Megan Abbott & Vicki Hendricks
interview each other
Megan Abbott is the author of the novels Die a Little, The Song Is You and the 2008 Edgar winner, Queenpin. July 2009 marked the release of Megan’s new novel, Bury Me Deep. Dick Adler, The Barnes and Noble Review, writes: “Nobody combines historical fact with bravura fiction the way Megan Abbott does. . . . All three of Abbott’s books have been nominated for an Edgar Award; she won one for the much-praised Queenpin. She deserves another for Bury Me Deep. And it’s definitely a must-read for anyone who wants to see one of the best crime writers around perform her magic.” A film, starring Jessica Biel, is being made of Die a Little. Born in the Detroit area, Megan graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English Literature and went on to receive her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University. Her nonfiction book, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir, was published in 2003. Visit Megan Abbott’s website.
Vicki Hendricks’ Florida Gothic Stories, a collection of her short works, was published on 10th May 2010 by Kitsune Books of Tallahassee. Vicki is the author of noir novels Miami Purity, 1995; Iguana Love, 1999; Voluntary Madness, 2000;Sky Blues, 2002; and Cruel Poetry, 2007. Cruel Poetry was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2008. Her short stories appear in collections including Mississippi Review,Best American Erotica 2000, and Miami Noir; “ReBecca” appears in Best American Erotica (2000), and “Stormy, Mon Amour” appears in the collection Tart Noir in 2002. In progress is the novel Fur People, a love story about animal hoarding and insanity that takes place in the woods of central Florida. Vicki lives in Hollywood, Florida, and teaches writing at Broward College. Her plots and settings reflect interests in adventure sports, such as skydiving and scuba, and knowledge of the Florida environment. “No one writes better about white trash gone bad. If James M. Cain were a woman and alive today, the postman would only ring once on the doors of the sultry Miami condos inhabited by Hendricks’s characters in heat.” (Maxim Jakubowski, The Guardian). Visit Vicki Hendricks’ website.
Megan: While you are known as the Queen of Noir, your short story collection, out this month [May], is titled Florida Gothic Stories. It struck me, reading them, that they do owe at least as much to the Southern Gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers as Cain or Thompson. Do you think in those terms? What made you choose that title?
Vicki: Of course, Megan, you are also known as the Queen of Noir! I’m grateful to remain as co-queen. I considered calling the collection Florida Gothic Noir, but I felt it might be too much specificity. I think gothic is appropriate in the current, popular sense of the word because of the unnatural and preternatural slant, although there are no vampires in the stories. However, you’re right, in a deeper sense, I was thinking of Southern Gothic. In your wonderful introduction to the collection, you clarified the reference, saying, “The characters teeter or tilt to sideshow . . . [becoming] sad, even poignant figures . . . who rise to the level of mock heroic.” I am happy to agree. I think you were referring to the figure of the grotesque, the feature that in my mind most links the stories to Southern Gothic. Grotesque is one of my favorite words, and I’ve always been attracted to characters who are flawed or twisted in an unusual way, inside and outside. I love these characters, despite the cringe factor, as long as they try their best.
For example, in the story “Stormy, Mon Amour” [in Tart Noir] the narrator, Cherie, has a grotesque nature, having fallen in love with a dolphin and given birth to a mermaid. The inter-species sex sounds appalling to begin with, so I tried to turn the expectation around, creating a loving sex scene, in order for the reader to sympathize with Cherie in her romantic quest.
Megan: One of the things I love about your approach to these “grotesque” characters is your obvious affection for them. You don’t write from a place of irony, or distance. And there seems no desire to shock—on the contrary, the most shocking acts in your stories tend to be committed by the “normal” characters, particularly the greedy ones. That’s one of the things I first fell in love with about your writing—coming upon Miami Purity, where your sympathy for your main character, Sherry Parley, persists almost in spite of her actions. That approach really helped me with the heroine of Bury Me Deep, where I thought: how can I make a woman dubbed the “blonde butcher” sympathetic to the reader. Has that always been a motivation for you?
Vicki: I have to admit that I was barely conscious of any “approach” back when I wrote Miami Purity. I didn’t know what I was doing; I loved my characters as they developed, and I didn’t care if anyone else did since I never expected to be published, just to get my M.F.A. I hadn’t heard of noir as applied to novels, but my goal was to produce something along the lines of The Postman Always Rings Twice,which I had just discovered and was completely enthralled with, mostly for its “wanton” characters. Cain’s passionate characters and their animalistic sexual natures, created with few words, inspired me to carry the sex scenes as far as they could go in the early nineties and develop my own style.
But back to your “blonde butcher”—you were certainly up to the task of recreating her reputation in order for the reader to fall instantly in love. She waged a valiant struggle against the devil. Only human weakness finally did her in. While reading Bury Me Deep, I kept admiring the beauty of the characters and their complex relationships. Having, long ago, written my thesis on Henry James for a Master’s in English, I can’t help comparing your novel to Henry James’s works of genius. I see in Bury Me Deep not only the interconnectedness of characters that creates a deep Jamesian-type reality, but fast pace and intriguing plot never attempted by James—an impossible combination, I would have thought. Die a Little, your first novel, used to be my favorite, but Bury Me Deep will become a classic—not classic noir, classic fiction. I know you can’t explain your talent, but I’m wondering about your most inspiring literary memories, from your study of fiction. Also, were there mentors during your university studies who helped to bring out your ability in a particular way?
Megan: Well, hearing that from you means the world to me, more than I can say. I think as close as I was to being conscious of a planned approach with Bury Me Deep was to mix my love of 1920s-30s novels, like those by Dreiser or Sinclair Lewis (as well as magazine stories from that time, from those by Fitzgerald to Fannie Hurst), and noir from the same period. And I never developed full confidence that I could blend the two styles—both so stylized in opposite ways (the very formal, even melodramatic language with the slang of pulp). I think I’ve most been inspired by other writers. I only took a few creative writing classes in college and they were great, but reading has always had a bigger impact. For Bury Me Deep, it was, most of all, the boldness of Daniel Woodrell—the way he breaks apart language and builds a new one—that just fired me up.
Who are some of your writerly inspirations, other than Cain?
Vicki: Ah, Daniel Woodrell. I only wish The Death of Sweet Mister had been around to help inspire me from the start. It’s never too late though! I think another major influence was Harry Crews. He’s not a crime writer, usually referred to as a Florida grit writer, but hasn’t written anything for several years. His novelThe Gypsy’s Curse is probably my favorite, and I’m remembering now that the grotesque plays a major role in all of his writing. The late Larry Brown was another Southern ”grit” writer, only from Mississippi. His novel Fay, one of my all-time favorites, was an influence for Cruel Poetry. Since I started to write fiction, I can’t read any book without picking out something to focus on, trying to learn to do something better or to avoid some kind of annoyance. I read Bury Me Deep two times in a row to absorb many of the effective moments, especially the sex scenes. I learned from Bury Me Deep how to write shorter, less graphic sex scenes that still set fire to the page. I think this is your first book that specifies physical sexual feeling to this point, right? What made you change your tactics?
Megan: Some people have suggested to me that Bury Me Deep seems to have more physical sex scenes it—or more explicit ones—but I guess I still think I don’t really write sex scenes but rather write *around* sex scenes. It’s a little smoke and mirrors because I’m too shy. But it may be that because the heroine ofBury Me Deep is so driven by this sort of helpless desire that she just has had no experience with, I tried to conjure a lot of ways to describe how it feels to her bodily, to be so overtaken by longing. And did feel different. And because she’s no hardboiled gal, it’s very intense for her. It’s like a fever.
One of the things I love about your sex scenes is that they have the grit of real life, of bodies and sweat and creaking mattresses, but also a kind of lived-in feeling that makes the desire feel like such a crackling thing. I always think of it like when you can see heat actually rising off city pavement. And there’s such a nerviness to them that I aspire to. Do feel like you’re taking chances, ever, with those scenes? Particularly the more unusual ones (e.g., interspecies sex)? Have you ever gone back after the first draft and expurgated your own sex scenes?
Vicki: The fever really comes through, let me tell you, and the scenes are more emotionally intense sex than hardcore physical sex. Perfect to reveal dear Marion.
Yes, I always expurgate. Cruel Poetry probably lost thirty pages, if you can believe that! The interspecies sex scenes are the most fun to write though. I guess because the idea is taboo. But also, I see love between animals and humans as so strong that the sex scenes in the stories seem natural. The most explicit scene is in “Stormy,” however, and the fantastic nature of that story takes it far enough from reality to make it less disturbing to people, I think; I hope. I learned a partial lesson with Miami Purity, when Sonny Mehta asked me to remove the licking scene with Radar (the collie) and Sherri. It was reduced to a suggestive moment. Although this is probably an obscure interpretation, I feel that the remaining sentence is important to show Sherri’s purity. She isn’t using sex as a lure. For her, sex is love; sex is life.
I’m now wondering if you have a favorite part of writing (besides when it’s finished). Which novel did you enjoy writing the most and why?
Megan: That’s one of my favorite moments in Miami Purity—and now it strikes me why. There’s something so tender-hearted about Sherri, as there is about so many of your characters. The opposite of the mercenary, sex-as-a-weapon femme fatales we know so well. There’s some quote I just read about Horton Foote—that he loved all his characters but was too honest to let them off the hook. It strikes me as true about you, too.
My favorite part of writing? Definitely research. Research by my definition, which is more exploration. Even now, writing contemporary novels, I still find myself drawn to pursuing things I don’t know anything about it, be it gambling odds, or tuberculosis or, in the case of my next book, field hockey injuries. How about for you?
Vicki: I’m happy you saw that as an endearing moment. I was afraid I might sound like a pervert! Yes, I get caught up in interesting subject matter all the time, but probably the best example of being drawn to things I know nothing about is the fact that I became a skydiver. I went to the drop zone expecting to do a couple of jumps and write a novel, and now around 600 jumps and 13 years later, I still jump a few times a year. I spent five years at the DZ every weekend, spending all my money, and nearly gave up teaching and writing to live in a trailer and ride the skydiving high. I do miss the excitement, but I’ve matured and moved into adventure birding. Still, who knows what will come next? Scuba, sailing, and rock climbing that have all had their turns, and I’m hoping to retire from teaching soon and pursue many more options. Your enjoyment of research shows, and your readers are also the beneficiaries of that. However, your art is the ability to flesh out dry bones of fact with luscious truth, deeper truth, and at times, possible truth that creates the perfect fictional structure. I’m thinking of the “Author’s Note” at the end of Bury Me Deep, where you explain how you added a twist to reality. I’m interested to know how history inspires you. Can you explain your initial process or possibly give an example of concrete detail that you uncovered in research that was key to the development of a character or the selection of subject matter?
Megan: I’m not sure what it is other than something I can’t let go of. I keep returning to it, compulsively. In Bury Me Deep it was really specific. It was the circumstances leading up to the murders—a warm fall night, a tiny Phoenix house, late-night hours, an argument that somehow led to this terrible crime. The hothouse of desire, jealousy, desperation, rage. Three women at the height of the Great Depression whose very existence depended on the largesse of one capricious man. Women in threes always feel dangerous to me, and in this case, I had this distinct picture of those three women, a night of (rumor has it) drinking, secrets revealed and a fight gone out of control. It just captivated me. I couldn’t let it go. It reminds me, now that I think about it, about a different kind of hothouse triangle in Cruel Poetry. I’m following you again!
Vicki: Now for the question I’ve been dying to ask. What’s up next for you? I know it’s contemporary, but can you give any clues? Please? I’m already salivating for my next Megan Abbott read, so I hope it’s moving along.
Megan: It’s called The End of Everything, and comes out in the spring 2011, from Reagan Arthur Books (Little, Brown). It’s set in the 1980s, so a big leap forward in time for me. It’s about a young girl who disappears, told from the point of view of her 13-year-old best friend.
I know you’re also doing something very different—and very exciting! —with your next novel. Or, I should say, in many ways it’s an extension of the persistence of animals in your work. What can you say about it?
Vicki: With my teaching schedule I can’t seem to finish it! I hope to this summer. I’m taking a big step away from noir with this one, Fur People. It’s an animal hoarder love story about a young woman and a schizophrenic, homeless man fighting to keep her fur family, a quirky take on a sad situation that has become too common in our world. One of my best friends has a make-your-own-pancake restaurant in central Florida amidst huge live oaks draped with Spanish moss on a spring with occasional manatees, otters, and gators. I put my characters in a school bus in the woods as an excuse to visit more often.
Okay, Megan, I know you’re trying to make this interview mostly about me, since I’m the one with a book coming out, but I have to mention your recent Edgar nomination, your third! You beat me out on Cruel Poetry in 2007 with Queenpin, so I know you already have one of those cute little Poe guys on your mantel, but as I said, Bury Me Deep transcends genre—it’s a classic—and it will outlive the memories of any awards. I can picture you cringing as you read this, because you are sincerely humble, but I insist on going on the record.
Megan: Well, the honor is all mine. If someone would’ve told me five years ago that I’d be doing a joint interview with Vicki Hendricks, I would’ve never believed them. I bow at the feet of the noir master!
Vicki: Ack! I’m bowing too, so we’d better watch out we don’t hit our heads!