In Chambers’s Scavenger (Three Rooms, Oct.), investigator Dickie Cornish actually lives on the mean Washington, D.C., streets he walks down.
How did this book originate?
I sat in my office one night after hearing two homeless men in front of a bodega noodle out who perpetrated a petty crime that the cops had no time or interest in solving. I started to scribble some lines.
What did using the second-person voice allow you to do?
Without giving anything away, Dickie has unresolved mental health issues that life on the streets has amplified. I wanted to hit the reader in the chest with a narrative encompassing this disability, so what better choice than another voice? It might be his father. It might be his brain channeling his father. Either way, the voice takes on its own point of view, can lie or obfuscate if it so chooses. It helps drive the plot, because Dickie must figure things out with the voice’s help or hinderance, and it gives the character more depth —and paints other characters and situations in a more interesting light, such as Dickie’s family trauma and questionable things he’s done.
Did you worry about your choice to use street slang so heavily?
Wading into a bleak, unfamiliar place peopled by broken folk who speak slang, or, if immigrants, a mélange of their tongue and English, is scary. If I made it arduous for some, I apologize. Scary’s good. Arduous not so good. Still, readers doing a little more work might engender a pay-off down line. For example, African Americans in Baltimore are a mere 30 miles from African Americans in D.C., and some obtuse person might say a ghetto is a ghetto, but another might learn that the accents and nomenclature are almost like New York slang versus London slang. Simply put, language becomes a character. Often a rough, profane character.
Why write a crime novel rather than a nongenre treatment of the social issues you address?
Entertainment allows you to humanize, under the table, to a broader audience. A more literary piece might be too subtle or self-reflective; nonfiction monographs might be pedantic. Seeking out such works typically involves more research than picking up a crime novel online. The folk who seek out such works are typically a bit more familiar with the subject matter than the casual mystery fan who says, “Homeless gumshoe... that might be cool.” On the flipside, the problem with slipping things under the table is you must leave so much there, and pray the reader will want to then move to other expressions to fill in the gaps.