In the greater half of a century, Charles Deemer has produced over 40 plays, served in the Army, dropped out of school three times, published numerous short stories and essays, and had six screenplays optioned. And those are just the highlights. Now, as a professor at Portland State University and editor of the Oregon Literary Review, Deemer is being recognized for his recent novel, Dead Body in a Small Room.
In the greater half of a century, Charles Deemer has produced over 40 plays, served in the Army, dropped out of school three times, published numerous short stories and essays, and had six screenplays optioned. And those are just the highlights.
Now, as a professor at Portland State University and editor of the Oregon Literary Review, Deemer is being recognized for his recent novel, Dead Body in a Small Room.
The book is a finalist in the mystery category for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year for 2006. ForeWord is an independently published literary magazine that reviews books exclusively from independent presses. It gives awards annually in various categories of fiction and nonfiction.
Dead Body is about a Hollywood screenwriter who barely escapes cancer, then moves to a small town in Nevada to recuperate, where his sister is a cop. Prostitution is legal in the town and the protagonist gets involved with the death of one of the prostitutes.
The death appears to be a suicide, but isn’t.
“I was fascinated with the idea that a person would solve a mystery the same way a writer would solve a story problem,” Deemer said. “I wanted to do two things: use a screenwriter as a detective and to write about legal prostitution in Nevada in contrast to Hollywood’s take on romance.”
Deemer said he wrote the novel two and a half years ago, and it took about six months to complete. He said he entered the contest on a whim, but that he truly writes for himself and not commercial reasons.
“I don’t expect anything, one way or another,” Deemer said. “I’ve been a judge in literary competitions myself and I’ve come to believe these affairs have more to do with judges than with writers. For a writer, it’s a crapshoot, so you can’t lose sleep over these things.”
Deemer spent his childhood moving because his father was in the Navy, but he mainly grew up in Southern California. He attended the California Institute of Technology with an interest in math and science, but dropped out in 1959 and enlisted in the Army for four years.
After doing well on a language aptitude test he took during training, Deemer was placed in the Army Security Agency and served as a Russian linguist when the Berlin Wall was erected.
This was during the Cold War, Deemer said, when the only way to get deferment from the military was to study math or science. In his early 20s, Deemer was younger than most the other soldiers in his agency, which he said was heavily comprised of young men educated in the humanities.
He said three out of 100 men in his group did not have a master’s degree.
“The wonderful thing about the Army was that it was the most intense educational experience I’ve ever had,” he said. “It was like having all these big brothers with master’s degrees.”
Deemer said he is currently working on an Army novel, drawing from the experience of his days in the military. Called Baumholder 1961, the novel is based on the German city he was stationed in.
“I don’t know why I’ve never written about it,” Deemer said. “Now I am.”
After the Army, Deemer went to school on the G.I. Bill. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and then began teaching at the University of Oregon in the 1960s. Eventually he got his master’s of fine arts in playwriting from the University of Oregon.
He moved to Portland in 1978, where he lives with his wife of nine years. Currently, Deemer teaches screenwriting at PSU, which he said he loves. He said he thinks his practical experience as a writer is something unique that he brings to the classroom.
“I can tell my students what it’s really like to be a working writer,” Deemer said. “It’s a tough business.”
Though he said he does not foresee another mystery novel in the future, Deemer said writing is something he has always done and will continue to do for the rest of his life.
“Having written almost daily for over 40 years, I can say that writing is not a job or a vocation or a profession–it is an existence,” Deemer said. “It is a way of being in the world.”