Jenny Milchman is a New Jersey writer who studied psychology. After signing with an agent her first suspense novel is due to be released. Cover Of Snow is set in a fictional Adirondack town in the dead of winter. In it Nora Hamilton wakes to find her police detective husband missing from their bed. Jenny is a highly perceptive and profound thinker whose writing is dark and filled with a sense of horror. She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about dissociation and reality.
To what extent do you think there is gender role play in crime fiction and how do you view the traditional role of men protecting women?
In one sense crime fiction has a long history of being written by and featuring strong women—or at least clever, envelope-pushing ones. Think Miss Marple, and her female creator. Think Dorothy Sayers.
At the same time, there is noir fiction, in which a bombshell blonde all but sprawls across the [male] detective’s desk and begs for help.
So crime novels exist on both sides of the gender border.
My own work involves thrusting ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances. They could be men or women, but so far there has always been at least one female point-of-view character who is called upon to do things she didn’t believe herself capable of. In my forthcoming novel, COVER OF SNOW, it’s the man who is probably weakest or most desperate, while his wife has to defend not just herself but in the end a whole town.
Another novel I have written involves a mother and her young child. This is a fairly common theme in fiction: to what lengths will a mother go to protect her young? And when that situation calls for strength and bravery, perhaps even triumphing over a male character, is that a traditional gender role or not?
Crime fiction takes an unjust world and rights it. One of those injustices has historically been sexism. Maybe that’s why so many female characters in crime fiction call the shots, make decisions, and show great strength.
Who are your literary influences?
Well, if you’d asked for my most important literary influence, or my #1 literary influence, the answer would be easy.
Stephen King, I would say.
I began reading Stephen King as a young child—young enough for my parents to have to debate over whether I should be permitted to read him. (This is noteworthy because they were a pretty liberal duo—my dad took me and my brother to see ‘Animal House’ when we were 11 and 8). In the end they allowed me to because my desire was so strong, and because despite becoming deliciously scared, I never seemed to have nightmares.
Scary fiction satisfies something in me that’s perhaps too deep to name, and so other literary influences include Doris Miles Disney, Ira Levin, William Peter Blatty, and David Seltzer. I was also influenced by Shirley Jackson, particularly ‘The Lottery,’ which I read over and over again, ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ in which the human is the hunted on a remote island, and again, many of Stephen King’s shorts.
I remember thinking that King was a master of character back when he was still being dismissed as a hack, and having to call on more lofty literary loves to try and prove that my taste in books might be worthwhile. Fyodor Dostoevsky taught me about the role of guilt; Henry James about a haunting; and George Eliot about sibling love. These authors also all wrote books whose style somehow turned up in mine back in the days when I was more of a mimic and less of a writer.
Hey, it’s one way to learn.
There are contemporary authors from whom I always learn a great deal, even though I think I’ve graduated from mimicry, and indeed don’t read fiction at all when I am writing a first draft, lest my own voice get corrupted.
Harlan Coben creates villains frightening enough to aspire to. Andrew Klavan and Lee Child are experts at putting characters into situations the reader (this reader at least) can’t imagine how they will get out of. There are female authors—Nancy Pickard, Lisa Unger, Laura Lippman, Cammie McGovern, Tana French, Jacqueline Mitchard and too many others to list here—who inject emotion into their books that makes you realize how rich suspense can really be. Louise Penny and Timothy Hallinan’s sense of place is majestic—although their places are about as far apart as you can get.
Who are my literary influences? Once I get past Stephen King, they become too numerous to name, and growing every day.
To what extent do you think writers are informed by a fear of death?
I might say that all people are informed by a fear of death. That to greater and lesser degrees, death informs our religions, our clocks, our calendars, and ironically, our lives.
My stories (and forthcoming novel) all have death as the underlying reality. If you scrape away the description, the dialog, and details, each character is coping with fear. And what are they afraid of? Gross bodily harm to themselves or their loved ones, which basically boils down to—death.
In COVER OF SNOW, out in early 2013, death is there without any scraping away. The protagonist, a young wife who’s moved to a bleak and lovely Adirondack town in mid-winter, finds herself unexpectedly widowed. The rest of the novel is her race to explain this death—and avoid her own.
And in a short story, also set in the Adirondacks, death comes to a honeymooning couple in the form of a body they stumble upon.
In my e-published short story “The Very Old Man,” Denise is new mother to nine month old Bethany. You might think that this particular stage of life is antithetical to death—as ripe and bursting as a peach. But it’s fear of the ease with which life can be lost that really drives the story.
Some of my favorite books deal with death as their theme. My favorite Alice Hoffman novel is AT RISK, in which a preteen girl is dying of AIDS in the early days of the disease. At a late point in the book, she has her braces taken off. She looks in the mirror, then walks out into the waiting room, “still smiling because now she knows.
“She would’ve been beautiful.”
The poignancy and heartbreak of those lines trace their power to…death.
PET SEMETARY by Stephen King is about the rank desperation with which the characters try to fight death. The father’s whose son came back from the war—but shouldn’t have. The main character, Louis, who knows what will happen if he tries to cheat death—but does so anyway. Because anything is better than—nothing.
Do I think that fear of death drives writers? I think it drives us all.
Do you think female killers are motivated by different things than male killers and what do the differences show about gender?
Men and women both kill for the same reason: They want something. But what they want differs greatly.
Those three sentences came to me late one night in response to this brain teaser of a question. Then I had to go back and figure out if they were true or not.
Do people kill because they want something? First I decided to take “kill” and replace it with “do the bad the bad things they do in books” because some of my favorite characters never actually kill.
Take Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s MISERY (I keep coming back to King). She doesn’t kill Paul—but she does do a Very Bad Thing, bad enough to drive an entire book. And she certainly wants something—in this case to possess the author she so rabidly loves.
The male character in the book I’m reading now, EMPIRE OF LIES by Andrew Klavan, does kill and he does want something: to make his fanatical sentiment known. Or take Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. He wants something from each of his kills. He wants to eat.
To put it less coyly, and to give Harris’ novel its due, Lecter wants to consume the very heart of his victims, to feed on their thoughts and furies.
On the surface, Annie Wilkes and Hannibal Lecter appear to want somewhat similar things, but when you dig a little, this impression changes. And the change says something to me about gender.
Wilkes wants to be close to the writer she reveres, and when that want is threatened, she will kill or do great harm to recapture it. But Lecter wishes to destroy what he wants. The want is only satisfied by destruction.
This question left me with a question that I’ll be trying to answer in each book I read now. Do female characters kill because they can’t get something they want from their victims? And do male characters kill because they’ve gotten it?
Do you think that for a man or woman to slip over into killing they need to dissociate from their perceived selves into someone else and what does that someone else throw away in terms of gender conditioning and all it is intended to socialize?
To answer this question, I have to think about some pretty dark aspects of myself, things that would perhaps be more comfortable not to explore.
I have never killed anyone, and I hope I never do (though I also hope I would be able to, should circumstances and justice ever require).
But I have been angry and done hurtful things to the people who matter most. Killers usually kill those they know and love.
Did I dissociate during these times? Was I not the person I like to think of myself as being?
The answer to both these uncomfortable questions is yes. I went into a place where I was less connected to the person I was angry with, couldn’t see the flash of hurt across his face.
And unless the killer likes to think of him or herself as a killer, as someone entitled to the most violent of acts, then she or he probably feels pretty distant during the moment of murder as well.
I’m not sure if this is a greater leap—if more distance is required—in the case of a female versus a male killer. Historically violence has been the purview of men; think war, hunting, or rape. But does that reflect some testosterone-fueled reality, or simply how we like to think of the sexes?
Because women do kill, and often in spectacularly brutal ways. We can go no further than the recent trial of Casey Anthony to know this.
Perhaps we are all a little dissociated from reality.
Is reality simply a collectively shared subjectivity?
Maybe it’s dreadfully un-postmodernist of me, but I believe in reality. I believe there is a truth to things, one that we can arrive at if we are sufficiently free of bias and agenda and the kinds of unconscious issues that are usually a lifetime’s work to resolve.
I’m not saying things are black and white, of course. Most of the time things are wonderfully, terribly gray. Wonderfully because this kind of nuance allows for multiple, valid paths. And terribly because, well, this kind of nuance allows for multiple, valid paths.
How do we arrive at what is right?
This question is an important one for crime fiction, maybe the most important one. It means that stakes can be drawn so that the reader knows what she or he should be rooting for—what is the “good” outcome.
It means that the writer can layer in all sorts of subtlety as she or he depicts a situation with rights and wrongs, knowing that these concepts contain ambiguity.
Perhaps the richest facet for fiction of a world that contains a nuanced reality is this. Every character, no matter what they do, is doing it because they think it’s the right thing to do. The thing that in reality is necessary for them to do.
Even killers have their motivations, and these are grounded in the killer’s reality. Is this reality the same as yours or mine?
It becomes so as soon as the innocent person arrives in the killer’s sights.
Then the childhood that made the bad guy feel deprived enough to want to murder anyone who’s better off becomes the privileged person’s reality for a while.
And you can bet the victim understands that that world of deprivation is very, very real.
Do you think that totalitarianism is the death of existentialism?
The dictionary defines it as a form of government where the ruler or dictator is not limited by a constitution or laws. And let’s define existentialism as a sense of self, or meaning. My short answer is no. There have been fascist regimes since time began and somehow human individuality refuses to bury its head. I think Elie Wiesel would agree.
But for my purposes, as a fiction writer, I can’t help but extend these concepts to the written word. In my novels I am the totalitarian leader. I create people and the worlds they inhabit, blowing them up like balloons. I and I alone breathe life into them. If I didn’t keep writing, their individual stories would end. If I didn’t push to publish, they would remain static cross-hatchings on the page, no reader coming in to read and complete the job of life-giving.
So do these characters share an existential urge toward meaning with the humans that populate the planet?
In some sense, the sense of agency, no. They are quite literally helpless without me.
But we all know that’s not really true, and I don’t just mean for those authors who tend to get metaphysical, and feel that their characters take over, writing the story for them.
I mean that when you read a book, these people exist. And isn’t that the root of existentialism? Characters—the best characters—feel real to you as you read. You don’t just anticipate what they will do next in the story, you begin to imagine what they might do in a situation that will never take place in the novel.
They stay with you after the last page is turned.
Their lives—their existences—have meaning even though it’s only the author, a leader unshackled by any laws, who gives them dominion.
How does this magic happen? How do characters become as real as the Jewish man in Nazi Germany who refuses to eat his last scrap of rotting meat, and instead shares it with someone he believes to be more hungry than he?
I don’t have the answer to that (unless Richard wrings it out of me for the next question 🙂 But I do know that it supports the answer I gave when I turned to this question.
The most totalitarian regime—that of author and book—cannot stamp out the existential meaning inherent in each individual.
No matter whether that individual is real…or imagined.
Tell us about your novel.
My novel took eleven years to sell.
In a sense that may be all I need to say to answer the question. There’s a lot of meat in eleven years.
In eleven years there’s hope, heartache, frustration, and despair. In eleven years there’s a brass ring at the end of the tunnel (to mix metaphors).
In eleven years there’s a dream come true.
The story behind my story has been written about elsewhere, though, so I’ll indulge myself now by responding to the true meaning of Richard’s question.
I’ll tell you about my novel.
It’s called COVER OF SNOW. My publisher is referring to it as a literary thriller. By that I think they mean the pace is fast, the suspense high, but there’s also an emphasis on the writing and character development. At least, that’s how it sounds when I get whiffs of what’s going on behind-the-scenes as my dream editor at my dream house begins to position the book.
COVER OF SNOW takes place in a fictional Adirondack town in the dead of winter. It’s about a women named Nora Hamilton who wakes to find her police detective husband missing from their bed.
That’s what starts off the story, at least. But hopefully it’s about more than that. Shortcuts taken, greed indulged. What happens to people who tend not to face things. Or, to be more concrete, small town corruption in the hands of the powerful few who run it.
Nora won’t stop until she finds out what happened to her husband. But she’s up against some pretty potent forces—and the most potent of all is her own desire not to see.
This book is the first in a series where the recurring ‘character’ is the creepy little town of Wedeskyull. In future books you may see minor characters from COVER OF SNOW writ large or main characters making cameo appearances.
I can’t wait to write the next one. I can’t wait for you to read it.
What makes you passionate?
My family. Friends.
Books. And bookstores. Reading.
Beautiful views and comfortable beds and long, hot soaks in a tub.
Swimming and boating and biking and hiking.
Seeing new things. Meeting new people.
It’s not a very long list. I don’t need much. And yet, I think it’s just about everything.
A question to ask myself.
This might be the hardest one of all. After all, Richard asks great questions. Unique questions I never could’ve thought up on my own.
How can I possibly match one of his? And, what’s left to be asked?
I thought I would tell you why I stuck with my dream of getting published for eleven or thirty-seven years (depending on how you count. The first count would be since I signed with my first agent. The second would be almost my whole life).
So the question is, What enabled you to stick it out for so long? AKA, Are you completely mad?
Well, yes. Probably. Isn’t anyone who pursues a dream long past the point at which people are saying, Um, you could do other things, a little crazy? (For that matter, isn’t anyone who sits down to write a novel kind of mad? For deciding to create a whole other world on the page, and make people care about it?)
Actually no one ever said the could-do-other-things thing to me. A few of my parents’ friends noted that my husband was a real trooper for supporting me when I wasn’t earning a dime all those years (had, in fact, quit working long before at the profession that did bring in dimes).
And way back when, sophomore year of college, my parents did point out that while I worked to pursue writing, I might want to choose a backup profession out of the handful things I liked, though none of them approached what I felt about making up stories.
But for the most part I was supported in my dream. My mom told me she thought it would take a long time, but would wind up coming true because “I had this in me and always had”. Those are powerful words coming from your mom, who has a real feeling for what ‘always’ means when it comes to her children.
My husband gave me a present for the birthday right before I got my offer of publication. It was a photograph of a road through the wilderness, with a quote by Will Smith on it. The quote is entitled, No Plan B.
Was it all the support I got that enabled me to go on?
In part, yes. For sure. I can’t honestly say what I would’ve done without it.
Or maybe I can. Maybe I just can’t say how I would’ve done it without that support.
But I think that I would have. I would’ve had to.
The stories, when you’re a writer, bubble up like lava. You can no more suppress them than you can put a lid on a volcano.
And Stephen King calls an unpublished—certainly an unread—novel a circle that hasn’t been closed. It’s not what the Thing was meant to be. There are no unclosed circles. An unclosed circle is more than an oxymoron—it can’t physically exist.
And so we writers press to be read just as the universe isn’t able to tolerate a breaking of one of its laws.
Why did I stick with it all this time? I don’t recall being given a choice.
Thank you, to people and universes, for not giving me a choice.
Thank you Jenny for a really great interview which is full of depth. I look forward to reading Cover Of Snow.
Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New Jersey. Her short story ‘The Very Old Man’ has been an Amazon bestseller, and another short piece will appear in the anthology ADIRONDACK MYSTERIES II in fall 2012. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the Made It Moments forum on her blog. She teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop, as well as online, and has designed curricula to teach writing to children. Her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, will be published by Ballantine in early 2013.