Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hard-edged and Haunting: A conversation with Tom Bouman, author of Dry Bones in the Valley

Today I bring you an interview with Tom Bouman, author of Dry Bones in the Valley, a recently released mystery/thriller set in rural Pennsylvania. Bouman’s novel is edgy, but stoic, fast-paced, but riddled with haunting images and characters. This book is for all readers, but today’s interview is really for the writers out there. There’s a lot to learn here….

Steph Post: Dry Bones in the Valley has the perfect combination of thrilling mystery and moments of lyrical brilliance. The balance between the two is what drives the narrative forward and captivates the reader so fully. I’d like to start with the mystery, though. There were so many well developed twists and turns in your novel; I didn’t see the ending coming at all. When you began writing Dry Bones in the Valley did you know who the killer would be? Is there a process you have for mapping out such a complex storyline?

Tom Bouman: Aw, thanks. I didn’t know right away who the killer would be, but relatively early in the process I knew I had to change lenses, so to speak, to make the story a different shape and size. Then everything fell into place. And I did map the novel out, both in terms of creating an outline and establishing a raison d’etre for each scene, and in terms of drawing an actual map of the area in which the story took place. That helped.

SP: In the midst of the intrigue there are beautiful flashes of reflection and insight on the part of the narrator, Henry Farrell. One of my favorite lines in the novel is when Henry considers explaining to Alan Stiobhard that “the only things worth fighting over were things you couldn’t have or couldn’t help. Everyone comes to know that at some point in his life. Some people know it all their lives. And I’ll bet that those who knows, but don’t know they know, make the killers of this world.” That line really hit home with me and made me pause in the story, just as I felt Henry was doing in that moment. How did you come up with this concept and how true do you think it is?

TB: Oh, I think it is true, but you have to keep swinging anyway. The book very purposefully pits ordinary individuals against forces that are probably immovable; to give up against these forces would be a form of early death. I think it’s also true in more a more positive sense, that it is healthy to recognize that sometimes the only way to experience what matters most in life is to stop trying to control it. Lastly, in that exchange, Alan Stiobhard poses the question, “When did you ever fight someone who didn’t matter to you?” Personally, I have come to understand I shouldn’t argue with fools and strangers, but do sometimes need to duke it out with those I’m closest to.

SP: In addition to these bouts of insight, there are startling, lyrical descriptions that contrast sharply with the raw realism of the story. At one point, Henry “slipped into a dream of an upside-down tree in a river” and later, “listened to the wind murmuring again, this time sounding like my mother’s voice, and conjuring vividly my threadbare clothes snapping on a line. I could feel the rough wood of clothespins in my hands.” It is this exact contrast of poetry with stark prose, beautiful images with the rough reality of a small town crime case, that gives Dry Bones in the Valley such a unique and compelling voice. Did you set out with intention of creating such a contrast or is this something that happens naturally in your writing?

TB: I had no ideas about creating a contrast. I just wanted to create an inner life for Henry that would be consistent with his understanding and his approach to the world. At times I had to remind myself to include the darker elements you mention. I remember at one point I was writing a scene were Henry was sitting on a tree stump, gazing at the stars and thinking about life. And I decided, “No. Too much of this. There needs to be an ATV chase here.”

SP: Though some readers made have found it repellent or strange, I especially appreciated some of your unabashed descriptions of life sunk into the mire of rural poverty. For example, at one point Henry describes the intricacies of making squirrel pie. He ends the recipe with, “You can substitute rabbit, grouse, any other small game, but a squirrel or two won’t be missed. I’ve had porcupine.” There is a certain humor in this line, but the earnestness in Henry’s delivery takes away any sense of a gimmick. How important to you was it to portray these characters honestly and accurately?

TB: It was of the utmost importance to me that certain of these rural characters retained their outsider viewpoints without losing intelligence or kindness, or devolving into familiar types or grotesques. You know what I wish I could do? Make squirrel pie. That impresses me. I don’t think you can portray anyone successfully without a concerted effort to empathize and understand. In my case, I don’t know many people as violent or desperate as the characters in my book. But I do know people who have no interest in what mainstream culture offers, and who are more attuned to the natural world than I could ever hope to be.

SP: In addition to Henry’s thoughts on human nature and rural America, we are privy to his views on a very current, hot topic: drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas. This is the first novel I’ve read that uses this issue to develop a character and educate readers. Were you deliberately making a statement by including this issue?

TB: I hope I haven’t written a polemic, especially since I am divided on the issue myself. But I do have serious concerns. This natural gas boom exposes some alarming shortcomings in our culture and our government’s relationship with the corporate and industrial realm. But it also shores up some things we value very highly, and preserves large tracts of countryside at the same time as it interferes with them. In some ways, the novel cannot escape being an expression of my worry that we don’t understand the long-term consequences of the process yet, and that we are not equipped to handle potentially major short term problems. Fracking is something that once you do, you can’t take back, for good or ill.

SP: Finally, this novel is so many things: an intricate mystery, a poignant and powerful examination of rural American life, an intense study of a surprising character, a book filled to the brim with literary grace. What do you hope that readers will find in Dry Bones in the Valley? What do you hope they will take away from it?

TB: You are very kind, Steph. What if I said I hope readers see all the good things you see in it? At very least, when I was writing this book, I wanted it to be the kind of novel where people talked about the characters and what happened, and completely forgot about me, and other external layers. Essentially, I hope that when people read this book, I am not in the room with them. 

Now that you know the author, get to know the novel. Pick up your copy of Dry Bones in the Valley today and as always, read, enjoy, review. 

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