Ariel S. Winter, author of The Twenty-Year Death, was kind enough to answer some questions about the novel, reviewed here for the LA Beat. A resident of Baltimore, who has earned his dues as a bookseller at The Corner Bookstore and Borders, Winter won the Free Press “Who Can Save Us Now?” short story contest in 2008. He is also the author of the children’s book, One of a Kind.
1. Assuming you are a big fan, why does the crime novel appeal to you?
A: Most crime novels are hero stories. Even if all of the characters are “bad” like in a James Ellroy book, there’s still someone who’s doing his best to be a hero. I like hero stories. I’m a diehard comic book fan, and much of what I read in the comics can be considered crime fiction, so I see them as very much related. The idea of a lone hero out to uncover truth, no matter what it takes, or to deliver vengeance, to take on everyone for a cause, it’s empowering, whether you’re admiring or identifying. Or if it’s not a hero, it’s the epitome of the untrustworthy narrator, like Jim Thompson, or an anti-hero like Patricia Highsmith. They’re still facets of the same kind of character, a forceful personality willing to do things I can’t or won’t. And of course, no plot is more compelling than “what happened?” It’s almost more compelling than “what happens next?” because then it becomes a question of why instead of what.
2. Who is your favorite author in the genre and why?
A: Obviously I’m predisposed to Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson. If forced to pick someone else though, I’d say James Ellroy. With Ellroy it’s as much about the language as it is about the story. His prose is infectious. In fact, I don’t read him much now because I’m afraid it will infiltrate my own writing. I like dark and brooding, and Ellroy does dark and brooding and soulless and on such an enormous scale. And it’s all style. People who have seen L.A. Confidential know that, even if they’ve never read one of Ellroy’s books.
3. Which section of The Twenty-Year Death did you enjoy writing the most? Which section was the most difficult?
A: I don’t think I had more fun on one section than another. I don’t remember wishing I was done with any one particular section, which is perhaps a more accurate measure. As for most difficult, Malniveau Prison underwent the most drastic changes from its original draft to its finished form. In the first draft it was only 130 pages, so fleshing it out to over twice that number of pages was a challenge, especially since it meant going so far away from Simenon’s m.o. I needed to stay true to Simenon while writing a book he never would have written just because it was so long. That presented me with the most roadblocks.
4. Did you conceive of the entire story first, or the individual section plots first, and then weave them together?
A: Malniveau Prison was originally written as part of another book, so at that point, I hadn’t even thought of the the book as it is today. Once that other book fell apart, and I decided to salvage Malniveau Prison, then I began to think about what a mystery series would look like if the character that moves from book to book isn’t the detective. How would this one person not involved in the police or crime keep getting pulled in to a different crime story? At that point, I conceived of the second and third books. I knew where they would be set, and I knew the major life changing events for the Rosenkrantzes in each of them. But I didn’t know anything more than that. The actual mysteries came in the writing.
5. Your other book is the children’s book One of A Kind, and your blog “We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie” is about out-of-print children’s books. Do you prefer writing crime novels or children’s books?
A: I wouldn’t want to give up any of the three forms I currently work in. But I don’t think I’d be satisfied if I only did my children’s work, be it creating or scholarship. Adult fiction is the more fulfilling challenge. It’s not necessarily easier, but it involves more time and sweat, so it feels like a slightly more significant accomplishment.
6. Raymond Chandler is quoted as saying “The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story was that the scene outranked the plot…The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.” Do you think that’s true in most crime fiction and mysteries?
A: No. I think people prefer a gripping plot with a satisfying conclusion over set pieces when it comes to crime fiction. Scene, attitude, and open ended or forced endings are now mostly seen on television, which is the Black Mask equivalent of today. When someone sits down to read a novel now, she expects a conclusive ending, and if she doesn’t get it, she’s disappointed.
7. In The Twenty-Year Death, the reader never hears Chloe/Clotilde’s point of view. Was this just in keeping with the crime novel’s traditionally male point of view? What does she represent in the novel?
A: Other people have mentioned that in some of the reviews, and it’s a criticism I’ve had about the older novel I’m rewriting now, so it might just be that, as a male, I don’t take the risk of giving the woman’s point of view. (Of course, two of the main characters whose viewpoints are given are women in that book, so that doesn’t hold.) In any event, I really tried to cleave to the original writers, and they have one viewpoint only. We never hear what any of the characters around Maigret or Marlowe or a Thompson narrator are thinking, whether they are men or women. As to what Clotilde represents? She is Rosenkrantz’s life. Loving her is the only thing that really matters to him. Love is worth everything.
8. What is your next project in the works?
A: I’m rewriting an earlier book about a family coming together for the eldest daughter’s engagement party only six weeks after the parents have announced their divorce. I also have some picture book scripts in various states of completion. Hopefully we’ll see all of those coming out soon.
Image via We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie