Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

Akashic Books

||| |||

Catalog » Browse by Title: B » Beulah Hill » Interview with William Heffernan on Beulah Hill, conducted by Daniel Buckman (Water in Darkness and The Names of Rivers)

Beulah Hill


By William Heffernan, the author of The Corsican and Cityside.

$13.95 $10.46

Interview with William Heffernan on Beulah Hill, conducted by Daniel Buckman (Water in Darkness and The Names of Rivers)

Where did you conduct most of your research for Beulah Hill?

All of the physical research for Beulah Hill was done in Vermont. There was backup research that utilized the internet, but for the most part that dealt with the time period, not the subject.

In your research, did you find much that has been written about Vermont’s racial history?

The physical research took twelve years, partly because the information was hard to come by and partly because I did it between other books. Very little was written on the subject and I finally began to find material in the special editions section of the Bailey Howe Library at the University of Vermont—this being mostly scholarly dissertations that had never received broad circulation. I also was forced to rely on oral histories of people who lived in rural Vermont during the thirties, and who were willing to discuss the subject. This is not a popular subject, since it deals with the disappearance of a Black population through intermarriage, and the subsequent bigotry leveled at the progeny of those mixed unions. In many instances people simply did not care to acknowledge any racial mix in their histories, which, I believe, is also why so little was written about it. For example, in the written histories of small Vermont towns—almost always written by local people—there is never any mention of blacks ever living in those towns, even though, for a considerable period of time, they made up as much as one third of the population.

Do you find it frustrating that fiction is still broken down by genres? After all, you made the murder mystery “literary” the way McCarthy turned the western into something more than gunslingers and wild horses.

I am beyond frustration about the genre question. I now view it with a slightly annoyed sense of amusement. I’ve come to believe that it is done for two reasons. Laziness, of course, by critics who do not dare to attempt to look too deeply into anything they read for fear that the public will discover they are fools, and secondly, as a matter of survival for the so-called “high art” set, who if forced to place their own literary efforts, or those of their contemporary heroes, alongside the likes of a John LeCarre, or an Elmore Leonard or James Lee Burke or John Dunning or a host of other “mystery writers” would also be forced to acknowledge that they and their heroes should seek other honest work to earn their livings. I also believe every novel must be mystery (to some extent) if it hopes to succeed. But genres, I’m afraid, will continue to exist as long as we have people who require the comfort of pre-dispositions in their lives, just as racial, religious, sexual and gender bigotries will continue exist for the same reasons.

Do you think that literature is a good forum for exploring social and political issues? Are there any major limitations in literature in this regard?

I think good literature must explore social issues. Literature, if it hopes to be art, must deal with the human condition, and social issues are the vehicle of the human condition. I feel there are no limitations in this regard. Everything is and should be fair game as subject matter.

What novels, if any, do you continue re-reading since you began as a writer?

I have read A Confederacy of Dunces at least a half dozen times. I often re-read Henry Miller, a hero since college.

What “Great American Novel” exists that you have never been able to see as “great?”

The one “Great American Novel” that I have never considered great is Huckleberry Finn. I know this is sacrilege, and I love the book in many ways I feel everyone should read it. I simply don’t consider it great literature.

What first drew you to the murder mystery?

I was first drawn to the mystery by the writing of Chandler and Hammett, then later by Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman, Stuart Kaminsky and a few others. Then I discovered the Latin American Mystery writers and their approach to the subject through magic realism and realized the potential that existed to expand on the form.

If you could change one thing about your career, what would it be?

There is nothing about my career I would change. Where else can you get paid serious money to do what love, and do it (as my 11-year-old son once told his first grade class) in your bathrobe.