Friday, April 23, 2010

Ace Atkins Captures "Machine Gun" Kelly

Posted By on Fri, Apr 23, 2010 at 6:47 AM

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Ace Atkins — crime writer — takes on true crime in Infamous (Putnam), a novel about George "Machine Gun" Kelly, his conniving wife Kathryn, gangsters, G-men, and a front-page story from 1933: the Kellys' kidnapping of an Oklahoma oilman and the couple's cross-country efforts to escape the law.

The story, in Atkins' words, is a comedy of errors. But it's also a novel steeped in period detail and characterization. And it ends where Kelly and Kathryn ended up: Kelly's hometown, Memphis. That's where Kelly and Kathryn were captured. And it's where this story began: with Atkins inside the Shelby County Archives.

Before Atkins' booksigning in Memphis at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on April 26th, I had a chance to talk to the author, who lives outside Oxford, Mississippi. It was a chance for him to talk about Infamous, before Atkins himself hits the road on a book tour, a topic we get to right off.

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Ace Atkins: It's always a weird thing. I'm kind of a hermit for most of the year, and then it's two weeks where I'm out talking to people, having to act like a real person. Sometimes it's jarring. Because for me to write, I've got to hang out by myself.

Still, a book tour ... it's fun, like a minivacation. I don't have any pages due. I don't have any editing to do. It's a good time.

Why a novel about Machine Gun Kelly, based on the facts about Machine Gun Kelly?
Kelly's been screwed over in terms of the pantheon of great gangsters: Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, etc. Everybody knows Machine Gun Kelly's name, but they don't really know him.

I was working on another book, one dealing with Memphis, and Jack Ruleman, who works at the Shelby County Archives, was pulling files for me.

He said, "Man, we've got files going back to Machine Gun Kelly." I said, "Really?" He said, "You know he's from Memphis." And I said, "I knew he had some kind of connection to Memphis, but I don't know much." He said, "Well, it's a hell of an interesting thing. There was this kidnapping in Oklahoma. They tracked Kelly down in South Memphis. It was a big deal."

It was like this guy was giving me a story pitch.

I said, "I'd really like to see that Kelly file. Could you make me a copy of it?" He said, "I can do that."

A week or two later, I went to pick up the file. It contained correspondence between the Memphis police chief and detectives and people in the rest of the country. Because when Kelly and Kathryn were caught, everyone across the country thought that they had perpetrated crimes everywhere. Police wanted to get mug shots, charts, how tall Kelly was. But tucked in there were newspaper accounts, and I quickly got a feeling what this novel would be like. I fell in love with the story.

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But it's not a typical gangster story. Kelly was not a bloodthirsty criminal. He never killed anybody. He was henpecked by his wife. He was really way over his head. I think Kelly would have been fine just being what he had been: a bootlegger.

He's everything opposite to what you'd expect in a gangster story. But for me, that made the story so much better. It was kind of a comic tale. Kelly really is one of the great characters to come out of Memphis.

You drew on other contemporary accounts of the Oklahoma kidnapping case?
I put in a Freedom of Information request from the FBI, and, man, they laid it on me. The file was 8,000 pages — a lot of stuff that hadn't been written about; quick reports to wade through to get to the heart of the stuff.

This story was covered from every angle. There's no shortage of details. This was J. Edgar Hoover and the height of the public-enemies list. Every time George Kelly had breakfast, every time he changed cars, it was documented. So I knew from the FBI reports every detail of what George Kelly was doing, where he'd been, how things played out. And that's how I was able to build such a narrative. There was no stone left unturned.

And Memphis figures significantly.
There are three main sites in Memphis related to Kelly: the house where he grew up on Cowden near Rembert. And there's the house on Rayner Street off South Parkway. It's where Kelly was captured. I don't know why there's no plaque. That house is like the birthplace of what we think of today as the FBI and its investigative methods. It's a shame. The house should be a museum or something. And then there's the house on Mignon near Rhodes College ... the scene of a really interesting part of the George Kelly story.

When Kelly came back to Memphis, still fleeing from the police, he'd been gone for seven years. He'd been divorced from his first wife, Geneva Ramsey, a wealthy local girl. Geneva's brother, Langford, got involved when Kelly returned. He'd always looked up to George. He was an up-and-comer, living in a nice neighborhood. He was the youngest man ever to pass the bar in Tennessee. He was working as an attorney. And then here comes George Kelly, a felon.

One of the reasons I believe Kelly returned to Memphis is that he knew he was going to get caught. I believe he thought he would not be caught alive. He thought it was going to end badly. So what he wanted to do was see his two sons by his first marriage. Through Langford, he set up a meeting with his sons at Langford's house on Mignon.

Kelly's sons didn't know who he was. He gave them a 20-dollar bill each and told them he was a federal agent, and he'd been on a special mission. That's why he hadn't been around. It's a sad moment. I don't think the sons even visited him when Kelly was in Alcatraz.

Did you end up inventing characters for "Infamous"?
No, and that goes for even a minor character like the crippled parking-garage worker at the Peabody hotel who owned the house on Rayner.

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Party-girl, publicity-mad Kathryn Kelly ... You had a field day with her.
I don't know if I'll ever have a character I enjoyed writing as much as I did Kit. Infamous is really not George Kelly's story, and it wasn't his story in real life. The more I got into Kit's interviews and her FBI files, which included her correspondence while in prison, I was really able to do her voice. She was fascinating. I wish there was a sequel to this story, because I enjoyed writing about her so much.

You started out as a journalist, which has given you a real eye for detail.
For Infamous, I lived in 1933 for a year and half — newspapers, anything I could read, for fun, not just for research. Movies. Whatever was going on. I just love the '30s. The films, for example, were fantastic: pre-Code, racy, Babara Stanwyck, etc. It was a time when pop culture started to really make an imprint on the public. I wanted readers to get into it, to get lost in it: 1933.

This is my eighth book, and I've been writing novels now for 12 years. The first four books, when I was still working for a newspaper, were hero-driven — a fantasy for a writer in his 20s. But I took that as far as I could.

I started writing more detail-oriented stories based on true stories. I melded two things: working as a journalist and as a novelist. It was fun: to tell true stories in not such a dry, boring kind of way — to bring the story to life. With novels, I can have at it, bend it a bit. But the characters are all real.

And what characters.
This story is crazy, like a Coen Brothers movie, a comedy of errors. More traditional writers have maybe been turned off by that. They wanted George Kelly to be John Dillinger. They wanted him to be a badass, when what he was was an affable guy.

That's what Homer Edgeworth thought. He's the 102-year-old guy who'd been a teller at the bank in Tupelo, Mississippi, that Kelly robbed 77 years ago. Even he had to admit, when I met Homer in a nursing home, that Kelly was a pretty nice guy.

But I don't think Kelly was a weak person. I don't think he was a stupid person. I just think he was an average, good-time, wealthy frat boy who'd gone to Central High — the kind of guy you can find in Memphis.

Do you have something new in the works already?
Kind of. I've been steered in the direction of the contemporary — a modern crime novel set in the hill country of north Mississippi. It's not based on a true story, but it is based on what truly goes on there. And it's coming from my own backyard. The people I know in this area. But it'll be a little grittier than the scene in Oxford.

Right now, though, I'm sitting here at my desk, clearing out my files. It'll be nice for the next book or two to not be looking at notes, double-checking dates, and researching clothes. After a year and half writing Infamous, I was beginning to feel like Machine Gun Kelly's press agent.

For more on Ace Atkins and Infamous, go to aceatkins.com.

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