Walking through the Shadows of Noir Fiction
Ariel S. Winter’s debut onto the adult fiction scene wasn’t exactly the book he originally imagined. But The Twenty Year Death, the inventive crime fiction novel now out from Hard Case Crime that pays homage to three of the most revered noir writers of the 20th Century, has garnered a lot of attention in a short amount of time.
The book is actually a collection of three separate novels, each one written in the style of either George Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. Combined, the stories capture twenty years in the life of Shem Rosencrantz, a once-popular American novelist whose rise and fall is entangled in three separate incidents that allow Winter to show his admiration for the genre’s masters while showing his own ability to craft intriguing characters and entertaining mysteries.
Winter, a children’s author and former bookseller, has received favorable reviews from The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times for his first foray into adult fiction, as well as accolades from Stephen King and Alice Sebold. Junkyard Arts recently had the opportunity to ask the author about how The Twenty Year Death came together, what it’s like to walk in the footsteps of giants, and his other passion: children’s literature.
Junkyard Arts: Where did the initial idea for the book come from? Did you originally set out to write three separate crime novels following the same character through different struggles in his life?
Ariel S. Winter: What became The Twenty-Year Death started as a large frame narrative in which, instead of short tales, full novels and novellas were to be linked together. The first novella written for that book was Malniveau Prison, which later became book one of The Twenty-Year Death. After writing a draft of another novella, not to mention some of the frame sections, I realized the book wasn’t working, but I knew that Malniveau was a solid book, so initially the idea was just to expand Malniveau to novel length, which I did. Around that time, the agent I was working with really wanted to pitch Malniveau as the first book of a series starring Inspector Pelleter, but I wasn’t interested in a traditional mystery series. So I tried to think of what would be a unique approach to a mystery series, and thought, what would a mystery series look like if a character other than the detective moved from book to book. It was at that point that I conceived The Twenty-Year Death.
JYA:Why did you choose to combine the three novels into one collection versus individual releases?
ASW: While it was important to have each book work as a completely individual novel, The Twenty-Year Death is one novel. The whole point is seeing this character function in different recognizable literary styles in order to expose the weaknesses or strengths of such stylized books by forcing the reader to imagine what is almost a caricature as a full individual that all three authors are drawing differently. As though Picasso, Matisse, and Monet got together and painted the same pot of flowers. None would actually look like a true flower pot. But by extrapolating from the three paintings, the viewer may be able to conceive a truer picture of the flower pot.
JYA: Each novel is written in the style of a master of crime fiction: Georges Simenon, Ray Chandler, and Jim Thompson. Were they always the ‘voices’ you wanted to work with? Or had you other authors in mind that you had considered writing in their style? What attracted you to these specific writers?
ASW: Simenon was the first, and it was for no better reason than I was reading a lot of Simenon at the time. When the book morphed into The Twenty-Year Death, I wanted to use two other iconic voices and Chandler and Thompson presented themselves in part because I was already a fan, and also, because they worked well with the overarching arc for the character. As an American writer in France in the 1930s, the logical progression was for him to move to Hollywood and write for the movies. Hollywood means Chandler. Then, since the character is on a downward spiral, Thompson, whose characters are always rushing headlong into oblivion was an obvious choice. I never really considered anyone else.
JYA: Did you find paying homage to other authors’ styles made writing the novels easier or more difficult? And did you find difficulty in balancing writing in the style of these authors and focusing on the actual story itself? Were there issues in ensuring you didn’t get caught up in the ‘style’ and not the ‘substance’?
ASW: Someone else just asked me this, and I don’t really know. In some ways, I guess the preexistence of the settings and tone made writing the books easier, but there was always the concern that the books sounded enough like the authors, which is something you don’t usually have to worry about, in fact, the opposite. As for style versus substance, that wasn’t an issue. Writing a novel is about plot first and foremost, or at least it is when you’re talking about hard-boiled mysteries. The style was just the manner in which the plot was written.
JYA: Noir fiction is a genre mired by well-known clichés. How cognizant were you of one-liners, cynicism, and other noir conventions while writing each book?
ASW: I was most concerned with sounding like the particular writers I was working with. That meant matching their tone. As for any cliches, my editor was good at making sure we cut anything that might have been considered a cliche, but honestly, there weren’t that many things he had me cut.
JYA: With several well-rounded characters in the novel’s first book, Malvineau Prison, what made you want to focus on Shem Rosencrantz for the rest of The Twenty Year Death?
ASW: When I hit on the idea of a series that followed a character other than the detective, Shem was just naturally the person I gravitated towards. In part because his life story was conducive to the conceit. In part because he was the most interesting character other than Clotilde, who is the other driving force that moves from book to book. Not to mention the fact that all the other characters are French, and noir needed to come back to the States to do it right.
JYA: The Twenty Year Death has many intriguing secondary characters. Even characters only in the story for a few lines, like a baker or a security guard, seem to have well-defined personalities. How naturally did these background characters work their way into the stories?
ASW: They just happen. The detective or Shem go where they go and those people are there.
JYA: How long did it take to complete the entire collection?
ASW: It’s very hard to judge how much time was actually spent in the writing. From the first day of writing to the release of the book was about five years. But in that time there was a long span in which we were trying to sell the book, so I wasn’t working on the book then. And the final text had to be in almost a year before the book’s release, so no more writing was happening in that time. So maybe the writing was done in three years, but even in that time there were periods when I was working on other things.
JYA: Overall, what was the most difficult part about writing The Twenty Year Death?
ASW: The most difficult thing was trying to have Shem’s overarching narrative feel significant without sacrificing the conceit that each novel was written by a different author at a different time who had no knowledge of this other, larger story. I’m still not sure I succeeded at that.
JYA: While this is your debut novel, you have also penned a children’s picture book, One of a Kind, and run a blog focused on children’s books written by well-known “adult” authors, We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie. How did your interest in children’s literature develop?
ASW: I was a children’s bookseller for a year in New York City. I was starting to think about having my own children at the same time, so the idea of sharing the books I was selling with my future children made my interest all the more intense. I’ve also always been a big comic book fan, so the idea of art and words interacting is something I’ve studied for decades, and a lot of the same principles are at work in picture books, so it was in many ways something I had always been interested in. And I’m the type of person who goes all the way into something once it interests me, so the children’s book part of my life became almost as significant as the adult fiction.
JYA: As a writer for both kids and adults, what do you prefer about writing for these different audiences?
ASW: The number one thing that’s preferential about writing for adults is that I don’t have to rely on a second person to achieve my goal. When working with an artist, it can be very difficult to make the book function the way I want it to function. The best thing about writing picture books is that they take a whole lot less time to write than a novel.
JYA: Any future books of yours we should be keeping our eyes out for?
ASW: I’m in the process of selling another novel now. Several editors have expressed serious interest, but they want to see a few changes before they can actually make an offer. Hopefully that will happen soon, and then I can say officially that I have another book forthcoming.
To learn more about The Twenty Year Death (including Chuck Pyle’s fantastic cover artwork featuring actress/model Rose McGowan), head over to Hard Case Crime’s website.