I wasn’t necessarily happy with the content, but there were words on the screen. Wright is also the author of the poetry collections All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned and Instructions for Killing the Jackal. Some vague notion of a better job, a better place to live. People seemed to disagree on the most fair and humane way to treat people looking for a better way of life in the United States. I recently attended a tribute for Lucie Brock-Broido, and I’ve been remembering how much she delighted in a funny line, especially one in an otherwise serious poem. ¤
Daniela Petrova is the author of the forthcoming suspense novel Her Daughter’s Mother. Did you set out to write a series, or did you finish the first book and then realize that there was more? I didn’t set out specifically to explore this gap, but it’s one that comes up frequently in my novels. I was surprised by how quickly a persistent theme emerged — the haves versus the have-nots. Do you use any poetic devices? Those in power don’t seem to care about humane treatment, and we now have more than 10,000 children in detention centers. Mysteries, too, are trying to address a big problem: why do humans kill other humans? I was so nervous about writing fiction at first. How are they similar? What do you hope readers will get from it? Poetry doesn’t operate the same way. You wear the hats of poet, crime writer, and editor. But humor is such a natural coping mechanism for me that I can’t imagine my protagonist not having a similar response to her often bleak circumstances. I took one fiction writing class while getting my MFA in poetry, a novella course with Jaime Manrique, and at the end of the term, we had to turn in a novella. I assume everyone is intimidated by the word count for a novel, but for a poet, it just seemed laughable. About a third. I became fascinated by undercover work, specifically people going deep undercover and sacrificing years of their lives. Are you kidding me? Now that I’ve calmed down a bit, I love being able to work in multiple genres. There were protests around the country — small compared to recent protests, but protests nonetheless. After an hour of working on a poem? I can still be tapping my pen against a blank piece of paper. What are the challenges and/or benefits of working across genres? The titles of your novels sound quite poetic, referring to colors and animals, while the titles of your poetry collections — while also very poetic — contain phrases like “end with drowned” and “instructions for killing” that one expects to see in the titles of crime books. Poems are wading into the unknown, trying to make sense of the world’s sorrow — and occasionally its joy. The conversation was different, though, and one that focused a lot on policy. You can hear the voice of the poet coming through in the observations of the hardened private investigator. How did you make the transition to crime fiction? A ‘them’ problem, not an ‘us’ problem.”
The Blue Kingfisher is the third book in Wright’s series featuring Kathleen Stone, a former NYPD undercover officer turned private investigator. How do you navigate between these three very different roles? What else can we learn that’s not there in the poem? 70,000 words? The American dream could never feed everyone, and yet people kept coming, turning from their own countries toward the poetry of our forefathers. With the novels, I alighted on animals because I thought a chameleon was the ideal metaphor for someone undercover. That’s a wild statistic and disheartening in so many ways. While I think a lot of poetry craft elements can be taught, there’s still a nebulous ingredient. But writing novels seemed like such a far-fetched goal that I never dwelled on it. How about the shark tank? The first novel in Wright’s series, The Red Chameleon, was one of Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of Summer 2014 while the second, The Granite Moth, was a 2016 Silver Falchion Award Finalist. I started looking into those fields, so that I could better relate to them and fell down a research rabbit hole. On the other hand, the stakes are typically high in both. Those founders had sold their schemes too well.
I spoke to Wright over FaceTime and email about what drew her to the topic of immigration, how poetry informs her fiction, the use of humor alongside a hard-boiled story line, and how she navigates between the roles of editor, crime writer, and poet.
DANIELA PETROVA: Immigration, a hot-button topic these days, plays a prominent role in your latest novel. On the other hand, mysteries are consistently popular. In a single stretch of sidewalk, you’ll pass someone wearing a $20,000 coat and someone who can’t afford a coat. Reading The Blue Kingfisher, I chuckled numerous times. I remember when I was finishing Instructions for Killing the Jackal, and I told myself that I was forbidden to write another snake poem. In The Blue Kingfisher, I wanted to consider the jobs that are mostly invisible. When writing the climactic scene of my second novel, I had about 500 words on how the characters looked like Greek statues. I don’t write poetry and fiction during the same week. I woke up early each morning and worked for an hour. I was teaching English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. ERICA WRIGHT: I started writing The Blue Kingfisher in 2015, and it’s set in 2014, so I was researching and exploring a different immigration reality in the United States. But I was also thinking about facial blindness, a condition in which someone doesn’t recognize people that they know. If I remember correctly, it was owned by a doctor, though. Those experiences don’t always turn out too well for the cops. The other characters all appeared to me while writing, especially the drag performer, Dolly, who seemed to leap fully formed onto the page. When did you first start writing? So what’s next for you? Is there a fourth book in the series? There’s so much wealth disparity throughout the country, but I think it’s most visible in Manhattan. Ed Lin uses humor well in his series. Oh, I definitely did not set out to write a series. No promises, though. Was it poetry or fiction? Why was telling this story important to you? Tell me a bit about how you came about this cast of characters. Hopefully I’ll finally get all the snake writing out of my system. It took me a while to find a link between the two. Not a drug cartel bigwig. Was there something that surprised you about writing mysteries? And editing is a welcome break because I get to focus outward, help other writers rather than constantly worrying about myself. Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated? Partly I worried that I would never write a poem again. At the end of “Poets and Sleuths,” Janet Hutchings asks, “If poetry and mystery have so many compelling crossing points, how is it that the rising popularity of the mystery book seems to have coincided with the slumping popularity of the poetry volume?” What are your thoughts? It wasn’t great. She cites Frederic Dannay’s observation that “both poets and fictional detectives are trying to make order out of chaos.” What has been your experience? A little self-satisfied. Is the opposite possible, for someone to have a face that doesn’t look the same depending on the day or the light? I was evacuated for six weeks, so I read and reread that collection until it seeped into my blood. I’m currently finishing a standalone mystery about the death of a reclusive silver screen actress. One component might be the pleasure of delving into dark subject matters and coming away with a solution. My poems do often explore violence, so I wanted book titles reflecting that theme. I grew up on Nancy Drew, adored Edgar Allan Poe in college, and checked out basically the whole noir section of my local library when I was scraping by as an adjunct professor years later. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for more than a year. Finishing a single novel seemed like a lofty enough goal. In her 2015 article “Poets and Sleuths,” the editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Janet Hutchings, discusses the connections between mystery and poetry. Professor Manrique is a gem for letting me pass. In general, I view the title of a poem as another opportunity, and I don’t want to waste it. Eliot’s Four Quartets. “Too much?” my editor helpfully wrote in the margins. The poetry becomes a little too conversational, the prose a little too purple. What is your experience working in these two genres? I had to cut the whole passage. I know it’s something of a faux pas to say “that really happened,” but that shark tank really happened. There’s a whole genre of essay devoted to the death of poetry, but what’s that line? Then I’ll be writing a book about snakes for Bloomsbury’s wonderful “Object Lessons” series. When I was an undergraduate student, I wanted to be a dramaturg, which is nearly as impractical as wanting to be a poet. There were usually a few other loiterers, aiming their cameras at a second story window where you could see a blacktip reef shark swimming back and forth in a tank. I have a gallows sense of humor, and my first drafts typically have more jokes than my final drafts. Instagram poets have massive followings. I’ve tried, and both suffer. I can hear her extraordinary voice in my head reciting Franz Wright: “I know dead people, and you are not dead.”
You have a cast of colorful characters: a private investigator haunted by her past as an undercover NYPD officer, who becomes a master of disguise; a Russian wigmaker in Brighton Beach; a drag queen at a famous club called The Pink Parrot; a gangster who has a shark tank in his townhouse. I think I had 8,000 words? I don’t have as much time as I’d like for poetry because it takes such a great deal of concentration, but I feel good about a morning spent on a chapter or essay. Yes, I love that. What else can sing? Something you didn’t expect? President Obama was deporting people at a faster rate than any previous president. I’m drawn to elaborate poetry collection titles like Matthea Harvey’s Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form. Their success doesn’t seem to depend on outside events or even specific writers, and that fascinates me. DECEMBER 20, 2018
“I KNEW A FEW talking points from the news about undocumented workers,” ruminates Kat, the protagonist of Erica Wright’s latest novel, The Blue Kingfisher, “but I thought of them toiling on tobacco farms in Alabama, not cleaning porta-potties at my favorite amusement park. So of course I promptly wrote a poem about a cottonmouth. On the other hand, studying theater in New York City was a magical experience. Trying to make order out of chaos. Can you talk a bit about the use of humor alongside a hard–boiled story line? A lot of my favorite poets, too, have slivers. A character came to me, a former undercover police officer trying to rebuild her life. S. At least once a month, I attended some production, mostly off-Broadway, but I saw Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne in a production of A Moon for the Misbegotten that I’ll be talking about on my death bed. But just because the evil’s easy to spot doesn’t mean that everything else suddenly becomes clear. When a scene stalls, I tend to fall back on to imagery, looking for a thread to pull. Some days it feels like we’re living in an either/or logical fallacy because the evil is so easy to spot. I don’t fault Hutchings for asking the question, but poetry’s popularity has definitely been on the rise since she inquired. Trying to solve the mystery behind the suspicious death of Tambo Campion, her building’s maintenance man, she uncovers that he was also a kingfisher — a person who finds jobs for immigrants. How are they different? She is the poetry editor at Guernica magazine and an editorial board member of Alice James Books. So much of crime is about power, and therefore, in my mind, mysteries are inherently political. I was also surprised to learn how many murders in the United States are unsolved. Can you talk a little about that? Or maybe I’ve jotted down some phrases and images. I had a similar experience with mysteries. I used to wander around the West Village in Manhattan, looking for a certain corner of sidewalk. I have to be careful about not overwriting. Were you inspired by current events? Once my life was a little more stable, I expanded my poetry reading habits, but I still didn’t think about writing my own poems for a few years. But after finishing The Red Chameleon, there was still so much I wanted to explore with the characters. I try to draw the sharpest distinction possible between a cartel leader who has no problem with torture and killing and lives in a multi-million-dollar brownstone and hard-working people just trying to survive. You finish a poem that you think is okay, and you’re asking yourself, how did that happen? Now, of course, we’re dealing with entirely different circumstances. Some are heroes while others are flipped or become addicted to drugs. I imagine it’s the same feeling other people get when they exercise. I wanted to write about her rather than a particular story. My PI often pretends to be wealthy — eating at Michelin star restaurants on a client’s dime — and those scenes are fun to write. And try as I might, I can’t help but include animals in everything I write. I started reading poetry seriously after September 11 when I evacuated my building with only one book — T. While generalizations about poets are usually too broad to be helpful, I do believe you must have patience to be a poet. Then she crashes back to reality and returns to her dilapidated apartment building. Our country’s hungry for complexity, I think. When I turned to fiction, I immediately appreciated that writing felt like work. It’s a Sisyphean task, of course, but there’s something satisfying about each attempt. It was the American dream, or rather, where people went to forget about how that dream was a garden in drought, weeds more likely to grow than lettuce and rhubarb. My PI protagonist came to me while I was researching undercover work conducted by the New York Police Department. My students wanted to be detectives, forensic scientists, CIA agents, and such. Can you talk a bit about how poetry informs your fiction? Poets like Kaveh Akbar, Ocean Vuong, and Maggie Smith are selling out their print runs. “Most days, it was hard to say exactly what they wanted,” Kat reflects about the men gathered in a Washington Heights bar.