Brian Finney, a professor of English, has published eight books on subjects ranging from a biography of Christopher Isherwood (awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize for the best work of non-fiction in 1979) to Terrorized: How the War on Terror Affected American Culture and Society, published on Amazon’s Kindle in 2011 and as a paperback in 2018. In 2019 he published his first novel, Money Matters (see below for link), an unconventional detective novel in which a woman with no experience uncovers the whereabouts of a missing person with connections to the powerful CEO of a mutual fund company, a politician running for governor in California, and a drug cartel.
In 1989, after two years as a Visiting Professor at the University of California, Riverside and subsequent adjunct positions at UCLA and the University of Southern California, he became a full-time professor at California State University, Long Beach, where he is currently a Professor Emeritus in the Department of English.
1.What inspired you to write Money Matters? More specifically, what was compelling enough when you started your next book to make the switch over from nonfiction to fiction?
I had just retired from full-time teaching. Having spent decades teaching university students how to read and understand the way fiction works, I grasped the opportunity to write my own work of fiction, now that the pressure to publish nonfiction work had lifted.
2. Money Matters is described as a literary thriller. What gives is literary merit? What makes it more than a simple genre-based thriller such as a John Grisham or David Balducci novel?
A number of things. Firstly it is a (late) coming-of-age novel, which suggests ways in which a life can change. Secondly it incorporates – or better – dramatizes social and political issues of our era. As the title indicates, it (especially Jenny) grapples with America’s money culture – to what extent can anyone resist it? Because it is dividing our country. And it confronts the divergent attitudes to immigration. A number of characters are immigrants, some undocumented.
3. What became so tempting to you – an English professor – about straightforward, plot-driven fiction that you would write such a novel? Are you a closet reader of genre fiction when none of the other English professors are watching?
I think of it as a mixed genre novel. As I’ve said, it is a coming-of-age novel. It is an amateur detective novel. It is also a suspense novel. It is a novel of social and political issues. And towards the end it also makes use of the romance convention. But each genre is used a little unconventionally. And the mixture of genres helps to keep the reader off-balance, adding to the suspense, but not in the normal way.
4. In your media kit, you describe your protagonist only by her first name, Jenny. That’s hardly a literary convention (which relies on deeper issues of characterization and therefore creates expectations for fully, fleshed-out characters.) Why only a first name in your blurb – which will typically be a reader’s first experience with a book? And yes, I am holding your feet to the fire, a little.
Interesting. No one has asked me this before. Jenny is both narrator and protagonist, so I want the reader to – not identify with her – but feel very close to her. To refer to her by her last name is too formal for my purposes, or should I say too distant. I want the space between Jenny and the reader to be small enough for the reader to undergo her fright or anger, and yet large enough to maintain a critical attitude towards her.
5. How did you choose your protagonist – someone who is so clearly difficult from you? What is so important about her youth and naivete in terms of all the mysteries she uncovers in the novel?
I wanted to choose a narrator / major character who was as different from myself as possible. I am old; she is 27. I am a man; she is a woman. I am an immigrant from England; she is a native Los Angelean born in the San Fernando Valley. These differences allowed me to be more free and inventive than if I had based my protagonist on myself.
6. Another interesting switch in your writing (aside from shifting from nonfiction to fiction) is moving from the kind of literary studies one would expect of an English professor (Lawrence, Isherwood, Amis, etc.) to a work about the impact of the war on terrorism on American culture. What’s up with that?
Good question. I had already acquired tenure as a full professor. So I felt freer to pursue my own passion. Like everyone else I was in shock after seeing those planes full of terrified passengers fly into the World Trade Towers. A decade later I was convinced that 9/11 had radically changed American culture. Nothing I could write in English studies could directly address this (to me) burning issue. So I wrote and self-published Terrorized. Although I didn’t have the time to publicize it properly and it consequently sold poorly, I am proud of this venture into an alien academic field.
7. V.S. Naipaul never stopped complaining about being homeless and country-less for his entire career. I see no evidence from your move from England to the United States that this impacted your sense of identity of experience of upheaval. Is that true? On the other hand, immigration plays a role in Money Matters. Were you thinking about yourself in some way?
You are right. I was never traumatized by immigrating to the States in the way V. S. Naipaul was moving to England. This is partly because from my teens on I came to hate the class system that still adheres to British society today. So I was already alienated from the country of my birth. To add to this, in the years leading to my departure I found myself forced to implement Margaret Thatcher’s savage education cuts while strongly opposed to them. Teaching summer schools as a visiting professor at UCLA and USC made me realize I could do this without the administrative obligations of my position at London University. Only after completing Money Matters did I realize that my unconscious must have prompted me, an immigrant, to make immigration a central theme.
8. Along these lines, why set the novel against the backdrop of the 2010 election? What about that time period resonated with you?
The 2010 midterm election illustrated so clearly the issues that have been dividing our country – especially immigration and wealth distribution. These featured as major points of disagreement between the two contestants for California’s governor. The election results confirmed this split, with much of the country going red while California bucked the national trend. These issues continue to dominate political discourse today.
9. Did writing fiction give you the liberty to explore ideas that you couldn’t have explored writing nonfiction? Will you write more fiction, do you think?
Writing fiction has been very liberating. At the same time I found that the requirements of the narrative and the characters often made me give voice to viewpoints I had little sympathy for. For instance to bring Tricia, Jenny’s sister, to life, I had to ridicule many liberal attitudes. That was equally educative for me. Whether I go on to write another novel, or a fictionalized autobiography, or even nonfiction (but not literary criticism), I don’t yet know.
10. Tell me about the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. What did your work on Isherwood bring out that brought you this kind of recognition? Congratulations, by the way.
Thank you for the congratulations. The announcement of the prize came as a total surprise in the form of a letter in the mail. I set out to write a critical biography that related each of Isherwood’s major books to the equivalent phase of his life. This way I was able to draw on my critical skills for the literary chapters and on my research skills for the alternating biographical chapters. The research required was considerable as Isherwood was still alive and his friends were understandably reluctant to part with intimate material.
11. The literary community tends to be more traditional in reading preferences – printed hardcovers and traditional prizes and book lists rather than books that might be out there in these “silly blog things”. Yet you seem to have taken to the digital world with grace. How did your journey take you to the Kindle, and why did you choose to embrace it?
My first use of Kindle was for Terrorized. No major publisher was willing to risk publishing a socio-economic work by an English professor. So self-publishing was my only option. For Money Matters, I did contact a number of literary agents and small publishers with no positive response. So this time I decided to self-publish the novel as an ebook, paperback and audiobook with the help of a very knowledgeable marketing consultant, Nanda Dyssou and her Coriolis Company. Thanks to her Money Matters has made a mark and continues to attract interest and attention. For any of your readers who are interested, here is the link to my novel’s Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07W62XLY6/
12. Finally, I have to ask…what was it like meeting Samuel Beckett? Was he as scary as his photos in later years (spiky hair, penetrating gaze) suggests? Did he surprise you in any way?
I met Samuel Beckett in his favorite cafe in Montparnasse. As soon as I sat down at his table I felt as if his eyes were penetrating to the back of my head. I am normally able to talk to anyone, but for at least the first fifteen minutes he was forced to lead the conversation (about the paintings in the Royal Collection, if I remember correctly). Once I had recovered my voice we went on to talk about international productions of his plays. What he would never talk about was anything to do with the interpretation of his works. I will never forget the hour I spent on a conversation with him.
Click here to read other contributions in Jay Lemming’s interview series with authors of literary and contemporary fiction.