Author Archives: llandrigan
I’ve always had an interest in rediscovering old mysteries. I love seeing how the stories are constructed and the characters fleshed out, and comparing the authors’ techniques to the contemporary writers I read. I love finding new (to me) words and phrasings—meaching, roistering. Most of all, though, I delight in finding the cultural and historical threads that connect my own time to the period of the old books—political jokes that haven’t changed, societal expectations that have.
My latest discovery is The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis. Originally published in 1946, it has been republished in Sarah Weinman’s excellent two-volume collection of novels by women crime writers of the ’40s and ’50s. The Horizontal Man takes place at a fictional women’s college in the Berkshires, and in many ways echoes the cozy, village-set mysteries of Agatha Christie. Set in autumn, when the leaves have strayed from the trees, the small college town is exposed to Eustis’s crisp, satirical delineations. The murder of a handsome, sexually attractive English professor brings to the fore the neuroses, pretensions, snobbery, and jealousies that flourish in a quaint, academic environment. Helen Eustis, too, knew that environment well: She married her English professor when she was a student at Smith College.
Plus ça change . . . Eustis could be describing any English department functioning today. Her character studies, especially of the minds of the insecure professors grappling for position, are so spot on, you feel you’ve met these people before. She pokes a little fun at them, but they aren’t so overdrawn as to become caricatures. The Horizontal Man manages to be a smart mystery that expects its readers to be as smart as its characters.
What is out of date? Well, for one, the psycho-babble is risible now—but that was our understanding of the human mind at the time the novel was written. The unmarried professors live in boarding houses, the students’ dorms have house mothers. To me this is all part of the fun of discovering what the day-to-day life of a college community was like in the forties.
Helen Eustis was not a prolific writer. In fact, The Horizontal Man was her only novel, but it was critically acclaimed at the time and it won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. In addition to a collection of short stories, The Captain and the Kings Depart and Other Stories (1943), she wrote for the New Yorker and other periodicals and translated George Simenon into English.
Sarah Weinman in her anthology is saving Helen Eustis and the other women crime writers she included—Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, to name a few—from drifting into obscurity. And their novels are worthy of our attention and study for their craft, their engaging suspense, and the way they weave in a woman’s perspective from an era on the cusp of revolutionary societal changes.
I am lying in bed. Everything is turned off. The excited chatter of the evening’s dinner has finally stopped echoing in my head. And yet, true silence is elusive. The noises are now unfamiliar. Was that a rustle of the sheets, or a footfall on the stair? The wind knocking at the window, or someone’s fingers slipping off the screen?
At night, little creaks are piercing, the refrigerator hum deafening. My racing heart is at war with the sleeping pill I took, and the dripping sink sings me awake awake awake. Then as I start to drift off, a party somewhere down the street breaks apart messily.
I wait for the last hoot of laughter, the rumble of the last car pulling away. . . . And I start again to parse the grunts and groans of the old bones of this house, the patter of mice in the rafters, suddenly becoming aware of the fan, it’s blades slicing the air.
I think my patch of dill is three inches high today, my tomato plant and two bean vines about mid calf and mid thigh respectively.
Well, I was slow to get the seeds in the ground, so what could I expect?
I also forget to water, until my scrawny little plants are banging their leafy fists on the ground and saying accusingly, “What kind of gardener are you?”
This is a blog about writing, and I’m writing about not writing. My pen, when I can find it, could say the same thing to me: “You never call, you never write . . .”
I admire Heidi and Karen and Eleanor for undertaking the writing of a novel—and following it through, untangling the snarls in the plots, deepening their characters with each rewrite, filling in the holes with some excellent writing.
I look at the characters in my pre-written stories, and they just glare back at me, accusingly. “Well, we’re not going anywhere while you just sit there and doodle in the margins!” Maybe I should just take up cartooning.
My live-and-let-live approach to gardening and writing hasn’t worked well (except for the weeds). Participating in the blog has been helping me get over my block—I’m writing and stretching that mental muscle that I’ve let atrophy for too long.
I’ve had the pleasure recently of visiting Ithaca, New York, and from my brief stay, I’m totally intrigued by the region. The Finger Lakes and the numerous and dramatic waterfalls themselves tell a story that goes back for centuries and centuries. The wineries and local food eateries that have sprung up more recently tell another, perhaps related, story of how people respond to the environment in which they live and work.
We talk a lot about sense of place when we talk about writing, and for good reason. If characters drive the story, then perhaps setting drives the characters. When I read a story that is set in no place in particular, I often feel that something essential about the people in the story is lacking. When the setting of a story or novel pulses with it’s own heartbeat, the characters within that story have more depth. And some stories couldn’t exist apart from their setting, as so many people are rediscovering this summer rereading To Kill a Mockingbird.
It makes me wonder how people can write about a place and the people who live in that place without having spent much time there themselves. I know that there are skilled writers who can do so . . . What are their tricks and tools for absorbing the essence of a place enough to capture not only in the descriptions of the setting, but also in their characters? This has long been a worry of mine, since I never felt that I came from anyplace. As a child I lived with my grandmother in Florida, who told me often enough “Kentucky is our home.” She’d lived more years in Florida than Kentucky, but she carried with her the traits of her birthplace in her speech, her cooking, her sense of propriety. I loved Kentucky, but it was never my home. My mother and I eventually landed in a college town after she got her masters—a town where no one was from. I don’t feel like I inherited a culture from the place; I always felt like an outsider. And in fact, I could not get out of that town fast enough when I graduated from high school. It’s only since I’ve been away from “home” for a good twenty-plus years, that I can begin to see how my own hometown shaped the essential me.
Extensive research about a place, rounded out with empathetic imagination—whether it is a storefront in a dusty, dying strip mall or a fierce and angry waterfall carving through shale and sandstone—are the essential things a writers must bring to the table when sitting down with pad and paper. A little local cheese and wine helps, too.
Are family demons a gift to fiction writers? In the first draft of my post today, I wrote about my mother. In so many ways she was a wonderful woman, but—but I’m pulling back. Though she is still an enigma to me, it is my grandmother, from whom I have more distance, who is the greater mystery.
My grandmother was crazy. She was an alcoholic, physically and verbally abusive to her daughters, and suffocatingly jealous. Yet to all outside appearances, she was perfect. Her Depression-era house, with its perimeter of roses, was modest and clean; her daughters’ clothes were hand-sewn with excruciating attention to detail; their grades were excellent.
Unnamed while she lived was that trifecta of shame: mental illness, alcoholism, violence in the home. If my grandmother had wanted help—and I don’t believe she ever acknowledged she had a problem—she could not have gotten it. The devil on her back was unmentionable. And besides, no one—no one outside the home—ever saw that demon.
My mother told some of the stories of her childhood, and my grandmother’s sister a few more that predated my grandparents’ marriage. But with the death now of my grandmother’s siblings, how she because who she was is a lost story—and besides no one wanted to talk about it. When I recall her now, I see a tall, strong woman with medusa-like hair, crazy-intense eyes, and skin discolored from cigarettes and liquor. The fiery anger of her younger years had quelled by the time my mother had moved back home, though I witnessed a few incoherent drunken rages.
I can talk about my grandmother more easily than my mother (the part I’ve cut from the earlier draft) because I didn’t have that much of a role in my grandmother’s drama. Unlike my mother, I don’t have to examine the things I did to survive in such a soul-crushing environment.
I admire those writers who can peel back their respectable outer shells and expose the demons inside. It takes courage, even when those demons are expressed through fiction. I once wrote a novella about an unlikely friendship between two girls who shared a horrific experience—except that I dialed back on the evilness. I couldn’t bring myself to name it. Instead, the girls shared a bad experience, but not one so bad that they couldn’t talk about it. I justified my cowardliness with the excuse that a truly terrible experience would be the story, rather than the story I wanted to tell about evolving relationships and attitudes.
The manuscript is shelved. I still have affection for the characters and I would never want to hurt them. It was a nice story, if boring. You wouldn’t want to read it.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to listen to Leslie Budewitz do a terrific reading of one of her stories—“The End of the Line” from the December 2006 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
Her dramatic reading highlighted for me how well the narrative voice served the needs of the story. The narrative was confident, active, and melodic without drawing attention to itself. I was never pulled out of the story by an awkward turn of phrase or unduly repeated word. The narrative voice of the story was not the character’s voice, but it reflected the inner workings of the character’s mind.
Hearing the story reminded me that one of the pleasures of reading is the performative aspect. Even while reading alone, I still hear the story as I read, and that audible dimension is a large part of what I find so satisfying in a beautiful passage of writing—and frustrating when the language is flat or clumsy or when the writer has tried too hard to affect an unnatural style.
Every writer should read his or her work aloud—perhaps first alone, but also to someone else when the work is more polished. And every writer should listen to his/her own writing. When you listen to your own writing, what do you hear?
We talk often about how important it is for writers to read widely. I would say that listening is just as crucial a part of the writing process. Listen to other writers as you read, listen to the world—and listen to yourself.
Except when it’s about something else.
I’m late with my blog post. I had thought that at the last minute Devine Inspiration would give me a good shove in the back and I would start moving forward on saying something. Apparently, D.I. has moved on herself—perhaps she’s read her share of self-help books on deadbeat relationships.
I’m particularly embarrassed about being late with my post because my day job is all about deadlines: getting edited copy to the typesetter, moving proofs through various editing stages so that we get the magazine to the printer on time, and eventually it gets mailed out to subscribers—on time.
Creative writers, too, have obligations and deadlines. The writer scribbling in blissful isolation—picture a cabin on the lake—is not the reality for most of us. If I were dumped in such a place, I might spend more time climbing the walls then actually writing. Writing is a social event; the activities of our lives, the complexities of our relationships swirl and meld in a febrile, creative mind. And as writers, we don’t just draw from our relationships and interactions with others, we are also responsible to our audiences. We need to contribute pieces to our writers groups and blogging partners, and some even have contractual deadlines to deliver a manuscript to an editor at a publishing house. It’s these social aspects of being a writer that provide that much need shove in the back.
Thanks, Heidi, Eleanor, Karen, Mike, Michael, and John. (D.I., I’m doing just fine, not that you asked . . . Do you even still think of me?)
This weekend I cleaned out my closet and finally emptied that old drawer of pantyhose. Each pair was brutally twisted into a knot and stuffed in a drawer that was so full that they sprang out at me whenever I opened it like a jack in the box. They were a reminder of an earlier life, much like the old photo you keep of the jerk who dumped you in college.
I wore a lot of stockings in my twenties and thirties. I dressed up in a power suit everyday for work, slogged from Hoboken to the city, to a tiny office with a view of the office building across the street at Third and Forty-third, and told myself that my job writing for a trade magazine was leading up to something grand, something with a paycheck that would pay the rent at least.
These stockings I’d hung onto for so long no longer fit and were mostly out of style, but like that long-dead relationship, I could point to specific hurts from individual pairs. That pair bagged at the knees, this pair gave up their elastic and rolled down during a presentation, those elegant ones turned to wire at midnight and scored my thighs raw.
Apparently, at one point in my life I wore teal tights—but I have blocked that memory. Mostly I wore off-black sheers. I wore a lot of off-black in my twenties, which I chalk up to a fundamental lack of confidence and a desire to blend into the grimy sidewalks of the city.
Some were so old that the fibers had stiffened. They were awful things and awful reminders of an awkward young adulthood. So why had I kept them, in their own little drawer where they would jump out at me like a suppressed memory?
On Sunday, into the trash went the old pantyhose. Liberté!
What do pantyhose have to do with writing? Tossing them was such a release, that I actually spent some considerable time thinking about the things we hoard, and it brought me around to writing. I identify with being a writer, and yet I can’t say I have accomplished much. I lack confidence—I’m that writer who wears off-black sheers in hopes that I don’t draw attention to myself.
My desk is cluttered with Post-it Notes and fools cap sheets of character developments and first paragraphs. I’ve hung onto a lot of old premises for stories that can’t seem to find a plot, shining lines that lack a poem to nestle into, stale ideas of myself as a writer, and rigid notions of what writing must look like. Those first five pages of a mystery that I think I must finish before trying something new. I spin my wheels on this stuff without much progress.
Tossing my writing tidbits might not be as easy as tossing the pantyhose, but thinking about what gets in the way of writing—fear or inertia or mental disorganization—perhaps is one step of moving beyond what holds us back.
It’s barely Spring, a new year is ahead. It’s time to toss the old ideas about writing and start afresh, this time with a blog, and a new commitment to writing.
And it is a fresh start. Blogging is something new and still uncomfortable for me. It’s its own genre: quick, short, immediate—and intimate. So much so that blogging can seem a bit like talking into the mirror. On the same token, blogging can lead to an empathetic community of people who by sharing their fears and struggles work together to overcome them—and ultimately to celebrate with each other our successes.