10 Questions with Author and Journalist Robert Isenberg
Virginia Woolf called her novel Orlando “a writer’s holiday”. It seems Arizona-based writer Robert Isenberg felt similarly when he started writing his collection of short stories set in the 1920s, featuring his heroine, Pittsburgh-based 1920s paranormal investigator Elizabeth Crowne.
It was self-indulgent, something to do at 10pm at night, and I was really enjoying the writing process. It contained elements I love: The 1920s, a female hero, a pulpy aesthetic. But the more substantial it became, the more I realized that it was coagulating into a novel-sized work. But I didn’t think it would be accepted through traditional publishing channels for any number of reasons. Firstly, it’s historical. Secondly, it’s a collection of short stories – these are not a form that is usually accepted by publishing houses, unless you’re Stephen King.
1. I know you’ve done some entertainment journalism for MSN and some very fine travel writing. So how did you get interested in this era? And what about setting? And does your journalism or nonfiction writing help in any way with this more creative work?
The 1920s have always felt romantic to me. I love the fashion, I love the flamboyance, and I love how radically Western culture transformed in one wild decade. In recent years I found myself reading about characters from around this era, like Percy Fawcett and Matthew Henson, Lois Long and Charles Lindbergh. They were such dynamic personalities, always pushing the envelope. There are so many layers to the Roaring Twenties, the historic possibilities seemed endless.
2. Do you find yourself viewing events from the 1920s and thinking “Elizabeth could be involved in this?”
I sometimes joke that the Elizabeth Crowne stories are all my guilty
pleasures rolled into one. I love espionage, ghost stories, and bobbed haircuts. I used to watch old detective movies like it was my job. For my 30th birthday, I threw a Twenties theme party, which I secretly nicknamed “The Great Crash.” Everybody showed up in pinstripes and feathered headbands. When some friends and I started an informal writing workshop in Pittsburgh, we met in bars and modeled ourselves on the Algonquin Round Table. Elizabeth found her roots in all these interests.
3. Elizabeth is an uncannologist, is that right? Is that a reference to Freud?
Ha! I made up “uncannology” for several reasons. First, it’s a silly word that will remind readers that this is pulp fiction and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s also practical in the 21st Century: A made-up term is easy to find on the Internet. She’s not a “parapsychologist” or “ghost-hunter,” because I didn’t want her to be caught up in “real” professions. A lot of people are committed to their UFOs and Sasquatch sightings. Elizabeth’s world is an homage to mysterious happenings, but I don’t want it ever to be confused for actual conspiracism.
4. How realistic are these stories? Could there be elements that are borderline steampunk, for example? What genres does it touch upon? Mystery? Horror? Sci fi?
This is my proudest achievement, actually: As ridiculous as the stories are, I want people to wonder how much of this world is based in reality. For example, I believe there was an airship service between Cuba and the United States, so a blimp leaving Havana is not unreasonable, although that blimp was probably not operated by a secret coven of blood-sucking monsters. The Clutterbuck Hotel is inspired by the Waldorf Astoria. Incredibly, Black Chamber was a real organization, and they actually traced Western Union transfers after World War I. This is something The X-Files did really well – toeing the line between tabloid plots and brick-and-mortar realism.
5. In the movie As Good As It Gets when asked by a gushing fan: “How do you write women so well?” Jack Nicholson’s response is “I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability.” Are you a feminist? Why are YOU writing about this lady from the flapper era?
Such a hilarious line, and only Nicholson could get away with it. I’ve always called myself a feminist, and I’ll always been proud of that title. What I love about this era is how many badass, iconoclastic women there were. So what happens when you cross Dorothy Parker and Lara Croft? The reaction from friends and
colleagues gives me goosebumps. Sometimes they say, “I really liked the book,” but what they say more often is, “I love Elizabeth.” The old saying about James Bond was that women wanted him, and men wanted to be him. I would love for Elizabeth to have that kind of effect on readers.
6. The British high-society Mitford sisters were famously rightwing, TS Eliot was a fascist, Virginia Woolf quite prejudiced. Are you conscious of Elizabeth Crowne’s politics? Is she progressive at all? For the era? Does she hold any assumptions that we’d regard as offensive today?
I’ve loved wrestling with this question. On the one hand, I want a protagonist that people can relate to, and I enjoy taking some progressive liberties. On the other hand, the 1920s were the most enthusiastically racist period in American history, and with so much talk of phrenology and eugenics, it’s no wonder Nazism had so many sympathizers. It’s hard to imagine the Ku Klux Klan having two million members, including much of Congress, but there they were, parading through Washington, D.C. As well intentioned as it is, I think a lot of revisionist history like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman can be insulting to the people who suffered under racist policies. I have to remind myself not to say dreamy liberal nonsense like, “Why can’t we just get along?” At her core, Elizabeth thinks of herself as a scientist and woman of the world, and her ravenous curiosity guides her more than anything. Elizabeth has personal flaws that, to me, are much more interesting than ugly politics. But I do like to weave certain sociopolitical elements into the tales. “The Ward Seven Horror” is essentially about exploitation of labor. “The Bootlegger’s Mystery” is largely about being ostracized as an Italian-American. Dr. Vermilion is a psychotic villain, but he’s also a war profiteer, pitting intelligence agencies against each other in an attempt to test his new weapon. You can read any of these stories without thinking them suggestive, but I hope that astute readers will pick up on these underlying themes.
7. Do you play up the Harlem Renaissance, Weimar Republic type decadence or licentiousness of the times at all?
The short answer is: I will be. And this should be Elizabeth’s most profound transformation, as the Roaring Twenties grow louder. When the stories start, Elizabeth doesn’t really “get” jazz. She’s even startled that her old boyfriend, a Hungarian count, is such a fan. She’s not a true bohemian or socialite, and she doesn’t understand what the Harlem Renaissance is. But this will change. I want to set a story in Paris, where jazz culture first becomes meaningful to her. Later, I want her to spend time in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Today, the Hill District is a blighted wasteland, but in the Twenties, the Hill was a jazz mecca. I’m hoping to explore that decadence and creativity from a lot of different angles. Maybe I’ll work in the title, A Moveable Feast II: Hemingway vs. Big Foot.
8. Do the stories have a continuity to them, with recurring characters and plot? Do they rely on each other?
My hope is that you can pick up almost anywhere and enjoy an
individual episode, sort of like the old Holmes stories, but when you read them together, they become more than the sum of their parts. Eventually I want to graduate to novels, which will give even more room to play around.
9. Would you ask her out if you met her? Do you like her? Like, really, like her?
Ha! I think I’d just crush on her from afar. I would laugh too hard at her jokes and generally think she was too cool for me. Then again, I thought the same thing about my wife, who really is out of my league.
10.Who’s your favorite character beyond Elizabeth? Is she your favorite?
Elizabeth is my perfect heroine, but I’m very fond of her sidekick, Maude. I love that Maude is shy and anxious, but she’s also worked as a fashion model and is smarter than anyone realizes. Maude flowers in ways that Elizabeth doesn’t have to, and it’s been so much fun to watch. While I’ve outlined a lot of what she’ll do in future stories, she consistently surprises me. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Okay, great talking with you and thanks very much, R!
The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermilion (The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne Book 1) is available at Amazon and elsewhere.