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. 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. 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.
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. Wright is also the author of the poetry collections All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned and Instructions for Killing the Jackal. She is the poetry editor at Guernica magazine and an editorial board member of Alice James Books.
You can hear the voice of the poet coming through in the observations of the hardened private investigator. “Most days, it was hard to say exactly what they wanted,” Kat reflects about the men gathered in a Washington Heights bar.
Some vague notion of a better job, a better place to live. 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. The American dream could never feed everyone, and yet people kept coming, turning from their own countries toward the poetry of our forefathers. 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. Were you inspired by current events?
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. It wasn’t great. President Obama was deporting people at a faster rate than any previous president. There were protests around the country — small compared to recent protests, but protests nonetheless. The conversation was different, though, and one that focused a lot on policy. 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. Now, of course, we’re dealing with entirely different circumstances. Those in power don’t seem to care about humane treatment, and we now have more than 10,000 children in detention centers.
Why was telling this story important to you? What do you hope readers will get from it?
There’s so much wealth disparity throughout the country, but I think it’s most visible in Manhattan. In a single stretch of sidewalk, you’ll pass someone wearing a $20,000 coat and someone who can’t afford a coat. I didn’t set out specifically to explore this gap, but it’s one that comes up frequently in my novels. My PI often pretends to be wealthy — eating at Michelin star restaurants on a client’s dime — and those scenes are fun to write. Then she crashes back to reality and returns to her dilapidated apartment building. In The Blue Kingfisher, I wanted to consider the jobs that are mostly invisible. 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.
When did you first start writing? Was it poetry or fiction?
When I was an undergraduate student, I wanted to be a dramaturg, which is nearly as impractical as wanting to be a poet. On the other hand, studying theater in New York City was a magical experience. 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. I started reading poetry seriously after September 11 when I evacuated my building with only one book — T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I was evacuated for six weeks, so I read and reread that collection until it seeped into my blood. 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. I had a similar experience with mysteries. 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. But writing novels seemed like such a far-fetched goal that I never dwelled on it.
How did you make the transition to crime fiction?
I was teaching English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. My students wanted to be detectives, forensic scientists, CIA agents, and such. I started looking into those fields, so that I could better relate to them and fell down a research rabbit hole. I became fascinated by undercover work, specifically people going deep undercover and sacrificing years of their lives. Those experiences don’t always turn out too well for the cops. Some are heroes while others are flipped or become addicted to drugs. A character came to me, a former undercover police officer trying to rebuild her life. I wanted to write about her rather than a particular story.
Was there something that surprised you about writing mysteries? Something you didn’t expect?
I was surprised by how quickly a persistent theme emerged — the haves versus the have-nots. 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. About a third. That’s a wild statistic and disheartening in so many ways.
What is your experience working in these two genres? How are they similar? How are they different?
It took me a while to find a link between the two. When I turned to fiction, I immediately appreciated that writing felt like work. I woke up early each morning and worked for an hour. I wasn’t necessarily happy with the content, but there were words on the screen. Poetry doesn’t operate the same way. After an hour of working on a poem? I can still be tapping my pen against a blank piece of paper. Or maybe I’ve jotted down some phrases and images. While generalizations about poets are usually too broad to be helpful, I do believe you must have patience to be a poet. On the other hand, the stakes are typically high in both. Poems are wading into the unknown, trying to make sense of the world’s sorrow — and occasionally its joy. Mysteries, too, are trying to address a big problem: why do humans kill other humans?
In her 2015 article “Poets and Sleuths,” the editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Janet Hutchings, discusses the connections between mystery and poetry. 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?
Yes, I love that. Trying to make order out of chaos. It’s a Sisyphean task, of course, but there’s something satisfying about each attempt.
What are the challenges and/or benefits of working across genres?
I was so nervous about writing fiction at first. Partly I worried that I would never write a poem again. Now that I’ve calmed down a bit, I love being able to work in multiple genres. 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. I imagine it’s the same feeling other people get when they exercise. A little self-satisfied. While I think a lot of poetry craft elements can be taught, there’s still a nebulous ingredient. You finish a poem that you think is okay, and you’re asking yourself, how did that happen?
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?
There’s a whole genre of essay devoted to the death of poetry, but what’s that line? Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated? I don’t fault Hutchings for asking the question, but poetry’s popularity has definitely been on the rise since she inquired. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for more than a year. Instagram poets have massive followings. Poets like Kaveh Akbar, Ocean Vuong, and Maggie Smith are selling out their print runs. Our country’s hungry for complexity, I think. Some days it feels like we’re living in an either/or logical fallacy because the evil is so easy to spot. But just because the evil’s easy to spot doesn’t mean that everything else suddenly becomes clear. On the other hand, mysteries are consistently popular. Their success doesn’t seem to depend on outside events or even specific writers, and that fascinates me. One component might be the pleasure of delving into dark subject matters and coming away with a solution.
You wear the hats of poet, crime writer, and editor. How do you navigate between these three very different roles?
I don’t write poetry and fiction during the same week. I’ve tried, and both suffer. The poetry becomes a little too conversational, the prose a little too purple. And editing is a welcome break because I get to focus outward, help other writers rather than constantly worrying about myself.
Can you talk a bit about how poetry informs your fiction? Do you use any poetic devices?
I have to be careful about not overwriting. When a scene stalls, I tend to fall back on to imagery, looking for a thread to pull. When writing the climactic scene of my second novel, I had about 500 words on how the characters looked like Greek statues. “Too much?” my editor helpfully wrote in the margins. I had to cut the whole passage.
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. Can you talk a little about that?
I’m drawn to elaborate poetry collection titles like Matthea Harvey’s Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form. In general, I view the title of a poem as another opportunity, and I don’t want to waste it. What else can we learn that’s not there in the poem? What else can sing? My poems do often explore violence, so I wanted book titles reflecting that theme. With the novels, I alighted on animals because I thought a chameleon was the ideal metaphor for someone undercover. And try as I might, I can’t help but include animals in everything I write. I remember when I was finishing Instructions for Killing the Jackal, and I told myself that I was forbidden to write another snake poem. So of course I promptly wrote a poem about a cottonmouth.
Reading The Blue Kingfisher, I chuckled numerous times. Can you talk a bit about the use of humor alongside a hard–boiled story line?
I have a gallows sense of humor, and my first drafts typically have more jokes than my final drafts. 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. Ed Lin uses humor well in his series. A lot of my favorite poets, too, have slivers. 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. 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. Tell me a bit about how you came about this cast of characters.
My PI protagonist came to me while I was researching undercover work conducted by the New York Police Department. But I was also thinking about facial blindness, a condition in which someone doesn’t recognize people that they know. Is the opposite possible, for someone to have a face that doesn’t look the same depending on the day or the light? The other characters all appeared to me while writing, especially the drag performer, Dolly, who seemed to leap fully formed onto the page.
How about the shark tank?
I know it’s something of a faux pas to say “that really happened,” but that shark tank really happened. I used to wander around the West Village in Manhattan, looking for a certain corner of sidewalk. 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. If I remember correctly, it was owned by a doctor, though. Not a drug cartel bigwig.
Did you set out to write a series, or did you finish the first book and then realize that there was more?
Oh, I definitely did not set out to write a series. Finishing a single novel seemed like a lofty enough goal. I assume everyone is intimidated by the word count for a novel, but for a poet, it just seemed laughable. 70,000 words? Are you kidding me? 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. Professor Manrique is a gem for letting me pass. I think I had 8,000 words? But after finishing The Red Chameleon, there was still so much I wanted to explore with the characters.
So what’s next for you? Is there a fourth book in the series?
I’m currently finishing a standalone mystery about the death of a reclusive silver screen actress. Then I’ll be writing a book about snakes for Bloomsbury’s wonderful “Object Lessons” series. Hopefully I’ll finally get all the snake writing out of my system. No promises, though.