An Interview with Megan Abbott
Author of Bury Me Deep
MEGAN ABBOTT is the Edgar-winning author of the novels Die a Little, The Song Is You and the 2008 Edgar winner, Queenpin. Her fourth novel Bury Me Deep will hit the bookstores in July 2009. Megan graciously agreed to an interview with MostlyFiction.com. For more information about Megan and her books, please visit www.meganabbott.com
MEGAN ABBOTT: It’s set in the very early 1930s, the end of the Jazz Age, the beginning of the Great Depression. It’s about Marion, a young woman abandoned by her husband, who has to go to Mexico for work. He leaves her in this desert town to fend for herself and she becomes friends with two of the town’s party girls—girls who depend on the kindnesses of the town’s married men to survive. It becomes this sort of hothouse of desire, jealousy, desperation, sin. It all comes to a violent head and Marion has to find a way to claw herself out.
MF: What was the genesis for BURY ME DEEP?
MEGAN: The book is inspired by the famous Winnie Ruth Judd case from 1930s Phoenix. She was a young doctor’s wife accused of murdering her two best friends and stuffing their bodies in trunks—hence, the eternal name, The Trunk Murderess. I’d always heard about the case in purply tabloid terms—the Velvet Tigress, the Blonde Butcher. But the more I read about it, the more complicated and kind of heartbreaking the real-life case became for me. I was completely hooked. It seemed like this sort of classic tale of innocence, temptation, sin and punishment. But I wanted a different third act. I wrote the book to give the story a new third act.
MF: What sort of research did you do for the novel?
MEGAN: There are two wonderful books on the case and I started there: The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd by Jana Bommersbach and Winnie Ruth Judd: The Trunk Murders by Dwight Dobkins and Robert Hendricks. Then, I dug into newspaper coverage on the case, lots of books on tuberculosis, which figured prominently in the case, and morphine addiction, which also played a part. I’m a sucker for research and once I started it was hard to stop. Eventually, I went to Phoenix and Patrick Milliken from the Poisoned Pen Bookstore took me on this chilling and delicious tour of the various sites from the case.
MF: Can you pinpoint when and how your interest in noir/crime novels began?
MEGAN: As a kid, I was a compulsive old-movie-watcher and my first love was 1930s gangster films like Public Enemy. Eventually, I found my way to film noir. The world of those movies was so different from the world of everyday, middle-American suburbia I grew up in. In high school, I found James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, which was a revelation. I felt like someone had pulled away the curtain and showed me what crime fiction could do. In grad school I discovered Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and by then I couldn’t stop.
MF: You’re a hot commodity in the world of noir fiction, but BURY ME DEEP is a crime novel. Did you make a conscious decision to move away from noir into crime with this novel?
MEGAN: I guess I don’t see them separately. To me, they’re all crime novels, and I’m a lover of noir so it seeps into everything I write. Bury Me Deep is set in the 1930s, so it’s more influenced by early 30s stuff—pre-Code movies like Three on a Match, the tabloid crimes that fascinated and inspired Cain. I don’t really think in terms of genre that way. Sometimes I think we’re really post-genre. Everyone seems to draw from everything now. High, low, middlebrow, alternative—it’s all game.
MF: As a woman writing noir & crime, how do you feel about being a female author writing in what some people consider to be male-dominated genres?
MEGAN: It’s such a hard business and anything that can differentiate you can be helpful. But I’m not sure how much readers really think about the gender of the author anymore. Of course, it becomes a hook at times. When I talk to other women writing this stuff, we always joke about how we keep ending up on conference panels together and are always asked the same question by the moderator—some variation on, “How does it feel to be a woman and write such dark stuff?” I’ve learned there is no good answer for that. They all make you sound creepy.
MF: Do you think that as a woman your approach to writing about noir/crime is any different from that of male authors? If so, how?
MEGAN: No, I don’t. I think there’s a huge range among both genders. I mean, maybe my choice of perspective—say, a female school teacher or, as in Bury Me Deep, an abandoned wife—might not be as common among male authors, but I think noir writers, regardless of gender, work from character and mood and story. The elementals. When you strip everything away, we’re all dealing with the same primary themes that drew us to the genre to begin with, especially that sense of barely holding on a world gone wrong.
MF: THE SONG IS YOU is another novel based on real life incidents. How you did you discover this story?
MEGAN: On the web, actually. I’m always poking around for old Hollywood crimes. It’s been an interest since I was a kid and first found Hollywood Babylon in a used bookstore. I saw this photo of this lovely girl and read this short, sad story about her. It seemed the quintessential movieland tragedy: ambitious, beautiful young ingénue trying to break into pictures, falls in with some dangerous characters and, one day, just disappears. But the more I read about the case, just like with Winnie Ruth Judd, the more complicated the story got. It turned out she was this working mother, a divorcée supporting her family, dancing in revues. And it seemed like there were two lives for her—this home life with her own daughter and mother, her sister-in-law, cramped in one apartment—and this other life she was leading in Hollywood: dating Kirk Douglas, going out on the town with gangsters on the Sunset Strip. And the details of her disappearance seemed like the plot of the darkest film noir.
MF: Which noir writers/writers influenced you the most?
MEGAN: Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and James Ellroy—all in different ways. I’m a sucker for Chandler’s style and mood, Cain’s storytelling and Ellroy’s evocation of such a dark and rich world. I kneel at all their feet.
MF: As a female author writing about real characters such as Jean Spangler and Winnie Ruth Judd, do you, as a writer feel any particular responsibility towards your female subjects?
MEGAN: Yes, and it’s too easy to forget that responsibility, the deeper you get into the book. And that can be dangerous, for me at least. At a certain point, they’re your characters. You feel you own them. But that’s never entirely true. While it’s not like being a journalist, I do feel that, if I point to the real-life events that inspire something, I owe something to those people, their lives. But I think when you pick something from true life, you’re doing it because you’re moved by it.
MF: Please tell us about THE RAP SHEET and how you became involved with this blog.
MEGAN: Jeff Pierce, the Rap Sheet’s wonderful editor and all-around maestro, approached me about doing a guest blog. I had so much fun with it that, when he asked me to become an occasional contributor, I jumped on it. I don’t do post a lot, though, because I’m not a natural blogger and it takes me an embarrassingly long time to write posts. I wrote this short one about Mad Men, for instance, and I think it took me most of a Saturday. And I didn’t regret a minute of it because it was an excuse to think about Mad Men all day long.
MF: You wrote a non-fiction study THE STREET WAS MINE that was published in 2002. Would you tell our readers what this book is about? Do you think you will return to non-fiction?
MEGAN: It started as my thesis. I looked at the “tough guy” icon, why he became such a critical figure in 1930s-50s America—how he emerges in hardboiled fiction and then is transformed in the move to film. I focused mostly on Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Chester Himes. Reading all those books was transformative for me. I became completely hooked and then it was Hammett and Spillane and Cornell Woolrich and Horace McCoy and Dorothy B. Hughes and on and on. I wrote that book with the analytical part of my head, but I kind of shut that off when I write fiction. I can’t do both at the same time. But I would like to turn to non-fiction. I’m a lifelong true crime devotee and it’s always been a private hope of mine that I could try my hand at that.
MF: Noir has a phenomenal number of hardcore fans and yet noir seems to be a sadly neglected genre when it comes to university courses. Do you think noir is generally an under appreciated genre in scholarly settings? If so, why do you think noir isn’t given a fair shake with academia?
MEGAN: I’m surprised at what a battle it still is. So many universities are now offering the occasional mystery or detective novel class or crime fiction, but the big success will be when they start to regularly teach those books in American literature survey classes. There’s no reason Red Harvest shouldn’t be on a 20th-century literature syllabus. It’s on a few, but it’s slow. I do think it’s changing though. One generation’s genre book is another’s literature. Look at Wilkie Collins. No one would say, now, that they could only teach The Moonstone or The Woman in White in a mystery or suspense novel class.
MF: What’s next?
MEGAN: A contemporary novel. It took me a while to get up the nerve. I like to sink into the past. But it felt so scary I felt I had to try. I tell you this, it goes much faster. I spent so much time in my previous books trying to find out things like how long it would take to get from Pasadena To downtown Los Angeles before the I-10 was built.
Read Guy Savage's blog article The Bitter Little World of Megan Abbott at MostlyFiction.com