Tugged into Darkness: An interview with Megan Abbott
By Alan Kelly.
3:AM: Most of your characters begin their lives wrapped in a protective sheath and gradually they are drawn into a seductive and, sometimes, fatal world. It never feels unnatural: as a reader you understand how finding yourself in a certain situation could have the same outcome. You immerse yourself so completely in the world of your characters, is that not frightening?
Megan Abbott: Mostly, it’s the opposite. It’s a kind of voyeuristic pleasure. I wouldn’t want to live in the world of my characters. My day-to-day life is so free of that kind of turmoil. But sinking into each character’s skin and then slipping free from it is the whole reason I write. That said, inevitably there comes a point when you feel the same awful tug into darkness that the characters do and you feel like you have to claw your way out. That’s when I start charging to the end of the book. Sometimes I feel like it’s in just in the nick of time.
3:AM: You done an astonishing amount of research on Winnie Judd ‘The Trunk Murderess’. What made her story so interesting for you?
MA: After reading Jana Bommersbach‘s nonfiction book on the case, I had this picture in my head that I couldn’t let go of. Of Winnie Ruth and the two friends she was accused of killing. Three women in a room, liquor, a gun, the walls closing in on them. They have all these complicated ties to each other – this heady mix of desire, jealousy, secrets, hidden longing – and suddenly, one night, it all incinerates. Friendships among women, their volatility, the way everything can get triangulated through a man – have always fascinated me. I kept thinking of Winnie Ruth in that room, her heart beating.
3:AM: You once wrote you enjoyed writing characters who are trapped by terrible circumstances and unable to find a way out. At the beginning of Bury Me Deep we meet Marion who has been abandoned by Doctor Seeley at a TB clinic in the dusty arid landscapes of Arizona – she seems to find an outlet when she meets party girls Louise and Ginny, but it is in this escape from a lonely routine which has devastating consequences for the women. I really felt that you turned a situation that once was a sensational headline and made it both beautiful and very believable. How long did you work on Bury Me Deep?
MA: Thank you so much. I worked on it for just under two years and it kept morphing. At first, the tabloid elements drew me in and they are always a lure for me, but the more I wrote my way into Marion’s head, the more complicated it got for me. My goal was to make Marion as real as possible and to make her actions as understandable as possible, so that we don’t surrender to those blaring headlines, to the gory details of the crime. In the end, those headlines – the ones that called her ‘Velvet Tigress’ and ‘Blonde Butcher’ – tell us far more about the world she lived in than about Winnie Ruth herself.
3:AM: You studied Film Noir and wrote a non-fiction book called The Street Was Mine. When did you first discover noir?
MA: I found it as a kid – though I didn’t know what it was called. I began as a lover of 30s gangster movies and that eventually led me, via Bogart and Cagney, to noir. I think I fell first for Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity – the more glamorous noir. Then, the more I dug in, I came to love the sleazier, infinitely lush depths of B-noir. Too Late for Tears with Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott, Act of Violence with Robert Ryan and a smeary and beautiful Mary Astor. The ones with smaller budgets, and frequently location shooting. The ones where you feel like you’re maybe peeking into the real 1940s or 50s LA or New York. Sometimes noir is dismissed as depressing, but to me it never is. It’s primal and seductive, the big emotions of life laid bare.
3:AM: Jessica Biel has optioned Die a Little and I read they are relocating it to modern day L.A.. How does that make you feel?
MA: It was a puzzle to me at first, since to me it’s a book built on the notion of 1950s repression. But I’m always surprised at how well time shifts can work – I think of the first-rate, contemporary adaptation of The Grifters, for instance. Or any number of David Lynch or Coen brothers’s movies that are set in a kind of “noir world” version of now.
3:AM: Returning to Marion Seeley, when she encounters Joe Lanigan, at first he seems to open her eyes to so many possibilities while all the time he is corrupting her. I got the impression that there was an awareness on Marion’s part that Joe was a ner’do’well, and this was confirmed for me later in the novel, when you realise she isn’t as naïve as one might expect, especially considering some of her more unsavoury actions in a motel with two bodies. Am I right in thinking that Marion likes walking through that shadowy world, even if she doesn’t fully understand how that world works?
MA: I think so. So many of my books seem to reveal that upright, upstanding people are always the most dangerous of all. But I also think that Marion’s actions are about survival and finding this hidden strength. She realizes she has to both pay for her sins and save herself. She lived most of her life as this delicate hothouse flower and then, left to fend for herself for the first time in her life, she proves stronger than she would’ve guessed. That said, she has a driving weakness. I’m really only interested in people with weaknesses. I don’t know what to do with truly strong people.
3:AM: Your next novel is going to be set in the here and now and told from the perspective of a young girl. Has this been more of a challenge for you?
MA: At the start. Boy, was it. It took me so long to find the voice and get my sea legs. I couldn’t rely on my bag of tricks. But in the end, without historical elements, I had to focus much more on voice, which made things fresh and risky for me in all the best ways. And it was unnerving how easy it was to summon up the voice of a 13-year-old girl. Thematically, it feels of a piece with my other books, but on a very different canvas.
3:AM: What made you choose a different ending for Marion, from Winnie’s I mean?
MA: I just couldn’t bear it. Winnie Ruth’s ending was an attenuated hell – decades of confinement. My ending is not exactly jolly, but I wanted to give her some kind of redemption. And voice.
3:AM: James Ellroy speaks highly of you and he has been a major influence on your work and you’re an Edgar winner. What do you think of modern crime writing, do you feel it is an area of literature that gets frowned on. Personally I think you transcend the labels…
MA: My goodness, thank you – and I think that labels in general are mostly over. I mean, I use them all the time because they’re convenient, but they seem to flatten everything out. All the writers I love seem to straddle genres or smash them together – Ellroy, Tom Franklin, Daniel Woodrell, Allan Guthrie, Sara Gran. And I think readers increasingly ignore them. It’s a publishing device and it has a business purpose, but to me it seems like really there’s only one genre: books we like. On the other hand, there’s immense pleasure in pure genre exercises to me as a reader. Books that are able to adhere to the “rules of the game” and make them work beautifully – like the Hard Case Crime books.
3:AM: Even though you write about the secret lives of America’s past, your novels are strangely contemporary. Like Chandler and David Peace and Derek Raymond, your books always tell us something about ourselves and where we are regardless of the book’s setting, whether it’s what we want, what we could become, or where we’d like to be. That is an admirable feat….
MA: Thank you! I think that it’s easier when you write about characters less common to a genre. Writing about regular working women (nurses, teachers, bookkeepers) in a world we’re used to seeing populated by detectives, cops, strippers and prostitutes makes it easier to seem ‘now.’ I worry now about the reverse problem – when I started writing this contemporary novel about teenagers, I realized that the world of the teen-iverse is now dominated by texting and I worried that I was going to be writing myself into an anachronism. So instead I’ve made it now, but not exactly now. Now-ish.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly [centre] is 3:AMs Film Editor. He has worked for a number of specialist magazines, Film Ireland, Pretty Scary, Penny Blood, Bookslut et al. He lives in Wicklow, Ireland, and is partial to pulp, noir, hardboiled, brainy erotica and horror fiction.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 24th, 2009.