Lori Rader-Day’s first novel, The Black Hour, established Rader-Day as an author to keep an eye out for and was heartily approved of by the 7% Percent Solution Book Club here at BookPeople. Her second novel, Little Pretty Things, uses a murder case as a jumping off point to explore the nature of female competition and friendship while building to a thrilling conclusion. She was kind enough to answer some questions about Little Pretty Things. Read our review of the novel.
Molly O: Juliet and Madeline, as their high school’s two biggest track stars, are the best of frenemies, spending all their time together, understanding each other’s experience, yet held back from true friendship by their mutual jealousy. Friendship sullied by the nature of competition, and redeemed through female community, is a common theme in narratives exploring female relationships. What inspired the particular relationship of Madeleine and Juliet?
Lori Rader-Day: I can’t say that I’ve ever had a friendship quite like the one Juliet and Maddy had when they were young, but I’ve definitely had close friends—or I thought so, anyway—turn out not to be life-long parts of my life. And I think it’s quite easy to feel envy for people you love and only want the best for. I’ve told this story a few times already, but I got serious about writing only after a friend of mine from high school published a novel. I was so simultaneously proud and envious of him that I was spurred to action. His name is Christopher Coake. You should read his books; they’re excellent. I don’t think I’ve had a real frenemy before. I only have friends and archenemies. No one in between. That’s a joke, just in case the harsh black and white of the internet doesn’t convey it.
MO: Another theme in Little Pretty Things is the vulnerability of the young, talented and neglected. To riff off of my previous question, Madeline’s talent and beauty, through the jealousy they inspire in other women, isolate her from her peers. Why explore talent not as an asset, but as a trap?
LRD: It’s more interesting, isn’t it? We all wish we had talent, but most pluses have a minus. And of course all the people we think have it all together have their own dark secrets. We forget it, though. We still do the thing where we compare our insides to everyone else’s outsides, and find ourselves lacking, every time. I thought of Maddy as that woman who is so proud of the fact that she’s better friends with a bunch of dudes than another woman. There’s a reason for that, in my opinion. I’ll leave it at that, because I’m already going to get letters.
MO: Little Pretty Things, like The Black Hour, tells the stories of characters feeling trapped, who are released from their humdrum lives by the horror of assault or murder of someone close, and are able to reclaim a sense of ownership over their own destiny through being forced into action. Noir had been described as, “starts bad, gets worse,” but the heroines of your novels tend more towards the “stuck in a rut, experience a trauma, kick some ass, and move on to bigger and better things” model of detective novel. How do you combine noir style and feminist empowerment so nicely?
LRD: Oh, wow, my writing has never been described like that, but I love it. You’re hired. I like dark stories, but I also like stories that end well and maybe even a little hopeful. I think there must be room on the shelf for stories about women facing some real-life shit (as the character Yvonne says in Little Pretty Things) without having to go on suffering forever. I like to punish my characters, but then when they run the maze, they get the treat. I also want to write women characters who win in the end. We don’t, always, and we usually don’t win at all in crime fiction. All those nameless, trait-less dead women in crime fiction… but I digress. There are plenty of feminist crime fiction writers and feminist crime fiction characters—I don’t know that I’m inventing anything here. But I like being in that kind of company, and I think the readers I care about do, too.
MO: Noir generally implies a hero or anti-hero with an addiction, traditionally of the alcohol and cigarettes model. Lately, I’ve noticed a change in the kinds of addictions in detective novels – an addiction is, after all, anything you push too hard at and feel like you can’t live without, and you insert cross-country running into the place previously occupied by less healthy addictions. Did you set out to write Juliet as a character who drives herself with exercise rather than alcohol? Does the modern detective need to overdo at least one thing in their life in order to be a compelling, noir figure?
LRD: Well, Juliet has given up running when we meet her and she has a new obsession, but I imagine her new twitch is the same kind of thing. She swipes things people have left behind in the motel rooms, lost objects, orphans that nobody else wants or have forgotten. She believes these things will be her downfall eventually, but she can’t help herself. It’s like a drug for her. I feel like we’ve gotten so carried away with the flaws our detectives have to have. They all have to be highly idiosyncratic at this point—seems like a very high standard to keep up with. But really we just want our detectives—all of our characters—to be real people. Well rounded, complex, troubled. They don’t have to be one foot in AA anymore. They just need to have a complex relationship with happiness, like every person you know. When the good guys are interestingly bad, a bit, we know we’re going to go on a ride, with someone else (maybe slightly damaged) driving. That’s what we pick up books for, right?
MO: As someone who has taught mystery writing, and also is now two books in to an authorial career, what’s some advice for aspiring detective novelists?
LRD: Write the book you want to read. Read a lot and write a lot, as Stephen King says. Bad first drafts are OK, as Anne Lamott says. I just reference a lot of other people, you see. I love writing books, looking for the best way to phrase and remind people of things they need to keep hearing. Most people who want to write study all this advice like tea leaves, so they know it intellectually, but they need to hear reminders and encouragement to keep them moving forward and working. It’s a long game, and they need to hear that, too. The truth is sometimes really hard to hear but then when it IS a difficult, at least they know it’s supposed to be that way. The other best advice is to find some writers to share pages and encouragement. You just need one person, but if you can find a community, even better. For aspiring mystery writers, Mystery Writers of American and Sisters in Crime are really fantastic places to find your tribe.
You can find copies of Little Pretty Things on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.