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Take Five: Author Eric Jerome Dickey is 'Tempted by Trouble'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 18, 2010 - Author Eric Jerome Dickey, who will be speaking at the St. Louis County Library Saturday, would probably take exception to this description promoting his appearance that appears on the library's website:

"Described as 'the king of African American fiction' by Entertainment Weekly, Eric Jerome Dickey discusses his highly anticipated new novel 'Tempted by Trouble' -- a flaming-hot story set in the world of conmen and thieves.''

Dickey says he prefers to be known simply as "author" -- no racial or ethnic description necessary.

"You don't see 'Stephenie Meyer, Caucasian vampire writer.' Really, what is that about?" Dickey said, chuckling, but serious. "It's almost as if a minority writer in this country is never regarded simply as a writer. You're a 'Latin writer.' You're an 'African-American writer.' Stephen King is just a horror writer. He's not a 'Swedish-Danish horror writer.' "

Dickey says it's not about escaping his roots.

"A writer should be just a writer,'' he said. "The only thing that should limit a writer is his or her imagination. That's it. And, hopefully, each day a writer is trying to broaden that and say, 'What if.' And come up with new ideas and better ideas and looking at the stereotypes and asking, 'How can I make a twist on that and make it fresh?' "

Dickey insists that descriptions of his ethnicity be left out of promotional material provided by his publisher.

"The only thing I've ever had control over, to a certain extent, was putting out the press kit that comes from the publisher, and I have told them that's not necessary. You have my face on the book."

For that matter, Dickey says he doesn't even know the ethnicity of the main character with the oddly spelled first name in his new novel "Tempted by Trouble." Dmytryk Knight is a classy man who turns to robbing banks even while trying to maintain his values. The point, Dickey says, is that this man's troubles and actions transcend his race. Defining him in racial or ethnic terms would get in the way of the story.

"It would become a story about a particular race, even though everyone is feeling the same thing," Dickey said.

That "same thing," by the way, is the rotten U.S. economy: unemployment, foreclosure, desperation.

To avoid spoiling the plot of this new release, let's just say that Dmytryk with the oddly spelled first name is the classic nice-guy-pushed-too-far, regardless of his race, politics or religion. The story is set in Detroit, a proud manufacturing city that has been pummeled by the recession, and Dmytryk is a laid-off auto executive tumbling off the economic ladder.

Dickey, the author of 12 novels, including several that made the New York Times bestsellers list, is known for his provocative contemporary fiction. Translation: There are plentiful doses of sex and seduction along with the suspense surrounding Dmytryk's survival. (This is not a novel for the kids.)

Dickey, 49, grew up in Memphis and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s to work as a software designer in the aerospace industry. When he was laid off in the 1990s, Dickey built a new career in comedy and writing. He took classes at the University of California at Los Angeles and workshops sponsored by the International Black Writers and Artists.

Dickey spoke by phone with the Beacon earlier this week. Here are excerpts from that interview:

You have certainly reinvented yourself: from computers and the aerospace industry to writing best-selling contemporary fiction. How did that happen?

Dickey: We have rough times now, but back in the late '80s and early '90s for the aerospace industry it was rough. A lot of people were laid off, and I was in that bunch.

You know, during peace talks you saw the gradual dismembering of where you work. In aerospace, as long as there was war and "Star Wars" and nuclear buildups, you had a job.

It's interesting if you are a person of peace and yet you work in aerospace. It's that way for a lot of people. It's that conflict: Well, I have to eat. I have to take care of my family. I have to do something that I don't necessarily agree with. It's almost like in my book "Tempted by Trouble." Dmytryk has to eat. He has to take care of his family. Bills have to be paid.

From an adult point of view, life costs on a daily basis regardless whether you are homeless or live in a mansion. You have to figure out how you're going to eat. You have to be creative.

Would you say that the recession is the true antagonist in your new novel?

Dickey: It motivates the characters from so many angles.

I know what it feels like. Post-aerospace, the only money I had was the money in my pocket. I know what it feels like. I'm not saying that I'm writing about me -- and I'm not -- but I understand what that feels like when you have to figure out something.

And being a man, when you're down and out and you put money into the system for decades and now you're having hard times and you go down to places that have programs for people who have no money and there's nothing for you because you are a man. I've been there. If I'm not female with a kid, even though I've paid money into the system all my life, there's nothing for me? Then you start to understand why so many men are on the street.

The main character in your book wears crisp suits and a fedora -- and seems to belong to a different era.

Dickey: Dmytryk has done everything by the book -- the American Dream rulebook. He's educated; he speaks several languages. Yet he's laid off, there's no employment for him, and he's watching as jobs are being created. If you have this education and you're watching shovel-ready jobs being created, those jobs aren't for you.

At the same time, he grew up in a household with a mom and dad and this division of labor. And no matter how hard it was, they didn't point fingers at one another. That makes him very emotionally mature in realizing that in his own marriage we're together. We can do this. We have a commitment.

He is a throwback to another era. I watch a TV show called "Mad Men,'' and it was almost like putting a character from that era into this era and letting him become the protagonist in one of my novels.

People don't wear suits for anything anymore. When people used to travel, going on a plane or on a bus, you'd dress. Now, I'm walking through a grocery store and people are wearing pajamas. I've been on flights where people are getting on the plane in pajamas carrying pillows. I'm sorry, but am I in your home now? They've put wings on your house?

Dmytryk is not like that. And he's not beyond apologizing. When that primal part of you takes over and you use language that is so beneath you, even if it is not as severe as what you hear on HBO, he still pulls back and says that people should not talk to each other that way when they're trying to work together. Be together. Respect each other.

The economic hard times of Detroit form the backdrop to your story. How have people in Detroit reacted to this?

Dickey: The book is just being released, but I did an interview earlier this week with a writer from Detroit. And he said that Dmytryk feels so much like he's from Detroit. I spent a little time in Detroit when I was researching. I read the paper. Talked to people. Talked to people who worked at GM and a couple of people who had lived there all their lives. I took the bus to Windsor [Canada]. I walked around with my little note pad in hand trying to get the mood.

Someone pointed out that the rest of the world reads about Detroit in the paper or sees it in on CNN every day. But we live here. We wake up to this. Where the world is pointing fingers is right here. It's like we are the epicenter of every problem this country has.

It goes back to the basics of life. If I'm here, and I don't get a paycheck, what happens to food, clothing and shelter?

I remember when I was laid off from aerospace in the '90s standing in line at the outplacement center and the guy in front of me had a Ph.D. and I just remember this moment where in my mind I thought, "This is not me."

Some people who read this book might think you are making excuses for criminal activity. Is this a message about the times?

Dickey: There's no heavy-handedness about it, at least none intended. I was just basically trying to create this character Dmytryk Knight and fall into his life.

The thing about people who rob banks, there are just so many different reasons that they do it. Some people are just plain greedy; some people are doing it for kicks. When I was doing the research, I would Google and watch the news, and I was really surprised at how many bank robberies occur all of the time. This is the stuff that people stop paying attention to.

There was a lady with two kids, no husband, no job. She just needed a little money to feed her family, and she went into a bank with a gun. This is a mom of childen. She was arrested; she was super-desperate. But the penalty is going to be the same.

There have been people who just enjoy robbing banks. They get a kick from terrorizing people, jumping over the counter. They have videos on YouTube and other places. I would sit and watch them and say, "That is not Dmytryk. That is not anyone on this crew." If you back away, and look at the characters in "Tempted by Trouble," all of them speak of their responsibilities as men. No one is in this for kicks.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.