I’m delighted to be interviewing first novelist James Anderson about his national hit novel The Never-Open Desert Diner. A novel so replete with humor and compassion and originality that readers simply cannot stop reading it. Because of its literary quality and its popular impact, I predictably have some questions for James.
Lee: The Never-Open Desert Diner has echoes of Robert B. Parker, Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler and others, with its noir edge, its dry humor, but also it seems influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism–characters isolated, on the edge of normality, veering past unconventionality into a unique, at times bizarre world. Your novel bridges genres and is almost impossible to classify. Can you explain more specifically why you were drawn to crime writers and how this attraction influenced this novel? And if you agree about the magical cast to it?
James: A terrific set of questions. Yes, it does have that “cast” to it, though when I was writing the novel that didn’t occur to me. I have often been asked how long it took me to write the novel. Of course, there is the usual answer in linear time. The truth is all creative enterprises are born from who you are, and in that sense, the real answer is all my life. It is a stew made up of everything I’ve read and loved, felt, heard, seen, dreamed— which means Bob Parker, Chandler, both McDonald and MacDonald (John and Ross)—Marquez, Borges, Cortazar, Carpentier, Bulgakov, plus Merton, Terry Tempest Williams and various Zen Masters. And then the poets! Neruda, Lorca, Rilke, Villion, Valery. The “mystery” element is only a style of narrative. The novel itself is, in my opinion, quite subversive, and intentionally so. It defies categorization and that is exactly why it was so disliked by editors and agents (which I completely understood), but also why it seems to have been so roundly embraced by readers and reviewers—though not all. But it’s subversive quality is cloaked in conventions of the noir mysteries I so love. A few weeks ago I had a chance to chat with Adam Johnson, winner of both the Pulitzer and National Book Awards. Reviewers have called our respective works “strange” and we were laughing because, though we can see that now, at the time we were writing neither of us thought of what were writing as “strange” or “bizarre,” as you called it. My characters exist as I exist, in a real world that is nothing more than a membrane through which magic passes freely. It is always there for those who are aware enough to see it. Magic realism, in my opinion, authentic magic realism, is the language of the exiled, oppressed, marginalized. The rich have money and power; the poor have magic. And that magic, often ordinary and powered by the natural world, is powerful stuff. Noir is essentially about one person fighting for light in a dark world. In my twisted little mind, noir and magic realism are soul mates.
Lee: I love the way you connect noir and magic realism, reflected also in the setting of your novel. Your characters are heavily influenced by the stark, majestic desert, this vast, unforgiving landscape. For instance in this quote, “Rancher or crazy old sun rat, all had chosen to tuck themselves away in the rolling dirt, sand and tumbleweed miles down rutted side roads that had no name.” And again a surreal quality. “This desert is like a Bermuda triangle of sand and rock.” How did you come to set your novel in this landscape? You’ve lived in different states. Why this one?
James: I was born in Seattle and raised in Oregon, surrounded by verdant vegetation. I have lived all over the place. What can I say? To quote Ken Kesey, “What you know is boring.” Or at least familiar to the point of inattentiveness. The high desert of Utah, the desert in general, captured me and my imagination. Like the preacher who hauls the crucifixion cross up and down the desolate desert highway 117 says, “Most people associate the desert with what it doesn’t have—water, people—they miss what it has more of—light. The desert is home to light.” Again, for me, noir is not about darkness, but about light. The desert brings what truly matters in life into a kind of artistic relief, “prominence caused by contrast.” Beauty defined by terror, to paraphrase Rilke. My friend, naturalist and desert nonfiction writer Bruce Berger, says he writes of “the intersection of landscape and humanity.” My novel is about that intersection and what better place to illuminate connections, both human and natural, than the desert? What better place to lay bare the wounds inflicted upon ourselves and each other? In the desert what truly matters rises, which is why in the Judeo-Christian tradition spiritual seekers have always gone into the desert. This is where Merton, Barry Lopez and others enter with that certain ascetic mysticism that is so much a part of Ben Jones, my protagonist, who is an orphan, ostensibly the abandoned child of a Native American man and a Jewish social worker adopted and raised by an elderly Mormon couple.
Lee: In fact, I’d like to ask about two of your main characters, and, of course, Ben Jones is one. Ben is a rebellious soul with his own moral code like other noir heroes, but here he lives in the wide open Western spaces instead of an urban setting. Yet he shares with noir protagonists their living on the margins.
For instance, when it comes to love and marriage, Ben cares about females and falls for Claire, the mysterious cello player. But although he seems ready to commit, he seems most himself when alone. He is not a James Bond bon vivant or a seducer of multiple women. Would you agree that he has an ability to love at the same time that he craves distance and in this sense shares a kinship with some of his desert brethren?
James: Now THAT is one of the most perceptive questions I have ever been asked. I absolutely agree. The Never-Open Desert Diner is full of contrasts and those contrasts are embedded in Ben Jones. He is capable of great kindness and explosive violence. He is a high school educated truck driver and secret bagpipe player who falls in love with a highly educated New York cello virtuoso, also adopted. Ginny is a pregnant homeless teenaged punk who has the guts and pragmatism of a Jane Austen-esque heroine combined with a Nancy Spungen who lives in her car, got her GED, works nights at a Walmart and is taking business classes at the local community college. She turns out to be, in fact, the true heroine of the story and Ben’s savior. The musical soundtrack is Nirvana and Yo-Yo Ma. As human beings we are composed of contradictions, internally, externally, with the natural world. A Zen Master was asked by a monk, “Master, why is there evil in the world?” The Master answered, “To thicken the plot!” The desert is beautiful. And dangerous. Ben Jones might suffer from what is clinically called “Attachment Disorder,” the inability to bond. Given his childhood, this is almost predictable. But he intuitively knows this and is both drawn to and away from love. In an oblique way he acknowledges this in the beginning of the novel by humorously referring to the desert exiles he serves as “a grown man still living at home with his poverty-stricken, ailing and peculiar parents.” He is fighting very hard to attach and in time (the next two novels) I think he will succeed, though in a very unexpected way.
Lee: And what about Walt? Of course, he is integral to this novel as is the code of the wild west, justice meted out by the individual . . . Walt’s taciturn, contrary nature is part of the spirit of the desert, but he’s also a mean, embittered man from an earlier tragedy. As Ben says, “Walt’s vanity was constant and intense as a coal-fired furnace, fueled by sheer will power to vanquish change.” As the novel goes on, Walt is partly transformed by a reunion, yet even then he remains embittered, enclosed. At times one wonders why Ben considers Walt such a good friend. Any comment?
James: Oh, I have lots of comments! Ben and Walt are, though neither would admit it, or maybe even be aware of it, different sides of the same coin. Walt is a kind of father figure and, at least for now, exhibits many of the character qualities found in Ben, like stoicism and a big damn chip on his shoulder. I don’t want to spoil the novel for people who have yet to read and (I hope) will, but I refer you to a scene where Walt kisses the forehead of a dying teenage boy who has been brutally beaten and stabbed. Ben instinctively sees good in Walt and admires him for being a survivor, though the path and price of that survival is steep.
Lee: This fine novel has gone from a small press to a major New York publisher. Would you care to briefly tell the story of how that came to be?
James: There is no room to cover that accurately and also briefly. What happened with The Never-Open Desert Diner is almost unique in publishing. It is extremely rare. It was rejected by every major publisher that would deign to read it, and the same for almost twenty agents. My first publisher, Caravel, the mystery imprint of Pleasure Boat Studio, A Literary Press, took it, and the publisher Jack Estes later said in an NPR or Publisher’s Weekly interview, he liked it for all the reasons so many others rejected it. Then the reviews started to come out and they were….well, I am still stunned. The honest truth is I thought I might get one or two reviews that said something like “this doesn’t totally suck” and maybe between friends and family and my MFA brothers and sisters at Pine Manor, I might sell a few hundred copies. After The New York Times Book Review came out, I was contacted by David Hale Smith of Inkwell Management in New York. David loved the book and started showing it around to larger publishers with an eye to reaching a larger audience that a small press like Caravel couldn’t reach. Because it was small press, and a debut novel, and not easily categorized, many bookstores wouldn’t stock it. Barnes and Noble ordered two for stock, I think. Right now there are displays of it in almost every B&N store coast-to-coast, which is something I cannot even imagine. Crown publisher Molly Stern loved it, as did Nate Roberson, and they asked for a few small revisions (which I felt were needed anyway) and designed and rereleased it nationally in hardcover on March 22nd. Since then they have sold it into foreign editions and released it in an exclusive audio version and e-book. You can’t plan for something like this, and my excessive dreams for this book only went as far as I hoped it would get a binding. I have to say, there was really only one person in the world who loved this book and “got it” from the very first pages—my M.F.A. mentor at Pine Manor, Sterling Watson. He actually knew what I was up to before I did! Set aside all the success, for me, my true break, the one that counts more than anything, is attending Pine Manor and getting Sterling Watson as my creative thesis advisor. Yes, The Never-Open Desert Diner was my creative thesis. When people remark on the diversity of the Pine Manor M.F.A. I don’t think they fully comprehend the full extent of that “diversity.” Yes, racial, ethnic, age range, economic, cultural, but also diversity in terms of what kind of writing is encouraged—which is essentially the best writing you can do without regard to genre, or cross-genre, and that is a result of a diverse and supportive faculty. I mean, Sandra Scofield, Jaime Manrique, Steven Huff, Robert Lopez, Venise Berry, Laura Williams McCaffrey, Laban Carrick Hill, Randall Kenan—AND Sterling Watson. Now that’s a strange and beautiful collection of chefs! And the diversity of the students and their works are exotic fruits and vegetables. My fellow students always encouraged me to go long and weird and that is a gift I can never repay but only try to pass on to the next generation. Viva la Stew!
Lee: Major kudos to the Pine Manor College low-residency MFA, and I admire your recognition of writers who have influenced your work! Because of your novel’s subsequent success, do you plan a sequel? This novel seems to set up Ben to return. It’s a sort of Bildungsroman…a truck driver learning as he drives not across country, but back and forth on a short route across a small strip of open desert space, back and forth again on Highway 117, yet even here he finds an epiphany. “The old saying about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is a nice sentiment, but it isn’t true, not on 117.”
Where, however, would Ben go next? He’s a character with the guts, the ethics, the eccentricity, to drive on into another landscape. Will he?
James: I answered that as part of a previous question. There will be three books, though if Crown doesn’t have success with the first and second there might not be a third, at least not from Crown. As for where Ben might go next . . .Well, no. We’ll see. Kind of . . . Yes, I am smiling. There are many places Ben can go without ever really leaving the desert or Highway 117. I have a contract with Random House for another Ben novel and what I proposed to my agent and editor, Nate Roberson, is what I prefer to call a ‘triptych,” or some would call a trilogy. There is a longer story arc and Ben and the rest of the crew and some new crew eventually end up somewhere that is the same place, only different. Like the Zen Master said, “We’ll see.”
JAMES ANDERSON is a graduate of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and received his Masters Degree in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College in Boston. For many years he worked in book publishing. Other jobs have included logger, commercial fisherman and briefly, truck driver. He currently divides his time between Ashland, Oregon, and the Four Corners region of the American southwest.