The Shelf: Thomas Mullen, Michael Waddell

Teresa Weaver on Georgia writers

Thomas Mullen

Decatur resident Thomas Mullen writes political allegories by accident. His first novel, The Last Town on Earth, was a brilliant story about a small town that tried to quarantine itself from the 1918 flu pandemic. It was an obvious metaphor for the clash between isolationism and patriotism during World War I. But when the book was published in 2006, it was read in the context of the times, amid an unpopular war, a debate over civil liberties, and even the threat of avian flu.

Mullen’s new novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers (Random House, $26), is a magical and imaginative portrait of Great Depression–era America and captures a nation in all-out economic crisis. Again, the modern-day parallel is eerie but unplanned, given the painfully slow arc between writing a novel and seeing it published.

The novel opens with a startling scene, as bank robbers Jason and Whit Fireson “wake up”—pasty-faced, pockmarked by bullets, and stiff in the joints—in an Indiana police morgue. “It all began when they died,” the novel begins. “No one I spoke to was entirely sure when they were first called ‘the Firefly Brothers,’ or why the phrase stuck. A play on the Firesons’ name, or an initial mispronunciation embossed into permanence by the papers? Or perhaps a reference to how the brothers always seemed to vanish from the authorities’ gaze, only to reappear so very far from their pursuers. As if they were a tiny piece of magic, an otherworldly glow, misplaced in our dark and mundane world.” Mullen, thirty-five, gracefully interweaves themes of justice, mortality, and fame among quieter issues such as what makes up a family.

The 60-Second Interview: Mullen mulls . . .

On early writing efforts Everything I had written before Last Town was very contemporary, with young people, lots of slang, and really fast, long sentences. The first novel I wrote was about a rock band. It was good enough to get me an agent, but publishers wouldn’t bite. Maybe it’ll come out of the drawer one day.

On writing’s solitary nature
Being a published author makes it easier to e-mail another author and say, “Dude, I love your book. Let’s have coffee.” It’s good because you don’t have water-cooler gossip when you write at home. There are no conference calls or work-related e-mails. You are on your own.

On reading reviews
You always remember the negative stuff. A paper in Denver ran a really nice review of my first book and then said at the end, “But it’s not a literary novel.” What the hell does that mean? It’s good but not good enough? So I probably shouldn’t read reviews. But it’s just so easy to Google.

On researching a novel
I do research, but my goal is to do no more than I need to. For Firefly Brothers, I read a dozen or so general histories of the Depression and Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, which is awesome. I also tried to read fiction from the era to get the slang and the lingo.

On starting the book with a bang You know how they say, “Truth is stranger than fiction”? Well, I thought, “I want to write something that is stranger than truth.”

Also this month:

Hunting Booger Bottom: Life Lessons from the Field by Michael Waddell
(Harper, $24.99)
A familiar, camouflage-clad presence on TV’s Outdoor Channel, Michael Waddell writes with almost frightening passion about hunting in his native, idyllic southwest Georgia and around the world. “Hunting is something that transcends success, jobs, income, fame, and status,” he writes. He is at his best when describing the powerful connection he feels to the natural world and what he sees as the inalienable art of the kill. “The sheer amount of stuff to kill is what really drew me to Africa,” he writes with Southern-boyish enthusiasm. If that sentence makes your heart pound a little quicker, you might enjoy some of Waddell’s more unprovoked polemical side trips. But if that sentence makes you gasp, brace yourself for a very black-and-white worldview, with “liberal, left-wing goofballs” on one side and noble hunters, armed to the teeth, on the other.

Photograph by Brad Dececco