An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines: What was your inspiration for Rampart Street?
David Fulmer: Rampart Street came out as a natural progression from the end of Jass. I donít want to give the story away, except to say that the main character Valentin St. Cyr, has settled back in Storyville. I donít have a long-view in mind with these narratives. Like my readers, I wait to see what happens and go from there.
Why has the Creole detective, Valentin St. Cyr, left the District and why has he returned? Does he really believe he can remain detached from a world that has evoked such passion and emotional attachment?
Valentin left because he created some mayhem in the wake of what takes place in Jass, and thought it was a good time to pack up and go. As we all do sometimes. He came back because thereís something about Storyville that pulls him and because he didnít find whatever he was looking for on the road. This kind of motion enhances the drama. America has always been such a transient place, and more so then than now.
Offering the detective this small opportunity to make some money in his former occupation, Tom Anderson, the King of Storyville, believes he is doing the detective a favor, that St. Cyr has lost his spirit. Is Anderson underestimating Valentinís nature? Why/why not?
Tom Anderson is a supreme pragmatist as well as a master manipulator, and heís driven by self-interest. Not in a cruel or unfeeling way; he simply believes as ďthe King of StoryvilleĒ heís doing whatís best for the District and its denizens. He knows Valentin is a sharp tool when heís on his game. When heís not, itís a different story, and a man like Anderson cannot afford charity for long. So he thinks itís worth the gamble to give him another try; and heís also frankly curious about how Valentin will perform.
How does unraveling this murder bring St. Cyr back to life and what turns this mission personal?
Valentin is a hunter in a certain sense. Not physically, and not all that intellectually, like a mastermind sleuth, either. He operates on a visceral level, his instinct about how and why people act a certain way. It is not something he can deny in himself. So once he gets a whiff of something deeper than he originally perceived, heís drawn to the hunt. It does become personal when he detects that thereís certain string within the tale that might lead back to his own history.
Realizing that Anne Marie Benedict may know more than she admits, why does St. Cyr agree to take the case? What has their mutual attraction got to do with his determination to solve the murder, if anything?
Anne Marie is a puzzle to him. While sheís privileged, he senses in her an intelligence that he can respect. This is no airhead rich girl. She also presents a mystery to him because she is hiding something. And letís not forget that sheís a beauty, and heís drawn by that, too.
Was there any particular reason for setting the action of Rampart Street within the framework of a week?
No, I just let the time play out as the story develops. I do, however, admit a predilection for beginning and ending a chapter within a dayís time. It gives readers natural starting and stopping points. Thatís only when it fits, of course.
On this new case, St. Cyr moves beyond Andersonís sphere of influence into far more treacherous and unfamiliar territory. How does Andersonís limited ability to help the detective affect their relationship?
Well, he really does go beyond the borders of Storyville, and that means heís out from under Tom Anderson. They still have a connection, so this begins drawing Anderson off his center. Theyíre like two magnetic fields or two planets affecting each otherís gravity. Whatever else transpires between them, they canít deny this connection and the mutual respect it has engendered.
In contrast to the first two novels, the setting of Rampart Street is expanded to the wealthy enclaves of New Orleans. How does this compromise St. Cyrís ability to solve the case?
It makes it problematic because heís traveling in alien territory. Storyville, his usual stomping ground, is a small enclave within a big city. Heís gone there before, though the stage for the play was still on his home turf. Not this time; now he has to spend considerable time there, especially at the Benedict home. At the same time, Anne Marie Benedict ends up traveling to Storyville and into his lair.
Storyville is the playground of the wealthy. Can you speak to this phenomenon of legalized vice in the center of New Orleans in its heyday?
It was a playground for the rich. It was also a playground for middle-income sorts and working men, too. It all depended on the part of Storyville. There were the elegant mansions on Basin Street and there were dime-a-trick cribs on Robertson Street. The vice was contained and controlled, and it worked remarkably well for a long time. There were some obvious problems with drug and alcohol abuse, diseases, and violence. Still it was controlled and profitable, as long as Tom Anderson was in charge. Once he went away, it began to collapse. But for many decades, it worked remarkably well.
What is the nature of Lieutenant Picot and Valentinís ongoing adversarial- ambivalent relationship?
They really despise each other and yet they have a connection they canít break, because of shared secrets that neither man can divulge. Itís a classic battle of opposites. For the most part, Valentin is everything Picot is not, and vice-versa. So it sets up some interesting tension between the two of them. No matter what, Valentin can always count on Picot dogging him.
Maurice Delouche, Anne Marie Benedictís attorney to St. Cyr: ďWe have no further business. Donít come here any more.Ē This statement tells Valentin he is getting somewhere in the investigation. How does the attorneyís remark exemplify St. Cyrís constant battle with ďauthorityĒ?
Characters like Valentin will always struggle with figures of authority, whether relatively benign, like Tom Anderson, or villainous, like this Delouche fellow and Henry Harris. These people tend to be totalitarians and make good despots. Very few, though, are as enlightened as Anderson. Power corrupts and you can see it in these characters. What amuses me is, here and in real life, how appalled such individuals become when someone common like St. Cyr has the nerve to challenge them.
In this novel, St. Cyr is grieving over a friendís murder, drawn to the forbidden Anne Marie Benedict and still attached to Justine, the sporting woman of the two previous novels. How do these emotional issues affect his ability to work the case? What is the significance of each of these women?
Valentin is such a loner that he wishes he could detach from the people he encounters in his cases, but heís unable to do so. He really does have a certain attachment to these people and feels responsible for whatever befalls them, even though it may not be his fault directly. In any case, heís not one to sit around obsessing. He takes these challenges as personal affronts and moves to fix them. He and Justine have a deep and powerful bond that weathers storms without breaking. Anne Marie is a different creature altogether, foreign and exotic on one hand, and a member of the ruling class he disdains on the other. And he thinks sheís hiding the key the case, so heís intrigued by her on that level.
Henry Harris, the wealthy robber baron and shipping magnate is called ďThe Crescent City Dragon.Ē What does this title infer and what is Harrisí defining trait as a captain of industry and possible future United States Senator?
He is very much based on other robber barons of the day, who were absolutely ruthless in their lust for wealth and power. They were tyrants who would crush anyone who got in their way. These men may have had enormous talents for building wealth, but that might be their only gift. Other than that, they were often seriously flawed individuals. Some were creepy in their complete lack of conscience. They tended to be vicious bullies and bigots. Henry Fordís rabid anti-Semitism comes to mind as an example. Actually, the past tense is misused here. You can find examples of these personalities in this morningís paper.
What were the ďOrange warsĒ and what was at stake? How does that twenty-year-old history affect the main characters in Rampart Street (St. Cyr, Frank Mangetta, etc.)?
The Orange Wars was the sobriquet give to the economic rivalry over the shipping Ė especially the produce shipping Ė on the New Orleans docks. Italian immigrants worked their way up from laboring to running these businesses, which enraged the Know Nothings, Nativists, and other bigots. There was also internecine rivalry between the Sicilian clans, which gave other parties leave to wrest the lucrative business away from them. Valentin is affected by all this because his father was right in the middle of it, and the tragedy that ensued that dogs him to this day.
Why is the half-Italian half-black St. Cyr so appealing a protagonist on so many levels? When writing this character, how do you visualize him and his defining traits?
I certainly didnít go into this with any sort of template in mind. The character developed naturally and I added his back-story along the way, which I think gives him human depth. If heís appealing, itís because his strengths and weaknesses are evident. Heís not a one-dimensional hero or villain. At the same time, he doesnít over-think or waste time complaining. Whatever neuroses he has are tucked away. So we donít have to indulge him that way. Also, a Ďmixedí character, whether racially or otherwise, can be intriguing, as long as itís not just for show. Valentin has a whole history that explains him in this way, and he faces conflicts that stem directly from this background.
How does St. Cyrís vast network of friends bring him back from the edge? In the former novels, St. Cyr was comfortable with his self-imposed isolation. How has this changed, or has it?
Itís definitely a change for him. Youíre right, he has not been one to allow others to help him. He kind of flounders a bit, partly because heís lost his touch and because heís working on alien turf, and the people who care for him come to his rescue. He recognizes their interest in his safety and lets this happen, which is a departure for this solitary character.
You use the term ďAmericanĒ to denote the otherness of the wealthy whites who control commerce and the political direction of the city, in contrast to the mixed races of Storyville. What is the significance of this terminology?
ďAmericanĒ was actually the common usage of the day to denote WASPs. I think this is fascinating because New Orleans was and is such an international city. So there were the French, the Africans, the Caribbeans, the Italians, the IrishÖ and the ďAmericans,Ē all in this one small city.
Politics, power and greed are the driving forces behind the novel. But more sinister motives are at work, as well. Without revealing the plot, can you discuss how these wealthy men manipulate the less powerful to accomplish their hidden agendas?
This sounds like weíre talking about the current situation in this country, with wealthy people and corporations controlling hidden and overt agendas. And, now as before, woven throughout are dirty little scandals that are most often either financial or sexual. Empires collapse for want of some money or a piece of tail. In any case, these people canít tolerate having their public or private agendas exposed and when someone comes along to upset that, they will try to crush or silence them.
What are you working on next? Can you share something about it with us?
I have a contract with Harcourt for a book a year for the next three years. Iíll break away from Storyville for the next one, which comes out in January of 2007. Itís set in Atlanta in the 1920s, which was a riotous time there. Then Iíll be writing at least two more Storyville books.
Have you any thoughts of a movie from the first St. Cyr novel, Chasing the Devilís Tail? What actor do you think would best portray the mysterious Valentin St. Cyr?
We continue to get calls and emails about optioning Chasing the Devilís Tail. Weíve come very close several times. One thing thatís been intriguing about it that at least half the producers weíve heard from read the original Poisoned Pen Press hardcover and it just stuck with them. So the book seems to have a life of its own. There are several producers looking at it as we speak. By the way, one party is looking at Jass and one is looking at Rampart Street at this time.
As to actors, Iíve asked around for suggestions. For Valentin, the names Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, and Hugh Jackman have come up, among others. I think the Buddy Bolden character would be the most fun part to cast and to play. In any case, I think that the author should have a hand in casting the female characters, donít you?
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The best advice I can offer is to be disciplined about the craft. Work every day at the same time and place, even if you can only spare minutes. Then it takes on the discipline of work, meditation, or both. Some of writing is tedious, as learning to do anything well is tedious, and itís important to accept that. If you want to have fun, go to the circus. The fun part of writing comes out of doing it a level of expertise that excites you. You need to earn that, though. Be glad youíre there doing it, and honor yourself and the craft with a genuine effort. Then comes the patience and persistence part. Donít give up, because cream really does rise.
David Fulmer's Shamus Award-winning first novel, Chasing the Devil's Tail,
was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize nominee. He has
written about blues, jazz, and other subjects for Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Atlanta Magazine, Southline, and National Public Radio, and he wrote and produced the acclaimed documentary Blind Willie's Blues. He has also worked as a welder, bartender, musician and teacher, and spent ten years in the motor sports industry. A native of Pennsylvania, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed David Fulmer, author of Rampart Street: A Valentin St. Cyr Mystery (see accompanying review), about his book via email for curledup.com. Luan Gaines/2005.