Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With D.E. Johnson

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D.E. Johnson writes tense tight thrillers.

His acclaimed novel ‘The Detroit Electric scheme’ has been called “essential for historical fans” by Library Journal.  Booklist  chose it as one of the Top Ten First Crime Novels of the year, with a starred review. They said “Every bit as powerful a Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, this gem as a debut showcases an author to watch very closely”.

He was interviewed by Jay Leno.

He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about odometers and madness.

To what extent do speed and odometers play a part in your latest novel ‘Motor City Shakedown’?

Odometers play a pretty important role in my first book, The Detroit Electric Scheme. The backdrop for the story is the electric car industry in 1910 Detroit. The electric car companies were dealing with the same objections they are today, including that the vehicles wouldn’t go far enough on a charge of batteries, so they all tried to set world records in mileage to demonstrate that their cars would take you everywhere you needed to go. Detroit Electric set a new record of 211.3 miles in September 1910, which was eclipsed by Baker Electric later that year when they got a staggering 244 miles on a single charge. (Both used the new Edison nickel-steel battery to achieve those numbers.) 244 miles on a single charge – in 1910. What are the electrics getting today?

Speed comes in primarily with Edsel Ford, who is a teenage friend of Will Anderson, the protagonist of both The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown. Will is the fictional son of the real owner of Detroit Electric, William C. Anderson. Edsel was a speed freak who built a special version of the Model T Torpedo, in which he would scream around Detroit, obliterating the speed limit (which, admittedly, wasn’t hard to do, since it was ten miles per hour). At this time, a car that would go over 30 was of interest, and Edsel drove his Torpedo at 50+ mph, which was almost unheard of at the time. In Motor City Shakedown, Will buys the car from Edsel, who at this time in real life was working with the men at the Ford factory on a Speedster that would go much faster. Will spends a fair amount of time trying to get control of the Torpedo, which was quite different from the electrics he normally would have driven.

Who are your literary influences?

Ooh.  There are hundreds I could list, but I don’t like writing lists any more than I like reading them, so I’ll pick four contemporary authors as my biggest influences–two who write historical fiction and two who write mystery/crime, and then I’ll throw a songwriter in the mix as well.

On the historical side, E.L. Doctorow is brilliant at making times and places come alive. There are many great examples, but World’s Fair sticks out to me. The other is William Kennedy, who wrote the phenomenal Albany trilogy, which included Ironweed, which might be my favorite book of all time. Both of these guys are amazing writers who have pitch-perfect command of the language and toss off amazing sentence after amazing sentence.

On the crime side, nobody does it better than Elmore Leonard. Dialogue that snaps back and forth in voices that ring absolutely true, smart and smart-ass characters you root for even knowing they’re scumbags, and a different book every time, rather than settling into a formula, like so many authors do after they achieve financial success. The other is Dennis Lehane, who writes the mystery genre better than anybody. Mystery is so much sleight of hand–providing all the clues the reader needs to solve the puzzle, but doing so while directing their eye somewhere else. You can read 300 pages of a Lehane novel, and then in one-page the entire book is reframed, and your understanding of everything you read has changed. (Sort of like the film The Usual Suspects, a brilliant piece of film making.)

The man who I think is the best American storyteller, however, is Tom Waits. His skill with metaphor is incredible, and with a hundred words he tells complex stories that range from hilarious to heart-wrenching, with all the nuance of a well-written novel. The guy is amazing. It doesn’t hurt that I love his music too.

I aim for the sense of place that Doctorow and Kennedy provide with the snappy dialogue of Leonard, the mind-bending plot twists of Lehane, and the heart of Waits. It’s a big reach, and I know I have a long way to go, but I’ve got a lot of books in me, and I intend for each to be better than the last.

Do you think absolute powerlessness is as corrupting as absolute power and how do they relate to the motivations in crime fiction?

Hmm, that’s a tough one. I’d have to argue that, particularly thinking about literature, that we don’t see many characters who are absolutely powerless. They wouldn’t have any function except as victims, and it’s boring to read about conflicts that are foregone conclusions. Protagonists often feel they’re powerless but end up discovering that they really have some level of control over their situation and then turn the tables.

It’s a cliche – but a useful one – to have a protagonist in crime fiction who appears to be powerless until we discover that she was trained by the Mossad in an earlier life that she has tried to put behind her (or something equally as unlikely), or just the normal, everyday guy on his way to the office who’s somehow thrown into a world of violence and intrigue. We have to believe the antagonist is the one with the power, but ultimately the protagonist ends up being the one with more, generally only because of superior guts and determination.

As a general point, I’d guess that absolute powerlessness most likely creates either a feeling of desperation or of freedom. Both could be corrupting, and both are great motivators that can lead to a wide variety of actions, things that could ultimately be either positive or negative.

To what extent do you think madness informs the history of crimes?

First of all, I think “madness” is a difficult term to define as it relates to the real world. I believe sanity and insanity are the ends of a continuum, and most of us fall somewhere between those extremes.

Who is completely honest with themselves? Who really understands why they do what they do? Who acts rationally all the time?

I do believe, however, that almost all crime is the result of a “sane” mind. People rationalize the means to gain what they want, be it the death of a rival or the ownership of a necklace. A person begins down a path and becomes locked into the realization of the end result, regardless of what they have to do to gain it. It’s the “slippery slope” in which the first step may be small and easily rationalized, but having done that, it becomes easier to perform the next and more heinous act, and so on.

Of course, there are the lunatics whose criminal activities are the result of a disconnect with reality, but even sociopaths seem to act rationally and logically, just from a different point of reference.

It seems to me that people want what they want, and many, if not most, will do what they need to in order to get it–so long as they believe they won’t be caught.

Do you think the e book is changing the world of publishing?

Thanks for lobbing one at me. These questions are making my brain hurt. There’s no question that e-books are changing the publishing world. I recently read that something like 317,000 books were traditionally published in the U.S. in 2010 and more than 2.7 million were published in other ways. A large percentage of them were available only as e-books.

There are a few established authors who are selling new works only through Amazon and taking the 70% royalty rather than the 10-20% that most publishers offer. They can sell their books at a lower price and still make significantly more money per book. The difficulty is that it’s tough to be noticed in that world unless you’re established. E-books are still less than 10% of the market, but that will rise quickly while compressing pricing, which will make more literature available to more people.

To me, this is just like the music world, in which albums were the way we bought music for decades. There were incremental changes, such as the cassette tape and then the CD allowing us to take our music with us, but the ipod changed everything. Music became primarily a private experience and downloads became the preferred method of purchasing. There are still those who prefer vinyl for the sound quality (and the coolness factor), but the market has moved on.

However, the music companies still have the dominant part of the market, as will book publishers. In my opinion, even in an e-book world, publishers still bring a lot to the table. The editorial help I’ve received would have been difficult to duplicate at any price, and they act as a filter that indicates to readers that the books they’ve vetted are of good quality (though everyone has their own opinion on that). While publishers aren’t spending the money on marketing their authors like they used to, they still dramatically improve all their authors’ visibility.

I’m a holdout – because I love books so damn much – but one of these days I’ll pick up an e-reader and join the 21st century.

Do you think crime fiction is about resolving crime or raising fear?

Back to the tough ones, I see. For me, it’s not really about either. My interest in crime fiction comes from the idea of exploring human nature. Why do people do what they do? Good crime fiction raises the questions, “Would I do that?” and “What am I willing to do to get what I want?”

We all are drawn to the “dark side,” whether we let it rise to the surface or not. We don’t have enough excitement in our own lives so we want to live in the head of someone who is dancing on the edge. We wonder what would happen if we chucked our 9-5 lives and did something crazy.

I think crime fiction also appeals to those who want people to pay for their sins. Most crime novels end with the good guys victorious and the bad guys punished. That doesn’t really appeal to me personally, because life is a lot more complicated than that. If the protagonist doesn’t pay dearly for the victory it seems false to me. I like those complicated endings, where the good guy ultimately wins, but also loses something he values greatly.

Do you think revenge is lawless justice and its appeal lies in the fact that it involves men and women stepping outside the law?

I would agree with that. Most of the time we are hurt in same way we let it go, which is generally a good thing, since there would be a lot more of us in prison otherwise. We then proceed to think about it for decades, with an “I shoulda…” kind of thought, usually ending with, depending on your inclinations, “… told him off,” “… kicked his ass,” or “… killed the mother-f***er.”

We let it go on the outside, but it just keeps eating away at us. Hence the appeal of reading about what we wish we ourselves had done. “Justice” is an absolute term that has subjective interpretations, so justice in my eyes may be very different from justice in the eyes of my enemy. (But, of course, I’m right – and so must the character be if we are going to root for her.)

I think reading about revenge gives us a little of the retribution we wished we had taken, whether legally or illegally, and there is great appeal to a morally-just character stepping outside the law when it has failed her.

What do you think are the greatest crime novels and why?

I’ll start by saying I feel completely unqualified to answer this question. I’d like to have some unexpected answer to impress the literati, but I read almost entirely contemporary fiction and don’t have much background in the “classics.” With that in mind, I’ll give a couple of my favorites:

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane – I marvel at Lehane’s ability to create a complex and detailed world in books that are great character studies as well as fascinating mysteries. He is also one of, if not the best, at hitting me from left field with a revelation that reframes the entire book. Mystic River is a great look at working-class Boston and the relationships that build and are destroyed between people who inhabit the same few blocks their entire lives.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard – I could choose a dozen of Leonard’s books, but this is the funniest of the bunch, and in some ways the smartest. Chili Palmer is a phenomenal protagonist, a bad guy we love who takes no shit from anybody and always lands on his feet. Great satirical look at the movie business and the characters who populate that world. I’d also put Get Shorty up there with any crime book when it comes to smart dialogue. The book reads like a breeze and sticks with you afterward.

So, no Dostoevski or Nabakov that would make me seem well read, just books I like.

Do you think Westerns and crime fiction are related?

Thematically, there are a lot of similarities between westerns and crime fiction, and I suppose you could argue that westerns, for the most part, are crime fiction anyway, just set in a particular location. Some of the great crime writers, including Elmore Leonard and Loren Estleman, have written a pile of westerns, some of which blur the distinction between the two genres.

In both cases, we have morality plays–good vs. evil, generally with major temptation for the protagonist to just give up or chuck it all and side with the antagonist. Crime fiction traditionally has been grittier, although genre fiction in general has been moving in that direction for some time, so soon the only difference might be setting.

You have been praised for your detailed descriptions of Detroit in 1910 and obviously did a lot of research. What was the most surprising fact you discovered?

That only about 10% of the 465,000 people who lived in Detroit in 1910 had even been born in the State of Michigan. It’s incredible to think of: 400,000+ of the 465,000 city residents were born somewhere far away. There had been wave after wave of immigration–the Irish, Germans, and other northern Europeans early on, followed by southern and eastern Europeans in the early part of the 20th Century. In 1910, Italians, Greeks, and Russian Jews were the predominant immigrants pouring into the area looking for jobs.

I think about New York in these terms–the big ethnic enclaves filled with people who never had to learn English because their whole lives revolved around their countrymen. I never realized that Detroit was the same. This is before the “Great Migration,” when workers from the southern states, particularly African-Americans, moved to the North for jobs as well as more equitable treatment.

As a side note, the recent census puts the population of Detroit at 713,000 (the lowest number of any census since 1910). That’s after hitting a peak of almost 2 million in the mid-fifties. So there are give or take 1.25 million fewer people living within the city limits than there were sixty years ago. No wonder it can feel like a ghost town. Unfortunately, there’s a new “Great Migration occurring, with Detroit residents migrating to other parts of the U.S, particularly the South. It’s been sad to watch a great city become a blight. Maybe someday…

Thank you Dan for a brilliant and informative interview.


Find all things D.E. Johnson at his website, here.

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