Megan Abbott, interviewed by Theresa Schwegel
Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes"—intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.
These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature Megan Abbott, interviewed by Theresa Schwegel.
Megan Abbott has taught literature, writing and film at New York University and the State University of New York at Oswego. Born in the Detroit area, she graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English Literature. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University in 2000, and in 2002 Palgrave Macmillan published her nonfiction study, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. She lives in New York City. Die a Little, her first novel, was nominated for a 2006 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America and a 2006 Barry Award and Anthony Award for Best First Novel.
Her second novel, The Song Is You, arrived in bookstores in January 2007 and centers around a true-life missing persons case in 1940s Hollywood. Her third novel, Queenpin, came out in June 2007.
Look for stories by Megan Abbott in the anthologies Damn Near Dead, Wall Street Noir (June 2007) and Queens Noir (forthcoming).
Theresa Schwegel: Your books have a remarkable visual resonance, particularly because you've embedded details in your work like diamonds in a pavé ring. Do you try to write visually?
Megan Abbott: Oh my, that's much too generous, but I thank you for it! I tend to picture things when I write and try to use the language to rebuild the pictures for whoever's reading it. I think it comes from being so inspired and infatuated by old movies. I really write my way into my favorite movie scenes, the sets, the camera angles, even. Certain images just haunt me, kind of stutter around in my head. There's this scene set in a piano bar in the great noir, In a Lonely Place, and that piano bar keeps finding its way into my novels. Ditto this particular apartment courtyard from Day of the Locust, the beachfront diner in Fallen Angel. Gloria Grahame's face. Ralph Meeker sneering in a sharkskin suit.
TS: You also write in very specific time periods, all strung by believable and relevant atmosphere. How do you find the words? The descriptions? The moods? Do you have a 50-year-old thesaurus?
MA: I tend to surround myself with period stuff—as you know from having to endure the hallucinogenic site of my apartment walls, covered with 1950s paint-by-numbers, or the shelves filled with 1930s carnival prizes. That all helps. Also, old cookbooks, catalogs, magazines—lately, I've been collecting men's magazines from the 1940s and 50s with titles like Frolic and Laff. The kinds with ads for Hite-Builder lifts and Crime Detection Kits, alongside articles like, "Dude Ranch Blondes," "Incendiary Cindy" and "Are French Movies Too Sexy?" You read a lot of this, you try to pick up a certain parlance. It starts to seep in to the writing.
TS: Let's skip the definition of noir and find out what draws you to it. Any one movie or pulp book that started this whole thing?
MA: Two, which I read almost simultaneously: James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. I was in grad school for English Literature and part of me assumed that they would be simple, throwaway books—fun things to take a break from stuff like Middlemarch. Boy, was I wrong. I found such complexities, so many endless dark corners in both—creaky little windows into the 1930s and '40s. Stories ragged with feeling, tortured desire. Haunted men and broken women. I was hooked.
TS: On that note, who keeps you going? What's the last thing you read/ heard/ watched that made you think/ listen up/ blink?
MA: I just read Richard Aleas's Songs of Innocence and it knocked my socks off. The last 30 pages, I don't think I took a breath. In many ways, it's a classic PI story, and you're reading along, marveling at its skill, and then all the sudden, at the end, there's this unexpected emotional wallop that just floors you. And I have been reading a lot of the white-hot Vicki Hendricks, including her latest, Cruel Poetry, which is just great. Her characters jump off the page. There's such momentum, the characters' drive to their own dooms. Moviewise, I haven't been able to get David Fincher's brilliant Zodiac out of my head. I really think it's an instant classic. I can't remember seeing a movie so insightful and penetrating about the powerful pull of unsolved crime, of noir obsession and its awful spiral.
TS: Do you have any plans to write a contemporary novel?
MA: Not at the moment. I've written stories set in the present, so I'm sure I'll find a way to do it some day. My obstacle to date has been a certain weakness for glamour and I find it harder to fashion for myself any kind of luster on both the present day and my present surroundings. It's something I'd like to try, but for now writing is so much about escape, about a time machine.
TS: Your work focuses, in part, on dreamers who wind up faced with nightmares. Is there something in your psyche that's drawn to the plight of wanna-be's?
MA: Wow, I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think you're absolutely right. I guess it's deeply Hollywood and deeply American. The marvelous sheen and seamy underbelly all at once. How easy it is to slip from one to the other, blinded by stardust or dreams. These scheming dreamers who believe in their dream too much. You just know it can't go well. Character as destiny. Those stories feel like the strike at the core to me. You're both drawn to these characters because they believe so fervently in their dreams and then, before you now it, you're right down there in the muck with them.
TS: I can't keep up with your output. Do you work furiously on one book at a time, or do you have 16 books going at once (and just decide to polish one off every couple months)?
MA: It's really all an illusion. I take at least two years to write a novel. It's just a quirk with Queenpin, which I consciously attempted to write very quickly, inspired by those stories of the great pulp writers who wrote with this staggering velocity. My first two books and the one I'm working on now are far slower going, in large part because of the research involved in time and place.
TS: Everyone always asks you about your covers. I think you're obligated to tell that story here.
MA: God bless the wondrous Richie Fahey, the artist for all three covers. My favorite moments in publishing have been each time my editor has first sent me the cover art for the upcoming book. I feel like he sees inside my head and then improves upon it. His work is inspired by 1940s and '50s pulp covers but with this dreamy, edgy tilt to them that seems all his own. It's such an uncanny feeling to see characters I made up go through his head and then take this visual life. I'm so indebted to him.
TS: You wrote a male lead in The Song Is You and he isn't so likeable. I mean, most women would probably like him, but not for long. Would you ever sit down with a guy like that over a few gimlets? What do you find compelling about Gil Hopkins?
MA: Thinking about Gil Hopkins, I had two pictures in my head: William Holden in Sunset Boulevard and Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success. I kept photos of both of them by the computer. These charming, smooth-talking pretty boys hustling every angle and hating themselves for it. Men doing bad things who are too smart not to have self-contempt but not smart enough to figure out a way to rise above it. I just find it fascinating and I wanted to write a character like that. And you can bet I would sit down for gimlets with him, but I'd definitely stop at one.
TS: Queenpin is set in the world of gambling. Do you gamble? Or—a better question—do you take risks?
MA: I don't gamble at all. Generally, I'm a very cautious person, which is why I am completely obsessed with gambling. Vicariously. Gambling movies, gambling stories, watching the tables in Atlantic City, pestering noted gambler (and novelist) Jason Starr with questions about figuring odds and how to read a racing form. I take very few risks, and prefer just to walk the line, which is probably pretty typical for writers, right? For me, I guess, writing is an excuse for voyeurism.
TS: We toured together earlier this year: I had the shot, you had the beer. During that time I came to know you as a very insightful, personable woman. Why do you think it's so tough to get in front of people?
MA: Well, it was always much easier with you there—and after the beer, of course. It may be in part that writing is such a private thing, so solitary and remote and so much in one's head. And then you have to try to make this transition to being able to talk about all that stuff in your head, live, in front of people. To give shape to it in a way that doesn't sound like gibberish. The more you think about it, the more paralyzing it becomes. But when you have someone to talk to, as we did, with each other, it takes on so much more natural a quality. It becomes talking about books with a writer you admire and respect and with these wonderful readers, and that's pretty great. So it's a matter of reminding myself it's not a test—and not my dissertation defense. But if I could've had a beer before that too, I would have.
TS: You recently met one of your heroes, James Ellroy. Any pearls of wisdom you're willing to share?
MA: I was lucky enough, thanks to the kindness of Linda and Bobby at the Mystery Bookstore in LA, to sit next to James Ellroy at the LA Festival of Books. It was beyond surreal, since I'd been reading him since I was 15, 16 years old and more than that, his books had formed this dark landscape in my head. And he couldn't have been kinder or more generous to me, even as I rambled incoherently to him for the better part of an hour. He said all these interesting things and gave me all these wonderful pieces of advice and I was so nervous that afterward I immediately forgot everything.
TS: Female crime fiction writers have certain responsibilities. Ever feel like you're skirting yours?
MA: Yes. But there's the part of my head that thinks about the responsibilities and the part of my head that writes. And those two sides don't talk to each other much. But I do think that there are really important responsibilities, which is one of the reasons I'm excited about this collection I'm editing for Busted Flush Press, A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir. One of the goals is to expand ideas of female characters in noir—and to broaden our terms a bit. In addition to about 25 great stories by the likes of S.J. Rozan, Alison Gaylin, Cornelia Read, Naomi Hirahara and more, we include appreciations by authors of their favorite female noir authors or characters, including your great ode to Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity. I love how you called her "hot from the ankle up, and cold to the core."
TS: Finally, what can we expect next?
MA: I'm about midway through a first draft of a new novel. Doomed love, bootleg gin and murder in a dusty desert town in the early 1930s. And A Hell of a Woman, which should come out in late November or early December, just in time for the holiday season, of course.
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