The Devil’s Own Finest: an Interview with Megan Abbott

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusmail
1 of 68  

Megan Abbott’s seventh novel, The Fever, is coming out in June. She mostly lives in New York but has been in Oxford, Mississippi, a lot lately, as the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the university.

She and Jack Pendarvis met at an empty bar on an early weekday afternoon during Spring Break for a little talk. None of the resulting celebrity gossip has been fact-checked.

Nothing has been fact-checked.

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott killing it.

Jack Pendarvis

Jack Pendarvis spinning records at The End of All Music.

 

JACK PENDARVIS: Why is it a red light?

MEGAN ABBOTT: Because it means it’s recording.

JACK: Shouldn’t that be a green light? Red light means stop.

MEGAN: I think a red light always means record.

JACK: Oh.

MEGAN: As well as stop.

JACK: Uhm, so… this is the recorder I bought when I was going to interview Jerry Lewis and he fainted, remember that?

MEGAN: Yes.

JACK: You wound up in that article more than Jerry Lewis did.

MEGAN: Does this mean I’ll wind up in the hospital?

JACK: No. You have to talk louder, though. You have a meek… I mean, not a meek, but, uhm… You’re not a meek person.

MEGAN: A little meek.

JACK: Are you?

MEGAN: On some level.

JACK: What level?

MEGAN: I guess, uhm, performatively.

JACK: Okay, you’ll have to speak up a little. Maybe I’ll put it on top of these salt-and-pepper shakers. There you go.

MEGAN: That’s nice.

JACK: Good. Also I recorded on this… no, never mind.

MEGAN: What?

JACK: Just Beth Ann Fennelly and I drinking bottles of chocolate wine. I was gonna…

MEGAN: Chocolate wine?

JACK: Well, I was gonna write about it for the Oxford American food issue…

MEGAN: Yes…

JACK: Beth Ann and I were gonna drink bottles of it and I was gonna record…

MEGAN: Yeah!

JACK: … what happened, because it sounded really gross, and…

MEGAN: Yeah…

JACK: But Beth Ann was pregnant, so she couldn’t do it, and by the time she had the baby, I think my relationship with the Oxford American had soured… so I was going to do it for Gravy, the…

MEGAN: Yeah!

JACK: The Southern Foodways Alliance’s magazine, so we got the bottles of chocolate wine and we started drinking them and they were pretty good, sort of!

MEGAN: Was it like chocolate milk?

JACK: Yeah, it was like a Yoo-Hoo.

MEGAN: That sounds good.

JACK: And you know what? It was okay! And that ruined the whole idea, which was we were gonna be drinking it and saying, ugh, this is gross…

MEGAN: When I was a teenager once we put blackberry cordial in a chocolate milkshake and it was really good.

JACK: Blackberry cordial in a chocolate milkshake?

MEGAN: Yeah!

JACK: When you were a teenager?

MEGAN: Yeah! You know, when you were a teenager and somebody’s parents had blackberry cordial… That was the one thing you could pour from and they would never know… ‘Cause they would never drink it…

JACK: My parents’ friends were Southern Baptist so there was no liquor…

MEGAN: No blackberry cordial?

JACK: Cordial? Oh no!

MEGAN: Easter comes and…

JACK: No! Oh my God! Are you kidding? No way! I mean, once I think I had to have whiskey for…

MEGAN: A cold?

JACK: I mean, bronchitis… and I… I mean, a teaspoon of whiskey…

MEGAN: Right…

JACK: I don’t even know where they got the whiskey.

A handful of Megan Abbott's novels

A handful of Megan Abbott’s novels, including the soon to be published The Fever, which will arrive in bookstores June 2014.

MEGAN: So when did you have a taste of the devil’s own finest? Ha ha!

JACK: Uhm, how old was I? Uhm, yeah, I mean, really old! I mean, I drank some whiskey, I don’t know…

MEGAN: Forty-two? Ha ha!

JACK: I was in college before I drank… and then I didn’t do it very often.

MEGAN: Do you remember the experience of first trying it?

JACK: I’m not sure I remember the first time. I remember some different incidents… like… once when someone had broken up with me… I was 25 by this time…

MEGAN: Right.

JACK: I drank a bunch of… I didn’t know what a mint julep was? I got some mint flavoring…

MEGAN: Yeah… yeah…

JACK: From the grocery store…

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Like you would put in Christmas cookies?

JACK: Yeah! And I put it in some whiskey and I drank a bunch of it…

MEGAN: Oh…

JACK: And then my band practiced and I started singing “Cathy’s Clown” in a really serious way…

MEGAN: Oh, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh… what about you?

MEGAN: Uhm, I was younger than that… but I do remember thinking at first that it had no effect on me at all. As I was sort of lying on the carpet, you know, with my face peeled against the shag, you know, I felt because everybody else seemed more drunk, perfomatively drunk…

JACK: Hmm…

MEGAN: And I… because I wasn’t dancing around and sitting on people’s laps, I thought, “I must not be affected by alcohol.”

JACK: Ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha! I must be immune. I’m so powerful.

JACK: This really sounds like one of your books.

MEGAN: Ha ha! They all come from that.

JACK: Well, that reminds me, when I was reading Absalom, Absalom! you were saying, “Do you really think Faulkner saw the world this way?”

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: And what did you mean by that?

MEGAN: Well, like the way it felt in his books… if that’s like it felt to him… as big as everything is… high drama, high stakes… I was just thinking of this today! I read an interview with him and someone was asking him about The Sound and the Fury. He started to talk about Benjy, and the way he talked sounded like a Faulkner character! He starts to talk about him as if he were real and he says, “He’s an animal, but he only understands tenderness the way animals do,” and… I think that’s how he felt.

JACK: What I’m getting at is… you said to me after that, you said that you see the world the way your books are.

MEGAN: Yes.

JACK: What does that mean?

MEGAN: Yes! Ha ha! Everything feels dramatically high stakes at all times, which is why I think I responded to Faulkner. I see everything, I now realize, through the lens of Freud, in that there’s no sin committed in which they don’t want to be punished in advance. You only sin, ha ha, in order to be punished for your sins. And that you’re sort of crying out for… uh…

JACK: Correction!

MEGAN: Correction, exactly! And so that’s sort of how I see the world and how I see interpersonal dynamics. I can see it through no other lens. And I’m always surprised that people would see it any differently. It’s like the thing that students sometimes say: “You’re reading too much into it.” And of course that’s what students always say when they’re frightened about what they’re reading.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha! But that’s what you say when you want to avoid that this feels exactly like what life is. Life is always complicated and tumultuous and our brains are always overheated… all of ours are! I don’t care what people say. You know how people say, “It doesn’t feel that way to me, I take things as they come”? I don’t believe any of that. I believe it’s all overheated and insane for everybody. Ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Gosh, I don’t know. I guess so.

MEGAN: I mean, maybe not. It probably shouldn’t be for everybody. That’s a lot of heat. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I think some people paper over it and some people have ways to sublimate it. Uhm, we all hopefully have some ways to sublimate it, but…

JACK: Sublimate what?

MEGAN: Like, all these drives, you know! That’s how I see it. Also, maybe this is how you respond to David Lynch, too, but the unconscious and conscious are always this close… I’m putting my fingers together very closely… just this close always and always brushing up against each other constantly. And so we often are thrown into ourselves in ways that are alarming and we often have to see things about ourselves because we can’t completely hide from the unconscious. It’s always going to rear up somehow.

JACK: Hmm… Well, that’s what a lot of hardboiled fiction is about. Well, it’s the past.

MEGAN: The past, yeah.

JACK: The unconscious is represented by the past.

MEGAN: Yeah, I never thought of that! But I think it’s quite true. Because…

JACK: People try to cover things up. I’m reading The Dain Curse right now, and… I’m kind of racing through the last pages because I’m not interested in it anymore, I’m sorry…

MEGAN: It gets to where it’s just wrapping up the plot.

JACK: I feel like it’s been doing that for a hundred pages. I’m sorry to criticize Dashiell Hammett. I love Red Harvest!

HammettDashiell

Dashiell Hammett kicking it.

MEGAN: Yeah, well, Maltese Falcon is pretty good. I think The Glass Key is probably my favorite.

JACK: Yeah? Why is The Glass Key your favorite?

MEGAN: I love the relationship between the men in that one. It feels really unique. Unique in all fiction, really.

JACK: Well, isn’t it sort of similar to the relationship in Love’s Lovely Counterfeit by James M. Cain?

MEGAN: Quite! It’s the most Hammett of the Cain novels.

JACK: I always thought Miller’s Crossing was like Hammett, until I read Love’s Lovely Counterfeit and I realized actually Miller’s Crossing is that…

MEGAN: Yeah…

JACK: I mean, the characters have the same names… it’s that much based on Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, which was made into a movie called Slightly Scarlet.

MEGAN: It’s a great movie, have you seen it?

JACK: Yes, I’ve seen it!

MEGAN: It’s really good!

JACK: That’s not Eleanor Parker is it?

MEGAN: No! Oh no, it’s the two redheads. Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming.

JACK: Rhonda Fleming. I don’t know why I’d get Eleanor Parker and Rhonda Fleming mixed up.

MEGAN: Well, they both have those ‘50s brassieres. Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha! Always like torpedoes. And that movie is great. It’s like a Douglas Sirk movie, really.

JACK: Does Slightly Scarlet have the men relationship?

MEGAN: No! Because it’s so much more focused on the women.

JACK: Right…

MEGAN: Which is rare. When does that ever happen in an adaptation?

JACK: Never! Faulkner loved the hardboiled writers. He wanted to be one when he wrote Sanctuary.

MEGAN: Yeah. I was just reading an interview in the Paris Review and they asked him if he read any mystery authors and he said he just read Simenon because he reminded him of Chekhov, and I thought, “You’re lying!”

JACK: He did lie! And you know how we know? Because Bill Griffith at Rowan Oak showed us all his paperbacks. He had Dorothy B. Hughes, he had, I mean, everything. He had everything by everybody.

MEGAN: Yeah. No, he read them all. Simenon’s the classy one. Ha ha ha ha ha ha! I’ve never gotten into Simenon. He’s a little cold for me. My parents always read him a lot. We always had him in my household growing up.

JACK: That’s a good question. What were some of the books you saw when you were growing up that your parents had?

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: Like liquor. I think my dad or mom had a copy of Jaws, and it was really… I think Tom Franklin and I were talking about this the other day. Were you there? We were talking about how there were really dirty parts…

MEGAN: In Jaws? No! Really!

JACK: Yeah, the Richard Dreyfuss character of all things, which you don’t particularly want to imagine…

MEGAN: No! Is this the same conversation when we were talking about The Godfather and how dirty that is?

JACK: I’ve never read the book.

MEGAN: Oh, it’s really dirty!

JACK: It is?

MEGAN: I’m not going to tell you about the scene…

JACK: Good!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: But is it with Sonny and the bridesmaid?

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: Well, but that’s in the movie.

MEGAN: Yeah, but actually there’s a description that I won’t repeat, but it’s… ha ha! It traumatized all the boys who read it.

JACK: Hey, how come you… how come you’ll write things in your books that you won’t say out loud? Because I’m the same way.

MEGAN: Yeah! Right! You are the same way! That’s one of the many reasons why we’re so alike.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha! You know, it’s so funny, it’s just different parts of my head and they don’t talk to each other at all. Is that how you feel about it?

JACK: Oh, come on! You were just saying about David Lynch: they do talk to each other. That’s all they do.

MEGAN: They talk next to each other. Ha ha!

JACK: Okay, so what we’re saying is… you’re insane.

MEGAN: Yeah. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! There’s people talking in my head all the time. I just read this Rosemary Clooney memoir, and she went crazy on pills at one point. And she was talking to another female singer who did, and the other female singer said “I knew I was crazy when I started to count the steps before I hit the streetlight and the stop sign.” And I thought, “I do that every time!”

JACK: Yeah, yeah.

MEGAN: I must be crazy now!

JACK: I check the lock a hundred times.

MEGAN: Yeah, me too. All kinds of crazy things. I think it’s the over-active brain of a lot of writers. It’s always taking things in and measuring things out and turning things into narrative.

JACK: Hmm.

MEGAN: Upturning them, I don’t know. But that suggests I have a more linear sense of narrative than I do.

JACK: That brings up a question. Often your books seem totally planned out, but when I talk to you about writing, you seem like you’re surprised by things that were already there… maybe that’s the unconscious again… something was leading to this certain part of the book… but… you have a good grasp of plot, don’t you?

MEGAN: I’m getting better. You have to when you’re writing crime, because of the expectations of readers, which I understand.

JACK: But you know, when I was reading The Fever, I didn’t think of it as a crime novel at all.

MEGAN: Right.

JACK: I don’t want to give much away about it, but, uh… I was really thinking of Hawthorne when I first started reading it.

MEGAN: It was very influenced by Hawthorne. But I’ve been thinking of mystery in a different way lately. Sort of in the context of Flannery O’Connor’s use of the word.

JACK: Like almost a Biblical use of the word.

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: Like the mystery cults.

MEGAN: Yeah, sure! Like that moment when there’s a character gesture that seems to make no sense at all on the face of it, but which is actually the heart of the story.

JACK: Well, you know, that’s what I think of every one of your books. At some point the character does something that really surprises you, and makes everything that happened before it seem totally different, so that you could go back and read your books a second time and read them in a whole different way. I mean, your characters are the mystery in the books, right?

MEGAN: Yeah, I think so. I think character is the ultimate mystery. Especially because—and this is where I think noir gets a bad rap as being this, you know, nihilistic view of humanity… I think in all noir, and all books I love, there comes a point where you realize you can’t judge the characters by any standard you were judging them before then, and the good characters by the same note: good becomes bad and bad becomes good and they all kind of blend into each other. I always like that narrative structure. I think the books that get it wrong, the detective novels, they have the detective always get it right.

JACK: Who does that, Mickey Spillane?

MEGAN: Well, I think most mainstream detective novels do.

JACK: Mike Hammer infiltrates a communist group and drinks their coffee, and he’s like, “This coffee is lousy!” I was thinking that Raymond Chandler would have at least let the communists make good coffee.

MEGAN: If there’s one thing communists could do it’s make good coffee! They’re famous for it! I think that’s the problem with all the Marlowe rip-offs: they don’t recognize how neurotic Marlowe was.

JACK: Can you talk for the record about that John Banville, or do you feel weird about it?

MEGAN: Well, I haven’t read it… but I will not be reading it.

JACK: You will not be reading…?

MEGAN: The Black-Eyed Blonde, which is John Banville’s Marlowe novel. His comments, when he started writing the Benjamin Black ones, about the genre, offended me. He said it required no care.

JACK: It’s really easy to get Chandler wrong. People get Chandler wrong all the time.

Badass cover of The Big Sleep

Badass cover of The Big Sleep

MEGAN: I think most people haven’t really read him. They’ve seen the Bogart Big Sleep and they’ve seen rip-offs of it… just the whole simile thing drives me crazy. Very rarely they’re in the books—and it just becomes so heavy-handed when everybody’s trying to do it. It just drops like a lead weight. Like a lead weight! That’s not even a good one.

JACK: Yeah, that illustrated how hard it is to do a simile.

MEGAN: Like a sucker punch in a welterweight’s gut.

JACK: Oh! There you go. What do you think Ross MacDonald was interested in?

MEGAN: Family secrets.

JACK: That’s kind of like you. Do you have any affinity for Ross MacDonald?

MEGAN: I like him a lot. They remind me of the gothic more than Chandler. The locations feel very Chandleresque, but they’re very gothic. I always think of the end of Double Indemnity, Cain’s novel, the same way, which is the height of gothic horror, really.

JACK: Are they on a ship or something?

MEGAN: Yeah, and she dresses in this kabuki kind of…

JACK: She has a white face?

MEGAN: Yeah, and it’s really kind of gothic horror. I know we’ve talked about it before, but I really firmly believe that the gothic and the noir are kind of the same thing, it’s just that one tends to be gendered more male and one tends to be gendered more female. I think Ross MacDonald draws them together. The reason I’ve never fallen in love with MacDonald? It’s because Lew Archer is a little too sane. You know, straight and narrow.

JACK: He’s a little wounded. You know, in the early novels, he’s almost like Mike Hammer.

MEGAN: He’s more blunt.

JACK: But as the novels go on, and they get later, he seems kind of wounded. He seems sad and wounded to me.

MEGAN: Yeah, and I’ve heard theories, because of MacDonald’s personal travails…

JACK: Oh, he had a little thing for Eudora Welty, you know.

MEGAN: I didn’t know about that!

JACK: There’s a story about it, what is it? “No Place For Us My Love?” I’ll correct this when I transcribe it… that she wrote about her relationship with Ross MacDonald. A lot of people say it was platonic. I don’t know. It’s kind of like that Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn thing, I think.

MEGAN: He was married to Margaret Millar, who’s another good novelist. But I meant his daughter, with the drunk driving, she accidentally killed somebody in a car accident.

JACK: Oh no!

MEGAN: And it was obviously very upsetting. There’s a lot of sorrow. Taking care of your children becomes a big thing in his mid and later novels, and parents sort of trying to heal the damage they’ve done to their wayward children.

JACK: My God, you can still get in trouble for speculating about Eudora Welty in this state. Although Barry Hannah, I think it was the novel Boomerang, there’s a character kind of obviously based on Eudora Welty and he’s peeking over a fence and she’s in her garden, farting a lot… I always thought that was bold… Barry tried to beat down his influences. In his first novel Geronimo Rex the character kills a peacock in some horrible way.

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh no!

JACK: It’s not with a golf club… I can’t remember… but it’s obviously…

MEGAN: Flannery O’Connor.

JACK: He has to kill Flannery O’Connor, who was one of his idols…

MEGAN: It’s a classic Harold Bloom situation. I’m sure this is not true, but as a Yankee here I will speculate that for Southern writers, the anxiety of influence may be far greater than for other writers at this point in history, because it’s so… there’s still such a sense of regional legacy that makes such a specific and idiosyncratic stamp.

JACK: Yeah, that makes me sick.

MEGAN: You think it’s true?

JACK: What?

MEGAN: That the anxiety of influence may be greater?

JACK: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t like all that Southern writing bullshit.

MEGAN: Oh! Well, you proved my point! Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha! I guess so!

MEGAN: You have therefore enacted it.

JACK: Did you say I have “therefore enacted it”?

MEGAN: Yes! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: All right.

MEGAN: But it’s more diffuse for Midwestern writers… I mean, we don’t even have a Midwestern writer.

JACK: Hamlin Garland!

MEGAN: Well, I mean, Ernest Hemingway’s a Midwestern writer, and Sherwood Anderson, and all these people, but people haven’t sort of given it this school…

JACK: Yeah, but what about your “genre,” quote-unquote? Is there any anxiety of influence there?

MEGAN: Yes, but I think it’s easier as a woman, and as someone who’s not writing straight detective fiction. There I think it would be very burdensome, actually, and that’s one of the many reasons I would never write a straight detective novel. Those sort of straight-talking conversation scenes are not my forte. I think I thrive in indirection. The interrogation scenes, I always marvel at them and enjoy reading them, but it’s always felt very static when I’ve tried.

JACK: So you have tried.

MEGAN: Yeah, yeah, and I guess you could say a few of my books…

JACK: The Song Is You.

MEGAN: That’s the closest. That’s more like a Heart of Darkness structure to me.

JACK: And your bad guys are Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

MEGAN: Yeah, ha ha ha ha! They are!

JACK: Oh, that’s terrible.

MEGAN: Ha ha!

JACK: I was just reading about how they took Marilyn Monroe out to dinner because they thought she was lonely.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis being pals

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis being pals.

MEGAN: Oh! I think they were really nice in real life…

JACK: I don’t know about that. I mean, I don’t know if “nice” is the right word. I think Laurel and Hardy were nice. They loved each other.

MEGAN: What if they were evil? That would be a really dark story!

JACK: No, no!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Don’t ruin Laurel and Hardy for me.

MEGAN: No… no…

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

MEGAN: No, but we’ve talked about this before, and I keep coming back to it, but I think comedians are dark by nature.

JACK: Laurel and Hardy are the interesting exception, though. Now, Abbott and Costello hated each other, hated each other! And of course later on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis got to hate each other…

MEGAN: Yeah… and the tension in some of these duos, like Abbott and Costello, is what made them interesting to watch… there was a crackling tension.

JACK: Didn’t Costello’s son drown in a swimming pool, or some other horrible…

MEGAN: Yeah, one of many celebrities, including David Niven’s and like ten other kids who drowned or died in swimming pools. Lou Costello came up in that memoir I read about that male escort in Hollywood. Lou Costello was only interested in women, but he was really interested in prostitutes, so they knew each other through…

JACK: I have to interrupt and say I knew his granddaughter a little bit, years ago, so…

MEGAN: Well, he comes off as a very genial guy, but he liked hookers a lot. As a lot of them did.

JACK: He gave Dean Martin a lot of money, he thought Dean Martin was really talented and wanted to help him out.

MEGAN: He came up a lot in that Nick Tosches book about Dean Martin.

JACK: Yeah, and Dean Martin spent all the money: “I’m just going to buy ascots!” or something.

MEGAN: They all do! In the Rosemary Clooney memoir there was that too, because they were all poor kids, and they just bought everything.

JACK: They’re always poor kids, they’re always abandoned kids like Jerry Lewis.

MEGAN: And they always have family members or siblings who come back and are a strain on them for their whole period of fame.

JACK: I’m transcribing this whole thing! It’s all gold!

MEGAN: We figured it all out! It’s especially true in the 30s and 40s when people landed in Hollywood out of desperation.

JACK: Betty Hutton! Wasn’t she like a little street performer or something? When she was a kid? I think her mom sent her out on the street, like, “Tap dance for the people!”

MEGAN: Betty Hutton… there was such an intensity to her desire, and Judy Garland too, also grew up very poor.

JACK: I’m going to say the crudest thing I’ve ever said to you.

MEGAN: More than Danny Thomas?

JACK: Oh! Well, I didn’t say… I mean, I hinted around a lot… it was still gross.

MEGAN: Burned in the brain.

JACK: I’m sorry.

MEGAN: No, I would have found out anyway. Is this a crude thing about Betty Hutton?

JACK: It’s just something my friend Jeff McNeil said about her.

MEGAN: Then you’re just quoting it.

JACK: But it’s really bad, I can’t say it to you. It’s really bad. He… he speculated upon some…

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha! I want to hear your euphemism.

JACK: Uhm, some enjoyable…

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I can’t finish that sentence. He put it in a quite vivid way that I, uhm… that I’ve never quite forgotten. He speculated upon how much it might be fun to… ha ha ha!

MEGAN: To be the target of all that intensity?

JACK: Yes! Yes! To be the target of all that intensity.

MEGAN: Wouldn’t it be frightening, though?

JACK: Uhm, not according to Jeff.

MEGAN: Cockenlocker!

JACK: I can’t believe Preston Sturges…

MEGAN: How’d he get away with that?

JACK: … got away with the last name Cockenlocker for Betty Hutton’s character.

MEGAN: I’ve heard an explanation for the way he got away with that. Billy Wilder never got away with that.

JACK: No, but he got away with—as Theresa is fond of quoting from Kiss Me, Stupid—“I’m going to go in the garden and show him my parsley.”

MEGAN: But that was fifteen years later! That was really when the code was halfway out the door.

JACK: Billy Wilder helped push the code out the door.

MEGAN: Yeah, he never gets any credit for anything he deserves to get credit for.

JACK: Oh, he’s the best.

MEGAN: He is the best! I really believe that.

JACK: You know, some real cinephiles don’t like him at all. I mean, like Dave Kehr, I love him because he loves Jerry Lewis and he’s very interesting when he writes about Bob Hope but for some reason he hates Billy Wilder. Andrew Sarris hated Billy Wilder.

MEGAN: I don’t see how you can hate him, given how diverse… How can you hate Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity? I couldn’t read anything else they wrote after that. That may be another situation where they have to knock down the big guys.

JACK: It almost seems moral. Sometimes I feel like people have an almost prissy reaction to Billy Wilder.

MEGAN: Yeah, but there’s a lot of earned sentiment in his movies, too.

JACK: You were talking about his fascination with prostitutes, speaking of fascination with prostitutes. And wasn’t he a gigolo?

MEGAN: Well, like a dancer. Like the dancer that’s loose…

JACK: Ten cents a dance?

MEGAN: In the Joe Gillis way. And this is going to sound funny but did you know he was six feet tall? I always had the impression of him being short.

JACK: He seems tiny!

MEGAN: I thought that too. But when you actually see pictures of him next to tall people, he’s as tall as they are. And I somehow pictured him like a Wallace Shawn, but he was really not at all. But he was haunted by—and I think it works on multiple levels—he was haunted by his past. I don’t think he was especially bothered by his past as a prostitute, I think he loved doing that…

JACK: Are you saying he was a prostitute?

MEGAN: Well, no, I don’t think he literally was. Like a taxi dancer! But I think in some ways he felt like he was a prostitute in Hollywood.

JACK: Mmm!

MEGAN: And apparently, according to this book I was reading, he had a sad experience with a prostitute.

JACK: Well, that comes up in a lot of his movies. People have speculated, for instance, about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

MEGAN: Yes. That’s supposed to be his most direct working out of this relationship. He fell in love with this woman, he was seventeen, she was nineteen, and she was beautiful and he saw her… they were having this romance, he wanted to marry her and then someone told him that she was a hooker and he went and found her on the street in her hooker makeup and then he roundly… he actually sort of chastised her. That isn’t strong enough. He said these terrible things to her on the street…

JACK: Oh no!

MEGAN: Oh yeah! And think about the way his movies are… that’s his great regret. Because that’s not something the Billy Wilder of any other age would have done.

JACK: In The Apartment, the worst thing Fred MacMurray can do is treat Shirley MacLaine like a prostitute.

MEGAN: Exactly. Shirley MacLaine was saying in this book that she thinks his best movies are the ones where he identifies with the female character more. And I think that’s very interesting. I think it’s true in Sunset Boulevard. Some Like It Hot, I think it’s true in a lot of them.

JACK: He said in that Cameron Crowe book that he was kind of in love with Gloria Swanson.

MEGAN: And that’s the funny thing that people sometimes don’t get about that movie: she’s beautiful in it, and I don’t think she’s crazy at all. What does she do, I mean other than at the very end? She’s trying to draw attention from him. She’s been raised on the structure of melodrama, so these are the tools at her disposal.

JACK: Nancy Olsen was fantastic in that, why wasn’t she in more movies?

MEGAN: I know! And she’s loosely based on Billy Wilder’s wife, Audrey.

JACK: Hitchcock often had a woman based on his wife or his daughter in his movies. His daughter Pat is in Psycho.

MEGAN: She’s in Strangers on a Train.

JACK: That’s her? I thought it was just somebody who looked like her.

MEGAN: And then there’s the woman who’s murdered who sort of looks like her, which is really weird.

JACK: That is weird.

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: But there are always Alma-type characters too. Hitchcock’s great guilt of wanting these women who were sort of the opposite of Alma…

Papa Christmas AKA Alfred Hitchcock

Papa Christmas AKA Alfred Hitchcock

MEGAN: Yeah… It’s become fashionable to paint him as sort of a deeply disturbed man, but I don’t really think that he’s deeply disturbed. I think that because of the business he was in and his success, he had license to explore his particular malady, you know?  And most people don’t, so we see it writ large. Here’s another great director: Minnelli. I know we both love him.

JACK: Oh yeah, and he was here in town, making Home from the Hill.

MEGAN: I know!

JACK: And he wanted to meet Faulkner, but Faulkner was out of town.

MEGAN: Or supposedly hiding in a tree according to the back of the DVD case… ha ha ha! I will say I’m not interested in hagiography, but I believe Faulkner was definitely not in that tree. You can’t do anything to diminish him, not even tales of foolishness. Since I was here I thought I might hear stuff that would in some way diminish him, but they’ve only made him seem greater.

JACK: What have you heard?

MEGAN: Well, I heard some stories about the seamstress mistress who had the shop on the square. Do you know this story?

JACK: No, I don’t know that story. Wait, you have to tell me this dumb ghost story I don’t believe.

MEGAN: Oh, yeah, yeah! So I went to this book club and we were all talking about ghosts, and I don’t know how this came up, but I heard two good ghost stories from the same woman, which does add some dubiousness to it, but she was a very straightforward woman. But she said her husband, who doesn’t believe in ghosts at all, and really refuses to believe that what he saw was a ghost… first of all, everyone knew the Rowan Oak ghost story, Faulkner’s homestead.

JACK: Yeah, he made that up.

MEGAN: But her husband was there walking his dog early one morning and he saw a girl in a white dress on the grounds and then he went to the back of the house, he was walking towards the front, and the girl was gone. And it was a—ha ha ha ha!—old-timey white dress and she was a young girl and he couldn’t figure out why she was there. But she seemed to disappear behind a tree and never appear again. And everyone there told me that this was the ghost of a girl at Rowan Oak who threw herself off the balcony.

JACK: That’s the story that Faulkner made up.

MEGAN: But maybe he made it up but it was also true!

JACK: No… he made it up.

MEGAN: Because then one of my students said that he and some friends were getting into some trouble on the grounds of Rowan Oak after hours and that the police came to tell them to leave, and they were just talking to the police and the police said that they had seen the girl in the white dress as well but they would never tell anybody about it, that she could be spotted there at night. What if, in a kind of Lovecraftian way, Faulkner actually generated a ghost by telling the story?

JACK: I think it’s bull. And I believe in ghosts!

MEGAN: Why do you think this one is not true?

JACK: Because Faulkner famously made it up.

William Faulkner or a terrifying ghost?

William Faulkner or a terrifying ghost?

MEGAN: But maybe he saw something. How do you know he made it up?

JACK: I mean he made it up to keep the kids from playing around, roughhousing on the balcony.

MEGAN: But who’s to say?

JACK: But he made up a funny name, and a thing, and a whole story…

MEGAN: I don’t know! I don’t know. I believe in every ghost story. The Barry Hannah Paris Review interview is where I got this quote I keep returning to about how great fiction is fueled by a child’s imagination. You know, because he’s tired of realism. And I’ve always felt that way. And I used the term realism as this interview began to describe what some people consider the real world, ha ha! Because my world doesn’t feel that way—photographic realism, the mundane aspects of life…

JACK: I don’t see the point.

MEGAN: Exactly! What would be the point?

JACK: It’s not even the real… realism is the biggest trick!

MEGAN: Yes.

JACK: “The greatest thing the devil ever did…”

MEGAN: I think the devil invented realism.

JACK: It’s a silly parlor trick.

MEGAN: It is!

JACK: And I used to, oh, “The old lady picked up the cracked saucer.”

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: I just don’t care about that cracked saucer, I don’t care about that old lady.

MEGAN: No, I want adventure and mayhem and depravity—all those things.

JACK: That’s the real realism.

MEGAN: Exactly! I really think it is. And I think realism sort of defeats the purpose of reading, and people are like, “But what about Raymond Carver?” Well, there’s nothing realistic about Raymond Carver! He has all kinds of freakish things happen in his stories. People behave wildly.

JACK: Bang rocks on people’s heads! Find a dead lady in a river.

MEGAN: “Why Don’t You Dance?” is full of these things Flannery O’Connor was talking about, when people do things you don’t think they should do. But students were saying, “But why has he invited them to sit there? Why is she lying on his bed?” Every action in that story is surprising and weird. Those are very fevered stories, which the prose style disguises to the casual reader, I suppose. But even then, they’re just weird! I mean, it’s weirder to not name your characters, say, than to name them. It’s weirder, you know, in “Why Don’t You Dance?” “The man, the boy, the girl.” That’s what I was talking about with the students. And now we have every story, no one’s giving a name to their main character! Ha ha ha ha! We had like five of them in the class.

JACK: You haven’t taught a class like that in a long time, have you? Have you ever taught a fiction workshop?

MEGAN: No! It was my first fiction workshop ever.

JACK: Have you ever read Edith Wharton’s ghost stories?

MEGAN: I just took it out of the library! I think she would be great at it.

JACK: I have a book of them. I’ve never read it.

MEGAN: What about writing a ghost story? You’ve dallied with that. What’s the challenge?

JACK: Well, the challenge is making it believable and making it scary… uhm… you know, Michael Chabon wrote an essay about the fact that for a long time in fiction, if you were a serious short-story writer, you had to be able to write a good ghost story.

MEGAN: I would think it would be hard with endings in particular. Are they driven out? Or do they triumph? Or…

JACK: Don’t they usually triumph? What happens in Turn of the Screw?

MEGAN: That’s my favorite. But I read a lot of them when I was a kid and haven’t read many since. I kind of want to revisit all of them. But I like the ones where you don’t really know… I guess Turn of the Screw is the perfect example, but a lot of them are like that, where it really hovers forever in the realm of the uncanny. I was always scared by the Hawthorne stories when I was a kid.

JACK: Well, those are scary.

MEGAN: Really frightening. Family curses and things like that.

JACK: His stories are so ambiguous.

MEGAN: We went there when I was kid, to his house, the seven gables and all, and it all felt so haunted, even visiting it, to me as a kid. I think it was the first time I saw a writer’s house. We saw his house, and we saw Louisa May Alcott’s house, and a bunch of peoples’ houses. But something about being in his house, and doing the Salem Witch Trial tour…

JACK: Oh, scary.

MEGAN: Everything felt haunted about the place, because I grew up in the suburbs where everything was fairly new, and then to go there and see those houses that were a couple of centuries old seemed ancient and terrifying to me. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I had gone to England or something. When you would think about all the history that the houses would hold, it just felt really frightening.

JACK: He was always haunted by his own ancestors’ part in the witch trials.

MEGAN: As he should be.

JACK: And he changed the spelling of his name, just like Faulkner changed the spelling of his name, what’s up with that?

MEGAN: I guess that’s another anxiety of influence issue. It’s spooky, have you ever been to Salem?

JACK: No, no.

MEGAN: It is something where even the architecture, it’s so overloaded, the symbolism for us. All of us who grew up reading. It was sort of like Rowan Oak for me, the first time I visited. And even seeing the square here, I still remember the first time driving to the center of it and it was just like The Sound and the Fury. It was literally like the book had jumped off the page. There’s something about that, when so much of your reality is formed by books as a kid. Wasn’t it like that for you? Wasn’t there ever a time when there was something you read about and you came upon it in real life?

JACK: I don’t know, that’s a weirdly specific question. But when I was just reading Absalom, Absalom! recently, there are a lot of references to the Grove. Because Oxford is in the book a lot, not just his fake Oxford but the real Oxford. So he mentions places that are still around now.

MEGAN: Proud Larry’s? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Yeah. No. But it was a strange feeling. Faulkner refers to the university in all these really insulting terms.

MEGAN: It’s funny that now they own his home.

JACK: I forget all the mean things he says about it, but at the time of the novel, the part that takes place there, the campus has only been around for ten years.

MEGAN: How is it that that’s one you’ve never read before?

JACK: I’ve always been intimidated by it. It seemed like it’d be hard to read. I read the first few pages several times, it’s about a guy sitting in a room, there’s dust motes… and then I’d read a paragraph about dust motes… but it was a lot easier to understand than I thought it would be.

MEGAN: There’s a lot of him I haven’t read. And partially it’s like Roth: I’m saving a few, because I don’t want to be finished. I just got one of the Roths, Letting Go. I read it when I was a teenager but I don’t remember it at all so I’m considering it one I haven’t read. It’s early Roth, so it’s really different. But you get something out of all his books, just like with Faulkner, so there’s no wasted experience with him. I mean, Faulkner never infuriates me in the way that Roth can.

JACK: I don’t know, Faulkner can be infuriating sometimes. I read Flags in the Dust, that was pretty frigging racist.

MEGAN: I don’t mean on that level. I mean, definitely it can offend me, but I guess Roth is closer to our times, so it feels more… that he has no excuse.

JACK: Nemesis was incredible.

MEGAN: It’s brilliant.

JACK: And that’s one he wrote when he was, how old was he?

MEGAN: Eighty? He couldn’t have written it at any other age and have that ending—and it’s such a plot-driven… it’s so exciting. Suspenseful.

JACK: Real twists.

MEGAN: Heartbreaking twists.

JACK: Oh my God! But the writing is so clear and perfect, how does he do it? It almost seems like, here are some facts, laid down on the page.

MEGAN: But he’s also got a lot of nostalgia in there that I love. I love how he’s always free with nostalgia.

JACK: I believed everything. And you believed that was a real incident.

MEGAN: I absolutely did!

JACK: But in that book, the Claudia Roth Pierpont book we both read, she says that he made that entire incident up.

MEGAN: Yeah, I don’t believe it. Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That’s the trick of realism. That’s a realist novel, don’t you think?

MEGAN: But realism wouldn’t be able to do that, right? Because it really drops you into his consciousness so intensely. It so rises and falls based on his emotion, you know, when he first goes up to the country, and he sort of swells with this joy and vigor, and the swimming and the picnicking and the sex with his girlfriend, and everything is great and everyone is tanned. Even the sentences change, the structure, and you feel this liberation—it’s been so dark in Newark, and so dour. It’s not realism. It’s not an objective rendering of events.

JACK: I see what you mean.

MEGAN: It’s highly pitched to his emotions as opposed to the objective reality, which is one of the reasons that the twist works. You read him and he’s the ultimate magician because his touch seems so light in that book. Not always in all of his books, but in that one.

JACK: He’s barely there. You don’t even know he’s there.

MEGAN: Except that his interests are always there, which is one of the things that I love about him. There’s always a father figure who’s very wise and understanding.

JACK: The prospective father-in-law.

MEGAN: Yes. In this case. Who you feel so comfortable around.

JACK: And also the grandfather, who’s a very, very strong personality. I was looking at a list of his books and realizing that I’ve probably read more of him than anybody.

MEGAN: For sure, in my case.

JACK: I have to pause this, sorry. [Pendarvis returns from Men’s Room and restarts recorder.] Did you know that in the men’s room here there’s some graffiti that quotes our friend Scott Phillips?

MEGAN: Yes! No! I didn’t know that. That would be awful if I knew that.

JACK: It’s a slight misquote. It says, “IF WICHITA FALLS, SO FALLS WICHITA FALLS.” Isn’t that from The Ice Harvest? It’s on a men’s room wall in the movie. But I think it’s “AS WICHITA FALLS, SO FALLS WICHITA FALLS.”

MEGAN: Which is better, which is better, yeah.

JACK: It’s a slight misquote, but…

MEGAN: It’s a nice claim to fame! I’d like to be quoted on men’s room walls.

JACK: I’m sure you are.

1 of 68