Danny Gardner impressed audiences with his performance on the 3rd season of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam (All-Stars Vol. 12). He has enjoyed a career as an actor, director and screenwriter. He is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for his creative non-fiction piece “Forever. In an Instant.,” published by Literary Orphans Journal. His work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Out of the Gutter, and Deep House Page. A Negro and an Ofay is his first novel.
“A Negro and an Ofay is a book about now, as much as it is about then. Themes of police brutality and corruption, political machination, opportunistic policing and classist social Liberalism come well-marbled with all the dames, joes, bullets and double-crosses readers expect from the best in crime fiction.” — Double Life Press
Book cover design is by Dyer Wilk.
What prompted you to write this novel?
My ethic for writing mystery and crime is that, no matter our individual stations in society, crime touches us all. Crime touches our individual lives in a way that we can’t stop. Some folks’ property values go down, and insurance rates go up. Other people watch the men of their community go to prison and return to inflict even more crime on them. Crime can color an election in ways that skew discussion away from issues some find are more important. Crime is always waiting as the option of the otherwise well-meaning but desperate. Regardless of the extent of the affect/effect, crime reaches everyone.
Thus, I can use crime fiction to develop narratives that allow us to take a look at ourselves. With it, I can put my pen on the system, a particular race or culture, or gender, or political and economic class, and if I frame it around crime, the reader can relate. It’s why we love The Godfather, and Goodfellas. The Sopranos. It’s why we love James Cagney. Edward G Robinson. It’s why we love NWA. In the microscope I use to look at life, crime is the most powerful lens.
Is there a historical and/or cultural influence for this novel?
Postwar America was a different nation for different people. It’s generally framed as being so simple—we went over there, kicked some ass, returned and built highways and suburbs and grew into a Superpower. Except it wasn’t so simple and prosperous for black folk, who couldn’t redeem its promise and potential without risk of destruction. The 50s were wild, in that the 50s were a frickin’ mess. Sure, we made it look good, but under the surface of America was an incredible amount of angst and longing and suffering and anger. For both black and white. That’s noir! It wasn’t all wine and roses for everyone. I love the language of the 50s, and the tumult, and the style, and the schizophrenia. I was raised by people raised in the 50s, and I was born and raised in Chicago, a city that has come to define race, class and crime. If I was being cheeky, I’d say it’s either write crime, or be a criminal.
Why did you choose “A Negro and An Ofay” as a title?
Our protagonist, Elliot Caprice, is a product of a black father and a white mother sometime in the early 1900s, thus he carries around with him the dominant parts of the American cultural experience: black, and white. He is himself, a Negro and an ofay. He is also a shamus, who is seeking, in the common street parlance of the period, who he believes to be a black man and his white accomplice: a Negro, and an ofay.
Most folks find they’re familiar with the term Negro, though its definition isn’t cultural or social but legal and political. It’s a term intended for determining the worth of an African American in society. While ‘ofay’ has a varied etymology, I’ve found that its use amongst black folk, historically, was most commonly subversive. I define it as ‘“White people of particular economic and social status who commonly oppress Negroes through displays of power, authority and privilege. While all ofays are white, few whites are ofays.”
The shock value of the title is intended to place the reader directly into the shoes of someone who is a product of, but yet an outcast in, this Janus of mixed-up identity called America. And, of course, to put some authenticity to the plot and characters.
As the publisher of the first edition, Craig McNeely, said, “With that title, you know the book is about something.”
Is there a work of crime fiction you admire?
That’s a big question, haha. I’ve grown fond of saying that my wish is for readers to experience dialogue that evokes August Wilson, spaces that recall Walter Mosley, indignation that echoes Chester Himes, and morality that conjures Raymond Chandler. That’s enough of my influences all trussed up, like a turducken.
Another exceptional trait in your book is dialogue? How important is authenticity to the creative voice? Did you take any poetic license with the speech?
I find what makes dialogue in fiction authentic is the desire behind the words. The intention for which characters speak. Sure, an author can sit around people talking and derive an approximation of how people sound. Yet unless that author experiences people and their truth, and allows themselves to be affected by the force of the intent for speaking, it’s all just words assembled to appear as conversation. I don’t write serviceable dialogue because I don’t like serviceable dialogue. I don’t like serviceable dialogue on the page or in conversation with another. For this, I don’t take poetic license with speech, but I have, through the course of life, learned to speak poetically. In the hood, you have to compete to be heard. Everyone at the barber shop, or around the card table, or water cooler is interesting and has a strong point of view. What gets folks’ ear is a turn of phrase, cadence, and rhythm. Dialogue is a survival skill on the streets of Chicago. Shit, the streets of America.
You are also a comedy writer. What did you learn from comedy that may have helped in the writing of “A Negro and An Ofay?”
Attention span isn’t a fixed condition between speaker/writer and listener. First, one must take the crowd, then they must move the crowd, then, once the crowd is where they want them, at some point, they must leave them there. Comedy taught me how to hook a listener/reader, and how to let that listener/reader off the hook. That is a developed skill. Like a martial art. You have to take a few beatings to develop some grace and style. There’s no way around it.
Technology hasn’t affected people’s ability to think and understand as much as doomsayers would have us believe. It has, however amplified the poor communicator’s ability to mislead and disrupt. Don’t be afraid to go there, in speech or in print. There’s no attention span deficit. Just make sure you got the skills.
Do you have your next book in mind?
Well, I’m already halfway in on the second book in the Elliot Caprice series, plus I’ve begun a standalone novel, set in Chicago, in the present day, involving a young graduate student of color from Oakland, CA who has to journey to Chicago to find her lost older brother before her pops gets out of San Quentin and goes looking for him since, obviously, he won’t do it nicely. It’s adventure, and mystery, but it’s through line is about the lengths one will go to hold their family together, and what that costs us in terms of our personal morality. Is having a family important enough to lose herself? She will be faced with that dilemma, and it will be drastic.
What have you learned not to do with your next book?
I’ve learned not to rely solely on beta readers, because I’m now creating work that makes it into the public sphere, regardless of extent of reach. The moment I know I’ve got something, instead of turning to a crew of beta readers who already dig me, and my work, I’ll be working with a true, professional editor. That, I feel, will make certain what I write will put me closest to market. A good editor is the truest approximation of the notions and judgments of readers.
Thank you, Danny!