Atlanta writer David Fulmer is unique among mystery writers for the deep insights of his prose and his staunch commitment to the craft of storytelling. He has the accolades to prove it: his first novel, Chasing the Devil’s Tail, won the Shamus Award, the prize given to the best work of detective fiction published each year. His two subsequent books continued to chronicle the adventures of Creole detective Valentine St. Cyr during the dawn of the Jazz Age, in the Storyville district of New Orleans. Fulmer is also recognized as a music journalist whose work has found a welcome home in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and many other publications for more than two decades. His latest novel, The Hit, will be released by Severn House in early 2012.
Loose Change: Were you surprised by how well your first book did?
David Fulmer: I was definitely surprised by the award nominations. Because with that, you know, there’s five books out of thousands—and you get picked. So that was a surprise. But it was also vindication, because that book had been turned down by everybody in New York. And it happens all the time. So, we had to go to this little boutique publisher in Arizona. They published it, and then it took off. And then, also, I never had any intention of being a mystery writer. When I read mysteries, I can never figure out who did it. So that’s the challenging part. But what I do is to pick a setting, and I have these characters in mind. And I sort of really spend a lot of time developing the characters. I put those two elements together and it kind of takes off. So I picked New Orleans. And when I picked it I said “Ok, it’s New Orleans at the turn of the century, and jazz is being born. It’s hot, it’s steamy, and so what are you going to do? You’re gonna write a mystery.”
LC: The fact that you’re also a journalist might lend itself to that a little bit, looking for “whodunit.”
DF: Exactly. Yes. But, I will tell you also that people don’t read my books for the “whodunit.” They read them for the atmosphere, the characters. To me, the “whodunit” part of it is the most challenging. Because while it’s not really my forte, you still want to have something that’s plausible. I don’t do procedurals, so if I’m going to write a mystery I’m going to write something where I’m interested in the “why” people did something, not so much the “how.” But the procedural [method of mystery writing] is really about “how” they did it, and they don’t really care why.
LC: The monkey wrench in the library…
DF: Exactly—“How did they do this?” Why did they do it? The “procedural” answer is always that they did it because they’re a bad person. I’m much more interested in the psychology and what drives people to do this, and also what drives my main character to be the pursuer. And I’m interested in these characters. You know, they’re people that I would like to hang out with. I mean I’m very much aware of their flaws. I do tons of research, background, and developing backstories. Entire biographies. And what I find is, if I sort of have the general idea of a story, and I do all that really hard work on developing the characters and developing the setting—really immersing myself in the setting—to some degree, the story kind of takes care of itself. But I don’t plot anything out. I know in the end that my character’s going to come out on top. And the rest of it, I just see how it goes. And that’s also sort of a journalistic approach, that I’m basically observing something in my head and kind of writing it down. And I did start out, when I was a teenager, my first job was not working at a gas station, it was working at a local newspaper…so I have that journalistic grounding.
LC: Jass took a lot of guts to write. In setting the book in early 20th century New Orleans, you’re writing about subjects that a lot of others would like to stake their claim in: a city that’s not yours, and a music that everybody loves and feels a right to. You’re also writing across lines of race. Where did that courage come from?
Well, first of all, I was basically raised Italian. My mother is Italian, and like [Valentine, the main character in Jass] I’m half Sicilian. So I have that sort of identification. You know, when my mother was growing up, Italians were discriminated against. My father caused an incredible scandal in the family by marrying an Italian girl.
So, I was aware of that, but also, I was so interested in music. And the town I grew up in, there was one African American family, and the father was a jazz drummer. And the town was very ethnic…a lot of Italians, a lot of Polish. But I was always fascinated by the music. I was trying to get back to the root. And I think it’s just being open. It’s not being color-blind, because that would be stupid. But the thing is: to celebrate [our differences], and enjoy them, rather than pretend they’re not there. And what I found out was that unless you’re going to write about people who are exactly like you, and nothing else, you’re going to have to figure out a way to crawl into other people’s skins. The hardest one, harder than any race, is male and female. It’s really hard for men to crawl into women’s skin, and vice versa. It’s the hardest. And so I had to conquer that challenge as well.
But whatever it is, it really always came down to keeping my ears open. And people are afraid to talk about stuff. And I realized that we can look at the same thing, and not see the same thing sometimes. And so [I want] to be able to have that conversation, to understand that. Male and female is the biggest one: that you and I look at the same thing, but we see it a little bit differently. But basically it was that I felt that if you’re not taking a risk, then you’re not getting anywhere. And so I understood that it was a risk. I was really, really concerned. When you do what you just said—you go into their territory—oh my god, they are waiting for you with hatchets when you do historical stuff. So I was very concerned that I was going to get murdered. And especially jazz—I mean, it’s worshipped. And I was going right into the belly of the beast and writing about it. But the thing was, I had so much respect for it, and I think that comes through.
I don’t want to assume courage. It’s just that I really wanted to tell these stories, and so it’s just like, well what is it going to take for you to tell this story—and I’m going to have to take this risk, because I can’t shy away from it. Because if you shy away from it then you’re not going to get the story told. I always feel that if I’m not risking something, if I’m not holding myself up to criticism or ridicule, then I’m not doing the job. You’ve got to take those risks. If you don’t it’s not any fun. You know, you’re just a typist—if you’re not out there to in stretch it in some way shape or form, to do something that’s going to tell this remarkable story.
LC: Is there a difference between the muscles that you flex as a journalist or a music writer, and the muscles that you flex when you are writing fiction? What makes different kinds of writing so different? At the end of the day it’s just little black marks on paper, isn’t it?
DF: Yes, absolutely. I guess what I would say the difference is that I need to remember what my end goal is in both of these. And I will say that one thing that I think they have in common is that I’m still trying to tell a story. When I write something that’s factual, it still has a narrative to it. But I have to remember that I’m now dealing with reality, and I can’t bend it the way that I can in fiction. I can bend the fiction, shape it whichever way I want. With [journalism], I kind of have to bend to the reality rather than bend it.
And people get into all kinds of trouble, journalists, when they do bend reality rather than bending to it. I must say that this should happen all the time as a journalist or a non-fiction writer: it’s that you run with the story that you’re telling and then basically just get out of the way. And to some degree that also happens with fiction. Because there’ve been lots of times when my characters would just run with it. Just take off with the story and just run with it. I think that that’s a good thing. It means I’ve really done my work with the characters.
If you’ve been around actors at all, you’ll pitch them something and they’ll improvise, and just totally run with it. Because they’ve had all this training and stuff. And again, the same thing that happens to people who write historical stuff, or fact-based fiction, like me, is that they sometimes do play to kind of bend the reality. Not to bend it so that it breaks, but to turn it into something that it isn’t. Whenever I get criticism about “facts,” “I say, what part of the store did you find this book? “Well, it was in the fiction section.” It’s a story.
LC: Seems like it’s a question sometimes of who you’re beholden to when you’re telling a story.
DF: But I will tell you that, also, when I write a book, I can’t go chasing after anything or anybody…I never think of that. I intend each book to be a different story. And as a matter of fact, the book that I’m working on now is not a mystery.
LC: In an interview, Margaret Atwood spoke about asking other writers what the process of going into a novel was like. They all said something to the effect of, “It’s like going into a cave;” “It’s like going underground;” “It’s like being in a dark room, and you only have a flashlight, and you can illuminate things one by one by one.” Is there anything that scares you when you write?
DF: Yeah—and again, if you’re not scared, then you’re not doing the right thing. If you’re not going out on a branch that might break off underneath you, then you’re just playing it safe. And I mean a lot of people do play it safe, and they basically write the same book over and over again for the rest of their lives. But I struggle. Yeah, I’m afraid of something. I’m afraid of failure. I’m afraid of it, but I’m not so afraid of it that I’m not going to act.
LC: But are you still afraid of failing, with so much success behind you?
DF: Yes. And if you’re a performer, it’s the same stage fright. The worse the stage fright, the better the performance—that’s what they say. Think about it: if every time you go out there you’re completely sure of yourself, then you’re just going to be lazy. You know what I mean?
You can think of this in terms of an athlete. When you’re operating at your best, you’re totally alert, but you’re also totally relaxed. That’s the zone. If you watch somebody like Michael Jordan, they’re totally “on,” but they’re also totally relaxed, because if you don’t relax, you just start messing up. I mean, I’m always worried about failing, because this is not engineering. It’s not something where it either works or it doesn’t. So, I worry about that. I worry that this has all been an illusion, and that I’m really not any good, and that I’ve sort of faked everybody out. I mean, your basic impostor syndrome. I have a pretty strong sense of my craft. I think I know what I’m doing, in terms of craft. But that’s no guarantee. And I will always worry about that. I don’t think I’ll ever get so confident that I will say, “Ok, I got it. No, no, no, I’m not worried, I got it.”
But again, I know that [it’s easy for writers],once they’re trying to work on something, to get paralyzed by the fear that they’re going to screw up. It’s just something you gotta work through. I don’t even know that I would want to be that sure of myself. I don’t think that’s where my best game comes from. I don’t think I could do my best work if I wasn’t concerned that I could get it wrong. So I have my own particular way of working, and I figured out what works best for me.
LC: What works best for you?
DF: Well, for one thing, I do a lot of foundational stuff. I really work on my setting and my characters. I want to be able to immerse myself in my setting. I want to be able to be so familiar with it that I can close my eyes, and just turn the corner and know what’s going to be around that corner. From the research [I can become] totally immersed. But just up to a certain point.
I only want to be immersed up to there, because then I’m like a history book. But everything I do is in support of a story, not the other way around. I’m not really trying to make a point. I don’t have an agenda. I’m not really trying to give a history lesson—I mean, [I hope] you get that, but that’s not the point of any of that stuff. All I’m doing is telling a story. And it’s an honorable craft, an ancient craft, telling a story…So I do that work, and then I work really slow. And I do a lot of re-writing. I mean, probably for every hour that I write, I probably spend 10 hours re-writing. I’m just really fixated on getting it right, but not to the point where I’m taking all the life out of it. I want to let it kind of breathe.
That’s my goal. But in order to do that, I believe that the foundation of my stories is the setting and the characters. And the setting is, in fact, a character in my books. It’s alive and, I hope, vibrant. It’s not just a frame.
For more information on David Fulmer, his work, and his writing classes at Eagle Eye Bookstore in Decatur, pay him an online visit at http://www.davidfulmer.com.
—Chantal James, Fiction Editor