1. The Mystery of Grace is your first book set in the Southwest—what inspired you to take to the land of tumbleweeds and hot rods?
Actually, ever since MaryAnn and I first visited Tucson, AZ, a decade or so ago, I’ve been slipping bits of the desert into my writing. Living in Canada, with our long, cold winters, writing about the desert is one more incentive to get to my keyboard and immerse myself in a warmer space. So the desert has appeared in several of my short story collections as well as in a couple of novels, most predominantly Forests of the Heart. I also wrote another book called Medicine Road set in Tucson. But The Mystery of Grace is the first one in which I really tried to get under the skin of a city in the desert.
2. Tell us a little bit about it.
The heart of the book looks at the idea of appreciating what we have now. Not waiting for that special person to come along, or waiting to take on a new career path or a change of lifestyle, but embracing the present. Too many of us wait, and in the waiting, miss opportunities to live fuller lives and rouse ourselves, spiritually, romantically, career-wise or in terms of lifestyle. Life is short—often much too short. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
3. Hot rods play a notable role in Mystery of Grace—did you research vintage rides and what’s your dream car?
My dream car would be Grace’s street car—her Ford Fairlane with the retractable roof. It’s just such a cool car.
I’ve never been much of a car buff, though I’ve had a car of one kind or another ever since I first got my license. My family lived abroad for many of my formative years so I never bonded with “the guys” over sports and cars as so many of my peers did. I had to amuse myself, so I read voraciously and, as I grew older, got heavily into music, too.
But vintage and classic cars have always caught my eye. Who doesn’t love watching a cool ride pass by on the street? There’s nothing I like better than learning something while I write a book, and that was certainly the case here. Researching the vehicles, the history of hot rods and customizing for this book, was such a pleasure. My car vocabulary probably hasn’t improved much, but I enjoy seeing old cars more than ever, and love to find the lines in some old junker in a scrapyard, or parked out in a field, where I might not have noticed them before.
4. Music plays a big role in your books and in the writing of them—what did you listen to this time around? And what’s this I hear about the Cadillac Lounge?
I love having a background soundtrack to my novels, so I listened to rockabilly and surf guitar while writing Grace, though the area of the Southwest I was writing about isn’t particularly well-known for either. But it’s close enough to Southern CA, I suppose, that the echoes of hot rods racing in dry lake beds and the crash of waves might be heard if the wind is just right.
When I think of the Southwest, I think of mariachi music—those joyous horns and fiddles. But I also think of lonesome twangy guitars—probably from watching too many spaghetti westerns as a kid. And these days I’m completely enamoured with the Tucson-based band Calexico, who combine both those elements and many others besides.
What strikes me the most about surf, rockabilly, and hot rod music is how well it still stands up today. I don’t think it’s only nostalgia on my part. It’s still incredibly popular (especially in Europe and Japan)—both the classic music and literally hundreds of contemporary bands playing their own music, but with an updated feel. You just wouldn’t know it because the radio and the video channels totally ignore its existence.
As for the Cadillac Lounge (and isn’t that a great name), it’s a cool bar in Toronto where H.B. Fenn is planning to launch The Mystery of Grace in early April. I’ve been told it’s filled with all sorts of hot rod memorabilia and they’re also planning to hire a rockabilly band and serve Mexican hors d’oeuvres. MaryAnn and I will be playing a few songs, too. I can’t wait for April to come.
5. What kind of music are you playing and/or listening to right now?
Oddly enough, I’ve been listening to early Joan Baez because of a record my brother-in-law lent me. I always kind of pooh-poohed her style of folk singing, but listening to it now I’m struck with the purity of her voice and realize that she’s really inhabiting the songs in a way present-day divas can’t imagine.
But mostly I like my Americana to be grittier. My friend Brock Zeman just put out a new album, which I’m loving—he writes songs at a prodigious rate, which would make me nervous, except he just keeps getting better. I’m also enamoured with some live recordings by another friend, a young musician and songwriter named Joel Hayward. He’s developing a killer talent and really knows how to tell a story in the short space of a song.
Old soul’s been getting a lot of play, too: Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Arthur Alexander. And speaking of pure voices, Roy Orbison.
For music more related to The Mystery of Grace, I never get tired of Calexico and play recordings of their concerts all the time. Ditto with Los Lobos, the nuevo-flamenco duo Rodrigo y Gabriella, and Los Straitjackets. The other thing I can’t get enough of these days is the Latin-flavoured guitars of The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett—kind of cheesy at times, but still very evocative.
Oh, and I love the new Lily Allen album. She’s so cheeky, and her backing tracks are irresistible.
From the March 2009 Tor Newsletter.