An Interview with Elizabeth Hand

Paul Doiron here—

Elizabeth Hand and I are too young to have known each other as long as we have. I met her just after she had moved to Maine from Washington, D.C. in the early nineties, a gifted and ambitious new author who more than lived up to the “promising” label everyone was then attaching to her. She’s since written eight novels and several short story collections primarily in the speculative fiction genre, winning a slew of awards, including the Shirley Jackson Award, the James Tiptree Award, the Nebula Award (twice), the World Fantasy Award (three times), and many others. 

In 2007 she turned to suspense fiction with Generation Loss, a literary thriller set on an island off the Maine coast. On February 14 she will publish the sequel, Available Dark, and in the interest of full disclosure I should say that we share the same publisher and publicist. I also provided this blurb for the book: “Available Dark is dark stuff indeed. Elizabeth Hand takes us on a dangerous and drug-fueled trip through a world of art fetishists, death metal bands, and Nordic blood cults. This book disturbs and delights.” If you don’t want to take my word for it, listen to Tess Gerritsen: “Available Dark shimmers with gorgeous writing even as it scares the dickens out of you.”

I recently sat down with Liz to talk with her about her forays into the world of crime fiction.

As a professional writer, you’ve worked in a variety of different modes—everything from speculative fiction to novelizations of movies to comic books. Can you talk a little how you decided to write in the suspense genre? Were there specific crime novelists who inspired you? 
I’ve always been obsessed with film noir, probably my favorite kind of movie — I grew up watching it on TV and later on video and in proper theaters. The really early episodes of Superman had a nice noir feel to them, and probably imprinted on me.  As a kid I was also fascinated (and horrified) by the Justice Story, a weekly feature that ran in the New York Daily News and always featured some gruesome crime, often accompanied by Weegee-style crime scene photos.
My mother was and is an obsessive reader of every kind of literature. She’d go through several mystery novels a week from our small town library, and I’d often read books that she brought home.  John Creasey, John Dickson Carr, Evan Hunter and Ed McBain — Evan Hunter lived in our town.  My mother still recommends books to me, and she always offers great critiques of the Cass Neary novels.
And even though my literary taste ran more to fantasy and supernatural fiction, I always read a lot of other stuff.  In the 70s I got into true crime stories, like Helter Skelter and Serpentine.  I read Kem Nunn’s amazing Tapping the Source when it first appeared and was totally blown away by it — I must’ve read that book four or five times now.  Nunn’s other surf noir novels are great, too. But I never seriously considered writing crime literature.  It seemed too much of a stretch, plotting-wise — most of my work is driven by character and atmosphere.  I’m not so great at plot.
It’s odd — most of the suspense writers I read are British or European.  Ruth Rendall/Barbara Vine, David Peace, Ian Rankin, Louise Welch, Kate Atkinson, Peter Hoeg, Kerstin Ekman.  Atkinson is an American living in the UK, but she has a very British sensibility.  I think she’s amazing.
But what spurred me to finally quit my job and focus on writing full-time was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, one of the great neo-noir films.  I was already a Lynch fan, but when I saw that I thought, Man, if this guy can make a living out of this weird shit, so can I.
But I never seriously considered writing anything in that vein until I saw Silence of the Lambs.  I watched that movie and thought, You knowI could do this.  The story was driven by the characters, and it had those over-the-top Grand Guignol setpieces — it wasn’t that different in some ways from what I did with some of my own work.
It still felt like a stretch.  For years, various editors kept urging me to write something quote-unquote mainstream, but I just couldn’t find my way to writing “straight” fiction. Generation Loss actually started as a contemporary dark fantasy novel, like Waking the Moon or Black Light — the setup was the same as in the final book, a young woman going to an island off the Maine coast and finding herself involved with the fallout of an old commune, an outsider artist, all that. I was inspired in part by Michael Powell’s movie I Know Where I’m Going.
I got about two hundred pages into it, but the book was dead in the water.  It briefly morphed into a horror novel, and that sucked, too.  At that point my agent told me I should try to write something different.  I’d loved Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels — I love writing unsympathetic characters, the challenge of getting an audience to go along for a ride that makes them uncomfortable.
So I decided to just go balls-out and come up with the most unsympathetic protagonist I could.  And that was Cass Neary.
Available Dark is the second in a series of books—after 2007’s Generation Loss— featuring photographer-speed-freak-alcoholic-trouble magnet Cass Neary. To call her an anti-heroine understates the case, I think. She makes the late Amy Winehouse look fairly well-adjusted. Where in hell did she come from?
I’ve often said that Cass is essentially me, if my mental and emotional brakelines had been cut when I was younger.  Like her, I was involved in the nascent 1970s NYC punk scene.   I was a participant observer, not a photographer — what I really wanted to be was a rock critic, the female Lester Bangs.
And, like Cass, I was abducted and raped when I was in my early twenties. Afterward I would sometimes get these terrifying phone calls from someone who’d say my name then announce he was going to kill me.  For years I walked around with an incredible amount of rage, and terror, but I was determined not to be afraid.  I lived in a not-great neighborhood in D.C., and when I was out alone after dark I’d wear these cowboy books and psyche myself up to kick the shit out of anyone who looked at me cross-eyed.  I was on a near-constant adrenaline jag, and for decades I had night terrors and parasomnias, where I’d act out confronting my attacker.  Once I tore a heavy wooden curtain rod from the wall , and woke up to find myself in the middle of my bedroom wielding it like a sword.  That became the boat hook at the finale of Generation Loss.
I channeled all that fury and terror into Cass.  It was a horrible book to write — I hated every minute of it.  And I had no idea what kind of reception it would get, as I’d never before written anything that had no element of the fantastic.  It ended up getting the best reviews of any novel I’d ever written. I thought, Huh, well, that was interesting.
Cass is a photographer, and one of the themes in both books is how the creative life can be incredibly destructive to both artists and the people around them. Is that a fair characterization? Why did you choose to make an artist the protagonist of a series of crime novels?
Artists can be self-destructive, though I’m not sure they’re more well-represented in the self-destruction sweepstakes than, say, truck drivers or physicians or call center employees.  But I know more about artists than I do about those other things.
To be honest, I never thought (until now!) that there was anything unusual about having an artist protagonist in a crime novel.  Or maybe it’s just that I never thought of doing anything else.  I’m an artist, and it seemed logical to me to have a protagonist who’s an artist as well, even if she’s a failed one.  I’m fascinated — obsessed, probably — with artists and the creative process.  It’s an incredible mystery to me how a great work of visual art or literature or music or dance or film is produced.  Obviously it’s a combination of hard work, and practice, and talent, and luck.
But there’s also this unfathomable spark that ignites any great work, and in many of my novels and short stories I try to figure out what that spark is.  At heart, that’s what the Cass Neary novels are about — someone who recognizes creative brilliance even if she doesn’t possess it herself, someone who’s constantly drawn to exploring that mystery.  That, and serial killers.
Much of Available Dark takes place in Helsinki and Iceland. How aware were you of the whole Scandinavian crime novel craze when you were writing the book and how did it influence what you were doing?
To this day, I’ve never read or seen any of the Stieg Larsson stories. After Generation Loss came out, readers started telling me how it reminded them of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Most people said they liked my book better because it left out the boring parts — Elmore Leonard’s 10th Rule in action!  I eventually tried reading the first Larsson book but I just couldn’t get into it.  The movies sound like they’re better, and one of these days I’ll watch them.
But I did and do love other nordic literature. I’m also depressive, and I think that helps with getting into that whole Scandinavian mindset.   I loved the Icelandic sagas as a kid and have always been drawn to what W.H. Auden termed “northernness,” that sense of isolation and danger and awe at the beauty and peril of extreme landscapes.  I’ve written about places like that throughout my career, and I adore books that feed that sense of northernness.  Your Mike Bowditch novels do that wonderfully, using a Maine northwoods setting.
For particularly scandic literature, I’ve read Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater, a few of Henning Mankell’s novels; the Icelandic mysteries of Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdadottir’s Last Rituals.  I especially loved Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Blackwater.  Smilla is a fabulous character, and Blackwater has this gorgeous, eerie setting in remote Sweden.
I’ve spent time in Finland and Iceland, and was struck in both places by how much they remind me of Maine.  The landscape of Finland in particular looks like ours; the people in Iceland remind me a lot of Mainers. And I think there’s a tendency for people in all these places to self-medicate during the winter, which often leads to violence.  In Scandinavia, of course, the violent crime rate is much lower than it is here, where we’ve been acculturated to violence for a far longer period and where we have easier access to firearms.  I think that Iceland has the lowest homicide rate in the world.  Not in fiction, though.
Generation Loss was set in Maine and did a fantastic job, in my opinion, of getting at the love-hate relationship Mainers have with outsiders. You came here from Washington, D.C. more than twenty years ago. Do you still feel like an outsider?
I definitely feel less like an outsider, though that may be due to the fact that there are so many more people from away here now — I don’t stand out as much as I used to.  (When I first moved here, someone told me they knew I was from away because I was blonde and tall — I’m only 5’ 6”!)  Now of course I often find myself railing against the incursions of people from Washington, D.C.  I used to embarrass my kids by rolling down the car window in Camden during the summer to shout at idiot tourists who refuse to use the crosswalks.  I have a friend who (behind a shop counter) used to wear a t-shirt that read THEY CALL IT TOURIST SEASON,  SO WHY CAN’T WE SHOOT THEM?  I liked that.
In my own writing, I think it’s important to feel like an outsider — most of my stories center on outsiders.  I continually try to put myself in places and situations where I don’t fit in.  It’s not always pleasant, but it does feed my work: I need that sense of psychic unease.  “The edge is what I have,” as the poet Theodore Roethke put it.
Lastly, do you plan on writing more stories in the Cass Neary series? Will she ever go to rehab?
It’s funny you mentioned Amy Winehouse earlier —  a character in the third Cass Neary novel, Flash Burn, is loosely inspired by her and is set in her part of North London.  Winehouse lived in Camden Town, the part of the city I’ve gotten to know and love over the last 18 years.  I spend as much time there as I can, but I don’t have a residence — that would mean losing my outsider status.
But yes, I’m planning at least two more Cass Neary novels, and more if the muse allows. And I actually have thought of putting her into rehab.  The only thing scarier than Cass Neary on a bender would be to see her attempt to function without a drink.  That would be truly terrifying.
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5 Responses to An Interview with Elizabeth Hand

  1. Sarah Graves says:

    Hi, Elizabeth, and thanks for that excellent interview. (And you, too, Paul.)

  2. Want to emphasize what terrific books these are. Cass Neary is one of the most fascinating fictional characters I’ve ever come across.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Great interview, Paul. I’ve ordered the first book.

    My only experience with Icelandic literature is Halldor Laxness’s Nobel-prize winning book Independent People. It’s the kind of book that makes you alternately want to kill yourself, and fall on your knees in gratitude at not having to live in a place like that. Of course, this was written in the 1950’s.


  4. Even though Liz and I are friends, I learned so much from your interview, Paul! Thank you. Looking forward to getting to know Cass Neary, too…

  5. Pingback: Geek Media Round-Up: February 9, 2012 – Grasping for the Wind

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