From Issue 20( Sept/Oct 2007)

By Jason Starr

In 2005 Alison Gaylin vaulted on to the mystery scene with the smash hit HIDE YOUR EYES, which had 225,000 copies in print and was an Edgar Award finalist. She followed that up with her second Samantha Leiffer novel, YOU KILL ME, and now NAL is launching a major new imprint called Obsidian with Gaylin’s debut hardcover, the wickedly suspenseful TRASHED, a murder mystery set in the world of tabloid journalism. It’s a milieu Gaylin knows well, having worked for over ten years as a journalist covering the entertainment business (she’s currently an articles editor for In Touch).  Her books have garnered wide critical acclaim, including a rave from the likes of Harlan Coben who has called Gaylin his “new must read.” It’s easy to see why her books have such broad appeal. While they’re zippy, snappy, highly entertaining reads, they’re also edgy, sarcastic, and bitterly funny.

As is often the case, Gaylin’s road to writing mystery fiction was a long and winding one and, like a number of mystery/crime writers including myself, Jerry Rodriguez, and Charlie Stella, before she turned to writing fiction, she was a playwright. She agreed to this interview for Crime Spree under two conditions: no Sopranos questions (as those who read her First Offenders blog know, she’s still reeling from the inconclusive series finale) and no questions about her experiences in a Madison, Wisconsin gay bar during last year’s Bouchercon. I agreed to both conditions, though I will comment that Ken Bruen and Con Lehane were VERY popular in that particular bar.

JS: How about a little background?

AG: I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. We moved out to California when I was 4 for my dad’s job (hospital administrator). I grew up in an L.A. suburb called Arcadia, and got my BS in theater from Northwestern, my MS in Journalism from Columbia.

JS: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

AG: I was kind of a shy kid — especially in junior high school — but writing was something I always felt confident about. The great thing about it was you could just let it stream out of you, but unlike speaking you could perfect it, get it so it was just right. You may not be able to change who you physically are, but you can always change what you write, make it better. I found that so appealing.

JS: Do you remember some of your first writing attempts?

AG: Well, I wrote a book at age five called The Clown Mix-Up. It was three pages long, about clowns getting mixed up. I stapled the pages together, thinking it looked very professional. Several people in my family, including my parents had published books — all non-fiction, textbooks mostly. My parents put The Clown Mix-Up on the shelf alongside those books. I was very proud. I had no doubt I’d be a writer some day. I loved writing humorous short stories with a big twist at the end, usually involving someone getting killed. My teachers loved them and often read them aloud, but I’d think today, I’d probably have been sent to the school psychiatrist and put on Prozac pretty quickly. Then, in high school, I had a teacher who gave me a “B” because, as she told me “I only give As to students who will one day write professionally.” That really got to me, so I started in on other interests. By the time I went to college, I wanted to be an actress.

JS: I bet your acting experience comes in handy for book readings.

AG: Definitely. I’m not one of those writers that “does” the different voices, but I’m a good reader, I think. I know the right places to pause, and I feel pretty confident in front of a group.

JS: At Northwestern you started writing plays. How did you make the transition from actress to playwright?

AG: Okay, when I first started acting I felt this tremendous sort of rush, being on stage, becoming another character, getting the audience response. But then in acting class, we had to do exercises like the Meisner technique, where you’re repeating a phrase over and over with another person until it takes on all sorts of different meanings: “It’s hot out.” “It’s HOT out? It’s HOT OUT!” or you’re pretending you’re an animal onstage. The teacher is saying, “Alison, you have to become that snow leopard .”  I don’t believe you’re really a snow leopard.”  I felt like a self-indulgent jackass a lot of the time. Maybe because I’m not a great actor. But for whatever reason, it wasn’t really what I was looking for.  We had to keep journals in class, and I got much more out of writing the journal than doing scene work.  Then, in college, over the summer between sophomore and junior year, I went to Harvard and studied playwriting and basically fell in love with it. I thought, “This is it. This is the kind of creating on-stage that I want to do.”

JS: Can you tell us about some of your early plays?

AG: I wrote a play at Harvard that wound up winning an award at Northwestern. It was called “The Silver Cage” and was about a rich girl who’s committing suicide when a burglar breaks into her house and threatens her life. They wind up bonding and falling in love and she decides not to kill herself and at the end, he accidentally kills her and the “Love American Style” theme plays.

JS: (Laughing).

AG: In the playwriting program at Northwestern I wrote another play called “Stir” about Southern California HS boys who get drunk on a road trip to Alaska and trade their car in for an abandoned shack in the middle of nowhere, filled with cans and a whip and all sorts of other unusual things. They get snowed in and go all Sam Shepard on each other and at the end, just as one of them is going completely psycho, the creepy owner returns, and it’s pretty clear somebody’s gonna get killed. (See? There’s a theme here. Oh, and both these plays were one-act comedies.) That one won an award too, and wound up getting produced in Chicago after I graduated.

JS: What attracted you to playwriting? Was it writing dialogue? Collaborating?

AG: Dialogue absolutely. It remains my favorite part of writing books. I’m kind of an aural writer, I think. I tend to hear scenes rather than see them, so dialogue is what I struggle over the least. Plus, in my opinion, there really isn’t anything more thrilling than watching actors bringing your characters to life on a stage.

JS: I agree! And I imagine you discovered there’s a big difference between writing dialogue in plays and dialogue in books.

AG: Yeah, with dialogue in plays, you’re pushing the plot forward, where as a lot of the stage direction reveals more about character. (Think of Hedda Gabler, handling her guns.) In books, it’s often the other way around. You can use dialogue to reveal character traits, while propelling the plot thru descriptive action. It isn’t always that way, but you have more freedom to be sparing and naturalistic with the dialogue in a book.

JS: Did you worry about your ability to earn a living as a playwright?

AG: Yes, I did. After graduating, I moved back to L.A. hoping to get a job in script development, while writing plays on the side. Well, there was a writers’ strike going on, so no development jobs to be had. I got jobs at newspapers, reviewing plays and writing about entertainment. By the time the strike finally ended, I was pursuing an entertainment journalism career and not writing plays (or fiction) at all. I didn’t even think about mystery writing until about five years later when, living in New York, I wrote a short story in a fiction workshop and my teacher suggested I turn it into a full-length mystery novel. Years and years and years after that, it became HIDE YOUR EYES.

JS: Were you influenced by any mystery writers? Are there any books you read again and again?

AG: My earliest influences were actually satire and classic true crime. IN COLD BLOOD and THE EXECUTIONERS SONG, plus all Tom Wolfe’s books, from ELECTRIC KOOL AID ACID TEST to BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. As far as mystery writers, James Cain will always be my favorite. I don’t write anything like him, though I wish I could. MILDRED PIERCE gets better and better with every read. I’ve always loved that character, and am floored that she was created by a guy. Being a mother makes me appreciate her even more.  CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is another one I’ll re-read and Sommerset Maughm’s OF HUMAN BONDAGE, too.

JS: You’ve drawn extensively on your past work experiences in your novels. Is this intentional or did it just turn out that way?

AG: I guess you could say it’s sometimes intentional. Right after college I worked in a theater box office. This was an unbelievably boring job — not something I ever thought of writing about — certainly not at the time. But Samantha Leiffer, of HIDE YOUR EYES and YOU KILL ME, is a theater box office worker.  On the other hand, I was a reporter for The Star for about nine months, before I went to journalism school.  That was back when it was a supermarket tabloid, and I had to do some outrageous and embarrassing things to get stories. It was such a wild experience, I knew I wanted to write about it some day — and years later, I did. TRASHED  features a protagonist who is a supermarket tabloid reporter.

JS: I’ll bite. What outrageous and embarrassing things?

AG: Okay, I was thrown out of David Hasselhoff’s wedding. I defy anyone to come up with a more humiliating statement than that.  Like my character, Simone, in TRASHED, I was young and innocent looking. This other 23-year-old girl and I were the ones they always had posing as extras on movie sets, hanging out in hospital waiting rooms, crashing weddings and funerals. We usually weren’t  found out. (At Hasselhoff’s wedding, there were like 30 guests in this tiny little church, plus the other girl and me, wearing our best dresses. We told the people at the door we were on the groom’s side. His wife’s mother, got up in front of the group, stared right at us and said, “I know there are two tabloid reporters in here.” And we were led out, totally redfaced. But it was also a definite case of “What were we thinking?”) I went to Fred Savage’s Bar Mitzvah. Followed him and his friends all over Universal Studios.  I was the only reporter to see Elizabeth Taylor in the hospital when she was recovering from something, I don’t remember what. There had been about twenty people in the waiting room and they all got thrown out except me. And I gave such an accurate description of the way she looked (she looked shockingly good) that her publicist called the bureau chief and said, “Who the hell did you have in there?” I was able to use my acting training for that job a lot.

JS: Because you and your characters have similar backgrounds, do people tend to confuse you with your characters?

AG: Yes, and to be fair, there is a decent amount of me in my main characters.  But they aren’t me exactly. A certain celebrated mystery author once assumed I don’t like sushi because Simone doesn’t. And nothing could be further from the truth. Which mystery author? Well, I won’t mention any names but his initials are Jason Starr.

JS: Satire and humor are very prevalent in your writing, and there are a number of scenes in Trashed in particular that are flat-out hysterical. Is satire something you feel you have to did for as a writer, or does it come naturally for you?

AG: Thank you! I think my natural inclination is to satirize. My characters tend to be fish out of water — people moving to a town where they’ve never lived, or thrown into a situation they’ve never been in before. I tend to react to situations like that by standing back and observing, seeing the absurd aspects of that particular place or situation. For me, there’s something comforting in laughing at something new and potentially scary, so I think my characters tend to do that as well. Plus, I love to make people laugh. It’s how I get them to like and trust me so that later, I can ask them for favors. 🙂

JS: I can tell you enjoy pushing the envelope in your writing (yes I’m thinking of THAT scene in Trashed). Do you ever worry about taking a scene too far or do you enjoy being provocative?

AG: Very good question!  You know, the best advice anyone ever gave me is, “Don’t write for your parents.” It’s pretty freeing not to have to worry about offending anyone and to just portray things as entertainingly and, uh, accurately as you can. That said, I don’t believe in doing things just for shock value. THAT scene, for instance, takes place at a wild, bachanalian Hollywood party — so it was par for the course, realistic. If I put it in a church,  it would have been gratuitous.

JS: I won’t ask about THAT other scene.

AG: (Laughing)

JS: Are you going to bring back Samantha or will you stick to standalones?

AG: My next book is a standalone, but I  do have another idea for a Samantha book, so I hope I can work on that after.

JS: Can you every see writing a non-mystery novel?

AG: I could definitely see writing a (straight) satire, but someone in it would probably end up getting killed.

JS: What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?

AG: Oh there are many things. Writing is so damn hard. Right now, I’d have to say deadline pressure. Getting it right is hard enough, but getting it right super-fast often feels impossible.

JS: What can you tell us about your next book?

AG: Well, it’s called NEXT and it’s a standalone. It takes place in New York and in a small town in Mexico and features soap stars and grisly, ritualistic murder.

JS: Sounds like a great combination to me, can’t wait. Thanks, Alison!