THE OLD WOMAN and her daughter were sitting on their porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time. The old woman slid to the edge of her chair and leaned forward, shading her eyes from the piercing sunset with her hand. The daughter could not see far in front of her and continued to play with her fingers. Although the old woman lived in this desolate spot with only her daughter and she had never seen Mr. Shiftlet before, she could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of. His left coat sleeve was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it and his gaunt figure listed slightly to the side as if the breeze were pushing him. He had on a black town suit and a brown felt hat that was turned up in the front and down in the back and he carried a tin tool box by a handle. He came on, at an amble, up her road, his face turned toward the sun which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain.
The old woman didn’t change her position until he was almost into her yard; then she rose with one hand fisted on her hip. The daughter, a large girl in a short blue organdy dress, saw him all at once and jumped up and began to stamp and point and make excited speechless sounds.
Mr. Shiftlet stopped just inside the yard and set his box on the ground and tipped his hat at her as if she were not in the least afflicted; then he turned toward the old woman and swung the hat all the way off. He had long black slick hair that hung flat from a part in the middle to beyond the tips of his ears on either side. His face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a jutting steel‑trap jaw. He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.
“Good evening,” the old woman said. She was about the size of a cedar fence post and she had a man’s gray hat pulled down low over her head.
The tramp stood looking at her and didn’t answer. He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross. The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists. She had long pink‑gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.
He held the pose for almost fifty seconds and then he picked up his box and came on to the porch and dropped down on the bottom step. “Lady,” he said in a firm nasal voice, “I’d give a fortune to live where I could see me a sun do that every evening.”
“Does it every evening,” the old woman said and sat back down. The daughter sat down too and watched him with a cautious sly look as if he were a bird that had come up very close. He leaned to one side, rooting in his pants pocket, and in a second he brought out a package of chewing gum and offered her a piece. She took it and unpeeled it and began to chew without taking her eyes off him. He offered the old woman a piece but she only raised her upper lip to indicate she had no teeth.
Mr. Shiftlet’s pale sharp glance had already passed over everything in the yard‑the pump near the comer of the house and the big fig tree that three or four chickens were preparing to roost in‑and had moved to a shed where he saw the square rusted back of an automobile. “You ladies drive?” he asked.
Ed Lynskey’s new novel Lake Charles (new this month from Wildside Press) explores the seamy underbelly of a rural Tennessee community. The book balances traditional crime fiction tropes (fast plotting, hairpin turns, terse dialog, and good old-fashioned violence) with a strong evocation of setting. Lynskey’s novel should make a nice addition to anyone’s summer beach reading schedule. He was kind enough to talk to us over a series of emails about Lake Charles, archetypes vs. stereotypes, violence, and more.
Biblioklept: Your new novel Lake Charles is a crime thriller set in the backwoods of Tennessee in 1979, which you paint as a criminal hotbed riddled with police corruption, a huge marijuana operation, a young lady mysteriously disappeared, and all other sorts of dark intrigue. The setting seems intrinsic to the plot—did the novel originate as an evocation of place, or did the story come first? Or perhaps a mixture of both?
Ed Lynskey: The setting came first. I’ve carried the place inside me since I was a teenager visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. The real Lake Charles is a manmade body of water, not a natural one and that genesis alone corrupts it. The lake had enjoyed a glorious past when it was used for recreation and pleasure, but now the earthen dam is leaky, and the water is scummy, stagnant, and brackish. That’s how I pictured the unsavory setting, and then I molded the criminal elements around Lake Charles. The manmade lake used in James Dickey’s novel Deliverance was in the back of my mind though I’d only seen the film and didn’t read his novel until after Lake Charles got published. Reviewers have cited the native characters as “rednecks” and “hillbillies.” I view those handy labels as a shallow stereotypes. It’s true wild things go on in the boonies. On the other hand, I live in Washington, D.C., and every night on the local news I can see a galore of murders, mayhem, corruption, drug rings, and kidnappings. So the major crimes thrive and seethe everywhere.
B: I’m from the South, and I often find myself feeling offended at certain portrayals of Southerners, which, if done incorrectly, tend to skew to the grotesque. I imagine that a writer never wants to produce a stereotype, but at the same time, certain genres necessitate particular archetypal figures to fulfill reader expectations (not to mention basic plot functions). When crafting a crime noir piece like Lake Charles, do you feel any tension between what is stereotypical and what is archetypal?
EL: The characters in Lake Charles hail from a small mountain town in Tennessee. Though they’re a little rough around the edges and turn violent if pushed enough, I don’t choose to view them as a stereotype. The challenge for the writer, as I see it, is to make the characters familiar enough to the readers but to also keep the characters’ personalities distinct and original. Stereotypes are here to stay. Rick Bragg tells the funny anecdote how his New York City editor wrote in the comment “doublewide what?” on his manuscript. Try hard as they might, they just don’t get it. But getting back to Lake Charles, I wanted a young protagonist, and an older guy who’s a war vet to serve as his mentor because the plot needed that dynamic to be set up. I believe the war vet is probably a flatter character, but the protagonist is coming of age, so I hope he’s a more complex character.
B: I like the relationship between Mr. Kuzawa, the archetypal wise (but gruff) older man, and Brendan Fishback, the protagonist who narrates Lake Charles. Brendan is definitely in over his head, but there’s a certain relief in his having Kuzawa as a mentor. Still, you put Brendan in a lot of trouble. When you were drafting the novel, did you have a clear trajectory for Brendan’s finding a way out of the mess he’s in? Or was it part of your writing process to ensnare your protagonist and see how he might extricate himself?
EL:Lake Charles has gone through numerous revisions, and I don’t recall what my original strategy was for creating Brendan as the protagonist. I knew he was in a heap of trouble, as they like to say down South, but I didn’t think he had the right savvy to find a way out of his sticky jam. If he figured it all out on his own, he’d come off as seeming unbelievable and less credible as the narrator. I’m not sure if Kuzawa is too much of a James Bondian know-it-all who steers Brendan through the wickets. He’s a bit larger-than-life. Sometimes you meet people who seem to suck all the air out of a room with their forceful personality.
B: Switching gears for a moment, Lake Charles isn’t your only novel being published this year, right? Can you tell us a little about your other new books?
EL: You bet. Thank you for asking, too. Quiet Anchorage coming out this spring is a small town cozy mystery featuring two senior amateur sleuths who’re sisters. Their favorite niece is falsely arrested for the murder of her boyfriend, and of course her aunts flew to her defense. I wrote QA to take a break from the noir and hardboiled arena and to have a little fun. The reviews have been generally upbeat and favorable. So, I hope I can publish the second title as a new series next year. The third book, The Zinc Zoo, is the next title in my PI Frank Johnson mystery series. Frank has moved to the suburbs but still manages to get into difficult cases with prickly clients. I’m not sure when TZZ will be out. The publisher has been dealing with a serious family illness since the start of the year. The snazzy front cover art has been finished, so hopefully things will pick up again soon.
B: Three books in a year (plus several novels in the past five or six years)—-that’s fairly prolific. Are you composing these novels simultaneously?
EL: Is it prolific? I never really thought of it that way, but I can see your point, sure. I can’t work on two books at the same time. The plots and characters cross-talk in my brain, and I get things mixed up. I just work steady on one project at a time. I usually woodshed a project for several months before I go back to revise it for presentation. For instance, Lake Charles took me ten years to write from a short story into a published novel. Plus when the economy first went (and still lags) south, I didn’t publish any books for over 18 months. Stuff was just in the pipeline waiting to come out. The erratic schedule makes it more difficult to promote the project because it means I drop whatever I’m working on and shift to do the marketing bit.
B: Clearly you’re having to do some marketing now—but what future projects do you have cooking?
EL: The two large projects looming immediately ahead for me are the second title in the small town cozy mystery series and the large mob novel set in Washington, D.C. But that’s how I envision things today. It’s a fluid situation not because so much is happening as I’m hustling the new projects here and there.
B: Have you ever stolen a book?
EL: I don’t believe I’ve ever filched a new book from a store. I know there was a book swap in the Bermuda bed & breakfast where you left a book if you took one. I think I traded a baseball book for a mystery. That’s about as close as I can get to that situation.