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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott, who visited Aunt Agatha's last February, is one of my favorite new writers, and one of crime fiction's most distinctive. Her books have been both (so far) set in 40's and 50's Hollywood. They recreate the feeling of that era, while still providing rich and haunting emotional portraits of the people she writes about. Coming from a female point of view, they are little bit different take on the traditionally male world of noir crime fiction.

Q: I guess the first question would be, why set a book in the 50's? What calls to you about that era?
A: When you look at movies, books, television from that period, they are so schizophrenic. It's as if there were two simultaneous cultures existing side by side but never (or rarely) touching: the pristine, rise-of-suburbs, nuclear-family ideal celebrated in so many melodramas, popular magazines and sitcoms, alongside the hopeless, nasty underbelly plumbed in film noir, hardboiled novels, daily tabloids, etc. They are both part fantasies, fulfilling our "best" and "worst" ideas about ourselves. And I love the tension between the two, the fear that they might collide and nothing would ever be the same.

Q: How do you research some of the details? In your first novel, Die a Little, I loved the inclusion of the details of the furniture, china, etc. that Alice uses to furnish her home.
A: In the case of Die a Little, I'm an amateur collector of vintageware, a troller of flea markets, estate sales. And I scour catalogues, old cookbooks, old magazines. I can hardly call it research because I'd do it anyway. I could look at that ephemera forever because I find it utterly entrancing, like a portal into the period. More largely, I research via newspaper archives (especially for The Song is You, since it's based on a real life case), books about old Hollywood and midcentury Los Angeles, true crime books from that time/place, old menus, novelty items, snapshots, postcards - anything I can get my hands on. I like to set my hands on these storied objects. You feel transported.

Q: Are you influenced by some the great American women crime writers of that era? Charlotte Armstrong, for example, is wonderful at setting a domestic stage that seems tranquil and then blowing it up with psychological undercurrents.
A: Very little, sadly. I love Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place and Vera Caspary's Laura, for instance, but I only read them fairly recently and, while I find them both pretty spectacular, they haven't influenced me to date. In terms of the domestic stage, the greater influence would be women's pictures of Golden Age Hollywood - foremost, the movies of Douglas Sirk: Imitation of Life, All that Heaven Allows, There's Always Tomorrow, Magnificent Obsession. The attention to surfaces, the famous Sirkian play with mirrors, the reflective quality of everything and the high drama, the sense that everyone is always performing, hiding behind masks. All played at a fever pitch. Sirk was famously ironic, but I buy it all. When Juanita Moore dies at the end of Imitation of Life, I cry buckets. When Jane Wyman stares at the blank screen of the television her children have given her as thanks for sacrificing her love for Rock Hudson - well, it's great stuff.

Q: I don't think of your novels as primarily "historicals" - do you? In some historicals the details are the thing, in others (like yours) the history part is more of a "shrug", a kind of atmosphere where a story can take place. How do you see them yourself?
A: For me, it's about wanting to enter these lost worlds that I saw in the movies, so I guess I want to spin as much historical detail as I can to enter that world. But yes, it's a great deal about atmosphere to me. Mood. And it's so visual. For instance, I set a scene at a Bunker Hill rooming house. In my head, I picture the rooming house that Lily Carver lives in in Kiss Me Deadly, the movie, so I write enough details to feel like I'm there in that creaky apartment with the big open windows and the street sounds. And then, as I'm writing, it might start to change, I might start to think of a photograph I saw of a murder victims's apartment in a 1947 Los Angeles Examiner. Suddenly, there's a broken record player in the corner. And then I think of the kind of girl who lives in those apartments, and I imagine a bunch of nightclub matchbooks on her bedside table, carefully fanned to show each place she's been. So it's part historical, part imaginative, part pastiche.

Q: The second novel, The Song is You, seems even more to shrug off the history and delve into the psychology of the characters, even though it's based on a true incident. Can you talk about that a little bit?
A: I can imagine a great book about that case (the disappearance of starlet Jean Spangler) that would be more historical in approach - and it sounds like that's what Denise Hamilton, who is writing a novel based on the same case, is doing, and it's going to be wonderful. When I was thinking about it, though, it was the way a femme fatale figure emerges. I've always bought the theory that femme fatales are really just projections. Projections of the hero (or author's) own fears - of women, of a loss of power, of modernity itself. Of being left behind, left out, forgotten. Femme fatales have very little connection to a real woman, but they say everything about the main characters who face them - a fascinating dynamic. Since Jean Spangler, the woman at the center of The Song is You, is a missing person, she's all the easier an empty vessel for everyone else to fill with their own desires, fears, anger, guilt. The characters turn her into this blank slate on which they all can etch anything, everything. And precisely what they etch tells us so much about them, their disappointments and dreams, the way they view love, romance, death, themselves. So yeah, it became so much about the inner lives of the characters, all of whom are puzzling things out - or failing to - through Jean Spangler and her gorgeous empty face.

Q: What are your goals when you write a book? I think your books are incredible character studies, and a depiction of how people react to different kinds of pressure - social, marital, etc., not just the criminal kind of pressure. But they are very definitely crime novels.
A: That's a great way to think about it. I guess for me it's like setting a house on fire and then seeing what happens. In my personal favorite noir or crime novels/movies, the crime or mystery is the machine that sets something else in motion, something internal, the exposure or bubbling up of a buried feeling, a hidden perversity, a latent desire that emerges and throws everything into chaos. And one begets another and pretty soon the whole house is on fire. It's like Walter in Double Indemnity opining that it had been there all along, the desire to beat the system, peer over the edge into nothingness. Then Phyllis comes along with her trashy Ensenada perfume and tingly charm bracelet and well, the rest is noir history.

Q: I know you are influenced by film, as I think anyone under the age of 50 cannot help but be. Movies are as much a cultural touchstone in our culture now as books. I think you work reflects the influence of both movies and literature - can you talk about the influence of film on your novels?
A: It's definitely the deepest influence and remains so. I love movies of all time periods, genres, etc. and the way they all twist and turn in my head constantly but especially those great 40s-50s noirs - particularly the shaggier ones, the "B" movies like Detour or Black Angel, Naked Kiss, Phantom Lady, Mystery Street. It always felt to me like, with those movies and their rougher edges, you were getting a peek behind the silver curtain, behind the studio system and the Hollywood glitter and into something darker, but just as glamorous, just as alluring and magnetic. That's something I try to capture in my books. The tension between the shiny surfaces and what lies behind them.

Q: Do you feel it's necessary to go to the actual places you write about, or is it better for the places to exist in some part of your imagination? I know some writers actually go to France or Britain, wherever their books are set, but I was so interested to hear that H.R.F. Keating, whose books are so full of the atmosphere of India, had never been there when he started his Inspector Ghote books. I think the modern day sites would be, in a sense, jarring.
A: People ask me why I don't live in Los Angeles because my first two books are set there and I am in fact transfixed by it. But yes, I think it's almost just for that reason that I wouldn't want to . I want it to retain the mysterious sheen for me. It would be very hard to write about where I live. I wrote a story for the upcoming Detroit Noir anthology (see events page - ed.) And it's mostly set in Grosse Pointe, where I'm from, and I know I couldn't have written it if I still lived there. It wouldn't have this imaginative witchery about it. I've written one story set in Queens, where I live now, and I had to set it 30 years in the past for some reason. Modern day is even harder for me. It's too pedestrian. Not enough magic or something. Or I lack the imagination to bring the magic to it!

Q: Can you talk about your new book, Queenpin, a little bit? I haven't had a chance to read it yet but am very much looking forward to it.
A: For Queenpin I tried to write something in the old-school pulp vein. My model was those wonderful Gold Medal paperbacks. The story is inspired by the fast-paced, sex-and-doom novels of James M. Cain. I wanted to do a female version of a classic mentor-student story, where the aging criminal shows the young up-and-comer the ropes on how to make it in the underworld. In my version, a young woman is taken under the wing of an infamous gang moll. I read this biography of Virginia Hill. Today, if she's known at all, it's as the paramour of Bugsy Siegel, the one he named the Flamingo Hotel after. But she was a lot more than that; she was a trusted courier who would move money and jewels and whom the mob would send to Switzerland to open bank accounts - big stuff like that. She was so steely, so hardboiled. In 1951, the famous Kefauver Committee on Organized Crime called her to testify and she didn't give an inch. She told them she didn't know a thing about organized crime and insisted, "I work where I want and when I want. I don't dance for nobody." Tough stuff.

Q: What's next in terms of a novel? I hope you have another dark tale of the 50's coming up for us!
A: Well, now I'm going back in time a little further, to the early 1930's. Love gone wrong in a sin drenched desert town. So I'm mining early 1930's pre-Hayes code movies for inspiration!

Q: And lastly, who are some of your favorite mystery writers (I qualify this so people don't answer "Jane Austen" - though with you, I think that's hardly a danger!)
A: I'd have to start with the triumverate: Chandler, Cain and Hammett. But also Cornell Woolrich, Ross MacDonald, Horace McCoy. I am of course hopeless for James Ellroy. Current stuff by Vicki Hendricks and Theresa Schwegel, such rich character-driven stories. And anything put out by Hard Case Crime immediately goes to the top of my pile.

Thanks, Megan!

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