Sunday, December 06, 2009

Noreen Ayres on the Power of Faulkner, the Discretion of Cops, and the 'Little Fictions' Within Poetry

Noreen Ayres (N.J. Ayres) has written mystery novels, short stories, screenplays, and poetry. Her latest publication is the short story "Rust," which appears in Otto Penzler's 2009 The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Jeffery Deaver.

Booklist says that you write “hard-hitting crime fiction that's vivid, graphic, and visceral.” How did you begin to explore the craft of writing?

I didn't come from a family that read books. But they read the "funny papers," as we called them, and we did have a few magazines. I don't know when I thought I might be able to write something entertaining or why I took a creative writing class in community college, but the first story I wrote was of a murder, and the last one I wrote in that class was too, and it was published in the college journal and read to other classes, I was told, after I graduated.

The first book I read as a teenager was Pearl Buck's My Several Worlds, and at 18, while I lay in my hospital bed after having a baby, I somehow came to read Somerset Maugham, and I remember wondering how he could possibly know all the things he knew, and I wanted to be like him, knowing the names of things like trees and plants and defining humans as he did. But I didn't write stories again for many years, having only time for poems, which I soon believed to be little fictions even as they might reflect real experiences.

The police ride-along you describe on your website gave you “a deeper understanding and respect for the complexities of the difficult and dangerous job of law enforcement.” What surprised you most about your real-life cop experience?

The discretion officers have. As one told me, he enjoys the fact that he has a certain independence, no boss breathing down his neck in the usual way, and that every day is different. I was also surprised that he didn't call for backup before he stopped two rough-looking men after midnight who were driving a pickup truck. A check of the pickup's tags told him the owner had warrants out for him. There was a boarded up building on one side of us and an empty park on the other, no life anywhere else. The officer had the men step out of the vehicle with their tattooed arms raised, and while I was concentrating on the scene, my car door opened! A female officer with a gun trained ahead asked me to work the spotlight while she kept the men covered. I was also surprised that the officer later let me come with him while interviewing a stabbing victim, so that the witnesses were talking to me as though I was a cop too.

Wow. What an experience!

You have a Master’s degree in English. Do you have a favorite writer or era of literature?

I feel like a newcomer to writers' work all the time, still learning, still in awe. In grad school I came upon William Faulkner and fell in love. I painted a picture of him and wrote to his biographer and photographer, the latter of whom sent me a photo he had not used out of several he took for Life Magazine, and then I made a collage of the two plus the letter and framed it and hung it on a wall. So Faulkner was my favorite for a long time, and now I would say I like the writers who are a bit bleak, who tell stories of men and women who struggle with conscience as they make their way in a hard world.

If I come upon a bit of the poetic as I read them, so that I see things in fresh ways, then I am happier still. Daniel Woodrell, James Lee Burke, Thomas Cook, Rick Bass are a few of today's writers I like; I know I'm forgetting names. I also know I am missing out on great entertainment these days because I don't read as much as I used to, don't go to conferences where I am exposed to new writers and inspired to read their works. Preferences for types of fiction are just that, though: humorous work is not lesser work, "cozies" are as valued as noir fiction, objectively. Who knows why we lean toward what we do?

Good point. You’ve “toured prisons, jails, crime labs and morgues” to aid the authenticity of your writing. Why did you choose the mystery genre, specifically the grittier side of mystery?

I hope the first of my answer won't disappoint you. There was no passionate urge to create. I wanted to get away from commuting on the freeway at six a.m. to a job in Southern California's aerospace industry. I was lucky enough to find a writers' group in the mid -80s whose members were published in all the genres. Their excellence humbled me, for, with my–ahem!–Master's degree, I thought only "literary" stories were worth reading. I listened and learned. As to why the grittier side, I suppose it's because my own upbringing showed me people on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, and so their worlds seemed truer to me.

The sleuth in your mystery series, Smokey Brandon, is “an ex-cop and an ex-Las Vegas Stripper.” How did you happen to conceive the idea of Smokey?

My mother, father, and a brother lived outside Las Vegas at the time, so I suppose my occasional trips to see them set off the idea. I know that we can be more than one persona in our lives; that we are this, as defined by a job, and that as defined by another. I've always found it curious that when you have met someone when you were, say, an insurance clerk, you can become a wealthy and erudite art collector someday and still be perceived of as "that insurance clerk." Smokey was smart; she was just disadvantaged, and so she took what she could get at the time.

A really great point--we're just prone to labeling, I think. You have a trilogy of Smokey Brandon books. Will there be more?

I'm afraid not. In truth, I never thought I could write a second book my agent suggested I contract for. To even finish one seemed impossible. Now that I have, though, I see it's doable, but I missed the opportunity to make the Smokey character into a "franchise," and there are reasons for that, but the bottom line is that the story of stripper/cop is an old one now, and so I must move on. Quite frankly, the publishing business has tightened its belt to a degree that startles everyone. New voices are needed. New angles, new stories, new characters.

Your latest piece, a short story called “Rust,” appears in The Best American Mystery Stories for 2009, edited by Jeffery Deaver. I’ve read the story, and it’s terrific. What gave you the idea for the trooper narrator and for the plot involving his knowledge of his superior’s affair?

That story surprises me, because it was "invited into" a second "Best of..." anthology as well, and I am very grateful to know it has its effect. Geographical places often get me started. Pennsylvania is a big state, with much for me to learn about it. I loved the local names of Indian heritage and of Biblical origin, the latter reflecting the religious orders of Quakers and Brethren and the Amish. So I knew I wanted to set a story in Bethlehem and Nazareth, first thing. Then, I tried to think of some moral quandary I had myself endured, and it was (I am ashamed to say) that during a stressful time of my life I followed someone. Spied on someone because of a suspicion. And I could not stop doing it though I loathed what I was doing. That's the heart of it, Julia, and I am not proud!

But that is a great source of fiction--the mistakes we ourselves have made.

Sparkle Hayter was quoted as saying that you are “pretty cool, for a petite blond bombshell,” and added that you know how to shoot a gun. This is high praise from the talented Hayter! How does she know you can use a firearm, though?

You said that right, about Sparkle being talented. If I could write like that I wouldn't write what I do! She knows about the guns because I and my then-husband took her shooting with us when I lived in Texas. She's shot a military rifle herself, as I recall, a rapid-fire weapon, like an AK-47. I may not have scared her on the firing range, but I'm sure I about gave her a heart attack driving in a Houston rainstorm like none other, with windshield wipers that would not go fast enough and that sometimes stuck for seconds at a time. She probably swore to never venture out from New York City again, and I'm surprised she still has mention of me on her website.

I read that in an interview with her, actually.

You’ve written all sorts of things—novels, short stories, teleplays, poetry. Is there one particular form that is more difficult than the others?

Interesting question! You've no doubt heard that Faulkner said he wrote novels because he couldn't write short stories and wrote short stories because he couldn't write poems. I understand that, and the poem is a hard thing to get right, but I'd say the novel is toughest for me, with screenplays second. Screenplays should probably be recognized as the hardest, because they are never entirely yours and that can break your heart. Also, the form must, MUST, have a focused structure. But novels are toughest for me because there is so much to bring together sensibly, and it all takes so-o-o long!

On your website you are posing with a dog. Would you call yourself a dog lover?

Aw-w, I'm touched that you'd ask. I can never have a dog again. My heart is much too fragile. Dogs are too much like humans. I do, however, with my significant other, now rescue homeless cats and get them neutered and vaccinated, and then, in alignment with a national practice called TNR, for Trap-Neuter-Return, release them back into their environment or adopt them out if they are kittens. This animal advocacy has cut deeply into my writing time. I must choose between, soon.

What are you writing now?

I am compiling two collections of short stories and then must seek an agent for them. Tough duty. The agent part, I mean. I also would like to get another book of poems out, just to be done with them, and I have a completed novel for which I must also find an agent, a mystery featuring an African American private eye. I am most eager to start on a Depression-era novel concerning a young boy's search for his sisters, who were farmed out to a Catholic church just to put them somewhere after a divorce.

What are you reading?

Ah, you devil, you. Well, here goes. Two mystery story collections (I truly love short stories). A book of best essays, 2008. Books, Larry McMurtry's memoir of his experiences as a bookstore owner. And a library book on oil painting. Busted!

I think it's great that you are an artist both in words and on canvas. On your site is a link to Books on Tape. Do you enjoy listening to books? Do you have a favorite narrator?

I used to listen, you bet. That's when I lived in cities where the commute was long to a place of work or simply to do errands, as in Texas. I don't listen now because my trips are short. I loved the work that actress Judith Ivey did for Books on Tape, and Lawrence Block's own reading of his work, and John LeCarre's.

The holidays are here; have you ever set one of your books or stories during Christmastime?

No, but I love a challenge. Maybe someday....

Thanks so much for sharing, Noreen! I look forward to reading more of your work.


Anonymous said...

I love this interview with one of my favorite writers and people. Noreen's first novel, A World the Color of Salt, not only has a memorable title, but a memorable protagonist and memorable writing. Noreen's alacrity with language vis a vis poetry is apparent in all that she writes. I can't say enough about Noreen...!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Barbara. I'm looking forward to reading more of Noreen's fiction.

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