The Statement Makes Itself
By Sarah M. ChenJuly 24, 2017
Sure enough, I’ve since run into Gardner at various literary events and readings all over Los Angeles and across the country. 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.
Gardner has come a long way since that first reading at Noir at the Bar. 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. Eventually, he returns home to discover his uncle’s farm in foreclosure. His new gig as a process server pits him against organized crime and shady industry tycoons. It’s a poignant, gritty tale of identity, race, corruption, and above all else, family.
We agreed to have a chat at the place we first met, the moody Mandrake Bar. It seemed only fitting.
SARAH M. 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. And just recently, there was a wonderful write-up in the Chicago Review of Books from Lori Rader-Day. Congrats, that has to feel pretty good.
DANNY GARDNER: I woke up to that. I didn’t know it was coming. It’s funny, women read a different book than men. 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. There’s all sorts of stuff in there that a dude will miss that women get. And that’s heavy. I have the overall mystery and then there are two mysteries that are nested within it. A woman can pick up on the first nested mystery and black folks pick up on the second. I know I took a little risk with that, but that’s kind of where I was going.
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. She picked up on that. When people catch those elements, I know they’re connecting with it. I know they’re digging it.
Your book deals a lot with racism in 1950s Chicago. 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. Were you trying to make a statement about race today in the United States?
The book is rooted in real American history. 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. I set the story in the country’s past and if there’s a statement to be made, it makes itself. What I think we don’t pay enough attention to is the subtle racism. Like abject racism is easy to hate, right? It’s gross. It’s abhorrent. Anybody can hate that. But if you’re going to help me, help me with the institutionalized racism, the structural racism, the cultural racism. I’m from Chicago. You’ll never get more racist than that in the United States. So I’m kind of conditioned to let the abject racism roll right off me. Help me with that stuff I can’t fix. The undertow that drags me under although I’m a strong swimmer.
But the thing that I got my radar up for is erasure. That’s the stuff that you don’t even realize you’re doing. 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. That’s erasure. 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 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. You’d give their story.
People ask me, why do we need to know the backstory of Boots, Elliot’s barber, or Spats, Elliot’s tailor? Or Miss Betty, who owns the road house where Buster lives? See that’s the thing. Black folks know that we don’t stand alone in our stories, so we Name Names. I’m coming from a culture that has been a victim of erasure, so I’m Naming Names in my book.
Your book is challenging on many different levels, starting with the title, A Negro and an Ofay. Can you talk about that and why you chose to write it as crime fiction?
I wrote this to be challenging, and it was a challenge for me to write it. But I don’t know if I know how to do anything else.
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. Crime means different things to different people in the United States. But crime is woven into our existence as black folks. They criminalized black people when they couldn’t keep us in chains. We were made to be criminals. For us, crime is life.
To paraphrase Melvin Van Peebles, who wrote Sweetback: “When you’re black, even waiting ain’t easy. Stand here, I’m loitering. If I walk, I’m prowling. And if I run, I’m escaping. If I sit, I’m shiftless. 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.
But my work is challenging because I depict black folks as human. I want my work to depict black folks as living rich lives of emotional and philosophical density. It’s our lives, man. Black people’s experiences are all our experiences.
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. 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. 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. That’s obvious. And we’re fascinated with each other’s race. But we wouldn’t be fascinated with each other’s race if we all weren’t living behind closed doors. 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. But I’m also certain that’s what makes me interesting. I’m certain of it. I’m cool with that.
Let’s talk a little about your publication journey, which is somewhat unusual. Most books don’t get a second life.
I’m young but I’m an old entertainer. Like in stand-up, in acting, and in theater, you get one shot, right? That’s what I’m used to. Or you’re getting booed and somebody tells you to leave. Publishing this book was a new experience for me. I had an opportunity to pull it all back and go after it again. I never took it hard when things stalled. I just looked at it as more time. 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. Sometimes people come into your life just to give you a little bit. The bottom line was I knew I had something and quite possibly for the first time, I was validated enough from within. 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.
Speaking of Elliot Caprice, what characteristics do you value most in him?
His unshakable self-awareness. He knows who he is. 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. Elliot doesn’t shape-shift. He may code switch a little bit to make you feel comfortable. To let you know that he can speak your language. He may question his decisions, but he knows who he is and he operates from that knowing place.
Are you speaking from experience? Is Elliot like you?
I made it to that place and I never looked back. But it took me a while.
What does the future hold for Elliot Caprice and the folks in Southville?
Book One is about women, and how men live in relation to women to navigate their way through life. You’ve got Elaine, Margaret, Willow, and Miss Betty. 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.
Book Two is about true responsibility between people in a relationship. It takes us back to Chicago and is very much about relationships. Fathers and sons, mentors, nemeses. It’s four years later and some fires are slow to die out, including Elliot’s love life. Book Three happens in Washington, DC, and Southville. It’s about results. Bitter outcomes. But it’s still about women. Women are the through line until we’re done with Book Three.
How far are you into writing Book Two? Book Three?
Book Two is all plotted out and two thirds of the way written. I had the first three books written in my head before I wrote the first one. It’s just the way I think, I can’t help it. I live in my head a lot. 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. I put him away. I’d go back to him. Put him away again. Go back to him. Check in on him. Write a screenplay. Write little notes. Elliot’s like family. Elliot’s important to me.
Last question: Who do you like to read and who are your influences?
I like to read my peers. I love your work, Sarah. Reading you motivates me to write. I dig Kellye Garrett’s new joint, Hollywood Homicide. She serves up the complexities of black womanhood mad lovely. Eryk Pruitt’s work is haunting. I like Will Viharo’s work. He’s incredible. He can traverse realities, traverse time periods, traverse cultures, traverse pop cultures. He can do anything.
I don’t read as much when I’m writing because I don’t skim. I languish over the page. I’ll reread passages. It’ll take me like a day to get past one chapter because I go back and I think, now why this word choice? What is it that he’s doing here? Why did she use this?
My primary influence is Octavia Butler. I really like Margaret Atwood for her audacity to use whatever time period, whatever setting, and whatever genre to express herself. I’ve been influenced a great deal by Stephen King’s short stories, his stuff as Bachman. Whatever trip he wants to take me on, I’m good with that. It feels like mind expansion when I read that dude.
I like Marlon James because he speaks the truth. Everybody wants to speak truth to power. That’s sexy. Marlon James will point out your power to you and then speak truth to that. 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 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. Then I’d be good. I would be good forever.
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