WRITERS TELL ALL
Henry James to James M. Cain: Vicki Hendricks Talks Noir and Crime Fiction, Obsession, Writing, and More
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Vicki! It’s really great to get to interview you. You are such an important writer in the crime world, and I can’t believe I get the chance to pick your brain. Normally I start off easy with writers, opening with a fairly simple question, but from our brief correspondence as well as reading your novels, it’s apparent to me that starting off easy isn’t something you might want or need. You have been described by various authors, as well as bloggers and writers on websites, as one of the key luminaries in neo-noir. Most people believe that you—and perhaps solely you—are responsible for reinvigorating the genre. What do you think of this? Do you mind elaborating on your history with writing and your subsequent success?
Vicki Hendricks: I’m flattered that you think of Miami Purity as starting neo-noir. I’m not sure I can take credit, or if I was just in the first round to hit the publishers in the mid-90’s. Women’s noir has a long and delicious history, but since the death of Patricia Highsmith, true, there was a lull. Though, I didn’t know that at the time. I wrote Miami Purityin admiration of James M. Cain, as my thesis for a Master’s in Creative Writing at Florida International University. When the novel was published, I thought noirwas a fancy term for crime that my editor chose, in order to differentiate my content from mystery and detective. I always enjoyed crime movies, but I hadn’t read more than a bite of Jim Thompson, unless you include Harry Crews’s The Gypsy’s Curse, one of my favorite novels. The Postman Always Rings Twicewas recommended for me to read during the writing program, and I became enthralled with James M. Cain a year or two before I started Miami Purity. I have no history of writing before that, except for a few local magazine articles on lobstering, manatees, and food, and my thesis on Henry James for a Master’s in English. I wrote short stories in the F.I.U. writing program, but Miami Puritywas my first published fiction and my most successful, by far, if you consider success to be fame and fortune. Suddenly, I was a crime writer. I don’t believe it’s my best writing, but it got the most publicity, and that’s what counts for that definition of success.
MT: Throughout your life, whether through life experiences, the histories of family or friends, the media you’ve read and consumed in other ways too, what things have shaped you into the writer you are? People have described your writing as being both masculine and feminine at the same time, and similarly men and women both tend to really love your writing. What do you think of this?
VH: I doubt what I’m going to tell you really had anything to do with my writing, but when I was in high school, a horrendous murder took place in the house behind ours. The Bricca murder has never been solved. The parents and a two-year-old daughter were found stabbed multiple times, three days after they were killed. We, the neighbors, were all watching The Bridge Over the River Quaion TV for the first time that Sunday night when it occurred, and nobody heard anything. My mother woke me up Tuesday in the dark, for school, with the words, “The Briccas were murdered.” Their two dogs were in the house with the bodies all that time. The police searched a drain between our house and theirs for a weapon, but found nothing. I had cut through between that house and the one next to it numerous times to visit my friend, while they were in there. My friends and I used the murder as a reason to get a dog, and I never really thought about the effect on me otherwise. We got Schmeizer, a German shepard who was eventually volunteered for the Navy because he wouldn’t let the milkman or the mailman deliver to our end of the street.
Also, when I was seventeen, soon after my father had died, my mother used to wake me up in the middle of the night holding a loaded luger. We would search the house and then circle around the car in the garage in case a burglar was ducking down. Maybe that set me up to write suspense. I hadn’t connected anything like that until this moment.
Regarding subject matter, I hate research and there was no internet available when I started writing in the late 80s, so I stuck to things I knew, mainly adventure sports and sex. Since my books are mostly about sex and obsession, that kind of research is always easy to come by—or imagine. It’s circular, I think—interests and writing. Each stimulates the other. Writing gives living a purpose; it’s an excuse to travel to strange places, get to know weird people, and do unusual stuff. Writing allows you to write it off on your income tax, if you make money. What else can you do with all the details and theories you spend your life gathering? Now that I’m a senior citizen (Ack! Jeez.) I’m lucky to have the wild old days to draw from.
MT: What is your favorite book out of all the novels you’ve written? Why is this book your favorite, and what do you think it says about you as a writer and what do you expect readers to take away from it?
VH: Voluntary Madnessis my favorite of the noir novels. I want my readers to take away pleasure from my books. I’m sure when I was writing VM, I had some ideas that seemed worthwhile, maybe some questions to ponder, but I can’t remember, and I hate looking back at my writing. I have been told that I tend to focus thematically on control, or lack of control, but I never noticed that myself. VMhas a lot of strange characters drawn from real live Key Westers, eccentrics and bohemians, and I guess I wanted readers to get know these people and enjoy them the way I did.
MT: What do you think it means when articles say that you are a unique combination of masculine and feminine? Do you view noir—classic noir or neo-noir—as being a strictly masculine genre? Do you think it is limiting to women writers because of this description?
VH: I’ve always felt both masculine and feminine, not physically—although in my youth, I was muscular without trying, and in those days it was embarrassing—but in my thinking. Reading, I always identified with the male narrators and dreamed of adventure. I wanted to stow away on a freighter and get shipwrecked. It’s true, that my fiction has been considered “masculine” in the past. I’m not sure what that is, or if it is still true in the rapidly changing world of gender, but I can only think that in the 90s, I used strong language and did not shy away from subjects that could be considered indelicate. Also, my characters don’t think much about fashion or make up, but tend toward activities that attract more men than women, in general, or used to. My first reviewer questioned whether I was a man writing under a woman’s name, and a reviewer for Iguana Lovesaid that my main character—and tied me in as well—had the mind of a gay male because women don’t objectify men; only a man would do that. I think that’s absolutely crazy, and he was probably an old guy. Doesn’t everybody objectify people at times?
Patricia Highsmith was around when the label noirwas first defined, as well as many other women in her time period, so masculinity has little to do with it. Check out Sarah Weinman’s collection, Women Crime Writers of the 40s and 50sfor eight great noir novels. And lately noir has bloomed again with women writing noir that contains mystery. I’m not a fan of police and detective novels in general, but I love these stand-alone novels where the layering of dark atmosphere and complex characterization is much more interesting than whodunnit or a surprise ending. I recently finished Tana French’s The Witch Elm and I skipped reading most of the solution. I don’t care about those details. I love the atmosphere and exploration of family relationships leading back into the past. For most of the book, I wasn’t even sure the crime would be solved (except I knew it wouldn’t have been published without that) but I didn’t care because it was wholly delicious. I particularly like the de-emphasis of crime-solving I find in women’s novels, allowing the drama of relationships, the layering of subtext. And suspense, yes! the slow train-wreck. I eat that stuff up.
MT: What is your approach to writing? Are you a morning writer, an afternoon writer, an evening writer, or a nighttime writer? Do you write a certain number of pages or words a day, or do you tend to work for a number of hours a day instead?
VH: This will be bad news for anybody needing a good example. My approach has changed since I retired from teaching. At my most productive, I got up at 4:30 am, after grading essays until midnight, and wrote like crazy until 6 a.m., when I left for step aerobics class and then went on to teach for the day. Weekends I could get some sleep and spend the day writing—until I started skydiving and that was the end of my productive years. Now that I’m retired, I write whenever I get to it. Daily is the goal, but I don’t always get to it, and I stop writing for months at a stretch. I generally get started in late afternoon because: I have no idea! I’m usually going strong when it’s time to walk the dog and have dinner. But I love it when I look at the clock and think, wow, I’ve put in three hours! Then I feel good and make a salad because I’m starving. I can’t tell at that point whether I’ve written something I can use or plopped down pure shit, so time spent is my only measure of worth.
MT: What is your editing process like? How many times do you go through a book trying to make it perfect? Your books are often shorter, compact, tiny but with a strong punch. Are you the type of writer who tends to underwrite or overwrite?
VH: I rewrite and rewrite on the sentence level as well as the structuring level during the first draft and 7 or 8 drafts after that. I never sell a book in advance because I don’t do series, so I finish one and send it to an agent, and then I finish it again, and again, until the agent sells it, and then I rewrite for the editor. Even after the book is in print, if I have a reading, I edit live and hope nobody notices. I believe that every time you rewrite a novel, you are a better writer at the end, so then if you start over, you’ll have a better book, ad infinitum. Not a practical belief to follow, but I try.
I was told in a creative writing class that I tend to underwrite and it might be easier to write more and then cut, if necessary. However, I’m always afraid I’ll go on too long and bore someone. Obviously, I don’t worry about that in interviews.
MT: While researching for this interview, I read your books and they are absolutely fascinating, if not somewhat jarring with how intense and straight-forward they are. Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott have both cited you as influences. What were the risks and actions you took in order to pave the way for authors like Laura and Megan? Was there ever any backlash or conflict with either male writers, the media, reviewers, etc?
VH: I think I was a very minor influence, at most, and Megan and Laura didn’t need any paving for their paths. They’re both sweet and humble. I think my publisher was hoping for conflict and backlash in order to propel sales, but I never had any. Without the internet, it wasn’t so easy to cause a stir. A few places felt my novels were inappropriate for their library because of sexual content, and I got a couple letters to that effect. (People wrote letters in those days.) I never felt I was taking risks, except that my mother would see what I was writing and have a fit. Eventually, she did, and we both lived through it. On Miami PurityI got all wonderful reviews, or else those were the only ones forwarded to me. In later years, some bad ones turned up. My writing seems to inspire high emotions in one direction or the other, no middle ground.
MT: What is your favorite part about writing a new novel? How do you begin a novel, and where does the idea come from? How does it develop—slowly over time or suddenly all at once?
VH: I love starting a novel. There’s so much excitement in writing that first page when a character pops into your head, and everything is open. Creativity can go wild. The idea, for me, develops from one sentence to the next. Sometimes, I add a gesture to break up the dialogue and it tells me where to go after that. I think this sort of thing is what people mean when they say their characters take over the story. Of course, the farther you get, even on the first page, the more you lock yourself into a voice, a time, an inevitable ending. The page will change many times, but you don’t realize that immediately, and writing is actually fun! Then the next day or even later that day, you look at it and say, Shit! this has to go and that has to change, and you find yourself gnawing on the words that sounded perfect just a short time ago. It only gets worse after that, especially when you have to start gathering everything together in the middle in order to make it end. It would feel so good just to keep expanding, but that leads to disaster. I’m reminded of that early series Lost that I somehow became hooked into. Those guys had a wonderful time expanding the possibilities to infinity, and it just got worse and worse because you realized it could never be resolved. It just dribbled away.
I’m inspired by people mostly for novels. Someone I meet, or hear about, demonstrates unusual tendencies or desires. In search of information about my newly acquired iguana, I met a woman who was obsessed with her deceased iguana, which gave me a voice for Iguana Love. In addition, there was the warning in the iguana pet guide: “An iguana will never return your love.” That reality became the backbone of the novel.
I tend to work well by studying the tip of the iceberg and imagining the rest. For short stories, it might be an event that stimulates my imagination.I’m always trying to be original, so when I hear of something bizarre, I want to work with it, figure out possible motives, take the mystery out of life, or at least, provide a theory. For example, I heard on the news that a rapist in Miami was targeting paralyzed women, assaulting them orally. One victim woke up during the act. Many people would rather not delve into that, I’m sure, because of the disgusting nature of the crime, but I started scratching my head and conjecturing something more complex than the motive of easy prey. Around that time, I was asked for a noir cat story for a collection, and I thought, jeez, can I do it? Put those 2 elements into a story together? A fanciful cat story about rape . . . oxymoronic and sure to get me into trouble. It took me over a year, but “The Good Cat” eventually came out of it. So far, I haven’t been in any trouble.
MT: What about Florida do you feel screams “noir”? There is obviously a lot of rough elements about Florida, from the crime rate in various cities to the nature and also just the general population. I lived in Tallahassee for a while and from what I understand, it’s considered one of the tamer cities in the state. What makes Florida such a great setting for your novels?
VH: I guess my last example screams noir more than anything else I can think of. The rough elements, the drug deals, the murders, the police work, none of these really interest me because they’re common everywhere. I’m not sure if Florida is special for noir or dark writers just congregate in sunny places. I’m not sure you were told correctly about Tallahassee. Where I live now, an hour east of Orlando, it’s tame, unless you fear snakes, armadillos, bears, raccoons, and coyotes, but there’s no problem finding human nature at its lowest anywhere you go. You can’t move away from yourself, I noted, when I first met some Florida transplants, but there are millions of people trying to leave themselves behind. These are the folks who inspire me.
MT: Would your novels be any different in this decade, or in this year? How would you change the books if at all, and why would you change them if you did?
VH: I would rewrite every one of them to make them better. I haven’t had the luxury of time until I retired from teaching, and now, I don’t know where my time goes, as we all say. I know I spend too much of it on door service for cats! Is anyone ever happy with his or her final product? But maybe I would just mess the books up, at least in some ways. I certainly don’t have the ambition or energy for all that work. I look back and marvel at how I ever wrote those novels and stories while teaching five classes and grading compositions, and skydiving and scuba diving, sailing and adventuring . . . I can’t complain, can I?
MT: I love how blunt and upfront and unashamed the women in your novels are often presented as being. This seems like such an amazing and compelling reason to read your books—especially considering most aren’t considered recent publications, but foundation for all the noir to come. How do you feel the crime genre is shaping out—especially for women—when you changed things publishing these straight forward novels years ago, and now the genre is filled with seemingly perfect women in domestic thrillers, characters so different from the ones you created?
VH: Women’s crime, which is really everybody’s crime, is wonderful these days. I love what’s in between the murder and violence, and that’s what women do best, fill in all the subtleties of personality and motive. My straightforward style leaves out much of what I enjoy. Like I said, I’m always in a hurry, but luckily people like you read my short books and have allowed me to continue getting them published. If I can ever get the next one finished, I hope that’s still true. But I have to say that my writing career far surpassed my dreams years ago.
MT: What are the novels that most shaped your work? When you look back on your career so far, what novels or authors or, really, anyone or anything was most important in affecting how you viewed the world and how you shaped the worlds within your novels?
VH: I read all of James M. Cain, Harry Crews, and Charles Bukowski, so I suspect they were my major influences. What a world they shaped inside my head, right? Of course, I read Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and it has always been one of my all-time favorite crime novels, but I don’t know if I was influenced by her. I didn’t learn about other women crime writers until after I became one myself. I had no idea I was going to do that, or I would have definitely read more in the genre. I caught up late in my writing career.
MT: What do you think is important about noir in general to the world we live in today? What do you think is important about your noir and your novels in to the world today?
VH: I’m sorry to say that I can’t think of any reason why noir is important, but you can probably convince me if you have reasons.
MT: Is there another Vicki Hendricks masterpiece coming our way? We can all hope and wish—if you can give us any hope, would you mind telling us if you have another book in the works and, if so, would you mind hinting at what it might be about?
VH: Considering my lack of discipline lately, it might be so far in the future that I don’t want to set up expectations. I have about half of a rough draft, and I think it might be horror blended with science fiction, mingled with sex.
MT: Vicki, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some of my questions and let me pick your brain. It’s been so wonderful to correspond with you and get to know you, and also so amazing to read your fiction and revisit it time and time again. I normally make this offer for any author, but I feel it’s especially important to you, for I know you likely have so much to say in general—would you mind leaving us with any thoughts, suggestions, remarks, conclusions, or questions? And thank you so much again.
VH: Just recently, a woman pointed to my head and said, “I wouldn’t want to live in there.” But I’m sure she was kidding.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Rosalie. I really loved you book Who is Vera Kelly, and not just because I read it following a week-long binge of all of The Americans. I am curious about where the original idea came from, what sparked your interest in this subject and time period, and why you think it’s so timely today?
Rosalie Knecht: Thank you, and I hope your psyche hasn't been completely destroyed by that show. I started with the idea that I wanted to write a spy novel, and the Cold War heyday of the genre appealed to me. I think there's a feeling of freedom that you get from creating a little distance from the present moment, which allows things to unfold in a less self-conscious way. On some level I was inspired by the fact that my maternal grandfather, whom I never met because he died in an accident in 1961, worked for the CIA.
MT: How long did it take you to write your first draft of Vera Kelly? What continued to draw you back to it, despite all of the writer’s efforts—all of our efforts—to avoid the idea of fear or failing? I know myself I have avoided revisions plenty of times just because I was afraid the revised work would, in turn, be rejected.
RK: I honestly can't recall how long the first draft took, because drafts always have blurry boundaries for me, but I can tell you that I started the novel in February 2012 (because I always put the month and year at the top of the document when I open it, a practice I recommend, because you will forget otherwise) and sold it to Tin House in June 2017. That makes it lightning fast compared to my previous book, Relief Map, which I started in November 2007 and sold, also to Tin House, in December 2014.
I think everybody's afraid both of rejection and of putting immense effort into something that other people may never see. The only way to maintain the motivation to continue, I think, is to feel that the process is the reward. The actual experience of writing the book is the only guaranteed return. You have to be having a good time.
Also, there's another way to look at the rejection part. Our lives are riddled with rejection, but as I said to a friend once when I was having a hard time in some basic ways-- romantically, financially, professionally-- the thing about writing is that it can't break up with you or evict you or fire you. You can't get kicked out of it. It's yours for as long as you want it.
MT: What are the books, the movies, the stories, the television shows, anything really that inspired you to write Vera Kelly? Were there any books or authors in particular your returned to for renewed interest, either because of frustration with writing and being in between drafts, or to motivate you to keep writing?
MT: Did you ever have any problems finding a publishing house for Who is Very Kelly, and if you’re being entirely honest, what aspect of the book made it hardest to be published and what about the book finally convinced publishers, in your mind, to produce it for the world to read?
RK: I published WIVK with the same publisher as my first book, so it wasn't hard to find a publisher per se, but it was hard to find that publisher for my first book! And I can imagine that if I didn't already have a relationship with a publisher, and if Tin House wasn't such a profoundly cool place, that the book would have been a pretty hard sell. It is, after all, a novel about a spy that's paced like a literary novel and focused on relationships, all of which I thought would baffle and irritate people. But I couldn't help it, that was the book I wrote.
MT: How much research did you do before writing the book? I’ve heard different arguments on research from very different writers—those who want to research as much as possible before writing, and those who believe you research essential things as you go, and fact check later. What was the researching experience for Vera Kelly like for you?
RK: I got a subscription to the New York Times so I could have access to their digital archive, and I read about the coup in books and online, and I read some spy novels and went back to some Argentine novels I had read in college to be reminded of how things feel and smell, little things. Compared to Peron years and the Dirty War of the 1970s, there is little research readily available about what happened in 1966, so I had to dig and mostly focused on a few key details. A reader from Argentina recently wrote to me with some anachronisms and mistakes in the book, which was amazing to see, although tragically too late to fix them! I completely whiffed the exchange rate, for example, which wasn't how I depicted it until 1970.
I've heard from other writers that research can be a black hole you fall into, since everything is so fascinating if you dig a little. You can spend forever on it and end up avoiding writing your actual book. But on the other hand, you don't want to represent a time and place that isn't yours and do so in a sloppy way. I've been relieved that, details aside, the Argentine readers I've heard from have said that the Buenos Aires in the book felt familiar to them. Even if I did feature a color television in it, and Argentina had no color TV broadcast until the 1978 World Cup. Well, now I know.
MT: In your mind, what is the answer to the novel’s question, Who is Vera Kelly?—in whatever way you choose to respond to it?
RK: She's a person who wants to be left alone.
MT: Do you view Who is Vera Kellyas a largely crime novel? If not, and I know this is so limiting for such a strong and incredibly complicated book, how would you define it in terms of genre? Who were the people you wanted to target when writing the novel? I know a lot of authors, including myself, want to target “everyone” upon initially beginning and finishing a novel, but eventually who did you or your editor or agent or publisher or who have you want you to limit the audience down to?
RK: I didn't really have an audience in mind, and although I was calling it a spy novel, I knew it wasn't paced or constructed like a traditional spy novel. I think you just have to do what you're doing and hope an audience finds it. I just wanted to write something that I would like to read.
MT: Did you know how you wanted to end the novel from the very beginning? Would you mind going into some detail about your writing process and how novels and stories and ideas take form for you on the page?
RK: Oh my God, not at all. I never do. I usually start with one element-- in this case, the idea of spies; in my last book, it was the setting. I can usually only think about fifty pages ahead. At some point the ending falls into place, but I generally don't know how I'm going to get there until I actually write the pages.
MT: Rosalie, I do have to ask for the rest of our staff as well as those readers who have loved Who is Vera Kelly—what’s next for you? Do you have another novel as a work-in-progress? We’re all very hopeful get more from you soon.
RK: I'm hoping for a Vera Kelly trilogy. I have somethings I want her to sort out. I'm working on the second one now.
MT: Rosalie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your writing and about Who is Very Kelly. This was a phenomenal book that I will continue to recommend to any and every one. Do you have any thoughts, suggestions, comments, or questions you’d like to leave us with? Feel free to say anything—and, again, thank you Rosalie!
RK: Just-- thanks for reading!