In his debut novel, J.R. Moehringer (The Tender Bar, 2006, etc.) delves into the mythology of legendary bank robber Willie “The Actor” Sutton. During a lifelong criminal career, Sutton stole more than two million dollars and cashed in on the urban legend that he robbed banks because, “That’s where the money is.” Sutton captures this cipher on Christmas Day in 1969, when a New York reporter takes the aging bandit on a tour of the sites of his most famous exploits.
After chasing the author for weeks, Kirkus finally caught up with him in Denver, where the conversation turned to the nature of criminals, broken hearts and the lies we tell ourselves.
Read out recent interview with Will Schwalbe on 'The End of Your Life Book Club.'
Why do you find Willie Sutton interesting enough to craft a whole novel around him?
What makes him interesting to me is that he had that rarest thing for a bank robber: a lengthy career. He was a voracious reader. He tried to be nonviolent within the limits of that trade. In all of his crimes and all of his jailbreaks, he never fired a shot. He seems to me to be motivated by love, which appeals to the Irish, romantic side of me. When banks were ripping off this country, Willie Sutton was ripping off banks. That makes him a very interesting figure.
On top of all of that is that he escaped three times, from maximum security prisons. Even though it’s impossible to validate or sanction his crime—I’m not one to do that—but there’s something human about rooting for the escape artist, regardless of someone’s crime. There’s something so inhumane about locking someone away in a cage that when they escape, part of us can’t help but root for him. When I read about his escapes, it spoke to some deep inner part of me that has a horror of being locked up.
There’s been some resurgence in the public zeitgeist around criminals. What is it about our contemporary tension that reinvigorates our interests in bank robbers?
Bank robbery is this American pursuit. It’s like baseball and jazz and spray tanning. It’s unique to us. We have some of the most iconic bank robbers in world history, and Willie Sutton is on that Mount Rushmore. I think he captured that social hostility to banks. The fact that crowds gathered around the jail when he was arrested and chanted his name makes him fascinating to me.
In 1969, when Willie got out, suddenly it was the age of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde and Dog Day Afternoon. There was a sea change then in the way the public perceives criminals, and I think there is again. I think when banks pushed the world to the brink of the abyss and were rewarded for their actions, it changed our view of criminals. I think we’re undergoing another public, social revision in how we see them. It seemed like a good time to look at a “gentleman bandit.”
It sounds like you started writing Sutton about four years ago.
Well, he’s been on my mind for a long time, but you’re right. When the financial crisis started to unravel, I was getting angrier and angrier as joblessness became such a part of life in this country. People get it about the banks, but what hasn’t come through so far is that this is not just a book about a guy who was anti-banks. This is a book about joblessness and it’s a book about a guy who had a deep work ethic.
Willie writes in his memoirs about the need for a job, the need for a man to find something that he does well and be gainfully employed at it in order to feel worthwhile. He lived at a time when having a career was the greatest luxury. He didn’t turn to crime on an impulse. Clearly a part of it was that he couldn’t find anything else to do until he discovered he was really good at robbing banks.
How does journalism play into the book? It’s interesting that the reporter, among others, is never named.
There was a lot behind that decision. First, two very good and reputable reporters from the Daily News in New York took him around in 1969, and I didn’t want to take liberties with their identities. I also think Willie, as a narcissist, saw people in their supporting roles to his leading man. He very likely saw people as their careers, because he was so focused on the roles we play. It lets them be spectral figures, as I’m sure they were to Willie. And it lets me project myself into the journalists. I’ve been Reporter a million times in my life. I’ve had the Christmas Day assignment interviewing someone who didn’t want to tell me the truth.
To be generous, Willie Sutton was an inveterate liar whose FBI files clash with both of his biographies, which clash with each other. It’s a mess.
That’s a great way of putting it, actually. It is a wondrous mess. First, I approached this as a journalist, so that mess was tormenting. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to say about this guy. Then I started to embrace that disorder. All that confusion about him means you’re not hemmed in by the facts. We have the bones of his story, and the rest is for me to make up.
If you’ve lived your whole live on the run or in a cage, you’re not going to be Mr. Truthful. So you’re warned very early on not to believe a word this guy says. And if you get to the end and you’ve believed what he said, shame on you and shame on the journalist. That’s fun for a writer and hopefully for the reader.
I was continually checking the files to gauge the veracity of his memoirs and always left shaking my head thinking, “Willie, you son-of-a-bitch, you did it to me again,” and I wanted the reader to have that experience.