Back in the day–way back, say twelfth century back. Before the invention of the novel–poets in the courtly love tradition liked to compete over who could put their lovers in more difficult circumstances and draw out an affair. In one example, there was a wealthy landowner whose daughter was allowed to appear in public only at Sunday mass, and thiat under heavy chaperonage. At the communion rail, her lover sighed, “Alas.” The next week the maiden asked “For What?” The next week he answered “For Love.” And things went on from there for months and months before there was even a tryst, let alone a seduction.
Well Ha Jin outstrips all those guys with hisWaiting. The book was short-listed for the pulitzer, and I’d have been happier to see it win than The Goldfinch. even though I think it falls a step short of Pulitzer material. Nevertheless, Waiting is a remarkable novel.
You can read it almost as a study on how life in a totalitarian society creates depression and hopelessness. You can also read it as a love story so completely beyond anything in the modern western world that you have to struggle to join the situation. Here’s what I mean.
It’s the sixties. Lin enters into an arranged marriage in his mid-teens. His wife, Shuyuh, has strict, old-style parents who actually bound her feet, a fashion quite uncommon. Lin resents the coercion that forced him into the union, doesn’t love Shuyuh, is embarrassed by her awkward gait and homely looks, never appreciating the advantages the marriage brought to his family. There is a consummation and a subsequent daughter, but no sex after that.
Lin gets out of his little village and away to a Shanghai suburb as soon as he can. He becomes a doctor in the army. Apparently, everyone is connected with the army one way or another. He’s based in a compound where movement is restricted and opportunities for forming relationships fall considerably short of the odds on Match.com.
Nevertheless, he and nurse Manna Hu, fall in love. However, they have little or no opportunity for consummation, and are both so fearful of the consequences that they hold off… and hold off . . . and hold off. . . .
Lin sends Shuyu a monthly allowance and is granted leave to visit her annually. He agrees with Manna Hu to ask for a divorce. Such an act requires the approval of a village official, and the whole village sees Lin’s request as abandonment of his matrimonial obligations in general and of his wife and daughter in particular. Not to mention his interfering brother in law who stirs up the villages agains Lin. This whole ritual goes on for 18–that’s EIGHTEEN–years, which is the soonest a divorce can be granted without the wife’s approval. Shuyuh has agreed to the divorce every year, but each time withdrawn her consent in court under her brother’s influence.
But, finally, the divorce comes, and Manna Hu and Lin are married and have to come to terms with a relationship that has been suspended while they each grew in different ways, side by side, but never touching. Lin is incredibly passive and insecure, always second-guessing himself, finding it almost impossible to take the initiative in any difficult situation. He accepts his lot. Truth be told, he’s not such a lusty lad either, or he would have had more than one wet dream in thirty years and would have had a much harder time resisting physical contact with his one and only.
Manna Hu, pretty much realizes these character weaknesses early on, but in her late twenties, she’s already an old maid, is seen as attached to Lin even though they aren’t married or even engaged, so she’s trapped herself into unavailability by connecting with him. It’s worse than Hawthorne’s Salem. She doesn’t have to don the scarlet letter to be branded, and she doesn’t even get to have sex or a daughter to be condemned. So even though she’s much less diffident than Lin, she’s done for in the romance department before she even gets started.
Despite the difficulties of getting us to suspend our disbelief in this extreme circumstance, Jin pulls it off. We agonize for these two, partially because Jin takes inside their hearts and lets us see how weak and bewildered they are. Weak, anyhow, in relation to their circumstances. By the ambiguous ending, we’ve reached a life-affirming place in the tale, though subsequent events may prove that seeming affirmation false. But the possibility for happiness and even nobility of the human spirit in the worst of environments shines through.
I happened on to William C. Gordon because I found out that Isabel Allende’s husband wrote detective novels (besides being a lawyer, but of course that’s irrelevant and even forgiveable), and she said she’d picked up some inspiration from him for her recent Ripper. She claimed in the same interview I heard that they never shared ideas while they were writing, and I guess I have to take her at her word, though you know how she is with all that South American magical stuff and intuition and all, so–grain of salt.
All that aside, I was impressed enough with The Chinese Jars, that I went on to King of the Bottomand am likely to pick up the other two in his four-volume oeuvre before long.
Gordon plants us in San Francisco in the early sixties. I don’t know why the era struck me as an odd choice. I was there, after all, so why not? But I got used to it quickly. He dresses up the setting with a bar called Camelot–right after Kennedy’s election. Get it? And he gives us as his protagonist a pretty good example of an anti-hero. Samuel Hamilton The son of murdered parents and a Stanford dropout, he did a DUI head-on that badly injured a passenger in the other car and narrowly avoided incarceration (Today, of course, it would have been a different story.) As the book opens, he’s an unsuccessful ad salesman for an unnamed major newspaper (which those of us in the know understand is the San Francisco Chronicle). He’s a drinker, a smoker, a sloppy dresser, and quite an unattractive human being altogether.
The mystery begins with the untimely death of a regular patron of Camelot, a death ruled a suicide and likely to remain thus categorized since the victim had no relatives or known associates. Well. Samuel turns out to be a sympathetic guy who wonders about his drinking buddy’s demise and develops some investigative skills as he searches for answers. He looks up his old lawyer from his DUI days, now an assistant DA, presents some facts and asks for help. Reluctantly, he gets it, and we’re on the trail of a conspiracy that leads not only to the underbelly of the police department but to the back room of Mr. Song’s herb shop on Grant Avenue. That’s where the Chinese Jars come in, and where I’ll leave you, I hope tantalized enough to seek out the book while I go on to King of the Bottom.
This one’s a bit more complex, but every bit as intriguing. Samuel Hamilton’s our guy once again. He’s become a reporter based on his work in the Chinese Jars case, and he’s quit smoking (almost) thanks to a treatment of hypnosis and herbs undergone during that investigation.
The title here refers to the honorary title of an Armenian merchant who deals in the disposal of hazardous waste. He’s found hanging from the archway that leads into his business property in Richmond, across the bay from San Francisco. I thought the trail of the Chinese Jars investigation was twisted, but in King of the Bottom, Gordon leads us all the way back–through Paris no less–to the genocidal massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks pre-WWI. Back to Richmond and the supposed non-communication between Gordon and Allende. This hanging takes place at Point Molate,, which location plays a key role in Ripper. Just saying.
Anyhow, the main investigating team, once again, is made up of Hamilton and his lawyer buddy. And it’s a terrific read with enough sex and brutality to give it an edge, but not so much to put off the prudish or queasy. Good stuff.
James M. Cain had a long and distinguished literary career (died 1977), but I never got around to reading anything but The Postman Always Rings Twice. In fact, I’m not sure I ever really read it, or just knew the title and saw a movie or something. I picked up The Root of His Evil out of curiosity and discovered once again that noir is nothing new.
Carrie Selden is known in the press as “The Modern Cinderella” because of her rise from rags to riches. Indeed, she’s writing her story from the deck of a sloop anchored in the Caribbean. She wants, she says, to “correct false impressions.”
What she’s doing on that sloop and what those “false impressions” are consume the narrative. She’s pretty and ambitious, looking for ways to rise from her waitress job in NYC to something better. Opportunities come in the form of a dynamic union organizer, who hankers for romance, and a rich guy who’s the opposite of dynamic–all thumbs and elbows. Carrie doesn’t know he’s rich, but still sees possibilities.
No author has written a more reliable narrator, one who understands her own ruthlessness and makes no excuses. Carrie has a lust for money, which sees as a path to power and security. Furthermore, she hates being imprisoned in her class. Nothing wrong with any of that, except she never makes her quest romantic or noble. She’s bare knuckles and cold-blooded. Occasionally she regrets the harm she brings to her victims, but not enough to sway her from her relentless quest for control.
At any rate, by the end, I still don’t know what false impressions she was trying to correct. It seems to me she probably confirmed whatever negative public reputation she had before she started writing. There’s a crucial scene at the end where the rich guy does something completely out of character and, to my mind, not justified by the writing. This may be a moment of unreliability for Carrie. Whatever the case, if you meet this particular Cinderella, I’d advise staying out of the way. She’s as soon run you over in her coach as look at you.
OUR WRITERWORKING GUEST TODAY IS DICK MOOMEY, A MAN OF MANY TALENTS, SKILLS, AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS, AS YOU’LL LEARN IN THE INTERVIEW BELOW. DICK’S BECOME A FRIEND OF MINE VIA CYBER-SOLSTICE EVEN THOUGH WE LIVE 3000 MILES APART AND HAVE NEVER SHAKEN HANDS NOR LIFTED A GLASS TOGETHER. NEVERTHELESS, I KNOW HE HAS A TALE OR TWO TO TELL, AND I THOUGHT READERS OF WRITERWORKING WOULD ENJOY HEARING A FEW OF THEM.
AT THE END OF OUR CONVERSATION, YOU’LL FIND AN OPPORTUNITY TO LINK DIRECTLY TO HIS CURRENT HOT LITERARY NUMBERS.
NOW, ON TO DICK MOOMEY.
WW: Before we get down to literary matters, I’d like you to talk a bit about your theater background, both as performer and director. What got you interested in stage work in the first place?
DM: In 1964, the Teacher’s Association decided to do a Broadway show to establish a scholarship in honor of our high school principal who was killed in a car accident the summer before. This was the first of twenty productions by the Monroe-Woodbury Teachers in Orange County, NY. The director was one of my music teachers who asked me to participate. I told her I could play the part of the rear end of the horse. By some form of luck I was given the part of Curly in Oklahoma and thus the beginning of 40 years in theatre. In the meantime I was principal of the Middle School and involved in trying to sell a new school to the public. But I was young then.
WW: What are two or three of the favorite roles you’ve played, and what made them special?
DM: I always loved the role of Oscar in The Odd Couple. I played it twice for two different productions. The director said it was type-casting and I tried not to be upset at being called a slob. Twice no less. In the musical field, I played about six leads in big musicals. I guess the biggest challenge was the part of Fred Graham in Kiss Me Kate. Doing long songs by myself in the middle of the stage took some doing, but I guess this was my favorite. I also played Sky Masterson, a fun role.
WW: And what about directing? Can you name some favorites there and talk about them a bit?
DM: After some years of appearing in musicals, I thought I knew enough to try directing. When it seemed no one else was interested in directing, I put my hat in the ring and came up with Finian’s Rainbow, which surprised a lot of people. Not too many knew of this show. It is still my favorite and we even invited lyricist Yip Harburg to attend, which he did, appearing with two lovely ladies, one on each arm. He even came on stage to talk to the audience. They loved it, but one of the cast members thought he talked too long. Maybe he did? I also did Pajama Game that same year, but of the many shows I’ve directed it is impossible to pick favorites. Like your children, they all are favorites. Brigadoon,Carousel, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, Sound of Music and on and on including a goodly number of non-musicals. You Can’t Take It With You was my favorite non-musical.
WW: I also understand you’ve starred in productions you’ve also directed. What’s it like switching back and forth between acting and directing?
DM: Actually, I never starred in shows I directed, but in every musical, I appeared in one fashion or another. In my direction of Oklahoma, years after the first one, I appeared in the most beautiful Indian head dress and costume. I sat on a boat during “It Was A Real Nice Clambake” in Carousel, and I sat at a table in Cabaret. I did play the dour undertaker in Our Town, but I was in a very black costume and almost blended into the scenery. My accent was pretty good, though. I’m not sure I could pull off a starring role while directing. A clashing of egos, most likely.
WW: All right, over to more novelistic activities now. What pulled you toward the crime and mystery genre?
DM: I always liked reading these books, so when I decided to write a novel I just naturally turned to this genre.
WW: I know your The Reluctant Witness is based on actual incidents that occurred when you were a boy growing up in upstate NY, close to the Canadian border during WWII. (Truth in advertising here. I was Solstice Publishing’s editor for this book.) How about a quick summary of the autobiographical details?
DM: My mother often took in boarders and usually teachers, but in the summer of 1942, she decided to board two masons who were hired to lay bricks in the ice cream plant. One was a sourpuss and a drunk, the other, Ernie, became my friend. We did things together including taking pictures along the St. Lawrence River, and my mother thought he was great too. A few months after the two left, my father came in with a copy of The New York Times with a photo of eight spies who had been caught in an FBI sting. Right in the middle was Ernie. He was sentenced to death, because he was a naturalized citizen, then had the sentence commuted to life and finally deportation to Germany. His job was to take pictures of possible landing sites for submarines who would bring espionage agents to the area. We all figured his role did little to alter the war as few if any photos ever got back to Germany. Not long after, the FBI descended on our little town to interview my parents and especially me, I was lucky they didn’t think I was a junior spy. They even went to the ice cream factory and tore out all the bricks. No bombs. They even tore out the bricks over our kitchen door which Ernie had replaced for Mom. Definitely, no bombs there. You said quick, but this is just a thumbnail sketch of the factual part of The Reluctant Witness.
WW:Aside from the Nazi spy activities that form the core of the action in The Reluctant Witness, one of the most exciting scenes recounts the appearance of Babe Ruth in your main character’s small town. He was on a train tour to sign baseballs in various locations. Did you yourself really see and get an autograph from the Bambino?
DM: I did embellish this scene a bit to fit the story. However, I did accompany my mother to the nearby town of Malone, NY where the Babe was scheduled to appear and sign autographs, especially balls. A huge crowd was gathered and when the Babe appeared I thought I’d pee my pants. Anyhow when it came by turn, I went up to the Babe with my brand new 25 cent ball. He messed my hair and signed the ball with a fountain pen. As I turned to go back to my mother I brushed up against one of Babe’s associates and the signature was messed up. I went back to my mother, crying, and she took out her good hanky and wiped the rest of the ink off and told me to go back up and get it signed again. Which I did, and the Babe even called me Kid. I might be the only young man to ever get the great Babe Ruth to sign his ball twice. I still have the very faded ball.
WW: The Boston Connection is your latest release from Solstice publishing. It takes place on and around the campus of a small private college. What was the genesis of this “seething” tale?
DM: I set out to write the first of a trilogy featuring a beautiful Boston PI and the ‘seething’ part was not there to begin with, but once I saw the possibilities of a pair of villains and wanting to make them most unique, I inserted the part you call seething. There are four sex scenes in the book, two among normal people; i.e., husband and wife. The other two are those which bring the antagonists to the front. Only at the end can the discerning reader know who the antagonists are but also to know why those sex scenes took place. The ending should come as a complete surprise, but I wonder if the reader connects the persona of Zorro and the mad woman. I’ll tell, but not here. The Saratoga Connection and The Cape Cod Connection are awaiting a publisher.
WW: In addition to multiple love affairs, The Boston Connection, also features multiple possibilities for the perpetrators of the novel’s crimes. Is that your normal novelistic M.O.? If so, would mind discussing your philosophy behind how you weave your villains into the action?
DM:Boston is one where I tried to build two villains, both with their own agenda. In my other books I try to keep the reader guessing but only with one possible antagonist. Every villain has to have strong and menacing personas which make the ultimate ending more satisfying. The blending of the bad guy into each story is unique to the plot line of the book. In all of my books, except The Reluctant Witness, which is an adventure, I try to have at least three to six possible candidates for the antagonist. In my upcoming novel, The Valley of Good and Evil, the villain is a victim himself, which gives the tale an unusual twist. I don’t recall books that have a bad guy exactly like this one. You could say Jekyll and Hyde, but that was a chemical-induced villain.
WW: Tell us a bit about your other projects, past, present and future. Where might we find Dick Moomey’s work popping up next, and what can we expect it to be like?
As I mentioned earlier, The Valley of Good and Evil will be coming out this summer. I’m about 100 pages into The House of Brabant, a potboiler, jewel thief thriller with an international flavor. A gang of jewel thieves are plotting to rob the vaults of the Royal Houses of Europe. The setting is in a small town in the USA and then moves to Europe and Brussels, Belgium and the first target, The House of Brabant. I also have a Young Adult Novel, The Mystery of Ghost Lake, which centers on home grown terrorists and a young man of fourteen and assorted friends who try to foil the thieves goals.
WW: Thanks, Dick, for a look at a unique career, on-stage and off. Too bad this format doesn’t allow for an excerpt from you singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.'” The best I can do is say, “Oh, What a Beautiful Interview,” thank you, and wish you the best of luck with the The House of Barbant as well as your other projects.
And, lest we forget, here’s how you can not only check out but purchase those fine works Dick discussed in the interview. I can attest to the fact that they are most rewarding reads, and I have reviews of both at the Amazon sites to back up what I’m saying here. Click on the image to get on over to Amazon and give yourself a treat.
TODAY, WRITER WORKING WELCOMES AUTHOR NANCY WOOD ON THE FINAL STOP OF HER LATEST BLOG TOUR. THE TOPIC–THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF USING HER SMALL-TOWN HOME, SANTA CRUZ, CA FOR HER FINE NOVEL, DUE DATE. I LIVE IN NEARBY OAKLAND, AND HAVE A LONG ACQUAINTANCE WITH AND GREAT FONDNESS FOR SANTA CRUZ. IT WAS FUN TO PICTURE VARIOUS LOCATIONS AS WOOD SENT HER CHARACTERS PURSUING THEIR GOALS THROUGH THE NOVEL. YOU CAN CHECK MY REVIEW OF DUE DATE IF YOU LIKE, @ http://www.writerworking.net/due-date-draws-you-in/ BUT FOR NOW, LISTEN TO NANCY.
When I started writing DUE DATE, I didn’t think twice about using my town, Santa Cruz California, as the location. I’d already written a novel (unpublished) set in Baltimore Maryland in the 70s. And I’d written another novel (also unpublished!) set in upstate New York. So it was time to write about something that was right in front of me.
You might have heard of Santa Cruz, as it crops up in the news from time to time. Santa Cruz was one of the first cities in the U.S. to become a nuclear-free zone. It’s the place where Mr. Twister, local clown/balloon performance artist, was arrested in 1995 for feeding expired parking meters. Recently, it’s the place that made national news when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by local homeless activist Robert Norse, who’d been ejected from a City Council meeting in 2002 for making a Nazi salute.
But Santa Cruz is so much more than its colorful local politics. It’s a place of uncommon beauty, bordered on the west by a 246-acre open space preserve called Moore Creek. A few ranches away lies 7,000-acre Wilder Ranch State Park, which stretches from the sea to the coastal hills. Its northern boundary connects with the open space preserve on the backside of the university. Parks and preserves hopscotch the northern arc of the city limits, like beads on a necklace: the Pogonip, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, DeLaveaga Park. To the east, the city boundaries melt into an unincorporated area, Live Oak, which then melds with the city of Capitola. The sweep of the Monterey Bay limits the city to the south.
The city of Santa Cruz is small and compact. The greenbelt and the bay keep out urban sprawl. Downtown, including the main library, the city auditorium, City Hall and other city buildings, is about eight blocks long and three blocks wide. It bisects the town, dividing it into east and west. There’s a friendly, and sometimes ominous, rivalry between the two sides of town.
My character in DUE DATE, Shelby McDougall, lived in a neighborhood on the east side of the city with her brother and his family until her sister-in-law asked her to move on. Shelby then moved to Bonny Doon, part of the Santa Cruz mailing zip code, but actually a small rural community in the Santa Cruz mountains northwest of the city limit. Shelby would drive past the university and through the west side of Santa Cruz on her way to the grocery or her doctor’s appointments.
Placing DUE DATE in Santa Cruz provided both advantages and limitations. The obvious advantage, from a writer’s perspective, was that I knew it. No extra research required. I could sit at my desk and write, without needing to explore the local bakery or the cavernous basement in the used bookstore (though those would both be fun research projects!). From a character’s perspective, it was easy to capture the flavor of the city. Shelby could stroll through downtown, visiting local businesses, seeing local street life. It was plausible for her to run into people she knew. But she couldn’t get lost, as the city is too small. And she couldn’t get stuck somewhere, as there are so many people willing to help. However, when she moved to the Santa Cruz mountains, where it’s isolated and remote, my imagination could go wild, as the setting was wide open and she was free to roam, as much as her pregnancy allowed.
I did find some limitations with Santa Cruz as the setting. At the last minute, I decided to disguise businesses. I’d kept local business names up until the very end, into the editing process, then realized it might be better switch them to something fictional. I didn’t want to risk alienating a reader if the business didn’t actually match a mental image. And I didn’t want to alienate a business owner if their business wasn’t portrayed to their satisfaction. I wasn’t sure how that would play with local readers, but I have since found out that readers enjoy the puzzle of figuring out which business is which.
I found that I also needed to be aware of repetition. Because of the size of Santa Cruz, I had to be careful not to repeat locations too frequently and present them using the similar descriptions. This proved harder than I’d guessed when I decided to keep the story within the confines of Santa Cruz.
The next installment of the Shelby McDougall story takes Shelby from central California to Big Sur, so I’ll have more latitude in the setting. Shelby lands back in Santa Cruz, but sets up office in south county, outside of Watsonville. Her sleuthing takes her back into the mountains and also into the wilds of Big Sur. When plotting this book, I deliberately gave myself more latitude in the setting. From a writer’s perspective, I wanted more area to write about. And from a reader’s perspective, I knew I needed to provide more variety.
WRITER WORKING READERS AND I THANK YOU FOR AN ENJOYABLE AND ILLUMINATING LOOK AT YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS, NANCY. WANT TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT NANCY AND HER WORK OR TO CONTACT HER? HERE ARE SOME LINKS.