Welcome to Episode 5 of the Art In Fiction Podcast!
Meet Layne Fargo, author of Temper, a contemporary psychological thriller set in Chicago. Layne talks about theater, writing thrillers, Pitch Wars, and her own podcast Unlikable Female Characters.
Layne's next novel They Never Learnwill be published in October 2020.
Unlikeable Female Characters Podcast: http://www.unlikeablefemalecharacters.com/
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Welcome! I'm Carol Cram, your host for the Art In Fiction Podcast. This episode is called Thrillin’ with the Bad Girls and features my interview with Layne Fargo, author of Temper, a contemporary thriller set in the theater. In addition to writing smart, engaging thrillers, Layne Fargo is a Pitch Wars mentor, the vice president of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime and the co-creator of the podcast, Unlikable Female Characters. Layne lives in Chicago with her partner and their pets. Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Layne.
Thank you so much for having me.
I'm really excited to talk today about your novel Temper. In a review I just wrote, I described Temper as a psychological thrill ride into the edgy world of indie theater in Chicago. Do you want to just give me a quick overview of Temper?
Sure. So Temper is a psychological thriller about the psychosexual power struggle between an actress and a director at a small theater company in Chicago. It's very specifically set in the storefront theater world in Chicago, which most people not from around here might not be familiar with, but it's like super, super small theaters, maybe 50 seats in the house. So it's very intimate and also a claustrophobic environment for a thriller.
I got that impression, but that's really interesting that you've got that claustrophobic setting and that whole claustrophobia actually goes all the way through the novel. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for Temper?
Yes. So Temper was originally inspired by a real story. There was a theater, a storefront theater in Chicago, called Profiles and a few years back, a local paper did an exposé of the artistic director there. And essentially he was abusing everyone in the company psychologically, emotionally, sexually, physically, every way you can think of, he was just a complete psychopath.
Sounds like it.
So there was this big exposé and it sort of brought together all of these rumors that everybody in the theater scene had been talking about for a long time and made it visible and the theater shut down and he fled town. I read about this and was completely horrified, but also as a writer really intrigued by the dynamics at work there.
So I wanted to write a thriller that took place based on a situation like that. But then of course, what happens in my novel is completely fictionalized and also based on a number of other similar situations that I found in my research at other theater companies. And I mean, well, in every industry, essentially, we're seeing there are men like this.
Oh, absolutely. It's certainly timely and unfortunately, it's always been timely.
I was just talking to someone about Hollywood in 1920 and it's the same story and it's like, Oh, great. Are we making any progress? I think we are a little bit, but...
A little bit...
We still have a long way to go. I’ve seen Temper described as a psychological feminist thriller. So what does that mean?
I mean, I'm a feminist and so I'm writing from a feminist perspective and I wanted to explore feminist themes in this book, specifically the abuse of power by men and another sort of feminist aspect of the book that was really important to me was, so often when we hear stories of abuse like this, there's a lot of burden put on the women who are the victims to prove that they are like this perfect innocent blameless, morally upright person in order to gain people's sympathy.
And not even then. So I intentionally wrote the two female point of view characters in this book, Kira and Joanna, to be imperfect victims. I mean, they are not great people. They do a lot of bad things too, but it doesn't validate the abuse that they're suffering.
No, not at all. And I really liked that aspect of your novel because I mean, I hate the whole victim thing. It was really well done the way those two women, like, you couldn't actually like them all the time which was fine. I mean, you don't like everybody all the time necessarily.
So what did you want us to take away from this novel? What kind of feelings did you want us to take away?
You know, rage, anger. Those are always things I want. The title and the theme in all of my work, I would say. I mean, well, how could you be just paying attention to what's going on in the world and not be angry all the time? I don't, I don't know.
What was sort of redeeming, do you think?
Well, I'm hoping that the portrait of abuse in this book will make people maybe who haven't encountered this in their own lives, or maybe if they have, I don't know, but a little more sensitive to how subtle it can be. Because a lot of the stuff that Malcolm, the antagonist in the book, like, it starts out that it's sort of just insidious.
He's not hitting people, he's not a rapist. He's not, like, all these obviously villainous things, but he is an abuser who's manipulating people all the time. And that can be, it can be so subtle that you question yourself, if you're in a situation like that, you question if it's really happening to you. And so I hope—and I've heard from some women who read the book and were like, yes, this is what I experienced. Exactly. Like, it was captured here. And so I hope that can shine a light on that for...
Which is fantastic because it is so insidious, that kind of gaslighting. Oh, well maybe it's me. Yeah, no, it's not. So I like how you did that.
Of course, one of the reasons that Temper is included on Art In Fiction is because it's about the theater. And so describe your theater background.
I have a college degree and a Master's degree in Theater. I was always a backstage person. I was a dramaturg. So I did historical research and wrote program notes and things like that. And then I worked backstage on a number of productions. I've not been involved in the theater community personally for quite some time, but most of my friends and my spouse are members of the theater community in Chicago. So that's still really a part of my life, something that I love a lot, even though I don't think I've portrayed it in the best light in Temper.
Well, actually I don't think so. I think you have portrayed it very well. I totally loved all the backstage, behind the curtain kind of stuff that you've got, you know, the rehearsal process. And one thing I really loved was the fight choreography. I have a bit of a theater background too. I have a Master's in Theater, but haven't been active in the theater for decades, even though I love it, but I didn't know any of that stuff about fight choreography and how it is so choreographed. Did you talk to a choreographer?
Yes. One of my best friends, Christina Gorman, is an actress and also a fight and intimacy designer here in Chicago. And she really helped me out with that, like explaining the correct way to do the choreography and then the unsafe way to do it, which is of course what's happening in Temper. I promised her when I wrote the book that I would make Spence, who's the fight choreographer character in the book... he can be kind of a jerk in some ways in his personal life, but he's extremely ethical about his profession. And I wanted to reflect that, kind of my friends' views on that, that it's something that should not be taken lightly. It should be highly choreographed. Very careful, everyone should be safe at all times, even if it looks dangerous to the audience.
Yes. Having Spence's character throughout was great because that was constantly being underscored. So when things started to go off the rails, you kind of had a beacon to go back to. And actually, it's funny, I love Spence. He's my favorite character.
He's mine, too.
I kind of wondered about that. He's just, he's so empathetic. He plays roles and you know, he can be a jerk, but he comes off, in a way ,the most genuine, like Joanna and Kira are both playing roles.
Right. Obviously. And I want to talk a little bit about Joanna and Kira. I probably identified most with Joanna. I'm not sure why.
I as well identify with Joanna the most. Kira is really nothing like me. I love her. I loved writing her, but I'm much, much more like Joanna.
I can imagine that Kira was a lot of fun to write. She's great. She's a fabulous character and I really liked her, but it's funny that you identified most with Joanna as well. Well maybe because of what she does. Right. It's kind of similar.
And I'm just sort of a type A, very organized person. So yeah. I identify with that where she's kind of this control freak and trying to keep everything under control when Malcolm can't be controlled. That's the lie she's been telling herself the whole time she's known him.
I just love that. The whole way you portrayed Joanna as fooling herself for so long. I mean, I don't want to give any spoilers, but you did that without making her come across as a victim or as sort of a bit spineless or whatever. She doesn't, she's a strong person, well organized, as you said, but she's got this kind of blind side.
What interested me so much about Joanna is she's really complicit in his abuse. Like she's an abuser in her own way. And she's enabling him. She treats both Kira and Bryn, the intern at the theater company, really horribly. She's not a nice person, but we see what Malcolm's doing to her and can sympathize with her in that respect while still seeing that she's complicit herself.
Exactly, which, again, it's real life. It's messy, you know, it's not black and white. Is there anything redeeming in Malcolm or do you want, I suppose actually I should rephrase it. Do you want us to see any redeeming qualities in Malcolm?
Well, I mean, I made him seductive and attractive on purpose, you know? I mean, I think a man like that, he would almost have to be to get away with the stuff that he does. I made Malcolm much more attractive than the guy from Profiles Theater that I based him on.
He's obviously very passionate about his art, but I intended him to be a psychopath. Like, he is just manipulating people. He doesn't really have any aim beyond that. And it's been interesting to me, some of the response to him, especially from men, I got a review from a male critic at a major publication who was expressing a wish for Malcolm's point of view. He just really wished that there had been chapters from Malcolm's point of view so he could understand him and, like, get in his head. And I was just, like, there's nothing there. I mean, he's just a psychopath. He's just manipulating people. And we so often look at these men who are prominent in the arts and they're, like, Oh, he's a genius, whatever. And we want to identify with them. But I think a lot of times there's just no substance there. I mean, we're giving them a lot more meaning than they deserve.
Than they deserve, exactly. And actually I'm really glad you didn't give him a role, but I was curious why you chose the name Malcolm, does it have anything to do with Macbeth where Malcolm is actually the good guy?
No, I mean, I just liked the name. Obviously his nickname is Mal, which means bad in I think several languages, a little on the nose with the symbolism, but it's one of my favorite names, which I've now kind of ruined forever.
Exactly. If you ever had a boy, you can't name him Malcolm now.
No, I can't even name a pet Malcolm. It's all over.
And it's interesting that Hamlet goes all the way through it to - a production of Hamlet is talked about - do you see any similarities maybe between Malcolm and Hamlet?
He's very full of himself and likes to listen to his own voice.
Good point. Did you do that deliberately?
Yeah. I mean, I think the idea that Malcolm wanted to play Hamlet at such a young age because it's something that in the book, it has happened, like, 10 years prior that they keep referring back to and just kind of shows his self-importance, I think.
Another aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed was how you use the weather in Chicago. I was in Chicago last October. I haven't been very often, but it's a great city. Wow. It's interesting how you use the weather, going from super hot in September to the beginning of winter when the play opens, and I was wondering, was that deliberate, using it to sort of mirror the descent of the characters?
I had to laugh when I saw that question because no, not at all.
Oh really? Because it was really good.
Fall is my favorite season and I seem to set all of my books there. Like my one that comes out in October is set in October and I’m writing one now that's also set in the fall. It's just, like, my favorite time of year, but sure, I could take credit for that, I guess.
Isn't that great? Don't you love that, though, when other people find stuff in your books that you actually didn't even know were there, but they're really good?
Oh, okay, sure. I'll take credit. It really occurred to me as I'm reading it. And so it's getting colder and colder and these things are starting to heat up as the weather is getting colder and you have a lot of scenes of the characters walking around Chicago and the wind coming off the lake. I remember how cold Chicago can be in the fall with that wind. So maybe because I had been there not all that long before I was thinking that, but anyway, that that's cool.
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And now, back to the podcast.
Another thing I really like about your writing—I really have to compliment you—is the use of your language. You really are a fantastic wordsmith. So do you spend a lot of time crafting your similes and all that kind of thing? They're just done really well.
Somewhat. I have sort of a very technical writing process where I go over it a lot of times. I start out free writing, whatever comes to mind to get over that perfectionism I think that plagues most writers.
It’s so important to get over that.
And then I do a pass where I'm writing it as a script almost, or it's just dialogue and stage directions. And then I really try to put the description and the pretty language and everything on top of that. So I'm not trying to do that early on in the process or I would just get obsessed with making the sentences beautiful and perfect. So I want to start with the character motivations and actual action of them in space. And I really do think in terms of dialogue and blocking—that's I guess my theater background, but it's really worked for me as a novelist. And then I add all that other stuff on top. It's sort of the last step.
Good. I want to talk a little bit about the craft of writing and I think that process that you just described is really good advice for new writers. I mean, I know back in the day I used to get obsessed with trying to get it right the first time. Well, forget it. Right. I learned now you just got to get it out and not try and be perfect. Nobody can see it, you know, until you let them.
That kept me stuck for so long. I mean, I didn't really start writing seriously until my late twenties. I wrote some in college and then I just would get so obsessed with making that first page perfect and make no progress whatsoever. And it was doing National Novel Writing Month that really shook me out of it. I did that in 2012, I think was the first time I attempted it. And it was a different project that didn't end up going anywhere, but it was the first thing that got me to just write and get past trying to make it perfect because the whole point of National Novel Writing Month is you just have to write 50,000 words. Like they can be the worst words you've ever seen, but at least you're writing something. And that really got me out of that and set me on this path. I don't think if I had done that, I would've ever, I'd still be rewriting, like, the first paragraph.
Well you're way ahead of me. It took me a few more decades to finally, even though I've been writing, like, all my life and I wrote professionally for years, but to actually start getting into writing fiction or really getting into it, it actually took a little bit longer because I was sort of obsessed with that perfectionism and I love NaNoWriMo. My second novel was birthed during NaNoWriMo. It's such a great thing. I, every so often I still do it. And for all you writers out there do NaNoWriMo. It's great.
Yeah. Just try it. I mean, because when I did it, I really, I think I was just fully lying to myself, but I was, like, I'm just going to do this for fun. I don't really want to be a writer, I'm just messing around. And then it was shortly after that, I kind of had to admit to myself that I did want to be a writer and I did want to be published, but it took that. I was just totally in denial about it.
Why actually, when you were doing NaNoWriMo, what made you suddenly think, oh, I think I really do want to be a writer?
I just, I don't know. It was like once I started, I couldn't stop. It just felt right. I mean, I've always written. When I was a little kid, I would write these little picture books, now it's funny because I look back on myself as a child and I used to say, like, Oh, I want to write books. I want to write for TV, I want to do all this stuff. And then, now I actually am a full-time writer and it's what I said I wanted to do when I was five. But I had to go through decades of all this other stuff in order to admit that was what I really wanted.
Well, I think writers tend to be kind of late bloomers. It takes us a while. You hear about people who are 20 and they've got three novels out. Wow. How'd you do that?
It takes a long time to weather. It's an interesting craft in a way that, unlike a lot of the other arts where you can be a star at 20, but with writing generally, it does tend to take a long time.
So I wanted to talk also about your podcast, Unlikable Female Characters, which is, like, the best name ever. I've been listening to it and I'm getting a huge kick out of it. So, tell me a bit about it.
Unlikeable Female Characters is a podcast that I co-host with two other crime fiction writers, Kristen Lepionka and Wendy Heard. And we pretty much just unpack what makes a female character unlikeable, you know, through a feminist lens in not just books. We talk about movies and TV shows and just kind of any sort of pop culture. It's sort of the conclusion that we've come to over doing this podcast for over a year now is that any character can be unlikeable because it's all about female characters who are breaking the rules of the patriarchy.
You can be too nice or too mean, or too uptight or too sexy or too, there's no way that you can be completely likable to everyone. There's always something so it's given us a lot to talk about. We have a really good time with it.
I just loved the idea because you wouldn't have unlikeable male characters because male characters are allowed to be unlikeable, but women are supposed to be nice and so I love turning that on its head because it's not true. Of course we're not supposed to be nice, not all the time.
And this has been a hot button issue in crime fiction and in pop culture in general for several years now. It seems like it is becoming more acceptable. And for a while there when Gone Girl came out, it was almost trendy to have unlikeable, female characters. Everyone wanted to get in on that, but there still is an expectation in real life for women to be nice and well behaved and everything. So as long as that's there, you know, we're going to see that tension play out in fiction.
Yes. I'm really glad you're doing that. It's very interesting. You're also involved in Pitch Wars. Can you tell me what that is?
Pitch Wars is this amazing mentorship program which pairs unpublished writers with more established authors or industry professionals and the industry pro mentors the unpublished writer for several months. And then there is a showcase for literary agents at the end. So you get to work on your manuscript, really in depth with a mentor and then showcase it and hopefully sign with an agent.
I was a mentee in 2017 and then I've been a mentor for two years now, and hopefully going to do it again this year. It's a wonderful community. I recommend it to everyone. If you're ready to really get serious about your writing and work and learn about the publishing industry and learn how to revise, it is a great opportunity and they take submissions once a year. I believe it's in September this year that the submission window is going to be opening up.
What's the address for that?
So people can just go to that website and have a look at how to get involved. It's such a great idea. I did a mentorship program before I published my first novel. It's a really great idea. I really recommend that authors look into that because you can learn so much by working with another author, as opposed to an editor. It's a different dynamic. You learn different things, right, when you're with an author.
Absolutely you do. And I mean, it really changed my life. That is the turning point in my career as a writer. I don't really know where I'd be right now without it, but I credit so much to Pitch Wars.
That's fantastic. Actually, speaking of Pitch Wars and publishing and all that, do you have any advice about publishing? Should you get an agent, a publisher, go indy? I've done both - publishing and indie - but what do you think?
I have an agent although I am considering going hybrid, because I have just a lot of stuff that I want to write that's maybe not for a traditional publisher. I think going into hybrid is if you have that entrepreneurial spirit and you're really ready to think of your writing as a business and yourself as a brand and do all of that work because it's a lot of work.
It's a lot of work. I know.
I think it's a great way to go. And even if you are wanting to be traditionally published and work with an agent, I think learning as much about the business of publishing and marketing is good. A lot of writers want to just ignore that and do the writing, but it really is all part of it. I kind of enjoy both aspects of it, myself, but I would say no agent is better than a bad agent.
I'm very lucky to have an amazing agent. She is such a great business partner and I love working with her, but I know some people who've had bad literary agents who've really messed up their careers. So you want to be very cautious about that, which is part of learning about the business of publishing. So that's my general advice. Just learn as much about the business as you can.
Well, that's excellent advice. The more I learned about the business—I became a hybrid as well. It makes me feel like a car - you realize that it's business. And if you want to play in this game and be a professional writer, then you've got to learn about it.
So your new novel's coming out pretty soon. So can you tell us a bit about that?
Sure. My second novel is called They Never Learn. It comes out on October 13th and it is about a female serial killer who hunts rapists. I came up with idea during the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings.
Oh, good one. Yeah.
It's really fun, actually. I mean, it's about a serious topic, but the main character, Scarlet, really enjoys being a serial killer, I'll just say that.
Isn't she an English professor? I think I read that.
Yes. She's an English professor. She's a good multitasker. She's also very organized and type A.
You like these organized characters.
I think we put a little bit of ourselves in all our characters.
Yes. There's definitely a lot of me in Scarlet, I'll say about, like, even more so than in Joanna, which should maybe frighten all the men who know me, but as long as they behave, there'll be fine.
I'm looking forward to reading that one. Anyway, is there anything else you'd like to share with us about the writing process or anything?
I would just say, I love your site (Art In Fiction). I love the idea of featuring books that feature the arts. That's some of my favorite things to read.
Thank you. It's definitely a labor of love, but we're having fun with it. It's amazing how many cool authors I've found, like you. I probably wouldn't have found that book if I hadn't been looking for books about theater.
There are not a ton of books about theater and there are definitely some, but I would love to see more and I just, yeah, I'm looking to your site for recommendations.
So thanks so much, Layne.
Thank you so much for having me on.
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