First, some business to square away – I’m teaching a couple of courses I’d like everyone to know about. If you or someone you know would like to register, follow the links I provide below.
The first is an in-person weekend class and workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera on December 1st & 2nd. The class is titled Character Spines and Story Lines, and will focus on how to integrate character with story to create focused, compelling, character-driven plots.
The second is a ten-week online course, beginning January 16th, offered through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. It’s titled The Outer Limits of Inner Life: Building Consistent but Surprising Characters, and covers the art of characterization from conception of the character through development and execution on the page.
They've also created a swift little video for the rollout, in which I characteristically talk far too quickly about nothing much:
Follow the links to purchase the titles, and remember there are two days left of the special November promotion in which The Devil's Redhead (and 99 other stellar titles) are all available for $3.99 or less (TDR is a lean, mean $2.99).
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Now, to our regularly schedule programming:
I had a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. I got to meet my girlfriend Mette’s parents for the first time – they spend much of the year abroad, living for several months in Bergen, Norway, another several in Izmir, Turkey – and spent several restful days at a lakeside cottage in the Putnam Valley (not far from Sleepy Hollow), eating sumptuous meals, hiking in the woods, and listening to vinyl on our host’s knockout stereo (his record collection ranged from Bowie to Herbie Hancock to Fela to Sonny Boy Williamson to, well, you get the picture).
I also received from my editor at Penguin, Tara Singh, a jpeg for the finalized cover up my upcoming book, The Art of Character:
Oops. My apologies. I tried to post the cover, but I only have a pdf file,
and apparently I need a jpeg or similar file. I'm going to try something here -- let's see if it works. If not, sorry.
The cover was completed after I was able to scrabble together some blurbs from assorted friends, colleagues, comrades in arms. Given the rather ragged path to publication this poor little book has endured – I’m on my third editor, for example – I was given a very narrow time window (two weeks) to gather these quotes, which all but guaranteed that we’d come up short-handed.
All the writers I know are super-busy, and asking for a quote in such a short time frame was almost embarrassing. Many of the writers I asked simply couldn’t oblige, but luckily there were a significant, generous few who were able to take the time and respond.
As you know, this past year there was a rather heated debate over the use of “sock puppets” to praise one’s own work and, in extreme cases, attack the work of others. Alexandra and Martyn both posted blogs here on the topic. And the resulting discussion all around the web brought into high relief the entire issue of garnering favorable opinion for one’s work – whether in the form of friends writing Amazon reviews, writing reviews oneself under pseudonyms, or good old-fashioned, genuine third-party praise.
Barry Eisler, in addressing the sock puppet phenomenon, put it in the context of acquiring blurbs, a system he considers “irredeemably corrupt.” I’m not quite as jaundiced as Barry, but I’m no fool. I realize that many cover quotes are written as personal favors or as a kind of quid pro quo for kindnesses or acts of generosity provided elsewhere. I also know they don't always reflect a genuine knowledge of the work. As Robert B. Parker famously remarked: "I'll blurb the book or read it, not both." (I'm paraphrasing.)
I think most people understand all this. Readers don’t take cover quotes as gospel any more than they read Yelp reviews without a certain reasonable skepticism. Ultimately, we evaluate several reviews and/or blurbs, "weigh the source," glimpse at the book ourselves, and form our own opinion.
That said, I was absolutely overwhelmed with the generosity, kindness, and respect my fellow writers showed my humble little book. My editor was frankly stunned – and ecstatic. Here’s a sample:
"David Corbett has written a wise, inspiring love letter to all the imaginary creatures inside our minds—so we might conjure them whole on the page. I predict that massively underscored copies of The Art of Character will rest close at hand on writers’ desks for many years to come." —Cheryl Strayed, Best Selling Author of Wild
“I once made the mistake of writing a story with David Corbett. The man smoked me. He can delineate the character and personality of an accordion in three strokes. I didn't even know accordions had character. This act of generosity and wisdom from a very good writer will help anyone who is staring at a blank page, any day, any time. Highly recommended.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, Pulitzer Finalist and Bestselling Author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter
“Corbett’s The Art of Character is no "how to" book or "writing by numbers" manual. It is a writer’s bible that will lead to your character’s soul.” —Elizabeth Brundage, Best Selling Author of A Stranger Like You
Indispensable. Few are the writer’s guides that are written as beautifully, cogently, and intelligently as a well-wrought novel. This is one of those books.” —Megan Abbott, Edgar-Winning author of The End of Everything
"David Corbett's The Art of Character belongs on every writer's shelf beside Elizabeth George's Write Away and Stephen King's On Writing. An invaluable resource for both the novice and the experienced hand, it's as much fun to read as a great novel." —Deborah Crombie, New York Times best-selling author of Water Like a Stone
"The topic of character development begins and ends with David Corbett’s The Art of Character. This is the book on the subject, destined to stand among the writings of John Gardner, Joseph Campbell, and the others of that select few whose work is fundamental to understanding the craft of storytelling." —Craig Clevenger, author of The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria
"David Corbett's The Art of Character offers a deep inquiry into the creation of character for the novice writer, with valuable nuggets of wisdom for the seasoned storyteller. If you are a writer, it should be on your desk." —Jacqueline Winspear, National Best Selling Author of A Lesson in Secrets
“Clear-headed and confident, David Corbett takes us through the steps of characterization in a manner that resists formula while at the same time demystifying a process that has likely daunted every writer since Homer. “ —Robin Hemley, Award-Winning Author of Turning Life into Fiction
“David Corbett has combined his unique talents as a gifted writer and an extraordinary teacher to create a superb resource on character development. Deftly crafted and impeccably researched, The Art of Character is a thoughtful and insightful book that is immensely readable and practical.” —Sheldon Siegel. New York Times Best Selling Author of Perfect Alibi
"It is rare to find the deep philosophical questions of literature (and life) met with such straight-forward and inspiring instruction. But David Corbett is that writer, and The Art of Character is that book." -—Robert Mailer Anderson, author "Boonville"
“This fine book is about as thorough an examination of character and what it means in all sorts of imaginative writing as you're likely to find anywhere.” —Robert Bausch, Prize-Winning Author of Out of Season
Yes, they all could be lying, or exaggerating, or simply doing me a good turn. But I think, when readers look inside the cover, they’ll be able to determine for themselves whether the praise was warranted or not. In the meantime, I’m basking in the glow – and feeling very fortunate indeed.
So, Muderateros – how do you appraise the value of cover quotes on a book you’re thinking of buying? Do you agree with Barry Eisler that the system is so ridden with underhandedness as to be worthless? Or does the opinion of a writer you admire still carry weight?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I mentioned that I got to listen to Fela this weekend at my lakeside hideaway. For those of you unacquainted with this African megastar-hero’s work, this is an excellent introduction – “Zombie,” from 1976:
One place you will NOT find me today is in a mall. Instead, we're having Noir Friday here on Murderati.
So I've professed my undying love for Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, many a time on this blog, but I do have a serious beef with this year’s line up.
The noir panel was all men.
I mean, really? In 2012? When Megan Abbott and Kelli Stanley and Cornelia Read are attending? When Christa Faust is not only in the room, but up for an Anthony?
I guess all the women were stuck in binders or something.
(Kudos to the one panelist, John Rector, who knows a little about noir himself, who jumped to point this absence out.)
Bouchercon was over a month ago and this noir sans femme thing is still rankling me, so I decided to blog about it.
This is also partly because I was asked (multiple times) to take part in the latest author blog hop, The Next Big Thing, in which authors post their answers to a set of ten questions about their latest books on their blogs and then tag five more authors for the next week, and possibly Kevin Bacon is involved, and then we take over the world.
So my horror/thriller author pal, the wildly dark, or darkly wild, Sarah Pinborough, tagged me two weeks ago, ad I did my ten question interview on Huntress Moon last week - here - and now it’s my turn to tag five authors and link to their interviews this week.
And because I am still seething over the noir panel, I chose a theme of fantastic dark female characters, and tagged my authors accordingly:
- Michelle Gagnon is a thriller writer who has recently brought her powerhouse female perspective and adrenaline-charged storytelling to the YA thriller genre with her latest, Don't Turn Around. Noa is a terrific tenage role model; I hope we'll see more of her. Read her Q & A here
- Christa Faust knows noir backward and forward, and has virtually created a whole new direction for the genre and its characters. Angel Dare is an alt heroine who brings OUT everything that noir anti-heroines like Gloria Grahame were doing in a coded sense, and Butch Fatale takes the "two-fisted detective" archetype to a new meaning. Read her Q & A here
- Wallace Stroby. As Anyone who reads this blog knows, I am VERY picky about men writing "strong women", and on the dark side, Stroby is as good as it getts, both shattering and reversing noir gender stereotypes. His Crissa Stone series presents a thief who doesn't just hold her own, but leads and controls motley collections of male gangsters. And I'm even more fond of Stroby's Sara Cross, who mirrors the classic noir paradigm; she's a truly good woman whose near-fatal flaw is a tragically bad man.
in the Charlie series is set in New Orleans! http://zoesharp.com/
- Zoe Sharp needs no introduction here. As we know, she actually DOES write a kick-ass female lead, Charlie Fox, who works as a bodyguard and makes the physical reality of her job perfectly plausible (I've learned a lot about self-defense from these two...) while she battles uniquely feminine psychological demons. And her new installment in the Charlie series is set in New Orleans! http://zoesharp.com/
(Right, that’s only four. I can count, at least up to ten, but getting authors to do anything on deadline is like heding cats.)
I really encourage you all to click through to their interviews, especially for the fun question on who they would cast in a film or TV version of their books. Always a good exercise for any writer, you might get inspired!
So not everyone above is writing noir, exactly. Stroby, definitely. Faust has a lot of noir influence but I’d say her work is more like female-driven pulp, with a strong emphasis on camp humor, too. Sharp and Gagnon write dark and intense, but it’s not noir any more than I’m writing noir, which is not at all.
I’m also no way a noir scholar, and let’s face it, the lines are blurry (Is it noir? Pulp? Neo-noir? Just a good old B movie?) and I’d like to leave the question open for David - I mean everyone - to jump in and define it for us in their own words. Personally, I know it when I see it! No, really - for me, the key difference is that, for example, in Zoe’s and Michelle’s story worlds, there is the possibility and even probability of redemption, while in the classic world of noir, there is none, or very little. Doom and fate figure predominantly.
I liked John Rector's capsule summation on that B'Con panel: “Noir pushes people to extreme circumstances and there is no happy ending. The hero/ine is fighting the good fight... but loses.”
So I guess the personal line I draw between “noir” and “dark” is about that possibility of redemption and at least temporary triumph. You can win the battle even when you know the war rages on. In my own books, there’s plenty of dark, but not noir’s overwhelming sense of inexorable fate; my own themes are more about the people caught up in a spiritual battle between good and evil. And no matter how dark it gets, there’s always the presence of good.
In fact, some of my favorite dark thriller writers: Denise Mina, Tana French, Mo Hayder, Karin Slaughter, Val McDermid, seem to me more fixed on exploring that spiritual evil than fate. As dark as they get, I wouldn’t call what they’re writing “noir”, because it IS more spiritual, they’re dealing with a more cosmic evil. Or maybe the evil they depict is so rooted in a feminine consciousness and feminine fears and demons that it doesn’t FEEL like noir. But that could be me splitting hairs, you tell me! That’s what this blog is about.
And there’s another element that I consider classic noir:
Threatening to men, anyway, apparently!
But the presence of shadowy – or maybe the word I mean is shaded – women is key. For my money some of the most interesting women ever put to page or celluoid are noir femmes, and part of that is because quite a few noir writers and filmmakers and actresses actually made a point of exploring the dark sides of women.
And noir takes on significantly different meaning when the leading roles are played by women instead of men. These days Sara Gran, Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Christa Faust and Wallace Stroby are all doing really exciting work genre-bending by putting women in the protagonist’s seat and then absolutely committing to what it would look like and feel like and mean for a woman to take that lead in circumstances we don't usually see women in.
I was enthralled by Sara Gran’s Dope, which explores a noir standard, addiction, and the noir paradigm of the tarnished white knight committed to a hopeless and destructive person - all from a completely feminine point of view. Likewise Wallace Stroby’s Sara Cross (in Gone Til November) is a committed knight... lawman... lawperson... who very nearly falls because of a fatally seductive man, and any woman who’s ever been tempted will understand her struggle.
Gran has created another classic yet entirely unique noir heroine in her latest, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead; I can’t think of another noir character so reliant on my favorite force in the world: synchronicity. But also, back to addiction: is that synchronicity drug-induced? Claire’s pot habit might be useful juice for her detecting instincts, but one gets the feeling it’s playing hell with her personal life.
Megan Abbott layers a specifically feminine addiction, the pathological narcissism that anorexia can be, into her latest, Dare Me - to chilling effect. And I’ve never seen anyone else portray the feminine counterpart of criminally sociopathic male athletes, but you better believe these cheerleaders are exactly that.
Abbott, Gran and Flynn (in Sharp Objects) are also sometimes writing female protagonists battling female antagonists, with men relegated to secondary roles. I find it a deliriously welcome reversal of the traditional order.
I suspect it's easier, or really I mean more natural, for women to achieve a genre bend with noir and thrillers because we're working against a very entrenched male tradition. If we're just fully ourselves, it's going to look new to the genre.
But men can get there. I think Dennis Lehane did a brilliant genre bend with his male characters in Mystic River by going places that men don't usually go in their own psyches - they'd rather assign that scary stuff to female characters to distance themselves from the experience instead of having to put themselves into those vulnerable positions. Which personally I think is cheating.
And as Stroby is proving, consciously committing to the physical and emotional reality of a complex female protagonist is possible for a male author, too.
By looking at crime through a specifically feminine lens, these authors are creating a new genre. I don’t know what to call it, but I know I love it.
I know there are more of these authors and books out there, and I want to hear about them, so let’s have it. Who are your favorite dark female leads – and villains? Which authors in our genre do you think are portraying ALL the facets of women, black, white, and every shade of gray in between?
And yes, what is your definition of noir? I'd love to know.
As Megan has herself pointed out, there's a strong link to Twin Peaks in The End of Everything. There's the friendship of two young girls in a small town, and suddenly another one disappears, for apparently no reason.
This is a quiet crime novel, almost not a crime novel at all (the Picador edition I read seems to make that quite clear what with the cover). There's only one person killed in the course of the book (I'm not sure if this is a spoiler or not). Up to the middle, the reader hasn't a clue of what's been going on. The secrets stay hidden until the very last pages - and linger on even after the book is over. The sexual tension in the book is almost overwhelming, but there's no actual erotic content in the book. You can't make a mistake this is a book written by a feminist, but Abbott doesn't shy away from showing how awful women and girls can be.
Strongly recommended. I'll be interviewing Megan shortly (after I've read Dare Me, that is) for a Finnish magazine, I'll post the results here as well.
I spent last weekend attending the 2012 Noircon, the biannual lovefest to all things noir devised and convened by Lou Boxer and Deen Kogan in Philadelphia.
I love this festival, which is far more intimate and writer-centric than most others I’ve attended. The participants largely form a congress of equals, and there is never a great divide between the contributions of the various panelists and the comments from the floor. It’s a smart group, widely read and not shy, and I always come away learning more that I could have imagined.
This year was particularly exceptional, with what at times seemed to be a continuous string of highlights. That said, one presentation stood out for me—the keynote talk by Robert Olen Butler.
Butler’s a gracious, witty, generous man with a knife-like body and a steel-trap mind. An astonishing talent, he’s written thirteen novels, six story collections, nine screenplays, an essential guide to writing (From Where You Dream—trust me, read it), and has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship in addition to an almost unseemly bundle of other awards and distinctions.
Why, I hear you ask, is such a literary hotshot slumming at Noircon?
Well that’s an interesting question, one ironically answered by Otto Penzler the day before Butler spoke. Otto explained how, after studying English and American Literature at the University of Michigan, he discovered crime fiction and promptly realized that its best practitioners owe apologies to no one.
Butler agrees, not just in theory. His most recent novel, The Hot Country, is a historical thriller set in Mexico in 1914, combining intrigue from both that country’s revolution and the worldwide cataclysm routinely known as World War I. The plan is for nine more novels in the series, all to be published by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press.
But what Butler chose to discuss at Noircon was craft—specifically, the way in which fiction mimics the cinematic portrayal of events in the mind. (His remarks, I now know, were a distillation of his chapter, "Cinema of the Mind," within From Where You Dream.)
The American filmmaker D.W. Griffith, Butler informed us, once remarked that he owed everything he knew about cinematic technique to Charles Dickens—who died years before the advent of film.
By way of example, Butler turned to the following passage from Great Expectations, which appears shortly after the narrator, Pip, sets the stage, identifying himself and his family, then continues:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
“Hold your noise!" cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. "Keep still, you little devil, or I'll cut your throat!"
A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
"O! Don't cut my throat, sir," I pleaded in terror. "Pray don't do it, sir."
Butler called our attention to several techniques here, all of which have cinematic elements, and there are two particular points that stuck with me, involving the first and the third paragraphs.
Butler noted that the first paragraph serves as what in film is routinely called the establishment shot—setting the story in its initial setting. We start at a distance in a long shot then move in to the nettles of the churchyard and the headstones in arresting close-up, then look out across the landscape again, as though to put those deaths in perspective.
That perspective is not local. Dickens moves beyond the "low leaden line" of the river to : “the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing ... the sea.” A great many writers might leave that phrase out. Such an omission, he argued, would be a mistake, for the establishment shot doesn’t just lay out the scenery. This crucial phrase broadens not just the physical landscape but the thematic one, extending our view not just to the immediate environs but to the world at large, setting the stage for so much of the story to come, and hinting at its universality.
And then, with incredible boldness, Dickens snaps us back again to "the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry," the narrator himself, Pip. This movement in and out creates a marvelous sense of the larger savage world and the small scared soul that form the essential focus of the tale, and do it subtly with this implicit, cinematic movement in and out of the action.
Similarly, the third paragraph might readily find itself in many a writer’s Dead Darling file—another error. It’s not just the unnerving description of Magwitch we’d lose. Note the suspense that builds by separating “I’ll cut your throat” from “‘O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,’ I pleaded in terror.” Note also how that tension is created and how it builds. There are no independent verbs in the main clauses of any of the sentences, for the desired effect is one of attenuation—Pip staring in terror at the man emerging before him—and verbs in grammatical structure are the device for conveying movement in time. Omit them, and you're standing stock still.
The next example was one with which more of the crowd was familiar, the first few paragraphs from the second chapter Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:
A telephone-bell rang in darkness. When it had rung three times bed-springs creaked, fingers fumbled on wood, something small and hard thudded on a carpeted floor, the springs creaked again, and a man’s voice said:
“Hello?...Yes, speaking…Dead?...Yes…Fifteen minutes. Thanks.”
A switch clicked and a white bowl hung on three gilded chains from the ceiling’s center filled the room with light. Spade, barefooted in green and white checked pajamas, sat on the side of his bed. He scowled at the phone on the table while his hands took from beside it a packet of brown papers and a sack of Bull Durham tobacco.
Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two.
Spade’s thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sitting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into the curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper’s inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder’s ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam, right forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade’s mouth.
He picked up the pigskin and nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear’s. It was like a shaved bear’s: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.
He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a white union-suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door-bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money in his pockets.
As with the Dickens example, the main focus again resided on the creation of a series of mental images that form a vivid film-like sequence, visually clear in our minds, even including camera angles—the ceiling light shot from below, followed by the close up of the rolling of the cigarette, both mimicking Spade’s own focus.
But there’s more than that, too. Once again, suspense gets created through the use of detail an impatient writer might discard—or never visualize to begin with. Spade rolls himself a smoke right after learning his partner, Miles Archer, has been killed. We don’t know as yet for sure that the two o’clock phone call concerned Archer, and it’s not until later we’ll learn Spade was sleeping with Archer’s wife. Instead we get this enigmatic, slow-motion rolling of a cigarette. Its intrusion into the scene piques our interest, precisely because it doesn’t quite fit. It suggests without stating outright that Spade has something serious on his mind, and yet in the casualness of the activity we also sense no great alarm. There’s even a hint of relief.
Note: Interestingly, the day before, Lawrence Block had remarked that Hammett, sensing that his literary success might well depend on his novels being made into films, deliberately limited his descriptions to only what could be seen and heard. This wasn’t, as many have believed, a nod to Hemingwayesque technique. It was a professional calculation.
In the Q&A that followed his talk, Butler noted that as a teacher in the Ph.D. program at Florida State, he encounters some of the best aspirants to literary fame to emerge from the various MFA programs across the country. And all too often, “They know the second through tenth most important things about writing, but they don’t know the first.” The first, he explained, was that stories are about yearning.
He suggested that genre writers often understand this point well—if they sometimes have an insufficient grasp of the next nine most important things about their craft—because genre often has the yearning built into the premise of the form. Crime fiction is driven by the search for justice, romance novels by the craving for love, science fiction by the need to humanize technology, etc.
His talk burned a nasty little hole in my brain, and as soon as I could I got my hands on a copy of From Where You Dream and I’ve been devouring it ever since.
So, Murderateros -- how does the cinema of the mind guide you in your writing? Do you take time to envision camera angles? Do you consider tempo in your descriptions? Do you play with quick alteration betweeen and long shots and close ups to create a dramatic effect between thematic or narrative extremes?
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There were a great many other excellent presentations at Noircon, including but not limited to:
—Well-deserved awards bestowed on Lawrence Block and Otto Penzler, with interviews of both men, giving Block a chance to, among other things, recount his days as a writer of lesbian romance novels, and Otto an opportunity to discuss how obscenely cheap real estate was when he bought his first store in Manhattan.
—A panel on music with SJ Rozan and John Wesley Harding (who writes crime fiction under the pen name Wesley Stace), complete with songs.
—A wickedly lurid, funny, and confessional true crime panel with Megan Abbott, Allison Gaylin, Wallace Stroby, and Dennis Tafoya.
—A blackly comic panel of cautionary tales from Hollywood featuring Lawrence Block, Duane Swierczynski, Anthony Bruno, and Ed Pettit.
As I said, I had a gas, and I fully intend to return in two years. Even without Lulu Lollipop.
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If you haven’t yet read it, pick it up. If you have, share it with a friend. (Or an enemy. I can live with that.)
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: In tribute to John Wesley Harding, who so graciously regaled us with song, here's "Ordinary Weekend," which he wrote after reading Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. (In his performance for us, he remarked somewhat sheepishly he should have practiced, and ended up forgetting several verses, only to offer some of the best advice I've ever heard: He said years of performance had made him utterly un-selfconscious about fucking up. Not that anyone cared. We were enthralled):
The conjurer himself ... casts his spell not with the starry lure of titillation nor, in the manner of many noir masters, a scene of such keen violence that we are stunned into submission. No, no. [He] does it with language. And not in the form of well-chosen words, the music of a fine sentence, the harmony of a paragraph crafted to draw you close to the book’s beating heart. No. The thing [he] does to words is the stuff of dark alchemy.Megan Abbott: the conjurer herself. Although she wrote the preceding in her foreword to the 2012 re-release of Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red, the description applies equally well to her and the “dark alchemy” she performs in her new novel, Dare Me (Reagan Arthur).
Dare Me is the tale of a Machiavellian struggle for power within a high-school cheerleading squad. And if cheerleading seems like an unlikely milieu for practitioners of Niccolò Machiavelli’s brand of cunning and duplicity, listen to how a sampling of the many enthusiastic reviewers have characterized this book. The Wall Street Journal said it “turns the frothy world of high-school cheerleading into something truly menacing”; The New York Times calls it “unsentimental ... [It] reveals something very true about the consuming, sometimes ugly, nature of female friendships”; and to quote Entertainment Weekly, “It feels groundbreaking when Abbott takes noir conventions--loss of innocence, paranoia, the manipulative sexuality of newly independent women--and suggests that they’re rooted in high school, deep in the hearts of all-American girls.”
And critics aren’t the only ones taking an interest in the book. Publishers Weekly announced this week that Fox 2000 Pictures has optioned Dare Me for producer Karen Rosenfelt, who boasts The Devil Wears Prada and the Twilight series among her credits. Abbott will adapt the book to screen herself.
As I suggested by quoting Abbott’s Tomato Red preface at the outset of this post, I think a great deal of the power and appeal of Dare Me comes from the language and voice of the novel’s teenage narrator, Addy Hanlon. I recently sat down with Abbott to talk about that, as well as a range of other topics, including her inspirations for the tale and her literary influences.
Mark Coggins: Give us some insight into the choices you made for telling this story: in the present tense, narrated in the first person by a sort of Nick Carraway-like character who (at least initially) doesn’t seem to have a direct stake in the central conflict.
Megan Abbott: I’ve always been interested in the lieutenant/second in command figure--whether it’s a war movie, a gangster tale, a Shakespeare play. What is their stake? Do they hold their own ambitions? What is it like being the always-beta girl? Also, since most of us are not “alphas,” it seemed like a useful perch from which to tell the story. I had, however, initially intended her to be more of a fly-on-the-wall narrator. But, like Lizzie in The End of Everything, she just kept inserting herself.
MC: “Cheer,” a short story you wrote prior to Dare Me, has some similar characters and themes, but is actually quite different. What were your goals for the novel versus the short story?
MA: That story was meant to be a nasty little slice of noir, but I couldn’t picture living with those characters for the duration of the book. I have to love all my characters in a novel, and so they all transformed. I always think of that line from the movie The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” And as the novel unfurled for me, I found the heart of all the characters. I felt for all of them, even when they did bad things.
MC: I read an interview you did for your previous book, The End of Everything, in which you said that part of the idea behind writing Dare Me was to set Shakespeare’s Richard III in the world of high-school cheerleaders. I can see the power struggle for leadership of the cheerleading squad being like Richard’s struggle for the throne, but I’m not sure I could say which character in Dare Me would be Richard, especially by the end. In your mind, is there a Richard, or are all of the central characters tainted or corrupted in some way by the struggle?
MA: Originally, I suspect I had a clearer match-up in mind, but it fell apart quickly. Mostly, I wanted to absorb the atmosphere of the play, the feeling of drive, desperation, treachery. And the way Richard, despite his bad behavior, draws us in. He is our guide, our vantage point and we are his confidantes, so as much as his actions alarm us, we find ourselves linked to him.
MC: When I went to high school, cheerleaders were more like “cheerlebrities,” to borrow a term used by Addy. They were all about looking good and rallying support for the school’s (male) athletes at high-school games and matches. The cheerleaders in Dare Me, on the other hand, pretty much view the high-school games as a venue for their performances. They don’t talk or think about the athletes on the school teams, and are not even concerned whether the team wins or loses. Why is it so different for them?
MA: This is, foremost, a change in cheerleading in the last 20 years. It’s now a competitive sport (even if can’t quite garner that particular designation) that girls train from a young age to take part in. Shaping their bodies, taking tumbling and gymnastics classes, going to cheer camp. Their focus is tournaments, beating other squads. In many ways, it would be like expecting gymnasts to rally for football players. But our long-burnished image of the cheerleader as the peppy rally girl for her team persists. I recently wrote a piece about this--I think it’s hard for us to let that [image] go. There’s a nostalgia for it. For the America that originated it.
MC: Having characterized the cheerleaders of my generation as cheerlebrities, as I did, I will also mention that the head cheerleader, homecoming queen, and girl voted most-respected in our class later joined the Marines. It strikes me that there is something almost martial about the squad in Dare Me. Coach Colette French could be viewed as a drill sergeant come to whip her recruits into shape, and the girls’ performances the “battle” they do against other schools’ squads. There’s also the requirement to have each other’s backs in the stunts they perform, like soldiers have to protect their buddies. Is that taking things too far?
MA: Not too far at all. The book sprang from a sense that these girls were, in many ways, like hardcore Marines, bad-ass warriors. Squads, after all, are martial by nature. And the book was framed around these captain and lieutenant characters. It quickly spilled over into the language the girls use (which is only a slight exaggeration, if that, of the language in use among the more serious squads I observed). I found myself riffing on famous military speeches (MacArthur, Patton) for Coach. It was a huge influence on the way I wrote the book. And one of its pleasures writing it; I really got to explore the power of military rhetoric.
MC: I made the mistake of installing the Facebook Messenger application on my cell phone, and during the early morning hours of my birthday not long ago, was subjected to an almost constant barrage of notification buzzes and beeps as friends waking up around the world left birthday wishes on my wall. I was too sleepy/lazy to get up and shut the phone off, but for the first time I realized how connected I had become to other people via my phone. It also made me think about how much worse it must be for today’s teenagers, given the volume of texts and phone calls they are constantly exchanging. Can you talk about the electronic “connectedness” of the characters in Dare Me and how it informs the plot?
MA: It felt to me that texts, Facebook, and Twitter are the contemporary equivalent of notes passed in class in my day. Except in my day, your reputation could be ruined by the end of the day, as the note passed from hand to hand, period after period. Today, it only takes an instant. It struck me as very powerful, both intimate and treacherous.
Also in my teen years, you could, as long as you didn’t pick up the family phone, leave the terrors and heartache of the school day behind when you got home. Now, that’s very hard. Your experience with your birthday wishes--that’s the part I mean. I feel that in my life too. My phone has become this virtual appendage, a live thing buzzing in my hand. All of this felt like exciting tools for suspense.
MC: For a 50-something male, reading Dare Me is probably as close as I will ever get to experiencing life as a teenage girl. A lot of that comes from the verisimilitude of Addy’s voice, and the language you choose to narrate the story. Her interior dialogue feels a lot like a fever dream at points--so body conscious, so tied to real time, with little emotional distancing. Is that an effect you consciously sought?
MA: I’m so glad it reads that way. I can’t say I sought it out consciously. It seemed to come once I found her voice, which took a while. At first, she was a far more tentative and distant narrator. It was on the advice of my first reader, Dan Conaway, that I gave her more breathing room, more room to feel things. As soon as he said that I knew she wanted something. Once I knew that, she become very strong in my head and grew to surprise me.
MC: Without giving away any key plot points, can you say which character you have the most empathy for, and why? Do you expect the reader will share that empathy?
MA: Beth [Cassidy, the “alpha” girl on the squad]. I had an idea about her when the book began and it changed dramatically. She is the putative troublemaker here, but I grew to love her. Her bruised and dented heart. The more I fell for her, the more space I gave her, the more I granted her. I definitely get that she can come across as a “mean girl,” or as a villain (she behaves very badly in the book), but I don’t see her that way myself. She’s my girl.
MC: In past interviews, you’ve expressed admiration for the writing of Raymond Chandler. To your credit, your admiration hasn’t assumed the form of forced mimicry. If you think he’s had any direct influence on you, how would you characterize it?
MA: I think he will always be my biggest influence in terms of style. The way, to him, mood mattered above all. Sights, scents, colors, pressures in the air, the way sound can travel. The way it can feel like everything around you is part of you, part of your own longing or fear or trepidation. That if you can strike a mood, it’s far more than a mood. It’s a world you’ve given your reader.
MC: In your non-fiction study of hard-boiled fiction, The Street Was Mine, you point out that Dashiell Hammett’s protagonists, as opposed to Chandler’s and James M. Cain’s, are less introspective and more self-contained. Does that make them less interesting to you? Are you less influenced by Hammett’s writing as a result?
MA: Boy, I don’t remember writing that (ha!), but it feels true. I am a Hammett lover, but I do have a weakness for damaged, unreliable narrators whose neurosis can’t help but peek through. Hammett’s are harder nuts to crack. He feels more removed from his protagonists. Which is one of the gifts of his books. They are less constricted by [point of view], for one thing. And that distance makes the books whip-smart, so incisive. But Chandler and Cain can’t help but love their protagonists/narrators and that leads to a certain messiness I love. They identify with them and want to protect them, which makes their books much crazier than Hammett’s (and not as jewel-perfect) but so open-hearted.
MC: Can you give us any details about your next novel?
MA: It’s called The Fever and it’s about a mysterious outbreak in a small town.
MC: And will you confirm for Rap Sheet readers that the red-lipsticked lips on the cover of Dare Me are yours?
MA: As someone who has admitted a predilection for unreliable narrators, I can wholeheartedly say: Of course.
Mark Coggins’ latest memoir, Prom Night and Other Man-made Disasters, also involves dark tales of high-school cheerleaders, but the only thing harmed in the making of them was his ego.
(Author photo by Drew Reilly)
Two of the best suspense novelists working today, one lively conversation–what more could you ask for? Goodreads was kind enough to let us excerpt a portion of Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott’s chat, more of which can be found here. And don’t miss Flynn’s GONE GIRL and Abbott’s DARE ME, both now in bookstores everywhere!
Megan Abbott: A couple years back we realized we both had been strongly influenced by watching, as kids in the 1980s, true-crime TV movies (the Golden Age for these kinds of movies). Do you have a favorite or two?
Gillian Flynn: Oh, sweet, sweet movies of the week. My all-time favorite (as in, I own it and watch it once a year or so) is A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story, a 1992 TV movie starring the sublime Meredith Baxter. It’s based on a real case: Betty Broderick, a wealthy Southern California housewife, began spiraling out of control when her influential lawyer husband left her (after she helped put him through law school and med school). She ultimately shot both her ex and his new wife while they were sleeping. The case is much more nuanced than these basic outlines, but let me say that it intrigues me because it’s about a relationship gone very toxic, escalating animosities, the perils of attaching one’s identity to someone else, and the dangers of righteousness. The movie is legitimately great—Baxter is fascinating. If you want to read about the case, check out Bella Stumbo’s true-crime book, Until the 12th of Never. It’s stunning.
That’s my long answer: And you, Megan? Your favorite, legitimately good, and your favorite guilty pleasure TV movie?
MA: Oh, what a great question! I think A Friend to Die For AKA Death of a Cheerleader with Kellie Martin and (yes) Tori Spelling would be right up there. It’s actually a very meaty tale (based on a true crime) and speaks volumes about the pressures of being a teenage girl. Second only to Small Sacrifices with Farrah Fawcett, which I haven’t seen in many years but terrified me for years (“Hungry Like the Wolf” never sounded the same thereafter…)
Gillian, what was that one with Hillary Swank we both had watched?
GF: Dying to Belong! Hilary Swank’s friend joins a sorority, is hazed by the evil queen bee (Scrubs’s Sarah Chalke) and mysteriously falls to her death from a clock tower. Hilary investigates. I remember girls writing mean things on freshmen pledges with magic marker (am I making this up?) and also Hilary Swank and Mark-Paul Gosselaar riding a lot of bikes to the tune of Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” This is starting to sound like a fever dream.
GF: Megan, speaking of the evil girls do to each other, it reminds me of that fantastic line in DARE ME, “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Did that line come to you as you were writing, or was that a guiding theme early on of DARE ME?
MA: It came to me as I was writing, though originally it was buried later in the book. It kept sticking in my head, so I knew I had to move it forward.
I wonder with you about the notion of the “Cool Girl,” which is one of the most memorable passages in Gone Girl. (It begins: ““Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping…” and is quoted in full here.
Was that an early idea? When I read it, I nearly gasped it was so perfect, so incisive.
GF: I actually had a lot of trouble getting Amy’s voice and nailing her down. In the final version, she writes quizzes for women’s magazines for a living, but originally I had her as a columnist. So to figure her out more, I wrote a lot of her columns in her voice—just as an exercise. But that one I liked so much I couldn’t bear to get rid of it, so I worked it into the book.
Reader Question:: It seems like the “evil” female keeps cropping up this summer. Before I read Gone Girl, I happened upon Serena by Ron Rash. Now that’s an evil anti-hero(ine). I keep hearing selfish women in my music as well. Could this be a manifestation of frustrated feminists, not satisfied with women’s true roles?
Serena is a beautiful, haunting novel, isn’t it? Fear any woman who has a pet eagle.
I like to write about evil women because I think truly frightening women are under-represented in literature. Not campy villainesses but truly dangerous, evil-minded women. For me, I suppose it is in a way a feminist statement: I get weary of the idea that women are naturally good and nurturing. I think women struggle with evil as mightily as men do. I don’t want that struggle to be dismissed. I want credit for it!
MA: Evil is such a subjective word. I admit I never really think of any of my characters (or yours) as “evil.” One of the things I find so compelling about good crime fiction is it shows the complexities behind people behaving badly. That actions may be destructive or even cruel but as the book unfolds the picture gets more complicated. What do you think?
Like this conversation? Read it in its entirety on Goodreads.com.