July 01, 2016

Bill Beverly: ‘Most novels are about crimes’

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Author Bill Beverly talks about his debut novel, Dodgers, the draw of the American road story, the fiction that shapes us and so much more.

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You’re clearly fascinated by criminal fugitives and the fugitive narrative, as your dissertation on the subject became the book On the Lam. You’ve described fugitive stories as “sister to the Western” or to the American road story. What is it about the fugitive narrative that fascinates you? Why do they seem to be an American tradition, and how does Dodgers contribute to that tradition?
I lucked into my dissertation topic about June 17, 1994, the day that O.J. Simpson rode his white Bronco across Los Angeles. It was a hell of a day to watch TV—I’d gathered a houseful of friends to watch the first day of the World Cup, or so I’d planned. We ended up eating the food, drinking the beer, sending out for more, staying up halfway to dawn watching.

There’s nothing uniquely American about crime novels. Seems to me that most novels are about crimes—or breaking the law, at least. What we in the U.S. do more consistently, more reliably, is to link the run from the police with other tales of movement and self-refashioning—the pioneers, imagining themselves anew in what they call virgin land. Slaves, ripped from Africa, then from each other, and then finding a way out of the South. The cross-country move, the spring break road trip, the exhausting family vacation, the SUV commercial. Each argues that crossing the American distance is transformative. And that transformation is especially relevant to criminals, to characters on the run. More thrillingly so than Raskolnikov’s years in a prison.

Dodgers sure belongs to that tradition—Huckleberry Finn, Thelma and Louise. What does it contribute? That’s a grand question, a little grander than I’d trust an author to answer. Let me volunteer just that white Americans have traveled the landscape, at least the landscape that genocide emptied out for the last century of cars and roads, differently than people of color have traveled it. Maybe East reminds us how that mythic landscape isn’t quite the same for all of us.

Your narrator, East, is a tough kid—but he’s still just a kid. How did his 15-year-old perspective shape this story?
Right. I can only say that it’s central, it’s essential. He’s an unusual 15-year-old: quiet, wary, sharp-eyed, suspicious. His toughness is tangled up with fear. He hasn’t had the luxury of much of a childhood. At the same time, he’s on that cusp between boyhood and manhood, where his capabilities and his innocence and his ambition and his awkwardness can’t be sorted out from each other.

You’ve said that you want readers to take away from this novel “maybe a thought or two about compassion,” especially in respect to East. And our reviewer indeed said Dodgers “will upend your notions of the sort of character with whom you might empathize.” Is this something that drives you as a writer, to seek out and humanize the types of characters that someone else might overlook?
It seems like a noble project, doesn’t it—but I think that really describes fiction in the last century too. Bayard Sartoris, Pecola Breedlove, Olive Kitteridge. The fiction we write, and the fiction we choose to reread and reteach, has helped shape how we think about and empathize with other people.

What was most personal about this novel for you? What was the furthest away from yourself?
I was 15 and very wary, very observant. But I’ve never lived through quite the dark nights that East has.

What mysteries and thrillers do you think everyone must read?
One thing I’ve been saving for myself later this summer is the pleasure of going back and reading Stephen King’s Night Shift. I treasured that book as a teenager, and teenagers are usually right about books, more right than adults.

I am a fan of midcentury pulp: Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Steve Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming. I always forget to acknowledge Native Son. Native Son is a remarkable book. P.D. James’ The Children of Men. I’m fond of stories about the end of the world.

What do you love most about writing thrillers?
Thriller readers want pace. By temperament I’m a little slow. So the genre is corrective. It shuts me up.

What’s next?
Hopefully a summer of good reading and writing. I have a two-foot stack of books on my nightstand at the moment. And I’ve done some work on another piece involving these characters. I did not write Dodgers imagining that there would ever be anything like a sequel. But there’s a door standing open at the book’s end. It’s intriguing to see what might lie beyond it.


Author photo credit Olive Beverly.

It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! All month long, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best mysteries and thrillers. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a daily dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.

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By Bill Beverly
ISBN 9781101903735

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