Midwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author Bill Beverly about his novel Dodgers, the inescapability of weather, dreaming of L.A., and more.
Audrey Meyers: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Bill Beverly: Born and bred in Kalamazoo out of Illinois and Michigan parents. Grew up listening to Tom Hemingway calling Michigan football games. College in Ohio, couple years in Minnesota and Wisconsin and Iowa. Likes pie and animals and driving a car.
AM: How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
BB: Childhood shapes everyone’s writing, and mine was a Midwestern childhood. The weather and the light, the towns and the orchards, the big lake – the Midwest has its luxuries. The long evenings at the western end of the Eastern time zone.
AM: What about your move from Michigan to Florida sticks with you most? How did you adjust and what (besides weather) were the biggest differences between the two places?
BB: Well, there is no besides weather. There is no way we can disregard weather’s difference. Despite every effort to cement-mixer us together into one grand undifferentiated CNN-loving mass, the difference weather makes is intractable. It refuses to stay within parentheses. Minnesotans are never happier than when their bloody-hearted winter bravery is in high season. Shoveling out their cars brings them close to God. And the subtropical is an entirely different mode, even though you can follow I-75 all the way down from Detroit and never even have to take out a map. In the subtropics, the seasons are flattened out. It changes but not much. This affects everything, from architecture to the way you eat to your relationship with the bugs and the grass and the sky.
Florida is a strange case. It is lumped with the South, for cartographically obvious reasons. And north Florida is really South Georgia or east Alabama. But much of Florida is still being overrun by settlers, constantly. So tropically fecund is the land and water and even the air that the notions of frontier and of wilderness are never entirely obsolete there. Nature will grow on anything there. It will grow in your shirt if you leave it outside all weekend. If everybody just let Florida alone for about twenty years, there would be dinosaurs again.
AM: Since you grew up in the Midwest, what drew your interest to criminals in L.A.?
BB: Oh, the movies. In the movies, everyone in L.A. is a criminal.
AM: What inspired you to write about L.A. gangs in your latest novel Dodgers?
BB: It does have a gang in it. But Dodgers isn’t really a gang novel. The novel follows one character, a 15-year-old kid named East. He is part of a gang, but the gang is circumstantial to his story. The story is about him.
I don’t mean these last two replies to be flip. I loved L.A. from the time I got a first-grader’s idea of it. Who wouldn’t. It even sounds cool – Los Angeles. I grew up on Chinatown and Nathanael West and The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California and Blade Runner. Some kids dream of New York or Paris or Dallas, Texas. I dreamed of L.A.
AM: What kind of research was required in order to write Dodgers? How do you intertwine facts and fiction?
BB: As a graduate student at the University of Florida, I wrote a book called On the Lam. It’s about fugitive stories and how we tell them. Part of its research involved reading dozens and dozens of fugitive slave narratives. Some are bare-bones; some are highly detailed. And the similar stories they tell form, over time, like weight on wood, an impression. A consensus.
Those stories confirmed again and again that the landscape was dangerous. Everyday life was dangerous, but the land – which white Americans look at as a sort of birthright, a traveler’s medium – was a space where black Americans were visible, vulnerable. The landscape and the laws and the local manners were all mechanisms for controlling them.
A story that evokes the contemporary remnants of that paranoia is Richard Price’s Clockers, right at the end, where Strike leaves New Jersey into an America that is – what? The book ends before we find out. And that mystery is one of the germs of Dodgers.
AM: Do you consider yourself a narrative journalist? If not, how do you define yourself as a writer?
BB: No. I don’t consider myself a journalist in any way. I was trained, not altogether successfully, as a journalist, but I did not have the discipline of attention that a young journalist needs. I would cover a meeting and miss the point. I was too interested in various and sundry peripheral details. I was not long for that world.
There’s something nice about this sort of failure. Things are always surprising me, long after everyone else has already taken cover.
It’s early to define myself as a writer. Ask me when I’m dead.
AM: Since you’ve written other stories about criminals, what is distinctive about Dodgers?
BB: Dodgers is lucky to find an intersection between a number of American stories – it is a road story, a lam story, a story about family and about coming of age. I didn’t plan that intersection, but I am fortunate to have found it.
AM: What do you hope Dodgers accomplishes as a novel?
BB: I was taught to believe in my characters and give them moments of intelligence, courage, and grace. This is something a young writer is taught, but it’s also a spiritual task – to watch others with empathy, with compassion, with hope.
AM: Do you hope Dodgers will have an impact on the current controversies between African-American men and police officers?
BB: No. I think a novel is at best a very indirect way to make such an impact. Of course one would like to see this violence ease. But I don’t think fiction accomplishes this. I think building respect and community is far more direct.
AM: I think your choice to bring criminals from a west-coast city to Wisconsin is fascinating and thought-provoking. What writing techniques did you implement when personifying the characters that endure this cross-country journey?
BB: Brevity. Dialogue. Having one character through whom the narrator can see and speak, and letting that character be sharply observant.
AM: Since Dodgers is a piece of fiction about plausible circumstances, how do you make the unreal, real? How do you convince your readers to believe in your narrative?
BB: In any fiction, you have to build from a first brick. That first brick is a perception that is both surprising and obviously right.
AM: In the future, do you think you’ll continue writing within the crime novel genre? What’s next for you?
BB: Yes. But most novels are crime novels, aren’t they?
I don’t work fast. I have a day job and it’s a busy one. There are a couple of pots on the burners, and we’ll see which one steams first.
Bill Beverly grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and studied writing at Oberlin College and the University of Florida. He is the author of On The Lam: Narrative of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America and the novel Dodgers, winner of the 2016 Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger and John Creasey Dagger awards. He lives in Hyattsville, Maryland.