December 2008

Alan Kelly


The Ladies of Noir: A Roundtable Discussion

In the catalogue of noir literature, female crime writers are the proverbial needle in the haystack. I’ve always had an affinity for hardboiled fiction, a genre of writing I found very appealing and engrossing because it engages with violence, eroticism and human despair (often told in, it would seem, wonderfully garish Technicolor). It would be folly to say that there was "something of the night" about heavyweights such as Derek Raymond, Raymond Chandler, et al. Their vivid characters are people you may never want to meet but are captivating nonetheless. The worlds they move through are places where bodies lie rotting at the bottom of rivers. Places of cut-throat razors on skin, dead-eyed women walking cobbled streets in petrol blue shadows, cynical moonlight and the unrelenting amorous, often violent advances of Everyman. Bitter worlds of restless wantonness, fragile impulse and shattered ideals.

Some of the most staggering noir fiction I’ve raced through in recent years was by prolific female authors: Cathi Unsworth, Megan Abbot and Christa Faust are three of the writers whose work I’ve devoured quicker than a bullet fired from a Glock pistol and returned to again eagerly. Cathi Unsworth has had two excellent books published by the extravagant imprint Serpents Tail (The Not Knowing, inspired by Derek Raymond which was followed by the superior punk-noir novel The Singer) while Christa Faust had the ultra-violent, pacey Money Shot picked up by Hard Case Crime (she is their first lady) and Simon & Shuster’s award winning lady Megan Abbott is perhaps the most prolific of all and her new novel Bury Me Deep will be published in 2009. I had the opportunity of picking their brains about their thoughts on noir writing and was privy to some exceptional perspectives.

Why write noir?

Christa Faust: I see my latest novel Money Shot as being more hardboiled than noir, as opposed to my mostly noirish shorts, but really, why write any genre? It's not as if it was a deliberate decision on my part, it's just what I enjoy reading lately. I want to tell the kinds of stories I would like to read.

I guess you can say I've always been interested in the darker side of human nature. When I was younger, I read and wrote a lot of horror. Once I hit 30, I lost interest in made-up monsters and became fascinated by the monstrous things human beings do to one another.

Megan Abbot: I guess I don’t really think in those terms when I write. But I guess I’ve always been drawn to stories about people who are trapped, and who trap themselves. Frequently people who’ve been pushed to the margins, for one reason or another. And that notion of feeling imprisoned by circumstances or one’s own desires and drives is so fundamental to noir, so I guess I come to it in a roundabout fashion. Its themes -- obsession, desire, greed, temptation -- are so primal and so eternal that they yield endless permutations. And there is a glamour to it, to the tantalizing, fearless descent. I love going down those dark tunnels.

Cathi Unsworth: It is the best way of examining the society that we live in, and how we can never seem to get to grips with the eternal, infernal questions -- Why are we here? Why can’t we ever live in peace, no matter how much easier we seem to have it than the previous generation? The most serious things that bug me in British society are the hatred towards women and children; the fact that every day two women will die at the hands of their partners, while we have the most mentally ill, unhappy children and teenagers in the Western world. Where does all that hatred come from? How much does it have to do with the social conditions and how much to do with the national psyche? Or the influence of the psychopaths that walk amongst us -- not necessarily killers, either -- a social psychopath can have just as devastating long term effect, see the UK’s rulers for the past 30 years and people like Milton Friedman, who invented Free Market Economics. Look where all of that has got us. When our rulers, our Establishment, have nothing but contempt and hatred for people and can’t even bother to disguise it any more, what is the "trickle down" effect of that going to be? Noir fiction provides the opportunity to reflect on all that through the dissection of a crime and its impact, the ripples of which never stop being felt. These are the same dilemmas that Shakespeare wrote about, that Dickens wrote about, it goes all the way back to The Bible.

But Noir writers, as opposed to straight crime fiction writers, are also to me the most beautiful prose writers. My hair stands on end with awe when I read my favourites -- David Peace, Derek Raymond, James Ellroy, Nelson Algren -- all of whom nail the places and the people who live in them so well because they have so much compassion. Their work isn’t dark to me; it is the guiding light.

What do you enjoy most about crime fiction?

Faust: I'm not in it for the puzzle. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy twisty, intriguing plots that keep me guessing, but I'm much more interested in how the characters involved either come apart at the seams or grow a backbone over the course of the story. In a way, it's almost like the core crime itself is just one of those ethics questions from school. You find a wallet. Do you keep it or turn it in to the police? The best stories, for me, aren't about the wallet. They're about the choices the people who find the wallet make and the subsequent events those choices set in motion.

Abbott: The extremity of it. In many ways, it strips away all the trimmings and sheen and filigree of civilization and shows us what we really are, light and dark. We often think of crime fiction as showing people at their worst, but it also exposes much of our buried courage and resilience. The way dire situations can bring out surprising strength. Of course, I also savour reading the hidden darkness, too.

Unsworth: I love the fact that if you are writing crime then you have to have a cracking plot, you have no room for self-indulgence. What I dislike about mainstream crime is that this becomes a formula in itself, and publishers seem very loathe to take any risks with the genre when there are so many bucks involved in what is successful. Crime fiction provides the best
opportunity, apart from perhaps science fiction, for a writer to really push the boundaries of what can be written and how it can be written about. So it should be pretty scary, to write and to read. Let’s face it; whatever fiction we can come up with in a book has nothing on what really goes on in the high up, low down places of the world.

What are your thoughts on the genre, are female crime writers given as much attention as male ones?

Faust: This is a complex and multi-layered issue. While it's true that the majority of published titles in the noir genre have traditionally been written by men, there is an undeniable, almost freakish, talking-dog aspect to being a female noir author. Everyone is intrigued and curious, and even people who don't think women can write noir will buy the books just to prove themselves right. That curiosity brings a higher level of attention, but it also makes it more difficult to be taken seriously. There will always be those that believe female noir authors only get ahead because of the publishing equivalent of Affirmative Action. Or, more likely if the authors are even remotely attractive, they are assumed to be sleeping with all their editors, publishers and reviewers.

On the other hand, I don't want to hide my gender behind initials and write only male protagonists. My books are very female at the most fundamental level. They deal with uniquely female issues in a gritty, unvarnished and honest way that I hope will appeal to readers of both genders.

Abbott: To me, the greater disparity is in the kind of attention female crime writers are given. They are made to justify their interest in the genre -- to explain it away, or to somehow make it seem like play, or a dalliance. In my experience, and I just heard Val McDermid speaking about this, female crime writers are constantly asked why they write about violence and male crime writers seldom face that question. That said, I do think we’re in far better shape than even a decade ago, thanks in large part to the steady stream of remarkable books by female crime writers like McDermid, Laura Lippman, Vicki Hendricks and Theresa Schwegel.

Unsworth: I think female writers do really well in crime, the majority of readers are female and some of the bestselling UK crime authors are women, from very differing backgrounds too. But where I have a problem is that the subjects I am writing about are also infused with my passion for and knowledge of pop culture, there are lots of references to film, music, fashion and art in my books. As I know from my experience of being a music journalist, and the experience of other women writers and artists I am friends with, it is virtually impossible to be taken seriously by this particular boys’ club. It’s basically what The Singer is about, how women are patronized and marginalized by the men around them in the music world, how no matter how
brilliant they are. Your only value in that world is to look decorative and make the tea, while the men get on with the serious stuff, like what Bob Dylan really meant when he wrote his fifteen-billionth album… Again, there is a lot of misogyny in that world and I am at a loss to know where it comes from, most of the men in it are supposedly straight but their love is definitely for each other and their contempt for the opposite sex is breathtaking.

When did you decide you wanted to write noir full-time?

Faust: I didn't wake up one morning and decide to write noir. It was much more of a slow organic process. I just found my usual gritty urban horror stories becoming more and more reality-based until all supernatural elements were stripped away and the bones that were left behind started to look a lot like noir. Then I picked up a copy of Richard S. Prather's Dig That Crazy Grave and there was no going back.

Abbott: Well, I still have a day job, working for a non-profit, so fiction writing is far from a full-time gig for me. Fiction is something I’ve sort of backed into, driven by my love of books and movies, and I’m still feeling my way around it.

Unsworth: I wish I could write noir full time! I have a day job to support my habit, which is more of an expensive hobby than a viable career option at this stage. But I decided I had to write books, rather than put all my time, energy and brainpower into writing for a magazine I didn’t own, when it became clear I was about to lose a treasured job, as a result of a management buyout and the new owner being distinctly different from the former one. It has happened to me too many times that a magazine I worked on which I totally loved was suddenly sold and you were either redundant or everything changed for the worse. I thought that at least if I wrote a book, I couldn’t suddenly turn round half way and sell myself or sack myself. By that time I was in my early thirties and I figured I had seen enough of this dirty world to write something that was of value and had absorbed enough from the great writing of others to know which direction to go.

Who and what inspires/influences you. What informs your writing?

As I said above. I'm a big fan of Richard S. Prather. I wouldn't have been published by Hard Case Crime if not for Prather. I had posted on my blog about the HC reprint of The Peddler and how excited I was. A friend responded that I ought to submit to Hard Case myself. To my surprise, Charles Ardai replied that he would love to have a sub from me. That's when I wrote Money Shot, which is dedicated to Prather. We had only just begun a correspondence a few months before his death. It breaks my heart that he didn't live to see Money Shot in print.

I also think that my adopted city of Los Angeles inspires and informs my work. I grew up in New York City and that has also had a major impact, but Money Shot and Hoodtown are purely L.A. novels.

Abbott: Other than books and films, the biggest influence is probably the arcanea of U.S. history, the ephemera and “hidden” history. I’m a sucker for flea markets and antique stores and estate sales where I can find old movie-star exposés, tabloid newspapers from past decades, men’s magazines from the 1940s and '50s, police magazines, sleazy true-crime books, even old yearbooks and snapshots. All the lost things that we think of as transient bits of the culture -- to me (and this is clearly informed by my love of James Ellroy’s alternate histories), these bits and pieces are the culture, they are the history and they tell us so much more about the lived experience of past decades. And somehow they flow into my writing. An old Bugsy Siegel bio included these wonderful, suggestive sections on mob courier Virginia Hill and that led to my writing Queenpin. An old article in Inside Detective on “trunk murderess” Winnie Ruth Judd led eventually to my new book, Bury Me Deep.

Unsworth: Derek Raymond was my first inspiration, who I met when he made an album with my friends Gallon Drunk in 1993. It was just in time to save me from the horror of Britpop that was about to unfold, and thanks to him, I spent the next decade getting lost in the 70-odd years of hardboiled and noir fiction that had until then been an undiscovered country to a girl obsessed by music. Then I was fortunate enough to meet the great Noir writers Martyn Waites and Ken Bruen, both of whom encouraged me that I did have enough talent to take that leap myself and write a book. What inspires and informs my writing is my experience of 40 years on this troubled planet and the rage that it engenders, my complete nosiness and glowering sense of injustice, and a perpetual soundtrack of music that goes with the writing. Music is as big an influence as other writers, as well as those artists who cross over between the worlds of music and writing, people like Barry Adamson, Lydia Lunch, Steven Jesse Bernstein and a fantastic guy who I have just discovered called Bryan Lewis Saunders. I have done some live literature with music from Terry Edwards and David Knight and it is something I very much enjoy doing and would like to continue to pursue. It’s much easier on the audience’s boredom threshold to give them a soundtrack as well as the words, something else I learned from the Derek Raymond-Gallon Drunk collaboration.

Are there other female writers in the US/UK you admire, who write crime fiction?

Faust: I love Megan Abbott. She is our generation's Chandler and that's got nothing to do with her gender. She's just flat out brilliant. I also love Vicki Hendricks and old school female authors like Dorothy B. Hughes and Helen Nielsen. And even though she's not American, I have to mention the amazing Natsuo Kirino, whose recent novel Out features one of the most memorable, realistic, tough-as-nails and genuinely strong female protagonists of all time.

Abbott: If I started naming, I couldn’t stop. I recently edited a collection, A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, and I got to solicit so many of my favorites, asking them to contribute stories. Each day, I’d get these dark little gems in my e-mail box, from trailblazers like Vin Packer and Sandra Scoppettone to rising stars like Sara Gran, Cornelia Read and Alison Gaylin.

Unsworth: Yes, Joolz Denby and Dreda Say Mitchell are both fantastic writers who are coming from a similar place to me, in that they have a heavy music influence and a strong desire to write the stories of people who are usually marginalized and misunderstood. They also put a strong sense of place into their novels, which is something very important to me. I have known Joolz a long time and been a fan of her work since I bought her first EP in about 1983; she was also a pioneer of using music with spoken word, a great influence and a great woman. When I first met Dreda I couldn’t believe how similar her ideas for her books were to what I had for my own -- luckily the situations in them are very different -- great minds and all that. I also like very much the writing of Louise Welsh, who I feel is another kindred spirit, although I have never met her.

What are you working on now?

Faust: I'm very superstitious and don't like to talk about works in progress. I know that's counterintuitive to the modern hard-sell marketing-mania which most authors feel is the only way to get ahead, but I just can't help it. So please be patient, and I promise I'll be announcing the new book as soon as it's ready for polite company.

Abbott: I just finished Bury Me Deep, which comes out in July 2009 and is a fictionalized version of the Winnie Ruth Judd case: a woman arrested in 1931 for supposedly murdering her two best friends and stuffing their bodies in steamer trunks. The tabloids were in a frenzy. They dubbed her the Velvet Tigress and Blonde Butcher. The coverage was appalling. But the more research I did, the more complicated the real-life story became for me, which is always what happens when you dig deeper. I became riveted by all the torrid elements -- love triangles, drug use, tuberculosis, bootlegging, adultery, a criminal cover-up -- but also the heartbroken woman at its center. I fell into the story and am still climbing my way out.

Unsworth: A book called Bad Penny Blues, set, like the others in Ladbroke Grove, this time in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This has been a work of epic research and astonishing coincidences, a really long, weird trip, to use the parlance of the people who had started moving into my manor by the time the book ends. After I finished The Singer I was very sad to leave the 1970s, the punk part of it, when for a short time, anything had seemed possible. But I have always had a yen for the 1950s too, and realized that the most culturally neglected part of the era Before London Swang, the skiffle boom, was virtually the same thing. But instead of "Here’s three chords, go form a band," it was "Here’s a dustbin lid and a washboard, go form a band." Add to that the arrival of the West Indians into Ladbroke Grove, with their music, their style and their different way of running clubs, and you had a period every bit as fertile and exciting as the late 1970s. From this thought came a book that is not actually about music, but the many weird, interconnecting coincidences and happenings that went on around Ladbroke Grove in those days, from Pop Artists to prostitute murderers. It has many unintentional links to some of the things I wrote in my first book, The Not Knowing, which to me have proved the theory of Psychogeography once and for all, and how true the title of that book really was!

Is your work as much influenced by film than lit?

Faust: I'm a pretty serious Film Noir fan, so yeah, that definitely has a strong influence. Also, in Money Shot, the main character is a porn star. She's very familiar with cameras and the mechanics of filmmaking so she tends to view the world around her through that lens.

When did you first realise that crime writing was for you?

Abbott: I don’t think there was a realization, per se. I’ve always been drawn to stories of crime, not just because of the crimes themselves (although I admit more than a passing fascination with the minutiae of crime) but the impact of those crimes on people. The moral crises. The big Catholic strokes of sin, shame, guilt, mortification. Regular people overtaken by the externalities of human nature.

You cite Derek Raymond as a major influence. Was meeting him a bit like coming home?

Unsworth: I think he was the most exciting person I have ever met. Strange, I know, when you consider that I was 25 or 26 and he was 63 or 64. But the energy and the amazing analytical brainpower coming off that man were like nothing I have ever experienced before, and brilliant things went on around him all the time. Ask anyone who knew him and they will tell you the same thing, he just made everyone around him feel very happy. Reading his book I Was Dora Suarez was a turning point in my life, it showed me the direction I needed to go down, although it took me another ten years to get there, as I said before, a decade of feasting on the finest crime fiction, before I was ready to begin.

What do you dislike about the genre of crime writing?

Faust: It's really too bad that the genre is so profoundly polarized between noir and cozy. There's obviously nothing wrong with the fact that different people want to read and write different types of stories. It's just wrong to be so hostile and vitriolic about the opposite style. I'm not just talking about the people who get all bent out of shape about violence and swearing either. I've heard way too many snarky, mean-spirited remarks from the noir side as well, dismissing the cozy novels as unrealistic pabulum whose existence is a waste of dead trees. Honestly, so what if those kind of books aren't realistic? Science fiction isn't "realistic" either, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be written. The way I see it, there's room in the world for all kinds of readers and all kinds of books. Bottom line, if you don't like it, don't read it.

Abbot: I guess my only complaint is the most common one: that it’s misunderstood, undervalued. That there continues to be an elitist view of crime fiction (and most genre fiction) as escapism. But to me, those charges say far more about those who level them than about the genre. A desire among many to distance themselves from what they feel exposes parts of themselves they’d prefer to keep hidden.

Unsworth: I hate books that are all about the clever detective or the cunning serial killer and don’t give a fuck about the victim. That to me is crime fiction as pornography, the writers who themselves pimp out women’s bodies for entertainment without making any moral point whatsoever, and caring that a book should have one even less. At least you know how to avoid them, ’cos the books all look the same, it’s such a manufacturing industry.

How much research do you conduct before sitting down to write? How long does it take to write a novel?

Faust: There's no preset amount of research. I just do as much as I need to feel comfortable and familiar with the world within which each book or story takes place. With some topics I already know a lot going in and with some I need more back up.

My preferred method of research is old fashioned human interaction. Forget Wikipedia, I like to get out there and talk to people who are part of whatever I want to write about. You'd be amazed by how much people will tell you if you are respectful, open-minded and genuinely interested.

As far as time frame, I write novelizations and tie-ins, so I'm used to very tight deadlines. I often complete a novel in six to eight weeks. If a book takes longer than that, it's usually the inexplicable mental agonizing and chewing and subconscious prepwork that takes up more time. The actual writing rarely takes me more than a few months.

Abbott: I do a lot of research, although not in a particular rigorous way and not generally of the note-talking, organized variety. I’m kind of a dilettante and I just follow my paths of interest and try to absorb as much as I can. And then I try to let it all go when I sit down to write. A novel can take me anywhere from six months to a few years. My day job grounds me and I’m grateful for that, but it can slow things down. At a certain point, though, everything kicks in and I start writing and can’t stop. I’m always waiting for that stage. Then you know you’ll be okay.

Unsworth: For The Not Knowing, none at all, that was a world I knew inside out. For The Singer a fair bit, I was very worried about getting the detail of gigs in the late 1970s right, but luckily have a lot of friends who were around then and have great memories and amazing collections of memorabilia that they let me delve into. But at least I actually lived through the 1970s, so I knew how it looked, and how people spoke, what effect it actually had when The Sex Pistols were suddenly bursting through your TV screen at 7.30 on a Thursday evening. Bad Penny Blues has been much harder, creating an era I never knew, but getting back there has also been incredible. I read so many books, watched so many films and listened to so many records from that era that eventually, halfway through watching the car chase around Ladbroke Grove in The Blue Lamp, I was there -- and I realized why Colin MacInnes called the place “our little Napoli” in Absolute Beginners, too. But the research is still ongoing. The first two books took a year each, this so far has taken 18 months, the same time as Derek Raymond took to write Dora, and it ain’t over yet…