On April 30, the Mystery Writers of America will present the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author to one of five authors, Tom Epperson, David Fuller, Francie Lin, Charlie Newton or Justin Peacock. I'm lucky enough to be able to interview three of these authors, and share those interviews here.
Today, I'm fortunate to have the chance to ask questions of David Fuller, author of Sweetsmoke (Hyperion). Thank you, David, for answering questions for my readers. As an Edgar nominee for Best First Novel by an American Author, your name is probably unfamiliar to many readers. Would you tell us a little about yourself?
Hello, Lesa. It's a pleasure to get a chance to answer your questions. I was born in Chicago, and lived for a number of my pre-teen years in Europe. I had planned to be a painter – and went to an art school for a year -- but got the bug to make movies. I knew that to have any kind of chance to work in film I would need to learn to write. I spent many years writing screenplays professionally, and a number of films have been made from my work. Some of those films even have my real name on them. And one of the movies with my name on it does not include any of my work! Welcome to Hollywood.
I have been married for many years to the wonderful Liz Sayre, and we have a couple of 11 year old boys.
Your novel, Sweetsmoke, has been nominated for an Edgar. Would you summarize it for us, without spoilers?
SWEETSMOKE is the story of Cassius Howard, a slave on a tobacco plantation during the Civil War. Cassius goes after the murderer of a freed black woman, a woman who once saved his life and taught him how to read. Cassius’s journey is dangerous; if caught, he faces extreme punishment in the form of whippings, hobbling or even death. But it is a journey he is compelled to make once he gets a taste of knowledge.
How did you learn about your Edgar nomination, David? What was your reaction?
My wife and I walk our sons to school every morning, then take a long walk ourselves. We returned home to find a phone message from my agent, Deborah Schneider. She was anxious to speak to me, as she was about to board an airplane. As excited as I was, I think she was even more pleased. I then heard from my UK editor, Jenny Parrott, via email. My publisher didn’t know, so I got to be the bearer of good news.
Like another nominee, Tom Epperson, you have written screenplays. How is writing a screenplay different than writing a novel? Do you have a favorite screenplay?
A screenplay is the skeleton for a motion picture. It must be lean, and had better be simple and straightforward. Screenplays run around 120 pages, as they roughly translate to a minute a page. Characters need to be introduced quickly, and the plot should kick in fast. There is no room for long descriptive passages or introspection. Novels allow the writer to get inside a character’s head. You also have breathing room to explore ideas, to ‘visualize’ through language the world around you. In SWEETSMOKE, I included a chapter wherein Cassius reads the opening to THE ILIAD for the first time. He has a small, pleasant epiphany when he reads that the god Apollo sends a plague down upon the Greeks in order to force them to free the slave girl Chryseis. To read of a god helping to free a slave – what a revelation. A moment like that would never be found in a movie, but in a novel there is room to explore the workings of Cassius’s mind.
You ask if I have a favorite screenplay. If you mean of all the screenplays I have read, there are many wonderful screenplays, including Robert Towne’s CHINATOWN, which is so good it has ruined many screenwriters. If you mean of my own work, I am sorry to say that you would not have heard of it, as the best screenplays rarely get made, although sometimes they get sold. I wrote for a number of years with an excellent partner, Rick Natkin, and our most commercial screenplay was made into the worst movie of the 1990s. It was an original screenplay that was rewritten completely. Not one word we wrote is in that movie, but we were unable to get our names off the film. That film was THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS, and the original screenplay remains a real kick in the pants.
Did you always want to be a writer, David?
As mentioned earlier, I did not always want to be a writer. But I loved to tell stories. SWEETSMOKE was a story I felt could not be told properly in screenplay form – and I was concerned at what it might become once I sold it (see above, The Taking of Beverly Hills). I could only imagine some movie executive saying, “You know, this is very good… but does Cassius have to be black?” I wanted readers to read my actual words and feel the story they way I felt it.
What pushed you to write your first novel?
Without meaning to sound coy, what pushed me to write my first novel had something to do with arrogance and a feeling that I actually had something to say. That novel, by the way, was not SWEETSMOKE, but a tortured and arty creation I wrote coming out of college. It was quite terrible, but I learned an enormous amount about writing, particularly what not to do when you’re writing a novel.
Who would you say influenced you in your writing? Who do you like to read now?
Everyone influenced me. There are great writers whose work I’m sure accidentally slips through onto my pages. There are also terrible writers whose work may do the same thing. In the case of SWEETSMOKE, I was influenced by Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin series, as he wrote brilliantly about the early 1800s, and I needed to be in that century. It was a lucky connection, as he was writing about England and warships early in the century, while I was writing about a tobacco plantation in Virginia in the middle of the century. Over the years, I have had the great good fortune to be surrounded by a number of excellent writers who have been gracious enough to read my work in its various incarnations and give honest, brutal notes. The first such author was Carter Scholz, author of RADIANCE, and I am forever grateful to him for his patience and cranky specificity.
I wish I had more time to read for pleasure. Right now I am only able to read non-fiction books for research for my next novel.
If you attend the Edgar Awards ceremony at the end of the month, what author would you like to meet there? Why?
I plan to attend the Edgar ceremony, and there are so many authors I would like to meet. I look forward to meeting them all.
Are you working on another book? Can you tell us anything about it?
I am working on another book. I presented four ideas to my agent, and she pointed to one, pulling me off the book that I assumed she would approve. I am doing research for it now, but unlike SWEETSMOKE, I will not spend eight years researching. I hope to begin writing in earnest some time this summer. I can tell you that it will be set in the years after the Civil War.
And, the last question is one I always ask. I'm a public librarian, David. Do you have any special memories or comments about libraries?
Our local library is a block and a half away, and there are tiles in their courtyard with my sons’ names on them. My boys and I never go there without visiting their tiles. When they were little, I particularly enjoyed taking them to the library, as we would sit on cushions in the children’s section and I would read to them. Sometimes other children would be drawn in to listen.
Our local library, although small, has a beautiful copy of Alexander Pope’s translation of THE ILIAD, which I borrowed and worked from in the section of SWEETSMOKE where Cassius first encounters Apollo. I also found a number of books I did not know existed about slave life on the plantation. I honor my local library, and the joy was discovering how incredibly important it was to my research.
Thanks so much, Lesa, for giving me the opportunity to speak with you.
Thank you, David. I really appreciate the time you took for the interview. And, what beautiful library comments! Thank you. And, good luck at the Edgar Awards!
David Fuller's website is http://www.sweetsmokedavidfuller.com
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Sweetsmoke by David Fuller. Hyperion, ©2008. ISBN 9781401323318 (hardcover), 320p.