She Was Found in a Guitar Case, the new novel by David James Keaton, opens in a way that might seem familiar to fans of crime fiction. The novel’s protagonist learns of his wife’s death, and sets out to learn the truth about it, along with several mysterious connections she may have had. Things escalate quickly from there, with the narrative doubling back on itself and taking on a tone that’s both agreeably shaggy and increasingly paranoid. (If there’s a sweet spot between Pynchon and Portis, this book finds it.) I talked with Keaton about the novel’s genesis, how locks on bridges informed the book, and this book’s long path to publication.
I wanted to start with the title. She Was Found in a Guitar Case is an immediately striking title, but it’s also one that the novel questions in different ways over the course of its pages. Did you have this title in mind from the beginning, or did it emerge during the editing process?
Originally the novel was called Gorse, the name of a highly flammable “fire-climax plant” (exactly the sort of irresistible symbolism I can’t resist), and it contained two separate/contrasting narratives. It was a bit unwieldy at that size, so I chopped it into three more palatable (but still unpublishable) parts, and the first part, the POV of “Dave” as he bumbles around trying to “crack the case,” was whittled down to what remained. This new title, She Was Found in a Guitar Case, was just a placeholder, at least until I started imagining other possible interpretations of what that title could actually mean. Those sorts of thought experiments ended up becoming the later chapters, where the meaning of the title gets stretched to the point of breaking. I mean, is Florida shaped more like a guitar case or a jackhammer? Both? Neither? These sorts of questions became very important distractions for Dave, and myself.
She Was Found in a Guitar Case opens with a familiar crime fiction premise — a man investigating his wife’s murder — only to quickly head into stranger territory. What was the process of coming up with the story here like?
When I wrote the beginning of the novel I was working a closed-captioning job in Pittsburgh (though the bulk of the writing came later when I was living in Kentucky), where I had a late-night job captioning hundreds of hours of true-crime programming and the occasional pornography. This was during a long-distance relationship with someone in Louisville, and after captioning a handful of shows that depicted an unsettling number of Louisville murders, I became convinced she was living in the murder capitol of the world. So to curb my growing paranoid tendencies (and to sort of trend chase the Gone Girls on Trains with the Dragon Tattoo trends of the time, which is also where my “generic missing girl book title taken to the extreme” comes from), I started writing a story about someone who was convinced their fearful phone calls became so much of a distraction that they end up a self-fulfilling prophecy and could be directly responsible for the death of a loved one. It also didn’t help that I’d just captioned an episode of Cold Case Files where a woman was on her phone when she was abducted. I’d also just rescued a cat in a similar manner as described in the novel (actually I should check the statute of limitations on something real quick, hold on…), and combining these two (ten?) ideas was a good starting point for a series of increasingly harrowing misadventures and well-meaning idiocy.
Several of the chapters appeared as standalone stories in various publications and anthologies. It’s hard to imagine some of these components in such a different context; how did that aspect of things work for you?
There are a couple reasons for that. Mostly, it’s due to this book being up on blocks in the driveway for so long, then being trapped in endless submission queues, which gave me more time than usual to rob it for parts when there was the occasional story that fit the themes. But the really unusual thing here was I was able to reassemble the damn thing to see how it still drove, and, much like the Johnny Cash song where he makes that monstrous car out of random parts from other cars, deconstruction and reconstruction made it something more than it had been in its original form. Because every chapter that I plucked from it to sell to an antho or wherever to keep my energy up regarding the project sort of became its own thing through those more focused, individual revisions. I enjoy doing this, not just to pillage, but instead to constantly reframe things, which leads to different ways of seeing the scenes and circulating existing moments and mixing them back together in new ways. And this has become a regular practice for me, zooming in and out of what I write, sometimes linking together stories and characters (another danger of being around a large, unpublished work for too long). And when finally all screwed back together into the novel where they began, those parts were now sometimes doing battle. And I liked this so much more. It helped it get even closer to where I always intended it to go, away from a traditional narrative or “missing girl” book and into messier places that popular books avoid.
The idea of padlocks on bridges as a symbol of love recurs throughout the novel. What was your first encounter with that? When did you decide to work that into this novel?
In the middle of writing this novel, my wife and I were able to finagle an academic trip to Paris into a sort of rushed honeymoon, I experienced the “love lock” phenomenon first-hand, both the tourist trade’s manic obsessions with them and the locals’ disgust with the way they were taking over landmarks. Staring at so many of these locks, and all the colorful and sometimes very creative variations, I imagined all sorts of secret messages and conspiracies surrounding this practice. So, second only to being freaked out by captioning crime shows, and mostly due to the need to rationalize why I was participating in such a “ugly American abroad” activity, padlocks on bridges became a big catalyst for the underlying mystery of the book.
Both this novel and The Last Projector blend familiar noir tropes with wholly unexpected narrative directions. Does that echo your own taste in crime stories as well?
Weirdly enough, it usually doesn’t? Maybe my day job teaching classes on crime rhetoric in the media is to blame for this, but lately I find a sorta perverse enjoyment just recognizing these tropes, inside or outside of the crime genre. Or I find myself watching true-crime shows like Forensic Files (any or all of the shows I was captioning will do) or reading true-crime books and doing the chicken-or-the-egg game, where I wonder if people in real life are imitating fiction or vice versa. Also I think this is how we experience the world, where nothing stays straightforward in our heads for very long.
There are a few allusions in this novel to real-life movies and music, with Prince in particular being referenced several times. Was there any logic behind when to reference a real musician or movie versus coming up with something fictional or fictionalized?
Prince music was a no-brainer here because of the narrator’s obsession with “Doctor” Fink, the keyboardist in Prince’s band, The Revolution. Initially, I was going to invent a fictionalized version of someone like him, but when I realized I needed a minor celebrity from Minnesota (another location in the novel) who had spent time as a fake doctor (it all makes sense, I swear), there was no way I was going to do better than the real/fake guy. Due to the liberties I’ve taken with his anatomy, I both hope he never sees this book, or that he does see it and he signs a copy for me with his (alleged!) two penises.
What are you working on these days?
I’ve continued to work on that dueling narrative that I chopped out of this novel early on, and it’s now it’s own thing (actually it’s its own couple of things), and I’m also currently wrapping up revising a novel loosely based on my days working in a video store, a sci-fi/thriller hybrid which takes people (myself) to task for our current obsessions with dead-end media. It looks like it will be coming out in late 2022, and I hope to talk more about that novel very soon, provided that such a literal dead-end never hits us for real.
David James Keaton‘s first collection of fiction, FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities, was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror, and his second collection, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead, received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. He’s also the co-editor of Hard Sentences: Crime Fiction Inspired by Alcatraz, Dirty Boulevard: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs Lou Reed, and Tales from the Crust: An Anthology of Pizza Horror. He lives and works in California.