What with all the ranting and soforth that constitutes the majority of my output here at Shattersnipe, I’ve decided to class up the joint by incoporating author interviews and guest blogs as part of its semi-regular fare. By way of inaguration, let me introduce you to Patrick O’Duffy, an upstanding layabout, editorial ninja and self-published author of the Melbournian persuasian who I first met via the auspices of a mutual dayjob. Patrick’s new novel, The Obituarist, is a sharp, fun murder mystery with a social media twist; my review of it is here, and you can also keep up with Patrick via Twitter and his blog.
So, without any further ado: let the interviewing commence!
The Obituarist reads as a modern, self-aware take on the classic noir and hardboiled detective genres – a sort of stripped-down, blackly humorous homage to the works of Raymond Chandler. Rather than being a PI, your protagonist and narrator, Kendall Barber, makes a living by tidying up the online affairs of the recently deceased, putting up tribute pages for bereaved families and removing the risk of identity fraud. What lead you to connect such an interesting and recent niche profession with golden age gumshoe stories?
I had the ‘social media undertaker’ idea back in, hmm… early 2010? I was using Facebook and Twitter and so on and saw how people who voluntarily left those platforms still left traces behind that they might then have to go back to clean up – and how, in a handful of sad cases, someone else would have to do that work because their relative or friend had died, leaving this constant reminder behind. It struck me that there was story potential in that, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
When I first started mulling over the idea, I was mostly thinking in terms of sci-fi, fantasy or horror, because these are the genres in which I’ve mostly worked in the past. At one point, years ago, I’d sketched some ideas for a story where an online historian ‘audits’ the lives of other people to turn into presentations, and he realises that some of them are based in alternate timelines. (That’s a cool concept, and I may still come back to it one day.) But I decided that it might also be a chance to play around in the crime genre, which I’ve enjoyed for decades as a reader but barely ever written.
Still, ‘social media’ on its own isn’t really a strongly compelling concept for a crime story, so the idea didn’t develop further – not until I was thinking about identity theft for some reason and realised that leaving unfinished business online would create potential avenues for copying and reusing someone’s identity. At that point the two plotlines of The Obituarist pretty much popped straight into my head, and it was then just a question of fleshing them out and writing the damn thing.
As for why I looked to hardboiled crime stories for inspiration, well, a lot of that is because that’s the kind of crime fiction I like to read. It’s a subgenre where mystery and investigative procedure are major elements, but are nonetheless secondary to character and tone. It’s also a subgenre that tends towards pyrrhic victories and protagonists who lose as much as they win, if not more, and that’s a story direction that’s always appealed to me
Another major reason, though, is that the best works in the genre have an economy of language. One of Chandler’s great strengths as a writer was that he largely eschewed detailed descriptions of people and places, and instead used simile, metaphor, voice and dialogue to communicate personality, rather than appearance, to the reader. This let him sketch things out quickly and broadly so that he could then focus on characters and action. I didn’t want to specifically emulate that writing style – it’s been done too often by too many writers – but I wanted to find my own way of compressing description and character so that I could fit a worthwhile, moderately complex story into a 22 000-word novella. So in looking to Chandler for inspiration in writing style, it was natural to also look to him for inspiration when it came to genre, tone and story structure.
You say in your dedication that, although the book is partly for him, Raymond Chandler would probably hate it. What makes you say that?
I think Chandler was not just a pioneer of the crime genre but one of the great American writers of the 20th century. He wrote crime fiction not because he loved the genre but because he thought that the techniques of good writing could and should transcend the limitations of genre. And he was right. The way he approached character and tone, the way he used simile, the way he transplanted Shakespearean concepts of nobility and tragedy into a genre that had previously lacked much depth… he was a genius.
But he was also, well, kind of a dick – a prissy, bitter, homophobic misanthrope with a very low opinion of modern life. And ‘modern life’ in this context is the 1940s. He didn’t like people, he didn’t like technology, he didn’t like change. Things like social media, the internet, the way the boundaries of ‘community’ have swelled and changed shape due to technology – oh man, he would have just crawled into a whiskey bottle and died rather than accept any of that.
For that reason, along with a few other bits and pieces of the story, I’m pretty sure Chandler would just cut me dead if we met at a party. And that’s okay. He probably wouldn’t like the parties I throw anyway – too much playing of Rock Band.
As a narrator, Kendall is self-deprecating without being self-pitying, while the setting is less atmospheric than it is ambiguously everyday. Given the overwhelming tendency of noir and hardboiled characters to brood angstily about their tortured pasts in convenient alleys while the rain falls darkly on their trenchcoats, was it a conscious decision to try and subvert the more gothic, melodramatic elements of the genre, or just a consequence of your particular narrative voice?
I think that the kind of tendency you’re talking about is really an overstatement. It’s a stereotype of the genre that came from secondary texts like films of the 1960s and 1970s, which exaggerated the tropes of hardboiled stories to make them more overt and accessible to the broadest possible audience. Semiotic cues like voiceover monologues, muted lighting, rain and alleyways – these were all overt tools filmmakers used to emphasise tone and character in situations where subtlety wouldn’t work. And somewhere along the line, the idea developed that those exaggerated tools were in fact the core tropes and conventions of the subgenre – that it’s a genre of brooding and angst.
When you go back and look at the original source texts (Chandler, Hammett, Thompson etc.) or at the better modern writers in the genre, such as Mosley and Parker, you get a very different picture of the genre’s emotional makeup. Most of the protagonists in these stories are men (always men) with strong emotions but little sentiment. They feel pain but refuse to show it; they feel love and its loss but internalise it rather than admit their sorrow, their weakness, to others. They hold to a personal concept of nobility that they inevitably have to compromise in some way over the course of the story, and they do so stoically. Actually, that’s a good term – hardboiled crime is very much a genre of stoicism.
Does The Obituarist engage with that stoicism or subvert it? Hmm. Probably a bit of both. I wanted to embed the novella into an everyday sort of context, to tell a story about normal concerns like dealing with loss and controlling our identities, rather than the more esoteric world of detectives and complex, dramatic crimes. But I also wanted to contrast that everyday world with oddities, with offbeat crimes and characters, and to let those normal concerns propel things in strange directions. Plus, you know, have some fights and chase scenes in there for colour.
…hang on, did any of that answer the question? Probably not, now that I look at it again. Sorry. Hazards of studying English literature when I was at Uni long ago.
On the whole, I’d say it was a consequence of the narrative voice rather than something intentional.
And on that note…
Which aspect of The Obituarist are you the most proud of?
I think it would have to be the voice of the book. Voice is probably the most important thing to me as a reader and a writer, both in terms of character voice and in the narrative voice/style used to communicate the text. There are many stories that could be told, but the way you tell them is what makes them compelling, and storytelling is an aspect of voice (among other things).
The thing about the voice in The Obituarist is that it was easy and fun to write. I’ve been working on a novel for several years now, called Arcadia, which has a very specific voice born from a narrator with an often-shaky grip on her emotional state and the difference between reality and imagination. It’s a book I want to write and a story that I think is worth telling, but the complexity of that voice, which is so very different from my own, makes it incredibly hard work and draining work to boot. Every time I work on that book I struggle.
By contrast, I was able to just sit down every night and get into the voice of Kendall like I was turning on a tap. It’s not simply my own voice, although there are similarities, but it’s one I can assume and use as a lens for the story with ease and confidence. And I think that ease and confidence comes out through the story; it makes it a smooth, natural work that you can read easily without it being ‘easy reading’. Well, that’s the hope anyway.
The idea of a digital obituarist-turned-detective is a compelling one. Do you think you’ll ever tell more stories about Kendall and his world?
Oh man, I hope so! I started coming up with ideas for a sequel while I was still working on The Obituarist, and I think I could definitely write more than just one.
In the end, this is a book about three things – death, identity and how technology/social media affects the way we think about death and identity. That’s a pretty solid thematic foundation and it’s one on which you could build any number of stories. The trick will be to do so without falling into formula or into stasis – Kendall and his world need to change in every book. But then again, themes of death and identity allow plenty of room for change, so the potential’s there.
I’d also like the chance to tell more stories about these characters and their city – see, you thought I was all just wanky literary talk, but I like characters and setting too! The city of Port Virtue is only lightly sketched in The Obituarist, and I want to avoid giving it too much detail, but at the same time it has a personality that I’d like to explore. Especially its shady side, which I see as being rife with strange, offbeat crimes and criminals. You probably won’t encounter a car theft ring or second-story burglars – but black marketeers selling high-grade bull semen or forgers of ‘authentic’ Victorian pornography? That’s the kind of thing I’d like to pit against Kendall and his mad social media skills. That could be fun.