Ten Questions With Author David Fulmer
David Fulmer is the author of the award-winning novel CHASING THE DEVIL'S TAIL, JASS, which was named one of the best books of 2005 by Library Journal, and RAMPART STREET. His novels feature Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr and are set in New Orleans during the early 20th century. He's one of my favorite authors and has graciously consented to answer some questions about his books, writing, and difficult road to publication.
1. Q: What appeals to you about writing crime fiction?
I never intended to be a crime or mystery writer. It chose me rather than the other way around. I wanted to write about Storyville and about the birth of jazz, and bring Buddy Bolden in as a character. The setting I chose begged for a crime story. It was just that kind of place, with legalized prostitution, any drug anyone wanted sold over the counter, the overheated climate (literally and figuratively), and the eruption of this wild new music they called jass. Once I got into it, the drama and the mystery intrigued me. At their best, crime stories are life and death morality tales that are played out on a unique stage. So there are a lot of places to go with the stories and they tend to be active rather than reflective. They move from one place to the next.
2. Q: Was it hard for you to get published?
I had a very difficult time, and the way it happened will serve as a cautionary tale. It took me a couple years to find an agent for “Chasing the Devil’s Tail,” and a couple more for her to sell the book. All the major publishers in New York turned it down, and some of the rejection letters were scathing. Then Poisoned Pen Books took a look and accepted it. Once it came out, it took off. It received great reviews and was nominated for a LA Times Book Prize and a Barry Award and won a Shamus Award. Harcourt picked it up for trade paperback and two contracts for five hardcover books followed. The book continues to sell, modestly but steadily, three years after the paperback release. It’s been translated into Italian and Japanese and soon will be in French. The lesson being that cream rises and persistence wins.
3. Q: Describe your detective Valentin St. Cyr and how you came to create him.
Right frm the start, I knew I wanted a Creole in the role, because it reflected the New Orleans culture and having such a character opens up all sorts of dramatic possibilities, more than I might have with a fixed entity. Valentin is a Creole private detective who works off and on for Tom Anderson, who was known as “The King of Storyville,” and was one of the real historical characters in my books. Valentin’s mother is a “Creole of color,” which means she is of mixed African and French blood. His late father was a Sicilian who worked on the docks, and in fact Valentin’s birth name was Valentino Saracena. Valentin is able to pass for white, though he makes no particular efforts to hide his African blood. He slips back and forth over the color line, because in spite of the rigid segregation laws of the day, New Orleans was (and is) such a melange of color. He’s also is able to get involved with varied types of women, from a dark-skinned island girl to a quadroon prostitute to a white society woman. His character and his back story developed as I wrote and then rewrote the book. With each successive book, he’s taken on new dimensions.
4. Q: Your books are set in the early 20th-century. How much research is involved in writing your series?
I already had the basics on hand from research I had done for some newspaper articles and magazine pieces I had written. So I had a framework. One positive thing about having so much trouble getting published was that I had a lot of time to build on that initial research. I pored over books and old newspapers in order to pick up detail I could use to set the stage. I would add some more detail here and there through each rewrite. It paid off when the first book came out. The research for the most part has stood up to the scrutiny of the academic community, which is always a relief.
5. Q: Do you write in any other genre besides crime fiction?
I have a couple unpublished things that are outside that box. Another one that is more in the
thriller vein. However, I do have a contract, and so the next books coming will be within the crime/mystery field.
6. Q: What is your writing schedule like?
I get going as early as possible. Sometimes that means four o’clock in the morning. I have to vary that sometimes, because as a single parent, I’m dealing with my daughter’s schedule. One of the by-products of having multiple books on the shelves is that I now find I spend a fair amount of time working on business matters. So my goal is to get as much done as I can by midday and then use the afternoon to do the other stuff. When I come up on a deadline, though, I can be at the computer ten hours a day getting the last fixes done.
7. Q: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I just finished a book that’s a departure because I needed to step away from Storyille to keep it fresh. This one’s set in Atlanta in the 1920s, when it was a jumping city. It was a music center, and there was rampant crime and corruption. The title is “The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues,” after the Blind Willie McTell song. As I but that one to bed, I’m beginning the fourth Storyville book, which will come out in 2008. And I have a couple side projects going.
8. Q:Do you have a website or blog?
I have a website: www.davidfulmer.com. and I invite everyone to visit it. I do what I can to keep it current and interesting. For example, you can listen to a clip of Dion Graham reading the first chapter of Rampart Street. That kind of thing. By the way Dion will have a recurring role on The Wire on HBO this fall.
9. Q: What good books have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?
Well, I’m always in line when Walter Mosely publishes a new one, so Cinnamon Kiss is the first one that comes to mind. Also James Lee Burkes’ Crusader's Cross. On the non-fiction side, I just finished Bob Spitz’ 900-page biography of The Beatles, which is a fascinating narrative of the rise of this enormous cultural and musical phenomenon, and "A Left Hand Like God," by Peter Silvester. It's a history of boogie-woogie piano.
10. Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
It’s all about the work. There is no substitute for getting the words down, and then molding them into the best story you can tell. If you believe in what you’ve created, then hang on, now matter what anyone tells you. There are just too many stories like mine to give up just because editors or agents don’t jump into your pocket. If I hadn’t believed my first book was worthy enough to fight for, I wouldn’t be sitting here this morning writing this. With all that, understand that it’s a craft that is worth doing well for its own sake.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Ten Questions With Author David Fulmer