Archive for ‘crime fiction’

May 14, 2011

all will be revealed

by Megan Abbott

Periodically, my parents go through spring-cleanings, finding odds and ends from my childhood. I live in a small apartment by midwestern standards (by almost any standards other than New York City standards), so I have scant space.

Nearly seventeen years ago, I packed a bunch of boxes in a car with two dear friends and we drove from Detroit to New York City. Ever since, through all manner of life changes, through moves from Brooklyn to Hell’s Kitchen to Queens, I have made promises to my parents that I will collect some of these childhood belongings, if they please-please-please keep them for me.

And my parents are very understanding and occasionally just send me manageable boxes of the various detritus of my upbringing—usually charming madeleines: drawings, much-loved books, odd little miniatures and strange collections I don’t even remember starting, or ending (how did I end up with all those miniature ceramic animals? the boxing monkey figurine?).

A few weeks back, one of these boxes contained a slender volume I had no memory of for a moment. Until I did. It is entitled, The Clue Armchair Detective by Lawrence Treat and illustrated by Georgie Hardie, with the subheading: Can You Solve the Mysteries of Tudor Close? 

Essentially, it’s a game/activity book or, as the cover rather awkwardly poses it, “A Packed File of Mystery Puzzles for All the Family.” And it is one of many tie-in books related to the game Clue, which I’m sure is why my parents bought it for me originally, circa 1983.

It opens with a letter to the reader,telling us we are “cordially invited to help solve the mysterious death of Humphrey Black, found brutally murdered in his house, Tudor Close.”

What follows is a series of more than 25 separate “suspect files,” which are really individual mystery pages where, if you look closely enough, you should be able to solve these individual crimes (theft, vandalism, murder) and, ultimately, the central mystery of who killed Humphrey Black. The answers lie on the last pages.

And as I turned the pages I remembered staring at those puzzles, had this sense memory of which pages captivated me most. It lacks the hauteur of my memories of Clue, and the whole Clue/Agatha Christie/murder at the estate vibe. Not that that’s absent (or that Agatha Christie is all hauteur) but the book is so much weirder than that.

Sheeted corpses, bathtub deaths, yes, but also a mounted fish stuffed with “chips.” Eerie blank-eyed twin brothers. A kidnapped boy who looks stunningly like Bobby Franks. A man in drag with the uncanny stiltedness that sings: Brian De Palma movie. (In fact, an overhead surveillance shot that also recalls De Palma!) Witchcraft. Voodoo. A particularly unnerving scene of a raucous pub brawl, where one lipsticked woman sits, staring fixedly at the ceiling…at what?


It’s funny, touching something your memory effectively erased. I can’t imagine ever remembering this book any other way than touching it. And yet it’s an access point, another tunnel in.

It’s surprising when we are sure we know the touchstones that were important to us as children—the books that stunned and enthralled us, the movies that flutter in our brain.

But I wonder if it’s the things that made less a clear mark, whose connection is more tentative, whose role is less transparent—might they matter more? Might these lost memories or totems—unedited by the parts of ourselves that insist we know ourselves so well—be the things that tell us the most?”

As the letter to the reader closes:

All will be revealed once you read the last answer. If you’ve solved the mystery correctly, give yourself a pat on the back. If not, resolve to do better next time. Then move onto the next case.

Good Luck!

May 11, 2011

where time never starts: Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, and Archie Goodwin; more books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
Publicity photograph of Rex Stout, author of t...

Rex Stout via Wikipedia

Another series that really made me want to write my own detective series was Rex Stout‘s Nero Wolfe series. My father read these when I was growing up and they were kind of just always there–I don’t remember ever not having read them. There’s a lot that’s remarkable about this series, but one aspect that particularly inspired me when starting my owns series was how masterfully Stout pulls together strands from different types of mystery novels and sub-genres. Nero Wolfe, a big fat man from Montenegro who rarely leaves his house and cares about orchids and food more than people, is a classic Sherlock-Holmes-type Genius Detective. His sidekick and assistant (and narrator), Archie Goodwin, is a hardboiled, wisecracking Watson, a more cheerful (much more cheerful) Phillip Marlowe. The series takes place in New York and different clients and cases represent a range of types of mysteries: locked door mysteries, noir femme fatale stories, Agatha Christie-type puzzles. Stout’s (I keep writing “Wolfe’s”!) genius was to blend these different strands seamlessly, offering the reader the best of all worlds. There’s a grittiness to Archie and the way he lives, but there’s little actual violence or bloodshed in the books. There’s a lot of intellectual puzzles to work out and a lot of poisonings-of-the-duchess, but also plenty of noir-ish dialogue between Goodwin and his nemesis Inspector Cramer. And of course, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are wonderful characters, or the whole thing wouldn’t work. Wolfe is basically a colossal asshole most of the time, which makes the times when he isn’t really stand out. And Goodwin is nearly always a good guy, which makes you sit up and notice when he isn’t. Formulas can be a good thing when the formula supports, rather than restrains–and of, course, when it’s a good formula!

Like with Vachss’ Burke series, one of Wolfe’s strength’s is building an entire world–Saul Panzer, Fritz, and Inspector Cramer were as real to me as people in my own home. I read the books out of order, and I didn’t read the first, Fer-de-Lance, until about eight years ago. I’d always wondered how Stout set the stage for this world–how Archie and Nero Wolfe met, how Wolfe came to live in the brownstone on 38th Street, how they got off on such a bad foot with Cramer. Here’s how he does it: he doesn’t. The first book in the series is just like every other book in the series. Stout just drops you down in his world and you never find out anything about how they came together (I mean anything more than you learn in the other books–you do get bits and pieces as time goes on). I think that’s such a brilliant solution to the problem of setting a scene, and in fact to a lot of problems we face in writing novels. Just don’t do it. There’s no easier solution!

May 7, 2011

Andrew Vachss & the end of the series: more books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran

Image via Wikipedia

One reason I wanted to write a detective series was the chance to stay with a character beyond one book. One of the joys of reading a detective novel is visiting not just the detective every year or so (or seven, in Chandler’s case), but checking in with all his friends, family, and enemies, who of course now are YOUR friends, family, and enemies too. And writing a series, the pleasure is even more so. It’s really fun for me to know that even the little characters I’m writing now I can visit with again whenever I want.

Of course, lots of writers are wonderful at this, but one, to me, stands out: Andrew Vachss with his Burke series. For those of you who don’t know–well, first of all, go buy a Burke book! But in the meantime I’ll tell you: Burke, aka Baby Boy Burke, is not exactly a PI. He’s a former foster child, abuse victim, and career criminal who was “adopted” during a turn in prison by the Prof, a street hustler, who may be the Professor or the Prophet. Burke sometimes solves mysteries and sometimes commits crimes and sometimes does both. Over the years their family-of-choice grows to include sister Michelle, a transsexual prostitute who, along with her partner the Mole (a Jewish tech genius/Israel supporter), adopts Terry, a child sold into prostitution by his biological father; Mama, owner of a Chinese restaurant/smuggling operation and her non-biological son Max the Silent, a martial artist who marries Lily, an advocate for abused children. Together they have Flower, who, along with Terry, is in college when the series ends (or so I think–I’ll get to that in a sec). As you can tell I know these characters well. The first of the eighteen books, Flood, came out in 1985; I probably started reading them in the early nineties and I think I’ve read every one at least once, most two or more times. No one I’ve read does as good a job as Vachss as making you feel like his characters are not only real, but that their world is your world. He manages to age them, and have them change for better and worse in all the ways people do change, without diminishing the intensity of the series or their conflicts. People change, people have children, people (well, animals) die, people move, people have long periods of time when you don’t really see them and you don’t know what they’re doing, and people do pretty much nothing sometimes. Just like life.

But a few years ago, Vachss decided to end the series. I’m sure he had his reasons, and if that sounds bitter, it is. And I can’t bring myself to read the last book, Another Life. I bought it when it came out and got about a quarter of the way through when I put it away and, without meaning to, haven’t opened it again. And I don’t think I will. I think that some part of me wants to keep thinking a new one might come along–that Burke, the Prof, Michelle, Mama, et al, will continue to be a part of my life. I also feel–unfairly and irrationally–angry and kind of betrayed that Vachss isn’t writing any more about Burke. Believe me, I don’t think that position is defensible at all–I think it’s terrible! But it’s how I feel, and when I started to read Another Life I couldn’t put those feelings aside and enjoy it. I think once every year or so now I’ll reread one of the old Burkes, though. I’m obviously not at all ready to say goodbye.

Oddly, as much as I love the Burke books, my favorite Vachss book is a stand-alone, Shella, haunting narrative of a pretty demented guy and his demented girl. Isn’t that just about every story we love in a nutshell?

May 4, 2011

keep your eyes on it

by Megan Abbott


I spotted him on the street, his eyes glittering with energy. He said he thought we were going the same place, and we were.

A man met us in the lobby. You won’t be able to talk about what you see, he saidNot until we say so.

The floor numbers flickered as we rode up the soundless elevator in the sleek, buffered building in Soho, a few steps from one of the noisiest stretches of Broadway but a world away.  

It all felt  big-ticket, plush. My shoes looked pretty scuffed. But I wasn’t there to admire the creamy white walls, the sun-struck lobby, the chrome and leather offices filled with dark-haired men with sharp eyewear and complicated wristwatches.

I was there for a job.

But it wasn’t what it seemed, not by a mile, and I had no idea what I was getting into until it was too late. Until I was peering over the edge into something dark, strange, irresistible. Who was I to say no?

About six weeks ago, I got a dream assignment—to write a story set in my favorite time and place: Los Angeles, 1947. The epicenter of my imaginative life. And it was to be for an anthology titled L.A. Noire, to be published on June 6 by Mulholland Books.

The building in question was the headquarters of Rockstar Games, the developer/publisher behind such phenomena as Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne. I’d been invited by the editor of the anthology, the wonderful (and dashing) novelist/artist Jonathan Santlofer. Then, for an hour or more, I sat with fellow contributors Hard Case Crime wunderkind Charles Ardai and crime novelist Duane Swierczynski in a conference room and watched embargoed goods, a preview of a new videogame, L.A. Noire, developed with Team Bondi, which will be released on May 17.

Set in a hauntingly rendered Los Angeles of 1947, L.A. Noire requires its players to solve a series of crimes, most of which interweave fact (the Jeanne French-Red Lipstick Murder) and fiction. Aaron Staton of TV’s Mad Men (Ken Cosgrove, the blonde prepster and author of “Tapping A Maple On A Cold Vermont Morning”) portrays the lead police detective.

The accompanying short-story anthology is meant to compliment the game, a series of tales by authors including Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew Vachss, all set in this phantasmagoric world of 1947 Los Angeles.

I admit I am no gamer (lacking even the most fundamental skills). More to the point, though, I have an inherent suspicion of attempts to recreate 1940s Los Angeles, which, to me, must meet the exacting, sleazy, riotously violent and startlingly romantic standards of the Bible of my 1940s Los Angeles: Ellroy’s Los Angeles Quartet.

But watching the game that day, and the young man playing it for us, was quite an transporting experience. Burrowing past the venetian blinds-sheets-of-rain-bourbon-in-desk-drawer kitsch noir we all know so well, this Los Angeles is qualitatively different.

First, it’s in color.  It’s a sunny, sprawling yet infinitely sleazy realm, radiating so much of the haunted LA-ness I could ever have wanted: the pastel-drenched buildings, the low, dry courtyard apartments with their brooding eucalyptus, their flat sorrows and the off-screen sounds of bottles rolling and someone crying softly, somewhere.

It was uncanny, watching the game, engaging with it. It was different from seeing 1940s L.A. in a movie, its inherent “movie-ness,” and different too from the way an Ellroy novel can pitch its inky darkness through the front-most reaches of my head. It was different because it was happening and we were part of it. We were in the game, all of us. Questioning suspects, driving along Sunset, walking in the LAPD’s Old Central, passing Clifton’s Cafeteria, gazing up at the luminous white of City Hall at night. Of course, we were “in it”—that’s the special beauty of videogames. But the “it” this time was the luminous simulacrum.

But there was a different kind of uncanny too. Apparently, L.A. Noire makes use of a new MotionScan facial recognition technology.  The idea is to capture more  of the characters’ (actors’)  nuances. To look, essentially, more natural. More as we experience one another in life.

In the case  of L.A. Noire, the game depends on it, on how well we can read faces, detect lies. As we guide the police detective-hero, we need to be able to penetrate suspects and witnesses, to consider their body language to try uncover what they may have to hide. And when they are lying.

But watching it, and sometimes guessing correctly and other times not, I was struck by the most uncomfortable feeling. It was something in the way the suspects’ eyes moved, darted, vibrated, blinked, averted … mine. They seemed to be looking at me, and not looking at me, at once.

It reminded me of the term “uncanny valley,” which is a term coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori  (and relies heavily on Freud’s “The Uncanny“). It refers to, as I understand it, the point at which an almost-human object causes humans to be instinctively unnerved. The closer a robot (or prosthetic limb, or puppet, cyborg, etc.) becomes to being lifelike, the more the tiny elements that don’t seem lifelike—a slight stiffness in the gait, eyes that don’t quite focus on your eyes—we become unnerved. Mori called this plunge “the Uncanny Valley,” the precise point at which a simulation of life becomes so perfect it’s terrifying.

Frequently quoted in discussions of the uncanny valley is this line from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.

In the case of L.A. Noire, the feeling for me was magnified. Not only did these characters (many assayed by actors I was sure I recognized even when I couldn’t name them—because they looked like themselves, and yet not precisely) enact stories (famous 1947 crimes) I knew so well, but that had been, just slightly,  fictionalized. The same but different. Real but not real.

But there was this: I know this world through books, through movies, through driving through Los Angeles and finding the remaining haunts—battered tiki bars, peeling-leather-boothed bars, the sleek deco lines of the Pacific Dining Car.

Except this time, the police detectives, the victims, the criminals, the killers—were looking back at me. Were telling me things to see if I believed them. Were lying to me and seeing if I could tell.

The experience was powerful and made me understand something about the allure of games I hadn’t before. As much as one might believe technology distances us from ourselves, from each other, it might in fact do the opposite. Facing a game that plugged into my deepest imaginative life, any distance I had left from that time and place felt very nearly effaced.

Sitting there that afternoon, I came to recognize—those uncanny eyes flashing on me, looking straight into my own eyes—how intimate and personal games can be. How they can seep into your head, tug at things, make you feel. How there are times in all our lives when everything we thought we knew was not exactly what we thought at all. And how we may not be either. (And, within that gap, that particular valley, lies all kinds of unwanted revelation.)  How we make our own worlds and invest them with ideas of truth, permanence. But that’s a fiction too.

(My story, “The Girl,” is excerpted here.)


May 3, 2011

female PIs and the class of 82: Sue Grafton and Julie Smith; the books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Image via Wikipedia

As many of you know I went to MALICE DOMESTIC for the first time this past weekend, the big detective fiction conference in Bethesda–Claire DeWittis my first detective novel and it’s introducing me to a bunch of new people, which is always one of many treats of a new book–each book opens whole new doors for you into crowds of cool and interesting people. One of the highlights of the weekend was watching the wonderful Julie Smith interview Sue Grafton, two major inspirations for me. You can’t write a female PI novel without giving credit to these two, who started publishing female PI novels in the early eighties along with Margaret Maron, Sara Paretsky, and a few other trailblazers.  Of course, before this rash of ladies in 1980–83 there had been isolated female dicks here and there, but I don’t know of any long-running series featuring female detectives before these guys came along, and certainly none that reached a mass audience. So it was a real thrill and, honestly, an honor to spend a little time with Julie and Sue this weekend, and watching their interview was like a master class on writing fiction.

It’s funny how once someone is so freaking successful, like Sue Grafton, it seems inevitable. So I was surprised to learn that this didn’t come easily for Sue. She wrote seven or eight books before A is For Alibi (she said one, I think unfinished, was about a boy who lived with a pack of wild dogs–I would have liked to read that!). Even after she finally got a deal for A, it only sold 6300 copies (which is among the reasons it’s so collectible as a first edition now). She didn’t quit her day job until something like G. It’s reassuring to know she had struggles like we all do–and also a little scary to think how she would fare in today’s publishing climate, which is more and more focused on instant success.

One thing I’ve noticed about more experienced writers, whether best-sellers like Sue or some guy who’s been writing in his garage, is that they have a lot of insight to share. (Another treat this weekend was to spend a few minutes talking to Raymond Buckland, best-known as a writer on the occult since 1970, selling bajillions of books, who’s now written a few thriller/PI novels–he had that same air of comfortable knowing that many of the experienced, dedicated writers I’ve met have).  Sue’s been writing these books since 1982, and she’s stayed true to herself and her vision of the series. She had some really interesting thoughts on the Shadow versus the Ego–in their interview she said that during one book (T, maybe?) she’d felt like she needed help and a friend hooked her up with a Jungian therapist who she worked with a bit. The therapist helped her understand that we need to write from our Shadow–our darker, stranger, more intuitive self–and put our Ego–our judge-y, eager to please, what-will-my-mom-think self–aside. We need to set it all up so the Ego serves the Shadow, not the other way around. One corollary of this was what she called “eating the death cookie,” a neat phrase I’d never heard before. if I understood right, eating the death cookie is when Ego takes one for the Shadow. The example Sue used was convincing her publisher (Henry Holt at the time) that she couldn’t keep up the pace of one book a year, and had to bring it down to a book every two years (a topic I have a lot of thoughts on myself, which I will spare you for the moment!). She sat in her publisher’s office and just told them she couldn’t do it. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and it hurt her ego to displease them, but she let the Ego take one for the Shadow. The Shadow needs to understand that the Ego will eat that death cookie for it to feel safe. I think that’s fantastic. I was really happy to find out that Sue has a kind of semi-mystical view of writing similar to my own, as so many writers I meet these days seem to view it as a business (to me, writing is a mystical practice; publishing is a job).

One a related note, in their interview Sue said, “It does not serve us as writers to envy other writers…focus on your own work, and do it as well as you can.” She said there’s always someone selling more and someone selling less, always someone making more money and someone making less. Don’t waste your time worrying about it. No one can write what you write and you can’t write what they write. I also thought it was neat that she keeps a notebook for every book she writes, where she jots down not only ideas, dialog, et cetera but also her fears about the book. When she encounters those same fears again, she can go back and see well, yeah, she THAT book also would be a bomb, but it all turned out fine.

Another interesting topic was how Sue came up with the titles. She said at the time A was published a lot of writers were doing series with related titles, and Sue’s father was a writer who began a series based around a nursery rhyme:  THE RAT BEGAN TO GNAW THE ROPE and THE ROPE BEGAN TO HANG THE BUTCHER, which sound strange and fascinating. But I was really overjoyed to hear the idea for the alphabet came from Edward Gorey‘s the Gashlycrumb Tinies, one of my favorite things ever!

Unrelated, but speaking of good advice from older writers: when I worked at Housing Works Bookstore  Alan Furst once came in for a reading (who according to the never-wrong internet first started publishing in 1976). We had readings two or three days a week there, and I already knew dozens of writers on my own (I’d published one or two books), but Furst stands out for his kindness, professionalism, and good advice (if you want to know what writers are REALLY like, work in a bookstore with lots of events!). We were making small talk and he mentioned to me that when you’re doing a reading from your book, 13 or 14 minutes is about as long as you want to read. After that the audience starts to get restless. He was of course entirely correct (you can talk longer than that, just not read from your book uninterrupted) , and I’ve abided by the Alan Furst Rule ever since.

April 19, 2011

Escape from New York v. Sweet Valley High: young adults, class and books

by Sara Gran
The Smith/Ninth Street station at the IND Culv...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m going to begin by telling you that I had an uncommon upbringing. I went to a strange experimental private school in Brooklyn for first through twelfth grade–when I gradutated, there were 40-odd kids in my grade, and that was the biggest it had ever been. The school was a kind of hippie-eugenist hybrid run by a charismatic man who was at times brilliant (he had us reading, and loving, Greek classics in eighth grade) and at times idiotic (racial and gender equality were not part of the program) and at many times just crazy. I liked him. I didn’t like the school. Despite the theatrics, our lives were fairly narrow. We were supposed to be “gifted,” to be intellectually inquisitive (but not so inquisitive about the real-life Brooklyn around us), and to take our place among the upper, if eccentric, classes. The school was in Brooklyn Heights, a genteel, WASP-y little outpost where Mayflower decendants lived on Garden Place and Roosevelts lived on the water and you could almost forget that most of Brooklyn was poor, diverse, and pissed-off.

At home, I grew up on a block of brownstones that had been owned, mostly, by people who worked on the  Gowanus Canal, with a few artists, middle-class adventurers for Manhattan, and white-collar workers mixed in. My closest neighbors were, I kid you not, Mohawks who worked in high steel. Other than the newcomers like us, the men in these families worked for someone else and the women stayed home and cooked and cleaned. And cooked and cleaned and cooked and cleaned. (Jesus, how clean can one house be?)  My mother was not that kind of mother and my father was not that kind of father. My father had his own firm in the city and my mother worked for him, wrote, and stayed home and  did not clean and when she did cook made sushi or coq au vin. Our working class neighbors probably had more cash than us most of the time, but they didn’t have the aspirations for their children that my parents had for me. They didn’t expect their kids to go to college or become professionals. They thought their kids would work in the same kind of working-class union jobs they did–of course, by the time their kids were grown those jobs were gone, but that’s a whole other story.

So I didn’t really fit in at school, and I didn’t really fit in around the neighborhood, where everyone was poorer than me, and I didn’t really fit in at home, being substantially smaller and quieter than the rest of my family (who I love to death, lest that be misunderstood). I don’t think my parents, who are not from New York, ever really understood that they were raising their kids in Brooklyn.  They seemed to think we could be in it, but not of it–somehow we would live in New York City but it would be the New York City of Columbia of Greenwich Village, not the New York I actually lived in, and came to love, of graffiti and broken subways.

Young adult (YA) books were for me very mixed up in this mess of shifting class boundaries and overheated academics and the general oversexualization of everything in the seventies and eighties.  At the fancy private school we did  not read YA books. YA books were for public school kids. YA books were not for kids who read the classics. We were reading Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austin and Hemmingway (all great writers, but why anyone would do that to an eleven year old girl is a whole other question). There was a small window–say, 10-13–when a little Judy Blume or Norma Klien were acceptable and encouraged. It was wordlessly acknowledged that us girls needed help understanding, oh, you know, tampons and bras and groping hands and all the other accoutrements of young adult life, and Norma and Judy, with their good college-bound little white girls, could guide us somewhat (not to knock Blume or Klien, who were wonderful). And there was a campiness and luridness (and, probably, sexiness) to V.C. Andrews, Judith Krantz, and other adult-but-loved-by-teens writers that made it seem foolish but acceptable–everyone needs some light reading, right? But Sweet Valley High? At home or at school that would have been beyond the pale. It would have been more acceptable for me to read Lolita at twelve than a Sweet Valley High book.

So guess which one I wanted to read? In fact, a Sweet Valley High book was probably my first teen contraband. Long before I started stealing sips of liquor and pocketing stray pills and hanging out with the “bad” kids, my first trangression against my class boundaries was I think a Sweet Valley High paperback. A public school friend who read them all (her parents were just happy she was reading!) lent me one to take home. God was it boring! Boring in the most fascinating way possible. Suburbs, gentiles, cars, blondes–Sweet Valley High was another world. I still remember one scene in that book–a boy drives the girl home from a football game or pep rally, they get caught in the rain, and she takes their letter jackets in and her mother puts them in the dryer for them. Every word in that sentence could have been Greek for all it applied to my life–cars, moms, dryers, games. I didn’t read another SVH novel. But it stayed with me, not entirely pleasantly.

But there was another line of YA books that did relate to my life, if in a roundabout way. I’ve written before about what I will hereby officially deem the New York City Feedback Loop–the strange experience of growing up in Brooklyn while watching The Warriorsand Escape from New York and twenty-five thousand made-for-tv movies and sit-com episodes about  the dangers of New York City.  It didn’t exactly lead to a sense of safety in everyday life. And while these movies and books were of course highly exaggerated, they did portray a gritty, genuinely frightening aspect of living in the city back then. It certainly wasn’t The Warriors. But the dads in Sweet Valley didn’t sleep with a shotgun in the closet because the last time they called 911, with a burglar actually in the house, the cops never came. So Escape from New York was a fantasy I could relate to more than the SVH fantasy. And of course, better to take pride in making it through another day in the most dangerous city in America than to sheepishly tag along as the weirdo wearing all black at Sweet Valley High, right? Now I’m a little more selective about how I choose my identity, but I think that’s asking a lot from a twelve-year-old.

The YA versions of Panic in Needle Park  were books about kids in trouble who ran away to New York City where, generally, terrible things happened to them. That made sense to me. We saw these people sometimes, these people who weren’t from New York City, tourists on the subway wearing light colors with big bellies and their wallets ripe for the taking in the rear hip pocket, where no New Yorker would keep a paperclip. It made sense to me that when these people came to the city bad things happened to them. Bad things happened to us, and we were real New Yorkers. If we sometimes couldn’t safely navigate our way through the streets, those people from out of town, always looking up, up, up at the height of Manhattan, didn’t have a chance.

Besides, I didn’t want to be one of Norma Klein or Judy Blume’s nice girls. Sure, they got all the period stuff straightened out and learned how to deal with that scoliosis brace, but what did they do next? Did those girls ever leave their house? Their neighborhoods? Did they ever talk to kids who weren’t white and middle-class? Meet interesting people and see miracles and eat snails and travel on airplanes and wear sexy clothes? Travel around the world in a yacht? Ride trains with hobos? Did one of those girls ever just turn down a street they’d never turned down before on the way to school and find themselves in a new world? Not to my memory, although I haven’t reread them to find out (and again, no disrespect intended to two wonderful writers). My feeling is that these girls went right from middle school to high school to college to a brief career-gal turn in the city and then got married and started all over agin. No thanks! And the kids in Sweet Valley High were, I was almost certain, aliens. So the genre of YA books that resonated for me were the stories about teens who, generally, moved to New York City (or another big city) and became hookers or otherwise got into trouble. These were the kids wearing cool clothes and having adventures, and at least they were meeting people who didn’t live on their cul-de-sac or in their brownstone. Sure, they got VD and were cut on a regular basis by razor-wielding tricks, but at least they weren’t bored to death. (Death before disinterest!) Boys had Jack London, S.E. Hinton, and other tales of adventure. We had Nancy Drew (lovely, but beyond outdated) and baby prostitutes in Times Square. I’ll take the Time Square baby hookers, thanks.

By seventh or eighth grade I’d stopped reading the books assigned me in school (hippie school=not  a whole lot of discipline) and picked up V.C. Andrews and Go Ask Alice. A few years later I started reading the “trashy” books my parents read when they took a break from “real” books–celebrity bios and hard-boiled mysteries. Very slowly, I started to understand who I was, and that it wasn’t who I as supposed to be. Well, who is?

One YA kid-in-trouble book was different. I can’t for the life of me remember the author, title, or even the cover. Maybe you can help me find it again (hey kids! a real life mystery!). This book, probably from the early-mid-seventies, was about a girl around 16 who moved from the suburbs to New York City and did not become a hooker. She also didn’t become an addict, get raped (almost!), get cut, get VD, or otherwise sustain harm. She stayed at a “crash pad” for a while, then got a job and got an apartment in the East Village. She looked up an old friend who’d moved to the city from their Squaresville suburb and they reconnected and the friend helped her out. Scary things happened–she was mugged, she was broke, she was frightened–but she knew what she wanted out of life and she stayed the course.  And things turned out good for her. She got a steady job and a tiny apartment. She even got a cool serene hippie boyfriend, who got her back in touch with her parents so they’d stop worrying and she could start her new life as a free, responsible, adult. The hardships were there but she was tough and smart and made it work.

I think we needed more books like that.  My suspicion is that, with the explosion of quality (and trashy) YA literature over the past few years, kids today have them.

Now I’m 40, and some of my friend’s kids are approaching YA age. I try to tell these kids, when their parents aren’t listening, that they don’t have to be someone else. They don’t have to try to find a box, or a category of books, and fit into it. They can make their own category. If they’re supposed to be a good little genius like I was supposed to be be, they can throw that away for a life of V.C. Andrews and pulp fiction and bad spelling. It’s OK if they want to read Evelyn Waugh and Proust and OK if they don’t.  You really can choose your own adventure. They never believe me, but I have faith that someday they will remember their crazy aunt’s advice and make a wrong turn on the way to school one day, and veer off the Judy Blume cul-de-sac and into the rest of the world, where all good things await.

April 17, 2011

the deep bottom drawer: an interview with lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

I’m just beginning to realize the flickering presence Lois Duncan’s books still play in my imagination, decades after discovering them.

Most of my reading life, age nine to twelve especially, seemed to be in search of books that somehow conveyed for me, as movies did, a world as dark and tangled and mysterious as the one I glimpsed in my fevered girl head. These were books of shadows, books where the every day—banging school lockers, fights with siblings, sprawling out on the carpet and watching TV—could, at any moment, give way to darkness, beauty, terror, a Grimm’s fairy tale of precipice-peering and descent. The same things I found, and clung to, in true crime and noir.

It was not until a few years ago that I discovered her non-fiction recounting of her daughter’s (still officially unsolved) murder and its aftermath, Who Killed My Daughter?, which is wrenching, unforgettable book. It’s hard to talk about such a personal book, written by a grieving mother, in objective terms, but, to try, it’s also a fascinating book as Duncan undertakes her own investigations, both traditional and untraditional, including working with a psychic.

Now, with the reissuing and updating of ten of Duncan’s YA books, including my favorites, I was fortunate enough to interview the author herself last week. On a personal level, there’s something deeply satisfying and more than a little uncanny about it because, as with so many interviews, I came to feel I was revealing (or at least realizing) as much about myself (maybe more) as the author herself was. Most of all, though, I came away feeling deeply inspired by her path as a female author with such a long career in a famously punishing business. The author of 50 books, she has endured countless “revolutions” in publishing and never let any of it stop her from creating, from experimenting, from, well, telling the stories she wanted to tell.

Speaking via a series of emails, we began by talking about the new editions. She told me how exciting it was for her to update the new editions, adding, “I’ve been astonished to realize how well the characters and plots have transcended the years. All I really had to do was tweak the stories in order to change hair styles and dress and give my protagonists access to the technical toys of today—cell phones, computers, digital cameras, etc. That gave me a sense of power. It was like rebirthing my children and being able to provide them with wings.”

The interview followed:

Megan: I am a tremendous fan, and have been since I first found your books in the early 1980s, as a young girl in suburban Michigan. It’s a big thrill to see these reissues and to get to revisit these wonderful books and also, somehow, the 10-year-old me who so savored them.

One of the things that strike me now, re-reading them, is how they managed to mingle the everyday (family chores, pesky siblings) and identifiable with the strange, the paranormal, darkness itself. I think it can speak to young girls’ sense that they want to be invited into a book (e.g., a heroine they feel is like them), but they also want to visit murky places. Explore, uncover the unknown. Was that “mix” one of your aims when you wrote them? How could you be sure the darker themes would be speak to readers?

Lois Duncan: I wasn’t sure. And, at first, my editors weren’t either. A Gift of Magic (my first novel that involved ESP) was rejected seven times before Little, Brown daringly published it. The other publishers were certain that young readers would not be interested. I get great satisfaction from the fact that the book, originally published in 1971, has never gone out of print and becomes more and more popular.

As far as my style goes—I think the fact that the books involve “normal” kids in “normal” life situations creates a realistic format that the average reader easily relates to. As paranormal events begin to occur, the viewpoint character finds them just as bewildering as the reader. Then, as that character begins to accept them, the reader does so also, because he or she is following the same thought process.

Megan: That makes so much sense, and explains the uncanny quality—everything feels so familiar except something is off, something is just slightly askew, and the heroine must push further, pursue. Her pursuit mirrors ours.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how powerful “doubling” appears in your books, especially Summer of Fear and Stranger With My Face. Reading them now it feels like the double almost serves as this valve or outlet for the heroine. She does some of the things the heroine would be afraid to do (and feels things—like anger—that the heroines may not feel comfortable expressing). These doubles get what they want, or nearly do. In Stranger, Laurie, ironically, starts to make positive changes in her life (dumping her spoiled boyfriend and his mean clique) after the dangerous double enters her life—as if the double empowers her in some strange way.

Do you think teen readers (or teen girl readers) might especially respond to this idea of a double, someone like us but not quite?

LD: This reminds me of when I was in my 40s and teaching magazine writing for the Journalism Department at the University of New Mexico. I was hired on a fluke. The professor who was scheduled to teach the course became ill, so the chair of the department, my personal friend Tony Hillerman, asked me to fill in for a semester. Tony knew I’d never been to college and didn’t care; he just knew I’d written successfully for magazines for years. The original professor never returned, and someone else replaced Tony as Chair and automatically kept me on. I discovered I loved teaching writing and started to get worried that my deep dark secret, (no college!) might be discovered, so I began taking courses under my married name, Lois Arquette, hoping I could get a degree before someone “outed” me. In the course of that endeavor, I took a juvenile literature class where they were studying “Lois Duncan books.” My fellow students were excitedly writing A-plus papers about how many of my books were based on Greek myths. I had never even read those myths!

Often the reader finds in a book what that reader is looking for, which may not be at all what the author meant to put there. The author-reader relationship is a two-way street. The receiver who interprets the story is as important as the person who created it.

Megan: I think you’re so right about the reader-writer relationship. I think one of the gifts of your books is the way readers keep finding the things they need in them. And that your books deal with so many primal, eternal themes—especially ones that speak to young people, like identify confusion. And I also think that’s why the reissues make so much sense. Your books don’t seem “trapped in amber” at all. As you say, it was mostly the “accessories” that needed updating. I wonder if some books from the 70s and even the 80s might require more “corrections” in terms of the strength of the female characters. You really give so many of your female characters a great deal of power, to take action, to drive action. To save themselves, in many cases, even if part of that means finding the right person to join their efforts. Was that important to you, as a woman? A mother? Or did it just come naturally?

LD: It came naturally. I came from a family of strong women.

Megan: What did you enjoy reading as a young woman? And did that influence you and/or your writing?

LD: I read (and wrote) a lot of poetry. I loved books about magic—The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc. Animal stories like Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka. And the family-oriented series books that were so popular back then—the Louisa May Alcott books, the Little Colonel series, etc. Actually, I read everything I could get my hands on.

But, remember, I didn’t have much choice about what I read. That was an era before YA literature existed and readers leapt directly from children’s books to adult novels.

When I started writing teenage novels I followed that
same pattern. My first book, Debutante Hill, was published in 1957 and the editor made me revise it because I had a young man of 19 (the “bad boy” in the story) drink a beer. I continued writing gentle, sticky-sweet romances until I got sick of them and decided to try writing the kind of books I wished I’d had access to when I was in junior high and high school— books that were exciting, suspenseful, and kept readers on the edges of their chairs.

My break-through book was Ransom, (Doubleday, 1966). It was about five teenagers who were kidnapped by their school bus driver, and one of them actually got shot. That book is still in print and selling well today!

Megan: Ah, so you wrote the books you wished you had been able to read, and we’re all the luckier for it!

In terms of that pre-YA era, do you think that the publishers (or parents) at that time simply didn’t want to believe interests of young readers might be more complex, reflect more curiosity about the unknown? Or was it merely a lack of awareness of the market?

Given how dark and mysterious even fairy tales beloved by children are I often marvel at the notion that young adults might want only want sweet romances or adventure tales.

LD: I have no idea. I understand the craft of writing, because it’s who and what I am. The commercial world of publishing, both in the past and today, is an ongoing mystery to me. Fads are constantly changing.

When I wrote my YA ghost story, Down a Dark Hall, in 1974, it was returned to me for revisions because the victims were female and the ghosts were male, and my publisher thought feminists would object to that. When I changed the ghost of poet Alan Seeger to Emily Bronte, all was well.

Killing Mr. Griffin has been banned in certain places because of complaints from parents who (not having read the book, just going by the title) thought it would cause children to kill their teachers. Yet those are often the same parents who encourage their children to read the Bible without the slightest concern that the story of Cain and Abel might encourage them to kill their siblings.

I’ve had rejected manuscripts, yellowing in the bottom drawer of my desk for years, which I’ve then brought out, resubmitted to the very same publishers, and had snatched up, because they fell into a currently popular niche in the market that hadn’t existed when I previously submitted them.

Megan: It’s that instinctual quality that so comes through in the books, which feel organic rather than targeted, “packaged.” I actually read very few YA books as a young girl. So many seemed only interested in issues like popularity, cliques, a particular view of young love. But yours were so different—-mysterious, haunting, murky, exciting, so much more my experience of adolescence.

And they also seemed to present female relationships that were so much more complex than the usual rivalries-over-boys, homecoming queen tales.

My favorite was Daughters of Eve, which I read so many times it became dog-eared. I’d never read anything like it. The charismatic teacher and her protégées. (I now think it’s probably played a role in the book I’m finishing now, all these years later, which is about a cheerleading coach and her squad!).

What inspired you to write that book?

LD: I was inspired to write it because I wanted to write something different from anything I’d done before. The idea I got was that I would have a fanatical, charismatic adult exerting influence upon vulnerable kids who looked up to and respected that adult. I wanted it to be in a setting where other adults such as parents wouldn’t be aware of what was happening. My first idea was to have it a church youth group with the adult a charismatic male Sunday school teacher. I actually wrote five chapters and then it struck me that if Killing Mr. Griffin was being challenged by parents who thought it would make their kids violent, those same parents would claim this new book’s purpose was to keep their children from going to church. So I started over and used the same theme but steered clear of religion.

Ironically, when it was released in 1979 it was challenged by feminists who thought it was anti-feminist and by anti-feminists who thought it was feminist. I was trying to walk a nice gray line but people who feel strongly about a subject don’t want a gray line. They want it to be all black or all white.

Megan: It seems like so much of your career you’ve had to defend your writerly choices, both within publishing and without. Or perhaps “defend” is not the right word. It seems as though you had to confront many doubts that what you were writing would speak to readers, despite all evidence of the contrary. Something in your work unsettles, provokes, stirs—and I think it’s that power that also speaks to readers across generations.

I wonder if, given some of these obstacles you had to overcome in terms of publishing the books you wanted to write, if you faced any such resistance when you wrote Who Killed My Daughter?, your book about your search for the truth about your daughter’s murder. It is such a moving, powerful, painful book.

LD: My books are not nearly as controversial as many, and you can’t please everybody. A writer has to develop a hide like a rhino. If we allow ourselves to get upset every time a book is challenged we’d all be basket cases.

Mostly I’ve just written books that I wanted to write, and if publishers wanted them, great, and if they didn’t, the manuscripts went into that “deep bottom drawer,” to be pulled out, perhaps re-polished, and resubmitted at another date.

Who Killed My Daughter? was accepted by Delacorte within four days. My (then) agent was stunned, because she’d told me the book would never sell because it had no ending. I knew differently—that book was destined to be published. I also knew that I hadn’t written it myself; what I did was channeling. I sat down at the computer, placed my fingers on the keys, and “took dictation” from some ethereal source that wanted Kait’s story to be told. It’s the one book I’ve ever written in which I never altered a word. Even my editors couldn’t find a thing they wanted changed. It fell onto the pages exactly as it was supposed to.

Megan: I think that rhino’s hide is part of what I’m talking about—it feels like it comes from your internal sense that what you were interested in, the stories and characters that engaged you, would engage others.

That feeling is so strong in Who Killed My Daughter? It makes sense to me that it was a “channeling” for you, because one of its powers (its urgency, its intensity) is the feeling the reader has that it came from some deep internal (unconscious?) feeling or instinct that there was no other way to tell the story. It had to be like this.

I read on your website that you are writing a sequel now. If so, is the process different? How so?

LD: Very different. The first book was written with my heart, the sequel with my brain. The sequel will be a step by step account of our family’s personal search for Kait’s killers after the police washed their hands of the case.

Megan: I imagine you are still hearing from those affected by the original book.

LD: Constantly. In fact, we’ve heard from so many other families in similar situations that my husband and I created and maintain the Real Crimes website to help keep those other cases from becoming buried. I interview the victims’ families and help them word their stories, and Don links the documentation, (crime scene photos, autopsy reports, excerpts from police reports, etc.) That page has become a valued resource for investigative reporters and true crime shows. We do this pro bono as a way to give Kait’s short life meaning.

Megan: The responses I’ve seen to your book and to the website from families in similar situations, must feel so gratifying—though I’m sure unbearably frustrating too, to see other families suffering the same way and trying to keep investigations going.

LD: It’s heartbreaking. But don’t get me started on a diatribe about the flaws in the Great American Justice System.

Megan: Yes, it’s true. The response to your book shows the power of writing, to be sure.

So, last question, and the one writers sometimes hate to answer. Among your novels, which is your favorite and why?

 LD: Over the years I’ve written 50 books, which include among other things adult fiction and non-fiction, poetry, text for pre-school picture books, humorous books for elementary age children (Hotel for Dogs, News for Dogs and Movie for Dogs in particular), lyrics for a book/CD of original lullabies, and a couple of biographies. Choosing my favorites among so many “apples and onions” would be impossible.

But if we limit it to YA suspense novels, I think it would probably be Stranger With My Face. I find the subject of astral projection fascinating, and I think that novel is also one of my best written.


Megan: Well, I just want to say you’ve fulfilled a big girlhood dream of mine, this opportunity to speak with you. Your books meant so much to me, and revisiting them has been a gift. I can’t thank you enough.

LD: Thank you, Megan. This interview has been fun for me. You’ve asked some in-depth questions that caused me to really have to think.

Visit Lois Duncan’s website or follow her on Twitter.

Excerpts from “A Visit with Lois Duncan,” a 35 minute DVD, created specifically for classroom use, can be viewed here

Click here for The Shadow Knows: An Appreciation of Lois Duncan.

 



April 14, 2011

On William Harrington: My Uncle the Thriller Author

by stonafitch

I’ve been thinking lately about a writer I can pretty much guarantee none of you have ever heard of – William Harrington. He wrote or ghostwrote twenty-five novels, including many of the Washington thrillers of presidential spawn Margaret Truman and Elliott Roosevelt, novelizations of the “Columbo” series, several Harold Robbins novels, and his own thrillers. In the New York Times, Anatoyle Broyard praised his clean writing and research.

Like a lot of dead writers, Bill Harrington is pretty much forgotten. But he was my uncle and the only writer I knew when I was growing up, so he holds a special place in my pantheon. His story proves that writers make terrible relatives and worse role models. You’ll see why soon enough.


I remember Uncle Bill as a demi-god of 1970s New York City, a manly man who flew his own plane into Teterboro for long lunches at La Grenouille with his agent and Terry Southern. Velvety suits with wide lapels, plates of duck a l’orange and flaming crepes for dessert. Plenty of Chablis all around. Bordeaux from the fine 1970 vintage. Nights with Peter Falk at the Playboy Club on East 59th.

I’m making most of this up, of course. But that’s probably the life he had in mind – like Hef, Harold Robbins, Burt Reynolds, and Esquire men.

The real Uncle Bill was often charming and occasionally mean but it was excusable because he was a writer, and so, insecure and deeply flawed. He looked like a pocket-sized Norman Mailer, without as much genius or popularity but with an extra dose of street smarts. Bill inspired a kind of fearful awe in our family because he was pretty much always half-drunk and prone to conversational bullying.

Bill took great delight in turning any family occasion into a debacle, which I appreciated, kind of:

Florida, 1968–Family vacation. We climb a tower at a scenic overlook. When everyone else is climbing down, Bill grabs me by the ankles and hangs my scrawny, seven-year-old ass, Pip-like, above the Everglades. When I scream and squirm like a psychotic shrimp, he tells me now you know what if feels like to be scared.

Cincinnati, 1974–Thanksgiving Dinner. Uncle Bill waves me forward from across the table. But instead of asking me to pass the sweet potatoes, he says Have you tasted your own sperm yet? He gives a wan smile as if a special treat awaits me. Then snorts into his Scotch.

Columbus, 1977–Some college bar. The place is empty and no one else in our family is drinking since it’s about noon. But Uncle Bill is marinating in Scotch. To shock us, he’s going on about homosexuality. He says he might suck a cock but definitely wouldn’t let someone fuck him up the ass. As if. By then he looked like Larry Flynt, with a big muff of smokebush hair waving over his gray eyes and a potbelly that begged for luggage wheels.

Each Christmas, like a pulp fiction Unibomber, Uncle Bill would sign his latest hardcover and mailed it to my straight-arrow father, who hid Bill’s books in the Siberian reaches of the knotty-pine bookshelves of our den. Unbeautiful and chunky, Bill’s books were hyper-commercial and smelled of cheap paper and ink, like gun catalogs. Mister Target. An English Lady (his hit). The Search for Elizabeth Brandt (not sure what that one’s about). Virus (a computer thriller before anyone owned a computer). Trial (an early legal thriller).

Left alone at home, I would pull over a chair and climb up to retrieve one of Uncle Bill’s reputedly dirty novels, seduced by their inky perfume. When I was about ten, I turned to a scene about a devious pervert who had gathered up a thin gay junkie and a busty young whore – and forced them to wear scuba suits while having sex for his amusement. Then, much to their surprise (and definitely to mine), the devious pervert plugged in a hidden cable connected to electrodes in the scuba suits and ffffssssstttt.

They were electrocuted via their smoke-spewing pudendum!

I closed the book. This was sex, which everyone seemed to want to do? Where was I going to find a scuba suit? And what about those devious perverts and their electric cables?

My worldview was twisted forever.

Lest you think he was just a garden-variety sick pup, Uncle Bill was a technology savant if not a literary giant. He was a successful attorney and avid pilot. He wrote provocative editorials and orchestrated media confrontations. He co-developed the pioneering LEXIS database, which evolved into an information service that lawyers rely on every day.

That said, he was also a very sick pup.

I had dinner with Bill spring of my senior year in college, hoping for advice for a young writer about to venture out into the marketplace. What I got instead was an evening-long, soul-killing rant about his huge book advances, celebrities he knew, and how bad most other writers (Harold Robbins!) were.

Harold Robbins and friends

After dinner, which included drinking most of the red wine in southern Connecticut, my ursine uncle padded off to his study to write. I could barely walk but Uncle Bill was writing, or appeared to be. My last memory of that night? His puffy face and glittering eyes lit green by the screen of his expensive PC, the first I had ever seen.

There goes a pro, I thought at the time, too young to recognize a drinker with a writing problem. After that, I lost touch with Uncle Bill on purpose, trying to avoid contagion from the palpable bitterness that pumped through him like central air.

Then in 2000, Uncle Bill walked out the front door of his Greenwich mini-mansion and blew his brains out with his fancy German pistol. “William G. Harrington, a mystery novelist with a long career as a collaborator with celebrity authors, died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut,” the Times obit duly recorded. “The police said he apparently committed suicide, writing his own obituary before he died. His writing career spanned 37 years.” They didn’t run the obit he wrote, of course.

I have to assume that it wasn’t drinking that killed Uncle Bill, or divorce, or declining talent. It was corrosive disappointment. I see his sad but not necessarily tragic life as a cautionary tale for writers – of serious money earned and respect denied, talent accrued and squandered, very good deals followed by deals with the Devil, novels thick with cops and soldiers that led to a final tale of a Luger in his own pale, shaking hand.

Writing is a decathlon of disappointment, even for writers who do well at it. Talk to most writers and they’ll tell you about the major film interest that almost happened but didn’t, the deal with Knopf that went south, the novel that never found a publisher, the foreign rights that floundered. Writers collect disappointment like normal people collect lint.

When my father died a few years ago I took his stack of Uncle Bill’s novels to Goodwill in Montgomery, Ohio and dropped them off with the other debris from the basement. It took three or four trips from the Buick. I never even thought about keeping one of his books. They were bad voodoo, tainted by Bill’s Scotch-scented paw. If I had thought about it, I probably would have burned the books just in case. Their dense, heavily foxed pages would have made a nice blaze in the woodstove for an evening.

A jumble of thousands of books lines the walls of our house – writers I revere or not, books that serve as beacons of brilliance or warning lights, novels I don’t particularly like written by friends I do. When it comes to books, we’re non-denominational. So why didn’t I just put Bill’s up in the outer reaches like my father used to, as a top-shelf memorial to the other writer in the family?

Because they were reminders of something few writers (or people, generally) want to know: Most of our big plans for ourselves probably won’t happen.

Still life with bunnies

Even for Uncle Bill. Trolling through louche 1970s New York City, getting hired to write for big money, living in his Cos Cob mini-mansion with a fluffy dog named Easy (for easy lay; the dog was a slut and Bill sexualized everything) – it all never quite added up to what he had in mind. So he wound up dead. And not happy dead, surrounded by loved ones in a hospice or slipping off at 92 in his sleep. He died alone on his doorstep, brains on the lawn, Luger in his hand, as two-dimensional an ending as any he ever penned.

Writers create people out of words. So why shouldn’t we create expectations out of some version of talent, the occasional break, and bits of praise? The trajectory leads ever upward. Except when its doesn’t. How we deal with the inevitable disappointments seems to make all the difference between a writing life and a bitter end.

A couple of weeks ago I made some truly half-assed attempts to track down Uncle Bill’s agent, lawyer, and other remaining cohorts. But when I heard their tired voices on my voicemail I didn’t have the heart to call them back and dredge up what I’m certain would have been mixed memories of the late William Harrington, American novelist.

I could have called my aunt, who plays piano bars down in Florida, or my cousin in Arkansas. But we’ve been out of touch for years and pestering them about their dead husband/father didn’t seem like a particularly kind way to get reacquainted.

So I didn’t make the calls or do the legwork. I cared but not that much. I already know what I need to about Uncle Bill. And now so do you. Bill Harrington was a writer who fooled himself until he couldn’t anymore. He was a good father and a perverse uncle. He lived high and died low. He was incredibly smart and sharp. He wrote and published twenty-five books.

We should all be so lucky. Right?

For an intro to Stona, click here.

April 14, 2011

hand on the button: meet Stona …

by Megan Abbott


Ladies and gents, we welcome Stona Fitch, novelist (his novels, including the dire and wondrous and appalling Senseless and the lush, seductive Give + Take) are not to be missed) and founder of the exciting venture, Concord Free Press, which publishes and distributes (for free!) original novels throughout the world, asking readers make a voluntary donation to a charity or person in need. (BTW, Concord Free Press most recently published Scott Phillips’ dynamite novel, RUT; get your copy while you can.)

These details do not begin to sum up Stona, who is also founder of Gaining Ground, a nonprofit farm, a former reporter and former member of the band Scruffy The Cat (for whom he played mandolin, accordion, organ and electric banjo).

I swear, all these things are true.

And yet, honestly, having known Stona about five years now, these details don’t begin to sum him up, or gather his talents. And it is only through knowing Stona that I once met Gore Vidal on the top of the Raleigh Hotel in South Beach. I was too nervous to say more than three words to Mr. Vidal (those three words may well have been: “It’s Gore Vidal”), but I am forever grateful to Stona, all the more so for the chance to read his books.

Upcoming and not-to-be-missed, we have  Stona’s reminiscence of his Writer Uncle, William Harrington.

1. What is your greatest fear?

Accidentally cutting off a finger. One of mine, that is.

2. What is your favorite way of spending time?

Walking around a new city all day and getting lost. Falling in with the locals, gaining their trust through charm and guile, stealing their stories, leaving them scratching their heads.

3. What is your most treasured possession?

My collection of Cuban landsnail shells, genus polymita, from the 1940s. Worthless but beautiful, like most of the things I pick up.

4. When and where were you happiest? Right now, of course. Never look back. Or ahead. And definitely don’t take a close look at your feet and think about birds.

5. What is your greatest indulgence?

Old wine.

6. Where would you like to live?

Edinburgh grafted to New York, with Cuba just off the coast of Brooklyn.

7. What is the quality you are most drawn to a person?

Someone who’s interested in everything, up to a point.

8. How would you like to die?

Accidentally crushed by my forty-seven great-grandchildren’s loving but super-clumsy embrace.

9. What is your secret superstition?

Like Pavlov’s typing dog, I listen to the same music over and over when I write.

10. What was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had?

I wake up screaming about once a week, just ask the neighbors. Usually it’s about water. I hate water.

11. What song do you most hear in your head?

“Afternoon Delight” shows up way too often, as does “Beat on the Brat” from the Ramones. “When I’m Small” from Phantogram surface when I’m driving. Late at night, Arvo Part chimes in. Mostly I just hear a high-pitched hum, sonic residue from standing in front of a stack of amplifiers for years.

12. What do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly?

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue.

13. What do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative?

Narco-yoga.

14. What’s something you never told anyone?

Before she left town forever, my mother said “Goodbye, Steve. Be good.” Don’t call me Steve. Don’t expect me to be good. Never say goodbye.

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April 11, 2011

it could be you

by Megan Abbott


Recently, I wrote a piece for the Los Angles Times Magazine about what may be seen as the rise of the dark, complicated female protagonist in crime fiction (and film). Interviewing Gillian Flynn, whose novels Dark Places and Sharp Objects are prime examples, we began talking about made-for-TV movies from our youth. Wondering about the impact of these movies on writers around our age, Gillian noted in particular watching way too many “women-in-jeopardy stories: the woman who was stalked or attacked or abused.”

The influence of these movies is something Sara and I have discussed many times–especially powerful for us were the tales of teen hitchhikers and runaways and teen hitchhiker-runaways-turned-hookers (Sara, jump in here if I’m misremembering!). I also became pretty fixated on E!True Hollywood Story equivalent in the early 90s–especially the ones about porn stars (the best:  the truly sad tale of Savannah). In much the ways that Flowers in the Attic seems to have planted some dark seeds within our generation of women, these movies were somehow deeply resonant, perhaps in the way that True Confessions magazine may have been to a prior one.

By and large, these tales–at least the ones that seemed to have loomed large for many of us–speak to the price paid for transgression (disrespect for parents, selfishness, an inability to control their own impulses, or most of all poor taste in men) or, in the more old-fashioned strand, the inevitable price all women must pay, as their birthright (e.g., all women are at constant risk for being duped or hustled by bigamists, wifebeaters, pimps in disguise, married cads, embezzlers, con men–or all of the above).

But, gender issues, aside, one of the elements of these movies that stirred me so deeply was the powerful sense that violence and chaos can, or even will, unfurl in your own home. I was especially fixated on Fatal Vision, the superb 1984 miniseries about Jeffery MacDonald, the Green Beret captain and doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two children, The Betty Broderick Story, which Gillian also cited, with Meredith Baxter Birney as the socialite accused of murdering her ex-husband and his new wife, Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Diane Downs, accused of killing her children, and Adam, about the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder, which seemed to traumatize a whole generation of children and parents and I Know My First Name Is Steven, another true-crime kidnapping tale, this one from the viewpoint of the kidnapped boy as he grows up with his captor.

There are countless more, but they all presented the suburban, middle-class home as not as the bland domestic space of yore, but as a powder keg. That violence could arise anywhere, at any time. It could find you there. It could even originate there. It could rise up within your own parents. Even you.

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