Recently, New Jersey’s favorite beach bum, Kieran Shea, sat down with Spinetingler favorite Dennis Tafoya to talk up Tafoya’s latest novel, The Wolves of Fairmount Park and the Pennsylvanian author’s upcoming projects. Here’s what Shea’s got to say:
Last year, Dennis Tafoya’s debut novel Dope Thief detonated like a pipe bomb, reaping praise from critics and crime fiction devotees alike. His second novel The Wolves of Fairmount Park hits the streets this June. Stark, brooding, and complicated The Wolves of Fairmount Park expands Tafoya’s canvas to almost an operatic level. Kieran Shea caught up with the author to discuss his forthcoming novel, writing ambitions, and the culinary dare that is the Philadelphia cheese steak.
Kieran Shea: I understand yours wasn’t a traditional pursuit as a crime writer, in fact, if it weren’t for a couple of cool coincidences Dope Thief might not have ever seen the light of day. Was it hard to write The Wolves of Fairmount Park after Dope Thief was published or was The Wolves of Fairmount Park a long percolating idea?
Dennis Tafoya: I liked the central idea very much, the idea of a heroin addict trying to solve a murder, but it did take a while to find my way into the story. I had been thinking about it for a year or so before we pitched it as the follow up to Dope Thief to Minotaur, and it was in the back of my mind while I was going through the revisions. I also wanted to try multiple viewpoints and expand the scope of the book after the very specific focus of Dope Thief. And I wanted the cop involved, somebody who was also compromised, in his way. I was fascinated by the story of Whitey Bulger, who was terrorizing Boston with the protection of an FBI agent.
Kieran Shea: I’ve read that The Wolves of Fairmount Park is part of an overall “trilogy” of crime for you and that you might be branching out into New Jersey. Aren’t you afraid? Sure, south Jersey is a hijacked subsidiary of Philadelphia, but I mean…
Dennis Tafoya: Yep, the third novel is set in South Jersey and is called Black Horse Pike. I love South Jersey. It’s got the little dead towns and the odd demographics. I’ve been spending a lot of time wandering around in Salem and Cumberland counties and the little towns down by the Delaware. Last week I sat down in Camden and watched them tearing down Riverfront Prison. It will all find its way into the book.
Kieran Shea: Chicago claims to be a second city which, in my opinion, couldn’t be further from the truth. Places like Baltimore and Philadelphia mantle the title better. If Philadelphia were to stand up and tell the rest of the country who it is, what would the City of Brotherly Love say?
Dennis Tafoya: Philly is a great place and I think it’s just getting more interesting, but I think it’s been a slower process, so we never seem to arrive like some towns. Maybe it’s the movies and tv shows that are set here? I love “It’s Always Sunny…” but it makes the city look like a wasteland of abandoned factories and shithole apartments. I absolutely think we could hold our own against Chicago. For one thing, we’re not just a cool city full of world-class restaurants, excellent bars and cool museums, but we’re close to a lot of great stuff. Chicago is surrounded by the most boring suburban towns in the country.
Kieran Shea: It takes guts and skill to flawlessly handle multiple points of view like you do. Did you make some sort of blood sacrifice to the literary gods or are you just insanely gifted?
Dennis Tafoya: Thanks! Luckily, I don’t have to say whether the book works – you do. I had fun with the multiple points of view. My editor was skeptical, but she came around when she read the finished draft. I was mostly concerned about making the points of view different enough to be interesting, while not confusing the reader and while advancing the plot. I can’t imagine what I was thinking.
Kieran Shea: Everybody digs a good anti-hero, but wow…Orlando? A junkie?
Dennis Tafoya: Only compromised people really interest me. I was talking to a guy in a writer’s group once who was a limo driver, which struck me as a cool, story-rich environment for a writer. He said he wanted to write a crime novel about a limo driver, but that he’d have to make the guy a retired CIA agent or a Delta Force guy or something, but my reaction was, ‘No!’ Make him a gambling addict or a drunk in recovery or something. Something that’s a way in to character and organic plot. For me, all that secret agent/special forces stuff keeps the character at arms length, makes him more difficult to know and care about. And I like the challenge of trying to get readers interested in very screwed-up people, and to care about what happens to them.
Kieran Shea: This may seem small to some folks, but it’s huge to fans like me. Your novels have gun fights and gun handling (and this is no piped in sunshine) that have such meticulous detail they’re like professional ballets soaked in leather, whiskey, and rain. Do you do your own stunts for research?
Dennis Tafoya: Ha! No, but I do like to walk the ground and know as much as I can about the situation I’m writing about. I’m a fiend for research, and I think when you just expose yourself to as much as possible, you get things you don’t even know are there to be had. Old, dirty guns jam a lot, for instance, and when you fire an automatic in an enclosed space, the ejected shells are going to hit you in the head, the face, the hands, and they’re hot. I just find that stuff fascinating, and even if a specific bit of knowledge doesn’t make it in to the book, having it in my head gives me the confidence to get it down.
I’m afraid that some of that stuff sounds like I’m confusing myself with Hemingway or something, but really the opposite is true: It’s more that handling a pistol or cruising a drug corner gives me a little bit of access to a reality far outside my own very safe world.
Kieran Shea: Very safe world, hmm. Isn’t that what fascinates crime fiction fans, the idea that the world really isn’t safe at all, that hell is around the corner, a mere few degrees away?
Dennis Tafoya: I think we like thinking about the world behind the world. It’s fascinating and a little thrilling that there frequently IS a hidden side, a secret and criminal side to life, that it’s going on around us but that mostly unseen. It’s one of the reasons I’m just obsessed with stuff like stamp bags, the little bags that package heroin or crack on the street. They’re frequently stamped with a little brand, like “Die Trying,” or “DOA,” to let people know the drugs are from a particular source, and there’s something disorienting and wild about that. Somebody sat in a room and stamped hundreds or thousands of these bags, to create brand loyalty for dope, or to let people know who runs a particular corner. It’s like a message from another world, only it’s not another planet, it’s just down the street. The names given to drugs aren’t euphemisms, either, or misleading. The names are stuff like “Poison,” or “Body Bag.” I’ve seen a stamp bag labeled “Bin Laden.” It’s all the secret and dangerous stuff mixed up and held out as enticing, like paid sex or an unregistered gun. We want those things, partially because at some level we really do need them, and partially because they’re forbidden. And sometimes they really are dangerous, but it’s tough to assess the real risk, and we can’t help but feel that something denied us is attractive… one of the things I think is fascinating and important about crime is that it’s going on everywhere, all the time. A couple of years ago a body turned up under a pine tree in a bank parking lot here in Doylestown, which is the last place you’d think somebody would show up dead. It turned out he was a heroin addict who’d picked that place to shoot up, and it was weeks before they found the body. Around that time kids in the area were dying from Fentanyl-laced heroin. Drugs feature prominently in my books, and that’s definitely a place where high and low intersect. Clearly, criminality isn’t restricted to a class, any more than any human attribute.
Kieran Shea: If there’s one subject you could write about other than crime and mystery, what would it be? And don’t say supernatural wizardry or I will never invite you to the shore.
Dennis Tafoya: I would like to write horror, actually, but I haven’t settled on anything yet, and I’d like to write some historical stuff. I’m working on a short story set during the Civil War, but it’ll take a while before I feel like I’ve done all the homework necessary to sell the time period. I want to write a novel set during that era – the 1860’s and 70’s, but I think I have to work up to that. I spend a lot of time thinking about how that novel would work, so maybe that’ll be my first big non-crime project. I’m also obsessed with World War II and the rise of Fascism, so I might try something about that, too.
Kieran Shea: As a born and bred Philadelphian, why is there any vacillation at all in the cheese steak conundrum Pat’s vs. Geno’s? Yeah-yeah, this is a touristy jibe but, please…how is this even debatable?
Dennis Tafoya: Man, I was raised on steak sandwiches from the Greek’s on Long Lane, down in East Landsdowne where my grandmother lived. I don’t even know what the place was really named, we just called it the Greek’s. The place was awesome and smelled like the brine from the pickle barrel next to the counter. Pat’s, Geno’s, Jim’s…none of them are the Greek.