Skulls, Detectives, and the Texas Surreal: Robert Freeman Wexler on Writing “The Silverberg Business”

Robert Freeman Wexler

There’s a point early on in Robert Freeman Wexler‘s novel The Silverberg Business where you might have an idea of where things are heading. Protagonist Shannon is on the trail of a man who disappeared with money intended to benefit Jewish refugees in 1880s Texas. A detective, hot on the trail of an elusive target — it’s the stuff of classic private detective fiction, right? And then a group of skull-headed people show up and, as the saying goes, things get weird. After reading the novel, I was immediately intrigued and sought out Wexler to learn more about the book’s origins — and the music and art that helped inspire it.

In your novel’s acknowledgments, you wrote about Jon Langford’s art as playing a big part in the writing of the book. How did that imagery converge with the real-life history that you cover in The Silverberg Business?

I can’t remember the exact moment when I conceived The Silverberg Business, probably because the conscious moment was an accretion of multiple subconscious moments, but during some of those moments I had been looking at Jon’s Nashville Radio art book. What I had in my head at first was a regular, non skull-head person, sitting across a table from a skull-head. The skull-head was drinking whiskey, but he didn’t have flesh. He was just a skeleton. The whiskey went into his mouth and dripped down his bones. Impractical and a waste of whiskey. I looked through the art in the book again. The skull-heads appeared to have fleshy bodies. Good idea. Jon has painted a lot of skull-heads with guitars. Country singers. I put in a skull-head guitarist. Which was natural, because music is important throughout the novel. Skull-heads in a saloon, one of them with a guitar. A scenario that wouldn’t fit in a realistic, historical novel, but that wasn’t a problem.

I wrote. Having incorporated Langford art into the bones of the novel, I thought, what if, when I find a publisher, Jon can create cover art? Then, what if I’m able to do an event with him in Chicago (where he lives)? All of which happened.

Though he’s there in his capacity as a visual artist, Langford isn’t the only musician thanked in there; there’s also a nod to Steven R. Smith. What role does music play in your writing process? Was that any different for this novel than for the rest of your work?

I’ve always listened to music while writing. Music for writing used to the same as music for listening to at any time. Words from songs might float into what I was writing. I don’t remember when it changed, but now writing music is mostly instrumental. Music unlocks the subconscious. I like music that sounds like a landscape. Or a cityscape, but I’m inclined to put them together, city as part of landscape. You could define landscape as natural, but what is natural? If a beaver dam is natural, then why not a strip mall? Animals made both. 

Over the years, different things, Shark Quest, Bill Frisell, Robin Holcomb, Ornette Coleman’s Love Supreme, the first John Zorn Naked City album and The Circle Maker, Friends of Dean Martinez, Erik Friedlander’s Block Ice & Propane, Chris Forsyth’s Solar Motel Band and other configurations, Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio Is My Life

With Silverberg, Steven R. Smith’s Old Skete became the gateway sound to put me into my writing state. Old Skete is solo electric guitar. Smith works with multiple instrumentation and styles, using his name and various band names. He talks about his process in an interview here. I haven’t found an Old Skete for my current novel. The Dirty Three’s Horse Stories might work if I need it to. Fortunately, I haven’t needed an Old Skete. During most of the writing of Silverberg, I was in an office job all day, with a small child at home and aging parents who needed my attention. Lunch breaks from work were the only time I had, and Old Skete gave me the way to use that time.

Tim Kerr, who I also mentioned in the acknowledgments, is currently playing in an old timey guitar-banjo duo, which became the soundtrack for my writing of the poker sections, but he’s a punk and plays whatever moves him. When I was in college, in Austin, Texas, Tim played in a band called the Big Boys. The Big Boys toured a lot, bonding with other bands of the time, and were the connective tissue of Austin’s punk/hardcore scene. They encouraged everyone to start a band, fanzine, etc. For me, that meant putting the energy of my individuality into making fiction. That took years to figure out how to do. My fiction is punk, but not in any obvious way (or at least no one has ever said it was, so I assume that means it’s not obvious). 

I mention the Big Boys because of what I read in Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s interview with you in Bomb, about your novel Ex-Members, the punk scene in New Jersey, and scenes in general. Everyone should have their music scene, outside of industry, made by people who don’t know that they aren’t allowed to be doing it. There’s a great book of photographs from the early ’80s Austin scene that came out a couple of years ago, Texas is the Reason—The Mavericks of Lone Star Punk, by Pat Blashill. Pictures of bands but also of the people involved in the scene and some of the places they lived.

The Silverberg Business starts out in a fairly realistic vein and gradually swerves into the surreal. What led to that approach for telling Shannon’s story?

I’m not drawn to realism, though most of what I do is rooted in the real world, and (as you said) swerves out of it. Bending reality, swerving (or plunging) into the surreal is what I do. If strange/surreal was the wrong approach to something, I suppose I wouldn’t do it, though it’s more likely I wouldn’t write something for which it was the wrong approach. In early, unpublished, stories, I tried grafting the surreal onto pretty much everything and learned that doing it that way doesn’t work. Surrealism, like anything else, is best as an organic growth.

Part of the model for Silverberg was Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories and novels (which concern the unnamed operative of the Continental Detective Agency). Those are realistic, although in The Dain Curse, the Op fights a ghost in beautifully rendered horror story language. The ghost turns out to be lights projected through steam. Early drafts of Silverberg were too Op-ish. I had to revise Hammett out. Mostly out. I had planned for the beginning of the novel, in the town of Victoria, Texas, to be free of anything strange.  Then, after Shannon goes into the semi-wilderness and encounters strange happening, including his first trip to skull-head land, the strange follows him home and continues. Eventually, I worked strangeness in earlier.

I knew very little about Chartism before reading this book. What was your first encounter with it, and what led you to want to incorporate it in here?

I had never heard of Chartism until, as part of my research, I read “The Eye That Never Sleeps”: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency by Frank Morn. Which I just realized I left out of the acknowledgments. The book mentioned that Alan Pinkerton, the founder, was a Chartist. I looked up more about Chartism and read about the Newport Rising, in Newport, Wales. Jon Langford is from Newport. Another unexpected connection, the Pinkerton Agency began in Chicago, which is where Jon lives. I decided to make Shannon’s boss a Welsh Chartist named Arthur Llewellyn, from the name of Welsh author of the weird Arthur Machen (Arthur Llewellyn Jones). Llewellyn had previously worked for Pinkerton and is based in Chicago. When you go down a path, everything else goes on the path with you.

Shannon is a fascinating narrator, with a number of contradictory traits, including his roots in the pre-Civil War South. What was your biggest challenge in finding his voice?

I had a lot of challenges, like figuring out how people talked, avoiding words that wouldn’t have been used then. I could (and did) read fiction of the period, but dialogue in fiction doesn’t necessarily reflect how people actually talked. Then there was the hardboiled Hammett aspect. In the end, I didn’t worry too much about accuracy in his literal speaking voice., I also chose to make him more progressive than I thought a person from that time and place would have been. I tried to be consistent, tried to make him at least feel real. 

Having Shannon be Jewish, and making his Jewishness and the Jewish community of Galveston, Texas an important part of the book presented other challenges. I’m culturally Jewish but not religious and wanted him to be similarly unreligious. In general, people were more religious in the 19th century, which doesn’t mean everyone was religious. Many people weren’t. I did want to use the idea that someone from an oppressed group would be sensitive to the oppression of others. Which is a reasonable assumption, though in researching Jewish America during the time of Black enslavement I learned that northern Jews tended to be against slavery and southern Jews weren’t. Southern Jews accepted the attitudes of their surroundings, partly because it kept them from being at the bottom of the system. Also, I assume, they worried that speaking out would make them a target, like they were in Eastern Europe. And still are today in many places, including the U.S.

There’s a lot of real-world history in this novel. Was there anything else that you thought about incorporating but decided not to?

Two things I can remember (and probably others that I can’t). Late in the process, I read about the Rio Grande City Riot of 1888, which started after a Mexican-American was arrested by the county sheriff, then shot by the sheriff’s companion, a US customs inspector, while allegedly attempting to escape. The sheriff had previously been implicated in lynchings of several Mexicans. There was a protest, but what happened after was widespread rumor and exaggeration about Mexicans killing white people. I thought there were things I could incorporate to parallel contemporary right-wing border hysteria, but wasn’t able to make it fit. 

A man named Fayling ran the militia that was assembled to police Galveston after the hurricane. From what I read, he was pretty racist and unsavory. He had been a deputy U.S. Marshall involved with putting down an 1894 strike of the Pullman railroad car factory in Chicago (where Shannon was living and working). Having established that Shannon and his boss were pro-union, I tried to connect the two, giving Shannon an encounter with Fayling in Chicago in 1894 and again in Galveston in 1900, but it was too much for the end of the book.


Photo: Regina Brecha

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