My friend author Vicki Hendricks is perhaps best known for her classic, contemporary noir novel Miami Purity, an explosive mix of crime and explicit sex. She followed that break-out novel with several more critically-acclaimed edgy, sex-soaked noir tales, including Sky Blues, Cruel Poetry, Iquana Love, and Involuntary Madness. But now she’s trying something very different with her new novel, Fur People, and I invited her here to talk about it.
When I switched from crime-noir writing to general fiction, I didn’t realize the difficulty I would have in dropping my usual methods of keeping readers’ attention—sex and violence. I was inspired with a story about Sunny, a young animal-lover, because I share her needs and pain, if not her behaviors. I love animals much more than I love murder, and the irony involved of love taken to the extreme fascinated me. Somehow I failed to recognize obsession, the basis of noir—old habits do die hard. Around every tree in the Florida setting lurked a noir opportunity begging to be explored—my subconscious at work. I hadn’t set out to write a Marley and Me, but it’s as if I was writing blindfolded.
Sexual desires spring from Sunny’s past, as she dreams of the ex-boyfriend she left ten years earlier and hopes to love again. Drunken men with sick talk stumble through the woods and find her camper-bus. What’s a girl to do? In addition, the local veterinarian can’t stop obsessing about the young hunk who so smoothly led her into trafficking Special K and cost her six months in prison and the loss of her license. And the homeless man, Buck, has nothing on his brain but the inside of Sunny’s shorts, ever since he spots her guzzling Half and Half in the grocery.
As I’m writing this, I remember that just a few days ago, worried about my usual quantity and length of sex scenes, my sister asked if the book would be appropriate to give her mother-in-law for Christmas. I assured her it would be fine– just a smattering of romance in there, I told her. Now I wonder if that’s true. Somehow I think so, considering the amount of adult situations in comparison to everything else that happens in the 300 pages, but as I tease out details for examples here, I wonder if my sensibilities have become warped over the years. Am I too perverse to be the judge?
There’s crime, too, I realize, and even firearms, in Fur People. Buck’s unregistered Police Special appears as a complete shock to my conscious self, but there it is, sure as heck, buried under blankets and towels in a Rubbermaid bin. Chekhov’s advice couldn’t be ignored: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” I had to deal with that concept.
I now recognize that noir crept into the story immediately through the main character, no matter how I tried to lighten and disguise it. The struggle of a young woman who lives in a school bus with a load dogs and cats is intrinsically dark and obsessive, no matter how many baubles, or in this case Coors Light cans, you hang on her Christmas tree. The tree metaphor comes from another favorite instructor, to emphasize the importance of the main plot, as driven by the need of the character. The plot is the tree itself and the rest is merely decoration. I knew this, but on some level I didn’t care.
Other misgivings arise. Buck battles deadly rays from the sky. Sunny develops telepathy with animals. Sunny’s drunken father recreates the hell she escaped. And more. I built in seven points of view and subplots attached to each, including a German shepherd and Chihuahua conflict, to make up for the seeming lack of sex and murder. Now these multiple strands haunt me. Are they patterned in a jeweled web or tangled like seaweed? Am I in soap opera territory or the vicinity of Charles Dickens/Jane Austen? One hopes for the best.
During the writing, I asked my favorite professor from twenty years ago if there were “rules” for subplots, and she said that each subplot has to affect the main plot and the main plot has to affect the subplots. How logical. Or was it the other way around? Does it matter? I think it does, but I can’t remember how I did it anyway, and trying to analyze the finished structure gives me a headache.
I promised myself that his time I was going to write about a sane person in a crazy world, the opposite of noir, and for a long time, I thought that’s what I’d done. I feel exactly as Sunny does about animals, and most people will tell you I’m normal. But I see now that Sunny’s dedication is mountainous compared to mine. Her guts outweigh mine by a ton. As the writer, I lost control, or gave it up. Maybe that’s as it should be. I can only hope.
11 thoughts on “Vicki Hendricks on Giving Up Noir”
Lee, thanks for asking Vicki to share. Vicki is a really nice person, good-looking, has beautiful long hair, and is serious about writing, one of the qualities I like best in writers. So, Vicki, don’t get angry at me, I’m going to help you. Or so I believe.
What happens to any writer, if the writer doesn’t know the craft really well, is they get lost and they get into a mess. And all of us get into a mess, I have several times. Trust me. There is one way, and only one way, to avoid getting lost and in a mess if you write fiction. The only way is, to realize that a story is written to illustrate a theme. If the writer doesn’t or can’t realize this, then he or she goes to the typewriter or word processor and starts typing and a mess results. Writing is not a subconscious activity. It’s just the opposite. Either it is conscious, or it crashes. You have to have a theme or you are lost.
What’s a theme? A theme is what Danielle Steel is superb at. Here’s a theme: “A young woman’s sister and husband dies in a plane crash, so she raises their two children, and they leave the home, and she finds herself at the age of 44 with an empty life, so she moves to Paris and meets a man. She has never trusted life, but now she has to, to find love.” There is nothing whatsoever ‘subconscious’ about this. Absolutely every scene can be thought out in advance. And what the writer is challenged to do, is to solve the problem of the main character so that the readers are set thinking about their own lives.
The reason why sales of 99.999% of writers are so miniscule is because they have nothing to say on the level of the theme.
They just don’t know the craft well enough to realize that without a solution to the problem raised by the theme, they have nothing at all to offer, so why should anybody buy and read their book? What the writer has to do, is to figure out the theme that most irritates him or her. And then to think thru the solutions to the problems, and that’s what you write about.
It can be anything. Winston Graham wrote the Poldark novels. Ross was honest and transparent, Warleggen was not, and 14 novels later it was still fascinating, this clash of values. So what do you believe in? What, therefore, do you oppose? Why does the good side win? That’s you as a writer. (Personally, I enjoy noir thrillers, but I want the ending to make me think.)
So, I challenge you to first get a theme, and then to write, and to see which method is best, write-first or write-after you have the theme.
I appreciate your thoughts and compliments. However, I didn’t mean to say that my new book is a mess. I think it turned out very well or I would still be working on it. I just thought it was interesting that I started out believing that I was moving in a totally new direction and found that I was still incorporating the same themes and character traits that I have written into my work over the years. Probably, what I’ve grown tired of–and maybe only for the moment–is the powerful focus on sex and murder. FUR PEOPLE will not be classified as noir because there’s no murder, which is the key element, but the subtler tones of the genre still feel satisfying to me. Would I like Danielle Steel’s money? Of course! But I can’t be her, and her plots are not ones that I can fake an interest in writing.
No, Vicki, you don’t have to write a Danielle Steel story, but I do hope you make her money.
So, if I’m understanding you, you have the basic noir plot worked out from your sources, and you know your themes – murder, betrayal, sex, violence – but what do you do to provide a fresh take? Are you thinking through the plot more deeply than your sources? If a woman entices a man to kill her husband, and then he gets caught and she goes free, only to find it wasn’t worth it ( a lose-lose situation), how do deepen it, go beyond it, infuse it with fresh life?
Ross was honest and transparent, Warleggen was not, and 14 novels later it was still fascinating, this clash of values.
Your description of Ross is a bit one-sided. He was not always that honest, even if he was transparent.
But, what is noir?
Gerard, this question has been knocking around the crime-writing community for years. The best two short descriptions I’ve seen came from Jim Doherty and Jack Bludis. Doherty refers to hardboiled/noir as “…dark and colloquial”. Bludis uses single word descriptors: “Hardboiled= tough. Noir=screwed.”
I get a little more flowery when talking about noir.
At NoirCon a few years ago, the organizers reprinted my essay on hardboiled versus noir fiction, in which I said:
“…noir is a modern interpretation of the Greek tragedies, in which a single moment of weakness costs the tragic hero all he had previously accomplished. Dix Handley has to die at the end of The Asphalt Jungle, just as Walter Neff does in Double Indemnity because, if they were allowed to live, it would imply that they could give in to their animal natures and profit by them. Oedipus has to lose his kingdom, and his eyesight, because his own foolishness and — to some extent — bad fortune put him in a position to kill his father and marry his mother, Jocasta. Ned Racine in Kasdan’s Body Heat, still one of the best modern noir protagonists, has to go to prison, even though he was clearly duped by Maddie Walker the spider-woman, because in allowing himself to give in to his own weakness he committed the ultimate crime. Even Maddie pays, in the end, by leading a pointless, unproductive, boring life. She’s acquired all her desires, but they prove to be bitter fruit.
In the end, noir is a morality play, in which Everyman is tempted by the Serpent, and gives in, to his eternal regret. Noir is a recapitulation of the Genesis story of the Fall From Grace, and as such is an archetypal story structure pitting good against evil.
Noir stories make us examine our own beliefs and question just how large a potential payoff it would take for us to abandon those ethical and moral standards we pretend to hold sacred. There’s a little bit of Dix Handley, Walter Neff, and Ned Racine in all of us. Noir allows us to measure ourselves against others who may be as weak as we are, and for that reason it should be disturbing.”
Briefly, the French term noir comes from the black and white, smoke-filled films of the 40’s and 50’s. In the mid-90’s, I was credited with reviving women’s noir with my novel MIAMI PURITY. My version is classic noir, the style of James M. Cain, whereas the main character is the murderer and a love triangle, murder, and betrayal are involved. DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE are the most famous of Cain’s–and my favorites. Now that I think of it, FUR PEOPLE also includes the element of betrayal!
What is ‘noir’? It’s a French word, Gerard, that means “black.” Noir fiction is a sub-sub-genre or off-shoot of the Detective Genre, Hard-Boiled Detective sub-genre. Something like that. Their heyday was generally the 1940’s and 1950’s, but the sub-sub-genre is so fertile and rich with possibility, great noir fiction is still being written. Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo” is noir fiction. Very generally, the story world is very dark with corruption, conspiracy and violence. The protagonist is often a victim or a suspect. Often the protagonist barely survives the perpetrator. Lee’s book, “The Man With the Iron-on Badge,” is noir fiction. Noir fiction is no longer main stream because society no longer believes that corruption is everywhere, or that evil is that overpowering or all-pervasive.
What is much more main stream now-a-days is what I think of as the “Alice in Wonderland” plot. There’s this alternate world, this alien planet, this secret society, these aliens hiding on the earth, and the protagonist gets into this world and has to survive very quirky but menacing characters. Even TV shows like “CSI” and “Criminal Minds” use this plot, for every week the team goes into a ‘new world’ and has to navigate the characters to find the ‘prize’ (the murderer, the unsub). One way to write such a story is simply to follow the plot of “Alice.” But to update the characters, and give the main character other powers than Alice’s ability to speak and reason more clearly than those she is dealing with.
Anyway, as we were talking about theme, I’d say that the more deeply a writer can think about the theme and the solutions to the problems raised by the theme, the more likely the book is to succeed. This is why research is so vital. During research, you dig out the insights and you get down to deepest of the motivations of your story world, breaking new ground, and delivering fresh and new thinking.
I was being a wiseass.
I do like reading other people’s thoughts on it though. I once ran across this definition and like it: “bad people doing bad things to other bad people”.
(Dang, I posted too early.)
Even in noir compilations like BEST NOIR OF THE CENTURY and GEEZER NOIR the definition of noir wavers.
Glad to hear that. I thought maybe noir was still an unknown genre. But you’re obviously a noir connoisseur since you know GEEZER NOIR.