INTERVIEW WITH DOUG BURGESS

MIKE BARSON: FOGLAND POINT is your first novel. How long did it take you from the point where you decided to write it to when you finished and submitted it to the publisher?

DOUG BURGESS: In college I wrote a short story called “Miss Emma’s Young Man” that told of an elderly New England spinster who wrote letters to herself, pretending they were from a lost love. It won an award from the university and made me think I might try my hand at fiction one day. That story became the basis for another, “Laughing Sarahs,” which appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 2011. Now the tale included Grandma Maggie, her friends, and Emma’s murder. That led me to expand the story a third and final time, introducing Marcus Rhinegold and David Hazard himself (previously the narrator was unidentified) which became FOGLAND POINT From 1998 to 2018…I never really thought about it before, but the evolution of FOGLAND POINT is also my evolution as a writer.

MIKE BARSON: There are numerous gay characters in crime fiction, but does Fogland Point offer the first trans protagonist? What decided you to cast your hero, David Hazard, in that role?

DOUG BURGESS: As far as I know, David is the first trans mystery protagonist—certainly the first I’m aware of. The decision to make him a trans man actually came well into the writing process; originally he was a cis-male gay man, and thus more of an avatar for myself. But during that time I was fortunate enough to be close friends with an FTM man, and his story reflected many of the issues of identity, perception and transformation which were already central to the novel. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a writer was someone who told me that if your character is essentially unchanged at the end of a novel, why should anyone bother reading about them? I think this is a flaw with many mystery novels, especially of the old school: supporting characters may experience change, but the “detective” is a fixed point. Sometimes they don’t even age! I wanted David’s narrative arc to be as central to the story as the mystery itself—in fact, in some ways, the “reveal” to the reader about his gender identity is part of that mystery.

MIKE BARSON: Your family dates back to the Little Compton, Rhode Island area some 350 years–all the way back to the 1600s. How much of a family historian were you prior to writing this novel? And was there one revelation you unearthed about your ancestors that blew your mind?

DOUG BURGESS: One nice thing about old New England families is that we don’t really need family historians—it’s all pretty much recorded. I grew up keenly aware of my family background because it was everywhere around me: even my school was named after a relative. So I didn’t need to do much genealogical work. Instead I was interested in retelling some of the stories I grew up with, about relatives as recent as the mid-20th century and as far back as the 1660’s. In my family oral histories are passed down from one generation to the next; in that sense, I suppose, we are all family historians.

And yes, there is one moment that stands out. I remember when I was about six years old my father brought us to Boston and took me to the steps of the Massachusetts State House, where a seated figure cast in bronze rests in a shady spot near the corner of the building. That was my many-times-great-grandmother Mary Dyer, who was hanged for her Quaker beliefs in 1660. As a practicing Quaker myself, I have often revisited that statue for inspiration. As a rather odd aside, her life and death were recently depicted in, of all things, “Drunk History,” where she was acted by Winona Rider (!). 

MIKE BARSON: The romance that develops between David Hazard and police chief Billy Dyer is unexpected initially, but quite intriguing. Do you have plans for a second crime novel that would maintain the focus on David and Billy?

DOUG BURGESS: Yes absolutely. Fogland Point ends with them at the beginning of a relationship that clearly will take a great deal of negotiating and exploring as time goes on. In a sense both David and Billy are trying to find a path through an obstacle course of identities and labels. Are they a “gay” couple? Does attraction to David materially alter Billy’s sexuality? These questions might not be very important to David, who has already had years to adjust to them, but they are very new for Billy. So yes, there will be difficulties. 

One early reader commented that it was almost impossible to find any new ground for a love story, but this found it. I wish I could take credit: the inspiration actually came from a close friend in law school. He was a gay man in a stable relationship when his partner came out to him as trans-female. They remained together throughout her transition and still are going strong today. What fascinated me was that something which to them seemed perfectly normal nevertheless invited scores of questions from outsiders: if his partner was now female, would he still be attracted to her? Was he now “straight”? We as humans love to create boxes and put ourselves and each other into them. But emotion and attraction don’t always work that way.

MIKE BARSON: Who were some of your chief influences in the mystery field when you were growing up? And are there any contemporary authors whose work you particularly admire?

DOUG BURGESS:I can still remember my grandfather reading Murder on the Orient Express to me when I was about six—which seems a bit young now, but I had macabre tastes.  A perennial ritual with each visit to their house was a trip to the local bookstore for another Agatha Christie paperback, the kind with neo-gothic lettering and an odd collection of objects on the cover. I think I might even have gone as Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov version) one Halloween.

In high school my tastes matured enough to include Emma Lathen, John Mortimer (who might or might not have been responsible for my decision to go to law school) and Dorothy Sayers…I still read Busman’s Honeymoon at least once a year. I wrote my first mystery novel as senior project. It was set in Bermuda, where my family had a business, and it was awful. The characters were lifted bodily from a 1930’s period piece and the mystery hinged on, if I remember rightly, a firecracker stuck into a cigarette.

Then in college I found a spare copy of Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh, and my mind was officially blown. She may be the only author I’ve ever read whose voice consistently improved as she aged. Her early stuff is almost unreadable, pseudo-Sayers with the same stock characters of the annoying press hound, aristocratic mummy, etc. But around the time of Surfeit of Lampreys everything changed. For the first time I found myself caring more about the characters than the mystery. Of contemporary authors my absolute favorite is Steven Saylor. I discovered his “Roma Sub Rosa” series when I was living in Austin and still look forward to new installments today. I love the way he very subtly and delicately weaves issues of sexuality into his novels—few of his characters are wholly “straight” or “gay,” which is quite consistent with the era of which he writes.

MIKE BARSON:As a professor of history at Yeshiva in New York City, researching the Rhode Island backdrop of the book must have been second nature. How and where did you primarily conduct your research?

DOUG BURGESS: Much of it was already done through my doctoral dissertation, which examined colonial piracy. The story of the Robie family, aristocratic Southerners trapped in Newport during the Civil War, came from a visit to Kingscote Mansion in Newport, where I learned that before the Vanderbilts and their ilk colonized it, Newport had been a favorite retreat of antebellum Southern gentry. Then after the war they lost everything, and those same houses were picked up on the cheap by New York merchants. 

I also made a great many visits to Little Compton, keeping a journal of all the places so that I could convey them more accurately.  The rest, I suppose, was just “lived history”: my own memories, stories my family told me, places I recalled.