"Twilight of the Drifter" is a crime story with southern gothic overtones. It centers on thirty-something Josh Devlin, a failed journalist who, after a year of wandering, winds up in a Kentucky homeless shelter on a wintry December. Soon after the opening setup, the crosscurrents go into motion as Josh comes upon a runaway named Alice holed up in an abandoned boxcar. Taken with her plight and dejected over his own squandered life, he spirits her back to Memphis and his uncle's Blues Hall Cafe. From there he tries to get back on his feet while seeking a solution to Alice's troubles. As the story unfolds, a Delta bluesman's checkered past comes into play and, inevitably, Josh finds himself on a collision course with a backwoods tracker fixated on the Civil War and, by extension, the machinations of the governor-elect of Mississippi. In a sense, this tale hinges on the vagaries of chance and human nature. At the same time, an underlying force appears to be driving the action as though seeking the truth and long awaited redemption. Or, to put it another way, past sins have finally come due in the present.
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An interview with the author.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Among other things, I’m a professor emeritus of dramatic arts at The University of Connecticut and a former actor in New York.
Did you plan to be a writer or did it just happen?
Some time ago I created a series of cliffhangers for my friends in study hall back in the eighth grade in Miami. I can’t really tell you why except for the fact that no one ever did any studying there and everyone was open for something to engage their attention. Then again, I’ve always been a storyteller and daydreamer, especially given the fact that since I was a little kid I found myself mostly on my own, reading comic books, wandering around, trying to come to terms with the world.
Later on, in my freshman year at The University of Miami on a music scholarship, both the concertmaster and master teacher told me that playing the violin was not my true calling. They would rather listen to my stories in lieu of dealing with my violin technique which I finally realized was more or less limited.
What has been your greatest challenge as a writer? Have you been able to overcome it?
On my first attempt, trying to cram in as much as possible to indicate there’s really a lot going on here, Scott Meredith, the noted New York agent, told me you can’t do that. No reader could possibly take it all in. Later on, taking in the advice of the late novelist and college instructor John Gardner, I learned you should think of novel writing as carefully feeding a hammer mill. At the same time, a popular author wrote a guide revealing his secret: you spring forward, fall back and gradually let the reader in on what’s going on. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott claims you should keep going willy-nilly till the very end. Accept the fact you’re going to wind up with a lousy first draft that you can later fix. One best selling writer believes it’s like taking a car trip in the dark: using the headlights, knowing more or less where you’re headed but allowing yourself to turn off at any time to explore what’s out there.
In a nutshell, my greatest challenge has been to forge my own process and distinctive style.
What inspired the idea behind your book?
I had no idea I was going to write a novel about a drifter. As it happens, friends invited us down to a cabin they’d inherited in the backwoods of the hill country of Mississippi that dated back to the time of the Civil War. When Bob (the husband) and I took a walk and came upon a meandering creek strewn with fallen jagged limbs, something began to percolate.
Soon after, material kept coming to me while spending time in Memphis, Oxford and partway into the Delta. Becoming more and more curious, I began interviewing people like Larry Wells who ran the Faulkner Press and then moved on to chat with a noted blues expert at Ole Miss. This led to a lot of reading about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath in Mississippi, what it’s like to hop a freight, belief in angels, and the lives of bluesmen. From that point I segued to listening to blues recordings, delving into Mississippi politics and all kinds of things including learning what it would be like to drift from Dayton, Ohio to the Deep South. Needless to say, by this stage a compelling through-line took shape and continued to unfold.
Do you have a favorite character in Twilight of the Drifter? Who and why?
That, of course, is like asking, Who’s your favorite child? But I am quite taken with Alice. Some reviewer recently found her to be a cross between Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye and Mattie Ross in True Grit. All I know is that she’s barely fourteen, a runaway, has had a dreadful upbringing which amounts to no upbringing at all, and is a survivor. As a result, I never knew exactly what she was going to say or do, loved her cocky façade and hidden vulnerability, and was willing to follow her anywhere.
Without giving it all away, please tell us a little something about how Josh is going to get through his biggest challenge.
He’s reached the point where he can no longer live with his squandered life. After becoming intrigued with Alice’s mysterious plight and discovering she may be in mortal danger, there is no way he can turn his back on her come what may.
What message do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope readers will ponder over the road not taken. That there may very well be a “lonesome valley” or a calling, or some irrepressible need to dive into the past. In undertaking this odyssey I had no idea that underneath it all there was some mysterious pull that was leading me on.
Do you share any personality traits with Josh Devlin?
I’m sure that just like Josh I’ve tried to avoid any dicey situation and played it safe. Moreover, a Hollywood agent recent wrote that my main characters are basically nice guys and nice guys aren’t trending. In fact, nice guys went out with the boy next door and old movies of the forties and fifties. So I guess I’m also a little old-fashioned and don’t fit in with the prevalent irony and cynicism of today.
What has been your greatest pleasure in writing this book?
The deepening experiences. As though, for instance, a sense of place itself was harboring secrets and hinting at things—e.g, when I slipped inside an old blues joint on Beale Street in Memphis, skirted the backwoods around Ashland, crossed over into the flatlands of the Delta and drove past an abandoned cotton gin, or even when I had dinner with my wife at a little restaurant in Oxford and couldn’t help overhearing reminiscences about Aunt Bea swapping tales on the gallery (which I learned meant veranda). It seemed the more I observed, the more enriched the tale became. Not at all just another mystery. Or crime thriller. Or any other easy label.
What do you have in store next for your readers?
Tinseltown Riff, a Hollywood escapade, is scheduled to be released some time this Spring. It’s a story that straddles the line between illusion and reality, fantasy and danger as it delves into the loopiest business on earth. An L.A. film agent recently wrote that even though she loves the milieu and the dynamics, Ben, my desperate hack screenwriter is basically a nice guy and nice guys aren’t trending right now. My publisher doesn’t agree. Hopefully readers will side with my publisher.
What appeals to you most about your chosen genre?
As a reader, I found I could readily identify with a character’s plight as long as there was something vital at stake. In due course, someone’s world had been turned upside down and impending trouble was just ahead. By the same token, the only possible venue for me had to have at least a touch of danger. It can’t just be about relationships. It can’t just be another day. More often than not, I seem to be drawn to an irrepressible urge to right a great wrong.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
I didn’t receive this directly and it may not be the best piece of advice but, nevertheless, it seems to hold true. A creative writing instructor at a noted Midwest college used to advise his students not to write. To put the notion aside. If and when there’s a haunting image, cherished assumption that no longer holds true or some unknown secret that keeps prodding you and won’t let go, then you’re probably ready to begin.
Do you have any interesting writing quirks?
Readers tell me that reading my novels is like watching a movie. I suppose that’s because I’ve always been a movie buff, have written a book on screenwriting and also write movie reviews. I can’t seem to let go of a draft until it has a certain visual flow and rhythm—a long establishing shot, perhaps, zooming in on an intimate scene followed by a tracking shot as the action picks up, crests and subsides . . . Not that I’m actually fully conscious of this but am very aware when scenes go on too long or aren’t fully developed, characters say or do things that aren’t consistent, this beat doesn’t really belong and is really there for its own sake, the dialogue here isn’t crisp enough—we need to get in and out and just add a pointer that will move us ahead . . . It probably goes back to those early days when I would go to some favorite movie palace, sit in the dark and get totally transported.
From Twilight of the Drifter
Wolf Creek was silent again, shrouded and hidden away in the fading early December light.
Then the cracking sound of wood as the old hunter’s blind gave way somewhere in the near distance, a sudden scream and a muffled thud. The cracking sound was not nearly as sharp as the first gunshot or the second, the scream not at all as piercing as the first cry or as grating as the moans that followed and faded.
The coonhound took off immediately, ignoring the touch of frost in the creek water, the obstacle course of fallen tree limbs and bare forked branches, the muddy slope and the snare and tangle of vines and whip-like saplings. Within seconds, the hound was bounding higher until he came upon a prone scrawny figure totally unlike the one that had just fallen on the opposite bank.
Sniffing around, barking and howling, the hound snapped at the flimsy jacket and bit into it. As the scrawny little figure began to stir, he tore into the sleeve, ripping it to shreds and barked and howled again, turning back for instructions. The sight of the skinny flailing arms sent the coonhound back on its haunches—half guarding, half confused as it turned around yet again, looking down the slope to the creek bed, still waiting for a signal.
Presently, a tall, rangy man made his way across the same obstacle course, long-handled shovel in hand. But he was only in time to catch sight of a girl clutching her head, staggering away from the scene through the tangles and deepening shadows. Then again, it could’ve been a boy for all he knew, but he settled on a girl, a flat-chested tomboy, more like. Casting his gaze up to the snapped rungs of the tree-ladder, he spotted the broken edge of the rotting hunters blind some eight feet above where she could’ve seen everything.
The coonhound began circling around him, displaying the shards of material dangling from his jaw. Instinctively, the man rushed forward. Then he thought better of it as his overalls got snagged in the brambles. From the look of things, the girl was probably dazed and confused and wouldn’t get as far as the dirt drive, if that.
Wrong guess. The slam of a hood as the flat-bed’s worn V-8 motor fired-up, the grinding of gears and the familiar whine and squeal of tires signaled the tomboy was away and well out of reach.
Meet the Author
Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts appearing in a number of periodicals in the U.S. and the U.K. He is also a film critic and a contributor to writers’ blogs. His fiction includes Lilac Moon, Sun Dance for Andy Horn, Tinseltown Riff and the trans-Atlantic cozy The Twinning Murders. Among his works of non-fiction are the acclaimed The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. Twilight of the Drifter, his latest novel, is a southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey.