Archive for March, 2009


Michael Sims’ New Anthology Takes Crime Fiction Fans Back to the Gaslight Era

March 30, 2009
Michael Sims (photo by Laura Patterson)

Michael Sims (photo by Laura Patterson)

Most readers probably know Michael Sims best as the author of a series of critically acclaimed science books: Darwin’s Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts; Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form, named New York Times Notable Book and a Library Journal Best Science Book; and  Apollo’s Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, chosen as one of the Best Science Books of 2007 by National Public Radio. He’s also just finished In the Womb: Animals, a companion piece to the National Geographic Channel’s documentary of the same name.

But beyond his own writing, Sims is also a talented editor. After two previous anthologies for Penguin Classics —  The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel and Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Thief — Sims now offers up a third collection, debuting in bookstores this week. The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime: Con Artists, Burglars, Rogues, and Scoundrels From the Time of Sherlock Holmes looks back to some of the great criminals of that bygone era — chief among them that most legendary of thieves, A.J. Raffles, but also Colonel Clay, Simon Carne. and Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford. In his introduction to the collection, Sims writes:

These pages are decidedly not populated with the usual suspects. The criminals herein arm themselves with wit rather than with guns. You will run into con games and burglaries, art forgery and diamond smuggling, but you will not stumble over a corpse in the library…. The threat of death requires no talent. As the term con artist implies, these tales are about skill and imagination; this is a gathering of rogues, not villains. You need not be afraid to invite them to dinner — but don’t let them wander about the house unattended.

In addition to selecting the dozen stories included in The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, Sims also wrote biographical and contextual essays to introduce each entry.  His work here has already earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal said that the anthology is “recommended for all mystery collections.”

On the eve of the book’s publication, Sims talks about what’s drawn him to these stories and what he hopes readers might take from them. 

Art Taylor: The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime is the third anthology you’ve edited for Penguin. In each case, have you started the project with some sense of authority on these authors and their work OR with an admiration and curiosity which drives you to become an authority on the subjects (if that’s not too fine a distinction). 

Michael Sims: I think that’s an excellent distinction to make. My interests have always included Victorian and Edwardian crime fiction fiction. Over the last few years I’ve read or re-read most of the great original works as well as critical surveys about them, as well as discussed them with scholars and other anthologists. I’m certainly drawn to the era; all three of those collections involve work mostly concentrated in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth. I seem to spend a lot of time there. Sometimes when I’m in certain parts of London or New York, I feel that, like the protagonist of Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again, I could just walk around a corner and into 1882. 

In your introduction, you talk about nostalgia being part of the potential attractiveness of these stories for today’s readers, and they’re certainly charming on a number of levels. Is it nostalgia or charm (or what else?) that gives you personally the most satisfaction in reading these stories?

First, the stories are almost always funny and cleverly structured to be surprising. I find them charming and I admit I’m also drawn to an era that is comfortably pre-nuclear and pre-TV (not that I consider TV quite as bad as nuclear weapons). Also, in a recent radio interview about this anthology, I caught myself describing these miscreants as, of all things, “freelancers.” I had to correct myself and say, “That is, um, you see, they’re crooks, of course, but they’re independent crooks – outside any system.” It was a ridiculous moment of self-realization to blurt out in an interview, but it reminded me of what, deep down, I secretly love about some of these characters: their complete independence. No one tells them what to do; they exist entirely outside all established systems; most are invisible and supremely free. Their very definition of themselves is about their intelligence and independence. 

Do I admire real con artists and burglars? Nope. They prey upon gullible doofuses such as myself. But these stories are basically fantasy. I also enjoy Harry Potter but have no more desire to meet Dementors myself than I do to meet real crooks, primarily because I’m a coward.

Well, speaking of the intersection between the imaginary and the real…. Several of these stories involve cons, of course — and not just at the personal level but potentially on a big-business scale as well. (I’m thinking of Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford and his fake carpet tack corporation.) How might readers today react differently to such stories than the original readers did — readers today in the midst of  headlines  talking about economic meltdown, hotly contested bonuses, greed,  corruption, etc.? Or do you think these stories succeed as escapism, no matter the context?

Well, I wouldn’t recommend using The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime as a moral primer. These people are definitely crooks, even when they have Robin Hood urges — as many do. As for our own particular era, greed has always been the American national sport, and sadly few people seemed to care much until it hit them in their own wallets. I’m more alarmed by how many people enjoy watching torture and gory murder than by the amusement others may find in century-old thief stories. 

Several of the authors and characters here may be familiar to readers: Raffles, for example, is justly famous, and Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford was definitely well-known and well-loved. And you’ve included a couple of authors better known outside of this genre: Sinclair Lewis and O. Henry, for example. Which of lesser known authors (or characters) gave you the greatest surprise as you were choosing which stories to include. 

O. Henry was the first author I really read a lot of and tried to learn about, back in the Cretaceous when I was a teenager, so I had long been familiar with his wonderful con man stories. But I was surprised to find that Sinclair Lewis could be quite so devious as he is in “The Willow Walk.” To me, the great genius among these stories is Colonel Clay, who, in the original series, swindled the same dastardly millionaire twelve times.

On the flip-side of that last question, were there authors who had been successful during the gaslight era but whom you just couldn’t bear to foist again on readers again today?

9780143105664h3Definitely. As editor, I was the bouncer; if I didn’t like certain authors or stories or characters, I didn’t let them in the door, even if they threw a tantrum. Editors and bouncers have to trust their own instincts. Elda Rotor, the editorial director at Penguin, and I agreed that the book ought to contain what I thought were the very best stories of their kind that I could find — no room for padding. So I did not invite Mrs. Raffles or Constantine Dix or Boston Blackie just because they had been active during the same period. Also, murderers need not apply; as the cover indicates, this is a book about thieves. Concerning the cover, by the way, I think that an elegantly gloved hand stealing the Penguin logo is simply brilliant. [NOTE: Check out Bookslut’s interview with Sims about that cover design.]

Finally, about that whole editorial process: Were there any authors you wished you could have included here that ultimately didn’t make the cut? Or who else might readers try to track down once they’ve finished with this collection?  

For that list you need to stay tuned for the sequel. I’m not through yet.

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Chatting About Women’s Studies

March 27, 2009
Tara Garwood and Cindy Marie Martin in Lonnie Martin's "Women's Studies" (photo by Randy Hill)

Tara Garwood and Cindy Marie Martin in Lonnie Martin's "Women's Studies" (photo by Randy Hill)

At a Writer’s Center happy hour last night, I had an interesting, if too brief, conversation with Virginia-based filmmaker Lonnie Martin, director of the horror flick Women’s Studies, due out on DVD later this fall. I’d heard about the film and had an initial curiosity about it because several scenes were filmed at George Mason University, where I teach. But I found my interest piqued on another level as Martin began talking about using the genre to explore some social and philosophical questions. (As a review from Pulpmovies put it, the film is an “original take on the isolated teenagers genre of slasher films and one that does make a serious stab at exploring the sort of exclusionary behaviour, peer pressure, groupthink and bonding rituals that typifies a cult and that can draw someone along the line from idealism to terrorism.”)

I enjoyed strolling through the movie’s website on a brief break from this morning’s work — a really clever website, I think! — and look forward to seeing the full film before long as well. In the meantime, of course, I just couldn’t resist posting a photo here.

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John Hope Franklin, 1915-2009

March 26, 2009

In a loss that touches both North Carolina and the nation as a whole, legendary historian John Hope Franklin died yesterday, Wednesday, March 26, in Durham, N.C., where he taught for many years at Duke University.

Duke has set up a tribute site here, which also has links to the university’s John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary & International Studies, the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, and the John Hope Franklin Collection for African and African American Documentation

Notable obituaries can be found at The News & Observer, which also features a page on reactions to Franklin’s death and a link to the 1998 Tar Heel of the Year profile of Franklin; at The Washington Post, which also features an extensive gallery of images; and at the Chronicle of Higher Education, which also features a number of links and a 2005 review of Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin.

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Matthew Vollmer Visits Triangle Bookstores

March 25, 2009

More than two months ago, I began asking when some of North Carolina’s bookstores might be hosting a visit by Matthew Vollmer, an N.C. native and author of the great new short story collection Future Missionaries of America. I had the great honor of interviewing Vollmer about his debut book back in January, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am to know that two Triangle bookstores will be hosting Vollmer this week: Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Thursday, March 26, at 7:30 p.m., and McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village on Friday, March 27, at 2 p.m.

Talking about the craft to which he’s dedicated himself, Vollmer is both charming, insightful and surprising — qualities that can also be used to describe his fiction. Just to give readers a taste, here’s the opening paragraph to the title story of the new collection: 

It’s sleeting on Valentine’s Day. I’m in the back booth of the Franklin Street McDonald’s, waiting for Melashenko to deliver the robotic baby we’re supposed to keep from suffering the slings and arrows of an unhappy infanthood, and writing him a letter on a napkin with the emergency topless ballpoint I keep in a hole in the lining of my hoodie. I write a I. in the corner of the first napkin and below that the date, February 14, 2003. I consider adding a little arrow-pierced heart, but I don’t want to conjure even the smallest of question marks in Melashenko’s head, so instead I draw a phantom heart in the air above the paper, which only confirms that I should definitely not draw it for real and that hearts are even more dangerous than sentimental closing signatures like Love or Love ya or Yours, any of which could inspire Melashenko to think I might think or even hope that we’re anything more than we are. So, potentially disastrous heart drawing averted, I begin the letter, as usual, with Dear Melashenko (his first name’s David but I use his last because I like the way it sounds, plus it ensures that I maintain a certain level of formality). Ten minutes later I’ve scribbled seven napkins’ worth of words, which I roll in a floppy scroll. I snap a hair band around the middle and draw the letters of his name down the side in the Gothiest font I can muster, to give it this look like it might’ve been written by an ancient scribe, one who’d dreamed of future devastations and consigned them to this fragile parchment, to be delivered on this date to the father of a baby who’s never been born.

And if you think the opening is good, just wait for the story’s remarkable twists and unforgettable finish. And don’t miss Vollmer’s visit to the Triangle this week.

Also noteworthy on this week’s literary calendar for the Triangle and Eastern North Carolina:

Bart Ehrman, chair of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of the bestselling book Quoting Jesus, with his new study, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions of the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) — on Wednesday evening, March 25, at Quail Ridge Books; on Tuesday evening, March 31, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop;  and on Friday afternoon, April 3, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village.

Shelby Stephenson, award-winning poet and editor of Pembroke Magazine, on Thursday evening, March 26, at McIntyre’s. 

John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, on Saturday afternoon, March 28, at the Barnes & Noble, New Hope Commons, Durham. 

Lynne Hinton, bestselling author of Friendship Cake, with her new book, The Order of Things, on Monday evening, March 30, at Quail Ridge Books.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, with her new guidebook, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir,  on Monday evening, March 30, at the Regulator Bookshop.

And Raleigh author Therese Fowler, author of Souvenir, with her new book Reunion, on Tuesday evening, March 31, at Quail Ridge Books, and again on Thursday afternoon, April 2, at the Country Bookshop. 

For updated information on literary events in North Carolina, bookmark the MetroBooks calendar.

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David A. Taylor Discusses Soul of a People

March 23, 2009

403808_cover.inddDavid A. Taylor is the author of Ginseng, the Divine Root: The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World, and a collection of short stories, Success, released just last year. His latest book, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, looks back at the Federal Writers’ Project, an initiative that at one point employed as many as 7,500 people and whose most lasting work was a series of guidebooks to U.S. states and cities. The WPA guides, or as they were originally known, the American Guides, sought to “hold up a mirror to America,” capturing the characters of places and people in ways that remain informative even today. 

In Soul of a People, Taylor in turn captures the character of the project itself — the exciting and hopeful sense of mission, the often dreary bureaucracy behind the scenes, the increasingly harsh criticisms leveled against the endeavor as a whole — and offers profiles of the writers who found themselves on the WPA payroll, in many cases writers well-known today as novelists, poets and nonfiction masters. 

The book is part of a larger program that will include a documentary to be aired later this year on the Smithsonian Channel and an extensive nationwide project sponsored by the American Library Association. While the book is available now, a formal launch party is planned for Tuesday, April 28, at 3 p.m. in the Mumford Room of the Library of Congress’ Madison Building. The public is invited.

In advance of all that, Taylor took part in an interview here about his new book, about the WPA guides themselves, and about what all of it can offer to today’s audiences.

Art Taylor: Soul of a People began as an article for Smithsonian, “A Noble and Absurd Undertaking,” first published 9 years ago this month. What prompted you to want to explore this subject as a book-length project? And what’s the most interesting or important thing about the WPA Guides and their writers that you learned from writing the book that you didn’t know/understand after completing the article?


David A. Taylor

David A. Taylor: Doing the article, I realized that trying out the WPA guides on the road in Nebraska only piqued my interest about the people who wrote them. I knew that there were counterparts to Rudy Umland, the hobo-turned-editor of the WPA guide to Nebraska, across the country. Working on the book, I found them and where their stories intersected. Umland, in fact, came to know the editor of the New Orleans guide, a novelist too. And the poet Weldon Kees, also from Nebraska, crossed paths with young Kenneth Rexroth and John Cheever, and Margaret Walker meeting Ralph Ellison by way of Richard Wright. So you start to see a dynamic among young writers at that time, who were learning reporting and writing skills and eking out a wage during the hard time, and finding a social and creative network through the WPA. It connected them with other seekers. It was a much bigger story.

What I learned by finishing the book was how varied that experience was for each of them. For May Swenson, coming out of a remote Utah family of immigrants and getting a WPA writer job in New York where she met veteran screenwriter and immigrant Anzia Yezierska, it was liberating. For Eudora Welty, working as a publicity assistant in Mississippi, the WPA job was sort of a novelty where she first started on stories. For Cheever, it was no great opportunity. For Zora Neale Hurston, it was something she kept private because it was basically a welfare job for an author who had published several novels and books of folklore, as she had done. Going through their journals and correspondence and biographies, and retracing some of their travels, I got to feel that range of experiences. As a writer, it’s fascinating to see how other writers vary so much in their abilities at making a life.

You mention Cheever, Ellison, Hurston and Welty. In those cases and throughout Soul of a People, the writers you profile will often be well-known to readers today. Did a large percentage of those WPA hires go on to become successful writers? And what can you tell us about the participants who simply put down their pens later or maybe never considered themselves writers at all?

I don’t think anyone has analyzed what percentage became successful. First, you’d have to agree on how you define success. Working at a local paper, writing book reviews for the Kansas City Star the way Umland did, could count as success, though he held himself to a tougher standard. You had many WPA writers who had never thought of themselves as writers yet who went on to publish books about historical figures (like Ruby Wilson did in Nebraska), or memoirs (like Hilda Polacheck did in Chicago), or historical investigations (like Juanita Brooks’s book about a 1800s massacre in Utah). I loved those stories because they clearly were working out of passion for the work – they weren’t getting famous from it.

Some of them did put their pens down when they left the FWP, maybe even most. And that made them harder to track down. But some who didn’t become professional writers left behind more thorough accounts of that time than others who did. Many had lots of incentive not to talk about their time as WPA writers again, since it became stigmatized, first as welfare and then as commie. A person like Stetson Kennedy in Florida, who got fired up by his FWP experience of revealing local histories and injustice regardless of how unpopular it was, that was rare.

In conjunction with your own trip to New Orleans, you write that you initially considered the WPA guide to that city a “dead relic” and then discovered how it “got inside the place and made it fascinating.” From your research, what aspects of the guidebooks in general seem most dated and what aspects retain their freshness? In short, to what degree is the portrait of America presented by the guides then still a valid portrait of America now?

It really varies from guide to guide. Some parts that you wouldn’t expect to have any life are interesting because of what has changed: radio stations, transportation, food and lodging – the texture of daily life. On the other hand, calendars of annual events, which I’d expect to have become obsolete, contain some traditions that keep on going. Some of the essays on ethnic composition and histories are the most out-of-date and strike us now as offensive. They tend to be best where they focus on individuals, or on local histories of pockets of dissent or separatism. Bernard Weisberger did a fine job of rounding up a sampling of the brightest nuggets in his WPA Guide to America.

A little bit of a follow-up: Comparisons between the Depression and today’s economy are sprouting up regularly in newspapers, in magazines, in daily conversation. On the basis of your readings in these books and the stories you’ve uncovered about these writers, what parallels stand out in your mind? Or, alternately, what evidence stands out to refute those comparisons?

It’s interesting – in terms of the stages of recognizing the problem, our national psychology seems remarkably durable. We react the same way to huge losses now as then – train-wreck headlines, private denial, debate, attempts at emergency action. There are also a lot of parallels in knee-jerk reactions against immigrants (“taking American jobs”) and debates about types of jobs are “essential.”

On the other hand, we’re looking at unemployment rates now of about 8 or 9 percent, less than one third as bad as during the Depression. Plus, that one was nearly five years deep when the WPA got started; ours is expected to end in a year. It’s just a completely different scale of problem.

The book you’ve written is part of a larger project, including the Smithsonian Channel film and the American Library Association’s outreach programs. I was particularly interested to see that the ALA’s Soul of a People website encourages, in part, the “informal taping of local people’s memories and accounts of present-day lives (in the style of the Writers’ Project and using interview guidelines used by the FWP).” How do you personally hope that building awareness of the WPA Guides might help to spark a new look at who we are, where we came from, and where we live?

At a workshop of the librarians and scholars funded by the ALA grants, I was fascinated to hear all the ideas they were exploring for the programs. It’s too early to say how they’ll do because they haven’t happened yet (most will happen this summer and fall), but discussions, for example, of a local WPA guide’s portrayal of their community – whether it was ever accurate, whether it was before but essentially changed – should be fun to track.

The Soul of a People film, directed by Andrea Kalin, will be screened at those library events too, and I can’t wait to see how people respond. We were lucky to have people who worked for and against the FWP and their family members, and some great commentators. The divisions in America of that time that you see in the film are still with us, and reflect a real mixed – and probably a stronger overall – group identity.

Finally, are the questions about places and their people asked by the WPA guides — where do we live? where did we come from? who are we? — being explored and answered today by newspapers, magazines, nonfiction books, novels, etc. in a spirit similar to (or even inspired by) those guides? And if so, is the possibility of a comprehensive portrait of America today within our reach or beyond our grasp?

We have a lot more channels for communicating about who we are today than people did in the 1930s. And frankly, we have more time for it. But more importantly, I think, there’s a more widely shared sense of valuing the stories of people beyond those who “influence the course of history.” We want to know what the world felt like from a lot of perspectives. I think the FWP had a much greater influence in that democratic view than we typically realize. The current interest in oral history – things like StoryCorps and intergenerational interviews that schools assign students to do – grew out of the Federal Writers’ Project and particularly the work of Ben Botkin, its folklore director. Botkin widened the field of folklore – he called it “living literature that doesn’t get captured on the page.” Many academics of his time resisted that move toward social history, but looking at history from the ground up has much more currency now.

At the same time, you see channels that lasted generations now hitting the rocks, including some you mention – newspapers, magazines, even novels. So we may have a more multifaceted lens – like an insect’s compound eye – for making such a “comprehensive portrait,” but maybe less faith that there’s a comprehensive brain behind those eyes capable of absorbing it. If that makes sense. Developing that brain may be the next growth area.

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