Erica Wright on ‘The Red Chameleon’
Erica Wright is best known as a poet, with poems appearing in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, From the Fishouse, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. She is the Poetry Editor at Guernica Magazine and has taught creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College and New York University’s continuing studies program. But all that’s about to change with the publication of her lyrical and gripping debut crime novel, The Red Chameleon, out now from Pegasus. Erica fills us in on this new direction.
The Red Chameleon is a crime novel, and a departure from the poetry you’re known for. What inspired this new path?
I blame Truman Capote and a bunch of eighteen-year-olds. In 2006, I started teaching composition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and most of my students were going into some area of criminology. They were budding police officers and forensic psychologists, so I started rooting around for texts that might appeal to them. I used an excerpt from Capote’s In Cold Blood, specifically the long, clinical description of the crime scene. I can’t name the date on which I wandered over to the mystery section at my local library in Washington Heights, but it was soon after. I spent a few years reading thrillers before bedtime then decided to write one myself. In the mornings, though. Evenings are for reading.
Can you tell us a little about your writing process? How does it differ for poetry and prose?
The difference for me is momentum. With a poem, I’m rolling over a word or phrase in my mind, never sure that what’s in front of me is becoming something to keep. Right now, I’m working on a poem with the lines “it’s all the same trick of light / in the handheld mirror,”and I’m not sure if “the handheld mirror”should be “a handheld mirror”or “handheld mirrors”or if I’m thinking about this line so much because it doesn’t work and should be tossed. See? No momentum. But I can lose myself in a story, write as fast as my typing will allow, watching it unfold and wanting to arrive at some pivotal point. There’s almost a physical sensational of being propelled.
How do you balance your writing with your day job, as the Poetry Editor at Guernica Magazine?
Guernica is actually run by an all-volunteer editorial staff—bless each and every one of them—and my day job is as an adjunct instructor at various colleges. The balancing act isn’t an easy one. My biggest trick is to write first. Well, I check my student emails first to make sure nothing’s burned to the ground while I was sleeping, then I write for about an hour. This ritual is calming and prevents me from feeling resentful of my students or volunteer work, which are important to me, as well. And on those rare days I have spare time in the late afternoon or early evening, I circle back around to writing. If I’m really feeling indulgent, I’ll walk to the Caribou and sit down with a chai tea and a legal pad.
What can readers expect next from you?
I’ve finished a new book of poems, All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned, and I’m knee-deep in the sequel to The Red Chameleon, which I am tentatively calling The Granite Moth.
What books are currently sitting on your nightstand?
I recently finished the first Veronica Mars book, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham. The engaging mystery was punctuated by the sharp-witted insights that make fans of the show—myself included—swoon. I’m currently reading a couple of great poetry collections, my friend Frances Justine Post’s Beast and Shelly Taylor’s Lions, Remonstrance. And this weekend, I plan to dive into the latest Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear, Leaving Everything Most Loved. I want to leave her book out for awhile because the cover designed by Andrew Davidson is so pretty. With Winspear at the top of the heap, maybe no one will notice the clutter?
Learn more and order your copy of The Red Chameleon here.
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