Reading on a Micro-Level and Doing It Well: An Interview With Benjamin LeRoy, the owner of Tyrus Books
This summer, I taught a crime fiction course in the prison. When doing my research for the class, I came across Benjamin LeRoy, owner and editor at Tyrus Books, a small publishing house that specializes in books that "explore the human condition--especially the survival of regular folks--when faced with tragedy." I thought this sensibility would resonate a lot with my students, and, coincidentally, I realized that Tyrus had just published Sweet Land of Bigamy, by Miah Arnold, a friend of mine from the University of Houston, so I emailed Ben to see if he'd do an interview for my students and for this blog. He graciously agreed--and this guy is crazy busy--so I was very happy. In a few days, I'll do a follow up interview with Miah about Sweet Land of Bigamy, and we'll continue to explore how the genre of crime fiction is changing and the ways in which literary and crime fiction intersect.
One of the benefits around the emergence of e-publishing is that authors aren’t beholden to writing to what Big Publishing thinks will sell. People can take chances and still see the light of day. It is, of course, no guarantee of sales, but it can be brought to the market. I won’t be surprised to see books with non-traditional backgrounds selling well. On the flipside of that, I worry that everybody who ever saw an episode of NYPD Blue and felt like he wanted to be a writer will write rehashed episodes of NYPD Blue (changing character names as needed). It’s a double-edged sword. The market’s gates are wide open, and like any human endeavor, some good will show up, and some bad will, too.
Crime fiction has often been relegated to “genre fiction” status as though that were some badge of shame. The perception was that crime fiction meant hard drinking detectives, leggy women, and the other tropes from old dime store paperbacks. But at the heart of much crime fiction are matters of life and death treated with and written at the same quality of the more prestigious “literary fiction.” Some of our most respected authors are working in the crime fiction arena, and I’d like to see that trend expand.
On your submissions page, you mention that you're more interested in the guy driving the car in the car chase than in the car chase itself. Can you elaborate on this? And what do you think writers risk when they lean too heavily on action?
I’ve seen enough car chases. Either the driver gets where he’s going or he doesn’t. All of the fancy camera tricks and near misses, though momentarily titillating, are all repeats of things we’ve seen before. But the capacity for individuals to be different is limitless and I’m always intrigued to see where the author goes in developing characters.
Untouchable before you realized that there was "no mystery there," but yet you said that it was the most Noir thing you'd seen in a while. You also mentioned the importance of language in works that are Noir. I know Noir is really hard to define, but what are some of the characteristics that you see in a work that you might characterize that way? And why do you think a book like Untouchable is still able to fit into that category?
I hate answering this question for two reasons. (1) Everybody is an expert when it comes to defining things like noir or hardboiled, and no matter how you define it, it gets controversial (2) I can only really define noir by pointing to it. It’s a classic case of “knowing it when I see it.”
That said, for me when something is noir I know that the goal of the protagonist is to simply survive. He will be kicked. He will be cut. He will be scarred. And the question of whether or not he stands up to answer the bell is not obvious like in action movies where the good guy always wins. The late Southern author Harry Crews was quoted as saying “Survival is triumph enough.” I believe that is the driving force between a real noir story.
Bonus question: What are some current trends you're seeing in crime fiction publishing these days? What trends do you find most exciting? Which do you find the most disturbing?
I’m woefully out of the loop when it comes to trends. I run across a lot of serial killers and CSI types, but I don’t know if those would be considered trends. For the most part, I just do what I do, and I don’t really see the big picture of the industry. I’m reading on a micro-level, each book standing on its own. I’ve never tried to keep up with what others were doing. What I find most disturbing about trends or the ideas of trends is the derivative nature of the works produced—an author has an opportunity to do something original every time out. I hate to see an opportunity squandered.