I am thrilled to begin 2018 by interviewing James Grady, co-editor of the MONTANA NOIR anthology. Jim grew up in Shelby, Montana, where his father managed the movie theater (where I later worked) and his mother was a warm, lovely librarian at the Shelby Library (where I spent hours in the stacks). Here in France, one of my favorite moments was listening to Jim present his novel “Mad Dogs” at Festival America in Vincennes.
Jim’s first novel “Six Days Of The Condor” became the iconic Robert Redford movie “Three Days Of the Condor.” It inspired the Soviet Union’s KGB espionage octopus to create a secret 2,000 man spy agency to mimic what Condor did. Jim has gone on to write more than dozen crime, espionage and thriller novels. Named in 2008 by a London newspaper as “one of 50 crime writers to read before you die” (along with Charles Dickens, Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard), Grady’s received France’s Grand Prix Du Roman Noir, Italy’s Raymond Chandler medal, a Japanese Baku-Misu award for literature and numerous American honors for his short fiction. Jim lives in Washington D.C., but returns to Montana often. Today, he and I talk about life in a small town, the challenges of writing about a place you love, and the behind-the-scenes work of editing MONTANA NOIR.
Jim, your story ‘The Road You Take’ is set in Shelby, where the main characters are passing through. One noted, ‘Houses with peeling paint. Vacant lots. A church. A quarter-mile of flat-faced stores, a bank, empty curbs for parked cars… the main drag where teenagers cruised in loops in quests they couldn’t name.’ How has your vision of Shelby changed over the years? Has distance from your hometown helped you write about it?
We all grow up somewhere strange, though I’d argue growing up in the 50’s and 60’s in Shelby, Montana with its illegal bordello run by my “connected” Sicilian uncle and protected by the police and public health officials, with more bars per capita than New York in that town of under 4,000 souls, with oil extraction and railroads, family farms and Main Street businesses making the town bustle, with violence from fists and boots as casual as swatting a mosquito, with brutal weather and a tough cowboys & homesteaders & Indians legacy – all that made Shelby a special, dangerous, wondrous place to grow up. I learned about life from all of that, with most of my education coming from the movie theater my father managed, the library where my mother worked, and the scratchy radio sounds of distant rock ‘n’ roll stations. That was then, and now Shelby is much like most other barely-surviving, respectable small towns in America. My family was honored three years ago as the first family to settle that frontier, and I go back every year, drawn like some kind of tried-to-leave bird, drawn – I now know – by love of what was and is and the souls there who make it so. My vision of the town has changed with the decline I’ve watched in its streets, but more importantly, the humanity of the place has revealed itself to me more and more. I wanted desperately to get out, to not be trapped there, but now I realize I carry that town trapped inside me. The mystery, the irony of my life and art is that until I was 20+ years into my writing career, I couldn’t write about that town as fiction. I’m haunted by a trilogy of Shelby novels, yet every time I start them, I fall apart as an author. I was finally able to write a novella about the town by an editor’s request – THE CHAMPIONSHIP OF NOWHERE, published most notably in a “Best Of” American short stories collection. I’ve been able to write almost a dozen more short stories about my hometown, but the novels… It’s not the lack of plot, it’s…well, something else. Oddly, I’m beginning to think that I need to be closer to the truths of my hometown and the people who made it if I am to write a novel about it and do justice to the town and all of us everywhere.
In the story, you write, ‘She did what you never do in a small Montana town: walked.’The main character is not a native Shelby-ite, and this action really makes her stand out. How is it that in small towns, we live in the country and in nature, but are somehow always in our cars?
Freedom. Where you live is where you want to leave. How far, why, for how long – those answers differ for all of us. We all want to escape to somewhere/something better. If you live in a small town in America, the car represents freedom. The power to get in it and go – even if all the further you can really go are the outskirts of that town. The car is power. Hope. Chance. Adventure. Yeah, convenience to carry more than your arms can hold, but that reality is never the whole of it. To quote the great American author of my generation Bruce Springsteen: “…at night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.”
Can you talk about writing the story?
Early on as Keir Graff and I helped our authors pull their work together into a comprehensible anthology about a place as huge as Montana – bigger than some countries – I realized my duties as a co-editor required me to modify my inspiration for my short story and make it serve readers of the anthology beyond my story’s own entertainment & enlightenment value. I had the perfect story to do what Keir and I thought needed doing. I could use the nomadic, marauding nature of my characters to provide geographic information – how far they traveled between Montana towns and cities that the anthology’s other authors brought to life in their stories. I made – had to make – a “data map” to show how big the state was, where stories “were” in relationship to other stories. And I had to do so subtly (and subtle meant not a full `data map’ of all the other 13 stories, that would have been too obvious and doomed to be boring). All this, of course, within the overall assignment from the publisher’s Noir franchise to write about a specific section of the book’s titled geography. This cost me “room” to develop my characters more fully, but they come to life anyway. I’d chosen Shelby for my story, but had to modify my tale to meet the needs of the rest of the authors and the anthology. As did you, with your story FIREWEED which Keir and I insisted you “generalize” and make about farm life throughout the state by blurring the geography you really set it in (Thank you!). Yvonne Seng agreed to similarly (though less noticeably) modify her story, too, for valid reasons. Such concessions to the needs of the anthology by authors are part of what made the MONTANA NOIR process so wondrous. Plus, a white van crammed with abused & exploited women strippers cruising from small town to small town in Montana is based on a noir reality that muckraker me just had to reveal.
What was your favorite part of putting together the short story collection MONTANA NOIR?
Getting yes’s and then wonderful stories from authors we approached. What a thrill to work with colleagues on a project of pure love.
What were the challenges?
Some of our authors had trouble with deadlines, some had trouble with accepting editing, some had trouble communicating, some had trouble with understanding the noir nature of the work they’d agreed to do.
Your mother was a librarian. I have such fond memories of her and of the Shelby Library. What is your favorite library now?
My favorite library now is one I – and all of us – can only visit to see its splendor: The Library Of Congress. Up until the 1980’s, every author I ever met who lived in Washington always took a lover they were courting to the vast gilded ceiling main reading room, walked through a hundred rows of card catalogs, found the drawer alphabetized to the author’s name, pulled it out and showed – and stared at – that small index card that proved you made it, you were a published author cataloged for all time and history. What a cool moment. Though yeah, usually those who we were courting were underwhelmed. They had different dreams.
What books are on your nightstand?
Beyond a stack of galleys I’m supposed to read to give the authors a marketing blurb, I’m about to lecture on the political novels of Dashiell Hammett, who was inspired by his time as a Pinkerton detective in Butte, Montana, so: RED HARVEST, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE GLASS KEY. And I just realized how grim the two “recreational” books I’m reading are: Philip Pullman’s THE BOOK OF DUST that I hope will be as wondrous as his “Dark Materials” series and not just a Luke Skywalker slog, and THE BOOK OF LONGING, the last collection of poems by Leonard Cohen that I’ve already discovered is brilliant and awe-inspiring.
I think the only way to write fiction about or even set in our surreal times is to confront them, but to do so in a reader-friendly, classically entertaining way, so I’m rushing through a clock-ticking, noir, erotic, often comic “train robbery” novel set aboard the actual Seattle to Chicago train called the EMPIRE BUILDER – also the title of the novel. And as you know, the EMPIRE BUILDER goes through and stops in Shelby. How could I not write this book? Plus, CBS is scheduled to turn one of my short stories – DESTINY CITY – into a TV series, with development scheduled for early this year. Cross your fingers for me. Hell, cross your fingers for every dreaming artist and writer and citizen of our wacky world.