"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
by Jeremy Trylch
Scott Phillips is the author of three of the most highly acclaimed crime novels of recent years. His debut novel, The Ice Harvest, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the California Book Award, a Silver Medal for Best First Fiction, and was a finalist for the Edgar Awards, the Hammett Prize and the Anthony Award. Its follow-up The Walkaway continued his success, with The New York Times calling it "wicked fun." His third novel, Cottonwood, has been published by Ballantine with a limited edition by Dennis McMillan Publications. Born in Wichita, Kansas, where much of his first two books are set, Phillips lived for many years in Paris, and then in Southern California, where he worked on screenplays. Those who frequent Showtime in the middle of the night may see his name on Crosscut (1996). He now lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.
Jeremy Trylch: The end of The Ice Harvest the movie is different than the book. How was the film's ending arrived at and what's your take on it?
Scott Phillips: They shot the book’s ending first, and the preview audiences hated it so much they went and reshot it so Charlie lives. It’s worth noting that these random preview audiences are not necessarily the target audience of a film noir, and that the people who might have given the movie some word of mouth were more likely the hardier types who would have enjoyed the dark ending. Marketing has really fucked up the movie business, and the publishing business as well.
JT: Do you have any philosophies about endings or any thoughts on why they're so difficult to arrive at?
SP: I usually have an ending in mind as I’m working, just in case, but usually I’m looking to surprise myself.
JT: What's your favorite ending of any story, novel or film?
SP: Dr. Strangelove, when Slim Pickens destroys the world to the tune of "We’ll Meet Again." It always gives me a warm feeling inside I can’t quite explain.
JT: I recently finished work on a webseries, a romantic comedy, which ends in a break-up but the characters are for the better having gone through the relationship. The leads hated it. The director went along and wrote an alternate ending. Are we living in the Magic Kingdom? Do audiences still have to have the happily-ever-after ending or are we moving toward something darker and more real?
SP: I don’t think audiences want something sweet all the time, though they may think they do. I showed my nine-year-old daughter "Casablanca," and she was pissed when Bogart sent Bergman away. But she kept thinking about it and talking about it, and last week she sent a letter to the author of a book she’d just read, and she said "the sad ending reminded me of ‘Casablanca.’" I think what the audience always wants is the true ending. People are deeply disappointed with bullshit, which is what they’re most often handed.
JT: Can you talk a bit about your road to publication? How did The Ice Harvest end up in print?
SP: My friend Chas Hansen, who writes fiction under the name Charles Fischer, sent the manuscript to Dennis McMillan, who eventually decided to publish a paperback edition of 1000 copies. My office mate, Simon Maskell, told me I should get an agent, and eventually I got it to Nicole Aragi, who said "it’s a shame there’s a trade edition already forthcoming, otherwise I could sell this in New York." So I called Dennis, and he said let’s do a limited instead. So Nicole sold the book to Dan Smetanka, who at the time was with Ballantine. He’s now a freelance editor, one of the best in the business.
JT: Here's a question you posed to Dan Chaon, Among the Missing. People in other parts of the country tend to think of the Great Plains as a nice, quiet place full of sweet, innocent people, which doesn't seem to be your take on the region--many of your characters are alienated from family and friends, often starting in childhood, and there's a lot of drinking and mayhem going on. Do you hear from Mid-westerners who feel misrepresented in your work?
SP: There are a few schoolmarmish types who object to it, but mostly midwesterners recognize themselves, or at least their communities, therein.
JT: In both, The Emerson, 1950 and Cottonwood there are characters photographing the dead. As a professional cameraman, I've done this and never thought to write about it. Have you photographed dead people, and what's the attraction as a writer?
SP: I think it comes from Wisconsin Death Trip. There’s a huge 19th C. genre of death photographs, and of course with the advent of news photography it was a commonplace in the press.
JT: Kansas plays a huge role in Cottonwood to the point it wouldn't have happened the same way somewhere else. We'll talk about the history of the characters in a question or two. Can you talk about the character of the history?
SP: I had wanted to do a novel strictly about the Benders, keeping it pretty close to the true story, but when I started doing the research I discovered that a) it had already been done, and not well, and that b) the story didn’t lend itself to a novelistic telling. But I found the history of that part of the state at that time very interesting, because it had just been opened to settlements, the Osage only recently having been cheated out of that land. So I decided to do a story about a character living through the belated settlement of the region.
JT: The Benders are a historical family of serial killers. But I gather there are different theories on them. Is Cottonwood your take on what you feel is the truth or did you bend truth to tell the story of Bill Ogden and Cottonwood?
SP: I bent the truth, but I think what I suggest in the book is probably pretty close to what happened. My friend Roger O’Connor, a scholar, publisher and bookseller who died much too soon, knew more about the Benders than anybody, and what I wrote came out of discussions with Roger. Part of what’s so gripping, though, is the fact that we’ll never know.
JT: Talk a bit about researching a historical crime novel. You thank libraries, historical societies, M.D.'s, language specialists, among others. Exactly what did it take to make Cottonwood come alive?
SP: The main thing was I wanted to avoid any stupid mistakes that some scholar would point out. So far only one has come up, from the aforementioned Roger O’Connor, who pointed out that the newspapers they used to insulate their shacks wouldn’t have yellowed because of their high rag content.
JT: Bill Ogden, the protagonist of Cottonwood, what kind of a man is he? He's a snake-killer, a wife-stealer, an absentee father not to mention a fornicator, but he's not all that bad, right? He's a Greek scholar.
SP: He’s an aimless man with a feeling that he’s got some kind of big destiny. Which he doesn’t, but that sense is what keeps him wandering. He’s a failure as a farmer because farming keeps him away from the gregariousness of town life, and his wife and son aren’t enough to keep him at home. He also deserted from the Grand Army of the Republic, which is hinted at but never spelled out in the book as it now exists. I cut several hundred pages out of the middle of the book, which I hope to publish one day in some form.
JT: Everybody in Cottonwood is getting some on the side. It seems like the Summer of Love all winter long. Is this historically accurate? And exactly how did you research this?
SP: It starts with the traveling salesman fucking Bill’s wife. (Those old jokes were based on a long-standing idea of traveling salesmen being randy and disreputable.) The first part of the book is subtitled "The Grass Widows," and of course a lot of women were alone for long periods on the prairie, as were lots of their men, and we know where that road leads. I don’t have any trouble believing that middle- and upper-class girls were more chaste before marriage back then than is typically the case today, but once a woman had been married for a while it’s hard for me to believe that the vast majority of them were celibate after the death or abandonment of a spouse. Think, again, of the archetype of the merry widow or the gay divorcee. Though things were done very quietly, the taboo against popping the cherry of some decent young thing was much stronger than that against comforting a lonesome frontier widder woman. And Roger O’Connor was pretty sure that a lot of local men had fucked Kate Bender. Another thing he told me when I was researching the subject was "where do you think those babies all came from?"
JT: The bees go insane at one point, Bill gets stung in the ass while he's using his own stinger. Is this a literary symbol, are you getting at something, or did that scene arise out of personal experience like the man catching his own hair on fire in The Ice Harvest?
SP: I liked the idea of nature going slightly berserk as the town is getting more and more civilized and modern. No symbolism intended; I just thought it was funny.
JT: How did you go about evoking Bill's voice? You're not old enough to have heard people talking in 1872, so how did writing in Bill's voice pose a challenge to you?
SP: I’m older than I look. I wasn’t looking for a speaking voice, but a written one. I scrupulously avoided all modern evocations of frontier voices while I was writing, because I didn’t want to copy anyone contemporary. What I did instead was go back to period sources. If you read "You Can’t Win," by Jack Black (which I highly recommend, it’s one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read) you’ll find part of Bill’s voice as well as the germ of the Wine Dump sequence in San Francisco.
JT: What are you working on now? When will it be available?
SP: I just finished a book that has no title. Its future is uncertain.
JT: Besides the piece in Murdaland, do you have any short work appearing in magazines, lit journals, or online zines?
SP: The piece from Murdaland will be in this fall’s Best American Mystery Stories, and I have a story in LA Noir, one in Las Vegas Noir and one in Paris Noir (the one Maxim Jakubowski did, not Akashic’s version). I wrote the Paris Noir story in French for the Rivages edition and translated it into English, which was a weird feeling. I also have a story upcoming in Expletive Deleted II, edited by Jen Jordan.
Copyright © Noir Originals, 2008
As a videographer, JEREMY TRYLCH has shot everything from "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol" to pieces for the Onion News Network. He regularly shoots international news for foreign news agencies in Washington, D.C. He has won two writing awards and has short work appearing in the anthology Kiss the Sky: Fiction and Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix. He is the creator of the forthcoming web series Dirty4U. He holds a master's degree in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and is looking for a home for his first novel.