a conversation with Nicholas Christopher      

An image from the 1938 World Series that Franklin Flyer attends.

Rita Hayworth nee Margarita Cansino.

She soon became Rita Hayworth, the Hollywood glamour icon worshiped to this day.

"Wild Bill" Donovan created the OSS in response to the rise of Fascism prior to W.W.II.

Josephine Baker was an agent for the Free French during W.W.II.

An exhibition of the contents King Tutankhamen's tomb caused a craze for Egyptology in the 1930s.
  Why does Franklin Flyer open on October 29, 1929?

I thought that in a century crowded with cataclysmic events, this would be a good place to begin the arc for the book. I saw two 20th century events in American history, in mid-century, that formed a perfect arc for the narrative I had in mind. The stock market crash was one and Pearl Harbor was the other. I had it in my head to begin the book with the one and end it with the other. It seemed to me that the Second World War is really when the industrial age, the manufacturing age in America, closed and the financial age began. The information age would begin later and all kinds of things would change in the 90s and then with 9/11 but it seemed to me that the stock market crash was the defining event of the so-called American century. As I grew up, it was constantly referred to as a touchstone, that and the war, which was always the Second World War. I thought, too, that the Great Depression was an interesting point because it is where the failed economic procedures of the earlier part of the century and the onset of WWII coincide. It was an incredibly fertile period.

"Wild Bill" Donavon appears in Franklin Flyer and among his many innovations at his OSS is the novel use of mass media to spread disinformation as a means to influence Adolf Hitler. How did you feel when you heard about Rumsfeld's botched disinformation ploy in our current state of war?

I was very impressed with Rumsfeld's ineptitude at proposing it; "Wild Bill" would have been far subtler about it. Donovan actually invented the term disinformation. Rumsfeld just wanted to post outright lies, which he does daily anyway, so it would be easy to export those lies but with none of Donovan's subtlety. In Franklin Flyer I delineated one tactic used by Donovan, and especially the British, who had very few real combat resources early in the war, with the Hungarian astrologer Louis de Wohl. It might seem like the most made-up portion of the book, but it is completely true. De Wohl was a British Army Major with another name. I don't know his real name, it's very hard to find out what it was, and he wasn't Hungarian at all. He posed as a Hungarian astrologer because the Allies knew that Hitler was extremely superstitious and consulted astrologers constantly and made decisions of state accordingly: he had people executed, fired henchman, and invaded countries based on those predictions. Someone in British Intelligence got the brilliant idea to send a guy out who would give an international astrology tour spewing disinformation about Hitler. They thought it was the perfect conduit, a way to play mind games with Hitler, and it worked. Some of De Wohl's predictions, and in the book Franklin Flyer helps him to write some of these, are: Roosevelt's star would dim Hitler's, that Hitler had people at his right hand that wanted to bring him down, Hitler's star would set on the 3rd of August—all sorts of paranoid stuff and that was Donovan's idea of disinformation. It was phenomenally subtle and he had newspapers cover the tour and print these predictions which then got back to Hitler.

De Wohl is a character in this book, is he also a character from history?

Yes, you look surprised!

In addition to the stock market crash and world war, the plot of Franklin Flyer is rife with events that correspond to history of the world in the 20th century, from the growth of cities to the development of media empires, the discovery of the cathode-ray tube that made television possible to the creation of the global influence of the multinationals, and more. How many of your characters are also drawn from the life as it reads in the papers?

I didn't want to place characters in the book gratuitously in Zelig fashion. I love the film Zelig but I didn't want Rita Hayworth to come into the book just to be background or arm candy for my hero. I wanted her to be a real person so, in that sense, she, Josephine Baker, Donovon, De Wohl—the people who are real—I have operating within the constraints and also the freedom of their own lives. I took real facts about them and invented their interactions with my hero. I didn't change too many facts of anyone's life or contents of their lives; I just insinuated my hero into their lives. Josephine Baker really was an agent for the Free French during WWII. She was a courier; they put invisible ink on her sheet music when she'd go to Lisbon. That's all in the book. She went to Gibraltar, which was a big gathering place for spies, and that's where my hero intersects with her. I have her giving a performance of Othello where she plays a black Desdemona to a white Othello. That never happened, I made that up. [much laughter] But it's the kind of thing Baker might have done and done well.

Rita Hayworth is in the book and I don't want to spoil how because it's a surprise, but the way she's in there completely corresponds to her real biography. I asked dozens of people and very few of them, even movie buffs that I wrote to, know the real aspects of her life.

I didn't know she born Margarita Cansino and that she was Mexican.

She made six movies under the name Rita Cansino and most people don't know that. I use one of those movies, "Charlie Chan in Egypt," in my book. It's a movie my hero goes to see one day, it's part of a whole Egyptian thing.

She was so critical of herself.

Yes, both in real life and in my book, she was so dismissive of her talents. She plays a servant girl in that film and she hardly looks like the Rita Hayworth who in her movies was a redhead and an incredibly striking dancer. But she has so much magnetism that if you watch, she does things that knock you out: such as bringing a tray of drinks into a room to serve six people and she's the one who stands out.

Another character in your book, Narcissa, is a blues singer who rises to fame as she fights addictions. Is she based on Billie Holiday or an amalgam of singers that rose out of the 30s in the Chicago blues scene?

Yes, she is really a fictional character but I'm sure there are bits and pieces of Billie Holiday in her and the blues singer Mary Johnson and others who are much more obscure than that. What I tried to capture was the era of blues singing and the early era of blues recording in Chicago. In the early 30s, Chicago was not the mecca it was later with blues singers like John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.

I thought that Chicago did have that then because of the migration from the south.

The migration was there but the recordings mostly took place in Memphis. The recording business was just beginning to come of its own in Chicago when Narcissa gets there. The record company I have her record for is invented but the world there is very real. I tried to capture what it would be like. She's a doctor's widow, really a middle-class African-American woman from Alabama who comes north and enters that scene and becomes a singing star, but in a highly segregated and grotesquely prejudiced era.

In addition to the real events and characters, there are evocative descriptions of architecture. Did the office buildings in Franklin Flyer exist in New York City?

Some of them are actual addresses and some of them are made up. The two main buildings, The Ice and Fire Assurance Company and The Globe Building, are made up. I live in lower Manhattan and they are amalgams of all kinds of amazing office buildings that are still down there below 23rd Street. The Globe Building sounds suspiciously like the Daily News Building on 42nd Street with the gigantic globe in the lobby but it's different.

Are the magazines, from the pulps to Front Line, all from your imagination?

Completely. I particularly didn't do pulp research so I wouldn't be influenced. I love making stuff like that up. There are several blues songs in the book that I wrote and when we were getting this book together, my editor said to me right away that she'd have to go to the permissions department on these and I said, "They don't have to leave this room, I wrote all these lyrics." The same is true with a lot of the pulp material. I made up all of the copy and all of those titles. I invented all sorts of plots because I thought that would free up my imagination...Diamond Courier, The Half Moon Gang, River Detective, all those are my own concoctions.

What inspired you to weave ancient Egyptian religion and culture into a fabulous 20th century adventure?

My books always have these netherworlds that run imaginatively beneath the main plot. Also, there was a huge Egyptology craze starting with the discovery of King Tutankhamen's mummy in 1922 by the British and it was still going on in the 30s. If you went to a university now and said you wanted to study Egyptology, you'd be sent to the classics or ancient history department. Egyptology then was a popular and a cultural craze. King Tut became a tabloid hero. Franklin is a man who first makes his fortune on inventions that are very practical and then on the imaginative ether of pulp fiction. It's the latter that really enchants him. So I wanted a craze that would both work on a popular level and that would also have the huge tentacles into the underworld that I favor in all my books: fate, destiny, people leading you to places you might not have ever have known. As I got further into Egyptian lore, I didn't use it the way I used Tibetan religion in Veronica, say, but I wanted it to be a touchstone for fate and immortality throughout Franklin Flyer.

Persephone, in particular, seems to be the most associated and powerful character in regard to Egyptology. Wherever she is, she places statues of deities and brews exquisite potions. She introduces what amounts to a sort of sideline quest to Franklin to discover the answer to the ancient mystery that is the origin of the species of the head of Set. Why might she expect this of Franklin?

Because he is a man who is unflinching, who revels in penetrating mysteries. To this day it is not really known what animal is atop Set's head. All the Egyptian gods have the heads of hawks, wolves, or dogs. The head of Set is an indeterminate animal. They've done research into what kind of animal it was and that fascinated me because animal heads are usually fairly identifiable. I think what Persephone sees in Franklin is a numinous, chthonic hero who travels extensively – literally and spiritually – as most classical heroes do. And part of his journey, of course, must take him through the underworld. Franklin is completely open to the world; he is open to her powers as a female force. He's not averse to traversing areas of violence, he's very imaginative, very much a wanderer. I think she realizes he's someone who, if he solved the mystery, could put the information to good use. By the end of the book, he does discover the identity of the animal atop Set's body. And I think it will be a surprise to most readers.

The names of your characters are always evocative and, in this case, noir. Narcissa is a night-blooming flower and Persephone is the goddess of the underworld.

...Goddess of the dead.

Anita Snow is a talismanic character in your book. Does "snow" represent a blanketing obscuration or is it antithetical to life?

I think it's more literally a blank slate, a whiteness. In my book Veronica, Veronica is similar to Anita Snow in some ways, and her last name is White.

A place for the story and the hero to project?

Yes. Anita Snow represents a white zone of limbo. When you think of a purely spiritual light it is usually white, diamond-colored or gold. I wanted Anita Snow to be a very airy figure, and yet it turns out she is quite rooted on and of this earth. But for Franklin she is an anima figure leading him on his journey through this world. Anita Snow for a long time is an image in a photograph, a talismanic figure. From the roof of an office building, Franklin's hat blows into the window of another building; he goes to that other building, into an office, and finds it's completely abandoned. There is only empty desk, a pulled-out phone, and a photograph of a woman. He rolls the photograph up and puts it in his pocket, and begins his quest. He has no idea at first who the woman in the photograph is and where she is, and over the course of the book he learns her identity.

And how connected she is to his life.


Along the way, fate keeps taking him to places that connect him to a very similar group of people that are all interconnected.

When he looks at that photograph, what he really sees is his whole history before him. It's really a road map to his fate.

Throughout the book, Franklin learns that his adventures and destinies depend on his ability to reinvent his identity, re-map his world and to learn to recognize his companions in their shifting roles. How does the character Horace's transformations relate to his destiny?

My early notes were all about Ovid's Metamorphoses. I wanted Franklin Flyer to be about transformations. Horace, Persephone's husband, was always interesting to me as a character because he is an older man married to a younger woman and he is the executive of a glass-making company. I asked myself why I made him that. In the course of my research, I knew it had to do with things that Franklin would invent but that seemed rather simplistic. The ancient Egyptians discovered glass as we know it, a fact I discovered midway through writing the book. It was a serendipitous discovery. Horace's transformation, without giving too much away, is from glass manufacturer to boxing champion.

Boxing is described in your book Somewhere in the Night, Film Noir and the American City, as the epitome of the noir underworld and the brutality of the stripped down force of man against man. Why would Persephone's husband evolve into a boxer? Are they going deeper underground?

Yes, I think they are going to much more infernal regions. If you really think of boxing, you have two men in a ring or a rectangle, a square, stripped to their shorts and in ancient days they were naked, under a white light fighting until one of them goes down. Could there be a more existential exhibition of theater and athletics? Boxing was a great favorite among the ancient gods. It was a great sport, an elemental form of expression, even into this century, and not the sham it has become. Persephone's husband Horace is a very refined older man who likes music, good food, and fine art. He is a sedentary guy a few years from retirement. The idea that he would enter the world of prizefighting — in terms of Buddhist reincarnation — might be seen as a progression toward a more elemental, a more stripped-down, state.

As a character says to our hero Franklin Flyer, "In the realm of the imagination, there are no amateurs."

I believe that's true.

A phrenologist predicts that Franklin will pass through a dark place and see things that most people don't see.

She's referring to the Nazis and parts of occupied Europe – an infernal place that he will pass through, a station of the night.

It is appropriate somehow that Franklin should invent night-vision goggles.

Obviously some real person invented them, but now Franklin does. I wanted him to come by his inventions in natural and imaginative ways. Maybe as a novelist and a poet I am imposing my own creative process, but I read several biographies of, and memoirs by, inventors and I wouldn't use the word "luck" in the conventional sense, but they do make chemical connections in the real world. It doesn't all happen in a lab for the best inventors. Franklin is on a Pullman going crosscountry and a porter comes into his compartment with a red plastic fan. Franklin asks him what it is and he describes how a nearly blind woman from Miami showed it to him and now he uses it to get around the train at night. If you look through the red fan, you can see better. Infrared light had been discovered by then, and Franklin realizes it's the reason the porter can see better. He takes it from there. There was a branch of the government that Franklin Roosevelt started during the war called the Bureau of Special Devices. It's such a funny name — like something out of a Marx Brothers movie! Scientists from all over the country worked there, creating devices for the military, for espionage and so on. Franklin works there for a while.

Noir has become a cultural phenomenon in the 30s and 40s, in the 70s and is here again. What do you attribute that to?

I say it in my book about noir, Somewhere in the Night. In times of national stress, when war is a constant or corruption particularly deep, our darker impulses, the darker currents of our national life, become preeminent. Connections break, wires fray, fires break out.

As we see in the men returning to their homes in America from the battlefields of W.W.II.

Yes, the classic noir era begins in W.W. II and ends in the late 50s. All kinds of things were brewing: you have a reaction to the Great Depression, W.W. II, the McCarthy era, and the Korean War. The next resurgence of film noir, or neo-noirs as I would call the films after 1960, comes with the Vietnam War. Then they reappear in force during the Reagan years when you have poverty, displacement, and national corruption on a large scale. Interestingly, a near barren noir period comes during the Clinton years when his accusers, far lesser people than he, run wild and yell scandal, but there really isn't much scandal. It's a strange barometer, but during his presidency very few authentic film noirs are produced. At such times there are always glitzy Madison Avenue concoctions called noir in which they put a woman in a raincoat on a wet street brandishing a gun, but that's not what makes a film noir. It's interesting to me that there's been a resurgence of film noir already in this second Bush era. An election stolen by the Supreme Court is certainly a noir catalyst — a true scandal a thousand times worse than anything that happened in the Clinton years. The man who got the most votes was not made president; and a man who had no mandate governs as if he does. That's a very corrosive, a very dark, combination. Many film noirs explore political corruption, but none come up with a plot like that. And you can print that! [laughter]

Franklin Flyer is named for the train he was born on during a tornado. He is raised, an illegitimate child, at a time when that could have created crushing limitations but his guardian is a strong, genuine, politically and morally positive woman and he manages to achieve most of what is required of him in order to fulfill his destiny.

The important thing to remember is that he is an inventor and, as I say at one point in the book, he realizes the greatest invention of all is one's own life. As Franklin invents things along the way that really change people's lives, he's constantly reinventing himself as well. He's not doing it in some superficial way — like someone casually adopting a new persona like a change of clothes — but is really undergoing essential metamorphoses throughout his life. His journey is, I think, of the most enviable sort: simultaneously leading him out into the world even as he travels deep into his own heart and mind.

Interview by Catherine McWeeney

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    Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger