Shamus Award winner David Fulmer joins us today on Scene of the Crime to discuss New Orleans a the turn of the twentieth century. That–and more specifically the famous Storyville district–is the setting for his excellent series of novels featuring Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr. The series began with Fulmer’s first novel, Chasing the Devil’s Tail, from 2001. St. Cyr has appeared in three other novels in the series, Jass, Rampart Street, and Lost River.
The books have earned literary awards and critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times declared of his first novel, “A beautifully constructed, elegantly presented time trip to a New Orleans of the very early 1900s. The characters are memorable and the period is brilliantly recaptured.” “Music is the pulsating idiom of David Fulmer’s hot-blooded ‘Jass,’” wrote Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times. “Fulmer’s dialogue adds its lyric voice to the gut-bucket sounds and ragtime rhythms pouring out of the bars and up from the streets.” Of the third novel in the series, a Publishers Weekly reviewer observed, “St. Cyr is a great character, and the fascinating city and its larger-than-life denizens intrigue as much as the complicated plot.” A Christian Science Monitor critic termed the same work “A bittersweet trip to New Orleans… A blues-drenched pleasure.” And of Fulmer’s 2009 series addition, the Washington Post Book World commented, “Fulmer is both a fine writer and a marvelously evocative writer with an eye for character.”
Fulmer has also made excursions to other times and places: Prohibition Atlanta is the setting for The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues; South Philadelphia in 1962 is the backdrop for The Blue Door; and contemporary rural Pennsylvania is featured in his latest novel, The Fall. (Read about David’s adventures in publishing with the last-named book in a Publishers Weekly article.)
David, it is a real pleasure to have you on Scene of the Crime. Thanks for taking time out from your busy promotional schedule for The Fall to speak with us.
First, would you describe your connection to New Orleans.
I came to New Orleans the way so many people do: by way of the music. I have had this lifelong infatuation with American music and a special love for origins. If you track this country’s music, you arrive in New Orleans, just like the river flows. So the music led me to the setting and then the characters. I visit as often as I can, at least a couple times a year, though it’s still never enough.
What things about historical New Orleans make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Storyville, New Orleans was completely unique in American history. It was legally-sanctioned red light district that was completely corrupt and yet completely controlled. There was a cast of characters I’ve never encountered anywhere else: madams, prostitutes high and low, rounders, musicians, and all the rest. Geographically, it was the right place in the right city at the right time. The heavy air, the river, the rain, all help me to recreate this evocative world.
Did you consciously set out to use New Orleans as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Settings – especially historical settings – come forward as characters or the story won’t work. The readers show up to be transported to another time and place. Settings like Storyville are alive and vibrant and full of light and sound. It’s a gift to have been able to entwine it in a story.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I do a ton of research in order to be able to immerse myself almost completely in the setting. That means that I don’t have to think about it as the story progresses. I don’t want to be obvious about pointing out features or points of interest. That would kick a reader out of the narrative. Those things are just there as part of what I hope is a seamless presentation.
How does your protagonist, Valentin St. Cyr, interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
Valentin is a New Orleans native and has a complicated relationship with Storyville. He knew it as a kid who visited for the thrills. He knew it as a policeman who patrolled the streets. Now he knows it as a private detective. He is as friendly as a reserved man can be with a number of the District’s denizens. His paramour is a former “sporting girl” out of one of the Bordellos. It’s clear that he cares about this place.
I have been pleased with the reaction from New Orleans. Like other authors of historical fiction, I knew I would be treading on the academic’s turf and that they were likely to come out with guns blazing if I didn’t get it right. It was all the more touchy because I was also dealing with the roots of jazz and that’s sacred ground. But I had done a ton of research and came to the subject matter with a lot of respect and attention to detail. So of those who spoke up, I heard nothing but kind words. And I got great reviews.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
This is only funny in retrospect. I was working on the last edit of The Blue Door, my novel set in South Philadelphia in 1962. Keep in mind that I was assigned a copy edit who was not only responsible for the grammar, spelling, and usage errors, but for fact-checking as well. In the past, she had been remarkably good about any errors in the setting. I was making a last pass when I noticed a glaring error. In one instance, I had transposed the two rivers that border Philly. I had the Delaware in the west and the Schuylkill in in the east. I don’t know how both of us missed it. Had it gone in that way, I would never have been able to show my face in Philly again.
Of your Storyville novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Chasing the Devil’s Tail wins this contest, because it was the first, because it was such a hard road writing it, and because it did so well once it finally came out. As to a evocative scene, there’s one with Valentin St. Cyr and a madam named Antonia Gonzales walking through the streets on a Sunday morning.
“Though the hour was early, it was April and humid. All over the cobbled avenues, puddles of rainwater had collected skeins of green scum that gave up a sour stench. The two citizens of the swamp that was 1907 New Orleans marched west, taking bare notice. By noon this Sunday, the city would sweat enough to raise the Mississippi and the streets of cobble and dirt would grow rank, as dead animals, human waste, and kitchen slops steamed in the sun, attended by clouds of green flies. But from the hallowed pews of St. Ignatius Church to the lice-ridden, dime-a-trick cribs that lined Robertson and Claiborne streets from Canal to St. Louis, only a fool would bother to complain.
“They continued on to Franklin Street at an even pace, though the madam took two steps for every one of Valentin’s and twisted her plump fingers in a constant fidgety roil. Valentin noticed, but wouldn’t be hurried.
“Still, in the space of fifteen minutes they had crossed Gravier Street, leaving behind the stately brick façades, ornate colonnades, stained-glass transoms, and galleries adorned with potted ferns to enter a dank, shadowy neighborhood of narrow dirt streets lined with houses that had weathered to a bleak gray, half their windowpanes stuffed with newspaper, their balustrades teetering on the galleries like loose teeth. Though the banquettes here were empty and the streets were quiet, Valentin glanced into every doorway and down every alley until they reached the corner of South Franklin and Perdido.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I have a list, beginning with James Joyce, who was able to evoke setting in afew brush strokes. I have always loved Bernard Malamud, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, and that generation for their naturalism when it comes to setting. I was inspired by Mario Puzo’s first two novels. Also E.L. Doctorow and the Japanese author Oë. Flannery O’Connor does amazing things with setting – again with a spare use of words. As to contemporaries, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, and Martin Cruz Smith. I’ll think of a half-dozen more in the next minute and the next minute after that, so I’ll stop.
What’s next for St. Cyr?
I’m looking forward to getting back to Storyville. My series moves through time, so at a certain point there will come an ending. Between now and then, history will pay another visit. World War I has begun, the nation is becoming industrialized, and music is in rapid evolution. At the same time, Storyville is entering a difficult middle age. Valentin will be contending with this shifting landscape while chasing down the next ne’er-do-well.
Could you talk a little about your non-series work?
With The Fall, I moved for the first time to a contemporary setting. Or at least a recent one. The year is 2002, a few months after 9-11, and begins in New York before moving directly to a small town in Central Pennsylvania, very much like the one where I grew up. This presented another box of challenges, as I was wary of slipping into a familiarity trap; that is, making the mistake of using a place that’s so familiar that it fails as a setting. It’s something I warn my writing students about. So I made up Wyanossing as a composite of small towns I knew. As far as I can tell, it worked. Readers from my former home don’t really recognize the setting beyond that it’s a little town in their same area. But this is only because I was very careful to keep my distance, as if it existed in another time and place than I knew as a kid growing up.
Once again, many thanks, David, for stopping by Scene of the Crime. Good luck with The Fall.
For more information about David Fulmer, see his author Web site.