MEGAN ABBOTT with Cullen Gallagher
Well-versed in the heritage of all things hardboiled and noir, Megan Abbott repositions the archetypical gender roles in a decidedly postmodern way. However, she is not at all dismissive of tradition; instead, what is so fascinating about her work is the way she is able to convincingly inhabit the bygone world of pulp fiction as realized by Horace McCoy, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler, while maintaining her own independent identity. Deconstructing—and reconstructing—the mythology of noir, Abbott’s latest book, Bury Me Deep (Simon & Schuster), captures its quintessence: the knowledge that we’re doomed tinged with the anxiety of our own complicity.
Cullen Gallagher (Rail): Unlike Dashiell Hammett (who never graduated from high school), you received a PhD from NYU, and your first book published was an academic study of noir literature called The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. Has this scholarly work affected your subsequent fiction novels?
Megan Abbott: The crux of the study was that the rise of hardboiled fiction and film noir in mid-century reflected a white male anxiety about a loss of stature and power at that time, coming out of the depression and then into World War II. Especially in the post-war experience, there’s a sense of an embattled white masculinity. And the books would seem to, from the outside, re-empower men because they show a very strong white man with a gun in his hand who can fix the world’s problems on his own. When you look more closely, however, I think they reflect the anxiety more than the solution—because they’re filled with neurotic men suffering madly and unable to control themselves.
I don’t think I would be writing the novels I write had I not read so many of the classic, hardboiled pulp books all in a row. I basically created my dissertation topic so I would get to read them. There’s that pure saturation when you read them back-to-back-to-back-to-back. They sort of infect you. I think the rest of it—my analytical study of the books—has no relation at all to the fiction I write.
Rail: Your first three books all take place in the 1950s, and your new one is in the 1930s, which is really the heyday of the crime fiction pulps. Is there no connection?
Abbott: I’m sure there is. This was not intentional, but it was probably the absence of certain kinds of women from those books that made me want to write those kinds of women in that time period. But I would say that’s the most direct connection. It was to write women into those books in a way that didn’t feel just like spider-women. There are two parts of my brain that I don’t want to meet. I don’t want to apply my analytical approach to my writing. I think my books would be terrible if I did that, and I have trouble even thinking about them after I’ve written them in an analytical way, even though everything else I read I think about in an analytical way. I try to keep the processes very distinct.
Rail: Cultural history is central to your work, particularly Bury Me Deep. What is the story behind it?
Abbott: Like all my books in one way or another, the new one is based on a true crime. It’s a very famous story because it’s one of the few examples of a murderess from the 1930s. Winnie Ruth Judd was accused of murdering her two best girlfriends, chopping them up, and stuffing them in a trunk. I read two books about her—Winnie Ruth Judd: The Trunk Murders by J. Dwight Dobkins and Robert J. Hendricks and The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd by Jana Bommersbach—and they were just fascinating. The case is much more complicated than it first appeared and speaks a lot about the status of a young woman on her own in the early 1930s America. The real life case was in Phoenix in 1931, when the city was on the rise but still a half Wild West town. It reminded me of a place that Dashiell Hammett would write about, sort of a Red Harvest locale where a group of men “own it,” but the population hasn’t gotten big enough to challenge their ownership. She was a victim of that system in many ways, so I wanted to write a novel about it because I wanted to change the ending. Winnie Ruth Judd had a complicated history of incarceration that was very interesting, but I didn’t want to write it that way. I wanted to write it as a Horace McCoy or James Cain kind of prairie-crime novel.
Rail: Whose perspective do you tell it from?
Abbott: It’s from her perspective, but it’s not first person. It’s close third-person, as they say. She was unstable, so it has this weird fevered quality that took over. I read her confession letter and some diary fragments, and she had a really unique voice that felt very much like those Pre-Code movies you see from the 1930s. People don’t speak that way any more. It’s that half very formal, half very slangy language that you see a lot in the 30s, right before the era of mass media when the language flattened out and became universal. So it was a very idiosyncratic way of speaking and writing.
Rail: Would you consider her a femme fatale?
Abbott: It’s funny, because not at all! But absolutely if the book had been written from the perspective of the man she becomes involved with, that’s exactly how it would have worked out. She’s a woman who comes to town, finds a nice married man with children, and ruins his life.
Rail: The artwork to your novels, all by Richie Fahey, really carries the torch of the heyday of the pulps. How did you become affiliated with him (and is that Gloria Grahame I see in the cover of Bury Me Deep)?
Abbott: To me it’s always Gloria Grahame! Richie is just a genius. He actually stages photoshoots so he gets models and for this one, for Bury Me Deep, he had to find models that had 1930s bodies, which are really different. He has trouble getting women that don’t have yoga bodies which are muscle and lean, and he needed to get thin, rounded women like Joan Blondell. He treats it as an exercise in pulp history in many ways, and he stages the scenes like an old Hollywood photo shoot and then paints over the photos. He reads the book first, he does research, and if there is a gun he makes sure he has an actual version of that gun. For Bury Me Deep he got a steamer trunk. For him it is a real time travel experience and I think the covers reflect that passion he has for the accoutrement of the period. For the publisher, the cover reflects a lot of business decisions. I didn’t pick Richie, but I would have if I had any choice. My editor found him and it was the perfect match. There are a lot of authors I know that have horror stories about covers, and if you have a certain degree of success your name is the cover, and the covers lose all artistic integrity altogether. So there’s a very big split between how I view the cover, or how I view them as a reader, and their purpose in the marketplace.
Rail: Do you see any current links between contemporary crime fiction and present day politics, or can you make any predictions?
Abbott: If you think about what’s most popular now, which would probably be forensic crime novels, I think it speaks to a desire for order. Noir fiction will never have that kind of popularity, but it remains a steady currency within crime fiction because there’s always a feeling of disenfranchisement. And the current economic situation is going to breed a lot of books like Thompson and Goodis. I feel a wave of that coming. There’s a lot of class rage going on, the kind that Hammett would write about. You can think about Hammett and the response to the recent fall of Wall Street, and you can see a lot of fat cat anger and hostility. There’s also a fear of a loss of identity, and it’s been going on for some time now, but it’s increasing. And there are lots of techno thrillers that are big now, and they speak to that same concern. People like to think of crime fiction as an escape, but it’s never really been an escape at all.
CULLEN GALLAGHER is a freelance critic and curator who lives in Brooklyn.