Red Cat Q & A
Q: This is your third John March novel. How has your relationship with this character changed from when you first created him?
A: Looking back, I realize that when I began working on my first book, Black Maps, I knew relatively little about March. I knew the facts, of course, his backstory and such, but in the beginning, many of March’s literary antecedents—Spade, Marlowe, Archer, Dalgliesh and the rest—were more familiar to me than March himself. That had changed by the time I completed my second or third draft of Black Maps, and with each book since I’ve come to know him better. Now, working on my fourth March book, his history is deeper, his motivations are more complex, and his flaws are clearer to me. He’s a more complicated, fully-formed character in my head, and much more familiar.
Which isn’t to say that March has become predictable to me: he hasn’t. One of the great pleasures of writing novels comes when characters reveal themselves to be different in some way from how you initially conceived of them. They turn left when you were expecting a right, and you follow to a new—and almost always better—place. March surprised me on several occasions in Red Cat, and I’m glad he did.
Q: John’s family and their fractured relationships have been part of your previous novels but never as prominently as in Red Cat. What made you want to explore those relationships, especially that of John and his brother David, in so much more depth?
A: I subscribe to Wordsworth’s assertion, that “the child is the father of the man.” Children are stamped indelibly by their families, in ways that influence the relationships they forge, and the expectations they have of the world. Certainly that’s the case with the March children, and I was interested, in Red Cat, in examining some of the emotional baggage John and his siblings carry around (there’s quite a bit).
Exploring March’s family and his dealings with them (and in particular with David), also let me explore aspects of March himself that I hadn’t touched on before. Red Cat is very much a book about relationships—between siblings, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between one’s present and one’s past—and March and his family are at the center of many of these.
Q: Kinky sex on videotape, underground performance art, adultery, not to mention murder?this book is definitely your edgiest. What got you thinking about the plot for this book?
A: A few years ago, I read about one of performance artist Andrea Fraser’s video works, in which she recorded a sexual encounter between herself and an art collector. Fraser was playing with ideas about the relationship between the artist, the collector, and the audience, and it got me thinking about several things: artists who are willing to objectify themselves in their work; the blurry line between certain kinds of transgressive art and pornography; and hidden cameras in hotel rooms. Those thoughts—along with my long-time interest in Joseph Cornell’s work—were the seeds of Red Cat, and drove my decision to set much of the book in the art world.
Q: David, a high powered executive, gets caught up in an internet sex extortion scam. Reading the newspaper, it seems his fictional troubles are played out in real life almost daily. It begs the question: How do people who are so smart and so successful behave in ways that so carelessly expose them to public humiliation. How much has the internet amplified this phenomenon?
A: The propensity of people to drop their drawers (so to speak) in public and humiliate themselves certainly pre-dates the Internet, and probably by many thousands of years. I don’t know that there’s any one reason that drives people to it, but as a writer it’s my duty to indulge in armchair psychology. So I offer up two theories, both of which apply to characters in Red Cat.
I suspect that for some men (and let’s be honest, it always seems to be men in these sorts of fixes), one can argue that it’s a toxic side effect of success. Success (a certain corporate variety of it, anyway) may breed in them an inflated sense of entitlement, which may in turn undermine whatever impulse control they possess. These men spend their days surrounded by people who say only “yes” to them, and so they become less inclined to say “no” to themselves. “I’ve earned this,” they reason, “I deserve it.”
Another by-product of success for some men—the flip-side of inflated entitlement perhaps—may be heightened feelings of self-loathing, which then encourage ever more self-destructive behavior. At some level these men feel that their success is undeserved—a fraud somehow, and the more success they achieve, the stronger their need to flush it down the toilet. “I don’t deserve any of this,” they may think, “so let me burn it all down.”
The Internet doesn’t cause these urges, but I think it makes it easier for people to indulge them. It offers instant gratification and the illusion of anonymity, and in that way I suppose it’s a kind of attractive nuisance for them—like an unfenced swimming pool.
Q: Wren is a fascinating female character; an artist who literally risks everything for the sake of her work. Is she modeled on anyone in particular or totally a creation of your imagination?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I found inspiration for Wren’s videos in one of Andrea Fraser’s works, but I don’t know Ms. Fraser herself. And while I know women who share some of Wren’s attributes (though not her tattoo or her way with a video camera), she sprang mainly from my imagination. And I enjoyed writing her. She’s an interesting and admirable person in many ways—talented, brave, beautiful, and totally committed to her work. But she’s also quite damaged—selfish, cruel, angry, manipulative, and terribly self-destructive. All in all, she’s a complicated piece of work.
Q: Can you give us a hint as to what might be next for John?
A: I won’t say much about the next March book, except that it takes John to Los Angeles, and it sees the return of Jane Lu and another, much less friendly, character from March’s past.
Q: You have also been busy editing a collection of “Wall Street Noir.” Can you tell us a little about that project and why Wall Street lends itself so well to tales of deceit and mischief?
A: Wall Street Noir, a collection of short crime fiction set at the “dark end” of The Street, is coming out in June 2007, from Akashic Books, and it includes stories from Wall Street pros, as well as from veteran crime writers. Editing it was a great experience—much more work than I imagined, but also much more rewarding than I expected, and I’m very pleased with how it’s turned out.
Besides being a labor of love, the project was an opportunity to explore what has been a belief of mine since the first time I walked on to a trading floor: that Wall Street is a very noir-ish place indeed. It has a long history of crime, of course, with new chapters being written every day, and there are truly immense sums there for the stealing. But beyond these, and behind the shiny public face the industry tries to present, one can find—on trading floors, in board rooms, and in back-offices—a theatre of dysfunctional egos, cutthroat competition, class struggle, desperation and sweaty paranoia. It’s a milieu that’s much more Jim Thompson than Warren Buffet, and one that I find endlessly fascinating.