Quick Fire At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Jenny Milchman

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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.

Tell us about your novel.
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Cover of Snow began life when one question grabbed me around the throat and wouldn’t let go. What would make a good man do the worst thing he possibly could to his wife?

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.


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Find a copy of Cover of Snow at an Indie book store near you or online, here. Or visit Amazon US or UK or Barnes and Noble.

Jenny can be reached at http://jennymilchman.com and she blogs at http://suspenseyourdisbelief.com

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17 Responses to Quick Fire At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Jenny Milchman

  1. K. A. Laity says:

    Good stuff — I enjoy seeing a nakedly psychological approach. Fear is so individual. I remember the split in reactions to The Blair Witch Project from people who found it terrifying and those who could only shake their heads, wondering how anyone could be frightened at ‘nothing’.

  2. AJ Hayes says:

    Thank you Jenny for putting your finger directly on what I think is one of the huge problems today. The “media” are all in the same single business: selling fear. (Talk about induced phobias.) Why is that the thrust of their purpose? Simple. It sells toothbrushes or automobiles or body wash (what the hell is body wash anyway? Does it take the place of soap and water?). It’s not only confined to what we think of as the “media” either. What after all do insurance companies vend? Or politicians? Or churches? Or “how to raise your child” books? They all peddle fear for the same reason: money. Oh yeah and sex also of course but then sex too, in most ways, is a commodty — but that’s another subject.
    Lots of buttons pushed here. Thanks Richard and Jenny, for flipping those switches.

  3. It is always so wonderful to read–never mind complete–one of Richard’s insightful interviews! Thank you for having me, Richard.

    I suppose it’s a sign of these insecure days, but I first read “ultra-talented” as “untalented”. Of course, Richard is far too courtly for such a word to ever pass his lips. But man…there’s nothing like having a book come out to make a writer shudder with self-doubt.

    I look forward to chatting with everyone here (and I suspect you will understand 🙂

  4. You had me at… “What would make a good man do the worst thing he possibly could to his wife?”

    Sorry… had to pop over to Amazon and order Cover of Snow before all the copies are gone. Now, where was I?

    Wonderful interview, Jenny and Richard. I like what you say about phobias and how they are more ‘inbred’, if that’s the word I want to use, rather than imprinted on us by others attempting to assert their will over us. Traumatizing response, I get that…

    Oh, must we talk spiders? *shudders* It’s not like I have a phobia of spiders; I just hate the evil little bastards… Satan’s spawn, they are… dropping down from the light sconce of the bathroom mirror….

    You truly have hit on it… we read, and write, crime fiction as a way of coping with the conflict stirred in us by the media’s glorification of tragedy and human suffering and the helplessness we sometimes feel at our ability to protect our own.

    Unless you want to be here all night reading my comments, don’t get me started on the media… bunch of fear-mongering, money-grubbing whores! The prostitute on the street corner has more honour! At least they’re honest about what they’re doing. All those talking-heads on television, they are all too happy to air people’s dirty laundry (wasn’t there a song about ‘dirty laundry’ a while back; Glenn Frey, I think) and shed crocodile tears over Columbine and Sandy Hook and far too many others. They get in front of the camera and pretend to understand, dishing out their faux empathy and at the same time, putting up that “too shocking for words” image or recording.

    Sorry, I’m going off and not making sense here…. *deep breath*

    Oh, that was Don Henley, not Glenn Frey. I knew it was one of those Eagles’ boys… 🙂

    I love that Roger Ebert said that… set the bloody record straight! Don’t blame Hollywood for the horrific events… blame CNN and ABC and FOX! They glorify violence and sell fear… along with Pantene, the new Ford Focus, and KY Yours+Mine Kissable Sensations.

    Okay… I’m going to go watch my mailbox for your book, Jenny. Thank you so much for popping over to Richard’s and sharing with us.

    Great Quick Fire, Richard! 🙂

    • Veronica, you are great, and I’m so glad that throat-grabbing question also grabbed you. It’s an honor to have you want to read Cover of Snow. I agree with you that even worse than the greed is the dishonesty. As if this is supposed to be sympathy or empathy–and what about young people, who may not know what true emotion is and what masquerades as it?

      I should go listen to the Eagles. The Last Resort. Now that was honest.

  5. M Crittenden says:

    Reallly cool stuff! I’m adding this to my “to read” list. Thanks for the interview Ms. Milchman. I like what you say about fear mechanics. Can you tell me why I have a desperate fear of sharks ( other than that they are huge and have big teeth)? But seriously it is a phobia. If I were in the water with one I’m pretty sure I would pass out. Where does that come from?

    • M…thank you…again, it’s an honor to have you consider Cover of Snow as a To Read.

      As for sharks, I can only say that I share this one. For me it stems back to a Reader’s Digest article I saw as a kid. The man in the photo had a bite taken out of his leg. It was supposed to be a hopeful, inspiring, life-goes-on piece…but it terrified me. The loss. The mutilation.

      I think a lot of us fear what lies below the surface. My book is about that, probably most of all. And sharks are, too…

  6. JD Mader says:

    Excellent interview. The distinction between true phobias and instilled fear is particularly interesting to me. Writing wise, I also relate to the idea of creating a terrible situation and then writing your way through and out of it. My TBR list keeps getting longer (thank god).

    • JD, “writing through and out of it”…that sums it up. Thank you for putting it that way. Glad the interview was interesting to you! Richard does this like no one else can.

  7. Great interview, Jenny. I particularly agree with you on the idea that the concept of “family” and that everyone can envision at least one nightmare scenario affecting their own close relationships makes for some truly terrifying opportunities in fiction.

    And now you’ve got my mind going about an alternate version of Charlotte’s Web…

  8. Just finishing up Cover of Snow… so much just beneath the surface. This was an amazing read! I’ll get a few words up on Goodreads in a few days. Rather ironic that with school out for the summer, I am busier than ever! 🙂

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