• Ice Cream Planet

    This such a great interview!

    I love how more film and television are playing with genres ilk Southern Gothic or Ozarks noir.

    Zoë, if you are reading this, what are your thoughts regarding atmosphere and representation of community in those stories? When it comes to the sordid and the crazy, it can be easy to tip into a leering, freak show wallow. As a writer, are there any suggestions you would give to avoid this, or should it not be avoided?

    • ZoeZ

      Thank you so much! And trust me, having an interview up is so novel for me that I keep checking it to make sure it wasn’t an elaborate dream.

      That’s a great question. Those kinds of stories definitely can tend in that direction, and I try to take them on a case-by-case basis. The Devil All the Time, for example, has very little that isn’t soiled or freakish, but the grandiosity of the prose and the specificity of the details carry it. So individual stories can spin gold out of that “freak show” straw. Generally, though, I prefer stories that acknowledge that craziness runs deep in certain settings but still find the common human experience and the bedrock of sympathy there. I really liked how True Detective handled it: you have so much background strangeness, but you also have the usual marital and parenting woes, and outside of that, a lot of the strangeness was treated with dignity and compassion, and a lot of the out-of-the-ordinary characters still had agency within the narrative. So over all I’d say that certain writers can pull of that sense of gawking at a strange world, but even in those cases–and certainly outside of those cases–it’s best to write with a sense that, concerning your characters, and paraphrasing Deadwood, “they too are God’s handiwork.” (Also “there’s a wide range of normal.” Deadwood never lets me down.)

      • One of the things that impressed me about True Detective and Winter’s Bone was that the settings were something the characters had to negotiate and deal with; at no point were the settings just there for us in the audience to gawk at. Both those works also took these old settings and carefully showed the way they got tangled up with the modern world; by showing these settings in transition, the settings became more real and more strange.

        • ZoeZ

          One of the entanglements with the modern world in Winter’s Bone that worked especially well for me was Ree trying to join the Army. It’s an option she wouldn’t have had in the past, but it’s also one that proves unhelpful for her, offering money too late, if not too little. The modern world is there, and she engages with it, but it’s not always relevant to the problems of the world she actually has to negotiate.

          • thesplitsaber

            I also like the more modern ‘PC’ approach of the recruiter in his scene. In the past the Army would have scooped up any volunteer it could.

      • Ice Cream Planet

        Thank you for such a thought-provoking answer!

        I agree that the best works are those where the atmosphere is an integral part of the narrative, instead of mere window dressing. For all of my reservations with True Detective, it’s sense of place and character was so spot on.

        ‘There’s a wide range of normal.’

        That sounds like something out of a Harry Crews novel!

  • Anthony Pizzo

    Excellent interview. Where can we find your fictions, ZoeZ?

    All your talk about Justified, especially how “they underplay the crazy, and give you the sense that the extreme is just part of everyday life.” Something I’ve always loved about Elmore Leonard is that he has a certain empathy for his wide variety of lunatics, even the ones who arguably don’t deserve it. No matter how badly people behave it doesn’t appear that there’s any absolute evil in Leonard’s world; no matter how monstrously the actions his characters are still human. I think that stands in strong contrast to True Detective, and I wonder what your thoughts are on that.

    • ZoeZ

      Thank you! Right now, there’s only the one story, and it’s in the November 2014 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I’m hoping more will be forthcoming soon–and hoping a novel will be forthcoming sometime in the not-so distant future.

      I think that differences in empathy in Justified vs. True Detective (for simplicity, but really we’re looking at Leonard vs. Pizzolatto) are, at their heart, genre-related. True Detective has more horror in its family tree, from Ligotti to Robert W. Chambers, and it’s interested in offering awe (Rust’s visions, especially the final one of the swirling cosmos) and horror (the antlers on the victims, the rotten maze of Carcosa), and to provoke these extreme emotions and get the texture it wants, it sometimes prefers the incomprehensible and the unreachable, which shows–deliberate vagueness to avoid spoilers–in the ultimate resolution to the case, where what they have is both over-elaborate and insufficient. Horror is often about sending the real up against the incomprehensible, and Pizzolatto manages that in, I think, good style.

      Leonard, though, writes strictly in a realist mode, or sometimes (also) a comic mode, and understanding is a key part of that. In Justified, whether you identify directly with the criminals or just regard them with befuddled amusement and/or horror, you’re meant to see them on a continuity of normal human experience. Their motives are comprehensible–hate, anger, envy, greed, stupidity–even if their actions are extreme. We spend time with them: most notably Boyd, but also Mags, Quarles, Wynn, etc. They exist within a social context, which I think is a key part of Leonard’s good-humored and sympathetic portrayals of his characters: each is a part of a functioning world. We can, in most cases, see past them to their influences and sometimes their insignificance, so it’s easier to take pity on them, or to see where they’re coming from. The story’s all taking place in a mimetic real world, and so real world concerns apply, including making sure that everyone stays human.

      I think of this as the ManhunterHannibal continuum. Michael Mann’s Manhunter has a much more ordinary, restrained Hannibal, and Dolarhyde is dangerous while still having recognizable desires, and it’s a suspense-procedural; Silence goes further into suspense-horror, with a larger-than-life Hannibal and a crueler, less sympathetic Buffalo Bill with a lip-service psychological grounding; finally TV’s Hannibal is purely horror, with next to no basis in reality, since there are elaborate serial killers appearing every week and Will Graham is trembling like a leaf and dreaming of stags. I love all three of these, but they’re working on entirely different parts of the brain and the heart. (Which I initially mistyped as “hart.” Damn your stag fixation, Will Graham!)

      For me, True Detective is Silence of the Lambs: its evil is slightly larger than life and meant to provoke fear, but it still has one foot in realism. The show has some absolute, supernaturally-tinted evil, and it has some contempt for characters like Ginger or Geraci, but it also has sympathy for Marty slowly ruining his own marriage, and for Charlie Lange in his cell. It’s walking a middle road, and while I think I like it less than Justified and Hannibal, I think its weird soup of middle-aged realism and baroque horror has its own peculiar strength. I’d like to hear your thoughts on it, though, especially in relation to this issue of the humanity of its characters.

      • Chiming in: I liked that you mentioned Ellroy in the interview, because Ellroy slides all along the spectrum. (He has openly cited Red Dragon as an influence.) The (First) LA Quartet starts with The Black Dahlia, which could be called Los Angeles Gothic. It’s feverish, hallucinatory, with characters and killers as outsized as Mason Verger or the Yellow King. It then slides more and more into a great, dense social history, and that continues as he moves into the Underworld USA trilogy. American Tabloid, in particular, plays out on a huge canvas with so many characters, but it’s fundamentally classical and rational in its operation.

        With Blood’s a Rover, he simultaneously expanded the range of characters, the timeframe, and the social history but moved back to the Gothic madness of Dahlia. He seems to go there whenever he comes close to his own demons–Dahlia was about his mother, and Blood’s comes the closest to putting Ellroy as a character in his own novel. I’ve started Perfidia and it looks like he’s going to continue to try to keep doing both things at once. Whatever else can be said about him, he is ambitious like no other living writer.

        • ZoeZ

          Yes! We could rename it the Ellroy Continuum, but his work, like you said, is so fractured and taking on so many styles at once that it’s probably the Ellroy Kaleidoscope, and entirely unique to him.

          • It’s such a damning self-indictment when Important™ Literary™ Authors™ like Tom Wolfe or Jonathan Franzen talk about the lack of ambition or social awareness in contemporary writers who aren’t them, because that means they’re thoroughly ignorant of what Ellroy, Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, and Neil Gaiman have already done. (And those are just the first four names that come to mind–you brought up other examples in the interview.)

      • Anthony Pizzo

        Unfortunately I don’t have many thoughts on True Detective‘s humanity toward its characters, as I decided I wasn’t on the show’s wavelength a few episodes in and gave it up. That middle ground felt a lot like a lack of commitment, like it wanted to be more than a normal procedural, but didn’t want to go too far into dark fantasy, and that just left me wanting.

        Because I do love a good supernatural mystery. Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels, the Hellblazer and Fatale comics, even “The Call of Cthulhu” if I can stretch the definition of mystery, there’s a lot of fun in discovering the logical underpinnings in service of something so fantastical. Though it’s not actual supernatural I’d put Hannibal in that same company simply because, as you put it, it is basically pure horror. It figures out where the line is and takes great delight in jumping over it.

      • thesplitsaber

        Id say True Detective Season 1 is closer to Silence if it were adapted by a workman director and not Demme. TD had a lot of interesting ideas, but no real point of view. I think I figured that out about halfway through, which is when I started to lose faith.

        • ZoeZ

          See, I went back to look at this today with regrets that I’d put Hannibal above True Detective, because it was the third season of Hannibal that lost me, while I kept on really enjoying True Detective. I do agree that the style of TD and the style of Silence are not the same, even though I wouldn’t say TD was workman-like, but I think they have the same level of realism vs. stylized reality, where they flirt with grotesquerie but never fully surrender to it. Different executions, but similar sensibilities, if that makes sense.

          (And in fact that flirtation may simply be an extension of the realism of True Detective season one–Flannery O’Connor said she “found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called
          grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case
          it is going to be called realistic.” Someone who has lived in the South longer than I have will have to confirm or deny that.)

          • thesplitsaber

            Id put Hannibal Season 3 and True Detective season 1 on the same level. I got a ‘throw everything thing at the wall and see what sticks’ vibe from both. Id even say they had opposite problems-TD needed more weirdness and experimentation, and Hannibal needed more structure in its storytelling.

            Have you ever seen the movie Texas Killing Fields? Now that TD is gone it works even better as a companion piece-marrying the more straightforward procedural feel of Season 2 with the Southern Gothic elements of Season 1.

            Id love to know your thoughts on Season 2 of True Detective, especially in light of this conversation.

          • ZoeZ

            I like the “throw everything at the wall” comparison, especially since Pizzolatto probably wasn’t sure if he would get a second season and since Fuller probably knew the third would be the last: there’s the ambition to say everything you want to say.

            I hadn’t heard of Texas Killing Fields, but that sounds awesome, and I’ll have to check it out.

            My full thoughts on TD S2 will have to wait a couple of weeks–long story short, I had streaming problems during my first trip through, so my viewing was interrupted, but I’ve got it on DVD now (and have mastered a jujitsu approach to my HBO NOW account that’s working for me, anyway), so I’m going to rewatch/watch it from beginning to end once I finish rewatching Deadwood. (“You know, for a short story, that kind of went on a bit.”) But what I’ve seen, I liked a lot–I liked the characters and the performances, and the sort of grimy, soulful, heartfelt vibe of it all. On the continuum we’re talking about, I agree that it moves more towards the procedural, and is therefore more Manhunter-esque, although I think it’s good at adding slightly surreal and Gothic touches that feel like a natural extension (and expression) of the world’s fundamental weirdness. But that’s still in keeping with Manhunter, which after all has that fabulous tiger scene.

          • thesplitsaber

            With TDs1 i think the ‘kitchen sink’ approach came from having so many cooks in the kitchen-Pizzolato, Fukunaga, McConaughey, and the various philosophers. Season 2 is much more streamlined-it reminds me of Terriers in feeling like a great lost crime novel.

            Definitely love to hear what you think of Texas Killing Fields if you see it. Its very much a throwback to the kind of adult oriented, mid budget detective films of the 70s-90s.

            Heartfelt is a great word for TDs2. Theres a judgement free empathy it shares with Mann’s characters, that Tiger scene being a great example.


  • Wad

    Great interview! I had no idea Zoe was an author, although based on the quality of her comments in discussion of The Shield, I shouldn’t be surprised.

    • ZoeZ

      Aw, thanks, Wad! On those same grounds, I wouldn’t be surprised about you, either.

      • Wad

        Well, thank you. I’ll just describe my writing career as “a work in progress.” 🙂

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  • I just want to say that I love Blood Meridian, The Devil All the Time, and Winter’s Bone. I think I have fallen in love with Zoe already. Where can I read “Getaway Girl?” Is it on Kindle?