The Great Bravura
(She Writes Press, 2015)
Jill Dearman is the author of Bang the Keys, and has just come out with her début novel, The Great Bravura. Her award-winning short prose has been published in New York Stories, North Atlantic Review, the Portland Review, Lilith, and numerous other publications. As a journalist, her work has appeared in publications, including New York Daily News, Publishers Weekly, Time Out New York, and Punk Magazine. She served for a decade as a part-time Professor of Journalism at New York University. In The Great Bravura, Dearman plants readers in a noirish and fantastical late-1940s New York City, where gay marriage is presented just as matter-of-factly as it is today. Bravura is a magician caught in a deadly love triangle, when her assistant and former bedmate Susie actually disappears during the classic “Disappearing Box” act, and the performer becomes the prime suspect. Bravura, however, fears it is her enigmatic new love Lena who may have used dark magic to get rid of Susie. Dearman infuses the classic noir plot with explorations of art and metaphysics, all with a light touch and language full of musical verve. In the tradition of classic noir authors from the ’30s and ’40s she mixes high and low art in a way that feels eternal and yet relevant to our times. Recently, Jill sat down to discuss noir with Robert Polito.
Robert Polito (Rail): Congratulations on your terrific new novel, The Great Bravura. Each of your chapters is titled after a classic noir (or noirish) film—Leave Her to Heaven, Detour, Dark Passage, among many others—is this ambience, atmosphere? Or do you want us to reflect on the specific films as we read the chapters?
Jill Dearman: I thought about the words in the film titles as pieces of a poetic puzzle, not direct references to the film plots. But I do like the thought that readers might be curious enough to seek out these particular movies. I wanted each chapter in the book to contain that feeling of brutal inevitability, which for me is a lot of the pull of the noir sensibility. There’s a feeling that runs through almost all noir stories that strongly suggests a character struggling hopelessly against the forces of fate.
Rail: What drew you to your late-1940s setting?
Dearman: My secretary mother loved “women’s pictures;” and my taxi-driver father was a fan of men’s pictures—gritty, violent tales of regular guys who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing, and often not knowing why. It was interesting to see how sometimes their tastes overlapped in films (and books) like Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity, Nightmare Alley. Through hearing my parents’ passionate connection to these stories, and then seeing and reading them myself, I guess that era seeped into my consciousness very deeply.
I also did my strongest work on the book during the worst period of my life—when my wife Anne was suffering from Stage IV ovarian cancer. We had a new baby; Anne had to have an eleven-hour surgery, followed soon after by chemo upon chemo. Always bad news. But our family was so tight, and our love so strong, somehow we still managed to experience great joy on a daily basis. About three months into Anne’s illness I remember doing some editing work for a client at my old “office”—the now-closed Tea Lounge in Brooklyn—and I thought, “If I don’t return to my own writing I’ll go crazy.” I had started a nonfiction piece about my wife’s cancer, but that was too spooky and real.
I decided to use a simple exercise from my writing book, Bang the Keys, and basically asked myself “What do you really want to write?” Bravura instantly came to mind. I hadn’t touched the story in a decade but I was eager to escape into a fantastical world. By this point in my writing and reading life, I had become so steeped in noir literature (in part thanks to my reading of your American Crime Novels books!) that I knew that had to be the tone and voice for this novel. I didn’t want anything set in the here and now as that was too bleak a place for my imagination to roam. The ’40s of the noir books and films I loved seemed like the perfect era to escape into.
I should say that Anne died in July 2013, twenty-seven months after her diagnosis, and I dedicated the book to her. She was a tough but tender noir broad—Joan Bennett as the world-weary but romantic secretary in The Scar (originally Hollow Triumph) mixed with Ella Raines as the tomboy yet va-va-voom gas-station owner in Impact; she had those same incredible blue-gray eyes.
Rail: So the novel possesses a secret personal story inside it—that’s intensely moving. With all the movie invocations, it sounds like you came to noir mostly through movies—or was it through reading the classic noir fiction writers?
Dearman: Like so many avid cinephiles, I sought out the original source material—the novels, or stories—to better flesh out the interior lives of the characters in the movies I loved. And, like most noir characters, I am driven by obsession and can’t get enough. I am always tracking down more classic, and especially, “lost,” noir fiction. I have read and studied a vast amount of the novels that a good number of the films in the noir canon are based upon. The mood in the novels feels to me much darker than in the films—and the films can be pretty dark!
Rail: I agree—despite a few grand exceptions, such as Detour. Your book summons both historical and fictional characters. Did you find that mixing complicated?
Dearman: Once I chose the right ones the mix seemed natural. I experimented with Orson Welles in one version, but he just didn’t fit in—too much of a “white elephant,” as Manny Farber would say. The surrealist painters Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo are both dear to my heart, and I have a sort of negative fascination with George Gurdjieff, who some think of as a pioneering spiritual teacher, and others see as a cult leader, a charlatan. I made them into parent figures for Lena—the object of Bravura’s obsession—because she seemed to embody the sensibility of a surrealist artist and a spiritual fanatic. Bravura’s problem is that she is lacking the fanaticism of these characters. She can’t fully commit to the world of real life or the world of magic. There’s a short scene from Bravura’s childhood when she meets Aleister Crowley, the charismatic and amoral occultist, at a party her father, Señor Bravura, has taken her to. Her father is clearly competitive with Crowley. Bravura is ambitious, but her desire for love is bigger than any worldly goal. The mixing of the characters was all about figuring out the dynamics between them.
Rail: What was your research, then, if any? When you presented a historical character, were you thinking you had to get this right, the way a biographer would, or were there other more vital considerations?
Dearman: I definitely approached the characters from a novelist’s point of view, not a biographer’s, but I read and viewed as much history and source material as I could. Mainly, I wanted to bring humor to their characters, because they all were so original and had such black, mischievous senses of humor. All of the real-life figures I chose had remarkable style. I tried to help the reader see and hear them in a visceral, sensory way.
Rail: Over the past decade or so, we are seeing a rediscovery of many women noir writers—one of many notable instances is the great new Library of America: Women Crime Writers set, with Vera Caspary, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy B. Hughes, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, and others. This rediscovery is incredibly important and exciting. Do you see The Great Bravura in that tradition?
Dearman: That would certainly be an honor. I remember hearing Susan Sontag speak just after 9/11 when I was employed as a part-time Professor of Journalism at New York University. She said something to the effect of, even to this day, when she sits down to write she tries to please the authors who moved her most deeply when she was young: Kafka and Blake, as well as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—the great Russian writers. That was how I felt when I wrote this book. I wanted to honor the tradition of these great noir writers I love, in particular the women, who had to be more subversive than the men.
Rail: Your book focuses mainly on three women. How do you view them against the backdrop of the various ways women are portrayed in noir films and fiction?
Dearman: Well, I definitely see Bravura as the traditionally male protagonist, who follows her passion into a place of doom. But she also has a little bit of working-class Mildred Pierce in her, and the title character in the posthumously released James M. Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress. She is also obsessed with work, similar to Henry Mueller, the criminal protagonist in Murray Forbes’s novel Hollow Triumph, who works harder than he ever has in his life when he steals the identity of a renowned psychiatrist.
Susie, in my novel, is very much like the gal Friday, best friend, the comedic role found in many noirs, and like them she is undone by the person she trusts most.
Lena, whom Bravura marries, appears to be the classic femme fatale. But when I read Detour, the Martin Goldsmith novel upon which the film was based, I got an idea for how to deepen her character (as well as Susie’s), not just show them from Bravura’s stilted point of view.
I noticed that about two thirds of the novel was told from the first person point of view of Alex (Al in the film), and the rest by his sweetheart Sue. While reading it I was pleasantly surprised to see that Sue was not just a one-dimensional star-struck waitress who hoofed it to Hollywood to make it big. Instead she was a savvy judge of Alex’s flaws, and a complex, fully sexual woman herself. And her voice was completely her own. I decided to try fleshing out both Susie and Lena by dedicating about a third of my novel to their respective points of view. I knew that voice would be key.
The language of noir is so musical. It’s interesting that when I came back to my novel during Anne’s illness, there was practically only one pop artist whose music I could listen to: Lana Del Rey. She had an album called Born to Die, which came out in 2012. Her whole oeuvre is actually pretty influenced by film noir and metaphysics, according to what she’s said, and I found her spirit quite kindred. I love music, but other than classical and jazz without words, I couldn’t deal with regular pop music anymore because the love songs were suddenly too gut-wrenching. Lana Del Rey’s songs were pure in their portrayals of love but also twisted—not for the sake of being twisted, but in a noir way—a way that shows that human nature and sexual passion are not ruled by the rational part of the mind, and that the threat of death informs everything. Like a religious fanatic, the archetypal noir character’s heart wants what it wants and will not be talked out of her obsession, no matter what the cost.
Another significant element of the puzzle is that Bravura is a Jew, as was Alexander Roth in the novel version of Detour. In the film he is white washed into “Al Roberts.” The director Edgar Ulmer was Jewish as well, and like many of the great European emigre directors of that era he was also quite scholarly—classical music was his passion—and appeared influenced by the Frankfurt School of philosophy and critical theory of the Inter-War period. Ulmer remained ill at ease in the world of western capitalism, yet never fully satisfied by eastern Marxism either. He was basically blacklisted within the Hollywood system—for the oldest reason: having an affair with the wife of the nephew of the boss at Universal Studios! In both novel and film versions of Detour, Alexander/Al is a wandering Jew, traveling east to west. I see Bravura in a similar way.
When Bravura and Lena marry, a rabbi performs the ceremony (albeit a most magical and non-traditional one). And Mama (Bravura’s mother) makes reference to her on-the-lam husband’s obsession with the Leopold & Loeb murder case—which took place in the 1920s when Bravura was just a baby. The iconic Chicago “thrill killers” were rich, highly educated Jewish university students—prodigies. Bravura however relates more to the working class Harry Houdini, née Ehrich Weiss.
Mama is probably the most important woman in Bravura’s life, and their relationship is written in the spirit of Lilly and Roy Dillon, the mother-and-son criminals in Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. We don’t often see an overly romantic, amorous relationship between a mother and daughter hinted at in a noir novel. I wanted to explore that possibility. I remember reading the biography of Anne Sexton, the great poet, beauty, and alcoholic, who had an incestuous relationship with her daughter Linda Gray Sexton—and it stayed with me for years and years after.
Rail: When LGBT characters appeared in older noir fiction, often (though not always) they were sensationalized in reductive and appalling ways. Did you have any different sorts of literary models as you wrote The Great Bravura?
Dearman: It’s funny because Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of my favorite novels, and Tom Ripley is quite queer. Whatever the sexual orientation, I always love a story about a striving poor boy (or girl), clawing upwards, for the privileges the rich take for granted. However, as I delved deeper into Bravura I saw that it was the desire for love that drove her unconscious, and a deep sexual obsession that dictated her actions. Bravura (whom I invented in 1995—first in a play—at New York City’s Westbeth Theatre), has always been a woman, but a woman who was very aware of being equally composed of a female and a male disposition. Highsmith often wrote male protagonists who were obsessed with women. I had the freedom to show a woman obsessed with a woman. But I wanted to make that love—even the marriage they enter into—a matter-of-fact part of the novel. Over these past twenty years, of course, gay marriage has become more of a matter of fact possibility, and now a legal reality. Talk about surreal!
Rail: Noir for me involves phantasmagoria as much as what is often called realism. Your book summons magic, mysticism, and surrealism—how do you see the role of those realms in the novel?
Dearman: It’s a delicate balance. In early drafts of the novel the surrealism was more Fellini-esque. Later on I brought a lot of my own interests in metaphysics and the art of the surrealists into the fabric of the book. But without the grounding of the earthy world of noir realism the story would’ve been too secondary. I had to put these characters in a concrete setting, and being what I would call “a New York provincial” (someone who was born and raised in New York City and has never lived anywhere else!), I wanted to use New York as a kind of character as well.
Still, I tend to walk around with an internal world that is very informed by metaphysical interests. Language is often the key for me in discovering truth. In Jewish mysticism there is a belief that the Hebrew letters themselves contain primordial meanings that encode the meaning of the universe. Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Aleph” was a great role model for me as a writer. He named the story after the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and captured that desire for metaphysical truth, but through language and storytelling that is precise and down-to-earth.
I’ve always had an interest in high and low art. I appreciated your reader’s guide to James Merrill’s epic poem “The Changing Light at Sandover,” which, because of the heft of the artists involved (Merrill himself, filmmaker Maya Deren) is considered high art. But its séance-style subject matter would be considered low art in different hands. Those different hands include a lot of the 1970s supernatural potboilers and TV movies that I loved as a child!
Sometimes when I was stuck while writing I would sit down and improvise on the piano. In Jewish mysticism, there is thought to be a twenty-third letter that follows the traditional twenty-two letters of the formal Hebrew alphabet. Some call it “the missing letter.” It’s impossible-to-name sound that fills the void in the universe. The breath of life in other cultures. I think of it as the pause that we “hear” yet don’t hear in music. Noir contains a lot of that silent invisible presence. Noir is impossible to define in an absolute way, yet oftentimes it is the musicality of it—the jazzy American riffing, mixed with the wild id-driven and idiosyncratic exploration of the irrationality of human nature that the French existentialists wrote about so eloquently—that makes us recognize a work of fiction or film as truly “noir.”
ROBERT POLITO is the author of many books of poetry and nonfiction, including Hollywood & God and Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. He is a Professor of Writing at the New School.