Domenic Stansberry on the Pursuit of the Mystery
An interview with Domenic Stansberry, from The Write Stuff series:
Domenic Stansberry’s most recent novel, The White Devil—just named a finalist for the 2017 Hammett Prize— is a sultry decadent thriller concerning a young American woman in Rome: an aspiring actress implicated in a series of murders going back to her childhood. Stansberry’s other work includes the North Beach Mystery Series, which won wide praise for its portrayal of the ethnic and political subcultures of San Francisco. Books from the series include The Ancient Rain, named several years after its original publication as one of the best crime novels of the decade by Booklist. An earlier novel, The Confession, received the Edgar Allan Poe Award for its portrayal of a Marin County psychologist accused of murdering his mistress. He has also worked widely as a writer and communication specialist, in both visual media and print, for concerns large and small. You can reach Domenic at openscreenproductions AT gmail DOT com, or follow him on twitter @shotndarknews.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
It depends on the social circumstance and who the people are. I’ve done all kinds of different side work, different kinds of writing gigs—as news writer, corporate ghost, speechifier—and in the past—if I wanted work—I would say whatever it is they wanted to hear. You don’t tell someone looking for a white paper on childhood education (or perfume sales, or cell phone disposal) that your primary occupation is that of a crime novelist. Not usually anyway. And it’s not necessarily the kind of thing that you want to say at a bar, or to an Uber driver, or at restaurant if you are just hanging out. It’s easier to investigate, to do research, casual or otherwise, if you keep your occupation to yourself. It used to be much easier to have a private life—to have multiple identities, according to social circumstance. Now, someone goes online with your name, and they figure out your background pretty quickly. I suppose you can have aliases and avatars and alternative identities online, but if I do, I am not talking about it.
If someone said I want to do what do you do, what advice would you have for them?
I generally humor them and say as little as possible. Writing is very time consuming, requires all kinds of time alone—it is really a pretty isolated profession. For some reason, people have all kinds of misconceptions about writing, and are often naïve about the financial difficulties, even for so-called commercial writers. There are just too many people that think they have something terribly important to say—that think they are Moses, come down from the mountain—and after a while, well, who wants to listen to them? That said, though, I worked as a teacher for a long time, and I took most of my students seriously. I understand this foolish urge. There are all kinds of technical and craft oriented stuff you can talk about to aspirants, but the best practical advice is to read and write a lot, obsessively, and to develop a real practice and discipline. And to be a stoic, in the old sense of that word, in regards to expectations.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Of course. I’ve been at this for thirty odd years, and am still at it. But it’s easy to get in a trap here—to think (mistakenly) success has something to do with publication, awards, reviews, or copies sold. Sure, I fall for that, like everybody—and take gratification in the trappings—to the extent that they come my way—but really success in this work, like most arts, is in the pursuit of the mystery, of the revelations and strange joys that art can be bring. Of course it’s nice to connect with an audience, but as a writer, after you publish a book, it’s mostly silence. People read it in private. Or maybe they never read it. Or maybe one person reads it a hundred years from now. Like I said, I try not to have too many expectations, to not react too much to the highs and lows of the trappings. Also, I try to keep in mind, writing isn’t everything. It isn’t the most important thing in the world.
Bob Kaufman, the great surrealist poet—who lived here in San Francisco—understood that writing could be an impediment to seeing the world. At one point, he took the vow of silence.
But of course he couldn’t keep it up. People from the old days, they remember him yammering—brilliantly, but still yammering—nevermind his vow—holding forth on the street corners, scattering napkins filled with lines of poetry.
Once you get this idea you’re a prophet, it’s hard to shut up.
But Kaufman may have been one.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
A week on my mountain bike, riding through some challenging terrain—along the western coast of Spain—but stopping at night in idealized villages, with good food and the wild moon, sleeping in some rustic hovel—ancient stucco, with a crucifix nailed to the walls over the iron frame bed—Mother Mary and the saints and the pagan idols all lingering in the shadows—and the Moors, too, the Sephardic Jews—though I would not want those places to be nearly as uncomfortable as they probably would be in real life, as in the days of the Dominicans with rats on the rafters and roaches in the bedstraw. But I know, of course, that adventures in the spiritual wilderness are meaningless without torment: thirst, hunger, the cat of nine tails.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
As a kid, the writer I liked most was Edgar Allan Poe. He invented the crime story, they say, but I didn’t know that then. I only knew that his writing was visceral and induced forbidden, frightening emotions. I still go back to him sometimes. Also I reveled in Ian Fleming, whom I can’t read anymore—his prose is too horrible—but I read those Bond books voraciously at one time. And the Bronte Sisters. But I also admired sports figures and musicians, and spent a lot of time reading about them. Hank Aaron. Warren Spahn. Bix Beiderbecke. Scott Joplin. I wanted to be a hero on the ballfield, or in a smoky night club with a musical instrument. But I didn’t have a lot of talent in those areas. So I ended up writing. I decided, pretty young, I wanted to be a novelist—ever since I saw those old spinner racks at the drugstore filled with paperbacks. What was great, about those, they didn’t make a lot of distinction between what was “high” literature or “low.” Jim Thompson and Dorothy Hughes in the rack alongside Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Baldwin. So my reading was pretty eclectic. Even now, I don’t have much patience with people who judge the merit of a book by its so-called genre.
What’s wrong with society today?
This will sound selfish, but I don’t really worry too much about society at large, even though I write about corruption all the time, and about the grey line between good and evil. Crime fiction is all about the journey into the unredeemed world, the unforgiven, and it’s just about my favorite place to go.
But to answer the question, I think the list of social problems today are pretty familiar: the gaps between people who have and those who don’t; the divides along race and tribe; the obsession with celebrity and individual achievement, the tendency to get lost in contemporary ephemera as if it were enduring—but I think these kinds of problems have been around a long time, with their roots in illicit desire, lust, greed, avarice, sloth, and so on. Humans have all kinds of frailties and the apocalypse is always around the corner. There is nothing new about this.
People who say this time is worse than any other (or better)—who are over idealistic or pessimistic, and feel the immediacy of this social moment as more significant than any other, and have firm opinions on what should be done about this and that—are in general either ignorant of history or self-absorbed with their own importance and can cause all kinds of trouble. I am not saying it’s impossible to do good, or we shouldn’t try, but the line between good and evil is not always clear, and it’s easy to make a mess in our own righteousness. There is only so much people can change. The world as we know it is already dust. As Leonard Cohen says, in one of those allegorical songs, “everyone knows the war is over, everyone knows the good guys lost.” And this didn’t just happen five minutes ago, with the election of Trump, or some nonsense like that.
Accepting the end of the world—that time is relative, and the end has both already happened and is inevitable in the future—it means accepting our own deaths—and limitations. I am not saying I have come anywhere close to doing that—being as spoiled and lazy and gluttonous as anyone else—but, it’s just that, you know, all of this has been going on for a long time and some humility is in line, some acceptance of our own fallibility, of the fact that is not so easy to tell the difference between the devil and the Christ.
What is your fondest memory?
There isn’t one, but a bunch that blur into one, a general feeling that comes over me while looking out the window at the streaming, hallucinatory Pacific light, at the White Birch and the Queen Palm, with the wind coming off Corte Madera Ridge, and remembering in this moment my daughter being pulled from the womb, up in the hospital off California Street, and the first time I saw my wife, the poet Gillian Conoley, at a party at a friend’s house on a cold night in Massachusetts 30 odd years ago—in her maroon blouse with the wonderful polka dots—and later walking into her family home in Texas (since burned to the ground), and driving (in some earlier life, earlier time, before Gillian, before my daughter) over Highway 17 to camp in the brussels sprout fields with my brothers north of Santa Cruz, and (further back) my mother in her Jackie Kennedy boots in Springfield, Virginia, circa 1962, my little sisters at the table, and my grandmother with her superstitious blend of Roman Catholicism and old world paganism, talking over the family business, my grandfather’s gas station, at the foot of Benson Hill, the black neighborhood in DC, my 22 year old father in his Plymouth, and all of this in a pentimento wash, as Lillian Hellmann would have it, memories unreliable, falsely remembered, deliberately distorted, but still true. Something like that… all of it gone already… committed to the page and just as quickly lost…
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
The Beast rising from the Sea and the Second Coming and the billions of souls streaming skyward from their corporal remains to the infinite light.
This may sound strange coming from a non-believer, one of the Left Behind. But I’d still like to see it.
And wander about in the aftermath.
For the record: Domenic’s grandma, my mom’s mom, was an orphan. Raised in a convent in Italy she came to America in the early 1900s. It was her work, scrubbing floors in banks, that allowed her to support her husband and six children during the depression. She was a great cook. To make ends meet, she cleared out her living room and turned her home into a restaurant. My grandma and grandpa’s home became a favorite place for the neighbors to dine, bring their kids and enjoy life. Through my grandma’s perseverance, sacrifice and business ingenuity the family prospered. She and my grandpa eventually bought a nicer home just outside of Washington D.C. It was a beautiful home with a view of Washington and an orchard. The Plymouth was a wedding present from my grandpa and grandma to my mom and dad. My dad was married when he was 23, before Dominic was born.