Speakeasy with David Fulmer 

The Atlanta-based author talks about his sense of place, his theatrical project and how he nearly became a victim of the Baader-Meinhof gang of German terrorists

Any doubts that David Fulmer writes staid drawing-room mystery novels will be dispelled by the title of his Decatur Book Festival workshop “Sex & Violence: Writing About Them Without Sounding Like a Virgin Pacifist” (Fri., Sept. 4, 4 p.m.). While most of Fulmer’s work to date has been mysteries set in the South, he’s made a couple of changes of pace. His newest novel, The Blue Door, recently nominated for a Shamus Award, takes place in Philadelphia in 1962. He'll also try his hand at theatrical drama when the DBF presents a staged reading of his play Storyville, directed by Joe Gfaller, at the Old Courthouse Stage (Sat., Sept. 5, 5:30 p.m.).

The Blue Door has been nominated for a Shamus Award, and you already won one for an earlier book, Chasing the Devil’s Tail. How does the Private Eye Writers of America define “private eye”?
As I understand it, a private eye is not a cop, and it’s not a tea-cozy kind of mystery about an amateur sleuth. It goes back to the old gumshoe of movies and dime novels. The guy — or girl — is out there solving the crime, working outside the confines of the criminal justice system. I wouldn’t really know how to do a police procedural. People come to my books not for the whodunit but for the sense of place. My guys don’t deal with the scientific part of detection, but motivation, the psychological aspects. My guys tend to understand human foibles.

Did you set out to write mysteries?
I never thought I was going to be a mystery writer when I grew up. I was interested in setting. I was first interested in Storyville, New Orleans, in the 1920s because of its music. For The Blue Door, south Philadelphia also had a mystique about it. A murder mystery seemed natural for Storyville, but I thought it would be my only mystery and my only Storyville novel. It was recommended that I stick with private eye kind of stories. My publisher made an offer I couldn’t refuse.

How do you prepare to write about a distant time and place like 1920s New Orleans or 1962 Philadelphia?
I do tons of research. For each one of the places, my initial attachment was music, and music forms the background to the story. I always go to the public library of the city where it’s set, and read all the newspapers of the exact same days of when the stories take place. I do book research to get the big picture of the time, and the newspapers to get the day-to-day, on-the-street perspective.

How did the play come about?
When I wrote my first Storyville book, I was amazed that other writers had not done much with the period. The only real historical authority is Storyville, New Orleans by Al Rose, and I drew on it for my novels. In one of the appendices, he has transcripts of interviews from the 1960s of people who lived there decades earlier. There are these characters, like Violet, who grew up in a bordello and talks about being initiated into the life, and a “trick whore,” this drunken slattern with an incredibly filthy mouth. This stuff is amazing. I’ve known [7 Stages artistic director] Del Hamilton for years, and one day I met with him and said, "Tell me what you think.” He suggested I take the transcripts, some stuff from my novels and meld the stuff together. We had a closed reading last September and Tom Bell of the Decatur Book Festival was there, and he was interested in bringing it to the festival. I don’t consider myself a playwright. This is a different animal.

I read on Wikipedia that you came close to being a victim of the Baader-Meinhof gang of German terrorists in 1972. Is that true?
Yes. I was a photographer in the U.S. Army intelligence service, and was stationed in an office in Heidelberg, which was one of the places they bombed. That day, my C.O. sent us home early, saying, “We can finish this stuff tomorrow.” I actually walked by the car where the bomb was. A whole wall of our office was blown in, and three people I worked with were killed. It was a life-changing experience. I’ve actually messed around with writing something involving it, but haven’t quite worked it out yet.

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