Monday, November 04, 2013

Q&A with Sarah Weinman on domestic suspense

I've been reading Sarah Weinman's anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives that focuses on domestic suspense short stories and novellettes written by female authors from the 1940s to the 1970s. It's a very good book, not a bad story in sight, and the subject of the book is very interesting. It's also something I've written about earlier myself, both in Finnish and in English here at Pulpetti. I've called the genre "female noir", but I'm not sure if it's really fitting. These writers are almost always not hardboiled or cynical, nor do the stories take place in alienated big cities, yet there's hard-edged grittiness to the stories that might merit the use of word "noir".

I interviewed Sarah Weinman via e-mail for the Finnish Whodunit Society's magazine, and I got also her permission to use her answers in the blog as well. See also her website (the link above), it has great additional info.

How did this book come to be? 
Troubled Daughters emerged from an essay I wrote for the literary magazine Tin House. I’d been approached by an editor there to write something for their themed “The Mysterious” issue, and I’d long contemplated why it seemed that a fair number of female crime writers working around or after World War II through the mid-1970s weren’t really part of the larger critical conversation. They weren’t hard boiled per se, but they weren’t out-and-out cozy, either. Hammett and Chandler and Cain, yes; but why not Marie Belloc Lowndes and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Vera Caspary? Why Ross Macdonald but not his wife, Margaret Millar, who published books before he did and garnered critical and commercial acclaim first? I knew after writing the essay that I wasn't done with the subject, and when I had lunch with an editor at Penguin on an unrelated matter and started going on, rather enthusiastically, about this widespread neglect, he said, “sounds like there’s an anthology in this. Why don’t you send me a proposal?” It took a while to organize, but eventually I did, and Penguin bought the anthology. Publishing being what it is, it took a less than two years from acquisition to release date.

How would you describe "domestic suspense"? 
Here's what I say on my website: "To my mind, it’s a genre of books published between World War II and the height of the Cold War, written by women primarily about the concerns and fears of women of the day. These novels and stories operate on the ground level, peer into marriages whose hairline fractures will crack wide open, turn ordinary household chores into potential for terror, and transform fears about motherhood into horrifying reality. They deal with class and race, sexism and economic disparity, but they have little need to show off that breadth. Instead, they turn our most deep-seated worries into narrative gold, delving into the dark side of human behavior that threatens to come out with the dinner dishes, the laundry, or taking care of a child. They are about ordinary, everyday life, and that’s what makes these novels of domestic suspense so frightening. The nerves they hit are really fault lines."

Is it a women's genre or are there any male writers who would fit the description? 
Two of the most successful practitioners of contemporary domestic suspense are Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay. Their books absolutely fit the description. I'm harder pressed to think of male writers from the 1940-1970s whose work falls into domestic suspense territory aside from Ira Levin, though going back earlier than that, Francis Iles' MALICE AFORETHOUGHT (1931) or C.S. Forester's THE PURSUED could be categorized as domestic suspense.

What writers and which books are the forerunners of domestic suspense?
Everyone included in my anthology! (And many not included.) If you mean earlier -- Marie Belloc Lowndes, especially her 1914 novel THE LODGER.

Don't Bother to Knock
Can you name some examples also in cinema?
I'm not a cinema-phile, so my expertise is really limited to books. But I think it's safe to say that if it was adapted from a domestic suspense novel, then the film, too, would be categorized that way (i.e. Charlotte Armstrong's 1951 novel MISCHIEF adapted into DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK, Marilyn Monroe's first big role.)

Who are the most memorable practitioners of this genre now?
Contemporary domestic suspense is thriving, to my mind. Gillian Flynn for sure; also Laura Lippman (standalones), Megan Abbott, Alafair Burke (standalone), A.S.A Harrison's THE SILENT WIFE, Hallie Ephron, Koethi Zan's THE NEVER LIST, Kimberly McCreight's RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA...and many more I'm forgetting at the moment. 

What are the fears and wishes of women the stories in the book reveal? What historical changes in the women's life does this book represent? 
Untold changes! The first stories were from the end of World War II, when women were conscripted to work while their husbands, sons, brothers, fathers were fighting overseas. Then the men came back -- those who survived -- and women were expected to revert to domestic roles, which caused a lot of cultural chafing. Then came second-wave feminism, Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem (and Helen Gurley Brown, too) and financial and social equality was possible, not a pipe dream. It's no wonder domestic suspense tales fell out of fashion in the 1970s; but in a way, it's equally understandable why they would be popular now, with so much anxiety, culturally and economically, at the moment.

Is domestic suspense a feminist genre? 
I think so, even if many of the writers may not have seen themselves that way! But the very idea that, in fiction, women trapped in bad marriages or crippling cultural norms had some agency to fight back and assert themselves is a distinctly feminist thing.

What are some of your favourite stories in the book?
My answer changes almost every day, but I've been pleased to see readers respond well to Joyce Harrington's "The Purple Shroud" and Barbara Callahan's "Lavender Lady". [And they are very good stories! - JN]

The book is dominated by American writers, but there's one British writer, Celia Fremlin. Is this kind of story something typically American?
No, that was an accident. Fremlin's THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN is a prototypical domestic suspense novel in my mind that it was critical she be included. But I can think of so many other British writers -- Celia Dale, Joan Fleming, Ruth Rendell in her early years -- who could be included in a hypothetical sequel.

Why are these writers so forgotten today?
My theory is that because they had no influential champion as did their male counterparts. These women aren't canonized in the Library of America. They aren't taught in schools at the undergraduate or graduate level. If TROUBLED DAUGHTERS redresses that balance in even a small way, I've done my job. Who would you pick up to be reprinted in a larger scale? All of them, probably...? Dorothy B. Hughes was already beginning to get new notice thanks to the recent reissue, by NYRB Classics, of her final novel, THE EXPENDABLE MAN, and much of the remainder of her backlist was just reissued in ebook format by Open Road Media (they also reissued many books by Charlotte Armstrong, and I believe one or two others from my anthology are in the works.) Shirley Jackson is in midst-revival, too, with a major biography due out in 2016. I'd love to see more attention lavished upon Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Joyce Harrington, and Nedra Tyre, as they wrote excellent novels. But really, everybody in TROUBLED DAUGHTERS should be celebrated with reprints!

Will there be a sequel?*
I'd love for there to be one, but only if a great many readers buy TROUBLED DAUGHTERS and spread the word!

* I couldn't help but include my own list in my e-mail: "I can think of at least some writers not in this book, like Doris Miles Disney, Kate Wilhelm ("Murderer’s Apprentice", Double-Action Detective and Mystery Stories, May 1959), Shelley Smith, Ursula Curtiss, Dolores Hitchens, Dorothy Dunn, Margaret St. Clair, Leigh Brackett..." Though Hitchens and Brackett come off more as hardboiled crime writers.