Strong, Weird, Smart Women of Noir: Q&A with Elizabeth Little

August 8, 2014   •   By Deborah Shapiro

IN HER DEBUT NOVEL, Dear Daughter, Elizabeth Little fuses an ultra-contemporary story with tried-and-true noir conventions. The result is a darkly entertaining, old-fashioned mystery that feels as current as the text messages and blog posts that punctuate the narrative. At the book’s center is 27-year-old Jane Jenkins. Troubled, caustic, and funny, Jane is an indelible combination of celebutante culture and Old World refinement: Kim Kardashian if she referenced Clausewitz and knew a lot about European decorative arts. After being convicted of her mother’s murder — the circumstances of which she can’t clearly recall — and spending a decade in prison, Jane is on the run, hoping to find out what really happened. Did she commit the crime the world assumes she did, or is the real killer still out there? Her search takes her to a tiny secret-filled town in South Dakota where many alternative suspects and satisfying plot twists emerge.

Little is also the author of two nonfiction books, Biting the Wax Tadpole, a pop-cultural dive into the quirks of the world’s languages, and Trip of the Tongue, a cross-country exploration of America’s linguistic heritage. From her home in Los Angeles, we spoke over the phone about mothers and daughters, Veronica Mars, and writing her first mystery.


DEBORAH SHAPIRO: What was your jumping off point for this story?

ELIZABETH LITTLE: This book started with Amanda Knox. I got the CNN breaking news alert that her verdict had been overturned. As soon as that came in I was like, whats next? [Dear Daughter] starts with the equivalent of that news alert. But I didn’t want to write a thinly veiled version of the Amanda Knox story.

I wanted to do the mother-daughter thing. Insofar as every woman is constantly reevaluating the relationship with and to her mother, it’s a fundamental experience of being a woman. That’s what I was interested in thinking about, but taking it to the nth degree.

That can be one of the real advantages of genre writing: using an extreme scenario to explore something with real psychological resonance.

That’s the best case, to craft something psychologically totally realistic but in a situation that’s the opposite. Those works where writers take an inner demon and make it an outer demon. That’s work that I really love. That’s when you get something like Buffy. Everyone worries in high school that they’re invisible, right? So they do an episode of Buffy where the girl nobody notices actually becomes invisible. Or you get something like The Shining, which is so effective as a horror novel that I didn’t understand or appreciate its insights into addiction and recovery and relapse until I was much older. In the best genre works, magic and monsters are just the way into something painful but true. This is why I like to think of genre fiction as like a support group or something. Externalizing an internal horror in a fantastic, impossible manner actually creates a kind of psychological safe space that lets us dare to wrap our minds around otherwise unfathomable emotion.

In the book you have this daughter whose childish wish for her mothers demise is made real, and she really doesnt know, she can’t remember, the degree to which shes responsible. But Jane herself is also a bit of a concept brought to life and then made increasingly multidimensional.

I’ve always joked that Paris Hilton must be an evil genius. So, what if Paris Hilton actually was an evil genius? That’s the character we’re working with here: Paris Hilton meets Machiavelli. That was the feeling I was going for. The moment when the character clicked, it was maybe the third or fourth paragraph I wrote. She’s bitching about not having shampoo and conditioner in prison, and she says, “I would’ve given a kidney for some motherfucking Pantene.” And that was the sentence where I was like, “Oh, thats who she is.”

Jane never loses that voice, but she does grow up over the course of the novel. She becomes more complex and realizes how complicated her relationship with her mother was. Youre a daughter, of course, and youre also a mother. How did that play into this?

Jane is so different from me. But I am definitely worried that my mom’s going to read this and be like, is this about me? If I didn’t have a kid, this book would be very different and probably much less scary. [As a mother you have] that primal terror of fucking things up irrevocably, that fear that you are going to ruin your child because of your own shit that you haven’t figured out. For me, that might be the most horrific element of the book. You know, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

In Janes case its just more obvious?Her whole world — her ridiculous upbringing in Switzerland before she moves to Beverly Hills as a teenager — is this pretense, established by her mother, who was trying to escape her own past.

I had this idea of her mother being this kind of frantic social climber. But that was also her mother’s disguise, because she knew no one would ever look for her in that world. And that was internalized by and imprinted on Jane.

Jane is literally in disguise throughout the book. She chops off her perfect hair, and its a running joke how awful she looks in her “pleated-front slacks” and maternity-catalog sweaters. But shes been putting on an act all of her life.

I think that’s a key part of the experience of being a woman. All of the female characters in the book are doing similar things. These women are playing these identity games, trying to figure out what works best, to navigate these male-dominated environments.

I remember working in publishing when I was much younger and trying to figure out, did they want the hard-working bookworm? Did they want the social, 20-something wit? So that was something I was definitely thinking about. Everyone trying on all of these costumes. And then being like, fuck it, this costume is dumb.

Theres tension between the female characters but also real understanding.

It’s the female conversations that I think show the most character growth for Jane. I was really conscious of wanting this to be a community of women feeling out female friendships and family relationships.

The place where Jane’s coming from, this power- and celebrity-obsessed life, has none of that.

I’m interested in what people will think about the gender and sexual politics in this book. The scene that most troubles me is the scene where Jane sleeps with Oliver [an older musician Jane has sex with when she’s 15 and then blackmails into helping make her famous]. I worry about perpetuating this idea of the sexually predatory adolescent girl. But I think she’s really lying quite a lot about that encounter, that her response to it was more of a reaction as opposed to a planned thing. She was raised in a culture where girls are hypersexualized and taught that the only currency they have is their bodies. But it’s a dilemma: are you commenting on something or becoming it? I’m a little bit worried about the readings of that. But also, we’re talking about a Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. How did they become famous? Sex tapes. So, it’s trying to find a balance between what would be realistic to the situation and the character but also empathizing with her.

Theres a lot of talk about likability when it comes to female characters. Likability is such a limited way to approach it, though.

It’s the wrong variable. But I guarantee there are going to be readers who really don’t like this character. For me, in any really strong personality, especially when there’s such an effort to crack jokes, that effort is always proportional to the misery inside a person. There’s no one who’s darker inside than comedians. It’s something that I really admire about someone like Lorrie Moore, for instance. The exclamation points in Lorrie Moore are always the saddest parts of the story. The external manifestation of this internal despair. So for me, Jane’s big attitude was really important, but I wanted to make her more and more accessible as the story went on and hope that people would begin to get a fuller sense of the character. I hope that she’s sympathetic. I wanted her to be smart. I want every character in my book to be smart, smarter than me. I want to assume that every reader of my book is smarter than me. It’s important to have that generosity of spirit towards your readers and towards your characters. That’s an Elmore Leonard thing. Everyone is so smart in his books. Unless they’re deliberately stupid, for humor.

Smart and yet not sociopathic. Jane is so intelligent and can be so manipulative, but she still has a conscience. In contrast, Im thinking of Highsmiths Ripley or, more recently, the wife in Gone Girl. Jane is able to forge a kind of community with the people she encounters, and theyre in it together. It started to remind me of the Scooby gang on Buffy.

That’s exactly what I was doing, though it was barely subconscious. Jane grew up knowing the rules to one game, and over the course of time, once she’s out of jail, she learns that there may be different rules. That everything isn’t necessarily transactional. That people are more nuanced and kinder than she would ever have expected them to be. People might actually surprise and challenge her. Also, one of the biggest influences in terms of storytelling for me is TV. Buffy and Veronica Mars, in particular.

I kept hearing echoes of Veronica Mars in Janes voice.

I admire that character so much. I didn’t want to tread on that territory, but it’s inevitable, since it’s another updated noir. What I love about the first season of Veronica Mars is that the overarching mystery that she’s solving is the key mystery to her life. It’s not just a detective story about some murder that she happens to stumble onto. It has incredible emotional meaning to her.

Before this novel, you wrote two nonfiction books about language. Tell me about the switch to fiction, and in particular, a thriller.

I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to write nonfiction. I had to think about pacing and structure, and that certainly came in handy when I was writing this novel. But I was never really comfortable in what I was doing, and I wanted to try something different. The books that I grew up reading were all mysteries. That’s what my father and I would always do together. He would recommend them to me, and we’d read them together and talk about them. Agatha Christie. A lot of Dorothy L. Sayers, classic English mysteries — Gaudy Night is one of my top five favorite books of all time. Josephine Tey is also marvelous. And then I worked my way into police procedurals. Ed McBain is a big favorite of mine. I’ve definitely always had that fascination, kind of like poking at a sore tooth, when I read about murderers because I terrify myself. We don’t have a bed frame, our box spring just sits on the floor because I don’t want anyone to be able to hide under my bed.

Okay, this just got real!

That was an actual grown-up decision.

You moved to Los Angeles from New York a few years ago. LA has such a rich noir tradition. Do you see this book as part of that?

I absolutely do. One of the things that has most surprised and delighted me about LA is its darkness. Everything is all yoga, yoga, yoga, but then, you know, you have James Ellroy living in a park and being destroyed by his mother’s murder in My Dark Places. So many of my favorite movies and stories are LA noir. I was just watching The Postman Always Rings Twice. There’s the complicated sexuality of it, which I find so interesting, and the really strong, weird women who get to be so much smarter in noir than they often get to be otherwise. I love the atmosphere of it. The constant sense of menace, which we actually have here in LA. There are these murder houses. There’s one in Los Feliz where everything from when these murders happened in 1959 is exactly the same. Nothing has been touched. The Christmas tree is still there. There might even be presents under the tree. And it’s just there.

You can sense some of that creepiness in the book, though most of the action occurs in a South Dakota town. Why set it there?

Originally I’d intended for it to be set in Nebraska. Where do you go if you’re trying to get away? You go to the middle, as far away from the media world as possible. But growing up we would do these road trips, driving from St. Louis up to Canada. One day I was looking at a map and trying to work out where I wanted this fictional town to be, and I realized it was the Black Hills. It’s so beautiful, and I have such fond memories of visiting there. The history is also fascinating. There’s Deadwood, the Gold Rush, the theft of the land from the Lakota, and since it’s a big forest, creepy things might be there. It sort of served all of my purposes at once. And I love this sense of a closed system that we step into. Having this murder mystery set in a small town will immediately get the reader into a certain state of mind: you start looking for clues, and red herrings.

Its so intricately plotted. Did you have it all mapped out?

At the beginning, I had this color-coded spreadsheet for characters and events and that turned out to be largely useless. I thought it was such a cliché when writers were like, “Well, the characters just went where they wanted to go!” But once I started writing and started to understand the characters better, I realized certain events weren’t plausible, or didn’t tell us anything new. I’m not sure how many plot twists are deliberate and how many are the result of not quite writing myself into a corner but getting pretty damn close. And I’m fine if people are not necessarily surprised by any of the twists. I didn’t really want anything to be totally out of the blue. What I would enjoy most is if people figured it out beforehand. That’s the pleasure you get from a mystery novel, solving it along with Poirot or Sam Spade. One of my favorite movies is The Big Sleep, but I also hate it because there are parts that are unsolvable.

Thats what I love about The Big Sleep! With Chandler, at some point you stop reading for the plot, if you ever were. Its just the writing, line for line.

Right, it becomes a different experience. But I wanted to have narrative satisfaction. Maybe it’s cheap satisfaction but closure was always at the forefront of my mind. It’s fun, in terms of the puzzle-solving aspect. I hope that there are people who are like, yeah, I am smarter than this writer.

Or maybe just as smart as.

That’s okay, too.


Deborah Shapiro has covered books, design, and art for Sight Unseen, T Magazine, The Second Pass, Time Out New York, and Architectural Digest, among other publications.