An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines:The raw notes of Jass created a furor in New Orleans in the early 1900's. How did this new music define the place where it was born? Was there a link to the energy of a new century?
David Fulmer:Jass defined New Orleans, thatís true. Before that happened, though, New Orleans defined jass. This music could not have been created anywhere else, because of the cityís unique character, especially the mixture of history, culture, race, and the musical styles they produced. It was as if everything American got dumped into the Mississippi and ended up there, and everything from around the world made it to the ports. So you have this one-of-a-kind stew. When it turned into jazz, it became very much one of the cityís signatures. Music and food, thatís New Orleans.
Storyville was a social experiment of controlled lawlessness, a highly profitable endeavor. A rigid political structure was needed to govern the exploitation of vices. Would you say that Storyville was a success or a failure, in human terms?
As a business, it was a success, but strictly on its own terms, and just as long as Tom Anderson, who they called ďThe King of Storyville,Ē was on his game. You need a very creative person to be in charge of a place like that. A visionary and a real operator. Corrupt, but still honest in his dealings, if that makes any sense. Everybody was skimming, every business paid graft, and it was very well organized. Certain crimes went unpunished. Basin Street was a showpiece, but the back parts of the District were hellholes. Venereal diseases were rampant, and attic abortions, performed by local women, sometimes with tragic results, were common. A child could buy heroin or cocaine over the counter at the drugstores. Underage girls were forced into lives of prostitution. Still, it was not Calcutta. I donít know how it compares to what happens in cities now, but I donít think it was that much worse. It was carefully controlled and worked, at least for a while. Once Anderson got too old and lost his interest and his special touch, it really began going down. In the end, it was a shadow of its former glory. But in those prime days, say from 1890-1910, it must have been something to see.
How much did the rich history of Storyville stimulate your imagination in writing Jass?
It was the research into the place that got me going on this. I just fell in love with the mythical mystery of it. The ďsordid excess,Ē as one reviewer put it. Then all those characters: Anderson, Lulu White, and so on. Once I was able to bring them and my fictional characters to life, they took over. Storyville itself was such a bizarre experiment, Iím really surprised that more people havenít mined it. Iím glad they didnít though, because itís still fertile territory for me.
Music sets the tone for the plot, a subtle theme for St. Cyr's investigation into the apparently random murders of black Jass musicians. How significant was the power of this music in building your storyline?
Almost everything I write has a soundtrack. Either I write about musicians, or music plays some role in the narrative. Because I believe that American music might be our most potent export. Itís one thing that the whole world has in common, this fascination with American popular culture, but specifically our music. I heard a story about a guy who ended up in jail in a small Communist country and all night long, the guards kept pointing at him and calling out, ďUSA! Rock-and-roll! USA! Rock-and-roll!Ē It was the only English they knew. In the case of Jass, I used the transition from fringe into the mainstream as part of the narrative. There was a resistance to the new music, as there is anytime something new comes along. This also had the extra baggage of race and class. So there was friction.
Can you speak to the origins of Jass, the music and the word?
The origins of jazz would Ė and does Ė take up volumes. In a thumbnail sketch, though, I believe jass and itís brother the blues are the first true American music forms. Everything else was a direct derivative, mostly from Europe. But because they combined African, European, and anything else that was available, jass and blues were uniquely American. As to the word, Iím sticking to my original choice, that itís derived from the French verb ďjaser,Ē which means to chatter or babble. Thatís how a lot of people heard it around the turn of the century Ė as noisy babble. Though I think there are good points for other sources for the word. The Mandingo ďjasi,Ē for example, means ďparty.Ē Thereís no way weíll ever know for sure, so take your pick.
There are many characters of mixed race in the novel and all the Jass musicians are black. St. Cyr himself is Creole, but is often mistaken for white. Can you speak to the various elements of race in Storyville?
To this day, New Orleans is a very mixed city. Just walking around you can see that in the faces of the locals. It was even more so a hundred years ago. People mixed there like nowhere else, over a couple hundred years. So you have this rainbow: Negro, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, white, Creole, creole-of-color, and then you throw in Italians and Native Americans, mostly Cherokees, and you have some very interesting gumbos. Though miscegenation was officially outlawed, people couldnít keep their hands off each other. Valentin is one of the many men and women who passed. Generally, if you could pass, you did, because of the benefits of being white in what was a segregated society.
In that context, what role does race play in the power structure of Storyville and the general concern over the murders?
Again, Storyville presents a striking example of a world turned sideways. At the top was Tom Anderson, a white man. But then you have the second tier players, the richest madams, and many of them were what was then regarded as people of color: African-Americans like Lulu White, Italians like Willie Piazza and Hispanics like Antonia Gonzales. Other madams were of mixed blood. The most beautiful prostitutes were octoroons. In my stories, people of color are suspect because they are people of color. Especially when victims are white. The suspects are relatively powerless and easy targets. That has not completely changed to this day.
You first introduced St. Cyr in Chasing the Devil's Tail. How has Valentin St. Cyr changed in this new novel?
Since I didnít have a plan to change him, I can only tell you what readers tell me. The second book humanizes him more. After losing Bolden, heís started to come apart just a little and in Jass you get deeper into his psyche and have a sense of the frailties that he shares with his strengths. He commits failures, based on his pride mostly, and those are there for all to see. Itís a more personal story for him and for Justine.
St. Cyr is a man's man but has enough human flaws to appeal to women as well. How does his personality generate friction in the world of brutality where he lives and works?
In fact, it appears that about two-thirds of my readership is female. Valentin is very much a loner and doesnít particularly care about being liked. Some men resent him; enemies tend to the type who are out to break the big rules, those on which we all depend to survive in a insane world. His violence is very much controlled. Lurking under the surface. He doesnít like being violent. Itís a last resort.
When Buddy Bolden, a great Jass musician and close friend, is committed, St. Cyr loses a bit of his edge. How does St. Cyrís lack of attention to detail cause problems for him in the process of the investigation?
Valentin definitely loses something in Boldenís absence. Their lives were entwined off and on since they were kids, and Bolden was a last vestige of his past. So he kind of comes undone. In doing so, he slips up and makes a mess of his case. Again, this guy is human, not some one-dimensional hero or dashboard saint. Heís full of faults and weaknesses. Other peopleís lives are in jeopardy if heís not on his game. When he makes mistakes, it resonates. There is the risk of more mayhem, of innocent people getting caught in a net and guilty people going free. Thatís all on him.
St. Cyr has the support of Tom Anderson, ďThe King of Storyvilleď. Pursuing the murderer with or without Anderson's support, is St. Cyr prepared to accept the consequences of flaunting Anderson's directives?
Valentinís the type who, at a certain point, doesnít care about consequences anymore. Once heís decided to see it through to the end, he suits up and goes for it. I guess heís weíd term obsessive-compulsive (forgive the psycho-babble) and sometimes doesnít know when to stop. So he will defy even Tom Anderson. Anderson admires this quality, uses it when it suits him, and yet it causes him no end of frustration.
Brutality is everywhere, but it hasn't changed St. Cyr and perhaps that is part of his appeal. Living side by side with everyday violence, how does Valentin avoid becoming like the men around him?
The cathartic crisis in Valentinís life had to do with men doing terrible violence to his father. That did change him; though youíre correct, he did not let it turn him into what he hated most, which was one of those monsters. He in fact despises irrational violence, which makes up about 90% of brutal acts. His own violence is quick and certain and he is able to control his most savage urges. He doesnít want to torture or humiliate anyone. He doesnít want to throw fuel on a fire. He wants to put it out.
St. Cyr has a special appreciation for the fallen women or "soiled doves" of Storyville. Why?
Well, he likes some of them. Others, he canít stand; those who are lazy and broken, just passing the time until they die. The ones he does like have spirit. They are ruined, they are considered by many to be societyís dregs, but they still have an appetite for life. The whore with the heart of gold is mostly myth. At the same time, there are decent people in bordellos, just as there are criminals in churches. He enjoys their libertine attitudes. Heís not interested in courting. He likes the honesty regarding pleasures of the flesh. Finally, he has an appreciation for women in general and sees their inherent beauty, in his own rough way.
Justine is a complex character, saved from her former life by St. Cyr, yet drawn back to the only profession she knows. How does Justine's response to their floundering relationship affect the course of St. Cyr's actions?
Valentin took Justine out of that house not because he was bothered by her profession, but because he thought she was in danger. Now sheís gone back because itís the life she knows and a way for her to make her way. He takes this as an insult, a betrayal, and it definitely clouds his judgment. It leads him to Dominique and another little drama plays out there. Itís pretty typical guy behavior, sorry to say.
What is St. Cyr's rationale for allowing Dominique to move in with him? What does this precipitous action tell us about the man?
In the wake of Justine leaving, he becomes your typical no-goddamn-good man. Dominique is looking for a port in a storm. She wants to stay and that suits him. He canít ignore that fact that sheís a beauty and a simple earth woman, and without any of Justineís problems. He doesnít care much about her needs or wants. Heíd probably get bored with her after awhile. Sheís primitive, unschooled and a little childish and that can wear thin after an initial infatuation. Once heís had the run of her lush body, heíd likely want to get rid of her. Finally, he gets to slap back at Justine by taking up with this lovely girl. He really is something of a rat during this period. Itís not intentional cruelty, just self-absorbed apathy.
St. Cyr avoids his feelings, but they leak into his life anyway. Does the clash of suppressed emotions and brutal reality push St. Cyr to a final resolution of the mystery?
Not the clash of the two; it his reaction to the brutality that helps him break through. Though itís true that his emotions are to some degree what drives him, whatever he does. And no matter how hard he tries to be unaffected, they always have their way. Heís not a Sherlock Holmes, figuring out mind-teasers. He operates by instinct. The emotions that percolate under his skin act like an engine. Heís certainly becomes more determined to settle it once someone close to him is affected. (Donít want to give too much away here).
What was the ultimate fate of Storyville? If it still thrived, do you think it would have become a place for family entertainment, like Las Vegas?
Storyville was destined to end and it did. It was closed in 1919 by the government, through a convoluted legal action. It could not survive in an urban setting like that, anyway, with change going on all around it. Storyville was a 19th century European phenomenon transplanted here. It depended on slower communication and travel to be left alone. Once that changed, outside influences came to bear. The morality police got a stronger hand and that was the death knell.
What are the qualities of this character that inspired you to recreate Valentin St. Cyr in another adventure?
Iím intrigued by the humanity of his particular set of faults. Heís a damaged soul who does not dwell on it, makes his way in spite of it. He doesnít really understand the drama of his past, though heís trying to find a way to come to terms with it. He is not friendly, but he is loyal to those he calls friends. Heís a decent person, at heart.
What are the particular difficulties of writing a series, especially in terms of continuity?
You always want to make sure your characters donít switch from blond to redhead, for one thing. There are a lot of details in my books and I have good copy editors to ride herd and help me keep it all straight. Itís more of a challenge for me to avoid any semblance of the cookie-cutter syndrome, which happens a lot in genre fiction. To keep it fresh is very difficult. Same people, same placeÖ itís a challenge. I have the good fortune to have chosen Storyville with its floating cast of weird characters and the violence and sex and music that animated the place.
Have you begun work on your next novel? will it feature Valentin St. Cyr?
Iím working on the last part of the third Valentin St. Cyr book, Rampart Street. After that, Iíll take a break and do a book that is set in Atlanta in the 1920s. Then Iíll be back to Storyville.
Obviously, a successful novel is a gratifying experience, but would this novel have been as fulfilling with only moderate success? Has writing become an integral part of your life?
The craft part is just as fulfilling, because this is a process of creating something that has quality. It succeeds or doesnít on those terms. Itís very gratifying when readers and critics agree. Everybody likes compliments. Itís such hard work that you want someone to notice. Even more so when writing is a central part of your life, as it is mine. After my daughter and my family, my career is next in line of importance to me. It is both the way I make a living and the way I am able to see through the veil and transcend the mundane of everyday life.
Do you have any advice for struggling writers?
Struggle is the word for it. Persistence is the key. I was well into my 40s before anyone noticed me. It took years for me to find an agent and years for her to make the first sale. Chasing the Devilís Tail was turned down by every publisher in New York. Poisoned Pen Press was our last hope before going the self-publishing route. Fortunately, they picked it up and it immediately got legs, getting a nomination for the LA Times Book Prize and the Barry Award and then winning the Shamus. Harcourt came to us with an offer which will end up being at least five books. I wanted to give up a thousand times, but always came back to it. I guess thatís the key. You need a good piece of work, of course; after that, itís a matter of never giving up on it. In shortÖ learn your lessons by reading and writing; do the work; then hang on until your time comes, because cream does eventually rise.
David Fulmer's first novel, Chasing the Devil's Tail, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Mystery/Thriller Book Prize and the winner of the Shamus Award for Best First P.I. Novel. Fulmer lives in Atlanta with his daughter, Italia.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed David Fulmer, author of Jass: A Valentin St. Cyr Mystery (see accompanying review), about his book via email for curledup.com. This text is the property of Luan Gaines and the author for whom it is intended. No part may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2004.