The novelist and journalist says Columbus is the perfect setting for the kind of mayhem that occurs when dreamers become schemers.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins works by day as a writer and editor for the Associated Press in Columbus. But by night–or rather, he says, early morning—he spends his time inventing Columbus-based mysteries for fictional gumshoe Andy Hayes, a former Ohio State and Cleveland Browns quarterback, to solve. Welsh-Huggins has published six Andy Hayes mysteries, as well as a raft of other short fiction and two nonfiction books.
Now he has convinced 13 local writers to join him in investigating Columbus’ dark corners and imagining the kinds of things that can happen when relationships turn vicious and ambition trumps ethics. Lee Martin, Nancy Zafris, Kristen Lepionka and Robin Yocum, as well as Welsh-Huggins himself, are just a few of the writers who have contributed stories to “Columbus Noir,” out March 3 from Akashic Books. It’s part of a series of “Noir” books set in cities from Boston to Barcelona. The “Columbus Noir” stories, organized in groups with names like “Sin in Cbus” and “Buckeye Betrayals,” are set in neighborhoods from West Broad Street to Whitehall, and feature such protagonists as a carpenter who’s conned by an elegant German Village home stager, a governor’s bodyguard who’s in love with the state’s first lady, and a young Somali American whose father is incensed she wants to marry a black American.
Welsh-Huggins answered our questions by email. He and several of the authors in the book will appear Tuesday, March 3 at 7 p.m. at Columbus Museum of Art in a panel discussion sponsored by Thurber House. Tickets are $30; $46 will include a pre-event reception. Some of the authors will also sign books at Prologue Books in the Short North March 7 after 4 p.m. as part of Gallery Hop. Information about these and other events is available at andrewwelshhuggins.com.
Can you explain the term “noir,” for those who are not familiar with the genre? What makes a story “noir”?
A common misperception is that noir fiction is by its nature dark or violent. It can certainly be that and more, but the real hallmark of such stories or novels is that they feature protagonists who overreach and then pay for their miscalculation. As crime novelist Laura Lippman puts it, in noir, “a dreamer becomes a schemer.”
Columbus has, as you point out in your intro, a rather safe, bland image in the outside world. What makes it a good setting for stories of danger and double-dealing?
Columbus is the perfect noir package. On the “good” side we have iconic neighborhoods, a diverse population, a strong economy and all our foodie and arts and fashion trend-setting. On the “bad” side we struggle with opioids, street violence and political corruption. To top it off, we have a chip on our shoulders after decades of being looked down upon as “Cowtown,” which sometimes makes us overeager to reach for the stars, with all the light and dark consequences of such striving.
How did you select the writers? Were they already writing noir-ish fiction? Did you assign them neighborhoods to write about?
I invited writers I knew personally or knew of through their writing—most but not all are mystery writers by trade, though that wasn’t a requirement. I assigned a few neighborhoods and others suggested locales.
Long before “Columbus Noir,” you were the author of six mystery novels set in our fair city. What places or people here in Central Ohio have inspired your own writing?
Although I’ve lived here since 1998, I’m still perpetually intrigued by the outsized influence of Ohio State football on the city in all the good and bad ways we’ve grown accustomed to. The Statehouse is a never-ending source of inspiration, as are the growing pains we’re experiencing as the country’s 14th-largest city. Beyond that, I appreciate the variety of experiences Columbus has to offer, especially organically grown and not-to-be-found-elsewhere events like ComFest, the Doo Dah Parade and the Hilltop Bean Supper, just to mention a few.
How do you go about writing a story with a surprise ending, like your contribution to this book, set largely in the Ohio Statehouse? Do you start with the moment of truth and work backwards?
I try to come up with twists that aren’t pat, that people don’t see coming, and that aren’t corny, and I usually have a strong idea of what those endings look like before I start writing. But it takes me a while to get there: My story, “Going Places,” went through 10 drafts before I was satisfied with it.
As the editor of a “Noir” anthology, you’re in quite illustrious company: other volumes in the series have been edited by Dennis Lehane, Etgar Keret and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few. Did you enjoy the role of editing others’ work, in addition to creating your own?
“Enjoy” is one word; “humbled” is another, since I was handling the work of truly amazing writers who were uniformly gracious and collegial when responding to my suggestions.
I won’t ask you to choose a favorite story from the book, but can you tell us a little about one or two that might pique our readers’ attention?
Two I would mention are “Long Ears,” the story set in the Somali-American community by Khalid Moalim, for the details and insights he provided about that community; and Mercedes King’s “An Agreeable Wife for a Suitable Husband,” because of its time-traveling glimpse into the Columbus of the 1970s.