INTERVIEW: Linda Mannheim on film noir, Butterfly McQueen and ‘This Way to Departures’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Linda Mannheim on the research process behind her collection This Way to Departures (Influx Press, 2019).

It seems to me that many of the stories in This Way to Departures explore and challenge difficult aspects of American history. September 11 is there, examined through New Yorkers present at the time, as well as repeated allusions to the Nicaraguan Revolution, in which the US aided the right-wing counter- revolutionaries fighting the Sandinistas. Through all of this, I get a sense of the USA as a place in which world history is always crouching just out of sight, and then caught unprepared when the shit goes down. I wonder, as an American living in the UK, whether that rings true for you? How did you handle your thoughts and feelings on the USA in your collection, and did your feelings change whilst writing it?

Oh wow – I’m grappling with this question (and all the different parts of it). The first thing to say is that the stories in Departures are very much a reflection of my concerns and obsessions (as they are for any writer of course). My feelings about the US didn’t change as I was writing these stories. I have always found it to be a complex and contradictory place, and certainly one with an extremely violent history – from the genocide of Native Americans to a farming system that relied on slave labour, and later segregation and institutionalised racism. It is also a place with an amazingly dynamic and inventive culture. And, for many people, it is a very good place to find refuge. My parents and grandparents, for example, fled Nazi Germany and obviously realised they were extremely fortunate (in those circumstances) to have been able to settle in the US, but they weren’t unaware of America’s faults. I don’t think the view the I grew up with — that the US is place filled with injustice while also managing to be the best place to live for many – is an unusual one. In the neighbourhood I’m from in New York, there were many refugees from the Dominican Republic who dealt with the paradox that the US, having supported a dictatorship in their home country, turned out to be the best place to run to when they had to flee. I think that’s true for many refugees.

The idea of the US being a place in which world history is always crouching just out of sight is an interesting one, but not one I thought of as I was writing this. I would say that, if history is crouching just out of sight, it’s often because you have a narrow field of vision. The US’s super power status following the Second World War, and its role in the Cold War, and its sense of exceptionalism certainly meant many people and institutions in the US have had a narrow field of vision. At the same time, I think American exceptionalism isn’t all that exceptional. English exceptionalism is pretty extraordinary too. I think America’s has been more noticeable because of the extraordinary amount of political and cultural power it has right now, though that political power is waning, and I wonder will happen as it wanes.

In terms of whether living in the UK has changed my perspective of the US — as I mentioned, I was pretty critical of the US (and around a lot of people who were critical of it) when I was growing up there. I think leaving the place you’re from always gives you a different perspective on it. For example, once I was living in a place with universal healthcare (the UK), I couldn’t imagine living somewhere without it again – the brutality of limiting access to healthcare really sunk in. I wrote first drafts of the stories, and revised them, over a long period of time, so I was living in Miami when I started writing the stories that are set there – ‘Noir’ and ‘Missing Girl…’ And, in fact, I was working with an organisation that represented children in the Miami-Dade court system when I started writing ‘Missing Girl…’, which meant being very close to the events and the environment that inspired the stories.

In terms of your ‘Miami stories’, I’d love to stop a moment and look a little more closely at ‘Noir’. Tying back to ideas of US cultural history, ‘Noir’ (also published as a standalone Kindle Single) gives a heavy nod to the linguistic playfulness of Chandler, Hammett and Cain. There are of course regular resurgences of interest in the genre, reflected in contemporary novels like Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009), but what draws you to the timbre of these particular writers? Why did you feel the urge to voice noir as a genre, and what did you want to do with it?

Like the characters in the story, I’ve found film noir a really compelling genre, especially for the way it articulates injustice. I was living in Miami when I wrote ‘Noir’. I’d just read a piece of non-fiction that someone I knew had written, and he was really mimicking the hard boiled style of private eye novels, and I started to feel like: the best way to write about Miami would be in this style. I also wanted to disrupt the usual roles that are a part of noir; you’re usually meant to sympathize and relate to a male protagonist who thinks he’s helping a chameleon-like femme noire, and I wanted a female protagonist who thinks she’s helping a homme noir. Years after I wrote the first draft, I read what Jonathan Lethem said about detective novels: ‘The detective wears a trench coat. A trench coat is an explicit reference to trench warfare…. The hardboiled detective was, to begin with, a veteran of World War I who had come back traumatized from a kind of violence, brutality, a despair at what mankind was capable of…’ And I thought, yep, that’s noir – the realisation that things will never go back to normal after a war.

While we’re talking about the incorporation of cultural influences into your work, I’d love to know a little more about how you came to research and write about the actor Butterfly McQueen. In ‘Butterfly McQueen on Broadway’, your curiosity around this largely-forgotten personality (McQueen most famously played Prissy in Gone with the Wind) comes through so strongly. Is there any truth in the motif of your characters spotting her around New York? And were there any practical or ethical concerns in writing about a real and only-recently deceased person?

Everything in that story really happened. I really did walk into a natural foods store in Washington Heights that was owned by a guy named Alex, and Butterfly McQueen really was standing there when I walked in. I kept thinking about it over and over again, and I kept thinking about Butterfly McQueen again and again – all I really knew about her initially was that she was incredibly famous for her role in Gone With the Wind, and that she was uptown, in our neighbourhood. If you live in New York, it’s not unheard of to see well known people around the city just doing things they normally do, but it was really unusual to see someone that famous in Washington Heights because at that point it felt like the forgotten part of the city. I was inspired to write that story by LossLit, the literary project that posits that most literature is about loss, that Kit Caless and Aki Schilz started. And, for the first time, I really started to research Butterfly McQueen. And I was both moved and disturbed by what I read about her – about the decades when she didn’t work because she refused to play maids, and about how she kept a photo of herself with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh so that when she was attacked by racist cops or security guards (which she inevitably was), she could show that she’d been a star once. I didn’t feel any ethical concerns about writing about Butterfly McQueen, because everything that’s recounted about her life is factually based and in the public domain, and there are no fictional elements. And I confess that, when I was doing research for the story, I was incredibly excited to find a cancelled cheque from Butterfly McQueen that someone was selling online, and if you zoomed in on the image, you could see that the cheque was made out to Broadway Healthfood, and that was Alex’s health food store!

That’s great – I feel like it’s those moments of serendipity and coincidence that invigorate the research experience. Stepping away from the US for a moment, I’d like to hone in a little closer on Nicaragua and the wider presence of Latin America in the collection, if I may. Whilst the USA is obviously an ‘American space’, it is not just North American. Latin American cultures, politics and languages pervade This Way to Departures, and I wonder where your interest in that originates. What’s your experience of Latin America, either through reading or travel, and how did that feed into your narrative designs?

I grew up in a neighbourhood with a really big Latin American community. The Chinese restaurant was Cuban Chinese, the corner shop was a bodega, and one of the background languages of my childhood was Spanish. Washington Heights is sometimes called Quisqueya Heights (Quisqueya is a Dominican word for the island that the Dominican Republic is on), but it’s also been home to people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico. I should say too that, it’s New York, so there were also people from other backgrounds: Germany (like my family), Ireland, Russia, Greece, and African Americans who fled the South during the great migration. It wasn’t until years after moving away (as an adult), that I realised how much growing up there shaped me, how hearing Spanish made me feel like something was falling into place.

My interest in Nicaragua in particular grew out of research I was doing for a short story when I was a student; I decided that one of my characters was an American who’d been there, but I really didn’t know anything about it. I ended up reading and reading and reading about the Nicaraguan revolution in the university library, became totally transfixed by what had happened there, and then went there on a scholarship to study Spanish. I ended up going there a few times – twice when the first Sandinista government was in power, and twice when Violeta Chamorro was president. When I was back in the US, my student job for a while was working for an organisation that did community education around US involvement in Central America. I have to say that I’ve really struggled with how to write about what was happening in Nicaragua and El Salvador during that time – in the last part of the 20th Century – because it was so brutal and there are so many ways to get it wrong.

That I understand completely, not just in writing what is true to the history, but also in honestly articulating one’s own feelings. To close our interview, I wonder if you think it’s fair to say that This Way to Departures is pessimistic in its outlook towards the state’s ability to sustain and protect its citizens in a meaningful way? Throughout the collection, it feels as though distant higher powers hold responsibility (without accountability) for repeated institutional failures – failures which it is difficult, sometimes impossible, for everyday, propaganda-soaked people to influence. How do you feel about that? And how do you feel short fiction in general can help write into that concern?

I don’t think of my work as pessimistic in that, though I’m writing about brutality and hardship some of the time, usually the people facing that hardship keep going and figure out how to survive in the aftermath. I hadn’t thought specifically about the institutional failures people cope with, but I think another way of looking at my work is that it’s about the impact of large political movements on day-to-day lives. The characters in both ‘Missing Girl…’ and ‘Dangers of the Sun’ are not affected by failures so much as deliberate decisions. Almost every quote by a politician in ‘Missing Girl…’ is a real life quote from a Florida politician, and they all understood the impact of their actions. Similarly, the doctor in ‘Dangers of the Sun’ and his lawyer know exactly what the doctor’s done and what he can do to try to make amends, and then they proceed to see what they can get away with. I suppose every story is there to relay information, and most of my fiction is based on real life stories that changed me in some way, and without being prescriptive in any way, I want to present those stories to other people. I keep thinking about Valeria Luiselli’s explanation that ‘it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity.’

Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction: This Way to Departures (shortlisted for the 2020 Edge Hill Prize), Above Sugar Hill, and Risk. She’s had work in The Nation, Granta, 3:AM Magazine, and Catapult Story. Eimear McBride said her stories “provoke and abide like a slap.” Originally from New York, she lives in London and is a PhD researcher at the University of Westminster. You can find more of her work at: www.lindamannheim.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.