A Murder Club Instruction Manual: An Interview with Wendy Heard




WENDY HEARD WRITES the kind of gutsy, punchy, emotionally gritty crime fiction that keeps readers glued to the page. Her latest novel, The Kill Club, follows a young woman caught in the middle of chaos and involved with a murder club. The narrative brilliantly deconstructs morality and explores the psychogeography of crime while taking readers deep into the grimy, dangerous, and diverse underbelly of Los Angeles in ways that often make the story seem like nonfiction. Heard’s pacing is outstanding, her characters are complex, and her knack for dialogue gives this novel a pulpy-yet-literary feel. By mixing desperation and affection with a police procedural and lots of killing, The Kill Club places readers on unstable moral ground and forces them to contemplate the role love plays in what we do and how a broken system can push good people to do bad things.

The protagonist, Jazz, is one of my favorite characters in a while, so I wanted to know more about how she came to be and how the narrative she inhabits took place. I asked Heard some questions about her process, the research that went into The Kill Club, the novel’s religious criticism, and even her opinion about the whitewashed version of Los Angeles present in so many contemporary crime novels. Here’s what she had to say.

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GABINO IGLESIAS: With something as cryptic, violent, and wild as a murder club, the first question is: Where did the idea for the novel come from?

WENDY HEARD: In 2012, I saw a news story about a young widow and mother who had reported her stalker to the police. They did nothing, and one night, the stalker showed up at her mobile home in the middle of the woods, armed with a knife. While he was pounding down her door, she put her infant son in his crib, retrieved her shotgun, and called 911. She shot her stalker the moment the door opened, point blank in the chest. When interviewed she said, “There’s nothing so dangerous as a mother protecting her baby.” That is where The Kill Club came from.

The Kill Club contains a good amount of research. From places and the stagnation of some governmental offices to diabetes and forensic sciences, you looked into a plethora of topics. How was the research process for you?

You’re right; this book was research intensive. First, I vetted the viability of this idea: if such an organization existed, would people even join it? I conducted months of interviews with survivors who had been failed by the system and came to the resounding conclusion that, not only would many more people join such a club than you might think, there are a lot of folks walking around who are very lucky this club does not exist. Next, I researched the method by which the club operates, making sure I was constructing something that would actually work. I tested this against research into forensics, poison, and police investigative procedure. This required a lot of internet research (I have to be on a few watch lists at this point), a lot of planning, and interviews with law enforcement. After that, I conducted interviews with social services and medical doctors in the areas you pointed out: Jazz’s difficulties with DCFS, Joaquin’s diabetes. I also interviewed people with experience in custody court proceedings and family attorneys.

There are no cliché bad guys in my work. Instead, I create characters that are the result of the psychogeography they inhabit. Jazz, your main character, is a product of the system. Did you set out to create a character that showed what the system can do when it fails, or did she get there organically after you gave her a background?

I love that you stay away from clichéd villains. Sometimes I laugh when I read the news, thinking, “If I wrote this guy into a book, people would yell at me for not giving him enough nuance.”

Jazz’s characterization grew both organically and out of the setup I had given her. I wanted a protagonist the murder club would consider easy to control, someone vulnerable. I wanted someone who had been failed by the system and wouldn’t have the police immediately available to her as a support. I wanted to write someone working class and queer, because I am those things, and I wanted to put more of myself in this book, since it was my hometown project and felt very close to my heart. Finally, I wanted to write Jazz a redemptive arc, where we see the good and bad, the strength and weakness. She’s the product of these things, but she’s so much more than them. Being poor is not all bad; it teaches us to be resourceful and strong-minded. As a child, you learn to be responsible for yourself and street-smart. Lastly, I wanted to write a heroine whose love for her little brother was her most defining characteristic. Joaquin is a big part of Jazz’s characterization. As she says, he’s her only person, the one thing tethering her to this earth. Without him, she’s lost.

I loved Jazz, so let’s talk about her some more. She’s a musician and a fighter. She’s covered in tattoos. She has a regular job, is no stranger to the emergency room, and loves unconditionally. She’s complex and multilayered. How did you go about creating her? How important were each of the elements and attributes/flaws you gave her?

From my work building out Jazz’s character, I knew what her flaws would be. She’s a little too used to violence; she struggles with low self-worth. She blames herself for things that aren’t really her fault, but the alternative is to accept her complete powerlessness. She attaches too fast, then has to backpedal. She feels small and young and alone and has a “the best defense is a good offense” way of plunging into trouble. But I also knew she had some serious inner reserves she’d need along the way. She has a strong sense of herself despite her foster mother’s homophobia and hostility. She’s independent and capable, warm and nurturing, no-nonsense and harbors no self-pity. In a lot of ways, she’s everything I admire about the women I grew up with.

Representation matters, and I think you wrote this novel with that in mind. While it’s never preachy, representation is a big part of The Kill Club. Your characters are diverse and come from all walks of life. What do you think is the role of representation in contemporary fiction?

“All walks of life” is the perfect way to describe it, and I’m so glad you enjoyed this part of the book. The stories of the Blackbird club members are varied, with men suffering domestic violence along with women, with upper-middle-class women struggling with family attorneys the same way Jazz is. I felt a huge responsibility to let as many readers into this story as possible. If I wanted to take on a topic like this, I needed to do my homework and make sure I was painting as fair and nuanced a picture as possible. I hope I succeeded and that every reader feels there’s a place for them in this world.

If we talk about representation, we have to talk about your Los Angeles. I recently read a crime novel that took place in Los Angeles, and every single character in it was white. That’s not the case here. The Kill Club shows the real, gritty, incredibly diverse L.A. we all know. It feels real. In a way, the novel is a love letter to the city. What made you pay so much attention to the setting? Why was L.A. the perfect place for a novel about murdering strangers?

Ah yes, the whitewashed L.A. we see so often. It’s maddening, isn’t it? When they’re filming in the streets, they put up partitions, clear out the locals, and bring in extras: a curated Los Angeles for the world to consume. I think a lot of native Angelenos are constantly wanting to set the record straight. This is a thriving international city; more people here are bilingual than not, per the 2010 census. On the other hand, the city struggles with homelessness, poverty, and social services deficits. I grew up in the parts of the city that tourists don’t visit, and those are the parts I wanted to include in this book.

From a craft perspective, L.A. is a great place to do a murder club book! This is a simultaneously claustrophobic and isolating city; we’re on top of each other on the freeway but bottled up in our separate cars. If I were investigating the Blackbird killings, I’d be as horrified as the detectives in this book. The crime scenes are places like the Metro station and Costco. I have to confess that the procedural elements were a lot of fun to write.

I love the idea of people being forced to do bad things for the right reasons. Are you worried about how your narrative will challenge some readers to rethink the rigidity of their moral compass?

At some point, I realized I had essentially created a murder club instruction manual. I hope I also illustrated in explicit detail why forming and joining such an organization is a very bad idea.

I hear over and over again from readers trying to imagine what they’d do in Jazz’s situation. That’s what I hoped to accomplish: I’m offering what’s clearly a wrong solution to a problem, but what’s the right one?

What about crime fiction appeals to you the most?

The puzzle! The mystery! Writing crime fiction is like playing chess against yourself. Sometimes (don’t tell my agent), I don’t outline the last act until I get to the “all is lost” moment, so I literally do not know how my protagonist is going to get out of this, or if they will be able to.

There is a religious angle in The Kill Club that’s too close to the truth and will make a lot of people uncomfortable. We’re living in the age of anti-vaxxers and sending thoughts and prayers instead of coming up with real solutions. Was your use of religion a critique, a comment on zealots, a political move, or a combination of all three?

I’d like to congratulate you on asking the one question I’m afraid to answer. Here’s the truth: The Kill Club’s critique of this particular brand of charismatic Christianity is pretty close to home for me, and I didn’t have to look up most of those Bible verses Carol spews at Jazz. Yes, I’m being critical; the baseball bat scene is subtle, don’t you think? But my desire to make that critique comes from my own life, not the current political climate. If it’s timely, I just got lucky.

The Kill Club comes in at a hefty 368 pages, but the pacing and economy of language makes it feel like a novella. How was the editing process for you? How do you go about creating quick, believable dialogue?

I outline like a screenwriter to control pacing and keep myself from going on rabbit trails. With an intricate puzzle-plot like this one, planning is key. I like to work in a four-act structure; that’s been a huge help to me. Every time I find myself writing a long-winded passage full of purple prose, a voice in my head yells, “Stop congratulating yourself on owning a thesaurus and just tell them what happened already!” In general, I tend to underwrite rather than overwrite, and I always have to go back and add inner monologue and descriptions in my later drafts.

Most of the best crime novels I read in 2019 were by women, including yours. This year is off to a great start with three books by women and many more in the ARC pile. Are there any female writers you think us crime fiction lovers should add to our reading piles?

Oh, absolutely. Here’s the thing: women understand fear. We spend our lives marinating in it. Behind every dark corner, underneath every parked car, in every empty parking lot, lies the potential for violence. I think it’s no accident that women have found a home here in crime fiction.

I’m working my way through a stack of review copies of 2020 books, and here are a few sneak peeks: Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier, who’s using her serial killer thriller skills to ruin our lives with this new domestic suspense book about a mother searching for her kidnapped child; The Lady Upstairs by Halley Sutton, which is a furious feminist addition to the classic L.A. noir tradition; They Never Learn by Layne Fargo, about a university professor/female serial killer that I can best describe as a feminist rage storm; These Women by Ivy Pochoda, about five women in South Los Angeles whose lives are connected by a dangerous man … but they don’t know it yet.

I’d love to recommend a group called Crime Writers of Color (@crimewoc on Twitter and https://www.crimewritersofcolor.com/), whose database contains some of my favorites. Some 2019 releases from L.A. writers in their group are Tori Eldridge, who wrote The Ninja Daughter, a #MeToo action thriller with a kickass heroine; Rachel Howzell Hall, the acclaimed crime writer and Angeleno whose recent They All Fall Down has some killer Agatha Christie vibes; and Steph Cha, whose recent Your House Will Pay is a glorious example of the intersection between literary and crime fiction.

The Kill Club is dark and full of pain, but it has some funny moments that help break the tension and allow the reader to inhale. What do you think is the role of humor in crime fiction?

I knew this book needed a good dose of that signature L.A. dark humor if it was going to avoid being a giant bummer. Finding the joke in the storm is something I live for. I wish I saw more humor in crime fiction, because that’s something we can use to balance out the darkness. As any comedian will tell you, it’s harder to make people laugh than cry.

You’re very active on social media. I tell my MFA students that that’s crucial nowadays. What are your thoughts on social media and the way it can affect a writer’s career?

I try! As you well know, authors work remotely and our colleagues live all over the world. Social media is a great way to feel connected to other writers and to our readers. It’s also a great way to waste time when you’re supposed to be working on something meaningful, so all around a helpful tool. And when you’re looking back on your life in moments of existential dread, you can consider how many hours you spent on places like Twitter when you could have been outdoors, learning to knit, or whatever else we used to do before we spent our lives staring at little glowing rectangles.

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Gabino Iglesias is the author of Coyote Songs and Zero Saints.

 

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