Clyde Curley’s in for a busy day on Saturday, Feb. 28. He’s talking about “A Cup of Hemlock,” his second book in his “Detective Toussaint” mystery series, set in Portland, OR, and that evening, he’s playing fiddle for a contra dance at Fairhaven Library with the band he’s in, The Alphabeats. (His wife, Susan Curley, plays piano in the band.)
“A Cup of Hemlock” is a hard-to-put-down story about the murder of a high school teacher.
Here’s more about Curley, who taught high school for years in Oregon.
Question: As a former high school teacher, you were privy to behind-the-scenes goings-on among teachers and administrators. Did you include specific incidences in “A Cup of Hemlock,” use your imagination, embellish some, or what?
Answer: There’s nothing specific from my career in the novel, but there is plenty of embellishment.
One of the Oregon high schools where I taught experienced a long-term episode much like the over-arching narrative that grips the novel’s fictitious Monroe High School. For many teachers and some administrators, it was a trying time. The issues explored in “Hemlock” are almost exactly the same. Rest assured, no actual teachers were murdered!
Q: Did you create your characters from teachers, administrators and parents you knew?
A: All of the characters in the novel are pretty much composites of the kind of people one encounters in a high school setting. Teacher friends who have read the book assure me that I have pretty much got it right.
But I have to confess that two of the central characters in the story are closely modeled on actual people I knew and worked with.
Q: Who is Martin Silverman?
A: I dedicated the novel to professor Marvin Silverman, who directed my secondary education training at San Francisco State’s two-semester certification program in 1968-69.
He washed the idealistic fairy dust out of my eyes about what it would be like to teach high school English and replaced it, paradoxically, with an idealism heavily dosed with a realistic, pragmatic—and most importantly, humanistic—philosophy of teaching and learning that guided me through my entire career.
Q: How do you know about police procedures and detective work?
A: I have a weakness for high-quality cop shows. You can learn a lot if you’re paying attention!
Also, of course, there’s the Internet, which supplies a bountiful feast of information about how detectives work and how a police force is organized.
I try not to dwell too much on the day when I meet someone in law enforcement who tells me that I have it all wrong! I fall back on my baseline position: It’s fiction!
Q: As in “Raggedy Man,” your first “Detective Toussaint” novel, you take on society and cultural norms, as well as educational philosophy—which seem specific to the Pacific Northwest. Thoughts?
A: I like to think that the abstract issues I pursue in both books are universal. Frankly, it’s why I write them—to help spread ideas that I think readers could benefit reflecting on as individuals and as citizens.
The educational standards, testing, and accountability movements that Oregon grappled with in the ’90s are certainly not limited to that state’s situation. Look at No Child Left Behind. Look at Common Core. It’s everywhere. And as readers of “A Cup of Hemlock” know, I believe that whole movement is a huge mistake.
Q: You’ve won several awards for your writing: How do you go about submitting work for prizes?
A: As a writer self-publishing through an obscure indie house, promotion of my work pretty much falls on my shoulders. It’s the worst part of getting my books out to the public.
So entering contests is one way to do this—assuming I win anything! I’m a member of Pacific Northwest Writers Association and Whatcom Writers and Publishers.
And I occasionally attend gatherings like the excellent Chuckanut Writers Conference, which meets locally in the summer. These connections lead me to contests that might be appropriate for my books.
Q: Are you writing anything besides Detective Toussaint books?
A: I’ve been handcuffed by Toussaint. I have to follow his story wherever it leads.
I’ve started a third novel, tentatively called “Honor,” about the murder of a soldier just returned from Afghanistan. I fear it’s going to be a magnum opus. There’s so much to say—but so much fun to be had in bringing it to the page.