INTERVIEW with JIMMY FOX, author of genealogical
conduced by Lucinda MacGregor
Jimmy Fox is new to the mystery writers scene and his genealogical mysteries are set in his native state of Louisiana. Fox's successes include winning first prize at a Deep South Writers Conference and third prize for a short story from Mystery Writers of America. His three mysteries with genealogical sleuth, Nick Herald are Deadly Pedigree, Lineages and Lies and Jack Pot Blood. There is plenty of that exotic and steamy Louisiana atmosphere, murder, love and lust, betrayal and a cast of interesting characters.
Q) Did growing up in Louisiana inspire you to become a writer or did you develop an interest in writing about Louisiana after you became a writer?
My inspiration to write blossomed initially from several sources of imaginative nourishment, internal and external. Louisiana was definitely one of the most important external ones, second only to the influence and encouragement of my family. Early on I gained, through observation and instruction, an understanding that Louisiana was somehow different, in good ways and bad. The state was endowed, I realized, with a rich and complex history, great human diversity and potential, and phenomenal natural beauty and abundance; and yet Louisiana was also cursed with certain qualities and attitudes that tended to disgust or titillate outsiders . . . and she was perversely proud of this! Eventually I began to consider the state, her people, her image, as raw clay--or mud--for . . . something, I didn't know what, that my restless imagination should sculpt. I came to regard Louisiana as an allegory depicting virtue and vice sealing a comfortable limited liability partnership of winks and nods so that the entire cast could dance in the mossy bayou moonlight to the ribald rhythm of a jazzy moral pyramid scheme. When at last I had the tools necessary to begin writing seriously, I never for a moment doubted that Louisiana, this demented, marvelous, hypnotic metaphor for life at large, as stage or star or both, would figure prominently in my fiction.
Q) When did you decide to become a writer and how did you work to improve your writing abilities?
Words, ideas, and art were constant companions in my fortunate upbringing. My parents made sure I tasted as many flavors of intellectual activity as I would tolerate. I was a dabbler, a sampler, a bee buzzing from flower to flower, taking a little with me from each brief visit, not knowing where all this varied activity would take me. We traveled a good bit, within Louisiana and beyond, and that served to broaden my horizons. My family, on all sides and for generations, has been entrepreneurial; that spirit of resourcefulness and persistence has animated my slow, arduous climb up the literary ladder.
During my youth we were in broadcasting. There was a phone-booth sized teletype room at the family radio station, soundproofed with ceiling tiles, warm, cozy, well lit, having a door with a square window. The day's headlines hung from the walls. This machine was never at a loss for words. It possessed the power to make any DJ sound brilliant. Sentences and paragraphs and pages of exciting ink miraculously flowed with machine-gun rapidity from the Teletype. I grasped the technical process vaguely, but I had no real understanding of what was involved on the other end, the hands on many keyboards, the minds and skills directing the hands, the gathering of facts, the massive amount of work that had gone into what was streaming so relentlessly from the four-foot high black metal automaton. At these moments, standing on tiptoe, my face pressed against a protective plastic panel to peer at the scrolling paper inside the lectern-like mechanism, I craved that seemingly effortless, automatic creativity.
Though there wasn't a specific epiphany revealing to me my desire to write, you can see that already by my preteen years this urge was struggling to the surface.
Q) What part did your college work play in your development as a writer?
I was probably the billionth young person to have college confirm the wisdom of Hamlet's statement that "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The mass of things I had never encountered, both in books and beyond, stunned and challenged me. My undergraduate years at Tulane provided me with a breakneck survey of the wider world of mankind's thought and action. I can date from this intense period my insatiable craving to know more and more, to know everything. To an even greater extent, my graduate years at LSU opened yet more doors for my inquisitive mind. At both schools I established a personal scholarly discipline that has allowed me to continue learning and that has served as the foundation for the daily rigors of the writing life. (Not that I was any great scholar; New Orleans and Baton Rouge offered too many pleasurable distractions.) I developed a self-confidence and began to think that maybe I, too, could make a mark in the realm of letters, though I hadn't yet figured out specifically how to go about that.
I loved New Orleans. With my family I had been there many times before, but wearing the mask of resident and not tourist (we're all tourists somewhere), even if temporarily, was a fine feeling. I instantly considered myself very bohemian and tried my best to live the part. Looking back, I recall an open, easy-spirited, friendly New Orleans, that didn't have the evil beast of atrocious crime lurking in every shadow, as is the case today. Was the city less malevolent then (the early to mid-seventies)? Was I simply too naive to notice the dangers of this big, violent madhouse? Was I insulated by virtue of the relatively protected life as a Tulane student? Probably all of the above. Here I had the invaluable freedom to think and act for myself (admittedly with a net underneath), and to make mistakes (I made plenty then and later).
Throughout these college years, I kept my senses and memory open. I collected impressions, storing them up for the future. I noticed how people acted and spoke and looked. I gained a sense of the way the world works--and sometimes doesn't. What better place than New Orleans and Baton Rouge for that? About this time, convinced of the profundity of my vague insights, I started jotting things down in notebooks.
Q) When did you decide to write novels?
Until a certain point, all of my writing had been either academic or private. That point was sometime in the early eighties. I knew that in order to become a real writer, I had to put my nose to the grindstone. Whatever it was that I wanted to write wasn't going to be magically produced--notwithstanding my fond memories of the Teletype machine and its prolific ways. Fortuitously for me, computers hit the mainstream. I'm a chronic reviser, and I immediately fell in love with typing words on a screen rather than on a piece of paper coated with drying correction fluid. I was working my way up in a television station, writing and producing commercials for local merchants, politicians--whoever--as well as station promotions and public-service messages. There's no substitute for daily writing experience, especially with a deadline.
I decided to try my hand first at short stories, which wasn't a very successful venture at all. But at least I started to learn a bit about the publishing business, the "rules" of the game. Finally, after tremendous effort and many rejections for other stories and a few poems, I managed to get a story published. (I also had a poem published in the Baton Rouge paper's weekend section. Does that count?) It didn't take me long to realize that this huge expenditure of effort for such small returns wasn't the way to hit it big. And hitting it big was--and still is--my ultimate goal.
I've met many writers who've been reading their chosen genre since they could hold a book. That's not my story. I came to mysteries late. The eighties and nineties should be recognized as a "golden age" for television mysteries. That's when I first caught the mystery bug from the mystery series aired on A&E and PBS. Watching an hour or two of "Poirot," "Frost," "Morse," "Sherlock Holmes," "Lovejoy "(especially "Lovejoy"!), "Midsomer Murders," "Miss Marple," or "Nero Wolfe," was for me a terrific tutorial in plotting, dialogue, character development, maintenance of suspense, creation of atmosphere, and scenic description. I confidently said to myself, "Yeah, I can do that." Well, it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought, and even more fun.
Q) Any writers inspire you?
Authors, poets, dramatists, books, and movies that have entertained and perhaps have influenced me: Shakespeare, Fielding's Tom Jones (and the great film with Albert Finney), the Romantic poets, Dickens, Hardy, Yeats, Whitman, Mark Twain, Joyce's Ulysses, well-written historical and sociological works (Durant, Frazer, Campbell, Boorstin, McPherson, Tuchman, Barzun, and others), scientific works written for the nonspecialist, Robertson Davies, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, yearly nominees for the Edgar and the Agatha, Star Trek in all its incarnations, "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Blade Runner," "Alien," "Dune, " Kirk Douglas films, Humphrey Bogart films (the PI stories and, on a lighter note, "Sabrina"), Hitchcock films ("Vertigo" and "North by Northwest" especially). This could be a very long answer, so I'll stop here.
Q) Since you have gained some recognition and popularity writing the Louisiana genealogical mysteries, do you plan to continue with them?
Yes, I have many escapades in store for my genealogical sleuth, Nick Herald. Recognition and popularity have been far short of what I envisioned. It's a good thing I don't have to eat on what I make from my novels. Aspiring authors, don't quit your day job! Without a doubt, however, I'm going to keep on writing this series, hoping that I'll get that "big break," which would give me access to editorial services, production, and marketing--and television and movie prospects!--that only the major houses can offer. Would I ever love to be picked up by A&E or some company of that ilk! I can just see myself, on location in New Orleans, sitting in a canvas "Author" chair, beret on my head, megaphone in hand, shouting directions to the actors in an episode of the Nick Herald Louisiana genealogical mysteries . . . then the director promptly orders me to pipe down or leave the set.
I'm convinced there's a tremendous audience out there that hasn't yet discovered my genealogical mysteries. Recently I read (Wall Street Journal, 3/22/04, R4) that MyFamily.com/Ancestry.com has 33 million registered users, 1.5 million of whom are paid subscribers. Hello, Manhattan publishers! Are you listening? Genealogy is taking the world by storm.
As other ideas come up that seem worthwhile, I'll pursue those, too.
Q) Does most of your popularity come from Louisiana readers or outside of the area? What about book reviews, readers, other writers, etc.?
Louisiana readers have been good to me. A heavy publicity schedule for the first novel, Deadly Pedigree, took me to most major towns in the state. The reception was always superb at stores and libraries and book groups and television stations. I believe I succeeded in building a base of fans who have followed my career and continued to buy my two other novels, Lineages and Lies and Jackpot Blood (the latter just released).
I've had generally positive reactions from formal reviewers, in various media. I thought that some reviews should have helped me more than they did; others I was afraid might hurt me worse than they ended up actually doing. There are lots of fascinating and useful websites out there, run by people devoted to reading in general or mysteries in particular; they do a service to the reading public by bringing noteworthy books to the attention of visitors, even if the books aren't exactly what the site's founder likes best. Unfortunately, in this Internet age, a stinker of a review, like a cyber-wart, just won't go away without some radical treatment. I'm leery of soliciting reviews; you never know when some reviewer has an ax to grind, a bad day to exorcise, a score to settle. And professional critics? Well, they get paid to be critical; in general, they're inclined to be dyspeptic and jaded, obligated to express opinions with sensational tartness. Wielding this picayune power over authors, genuinely creative people, sometimes goes to critics' heads. I would rather hear ordinary readers deliver their impressions to other ordinary readers. That said, any reviewer/critic who likes my work and says so publicly is my eternal friend.
More-established writers have been marvelously generous with their time and energy; that comes with the territory, and, in turn, I will continue to do my share for writers when I think I can contribute something positive. Even though it's a sprawling international business, publishing is actually a small world, especially since the advent of the Internet; and it holds in publishing as in other businesses that "what goes around comes around." I must add here that I can't critique your work or set you up with an agent or editor (certainly out of the question in my case: I don't have either), or hand you a golden key to bestsellerdom (I would use it myself if I could find it). I and most writers don't have that kind of time. Besides, your work should be yours, not altered at this early stage to suit someone else's preconceived notion of what sells.
Q) What advice can you give aspiring writers about your early experiences in writing, difficulties to find that first publisher and where did you go from there?
It was shocking to me, but nevertheless true, that in spite of all my schooling, I was not as good at matters of grammar, style, and usage as I wanted to be. I rounded up all of my family's English textbooks I could find and bought more, and spent months, years poring over them. A day doesn't go by that I don't consult these books. Now the Web delivers much of the quality reference material I most often need. You don't want your expert grasp of language to show in an ostentatious way, though. Don't be afraid to break the rules once you've mastered them, if you can pull that off successfully. It's your book (or story or poem), your vision, your career.
Read a lot in your chosen area. Buy or consult at the library the standard guides to publishing (I'm fond of Writer's Market (Writer's Digest Books) and Jeff Herman's Writer's Guide). Go to conferences, general ones or genre specific. Join a local writer's group and a national one. Writers are an interesting bunch. Rubbing elbows with them, beginners and superstars, is a fine way to boost your self-image as a writer. You'll enjoy hearing how their careers got going, ran out of gas, or drove off a cliff.
Write every day; form a routine; feel guilty when you're not writing. Build your inventory as you continue to submit to agents and editors. You will get rejected; you will get bad reviews; you will wish you had never embarked on this silly pursuit. Then a stranger in the grocery store will startle you by asking if you're so-and-so the writer and tell you how much she enjoyed your work. "When is the next one coming out?" You'll abandon your basket and hurry home to get at the keyboard.
Write. I can't emphasize that enough. No one else can do this for you. Too much networking, Internet chatting, and brainstorming at the coffeehouse are counterproductive. Talent isn't enough. In this business, you're nobody until you're somebody, and you can't be somebody as long as you're nobody. To break out of that vicious paradox, you have to write, write, write, push yourself to be better and better. You're an athlete of creativity, on the freshman team, maybe, but you have boundless potential. Like any other specialized profession or pastime, writing requires rigorous training. And soon the real work will seem a cinch compared with the grueling practice.
Master the mysterious rites of the Query Process. Learn how to put together an impressive initial presentation at a distance. If your query package (or letter or e-mail) can hold an agent's or editor's attention for five minutes and then prompt a request for more material, you're doing something right.
Oh, and get lucky. Lucky? It's happened to me a few times, but so far the results have been woefully short-lived. You can't construct a career on unpredictable luck, but you can be ready for it. Who knows, maybe your luck will stick. I've mentioned building your inventory already. (This is just one of the gems of advice my father has given me. I've had incredible support from my family. May you be so . . . lucky.) Polish your work--and your query--over and over again, as if you would have to submit it tomorrow. That may happen. Be prepared for anything. . . . You're at a writers conference breakfast. You reach for the last piece of unappetizing, dry toast. Another hand gets there at the same time. You graciously opt for a Danish instead (which you wanted in the first place). You strike up a conversation with your erstwhile carb competitor and discover she's a publishing big shot. As you finish your coffee and prepare to rush off to your respective sessions, she hands you a card and asks you to send a few chapters to her New York office. That's luck. You have to be ready with something to send as soon as you get home.
Q) Do you go on book tours and assist otherwise with promotion of your books?
I relish promotion and I think I'm pretty good at it. Remember, I was in that business for years, and even before that, by family tradition I had a feel for the retail battleground and the entrepreneurial ethic. The independent little guy like me has to find alternative means of publicity, be more creative than most authors fortunate enough to be associated with big, established publishing houses that lavish substantial advertising funds on new books. I'll try just about anything that doesn't offend my self-respect.
Q) Where do your ideas come from for your novels? And, how difficult is it to research the genealogical material for your novels?
Ideas look for me, I believe. When you're attuned to the seductive whispers of your muse, almost anything can suggest a new fictional twist or detail. Especially at the outset, almost any piece of actuality can be shaved and turned to fit into the jigsaw puzzle of a mystery. It's more a matter of selection, turning off at will that hypersensitivity, saying to myself at some point, "You have enough. Stop collecting elements. Get to work with what you have." There are innumerable things I could write about; the trick is to decide which horse can go the distance. Sometimes small ideas that alone don't seem individually promising click when you put them together. I consider myself an accretive writer: ideas build upon one another until finally they emerge, transformed, from the waters of the creative chaos that is the beginning of every project.
Usually I locate several books and articles that will serve as the factual foundation for my story. I don't design my fiction to portray real events or people. I make up the significant elements of my novels. The driving characters and places you'll find in my books are composites and don't exist in nature. Insofar as anything "real" makes a cameo appearance in my fiction, it is only as stage scenery, which I use to draw the reader further into my imaginary world. I know I've done my job well when readers seek to find out the "real story" about something I've created out of whole cloth.
As for genealogy, I noticed a few years ago that it was becoming extremely
popular, increasingly on the front page of mainstream consciousness. It
so happened that at this precise moment I was trying to decide exactly what
to write. I was personally interested in researching my family history,
but, more important for my writing career, I also saw immediately that genealogy
rendered in an interesting, unique way as mystery fiction, combined with
the allure of Louisiana and New Orleans, would be just the ticket for me.
I threw myself into learning all I could about genealogy. Reading
books, journals, articles; attending seminars and conferences; conducting
actual field work on my own family occupied the ensuing years. I still
carry on these activities.
And everything I do in the way of genealogy feeds the monster I've created. My bulging files hold thousands of clippings and scribblings relating to odd aspects of genealogy that may or may not find their way into future novels.
Q) What are you currently working on for your next book?
In my fourth genealogical mystery, deadly family secrets come a bit too close to home for Nick Herald's taste. Something from Nick's father's past initiates a dangerous domino effect that cascades through time, space, and bloodlines, propelling the narrative from ancient Europe, to revolutionary Mexico, to Gilded Age New Orleans, to Nick's already harried day-to-day affairs. Themes and plots involve dispossessed royalty, heraldry, purloined treasure, World War II, and, of course, present-day murder.
Q) Do you think working as a writer in Louisiana and writing about it is easier or more difficult than living elsewhere and working as a writer?
It helps me to live here and be surrounded by what I like to write about. The guarded details of living in Louisiana probably escape expatriates. I feel that I can more convincingly sketch the fine lines and apply the subtle shadings by being here. Sure, I suppose that if you're phenomenally successful, you can have several homes and come back to Louisiana to recharge your creative batteries. I can assure you I'm not there yet.
Q) Since there are many writers living in Louisiana (most of them in and around New Orleans) have they formed a community of writers? And, are you friends with any writers in Louisiana?
I live a fairly solitary existence. Not much of a joiner, I'm afraid. For those who are more gregarious, I'm certain that there are opportunities to join Louisiana writing groups--though I'm no expert on the subject. There's even a group where I live, the Writers Guild of Central Louisiana, which was kind enough to spotlight me a couple of years back. Certain Louisiana organizations, such as the State Library and most colleges, put on big events that bring writers and the reading public together.
Q) Do you attend or participate in writers conferences or workshops? And, do you think such endeavors are worthwhile for aspiring writers?
Notwithstanding my previous answer, I have, of course, attended several conferences. In spite of myself, I had a blast at almost every one. I wrote a little on the subject of conferences above. Participating in these things can be expensive, but also surprisingly rewarding. For example, at a UL Lafayette conference some years ago (it was USL then), the manuscript of Deadly Pedigree, my first genealogical mystery, took first place. I had submitted it months earlier and had considered my chances so slim that I didn't even plan to go. That defeatist attitude changed in a heartbeat. The great Ernest J. Gaines acted as the final judge and praised the novel highly. Talk about a tremendous morale boost! And prize money to boot! That honor certainly landed my manuscript on the desks of agents and editors, access I wouldn't have had otherwise. Thinking of yourself as a writer is partly autosuggestion, and talking writing for an entire weekend will give a bit more substance to your pose. Sharing tales of triumph and disappointment with other writers is important, too.
Q) Considering that the Louisiana economy is ailing, do you think aspiring writers should relocate outside of the state? And, why do you stay here?
People tell me there are more important things than writing. In my weak moments I find myself nodding in contrite agreement. So if a better paycheck or family obligations call you away, if you're young or frustrated or angry and you've had it up to here with whatever is eating at you, then you must go. But the writer in you will always miss this place. You'll find a way to return, in prose or poetry if not in body.
I have just one word to say to those contemplating an exit: Galatoire's. . . . Seriously, stay! We need you, artists of all kinds. Mardi Gras is great; Bourbon Street is great; fishing and hunting are great; national sports champions are really great. But more than those tourist draws, Louisiana, with its many heritages, its history, mystique, and human potential, through your artistry could become culturally another classical Athens or Rome, another Renaissance London or Paris or Florence, another contemporary New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, or Miami (my apology if I left your favorite city out). We have an artistic tradition to uphold and enhance, a unique vision, nourished by the rich material of everyday Louisiana life, through which we can discover and impart new things about the larger world and human existence itself, and yet still retain the fascinating identity we've developed over several thousand years, that inimitable interweaving of ethnic strands (American Indian, European, African American, and many others).
Writers, you don't have to leave. With the miraculous aid of the Internet and associated technology, you can be in L.A. or New York, virtually, any moment of the day or night. In my experience, I've been treated honorably by dozens and dozens of agents and editors whom I never met face to face, even though my return address was clearly a medium-sized Louisiana city. And the few scoundrels I've encountered would have been jerks no matter where I was located during our dealings. I understand that you may feel compelled to wait tables or drive a taxi in some entertainment metropolis, pitching your screenplay or novel to every entertainment mogul who happens to straggle into your clutches. That's a fool's errand that should be confined to your very early twenties, in my opinion. Better to stay here in your home state, perfecting your craft, assessing and putting to use the wealth of material surrounding you, making periodic sallies as needed beyond Louisiana's borders.
Why do I really stay? Cold weather doesn't agree with me, and I'm afraid of sharks.
Q) Any final thoughts for this interview?
Thank you for allowing me to ramble on about myself and my work. I
hope that what I've said has helped some of you who are struggling as new
writers or who as yet are dreaming about a wider audience for the stories
you have been called to tell.
Jimmy Fox is an exceptionally talented writer with a good future. Be sure to try his mysteries. Available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million.com, Borders.com/Walden Books and iUniverse.
Visit Jummy Fox's website at http://www.jimmyfox.com/