Blood on the Page
By Neil Nyren
“She doesn’t remember, does she?”
The question hangs in the air between them too long.
Billie James has returned to the dilapidated house in Greendale, Mississippi, where her father, a renowned black poet, lived. She hasn’t seen him in 30 years. “She had forgotten about the house, figured it’d been knocked down forever ago,” but here it is, and here she is.
History breathes all around her. “This place is all longing and water and ghosts,” her cousin says. Relatives still live nearby, as do descendants of the slave-owning family for whom her own ancestors worked.
Every tree has a story, and the story that interests her most is that of her father, whom one summer night in 1972 was walking through the woods when he fell and hit his head and died. She was four then, asleep back at the house—or so she’s always thought. Now, she learns that people couldn’t find her that night, that she’d disappeared, that her picture was even on the news.
She starts to ask around, and is told that she was found in a closet—no, the porch—no, somewhere else, just leave it be, baby. But she can’t: “She wants to know all the stories of Greendale’s abandoned houses, secret affairs, and ruinous personal wars.” The more she pokes, the more she is warned that she’s getting into something most people would rather forget, and then with one poke too far, those ghosts become only too real.
“Words have blood in them; they can make fate take shape when they pass from a mouth into a heart,” and in THE GONE DEAD, those words slow-build into a haunting climax.
This is a remarkable novel about race, justice, and memory. What inspired Benz to write it?
“I was living at the time in a Mississippi town that had next to nothing going on. I started driving on the weekends to various historic places: Clarksdale, Greenwood, Vicksburg, Oxford, Natchez. I was drawn particularly to the Delta and any other half-abandoned crumbling towns I encountered along the way. As I began investigating their histories, I came upon countless Civil Rights era cold cases of black men, women, and even children who had been murdered with impunity. What struck me was that not only have their names and ‘unsolved’ cases been largely forgotten, but it’s doubtful that we even know all of their names. But of course, their children, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and parents remember. Many are still alive or at least lived into the 21st century not only carrying the weight of this injustice, but knowing that they have passed people on the street who knew who did it, and maybe have even been the perpetrators.”
Violence was also a theme in her first book, a much-praised collection of short stories with the very evocative title The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead. Those stories often featured someone having to make a decision about whether to commit a violent act, though “I wasn’t aware of it immediately,” Benz says. “But as the stories accrued, I realized that there was often a pivotal moment where the protagonist had to make a choice whether or not to participate in a moment of violence. I think that the violence we do and the violence done to us marks us—we carry it, inherit it, pass it on. So many lives are bisected into the moment after the act and the moment before. Once you take someone’s life, you can’t give it back. Most of the characters in those stories aren’t people that have many choices in the first place, which is usually when people do something they can’t undo.
“In the novel, violence was inescapable because being black in America has always meant that the threat of violence is inescapable. And particularly in THE GONE DEAD, I was interested in how the things we can’t remember have shaped us. Not only the ghosts of childhood trauma, but also our country’s tendency toward historical amnesia.”
How different was it writing a novel after all the short stories?
“I find writing short stories immeasurably satisfying—it’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, but while you’re also the one carving out the pieces. I tend to sketch out a rough draft fast and I can see the whole thing and feel the kinks and evasions each time I pass over it, until I bring it as close to finished as I can. And while I have written at least two failed in-the-drawer novels, I’ve never written a successful (as in ‘it works’) novel until now. So it was very much a learning process. In a novel, there needs to be more than one movement, more narrative threads, and the escalation is much more complicated. At some point, I covered my wall with notes on each section, written and unwritten, and kept rearranging them and reminding myself of how they caused and connected to each other. The beauty of the novel is you can do multiple things at once, the curse is you have to find some glorious way to do multiple things at once.”
You also have to find a way to dig deep. “Nobody likes the idea of this, but I like it: That there needs to be blood on the page,” Benz once said. She meant “that something of you should be left on the page. I don’t mean this necessarily in an autobiographical sense, but that the writer has risked something to write the story, probed some troubling vision, asked that deeper, uncomfortable question not just of the reader but of themselves. It’s good to feel a little bit nervous when your story goes out into the wide world.”
While THE GONE DEAD does indeed ask those questions, it’s also full of striking prose, of acute observations and vivid phrases—“the vacuum-sealed wet of a Mississippi summer”; “the ticking by of power lines, a collapsed barn drowning in purple blooms, clothes flapping dry on a wire, winking lights set in roadside cemeteries so cars don’t run over graves”— and it’s marked by many different voices.
Benz herself trained as an actress, and in certain ways THE GONE DEAD has elements of a play. Several characters in the book have their own chapters, each contributing pieces of the story, commentary, and reflections that light up different corners of the narrative.
“Yes, if I can’t get the cadence of the voice, then I can’t find my key into the story. For a long time, I couldn’t get the main protagonist’s voice right. It wasn’t until I realized that it wasn’t just her story to tell and began letting the other characters speak that she began to come to life. I was actually thinking of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, how Addie is the hub and all the other voices are spokes on a wheel, spinning around her impending death and then her dead body. For me, Cliff, her father, is this center.
“I knew that the Mississippi Delta needed to be almost another character in this book, though I also knew that description isn’t something that comes easily to me. I felt it was a process of layering. I let myself write a skeleton scene, typically driven by narrative and dialogue/inner monologue, then went back as the character at that moment in their lives and really imagined myself into the space, looked at some of my research, then went over the music of the prose. Then did it again and again. I also went to the Delta and drove around, jotting down descriptions, letting it be mundane or cliché. But so much of what I saw struck me as poetry.”
The research also extended into the events of the book. Since it takes place in very distinct time periods in the very deep South, she wanted to make sure she got the details and nuances right.
“I found that I kept having to move back in time. To understand the early 1970s, I needed to understand Mississippi in the ’60s, but to understand that, I needed to understand the seeds being planted in the ’40s and ’50s, then the changes that came from black vets returning from WWII, then shifts during the Great Migration, then Reconstruction and the backlash of the bloody ‘Redemption,’ then the settling of the Delta by white planters and enslaved black people, then the Civil War… At one point, I considered applying for a PhD program in African American studies because I was panicked about not knowing enough. I could have spent 15 years researching and writing this book, but my bank account didn’t have that long. And really, I’m a storyteller who likes voices. So I went looking for them and read autobiographies and articles, watched documentaries, and listened to podcasts and recordings.”
For the central character of Cliff James, “Initially I was thinking about the promise of the poet and writer Henry Dumas, whose life and work was cut short when he was 33. He was born in 1934 in Arkansas and died in New York in 1968 under dubious circumstances. I also thought of Amiri Baraka’s transition away from the Beats and into the Black Arts Movement.”
She had other literary influences as well: “When I’m really writing, I often need little power boosts and I get really picky about prose so I turn to poetry. I read and reread Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, Natalie Diaz’s My Brother Was An Aztec, and Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. I also remember reading Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and her collection Florida, Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen, as well as Michael Farris Smith’s Desperation Road, and getting a much needed lift.”
An additional, and important, influence was George Saunders, with whom she studied at Syracuse University for her MFA, “which I adored, though as a failed actress who’d barely had any college-level English classes, it wasn’t a move I would have been able to predict. But I needed that time and space, those mentors, and that cohort of writers.
“From Saunders, I learned that becoming a better writer is really about learning to read your own work as a reader so that you can actually see what the story is or is not doing and if it’s doing it enough. Like my theater teachers were fond of saying, it’s getting out of your own way. Working toward having that level of perception is a practice. He also taught me that it’s good to write your character into an impossible situation that you don’t yet know how you’ll get them out of.
“At the end of my last year, a writer came in to workshop a story by each of the fiction writers in the graduating class. He gave me some unsparing notes and praise, then offered to recommend me to his agent. I sent her what stories I had, and I met with her in NYC, where she took me on. It was a few years before I had anything like a book, but she took a chance on me, for which I am forever grateful. Prior to grad school, I had tried to sell one of my in-the-drawer novels and met with a whole slew of rejections, some requests for the ms, and an agent stringing me along, then disappearing. I’m pretty glad it never sold.”
Readers will likewise be very glad that the end result was THE GONE DEAD, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them seek out the short story collection, too. There’ll be more of those stories. “I’m working on one now about someone who doesn’t know who they are—in the most literal sense,” she says.
No one will ever be saying that about Chanelle Benz.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the Executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: