Creating ‘Colorado Noir’

An interview with JP Gritton about his new novel, "Wyoming."

Set in Reagan-era Colorado, JP Gritton’s debut novel Wyoming follows its protagonist-narrator, Shelley Cooper, on a drug deal gone right — and then, horribly wrong. Relating his journey in a voice that National Book Award-winner Alice McDermott calls “pitch-perfect,” Gritton follows Cooper from Colorado to Texas and back, with occasional detours into memory and space.

With starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus, where it was named a best book of 2019, Wyoming initiates a series of three interlinked novels, excerpts of which have appeared in such journals as Cimarron Review, New Ohio Review, Southwest Review, and Tin House. An assistant professor of creative writing in the English department at Duke University, Gritton is the recipient of a Whitman Fellowship, the Inprint Cynthia Woods Mitchell and Donald Barthelme Prizes in fiction, as well as a DisQuiet fellowship. I spoke with him about male friendships, mental health and the illicit drug trade.

Mesha Maren

Wyoming explores friendship between men in some depth, in particular the relationship between your narrator Shelley and his best friend Mike. Did you set out to write about male relationships, or did this kind of come about as you composed?

JP Gritton

I don’t know that I set out to write a book about male relationships, but in a way it’s exactly what Wyoming is about. One thing that has always fascinated me, both in what I read and in what I write, is the way in which “friendship” can be a sort of shorthand for something murkier and weirder. I think The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood is a classic of this weird sub-genre.

Friendships fascinate me because they can be charged in so many ways — erotically, for instance, or there may be a hidden animus — that we don’t really talk about or own.  I think this holds even for “strong” or “close” friendships. The fact is, there’s a certain kind of person who both attracts and repels us in equal measure. Whatever Shelley feels for Mike in Wyoming has something to do with that repulsion.

Mesha Maren

In many ways, this is a novel about mental health: Shelley’s mother suffers and dies as a result of ongoing depression, and Shelley (arguably) has some pretty serious mental health challenges.

JP Gritton

I think there’s no question that Shelley, for all his grin-and-bear-it attitude about life, has some pretty poor mental health. It’s not something I knew I was writing about as I composed (though I think your assessment is spot-on). What I was thinking about a lot as I wrote was the idea that we don’t always know who we are, and the ways in which hiding from that knowledge can be incredibly destructive.

Mesha Maren

This book is in part about the failures of communication among families and in friendships, as well as about the failure to communicate with oneself. Your narrator and lead protagonist Shelley isn’t able to openly communicate with anyone, especially himself. The way this plays out thematically is through Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is arguably about failures of communication.

JP Gritton

Absolutely. And I think you’re right to diagnose Shelley in this way: genuinely communicating with himself feels something like trying to talk to aliens. Like music, his desires are not ones that he can understand rationally. They simply don’t compute on any level. In a weird way, I think the moments when Shelley speaks most frankly are exactly the moments he is least understood. When he tells his twelve-year-old niece, for instance, to put down the potato chips so she won’t end up as fat as her dad, he thinks he’s being candid when in fact he’s just trying to isolate himself.

Mesha Maren

Shelley undertakes a drug run on behalf of his brother, somebody for whom he has a pretty intense dislike. Was Shelley hoping to sabotage his brother’s drug deal from the start? Was he subconsciously planning to steal from him, or mess it up in some way?

JP Gritton

I just wrote an entry for a blog called the “Page 69 Test”: the idea is that you describe what’s going on in the 69th page of your book, and explain how it relates to the rest of the book (no doubt the choice of the number 69 was completely random). On the 69th page of Wyoming, Shelley lets a prostitute into his hotel room.  From the moment she breezes in, Shelley knows that the encounter is going to end badly for him. As I was writing this blog entry, it occurred to me that this is part of what the book is about: the ways we participate subconsciously in the disasters of our lives. If Shelley is trying to sabotage Clayton, I think it’s secondary to his desire to sabotage himself, or to force himself to confront an uncomfortable truth about what and who he is.

Mesha Maren

You’ve called this novel “Colorado noir.” Were you aware before or as you began writing the book that you were writing a kind of noir novel? Did you consciously choose that genre as you made choices around plot, or did you only apply this sensibility later? When reviewers began calling my novel Sugar Run “noir,” it surprised me. But in retrospect, the definition fits both novels: like all noirs, they’re centered on antiheroic protagonists playing a zero-sum game with a corrupt system.  Do you have any favorite noir novels?

JP Gritton

I think that my writing tends to lean noir, but to be honest this was a label that my agent and I started applying to my book as we were trying to sell it. With that said, there’s a lot about the noir genre that feels compelling to me. Among the many conventions I think Wyoming and Sugar Run honor is the femme fatale: the imperfect desire-object that our protagonists are drawn to, like moths to a flame. For Jodi, it’s Miranda; for Shelley, it’s Mike.

As for favorites, I think the film that sets the bar would be Detour, which plays with the idea of an unreliable narrator in ways I was trying to emulate in Wyoming. As far as books are concerned, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is one I’ve turned to again and again over the years.

Mesha Maren

You use direct address in this book, sections where Shelley’s first-person voice directly addresses the reader. I am wondering how you feel that this impacts the book. Often first-person narratives feel private and confessional, but that’s not the case in this instance: from the very beginning, Shelley asks for the reader’s opinion, the reader’s judgment. Why did you make this choice?

JP Gritton

In terms of the decisions I made in Wyoming, one of the hardest things to talk about is the point-of-view — not because the answer is “complicated,” but because I don’t know that I was consciously aware of those decisions when I made them.  But maybe you’ve hit on something: the first person feels confessional, and I knew Shelley would need room to confess; yet the direct address allows him to hedge and obfuscate, and that unreliability was something I had a blast playing with.

Mesha Maren

This is a very voice-driven book. Is all of your writing led by voices? Is that what comes to you first in the writing process?

JP Gritton

This story began as chicken scratches in a journal I kept in the summer and fall of 2006, while I was working on a construction crew in Colorado. I put the notebook away, and I didn’t think about it for years. But then I found it again, and it occurred to me to try to write this scene about a stolen air-compressor in the first person. I’m not totally sure where the voice itself “came from,” but there are certainly people whose voices I could hear as he told his story (before he died, I was really close to my father’s brother, who lived in a town called Arroll, Missouri, deep in the Ozarks. Uncle Ed was nothing like Shelley — though he may have a thing or two in common with Clayton — but Shelley’s voice is one I lifted in part from him).

I’m not sure where that came from, this suspicion that the story would play a lot better in the first, but it was definitely the case that Shelley’s voice carried the narrative to places I hadn’t known it might go: I kept on writing “with” that voice, and I think in the space of maybe six months I had a full draft of the novel done.  

By JP Gritton
Tin House Books
Published Nov. 29, 2019

Mesha Maren is the author of the novel Sugar Run (Algonquin Books). Her short stories have appeared in Tin House, Oxford American, The Southern Review, Triquarterly, Crazyhorse and elsewhere. She serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia and is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Duke University.

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