Monday, October 8, 2018

J. L. Abramo, Author of American History

While I was, of course, acquainted with the name, I first met J. L. Abramo at the Shamus banquet in New Orleans a couple of years ago when we both sat at the Down & Out Books table, where we were both nominated for the same award; he won. While I am in full agreement with those who say there is no nicer or more welcoming group of people than crime fiction writers, even in that group there is a small cadre who stick out as true gentlemen in the traditional sense of the word. Joe is one of them. It’s always a treat when he stops by the blog because I know he’ll give thoughtful, well-reasoned, and honest answers to anything I ask.

One Bite at a Time: Your new book is titled American History. It’s the story of a feud between two Sicilian families that is carried to the United States prior to the First World War and ultimately spans the American continent. Give us a little taste of what to expect.

J.L. Abramo: The families of Salvatore Leone and Luigi Agnello had already been long-time bitter enemies in Sicily by the turn of the twentieth century.

In 1913, Vincenzo Leone, Salvatore’s oldest son, emigrates to Philadelphia to start a new life for himself and his family in the promised land. Several years later, Giuseppe Agnello, Luigi’s eldest, secretly marries Francesca Leone, Vincenzo’s sister, and the couple escape to New York City. Giuseppe leaves to serve his new country during the First World War.  Francesca, alone and in need of support for herself and their infant son, Louis, travels to Philadelphia to live with her brother, his wife, and his two daughters. The Spanish Flu takes the lives of Vincenzo’s wife and sister in 1918, and Leone moves with his daughters and Francesca’s son to San Francisco. Vincenzo decides to raise his nephew, Louis Agnello, as his own child.

When Giuseppe returns from the war, he finds his wife and son gone. It takes more than five years for Agnello to learn the whereabouts of his family. Giuseppe travels to San Francisco with hopes of a reunion with Francesca and Louis, and becomes a victim of the animosity between the two families—hatred recently transplanted in America by Vincenzo Leone’s younger brother, Roberto. 

American History is the epic, generational saga of the Agnellos and the Leones (in the Italian language, lambs and lions)—a one-hundred-year conflict between Giuseppe’s descendants in New York, law enforcers, and Vincenzo’s descendants in San Francisco, lawbreakers.

OBAAT: You’re best known for your Jake Diamond PI series—Circling the Runway won the Shamus Award in 2016 for Best Paperback Original. (I’ll always remember that because you beat me. Not that I’m bitter.) You built a solid reputation on the Diamond books and contemporary Brooklyn-based police procedurals Coney Island Avenue and Gravesend. American History is a much different book, with a far broader scope. What drew you to the idea?

JLA:  I am a first generation American.  My mother and her family emigrated to New York from Stalinist Russia in the 1920s.

My paternal grandfather, Giuseppe, emigrated from Naro, Sicily in 1909.  He left behind a pregnant wife and two children.  After five years of manual labor, he had earned enough to send for his family.  My father turned five years old on his ocean journey to America in 1914, and upon arrival in New York met his father for the first time. 

Gravesend and Coney Island Avenue were personal journeys back to my native land, Brooklyn.  American History was, in the writing, a trip further back in my heritage—an exploration of the immigrant experience.  I have always considered the courage of those who came to America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—facing alien customs, a foreign language and, in many cases, ethnic prejudice and persecution—to be remarkable. I recognized that adapting to these new circumstances took different paths, some outside the law, although the motivations were the same—to insure the safety and honor of the family. With those thoughts in mind, the idea for a generational family saga took hold.

OBAAT: How long does it take you to write, say, a Jake Diamond novel, and how long did it take to write American History?

JLA:  That is a question with no clear answer.  There are many mitigating circumstances.

I wrote Catching Water in a Net in less than a month, to satisfy a submission deadline.  The book miraculously captured the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel. Working with my editor to clean up a very convoluted plot took longer than writing the book did originally.

Gravesend, from inception through many transformations and ultimate publication, was a twelve-year process.

Brooklyn Justice came out of the gate full-speed and quickly raced to the finish line.

American History was started and then set aside for some time before it dawned on me what the novel was meant to be about.

OBAAT: American History takes place over a period of a hundred years across a significant geographic expanse. What kinds of research did you do?

JLA:  Research is always an important element of my work, particularly with respect to setting.  I consider the location of a story, cities in particular, to be a critical component—and I work diligently to get even the basics like street intersections correct.

Time period also requires accuracy and adequate research.  Chasing Charlie Chan is set in 1994—which was nearly twenty years before I wrote the book—and also deals with events from the 40s.  A great deal of research was necessary and, at the same time, enjoyable.
American History, because of the period of time it covers, was even more demanding.  It was important to me to follow the generations of these two families within the context of some of the major events in America during those ninety years.  I wanted the history of the Agnellos and the Leones to be worthy of the designation American history.

OBAAT: Looking back through your two previous visits here to OBAAT, I see what became American History had at least bits of your attention while you worked on multiple other projects. You also mentioned you start with a situation and go where it takes you. Was it hard to hold that together through periods of working on something else?

JLA:  This book also began with a situation, a visualized scene, almost cinematic, involving a man being released from prison with the strong sense that he may have been safer inside than out.  The question then became why.  It took a while (during which I worked on other projects) before I saw his situation as a result of a conflict that went back to his great-grandparents a century earlier—and decided the novel would, in the end, concern family honor and survival and the assimilation to new environments and changing times.

OBAAT: Who are your primary influences on your writing? Not necessarily writers. Could be filmmakers or musicians. Have those influencers changed over time?

JLA:  Although I am considered a crime novelist, my work is most often concerned with how people deal with adversity—positively or negatively. And family—its importance, and the constant incentive for family respectability and loyalty, are also common themes in my novels. These themes are inspired by personal experiences and everything I see and hear about such concerns and store away to be tapped later, consciously or otherwise. I often create characters who are as courageous and as loyal as I would hope to be.  An artistic work which illuminate these sorts of themes—be a John Irving novel, a Sidney Lumet film, or a Bruce Springsteen song—influence me in that direction.

OBAAT: Writers are great readers. What do you look for in a book that makes it rise above the rest? On the flip side, is there anything that will cause you to put a book down? I’m asking not so much about the absence of what you like, but the presence of something you actively dislike.

JLA:  Of late, I have been reading more non-fiction.  At this stage of my life, I feel it is a better use of my time to examine the events of the near and distant past because it helps me better understand how we’ve arrived where we are and inspires me to write more informed and hopefully more relevant work. 

For example, I have very recently read The Fifties by David Halberstam.  It was enlightening and has provided me with a great deal of solid information which is assisting me in writing about a series of events which occurred during that period.  I am presently reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Its depiction of Berlin in 1933, all of the clear warnings ignored, illuminates those dangerously ignored today.
In regard to the flip side there is a lot out there that I find derivative, gratuitously dark—as evidenced, for example, by the recent preponderance of noir by writers who, in many cases, seem to pay more attention to the level of depravity than to an adherence to the strict qualifications of the sub-genre.
It has almost become a fad.  It feels too much like noir for noir’s sake. I have participated in several Noir at the Bar events where very little that was read, including my own work, was what I would consider noir fiction.  When James M. Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice, considered a definitive example of the genre, I don’t believe he set out with the goal of writing noir. Rather—when as a journalist covering the Snyder-Gray murder trial in 1927, where Ruth Snyder and her lover Henry Gray were accused of killing Snyder’s husband for the insurance money—I suggest he simply came up with a good idea from people who had a bad idea.

If I get the impression that an artistic endeavor is motivated by what is the flavor of the day—rather than by the need to set free authentic feelings and desires—I tend to pass.

There is so much excellent writing out there, particularly in television, it is humbling. The only way I can personally justify my efforts is if the work is a journey that is surprising and revealing to me and—subsequently, perhaps—for a fellow traveler, a.k.a. the reader.

OBAAT: The inevitable final question: What are you working on now?

JLA:  I have just completed a new Jake Diamond novel which, if meant to be, could hit the streets in 2019.

Ironically, I have been invited to contribute a short story for a noir anthology and I have a decision to make.  Pass, with the justification that it’s just not my thing—or give it a shot as an intellectual exercise.  Que sera, sera.

I am working on a few other projects, both quite different from any of my previous efforts.  Once I figure out what they are supposed to be, I will be able to tell you more.

1 comment:

J. L. Abramo said...

Always good to visit and be challenged with intelligent and informed questions. And thanks for not asking me about the New York Mets or the New York Giants.