makes them wait four years to get it.”  And this was one of those moments that resonated with something I’d heard six weeks earlier, at the American Conference of Irish Studies, where history professor Tim Mahoney from Marquette University argued that the way we structure our curriculum is backwards.  Instead of starting broad in survey courses in the first years and narrow to specific courses in upper-level classes, why don’t we teach those narrow courses (which are often on topics that appeal to students) in the first years?  Especially in these days of declining enrollments in majors like English (and the push in places like Florida to make English majors pay more for their degree than a STEM degree), why are we not putting our time and energy into those introductory classes, the first line of defense (so to speak) where we have the most focused face-time with students?  Selingo’s plan is—at least in theory—brilliantly easy:  “In the spirit of “flipping the classroom,” I call his suggestion “flipping the curriculum.” It would call for small classes in the freshman and senior years and larger classes for sophomores and particularly for juniors. The profit that the university makes right now on introductory classes would remain, but just shift to the junior year.”  Obviously I’m not so na├»ve to think that completely restructuring a curriculum would be easy, but this idea is so incredibly awesome.

“I realize throughout the semester, that reading a book and making a connection with it, doesn’t always mean you have to be relating to the story.  Relating is not always possible, so when it’s not that doesn’t mean you have to put the book down, it means you should keep reading until a connection is made.”

I came from an undergraduate experience where the entire English department, from full professors down to the adjuncts, all taught composition.  They considered introductory classes so important that everybody in the entire department was required to teach them.  I’m sure that some of them grumbled about it, but the philosophy was one that shaped my ideas of what we consider important in undergraduate education.  And as I started my teaching career in various different environments (Eastern Washington University is much different than Bowling Green is different than UNL), always teaching in the required courses, part of my commitment to my students involved a commitment to the classes I was teaching, because I believe so fervently in the power of the written word.  My students are, most often, not majors.  What does it do to a teacher to consistently teach in an environment where they students don’t want to be there?  In a word, it’s tough.  But it’s my job—and because I believe the written word is essential to life—and it’s my job to teach them that they can write, that they can read, that there is more in heaven and earth, and heaven and earth are incredibly interesting places.  I am never surprised when my students tell me they hate writing.  Or they hate reading.  It hurts to hear that, that somewhere along the line they decided that reading was something to be avoided. 

This semester, teaching these two brand-new classes, I was reminded again of why it’s important to meet students where they are, that there are so many incredible moments to be had when those light bulbs go off in their heads, when the meteorology major sees the role that weather plays in the plot of a novel, when a finance major says he’d rather be reading books than taking calculus, when students realize that they’ve written something amazing that they never thought they could.  It’s been obvious to me this semester, teaching this crime literature course, that one book really does lead to another.  I started my interest here just a year ago, when I taught William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake in my Intro to Fiction class, studying how a novel is put together, and my students told me they didn’t like mysteries until they read that book.  It was accidental that the novel I chose for the next incarnation of that fiction writing class (the Irish version) was another mystery, Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea.  In that same semester, I took a Women’s Rhetoric class, in which a friend did her project on sex trafficking as represented in popular fiction—and that was a turning point for me.  What happens when we analyze the texts we read for entertainment?  How does that type of literature raise questions in the way that Capital-L Literature does not or cannot?  And thus this Crime Literature class was born. What happens when we teach very narrowly specific classes in the first year courses?  Do we encourage more majors to join us or do they join us after taking general survey courses?  (I don't know, I haven't done the research on the effect of those survey courses.)

In the same way, I crafted this particular English 151 (Rhetoric as Argument) class around the idea of the Rhetoric of Science, hoping to meet my STEM students where they were, to teach them how to look at the rhetoric of the texts they saw around them every day.  (I think that about half of my 151 class had some sort of science or social science majors.)  Writing isn’t just confined to English departments, ideas and stories are not confined to Andrews Hall.  I wanted to give them not just academic-type nonfiction to read (like we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), but I wanted to give them science fiction—not otherwordly science fiction, but Andrea Barrett’s science fiction.  Maybe the next time I teach a literature class, maybe I’ll theme it on Science Fiction (and find a better way to title it so that it’s not confused with aliens).  Why don’t we have more communication between departments, to cross-list classes that might be of interest to students in other majors?  What about asking the biology department, the hospitality management department what they might like to see in an English class for their majors?  Reading Andrea Barrett in a science lit class, reading M.F.K. Fisher or even checking out these two awesome works (one on hotels in the arts, the other a critical book on hotelsin German and Austrian literature).  There are so many possibilities here that it makes me tingle a little, though that might be the Earl Grey. 

We get one shot to reach these students in these introductory classes.  This is not a problem or a challenge; it is the greatest kind of opportunity.  Maybe two shots, given how many required English classes a curriculum requires.  Flipping the curriculum--and empowering both the faculty who teach those introductory classes and the students who take them--might be a way to solve some of the apathy problems we see from both faculty and students, especially as budgets are getting slashed and academia becomes a much harder place to be.  Creating--and flipping-- our curriculum so that our teachers are as incredibly excited about the intro classes they're teaching as they are about upper-level classes seems to be a logical step.  Teaching specific courses at the upper-level is fun and important, but there's also great fun to be had when students are just starting to think about these ideas.  We need to trust our intro students to have the same sort of instincts that our majors have, to give them an entry to writing and literature that meets them where they are, empowers them to recognize their life on the page, recognize how other lives function on the page.  There is great benefit in expecting the best of our students, especially in the intro levels.  It really does boil down to remembering that if we're bored, there's no way we're going to be able to inspire our students to make the kind of connection we know they can make, take the kind of risks we know will lead to great things.  And this is the best kind of opportunity for all of us.

“Literature allows you to expand your boundaries and think in ways that you typically would not.”

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!