Monday, May 12, 2008

Noir, sex and betrayal: An interview with Megan Abbott, Part I

Noir is like obscenity: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. For this reader, noir hits me hard in the stomach with an ending in which a protagonist goes knowingly to his or her fate. Call it resignation, even if that resignation is sometimes triumphant. By that yardstick, Megan Abbott's third novel, Queenpin, is noir, even if she does not quite agree with my assessment of its ending.

Queenpin tells the story of an innocent kid, a bookkeeper, who gets caught up in the glamour of gambling and drawn into the aura of a powerful gangster. It's an tale often told, but Abbott tells it with a difference: The two principal figures are women.

Megan Abbott is the author of two previous novels, Die a Little and The Song Is You. She is the editor of A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir and author of The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. With credits like that, it's no surprise that she has a keen eye for the sexual tensions that mark noir and hard-boiled fiction and an awareness of noir's history and traditions.

Queenpin won this year's Edgar Award for best paperback original novel from the Mystery Writers of America. Fresh from her post-Edgar euphoria, Megan Abbott talks to Detectives Beyond Borders about the novel and about the seamy tradition that it both honors and extends.

(Read Part II of the interview with Megan Abbott here.)

What is noir, and how does Queenpin fit that definition? How does it vary from it?

I tend to flee from the definition debates on noir. I always think our definitions really just reveal our passions for a particular corner of noir, and I'm no different. My favorite noir books and film share a kind of doomy romanticism, a dark glamour, the feeling of being in thrall to one's own desires. I think my attraction to that quality lurks behind Queenpin. I wanted to write one of those voice-driven, desire-leads-to-doom tales so central to noir — one of those whispery-insinuating unreliable narrators in the vein of my favorite hardboiled/noir novels, from Cain through Vicki Hendricks.

The plot, too, is inspired by common noir themes: paranoia and betrayal — two themes that I think explain the persistence of noir. Time and again, we go through periods in our culture where we feel we have no control over the path things are taking, and noir's themes so speak to those anxieties, while noir also creates an escape from them by elevating them, making them seem both alluring and monumental.

What are the precedents for the story of an impressionable kid who comes under the sway of a powerful gangster? To what extent is Queenpin a deliberate riff on such precedents?

A deliberate riff, most definitely. I love those stories. The Grifters and Goodfellas/Wise Guy were probably the largest influences. I especially love the minutiae of the teaching process in those cases. There is so much detail about passing along the tricks of the trade. And the threat of betrayal always hangs heavy. Also stories like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — the mesmer-like quality of powerful teachers. It's always so interesting how it can be framed as a coming-of-age tale in which the student must, in same way, reckon with either disillusionment or betrayal to find their own identity.

If the precedents are primarily male, why did you make the change to women in the lead roles? How does the switch affect the story? And does English even have a word for a female gansel?

The limits of our language, right? Even in talking about the book, I often resort to moll, but moll suggests that the woman in question is the mistress or plaything of the (male) gangster, so it doesn't really work.

My abiding interest was to write a basic hardboiled tale but one in which a woman-woman relationship was foregrounded. The men are in there primarily to mediate the two women's relationship with each other, much as female characters function so often in classic noir triangles. Ultimately, though, the gender switch changed everything and nothing. On the one hand, it struck me how little difference it made; that mentor/protégé relationships are always about power and ambition, and this was no different. On the other hand, the particular complexities in relationships between women really interest me, as do the forms female power can take, forms that may be different from male power. For instance, Gloria, the older woman, has specific ideas about the way women can retain power, and sexual discretion is one of them.

The queenpin is Gloria Denton, but you never name the protagonist. Why?

The book stemmed from a short story I wrote for Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir, edited by the wonderful Duane Swierczynski, and I'd never bothered to give either character names in that. When it came to writing the novel, I couldn't settle on a name, so I kept substituting nicknames instead — sugar, tiddly wink, Dolly Dingle. Then it struck me that I should keep it that way. The protagonist is so young and formless and is in many ways defined by others — especially Gloria. There is no there there, yet. She hasn't earned a name.

The protagonist tells us she'd do anything for her low-life lover, "even that." "Even that" is left to the reader's imagination. To what extent did you set out to make sex dangerous again? Assuming that was part of your intent, how much of a challenge did it represent in this permissive age?

I didn't have any aims in that area, and I'm embarrassed to say I have a pretty hard time writing explicit scenes and generally find ways to avoid or evade it. At the same time, 1930s-40s hardboiled novels, especially those by James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Chandler, are so suffused with eroticism because of their sudden gaps and omissions. You come just this close, and then the door shuts, and as a reader you become suddenly aware of yourself, of how much you've been filling in the space between the ellipses. Those books just crackle with it. I've always been a sucker too for the way Cain, in Postman and Double Indemnity, will bring us along just so far and then push us away. We start to feel just as guilty as his confessor heroes. And we should.

(Read Part II of the interview with Megan Abbott here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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