Author Ariel S. Winter on "The Twenty-Year Death"
Last week saw the publication of Ariel S. Winter's The Twenty-Year Death, a giant ambitious mystery novel written in the style of three separate crime novels. The book has garnered praise from such names as Stephen King, John Banville, and Alice Sebold. (Not bad.) How does such an ambitious project get its start? Here's what the author had to say about it --
It is impossible to say when a book begins. Did it start at birth, or when I learned to read, or when I set out the first words that grew into a novel?
I am inclined to say that The Twenty-Year Death began when I took two university courses: Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir, and Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, even though I wrote it many years later.
But perhaps the truer answer lies with that Chandler send-up, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, my favorite movie of childhood…and still today?
What I do know is that The Twenty-Year Death is not the book I set out to write.
That ambitious book was meant to be David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as written by W.G. Sebald. There would be a straightforward first-person narrator, a close approximation of myself, and there would be the books the narrator read. These books would appear in full, so the reader of the novel would read the reading of the narrator—mysteries, romances, westerns, sci fi, and “literary” fiction, his taste would be catholic.
I began the frame narrative, and then I wrote the Georges Simenon pastiche Malniveau Prison, a one-hundred and fifty page replica of an Inspector Maigret mystery.
I didn’t stop there. Next up was a romance, a love story between the full-sized daughter of retired circus midgets and a newcomer to their island home. Oh, I was ambitious.
Still I clung to Malniveau Prison. No writer, especially one young and unpublished, can bear to see his hard-earned work go to utter waste. I didn’t have my novel, but I had a novella, and I knew it was good.
I sent it to an agent. It was January 1st when he got back to me. Or that is how I remember it at least, and it has the poetic ring that appeals to me as a novelist.
“I liked it a lot,” he said. “But it feels like a half-novel.”
That was all the encouragement I needed. I attacked Malniveau Prison, and it doubled in size.
There was talk of a series, but I didn’t want to write a series. Unless…unless…what if the recurring character in the novel was not the detective, but some other side character…
The American writer Shem Rosenkrantz seemed the obvious choice. And where would a great American novelist go after France…
Hollywood, of course. And Hollywood meant Chandler. After all, I had one pastiche on my hands. Why not two?
Before I even began on the Chandler pastiche, I had conceived of the Jim Thompson book as the novel’s logical conclusion. So, like a movie studio that green lights two sequels after the success of the first film, I went into The Falling Star knowing how Police at the Funeral would end.
Is this how all novelists work? Do their books rise like the phoenix from the ashes of their mistakes? I have known several novelists in my lifetime, yet only one to call friend, and still I do not know. It is how this book came to be.
Or is it? Do I really know how I came to write The Twenty-Year Death? Does any novelist know how he came to write a book?
Or is it the true mystery?
-- Ariel S. Winter