John Dermot Woods’s The Baltimore Atrocities is a novel of mysteries, obsession, and subtle conspiracies. As a young man, its narrator befriends another young man as they bond over a shared characteristic: both have had siblings vanish from Baltimore. Slowly, the question of what happened to each of their siblings lures them back to the city. Interspersed with this story are short scenes in which crimes, scandals, and other horrific events play out. Sometimes, these are overtly connected to the narrator’s quest; at others, they seem to accentuate it, evoking images and scenes that parallel the two friends’ descent into a possibly unknowable landscape. I caught up with the author via email to learn more about the novel’s origins, his penchant for illustration, and his future projects.
What made you choose Baltimore as the central city of your novel? Was there something about it that you associated with the possibility of sinister conspiracies and unrest just below the surface?
Yes, there’s that. But I could say that about any city I’ve lived in (even the polite and pastoral Canton, NY where I’m currently residing). And, truthfully, keeping things below the surface is tougher with the city of Baltimore just because of how much is revealed so obviously. I think I chose Baltimore for very personal reasons. It’s a place where I did live for a fairly short period of time, about two years, but that has left an indelible mark on my psyche. And the impression that it’s left is almost entirely a positive one. It’s a place that keeps bringing me back. But, in many ways, it’s a place that I know I’m not likely to return to, and, if I were to return, it wouldn’t be the Baltimore that I’ve created in my mind. There’s a tragedy in that, and I think my idea of that city became a conduit for my characters’ losses.
I noticed that, besides Baltimore, New Jersey also looms large–several characters travel between the two. What was the underlying logic for this?
There is. I’m originally from New York (Long Island to be exact) and I moved to Baltimore from Manhattan and I wrote the book living in Brooklyn, so New Jersey is place that I’ve spent a lot of time going through. It’s the bridge between my idea of home and my idea of Baltimore.
Do you think that any other cities in which you’ve lived have will exert as much influence on something that you’ve written?
Definitely. I lived in Tokyo for just a bit longer than I lived in Baltimore, and that city’s insistence on strangeness and detail is something that I think informs everything I create. I also lived in Athens, Georgia, in between, and, in many ways, that city is the closest to me of them all. It’s the one I go back to the most and where many people I love still live. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that Athens is a town that inspires art. And in a way it’s strange, because, on the surface it’s not a terribly remarkable place. It’s not a bit city or a small town. It’s not that pretty, but not ugly either. It’s in the south, but not very southern. But the food and the music and the art and the books that come out of the town are remarkable.
And then, of course, there’s New York. That’s where it all begins and ends for me.
The Baltimore Atrocities contains a plot interspersed with shorter vignettes, some of which relate directly to the plot and others that seem more tangential. Where did the idea of this structure come from?
It happened in two stages. The book began as the series of vignettes. It was kind of a writing and drawing exercise inspired by Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator. The book rewired by sense of rhythm in storytelling for awhile. I have never read anything that acts exactly like those short pieces, even Bernhard’s other work. The prose is so fearless and unadorned that at the end of each you’re left thinking, “Wait. Did that just happen?” Or you’re left laughing a really uncomfortable laugh that makes you feel guilty and ashamed. I wanted to do that to my readers. So a few years ago, during my daily commute on the Long Island Railroad to teach–I ride in the middle of the day when the train is empty–I would write one of these episode, and as I got close to my stop I would finished with a quick sketch to illustrate it. I later redrew all of these pictures. Once I finished this series of short pieces, I gave it to a few people to read. And all of them talked about the story beneath the surface that they wanted to hear told. So last year, working with my editor Anitra Budd at Coffee House, I wrote the other half to the book, the novel that runs through the episodes (or ‘atrocities’ as I like to call them).
Were any of the political scandals in the novel inspired by actual events?
Not exactly. As far as stories can be complete fabrications, those stories are fabrications. But they are certainly based on the kinds of stories we hear on the news or at work or at the bar or whatever. So many people have read selections from this book and told me that they remember one or two of the atrocities. And they’re probably not mistaken.
You also illustrated the novel; did you have that planned from the outset?
I did. I think. When I write these days, I always end up drawing in some way. Very soon after I started this project I found the need to illustrate each section. And soon those drawing became more of a driving force behind the book than the writing itself.
How did you go about settling on a representative image for each of the atrocities? Did you sketch something out first? Take notes?
I had a very specific concept with the composition of these pieces. I saw each drawing as if it was another paragraph to the story. The image usually emerged as I wrote the piece and then I drew it. I didn’t want it to illustrate, redundantly present what I’d already written. I wanted it to add something new. Hopefully they each reveal something that is not in the text.
Were any of the stories more difficult to illustrate than others?
I feel like I should say yes, but they weren’t really. The composition of these episodes was so rhythmic and regular, that the process of drawings these 100+ pieces was very similar, all part of a whole. The process was labor intensive, though. I basically set side a particular summer to draw them. And it was the hottest and most humid summer I can remember. I had just moved to a new place and had no AC or fan or in my kitchen which is where the only table big enough to draw on was. So every time I look at these drawings, I think about 9×12 pieces of Bristol board sticking to the sweaty underside of my forearms as I tried to draw.
What prompted the selection of the illustration that’s reproduced on the cover?
That was a choice made by Coffee House. I had no idea what to do with the cover. I thought of certain images that were cover-worthy. And that wasn’t one of them. They picked possibly the smallest and simplest illustration in the book, and I’m really glad they did. There’s something reserved but welcoming, familiar but foreboding about that man with crossed legs holding a photo of a young boy. I think it captures what’s inside pretty well.
Your last book was a collection of comics. Does your work in one medium inform the other? How do you decide which is the best fit for telling a particular story?
For the most part, when I creating something new, I don’t really separate the two media. I find a story I want to tell and see where it goes. Over the years my inclination has certainly moved from text to image for the most part. And, after my last book, I sometimes wondered if written prose was something I was going to work with ever again. Comics is such a flexible and accommodating and expressive (and difficult!) medium. But writing the novelistic portion of The Baltimore Atrocities reignited my excitement about writing again. I spent months just writing, something I hadn’t done it years. And I think my work is going back in that direction. For instance, this morning I just finished a draft of a 12,000 word story, and it’s only has one drawing.
Is the 12,000-word story that you’re working on part of something larger? If not, do you have a sense of what your next book-length project will be?
No, that story was a small idea that just kept growing. It’s actually a sci-fi story about weather engineering. Pretty different than most of my work. I’ve got the start to a couple of book length projects, including a novel about the demise of a New York family who have all returned to their city after lives apart from each other. It’s my coming-home-to-NYC-to-die novel. I also continue to work regularly with Lincoln Michel on our Herzog: Park Ranger graphic novel. It’s a fun and uncanny book that just keeps growing. It’s a story about Werner Herzog as a crime fighting park ranger that takes on drug dealers and satanic cults. It’s painstaking work to chip away at a project like that, but it’s good work.