December 07, 2016
Not to have this be an all-out puff piece, but let me try and describe two types of virtuosity I like. Maybe it’s because I spent all summer watching basketball. Dunks and jumpers. Crossovers. If you hate sports, bear with me. But for instance, a jump shot. A technique to it, there’s a purity you can appreciate. That buzzer-beater, last second of the game, or even just pulling up in traffic, as they say, soaking wet; smartly, coolly executed, or from the couch, surrounded by snacks, even watching the pros do it, the effect is weirdly triumphant, gratifying.
Here’s the other type. Because, to get that jumper to go, to have that moment, there’s hours and hours you’ve got to spend, hundreds of thousand of hours, more than shooting, also dreaming, thinking about jumpshots. Let me go ahead and say Jane Liddle’s debut is about murder, not basketball. In that sense, Murder is about nuance. In that we’re all going to die. Right? Sooner or later. And we’re all capable of killing, probably. Consider it that way, and a story, any story is actually, truly, only the details. Fifty-eight murders. Some tragic, some frightening. A funny one or two. Each only a couple of pages. Some like poems. Some, tightly plotted, 3-act short stories. The murder in there about “the Saint,” that was disturbing in a way I can’t exactly explain.
More so than any one murder, or moment, though, I guess I liked that feeling of a deep dive through layers of perception. Like hours in a gym or behind a desk, looking for answers. Mainly to find my own answers, or at least to satisfy my curiosity after reading the book, I figured I’d track down Jane via e-mail and bring up a couple of points . . .
Okay, right off the bat: What’s your favorite murder scene from a movie? I can tell you mine. That part early on in Saving Private Ryan where the Nazi is holding down the young American soldier, covering his mouth and slowly killing him, sliding the bayonet up under his ribs . . . I feel like I’m not even doing it justice, but I definitely, viscerally remember being in the theatre seeing that shit for the first time . . .
This is a tough one for me to answer since I find murder on screen to be either too gruesome or too silly. So I’ll say the scene in Michael Clayton when Tom Wilkinson’s character is killed in a way to make it look like suicide. It’s calculating and tense, and filmed in one shot, but there’s no gross sounds of a skull being crushed or stupid blood squirting everywhere. Also Dorothy throwing water on the Wicked Witch is a nice way to show murder without glorifying the act and desensitizing it for the kiddies.
Right, and, I guess I shouldn’t say “favorite” murder scene. Sounds kind of sick. More like “most disturbing” . . . Actually though, let me back up and ask how you ended up writing about murder in the first place? Even the tone of the book itself suggests someone who doesn’t really like to dwell too much on these sorts of things . . .
I have two reasons why I write. Sometimes I have a story I need to tell and, at the risk of sounding corny, it comes from deep inside me and I have to get it out. The other reason is I have an idea or concept that I want to see if I can pull off. Murder came from the latter. I wanted to explore different murder scenarios as concisely as possible while playing with the idea that the murderer could be any of us. The victim, too, I suppose, but that’s easier to accept. And I’ve always been a sucker for true crime.
OK, let me dig in a bit. Because we’re all, I think, suckers for true crime. The more bizarre the better. If some weird murder goes down, that’s definitely what I’m reading about the next morning in the Post with breakfast. My obvious theory, like you mentioned, is that it touches on the part in all of us capable of desperate and heinous acts. Let me ask you though. Do you think still we need that part? Maybe? Buried down deep, but still available? Or is that a part of our programming that we should try to permanently edit out?
Or, let me put it another way. I have a son. He’s about to turn ten, and if there’s anything I’d criticize about him I think I’d say he’s nice to a fault. And not that I’m such a tough guy. But, for instance, playing basketball, a few weeks ago I watched some other kid fall on top of him on purpose and drop an elbow on the back of his head. And there goes my son, right after that, still holding his head, but helping the other kid up like they’re friends. Very Jesus-like I suppose, but as a father that shit is scary . . . But the question is this. Considering the sorts of unspeakable things that always seem to be going on, with that in mind, what are we really working toward? Do we want a world where violence, where murder never happens? Let’s suppose it’s somehow possible by outside means. Would all our Netflix binge shows have to hinge on the threat of third-party counseling? Or would we dare try and create a world where we no longer have the ability to resort to violence? Solve the problem from the inside out. Like being somehow genetically neutered? Playing that out in my mind also seems scary . . .
I think we have to try to create a world where people don’t commit violence. I don’t think that can ever be achieved. It’s an unrealistic goal. But like racism or sexism, which I don’t think can be completely eradicated in the United States, you have to work against it, or else it will take over. Or else it will be worse. The world can always become a better place, if not the best, but it’s much easier for it to be a worse place. And I think making the world a better imperfect place is motivation enough. If we could neuter people to not commit violence, science fiction-like, I’m trying to think of a big downside to that. Violence is familiar to us like hunger or love, so to get rid of it completely feels like a piece of humanity goes missing. But what do we gain by violence? If we couldn’t be violent, would we turn those violent feelings on ourselves? Become more self-destructive instead of outwardly destructive? That would be fine with me. Of course the experiment could only work if EVERYONE got genetically neutered.
Yeah, right! Like that one person without the treatment becomes some kind of superbeing. Capable of anything, everything while the rest of us are shackled. Or, I guess, like gun control. You take everyone’s guns. Now only the bad guys have them . . . At any rate, Fifty-eight murders. Like an attempt to decode human nature. What do you think you came away with, if anything, having spent a pretty good chunk of time thinking about the ways people might kill each other? Did it change any of your opinions? On guilt? About culpability?
I already have my opinions on guilt and culpability, and I wanted the stories to convey that. I would say that writing the stories only reinforced how I feel about guilt and how society can be just as culpable for an individual’s actions as the individual. Not always though. Some people really are just jerks! And they’re the most fun to write of course.
Story to story, I’ll say the experience of reading Murder is satisfying, maybe even surprisingly so. Kind of addictive. Each one of those stories, or most of them, end with an oomph, a twist to it. So how much did you get caught up with tricking the reader? Working around and with the whodunnit aspect as the natural end-game to each murder? Or were you thinking about that at all?
As I wrote the stories I focused on trying to make them different from one another, and that probably translated into tricking the reader. But that was more so the reader wouldn’t get bored more than anything. I wrote a lot more but was worried that including more stories would get tedious and repetitive for the reader.
How steeped in the headlines did you get? Were there any particular cases you got caught up in?
None of these stories were directly ripped from the headlines, though I do go through a true-crime phase so I’m sure that was an influence. The story “The Degenerate,” where a teenager knocks someone else upside the head while driving by him, is based on an incident that happened in the town I lived in as a teenager. The town had really low crime and no backstory was ever discovered. So in the book that is the story that has the least amount of details. The whole incident is still shrouded in mystery for me.
Also, weirdly, right as I’m writing these questions now, an e-mail just popped up, from a friend, asking me if I know this local poet, Carolyn Bush, who was apparently murdered last week by her roommate in a fit of—something? Jealousy? Rage? Up until recently you lived in Brooklyn. Did you ever mix into that Wendy’s Subway scene? Did you know that girl?
I read about that, and it’s really sad what happened to her. I didn’t know her or spend any time in that scene. My only brush with murder came after I wrote the book when a friend was killed in another state. That incident is also shrouded in mystery. But it made me put the book away for a while because what was once a thought experiment turned personal and painful. And even now reading the stories from the book out loud to people makes me a little sad.
All right . . . To further play out the dichotomy between us, if you’re into it, let’s try a little MFA challenge. I few months ago I did a podcast where the guy has this segment, “2-minute MFA”. This could maybe be a text version of that . . . Keeping with the Murder theme, Brooklyn hipster murder mystery, since we’ve both read about that. I know how it sounds to say it that way, it was actually fucked-up and tragic, but if you were to play it out, turn it into fiction, let’s say, give me 150 words. Go:
I think I’ll pass on [that one]. I appreciate the invite to let me riff, but I feel weird doing it for a murder that probably hits home for a lot of my peers . . .
Right, no, I hear you. Keep it moving . . . By the way, which style of murder do you find more conceivable? The crime of passion, or the remorseless, god and country sort of thing? I know I’m probably leaving a couple out . . .
I think carelessness/neglect is the most conceivable, although legally that could be argued as manslaughter, and the way I most fear I’ll myself commit murder. But I’ll say remorseless revenge is more in line with my understanding of people and their ability to talk themselves into and justify actions that are harmful and wrong but in their self-interest.
UZODINMA OKEHI spent 2 years handing out zines on the subway. Wasn’t as fun as he thought. His work has appeared in Pank, Hobart, Bartleby Snopes, and many, many other places, no doubt, you’ve never heard of. He has an MFA in writing from New York University. He lives in Brooklyn. His son is 9 yrs old, smiles a lot, (too much?), and will absolutely, cross you over and drain a jumper in your face. His first novel, published in 2015, is Over For Rockwell.
JANE LIDDLE grew up in Newburgh, New York, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her short-story collection Murder was published by 421 Atlanta in March 2016. She is currently working on a novel and a book about daydreams. You can find her on Twitter @janeriddle or at liddlejane.tumblr.com.