The Statement Makes Itself

That’s sexy. Everybody wants to speak truth to power. Elliot doesn’t shape-shift. So I’m kind of conditioned to let the abject racism roll right off me. But the thing that I got my radar up for is erasure. If I sit, I’m shiftless. I’m certain of it. Book One is about women, and how men live in relation to women to navigate their way through life. I want my work to depict black folks as living rich lives of emotional and philosophical density. Elliot’s like family. We’re all fascinated with each other’s class because we pretend we can all go from rags to riches but we know we can’t. I set the story in the country’s past and if there’s a statement to be made, it makes itself. I know I took a little risk with that, but that’s kind of where I was going. I just looked at it as more time. But it took me a while. I really like Margaret Atwood for her audacity to use whatever time period, whatever setting, and whatever genre to express herself. That’s the stuff that you don’t even realize you’re doing. How far are you into writing Book Two? What I think we don’t pay enough attention to is the subtle racism. We agreed to have a chat at the place we first met, the moody Mandrake Bar. If I walk, I’m prowling. Book Three happens in Washington, DC, and Southville. But most importantly, you’ve got the void of where Elliot’s mother would be in his life, and that will play out through all three of the books. Crime means different things to different people in the United States. Put him away again. And that’s heavy. I live in my head a lot. He doesn’t always know what he’s going to do with who he is and he doesn’t always know if his decisions were the right ones, but he knows who he is. It’s about results. crime fiction scene had gained a formidable new voice. That’s obvious. Check in on him. Publishing this book was a new experience for me. That’s when you got a movie that’s set in the Antebellum South during the Civil War and you write the black characters out of the original source material so you don’t have to deal with white women’s complicity in enslaving black folk so they can be feminist heroines. Elliot’s important to me. Is Elliot like you? It seemed only fitting. It’s funny, women read a different book than men. You don’t make friends when you do that, and if I could somehow be that brave when the time comes, then I’d be good. I had an opportunity to pull it all back and go after it again. He can do anything. DANNY GARDNER: I woke up to that. The bottom line was I knew I had something and quite possibly for the first time, I was validated enough from within. It’s abhorrent. To paraphrase   Melvin Van Peebles, who wrote Sweetback: “When you’re black, even waiting ain’t easy. Stand here, I’m loitering. Go back to him. He’s incredible. His debut novel, A Negro and an Ofay, is out now with Down & Out Books and features Elliot Caprice, a mixed-race police officer in 1952 Chicago who’s been on the run for a year from the mob, the cops, and his past. I love your work, Sarah. But my work is challenging because I depict black folks as human. It’s gross. Write a screenplay. Like in stand-up, in acting, and in theater, you get one shot, right? Last question: Who do you like to read and who are your influences? You’ll never get more racist than that in the United States. Gardner’s dynamic reading blew all of us away, and I knew the L.A. He can traverse realities, traverse time periods, traverse cultures, traverse pop cultures. What is it that he’s doing here? They criminalized black people when they couldn’t keep us in chains. I can now say that not only is Danny Gardner a fellow crime fiction scribe and co-contributor in an upcoming anthology (KILLING MALMON, in which we fictionally kill Crimespree Magazine’s Dan Malmon), he’s also a friend. Most books don’t get a second life. Sometimes people come into your life just to give you a little bit. We’re all fascinated with each other’s sex, what we do, what we may be doing, how it works, when we do it, why. So when I put it out to query through my agent Liz Kracht and was talking to folks like Eric Campbell at Down & Out Books about finally putting it out, I had proven it to myself enough to a point where now I was just trying to share Elliot Caprice with other folks. Gardner has come a long way since that first reading at Noir at the Bar. But it’s still about women. Are you speaking from experience? It’s four years later and some fires are slow to die out, including Elliot’s love life. Women are the through line until we’re done with Book Three. But lord knows there’d be hell to pay if I looked like I even want to get up and get ready to get on my feet.” He’s saying no matter what you do, you’re a criminal when you’re black. I wrote this to be challenging, and it was a challenge for me to write it. I’ve been living with Elliot since I stopped doing stand-up and had to get a regular job on a help desk back in ’92. A woman can pick up on the first nested mystery and black folks pick up on the second. I like Will Viharo’s work. She serves up the complexities of black womanhood mad lovely. I am rather certain that because of the title of my book and because of my unabashed blackness, folks pick it up or choose not to pick it up because of that. Marlon James will point out your power to you and then speak truth to that. He knows who he is. You’ve got Elaine, Margaret, Willow, and Miss Betty. To let you know that he can speak your language. ¤
Sarah M. It’s just the way I think, I can’t help it. See that’s the thing. There’s all sorts of stuff in there that a dude will miss that women get. ¤
SARAH M. Your book is challenging on many different levels, starting with the title, A Negro and an Ofay. What does the future hold for Elliot Caprice and the folks in Southville? When people catch those elements, I know they’re connecting with it. Like abject racism is easy to hate, right? But if you’re going to help me, help me with the institutionalized racism, the structural racism, the cultural racism. People ask me, why do we need to know the backstory of Boots, Elliot’s barber, or Spats, Elliot’s tailor? And just recently, there was a wonderful write-up in the Chicago Review of Books from Lori Rader-Day. I had the first three books written in my head before I wrote the first one. My primary influence is Octavia Butler. It was the first time reading at the Mandrake for both of us, although I was much more nervous than he was. It’ll take me like a day to get past one chapter because I go back and I think, now why this word choice? I don’t read as much when I’m writing because I don’t skim. She picked up on that. Let’s talk a little about your publication journey, which is somewhat unusual. Or Miss Betty, who owns the road house where Buster lives? Bitter outcomes. We were made to be criminals. I would be good forever. Reading you motivates me to write. The book is rooted in real American history. I’m young but I’m an old entertainer. I languish over the page. Book Three? Book Two is all plotted out and two thirds of the way written. Write little notes. The three fascinations that the United States has that it can’t come to terms with even now in the 21st century are sex, class, and race. I wouldn’t have known if I had a good book or not but going through all that helped me boost myself a little bit over the wall so I could see what I wanted to do next. I dig Kellye Garrett’s new joint, Hollywood Homicide. I like Marlon James because he speaks the truth. But I don’t know if I know how to do anything else. Then I’d be good. Were you trying to make a statement about race today in the United States? It takes us back to Chicago and is very much about relationships. But I’m also certain that’s what makes me interesting. I know they’re digging it. And we’re fascinated with each other’s race. I put him away. I didn’t know it was coming. There was a convention in these conversations we now call Naming Names, and it didn’t matter how infrequent or how light of a touch or how ineffectual it would seem, if you encountered another black person in your life, you would name their name. I’m cool with that. That’s what I’m used to. I’m coming from a culture that has been a victim of erasure, so I’m Naming Names in my book. Book Two is about true responsibility between people in a relationship. I’ve been influenced a great deal by Stephen King’s short stories, his stuff as Bachman. Some would say that a lot of what’s in the book addresses what’s going on in the world today, especially with our current political climate. And if I run, I’m escaping. Or you’re getting booed and somebody tells you to leave. Help me with that stuff I can’t fix. There’s just subtle stuff that I’ve done in that book I figured I was taking a risk on that women would just pull out. I’ll reread passages. Why did she use this? It’s our lives, man. Black people’s experiences are all our experiences. He may code switch a little bit to make you feel comfortable. Black folks know that we don’t stand alone in our stories, so we Name Names. I have the overall mystery and then there are two mysteries that are nested within it. Speaking of Elliot Caprice, what characteristics do you value most in him? That’s erasure. Your book deals a lot with racism in 1950s Chicago. His unshakable self-awareness. I’m from Chicago. Chen is the author of Cleaning Up Finn. Sure enough, I’ve since run into Gardner at various literary events and readings all over Los Angeles and across the country. Whatever trip he wants to take me on, I’m good with that. The undertow that drags me under although I’m a strong swimmer. CHEN: Your debut novel A Negro and an Ofay has been well received so far from the big reviewers, like Publishers Weekly and Shelf Awareness. Anybody can hate that. He may question his decisions, but he knows who he is and he operates from that knowing place. I don’t believe I’d be interested enough to write about crime fiction if I couldn’t address the things that are endemic to crime. Eryk Pruitt’s work is haunting. Fathers and sons, mentors, nemeses. During the WPA Arts Projects, they had journalists from the Library of Congress get old black folk on tape and on film telling their stories, which were slave narratives. There’s no better indictment of our present than for me to tell a story set in our past that resonates as if it were happening today. Can you talk about that and why you chose to write it as crime fiction? I made it to that place and I never looked back. I like to read my peers. But crime is woven into our existence as black folks. You’d give their story. But we wouldn’t be fascinated with each other’s race if we all weren’t living behind closed doors. I never took it hard when things stalled. I’d go back to him. Eventually, he returns home to discover his uncle’s farm in foreclosure. Take the review in Criminal Element: Neliza Drew got the whole thing about how Elliot was never attracted to the lure of passing as white because he can see that it doesn’t mean anything more than being black. For us, crime is life. I would want Chester Himes’s fearlessness, Marlon James’s bravery, Octavia Butler’s worldview, and Margaret Atwood’s vision while making certain to pay tribute to Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout from time to time. His new gig as a process server pits him against organized crime and shady industry tycoons. It feels like mind expansion when I read that dude. JULY 24, 2017

I MET stand-up comedian, actor, director, screenwriter, and author Danny Gardner almost exactly two years ago at Noir at the Bar in Los Angeles. It’s a poignant, gritty tale of identity, race, corruption, and above all else, family. Congrats, that has to feel pretty good.