This interview was done while Megan was still working on "The End of Everything".   


“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” –T.S. Eliot

## I’ve read that you’ve been enjoying hardboiled and film noir since an early age; what drew you to that genre and what are the biggest influences, in books and movies, that shaped the writer that you are?

M.A.--As a kid, film noir seemed very glamorous to me, so different from the staid world of Midwestern suburbia. It wasn’t until much later that I came to the books. While I don’t think I could point to a one-to-one ratio of influence, other than the obvious ones (Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain), they all sort of jumble up in my head. All those old movies, true-crime books, hardboiled paperbacks, my favorite “classic” novels, like those by Faulkner, an affection for tabloid Americana—they all sort of form a collage in my head. I try not to analyze it too much because then it’d make it hard for me to write. The weight of all that influence.

## When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

M.A.--It was never a conscious decision. I think, to me, it seemed so fantastical—like saying I wanted to fly to the moon. I sort of backed into it, and I still have trouble saying I’m a writer.

## What is your best memory of reading a book?

M.A.--I guess a lot of those “firsts”—first time reading Salinger, Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler. Those moments when you’re just swept away.

## When you started University, what was your career goal?

M.A.--I thought I’d become a psychologist. I think the same things that drew me to psychology drew me to books. Unearthing secrets of the mind, the unconscious.

“Understanding is a two-way street” –Eleanor Roosevelt

## On page 2, you write: “In their depiction of the crises of the Modern White American Male trapped in a battered and enclosing American City, hardboiled novels embodied, assuaged, and galvanized an array of contemporary anxieties: Depression era fears about a capitalism-defeated masculinity, anti-immigrant paranoia, Cold War xenophobia, and the grip of post-World War II consumerism”. If we’d want to compare with what is happening today, would you replace ‘Depression era’ by ‘Economic crisis’, ‘Cold War’ by ‘Middle East Conflicts’, and ‘post-World War II’ by ‘post-Iraq war’ to a similar description?

M.A.--I think it’s trickier than that. Gender/sex relations, which are so central to hardboiled novels, are so different today. Men and women are no longer in such separate spheres. So much has changed in so many areas of American life. I’m sure contemporary anxieties are making their mark on literature now, but in other ways, and I don’t know if you can ever see those things while they’re happening.

## Hardboiled and noir (films and books) gained popularity between and after the World Wars and the economic crashes; with the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, plus the economy crisis we’re going through, do you think it can be compared to those earlier times, and could it have any kind of impact on crime fiction, even though it is already fairly successful?

M.A.--I think the culture always has an impact on the books that come out and our reaction to them, but I think it’s never a one-to-one relationship. I do think that crises can produce great art, and I hope that will be the case this time.

## Further down, on page 2: “(…) the solitary white man, hard-bitten, street savvy, but very much alone amidst the chaotic din of the modern city. Generally, lower-middle to working class, heterosexual, and without family or close ties, he navigates his way through urban spaces figured as threatening, corrupt, even “unmanning”.” Today, aside from being somewhat less macho and less racist (and not always white), he’s pretty much the same. One of the major differences is that he usually shares his emotions with other characters and/or with the readers. What is, for you, the change that had the biggest impact on crime fiction in the last 20 to 25 years?

M.A.--Well, in that instance, I’m going back sixty or seventy years and referring to a very specific subgenre of crime fiction. But I think we always have a need for that lone-male archetype. It speaks to us in some deep, and deeply American way and goes across genres: private eye novel, thriller, action, spy-espionage, sci-fi, horror, etc. It’s the individualist strain, which is fundamental to America’s idea of itself, even as it doesn’t speak to most of our experiences.

## The ‘City’ has been playing a major role in many crime stories since Chandler’s L.A. and Himes’s New York, to name only two. It seems to be even more important today, almost a requirement; you need to have a city playing a role, or at least being omnipresent in the lead character’s life. You can’t think of Wambaugh and Connelly without L.A., of Pelecanos without Washington, of Lippman without Baltimore, of Parker and Lehane without Boston, of Burke without New Orleans, and so on. Aside from giving the author a bottomless well from which to gather subjects for social comments or to bring social issues up, how does the ‘City’ affect and help crime fiction?

M.A.--I think “place” is very important to all fiction. In crime novels, it does tend to be a city, but not always (consider the “Ozarks noir” of Daniel Woodrell—just one of many examples). It’s just another rich tool in the author’s arsenal—and one that allows for so much tension between newcomers and natives, the threat and lure of the unknown.

## On page 145 you write: “One of the primary characteristics of the white urban male figure (…) is his bachelor status, his childlessness, his complete lack of any familial connection”. This is still very true in today’s crime fiction, even though many authors have more complex lead characters with relationships, familial connections, etc. But often, the detectives and PIs are either drunks, divorced, separated, unable to keep a stable love relationship, are dealing with violence issues or all of these at the same time. I have examples of good books and series with happily married detectives (or PIs) with children but they are very few. Why are they so uninteresting to readers (or writers for that matter) compared to the unstable, bruised, battered bachelors? 

M.A.--I think many of us read for escape. Since so many of us are married and/or have children, it’s no escape to read of domestic entrenchments, but there’s still romance in escaping into a life without domestic ties. We long for a temporary escape in that kind of freedom.

## You also write about the relationship between ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ in American culture; how did this relationship in American culture (or at least in crime fiction) develop and change, since the ‘50s, and how do you see it continuing to evolve?

M.A.--That’s a very hefty question and I’d leave that to historians and political theorists to untangle! But in my book, I’m writing about a theoretical, not a literal whiteness—the way whiteness functions in crime fiction, as an idea and, in many ways, a fantasy. A symbol of purity, or of power.

## Let’s not forget the femme fatale: you explained, in your book, her “defatalization” and its cause, the movie versions of hardboiled novels. Isn’t that similar (can it be compared) to what could be called the “de-characterization” of book characters by movie actors? For example, if we mention Hannibal Lecter we think Anthony Hopkins; the Frankenstein monster = Boris Karloff; Dracula is Bela Lugosi, etc.

M.A.--In that case, I’m talking about how, in so many of the film adaptations of hardboiled tales, such as Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, it’s very important that the tough guy never truly be threatened or unmanned. As such, the femme fatale can only be so lethal. So threatening. The tough guy must be able to contain or defeat her threat.

## You conclude the book with “The streets change, gender and sexuality significations shift, race relations advance, but the hardboiled hero who was such a product of his time is made static, stony, burnished and immutable.” By ‘hardboiled hero’, do you mean the hero of one specific era, or do you include our contemporary crime fiction heroes? And do you really see this hero being doomed and unable to evolve into someone more complex?

M.A.--Ah, there, I’m talking about the icon of the tough guy. And he’s still around, to be sure. The variations of him that are more complex are not icons by their very nature. Icons don’t change. That’s what makes them icons.

## We already saw movies and read books in which the U.S. President was African-American. Do you think we’ll see more of that now and how do you foresee the Obama effect on literature in general, and crime lit in particular?

M.A.--I’m sure we will, although I can’t guess the impact. I do know I’m glad President Obama is a George Pelecanos fan.

## For The Street Was Mine you focused mainly on Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Chester Himes. Who would be the three writers you would want to study in contemporary crime fiction?

M.A.--I’ve taken off my academic cap for now, but were I to pick it up again, James Ellroy would certainly be the center focus. I’d probably also look at Sara Gran and Vicki Hendricks.

## What are the differences in the treatment of race, gender and sexuality in today’s crime fiction, compared to the treatment in Chandler’s time?

M.A.--Enough to fill a whole new book!

"You have to wait for your mind to catch up with whatever it is it’s working on; then you can write a novel." –James M. Cain

## How important for you is it to have women as lead characters? Would you write a novel with only men as leads or do you absolutely want to go against that?

M.A.--In my second book, The  Song Is You, I have a male lead and would easily do so again. I don’t think in those terms when I write. I start with a character I’m drawn to, whose voice I can hear in my head, and then I move from there.

## Who did you have the most fun writing about, the men or the women?

M.A.--It sounds like a cheat, but I love writing about all my characters. The ones I don’t love writing about, I don’t end up writing about—they end up on the cutting room floor.

## Do you plot the whole book before writing it, or do you plunge into it without really knowing where it will all lead?

M.A.--I have a general arc, but little more. I like to be surprised and to be able to follow those surprises.

## Have you written other stories before Die a Little or is it your first manuscript? Did you collect rejection letters?

M.A.--I’d written stories, but Die a Little was my first complete novel. I got very lucky and found an agent pretty quickly. He never showed me the rejections, which I’m glad for!

## What got you interested in this case (The Song Is You) specifically and when did you decide to write about it? How difficult was it to research?

M.A.--Several years ago, I found a reference to Jean Spangler as one of Hollywood’s unsolved cases and became intrigued. An aspiring actress, gone missing. Rumors of gangster boyfriends and dates with movie stars. And one day, just gone. I found a lot of coverage of the case in LA newspapers of the time. Then, with no leads, the stories just stopped. I tracked down one of her movies, called The Miracle of the Bells. She’s on screen for just a few seconds. She’s witnessing the “miracle” of the title and she has this extremely frightened look on her face. Watching it while knowing what happened to her, I felt these chills up my spine. I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I began researching. Her story was so sad, this working single mother struggling to make ends meet, dancing in revues and taking any part that came her way. Plus, I’ve always been interested in people who seem to lead two lives. Here Jean Spangler was, living in close quarters with her five-year-old daughter, sister-in-law and mother—and then she has this whole other life: dating Kirk Douglas, Mickey Cohen’s goons, big shots, all taking her to these nightclubs on the Sunset Strip. Then, there’s all these compelling details about her actual disappearance, her abandoned purse with a mysterious note, all that. So it was both this small, very sad tale and also the most sensational of lost-Hollywood-girls stories.

## Were you able to obtain access to police files? (Or is that impossible since the case is still open?)

M.A.--Were I writing a nonfiction book, I would have started there, but that wasn’t my purpose. The real-life story was just the jumping off point to me. I was really interested in the idea of the unsolved case, how drawn we are to it. Because it’s still an essentially blank slate, we can fill it with anything. Somehow that “anything” becomes ourselves. And when it’s a Hollywood case, it’s all the more resonant because, for better or worse, we look to Hollywood to tell us stories about ourselves, to reflect back to us what we are in a larger-than-life form.

## How much of the book is based on true facts and how much is complete fiction?

M.A.--Only the basics of her disappearance are “true”: her last encounters at home, the purse found in Griffith Park a few days later, the note found inside. The rest is fiction.

## Were you at all tempted to write a true crime book instead?

M.A.--No, the story spoke to the novel-writing part of my brain, not the analytical part. Though I’d really like to write a true crime book some day.

## Because the case (in The Song is You) is still unsolved and still open, you needed to give it a slightly different ending, I guess, to satisfy the readers. How many different scenarios, for the ending, did you try before deciding on this one, or was it the only one from the start?

M.A.--I always knew what the ending would be. Endings usually emerge for me early on and then I just work my way towards them.

## My favorite character of yours is probably Gloria Denton: she’s an intelligent, beautiful, cunning and dangerous woman. She could easily be Bugsy Siegel’s Virginia and I could visualize Cate Blanchett playing her (even though she’s probably too young). How do you create a character like her, with the right amount of subtlety so that you don’t fall into clichés? And who was your inspiration for her?

M.A.--I think you avoid the cliché once you start to love your characters. I just fell in love with her. Virginia Hill was a big inspiration, but I think Gloria’s more in control of herself, shrewder and more of a strategist. As much as I’ve been able to piece together through her biography and other sources, Hill was not a cautious woman and not a careful one. It’s one of the fascinating things about Hill—that she lasted as long as she did, despite that. But I wanted Gloria to be utterly disciplined. And I wanted her to be both a mystery (we only see her through the narrator’s eyes, and she is young and unwise) and very real. Not a cartoon. Another strong influence was Angelica Huston’s performance in The Grifters. But with more power.

## When reading your stories, I feel that the female characters have the potential inside themselves to be someone else, but at the same time, that there’s a certain feeling of doom to their lives. As if they can’t escape who they are nor what their destiny is, even while changes occur in themselves --and in their lives. Is destiny a theme you think about or is it just part of the stories and very secondary to the plot?

M.A.--That’s interesting—I don’t feel the doom. When I think about it now, in all my books, the protagonist survives and sometimes even thrives. They all come out of the rabbit hole. There’s a resilience there that is rather staggering in the face of the dark corners in which they find themselves.

## You’ve received the Edgar Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year for this book. How important are awards and recognition, do you care at all?

M.A.--It’s just marvelous to receive recognition from other writers. Or anyone. It’s a lonely, isolating profession and I’m hopelessly eager for any hint that anyone’s read anything I’ve written, much less liked it.

## At the start of your novels, the heroines are usually cute, naïve and pure. As the story progresses, they develop into these sexy, complex and uninhibited women who learn about the darkness they never knew existed inside themselves. Would it be right to say that the stories are adult coming-of-age noir stories, because these women are going through a very important transition period?                                                               
M.A.--I guess all stories are coming-of-age stories, in a way. In Bury Me Deep, the heroine, Marion, is by far my least worldly character, but she has so much going on behind her eyes, it’s staggering. I think that too often we confuse naïveté with simplicity, but one does not equal the other. Frequently the most sordid folks are also the most basic, and the wallflowers are filled with twisty desires and dark secrets.                                                
## This is definitely the most gruesome of your books so far, but at the same time you manage to keep it almost matter-of-fact because, in a way, the violence is a last resort and by accident even. How much difficult to write are violent scenes compared to the other ones?
M.A.--It's funny because in dealing with the Winnie Ruth Judd "Trunk Murderess" case, you have to deal with the gruesome facts of the way the bodies were concealed--in trunks. I had this dilemma in terms of keeping the story from edging toward ultra-violence or horror. But it was easier than I thought it might be because in so many ways it was the least violent of my books. As you say, the crime itself was just an accident. The hardest part to write was nailing the emotional pitch of the argument leading up to the act. I revised and revised to try to get it right. We have to believe violence could suddenly erupt. We have to believe the emotional relationships are just that heightened, waiting to explode.

## With this book, it is clear that a true crime account would have been difficult to write because of the many conflicting versions and uncertain chain of events that lead to the deaths. What are the options available to you that were most difficult to choose from, and did you try to write a straight story without judging if she was guilty or not?
M.A.--Early on, I was influenced in large part by the re-creation offered by Jana Bommersbach in her nonfiction book on the case. And, once I had my protagonist, Marion, in my head, I just knew what she would and wouldn’t do. I approach it instinctually rather than intellectually or even logically. Once Marion was in the room with her two friends, I knew exactly what would happen and what she would do. It’s not speculation about what Winnie Ruth Judd did. It’s a separate thing entirely.

## The ending is different in your book than in the real story; was that a decision based on wanting to make it more interesting for the main character, for you, for the readers, or was it just to give the story a different twist?

M.A.--Truly, it was a function of the characters I’d created. I followed them.

## What is the intention when you write a crime story inspired by a true case; are you more interested in creating a version of what possibly happened, or do you mainly want to entertain readers with an interesting story?

M.A.--Neither, I guess. I get inspired, intrigued, fixated, and then I let my head take me where it may. The novel’s arc is about a commitment to character and storytelling, not real-life. Were I to write a nonfiction book, however, that would all change.

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” –William Faulkner

## What is better: creating a great character or a great plot?

M.A.--I don’t think you can have one without the other. They feed each other.

## How much thought do you put into naming your characters?

M.A.--A great deal. I often change their names many times before hitting on the right one. For Queenpin, I never could come up with one for the narrator and by the time I realized I need to settle on one, I was so far in, I just couldn’t give her one. So she doesn’t have one. And it suited her character. She’s so young and not yet fully formed—she’s really whatever anyone calls her: cutie pie, sugar face, doll.

## Your research probably rely heavily on texts, documents and such, more than on discussions with people from the era you write about; you can’t really call a cop or detective and ask aspects of their work. How do you proceed and how much time do you put into researching? 

M.A.--Quite a bit of time. I wouldn’t want to count the hours lost on following endless research trails. I love to poke around in old things—tabloid articles from the 1950s, out-of-print true crime books, photo collections. I get lost in it, but it really helps me find the world of each book. Then I put it all aside when I start writing.

## The world, its people and its events, every day can influence and inspire a writer, but when you write about a past era, where do you get, or how do you replace, this kind of inspiration?

M.A.--I think it’s the same whether it’s now or 1931. You feel things for people, you experience pain and loss, you fight yourself. That all goes into the books, regardless of era.

## Even now, in the 21st Century, New York city must be very inspiring to someone writing about past eras; what are the places there that inspire you the most?

M.A.-- Old bars. Boxing bars, sailor bars. Some of the hotel lounges that have been less touched and worked over. A few old-school restaurants. Not much is left here, but the places that are still around—well, you can feel a million stories squeaking through every floorboard. When I’m in other places, it’s the creaky emporiums and five and dimes. They don’t last in New York, but they do in other places. The energy in New York also always inspires. The sense of life just shuddering under your fingertips all the time.

## When a story is entirely created from scratch, do you develop your characters before you start the actual story or is it an un-going process while you write the book?

M.A.-- Both. I start out with ideas about them, but they also change as the story goes. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t really be a story. I’m a big believer in the idea that characters need to move, change, transform. It’s an awful cliché, but I buy it.

## Do you fuss a lot over words and sentences, rhythms, etc? Do you find it difficult to edit your own writings?

M.A.--I fuss endlessly. And I edit a lot. I really work on a sentence level to the point of ridiculousness. I want to feel and sound just so. If one word is off, one comma, it drives me crazy. It’s not a great neurosis, but I’m stuck with it.

## How did you find the experience of editing other writers for the Busted Flush Press anthology “A Hell of a Woman”?

M.A.--It was so much fun. First, working with a great publisher, Busted Flush Press, and then getting to solicit so many of my favorite writers, asking them to contribute stories. Each day, I’d get these wonderful tales, these dark beauties in my email box, from SJ Rozan, Alison Gaylin, Vin Packer, Christa Faust and on and on.

## Do you write many drafts or do you re-write chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, etc?

M.A.-- Both.

## What do you find most difficult in writing a book: the first line, the research, the rewrites, etc?

M.A.--Rewrites. I lose the thread and it can be hard to get it back. It’s very hard for me, when I feel it’s finished, to go in and make changes, especially structural changes. It feels like I’m taking a sledgehammer and putting it through the floor beneath me. But it almost always makes it better.

## When do you write short stories; in-between novels or whenever you need a change of pace? How different is your writing process for those?

M.A.--When I’m asked, really, but I find them a very different animal. You have count on different things—less on atmosphere and character and more on structure, which is not natural to me. Writing them takes me a great deal of time and I think I just prefer the longer form.

## What sort of schedule do you keep most of the time?

M.A.--I write Fridays through Sundays to accommodate my weekday job. I sit at the computer most of the day on those days. It’s the only way. I can sit for four hours and only generate a few lines, but I couldn’t have written those lines without the four hours.

## What is the best environment and atmosphere to write in?

M.A.--Mostly, I can only write at home, on my own computer. Occasionally I get an idea on the subway, or some other unexpected place, and I’ll jot down a few sentences, a phrase, an idea. But I have never been able to write on tour or in other people’s homes, etc.

“The future ain’t what it used to be” –Yogi Berra

## Are there more true stories that you’d like to write about as novels?

M.A.--I’m always on the lookout. There’s always a few I keep on the backburner, but I try not to force them. I thought about the Winnie Ruth Judd case for years before deciding to take it on.

## I’ve read that you are writing a contemporary story narrated by a 13-year old character; will it be a Y.A. book and what can you tell about the story? (The End of Everything)

M.A.--No, it won’t be a YA book. It’s about a girl’s disappearance and it’s set in the suburbs, a world of backyards, porch screens, crickets, little girls in swimsuits. Very different for me in terms of setting, but it definitely feels of a piece with my other books.

## You’ve already received many awards and accolades for someone who has published ‘only’ four novels so far (five with The End of Everything). Does it affect your creative process and do you feel more pressure to “perform”, to prove that you can sustain the quality?

M.A.--Not exactly. As with all of us in this business, I’m just trying to survive. You can’t ignore the changes in the world of print media and it’s a pressure on all of us. You feel it.

## You obviously feel a strong connection with the first half of the 20th Century; do you sometimes feel out of place in the 21st century?  

M.A.--No, but I always feel the tug of the past.

“To say goodbye is to die a little” –Raymond Chandler (The Long Goodbye)

## What are your favorite crime novel and movie about NYC?

M.A.--Dope by Sara Gran and, for movies, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

## Which one of your books would you most want to see as a movie?

M.A.--The Song Is You because it’s such a Hollywood tale.

## Can you name two books you wished you’d written? And why?

M.A.--It’s hard to pick, but let’s say Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, pitch perfect from beginning to end, and The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford because I don’t know how he did. It’s a jewelbox of a book, and a heartbreaker at that. I’d read that Joan Didion read it over again every year and I can see why.

## If I could ask them, what would your female lead characters have to say about the life you gave them?

M.A.--I hope they’d thank me, in the end. And I did give them great clothes and charming men, right?

## Last question is one that I ask every writer I interview: If there’s a crime novel written and you are the main character, what would be the first sentence of the book, and how would your character die?

M.A.--First line: “She couldn’t help herself.” And how would I die? Hmm. I think I’d try to keep me alive—is that an option?

##We wouldn’t want it any other way, of course!

You can visit Megan Abbott at 
August 2011

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