John Dermot Woods, a Hopkins Writing Seminars grad, wrote The Baltimore Atrocities, a dark and deliberate novel that works its way through 100 tragedies, all of them tightly constructed tales of murder or malice each accompanied by an appropriately stark illustration. We ask the author about his time in Baltimore, studying at Hopkins, and the mystery genre.
How long did you live in Baltimore, and what was your overall impression of the city? Was there any particular experience that sparked this project?
I only lived in Baltimore for two years, but it’s loomed large in my life ever since (which has been a decade). I still have many friends in Baltimore, most of whom I’ve met since I left the city. It’s an important place to me. I have a friend-who also does not live in Baltimore–who says you can judge someone’s taste by how much they appreciate Baltimore. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. No single experience led to the project, but it seemed very organic for me to use Baltimore as the place where my characters lost something and then returned. The city has burned a ghost image on my consciousness that I can’t and wouldn’t try to shake.
Are any of the atrocities “true,” or inspired by real events in Baltimore?
I’d like to say they’re all true in the sense of the narrative and experience that moves them. But none of them are “true” in the journalistic sense. These episodes try to get at that uncanny feeling of atrocity that we sometimes experience when witnessing an incident, but more often experience through the shared narrative of an acquaintance or the newspaper or most probably the internet. I was hoping these could be as true as anything reported in The Sun.
More than a cataloging of atrocities, the book feels like a philosophical reflection on various types of loss. As a result, it subverts expectations for what is ostensibly a mystery. How conscious were you of that particular genre as you wrote?
The book began as the catalog, the anatomy of the atrocious episodes that run throughout it. As I was writing these atrocities, though, I found recurrences coming forth. A character even emerged from the narratorial voice. And these elements were begging for a story. So, I very consciously went back and wrote a mystery novel. My mystery is more in the vein of Ishiguro and Pynchon than Chandler and Hammett, although you can’t really separate those approaches.
The book, at times, reminded me of Chris Ware or Edward Gorey. Are you a fan?
Ware and Gorey are two artists that I am almost always conscious of when I approach a blank page. With Gorey, it’s his mastery of the uncanny. He never hides pleasure in work, even though it’s so clearly driven by terror. And he knows how to pack things into little boxes better than almost any other artist, except for Chris Ware. Ware’s work is a model in orchestration and containment. Even though my medium in The Baltimore Atrocities is very different from Ware’s (my illustrated prose vs. his comics), I did approach this book as a work of orchestration. The bulk of the work put into the book was that arrangement of various pieces, rather than crafting those pieces themselves.
I know you’re a Writing Seminars grad. Can you say something about what you learned from Stephen Dixon?
I owe Steve a lot. He read every single page of my first novel as I wrote it (a novel no one else has read). He introduced me to Thomas Bernhard’s work, which was the starting point for The Baltimore Atrocities. But, the I’m most grateful to Steve for teaching me to just write. Steve doesn’t make a big deal about the process and experience of writing. He told me: if you’re ready to leave the house and your wife isn’t, then you can write. If you finish dinner early and have a few minutes, then write. If you wake up early and can’t go back to sleep, then write. (It’s no surprise he’s so prolific.) He said he never understood why people needed the stars to align to get work done. I was twenty-four when I met Steve, and I have a predilection for preciousness, so I’m glad he taught me this early. If he hadn’t, I doubt I’d still be writing.