DATE May 5, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Charles Ardai, founder of Hard Case Crime, on paperback
crime novels, his business, his two novels, and his childhood
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Paperback crime novels with lurid cover art sold for 25 cents in the 1940s and
'50s. They were seen as cheap and disposable, but these days many of those
authors are celebrated, and the cover art is highly valued. A new company,
Hard Case Crime, publishes obscure and forgotten novels by great crime writers
such as David Goodis, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain and Mickey
Spillane, as well as new crime novels by emerging and established writers.
The cover art is in the lurid style of the pulps. My guest, Charles Ardai,
co-founded Hard Case Crime after he sold Juno in 2001. Juno is the Internet
company that he co-founded.
Ardai publishes and edits the novels, but he's also written a couple of his
own, "Little Girl Lost" and his latest, "Songs of Innocence." In a Washington
Post review of "Songs of Innocence," Patrick Anderson wrote, "Ardai's New York
is a vision of hell, a smoldering inferno for victimized women and ruthless
men. The painful climax of this novel will move you in ways that crime
fiction rarely can," unquote. Ardai's books are written under the pen name
Charles Ardai, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a reading from
"Songs of Innocence," but would you set it up for us first?
Mr. CHARLES ARDAI: Absolutely. "Songs of Innocence" is the sequel to a book
called "Little Girl Lost," about a private investigator named John Blake, and
at the end of that book he quits his job and goes back to school because of a
terrible crisis he goes through in the first book. In the second book, he
never intends to go back into investigation until a friend of his, Dorrie
Burke, is found apparently having killed herself, it was an apparent suicide.
And he's so distraught because of this that he takes it on himself to
investigate, find out what happened, because he doesn't believe it was
suicide. He thinks it was murder.
(Reading) "She hadn't killed herself. Not because she wouldn't have. She'd
talked about suicide plenty; we both had. It's what unhappy people who are
ashamed of their past and not too sure about their future did. I wasn't proud
of it, and neither was she. But you know what? Better to talk about it than
to do it. And that was the promise we'd made each other. If one of us ever
felt like doing it, seriously felt that way, we'd call the other and talk it
out instead. I'd never gotten to that point myself, but she had more than
once and she'd called me every time. But not this time. And she would have.
She would have.
"Then there was the other half of the deal. She promised me she'd call me
first and in return, I promised her that if I was ever unable to talk her out
of it, if she ever went ahead and killed herself, I promised I'd come there
and clean the place out, get rid of any trace of her professional life so her
mother would never have to know--and her father too, for that matter--neither
of them would have to read in their paper that their little girl had paid her
rent by performing sexual services for $180 an hour plus tips. No, not that.
Just that she was dead, which God knows would be so much easier to take."
GROSS: And that's my guest, Charles Ardai, who writes under the pen name
Richard Aleas, from his latest book, "Songs of Innocence," which is published
on his press, Hard Case Crime.
The idea of suicide is the center of the reading that you just did, and it's a
constant through the book. Why did you want suicide to kind of hang over the
Mr. ARDAI: John Blake is an atypical character as the lead in a hard-boiled
detective story because he's not 6'2, he's not an ex-Marine. He's very much
the opposite. He's a small, slender intellectual fellow with glasses. And
for him to have gone through the traumatic events of the first book, "Little
Girl Lost," would have scarred him. And before I sat down to write "Songs of
Innocence," I was trying to decide what the second chapter in his life might
be like. And the obvious answer was that somebody of his emotional makeup
would be scarred, and it seemed more interesting to me to begin with him on a
precipice and see if I could push him over the edge than to have him shrug off
some pretty grim events in the earlier book.
GROSS: And he just keeps being in more and more pain. He starts out with a
broken rib that's bandaged from the previous book, and so he starts out with a
bandaged, you know, chest and the broken rib, and then he just keeps getting
more and more physically and emotionally wounded as the book goes on. And
these aren't wounds that he can kind of brush off. He's not tough inside.
He's very vulnerable. Why did you want to make your main character as
vulnerable as he is?
Mr. ARDAI: If you look at the hard-boiled novels dating back to the pulp
era, they really fall into two categories. There are the angry ones, which
are sort of wish fulfillment novels, Mike Hammer stories of the super tough
fellow who punches out the bad guys. And then there are the sad ones, and I
find those more interesting, more compelling. The person who is walking
wounded, the person who is facing a bad outcome and knows it and fights
against it just because that's what you have to do. That's what it means to
Cornell Woolrich, who was one of the most troubled writers of the period, he
wrote "Rear Window," for which he's best known, but also dozens of other
books, all of them very bleak, and he led a very bleak life himself, described
noir at one point, the field in which he wrote, with an image that he had
remembered seeing as a child. He said it's like being an insect under an
overturned glass, and it tries to climb up the side and it can't and it can't
and it can't. And that's the story of Thomas Hardy's characters, it's the
story of Greek tragedy, and it's the story of modern noir fiction. It's what
I find most appealing and most interesting about the crime fiction field.
GROSS: And you studied literature in college at Columbia. What did you
Mr. ARDAI: Well, I was a specialist in British romantic poetry, which you
can imagine made my mother very happy because she saw all sorts of employment
Mr. ARDAI: But...
Mr. ARDAI: This was Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Coleridge, and when I
decided to create a detective character, it was almost inevitable that, in a
field that had detectives named Spencer and Marlow, I would have to pick one
of my favorite poets, so he's John Blake, which I guess is really two of my
favorite poets, because John is from Keats. And "Songs of Innocence" derives
a lot of the chapter opening quotations and so forth from Blake. Whether that
really influences the kind of writing I do, I don't know. I certainly don't
write in the style of the romantics, except in one sense, which is that the
romantics were responding to an earlier period of poetry, where the language
was very elevated, and it was not the language of what Wordsworth said, a man
speaking to men.
The same thing was true in mystery fiction in the '30s, the golden age of
mystery fiction. You had people like Dorothy Sayers, who wrote about murder
in terms of poison in the tea and death in the vicarage, and it wasn't really
the world of violence as people knew it. After World War II, you saw the
sudden explosion of the hard-boiled movement, which was people talking in the
vernacular and scenes of violence the way they were actually experienced. You
had Chandler and Hammett and so forth. And so there is a sense in which the
hard-boiled movement and the romantic movement were not completely different,
although that's probably the only sense.
GROSS: Well, you know, you mentioned William Blake, and your character's
named John Blake, and your title of the latest book, "Songs of Innocence," is
a reference to Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience," and as you said,
most of the chapters start with a quote from a Blake poem. And one of them
starts with this quote: "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse
unacted desires." That's from Blake's...
Mr. ARDAI: Ah.
GROSS: ..."The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." And without giving away what
happens, it's a great quote for that chapter.
Mr. ARDAI: Well...
GROSS: Couldn't have done better. But I should mention that on the cover,
you have a cover blurb on the book, you know, that sums up what part of the
book is about. It's a similar impulse that you're describing.
Mr. ARDAI: Yes.
GROSS: But in more hard-boiled language, and the quote on the cover of the
book is, "Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be
Mr. ARDAI: Isn't that great? It sounds like a hard-boiled line. Of course,
all of the books in the Hard Case Crime line feature beautiful women on the
cover and tough taglines. That tagline is also taken from "The Marriage of
Heaven and Hell" by Blake.
GROSS: Is it really?
Mr. ARDAI: Yes. That's Blake as well, but it sounds so properly
GROSS: Oh, God, it sounds so hard-boiled. Yeah.
Mr. ARDAI: Yeah. So "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" speaks in the words
of the Devil, although it's not clear at any point whether you're supposed to
be sympathetic or horrified by them. And they've haunted me ever since I
first encountered them studying under Karl Kroeber, who's a brilliant,
brilliant academician and scholar, who I quoted, in fact, as the epigram--or
is it is epigraph? I never remember which it is, but the little quote at the
front of the book--he introduced me to Blake and was the reason that I spent
most of my Columbia career studying romantic poetry and inspired me in that
In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," you have some pretty stark statements.
And when you say "sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted
desires," that's not necessarily an endorsement of child murder. It may
simply be an endorsement of not allowing your desires to go unacted. You
know, all it says it that killing children is not quite as bad. It doesn't
mean it's not bad. But for purposes of my novel, it seemed as though it would
be a good way to encapsulate the problem that some fathers have with their
children. I won't go further than that because I don't want to spoil it, but
there are reasons here that it may not be the best thing in the world to be
the child of a parent who has trouble restraining his desires.
GROSS: Let me read your description of your detective John Blake from your
latest novel. He writes, "When I turned 18, I looked 15. At 25, I was still
getting carded. Now I was 31 and could order a drink without proving my age,
but people still looked at me in my slight frame and my glasses and my central
casting, part on the left, Iowa cornfield hair, and they saw someone they
didn't have to cross to the other side of the street to avoid. It was a good
thing sometimes. It made it easier to get strangers to open up. But it was
also a bad thing sometimes. All depends on what impression you're trying to
make." Does that describe you physically?
Mr. ARDAI: Yeah. If only you had video on this radio, you could see a
slight fellow with a big chin and straight hair parted on one side. It's not
cornfield yellow; it's brown. But, you know, some liberties must be taken.
And I wear glasses, and have since sixth grade. So there is an awful lot of
me in the physical description of the character. The emotional side, I think
we deviated around the age of 16 and I grew a slightly tougher skin than he
did. On the other hand, I didn't go through quite the ordeals that he went
through. Who knows what would have happened if I had.
But, yes, I think it was inevitable--it's true in many first novels--that the
detective has a striking resemblance to the author in one dimension or
another. You know, Hammett was a detective himself, and the Continental Op is
in some ways a lot like Hammett. I don't think Philip Marlow and Chandler
resembled each other very much, except in his daydreams. But Blake and I do.
GROSS: I've worn glasses since kindergarten, so I was glad to have John Blake
with glasses. I'm trying to think if there were many other detectives, like
hard-boiled detectives, with glasses.
Mr. ARDAI: I can't think of too many. There are detectives who, of course,
whip off very sexy sunglasses at key moments in TV shows, but that's a whole
other story. I would bet I could think of one or two, but I can't off the top
of my head.
GROSS: My guest is Charles Ardai, the publisher and editor of Hard Case
Crime. He's written a couple of novels in this series under his pen name
Richard Aleas. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest, Charles Ardai, is the co-founder of Hard Case Crime, which
reprints forgotten crime novels by great writers and publishes new crime
novels by emerging and established writers. He's written two novels in the
series, under the pen name Richard Aleas. Both feature the private eye John
You know, we talked about the character's like emotional and physical pain and
his genuine vulnerability to that pain. And there's also a lot of guilt that
he carries around. I would imagine you really like the movie "Chinatown"
because, like in "Chinatown," without getting too deep into this, like in
"Chinatown," like the character of Jake Gittes, your character feels that when
he tries to help somebody, he inadvertently ends up getting them hurt.
Mr. ARDAI: That's right. The terrible thing about John Blake is that he's
really awful at what he does, and he means so well. He's not awful because
he's inherently incompetent. It's just that life conspires against him, and
it turns out that every time he tries to help--and it's always a woman--she
winds up worse than before. Now, there is one woman in his life who seems to
be doing quite well, and so there's that exception, but generally he finds
these women, one of the characters describes them as birds with broken wings,
and there's a question why he keeps gravitating toward that sort of person.
But having found such people, he always tries to make things better and pretty
much always makes them worse.
But along the way, he's an interesting character to write about, just because
I try to flesh him out and give him a little bit of substance, which often the
detective in a detective story doesn't have, even if the other characters do.
The detective is very often an uninvolved observer, and I really wanted in
these books to make the detective the integral figure. You know, not just
somebody who comes in and sees all the relatives in the bizarre family and
observes them from a cold, detached distance, but somebody who has a reason to
be investigating this particular crime, to feel it deeply.
GROSS: You know, your character is taken over by depression, suicidal
feelings, guilt, physical pain. You get into his head so well. You're a
really successful guy. I mean, you know, you've been very successful with an
Internet start-up. You're still with a high tech firm doing quite well, which
is what enabled you to start Hard Case Crime. Do you relate to your
character's sense of guilt and despair and physical and emotional pain?
Mr. ARDAI: I do, and it's largely because of a childhood that was quite
grim. It was wonderful in the sense that it was a terrific middle-class, New
York childhood. And I grew up in good circumstances, so I can't criticize
that. But I was the child and am the child of two Holocaust survivors, and so
the stories that they told throughout my childhood, no doubt meaning well,
were the most grim and frightening you could imagine. And knowing that this
little group of five people were all that remained of my family in the entire
world, pretty much, gave me a sense that there was a darker circle around a
very small bit of light. So that was part of it. I did go through a period
in my adolescence where leaping off the side of a building was relatively
attractive. I didn't do it; I'm glad I didn't. I don't feel those ways
today. But I do relate to it, and I think it's an interesting point of view
to bring out in a book.
GROSS: You know, it's interesting that your parents told you stories about
the Holocaust because I know that for some Holocaust survivors, their parents
didn't talk about it and wouldn't.
Mr. ARDAI: It's true, and mine had a kind of mixed feeling about it. They
felt, I think, that it was important to bring their children up with an
appropriate amount of fear about the outside world because it's
self-protective. On the other hand, there were details that they wouldn't
tell us and, of course, that made it seem even worse. You know, we were
trying to think what could possibly be even more frightening than the stories
we did hear.
And then in recent years, I've been with my father, who's about three years
away from turning 80, and he and I have been talking, and he's finally opened
up about some of the real details, and in fact, they were worse than the
things they told us as children. So in some sense I praise them for their
ability to restrain themselves, but, you know, what they told us was bad
enough. But on the whole, it makes it sound as though I'm, you know, unhappy
that they did it. In fact, I wouldn't be who I am if they hadn't, and I
certainly wouldn't have written these books.
GROSS: What's an example of one of the stories they told you that you
couldn't shake as a kid?
Mr. ARDAI: You know, there were two young boys who were relatives of my
mother's, and at one point the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, which was the
group that was affiliated with the German Nazi Party, was coming into
Budapest, and there were a lot of people being killed. Some were fleeing, and
they were fleeing to various locations where they felt they'd be safe. No
guarantee, but they thought. But there were these two young children, and
their parents weren't there. And my mother and her mother and her mother's
father were trying to get them to come with them, and they said, `Look, your
parents will find you. We will get your parents to you. But you've got to
come now.' And they said, `No, no. We have to stay and wait for our parents.
We were told we must wait for them.' And they stayed and they waited. And the
Nazis came and shot them both. So it's a good way to teach kids the lesson
always, you know, always look out for yourself first.
GROSS: Does that story about your mother trying to rescue the kids who are
later killed, does that relate to the kind of situation your main character is
in where he wants to rescue people, but they end up being hurt--not through
his hand, but what he does inadvertently leads to their damage or death?
Mr. ARDAI: I think the answer is yes. It's not so much that he's
responsible, although in some cases he is, and often feels that way. It's
that no matter how hard you try, you can't really alter a bad fate. That's
part of what goes through these books. And I'm sure that does go back to that
story and other stories of that sort that I have heard, been told. My mother,
at the time was completely powerless. She was their age. She was maybe six
or seven years old. Her own mother was the one really trying to save them.
And you can imagine the trauma she must have felt when she found out what had
happened. As horrible as it is to go through that as an adult, can you
imagine what it was like to see one your peers or two of your peers gone in
that way? So, yes, I do think that had impact on it.
GROSS: Did your mother talk about guilt a lot?
Mr. ARDAI: Yes, and infused me with the same. But guilt is perhaps the
least useful of human emotions, and yet one of the most prevalent. It is one
of the paradoxes of our lives.
GROSS: You know, what you were saying about growing up with these really
terrifying stories and your parents making the point that you couldn't
necessarily trust people or trust the world, it reminds me of the advice that
your character's mentor tells him, and this is the guy who ran the detective
agency where your character got his start. And what he says is, "The things
people hire us to figure out are the ugliest things in the world." And you're
writing about people who do the ugliest things in the world.
Mr. ARDAI: That's right, and in fact, if you look at some of the villains in
the book, some of them get what's coming to them and some of them don't.
There's a pair in the first book, "Little Girl Lost," named the Khachadurians.
They both have the same name--Murco Khachadurian, father and son. And the son
is a sociopath, and he does terrible things to people. He tortures them,
really unnecessarily, and he has a terrible self-image and walks into a bar
once with a dice cup and he's rattling around what seem to be dice, but it's
actually human teeth that he pulled from someone.
And in the end of the book, he's free to go and his father is free, and the
worst people in the book are not the narrator who goes through some tough
things and makes a very bad decision at the end, but he's not the worst person
in the book. Clearly this fellow with his dice cup full of human teeth is the
worst person in the book, and nothing bad happens to him. I don't know what
happens to him after the book, but it's quite clear to me that he's going on a
vacation to Florida, he's having a great time. You know, he may not be the
happiest guy in the world, but he's certainly not punished.
And I think that's one of the interesting things in, not just my own books but
this whole field, that corruption is not punished, evil is not punished.
Hard-boiled mysteries and, in particular, so-called noir mysteries take place
in a world where any little sliver of justice that you can carve out of an
unjust world is practically accidental and something to be cherished because
the bulk of what goes on in the world is going to be evil being unpunished.
GROSS: Your real name is Charles Ardai, but you write your hard boiled
fiction under the alias Richard Aleas. And you spell Aleas A-L-E-A-S.
Mr. ARDAI: Yes, and there's a reason for that. It's an anagram of Charles
Ardai, and I didn't have another I in my name.
GROSS: Oh, I thought it was because it's an alias.
Mr. ARDAI: Ah.
GROSS: So you named yourself Richard Aleas.
Mr. ARDAI: Yeah, well, I decided I was going to use an anagram. I have a
passion for anagrams, and I came up with 20 or 30 interesting anagrams like
Rachel Darias and there were a few others. Richard A. Sale. But when I
found out that I could make Richard Aleas, and it was almost the right
spelling of alias, I just couldn't resist. So I used that. For the book I'm
writing now, I'm using my real name, and I think people will be astonished to
find that it's a comedy. I'm not really the sort of person who writes funny
things, but I'm trying that as slightly different. So it will be ironic if
under my real identity I was known for things that are funny and under my fake
name, things that are serious.
GROSS: Charles Ardai will be back in the second half of the show. This is
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Charles Ardai. He's the
publisher and editor of Hard Case Crime, which reprints forgotten crime novels
by great writers as well as new crime fiction by established and emerging
writers. Their lurid covers are inspired by the pulps. Ardai wrote two of
the novels in the series under the pen name Richard Aleas. His latest is
called "Songs of Innocence." Ardai told me his next book will be a comedy.
Mr. ARDAI: We are coming up on our 50th book, which is astonishing to me.
When we started Hard Case Crime I thought maybe we'd publish six, seven, eight
books, that's it. Because I didn't think that there would be a large audience
for it, you know. Max Phillips and I, who started the line together, loved
these old books with the beautiful painted covers and the dark, grim stories
and suspenseful stories. But we figured there was a reason they had gone out
of fashion in the 1950s and '60s, and there was probably a reason they weren't
brought back. So we created the line and we hoped to reach a few thousand
people who like it, but we didn't expect it to last very long.
Flash forward a few years, we're coming up on our 50th book. And the question
was, what can we do to commemorate it? So I came up with a brilliant but
insane idea, which was to write the 50th book myself, write it in 50 chapters,
set it 50 years ago, and have each chapter bear a chapter title. You know, in
the old books sometimes you see Chapter One: The Deadly Menace, Chapter Two:
whatever. So here it's Chapter One: Grifter's Game, Chapter Two: Fade to
Blonde, and in each...
GROSS: Each chapter is the title of one of the books you've published?
Mr. ARDAI: In sequence. So now I have to come up with a story that makes
logical sense of 50 random book titles consecutively. And it's turning out to
be quite a challenge, although I'm having fun with it. But one of the ways I
can do it was to turn it into a comedy. In a comedy you have a lot more
leeway to do things that are a little wacky, a little bit funny.
GROSS: But I read that one of your principles with Hard Case Crime is nothing
campy about hard-boiled stuff.
Mr. ARDAI: That's right.
GROSS: It has to be the real thing.
Mr. ARDAI: That's absolutely right. So it's not campy. It's funny, but not
campy. So if you read a book like "Say It with Bullets" by Richard Powell
that we published in the middle of our 50 book run, it's hilarious. It's full
of one-liners that even 50 years after they were written are genuinely funny.
It could be a Bob Hope movie, but it's not campy. It's not poking fun at the
hard-boiled genre. It's very much of the genre. It's just that it has a
wisecracking main character. That's very different from a book that has a guy
in a slouch hat and a trench coat named, you know, something ironic, who runs
into Raymond Chandler in a bar and says funny things to him. You know, we
don't want to have a distance between our author and our narrator, on one
hand, and events of the book on the other. We don't want to nudge the reader
in the ribs with our elbow and say, `Isn't this cute? You know, you and I, we
enjoy this old-timey stuff.' We want to actually make these books that could
have appeared in the day.
And that's what I'm trying to do with the new book "Fifty To One." It's going
to be set in 1958, and hopefully it's going to give the impression of
genuinely being an artifact of that time. The fact that it happens to be
about the editor of Hard Case Crime, who's an unrepentant con artist starting
the line, that's a whole other story. So I hope people find things to laugh
at. His name is Charles. What do you want, you know?
GROSS: I'm laughing already.
Mr. ARDAI: There you go.
GROSS: How did you become so passionate about hard-boiled fiction?
Mr. ARDAI: You know, I became passionate about hard-boiled fiction when I
started reading the work of Lawrence Block as a teenager. I don't, of course,
mean the work he wrote as a teenager, although I've since gone back and I
think read some of that as well under pseudonyms. But Lawrence Block
introduced me to the notion you could go deep inside the head of a criminal
and find a sympathetic perspective waiting there. You know, whether it's a
murderer or a burglar or somebody who does something terrible, you can
understand why he does it. And for some strange reason he was one of the
first writers who exposed me to that. Then I found James M. Cain, then I
found classical authors. I mentioned Thomas Hardy already. And I found it a
very eye-opening experience. So I immediately gobbled up all the books I
Most of them, of course, weren't on the level of Block, never mind Hardy. But
I found that there were many that were quite strong. And they were published
for 25 cents behind very lurid covers, and you would think they that were
disposable entertainment. They were entertaining, but they really weren't
And at one point Max Phillips and I sat down and talked about how to
un-dispose of this literature. How do we bring back the work of authors like
Day Keene or Gil Brewer, who don't have the fame that a James M. Cain still
possesses or a Raymond Chandler, but wrote perhaps only one book in their
lives that was on par with "The Big Sleep" or on par with the various work of
these canonical authors. But they did write one. And there was no reason
that that one book should be out of print. There was a line called Black
Lizard in the '80s and I think early '90s that did a terrific job of finding
some of these books. But Black Lizard had gone the way of all flesh. It had
been bought by Random House and turned into something much more limited. And
nobody was publishing books like this today. Apart from that, there was
really no form for new writers, people who are emerging today, to write 50,000
word quickie books that had the velocity and the passion that these old
So we said we'll do something a little different from Black Lizard. We won't
just reprint old books, we'll do a combination of that and bringing out new
books. And, by the way, Max and I will get the chance to write one ourselves
apiece. And that was great fun. He wrote "Fade To Blonde," which won the
Shamus Award for best paperback of the year. I wrote "Little Girl Lost" and
then found it so irresistible that I went back and wrote another. This was
part of the motivating force behind Hard Case Crime.
GROSS: The books that you publish have very lurid covers. And lot of them
are actually done by Robert McGinnis, who did a lot of lurid covers for the
pulps back in the pulp fiction era. How did you find him and convince him to
do covers again?
Mr. ARDAI: There's a young painter who's phenomenal named Glen Orbik, and we
hired him to do some covers. And he said in passing, when we were talking
about his inspirations, `you know Robert McGinnis is still painting.' And I
was astonished. I knew Robert McGinnis was still alive, but I had no idea
that at age 79 or 80 he was still painting professionally. And I got in touch
with him. I said, `Glen tells me that you're still painting, would you
consider, possibly, maybe doing one cover for us?' And he was enthusiastic to
a degree. I couldn't possibly have imagined, for example, when we assign a
cover to a painter typically we get back three or four sketches of things that
the painter might propose. In the case of Bob McGinnis, he sent us 50
GROSS: Oh, gosh.
Mr. ARDAI: He produced a playing card deck with one on each back,
practically. And it was wonderful, and each was better than the last. He's
an enormously gifted fellow. And his great virtuoso talent, although he's
best known for painting beautiful women, he's got a virtuoso ability to
communicate textures. So when he paints a stone it looks like stone, and wood
looks like wood, and fur like fur. It's an incredible thing. He's
justifiably in the hall of fame at the Society of Illustrators with Wyeth and
others. But he hadn't done book covers for a long time, or he hadn't done
many book covers. So we were very glad to offer him that chance. He's now
done, I think seven or eight for us. We have one coming out soon by John
Farris called "Baby Moll" for which he painted the cover, and it's a typically
beautiful one. And of course the first book I assigned him was my own because
I'm shameless, and I said I want a McGinnis cover for myself. And so "Little
Girl Lost" has a McGinnis, and then "Songs of Innocence" has an Orbik. So I
bracketed it with the two of them.
One of the things that's interesting about McGinnis is that he spans the two
generations, so it's a kind of benediction from the old pulp era to have him
participate in our line. But the covers he does for us today have to be more
conservative and we have to be much more careful. For example, you could have
painted a completely naked woman on the cover of a book in 1958. You couldn't
possibly get away with that in 2008. Oh, the angles would have had to hide
anything too explicit in '58, but you could still play with the angles. Here,
if a pair of pants is too low we have to go back to him and ask him to pull it
up. We actually had to do that on the cover of "Little Girl Lost." We said
they don't want what they called butt cleavage. And I had never heard the
term in my life. And I said the buyer from Wal-Mart won't buy it if there's
any butt cleavage.
GROSS: Is that mostly the reason why the standards have changed? Because of
the chain stores...
Mr. ARDAI: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: ...that do so much of the sales and distribution?
Mr. ARDAI: Sadly, yes. And I don't that think that they represent as large
a fraction of our sales as they do for some books. But if you want to have a
million copy best seller, you can't do it without--not just Barnes & Noble and
Borders--who, by the way, have been very supportive of our line and I'm very
grateful--but Costco and Sam's Club and Wal-Mart, and they have standards that
are their standards. And you can't argue with them. You just have to decide
whether you're going to abide by them or not. So at one point I thought I'd,
you know, as our last hurrah if we ever shut the line down I'd go out with a
bang and have a really dirty cover. But I haven't done it yet.
GROSS: So one more thing. On the Web site for Hard Case Crime, you know,
there's a page for each of the books with the cover and a description, and the
lead is usually very hard-boiled and very eye catching and kind of funny.
Like for "The Vengeful Virgin"...
Mr. ARDAI: Uh-huh.
GROSS: ...the line is, "Her wealthy stepfather was dying, but not quickly
enough." Do you write those yourself?
Mr. ARDAI: Oh, yes. That's one of the great pleasures. The two greatest
pleasures in putting this line together are not the high-minded things I've
mentioned earlier--those are true, also--but the great pleasures are working
with the painters to turn a scene from the book into a beautiful painting and
coming up with those cover lines. I just have a blast with that. There's one
I did not come up with. And it was the one from Max's book. He came up with
that himself. And that's probably still our best, and I still keep trying to
top it and fail. He wrote, "She was a little taste of heaven and a one-way
ticket to hell." And that's just perfect.
GROSS: Charles Ardai, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. ARDAI: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.
GROSS: Charles Ardai is the co-founder and publisher of Hard Case Crime, and
the author of two books in the series, "Little Girl Lost" and "Songs Of
Innocence," published under his pen name, Richard Aleas. You can read an
excerpt of "Songs of Innocence" and see a slide show of the lurid Hard Case
Crime covers on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download
podcasts of our show.
Coming up, Cornelius Eady reads his poem "How To Do" about his sister
collecting and redeeming empty bottles. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Cornelius Eady talks about his life and his poetry
TERRY GROSS, host:
Cornelius Eady has written poems about everything from white socks to
recovering from prostate cancer. He's the director of the creative writing
program at the University of Notre Dame, and co-founded Cave Canem, a retreat
for African American writers. His collection of poems "Brutal Imagination"
was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. His latest collection,
"Hardheaded Weather," features new and selected poems. Some of the poems are
about hoe different his life is from those of his working-class parents.
Several of the poems in the new collection are about the two small cottages he
bought with his wife as a country home, and how ambivalent he was about buying
a second home that was optional, knowing it was far beyond the means of anyone
else in his family. Here's Eady reading his poem "Migration."
Mr. CORNELIUS EADY: (Reading)
Unlike my parents, who headed north for jobs, for houses,
simply because indifference was better than never,
unlike my sister and my niece,
each in their gray, sometimes bullet-pocked subsidized apartment blocks,
unlike my old neighborhood,
a means of trying you're not supposed to wiggle out of,
I hold my tongue because we've just told our friend
`We've bought a house that doesn't need to be.'
And luck is so unfair, complicated, true.
GROSS: Cornelius Eady, welcome to FRESH AIR. So it sounds like your sister
lives in a neighborhood that sometimes has bullet holes in the houses, and
your parents didn't live in a very good neighborhood, and now you've bought
this house that, you know, is optional. So do you feel like you're the person
in the family who jumped to another class?
Mr. EADY: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I know it's interesting that you
would phrase the question that way because there's always that kind of mixed
feeling of joy and guilt when you talk about crossing the class line, you
Mr. EADY: I come from a generation where striving was really the center of
your existence. We're supposed to get out. Even though I was, on the
surface, very resistant to the idea, I mean, you know, you see me when I was
18 or so, you'd definitely see someone who kind of looked like a hippy, right?
And the idea of materialistic kind of things was sort of anathema to me in
some degree. However, my life sort of led me in this direction. Writing got
me out of the neighborhood. So, absolutely, and it gave me an option.
I guess one way of putting it is that my father's definition of what you were
supposed to do for work, for example, was totally different than what I do for
a living, you know. I mean, his idea of work was, you know, you get up in the
morning, you punch a clock and you come home. My idea of existence is sort of
like, well, you know how it is to be a writer. The work of a writer is
GROSS: Yeah, you have--in one of your poems you write about your father `how
can I make him believe that I've gotten all of this, this modern apartment,
this pond in front of window, all from writing a few good lines?'
Mr. EADY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, that's because my dad couldn't--you know,
it's an abstraction, right? I mean, it's--this reminds me of a story about my
dad. Once when one of my books came out, I came back to Rochester to do a
reading, and I was sitting at home and he asked me, he tried to figure out
what a reading was, you know. `What is a reading?' And so he actually tried
to walk me through it, you know what I mean? It was sort of like, `OK, so
like somebody reads your book.' And I'm like, `yeah, somebody reads your
book.' `And they invite you to come, right?' And I said, `yeah, yeah, they
invite me to come and they pay for me and they offer to pay for the hotel and
they pay for the plane fare.' `And then people come?' You know, `they actually
come, right?' I said, `yeah, yeah, they actually come. They've read the book
and they liked the book and they all come.' `And they listen to you read,
right?' `Yeah, yeah, they come and listen to me read.' It was like he was
trying to--bless him, God bless him. He was really trying to figure out, `you
get paid for this? You get money for this?' You know? It's that kind of
GROSS: Would you describe the neighborhood you grew up in?
Mr. EADY: Oh, yeah, sure. I grew up in what used to called the Old Third
Ward in Rochester, New York. And it originally was a neighborhood that was
full of Italians. And when we moved in, they moved out. It was that kind of
migration. They moved to the suburbs and left their houses, and we moved into
those houses. And so it was a really lovely little neighborhood. But it was
a brick-lined street that was a dead-end street. When I was growing up there
was--the Pennsylvania Railroad had a couple of loading platforms there. One
was a lumberyard, and further down was a canning plant. Around the tracks was
a lot of weeds and people--kids, that's where we--we played on the box cars
and things like that. It was a poor neighborhood, but it was a very stable
neighborhood. Everyone, you know, was getting to the idea of being able to
own your own property. And, in fact, that's part of the reason why my parents
moved up to Rochester--they're from Florida--was to be able to buy houses.
GROSS: Some of the poems in your new collection are about the death of your
father. And you write that your parents weren't married, although they lived
together for 40 years. And when your father was dying you tried to convince
your mother to marry him or else her name wouldn't be on the deed to the
house, she'd lose the hose, she'd lose all kinds of things. How come they
Mr. EADY: They just never got around to doing it. I wish I could give you a
good answer, you know. We never really asked either of them. I mean, they
weren't, you know, into the free love or anything like that, you know. So I
really can't give you--it just became probably just a matter of just the same
normal day in day, out sort of thing. And then you had kids, and the kids are
still there. And, you know, and, I mean, that's my best guess. No one was
leaving, you know. Everyone just sort of like acted as if it was just a
normal family, which it was in a lot of ways.
GROSS: So what happened to your mother after your father died? Did she lose
Mr. EADY: That's a long and complicated and sad story. My mom was
schizophrenic and got worse after my father died. And ended up her days in a
nursing home, which was of course very upsetting to all of us. But, you know,
it really was a--it was very frustrating because as a son, what you really
would like to have is a happy ending for your mother. You know? I would have
loved to have her have a new life after my dad had passed, and she started to
do things--have her be able to do things or be able to experience or discover
things that she had never done before. Like driving, for example. She never
learned how to drive. Or being--getting over her fear to be able to go out at
night and go to a restaurant. You know, my mom was so house-bound at a
certain point that even the thought of going out the door to go to a
restaurant, to a McDonald's, was a really terrifying thing for her. So, you
know, but that's, as a son, I wished for my mother but it didn't happen.
GROSS: You referred to yourself in one of your poems as growing up the son of
the crazy lady. Was she considered the crazy lady of the neighborhood?
Mr. EADY: Yeah, she was. She was. The great thing about our neighborhood,
it was a very small and cozy neighborhood. But like all small, cozy
neighborhoods, you also have the downside to it. And the downside to those
kind of neighborhoods is that you get certain roles, right? And my mother's
role was that, was the crazy lady, you know. She was easily teased, to put it
that way. And she has sense of just what, you know, her--where the border of
the house was. We have a house and then we have a fence that was close to the
street. And anybody got too close to that would be--people would be in danger
of her coming out and yelling at them, right? So kids would actually go up
and intentionally rattle the fence to get a rise out of her.
People loved her, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that she was ostracized
or anything, but people only understood her in a certain context, right? And
sure, being a child of a person who has schizophrenia always causes you to
worry, you know, if you're going to go the same way. My sister and I, when we
were more friendly, we'd call each other, you know, every so often, say `well,
are you going crazy yet? You're 29 now, you know. I'm starting to see little
slides.' And we were kidding each other, of course, but also in the back of
minds, of course, there's also that little worry, right? Because my mom
started to go--once we started to do the math and go backwards, you know,
probably around her mid to late 30s. So, you know, that's always a concern.
GROSS: Since we're talking about your sister, I'm going to ask you to read a
poem that's called "How To Do." Would you introduce it for us?
Mr. EADY: Well, it's--"How To Do" is really about a moment when I was with
my sister and helping her to deliver bottles. My sister was collecting
empties on the streets in order to get money.
GROSS: How long ago did this incident happen that the poem was based on?
Mr. EADY: Oh, probably somewhere back in the early '90s. And, you know, I
was doing her a favor, so by doing that I was sort of like gotten to the world
of people who are collecting stuff, but also I realized that my niece, her
daughter, was very, very embarrassed by my sister's doing this, even though of
course it was a very practical thing to do. You know, you find--you know,
from her point of view she was being very practical and it also ties into
something that my mom always told us, you know. So...
(Reading) "How To Do"
It embarrasses my niece to think of her mother
walking the streets with a cart,
for their deposits.
But my sister knows how to do,
which is all our mother asked of us.
She's learned how to do,
which is both a solution and a test.
So I stand in line with my sister
at the supermarket.
Today's the best day of the week
to bring the bottles in.
It is a poor people's science,
a concept that works
until someone with power notices it works
and then it doesn't.
GROSS: That's Cornelius Eady reading an excerpt of "How To Do," one of the
poems in his new collection, "Hardheaded Weather." He directs the creative
writing program at the University of Notre Dame and co-founded Cave Canem,
which runs workshops and retreats for African-American writers. Eady will be
back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is poet Cornelius Eady. He's the director of the creative
writing program at the University of Notre Dame, and he's got a new collection
of poems called "Hardheaded Weather."
How did you get exposed to serious reading and writing?
Mr. EADY: Oh, I got exposed to--the library. That's the quick, easiest
answer. In Rochester there's this great library called the Rundel. And when
I was a kid I would go there, primarily because it was--well, it still
is--it's a beautiful building. And my life--I mean, I don't want to give the
impression that my life at home was really this horrible miserable thing. It
wasn't. You know, I was a kid and I was oblivious to a lot of the prejudice
that was going on. I wasn't conscious to a lot of stuff until I got older,
until I got grown. But it was a chaotic life in a lot of ways. You know,
it's five people in a very small house running over each other. And the
library, it was calm, and people who would let you just take things and read
them. So for me the library was an oasis.
I started writing actually, you know, in earnest in the library because, you
know, there were reading tables there and they sold writing tabs for 25 cents
and pencils for a nickel out of little vending machines. And so I was
spending a lot of hours there. And having gotten to a certain point when
suddenly I was being perceived at my high school as a poet--this was because
of a poem I had written in the high school literary magazine about the
assassination of Martin Luther King. I just did the math recently and I
realized that my writing career begins with the assassination of Martin Luther
King, because that was my first real public poem that I wrote about Martin
Luther King. And once people started to sort of like react to that poem, I
suddenly realized I didn't know what being a poet actually was.
So I started reading poetry. And there was a wonderful selection of poetry at
the Rundel Library. This is when I got exposed to Neruda, to Leroy
Jones...(unintelligible)...to a lot of the poets that were being published by
New Directions and...(unintelligible)...Books, and that just sort of totally
changed by preconceptions, or all my prejudices of what I thought poetry was
GROSS: I'd like you to end by reading a pretty funny poem called "White
Socks." It's a previously unpublished poem that you've included in your new
collection. And by way of introduction, I'd like you to tell us to whom the
white socks in this poem belonged.
Mr. EADY: Oh, thank you. You actually think that was a real story attached
to the poem. That's wonderful. You fell for it. The speaker in the poem is
just a speaker in the poem, and the idea is just the idea of bad fashion,
really. There's nobody that inspired the poem, unlike Neruda's "Socks," that
wonderful poem, the ode to a pair of socks, you know. There's no real fashion
victim here that I'm trying to address the poem to. But I'm glad it feels
that way. I'm glad it's being addressed to--you feel there's something that,
you know, sort of like sparked the poem in the first place. I was playing
with the idea, and out comes the poem.
(Reading) "White Socks"
It is important to remember
that there is a place for everything.
Those white socks, for example,
they were important maybe 20 years ago.
But now they are an embarrassment.
This is not meant to insult you.
Some of my best friends have no taste,
nor am I afraid to be seen with you.
As you must know by now
I was born without fear.
But listen to reason.
You know we can't go anywhere
with you wearing white socks.
Let's talk it over.
Let's clean out your dresser
and then walk shoulder to shoulder
into the future.
GROSS: Cornelius Eady, thank you so much.
Mr. EADY: Thank you, Terry. I enjoyed it. Thanks.
GROSS: Cornelius Eady's new collection of poems is called "Hardheaded
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