Murder Books is pleased to have David Fulmer on the blog this week. David is the author of eleven novels and one novella. In addition to winning a Benjamin Franklin Award, and the Shamus Award for Best First Novel, he has been nominated for an LA Times Book Prize, the Barry Award, the Falcon Award, and the Shamus Award for Best Novel. His books have received superlative reviews from, among others, The New York Times, USA Today, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly and, in addition to audiobook versions, have been translated into French, Italian, Japanese, and Turkish. Eclipse Alley, the sixth installment in his acclaimed Storyville series, was released in October 2017 by Crescent City Books. David is a former journalist and producer, he is a native of central Pennsylvania, and he now lives in Atlanta with his wife Sansanee Sermprungsuk.
In addition to being an excellent storyteller, David is a talented writing instructor. This interviewer credits him with providing the fundamental tools for being a novel writer and for lighting the path to a very satisfying writing career.
MB: Tell our readers a bit about your Valentin St. Cyr character and where the inspiration for him came from.
David: Valentin was a creation of need for my first book. I wanted to write a novel about New Orleans during the first decade of the 20th century. I was especially interested in the birth of jazz––or jass, as it was known at the time––and its seminal figure, Buddy Bolden. I needed a character to circle him and to be the yin to his yang––someone cerebral while he was emotive. Though I had never considered myself a mystery writer, I felt that the time and place begged for such a story.
So I came up with a detective to investigate what became a string of crimes. I gave him a complicated Creole of African, Indian, and Sicilian blood so that he could cross color lines in a fluid way. I also gave him an eccentric and somewhat tragic backstory as a special kind of burden. Beginning with Chasing the Devil’s Tail, the first novel in the series, he’s moved forward as he’s challenged not only with his cases, but in the dynamics of his personal life.
MB: You have written a number of books about St. Cyr and the Storyville district in New Orleans. What brought your writer’s imagination to bear on Storyville?
David: What’s not to entice the imagination? What surprised me as I first began researching those twenty blocks is that so few other writers had utilized it. We’re talking about a legal red-light district where as many as two thousand prostitutes plied the trade. Where there was drinking and dining and dancing and gambling six nights a week. Where you could buy morphine and cocaine over the counter. A place that was completely corrupt, but also completed controlled by a single individual named Tom Anderson. It’s supremely rich territory and I was happy to be one of those few who went about bringing it to life through fiction.
MB: There’s a powerful sense of authenticity to the time and place in this book––almost as if you knew the time and place first-hand. What kind of research do you do, to achieve this?
David: As a former journalist, I knew something about researching a story. But I learned a great deal more by doing the research for Chasing the Devil’s Tail. I began with books and read everything I could find about New Orleans during that period. Then I expanded it to the world. So I ended up with binders full of pages I copied and highlighted.
Finally, I went to the Special Collections floor of the New Orleans Public Library, pulled the microfilm of the newspapers, and browsed through the exact days that my story was taking place. This gave me a feel for what people were doing and saying right down on the street level. What concerned them and how did they discuss it? Reporters often offered their own opinions within news stories, so that helped with the flavor. I didn’t think this was all that unique, but afterward I kept getting asked about it.
I mix fictional and historical characters so I researched their biographies and contemporary accounts. Did I take some liberties? I did, but I don’t believe I distorted them.
My goal was to immerse myself so deeply in a different time and place and its people that I could evoke it for my readers. It’s the goal of every author, but extra important when it’s a different time or place.
MB: I know that you have an enduring fascination with Buddy Bolden and the birth of jazz. He and the music are prominent themes in your Storyville books. Tell us about the origin of your interest in these themes.
David: Soon after he disappeared from the streets, Bolden became a ghost that has haunted New Orleans, American music, and people like me ever since. He has appeared here and there in other fictional works––Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, for one––but those renditions were fanciful. I wanted to recreate the real Buddy Bolden on the page.
He was a major character in the first Storyville mystery and has reappeared in the shadows in three of the other books. And you might see him again. As a writer, he’s one of those figures who is so enigmatic that I felt I could take him to all kinds of entrancing places.
Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz but that was just more of his wild boasting. No one invented it. All the styles were in the air: parade music, “gutbucket” or early blues, gospel music, popular tunes, quadrilles, cakewalks, and a half-dozen more. It was a mark of genius, mostly Bolden’s, but there were others, to be able to hear all these disparate sounds and meld them in a way no one had imagined before. As such, it became the first true American music. You put this together with what became a wild stage presence and you also have American music’s first star and, sadly, its first crash-and-burn story as well.
Finally, this goes back to the time and the place, because jazz and Buddy Bolden could not have happened anywhere but New Orleans at this point in history. That’s what drew and continues to fascinate me.
MB: Are you a musician, yourself? Do you play jazz? What instrument?
David: I’ve been dabbling since I was a teenager and once rose to the level of semi-pro. That was as far as I got. My father and grandfather were both trumpet players and I started on the cornet. But I wanted to be a rock-and-roller and switched to guitar. I was in a garage band in high school, that whole thing. The more that I listened and played, the more I became intrigued with the roots and began working my way back through blues and jazz to the original sources. So I shifted to playing guitar in those older acoustic styles. Along the way, I picked up harmonica, banjo, mandolin, and random other instruments here and there. I do have a music room in the house and that’s where I play.
Though I tried performing and realized that I wasn’t for me, I did get a peek into the architecture of music and I believe that gave me a better handle on how to work it into my narratives, most of which include a musical thread of some sort. I tend to be modest about my skills, but I would stack my ability to get readers to “hear” music through the words on the page with anyone’s.
MB: For us diehard fans of the Fulmer canon, will you ever return to Eddie Cero, the Philadelphia-based fixer/former boxer from your 2008 mystery The Blue Door? If yes, can you give us any idea when that might happen?
David: Chasing the Devil’s Tail and The Blue Door were my two complete labors of love and those two
garnered the best reviews and sold the most. I got about a hundred pages into a sequel to The Blue Door and go back to it when I can. I’ve had a lot going on.
MB: What’s next from the pen of David Fulmer?
David: I’m contracted for one more installment in the Storyville series. It will be number seven and that feels like a good place to close it out. I have various other writing projects ongoing, books and scripts and some non-fiction work as well. I have this and that making the rounds with the TV/feature film crowd. For me, a good thing about being a writer is that I never have to think about retiring. I’ll just carry on.
You can keep up with David through his website at davidfulmer.com. His books are available through major booksellers.
David Fulmer was interviewed by Roger Johns.