The best stories are the juicy ones. This episode of our feminist pop culture podcast is all about pulp (timely, right?). We talk with best-selling thriller writer Chelsea Cain about how her pregnancy inspired her to get started writing gory stories and she reads us a horrific short story about a hungry zombie baby. Then, we feature a sneak-peek excerpt from Monica Nolan's new lesbian erotica pulp, Maxine Mainwearing: Lesbian Dilettante. Finally, we talk with everyone's favorite mystery writer Laura Lippman about love, money, and reality television.
All that, in just 20 minutes. Listen in!
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Here is the transcript of the show, minus the excerpts of the novels we read aloud:
POPAGANDA: PULP EPISODE
Air date: April 17th, 2013
SARAH MIRK: This is Sarah Mirk and this is Popaganda, Bitch Media's feminist response to pop culture podcast.
Thanks to our sponsor, She Bop, a women-owned sex toy boutique that specializes in body safe products and education. Check them out at sheboptheshop.com.
Today our whole show is about one genre: Pulp. What is pulp? It's mystery, intrigue, illicit lesbian sex, it's zombie babies. Our show has all of these things. Especially the zombie babies. Today we're talking with bestselling mystery writer Laura Lippman, reading a steamy excerpt from a new queer erotica book by Monica Nolan, and meeting with Chelsea Cain, a genuinely terrifying writer. Stay tuned.
CHELSEA CAIN: My name is Chelsea Cain and I write commercial thrillers about the twisted relationship between a cop named detective Archie Sheridan and the beautiful serial killer Gretchen Lowell
SARAH MIRK: What's the grossest thing you've ever written?
CHELSEA: I have an answer for that, despite the fact that I have 16 books to choose from. [laughs] The thing I'm most proud of in terms of murder-y, is that I have a scene where a character's small intestine is removed with a crochet hook.
SARAH: That's disgusting.
CHELSEA: I thought a lot about this because I don't crochet, so I wanted to make sure I used the right kind of hook. I want verisimilitude. So I called a friend and this was the extent of our conversation. I said, "Mary, it's Chelsea. What kind of crochet hook would I need to remove someone's small intestine?" And she said, "An H." And I said, "Thanks!" and hung up. [laughs]
SARAH: Did this make you suspicious of your friend?
CHELSEA: No, she just knows a lot about crocheting. I think it says something about me that she didn't follow up with me as to why I needed to know this. I think my friends are used to it by now.
SARAH: When was the first time you realized you could write these thrillers? When was the first time that you realized you could get paid to write about removing someone's intestine with a crochet hook?
CHELSEA: When I was pregnant.
CHELSEA: Hormones make some people a little crazy. And I was one of them. I got really—and I've always been a morbid person, it turns out, I didn't realize every kid didn't have a pet cemetery—but I didn't start thinking about writing about violence and horror and gore stuff until I was pregnant.
SARAH: Was it something about being pregnant that made you think about it? Like, your body is changing—
CHELSEA: Yeah, have you ever been pregnant?
SARAH: No! I'm very nervous about that possibility. I've spent my life so far trying to not be pregnant.
CHELSEA: My husband and I, we wanted a kid, but we weren't sure we wanted a baby. We didn't know what we'd do with a baby. So we took a class and the class, it was every week, and they just showed horribly violent childbirth videos. Which is a lot of preparation for pregnancy, they want you to not freak out when it's actually happening, so they show you the worst case scenarios. But we couldn't handle it. We dropped out. But after that, I still started watching all these really gory thrillers on TV and I got into these dark British crime shows. Pregnancy is essentially really violent. And all these books, like What to Expect when You're Expecting, do the same things as the childbirth classes, they take you to this terrible place, they take you over the edge.
SARAH: That's funny, because personally as an un-pregnant person, I think of perceptions of pregnancy as being flowery, feminine, women glowing—
CHELSEA: Lies! That's the TV commercial.
SARAH: —yeah, but then I watched Alien and I'm like, "I'm never getting pregnant."
CHELSEA: It's just like that. I started writing my first thriller Heartsick when I was pregnant with my daughter. I finished it when she was a little baby next to me.
SARAH: So where do you draw inspiration from now? I assume you're not pregnant anymore.
CHELSEA: I seem to have a natural ability to come up with ways to murder people. That comes quite naturally to me. I used to do it in my head, now I can do it on paper. I'm one of those people who, when I go for a walk in the woods, I'm disappointed I don't find a dead body. Because you read about people who find bodies in the woods all the time. I walk in the woods and I've never found a body and I feel that's not fair. I feel I have a talent, this may be my one true literary gifts, for coming up with horrible ways to kill people. And I read forensic pathology ways for the details.
SARAH: So I hear you have an extremely dirty story for us?
CHELSEA: If you like reading about sex or violence, my books are for you. I can go sex or I can go violence. But here, I have a humor story about infanticide.
SARAH: [laughs] That's a phrase I've never heard before. But I'm excited to go there with you.
CHELSEA: This is based on Kipling's Just So Stories.
[Chelsea reads her story "Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television" from 21st Century Dead. Buy the book here!]
SARAH: What a horrific story.
CHELSEA: I was reading a lot of the Just So Stories, which are all sort of allegories but with animals, I was reading a lot of them to my daughter and I loved the rhythm of them and thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have one of these, but about zombies?" [laughs] And then I thought of the idea that zombies are something you can kill and it would come back and my mind just went to infanticide. I know. It's not right. I'm not saying it's right. It's just right.
[Next segment is an excerpt from Monica Nolan's new book Maxine Mainwaring: Lesbian Dilettante. Buy the book here!]
SARAH: About a month ago, Bitch's executive director Julie Falk called up one of her favorite writers, Laura Lippman. Laura is a best-selling mystery writer and here she talks about her new work as well as what it's like writing pulp.
LAURA LIPMMAN: As someone who's kind of a goody-goody, a life-long goody-goody, there's a real vicarious thrill in reading pulp fiction.
But what appeals to me about noir is that, first of all, it's personal. Things happen to people generally because—I think I coined this—noir is about dreamers who become schemers. Dreams are pretty universal; everybody wants the pretty girl, more money, etc. Noir novels are about what happens when two people decide they're going to try to get those things no matter what it takes. And they're almost always doomed. But that's sort of the beauty of reading the book. The other thing about them, something that I think is big in crime fiction, in general, and doesn't get as much treatment as it should in literature as a whole, is that pulp tales and noir tales are driven frequently by economics—by money.
Now it is fascinating to me that we live in a culture when money means so much, but it's absent in so much fiction. There are theories about this. One theory is that a lot of fiction was written by people who were literally tenured within an academic system and they didn't think a lot about their paychecks or their survival because they had a security that didn't make that one of their main concerns day in and day out. I think money and love are the two biggest subjects in human nature. Everything's about money and love, right?
JULIE FALK: I feel like I see so much of a critique of pop culture and media in many of your books, and I'm wondering is that just my perspective or is this deliberate?
LAURA: It's deliberate but it also just sort of comes out. I don't even set out and say "I'm going to write about this, this, or this in pop culture," but I do say "I'm going to write about real people and real situations" and pop culture is a part of everything. I'm really interested in it. I have trouble keeping up with it. I think that's just a function of a certain point in your life when you get too tired. In particular, I'm not keeping up with music. I don't think I've really developed any musical taste, hardly, in the past 20 years. That sounds awful but it's truthful. But I'm fascinated by television. The book that I'm currently writing, I turned it in yesterday, has a cop character who's really engaged with cop TV shows in a way that I hope feels new.
The idea is that he likes the shows. He thinks they're a perfectly good way to pass time. He likes them because they don't purport to really show how his job is done. What he can't stand is living in a culture where everybody thinks they know so much about being a cop and in particular he hates to hear his jargon repeated back to him. It's sort of this secret language of his profession.
Now, it's kind of a fine line for me to walk because when I do that people think that I'm writing about The Wire, and I guess on some level I am, but I'm not making fun of The Wire, I'm making fun of certain Wire fans. I'm sorry, I just think its kind of ridiculous for someone who's never worked as a police officer or has been in part of that world to go around talking about dunkers. Or to say "po-po," or "aight."
I'm fascinated by reality television—fascinated by it. I don't watch all of it by any means and there are certain shows where I'm like "I can't imagine why someone watches it," but they can't imagine why I watch what I watch. So it's sort of like, let's all be friends and just continue on. But what I'm really fascinated about in reality television is that it is self-conscious. You watch people trying to become some version of themselves for mass consumption and I can't get enough of that, because what's really amazing is that they understand the archetype so well and they fail so miserably at doing it. [laughs]. People go onto this national stage and are like, "Okay, I'm going to be the sassy one," and then they're really surprised because they go on the Internet and they're the bitchy one. And they're like, "Oh no! I'm supposed to be the sassy one that everybody loves, how did I become the bitchy one?" That kind of identity invention never ceases to amaze me.
SARAH: That's our show. If you like pulp, you're in luck, because the current issue of our magazine is all about pulp. Check it out on newsstands now—the issue is packed with writing about nordic noir, teenage vampires, and beloved science fiction paperbacks. It's a great read, go pick it up, then tune back in to Popaganda in two weeks for our next show, "Words We Hate."
Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker Our producer is Sarah Molner at Pagatim studios in Portland and intern Hannah Svon Forman helped put this show together. Our fabulous sponsor, She Bop, and you can read feminist responses to pop culture every day at bitchmedia.org.