Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hell of a Woman

Megan Abbott is one of the most exciting "noir" voices to emerge in the last ten years. Her quick, deft prose style slices the subject matter to the bone and evokes not only the classic themes of the genre, but the time periods themselves, (1930s, 50s, 60s and today in several of her short stories). She is a teacher and scholar of the form, and armed with an encyclopedic knowledge and incisive vision, crafts stories recalling the promise of yesterday's golden age of pulp and tomorrow's post-genre discussion of literature in the new millennium. She is the author of Die A Little, The Song is You, Queenpin and the editor of the anthology A Hell of a Woman. Her new novel Bury Me Deep is now available from Simon & Schuster.

There's a progression in your protagonists from a still somewhat timid and rather shocked Lora King denying to herself that IT is in her at the close of Die a Little to the much more forwardly ambitious and unapologetic opening of Queenpin - I want the legs. Is there any of the author in that evolution?

Probably. When I think about it, Lora and Queenpin's narrator are more alike than they might appear. They both are unreliable narrators because neither character can really admit or reckon with their own drives. As much as Queenpin's narrator feigns to lay herself bare for the reader, she chooses which cards to show and which ones to hold back. And, like Lora, there's things she doesn't want to look at about herself, so it becomes a kind of shadow dance. That self-deception is something, I realize now, I keep circling back to. It might be an abiding fascination rather than an evolution, because I can't seem to let go of it.

It's a little hard to believe there's anything subconscious about your craft after hearing you speak on film noir or reading something like The Street Was Mine or the afterward for Miami Purity. Are there other elements that take you off guard, other themes you don't recognize you return to 'till it's out there?

It's pretty buried. I always think of it like the sides of my head that never, ever talk to each other. And I'm glad they don't. The minute the analytical side touches the creative one, I feel like the writing is doomed. I really have to be at a great remove before I can look at my stuff that way, and I guess I'd rather not. I'm always surprised when people notice common threads, for instance. Craig McDonald interviewed me recently and noticed that I had these images of scars and wounds in all my books and I hadn't realized it at all. It was pretty alarming (and very astute on his part).

Which side of your brain was first attracted to the subject matter? Did you decide you wanted to study it or participate in the creation of it first?

I decided I wanted to study it before I began writing fiction, but I think that's because it had this imaginative lure to me through a longtime love, since I was a little kid, of the associated movies--1930s gangster movies and 1940s noir. They created my whole world when I was little, like comic books do for some kids. So studying them was a great excuse to sink back into that world, although for a wholly different purpose: not to lose myself to it but to analyze it, break it down to its component parts, jiggle the wiring, test the circuits, all that kind of stuff.

How about the novels, is there something specific you're going after at the start of each? Do you begin with a wire you want to jiggle?

No, quite the opposite. I start with a character and a voice and let him or her be my guide. I tend to build stories around a character that intrigues me, a voice that gets stuck in my head. Sometimes it's a real person (either someone I know or someone I read about--I read a lot of nonfiction, biographies, old newspapers and magazines), but that's just the spark you hope for, and then, if it's going to work, it transmutes into something all its own

How important is the time setting? I heard there may be a modernized film version of Die a Little.

Time setting is pretty central to me, at least when I'm getting started. I'm a lover of cultural history and popular history--the sort of secret history of the mid century, which James Ellroy has given such fresh life too. It's hard for me to imagine Die a Little set now for that reason. For me, it's quintessentially a 1950s tale--the restrictions on the women's lives seem very time-specific. That said, while I'd telescoped back in time to tell the story, the original impetus for the book was a Newsweek story I'd read about a contemporary criminal case. And, after all, the primary drivers in most crime fiction, or fiction in general, are eternal things: desire, envy, greed, loneliness.

You've written some contemporary - set shorts that keep very much with the themes of the novels set fifty years ago, usually about young and somewhat sheltered women with a taste for danger and a dark line, often sexual, that they're drawn to cross. Have sexual politics and the "restrictions on women's lives" changed too much to set a novel now?

I don't think so. It reminds me of the thing you always tell college freshman when they're writing their first essays. They (and I was no exception) always want to start with sweeping statements like, "In the 1950s, the culture repressed women" or "society oppressed women." But we are the culture. Society is made up of us. It's just the particular alchemy of the era and the forces holding the power at a given time that affect the way it gets played out (often to devastating results, of course). Whether it's 1954 or 2009, there are certain eternalities that just persist, time and again, in different forms. And I'm sure the lure of the dark side for a character will never go away, nor ever stop meaning something. As long as prohibitions exist, the desire to break them will be tantalizing. The restrictions in large part create the desire.

Is there a trajectory you have planned for your career? Is there a direction or step you want to take next?

I wish I thought things out so well, but I kinda stumble my way along. I do try to get out of my safety zone. With Bury Me Deep, my latest, I moved away from my usual mid century big-city terrain. It's set in early 1930s Phoenix, when it was still a desert town, a haven for TB victims. I was inspired by wild and woolly pre-code movies and a lot of dark 1920s fiction, and this voice emerged that felt really different to me. Now, I'm writing a contemporary novel and at first it felt terrifying, but as I get my sea legs, I'm glad I'm trying it.

How about the move away from hardcovers, it certainly didn't seem to hurt Queenpin?

Well, that's the business side of things, which I try to shove out of my head (that stuff can drive you crazy). Of course, as a fan of classic pulps, there's a lot of pleasure in being a small part of that tradition.

Speaking of the pulp tradition, how did you get paired with (artist) Richie Fahey?

Ah, the genius of my editor, Denise Roy, who got him for Die a Little and who I've been lucky enough to work with ever since. And I've had the added luck of getting to know him, too, since he lives with his family in NYC in this wonderful, fully vintage-decked-out house, Formica and tiki and, of course, Richie's wonderful artwork. You feel like you walked into 1952.

You hate to judge books by their cover, but without tossing off spoilers, he's really told the reader an awful lot about what's in store for them - set the mood - I wonder how much collaborative input you have?

They are purely a credit to Richie's talents. I only see them when they're ready to go. Getting the email with the cover image attached and opening the file to see what he's unfurled--well, that's singlehandedly been my favorite part of the publishing experience. I feel like he has this kind of special access, somehow. He enriches everything. It's like he just walks into the world of the book and emerges with this lustrous jewel that he then hands to you.

What surprises you the most about the way your work is received?

I'm having a hard time coming up with an answer here and I'm not sure why. I always think readers are so much smarter than writers. That they know more about my books than I could. Part of me really believes the book only lives in the reception of the reader. The reader creates so much of the experience from his or her own history, imagination. That's how I feel as a reader, too. When I'm working on a book, I'm just living in it. it's just everything. And when I'm done, I lose all access to it. It's sealed off. I can't even look at it. If I ever had to go back to a book of mine that had already been published and do something, re-edit, cut for a different format, I think it'd be the end of me.

Have you been approached to re-edit or translate your work to other mediums?

No, I haven't.

What about Queenpin then? First there was Policy, (a short story from the anthology Damn Near Dead, edited by Duane Swierczynski), was it always going to be a novel, or did the short story surprise you upon re-visitation?

Oh, that's true! No, I never meant for it to be a novel. That came much later. The interesting part there was how much I had to soften it to turn it into a novel. It's a kind of nasty book, to me, but the short story is much nastier. You can get away with that in a short story. In this case, the story's characters were simpler, with no history behind them, little psychology. There's just want, want, want. But that's harder to sustain in a novel. For instance, the "homme fatal," Vic, is just a thug in the story and he becomes more of a charmer (to me) in the novel. The novel's narrator is also warier of him, hipper to his game, which makes her read as smarter, so we're more patient with her. The changes were designed to make the characters worthy (hopefully) of a longer stay.

I heard Eddie Muller once define the central theme of 'noir' as 'you will destroy yourself' and I was resisting the urge to use the term "homme fatal" but now that it's out there, would you like to comment on the role sex plays in that - seems to be the catalyst for most self destruction in the genre?

I guess I see sex as less the catalyst than the device. I've come to think the real catalyst is a death drive. The two are always already twinned in noir, so it can be hard to tell which comes first. To me the standard-bearer is Double Indemnity, Walter Neff peering over the edge. The first moment of attraction to Phyllis is not when he sees her, but when he figures out she wants her husband dead. That she's murderous. You read enough of this, and you think, gosh, Freud was always right.

Given the lurid subject matter, the language in your work is very restrained. Somebody like a James Ellroy uses a lot of the appropriate slang, but his prose style is absolutely now. For your part, is it a conscious attempt to sound as if it were written during the time the stories are set in or is that just your style as a writer?

With Queenpin, I wanted to write as fully as possible in the language of the pulps. With my other books, I try to evoke the period in the dialogue, but for the rest of the prose I don't set many rules, other than avoiding big anachronisms. I basically let the main character rule the style. For Bury Me Deep, for instance, the protagonist is in this kind of emotional disarray, almost a free-fall, and so that's how the words fell.

As a story teller, is there anything you're working up to? Any passion project you've been keeping in the wings until you're "ready" to do it?

I do have a few ideas in my back pocket, but right now, I'm just working on writing a book with more than five characters. My tendency is to shrink everything down to two or three folks in a backroom. I'd like to try my hand at something with a larger canvas, one of these days. I haven't earned it yet. If I make my bones...


Gordon Harries said...

Excellent Jed, really. (fabulous questions and responses. I'm going to have to up my game for my Abbott interview, I see!)

Unknown said...

Your interviews just keep getting better and better, Jed.
Outside of the ANS interview this has to be my favorite so far.
And I've got to ask, who's next?

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

A superb interview - megan is a brilliant subject but your interview skills are awesome.

Jason Duke said...

Great interview. You have a real talent for delving into a subject by asking the right questions. As a result, I think you got Megan to really open up and offer up some genuine insight into her writing. She's coming to Phoenix next week, so it's great to find out a little about her beforehand through interviews like yours. I don't post very often on the blogs, but I've been reading your interviews since the ones you did on Neil and Todd, and I got to admit man you've gotten consistently better at it. Look forward to more.

Greg said...

Hell of an inspiration ... to go buy some Abbot ... and to keep writing.

jodi said...

Jed, I recently met Megan at her book reading/signing for "Bury Me Deep" in Birmingham, Michigan. Thank you for such a cool interview with a very cool author.

jedidiah ayres said...

Jodi/Jason - Hope you enjoyed Megan's readings. She's got a great delivery style.