Mix a lifelong fascination with bank robber Willie Sutton (1901–1980) together with turbulent economic times, and the chances you’ll come up with Sutton (Hyperion), a historical novel based on the man’s life, are pretty slim. For J.R. Moehringer, however, the result was almost inevitable.
“For me, writing about Willie Sutton was a really good way of writing about all the great depressions that for some reason have been forgotten—we seem to remember only ’87 and ’29,” Moehringer says. “It was a way of writing about unemployment without writing about unemployment. Sutton illuminated a lot of pain in the way he was celebrated. Taking down a bank—people thought there were worse crimes. There was antagonism for banks then as now. This made me decide it was time to write about him.”
A former newspaperman (and Pulitzer Prize winner for a feature story about Gee’s Bend, Ala.), Moehringer wrote the bestselling memoir The Tender Bar, but novel writing was always out there as a lofty goal, he says. “I only became a journalist because I couldn’t figure out how to become a novelist. A historical novel seemed a good gateway to fiction—fiction with training wheels.”
Moehringer compares research to kudzu: “It keeps growing and growing and never stops, especially when it’s fascinating research. At a point I had to push the research aside. As skilled a criminal as Sutton was, he was a virtuous liar. He left so many myths and stories behind. I thought I would be able to find the truth about him and then pick off a piece and enlarge or bend it to my own purposes, but I couldn’t even do that much. For a guy who was so famous there is so little that can be said about him definitively. This was a revelation that came slowly.”
What Sutton presents is Moehringer’s version of the notorious but celebrated criminal. “I think it’s as valid as any, including his own. It represents my image of him and also illuminates how difficult it is to know anyone, whether it’s someone you love or someone you’re chasing around as a journalist.”
This is Moehringer’s second experience at BEA. “The first was all new and exciting. I remember the chaos of it. It was something I almost wasn’t able to process. Now I’m looking forward to seeing that many readers under one roof. That alone—seeing so many people excited about books. Talking to authors about books. Meeting writers I’ve always wanted to read. A convention with like-minded people.”
Moehringer is a speaker at this morning’s Adult Book and Author Breakfast, and he will also be at Table 11 in the autographing area, 10:30–11:30 a.m., for a ticketed signing of Sutton galleys