Matt Burgess’s second novel Uncle Janice is set in Queens and tells the story of Janice Itwaru, a young undercover drug officer in the NYPD trying to make detective. As with his first book Dogfight, Burgess’s new novel is populated—stuffed, in the best possible way—with cops and drug-dealers, characters trying to get a leg up, to make it through the day intact, and, with luck, a little ahead of things. This is a sharp book about crime and policing, sure, but like all great literary crime books its real concern is the neighborhood, and one of the things I loved most about this book was the way that Matt brought Queens, that irreducible borough, to the page.
Fill disclosure: Matt and I have known each other for years, so you may not believe me when I tell you that it’s one of the best books I’ve read, and particularly timely. But maybe you’d believe Charles Bock, who said:
“Uncle Janice is that mythical sixth season of The Wire for which we have all been pining. Yeah, that good. The daily trials and tribulations of one Janice Itwaru—undercover drug officer, fallen daughter, all around wrong way gal—make for that rarest of reading experiences: at once comic and enthralling, always surprising, and unexpectedly touching. The eye, ear, voice and heart of this novel are bulletproof. Whoever the hell Matt Burgess is, dude does not sleep for one sentence. Neither will you.”
Whoever the hell Matt Burgess is! I love that.
Well, I know who he is, and I knew where to find him, and this interview was conducted over email while he was on the road, when neither of us was sleeping (he: worrying over sentences; me: worrying over an 8 month old).
Ethan Rutherford: First off, congratulations on Uncle Janice. I thought it was a terrific book, and though I hesitate to call it timely, to a certain degree, it is: things between the NYPD and the community it’s intended to serve are incredibly tense right now. And here’s a book about a young New York City cop, working undercover narcotics in Queens, under a lot of pressure to make drug-buys and survive long enough to make detective. The story very much belongs to Janice—and if it is interested in the issues of policing, it’s all filtered through her—but the book is set in 2008, in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting, which was another crisis point for the NYPD. Can you talk a little about how you came to set the book in the time/place you did? I’d also be interested in hearing what you think fiction can bring to these issues that, say, other media cannot.
Matt Burgess: Well, the book is set in Queens because I grew up there and I can’t yet seem to get myself to daydream about anywhere else. Stoops, park benches, pool halls, alleyways: they’re these charged spaces for me. I grew up telling and listening to stories, and it’s almost impossible for me to segue to fictional storytelling as a novelist without taking those places with me. When I was last in Queens, a couple weeks ago to promote the book, my friend Timmy was walking down a crowded sidewalk and there’s this woman coming from the opposite direction, talking to herself, and he accidentally makes eye contact with her, and when he does, she punches him in the stomach. She kept walking, everyone around him kept walking, and after a brief moment of confusion he kept walking too. What’s he going to do? Say something to her? Escalate it? Instead, later that night after work, he goes to the bar and tells us about it. That’s what we do. We try to cope with all this craziness by turning it into stories, and that’s what my books are trying to do.
But why 2008? I’m not quite sure. My previous book was set in the recent past as well, and it’s something the Coen Bros. frequently do in their movies (The Big Lebowski, which came out in 1998, takes place during the first gulf war.) I write blindly, in longhand, in black-and-white composition books, without any idea of where I’m going plot-wise; I think setting the book in a precise historical moment at least gives me something to hold onto. I don’t know what the characters are going to do on a particular day, but I do know what tabloid headlines they might be talking about. Plus, 2008 was particularly bananas for New York: the economic crisis, the governor sleeping with hookers, the Sean Bell trial, the Giants winning the Super Bowl. The nice/tragic thing about writing an NYPD novel, though, is that you can set it in any year and you’ll probably be addressing some controversial catastrophe.
Specifically what fiction can bring to these issues is nuance. For both writer and readers the novel is an exercise in empathy, something these debates could use a lot more of.
ER: How much research went into this? The rumpus, the housing projects, the streets? How’d you pull these threads together?
MB: I’m going to borrow a line from one of my heroes, the novelist George Pelecanos, and say, “the most valuable research I do comes from just hanging out in the neighborhoods and listening.” I was talking to a friend mine who’s an undercover cop and I asked him what was the scariest part of his job. I’m expecting him to say getting shot at. Instead he tells me he’s constantly worried that his bosses might try to screw him over. Working the streets was less stressful than navigating office politics. That was a revelation for me. It’s hard for a lot of us to relate to police officers, but my friend’s most chronic problems—how do I navigate this massive bureaucracy while retaining some sense of self?—were things almost anyone can relate to, in the same way you don’t have to be a veteran of war to appreciate Catch-22. The germ of Uncle Janice came out of that barroom conversation. From there, the research took me to more hanging out: with dealers, with addicts, walking around the Queensbridge Houses, showing up at the Queens Narcotics Division, getting kicked out of the Queens Narcotics Division, and really just listening, without any sort of agenda.
ER: So how do you know when you’ve got the story? How do you know when to stop?
MB: I don’t know! I’ve got the story when heading to my desk every morning becomes a compulsion. I stop—and I stole this from a Raymond Carver essay—when I’m putting commas back in the same places where I’d taken them out on the previous revision.
ER: Janice is such a great character—full, complicated, funny—and in some ways such an unlikely protagonist. In crime fiction, we’re so used to seeing sort of lone-wolf investigators: men—almost always men—who are on the outs with their family and friends, hard-drinking and brawling loudmouths who cause trouble, who flaunt the law rather than being bound by it, etc. (this is a ridiculously simple take, I know). But Janice is young, and the mistakes she does make come from inexperience, or a very understandable ambition. She’s not jaded; she’s kind-hearted. She’s juggling a lot—taking care of her mother, who has early onset dementia; she’s thinking about her love life—and trying hard to make it through the day. How did she come to you, as a character?
MB: I am so happy that she comes across that way to you. Before I knew her name or anything else about her, I had her job. That was first. I wanted to write about undercovers. Statistically speaking most undercovers are people of color. Because it’s a fast track to detective—if you last 18 months in Narcotics without getting killed or sent back to patrol, you automatically get your gold shield—most undercovers are also young and ambitious, without any of the internal connections that might get them promoted via a less dangerous route. So I knew those things about her: young, ambitious, a person of color, in this case Guyanese, because I thought that was a culture that has been underrepresented in fiction about New York. And I say “her” even though in the first few months of writing this book the protagonist was a man. I made the switch after realizing a female character might face particularly difficult challenges working her way through the male-dominant culture of the NYPD. That’s how character construction tends to work for me. I start with a job, a vague idea of a person, and then I put them under as much pressure as possible. Chase them up into a tree and throw rocks at them to see what they’re made of. And it turns out Janice is made of some pretty strong stuff.
ER: Every undercover we meet is a great story-teller, eager to highjack the conversation, to steer it wherever he/she might want it to go (it’s one of the great pleasures of this book, the way that other voices intrude on the narrative). Here’s her partner Tevis: “Ninety-nine out of a hundred people, they don’t’ see the world closely like we do. We’re paying attention in a way almost no one else is. And we’re also building little stories, right? This happened because of this.” He’s just described plot. But obviously there’s a problem with this, right? Right off the bat, Janice is “unsure of everything. These guys, all of them, they lied recreationally, professionally, to stay sharp, to stay alive. Habituated to misdirection and subterfuge . . . it got to the point where Janice couldn’t expect an honest answer if she asked about the weather.” Do you, as a novelist, feel like you’ve just described the hazards of your own profession? Another way of asking this might be: what attracts you to cops—to undercover cops—as characters?
MB: In the scene you’re talking about, Tevis goes on to make the argument that we get into trouble when we assume the narrative is reality, that because a chain of causality has been established this particular story is not only true but the only possible truth. Specifically he’s talking about two gangbangers dressed crisply all in white. He convinces himself that if they had violence on the brain, if they thought they might get bloody tonight, they would’ve worn different clothes. But guess what? They’ve got violence on the brain.
I don’t think I’m describing the hazards of novel-writing here but rather the responsibility of the novelist: to complicate the narrative, to establish more nuance than we’re currently seeing in tabloids, Crossfire debate shows, criminal trials, Internet comments sections, etc.
I’m attracted to undercovers because they are so complicated. They’re living so many different lives simultaneously. I heard a story about an undercover unit that had three separate Christmas parties, one for wives, one for girlfriends, and one for the backup girlfriends. That must be exhausting! Is that kind of deception a byproduct of the job, or did they get the job in the first place because they were already comfortable with deception? A little of both probably. The gap that all of us frequently have between what we’re thinking and what we’re doing is exaggerated with undercovers, and fiction—with its access to interiority—is particularly good at exploring that gap. As readers we tend to bond very easily to characters when we know secrets about them that no one else knows. Spy fiction gets so much mileage out of the juxtaposition between what is said and what is thought, as do books like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. My all-time favorite sentence is from P.G. Wodehouse, when Bertie Wooster cheerily says goodbye to a character he doesn’t particularly like: ‘’Tinkerty-tonk,’ I said, and I meant it to sting.”
Plus undercovers are great talkers—their job requires that they convince strangers to commit felonies on their behalf—and you can probably never go wrong stuffing your book full of great talkers.
ER: Did you listen to Serial? What did you think of they way that story was told?
MB: Of course I listened to Serial. I listened to the podcasts about Serial, poured over the Reddit forums, and worked myself into a tizzy of delighted obsession. The whole thing was obviously in my wheelhouse—crime, young people, an urban environment—but it turns out it was in a lot of people’s wheelhouses, and as a storyteller who wants to engage a mass audience I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to take some lessons from its approach, if only to justify the amount of time I spent thinking about it.
Vis-à-vis my own biases and narcissism, I had convinced myself fairly early on that I more or less knew what had actually happened, who had committed the murder, and I glommed onto the evidence that supported my theory and dismissed anything that didn’t. That’s going to happen, of course, but I loved the way Sarah Koenig kept calling me out on it by calling herself out on it. She presented herself as a perfect proxy for the reader (the listener?) in that she had all the same questions, doubts, and frustrations that we did. A protagonist that wants exactly what we want makes for a powerful narrative experience. That’s one of the fundamental pleasures of detective stories. Unlike most detective stories, however, Serial resisted definitive resolution. But I never felt cheated because the show was a powerful and convincing indictment not only against the criminal justice system but against the kinds of stories Tevis was complaining about in your previous questions, stories in which one particular narrative is presented as THE narrative.
Of course I’m talking about all this as if Serial were a novel, and Koenig a Dr. Watson figure. A criticism levied against the show that I find persuasive is that we never got to know much about the victim. There were logistical constraints there: apparently and understandably her family didn’t want to talk to Koenig about it. But the more we might know about Hae Min Lee, the more we’d be reminded that there’s a real dead girl at the heart of this story that we are so happily downloading. But I love that Serial got me to think about the ethics of all this; I love the space it took up in my head.
But now I feel like I need to flush it out of my system, like cocaine. After listening to the last episode—which I loved—I deleted the podcast from my phone. I haven’t even read the interview with Jay. I’m sure I’ll approach season 2 with dread, afraid that I might end up a twitching addicted mess again, or worse, disappointed.
ER: I’ve been walking around telling everyone about this book, and I’ve been describing it as a harrowing and funny cop book, but I heard you recently tell someone that you don’t write about cops, you write about jobs. And the surprise I felt in hearing that was sort of like: ah, of course. One of the things that gives the book its warmth and its humor is the stuff that happens off the streets, in the rumpus (headquarters). This is a work novel—and like Then We Came To An End, or the television show The Office, a lot of the stuff these guys have to do just to get through a day is soul-crushing busy-work. The copy machine doesn’t work, there are quotas to meet, a buy-board goes up on the wall, pranks pulled out of boredom, the constant worry about being fired. Obviously, a lot of the work takes place outside of the rumpus as well, where the stakes for the undercovers are extraordinarily high, but the pressure in this book is bureaucratic, and it’s what drives Janice to act in ways she might not be proud of. At what point this pressure enter the book? Did you always know you were writing about work, or did it occur to you a little way in?
MB: I’m very lucky to work with Bill Thomas, who’s my editor at Doubleday, and worked with me on my first book. When my agent and I were trying to sell Uncle Janice, I sent in about 80 pages, everything I had written, along with a summarized outline of the rest of the novel. The outline was full of dirty cops, dead bodies, and double crosses, some real plot-heavy stuff. Bill said he loved the pages but hated the outline. The book I was writing, he told me, was about work—directly in the vein of The Office and Then We Came to the End—and not about all the other theatrics in my outline. And that’s some old school, Golden Age editing right there: helping me to identify the book that I wanted to write.
ER: This book, like your first book Dogfight, is set in Queens, where you grew up. Now you live in Minneapolis. What does that distance meant to you, as a writer?
MB: I don’t know. I used to say that my homesickness kept me chained to my desk, that it gave me an opportunity to visit Queens without paying for plane tickets. Now it’s the pleasure of writing that keeps me chained to my desk. Joyce wrote about Dublin from Switzerland, Richard Price writes about New York from New York. It’s whatever works and right now writing about Queens from Minneapolis is keeping me happy.
ER: Are there any books or authors whose work has shaped your style in a meaningful way? I feel like every author always has one specific book in mind when they are writing, that it’s that book that is, in some ways, the audience you are trying to impress, or engage, or show up, or re-imagine.
MB: At the start of any project, I actually think about a stack of books—all very different from one another—that I’m trying to squeeze down into one book, which is the novel I want to publish. Of course once the actual writing starts, the book morphs into a beast of its own. But the books in that stack are never my audience. With Uncle Janice, the audience I’m trying to impress and engage are the people of Queens, specifically undercover cops in Queens, people who might not ever read the book, but I’m hoping that by addressing them directly I might somehow tell a story that anyone might want to read. In fiction, specificity seems to be the route to universality. Sometimes you got to go small to get big.
Matt Burgess is the critically acclaimed author of Dogfight, A Love Story. A graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Minnesota’s MFA program, he grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and The Best American Short Stories. His first book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, a finalist for the John Leonard Award, received honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and was the winner of a Minnesota Book Award. He teaches creative writing at Trinity College, in Hartford, CT.