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The Deep Bottom Drawer: A Conversation with Lois Duncan

shadowy figuresI’m just beginning to realize the flickering presence Lois Duncan’s books still play in my imagination, decades after discovering them.

Most of my reading life, age nine to twelve especially, seemed to be in search of books that somehow conveyed for me, as movies did, a world as dark and tangled and mysterious as the one I glimpsed in my fevered girl head. These were books of shadows, books where the every day—banging school lockers, fights with siblings, sprawling out on the carpet and watching TV—could, at any moment, give way to darkness, beauty, terror, a Grimm’s fairy tale of precipice-peering and descent. The same things I found, and clung to, in true crime and noir.

It was not until a few years ago that I discovered her non-fiction recounting of her daughter’s (still officially unsolved) murder and its aftermath, Who Killed My Daughter?, which is wrenching, unforgettable book. It’s hard to talk about such a personal book, written by a grieving mother, in objective terms, but, to try, it’s also a fascinating book as Duncan undertakes her own investigations, both traditional and untraditional, including working with a psychic.

Now, with the reissuing and updating of ten of Duncan’s YA books, including my favorites, I was fortunate enough to interview the author herself. On a personal level, there’s something deeply satisfying and more than a little uncanny about it because, as with so many interviews, I came to feel I was revealing (or at least realizing) as much about myself (maybe more) as the author herself was. Most of all, though, I came away feeling deeply inspired by her path as a female author with such a long career in a famously punishing business. The author of 50 books, she has endured countless “revolutions” in publishing and never let any of it stop her from creating, from experimenting, from, well, telling the stories she wanted to tell.

Speaking via a series of emails, we began by talking about the new editions. She told me how exciting it was for her to update the new editions, adding, “I’ve been astonished to realize how well the characters and plots have transcended the years. All I really had to do was tweak the stories in order to change hair styles and dress and give my protagonists access to the technical toys of today—cell phones, computers, digital cameras, etc. That gave me a sense of power. It was like rebirthing my children and being able to provide them with wings.”

Megan: I am a tremendous fan, and have been since I first found your books in the early 1980s, as a young girl in suburban Michigan. It’s a big thrill to see these reissues and to get to revisit these wonderful books and also, somehow, the 10-year-old me who so savored them.

One of the things that strike me now, re-reading them, is how they managed to mingle the everyday (family chores, pesky siblings) and identifiable with the strange, the paranormal, darkness itself. I think it can speak to young girls’ sense that they want to be invited into a book (e.g., a heroine they feel is like them), but they also want to visit murky places. Explore, uncover the unknown. Was that “mix” one of your aims when you wrote them? How could you be sure the darker themes would be speak to readers?

Lois Duncan: I wasn’t sure. And, at first, my editors weren’t either. A Gift of Magic (my first novel that involved ESP) was rejected seven times before Little, Brown daringly published it. The other publishers were certain that young readers would not be interested. I get great satisfaction from the fact that the book, originally published in 1971, has never gone out of print and becomes more and more popular.

As far as my style goes—I think the fact that the books involve “normal” kids in “normal” life situations creates a realistic format that the average reader easily relates to. As paranormal events begin to occur, the viewpoint character finds them just as bewildering as the reader. Then, as that character begins to accept them, the reader does so also, because he or she is following the same thought process.

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Fearful Joys

German Reichstag in BerlinLooking at the Recently Played smartlist in iTunes, I can tell there’s a song that’s had massively more airplay in my world than any other over the last couple of months. That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve put it on at random points during the day. I’ve had it on repeat in the background while I’ve worked at a scene. I’ve sneakily put it on several times while people have been over for dinner, and listened to it again after they’ve gone, while tidying up kitchen. The song is Ich Bin Ich, by Rosenstolz.

And the strange thing is that I have absolutely no clue what it is about.

One of the reasons I like listening to European pop (apart from the songwriters being unafraid of outmoded concepts like ‘melody’) is that if I leave my mind off the hook it’s merely a pleasant sound; with lyrics in English the words pick at me and distract me from working. I listen to a bit of French pop too — I like it, so screw you — and with those songs I can generally make some sense of the words, if I concentrate. Rosenstolz are from Austria. With German, I’m totally lost. It might just as well be in Aramaic, or Welsh, or machine code.

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Science Fiction Noir

One could argue until the cows came home about the definition and origins of noir, and many have been known to do so. From the moment that German expressionist movies and cinematographers moved that extra inch into darkness or crime writers combined their vision of cities at night with the despairing existential angst overwhelming their hapless anti-heroes, noir has been with us in many forms. A concept which is also a mood and an emotion.

These days the many faces of noir are bandied about with reckless abandon: we’ve had neo noir, blue collar noir, country noir, retro noir, political noir, urban noir, and so on and so on. And in most cases, these variations work and do encompass a territory which is familiar to all of us fans of atmospheric crime writing (and I say this as someone who has committed a handful of cities noir collections…).

But I would argue that another genre altogether lends itself with admirable efficiency to harbouring the very essence of noir: science fiction!

As strange as it may initially appear, SF is fertile ground for harvesting the tropes of noir and the disconnect between every day reality and the fully imagined alien environment the speculative genre offers is an ideal breeding ground for all that is best about noir.

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Dead Mower Dreams and the Weeds of Boo Radley

When someone asks me why I think there’s been a resurgence in dark crime, hard-boiled, and noir fiction, I tell them the story about the house across the street.
Razer

It’s a two-floor split-foyer that nowadays sort of looks like Boo Radley’s place. It’s become one of those legendary homes where kids are dared to run up to the porch on Halloween. Obviously, no one lives there anymore. The weeds are chest high. Part of the fencing has toppled. A leaf-strewn trampoline lies collapsed in the backyard, and sun-faded flyers and newspapers litter the stoop.

Eighteen months ago it looked like every other place on the block: well-tended, colorful, lively, active. There was always plenty of noise over there, but not the kind that gets on your nerves. Teenagers shot hoops in the driveway while younger kids played volleyball in the yard or drew chalk pictures and hopscotch boards on the sidewalk. There was a lot of laughter.

This was before my neighbor defaulted on his third mortgage and fled in the night with his family in a box truck, without saying a word to anyone on the street.

Two weeks ago I got so tired of looking at the shabby lawn that I dragged my mower over there and spent an hour doing my best to trim back the jungle. I struggled, sweated, and failed. A third of the way through, the mower started coughing smoke and spitting sparks. Then it let out a shriek like a well-stacked scream queen and died. I haven’t been able to get it started since.

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