Thursday, November 10, 2011

GETTING LUCKY: An Interview with novelist DENIS GRAY

KIRPAL GORDON: I’ve been a longtime fan of your drama and fiction, but “Lucky” is a new direction for me in reading your work because it’s not just a captivating love story but a novel chock-full of historical and evocative details about New Orleans and the riverboats and the jazz bands that went up and down the Mississippi River during the Roaring Twenties. What was it like researching this novel?

 DENIS GRAY: Well, the first thing I should tell you, is after reading  a review in the New York Times of “Jazz on the River” authored by William Howland Kenney, I knew I was hooked. That I had to write a story set in Louisiana during the ‘20s. This book gave me a historical reference for “Lucky.” The next thing it meant was, I had to come up with a story to match the great state of Louisiana, and, specifically, New Orleans. Now that meant I had to do a lot of research to understand a place that’s been romanticized since forever. And so I tried to figure out what approach to take and what books to read that would best serve my needs. Once I was able to do that, I, as they say, was off and running! The books I read to prepare me for the story were really great. Information. Information. Information. I’m the kind of writer though, who uses maybe 2 percent (if that much) of the information I glean from my research in a novel. What I’m really after, is the spirit of the subject, since I’m not a nonfiction writer. I try to structure my stories real tight, but if I develop the characters correctly, they’ll make the story work for me; and make the writing easy. Yes, it was a lot of fun researching Lucky. I enjoyed every waking minute of it.

KIRPAL GORDON: I am particularly taken by your insights into the jazz life, especially how musicians related to one another as well as a hostile Jim Crow situation that at times misunderstood the music. The way, for example, that Noble Prince’s Red Hot Rhythm Band welcomes youngbuck trumpet-playing Victor Malreaux onto the riverboat struck me so powerfully.

DENIS GRAY: Yeah, Jim Crow, blacks and whites, separate but equal. You know I don’t really get into any real politics regarding Jim Crow in the book, but it does loom over some portions of it. So there’s atmosphere, and you the reader know you’re in the midst of an unjust system. Walter Von Bulow, the owner of the riverboat the “Morning Queen” and the Von Bulow steamship company, tries to create a comfortable but unrealistic setting for his black employees on the ship, but the situation is still unequal no matter, since it is a system he alone cannot buck. But Von Bulow’s the one who hears Victor Malreaux, this young, “hot trumpet player, “youngbuck” as you so aptly described him, and invites him to audition for Noble Prince on the Morning Queen. I think what I was after with Victor in that situation, was to see how an old, seasoned veteran band would take to a youngbuck, since they could be defined as the practitioners of this music. I mean how is tradition preserved if not through one generation passing it down to another: Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Satchmo, Bix Beiderbecke, Fats Navarro –so on and so forth. So Victor Malreaux allowed me to scope out that situation in a clear, accessible way.

KIRPAL GORDON: In jazz guitarist Pat Martino’s new memoir with Bill Milkowski, “Here and Now!,” he notes that when he moved to Harlem the jazz music he was studying & the culture of Harlem were one thing, not two, and he laments that kids who just learn the notes miss the larger context. Would you agree?

DENIS GRAY: Honestly, I don’t keep up with the new jazz cats on today’s jazz scene. I’m still pretty much tuned to the past with my jazz listening. But who thought I’d be quoting P. Diddy, but he once said about hip hop, that it was a lifestyle, clothes, attitude, etcetera. So Pat Martino might have something there. I know the old players, music was in the air they breathed; the music was all around them. They dressed it and ate it and lived it excessively, thus, embedded it deeply into the culture’s psyche. So I’ll let Pat Martino debate that one out, but, like I said, he might be on to something that’s relevant.

KIRPAL GORDON: The novel seems a huge undertaking, especially when Lucky enters the tale. She puts her life at risk as she leaves Harlem and arrives in New Orleans in an attempt to reconcile her past. Did you map it all out first or did you just start writing?

DENIS GRAY: No, I don’t do outlines, but I do “map” it all out in my head. Man, there’s a lot of mapping out too! I take the story here, test it there, hope this is plausible, delete that, and so on and so forth during the process. But once the story crystallizes itself, and I feel I can think of some situations that will give the story interest and impetus, and that I have an ending that makes sense and is logical, natural, and unvarnished, I’m ready to sit down and write. Then when writing, it’s when everything opens up, the middle part of the story where all the juicy stuff and surprises lie for a writer; when they know they’re onto something, and it takes you places you thought you’d never go. For me, because my imagining a story is just a germ, a speck of something, when I’m finished with the book, I think it’s ten times better than what I could ever imagined it before writing it. And if I don’t remember three quarters of what I wrote during the first draft, that excites me even more! Just a quick anecdote. I remember I did a sequel for a novella, “Benny’s Last Blast,” and I had the plotlines for the new book, “Benny, God, and the Blues,” down pat except for one vital transition I needed. I actually waited eight years for that one transition to finally come to me! But I knew it would be worth the wait, since it did provide a great subtext for the story. I think my patience was based on my instincts as a writer—at least I’d like to think that it was.

KIRPAL GORDON: If you’ll pardon the pun, how can readers get “Lucky?” Are there any plans to do readings or concerts with this book?

DENIS GRAY: Thanks for asking. “Lucky” is online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s also an e-Book, so Kindle and Nook make it available for purchase. (In fact, I’ve read “Lucky” off my wife’s iPad.) Readings, I’ve done a lot of them. I vendor also. Concerts, no. My web site is I’d love to hear from readers. And I’m on Facebook—so you can ‘friend’ me.

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