American author Tom Bouman’s debut crime novel, Dry Bones in the Valley was very well received by the critics and won the 2015 Edgar Award Best First Novel and the LA Times Book Prize Mystery/Thriller prize. Set in rural north eastern Pennsylvania in the fictional town of Wild Thyme it features lone policeman Henry Farrell. A second Farrell novel, Fateful Mornings, followed in 2018 and this April sees the publication of the third, The Bramble and the Rose:
When Henry Farrell took a job policing Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, he was recently widowed and still trying to find his feet. His first big cases put Officer Farrell face to face with Wild Thyme’s encroaching demons. Now, he’s got the lay of the land and he’s newly married to a local girl.
Then a body – headless and half eaten by a bear – is discovered in the woods. With the help of a local biologist, Henry tracks the bear, hoping to catch him before any more lives are lost, but when his nephew disappears into the same woods they realise they may be facing a far bigger and more sinister threat.
Tom lives with his wife and two children in upstate New York. I began by asking about his influences:
Have you always been a crime fiction fan? When you began writing did you always want to tell crime stories?
I started with Sherlock Holmes. Later in my teens, I tore through Agatha Christie novels, John D. MacDonald, Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, P.D. James, James Lee Burke, Simenon, and more recently on to Tana French, Larsson, Lehane, Richard Price, Attica Locke, and so on. That’s leaving out a lot. I’ve always been drawn to the mystery in its many forms.
In my early twenties I was in a graduate program for fiction writing, and it wasn’t a great fit. Voice-driven writers like George Saunders and Lorrie Moore were in style. Realist, socially focused, plot-driven fiction was not. By the way, I liked those writers too, but I couldn’t write like that. I was turning out bad plotty stuff about dealers whacking each other on the head. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I understood anything about how to write about crime, or anything else.
Your novels are often described as ‘rural crime’, not a new phenomenon, but that description is maybe a little lazy. The Henry Farrell series are also police procedurals, maybe even noirs, how would you describe them for readers?
They are police procedurals, because Henry Farrell is a policeman. Noir fiction concerns doomed protagonists on the other side of the law, where the antagonist is fate, whether the setting is urban or rural. But that’s where things get a little hazy for me, because Henry can find himself on the other side of the law, or with outlaw allies. And fate is no friend to him. I suppose I’d describe my novels as mysteries above all else.
You’re a fan of John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, very entertaining but a little detached from a specific reality, floating in their own world, whereas your novels are rooted in time and place. Are there writers you feel influenced your style more directly, comparisons have been made with Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, flattering, but do you feel that connection?
The only crime writer who influenced me as much as John D. is James Lee Burke. I suspect other mystery novelists would tell you the same. Burke found a lot of truth and beauty in the form. I love Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. There’s just nothing else like it. I am a fan of Pollock, who writes such brutal fiction but is himself a sweet person, as far as I can tell from my limited contact. Those noir authors were less of an influence on me than the more straight-down-the-middle mystery novelists—they and Larry Brown, who was not really a crime writer. John D. was an environmentalist, by the way—he was engaged in his time. In my mind, when I sit down to write a Henry Farrell novel, I’m writing my version of a Travis McGee story. And then reviewers with the best intentions weigh in like, ‘It’s a somber dirge echoing in a hollowed-out hell-scape where everything is in ruins.’ OK, I guess I wrote what I wrote.
Dry Bones in the Valley was a huge critical success and a prize winner as I have said, quite a validation, did that success impact on your writing when it came to the second Henry Farrell novel Fateful Mornings?
A bit. Writing takes time, and with Fateful Mornings there was some pressure to finish the book and capitalize on the interest people had in Dry Bones in the Valley. Dry Bones was also optioned for television and film early on, and it seemed like the TV people might actually make something. If they were to make something, it’d be some kind of series. I worried that the TV people would run away with the narrative before I could get my books out into the world, and there would be a competing vision out there. I tried to ignore these things and, within reason, work on my own timeline. I was going to law school then, too, which ate up a lot of time and energy. I was given a month-long residency out west that helped me finish Fateful Mornings the way I wanted to, a year late. It turns out I needn’t have worried, as the TV people didn’t make anything and the option expired peacefully.
Of course, I put pressure on myself to make Fateful Mornings a good sequel, consistent with the first, but not the same book over again. I would have done this whatever success the first book had. I wanted to be sure the characters grew. Fateful Mornings did not get as much attention as Dry Bones, which is a shame, because I think it’s a better novel.
You previously worked as a book editor in New York, maybe that put your own writing on hold for a period, but did it help in any way when it came to writing Dry Bones in the Valley?
Yes, it must have. I had knowledge of the business and an inside track, plus years of working on the page to make other peoples’ fiction better. In a more general sense, I absorbed the following ideas that I think are worth trying to explain.
First, as an editor I read so much fiction on submission that was perfectly fine, just OK, whatever. But it was not alive, and so it didn’t get published. I’m sure I internalized a lot of what not to do, without totally being able to explain it now. I’ll try, though: I believe there’s an emotional risk that one must take to produce life in fiction. It’s more of a sacrifice than people may realize. What I feel a writer ought not to do is to avoid the risk and the sacrifice. It creates a deadening absence in the prose. I once heard Joe R. Lansdale (another great one) say in an interview that he writes as if all of his loved ones are already dead. It’s worth thinking about that statement and the emotional situation it suggests.
Second, my day-to-day publishing experience taught me that if I wrote a book, it was unlikely to be published, and if it were to be published, it would probably go unnoticed. Because I truly believed those things, the only reasonable way forward was to write the book I had to write, to satisfy myself even if nobody else ever read it or liked it.
The Wild Thyme novels sprang from the voice of Henry Farrell coming to you – fully formed? Unbidden? Could you tell us a little about that please.
I’ve described this as a moment of inspiration, but really it was the incubation and realization of voices from my homeplace into something else. I remember the moment – I was lying awake late at night or early in the morning, worrying about various problems in the real world. And without any kind of attempt at all to summon it, the voice arrived. I don’t remember what it said, but I do remember the character of it, which was fully formed.
Because of the suddenness of these kinds of arrivals, it may be natural to feel that they come from some external source. I think they come from within. The important thing is to be able to recognize what you’re hearing and know when to follow it.
Henry Farrell is tough and reserved, introspective, he’s a vet, a hunter, with an affinity to animal life and the land, he’s carrying the loss of his dead wife, although now he’s married again. Everything turns on his narration. Would you add or contest that portrait? How do you think he would see himself? Incidentally, The Bramble and the Rose sees Henry Farrell go through the wringer again.
I have dealt with anxiety and depression for years. Only recently did I seek medical treatment for it, and what I learned fairly quickly is how often those conditions create self-fulfilling prophecies. If your view of yourself is essentially negative, and you believe that’s how others will see you, why do the work to connect with others? The risk is so much greater. It’s already an uphill battle to push aside the black dog and get through the day. Luckily, I was able to function and create a good life with my family.
Though I take care not to intrude onto the page or into his character, I believe Henry Farrell shares that DNA with me. I don’t think he thinks very much of himself. Part of that is humility, and part of it is chemical. He understands from his experiences that life is a struggle, but he expects that and takes it as it comes. As his lot improves and he gets guidance from friends and family, it may be interesting to see how he opens up to the world a bit more.
You write about rural Pennsylvania, fairly close to where you live now I imagine, and naturally crime novels focus on the challenging aspects of society. Are you conscious of the image you’re creating and how that sits with readers? Populations are more urban and centralised than ever, knowledge of rural life diminished. However, readers may sense a love of place and community underling your fiction. Away from the crime how would you describe north eastern Pennsylvania?
Sure, I would hope that readers unfamiliar with country life would understand that I’m writing crime fiction, which I’ve said is a distorted mirror. I’m not trying to define rural life journalistically, or even in a strictly realist way. Someone at W.W. Norton, my US publisher, once described my novels as “like The Wind in the Willows gone horribly wrong.” That said, I have taken care to represent a range of lives and viewpoints I’ve seen in the area where I grew up. I wouldn’t want the people there to find their homes and ways unrecognizable, and that includes my friends and family.
The place I grew up is as if someone took a very small town and scattered it over some hills. There are little neighborhoods here and there, and a couple bars and restaurants. People connect in the schools, and the churches, and through work. People have their own businesses. Many commute to work in the nearest city. There is a pretty wide range of socio-economic and political conditions, though overall it is a conservative place, working class and middle class, with an emphasis on independence and the capabilities you need to get by in the country. Throwing natural gas money into that mix was unusual, but I don’t think it changed people there all that much. The landscape is pretty—field, forest, dairy farms, barns, creeks. You can also encounter some derelict places.
One stark aspect of crime fiction in a rural setting isn’t so much the contrast between rural and urban, but the contrast between nature in all its beauty, wildness and desolation and the errant behaviour of people. Is that a theme for you? Similarly there’s something of the man versus nature about the stories. Farrell faces a very human enemy but also the elements and the bear. Sounds a little bit pompous but is this about our place in the scheme of things?
The Bramble and the Rose is particularly about Henry’s view of our place in things. He is an empathetic person, and especially toward wild animals, attuned to them as he is through hunting and his solitary ramblings. I think sometimes he envies beasts the knowledge they don’t have, and at the same time, to him, humans are animals and behave as such. If you asked him whether we are all connected—humans, animals, living things—he’d probably say yes, though he doesn’t understand how. He might come up with something like Emerson’s Over-Soul.
Crime does have a unique kind of feel in rural areas, not so much motives or actions which are universal, but because they impact a community not just individuals, everyone is sort of connected, crimes affect neighbours and family. Would you say that’s true? It feels like that adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere too.
Yes, that’s true, in the sense that the smaller the community, the more pervasive the impact of the crime. But also, if you consider that a major city is composed of smaller communities, a violent crime’s impact is also pretty universal in the way you describe it, rural or urban. Unless, of course, your community is a true underbelly of dead-end criminals in conflict with each other, and then you’ve probably stumbled into a noir narrative.
You’re novels touch on what you described as ‘malingering negative forces’, such as homophobia, misogyny but also tradition and history. A lot of rural communities are suffering badly from drug problems, youth unemployment, poverty and isolation. You’re not writing a polemic on rural life, I get that, but your novels are a social critique raising topics such as hydro-fracking, drugs, (heroin, meth), is that fair to say?
The novels deal with those subjects because they’re there. As a semi-realist author, it would be a misstep not to weave those forces in, especially in a crime novel. What I’m not trying to do is to get any kind of a result in the real world by making them a part of the fictional world. However I may feel about them personally. Dry Bones in the Valley was written and published before Donald Trump was elected. But the corrosive forces that put him in power were already in place, and had been for some time. More and more I fear that I did not notice enough of the stains and insects in our national fabric.
But as you point out, it ain’t all bad. Our histories and traditions include resistance and solidarity to bring about needed change. We are facing a terrible crisis right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. We will need to draw on our better traditions to get through it, and I believe we will.
The pace of the novel reflects the pace of rural life, you’ve described Henry Farrell’s place in it as ‘a way of being in the world’. Could you tell us a little bit about that please?
I have lived in New York City and deep in the country. The difference in pace is night and day. In New York, I was confronted at every turn with the blast furnace of humanity and all of the messaging directed at it. Tiny apartments, high turnover, new neighbors. The opportunities to meet some new person and have some new experience of some kind or other are limitless in a place like New York. Even if you don’t take those opportunities, you are aware of them. Some people thrive in that kind of environment.
People go to the country to settle, in the positive sense of the word. There aren’t many man-made places to go and ‘do something.’ You can’t select your friends based on a perfect match of views and interests. If your neighbor has walked three miles to visit you, he expects to stay a while and tell you a story. You don’t turn away to some new distraction, partly because the opportunity just isn’t there, and partly because that’s not the way to go about things. Country pursuits—gardening, hunting, talking, working—take time and patience. A novel set in the country that flits from one event to the next wouldn’t make sense to me.
I hope we can we expect to hear more Henry Farrell in the future. Anything you can tell readers about that?
I had always planned to write four Henry Farrell novels, one for each season. Dry Bones in the Valley begins right around the first day of spring, and is the start of Henry’s journey back to life. Fateful Mornings is a profuse, blooming, summertime book. The Bramble and the Rose feels more autumnal and bare, yet with a kind of romantic harvest, and takes place over a fall. There’s a winter book still to be written, and it may be set far in Henry’s future. I am also developing novels that originate in the Wild Thyme setting but branch away from Henry.
Does a writer need a hinterland? You were a musician, an editor, (and I believe a trained lawyer?). Are you good at scheduling your time?
I have only ever written with any success when I was doing something else full-time. Whether that helps or hurts, I don’t know. I’m a practicing attorney now. The only way I can write at all is by getting up early in the morning. When I do that, I am disciplined about it. In recent months, I’ve given myself a break, but I’ll get back to it soon.
Lastly, you’ll be glad to hear;
Who are you reading at the moment? Have who got any recommendations for readers?
Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, a tightly focused history of the Troubles, was totally enthralling. I read a fair amount about music, and Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest was worthwhile. For fiction, Circe by Madeline Miller was a recent favourite. Nickolas Butler’s latest novel, Little Faith, is on my nightstand. Right now I’m reading The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman, and in manuscript, my friend Dante Di Stefano’s latest collection of poetry, Lullaby with Incendiary Device. To me, Dante is the poet laureate of the American Main Street—technically brilliant, accessible, and drawing on an array of traditions.
Thank you for doing this Q&A, stay well at this tough time.
Thanks Paul, you too.