wherein Sara and Megan discuss their books CLAIRE DeWITT & THE CITY OF THE DEAD (a detective novel) and THE END OF EVERYTHING (a suburban gothic crime novel), respectively, both coming Summer 2011, and other sundry items.
Sara: THE END OF EVERYTHING is quite realistic, painting this almost painfully accurate picture of a young girl who is, as you say, at the end of everything—the end of childhood, of the pretense of sexual ignorance, of pretending girls will be friends forever, of that haze of not-knowing that fogs over childhood. It doesn’t read like a detective book—I would call it a literary mystery, although I’m not sure if you agree—but the young narrator does, in her own way, become a sleuth and attempt to solve this mystery of what happened to her best friend, both literally and psychologically—she seeks to find her friend but also to understand these twisted routes of sexuality and adulthood and desire. In my book, the detective angle is highly exaggerated and not at all realistic, and the girls themselves are quite different—mine are tough, urban girls from deeply troubled homes, yours are girls ostensibly a part of mainstream suburban life, but falling through (or maybe seeking out and jumping through) the cracks. Yet both of our books feature a young girl who has disappeared, and her best friend searching for her. How fucked up is that? I mean in a good way, of course!
Megan: I remember when we both realized that! It *is*striking how they have this close connection at the core—girl sleuths—and both our detectives are this remove-that’s-not-really-a-remove. And female adolescence—and female friendships—plays a large role in each, either through the main narrative or through flashbacks. I also think they’re similar in that they’re dealing with, or dancing around, or puzzling through what we might call a loss of innocence. And they’re both journeys of sorts. Yes, tone, subject matter and, well, plot are so different but I feel like they’re linked deeply on another level. My protagonist, Lizzie, stumbles into a mystery and tries to insert herself, but your book in many ways is about the idea of a mystery itself. Which you tackle playfully, pomo-style, at times, but what separates it from a sort of basic genre implosion is that the idea of “mystery” is a diversion that protects us from larger, deeper, more unknowable mysteries. It’s a book in love with mystery and the book itself starts to feel like this mystical object, with codes buried in riddles. Your books always upturn and unsettle conventions, but CLAIRE seems to do even more—it seems to build something new entirely, from the jeweled wreckage of long lost books and other treasures.
Sara: Thank you! THE END is stylistically a bit of a leap from your other books—it’s contemporary, rather than historical, it’s entirely fictional (many of your previous works have been based on true crime stories), and there’s a quality to it—oh, I don’t know quite how to put it, but something personal and deeply rooted in there. Maybe what I mean to say is that I feel like your previous books drew more from history, film, true-crime, and your vast knowledge of all things noir, but in THE END OF EVERYTHING you seem to draw solely from your own experience and your own depths. And while I love all your books, there’s something in THE END OF EVERYTHING that’s so dark and true and real and rare in fiction—something you can’t name because if we could name it, we wouldn’t need books.
So I have two questions for you: one, what is about girl detectives/missing girls that is so interesting? And two, I was curious about the differences between THE END OF EVERYTHING and your other books—if it was a conscious decision to go in a slightly course, or just a natural progression, or a book that had been in you from the start, or none of the above?
Megan: I think for me the voyeurism is the key fascination. Maybe all writers are voyeurs. I’m sure I am. I don’t have my eye to the peephole, not literally at least, but I think I frequently do, in spirit. Likewise, young girls are deeply curious and it often takes different forms than young boys—or at least it did when I was young. Boys are perhaps more encouraged to be investigators and explorers, but girls often feel—or at least until we all became SO EMPOWERED!—they have to look sideways at dark things, not head on. Which is frequently what a detective must do, as he’s concealing his true purpose, his true role. Not to get super-gendery about it, because I’m also fascinated by the pervasive curiosity and intensity and even hysteria of adolescence.
As for the difference with this book, to me, it’s mostly one of time period. THE END OF EVERYTHING is set in the 1980s, when I was an adolescent. My previous books were all set in the mid-century, a world I didn’t know and had to, in large part, build for myself. But why I wrote it now? It’s a book I started writing back in the late 1990s, but I didn’t really know how to write a novel (and perhaps never will!), so returning to it now felt a little like going home, but going home wiser and I guess wanted to poke at old wounds and scar tissue. It felt a little risky, in the best way.
Sara: I didn’t know that you had started the book so long ago and set it aside. How far did you get the first time around? Was there a particular reason you were unable to finish it then, but could now? I know what you mean about not knowing how to write a novel, of course—finishing a book is its own skill set—but usually those early aborted novels end up forgotten on an old computer no one can use anymore. Why did you come back to this one (and I’m glad you did!)?
Megan: Gee, that’s a great question. But I don’t really know. I had an eye to trying write something more contemporary and different. So I just started playing around with it. And having aged a good dozen years and with a lot more life experiences, I just had a sense of where the story might lead, and why. (That makes it sound like I had a plan, but I never really do.)
Sara: Just one more follow-up question and then I’ll let you off the hook—but I really am curious because we’ve never talked about it before. So was END your first book? Or were there other half-starts (I had plenty, and still do all the time) before DIE A LITTLE? If so, what were they like?
Megan: Gosh, probably not, really. And this one was only about a third finished. Right before that, I was writing screenplays—unholy mixes of bad Raymond Carver imitation and Reservoir Dogs (this was the early 1990s). Inspiration can be a funny thing.
How about you? What sparked CLAIRE DE WITT?
Sara: The inspiration for all my books seems to come when two worlds collide; in this case my love of detective TV shows and paperback novels and my long interest in divination, and magic, real and fake.
I grew up cutting school and staying home to watch Columbo, Magnum, PI, The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, Quincy and similar fantasies of detection and crime. At night, always insomniac, I would stay up and watch Naked City. Everyone always thinks Columbo is so stupid but you know, he’s not. That commissioner never believed in Quincy but Quincy was always right (it was never an accidental death! Never!) And there’s something deep and universal in that Cassandra-like experience—knowing the truth yet never being believed. And I do think the detective story has become a part of our mythology. Well, they say you should write what you want to read, and there’s really nothing I’d rather read more than the adventures of a pot-smoking detective of ill repute, skilled both in street smarts and in the arts of divination and reading signs.
I also felt strongly driven to write a book that took place in New Orleans (I lived in NOLA from 2004-2007), without using the usual clichés—Music! Food! Art! I wanted to write something about New Orleans my own way, that reflected my own experience.
Megan: Let me jump in to say that one of the most startling and beautiful things about CLAIRE is cityscape of New Orleans as you depict it. It feels both utterly fantastical and powerfully authentic at the same time. A kind of radical expressionism.
Sara: Thanks, Megan! Speaking of place, I’ve been curious as to how much of END OF EVERYTHING is autobiographical—not the big stuff, I know, but the little details about the town and the world where the characters live. How does that register against your own childhood?
Megan: It’s definitely the world of my hometown (suburban Michigan) during that time period. It seemed like the whole summer world was conducted in backyards, sprinklers, Ernie Harwell on the radio, mosquitoes and peering through window and door screens. And all of that serenity serves as a kind of cloak. Not a cloak covering some kind of perversity, as has become the sort of nasty joke about suburbs that you see on TV and in the movies now. The cloak is covering all kinds of heartbreak and romance and tragedy and magic. Which is why what you say about Brooklyn speaks so much to me. Places, like people, are always weirder than they appear, more shot through with mystery, aren’t they?
I guess in very different ways we’re showing how locations—spaces—absorb and emit all kinds of emotion and energy. Is that one of the reasons that cities are central to the new series? Where will Claire go next and how do you decide that?
Sara: “And all of that serenity serves as a kind of cloak. Not a cloak covering some kind of perversity, as has become the sort of nasty joke about suburbs that you see on TV and in the movies now. The cloak is covering all kinds of heartbreak and romance and tragedy and magic.” That comes through so strongly in the book. There’s this respect for the people who live in this town, on a moral and spiritual level, that’s lacking from the usual sneering, nasty view of the suburbs.
Places are almost more important than people to me in my writing. After all, they’re like people, but they never get boring and they never go off and leave and they never run out of anything—love, hate, acceptance, rejection. In your books, too, place becomes a kind of silent character—especially, I think, in QUEENPIN, where you created an entire imaginary landscape that kind of defines the boundaries of or frames the story, but of course, it’s all custom built, so those boundaries are self-imposed. To answer your question, I have four CLAIRE books planned—the first in New Orleans, the second in the Bay Area, the third in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and the fourth in New York City. These roughly correspond to the four elements—water, earth/wood, fire, air. And yes, exactly—the difference in how spaces absorb and emit emotion and energy brings up new and interesting situations for Claire, which was the impetus behind having her move around. And I myself have moved around so much that it became something I wanted to explore in fiction. So my next few years are pretty tied up with that.
Megan, what’s coming next from you? As usual, have you completed four books before I finish one?
Megan: I was going to ask you that! That is, if your migratory path in recent years may have played a role in your path for Claire. Now I want to ask you more about that (like if your moves related to the four elements), but this interview may in fact go on for decades (and likely will, offline!). Next for me is a book about cheerleaders. It may be the darkest ever book about cheerleaders. But somehow I think not.