Rediscovering Female Authors: Margaret Millar

How Like an Angel by [Millar, Margaret]I am a huge fan of the mystery/noir author, Ross MacDonald whose real name was Kenneth Millar.  In case you did not know, he had a wife.

Her name was Margaret Millar.

In their lifetimes, Margaret Millar was as famous as her husband, and of the two, better-paid.  Two of her novels were adopted by Alfred Hitchcock for his TV series (The Beast In View, Rose's Last Summer) and another, The Iron Gates, was optioned by Warner Bros.   The Beast in View won the Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 1956. She was elected "Woman of the Year" by the Los Angeles Times in 1965.   In 1983, she was awarded the Grand Master Award by Mystery Writers of America.  She published over mysteries over a productive career; and yet, Millar's star faded while her husband became part of the crime pantheon (i.e., Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald.)

Until the Library of America published its groundbreaking Women Crime Writers, I had not heard of Margaret Millar.  How is that possible?

Beast in View by [Millar, Margaret]It strikes me as bizarre that Margaret Millar isn't better known.  I love Ross MacDonald's baroque plots, and nothing can diminish my enthusiasm for his work. Having said that, Margaret Millar is a more natural writer: more skilled at subtle characterization and dialogue than MacDonald, more fluid in her prose.  Her novels are alive with social satire, and a view of American marriage and "gender relations" hard to find in American fiction-- and harder still in the landscape of mystery novels.  As for plotting, no one is tighter.

Millar's heroines, in particular, are vivid-- and their fragile, unhappy marriages, more so.  In The Fiend, for example, a woman's philandering husband has divorced her, but continues to "haunt" her life, while another woman pretends her all-American guy isn't fooling around with the rich, sexy next-door neighbor (whose marriage has different flaws.) In How Like An Angel,  a clever, loyal wife tries to bolster an incompetent spouse. Beast in View deals with sexual repression in a completely fresh, frightening way as a young woman runs literally from herself.  Each novel  has its own flavor, its own distinctive mystery.

Unlike  most crime writers, Millar did not create a trademark detective. Her novels have wildly different settings (one involves a religious cult) and so are less "identifiable" (in say, the way Chandler's L.A. mysteries are.)  One reason, perhaps, she was forgotten.  Or, it could be, as the astute Terry Teachout has written, that Millar's  success kept in her hardcover, and away from the emerging pulp fiction paperback world (in which reprints were cheap.)  Whatever the reason, her obscurity is undeserved. She is a terrific writer, among the best in American crime fiction.

Happily, times change. Most of Margaret Millar novels are now available through Soho Syndicate in Kindle editions-- read them, and see for yourself.   

On Reading Dorothy Sayers in the Age of Opinion

Image result for lord peter wimseyIt grates on me, this wearying Age of Opinion.  On any subject -- you name it-- we must take a stand. Books?  Fracking?  Snowden?  Everyone's got an opinion.

I marvel at all these opinions. It is the certainty that amazes me.  My poor little opinion is slippery, it changes with the next Op Ed piece. I'm forever changing my mind, swinging from one point of view to the next.  Then, sometimes, I fret that I don't know what I'm talking about. (What is fracking, anyway?) Or I don't think my opinion matters much-- a sobering realization, but true.

Image result for dorothy sayersWhich doesn't mean that I slide through life effortlessly.  Like everyone else, I read things that grate on me.  I find characters in novels expressing terrible ideas. After all, fiction is a mirror, and human beings are a mixed bag.  People hold all sorts of contradictory opinions, and never bother to line them up-- ideas are flimsy things compared to emotions, they fall apart easily.

Which brings me to the case of Dorothy Sayers, born in a different era. I've been re-reading her mysteries, and yes, her upper-class Brits seem to have a dim view of Jews.  My guess is many (or perhaps most) upper-class Brits did.  I wish they didn't, but history suggests they did. I feel these snide sidecracks are a weakness of Sayers, but are they a fatal flaw?

I know. I'm supposed to have a violently strong opinion about this:  I am Jewish, and naturally, I hate stereotypes about Jews. I see that many readers on the website Goodreads are appalled by Sayers, some to the point of closing the book on her altogether. I am not unsympathetic to them -- but then I think, characters aren't "real," they're invented. Should I blame an imaginary Lord Peter for saying things that I wouldn't say? And then the mirror aspect: I cannot blame Sayers for allowing her characters to voice what they surely would have.

Besides, these aren't mysteries about Jews, nor do they have Jewish villains.  The snobbish throwaway comments are incidental to the plot. Do they mar my enjoyment?  Yes, somewhat-- I want Lord Peter to be above such pettiness, because he is admirable in many other ways.  Do they spoil the mystery or the romance or the wit?  Not really.

As for my opinion of Sayers's literary merit, well, I don't have one yet.  All I can say is I'm thinking about it.

Interview with Stephanie Gangi, Author of THE NEXT

In honor of the paperback release of THE NEXT, one of Library Journal's Best Books of 2016, I am posting our earlier interview with Stephanie Gangi. You can find her lovely personal essay on this website.
First, a few words about her:  Stephanie Gangi lives, writes and goes to her day job in New York City. She is a poet, a fiction writer, and at work on personal essays and her second novel.
SARETT:  It’s hard to believe this is your first novel-- the writing’s so vivid.  Had you written other novels before THE NEXT?
Gangi: Well, thank you, but No! I have made a dozen starts over the years, crates full of beginnings. I always knew I was a writer, but I spent much too long considering it my ‘hobby’. Crazy!
SARETT:  Which came first for you -- the story or the character of Joanna?
Gangi: Joanna came first. I wanted to write about a complicated, complex woman, an angry woman who can not reconcile the disappointments that life delivers, and is determined to finally unleash her rage. I myself am not terribly angry (until the election, of course), or if I am, I manage to redirect or channel that anger, as many women have been trained to do. I wanted to to just let my Joanna rant against heartbreak, aging, sickness, invisibility, inevitability.

SARETT:  The novel is about after-life, of a sort.  Do you believe that we do experience “life” after death?  That we have souls, for example?  
Gangi: I actually don’t believe we experience life after death, but I must say, as I get older and wiser and more reflective, it’s become harder for me to accept that all the energy we’ve generated – all the love – just dissipates. I guess I think – hope – there could be some sort of cosmic consciousness, to where all our best energies – our souls – are drawn when we leave this plane of existence. A giant magnet, pulling the best part of each of us into a big love cloud.
SARETT:  Many writers love ghost stories- and so do I! I’m a huge fan of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories.   Were you a fan of ghost stories before writing THE NEXT?  
Gangi: Honest answer is no, although Wharton is the exception. I thought the ghost concept was a strong metaphor, though, and the more I wrote into it, the more comfortable I became with it. Women of a certain age made invisible by society, existing outside reality when you are sick, technology harboring the ghosts of our many selves in the machines. And I loved the idea of a contemporary ghost in NYC, mingling with all the other ghosts, playing with how she would operate, how she would use her invisibility to take what she wants. Or thinks she wants!

SARETT:  Your angry heroine did bring to mind the great Fay Weldon.  Was she an influence in your writing?  Any other style muses?
Gangi: Thank you for that! There’s a deep morality in her work, and a worldview that is tough and authentic and feminist. On top of that, she’s a satirist and funny, which is so hard to do. I’ve heard from readers that they’ve laughed out loud reading The Next, so if I’ve come close to Weldon stylistically, I’m thrilled.
As far as ‘style muses,’ I can only respond as a reader. I’ve been drawn to an ironical, cynical voice that thinly veils blinding passion and despair! I’m thinking of Heller, Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, DeLillo, and an heir of theirs, the great Anthony Mara. Combine all that with my love of commercial fiction (Gone Girl comes to mind), and I’d say my “style” lies therein. I aspire, anyway.

SARETT: Joanna, your ghost heroine, is hell-bent on revenge-- and yet the object of her affections is a second rate guy.  To me, that felt like a feminist statement (funny, but biting) about how much time women waste on unworthy men -- was that your intent?
Gangi: I’m not sure I was successful with the Ned character if he comes across as ONLY unworthy. I hoped to show that Ned is driven by his own demons – alcoholic mother, closeted dad, a deep-down romantic streak he tamps down for his ambition. It’s true that ultimately, he is a guy -- non-communicative, selfish, a survivor at all costs. Ned is aware of what he has lost and how he himself is responsible. I hoped he was redeemed somewhat by his awareness?  
And yes, it was my intent to “use” Ned as a feminist’s foil … but also to show that Joanna was complicit. After all, she was pursuing vanity by getting involved with a younger guy, and on a deeper level – his desire helped her feel healthy. Stay alive. Helped her talk herself into believing their love could heal her.
I will say that the verdict is split. Half of my readers hate him, the other half are sympathetic to him.
SARETT:  Most novels have a mix of real and invented details?  What’s the mix in THE NEXT?
Gangi: Maybe, 60/40? The outline is close: I’ve had breast cancer. I have a big dog. I live in Manhattan. My own parents died suddenly. I’ve been divorced. I have daughters. But, I have also had great men in my life. Sure, I’ve had disappointments, but I’ve not experienced the level of betrayal that Joanna does! Unlike Joanna, I’m a blessings-counter. Unlike Joanna, I have no doubt where love lies – I have two wonderful daughters, family and friends that support me and care for me, a world of love I could never neglect to tend to my fury. Unlike Joanna I try and take a hard look at my own part in life’s disappointments. What choices did I make that I don’t want to repeat? She doesn’t wake up to that until it’s too late.

SARETT:  Lots of writing rules out there.  Is there any writing rule that you secretly enjoy breaking?    
Gangi: Yes! I did unleash an angry woman. I knew that would be controversialm and I was worried it would render The Next un-commercial. But the team at St. Martin’s embraced the book from the beginning, never once suggesting I tone Joanna down. Also, I alternated first and third person perspectives. I’ve heard from one illustrious editor that it’s almost impossible to do well, so I’m glad I stuck with the choice. I didn’t want a full-on rant to overtake the story. I needed to head-hop between characters, to show the impact Joanna’s death has on them. Grief is a complicated process – we don’t turn into saints when someone we love dies. We who are left behind remain our messy selves, and I wanted to show that through Jo’s daughters, Ned and even Tom, the dog.

SARETT:  Humor is a tough game-- and there’s that saying death is easy, comedy is hard.  How do you keep it funny?
Gangi: I think I am funny in real life. I can be irreverant and quick, maybe a little bawdy at times. I think life is funny, and people are funny, and even illness is kind of ridiculous. I think women are very very funny, and thankfully, recently, less afraid to reveal it lest men find it unattractive. I tried to channel all that, and then make it less specific to me, more universal. I’m glad you think I’ve succeeded! I wanted The Next to be funny and tragic. Like life.

SARETT:  My blog readers are always looking for new books.  Are there new fiction books that you’d recommend?    
Gangi: These are my most recent reads:
Bad Marie by Marcy Demansky
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolsoy
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (nonfiction)
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (nonfiction)
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Poems)

Find her:
Twitter: @gangi_land
Instagram: stephaniegangi

Buy the paperback at Amazon and if you enjoyed The Next, please leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. They are so important for debut authors.

Author Interview with Robin Rule

Today's interview is with Robin Rule, who has written a coming of age novel, TRAILER FOR RENT:  THE REDBUD JANE STORIES.  I first met Robin Rule online, where I fell in love with her poetry.  I have subsequently visited her in "real life" as we say, in her lovely house in Willits, California.  

A few words about her:  Robin Rule has been a writer since she was twelve years old. She has been the recipient of a California Arts Council Fellowship in Literature. She's read at Club des Poesie in Paris. She has also read in colleges, coffeehouses, and bookstores throughout the great Northwest.  Robin has read on radio stations in Mendocino County to Bay Area's  KPFA.

SARETT:  Your heroine in TRAILER FOR RENT:  THE REDBUD JANE STORIES lives in a trailer.  What's the most unusual place you've ever lived?
RULE:  I have lived in a caboose for the last twenty years and it’s a magical kind of living. I have to think about where goes what because there is very little space in a room that is eight feet wide by eighteen feet long. The two ‘rooms’ can be described as parlor and kitchen and that archway truly helps keeps them separate. The parlor is lined with glassed book shelves, some filled with books and some with bird nests, eggs,  fossils, all sorts of wondrous natural history. It was moved to our little town in 1906 as emergency housing after the big San Francisco earthquake and then in 1945, two tiny bedrooms were added on with a jacknjill bathroom between the two.

SARETT:  You're known for your poetry, which I admire greatly.  How was writing this different from writing poetry (or is it the same?)
RULE:  In poetry, I tend to throw out words. In writing prose, I found myself having to write ‘more’, explain in a bigger sense of the world. I have an earlier book of just four short stories that was written more on a poetic bent; so this was entirely different for me and entirely pleasurable to really get to describe. Oh, and dialogue! I love writing dialogue. I hadn’t realized just how exacting it was, but I loved making my characters come alive with talking. I feel like I have a ‘way with words’ when it comes to dialogue.  I seem to know how to become eleven or fifteen and write for that audience; even though my poetry is strictly adult written and for adult-reading.

SARETT:  Are there any writing rules you secretly enjoy breaking?
RULE: I have to confess that I didn’t pay attention in Grammar class. A writer friend says I keep dangling my participles and I don’t even know what that means. I am a lot like my main character, I must say. Kids, pay attention in Grammar is what I ought to say!

SARETT: OK, let's have fun,  if TRAILER FOR RENT gets turned into a movie, who plays the lead?  Music?
RULE: I just saw “Gifted” which stars McKenna Grace and she is so much like Redbud Jane, I was amazed as I watched that very excellent film. Hollywood would have to hurry up, because she’s not going to stop growing and she is just right.  

My novel is set it in the early sixties, though I never say that. It’s obvious only in the music I mention in the stories. I’d love Bob Dylan’s “New Morning” to be the soundtrack if that mythical movie is ever made. 

SARETT: TRAILER FOR RENT is a book about a girl's childhood.  What were some of your favorite books about childhood when you were a kid?  
RULE: My fifth-grade teacher gave me, The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald and I was hooked. My favorite book from back then and in many ways still is, was written by Kate Douglas Wiggins, Mother Carey’s Chickens.  Of course I loved The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, by Frances H. Burnett; and I also loved and have a first edition of Peter and Wendy by Sir James Barrie.  I began collecting Barrie’s books at a young age and have nearly everything he’s ever written. I love Louisa May Alcott as well.  I also loved The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, and the many children’s books by Rumer Godden.

You can order the paperback through Amazon here:  TRAILER FOR RENT

Special blog offer: order a personally signed copy from RAINY DAY WOMEN PRESS, PO 1085, Willits, CA 95490.  Cost is $17.00, which includes shipping. 

Rediscovering Female Authors: Barbara Trapido

I wish I could claim that I "discovered" Barbara Trapido on my own.  But, it seems the Lauren Groff and Maria Semple and Elizabeth Gilbert have beat me to it.  After reading three of her novels, I join the fan club -- Barbara Trapido is now firmly in my personal Canon.

Why?  Well, for one, wit and soul is hard to find, and Trapido offers it in spades.  In these days of self-consciously dark novels, Trapido offers us the gift of a happy ending.  And no, she doesn't skip over the sad, gut-wrenching mis-steps that lead to it.  

No surprise that Trapido is called a latter-day Jane Austen.  For once, that title is well-earned, Trapido gets to the core of Austen, which is her ability to define the changing, slippery shapes of happiness. The world's delicious, but it tastes different from what you expect.

Trapido's first novel, BROTHER OF THE MORE FAMOUS JACK, is a joy.  The heroine, Katherine, meets an eccentric family in whom, she senses, intellectual kinship. Austen fans are not surprised that the family has two attractive sons, and it goes without saying that, like Austen's Emma, Katherine picks the wrong one.  The romance is short, but painful -- and it leads to even more heartbreak.  Trapido could easily dump Katherine in that bleak pit; but that's not what she's about.  In her world, women climb out of pits, and make homes, families, even great art.

Another thing:  in Trapido, first loves and first hurts don't vanish.  First loves aren't about the man, Trapido knows, they are one version of our lives, our selves.  First loves remind us of past selves, and they hang around-- in a good life, we weave them into a new, imperfect reality.  Trapido has no illusions about the political or social imperfections.  Happy endings are not smooth, or predictable, because people aren't-- and Trapido's eager to capture the surprises in store.

Even better, Trapido follows her characters in subsequent novels.  I've already ordered them.


My Interview in The Leaving Years

Author Kathryn Kopple interviews me today for her new blog, The Leaving Years.  Kathryn asked intriguing questions, and I had fun answering them while I waa traveling and contemplating future departures in my life.

You can read the interview in her blog.
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