“How many of you still play with dolls?”
Depending on our moods: We rolled our eyes; we buried our burning faces in our arms; we groaned; we shrieked; we wished to be elsewhere; we were present.
In the exact middle of eighth grade (the season in which cold, gray rain sweeps across Northern California) we heard a speech in euphemism. We (the Marymount plaid-plastered hoard of girls I had been enmeshed in since I was 9, the girls who hugged and cried and tried to cut off one another’s prettiest braids with safety scissors in moments of hideous envy) were eating our lunches at our desks as our principal stood before us. I must have been eating a liverwurst sandwich—I know this because I was crazy about liverwurst for most of that year. Eventually, I learned that this was a bad way to distinguish myself, so I stopped.
Around that time, I began to believe that a woman should tailor her existence so that each detail of herself is optimally alluring. If I saw a woman in a Wes Anderson movie place yellow binoculars on a red desk, I processed this aesthetic choice as a reflection of her worthiness and her ability to be permanently stylish. I thought that if I were able to arrange myself accordingly, some stray ephemeral beauty might drift toward me, too. Then, life would be sunny and warm.
Anyway, the detail of a liverwurst and cheese sandwich has never been used as a symbol of a woman’s alluring, monochromatic essence. This type of sandwich is the mark of a target, of a person whose state of being is not neatly tailored; it is a state of being that reeks of liver breath.
Mrs. Mollan, our principal, was monochromatic in a beige way: She had a sandy blond bob; she wore tan cardigans and straw-colored shoes. She told me once that she’d always wanted to be a librarian or a school teacher. At age 14, this sentiment reminded me of It’s a Wonderful Life and the alternate reality in which Mary Bailey becomes a librarian because she is an old maid. I had this idea that women from a certain time were forced to choose from a slim, creaky list of career paths. Even if they distinguished themselves, I thought, these women were disappointing because they had found success in a field that was dictated to them. I wasn’t sure who dictated what, but I was convinced that choosing between becoming a librarian or a teacher felt like a certain type of cage.
Years later, I thought I might like to either become a teacher or a librarian. When I was 14 I did not understand anything more subtle than a neon sign and I am not unique in that.
Mrs. Mollan said, “My youngest son has always had the same best friend. Last week, they both came over for dinner. I asked my son’s friend if he was dating anyone. He said, ‘I’m seeing this new girl.’ So I said, ‘Well, what is she like? Is she going to bring you home to her parents? Will you bring her home to your parents?’’’
We’d skipped the chapter in our religion book that mentioned sex. I read it anyway; it was really about pregnancy. It described the gift of life alongside a few scenarios featuring girls in trouble. Love applied to God, life applied to babies, and the mechanics belonged to a nothingness that was instinct.
“Do you know what my son’s friend said when I asked him about his girlfriend?” We shook our heads. “He laughed! He said, ‘I would never bring her home to my mother. She’s not that type of girl.’”
Mrs. Mollan said, “Keep playing with dolls. Act your age. You don’t want to be that type of girl. You have 15 minutes left for lunch outside.”
We were released. That was all the sex ed we got.
We stampeded from the classroom. The boys in our class asked us why we’d been kept inside. We said, “Something stupid.” We were children; we were used to being lectured.
Our school was called St. Lawrence and it was long and flat, the type of school that was spread out instead of built up. It was tucked behind a massive church that had a blank white face; a single round, stained glass cyclops eye; and pillars for teeth. The school lolled out behind the church like a stucco tongue.
There was occasional violence here. Strange kids came to St. Lawrence to hurl limes at us. Neighbors from the adjacent apartments threw rocks. We all laughed at whoever was hit. An elderly man nobody knew wandered around the monthly mass in a priest costume, asking children for hugs. When this made the local news, the school banned him. He began standing by an empty storefront three blocks away, dressed as Santa Claus. Though these inconveniences had always existed, always, we were fascinated by them; we thought they were very new.
If we looked long and hard at certain books, we could trace threads of the mechanics. There was a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever… that circulated among us, but Judy Blume was one of my mother’s favorite authors, so I was unimpressed. I reasoned that anything that had once taught my mother about sex was inherently useless. Plus, the protagonist in Forever… is a girl named Katherine who has long blond hair and symmetrical features; she casually travels to New York City alone to obtain birth control; she is wealthy and white. I felt a rabid jealousy. Answers were hard to find.
I found a different book, one that my mother first told me about in heavily curated snippets: Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. When my mother took a trip to Los Angeles, I snuck the book off her shelf and read it on her square, green bed.
At first, this made me feel as grown as I did when my parents let me have a quarter glass of wine at dinner. It didn’t last: The protagonist, a girl named Susie, is sexually assaulted and killed. Reading that book felt like someone in desperate pain was squeezing my hand.
For years, Susie watches her family from heaven. Eventually, she possesses a woman on earth. Susie uses the woman’s body to approach a man she had loved when they were both children. They have exquisitely healing sex that alleviates Susie’s grief. “While he rested, I kissed him across the line of his backbone and blessed each knot of muscle, each mole and blemish.” The violence ends. It was the first time I learned that sex could repair a broken person, like an epoxy.
Soon enough, my mother handed me her copy of Middlesex; this book held my favorite answers. My closest friends and I fell in love with the protagonist, a girl named Calliope. We learned that Calliope is obsessed with hair removal, she prays to be different (as in: the same as everyone else), and she adores a messy redhead whom she calls “the Obscure Object.”
The Obscure Object is as WASPy and privileged as Katherine in Forever… but she is lazier. She wears shoes with the ends stamped down and shuffles in them like slippers (for months, we copied this as if it were a magic formula for beauty, we compromised many sneakers). The Obscure Object sneaks cigarettes all damn day and later on I tried that, too.
Calliope’s parents and teachers are too prudish to teach her about sex, so she learns by guessing. She guesses that her body is out of her control. She prays for her entire self to morph into an avatar of standard girlishness.
Like Calliope, we prayed—at mass, in class each morning, before bed, alone. There were prayers for money, for God to administer cooler clothes; there was “I’ll be good forever if you change my entire face on the count of five.”
Eventually, Calliope realizes that she is intersex. Her body startles her. Her prayers are meaningless. She lies to her family. She learns to withhold. She has frenzied, loving sex with the Obscure Object. Their sex is also an act of guessing.
Even without instruction, we began to learn. We learned that lying and keeping grand secrets might be a sliver of God’s love and gander. Calliope lies her way out of everything until she gets the courage to run away. Lies held mercy. I also wanted to love redheaded girls who smoked too much. I wanted to run off into a dark, grimy otherness. There were a lot of lies to be told.
Nothing changed immediately. At St. Lawrence, we spent hours watching television shows starring ’80s kids with bowl cuts who praised God in order to resist hand-rolled cigarettes. We sat; we waited; we grew. We read semi-contraband books during Sustained Silent Reading. We were a pile of bodies drifting toward the unspoken (always appearing to act our age). We ruined our sneakers by stamping them into slippers and arranged ourselves precisely.
In 1989, Welsh journalist John Williams crossed the Atlantic. Operating on the theory that crime writers were the best chroniclers of American society, Williams hoped to pinpoint the connections between the real clime and fictional crime. So he talked with the writers.
Williams found out that James Lee Burke’s novels had emerged, in part, because of his love for Louisiana music. Gar Haywood spent his twenties latching onto science fiction’s escapist hatches before confronting the open doors of South Central’s ravaged reality. In 2005, returning for another transcontinental spree of conversational investigations, Williams learned that Vicki Hendricks had used her bodybuilding and scuba diving experience for Ramona Romano, the tough-as-nails Miami nurse in Iguana Love. He also discovered why Daniel Woodrell’s settings were so authentic. “I don’t want to live on the Upper West Side or something,” said Woodrell to Williams. “There is something here for me…I’m just one generation from illiteracy.”
These experiences – originally published as Into the Badlands and later rewritten as Back to the Badlands – helped confirm Williams’s hypothesis. Crime fiction was indeed drawing from vivid personal experience, sometimes working territory that other practitioners wouldn’t touch. But Williams still didn’t ken why the gatekeepers routinely ignored these faithful annalists.
In recent years, crime fiction hasn’t faced the histrionic threat of a Meghan Cox Gurdon declaring that YA books “focusing on pathologies help normalize them,” but it has faced crusty, post-crest condescension from The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella. Yet even Acocella, in her reductionist view of Blomkvist as “anti-masculinist,” had to concede that Stieg Larsson “may have had a weakness for extraneous detail, but at the same time, paradoxically, he is a very good storyteller.”
There’s no paradox about it. There are, in fact, two crime novels on the 1998 Modern Library list of the 20th century’s top 100 novels: James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Even John Banville, who has written many crime novels as Benjamin Black, has called Georges Simenon and Richard Stark (the name with which Donald E. Westlake wrote his remarkable Parker novels) “two of the greatest writers of the 20th century.” Crime fiction is bona-fide literature. Why such reluctance to qualify it further?
Perhaps this failure to encourage the rising crop comes from recent developments in the field, especially those involving women writers. On May 14, 1990, two Newsweek writers had this to say of the mystery landscape: “Call her Samantha Spade or Philipa Marlowe and she would deck you. A tough new breed of detective is reforming the American mystery novel: smart, self-sufficient, principled, stubborn, funny – and female.” While women had been creating such crackling heroines well before 1990 (see Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and others), these gains had been somewhat swift.
Megan Abbott, the author of five striking novels, isn’t merely a natural response to this increasingly progressive atmosphere. While her quintet can be found in the mystery section, and while she has won a well-deserved Edgar Award for a highly entertaining pulp tale of a take-no-shit woman clambering into the casino underworld (Queenpin), Abbott’s novels are distinguished by rhythmic prose, historical settings (in sequential order: 1954, 1949, 1950s, 1931, and the 1980s, with The Song is You and Bury Me Deep taking inspiration from real criminal cases), and a candor about the way people live that isn’t often found in today’s well-groomed posterboys.
Abbott’s protagonists are not professional investigators. The character who comes closest to a true-blue boy in blue is Bill King, a junior investigator in Abbott’s debut novel, Die a Little, who is the brother to Lora, a schoolteacher in 1954 Hollywood concerned about the new woman that Bill has married. In fact, detectives tend to show up in Abbott’s novels at the last possible minute, long after the reader has been presented with some version, often subjective, of the facts. And with the long arm of the law tied behind the world’s back (and very often corrupted), this gives Abbott the focus and the restraint to contort her universe.
Abbott’s sentences are frequently stacked with a stylish repetition telegraphing the schism within action. In The End of Everything, told through Lizzie Hood, a thirteen-year-old girl who has seen her best friend disappear, Abbott writes, “And I thought of Bobby in the front seat of his parents’ cars, his forest green varsity jacket with the chenille C. I thought of him hunched there, gazing up at Dusty’s bedroom window, its frothy curtains, Dusty’s frothy girlness.” Aside from the striking imagery (especially the lovely “chenille C”), we see how the phrase “I thought of” generates two discrete moments: Bobby’s visual image in the first sentence and an effort to affix longing that reverts back to another visual image leading to Dusty. And when the prose reverts from the feeling to the object, Abbott repeats the word “frothy,” suggesting that Lizzie’s thoughts will return to this same visual/emotional cycle.
But her prose is also quite chewy. There is a grab-them-by-the-lapels quality to some sentences which demonstrates why melodrama is sometimes the best method to send a message. Consider this moment from Bury Me Deep, my favorite of the five: “This is what the man with the Adam’s apple thick-knotted in his long neck was singing in Ginny’s ear, plucking at a banjo.” This is told from the perspective of Marion Seeley (based on Winnie Ruth Judd), a woman who ends up in a heap of trouble while estranged from her husband, shirking his duties as doctor and husband by fleeing to Mazatlán. This sentence’s beauty comes from the way it undercuts an intense Adam’s apple twice: both in describing the man with some hyperbole (“thick-knotted in his long neck”) and by appending the phrase “plucking at a banjo.” But it also hints at the horrors ahead.
An author’s understanding of the human condition (to say nothing of how far she is willing to go) is often revealed through the manner in which they write about sex. John Updike, of course, was fond of external sexual imagery. Lionel Shriver’s greatly underrated novel, The Post-Birthday World, succeeds in part because of its attentive detail to sexual position and how it often determines status. But with Abbott, when sex isn’t used for diabolical ends (this is a dark world; so it does), it is often something that is either observed or confessed. And this quality permits the reader to become implicit in the way certain characters judge others. In The Song is You, Abbott has Barbara Payton reveal she’s “such a dumb cluck” just before describing a sexual episode to impress her listeners: “So he backs me into the tub and fucks me for five minutes, my head hitting the faucet over and over again like a freaking knockout bell.” This fictive directness from a real-life public figure is clearly descended from James Ellroy, but, in Abbott’s hands, the anecdote itself carries an odd humorous quality that generates an additional question: why is this the story Payton’s using to impress? In The End of Everything, Abbott employs voyeurism during one moment when Lizzie observes her mother having sex with her new partner, Dr. Aiken (like Bury Me Deep, another doctor as partner): “I want him to turn around, to face her. I want him to look at her.” That Lizzie issues this judgment when neither her mother nor her lovers can see her suggests a certain lack of self-reflection.
Stewart O’Nan (Songs for the Missing), Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), and Michelle Richmond (The Year of Fog) have been called “literary” for their missing girl novels. Why not Abbott’s The End of Everything? Abbott’s ability to tap into tangible teenage experience is equal to O’Nan’s, especially when describing the “body-closeness” of girl get-togethers (“I’d look at my own left thigh and wonder where the white curl went, the scar like a half-moon, a nail dug deep, from falling off Dusty’s Schwinn in second grade.”), detailing a folded-paper game called FLAME, and providing glimpses into “the teen-boy world” (“a world of sweat socks and thumping bass and torn-out magazine photos of bulbous tan breasts and white rabbity teeth and yellow flossy hair”) that elicit an unflinching image of comparative innocence.
Where Sebold and Richmond have compromised their talents by settling for, respectively, sappy late-stage farewells between a dead ghost and her boyfriend and a hypnotist helping a mother to extract abstract details about her daughter’s disappearance, Abbott is too smart a novelist to fumble with bald attempts to play to the bleachers. If Bury Me Deep demonstrates how malicious forces can push a lonely soul into a deepening abyss, The End of Everything examines how tampering with memory and maintaining a quiet solipsism can flick you into the same pit of despair. Abbott’s most recent novel shows a greater willingness than Sebold and Richmond to bury hypocrisies and prevarications within the text. Late in the book, we encounter a bloody incident mimicked in a manner suggesting that Lizzie’s memory is far from fallible. Instead of pursuing neat resolution, Abbott ponders the untidiness of all seemingly “neat” endings. In the end, Lizzie confesses that memories are “self-spun, radiant fictions” – a remarkable statement from a thirteen-year-old girl that you certainly wouldn’t expect from Alice Sebold’s Susie Salmon. If such finesse can’t also be called “literary,” it’s outright criminal.
Most novelists have day jobs, even the published ones whose books get good reviews. Writing is my second career, and one of the very few things that it has in common with my first career—contemporary dance—is the necessity of maintaining secondary employment. I’ve been supporting myself since I was eighteen years old: I’ve made sandwiches and cocktails and uncountable lattés, put price stickers on wine glasses, supervised the unloading of trucks at 7am on Montreal winter mornings, sold everything from clothing to furniture to vases in three cities, run errands for architects, scheduled meetings, designed and coded websites, written reports and managed offices; all the strangely varied occupations that a person accumulates when the primary objective is not to establish a career, per se, but just to pay the rent while they’re working on a novel.
Some of these jobs have been quite pleasant, and it’s nice to able to afford rent and groceries; but the phrase “day job,” of course, implies that one’s passions lie elsewhere.
Striking a balance between writing literary fiction and paying the rent is a constant struggle, and I thought it might be interesting to speak with other writers about it. I approached two novelists who I’m friendly with, Elise Blackwell and Jason Quinn Malott, and they very graciously agreed to talk about their experiences with work for this piece. (I know them in part because we’re all published by Unbridled Books: Elise’s fourth novel, An Unfinished Score, is forthcoming this spring, and Jason’s debut, The Evolution of Shadows, was just published this month.) Hardly a large sample size, but I was interested in getting the perspectives of other writers; I wanted to know if they experienced their day jobs as an impediment, as I generally have, or if they’ve managed to find jobs that have fueled their writing.
Work has most often been an impediment to my writing for the simple reason that it usurps time, but some jobs in my life have been helped by getting me out in the world during periods of introversion, requiring me to interact with—and in some cases know well—people I wouldn’t have added to my life on my own. The best jobs for my writing have been the more social ones (bartending or working in a store) or ones in which I learned a great deal (translating or writing about scholarship). Yet office work and even professional writing/journalism can be deadly, using up a writer’s energy with similar but less creative tasks. It’s hard to stare at a computer screen for 8 or 9 hours and then go home and compose on computer (which is how I mostly write). Perhaps the best job for a writer involves outdoor physical labor with some social interaction: gardening.
My experience has dovetailed with Elise’s to some extent: I think the jobs I’ve liked best have been the ones that had absolutely nothing to do with writing, or with staring at computer screens. In other words, the menial labor: unloading trucks at 7am, unpacking and shelving boxes of merchandise in retail stock rooms, putting price stickers on martini glasses all day. Meditative, repetitive tasks performed in the company of pleasant coworkers; jobs that leave enough of my brain free that I can think all day about the book I’m writing.
Jason had the opposite preference. “The best jobs for me,” he wrote, “have something in common with writing full-time: self-discipline and inner motivation.”
He went on to make an excellent point:
[An] element to the way we all think about the conflict between a day job and writing full-time is that even us writers sometimes fall into the fallacy of thinking of writing as a romantic hobby. A hobby isn’t a job, it’s not work – it’s “recreation.” This is why when we say, “I’m going to quit my job and write full-time,” it sounds so romantic and idyllic. It carries images of getting out of bed late, drinking large mugs of tea or coffee, sitting at a desk in your pj’s, staring at the trees through the window, and playing with your muse… But if we match the language to the reality, the phrase would actually read this way:
“I’m going to quit working and work full-time.”
That doesn’t sound romantic at all does it? And, if you talk to full-time, un-famous writers they’ll confirm just how unromantic writing full-time is.
He’s right, of course. Writing is hard labor, and there’s nothing romantic about it.
At a dinner some months ago, I found myself discussing the problem of earning a living with a couple of other writers. One of them—a mystery writer who writes full time—said something that surprised me: when he wrote his fiction, he said, he felt that he was drawing on experiences that he’d had before he’d quit his day job thirty-five years earlier.
There was a note of wistfulness in his voice that struck me. My sense was that his life as a writer was somewhat isolated. It was interesting to think of work as something that might help one’s writing, rather than as an uncomfortable but unavoidable impediment to it. What secret purposes might our day jobs serve, aside from the obvious advantages of being able to put dinner on the table?
Franz Kafka was a bureaucrat, and his professed hatred of his job has been well documented. But what’s more interesting about him, at least to me, was the way he used his job as an alibi.
When he began his career at the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka worked twelve-hour shifts and found it almost impossible to write. But two years later, after a promotion at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute, he was put on a one-shift system that required him to work only from 8:30am to 2:30pm each day. And yet even with that enviable schedule, he somehow managed to avoid writing till 11pm—he frittered away the late afternoon and early evening hours with exercises, lunch, a nap, dinner with his parents, an hour or two or more of writing letters or writing in his diary. In his biography of Kafka, Louis Begley wrote that “[h]aving the Institute and the conditions at his parents’ apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn’t write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem.”
Awful to not have time to write because of your job. We’ve all been there. But how much worse would it be to have time to write, and yet not be able to? It’s easy to argue that Kafka’s day job was part of what made his writing possible. I suspect that any number of writers depend on their day jobs in this manner, whether we’re conscious of it or not: it’s true that your job prevents you from writing, by virtue of the fact that it takes up your time, but it’s also something to hide behind when the writing isn’t going well.
“I would quit my day job,” Jason Quinn Malott wrote, “if I had the economic security to pay my bills, pay for health insurance, and own a home all while going to work writing novels full-time. But the days of that happening to a literary writer are long gone, if they ever existed at all.”
I don’t think the days of that happening to a literary writer are gone, exactly: I think it’s more a matter of the odds having spectacularly decreased. That is, for all my longing to write full-time, I have every expectation that I’ll need to hold a day job for the duration of my life. I imagine most of my writer friends with will have to work forever too, except for that one guy with the trust fund.
But at the same time, the paradox is that every book we write is a lottery ticket: the strange alchemy that turns a well-written book into a well-written runaway commercial success on the level of Fugitive Pieces or The Lovely Bones—in other words, a book with sales numbers on a scale that might possibly allow a writer to quit a day job—is somewhat mysterious. It might happen to anyone. If there were a formula that explained exactly how one book generates buzz while another slips quickly into obscurity, all our books would be blockbusters.
So we all come home tired from our days at the office, sit down in front of the blinking cursors on our screens, and allow ourselves to daydream for a moment about being struck by commercial lightning: a film deal, a surprise bestseller, a call from the organizer of Oprah’s book club. We’re all perfectly aware that it will likely never happen. We all keep writing anyway.
[Image credit: The U.S. National Archives]