Crime Wave with John Foster
A monthly crime column exploring an array of genre topics, from giants such as Chandler and Stark to the modern day masters like Megan Abbot, from essays to interviews to bloody knuckled arguments.
In the forward for Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers, Joyce Carol Oates compares noir to “the stark and stoic melancholy of Edward Hopper’s NiteHawks.” That might be the simplest and most perfect description of noir I’ve ever read. I had the good fortune to attend a reading and Q&A at The Mysterious Bookshop where several writers read from their work and answered questions from the audience. The writers included Joyce Carol Oates, (who also edited the book), S.J. Rozan, Steph Cha and Livia Llewellyn among several others, a talented and diverse collection of women who hit a series of home runs using different approaches, creating an overall work that kept me turning pages even as each writer knocked me off balance.
At the same time, I was developing the idea for Crime Wave, a monthly crime fiction column on Ink Heist that will cover an array of genre topics, from giants such as Chandler and Stark to the modern day masters like Megan Abbott, and from essays to interviews to bloody knuckled arguments. Fate has a tendency to kick us in the teeth, but that night it was on my side and after the event I formulated my approach to the first column. Where is noir today?
Livia Llewellyn’s story, “One of These Nights“, is the first story in the book and drew me in like a quiet threat. I was curious what a writer lauded for her horror stories would say about noir. She was generous enough to agree to an interview and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
I’d like readers to think of this monthly column as a train ride through lawless territory. Each stop will be different, but they’ll all be dangerous.
First stop, Livia Llewellyn.
John Foster: Have you always wanted to branch out into crime/noir writing or was the invitation from Joyce Carol Oates a surprise?
Livia Llewellyn: It’s been in the back of my mind for a long time, but I never acted on it. I think I was afraid of failure, that anything I tried to write would turn into another supernatural horror story. There are definitely stylistic elements of noir in much of my fiction, but until Joyce contacted me, I’d never pushed myself into writing crime/noir. The invite was absolutely a surprise, but Joyce and I had been published together in a number of horror anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow—that was the connection—so she’d read my work and knew I could write something for her. The invitation and her belief in me made me believe I could do it, and forced me to stop second-guessing myself and actually write it.
Foster: You wield sex so effectively as a tool in horror, is that why you were able to adapt so successfully to noir, where sexual tension is a recurring theme?
Llewellyn: Sometimes when I’m writing horror for a specific market, I have to tone down the eroticism—it can be a personal taste issue for the editors, or it’s often not appropriate for the readers of that specific market or anthology. Which is fine, as it’s allowed me to develop a good eye for what stylistic and subject matter lines I can’t cross while still creating something that’s sensual and evocative. So, I felt that with noir, I already had that element of it firmly under my control. I knew exactly how sexual and dark and disturbing I could be with both the language and plot. The bigger challenge for me was coming up with a story that didn’t rely on a supernatural element. It took several months of thrashing around at the beginning of the story before I discovered what it was about and how it would end. And once I nailed down the ending, I was finally able to figure out how to get my protagonist there without some malevolent entity popping up and influencing the action, as they’re wont to do in most of my fiction.
John Foster: When I first read “One of These Nights” it reminded me of short fiction by Daphne Du Maurier if she was writing today, with undertones of James M. Cain and Megan Abbott. What are your influences for writing about crime?
Llewellyn: This is my first noir story, so I couldn’t point to influences that are different from the writers who’ve influenced the rest of my work, most of who are horror and weird fiction writers. And to be blisteringly honest, I need to educate myself as to who’s currently writing crime and noir, and start reading more in the genre. However, Laird Barron has always been a continual influence, from the year I started writing horror to now, including his Isaiah Coleridge novels, which are very much crime/noir and also very much horror. I love that meshing of genres, and if I continue to write noir, which I think I’d like to, that’s the direction I’ll go in.
I have multiple other influences—for those who are interested, this is the list I’m using on my Patreon intro page, which pretty much covers what inspires and shapes all my writing: Clive Barker, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, abandoned shopping malls, the French Decadents, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, prehistoric religious sites, H.R. Giger, the Eleusinian Mysteries, Alexander McQueen, the Pre-Raphaelites, H.P. Lovecraft, mid-century suburbia, insect colonies, vast haunted landscapes, cosmic mysteries, Jack Kerouac, demons, the Hudson River School, alchemy and the occult, wild and witchy girls, mid-century American suburbia, both goths and the Gothic, a deluge of Delta of Venus, a dash of The Story of O.
John Foster: Do you consider the protagonist in the story to be a femme fatale? How do you see this classic noir trope evolving in the present day?
Llewellyn: The protagonist (who I should point out is unnamed) is a fourteen-year-old who’s still attempting to shake off the final stages of girlhood, even as she notices that the younger girls in the story might already view her and her friends as adults. I’ve always thought of femme fatales as women who have an unshakeable confidence in their sexual power, who consider themselves at all times to be both apex woman and apex predator in any room they’re in. My protagonist views her friend Nicole as that kind of woman and so she aspires to be like that—but she’s not there yet, and she knows it. She’s young, she’s still learning how to sexually weaponize her body and mind with that complete confidence; and her relationship with Nicole is complex in ways that may prevent her from reaching full femme fatale mode, as apex predators have a way of turning on each other when things start to go awry.
I couldn’t tell you how the femme fatale trope is presently evolving, only that I think that as more diverse writers bring their own personal and varied histories to the genre, we’ll get versions of the femme fatale that are vastly different to those of the early decades of noir fiction.
Foster: If a protagonist is guilty of a crime, does a noir story demand that they be redeemed or punished, or does noir allow for more morally diverse outcomes?
Llewellyn: If the stylistic essence of noir—dark, melancholy, cynical, disturbing, sexual, violent—isn’t violated in the telling of the story, then the protagonist is (and should be) allowed to commit crimes and be as morally divergent from “right and good” as the plot demands. In fact, I always thought noir was the celebration of protagonists who are in many respects indistinguishable from the antagonists, victims, and villains, with the same psychological and moral demons and the same propensity for violence, cruelty, and self-destruction.
Foster: I felt the tension ratcheting up from the first page. How are you able to create such an electric sense of threat in such a mundane setting?
Llewellyn: I honestly don’t know! I don’t follow any stylistic blueprint, I just write what I feel, and try to craft my way toward a good balance between lyricism, simplicity, and a plot that (for the most part) makes sense and doesn’t fall apart at the end. For this particular story, I did try to pare down my more typically flowery, descriptive language and made the protagonist’s stormy mood drive the imagery. So, I think her tension is what you feel seeping into each page.
Foster: If noir can be described as a feeling, what feeling were you channeling when you wrote “One of These Nights?”
Llewellyn: I was trying to convey an overall sense of dark dread and quiet unease permeating the stereotypically sunny and cacophonous setting of a suburban public pool—a sense of blackness threading its way throughout the brightness of the summer day that gradually merged with the girls and the crime and the night. That contrast between the surface wholesomeness of the environment and the bleak, sexually psychotic temperaments and deeds of the young women moving through it is itself a mood. I hope I captured it—I think I did.
Foster: You mentioned that you drew on personal experience to write “One of These Nights.” Is there a personal cost to delving into tense experiences, or do you find it simply a rich vein of ore to mine?
Llewellyn: Well, I tend to incorporate many, many events from my life, both significant and small, into my writing. I don’t push it, however: I’m either ready to use it or I still need time and distance to process it. But everything I use from my past life is something that doesn’t (or no longer) emotionally or mentally harms me if I revisit it. If I’m writing about something, it’s because it’s time to write about something—I can’t articulate how this alchemical process occurs, only that my body knows when it’s ready to turn memories and past experiences into art.
As far as cost goes, there’s no cost if I use a personal experience once in my fiction—I can’t speak for others, but it’s neither damaging nor therapeutic for me to use my past in my fiction. But I’ve found that if I go back to the well of that one experience and draw from it multiple times, the subsequent stories pale in terms of richness and authenticity, because I find myself less emotionally moved each time I write about it—overuse dilutes the power of my past. And if it was, for example, a disturbing or horrific event in my life, I actually do want to be disturbed when recalling it and incorporating it into the story, I want my writing to be infused with that dread or fear or joy in a way that will allow the reader to experience those same emotions and with the same first-time intensity as I did. There’s a certain lightning-in-a-bottle, writer-to-reader exchange of emotional energy that needs to be protected from myself by myself. So, for example, if I write about that particular pool in Tacoma again, it won’t be for a long time, or I’ll approach it differently than I did for “One of These Nights,” and use a different memory of the many summers I spent there.
Foster: You were born in Alaska but now live in the vast urban sprawl of New Jersey-New York City. Which place exerts more influence on your writing?
Llewellyn: I should clarify that while I was born in Alaska, I spent most of my childhood and a good portion of my adult life in the Pacific Northwest—primarily Tacoma and several midsized college towns in Washington State. So, to this day, Washington is the primary geographic, geologic, and cultural influence on my writing, because it shaped me into the adult I am today, then sent me off into the world and almost immediately began to exert that supernatural pull of nostalgia that most former childhood places do on the human soul and spirit. New York and New Jersey can’t help but influence me, but I’m still in the middle of the New York portion of my life, so I haven’t had the benefit of moving to another place and experiencing the siren song of reflection and nostalgia and loss and love and anger that always emanates from the places you’ve lived in before. As the years pass, I do find myself writing more about Manhattan, but it’s the Manhattan of twenty years ago, when I first moved to this area. I suspect in about twenty years, I’ll start writing about my “New Jersey Era”—I seem to need that amount of time to let my experiences transmute into something I can turn into meaningful art. I wish it was a shorter time period, but that’s what works best, so for now I don’t push it. I might have a different answer when I’m older and running out of years, though!
Foster: You’ve received well-deserved praise for your short fiction; do you find it a superior form to the novel?
Llewellyn: Thank you! And, I don’t think there’s any one superior form of fiction. I believe every writer has their own preferred form, the one they know they excel in, that meshes with their imagination and style. I’ve written several novels, but none of them have had much success in getting published because I still haven’t quite mastered the art of writing a cohesive, coherent work that’s over 50,000 words, so I keep going back to shorter fiction. Novelettes and 20-25k word novellas tend to be my strength.
Foster: Where can readers find your work and what are you working on now?
Llewellyn: Most of my work has been published in print anthologies and magazines, but you can find some of my work online by going to the Free Fiction page on my website. For those readers interested in collections, I have two in print: Engines of Desire and Furnace, which can be found at most online book retailers (print or ebook) or ordered from your local independent bookstore.
I’m currently working on a novella for Nightscape Press, which should publish sometime next year, as well as several yet-to-be-announced projects and setting up a Patreon for my dark erotic fiction, which will launch in January.
Livia Llewellyn’s fiction has appeared in over forty anthologies and magazines and has been reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including The Best Horror of the Year, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica. Her short story collections Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors and Furnace were both nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. You can find her online at http://liviallewellyn.com/ and on Twitter.
John C. Foster was born in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and has been afraid of the dark for as long as he can remember. His most recent novel, The Isle, grew out of his love for New England, where he spent his childhood. He is the author of three previous novels, Dead Men, Night Roads and Mister White, and one collection of short stories, Baby Powder and Other Terrifying Substances. His crime novel Rooster will be published in 2020. His stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including The Seven Deadliest, Dark Moon Digest, Strange Aeons, Death’s Realm and Lost Films, among others. He lives in Brooklyn with the actress Linda Jones and their dog Coraline. For more information, please visit www.johnfosterfiction.com.