In my last post, I wrote about American novelist Edna Ferber and how much I’ve always enjoyed her work.
I have several of her novels on my shelves here at home, but not her Pulitzer Prize winner, So Big. I went online to check my local library’s catalog to see if they if they had a copy.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered something else: a series of mysteries featuring Edna Ferber as sleuth! There are three books, Lone Star, The Escape Artist, and Make Believe, all published by Poisoned Pen Press, with a fourth due out later this year. So far I have read Lone Star and Make Believe, and have enjoyed both. Add these to your to-be-read pile.
And while you’re at it, meet author Ed Ifkovic, and find out more about this great series.
Ed Ifkovic taught literature and creative writing at a community college in Connecticut for over three decades, and now, retired, devotes himself to writing fiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in such diverse periodicals as the Village Voice, America, Hartford Monthly, and the Journal of Popular Culture. He’s published fiction with small presses, including a novel based on the life of Victorian poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox. A longtime devotee of mystery novels, he fondly recalls his boyhood discovery of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series in a family bookcase, and his immediate obsession with the whodunit world. When he was fourteen, bored on a lazy summer afternoon, his mother handed him a copy of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron—for him, a riveting Western about the settling of Oklahoma and the discovery of oil—and he stayed up until three in the morning, until, bleary-eyed, he finished the novel.
How did you come to pick Edna Ferber as a protagonist?
Since that day my mother placed a copy of Cimarron in my hands, I’ve been fascinated by Edna Ferber’s works. I was the kind of geeky high-school student who, on discovering an author, demanded of myself that I read everything by that author. As a result, I read all of George Eliot, Dickens, Mazo de la Roche, A. J. Cronin, and so many others. It didn’t matter whether they were good or bad—I was enthralled. I also wanted to be a writer, so I thought such behavior would, indeed, provide me with the secrets of the profession. So I went through every Edna Ferber novel and short story collection. When I was working on a Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts on American popular culture and ethnicity, it seemed a natural move for me to do a seminar report on Ferber. I remember after class an older student approached me, a woman perhaps in her fifties, who thanked me profusely. Edna Ferber, she believed, had been unjustly treated by the powers that control the literary canon. I started writing mysteries as I was nearing retirement, and a friend said, simply, “What about Edna?” She was right. And so I wrote my first Ferber mystery, which still occupies a place in a drawer of unpublished manuscripts. When I submitted my ideas to Poisoned Pen Press, I found editors who were enthusiastic about Ferber as sleuth, and together we have worked at creating Ferber as a vibrant, colorful, and savvy amateur sleuth.
Since you write your books in the first person, how do you get yourself into Ferber’s head?
My first problem was identifying a “voice” for Ferber. All my earlier drafts were in the third-person singular, but that viewpoint simply wasn’t working for me. Given her acerbic, occasionally downright caustic, approach to lesser souls on the planet, she came off as too brittle, uncaring, stiff. The minute I tried talking in the first person singular, I felt I’d found her voice. I’d read everything I could find on her, even obscure news pieces she’d syndicated during the world wars, and believed I understood her persona: a woman who did not suffer fools, indeed, but one who also had a compassionate side, a caring nature. This was the Ferber I wanted to appear in my mysteries. Of course, I was a little nervous doing so. After all, I was an aging white male, and I thought it might seem presumptuous of me to assume such a stance. However, I have always found women more interesting (dimensional, to use a Ferber word) than men—and I’m not talking “romantically” here. To be sure, I’ve always cherished their “infinite variety.” I’d also done a novel back in 1980 for a small ethnic press in NYC, a fictionalized story of growing up Croatian on a Connecticut farm. It was my mother’s story, based on her lore and narrative. I told it from her point of view. She claimed it worked. In fact, she spent years approaching friends and foes alike, and asking, bluntly, “Have you read my book?” Therefore, I felt I could approximate Ferber’s voice, and so far the response has been good. I really believe part of that comes from the fact that I “like” Ferber a great deal—and resent her disappearance from the cultural mind. And before I begin each new mystery, I re-read one of her novels in order to renew my sense of who she is. Then, too, I am constantly dipping into her two autobiographies.
Lone Star, the first in Ifkovic’s Edna Ferber series
Your Edna sounds very much like the Edna I’ve read about. What are some of the problems you have encountered in writing about Ferber and her times?
Because Ferber’s literary career spanned over a half century, starting when she was 19 in 1904 and ending in 1968 (she lopped two years off her age as time when by), I had to make her persona realistic at different ages and in different places. What this meant was a great deal of research into the times (how did young women of 19 dress in 1904?) but, more importantly, what were the social mores that dictated a woman’s behavior? Given the incredible restrictions on women, especially women in the outside world, Ferber was threading some pioneering ground. After all, her McChesney short stories about a woman businesswoman were revolutionary—and immediately popular. But as times went on, and skirts shortened and attitudes sifted, Ferber has to change with the times. Her autobiographical writings tell us much about her attitudes, especially the need for women to be taken seriously, one of her big themes. Her early friendships are telling: Lillian Adler and Jane Addams of settlement house fame. She also trumpeted the importance of the unmarried woman, and the “spinster” is prominent in her work. Men, when they appear, are romantic and charming, but ultimately cads and ne’er-do-wells. I have tried to reflect some of this attitude in my work.
Make Believe, the most recent in Ifkovic’s series
When I dealt with Ferber as an old woman, especially in the time of Giant and Ice Palace, I encountered a more troubling problem: Ferber’s increasing depression and anger at the world. The stories about her in various memoirs and biographies depict a woman increasingly testy, snobbish, blustery, and one ready for battle. As Kitty Carlyle said, Ferber became an “insult” collector, which led to monumental feuds with her friends. She stopped talking to dozens of people. Now this is not the Ferber I want to convey. After all, I am writing fiction. So it is at this point that I purposely veer away from literal biography (always a curse for he fiction writer, to be sure), and “invent” my own Ferber—the one who still can shut down a simpering fool but one who, I insist, always shows her basic humanity and life force. Her favorite word at then end of her life was—brio. She liked people with brio. Well, the character with the most brio, I believe, was always Edna herself.
Why are you jumping around in time rather than writing the books in a chronological fashion? What are the pluses and minuses of doing it that way?
Because of the length of her career and the variety of her settings, I decided that a purely chronological line of mysteries would not be the best idea—I felt it would box me in, limit the “surprise” element for the reader, and essentially dictate where I was to go next. Lone Star is 1950s (Giant and James Dean, etc), Escape Artist is 1904 (Ferber starting out in Appleton, Wisconsin), and Make Believe is back to the 1950s. My new book will take place in 1927 NYC, the time of Show Boat and The Royal Family. Others on the drawing board take place in 1914, 1923, 1958, etc. I believe such jumping around gives some energy to the series. I hope it keeps the reader guessing. Also, it allows me to delve into Ferber at different ages. I believe there is only a “plus” to such an approach.
Talk about your research. I assume you have relied on Ferber’s autobiographies as well as other sources.
Needless to say, with such jumping around, I have to do tons of research, which I enjoy immensely. Each new book begins with my reading snippets from her autobiographies as well as a stack of interviews and profiles on her that appeared over the years. But each book immediately demands that I delve into social and political history, and I find myself taking notes on all aspects of life at that time: dress, food, politics, laws, neighborhoods, etc. I amass piles of note cards, most of which I’ll never use. But they give me a sense of the time. I also like to do some on-site research. I’ve been to L.A. and Hollywood a number of times, but I made a special trip to Appleton, Wisconsin, to walk the streets she walked as a young reporter. There is an historical society there with displays on Harry Houdini and Edna Ferber, both characters in Escape Artist. I squatted on Ferber’s old family home, taking notes, until the occupants, eying me from behind a curtain, seemed alarmed. I found the old synagogue where her family attended services. When I returned home, I was ready to write. My new novel deals with NY in 1927 and, in particular, Harlem. Well, for a short time when I was a student at Columbia, I lived in Harlem. For another novel, down the road, I traveled to Maplewood, New Jersey, and explored those small-town streets.
Talk about the book you are working on now.
My first three Ferber mysteries were Lone Star (the filming of Giant, 2009), Escape Artist (Ferber’s interview with Houdini and their working together to solve murder, 2012), and Make Believe (the 1951 filming of Show Boat with Ava Gardner, 2013). All are published by Poisoned Pen Press. In my new one, due out this coming summer, I return to the East Coast: Titled Downtown Strut (from the “Downtown Strutter’s Ball” song of the time . . . I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, honey . . .), Edna Ferber, preparing for the openings of Show Boat and The Royal Family in December 1927, stumbles onto a gruesome murder. She’s been mentoring talented black writers—part of the Harlem Renaissance—and is stunned when a talented young man is murdered. Against the backdrop of Roaring Twenties downtown Broadway and uptown Harlem, she discovers a world of ambition, deceit, and jealousy under all the neon glitz. Langston Hughes makes an appearance.