Instantly Gritty: Talking with Jennifer Pashley
In 2015, Jennifer Pashley published her first novel, The Scamp, a breathless murder ballad that pitches the reader into an unflinching look at love, lust, and the ravages of poverty. Its themes weren’t new territory for Pashley, but the book opened up more of the genre map that the author wants to visit in her career.
With her second novel, The Watcher—out now from Crooked Lane Books—Pashley is staking a firm claim into the world of literary suspense. The book is the first in the Kateri Fisher series, based around the grim work of a hardscrabble detective in upstate New York. When the disappearance of a local shut-in, Pearl Jenkins, forces Fisher into an inevitable confrontation with the woman’s son, Shannon, what at first seems neatly packaged comes quickly and violently apart.
Pashley and I talked recently on the phone about murder, slut shaming, and receiving her dead mother’s ashes via FedEx.
The Rumpus: Beginning with The Scamp and now with the Kateri Fisher series, what events would you say pulled you closer toward writing literary suspense and thrillers?
Jennifer Pashley: I feel like suspense is key in any story, even if you’re writing a romance. If there isn’t some element of suspense or and-then-what, or if there isn’t a little bit of mystery to your characters, it isn’t interesting. Or at least it isn’t interesting to me. Maybe there are people out there who really just want vanilla-ice-cream romance, or who want the love interest not to be a liar or a potential serial killer or someone who definitely does not have an ex-wife stuck up in the attic, but that’s not for me.
My mom used to say that she couldn’t handle straight-up romance. For her, you had to murder someone for her to be interested in it. And I agree! So, in some ways, this has always been a genre that I’ve known about, but on the other hand, my mom didn’t read just straight-up crime fiction. And what’s always been key for me is that, while crime fiction is fine—I can handle a police procedural with no problem, or a book with that type of detailed language and interrogations and arrests and that kind of protocol—but without the interest of a human and emotional story to it, it runs flat to me. But I also find being human itself to be in its own way suspenseful.
Rumpus: Everyone has their respective skeletons and closets.
Pashley: Right. There’s a little bit of this in most everyone. You know that old saying about how bad decisions make for good stories? Well, bad decisions make for great suspense. They raise the stakes. If someone’s bad decision is to kill someone accidentally, that’s far better than the stakes if someone cheats on their girlfriend.
I remember talking to another thriller writer about the notion how these types of books tend to cover the period surrounding the worst time in a person’s life. In the timeline of their story, for example, you might be focusing on the day that they were kidnapped. It’s intense, and you have to pull in toward that intensity.
Rumpus: It’s where the lens has to settle. Not on the mundane but on the most vicious. I’m curious, then: how does your relationship with the genre differ with you as a longtime reader and now as one of its writers? Or do they?
Pashley: They do, I think, because writers of literary fiction are people who have zero fucks. Your book doesn’t have a plot! Well, fuck you because it’s literary. It doesn’t matter. Try telling Marilynne Robinson she doesn’t have a plot. I find that the consumer demands are higher on the genre end. I can’t write a story now that doesn’t have something resolve because the readers won’t have it. They’ll put my head on a stake. With literary fiction, though, that doesn’t really matter, and I think that’s a big difference between The Scamp and The Watcher. The more commercial-minded readers who read The Scamp were pissed off at the lack of a resolved ending.
Pashley: I’m dead serious. It’s a major difference, and I like that about them. My preferred conclusion is the not-all-tied-up ending. I like it ambiguous, and I like endings that can open up into something else. But that’s definitely one of the strengths of the genre. And not just that genre but also genres like romance, I think, and what certain industry types call “upmarket women’s fiction.” I’m not sure what that means, but I think each of those books sold comes with a tennis bracelet, maybe? Think Jennifer Weiner or Elin Hilderbrand. And don’t get me wrong: I read Hilderbrand’s The Blue Bistro, and I really, really liked it. It takes place in a restaurant on Nantucket, and she absolutely nails the restaurant industry, and it has personal intrigue and romance, but it’s also neatly tied up. There’s a good reason the woman is a billionaire. Do you know she’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Rumpus: Really? Wow.
Pashley: Yeah, she’s got chops. She knows exactly what she’s doing, and she has made a career out of it. It’s kind of amazing. She might be the highest paid MFA ever. Meanwhile, most of us are probably working in bars.
Rumpus: Kind of along those lines, what would you say makes Kateri stand out as a protagonist in the genre? And to a larger extent, how have you carved out your own space in literary suspense and thrillers?
Pashley: It’s like we were talking about earlier: I think it’s because she comes from such a strange past. She’s not a detective because her dad was a cop, for example. She doesn’t come from that kind of family. Given her circumstances, she wasn’t someone who was likely to become a cop or a detective, but she did. But at the same time, she also doesn’t have a super-dramatic past. She comes from a more ordinary trauma. And for whatever reason, this trauma once flicked a switch in her, creating in her this ambitiousness. She could have gone a completely different way, but she didn’t.
And because it’s a male-dominated field and a male-dominated department, when a woman like Kateri comes in with a high-ranking position, especially someone who’s as aloof as she is, there’s the automatic thought of, Who is this bitch? What’s her deal? She’s not there to be nice or to make small talk. She’s observant, she’s quiet, and she doesn’t fill up the space she’s in with chatter.
Rumpus: I want to go back to that follow-up question from a second ago: how would you say you’re carving out your particular space in literary suspense and thrillers right now?
Pashley: I’m not writing anything I would classify as “domestic,” and “domestic thriller” is a huge piece of the market. It’s usually the husband who did it or the best friend, or the woman herself. (Thanks, Gillian Flynn!) Gone Girl, I think, started that trend. If you go back and you read earlier works by Gillian Flynn, they were darker and weirder and one even had Satanists, which I love. Dark Places and Sharp Objects were just plain weird. But I think Gone Girl pushed us toward the idea of the domestic thriller with a huge twist, which is something everyone is still writing.
I don’t think I’m trying to do that, though. Domestic drama doesn’t interest me as much as other relational drama does, especially extended family drama. Domestic drama between a man and a woman is its own bright, shiny thing, but I’m way more interested in your meth-head cousin. That’s the domesticity I’m drawn to, right along with weird, small-town stuff. Give me rivalries. Give me reasons why groups of people in the same place absolutely hate each other.
Rumpus: It can be generational or community-driven trauma.
Pashley: That’s part of it, I think: the atmosphere of those more complex stories. Give me less of the upper-class, Chicago-suburbs-informed stories. Give me something more rural, more gritty, more stylistically raw.
It’s weird because even though I’ve been writing short stories set in these places forever, because I’m changing audiences in many ways, it’s great hearing from these readers that they’ve never encountered these types of stories before. The style is different to a lot of these people who are used to reading more commercial books. And I think the reason for this is because maybe it’s more literary. But I don’t know how to do this any other way than what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years.
Rumpus: So, let me ask you this: what was behind the decision to give the first-person point of view to Shannon here and not to Kateri? Why was it essential to give Shannon the most immediate voice here?
Pashley: I think it’s because the emotional impact immediately belongs to him. He’s in the eye of that storm. All of the shit that’s happening is happening to him: his house is being put up for auction, his mother is the one who’s missing, his sister is missing, he’s dating a psychopath.
Rumpus: I like it that you call what they’re doing “dating.”
Pashley: Yeah, it’s more like a master-servant relationship, but I like to call it “dating.” So, for me, the immediacy of the emotion belongs to him. Whereas the immediacy of the timeline and the story belongs to Kateri, but I like to have her at the distance of the third-person point of view. And that’s also who she is: her story of it all, her narration of it, is never going to be the emotional hotbed of the story. She’s more analytical, more distanced, more at a point of figuring everything out.
Rumpus: Since you worked with two converging timelines in the novel—Kateri’s, which starts in October, and Shannon’s, which starts about a month beforehand—can you talk a bit about the difficulties of juggling plot details between the two and how you kept them separate?
Pashley: No joke—I had to draw it all out on a grid of calendar pages basically. After I was all done, I had to go back and plot out these calendar pages as to where the specific days happened and where the plot points landed so I could see that they lined up at the right spots. I have to handle that kind of detail visually. Unless it’s pencil on paper, I am not going to get it. Even just having a screen on a spreadsheet is less effective than physically drawing things out on a piece of paper.
Rumpus: It’s tactile, too.
Pashley: And that’s true for early plotting purposes, too, and for outlining. I don’t make strict outlines, but a lot of the stuff I do has to be done on paper. Like maps, for example, or the other things you try to get kids to do in freshman comp. Things like thought bubbles and word associations. I also like a good wall, you know? For a full novel project, it’s helpful for me to have a full wall space. It’s my situation room in an investigation.
Rumpus: Black-and-white photographs and red yarn covering the walls?
Pashley: Exactly. Imagine Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia chain smoking and yelling about conspiracies. That’s me working out the plot. Just me in my khakis and tie.
Rumpus: So what were your initial sketches of Kateri and Shannon like, and how did those early versions differ from how they ultimately appeared in the book?
Pashley: In the earliest version of this book, Shannon was more concerned about finding connections around him, to other people who seemed like him and who had similar passions. He was a little bit older, too. But Kateri has always been this constant for me. There was never a time for me when I considered that she might wind up being the villain of the book. She was always the one who was going to figure things out, and possibly the one who was going to make everything okay. While she’s not personally responsible for making things okay for the other characters, she is present in their lives and wants to help out as she can. She is someone you can trust, and she’s not someone who will jump at the most immediate conclusions. Sure, she might make questionable choices about who she might take home from the bar, but that’s not morality. I’m not going to slut-shame her.
Rumpus: She’s a woman with needs, and she knows what she likes.
Pashley: Sometimes you’re just a woman who likes your back scratched, you know?
Rumpus: Oh, absolutely. Okay, so upstate New York is starting to come into its own again as a noir backdrop. How would you say the area is useful for you in terms of setting and conflict?
Pashley: It is all setting, and it is all conflict. Really, it’s just because of the landscape and the weather. What happens when the seasons change here is so bipolar and intensely dramatic. It’s been twenty degrees below zero and then it starts to warm up a little? That right there is an intoxicating period. The only way you can grasp the sheer joy of this moment of warming is because you’ve gone through several long months of cold and dark.
Rumpus: You recently sent out a Substack newsletter centered around your losses from this past year, and I know you wrote about the death of your mother, the pandemic, the loss of friends, and the like. How would you say the overall theme of loss fits into The Watcher?
Rumpus: Sorry, I had to ask.
Pashley: The funny thing is that I had to start writing the manuscript through Kateri’s loss before I had to go through my own. So, it wasn’t necessarily easier, but I was better prepared than I might have been. She’s in a place of loss at the beginning of the book. She’s obviously lost her parents years before the start of things, but with the death of her grandmother, it’s the loss of the last person who can anchor her to anything. So when Kateri steps away from all of this, when she decides to step away from her job and move to a place where nobody knows who she is, without most of her belongings, too, that’s an act of coming out of a very deep hole. Part of that is hugely dramatic, of course, but it was important to me for her not to have a marriage that was burning down around her. Instead, she walked away from a marriage that was just plain flat. It’s a “whatever” moment without hard feelings since they’re in different places.
These are the kinds of decisions that I feel are easy to make in the genre. She’s not a badass detective because she blew up the house of a husband who beat her. Rather, she had a husband who was perfectly fine, but their relationship didn’t work. But having that relationship gone and the house sold and her grandmother dead and being essentially dismissed from her old job after driving into a wall? Kateri then starts dip into a dark place afterward, and the beginning of The Watcher is her first step out of that dark well.
I was thinking about this the other day: there are so many mother-daughter issues in The Scamp, and there is so much mourning at work in the book. So, yeah, I’ve been working around the idea of my mother dying on me for years by this point, and then she does this last year, which is why the book is dedicated to her.
Rumpus: It reads, “For my mother, who told me I wouldn’t understand her until after she was dead.”
Pashley: She absolutely said this to me. I knew she was an avid suspense reader, so I guess I fought against the idea that I was writing a suspense novel for so long. Like I was a rebellious teenager or something. But then I realize that this is something that I’ve been writing for so long, and for her not to be able to see it now is kind of gutting, you know?
I should put a copy of the book next to where we have her stashed in the living room.
Rumpus: You mentioned that in the newsletter, about receiving your mom’s ashes via FedEx.
Pashley: Yeah, she’s on my bookshelf in the living room. She’s in a rectangular black box that looks like a book. I didn’t keep the Priority Delivery box that she came in, with the giant orange sticker on the side that read “Cremated Remains.” But I remember that the delivery guy wouldn’t leave without getting a signature from one of us, and I kept thinking the entire time, You’re handing me my mom. Something I didn’t put in the blog was how, on that Friday that the box came in, we had to finalize the paperwork on our Jeep. It’s used, of course, but we went to the dealership and the guy had us working on the paperwork, and he handed us the last sheet. He said, “I promise that this will be the worst thing that happens to you today.” And I kept thinking, My mother came in the mail today. This is by far not the worst thing that’s happened to me today. Bring on the paperwork.
Photograph of Jennifer Pashley by Martirene Alcantara.