|Steve Womack: Nashville Noir|
If the only Nashville residents you can name are Garth Brooks and Minnie Pearl, you need to meet Harry James Denton and his friends. Well, maybe not all his friends, unless your idea of fun includes hanging out with repo men, bouncers, strippers, arsonists, pornographers, and assorted ladies and gentlemen with homicide on their minds.
Maybe you'd better settle for reading about Harry. Author Steve Womack chronicles the ex-reporter's new career as low-rent private eye with a blend of action, humor and local color that has won him an Edgar and a growing band of dedicated readers. And trust me, Womack will show you a side of Music City you'll never see on the Nashville Network.
Crescent Blues: To start off, congratulations -- your first book in the Harry Denton series, Dead Folks' Blues, won an Edgar, and the most recent, Murder Manual, was nominated for another Edgar. How does it feel to have this kind of critical acclaim -- and how has if affected your work?
Steve Womack: Obviously, being nominated for an Edgar feels really good. But in fact, every installment of the series has been nominated for a mystery award of some kind. The Denton books have garnered three Shamus nominations and an Anthony nomination as well. It's very gratifying to have the books this well received. How has it affected the work? I don't know that it has very much, except that it keeps me writing them and my publisher publishing them. Maybe I'm a little more confident now than in the beginning of the series, but probably not much.
Steve Womack: The circumstances of Harry's life were almost entirely made up out of my own research and life experiences. I was a reporter for awhile, but only for a short while, and I certainly wasn't an award-winning investigative reporter like Harry. As for Harry's character and emotional make-up, much of that has an element of autobiography to it, in the sense that I wish I could be more like Harry. He's quite sure of himself in the world, without being arrogant or cocky, and he doesn't seem to be plagued with anxieties, neuroses and self-doubt. So in that sense, I wish I could be more like Harry.
Crescent Blues: What about Jack Lynch, the hero of your earlier series set in New Orleans, who is a publicity man. Was this part of your work experience?
Steve Womack: Only in that I once worked for a newspaper that was owned by a very rich financier in New Orleans and as such, I was more of a public relations flack than a real reporter. Those books -- Murphy's Fault, Smash Cut and The Software Bomb -- disappeared very quickly, and I always thought that was a shame because in many ways they're some of my best work. They're much more serious than the Denton books, I think. They were very heavily influenced by my reading of the great Southern novelists, especially Robert Penn Warren.
Crescent Blues: Some of the events in your books, such as the firebug in Torch Town Boogie, the second book in the series, or the religious cult besieging the morgue in Way Past Dead, sound as if they were inspired by real events -- are they?
Steve Womack: Oh, yes. Absolutely. Torch Town Boogie was based on an actual case here in Nashville where an arsonist was torching homes in East Nashville that were being gentrified by yuppies, gays, and lesbians. Way Past Dead was a retelling, in some ways, of a story involving a fundamentalist cult here in Nashville. But in all the stories or books I write that are based on true stories, the truth is only a starting place for fiction. It's a thin structure to hang a story on, and then takes on a life all its own. None of my books are straight fictional accounts of actual events.
Crescent Blues: A lot of people hear "Nashville" and all they can think of is country music. I liked the fact that although the music industry is definitely part of the background in all your Nashville books, so far only the third book, Way Past Dead, centers around people from that world. Was this part of a deliberate attempt to show the rest of the country that there's lot in Nashville beyond the Grand Ole Opry?
Steve Womack: This was absolutely deliberate. I wanted to get past the myths of Nashville and the surface appearance. Yes, country music is a big part of Nashville, but this is also a center for universities, printing and publishing, insurance, health care. The company that became American Express was started here in the late Twenties. Nashville is full of old money and aristocratic political power, a great deal of it thoroughly corrupt. It's a gold mine for a writer.
Crescent Blues: I love the riff you do on The Big Sleep in Chain of Fools, and then later in the book -- well, not to put in a spoiler, let's just say another major noir classic. You mentioned Robert Penn Warren as an influence -- what about Raymond Chandler?
Steve Womack: Chain of Fools was in many ways a departure for me. The book is much darker than the others, and this came out of a period where I went back and reread the old masters, including Chandler. I set out to create a film noir on paper, one that did pay a certain homage to writers like Chandler.
Crescent Blues: What other writers do you like to read?
Steve Womack: There are too many to list here without leaving some out. I think this is a golden age of literature in general and for mystery fiction especially. Some of the best writers working today are in mystery and crime fiction. It's too much to keep up with, but it's sure fun trying.
Crescent Blues: Okay, I have to ask, what is it with you hard-boiled guys? You introduce a character, you make us like him, and then you start torturing the poor schnook. About the time Harry Denton's getting good enough at detecting not to starve -- well, again, I don't want to give any spoilers, but by now you've put him and everyone he knows through just about every major life event or crisis imaginable. Is that a deliberate plan for developing the character, or is that just the way it seems to work out as you write the series?
Steve Womack: Both, actually. I do believe very strongly in the classical structure of story and of the notion that nothing moves a story forward except conflict. So I've been accused of belonging to the "one damn thing after another" school of plotting, and I guess I have to plead guilty as charged. However, I do object to being called "hard-boiled." I don't write hard-boiled mystery fiction, at least not in the accepted sense. I think of hard-boiled fiction as graphically violent, emotionally shallow, action-oriented and plot-driven, and on occasion, misogynist. My books aren't anything like that, I don't think. They're very character driven, with characters that I at least hope are emotionally complex and layered. And while women are villains in my books about as often as men, I at least hope they're treated fairly. That's certainly my intention.
Crescent Blues: You've also shown Harry's transformation from a yuppie who occasionally writes articles about repo men, nude dancers, and other people living on the other side of the tracks to someone who has become very comfortable living there himself. How planned was that transformation?
Steve Womack: Not very. It was more of an evolutionary thing, and at least partly comes out of my own stuff. As I did research for the books, I delved into certain dark sides myself. I can see the attraction of it. And while I hate the pain and suffering that crime causes in our society, I can't deny that criminals are some of the most interesting people I've ever met. I spent four years teaching in a prison and it was one of the most intense experiences of my life.
Crescent Blues: At the end of Murder Manual, it sounded a little as if Harry was riding off into the sunset -- I can't tell you how relieved I was to know from your introduction that you're not ending the series, just taking Harry out of town to Reno for book six. Why Reno--and what else is in store for Harry?
Steve Womack: Reno was a practical move that served two functions. First, it gave me a break from Nashville, which after five books the series needed. And second, it gave me a chance to go out west and see my friend Mike Price, who's a sort of semi-retired comedy writer out in Reno. So I managed to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Crescent Blues: You use a lot of real Nashville locations in the books -- not just well-known places, but real down-to-earth restaurants and ordinary shopping centers. Do your Nashville readers like this, or do you get a lot of quibbles about the way you describe their city?
Steve Womack: Readers who know Nashville seemů