By Michael Harris
Is it “The Chieu Hoi Saloon,” the novel I published with PM Press in 2010? Or the novel I recently finished? Or the novel I’ve just started?
Maybe all, maybe any, probably none of the above.
I have no idea. All I can do — all any writer can do — is stare at that computer screen and hit those keys and hope. And relieve the solitude by taking advantage of any opportunity, like this one, to speak to readers directly. “The Next Big Thing” also happens to be the name of a literary blog relay in which Los Angeles mystery writer Sarah M. Chen (www.sarahmchen.com) has kindly passed the baton — this set of questions — to me:
What is the working title of your book (or current project?)
The novel I finished this fall is “Romantic History,” a title that isn’t as ironic as it seems at first, because the book does tell a weird sort of love story. The working title of my new project is “Flucy” — the derogatory nickname given to a girl who grows up in a violent, abusive family.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
As for “The Chieu Hoi Saloon”: I have stuttered all my life, and been depressed for much of it, and I always wanted to write about what these two things in combination can do to you. The stuttering means you can’t put on a brave front and hide your fears and insecurities. You have to go out there naked and unarmed every day. Not the most dramatic subject, I admit. But it was a subject that had never been dealt with in American literature, to my knowledge. Only in my 50s, when I’d found some colorful settings and characters in Long Beach and had the 1992 L.A. riots to work with, was I able to get the project off the ground.
“Romantic History” is based on a crazy but unforgettable encounter I had in 1971 in a Seattle-area halfway house with a teen-age girl who’d been accused of armed robbery. I was a naive cub reporter. My protagonist has to figure out whether his love for such an “unsuitable” person is a signpost to his destiny, to be followed at any cost, or a delusion that will become more and more destructive as the years go by. I let the reader choose, giving the novel a double (actually triple) ending, like “Great Expectations” or “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”
“Flucy” is based on an unfinished memoir written by a friend who died two years ago after struggling bravely all her life to overcome the effects of her cruel upbringing. She left me her manuscript. She wasn’t a natural writer, and it’s a mess, though rich with material. I feel her hovering over my shoulder, hoping I can get her story told at last. I identify with underdogs — that’s where most of my politics comes from.
What genre does your book fall under?
“The Chieu Hoi Saloon” has been marketed as noir, but I think of all my books (including “Canyon,” a self-published novella about my home town in the 1950s, in which a railroad worker is badly treated by the Southern Pacific and takes it out on his family) as mainstream, literary stuff.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
My main concern would be to find actors who can play regular folks and show vulnerability. Harry Hudson, the protagonist of “Chieu Hoi,” could have been played by such different physical types as Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte when they were younger. Today? Gary Oldman or Kevin Spacey. I like Taraji P. Henson as his African-American semi-girlfriend. Maggie, the girl in “Romantic History,” should be a plum role for an Ellen Page or Jennifer Lawrence. The guy who pursues her? A younger/older John Cusack type, perhaps.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
“The Chieu Hoi Saloon”: A stuttering, despairing Vietnam vet with two deaths on his conscience gets a lucky break, finds a newspaper job, falls for a Vietnamese bar owner, then for a black prostitute, and tries to start a new life, but his worst nightmares return when racial strife sets Southern California ablaze.
“Romantic History”: A middle-aged family man is so haunted by the memory of a hippie-criminal girl he met 35 years ago that when he finds her again over the Internet, he sets events in motion that could wreck both their lives.
“Flucy”: In post-World War II San Bernardino, a girl growing up in fear of her violent parents and siblings tries to find light and hope in her future despite having internalized the conviction that she’s worthless.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
“Romantic History” is being looked at by a major publisher. If that route doesn’t work out, I’ll consider self-publishing, maybe through Amazon. Agents are at least as hard to find as publishers.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m the sort of writer who edits and polishes as he goes — a very inefficient way of working — so when the first draft is done, the book’s done. “Chieu Hoi” and “Romantic History” each took me six years. I hope “Flucy” will be faster.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I used to joke that if you took the antihero of Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground” and slapped him down in late-20th-century L.A., the result would be “The Chieu Hoi Saloon.” I was encouraged by Cormac McCarthy’s “Suttree” and John Rechy’s “City of Night” to explore the tragic and comic aspects of low life, but I knew better (I hope) than to try to actually imitate those guys.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
All the great writers, beginning with Dickens, Mark Twain and the Russians, who convinced me that writing a good novel was as lofty a goal in life as any other. It just took me longer than most to figure out what I wanted to say and clear my mind enough to say it.
The women on whom I’ve based my main female characters. Whichever side of the law they lived on, they were strong, brave and generally admirable. If it hadn’t been for the stories they told me, none of these books would exist.
What else about your book(s) might pique the reader’s interest?
They’re different, at least. They abide by no formula. They try to follow the course of people’s lives without obligatory “uplift.” In some ways, I’m a dinosaur. My esthetic model — realism — has been out of fashion for a couple of generations now. I used to think realism was the end goal toward which fiction had been developing for centuries, but I was wrong. It turned out to be just a blip. It belonged to a time when society was becoming more equal and the lives of ordinary men and women seemed worthy of full-dress novelistic treatment. That time is gone, apparently. Storytelling, which began with gods and heroes and monsters, has returned to its mythic roots. Now billionaires walk among us like gods, and we’d rather read about Navy Seals, porn stars and zombies than about our next-door neighbors. I understand this. But I resist.