Hey! My kind of guy, Hortense!
Well it turns out this Commie-Pinko-Liberal-Revolutionary- English professor (Lordy! How vicious can you get, Hannibal!?) turns out to be a damn fine writer. He dabbles in the detective/mystery genre--but I have to say his books say more, far more, about life on the quirky/strange side of things than what you might find in the normal run-of-the-mill detective novel. There is a strong, and somewhat twisted, sense of humor that runs through his stories that make you smile, sigh, and say to yourself, "Yeah. Been there; seen that."
He has a character named Frank Coffin. Detective on the Provincetown, MA. police department. (by the way, it is Provincetown . . . not Providence. Get that straight, bubba. Or somebody named Guido will come knocking on your door. Trust me; I know. I met the guy yesterday.) A guy who has his own hang-ups which make him all too human. I like the guy.
I asked Jon if I could interview him. And be damned if he didn't say 'Yes' almost immediately. Apparently the guy likes me. Why I haven't the faintest fraken' clue. But I soon discovered I had a really fascinating talk with the guy. I'm fairly sure you're going to agree with me.
So here we go:
1. All right, I just have to find out; your fictional cop, Frank Coffin, where the hell did he come from?
Frank’s kind of what I imagine I’d be like as a cop, except he’s smarter, a lot tougher and more brave, and, in some respects, luckier than I am. He’s also really phobic: he hates dead bodies and he hates boats. I figured out a couple of years ago that his problem is really alienation: he’s cut off from his past (all of his male family members going back generations died at sea, or in sea-related incidents), and he’s cut off from his work-life to some extent. His dead-body phobia is the result of post-traumatic stress; his boat phobia isn’t really all that irrational, considering. I’m not really phobic, although I don’t like crowds very much. Or heights. Or flying.
2. High Season and Mating Season are the first two of the Frank Coffin series. What compelled an accomplished college professor like yourself to step into the deep murky waters of mystery/detective writing? And . . . as a side bar . . . how have your peers in academia taken to your alter-ego of being a writer of fiction?
Before I started writing the Coffin novels I’d published two books of pretty serious, high-art poetry (I still write and publish poetry: I’ve got a book in progress called Whiskey and Dynamite, about the end of the world). About ten years ago I started feeling that I’d exhausted the big subjects I’d been writing poems about: the deaths of several male relatives, including my father (heart attacks, mostly—not boating accidents), my divorce from my first wife, the partly voluntary, partly enforced loneliness of the writer’s life, and my cardiac arrhythmia, which I lived with for fifteen years before I was able to have it surgically repaired. I was tired of all of it. I was tired of the tight little box that poetry can represent, too, and even tired of myself as a poet—I felt that I was doing the same tricks over and over. So, I started looking for a different kind of challenge. I’ve always been a fan of crime fiction: Chandler and John D. MacDonald and Patricia Highsmith and even Carl Hiaasen are literary heroes of mine (along with people like P.G. Wodehouse and Charles Wright, the Pulitzer-winning poet). I was at a fancy art colony in upstate New York—supposedly to write poems—and I wrote what would become the first twenty pages of HIGH SEASON in about two days. I thought, hell, this is easy! The book came out seven years later. So, not so easy as I thought. Still, fun!
As for my colleagues: some are more supportive than others, but I’m lucky to work in a department that’s remarkably un-snooty about things like genre. Mostly they see the value in what I’m doing, although they continue to be surprised by the rate at which I’m doing it.
3. What I like about your novels is this wiry, sardonic, this almost passive-aggressive kind of humor that seems to permeate all of the books. Is this an artifice designed specially for the series? Or is this brand of humor an intrinsic part of you as well?
I like jokes, irony, one-liners. I have a very hard time being around humorless people. Frank lives in a funny place (Provincetown, MA, which is maybe the only majority gay/lesbian municipality in the U.S.), among funny people, so funny stuff happens. As in life, the really funny things are also often a bit painful. I try not to do slapstick unless it’s absolutely necessary.
4. And speaking about humor and mysteries--just how difficult is it to blend the two together? Do you have any references from other writers who inspired you along this trail?
Maybe Hiaasen, although he doesn’t really do mysteries per se (some of my Amazon reviewers would tell you I don’t, either). I find the humor part inevitable—I’m not really trying to be funny, it just happens because my characters are funny, I think, and their situations are often funny. I don’t actually think I could write a crime novel with a completely straight face. The trick is to balance the degree to which you’re spoofing on the form with the expectation your publisher and your readers have for a satisfyingly plot-driven mystery. I’m pushing that envelope as hard as I can, but I still want to satisfy the basic form and give my readers the illusion, at least, that there’s a mystery to solve.
5. Ah, now the tough question--in your opinion, do you think the academic world does/may someday/or never will-- give the genre you write any greater regard as being potentially excellent 'literature.' Or is this a bogus issue not worthy of discussion?
I think the day is already here in some English departments. At my university we teach lit courses in crime fiction, young adult, fantasy/horror, graphic novels, you name it, along with Beowulf, Shakespeare and the more canonical works. So why not teach those forms in creative writing, too? I understand the literary-fiction-only bias that most creative writing programs have, but more and more I think it does students a disservice. Almost no one writes literary fiction for a living anymore, but it’s still possible to make a living writing popular fiction. Why not teach people how to do that, too?
6. You're soon to come out with the third Coffin installment called Fire Season. (to say I am looking forward to it is a mild understatement!) How does the future look for Frank Coffin past this third book? Can we hope Frank is going to age gracefully in Providence, Rhode Island (the setting for your books). Or are we in store for some violent, shocking end?
I hate it when writers correct their interviewers, but I have to do it here (sorry, B.R.). Frank lives in Provincetown, MA, which is a small town at the very tip of Cape Cod, not Providence, RI, which is the largest city in Rhode Island at about 178,00 people. Two very different places with similar names. People get them confused all the time, so it’s not just you.
Frank’s future is pretty fraught—the arsonist he’s chasing ends up coming after him and his pregnant girlfriend. Also, did I mention that his girlfriend’s five months pregnant? Trouble everywhere you look, in other words. Beyond FIRE SEASON I’m not really sure—a lot depends on the folks at St Martin’s/Minotaur. If they want to keep publishing them, I’ll keep writing them. Until I get bored and move on to something else, that is.
See. I told you you would find the interview fascinating. Remember! It's Provincetown . . . Provincetown . . . Provincetown!
His new book is called Fire Season. I'm not sure when it's supposed to come out--but put it on your 'I need to read this fraken book!' list. It'll be a good'un.