January 19, 2017

The Crime Lady #073: Talking with Emma Flint, Author of 'Little Deaths'

When the book deal for Emma Flint's debut novel Little Deaths was announced in September 2015, I felt more than a little odd. Just two months earlier, I published an essay at Hazlitt to mark the 50th anniversary of the Alice Crimmins case, one that when I first learned of it many years before, I could not get out of my head, to the point where I ended up holding actual, tangible, evidence that might have held the ultimate solution, had the case not been closed and had anyone cared to preserve it properly.

Needless to say, I felt some trepidation upon reading Little Deaths, which was released earlier this week. It is, just like the real-life case, a story I cannot get out of my head. Ruth Malone, Flint's fictionalized version, is a woman of great contradictions and fierce independence. She won't apologize and won't explain her life, and in mid-1960s New York, that's perhaps a greater crime than whether she killed her children.

Flint and I discussed where Alice Crimmins ends and Ruth Malone begins, the intersection and deviation of crime fiction and true crime, her research methods, and much more in our Q&A, conducted earlier this month by email. It's been edited for clarity, though Flint's anglicized spelling remains, since she's British.

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The Crime Lady: The timing of the announcement of your book deal was particularly significant to me. How did you first learn of it and why did you think it would make the basis not only for a novel, but for yours, and that this was the material you wanted to work with?

Emma Flint: I saw your essay while I was editing a late draft of Little Deaths and was struck by how the case still haunts people fifty years later. When I went to Chicago for BEA in May 2016, I spoke to people from New York who told me they remembered the crime. It made me realise that there’s something about the story – or perhaps about Alice herself – that makes it live on in the memory for decades.

In my own case, there were two decades between reading about the crime and starting to write Little Deaths. I first read about it when I was sixteen, and found that I couldn’t forget Alice Crimmins or the story of what happened to her. There were two things in particular that stayed in my mind: firstly, the discrepancy between her statement of what she fed the children for dinner the night they disappeared and what was found during the autopsy on her daughter – it always struck me as a very odd detail to lie about. And secondly, I had an image in my head – a memory of a photograph – of a striking, petite woman, perfectly dressed, eyes cast down, surrounded by tall bulky male figures.

Those details stayed with me until one afternoon in July 2010. I can’t remember exactly what sparked my interest in Alice Crimmins again, but I know I began thinking about her and then started reading  about the case in more detail online for the first time in twenty years. I read a sentence about how important make-up was to Alice’s identity, and that triggered what became the first scene in Little Deaths, where Ruth applies her mask before she can face the day. I wrote 6,000 words that afternoon, and some of that first draft forms part of the opening scene, almost word for word as I first wrote it.

At the time I wrote that, I didn’t realise I was writing a novel: I thought it was an interesting idea for a character study and it wasn’t until weeks later when I couldn’t get Alice / Ruth out of my mind, that I understood I needed to tell her story.

TCL: You mention having read the two main books on the Crimmins case by Kenneth Gross and George Carpozi. What other research did you do? And while I understand you did not visit Kew Gardens Hills, the Queens neighborhood where Alice lived and where her children were murdered, how much did you know of the city and the neighborhood at the time?

EF: It was a deliberate choice not to visit the neighbourhood while I was writing. A quick glance at Google Street View compared with photos from 1965 showed me how much it had changed, and I felt that if I went there fifty years later, I’d be hampered by the modern feel. Because the setting is so integral to the story, I chose to stay at a distance and focus on how it was in the 1960s.

I looked at thousands of photos of suburban America in the mid-60s, and listened to Queens accents on YouTube to try and get the dialogue right. I also kept coming back to my own childhood: I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb (in the 1970s), and I think anyone who grew up in an environment like that will understand the closeness of that kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out and becomes the subject of gossip.

TCL: Obviously Ruth Malone is at the center of Little Deaths by virtue of the heinous crimes she is accused of committing. And I feel like, though the book takes place in the mid-1960s, the underlying crimes Ruth is accused of -- being independent, promiscuous, defiant, putting her own pleasure first -- are leveled at women today and, sadly, will continue to be leveled. Was inhabiting Ruth's fictional skin difficult because of the difference in time, or almost disturbingly easy because of the parallels between her story and more contemporary women?

EF: It was astonishingly easy to inhabit her skin. She became very real to me – and I’m obviously talking here about my creation, Ruth Malone, not about the real Alice Crimmins. I had conversations with Ruth, arguments with her, and I was able to know instinctively what her opinion would be on various subjects.

I think this is at least partly because she feels very contemporary in terms of her independence and her sexual identity, but it’s also because a lot of her emotional journey is one that was easy to relate to. I think most people have experienced grief and loss, loneliness, self-consciousness about their appearance – those feelings aren’t particular to any era, they’re universal.

TCL: Many of my favorite sections of Little Deaths involved the journalist, Pete Wonicke, who tries to keep objective (if slightly disapproving) distance of Ruth but finds he does almost the exact opposite. There' a strong hardboiled feel in his scenes, and I wondered if that came naturally to you -- there's a sense of, dare I say it, fun and crackle that suggests it did.

EF: I’m thrilled that you spotted that! I had a lot of fun with the scenes set in the newspaper office in particular – Janine and her crush on Pete, Friedmann and his fish tank – those scenes were the most fun to write. I actually wrote (and edited) Ruth’s scenes and Pete’s scenes separately – once I was inside their heads, it was easier to stay there for days or weeks at a time, then come out and enter the other’s head. Ruth’s voice certainly came far easier to me – but once I had a couple of key sentences in that ‘hardboiled’ tone, the rest of Pete’s narrative flowed.

TCL: If I have one nit to pick about Little Deaths it is that in some instances, the details hew a little too closely to the Crimmins case. (It takes place in the same neighborhood on the same dates, for example; I'm curious as to why.) But that is a complicated subject, to know when to deviate from known facts and let the imagination fly freely and when to be as scrupulous as possible with the truth. How did you make your own imaginative decisions as you worked through your story of Ruth Malone to keep it distinct, but still suggestive of, what happened to Alice Crimmins?

EF: My first drafts of Ruth’s narrative stuck more closely to the real case than the final draft, and I changed some details at the request of my editors. Where I’ve adhered to the true historical details – as with the dates and the location – it’s because I didn’t feel there was any reason to change them. It had to be set in an ordinary suburban setting which the liberated mores of the 60s hadn’t really touched yet (other than Ruth herself). It also felt important that the suburb was just far enough from a big city that it would be glittering on the horizon but not actually effecting the day-to- day lives of the women in the neighbourhood.

I think writing about a real crime is similar to any other historical fiction: I tried to stick to the basic facts and breathe life into them through the emotions and reactions of the characters, so that the reader can experience them in a new way. The key is to make the characters real, and the past immediate and familiar, by writing about situations and experiences that the reader can relate to. We all know what it is to experience sadness or loneliness or fear: as a writer you need to make what your characters are going through vivid enough that readers feel it too.

TCL: For years, at least in America, there has been a truism that people who read and buy crime fiction are not the same as those who read and buy true crime. I feel that is in fact not true at all! (Certainly crime writers have been obsessed with and mining real-life crime stories as far back as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.) But I also think the line's more blurred than ever and certainly Little Deaths crosses that line many times and back again. How do you look at the similarities and differences of crime in a nonfiction versus fiction context? Do you read them differently? Or it is all the same pleasure?

EF: I agree with you that this isn’t true at all – I’m often struck by the parallels with real cases when I read Agatha Christie, for example.

I do read true crime and crime fiction differently: when I read true crime my thoughts are far more with the victim and their family. I find it far harder to read the details of a real murder or the effect of a disappearance, because you know you’re reading something that actually happened and it's not difficult to imagine the grief and anguish that a violent or sudden death leaves in its wake.

However, authors of crime fiction often invite us to empathise with the criminal and there’s a certain guilty pleasure about exploring a dark and twisted mind that acts on those impulses we all have but that most of us suppress in seconds. We’ve all felt anger or jealousy or hate, but most of us rationalise those emotions or are able to move on from them. I’m very curious about those who don’t, but rather act on them – and how they then cover up those acts.

TCL: Without spoiling it, the ending of Little Deaths managed to surprise but also be utterly inevitable, and I still l think about it. Ruth's story ends as it does, but do you still think of her and how she may have gotten older in the face of all that has happened?

EF: I'm glad you felt that way – that’s exactly how I wanted the reader to feel as they closed the book: a sense of surprise but also a sense of ‘oh, of course!’ I knew how the book would end a long time before I even finished the first draft, and I couldn’t have written the ending any other way.

When I was writing, I thought about Ruth all the time, as she is in Little Deaths: in her twenties, attractive, objectified, afraid, lost. Funnily, I rarely think about Ruth beyond the ending – I feel that what happened to her after I left her in that final scene is her story and not mine to tell.

Now that I’ve finished writing, I think about Alice more than Ruth, and wonder if she’s heard about the book, and what she thinks about it.

TCL: By the same token, what, if anything, do you wonder about Alice Crimmins today? I once asked Mary Higgins Clark, whose breakout 1975 novel Where Are the Children? was also based on the case, if she ever wanted to meet her, and she was emphatic in saying she did not. Do you feel similarly if that chance was offered to you?

EF: I do. I’m curious about her, of course, but purely satisfying my own curiosity would be a very selfish motive for wanting to meet her. I imagine it would be very difficult to meet her privately, and she’s spent so long maintaining her privacy and refusing to give interviews, that I want to respect that.

And of course, Alice Crimmins is not Ruth Malone: she’s not the character I spent years creating and developing.

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It's been good to keep TCL on a semi-regular schedule to start 2017, so I'll return before January is over with more links and recommendations. Till then!