Updated: Nov 18, 2019
The acclaimed Vermont crime novelist, Archer Mayor, is a former detective, EMT, firefighter, and ski patroller. He is currently a death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical
Examiner. Joshua Sherman recently interviewed Archer at Old Mill Road Recording. Archer shared some wonderful stories about his love of photography, how to write 30 novels in 30 years, and why “Joe Gunther” is a great name.
Sherman: Archer, you were born in Mt. Kisco, NY, but moved to Canada at age one. Why the move?
Mayor: Well, the joke in the family was that my father was so restless, we thought he had a criminal record. And indeed, he would pull up stakes on a regular basis and move. He was a businessman … one of these guys that got off the train at 6:15 every evening with a case in hand and a Fedora on his head… But my father was a bit of a cranky guy. Call him a “nihilist capitalist”, if you will, so occasionally, he would get up in front of the family table, and he would say, “Never quit. Always get fired.” And we knew it was time to move again. So, before I was 30 years old, I’d lived in approximately 30 different places ... We moved from the United States to Canada to South America, and to various spots in Europe - all before I left at age 14.
Sherman: And how do you think living internationally in those early years influenced you?
Mayor: They were the best education I ever got. And I got a pretty good education, too. I would say that they taught me a variety of things: to adapt quickly, to associate with completely foreign and different people immediately, to be very short on criticizing new things and new people and new habits and cultures and languages … because YOU’RE the foreigner, YOU’RE the outsider, and they were here first. So - show a little respect and “shut up your mouth and listen” and “pay attention and learn something”. That’s the positive stuff. The less positive stuff is that you are perpetually uprooted. You don’t belong anywhere. You don’t have any friends you can maintain for any length of time, because you’re going to move. You occasionally get thrown into situations fraught with adversity, from which you can’t easily escape, especially when you’re a youngster. And those can have deleterious effects on your psyche at a formative age. So, I suffered from all the slings and arrows - as well as the good stuff … I formulated a process of interior thinking. And you can well imagine, being a writer isn’t far removed. So it was a natural segue for me. I started, funny enough, taking photographs, but I realized that my photography would never come to the level my writing has since achieved. I was a good photographer, but I would never have been an accomplished one. And I did thephotography because it’s portable … because of storytelling … because I can hide behind a camera … and because my father was an inveterate shutterbug. He always had a camera in his hand. And I guess most youngsters always try to emulate their parents somehow or another, even if the association otherwise is not superb. So long story short, I began to carry that easiest and most transportable of personal possessions as I moved from place to place to place to place. And that is…. STORIES. I had a weapon whenever I crossed a new threshold - into a new environment - which was: I could entertain people. I could tell them things about from whence I’d come, which they knew nothing about. And that might save me from being turned into a punching bag, because the newcomer is usually the guy with a target on his forehead ... It was up to my fast-footedness and my wit, and my storytelling, to keep me out of harm’s way as much as possible.
Sherman: Photography’s an interesting art form. People take photographs for different reasons. Why do you think your dad took photographs? Was he a storyteller? Was he trying to capture time? Was he an artist?
Mayor: He was a time-capturer. He recorded with his camera, as the old timers used to record with their diaries. And he was so devoted to it that we rarely saw him without a camera, somewhere on his person, usually in his lap, and he would fire from his lap. So we’d get a remarkable number of photographs of people’s knees or the tops of their heads, if his aim was slightly askew. But he had what we always referred to as that remarkable, “eighth of a second.” He could see something coming, so his photography was extraordinarily well-timed for spontaneous human interaction. Most of us see something terrific and go, “I wish I had my camera up.” He had his camera up. He saw it coming. He was a good reader of human nature along those lines, but he did so in a normal scientific way. He was not the world’s most empathetic, human being,but he was a good analyst. He could study situations, including his fellow species-members, and I picked up a fair amount of that, but I then expanded beyond it.
Sherman: What about your mom?
Mayor: My mom was born and raised in Argentina … She did not bother trying to train us in a foreign language.So, curiously, although I speak a couple of languages - and can stagger along in a third or fourth - Spanish is not a strong point, which is a great shame. But it was just
practical; she had six kids and a lot of stuff to run. She didn’t want to translate everything twice. So we lost what was so natural to her … I’m not even sure she graduated from high school - it was a different system, so I don’t actually know - but her impulse was one that I took on,which was an insatiable ignorance and curiosity combined. And that’s what I’m saddled with. And that’s part of the reason that I do what I do: I want to abate my ignorance - and so did she. She was a voracious reader and museum visitor, and she found a willing compatriot in me. I was the one she always grabbed when she headed out on her cultural mind expansion journeys. We would travel all over Europe, or wherever we happened to be.
Sherman: You said, you’re [the youngest] of six. Are any of them involved in the arts or humanities?
Mayor: I have one sister who makes jewelry. One played the guitar, nothing outstanding. I can’t say that any of them made a living at an artistic pursuit, [but] there was that influence in the family. My great aunt was Anna Hyatt Huntington, who was a very famous sculptor of monumental stuff. You know, dying men on horseback, that kind of thing. She would get these commissions. In 1913, I think she was among the highest-paid American artists … so she was very well-regarded, and they’re very handsome pieces. I’ve got small throwaway things loitering in various corners of my house. She was certainly an influence, because in these peregrinations, I would go to her house … That was a home base, more secure than any other I had available to me. I would go to see Aunt Anna, and she would leave me alone. I would wander in to her studio, because she worked until her 90s. She would get on these scaffolds and start doing these things that were as big as two story buildings. I mean, these are not small, throwaway statues. They were big, big puppies … I liked her a lot. She was a flat-footed, plain-speaking, Yankee woman. Took no crap from no one and had the wherewithal to stand on her own two feet. She made her own money, and she married extremely well, so got a double- whammy. And she was allowed, therefore, by circumstance and talent to do what she bloody-well pleased - and that was a nice person to have in one’s life.
Sherman: You used the word “peregrination”.
Sherman: That’s not a word that you hear often these days. How do you define “peregrination”? It’s an S.A.T. word.
Mayor: Yeah, it’s sort of more associated to birds than anything. And it’s wanderlust / wanderings about /roaming / ramblings. I am in love with the language. And part of the reason I am, is because I was deprived it for quite a few years when I was overseas. When I came back to the United States, I had missed out on all forms of English grammar or instructions. So I learned all the languages I know by ear, including English. That just sharpened my attention to how people speak. I also read all the time. I love reading… Curiously, for a guy who writes fiction, I don’t read fiction. I certainly don’t read murder mysteries. But I read a lot of science books or mostly history books, that’s my primary … And what I’ve discovered is that the English language may be one of the richest, multi-faceted languages on the face of the earth. It is extraordinary, especially if you compare it to something like Zulu which is very, very thin. It does the job, but it doesn’t go into the curlicues that we indulge in. And they say that the Eskimos (or the Inuits) have 33 words for what we call, “snow”. Well, we have a fair number of words for darn near anything… We [tend to] oversimplify a magnificent musical tool that we have at our disposal. And it’s fun to ask my readers to stretch, sometimes, just a bit. I had a father-in-law who said that he really liked my books, but he always had to keep his hands free when he read them … He said, “Yeah, I keep your book in one hand and the dictionary in the other hand.” … I don’t want to apologize for putting to use a wonderful language in a musical way. So when I write, I write as much for my ear as for the information I’m trying to impart.
Sherman: You mentioned that you read primarily history books. You were a history major at Yale, correct?
Mayor: I chose U.S. History, because when I arrived, I spoke English with an accent. I knew very little about the country I intended to make home. I recognized the United States as being a truly terrific place; a place of great offering; magnificent flaws and blunders; and energy and potential. This was a place of vibrancy that I wanted to inhabit. I had loved living in the cradle of antiquity in Western European terms, but it’s not where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. And in coming to the United States, I needed to learn about the United States. We go back to the same theme that drives me all the time: What do I know? Not much/not enough. History … has a certain energy to it. That’s investigative work … I liked the interpretive nature of history, also. It ain’t objective. It’s never been objective. It’s interpretive. It’s what you find. And did you find it? And who told it to you? And you check once and check twice and check three times, but that doesn’t make it “the truth”. That just makes it what you THINK is the truth - and that’s good enough. I later became a newspaper man, and I applied the same rules, but I was also cognizant of the fact that I was on less-than-firm soil … There are a few times I’ve encountered irrefutable truth. Water is wet, I’ll give you that. But other than that, there are few truths that I’m going to really take to the bank.
Sherman: After Yale, where’d you go to next?
Mayor: I hit the road, and funnily enough, I probably emulated my father, because I became a restless, rootless fella. I was only responsible unto myself, and I headed west because I was on the East Coast. I had now taken the course load. I knew some of the background to U.S. History, but did I know the U.S.? No! So it was time to explore the U.S. I criss-crossed back and forth.
Sherman: Then, where?
Mayor: New York, for a job at TIME, Incorporated. I worked for the books division. Did a lot of research; a lot of photographs. I was a, sort of, historical researcher putting to use a variety of - what was now firming up as - character traits, or at least propensities on my part: Travel, nosiness, photography, digging out facts…
Sherman: How long were you at TIME in NYC?
Mayor: Oh, as long as I’m anywhere… a year. I was sent to Texas and poked around. And of course, I’m on the dole, if you will. The company’s paying for everything, you know, cars and motels and whatnot. And they’re picking up everything, so I can cover the entire state. And I’m doing so again in a historical context, because this is the book division. And we are writing a book curiously entitled, “The Texans”. Go figure. This is the Old West Series, by the way, just for extra clarification. So this is where, of course, we know Texas the most if we miniaturize it to caricature. You know, cowboys and longhorns and John Wayne and the Red River and that fight with Montgomery Clift, and etc, etc. I wandered down there, and I had a glorious time - not because I love Texas, but what I recognized in Texas, or chose to recognize, was America in microcosm. At that point, again, in the mid 70s, we had a state that was full of vim and vigor. Full of itself. Full of pluses and minuses; ups and downs. It was disorganized and riotous and fractious … I left there, and I came straight to Vermont. Why I came to Vermont is anyone’s guess - except that it was a beautiful state, it was thinly populated, and I knew nothing about it - which is key in my world … I’d already written four books that will never see the light-of publishing-day … I [thought] to myself, “Well, it’s a rural state, I can probably live there on very little. And I’ll like it, and I hope they’ll like me”. And they did. And I did. And it’s worked out rather well.
Sherman: How did you start writing the Joe Gunther series?
Mayor: The very first book in the series, Open Season, was written as three completely separate books. Each time, I would throw the book out and start from scratch. I wouldn’t refer to it. I wouldn’t edit it. I would rewrite it. And in this, I was informed, albeit obliquely, by my uncle. My uncle was a curator of arts at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. He was one of the world’s foremost experts on prints, so he wrote many-a-volume about prints. His process was to type triple-spaced - and one page at time. He’d take page one out, and he would cover it with notes. (That’s why the triple-spacing!) Then he would take the page, throw it out, and rewrite it refreshed, but only from memory. And then he’d do that a second time. And the third time would be the keeper. He never edited it. He would crumple it up, throw it away, and not refer to it. I wrote my first book in the same way, and it was extraordinarily rewarding, because when I wrote the third and final version of Open Season, it damn near wrote itself. I’d found my musical voice. I found the place: Brattleboro. I found the greater context: Vermont. I found Joe Gunther and his playmates. I found a base from which I have been expanding ever since. It turned out to have been uncannily reliable as a starting point.
Sherman: Why “Joe Gunther?”
Mayor: [In an earlier unpublished book - what I call, “a training exercise” - ] I had a character named Joe Gunther, and I killed him off by chapter four, but I liked that name. It’s such an utterly-normal, pedestrian name. There’s a Joe Gunther in every phone book in America, and I like that.
Sherman: It’s a distinctly American name. It also has the word “gun” in it, which of course, subliminally helps with a detective murder-mystery novel.
Mayor: There - you delved deeper than I did.
Sherman: In that earlier book - in which Joe Gunther was killed off by chapter four - who was Joe Gunther?
Mayor: I haven’t the slightest memory … but now you’re forcing me to (which is the whole intention of going back in time into tenebrous areas I haven’t been to in many-a-year). When I wrote this terrible story in which Joe Gunther was knocked off, I was informed by my agent at the time, “Well, you got some things going on this miserable book. And you know, I’m not going to touch it, because after you knock off this guy, Gunther, it all falls apart.” That was prescient insight on her part.
Sherman: What’s your process 30 years later?
Mayor: When I write one of my Joe Gunther manuscripts, I send it out to a coterie of anywhere from 4 to 6 editors.Primary among them is my wife, Margot, who has a laser eye and is not shy to speak her mind, which is crucial by the way. Some of these [edits] I’ll resist, but most of the time, I’ll [only] resist initially, because the worm will have gotten in my ear … I resisted because I wanted to move on. I already got another book in my head, because I’m a machine. I turn out a book a year. That’s how I make my living. I don’t have a choice in the matter. But by the same token, I also like to pay attention to smart people with smart insights. And if they’ve got something to say - and they paid me the courtesy of saying it - I might react emotionally at first, but I need to pay tribute to their intellect and ask myself seriously several times, “Am I going to stick by that rejection? Or might I actually meet somewhere in the middle?” Usually, that’s where I go. Sometimes I’ll just say, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right.” But on other occasions, what I use the revelation for is insight. How does [her comment] untangle the log jam in my head and suggest a better way, so that it won’t hang up in her head? See, John Gardner once said, “Don’t interrupt the fictional dream.” You can do that by showing off. You can do that by screwing up … If the reader asks you, “Gosh, what about this?” Don’t even start explaining, because you’re already too late. You already screwed up. You broke the fictional dream. So it’s up to you to remedy that. Now, you might remedy it by saying, “Well, you’re a nitwit” - and sometimes you may be right. So, you’ve got to pay attention to a multiplicity of sources, if you will. But if it sounds right, pay attention. If it sounds absolutely wrong, well, then pay attention to yourself. Because you’re the guy whose name ends up on the page. So you do own it in the tail end, and people will read it, they’re not going to know about Margot and the other editors, but they are going to associate this with your name. So you know, the buck does stop with you. But it’s an interesting, constructive, rewarding and energizing experience and the whole idea of writing a book - in isolation and away from that process - I just don’t understand where that degree of arrogance would be rewarding for one and all. I think one is courting disaster. Because - even if you are a Mozart - you can’t just put it down in one shot … He’s dead and he was rare. Do not presume you’re a Mozart, just because you like what you see in the mirror. You probably aren’t. So let’s start from that presumption. If enough people in the room - whom you haven’t paid - tell you that you’re a Mozart, well, then okay, fine. But I’ve never met a Mozart.
Sherman: Tell me about your new book, Bomber’s Moon.
Mayor: People always ask me, “What’s your favorite book?” Writing a book and reading a book are completely different things. So I can actually safely say, “I’ve never read any of my books.” I don’t know what they are like from a non-exposed reader’s viewpoint. But writing Bombers Moon has been a delight - and part of it is because that while I’ve been progressing through 30 books I’ve introduced an ever-growing number of characters, among whom are the children now of some of these characters. So I wrote a book called Tag Man and the daughter of the tag man now plays a prominent role in Bomber’s Moon, as does the daughter of Joe Gunther’s significant other, the medical examiner. So these two young women who are in their 20s are part of this investigation that I detail in Bomber’s Moon.
Sherman: And which came first? The title or the book?
Mayor: In this case, the title. Now I won’t deny that there are cases where I frankly just come up with a bloody title ‘cause I just can’t think of one, so I plug one in and it seems to do the trick and whatever. But Bombers Moon I just loved that knockin around in my head. It was a perfectly execrable 1942 movie, by the way. If you ever want to waste a few hours, watch Bomber’s Moon. You’ll probably give it up about 45 minutes into it, but the reference to the movie is made in the book because the young miscreant bad guy frames a poster of that movie and puts it on his wall.
Sherman: Can you share the meaning of the title?
Mayor: The title comes from this wonderful paradox which dates back to World War II, which was a favorite area of investigation by me as a reader of history books. You don’t have instrumentation in those days and fancy radars and lighters and all the rest of this stuff that
airplanes carry, and with which they crash with crazy abandon, sadly. But you have moonlight, so you go out on a bombing run in the middle of the night, and if you’re lucky you have a bomber’s moon, which is a very large bright moon with which you can see the target. But beware what you wish for, because the target can see you. No better confabulation was there for my kind of book than that. And indeed I detail a young miscreant who goes forward through the pages of the book and ends up poorly and while he’s heading in that direction, he pays too scant attention to the paradox of the bomber’s moon.
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