THE BOOK: Ghosting
PUBLISHED IN: 2012
THE AUTHOR: Kirby Gann
THE PUBLISHER: Ig Publishing (Brooklyn, NY)
SUMMARY: A dying drug kingpin enslaved to the memory of his dead wife; a young woman torn between a promising future and the hardscrabble world she grew up in; a mother willing to do anything to fuel her addiction to pills; and her youngest son, searching for the truth behind his older brother’s disappearance, are just some of the unforgettable characters that populate Ghosting, Kirby Gann’s lush and lyrical novel of family and community, and the ties that can both bond and betray.
Fleece Skaggs has disappeared, along with drug dealer Lawrence Gruel’s reefer harvest. Deciding that the best way to discover what happened to his older brother is to take his place as a drug runner for Gruel, James Cole plunges into a dark underworld of drugs, violence, and long hidden family secrets, where discovering what happened to his brother could cost him his life.
A genre-subverting literary mystery told from the alternating viewpoint of different characters, Ghosting is both a simple quest for the truth—what exactly happened to Fleece Skaggs?—and a complex consideration of human frailty.
THE BACK STORY: I don’t know if I can rightly say I “decided” to write this novel so much as the characters demanded that I give them a proper stage to present their stories. The novel started from a vivid memory of being on the rooftop of an abandoned building one night when a nearby transformer caught fire, and watching it spark and burn. There seemed to be a certain mood to the image, and surprising details came to me in the writing, and it wasn’t very long before I thought, There’s a good story in this. For many months, I thought that’s what I was working on: a short story. But I kept discovering new facets of my characters, and they seemed to be so clear in my head—much of the writing honestly felt like I was describing people and situations transcribed from real experience. But very little of the book was.
This is the only project in which the voices of characters and their desires and fears presented themselves so clearly to me as I worked at creating them. It felt almost as though I was watching a film. That said, there were many dry spells when nothing seemed to work—as if the film burned out, you could say—and most of the writing I did in those times ended up on the cutting room floor. Then there would be a day in which everything came vividly to me again. I’ve been writing fiction for over twenty-five years, and the composition of Ghosting is the only time I’ve worked in this way. All told, with so many fits and starts and writing around the story rather than the story itself, the process took a bit over five years to complete.
Early on in the writing, my brother—older by a three years, and my only sibling—struggled against an aggressive form of leukemia for the better part of a year. Though there’s no cancer in the novel (not literally), and though our relationship in real life has nearly no crossover with that between the half-brothers Fleece and Cole, the loss of my brother and the painful frustrations of being part of his struggle influenced the tone, mood, even context of Ghosting in profound ways.
WHY THIS TITLE?: For a ready example of my brother’s influence: “ghosting” was a verb he had used, when we were teenagers, for going out at night and exploring abandoned buildings—of which, when I look back on that time, it seems our city had a great number of. “I’m going ghosting with my friends tonight,” he might say, and mention where. And this novel is rife with ghost-like figures and haunting resonances. The dictionary definition of the word describes it as the “faint double image on a screen” or the formulation of one, and this provides a ready metaphor Cole’s identity in relation to Fleece. In slang terms, “ghosting” refers to dropping out of touch with everyone without warning, and not responding to efforts at contact, and this idea fits the novel’s themes as well.
I entertained other titles for a while but kept returning to this one; it felt correct. Interestingly, when the publisher of the French translation was looking for a title that French readers would understand, they couldn’t find one that fit the book as well, either, and they finally ended up keeping this English word.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? It’s difficult to state what makes one’s own work unique among all the other work out there; it seems to me that should be the reader’s call. But what I tried to do, as I began to get a grasp on the story, was to play with a lot of the conventions and tropes of the mystery genre—even though the novel isn’t a mystery, per se. It lends itself to many of the pleasures you can get from a good mystery yet, hopefully, undoes or subverts many of its expectations. A challenge I stumbled upon: can you create a mystery plot in which the mystery at its heart is never clearly resolved, and still satisfy the reader? The characters are perpetually moving through enigmatic gray areas in which “the right thing to do” is never clear; whether someone is a good person or not isn’t a black-and-white category, either, which to me better reflects the realities of the world. Another challenge in the writing was to place the reader, by the novel’s end, in the same shoes as Cole finds himself in the novel’s beginning—that is, uncertain of the proper path forward, or what to confirm as truth or not.
Reading over that paragraph, I think it makes the novel sound more heady than it is on the page. But it is the kind of stuff I was thinking about while writing that thing.
Finally, what I’d like to believe makes the book unique is its language, from word choice to phrasing to sentence rhythms to metaphor. I work really hard at sentences, while also trying not to allow the style to get too precious. It’s the goal of any author to create a work that only that writer could create.
REVIEW COMMENTS: “Ghosting offers a high-low cocktail of lovely prose and cruel deeds . . . Gann populates his novel with darkly beautiful images: a car set alight in the yard of an abandoned seminary, a lightning strike on a transformer, a fence decorated with bleached bones viewed in day-bright moonlight. [The novel] assumes a strangely alluring ominous quality. Ghosting, fittingly, propels the reader along with a similar sense of anticipation. Its mysteries are its rewards.” —Keith Dixon, The New York Times Book Review
“Hillbilly noir as literary fiction of the first order.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[T]he characters are so fully realized—rooted in the land and veined with bad blood—and their motivations are complex and believable. Violent, bloody, and darkly beautiful, this is a fascinating novel depicting the seedy bottom of an America in decline.”
AUTHOR PROFILE: Ghosting was included in the “Best of Year” lists from Publishers Weekly and Shelf Awareness and a finalist for the Kentucky Book of the Year. I’ve published two other novels, The Barbarian Parade (2002), and Our Napoleon in Rags (2005). When I committed myself to writing nearly thirty years ago I would have guessed that by this point in my life there would be more than three novels to my name, but I’m just not one of those prolific author types, and can only scratch my head when faced with the work of those who are. Most recently my work has appeared in Ploughshares, Post Road, The Oxford American, and I’ve been focused on writing short stories ever since getting stuck on a novel a couple of years ago. I’d like to finish this story collection before either returning to that stuck-in-mud novel or maybe starting a new one.
For nearly eighteen years I held the position of managing editor at the independent literary press Sarabande Books, and now pursue freelance projects in book design, typesetting, editorial, and production management. I’m also on the fiction faculty in the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University. I live in Louisville, Kentucky, with my wife Stephanie, who is a horticulturist, and three dogs who can be quite demanding of one’s time.
SAMPLE CHAPTER: The first pages of the book can be accessed here:
LOCAL OUTLETS: Carmichaels Bookstore, Louisville, KY
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Powells, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
PRICE: $13.75 (I think)
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: I’m always pleased to hear from readers. I have a website, kirbygann.net, where one can find links to pretty much everything out there having to do with my work, and there’s a “contact” option one can use to email me