The Indigo Fiction Blog is more than pleased to present this interview we conducted with Mr. Moehringer, on the roots of his debut novel – the latest Heather’s Pick, Sutton.
Indigo Fiction Blog (IFB): You let Willie Sutton tell his story through his interactions with two reporters upon his release from prison on Christmas Eve, 1969 – which, from a storytelling point of view, is obviously pretty perfect. How much of the actual interview (or borderline kidnapping) is based in reality?
J.R. Moehringer (JRM): It’s absolutely true that Willie Sutton spent all that Christmas with a newspaper reporter and photographer. It’s true that the two journalists drove Sutton around New York City, visiting the scenes of his heists and other landmarks in his life. But aside from a few direct quotations taken from the story that ran in the newspaper the next day, nearly all the interactions between Sutton and the journalists are fiction.
IFB: Your background is in journalism – did you put yourself in the shoes of the reporters when writing from their perspective?
JRM: Very much. I’ve been in their position many times: you’re working a holiday, you’re interviewing someone cagey, someone who isn’t giving you much, someone who’d clearly rather be somewhere else. Also, I’ve interviewed my share of criminals, including a man just out of prison. So, yes, I was able to see things very clearly from the journalists’ point of view.
IFB: The timing of your novel’s release is curious – at this moment in history, like Willie Sutton’s, banks and financial institutions are viewed with hostility and suspicion. Was the current financial crisis an inspiration, or did you already have a Sutton novel in mind for your debut?
JRM: I’ve long been interested in Willie Sutton, but the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 was the triggering incident for this book. And what I learned in my research is that the recent financial crisis was merely one of many, that the entire history of America is a history of one financial crisis after another, many of them precipitated by banks. We have dangerously short memories. Who can recall the Bank Panic of 1907, when banks were deemed too big to fail and needed bailouts to stay afloat? And because we forget, banks continually get away with murder.
IFB: Outside of any financial inspiration, what were your literary inspirations?
JRM: An odd assortment. I drew some structural inspiration from Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which takes place in a short span of time, largely inside the protagonist’s head. And I was inspired by the spirit of William Kennedy’s Legs, a brilliant historical novel about the gangster (and Sutton associate) Legs Diamond. I practically memorized a couple of Ernest Hemingway short stories, especially The Killers, which greatly inspired Edward Hopper, a very literary painter. And I read a lot of James M. Cain.
IFB: Before I was one third through your novel, I had a strong feeling that a film would be forthcoming in short order, but started wondering how you could cast Sutton himself, as your novel encompasses so much of his life. You’d need a lot of makeup, or two different actors – but do you have any thoughts on your novel being adapted for the screen?
JRM: You’re right—it’s a challenging task for a screenwriter, an even greater challenge for a casting director. When he was young Sutton had a leading man quality; he looked a little like Robert Pattinson, actually. But when he was older he looked exactly like Steve Buscemi. So good luck trying to bridge that gap.
IFB: I’ve long been interested in the crime wave explosion in America’s early 1900’s – but the perception of Sutton is not the same as Dillinger, or Bonnie and Clyde, or any of the other criminals that have become better known than him. What do you attribute this to? He did seem attain a kind of Robin Hood status – do you think he is not as famous simply because his criminal history was largely not a violent one?
JRM: In part, I think he was beloved in his time for the same reason he’s since been forgotten—his spotless record of nonviolence. Sutton didn’t grab the kinds of lurid headlines that made Dillinger and Capone infamous. He never wilfully hurt anyone. That’s one reason crowds gathered outside the jail, chanting his name, when he was arrested in 1952, and it’s one reason he’s faded from history. The other reason is that Johnny Depp or Robert DeNiro never played him in a movie.
IFB: How many of your secondary characters are based on real people?
JRM: Many. There really was a Bess, an Eddie, a Happy, a Marcus, a Mad Dog, a Margaret, a Freddie. And, though I take great liberties with them, I also describe them often according to old photos I found, or descriptions I read. Also, there really was a one-armed prostitute named Wingy. I found her in the police files on Sutton. But I didn’t have much more than her name, so I invented the relationship between her and Willie.
IFB: Your writing career has been a very interesting one – a critically acclaimed memoir, ghostwriting a bestselling biography of a major athlete, and now a historical novel based on reality. Which way are you going next, and do you plan on maintaining this diversity?
JRM: I always wanted to be a generalist, to write very different things, to learn as much as I could about one subject, try a different genre, then move on. I always wanted to toggle back and forth between journalism and books. That’s been my dream since I was a kid, and I hope I’m lucky enough to continue along this path.
IFB: And to finish, one from the Proust questionnaire – who are your favourite prose authors?
JRM: I love the giants of the 1920s and 1930s. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner. And Woolf. And I worship at the altar of John Cheever, Saul Bellow, James Salter, Frederick Exley, William Trevor, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver—to name a few.
Previously featured in the Fiction Blog was a teaser to this fantastic novel; it can be found here.
A shoutout is in order to Indigo Blogger Chelsey Catterall, for her contributions to the questions in this interview.
Thanks also to our friends at HarperCollins Canada (distributor of Mr. Moehringer’s publisher, Hyperion, north of the border) for facilitating this interview – and of course most of all to J.R. Moehringer himself for his thoughtful responses.