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Interview with Grant Tracey

Five Hard Bites

Ted Morrissey

Twelve Winters Press first published Grant Tracey in 2015, starting with his collection of literary stories Final Stanzas. Then the following year we released his debut novel, Cheap Amusements, crime noir that introduced ex-hockey player turned private detective Hayden Fuller to the world of gumshoe mysteries. A Fourth Face followed in 2018. Last year the Press released the epic Five Hard Bites, a collection of Hayden Fuller Mysteries that included newly revised editions of the first two Hayden novels in addition to three previously unpublished pieces: the novel Neon Kiss, the novella Day of the Dragons, and the short story “Shot, Reverse Shot.”

In March 2022 Grant and I hung out for a few days in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at a conference—our first chance to chat in person since before the pandemic began. As always, I enjoyed talking to Grant about his Hayden Fuller series and about writing and literature in general. Grant is not only an accomplished author, but also an award-winning teacher (of creative writing and film), and a longtime editor of North American Review. After returning from the desert, I asked Grant about doing an interview, covering some of the same ground we discussed informally during the conference as well as some new topics. Of course the affable Grant Tracey agreed to respond to some questions that I sent him via email.

In your third Hayden Fuller novel, Neon Kiss, you depart from the first two books in significant ways, including setting and structure. Even still, the novel is true to the tone and narrative arc you’d established. Can you share some of your thought process when writing  Neon Kiss, and how you see it in comparison to Cheap Amusements and A Fourth Face?

INSTEAD OF STRUCTURING the novel around 13 chapters, like I did for the first two, I decided to try a more free-flowing approach, allowing the chapters to be longer, and the structure to follow the thematic designs of a hockey game with chapters entitled: pre-game; first period; second period; dressing room; and third period. Dressing room was the trickiest section. There Hayden filters a story told to him by a Métis woman, the runaway Ellen Reynolds. It’s sort of her voice, but not completely and this doubling creates uncertainty in what’s being said. And that’s what mystery writing, for me, is all about: uncertainty, loose strings. Throughout my stories witnesses constantly lie and the detective must sift to find truths. Ellen’s story is once removed. I’m really proud of the writing in that section as it’s in line with my use of free indirect discourse throughout Five Hard Bites. (Ellen’s voice, summarized or edited by Hayden, approximates the actual dialogue spoken by Ellen and what she experiences but it’s not exactly her actual dialogue and experiences.)

In addition to the three complete novels, Five Hard Bites includes a novella and a short story. Do you see those narrative forms as distinctly different in ways other than length or word count? Is your creative process any different when writing, say, a short story versus a full-length novel?

IT’S ALL ABOUT PACE. In a novel I have more time to explore scenes and conduct longer interviews with suspects and witnesses. Backstories can be developed more fully. In a short story the pace is quick, and there are less writerly choices. Action is the emphasis. Metaphorically speaking, I can only open up so many windows in the plot of a short story versus the plot of a novel. That’s not to say there isn’t an inner story in the shorter form. There always is, and Hayden continues to work through his own traumas, but I can’t linger in those spaces of stillness for as long. The outer story drives the narrative arc more than the inner. In Day of the Dragons I strove to write an amped-up adventure that mirrored the adrenaline-rushed rhythm of the comic books I loved as a kid (especially “The Sleeper Awakes” run in Marvel’s Tales of Suspense  featuring Captain America). I was also inspired by the manic energy of Mickey Spillane’s two-fisted prose. The title is a shout-out to Spillane, echoing back to his mid-60s Tiger Mann thriller, Day of the Guns.

There was a time you felt almost like you were unable to write short stories any longer. Everything wanted to become a novel. But in recent years—maybe during the pandemic—you seem to have found your short-story stride, not only producing Hayden Fuller stories but other short pieces, still in the crime noir genre. What’s been the key to producing short-form work again?

SEVERAL THINGS. One, I’m no longer as interested in writing straight-ahead literary stories. I love reading them, but my creative energies are invested in telling a good crime plot with literary touches. Two, practicality. I wanted to place short stories in the little magazines to help draw attention to the longer works. I landed one in Tough and a Fuller story, “Four on the Floor,” is forthcoming in Down and Out’s Groovy Gumshoes collection, edited by Michael Bracken. I’ve also published an Eddie Sands yarn, “The Salinger Files,” in Twelve Winters Journal. Three, the first Raymond Chandler story I fell in love with was “Red Wind.” I liked the pacing, the voice, the lyricism Chandler brings to the long story or short novella form, and I want to capture some of that in my work.

But to be honest what got me back on track to writing short pieces was failure, a double-dose. I had a novel called Winsome that Charles Ardai turned down for Hard Case Crime. He said it had promise but it was slow going and he had to “push his way through it,” so no thanks. Disgruntled and crestfallen, I put the novel in a “NO” folder on my desktop and forgot about it. Two years later, I returned to it, and as an experiment decided to try to pare 64,000 words down to 7,000 words or less. I liked what I ended up with and Jim O’Loughlin, at Final Thursday Press, kindly published it as part of a two-story chapbook.

Following that modest success, I decided to overhaul two other failed Hayden Fuller novels, Day of the Dragons (54,000 words) and Shot, Reverse Shot (63,000 words). From those whittlings appear the two shortened, much stronger versions you have in Five Hard Bites.

I don’t know what happened to me but following Neon Kiss, which is not only my favorite novel but the thing I’m most proud of ever having written, I found I was tougher on the novels that followed. They didn’t live up to Neon, and I buried those newer less successful efforts in a drawer. But the Winsome/“Winsome” experience made me revisit them and reroute those other two “failed” novels into something that works.

You have in mind publishing a collection of noir short stories, with Hayden pieces combined with Eddie Sands pieces, etc. What is your thinking behind the project, and when do you think such a collection would be ready?

PROBABLY SUMMER 2023. I’d like to try to land some more of them in magazines. I’m thinking of 5 or so Sands stories, 3 Fullers, and 3 one-offs.

Hayden and Eddie are vulnerable, wounded men. Both struggle with PTSD (Sands from his war experiences—he was a radio operator in Korea; Fuller from being abused by his father). Fuller is closer to me in terms of sensibilities and outlook. He has a buzzcut, looks like a 1950s conservative, but has a 1960s liberal heart. He cares deeply about people and social justice. Sands is more of a badass, the kind of a character Richard Stark would write. Sands could be Parker’s partner. An aura of nihilism surrounds him. Sands is a man who doesn’t want to know what he knows but is compelled to seek out that knowledge regardless. Both Sands and Fuller walk down mean streets, but there are no street lamps on the streets Sands walks down.

Getting back to Five Hard Bites itself, in the collection we learn more and more about Hayden’s background, his personal history. There’s obviously plenty of action, too. Are you mindful of balancing material that provides a more in-depth understanding of the characters with material that’s in keeping with the crime genre, like gunplay, fist throwing, and car chases? Or do you tend to let the narrative unfold as it will?

WHAT I REALLY LIKE about the collection is how each adventure is its own story but together the five pieces present a larger inner narrative of Hayden coming to terms with his past, his father, and his identity.

Raymond Chandler once said, when in doubt as a crime writer, have two people enter the room carrying guns. He’s being a little ironic but there’s something to what he’s saying. There are tropes, touchstones that I play with that keep the stories I write firmly entrenched in the genre. But I also like to deconstruct some of those tropes. Stana Younger started off the series as a kind of femme fatale but as the larger narrative pattern unfolded across the stories her character underwent serious revision. At the end of A Fourth Face, I flip the woman-in-bondage trope to Fuller being forced to perform sexually (this triggers all of his memories of abuse). In Neon Kiss I delve into an abusive, controlling relationship between a brother and his sister and explore questions of racial identity and the rights of indigenous peoples. In “Shot, Reverse Shot” child abuse and human trafficking is addressed. Some may think of my writing as nostalgic, but I think of myself as someone who is vested in generic transformation: I’m aware of the traditions (gunplay, fist fights, etc.) but I’m also aware of the issues of today (equality, social justice, and being a survivor).

Stylistically I use literary devices to move a story along and to complicate its reality. Ed McBain and Erle Stanley Gardner are famous for their clean prose styles and pages and pages of dialogue. If I see too much dialogue on pages I’ve written I opt for compression, switching to summary mode and narrative telling. I also use free indirect discourse to muddy up what is unfolding, and question the very reality we are seeing.

But, that all being said. There is also an element of narratives unfolding on their own and constantly surprising me. I usually start with a vague outline but once the scene work starts anything can happen.

You’ve talked about the fact that earlier in your career, you thought of yourself exclusively as a writer of literary fiction—even that you had to be that sort of writer. Then you broke free from that expectation to pursue your first (true?) love: crime fiction. Can you talk about that evolution as a writer? Do you feel like people view you differently as a writer because of this change in direction?

I DON’T KNOW if people view me differently or view me at all (laughs). But, right now I feel the most free I’ve ever felt as a writer. I can remember when I was at K-State the director of the creative writing program asked who my favorite writers were and I said Raymond Chandler and Rod Serling, and he said, “Well, we’re going to strive to achieve something better than that, here.” And thus began the journey of literary writing.  I read John Cheever and Bernard Malamud and  Ernest Hemingway to learn the craft. When I did write an occasional detective story for a workshop, the word parody kept coming up and I wanted to scream: “I’m not writing parody. I believe in the rules of this genre. This isn’t ironic!” But, alas, us writers weren’t allowed to speak when our work was discussed. Parody. Christ.

I felt like genre writing was beaten out of me.

Anyway, I wrote literary stories for years after that. Placed over 40 in little magazines. Had three of those stories nominated for Pushcart Prizes. Several of the stories had detective trappings peaking around the edges, so the desire to write in that tradition was always clear and present. And then I got tenure, became a full professor, and decided to return to my first passion, crafting crime. I wrote Cheap Amusements, had it turned down by Hard Case Crime (Ardai doesn’t care for detective stories or hockey); revised it extensively, and Ted, you were generous enough to give it a read (after publishing a collection of my literary stories, Final Stanzas) and you said, “Grant, do you think you have a series in you? I see this as a series.” And that was that.

I’ve observed, “You can take the boy out of literary fiction, but you can’t take the literary fiction out of the boy”—meaning that, from my perspective, there are still sections in your Hayden books where your literary roots continue to show, in terms of your attention to language and your experimentation at times with narrative technique and structure. I think it’s one of the series’ qualities that sets it apart (above) many other crime noir series. How do you see the marriage of the literary with the tropes of crime noir in your writing?

MY STYLE OF WRITING is straight-ahead parataxis. I rarely start a sentence with a subordinate clause. I don’t like “ing” sentence starts or excessive dialogue tags. I tend to string together independent clauses with “and” constructions. That keeps things moving. For me writing crime has a kind of cool repetitive rhythm like a smooth Velvet Underground song (“What Goes On”; “Foggy Notion”; “White Light/White Heat”). I hear the music in the language (short sentences for punch lines, beats in dialogue through brief descriptions that show a character changing tactics; and sentences that play off of each other with sharp images to establish mood and nuance). I’m also a huge fan of free indirect discourse and narrative compression (via summary and telling) to keep the story moving and to create uncertainty.

I want the language of my stories to be compelling. Clear as glass prose is too flat for me. I want readers to enjoy my plotting, to enjoy the discoveries characters make about the world and themselves; and to see and feel what’s unfolding.

You have another Hayden novel underway. Can you tell us a little about the new book?

YES. Chandler in some of his novels “cannibalized” his earlier works. That’s his term. So, for example with Farewell My Lovely he re-worked three longer stories into the finished novel. In a similar vein, I’m taking the short story “Four on the Floor” and a chunk from the unpublished novel Shot, Reverse Shot to write A Shoeshine Kill. This novel is about the death of a twelve-year-old shoeshine boy who was brually murdered. One of the plot lines will involve drug trafficking, teenage gangs, and Toronto’s gay subculture, circa 1960s along Charles Street. Another plot line will focus on literary identity and a college professor accused of stealing a student’s work to further his own career. The professor has written a slew of young adult hockey novels, but the first one, the one that jump-started the series, may have been written by a former student (who has since been murdered). The professor was one of Stana’s mentors at the University of Toronto. Together Stana and Hayden will unpack the truth behind the storytelling debate and what Stana discovers might be shattering. Stana will be a heavily featured co-lead (as she was in the novella “Day of the Dragons”) in this book.

My literary idol, William Gass, cited his “Fifty Literary Pillars”—books he believed were crucial to forming him as a writer/thinker. What would be three or four of your literary pillars, and what do you think you learned from them?

ERNEST HEMINGWAY. I’ve read and reread In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises. His use of parataxis was a big influence on me as was his reliance on “and” (my favorite word) to string together independent clauses. And who can forget his emphasis on hard-boiled understatement? Hemingway’s beats, little descriptions, create suspense and suggest a character about to change tactics. I’m not enamored with Hemingway’s reliance on minimalism, however. The whole iceberg thing is interesting but sometimes all we have under the surface are ice cubes. I like getting into Hayden’s head and using narrative telling, compression, voice, and free indirect discourse.

Bernard Malamud. The Assistant and any collection of his stories. The Assistant was a game changer. I read this and wanted to write like him. Something about his voice. It’s like a fella around a campfire telling a story. Moreover, I love the idea of a character who makes a mistake (robbing a mom and pop grocery store) and then tries to make amends. While trying to correct the mistake he makes another mistake! The openings to Malamud’s short stories present a broader canvas, and like Anton Chekhov he tells us things, setting up the destabilizing condition, the stakes. He uses the habitual tense, the ongoing to emphasize recurring events and then opting to tunnel down to one specific day, one moment, and explore that in a half-scene that reveals a fresh new insight on the person and the human condition. There’s something generous to Malamud’s voice and I love his explorations of guilt and suffering. These themes manifest in my work.

Raymond Chandler. Trouble is My Business. This collection of four long stories was the one that made me want to write crime stories. I started with Hammett, read the Op stories (Red Harvest is great), but when I read “Red Wind” I knew that here was something special. Chandler was a writer’s writer, a literary voice to aspire to. Chandler loves language. His dialogue has a drummer’s rhythm, literary fills, and his prose is lyrical. Dense. Dark. Romantic. Hammett and Hemingway’s prose intersect, but in the case of Chandler I think he’s more akin to another one of my favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald. There’s a lushness there, a beauty that catches my breath.

Read Grant Tracey’s most recent Hayden Fuller story, “The Final Portrait.”

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Ted Morrissey is the publisher of Twelve Winters Press and its entities as well as an author. His most recent novels are The Artist Spoke, Mrs Saville, and Crowsong for the Stricken.

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