The poet Jonathan Harrington, a.k.a. a mystery writer
by Julie Stewart
American Poet Jonathan Harrington is one of Merida’s most colorful foreign residents. He lives in a ramshackle 18th-century haunted hacienda, walks with a bouncing gate, and removes his thick black-framed spectacles when he recites his favorite poems in a joyous voice on a regular basis on the ‘stage’ of Merida’s Open Mic night.
What Meridanos are less aware of is the rosy-cheeked poet’s success as a mystery writer.
Harrington wrote a series of five murder mysteries: The Death of Cousin Rose, The Second Sorrowful Mystery, A Great Day for Dying, Saint Valentine’s Diamond, and Death on the Southwest Chief that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hardback, paperback, and book club editions.
Below Julie Stewart chats with Harrington to find out more.
Q: A Great Day for Dying is perhaps the best known of your mystery novels. On the Amazon site, there are six reviews and all gave the book five stars. They loved the book! Are any of these people – Charles Holdefer, Patti Biringer, Austin Layman, Harriet Klausner, Kathleene Thomason, or ‘A Customer’ – your friends or family?
A: The only name I recognize is my friend Charles Holdefer, a writer who has lived in France since we both graduated from the Iowa Writers´ Workshop in 1983. The rest are not known to me. So, no, I´m not bribing people to say nice things about my books.
Q: Your Irish-themed mystery novels were mostly written in the late 1990s and early 2000s. What motivated you during this period to write these books?
A: All four of my grandparents were born in Ireland. My mother´s parents were born in County Mayo. My father´s parents were from County Clare and County Wexford. I grew up in a family with a great deal of pride in our Irish-Catholic roots. When I was an adolescent I traveled with my mother to visit her family in Ireland. Typical of a teenager, I was bored with the whole trip. I found the dreary weather depressing and as a proud Southerner I got tired of people calling me a “Yank.” Years later, when my mother died, everything changed. Suddenly I became fascinated with my Irish roots. I went back to Ireland to visit both my mother and father´s extended families. This time, I thought Ireland was one of the most wonderful places I had ever been. I made many trips after that. On one of those trips I did an extensive genealogical search of my father´s mother and her family. As I reviewed the materials I collected I came to the conclusion that genealogical research is like the work of a detective. You are gathering evidence from ship´s records, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses and wills. All of this detective work is done in an attempt to solve a mystery. The mystery? Who am I and where did I come from. That’s when it occurred to me that I could use this material to write a mystery novel. Frankly, I had never even read a mystery novel. Coming from a strictly literary background, I looked down my nose at mystery novels. But I began writing, learning the genre along the way (gaining more and more respect for mysteries) and The Death of Cousin Rose was born. I found a supportive hardback publisher, the paperback rights were later sold to Worldwide (a division of Harlequin) and a book club edition was put out by the Detective Book Club. The book was a hit and I followed in the next ten years with four more books in the series all featuring the main character, Danny O´Flaherty.
Q: Which, in your opinion, is the best mystery ever written?
A: The best mystery ever written (and this is a controversial statement) was written nearly 500 years before the birth of Christ: Oedipus the King by the Greek playwright, Sophocles. Scholars of both mystery writing and more serious literature will be shocked by this statement but I stick to it. The plot of Oedipus is this: a crime has been committed—the king of Thebes has been murdered. Oedipus, the new king, is determined to find out “who done it” so he launches an investigation into the crime. Of course those of you who have read the play know what results. Oedipus discovers in the course of his detective work that he himself murdered the king (his father) and he is now currently married to the queen who (unknown to Oedipus) is his mother.
Q: Who are your favorite mystery writers?
A: First let me mention my favorite mystery writer from México: Paco Ignacio Taibo. He´s probably the best-known writer of mysteries in the Spanish language. He´s a dynamic personality, writes books of history, politics, biography, everything. I had the pleasure of getting to know him in Spain at Semana Negra, a ten day-celebration of mystery writing that was founded, organized and is still run by Paco Ignacio Taibo. We also belonged to the International Crime Writers Association so I would see him occasionally in New York at meetings.
As for other favorites—there are just so many. The mystery (or crime novel as it is now commonly called) has gained a great deal more respect in recent years. For years it was a very poor cousin of the “real” literary novel. But as the writing improved, with complex characters, poetic language, and realistic dialogue and plot it has gained much respect. My list of some of the best writers in the genre would have to include P.D. James (an elegant stylist). I enjoy Donna Leon´s series featuring the Venice, Italy police detective Commissario Brunnetti. An Irish mystery writer I greatly admire is John Brady whose novels are as finely etched as any so-called “literary” novel. Others in the list: James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard (for a fast, fun read) Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) Janwillem van der Wetering, Georges Simenon, James Crumley, Barry Gifford…oh, stop me, I could go on forever.
Q: A strange but common perception of writing and writers is that if your books have been published, you are rich. You have published five novels and numerous chapbooks; so are you rich?
A: Oh, yes, I´m fabulously wealthy. I have a yacht moored off Progreso and a helicopter to take me to my ranch. No, seriously. The perception of published writers making a fortune from their books is largely a result of the fact that the general public only hears of the very high-paid authors like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, etc. But these types of writers are a miniscule minority of the hundreds of thousands of writers in the world. The truly great writers (that are revered and respected by other writers) are not known to the general public, their books sell modestly and most are not living off their writing. The majority are teaching in universities.
These days I dedicate my energy to poetry; one DOES NOT write poetry for money. You can make more money collecting aluminum cans in Mérida and selling them in Kanasin. I´ll tell you a funny story. Years ago I published a poem in a literary magazine in the USA. Before publication the magazine sent me a contract. It must have been over ten pages long. When I came to the bottom line I was surprised that they actually paid: US $1.00 per poem. I smiled, signed the contract, and mailed it back. (I think it cost 75 pesos or more to mail to the USA). Anyway, months later I had taken out the daily limit of my ATM card to buy an expensive but necessary item and literally did not have a peso until the next morning when I could withdraw more money. I was very, very hungry. With nothing much to do I went to check my mail at the old post office in Mérida (now the Museo de la Ciudad). I had received copies of the magazine in which my poem appeared. I was pleased. At least I could read the magazine to distract me from my hunger. Being an egotistical writer, of course I turned to my poem first. The page where my poem appeared had a bookmark: a crisp, new US $1.00 bill. I was thrilled. I went immediately to the money exchange and went out and got myself something to eat. Yes, you could get a meal for a dollar in those days. So, you see. I´m living off the proceeds from my poetry.
Q: What, in fact, would you estimate as your hourly pay rate when you write?
A: I have been writing for many years. The first time I was ever paid for a piece of writing was almost 40 years ago, worked as a columnist, sold magazine pieces to airline magazines, newspapers, etc. I earned a modest amount from the mystery novels. But if you take into account all the time I´ve spent writing I would say seriously that it probably amounts to less than one penny an hour. No kidding. The famous Jack Kerouac made a total of US $600 in his lifetime. Now his heirs are making millions off On The Road and his other novels. Such is the life of a writer.
Q: Do you have any plans to write another novel?
A: Never say never. But right now my main focus is on poetry and translations. I am finding translating incredibly satisfying at this stage in my career. It allows me to enter the mind of someone else for a change. This might sound a little loco but it seems to me that one can get sick of oneself after awhile. After all, I´ve been Jonathan Harrington for 56 years now. As a writer, living primarily inside one´s own mind—well, I find it a little exhausting. With translation I get out of my own head and enter someone else´s world in a very intimate way. As I was translating the Mayan poet Bricieda Cuevas Cob´s book (From the Hem of my Dress) I was able to enter her mind and live her life in a way that I found extremely refreshing. Translating is very important to me now.
Q: You are an accomplished and widely-published poet; your work has appeared in everything from the New York Times to the Texas Review. If you had to select one poem most reflective of your inner life, which do you feel is most quintessentially Jonathan Harrington, and why?
A: Well, that´s one of those impossible questions to answer, you know. Excuse the cliché but it is like asking a mother…now which of your children is your favorite? Having said that…gosh, I hate this question. Usually, my favorite poem is the very latest poem I have written. But let me turn the question around a bit. One poem that seems to have struck a chord with many people—with children, adults, English readers, Spanish readers—people just seem to like it: “A Rain of Bicycles.” One of my personal favorites is a somewhat recent one, the title poem of my chapbook, “Aquí.” The poem in English is “Here.” But, to be honest, I think a writer´s opinion of his or her own work really counts for very little. I find it very dangerous to judge my own work because I have often written something that I am ready to throw away. It seems bad and completely useless. But someone will come along and say, “Wow, I read that poem you left on your desk. That is one of the best things you have ever written.” It makes me reluctant to judge myself. It also makes me reluctant to throw too many things away. You never know.
For example, one week the Yucatecan poet Fernando de la Cruz announced that the theme of the following week´s Café Poesía (a reading series in Spanish in Mérida) would be “Protest.” I looked through my work and realized I had never really written a protest poem. I forgot about it until the night of the reading and on the way to the reading I scribbled out a poem that I thought of as kind of a joke. This is what I wrote*:
I’m against plants that don’t bloom,
blinking on and off;
I’m against noise and rudeness,
garbage and dead batteries,
motors that won’t start,
wet matches, and slow computers;
I’m against wounds and against tears,
against hunger and thirst, insomnia, envy…
But señor, they say, stopping me:
You’re against all these things.
What political party do you support?
Well, I am a proud one hundred-percent supporter,
and a life-long member, of the party of LOVE.
(*as translated from my Spanish into English by Fernando de la Cruz)
It was surprisingly well-received that night. Still, I intended to throw it away. But Fernando de la Cruz insisted that the poem be included in my book that he translated into Spanish, “Aquí.” I still don´t understand why but especially among Spanish readers it really seems to strike a chord. I don´t know how many readers have told me it is their favorite poem in the book. In short, the writer may not be the best judge of his or her own work.
Q: What brought you to Merida initially?
A: When I graduated from the Iowa Writers´ Workshop in 1983, the university made a slight accounting error. A student loan that I had applied for long before graduation finally came through. So, to my surprise, I received a check in the mail after I had already graduated. But the university accounting office soon realized its mistake and demanded the money back. I said, “No, I signed a contract to borrow this money and I will pay back every cent of it according to the terms of the contract.” What could they do? Nothing, of course. So I decided I wanted to use the money to go abroad and live for a year if I could. My first choice was Ireland but I knew the money would not last a year. Then, both my sister and a Cuban friend in Florida said, “Why don´t you go to Mérida, Mexico. It is really a wonderful city and hardly anyone knows about it.” I had been to northern Mexico before and loved it. To make a long story short, I came to Mérida in 1984: It was a very, very different place then. I fell in love with everything about the Yucatán. After my year was up, I went back to the USA and worked for the publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (and by the way, paid back every cent of my student loan). Over the next 20 years I took every opportunity to return to the Yucatán. In those days you could fly round-trip from Miami direct to Mérida for US $125. Since the flight is a little over an hour, I even used to go on weekends just to savor the atmosphere and see friends. When I taught at the University of Central Florida I used all my breaks and summer vacations to come to the Yucatán. For twenty years I made as many as three trips per year to the Yucatán. It became my spiritual home.
Q: Before living in Merida, you lived in New York City where you witnessed the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Did that affect the course of your life?
A: It turned my life completely upside down. This is not a subject I like to discuss. I was working near the World Trade Center. I saw things I wish I had never, ever seen. In short, I went into a state of shock. I worked for a very progressive publishing firm who provided psychiatrists, therapists, support groups, etc. for employees who were suffering from the post traumatic stress syndrome. Still, I decided…I´m out of here. I´m going home—to Yucatán. Just months after September 11, 2001, I bought the Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay. I have lived there full-time ever since. As a footnote to all this, I have just published a new book of poems in the USA entitled, “Yesterday, A Long Time Ago.” It is a collection of poems all dealing with the events of that horrible Tuesday in September. It is published by Finishing Line Press and is available from their website and on Amazon.
Q: People might say that a murder mystery writer sports an active imagination. Do you really believe there is a ghost living at your hacienda, and what more can you tell us about this phantasm?
A: I first heard about the “Princesa” from the Mayan family who lived on the hacienda with me for five years. The short version of the story is this: (the long version of the story is told in an excellent piece written by Mark Olson and featured on his blog—An Alaskan in Yucatán). Short version: In the mid-eighteen hundreds the owner of Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay came in from the fields at an hour that his wife was not expecting. When he came into the house he entered the bathroom. There he found the encargado (foreman) of the hacienda and his wife in a…pardon me…most compromising position. (Mark goes into detail in his blog). The hacienda owner drew his machete and stabbed his wife to death. The foreman ran away and was never heard from again. The family who lived with me reported regular sightings of the ghost of this woman walking around the hacienda. In the house, inside the casco. What was amazing was the incredible details in which the family could relate how she looked, what she did, etc. Do I believe it? I will only say this. One night I was sleeping when I heard someone walking around inside my house in chanclas (sandals). I called out to my encargado, assuming he was in the house for some reason. I called many times and got no response, yet the sound persisted. Next morning I asked Basilio…”What in the world were you doing in the house at 3 o´clock in the morning?” He looked at me, confused. “I didn’t go into your house.” I described what I heard. All the family laughed. “But that was the Princesa,” they said. “We saw her last night, too. She seemed more restless than usual.” I will let the story stand alone and not say whether I believe or don’t believe. You never know.
Q: We are only six months away from the much-touted Mayan prophecy regarding the end of the world as we know it. Do you think the world will come to a fiery end or that a new spiritual era will blossom?
A: I have lived intimately with Mayan people for over 10 years now. I have witnessed their joys and their sufferings. I can tell you that I have never once met a Mayan who is concerned with the end-of-the world prophecy. What the Maya are concerned about is putting tortillas on the table for their families. They are concerned with problems within the Maya community that are never given any publicity at all. But mostly, the Maya are hoping, like every person in the world, that the lives of their children will be better than their own lives. I don´t want to sound harsh, but I find all this stuff about 21 December 2012 insulting to the Maya. They have real problems and concerns. But few people in the West are interested in that. They want to see the Maya as “exotic.” I don’t consider my friends and neighbors “exotic.” I consider them people like you and me, struggling to live a life of dignity. I will leave the prophecies to thrill-seekers from the developed world who have no knowledge of the living, breathing Maya people. I understand people from all over the world will be at Chichen Itza on December 21. I can assure you that no one from my community will be there even if they could afford it. But I don´t want to end on such a cranky note. It sounds too much like I´m ranting. Perhaps, to play it safe, I should repeat what I said about the Princesa—Do I think the world will come to an end on December 21?
You never know.