From the Booking Desk:
I am thrilled to welcome Patricia Abbott to BOLO Books today. Patricia Abbott’s debut novel, Concrete Angel, was recently nominated for Best First Novel on this year’s Anthony Award ballot. Coming on the heels of the critical success that novel achieved, Patricia has just released her second novel, Shot in Detroit.
Patricia was kind enough to agree to stop by to talk a bit about how this novel evolved and the importance of location in the crafting of a story.
The Evolution of a Novel: Shot in Detroit, Patricia Abbott
In 2004, I read an article in The New York Times Arts section about a photographer, Elizabeth Heyert whose gallery show, The Sleepers, was attracting a lot of attention. She had collaborated with a Harlem businessman to produce a show (and later a book) on his clientele. His clientele was not the models, actors or sports figures you might expect. Mr. Owens was a mortician, locally famous for the elaborate dress the departed were presented in at his hands. Flamboyant colors and costumes made a final appearance in his funeral home a special one. Ms. Heyert’s photographs were macabre, but they also captured Mr. Owens special touches gorgeously. A second collaboration (The Travelers) appeared in 2006. Their relationship turned thorny after that, but it served as an impetus for me to finally write a novel.
I had published upwards of fifty short stories by the time I began thinking in earnest of writing a novel. I allowed myself to at least begin to look for an idea. This New York Times story had elements that intrigued me. What would it do to a woman to spend so much time with the dead? Would it occur to her that she was might be accused of exploiting them? Would the agreement between artist and mortician lead to some difficulties? And most of all, what was this woman like?
And then came another set of questions that I would eventually address as the story became mine. If their relationship was more than a business one, would the project jeopardize it? What if her whiteness contrasted with the morticians and his clientele’s blackness began to rub up against each other? What if the project led her down some dangerous pathways? How had race affected her and her art?
I knew early on that if I wrote a novel, it wouldn’t be the classic mystery. Although I much admired writers who wrote them I do not have that kind of brain. I knew nothing about Harlem, and even less about mortuary science. I was also out of my depth with professional photography. So thinking I could make this book credible was a leap. It would have to be as much about character as possible. I moved it to the Detroit area, where I have lived since 1970. This put me on surer footing in terms of place. I consulted a Detroit police officer, a photographer. I studied books about burying the dead.
I knew nothing about Ms. Heyert’s personal life but my photographer would be a loner, a little promiscuous, and have a back story that would somehow merge with the current one. You cannot write a story about Detroit that isn’t about race so that would be the major story: black men dying in outrageous numbers in Detroit.
Ms Heyert’s Harlem portraits were of men and women of all ages, dying for all reasons, but that diluted the point. My point would be that too many young men were dying. And what did her involvement with these deaths do to Violet Hart? Where was the line drawn between creating art that told a truth and the exploitation of her subjects? Violet Hart wasn’t a crime scene photographer, she wasn’t doing an expose. So how did she get off the hook? Or did she? How did the quality of her art absolve her? Did it tell a story by its very existence? Does all good art achieve that? My greatest task was persuading a reader, who’d never seen her portraits, that it did. And in persuading them as well that my novel did.
Violet Hart is a photographer who has always returned to cobble out a life for herself in the oddly womblike interiors of Detroit. Nearing forty, she’s keenly aware that the time for artistic recognition is running out. When her lover, Bill, a Detroit mortician, needs a photograph of a body, she agrees to takes the picture. It’s an artistic success and Violet is energized by the subject matter, persuading Bill to allow her to take pictures of some of his other “clients,” eventually settling on photographing young, black men.
When Violet’s new portfolio is launched, she quickly strikes a deal, agreeing to produce a dozen pictures with a short deadline, confident because dead bodies are commonplace in Detroit and she has access to the city’s most prominent mortician. These demands soon place Violet in the position of having to strain to meet her quota.
As time runs out, how will Violet come up with enough subjects to photograph without losing her soul or her life in the process? A riveting novel of psychological suspense, Patricia Abbott continues to cement herself as one of our very best writers of the darkness that lies within the human heart.
From the Booking Desk:
I’m betting that this has intrigued more than a few of you to check out this book in more depth. And we just might be seeing this one on next year’s award ballots.
If you haven’t stopped by Patti’s blog, please do. She has a great feature showing off people’s bookshelves. You can even see one of mine.