Interview: Desmond Warzel on “The Blue Celeb”
Bill and Joe are a couple of old army buddies who run a barbershop together in Harlem. They’re good guys who genuinely care about their neighborhood (even if Joe drinks too much); their best customer is Frank, a cop who used to patrol the area and still comes by to get his hair cut. Their attention is caught by a Chevy Celebrity (the “Celeb” of the title) that’s been abandoned in front of the shop with the keys in the ignition. Odd things begin to happen, apparently when the car is tampered with, and our three heroes are left to puzzle it out–and just when they think they have, a new wrinkle is introduced, and the logical and moral conclusions they’ve reached are suddenly called into question. (I’m being deliberately vague here; I’d hate to spoil it too much for those who still haven’t read it.)
This is my debut with F&SF, and is also the longest work of fiction I’ve published so far.
I have an unusually specific answer to this question: an old New York Times human interest piece by William E. Geist (which I ran across in Geist’s 1987 collection City Slickers) in which he recounts the tale of a car abandoned on the street with the keys inside, and the awe and near-reverence it inspires in the neighborhood’s residents–largely because it’s gone so long without being stolen. That’s all well and good for New York, I suppose, but where I come from it takes more than ordinary human decency to rise to the level of the miraculous. I got to wondering just how much more, and my imagination was off and running.
Quite. The setting is Manhattan (Harlem, to be specific), and while I’ve had the good fortune to visit New York several times and explore it a great deal, I can’t claim any legitimate expertise (when I specify an urban setting in a story, it’s usually Cleveland–see 2010′s “Fields” or 2009′s “On a Clear Day You Can See All the Way to Conspiracy”). The exact street or neighborhood weren’t vital to the story, so I felt free to keep it vague. As a result, most of my research involved incidental details of New York life: the command structure of the NYPD, the specifics of trash collection and street-cleaning, the number of a particular bus route that might pass near the barbershop. Fortunately, these days such information is a mouse-click away; I can only imagine writing this story twenty years ago, and the lengths to which I’d have had to go to ensure accuracy. In any case, I think I got it right, and the only way anyone would know otherwise is if they lived in New York (hopefully not many people do…).
On characters: this is indeed a character-oriented story (a thing many editors claim to want, until they receive one), but it’s only on rereading the tale in the finished magazine that I realize to what an enormous degree this is so. I was struck not only by how many of the key events take place completely offstage, but by how much of the story is simply people standing around talking. I enjoy this sort of thing when it’s done well: see Dial M for Murder, for instance, which contains only one scene in which anything actually happens and is all the more effective for it; or see some of the strongest (in my opinion) Twilight Zone episodes–”Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, “The Obsolete Man”, “A Game of Pool”, “Death’s-Head Revisited”, “The Masks”–which consist mainly of conversation.
In “The Blue Celeb”, Bill, Joe, and Frank bear all of the narrative weight; there’s very little we know that isn’t directly told to us by those three, which was why I strove to make them likeable characters–people with whom I myself would enjoy spending time. That sort of thing isn’t necessarily fashionable these days, but in my opinion, that was the least I owed the reader; who wants to be trapped for thirty-three pages with a jerk? There’s a time and place for protagonists with no redeeming qualities–and that time and place is the 1970s (after a decade of Death Wish, Dog Day Afternoon, and Taxi Driver, is it any wonder Star Wars caught on the way it did?).
I can’t really say why I chose Harlem in particular, except that in a tonier neighborhood, an unauthorized car might have been towed right away and I wouldn’t have had a story. The main corollary to this decision is that most of the characters are black. I didn’t set out for this to be the case, but it’s a natural consequence of the setting, and I figured I could pull it off. I’ve yet to hear of any complaints. You never know, though; there’s a small but vocal cadre of professional takers-of-offense whose ire one risks drawing when one writes characters outside one’s own broad racial category. There’s no beating them–they’ve a complaint for every occasion–but, trading as they do in the unfalsifiable, there’s no need to take them seriously. With all the real troubles in the world, who needs such tsouris over a simple little story? In any case, my aim was to write a couple of nice guys who readers will like and remember, and if the reviews thus far are any indication, I’ve mostly succeeded. It’s quite gratifying.
As I’ve noted, the actual plot, setting, and so forth are outside my direct experience, but a few of the tiny details are drawn from life. Often, when I need to flesh out a character and make him seem more alive, I’ll give him a memory or characteristic of my own. For instance, late in the story, Bill mentions having tinnitus; his affliction is my affliction, exactly as written–it’s like a continuous smoke alarm going off in my ear, but I’m so accustomed to it that I only notice it when I’m reminded of it (like right now). I have to parcel out such tidbits sparingly, as my life isn’t that interesting. Likewise, I’ll have to remember that I’ve already used tinnitus so I don’t repeat it in a future story.
I recently completed a sword-and-sorcery novel, loosely based on an older short story of mine, with hopes that it eventually sees the light of day in one way or another. Since then, I’ve been completing some stories that for one reason or another have gone unfinished. This has two benefits: it quiets the part of my mind that bristles at leaving things undone, and it buys me time and keeps me busy while I work up the nerve to begin another novel (which doesn’t seem to be any easier the second time).
Like “The Blue Celeb,” my other recent stories are also in a slightly-dark, slightly-fantastic vein, and I’d be denying my true nature if I didn’t take the opportunity to call attention to the anthologies Love and Darker Passions (Double Dragon Publishing) and Blood Rites (Blood Bound Books), and my work therein.
On a less commercial note, I’d like to thank those people (both professional reviewers and casual readers) who have read and liked the story and have taken the time to say so. (A particular thrill was receiving the much-sought-after imprimatur of “Recommended” from Lois Tilton of Locus Online. She also deemed me “a newer writer to watch.” Is everyone watching? All right, then. See that you do.) Thanks also to Gordon Van Gelder and his assorted cohorts, associates, and underlings for buying thirteen thousand words from a guy nobody’s ever heard of and sandwiching them in among some of the finest writers working today. Appearing in F&SF–the home of Roland the gunslinger, Harrison Bergeron, and Algernon–means a great deal to me, and I’m elated to have made it to the show.
“The Blue Celeb” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of F&SF.
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