MysteryPeople Q&A with Bill Loehfelm

Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Let The Devil Out is Bill Loehfelm’s fourth book featuring Maureen Coughlin, once a cocktail waitress with addiction issues, now a new patrolwoman in New Orleans. The militia group she dealt with in Doing The Devil’s Work returns, with Maureen reluctant to work with the FBI, but ready to take the militia group on. We caught up with Bill to ask him a few questions.

MysteryPeople Scott:  Once again you put Maureen through the ringer with the events from previous books also taking a toll on her. What did you want to explore about her this time?

Bill Loehfelm: I felt it was time for her face down some of the psychological and emotional things she’s been turning away from since she moved the New Orleans. She’s done a geographic cure for the trauma she endured in New York (in The Devil She Knows), and she’s made significant changes in her life, but there’s darkness and rage in her that she’s never faced, and those emotions have started leaking out of her in bad ways. I wanted this book to present a real moment of truth for her. She’s started down the path toward corruption and self-destruction in the last two books, toward letting the evil in others rule her life, and she needs to make some crucial choices.

MPS: You return to the Sovereign Citizens as one of your antagonists. What did you want to convey about militia groups?

BL: In LaPlace, Louisiana, in 2012, four sheriffs deputies were shot, two of them killed. The first was shot attempting an arrest, and the other three in a trailer park ambush later that night. Researching that incident, I learned the people behind the shootings claimed to be Sovereign Citizens, an anti-government, anti-law enforcement belief system I’d never heard of before. I dig deeper and I find out that Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, considered himself a sovereign citizen. I’m doing this research around the time of the Cliven Bundy standoff, when these anti-government militia groups from around the country are taking up arms against federal officers. These things seem like major issues to me.

People in these so-called patriot groups have been assassinating law enforcement personal for years, all across the country. The FBI considers these groups the greatest extant threat to law enforcement in the country. When you look closely at some of them, they’re indistinguishable in their beliefs, and their messaging and sometimes their actions, from terrorist groups. These groups seem to me the embodiment of the level of hatred and violence and gun worship that we accept in this country. And of the double standard we accept when it comes to which people we “allow” to be armed. American gun worship, especially among white men, fascinates and terrifies me. And, as always, there are powerful people cashing in, whether it’s in dollars or votes, on all of this hate and anger while they suffer none of the consequences.

I found putting a fierce, idealistic, damaged woman up against all that really compelling.

MPS: You have Maureen working with the FBI. What kind of tension does that provoke?

BL: First off, nobody likes being told what to do, to feel like they’re being babysat, especially in their own backyard. I think it provokes a unique tension for anyone on the NOPD since they’re already under the watchful eye of the Justice Department. For Maureen, she’s worried like she often is that the powerful men around her are using her, that they see her as weak. Add to that how she wants desperately to fit in with and be accepted by her fellow officers. Being perceived as carrying the FBI’s water is not going to help with that. She already feels like an outsider trying to fight her way into something.

MPS: Your police characters range from the idealistic, corrupt, to just-doing-the-job. What should people know about the NOPD?

BL: That the NOPD, like any police department is not a monolithic entity of drones. That, like any group that shares an identity, a uniform, a cause or a calling, the worst of them don’t speak for all of them. I think also that we have in many of our civil institutions people who are laboring inside a broken system, a system that can frustrate the best of intentions and that can facilitate the worst of intentions. I just want people to remember that our city and our problems, that their city and its problems, are complicated, and that we should resist falling for easy answers, for oversimplifications, no matter how righteous they make us feel.

MPS: Your Staten Island books were stand alones. What has it been like working with one character in a series?

BL: I really like it. It forces me to dig deep into the character, to push her. And to grow the world she lives in. I’ve got to grow this ensemble around her, too. Preacher, Atkinson, her mom, all of them. It makes the writing experience so immersive. I think I prefer it to starting over with every book. And even after nineteen years here, I still find New Orleans endlessly fascinating. It’s like looking at a river; you never see the same city twice.

MPS: I’ll be in New Orleans in September. Where’s a good place to go, that few tourists know about?

BL: You should get to Mid-City. See City Park and Bayou St. John and get dinner on Esplanade Avenue. And the bars and clubs on St. Claude. Every kind of music there is, every night of the week.

Come by BookPeople Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a panel discussion on “New Voices of Noir.” Joining us for the panel discussion are crime writers Bill Loehfelm, Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, and William Boyle. You can find copies of Let The Devil Out on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with William Boyle

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

 

I’m looking forward to introducing our readers to William Boyle this upcoming Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM at our New Voices of Noir panel discussion. Boyle joins Bill Loehfelm, Alison Gaylin, and Megan Abbott for the panel discussion. His short stories and Gravesend, his first novel, feature hard-luck people stuck in life. To give you an idea of him, here’s a quick interview we did.

MysteryPeople Scott: Gravesend is an ensemble novel, set in a decaying working class part of New York that is a character itself. Did you start with the idea of the place or the people?

William Boyle: I grew up in the neighborhoods of Gravesend and Bensonhurst. I knew I wanted to write about the place. I’ve mostly lived away from Brooklyn since college, though my family’s still there—I’ve spent time in the Hudson Valley, in Austin, in The Bronx, in Mississippi—but I carry the neighborhood with me. So, it started with that feeling, I’d say, of being trapped by the place you’re from, whether or not you’re physically there. A lot of the action of the book actually takes place away from Gravesend—upstate, in Manhattan, in other neighborhoods—but it’s still and always about people made and shaped by that specific place. The people are the place. My characters are stuck there, for the most part, except for Alessandra, who’s just returned after living in L.A. for years. A lot of how I feel about the neighborhood—how I fall into old struggles and fall victim to old sadnesses when I’m back there—went into her character.

MPS: It is a very cause and effect book with actions of one characters defining the fate of another. How much was mapped out before you wrote?

WB: I knew two of the principles, Conway and Ray Boy, and I knew the conflict there—Ray Boy responsible for Conway’s brother’s death and fresh out of jail, Conway wanting revenge—but the rest unfolded as I wrote it. Alessandra and Eugene just sort of showed up. I had a sense of their fates almost immediately because that’s written into their blood—Alessandra there as a witness, Eugene clearly doomed. I like writing that way because I think it makes things more unpredictable. I correct course a lot. The novel takes place over a short stretch of time. I had a big whiteboard where I kept track of where everyone was, what day it was, stuff like that. For the most part, though, things just kind of rolled out.

MPS: The novel and your short story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy, look at folks on the bottom rung. What pulls you to that part of society as an author?

WB: I like characters on the margins. I like neighborhoods, like mine in Brooklyn and my wife’s in The Bronx, that are near the end of the line, where people are so close to everything and yet so removed from it. I’m more drawn to failure than success. I want to understand how people live with dead dreams, how they survive in the face of bad odds, how luck rotates away from them. I’m preoccupied with how fucked up people behave in times of crisis.

MPS: Do you have a preference between short stories and novels?

WB: As both a reader and writer, I prefer novels. I love short stories too—and many of my favorite books are story collections—but I mostly read novels and that’s mostly what I’ll write going forward. I especially love short(ish) novels. Simenon, Manchette, Garnier, writers like that—160-240 pages is a real sweet spot for me.

MPS: I know you’re a fan of crime movies from the ‘70s. What influence have those films made on your writing?

WB: Everything I write is shaped by my favorite ‘70s movies, I’d say. They teach us as readers and watchers that character doesn’t have to be sacrificed in the name of plot. Cassavetes and Altman are my greatest heroes. The French Connection was huge for me, the big chase being shot in my neighborhood. I grew up with that mythos in the air. Every time I walked under the El, I felt lit up because of that chase. Of course, I love The Godfather I and II, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Dog Day Afternoon, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Straight Time, Prime Cut, Serpico, The Getaway, Sorcerer, many more. There was so much room for weirdness in these movies. The energy’s so different. Everything I learned about atmosphere and balance I learned from ‘70s crime movies. It’s the perfect combination of how the movies were shot and how places looked then. Cars were better, buildings, graffiti. Everything’s so gritty and raw and alive.

MPS: What can you tell us about your short story in Mississippi Noir?

WB: I’ve lived in Mississippi for seven years now. I didn’t know if I’d ever write a story set here, but then I found a way in. Holly Springs, where my wife worked the first few years we were here and where I’ve spent a lot of time, fired up my imagination. My story takes place there. It also, for the most part, deals with Northerners in the South. Holly Springs is a weird and beautiful place. You can feel the ghosts of savagery. It’s a divided town, an eccentric town, in some ways it feels like it’s stuck in the ‘70s. There’s a wildcard feeling in the air, like anything can go wrong any time—that’s such a key feeling in noir, and I wanted to tap into it.

Come by BookPeople Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a panel discussion on “New Voices of Noir.” Joining us for the panel discussion are crime writers William Boyle, Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, and Bill Loehfelm. You can find copies of Gravesend on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Megan Abbott

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Megan Abbott’s latest beautifully dark novel, You Will Know Me, explores the tale of the Knox’s, a family with a gymnastics protege daughter, and how their relationship with their community and their family dynamic are both tested when a hit and run murder occurs. As expected, it is rich in psychology and emotion.

You Will Know Me is MysteryPeople’s Pick of the Month for August. Megan joins us Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a panel discussion on emerging voices in crime fiction, along with fellow crime writers Bill Loehfelm, Alison Gaylin, and William Boyle. Megan was kind enough to take some questions from us. 

MysteryPeople Scott: What made you want to explore the dynamics of a family with a prodigy?

Megan Abbott: Families. I mean, families are complicated to begin with, but I’ve always been curious about how it plays out when a child is exceptional in some way. How power and responsibility and agency are affected. What happens in a marriage when so much effort and energy is put into the child’s endeavors? What’s it like to be the sibling of a prodigy? What are the unique pressures and yet also power that a prodigy has?

As I was working on the idea, I read two things. First, Susan Dominus’s New York Times magazine piece on Teri Shields, Brooke Shields’ mother, a famous “stage mom.” Second, I read Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree and its chapter on prodigies. They were both such rich, generously written pieces. I knew then that I wanted to write from the viewpoint of Katie, the mother of Devon, the gymnastics prodigy. It’s very easy to judge some of these parents, to accuse them of using their children to fulfill their own dreams, but I think the truth is always more complicated than that. I wanted to explore it through Katie.

MPS: Why gymnastics for a backdrop?

MA: I changed my mind a lot when I began. Should Devon be a musical prodigy? Dance? Iceskating? But I keep returning to gymnastics because of its unique demands on a growing girl’s body. If started very young, it can (though doesn’t always) halt puberty, or alter it. That seemed fascinating to me. Katie and Eric are so engaged, so involved and by the sport’s very nature so they’re helping both support their daughter’s dreams, but in some ways they’re also invested in arresting their daughter’s development. Also, what happens when, as a fifteen year old girl, your body and your head might be in such different places? You’re stalling physical puberty, but can you stall the desires that come with it?

MPS:  On the surface that world appears to have a lot in common with the cheer world. What are the main differences when writing about it?

MA: You Will Know Me is fundamentally about family, the way power and love operate in a family of a prodigy. But, for me, though gymnasts are part of a gym, a team, it’s still so much more about individual, not group, excellence and success. And, of course, the Olympic dream sets gymnastics apart from cheer. That impossible, gleaming goal that drives Devon and Katie and Eric.

MPS:  What was the biggest surprise in your research?

MA: How there are never easy answers with prodigies, their families. I read so many memoirs, foremost the brilliant Letters to a Young Gymnast by Nadia Comaneci, and figuring out where a child’s ambition and hunger—versus those of a parent, a coach, etc.—begin and end is a tricky operation. But in that ambiguity lies so much.

MPS:  Lately you’ve been drawn to the noir look ambition instead of sexual lust or greed. What has made it good theme to pursue?

MA: Desire and greed are a pretty big part of this book, so I guess I can’t get away from them! But for me all these things are interlocked. They’re all primal urges and all about power, about wanting, about drive. To me, that’s the beauty of noir—it’s the essentials.

MPS: You’re sharing your event with Alison Gaylin, Bill Loehfelm, and William Boyle. Could you mention what each author has contributed to crime fiction?

MA: Extraordinary books, all of them. They are, in many ways, very different writers. Alison’s books have this kaleidoscopic feel, interweaving the media, notions of fame, public perception, into very intimate stories about women. There’s no one out there quite writing anything like that, and with such a keen eye and understanding. Bill Loehfelm is reinvigorating and pushing forward the grand tradition of the hardboiled police novel, and with one of the best female protagonists that tradition has ever seen. And Bill Boyle—well, he’s utterly one of a kind. As gritty as they come, but with an emotional heft and an idiosyncratic eye for detail—the odd turn of phrase, an unexpected burst of feeling—that are like no other writer I can think of. You read his work and you know he’s a star ascending.

Come by BookPeople Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a panel discussion on “New Voices of Noir.” Joining us for the panel discussion are crime writers Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, Bill Loehfelm and William Boyle. You can find copies of You Will Know Me on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Review: GOOD AS GONE by Amy Gentry

  • Review by Molly Odintz

9780544920958Journalist, novelist and long-time Austinite Amy Gentry joins us here at the store this Thursday, July 28th, at 7 PM to speak and sign her debut thriller, Good As GoneHer debut takes the reader into a torn family coping with the still-unsolved disappearance of their eldest, a decade before. When a young woman with a fantastical tale comes knocking on their door, they work to accept her as their long-lost daughter, yet holes quickly appear in her story, and questions remain as to her identity and her past.

Gentry splits her narrative between the matriarch of the family, Anna, and her reclaimed child, Julie, as they tip-toe around issues of trauma, identity, acceptance and return. Anna’s perspective follows a linear path through the novel; Julie’s perspective is told backwards, with a rotating cast of character names, teasing the reader through much of the novel as to who “Julie” might be, and what role, exactly, Julie played in her own kidnapping. While Gentry’s debut passes Alison Bechdel’s simple test for feminism in fiction (Does a named female character speak to another named female character about a subject other than men?), the many names of “Julie” bring out another side to the named female character – she can be named, over and over again, by those attempting to control her, and with each new name, the core of her identity becomes further separated from any marker as changeable as a name.

In an interview with the Daily Texan conducted while Gentry was writing the novel, she discussed the pervasive presence in crime fiction of “the mythical ‘good victim’…[who] does all the socially acceptable things: She isn’t sexually active, she’s assaulted by a stranger and she immediately goes to the police.” For her novel, Gentry wanted to write “a real victim,” who responds to her trauma in messy, complicated, and realistic ways. In the character of Anna, Amy Gentry has also eschewed the archetype of the “good mother” – Anna resents her youngest child for her failure to sound the alarm at Julie’s disappearance, and struggles to quell her doubts about grown-up Julie’s identity and actions. Skepticism and survival clash with honesty and trust for a conflicted and complex cast of characters.

Houston, and the overwhelming scale of its megachurches, 26-lane-highways, and sprawling cityscape adds a spatial dimension to the novel’s themes of alienation, escape and powerlessness; the novel confirms Houston as the perfect noir setting, combining the dinginess of the Northeast, the strip-mall-sprawl of the West, and the dirty secrets and genial hypocrisy of the South. Good as Gone also confirms the entrance of a powerful new voice in the world of crime fiction – Gentry knows crime fiction as a critic and as a writer, and brings her experiences with her for a novel that is as playful and self-aware in its structure as it is responsible in its themes.

Good as Gone comes out today! You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by BookPeople this Thursday, July 28th, at 7 PM, for Amy Gentry’s official book launch!

MysteryPeople Q&A with Amy Gentry

 

  • Interview by Molly Odintz

 

 

Come by BookPeople Thursday, July 28th, at 7 PM, for Amy Gentry’s official launch of her debut thriller, Good as Gone. Gentry is a journalist, novelist and long-time Austinite. Her debut follows a family as they are reunited with their long-lost daughter, kidnapped at a young age. Happy to have their daughter returned, yet skeptical of her story, they try to form new bonds, heal old wounds and unearth painful truths.

Molly Odintz: Your story, to me, was reminiscent of the story of the changeling – did you set out to play with fairy-tale archetypes?

Amy Gentry: I didn’t set out thinking specifically about fairy tales, although in an early draft I did have a scene of the mom Anna, who is a professor, teaching the Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” not fairy tale exactly, but Arthurian legend type stuff. In the poem, a mysterious woman seduces knights and then disappears, leaving them to wander around looking for her for the rest of their lives. Keats is a great source for vanished ladies; I also thought about using “The Eve of St. Agnes.” I took all those scenes out because they were terrible, but they helped me think through some things. Princesses also kept popping up, especially the Frances Hodgson Burnett story The Little Princess, which I’ve always been obsessed with. Princess stories are often lost daughter stories.

MO: I loved the different timelines of the perspectives; the mother’s perspective goes forward, while Julie’s perspective flashes backward. Was it hard to keep the timelines straight? What was your inspiration for your narrative structure?

AG: I only committed to writing the book after I decided on that structure. I was struggling with how to handle Julie (or “Julie”), where you’re not sure who the character is and where she came from, yet parts are written from her point of view. It seemed like an inspiration that you would get to know her as a reader by peeling the layers back one by one and delving into her past. That also strongly resonated with my ideas about trauma, how it re-centers your life around a kind of tear in the narrative fabric, so that while other people move forward, you’re always kind of living backward towards it. To actually execute it, I had to write Julie’s whole story in chronological order, and then dice it up and weave it back through afterward. I couldn’t figure out who she was in the present until I had written every single one of her past scenes.

“Princess stories are often lost daughter stories.”

MO: What kind of research did you do while writing the book?

AG: Depressing research, particularly into missing children and their families. I followed several Facebook groups for missing persons in order to keep a steady stream of news stories and posts in front of my eyes. Any time I spend a sustained amount of time reading articles, I would feel so ghoulish and depressed. These are real people in pain, what’s wrong with me that I’m using them for this frivolous reason? The only thing that got me through it was thinking, my aim is to depict this situation as compassionately and accurately as possible. I was especially interested in depicting the parents as flawed, imperfect human beings who don’t necessarily get stronger through adversity, but instead crumble and turn against each other. We want to believe in strong, heroic, virtuous victims, but so many couples divorce after losing a child. It happens. And I wanted that depiction to feel honest. The most heartbreaking thing I read was a pamphlet on how to conduct your own missing-child search after the police have given up. I cried reading that. And one line I almost lifted verbatim from a news article: Anna’s line about just wanting something to bury. That is a line I saw in an interview with parents of a missing child, and I just recognized a little piece of Anna, by which I mean me, in it. Hope can be a killer. Some people have to stamp it out, just to survive. I found that deeply human, and such a brave thing to say to a reporter. I hope those parents found resolution.

“The most heartbreaking thing I read was a pamphlet on how to conduct your own missing-child search after the police have given up. I cried reading that. And one line I almost lifted verbatim from a news article: Anna’s line about just wanting something to bury.”

MO: I know this is a small thing compared to the whole book, but I wanted to thank you for having a character with a doctorate and who keeps her last name. Your book, to me, seems feminist in ways big and small, and the details of an independent woman’s life and the evidence of her choices shine throughout your narrative. Would you agree? Did you set out to write a feminist thriller?

AG: I definitely set out to write a feminist thriller, so thank you for noticing! I have a doctorate and kept my last name after marriage. So did most of the women I knew in grad school, so it just seemed natural that Anna would. I had a lot of fun with her demanding that everyone call her “Dr.” I find it silly in my own life when people call me “Dr.”, but Anna is so raw and defensive after all she’s been through that she uses her title to bludgeon people she doesn’t like or feels threatened by. Probably I secretly wish I could do that.

MO: You’ve worked in journalism for some of the most respected publications in the country, and have a long career in cultural analysis. How did it feel to approach writing from the other end – not analyzing, but creating? Did writing Good as Gone feel different from your journalistic work?

AG: Journalism was really helpful in developing my sense of an audience. I came out of grad school in 2011 with my dissertation that I’d been sweating blood into for years, and like three people ever read it, only because reading it was literally their job. So when I started freelancing, it was a huge revelation to me: People like to read my things! By choice! I’d always wanted to write novels and had taken several stabs at it over the years, but feeling the existence of an audience was like a light bulb coming on: Writing, even writing fiction, is not some embarrassing, self-indulgent thing I have to hide. It’s essentially communication.

“I’d always wanted to write novels and had taken several stabs at it over the years, but feeling the existence of an audience was like a light bulb coming on: Writing, even writing fiction, is not some embarrassing, self-indulgent thing I have to hide. It’s essentially communication.”

MO: You draw a distinction in your novel between the ordinary kidnapping, by someone a child knows, and the out-of-the-ordinary kidnapping, by a stranger. Without giving too much away, how did you manage to strike such a balance between realistic and extraordinary, in Julie’s story?

AG: It was tricky at times, and I can only hope I got it right. Early on, the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping provided the kernel of inspiration, and if anything, Smart’s case is even more extraordinary than Julie’s. I had to tone it down, so I tried to balance it with details that wouldn’t seem out of place in a life more like the one I knew growing up in West Houston. There were a few times where I was stuck on logistics and the setting jumped in to help me out–I don’t want to be too specific, but I will say I learned some fascinating things about my hometown I never knew before.

MO: You’ve written on a variety of topics, including film. How does the language of cinema influence your writing?

AG: I’m a naturally visual person, but I’m not conscious of writing cinematically. The exception is the opening scene, the prologue, where you see the actual kidnapping from Jane’s perspective. Because it was such a complicated visual angle (Jane can only see a small part of the hallway from her closet) and I wanted the reader to inhabit Jane’s POV so tightly, I had to draw the hallway and the closet, map out Jane’s visual angle as if she were a camera eye. It was one of the last scenes I wrote, and to me it reads very differently from the rest of the book.

“I think when you really understand your protagonist and you know how she’d react to every single situation that could possibly come up, the plot and character become inseparable. That was my goal for every character, but Anna was most successful.”

MO: I’m sure by now you’ve heard from many folks that your novel is a page-turner, and I’d like to add that I stayed up till four in the morning on a work night reading it all in one burst. How did you balance driving the plot forward and maintaining the tension without sacrificing character development?

AG: Hurray! I’m so happy the pages turn. I’m not sure there were no sacrifices at all (a lot of people have told me they wanted to hear more from Jane, and I agree!), but I think that for me at least, Anna was the real workhorse. Her voice is so distinct that even when she’s moving the plot forward, she’s giving the reader a lot of information about herself and her world. I think when you really understand your protagonist and you know how she’d react to every single situation that could possibly come up, the plot and character become inseparable. That was my goal for every character, but Anna was most successful. I’ll try again with the next book.

Good as Gone comes out tomorrow! You can find copies on our shelves tomorrow or pre-order via bookpeople.com. Come by BookPeople this Thursday, July 28th, at 7 PM, for Amy Gentry’s official book launch!

 

Crime Fiction Friday: “Cleaning Solution” by Andrew Hilbert

 

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  • Selected and Introduced by Scott Montgomery

One of the many reasons to come to our upcoming Noir At the Bar at Threadgill’s, happening Monday, July 25th, at 7 PM, is for us to introduce our Noir at the Bar crowd to Andrew Hilbert, who has won local acclaim not only as a writer but reader of his work. He mixes genres in a wonderful, weird, tapestry that may be offensive to some. He is also a skilled craftsman with a strong sense of cadence and rhythm that you can see in his latest novella, Bangface And the Gloryhole, and this short story that appeared in Horror Novel Reviews.


“Cleaning Solution” by Andrew Hilbert

“It’s a miracle.” I sprayed the solution on the lady’s doorknob and scrubbed it until it was shining, brand new looking, and clean. “With nothing more than a paper towel and some elbow grease. It’s so easy,” I said, “a dog could do it.”

“Dog’s don’t have hands,” the lady said. She rolled her eyes. “My mom’s not home. We use Windex. And we probably don’t care if our doorknobs are as reflective as mirrors.” She slammed the door.

It was hot. The sun beat down on my bald head so hard I could feel it peeling.

“Johnny!” I yelled. My partner, Johnny, came scurrying out of the bushes and stubbed his cigarette on a parked black Mercedes. “It doesn’t work without a sidekick. Good door-to-door salesmanship requires a one-two punch. A good cop and a better cop.”

“Sorry, boss,” he said. “I just needed a break.”

His teeth were black and rotted behind his smile. He was probably 18 years old, wore clothes two sizes too big, and a backwards black cap.

Read the rest of the story.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Gina Wohlsdorf

 

  • Interview by Molly Odintz

Gina Wohlsdorf has just released her debut thriller, Securityand man do we love this twisty thriller, told from the omniscient perspective of a hotel’s security cameras as a killer stalks a luxury hotel the night before opening. We asked Gina a few questions about her brilliant and oddly affecting debut for a wide-ranging conversation on gothic literature, slasher films, and surveillance. 

Molly Odintz: Security has a fascinating gimmick – the story is told through the perspective of a hotel’s security cameras, thus making manifest the omniscient narrator. How did you come up with the novel’s unique structure? Are the cameras, and the security guards watching them, our modern equivalent of an all-seeing deity? 

Gina Wohlsdorf: I’d had the premise of a killer in a hotel for quite a long time – I think three or four years – but I didn’t know how to attack it. How could I tell it in a way that was particular and unique, a way that duplicated the sustained dramatic irony of a horror film: the no-don’t-go-in-there knowledge that the viewer has and that the characters lack?

Then I was assigned a novel in grad school – Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. It was a crazy POV experiment with a first-person narrator who never uses the pronoun ‘I’. This melded in my mind with the old horror hotel plot in a way that was very abrupt, very freaky. The Head of Security started talking, and I listened. The camera splits grew naturally from that, because that’s what he’s seeing. He became my eyes. As near as writing ever gets to easy, it was easy – the biggest problem was keeping up with him.

To be sure, the narrator shares a lot of features with a god – but a god who’s all but incapable of interfering, of hurting or helping, until he accepts his limitations, and how his strengths can survive within those limitations. When our society is assured a place is secure, we tend to believe it. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, chaos deplores our attempts to control it. Oftentimes, the safer we believe we are, the more vulnerable we are to danger, because we stop being vigilant.

“Serial killer narratives very often paint their villains as masterminds, setting an almost-equally resourceful hero or heroine opposite him. It’s cat n’ mouse. Slasher films are not. There’s a cat, and pretty much everybody around the cat is kibble.”

MO: Security is a novel, yet the story is incredibly visual; the chase sequences, surveillance motif, and depiction of space all felt like they could transition easily to film. Are there any film plans in the making? Were you inspired by cinematic style when writing Security

GW: Absolutely horror films were an inspiration. I’m pulling all over the place from cinema – the Killers’ masks and the hedge maze, to name two. I was a horror movie addict growing up; my childhood best friend and I would watch one every weekend (and very often more than one), as well as The X-Files, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, anything that tried to scare.

Now, when you watch enough of these, a sobering reality sets in: it is, in fact, surprisingly difficult to scare. Fear is very basic, which makes the genre predicated upon it very formulaic. That’s why Scream was so revelatory. That movie came out when I was 15. And it’s a movie that’s obsessed with movies – referencing them, nailing down their rules, deciding when to break those rules and calling everybody’s attention to those rules being broken. It’s ironic about irony. It’s irony squared.

As to film plans, management is hard at work on that. It’s bananas to imagine, but it really could happen.

MO: To me, Security seems as much “romantic gothic” as “surveillance noir” – tell us a bit about your gothic influences. 

GW: Ooh, Poe.The Tell-Tale Heart, The Casque of Amontillado. People often say these stories are examples of mental illness being inaccurately adapted to fiction, but I disagree. I think what made Poe amazing is that he very accurately adapted mental illness to fiction. He understood suffering at a cellular level. He was the swiss watchmaker of what made us afraid.

Du Maurier, of course. Shirley Jackson, Stephen King. It’s so tempting in horror to make up a monster and set it loose, but the best stories (horror, gothic, whatever the label) find a method to admit that the monsters are us. Rebecca is the gold standard of ghost stories, and there’s no literal poltergeist, no supernatural events of any kind. It’s a woman’s insecurity (ha!) finding expression in everything around her.

“It’s so tempting in horror to make up a monster and set it loose, but the best stories (horror, gothic, whatever the label) find a method to admit that the monsters are us.”

MO: Security brilliantly plays with archetypes and genre conventions, with an almost David Campbell-esque breakdown of antagonists into characters simply called the Killer and the Thinker. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews your attachment to the slasher genre. What drew you to writing a literary slasher novel? 

GW: Honestly, the fact that one didn’t exist. I suspect that’s the best reason to write any particular book: nobody else is going to write it.

But there’s a great reason nobody had written a slasher novel. I tried writing Security, before that was its title. Before I had the idea of this omniscient narrator; the security cameras; the hyper-realist, visual, real-time connection to the action. That initial attempt was dismally bad. I think I stopped two pages in. And I swore a hands-off policy until I could think of a better way. I’m incredibly glad I found one.

MO: There’s something quite satisfying about an attack on a luxury hotel, yet hotel staff makes up most of the novel’s body count. Why set Security before the hotel opens, rather than having a killer take down a few billionaires? 

GW: That’s a great question. I’ve never asked that of myself. But hearing it asked now, I can give a few practical reasons:

Population control would be a problem. In a hotel like Manderley, would there ever be a guest count low enough that we could get a decent handle on that many characters? They could be painted in broad strokes and forgotten once they’re asleep for the night, but broad strokes are dangerous. I’m doing that with the sous-chefs already, making them a mass – I give a thematic reason for this, but it’s a trick that would wear thin quickly.

It’s also more people to keep track of. The Head of Security is obsessively detail-oriented; he has a deep-seated need to know where everyone is, at all times. I’d wind up splitting the page twenty ways, and my designer at Algonquin would kill me.

Characters’ freedoms of movement and behavior would be inhibited. I worked in a hotel, and it’s a strange gig, because you are ‘on’ your entire shift. The more luxurious the accommodations, the more this holds true: you can’t be you when a wealthy patron could interrupt at any time, asking for anything.

But in a hotel about to open: all that space, zero risk of running into a guest. Nobody needs to keep up professional appearances. They can be themselves.

“America’s security agencies long ago figured out that the best way to receive permission from the American public to do something is to not ask. Then, if you’re found out, tell them it keeps them safe.”

MO: Forgive me for my ignorance, but what do you consider the difference between a slasher narrative and a serial killer narrative? As an abstract follow-up to that question, what is the demarcation point between a mystery/thriller and horror? 

No worries on ignorance there; it’s very much a matter of opinion, even among us fan-nerds. What I’d say is that slasher narratives include an element of the supernatural. It can be overt or covert, vague or outright stated. It’s best exemplified in John Carpenter’s Halloween, with Dr. Loomis telling anyone who will listen: this is not a man, he is evil walking, he’s not human. Now, throughout the film, we think he’s being metaphorical, and we learn, by the end, that even he thought he was being metaphorical. When Loomis shoots Michael numerous times, and Michael falls backward off a second-story deck, and Loomis runs to the rail and looks down and Michael isn’t there, the doc can’t believe it! What makes Halloween my favorite film, though, is what happens after that: a series of still shots, denoting all the locations Michael has been. He is no longer in any of them – but we hear his steady, oppressive breathing. The lesson? Evil is everywhere.

Serial killer narratives very often paint their villains as masterminds, setting an almost-equally resourceful hero or heroine opposite him. It’s cat n’ mouse. Slasher films are not. There’s a cat, and pretty much everybody around the cat is kibble.

I’d put the divide between horror and mystery/thriller pretty close to the same spot. Horror has that extra sense of the villain’s superhuman ubiquity, impossibility, unbeatability – whereas mystery/thriller is a tight contest.

Security plays merry hell with these borders, and that’s part of the fun. Du Maurier toed the line, too. So does Thomas Harris.

MO: Security brings up issues of privacy and safety that are endemic in a post-9/11 world. Just to ask you a gigantic question, how much privacy should we give up to protect our safety? 

Safety is an illusion – but for civilization’s sake, it is a necessary illusion. This has always been so.

What’s new is: modern technology has made violations of privacy so easy and universal that people have begun to accept privacy as an illusion as well. Snowden’s revelations sparked practically no reaction from the American public, because America’s security agencies long ago figured out that the best way to receive permission from the American public to do something is to not ask. Then, if you’re found out, tell them it keeps them safe.

What’s extra-new is: the American public will tweet about it, forget about it, and try to find something fresh-ish to say tomorrow.

Americans are giving up their privacy willingly. They’re fist-fighting for who can give up their privacy the most and the fastest.

“But just as nature abhors a vacuum, chaos deplores our attempts to control it. Oftentimes, the safer we believe we are, the more vulnerable we are to danger, because we stop being vigilant.”

MO: What are you working on next? 

I’m in the final stages of my second novel for Algonquin. It’s a literary thriller about a teenage girl who’s kidnapped by her ex-con father to hunt down four million dollars her mother hid somewhere out west. It’s a wild ride, but very different from Security. Fewer twists and (if you can believe it) more voice-heavy.

You can find copies of Security on our shelves and via bookpeople.com