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Chasing Phantoms: John Copenhaver’s ‘Dodging and Burning’ is a ‘Deliberate Hommage to Pulp Fiction’
LGBTQ crime-writing has its heroes. John Copenhaver lists many of them: Patricia Highsmith, Sara Waters, Joseph Hansen, Val McDermid, Katherine V. Forrest, Michael Nava, Truman Capote. He may have to add himself to that list now.
In his debut novel Dodging and Burning (Pegasus Books), a photograph of a murdered woman arrives in the mail of mystery writer Bunny Prescott, and it sends her back 55 years, to the summer of 1945, when she was just eighteen and a photographer showed her and her twelve-year-old friend Ceola that very same picture. He found the body in the woods, he says, but when they go to see, the body’s gone.
The photographer was the best friend of Ceola’s brother, now declared missing in the Pacific, and she is immediately lit with the passion to do something – to find out who this woman was and what happened to her. The truth, however, turns out to be much darker even than they imagine, and in a devastating journey through small-town, post-war America, their lives will change dramatically.
The book is many things, part historical novel, part straight-up mystery story, part coming-of-age tale, part an exploration of LGBTQ themes at a time in American history when to be any of those things was deeply perilous. The idea for the book, says Copenhaver, was sparked by the notion of a photo “that asks more questions than it answers, an object that seems to tell the viewer so much, but in fact conceals so much more.” Once he began writing it, however, he began to think of the photo as a metaphor for identity – the stories we tell others and ourselves about who we are – a process much on his mind at the time as he himself was coming out of the closet.
A detective is always pursuing the truth – the truth about a crime, but also often about himself. As his characters chased their phantoms, Copenhaver chased his own: “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I am and how I want to live. Of the characters, Bunny Prescott comes the closest to catching her phantom, which isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience.”
Copenhaver chose to set the book in the post-war 40s because it was a moment of flux from the war period, when woman had more agency and homosexuality a limited degree of greater toleration in urban areas, to the Cold War 50s and McCarthyism, “when it was not a good time to be gay or a woman…You can draw a line from our current political turmoil to that period.” Frustratingly, he found very little written about that period in LGBTQ history: few first-person accounts and a mainstream media that simply cast gay people as abnormal. That realization also helped inspire him, however — as he was navigating his own identity, he realized the need to revise history itself so that it would include such stories.
Besides all of this, he wanted to tell a good story in and of itself, and for him crime fiction was a perfect vehicle. Early reviewers have commented on the literary quality of the book, but, he says, “Crime fiction has a lot to teach literary writers, particularly those who get lost in language and character interiority and need to find a structure.” He points out that novels such as Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and Louise Erdrich’s Round House all “borrow structure from crime novels. In different ways, each novel concerns a transgression and a transgressor,” and by the end, all is revealed.
There is, in fact, a deliberate hommage to pulp fiction in the book, as Ceola reads and re-reads her brother’s favorite pulp detective story, A Date With Death. Copenhaver says he was himself inspired by some of the masters – H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ray Bradbury, and Manly Wade Wellman, who set his fantasy and horror stories in the Appalachian Mountains.
If the book is an odyssey for its characters, the publishing process itself was a bit of an odyssey for Copenhaver. He began the book in 2006, finally finished it in 2010, but then found agent Annie Bomke in 2011, and continued to revise the book with her. When it ultimately went out to publishers, it was not met with quick acceptance. He received quite a few positive rejections to the tune of “We love it, but don’t know how to sell it” (a frequent publishing song). Finally, Katie McGuire at Pegasus embraced the novel’s potential, and in 2018, it is finally here “It’s been a long journey with a few harrowing moments,” Copenhaver admits, “but I’ve had good company along the way.”
Readers will be able to say the same about Dodging and Burning.
Dodging and Burning was released today and is available at local and online retailers.
Preview these books mentioned in Neil Nyren’s first BookTrib article:
Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin
Ian McEwan’s Atonement
A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance
Louise Erdrich’s Round House
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Copenhaver is the recipient of an Artist Fellowship from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for four consecutive years. In 2015, he launched and continues to maintain a crime fiction column for the Lambda Literary website called “Blacklight.” His short fiction has appeared in Glitterwolf Magazine, Roanoke Review, and Gaslight, the Lambda Emerging Voices Anthology. He won the 2015 Larry Neal Writers’ award for short fiction, and was first runner-up in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest and the Narrative Magazine Winter Story Contest. He lives in Washington, D.C.