I don’t know if it’s cool to say “ladies who lunch” anymore. Nor do I care. Technically, this is how I met Nina Sadowsky, at a luncheon for female writers, producers, and directors. But when I talk about ladies who lunch, I’m talking about that pre-millennial fleet of silvery, blonde society wives in the ’90s, with their St. John’s suits, waiting for Towncars outside Le Cirque while a homeless vet and his sad dog beg for quarters on the opposite corner. It’s a timeless and fantastically cold-blooded snapshot of the wealthy enjoying their wealth as the weak continue to weaken. Stark contrast. Not exactly opposites, the women at Le Cirque and the homeless guy — they’re simply experiencing the same world differently. Rich and poor. Us and them. Black and white. Now and then.
This last one is how Sadowsky structures her debut novel Just Fall. Set on the island St. Lucia in the present day, the novel is also set in various American cities in the past. The chapters alternate between “Now” and “Then.” The “Then” chapters begin with a wedding. The “Now” chapters begin with a dead body. In the world of noir, that’s a very good place to start …
Having just closed the book, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nina Sadowsky, storyteller extraordinaire.
LIZ BRIXIUS: Page-turner, suspense, thriller — these words trigger expectations of a fast-paced, whodunit leading its readers through a tricky maze. Just Fall does all those things. But it’s more than that, it’s noir. Did you know, going in, that you were about to write a noir novel?
NINA SADOWSKY: While I consciously chose to make my first novel a mystery/thriller, as it’s a genre I’ve always loved as a reader, the noir tone was something that developed over time in an organic way. Certainly I was playing with moral ambiguity, a noir staple, but I like to think that in a few ways the book is a departure from the cynicism and sense of fatality that are other hallmarks of the noir genre. For one thing, the novel has a genuine love story at its center. For another, it features a cop who is the least cynical and most pure-hearted of all the characters. In addition, much of the action happens on a lush and gorgeous tropical island, rather than the bleakly muted physical universe in which much noir is situated.
Ellie and Rob, Lucien and Quinn clearly thrive in the noir universe. Did they come to you fully formed? Did they dictate the tone of the piece?
All of the characters evolved through the course of my writing and even more importantly, the rewriting process. One of my essential theses in the book is that we are attracted to people in part because we recognize and identify with the quality and nature of the pain that they carry. Certainly in crafting Ellie and Rob’s backstories I was very conscious of wanting to find parallels in their experiences as a way of addressing that concept. I also wanted to challenge readers to identify with my characters even as they were crossing moral lines and doing things that are considered heinous by most members of society. I think the question, “what would you do if …” will generate a very different answer if followed by, “it was your child,” “it was your sister,” or in Ellie’s case, “it was your husband,” and I wanted readers to be able to put themselves in my characters’ shoes.
With Lucien, my detective character, I was very conscious of playing against the noir trope of the hard-boiled, cynical detective. Lucien is also forced to question his moral choices, but I wanted him to be a character that still has an optimistic and hopeful view about humanity despite the terrible things he sees in the course of his work.
Quinn is probably the most solidly traditional noir character, an amoral and manipulative gangster. He was a lot of fun to write.
I love that Ellie is a Hitchcock blonde with a burner cell phone — do you see any difference between 20th-century noir and 21st-century noir, in both film and fiction?
I think the main difference between 20th-century noir and 21st-century noir is that our world has gotten more complicated and modern noir has to reflect that. We are constantly challenged to debate doing the “wrong thing” for the right reasons. For example, even a quick look at our current aspiring presidential candidates reveals the many ways in which we divide on moral or philosophical grounds. Since crime fiction and noir in particular serve to help us as a society process these kinds of uncertainties through a cathartic connection with the characters, modern noir must reflect the complexities of our time.
When I think of “murder in an exotic locale” I get flashes of Ripley, Knife in the Water, The Man Who Knew Too Much — all the way back to Casablanca. I assumed you had deliberately chosen the island as a way to keep Ellie, Rob, and the readers feeling like outsiders — but then I read that the idea for Just Fall happened during an island vacation with your husband. Did you have any idea that the island itself would become such fertile ground for your story?
The very first chapter of the book did come out of a notebook scribble that I made while on a seaside weekend with my husband. But then I got excited about all the ways in which an island could serve the story. There is certainly the aspect of Ellie and Rob feeling like outsiders while on St. Lucia. I wanted the characters to feel isolated, so in addition to the island setting, readers will note there is very little in the way of technology used by the characters. When any of us are in extremis, it is natural to feel lonely and overwhelmed. I wanted to heighten that sense of isolation with the characters however I could so it would serve as a metaphor for the way we can feel alone when we are struggling. The island setting was a big part of that.
I’ve also been to the island and was also inspired by how beautiful and laid-back it is, aspects I then juxtaposed with the ugliness and tension of the criminal activities that occur there in the course of the book. I wanted the novel to feel like a pulp fiction, a lurid fever dream, and a tropical setting lent itself well to that goal.
The chapters are short and many — not unlike film. Do you think the ease with which you toggle between “Now” and “Then” is a product of screenwriting?
Yes and no. Certainly working in the film and television industry flexed all my muscles as a storyteller. On the other hand, I found writing a novel remarkably freeing. Both film and TV have pretty rigidly codified structures to which writers are bound. My “Now” chapters are all linear, but alternate with nonlinear “Then” chapters that delve into the characters’ histories. For weeks on end my dining room table was covered with index cards as I figured out the smartest ways to play with that nonlinear structure. I ended up juxtaposing the backstory “Then” chapters at the points I felt would best support character revelation and therefore help drive the “Now” story forward.
Ellie is such a confident character. Was it liberating to write a woman who unapologetically conquers?
Yes! One of the things I was very aware of when crafting Ellie was that I wanted her to be a woman who makes her own decisions (for better or for worse) and not an object. Women in noir are frequently either conniving femme fatales or pathetic “good girls gone bad.” I wanted Ellie to be a relatable “everywoman,” strong and smart like the women with whom I surround myself, so that readers would both identify with her and question where their own moral boundaries may lay.
There’s no black and white in noir — it’s layers of gray. Can you talk about the moral ambiguity of Ellie and Rob? Do you think that their suffering in the “Then” part of their lives tempers the wrongness of their actions in any way?
Those layers of gray were precisely what I was interested in exploring. I don’t think that suffering tempers the wrongness of their actions precisely — I do believe murder is wrong, for example. But in crafting the sufferings of the characters I wanted to allow readers to understand, if not condone, the choices they make. One early reader told me that the book made her ask: “Who do I know that could be a killer?” And then respond: “Maybe I don’t have to look any further than the mirror.” I loved that because I believe all of us can be tempted toward the dark side given the circumstances. In creating my characters I was endeavoring to dance right on that razor’s edge of eliciting both empathy and horror.