Denver’s Cortright McMeel works for Rainbow Energy, teaches at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, founded Murdaland, a crime fiction literary magazine, and writes accomplished short stories and novels. His thirteen years of experience as an energy trader provided the source material for Short (Thomas Dunne Books, 304 pages, $24.99), a talented and funny debut novel of duplicitous and morally bankrupt traders and brokers. In Jess Walter’s review of Short for The Washington Post, he noted that McMeel “revels in juicy descriptions and office anecdotes, which have the unmistakable feel of insider lore.” I recently interviewed McMeel via email about Short. We discussed why he originally thought of his novel as a “trader Western,” another novel he’s working on about Doc Holliday, and his trademark “Dad who has two kids under six writing technique.” Cortright McMeel will discuss Short at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on Wednesday, January 5 at 7:30 p.m.
New West: What brought you to Denver?
Cortright McMeel: My wife has always wanted to live here near the mountains so we could ski more. I got a look at an energy trading firm out here three years ago and we took the shot. It’s been excellent, especially for the kids, and we’ve never looked back.
NW: Your first novel, Short is set mainly on the east coast—have you set anything you’ve written in Colorado?
CM: As soon as I arrived, I found out that Doc Holliday died in Glenwood Springs. I took a trip to visit his grave. Ever since I have been doing research on a novel about his final stint in Leadville. One chapter is written, and the project is one that is very personal to me and one that I am excited about.
NW: You earned an MFA at Columbia before entering the fields of advertising and then trading. Was it always your plan to study writing, and then find a job that it was easier to make a living at afterward?
CM: “Plan” is a strong word to apply to anything I do. I was going to go to the Marines but this woman I was in love with (my now wife) was going to be in New York City. I lucked out and got into Columbia. After Columbia I was too lazy to be a waiter and had too flimsy a grasp of the truth to be a journalist. Advertising was the perfect fit.
NW: Tell me about Murdaland, the crime fiction literary magazine you founded. How did that come about?
CM: Murdaland is something I’m very proud of. This is the only good idea I ever came up with while sitting at a bar. I was on a crime fiction kick, reading Jim Thompson, [Georges] Simenon, and George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and I was like, “Man, this stuff is literature!” I’d had three failed, rejected novels, and I thought “Well, if I can’t be a writer, I love literature in general, and so I’ll be a publisher.” I wasn’t rich from trading but I had a few pennies to rub together to fund a modest literary magazine. The idea I had was I wanted a dark crime magazine with literary sensibilities. I wanted Jim Thompson and David Goodis versus bestseller type stuff. Discovering American Dostoyevskys was the experiment. We were fortunate enough to get some incredible talent like Daniel Woodrell, Mary Gaitskill, Jayne Ann Phillips, Tom Franklin and Richard Bausch, as well as a David Goodis classic reprint and some amazing fresh talent, especially standouts like Les Edgerton, who is about to break big in 2011. That first issue was something special. After the second issue we shut it down but just the two issues were enough for Murdaland to garner respect, an award or two, and a small, but hardcore, following.
NW: Your author photo is great, with you staring intensely forward as you holding a copy of Fat City by Leonard Gardner and The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway– did you do that to show that those books are your influences?
CM: The photo with the books was totally a happenstance. Being a book nerd, I’m always carrying books around, more than one. I happened to have those two books on me and the photographer created that photo. I was worried it would seem pretentious or something. But it came out great. In real life I look like Shrek. (Aside: Yes, both those books are huge influences for me.)
NW: How did the idea for Short come to you? Did it start with characters or a plot idea?
CM: It came while reading Ian Flemming’s Goldfinger, a spy novel about a bad guy trying to corner another commodity market…gold. I was like…I could do this but with electricity trading.
NW: What was your writing process for Short? How long did it take?
CM: The final version was very different from the version Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press bought. But I was working on it for probably three to four years. Someone asked me a very interesting question about the book. They said: “Is that a conscious literary technique, making the really short staccato chapters to go along with the title Short? I kind of thought about and said: “Yes, I call that short chapterlet literary technique the “Dad who has two kids under six technique.” Many times I wrote those chapters on runs to the grocery store, stealing a chair at the corner Starbucks. I’d set down the laptop and Bam, Bam, Bam, pump it out and then come home with the milk and eggs.
NW: Short has a big cast of characters, and it’s written in third-person, with chapters that often follow one or two characters into their private lives, and other chapters that focus on the group of characters interacting in a work setting. How did you figure out what narrative strategy you’d use to tell this story?
CM: The novel for a long time was like herding cats. My brilliant editor at Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, John Schoenfelder, really was instrumental in helping insert a spine to the narrative. We wrestled and wrestled and in the end tried our best to channel the chaos into something somewhat streamlined and simple so there was a sense of plot propelling the action and the madness. I think like anything in life it was having the ability to be humble and listen to others who are smarter than you and then work like hell. I’m very happy with the result.
NW: I’d classify Short as a literary novel, not crime fiction, but did you try to incorporate elements of that genre that you love into it?
CM: It’s really funny you say that, because Short was originally a failed crime novel, what I termed a “Trader Western.” It was about the last 24 hours in the life of a trader devolving from bankruptcy into crime, madness and death. My agent rejected the novel. But I kept elements of it in my big novel Short and so there’s this kind of “noir” quality that has left its shadow or mark if you will on the feel of this novel here, which as you say, aspires to literature.
NW: Do you identify with any of the characters in Short? I wondered if Gallagher, “the English major” is based in part on your way of thinking. His wife Celina thinks about him, “Gallagher would read a book and if he admired it would somehow work that book into all aspects of his everyday life.”
CM: As scary as it may sound, I identify with all the characters in Short. Gallagher is a genius. I am no genius trader. In real life I’m like the shortstop who bats .260 and manages to hang in the big leagues. If anyone, though, Milt, the bald, weary, but still exuberant hustler fighting for his kid appeals to me as a father. Even though Milt lacks morality, there is a strange dignity in his code of fatherhood as a provider for his child, which I admire. I also admire Milt’s taste in hats.
NW: The characters in Short constantly interact with the world by betting on their predictions of what will happens next. For example, when they go to a baseball game, you write, “The traders made markets on pitch count, hits, strikes, fouls, bunts, giving and taking odds.” Yet when something happens that no one can predict, such as their coworker dropping dead at age 40 of a stroke, it doesn’t seem to sway their belief that they can predict the future. Were you conscious of this theme in your novel? (It seems like Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, about the frequency of improbable events, would have a few things to say to them.)
CM: The trading life is to a degree a gambler’s one. A person’s decisions have immediate impact on their financial future. It is performance based. The statement “you’re only as good as your last trade” is a truism. There is little to no job security. I’ve done this for over thirteen years (and still work as a trader) and I’m so close to it, I’m sure there are many themes in the book I’m not even aware of. But the Nassim Taleb reference is a good one. As traders we are all just sitting at the Russian roulette table waiting for that one round in the chamber to show up and usher us on to the next gig.
NW: One contrast I noticed between Short and most of the novels with Western settings that I review for New West is that most of it takes place inside. Even when the characters go to a Yankee game, they’re sitting in a box rather than out in the stadium. I was pondering whether this was an essential difference between novels set in the East and West—what do you think? And has the time you’ve spent in Colorado inspired you to set more of your writing outside?
CM: That’s a great point. I never thought of that. I just spent some time on the East Coast recently on book tour and I was constantly inside. As I mentioned I’m working on a short novel about Doc Holliday, which I went to Leadville to research, and yes, I find myself describing the mountains and vistas and sunsets. Still, I like the inside settings too, the old saloons especially. I just read an amazing book about the old west called Butcher’s Crossing by a Denverite named John Williams. His descriptions of the plains and the Rocky Mountain landscapes are awe-inspiring.
There is a line that occurs in the movie “Conan The Barbarian,” a film not always appreciated for its profundity. Conan, after living in the wilderness and mountains his whole life, comes to his first city. He asks his archer buddy: “What is this place?” His friend says: “Civilization. Ancient and wicked.” Conan’s response: “How does the wind get in here?”
Well, since moving to Colorado, you could say I’ve come to understand the true meaning of Conan’s words.
NW: Many of your characters drink too much, overeat, work long hours, and are estranged from their families. Andrews, for example, you describe as “the prototypical bull, a gung ho American—a buyer who believed in driving a big, gas-guzzling SUV, purchasing his wife four-carat diamonds on anniversaries, eating four-inch-thick-rib eye Imperial Grill dinners. Andrews believed in the process of eternal consumption, progress, and expansion: the more, more, more and up, up, up of things.” Yet the artists, whom you portray through Gallagher’s artist wife Celina, seem equally concerned with status. Were you trying to show that someone’s specific profession doesn’t dictate whether they have a fix on how to lead a fulfilling life?
CM: Ahhh. I can’t claim to know the true meaning of a fulfilling life. But you are right on with the juxtaposition between art and commerce. What I was driving at is that everything to an extent (even art) in our culture is bought and paid for, everything has a price and is, in essence, a commodity whose value is derived in dollars. Perhaps, I’m saying prostitution is part of the American Dream. Perhaps, I’m saying strip malls are bullshit and the plains Indians had the right idea about carrying your home on your back. But then I’d be a hypocrite because my kids have way too many toys and I don’t recycle nearly as much as I should.
NW: You work as a trader for Rainbow Energy in Denver, you have two kids, and you teach at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. How do you balance all of this, and when do you find time to write?
CM: There’s this great inter-dimensional time portal in the bathroom at the Starbucks in Stapleton. I step into that and buy like five hours a day. I recommend it to any writer taxed for time. Nah. The reality is I haven’t written much in the past three months. I haven’t taught in two semesters, although there are so many talented writing teachers at Lighthouse, the students are in excellent hands! I did finish my second novel, so I’ve been spending time with the family. The truth is without my extremely beautiful and patient wife I would never have gotten any of this done. Sharon is so supportive and strong. She’s a great reader and a badass promoter and advocate for my work that all I can say is that I’m blessed in that regard.
Who you marry is truly the most important trade one makes in life.
NW: Have any of your coworkers read Short, and if so, what do they think of the way energy traders are portrayed? Do you think you will write about your work again in another novel?
CM: I know many traders who’ve read it and enjoyed it. They find it entertaining and funny. Some of them liked the trading scenes where one character or another is feeling “the pain” of a losing position. One guy said: “Your character was on the ropes and the way you described it made my guts clench like when I’m bleeding money,” which is what I was going for.
NW: I read in an interview that you are working on two different novels. What are they about, and how far along are you? Do you work on more than one project at a time?
CM: I have a crazy zombie novel which is being shopped around right now. It’s so X-rated and over the top and disturbing that my agent has suggested I use a pen name. That being said, he and my wife both thought it was a fiendishly fun read. The Doc Holliday book is lurking in the shadows. And my other book is a serious project, a novel of five years in the making about the world of boxing and mixed martial arts. Something I’ve been involved with for a long time.
NW: Some novelists set each of their novels in a completely different subculture or milieu, for example, Don DeLillo, who has a baseball novel, a novel about musicians, one about Lee Harvey Oswald, etc., or Colson Whitehead, who wrote one about elevator inspectors, band-aid manufacturers, and John Henry aficionados. Often these novelists still explore similar themes through the varied subcultures. Do you think you might be this kind of novelist?
CM: One of my heroes is William Burroughs. Naked Lunch and Cities of the Red Night are seminal works of fiction that take great risks and go out beyond where other writers feel comfortable. Moby Dick is the same kind of mammoth cosmic book. They explore unknown worlds. You can feel these writers taxing their imagination to the limit, and their prose, while experimental, is also clean and true. Burroughs like Melville was a pioneer with regard to prose style. The content of his books always pushes the limits of decency and imagination. Burroughs was a complete outlaw and a madman and religiously devoted to literature. I admire him and his courage immensely. If I could tap into that cosmic power source and be able to harness it in a book then I will die happy. In the meantime like a weary, bedraggled gumshoe detective with worn-soled shoes and a rumpled raincoat I beat the streets for a good tale, which is in many ways I all I ever expect to achieve, the Irishman’s desire to saddle up to the bar and tell an entertaining yarn.
Cortright McMeel will discuss Short at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on Wednesday, January 5 at 7:30 p.m.