Ultra-talented, versatile, Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist from New Jersey whose short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Adirondack Mysteries II, and in an e-published volume called Lunch Reads. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the chair of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors Program. Her first novel, Cover of Snow, is published by Ballantine.
Jenny met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about her debut and threats to the family.
Of course, before the book really could start, I had to figure out what that thing would be.
How varied do you think peoples’ personal disaster scenarios are where it comes to their families?
First let me say that you’ve hit on exactly the reason that I write the kinds of stories I write. There’s a thin line between where you are now and where you could be. Author Rosellen Brown wrote a novel about this called Before and After. There’s no nether-region, you see, no crossing over. One moment you’re here. The next…there.
When I am standing on a subway platform, I’m seeing the person who pushes someone onto the tracks. In a movie theater, I have the exit in mind—it’s all too easy for me to envision the guy who decides to turn one couple’s night out into a nightmare. There’s a reason I don’t like planes. The difference between business-as-usual (albeit business being conducted in a 42 ton metal capsule at 30,000 feet) and a plummet from the sky isn’t much difference at all.
But what scares me may not frighten you. Fears are individual; just watch Fear Factor. Many people like to fly. Some people are phobic about spiders. Or inchworms. (It’s true. It’s called scoleciphobia). What is less individual is the concept of family. Married or single, child-free or child-laden, we all have a connection to family. The notion of being part of a unit of people, closely tied and often as not dysfunctional as that unit may be, is universal. So if we put those two things together—fears are individual; families are ubiquitous—I think that the disaster scenarios people will envision about their families are probably pretty varied…but, everyone will have one.
How possible do you think it is to instill phobias in people?
Well, full disclosure, I used to be a psychotherapist. I couldn’t get past the dissertation stage, but except for that, I have my Ph.D. in clinical psych. So my perspective would be that it’s not possible to instill a phobia—these come from internal dynamics and experiences that are deeply embedded, and probably took years to create.
But I do think it’s possible to instil something that looks an awful lot like a phobia, namely a traumatic response. If you set up a situation that is terrifying and threatening enough, you may very well traumatize a vulnerable person, or even a not-so-vulnerable person. And once traumatized, people will exhibit symptoms of fear and avoidant behaviours for a long time to come.
The heroine in my debut novel, Nora Hamilton, has something of a traumatic response after she finds her husband hanged from a rope over the backstairs of their old farmhouse. Suddenly the sensation of having anything near her throat is unbearable to Nora. But this isn’t a phobic response toward rope—it’s a whole wealth of associations that remind her of that terrible event, which prompted a traumatized response.
It’s a subtle distinction. Cover me with spiders, and you can bet I’ll be leery of spiders for a long time afterward. But I suspect I’ll be shaky and off-my-gob in other ways, too—after all you just covered me with spiders on an otherwise perfectly pleasant day. Whereas if I were phobic of spiders, I could pretty much merrily go along my way…until Charlotte dropped down from her web.
Ah, Charlotte. Luckily I’m not phobic about spiders—Charlotte’s demise at the end of her eponymous book is one of the great deaths in literature. But…that’s another novel.
Do you think the fact that much crime fiction centers on threats to the family reflects anything about modern Western society?
This is a tough question to answer in the wake of recent assaults to citizens in one of the societies you’re talking about. In fact, it’s hard for me to answer without tears in my eyes. So, I am writing through a veil…and aren’t I lucky to get to do so?
Others haven’t been so lucky. Some will not grow up to get to do that. It makes me feel angry and helpless and guilt-stricken.
I think we live in a world where our own bodily integrity, and the integrity of the family, is constantly at risk. And it’s awful, because we’re not at risk in the immediate sense with which citizens of war-torn nations have to cope. We should feel much safer. But we have something that is perhaps not as ubiquitous in other places, and in any case, not rendered in the same way, and that is media.
The author Gavin de Becker, writing about the gift of fear, says how exploitative the news is. There’s an essential conflict of interest in which the media are charged with sharing horrid stories in a way that keeps the viewer glued to the screen. So when sober report is called for, we get bells and whistles and glitz and lights. Everybody’s got THE exclusive, stay tuned or you’ll miss it, don’t click that remote.
Roger Ebert, the movie critic, was once asked whether he thought violent movies caused shootings and other massacres. “No,” he replied. “Events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of ‘explaining’ them.”
We’re talking about human lives here. This isn’t a game show—reality TV notwithstanding.
I think the media presence and its need to drive up ratings and justify ad campaigns puts violence front and centre in our lives, and that means we fear for ourselves and we fear for our families. We empathize, and we mourn in a vastly diluted way, but in the end, if we don’t look away, we are the media’s puppets—not good citizens.
And perhaps we turn to crime fiction as a way to cope with this conflict. The characters aren’t real. We don’t have to feel guilty for watching, but for being glad it’s not real. And we don’t have to feel guilty for closing the cover at the end of the day.
CLOSING REMARKS HERE.