“It’s About Connecting With the Darkness”: Thriller Authors Elizabeth Little and Abigail Haas on Writing Complicated Women

In the wake of Gillian Flynn’s success with Gone Girl, the bestselling book that will soon be a David Fincher movie, a slew of smart, satisfying thrillers have appeared that focus on complicated women. Two excellent examples include the recent Dear Daughter, by Elizabeth Little, and Abigail Haas‘ two young adult thrillers, the new-in-paperback Dangerous Girls and the just-released Dangerous Boys. Little and Haas feel like thriller sisters under the flesh. Both came to the genre after publishing other kinds of books — two nonfiction books about linguistics in Little’s case (Biting the Wax Tadpole and Trip of the Tongue), and young adult romance for Haas (she is the author of several books for Candewick under the name Abby McDonald, and also works as a successful romance writer under the name Melody Grace).

Little’s book is about an LA party girl, Janie Jenkins — tragically, a slightly-out-of-date Paris Hilton in a Kim Kardashian world —  who was busted for the sordid murder of her mother ten years ago. Released on a technicality, she’s trying to clear her name by running towards a remote, weird little Twin Peaks-esque town in South Dakota, where she may learn the truth about what happened the night that her mother died.

Haas’ Dangerous Girls pairs very well with Dear Daughter, as it’s also concerned with what a media maelstrom can do regarding public perception of whether someone’s innocent or guilty. Its central character, Anna, is in jail in Bermuda, accused of the brutal murder of her best friend (Your Natalee Holloway/Amanda Knox spidey sense should be tingling). Dangerous Boys, on the other hand, is about one girl, Chloe, pulled between two brothers in a podunk town. One brother is dangerous, and one is sweet — but which brother is alive? All three books are wicked, twisting stories that will keep you up at night, messing around with timelines and stories, and using a mash-up of our modern world’s writing — TMZ posts, court records, and book excerpts — to mess with what the reader believes is the truth.

With all that in mind, I thought these two Los Angeles-based authors would have a lot to discuss about the freedom of writing thrillers and complicated women, and it was a pleasure to facilitate their chat via email. — Elisabeth Donnelly

Flavorwire: To get this started, I want to hear a little bit about how you both write fictional female characters who are not necessarily “likable” in Dear Daughter, Dangerous Girls, and Dangerous Boys.

Abigail Haas: The question of likability always hangs over female characters in a way I’ve never seen haunting male protagonists in literature and film. Men get to be interesting and flawed as a matter of course, but the moment you have a woman or girl up there center stage, suddenly the most important note is, ‘Well, is she likable? Will women be able to relate?’

dangerous boysI wrestled with this a lot writing YA and commercial fiction. The “aha” moment for me came when a friend loaned me a collection of Laura Lippman short stories. It was a real lightbulb: “So here’s where all the fucked-up, smart, interesting women are hiding! In the crime/thriller section!” I don’t know what it is about slapping a thriller label on a book, but suddenly the audience accept that they’ll be reading about a character who they won’t necessarily like. The goalposts move. Suddenly, it’s about “is this character compelling?” rather than likability. You get away with so much more.

Elizabeth, is this something you ever got push-back about? Did you care about making Jane likable? Or were you freed from that by writing what was obviously an adult thriller?

Elizabeth Little: Ugh. “Likability.” What a dumb, pernicious, and largely sexist construct! What does it even mean? Because the usual definition of “likability” doesn’t remotely resemble anything I actually like — Jane’s not “likable,” but I like her plenty! Anna and Elise from Dangerous Girls aren’t “likable,” but I liked the shit out of them. Real likability is far too subjective a quality to mean any one thing — or even any hundred things — and yet, somehow, here we are, marking any female character who isn’t “decent” and “nice” and “kind” and “not on any psychiatric medication of any kind” as some sort of xenomorph to be thrown under a microscope.

A pox on likability! (Relatability, too.)

I’ve been very lucky not to have to worry too much about likability — I certainly never got any push-back about from my editor. The push-back is, nevertheless, definitely there, and has been since the book went out on submission. There were editors who thought Jane was too much of a brat; there are readers who think she’s too much of an asshole. And this can apparently sink the whole book for some people.

All things considered, though, I think I have it pretty easy, and that’s in large part because of what you point out, Abby, which is that thrillers absolutely get to play by different rules. My friends who write romance and women’s fiction have far less freedom with their characterizations — or, at least, feel far more constricted than I do, because the criticism flows fast and fierce if their heroines aren’t “likable.”

But why is this, do you think? Why do thriller writers have so much more freedom to write flawed, fucked-up women than writers in other genres?

Haas: I don’t know why thrillers play by different rules, but I think it has a lot to do with audience expectations. By their nature, thrillers tend to delve into the dark corners of the human psyche: we’re often dealing with murder, crime, all the sharp edges of humanity at their worst. And in that framework, we expect the people we’re reading about to have those sharp edges.

Also, I think thrillers are a more elevated world, so characters can get away with being more idiosyncratic. Our normal lives don’t butt up against murder and tragedy in the same way as, say, a romance novel is set up to be a believable reality, the events that could happen to you. In a thriller, we don’t want to imagine ourselves in their place – maybe there’s more a sense of being a spectator to events than inhabiting them?

Little: I think you hit it on the head when you made that distinction between spectating and participating. Now obviously every book is its own beautiful snowflake but for our purposes here let’s simplify down to Scary Stories vs. Non-Scary Stories.

Dear DaughterI mean, a Scary Story can only be tolerated provided that the reader never forgets that it’s just a story, right? That’s why we’re able to transmute that fear into excitement. I know that’s certainly how I get through horror movies — I still repeat, over and over again, every time I watch The Shining or that scene in Bridget Jones where she has to give that speech at the book launch, “This isn’t really happening, this isn’t really happening, this isn’t really happening.” So we’re necessarily and quite stubbornly not fully inhabiting the characters — or locations or creepy rusty metal traps — in Scary Stories. This, I suppose, can let you do all sorts of bonkers stuff, not the least of which is not being turned off deeply imperfect and potentially “unlikable” women.

Haas: Elizabeth, I loved how you used transcripts and letters to contradict Jane. They could just as easily be evidence of her mistaken memories and impressions as signs that everyone turned on her and lied outright.

Little: Yeah, I think we had the same idea here — we’re both dealing with stories where the first-person narrator is the main suspect. These third-party texts are a way to titrate how conspicuously unreliable the narration is at any given time. They were also very helpful for pacing and — for me, anyway — were really fun to write. Some are really little more than palate cleansers; others contain essential clues or character beats.

I had no real organizational principle for these sections — I sort of wrote them as they came to me and then, near the end of the editorial process, I tied up ends and cleaned up timelines. But compared to Dangerous Girls, Dear Daughter is a walk in the chronological park.

Abby, you jumped back and forth between several different timelines — how did you do this? 

Haas: I wish I could explain the system of Dangerous Girls! It was a gift of a book, from the moment I had the idea I knew exactly how it would unfold skipping between the timelines. I wrote it pretty much how it appears on the page: moving between the timelines, jumping around as I moved through the book. But I was careful about the plotting, because I needed to create structure and rising tension even within the different narrative threads. Looking back now, I really don’t know how all the pieces fit together the way they did.

Working on Dangerous Boys, I kept things a little simpler – and by “simpler,” I mean only three timelines instead of five. I like using the choppy narrative in a thriller format because it gives the reader a glimpse of truth, and then yanks it away. I want that page-turning intensity, and sometimes confusion is the best way to keep someone reading.

Elizabeth, in your book, the crime in question took place ten years ago at the dawn of social media. It’s easy to believe Jane wouldn’t have had the same archive of personal information out there, so was that a conscious choice? And if her crime took place today, do you think the outcome would have been the same – if not worse with the media circus and 24/7 news cycle?

Little: It’s interesting to look at the two different trajectories of our protagonists here: Over the course of Dangerous Girls, Anna eventually learns to make the media circus work for her rather than against her — whereas with Dear Daughter, at first Jane thinks she has things figured out and then she loses control of her own narrative. And when she gets out of jail, American culture is even more confusing, because there’s been this social media revolution that she totally missed out on. She’s a bit of an artifact, really — a Paris Hilton in a Kim Kardashian world. This was certainly a conscious decision, because I wanted things to be really really hard for her, no matter how smart she is (or thinks she is).

But I don’t think the outcome of her case would have been any different had it been in 2014 instead of 2004 — as Jane herself says, she was always going to be the best story. Twitter and Facebook would’ve just given the media more material to work with.

When you were writing Dangerous Girls, did you spend much time watching or reading media coverage of cases like Anna’s and Janie’s? And were there any particular cases that you really drew on for inspiration? (I’m assuming the Amanda Knox case was one?)

dangerous girls pbHaas: I was inspired by a lot of the media circuses: Natalee Holloway, Casey Anthony, but Amanda Knox was definitely the main event. I devoured all the true crime books for research, and it’s just fascinating, the details that would seem far-fetched in fiction that people were broadcasting like cast-iron fact. After all the reading, I don’t believe she is responsible for the murder at all, but again, it’s the idea of a story and narrative that grips the imagination. The prosecutor in that case was convinced it was a Masonic sex ritual; he’d been obsessed with them his entire career, and so decided that an American girl who’d barely been in the country a month would obviously murder her roommate in a Masonic sex ritual. I mean, just to type those words is laughable, but the modern news audience seems to have such an appetite for these stories, we relish the lurid and grotesque.

As for Clara Rose, I watched a lot of Nancy Grace and crime show clips to get the cadence right. There’s a certain rhythm to the monologue that sweeps you along with the momentum through huge leaps in logic and evidence, it’s almost irresistible.

Flavorwire: What drew you both to writing mystery and thrillers?  

Haas: I love exploring human darkness, and I’m been fascinated with sociopathy and psychopathy for a long time. Writing thrillers lets me delve into that in a way that uses all my story muscles; I love plot and structure, crafting that narrative that will (hopefully) keep you turning the pages way too late. (I finished Dear Daughter at 2 AM, so thanks Elizabeth!) And it’s the one genre where I feel free to write sharp, fucked-up, smart, interesting, nuanced female protagonists, so I’ll keep writing as long as I can.

Little: Ditto everything you said (including the thanks/no thanks for your book keeping me up way past my bedtime). Another draw for me is the way that certain genres — especially life-or-death genres like mysteries or thrillers or horror — allow for the freer expression and clearer examination of deep primal huge scary emotions. It’s the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model. Take an inner demon and make it an outer one. Suddenly it’s a lot easier to talk about.

But — I’m going to throw this back to you, Abby, because the fuck if I know the answer — what do you think made us like this? Why are you so fascinated by sociopathy and psychopathy? Why was I reading books about serial killers and psychological profiling when I was 14? (I mean, apart from the fact that I had a very minimal social life.) And, curiously, I feel like this is something a lot of my female writer friends share—so what gives? Is there just something crooked about us? Are we all super obsessed with death? Is there some larger cultural phenomenon at work? Or should I just learn to love myself just the way I am already, dammit!

Haas: Oh boy, that’s the question… What’s interesting to me is that so many of the reviews for Dangerous Boys have commented on my mental state. They marvel at what a dark, twisted, fucked up place my mind must be, but the truth is, I think of myself as pretty stable and happy! I write romance under a pseudonym, Melody Grace, for the rest of the time, and that world is all about happy-ever-afters and hope. But I think they’re two sides of the same coin, creating these safe outlets to explore our deeper impulses, whether that’s the need to envision a passionate romantic world, or to process darkness and anger.

For me, my writing isn’t so much concerned with death as it is with anger, resentment, fear, violence, lust – all of the impulses that women and especially teenage girls are told to repress and ignore. There’s such a taboo around destructive urges in women that I think that’s what fuels the love of thrillers as a reader and writer: it’s the safe space to experience those emotions without judgment. I always get told, “I’m scared how much I related to the character,” and to me that’s a good thing. It’s about connecting with the darkness inside us all, and often it’ll be the only time we allow ourselves access to that place, through the veil of fiction.

As universal as those impulses are, I think there’s something specifically gendered about women and thrillers too, as readers and writers – and inherently feminist. The story Jane unravels about her past is specifically about a woman’s choices and autonomy (argh, trying to stay spoiler-free!), and for Elise in Dangerous Girls the approach of the media and prosecutor focus on her identity as a girl – her sexuality, the expectations we have of female behavior. We see it all the time in these trials, women judged and portrayed as sluts, as bad mothers, or cheating girlfriends. There’s a moral judgment that goes beyond the simple fact of the crime. Women face such gendered violence in their lives, do you think thrillers are a way of channeling those narratives into strength: the revenge storyline, or seeking justice against crimes that are as much about sex as they are violence, etc?

Little: I totally understand why I want to write thrillers — because of what we’ve been talking about: this freedom to explore the female experience in a less than perfectly socially “acceptable” way. (I would maybe argue that erotica also offers a space for this, but that’s probably a conversation for another day.) Also, as a writer I get to indulge in my own agency, you know? When I write about violence or injustice or the shitty, shitty things people do to one another I actually have some control over what happens and how the narrative is presented. It’s literally/literarily empowering.

Haas: Right, we get to be the puppet-masters, safe in the knowledge that justice will be done – whatever that particular brand of justice looks like!