Ghosts and Grifters: Adrian Van Young on His New Historical Crime Novel




TOLD IN A POLYPHONY of five voices — along with a chorus of the undead — Adrian Van Young’s sprawling historical crime novel Shadows in Summerland takes as its subject the Spiritualist movement of the mid-19th century. It coalesces around the figures of William Mumler, a so-called “spirit photographer” and charlatan in the grand American tradition of rogues and con men, and his wife, Hannah, who may or may not be able to communicate with the dead. Mining the rich territory between literary realism, crime, gothic, and horror fiction, Van Young paints a remarkably clear-eyed portrait of a singular era in American history, one in which both the abolitionist and the women’s suffrage movements — movements with which Spiritualism was aligned — were exerting a decisive sway on the nation’s conscience. Van Young and I corresponded over the course of several weeks while he was traveling to promote the book in Canada and the United States, and we finished up the interview when he was home in New Orleans. In particular, I was interested in how he thought Mumler’s era resonated with our own, and in how he has learned to live — and write — with one foot in the world of literary fiction and one in the world of genre.

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TOM ANDES: It seems to be a truism that science fiction tells us more about the era it was written in than it does about any imagined future. Do you think the same can be said for historical fiction?

ADRIAN VAN YOUNG: I both do and don’t think that’s true of historical fiction. The best historical fictions reveal in two directions: the time period in which they’re situated, and the present cultural moment in which they are written. For example, Peter Carey’s wonderful, sinister 1997 novel Jack Maggs — sort of a send-up of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations — reveals a lot about Victorian London, the Australian national character, and the literary culture of 19th-century Europe, but with characters, character trajectories, and a metafictional playfulness that are very much of its own day and age. It’s a Gothic Victorian melodrama, and yet it’s completely unsentimental and self-aware.

Your parallel to science fiction is apt. In a lot of so-called “hard” science fiction the imagined future is essentially all that’s under discussion. There’s very little satire or implied cultural commentary, which, if you ask me, is one of the chief pleasures of the genre. I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as “hard” historical fiction, but the designation should exist. This is the kind of historical fiction that seeks to investigate the era in which it’s set to the exclusion of all else. And there’s a kind of romantic mimicry going on that can divert fiction from what is at least partly its intended purpose: interrogation. So I would say, then, that all good historical fiction reveals the era in which it’s written, but this quality isn’t ubiquitous across the genre. I’m generally not interested in fiction that doesn’t.

What do you think Mumler’s story, especially, has to tell us about 2016? How do you see his era as resonating with our own?

I think Mumler’s story has a lot to tell us about 21st-century America. Little could I have known it when I began researching the novel in 2008, but Mumler and others like him prefigure Donald Trump’s meteoric trajectory in the 2016 presidential race. It’s the legacy of the American confidence man, a phenomenon whose origins are rooted firmly in the 19th century: William Mumler, P. T. Barnum, and so many others — not only in the Spiritualist movement but in all sectors of society — then moving into the 20th century with Huey Long and Thomas C. Anderson (both Louisianans), and on into the 21st with “Bernie” Madoff and the Wall Street bankers who caused the collapse of ’07-’08, and now Trump. These are Mumler’s people!

It’s interesting you mention Donald Trump and that particular brand of American demagoguery, which seems to come from both ends of the political spectrum. Long, for example, is commonly supposed to have pulled Roosevelt to the left. That makes me think of how the Spiritualists aligned themselves with political causes that were ahead of their time: abolitionism and women’s suffrage, for instance. I wondered if you could talk about the intersection between charlatanism, on the one hand, and these noble intentions. How deeply were the Spiritualists involved in these causes?

Spiritualists, in many cases, spearheaded far-left liberal causes in cities across the Northeast, starting in the 1850s and past even the so-called “debunking” of Spiritualism in the early 1880s. In the case of women’s rights, for example, female mediums and trance-speakers employed Spiritualism, a trendy religious and social movement, as a means to advance what we now identify as feminist causes. You’d sit down at a séance expecting to hear about your niece passed from the fold and she would return, via the medium, to tell you that everything was great, but also that you should enshrine the ascendancy of women in the public sphere. At the same time, simply being a woman and a medium or trance-speaker in 19th-century America was a feminist cause in and of itself because it allowed for so many self-employed, unmarried women to speak their minds in public. Interestingly, though, there would also be tension between mediums — women who led séances and employed parlor trickery — and trance-speakers, women who passed into mesmeric trances on stage and held forth on various liberal causes. In Shadows in Summerland, Fanny Conant (in real life, J. H. Conant) embodies this complex dynamic.

Mediums came to see trance-speakers as too bound up in political aims and not enough focused on the religious (and economic) incentives of Spiritualism, whereas trance-speakers saw mediums as mercenary frauds unable to part ways with the parlor trickery of the movement to advance their social agenda. And then there were those — like the Fox sisters, who invented modern Spiritualism — who were more or less in it for the money and notoriety.

To what extent does a spirit photographer like Mumler legitimately provide a service for his customers, giving them something they want?

In the novel and historically, I see Mumler as an individual who made quite a bit of money providing people with something entirely valid. This conviction I have applies, by extension, to the greater Spiritualist movement. Due to a high infant mortality rate, slavery, the scourge of various epidemics, and the Civil War, the people of mid-to-late 19th-century United States were in a great amount of psychic anguish, and Spiritualism provided a panacea for that anguish. Who am I, now, as a 21st-century American, to judge my countrymen and -women of more than a hundred years ago for seeking that out? That doesn’t make Mumler not a fraud, but it does mean in some sense that he didn’t actually shirk on his contract with his sitters, which was to ease them in their grief. In his duplicity, then, I do suppose I see him as a novelistic figure of sorts: he seduces you away from the world that’s before you, replaces your life with a thing that it isn’t. You have to trust that the journey is worthwhile.

I could variously describe Shadows in Summerland as a historical, a gothic, a crime, or possibly a horror novel, or a literary version (whatever that means) of any of the above. How do you see yourself writing in relation to genre? Do you think of this book as fitting into a discrete category? Certainly genre provides a useful marketing distinction — but beyond that, how is genre useful to you as a writer, assuming it is at all?

I’m very conscious of genre as I write and find it rather useful, creatively and critically. In the past five years or so, there’s been a great deal of hemming and hawing over what people have been calling the “genre wars,” the division between literary fiction and genre fiction. (Here, of course, genre fiction is being used as a pejorative, literary fiction as a term that denotes cultural capital.) At many points in time over the course of those five years, various people (mainly on the literary side) have proclaimed the “genre wars” moot, a pitched battle. The most recent armistice was marked, in many minds, by Kelly Link’s being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her collection Get in Trouble. If you ask me, though, the notion of genre is instructive from a craft perspective, even if there really was no war to begin with. I’m fine with being called a genre writer, which I often am. I’m also fine with being called a literary writer, which I also often am. Genre, in my mind, is less a label than a tool that allows a writer to determine and then subvert a reader’s expectations in interesting ways.

When I wrote Shadows in Summerland, I had it in mind to write an old-fashioned Gothic historical novel with a strong horror and crime element (as you suspect) that would subvert the reader’s expectations on three levels: whether the reader was entering a realist or non-realist universe; whether the five first-person points of view present themselves accurately to the reader and each other; and whether the events in the novel were meant to represent themselves or something more universal and timeless. All of these elements in the novel pivot, in one way or another, on a reader’s genre expectations. For instance, if you think you’re reading a horror novel, then you’re going to have distinct expectations for how the ghosts in the narrative behave, because we’ve been preconditioned as readers (and viewers) of ghost stories to see them as agents of vengeance or redemption, which they aren’t in the book. Or, if you think you’re reading a crime story, you’re going to set yourself up for some kind of twist over the course of the novel, and there is a twist — several twists — as you know, just maybe not the twist you’d expect.

According to Tony Tost, who writes for the television series Longmire, the real stakes in literature aren’t life and death, “but between self-knowledge and lack of self-knowledge, and those stakes are perhaps most meaningful when worked out in the confines of a popular genre.” In his formulation, character is destiny (thesis), genre is destiny (antithesis), and story is the synthesis. To what extent did your characters resist you when you were writing this book?

The characters did resist me, but not the characters you’d think. The female characters I conceived of when I was mapping out the novel remained more or less consistent throughout the many stages of drafting. The three principal male characters — William Mumler, William Guay, and Bill Christian — were trickier to get a handle on, and each of them changed quite a bit over the course of five drafts. Mumler resisted me because, in the first few drafts, it was hard for readers and myself to get a lock on what was driving him — motivating him to pursue what de Tocqueville called “the bootless chase of […] complete felicity,” a 19th-century conception of the American Dream. To solve the problem, naturally, I took cues from other books with grossly unlikeable and unreliable narrators — American Psycho, Lolita, All the King’s Men, The Book of Evidence, Tampa — while also allowing Mumler’s motivations to be fairly uncomplicated. In the end, I think Mumler is after a sense of status and mattering in the world, but since he feels that wanting status is gauche and antithetical to the ingrained cultural notion of status, especially in Boston in the mid-to-late 19th century, he doesn’t want you to know that he wants it, if that makes sense. More intangibly, he wants a specific kind of absolution for an act that shall here go unnamed — though the recognition that he wants remains largely hidden, even from Mumler himself, which is why your comment about self-knowledge is apropos. The main thing that surprised me in the process of drawing Mumler, however, was that he wasn’t strictly unreliable, but rather a reliable narrator masquerading as an unreliable narrator, which makes him doubly unreliable. He lies about or consciously distorts certain things, but is utterly truthful about others. It’s your job, as the reader, to sort through the truths and untruths and make your assessment of Mumler from there.

Guay and Bill Christian resisted me in entirely different ways: Guay, the Faulknerian man-child religious fanatic and Mumler’s left-hand man, in that his point of view was somewhat overabundant in early drafts, and I decided to heed a reader’s advice that “a little of him goes a long way”; and Bill, a brothel enforcer and Mumler’s right-hand man, in that I made myself uncomfortable in early drafts in my depiction of him as the principal black character in a way that worked against his believability, and I ended up making a conscious effort to have that somewhat wrongheaded depiction work for him as a character in subsequent drafts.

I found Mumler in particular very charismatic, as I suppose most conmen are. How did knowing the story in advance shape the way you wrote the book, and how did the book shape itself? How much agency can your characters have when you know their destinies?

I find your fondness for Mumler gratifying and, although you’re not the first reader I’ve encountered to have such a reaction, I must admit it always surprises me. Clearly, it wasn’t my intention to have the reader loathe Mumler, because that would limit him as a character, and given that he’s such a major character in the scope of the novel I couldn’t afford to do that. But, let’s be honest, he is a total son of a bitch! He does some reprehensible — even unforgivable — things over the course of the book. In earlier drafts I drew him much more along the lines of Humbert Humbert or someone like that, who’s trying to bring you around to his side by distorting logic and distracting you with pretty language, but in later drafts I decided to make his villainy more overt and unapologetic — he has nothing to hide because, in his conception, he’s done nothing wrong — until finally I conceived of him as a kind of 1800s hipster-bro: a solipsistic person not without talent or intelligence who hopes to capitalize on the zeitgeist of the moment and trick you into understanding, if not liking, him in the process.

Even though I knew he had to die at the end — as Mumler himself died, in poverty and obscurity, in 1884 — the manner and significance of his death kept morphing in successive drafts. As for the other historical characters — William Guay, Fanny (or J. H.) Conant, Hannah Mumler, Katherine Fox, Emma Hardinge Britten (referred to in the novel as E. H. B.), Charles Livermore, Marshall Tooker, Elbridge T. Gerry, Counselor Townsend, and Abraham Bogardus — many of their lives (save Katherine and Emma’s) were mostly uncharted by the historical record, which allowed me to do with them as I pleased. Their relationships with each other, their personalities and the trajectories of their lives, are complete extrapolations. The whole thing is a grand imaginative project — a revisionist historical novel.

We have this perhaps outmoded notion of the novelist as this solitary person who removes himself — in this formulation, I feel like it’s usually a him — from the world and returns bloodied, bruised perhaps, with novel in hand. Based on what I’ve read in other interviews, your approach seems more — collaborative. I’m not sure that’s quite the word I want, but I wondered if you could talk about how the process of writing can be communal as well as solitary.

That’s a great and worthwhile question to ask any writer. I constantly struggle with the notion of writing fiction as this über-solitary blood sport that has to shake you to your very soul every time you do it. Of course, some writers experience it that way, and I respect that. But that’s never been my experience. And in fact, I feel like that doesn’t apply to a whole lot of other writers, either — that sometimes people are afraid to admit that in addition to being laborious and emotionally taxing, writing is a pleasure and a privilege.

I’ve always been a collaborative writer, and I think that’s the perfect term for it, actually. My MFA mentor, Ben Marcus, said something on the first day of my first workshop with him that’s really stuck with me: the writing workshop is one of the last great collaborative art forms and so, in critiquing each other’s work, you will actually be participating in the process of writing and rewriting each other’s work. I think that’s really true.

I’m in a gobsmackingly awesome writing group down in New Orleans where I live. Though we all write prose of one kind or another, we’re pretty different in what we produce. And I’ve felt that for everything I’ve turned into the group, each of the members at some point in time has had something to say about it that I never would’ve thought of in the grip of my own workspace. Also, I never fail to consult two other fantastic readers in the process of drafting my work: my wife, Darcy, and one of my closest friends, Lincoln. I think both of them have read pretty much everything I’ve written in the past 10 years, and there’s nothing that hasn’t undergone significant changes at either of their say-sos.

This collaborative approach has made me more adaptable as a writer and therefore more productive. Having your work constantly under the exacting scrutiny of others makes you less particular and calcified in your writing habits. You can kind of write wherever, whenever, however, because you know what you’re working on is contingent.

Though Shadows in Summerland has been billed as your “debut,” this is actually your second book: your story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything won the prestigious St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press in 2011. You seem like a small press success story, which is very inspiring. Can you speak to your experience with small presses?

Debut, right?! I just think people love to use that term, especially in the context of a novel. I guess novels tend to suck all the air out of the room for a reason that’s always been beyond me, because I treasure the short story form and, in many ways, think of myself as a short story writer as much as a (debut) novelist. It could just be because no one read my first book! Which is understandable: it was a really weird book.

Whatever the case, it’s nice to be called any kind of “success story.” Small presses have treated me splendidly over the years. Initially, I went out with both books to bigger houses with an agent and everything but, through a confluence of events involving bad timing and lots of rejections, both processes ended up being curtailed halfway through. I’ve never looked back, though. Both Black Lawrence and ChiZine have done exceedingly well by me. Though I have no real personal basis of comparison, there is something really nurturing and aesthetically tuned-in about the small press experience.

Does that mean I wouldn’t one day like to receive more material compensation for what I spend so much of my life doing? No, it doesn’t. But, if you look at writing fiction as I look at it — an empathetic projection that narrative makes phenomenological, experiential, custom-fitting that projection with form and feeling — then the small press is as well suited to that as anywhere. Philosophically, maybe, better suited.

What are you up to now?

At the moment, I’m navigating a lot of promotion of Shadows in Summerland, which is both overwhelming and strange. (Not that I’m complaining.) Otherwise, I’ve got a working draft in order of a new collection of stories, Hello My Midnight Self, It’s Me. It hews more palpably toward literary horror and the fantastic than The Man Who Noticed Everything, which was more rooted in the Southern Gothic tradition, generally speaking. As I put finishing touches on that, I’m hoping to finally have the all clear for making some headway through a new novel called Rough Beast. I’ve been describing it to people as a noir take on The Great Gatsby — a book I feel is overrated but has for some reason stuck with me. It’s about the black metal scene in present-day New Orleans — specifically, a band called Bethlehem (which bears no relation to the actual German band), who find themselves caught up in a web of murder, domestic terrorism, and occult mystery. To immerse myself in that form and that milieu, I’ve been going to black metal shows (“research,” I call it) and trying to read lots of murder mysteries (Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Agatha Christie, Megan Abbott). In about a week and a half I’ll be going to see the Norwegian band Taake here in New Orleans alongside Wolvhammer, Witch Burial, and Mehenet. In case you need to find me, I’ll be the dad-looking guy in black nursing an IPA for three hours while taking notes furiously on my smartphone.

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Tom Andes has published fiction in Witness, Natural Bridge, Best American Mystery Stories 2012, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans and can be found here: @thomaseandes.

 


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