I’ve long been a fan of Michael Malone‘s series of novels featuring Hillston, N.C. police detectives Justin Savile and Cuddy R. Mangum; in fact, I wrote an article for The Armchair Detective back in 1995 on the first two books in the series, Uncivil Seasons and Time’s Witness, and then interviewed Malone for Metro Magazine when the third book in the trilogy, First Lady, was released in 2001. And I’ve followed with delight as Malone, one of the finest novelists I know, has earned acclaim and awards for his mystery-themed short fiction; his dazzling story “Red Clay” won the 1997 Edgar Award for best short story from Mystery Writers of America and can now be found in no less than six different anthologies, including Malone’s own collection, Red Clay, Blue Cadillac, and both Best American Mystery Stories of the Century and Best Suspense Stories of the Century.
Other people are often more devoted to Malone’s other works. In fact, his most ardent fans may be those people who followed his two stints as Emmy Award-winning head writer of the soap opera One Life to Live (with an in-between gig writing for Another World), and it’s interesting to note that the Wikipedia entry on Malone focuses almost exclusively on his soap opera career, mentioning only one of his books in any detail: The Killing Club, an OLTL tie-in.
Of all my books, it has been the most loved. Through the decades since I wrote it, I’ve received thousands of letters from readers who want me to know what the book has meant to them — given them laughter in a sad time, a means of reconciliation with an estranged loved one, a path to faith, a gift for an invalid, and so on. That it should play the role in the lives of readers that the quest serves for Raleigh in the novel itself (a journey to grace, to saying yes to life) has been a treasured gift to me as a writer.
It’s fans of that book who’ve become the chief target of marketing efforts for Malone’s latest novel, The Four Corners of the Sky, but in the end, Malone’s work can’t really be compartmentalized into this genre or that medium, and ultimately, readers everywhere should appreciate the brilliance of his latest creation. The novel’s main character, Annie Peregrine Goode, is abandoned by her father on her seventh birthday — dropped off on her aunt’s doorstep and left with a consolation prize, an old single-engine plane known as King of the Sky. Flashing forward 19 years, the book finds that Annie has become a top-notch Navy pilot but also that her personal life is in some shambles, reeling from her husband’s adultery, struggling for the strength to sign the divorce papers, and returning home to North Carolina to visit her aunt and uncle. And then a mysterious request arrives from her long-departed father: He’s dying; he needs to see her; and while she’s at it, could she fly the plane out when she comes? What follows is not just an exciting adventure tale — complete with codes to be unlocked, mysterious strangers, and the promise of hidden treasure — but also a terrific tale of family, as Annie considers both the possible future reconciliation with the father who’d left her and the potential for answers about her past and the mother she never knew, knowledge that glitters with its own promises.
This week, Malone kicks off a hefty cross-country book tour with readings in his native North Carolina: Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Thursday, May 7 ; The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines on Friday, May 8; and Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville on Saturday, May 9. After circling through the South, he returns to the Triangle later this month for appearances at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop on Monday, May 18, and at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village on Sunday, May 24. He’ll also appear in Virginia and D.C. in late May — at the New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville on Wednesday, May 27, and at Politics and Prose in D.C. on Thursday, May 28 — before heading to New York and then the West Coast.
In advance of these travels, Malone answered a few questions about the new novel, inspirations, movies, that genre question, and more.
Art Taylor: The plot of Four Corners of the Sky is sometimes like a treasure hunt — literally so when you consider the hidden codes and the jewels, the mysterious letters and phone calls, but also in terms of larger narrative quest: Annie’s search for the truth about her past. Looking back on the genesis of this novel: Did you start with a sense of that plot and its various intricacies or did you begin with a character first? What was your own first “entrance” into this story, and was it similar to/different from the process of writing your other books?
Michael Malone: At its narrative heart, Four Corners is a love story — a quest, in a classic comedy structure, that moves toward romantic love — in which the heroine, like Elizabeth Bennett or Bridget Jones or hundreds of others before her, finds “The One.” But it is equally a journey toward an understanding of family love — of discovering who your family is, both in themselves and in your life.
In its plot, Four Corners is exactly what you call it, a treasure hunt; it’s a “caper,” in that sense, an adventure to a treasure island, to an emerald city; it’s a hunt for that mythical “stuff that dreams are made of,” as Bogie quotes at the end of the film of The Maltese Falcon.
Annie’s quest for “La Reina Coronada,” (the golden statue of the Virgin Mary/ the Pachamama, universal mother) is of course really a deeper journey, a way of embodying the discoveries that the heroine makes about herself and those she loves while searching for her pachamama, her “real mother.” Those two journeys move the plot and turn it back on itself as it opens the past.
As for my entrance into the story:
All novels take root in two ways: first, from some seed of a scene or sound of a voice, a story seen or heard. And secondly, from a foundational underpinning.
The Four Corners of the Sky began long ago on a college tour for our daughter, when, one summer afternoon, we stopped at the campus of the Navy Academy in Annapolis. There, on the green lawn, sat a small combat jet, as if ready for flight. Our daughter surprised us by saying she thought she’d like to pilot a fast jet off an aircraft carrier; maybe she’d apply to the Naval Academy and learn how to do just that.
In the end, she didn’t make that choice. But I kept coming back to the image of the girl who wanted to fly a jet so fast. And The Four Corners of the Sky grew, revision after revision, over the next ten years, into a book about the romantic journey of Lt. Annie Peregrine-Goode, U.S. Navy pilot, an ambitious, critical young woman who discovers that moving faster and higher than everyone else may not be in the end as important as slowing down enough to see, really, and to value what’s around you — someone to love, your family. A story in which the heroine Annie rushes all around the world to discover that she needs to go home.
There’s no place like home: There’s the foundational underpinning. All novels are also born of their ancestors. Like my earlier picaresque comedies, Handling Sin and Foolscap, Four Corners took shape from my re-fashioning of a literary predecessor; in this instance, The Wizard of Oz. (Oz, one of the classic mythologies in American culture, gets re-imagined time after time—the 1939 film, then The Wiz, then Wicked.)
Four Corners, set in 2001, gives us a very modern Dorothy, a grown young woman — highly competent, successful professionally. She has everything but happiness; her journey is therefore a parable of a psychological quest, one that moves her toward love, forgiveness, acceptance.
Like Dorothy, Annie flies off (she even takes a little dog with her, named Malpractice) to an emerald city (the treasure hunt) when at the start of the novel she is suddenly whirled away in a twister from her aunt and uncle’s home by a strange message from a wizard (her con-artist father Jack). Jack lures her into a criminal caper by promising to reveal a secret about her mother. Along the way, Annie comes to terms with the past, including the end of her marriage to her persistent if cowardly lion of an ex-husband; she has helpmates: her “aunt and uncle,” a friend in a zany Cuban guitar-playing Scarecrow. Most importantly she falls in love with a romantic heartbroken tin man.
The story has a strong forward-moving narrative drive, but much of the book is also intent on looking back, and most of the characters here are struggling to come to terms with difficulties from their individual pasts (romantic disappointments, family troubles, etc.). To my mind, while the plot keeps us turning the pages — “What happens next?” — it’s those glimpses into various memories that offer some of the richest passages and the deepest emotions. Was that structure — moving ahead, looking back, moving ahead — “strategic” or “systematic” in some way (I’m struggling to find the right words) or just a natural part of your storytelling style at this point? And how conscious are you of balancing, say, action-packed scenes with more reflective passages?
Yes, that two-fold structure was exactly the formal shape I was looking for, one in which the present story would be moving forward very quickly: Annie flies at 1000-miles an hour; her criminal father is a fast-talking con-artist, quick as magician. The actual time-frame of the main narrative is only a few weeks, bookended by a prologue (of the 7-year-old Annie, when the father abandons her and leaves her the old Piper airplane) and by an epilogue (of the adult Annie with her own child, coming to a resolution about her relationships).
In between, during her quest for “the treasure,” in the midst of all her escapades, Annie discovers truths she never expected, gains wisdom that allow her to understand, love and forgive. The real treasure is her own past.
And so the novel keeps going to her childhood, balancing the “what happens next,” the racing hunt of the present, with the slow unearthing of old relationships in the past — like an archeological dig. Some of Annie’s discoveries are painful, some joyful. That same “moving back/moving ahead,” as you put it, provided the structure of Handling Sin. The lessons Raleigh Hayes learns in Handling Sin are the same that Annie learns in The Four Corners of the Sky: forgiveness is good for the soul; so is laughter. The worst of sins is the waste of love.
And as with Handling Sin, the protagonist’s personal journey is set within the broader political and cultural history — for good, for bad — of our nation. In Handling Sin, that history involves race and prejudice; in Four Corners it is about war and imperialism.
That’s why Four Corners takes its characters to Cuba for its climax. That’s why the statue (the object of the treasure hunt) is both our European past (the Spanish Virgin Mary) and our colonial (the Inca Pachamama).
America changed profoundly in the years when I was writing Four Corners and that necessarily changed the novel. Annie’s being a Navy pilot took on a resonance that it wouldn’t necessarily have had before 9/11.
Movies play a big role in this book: the chapter headings are movie titles; characters drop lines from classic films and sometimes find resonance between the action at hand and the plot of one or another movie. You’ve already talked about The Wizard of Oz being a direct influence here, but beyond that, is this just a fun motif, or does the incorporation of all these movie serve a larger purpose?
Yes, two of the central characters in Four Corners, Sam and Clark (the Auntie Em and Uncle Henry of the source), constantly joke with one another by quoting classic movies. Quoting from Four Corners:
The famous lines of movies gave them a language that made them feel closer. If Sam wanted a drink, she’d growl in Garbo’s voice, “Give me a whiskey and don’t be stingy, baby.” If Clark was battling a Christmas tree into its stand, he’d snarl like Bogie, “Nobody gets the best of Fred C. Dobbs.” When Sam played on the piano the song Jill had loved most, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Clark shouted, “Don’t play it again, Sam!” and Sam yelled back, “Are you talkin’ to me?” They were particularly fond of movies in which incompatible misfits, who’d been given to each other by the accidents of life, became friends, to the good of both.
Sam owns a movie store. But the truth is, many Americans talk to one another in movie language. I teach a course at Duke called “America Dreams American Movies.” It’s a course about the way in which our classic movies (say Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz) not only reflect our collective aspirations and fears, our dreams, but help to create those myths (as, for instance, the iconic Casablanca helped define an American stance about entering World War II).
Movies have helped provide the vocabulary for our national dialogue with one another; giving us a way of articulating our different cultural positions. For example, there’s an American belief, embodied, however warily, in our mythology, that we not only have the right to pursue happiness but that we have the right to possess it. Movies from The Gold Rush to Pretty Woman and so forth tell us it’s true. The treasure hunt of Four Corners is one more telling of that quest.
Characters in Four Corners (like Annie’s father Jack in his miserable childhood) have turned to movies to find a romantic model on which to re-create the self. That’s why he claims to Annie that Claudette Colbert was her mother. (All the chapter titles are taken alternatively from Claudette Colbert movies and movies about flight.)
It is also true that with the same indomitable innocence, our movies urge us to believe that love is a better hope for making us happy than anything else, and that therefore we should give up everything else for love. That’s why the Colbert movie It Happened One Night is so central to the story.
We want to think that if we get love, we might even get everything else back. It happens for Annie. There’s a happy ending. There’s a wedding as well as a funeral.
Speaking of motifs: Why flying?
It’s fast. It’s free. You travel to “the four corners of the sky.” The sky is where Annie feels safe. It’s also associated with the military, where Annie feels protected by orderliness, hierarchy, loyalty, discipline. Piloting planes was a traditionally male world that a few women conquered famously against great odds (Annie’s role models, like Amy Johnson and Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart). Flight is the gift from her father—speed and skill in the world; but it’s solitary to fly alone in sky. What Annie needs to do is come to earth, into the muddle of human connections, into the tangle of falling in love. That’s why one of the core metaphors of the novel is the huge jigsaw puzzle of blue sky that sits on a table in her childhood house Pilgrim’s Rest, where the family works on it, from time to time, for years. And then the man that Annie chooses at the novel’s end, the future of her happiness, puts the final piece in the center of the puzzle on their wedding day.
Many of your works over the past twenty years might be classified as mysteries: the Justin Savile and Cuddy Mangum novels, of course, and The Killing Club (a spin-off of your work for One Life to Live), and your Edgar-winning short fiction, among others. While The Four Corners of the Sky has elements of mystery, I don’t think anyone would classify it that way. How has writing so-called “genre fiction” influenced your work in this novel? And how has writing for daytime television influenced your work as a novelist? OR is storytelling simply storytelling, whatever the genre or the media?
I resist, and have always resisted, the cataloguing of fiction into genres. There are good novels and less good novels, and there are bad novels that rely on stock plots and generic characters. But pre-limits on genres (this is a mystery novel, say) box in our expectations. Crime and Punishment, Intruder in the Dust, and To Kill a Mockingbird are all “mystery novels” or “crime fiction.” Should they be shelved separately from “Literature”? Almost without exception, Dickens’ novels all have murder mysteries in them.
My novels are my novels, whether the protagonist is a detective, or a drama professor, or a life insurance salesman, or — in Four Corners — a young woman Navy pilot. All the protagonists go to the heart of a mystery. There’s a way in which all good novels are mysteries, just as all novels are romances and all are — or should be — journeys for the reader, making us want to know what happens next to characters about whom we deeply care.
Finally, a quick question about place: Though you’re a native North Carolinian, you’ve spent a considerable amount of time outside the South and found success far beyond the state’s borders. What keeps bringing you “home” — keeps you setting so much of your writing in the region where you were born and where you now reside again?
While you never hear the definition “Northern novelist,” you do hear “Southern novelist.” It’s not that the South has myths; the South is a myth, and if you’re Southern-born and Southern-raised, you inherit those myths and they become a part of your literary tradition, you write by rejecting some, refashioning some, reinventing others. But you’re always Southern. Doesn’t matter where you live. It’s like being Irish. Joyce can move all the way to Trieste, yet he’s writing about a day in Dublin.
I asked Eudora Welty once what she thought about my avoidance of the South in my first three novels: Painting the Roses Red, set in California; The Delectable Mountains in Colorado; Dingley Falls in Connecticut. She noted that all these places started with a “C” and told me, “Honey, you are just sneaking up on Carolina.”
Miss Welty was, as ever, absolutely right. All my subsequent novels, beginning with Uncivil Seasons to the latest, are set in the red clay Piedmont of North Carolina. It’s not that you can’t go home again. Just like Annie Peregrine-Goode, you have to.